And the Stuffed Bird Laughed
Skyhold stood amidst the peaks of the Frostback Mountains, a climb made no easy trek due to the constant flurries of Winter’s breath and the ice within her bones. Where snow collected at the soles of soldiers’ boots, covered the land in a soft white broken only in places by the evergreens and brush of a long forgotten summer. The trees bowed with the weight of the snow, looming over the expanse of Winter like silent sentinels. Every now and again a clump of snow would come tumbling down between their branches and shower the walkways in crystal like rain mixed with green needles.
The boundaries of the fortress rose before them. A building of grandeur, as much a part of its environment as it was separate. Stilettos of silver ice clung to the parapets, veins of winter’s exhale slithered between the cracks in stone and blossomed beautiful spirals over the woodwork of the citadel gates. For years Skyhold had been lost to the Morgana of the horizon, a shadow in the cliffs, ever present, but out of sight, like a distant star. Sheer luck had cleared the Inquisition’s path to her hold after misfortune burned upon the grounds of Haven. From fire and blood they climbed and sought shelter in the furthest of Winter’s reach. And it was here their Inquisition flourished, combatted the rot that strangled the lands and fought back the darkness that drove it. Still though, in every victory they found defeat, one step forward was never enough to make up for their stumble, or the victory of another.
Despite Inquisitor Trevelyan’s best efforts, there was little he could do to quell the hostility between Kingdoms and Circles. Corypheus was certainly enemy number one, but he wasn’t the only enemy. People continued to squabble amongst themselves, as one war broke out, several more rose alongside them. Corypheus – he was simply the catalyst to all their petty hatreds.
And the Grey Warden had done nothing to aid its end. Scouts had been sent in her wake, following the breadcrumbs of long cold campfires and bedrolls. But Thedas seemed to swallow her memory, hiding her away with all the other elven ruins of the past, a memory mixed of victory and horror.
It was a long shot, they always knew that, but still many within the halls of the Inquisition’s battlements hoped the Hero of old might one day find her way to them, to lead their war against the Breach - against Corypheus.
Others had given up such fantastical dreams for their cold reality. There were no more heroes, just people fighting for their right to the live beyond demons and darkspawn, fighting on faith and for faith. Because it was all they had left.
The scouts came home.
The letters stopped.
And people forgot to remember.
Which was probably for the best, because things had changed. And so had she.
Warden Voss shivered to the cold, pulling her furs tighter to her. She had done this trek before, a much longer time ago when she wasn’t so tired, so alone, and so hurt.
The Inquisition Templars That had found her were decent enough company, if you liked curt conversations and bitter looks. It wasn’t that they didn’t like her, it was simply that they were Templars. And that’s how Templars were.
“The gates are just a bit further, Lady Lavellan,” Sir Armont said above the howl of mountain winds.
Voss couldn’t bear the cold, tucking her chin deeper into the black wolf fur hung about her shoulders, she nodded as best she could to it’s bow.
She hadn’t told them her name and didn’t intend to. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Lavellan worked for now.
“What happened in Haven?” She asked.
“What?” Sir Armont replied.
“Haven,” she repeated, combatting the winds, “What happened?”
“Not sure. There’s talk of a new Blight, they say an Archdemon fell in upon the town and burned it down. I didn’t see it myself, was too busy helping the people out and up the mountain. But I saw the Templars and mages, corrupted by red lyrium. Same as you.” He eyed her from between the company of snow powdered men, “To be honest, when the Inquisitor sent us back to look for survivors, I don’t think any of us expected to bring anyone back. Yet here you are... with three others,” his eyes passed her and softened on the injured men and women that dragged a bit in their tiredness, aided by the shoulders of the other Templars, unable to hear their conversation from the rear.
“Flissa says she saw you fighting off the remaining forces of Corypheus’s army...alone. She’s a bit delirious from her injuries and the cold, but still,” his pause accentuated by the crunch of his boots in the mountain drifts, “I’d be interested to hear of how you were able to rescue them. As I’m sure all of Skyhold would.”
Voss’s red eyes shifted, a quiet mirrored stone, friendly but impassive, unwanting to oblige in his interest, knowing he already suspected her of something. He just didn’t have a name for it yet, and she wasn’t about to give him one.
“Maybe later,” he replied, “when you’re feeling better.”
“Sure,” Voss lied.
And though he heard it in her voice, was kind enough not to mention it.
“You make this trek every day?” Voss asked.
“Most days when we patrol, yes.”
“Can’t be worth it.”
“We found you.”
Voss smiled sadly, “I suppose you did.”
Their march came to a halt as they approached Skyhold’s gate, still shut to the world outside where obscured figures moved about behind its defense. Snow swirled the air, a dry breath that stung the lungs and escaped on dragon’s steam. It brought with it the smell of pine and the undertone of a fire’s ember, a sweetness burned around its edges and music danced in its ear. Drinks bought on a victory’s coin gave voice to the revelries that gamboled with song, the soft strums of a lute, voice of silk, howls of rejoinder that dictated tales of battle that would become legends in their own lives. All of it drifted through that closed gate and offered a sense of welcome to a most waried guest.
“Open the gates,” ordered Sir Armont.
“Who goes?” asked a timid voice.
“Sir Armont, Breckenridge, Dalton and four survivors of Haven.”
A pause and then, a heavy ‘clunk,’ the grind of link of link, as chains curled about the wheel that drove the fortification. It was a slow process as the timber block postern rose to grant the group entrance to the winter castle.
