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Warded Heart - Part 2 - Into the night

Chapter Text

 

PART TWO


 

3 Kingsway 9:41 Dragon

 

Dearest Mia,

 I apologise for again for the delay in correspondence. I have meant to write. The last few months have been uniquely challenging, but I am enjoying my position in the Inquisition. Also, I am alive. (You requested that I let you know as much, again I apologise for not doing so sooner).

 I write to you with a particular piece of news. I expect you will be angry, but I hope you will also be glad for me. I have found a taken a wife married. Her name is Solana and she makes me very happy.

 I would have invited you and the rest of the family to the wedding, of course, had we had one. We chose to have a private ceremony in the Inquisition’s small Chantry with no one but a Reverend Mother and a single witness present.

 Since you could not attend the wedding, I was hoping you (and the rest of the family) might come call on me us at Skyhold? I understand it is a long journey, but the roads are not as perilous as they used to be. Our soldiers have seen to it. If you’d prefer, the Inquisitor has granted me permission to send an escort? In fact, it was his idea that you visit. That’s not to say I don’t want you here. I do. Maker, it will be easier to talk in person.

 I look forward to your response.

 Your loving brother,

Cullen

 

P.S. I have other news I’d rather share when you are here. But if you are unable to visit, or have finally lost patience with me... Please let me know if you are unable to visit, and I will convey it in writing.

 

___________________________

 

“You know she’s going to look like a melon by the time they get here?” Leliana raised her eyes from the letter.

Cullen huffed. “The least you could do is pretend you don’t read my mail.”

Leliana had called him up to her tower on “urgent” business. Which, apparently, was to discuss his correspondence with his family. Little did she know, it had taken him almost a month to get the words down. He didn’t need someone interrogating those words at this stage.

The spymaster refolded the letter. “You honestly think it will be easier to explain in person? This is you we’re talking about, Commander.”

“Well, as you so kindly pointed out, I will not need to explain anything. Her condition will be self-evident.”

“You don’t think that’s being a little unfair to her?”

He folded his arms, ashamed to admit he hadn’t considered that. Solana was comfortable in her pregnancy. She certainly never acted as if it embarrassed her. He’d heard that women glowed when with child, he had never believed it. But she really did. She was only recently showing, a bump that could have been hidden by loose-fitting robes if she’d wished. Yet, she carried that bump with pride, holding it and caressing it as she went about her day.

“I don’t want them to think that is the reason I married her.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Absolutely not.” He paced away, arms still folded. A nearby raven eyed him suspiciously from its perch. “Granted, it may have given me the impetus to propose when I did. Maker knows if I would have gotten the words out otherwise, but I don’t want Mia to think that I was somehow forced into this, that it was anything but what I truly desired.”

“So, say that.”

“I tried!” He rounded on her. “I’ve tried to construct a letter that truly explains all that’s happened, and all that I feel but it reads hollow. It reads like I’m some overly defensive child who’s been caught doing wrong. If they can only see her, see us together, they’ll know that’s not the case.”

Leliana’s look softened. “Have you considered asking Varric for assistance?”

“If I write a letter using Varric’s words, they’ll think I’ve been kidnapped and someone’s luring them here under false pretenses.”

“A fair point.” Leliana sighed and carefully reapplied the seal on the letter while he watched.

“I should add that she plays chess.” He reached for the letter, but Leliana swatted his hand away.

 


 

 

Sparks of elemental discharge glittered down into the lower courtyard. As one, the mages swung around to block imaginary attacks from behind. Their Inquisition-issue silver staffs glinted; their bright robes fluttered.

“And fire!” Solana shouted.

The first two rows twirled their staffs and shot small fireballs out of the main gates. Then the next two rows moved between them and did the same.

“And ice!” Solana paced in front of the stairs, one hand on her stomach, one hand on her own staff, which she was waving as if to emphasise her commands.

Her mages repeated the drill, this time casting ice. By the time the second set was done, the main gates were covered in glittering frost.

“They’re behind you!” she yelled.

They swung again to protect themselves from behind.

“McCoy, hold it higher, you’re not blocking anything,” she admonished one of the mages closest to her. The blond-haired young man flushed and raised his staff.

“And attack.” They struck forward, stabbing with the staff blades. “Attack!” They spun the staffs to strike at head level. “Discharge!” They slammed the staffs down, sending bursts of light into the air.

“And again!”

Cullen rested his arms on the upper courtyard wall, taking the opportunity to openly admire his wife. Solana’s hair was loose and wild, streaming behind her like flame. She was wearing the deep green robes he liked so much. Her cheeks were flushed and rosy with the exertion, and he knew that he wasn’t the only one taken with her. He could see at least a few of the gathered onlookers watching her rather than the practising mages. But it was his child she carried. She was his bride, his family, and he’d thanked the Maker for that fact every day since their union.

She called a halt to the drills and Hawke stepped forward.

“I have something special for you today,” he told the mages.

Cullen immediately tensed. He’d seen some of what Hawke considered special. Solana’s answering grin did nothing to ease his mind.  

“No doubt Varric has been spreading stories of my varied accomplishments. Have you heard the one about the mob that wanted to skin us alive for being Qunari sympathisers?”

He didn’t wait for response, although Cullen saw a number of the mages nod.

“Room full of bloodthirsty, riled up, hate-filled, scum. Four of us. Nowhere to run.”

Cullen sighed. He didn’t recall Hawke enjoying the dramatics so much before. Varric must have been rubbing off on him, but the mages were all paying rapt attention, especially the younger ones at the front.

“In that kind of situation,” Hawke said, pacing in front of them, “you want an area spell. Something that will knock out a lot of people very quickly. Also, incidentally, good for darkspawn. Shall we?”

Cullen’s heart jumped to his throat as Solana nodded.

“Everyone, stand back,” she instructed.

The mages and onlookers edged away from Hawke, who was holding out his arms. With another nod from Solana, he closed his eyes and opened his hands. Did his muscles actually ripple or was it just that Cullen knew the raw power into which he was tapping? Hawke’s shoulders tensed. He raised his arms.

Solana cast a barrier over them both as flaming meteors manifested above Hawke and plunged to the ground, exploding at their feet. The first line of mages jumped back. Onlookers scrambled to be even further away, reacting to the roaring boom the meteors made rather than actual danger. Cullen flinched at the sound as the small fires left pockmarks across the courtyard. Even he could feel the heat from the spell. It left a ringing in his ears when it was finally done. Solana lowered the barrier and Hawke took a theatrical bow. He was panting.

“As you can imagine,” he said between gasps for air, “it’s quite the mana drain. Watch out for that.”

Watch out for… wait, he didn’t intend to show them how to do that? Surely not?

He started instructing the mages in the methodology behind the spell. Cullen was so entranced he didn’t even notice his wife appear beside him until she spoke.

“Enjoying the show?”

He startled and let out a breath. “Are you certain this is wise?”

“You agreed to let me train the mages. We’re training them. If you think that means sticking to Chantry-approved spells, I’m afraid we’ve had a misunderstanding.”

“There’s a difference between Chantry-approved and… and that.”

“Cullen, we’ll be sending them against Templars.”

“Oh, that certainly reassures me.”

She sighed and turned her attention back to her charges. Hawke was busy outlining a training regime that would lead up to what he’d demonstrated, starting with small fireballs Cullen knew they were all capable of already.

He’d been concerned when Solana had first approached him with her proposal. Not in the least bit because he wasn’t sure she should be undertaking such physically intensive work in her condition. But her argument had been persuasive. He did daily drills with the Inquisition’s soldiers. Why shouldn’t she do the same with the mages? She’d roped Hawke in to help her because, as an apostate, he had an entire range of abilities the Circle mages had never seen.

Such as this spectacle.

“This war against Corypheus won’t last forever,” he said, stiffly.

“And then I suppose you’d have them go back to the Circles?” she shot back.

He’d noticed she’d had a particularly short fuse the past few weeks. Usually he did his utmost not to aggravate her, but this wasn’t exactly an argument from which he could back down.

“What would you have them do, live freely?” he asked.

“Why not? I live freely.”

“You’re not most mages.”

“How do you even know that? Have you ever even gotten to know another mage?”

She knew he hadn’t, but he’d also disclosed to her how few real friends he did have. The fact that he didn’t count mages among them didn’t exactly say much.

“I mean only that you’re renowned for your willpower. You passed the Harrowing faster than any other mage in that tower. You’ve resisted temptation on multiple occasions.” He did not add how difficult it was when he happened to come up against that willpower. Now, for instance.

“And have we had a single abomination since these mages joined us?” she responded.

He was forced to admit they hadn’t.

She turned to him. Her eyes seemed impossibly bright against her flushed face and red hair. “Perhaps there’s a reason for that. Perhaps it’s because they’re happy here. They don’t need to make bargains with demons for simple freedoms. Surely, after all you’ve seen, you of all people know that the Circles don’t work?”

She was referring to Kinloch, to Kirkwall. “Those Circles didn’t work, but I don’t think they’re reason to dismiss the idea all together.”

“Would you have me locked up in a Circle when all this is over?”

“Solana, love, you know I would not.”

She drew a deep breath and gazed back out at Hawke’s training session. It looked like he had the mages trying to juggle fire. Cullen didn’t want to know.

“Not every mage wanted to leave the Circles,” he said softly. “It was taken to vote, more than once. They chose to leave only by a very narrow margin.” When she didn’t say anything, he continued, keeping his voice low so as not to aggravate her further. “At the moment we fight a common enemy, we’re united for a common cause. I worry about what happens when this ends. Will we turn on each other?”

“We?” she picked up on the word. “Mages and Templars?”

He swallowed. That’s not what he had meant. “There’s also the Wardens.”

Even though the Warden mages no longer wore their heavy chainmail, he could pick them out of Solana’s ranks. They clustered together, faces serious. He’d seen the same in his own drills. The Wardens kept their own company, and their secrets.

Solana ran a hand through her hair. “So my mages and my Wardens might turn on the ordinary folk. That’s your concern.”

He had the sinking feeling he was digging himself into a very dark hole. “I didn’t say that.”

“No, but you implied it. You implied that I should keep them weak in case they become a danger once we’ve saved the world.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t wish to fight with you.”

When she looked at him again fire blazed in her eyes. She opened her mouth for a retort, then seemed to think better of it. Instead Solana drew a breath and her shoulders slumped.

“I don’t do things by half measures.” A flicker of a smile lit her lips and relief rushed through him. “You may have noticed?”

“It has not escaped my attention ”

“I’m going to give you the best army I can. What comes after… We can deal with that then.”

He felt he should offer some quip to lighten the mood, but as usual nothing came to him, so he simply nodded. And flinched when something exploded down below them. 

Chapter Text

“Taking up a trade?”

Solana startled at her friend’s voice in the quiet barn. Celeste had a way of moving so silently she seemed to bleed from the shadows themselves. Now she stood leaning against one of the barn pillars with her arms folded across her chest. How long she’d been there, Solana couldn’t guess.

“Blackwall started this,” Solana said, dabbing the wooden rocking horse with bright red paint. She cringed when she noticed how uneven the colour was. Solas had lent her the paints and she hadn’t realised why he’d been so amused at her intentions until she’d actually started. Painting required far more mastery than she’d thought.

“Blackwall started it and now I’m ruining it.” She sighed, setting down the brush.

“You’re just going to carry on calling him that then?” Celeste asked.

“It’s the name I knew him by.”

It hadn’t taken Leliana long to dig up Blackwall’s true identity when they’d returned from Adamant. In fact, Solana suspected she might have known all along. It was difficult to reconcile a general who had ordered his men to massacre a family with the man she’d come to know. And yet, it made perfect sense that he wasn’t truly a Warden. She’d wondered how he’d managed to cope so well with the effects of the Calling. Well, now she knew.

“In the Fade, when we all saw our fears, he said his were ghosts,” she told Celeste. “He regretted what he did, I’m certain of it. There are many less noble ways to run from the law than pretending to be a Warden. How many times must he have faced darkspawn? Faced blight sickness? Knowing he was not immune, doing it anyway.”

“You do always see the best in people.”

Solana glanced at the mage, detecting a note of sadness in her voice. But it didn’t carry to her expression. She was smiling.

“I imagine you didn’t come here to admire my brush work?” Solana prompted her.

“No.” Celeste’s eyes darted down to the floor. “I… I’m not quite sure how to say this. I don’t want to overstep.“ She lifted her gaze to meet Solana’s. “Are things alright with you? I mean between you and the Commander?”

“Why wouldn’t they be?” The words came as automatically as a Barrier spell.

Celeste shifted as if the conversation was making her deeply uncomfortable. “I’ve seen you together, around Skyhold. I mean, not that I’ve been watching intentionally. It’s just that my duties take me... “ She stopped and seemed to consider her words before speaking again. “When I saw you together after Adamant, you were all smiles. Both of you. Now…”

Now they were always arguing. Celeste didn’t have to complete the sentence.

“We’re fine,” Solana said stiffly. She picked up the paintbrush again just so she’d have something to do besides suffer Celeste’s penetrating look. “Cullen is just… Cullen. He’s stubborn, over-protective and dedicated to his work.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed lights in his office in the early hours,” Celeste said.

Solana paused her hand. “What are you doing venturing around Skyhold in the early hours?”

“Breakfast, mostly.”

Of course, the kitchen staff were often up before dawn. But how long before dawn? Solana knew Cullen had been working late, but hadn’t expected he’d been working all night.

“That must be hard,” Celeste said.

Solana’s insides riled against the pity. “It’s not so bad. At least when he’s working I can sleep.”

Why had she said that? The words seemed to come of their own accord. She clamped her mouth shut, but Celeste was looking at her expectantly, waiting for her to elaborate.

“I didn’t mean that. He has night terrors. Between that and this…” She gestured to her stomach. “It can be difficult. Which is probably why I’ve been so testy recently.”

“And you’re not exactly accustomed to sleeping beside someone,” Celeste offered.

“There’s that too.” After years of tents, even the soft bed had taken some getting used to.

An uncomfortable silence fell between them.

“I’m not unhappy,” Solana said defensively. “I love him.”

“That’s all I wanted to know.” Celeste pushed away from the pillar.

“We really are fine,” Solana assured her. “He’s under a lot of pressure. The fate of the world could literally rest on his success in the Inquisition’s upcoming campaign. And he’s been trying to track down this old friend of his who’s now Corypheus’s lieutenant or something. He’s being very thorough.”

Celeste started laughing. “You don’t have to sell him to me.” She held up her hands defensively. She was already backing to the entrance. “Enjoy your painting.”

“That would be easier if I had any talent for it.”

Celeste was still chuckling as she moved. She paused by the barn door. “I’m sure we could find a way to help you sleep.”

“Like what, a spell?”

“I was thinking more of a potion.” She shrugged. “Not my area of expertise, but there happen to be a lot of mages around. I could ask.”

“Thanks but… I don’t want to risk it.” It already haunted her how many potions she’d taken before she’d found out she was pregnant.

“Oh, I’m sure I can find something safe. A tea perhaps?”

Solana hesitated. Celeste seemed to take that for assent. “Tell you what, I’ll bring you something tonight. We can drink tea together like a pair of gossiping nobles while your Commander is wrapped up in his work.”

The image was amusing. “Don’t let him catch wind of it. You know how he feels about the nobility.”

“Is that better or worse than he feels about maleficar?”

Solana cringed.

 



The candles guttered as the door creaked open and Cullen looked up to find the room had grown almost dark. He hadn’t noticed, despite the fact that he’d been squinting at his page for what must have been hours.

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Whoever’s there, I suggest you come in.”

He expected one of his men. There was a patrol out and occasionally they would bring reports in the evening if they considered the matter urgent enough for his attention. What he didn’t expect was Solana.

“I’m trying,” she said, before she appeared around the door. “Little help?”

He jumped to his feet to open for her. The source of her trouble was immediately apparent. She was carrying a tray, laden with food and - was that a teapot?

His stomach grumbled traitorously. “What are you doing here?” He held the door open. “It’s late.”

Past her he could see the last red glow of sunset touching the ramparts. The stars were already bright above them.

“And you haven’t eaten.” She didn’t look at him until she’d placed the tray securely on his desk. Then she turned and offered a small smile. “I’m afraid it’s only leftovers. I asked if there was any of that bread you liked but unfortunately… Celeste did say she’d keep some for you next time.”

“Why are you here?” he asked again.

“I don’t know much about being a wife, it’s not exactly something they teach in the Circle. But I understand feeding your husband is part of the deal.”

She turned from him quickly, before he could formulate a response, and placed one of the plates unceremoniously on top of the report he’d been writing, no doubt smudging the ink. It was a thick stew of some sort with carrots and potatoes. She took another plate, this one carrying grapes and apple slices and laid it on top of one of his strategy books. She held the back of her hand against the teapot and frowned, before pouring out a cup of strong black tea, which she passed to him. He accepted it automatically, still staring at what had become of his workspace.

He walked around his desk. “You don’t need to feed me. I don’t expect that of you. I am quite capable of feeding myself.”

“Are you certain? Because I haven’t seen you in the hall in days.”

So that’s what this was about. Her expression didn’t show annoyance. Her mouth had that little humorous quirk and her eyes were sparkling in the dim light. If anything, she radiated warmth.

Still, she must have been feeling neglected. He hung his head. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologise. Eat.”

He sank down into his chair. The stew did smell good, even if there was no bread to dip into it. She’d brought a spoon and he took it from the tray, scooping up several mouthfuls of the stew and washing it down with the tea, made exactly as he liked it. He felt her eyes on him, but he was hungry. Hungry enough to eat despite her scrutiny.

“How’s it going?” she asked, eventually. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

He sighed. “It’s going slowly. As you’ve noticed by my absence. And no, I doubt you can help. Unless you’ve sent troops into a jungle where everything wants to kill them, with limited supplies and a good chance an archdemon will show up and burn them to death?”

Knowing his wife, it could well be a genuine question. But she shook her head. “Haven’t done that one, I’m afraid. But I could help you with research?”

“Start with magical cures for dysentery,” he said. He was only half joking.

She came around the desk to stand at his side.  His skin tingled at her presence. He leaned into her and her soft fingers ran through his hair. The simple touch was bliss.

I should be taking care of you ,” he said.

“You are.”

He looked up at her, perplexed.

“Beating the bad guy before he plunges our world into eternal darkness?” she provided.

Trust Solana to make it sound that easy. He chuckled and stared down at the piece of his report that was sticking out from under his plate. Already he was itching to get back to it.

Maker, he was not a good husband.

He knew this to be true, even though Solana would never say it. He hardly saw her and when he did, they argued. Like that morning.

In the first month of their marriage, it hadn’t been like this. They had woken in each other’s arms and had fallen into them again when the day was done. In fact they had found themselves in each other’s arms so often that he had joked that she’d agreed to marry him only to keep her bed warm.

In those early days, she had always woken when he had, stretching languidly and watching as he washed and dressed as if every aspect of his morning routine was a fascination. And he had been both embarrassed and flattered by the attention.

But now he tiptoed out of their room with the dawn. What was the alternative? She needed her rest.

And he needed to work. He needed to find Samson so that Trevelyan would stand a chance when he came up against him in the Arbor Wilds. Assuming they could make it to the Arbor Wilds in time. Assuming Morrigan’s guess was correct and that’s where Corypheus was heading.

“I really am sorry,” he repeated. “I’ll be working late again tonight. Maybe when this is done…”

When this was done, he’d be gone for a month or more, leading his army. But no, he wouldn’t think of that. He didn’t let his thoughts wander in that direction.

“Don’t worry.” She smiled down at him, hair a fiery halo in the dim light. “Celeste and I are going to have tea.”

That surprised him. “At this hour?”

His expression must have been humorous because she started laughing. “She’s going to bring me something to help me sleep.”

Cold guilt stabbed him at those words. “I’ve been keeping you up again.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“It’s unfair on you. I should… I can move back upstairs?”

“Cullen, no. I don’t want that.”

“You need rest.”

“Which is why Celeste is making me tea.” Her gaze darted to the plate with the fruit. She picked up an apple slice, but didn’t eat it. Rather, she toyed with it in her fingers for a moment. Then she sighed. “If anyone should be apologising, it’s me. I know I’ve been… difficult. This morning was a case in point.”

That he couldn’t deny. He wondered if perhaps this was the true reason for her visit and for the meal. Perhaps she regretted the things she had said. “Solana, I’m not Meredith. I don’t believe mages should be incarcerated like criminals. I only want to keep everyone safe.”

“Let’s not discuss politics.”

“It’s important to me that you know that. I would never wish for you to be locked away. Circles are meant to protect the mages who need protection.”

“Cullen…”

He had more to say on the subject, but he stopped himself at her plaintive look. “Well, no one said it would be easy. A mage marrying a Templar. We were bound to come up against these challenges sooner or later.”

She nodded, though she looked sad. He’d said the wrong thing. Or too much.

“Thank you for the meal,” he said to break the silence. “It was… very thoughtful. And the stew’s just fine without bread.”

She looked down at the apple slice again. “I guess I just wanted to make sure you know that I still love you.”

Warmth flushed through him at the unexpected statement. “Of course I do. And I love you too. I hope that was never in doubt?”

“No.” But her brow creased and her eyes remained fixed on the fruit. “Cullen… we are all right, aren’t we?”

Her voice was almost a whisper. The question scared him more than he wanted her to know. Their marriage wasn’t conventional by any means. It wasn’t at all like his parents’ marriage had been. But then their lives weren’t conventional either. Ordinary couples didn’t have to prevent the world from ending. He wasn’t sure how to measure ‘all right’, but he knew he had to say something.

“Yes, my love. We’re perfectly all right.”

He was rewarded with a soft smile as she leaned down to place a kiss on his cheek. “Celeste will be waiting. Good luck with your work.”

Chapter Text

17 Kingsway 9:41 Dragon

Cullen,

YOU MARRIED THE HERO OF FERELDEN?!

We will see you soonest.

Love,
Mia.


 

“Good session everyone.” Hawke kept his tone light as he knelt down. “Dismissed.”

The wound wasn’t anything that a spell or two couldn’t fix. The young mage who’d dropped a meteor on his own foot was doing a good job of keeping it together. He was also keeping his eyes averted from the burnt and twisted boot. Probably for the best.

Hawke glanced at the upper courtyard, hoping to catch Solana’s eye to assure her everything was okay, but she was staring off into the distance. Commander Cullen was standing beside her with his arms folded across his chest, pointedly not looking at Hawke.

Hawke smirked. Good man. Let’s just pretend this little incident didn’t happen.

He muttered a few words under his breath and cast the spell Anders had taught him for healing minor wounds. Blue magic shot from his palms and danced across the mage’s foot in criss-crossed light. Another repetition of the spell and the mage let out an audible sigh of relief.

“Feeling better?”

The mage nodded, biting his lower lip. Hawke almost wanted to instruct him to run to the kitchens and see if they had a treat for him, but resisted the urge and helped him to his feet. He was probably in his early twenties, after all. Funny how the Circle ones always seemed younger.

“You’re going to need another pair of boots. Might want to speak to the quartermaster about that.”

“Thank you, I will, ser,” the mage said.

Hawke rolled his eyes. “I’m not a ser. It’s just Hawke.” From the edge of his vision, he saw Solana starting to move away. He patted the mage on the back and dashed past him.

“Solana!”

She turned, raising her eyebrows quizzically. Cullen stopped too, standing at her shoulder like a bodyguard. In fact, that’s probably exactly what the Commander fancied himself as. He had a strange tendency to show up just as Hawke was getting into the more complex (okay, yes, dangerous ) spellwork with the mages.

Hawke stooped and grabbed the scroll that had arrived with the post that morning before hurrying up the stairs to meet them.

“I was hoping you had a minute,” he said, slightly out of breath. Maker, he was not as fit as he used to be. He waved the scroll at her.

“Of course.”

“We should sit.” He indicated the bench nearby with a tilt of his head.

Cullen followed his wife silently. Hawke could feel the Commander’s disapproval practically steaming off him. It had been nearly four years since they’d been on opposite sides of a small war, but possibly that wasn’t quite long enough.

Solana perched on the edge of the bench, looking at Hawke expectantly. Cullen stood beside her, a possessive hand on her shoulder. What did he expect, that Hawke had some blood magic ritual planned that he would use to lure his wife over to the dark side?

He sat beside her and carefully opened the scroll tube. “Do you remember, when we were in the Fade, I mentioned we might be related?”

Her back straightened. “Of course I do.”

“Well I wasn’t completely sure you would, I mean so many interesting things were revealed that day…” He smiled at her and she returned the smile, hand travelling unconsciously to her belly. Hawke eased the roll of parchment and vellum out.

“I wrote to my uncle when we got back here. I had to promise him significant coin and a lifetime’s supply of drink, but he went through his chest of family do-dads and put this together for you.” Hawke handed her the documents. “It’s all we have on your branch of the family tree.”

Her eyes went wide as she took hold of the scroll. She held it as if he’d just passed her the ashes of Andraste.

“We don’t... “ she said. “You don’t know for certain that they’re mine. It was only a theory.”

“Well yes, but I’ve taken a look at the pictures and there does seem to be a resemblance.”

“Pictures?” she sounded breathless.

Hawke reached across to unroll the package. A number of loose pages sprung free. The first of these was an etching of a young woman. It reminded him a lot of his mother. So much so that when he’d first seen it, his chest had physically ached. But there was something about the eyes and the tilt of the chin that was pure Solana.

He pulled it flat. “Revka Amell.”

Her fingers hovered over the page. “My mother… it’s my mother, isn’t it?”

He nodded. “There are other pictures too.” He unwound the scroll further. A smaller etching slipped out and he caught it before it fell down to her lap. “This is one of the family together.”

The etching must have been a smaller copy of a much bigger portrait. The Amells were standing in front of a sweeping staircase. Everyone looked painfully serious. This portrait had clearly been an Occasion. Hawke pointed to the old man seated in the centre on a grand chair. “Lord Aristide Amell, my grandfather.” He moved along the rows. “And here’s your grandfather, my great uncle Fausten. I’m afraid your uncle Damio - this one grinning like a fool - was a bit of a scoundrel by all accounts. Oh and here she is, Revka.”

He’d intentionally skipped Gamlen and his mother. He didn’t want Solana to ask about her. One day he’d tell the story, but not yet. She took the picture reverently, narrowing her eyes to make out all the details she possibly could. Then she held it up to Cullen so he might look.

“I’m ashamed I never made the connection before,” Cullen admitted, leaning down to peer at the gathered Amells.

“And so you should be,” Hawke teased. “I thought living in Hightown meant you had to know the noble families by rote?”

“The noble ones, yes,” he said without altering his expression.

“I believe I just heard you make a joke, Commander.”

“It has been known to happen,” Solana said with a fond smile. “Not often, but it happens.”

Cullen straightened. “I kept out of politics as much as I could.”

“You and I both,” Hawke responded.

Solana shot him a look and he shrugged. “As much as I could . I didn’t choose to get involved. I was in it for the coin. Ask Varric, he’ll tell you.”

“He’ll tell me you single-handedly fought off a pirate invasion at midnight on the sacred ground of the Chantry.”

“Oh, you’ve heard that one, have you?”

Solana hugged the scroll to her chest. “Thank you, Hawke. I will treasure these.”

He could tell by her expression that she was genuinely touched and it made him feel all warm and fuzzy. He’d forgotten how good it felt to help people.  “Don’t mention it, cuz. Just name your baby after me.”

He was certain the Commander turned a shade paler.

“On second thoughts, don’t do that,” Hawke added quickly. “Garret is a terrible name. Why do you think I make people call me Hawke?”

 




Cullen didn’t hear the scout approach over the clang of steel on wood. Sunlight glanced off metal as his men practised, and dust swirled up from where their feet danced. They were doing well. They had their technique down. Now all they needed was to hone their instincts.

“Commander, ser. There’s someone here to see you,” the scout said, startling him more than he would have liked. Even if it hadn’t been for the din, he might not have heard the man’s approach. Leliana’s people always moved so silently.

“Now?” Cullen asked. He didn’t look at the scout. His eyes were fixed on one of his newer recruits who wasn’t quite keeping up with his partner. It looked like an injury about to happen. “Braggend, ease off! Hallard, pay attention before you lose that arm.”

“She wanted to speak directly to you, ser. No one else,” the scout said.

Cullen’s heart leapt and his throat constricted. Could it be Mia? If so, they’d made the trip incredibly quickly. He straightened his coat and called to the men to take a break as he followed the scout.

But it wasn’t his sister waiting in the lower bailey. The woman was middle-aged and wore a brown nondescript cloak. She stood before a cart laden with boxes. He would have dismissed her as just another traveller, had it not been for the men who accompanied her. Cullen counted four at a glance, lurking around the cart. They too wore nondescript armor - iron and leather it looked like. But they had a familiar bearing.

Templars.

Cullen rested his hands on his sword hilt as he approached her. “I am Commander Rutherford. I hear you asked for me?”

A smile flittered on her lips. “Commander, you won’t believe how good it is to see you.” She stuck out a hand. “My name’s Sister Bernys. Is there somewhere we can talk privately?”

He narrowed his eyes, not certain whether he should agree to it. A Chantry sister travelling with Templars who had somehow not succumbed to Corypheus. It was curious enough for him to gesture towards his office.

 

The hole in the roof was the first thing to catch her attention, but she didn’t comment on it. Then her eyes drifted around the office, resting a little longer on the empty lyrium box than they should have.

“How can I help you, Sister?”

“I have been sent as a gesture of goodwill from Queen Anora. Your Inquisition has been of immense assistance thus far.”

He was aware that they’d rooted out some Venatori who’d been lurking in the palace, and that Josephine had been dispatched recently to assist in negotiations with Orlais.

“If this is Inquisition business, it’s best you speak to the Inquisitor.”

“The queen ordered me to speak to you specifically.”

He quirked his head. “You’ll forgive me if I find that a bit… odd. I’ve never had any personal dealings with the queen.”

“But your wife has. Her Majesty specifically stated that she would trust the Hero with her life. As a matter of fact, she has in the past. She has your wife to thank for her throne.”

He remembered hearing that. Alistair had been the rightful heir, but he had apparently held no interest in being king. Solana had supported Anora’s claim, stating that she was most qualified to lead the kingdom through troubled times. It was a move that had shocked many considering her well-known personal relationship with Alistair and her dealings with Anora’s father.

“I’m sorry, Sister, but I’m still not sure what this has to do with me. If you wish to speak to my wife, I can find her for you.”

“You are a Templar.”

“I was a Templar,” he corrected her. “Now I am Commander of the Inquisition’s forces.”

Bernys shook her head. “You are Templar-trained. It is enough. She trusts the Inquisition, she trusts the Hero and she trusts your training. Which makes you the only person she felt she could trust with my delivery.”

The hairs on the back of Cullen’s neck prickled. “What is your delivery?”

Bernys’s mouth quirked in a way that reminded Cullen a little of Morrigan. For the first time he could see that this sister was perfectly capable of escorting a dangerous cargo up to Skyhold.

“I come from Denerim, Commander. I bear Chantry robes and I am escorted by Templars. Surely you can hazard a guess?”

He shook his head. He despised guessing games. “I’d rather not.”

She strode to the window. She appeared to be gazing out, but he knew better. She was checking to make sure they truly were alone. Then she turned to him.

“In troubled times like these, there are certain Chantry… possessions… that should be kept out of the wrong hands. Hands that would, perhaps, destroy them. Or worse, hands that would use these… possessions… for blood magic rituals that controlled the minds of their… owners.”

And then he realised what she meant. His heart kicked in his chest. “Denerim,” he repeated. “I know what’s stored in Denerim.”

“I thought you might.”

Phylacteries.

“You brought them here? On an open wagon ? Are you insane ? Does Her Majesty know we’re aligned with the rebel mages?”

“She is aware that the Inquisition is aligned with the rebellion, yes. If you recall, she was present in Redcliffe when your Inquisitor offered them the alliance.”

Cullen started pacing. “What does she expect me to do? Hide them from the Inquisitor? Because I won’t do that. I can’t.”

“How you handle them is your decision, Commander. Her instructions were only that I pass them into your safe keeping. She trusts that as a Templar - I beg your pardon, a former Templar - you will make the right decision. Keeping them in their prior location became too much of a danger. With Corypheus, Venatori, talk of a demon army, not to mention those corrupted Templars, what are you calling them? Red Templars? Some of whom knew the location… she knows that the Inquisition has the walls and the skills to protect them.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t just have them shattered.”

The sister quirked an eyebrow. “Once this war is done, there may not be an Inquisition. The future of the mages is unclear.”

It chilled him that these were an echo of the words he’d said to Solana, not two weeks prior. “And the queen would rather we have the option to round them up again should it be required?”

“I am not to know the mind of Her Majesty, but I would imagine so.”

 


 

 

“Break them.”

Cullen had avoided telling almost everyone about his surprise delivery. He’d told Trevelyan of course, and he had hand picked a few of his most trusted men to carry the boxes to an old storeroom where they could be held securely until they figured out what to do with them.

The choice to tell his wife had not come easily. He knew what her view would be, of course. But despite their disagreements, he couldn’t imagine keeping something so large from her.

Now he wondered if he’d been mistaken as he watched her pace in front of their fireplace.

“Cullen, the phylacteries are like… like your lyrium leash. But worse. If they fall into the wrong hands every single one of our mages could be mind-controlled to do unspeakable things.”

He was sitting on the edge of their bed. “The Crown has entrusted me with this duty. I can’t very well just -”

“You said she wasn’t specific.”

“If she’d meant for them to be destroyed, she would have done it herself. Considerable effort went into getting them here safely.”

“Or she felt unqualified to decide what to do with them. It would cause problems between her and the Chantry if she could be tied to their destruction. She’s thinking politically. She always does. Her father raised her that way.”

Teyrn Loghain, Solana’s one-time nemesis. The stories said he’d raised his daughter with an eye on that throne. She’d claimed it first through marriage to King Cailin. Then Loghain betrayed Cailin and took that throne for himself. Cullen had often wondered what had happened to the man to make him do such a thing. Prior to that, he’d been a war hero. He was known as a great military mind, and Cullen had to admit that if his daughter had even a fraction of his cunning, Solana’s theory made sense. Still…

“If that was her intention, she would have passed them directly to you, surely? I told you, the sister said she trusted you. But they wanted a Templar.”

She rounded on him. “Does it even matter what she intended?”

“It matters to me.” The queen had entrusted them to him. He would not betray that trust.

Solana seemed to deflate. She was silent for a time, staring into the flames.

He’d had the fireplace constructed in the spot where her garden had been. She’d been sad for the loss, but they couldn’t very well have a baby sleeping in a room with an open ceiling. A few times in the past fortnight he’d returned to their quarters to find her asleep in a chair in front of the hearth, the light of the dying embers painting her face as orange as her hair. The tea Celeste had given her seemed to be working. He’d been able to carry her to bed without her so much as stirring.

Now she came to sit beside him. “What if we give the phylacteries to their rightful owners? Or give the mages the choice? You said not all of them wanted to be free?”

Those hadn’t been the words he’d used. Some of the mages had been content to live in the Circles. It wasn’t the same thing, but it was hardly worth starting a fresh argument over semantics.

“It’s a possibility,” he said. “But I think our primary purpose needs to be to keep them out of the grasp of Red Templars - or anyone aligned with Corypheus. And that means keeping their existence secret. Maker knows how we’ll manage that in this place.”

It had taken all of a day for everyone in Skyhold to hear of their secret marriage, after all. They’d kept the baby a secret for just under a week after that… but he suspected everyone had known well before they’d let on as much to him.

“I’ll ward the room,” she said. “I know a spell. It kept the darkspawn out of our camp. It should keep curious Inquisition members at bay.”

“Thank you.”

She probably didn’t realise how much that small show of support meant to him. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, kissing her temple and revelling in the smell and feel of her.

Chapter Text

Cullen sat bolt upright in bed, drenched in cold sweat, chest heaving. It took him a moment to register that the pounding on the door was not a part of his nightmare.

Solana placed a hand on his arm. She was looking at him with bleary eyes, her hair a wild mess.

“Hold on!” he yelled.

Had he overslept? He fumbled for his breeches and was still tying them when he opened the door a crack to find one of Leliana’s scouts outside. The grey light indicated it wasn’t long after dawn.

“The Inquisitor requests your presence in the war room, Commander,” the scout said crisply.

A meeting? This early? “What’s this about?”

“He didn’t say, ser.”

It must have been urgent. Cullen’s chest tightened. Had Corypheus made another move? Were they too late? Or was it the phylacteries? Had they been discovered? Stolen? Destroyed?

“I’ll be a minute.”

He closed the door in the man’s face and grabbed for his clothes.

“What is it?” Solana asked.

“Meeting. He didn’t say why.”

“I’m coming too.”

He thought of arguing, but he knew he’d lose and it would only waste valuable time. If the Inquisitor took issue with Solana’s presence, then he’d have to dismiss her himself.

Cullen didn’t bother with his usual morning grooming. He splashed his face in the basin and ran a comb through his hair. Solana didn’t even do that much. She threw a robe on and twisted her wild hair into a tight bun, through which she slid a single wooden needle.

Cullen’s heart was beating a frantic rhythm as they walked through Josephine’s empty office. The rest of Skyhold was quiet. Whatever emergency had occurred, it hadn’t been shared with the rest of the Inquisition yet. That only made Cullen more nervous.

He paused with his hand on the war room door and took a steadying breath before pushing it open.

The whole council wasn’t present yet. A surge of relief rushed through him that he wasn’t the last to arrive. Max was standing with his back to the door, outlined in the early morning light. Josephine was fidgeting next to him. She startled when Cullen opened the door.

But the relief was short-lived. Hawke was also there and as Cullen pushed the door further open, he realised he was talking to someone. Someone with long blond hair tied up in a messy bun and black feathered pauldrons, weathered by four years on the run.

“You,” Cullen growled.

Anders turned his attention to Cullen and gave him a bright, if somewhat hesitant smile. “Long time no see. It’s Commander now, isn’t it?”

Blood roared in Cullen’s ears. It took all of his training and discipline not to launch himself physically at the man.

Trevelyan cleared his throat. “As you see, we have a situation that I thought required your attention.”

“A situation?” Anders’s eyebrows shot up. “I don’t know whether I should be flattered or scared.”

Josephine stepped in. “With all due respect, you are a wanted criminal. Usually we would be happy to accept an offer of help from someone as accomplished as yourself, but -”

“- but many of your allies want me dead?” Anders finished for her.

He didn’t wait for her to answer. He looked to the Inquisitor. “Hawke told me that you’d aligned yourselves with the rebel mages. If your allies have been so understanding about that, I don’t see how I would be any different?”

“You blew up a chantry,” Cullen snarled.

He heard an intake of breath from his side. “Anders?”

Solana must have only just recognised him. He was no longer the primped troublemaker of legend she’d known at the Circle. Now his stubble, tousled hair and hollow cheeks were much more reminiscent of the terrorist he’d grown into.

He smiled benignly. “Solana.” He reached out, as if to take her hand, but Cullen stepped in front of her automatically and Anders dropped his arm and fidgeted. “Hawke told me you were here. I was surprised to learn you’d become the Hero… you were always so quiet.” His eyes darted back to Cullen’s face and he cleared his throat. “I must admit, when Hawke told me of your marriage I thought he was having me on. Last time Cullen and I spoke I believe it was ‘mages cannot be our friends, they must always be watched’.”

Shame heated Cullen’s neck. He didn’t want Solana to hear he’d once thought those things, and he knew that was exactly why Anders was repeating them.

Solana spoke before he could. “Oh, I’d say marrying me is a brilliant way to keep an eye on me. Why are you here?”

Her hand slipped into Cullen’s and his heart beat a little faster. Usually he would think holding hands in a council meeting wildly inappropriate, but now that small reassurance meant everything.

Anders glanced at the Inquisitor, but Trevelyan nodded for him to answer Solana.

“Do you want the official answer or the honest one?”

“Give me both and I’ll see which I prefer.”

He chuckled. His eyes slid to Hawke. “I can see the resemblance already.”

Hawke, Cullen noticed, seemed less than pleased. He wasn’t glaring the way that Cullen was. But his face bore little expression and he had his arms folded across his chest.

“Alright,” Anders said. “The official reason is that Hawke has been keeping me up to date on your Inquisition. You’re saving the world, and I want to be a part of that. Well, Justice wants to be a part of that. I think I want that too.”

“Talking about Justice probably isn’t helping your case,” Hawke advised softly.

“Right. Well. I’m a very skilled healer. I have other talents as well, but that’s my specialty. I want to lend my skills to your cause.” He shrugged.

“If our cause is so important to you, why only come now?” Solana queried.“Hawke joined us months ago.”

Cullen knew what he was going to say before he said it.

“In addition to being a superb healer, I am also a Grey Warden.”

Solana didn’t say anything for a moment. Silence hung thick in the room. Not even Josephine stepped in to ease it.

“Hawke failed to mention that,” Solana said eventually. Her grip tightened on Cullen’s hand as her eyes met her cousin’s. The look burned and Cullen was grateful that for once he wasn’t the subject of her shortened temper. “So when I told you about the Calling…”

Hawke nodded. “Yes, I had some idea what you must have been going through, but not why.”

“Don’t blame him,” Anders said. “I never chose to be a Grey Warden and I left as soon as I could. I’m afraid I didn’t pay much attention when they were explaining the side effects.” He gave her a disarming smile. “Hawke had me locked in a room, under guard, while you were sorting it all out. Which would be why I didn’t join sooner.”

“I thought Aveline was still watching you,” Hawke commented, again talking softly and with very little emotion. It was odd behaviour from him.

“Oh, she was,” Anders’s eyes seemed to sparkle with silent humour. “Unfortunately for her, I’m particularly adept at escaping.” Then, with a glance at Trevelyan, “Another one of my skills.”

Hawke covered his face with his hands.

“Don’t worry,” Anders assured him. “I sent her a message as soon as I was well away. And I didn’t hurt her, if that’s what you’re concerned about. Although had we stayed in that house any longer I can’t promise that would have remained the case.”

“And the truth?” Solana asked.

Anders blinked at her.

“You said you’d tell me both the official reason and the truth,” she reminded him. “That was the official version.”

He looked to Hawke and Cullen thought maybe he was about to ask him something. Then he seemed to notice the posture, the way Hawke was not himself. Anders paused, his eyebrows drawing together, his eyes narrowing.

“I would think that should be obvious,” he said, not to Solana but to Hawke.

“Anders…” Hawke’s voice came from behind his hands. “We spoke about this.”

“We spoke about a month, maybe two.”

“And I told you my reasons for staying.”

“All perfectly valid. Which is why I wouldn’t have asked you to leave.” He glanced up at Trevelyan. “So here I am. And I do wish to help. Fighting injustice is sort of my thing. Plus, you’ve aligned with both mages and Wardens. I don’t wish to belabour the point, but I fit into both categories.” His gaze shifted to Josephine. “I heard the story you crafted for the Wardens. You just happened to meet them at Adamant where they were attempting their own solution? And you peacefully agreed to align, did you? You’re clearly quite skilled at weaving believable stories. I’m relatively certain I shouldn’t provide too much of a challenge.”

“You’re a murderer,” Cullen responded, before he could stop himself.

“And the other Wardens weren’t?”

“The other Wardens thought they were doing the right thing.”

“As did I! I only did what was necessary.”

“Necessary? Slaughtering a hundred innocents in a big symbolic gesture, that’s necessary?”

“Do you think your lovely wife would be here right now if it weren’t for my symbolic gesture? She’d be locked in a tower somewhere. Your child would be raised as an orphan.”

He didn’t bother arguing, even though he knew that wasn’t the case. No one would dare put the Hero of Ferelden in a Circle, even if she weren’t a Warden herself. He turned instead to appeal to Trevelyan. “Inquisitor, surely you’re not considering this? This man is dangerous. He’s unpredictable. He’s an abomination.”

Anders lifted his hand. “Ah, technically not an abomination. Justice is a spirit, not a demon.”

“It’s all the same.”

“It really isn’t.”

“Gentlemen,” Trevelyan cut in. “Cullen, I do see your point, but Anders isn’t wrong. We’ve hardly been picky about our allies up to this point.”

No, he certainly hadn’t. Trevelyan had accepted every single offer of help he’d received, even from those with clear ulterior motives. “Perhaps now is the time to begin,” Cullen said stiffly. A tight ball of rage was growing in his chest. “Or are we going to start accepting aid from terrorists as a point of fact?”

“Commander, I’ve noted your thoughts.”

Cullen forced himself to take a deep breath. He was bordering on insubordination.

“Josie, will you go get the others? I think we will need a full vote after all,” Trevelyan said.

The ambassador nodded and swiftly left the room, no doubt relieved to be away from the growing tension. Once the door was closed, Trevelyan turned to Solana.

“Your thoughts?”

Cullen felt her stiffen. “I agree that we should be cautious of accepting anyone with a proven track record of destruction,” she said. “However.”

His heart started drumming again. No, no, no. Please, not you.

He felt her eyes on him, looking at him carefully before continuing. Could she see what her hesitation was doing to him?

“However,” she repeated. “It would be hypocritical of me to tell everyone to forgive the other Wardens, other mages, and not offer that same benefit of the doubt where he’s concerned. I’m sorry Cullen. The Inquisition does need strong allies.”

He let go of her hand and folded his arms to wait for the rest of the council to arrive.


 

 

“I can’t believe you did that,” Cullen repeated again.

Solana was following after him as he marched towards the barracks. He couldn’t even look at her.

“I can’t just say what you want me to say! What do you want me to do, pretend to agree with you when I don’t?”


The meeting had been a mess. It had gone on far too long. He’d stated his concerns again, for all the others to hear. He’d told them what Anders had done to Kirkwall. Cassandra had stood with him. Of course she had. She couldn’t forgive the loss of a chantry, and she’d been elbow-deep in the war that Anders had started ever since.

Cullen had had high hopes for Leliana. Then Hawke had surprised everyone by saying that if Anders was forced to leave, he would leave too.

Even though Leliana didn’t say so, Cullen was certain that’s what had swayed her. Losing one potentially useful resource was inconvenient, losing two was unacceptable.

Morrigan, who seemed to have appointed herself to their council, voted he be allowed to join. Whether out of some apostate kinship or because she had some ulterior motive, Cullen didn’t know.

Josephine had decided to remain neutral, which meant it was a hung vote. That is until Trevelyan had looked to Solana, the great Hero of Ferelden.

She had repeated what she’d said before. He deserved the benefit of the doubt the same as the other mages and Wardens.

Now Cullen spun to face her. “What do I want? I want you to choose to give me and my concerns the benefit of the doubt before a known terrorist!”

Solana started. He’d never been this angry with her. The only time she’d ever seen this side of him had been when she’d found him in Kinloch Hold Circle Tower and he’d been very nearly insane.

She didn’t say anything. She was breathing heavily. There was no sign of the defiant fire in her eyes. They were wide and… frightened?

“I need… I need some time,” he said, not trusting himself to say anything more. He turned back and continued his route to the barracks. She was wise enough not to follow.

 

Cullen had only been settled in his office for a few minutes before someone rapped on his door.

“What!”

It opened a crack, the recruit outside shifting nervously. Cullen sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “What is it?” he tried again.

“Its… well… it’s your family, Commander. They’ve just arrived.”

 


 

 

Solana pressed her back against the cold stone wall outside their room, trying to control her breathing. She quickly dabbed the corners of her eyes.

No, she scolded herself. Not now.

She’d never had much trouble controlling her emotions, but recently it was like being on a runaway stallion. Her frustration at Cullen at completely drained away now and left her only with a hollow sadness. She stood by what she’d said to the council. In the past few months she’d spoken with Hawke at length about Anders. He was more than just a terrorist. While she’d been camping in the mountains after the Blight, he’d been slaying darkspawn. And then he’d dedicated years of his life to helping refugees. Yes, what he’d done in Kirkwall had been bad. Terrible. And Hawke had said many times how he wished it had never come to that. But did that mean they should just dismiss him now? Lose both him and Hawke? Now? When they were so close to finally confronting Corypheus head on?

At first she’d been angry that Cullen had seen her vote as a personal betrayal.

But now her emotions had calmed, she knew it had been a personal betrayal, to him. She was the one who was supposed to stand at his side no matter what. Disagreeing about the future of mages behind closed doors was one thing. This had been something else.

And now she felt like her insides were covered in ice. Guilt tasted bitter at the back of her throat. She knew she needed to pull herself together. It had been a few minutes since the recruit had called her to go meet the Rutherfords.

To say it was bad timing would have been a vast understatement. She’d practically rolled out of bed into her robes for the council meeting, and the look on Cullen’s face when he’d left...

When she had pictured this introduction to his family, she’d imagined him leading her forward with an arm around her and announcing her proudly. It wouldn’t have mattered that she was heavy with a child they knew nothing about, and it wouldn’t have mattered that she was a mage, because they would have seen how happy he was, how happy they were together. And even if they were doubtful about her, it wouldn’t have mattered because he would would have been there to reassure her.

Now she had to go down there alone. Alone and weeping. And she was pretty certain he hated her.

Stop it. She cursed herself, brushing at her eyes again. Since when was she the type to cry? And why now of all times?

You’ve fought demons. You’ve walked in the Fade. Going down to the courtyard to meet your husband’s family is not frightening.

She forced herself forward, onto the stairs. She could see a cluster of people down in the lower bailey beside a cart. A big cluster.

What if she just stayed in their room? Cullen probably wouldn’t return until tonight. She could put this off until she was feeling better. Claim she was ill.

But then what if she came upon them by accident later in the day? That would be far worse. And dreading it would be far worse. Rather do this now. Get it behind her.

She paused again at the top of the second flight of stairs. A maudlin song drifted out of the tavern. Maker have you left me here… Now she could see individual people. Cullen was there already. A woman with wild blonde curls had him locked in a tight hug. There was a man standing a little behind her, beside a woman with a baby on her hip. The baby had a ruffle of yellow hair and its thumb in its mouth. Cullen pried himself free of the woman’s grip to shake the man’s hand. Then another woman darted around the cart, almost bowling Cullen over with another hug. She also had blonde hair, but it was straight and shining.

Solana clutched her stomach. She could do this. One step, then another. Slowly down the stairs. Just one at a time.

The woman with the curly hair was the first to spot her, over Cullen’s shoulder. She said something and he turned. He’d been smiling, but the smile disappeared as soon as he saw Solana and something in her shattered.

Tears threatened again. No, no, no. He was coming towards her. You’ve already betrayed him today, you won’t embarrass him by crying in front of his family.

The Rutherfords pulled together, staring at her with open curiosity. Another man came around the cart to join them, an in-law she supposed. Cullen reached out a hand for her. She took it hesitantly.

“This is my wife. Solana,” he said to his siblings. His grip on her hand was firm, but there was no warmth in it. He pulled her forward gently, guiding her to them.

“And that is the other news you failed to mention in your letter, I presume?” the woman with the curls said with an arched eyebrow.

It was the first time Solana had felt insecure about her pregnancy, the first time she’d wanted to hide it.

“Yes,” Cullen said. “I wasn’t quite sure how to explain.”

Solana wondered if an attack on Skyhold right this minute would really be so bad. A dragon, perhaps. Swooping down and burning the ramparts. Not hurting anyone, of course, but providing a distraction from the way they were all looking at her.

“Are you really the Hero of Ferelden?” the straight-haired girl asked.

Solana nodded. “That’s what they like to call me.”

She imagined she looked nothing like a hero right at that moment.

Cullen cleared his throat. “Sorry. This is Mia,” he indicated the curly-haired one. “And this is Rosalie.” The one with the straight hair. “And that’s my brother Branson. I’m afraid I… I um..”

Mia stepped forward, offering Solana her hand. “What he’s trying to say is that he can’t introduce you to our spouses because he’s never met them.”

Solana freed her hand from Cullen’s to shake Mia’s, and in truth it was a relief. Mia introduced her husband, Jeremy, and her sister-in-law, Maralie, and the baby, Branson junior.

“Let me show you to your rooms,” Cullen said. “Our ambassador insisted you take our guest wing.”

“Isn’t that for visiting dignitaries or something?” Rosalie wanted to know as they started walking.

Cullen smiled a little at that. “Indeed it is. You’ll have to be on best behaviour.”

She punched him in the arm, her fist clanging against his armour. “Ow!”

He laughed and the sound of it would have made Solana feel a little better, if he hadn’t still been avoiding looking at her.

Chapter Text


“So tell me honestly, Cullen. Were you pressured into this?”

Mia was perched on the edge of his desk, staring at him frankly with those sharp brown eyes. For all their years apart, she had hardly changed. The laugh-lines around her mouth were slightly deeper and there were vague creases at the corners of her eyes, but otherwise she looked precisely as she had on his last visit home before he’d left Ferelden.

He’d known what was coming the moment she’d asked to see his office.

“No,” he said.

She shook her head, sending her curly hair bouncing. “Because by my calculations…”

“No.” He interrupted her before she continued with the sentence. “I mean, yes… your calculations are correct but that’s not...” He swallowed. This was the exact conversation he’d been afraid of, the one Leliana had warned him about. He drew a deep breath and walked over to the window. Maybe it would be easier if he was staring out at the snowy landscape and not at his elder sister.

“When I was assigned to Kinloch Hold, she was there. She was one of my charges.”

“Oooh,” Mia said suggestively.

“It wasn’t like that.”

“I’m only teasing.”

“Kindly stop. This is… this is difficult enough as it is.” He ran a hand through his hair. Where to start? “I developed inappropriate feelings for her, but I never would have acted on them. I was trained to believe such relationships could not exist.”

“That’s when you were with that Templar girl?”

