Chapter 1: Hollow
He was still unaccustomed to the constant interaction. He didn’t find it particularly uncomfortable, just strange. Background noise that was somehow warmer than the normal rush of water or wind through trees or his own footsteps on a road. It wasn’t as if he’d been entirely without contact. How many times had he attempted to reach out to the clans in the past year?
But it hadn’t been steady, uninterrupted company. Not in centuries. Except for Wisdom— perhaps since his childhood. Not like this. Most days he found it soothing, if distant. As if he were watching a hearthfire through a distant window rather than warming himself beside it. Or listening to the echoes of some far off sound without ever coming to the source. Prattle, mostly. A pantomime of what had been. It only became unsettling when he thought he caught a flicker of warmth, something deeper lurking beneath the empty words that they gave to one another.
Varric, especially, gave him pause more than he liked to admit. It was understandable. His people had been less known to him and rumored to be stunted, cut off from the Fade. The Veil couldn’t have made that large a difference, could it? He found himself alternately craving conversation with the dwarf and avoiding it because it had lead to lingering doubts. Cassandra said little to Solas as a general rule. He couldn’t decide whether it was because she truly had so little to say, or if she were still suspicious of him. Or if she believed herself solely a vessel for the Chantry’s teachings. And he was not certain he wished to know. It would be months before he truly warmed to her. Not yet, not in the trudge through the Hinterlands when they’d barely gathered a shred of hope for themselves.
And the Herald— she ought to have been the one who troubled him most. Child of his people, one he’d failed if the vallaslin were any indication. She’d slipped past his wariness a few times in the past weeks, needled that tiny part of him that wondered if they could be saved. If he should waste the resources looking for a way to do it. But every time, he’d seen only a shadow of what she might have been, her world a set of scavenged relics, the very least of what they’d been. And he’d dismissed her words. They were a trick of the mind, he’d told himself, his own longing for something, anything familiar. He was seeing what wasn’t there. She was mostly silent among them, easy to forget. At least, then. When she was still overwhelmed. When she was waiting for some chance to throw off the weight of what they wanted her to do.
So he found himself on the top of Calenhad’s Foothold, lying with the stars spread overhead, waiting for sleep. For his nightly escape into a more familiar landscape with those he knew were real. And the others were below, slumped against the remaining walls near a fading campfire, their voices spiraling up past him with the smoke. He tried to let them drift into a gentle murmur as he shut his eyes, but his loneliness got the better of him and he found himself listening in spite of himself.
“Didn’t know masonry interested you, Herald. There’s an old mine not far from here. Rumor is, it used to lead straight to Orzammar. Not much use for the Stone myself, but I can’t deny our stonesmiths are among the best.”
“I’m certain they are, Varric. The stories say your kingdoms are vast. As far from one end to another as all the leagues our clans walk.” Her voice was soft with wonder and Solas turned to his side to hear it better.
“They were. Long ago,” admitted Varric. “But many of thaigs were cut off from each other.” He sighed. “Just as well. Pushed us into the world. And the world back to us. In a few years, maybe the Surfacers will be welcome again. And the humans will send more than a handful of Wardens to fend off the Blight.”
The fire cracked.
“Listen to me. Sounding like a bitter old Deshyr. Forget all that. Why are you so interested in an old step?”
“It’s the hollow. Here, see?”
Varric laughed. “Sorry Herald,” he said quickly, “It’s just— you know the hollow wasn’t carved there, don’t you?”
“I know. That’s why it interests me. It’s the passage of hundreds of feet. Over and over. Imagine the years it takes to wear away stone. The humans have been in this place for so long, that they’ve left a mark on it. It is a curious thing, to know that. To be so tied to a place.”
“Mm. Kind of explains why they acted so strangely seeing you and I at the Crossroads, doesn’t it? Most of those people had never wandered farther than the outskirts of their village before the war. Maybe as far as the local market. They’d likely never seen a dwarf or an elf before. Certainly not in charge of Chantry soldiers.” He laughed again. “The four of us were probably the strangest thing they’d seen all year, even with the Breach and the loose mages.”
“That makes them sound— small.”
“Hey, I’m not excluding myself. Not a big traveler myself. Until I’m forced.”
“Come now, Varric, I gave you a chance to leave weeks ago,” Cassandra said abruptly. “You’re the fool who didn’t take it.”
“You’d be lost without me, and you know it.”
Solas smiled, hearing the casual pride in Varric’s voice. Perhaps he should join them.
“I didn’t mean to call them small. It isn’t always a bad thing to be so— entwined in a place,” said the Herald. “Certainly, travel doesn’t cure all ignorance. I wish that it did.”
“Are you— are you homesick, Herald?” asked Cassandra.
“Not for a place. Not the way whoever left these hollows would be. Not the way you are for Montsimmard or Varric is for his— what was it? The Butchered Barman?”
“Ha! No Herald. The Hanged Man. But I’m stealing that. It’s terrible.”
“Not like that. There is no place like that for me. I miss my family. The way the aravel sails flicker in the wind or slump and drip in the rain. The sound of the halla tender calling. But not— stone and timber that sinks its roots and stays. I know they are safe. My clan. What we do here will help them.”
“You know, you could settle down. When this is finished. The Montsimmard Circle is very lenient—”
“Seeker!” Varric cried.
Solas sat up, leaned over the ledge where he’d been lying. The Herald held up a hand to calm the dwarf.
“Thank you, Cassandra, but I will return to Lavellan. A keeper does not abandon her charge. It is not so much that I long for a permanent home. I’m certain it must be— pleasant to always know where you are. To know that around the next corner will be something familiar and peaceful. But that is not what I wish for. It’s this— mark you leave that I miss. We don’t leave marks like these. A few fire rings that get buried by leaves and snow until we return a few years later to sweep them clean and rebuild them again or the bent grass in the tracks of the aravels that springs back a few days after we pass— that is what remains of us.”
“That’s not true, Herald. Daisy’s camp had a pair of stone wolves at its entrance. And she told me you plant a tree for those you lose along the way.”
“Yes. Forests of them. Once. There are not so many of us left any more. We do not plant forests these days. A copse in bad years. A lone, slender sapling in good ones. Scattered all through the marches. They are felled for other peoples’ homes. Or for their campfires. No one remembers they are special. No one remembers they were once people who trod there.”
Solas held his breath. Lay back down to be a few inches closer to the sound. To the flash of warmth in her voice.
“And the statues— they are meant to hide us from danger. From the world. Not announce us. There is no— love in them. Not like your buildings. They face away from our camps. Witness none of the life in them. The statues never saw a birth or a bonding or us at all. All they see are invaders. Not like this step.”
“I always thought your— wandering and your love of solitude was by choice,” said Cassandra. “Doesn’t it keep your clans safe?”
“Yes,” sighed the Inquisitor. “That is the purpose. Perhaps it isn’t permanence I long for. This step. These walls that have stood for generations. I cannot imagine my life within them for long. But to be— safe enough to build something like this— to remain all my life in one place without fear, that is what the groove in this step means to me.”
“I do not know our fate, Herald,” said Cassandra, “but this tear in the sky is a frightful thing. The person who closes it, I think she would be welcome wherever she chose to go.”
“Didn’t turn out that way for Hawke,” Varric muttered. “Did it Cassandra?”
“Hawke is not the same. She negotiated successfully with the Qunari but—”
Varric laughed but it was bitter and angry. “The Qunari? I meant your mad templars.”
“She pushed Meredith into—”
Solas got up. Did it matter if her sorrow were only inch deep? That she mourned only what she saw the Dalish suffer at the hands of the Shemlen and did not understand how very far they’d fallen before the humans arrived? She was hurt. And her companions bickered instead of offering comfort. What comfort could they offer? He reminded himself. They do not know what you do. He climbed down the crumbling wall. Varric was still shouting at Cassandra. The Herald watched warily, nervously. Waiting for their anger to twist on her, to turn as it likely inevitably did whenever she found herself at the mercy of strangers away from her clan. He touched her shoulder and she jumped.
“Peace,” he said softly, so that only she would hear. “It is only me. Let them— reminisce.” He offered her a crooked smile. “I’d like to show you something.” He held out his hand to help her up and she took it. He led her out into the dark field and Cassandra’s voice slowly faded.
“We were not always wanderers,” he told her. “There was a time when it was elves who peopled these fields and mountains. Before humans. The Fade remembers our great cities and our works.”
She was silent for a time walking beside him. “I am— glad that the Fade comforts you, Solas,” she said at last. “But— so few can see what you do. Fewer still would believe it to be true and not just some— trick or story, even if they did.” She wrapped her arms around herself.
This had been a bad idea. The conversation did not comfort him as he’d hoped. And it was likely pointless for her. How could he expect her to understand? Just a marionette, strung through the motions of life, like the others.
“It is not just the Fade that remembers,” he tried once more, trying to salvage some tranquility from the exchange, trying to draw one true, deep stream of emotion from her. He knew it would be fruitless but— They’d come to a lone pillar. One that had stood for centuries beside an ancient road. It lay prone now, half covered in moss and dirt. He knelt down and touched it. The old runes blazed under his spell and she fell to her knees beside him with a soft gasp. “The land remembers, too, Herald. Just as that stone stair.”
Her hand traced the illuminated forms, and he waited, watching her. “Where did they go?” she muttered at last. Her eyes glittered, reflecting the runes and she wiped them with the heel of her hand.
“They— became you, Herald. Your clans. This is our mark upon the world.”
She shook her head. “It can’t be. I don’t— I can’t even read it. I doubt anyone alive could. We are— more like the humans than these people.”
He could not argue with that, though her expression begged him to. He looked back at the pillar. “It says that this was the boundary between Elvehn lands and the dwarven kingdoms. That this pillar was hewn from the living stone by those who lived within it and emblazoned by those who lived above it. It marked a truce. The end of a great war.”
She nodded. “Are there more? Like this?”
“If you know how to look.”
“I don’t even know that much. And even should I find them again… How far we have been driven from what we were. Pushed to the edges of all our lands.” The vallaslin rippled as her brow wrinkled in distress. “Maybe I am foolish for wanting to know.” She sank back on her heels. “I have a— a good life. A kind clan. We usually have enough. The Marches are peaceful enough.” She looked around them at the dark fields of the Hinterlands, stained a dim green by the Breach. “Especially compared to here.”
Solas felt a twinge of disappointment, though he’d expected to. She was just like all the others. It was easier to shut her eyes and—
“I just— want them to understand what we were. What we could be again. Someday,” she said softly. “That we are worth more than just a handful of—” She stopped abruptly, her mouth pinched as if she were holding the thought back between her teeth. He could not help leaning toward her.
“A handful of what, Herald?”
She shook her head with a tight smile. “Nothing. I have been too long from them. I begin to forget myself.” She touched the pillar again, tracing the thin script. “You’ve seen this language in the Fade?”
“Yes. Some of it,” he lied.
“Do you— We will probably be finished with the Breach shortly and go our separate ways, but— if you would help me learn it, I will arrange for a suitable trade from Lavellan. The knowledge would be a great gift for us.”
He drew back, hesitant. It was not that knowing would expose him to her, there was little enough left of the language for that and none so far south that could connect him to his old name. It is a waste, Mouseling, he thought. You will only ever see the symbols on the stone. You’ll never feel what was connected to the words, never understand the context they were written in. And your time is so short— “I have offered it to the Dalish before, among other things. They thought it was— what is it you said? A trick. A story. Something worse,” was all he said aloud. It obviously stung her, he could see it in her face, and felt a rumble of unease.
“Ir abelas,” she said. He expected her to yield, to stand up and walk back to camp in silence, cowed by his refusal. But instead, she held out a hand to him. “I will trade for it then, lethallin. For me. It will be my debt, not the clan’s. Please.”
“How do you know I am not playing a trick? That I’m not telling you a story? Why are you so ready to believe what I have found in the Fade?” he snapped.
