On the day that Haven fell, Josephine had sat at her desk, filing away the correspondence between herself and Marquis DuRellion, and immediately stiffened when the ringing of the watchtower bells reached her from the Chantry corridor. She had expected an attack; everyone still dwelling in the town had, hands always within reach of something sharp or heavy, ever since the red miasma began to mix with the green from the Breach and caused horses to bolt and tempers to rise. It had been forty-four days since the Herald departed for Redcliffe with the Spymaster and his entourage and every messenger Cullen had sent for updates never returned.
A slaughter commenced. A lot had happened since.
Pulling her cloak tighter across her front, she thought about how lucky she was, still alive, dragging Commander Cullen, barely alive, westward, away from the general direction of the Hinterlands. She trekked through the snow drifts between cliffs with numbed toes, following a set of footprints left behind by a stranger with a small flickering flame of hope. She did not know who they belonged to, nor if the man or woman was friendly, but there was hardly any other choice. She did know that the Commander of the fallen Inquisition would quickly perish from his injuries if he did not receive aid.
When the footprints stopped in front of a Fade rift, Josephine Montilyet wondered if long term mountain sickness had induced hallucinations into her once sharp mind. Despite the handicap, past conversations at the War Table surfaced from her memories, where Maxwell had idly brought up the topic of the Fade Walker, affectionately shortening the title to “Walker,” a human with seemly no connections to the outside world who roamed the Fade and chatted with the Herald when he was dreaming. Naturally, the advisors had cautioned against demonic influences but didn’t take further action due to various limitations. But the current risks and benefits were leaning heavily towards a great leap of faith. With shoulders drawn back, she stepped over the threshold ---
And into a green tinted strange land of shacks in various states of degradation with paint curled and peeled by her feet, packed so closely together it was hard to navigate the paths with the Commander still laying on the sled turned stretcher. Above her head a contraption, white-grey with wings, streaked the skies above her. “~cte misericor salvator, amare mortis ne tra-a~” A faceless choir donned in black and white sang at the doors of a Chantry. At the end of a cobble road, there was a Fade rift. She ventured forth.
She was in a dungeon with red bleeding between the cracks in the thinset mortar, cautiously making her way past cells of silent dwarves, elves, qunari, humans, stretching her ears for guards. Past a labyrinth of doors, dodging guards and creatures, a silhouette caught her attention. A lone figure stood in the torchlight by a tapestry of King Maric Theirin with a hand pressed against a closed wooden door, tucking a scroll into her satchel.
A small piece of pottery crunched under Josephine’s boot.
The figure spun around, barely visible in the dim light, saw her, and froze. Josephine froze, searching in vain for a place to hide as the shadows behind her grew into pickaxes and shields. "Who’s there?!"
The figure bolted, all advantages of stealth thrown to the wind. Josephine scrambled in pursuit, dragging the Commander behind her, “Wait! Please!” She couldn’t lose Walker, could not afford to -
When she hesitated before three passageways, a hand reached out and yanked her sharply by the collar to the left and up a set of stairs. For a split second under the torches, Josephine caught a hint of fair features under the hood: a young woman of around Trevelyan’s age. “Where are they?!” The guards cried behind them. “Do not let them escape!” Walker’s fingers curled around her wrist, hot like a brand, pulling forward – and the hunt resumed. Together, they darted past hanging manacles, remnants of a dying kingdom, and more cells of dying prisoners, down a path through countless doors as their pursuers grew larger and larger in number, until orders to surrender transformed into a dull roar. Finally, they reached the exit leading to the battlements where a rift waited for them by a torn flag. A hoard of fear demons nipped at their heels, shredding her sleeves and pulling at her hair. Josephine closed her eyes. And then -
The road under her feet was made of modified, gray stone. Carriages without horses rushed by at astonishing speeds on small yet thick black wheels between monstrous glass edifices, gleaming under the sun. Through a small, cracked open window, a song rose and fell like the sea, “~ nervous but it sure is fun. Come on baby, you drive me crazy. Goodness gracious great balls of fi~” And then -
Verdant green exploded into her vision of foliage and untainted wildlife. They were in the Emerald Graves. Josephine fell to her knees, pressing her chest and struggling to catch her breath through burning lungs. Her respite was short-lived for a shadow fell over her, “Alright.” The same hand that had guided her to safety now grabbed her shoulder and shoved her back against a boulder, “Who the fuck do you think you are barging in and making a mess of things?!”