“Sir Armont,” a young scout greeted them at the gate. She was a petite woman with a short mess of golden hair. It was obvious by her demeanor, the nervous inclination of gaze, the uneasy bend to her knees, that she was new, not just to Skyhold, but to the Inquisition. More than likely a farmhand seeking to better aid her Realm, or perhaps, just another someone with nowhere to go. Her fingers still grasped at the gate-helm, allowing the troop to fully pass beneath her guard before allowing the gate to release. “Acker said he saw you coming up the mountain, you’re a day early. We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow evening. I’ve already sent word to the Knight Commander of your arrival.”
“Is this them?” asked the scout.
“I’ll have some men escort them to the surgeon’s tents and get them fixed up,” the scout gestured to her companions who were quick to swoop in and relieve the Templars.
“What was it like?” She asked “Haven.”
“What matters is we found them,” Sir Armont said dismissively. Battlefields were horrors of their own, but the way the mountain tried to hide its past beneath a fresh blanket of snow was an unsettling false comfort. You could still see the bones of charred buildings peeking through the drifts, abandoned trebuchets gathering snowfall like awkward trees, and the small hills below it all, small hills that hid the crumpled forms of bodies, frozen blue and black.
There was a complete absence of sound there, not even the winds howl seem to reach the valley that hid Haven among the mountains.
Sir Armont had seen many battles, had killed many men and many women, but hadn’t ever seen Thedas try so hard to cover its own horrors in the swallow of its Earth. Like such things weren’t meant to be remembered.
He felt sorry for them all.
And for himself he felt guilt, unable to recall the faces they had lost; and he wouldn’t remember them like that, nor would he let anyone else.
“Sorry,” she winced, “I didn’t mean...I’m...glad you all made it back,” she turned her attention to Voss, “Virion,” she introduced, “forward scout to the Inquisition, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Everyone’s talking about you, you know. After the report Sir Armont sent, everyone’s dying to know how you fought off those Red Templars.”
“Virion,” Sir Armont warned.
“Right, sorry, maybe later. Let’s get those wounds looked at.”
“It’s quite alright. I’ll be fine,” Voss assured.
“They look really bad,” said Virion.
“I’ve been worse,” it was true, she had certainly been worse, but that didn’t expel the hurt she felt every time she took a step or even a breath. So bad it had gotten that she had become more careful, taking shallow breaths and awkward steps.
Sir Armont had noticed on their climb, but never voiced his concern that she might not make it. He had to try, for any other spirit was sure to dash away what remained of hope.
Now that they had made it he was serious when he said “This is worse.”
Voss looked to him with eyes too tired to fight, only pleading for something he couldn’t understand she feared.
“Go with Virion.”
“Alright,” She relented.
“You’ll be alright,” Sir Armont assured the fears he could not know, “you’re safe here.”
Voss nodded and followed after Virion, still clutching to her furs.
“Ah, you’re back.” The voice was a familiar memory, aged like wine, and almost forgotten to the locked cellar of an era long ago. It pierced through the stir of the afternoon’s excitement, warm and inviting, even among these mountain peaks. Warden Voss looked back over the scouts and in their parting, glimpsed Skyhold’s Commanding Knight Officer.
“Commander Cullen,” Sir Armont gave a slight bow of the head in greeting.
Winter frosted feathered half cloak, a blue sunlight catching on what glimpses of armor shown beneath the wraps and tabards of a lost order. The Commander was young by any standard, yet experience showed in every manner of posture and carry. He had the air of a King, and the modesty of a commoner. He bore the scars of past battles, victories and loss, his eyes burned with the passion of a summer morning’s sun and he smiled with its every warmth.
“That’s the Knight Commander,” Virion said as she ushered Voss away, “I’m sure he’ll want to talk to you later. Don’t worry, he’s a really nice guy. Too nice for a Templar if you ask me,” she chuckled.
Voss could hear the quiet fantasies Virion held of him in the way she sighed.
“The surgeons are right down this way,” she said pointing to the stone steps, “I’ll help you down.”
Behind them, Commander Cullen spoke with Sir Armont.
“We are all eager to hear your report from Haven, it’s about time we’ve heard some good news,” said Commander Cullen, “is that her?”
“Yes,” Sir Armont said, “Not one of ours. She said she was visiting Haven to inquire about the Inquisition when she found the Red Templars.”
“She looks familiar,” Commander Cullen mused, not getting a clear look at the dark skinned elf, “What’s her name?”
“She calls herself Lavellan. Hasn’t been very talkative, I think she’s nervous.”
“She did just stave off the remaining insurgence of Corypheus’s army - alone. I wouldn’t expect anyone to be OK after that. She’s probably scared to death.”
“I agree,” the two crossed the grand courtyard. Drunken revelries sung out the open tavern windows, Orlesian nobility ambled about the grounds, pish poshing one another about this or that while scouts made their rounds with letters, crows, and determination. “But that wasn’t it. She wasn’t fighting for her life, she was fighting for theirs. Not reckless, but determined. She’s trained. I thought at first, maybe a Crow, she’s Antivan after all, had the style of an assassin about her. But the way she held her blades,” he trailed off recalling the deftness of her skill, “Mages have this way with magic, they’re very light - fluid with everything they do. Different from a rogue. I think she might be an apostate.” He exhaled a frosty breath, “She barely spoke the whole way back to Skyhold. I tried to explain to her that though the Inquisition had allied alongside the Order, mages were still welcome to join. They’d receive no punishment or ridicule, but I don’t think that coming from a Templar is very comforting. Perhaps Solas could speak to her or one of the other Mages.”
“I’ll look into it,” Commander Cullen said.
Their conversation continued like that, all the way up the stairs and into the great halls of Skyhold, while below its cast the surgeons worked diligently.
“You seem awful fond of him,” Voss said to Virion.