She did not draw back her hand. “It is all stories, Solas. What we know, what we’ve forgotten, what the Shemlen tell themselves is true— it’s all stories. Is it so wrong to want to hear my own?”
“And if it is a story you do not like?”
“Then at least it would be a friend who told it. And we are still here, diminished though we may be. I still have a chance to alter the ending.”
He took her hand. “Ma’nuvenin,” he said.
“Good,” she said and for the first time her smile caused some small stone to shake loose inside him. “What is this one?” She bent back to the pillar, pointing.
“That one is atish. And here: an. Atish’an. Peace,” he answered.
Chapter 2: Throne
It shocked him, how much the kiss changed things. Changed him. His first inclination had been to flee. Completely irrational, he’d told himself. And the Inquisitor had been as good as her word. There’d been no pressure, no sly attempt to persuade him. Neither did she avoid him, seeking him out as often as ever while the Inquisition slowly settled into routine. He couldn’t decide whether it was a relief or a disappointment. Her calm, steady friendship made it difficult not to chase her, not to long for more of what he’d so briefly felt in the Fade. Every time he’d convinced himself that it was for the best, that the whole thing had been only the impulse of two people under enormous pressure to have someone who understood— he’d hear her laughing with Varric or catch sight of her face in deep thought as she and Dorian analyzed Alexius’s amulet. And he’d have to start the argument with himself all over again. But the doubt was the worst aspect. The idea that perhaps she regretted it. That the reason she was giving him space was that she wished to forget the entire event. It ached, that thought. And he pulled it up whenever he was thinking of pursuing, of telling her he’d been a fool, that he could no longer concentrate on his work, or follow the conversations of the others for long— that he’d stopped sleeping because of her.
Ridiculous, impossible, he kept telling himself, she does not see you that way. And for that you should be deeply grateful. But the arguments were rapidly losing their effectiveness. And the last thing he felt was grateful. So he found reasons to pull away from her. To be where she wasn’t. It was easier that way, just avoid the entire mess. Just be— elsewhere when she happened by. The basement library was chilly and dusty. The scrolls there were esoteric, far afield from what he currently needed. But he was— safe from himself there. Few knew he was down there. He was not especially secretive, but it was out of the common route to anywhere and only Skyhold’s book keeper occasionally ventured down to look for something specific.
So he was startled when Josephine came looking for him there one morning. The door swung open rapidly and she peered into the dimly lit room. “Ah, Master Solas,” she said, stepping in and smoothing her blouse. “I’m so sorry to disturb you.”
He put down the book he’d been struggling through. “Not at all, Ambassador. What can I do for you?”
“It’s— the Inquisitor. She is unhappy with the choice of decor in the throne room. I was wondering if you could— speak with her?”
“The decor? I’m hardly—”
“I wouldn’t trouble you,” Josephine interrupted quickly, “but you were so helpful convincing her that she should accept the tower room, and we have a delegation from Redcliffe arriving shortly to see the Inquisitor’s judgment of Alexius. I think things would go more smoothly if they could see the Inquisition as a well-functioning, professional organization. Including the Hold.”
“Ah,” he breathed, standing up. “It is not the style that concerns you.”
“No. Rather— the need for a clear leader. There are good reasons we employ symbols to convey that.” She wrung her hands as if Solas were the one arguing with her.
“Then why not explain that to the Inquisitor? She has always been reasonable about accepting your recommendations before.”
“Yes. I have found her most accommodating. So much so, that if it were at all possible to yield on the issue of a throne to her, I would gladly do so. But this delegation is likely to lend support that we desperately need, provided they are— satisfied.”
A throne. He had a flash of sympathy for the Inquisitor. “Why is it you think that I will succeed where others have not? I have no better argument for submitting than you.”
Josephine blushed. “I think— it is not a different argument I was looking for.”
“And Cole suggested you might know better how to— ease her concerns,” she added quickly. “I gather it has more to do with— your— her history than the actual chair. I find myself at a loss. And I doubt that Sera would take the appropriate tack.”
“I see,” he said, amending his original suspicion. She wanted him to persuade the Inquisitor, not because she believed he held some sort of romantic influence over her, but because they were both elves. He was uncertain whether to feel insulted and relieved or just disappointed. “I’ll speak with her. Her choice is her own, but I will try to find out why she finds this particular piece uncomfortable.”
“Thank you,” sighed Josephine, “that’s all that I can ask.”
He followed her out of the library and up the stairs. Gatsi watched intently as several men hoisted the large, garish chair into the center of the dais and several others swept a long carpet that ran the length of the room. Varric caught his eye as they passed. He pointed up to the balcony without saying anything. Solas glanced up. The Inquisitor leaned against the railing and stared at the throne while Vivienne stood beside her, speaking quietly. Her expression was not the defiant one he’d expected, but something sad. Resigned. Josephine stopped to survey the installation and Solas continued on.
“— like a performance, my dear. It gives people— faith in the Inquisition. It’s not— just or fair, darling. They should trust you because of what you’ve done for them. But you and I are women of the world. We both know it doesn’t work that way, no matter how we try to make it so.” Vivienne patted the Inquisitor’s shoulder. “Think of it as a costume. Slip it on when necessary and then—” She waved a graceful hand. “Discard it for a better fitting one when the task is done, hmm?”
“I know you’re right,” said the Inquisitor, still staring at the throne as cleaners polished the fringe of spears that jutted from it. “But I— am not what you want me to be.”
“No, my dear, you are infinitely more. Never doubt that.” Vivienne turned slightly to see Solas standing behind them. “Ah, but I think Master Solas would like a word. We can finish this another time.”
The Inquisitor straightened and turned toward him. “Good afternoon, lethallan,” he said. “I thought we might— discuss the appearance of red lyrium at the temple.”
“Of course,” she said, obviously confused. He nodded and led her out onto the damp, breezy battlements. He found a small corner partly shielded from the wind.
“You have a new theory about the lyrium?” she asked.
“No,” he admitted. “You looked troubled. I thought a little bit of peace away from the prodding might help.”
She smiled and he knew it would leave him sleepless and battling his own emotions again later. “Thank you,” she said. “But I doubt Josephine sent you to give me any peace. She’s tried to utilize every one of my vulnerabilities to get me to accept that throne. I can’t imagine she’d just leave my biggest weak spot out of it.”
“Vivienne is persuasive. She can be quite charming. If I’d known you were that troubled by it, I would have interrupted sooner—” he stopped as she abruptly laughed.
“I wasn’t speaking of Vivienne. I agree, she’s very charming, but she’s not exactly a weak spot. I meant you. I know Josephine got you to corner me in order to convince me that I need that horrid chair.”
“Ah. Yes. Well, I told her I would speak to you but I don’t mean to influence you either way.” His face was hot even in the raw cold of the battlements.
“Go on then, have your turn. You’re the last one. Except Cole. But I don’t think he’ll try.” She leaned against the wall, waiting.
“As I said, I have no desire to convince you against your will. I only wished to know what was troubling you about the throne. I cannot imagine you falling prey to some sort of false modesty. We agreed about what was necessary back— back in the mountains.”
She shook her head with a half smile. “I know how to appear a warrior saint even when I am nothing close. And the others have all tried flattery already. I hope you will not try it too. I want—” she stopped, the smile falling away. “I want to believe you are sincere, however you may see me.” The note of doubt in her voice did nothing to help him fight the urge to touch her, to tell her gentle lies about the future, to forget his arguments with himself. He let the comment go, unsure how to answer it.
“Is it the pressure? You seem to have become accustomed to so many looking to you for answers. You have many friends who will aid you if you become overwhelmed.”
“It isn’t that. Not exactly. I don’t look forward to judging others, but I am not unprepared for it. My time as a First has made me fit for the task. But this is perilous.” She lowered her voice to a harsh whisper, leaning close to him, her face wan and panicked beneath the vallaslin. “I know what we have to do. Why we have to— exist within the Chantry. I agreed to continue after the Breach was closed, because of— because of what we know about how Corypheus came to have such power. I agreed to take credit for this place because you thought it would give them confidence in us. I agreed to take the sword and the title that Cassandra thrust at me when we arrived because it was so clear that I do not have the training to wield either without help. I was a threat to no one. But no thrones. No crowns. No standing army. No permanence.” Her passion warmed her, brought a flush to her face. It startled him, but he could tell from the steadiness of her voice that this was no sudden anger, no irrational panic. It was long welling, deep and chilling.
“I don’t understand. Why is this worse than the sword? What is it you fear?”
“The sword is— expected. They remember how we fight. And even a common farmer has an old sword. None but slaves are prohibited from having them. But a throne— a throne is for someone with power. Someone dangerous. Someone equal to their nobility.”
His fingers found hers before he could stop himself, gently urged her fist to loosen, to let him in. “Are you not all of these things? The Inquisition is growing. You have shown yourself to be deadly against those who would harm us. And I have no doubt you are a match for any of Thedas’s leaders.”
“Perhaps,” she admitted. “But for how long? If we should fail, how long before the Inquisition deserts us? Even should we succeed and Corypheus fall— what then? A throne means there is a position to be held, whether I am here to hold it or not. Something to covet, to conquer. How long do you think the Shemlen will allow a Dalish elf to sit in judgment over one of their own? To hold a perfectly good keep with good land around it?” She flung a hand toward the keep. “That thing is an assassin’s mark. It is kindling for war.”
He frowned. It was hard to hold on to the fact that she’d sought none of this. That it was not her who had needed vast resources and strength to change the world, but him. Now that she had the chance though— “It is a tool, lethallan, that is all. It’s very permanence is part of the throne’s value. It means the Inquisition is stable, reliable. That we will follow through on our oaths. People see that and borrow the courage to throw their lot— and their assets in with our own. Our goals without that confidence would be much harder to achieve. And if you win them over through affection instead of fear in the meantime, what have you to fear when this is done?”
“The world is not kind to us, Solas. There were others who tried to rule through love. I remember Lindiranae, even if the Chantry does not. I remember Shartan. And the Keepers of the Dales before Tevinter invaded. Every time one of us has attained power, we have been betrayed. Cast down by the very people we are now meant to be aiding.”
“You are overwro—”
“No. I am thinking clearly, Solas. I realize that the people in the Inquisition are our friends. I know we are among good people. They will not remain forever. That throne means that I likely must. And when you have all gone, when I’m at last allowed to send the soldiers home and the keep is empty— it will also likely mean my pyre. I agreed to risk my life against the larger threat to all of us. Not to be a martyr because some Bann got greedy.”
He wanted to soothe her. To lie. To pretend he could defend her when he knew it was likely he who would betray her first. I’ll take her with me. The thought was half-formed, almost invisible in the stream of ideas, but it snagged somewhere and shocked him. No. Shut this down now, before it can grow worse. The others are impractical. They think only of the immediate. She deserves— That too, was a dangerous idea. So he pushed it aside. “Falon,” he said instead, “The throne is not what will draw their eye. Nor even Skyhold. Alas, I cannot promise you will be safe from the Chantry. Or from others who want more power. You are right. For a time, while your army remains, while Corypheus still looms, they will try softer methods. Woo you, bribe you, flatter. And then, as the Inquisition fades, you must protect yourself. The throne, as you say, is something to conquer. It does not mean you cannot let them take it. Return to your clan and leave Skyhold to the wind and the weather until a new force finds it. I did not bring us here to shackle you. But— I fear that Skyhold is far less tempting than what you already carry.” He looked down at her hand, traced the anchor with his thumb. “It is too late, lethallan. You will be pursued until all trace of the anchor is gone.”
“What do I do, Solas? If what you say is true, how can I return to my clan? I would be a constant danger to them. I—”
He gripped her hand tightly to calm her. “We will find a way to remove it, when the task is done.”
She shook her head in deep doubt. A wet breeze swirled through their small corner, carrying the heavy smell of damp smoke with it.
“Do you remember what you said to me in Haven? After I’d decided to stay, though it was at some risk. Do you recall telling me you would protect me?”