She prayed that the Herald’s Fade companion was as nice as he claimed. “My name is Josephine Montilyet. Please, Walker, I’ve heard about your mercy. Maxwell Trevelyan vouched for you. I need –”
"Ambassador Josephine Montilyet?” Her reputation had preceded her. “And who… Is that Commander Cullen?” Walker circled around the sled, prodding at Cullen’s fur pauldrons and his lion helmet. “You dragged... Jesus Christ, you’re fucking insane.” She whistled low. “They’ll be watching that rift now. You almost ruined weeks of planning for-”
"Nothing happened!” Josephine protested, “Please, I did the best I could in my circumstances!"
"Gold star for you then. Full marks for determination." Walker turned and crossed her arms, sarcasm dripping from every syllable. “So, what part of my mercy do you want?” She jerked her head towards the Commander, “A burial? A cremation? A bone picking ceremony? A Viking funeral?”
“He’s alive.” Josephine said.
Walker blinked. “Are you sure?” She asked dubiously.
Despite poor first impressions and atrocious bedside manner, Walker has the morality and knowledge of a classic healer and after placing two fingers on Cullen’s neck, declared him, “alive, by some trick of fate.” Then she asked, “What the fuck happened to him? It’s like he went toe to toe with Blendo and lost. Can you grab my bag? See how much rashvine nettle is left; we may need to go foraging.”
Josephine spent the next few days gathering rashvine nettle as well as prophet’s laurel and arbor blessing while Walker grounded the herbs with honey and garlic in a mortar and pestle, stuffing the concoction and boiled dressings into open wounds and sores. With his armor off, Cullen was a veritable painting of black, purple, and blue. “Where did you learn this?” Josephine questioned as she sipped a brew of willow bark and elfroot while enjoying the shade of a large oak tree after spending the better part of the morning coaxing the unconscious man to sip small mouthfuls of various brews.
“I was once a …healer to a population subset who suffer from the effects of an excessive lifestyle. Though lately I worry more about wound packing and broken bones.” Walker prepared a set of needles over the fire, shaking them once the metal turned red. “Trauma and its ilk such as infections once I understood the pharmacology of the assorted herbs. I did two surgeries in Ferelden, an emergency C-section and a ruptured spleen. They were both successful. But I’d rather not repeat those procedures unless in dire need; there’s not enough alcohol in the world for me or the patients to agree to that again.”
“You’re very well informed.” Josephine praised, “Being a personal attendant of the wealthy is an admirable achievement, considering the training and reputation one must build beforehand. I’ve come across the occupation many times on my way from Orlais to Haven and no one is as talented as you.”
Walker beamed in pride. “I devoted myself to my craft here via trial and error.” She preened. “I only recently discovered that arbor blessing acted as a minor antibiotic, a fact that would’ve saved me from multiple headaches earlier in my trips. Rashvine nettle stimulates cell growth when ingested or applied topically. As a result, this,” She pointed at Cullen’s injuries, “is a miracle on speed. Usually I would see this sort of improvement over the course of weeks.”
“Miraculous.” At best, Josephine understood half of what the other woman had said. She edged closer as Walker began sewing his smaller wounds shut, her curved needle taking precise bites under his skin, “You aren’t worried about trapping the contamination in his cuts? I would guess that even herbs and magic together can’t rid a serious case of unbalanced humors.”
A wry smile twisted Walker’s lips as she tugged on the string. “Germ theory is a thing that still needs to be addressed, apparently.” Cullen stirred - he has been stirring for the past few days but has failed to awaken. “But you are right - herbs and magic can't cure abscesses and septic shock – it’s not enough for the worst ailments. Though," she mused, "if I was a mage, my job would be a lot easier right now.”
Walker raised her halberd that had been strapped to her back during their initial escape from Redcliffe castle and waved it at a fist-sized stone. “Wingardium leviosa,” she intoned nonsensically. When nothing happened, she said pointedly, “see?” and returned to her work, muttering medical terminologies under her breath such as ‘atelectasis’ and ‘subcuticular stitches.’