He tensed. That Templar girl … his first. He tried not to think of her. When he did, it was as part of the nightmares. He’d forgotten he’d mentioned her in his letters. That had been back when he’d been better at writing. Before…

“It was before I was with Annlise,” he told his sister. And during, and after. The thing with Annlise had been brief and intense. Not explicitly forbidden but certainly frowned upon. They’d kept it quiet and their inevitable breakup had been mutual. He’d been too focused on training, on his work. She had wanted more than he could give. Yet even so many years later, he couldn’t think about her without feeling a hollow pain in his chest.

“So you had a crush on her?” Mia prompted, steering his thoughts back to Solana.

“I… yes.” He scratched the back of his neck. “When the Circle... she saved my life. But I… I couldn’t even look at her. She was a mage. I didn’t see her again for a decade. I was… troubled.”

“You never did tell me what happened there?” Mia asked with surprising gentleness.

He shook his head. “I’d rather not speak of it, even now. Suffice it to say a large number of mages took to blood magic and staged an attack. I was… not the same after that. I didn’t write because I couldn’t. I couldn’t put into words everything that had happened.”

He dared to look at her. She didn’t seem angry. Her eyes were full of sympathy.

“I encountered Solana again only recently. She was concerned about the Breach.” And Wardens practising blood magic, but no need to go into that. “She joined the Inquisition. I was surprised to find my feelings for her unchanged, despite the years apart. Every moment I spent with her, the feelings grew. She is incredible. She is a force of nature. All the stories they tell about her are true. I wanted to marry her the moment she admitted she shared my feelings.” He didn’t mention how he’d asked her to move in with him two days later, but he felt himself colouring at the thought. “The pregnancy was unintentional, but is not unwelcome.”

Mia was staring at him.

“What?”

She shook her head and smiled. “Look at you, having feelings.”

He stiffened and she laughed, hopping off the desk. “I’m sorry to pry, Cullen. I know how uncomfortable it makes you. I just wasn’t sure, I mean you don’t seem particularly close.”

Trust Mia to always put things plainly.

“How do we not seem close?” he asked defensively.

“I don’t know. Body language. I suppose public displays of affection are unlike you.”

“They’re not.” The words came out before he could stop them. He closed his eyes. Maker’s Breath. “It’s been a difficult month.”

When Mia didn’t say anything he opened his eyes to find her looking at him with eyebrows raised. He knew she wanted him to say more, but how did he begin to give voice to feelings he didn’t even like admitting to himself?

“I shouldn’t say.” He reasoned he wasn’t being cowardly, it really was none of her business.

Mia came closer. “Nonsense.”

“Mia…”

“I’m your big sister. If you’re having trouble, I want to know of it.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s trouble precisely.”

He was still smarting about Anders. But when he’d seen Solana in the courtyard... the way she’d looked at him… oh, Maker, the look in her eyes. Like she was holding back tears. He’d been too harsh. He was too brash. He couldn’t communicate properly. That added to how distanced he’d been from her recently…

“I’m just, not very good at marriage…” he said. “She deserves better.”

Mia snorted. “Where in the Void is that coming from?”

“You know me.” He gestured to the scrolls and books littered across his desk.

“I do,” she said. “My serious brother, always working hard, never opening up. But if she didn’t know that when she married you then she’s the fool.”

“Don’t say that. She’s not.”

“If she’s not a fool, then she knows and accepts who you are.”

This had been a mistake. “It’s one thing to accept something on an intellectual level. It’s quite another to live with it.”

“Cullen, before you go any further, I’d like to point out that she’s pregnant.”

“I’m aware of that, thank you.”

“Pregnant women are notoriously irrational. If she’s said anything…”

“She hasn’t.”

“So where are you getting this from?”

He growled and paced across the room. He didn’t want to have this conversation. “We argue. A great deal. Recently it feels as though I’m either working or arguing.”

“How very familiar.” He glared at her and she chuckled. “I’m not talking about you. Although those last few months you were at home… I’m talking about marriage. Cullen, can I be honest with you?”

“You’ve never felt the need to ask my permission before.”

“Funny.” She closed the space between them and put a hand on his arm. “You don’t let people in. You remember that time Rogir Fickly from the farm across the way bullied you? And we all knew something was wrong. You came home with a black eye for Andraste’s sake. But you wouldn’t tell us and you wouldn’t let us help? And you needed to deal with him yourself?”

“I don’t see what the…”

“My point is that marriage isn’t like that. You can’t shut her out the way you shut out everyone else. You have to let her in. And let me tell you, it’s not easy. Many a time it feels like having a stone in your shoe. It rubs at all the raw parts parts of you. Things were the same in our first months together too.”

“Really?” That surprised him. Mia had always been both warm and direct, the things that he struggled to be. The things that he thought a good marriage required.

“Oh, yes. It takes an adjustment period to get used to having someone so close, to negotiate how your two separate lives become one. And if the stories about Solana are true, as you say, then she’s as fiercely independent as you are, dear brother.”

“That’s true,” he admitted freely.

“And you’ve been living in your own head so long you don’t know the first thing about closeness.”

“That is not true. We’re close.”

“Are you?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t think I should be disclosing that -”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m not talking about what you get up to in the bed chamber. I’m talking about sitting down with her and telling her you’re unhappy.”

“I’m not unhappy.”

“You seem unhappy to me.”

“I’m fine. I’m married to the Hero of Ferelden. I have a command I could only have dreamed of as a boy. I have the opportunity to make a difference, daily, to the lives of hundreds of people. I’m happy, Mia.”

“If you say so.”

“Don’t do that. You always do that.”

She smirked.

“And if I was unhappy it would be my own doing. I refuse to give the Inquisition less than my best. We’re at war.”

“Don’t explain it to me,” she held up her hand defensively.

“It’s the timing that’s all wrong,” he continued, regardless. “I should be looking after her, seeing to her needs. But the lives of so many people are in my hands. I can’t neglect my duties.”

“I understand,” Mia said.

“I’m going to have to leave her,” he blurted.

Mia’s eyes grew large. “What? Don’t you think that’s a little…”

He covered his face with his hand. “We’re marching in a couple of weeks. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

“I see.”

“For all I know, we could be fighting for months.”

“Have you told her?”

“Not explicitly, no. But she’s aware.”

He paced the room again.

“I’m frightened, Mia.” He couldn’t imagine admitting that to anyone else. “It’s not just her condition. It’s… she makes me… vulnerable. I don’t know how else to say it. When I’ve gone into battle before… I’ve never had someone waiting for me. I don’t want what I feel for her, for our child, to compromise my ability to lead. Sometimes I have to make tough calls, I have to take risks. How can I do that knowing she’s here? Knowing what it will do to her if anything happens… she lost her first love to war. I can’t put her through that again.”

He drew a deep breath. His words hung in the room and he was immediately ashamed of them. His sister touched his shoulder, but she didn’t say anything.

“There’s more. A… person from my past arrived here this morning. I don’t trust him. He won’t be coming to battle because our enemy might be able to turn him against us.” All of the Wardens were staying this time. It had already been decided. After what Hawke said Corypheus could do to them…

“He’ll be here, with her,” he told his sister.

“We could take her back to South Reach?” Mia offered a small smile.

“You can ask, but she would never agree to it. She wants to be where she can make a difference.”

“How about we knock her out and kidnap her?” Mia suggested. Cullen glared at her. “You should tell her these fears,” she said seriously.

He nodded. Arguing with Mia was pointless. But he knew he wouldn’t. Solana had enough to worry about without him making his fears hers. Rather he not put into her head the idea that he might not return, or that Anders might lose control again.

 


 


Hawke closed the door behind him and let out a breath. All in all that had gone better than he could have hoped.

For one thing, the man he loved was still breathing and had not been cleaved in half by the overprotective Commander. For another, Justice hadn’t chosen to make an appearance.

Anders stood outlined by the narrow window of Hawke’s small quarters. He was staring out at the Frostbacks, but when he heard the door click shut he turned. The cocky confidence of the last hour was gone. Now he looked at Hawke with large eyes, fretful as a pup caught peeing on a rug.

“So why are you really here?” Hawke asked, trying to keep all emotion from his voice.

Anders had shown up at his quarters before sunrise. How he’d gotten into the fortress, Hawke was hesitant to ask. Anders’ face had been nervous and hopeful as he’d announced “surprise” through the crack in the door. Hawke had taken him straight to the Inquisitor. Probably not the greeting he’d been hoping for.

Now those large honey-coloured eyes met Hawke’s. “I missed you.”

Hawke’s breath caught. It took everything in him not to cross the room and simply take the man in his arms again. How many of these cold nights had they ached for him? He restrained himself.

“These are good people, Anders. I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

Anders wrapped his arms around himself and pouted. “I have no intention of hurting anyone.”

You don’t, but what about our friend?”

“From your letters, I was under the impression that the Inquisition stood for justice. It’s taken in the mages, hasn’t it?”

Hawke sighed and sank down onto the bed. An uneasy silence fell between them, the kind that had become all too common in the past four years.

“Did you really mean it?” Anders asked at length. At Hawke’s questioning look, he elaborated. “Did you mean what you said to the council, that if they threw me out you’d go too?”

“Of course I did.”

Anders’ lips fell open as his brows drew together. It was a familiar look. Hawke’s love had always confused him. “I wasn’t sure you still…”

Hawke waited, but Anders didn’t finish the sentence.

“You should have told me you were coming,” Hawke said when he was certain Anders wasn’t going to say more. “I could have smoothed the way for you.”

Anders finally sat beside him. “You would have told me not to.”

“That too.”

“And if you explicitly told me not to, I couldn’t go against that.”

Hawke flopped backwards onto the bed. “You make me sound like I’m your handler.”

Some days it did feel like that. He wondered if Anders had always shown poor judgement or if that could also be attributed to his possession.

Anders lay down beside him, curled on his side facing Hawke. “You’d rather I wasn’t here.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I make things complicated for you. I’m sorry. I didn’t think this through.”

He never did. With another sigh, Hawke reached over to brush a stray hair from Anders’s face. This resulted in a flicker of a smile. It also meant Hawke didn’t have to answer, didn’t have to verbally address why he wasn’t happier to see his love.

Because the man he loved scared him.

He wished he could go back to the days before the chantry explosion, to the blind and innocent trust. He’d thought that he’d been protecting Anders, that he’d been coaching him through the emotions tearing him apart. When Anders had woken drenched in cold sweat, trembling with tears for those he’d lost to Templars and to the darkspawn, Hawke had held him and whispered against his ear and soothed him with kisses. When Anders had arrived at the mansion in the early hours, pacing the floor and pulling at his hair, Hawke had wrapped him in warmth and love and reassurances. He’d helped Anders free mages destined for Tranquility, he’d campaigned at the highest levels for mage rights, he’d even written to the White Spire reporting the harsh conditions those in the Kirkwall Circle were expected to live under. He’d thought that had been enough.

Right up until the moment that building had gone up, all those people had died, he’d thought he’d done enough.

Being with Anders had once filled his entire being with warmth. Somehow this man who’d dedicated his life to helping the unfortunate, who delivered babies and rescued innocents, who had experienced so much… somehow he loved Hawke. But now when Hawke looked into his eyes something cold always shuddered in his stomach.

Chapter Text

Cullen expected to find Solana training the mages, but Hawke was hosting the drills instead. Anders was leaning against the wall watching, so Cullen elected not to go ask where his wife was.

He checked their room, but she wasn’t there. Nor was she in the kitchens. But then neither was Celeste. Perhaps she was pouring her heart out to the maleficar?

Don’t call her that, Cullen corrected himself. She’s your wife’s friend. She saved your life.

Still, it made him deeply uncomfortable that Solana might be sharing her frustrations about him with the woman.

The library was the next place he thought to look. He really should have been working, but Solana had slunk away as soon as they’d reached the guest wing with his family and now he’d finished giving Mia the grand tour, he wanted to make sure Solana was okay.

He found Celeste sitting with Fiona in one of the library alcoves, pouring over some old tomes.

“Have you seen Solana?”

She shook her head. “You can try the grove.”

“Grove?”

“It’s not far outside the gates. She goes there to be alone sometimes.”

As he made his way along the narrow path, he wondered how he’d never heard of this place. The ground was snowy but here and there a bright flower pushed through. Evergreen trees nestled close to the side of the mountain. Through them, he could see the grey-purple of the Frostbacks. A gentle breeze stroked across the branches, rustling the leaves.

As the path opened up, he saw her. Just as Celeste had predicted. She was sitting on a rock, in a pool of sunlight, hunched over, facing away from him. Green groundcover carpeted a patch beneath her feet. She’d pulled her hair loose and the breeze caught and teased at it. He paused. Celeste had said she came up here to be alone. Perhaps she had come here specifically to escape him? Perhaps he should leave her be?

Then he realised her shoulders were shaking in a way that could only indicate sobbing. She was crying .

All rational thought left him. “Solana?”

She jolted at his voice, head snapping to look at him. Her eyes were red, her face flushed. Her nose was bright pink. She must have been crying for ages, since she’d left them.

He’d done this. She was the strongest person he knew and he’d brought her to this.

“Forgive me,” he whispered. And he meant for more than just the intrusion.

She stared at him. “I… I didn’t want you to see me like this.”

His throat felt tight, his chest hollow. “How long have you been… do you come here often?”

Why wouldn’t his words work? Why was he paralysed by her display of emotion? He meant to ask her if, when she came here to be alone, that meant that she came here to cry away from his eyes, so that he might not know how deeply unhappy she was.

“Often?” Her brow furrowed.

He was frozen in place, the enormity of her obvious sorrow hanging between them.

“Are you… like this… often?” He choked out.

Her only response was to hide her face in her hands.

He forced himself forward. Rather not speak. Rather remain silent if he couldn’t say anything sensible. He knelt before her, waiting for her to look at him.

“I’m so sorry,” he said eventually, not knowing what else to say.

“Why are you sorry?” came her muffled reply. “I…” One green eye appeared through a gap in her fingers. The colour was all the brighter for her flushed skin. “Anders and and your family.” She was still crying.

His chest ached at the sound. “I’m your husband, Solana. You shouldn’t feel you have to come out into the woods to express how you feel. I should be there for you. I promised that. I…”

A fresh round of sobs overtook her. He swallowed. He was evidently only making things worse.

“I’ll try to do better,” he promised.

“Cullen, please stop.” Her voice was little more than a whimper. “Not everything’s your fault.”

But this was. It wasn’t just his harsh words over Anders. There were so many other things… the constant arguments, the lack of time together, the way he’d broken the news about the pregnancy to his family.

“This isn’t you,” he said. “This isn’t you before you were with me.”

She lifted her head. “This is exactly what I was trying to avoid by coming here. I knew you’d blame yourself.”

“I’m supposed to be looking after you,” he argued. “I don’t even eat with you.”

“Looking after me? I don’t need looking after. I’ve never needed looking after.”

“That’s not what I meant.” He tried to push down his frustration. Having another argument would hardly help matters.

She took a breath so deep it moved her shoulders. “I, of all people, understand the demands placed on you, Cullen.” She hugged herself and sniffed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I know it’s not you.”

They sat in silence. It was too tense for him to feel relieved. He didn’t know what to say or do. A thousand possibilities raced through his mind and he dismissed each one. He was at the point of offering to leave her alone when she spoke again.

“I’m not used to feeling this way.”

He waited for her to elaborate. What did ‘this way’ mean?

“When I was told that I had to stop the Blight with only Alistair, Morrigan and the Warden treaties… something changed in me. I started to become hard. I needed to be. And then when Alistair... after he...”

Cullen could see she was struggling to say the words even now. She forced them out. “After he made that ultimate sacrifice, I felt numb. It was like the shock of it made me Tranquil. The things I used to enjoy, the things that would have made me angry. I didn't feel any of it. It was like... like my entire world was at the centre of a Winter's Grasp spell."

He knew the spell. It was one of the Chantry-approved ones they taught in the Circle. You paralysed your enemy by encasing them in ice. Solana swallowed. Her gaze was focused on her knees.

"It was so bad that I couldn't even care for my dog. That animal loved me." She sniffed and then swore, brushing away fresh tears. "I took him to the kennels. They... they needed to breed more mabari. But I didn't even visit him. I just left."

He placed a hand on her leg, hoping it would reassure her. He was at a loss how else to react.

"The point is... this now... this is the exact opposite. I grew used to being frozen, to being Winter's Grasp. But now I'm Chain Lighting. These emotions tear through me, and they strike out at everyone who gets close. Especially you. And I can't… I can’t stop. I don’t want to be this. I don’t want to be this… this… vulnerable. There’s no hard shell of ice anymore. There’s only me. I’m not the Hero or… or… the Grey Warden… I’m… I don’t even know what I am.”

He waited while she breathed heavily. He could see she was still searching for words. “And I end up hurting you or… disappointing you. Because I don’t know how to be anything else. I don’t know how to make choices for me, for us.”

Like Anders, or training the mages, or the phylacteries. She’d looked at all of those choices as if she was still the Hero.

“I can’t even remember what I am underneath it all,” she whispered. “And it terrifies me. What if what I am at my core isn’t who you thought?”

“That’s not possible.”

“But Anders…”

He closed his eyes. He couldn’t lie to her. He couldn’t say that he wasn’t still smarting about that. “I wish you hadn’t supported him, after everything I’ve told you about Kirkwall. And yes, it hurt that you took his word over my warnings. But that’s hardly a reason for me to stop caring about you.”

“It’s not just Anders. We keep disagreeing.”

It was his own fears echoed back at him. “I have it on good authority that that’s what marriage entails.” He tried to give her a reassuring smile but from the way her gaze dropped he could tell it wasn’t particularly effective.

With a sigh, he took her hands in his own. “It was inevitable. We are two very different people and…” what was it Mia had said? “We are both fiercely independent. But I love you. And I know who you are at your core.”

Her eyes darted up to meet his. “How can you?”

“I knew you before all the titles, remember? I was infatuated with you.”

She swallowed again. “You can’t possibly know if I’m still the same…”

“I know ,” he said, with certainty. “I hardly would have married you if I hadn’t discovered who you are now.”

“Wouldn’t you?” she asked, hands moving to her stomach.

“No,” he said slowly, hoping it was the right answer. No, of course it wasn’t the right answer. “I mean I would have, if you’d asked me to. I wouldn’t have abandoned you and the child. But if I hadn’t loved you as I do, I certainly wouldn’t have made the vows that I did. And I meant what I said that day in the Chantry, every part of it. I’ve never believed in destiny. The life that I built for myself was a testament to self-determination. But this past year… perhaps it’s all Cassandra’s talk of Max being some chosen one.” He offered her another smile, this one marginally more successful. “I don’t find it so difficult to believe in providence anymore.”

“You think we were fated to be together?” she asked with a small, hesitant, return smile.

“One thing I can say with certainty. If everything I had to go through… Kinloch, Kirkwall… if the hurt and nightmares and withdrawal was all leading to this, it was worth it.”

Her eyes were shining again and he didn’t know what to do, what more to say to comfort her. Then she gave a giant sob and fell forward, head landing in the fur draped over his shoulder. Hesitantly, he wrapped his arms around her.

“Did I say something wrong?” He asked after the worst of her sobs had passed. “Please forgive me if I-”

“No,” her muffled voice came from somewhere in his surcoat. “No. I love you.”

“I love you too,” he said. He held her to him, gently stroking her back, confused but reassured.

He would make more of an effort to show her how much he cared for her, how special she was, he swore to himself. Mia was wrong. His own concerns were unimportant, they could wait.

 


 

 

Lord Livius Erimond of Vyrantium sneered as he heard the door clang open. The Inquisitor had ordered him locked in the deepest darkest hole they could find, and instead they’d locked him on top of a cliff. There’s irony for you.

There were only a few usable cells in this section. The rest had fallen down into the valley some time ago. It was open to the elements and chill winds would sweep directly into his cell. That he hadn’t caught some illness and perished was a wonder. Curse his superior Tevinter blood.

The woman who came through the door was unfamiliar. She was carrying a bowl of gruel.

“You’re prettier than the knife-ear who usually brings my slop,” he told her. “Did they finally get rid of him? He was so dreadfully dreary, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

She shook her head. “I came to ask you some questions.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “You’re not my usual interrogator either.”

She gave him a pretty smile.

“I’m afraid I must decline,” he said, dismissing her with a wave of his hand. “I serve a new god. When he rises to power, he will release me, and I doubt he will take kindly to my helping your Inquisition.”

“My questions don’t have anything to do with the Inquisition. And I am no enemy to your master.”

That caught his attention. “Don’t try tell me you’re one of his. You’re not red enough. Or Tevinter enough.”

“Think of me as a neutral party.”

“And why should I answer your questions, Neutral Party?”

“Because I can offer you something your usual interrogator can’t.”

He snorted. He half expected her to try offering him her body. What was she going to do through the bars of his cage anyway? Instead, she produced a small vial from a pocket. She held it between the thumb and forefinger of the hand that wasn’t holding his meal.

“And what, may I ask, is that?”

“Death,” she said.

His heart started pounding. “Freedom from the physical,” he murmured.

“I have it on good authority that glory awaits you?”

Was she making light? It was possible she’d heard what he’d said during his trial. No matter. Her words were no less true.

“Ask your questions.”

“I want you to tell me everything you know about the Blight.”

He chuckled. “Is that all?”

She toyed with the vial. “I happen to know a great deal about it myself. To earn your reward, you have to tell me something I don’t know.”

“Where would you like me to start?”

“Start with the Warden taint.”

 

Chapter Text

Solana pulled the brush through her hair one more time and watched as it frizzed back into its unruly waves. She didn’t usually pay much mind to the state of it. But tonight was different. Tonight she was completely aware of every split end, every kink and, yes, the frizz. That orange fuzz that clung around each tendril and curl. Washing it had been the mistake. It did this when it was clean.

She sighed and twisted it up into a knot again.

Now her face looked chubby and severe. She looked like an unpleasant governess.

She pulled the pin out, frowning as the hair tumbled down to her shoulders in a big red mane again.

A gentle rap sounded on the door behind her. When she didn’t immediately respond, the door opened a crack.

“Are you ready, lov-”

She watched in the mirror as Cullen’s head poked around the door, as he took in the state of the room.

“I’m not ready, no,” she responded, dropping her head into her hands.

She heard him come in, shutting the door carefully behind him.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, as if he couldn’t see.

She stopped the sharp retort before it hit her tongue, opting instead for, “I want to make a good impression tonight.”

They were dining with the Rutherfords. Max had arranged a dinner in the guest wing. He was keen to meet his commander’s family, and after the awkward introduction that morning, Solana was determined to look and act her best. But she’d already failed at the first. Every single robe she owned was strewed across the bed. She’d even put on makeup. And then abruptly washed it off, realising she had no idea how to apply it in an attractive manner.

“You will,” Cullen assured her.

“I can’t even decide which robes to wear.”

“How about those green ones? The ones that match your eyes?”

It surprised her that he had a preference. He’d never appeared to take much notice of what she wore.

“They don’t fit me anymore.”

He chuckled, obviously unaware of how self conscious she felt. “Alright. Those loose blue ones you wore the other day?”

“They’re torn.”

Most of her clothing was stained or torn.

“I didn’t notice. Neither will my siblings.” He began sorting through the clothes on the bed and she watched the reflection of him as he uncovered the outfit he meant.

“And my hair’s a mess.”

He brought her the robes. “I don’t think so.”

“You’re not a woman.”

He positioned himself behind her, gathering her flaming tresses in his free hand. “I’d offer to braid it, but I’m afraid that skill was always lost on me.”

The image of her tough commander braiding hair made her smile despite her mood. He bent down and planted a kiss at the place where her neck met her shoulder. Heat surged through her at the touch of his lips, the intensity of it taking her by surprise.

His eyes met hers in the mirror. “You look lovely. You always do.”

“To you. You thought I looked lovely when I was sleeping in a barn and walking around with hay in my hair.”

He’d told her as much one of the nights when they’d been lying close, talking over the events of the past months. Now he smiled at her. “My siblings are not nearly as discerning as you might imagine. The stories I could tell.”

“I really want them to like me.”

“They will ,” he insisted, again.

“I’ve never had a family. I don’t even know how to act.”

“Act like you normally do.”

“What do families talk about?”

He ducked his head to kiss her neck again, and she thought maybe he was suppressing a laugh. “Solana, you’re overthinking this.” The brush of his lips as he murmured against her skin sent a shock of desire to her core.

It must have been weeks since they’d had time for this kind of affection and she hadn’t realised quite how much she’d missed it. She turned in her chair, all at once aware that she was wearing only a slip while he was fully clothed.

His fingers brushed her cheek. “They’d love to hear your stories.”

“Most of my stories aren’t suitable for dinnertime conversation,” she said, trying to keep her mind on track despite his closeness.

“There’s one about you escaping Loghain’s clutches? You were telling it that night in the Frostbacks.”

That night.

Her eyes were locked on his jagged smile. They both knew which night he meant.

“I’m afraid I missed most of it,” he said softly. “I’d love to hear it again.”

“Missed most of it?” she queried, throat inexplicably dry.

“I’m ashamed to admit, I was too busy thinking about kissing you to pay much attention.”

“Kissing me?” she repeated. She didn’t wait for his confirmation, tilting her head up to catch his lips. His arms locked around her as he deepened the kiss. His mouth was hot and hungry. And she needed him. After all the raw emotions of the past hours, she needed his attentions more than she could ever recall needing them before.

He pulled away, breathless, resting his forehead against hers with a groan. “We’ll return to this after dinner, I think.”

“You have work.”

“It will wait another hour.”

“Cullen…” His name was little more than a sigh. They hadn’t been together, in that way, since her stomach had grown this large. She wasn’t even sure it would be possible, despite the way her entire body was aching for it.

He pressed the blue robes into her hands. They were of a light flowing fabric. She didn’t mention she’d tried them on earlier and thought they made her look like an Orlesian marquee.

 


 

 

“So, have you chosen a name yet?” Mia reached for a bread roll, her sharp brown eyes rising to meet Solana’s.

There were ten of them in total seated at a table meant for eight in the splendid guest wing hall. The hall formed the base of a tower. Somewhere, far above, Solana knew Max had his quarters. A staircase zig-zagged up the wall with doors letting off at each landing. The rest of the wall was draped in tapestries and rich cloth. She’d been alarmed to see one tapestry depicted two Grey Wardens fighting a dragon. The one was blonde-haired, brandishing a sword. The other had red hair streaming behind her. It didn’t take much imagination to figure out which battle the tapestry depicted.

The Rutherfords were pressed close enough that their elbows could touch. Solana imagined Josephine having a fit over the fact and probably threatening to order a new table from Orlais.

They didn’t seem to mind. Max sat at the head of the table, with Cassandra beside him. For once, she wasn’t wearing armour. She hadn’t gone so far as to don a dress, but her deep blue tunic was more feminine than anything Solana had seen her wear before. Cullen and Solana were seated at the centre of the table.

Solana had been concerned about awkward silence, but she was yet to get a word in. Cullen’s siblings had taken turns interrogating him at first, until Max had laughingly made them stop so that Cullen could actually eat. Then Mia had turned her attention to Solana.

Solana swallowed her mouthful. “Cullen likes the name Havard for a boy.”

Rosalie started laughing and Mia gave her brother an appraising look.

“What?” he asked defensively.

“Of course you’d give your child a name from the Chant,” Rosalie said

“What’s wrong with that? And it’s not just any name from the Chant. Havard was Andraste’s first disciple. He’s the one who carried her ashes across -”

“We know who he is, Cullen.”

“I think it’s a fine name,” Cassandra said.

“I actually met him,” Solana said. She’d meant the comment to be offhand but all eyes were instantly on her. She cleared her throat self-consciously. “Well, his ghost. When we discovered the Temple of Sacred Ashes we had to answer riddles posed by the disciples.”

“You never told me that before,” Cullen said. His voice was low and she wasn’t sure whether he was amazed or annoyed.

“Oh I, well I assumed the story was well-known.” But maybe they didn’t repeat it because it sounded insane. She’d have to ask Leliana what the official version was.

“So, what was he like?” Mia prompted.

“Who, Havard? I don’t know. He seemed nice? He was bald.”

“Bald!” Cassandra exclaimed. “But he was Avaar.”

“Avaar do go bald I imagine,” Max said to her, and it was clear he was suppressing a laugh at her dismay.

“I don’t know, I always pictured him as… wild. Wearing goat fur, with long blond hair.”

“You have quite a clear picture of him,” Max teased.

Cassandra’s brow furrowed as if she wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at. Then she seemed to realise and a flush crept up from her neck. She tsked and gave his arm a light slap.

“I’m afraid he wasn’t wearing skins either,” Solana provided. “He was wearing robes. Chantry I think. Well, early Chantry. Recognisable though. They had the sunburst insignia. Like on your armour.”

Cassandra’s eyes grew large, her embarrassment forgotten. “That is incredible.”

“Who else did you meet?” Max asked, resting his chin in his hand.

She tried to recall. “Well, the obvious candidates of course. Hessarian was interesting. He had long blond hair. Oh, and the elf, Shartan. He looked a bit like Solas, come to think of it.”

“So he did exist?” Cassandra exclaimed.

Solana told them all the rest she could remember of the Gauntlet, including the amusing incident where they’d had to strip off all of their armour to be allowed into the final chamber and how she’d had to coerce Alistair into agreement. A few times she grew self-conscious when she realised she held the table’s complete attention. She found herself automatically looking to Cullen, and he’d always smile encouragingly.

They continued to stare at her even after she finished the story.

“I believe you’ve stunned them,” Cullen said. “I’ve never heard my siblings so quiet.”


 

 

“That went well, I thought,” Cullen said as they strolled across the ramparts, back to their quarters.

“Do you think they believed me? I’m not sure what the official version that Leliana’s been telling is an-”

She was cut off as he spun her into a kiss. His lips were warm and tasted like wine.

“I’m sorry,” he said as he pulled away. He hovered close enough that she could feel the warmth of his breath. “I’ve been waiting to do that all evening.”

She laughed, snaking a hand around the back of his neck and pulling him into another, deeper, kiss. His warmth was a welcome counterpoint to the cold night. One of his hands travelled down her spine, leaving a trail of heat, while the other tangled in her hair. It was so easy to get lost in him, in his scent and touch, to forget about all the arguments, about the upcoming campaign that could see him gone for weeks.

“Commander Cullen, Ser!”

Cullen broke away from her with a low growl. A recruit was hurrying towards him along the otherwise deserted ramparts.

“Sorry it interrupt, Ser. It’s urgent.”

“It had better be,” Solana heard him mutter. “Report,” he said louder, turning to face the man.

“It’s the prisoner, the magister. He’s dead, Ser.”

 



Cullen’s expression was thunder as he paced across the icy gaol. He hadn’t said anything in a few minutes. Solana stood huddled in his surcoat, pressed against the wall beneath one of the few lamps.

The door clanged open. Hawke came in first. “Whatever you think he’s done, it wasn’t him. He’s been with me all day.”

Anders was behind him, looking around at the cells with obvious apprehension.

Cullen turned on him. “So you’re telling me that it’s just a coincidence that the same day he arrives, we have a murder?”

“A murder?” Anders asked. “Who’s been killed?”

Cullen narrowed his eyes at him.

Hawke spotted Solana. “What’s going on?”

Of course he’d try to appeal to her. Her husband was being completely unreasonable. But she bit her tongue, reluctant to step between them again.

Hurried footsteps filled the tense silence and then Max was pushing his way into the room. “Cullen, report.”

Cullen turned smartly, his face at once becoming a mask of calm. “Livius Erimond has been found dead in his cell. I took the liberty of asking Anders to come down for questioning. We can hold him now if you like.”

With one sweep of his eyes, Max took in the scene.

Hawke stepped forward. “With all due respect, I’ve been with Anders all day. I can vouch that he had nothing to do with this.”

“Very well, you can go.” Max said.

Hawke thanked him, then took Anders by the arm and lead him out before Cullen could react.

Solana saw his jaw working. “Your worship…” he said through grit teeth.

“There’s no need for that, Cullen. We were having dinner together not half an hour ago. Max is fine.”

“I would recommend we hold Anders, at least overnight.”

“And I disagree. Even if he did have ulterior motives as you clearly believe he does, it would be a special kind of stupid to attempt something like this on his very first day. Hawke says he’s been with him and I trust Hawke.”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t,” Cullen said.

Max blinked at him.

“Perhaps you shouldn’t be so trusting, in general. When was the last time you turned down an offer of assistance?”

Max continued to stare at him.

Cullen seemed to realise how inappropriately he was behaving and he turned from Max, covering his eyes with a hand. “Forgive me, it seems the wine’s gone to my head.”

“It’s all right,” Max said slowly. “Go get some rest. We can look into this further in the morning.”

“I need to finish that write up on-”

“Rest,” Max repeated. “That’s an order.”

“Yes, Ser.”

Cullen kept his head bowed until Max had left the room. Solana approached him cautiously.

“How can I leave you here?” he asked. His voice was quiet, but it echoed in the empty section of the gaol, filling the space. “It was bad enough when Skyhold was safe. Now…”

“Skyhold’s still safe,” she said, touching his arm. He glanced up at her. “And don’t forget, I’m the He-”

“I know,” he cut her off. “I know it only upsets you when I worry. But I do worry. If it was just me going… but Leliana, Max, Hawke, Cassandra... we’ll all be there. And I don’t know how long we’ll be there for.”

He placed a hand on her belly. It was something he’d done often at first. He hadn’t done it in a while. There was another unspoken thing. Their estimates said that he’d be back in time. But the idea that he might not be, that he could possibly not return at all, terrified her more than she wanted to let on.

“I’m not sure about Havard,” she said to break the silence.

He sighed. “I know. Now all I can see is a balding man in Chantry robes.”

 


 

Anders was quiet as they approached Hawke’s quarters. The corridor was long and thin and light from overhead sconces flickered across the stone walls. There was no sound but the swishing of robes.

Then Hawke snatched Anders by the wrist and whirled him around, slamming him against the wall. Anders gave a surprised gasp. His eyes went wide in fright. But he chuckled. He thought Hawke was playing. He thought this was a game, some new seduction.

“What do you know?” Hawke growled.

The question rang in the empty space. All trace of humour bled from Anders’s face. “Hawke…”

“Anders.”

“I’ve been with you . You know I had nothing to do with this.” His eyebrows drew together and he gazed up at Hawke like an injured puppy dog.

That look. Ah, that look. It had said many things in their time together. “Please rescue my friend from the Templars”, “Only you can lead the mages to freedom”, “Save me ”, “I love you”. Now it pled innocence. And Hawke wanted to believe it. But he hadn’t survived all he had by ignoring his gut.

“It is convenient, you have to admit, the timing . I’ve been here for months and guess what? No murders. Not a one. And yet the very day that you arrive, someone dies.”

“Do you really think that of me?” The little frown, his bottom lip jutting out ever so slightly. A pout that turned Hawke’s insides to liquid. Anders knew how to use it to masterful effect. It took everything not to back down, give in and kiss that lip.

Instead, Hawke let out a breath. “Tell me why you’re really here.”

“You know why I’m here. Why in the Void would I wish him dead?”

“If it was Justice, then just tell me.”

Anders laughed at that. “How could it be Justice? In case you haven’t noticed, Justice-”

“Don’t do this.”

“Don’t do what? What do you want me to say, Hawke? I didn’t even know the man. Justice and I share a body. And this body was not anywhere near the scene of this crime. This body was, in fact, under yours. Or on top of yours. Cullen didn’t give us a time of death, did he?”

Hawke felt a scowl twisting his lip. He let go of Anders and stepped back with a huff. “Why are you making light of this?”

“I’m not. I don’t mean to. It’s just, have you heard how insane you sound?” Anders folded his arms across his chest. “Look, I understand why you don’t trust me. But it’s been four years. I’m not out for blood. I’m not a murderer.”

“You are.”

Anders jolted at the words and Hawke immediately regretted them, but he didn’t take them back.

“Well, if that’s what you think then I’m not really sure what I’m doing here after all.”

“It’s not what I think . It’s the truth. We’re both murderers.” The words tasted bitter, but they were no less honest.

Anders snorted, his gaze dodging Hawke’s. “Perhaps I should go.”

“Where would you go?”

“I don’t know. Elsewhere. Somewhere where you don’t have to worry about me.”

“Stop it.”

“I’m sure it would be a relief -”

“I said stop it!” Hawke wasn’t in the mood for his self-pity. “It’s not going to work. You’re not going to manipulate me into -”

“I”m not trying to manipulate you!”

“Oh really?” Hawke gestured wildly. “With the eyes, the lips, that little dejected tilt of your chin? No one wants me. No one understands me. No one could possibly love me. I’ve seen it all before. I’ve seen it so many times I’ve lost count. And you know what? Shine’s worn off. It doesn’t work anymore. I’m not looking for a pet, Anders. I’m not looking for a cause.”

Anders straightened. If anything his eyes were wider than before. But when he spoke his voice was cool. “Of course you are, you’re always looking for a cause.”

“What?”

“Never could resist a chance to be a hero, and how convenient for you that this time I couldn’t follow.”

“That’s not what happened.”

“You know, if you wanted to leave me you should have just said. None of this ‘I can’t wait until I'm in your arms again’ bollocks. Because -”

“Maker, Anders!”

His voice rang along the corridor and he snapped his mouth shut, suddenly aware of how much attention their spat could be drawing. It was one thing for him to be suspicious, quite another if half of Skyhold heard them. He drew air through his nose, trying to calm his racing heart. Anders folded his arms again, leaned against the wall and pouted.

“I didn’t come here to make your life difficult,” Anders said softly. “That’s the very last thing I’d want.”

That was honesty, finally. Hawke was moved to stillness by it. Anders glanced at him furtively from beneath his long lashes.

“I know it might be too much to ask given what I’ve done with your trust in the past, but I wish you could trust me.”

“It is too much to ask,” Hawke said before he could stop himself. Anders had been honest then, too. Face painted pink by the burning Chantry.

Now he shook his head. “What are we doing, Hawke?”

It was Hawke’s turn to deflect. “Standing arguing in a corridor.”

And Anders’s turn to scowl. He shook his head again, as if rethinking his attempt to be open. Hawke knew what he meant anyway. He was asking what business they had being in a relationship if Hawke couldn’t trust him. And Hawke couldn’t answer, even if he had a mind to.

He sighed heavily. “I didn’t come here to get away from you. If I had chosen to run away, I certainly wouldn’t have come this far south. I hear there’re plenty of job openings for mages in Tevinter.”

The corner of Anders’s mouth flicked upwards, but there was no real humour in the expression.

Fine. Serious. He could do serious.

“Look, I… I want to trust you.”

“But you never will.” The words were without emotion. Anders hugged himself tightly, running his hands up and down his arms as if he was cold. And he still wasn’t looking at Hawke. “Perhaps it’s foolish for us to go on like this, like we’re together .”

“We are together.”

“You know what I mean.”

He did. Together yet apart. Like there was a Barrier spell between them, even when they were naked and curled up in one another.

Hawke pinched the bridge of his nose. Maybe Anders was right. Maybe he was the problem. It had been years, the circumstances had been exceptional. Anders had been ready to die for his betrayal then, had been on the run ever since. Perhaps Hawke’s instincts were wrong this time and Anders was innocent and was simply here because he was insecure about their relationship. And who could blame him, really? Because Hawke had run away. At least in part. Not from Anders but from the life he represented: a life on the run, a life of unspoken things, and unspeakable tragedy. He had run from the responsibility of Anders.

He swallowed, the weight of his guilt pressing down on his chest. “Let’s just… let’s just go to bed. It’s been a long day.”

He turned without waiting for an answer. None came, only the swish of robes gave any indication that Anders followed.

 

Chapter Text

Dim morning sunlight streaked through cobwebs. Solana had never been in this part of Skyhold before. Set below the main hall, it was dusty and dank, unfit for living quarters and mostly used for storage. She’d heard that it was a popular shortcut for servants wishing to cut from one side of the castle to the other, but there was no one here now. It was eerily quiet. The guards posted at the entrance to the main corridor had been turning everyone away since the phylacteries had arrived.

Was Livius’s murder related in some way?

Cullen had stood pacing at the end of their bed for what had felt like hours the night before, muttering about coincidences and how he didn’t believe in them. Eventually she’d drifted off. When she’d woken a couple of hours later, he’d been gone.

She had no doubt that Max had found Cullen’s latest report on his desk that morning, orders or no. And she’d put money on the likelihood that it had included an addendum on reasons not to trust Anders. Probably in the form of an itemised list.

She didn’t believe Anders was behind this. What reason would he have to want Livius dead?

The most likely culprit was a Grey Warden though, but someone who had been under the magister’s thrall and had been forced to do terrible things. But if that was the case, why now? Why not when he’d first been brought in?

The timing was the most suspicious part. Cullen was right about that at least.

She reached the door to the phylactery room. Two of Leliana’s people were waiting for her.

“Commander Cullen’s given me permission to be here,” she said. “I want to set up wards.”

In truth, the wards should have been set up weeks ago. That’s what she’d promised. But they hadn’t seemed necessary until now. The phylacteries had been the first thing on her mind when she’d woken. Whether because of the murder, or because of Anders’s arrival, she couldn’t say.

The scouts nodded and, as one, turned and left. Odd. She would have expected them to simply move aside for her. She watched as they walked back the way she’d come, disappearing around a corner. Why were Leliana’s people always so strange?

The pattern she needed to trace was so familiar that her very muscles seemed to know where to go. She’d traced it around their camp every night for a year. She’d traced it in rain, she’d traced it while exhausted, she’d traced it while trembling with fear and grief, she’d traced it while suffering headaches and flashforwards and the intolerable hunger that came part and parcel with her new Warden abilities.

Yet now she faltered.

She stared at her hands, surprised to find them shaking.

“You do not need your phylactery,” she told herself. “What would you even do with it?”

Anything. That was the answer. She could keep it or break it, or even give it to Cullen as a gift. It was true freedom. Without her phylactery, no one could force her into a Circle ever again.

She shook her head, started tracing the ward again.

“You liked the Circle,” she reminded herself.

Yes. She’d liked the walls, the rules. They'd made her feel safe, if not loved. And she’d thought that if she was a good mage, if she did precisely as she was told and wasn’t a bother to anyone, perhaps she’d live a good life. But she hadn’t seen the outside then. She’d betrayed her best friend because she didn’t know what she was missing, what he’d caught a glimpse of in Lilly.

There was no way she could go back.

“No one’s going to put you in a Circle anyway,” she said, through grit teeth. Because saying the words out loud made them feel more real. “You’re a Warden. A Warden Commander... technically.”

At least, she thought she was. Since Adamant, she’d sent numerous birds to Weisshaupt reporting on the status of the southern Wardens, but had yet to receive a response. She had to assume that meant headquarters was happy. Still, an acknowledgement that she’d maintained the rank of Warden Commander after she’d disappeared would have been nice.

And if she wasn’t the Warden Commander… Fiona had been a Warden and she’d ended up back in the Circle.

How must that have been? Being in the Circle before seeing the outside world was one thing. Going back there after knowing freedom. It must have been unbearable.

Solana raked a hand through her hair. This was ridiculous. This whole train of thought was ridiculous. Cullen would never allow her to be put into a Circle if the Circles were reestablished.

But if something happened to him…

“You’re being an irrational pregnant woman,” Solana lectured herself.

Still, he was going to war. If something happened to him and she was left with the baby and a new regime that didn’t look so kindly on mages and she had no proof that she was the Warden Commander…

With a wild swell of emotion, she threw the door to the phylactery room open.

Then she stood blinking at it, trying to accept that it had, in fact, opened. What in the Void were they doing leaving the door unlocked?

The room beyond was surprisingly well lit. A line of arrow slits marched across the one wall, letting in beams of watery light. She'd need to ward those.

Dust flecks spun in the sun as she  moved slowly over the threshold. Piled high around her were stacks of crates, and it was almost a relief because there was no way she’d be able to track down her phylactery in this. Yet, as she knelt beside the first arrow slit, ready to trace her ward, she noticed the corner of one of the crates had been marked. AA-AD.

She looked in the same place on the next crate. AD - AG. And the next… her heart started galloping in her chest. AG - AJ.

Alphabetical. They’d been stored alphabetically. Of course they had been. Cullen was as meticulous as the Chantry. He would have seen to it that they were stacked just right.

She rose to her feet, without even bothering to sweep the dust from her robes. Part of her wanted to run. Leave this room, leave the temptation. But a greater part of her drew her towards the next stack. AJ - AL. And, under it, AL - AN.

A wave of magic moved the AJ crate off the top. And then there it was, her crate. She cast around for something to prise it open and when she didn’t see anything, decided magic would just have to do. All it took was willpower, a similar spell to the one she’d taught the Inquisition mages to help them close the Breach, and then it was open and she was staring down at row upon row of tiny glass vials, packed securely in cloth. Some of them pulsed gently. Those were the ones that belonged to mages nearby, she knew. She pulled out one at random. “Amner” was scrawled across a label.

Sweat prickled her brow. What would she tell Cullen? How could she explain to him the visceral fear of knowing that at any time whoever had this tiny glass capsule could find her? He couldn’t understand. 

The next vial said “Amesbury.” And she knew, she just knew, that the one tucked in next to it had to be hers. It had to say Amell.

Except it didn’t. “Ambrose.”

Hurriedly she checked the other surrounding vials. “Alvey”, “Alway”, “Amott”, “Ancane.”

Where was it? If it wasn’t here, what had they done to it? Another thought occurred to her, one that made her insides churn. What if it had already fallen into the wrong hands? What if it was merely a matter of time before whoever had it decided to use it for some foul purpose?

She had to tell Cullen. Which would mean confessing she went to get it.

 

“Looking for this?”

She spun, heart leaping to her throat.

Leliana had approached without making a sound. From her fingers dangled a small vial on a chain. At first Solana thought it her Warden pendant, the one containing the darkspawn blood from her Joining. But that vial was still around her neck, tucked safely beneath her robes.

This one was a little larger and the blood pulsed bright and dim like a rapid heartbeat.

“Is that my…”

“It is.”

The spymaster closed the distance between them and handed the vial to Solana. It was warm, as if it had been pressed against skin. "I owe you an explanation."

"How long have you had it?" The pulsing stopped and the phylactery glowed now that Solana held it. Leliana retrieving it some time in the last weeks, while her people had been guarding the room, would have made sense, had it not been for the chain .

Leliana folded her arms and leaned casually against one of the stacks. "Since Cassandra started looking for her Inquisitor."

Silence hung thick as the dust beneath their feet while Solana waited for further explanation.

None came.

She examined Leliana’s face, trying to work out what she was thinking. But Leliana was an expert in subterfuge. "I thought you were helping her look for me… you said you'd been trying to find me."

“And having seen what I do now, do you honestly believe you could hide from me if I was truly seeking you?"

Solana fingered the phylactery. “Evidently not."

Leliana pulled away from the stack with a sigh. “Cassandra was determined. You know what she's like. It was only a matter of time before she requested it and I knew the Chantry would give it to her. Connections are everything, after all. So I tracked it down first."

"Why?” Solana didn’t know what to make of this confession. “I thought you wanted me to be the Inquisitor?"

“I can think of no one better suited. And if you had wanted the position, I would have done everything within my power to ensure you had it. But…” She brushed her fingers along the top of a crate and she seemed almost wistful as she let the sentence trail. Solana waited and eventually Leliana turned to her.

“Tell me, what were you doing all those years?”

Solana narrowed her eyes, trying to guess what the spymaster was getting at. “I was doing what I said I would be.”

“Travelling?”

“Yes.”

“Yet you never left the south. In fact, you seldom left the Frostbacks.”

Anger spiked in Solana’s chest. “And you were following my movements, were you?” It was invasive, voyeuristic. “Of course you were. Lady Nightingale keeps her eyes on everything. What do you think I was doing? What did your birds tell you?”

Leliana didn’t react to her temper. If she was affected by it at all, there was no sign. Her gaze was steady.

“Hiding,” she said. “Your movements showed me you were hiding. You didn't want to be the Hero, you didn’t want to be the Commander of the Grey in Ferelden, and you certainly didn't want to be the Inquisitor.”

Leliana was right, but Solana didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of saying as much. “So, you stole my phylactery? To keep me hidden from everyone but you?”

Leliana nodded. Her eyes stayed locked on Solana’s and something passed in her gaze that Solana didn’t know how to interpret. “I led Cassandra to believe it was moved to the White Spire with the enchanter phylacteries and thus destroyed.”

“You could have given it to me in Haven,” Solana accused.

“Yes. And I should have.”

Instead she'd been wearing it around her neck. "The chain. Why?"

Leliana’s gaze finally dropped. The corner of her mouth twitched. "I can think of several people who'd be very interested in phylactery of the Hero of Ferelden. None of them as charming as Cassandra. You'd do well to wear it too. Or destroy it."

" You could have destroyed it."

"Yes."

"But you didn't."

"No."

Solana opened her mouth to ask why, but Leliana cut her off.

"Don't." She glanced up, expression surprisingly plaintive. "Don't ask.” And then she was moving away, back towards the heavy door. “It's yours now. Do with it what you will."

 


 

Solana found Hawke down in the lower courtyard waiting for the mages to arrive for the morning session. He was leaning against a wall frowning thoughtfully.

She’d finished warding the room with the phylacteries, but hers was tucked securely under her robes. She still hadn’t decided what to do with it.

“Anders not joining us today?” she asked him by way of greeting.

Hawke smiled wanly.

“Oh dear, that’s not a good look.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“It’s not… Cullen hasn’t done something has he?” Had he managed to have Anders arrested? Was that where he’d been earlier that morning?

Hawke chuckled. “No. Would that I could blame the Commander.” He gave a sigh, forced another smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I haven’t had a chance to thank you yet. Voting in his favour with your husband right there. It was a brave thing to do.”

“Seems like it was a foolish thing to do. You don’t seem particularly happy.”

He gave a shrug. “I’m smiling on the inside.”

“Hawke…”

“I’m not nearly drunk enough for this conversation.”

“Hawke.”

He sighed and kicked up a wad of dirt. The two of them were still completely alone. The other mages wouldn’t arrive for another few minutes yet, but he glanced around as if to make sure before returning his eyes to his feet. “You heard any of the stories they tell about us, cuz?”

“About you and Anders?”

“No, about me and Commander Cullen Rutherford. Yes, Anders.”

She shook her head. “I’ve been out of general gossip circulation for a few years. Living in the mountains, a drunk, pregnant.” She shrugged, offered him what she hoped was an encouraging smile. “I’ll bet they’re epic?”

“Oh, they are.” He toed the soil, frowning. “Generally they come in two flavours. The one, as you might expect, is that Anders is a powerful blood mage who lured the Champion into his bed and keeps me on as a helpless slave to his whims. The other, the more common, goes something like this: Roguish hero arrives in Kirkwall as a refugee from the Blight. He sees the injustice. He knows it firsthand. He is a mage. His dead sister was a mage. His father was a mage…his abducted cousin was a mage. And then one day he meets another mage. A brave Grey Warden who has given his life, his body, his very soul to rid the world of injustice. And something in this hero resonates with something in this mage. And they fall in love. A love so deep that no man nor magic can break it. But the mage has a secret. He’s planning a revolution. He hides what he’s doing from the hero. He knows his revolution will cost him his life, but he will not let it put the hero in danger. When the dark day comes, the day that he has to do what must be done to free his people, the mage falls on his knees before his love, offers him his staff and says, “Kill me.” But their love is too strong. The hero takes the staff and instead stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the mage against the Templars, the city guard, abominations, all that would oppose them. Together they flee the city. They let it burn. They let the world burn. Because the hero could not abandon his love, no matter what he did.”

Solana waited to be sure he’d finished before saying softly, “That’s quite the story.”

“It is, isn’t it? I believe the next bit is supposed to be something like, ‘and then they lived happily ever after.’”

The weight of the words was evident, all they implied.

“That’s the thing no one tells you about the tales,” Hawke said. “Neat little endings don’t happen in real life. It’s all messy sludge. It’s fading feelings and nagging doubts and constant questioning and loud arguments in empty corridors.” He drew a deep breath.

Solana swallowed down the lump that had formed in her throat. She touched his arm, trying to reassure him even as she struggled to think of something to say.

“I’m sorry,” he added. “I shouldn’t be such a cynic. Here you are in your new marriage with a baby on the way. And if anyone deserves the fabled happy ending, it’s you.”

She snorted. “Why, because I’m the Hero of Ferelden?”

“Because of all you sacrificed to get here.” He forced a smile. “The scales have to balance at some stage, don’t they?”

They’d never spoken about Alistair, but she supposed everyone knew. His implication made her uncomfortable. It had been Alistair’s sacrifice. Why should she be due a reward?

His gaze travelled over her head. “Talking of which… look sharp, Rutherfords approaching.”

She turned to see Cullen’s family gathering in the upper courtyard, leaning over the low wall to watch the mages.

“That’s a lot of Rutherfords,” Hawke commented.

It wasn’t really that many, but it seemed that way when they were all gathered together like that. “Tell me about it.”

“Ah, it’s not going well?”

“No, it’s fine. They’re nice. It’s just… there are a lot of them.”

Cullen appeared amongst the other blond heads and waved down at her. She gave him a small wave back.

“Well you did want a family,” Hawke said, and his eyes sparkled with a hint of genuine humour.

The mages were starting to arrive, filing into their usual lines for the morning drills. Solana dropped her voice. “I’m surprised that he wants them to see this, considering how much magic scares him.”

“I’m not.”

“Not surprised?”

"Nope. He’s proud of you. He’s showing you off.”

She wished Hawke hadn’t said that. Her stomach fluttered, and it had nothing to do with the baby. “Oh, Maker.”