“Of course,” she said. “However I had to.”
“I wish that I could give you the same, lethallan. I wish—” he could not tell her what he truly wished for. Could not even tell himself. “I wish that I could tell you that even when this is over, I would remain to keep the Chantry at bay. That ‘however I had to’ was something I could promise. But that is beyond my power to keep.”
“I understand,” she said sadly. “I don’t expect you to save me, Solas. It is not you I am frustrated with.”
You don’t. You can’t understand. Not yet. He closed a hand around her shoulder. “I— was not finished. I will not promise ‘however I have to,’ but I am ready to help you however I can. Should we survive Corypheus, and should I remain unable to undo what has been done to you— I know of hidden places in the world, too. Places without thrones. Or crowns. Or armies. If you truly wish to, you can lay them aside. Live out the remainder of your days in peace.”
The small muscle in the corner of her jaw pulsed as she considered, staring at the Keep under its grey, sullen sky. “Truly hidden places are rare, lethallin. Even for one who discovers them the way that you do. Why would you give one to me?”
“Because you are my friend.” His hand slid over her warm cheek, trying to catch her gaze. “And because you are not something to conquer.” Her blood writing still warped around a troubled expression. So he added what he knew he should not. “Coveting though— I would not trust myself to answer.”
She laughed, even as a deep blush rose beneath the vallaslin.
“You are wise, my friend, to consider how you will live beyond the fate of the Inquisition. But— it is a chair. And a half crumbled building. Skyhold, the Inquisition, the throne are only as powerful as you allow them to be. Let them go when they no longer serve you. In the meantime— use them for good, or someone else will utilise them— and you, for their own purposes. I would not have trusted another with Skyhold, and you are far more important than the fortress.”
“Because of this?” she spread her hand, the anchor reflecting a glow onto her face.
“Despite it.” He watched her, knowing that others would lie and flatter, telling her the same yet not mean it. It was difficult to remember he’d been one of them. That she would grow jaded, tired of the obvious falseness. He wanted to give her more. Something to know it as true without them. Without him. You are not something to be conquered, he thought again.
“It could have been any of us or someone entirely different who received the anchor. How different our fates would have been had it not been you. I have told you so before. When you doubt—” he turned her hand over, dimming the light of the anchor, smoothing his thumb over the bare skin of her wrist. “Think of what another would have done. Had it been Cassandra— she’d have died trying to battle the demons alone. Had it been Varric, he might have run to keep the others safe. He would have died alone somewhere in the snow when Corypheus found him. Leliana might have hidden it until it was too late— suspicious of any who would help her learn to use it. Cullen would have gone directly to the templars and endured agonies to have it torn out. No other would have walked the path you have. It is a tool, as the throne is. As the sword is. You are— attractive because of the way you wield it, not because you possess it.”
“And you?” she asked, tilting his face up to meet hers with her fingertips. “What would you have done with the anchor? How would you have wielded it?”
His smile felt bitter and ancient, even to him. “With far less kindness. And several more failures, lethallan. The anchor and the throne are safest in your hands. I will help you keep them both for as long as I may.”
She sighed, frowned down at the Keep. “Void take Josephine,” she muttered. “She knew I stood no chance once you tried your hand at persuading me.”
He laughed softly. “To be fair, she was well on her way to convincing you before I got involved.”
The Inquisitor flexed her hand, took a few steps away from him toward the Keep. She glanced back over her shoulder with an embarrassed smile. “She was farther than you think,” she called back to him. “Guess she decided to win me over through affection instead of fear.” She turned and left him on the battlements. He started his internal arguments anew.
Chapter 3: Messy
He almost missed it. The training yard was meant for scuffles, after all. It was constantly in use. For combat training, as entertainment on slow days and, yes, to work out tensions that spilled over from the tavern. Part of the normal background noise as Solas made his way across the keep. But the use of an extremely filthy slur caught his ear. Neither Blackwall nor Cassandra barked a halt at the unnecessary insult as they usually would and he paused to look, his wandering thoughts arrested more by the vicious tone than the word itself. The training ring was crowded, eight or nine soldiers in Inquisition uniforms, but the rest of the yard appeared deserted. Instead of evenly matched pairs sparring under a watchful captain’s orders, the men seemed to be focused on only one object. Krem. Solas recognized none of the others and neither Cullen nor Cassandra or Blackwall were anywhere in sight.
“Back off,” growled Krem, waving the wooden practice sword at the tightening ring of soldiers.
“Was your sorry hide the Inquisitor dropped the Qunari to save. Least we can do is teach you how to defend yourself properly,” said one of the men. Solas disliked the crooked grin the man wore. He glanced at the others. It wasn’t practice swords in their hands.
One of them darted forward, his knife flashing. Krem parried it, the metal thunking against wood and sticking. Another man saw his opportunity in Krem’s distraction and lunged.
“Stand down!” Solas shouted before it could get worse.
Only two of the men even turned to see who it was, and seeing only Solas standing there, turned quickly back to Krem, who grunted when a large sword clanged against his chest plate. He stumbled backward and the other men rushed in closer. “I said ‘stand down’ soldiers!” Solas roared and waded in. Idiot, he thought distantly, no armor, no staff, and you’re both outmatched. But it was a small irritation. He didn’t hesitate, just grabbed another practice sword from the barrel as he dashed past. Should avoid magic anyway. Last thing this situation needs is an angry templar commander out here. He swung the barely shaped board at the legs of a nearby man. It connected with a thwack across his thighs. It could hardly have made a sting through the man’s leather armor but it startled him and he turned toward Solas.
“Krem’s a formidable foe,” snapped Solas, “but eight against one? Either your combat skills are embarrassingly poor or this isn’t a fair sparring match.”
“Leave, apostate,” said the man, flourishing a dagger. “Not your business. Go back to your books.”
Solas smacked the man’s wrist with the flat of his wooden sword and the dagger flew free and slid across the yard. “You leave. It’ll end much better for you,” he warned the man. He shook his head as the man’s face curled into a sneer and he hurled himself toward Solas. A swift sidestep and the man went sprawling. But two more had turned away from Krem and toward him.
“Leave,” he told them, “We’re on the same side. Nobody needs to get hurt.”
He was unsurprised that the response was only an attempt to stab him. He fade stepped easily out of the way, softening his resolution not to use magic in favor of keeping his internal organs in place. He erupted behind one of his attackers and struck him heavily in the temple with the pommel of the practice sword. The man reeled away and Solas swung at the other in the meantime, catching him squarely in the stomach. His opponent was knocked off kilter, surprised at the sudden arrest in his momentum, but it hardly slowed him and he managed to spin and nick Solas’s arm.
“Felasil!” Solas cried, “Save it for Corypheus. We’re allies!”
“Not if you’re defending that Vint dog, we aren’t,” grunted the man. Somewhere behind Solas, Krem shouted in pain. It sounded shocked, sudden, and Solas had a flash of fear. Holding back wasn’t helping. They’ve been warned and refused to heed, Solas told himself. Besides, if Cullen doesn’t have their heads for this betrayal, I will. He sent the man who had cut him flying with a stonefist and whirled to face the others. Frost spat from his fingers and crept rapidly down metal weapons, causing the men to drop them in surprise. A few yelped and fled and Solas allowed it, focusing on the four who remained. They’d cornered Krem against the stone wall. Solas could hear the thunk of Krem’s wood sword, but fists jabbed inward anyway, even as one man swore and pulled back at the sudden sting.
He yanked one of the men away by the shoulder, but his advantage was mostly gone. The man was unsurprised and twisted rapidly to face him. Solas took a blow to the cheek and was flung to the ground before he could recover.
“Should have gone while you could, elf,” snapped the man. “What’s the Vint to you? Cost your precious Inquisitor the favor of the Qun—”
“Parshaara!” shouted one of the remaining men, and Solas realized this wasn’t a simple scuffle between Inquisition soldiers. He blasted the man above him with ice and leaped up.
“They aren’t ours, Krem,” he called.
“Some are,” Krem groaned.
Which ones? he wondered, fade stepping in beside Krem, knocking back the other men a few feet. Let Cullen sort them out. Ice cracked and groaned around the knees of the attackers. It would not hold them long. Krem burst out, smashing them one by one across the back of the head with his practice sword.
“I could have put them to sleep,” Solas protested.
“Didn’t feel like being especially gentle,” grunted Krem. One of his arms hung at an unnatural angle and his face was already beginning to swell where it was struck.
“I can’t blame you. But Leliana will want them to talk. Or Bull. There are Qunari spies mixed among them.”
“Yeah,” sighed Krem. “I know. Just didn’t expect it today. Hope Bull’s okay.”
“Where are the other Chargers?”
“Out on a mission. Bull expected this, wanted us gone. I stayed— just thought I’d be with him when they tried.” Krem dropped the wooden sword with a clatter. “Didn’t really expect some of the regular soldiers to get so riled up by what happened on the Storm Coast.” He spat a few drops of blood and wiped his mouth. “Wasn’t just us the Inquisitor saved, you know. Those dreadnoughts were lost either way. There was no winning that battle.” He looked over at Solas, as if expecting some response.
Solas nodded, though he’d no idea what had actually happened with the Qunari beyond the brief. It had been a tender point between himself and the Inquisitor and he’d felt it wiser not to ask. It was done, in any case. And Solas believed for the better, though saying it aloud would not have endeared him to the Inquisitor.
“I’m— sorry for Bull. This isn’t— never wanted this to happen. When I convinced him to join the Inquisition, I thought it’d be good coin for a good cause. Never dreamed it would make him lose…” Krem shook his head, clutched his injured arm. “Glad you stepped in when you did, but I can handle it myself,” he finished.
Solas crossed to him. “I know you can,” he said gently, “but you shouldn’t have to. The Chargers are part of the Inquisition. Allies. Friends. There should never have been room for something like this attack to grow.” He stopped. There was no reason to keep him standing here in pain to fume at unconscious fools. “You’re injured. May I?” He raised his hand, but paused as Krem flinched slightly.
“Thanks,” he said, “but I’ll wait for Stitches.”
Solas frowned slightly. “The bruises are one thing, Krem, but the arm— I think it’s broken. It will fester if you don’t see the surgeon. Krem crooked his head toward the unconscious men.
“Surgeon could be with them.”
“Hmm.” Solas couldn’t discount the possibility. “I could go with you—”
Krem shook his head. “Thank you, but I need to find Bull. If these men were here, it means there are others.”
“We’ll find him now. He can go with you to the surgeon afterward.”
After hesitating a moment, Krem finally agreed. He clutched Solas’s shoulder with his good hand. “Can’t see for shit,” he said, squinting through his already swelling eyelids, “You’ll have to help.”
It took longer than expected to find Iron Bull. He hadn’t been in the tavern, nor Cullen in his office, Solas stopping there to ask him to clean up the remainder they’d left in the training yard. People inside the Keep had gasped and skittered out of the way when they entered the throne room, but no one offered to help. Krem was leaning heavily on Solas’s shoulder by then, and Solas knew the Charger was in immense pain. “Ambassador Montilyet will know where they are,” he said gently.
Krem just muttered an agreement and let Solas lead him toward Josephine’s office. It was Dorian’s voice that erupted from the War Room first.
“—thinking? Might as well have the King’s messengers announcing your whereabouts across Thedas—”
“Dorian, we all knew the ri—” Iron Bull’s rumble was cut off by another shout.
“Vishante kaffas! Neither of us signed up to start a war with Par Vollen—”
“Josephine believes we’ve avoided that much. The Arishok sent a letter lamenting the loss, but seeks not to go further.” The Inquisitor’s voice was hesitant, doubtful.
“Oh yes? That’s what the letter said, was it? What’s that gaping wound in Bull’s shoulder say?”
“It’s not gaping, Kadan. It was two men, easily dispatched. I knew it was coming. It isn’t worth this chaos,” said Bull.