Josephine opened and closed her mouth, not sure how to voice her doubts that anything was supposed to happen or what the point was supposed to be. Lost for words, she instead wrapped herself in her cloak and watched her companion, frowning in consternation. Walker was as short as an elf and equally as lithe, proven to be human solely by her rounded ears. However, she did not look like she belonged in any of the nations of Thedas nor, in the past few days, did she culturally behave according to any set norms: as crass as a sailor, as knowledgeable as a noble, as compassionate as a sister. After turning the enigma over and over in her mind, Josephine finally set her thoughts aside and sighed.
Before boasting of trading fleets groaning with treasures coveted by Rivaini pirates, before rising as a major naval power in Antiva, before their exile from Orlais, House Montilyet was foremost a house of intrepid explorers. Her ancestors were said to have been born with the knowledge of ships, crying the song of waves crashing against cliff sides within their first hour of life. “There is an admiral in each of us that continues to gaze at the horizon, wondering what is beyond the maps,” her father had told her when she was young, bouncing her on his knee while her siblings played their own games around her. “It is why our house sits on the coast facing the sunset.”
Available maps never stretched beyond Thedas. Seheron and Par Vollen at the north, Ferelden at the south, Anderfels at the east, and Amaranthine Sea at the west. In the hours between the last quarter of her flickering candle and her dreams, in the minutes she stretched her neck and flexed her hands after poring over her contacts for the better part of the morning, she had often glanced at her collection of cartography and wondered what lied beyond. Perhaps Walker was the answer.
The ground trembled as a giant lumbered by a few hundred meters from their site, hefting logs thicker than the Iron Bull, but Walker had assured her that they were perfectly harmless unless she ventured too close. Two wrens alighted on a mossy log to examine the nearby crop of royal elfroot. And through the haze of the lazy afternoon, Josephine roused to the words of the other woman fretting. “- hasn’t had any urine production yet. Is this because of the herbs? Rashvine nettle has some anticholinergic effects. No fever. Unlikely that it’s a bad urinary tract infection. Well, at least not yet. Goddamn it. A kingdom for lab equipment or an ultrasound. He probably has a distended bladder or an acute kidney injury by now, or both. Hmmm. I could just measure the output closely - though would this catheter even fit? I guess we can try-”
Josephine tackled Walker, who was holding up a questionable piece of tubing and a jar, to the ground. They grappled in the shrubbery, shouting loud enough to alarm the nearby august rams. “What are you doing?!” Josephine cried, blushing so fierce from her collar to her ears that she was beginning to feel faint. “You cannot be contemplating pushing that up his...”
Walker was holding the tube just out of her reach, shouting at the same time, “Look, I don’t make the rules. Ins and Outs are an integral aspect of modern medicine!” They rolled down a hill, squabbling like children. “I admit I MacGyver-ed the shit out of this thinking chest tube and not Foley catheter but needs must!” Needs must? He was obviously improving. Josephine refused: if she acquiesced to Walker’s mad intentions, and even if Cullen recovered, and even if the Inquisition recovered from the devastating assault and jumped back to its feet, she would have to thereby resign from the organization due to being unable to meet the Commander in the eye without thinking about this one moment ever again.
As if the Maker himself answered her pleas, Cullen loudly groaned from his place on the sled. Both women froze and, after a split second shared look and the silent agreement to never bring this topic up, they both rushed to his side just as he, for the first time in days, opened his eyes and squinted into the sunlight. Walker pressed her knuckles down against the hard bone of his sternum, “Hey, keep your eyes open, Sleeping Beauty. I need to ask you some questions. What is the last thing you remember?”
Cullen winced, “Who… Did I die?” Josephine grabbed his right hand and kissed his wrist where the pulse laid fast but steady, muttering blessings to the Maker and Andraste for two entirely different reasons.
Certain texts have mentioned the ability for deep mushrooms to induce a healing trance in a patient on the brink of death. Reading about the fungi was one thing but observing the effects first hand was another experience altogether. Walker and Josephine both watched in astonishment as the Commander, after a mere two hours upon awakening, has managed, with help, to maneuver himself to a nearby spring to wash off blood and grime, calling them back once he has dressed himself. By all outward appearances, he took his handicap and the blow to his dignity with grace if not for his ears pinkening at the tips where his hair was curling.