With her luck, this would be one of the sessions where a younger mage set himself on fire. Or someone hit someone else in the face with their staff by mistake. She swallowed and stepped forward, saying a silent prayer.

 

In the end, the training session didn’t go too badly. It had been a long time since anyone had combusted. The mages had become a veritable army, ready to march on the Arbor Wilds with the rest of the troops. Even Hawke’s more exciting lessons were now no more than revision and refinement. (“Set out the area in your mind before casting. No meteors on friendlies,” he reminded them.)

The Rutherfords applauded after the din of conjured rocks falling died down and Hawke took a theatrical bow. Cullen approached, shaking his head but smiling nonetheless.

Hawke twirled his staff like a baton. “Commander! Did your family enjoy the light show?”

“More than I might have liked.” He glanced behind him, back to where the others were still standing in the upper bailey. Rosalie, who’d been staring at Hawke, coloured and darted behind her brother-in-law.

Hawke cringed. “Have you told her who I am?”

“Oh, she knows.” Cullen seemed amused at Hawke’s discomfort. Which was preferable to the antagonism the two usually shared.

“She knows who I am but not that I’m unavailable?”

“She is from South Reach.”

“Point taken.”

Cullen turned his attention to Solana. He took her hands in his. “I have a favour to ask.”

“You want me to explain to Rosalie that Hawke could never return her affections?”

Cullen laughed, ducking his chin, and she heard Hawke chuckle too.

“No. Nothing quite that daring. I have a lot of work to do, as you know. I don’t want to keep my family cooped up here. I was hoping you might take them out, show them the surrounding mountains. Maybe have a picnic?”

She raised her eyebrows.

Hawke was the first to reply. “You’re aware it’s Harvestmere? Hardly the time of year to be setting down a blanket.”

“Cullen… I…” Panic twisted her tongue. “I don’t… what do I say to them?”

“There’s nothing to be nervous about.”

“You mean besides the wolves?” Hawke offered.

Cullen shot him a look and he stepped away, holding his hands up plaintively.

Solana watched her husband gather his words. His gaze darted down to their clasped hands. “To be perfectly honest, the request was Mia’s. I wasn’t going to say. She asked me not to.”

Cullen had transformed almost instantly into the younger brother. It was clear who had been in charge when they’d been growing up.

“Why would she want me to take them on a picnic?”

“She’d like a chance to get to know you better.”

“Cullen…”

“I already know what you’re going to say. But you needn’t concern yourself with whether she’ll like you. She clearly already does, or she hardly would have suggested it.”

Solana wasn’t so sure. Some people could be crafty. For all she knew, Mia wanted to use this opportunity to test her and find out if she truly was worthy of her little brother. The way she’d been feeling lately, she wasn’t sure she’d pass.

“Please,” Cullen asked. “I know it would mean a lot to her. To them.”

He so seldom asked anything of her, how could she deny him this?

“Alright.” She sighed. “I’ll go get my coat. I hope it still fits.”

Chapter Text

Content warning: passing non-graphic mention of miscarriage (not Solana, don't panic!)

 


The Rutherfords found a nice patch of ground not too far outside of Skyhold. It was surrounded by deep green firs, but not as closed off as the grove Solana usually frequented.  It had an excellent view. They could see right down into the valley, to the Inquisition’s vast army camped along the banks of the lake.

“Cullen commands all of that?” Branson asked.

Solana nodded, with a burst of pride. “He’s trained many of them personally. He’s very hands on.”

Branson shook his head in obvious wonder. “I knew he was the Commander. I mean obviously I knew that. And I heard the Inquisition was a force to be reckoned with. But I suppose I never quite pictured it.”

“You don’t find it intimidating?” his wife asked Solana. She was standing beside her husband, her son bundled in her arms.

“She’s the Hero of Ferelden, Maralie,” Rosalie answered before Solana could say anything.

Solana laughed. “I am. But my army was never quite this large. Nor did I have your brother’s talent for command.”

She knew she’d lost more people in the Battle of Denerim than an experienced commander would have. But back then all that had mattered was surviving long enough to slay the archdemon. There was no point making comparisons. “Should we eat?”

They’d brought furs with them instead of blankets, thick enough that the snow wouldn’t melt through. They laid them out beneath a tree, over a slush of needles and snow, and then passed around the food they’d been able to bring from Skyhold’s stores.

“You get such a variety of food all the way out here. It’s a marvel,” Mia’s husband remarked. He was a large man, with arms that signalled he did some sort of manual work. A blacksmith perhaps.

Their picnic consisted of fruit, cured meats and a few buns that Celeste had snuck them, meant for the evening meal.

“Everyone’s keen to trade with the Inquisition now that we’re winning,” Solana responded.

“And are you winning?” he asked.

“Cullen seems to think so.” Solana wasn’t entirely comfortable discussing the subject. She wasn’t sure if they knew about his upcoming campaign. She didn’t want to worry them unnecessarily.

“Let’s not talk of war,” Mia said, reaching for an apple. “Solana, Cullen tells me you play chess?”

“I… yes.” The woman still intimidated her.

“Excellent,” Mia withdrew something from her pack. It was a travel-sized chess board, similar to Dorian’s. In fact, it was exactly the same as Dorian’s, right down to the DP carved on the lid. Had Cullen arranged this?

Rosalie started laughing. “Really, Mia? You’re going to challenge her here? Now?”

There was something about Mia’s look that was very Cullen. On Cullen’s face it meant he was plotting something. “I don’t want to miss the chance to tell everyone back home I beat the Hero of Ferelden at strategy.”

Her husband groaned theatrically and moved away, taking a bun with him.

Branson, on the other hand, came in closer, kneeling on the furs beside Solana. “This should be good.”


They were about half way through the game when Branson Junior toddled over to see what his father was doing and knocked over the board. As his father scooped him up and out of the way, his face screwed up tight and he wailed his displeasure loud enough that a flock of nearby birds took to the sky.

Once Branson had taken him away to distract him with some flowers, Mia started setting up the board again. “You have that to look forward to. I’m sure you’re excited.” She glanced up, a smile playing at her lips.

Solana shifted. Her back was starting to get a little sore. Mia must have misinterpreted the movement because her brow furrowed. “Sorry, I imagine you’re nervous enough as it is. I… well, I know it was unintentional.”

Embarrassment flushed through Solana. She didn’t know how to act with Mia. They were sisters now, weren’t they? But also complete strangers. She hugged her stomach. “I grew up in a Circle. I’m sure you know that. I imagine my entire history is public knowledge.”

Mia chuckled. “Not your entire history, no. But Cullen did tell me you were one of his charges.” She moved a piece and Solana thought she might have been avoiding looking at her.

“Circle mages don’t… well we’re brought up believing that we will never have families. The Circle is supposed to be our family. There’s a greater chance of magic in a line that’s already shown it.”

“Ah, and the Chantry wouldn’t want that.”

“No.”

“Your move.”

Solana wasn’t sure what to make of Mia. Did she feel about the Chantry the way that Cullen did? She moved her piece. An uneasy silence fell between them.

“Grey Wardens don’t have children either,” she said to fill it. “It’s not forbidden - that I know of. It’s just unlikely.” She wasn’t supposed to mention the taint, so she instead said, “Living the lives they lead, it’s not exactly a suitable environment for children.”

“No, I imagine it isn’t.”

“So when I heard that I was… when I found out. It was something I hadn’t even dared dream of before. A normal life with a husband and a child. It had always seemed so out of my reach. More out of reach than stopping the Blight or finding those ashes…” She trailed off, at once self-conscious. Mia was looking at her intently. “Sorry, I suppose what I’m trying to say is that yes, I am excited…. And yes, I am scared.” She laughed, although it sounded false to her own ears. “I… I never had a mother. I’m not sure what kind of mother I’ll be.”

Mia’s attention went back to the board, although she played with the piece in her hand rather than placing it down. “I must confess to being a bit envious.”  She glanced at her husband, who was now playing with his nephew, tossing him in the air and catching him to squeals of joy. “We’ve been trying for years.”

“To conceive?”

“Well… I’ve been pregnant twice.” Mia didn’t look at her, her gaze stayed fixed on the piece. “Never as far along as you, though.”

“Oh.” Solana didn’t know what to say. Her mouth felt dry. “I’m so sorry. This must be awful for you… we weren’t even trying and…” She fell silent. She was probably making everything worse.

“Please, no, not at all. This is wonderful.” Mia smiled. “Another niece or nephew to spoil. And it will be good for Cullen, he needs something to care about besides his work.”

Solana was opening her mouth to respond when something jerked in her belly. It was like a small fish butting its nose against the surface of the water but it was so unexpected it sent a shock through her. She clutched her stomach, staring at the spot.

“Are you alright?” Mia was on her knees, ready to jump to Solana’s aid.

“I…” It happened again. A flutter, like bird wings. “The baby just moved.”

Mia climbed right over the board to sit beside her, placing a hand on Solana’s stomach. The baby did not disappoint, shifting almost into her hand. Mia’s face lit up and she laughed in delight. “That’s amazing! The first time?”

Solana nodded, too overcome with emotion to speak. In that moment, everything felt real. Her baby, Cullen’s baby, not a mere concept but a person.

The others had seen their excitement and gathered around, first in concern and then in enthusiasm. But the baby didn’t move again. It had clearly shifted into a more comfortable position and gone back to sleep.

 


 

 

Solana stared at the phylactery glowing softly against her palm.

It was evening now. Cullen would get back to their quarters any moment. She needed to tell him. Surely he wouldn’t be angry if she explained what had happened?

But then she’d need to tell him that she went looking for it.

And what if he confronted Leliana? What did it mean that she’d kept it? Even she wasn’t comfortable exploring that idea much further. She was frightened of what she might find.

“Solana!”

She jerked as she heard him at the door.

As it swung open she reflexively shoved the phylactery into the top drawer of her dresser and turned to greet him. Later.

His face was flushed and he closed the distance between them in three strides. “I just saw Mia. She said the baby moved.” His eyes were shining with boyish enthusiasm. She nodded.

He placed a warm hand on her stomach reverently. “What did it feel like?”

“It was… amazing.” All thought of the phylactery left her. “It was like… like there was a little bird in my stomach, stretching its wings.”

“Mia said she felt it.”

“Your child’s clearly as excited about chess as your sister.”

He pulled away. “Maralie said that I should draw you a bath.”

“A bath?” Solana wasn’t sure whether she was more surprised by the suggestion or who it had come from. What in Thedas did a bath have to do with anything?

Cullen crossed the room and pulled the wash tub from the corner into the space in front of the fire.

“I’ll go to the kitchens, ask if I can use the hot water. She said it shouldn’t be cold.”

“Cullen, what are you talking about?”

He looked up at her and blinked. “Sorry.” He scratched the back of his neck. “I’m, uh, getting ahead of myself. Maralie said a bath was a good way of getting them to kick again. I… I’d like to feel it.”

Solana fought back laughter. There was something uniquely endearing about Cullen when he felt embarrassed, but she knew her amusement would only serve to make him feel more ill at ease.

“Alright,” she said. “If you’re offering to carry all that water up here at this time of night, I’m not going to argue.”

He seemed committed enough to the idea that it probably wouldn’t have helped if she had. She lowered herself into the armchair. “Did she have any other advice?”

“Oils.”

“Oils?”

Cullen cleared his throat and fixed his eyes on the tub. “She said she - they - used nice smelling oils to… I promise it didn’t sound this, um, intimate when she said it. Apparently the baby was more likely to kick when she relaxed.”

“Cullen…”

He glanced up at her but seemed unable to hold her gaze. “It’s silly, I know.”

“I was going to say you don’t need to be embarrassed.” She leaned back, folding her arms. “I mean this all sounds like a lot of hard work for me, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”

He rewarded her with a low chuckle. “How generous of you.”

“They don’t call me the Hero for nothing.”

 



Steam twisted up from the tub. It smelled like lilac and oranges - the two oils that Cullen had somehow scavenged from somewhere. Solana dared not ask where.

He’d removed his armour and rolled up his sleeves and was staring at the tub with the same determination that he might have shown a map of a battlefield.

“I think get into the tub first. The hot water might do it.”

Strategy one, clearly.

She rose from the chair and slipped her robes from her shoulders. They pooled at her feet. Cullen glanced up, then swallowed.

She had meant to be seductive, but she felt at once self conscious and wrapped her arms around herself. She was a lot bigger than the last time he’d seen her naked.

But Cullen’s eyes lingered on her. He cleared his throat again, then looked away. She heard him mutter, “Maker.”

If this exercise was supposed to relax her, it wasn’t working. Her heart skittered in her chest and her pulse roared in her ears. She focused on the tub.

Cullen rose to help her in. He held her hands tightly so she didn’t lose her balance as she stepped into the warm water. It was the perfect temperature, just hot enough to make her skin sing. When last had she had a hot bath?

She knew exactly. Denerim. The night before the Landsmeet.

Since then, it had been washcloths and cold water. This was luxury. She moaned as she eased herself into the water, then immediately flushed with embarrassment. Cullen cleared his throat once again.

“Is this making you uncomfortable?” she asked him. She couldn’t see his face, he was positioned behind her.

“No.” His voice was higher-pitched than usual. There was a pause before he said, in a much lower timbre, “No, not at all.”

The bath felt amazing, but the baby hadn’t moved. Her stomach jutted out of the water, only half covered. Before she could say anything, Cullen reached around her holding a jug. Wordlessly, he scooped up the warm, scented water and poured it over her stomach.

She dropped her head back, lost in bliss.

“Good?” he asked, his mouth at her ear.

She groaned. He chuckled again and poured more water.

He was on the third or fourth jug when his lips brushed her ear. And then her neck. He drew a ragged breath.

“Any other strategies?” she asked him. Her voice emerged a whisper.

“Yes.” His voice was equally quiet. “But I, um. I’m considering whether or not to enact them.”

“Now I’m curious.”

He brushed the hair from her shoulder and kissed her neck again, this kiss long and lingering. Pleasure spread from it like a web of heat. Somehow she didn’t think that particular move had been part of his strategy.

Although, perhaps it had. A warm hand replaced his lips. He pressed his thumb into her skin and started moving it in slow circles. This was a new pleasure, something she’d never felt before. She purred, slipping deeper into the water.

“Maker… if you keep making those sounds...” His other hand joined the first, mirroring his attentions.

“Cullen?”

“Yes?” He continued the movements down her shoulders, pressing into the muscles.

“This isn’t relaxing me.”

“Oh.” He stopped. “Sorry I -”

She turned her head, catching his lips before he could finish the apology. She wrapped a wet arm around his neck, not caring that she was dripping water down his back, and turned in the tub enough so that she could pull him closer. Her need was almost overwhelming.

And then the baby kicked.

She pulled back so quickly that her head spun. Cullen opened his mouth as if to ask why, but she snatched his hand and plunged it into the water. She had it pressed to her stomach just in time for the baby to move again.

His eyes went wide. He stared at her. “That’s…” His gaze cut to his hand and the baby shifted once more. He swallowed. And then a grin stretched at the corners of his mouth and he started laughing. “My child. That’s my child.”

She giggled too. She’d never see her stoic husband experiencing such youthful joy.

Suddenly, he stuck both arms into the water and hooked them under her, lifting her out. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her head to his chest as he spun her around, still laughing.

“My child!” he shouted to the empty room.

 


 

 

The Rutherfords extended their stay until the day that Cullen left.

They gathered in the upper courtyard, a small blond throng amongst all the others saying goodbye to their loved ones.

Mia fussed over Cullen in a way that clearly made him deeply uncomfortable. It would have amused Solana if it hadn’t felt like her heart was breaking in two. Not only was she saying goodbye to her husband and sending him into danger, but she was going to miss the Rutherfords.

In the weeks that they’d been there, she’d spent a great deal of time with them. They’d talked, traded stories and played many games of chess. Solana had even managed to best Mia a few times. It would be a long while before she saw them again. Possibly years, although Rosalie was determined they arrange a First Day visit to meet the baby while it was small and new.

Anders and Hawke joined Solana while she watched Cullen say his goodbyes. Their hands were linked and Anders kept looking at Hawke with wide, sad eyes. But Hawke’s attention was focused on Cullen and amusement danced in his eyes at seeing the Commander so smothered with affection.

Once Mia had given her brother one last, final, hug, she turned to Solana. “Are you certain you won’t come back with us?”

Solana shook her head, but it was Anders who spoke for her. “It’s probably not a good idea for her to travel right now.” He added, to Cullen, “I’ll keep an eye on her, Commander, don’t worry.”

“That’s precisely what he is worried about,” Hawke joked.

From the look on Cullen’s face, he’d probably hit closer to the truth than he realised.

Cullen’s gaze came to rest on Solana. The intensity of his look said a thousand things that he was clearly struggling to give voice to. Eventually he said only, “I’ll write.”

“No you won’t,” Mia batted his arm. “He always says that. Never does. Don’t be surprised if you don’t receive word from him.”

He closed his eyes and drew a breath. “I deserved that.”

“I’ll write on his behalf,” Hawke offered.

“Don’t.” Anders said. A smile flickered across his lips. “You have terrible penmanship. It could only end in divorce.”

“I resent that. You’re still here aren’t you?”

“Precisely why I am now here .”

Rosalie was concentrating intently on her feet.

Mia cleared her throat and Solana saw her nudge Cullen. He gave her a pained look, then sighed.

“Solana, I… I have something for you.” He pulled a small box out of his coat. “I wanted to give this to you in private, but my sister insisted that I do this here in front of everyone.”

“You didn’t invite us to the wedding,” was Mia’s response.

Solana’s chest tightened. She found herself suddenly the centre of everyone’s attention as Cullen stepped forward and offered her the box.

“Uh…” He seemed at least as uncomfortable as she was. “This was my mother’s. I - that is to say, we - would like you to have it.”

As she accepted the box, Mia said, “Cullen, honestly, that’s the best you can do?”

His ears went pink at the admonishment. “Please open it?” he asked quietly.

She did. In a bed of lamb’s wool sat a silverite and dawnstone ring. It was intricately engraved and obviously expensive.

“Mia brought it with from South Reach. It was my mother’s wedding ring. When she heard I’d married… I did tell you I would give you a proper ring. I’m only sorry that it’s taken me so long.”

Solana was breathless. “Why me?” She cursed herself. Her question made no sense. “I mean why not save it? For Rosalie.”

“I wanted you to have it,” Rosalie said. “We all did.”

“I… I don’t know what to say.”

Cullen took the ring from the box, lifted her hand and slipped it onto her finger, where the one he’d bought from Seggrit still sat.

“Welcome to the family,” Mia said, coming in for a hug.

A flood of emotion rushed through Solana, momentarily drowning out her anxiety and sorrow.

Her whole body tingled.

Family.

Chapter Text

Dearest Solana,

I am writing to you from the… from somewhere in the Dales. The maps simply say “Uncharted” which is not very helpful. It hasn’t stopped raining since we left the Emerald Graves. I miss you terribly. I’m not sure what else to say. I’ve never been very good at writing letters. Not a moment goes by when I’m not thinking of you and our child.

What do you think of Cathaire for a boy? As leader of Andraste’s army, the name embodies strength which I think is something you can approve of? Although, did you meet him? What was he like? Please don’t tell me he was rheumatic with bad breath.

For a girl, not certain. I thought perhaps something from the old tales. Varric advises against Aveline and reminds me we both know an Aveline. She’s a good woman, but now I will forever picture her. He suggested something from the constellations? Bellitanus for instance. Although now I write it out I’m not so certain I like it.

I wish I could talk to you.

Yours always,

Cullen.

A note scribbled at the bottom in a different hand: Not Bellitanus, please. The constellation originally referred to your friend Urthemiel.

L

 




Dearest Cullen.

Thank you for your letter. All is well at Skyhold, although it is quiet. I am not one to feel lonesome but I think there’s something especially lonely about an empty castle. The halls echo and it feels as if there may be more spirits about than just Cole.

And no, I didn’t say that to make you worry. We’re fine. Everything is fine.

And I’m glad to hear you’re fine. Although, you probably wrote that a week ago. I hope you’re still fine. I enclosed a new pair of boots for you. I hope they reach you. Because I know you will be splashing around in your old ones as long as possible (probably insisting that your men get access to any supplies before you do) and I don’t want you coming home without your toes.

Leliana advises against Bellitanus. How about Eluvia? Too close to Eluvian which makes me think of Morrigan. How has she been? No trouble I hope.

I’ve been looking through the Chantry history for suitable names and we might have to look elsewhere. Too much of the Chantry is based around mages, and magic, being a thing of evil. I shudder to think that our child might have to carry a name - such as Ambrosia (pretty name) - only to realise later that Divine Ambrosia wanted to order an Exalted March against her own cathedral to eliminate the mages taking refuge there. Or Amara! The Divine who enjoyed bonfires fueled by the bodies of maleficarum!

Imagine if our child is a mage and has a name with such connotations?

Does it bother you - You have considered - I’m sorry, I’m getting carried away. Of course you have considered the possibility that our child might be a mage.

I love you and I miss you.

Please write as soon as you can, even just to let me know that you’re still all right.

Love,

Solana.

 



Dearest Solana,

Yes, of course I have considered the possibility that our child might be a mage. I love him or her regardless, as I love you regardless. I have explained before that I have put my ill-considered feelings about magic behind me.

I would be lying if I were to say the possibility didn’t frighten me. Not the magic itself but the… consequences. Life without magic is certainly easier. I would not want our child to go through what you have had to go through.

Josephine puts forward the name Asha as a possibility, for a girl. She was a great Antivan queen who apparently sired most of Thedas. Can you use “sired” for a woman? I’d ask her but she’s currently meeting with the Empress.

I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.

I’m still fine, by the way. And I received the boots, thank you. (And you, Leliana. I have no doubt that you had something to do with ensuring my gift reached me… and that you are reading this).

It was a very thoughtful gift. The rain has let up but this place really is a jungle, Morrigan was not exaggerating. Yesterday we saw our first Venatori and I found myself fighting knee-deep in some kind of bog. Smelled revolting. Our soldiers have had better luck today and we should have Corypheus on the defensive soon. I will try keep you up to date, although my future letters may be briefer.

Not quite as useful as your gift I’m afraid, but I wanted to show you how lovely the foliage is here so I’ve enclosed some pressings. I’m told the sweet-smelling vine is “arbor blessing” (I’m not sure of the flowers though. I suspect Morrigan would know, but I am hesitant to ask her. In answer to your question, she’s been... aloof. Which I suppose is preferable to antagonistic.)

None of it compares to you in either beauty or scent  any way.

You are never far from my mind.

Your loving husband,

Cullen.

 




“Celeste?”

Solana shivered. When Skyhold was full of dignitaries and adventurers (not to mention Rutherfords), it was easy to forget how, well, creepy it was.

It was, after all, an abandoned castle in the middle of nowhere with untold history, built upon the bones of old elves and who knew who else. A great place to be stuck with a bunch of grim-faced Grey Wardens.

She was still trying to get used to her awareness of them. They were like oil-smudges at the edges of her senses. She’d never been around so many Wardens and it was disconcerting how much they felt like darkspawn. While Cullen and the mages had been there, it had been easy to distract herself. Now the sensation was suffocating.

Her only solace was Celeste. Even though she’d been given increased responsibility in the kitchens, she always found time for Solana. They’d been scheduled to have lunch together today, in fact.

When she hadn’t arrived, Solana had gone looking for her in the kitchens. But apparently she’d had the morning off. So now Solana found herself hunting through the depths of Skyhold.

It wasn’t like she had anything better to do.

Celeste shared a room with some of the servants and pointed Solana down to this section of the castle, where Celeste would often come to write to her son. It was dim and dusty, not unlike the area where Cullen had hidden the phylacteries, but close enough to the kitchens that it made sense for Celeste to set up a spot here.

It was also quiet enough that Solana could hear her own heartbeat. She didn’t like it. Coupled with her sense of the Wardens, it reminded her too much of the Deep Roads.

“Celeste? Are you down here?”

Cobwebs and locked doors decorated the corridor. Solana rapped gently on a couple, but only the echoing of her own knocks answered. This is pointless. She was turning to head back upstairs, when a glimmer of light further ahead caught her eye. One of the doors was standing ajar. Candlelight burned within.

 

“Celeste?”

She nudged the door open and it creaked in protest. The musty smell of old books greeted her. The room was small and surrounded in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. In the centre stood a desk with several large tomes spread open on it. An array of wall sconces cast a flickering light. The fact that they were lit meant someone must have been here recently.

Was this where Celeste came to write to her son? It must have been an old enchanter’s library, perhaps even dating back to Skyhold’s previous occupation. How strange that the books hadn’t been moved up to the main library. Fascination drove Solana further in. She ran her fingers over dusty spines, squinted to read depressed titles in unfamiliar languages.

The light was hardly enough to read by. It cast tall shadows across the shelves, throwing the books into pockets of darkness. She was well into the room by the time she realised that there weren’t only books on the shelves. There were also collections of misshapen bottles and vials. So, an alchemist’s study perhaps, rather than an enchanter’s library.

She reached for one of the vials, heart starting to beat a little faster. They’d found evidence of elves in other parts of the fortress, could these be ancient elven elixirs? Why had Celeste never said anything about this place? The things they could learn…

But as the tips of her fingers brushed the vial, it was immediately clear that these were no ancient potions. The glass was perfectly clean.

Solana chewed on her bottom lip. None of this made any sense. Her eyes moved across to the books splayed open on the desk.

Ice rushed through her.

These books weren’t dusty either, and the big one in the centre had diagrams on it. Diagrams she’d only seen in one place before. Ferelden Tower, when the Circle fell.

No… it couldn’t be what she thought. She was mistaken.

The words on the page were written in a swooping cursive in sepia ink and as Solana scanned them her heart thudded painfully.

“The spell that Crescens used seems to have called for a significant amount of power. There is no mention of who the sacrifice was. Slave? Or did he use Seraphinian’s blood to power the spell while replacing her blood with his own? Possible to replicate but risky.”

Then the spell diagrams and scrawled power calculations. Calculations determining how much blood was needed.

Solana was shaking as her hand closed around the vial she’d been reaching for. Celeste was a maleficar. She’d been honest about that from the start. And since then, she’d been doing everything she could to get close to Solana. Starting with the traumatic backstory. Did she even have a son?

The liquid in the small bottle was viscous, slicking the sides in red as Solana tilted it one way and then the other. She swallowed down bile. There was no denying what was in here. Still, she read the label.

A small sound escaped her lips. Written in that same swooping script was the word “Solana.”

She stared at it, willing the word to change as her breath came in desperate gasps. She fumbled for another vial. It, too, bore her name.

Her name and a date.

She checked another.

Her name.

Her name, her name, her name.

Wave after wave of horror washed over. A sound in the corridor jerked her attention from the vials. She spun, heat flooding her veins, ordering her to run, back to her room, back to safety, back to where things made sense.

Whump. Magic smashed into her chest, flinging her back against the shelves. The air was driven from her lungs as vials crashed to the ground and shattered at her feet.

She couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. The magic was pinning her in place.

A shadowy figure in the doorway swore. She recognised him by the silhouette of his feathered pauldrons.

Anders.

Cullen had been right. Why hadn’t she listened ?

She struggled to draw enough air into her lungs. Oh Maker, the baby.

Anders swore again, then yelled down the corridor. “Celeste! You left the door unlocked.”

Another figure pushed past Anders. “Maker’s breath, what have you done?” The familiar voice confirmed Solana’s fears.

“I didn’t know it was her! I panicked.”

Celeste rushed towards where she was pinned. “Let her go!”

“I can’t let her go. She’s the Hero of Ferelden. We’ll both be dead in an instant.”

“Can she hear me?”

“Yes, she’s conscious. Just… still.”

Celeste came to a halt in front of Solana. Her face was pale and her eyes were huge. “I can explain. I can explain everything.”

But Anders wasn’t quite as strong as he thought he was. Solana didn’t care about explanations. All she cared about was getting out of there, getting the baby to safety. Anger gave her strength. She knew how to channel anger. She’d had plenty of practice.

BOOOM! One of the shelves flew across the room towards Anders. He dived out of the way just in time, but his spell was broken. Solana launched herself past Celeste, encasing her in ice. She tripped over her own feet. Heart in her throat, roaring in her ears, driving herself forward.

Out, away, get help.

But the air was thick. Like moving through molasses.

Was this a nightmare? Was she dreaming? It was the exact sensation of being stuck in a dream and unable to run. But this was real. She knew it to be real because she knew the Fade and this was not it.

“What is the meaning of this!” A heavily accented Orlesian voice that could only be Fiona’s.

And then Solana was snagged again, just as she’d been by Anders’s spell, but this power was oh so much stronger.

Chapter Text

Fiona stood framed by the doorway. The rebel mage leader. The one who’d taken Celeste on as an apprentice. The one who’d furthered Anders’s cause.

Of course this was her plot.

She was small in stature but she made up for it with presence . Her narrow shoulders were squared and she held a lit staff that threw her features into sharp relief. Solana stared at her, unable to move even as she struggled to. Unable to even swallow down the bitter bile that had risen to her throat.

Anders righted himself. “Celeste left the door open.”

Celeste, being frozen solid, couldn’t defend herself.

Fiona sighed, moving further into the room and closing the door behind her with a brush of magic from her free hand. “And so you decided to battle a pregnant woman?”

“I didn’t realise it was her. And I didn’t battle her. I was only trying to hold her still so she would hear us out.”

Fiona moved past Solana without so much as looking at her. From the corner of her eye, Solana saw her reach out and unfreeze Celeste. The woman fell to her knees, shivering.

“We owe you an explanation,” Fiona said, and Solana had to assume this was addressed to her. “We do not mean you any harm. In fact, we are trying to help you. We have been for some time. It is a pity you had to discover our efforts like this. I imagine it looks quite frightening.”

The sound of a chair being dragged across the floor echoed in the small room and then Solana was being forced backwards and down into it.

The kind of power Fiona must have wielded to control her body like that...

Please don’t hurt my baby.

Once Solana was seated, Fiona moved forward and loomed in front of her. “Please, do not blame Celeste for this situation. It is my doing. I am the one who requested she obtain samples of your blood.”

Solana’s heart was pounding so hard that it almost drowned out Fiona’s words. Blood? When had she taken her blood? How?

“I even suggested she use a sleeping potion. One that was safe for the child. And I taught her the spell that would heal the cut in your palm before you woke. She was uncomfortable dosing you without your knowledge. I doubt she would have done so had she not managed to convince you to take the potion willingly.”

The tea. A fresh wave of cold betrayal. Tears pricked at Solana’s eyes.

Fiona moved to Anders’s side and placed a friendly hand on his arm. “Nor should you blame Anders. Celeste wished to enlist his help. She knew him to be a powerful healer, and a Grey Warden himself. She wrote to him over the course of several months asking that he join us. It was only when we received news of your expected child, when the stakes became so much higher, that he agreed to come.”

Do you want the official version or the truth? He’d asked. But he hadn’t given her the truth. He had only implied it had been for Hawke, never actually said it.

But why had he come? What were the three of them doing? What stakes ?

Fiona sighed. “You see. I have some bad news. News, we were all hoping to keep from you until we found a solution.”

Fiona seemed unable to look at her. Her pale green eyes focused off to the side of Solana’s head. “Many years ago, when I was still a Grey Warden, I journeyed into the Deep Roads on a fool's errand. We were lured there, I later discovered, by a darkspawn emissary who wished to broker peace… or something like it. He aimed to do so by infecting every being with the taint. Of course, many would have died. But those who lived would have been resistant to the Blight as the Wardens are. And their children would have been too, because their children would…”  She swallowed. “I’m truly sorry. The children would inherit the taint from the mother.”

The taint. Her baby would... It was her greatest fear, the fear that had revealed the pregnancy in the first place. She couldn’t breathe. Her heart felt like a cold stone slipping down through her chest into the Void itself.

She was 30 years old. If her baby had the taint… her child, Cullen’s child , would be dead at this age.

“I wanted to cure you,” Celeste’s voice said from somewhere behind Solana. “I thought Fiona could help.”

Fiona glanced at Celeste and nodded. “And well you might believe that. After all, Magister Alexius did. He wished for me to cure his son. He indentured me, specifically, because he knew my history. He had me researching possible cures from the day we formed our alliance. Research which I have continued here.”

Was that where all these books had come from?

The baby kicked. The fear rushing through Solana’s blood had obviously reached it too. Just like the taint. Her vision was clouding. She didn’t want to cry. She wanted to remain strong. But now the anger was draining away, all that was left was fear and sorrow.

Celeste came around her chair. She’d gathered up some of the vials and she showed them to Solana. “I only took your blood to test solutions. We’ve tried all kinds of things. I was going to tell you. When we found a cure. Even if Cullen would have had me locked up again, made… made Tranquil. I would have told you everything.”

Cullen… how would she tell him their child carried the Blight?

“I’m going to lift the spell now,” Fiona said. “I’ve said my piece. No doubt you have questions.”

The pressure on Solana’s muscles eased, her lungs heaved. A dizzy nausea that she hadn’t felt since the first stages of her pregnancy threatened to overwhelm her. Her body felt impossibly heavy in the chair.

“In the book,” her voice sounded soft and broken. “I saw in the book. Blood magic. You’re… you’re using blood magic, to try cure the Blight?”

Fiona frowned and drew a deep breath. She patted the book. “This is where I’ve been compiling our research. Many of the leads that Alexius had were from old Tevinter.”

“Which means blood magic,” Solana concluded.

It was Anders who answered. “Not necessarily. I abhor blood magic. Ask Hawke and he’ll tell you that. We had this friend who… it doesn’t matter. But Maker, how is what the Wardens do to us any better? You saw what happened at Adamant. They claim becoming a Warden is brave. But it’s not, is it? It’s running headlong into a trap.”

Solana swallowed. “Is that Anders speaking, or Justice?”

“It’s both of us. We are one and the same.” He closed his eyes. “I won’t lie and say my efforts here are entirely selfless. If we find a cure it might mean that I… welI, I want more time. But there’s a justice in finding the cure too. Being a Warden is an unfair lot. There should be a way out .”

Solana recalled Cullen’s face when she’d told him about her limited lifespan. Ser Jory’s desperate pleas when he learned the true nature of the Joining.

“That doesn’t excuse blood magic.” Or did it? She’d given up so much to her own abhorrence for a craft she knew very little about. She’d given up Alistair. Must she give up her child too? She pressed her eyes closed and started reciting the Chant. “Magic exists to serve man, and never to rule over him. Foul and corrupt are they who have taken His gift and turned it against His childre-”

“It’s not the same thing,” Anders said. “We’re not slicing our palms or bloodletting here. No one is turning magic against anyone.” He offered her a disarming smile.

“Except Livius.” She watched him for reaction and was not disappointed when the colour drained from his face. “You killed him, didn’t you? Cullen was right.” She didn’t believe for an instant that it could have been a coincidence.

Celeste shifted. “No, that was me.”

“That’s not true, I concocted the poison,” Fiona admonished her.

“And it was my idea,” Anders offered. “I’d say we share the blame equally?”

“Why?” Solana addressed Anders, managing to keep her voice steady even though it took everything in her.

“Because he knew an awful lot about Warden blood. Corypheus must have shared at least some of his knowledge. And gaining an audience with the Elder One himself would have proved a little more of a challenge.”

“Why kill him?”

“Because that’s all the man really wanted. He was useless to the Inquisition. Your friend the Inquisitor only kept him alive because he appeared to take too much pleasure in the idea of his own death. It was the only way we could get him to talk.”

“Tell me he told you something useful?”

None of them spoke.

“You didn’t even learn anything from him, did you?”

Fiona answered, diplomatically.“The information that Celeste gathered was interesting, but not entirely revealing. I would be happy to share it with you.”

“Give me a summary.” It was easier to slip into her role as the Hero, than to face her the emotions tearing through her.

Celeste stepped forward. “One of the things he kept repeating was that all corruption is the same. The taint and the Blight obviously. I mean, we all knew that. But he implied that the world itself is corrupted. The only way we can make sense of it is that he was referring to red lyrium. He confirmed it. Red lyrium carries the taint and that means… well, it’s not too different from the potion you drink to become Wardens is it?”

Solana looked between Fiona and Anders. They weren't supposed to disclose that kind of information. Anders at least had the decency to look sheepish.

“So Red Tempars are essentially twisted Wardens. That’s what you’re saying?” Solana asked.

“It makes sense," Anders said. "They have the extra strength, we’ve seen that. And if Corypheus intended to unleash a Blight, then he’d need an army that was immune. An army he could control. The first time I met him... Solana, the power he had over my blood. It was unlike anything... it was worse than when Justice... he made me attack Hawke. So yes, I have no trouble believing that the corruption in the lyrium allows him to control his Red Templars as he controlled me. "

“But that doesn’t help my situation at all.” Solana stared down at her stomach.

“No, not directly,” Fiona agreed. “But it does provide us with… something useful.”

“Fiona…” There was a note of warning in Celeste’s voice. Whatever the Grand Enchanter was getting at, was something she didn’t want Solana to hear.

Which meant she needed to hear it. “Tell me.”

Fiona shook her head. “You will likely not approve.”

“Without her approval we don’t have the means to act,” Anders said. “She needs to sanction it.”

The chair clattered backwards as Solana shot to her feet. “Stop dancing around and tell me!” 

Celeste jumped, but Fiona’s gaze remained steady.

“Very well. We wish to capture some Red Templars and attempt to cure them.”

Solana stared at Fiona. The mage’s gaze did not waver.

“Human test subjects?”

Anders cut in. “Think about it, Solana. What kind of lives are they living now? You heard the stories out of Emprise du Lion. We’d be attempting to cure them.”

“Attempting.” It was too much. It was all too much.

“The three of us can’t capture them alone,” Celeste said.

Solana realised what she was implying. “You want the Wardens. I’m… I’m in charge. You want me to order them to… would that even work? Aren’t the Red Templars all in the Arbor Wilds?”

“Not all of them,” Fiona said calmly. “We would only require a few.”

“To torture!”

“They’re being tortured already,” Anders insisted. “There’s only so much we can do towards a cure by staring at blood in vials.”

Solana rounded on him. “How much does Hawke know about what you’ve been up to?”

“Nothing. He knows nothing. Nor would he likely forgive me if he ever found out. He lost… a lot to blood magic experimentation in the past. Whether you tell him or not...that’s your prerogative.” He seemed to run out of steam, sighing deeply. “Point is, Celeste here started this to save you . And then it became about saving your little one. But it’s not about that anymore. It’s about doing something good. And Maker knows after everything… after all that’s happened. I owe the world some of that.”

Solana hugged herself. What would Cullen do? What would he say?

He’d be against it, surely? She could see him scowling and telling them all that he would never sink to that level. Or would he? It was so hard to tell. Would he look at the odds, like he did before every great campaign, frown and nod his assent?

“Think about what it would mean if we could cure the Blight, forever,” Fiona said. “Is that not the sworn duty of a Grey Warden?”

“I…” Solana caressed her stomach. It was hard to the touch as if swollen. Fear chased down her spine again. Then the baby moved. It would be okay. Everything would be fine. She just had to make it out of this, and then the next step would reveal itself. “I’ll help you capture the Red Templars. But you’ll try your other solutions first? No blood magic. And you won’t hurt them. No more than they’re already hurting. They were people once, honorable men and women like Cullen. I will not see us become like Samson or Corypheus.”

“Of course, we only aim to help them,” Fiona said.

 

Chapter Text

Ice lay thick on the mountain pass, the first snowfalls that gave the month its name had come not a week prior. Solana pulled her cloak tightly around herself. It barely covered her protruding belly and the baby shifted, as if it could feel the bite of the cold.

Fiona shot a glance at her. They were travelling in the back of a cart, lit only by the dim luminescence of the older mage’s staff.

“Don’t say it.”

Fiona raised her eyebrows. “What is it I should not say?”

Solana shook her head. They’d argued about her accompanying them. For several hours, if Anders was to be believed. Solana considered herself strong willed, but she had met her match in Fiona. The Grand Enchanter had insisted that Solana should stay at Skyhold where it was warm and she wouldn’t be jostled about or put in danger. But Solana didn’t trust Fiona. And she certainly didn’t trust Anders. No, if this was going to happen, she had to be there.

In the end, she’d won their argument by refusing to command any Wardens to accompany them on the mission unless she could go too. It had been a childish thing to resort to, but it had worked. Now six of her strongest marched alongside the cart and she fingered the message crystal that represented her role.

They’d been travelling for a few hours and there were still many to go, but if everything went according to plan, they’d meet the Red Templars at first light, capture them, and be back at Skyhold before the sun set.

Anders was riding up front with Celeste. He passed a canteen back and a whiff of it told Solana that it was not meant for her. Brandy. Wordlessly, she passed it to Fiona who took a large swig.

Her breath came out in puffs of steam as she tightened the lid again. “I was only going to mention that if you are uncomfortable, you might use the blankets and perhaps get some rest.”

They had brought piles of blankets to cover the Red Templars with when they returned to Skyhold. Cold as Solana may have been, she didn’t want to sleep. She didn’t want to let down her guard.

“I am no stranger to discomfort,” Solana responded. “Nor to cold.”

“Of course.”

Fiona’s gaze drifted off to the side, to the trees that lined the road. Last time they’d travelled this way, it hadn’t been a road at all. It had taken them three days of meandering up the mountain to find Skyhold. But the Inquisition needed supplies, so a proper route had been laid down and cleared. It wasn’t smooth - the cart bounced alarmingly every so often - but it was quick and mostly safe from bandits and the like.

The silence stretched and the cold seeped into Solana’s bones. There had been many nights like this in recent years. Sometimes, after Alistair, she’d enjoyed the discomfort. It was a masochism that she only vaguely understood. A punishment for letting him die. Yet, it seemed that the last few months had made her soft. Too many nights cuddled in the armchair before the fire, or stretched out in her bed beside the warm body of her husband. Grudgingly, she took one of the blankets and draped it around her shoulders.

Her husband. What would he think of what they were about to do? It said a lot that she hadn’t even been able to write it down to send to him.

She’d intended to. She’d tried.

Dearest Cullen,

 

Something has happened  Things have changed There’s been a development since my last letter.

But how did she break the news about their child in a letter?

Our child has the blight. But I will fix it. I will kidnap red templars and experiment on them until I find a solution.

Our child bears the Warden taint. Fiona and some others have a plan. You needn’t worry. Everything will be fine.

Please forgive me. My worst nightmare has come to pass. I will do everything in my power to remedy this. I promise.

 

She’d given up eventually. The letter was still in her dresser, incomplete, hidden beside the phylactery she still hadn’t revealed to him.

It felt as if her eyeballs had frozen over.  Every time Solana blinked, her eyelids scraped. She knew the lack of sleep was to blame for the sensation, but that didn’t make it feel any less like scratching away frost. The hours before dawn were so cold out here that she could no longer feel her nose and had to keep blowing on her fingers to avoid losing grip in them altogether.

The landscape was turning grey. They’d veered off the road and the cart shuddered to a halt as they reached a point on a hill above where the temple had stood. Debris still littered the ground, they’d have to go the rest of the way on foot.

Anders helped Solana down from the cart. Her muscles protested and she tried not to show her discomfort.

“Are you certain about this?” he asked. Her attempt to hide how she was feeling had clearly been less than successful. His eyebrows drew together and his large eyes were narrowed in genuine concern. “You can stay with the cart. One of the Wardens can -”

“No.” Solana shook her head, clutching the crystal tight enough in her palm that it would leave indentations. “If I’m going to be a part of this, I’m going to be a part of it.”

Fiona pushed a blanket into her free hand. “At least try to stay warm.”

The enchanter, too, seemed genuinely concerned for her. Solana was still angry with all of them. It was difficult to return their kindness. But she accepted the blanket and nodded.

Then, without exchanging so much as a word, they split into their groups. Celeste, Fiona, Anders and four of the Wardens started down the hill. One Warden stayed with the cart. And Solana slipped into the trees, leaving the final Warden to follow her.

She moved quickly and quietly, dormant survival skills stirring deep within her. The Warden, a man she only vaguely recognised from Adamant, struggled to follow. She heard him tripping over chunks of rock, slamming into low branches. Each time she cringed and eventually she spun around to face him. He nearly stumbled into her.

“Do you want to bring every wild beast and Templar from here to Jader down upon us?” she hissed.

She couldn’t see his expression in the dim light but she heard him mumble an apology.

And she was flung back in time, to a clumsy Alistair and the Brecilian Forest and him crashing into her when he tripped over a log and his face bright red as he stammered.

Now, she sighed. She tucked the blanket under her arm and unslung her staff. “Look, I’ll be fine alone. I know how to stay out of danger. Go back to the cart. They’re more likely to need your help there.”

“I um… but you…” the man swallowed. Still too much like Alistair.

“If Fiona gets mad, I’ll take responsibility. Tell her I ordered you back.”

“It don’t feel right, leaving you. I’ll try be quiet.”

But it wasn’t just about the silence anymore. The memories hurt. “Do I need to remind you who I am?” she said kindly as she could manage. “This big belly doesn’t change that. Plus, I have this.” She held up the crystal. “If I need help, I’ll call for it.”

He was still skeptical, she could tell. But he nodded. “Alright, if those are your orders.”

“They are.”

He turned and started feeling his way back. She watched until he was out of sight between the trees. Then she drew a deep breath and pressed forward.

Silent, careful, absorbed in the sounds and smells and feel of the forest, it wasn’t long before the trees opened up and she found herself on the edge of a crag. The pale sunrise in the east brushed the snowy landscape and from her position she could see the ruins of the temple.

It was hard to believe that it was the same place that she’d visited before. Jagged ruins jutted out from the snow, and in the centre of what had once been the main hall was a small camp.

She held the crystal to her mouth. Runes along the surface glowed as she spoke into it. “Camp is in the central hall. One of those big creatures pacing in front, must be keeping watch. Two tents. Not sure how many inside. Looks like they might sleep two.”

She shook out the blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders again before settling in the snow to wait for the response.

“Solana,” Fiona’s voice came from the crystal. “Can you see another way in? Would be preferable to avoid the big one.”

“Agreed,” she responded. How bizarre it was to talk to someone who wasn’t there. Fiona had obtained the crystal. Solana wasn’t sure where she’d found it, but it must have been rare, old magic. It would have been wonderful to communicate with Cullen like this, but frivolous too. This was more important. “I don’t see another way in but I recall there was a tunnel that let out towards the back of the… okay I see it. It’s pretty close to the camp and there’s uh, red lyrium covering the entrance.”

“We’ll take samples,” was Fiona’s candid response. “Where’s the entrance?”

Solana explained what she could remember and then the crystal went silent for a time. She leaned against a rock and didn’t take her eyes off the Red Templar camp. When the tent flap facing her moved, she spoke into the crystal again. “These guys are rising bright and early.”

She waited for a response. Her stomach tightened with nerves when one didn’t come immediately. Then she saw why. A small shape squeezed through the gap between the red lyrium and the tunnel exit. Celeste, the slightest of their party. She pressed her back against the remains of the temple wall and crept away from the tents. Solana could see her every muscle was tensed, her eyes were wide. She was moving towards the big templar. Why? Couldn’t she see it?

Solana held the crystal to her lips, ready to shout a warning, but then Celeste seemed to blend into the wall behind her. Solana’s eyes were focussed on her when it happened, yet she struggled to track her movements. Her eyes kept wanting to slide around her. Her edges blurred and receded. She was there and not there. It was the spell she’d used to sneak berries into Cullen’s office, the one she’d tried to teach Solana. And it worked. She moved right past the big Templar horror. Solana held her breath the entire time that Celeste was in range of its club and for a while after, until the mage took up a position behind a pillar and sank into a crouch, out of its sight.

“Solana?” she jumped at Fiona’s voice from the crystal. She was speaking in a whisper. “Report.”

Solana snapped her attention from Celeste to the tents. “Two foot soldiers just left the first tent,” she whispered back. “They’re in front of the fire.”

“No activity in the second tent?”

“Difficult to see from here, doesn’t look like it.”

Fiona made a hmm sound that seemed displeased. “Alright. Here’s what will happen. You must send sparks into the air to signal Celeste. She will draw the horror away. At that moment, I will destroy this red lyrium and we will draw the attention of the foot soldiers. I need you to keep an eye on the remaining tent and tell me exactly what you see. Do not concern yourself with the rest. Understood?”

The Grand Enchanter was a natural leader, the kind that Solana had never been. “Just tell me when,” she said to the crystal.

Fiona started counting down from five. As she hit one, Solana drove her staff down as hard as she could into the ground. Magic discharged into the air, blindingly white against the dim landscape.

Celeste sprang to action. She rounded the pillar, fully-visible, and slammed her own staff down. The horror roared as it saw her sparks and thundered towards her. She took off at a sprint. The two by the fire pointed in her direction and called something ineligible. Then the lyrium growth in front of the tunnel exploded into a million shards and the four Wardens burst through. They joined with the foot soldiers, swinging vast silverite weapons and aiming for their heads.

Solana pulled her attention back to the second tent. Sure enough, the hubbub outside had drawn the attention of its occupant.

“One marksman,” she told Fiona, watching the templar scramble from his tent.

“Only one?”

Before she could answer, a scream rent the air. Solana’s heart jumped to her throat. Celeste. Celeste had been hit. Solana scrambled to her feet, uncertain what to do, blood pumping with the urge to go to her. The horror lifted its club again and Celeste rolled aside as it slammed into the earth beside her.

“Solana!” Fiona’s voice demanded from the crystal.

“Celeste needs help!”

“The tent. Watch the tent.

 

But Solana couldn’t pull her eyes away as Celeste blocked a swing with a hasty barrier. Her shoulder was red with blood.

Another cry wrenched Solana’s attention from her friend’s struggle. Fiona was running forward from the tunnel, brandishing her staff. She struck out with fire, burning the foot soldiers and the archer. The second tent, the one Solana was meant to be watching, erupted in flames.

Anders followed Fiona out and stood still, as if in shock. To Solana’s relief, his hands started glowing. Not shock, gathering mana. He threw a spell at the horror - a blizzard - as Fiona’s staff connected with the marksman’s temple. The blizzard swirled around the horror, slowing its movements and obscuring its vision, and Anders dashed forward to help Celeste.

It looked like they had the battle in hand. Solana drew a deep breath of relief.

Then she heard the movement behind her.

She expected a templar. A second occupant of the burning tent. She had her staff before her, a barrier spell already on her lips.

But what the dim light of dawn illuminated was something far more terrifying.

A great bear. It must have come to investigate, drawn by her scent and perhaps the sparks from her staff. Now, startled by the flash of light from her barrier spell, it rose onto its hind legs and roared. It was a deep, gut-rattling sound. Solana stumbled backwards, but there wasn’t space to maneuver. Blood roared in her ears and her heart slammed as she stared up at the beast, frozen in terror. Without warning, its left paw darted forward, crashing against her barrier. It pushed her off balance and in the split second it took for her to right herself, the bear had hooked her and was pulling her in. She struck up at the snout with her staff, but her blow seemed to do nothing at all. The giant head came towards her and she threw her weight to the side, staggering as she called the words to a cone of flame spell. The bear’s jaw missed her shoulder as she grabbed at any part of its flesh she could reach.

It howled again, this time in agony. Injuring it had been the exact wrong thing to do. The entirety of its weight came down on her shoulders and her knees gave in. She was screaming. Her voice ringing in her ears was secondary. Her life was secondary. What mattered was the baby. Her child. She curled in on herself, forming a protective cocoon over her belly as the bear pushed her to the ground and slapped her with its mighty paws. The smell of charred flesh filled her nostrils as her barrier gave way. Claws ripped across her back and teeth tore the cloak from her shoulders and she prayed to the Maker. She prayed like she could never remember praying before. Please, let the baby live.

Another giant paw slammed against her head and the world spun and she had no voice to scream.   She had been overconfident. She had been foolhardy and conceited. But her baby had done nothing. Cullen had done nothing.

Please, let my baby live.

Then, as if her prayers were being answered, a scream that wasn’t hers. And a spell that wasn’t hers and another and another. She smelled ice and more fire. The bear rose off her, a blizzard blew around her, tearing at her hair and stinging her eyes as she tried to see what was happening. All she saw was a blue glow. Then one last anguished roar from the bear. A crash of something heavy falling on dry sticks. A ringing silence.

Then hands. Soft hands brushing her hair from her face and unfolding her and pulling her upright and whispering panicked spells. And large eyes filled with concern and fear. And healing power running through her like bliss, stitching closed the skin on her back, removing the bruising from her shoulders.

“Anders?” she whimpered.

“Yes. I’m here. It’s alright.”

She fell forwards into his arms with a sob and he held her and gently rocked her until she heard the others arrive. Fiona was demanding to know things. Celeste was on her knees beside them. There was a Warden stammering apologies. But Solana kept her eyes closed, her forehead resting against Anders’s chest.

“She’s in shock,” she heard him say. “But she’s fine. I’ve healed her.”

“Thank the Maker,” Celeste said.

Yes, thank the Maker. “It happened so quickly,” she said, finding her voice and her throat raw. “I’m supposed to be…” supposed to be the Hero of Ferelden. She’d let the title go to her head. Or perhaps she’d believed that since she’d survived so much, nothing ordinary could harm her. Her stomach churned with guilt. She’d put herself, the baby, in so much danger and for what? If that Warden had been there this would never have happened. She’d sent him away. She’d done this.

“Do you think you can stand?” Anders asked.

She nodded, shifting to get her feet under her. “The templars, did you -”

The words died in her throat as a sharp pain cut across her lower abdomen. She gasped.

“Solana?” Anders was looking at her with those big worried eyes, but she couldn’t answer him, the pain was too intense. Her knuckles went white where her fingers curled into the front of his robes and she pressed her eyes closed as dread welled up inside her.