“You knew? You knew. Maker’s breath. Why were you up on the ramparts alone then? And where on earth was Krem? He’s supposed to be looking—”
Solas pushed the door open and Dorian stopped to look. He looked ready to hurl the croupier rake from the table at him. “Don’t you dare come in here to defend her Sol—” he started but abruptly stopped when he saw Krem hanging onto Solas’s shoulder.
“Good, Chief?” he asked, his puffed face squinting hard to find Bull.
“Damn sight better than you,” said Iron Bull rising from the chair Dorian had no doubt shoved him into.
“What happened?” said Leliana sharply. “Does this have to do with the assassination attempt?”
“They tried then?” asked Krem instead of answering.
“Could hardly call it ‘trying’,” answered Bull tipping Krem’s face sideways to get a better look at his bruises. “Should get Stitches to look at you. Broken arm.”
“He’s with the boys near Verchiel on the job, remember?”
“We have healers,” said Cullen. “I’ll go and—”
“There were Inquisition soldiers mixed in amongst the assassins,” interrupted Solas. “Not converts. Just men angry about losing the Qunari alliance to save the Chargers. You should head it off now, Commander, unless you want a full blown insurrection on your hands. There are a few left in the training yard, but they are not the only ones who attacked Krem.”
“Did you hear rumblings of this?” Cullen muttered to Leliana, even as he strode toward the door. She shook her head.
“This is ridiculous!” cried Dorian. “We’re assaulted everywhere we go, at least we ought to be safe in our own hold. Among our own forces.”
“I did warn the Inquisitor when we arrived that having such a public presence would entail some risk,” muttered Leliana.
Dorian scowled and pushed Solas gently aside to inspect Krem. “The Inquisitor can’t be here constantly to keep order, that’s your jobs,” he said. “Don’t blame her.”
“But I am to blame, Dorian. It is my decisions that caused this.” The Inquisitor half reached for Krem, her mana already gathering in her palms. Solas could see the little muscle in her jaw working and the nervous, quick movements in her fingers. She was deeply distressed. Whether it was because of the attempted assassination or Dorian’s anger or Krem’s state, he couldn’t have said. Probably all of them, though Bull seemed calm and whole. “Why has no one seen to you?” she asked Krem. “Solas, why haven’t you aided him?”
“He did. Helped me pummel the louts,” said Krem. “Don’t rightly know who I can trust in the Inquisition just now. And— I’d rather people who know me.”
“I’m so sorry,” said the Inquisitor. “Is there no one here you would be comfortable with?”
“The Chief can set the bone. He’s done it before.”
“But the other injuries— they could be worse than they appear.”
Krem hesitated. “Apart from— well, you— Dorian, maybe.”
“You still trust me?” asked the Inquisitor.
Krem grinned, though it appeared painful. “I don’t see why you’d sacrifice an alliance just to send idiots after the Chargers when we got back to Skyhold. Unless you didn’t want the alliance in the first place.” Krem glanced at Solas. “Him— I could see where that could be. But all you had to do to back out of an alliance was not show up. We signed on until this is through. I trust you.”
Solas felt a sting at the idea he’d stir up an angry mob to attack the Chargers. The rest, he couldn’t deny.
“I think I’d better handle it, sorora,” said Dorian. “You have assassins to track. And I’m not letting Bull or Krem out of my sight until Skyhold’s secure again.” He turned from Krem toward the Inquisitor, pinning her with an angry glare. “They were trying to kill them, sorora. Don’t let Bull’s nonchalance lull you. These were murderers. How many of them did you kill, Solas?” he asked without looking toward him.
“As of yet, none,” he admitted. “I believed them more valuable to Leliana alive.”
“Hmm,” said Dorian. “You go ahead and finish it. I’ll bring their corpses back to talk.”
“Dorian!” cried the Inquisitor.
“He is not wrong, Vhenan,” said Solas. “They are murderers. And even if we root out the Qunari spies, the others, the ones native to the Inquisition will remain to try again. Resentment like this does not fade. It only grows stronger and more dangerous. You want to spare them? Then eject them from the Inquisition forces. Otherwise— Dorian and I will handle them if Cullen and Leliana do not.”
“No need to get messy,” Leliana said evenly. “It will be over before morning.”
“A somniari is never messy,” muttered Dorian, getting an arm under Krem’s good one. “Even when the situation deserves it. Come, Amatus. We have a friend to heal.” He led Bull and Krem back down the hallway.
It was late when Dorian descended into the rotunda. Long after Leliana had interrogated her agents among the soldiers and Cullen had those foolish enough to remain and defiant enough to declare themselves a part of the gang who’d attacked Krem thrown into the stocks. Long after the Inquisitor had called all of Skyhold together for a reckoning among themselves and declared those who participated unwelcome. A few hours before dawn and the candles guttering and still Solas waited while Dorian paced and muttered in the library above. At last, Dorian strode down the stairs, his staff in one hand and a bedroll in the other.
“Well?” he asked. “Are you ready to go hunting or not?”
“I am ready,” said Solas.
“Where’s your bedroll then?”
Solas picked up the staff that he had leaned against the desk hours ago. “I don’t need it.”
“Right, you can sleep anywhere. Well some of us—”
“We aren’t going to do this the somniari way,” said Solas.
“What?” cried Dorian, “I thought you agreed with me! You stood at Krem’s side, you saw what they were willing to do.”
“I did. I do. And you’re right. This situation deserves messy. It will discourage others from following these men into folly. Leliana will try to keep too many alive, thinking she can get information out of them. The Commander and the Inquisitor will spare too many, thinking they can change them. You and I both know that men like these will not change and are too ignorant to give Leliana anything useful.”
“You didn’t hold back for Leliana’s sake earlier did you?” realized Dorian.
“No. I held back for Bull’s sake. And Krem’s. But everyone in the keep has seen how injured Krem is. He’s a threat to no one. And the Chargers are all absent. I arranged for Varric and Sera to start up a public game of Wicked Grace in the tavern tonight. By now they are three hands in and Bull is right in the heart of it. None of them will be blamed for what we do tonight.”
“We will,” said Dorian.
“You’re okay with that? The Inquisitor will be upset.”
“She is more upset that Bull and Krem were attacked than she would be by bringing their attackers to justice. They were given the opportunity to flee. If they have not departed yet, then they are fair game.” Solas leaned forward. “But I am willing to do this alone, Dorian, if you would rather—”
“No.” Dorian’s hands flashed and a soft illusion fell over them. “Let’s begin, while we still have a few hours of darkness left.”
Chapter 4: Pacing
It was not the soft shuffling that woke him, but the sharp, arid breeze swirling in through the open balcony door. She was pacing again. Watching for some sign, some distant stream of lights that would signal the return of her army from the Arbor Wilds. Nothing he’d done had been able to ease the anxious wait. It mattered little that ravens brought reports almost hourly and none of them had been worrisome. Still, she fretted and wore her shoes away on the stones of Skyhold. He wished he’d kept her longer away, that he lingered in Crestwood for several days instead of flashing back through the eluvian, that he held them in the almost timeless library where Corypheus was almost laughable, a passing shadow. Instead, they’d hurried back to the waiting and the worry. And the near-constant pacing.
He sat up, watched her dark silhouette cross the moon first one way, and then back. Her arms folded, pausing every few turns to stare for a second out at the dark mountains. Come to bed, he wanted to tell her, They are safe. All is well. He’d already said it, over several nights. The only thing it did was cause her to slip in beside him, stiff as driftwood, unable to sleep. She’d try, because he’d ask, but she’d fail and so would he, lying silently for hours in the dark until they both rose, exhausted the next morning. It couldn’t continue. Solas slid out of the bed and fumbled for his clothing in the dark.
“Vhenan,” he called, as he fixed the last footwrapping in place.
“Yes,” she sighed, “I’m coming to bed. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.” She slid into the warm dark of the room, gently closing the balcony doors behind her.
“That wasn’t what I meant to propose,” he said, finding her cold hand in the dim light of the moon. “I thought a longer walk than three paces across the balcony might give your mind a chance to think whole thoughts and to calm. We need not talk, if the quiet brings you peace. But I’d like to join you, if you’ll allow it.”
“You should sleep,” she whispered. “My— foolishness shouldn’t keep you from rest.”
He pulled her toward the stairs, flicking a small ball of veilfire into the lantern on her desk. “It isn’t foolish. And I cannot rest while my heart is so troubled.” He grabbed the cloaks from the nearby hook.
“Ir abelas, I knew my footsteps would wake you. I’ll go to the library. Go back to bed, return to the Fade—”
“It isn’t your footsteps that woke me. The Fade no longer interests me when you aren’t within it,” he said, opening the door to the long staircase. “I’d much rather walk with you.”
She was silent beside him, still lost to the thoughts that kept her from sleep as they climbed down to the throne room and across the hall. She let him wander up the causeway while the brittle breeze rattled a few dried leaves and a dusting of snow in small swirls over the stones. A few torches remained. In the watchtower, along the ramparts as guards wandered their circuits sleepily. The tavern was long dark, thin wisps of smoke from the banked fires all that remained. No ravens sailed over the keep, all asleep in the rookery. Still, the Inquisitor stared out at the mountains.
“Wherever they are, they have camped for the night, my love,” he told her. “You will not see their lights tonight.”
She nodded absently, not really hearing him. He let her pull him toward the gate tower, where the moon caught against the snowy peaks beyond, made a silver path down the slopes. He wondered if she meant to leave Skyhold, demand the gate be opened and argue with the guard who would likely refuse. But she made no move toward the gate, only paused on the rampart above it, leaning against the wall. She waited until the patrol passed by and Solas had turned around, facing the keep, his own back to the wall. Watching her while pretending he was staring at the silent, still shadows of the training dummies in the yard.
“It isn’t fair to do this to them,” she said quietly. “To ask them to face all of this, now that I know it’s for nothing.”
Ah, he thought, you’ve joined me here at last. I am sorry, Vhenan. “It is not for nothing,” he told her. Told himself.
“But they’ll fight Corypheus and then face a worse danger after.”
“Yes,” he agreed, still acting as if the quiet courtyard had most of his attention. As if his ears were not straining for the crack in her voice that he expected. As if his arms were folded against his chest because the night was frigid rather than because he was trying not to touch her. Not to push her faster than she was ready to go.
“Even if they survive this fight— they will die in the next.”
“Most likely. We will all of us die, someday.”
“Then— why shouldn’t I send them all home? Let them be with their families?”
“Because there are days— years to be won between Corypheus and the next disaster. If you sent them home, you’d give up all of them. They would end with their families, yes, but not before watching all that they loved turned to red lyrium for the benefit of a monster.”
She turned toward him and he allowed himself to look at her at last. “Is it any worse than watching them become darkspawn?” she asked. He reached for her marked hand, sliding a thumb over the anchor’s creeping threads.
“Before you, I thought it all a matter of degree. I thought watching you exist under the Veil was— horrific. That enduring it myself was misery. Something to suffer through only for the sake of correcting it. Not life. But you— made me want to put off the conclusion of this journey. Every day. At first— I just wanted another chance to speak with you. And then another battle to face with you beside me. And at last— all the breaths that I could wring out of this existence. Every one. Knowing that we’ll face Corypheus has only become a worse fear since then. He’s grown from just another obstacle to a true threat. Because it could mean losing some of that time with you. When I— when I told you this could end badly— us, you told me it was worth the risk. And when I told you of— what would come after Corypheus, you asked me to give you time. Not to rush to the end. You had a reason for not leaving the Inquisition once the Breach was closed and returning to your family, though the odds looked impossible then. You had a reason for choosing to love me though I warned you off. You had a reason for asking me to wait when I told you the worst. This is not for nothing. You have a reason, and so does the rest of the Inquisition.”
“You chose the same things that I did,” she said. “They couldn’t all have been necessary to regain the orb.”