Though the inferior cook of the three, Josephine tasked herself with making the evening meal and the three of them ate in silence, small chunks of nug braised in cinnamon and cardamon, enjoying the little bursts of flavor every time the meat dissolved on their tongues. Cullen alternated between wary glances at his bowl, wary glances at Walker (who was happily engrossed in her own meal which she partook with two sticks), and raised eyebrows at Josephine who was very carefully not returning any of his silent questions. Unfortunately, before either advisor was halfway finished, Walker set her empty bowl down, thanked her for the meal, grabbed her pack, and announced that she was going to go scouting. The two advisors of the Inquisition didn’t attempt to stop her.
“She’s giving us the courtesy of privacy, for what it’s worth. We’ll be anticipating her side of the story when she returns,” Cullen observed as he flexed his arm, grimacing at his lingering soreness which Walker stated may last longer than his initial recovery process. Josephine would’ve recommended him the sled for the remainder of the journey back to whatever shelter Walker had hidden in these parts if not for the look she knew he would give that could wither the freshest of flowers, which goes to show how well she knew him. On the same note, she knew that Walker would make the offer just to see Cullen twitch, which goes to show how much Josephine was beginning to know her. Josephine swallowed heavily as he directed his full scrutiny towards her, bearing down like a predator – they did not call him the Lion of the Inquisition for nothing. “Lady Josephine, tell me. Tell me how we ended up in the Emerald Graves when I distinctly recall falling to a battle axe in Haven. What. Exactly. Happened?”
Haltingly, in starts and stops, Josephine narrated her story since the attack on the Inquisition, faltering at parts that even she could not recall. Cullen rubbed his temples as she described finding his body amongst the newly dead and journeying through the Frostbacks, muttering “Maker’s breath” as she physically crossed into the Fade and into even less ideal situations. She fisted the hems of her doublet and tried not to cry because Cullen’s health in the past few days, even with Walker’s expertise, had been a touch and go for a while, and Josephine was selfish for not wanting to be the only advisor left of the Inquisition because Leliana might truly be dead and Josephine should accept this tragedy as fact though she can’t because -
Cullen hugged back but he didn’t cry. It’s ok. She would cry enough for both of them.
“So, we finally meet Maxwell’s advisor from the Fade. She is smaller than I had imagined.” He muttered pensively, stroking his chin, “What are your opinions of her?”
Josephine judged her associates by their actions and word. Intrigue and secrets belonged in Leliana’s realm of influence. “I like her,” she replied simply. “She is genuine.” She hesitated, “I do not believe she is from Thedas, most likely hailing from another undiscovered continent who got caught in our problems. You must listen to her unique brand of jargon before understanding why I came to that conclusion. The Fade, when I followed her, showed me landscapes and environments that I couldn’t even begin to dream of.”
His brow furrowed at her hypothesis. “How likely is it that she is a demon? Or possessed?”
She hesitated. “It’s possible. However, I don’t believe so.” She hoped not. “She doesn’t make things purposely difficult and I don’t sense bad intentions. She’s amiable enough and lighthearted. It’s most obvious when she sings; her voice is not enchanting like a bard and the lyrics are odd – ahem.” She coughed.
“What? What is it? Of what sort?” Cullen hissed as Walker returned from the underbrush, still out of sight. For the tenth time that day, Josephine fought to control her embarrassment and thanked the Maker for her darker complexion, biting her bottom lip and shaking her head. As Walker grew closer, her words became more pronounced. It was Josephine’s firm opinion that a demonstration would be preferable over her stumbling through her description.
“~to a suggestive movie. There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s ho-rizontally~” Poor first impressions indeed. The dewdrops on the grass suddenly seemed infinitely more interesting than anything at or above eye level. The two advisors took great care not meeting each others' embarrassed gaze. Walker then fell silent for the rest of her approach and peaked from the behind a tree a minute later with an armful of royal elfroot. “Hey, I have more... Oh nice. Are you guys done eating?” Her question was met with awkward silence - derived from a combination of exhaustion, suspicion, and heightened senses of danger. She must not be aware how far her voice carries. (Her subconscious yet impeccable sense of bad timing would be a theme for the rest of their stay together.) She sat down and clapped her hands together. “Err, alright. Before we move any further - proper introductions first. You can call me Walker.”
