Cullen stood on the shore of the lake in his habitual scowling stance, arms crossed and mouth pulled down at the corners. To any observer, it would look like he was watching the form of the sparring recruits in front of him, as he did every day, and had done since before the Conclave, when the world shook and turned sideways. However, on this morning, the eerie green glow of the Breach had less than its usual effect upon his concentration. His mind was far away, mulling over the Herald’s story of the dark future, and the haunted look in her eyes as she described the ashen sky and how shards of red lyrium had turned her friends into monsters.
The scene after the war meeting preoccupied his mind further. He sighed as he remembered the way he had chastised her yet again for her decision involving the mages – her offer of a free alliance, which would leave them running loose without templar supervision, as if she had learned nothing from what she had seen.
And what was I supposed to do?
It’s too dangerous.
That’s what the Chantry says – I thought you were sick of being their hound?
Cassandra had intervened, and though at the time he had chafed to argue back, it was only now with the benefit of hindsight that he could see his harshness had been born of helplessness. She had gone into the dragon’s maw with no protection, out of some noble sense of solidarity with the Redcliffe mages, and he had been unable to do anything. There wasn’t even a mention of him in this dark future she had been to, no word on whether the Inquisition’s forces had fought back. For a reason he couldn’t quite define, the thought unsettled him even more than the new certainty of what failure would cost them.
His arguments had done no good; the mages were already here, established in their own camp on the edge of the village and making themselves useful to Adan and the locals. He scowled. Their magic grated on the edge of his senses, the last drops of lyrium in his blood responding to the ebb and flow of mana that came too close to taking him back to his time in the Gallows, when his mind was convinced maleficar hid around every corner. He could not think like that here, could not afford to.
And yet, he found his bad mood dwelling not so much on the mages as a whole, but on one in particular. The Tevinter apostate – Dorian, the altus, as he styled himself – had sauntered into the argument in the chantry as if the tension meant no more to him than the cooling whisper of a summer breeze. The Herald had shouted his name and leapt to hug him with such force it knocked him backwards. After that, decisions were made quickly, Maighread’s easy banter with the stranger and the genuine fondness he held in his eyes a disturbing counterpoint to the news that Haven was soon to find itself swarming with dozens of apostates.
“So tell me again why we're doing this out here?”
Cullen turned. As if summoned by his thoughts, the Herald traipsed through the village gate, doggedly on the heels of the Tevinter altus.
“Why, couz,” cam the airy reply, “There’s no need to sound so sceptical. How am I supposed to look at this fascinating mark of yours inside that stuffy hut with whatshisname – that healer fellow – breathing down my neck? We need to examine it properly.”
“There’s always my cabin,” she groused, tugging the collar of her heavy leather coat higher against the wind. “At least it’s warm in there.”
The altus only laughed. “And set every tongue wagging?” he asked. “No, I’m afraid this is the only suitable place, at least until my fingers go numb in this blasted Fereldan cold. You must at least appreciate the view?” His arm shot out in a grandiose gesture that swept along the shore of the lake and up towards the mountain.
She sighed indulgently and rolled her eyes, but the movement brought her attention down to the training ground where Cullen stood silently watching. Her cheeks flushed slightly – from the cold, he assumed – and with a guarded nod in his direction, she turned away again and hurried after Dorian.
Her hair was getting longer, growing out of the simple cropped style she wore in the first few weeks after the Conclave, when he had overheard her telling Josephine that travelling through hostile country was easier disguised as a boy. Now, it had grown enough for her to tuck it behind her ear, although so much to prevent the silky dark locks from slipping free again as soon as her hands became occupied in some other task. Cullen glanced at her again just as she repeated the motion, and then his eyes fell to the array of fine instruments the altus was arranging on the log pile between them.
“Now then, if you wouldn’t mind?”
With perfect trust, the Herald ungloved her left hand and handed it to her companion, palm up.
“Fascinating... It’s almost like a bruise, or a splinter caught beneath the skin. You say it hurts?”
She snorted. “Mostly when it’s prodded.”
The two of them leaned forward, peering down at the mark, their touches so casual and unconscious it was like they had known each other for years, instead of just a few days. Gritting his teeth, Cullen turned away again and closed his ears to their discussion, annoyed by the fact it annoyed him in the first place. It was beneath his dignity to be curious about the free time she spent with those she considered friends, and listening in on the conversations of mages had long since stopped being of his duties. When her laugh rang out, light as rain dropping into a pool and lacking the usual sarcasm she reserved for him, a muscle ticked in his jaw.
“Break!” he shouted at the recruits. “Change partners. Make sure you use the space when you spar – attack and retreat – demons like to close with their victims and hold on.”
He took up one of the practice swords and was halfway through a demonstration of the pattern when there was a yelp of pain behind him.