“No. Most of the choices I’ve made were not for the orb,” he admitted. “But we were speaking of your forces, not of me. There is a time of peace coming, if we can overcome Corypheus. It is— temporary, yes, but does that make it any less desirable?”
“Some of them might believe so. Some might choose to go home and spend these last few years with their families, even as the world darkens around them.”
“The people who feel that way are not among your forces. They deserted long ago. Or never joined. Those that remain fight for the chance of brighter days. Every warrior knows each battle might be the one in which they fall. And if they survive, they know there may be another battle ahead. It is the nights between that they fight for. What is it you told me? Everything is eclipsed someday. Nothing lasts forever, not even hard-won peace. You aren’t responsible for all the miles the world must move, only the inches you can accomplish. Isn’t that how you said it?”
“But they don’t know. Not how little time their lives are buying.”
He pressed a hand to her cheek. “You think they would find it a poor exchange? I know, Vhenan. I know what’s at risk. But all the days with you are worth it. Even the terrible ones. I don’t feel cheated. Do you?” He held his breath, uncertain what she’d say. Her expression was hard to make out under the faint light that reflected from the snow.
“Never,” she said, “Not for a second. I’d walk into the Void for another day with you.” She pressed forward and kissed him, the crackling hiss of late winter wind rustling around them. Then she drew back, just a little. “But, alas, there is only one of you. The entire Inquisition cannot trade their lives to hold you, Solas. What else is worth the risk?”
He laughed and wrapped his arms around her. “A hundred other things more deserving than I. We are not the only ones to love in sad times, emma lath. Some will fight to protect their spouses. Some their children. Some the hope that they may have both before the end. Some just for the love of the sun on green fields and quiet of a friendly village or clan. When they meet the next threat, they will not regret surviving Corypheus. They will only find another reason to risk themselves. As will you and I.”
“Don’t I owe them the choice? Shouldn’t I tell them?”
He sighed. “I have no good answer for you. It is something I’ve wrestled with for a long time now. I thought— I was selfish to tell even you. It has brought you nothing but grief. I thought I owed you the truth, too. But I see now, I have only stolen your peace. It cannot help them to know. They would only join us in pacing the nights away.”
She pressed a hand to his chest. “Whatever my own doubts, don’t regret showing me what we will face, Solas.”
“But it cannot help you—”
“That isn’t true. It will help us find a way to overcome it, between us, we will find a way. But even if it didn’t— I don’t wish you had kept it from me. If it eases your mind even a little to have another who understands, then it is worth the telling. I want to be your partner, not your pet.”
“You are, you have been, long before I could see it.”
“Then— partners share burdens, Solas. Do not rethink letting me help with yours. No one saves the world alone.”
“It has troubled you,” he protested.
“Less than it troubles me to know how long you carried it without aid.” She tilted up on her toes, pressed her forehead to his, her breath warm and filling the hood of his cloak. “Whatever happens— I cannot bear to think of you alone. You are right, it would not help the Inquisition forces to know. They can no more stop it than you or I, not until Corypheus is gone. But part of me wishes to tell them anyway, in case— I’m gone.”
“No, Vhenan,” he whispered, “They’ll think you mad or turn against you if they do not simply flee in panic. Don’t do this for my sake.”
“Then promise me you’ll tell our friends the whole truth, that you’ll trust someone— Dorian, Bull, Cassandra— someone, if I am no longer there to help you.”
“You must. If you will not promise it for my sake or for yours, then consider the rest of them. A chance, a way to fix it. Another battle at your side. Never be one against all again, fanor.”
“When we have recovered the orb, I will show them what we face. The others will not join me— they will not understand. But for those who do— they will know the entire truth. That is the promise I can give you, my love, though I know it is not the one you want. You want me to find another to fill the hole your absence would make. I cannot. There is no other who could, not in any way.” He kissed her temple, curled his cloak around hers. “Survive and there will be no need to think of either of us alone. Stay, stay, stay.”
He could not have known it would be a lie, his last to her.
Chapter 5: Mending
This was outlined to go between "The Fall" and "Names". "But Wootensmith," I hear you say, "There's no point where the party goes to the Hissing Wastes or that Varric is present between those chapters." yes. That's why it's here instead of tucked into the long fic. I done messed up the timeline and left no temporal space for this chapter....
The hollow pop of the enchantment shattering cut through even the chaotic cries of battle and Solas abruptly halted mid-cast and scanned the dusty plain for the Inquisitor. But her barrier remained. She was too far from him to have heard it, if it had been her. The distraction cost him a heavy bruise to his side as one of the slavers slammed a club into him and he fell back a step before blasting the man with a stone fist. He forgot about the sound of the breaking spell for the next few minutes, struggling to catch up with his opponent’s movements. It wasn’t until he was recovering his breath and pressing healing into his sore side that he thought of it again. When Varric started shouting.
“Kid! You get hit? Cole!”
Solas whipped around to see Cole on his knees in the sand, Varric running toward him. The Inquisitor was closest and she slid down beside him before Solas had even closed half the distance.
“Are you hurt?” she asked, pulling the hat from his head before he’d answered, checked his clothing for rents or blood. He didn’t move. She glanced up at Varric and then to Solas.
“Cole,” he said sternly, his ribs still aching. “Are you injured?”
The boy lifted something from the sand and held it up to him. “The spell is sundered, freedom flown. Bind me!” he cried.
“Oh, Cole,” said the Inquisitor sagging with relief when she realized it was his amulet that had been damaged and not him, “I’m sorry. We’ll repair it.”
Solas reached forward for Cole’s amulet. Varric shook his head, irritated by what he thought was a talisman only, something to soothe a boy rather than real protection.
“Yes!” said Cole, “Pull it closed, like the rifts. Wrap it around me again.”
Solas turned the broken amulet, inspecting it. It had been cloven in two, the stone utterly dead. No spark of magic tingled in it. “Ir abelas, Cole, it cannot be repaired. The spell unraveled. We will have to obtain another when we return to Skyhold.”
“No, no, this one was there when I chose. Was held by all of your hands.” Cole clutched his head. “Long leagues to Skyhold. Slavers and scarlet templars and warped wardens between. Not safe.”
“We’ll keep you safe, Cole,” said the Inquisitor pulling his hands down. Varric bent over and picked up the hat, dusting it off angrily.
“Only if you bind me.”
“Nobody is binding you Cole—”
“Told you this question wasn’t just going to disappear, Inquisitor,” muttered Varric, handing the hat back to Cole. “You don’t need it. It’s just— it’s a pebble, kid. You’ve been keeping yourself safe this whole time.”
“No,” Cole shook his head. “That’s not me Varric. The boy who lives in your head, who you dream was born and had brothers and needs to go home. It’s not me. Just dreams.”
Varric sighed. “I know that’s what you think, kid, but…” he trailed off for a minute. “Help me out, Inquisitor,” he said. “It’s not fair to keep him afraid like this. We all knew the amulet was going to break sooner or later. He’s not going to get better until—”
“He doesn’t need to ‘get better’, Master Tethras,” Solas snapped. “He is as he ought to be. I’ve told you, he’s not a human child.”
“Then fix it,” pleaded Cole.
“I cannot. The enchantment is gone. You must endure until we can procure another. It is impossible to repair this one.”
The Inquisitor quickly reached up to pull the shards from his palm. “Everything can be fixed, one way or another Solas,” she said softly. “It just takes a little time to figure out how.”
Solas caught Cole watching him below the brim of his hat and had a fleeting suspicion that Cole had been waiting for her to say that exact thing. “The way to repair it,” he said calmly, “is to replace it. It is merely a few weeks’ delivery from Rivain and the cost is negligible.”
“Then it won’t be right. It’ll be someone else’s magic. Someone else’s armor,” said Cole.
“It was someone else’s magic already. I did not lay the spell. Nor the Inquisitor.”
“A thousand times a thousand spells of protection. One for each name,” murmured Cole.
The Inquisitor glanced uneasily at Solas. “That is not the same,” he told the boy. “If it comforts you to have a blessing from your friends, we could repeat whatever it is you think we did to this one.”
“No. It carries memory in it. Like veilfire. Like Shapers. Friends in the Fade follow it. A new one is— empty.”
“There is no—”
“Let me try, emma lath,” the Inquisitor said, catching his hand. Solas gave a reluctant nod. Varric shook his head but only said, “And in the meantime?”
The Inquisitor looked around the slaver camp. It was one of many they’d run across in the Wastes. There were likely more to liberate. “We’ll have to return to camp. Cole will be safe there until we have stemmed the Venatori threat.”
The boy began to protest.
“It is either that or we return to Skyhold. There are slaves waiting to be freed, Cole. If we leave them, they may be forced to consume the red lyrium. I cannot do that,” she said gently.
“Are you able to return to the Fade?” asked Solas.
“I can,” he said. “I am light, unlittered. I can slip across, a kind, small thing.”
“Perhaps, until we return to Skyhold, that would be for the best.”
“Or,” said Varric, glaring at Solas, “you could trust us, kid, and instead of wandering off with a disappearing act, we could take you back to camp.”
“You worry, but the Fade is my home. It will be easier there.”
“Hmm. Even if I really believed that, didn’t someone summon a friend of yours from the Fade, kid? You’re better off with us. We didn’t let anyone hurt you before you got that— amulet. Why can’t you trust us now?”
“You have my trust, Varric. But the world is not all Varric or Solas or Inquisitor.”
Varric blew out a frustrated breath.
“Walking with me makes you worry less,” Cole realized.
“Yes,” admitted Varric. “I feel better when I can see you with my own two eyes.”
“Then I will walk with you. To camp. After, Solas can walk with me in the Fade.”
Solas nodded in agreement. Varric sighed and then shrugged. “I guess it’s as good a compromise as any,” he said.
Solas sent word back to Josephine to request another amulet even as the Inquisitor tried to piece together the sharp bits of the original and Varric fumed at her for encouraging what he thought was folly. He waited until Varric had worn himself down and grumbled his way out to his watch before finding her arm in the dark tent.
“You cannot repair it, Vhenan,” he said, knowing she was thinking rather than sleeping.
“I’ll find a way,” she answered.
“Sometimes, there isn’t one.
“There always is. Sometimes, we’re just not patient enough to find it.”
“Another amulet will be waiting at Skyhold anyhow. Rest. Cole will understand.”
“He won’t. He has his heart set on saving this one. And he’ll know that I didn’t even try.”
“He is a spirit of Compassion. He will forgive you.”
There was silence for a long time. He thought she may have fallen asleep, her hand limp and warm in his.
“I won’t forgive me,” she whispered at last.
His fingers glided over her hand, her wrist, trying to soothe. “Then— sleep, at least. No problem is solved when you’re exhausted. Sleep and we’ll look at it again in the morning.”
“We? I thought you said it was a waste of time. Impossible.”
“I believe I have proclaimed several things impossible to date. And yet, you have accomplished them all. I am willing to be wrong again. And should we fail—” he brought her hand to his mouth, kissed the soft back of it. “There has never been a moment of my time with you that was ‘wasted’. Sleep. We’ll think on it in the morning.”
They hadn’t discovered a solution by the time they finished with the Venatori. Unsurprising, as the Wastes had been exhausting. Miles of sand punctuated by frenzied battles to rescue prisoners hidden in cages between the dunes. Cole found Solas each night in the Fade, but proved immovable on the subject of the amulet, though Solas did his best to persuade him to accept a replacement. Varric had given up grousing about it, missing Cole too much to continue railing against the one thing that might convince him to return. He had even offered the service of one Uncle Pirol to reset the shattered stone. The Inquisitor kept the pieces in the small pouch at her waist and continually traced their shape through the fabric with a finger as she rode, lost in thought.
“Perhaps we could cast the spell on the reset stone,” she murmured. “No— the fractures would make it reverberate. Unstable… Perhaps Dagna will know a way to recut the stone in a way that will—”
“There isn’t enough there to recut,” he told her. “The final stones would be too small to hold the spell.”