Cullen cleared his throat, recovering admirably from his momentary loss of composure. “Well, you may already know: I am Commander Cullen Rutherford of the Inquisition. Lady Josephine told me of your invaluable assistance in keeping me alive. Thank you, with all deepest sincerity.”
Cultural differences - Josephine reminded herself when Walker accepted the gratitude with mild befuddlement and floundered in the face of an ex-templar’s odd version of courtly love. “You have my thanks as well. We would not be here if you had not offered assistance.” She then less than smoothly segued, “You’ve implied earlier that there was information you felt needed mentioning before we departed, if we are to do so---"
Walker blinked once and tilted her head to the side, lips quirked as if sharing a private joke with an unseen fourth party. “Right. I did. You two should know this before you agree to come along for the ride.” Her eyes flickered between the two advisors, gauging their readiness, and then she slowly exhaled, “The beginning. We’ll start from Origins.” The latter word inexplicably referred to something else beyond its mere definition. “I want you to imagine that you are a human or elf or dwarf, noble or poor or mage. Whatever you are, you become the Warden.”
She weaved a tale of three parts, her explanation more fantastical than Josephine’s wildest theories. There is a Maker and the Maker’s reason why is entertainment. Warden to Hero of Ferelden; Hawke to Champion of Kirkwall; Herald to Inquisitor. As for current events, she offered two companions: a mage from Tevinter or a dead spirit boy. Then, she followed one potential storyline to its culmination, “- of possibilities. Here, the Herald chooses the mages and becomes victim to Magister Alexius’ time magic. He’ll reappear during Harvestmere 9:42 Dragon, a year to the day after his initial disappearance.”
“Maxwell didn’t die?” Josephine asked, a small flame of hope blooming in her heart.
“No. He might when he pops back out with no idea what he is dealing with.” Walker huffed, running an agitated hand through her hair, “I thought protagonists were supposed to be more… heroic and inspiring, I think? He’s a bit of a dandy.”
Josephine winced, recalling the many faux-pas he had made while conversing with the nobles loitering around Haven before she could drag him into etiquette lessons which he had never encountered during his stay at the Ostwick Circle. His family did not train him as heir and had the explosion at the Conclave never occurred, he wouldn’t have needed such education. His upbringing or lack of it however did not detract from his abundant charisma which attracted wet behind the ear recruits of any species or gender. It was an odd combination. “He fights well,” she weakly protested, for his behavior reflected upon her own competency, “and he is improving.”
Her rejoinder was met with a flat look. “Uh huh,” Walker said mildly, revealing her own familiarity with the man. “At least he has Dorian with him. I must admit - if the game hadn’t flat out told me that he could succeed, I wouldn’t have believed that there was even a chance. Even now, I’m not a hundred percent sure – which is why I am here planning on returning to Redcliffe instead of following the masses to Rivain.”
“What happens next?” Cullen asked.
“The Herald,” Walker shook her head, “Maxwell Trevelyan,” she corrected, “defeats the Magister with his companions. He and Dorian reverse time to undo everything that has happened in the past year. All of this,” she motioned at the violet and green skies above the canopy, “is fixed. The protagonist saves the day... year. Voila. Depending on his decision, the Inquisition will obtain either allied or conscripted mages.”
Life and all its intricacies could hardly transfer the same amount of sweat and tears into story. Varric’s narrative of Hawke had been polished and buffed to a shine before being written into a book to be devoured by Cassandra and his other fans. Walker glared at Cullen, silently challenging him to start accusing her of illegal magics. Josephine chose her next words carefully, “You have to forgive me for doubting your claims. You seem like a reasonable woman and please, try to understand our perspective. It’s more likely that you are, at best, a Seer from a continent outside of Thedas or, at worst, a demon watching the world from the Fade. Is there anything else you can offer as proof?”
Walker hummed, tapping her bottom lip with an index finger, “Ok.” She spoke of a future, “The House of Repose is killing all of your attempts to reinstate your family as a trading power in Orlais because of a century old contract taken out by the Du Paraquettes. You’ll succeed once you bring the Du Paraquettes back into the gentry.” Then, she spoke of a past, “Cullen survived the fall of the Ferelden Circle by being trapped in a magical Faraday cage and upon being rescued, begged the Warden to kill everyone in the Harrowing Chamber, not just the blood mages and the abominations, which gets awkward as fuck if the Warden is of mage origin.”