“Who? Oh. The Knight Commander?” She feigned a dismissive laugh, “No not at all. Besides he’s the Knight Commander, he wouldn’t be interested in someone like me. Maybe Cassandra or one of the other Knights, but not me. Here we are, they’ll take good care of you, Lady Lavellan.”
Voss nodded as she was traded off once more, this time into the hands of a Chantry woman.
She was gentle and soft spoken, her apron covered in dirt and blood, a hard day dressed upon her. She gestured to an empty tent and offered a standing cot to Voss, apologizing for the state of its bedding.
The sun peeked through grey clouds and rained arrows of golden light down upon Skyhold. For a minute Voss could almost imagine spring as she laid back on the tanned canvas cot, her eyes tired, bones aching, giving in to what sliver of warmth dared betray Winter’s embrace. She could feel the weight of her journey sink down into the fabric, no longer burdened on her shoulders. She felt so much heavier, in so many different ways and none of them quite like what it had been. Her injuries were a dull burn, masked by too many sleepless nights, now threatening every blink, where the Fade tugged at her shirt sleeves and Called her name.
She couldn’t help it any longer, drifting - for just a minute as the Chantry woman’s hands gently tested each wound.
“You didn’t want him to see your face.” The voice was unsure of itself, curious and prodding and not belonging of the woman who touched her skin, “Why didn’t you want him to see your face?”
Voss let out a slow breath, full of sleep, and opened her eyes. “Oh,” She recognized him for what he was, a spirit, and did not worry for his presence.
“She can’t hear me,” he said with a look towards the Chantry woman, “She doesn’t know I am here.”
“Let’s see,” Voss said, “You must be Despair…”
“No,” he shook his head, the unfit hat with the floppy brim atop his head bounced with every motion, “My name’s Cole.”
“That’s certainly new. Hi Cole, I’m -”
“- Frightened inside. Scared. Of so many things. Of being yourself.”
“Yeah,” said Voss, “Yeah, that’s about right. But Lavellan is shorter, and easier to say.”
“But...That’s not your name...Your name...Is that why you hide your face? Hide your face from the Commander, Commander Cullen, he knows you? You were friends? But - why wouldn’t you want him to see you?”
“I wasn’t a very good friend,” Voss said, wincing as she shifted just enough to look at him.
“How can friends be bad?” he questioned.
“By doing bad things.”
“Lying. Leaving. Harming. People. Yourself. They want to know where you’ve gone. Your friends worry. People need you. They are scared. Just like you. Maybe...they will understand.”
“It’s not that easy Cole. Maker I wish it were, otherwise I would have come back a long time ago.”
“But it is that easy,” he said, “You’re here now.”
“That’s the second time I’ve heard that today,” she said with a small laugh, “so it must be true.”
“Because it’s true.”
Cole chuckled with her, but still didn’t quite understand why such things were funny.
Neither did Warden Voss.
And the Stuffed Bird Laughed
Cole had stayed with her longer than she could remember, two days (when he could find the time of course), which was impressive - that she remembered anything at all - most people couldn't. He was an exception from the Realm, someone even Thedas couldn't remember, no matter how many times he invited himself through the lace veined tears in her veil. It was an empty form of living, but living nonetheless and he rather enjoyed Voss's company.
When she was lucid enough between black dreams and lingering pain, she would talk to him - about many things, none of which really mattered at all in the grand scheme of things, but were so very important in the now.
Things like Sten, and Zevran. Small details, nothing about the Blight. How the Qunari would pick flowers when she wasn't looking, how Zevran would play his lute at night with Leliana - stories that made her smile, and because she smiled, so did Cole, even if he didn't know why.
She talked about her Mabari too. Voss had told Cole his name and had this look about her that said - you should laugh. He wasn't certain what was so funny about the dog's name, but Voss had repeated it three times to him, "Barkspawn," each with added inflection like that might edge his understanding along.
"Oh," he finally exclaimed, "like Darkspawn. But Bark...because he was a dog. It's a joke. I get it."
"Yeah," Voss said with amused disappointment, "but...when you say it like that, it's not really funny."
"I'm sorry," Cole apologized, "I'm still getting used to ... humor. Everyone is different. They joke different. Laugh different. Like music, but you...you're different, you sound like marble... You miss him."
"I do. He was a good dog."
She was glad for his company and his prying, no matter the memory it was better than the dreams that Called her name. Cole was an empty dream dressed in memories.
Not all of them were bad.
There was a silence between them, not loud, but soft. Sharing her space with him was comfortable, despite how close he liked to sit near her, how deeply he leaned in when he spoke. His boundaries were far more thin than most people found comfort in and Voss was sure he had to have upset plenty of people with his closeness before. Except maybe some Dwarves. They weren't much for space, always speaking to you within the breadth of a nose. Voss always found that a little more awkward, given the height difference, not wanting to look down upon an angry Blacksmith, but having to because she was just a bit too tall. Cole was just the right height, even if he did bend and hunch nervously almost all the time.
"The Chantry woman says you'll be fine," he said after a long moment, "Cullen wants to see you. To talk to you. He wants to know."
"You're nervous. You shouldn't be nervous."
"Shouldn't be a lot of things," she groaned as she sat up. Her whole body cried out in pain, aching deep to its core in places she'd never ached before, in muscles she didn't know she had, and wounds she had yet to heal. She shouldn't have pushed herself so much in Haven, she thought. Even though Corypheus's men still lingered on in the ruin, they were just as hurt and tired as any other war torn soldier. Men were still men, even beneath the Lyrium. And war was still war.
Why did she have to go and be some kind of -
"Hero," Cole finished.
"We're going to have to work on your people skills," she pointed out, "you can't just say everything that pops into our minds. You'll get someone in trouble. Probably me."