“Must it be a stone, then?”
“I am— not well versed in enchanting. I have found other material suitable for spells, certainly, but stone is the most durable.”
“Not durable enough,” she said ruefully. “If I could enchant the setting or the chain, perhaps it would be enough to honor our promise and protect Cole at the same time.”
“You are right about speaking to Dagna. Recutting the stone may not be a possibility, but she might know what else could hold the enchantment.”
“Do you know the spell?”
Solas shook his head. “It isn’t something I ever— found necessary to learn. But if you insist upon attempting it, I am certain Josephine can procure a master to teach us.”
Dagna was oddly pleased by the puzzle, brightly examining the broken amulet while Varric paced the cool Undercroft and Cole sat perched upon the stone steps, watching. Solas was mildly irritated to see the boy appear so undisturbed by something that had caused the Inquisitor several sleepless nights. “Was it a blunt weapon or a blade, Inquisitor?” chirped Dagna.
“I— believe it was a blade. Does it matter?”
“Well sure. If it were cleaved along the right plane it wouldn’t hurt the integrity of the stone but if it were smashed— here, it’s easier if you look.”
The Inquisitor bent to look through Dagna’s large glass at the shards. Solas drifted over to Cole.
“They care very much for you, Cole,” he said quietly.
“Yes,” Cole agreed.
“If you ask the impossible, they will still try to do it for you. Even to the point of causing them pain.”
The boy looked up at him. “She is very patient, Solas. Stitches the broken things together. Even the things meant to stay broken. They’re stronger at the seam. The amulet is a small thing. Others ask for bigger impossibilities and love helps her do them.”
“But there is an alternative. Another amulet just as effective—”
“The other amulet’s a still pond. No ripples.”
Solas didn’t understand that part, but let it slide away as Dagna said abruptly, “You know where he is, don’t you, Varric?”
“I— Hawke would. I have my suspicions but it’ll take time to track him down. Are you certain, Inquisitor?”
“If this Sandal is willing to look at it, I would gladly accept the help.”
Varric shook his head but then shrugged. “I suppose it isn’t hurting anyone. The kid can stay here until then, right? No more vanishing act?”
“Yes,” said Cole, “safe in the rafters above the Iron Bull. Warm amid the floating voices. I can stay.”
The protection spell was far more intricate than he’d expected. The mage from Rivain was not as tenacious as the Inquisitor and tried several times to persuade her to simply allow him to lay the enchantment, but she insisted, practicing long hours in her quarters. They smelled of char and ozone after a few days of it and several flasks of spirit essence lay shattered on her desk, exploding every time the spell destabilized. He’d had similar luck. The formula was trickier than it appeared at first glance. He couldn’t deny that he lacked any specific talent for this form of magic.
He disliked the way her jaw grew more rigid with each passing hour and the lines beneath the vallaslin on her forehead deepened with worry. He almost looked forward to being forced out of Skyhold again, if it would put a stop to the trial and distract her. She mastered it before that could happen, of course. Near the midnight bell one night. He’d already slipped into a doze, the sizzle of her spells just a distant hum in the background until she laughed, bright and clear. He shook himself awake.
She was radiant, surprised, despite the exhausted hollows under her eyes as she held up the small stone in triumph. “It’s holding!” she exclaimed, putting it into his palm. The stone was warm, pulsing with the spell. Far stronger than the original spell had been. The other had been one of dozens the other mage had created, they’d held back, only doled out a small portion of mana to each one, but this one— That’s why the others weren’t stable, he realized. She tried too hard. Overcharged it in an attempt to keep him safer.
“Excellent,” he said, enjoying the happy laugh that fell from her lips again.
“Now I just need to figure out how to fix the stone. And then—” her face fell in an instant. “How will we know?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Know what?”
“Whether it’s working. I can’t exactly test it. We’d have to attempt a binding and I don’t want— I’ve seen what that can do.”
“How do you know your barrier spells are working without having someone try to stab you?” he asked, placing the stone gently down beside him and reaching for her blistered hands. They’d been scorched each time the spell backfired.
“By feel, mostly. But I don’t know what this spell should feel like. Maybe I’ve cast something entirely different. Maybe something that will harm Cole.”
“Then we will ask the Rivaini master if it feels correct to him. He is familiar with the correct sensation.” Her blisters smoothed away with a little healing, leaving only tough callouses behind.
“It doesn’t feel the same, touching another mage’s spell, you know that. He’d be able to feel another spell there, but not which one.”
Solas thought for a moment, still tracing the pattern of toughened skin on her fingertips. “How do you know that Dorian’s barriers work? Or mine?”
She shrugged. “Faith, I suppose.”
“Is it so hard to have faith in your own magic then?”
“Well— yes. When other people’s lives are at stake.”
He laughed softly, but stopped abruptly when she pulled her hand away. “Ir abelas, Vhenan. I was not mocking. It is only— other people’s lives have been in jeopardy since I met you. You have not disappointed them, or Cole, yet. For all of Varric’s mistaken belief about him, he is correct about that. We have protected Cole for much longer than the amulet. He is safe with us, even were your spell to fall apart. But it will not.” He picked up the stone and turned it over, feeling the thrum of the magic within. “I can feel that it’s stable. And so can you, or you would not have shown me. Be at ease. It was never you that I doubted, only the stone that he insists on keeping.”
She sighed and sank into the chair beside him. “Even if this Sandal fellow could repair it— what’s to stop the same thing from happening? It is likely to be even more fragile afterward. And the Inquisition is no place for fragile, precious things.” She pressed her fingers to her temple, trying to rub away the tension there.
“Ah,” he said, “that is a piece of the puzzle I have already found.”
“Oh?” she asked.
“You did not think I’ve been idly watching you struggle did you?”
She flushed with shame and he laughed. “I knew you would master the spell. I had another task to strengthen Cole’s amulet. He likes the veilfire room. The layers of spellwork that protect this place. I cannot cast a thousand distinct spells for him, nor does the Inquisition have enough mages to do so, even were they all willing. But I have found a way to make it easier for him to remain protected both in the waking world and when he returns to the Fade. Something the original amulet could not do.”
“So something like the summoning Wisdom suffered could not happen to him?” She touched his hand.
“That’s the intent. I will need your help to accomplish it.”
He took her marked hand in his. “I’ll need you to open a path. Just a small one. As you did the night we were together. I’ll be able to anchor a piece of the Fade to the stone.”
“We should wait for the stone to be repaired.”
Solas shook his head slightly, still disbelieving that the amulet could be fixed, but only said, “Ma nuvenin, my love. I will be ready to attempt it when you are.”
She and Varric went to Val Royeaux alone. Both Solas and Dagna were disappointed, wishing to see this dwarven savant for themselves, but Varric had insisted.
“They’re not exactly public,” he’d told Solas. “Had to leave Kirkwall a year or so ago. Just before shit went sideways. It was hard enough getting Bodahn to even agree to meet the Inquisitor. We take a whole troupe there and he’ll take Sandal and bolt. They’re good people. And we both know this is never going to work. Why upset their whole lives? I’ll take her to meet him. It’ll be quiet. She’ll come back ready to put the whole mess behind us and Cole will stop vanishing every time one of the mages stares at him a minute too long.”
“Look, Chuckles, I’m worried too. But he can’t keep going like this, even if you’re right. One way or another, we have to deal with it. He can’t spend the rest of his— time here, whatever that might mean, terrified. And the Inquisitor can’t keep allowing the entire company to grind to a halt to repair talismans.” He whispered, as if it would matter, and Solas again felt a mixture of amusement and irritation with Varric’s insistence that Cole was just a confused human boy. But he was right. One way or another, this had to be resolved.
He’d expected disappointment or dejection when she returned. Some kind of gentle ribbing on Varric’s part and a good-natured attempt at persuading Cole of the utter impossibility of the task. But the Inquisitor was sedate, cheerful and relaxed when she rode through the gates of Skyhold, laughing with Varric. And Cole had stayed visible all morning, sitting on the causeway watching for them with an ease that the boy did not usually exhibit. “It went well then?” Solas asked him as they watched the Inquisitor speaking to the gate guards before entering.
Cole looked up at him, squinting against the bright autumn sun. “She discovered what she needed,” he said. It wasn’t until that evening that Solas suspected he’d not been speaking only of the amulet.
They followed the Inquisitor to the Undercroft where Dagna darted from one arcane piece of equipment to the next, excitedly chattering while she tested the repaired amulet. It was larger than Solas remembered, threads of lyrium dust filling in the cracks where it had shattered and a strange new setting bracketing it. Something he’d never seen before or imagined possible. Stitched closed like cloth. Whole. Still a silent thing. No spell seeping from it, no tiny tendril of the Fade spiraled inside. But— ready. Waiting. If a thing could be said to be waiting. It seemed an age before Dagna finally got through her questions and pronounced the piece ready for enchantment again. Varric was either too pleased to see Cole at ease or the Inquisitor had soothed his fretting, because he stayed in the Undercroft longer than usual, even watching the Inquisitor cast the complicated spell. After a few moments, Dagna pronounced it stable and moved to take it.
“Wait,” said the Inquisitor, “There is one more thing to add.” She turned to Solas. He hesitated.
“I am unsure if it is wise to do this so publicly—”
The Inquisitor glanced at Varric and then to Dagna. “Not a word to Cassandra,” she warned them. “This isn’t as perilous as it might appear.”
Dagna shrugged. “Didn’t join up because of Cassandra, I guess. And if you have something new to show me— let me get a scroll.” she said, racing to find a place to take notes. Varric took a nervous step back from the large apparatus.
“Don’t tell me you two are messing with blood magic. I’ve seen enough of it for one life—”
“Peace, Varric. Neither of us practice blood magic,” said Solas. He watched Varric relax.
“Cassandra would be less angry about blood magic,” offered Cole. The Inquisitor uttered a soft groan of frustration that he’d said so aloud.
Varric stared at Solas. “She would, would she? Then this, I’ve got to see.”
“Not one syllable, Varric,” warned the Inquisitor.
“To the Seeker? You have my word,” he said, drawing closer again and bending over Dagna’s glass, “To anyone else— no promises, Inquisitor.”
“We should do this— elsewhere,” said Solas. “He’ll write it into the next three books otherwise.”
“Too late for that. You send me away, Chuckles, and I’ll make something up. Likely more outrageous than whatever you’re planning. Besides, people only believe the stuff that never happened. The truth’s always too weird for them,” said Varric without looking up.
“Very well,” said Solas with a defeated sigh. He turned to the Inquisitor. “Are you ready, Vhenan?”
She nodded, holding up her marked hand. He watched her concentrate on the bright emerald shine of the anchor and felt the Veil slide slowly apart. Dagna gasped and Varric swore loudly.
“Remain calm,” said Solas.
“Calm? You’ve opened a rift. Right here in Skyhold!” Varric hissed.
“It’s in her control, Varric.”
“Sure. That’s probably what Corypheus said, too, right before the world exploded.” Varric pushed Dagna and Cole back a few steps, despite the fact that Dagna was eagerly reaching toward the small tear and Cole seemed utterly unconcerned.
“If it grows unstable, I’ll close it. I promise, Varric. And Solas is here to help if anything happens,” said the Inquisitor, staring at her hand in concentration.
“Normally that’d make me feel better. Not in this case.”
“You don’t trust me?” she asked.
“I trust you, but— no offense, Inquisitor, if it came to you or the Fade— I’m not certain which Chuckles loves more. You so sure he’d help?”
Solas was startled to see the Inquisitor falter. She glanced at him and the rift trembled, began to warp.
“He has never hesitated to help with a rift before—”
“He’s never told you to open one before, either,” cried Varric, “This whole thing is—”
“Enough!” barked Solas, “Hold your peace until this is through, Master Tethras. We do not need more distractions. A simple spell and it will be done and closed again. Focus, Inquisitor.”