“Fucking Void, that hurts.” She cradled her marked hand to her chest, her fingers clenched around a spray of fizzing green light. As Cullen watched, the light flared, and in answer, the Breach seemed to pulse, twisting like a dragon in the air.
“Now that is interesting,” Dorian murmured, as a sound like shearing metal rolled down the valley towards them.
The air went still. Frozen, soldiers and villagers alike waited to have their worst fears confirmed, their eyes turned upward to follow the sudden, unexpected change in the thing that brought their nightmares. And then, just as swiftly, the flare subsided, like the tear in the sky had only turned over in its sleep. Cullen found his gaze tracking towards the Herald. A deep line of worry creased her brow, wearier, more resigned than the abject terror on the faces of those around her.
“We should probably write that down,” she muttered through clenched teeth.
She snapped to the sound of her title, eyes widening as she spotted the commander marching towards her. With a guilty look at the mark in her palm, she smoothed her expression and climbed down from her seat on the log pile.
“Commander – I know what you’re going to say, and –”
“Are you alright?”
“I – what?” The blush returned, a wave of heat that burnt the umber of her cheeks. She glanced sideways, but Dorian only offered a raised eyebrow in response. “No harm done,” she answered with a careless smile. “No surprise attacks by demons today.”
“You looked like you were in pain,” Cullen pressed. He took care not to crowd her.
“I’ve had worse. We… we were trying to gain a better understanding of how the mark works, so we might take better account of any extraneous variables when we go to seal the Breach – and Dorian has experience with similar magic, so I thought it might be worth getting a fresh perspective, since Solas seems to have told me all he can about it, and -”
“And I’m sure the first piece of advice off my tongue would have been to treat the mark with more caution.” The elf padded towards them, his eyes fixed on the Herald's mark in a gaze devoid of its usual somnolence. “It took all my skill to stop that Mark killing you the first time. I would hate to see all that work undone.”
“So you know about this type of manifestation?” Dorian asked. His dark eyes studied the elven apostate with new interest.
“As much as anyone does,” came the mellow reply. “You might have applied to me for information, instead of prodding blindly at something about which you know nothing.”
“I’ll confess the thought never occurred to me,” the altus admitted, somewhat sheepishly.
“An honest oversight, of course.”
Dorian cleared his throat. “Rampant academic enthusiasm, I’m afraid. This mark bears remarkable similarity to the fixant my mentor and I used to create the rifts for our tempus aperitio. What do you say to comparing notes?”
Solas cocked his head, considering the request. “It might be a worthwhile exercise. Time magic possesses some intriguing possibilities.”
“Excellent! Maighread, we could use your input as well, you know.”
She shot an uneasy glance at Cullen, who still stood at the edge of the conversation, though not quite part of it now that the subject had turned to the arcane.
“I should return to my duties,” he told her, offering a stiff bow and an awkward retreat.
“Wait!” She turned to her two companions. “I’ll catch up with you. I just – I need a word with the commander.”
Dorian winked but gave no reply as he handed her back her glove and steered Solas towards the gate. For an instant, Maighread watched them go, fiddling with the fit of the glove on her left hand, though her entire attention was fixed on Cullen a few steps away, waiting by her request. When she finally plucked up the courage to face him, she tucked her hair behind her ears again.
“I wanted to apologise for causing a scare,” she said. “Both Dorian and I agreed the mark was inert, we didn't think there would be any sort of reaction, at least not one with any feedback from the Breach. I should have realised it would be more complicated than that.”
He gave her a wry smile. “It probably did the soldiers good – reminded them they shouldn't get complacent – and as long as you're sure you're alright…”
Silence fell between them. Cullen rubbed the back of his neck.
“Are the mages settled?”
Maighread chafed her thumb against her palm and nodded. “They've been very helpful. Fiona and some of the others have come up with some suggestions for how to channel magic into the mark to close the Breach. It should work.”
He scowled. “And then you'll be leaving us.”
“I hadn't decided…”
She never meant to stay. She had agreed out of expediency at first, because her choice besides helping the Inquisition was to wind up in a Chantry gaol cell. Then, when it became clear just how many rifts were forming, how little organised resistance there was against the demons and the rogue templars, she had followed Cassandra and tried to help where she could, driven by memories of her brother's selfless nature and by the fierce, almost spiteful determination to prove wrong all those who thought her cursed for having been born with magic. But the way people looked at her – she could never be what they wanted, and the longer she stayed the more false hope radiated from the Inquisition's promises. And the more choked she felt, wrapped around and around by expectations and adulation, pressed into a destiny she could never hope to meet.
“I hope you choose to stay,” he said, so softly she almost missed it.
“Can't have the Elder One getting their hands on the mark – whoever they are.”
“That's not what I –”
“About the mages,” she interrupted. “I know we don’t see eye to eye about the situation, but giving them the freedom to choose what they want to do, without templars to make them second guess themselves, is the right thing to do.”