She wasn’t fine. It wasn’t over.

“The baby,” she said.

Chapter Text

Staring into the maw of an archdemon had nothing on the fear that coursed through Solana now. It was colder than the slopes of the Frostbacks, more horrifying than the depths of the deep roads.

“It’s too early,” she panted as Anders lifted her into the cart.

Celeste tucked a folded blanket under her head and squeezed her hand. Her own arm was red with blood but the wound had been sealed and if she was still in pain she gave no show of it. Her expression bore only concern for Solana. She’d given birth before. She knew the pain.

Solana writhed as fresh agony ripped through her, yelling out into the night.

“How far along are you now?” Fiona asked, kneeling down on her other side. “Seven months? Eight?”

“Nearly eight.”

“It might still… the taint.” Her eyes sought Anders. Both Warden and healer, he’d know better than any the chances they had.

The cart shifted with his weight as he climbed in. “It might help.”

For all the negative side effects of bearing the taint, extra strength and constitution were the pay off. Would those apply to the baby?

There was enough light now that Solana could make out a little of Fiona’s face hovering over her. Her lips were pressed thin. She didn’t seem overly confident. She snapped her attention to someone unseen, up at the front of the cart.

“Start for Skyhold. It is possible we’ll make it in time, but we must hurry.”

“But the Templars -” Solana started.

“That hardly matters now,” Fiona cut her off.

Shame washed over Solana. If she’d only stayed at home like Fiona had suggested, their mission would have been a success. Her baby wouldn’t be in peril. She bit down on her bottom lip as the cart jolted into motion.

 

The hours blurred past. The slopes grew brighter. The grey sky was illuminated first in patches between the leaves and then in all its glory, too bright to look at but through slit eyes. The pain would come in agonising waves. Each seemed sharper than the previous and Solana would dissolve into wails, all energy leaving her. After the first few, Anders, who was settled near her feet, requested blankets and Celeste passed them, her face grim. Anders had delivered babies before. Solana knew that much from Hawke’s stories. And she found herself at his mercy. Twice he had asked to check between her legs. And she had consented, hoping and not hoping for an end to come. Caught between a desire to hold off until the facilities Skyhold offered, and yearning for the pain to stop.

The great fortress loomed above them, that eternal beacon for the desperate, only an hour’s journey away, when Anders said softly, “Fiona…”

Solana looked immediately to the Grand Enchanter’s face, saw how she swallowed and nodded.

Something silent had passed between them that Solana didn’t understand. It frightened her. She expected Fiona to call a halt, but she didn’t. She leaned in closer to Solana, her face drawn and pale in the bright light.

“Show me. Where is the pain?”

Solana lifted an arm from beneath the blankets and felt along the lower part of her abdomen. The arm felt heavy and alien.

“What kind of pain is it? Constant or in waves? Is it aching or burning?”

“Burning. Waves.”

Fiona nodded as if that’s what she expected and her eyes cut to Anders.

Another wave of pain crashed down on Solana, and the scream it ripped from her throat was almost enough to drown out Anders’s voice. But not quite. “It’s a lot of blood.”

“Too much,” Fiona agreed.

Blood?

She’d felt wetness but Celeste had told her it was her water breaking. Natural, expected. No one had mentioned blood. Was that why Anders had asked for the blankets? Is that what they hid?

Solana tried to suck air back into her lungs as the pain died away again. “What does that mean? What are you saying? Is something wrong?”

Fiona took her hand and didn’t answer. This strange tenderness made the situation all the more terrifying.

 

By the time they reached Skyhold, the pain was all-consuming, with hardly a moment’s break between the contractions. Solana was vaguely aware of Anders lifting her into his arms, of concerned masses pressing around her, of Fiona holding them off with vague answers. The light kept dimming, flickering, like a swinging lamp and Solana was too weak to even lift her head.

She recognised her room only by the smell of it. Wood and mold and ashes and something else, something that made her think of Cullen. She ached for him. She moaned his name, even while knowing he was too far away to come to her aid.

Anders lay her down gently on top of her bed covers. “I’ll be back shortly,” he said softly before disappearing from her view. She heard the click of the door behind him.

“Fiona!” Solana choked, twisting against the pain. But the enchanter wasn’t there yet. She didn’t want to be alone. Alone with the suffocating fear, the overwhelming pain.

“I’m here,” a soft voice said and she knew without looking that it was Cole. “Shhh, you’re not alone.”

“The baby?” The question emerged a terrified sob.

He moved around to the end of the bed, and she forced her eyes to follow him. His expression was nothing but a vague frown beneath the shadow of his hat. “It’s blocked.”

The door slammed open and Fiona rushed in, “Celeste, get hot water, more blankets.”

The mage, who’d been following closely behind her, turned and hurried out again.

“It’s blocked,” Cole repeated.

Fiona jumped. She either hadn’t noticed him there, or he hadn’t shown himself before. She recovered quickly. “I suspected as much.” Her mouth was set in that same grim line. “Go help Celeste.”

Cole blinked, not accustomed to being given orders. Then he nodded and disappeared. Fiona placed a cool hand on Solana’s temple.

Solana stared up at her. “Please... tell me what’s... what did he mean?” It was difficult to form the words, they came out slurred.

Fiona appeared to consider her response carefully. Then, with a look of resignation, she said quietly, “Your child should have been born already. The birth canal is somehow blocked.”

“What does that mean?” Solana’s voice went shrill as poker-hot pain tore across her senses.

“It means, if we are to have any hope, we must cut the child from your womb.”

Her words took a moment to settle, and then they jerked at Solana’s heart and nausea welled up were there’d only been pain and exhaustion before.

“Please… Cullen… his child.” The way his face had lit up when he’d felt it kick. How he’d spun her around, laughing. “You have to save the baby. You have to.”

The door opened. Anders, panting, waving fists full of green, which Fiona snatched from him.

She stroked Solana’s hair back and pressed the plant matter into her mouth. “Here, chew this. It will help with the pain.”

She recognised the bitter taste of elfroot.

Then Celeste was there too, hissing as hot water sloshed against her legs. And Cole popped into being, arms laden with blankets. So many people, all at once. The room felt stuffy and too small.

“Took you long enough,” Fiona snapped to Celeste. Could she even see Cole? “We’ll need tea. Citrus and brine. Now.”

Celeste blinked at her. Even in her state, Solana knew neither of those things were easy to come by way up here, Inquisition or no.

Fiona didn’t wait for an answer from Celeste. Her attention moved to Cole. She did see him . “I’m going to need your knife.”

“You’re going to cut her open?” Celeste squeaked.

“Tea!” Fiona demanded.

Celeste shifted from foot to foot, clearly torn.

“Tea! Now!” Fiona snapped again and Celeste fled from the room.

The knife flashed in the dim light. Solana’s own ragged breath and her pounding heart were the only things she could hear. Her mind was clouding, her mouth and throat numb from the bitter herb.

“You’ve done this before?” Fiona asked.

“Yes,” Anders said.

Solana pressed her eyes closed. She didn’t want to see him cut her open. But if he didn’t, the baby would die and she likely would too. They couldn’t heal her or stop the bleeding without trapping the baby. It would continue to push at her insides, her muscles would continue to try push it out. The only way they might both live was this.

“Hold her still.” Anders’s voice seemed to come from a great distance. Solana felt Fiona pressing down on her shoulders, heard her making soothing noises, but the words themselves melted away. The room shifted one way, then the other, and then dissolved into a muddy red-brown.

 


 

Celeste moved as quickly as she could without spilling the tea. The merchant from Orlais had had both lemons and salt in stock. Perhaps the Maker smiled on them after all.

She shouldered the door open. Then almost dropped the cup.

Her eyes slid over the gore on the bed, unable to focus on it, to where Fiona and Anders stood huddled together.

“It’s not crying,” Fiona was saying, urgently. She held a bundle of cloth. It was small and still. “It’s not crying!” she repeated. “Heal it. Do something!”

Anders’s brow was furrowed deeply as he stared at the bundle. He touched it with a bloodied hand. Then jerked as if in fright.

Fiona laughed her relief. “Well, hello there, Blue Eyes.”

“She’s alive,” Anders said breathlessly. “Alive, breathing, staring at us but not... “ His gaze rose to Fiona’s. “Not crying. You don’t think...”

“Is it even possible?” Fiona’s expression clouded again.

Anders took the bundle from her without answering and moved towards the bed. “Solana, it’s a girl.”

Solana didn’t respond. She must have been asleep. Celeste let out a shaky breath as she set down the cup. She remembered little of her own labour. The years had dulled the memory of pain. She recalled heat and her face wet with tears and her sister holding her hand while the midwife shouted for her to push. And afterwards a dizzy floating emotional turmoil. She hadn’t been through the hours of agony Solana had, but she too had slept.

“She’s exhausted,” Fiona said, kneeling down beside Solana and brushing hair from her face. She wore a soft smile and in this unguarded moment the Grand Enchanter seemed almost maternal.

Then she paused, eyes widening. “Solana?”

She pressed the back of her hand against the side of Solana’s neck. “Solana!”

Oh, Maker…

Fiona hovered her hand over Solana’s mouth. And Celeste’s heart kicked even as her mind was denying Fiona’s actions, trying to find another explanation for them besides the obvious. Anders was drawing closer, his slack jaw and shining eyes mirroring the horror Celeste was feeling.

Fiona swore and started shaking Solana’s body. “No, no, no, no, no.” She shook her, leaned her ear against her mouth again. “No! I refuse to accept this!”

Celeste was paralysed with terror. She didn’t think that Fiona had even noticed her coming back into the room, but then the Grand Enchanter lifted her head. Her eyes met Celeste’s. They flashed with desperation “It’s not too late. I can get her.”

What?

“Help me!” Fiona begged. “You’re the maleficar. Help me!”

Then Celeste realised what Fiona was asking. She stumbled backwards as her knees threatened to give in. Every part of her said no, she couldn’t do it. She’d sworn she never would.

Yet there wasn’t time for doubt. There was only Fiona and a look of anguish Celeste could never have imagined seeing on her face. There was only Solana’s body, cooling on the bed.

And there was blood. More than enough blood for the spell she needed.

 

Chapter Text

"There we are. No more pain.” Alistair smoothed the bandage across Solana’s stomach and looked up at her, dimples forming with his smile. “You need to stop rushing into battle like this. Remember, I’m the one with all the fancy armour.”

Firelight played off his features. His warm amber eyes sparkled as if with silent humour, but there was genuine concern there too. He used humour like the Orlesians used their masks. It felt like she hadn’t seen him in a very long time.

She reached out to touch his face, overcome with strange emotion. Her vision was clouding and she couldn’t say why.

“Hey, don’t cry.” He brushed a tear from her cheek with a gentle, calloused, touch.

“Alistair…” Memories were coming back to her. That look as he’d unsheathed his sword, as he’d run forward to slay the archdemon. The look that had told her plainly, he was doing it for her. “I had a terrible dream.” Her words came out in a sob. Other memories were pushing at her too, but she fought them back.

He rose to his knees and wrapped her in his arms. “I’m sorry. About the dreams. It’s a Warden thing. I should have warned you.”

She buried her head against his chest and breathed in, expecting his comforting smell. There was nothing. He didn’t smell like anything. She pulled away to look at his face, but it was shadowy. She couldn’t see the details. She could focus on one feature at a time, but couldn’t make out the whole thing together.

“Alistair?” Another voice, a woman’s voice.

Solana looked up, expecting to see Wynne. But it was a different mage. She recognised her as Fiona even as everything in her riled against the fact that this woman existed. No, that had been a dream. That whole part of her life had been a dream.

Fiona was standing just beyond their circle of firelight. Alistair scrambled to his feet, reaching automatically for his sword. “Who are you?”

Fiona moved forward as if with great difficulty. “I need to take her back now.”

Alistair shook his head. “She doesn’t belong in a Circle anymore.”

“I’m not taking her to a Circle,” Fiona said. “I’m taking her back to her family.”

Family…

“She doesn’t have a family,” Alistair said fiercely. “I’m her family.”

“Alistair is ten years dead.” Fiona was still moving towards him, her eyebrows puckered and her lips turned downward in an expression of unbearable sorrow. “You know that, Solana. This man standing here isn’t real. At best he's a construct your mind has created to ease your transition to the Beyond.”

“No,” Solana shook her head. “That’s not true.” And she was instantly on her feet.

“Solana, your child needs you.”

“Child?” Alistair looked at her.

“The Commander needs you.”

Alistair’s eyes narrowed. “Commander?”

“Cullen,” Solana whispered.

“Now wait a minute, you’re having it on with that Templar?” Alistair wanted to know.

 At once she saw his face before her, his intent gaze, the small twist of his mouth. I, Commander Cullen Stanton Rutherford, pledge myself to this woman, Solana Amell, with my entire heart and soul. 

“I’m married to him,” she said. "Where am I?"

 

“You’re in the Fade,” Fiona answered softly.

Alistair was looking between the two. “I think I understand. I’m the dream.”

“I’m sorry,” Fiona's gaze met his and lingered.

“Please tell me it’s not a demon this time?” Alistair asked. “That maze still gives me nightmares. I mean you nightmares.” His eyes narrowed in confusion and Solana watched his familiar expressions as he tried to work things out. They flashed in and out of focus. Like her memories of him.

“It’s not a demon,” Fiona provided, holding out her hand to Solana. Fiona looked so much smaller here, and fragile. 

“I’m dying?” Solana asked, recalling what Fiona had said about the Beyond.

“We don’t have long.”

Solana accepted Fiona's hand. It felt solid in a way that Alistair’s embrace had not.

“Wait!” Alistair said. Fiona’s grip tightened as Solana turned to look at him one last time. He offered her a wan smile. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad you got to marry someone. And to have a family. You always wanted that, I remember. And that’s what I wanted for you when… well when I did what I did.”


It was difficult to move from the circle of light. It was like wading through water. But Fiona’s grip was tight and she pulled Solana forward.

The familiar brown earth and green sky of the Fade as Solana knew it appeared around them, but it was also somehow different from what she’d seen before. She couldn’t see the floating debris or the Black City and there were no demons. Instead images shimmered around them, in translucent scenes.

Solana recognised some of them from her life. The day training mages at the river, Cullen standing stoic as their charges tested their abilities. The night before the assault on Adamant, the tents stretching into the starry distance.

“We’re looking for some kind of door, that’s what he said,” Fiona spoke.

“What who said?” Solana asked.

At her question, the scene around them changed. A woman was chained to the ground, her back torn open as if it had been whipped for hours. A vaguely familiar man knelt beside her, releasing her shackled wrists. It took Solana a moment to recognise him as the man who’d recruited her for the Wardens, Duncan. A much younger Duncan. Behind them a man in full armour with long blond hair, who looked a little like Alistair, drove his sword through the chest of a nobleman.

“Maric,” Fiona answered.

“King Maric?” Solana asked. “You knew King Maric?”

“He saved me and others from the Fade once. He told me that the exit was a door.”

It was becoming more difficult to move. Now instead of water, it felt to Solana like she was wading through thick mud. Fiona turned, taking both of her hands.

“You need to hold on.” She started moving backwards, pulling Solana after her. Each step was more difficult. Her grip on the Grand Enchanter’s hands was slipping. “Your daughter needs you. She will not survive without you.”

Daughter. “A… it’s a girl?”

The scene around them changed again. Fiona was calming a baby with a shock of blonde hair. Was this what was happening out in the waking world? Was that her child?

Her child. Cullen’s child.

Solana forced her legs forward. She dug her nails into Fiona’s palms.

“That’s it!” Fiona said. But Fiona was becoming translucent too and the pull that Solana was struggling against was starting to feel more like gravity itself.

No. She couldn’t give in. She couldn’t die. If she died, her baby died. What would it do to Cullen?

The scene changed again. Cullen after he found out about the Calling and the taint, after he’d overdosed on lyrium. Cullen sagged against the wall. What would it do to him if he came home from war to find them both dead? Cullen wrapped in her arms. A whimper. “Don’t leave me.”

She fought her way forward, but the pressure of Fiona’s grip was fading. There was nothing to hold on to, nothing pulling her in the right direction.

Find a door.

There was no door. There was only brown and green and… a mousehole. A tiny little mousehole in front of her.

 



Celeste was trembling so hard that her legs collapsed under her.

Anders rushed to her side as Fiona jerked out of her trance. “No! Send me back!” She didn’t look at Celeste. She shook Solana’s shoulders. “I needed more time. She needs me.”

Anders wrapped an arm around Celeste and pulled her close. The other arm was still cradling the silent baby.

“Send me back!” Fiona demanded again.

“She can’t. She’s done. Look at her,” Anders snapped.

Fiona lifted her head. The expression of anguish melted from her face. Celeste felt ashamed of her own weakness.

“I… apologise,” Fiona said. “You did well. More than most might have under the circumstances.”

With a heavy sigh, she reached for the blankets. Presumably to cover the body. But as she did, Celeste noticed Solana’s ring was glowing. Not the fancy one that Cullen’s family had given her. The original wedding band.

Then the body jerked. Solana gasped. Her eyes flew open.

 


 

“Fiona!”

The world was a blur of grey and brown and that feeling of heaviness hadn’t left her. Was she mouse or person? Had she said the enchanter’s name or had she only meant to? Everything was spinning. Someone grabbed her hands.

“Here, I’m here.” Fiona’s voice. Her face blurred in and out of focus, hanging above Solana. “Oh thank the Maker, thank Seggrit.”

Fiona’s words made no sense. “Baby…” Solana managed to say.

“Anders, bring the child, and the tea,” Fiona ordered, but he must have already been on his way because Fiona was handed a cup and a small bundle was placed on Solana’s chest.

It was tiny and still and her heart kicked with fear.

“Congratulations,” Anders said, “it’s a girl.”

Solana didn’t have the strength to speak. Fiona brought the cup to her lips and it was all Solana could do to swallow the salty-sour concoction as the enchanter brushed her hair back from her forehead.

The little bundle moved. An arm broke free of the swaddling. Tiny fingers. So small, but grasping. Each minuscule digit was perfectly formed, with diminutive nails and teensy knuckle wrinkles. Fiona gave the hand a finger to clasp.

Solana was overcome. This small being was a person, was the same baby she’d carried inside her all this time. Her little seed.

“I’m going to get Celeste something to eat,” Anders said. “Will you two be alright?”

“Three,” Fiona corrected him. “Yes, I believe we will be.”

Solana heard them leave but she was still enraptured by the tiny hand. She tried to lift her own arm so that she could move the bundle, see more. But her limbs were still too heavy. Fiona seemed to guess her intentions. She moved the baby so that it was lying across Solana’s chest.

She found herself staring down into a pair of large blue eyes. They were looking up at her with frank curiosity, a small line of concern between them. Something about the look was so Cullen that Solana started laughing. She was so beautiful. The most beautiful, the most perfect thing she had ever laid her eyes on. And she felt as if her entire life had been leading to this.

But she noticed something else curious. Her daughter’s head was covered in fine hair, but there was no mop of blonde like she’d see in the Fade.

The room bled away, and then came back into focus again. She had the feeling that it was a little later. Fiona was propping her up on pillows.

“You should try to nurse.”

Perhaps Solana should have felt self-conscious as the enchanter bared her breast, but she was only curious. Her limbs were still heavy and she was willing to let Fiona position the baby and guide the infant to its first meal.

“Sometimes it takes a little while to get it right,” Fiona said.

But the tiny mouth latched and Solana couldn’t stop staring at it.

 

Every time Solana emerged from the murky darkness of dreamless sleep, she found much time had passed. Days melted together as she woke being fed or feeding. Sometimes she came to when Fiona or Celeste positioned the baby to nurse, but not always. The baby never cried, it didn’t appear to need comforting or calming. She was like a soft, warm, doll with bright doll eyes and flexing fingers.

This wasn’t normal. Even in her exhausted fog, Solana knew that. But was it an effect of the taint, or something else?

One day she came to to a familiar voice. Max was outside, asking to see her. Her muddled brain didn’t quite get to what that might mean before he was sitting down beside her explaining that Cullen wasn’t back yet, but not to worry. Max had come through the eluvian with Morrigan. They’d bested Corypheus. Cullen was fine and would be here soon. Fiona had already sent a bird.

Max had brought flowers. They were yellow and red and blue. Too bright. But they reminded Solana of the wedding. The gentle light through the Chantry windows. Cullen’s face.

“I came to offer my congratulations,” Max said, flashing his dazzling smile.

“Thank you,” Solana responded weakly. “But surely I should be offering you mine?”

He patted her hand, mouth pulling into a grim line as she sank down into darkness again.

 

Chapter Text

Cullen galloped through the gates, jerking the reins so suddenly when he saw FIona waiting for him that the horse reared and almost threw him from its back.

“Where is she? What’s happened?”

Fiona wore a dull grey - not black but not exactly reassuring either - and her face was drawn.

It was she who had written to him. Come quickly. It’s Solana and the baby.

It was all the note had said, all it could say, delivered by bird.

Cullen had ridden straight, without resting, stopping only to change horses. He knew he looked a mess. He didn’t care.

Fiona’s face was grim and she said nothing as he dismounted. He’d hoped to find Solana waiting for him. But he’d dreaded it would be Trevelyan. If it had been the Inquisitor, he would have known…

“Maker, tell me she’s alive?”

Fiona nodded. “She is. Come.”

He followed her across the courtyard, leaving the horse to be seen to by someone else. People kept stopping to stare at him, or whisper. His stomach was liquid dread. What did they know that he didn’t yet? It had to be the baby.

 

The room was dim and too warm, lit by the fire in the grate. As his eyes adjusted, they immediately flew to the bed. Solana was there, tucked up, asleep and as pale as the sheets, her hair a flaming contrast. It was obvious that she was no longer pregnant. He moved towards her, but Fiona caught his arm.

Celeste rose from a chair by the fire. She was holding a small bundle of cloth and she brought it towards him.

Cullen’s heart slammed. The baby. Alive. But then what was wrong?

Before he could gather his wits to ask, he was being handed the bundle.

“Commander, I’d like you to meet your daughter,” Fiona said softly.

“Daughter…my...” his voice cracked. The child was asleep. A tiny face, with rosy cheeks and a pink mouth like her mother’s. A wave of emotion hit him unlike anything he’d ever felt before. His daughter . His.

But no one in this room was happy. Surely if everything was as it should be, they would be? “She’s very small. She’s not... too small is she?”

“She was born early,” Fiona said. “But she carries something in her blood that makes her particularly resilient.”

He raised his eyes to hers. Her look was filled with meaning.

“No…” It was what they had feared. The taint. “You can’t possibly know that. Not already.”

“I do.”

Thirty years. She would have a chance to come of age, to perhaps have children of her own. Thirty years was better than the horrors he’d imagined on his desperate ride. He closed his eyes and tried to steady the rapid beating of his heart. Thirty years was a long time, long enough perhaps to find a cure.

“I wish that was the sum of the news I have for you, unfortunately there is more,” Fiona said.

He dared not breathe. Terror like he hadn’t known since Kinloch, perhaps ever, flashed through him. “Solana?”

Fiona shook her head. “It’s your daughter… from what we can tell, she is Tranquil.”

He stared at her. The word made no sense. “You’re mistaken.”

“Possibly, but it is unlikely.”

“It’s not… how? No one is born Tranquil. You have to undergo the Rite.”

Fiona pulled him aside, further away from the bed where his wife slept. “Circle Mages are forbidden from having children. The effects of consuming potions, like lyrium for instance, have not been properly studied. Tell me, Commander, did she consume a large amount of lyrium while with child?”

His veins flooded with ice. The brush of her fingers as he handed her the bottle. “This should make you feel stronger.” He’d given her lyrium that night in Halamshiral. Who knew how much more she’d taken since.

He swallowed. “It is possible.”

Fiona sighed. “A woman would usually recognise pregnancy well before the stage at which Solana did and take precautions. Her Calling misled her. There is still so much we don’t understand about lyrium. Add to that that she went physically into the Fade… there could be a variety of reasons for this.”

Cullen stared down at the fragile young life in his arms. He knew the reason. It was his punishment. How many mages had he seen go through the Rite in Kirkwall without stepping in? The Maker could not make him Tranquil as punishment, so he had seen fit to punish his child instead. Fatigue and emotion overwhelmed him. His vision blurred.

“Solana… is she…?”

“It was a difficult delivery. We very nearly lost her.”

The words stabbed through him like a blade. “But she will recover?”

“She is still very weak. The best we can do is let her rest, give her what sustenance we can. She is a fighter, Commander. Remember that.”

“The Hero of Ferelden,” he whispered.


 

Solana drifted to consciousness, aware that someone was holding her hand.

It was a curious enough sensation that she forced her eyes open. They took a moment to focus and even when they did, she didn’t immediately recognise him.  His face was dirty, his beard had grown out and he wasn’t wearing his surcoat.

“Cullen?”

He came alive at the sound of her voice, leaning forward, smiling that jagged smile. “Solana.”

His smell washed over her. He must not have washed in days, but there was nothing off-putting about his scent. It was all Cullen. It made him real. He really was home. It had been so long. She tried to squeeze his hand. “You’re back,” she managed weakly.

“And I’m never leaving you again. I promise.” He touched her cheek and his eyes shone. It was so good to see his face. She could get lost in the familiar lines and curves of it. His heavy brow, his strong cheekbones, the jagged scar, the gentle smile.

“The baby. Have you seen?”

“Yes. She’s beautiful.”

“We still haven’t decided…” She was going to end the sentence on a name , but a dark truth bobbed up out of the fog in her mind, rising to the forefront of her thoughts and cutting off her words. Her unsent letter still sat in her dresser. He didn’t know. “Cullen… the…” She squeezed his hand as she tried to find the strength to tell him, to dash that fond and hopeful expression from his face. “She’s… the t-taint.”

“Shh… shh…” He leaned down and kissed her forehead, his thumb brushed across her cheek. “It’s alright, Fiona told me everything. About that and the Tranquility. But it will be alright, we’ll -”

“Oh, Maker.” Celeste’s voice came from over by the fireplace, but Solana was only vaguely aware of it, the thrumming of her pulse in her ears drowned it out.

Tranquility.

Cullen made a small strangled sound as he spun to look at Celeste. “You didn’t tell her ?”

“No... we - she - we were waiting for her to recover.”

“And you didn’t think to mention to me that she didn’t know ?”

Cullen’s temper was something to behold. Solana had only had it directed at her twice. In Kinloch and the day Anders arrived. Even when he’d discovered she’d been hiding the fact that Celeste was a maleficar, he had left before she had seen it. Now Celeste stumbled backwards at the force of it. But when he looked back down at Solana his eyes were wide with emotion and he dropped onto his knees beside her, taking both of her hands in his. “Forgive me, please forgive me. You shouldn’t have heard like that.”

Through this whole exchange, the baby was silent, cradled in Celeste’s arms.

Solana had known something was wrong. Babies weren’t meant to be that still and silent. Yet she hadn’t imagined that . A mage’s worst nightmare, visited upon that innocent life. She couldn’t breathe. Her chest was so tight it hurt. It felt like metal, twisted and jammed into the cavity where her heart should be, expanding with pressure, threatening to break through.

Lyrium. It had to be the lyrium she’d taken at Adamant and in the Fade.

Deep breaths. She couldn’t get in enough air.

It was her fault.

She’d poisoned her sweet child, ruining her life before she so much as took her first breath. She would never know love, never know happiness, never dream . Her life would be grey and numb. She was broken. Not only cursed with the Blight and a stunted life but broken.

Sorrow rose up like the swells of an ocean, and Solana sank down into it and felt herself drown.

Cullen wrapped her in his arms as she took huge gulps of air and hot tears wet her cheeks. Nothing he could do or say could comfort her. None of it even reached her. Her mind was that tempest she’d cast in the Fade, the one she’d fed with lyrium. Lyrium she’d taken after she knew what she carried in her womb.


 


Voices drifted across Solana’s consciousness. She’d eventually cried herself asleep, while Cullen held her and rocked her. Now she was lying flat, tucked up in bed. But he was still there, holding her hand.

She recognised the voices. Celeste and Fiona were telling him about the birth, but it was no version that she knew. In their version, they’d escorted her on a picnic to take her mind off what was happening in the Arbor Wilds. In their version there was no Red Templar plot, no bear, no unforgivable hubris. She’d gone into labour in a field of persistent autumn flowers.

“I should have been here,” Cullen muttered, shouldering guilt that was purely hers.

“Stop this, Commander,” Fiona said, on her other side.

“I should never have left her when she was so far along.”

“There was nothing you could have done.”

“You did help,” Celeste said. There was a pause. “Your ring. The wedding ring. Health enchantment, wasn’t it?”

“I’m not entirely sure.”

“It saved her. It was the thing that made the difference between life and death.”

Their voices dimmed again, exhaustion was pulling Solana back into sleep. But she knew that this, too was a lie. Fiona was what had made the difference between life and death. Fiona coming into the Fade to get her.

Why wouldn’t they tell Cullen?

 


 

Banging on the door jerked Solana from sleep. Morning light was bright against her eyelids and Cullen’s hand was still in hers.

The door opened with a reluctant creek and an unfamiliar voice announced, “The Inquisitor requires your presence in the war room.”

“No.” The voice was Cullen’s, tired and taut. But the word did not sound like him.

Solana opened her eyes and squinted up at his face. He still hadn’t shaved. His jaw was set.

“I’m sorry, Ser?”

“Tell him I said no. I’m not leaving her.”

The messenger hovered by the doorway.

“I am not leaving her! He can have my commission for this if he wishes. I will not leave her side.”

The messenger cleared his throat. “Very well, Ser.”

The door closed, darkening the room.

Solana wanted to tell him he could go if he needed to, she didn’t want to keep him from his duties, but before she could find her voice, he noticed her eyes were open and met her gaze with such fondness that it stole her breath. “Go back to sleep, Love.” His tone was now kind and gentle. He bent and kissed her forehead and she drifted back to sleep, fingers entwined with his.



Urgent pounding on the door woke Solana again. It was a little later, going by the light.

Cullen rose to his feet as someone - Celeste? - opened the door. “I said, I’m not leaving her.”

He must have been a frightening sight to anyone else. Her grisly soldier, guarding her.

“Cullen…” Max’s voice. “It’s Corypheus.”

Solana came instantly wide awake, Cullen wiped a hand across his brow. “Of course it is. What now?”

“He’s here.”

She turned her head to look at the Inquisitor and at first all she could see was green. His hand was glowing bright as a torch. But after the shock of its brightness, she was able to make out Max’s expression in the ethereal glow. His face was grim, his eyes were locked with her husband’s. “He’s returned to the Valley of Sacred Ashes. He’s opened the sky once more. I must go face him before it’s too late.”

“Alone?” Cullen sounded more like himself. “Our forces, they’re still returning.”

Max nodded. “I know. It’s better this way.”

“The Wardens,” Solana said. “I can order them…”

But Max shook his head. “No, he could use them. Besides they should stay, protect Skyhold.”

“The archdemon,” she insisted.

“It’s no archdemon, it’s a mimic. Morrigan believes she can defeat it.”

Morrigan believed she could defeat anything, but Solana was still too weak to protest, too weak to help.

Max’s attention moved to Cullen again. “I know you do not wish to leave Solana, but I must ask you… Skyhold is vulnerable. The people here must be protected.”

“I understand.”



Solana dreamed of the Battle of Denerim once again. The city burning, her armies scattered. Up on the tower, Urthemiel beat its mighty wings while darkspawn spilled through the streets.

She woke with a scream as Alistair plunged his sword into the archdemon’s throat. Panting, drenched in cold sweat. Her child was staring up at her, nestled against her breast. The two of them were alone in a dim room. The fire had burned low and night had fallen.

Beyond the rapid patter of her heart, Solana could hear something else, a sound that seemed like it belonged in the dream. Screaming.

Her lethargic mind strung disparate thoughts together. Alone. Night. Screaming. Corypheus. Cullen somewhere out there. She smelled smoke but was it from the dying fire, or was it coming from outside?

She slipped her nightdress up over her bared breast and gathered her daughter into her arms. Heart pounding, stomach churning, Solana struggled to sit. If the castle had fallen, she needed to get away. Protect her. Weakness was not an option.

Her bare feet hit the cold floor, sending a shock of ice up her spine. She fought the spots that clouded her vision as she rose, the heaviness in her limbs. Holding the child in one arm, gripping the stone wall for support, she stumbled for the door. The drumbeat of panic rushing through her blood gave her strength she otherwise wouldn’t have had.

She managed to grip the handle, force it down. She almost fell out of the door. Cold air slapped against her skin.

People clustered together along the battlements. Down in the courtyard, a procession of some sort. Solana blinked, struggling to make sense of it.

And there was Cullen, in his surcoat again, standing with the other members of the council as Max ascended the stairs to the main hall.

The baby started crying.

Everything else seemed to fall away. Solana stared at her infant daughter, suddenly as alien as the scene surrounding them. The baby’s face was wrinkled, her mouth was a large square of anguish, her tiny pink tongue curled and uncurled as she yelled her displeasure.

At the sound of her cries, people turned. Celeste pushed through the crowds. “Maker, Solana. You shouldn’t be up.” She took the baby, slipped an arm around Solana’s waist to help her.

As they retreated once again into the warm room, the baby quieted. The cold must have been enough of a physical discomfort to draw a reaction.

Celeste eased Solana back into bed as her tired mind made sense of what she’d seen. The gathering outside, Max back safe. It could only mean one thing.

“We won?” Solana asked. “Corypheus is gone?”

“Yes,” Celeste confirmed. “He’s gone.”

Chapter Text

“Daughter…my...” his voice cracked. The child was asleep. A tiny face, with rosy cheeks and a pink mouth like her mother’s. A wave of emotion hit him unlike anything he’d ever felt before. His daughter . His.


 

Cullen fussed. He fussed around the cot, he fussed around the bed, he fussed until Fiona threw him out to go get a wash and a shave and leave them in peace.

He returned a little later, sheepish and looking more like himself.

Everyone else was celebrating the Inquisition’s victory, but Cullen cared only about his new family. “Is she getting enough food?” he’d ask again and again. And he’d mean either his wife or his daughter. “Should she be sleeping this much?” To which the answer was yes, for both.

Celeste watched from the armchair by the fire. She could see that the fussing annoyed Fiona. The Grand Enchanter started spending more and more time out of the room. But Celeste found it sweet. It was clear the Commander cared a great deal. Watching him almost thawed the cold that had encased her insides since she’d cast that spell.

Old magic, older than the Chantry. She’d remembered it not with her mind but with something else, some deep visceral part of her. She hadn’t learned it from a demon, she’d been taught it by another mage in the Circle, but it still felt slick and chthonic. It still tasted like death.

 

“You did blood magic,” Solana said one day when the two of them were alone together.

Celeste was hoping that she could hide the fact, or at least would never have to admit to it. Let Solana think Fiona had saved her with lyrium. But she should have realised that even half-conscious, Solana wasn’t easy to fool.

She was finally strong enough to sit and she held the baby in her arms while it nursed. Her red hair was in a tight braid down her one shoulder to keep it out of the way. It made her look severe. Like a Chantry sister.

When Celeste didn’t speak - couldn’t speak - Solana looked at her with wide, sad eyes. “I’ve been trying to figure out how Fiona managed to find me, pull me back. But you didn’t tell Cullen about that. You told him it was the ring. If it was lyrium, you would have told him the truth.”

Celeste’s heart rattled in her chest, her mouth was dry. “It was the ring, partly. I saw it glow. It gave you the strength to follow after my strength… my strength ran out.”

It was as good as an admission.

“You shouldn’t have done it. You should have let me die.”

Celeste’s skin prickled with the bitterness in those words. She’d made a promise to Solana, a promise that she would never ever tap into those powers again. It was understandable that she was upset. But to say she’d rather die…  “If I’d let you die, your child would have died too.”

Your child. She didn’t have a name yet.

Solana frowned at her. “Would that have been so terrible?”

“What?” Celeste was too startled by the words to hide her horror. “Maker, Solana.”

Solana’s gaze cut to hers again. Hard, and sad. “What kind of life will she live, tell me? A stunted, cursed life. It’s not really much life at all, is it? You should have let us both die. Rather than… than…” And her eyes were at once brimming with tears.

Celeste rose and went back to the fire, where a teapot was warming. She lifted it, not quite hot yet, and busied herself preparing tea for them. “You don’t know what you’re saying. Imagine what that would have done to the commander, arriving home to find you both gone.”

Solana didn’t respond. The silence was unbearable.

Celeste’s hands trembled. She found herself unable to clasp the cups, so she set them down and stood staring at the steam twisting up from the kettle. “I realise you may never forgive what I’ve done. But I do not regret it. I would do it again.”

When Solana remained uncommunicative, Celeste turned and found her quietly sobbing.

She was crying so hard that her shoulders were shaking. It was such a bizarre sight, seeing the fabled Hero of Ferelden like this, that Celeste stood frozen, completely uncertain what to do.

“I’m sorry,” Solana wailed. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t know why I said that.”

She drew the baby to her chest and wrapped both arms around her, gasping and hiccuping as tears flooded down her cheeks. It was like a mummer’s portrayal of crying, action and sound all larger than life so that even those standing at a distance could recognise what was happening.

Celeste moved tentatively back to sit beside Solana. She reached out a hand, gingerly, to touch her shoulder. When Solana didn’t pull away in disgust, she wrapped an arm around her. Solana leaned into her embrace, repeating her apology.

“Shh, it’s alright,” Celeste said, soothing her friend as she’d once soothed her son. “Shh.”

 

Later that day, when the teacups were empty, the baby was asleep and the redness had finally gone from Solana’s eyes and nose, Cullen stumbled in. His arms were laden with books, which he dumped unceremoniously at the foot of the bed, ignoring Celeste completely.

Solana arched an eyebrow while he stood panting, gathering breath to speak.

“Books,” he said, eventually.

“That much I can see.”

Solana was all cool humor. There was no sign of the wreck she’d been earlier. Was she truly feeling better, or was this a facade?

Cullen chuckled and his hands drifted down to his sword hilt. “They’re… for research. I thought we might, well, we have time. But we might as well start now.”

“Research…” she repeated slowly, frowning up at him.

Celeste’s breath caught. She knew what he meant and she watched Solana’s face, dreading the moment when she realised, expecting her to crumble.

Cullen sat down on the edge of the bed, dropping his voice. “I feel like I need to do something.”

And there it was, recognition. Her gaze traveled down to her lap. “You’re not going to find a cure to the Blight in a book, Cullen.”

“No. Probably not. But once I have a base knowledge -”

“You’ll be able to do what generations and generations of Wardens have failed to do?”

He swallowed, his brow furrowed. For a long moment, he said nothing. Then, voice even quieter. “I need to do something. Please.”

Solana’s look softened and she took his hand and squeezed it. A silent acknowledgement of their shared pain.  

He drew a deep breath, then selected two books. “Which would you prefer to tackle first? ‘In Pursuit of Knowledge: The Travels of A Chantry Scholar?’ or ‘A History of the First Blight: Part Four’?”

“Part Four? What happened to the first three?” Solana asked.

The commander smirked. “This is the volume that talks about the Wardens.” He handed it to Solana, weighing the other book in his other hand. “This one has a chapter on…” he cleared his throat. “On Tranquility.”

Solana didn’t react to the word. She opened the book on the Blight and started flipping through it. “I suppose I should learn what I can about the Wardens. I am their leader in the South after all.”

“That you are.” He was gazing at her as if he hadn’t seen her in days and her eyes flicked up to his.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Did he sense some of the emotion she was hiding? Or was it just that he’d missed her while he’d been in the Wilds and still hadn’t had his fill of her face? Celeste couldn’t tell and a small sound from the bassinet beside her drew her attention. It wasn’t a cry, not even a whimper. It was simply some sort of unconscious noise that came to the infant as instinctively as breath, a signal that she was awake.

Celeste gathered her up, an old habit from when she’d had a child who had been in need of comforting. But this one was disconcerting in her stillness. She gazed up at Celeste with eyes that struggled to focus. She stuck out her tongue and produced another sound.

“Is something the matter?” Cullen asked, rising to his feet and coming to check.

“No,” Celeste reassured him. “Sometimes they just… oh.”

“What is it?” He was instantly at her side, staring down at his daughter. For a moment the two of them had matching scowls. Then the baby’s expression relaxed.

“Tell me, Commander. Have you had the honour of changing her yet?” Celeste asked. She knew he hadn’t.

“Changing…” he trailed off as he realised what she meant and colour flooded to his cheeks. “No, I have not.”

“Would you like to?”

His eyes widened. “I… er…” He scratched the back of his neck. “I didn’t think…. Well, I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to…”

Solana started laughing and the sound of it flushed Celeste with relief. “Bring her here, I’ll do it.”

 


 

The old door creaked open. The lamps were lit and candlelight flickered across books and vials, casting long shadows. Anders, who was standing reading nearby, turned to smile at Celeste in greeting. But when his eyes landed on Solana, beside her, his expression froze.

Solana was tired and pale, but she’d insisted that Celeste bring her here.

“I want to do something,” she’d repeated Cullen’s words. “I need to be involved in what Fiona’s trying.”

So they’d waited until Cullen started his evening inspection of the barracks and then Celeste had bundled the baby into a basket and wrapped Solana up warmly and helped sneak her down the dark corridors to this room.

Fiona, sitting at the desk, rose slowly to her feet. “Solana. How are you feeling?”

Solana wrapped her arms around herself. “I need you to show me. I need you to show me what you’ve found so far.”

“Are you certain…” Fiona started, coming towards her.

Solana stumbled, her knees buckling as her strength gave out. Celeste managed to catch her and then Anders was at her other side, guiding her to the chair.

Fiona’s eyes met Celeste’s, but she said nothing as she patted Solana’s shoulder and passed her her own half-finished cup of tea.

“You may not like everything I have to tell you,” the Grand Enchanter said gently. “Perhaps it is best that you leave this side of things to us, gather your strength.”

“Do you use blood magic?” Solana asked, plainly, and Celeste dared not breathe as she watched Fiona consider the response.

When none came readily, Solana set down the teacup. “I thought as much when I saw the books.”

“It’s not like you think,” Anders said. “I don’t hold with blood magic like what they did when they brought down the Circle. I never would." He had the decency not to look at Celeste. "Some of the spells we have tried come from Tevinter. Others are older than the Chantry.”

Solana was very still. Then she chuckled and shook her head. “Morrigan said something similar to me once. Not evil. Just old. Still, I sacrificed Alistair’s life to avoid it.” She looked down at her nails, and Celeste noticed she’d bitten them to the quick. “I need you to show me.”

“Very well.”

Celeste’s heart skipped, but she pressed herself into the shadows with the baby, determined not to interfere. It was Solana’s right to know, even if Celeste couldn’t trust what that knowledge would do to her.

Fiona spread open the large book where she’d been keeping notes. “I have been working on this problem for some time. There are a number of different routes I have investigated. Some are quite mundane. There is a plant, for instance, that cures mabari if it is fed to them before the taint takes proper hold in their blood. Toxic to people, unfortunately, but it might be possible there is a way to distill the essence of the-”

“I know the plant,” Solana squinted at the page. “I… my mabari was cured using it. I was told it would kill a human, and would not be potent enough to cure them anyway.”

Fiona nodded. “That is correct, but if we can establish what the active properties within the plant are, then maybe we might produce an antidote of sorts. This was the major subject of my study in the Circle.”

She turned a few of the massive pages. “While I was with the Wardens, our efforts were focused more on things I might have come into contact with while in the Deep Roads that cured me. We looked into some ancient Warden rituals, dwarven artifacts. Unfortunately these proved difficult to replicate.”

“Which is why you went to the Circle?” Solana guessed.

Fiona inclined her head again. “And after the Circle, Alexius wished for me to cure his son. Corypheus had promised as much, but I believe he doubted. If I had managed to find a cure, perhaps… perhaps.” She drew a deep breath. “Well, the Inquisitor came along, and all is well that ended well in that regard.” She forced a smile. “When I was with Alexius, he gave me access to his own research. He’d brought every spell, every book, every scroll, he thought might be helpful with him from Tevinter. One old scroll, for example, told the story of two lovers. When one was infected with the taint, the other gave his life, using a blood magic ritual to replace his lover’s blood with his own.”

“All of it?”

“That’s what the story says.”

Solana’s eyes slid to the basket where her baby slept. “Would that my own blood was clean,” she said softly, and a shiver chased down Celeste’s spine.

Fiona turned another page, either oblivious of Solana’s words or choosing to ignore them. “Most of Alexius’s library was in ancient Tevene, so translation was slow. There are other rituals, cleansing charms and the like, that I have yet to try.”

“Tell her about the mirror,” Anders urged.

With a glance up at him, Fiona continued, “Anders had a friend who managed to cleanse a mirror of the taint.”

Solana’s attention moved instantly to Anders, but the mage shifted uncomfortably. “Fiona has been trying to figure it out but, uh, I don’t know how to say this.”

“It was with blood magic,” Celeste provided. “The real sort. She spoke to a demon.”

“Oh.” Solana kept staring at Anders.

“For what it’s worth, I didn’t approve.”

“And now you want to replicate what she did? Are you planning to…”

“What? Have a chat to a demon? No, thank you.”

“It’s not like possession’s a worry for you,” Solana pointed out.

Anders chuckled. “Depends. The demon might decide to challenge Justice for the real estate.”

“Can that happen?”

He shrugged. “Not something I’m interested in discovering.”

“Good.”

Fiona cleared her throat. “Demons aside, I have been working to figure out what spell the girl used.”

Celeste knew that Fiona had no intention of using lyrium when it came to testing her suppositions. It was too difficult to come by, too expensive. Blood was free, especially when provided willingly or taken from a Red Templar. But Solana didn’t ask for clarification, she turned her attention from Anders, back to the book.

“There’s another possibility," Fiona said. "I… heard a story about the descendants of reavers, how dragon’s blood might provide some form of resistance. I’m not entirely certain how it works, but with the number of dragons that the Inquisitor has slain, I managed to gain access to a few vials to experiment with. That’s what we’ve been using the majority of the samples of your blood that Celeste took for.” She gestured to the shelves nearby.

“How do you test whether it’s effective?” Solana wanted to know.

“Ah, that’s something the ancient Grey Warden magic was useful for.” Fiona took a vial off one of the shelves. “It is a spell similar to the one the Chantry uses in the creation of phylacteries. Except instead of glowing when the mage it belongs to is near, it glows when the taint is present in the blood. Would you like to see?”

Solana nodded and Fiona waved her hand across the vial. Celeste knew she was doing a complex incantation in her mind, but she seemed relaxed. The only muscles in her entire body that tensed were around her eyes as she pressed them closed.

At first it seemed that nothing was happening, but Celeste didn’t dare hope. Then, sure enough, a delicate halo of green light started to throb around glass bottle and Fiona let out a breath. “Celeste, take that down please. Dragon’s blood sample 14, unsuccessful.”

Chapter Text

The castle was roused to much fanfare as the army started arriving back from the Wilds.

Hawke was the first of Solana’s visitors. Still dirty from the road, as Cullen had been, and sporting a thick black beard, he grinned at the baby and pulled faces in a foolish attempt to make her laugh. 

Anders was with him and he smiled quietly at Hawke’s antics.

For a time Solana let herself pretend that her child was normal, that her waving arms and coos were more than just reflexes. That she was happy.

“What name did you land on?” Hawke wanted to know.

“Oh, I thought we’d agreed on Garrett,” she answered him with an easy smile.

Hawke held the baby out in front of him, with one hand supporting her head. “I don’t know. Looks more like a Garrettess to me. Garrettina? Garetta?”

Despite his humour, his eyes slid to hers and she saw his concern.

Ice welled in Solana’s belly. Her child was two weeks old, but was yet to be named. The days since the birth had been blurs of grey despair. Sometimes she thought she had left a part of her in the Fade when she’d died, that not all of her had managed to make it back through the mousehole this time. It scared her. It scared her so much that she tried to avoid thinking about it, let alone voicing her fears.

Part of this was like mourning, the familiar sense of nothingness she’d lived with for all those years in the mountains. But part of it was colder, more bitter. Part of it was the writhing serpent of guilt that twisted in her chest whenever she gazed into her daughter’s eyes. She’d been brought into the world premature, Blighted and Tranquil not because of bad luck, but because of Solana. That Cullen hadn’t shown his anger and disappointment to her was a credit to his military training. She knew he had to be feeling it, hiding it perhaps because he was concerned about her health, or because he didn’t want to face this uncertain future alone. And he didn’t even know the worst of it. He didn’t know what she’d done the night she’d gone into labour, or why. He didn’t know what their plans had been, he didn’t know that blood magic had saved her.

But he slept in his office now. The bed belonged to her and their cursed child, the room to the women who’d ensured their survival.

Hawke smiled gently. “Congratulations, Solana. She’s beautiful.”

Solana nodded and she caught Anders’s expression as he hovered in the doorway behind Hawke. His fingers fidgeted and his large eyes watched Hawke with a sorrow that resonated with her own. Not a happy reunion, then. Too much unsaid. No letters exchanged, perhaps, in the time Hawke had been gone. Or, maybe, a cool greeting upon his return when Anders had expected more.

“It’s thanks to Anders that we’re both here,” she said.

Anders started. He, too, had a mask of humour that he slipped into place the moment he knew he was being watched.  “Well, you know me, full package. Grey Warden, most wanted apostate, healer and midwife.”

Hawke chuckled. It sounded forced. “The first time I met him, he was elbow-deep in delivering a baby.”

“Second time,” Anders corrected him. “First was healing a ruptured spleen.”

“Ah, yes,” Hawke didn’t look at him. “Second time, then. There was so much blood I almost fainted. Anders had these black bags under his eyes. He’d been up all night, for multiple nights in a row, when this woman came in. Refugee, no money, so the midwife wouldn’t see her and there were complications . So Anders attempted it hopped up on nothing but strong tea and lyrium. His hands were shaking so hard, I’m surprised he managed to cut the cord. Of course I didn’t see that part. I was already in the Hanged Man having a stiff drink.”

Hawke was babbling, filling what might well have become an awkward silence. It was heartbreaking to see.

She wanted to tell Hawke how Anders had come to her rescue, taken on that bear single-handedly, how he had held her shivering form until she’d been able to breathe again. But that didn’t fit with the narrative they’d decided on.

“Did the baby live?” she asked instead.

“‘Course she did. Anders is the best healer there is,” Hawke said and Anders’s face lit up at the compliment.

 


 

 

Cullen drew another deep breath and flipped the page. No matter how many times he sighed, the tightness in his chest didn’t seem to dissipate. It was like a cold fist being driven into his sternum slowly, over a period of hours. Nothing eased it. Not warm tea, or distraction, or going to visit his beautiful daughter and staring into her fathomless eyes. When he held her, it felt like his life had purpose. Every tiny movement and reaction filled him with wonder. But with it came that helplessness, that itching feeling in his palms, the slamming heartbeat, and the fear. He sought to be strong, like Solana was strong. She’d cried her tears and now she moved forward. Where she was calm and nurturing, he was a fraught bundle of anxieties. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. She was right, the books wouldn’t help. But they kept his mind occupied.

A rap on the door made him jump. Cursing himself, he bid whomever enter.

Cassandra poked her head around the door. “Is it an inconvenient time? I could return later.”

“No.” He rose to his feet, pulling his surcoat straight and forcing a smile. “Welcome back. I assume all is well?”

She nodded. “I was surprised you weren’t present to greet your troops upon their return.”

Was she chastising him? It was always difficult to tell where the seeker was concerned. Every second thing she said sounded like chastisement.

“I’m certain they preferred being welcomed back by their families.”

She strode in, gaze travelling over the stacks of books that covered every available surface, but she did not comment on them. Instead she said, “It is unlike you.”

“I had other matters to attend to.” The words were more defensive than he’d intended.

“Such as?” she arched an eyebrow and he bristled at the implication. He was on the edge of telling her to mind her own business when she leaned over and picked up the book he’d been reading. “Genitivi? Well forgive me, I should have realised. Familiarity with the history of Thedas is much more important than the wellbeing of your men.”

“Now hold on a minute -”

She rested her hands flat on the desk. “You up and left them. Without so much as a word.”

So that’s what this was about. “I knew you’d take command.”

“That’s hardly the point.”

“I was needed here, Cassandra. Solana… Solana very nearly died. And our child, too. Do you want me to admit I acted irrationally? Very well, I admit it. I have never been so terrified in all my life. Our fighting was done. I was needed here.”

“That, perhaps I could understand,” she said. “But now your negligence continues.”

“Negligence? Corypheus is dead.”

“But your men are still here. You are still their leader. Or are you not? Did you resign while I was not aware? Become a scholar?” She tossed the book back onto the table. It flipped open on the chapter he’d been reading and rereading and rereading.

“Perhaps I should,” he said, the fight going out of him. “Perhaps you should take over from me here.”

The earnestness in his tone must have caught Cassandra off guard. She was silent a long moment and Cullen continued to stare down at the book.

“What happened, Cullen? Your wife and child live. Yet, you are not the man I recruited, the man who blazed with inner purpose.”

It occurred to him that it was possible she didn’t know. If she had only just returned, perhaps the gossip hadn’t reached her yet. He pushed the book across the table to her, finding himself unable to say the words.

“I do not understand,” Cassandra said.

“Read it.”

“What part of it?”

He waved his arm, indicating that it didn’t matter. She lifted the book again and started reading out loud. “The name is a misnomer, for they are not Tranquil at all; rather, they are like inanimate objects that speak.” Her eyes flicked up to his. “You’re researching Tranquility?”