"Why would you be in trouble for that? You saved them."
"Like I said before, it's complicated."
"You wanted them to die?"
"No, that's not it at all," Voss said quickly, "I don't want to stand out, you stand out too much, people notice, they want to know who you are - why you are. I don't need people digging up the past, and I especially don't need them calling me a Hero again. They do that, they have expectations - things I can't live up to anymore."
"You're lying," Cole said without accusation, but in fact. "You're afraid of them, but - you're more afraid for them. You want to help them, that's why you're here, even if it means they know. Even if it means you stand out," he said, "I was afraid too. People called me a demon, some of them wanted to banish me...to kill me...and even though - even though they said these things, I still help them, because they need that more than I need to be sorry."
"You're pretty smart you know," Voss said with a smirk.
"Thank you," said Cole, "I like talking to you," he added, "You're nice."
"I like talking to you too, Cole."
His gaze lingered for a moment before shifting, he turned to look to the tent's entrance and within the motion had disappeared completely, leaving Voss with a strange and dizzying feeling.
"She's just in here, Knight Commander," Mother Giselle's voice was soft, yet still managed to carry on through the camps between the idle rabble. "She is still healing," she warned, "so be gentle."
Mother Giselle pulled back the tent flap, "Lady Lavellan," she said, "You have a visitor."
"I'm sorry to intrude," he said with a polite bow of the head, "I heard you were doing better and I thought I might check in on you. And maybe," he took a deep breath, "talk about Haven."
Voss had been quick to pull the scratchy field blanket up to her nose, half fighting the cold and half fighting recognition. Commander Cullen hadn't made any inclinations to her identity, nor did he make any motion to come in any closer than the threshold of the tent flaps until he had finally asked, "May I come in?"
"If you need anything," Mother Giselle said, "I will be helping the others just outside," she smiled warmly and released the tent fold.
Commander Cullen moved to her bedside, his boots heavy in the dirt, the leather creaking with every step that creased at his ankles. He stood by her bedside, hands folded into themselves, scarred leather gloves and dusted metal vambraces, things that had seen plenty war.
"The people you saved have been telling some ... rather fantastical stories about you," he chuckled, "They said you killed at least thirteen Red Templars before my officers made it down the mountain. I don't know if I believe that," he said with an amused quirk of the brow, "Sir Armont's report was a little more...realistic. He says when he found you, you were fighting off only two, fully armored though, with nothing but a pair of Antivan daggers. He thought you might be a Crow," he did not mention Sir Armont's suspicions, "but I inquired with our Spymaster. She's never heard of anyone by the name Lavellan before. So," he opened his hands, "you're either a very good assassin, or a very good liar. Either way, you saved our people. The Inquisition owes you a debt of gratitude. So...thank you."
"Would have been kind of fucked up to let them die," said Voss, "anyone else would have done the same."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Commander Cullen said, "bandits and thieves are one thing, but most people aren't prepared to fight a group of Templars, even without the Red Lyrium."
"Where did they come from?"
"He calls himself Corypheus," said Commander Cullen, "A former Tevinter Magister, he's been infiltrating the Orders of Thedas, corrupting Templars and Mages with Red Lyrium. We were forced to retreat to Skyhold when his army found us in Haven, we weren't prepared to fight him at our gates. We lost a lot of good men," he said mournfully.
"I'm sorry," Voss said.
"If I can ask," Commander Cullen started, "How did you survive?"
"Through quick wit and talent of course," said Voss with a dry sort of humor.
There was a pause, "You sound familiar," Commander Cullen said, "Have we met before?"
"It's possible," Voss said, "My father always said I had a voice fit for the Chantry."
He squinted at her and shifted his weight from this foot to that, the sound of her voice playing over and over again until he finally heard it - there in a memory from long, long ago. "You've said that to me before, didn't you," he started carefully, ever so slowly piecing her together, "in the Circle...nine years ago."
Voss winced, as if deflecting the pain of his remembrance.
"Where have you been?" There was a quiet control to his voice, but the cracks were evident in the sparks that flashed within his eyes, the way he tightened his knuckles, the leather of his gloves creaking against them, "The entire Realm was looking for you! You just - vanished!"
"It wasn't my choice," Voss explained.
"Of course it was," Commander Cullen snapped, "it was always your choice." There was restraint in his voice as he kept his temper low, "We sent letters, scouts - we followed the trail of your Wardens. You knew we were looking for you. And you just - ignored us? Why?"
"Because you needed a leader to the Inquisition - and that wasn't me," she said, "I'm not the Hero of Ferelden, that person only existed at the Battle of Denerim. That's the person people are looking for - not Warden Voss. Warden Voss exonerated a traitor, sympathized with a blood mage, killed a nobleman-"
"So, that's it?" Asked Commander Cullen, "You've been moping around Thedas feeling sorry for yourself? Maker, you have a duty to these people! You can't just abandon them!"
Voss glared, "I didn't," she retorted.
"You're right," he said with narrowed eyes, "you let them down."
Voss exhaled a breath through her nose and for a moment the two remained in strained silence.
She reigned in the emotion that shook her voice, "I have heard the stories of your Herald of Andraste - and what he's done for Thedas. He's a good leader," she looked up, "I can't replace him, I don't think anyone can, but, I want to join the Inquisition. Not as Warden Voss, but as Lavellan."
"I won't protect you if they find out," he said.
"I know," said Voss, "I wouldn't ask you to."
"I am…" the tension in Commander Cullen's shoulders eased, his features softened and he almost smiled, "glad to see you again. Even if it is like this."
"Me too," Voss said, "I'm sorry."