She took a breath and adjusted the anchor. The small rift stabilized, but he could see the doubt plain on her face. He regretted not denying it immediately. Later, he told himself, and began his own spell.
Varric paced until the rift dissolved leaving no trace on the chilled Undercroft air, alternately yanking Dagna back and reaching for the crossbow that was not at hand, but remaining silent as Solas had demanded.
“It isn’t a thousand spells, Cole,” said the Inquisitor holding the repaired amulet out to the boy, “but it has all the love and well wishes of your friends. If that has any power, I hope that it puts you at ease.”
“Thank you,” Cole sighed, and pulled the amulet over his head, playing with it as it landed against his chest.
Varric grumbled something under his breath. “Best keep that like it’s the relic of some Andrastian saint, Cole. Not going through all—” he waved his hand at the empty air where the rift had been, “this again.”
“We will keep each other safe,” said Cole, still staring at the amulet, twisting it to watch the play of the lyrium shimmering.
“Good. Glad that’s— done.” Varric shook his head. “I’m— headed to the Herald’s Rest. Going to need an ale after that. Less likely to run into Cassandra that way, too. You coming, kid?”
Cole agreed easily.
“Rest of you?”
“I— I could use an ale too, and some time to go over these calculations,” stammered Dagna, still wide eyed and dazed.
“You could use a visit with Sera, too, I think,” said Varric. “Both could. She’ll talk us out of believing what we just saw.” He turned to Solas and the Inquisitor. “How about you two? First round’s on me if you tell me what in Thedas just happened.”
The Inquisitor shook her head. “Not today, Varric. I’m sorry.”
Varric tugged at his earring and hesitated. “I didn’t mean that, a few minutes ago, you know. None of my business in the first place,” he said, flushing. “Just— the last time I saw the Fade that close— it didn’t go so well. Shit, the last time you saw the Fade that close, it didn’t go so well either. Just— rattled.”
“I know, Varric. I should have warned you or— waited. I was just so excited to fix Cole’s amulet,” said the Inquisitor.
Cole shifted restlessly from one foot to another. He should be happy, thought Solas and tried to calm his own irritation.
Varric thrust a hand toward Solas. “What about you, Solas? Forgive me?”
He clasped the dwarf’s hand. Varric had excused far worse on Solas’s part. “There is nothing to forgive, my friend. Though I— am not sufficiently recovered from our last night in the tavern to risk another just yet.”
Varric grinned. “Too bad. I haven’t collected from Bull yet. Said he needed to see it for himself before he’d believe it.”
He glanced at Cole and saw him still staring uneasily at the Inquisitor. Not enough, he realized, but Varric prodded the boy gently and they left the Undercroft, leaving Solas and the Inquisitor to stare after them.
After a moment, she picked up the traveling pack from beside the apparatus. She’d been so eager to finish that she hadn’t stopped in her quarters first. “It’s been a long ride. And I have missed you,” she said. “Will you dine with me?”
“If I were to— entirely forgo the Fade, I would be incapable of love. Or much else,” he said abruptly.
“I’m not certain I can believe that. Something lingers in the tranquil. I see— flashes of it, occasionally. But if this is about what Varric said—”
“If you doubt—”
She burst into a bright laugh. “Oh, Solas, you cannot seriously think I am jealous of the Fade. Or that I doubt you. Especially after we were there together. In truth, I can see now why it draws you. It felt so natural. And ever since— everything is muted.”
He caught her fingers, eager and hopeful. Irrational. “Yes, exactly. We are so sundered from what we ought to be. The physical world is— limiting. Frustrating. And the Fade is warped from what it once was. Lacking weight and definition.” He swept a stray wisp of hair from her cheek. “That night— with you, was more than either. As if we were finally completely whole. That is how people existed once, it’s how we were. If we could be that way again, if the magic could return—” he broke off. Her expression had fallen into the same wavering, anxious one it had been when her control of the rift had slipped. What have I done? “What troubles you, Vhenan?” he asked.
“No— nothing. Something the enchanter said. The one Varric and I went to see. It’s nothing.”
He felt a prickle of dread. “You are uneasy. It is not nothing.”
She tightened her grip on his hand. “You would not ask me to do something— you’d never use me to destroy the people we care about. Or innocents. Not the way Varric meant.”
He wasn’t certain whether it was a question or a statement to convince herself. “No,” he said, “You are not a thing to be used.”
“Then— you should tell me the truth, Solas.”
“I know,” he admitted, though he offered her nothing further.
She pressed a hand to his cheek. “Have I failed you? Is there anything you’ve told me that I couldn’t understand?”
He leaned in to her touch, closed his eyes. “Te’uth. You’ve never failed me.”
“Why do you fear that I will now?”
He opened his eyes again, found her searching his face. “I have not earned your faith,” he said.
“But I’ve told you, you cannot earn my love. Nor can you lose it. It just— is. Through joy or disappointment or peril. Push me away or— or continue hiding, and I will grieve, but I will not cease to love you.”
He was uncertain what to tell her. The truth burned on his tongue, but the dread was so heavy, he could not open his mouth. She waited for a moment, then pulled him into a gentle kiss.
“The only thing you can change about this is whether you feel worthy of it in the future,” she said softly. She smiled. “Come to dinner, emma lath. This was meant to be a good day. We aided a dear friend in a way you thought impossible. Put aside the sorrow and let me be proud of us.”
He slid his arms around her. “Ar lath ma, mah vindhru.”
“And it is that truth I care most about,” she said. “But Solas— I will not accept parables forever.”
Cole found him pacing on the Inquisitor’s balcony the next morning. “Your silence hurts, Solas. Like something sharp she runs into in the dark. She never knows when it’ll wound her again.”
“What did this Sandal tell her?” He was angry with Cole. Suspected it had all been a ruse, from the beginning.
“What she already knew. What you tried to tell her but couldn’t.”
“Did you do it on purpose? The amulet? I was worried for you. We all were.”
Cole glanced down at the stone, twisting it idly between his fingers. “There are little fears and big ones. Sometimes, you forget the bigger one if you only look at the little ones.”
“I thought you came to help, Cole. But you— have hurt. Me, Varric, the Inquisitor. And it was a near thing— what if we were not able to repair it? Or if the Inquisitor had decided to bind you when you asked?”
Cole perched upon the balcony railing and watched Solas continue pacing. “I like the infirmary. It’s easy to help there. Simple. I have time to watch. Some soldiers wait too long to come. They burn and ache, too full and swollen. The surgeon lances their wounds. It hurts for a moment, but after— they are healed. Better. If he did not hurt them, they would die.”
“We were in no danger of dying,” fumed Solas.
“I fear your ploy will only cause her to join me, then.”
“If I did nothing, she would join you anyhow. If you tell her, maybe she’ll find another way. She mended a stone. The breach. Orlais. Maybe she will mend you, too.”
“That is an unkind thing to ask of her.”
Cole considered for a moment. “I am not Kindness. Maybe it would be better if I were. Smaller, softer. Compassion is not always easy. Not always painless. I told you I would keep your secret as long as it would not help them to know. That it would hurt her. And you. But it is hurting you both for her not to know. Do not let the hurt swell too long, Solas.”
He blinked out.
Chapter 6: (Dis)arming
Meant to come after "Ave et Valete" and a direct contrast to "Arming"
It had been a terrible day. A dozen problems cropped up between dawn and his return to the eidolon. Infighting over battle units had started off the day, calling him from the slow, sunlit morning beside the Inquisitor far too early. It was his own fault, the upset that his shift in plans had caused was not unexpected. The military leadership had changed and with it, favored squads had to be shuffled around, new formations learned and taught— and he’d had to smooth over several arguments personally. Just as he’d tamed his fractious forces into something resembling order, a messenger delivered news of a massive avalanche on the White Spire. It had killed two of his people who had been assigned to watch the border with Antiva. The ice swept the base camp clean. It took several hours of travel to reach the site and a few more to retrieve the bodies and melt the snow enough to repair the former structures. The two elves were frozen in shock and fear, stiff like carven wax. Their families had gone to Skyhold. He would have to send word. There would be so many more in the coming weeks. He, and a good portion of the mages with him, were exhausted on their return. He’d plodded through the gates of the city, ready for sleep and little else. But Abelas was waiting, pacing the broken road.
“There were desertions in the night,” he said. “Fifteen for certain. Another five unaccounted for.”
Solas leaned against the crumbling knee of a stone Falon’din that stood beside the gates. “After we told them of our alterations, it is not so surprising. Fifteen will not break us, Abelas,” he said.
“No, but fifteen mouths become fifty and then a thousand as soon as they reach the nearest town. They carry news that can expose us. Our numbers, our formations— what lies beneath the great seal. It is regrettable, but we cannot let them go.”
He pressed his fingers to the base of his skull, deep into the overwound muscle of his neck, trying to push his welling headache back. “Give me their names. I’ll see to it tonight.”
It was not a task he wished to perform. He’d have to frighten his people into returning or else eliminate them in their sleep. Regrettable, indeed. But Abelas was right. They could not be allowed to spread word about their activities. Solas did not trust the rest of Thedas not to interfere. Dorian’s small army of mages was one thing, but the southern kingdoms were unlikely to aid them when they knew the plan. Abelas handed him a scroll with a concerned frown.
“I can assign the task to the other Dreamers—”
Solas shook his head. “No. This is my doing. I will solve it, one way or another.” He pushed himself up from the statue. “Is there anything else to report? News from the border? From the Rift watchers?”
“Nothing. All is quiet, the Veil has not experienced any new significant tears.”
“Then— I will return to the temple. If you have need of me—”
“We will not. Your pursuit of the deserters will not be interrupted.”
Solas nodded and walked slowly to the eluvian. It was well past dusk and the smell of roasting food hung heavy in the city. He had not eaten since early morning. It was likely the Inquisitor had not either. I never lit the veilfire lamp for her, he realized. Without the veilfire to read the maps by, her time would have been spoiled, frustrating. The anchor! He had not siphoned its power since he’d left her that morning either. Panic jolted through him and he dashed the remaining distance to the eluvian. He held his breath sliding through, expecting a blinding emerald glow from Elgar’nan’s eye sockets when the eidolon came into view. But they were dark, the only light a reddish-gold from the temple fires at the massive doors. He hurried up the long path, stumbling on the broken tiles in his exhaustion.
When he opened the large doors, the hearth in the center of the temple had wavered and danced, a large pot hanging above sizzling and bubbling. It didn’t occur to him to wonder who had lit it.
“Vhenan?” he called. There was no immediate answer. He dragged himself up the stone steps. Dark spatters of water trailed along them. The heat from the fire was almost oppressive after the bitter chill his day had been. He heard a deep slosh before he reached the top and could see the light of the anchor shimmering against the ceiling. Still, he almost ran into her.
She wasn’t looking, too busy trying to hold a large bucket and several rush mats in her hand. She was sweaty, disheveled and the anchor’s thick, angular web shone like one of Thedas’s moons in her face. He grasped her arm and she looked up, startled.
“Ir abelas, Vhenan. I didn’t mean to stay so—” he broke off as a smile burst over her.
“Solas! I was almost ready. One more bucket.”
“One more—” he started as she pulled away from him, heading back down the stairs. “The anchor,” he called after her.
“I’ll just be a moment.”
He chased her, taking the bucket.
“You don’t have to do that. Managed just fine. I can see how tired you are, emma lath,” she said.
“What were you doing with the bucket?” he asked, setting it beside the hearth. He watched her lift the large pot from the fire and set it down. It took her several more movements to get it poured into the bucket. He fought the urge to help, though the way her missing arm caused her to overbalance so close to the flame made him nervous.
“Filling the bath,” she said at last.
“I could have done—”
“That’s the point,” she interrupted. “It was so you wouldn’t have to.” She lifted the bucket, puffing a little as she steadied herself. “Come on,” she said, and it came out soft and light, “if it gets cold, I’ll need to start over. Can’t just reheat it with a spell anymore.” He followed her slowly back up the steps.