“I gave her lyrium. The night of the ball in Halamshiral. I didn’t know - neither of us did - at the time. But, well, it had an effect. I suspect that was not the last she took it. The demands of Adamant… I know there was lyrium on the manifest.” He tore at his hair. “Either way, I played a part.”

“Cullen… what are you saying?”

What was he saying? “I’m saying that you are correct, I have been negligent. But not of my duties to the Inquisition. No, never to my duties. You would think I would have learned by now, wouldn’t you? I should have discerned... Perhaps there was something that could have been done while she was still in the womb…”  Cassandra covered her mouth. Realising he was raving, he took another deep, useless breath. “I said vows. I promised to be her shield, and in that I have already failed.”

“Are you… the child is Tranquil? I didn’t… certainly that is not possible.”

“Well, in that case, please inform my daughter.” He ran a hand through his hair, immediately regretting his sarcasm. “It’s not just that. She also carries the taint. And -”

“Carries the taint?” Cassandra interrupted. “Is she, you’re not saying she’s Blightsick?”

“No, thankfully not. As far as I understand she carries it like her mother carries it. It strengthens her, offers a level of immunity.” But it also shortens her life , he added silently even as he pushed the thought away and circled back to his previous point. “That aside, she visited the Fade in the flesh while she was still in the process of forming. Her situation is no doubt quite unique. I certainly haven’t found anything about it in Genitivi.”

“And do you have evidence that it is indeed Tranquility?”

“Evidence?” He snorted. “How does one find evidence of such a thing?”

Cassandra’s look was hard. “I’m asking how you can be certain.”

“She doesn’t cry.”

“And you believe that makes her Tranquil?”

“If you don’t believe me, perhaps you should go and meet her.” His voice rose at Cassandra’s implication. “Perhaps you should go and hold her and stare into her blank eyes. Hold her to your chest, Cassandra, and observe no reaction -”

“Cullen, stop.”

“No. If you don’t believe me -”

“It’ s not that I don’t believe you -”

“- If you don’t believe she’s Tranquil, then go look at her .”

“It’s that I needed to be certain -”

“See how plainly she feels nothing .”

“There’s a cure!” Cassandra shouted over him. That brought him up short. The air was knocked out of his lungs and he stood staring at her.

“What?”

She waved away her statement with both hands. “It’s not workable yet, it’s not a solution yet .”

He moved around the desk, his legs working of their own accord, closing the space between them. “Cassandra…”

“Please, Cullen -”

“Tell me. Tell me what you know.”

Her gaze met his, her eyebrows upturned in pity, and she swallowed. The silence rang in Cullen’s ears after his outburst. She turned from him and he thought she wouldn’t speak as she ran a hand through her hair.

“Do you recall when Max and I went to find the missing Seekers?”

“Yes.” He hardly dared to breathe too hard.

“Well, we found more than Seekers. We found secrets. Dark secrets about the past of the Order. One such secret was the cure to Tranquility. It has… it has always been known. Tranquility was developed by my Order, not as a punishment but as an an … initiation.” She swallowed again. “But the cure is not simple… at least not yet. Perhaps in a few years, after I’ve rebuilt the Order...”

He reached out and grabbed her arm. “Tell me, please…”

“Cullen, I assure you. It is better that you do not know.”

“How can you possibly say that?”

She pressed her eyes closed. “What is the very worst cure you could imagine?”

He was startled by that, but the first thought that came to mind was oddly humorous, considering. “Well, I know it’s not the taint.”

“No, not the taint. Worse than the taint.”

“It’s possession.” An unfamiliar woman in dirty Grey Warden garb was standing framed in the doorway and Cassandra’s attention immediately snapped to her.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

But she took no notice of Cassandra. Her cool, grey eyes fixed on Cullen. “Where might I find Solana?”

He was still reeling from what she’d said. “Possession?” he repeated numbly.

The woman inclined her head. He looked to Cassandra for confirmation. Her hands were opening and closing, fisting and unfisting. “I don’t know who you are, but you better have an explanation as to how you came by this knowledge.”

So it was true. Cassandra’s voice seemed to recede, like he was hearing her from beneath water. He had to reach forward to steady himself on the desk. Possession … how was that a cure? Becoming an abomination in order to feel?

It wasn’t a cure at all.

“I heard about the baby. I want to help,” the woman was saying.

You heard about the baby?” Cassandra sounded incredulous. After all, she’d only just found out herself.

“I don’t recognise you,” Cullen said. She was human with curly brown hair. By her stature, he’d peg her as a mage. He hadn’t worked with the Grey Warden mages personally, but he’d watched Solana training them often enough that he knew them by face if not by name. This woman, he couldn’t recall ever meeting.

“My name’s Cassey. I’ve… I’ve been away. Please, I need to speak with Solana. I want to help. I’m a… a friend.”

A number of disparate thoughts aligned themselves in Cullen’s mind. Away, friend, Warden, Cassey. And Cullen knew who the woman must be. His eyes dropped automatically to her hands, where she was twisting a ring. Solana had told him the story.

“Of course,” he gestured to the door.

“Commander!” Cassandra snatched his elbow. “Who is this woman? I’d like to know how she knows what she knows. Are you certain you can trust her?”

“If you are uncertain, you should accompany us,” Cullen said, gently detaching her. “You can meet my daughter.”

 


 

 

“I was starting to worry Hawke would never leave,” Anders said, “Your child had him completely enraptured.”

Solana smiled, but the expression must have come out as more of a grimace because he immediately added, “Are you alright? ”

They were moving quietly towards the kitchens. The smell of baking bread permeated the frigid air, giving it the impression of warmth.

“It’s nice to be out of that room,” she said, avoiding answering. In truth she still felt a little unsteady, but she knew that Fiona needed more blood in order to continue her experiments, and Anders had finally declared her strong enough to provide it. She didn’t want him to change his mind.

“The walls starting to close in on you?” he asked. “Ah, I know that feeling all too well.” They reached a flight of stairs and he took her arm to help her. “After one of my escapades trying to escape the Circle, they locked me in solitary for a year.”

Solana almost tripped over her feet. “A year?” She examined his face, but he seemed more amused than anything.

“I’m surprised you haven’t heard the stories, many claim that’s when I went insane, lost my mind.” He rolled his eyes.

Cullen was probably one of those people. “And did you?” Solana asked, frankly. “Lose your mind?”

A soft smile graced Anders’s lips. “No. I lost patience .”

 


 

Even in the warm light from the sconces, the research room seemed cold and malevolent. Fiona sat at the table, pouring over one of her Tevinter blood magic volumes by candlelight. She rose when they entered and bid Solana take a seat.

It was more of a relief than she wanted to admit to be able to sit down. Fiona knelt beside her and took her hand.

“I’m going to go check on… things.” Anders said.

“Things?” Solana asked.

Fiona flashed a sly smile. “It will be revealed in time. When we’re done here perhaps, if you have the energy for it.”

“Will you be alright?” Anders asked, the question directed at Solana. But it was Fiona who answered.

“If she faints, I will call you.”

When Solana didn’t stop him, Anders left, shutting the door behind him. Solana heard a lock turn and her heart leapt. She fought down rising panic. She’d come here of her own volition. They were on the same side. She had nothing to fear from Fiona, despite what she was about to do.

The enchanter wet Solana’s hand with alcohol, sending a shock of cold up Solana’s arm.

“There’s no need to be nervous,” Fiona said, but the flash of a lancet belied the words. “It’s no different from when they took your blood for your phylactery.”

Solana had to look away and swallow down bile as Fiona made her incision. “I don’t remember them making my phylactery.”

“Oh?”

Solana risked a glance at the vial as Fiona pressed it to her palm. Scarlet blood dripped down the glass neck, slowly pooling black at the base of the container.

Fiona’s pale green eyes flickered up, then back down at her task. “You must have been very young when they took you. I was already in my early adolescence. I was terrified. I expected them to kill me.”

Kill you, why?”

“Because I had murdered a man.” Fiona smiled benignly. “Oh don’t worry. He was a vile man, and he deserved it.”

When Solana continued to stare at her, uncertain what to say, Fiona added, “He was my master . A sadist.”

Master? She was a slave? “But… slavery’s illegal.” She felt stupid the instant she said it.

“Yes, but if you are wealthy enough, you can do what you wish.”

Wealthy… unbidden, the vision Solana had had in the Fade came back to her. A woman chained to the ground, her back torn open. A man in full armour with long blond hair, driving his sword through the chest of a nobleman.

“Maric saved you?” Solana asked hesitantly.

Fiona started. Her eyebrows drew together, and then realisation seemed to dawn and she laughed. “No. In reality I saved myself. Or, my powers manifested. What you saw in the Fade was a reflection created by a demon. Something that happened many years later, while we were traversing the Deep Roads.”

“On your ‘fool’s errand’?”

“Yes.”

Another image teased at Solana’s memory. “There was another vision… you, with a… a baby. But not my baby.” The hair had been wrong. “Was that also a dream?”

“No.”

Fiona focused on Solana’s hand and it was impossible to tell her mood. Had the question upset her?

“What… what happened?” Solana ventured.

“He died.”

The temperature in the room seemed to plummet. Solana was struck speechless. She had expected that Fiona had been unable to raise the child, that he had perhaps been taken away by the Chantry, but not that , not something so awful. Had it been the Blightsickness? If what she had said about Warden children and the taint was true, Fiona's child would have been tainted too. Solana wanted to know but she was too embarrassed to ask.

“I.. I’m sorry, I -”

“He died during the Blight,” Fiona said, cutting off Solana’s stammering.

That recent?

A ghost of a smile flitted across Fiona’s lips. “He died striking the killing blow to the archdemon,” she said.

 


 

 

Cullen rapped gently on the door of their quarters, then pushed it open. The room was warm and dim as always, except the bed was empty.

“Commander!” Celeste scrambled to her feet, from where she’d been sitting in her customary spot by the fire. She had the baby in her arms. Solana was absent.

“I’m looking for my wife,” he said dumbly. Because she should be here, she hadn’t left this room since she’d had the baby.

“She... “ Celeste hesitated. “She went out to get some air.”

“Air?”

Celeste’s hesitation was suspicious and something tightened in his chest.

“It is a bit stuffy in here,” Cassandra commented. She’d followed him in.

“Any idea where she went?” Cullen asked. Celeste’s eyes darted to the door and his heart gave a small leap. He knew that whatever she said next would be a lie, so he didn’t give her the opportunity. “I’ll go look for her, thank you.”

He turned smartly and swept past Cassandra, who voiced some kind of protest he didn’t hear past the roaring in his ears. Where was Solana that it had to be a secret? What was Celeste hiding?

Someone grabbed his arm and he thought it was Cassandra, he was in the process of shaking her off when he found it to be Cassey, blinking up at him in the bright sunlight beyond the room.

“I’m a Warden.”

“So you’ve said.”

She smirked. “I’m a Warden. Warden senses, remember? I can find her.”

Chapter Text

Silence hung thick in the dim, dank room as Solana tried to make sense of Fiona’s words.

“Alistair struck the killing blow,” she said.

Fiona nodded, pale eyes meeting Solana’s. “When you came to seek me in Haven, I was under the impression you knew. I thought perhaps Duncan might have told him.”

“But… but you’re an elf?” 

She didn’t mean to put it so bluntly, but Fiona took it in her stride. “The human side always wins out.”

“Goldana… his sister…. We met. Alistair’s mother was a washer woman. She left him an amulet.” She was just saying things, things she’d understood to be true, things that didn’t fit what Fiona was saying. It didn’t make sense .

“Andraste’s Flame was it?” Fiona asked with a sad smile. “It was a gift, from my Warden Commander. I hoped Maric would give it to him.”

So it was true. Solana’s heart clenched, a physical ache that surpassed the numbness that had grown over her in recent weeks.

“He longed for a family.” Solana’s voice was on the edge of breaking. “You should have told him.” Where was Fiona, during the Blight? Where was her power and her protection when her son needed her?

Fiona looked away, drawing a deep breath. “I was a Warden when he was conceived, Solana.”

And at first the weight of the words was lost on her. So what? She couldn’t abandon her Warden vows to save her son?

Then realisation dawned. It was as cold as Fiona’s eyes and as bitter as elfroot.

All Warden children are born with the taint.

Her heart kicked and she sucked in air. She snatched her hand away from the vial. “He would have known.” F lashes of memory came to her. Alistair talking about the rabid hunger that had assaulted him when he was first Joined. The dreams. “He would have known,” she repeated.

“He did not know, nor did Maric. The only person who knew was Duncan and he swore to me when I left the Wardens that, should I still not have a cure by the time Alistair came of age, he would recruit him. And he would use the Right of Conscription if need be.”

She was making an awful sense. He had needed to use the Right of Conscription to free Alistair from the Chantry, from a life as a Templar. Alistair had always wondered why.

Fiona held the vial of Solana’s blood up to the light. “My research indicated that the full effects of the taint would only trigger in his blood when he came of age. If he was recruited before, he would be none the wiser. He would survive his Joining because he already carried the immunity.” Fiona swallowed. “And he would continue to be none the wiser for… well… as long as it took.”

“As long as it took him to die ?” The pain in Solana's chest seemed to explode outwards in hot anger. “You thought your child was doomed so you… you abandoned him. And then you… you gave him over to the Wardens hoping that he would die heroically and never know he was cursed? You didn’t even have the courage to tell him?” Her thrumming pulse threatened to drive her from the room. But Anders had locked the door, ostensibly to keep unwelcome guests out. She was trapped.

“I left the Wardens to try find a cure . But when I saw conditions in the Circles, I couldn’t… I couldn’t just let things be that way. I fought too many separate battles and I ran out of time.”

No. Alistair ran out of time.”

Alistair running towards the archdemon...

But if he hadn’t.... Thirty years. Alistair would have heard the Calling with the other Wardens, only his would have been real . Because Fiona hadn’t found a cure, she’d started a revolution. She’d chosen the mages over the fate of her own child.

“You are right.” Fiona bowed her head. “You are right. My son ran out of time. But your daughter will not. I swear to you. I will do whatever is necessary to find this cure for you and for her. In another life… another time. Perhaps…” Whatever Fiona was going to say, she let the sentence drop. “This should be enough blood for the latest round of tests. I’m hesitant to take more, considering.”

Considering Solana could hardly walk without assistance as it was. Just like that, Fiona had switched back to the task at hand, even though Solana’s veins were thrumming with fire.

The enchanter held out a hand expectantly, but Solana stared at it, unable to guess what she meant by the gesture. Only when Fiona reached over and gently took her hand, did Solana remember her bloody palm. A throb of warm magic ran across her skin, like placing her hand in tepid water. And then the skin was closed and Fiona was carefully wiping away the remaining blood.

“You’ve been looking into a cure for years. With the Wardens, at the Circle, at Livius’s insistence. With all of their resources, with all of that time… what makes you think you’ll find a cure now?”

Fiona didn’t get a chance to answer. A key twisted in the lock and Anders stuck his head around the door. “I’m afraid it’s a no go with your latest concoction, but he’s out cold if you want to perform introductions. Although we should hurry. The little one’s going to need a feed soon.”

“Well that would have been too much to ask.” Fiona rose gracefully. “Still, I would like to see the effects for myself. Perhaps there is something you have not noticed.”

It was as if Solana ceased to exist. Fiona pocketed the vial of blood and fired a volley of questions at Anders. He answered each one promptly with the confidence of a professional. None of them made sense to Solana, but she wasn’t really paying attention. She was thinking, remembering, putting pieces together.

Anders went on ahead and Fiona reached to help Solana up.

“You were cured when you were in the Deep Roads,” she said.

Fiona inclined her head, her eyebrows drawing together in puzzlement.

“That’s when you knew Maric.” Hadn’t she just said as much?

Fiona blanched, and nodded again.

“Oh, Maker.” The air was suddenly very thin. Fiona took Solana's hand again, steadying her. “Alistair was the last of the Theirin line… they kept telling me about the blood but I wouldn’t listen. Eamon, Morrigan. They all kept telling me his blood was important. You were cured. You carried a Theirin child and you were cured.”

“Solana.” Fiona squeezed her hand, and touched her cheek, forcing her to look into her face. “Solana, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.”

“Doesn’t it?” her voice was little more than a squeak.

“The Qunari have a tale about Calenhad, about how he got his strength. He drank dragon’s blood.”

Dragon’s blood. Fiona had mentioned hearing a tale about a reaver who could cure the Blight. Is that what she had meant?

“If we can isolate what it was about the blood that gave Calenhad his power, we can replicate it. Please, do not lose hope.”

 


 

 

They moved through a series of dark corridors that Solana would never have been able to recognise. But Anders led the way confidently, while Fiona’s staff provided light . A tense silence surrounded them and everything Solana had learned in the last hour echoed in her head. At one point they had to climb over rubble and Solana’s head swam. Anders had to hold her steady.

“Perhaps it’s too soon for this,” he said quietly to Fiona.

The enchanter only frowned.

Shortly after that, Anders halted suddenly.

“What? What is it?” Fiona wanted to know

In the dim glow of the staff, it might have been anything. He turned slightly to his right, stuck out his hand. He was little more than a shadow and Solana couldn’t make out his features.

“Seems we’re not the only ones hiding things down here.” His hand hovered over the wall.

And Solana realised with a flash of cold terror where they were. The phylacteries.

“I thought I felt this earlier,” he said. “Warding. Strong.”

Fiona stretched out her own hand to feel. “You’re correct.”

“We should probably move along,” Solana suggested. If Fiona discovered the phylacteries, she would destroy them. Solana had no doubt. She watched helplessly as Fiona’s hand travelled along the wall.

“You feel that?” Anders asked under his breath. “It’s pushing us away.”

“Very impressive spellwork.”

There was nothing for it. “Thank you,” Solana said. That drew the enchanter’s attention. Solana felt more than saw her focus shift to her. She shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s mine. The spellwork. We should move long.”

“Oh, now this is interesting.” She could hear the smile in Anders’s voice. “What are you hiding? Does Cullen know?”

Dancing around the subject would only raise more questions. “It’s a gift. To the Inquisition. From the queen.”

“The queen ? What sort of gift?” Anders prompted.

“A secret gift.” Solana started moving forward, hoping that the others would follow her lead.

“But now you need to tell us.” She heard Anders trotting after her.

“No, I don’t.”

“You can’t leave us in suspense.”

“Yes, I can.”

“Is it a weapon ? Is it valuable ?”

“I am relieved the queen is on good terms with the Inquisition again,” Fiona commented softy. There was a note in her voice that seemed to question the fact, but Solana didn’t pursue it.

Instead she said, “I’m feeling weak, I think we should move along.”

That brought Anders to her side, with a quick apology. He glanced back over his shoulder one more time as they resumed their walk.

They came to a door, which Anders opened, letting in blinding white light and a rush of cold air. Solana followed him outside, along a narrow walkway on the cliff side of the castle. Wind tore at her hair and stung her cheeks. And then they were climbing inside again, through a hole in one of the thick stone walls. Anders lifted Solana over this obstacle with strength his slight frame didn’t show.

She found herself in the ruined part of the gaol.

Solana recognised the guard standing watch as the Warden she’d sent back to the cart that night.

“You’ve met Edmond,” Anders introduced him smoothly. “When Celeste came here to chat to Livius, she was able to use her magic to sneak in. We needed a more reliable system.”

Solana was about to ask what they were doing in the gaol when she heard a groan from one of the cells. A dark shape stirred and Anders swore. “I was hoping he’d be out longer.”

Fiona moved slowly towards the prisoner. “If we’re correct about red lyrium having a similar effect to the taint, he may have superior constitution.”

Anders snatched her arm. “We shouldn’t do this now.”

For a second, the mage’s eyes showed hesitation, then she shook her head. “We’ll be quick.”

She tilted her head for Solana to join her and they approached the cell. Curled up on his side, with his knees to his chest, was a pale man. He had dark rings beneath his eyes, a receding hairline and the smatterings of a black beard. He groaned again, showing a line of skew and yellowing teeth. He was in obvious pain.

“Solana,” Fiona said softly, “I’d like you to meet Raleigh Samson, our Red Templar.”

She turned to Fiona, feeling the blood drain from her face. “This is Samson? The leader of the Red Templars?” Cullen’s one-time friend. He’d tried so hard to find him before they marched on the Wilds, but had been unsuccessful.

“The very same,” Anders said. “Hawke tells me he showed a resistance to red lyrium, which makes him… promising.”

He looked smaller than she’d imagined and oh so very human.

“What do you plan to do to him?” she asked.

“We intend to find a cure for the Blight.” Anders’s voice was right at her ear. Her stomach twisted.

There was a noise at the door from the gaol proper and Fiona spun as it clanged open.

Solana’s breath left her as she saw the new arrival. Cullen. Cullen stood framed in the doorway, Cassandra at one elbow, Cassey at the other.

He didn’t seem surprised to find her there. He seemed angry.

For a moment, no one moved. Then Cullen cleared his throat. “I hear the air down in the dungeon is the best sort. Fresh, clean.”

There was a chill to his tone that Solana hadn’t heard since the day she’d voted for Anders to join the Inquisition. He moved into the room, eyes never leaving hers.

If he’d been a mage, the air around him would have been sparking. It said a lot that Cassandra hung back, tight-lipped. He came to a halt in front of Solana. “If I ask you what you’re doing here, will you tell me the truth?”

She opened her mouth, closed it. His gaze was unwavering.

“Fiona and I thought it would be good for her to take a walk,” Anders said.

Cullen’s gaze shot to Anders and the force of it silenced him.

“That’s your story?” Cullen’s attention rested on Solana again. “You just decided to take a walk, down to the gaols, for your health?”

“Is that so unreasonable?” This time it was Fiona who spoke for her. “Commander, I must say this attitude of yours is most concerning. Is your wife not permitted to leave her room without your say so? We thought she might find your new prisoner intriguing.”

Cullen opened his mouth to answer, but he was cut off by hollow laughter. None of them had been watching Samson. He’d come to full consciousness, and was struggling to sit. “Wife? Well I never, Rutherford.” He laughed again. His laughter sounded like broken glass.

“Shut up,” Cullen snapped.

“Ain’t this just the picture. You got yourself a pretty little wife, and now you’re trying to control her like you try to control everything else.” He clutched at his side and winced. “I’d run if I were you, Solana, was it?”

He’d heard her name. How long had he been conscious? He peered up at her with narrowed red eyes. They looked dry and painful. “Wait a minute, the Solana. Ahh things are starting to make sense. Solana the Hero and Anders the Champion’s toy.”

Cullen slammed a hand against the bars of Samson’s cell, and the resultant clang was almost enough to drown out Samson’s laughter, but not quite. “You know he swings both ways, don’t you, Rutherford? The stories I could tell… what ever happened to Isabella?”

“Commander!” Cassandra rushed forward, seizing the hand that Solana hadn’t even noticed was on the way to his sword. “Whatever is happening here, we have other business. Remember ?”

He stared at her as if she’d stepped out of the Void, then swallowed and nodded slowly, coming back to himself. “Your friend Cassey wishes to speak to you, Solana.” He didn’t look at her.

“Cullen…” She wanted to reassure him, needed to. If he thought she was having some kind of affair with Anders…

But he cut her off,  “We should not speak here.”

Chapter Text

Up in Cullen’s office, silence loomed. Even the sunbeams streaming through the hole in the roof couldn’t ease the chill. Cullen’s jaw was set and he paced. Cassandra leaned against the desk, Anders hovered by the exit, while Fiona took up a position in front of the bookshelf, with her staff slung over her shoulder and her arms folded. Solana stood with Cassey in the middle of the room.

Cassey’s eyes kept darting between her and Cullen until eventually he snapped, “You said you could help. You wanted to speak to my wife, now she’s here. Or did you want to get her alone?”

Solana could almost hear the next words. Some kind of sarcastic remark about how she was so popular today, or getting her alone seemed to be the current trend. But this was Cullen and he bit his tongue.

“I… eh…” Cassey swallowed.

“Go on,” Solana prompted gently. She would deal with Cullen later. Somehow .

Cassey drew a breath. “I was in Rainesfere when I heard. There was talk about you. And the baby. They said she’s… she carries the taint. Is that true?”

Solana nodded, trying to keep emotion out of it.

Cassey wrung her hands. “Thing is, remember I told you that Falin was researching? Always researching…” A sad smile flickered across her lips. “He was researching the Blight. That was his primary area of study. I think he was getting somewhere… I think he found something. Towards the end, he became feverish in his work. Even as they rioted and burned books around him, he carried on working… I think, I think there might have been… I don’t know what he found. But whatever it is, it might still be there.”

“In your Circle?” Cullen asked.

Cassey nodded. “I heard they’ve all been looted, but perhaps a few scrolls hidden at the back of a shelf… I know where he kept his research.”

“And which was your Circle?” Cullen wanted to know.

Anders’s chuckle drew Cullen’s glare. He pressed away from the door, “Kinloch, right?”

Cullen stood frozen. Only his jaw twitched.

“Do I know you?” Cassey asked.

“No, I don’t think so. But I know Falin. Elf, right? He and I had to mop the halls together a few times. He kept sneaking down to the library when he shouldn’t. It’s lucky they didn’t accuse him of blood magic. Whatever happened to him?”

Cassey’s eyes darted to Solana, but she didn’t answer.

“I’ll go,” Solana said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Cullen waved away her statement with a sharp gesture of his arm.

“Why is it ridiculous?” She challenged, “I know Kinloch, I’m accustomed to travel, and I -”

“Because you’re a mother now, or did you forget?”

There was no warmth in his eyes as he turned his glare on her, finally looking at her, finally meeting her eyes.

“Of course I didn’t forget. She’ll be fine without me for a few weeks. We can get a nurse.”

“I’ll not have you -”

“I’m not your property .”

“No, you’re my wife! And you’re the mother of my child and I’ll not have you gallivanting across the countryside while -”

“Gallivanting? Curing her. I caused this. We both know it. I should be the one to cure it!”

They’d grown closer with each shouted word, yelling loud enough to be heard beyond the stone walls. Now Solana found herself glaring up into his face, breathing heavily. She was at once aware of their audience.

“Perhaps we should leave,” Fiona suggested softly.

Cullen swallowed, tore his gaze away from Solana and raked a hand through his hair. “Yes, that might be best.”

Slowly, the room emptied. As Cassey turned, Cullen cleared his throat. “Thank you. Sorry. We’ll…”

“No, don’t worry. I’ll… I’ll go settle in. No doubt you’ll be able to find me with the other Grey Wardens.”

He nodded confirmation. And then she was gone and Solana was alone with him.

He moved away from her, putting the desk between them. She thought he was going to collapse into his chair, speak to her from there as if she was one of his recruits delivering a report. But he rested his palms on the wooden surface and hung his head.

Silence returned to the room. Solana’s eyes roamed. She took in the piles of books, the pages of scrawled notes. And beyond these recent additions, more familiar sights. The ink stains on the carpet from that day, the day they’d said their vows, the blanket draped over the chair that she’d brought in one night when she’d woken to find him absent. She’d suspected she’d find him asleep at his desk, and she had.

Had he really been sleeping upstairs in his old loft? Or had he not been sleeping at all?

“I know what you were doing,” he said, startling her. The anger had drained from his voice. He sounded defeated.

“If you’re about to accuse me of doing anything with Anders…” she started.

“You guided them to the phylacteries.”

It was such an unexpected conclusion that it took Solana a moment to grasp it. “You think I brought the instigator and the leader of the mage rebellion to where I helped you hide the phylacteries?”

“Don’t. Please.” He seemed tired. “Don’t try to deny it. I saw you.”

Saw me?”

“Your friend Cassey... When you weren’t in our room, I sought you out. She could sense you in that corridor. We tracked your progress from above ground.”

To the gaol where he’d found them.

He rose his head to look at her. “Please, don’t do me the disservice of lying to me.”

“I’m not lying to you.”

“Solana -”

“I didn’t take them to the phylacteries.”

He tore away from the desk. “Maker, Solana! I trusted you with this! I know you are loyal to the mages but I thought - I’m your husband - I thought -”

“Cullen!” She couldn’t bear it, seeing him like this, thinking she’d betrayed his trust. There was nothing for it. “Cullen, we weren’t after the phylacteries!”

His eyes met hers again and the anguish, the hurt, in his gaze tore at her heart.

“We were after a cure ,” she said.

“A cure?” His voice was flat with disbelief, or surprise.

She nodded, hugging herself to stop from shaking. This would need courage she didn’t have, strength she didn’t feel.

“If you were seeking a cure, why would you hide it from me?” he asked. “Celeste… she was so nervous of me. Why?”

It would only take five words to explain everything, five words and he’d connect the dots and the conclusions he would leap to would cover the truth and then some. You know what Celeste is.

But she didn’t say those words, she bit her tongue. She owed Celeste more than that.

“It is best that you see,” Solana said.

 

Cullen followed her along the dark corridor without saying anything.

He hadn’t asked questions, not even when she’d gone to Celeste and demanded her key. The woman had been startled, doubtful, but had fished in her pocket and handed it over.

“This is the real reason Anders is here,” Solana said, to break the tense silence. “Celeste wrote to him many times. She wanted his assistance with finding a cure. For me. He refused until he learned I was pregnant. It turns out, Warden babies always carry the taint. I wish someone had told me that. I might have…” she swallowed. “Anyway, he, Celeste and Fiona have been quietly researching cures since then.”

“How long have you known?” Cullen asked, voice thick.

“I stumbled upon their efforts while you were in the Wilds.”

“And you agreed to help them?”

“I did.”

They reached the door to the strange library. Solana drew a deep breath, hoping Fiona hadn’t already returned. This would be hard enough as it was.

“I still don’t understand why you hid this from me.” It was difficult to see Cullen’s face in the dense shadows, but she could hear the hurt.

“You’re about to.”

She inserted the key in the lock, then paused. This was a mistake, bringing him here. A thousand worst case scenarios tumbled through her mind. She recalled the way he’d been with Celeste when he’d discovered her past. What would he do to her if he found out it wasn’t necessarily in her past? And Anders… what was to stop Cullen going straight to Hawke? Or Max?

She shook her head. She’d made her decision. She thought of the books piled around his office, the notes, the sad blanket draped over his chair. She thought of the way he’d swung her around in glee when their daughter had first kicked. My child!

She turned the key.

 

The sconces were still lit, although some had burned down low. The room was pretty much exactly as she had first found it. She held the door open for him and he drifted past her, eyes wide.

“Does the Inquisitor know about this room?” he asked.

“I doubt it.”

She knew he hadn’t seen the vials yet. She watched his gaze move over the bookshelves, then pause. She watched as he moved suddenly forward, to snatch at one of the bottles. It was a bizarre echo of her own discovery. He scanned the label. Picked up another, read the label.

Then he set them both down, carefully. “Blood samples.”

She didn’t need to answer. His attention moved down to the books. As he took in their content, he took two steps backward. His head snapped up, his eyes met hers.

“What is this?”

“Fiona has been studying the Blight for a very long time. She’s exhausted the magic offered by the Circle, and by the Wardens.”

“You’re not answering me.” His voice wavered.

“What does it look like, Cullen?”

His eyes dropped down to the books again. He shook his head, as if refusing to believe what he was seeing.

“You… you are… you accept this, support this? Have you… I hardly dare ask... ”

“I haven’t performed blood magic, no.” Don’t do this, don’t pretend you’re innocent in what’s happening here. “But I’ve…” How did she even say it? “The night that I went into labour, I wasn’t on a picnic. I… we…” He was watching her so intently it felt as if his gaze was choking her. “We went on a mission to find Red Templars. Livius… Livius revealed that the red lyrium is infected with the Blight. Which means that the Red Templars are very similar to Wardens. And… and they thought that would make them decent... test subjects.”

“Livius?”

She pressed her eyes closed. “He wanted to die.”

Cullen slumped into the chair she’d sat in no more than an hour before, when Fiona had taken her blood. He was facing away from her, listening, unable or unwilling to look at her.

Solana forged ahead. It all came out. The way she’d chased the Warden away, the bear, Anders saving her, the hours of painful labour.

But she didn’t mention the Fade. She didn’t mention what Celeste had done.

“So you see why I should be the one to go to Kinloch?” It was her fault, her duty. There was nothing she was unwilling to do to save their child.

Cullen pushed himself to his feet. “I certainly see something,” he said. There was an undercurrent of cold rage but even so, even as he approached her, she didn’t sense his next words. Standing face-to-face with her, looking her in the eyes, he said, “I see I was wrong. I don’t know who you are at your core.”

He swept past her, back out into the dark corridor. He didn’t pause. She heard his footfalls, the clang of his armor, all the way down into the far distance. Only when she could no longer hear him, did she let out a sob, did she let her knees collapse.

Anders found her like that, a few minutes, or perhaps an hour later. She was huddled near the doorway, arms wrapped around her knees. He took off his jacket and draped it across her shivering shoulders and crouched beside her. “What happened? Celeste said you asked for the key? Did you bring Cullen here? What did you tell him?”

She couldn’t speak. The immensity of this mistake far surpassed all the others she seemed unable to stop making.

“Hey, Solana? Solana, what did he do to you?”

“I shouldn’t have brought him here.” The way he’d looked at her… disappointment, hatred ... those words. That day in the Grove he’d said he wouldn’t have married her if he hadn’t known who she was at her core. What did this mean now? She was only vaguely aware of Anders pulling her to her feet. “I shouldn’t have… but he wouldn’t believe me… he thought I took you to the -”

She caught herself just in time. Anders’s interest piqued. “To the?” He prompted.

She shook her head. “Don’t, please.”

“Alright.” He tucked an arm around her shoulders in a gesture reminiscent of Hawke. “I’ll ask later, when you’re feeling more yourself.”

He smiled gently, with no malice, and escorted her back to her room.

 


 

Cullen had a report due for the Inquisitor that lay half forgotten under his research into Tranquility and the Blight. He cleared away the books and scraps of parchment methodically, then sat down to write his report. He wrote two sentences, stood, paced over to the window, forgot what he rose for, went back to is desk. He wrote another sentence, then took one of the books on the Blight off the top of the neat pile he’d made and paged through it. He couldn’t get his eyes to focus. Every time he started reading, thoughts of Solana would intrude.

The door slammed open and he was at once on his feet again.

Celeste strode in, hands balled into fists. “If you’re going to be angry at anyone, you should be angry at me.”

He had never seen the quiet mage like this. Her blonde hair wisped around her face, her jaw was set and her eyes blazed. Even her voice had an edge.

“Oh, believe me, I am.”

“Good.” She paced the room. “Because I was the one who started this. I went to Fiona. I went to her and I said I’d do anything to save Solana. And I’m the one who wrote to Anders. And I’m the one who poisoned Livius. It was me, not her. I don’t know what she told you. She was never even supposed to know because I knew she wouldn’t approve. I never even wanted her to find out her child was tainted. That’s not how things were supposed to go. She never asked for any of this.”

He was tired, so tired. His chest felt like it had collapsed in on itself, like that avalanche that had buried Haven. Smothered in ice, unable to draw breath into his lungs.

“Go away,” he said, sinking back into his chair.

“What?”

He dropped his head forward into his hands. “I can’t do this. I can’t...”

It was too much, it was all too much. For the first time in almost a year he felt the cravings stir beneath his skin. Another battle he had to fight. Alone.

“It’s amusing,” he said, to himself as much as to his uninvited guest. “When I said those vows five months ago, I expected I would never be alone again. And yet, I’ve never felt lonelier. Well, I suppose it’s not really amusing so much as pathetic.”  What am I doing? He needed to be stronger, he needed to be better “You are a maleficar. I have always known that. How can I be angry at for you reverting to form? Maleficarum solve problems with blood magic. It’s what your kind does .”

“It’s not that simple.”

“What’s it like? I’ve always pictured it to be a bit like lyrium. One dose and you feel untouchable . After that, Maker help you if you try give it up. Every time you feel scared, or helpless, it’s there to remind you you needn’t feel that way. You can feel powerful, in control. All you have to do is give in .”

Celeste moved closer. “She told you, didn’t she?”

“Yes, she told me everything.”

“I didn’t want to… I wouldn’t have, if it hadn’t been her life. It wasn’t about feeling powerful. Fiona ordered me. I didn’t have time to think. If she hadn’t gone after her...”

He looked up at her. “Gone after her?” Was this part of the episode with the bear? He’d been too horrified that Solana had put their child at risk like that to remember details.

“I mean into the Fade.”

“The Fade…” he repeated dumbly.

Celeste visibly paled and her eyes widened. “She didn’t tell you.”

“Tell me what?” How many secrets had Solana been keeping?

“I can’t, I shouldn’t.” She turned to go.

“Please!” The exclamation halted her by the door. Quieter, he said, “No more secrets, please.”

She stood for a long moment, frozen in place. “I… I came in here to make things better, not make them worse.”

“Celeste…” He didn’t hide his desperation.

When she turned to face him, her expression was controlled, her face showed no emotion. “Solana died, Cullen.”

His heart stopped, then kicked. Pain shot from his chest down to his palms and he gulped in air as if he’d been physically punched in the gut. “What?”

“She lost too much blood, delivering the baby. I… I used the blood. I sent Fiona into the Fade to pull her back.”

Why didn’t she tell me? He raked his hands through his hair, tugging at the roots. She died. You lost her. She was gone. “You said the ring saved her. Why did you say that?”

“I couldn’t hold the spell long enough. She needed to find her own way out. The ring did glow. Just before she regained consciousness. You did play a part, Commander. That wasn’t a lie.”

He rose to his feet, the world spun. “She died…”

He’d pictured it, on the ride back from the Wilds. He’d seen her cold and stiff and pale. Oh, Maker. It had been his worst fear and it had come to pass.

And Celeste had saved her. She had used evil magic and it had brought his Solana back to him. Oh, Maker.

Chapter Text

Solana straightened her skirt and took another deep breath. She’d been hovering on the stairs up to Max’s quarters for a good few minutes. The baby gurgled in her arms. She could hear low voices talking above, confirming everything she feared.

Cullen had gone to Max.

She hadn’t seen him since he’d left her in that library. By the time Anders had taken her into her room, her shock had given way to sorrow. She’d been a tired, weeping mess. Celeste had fussed around her, asking too many questions. Solana had nursed, and then she’d slept. She’d woken at every sound, hoping that Cullen would come in, to visit with his daughter if not with her. After many restless hours, the dawn had streaked the stone floor pink and a messenger had arrived. The Inquisitor wished to see her.

There was only one reason she could think of.

Celeste hadn’t been there when she’d awoken. Had she also been summoned? Or worse…

The little body in Solana’s arms was warm and soft and so incredibly light. One chubby fist escaped from the swaddling and Solana kissed it. She briefly considered running, taking the baby and fleeing to Kinloch. But she wouldn’t make it alone. And she couldn’t abandon the others. If Cullen had reported them, if they’d been arrested, it was up to her to defend them, to claim responsibility.

They’d done it all for her.

The Inquisitor’s room was swathed in bright morning sunlight when she pushed the door open. Cullen was there, no surprise. He fell silent at the sound of the door, turning to meet her without so much as a flicker of emotion on his well-schooled features. His arms were draped behind his back and only a small inclination of his head acknowledged her entrance.

“You asked to see me, Inquisitor?”

“Solana! Yes!” Max bounded over to her, closing the distance in no more than a few strides. “Oh, you brought the little one! May I?”

Startled, she handed the baby to him. He chuckled as he lifted her. “Oh, hello, Miss Rutherford. We’ve met before but I think you were asleep. I’m Max.”

Solana shot Cullen a glance as the Inquisitor babbled to the baby, but his expression still showed nothing.

Max returned to his desk, still cooing as the baby’s tiny hand closed around his smallest finger. “Cullen tells me you’re planning an expedition?” Max asked.

“I…” Again she looked to Cullen. He said nothing. “Yes, an expedition,” she said slowly.

“How many people do you need?” He pushed aside some pages on his desk, while holding the baby to his chest with his free hand.

“What?”

He glanced up at her. “As I said to the Commander, our resources aren’t limitless, but if this research is what that Grey Warden claims, I believe it’s worth the outlay. I’m afraid you can’t take Cassandra.” He flashed her his dazzling smile. “Not for personal reasons. I’m going to ask her to take over for Cullen while he’s away.”

Away?

This time when she looked at Cullen askance, he at least cleared his throat. But his eyes returned to the Inquisitor, who was gazing down at the pages on his desk. “Kinloch is in the middle of a lake, isn’t it? So you won’t be wanting a large party, I imagine. Let’s see… Dorian’s off back home… the Chargers are available but I’d recommend against it, Bull doesn’t handle magic so well. Not after the Fade. Oh! Yes! The Fade. You should take Hawke. Oh, and maybe Varric. Varric’s been muttering about going back to Kirkwall. You can give him one last adventure to remember us Southerners by.” Max grinned. “That’s two mages, a rogue and a warrior. Not counting yourse-”

A knock on the door drew his attention. A scout beckoned him to see to some urgent matter. He sighed, patted Cullen on the shoulder, handed Solana the baby and left. “I’ll only be a moment. Sorry.”

The absence of Max’s energy plunged the room into deep silence. Solana finally asked carefully. “What’s going on?”

Cullen drew air into his lungs and she heard it tremble. He closed his eyes. “I came to the realisation that I am powerless to prevent you throwing yourself into danger. You decided you will journey to Kinloch, as you likely determined you would assist with capturing a Red Templar, as you resolved to face the archdemon that night in Haven. If I were to try stop you, I imagine you’d simply dash away when my back was turned. So, I determined my only course of action is to accompany you.”

“A-accompany me? But what about her?” She glanced down at their daughter.

Cullen turned and strode towards the Inquisitor’s balcony. He stood looking out at the mountains, his hands still behind his back. “I sent a letter to my sisters this morning. We will be travelling via South Reach.”

Via ? South Reach is days from Kinloch.”

“This is not negotiable, Solana. Maralie will be able to care for our daughter while we are otherwise occupied. Besides, they will be anxious to meet her. We did promise a visit near First Day.”

“And what? Varric and Hawke and whoever else Max decides to send with us come along to visit with your family?”

“Yes.”

The baby started to fidget. That usually meant she was growing hungry. Hunger was a physical discomfort, and physical discomfort was the one thing she did react to. Since Max was out of the room, Solana seated herself at his desk and unbuttoned the top of her robe.

“Cullen, it’s Kinloch. I’m not going to make you face that place again.”

He turned, a response on his lips, but he choked on it. “What are you doing?”

“I’m feeding her.”

Here?

The baby latched, her fingers flexing in satisfaction as she suckled. Solana smiled down at her. “Don’t worry, Cullen. If Max comes back, I’ll cover up.”

“I… It’s not…” He dropped it. “Never mind. As I was saying, Kinloch is empty now as I understand it. I’d have to be a particular kind of coward to be frightened of an empty building.”

“I wasn’t calling you a coward.” He’d almost gone insane serving there. He’d confided as much to her once. In Max’s quarters, as it so happened.

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I know you weren’t.”

She watched him quietly. He hadn’t been sleeping, she was sure of it now. There were dark marks beneath his eyes and his face seemed drawn. Her heart swelled with concern for him, but she didn’t know how to voice it in a way that wouldn’t upset him.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

He startled. “Whatever for?”

“When I was summoned here I thought… I thought you might have told Max about… well, about what I showed you yesterday.”

“I would be lying if I said I hadn’t considered it. I don’t…” He dropped his voice, even though there was no-one else there. “I don’t approve of this happening in his fortress without his knowledge.” His eyes lingered on Solana’s breast, or perhaps on the child who was nursing there. “But I happen to love you. And I wouldn’t wish any harm to come to you, regardless of what you may have done.”

Warmth washed through her, relief tinged with shame. He still loved her. But when she tried to meet his gaze, he looked away quickly. They did not speak more.

Solana had the baby pressed against her shoulder, and was rubbing her back to coax her into burping, when Max returned to continue planning their expedition.

 



“I hear you’re planning an expedition?” Hawke asked by way of greeting. He’d found Solana in the stables, and he leaned against one of the posts, offering her a lazy smile.

She was sitting at the wooden table where Blackwall had carved blocks of wood into children’s toys. Her fingers were blue and yellow, and there was a pink smear across her nose. In front of her was Blackwall’s very last creation, a wooden rocking “horse”, shaped like a griffon to no doubt honour the Grey Wardens he so loved.

Only, with the splotches of colour Solana had added, it looked more like a Gamordan Stormrider. She was glaring at the paintbrush in her hands as if it has personally insulted her.

“Cullen’s planning it,” she said, without looking at him. “I think he was nervous that if he didn’t, I’d run off to Kinloch myself.”

“Which you would,” Hawke offered.

“No. Not… entirely.” She glanced down at her feet, and Hawke saw the basket. The baby was snuggled up in furs, fast asleep.

He knelt beside the basket, resisting the urge to pick up the baby and cuddle it. She was too adorable for words; a little doll with pink cheeks and a tiny rosebud mouth. “Well, she might be a little young to appreciate the old homestead.”

Solana didn’t answer, but after a moment she sighed. “I should have asked Solas for lessons before he ran off. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“I think the trick is to let one layer dry before adding more colours,” Hawke suggested.

She set down the brush, “You’re probably right.” Then, before he could stop her, she dropped her head forward into her hands. He cringed, not sure how to tell her she now had blue temples. He drew a deep breath. Time enough for that later. That’s not what he came here for.

That morning, after a night of frenzied lovemaking, he’d woken in Anders’s arms.

“I missed you,” Anders had said, warm cheek pressed against his spine.

“I missed you too,” Hawke had responded automatically.

“Did you?” The question had been so simple, and yet it had set Hawke’s stomach in knots. He’d pulled away.

“Of course I did.”

“I didn’t receive any letters.”

He’d apologised, turned it into a jest about how Anders didn’t like his penmanship anyhow. And he’d explained that he’d been busy leading the mages in battle, he simply hadn’t had time to write.

Yet he knew that the Commander had found time. Leading the entire army, he’d found time to sit scribbling letters in front of the fire. One of those nights, while Cullen had been pouting over parchment, scratching out as many words as he wrote, Hawke had thought about it. But what would he say? Echoes of the fight they’d had months ago rang in his head.

If you wanted to leave me you should have just said. None of this ‘I can’t wait until I'm in your arms again’ bollocks.

He didn’t know what he wanted. The thought of losing Anders was unbearable, the thought of being the only thing of value in Anders’s life, the only one keeping him from turning into a vengeance demon, was likewise.

“Solana…” he said now.

She glanced down at him, confirming that, yes, she did now have blue temples. It said a lot about his current state of mind that he didn’t burst out laughing at the sight.

“I was wondering… would it be possible for Anders to join our little quest?”

She blinked. “I’m sure it would be. Cullen might need some convincing.” A smile pulled at her lips. “I’m guessing you don’t want to leave him so soon after returning from the Wilds?”

Hawke chuckled, not sure what to say. “It’s not just that. He knows Kinloch better than anyone. He managed to escape sev-”

“Seven times. I know.”

“Yes, well. I believe he would be a valuable addition to the party.”

“And?”

“And?” he raised his eyebrows, askance.

“And there’s something you’re not saying.”

Hawke sighed and reached into the basket to tuck the blankets more securely around the baby. “And he’s a Warden. He knows magic, he knows healing and he knows the taint. If anyone can figure out the cure from this elf’s research, it’s Anders.” She wasn’t buying it, from the way she was looking at him. “And… he’s a Warden. Thirty years, right? Closer to twenty now.”

Her look softened. “You want to cure him.”

“Is that really so surprising?”

Let her think that was all there was to it. Let her think that it was more than just a desperate attempt to force himself back in love with the man.

Solana smiled softly. “I’ll speak to Cullen.”

 


 

 

It was only when they were in the stables, getting ready to set off, that Cullen realised how much of an outsider he’d be on this particular mission.

Celeste and Solana were fussing over the baby and every so often he’d catch a snippet of advice from the maleficar.

“Now when she’s hungry she tends to grunt.”

“I know that.”

“And if she starts crying after a feed, it’s probably gas.”

“Celeste, I know that.”

“She’ll want a feed every four to six hours, so ask whoever’s on watch to wake you.”

“Celeste, I’ll be fine.”

Celeste had her own child in Denerim, Cullen knew. But she’d been here looking after his, while Solana had been recovering. From death.

He swallowed and turned his attention to the other huddle of people, packing the last items into saddle pouches. Varric, Hawke and Anders. The three had adventured together for nearly a decade. He couldn’t imagine what it must be to have a friendship that lasted that long. Even though he knew from things the dwarf had said before Anders’s unexpected arrival that Varric did not approve of what he’d done, and hadn’t nearly forgiven him, they were companionable, falling into what must have been old habits.

“Hey, Blondie, did you hear the one about the qunari and the mabari?”

Then there was Cassey. Cassey who had probably been one of his charges, and yet he couldn’t even remember her. He could remember the days the blood mages had taken over Kinloch with crystal clarity, but the faces of the individuals in his care had been purged from his memory. Lyrium, probably. It did that. Or perhaps it was the guilt. He’d called for the Rite. He’d wanted them all to burn.

She stood apart from the rest, fiddling with a ring on her finger the way that Solana had when they’d first reunited, and while Cullen could have approached her and made friendly conversation, his guilt stood between them as solid as his shield.

Instead, he pulled out his map. By his calculations, if they made good time, they could be at Kinloch within the week. One day down the mountain, one to Redcliffe, where they could stay at an inn and stock up on supplies, then across Lake Calenhad and across the bannorn. Travelling light, they could make it across the flat farmland to South Reach in two days. From there… a further two days to the docks. The docks. Ice in his belly. He shut his eyes.

It didn’t matter. That was all past and Solana was here and now and alive. And he was going to make certain she stayed that way.

They were only a few hours out the gates when the first disruption to Cullen’s carefully laid plans came.

A hooded figure galloped after them, at a disconcerting speed considering the narrow mountain road. Its horse whinnied and kicked up dust and snow as it drew nearer and Cullen was cursing under his breath as he pulled his own horse to the side so that the rider might pass. The others followed his lead, but the rider did not pass them. Instead, it drew to a halt and Cullen was about to give it a piece of his mind, when it lowered its hood.

“Hello.” Trevelyan grinned at him. “I don’t suppose you’d mind if I were to join you?”

Chapter Text

Flustered, Cullen stumbled over his words. “Inquisitor - I…”

It was Solana who answered, with a laugh. “We are in need of a babysitter.”

She was wearing the baby in a sling strapped to her chest that Celeste had apparently advised. Cullen still wasn’t sure that it was best for her to be riding with such delicate cargo, but Solana was more at home on the back of a horse than anyone he’d ever known. Her hair was done up in a messy bun at the nape of her neck and she was bundled in so many layers of clothing that he was satisfied that if she did, for some reason, come unseated, there would be some level of protection for the child.

“I’d gladly volunteer for that task,” Max said. “I am also good with a sword. Cassandra tells me that my stance is lazy, but we can’t all be the Hero of Orlais.”

“The what?” Hawke asked, drawing up alongside them.

“She hasn’t told you the story? Odd. Perhaps she was self-conscious. She loves telling me how fortunate I am to have the heroes of Orlais, Kirkwall and Ferelden serving under my banner. I’m not sure if she means it as a compliment or to cut me down to size.”

Cullen finally found his voice. “You wish to join our mission?”

“Yes, I would. If it’s no trouble?”

The question Cullen wanted to ask was why , but it seemed rude to just demand that from his superior. “It is no trouble,” he said.

Again, it was Solana who found the words he wanted to. “The evil magister is dead. What are you running from?”

Trevelyan chuckled, but his eyes darted off to the side, observing the mountain view. “It’s less of a running from, and more of a running… to.”

“I’m not sure I understand. If you wanted to see the Fereldan Circle Tower…”

“No, it’s not the tower per se… it’s what it represents . Mystery, adventure… I’ve hardly left my office since I returned from defeating Corypheus.”

“Don’t tell me you’re bored?” Varric shouted from behind him.

“No, not bored. Sweet Andraste, not bored. I have enough paperwork to last me several years.”

Hawke gave him a knowing look. “And let me guess, everybody needs you?”

“All the time,” Trevelyan lamented.

“They do know where you’ve gone?” Cullen asked, thinking of the cloak. “We won’t have a search party coming after you?” I f Trevelyan had wanted to join their mission he might have said something at Skyhold, rather than following them.

“Cassandra knows. I left her in command. Don’t fret, Cullen. We won’t have Leliana’s birds descending upon us.”

“I’d be more concerned with her arrows,” Solana quipped. Then, to the group. “Let’s make haste before the Inquisitor’s paperwork catches up with him.”

 

The first day of travel was tense as they navigated their way down the mountain, but uneventful. They stopped for the night in the ruins of the Temple of Sacred Ashes.

As they made camp, Cullen kept catching Solana and Anders exchanging looks. He knew why. This was where it had happened, where they’d set a trap for their test subjects and she’d been set upon by a wild animal instead. There was no sign of Red Templars now. All was quiet.

They took turns telling stories around the campfire while dining on roast nug and hard cheese. Solana, as usual, had everyone enthralled with a tale of how she’d once traversed the very caverns below them and found an entire wyrmling lair. The only person present who might match her in outrageous conquests was Hawke, but Varric kept interrupting his story - “you’re not telling it right!” - and eventually the dwarf took over.

Cullen’s mind drifted as he watched his wife enjoying the story, their child cuddled up against her chest. The baby was watching her as she laughed and prompted Varric to continue. Her tiny jewel-like eyes were bright and curious in the firelight. It was achingly beautiful, this picture of them. His family. Solana was alive in a way she hadn’t been in months. The open road and comradery brought out the best in her. She blazed with an inner light that he couldn’t recall ever being able to reach. Is that what Alistair had seen, every night they were together? Is that who she’d been for him?