"I know," he made his way to the tent fold. He paused there for a moment, just a little too long, "If it's any consolation," he said, "I think you made the right choice."
And in the parting of his company - she remembered Loghain.
And the Stuffed Bird Laughed
Cullen felt the weight upon his shoulders get just a bit more heavy. He put a hand to his eyes, fingers pressing to his temples as if it would stay the well of memories and frustration that swirled within. He could see her face there within the waters, a reflection so unlike her.
“What happened to you,” he muttered.
It had never been like Voss to cheat the realm of a future, she had always been resilient to the cold, uncaring world of Thedas, never flinching beneath the scrutiny of the Lands, the Alienage, the Circle, or the people that ruled over them. She was truthful in respect, at least to what she had done, the decisions she’d made in her campaign against the Blight, but this was the first time it ever seemed to weigh on her; And the fear he saw deep within her eyes, he couldn’t be certain is was meant for them - or something else entirely.
“Are you alright, Knight Commander,” Mother Giselle asked.
He dropped the shield of his hand from his eyes and smiled, “Oh, yes,” he said, “Just a headache,” he lied.
“You work too much,” Mother Giselle said, “you need some time to relax.”
“I can’t afford to take days off, not after what happened” he said. It wasn’t the first time anyone had said this to him and he knew it wouldn’t be the last. But it was true, as long as Corypheus’s armies remained stable, as long as the reports of Red Templars still made their way to the war room, the Knight Commander couldn’t afford the luxury of a day off.
“What happened in Haven was a tragedy,” said Mother Giselle, “we lost many people, but - we saved many too. Don’t forget that.”
“You’re right,” said Cullen.
They were both quiet, only briefly, before Cullen spoke once more, “How are the others doing?”
“A few cuts and scrapes, some minor burns, but nothing we couldn’t handle,” said Mother Giselle, “Flissa has already returned to work according to the complaints from Cabot. And Braddock and Hanley volunteered with Harritt until they can return to the training grounds. A few more days and they’ll be fine. The young elven woman was the only exception, her injuries were quite severe. I have never seen anything quite like it, Knight Commander, I am honestly surprised she had made it up to Skyhold on her own two feet. The Maker must truly smile upon her.”
“What do you mean?” Cullen asked.
“When we were curing her wounds we noticed some minor veining from the Red Lyrium, nothing debilitating, we were able to clear it from her system, but” there was an uncertain edge to the Revered Mother’s voice as her eyes lingered past to Voss’s tent. “She lost a lot of blood from her injuries in Haven, Commander. Too much blood,” and added quite seriously, “She should be dead.”
“Then I suppose we should thank the Maker for her recovery,” said Cullen, a dryness touched to his tongue, just subtle enough that the Revered Mother didn’t hear.
She nodded, “Yes, I believe we should.”
“If it would be alright with you,” he said, “I am going to have Warden Blackwall keep an eye on her.”
She didn’t ask him why and he didn’t offer.
He bowed his head in thanks and crossed the medical field on determined foot.
He had trusted Warden Voss once in his life, and even though her intentions seemed honest now, he couldn’t allow himself to fall victim to her flight case again. Part of him, selfishly didn’t care for her reasons, only that she was here now, knowing that with her name alone they had a chance to sway the Order of the Grey Wardens to their cause. It could be that extra leverage they needed in the face of Corypheus’s growing domain - and he very so much wanted that edge, no matter the cost.
But that other side, that other side to him knew that no matter the horrors that breathed down their necks, he couldn’t force her to stay - or anyone for that matter. As much as her leaving would disappoint, he couldn’t stop it from happening. So he had made a decision, a quick bid at a brittle strand, that maybe if Warden Blackwall were to accompany her, to sit by her side, that maybe, just maybe, he might be able to convince her of all the things he couldn’t.
The barn wasn’t anything special, as most buildings were. Old by the weather worn about its edges, the curled red paint that laid bare the white oak that made its bones, still strong even after all these years. They had laughed about it, after Haven, how the castle lay in disarray half a ruin and yet here stood this barn, beneath thirteen inches of heavy snow, a silent sentinel, widowed to a stablehand lost many years before, who had loved that building and his work more than anything else his life.
Warden Blackwall wasn’t him, but he too had found a quiet love for that place on the outskirts of their stronghold. When the Inquisitor offered him room within the expanse of Skyhold’s castle rooms, he had said he preferred the stables. Something about the comfort of the Forders. Inquisitor Trevelyan understood - and so the barn belonged to Blackwall.
He leaned over a woodwork Gryffon, dark eyes focused to the intricate score of spiral that drew life from the cut of the small metal chisel. Every feather was an hour’s worth of patient effort and aching shoulders. His hands shook ever so slightly, a mild tremor that rendered lines a crooked notch. He held his breath and sat poised before his craft, staying the cut of his tools until his fingers found steady. It went on like this for hours and resulted in little, but beautiful, work.
“Warden Blackwall,” Cullen greeted.
“Knight Commander,” replied Blackwall.
“Do you have a minute?”
“I do,” he said, a careful roll of wood curling about the gouge.
“The woman we brought in from Haven...” he started.
“Lavellan, I’ve heard of her. Not a person in Skyhold who hasn’t by now.”
“I want you to keep an eye on her.”
“Oh?” asked Blackwall, “And why’s that?”
“I am afraid if I ask one of the Templars to do it, she’ll get spooked and run off,” he had expected Blackwall to question his motive, the Warden wasn’t blind and he certainly never played the part.
“Templars? Didn’t think she was an Apostate,” Blackwall said, wood chips and dust gathering about the fabric of his wrists, “people are saying she might be some kind of Antivan assassin, nothing about magic, though. What makes you think she’s a Mage?”