“If your bath gets cold, I can do that for you,” he offered.
She shook her head, laughing. “You think I’d do this for my bath? Used to chip the ice open in the Minanter to bathe. It’s for you, Solas.”
She stopped at the side of the large tub, set down the bucket to adjust her grip. “Sevren told me about the avalanche.” She poured the bucket of steaming water in slowly. “I am sorry about your people.”
“Ours. I am sorry, Solas.”
“As am I. I ought to have thought, the thaw always—”
“Don’t,” she told him her fingers drifting over the metal of his armor. “It was not your doing. Just snow. If you should have known, then so should your scouts. You are no more responsible for it than they are. I know that’s easy to say— and hard to mean. I know.”
“More than most would,” he agreed.
“Rest now. You can do no more than you have for them.”
He nodded. She looked at him expectantly as he stood there and then flushed with a start. “Oh,” she stammered, “I’ll go if— I’ll be in the vestibule. There are linens over—”
She pointed to a neat pile of cloth on a nearby bench and he caught her fingers. They were so much warmer than his chilled ones. She noticed and tried to enclose his hand with her other, faltering when she realized she could not. Instead, she pulled his hand to her face, using her breath to thaw his fingers.
“Stay,” he said. “I need to stabilize the anchor—”
“Stop. Rest. There is nothing that needs doing. The anchor will be fine another hour. Another day.”
“No, it was already more intense than I expected this morning.”
She shook her head and let go of his hand, reaching instead for the heavy buckle of his bracer. He tried another tack as she worked the leather straps loose.
“If I stabilize it, the excess energy may— help.”
She looked up at him, alarmed.
“I am so tired, Vhenan,” he admitted. “It has been— a harrowing day. And there is more work to be done yet in the Fade.”
“If it will aid you, then of course,” she said, but the worry didn’t fade from her face. He twisted the bracer loose and it dropped, clattering to the stone floor. He slid his fingers beneath the collar of her tunic to grip her shoulder. She shivered, but remained still. She pretended it was manageable, but he felt her loosen under his hand as the anchor drained. I should not have left it so long. “Stay,” he repeated as he released her. “Please. You claimed I did not need you in the crossroads. Because I— found no difficulty destroying our enemies. As if the only value I could see in you were in battle.”
“I did not mean it. Not that way. And I didn’t mean for you to carry it as a hurt all this time. Ir—”
He stopped the apology, pulled it from her mouth into his, where he thought it ought to be. “I need your voice, your sanity,” he told her as he pulled away. “Especially now. It was— is a small distance to fall into cruelty. At the crossroads and here. It is too easy to lash out when things— deviate. It’s not your lightning or your barriers I require any longer. It’s your kindness. For all their willingness to join me— there is no elf here who would comfort me this way. A bath, a fire, a soothing story. You, alone, would know how badly I needed them. Stay, talk to me. Give me a good dream, Vhenan. Ar nuven’in ma.”
Her hand slid over his cheek, his jaw. “And here I am,” she said. “Do not fret. I only meant to give you some privacy. I will stay, if you wish.” Her hand returned to his other bracer, tugging and then loosening. She laid it aside with more care than he had shown its brother.
Solas felt a pang of guilt at that. The armor had been a mighty labor. Something his people had given him to protect himself. He ought to have—
“Where ever you’ve gone,” she said quietly, “return and help me with this chest plate. I cannot lift it with one hand.”
She pulled off one heavy pauldron and struggled to lay it on the floor without dropping it. He unbuckled the other, but she stopped him. “The chest plate, I said,” she told him. “I can do the rest.”
“You don’t need—”
“I wish to,” she insisted, pulling the other pauldron off. He freed himself from the chest piece, sighing as the weight on his back lessened considerably. And then the thin, flexible chain beneath, jingling as she laid it on the stone.
“It is strong armor,” she said, kneeling at his feet. “It comforts me to know you are so protected. Even if it seems I am disassembling a golem to find you beneath it.”
“There was a time I wore armor like this every day for a century. I find myself unaccustomed to the weight now.” He slid his foot out of its sabaton, bracing himself against her shoulder and then caressing her hair before she could move to the next. “I am— always glad to shed it.” It was a delicate thing, skating around the enormous task that would soon be upon them. A dangerous thing, mentioning it. He feared the grief of it would crush him. Harden your heart, he told himself. She does not weep. It would only frighten her to see you do so. His other foot released and she rose again to help him with his greaves, noticed the strain on his face.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, trying to alter his thoughts before they could settle, like sediment, into stone.
“I am certain you’ve eaten less than I,” he answered, gently pushing her hand from the stubborn clasps to unhook them himself. “I should have thought of it before I went to the training yard. I did not mean to be gone so long. And the veilfire lamp—” He turned to look for it, expecting it dark on the large table. But it glowed brightly in its normal place.
“Abelas came looking for you. He was angry, but would not say why. He lit the lamp for me and— went away again.”
He closed his eyes, just for a moment, rubbed again at the back of his neck where the ache and the grief pulsed and swelled. “Deserters. He was coming to tell me of deserters. As if the fools could escape the Blight just by leaving Arlathan. And now I must hunt them. Persuade them to return or—”
She pressed her hand tight to his chest. He could feel his own pulse against it. “Leave it, just for now,” she pleaded.
He returned to the last clasps of his armor. “I am— not certain that I can,” he admitted.
“You could let them go.” She helped him slide the right cuisse from his leg.
He forced a weak smile. “You have been speaking to Cole. I cannot, my love. Even if they mean only to save their own skin and not to fight us, they know too much about us. In the wrong hands, that information could be deadly to far more than just the small number of deserters. This is not the Inquisition. It is not the loss of fighters that concerns me. I will be swift and make it as painless as possible.”
She stripped the other cuisse from him, left him standing in thin cloth only. No more metal to carry around. “They are frightened, Solas. Their deaths won’t help you, it will only frighten more into leaving.”
He drew closer to her, traced the green threads of the anchor across her cheek and over her throat with his fingers. “Ma halani, Vhenan, what would you do? When you must protect your people, what course would you take with those who betray them?”
“You made them forget once. The way back to Skyhold. The trap you’d worked to build together. Could you not— just leave them? Take the memory of Arlathan from them and let them go to take what time is left and live in peaceful obliviousness. They are already broken. What use is there in forcing them to return? They would only seek another way out in time. And there is so little remaining.”
It was something he hadn’t considered. He laughed softly. “I am a fool. I should believe you when you tell me there is another option that I cannot see, for you always show me. Ma serannas, fanor. How can you think I do not need you?”
She smiled and he felt as if the armor had dropped away all over again, the weight of the day vanishing. “I think what you need is some rest. And something to eat. You are not a fool. Just exhausted.” She tugged at the sleeve of his shirt. “Give me an hour of your thoughts. Only an hour. I cannot heal you with a spell, but perhaps I may find another way.”
He pulled his shirt from his back, reached for the lacings of hers. She laughed even as he kissed the corner of her jaw. “There is not room enough in the tub for two,” she warned him.
“There is not room enough in an hour to hold all my thoughts of you, either,” he said into the humid skin of her neck, “But I make the attempt anyhow.”
Her mouth was soft against his earlobe, his jaw, his own lips. “The hour was not all I wanted,” she said. “Only what I dared ask for.”
“Be brave,” he told her, his hands already sliding over the warm skin of her back below the loose tunic. “Ask for more.”
Her hand pressed gently at his temple, rubbed soothing circles over the skin of his head, lessening the ache. “It isn’t my turn to ask,” she whispered. “I am meant to be cheering you, remember?”
“Then let me. The bath will be cold.”
He reluctantly slid away from her, sinking into a seat on the warm floor to unthread the wrappings over his feet. She knelt beside him and began on the other foot.
“I saw you today, as a boy. In a scrap of veilfire.”
“Me?” he asked. “I doubt it was me. Slaves did not merit tomes in the vir’dirthara. And though I was young at the point I was freed, I could not have been called a boy, even by the standards of the era. It must have been a noble’s child you saw.”
She smiled, shook her head. “It was you. I would know your face anywhere, even colored by another’s memory of you. You still had the vallaslin. But you were very happy. I think— I think you might have stolen a sweet. Someone has been leaving veilfire for you on the temple walls.”
“Stolen a—” a laugh burst from him when he realized who had left it. “Vhemanen. I rather think she left those for you. She kept expecting you to return here. A chance to show you who I was, once.”
She let the cloth strip go to curl her fingers into his own. “I am grateful to her then.” She returned to his footwrapping. “For the recipe, too. She seemed to think it was your favorite. I am no chef. You will have to forgive me if they do not taste the same.”
She rose, offering her hand to help him rise. “I am no chef either,” he said, “That’s why I resorted to stealing them.”
“Oh? It wasn’t the added danger that added a sweeter flavor then?”
He smiled, but it withered. “If it were the danger, then the ones you’ve made now will be far superior to the ones I took as a boy.”
“No,” she whispered, her hand tightening in his. “None of that, now. An hour, Solas. Let us have a good dream, just for an hour.”
He nodded and she drifted away, letting him finish undressing while she clinked tableware across the room.
He slid into the deep tub and found it still pleasantly warm. When had he last bathed in heated water? A hasty scrub in the temple’s stone basins was his usual habit. He’d only heated them once in a while for Vhemanen’s sake, when her joints pained her. Summer, he guessed, when the small pools around the valley had warmed in the sun. I should warm them for her. She may be willing to bathe in the frozen Minanter, but I cannot imagine it is comfortable. Vhemanen, at least had the ability to heat them herself. It didn’t require large bundles of firewood and several heavy buckets carried up stairs. He watched the Inquisitor carefully carry a small tray to the tub. Is it safe? he wondered. Would it cause the anchor to grow if I heated the water?
“Why are you frowning?” she asked, placing the tray on a low table beside him. “It’s gone cold, hasn’t it?” she asked, thrusting her hand into the water.
“No,” he laughed, “I was only wondering if I could return the favor or if there would be residual magic in the bath water if I—”
She flicked a few drops of water at him from the tips of her fingers. “You sound like Dorian. I am content with cool bath water if it means I have a little more…” she trailed off. “Besides,” she began again brightly, “I know that seven buckets only take an hour to heat over the fire now, should I wish to do that.”
“Tomorrow, I will carry the buckets. But in the meantime, we should not waste your labour. Join me?” He held out a hand to her. She laughed and took his hand bending to kiss him.
“Maybe,” she said against his lips. He pulled gently on her arm and she relented, climbing into the warm water. Her shirt puffed as it filled with air and then clung, all of her outlined in green tracings that shone through the cotton. Water dripped over the edge of the tub, splashing on the tile with a patter.
“I thought you were going to get undressed first,” he said as she settled over him.
“Is that all you wish?” she asked, reaching for the cup from the table beside her. She took a drink and then offered it to him. The light scent of cider met him.
“No,” he raised the cup to his mouth. “But it is all I dare to ask for.” He watched her laugh and flush.
“Be brave,” she told him, “Ask for more.”
He placed the cup down and pulled her closer, his wet hand soaking through the small section of her shirt that was not already damp. “How could I ask for more, when you already give me so much? No other would care to hear my fears. No other wants to see when I am hurt or tired. When I am not invincible. It would— frighten them. No one but you wishes to give the Dread Wolf a good dream.”
She blinked back a few bright tears. “It isn’t enough—”
“It is, it is. More than I dared to ask.”
“I wanted to press a whole life’s worth of love into the time we have left, the few days that remain. I don’t know how, Solas.”
“I know no more than you, though I have had many lifetimes to manage it. You cannot force a limitless thing into a finite container, no matter how large the container might be.” He loosened the collar of her shirt, the laces floating on the surface of the water. He kissed her marked shoulder where it tangled in vines of light. She wrapped an arm around him and her hand dripped warm droplets down his back. “But I will attempt to, anyhow. My hour is not yet spent. Ar nuven’in ma.”