Cullen had hardly spoken to Solana since that morning in Trevelyan’s quarters. The exception being when she’d arrived in his office and asked that Anders join them. She’d been pale and nervous as if he frightened her. And he’d felt he had no choice but to agree. Now, as the time they’d have to share a single tent drew near, he found himself fretful. She had been involved in who knows what dark magic. But she’d done it in the hopes of saving their child. And she’d told him about it. And she’d died . He was hurt and angry, but relieved and grateful. And he didn’t know how to act with her. All he knew was that he was inadequate. Inadequate and unnecessary. She would do as she saw fit, regardless of him.

 


 

“I’ll take first watch,” Cullen announced as Varric came to the end of his tale.

Solana’s chest tightened. Cullen had been avoiding her since she’d shown him that room and now, even in camp, he sought a way to keep out of her reach. His face was drawn, she could see he was tired.

“No, I’ll be up with the baby. I’ll take first watch.”

“She’ll need another feed before the night is through,” he said. “Feed her now, rest, and I’ll wake you for the second watch.”

Of course, that way he could avoid sleeping beside her at all. She didn’t have the strength to argue, so she inclined her head. She caught Varric looking between them, but the others seemed oblivious.

The baby was fidgety, overstimulated from seeing and hearing so many new things. It took over an hour for her to get to sleep and then Solana lay awake, cradling her gently, and listening to the sounds outside the tent.

She was still awake when Cullen came to rouse her and in the dim light from the fire, she saw doubt cross his features upon finding her awake. He opened his mouth, seemed to decide against whatever he meant to say, and nodded to her as he might nod to one of his men upon relieving them from duty.

 

Travelling with a baby was more of a challenge than Solana had expected, and she was relieved when they came to Redcliffe. She’d run out of napkins after her daughter had chosen to fill three of them within the space of an hour. She was obviously uncomfortable, making a whole range of sounds that she’d never made before.

“Don’t look at me,” Varric said when she started outright wailing. “Inquisitor’s supposed to be babysitter.”

But Max had been as much at a loss as Solana. Cullen had looked on helplessly, Cassey had reminded her that she, too, was a Circle mage and had never even seen a baby before. Hawke prodded Anders forward and, with a sigh, he examined her while she kicked and wiggled and yelled, eventually identifying a small irritated patch where her skin had been rubbed raw by the sling and the movement of the horse.

By that stage Solana, too, had been practically in tears. She wasn’t a mother. She should have never been a mother. She knew nothing about babies and all she’d managed to achieve so far was making this one miserable.

When they stopped at a merchant so Anders could pick up some elfroot balm for the baby, Solana had handed her to a surprised Max and gone for a walk to clear her mind. She went along the docks, weaving through the crowds and hawkers. Wind whipped up off the water, icy and fresh in her lungs. She looked out at Redcliffe Castle and thought of Eamon and ashes and everything she’d once been.

Eventually Trevelyan found her. The baby was quiet in his arms, staring with fascination at the throngs of people. “We’ve booked some rooms at the Gull and Lantern for the night, but there’s bad news. Ice on the lake, no passage. We’re going to have to take the Imperial Highway.”

“I’m sure Cullen’s delighted,” she said without looking at him. Nothing upset Cullen more than a carefully laid plan falling apart.

“I think he’s still frothing at the ferryman.”

Max fell silent, following her gaze. After a few minutes he chuckled.

“Care to share?” she asked him.

He shrugged. “I came here, shortly before you joined the Inquisition. A spell sent me forward in time. I just realised it sent me forward to about now. It’s a little different.”

“No Corypheus?” she guessed.

“Yes, and no rift, and no army of advancing demons. It’s peaceful. I quite like it.”

She smirked. “I know the feeling. It wasn’t much fun while swarming with the living dead either.”

 

They’d booked the rooms under false names, and Max kept a thick glove over his left hand to hide the glow. Still, the party squished around the very furthest, most shadowy table in the tavern when dinner time came around. Cullen ate and then retired quickly, with the excuse that he wished to plot their route for the next day. He ignored Varric’s teasing that the Imperial Highway was a route. Solana suspected that he just wished to distance himself from her. If he was asleep before she returned to their room there would be no need to talk, no need to be aware of their proximity, of the fact that they were sharing a bed.

Hawke and Anders likewise left early. Hawke seemed troubled, but Solana dared not ask him why while Anders was there in case Anders was the reason. Then Cassey left, and Varric joined a game of Wicked Grace at a nearby table. Solana found herself alone with Max.

“So, the Hero, the Inquisitor and a baby walk into a bar…” she said, to break the ice.

He gave her the long-suffering look of a man who has heard more bad jokes in the last two days than any man should have to endure.

She held up her hands defensively. “Alright, I’ll leave the jokes to Varric and Hawke.”

Silence fell between them. She took a sip of her drink - water - and searched for something to say. Cullen likely wouldn’t be asleep yet. It often took him ages to drift off. She couldn’t excuse herself yet.

“So… what’s the plan if anyone here recognises you?” she asked. The inn was rowdy. Noise swelled regularly from the table where Varric was playing cards and more and more people kept arriving. It was already packed and was only going to get worse.

“They won’t,” Max said, taking swig of his own drink. “No one knows what I look like. They know the hand. What about you? There’s a statue right outside. Did you see it?”

She’d seen it the first time she’d come to Redcliffe after the Blight, looking for help for Cassey and Falin. It seemed like years ago. “It’s not exactly in my likeness. Unless you’re implying I look like a dragon?”

He chuckled and took another sip of his drink.

“Is that why you decided to join us? To be anonymous for a change?” she asked. She knew something of his plight in that regard.

His eyes narrowed. “I suppose so. Yes. But I wasn’t the mastermind. Cass convinced me.” A roar of laughter from the other table punctuated the statement. “I didn’t mean for the subterfuge. I decided at the last moment. I miss being out of the fortress. This…” His eyes dropped to his mug. He ran a gloved finger through the circle of condensation it had left on the surface of the wood. “This reminds me of the early days. Camping along the road, telling fireside stories. None of the… fussing that comes with being Inquisitor. I don’t dislike it, this role. Who would? But I do often wonder what things would be like if I weren’t so… forgive me, I’m rambling.” His eyes met hers and he gave her a small smile.

“I understand. Why do you think I ran?”

It was an admission she hadn’t made out loud before, and while it sent a shock through her, Max’s attention was drawn once again to Varric’s table.   “Do you think they’d let us join?”

Chapter Text

Cullen woke to an empty bed. He reached across to touch the cool mattress, finding confirmation he didn’t need. No one had slept there. Solana had spent the night somewhere else.

He tried to ignore the pain in his chest as he readied himself for the day ahead. He dressed methodically, but snagged himself with the razor while shaving. A foolish error. One he hadn’t made in years. As he dabbed at his cheek, his control slipped and his mind started presenting scenarios. One, she didn’t want to sleep beside him. That seemed the most likely. He remembered the way she’d looked at him when she’d asked about Anders accompanying them, the expression on her face when she’d found him in Max’s office, the way her eyes had darted from his the previous night. She must have gone and rented her own room because she had no desire to be near him. But as much as that hurt, there were alternative scenarios and they were worse. Halamshiral had been abuzz with rumours that she was involved with the Inquisitor. What if the gossiping nobles had picked up on something that was really there? What if they’d fallen drunkenly into bed together? Or, a third scenario, that something terrible had happened in the tavern while he’d been asleep. They’d been taken by bandits or something equally… ridiculous. He stared at himself in the small mirror above the basin. Or, something less ridiculous, she’d run ahead. She’d decided to go to Kinloch without him.

It was this thought that drove him downstairs, ready to demand the owner disclose her whereabouts. But as he came down the stairs, he saw a cluster of people gathered in the centre of the main room.

A flash of red hair sent his heart into his throat. One of the men moved aside, and there she was, shoulder-to-shoulder with Varric and giggling at her hand of cards.

“You stayed up all night playing cards?” Cullen asked, aghast.

Solana startled, eyes going wide. Her hair had half fallen out of its bun, and the top two buttons of her robe were undone. Maker’s breath!

Varric waved. “Morning, Commander.”

“I… were you drinking?”

He ignored the looks of the other patrons. Solana shouldn’t have been drinking. Not while she was still nursing the…

“Where’s the baby?” Ice shot through his veins. If she got drunk and forgot her -

Varric stood, waving both of his hands now. “Shh shh, you’ll wake them.”

“Wake the-”

A movement on one of the tables against the far wall drew his attention. Trevelyan sat up slowly and yelped when he hit his head on a windowsill. The baby was nestled in his arms, but her eyes snapped open and her little fists shot outwards at his exclamation.

Cullen closed the distance between them in three strides, seizing the baby from him. She gave a whinge of protest as he hugged her to his chest, possibly a little too tightly. He had no words, all he could do was glare at the Inquisitor.

“Eh, morning, Commander.” Trevelyan rubbed his head.

“Cullen, it’s all right,” Solana was moving towards him, her voice sweet. She reached out a hand to touch him, but he stumbled away. “I’m not drunk. You’ve seen me drunk enough times to know that. Varric was teaching me how to play Wicked Grace.”

“You could already play Wicked Grace.” They’d played on the way to Halamshiral.

Varric chuckled. “No, she really couldn’t.”

“You played all night?” It wasn’t really a question, so much as a demand for an explanation.

Solana blinked slowly. “I honestly didn’t realise the time.”

“With our baby.”

“Well, I didn’t play cards with our baby. She’s still a little young.” Solana smiled and Varric chuckled again.

The dwarf stepped forward and patted Cullen's arm. “Look, Curly, baby’s what? Three weeks old? Four? She’s happy so long as she has milk to drink and a soft place to sleep. Your babysitter did a good job with the latter part and your lady was here for the rest. No harm done. Why don’t you have some breakfast while they go wash up? I’ll wake Hawke and we’ll hit the road, alright?”

Cullen ignored the urge to correct Varric by reminding him that his daughter couldn’t technically feel happiness. He was too overwhelmed. Everyone was staring at him as if he was the strange one. Was it really so outlandish to be upset about this?

“I was worried about you,” he said to Solana.

The smile melted from her face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t intend for that.”

“No. I don’t imagine it crossed your mind.”

 



Hawke looked more hung over than Max by the time he arrived downstairs. Anders trailed him like a shadow.

The early morning light was already pouring in through the grimy windows and it was now apparent just just how dusty the place was. Every movement sent sprays of dust motes into the sun beams where they danced and glittered.

Cullen had been pacing nervously near the bar, and Solana had hidden in a corner to give the baby her breakfast. The rest of the party was scattered around the place, seeing to their own business.

“We need to talk,” Hawke said.

Cullen spun to face him and even though he didn’t say it, Solana saw what he was thinking from his expression. Another disruption to his carefully laid plans.

Hawke took a deep breath, and Solana tried to catch a glimpse of Anders’s face, but she couldn’t. She hurried to dress herself.

“Very well,” Cullen said stiffly. “Would you like to step outside, or…?”

“No, here’s fine.” He ran a hand through his hair and settled into the chair that Solana had occupied for most of the night. Anders stood behind him and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.

Solana slipped out from her corner. “Are you all right?”

Everyone else was now paying rapt attention too. Hawke offered a shaky smile. “Here’s the thing. I don’t know how many of you know this, but I’m originally from Lothering.”

Lothering. The very first town Solana had visited with Alistair and Morrigan, straight after the tragedy at Ostagar.

“I had to flee during the Blight,” Hawke said. “At first, when you said we’d be taking the Imperial Highway, I didn’t know how to feel about that. You probably know that it passes right by Lothering. I’ve been… frightened, I guess. Of seeing what became of it. But, I think I need closure. I think I need to see it for myself.”

“Lothering…” Cullen repeated slowly. “I’m sorry, Lothering was…”

“Lost to the Blight, I know,” Hawke said.

“I mean only that it might not be safe to camp there. The Blight can remain in an area long after -”

Hawke nodded. “I know, but we have three Grey Wardens with us.” He glanced at the baby. “Practically four.”

“You wish for them to scout ahead?” Cullen guessed.

“They’ll be able to tell us if it’s safe for the rest of us. If it’s not, we pass by. I just… I don’t want to miss this opportunity.” Anders squeezed his shoulder.

Solana was surprised when Cullen’s gaze moved to her. “Well? What do you think?”

She blinked. Of course, she was the senior Grey Warden. Why wouldn’t he ask her? Even if he was still quietly seething about her actions.

“We still need some supplies. We could go ahead while you stock up. If it’s still unsafe, we’ll meet you on the road.”

“She is immune?” Cullen asked, eyeing the baby.

Solana nodded. “Yes, she’ll be fine.”

 


 

 

Cullen tried his best not to worry as they took to the road. He concentrated on the details. The Highway was a wonder, white stone gleaming, lancet arches marching further into the distance than his eyes could see. He tried to concentrate on the pleasant sensation of the fresh Ferelden air on his cheek and not on the thrumming of his heart.

Solana could handle herself in battle if it came to that, if set upon by vagrants, or highwaymen, or wild animals…

He swallowed down bitter bile. Wild animals like the bear that came so close to ending her life.

Anders was with her now, as he had been with her then. And they had the other mage, Cassey. He had nothing to be frightened of.

Still, it was a relief when the rooftops of the village came into view and there had been no sign of the Wardens. That must mean it was safe, and they were somewhere within.

Hawke was the first to dismount. His jaw was set as he lead his steed off the highway. Trevelyan and Varric followed, and Cullen brought up the rear.

The sun was low in the sky and shadows clustered around the spiked palisade that bordered the village. Time or, more likely, multiple darkspawn incursions, had pulled it down in places and it was no trouble finding a gap to step through.

“It’s so quiet,” Hawke said. His voice was a mere whisper, yet it was easy to hear. There was no sound at all. Not even birdsong. Doubt crept up Cullen’s spine. Lothering was shrouded in foreboding silence. What if something had happened to Solana after all? What if the Blight was still here -

A shadow darted across one of the walls and Cullen pulled out his sword automatically. But it was not darkspawn, or a bandit, that came running between the buildings. It was a horse, short its rider.

For a single moment his stomach was lead as a dozen scenarios for what had become of the rider chased through his mind. Then he saw her. Solana. Running around a building and after the horse. She managed to snatch the bridle. Laughing, panting, hair streaming behind her in a fiery mane, she was red-cheeked but unharmed.

Then she saw him and all trace of joy left her face. She went still, her back erect.

He sheathed his sword. “All’s well?”

“Yes. Fire’s going. The horse was spooked by the flame.” She patted its nose. “No trace of Blight, but I suppose no one’s dared come here to check. The village is deserted.” It was as if she was one of his men, giving a status report.

“They did,” Hawke said. At Cullen’s curious look, he added, “They did come here to check. They tried to rebuild a few years ago but found the ground was poisoned. Nothing would grow.”

He moved forward as if in a dream, holding out a hand to brush the building. Cullen followed.

They’d set it up camp in front of the local chantry. Even in such a small village, the building was something to behold. The spiked archway was reminiscent of the sunburst, and that same emblem was echoed upon the steeple. Cullen imagined that at certain times of year, the sun shone right through as it set, casting the archway in flaming hues of red and gold.

It was not the camp that Hawke moved towards, however. He veered off to the right, walking over a wide stone bridge. Ahead of them the sky was orange and an old broken mill stood as a shadowy silhouette against it. Solana trotted after them, pulling the horse with her. No one spoke. There was no need. Cullen knew where Hawke must have been heading, and he supposed that Solana did too.

As they entered the village proper, Solana whispered an incantation and her staff glowed, brightening the way. Hawke crossed the square, passed an old well and stopped outside an old cottage on the edge of town. The thatch was partly sunken in, partly burned. One wall had collapsed. The wooden door hung off his hinges. He swallowed.

“I should get Anders,” Solana said.

“Why?” Hawke asked. “No need for a healer.”

“Hawke…”

“Solana. You need to be here. It’s your… your family too.”

He stepped over the threshold.

Solana pressed the horse’s reins into Cullen’s hand and moved past him without saying anything. The brush of her skin as he took the reins, the scent of rose petals as she crossed so close. He shut his eyes and breathed in the moment.

“Cullen!” Hawke’s voice came from within the shadowy recesses of the ruined entrance hall. “Yours too, come on.”

Cullen gave a start at the mention of his name. Yours too . He’d never thought of it that way, that he was now related to the Amells, to Hawke, through marriage.

He secured the horse to one of the remaining columns that held up the roof and followed them in.

Hawke was standing in the middle of what had once been a living room. Now the floorboards were rotten, some sparrows had nested in the rafters and there was a hole in the roof at least double the size of the one above his office.

“Looted, as I suspected,” Hawke said. He took a deep breath, shoulders moving upward as his lungs filled, then down again as he let out a rush of air.

“They didn’t take everything.” Solana had picked up a shattered picture frame. The etching inside was damp around the edges, and the ink had run, but she passed it to Hawke.

“Oh,” he said. He stared at it and Cullen was certain, even in the dim light, that he paled.

“Who is it?”

He tried for a smile. It wobbled then collapsed into a frown as he handed the image back to her. “It’s my brother and sister. The twins.”

“Carver’s a Grey Warden,” Cullen recalled, leaning to get a look at the picture.

“Yes. In the Anderfels. He got as far away from me as possible at the first opportunity.”

The etching showed two children of equal height, both with Hawke’s messy black hair, posed for a portrait.

“And the girl?” Cullen asked.

“Bethany. She, uh, didn’t make it to Kirkwall.”

Cullen’s eyes snapped to Hawke’s, but there was no doubting the implication of the words. “I’m… I’m so sorry.”

The watery smile returned to Hawke’s mouth. “As am I. She was the best sibling anyone could have asked for. We’d train together, out there.” He pointed out a broken window to an overgrown garden with a high stone wall. “My father taught us how to control our powers. We’d duel. She beat me almost every time.”

“I too used to train with my siblings,” Cullen said, for lack of something better. “Some of my fondest memories.” Solana was watching him curiously, and he felt suddenly self conscious. “Sorry, you don’t want to hear about my - we should look around, see if we can find anything else of sentimental value that may have been passed over by the looters.”

Hawke went down a hallway that must have lead to the bedchambers and Cullen headed for what had once been the kitchen but was now no more than an alcove with an overflowing cauldron and some broken cutlery, open to the sky.

To his surprise, Solana followed him. “You used to train with your siblings? They seem so domestic.” She was amused, her mouth quirked at his expense.

He busied himself checking through flooded drawers. “Yes, you can ask them about it tomorrow if you desire. Rosalie is particularly fond of regaling how I’d force her to play the apostate.”

A stiff drawer came suddenly free as he tugged on it, sloshing water across his boots. He lept back, an oath on his tongue. By the time he’d gathered his wits again, Solana was gone.

Chapter Text

The wind wailing through cracks in Skyhold’s walls did nothing to fortify Celeste’s courage as she stepped into the icy gaol. It had to be at least as cold as the snowy landscape outside. She had a shawl around her shoulders and fur-lined boots, and even so her fingers were white and numb on the tray she carried.

Warden Edmond was huddled in the furthest corner from the gaol’s missing wall. A flurry of snow blew across the gap, catching the last pink light of the day. He straightened at the sound of the door, and Celeste offered him a sympathetic smile.

“I wouldn’t bother,” he said, through clenched teeth. “He’s not long for this world.”

“What?”

He nodded to the cell where she could only make out a black lump.

“Took a fever this morning. He says it’s the lyrium. Nothing to be done.”

Fiona wouldn’t like that. They needed him. Solana needed him. The baby needed him. “Maybe he’s just being dramatic. Cullen gave up lyrium and survived.”

But even as she approached the cell, she could see Samson was in poor shape. He was curled in on himself, quaking, teeth grit and forehead shining.

“Ser Samson?” she asked hesitantly. “I’ve brought you food.” He didn’t respond. She crouched and pushed the tray through to him. “It’s warm porridge. But it won’t be warm if you leave it.”

“You heard the man,” he said, voice hardly more than a rasp. “No point.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

His eyes opened. Red slits stared at her, but he said nothing more.

She couldn’t leave him like this. She had to do something. To Edmond she said, “Open the door.”

“Are you jesting?”

“He needs help, open the door.”

Edmond wandered over, with his hands stuffed in his pockets to keep them warm. “In case you’re not aware, this man led Corypheus’s army. I open the door, he escapes, it will be my head when the Inquisitor returns. No can do.”

Celeste focused her gaze on him with an intensity she hoped to rival Fiona’s. Magic wasn’t the only thing she’d been learning from the Grand Enchanter. “If this man dies while under your care, the Warden Commander will have more than just your head.”

That gave him pause.

She added, almost casually, “And you know her husband has a special interest in Ser Samson. He went to considerable expense to have him brought back here.”

Edmond growled and withdrew a ring of keys. “On your head be it.”

He fumbled with them for an agonisingly long while before finding the correct key for the lock. Samson didn’t move as he opened the door, nor when Celeste entered and knelt beside him.

She was glad that neither of the men could hear her rapid heartbeat, or see how dry her mouth had become. Samson was dangerous. One of the most dangerous people in Thedas. Only, he didn’t look that dangerous curled up in a feverish ball.

“I must warn you, I’m a mage,” she felt the need to tell him. “Any sudden movements would not be advised.”

“They make mages announce themselves now, do they?”

“Call it a courtesy.”

His back was to her and he stank of sweat and decay. They’d dressed him in a dark cotton shirt and trousers. She reached forward to touch his back. As her fingers came in contact with him, he jerked and hissed. She pulled back in fright, and Edmond unsheathed his sword. “Watch it!”

Celeste took a deep breath of cold air, and tried again. This time, as she touched his shoulder, he gave a groan of pain. She turned him over, onto his back and he thrashed against her grip, whimpering.

“His skin’s sensitive,” Celeste told Edmond.

She leaned over Samson, pressing a finger to his pulse. Rapid, racing. A hand on his forehead. Burning, despite the cold.

“Go fetch Fiona,” she commanded.

Edmond didn’t move. “What? You expect me to just leave you here, door wide open for him to escape?”

“He’s not going anywhere, but lock me in if you must.”

“Lock you -”

Oh for the love of Andraste . She lashed out with her right hand and cast fire. The spell speared right past Edmond, slamming into the opposite wall. “Fiona! Now!”

His eyes were as large as silver pieces. He nodded and closed the door, turning the lock with a dexterity he had seemed to sorely lack before, and hurried away.

Samson chuckled weakly again, staring up at her with his red eyes. He was not an attractive man. Pallid skin, wide forehead, dark stubble and slick, greasy hair. The red lyrium had been eating away at him from the inside out, it seemed. And now it was claiming him.

“Courtesy, indeed.” He grinned, revealing crooked teeth.

She lifted one of his hands to keep a finger on the pulse point at his wrist. It was ice, so cold that the tips were turning blue. Along his nails, shards of red. The lyrium. Even in her grip, the hand shivered. His whole body trembled. Edmond had been right. He wouldn’t see out the night, not like this.

She removed her shawl.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

What was she doing? She draped it over him, tucking in the edges. “I’m a destructive mage, you know what that is?”

“I was a Templar, so yeah, I know what a destructive mage is.”

“In other words,” she said. “I am not a healer. Fiona might be able to warm you with magic. I can’t.”

His eyes closed. “You want me to live, so you can run your little experiments on me?”

It would be naive to think he hadn’t worked out what was happening. Anders had fed him two possible concoctions so far, neither had done anything. Plus, he’d probably overheard a few of their conversations as they came and went. Still, the way he said it…

“Don’t worry, Mage. I’m not opposed to that. In fact, I’m all for it. But, here’s the thing. I doubt you want everybody to know. Say I survive this. Say I get taken before your Inquisitor when he comes back from Maker knows where. Say I have the whole court right there, listening to me. I’m supposing you don’t want me saying anything?”

A laugh bubbled up from her chest. “You’re trying to blackmail me. Now?”

“Well, I figure I don’t have much time, do I? Either way.”

“What do you want in return for your silence, then?” she asked, more out of amusement than any real fear.

“I want in on it. Whatever you’re up to.”

“So you haven’t worked out what we’re up to but you want to be a part of it?”

“You’re making some kind of potion. Must be valuable, powerful, to have the Hero, that apostate and the former Grand Enchanter involved.”

“I’m afraid you might be disappointed. We’re searching for a cure. To the Blight.”

His brow puckered in confusion. “Hate to break it to ya, Mage. I don’t have the Blight.”

“I hate to break it to you, Ser Samson, but what exactly do you think red lyrium is?”

He frowned and something that might have been genuine fear flicked across his features, too fast for her to be sure. He opened his red eyes again, examining her face.

“It’s blighted. You’re tainted. We’re attempting to cure you.”

He didn’t have the chance to respond. The gaol door clanged open and Fiona rushed in.

“Celeste! What are you doing ?”

She gave Samson an apologetic shrug, and sent a sleep spell up through the hand she was still holding. By the time Fiona reached the cell door, he was quietly snoring.

 



The campfire burned warm and fragrant and Varric spun tales, one bleeding into the other so seamlessly that Cullen could hardly tell where one ended and another began. They shared provisions of cheese, bread and preserved fig that was almost so sweet as to be unpleasant. It was simple food, none of them trusting the health of the local wildlife, but it was decadent compared to the meals he’d shared in the Wilds. Cullen was so entranced by the food, and by Varric’s tales, that he didn’t notice Solana slip away.

He thought nothing of it when he noticed she’d gone, assuming she had ducked away to feed the baby. But then a small whimper alerted him to the fact that the baby was still there, resting beside Trevelyan, in her basket.

“I think she’s hungry,” the Inquisitor said, lifting her up gently as she gave another little grunt.

“No, it won’t be that,” Anders said. “Solana fed her less than an hour ago.”

He turned his head, as if to ask Hawke for confirmation. Hawke wasn’t there either.

Anders frowned, but spoke as if his partner’s sudden absence didn’t bother him. “If she doesn’t smell, it’s probably wind. Pass her here, I’ll see to her.”

 


 

 

The chantry had that kind of stillness that only very old buildings had, like age had given the walls the ability to absorb every disturbance: sound, motion, even light. Moonlight spilled in through the high stained-glass windows, casting odd smatterings of colour across the floor, but otherwise there was but a single light within, a mage’s staff set to glow.

Solana crept towards it, careful not to disrupt the lone figure hunched in one of the pews. Hawke had his head bowed as if in prayer and she reconsidered her decision to follow him.

“I used to come here as a child,” he said, suddenly. “My mother didn’t like it, but father insisted. Even after my powers manifested, he said it was more important than ever that I know right from wrong.”

Solana sank onto the seat beside him. “I saw you leave the fire. I’d ask if you’re alright but…” She let the sentence drop.

Hawke gave a hollow chuckle. “I don’t know what I expected. Maybe that being here would make me feel close to them. Instead it just… it just feels empty.” He let out a trembling breath.

Solana didn’t know what to say. “I came here during the Blight… I’m sorry, Hawke. I should have done more.”

“You mean besides saving the world?” He looked up at her, the light of his staff throwing his features into sharp relief as he offered her a smile.

She wanted to correct him, tell him that it wasn’t her who’d saved it. She wanted to confess that she’d entered Lothering that day wide-eyed and terrified. She’d never seen the world outside the Tower before Duncan recruited her. She’d spent hours wandering around the Ostagar encampment, enthralled by everything she knew now to be mundane. She hadn’t been prepared for Lothering, for the smell and the noise and so much desperation. Morrigan had urged her to move on once they’d gathered supplies and she had obliged. She wanted to tell Hawke, but she felt too ashamed. Instead of helping the refugees, she’d sat here, on this very seat perhaps, and prayed. Alistair had found her eventually, and they’d spoken about Duncan, about travelling to Highever one day to erect a statue in his honour, as substitute for a funeral. In the end, Solana had made that trip alone. She hadn’t had the means to erect a statue. She had instead lit an empty fire on a barren cliff, and offered nothing but words for both of them.

Now the memory of that day, sitting in this chantry and doing nothing, tasted bitter. “Your sister, how did she -”

“Ogre.”

Darkspawn. What else would it have been?

“And my father was the wasting illness. And my mother was blood magic experimentation.”

The air left Solana’s lungs. “What?”

“I know. Trust me… you don’t want to hear the whole story. She was…” He swallowed and his brow puckered. “She was kidnapped. I was too late to save her.”

Her heart galloped in her chest. No wonder Anders was keeping his work with Fiona and Celeste secret. Solana wanted to know more. What kind of experiments? Experiments like the ones they’d been planning for the Red Templars? But she dared not ask. It was clearly still very painful. Instead, she wrapped an arm around him and pulled him close. He rested his head on her shoulder and sighed.

“At least I have you, cuz. And the little one. And Cullen, I suppose, if he’ll have me.”

“Of course he’ll have you,” she said. “You know you’re always welcome at our table, Hawke.”

Like they had a table. Like they were anything close to a normal family. Still, he seemed to take comfort in that and patted her knee.

 


 

“Curly.” Cullen jumped at the light touch of Varric’s hand on his arm. He tore his gaze from the couple in the chantry and looked down at him.

Varric’s eyes were wide with concern. “Don’t do this.” His voice was soft, soft enough so as not to alert Hawke and Solana to their presence. “Don’t make this something it’s not.”

Varric thought he was jealous. Varric, always observant. He’d seen Cullen standing out here, staring inwards. He’d followed the line of his gaze to the bright circle where his wife had another man in her arms. He’d drawn the obvious conclusion, that Cullen was jealous.

He was. But not like Varric thought.

He didn’t know how to put voice to his feelings, so he pulled away.

How did he explain how much he longed for that closeness? He hadn’t felt it in… ages. And now it seemed impossible. Too much stood between them.

As he trudged through camp seeking the solitude of his tent, he passed Anders. The man held the baby to his chest and gently rubbed its back, but his eyes followed Cullen and his expression plainly echoed everything that was in Cullen’s own heart.

That was not in the least bit comforting.

Chapter Text

Solana was unprepared for Mia’s hug.

It wasn’t the polite show of greeting that she’d seen noble women in Orlais perform - shoulders pressed briefly together, faces turned to the side to avoid touching masks. This was a full on, suffocating, two-armed embrace. Solana found herself drowning in Mia’s blonde curls, hands flailing. Then the older woman pulled away, still grasping her, eyes scanning her as if trying to read everything that had happened in the last two months.

Somewhere behind them, Rosalie gave a squeal of delight. “Oh, Cullen! Oh, she’s so precious. She looks just like Solana, doesn’t she? She’s so small! May I hold her?”

“Certainly,” Cullen answered. So formal, even here.

He’d been even more silent than usual on the ride from Lothering. The night before, she’d found him already asleep in their tent and he’d left before she awoke. The last words they’d spoken had been in Hawke’s kitchen, when she’d asked about training with his family. Somehow, she’d managed to anger him again. Or, likely, he was still angry.

I don’t know who you are at your core...

“What’s wrong?” Mia wanted to know. She must have read Solana’s expression.

Solana started to stammer something about being tired, but a heavy hand on her shoulder stopped her.

“We can talk inside,” Cullen said.

 

The Rutherford home was large, but not in the way the homes in Denerim were large. This building had once been a small, stone cottage. Over the years, parts had been added with wattle and daub and thick wooden beams. Now rooms jutted out on all sides, and a second storey balanced above them.

Surrounded by Rutherfords, the party was herded inside with promises of tea and cake. Little Branson Junior was sitting by the front door, chewing on a wooden horse. His eyes went wide when he saw the new people and he gave a little nervous wail. Maralie scooped him into her arms. He kicked against her, flinging the horse down and then crying in anguish. Cullen bent to pick it up and handed it to him.

“Hello Branson,” he said.

Branson stared at him.

“Say ‘Hello, Cullen’,” his mother instructed, turning so that Branson could get a proper look at Cullen over her shoulder.

“Hullo,” he said.

Solana was impressed, but Cullen corrected him. “Hello.”

“Hullo.”

“Hel-”

“Cullen,” Solana interjected. She touched his shoulder and he jerked in response as if she’d struck him. Then he nodded briskly and moved indoors.

The house smelled of raw wood and herbs. The entrance hall opened into the kitchen which was a large square room dominated by a table big enough to seat all of them. Bundles of elfroot, ginger, rosemary and other assorted herbs hung suspended from the roof beams, interspersed with lengths of sausage, and a plucked fowl that must have been dinner. A fire was roaring against the one wall, a teapot already steaming. It was late in the day and the light that filtered in through the windows along the adjacent wall was golden.

Was this similar to the home where Cullen had grown up? Around Solana, the room came alive with activity. People exchanged further greetings, Cullen was asked a million questions, Rosalie cuddled the baby and blushed when introduced to Hawke again. Solana couldn’t imagine quiet Cullen feeling at home in a place like this. As Mia counted out mismatched teacups and Maralie comforted her moaning son, the men made conversation with the rest of the party. They wanted to know how Max was, what Anders did for a living, how Cassey found being a Grey Warden, all about Varric’s crossbow. It was all too loud and too much. Solana stood at the centre of it, hugging herself, heart racing.

Maralie looked at her, bouncing Branson on her hip. “Your little one is so good. You’re so lucky.”

And then something in Solana snapped. Too little sleep, too long being strong. Heat rushed through her blood, into her chest, up through her throat. She spoke before she even knew she meant to.  “Lucky? She’s cursed. She’s broken . Don’t you dare call me lucky.”

Then the room was silent. Blessed silence that a mere moment before she would have been grateful for. But now it rang in her ears. Maralie looked stricken, even Branson’s little mouth formed an ‘O’ of shock.

Solana stumbled backwards. She needed to go, to be away, to flee. Her feet carried her to the door and she fell against it, pushing it open with her body. Icy air slammed into her but she didn’t stop running. Her boots pounded on the path down to the small stables where they’d lodged their horses, but she didn’t stop, couldn’t stop. She left the property. Running into the forest beyond, running until her lungs heaved, running until she wanted to be sick, before she fell to her knees in the dirt. The trees spun around her head. She wasn’t strong enough yet for antics like this. Another stupid decision to add to the list. She swatted at her eyes, at the traitorous tears that were forming. The muscles in her legs convulsed and she huddled in on herself, struggling to regain her breath, struggling to calm her heart and her mind. Failing.

 


 

“Solana!” Cullen started after her, but Branson - senior - caught his arm and held him in place. He was right, of course. It would do no good for him to go after her now. Fresh anger burned in his chest, almost as hot as the embarrassment that heated his cheeks. “Maker’s breath.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Maralie, I... I apologise for Solana’s behaviour. That was unacceptable.”

“Cullen.” Mia set down the teapot. Her voice was soft, but it rang around the room. “I think you need to tell us what’s going on.”

His letter to them had been brief, saying only that they were needed on an important quest and that they’d be leaving the baby there for a few days. He had kept it that way purposefully, believing that some things were best said in person or even not at all. But now, as every eye in the room focused on him, he felt he had no choice but to put it as plainly as possible.

Blood and ashes, Solana. Why should he have to be the one to explain?

He sank into one of the kitchen chairs. “Solana is a Grey Warden. Grey Wardens keep secrets. One such secret is what gives them their abilities. It’s the Blight.” He took perverse pleasure in saying that. To the Void with her secrets. If she’d wanted to keep them, she could have been here herself.

“The Blight?” Rosalie was the first to break the stunned silence. “Is she… is she sick?”

“No,” Cullen said, without looking at Rosalie. “Not presently. Although she will be in less than two decades, I am told. Their bodies can only fight it for so long. Then they are cursed to go find death in the Deep Roads. I accepted this when I chose to be with Solana, although it was… not without its challenges. What neither of us realised was that this taint would be passed down to our child.”

There was an intake of breath from the assembled Rutherfords and Cullen pressed his eyes closed so he would not see their expressions.

“Additionally, before Solana realised she was with child, she undertook a dangerous mission that required she consume potions. Including lyrium.”

“Not to mention, she walked in the Fade,” Hawke interjected.

“She saved our lives by taking that potion,” Max added. “I would have most certainly perished were it not for her.”

Cullen’s insides riled against the fact that these men were protecting his wife, while he was accusing her. But he swallowed his feelings once more. His family requested facts, that’s what they would receive.

“That aside, the potion may have affected our child. She was born without the ability to feel emotion, or to dream. She was born Tranquil.”

 


 

 

“Ser Samson?”

Samson forced his eyes open. It felt like they’d been glued shut. His mouth was dry, his lips were split, and he had no idea where he was. Caught between some red lyrium nightmare and the intense pain in his bones, the very last thing he was expecting to see was her . The thought crossed his mind that he had died, and it was Andraste herself leaning over him. Soft pale skin, long blonde hair that brushed his cheek, with a halo of golden light.

But he was in too much pain to be dead, and as he focused on the woman, he recognised her as the mage, and the halo as a trick of the light. He recognised his location as his cell, cold stone beneath his back, the smell of rot, hunger stabbing at his insides.

“What ya want?”

She smirked. “Feeling better, then?”

“Marginally.” He tried to push himself to sitting, but his arms were too weak. “Although,” he added. “I suspect that since you’re here, I’m about to feel worse.”

No doubt she had brought the next dose of whatever concoction they wanted to test on him.

Her smirk stayed firmly in place as she lifted one delicate hand. Between thumb and forefinger, she held a silver-trimmed vial. Blue, glowing, singing... He started salivating at the very sight of it. Like a dog, trained to beg for treats.

“What do you want?” he asked again. There would be a price. There was always a price.

Fiona wants you to be well.”

Memories of the night before that had been foggy residue at the back of his mind suddenly came clear. The Grand Enchanter rushing in and, before that, what this woman had said. He was blighted. They were trying to cure him. He knew the red stuff was corrupted. He knew what it had done to Kirkwall, to that bitch Meredith, and to his men. And in retrospect… I control the Blight, Corypheus had said, how many times? He’d been talking about his Wardens. Samson hadn’t considered he’d also been talking about his Templars. Not that it mattered. He was just as dead either way.

“She wants me to be well so she can wreck me herself, then?”

“I told you, we’re trying to cure you.”

“But if it kills me in the process, no big loss, right?”

The woman’s pale green eyes widened and she shifted back on her haunches, lowering the vial. “Ser Samson, you are dying.”

“Yea, I am. And with any luck, I’ll be gone before the Commander returns.”

“Why?”

Her frank curiosity brought him up short. “What do you mean why ? You daft or something? You know who I am, what I did . You don’t honestly think they’ll let me get away with it?”

Her eyes travelled the length of him, her mouth twisted into a small frown. “You think Cullen will torture you?”

“Oh no, I don’t think that. Have you met the Commander? He’ll get someone else to do it. Doesn’t have the stomach for it.”

Her gaze dropped to her lap, where she toyed with the vial. She was silent for a long while and he managed to push himself up to a sitting position. His head spun, his neck felt too weak to support it. But he’d be damned if he continued this conversation with her looking down on him.

It struck him, for the first time, that she was sitting in his cell. She had to be a special kind of naive. He had half a mind to try something, just to teach her a lesson. But that would require energy he didn’t have, and it would be ultimately pointless. It wasn’t like he had anywhere to go.

“You have an opportunity,” she said, startling him. She was still staring into her lap, but her voice and grown dark. “You can do something good with the life you have left. After all of the bad you’ve done...”

She held up the vial, offering it to him once again. “Fiona gave you a second chance. She sat by your side all last night, most of today. You have time now, if you want it. Time still, to make a difference.” She rose, still holding the vial. “Or, you can let the withdrawal take you. Cullen won’t be back for at least another week. I doubt you’ll last that long.”

She met his gaze again, and whatever she found there seemed to confirm that as his choice, because she turned with a sigh and opened the door of the cell.

“Wait.” His pulse thrummed. He swallowed, doubting himself. Samson knew he was a coward. He would always be a coward. Death from withdrawal now was an unpleasant thought, but death brought on slowly by agonising experiments, or torture, or the wasting illness… or all three, one after the other, Maker forbid. That would be worse. That would be far worse. He’d expected death, mentally prepared himself for death. He deserved death. Why should he live when he had asked his men and Maddox to die? But when he’d thought of death, he’d thought of the blade. Never this, never what she was proposing.

He reached out for the lyrium regardless.

Chapter Text

Solana heard the door open behind her and knew instinctively who it was. The muscles in her back tensed in preparation for the expected diatribe.

She’d returned to the house only a few minutes before, knowing her daughter would need to be fed. Disappearing into the forest was not an option anymore, as much as she yearned to run.

They’d all been sitting down to dinner already when she’d entered, and everything had stopped - the chatter, the movement of spoons and forks, even the chewing.

“The baby?” she’d asked as they stared at her.

Rosalie had brought her to this room. This room, up on the top floor, with its sloped ceiling and broad window. This room with the rocking horse and the crib and the soft rug and the pastel colours and a comfortable chair for feeding, where she sat now, and another comfortable chair piled high with stuffed animals. This room that was everything a small child could wish for. A shelf to her left held toys, ornaments, fresh flowers. A table to her right seemed to exist solely for changing.

Solana had found her daughter asleep in a beautiful bassinet, with a silken bow. It had felt a crime to wake her, so she had sat in the feeding chair, staring out of the window as the stars rose over Ferelden. She’d known it was only a matter of time before he came to chastise her. The fight that had been brewing for days seemed destined to happen now.

“Solana.” His voice. She closed her eyes, bracing herself. “I… I don’t even know what to say. Maralie -”

“Cullen.” The second voice was Mia’s. “Why don’t you go downstairs? Branson has something he wants to show you.”

“This is hardly the time.”

“Just go.”

Solana heard him inhale in annoyance before he acquiesced. “Very well.”

His heavy footfalls receded from the door and Solana turned, unsure what to expect. Her skin was crawling with embarrassment. Cullen’s family had shown her nothing but kindness, and she had been awful. She knew Mia was protective of Cullen and as she came into the room and shut the door behind her, Solana readied herself for a lecture.

But Mia perched on the other chair and leaned forward. “Tell me what happened.”

“I… when?”

Mia smiled gently. “Between you and my brother. Has he been unkind to you?”

“No!” The word left her lips so fast that even she was startled by the harshness of it. “No, never. Has he… he hasn’t said anything?”

“Nothing. Other than, well, he told us of your plight, and of your mission. I imagine it’s a terrible strain on a relationship, this kind of thing.”

Solana dropped her gaze. Yes, this kind of thing . Her cursing their child with her poisoned blood and her ill-conceived actions.

“I’m ill-suited to it,” she said.

“I don’t imagine anyone is well-suited to having a child in peril.”

“No, I mean, the relationship. It’s not his fault. I’ve… he has reason to be angry with me.”

Mia was silent for a long moment, and when Solana glanced up at her, she was staring out of the window. “We would fight, him and I, like you wouldn’t believe. Usually it would end with me storming off to cool down and him drawing into himself. Further and further like a coiled spring. Ask him what was wrong and he’d simply glare at you. If you were lucky. If you were unlucky, he’d pull out an itemised list of everything you’d said or done wrong in the last three months.”

A chuckle escaped Solana, despite her mood. That did sound like Cullen.

“One thing I know for certain,” Mia said, “is that he loves you. Very much. I’ve never heard him talk about anyone, anything , the way he speaks about you. He once had a similar passion. For the Templar Order before he joined, before he pledged his life to it. ‘Helping the mages,’ he’d call it. ‘Protecting them’. When I learned he’d left, I never imagined I’d see that look in my brother’s eyes again. And then he told me about you.”

Mia’s words may have been meant to comfort, but they made Solana feel worse. “He was mistaken about me. He’s... admitted as much.”

“Yet, he’s here, isn’t he? At your side.”

A small sound came from the bassinet. And then a cry, anguished. Like a mewling cat. She must have been very hungry for her discomfort to bring her to tears. Solana’s heart was instantly in her throat as she rose to fetch her child, but Mia was closer. She reached in and scooped her up. The baby was red-faced, eyes scrunched closed, mouth wide, tongue flat. 

Mia passed her gently to Solana. Even though she was wailing, Mia’s eyes shone with adoration.

“Shh, shhh.” Solana opened her robe, more concerned with getting food to her child than with their audience. The baby’s hungry mouth rooted for nourishment, but as soon as she found her target, she fell silent and still, suckling hungrily. Solana sat back, hugging her close and breathing deeply, her heart still pounding.

Mia was still looking at them, a soft smile on her lips and Solana wondered if that was something like the look she’d described seeing on Cullen’s face. There was something Cullen about it. Cullen on their wedding day. Cullen in the weeks after. Not Cullen now.

“She should be yours.”

Mia jerked. “What?”

“The baby. She should be yours. You’d make a better mother than I ever could.” Solana’s vision blurred. “She should have this room, this house, that field to play in, that forest to explore. It’s unfair that she’s mine. I can’t give her anything. I can’t even give her a name .”

Mia’s expression was stricken. “Solana, you’re giving her something right now.”

She snorted. “Any wet nurse can give her milk.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Her eyes flicked down to where Solana was holding her daughter. “Love, Solana. You love her fiercely. You’ve travelled all this way for the chance to give her a better life.”

Solana sniffed. “So did everyone in that room downstairs.”

Mia shook her head. “They came here for you. Even Cullen. If I know my brother, he’d rather be trying to find the solution between the pages of a book.”

Yes he would, at the expense of all else, even sleep.

“They’re here for you. You’re here for her .”

The tears flowed freely now, and Solana was powerless to stop them. Mia’s unexpected kindness had brought down the last of her emotional defenses. “Of course I am. I did this. This is my fault. Don’t you understand?”

“Solana...” Patient, as if she was talking to a small child. “You didn’t do anything.”

How much had Cullen told her?

“I carry the Blight, Mia. I passed it to her. I should have realised -”

“But you didn’t.”

“But I did with the lyrium. I knew that it might affect her. Not how, but I knew. ..” There it was, the truth. She held her free arm across her face, hiding her eyes belatedly as grief overtook her.

Then, a soft hand on her shoulder and arms around her, pulling her as close as the feeding chair would allow. Solana didn’t understand what was happening. Why did it make the ache in her chest feel so much worse? Why couldn’t she stop crying? She was the Hero of Ferelden! And yet the sobs wracked her body until she was shivering and could hardly breathe, until the baby pushed away from her breast and Mia took her and held her up to her shoulder and patted her back. And Solana heaved in air and tried to find the words to speak, to tell Mia why she was guilty and undeserving of her sympathy.

“Did Cullen tell you how I learned I was pregnant?” she asked, eventually.

Mia shook her head.

“A nightmare demon told me.”

Solana watched the look of surprise cross Mia’s features, but to her credit she didn’t say anything about abominations.

“Battle of Adamant.” Solana hiccuped, wiped a hand across her cheek. “We went into the Fade. There was a demon. Listed our greatest fears. She was mine.”

“You didn’t want a child?”

Solana shook her head. “I didn’t think I could have a child, so I hadn’t read the signs. But it did. I thought… I expected it to say something about… about Cullen. But it asked me what I would do if my taint was passed down to my unborn child. That was it, my greatest fear. Worse than anything else it could find within me… and then I drank lyrium to defeat it. Lyrium . Knowing what it had told me. Knowing what I carried within me. Knowing it would likely do something , even if I knew not what. I made the choice. She is my fault.”

“But you saved everyone else. They said as much, after you left earlier. Your friends were quick to defend you.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps I could have… let someone else be the hero.”

“If you’d done that, it’s possible neither of you would be here now.”

Solana only shrugged.

Silence fell between them again, and eventually Mia stood. “You must be hungry. Come downstairs and I’ll get you something to eat.”

Solana shook her head again, aware of how her face must look. Aware that downstairs Cullen was waiting, and likely Maralie too.

“I’ll bring you something up here then,” Mia said. She offered a sad smile. “Why don’t you get some rest? Your room is across the hall. I’ll watch the little one.”

The baby seemed quite content in Mia’s arms, but then she usually seemed content. She chewed on her fist and stared at the room over Mia’s shoulder.

Solana nodded, too drained to find the words.

 


 

 

Leaving the baby was more difficult than Cullen expected. And he was leaving her with his own family. He could only imagine how Solana felt. The whole way through breakfast, she cuddled her close and when it came time for them to take their leave, she kept kissing her and finding excuses to see to her. Mia had eventually pushed her bodily out of the house, reminding her that they intended to be at the inn by nightfall.

Still, she kept looking over her shoulder, even after the house had receded into the distance.

He’d offer words of comfort, only he didn’t know whether any words from him could be of comfort.

When Mia had finally returned downstairs the night before, Cullen had sought Solana out. As much as he disliked confrontation, he knew when one was necessary. He’d found her in the whitewashed room that was to be theirs for the night, curled up on the clean bed. She was awake, but physically pulled away from him when he sat upon the bed.

He’d spoken to her, as he’d intended to do before. He’d explained that she needed to apologise to Maralie, and that he understood his family was overwhelming to her but that they were trying to help.

She’d been unresponsive. Eventually he’d sighed and buried his head in his hands and confessed that he didn’t know what more to say. Had she even heard him?

“Yes,” she’d said. Only that. Yes. No words in her defense, none of her usual fire.

“You spoke with Mia?” he’d enquired.

“Yes.” Again, just that.

He’d given up and readied himself for bed. He’d lain flat on his back staring up at the rafters for ages, while she curled on her side next to him with her back to him.

Eventually he’d drifted off, only to wake from some nightmare hours later and find her gone. He’d been rattled enough to get up and wash his face. As he leaned over the wash basin, he’d heard low voices. Curiosity had driven him from the room. He’d traced the voices to the nursery. The door had been left ajar, warm candlelight pouring from within.

Solana had been sitting with Maralie while one of them - he dared not look and find out which - nursed. He’d caught the end of a conversation.

“...not imagine what it has been like for you these last months,” Maralie said. “If Cullen had mentioned in his letter, I wouldn’t have said…”

“...please,” Solana had interrupted her. “You weren’t to know. I’m the Hero of Ferelden, remember. I’m fine. It’s Cullen and our little one who need help. We’ll find it at Kinloch, I’m certain of it.”

He had bristled at the implication that he needed help, flushed with embarrassment. She’d made him sound like a child. Did she not think him capable of handling the same amount of emotional strain as she? Did she truly believe her status as the Hero placed her so far above him? It shouldn't have surprised him, she evidently believed it placed her above the very laws of nature.

So what good would his platitudes be? He rode beside her in silence.

 


 

 

The Spoiled Princess was an odd name for an inn, Hawke thought as they rode up to its stables. Especially one with such an eerie view. Night was falling over Lake Calenhad and he could see the tower rising up before them, a single dark finger jutting out of the water.

A sign bearing a cheerful beer flagon danced in the wind coming up off the lake and its rusty hinges creaked.

“Am I the only one who has a bad feeling about this?” he asked without thinking.

“No.” Cullen stared out at the lake, his back erect, his face expressionless.

Solana pulled up from behind him. “Home sweet home.”

“Sweet, sweet home,” Anders echoed.

The other Ferelden mage, Cassey, was silent.

“You know, I swore I’d never come back here again. Not alive, anyways.” Anders sighed. “I need a drink. It’s too late to set out now anyways. Let’s spend the night here, yes?”

Hawke expected an argument from Cullen, but he merely nodded as he dismounted. Solana kept looking at him, but said nothing.

The inn was full of unexpected noise. There was drunken singing and an old man dancing on a table. Varric laughed and nodded appreciatively. Cullen paid for their rooms, and then swept through the crowd for the narrow staircase that would lead him to his bed. Solana did not follow.

“This dance again?” Hawke asked her.

“Don’t look at me, I’m not the one on the table.” Even though her words were light, her eyes didn’t leave her husband until his boots disappeared from view.

“What’s going on with you two?”

“Nothing.”

Hawke didn’t believe that for one instant. “Oh, right. You’re behaving completely normally. Maybe we should ask the others. Hey, Varric -”

Solana snatched his arm and shushed him. Varric rolled his eyes over to them, but when Hawke didn’t elaborate, he returned his attention to the drunk man’s display.

Solana glared at Hawke. She was a little shorter than him, but even so, the force of the look was something. He shrugged innocently.

“You saw how I acted with his family.” She spoke through her teeth. “You hardly have to ask why he’s upset.”

“Uh, no. Don’t try that one. You’ve been like this since Skyhold.”

“Let it go, love.” Anders placed a hand on Hawke’s shoulder. “She doesn’t want to talk about it.”

Hawke spun and he could tell immediately from Anders’s face that he knew more than he was letting on. “Oh? And you’re the expert are you?”

He was probably a bit harsh, but he riled at the interference. Anders’s eyes went wide in affront and Hawke immediately regretted his words.

“Anders,” Solana’s look also spoke volumes. “It’s alright.”

To Hawke she said, “Cullen and I had an argument. That’s all. He… he’s under a lot of strain. You know what happened to him in that tower.”

“I don’t, actually.” Hawke gave her an apologetic smile. “Kirkwall mage, not exactly his bosom buddy.”

Unexpectedly, Solana paled. She dropped her eyes to her hands.

Again, Anders intervened. “Alcohol! Solana, come on. I’ll buy you one. Been a while for you, hasn’t it?”

 

Hawke watched Anders lead Solana to the bar. Stranger and stranger… Anders didn’t buy drinks as a rule. He hadn’t, as far as Hawke knew, ever had an income. Circle mage, Warden, Darktown healer, and then Thedas’s most wanted. Yet, he produced coin for Solana from somewhere and pressed a flagon into her hands.

He’d saved her life, delivered her child. That explained it, didn’t it? That kind of thing must create a bond.

Why does it make me so uncomfortable?

Solana forced a smile and lifted the mug to her lips, holding it in both hands. Anders patted her back.

Am I jealous?

 


 

 

Samson screamed again, and pulled his knees up to his chest. Celeste passed him a drink of water, but he knocked it from her hand. The mug shattered on the floor of his cell.

“Sorry.” He sucked in air. “Sorry I didn’t mean to - AH!”