“Would you still say that if one of those mages turns out to be a maleficar?” Cullen asked.
“Desperation makes abominations, Commander,” came the weary reply. “That’s what’s always made them – no matter what the circumstances, that’s what it always comes down to. I wish you could see that.” She looked at him then, with that soft-tilted gaze she wore when puzzling over an ancient text or concentrating on the exact measurements needed for a potion.
Inquisitive as a kitten, he remembered his mother saying long ago, an echo of the nickname Varric had bestowed. “What is it?”
“You said ‘if’, not ‘when’. ‘If one of the mages turns into a maleficar.’” A smile appeared, teasing at the corners. “Maybe there’s hope for us yet.”
Us. Cullen's armour suddenly felt too hot, the plate constricting and the bear-fur mantle heavy across his shoulders as he closed his mind against the strange flutter blooming in his chest. She couldn’t mean what that word implied.
Someone called for her from inside the gate, a reminder that there were other people in the world who possessed greater claims on her attention. Yet he wanted to be selfish, just this once, and keep her to himself for a little while longer.
“Herald,” he called as she turned to leave, “I will not bar your way if you do choose to leave us, but you should know I... there are those who would be glad if you stayed. Your actions in the potential future showed great courage. Not everyone could have made it out of the situation as you did.”
“I... thank you. That means a lot.” She rubbed at her palm again, her expression fallen into a frown, and he regretted mentioning her experiences at all. “I should go.”
"I, uh... of course."
Unable to meet his eyes, she all but ran away from him towards village, without once looking back, and the tiny flower of hope germinated by the warmth of her smile wilted again. It irked him how easily and unconsciously she could affect his mood, how one glance was enough to have him revelling in the sweetness of the mountain air, or one sharp word left him short and snappish for the rest of the day. It was almost like the effects of lyrium, this feeling, and he mistrusted it. He had soldiers to train while the short winter day lasted, and after that lay hours of work signing off requisitions and organising the guard roster for the coming week; he could not afford to be distracted, by anyone.
He turned away, back to the training fields, and didn’t see Maighread stop and brace a hand against Haven’s gate, bent over as if someone had struck her in the stomach. The pause was necessary to collect her thoughts, which rambled and picked at Cullen’s words, his awkward sincerity. How much harder it was becoming to reconcile the cut-out villain of Kirkwall’s Circle with the man who drove himself with such passion to protect others, whose nature waxed ever more complicated by the day.
She hadn’t mentioned it in the official reports, but he had been there, in the dark future. Only Dorian knew the truth. He hadn’t been a prisoner like her friends, or the subject of experiments like Leliana. The image of him pierced her dreams, a towering figure laced with glowing red tracks that split the bruised skin and erupted upwards into shards of living, livid crystal. The lyrium in him had hummed as he stalked towards them, eyes empty of everything but madness, the sword in his hand rusted but still recognisable as the one he wore on his hip in the training grounds. She had shouted, begged, screamed as his templar powers washed over her and left black spots dancing behind her eyes.
There was a reason she carried a dagger. Skinning rabbits or striking templars, she knew how to use it. When he closed, his arm swung in an overbalanced arc and she ducked beneath it, coming up close enough to catch the odour of rancid sweat as she drove the blade deep, steel grating on bone. The sword clanged to the flagstones as he crumpled, bearing her to the floor with his weight, his hands an iron grip on her arms.
“Maighread…?” As the life in his eyes dimmed, so did the crimson of the tainted lyrium. “You’re – you’re alive? I thought…”
Standing in the middle of Haven, with the cold wind blowing and the chatter of life around her, the realest thing to her was the reverence with which Cullen’s future self had reached up to cup her face and stroke his thumb over her cheek.
“I never said…” he rasped. “I didn’t know until it was too late. And now –”
“We’re going to fix this,” she promised. “We’re going to make it so it never has to happen.”
He smiled like he didn’t believe her. The grip on her shoulder weakened, and blood dribbled between his lips.
“You –” He coughed. “Thank you.”
Thank you. For killing him. For putting him down like a mad dog.
She stared up at the Breach, feeling its connection to her. Cold stung her cheeks where the wind licked at the tears leaking from her eyes. Perhaps it would be better to leave, and put all of this behind her, if only so she could escape the suffocating pressure of her uncertainty. What could Cullen ever be to her? What was she to him, except an obligation and a reminder of everything he had left behind? The future version of him had looked at her with something so deep in his eyes - but that could have been hope, or gratitude, or merely the relief of being no longer in pain.
Maighread shook off the memories and resumed her swift pace towards the chantry. The Breach still loomed in the sky, there remained no word from the templars, and Josephine's talents for diplomacy were barely keeping the nobles in check. She had no time to be distracted.