“Because when I was still serving the Order at the Circle, I was assigned to her as her Templar,” Cullen said bluntly.
“You two have history then,” it was more statement than fact.
“As much as a Templar and Mage could. I attended her classes, all her practices and her Harrowing,” said Cullen, “but she disappeared not too long after. I’m just worried.”
“You can bullshit everyone else in this camp, but you can’t bullshit me, you’re not worried. You’re afraid,” Blackwell said over the cut of his tools, “Something happened to make you afraid of her and it wasn’t the Harrowing or the Templars. So why don’t you tell me why you really want me to watch her.”
“So is everyone else in the Inquisition,” he flicked a curl of wood from his work.
“It’s complicated,” Cullen tried again.
“It always is,” said Blackwall, “that doesn’t mean we get to do what we want. I respect you, Knight Commander, I’m sure you have your reasons, but this isn’t like you.”
Cullen’s jaw tensed to the truth of his concerns, but he did not reply.
“That girl put her life on the line for three people she doesn’t even know against things that even some of our own men are too afraid to fight. Don’t diminish her actions for your fear of her ability. Far as I’m concerned, she’s a good person to have on our side,” said Blackwall, “the Circle’s already withdrawn from our aid, don’t make her our enemy too,” he stopped when his gouge slipped and cut an unattractive line through the Gryffon’s wing. He breathed slow and set his tools down in a bed of wood grain dust. “Whatever it is you’re afraid of,” his voice was a quiet sound, practiced in its advice, pointed and true, “is something I cannot prevent. I’ll watch her and give my council as a Grey Warden, but I won’t make her a prisoner for you.”
Cullen opened his mouth to protest, to give some reason to cause, but was cut short by Blackwall. It was obvious in the way he pushed out his stool, that he stood and pat the dust from his hands, that this was where the conversation - and all its excuses ended. “There’s a storage room in back I’m not using, plenty of room for a bed and chest, see if you can have some of the men bring one down for her. Nothing with hay,” he added, “got enough of it down here already.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
And the Stuffed Bird Laughed
Voss bit into the dried meat ration, savoring the salted juices that soured the back of her throat, a fist full of rye bread in the other hand, half eaten and all crumbs in the middle.
Cole watched with wide eyes, "You're eating a lot," he said.
"When did they find me?" She asked.
"Two days ago," said Cole and then added "oh," as the realization hit him that maybe two days was a very long time for someone native to the realm. He forgot, he always did, just how often people had to do things like eat, everyday, multiple times even - that was much more than he ever did. Which was never.
Voss snorted a small laugh at his recognition, "yup."
He watched her take a bite out of the bread loaf, curious to himself what it might taste like to her. It wasn't a thought most people had, or one most spirits had for that matter, bread rolls seemed very bland compared to the other colorful foods that decorated the kitchens of Thedas. And even Sera had said they were only useful for slingshots and trebuchets. But Voss seemed to enjoy them, even with the hardshell crunch.
"What's it like?"
Voss quirked a brow, "What? This?" She gestured with the bread roll, "Bread?"
Voss couldn't reign in the slack of her jaw just yet, caught off guard and unable to even begin to start to comprehend bread. She had eaten it before, so many times, but never had she stopped to think "how is the bread" or "what is bread like." It was a question saved for children and Voss had very little experience with children, save for some nightmarish jokes that Alistair had once scolded her for.
"Well it's," She tried, "it's uh," she blew a raspberry between the breath of her thoughts, trailing off in a dot-dot-dot, trying to conjure up the vocabulary that scholars saved for expressive dictions, "it's soft and spongy, bland but not unlikable, the outside," she traced a finger around the crust she had yet to bite into, "if they bake it right, is crunchy and flakes off in your mouth - that's the best part. People don't usually eat it alone, they like to dip it in their soups or cover it with butter," she explained, "You combine bread with other things and it makes it better."
She wasn't sure whether it was the deadpan delivery of those words - or their words alone that did her in, but as soon as they left Cole's lip, Voss couldn't help but laugh. Her body shook with the belly aching sobs of humor, barely still clutching the half eaten roll, the strength in her fingers waning the more she laughed. "Yes," she wheezed, "bread alchemy."
"I made a joke," pride lingered in the statement and Cole smiled at her.
"A very good one."
"I should tell Sera," Cole said cheerfully.
The two laughed around the fire pit as daylight gave way to a rainbow palette of afternoon, starlight glittering across an expanse of white snow as golden rays caught in the crystals of ice upon the parapets. Soft purples colored the skyline just below the mountain valleys, pinks peeking through on the corner of clouds signaling day's end. The fire burned so much warmer in its cold.
Cole has asked thirteen more questions about bread within that expanse of time, as colors changed so too did his interests and each question became more intricate and more different from the last. Voss struggled to answer them all, but they had a good time with it and for once neither thought about the past, or the air that hung heavily about them with all its memories weaved between.
"There you are," Blackwall's voice interrupted their company, a harsh grate, but welcoming in its tone, "not causing too much trouble are you?" He asked Cole with a point of his chin.
"No," said Cole, as if he were surprised anyone would ever think he'd cause trouble, "we were talking about bread. Did you know some people put bread in their soup?"
"I did," said Blackwall, "some people even put soup in their bread."
This fact seemed to, quite simply put, blow Cole's mind. He stared at him with a childlike gaze that begged explanation, but received none - only a wink and a smile from the man.
"Lady Lavellan, right?" He looked to Voss, who barely gave a tilt of her chin in answer, "Warden Blackwall, I'm honored to meet you." He held out a hand in greeting.