He convulsed again. Celeste looked to Fiona. The Grand Enchanter’s expression was pensive. “Can we do nothing for the pain?” Celeste asked.

Fiona shook her head. “We must make note of the side effects.”

He heaved in air again. “Happy to be of servi… shit wanker fuck!” His right hand clung to the bars, knuckles white. But after the wave of pain passed, his eyes found Celeste’s.  “Don’t pity me, mage. No one else does. You know what I - I’ve done.”

Fiona sighed and stood, book of notes in hand. “What I don’t understand, Ser Samson, is how you have survived this long without succumbing to the red lyrium. You should be quite insane by now.”

“Who says I’m not?”

“Or,” she spoke as if he hadn’t said anything. “You should be one of those behemoths completely taken over by the lyrium.”

He shook his head. “Why he chose me.”

“Who, Corypheus?”

“Yeah,” he gasped.

What is why he chose you?”

He laughed but it wasn’t a happy sound. “My charm and good looks.”

Fiona shook her head. His fingers went white on the bars again, and he grimaced, biting down on his pain.

It occurred to Celeste that Fiona was torturing him for information.

“Tell me what you know, Ser Samson. It could help us. Perhaps the next dosage we give you will be less painful.”

He laughed again. “You bitch.”

He’d realised it too and Fiona had lost the upper hand. She looked to Celeste and there was meaning in her look. Then she turned and left.

Celeste wished she hadn’t understood what Fiona wanted.

She rose and poured Samson another mug of water, before returning to his side. He watched her. He wasn’t insane. His eyes showed sharp intelligence.

“We used to do this too, you know.” He forced out the words.

“Torture people?”

A bark of laughter, followed by a bleat of pain. “Yeah, well… not what I meant. It’s the technique, isn’t it? She threatens me, you give me kindness. Get me on your side. Maybe I open up to you, think we’re friends.”

“Fiona didn’t threaten you,” Celeste responded, not sure what else to say. She felt physically ill watching him.

“Yeah, she did. We both know it. Listen, I’m not holding out on you. I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t wanna help end the fuckin’ Blight. I’d be… be…” He lost the ability to speak as another wave hit him. “Something something side of the Maker, or Void or whatever bullshit. So you can tell your mistress I don’t know anything. Alright?”

Celeste pushed the mug through the bars, careful to avoid his flailing limbs. She didn’t even know what Fiona had given him. Dragon blood and something. Something with a number. Whatever it was, it must have been burning his stomach something awful.

He’s a Templar, he was Corypheus’s right hand. He deserves it.

Only looking at him squirming it was much more difficult to believe it.

“You mentioned the reason Corypheus chose you?”

“Look, best guess I have is lyrium resistance. I was on the stuff for what? Near on thirty years? And when he asked if I would destroy the Chantry I told him I didn’t… didn’t have the strength. Had the wrong man. And he just said he didn’t. And gave me the red stuff. That’s how it happened. That’s - GAH!” He took several deep breaths, panting. “Probably the Chantry has the answers you want. They… they… know so much… hide it all. Probably had a cure for the fucking Blight all along.”

Chapter Text

Cullen did not miss the tower. He did not miss the mildewy smell of the dim docks beneath it, he did not miss the clutter of dusty boxes and carts lined up along the solid stone platform, and he certainly did not miss the ridiculously tiny boat that was the only ferry across the lake.

When the Inquisitor had declared that he wished to go first in case there were any unexpected rifts waiting for them - the Veil was thin at the tower after all - Solana had jumped at the chance to accompany him. Trevelyan had returned alone for the next passenger. At Cullen’s insistence, he had taken both Varric and Hawke. Hawke had returned an hour later for Cullen and he had rowed back for Anders and Cassey. The return trip was a little unsettling - the heavy boat sitting low in the water - but he refused to delay things for a further hour in order to make one final trip.

“Do you suppose there are people living in the tower?” Cassey asked, squinting at it as if she could see any occupants from out in the middle of the water. Cullen couldn’t even make out his wife standing waiting for them.

“You tell us, you were there last,” Anders responded.

She blushed and hugged her arms around her knees. The three of them were pressed uncomfortably close together, Cassey forming a buffer between Cullen and Anders. (Another reason he had elected to bring them together.)

“I meant only that after we left, perhaps some others chose to make it their home. Poor people with nowhere else to go… or bandits, perhaps.”

“I doubt that’s the case,” Cullen assured her. “It’s an inconvenient residence even when fully staffed.”

“I suppose.”

“I mean relying on this boat for supplies… no more than two people leaving at any one time. It’s ill-conceived.”

Anders snorted.

“Something you care to share?”

“Oh, I’m only amused at hearing a Templar complain about his own prison.”

“I hardly chose the location.” And I’m not a Templar anymore, he added silently. There was little point saying it, Anders already knew.

“Fair enough.” Anders shrugged, staring out at a point on the far shore.

“If you don’t mind me asking…” Cullen ventured. “You managed to escape from here several times. I assume you didn’t take the boat?”

A smile tugged at the corner of Anders’s mouth. “You’d be correct in that assumption.”

He said no more and Cullen didn’t press him.

 


 

The entrance hall was just as Solana remembered it. Despite the emptiness, despite the dust, despite the years, the familiar smell hit her like a whomp to the chest.

Home.

Home, even though she didn’t want it to be. Light came in from above, a stained-glass roof in swirling patterns now given over to decay. Dust motes danced. Ahead of them, a statue of a Templar holding out her shield, bathed in a ray of sun representing Andraste’s holy light. Solana moved forward slowly, ahead of the others. To either side of them, wrought iron grating lined the walls in an intricate design representing the scales of justice. She had always wondered at its purpose, for between the outer wall and this grating there was nothing but space. Now she knew it for what it was. A double wall, an extra barrier to keep the mages in.

She had come to this area often as a child, hiding behind the columns and peeking at the Templars who guarded the main doors. She’d longed for the days that visitors or supplies arrived and she could catch a glimpse of the sky beyond.

She hadn’t realised the injustice of it. It had been nothing more than a game. Mages had to be kept in towers, there was no other option. They were feared outside, and rightly so.

So many years, so many lies.

Her fingers brushed along the statue’s shield as she passed it. Dust tickled her nose and nostalgia grasped her chest as her eyes landed on the row of small tables behind it.

There, off to the right, her chess set. She had convinced one of the older mages to teach her. Chess had provided a better cover for watching the door than skulking behind a pillar.

The pieces were still laid out, as if abandoned mid-game.

She sensed someone behind her and turned, expecting Hawke or a sneering Anders. But it was Cullen, staring at the set as she was.

“I wanted to challenge you to a game,” he whispered. “Many times.”

“You’d watch me play.”

“When I was on guard duty, yes. And sometimes when I was not.” He swallowed, his eyes catching hers and then darting away.

Anders stood before the Templar statue and twisted his mouth in disgust. “Remind me why I agreed to come here again?”  

In one swift movement, he flung a spell at the stone Templar. It shattered, scattering debris across the hall. The face skidded a good few metres, to where Solana was standing.

Cullen visibly tensed, staring down at it. He shut his eyes, swallowed again, and swept away. “We should proceed. To the library?”

Cassey didn’t answer.

He looked around in obvious confusion. Anders was still scowling down at the statue’s remains, Hawke beside him. Varric was humming to himself, examining a painting displayed above the desks. Max stood near the entrance, expression mirroring Cullen’s.

Where was she? Had she gone ahead?

“Here.” She appeared at the entrance. “Yes, to the library. The enchanter’s library.”

She twisted the ring on her finger and Solana felt a fresh stab of guilt. It had to be hard, being here again without him.

 


 

Cullen kept his hand on his sword hilt as they moved down the dim corridor past the apprentice quarters. He was watching for trouble, listening for sounds that they weren’t alone, but he was also distracted by Solana. He was aware of her every reaction. The way her fingers brushed along the stone wall, how she drew in a deep breath when they passed the entrance to the chamber that she had shared with the other girls her age. She hesitated a moment, eyes darting into the room, and he knew she wanted to go in there, chase memories. But she did not say as much. She did not speak at all.

Clouds of dust erupted out of the ragged red carpets beneath their feet as they walked. These carpets were a desperate attempt to bring some colour to this cold grey fortress. Everything else was dark wood, stone and iron. Even the spiral patterns along the walls did nothing to ease the mood of the place.

They entered the downstairs library and the mages automatically cast light from their staffs. No windows here. Once it had been lit with glowstones and braziers, but both had long since burned out.

Solana took another deep breath and closed her eyes.

“Are you well?” Trevelyan asked.

“Yes. This… this is where I grew up. My first lessons in magic, and my last. All here. It’s… strangely comforting. The feel of the place.”

“Comforting?” Anders laughed derisively. “How can you possibly find it comforting ?”

“Solana wasn’t a troublemaker, love,” Hawke said and, in the glow of his staff, Cullen saw that his expression was not hostile. “I imagine the Templars were a bit nicer to her. Certain ones more than others.” His eyes flashed to Cullen.

He riled at the implication. “I treated all my charges equally.”

“He did,” Solana confirmed. “But some caused him to stammer more than others.”

“I…” He wasn’t sure how to counter that. “That’s not…”

“And there it is!” Anders declared.

They all started laughing and Cullen was glad for the dim light, surely none of them would see the colour rising in his face. “It is true that I had… thoughts about.” He cleared his throat. He should have kept quiet. “But I never would have… and I never acted any differently with her.” The laughter only increased. “Nothing happened ,” he insisted. “Solana, please.”

“Nothing happened,” she confirmed. “There was gossip and even that was enough to cause the Templars to punish him.”

That brought him up short. “I believe you are mistaken.”

“You think it was an accident they chose you to oversee my Harrowing?”

“No it was a - they - I oversaw other Harrowings, besides yours.”

Still, her words made awful sense. It hadn’t just been her test, it had been his too. A test of where his loyalties lay - to the Chantry, or to her.

“And would you have killed her?” Anders asked.

“Please don’t ask me that.”

“So yes, then?”

He could not answer, for he did not truly know.

 


 

It was difficult to imagine that life had gone on at the tower for years after Solana had last been here, clearing out demons and tracking Uldred. This emptiness was so similar to the desolation that she’d faced then. She led the party up the sweeping staircase to the second floor stock rooms. Here they saw the first signs of looting. The metal cage that housed supplies had been torn open and plundered. The broken remains of a myriad of magical items lay scattered across the ground, glinting in the dim light from overhead like a dragon’s horde.

As she picked her way across the debris, she heard Anders sigh. It was so at odds with his antagonism that she glanced at him. He had picked up something off the ground.

“What have you found?” Hawke asked, toeing over to him.

“Nothing. I was just thinking.” He turned the item over in his hands - some unidentifiable shard. “This is where I met Karl. He was trying to sign out… what was it? Dawnstone or… something equally mundane. The Tranquil on duty was giving him trouble. But he didn’t get upset, he kept perfectly cool and reasonable. That was always his way. He’d give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Even me.”

“Who’s Karl?” Solana asked.

Anders didn’t look up. “He was the reason I went to Kirkwall. But I was too late to save him from the Chantry.” He cast the shard aside and sighed again. “Forgive me. We should press on.”

Solana moved ahead but behind her she heard Max ask, “What happened? Did he manage to sign out this mundane item of his?”

“No.” She could hear the smile in Anders’s voice as he added, “But I stole it for him. Nearly got caught too.”

 


 

 

Solana was first through the doors into the enchanter’s library, and Hawke knew what they’d find the instant he heard her groan. This library did have windows - tall grey things that mimicked the swirling pattern of the ceiling - and the light they let in illuminated chaos.

The looters had been here too, no doubt seeking the rarer tomes. Books and papers were scattered everywhere, some clearly destroyed. A few shelves had even toppled over.

“Well, this is disappointing,” Anders voiced what they all must have been thinking.

He strode forward, lifting up one of the scattered books to examine it. The inside had been torn out.

“Now that’s just inconsiderate,” Hawke said.

Solana turned to Cassey. “Where to now?”

The poor mage’s eyes were wide and she was hugging herself. Clearly this development was unexpected. She moved forward with what appeared to be some effort, passing Solana. “He used to study here, this way.”

They followed her to one of the many alcoves along the walls. A couple of desks were at the centre, covered in books and papers. Cassey looked around, seemingly bewildered. In her mind she must have pictured this place untouched.

“Well, let’s spread out,” the ever-pragmatic commander suggested. “We can start looking here, there might very well be something buried.”

“Can you tell us what we’re looking for?” Varric asked. “I mean, you know, what colour pen did he like writing with?”

Cassey fidgeted, eyes still wide. “He was researching the Blight.”

Varric sighed. “Yes, I know. I… you know what, let’s just start looking and see what we turn up. Maybe we’ll be surprised.”

Hawke started at one corner of the nearest desk that looked as if the ratio of papers to books skewed towards the former. He had a horrible feeling that they weren’t going to find anything, that they’d been chasing nothing but false hope. He didn’t dare voice anything of the kind. Solana needed this.

He picked up a stack of parchment and riffled through it, absently reading the first few lines of each page. He paused as something familiar caught his eye. Andraste suffered at the hands of magisters. Thus, she feared the influence of magic.

“Hey, Anders, come here.”

Anders stepped up beside him, close enough that Hawke could feel his body heat. He showed him the paper. “Found a copy of your manifesto.”

“What?” Anders took the page from him and held it up to the light, peering at it through narrowed eyes. “How did this get here?”

Hawke chuckled. “You’re famous.”

Solana wandered over too. “The mages must have copied it out after your rebellion.”

“Copied it out and added to it,” Anders said, still squinting. “This bit isn’t me.”

“What bit?” Hawke asked.

“Something about the Divine and the Chantry suppressing some kind of knowledge. It’s quite verbose. Is there another page?”

Hawke handed him the stack and he frowned as he sorted through it. “Here it is. They accuse the Chantry of suppressing a… a cure to...” He stopped speaking and he looked not at Hawke but at Solana. He passed her the page.

“Tranquility,” she breathed. “There’s a cure? The Chantry knows of a cure ! How could they keep this from us?”

The others drew closer as Solana furiously scanned the page. “They don’t say what it is! They speak only of a ritual of -”

“It’s possession,” Cullen said, calmly.

All focus moved to him. Solana’s eyes said she might well have set him on fire, had she been holding her staff.

What? ” She was speaking through her teeth, advancing on him. “You knew ?” She brandished the paper. “How long have you known ?”

Hawke hurried after her, nervous that her anger was going to drive her to do something she’d regret. Cullen, to his credit, stood his ground. Had their roles been reversed, Hawke was certain he would be running.

“What does it matter how long? It’s not of any use to us.”

“You had no right to keep this from me.”

“It wouldn’t have made a difference!”

“How long have you known ?”

“A week, perhaps. No more than that. Cassandra explained that it’s not reliable. It leaves the subject emotionally wrecked and -”

But Solana was no longer listening. She’d turned that fiery gaze on Max. “Did you know too?”

“Solana…”

“Max! Did you know?”

“I… yes. It’s a Seeker thing. They use it as part of their initiation. A ritual makes them Tranquil and then they are released, but since they are only Tranquil for a few hours at most it doesn't have the negative effects. Cassandra was very specific about -”

“Who else knew? Who else -”

A scream rent the air and even as Hawke spun around he didn’t realise whose it was.

Cassey had moved behind Anders while they’d been arguing and a knife flashed in her hand. Hawke was still trying to figure out what was happening as Anders fell to the floor, clutching at his neck, blood dripping from between his fingers.

Cassey stumbled backwards. Everything clicked into slow motion. The how, the why, none of that mattered. Anders was choking, gasping and Hawke was flying towards him, falling down before him. Anguished cries and angry shouts surrounded them, but Hawke’s ears filled only with the roar of his own pulse. Green light sliced across the library, flickering across Anders’s face. But Hawke didn’t care, he pulled Anders to him, babbling a series of semi-coherent healing spells. There was so much blood. Hawke vaguely registered that Anders’s throat had been slit, that the blood which should have been flowing down, was flowing up into the air. But the world around Hawke shrank, reduced to Anders’s heavy body as he hugged him to his chest, to the air that shuddered from his lungs, to the spells as he poured every last bit of mana he had into them.

To the prayers.

No no no, Maker, please no. He kissed Anders’s forehead, curled his body protectively around him. I can’t. I can’t lose him. Please.

Chapter Text

Solana saw Cullen’s eyes go large an instant before the scream cut her off. He was already unsheathing his sword and racing past her by the time she’d turned around and seen… Cassey.

But Cullen was too late. Cassey had already drawn the blade across Anders’s throat, had already formed a powerful barrier, was already moving backwards, siphoning Anders’s blood, by the time Cullen reached her.

A shower of bolts bounced off the barrier as Varric cried out, Hawke collapsed beside Anders, Max started moving forward, but Solana was frozen in horror, trying to reconcile what was happening with the kind woman who’d once saved her life.

Max continued to drift forward. He didn’t have his weapon drawn and that alone gave away what was happening.

“She’s got Max!” Solana screamed.

Cullen spun from where he’d been hacking at the barrier and watched in horror as the Inquisitor lifted his hand and it crackled green and the small, quiet Grey Warden achieved what even Corypheus had failed to do.

Magic sparked from Max’s fingers and the library was bathed in a flood of green light. And then there was a rift hanging before them, open into the Fade.

Cassey backed towards it, pouring power into her barrier. Her eyes were shining with tears. “I’m sorry. He said he’d meet me here. I had to… he promised…” And then she turned and ran through the rift.

Cullen pounded after her, leaping through an instant later.

“No!” Solana’s breath left her lungs as she surged forward. He couldn’t survive in the raw Fade alone.

 


 

 

Hawke was vaguely aware of the rift, of Solana rushing through, of Varric swearing and following her, of the Inquisitor collapsing, with his arm stretched out, yelling in pain.

The man in his arms was all that mattered. But the man in his arms had gone still.

“No, Anders, please…”

How much blood had she taken? Hawke had stitched closed the wound with his magic, but how much air had Anders lost? He wasn’t breathing. Hawke shook him.

“Please, love, don’t leave me.”

Months of confusion instantly gave way to perfect clarity. Hawke couldn’t face a life without Anders. He couldn’t even imagine it.

“Maker, is he -” The Inquisitor, somewhere behind, out of breath.

Anders’s hand was going cold as Hawke squeezed it. He’d seen death before, so much death. He knew this for what it was even as his mind refused to accept it.

Then, a flash of blue light. From somewhere on Anders’s skin, Hawke’s eyes weren’t fast enough to catch it. Then another. Then more light, spilling across him, jagged and harsh like lightning.

Justice.

Justice had resided in a corpse before Anders and now he did once more.

He opened Anders’s eyes - they were bright and sharp as crystal - and he coughed, reaching for his throat. “Well that was a singular experience,” he croaked.

Hawke was shaking too hard to do anything to move the body from his lap, but Justice moved it for him, struggling into a sitting position, continuing to cough.

“You might wish to close that,” Justice said to Max, his searing eyes landing on the rift.

Hawke turned finally to look at the Inquisitor. He was attempting to stand. “I can’t. They went through...”

“If you don’t, we’ll have company soon and I doubt any of us is prepared for a fight. This one has been open long enough to draw attention. We will have to open another once the… attention dies down.”

Hawke stared at him, this stranger in his lover’s body. His stomach churned, his lungs heaved.

“You’re going into shock,” Justice informed him.

Max closed the rift, and collapsed back to his knees.

“What happened?” Justice asked him. “I was… preoccupied.”

“The Warden, Cassey," Max said. "She slit your - Anders’s - throat and used the blood to… it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. She took over my… I could see what I was doing, I could understand it, but I had no personal control. She made me open a rift. Cullen, Solana and Varric went after her.”

“Hmmm,” Justice said.

“That’s it?” Hawke managed. “That’s your contribution? Hmmm?”

Justice turned his glowing blue eyes on Hawke. “It is an expression of thought I have heard you use yourself on multiple occasions.”

Hawke struggled to his feet. “Anders is dead . Don’t you have anything to say about that?”

“Ah,” Justice said. “I see.”

“You see ?”

“Yes, I see why you might be upset. I should have clarified earlier, forgive me.”

Clarified ?”

“Anders is not dead. He was weakened by the loss of blood and air, so I have taken control for now. I apologise for the confusion.”

 



The space felt similar to the library. It was structured the same. Pillars of stone had been substituted with pillars of bone, grotesque statues stood on plinths that, in the material world, had displayed the likenesses of dejected-looking mages. Solana had entered the Fade running, shouting for her husband. But now there was no sign of him, or of anyone else. A shiver chased up her spine and she took hold of her staff.

It wasn’t the first time she’d walked the Fade alone, nor the first time she had been physically in the Fade. But it was the first time she’d achieved both together. She recalled the demons they’d faced at Adamant, the horrors within the Sloth Demon’’s maze, and her grip tightened.

She moved forward cautiously, feet sloshing in the putrid water, muscles tense.

“Cullen!”

Shouting was not a good idea. She’d soon draw attention. But the alternative was going back without him, and that she couldn’t do. Fear settled in her chest, heavy and cold. Cassey had shown what she was willing to do to Anders - what would she do to Cullen?

The sound of sobbing drew Solana’s attention. It was coming from one of the darkened alcoves.

She crept forward towards it, preparing herself for a trick, remembering the lessons Irving had taught her all those years before about demons and deception.

Cassey was seated on a plinth that likened one of the library desks. Her face was buried in her hands, her shoulders were shaking.

“He should be here!” she said.

Solana threw up a protective barrier. “What in the Void are you doing, Cassey?”

She looked up sharply, Solana’s sudden appearance clearly unexpected. “I know what you did. I know that you killed him. He told me.”

“He told you? Cassey, Falin’s dead. He can’t tell you anything.”

Cassey brought her own staff in front of her threateningly. “That’s not true. He found me in my dreams. He told me he’d be waiting here. To bring the Inquisitor so he could open a rift and we’d be together again.”

“In your dreams ?” Shit  “You know what approaches mages in their dreams. Wait, to bring the Inquisitor?”

But she hadn’t brought Max. Max had decided to accompany them alone. At the last minute.

No... not alone. Cass convinced me... Solana had assumed Cassandra because what other ‘Cass’ would Max spend time with? But Max never shortened Cassandra’s name. “You talked him into joining us.”

Cassey didn’t answer, only scowled.

“There’s no cure research, is there?”

Cassey snorted. “As if the Circle would let him research anything like that.”

Solana’s blood ran cold with bitter disappointment, despite everything. “You made it up because you knew we’d come.”

“I don’t understand why he’s not here!”

“I am here.”

Cassey scrambled to her feet and Solana pivoted to face the voice behind her.

Falin. He looked so real that even Solana struggled to remember what he really was. Cassey ran into his arms, all else forgotten. But while he hugged her close, his dark eyes stayed on Solana.

“If it isn’t the Hero of Ferelden.” He gently detached Cassey and moved towards Solana.

“If it isn’t Desire,” she responded. “Am I correct?”

It chuckled and reached out to touch her, but she danced away. “Cassey, this isn’t Falin. This is a demon.”

“He told me you’d say that.”

“That’s right,” it said. “I did.” He turned to Cassey again. “Where’s the Champion? And the Inquisitor? I thought you were bringing them too?”

“Oh, Andraste’s ass.” Varric emerged from behind one of the pillars. Relief surged through Solana as he cocked Bianca. “Don’t tell me you’re trying to collect the set? You’re a little old to play with dolls aren’t you?”

The demon scowled. “You weren’t invited, dwarf.”

“Never stopped me before.”

He fired a volley of bolts. Solana threw more mana behind her barrier and Cassey dived in front of ‘Falin’, one of the bolts piercing her shoulder. She screamed while Varric reloaded.

“Let me guess, Anders was invited along to power this venture with his blood?” he asked, firing another volley. The demon swept the bolts aside as Cassey clung to him, weeping.

“I suggested she use the Templar , but she reckoned the apostate was more deserving. After all, if he hadn’t started his rebellion, I would never have died. We’d still be living here together. Isn’t that right?”

Cassey was trembling, but she nodded. “He killed so many.”

“Where is Cullen?” Solana demanded. If the demon had already wanted him dead...

“He came after Cassey, I had to protect her,” the demon said.

Solana’s heart clenched and she felt like the air had been knocked out of her lungs. “Protect her how ?”

“Hey! Hero. Later, please? Let’s get rid of the nasty demon first?” Varric shouted.

She ignored Varric. “Protect her how?! What did you do to him?!”

“I’ll make a deal with you.” The demon smiled, showing off Falin’s small uniform teeth. “I tell you where he is, you open your mind to me.” It chuckled. “I’ll even help you save him.”

“So, he’s still alive?”

“Think about it, more power than you could ever imagine…”

Solana sent a ball of fire straight into the demon’s chest. The thing skidded backwards and Cassey fell to her knees. Her eyes were wide and frightened. Perhaps she was finally realising what was happening.

That thought was short-lived. She lifted her staff and sent a barrage of jagged lightning at Solana. It crackled along her barrier, shattering it. Before Solana could cast again, the demon opened Falin’s mouth and shrieked. The sound was like a physical force, hitting Solana’s ears and rampaging through her blood, scratching at her insides, leaving her paralysed, drowning out awareness of anything going on around her.

She snapped back to the action in time to see the demon hauling Cassey to her feet. She looked up at it with nothing but love and devotion.

Then it disappeared.

Solana blinked, trying to clear her vision, convinced that it was a trick. But then Cassey turned slowly towards her, no longer seeming to even feel the wound in her arm.

Shit.

“She’s possessed!” Solana yelled to Varric.

“I can see that.”

Cassey raised her arms and air whipped around her. Solana recognised the spell instantly, but it was already too late to get away. Still, she stumbled backwards, casting her barrier again as the wind tore at her skin, her hair, her clothes. Even Varric was pulled closer by the growing tempest. He launched a bolt, but it was pulled off course by the wind, only just grazing Cassey’s arm. Solana could tell he was swearing by the rapid movement of his mouth, but the roaring of the storm around them drowned out his voice.

Electricity sliced through the wind. Solana’s barrier fell and then the rampant lightning was sparking across her skin, searing white hot pain across her senses.

“You killed him!” Cassey cried above the gale. “You led us to the Wardens and then you killed him! You led us to the Wardens and then ran!”

“I was trying to help,” Solana said through gritted teeth, not knowing whether Cassey even heard her, knowing that even if she did, her words wouldn’t make a difference.

“You left us there! You ran to your lover and abandoned us!”

“I went for help!”

“It’s not fair! You get everything. The title, the husband, the child. You appreciate none of it.” She sent forth another barrage of lightning, hitting Solana in the stomach. Her knees gave in and she landed on them hard. But the shock of pain travelling up her body wasn’t nearly as painful as the words.

“I loved Falin for half my lifetime. When the Circles fell, we should have been together. You took that from us! You are no hero!

A bolt flew into Cassey’s back and exploded. Shrapnel and flame caught in the wind, flying past Solana and narrowly missing her face.

She pressed her hands against her ears as the demon screeched again. She had to focus. Cullen was alive. Somewhere. He needed her. She struggled to her feet, feeling for her power, the well that had lain dormant for too long. She couldn’t even see Cassey through the gale now, through the spinning, flaming wind. But she could feel her. She could feel the taint.

Concentrating on that, on that familiar Grey Warden stain on her consciousness, Solana pulled on her mana reserves, pulled on her energy, pulled on her willpower, and let it out in two successive spells. First, Winter’s Grasp, flying through the maelstrom and freezing Cassey solid. And then, before the demon had a chance to break free, a Fist of Stone. It slammed into the frozen mage, shattering the ice and driving her backwards.

The storm stopped and the demon roared. Cassey’s skin tore away and purple limbs struck out with a cone of flame. Solana tumbled away from the fire, feeling the heat briefly brush her side. Varric unleashed another hail of bolts and Solana managed to lift her barrier again just in time. But the demon was too slow, or too drained. Bolts pierced through its supposedly seductive body, through the ribs and the arms and the thighs. With one final howl, it collapsed to the ground.

It trembled one last time, and then Cassey’s body was lying face-down in the shallow waters of the Fade.

Solana heaved in air as Varric approached the body, cautiously. “Is it dead?”

“Yes. I can’t feel her anymore.”

Just to be certain, Varric prodded her with his toe.

A hand flew out and snatched his ankle.

“Solana…” Cassey croaked.

Whatever she had to say, she didn’t get the chance. Varric aimed Bianca down and fired. The hand around his ankle fell limp.

Solana stared at the body, her pulse still thrumming in her ears.

“Is she dead now ?” Varric asked, looking up at her expectantly.

“I didn’t feel the taint,” she breathed. “The demon must have… I don’t know.”

Varric narrowed his eyes. “Are you saying being possessed by the demon cured her?”

“The demon wouldn’t want a tainted body. Fiona… in the Fade with Maric. She said a demon... What if that was… oh, Maker. That would explain it.”

“Alright, hold on there. Firstly, I don’t understand half of what you’re saying. Second, Anders is a Grey Warden, right?”

“But he’s not possessed by a demon.”

“No, not exactly .”

“Seekers are immune to the effects of red lyrium.”

“Yes…” Varric said slowly.

“Red lyrium carries the Blight.”

“Ye- wait, how do you know that?”

“Seekers are briefly possessed, as part of their initiation. Isn’t that what Max just said? Why would they do that? Why, if it didn’t give them some kind of power.   What if it explained the red lyrium resistance, why the Seekers couldn't serve Corypheus? And what if it wasn’t just immunity to the lyrium, but to the Blight itself? That’s the cure, Varric. It’s not Alistair’s blood.” Her emotions were so tangled. Relief and fear fighting for dominance in her chest. Suddenly the way forward seemed startlingly clear.

“Alistair’s bl… you know what? Never mind. Let’s go find your husband, then try to find a way out of here. And let’s hope we don’t have any nasty surprises along the way. I’m running low on bolts.”

Chapter Text

Cullen knew the moment he entered the Harrowing Chamber that he’d made a mistake. He was panting from the run up, he’d been going so fast - as fast as he could in his heavy armour - that he hadn’t even quite registered where they were going until they were there.

Cassey turned to him, standing in the centre of the room. She smiled, and then everything went black.

 


 

 

The screams rent Cullen from his sleep. Desperate, throat-splitting screams that sent his pulse tripping. He blinked in the dim light, and tried to move. But his limbs were frozen.

He could smell it, the room. That room . It smelled of iron and lyrium and the scent choked him instantly. He struggled, trying to will himself to move.

He knew this dream, complete with the accompanying sleep paralysis. He tried to reason with himself as his heart slammed in his chest. He was asleep. He had to be asleep.

A light drifted in and he knew that light too. A small ball that seemed to move of its own volition. But that was a trick, it was attached to a mage’s staff.

“I’m dreaming,” he said out loud, pressing his eyes closed against the light.

“You keep saying that,” the mage said. Too close now. A familiar voice, a woman. She had been tormenting him for weeks already. No. That was in the past. Many years ago.

“This is a dream,” he said again, through gritted teeth.The mage reached forward and touched his cheek, magic sparking along his skin. He wanted to pull away, but he couldn’t.

“I suspect that’s why he hasn’t broken yet. He has such a rich fantasy life. Who knew he harboured such feelings for that little redhead.”

Another voice spoke in the shadows. “Perhaps I should dye my hair red, then he might not be so reluctant .”

Cullen’s stomach turned to ice and he struggled again to move, to wake up .

“Tell us about Solana again,” the second voice said. “Tell us about your wedding. I love that story. Especially the part where she promises to protect you and guard you from harm.”

Cruel laughter followed that statement.

“No, no, not that one,” the first voice said, and Cullen could hear the laughter in it. “I like the one where she asks him to stay the night and falls pregnant. Tell us about your beautiful little baby, Commander.”

He kept his eyes closed, breath already becoming ragged. It wasn’t possible, was it? That she had never come for him, that she had been the dream? He tried to focus on the smell of her hair, on the feel of her skin. But it was the cool indifference that came to him first. The way she’d rushed to travel to the tower with Trevelyan. If his mind had constructed a story, could it not have constructed something better ?

“She is real. You are the dream,” he repeated.

“It’s so sweet how he has faith in her, even now,” the first voice said, touching his face again.

“Get your hands off me,” he snapped.

“But you haven’t been touched in such a long time,” the voice said. “Even your fantasy wife has stopped touching you.”

More cruel laughter.

Then another voice, to his right. “Leave him alone.”

Heat rushed through Cullen. Embarrassment, fear.

“Annlise?” His voice emerged little more than a whisper. He searched the darkness beside him, trying to see some trace of her.

“We weren’t talking to you .” The mage’s staff light bobbed in her direction. And there she was, only just caught in the dim light. She was frozen like he was, hands against the wall as if manacled. Her face was streaked with dirt and blood, her dark hair was greasy, her lips were chapped. Below her eyes were the telltale dark marks of lyrium withdrawal. But she jutted her chin out at them.

“If you wanna try break someone, try break me. Cullen’s long gone already. His mind’s only half here. You want to try your pathetic powers against a real Templar? Try break me.

 

 

At first the maleficarum had tortured with wild abandon. They’d taken their frustrations out on the cruel ones first. Personal vengeance was had, in the most creative ways they could find. Once those men and women had been dispatched of, their bodies lying in piles along the side of the room, the mages had started playing.

They explored their new powers in increasingly inventive ways. How far could they push the body before it broke? How far could they push the mind before it snapped? What could a single man survive? What could a woman endure?

They went easier on those who had shown them kindness, whose only crimes were being unattainable objects of desire, or who had turned a blind eye to seemingly innocent transgressions.

The first of these to go was the man who had trained Cullen, the one who had taken him from Honnleath, who had taken him under his wing. Knight Captain Beval had endured for many hours. In the end, he had begged to die. The mages had forced his men to watch. Paralysed, they’d been unable to even look away.

It was then that Cullen had lost hope. He had stopped praying to the Maker, praying that someone would call for the Rite or send an army or burn the Tower to the ground. While the Blight ravaged Ferelden, the Maker no doubt had other concerns.

Cullen had escaped into his mind, imagining himself anywhere else. Deep in the throes of withdrawal, aching and shivering and thirsting, he had caught himself mumbling more than once.

Perhaps that’s how they had obtained knowledge of his infatuation with Solana? Perhaps they had not read his mind, but had heard him speaking it? She’d been the one pure thing left in his memory and it was to her that he retreated when they turned their attentions to him or his friends.

When they murdered his close friend, Farris, he had not been watching them strip his skin. He had been picturing her. Sitting downstairs, playing chess. He’d been watching the light brush her hair and her lips. He’d been trying to predict her next move. He’d been picturing her glancing up and smiling at him. He had imagined a dark, cool garden. A space that had never existed, where she could take him into her arms and hold him.

It wasn’t enough for the mages to invade his body, they had to invade his mind too. They forcefed him potions that caused him to hallucinate, that twisted his fantasies. He wasn’t entirely sure, even years later, what they had done to him and what they had only made him think they had done.

Was it so ridiculous to imagine that those very years had been just one more hallucination? One more fantasy?

 

Annlise was pulled forward and glow stones around the room came to life. Freed from her paralysis, she put up a token fight. She kicked out at the mages, tried to swing a punch. But their magic suppressed her. Weakened by her withdrawal, she was no more threat to them than a newborn nug.

At her best, she had downed even him . More than once. First, as an over-competitive sparring partner. Then, as a lover. His first. He’d been a stuttering mess, but she had guided his hands and his body. She had driven their relationship with the same relentless determination she showed in battle. But it hadn’t taken her long to realise that he wasn’t the prize she’d first thought. He was dedicated to the Order, to his position. His days were filled with his duties, his nights with research, training and prayer. She’d grown tired and eventually had ended things.

Was it so ridiculous to imagine that he’d projected those same insecurities over his fantasy relationship with Solana? Still, he chose his duty over her. And she showed the same single-mindedness that Annlise had.

He choked on the thought, longing to huddle into himself, to turn away as magic cracked across Annlise’s skin, as she screamed and twisted against the pain. Each lash of magic they inflicted on her, he knew they had meant for him. Each spell that landed sent a jolt through his own body, tore at his heart. Skin he had once caressed was seared with flame, hands he had once held were mangled in ice.

“No! Stop!” He shouted until he was hoarse. “I’ll do anything for you. Please stop hurting her.”

But they were encouraged by his protests. Her torture became his.

He trembled as much as the paralysis would allow and at one stage the second mage turned to him, with mad eyes that showed she was tempted by his offer of anything .

“Oh look, he’s crying.”

The other mage turned too, and started moving towards him with a grin. But Annlise kicked out, hurling a globule of spit at her. It landed on the mage’s cheek and her rage was instant. A cage of lightning surrounded Annlise and she jolted violently, neck whipping from side to side as the electricity coursed through her.

The door slammed open but Cullen dared not look to it. He was transfixed by Annlise’s ragdoll body. He could not bear the sight of more maleficarum.

Feet ran up to him and he vaguely heard his name. That voice. He closed his eyes, insides churning. He knew what would happen if he acknowledged this vision. They’d torture her too. That’s why they were doing this, why they’d created her. They saw what their antics with Annlise were doing to him, they wanted to push him further. There was one surefire way.

“Cullen! Oh, Maker.”

“Uh... Hero.” Another familiar voice. This one far less expected. Cullen opened his eyes. Varric was standing nearby staring at the mages, at Annlise in her lightning cage.

His stomach clenched. His mind might make up Solana, but why would it make up Varric?

“Demons,” Solana said. She was out of Cullen’s line of sight and he couldn’t turn his head.

“Any ideas?”

Before she could answer, one of the mages turned and quite calmly cast a whomp of magic. Varric went skidding backwards, swearing.

Solana! Where was Solana?

The maleficar advanced towards Cullen again. “Now this should be fun.”

“No!” Annlise cried. “You’re not done with me! Leave him!”

But the mage ignored her, continuing to Cullen but not stopping when she reached him. She moved past him, to where his eyes couldn’t reach.

A yelp of pain.

“No!” She was a vision. She was not real. But her voice was tethered to his heart nonetheless.

At once, the paralysis spell lifted from him, and he fell forward, chin slamming on the stone floor. He scrambled to his knees, heading blindly for where he’d heard her cry out. But he crashed against something. A barrier that was all too familiar.

Solana was pressed up against the wall, suspended with her arms out, her feet half a metre off the ground. The maleficar prodded her in the stomach with her staff and Solana yelped again.

The bloodmage turned to Cullen with a grin. “Thought you might like to see this.”

Turning away from Solana was a mistake. She was still holding her staff, and the maleficar must have underestimated her power. With a blast of energy, she broke free, tumbling to the ground. She launched herself bodily at the other mage and they went over in a tangle of limbs.

The second maleficar called Cullen’s name. As his attention snapped to her, she set Annalise alight.

“No!” He slammed against the barrier, throwing his entire weight at it.

Bolts rained down from somewhere. Magic tore across the room. But Annlise screamed and that was all Cullen could hear.

Then, arms around him, and he fought against them, breath tearing at his throat as he yelled and yelled.

“Cullen.”

Her cool hand on his cheek, like that night in the mountains. Her palm pressing against his jaw, turning his face away from the flame, from Annlise’s suffering.

“You must help her!”

“Shh…” Her arms wrapped around him again, she pulled him close, pulled his head down so that it was buried in her hair, against her neck. He breathed her in.

“You have to help her.” His voice was broken, he was shivering, his cheeks were wet with tears.

She tightened her grip around him. “It’s a demon, Cullen. You’re in the Fade.”

The Fade… running after Cassey. Now he remembered.

He clung to her. Real. His wife. His Solana.

The events around them were as real as she was, but they were in the past. They were memories.

She stroked his hair and kissed his temple and held him as he quaked and sobbed. There was no dignity, no pride in this. But he was beyond worrying about such things.

“You saved me once again,” he said at last, when he could find his voice.

“Sure, give her the credit,” Varric said, somewhere behind them. But when Cullen glanced up, he was smiling.

There was nothing left of Annlise.

 



“Here.” Justice pointed at the air in front of them. He narrowed Anders’s eyes then nodded confirmation and stepped back.

Trevelyan stretched out his hand. “I’m accustomed to closing rifts, not opening the things. I’m not entirely certain how to do this.”

“I’ve seen you do it twice,” Hawke said. “Now’s not a great time for a crisis of confidence.”

They’d walked the tower flat. Justice, as a result of his connection to the Fade, and because of the Warden blood in the body he inhabited, was somehow able to sense Solana. At least, that’s what he claimed, and Hawke had no choice but to trust him.

It was bizarre, walking next to Anders without it really being Anders. And this other person knew Hawke as well as Anders did. This other person had been there, for everything , had witnessed touches and kisses and so much more.

Now, that person frowned at Hawke. “You are upset.”

“Am I?” His voice was flat.

Trevelyan took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Hawke could see he was trying, although nothing happened.

“You are,” Justice said. “Are you angry with me? Or have I done something to upset you?”

Hawke almost laughed. He expected those sorts of questions from Anders, not from Justice. “I just saw someone slit your throat.”

“And this has an effect on you?”

Trevelyan sighed, lowered his hand and flexed his fingers. Then lifted his arm and tried again.

“Yes, it has an effect on me,” Hawke said to Justice. “I love you. Anders. I love Anders.”

“But I did explain to you that Anders will be well.”

Hawke growled.

“Would it help you if I offered you a hug?”

“What?”

“Anders holds you when you are upset and it seems to bring comfort.”

“No. No thanks.”

A flash of green caught Hawke’s eye and Trevelyan gave a whoop as it grew. A split in the Veil. A rift. “I did it! Ha ha! Where are they now, Justice?”

Justice scrunched up Anders’s face again and pointed back behind them.

“I’ll go,” Hawke said, unslinging his staff.

 


 

 

They did not speak as they left the Harrowing Chamber. What was there to say?

Cullen was still shivering, and Solana kept her arms around him, hoping to bring at least a little comfort.

Eventually, as they descended to the third floor, Cullen asked softly, “What became of Cassey?”

“Demon,” Varric provided.

“It’s my fault,” Solana admitted.

“Don’t start that again. You carry enough guilt as it is for what happened to her and the elf with the Wardens. That was the Wardens’ fault, not yours.”

It was kind of him to say, and she appreciated it, but she shook her head. “I should have made her return with us, after Adamant. She wanted to travel. I… recognised her grief. I gave her leave to go. I am certain that was how the demon approached her, when she was vulnerable and alone.”

“It is likely,” Cullen said, his voice still little more than a whisper. “But that doesn’t make it your fault. You can not be held responsible for the actions of every lonely mage.”

She didn’t know how to respond, she could only look at him. She would have expected him to be the first to point out her error. His eyes were downcast. She wanted to argue with him, tell him that it was still her fault because that lonely mage had been under her command. But there was something more important to discuss with him and it played on her mind.

“Cullen…”

But was now really the time for it? After everything he’d just been forced to witness again ? He was clearly traumatised enough without her sharing what she’d discovered about the Blight.

He looked at her expectantly, eyes still so incredibly sad.

“I love you,” she said instead.

A small smile played at his lips, the corner with the scar pulling upwards a little more than the other. “I…”

“Solana! Over here!”

Hawke came running up behind them, waving frantically with the green glow of a rift behind him.

Chapter Text

“Well, shit.”

They stood on the docks, staring out at the lake, all likely thinking exactly what Varric had voiced.

The sun was low, painting the clouds pink and the sky orange. It made the lake look like it was on fire. An apt analogy, Hawke thought, considering the boat drifting out in the middle of it looked like it had indeed been in flames.

“That would explain where dear Cassey was earlier while we were admiring the entrance hall,” Hawke offered.

Cullen kicked the wooden post where the boat was meant to be tethered in an uncharacteristic display of frustration. Solana hadn’t said anything about where they’d found him, and Hawke didn’t dare ask.

Trevelyan sighed, running a hand through his hair. “We might have to camp here tonight, try find a way back in the morning.”

“No,” Solana said. She snaked an arm around Cullen’s waist and her eyes flicked to him before she turned to Justice. “He knows a way.”

Anders looked affronted. He blinked at her. “Pardon?”

“Anders escaped from this place seven times. You said Anders is still there.”

“He is.”

“Then he can get us back.”

“It’s… more complicated than that. I can’t simply access all of his memories at will. You humans… your minds are so complex...”

“Then let us talk to him.”

“He is weak. I am fortifying him. It would be best if you let him rest.”

Hawke placed a hand on Anders’s shoulder and Justice glared at him. Then, miraculously, the look softened.

Justice sighed. “Very well.” He closed his eyes and then slowly opened them again. As he did, Anders’s knees gave in. Hawke caught him and he found himself looking into Anders’s face again. There was nothing markedly different about it, besides the eyes. He was just… Anders.

Hawke’s pulse quickened, warmth surging through him. Anders really was alive. “Hi,” he said, stupidly.

Anders gave him a feeble smile. “Hi yourself.”

“Anders.” The relief was palpable in Solana’s voice too.

“I heard we need a way off the island?” Anders asked. He tried to get his legs under him, to bear his own weight, but failed. Hawke kept his arms securely around him, relishing in his presence.

“Solana, you know where the storage tunnels are?” Anders asked.

“Yes.”

“We’ll start there.”

“Of course, the tunnels,” Cullen muttered.

Anders grinned. “Yes, Commander. The tunnels . I… I’ll see you there.”

With that, his head lolled back and, an instant later, Justice lifted it.

 


 

 

Solana waited until they were moving up one of the narrow staircases to take Justice’s arm.

“May I speak with you, please?”

He raised Anders’s eyebrows and looked down at where she held him, but made no move to draw his arm away. Varric moved passed them, giving Solana a knowing look.

Nothing escaped that dwarf.

Solana waited a beat, until they were definitely alone. Trevelyan was at the front, with Cullen just behind him. Hawke had been trying to stay as far away from Justice as possible. Solana had been listening while they moved, to make sure that the sound wouldn’t echo up, now she waited until Varric’s footsteps were no more than a soft tap tap in the distance.

“If this is about Anders’s welfare...”

“It’s not.”

She dropped his arm.

“I suggest we not dally too long,” Justice said. “The veil is thin here, we should avoid getting cut off from the group.”

Solana took a deep breath. “Firstly, I wanted to thank you. That night, with the bear. I know it was you who saved me.”

Justice inclined his head in acknowledgement. “I am glad I was able to provide assistance.”

“Secondly, I wanted to ask you something more… personal.”

“Personal?” Doubt crossed his features. “If this is about how much of what Hawke and Anders do together I am aware of, I’m afraid I cannot -”

“What?”

“That’s usually what people wish to know. But I’m afraid I would not be comfortable disclosing those details.”

Solana shook her head, caught between amusement and horror. “No, I definitely don’t want to know that. This is… it’s about the Taint.”

“Ah, that’s what you Wardens call the corruption that you carry in your blood?”

“Yes.” She swallowed, trying to decide what to say. The thumping of her heart in her chest was louder than any other sound around them, it was making it difficult to think. “When… when I fought Cassey earlier, she was possessed. When she died, she no longer carried the Taint.”

Justice smiled benignly. “I’m uncertain what you’re asking.”   

“Well, I… I want to know how come Anders does. Carry the Taint. And you. At the same time.”

“Ah.” Justice started moving up the stairs again, and for a horrible moment Solana thought he would refuse to answer. “Well, I am not a demon.”

“I know that,” Solana said, following him.

“Yes, but I don’t think you realise what it means. Most don’t. I’m not possessing Anders in the sense that the demon you fought possessed your friend Cassey. I am resident, but we share his body. I have not taken it over.”

“I don’t understand how this applies to the Taint?”

“Well, this is an analogy you might understand. When we were in Kirkwall, I witnessed that some people would lend their homes to others, for instance, refugees, in exchange for coin. Are you familiar with this concept?”

“Leasing?”

“Indeed. Well, I am leasing Anders’s body. And as a good tenant, I have not… destroyed the furniture.”

“You’ve left the Taint as is, intentionally?” Solana’s fingers began to tingle. He was making sense.

“Essentially. It is… unpleasant. It feels like the Void. I wouldn’t choose to go near it as I am now, for fear it would corrupt me. And if it did, well I would cease being a good tenant. Does that make sense?”

“You’d be twisted from your purpose, become a demon?”

“The Blight is a corruption. It is highly likely that fighting it would corrupt me,” he confirmed. “Is that helpful?”

Solana nodded, her pulse was so fast it felt like the fluttering of a butterfly wing in her neck. “Yes, thank you.” Still, she needed to clarify one more time. “So… if a demon took over a Warden’s body, they’d automatically take over the Taint too?”

“Take over? No. They’d fight it. A demon isn’t so concerned with the… furniture. Is that stretching my analogy too far?”

“No. Thank you, that’s perfect.”

Solana made to pass him on the stairs. No doubt the others were wondering where they were now. But this time it was Justice who snagged her arm.

“I’m aware of the research you’ve been doing.”

Solana stayed very still, letting Justice examine her face.

“Perhaps this is something that will be useful to... Fiona?” He asked, eyes narrowing.

“Yes, I’m certain she’ll find it fascinating.” Solana offered him her most pleasant smile, before detaching herself and heading back to Cullen’s side.

 


 

Now that Anders had revealed part of his manner of escape it seemed obvious to Cullen. How had the Templars not realised that his means of departure lay in the storage caves? How else could he possibly get away?

When they reached the door, Anders returned to his body to reveal a hidden compartment in a nearby wall that contained a key. The man could hardly stand, but he was making a brave effort. Cullen expected he’d relinquish his body to Justice again, but he stayed with his arm around Hawke’s shoulders as they opened the door and moved into the tunnels.

“Ideally, we’d do this during the day. But if we hurry we should be fine.” Anders provided.

Solana lit her staff, throwing misshapen shadows over every box and barrel in the dusty old tunnels.

“Don’t tell us to hurry, you’re the one who’s hobbling,” Hawke commented.

“Very funny.”

“I’m not trying to be funny. Tell us what to look out for and let Justice take over. You’re weak, Love.” 

But Anders shook his head and that was the end of it.

The group moved in hushed silence, as if they too were mages escaping from Templar clutches and not heroes running from ghosts.

Solana stayed close and her concerned eyes kept darting to Cullen. He wished she hadn’t seen what she had. Certainly not his finest hour. Truth be told, he was still unsettled. He kept grinding his teeth, a terrible habit he had picked up after the Blight and had only managed to kick after a year in Kirkwall. Somehow, it helped him keep focus, concentrate on the task at hand: leaving Kinloch Hold forever. There was no point in dwelling on how those demons had tricked him, how they had played back the contents of his nightmares. Demons tricked people. That’s what they did. If anything, it was his fault for being gullible.

“Okay, lights out,” Anders ordered.

Solana snuffed out her staff without question. In the darkness, her hand slipped into Cullen’s. It was warm and soft and familiar. An anchor far greater than the grinding of his teeth.

They edged forward cautiously. Cullen wasn’t sure what they were meant to be looking for.  Then Anders said, “There!”

At first it wasn’t apparent what he meant. Then Cullen saw it. A dim red light shining through one of the cave walls.

“Hawke, you can light your staff again,” Anders’s soft voice cut through the darkness.

Light blossomed, and Anders detached himself from Hawke, ambling towards the wall. He stuck his fingers in between the stones and pulled. A piece came away. Then another. Trevelyan joined him and soon there was a hole in the wall big enough for a man to fit through. The red glow was revealed to be a segment of sky, shining into the adjacent corridor from above.

“Inventive,” Cullen said.

Anders had clearly carved a hole in the roof of the other corridor as a marker.

The mage grinned. “I always thought so.”

But even though he was smiling, Cullen could see his exhaustion. Anders stepped away from the wall, as he took Hawke’s arm a little too tightly.

They climbed through the hole and followed a maze of corridors, twisting slowly downward. Every junction was marked in a similar fashion to the first, using light to guide the way. When they grew too far in the ground for that to be viable, the light turned blue and Cullen was impressed, despite himself, to see that Anders had smuggled in glow stones. They were valuable and only really in wide use in Orlais.

They were quite literally being guided by light? Could it be…

“Though all before me is shadow, yet shall the Maker be my guide,” Cullen said softly. He ignored the concerned look from Solana and continued. “I shall not be left to wander the drifting roads of the Beyond. For there is no darkness in the Maker's Light. And nothing that He has wrought shall be lost.”

Anders smiled at him again, this smile even wearier than the last.

“Trials One?” Cullen asked, hoping for confirmation of his theory that this trick had been inspired by the Chant.

Anders shook his head. “The Light shall lead her safely through the paths of this world and into the next. Transfigurations One.”

“I never pegged you for Andrastian,” Cullen said.

“Because I’m a mage?”

“No, Love,” Hawke cut in. “Because you blew up a Chantry.”

In that moment, despite everything, Cullen felt unwelcome laughter pressing up from his chest. He had no desire to laugh. It was an awful horrible, thing that Anders had done. Even if that Chantry had been hopelessly corrupt. Even if Merridith’s madness would have likely ended with the same amount of bloodshed were she left unchallenged.

He laughed regardless.

It was like a dam breaking. Months of tension melting into peels of giddy laughter that he could no more control than his feelings for Solana. His knees went weak with the force of it and Solana supported him and cupped his face and kissed him as if he was crying rather than laughing. Anders started laughing too, and then Hawke joined. Varric stood shaking his head and Trevelyan kept asking what the joke was. But Cullen couldn’t tell him. Every time he attempted to, his own body betrayed him, interrupting him with further traitorous laughter.

Eventually he was able to heave in hair and the laughter died away. He shook his head, wiped his eyes, finding them once again moist. He was instantly ashamed of himself.

“Please don’t tell anyone I laughed at that?” he asked Solana

Her hand slid into his again and her eyes sparkled with her own humour. “They would never believe me.”