Cullen was developing a tick at the corner of his jaw but held his tongue. Josephine wondered whether his anger was due to the offense of having his memories bare or being viewed as nothing more than a character, losing sentience and choice with the title. Perhaps both. (No one is just a creation of a puppeteer. We are all children of the Maker, guided by his light and wisdom. Fate is not set in stone. We experience, adapt, feel and think and love and hate.) “How much do you believe in the future that your game has predetermined?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” She idly ran her fingers over the grass, plucking at the stems. “The answer is – not much at all. ...You see: ten years ago, give or take, I hiked up to the Temple of Andraste… the Conclave before it was renovated, to search of the Sacred Ashes, thinking that its miraculous power might take me back home. Instead, I found Leliana, your Leliana, dying at the cave entrance with a dramatic smear of blood trailing behind her.” Josephine’s hand covered her mouth in shock. Bringing up the adventures of the Hero of Ferelden around Leliana elicited a stare that was more Nightingale than Chantry Lay Sister. No one at Haven was brave enough to properly ask her the events that led her and an elder Ferelden circle mage to leave the party two thirds of the way through the Fifth Blight. “What was supposed to happen was revival from sure death with the ashes, thus beginning her journey as Left Hand of the Divine. But how? It doesn’t make sense. The Ashes were tainted by the Warden.”
“Tainted?!” Cullen exclaimed.
“If you taint the ashes, Father Kolgrim will teach the Reaver specialization.” Walker wiggled her fingers and then paused, “Who was the Warden anyways? I’ve asked around but no one had a clue.”
The story of the Hero of Ferelden blurred after the Warden had restored Grey Warden presence at Amaranthine and promptly disappeared, never to be seen again. First person accounts argued over background, gender, species, and whether the Warden had a mabari and/or golem. Cullen might know but his reaction when questioned about that year of his life was barely warmer than Leliana’s. “Why did that happen?” Josephine wrung her hands, “If it was for power, the Warden had enough political clout at the time to be declared ruler of Ferelden. The Warden didn’t need to commit those atrocities.”
“Why be a king when you can be a dragon?” Walker laughed humorlessly, “Where was I… Ah yes. I left her be, assumed that she would bounce back on her own without issue, spent a few days exploring the tunnels, waiting for the stupid miracle to come. …And then I realized that I was the miracle.” Her grin did not abate as she leaned forward, “In the end, I treated her injuries, gave her some of my blood, O negative, and dropped her off at the doorsteps of the nearest chantry. And that is why I do not trust the arrival of this predetermined outcome.” Fate is not set in stone. Walker believed the adage too – that recognition brought to Josephine’s nerves both relief and trepidation. “Maxwell Trevelyan isn’t perfect – far from anyone's ideal Atlas. He doubts the most while dreaming. I sympathize: the fate of the world is a heavy burden on anyone’s shoulders. Though he’s growing into the role, his martyr complex worries me. He makes mistakes; he is fallible. I can’t afford that.”
After taking several minutes to digest the sudden influx of knowledge, Cullen noted in measured tones. “Official sightings of you in the Fade from people like Hawke and the Herald predated the end of the Fifth Blight. I don’t know what you precisely are, but you are no mage – this I am certain of. How did you enter the Fade without the aid of the Breach or other rifts?”
Walker flinched as if the mere memory caused pain. “It wasn’t intentional. I made an error while chasing a new lead to my world after leaving the Frostbacks. Somewhere on the Western Approach, there are remains of an elven ruin. I got too close to an eluvian and was trapped, wandering the Fade wasteland looking for mages who could bring me back - obviously all refused - or would indulge in my need for social contact. I do not think I aged during that ordeal. It was only recently that the Keeper of Clan Lavellan found me while fleeing from the Elder God’s demon army. She woke me up and restored my health. Now I am here, with you two, for the next ten months.” The fractured glint in her eyes did not invite either of them to ask her for further details; they kept silent. She smiled crookedly as if she did not suffer for a decade. “If there are no other objections, then you are free to assist me in my quest. Up to you. If yes, we’re going to know each other very well.”