For a moment Voss looked him over, trying to figure out whether or not he just so happened to come by here on chance, or otherwise. She couldn't say she recognized him, the beard was a dead Grey Warden giveaway - they all had them. She stood up and clasped his hand, giving a firm shake that surprised him.
"Didn't expect that," he said with a chuckle.
"Didn't expect a Grey Warden," Voss replied in kind, "I have to make a good first impression, don't I?"
"I think you've already done that."
"People are still talking about that huh?" She asked, "You'd think with all the things your Inquisition has done and is doing that they'd have something else to talk about."
"Don't like the attention, huh?" Asked Blackwall.
"Not really," she shrugged, "people doing things for other people - that's how it should always be, right?"
"You remind me of someone."
"Not this again."
"Do you know Sera?"
"Oh, I thought you were going to say something else," Voss laughed nervously, "no, I don't know her."
"I'll introduce you sometime, I think you two might get along."
"Sure," Voss agreed, "is that what you came over to tell me about? Seems a little beneath Grey Warden duty, walkabouts and introductions."
"No, the Knight Commander asked me to look after you," said Blackwall.
To which Voss spat an annoyed curse.
"Yes, he will be like that. Means nothing by it, just being careful. Didn't want you to be surprised by it, no sense in that. No sense in it at all really. Mind if I sit?" He gestured with an open hand to the half split log that served as a longue around the fire.
Voss sat back down.
She felt the weight of his presence beside her as he took to the spot just next to her and continued speaking, "I don't care what you've done or what you might do," he said, "it's what you're doing that matters. The Knight Commander is always trying to think three steps ahead, not a bad thing, but it can blind a man to the present. Don't let it bother you."
Voss rose a brow and smiled, "I'm not," she said.
"Then that's a good start."
Neither had noticed Cole's absence. But no one ever did.
"So," Blackwall started once more, "tell me about yourself. How is it that you came to Haven and fought off some of Corypheus's strongest men?"
Voss shrugged, "it's nothing romantic," she said, "like anyone else in Thedas, I was looking to put my skills to use. Protect the realm and all that. I just showed up a little too late."
"I know a couple of people who'd say you got there right on time. Lavellan," he said her name as if testing its syllables, as if he weren't quite sure he were pronouncing it just right, "is that your first name?"
"Nah," Voss shook her head, "But it's easier to say," she lied.
"Fair enough," Blackwall gave a frown of acceptance and a single nod, "Where are you from?"
"Denerim," she replied.
"No shit? You don't have a Ferelden accent."
"No, I don't," she admitted with a shrug, "I spent a lot of time in Antiva. It's a good place to disappear."
"Running from something?"
"Aren't we all?"
A contemplative silence stole Blackwall's thoughts.
"What about you?" She asked.
"Me? The Free Marches."
"How long have you been a Warden?"
"Fair enough," Voss parroted, "How many of you are there?"
"Wardens? Here? Just me," said Blackwall.
"I'm sorry," said Voss.
"Don't be. What about you?" He asked, "Family? Friends?"
"Some," she said, "I don't know how many of them are still alive though. We lost touch the past couple of years and it's just ... kind of been like that. Quiet you know."
"And the Knight Commander? What's he to you?"
"He was a Templar in the Circle a few years back - when I was training to be a mage."
"Didn't like it, so I left."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that."
Blackwall chuckled, "I suppose it makes sense why you'd be laying low in Antiva. You mustn't have a lot of friends in the Templar Order, huh?"
Voss joined in his laugh, "No, I don't."
"Well you don't have to worry about that anymore," he assured her.
"My knight in shining armor," she feigned fawning.
"Nothing I could do that you couldn't," he pointed out, "besides, you're under the protection of the Inquisition now. Any of the Templars give you hassle - they have the Inquisitor to answer to."
"Oh," Voss said, "very scary," she wiggled her fingers as if to accentuate the notion.
"He can be," said Blackwall, "best to stay on his good side."
"How do I do that?"
"By not doing anything stupid."
"Seems hard," Voss joked.
"Let me tell you," said Blackwall, "it can be."
As underhanded as the move had been by Cullen, Voss couldn't help but like Blackwall. He was the wrong kind of serious, the kind who wasn't all shadows and Darkspawn. Even with the darkness in his eyes, he found new ways to joke with the world around him. Voss liked that.
"Well," she said, "I didn't come here to sit around and sew dresses."
"That's good, we need all the help we can get," said Warden Blackwall, "I took the liberty of getting you some leathers from the Blacksmith and had your daggers sharpened. Inquisitor Trevelyan has a few missions going out later today, if you're interested, you let me know. Otherwise, Mother Giselle says its best you rest up. I don't take you for that kind though," he added with a smile.
"What gave you that idea," she snorted.
"Not many people with that many scars are."
"But they are old," she pointed out, "I could be a retired Knight."
"If you were retired," said Blackwall with cheek, "then you wouldn't have been at Haven."
"Perhaps I was a reckless child," she tried again.
"Then you grew up stronger than the rest."
"I can see why they made you a Grey Warden."
"Yeah? And why's that?" asked Blackwall, "and don't say it's the beard."
"Well I mean," Voss grinned an awkward sideways grin, "that IS a dead giveaway, but no, it's the way you talk. Curt but meaningful. Some people use a lot of words to say a lot of things that mean a lot of nothing. Grey Wardens...they never do that."
"You've known many Grey Wardens have you?"
"One," lied Voss, "I'd say you remind me of him, but a ten minute conversation is only that."
Blackwall quirked an inquisitive brow, but said nothing.
"So what's the job?" She asked.
"There's been reports of Darkspawn in the Storm Coast, the Inquisitor wants me to take a team down there to check it out and possibly close off any caverns they may be using to make their way to the surface."