 

Eventually they started moving upwards. They walked the final length of the tunnel in the dark, squinting for any vague light. Once or twice, someone caught sight of something promising that turned out to be the anchor, peeking out of the Inquisitor’s glove. They’d all but given up hope - accepting they’d need to spend the night in the tunnel - when a sliver of silver moonlight glittered overhead.

Trevelyan and Hawke removed the stones and one by one they all clambered out.

Cullen found himself on the shore of Lake Calenhad. The tower and all of its assorted horrors seemed very far away now. It was a crisp, clear evening and the stars were out, reflecting on the surface of the lake. In the distance, he could see the twinkling lights of the little hamlet by the docks.

Chapter Text

The party seemed as anxious as Cullen to put distance between themselves and Kinloch, and for that he was grateful. It was unspoken that they would not spend another night at the inn. 

Cassey’s horse accompanied them, an ever-present reminder of her betrayal.

As the tower fell behind them, a gloomy silence settled over the group. Her treachery meant more than just a dangerous predicament, now escaped. It meant that they were returning to Skyhold empty-handed.

When Anders’s strength finally gave out and he collapsed forward on his horse, Hawke called a halt 

They set up camp on the edge of a forest near a small river somewhere in the Bannorn. They built a fire, but they ate stale rations from their packs and spoke little. Varric volunteered for first watch, Trevelyan for second and no one challenged them.

Solana disappeared, as she was wont to do, and Cullen’s heart felt heavy as he retreated to their tent to ready himself for sleep.

He was in the process of removing his final plate of armour, when the tent flap twitched and Solana stuck her head in. “May I join you?”

He nodded.

She brought with her a pot of water. Steam rose off the top and he eyed it curiously before deciding she meant to wash her clothing. But as he turned away, her hand landed on his arm.

Her eyes were wide and sad as they looked into his. “I thought…” Her fingers twisted her wedding rings. “I thought I might wash you.”

Wash me? “I am not wounded.”

“I know. It was silly. I’m not really… not really sure what to do. After...”

She made to move away but he snatched her wrist. He wasn’t even aware of the desire to do so, and then she was stiff in his grasp.

More force than necessary. He swallowed, regret for both the movement and the words filling his chest with ice. At her expectant look, he didn’t know what to say. He didn’t even know what he wanted, needed , only, he didn’t want her to leave.

Say something.

“I’d like it. If you washed me, I mean. If you want to. Do... you want to?”

Clumsy, pathetic words.

She nodded and moved behind him. He was aware of her, even when she wasn’t touching him, when it sounded like she was unwrapping the hard soap from her pack and lathering it in a cloth. He could feel her presence. Was it her magic, or something else?

Still, he jerked at her contact when it came.

“Sorry.”

“No, it’s… it’s all right.”

She reached around him to undo his gambeson. Her touch was featherlight and warm through his thin underclothes. Neither of them spoke, although his heart raced, anticipating each subsequent touch. When she finally pulled the garment from his shoulders, she leaned close. So close that he felt her breath against his neck.

Her fingers paused at the hem of his shirt. “That woman, in the Harrowing Chamber.”

His stomach clenched. “Annlise?”

“Annlise…” She tried the name on her tongue. “Did she really… did they really… was what I saw…”

“Real?”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

He heard her intake of breath. “You cared about her.”

“Yes.”

He waited for the inevitable next question, but it didn’t come. It was unfair to force her to find the words, she meant no harm with her questioning. This must have been difficult enough for her. “She was my lover, for a time.”

Lover… Had they even been that? They’d never given what they’d had a name. Solana said nothing.

“We trained together and had a brief liaison. We were no longer... together when the Circle fell.”

“But she protected you.”

Her words sliced through his meager emotional defenses. His breath hitched. The warm glow of the fire that filtered through the tent turned purple before his eyes, the temperature dropped, the hazy shadows transformed into towering demons. No! Take me!

Cullen sucked in air, shaking his head to clear his mind of the foul memories. “Did you never wonder why I was the sole surviving Templar when you returned to the tower? It was because she took my torture for me. Not all of it, but enough. Enough that she died, agonisingly, while I lived.”

“Oh, Cullen…”

“Whenever they came for me, she would distract them. Whenever they searched for a target, she would draw their ire. I should not have allowed it. I should have protected her .”

“Cullen…” Solana’s hand was on his cheek and she turned his face to look at her, turned his body to face hers. “It’s not your fault. What happened to her is not your fault.”

“I should not have allowed it,” he repeated.

She drew his head down to her chest and wrapped warm, forgiving arms around him. “You couldn’t have stopped her. It was her sacrifice to make.”

Solana kissed his temple, his cheek, and then she was covering him in kisses and he clung to her once again. He was on the verge of tears, as he had been in the Fade, but holding her somehow kept them at bay. He wanted to believe her assurances, he let them wash over him like her affection.

His lips found hers and he gave himself over fully to the need that had plagued him for longer than he dared count. She tasted of salvation. His kisses were selfish and hungry, his hands moved to undress her almost of their own accord.

He drew away only when his lungs ached for air, and even then little more than an inch, only just enough space for her to tug the undershirt over his head. Then they were joined again and his hands fisted in her wild hair while hers ran down his back offering comfort, offering succour, sending waves of heat through his core.

Suddenly, she stiffened. Fear gripped him, he fought the urge to tighten his hold on her. It took three long heartbeats to realise she was tracing the scar on his back.  

“What’s this?” she asked, voice barely a whisper.

He let out a breath, relieved he hadn’t done something to drive her from his arms. “It’s from the Wilds. You need not concern yourself with it.”

He tried to kiss her again, but she ducked her head. “You were injured?”

Injured, yes. The knight had practically run him through.

“Morrigan healed me.” He pressed his lips to her cheek. “I was never in any danger.”

A lie, but a small one. For those minutes lying in the shallow water before the temple, he’d struggled to cling to consciousness. But then Morrigan and the Inquisitor had come splashing towards him, calling his name, and the witch had fallen to her knees, muttering magic. His skin had mended, the air had returned to his lungs, but the scar was probably very large. He hadn’t seen it himself.  

“You never said anything.” Solana’s voice was still soft and low.

“There was no need. Much as it pains me to admit it, Morrigan is an accomplished mage. Whatever spell she used, I was in fighting shape almost instantly. Besides, we’ve had greater concerns.”

“Greater concerns than your well-being?” The answer was yes . But her implication that it should have been no made his chest feel full and light. He nuzzled against her neck and continued kissing her.

A few heated minutes later, she halted him again. He was in the process of slipping her robes from her shoulders, his impatient hands already reaching for the most intimate parts of her. Was he being too presumptuous? They’d hardly spoken recently and now this.

“Cullen…” Her eyes searched his.  “I… my body’s not the same as the last time we…”

He almost laughed. “You believe that matters to me?”

“It might.”

“It doesn’t.”

Yes, her body had changed. There were soft curves now where there had been jutting bone and hard muscle. He explored it hungrily. Across her stomach was the greatest change, the marks that spoke of her pregnancy. He kissed them reverently.

But before he entered her, he raised his head and asked quietly, embarrassment heating his cheeks. “It won’t hurt you?”

“I…” She was hesitant. “I don’t think so.”

It didn’t seem to, and he was relieved.

If there was a difference in their lovemaking, it was not in the coming together of their physical forms but in the intensity. They tangled together, limbs entwining, breath syncing. Kissing and caressing and tasting and loving . Being together , two as one, as it was meant to be.

Cullen drowned his senses in her. His wife. The rose-petal smell of her hair, the silken brush of her skin, the sound of her sighs. Real. Everything that had driven them apart melted from his mind as he pulled her as close as she could be, as he lost himself in her.

 

Afterwards, with her head nestled against his chest, Solana spoke again.

“Annlise… it’s a good name.”

He eyed her, lids heavy.

“Does it make you uncomfortable to hear it?”

“It did once. But enough time has passed, I don’t mind it so much now.”

“Perhaps we should consider it.”

His sleepy mind took a moment to grasp what she was suggesting, and when it did the suggestion both moved and amused him. “You’d name our child after my ex-lover?”

“She saved your life.”

When he did not say anything immediately, Solana added, “It would be a way to honour her.”

“Annlise.” He tried the name, picturing his daughter. “Perhaps… Alise?” He smiled because he knew it was right. It felt right, like this did, lying here with her.

“Alise… it sounds almost like...”

Almost like Alister. “I know.”

 


 

Cullen drifted awake to the sound of people moving around outside. Morning already. He’d slept fitfully despite the events of the previous day. A smile pulled at his lips. He had Solana to thank for that. He reached out to touch her, but found her bedroll empty.

The party was packing up the camp when he emerged from the tent a little later. Anders was on his feet again, laughing at something Hawke had said. Varric was telling Trevelyan a story. There was no sign of Solana.

“Anyone know where I can find my wife?” She  was probably at the lake again, washing or fishing.

The look on Trevelyan’s face at the question sent ice through Cullen. “No… we thought she was with you?”

“We’ve been letting you two have a bit of privacy,” Hawke added.

Cullen didn’t wait to hear more. Solana going off on her own was one thing, but if she’d left the tent this morning, someone should have seen. He marched to the horses, still hoping he was wrong, but knowing what he’d find.

Sure enough, hers was gone.

He stood staring at the spot where it had been tethered long enough that Varric came to check on him.

“I don’t understand,” Cullen said.

“I do.” Anders approached, fidgeting. He was pallid and Cullen doubted this was due solely to blood loss. “Yesterday, Solana spoke to Justice. She was asking him about the taint.”

“Aw, shit.” Varric kicked the ground, sending forth a cloud of dust. “Shit!

Cullen’s chest tightened and his heart started galloping, even though he didn’t fully understand what they were saying. “The taint?”

It was Varric who answered. “Yea, when we were in the Fade… Well, Curly, there’s no easy way to say this. Cassey was cured when she died. After she… after she’d been possessed.”

Cullen’s mouth went dry. He turned again to Anders. “Possessed? Possession cures the blight?”

“It can .” He seemed about to say more but Cullen didn’t want to hear it, didn’t need to. If it cured both the taint and Tranquility...

“Oh, Maker. Oh… Maker, no. She can’t mean to - ” Surely she wouldn’t, she couldn’t . “Our child , she wouldn’t put her at risk like that?”

“She has to get to her first,” Varric said. “Come on, maybe we can head her off at your sister’s place. Talk some sense into her.”

 


 

 

Twilight was already kissing the fields outside South Reach when they rode up. Mia came out of the house with arms open in greeting. Even Hawke knew that wasn’t a good sign. The family had been waiting for them. That meant Solana had already been here.

“Where is she?” Cullen asked as he dismounted, tone harsh enough that Mia's smile disappeared.

“Solana? She left a few hours ago… what’s going on?”

Cullen ducked his head and swore violently. Hawke had never seen him like this. The unshakable commander was shaken. His clothing was disheveled, his hair was a sweaty mess.

His sister reached to touch him. “Cullen, speak to me.”

But before he could utter anything more, the rest of the family poured out of the house. They shouted warm greetings and congratulations. Hawke didn’t hear all of it, but he heard the word cure .

“Did she tell you where she was going?” Cullen asked Mia. “What did she say?”

Mia answered slowly, as if rethinking what had seemed a very ordinary conversation at the time. “She said she was going to Skyhold, that you found the cure… I don’t understand, what’s happening?”

“She’ll have to stop the feed the baby,” Anders suggested. “If we ride through the night we might still catch her. She’ll likely travel through Redcliffe for supplies.”

“No,” Mia said. “We gave her supplies. She said she needed to return to Skyhold urgently. That’s why she’d ridden ahead. But I’m starting to suspect that wasn’t the case?”

“I suppose she took a fresh horse too?”

“Yes… Cullen, please, tell me what’s happening.”

“There isn’t time.” He mounted again, and Mia reached up to catch his arm.

“Tell me, did you at least find a cure?”

“A dangerous one. One she should not use under any circumstances.”

Chapter Text

Solana slipped through the herb garden mostly unseen. She was getting better at the spell.

When Celeste had first taught it to her, she’d also been trying to hide from Cullen. But the blueberries seemed to belong in another lifetime. Now her motives were much darker.

He would likely never forgive her.

She drew a deep, steadying breath. She still had a little time, but not much. She’d ridden to Redcliffe without rest and the Rutherfords' stallion had done well with the trip. From there, she’d organised passage with some merchants, in their cart up to Skyhold. She’d told them the baby was sick so that they’d hurry.

She was, in a sense.

At most her deception had bought her half a day. Provided Cullen had slept through the night, provided Trevelyan had remained as oblivious as he’d seemed when she’d slipped past him under this same spell.

“I need your help,” Solana said.

Morrigan jerked on the bench where she’d been reading. But her fright at Solana’s sudden appearance from the shadows didn’t have a lasting impact. She eyed Solana cooly and set down her book.

Now you require my aid?”

Her eyes lingered on the sling where Alise was nestled. Morrigan was like a lethargic cat. Her gaze took in Solana’s state of dishevel, her wild hair, her red cheeks. She took in the way she held the baby to her. She took in the spell Solana had used to approach. Solana saw her adding together these factors, and the sum of them piqued her interest. She stood, and if she were a cat her tail would have been twitching.

“And what is it, precisely, that you require of me?”

“I need you to help me save her.”

 



Samson flicked another stone across the floor, narrowly missing the spot he’d decided to aim for. He cursed under his breath, but he couldn’t get up much real passion. He’d grown bored of this game several hours ago, but it wasn’t like he had a bunch of options, was it?

He heard the door from the main gaol open and his heart skipped. Whether with nervousness or excitement, he didn’t know. “About time. I was wondering when you -”

He stopped talking when he saw who’d entered. It was the Hero, which meant Cullen. And possibly the Inquisitor too. His guts twisted. He’d known the day was coming, but did it have to come so soon after he’d finally started to feel himself again?

The lyrium that the mage had been dosing him with had done wonders. It didn’t have the kick of the red stuff, but he’d stopped aching, stopped craving. His mind had snapped into focus again.

But it wasn’t Cullen who followed the Hero in. It was an apostate he recognised from the Temple of Mythal and she was holding a baby. She handed the little thing to a startled-looking guard Edmund and asked that he leave. He hesitated only a moment, only long enough for the Hero to turn her attention on him, before he bowed his head and left.

Then she turned to Samson. He was still trying to think of something clever to say when she spoke.

“Should I knock him out or…”

The other one drew a bottle of lyrium from her pocket. “No need.”

As he watched, she downed the entire thing. It was then he knew to be frightened.  “What are you going to do to me?”

They didn’t answer.

 


 

Cullen moved through the crowds in the lower courtyard, desperately hoping that they were only a few minutes behind his wife. They’d made good time.

“Have you - sorry ma’am have you seen my wi -” People brushed away from him or shook their heads. Those who recognised him at least offered an apology and called him by his title.

Trevelyan had even less luck. “Excuse me. The Hero, did she pass this way?”

People stared at him with startled expressions and replied with their own questions. Before long, he was surrounded, being pressed for answers or decisions that had nothing at all to do with Solana.

“Can’t you sense her?” Cullen asked Anders helplessly. “Cassey was able to sense her.”

Anders frowned and closed his eyes, appearing to concentrate. But when his lids fluttered open, he shook his head. “She might have gone to Fiona. She could be masking her somehow.”

Hawke, at his shoulder, raised his eyebrows. “You think Fiona would assist her with something like this?”

Cullen knew instantly what Anders meant. He nodded and started for the corridor, for that room. The others followed.

There was no answer when he first knocked, and Cullen feared that they already had some kind of ritual underway. He hammered on the door with his fists and yelled Solana’s name until, finally, it opened a crack.

Fiona’s pale green eye peered out at them. “Solana is not here, Commander.”

“Let us in.”

“I assure you, she’s not…”

“Let us in or Maker help me I will bash this door in myself.”

She stepped aside and Cullen pushed past her. But Solana wasn’t there, just Celeste sitting at the desk and holding a vial of blood in her hand.

“What is this place?” Cullen heard Hawke ask. “Is… is that blood?”

Cullen ignored him. “Solana’s taken the baby. She’s going to… put a demon in her. I think.”

Celeste shot to her feet. “What! Why?”

Cullen swallowed. He didn’t have time for this. Behind him, Hawke was looking at the books and the vials and demanding answers from Anders. He tried to block them out.

“Fiona, before you were cured of the taint, were you at any time possessed?”

Fiona’s face drained of colour and her hand flew to her mouth. “How could you know that?”

So she was right. “Solana discovered that possession cures both Tranquility and the taint. Then she ran away with our baby. My family said she was coming here. Anders can’t sense her. Do you have any idea where she might be?”

“No.” Fiona shook her head wildly. “No, and I can’t imagine she would do such a thing. Are you quite certain?”

“Samson,” Celeste said.

Every eye in the room drew to her.

“She’d go to Samson. She’d want to test it first.”

“Test it?” Hawke’s voice cracked with incredulity.

“Red lyrium carries the Blight,” Celeste said. “We’ve been testing possible cures.”

Her words took a beat to sink in and, when they did, they made Cullen sick to his stomach.

But it was Hawke who spoke. “You’ve been testing possible cures on a live person? On a human being ?” He rounded on Anders. “ You knew about this?”

Anders said nothing and Hawke backed away from him.

“There’s no time,” Cullen snapped.

 


 

Celeste’s skin was crawling as they hurried down to the gaol. Everything about this was wrong. Something must have happened to Solana in that tower. Perhaps she had been possessed or...

Before she could finish the thought, she heard his choking.

She rushed past Cullen, flinging the door to the broken part of the gaol open.

No Solana, no Edmond. But Samson was curled in a ball, convulsing violently. She fell against the bars of his cell, mind racing through possible magics that could open it.

“Here, let me get that.” Varric pushed in front of her, lockpick in hand.

Barely a moment later, the cell was open and she was through. She fell to her knees beside him, pulling his head into her lap.

“What’s wrong with him?” Cullen wanted to know.

Anders joined Celeste in the cell. “I’m not sure.”

Samson was heaving in air, quaking as if he’d been dumped in cold water. His eyes shot open and he stared up at her. She wasn’t sure he even saw her until he spoke.

“Where is she?”

“That’s what we were hoping you could tell us,” Cullen said.

Samson’s eyes rolled to where Cullen stood at the entrance to his cell. “Don’t know. Witch was with her.”

“Tell us what happened,” Celeste said, as gently as she could.

“They… they had lyrium. And they.” He swallowed. “They... oh Maker.”

He lurched to the side and threw up. Fear raced through Celeste, freezing her blood.

“Did they force a demon into you?” Cullen demanded.

“Yes,” Samson croaked.

Fiona approached slowly, more drifting than walking, holding an empty vial. She lowered herself down beside Celeste and, without saying a word, took Samson’s hand.

He cried out as she cut it, but lacked the strength to pull it free. Scarlet blood dripped down the glass. Celeste held her breath as Fiona waved her hand over it and muttered an incantation. They all watched. Nothing happened. The blood did not glow.

“He’s cured,” Fiona said softly.

“Noo…” Samson thrashed in Celeste’s lap. “No no no.”

“You should be glad to be cured,” Fiona told him.

He was still shaking his head. “They’re gonna try cure the baby? No. You can’t let them. It’s not just… the demon. It’s not just that.” His hand shot out to grab Celeste’s arm. He squeezed it, leaving a bloody mark where Fiona had cut him. “They killed me.”

 


 

 

Cullen was red-faced and panting by the time he reached the top of the tower.

Leliana looked up and smiled. “Commander, I didn’t realise you were back yet. How was the -”

She stopped when she saw his expression. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s Solana. She’s gone.” He bent double, fighting for breath. “Taken baby. Ritual. Please. Must find her.”

The spymaster’s eyes widened. “A ritual?”

“Possession. Demons. Please, Leliana. I beg of you. If anyone can find her…”

“When did she leave?”

“We missed her by not more than a few minutes, I’m sure of it.”

Leliana turned to a nearby scout. “Get word to our people.”

He nodded and dashed off. She strode to one of the cages and flung it open, reaching in for a bird. She paused.

And then she was running past Cullen, the bird flapping about their heads and up into the rafters. He followed, shouting after her, slowed by the stitch in his side. It was only once they’d reached the base of the tower that he realised where she was going. She tore through the room that had belonged to Solas and out onto the battlements.

She was heading for his quarters.

He jogged after her, and by the time he caught up she was already tearing the room apart.

“What -”

Her head was down as she dug through the dresser, scarves and gloves flying.

“Leliana, I don’t under -”

And then she withdrew her hand. From it dangled a glass bottle that could only be one thing: a phylactery.

He could hardly breathe as it was. Staring at the vial twisting and glinting in the sunlight, it was all he could do not to choke. Her phylactery. Solana must have taken it from the store room. Taken it behind his back and hidden it from him.

“Silly girl. I told her to wear it,” Leliana said. But she smiled victoriously and handed it to Cullen.

He accepted it in numb fingers. It pulsed gently.

He knew what to do.

Chapter Text

At first Cullen was confused about where the phylactery was leading them. He’d expected it to take them out of the gates. He’d been readying himself to commandeer a horse. But it had lead them instead towards the herb garden.

They walked in tense silence. Leliana had her bow slung over her shoulder, Anders was watching his feet. Hawke had left them somewhere between the research room and the gaol. Now Varric had left too, presumably to find Hawke. It was just the three of them. It would have to be enough.

As they neared the small room at the edge of the garden, the phylactery’s pulsing suddenly made sense.

She’d gone through the mirror . That blighted thing. Cullen had always known it would be a security threat, but how could he have guessed that this was how?

 

“It’s an eluvian,” Anders said as they moved inside. “Does it work?”

“Yes, it works,” Leliana snapped. “How else would they have gone through it?”

“Sorry, of course.”

Cullen could see his own reflection in the glass. He looked haggard. Every hour he hadn’t slept was written on his face, along with his disappointment, his rage. Rough stubble lined his jaw. He was a fearsome sight. He’d read that some of the early human tribes had scarred and maimed themselves to frighten their enemies. Looking at himself now, he could believe that.

“How do we make it…?” Cullen waved his arm in front of it.

“Open?” Anders frowned. “I have no idea.”

“But you know what it is?”

“Yes, I had a friend who tried to make one work. She never succeeded.”

Cullen swore and turned from his reflection, pulling at his hair. He swore again because he didn’t know what else to do. When he had played chess with Solana, she had almost always won. It seemed she had won again. She’d gone somewhere he couldn’t follow. She was going to do awful things to the baby, his child , and there was absolutely nothing he could do.

“I want to help.”

Cullen jumped in fright. Cole was suddenly beside him. The boy tilted his head, staring at his reflection in the mirror. Then he pointed, seemingly at himself.

“He can help.”

“Maker’s breath, we don’t have time for this,” Cullen said through gritted teeth.

“That’s your reflection, Cole,” Leliana explained, kindly. “Are you talking about yourself?”

“No.” Cole shook his head so vigorously that his hat almost fell off. “The other one. I don’t have the keys, but the other one... it is more than me.”

Cullen sighed. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Cole was still staring at the mirror. “He makes you do what’s right. Right for the world, not for you. You suffer in silence. Your union was a choice.”

“Maker, he’s talking about Justice,” Anders said. He stepped back from the mirror. “You think Justice knows how to open this thing?”

“No, but he can find out, if you let him. You can’t be here though.”

“What does he mean ?” Cullen was growing increasingly frustrated with Cole’s enigmas.

In the mirror, Ander’s reflection frowned. His eyebrows drew together. “I think he means I must give over to Justice entirely.”

“Like you did in the tower?”

“Ah, not exactly.”

“Not exactly ?”

Anders turned. “In the tower, he was… helping me. I gave him control because I was too weak, but I was still very much present, if not in command of the physical...” Anders pinched the bridge of his nose. “That friend I mentioned, Merrill. She was communicating with a demon about fixing her mirror. It went about as well as you’d expect. Assuming the demon really did know what it was talking about, it’s possible that Justice would have the same knowledge or power or…” He shook his head. “It’s too risky.”

“Too risky!” Cullen closed the space between them and slammed his hand against the mirror. “My wife’s through there. She’s going to force a demon into my daughter and kill her.”

“I doubt she’ll kill her,” Leliana offered.

Cullen spun onher. “She killed Samson.”

“And she brought him back to life.”

“What if it goes wrong? What if she can’t bring her back to l-life?” His voice cracked. The very idea made him feel dizzy. His daughter. That tiny body that could fit between his palm and his elbow. “I can’t let her do this.”

Leliana’s forehead creased in concern. But Cullen didn’t want her pity. He turned back to Anders. “I need you to do this.”

“Commander, you were there the last time I gave him full control.”

“He stands for justice. Stopping Solana is justice.” His voice cracked again. He caught sight of himself in the mirror once more. Pleading with Anders to lose control, pleading with Anders to stop Solana. Oh, Maker. The sight was almost enough to make his knees buckle. Only the thought of his daughter kept him steady. “Please.”

Anders took a deep breath and nodded.

He closed his eyes.

Blue power sparked across his skin, a network of light that made it look as if his skin had been an outer shell and now it had cracked apart. When he opened his eyes, they blazed again. Bright blue, and crystalline, and completely inhuman.

Cullen took a step back from him.

“Commander,” Justice greeted Cullen with a stiff nod. His voice reverberated through the room. “I feel I owe you an apology for the present predicament. When Solana asked me about the taint, I hardly thought she would go to these length -”

“Apologise later. We need to stop her.”

“Very well.”

Justice placed one glowing blue hand against the mirror. Power seemed to surge through him. Cullen wondered how he had possibly passed as a Warden like this. Then again, he had been possessing the corpse of a soldier, not a living mage. Anders had been a powerful mage in his own right before Justice. Justice having access to those powers… it made Cullen shudder. For an instant, he doubted himself. What he was unleashing could cause so much damage to so many…

But he only wavered for that instant. He would burn the world for Alise.

Justice threw his head back and cried out. The glow from Anders’s eyes intensified, burning bright enough to light the room.

And then the surface of the mirror seemed to melt around his hand.

Leliana let out a breath. “It’s open.”

 


 

 

“You are certain?”

For the first time that Solana could recall, she saw doubt flicker across Morrigan’s features.

The room they stood in reminded Solana of the pavilion in the herb garden, only it was much larger and there were no pretty vines curling their tendrils around the columns. In fact, there was no colour at all. This world that Morrigan had brought her to was almost entirely monotone, but for the blue-green mist that had swirled around their feet when they’d first entered. Beyond the arches that marked the borders of the room, there was only inky darkness.

“I’ve come too far to back out now,” Solana said.

Even as she spoke the words, she wondered if they were true. Her heart thumped against her chest like the pounding of a fist on a door. She was trembling and thirsty and weak. But for once, she didn’t need to be strong. She only had to be brave.

She only had to be the Hero. One last time.

There was a plinth in the centre of the room and it took Solana three unsteady steps to lay Alise upon it. The baby woke as she did, and reached up with a grasping hand. Though her eyes shone, they were blank. Solana bent to press a kiss on her forehead.

Everything else was set up. The candles, the symbols. The lyrium she’d smuggled from the Skyhold stores sat heavy in her pocket. She passed a vial to Morrigan.

“Before we begin, answer me this.”

Solana raised her eyebrows.

“You are the mighty Hero of Ferelden. There are many allies you could turn to in your hour of need. You might have even ordered your Grey Wardens to assist you. We have seen they have few qualms when it comes to demons. Yet it is I you turn to. We have not so much as spoken since I came to Skyhold. Not even when you first learned of your child’s plight.”

“You’re not saying you would have had a solution?”

Morrigan smirked. “No. And if I had, you likely would not have trusted it.”

Was she referring to Alistair?

“No,” Solana agreed.

“But you trust me now?” Morrigan queried.

Solana squared her shoulders. “I trust you to always do what’s necessary .”

Morrigan frowned at that.

“You don’t let emotions cloud your judgement. At first it… it troubled me. But that was another life. That was when I was still wide-eyed and naive. I believed that the world was made of absolutes. I see now that I was wrong. I should have asked Alistair to perform that ritual. I should have given him the choice. If I had perhaps…” She glanced at Alise, lying on her back and and softly gurgling. “Perhaps it wouldn’t have come to this.”

“It is likely your daughter would not have been born had you chosen differently that night,” Morrigan said softly.

“Was Alistair’s blood special? Was it a cure?”

Morrigan blinked. “A cure? For the Blight? No. But it was... special, I suppose. It is useless now, reflecting on what could have been. That child was not born. This one was. We should proceed.”

 


 

 

Cullen stumbled from the eluvian, feeling as though the air had been knocked from his lungs. Nausea raced from the top of his head down to his empty his stomach.

They were in a land that was both real and not. A strange non-world of grey pathways and and stillness. It felt wrong . He was not welcome here.

But the phylactery throbbed gently against his palm and he forced himself to his feet and followed its lead.

When he heard the chanting, he started to jog, heavy armour slamming against his shoulders.

There. A glimmer of candlelight. It came from one of the strange floating islands and he knew, he knew that must be where they were. He threw himself forward towards it as the phylactery started to thrum.

 

He skidded into the room. Candles flickered. Solana turned to look at him. Her hair was curling flame, her eyes were bright flecks of serpentstone. She slammed her staff down and a barrier formed between them.

“No!” He threw himself against it.

Alise on a plinth, wriggling in obvious discomfort. Morrigan, with eyes rolled upward and arms out, chanting.

“Solana, stop!” He pounded his fists against the barrier as Leliana and Anders arrived behind him. “I can’t let you do this!”

She backed away from him, chest rapidly rising and falling.

He reached for magic-cancelling powers that were no longer there. No lyrium, no Templar abilities. But he drew his sword because he didn’t know what else to do.

Solana’s eyes darted to the weapon. She fumbled for something in her pocket.

Alise started to cry, a heart-splitting anguished sound unlike anything he’d heard from her before. Solana produced from her robes a glass vial, glowing blue.

“Solana, if you do this, I will cut you down . Maker, help me.”

She unstoppered the bottle. For a brief instant, her eyes met his. Her hand was trembling as she rose the vial to her lips. “I know.”

 



The Fade opened around her, swallowing her with the finality that only death or an overdose of lyrium could provide. The green sky roared and the ground beneath her feet crackled. Alise’s cries consumed her.

She spun towards them. There, sitting upon the plinth, a despair demon. It cradled Alise in its arms, and it might have been mistaken for a shrunken old woman in a cloak, staring lovingly into the face of the child, were it not for the teeth that Solana could see poking from beneath the hood. The sight sent acid racing through Solana’s veins. Alise was ghostly, glimmering in the dim light as Connor had all those years ago. Her tiny body was twisting against the demon’s grip and her face was contorted. She seemed insubstantial, more vulnerable than ever.

“Look, little one. Mother dearest joins us,” the demon said. Its whole head moved when it spoke, its face one mighty jaw. The voice echoed around them, reverberating over the sound of Alise’s cries.

Solana nodded, not trusting her own voice.

“This is not the host I would have chosen, but it will do nicely… eventually. I am patient.” The demon swiveled its head to Solana, beady little mouse eyes glimmering in the recesses of the cloak. “I suspect you are here to challenge me. I would not advise it. She has such a delicate little mind. It would be a pity for harm to come to it. How about we make a deal? You let me stay, and no one will be the wiser. I am good at hiding. I can hide easily for ten, even twenty years. Allow me to stay and I will not break her precious little mind.”

“I have a counter-offer,” Solana said. Her voice was steadier than she felt. So far everything was going according to plan, but the next few words would be crucial. She squared her shoulders. “Take my body instead.”

The demon simply stared at her.

“I am a mage. A very powerful mage. I am widely respected, lauded as a hero, in fact. Take my body instead and there will be nowhere you can’t go, nothing you can’t do.”

The demon said nothing and Solana’s heartbeat drummed in hear ears.

“You can’t tell me that isn’t a tempting offer.”

The demon rose. It did not stand, but hovered before her. “It is. Very tempting. Too tempting, Solana.

She backed away a step, and cursed herself for showing weakness. “You know me?”

It couldn’t smile, but there was satisfaction in its voice. “I know you so very well. Better than your husband, better than your closest friends.”

Solana’s breath hitched. This wasn’t part of the plan. She could feel cold sweat against her spine.

“Do you believe it was an accident that I happened to be the nearest demon when you performed your little ritual? I have fed off you for years . I was there that night .” The demon seemed to grow before her. “When you set up camp in the Frostbacks, when you trudged through snow so deep your legs could hardly move. Did you think you were alone?” It chuckled. “And ahhh, when you finally made your way down the mountain back to your little society, back to your Cullen . He thought you’d be his, but you were always mine.”

“So take me then.” Stay focused. “Take my body and you’ll no longer need to feed on my sorrow.”

“I’m not fool enough to think you’d give me your body without there being a price.”

“If you’ve been with me so long, you know I’d give my life for less.”

Again it laughed, a horrible bone-crunching noise. “My dear, who do you think has been egging you on?”

It drifted around her, forcing her to turn. Alise still thrashed and squealed in its arms.

“Tell me honestly what the price is. I will know if you lie. Tell me what will happen if I take that wretched body from you.”

“Alright. It is possible that you will die.”

“Is that all?”

“If I become an abomination, Cullen will kill me. It’s what he’s trained for. And if he fails, the others will try too. Plus, my body is not currently in the material world. There is an eluvian that leads back there, but I do not know the key.”

The demon sank down to Solana’s eye level. “Full disclosure. I like that.”

Solana did not speak. She waited. The demon circled back to the plinth. “Your husband will be devastated if he is compelled to kill you.”

“Yes.”

Slowly, the demon set Alise back on the plinth. “Not that he will succeed.”

 



Solana’s eyes rolled back in her head and she fell to her knees. The barrier flickered, but before Cullen could break through, Morrigan replaced it. Her eyes were clear now, her chanting done. She held out one palm, keeping the barrier in place.

Cullen shouted his wife’s name and the baby continued to twist and scream and cry.

“Let me.” Justice strode past Cullen, and set his hand upon the barrier. Morrigan tensed. Her features stiffened. Sweat prickled on her brow. She was no doubt powerful, Cullen had seen that in the Arbor Wilds. But she was no match for the combined strength of Justice and Anders. The barrier flickered, and dropped away, sending Morrigan flying backwards. She crashed against one of the pillars at the edge of the room and slumped, motionless.

Cullen dashed forward, sword drawn, but didn’t aim for Solana or even Morrigan. Alise needed him. If he could get her away…

But before he reached her, Solana screamed.

It wasn’t the kind of sound any human should make. It took him instantly back to Kinloch. His stomach turned to liquid. He spun to face her, just in time to see her morph.

Her head was thrown back in anguish and where her beautiful face had been, there were two rows of long, white teeth.

No…

Her body trembled and he knew what he had to do. In this moment, she was at her weakest. The demon was still establishing control. This was what he’d trained for. This was the nightmare he had faced all those years before when he’d been called to oversee her, what he had been ready to do.

This was the failed Harrowing.

He raised his sword, hand shaking so violently that he very nearly dropped it.

I’ll cut you down, he ’d said it. He’d warned her. She’d taken their child. Do it…

“Maker grant me strength…”

Do it…

Solana. His wife. Warm arms around him. The smell of roses. The shy smile as they walked together through Haven. That night in her tent when her feelings had been revealed in touches and sighs and kisses. Solana… holding his head in her lap as his mind tumbled through a lyrium overdose. Blackberries in his office. Sitting together late into the desert night. Solana in the Circle dining hall. I don’t like raisins.

The sword slipped from his fingers. His knees gave in.

And Solana laughed. “Devastated… yeeesss.”

She stood, seeming somehow taller. She clenched and unclenched her fists. “And such… power… such… Ahh!”

An arrow. It slammed into her chest and tore through her heart.

Leliana. Leliana had done what he’d been unable to do. She was crouched, holding her bow at the ready. Trails of tears ran down her cheeks.

And the demon crumpled forward. From where Cullen knelt, he saw Solana’s face return, saw the light go out of her eyes.

And then he was crawling towards her, pulling her into his arms and he was screaming his throat raw. No! How could it end like this? How could she end like this? And Morrigan had come to, she was shouting, and feet were pounding and Anders was on his knees beside Cullen. Not Justice, but Anders. The healer. And Morrigan was there too.

Out of my way!” Electricity crackled from her fingers and she pulled Solana from Cullen’s arms, slamming an electric hand down on her chest. Anders cast magic. Bright blue, as blue as Justice. Morrigan slammed her hand down again. Again, electricity surged through Solana. Her body jerked. Another wave of blue magic. More electricity.

And then she convulsed. A gasp. Breathing.

 


 

 

She heaved in air, choking on it but unable to stop. Her skin tingled. She heard her name.

Cullen…

It was his voice that gave her the strength to force her eyes open. Her memories were foggy. What happened? Why did her head ache ?

Three faces hung over hers. Anders, Morrigan and… him. It was when she saw his eyes that memories surged back. Pain the likes of which she had never seen…

But before she could say anything, before she could even find her voice, he pulled away.

It was a couple of minutes before she had gained back enough breath to sit. She struggled up. “Alise?” She could still hear her crying

“Baby’s fine.” Leliana was standing near the plinth, holding Alise to her chest and trying to calm her.

“And you are too.” Anders smiled, but Solana could tell it was forced. “I don’t sense the taint in either of you, congratulations.”

There was no sign of Cullen.

Chapter Text

One month later…

 

27 Guardian 9:42 Dragon

 

A butterfly flittered down from the tree and hovered just out of reach of Alise’s grasping fingers. She laughed and gurgled, kicking her feet excitedly.

Solana reached behind her back and cast a small spell. Bubbles burst from her fingertip and drifted into the air about them, causing more excited squeals from the little person on her lap. She closed her eyes and drank in the sound of it.

It was still rare to hear Alise happy. Emotions were so new to her, and most of them seemed to frighten or hurt, but she loved the Grove. She loved being under the blue sky and watching the trees in the wind, the insects buzzing. Her eyes would go round in awe and sometimes her mouth would too.

“Interesting tactic.”

Solana’s heart jumped.  That voice. She was instantly on her feet and Alise gave a startled coo. But when she turned, she turned slowly, holding her breath, hardly daring to hope. 

“Cullen,” she breathed.

He hovered awkwardly by the tree that marked the entrance to the Grove and she felt giddy. 

“Solana.” His eyebrows drew close and his gaze dropped to his feet.

“I… I wasn’t sure you’d return,” she managed to get the words out. 

“Neither was I… but… I don’t want to be the sort of man who abandons his child.”

His child. Ice pooled in her stomach. As desperate as she’d been to see him, as much as she’d ached for him over the last month, she had to remember there was no way he could possibly feel the same after she'd done what she had.

Solana, if you do this, I will cut you down. Maker, help me.

He moved forward as if with great effort. “How… how is she?”

“Better. Good.” Alise stared at Cullen in alarm. “She startles easily. She’s still growing accustomed to…” Solana cleared her throat. “Feelings. They take her by surprise. But she’s young enough, I’m certain she’ll adjust.”

Silence followed. Cullen looked everywhere but at them.

“How’s Mia?” Solana asked.

“Oh, she’s…” He scratched the back of his neck, a nervous gesture that Solana hadn’t seen him use in months. “She’s well enough. Rosalie has a suitor. I think she finally gave up on Hawke.”

“She gave up too soon.”

Cullen’s eyebrows shot up, signalling that he didn’t know.

“Anders left. He, um, he left a note. It said it was unfair of him to ask Hawke to forgive him again. I think. I… I’m not really sure what it said. The Skyhold grapevine isn’t particularly reliable.”

“I take it Hawke’s not speaking to you directly then?”

Solana’s insides twisted again. “No. But that’s not unexpected.”

Cullen's adam’s apple bobbed as he looked around for inspiration for something else to say. “I should have written. I… sorry.”

“Max told me you were with your family.”

“Good… I started a few letters. Never really knew what to say. It seems I’m as much at a loss now as I was then.”

Solana waited again.

“I was very angry.”

“I know.”

“I even considered... When I told Mia what you’d done, she suggested I bring Alise to South Reach. Raise her there.”

Told Mia… Solana pictured Mia in that nursery, how much faith she’d had. Another person betrayed. After Cullen, losing Hawke had hurt the most so far. He’d been the first family she’d ever had. He’d accepted her immediately and without question. Then Mia had done the same and now that too was gone. Still, Solana lifted her chin because self-pity was for those who deserved it. She’d made her choice, and she had to accept the consequences.

“Is that what you want?” she asked Cullen.

His eyes darted from her again. “I can’t say it wasn’t tempting. But my life is here.”

Here, with the Inquisition.

Solana considered offering to leave instead, but she knew she couldn’t. Being parted from Alise was inconceivable.

“For what it’s worth… I’m sorry,” she said.

At that, his eyes did meet hers. His look was hard. “Are you?”

“No.” It was the only honest answer. Her baby could laugh at butterflies, could live to see old age. No. She wasn’t sorry. “But I’m sorry that I hurt you.”

He shook his head and turned from her. She didn’t dare ask where he was going.

 


 

Samson rocked back and forth, back and forth. With his arms around his knees and his head down, it was the only thing that soothed him.

He heard the door, but didn’t look up.

It was either the Inquisitor’s men here to question him, that dwarf with her enchantments, or…

“Ser Samson?”

Or her. Her with his lyrium. They’d been cutting back, slowly weaning him off. She only came every second day now and he’d lost track of time. Had it really been two days?

He heard her kneel beside his cage. She always did, bringing herself to eye level. A strange habit.

“You can leave it there,” he said. Back and forth, back and forth.

“I haven’t brought you lyrium.”

He looked up at that. She had a wicker basket with her and she reached into it. Through the bars of his cell, she offered him a soft, white, bread roll.

“Take it away.”

Her pretty face contorted. Disappointment. “You don’t like bread?”

He did, very much. He could still recall the smell of the bakery at dawn. As a child he had longed to frequent it like the noble children did. He’d watch them enter with broad smiles and exit with currant buns, and cakes, and strange Orlesian delicacies. It had taken until he was a Templar for him to finally sample such wares.

“Take it away,” he repeated.

“It’s hot from the oven. We made fresh this morning.”

“So why are you offering it to me, hey?”

“I thought it might make a nice change from the slop that they usual-”

He slammed a hand against the bars. She jumped back. “Nice? What in Maker’s name are you doing bringing me nice ? Don’t you know who I am? What I’ve d- done?”

“Of course I do.”

“Yeah well, then I don’t know what you’re playing at. But I don’t have the energy for games. I just… leave me. Please.”

“Very well.”

The instant she rose to her feet, he regretted his words. He curled in on himself, even tighter than before, and listened as she walked away.

 


 

 

The sun was setting later as the weather grew warmer, which suited Solana fine. More time for lessons.

Mages continued to flock to Skyhold. Some were frightened. There was talk of Circles in Val Royeaux again and they hoped the Inquisition would protect them. Some were new to their powers, and without the Circles they had nowhere to go to learn how to keep demons at bay. So, Solana had resumed training them. Corypheus may be dead, but mages would always need to know how to handle their abilities.

Besides, she was no longer a Grey Warden. She belonged with the mages. Their fate was very likely hers.

She’d thrown herself into her work, developing three separate drill sessions that ran each morning, and a host of individual lessons with new mages every afternoon. Alise would mostly lie in her basket, watching the pretty lights and calling out if she grew hungry or uncomfortable or if a particularly large burst of magic frightened her. Sometimes, when she was particularly finicky, Solana would carry her and give instruction verbally.

It wasn’t quite happiness, but it was satisfying. While she was working, she was distracted. It was only when she returned to her quarters in the evenings and saw the empty bed waiting for her that sorrow won out.

This night, she didn’t know what to expect. Cullen was back, but nothing he had said indicated he had any interest in an ongoing relationship with her. He was back for Alise, and for the Inquisition.

But as she pushed the door open, there he was. He was sitting on their bed, busy with his boot. The elation almost overwhelmed her. She stood frozen, unsure what to do or say. He looked up when he heard her.

“I, uh, sorry. I was just leaving.”

Her heart seemed to shrink. “At this hour?” She searched for something else to say, something that didn’t sound as demanding. “I.. I know you have a lot of work to catch up on, but certainly it can wait a few hours more?”

He frowned and his brow creased. Then understanding seemed to dawn. “Oh, I’m not going to work now. I… I thought it would be best if I slept in my office”.

Oh. Cold washed over her, leaving her frozen in front of the door. “Oh. Of course.”

“I came here to wash. You don’t mind, do you?”

Solana shook her head.

 


 

Cullen jerked awake. He found himself staring at starry sky rather than at white rafters. Skyhold.

He pushed himself to sitting, all traces of the nightmare already melting away.

Something shifted in the shadows. Terror pierced his chest, he reached for his sword and found it gone.

It glinted in the moonlight across the room. “Looking for this?”

“Leliana.”

She emerged from the darkness and handed him the weapon. She was wearing her hood up, and most of her face was in shadow.

“Knocking too mundane for you?”

The corner of her mouth twitched upwards. “Come with me.”

“Now?”

She turned and slunk away without answering. With a sigh, he climbed out of bed, feeling he had no choice but to follow.

He was still pulling his shirt straight as they moved along the battlements. By the bite in the air, it was already past midnight. Leliana walked a few feet in front of him, her silver chainmail twinkling.

“You hear that?” she asked.

Skyhold was quiet. Somewhere in the night, an owl hooted. Then he did hear it. Was that… weeping?

The room that he’d shared with Solana was directly ahead of them, a dim light burned within. It was no mystery where the sound was coming from. Leliana turned, giving a small inclination of her head indicating he should follow. They moved back through his office and out, downstairs, to the quiet empty spot behind the barn where they could no longer hear the crying.

“She’s been like this most nights since you left,” Leliana said.

He wasn’t sure how she expected him to react. Yes, it pained him to hear Solana’s unhappiness, but it was of her own making.

“What do you want from me? Do you want me to feel sorry for her?”

“Why did you come back?” Leliana asked

“My child’s here.”

“Is that all?”

Cullen growled and raked a hand through his hair. “You’re upset with me for leaving.”

“No, Commander. Leaving, I can understand.”

“What, then?” Was she angry that she’d had to be the one to take action? They both knew how she felt about Solana. It must have pained her as much as it had pained him. Only that knowledge - and the memory of the tears rolling down her face - enabled him to keep his temper.

“Do you still love her, Commander?”

“Do you?”

Leliana’s mouth formed a thin line and her eyebrows drew together. “Don’t evade.”

He sighed. “I’ve spent weeks asking myself that. And I’m here, aren’t I? Shouldn’t that be answer enough?”

Leliana nodded. She turned her head back towards the room. “I’m concerned about her. She… is not the same. I was with her after Alistair died. It was not like this.” Her eyes met his again, glinting beneath her hood. “You have a  decision to make, Commander. Either that weeping is your concern or it is not. If it is not, you should leave Skyhold.”

He bristled. “My daughter is -”

“Perfectly safe and happy, surrounded by people who care about her welfare.”

“I have a duty -”

“You are not irreplaceable, Commander.”

Her words shouldn’t have stung, but they did. Of course, she was right. Many could command the Inquisition’s forces, possibly do an even better job of it than he. Still, in the time they’d worked together he had developed a grudging respect for Leliana. He had hoped it had cut both ways.

His expression must have showed more than he’d meant it to. He was so run down, so tired, that he wasn’t managing to hide his feelings as well as he usually did. Leliana placed a hand on his arm.

“If you are here, if you choose to remain a presence in her life, if you choose to remain married to her, you need to be here . You need to make that weeping your concern. The rest of us might not need you, Commander. But she does.”

“The fabled Hero of Fereleden needs me?” He didn’t try to hide the bitterness.

Leliana pulled away from him and wandered across the small patch of grass, into the barn. He followed. Moonlight streaked the floor and a horse whinnied.

“For someone who’s been through so much, you know remarkably little about the nature of power,” she said. She reached out to stroke a horse’s muzzle. “Power is a strange thing. You’d think it made one stronger, but in all my dealings with it, I’ve seen that to not be the case. Power makes us vulnerable. Solana’s power has saved her life more times than I can count, but it’s corrupted her as much as the taint did. Before she knew her power, she was nothing. Now she struggles to be anything but her power.”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“I’m saying that if you still care for her at all, you will help her find her way. It will likely not be easy.”

How could he help Solana find her way when he couldn’t even find his own?

Leliana focused on the horse, which nudged her hand, appreciating the attention. “However, I would not see you unhappy either,” she said softly.

He second-guessed what he’d heard, but before he could ask for clarification, she looked up again.

“I have no desire to see you suffer in a loveless marriage, throwing away your life to ensure Solana…” whatever she was going to say, she let the sentence drop. “This is a good horse, one of the best. A fine Fereldan Forder. The saddlebags are packed.” Her gaze cut to a corner where bags and riding tack were piled. “If you wish to disappear into the night, I will handle the fallout. You know I am capable of that at least.”  

“So, in other words, either I forgive Solana everything and carry on as if nothing’s happened, or I leave now? What are the consequences if I don’t?”

She smiled. “I’m not threatening you. On the contrary, I'm offering you an opportunity. I am offering you a clean break, something few are afforded. Your leaving, anyone could understand. Especially if word gets out about what happened. You are the Templar, she is the mage, after all."

"And I suppose in this scenario you'd get the girl?" He said the words without much thought, too puzzled and suspicious to take care with them. 

Leliana didn't flinch, but her eyes narrowed. "You know better than that."

He did. Solana preferred the company of men, no matter the spy mistress's personal desires. Cullen dropped his gaze. 

"Why did you return?" Leliana asked again. 

He couldn't answer. 

"Did you return for the Inquisition? Did you return for your baby daughter? Or did you perhaps return because you missed her?" 

Leliana didn't wait for an answer, perhaps she realised that he'd struggle to admit the truth. 

"I'm not suggesting that you forgive everything, Commander. Only that you move forward, if you can. Living separate lives while you're both here, don't you see? Neither of you will be able to heal." She shrugged, a small movement accompanied by a self-deprecating smile. "My friend deserves better than that.”

Fresh annoyance surged through him. “Oh, she does, does she?”

“I didn’t mean Solana.”

Cullen blinked at her. It seemed she was serious. He wasn't sure what to make of the declaration. He swallowed.

Leaving was the better option. The alternative was what? Opening himself up to Solana again? Just waiting for her power to get the better of her again, to lure her into some reckless adventure again? He wasn’t certain he was capable of it. He wasn’t certain he was strong enough.

He wanted to be near his daughter, but such thoughts were selfish when all he could offer was a cool obligatory presence. Rather she grow up knowing of him from stories. The stories were always better.

He thought of the calm, cool, empty mornings in South Reach. He knew what he had to do.

 


 

Solana’s face was hot and her eyes were itching but she couldn’t stop crying. It had been bad enough when he’d been gone, but now he was here, a few short metres away, it was almost worse. Was this to be their life now? Was this what she’d condemned them to?

The door clicked and she bolted upright, old instincts coming to the fore as she reached for her staff.

Cullen stepped in. His eyes slipped to his feet, but he said nothing. He said nothing as he closed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around her. She stayed stiff in his grasp, breathing unsteadily, hardly daring to believe that this wasn’t some trick. But it was definitely him. It smelled like him.

He smelled like the day Celeste had dropped water on her, that day he’d given her his surcoat. He smelled like that night in the Frostbacks, when she’d told him of Morrigan’s offer and he’d held her until dawn. He smelled of the Chantry, when she’d made vows to protect him.

“Cullen,” she whimpered.

Without warning, fresh sobs escaped her.

“I’m here,” he whispered as he drew her to his chest.

 



The sound of the gaol door scraping against the concrete reverberated through Samson’s skull earlier than usual.

He’d heard people saying the Commander was back, so he had a good idea what to expect, but when he peeked out from beneath his arms, he saw her boots, her skirts, the basket. She knelt down again.

“Good morning, Ser Samson. I’ve brought you bread.”

“Why?”

She slipped the roll through the bars again and sank back onto her haunches. “A year ago, a friend brought me bread.”

“That’s nice,” he said, sarcastically.

“She understood that past deeds do not make us who we are.”

He lifted his head. “Past deeds? What did you do, Mage? Forget the words to one of the Chantry hymns?” With her long blonde hair and soft voice, she was certainly a Chantry type. And he was her latest goodwill project.

“My name’s Celeste.”

“If you’re trying to save my soul, you’re too late.”

“You were corrupted.”

“What does it matter? It was me. I believed in what I did then. Preach all you like about people changing from that side of the cell, but until you know…”

She pulled a small knife from her boot and sliced across her hand. Red blood pooled in her palm. Her eyes met his.

The blood went up in flames. Bright blue, so hot they almost singed his skin a few feet from her.

“I know ,” she said.

 


 

Cullen sat behind his desk, a small glass bottle in each hand. The one throbbed gently, like a heartbeat, as he turned it around and around. The other was empty.

Already he felt stronger, more capable. He’d taken a tiny amount this time, not like the last. No more than a fraction of what he’d been on in the Order. Just enough to help him cope. He was going to be a good Commander and a good husband and a good father, because this was his choice.

As for the other bottle, it was time that it returned where it belonged.

 

The lyrium had fully permeated his body by the time he reached the phylactery corridor. He felt almost cheerful as he passed through Solana’s wards, the magic recognising him as a rightful visitor.

But all good humour left him the instant he opened the door.

The room was empty.

Chapter Text

Yay! Part 3 is finally up and here's the place to follow the continued adventures (and drama) of Solana and Cullen: https://archiveofourown.org/works/14871819/chapters/34435239

While the other parts are just over 30 chapters, this third and final part has 42 chapters (and an epilogue). Everything's all beta'd and ready, so I'll be posting Mondays and Thursdays. I hope you enjoy!