Voss must have made a face, because Blackwall added with a small huff of humor, "don't like Darkspawn? That's alright, you shouldn't. You can stay in camp if you like," he said, "no reason in pushing yourself if you're not able."
"No, I'm coming," she said with finality, "just show me where my gear is." She stood up and immediately regretted the pace at which she did.
Her head swam and her body swayed all to the ache and exhaustion of days passed. Blackwall was quick to stand beside her and put a hand to her elbow in an effort to help without imposing. He didn't ask if she was sure, didn't press her to stay or relax, he knew the look of her, the person she was, just by her eyes. And he wouldn't challenge that honor for anything.
When she had her footing, he removed his hand.
Neither mentioned it.
"It's not much, but I had Commander Cullen set up a room in the barn for you, we're kind of tight on space at the moment," Blackwall said.
"That's more than fine," she said as the Warden led her towards the old worn barn, "as long as I'm not sleeping in the snow, I can handle a bit of hay in my boots."
"That won't be the only place," Blackwall minded with humor.
Voss cringed outwardly and the two of them chuckled together.
And The Stuffed Bird Laughed
Lightning cracked the sky. Pretty blue veins that pulsed through black clouds and came crashing down somewhere far along the horizon deep. The coasts illuminated in graphic shadows beneath its flare, a blackness so sharp it could cut stone.
This is an unkind place, Voss thought to herself, beautiful yet hateful.
The ocean threw itself at the rocks and pulled viciously at the sands. Even just at her toes she could feel it’s strength fighting to draw her back into that big empty where she might be lost forever in its storm.
How many stories had she heard sung on minstrel strings of ships lost at sea what come together to meet like lovers. Romantic, they called it, and dressed it all in pretty blue frills and lace beneath a sunset rainbow.
Voss, had never seen the ocean and as such, never truly knew those songs. The ocean as much a fantasy as a fairy grove circled by Magnolia trees, all bloomed in colors.
But there was no color here on the Storm Coast, only empty grey. The sands were grey, just like the rocks speckled within, just like the shells that washed ashore, just like the badge she wore upon her namesake. Everything was washed in a salt laden filtered depression, swallowed whole where nothing remained outside the sand beneath your boots and the knowing that certainly - certainly if one were to jump into those waters that they would catch you and you wouldn’t simply fall into nothingness.
Nothingness was cold, like daggers to the skin.
And it was sinister and loud.
She stood at the coast watching it all roll in under her boots.
It had been several days travel to the Storm Coast and the company was interesting to say the least, each prodding one another in the comfort of family, unsure of how else they might politely introduce themselves to Voss. Playful insults and friendly jabs, each one trying to embarrass the next and enjoying the smiles and eye rolls Voss offered in return. They never spoke about Haven, not after the first hour of travel and they never got too personal, they were all names and needles.
Lavellan, Blackwall, The Iron Bull, and Solas.
Solas, was the only one who seemed a little less infatuated with the game of mocking and was quite curt when conversation directed its arrow back to him.
“Can we please stay on task,” he would say, or some iteration thereof.
And in response, they never did.
Now though, as Voss stared out into the great expanse and wondered about the horizon, the group had finally fallen into itself to discuss their investigations.
A rumble of thunder rolled overhead, three more flashes of lightning masked within the depth of those clouds.
“The majority of the cave systems are confined to the coastline, here, here, and here,” Blackwall drew circles over the sopping wet map, talking loud above the storm. “That’s where we should start our search, then make our way inward to explore any remaining ruins.”
Rain water fell harsh upon his shoulders, creeping between the pauldrons and plating until he could feel it on his skin and in his gloves and in his boots. His hair stuck to his forehead, his beard heavy but still holding its shape.
He fought a bit with the map as the winds dared to take it from his grasp, and slapped it down upon a rock head to better see its running ink, “We’ve got one chance at this, so let’s do it right.”
“Just point me in the direction of whatever needs killing,” Bull spat with excited fervor. Thunder answered his call for blood.
“Lavellan,” Blackwall’s voice called her back from the shore. She turned on the sea, as one is often minded never do, and imparted her presence upon their huddle.
She brushed the wet strands of hair from her face, looking over the markings on the map and following Blackwall’s direction as he pointed out the caverns once more with a jab of his finger.
“Here, these are the caverns Scout Harding marked in her initial exploration.”
Voss nodded along, feeling the unwelcome pull of the Deep Roads like the angry waters behind her.
“Might I recommend,” Solas started, “making camp and proceeding with our investigations in daylight? Darkspawn tend to be more active during the night, doing so in the morning may save us a lot of trouble and injury.”
“Don’t see why it really matters,” retorted Bull, “we’re just going to kill them all anyway.”
“Solas has a point,” Blackwall said, “We are here to do one job and that’s sealing the tunnels. We don’t need to risk any more than that just for a couple of notches on your belt.”
Bull snorted, “where’s your sense of adventure?” He asked with an open gesture and excitable smile.
“This isn’t an adventure,” Solas said with marked annoyance, “this is people’s livelihoods at stake.”
Bull rolled his eyes and looked to Voss, “What about you?”
Voss thought for a moment on it, disinclined to the venture on whole, but knowing it was her secret duty to attest. “We’ve been traveling for a few days now,” she said, “I say we make camp and start fresh in the morning.”
“Ah,” he waved her off with indignation.
Solas offered a small nod of approval, just slight enough it could be missed.
“Alright,” Blackwall said, folding up the map as best he could, which could be anything but “best” in this weather. “Let’s set up on that ridge there so the tide doesn’t sweep away our tents in the night.”
“Good idea,” said Solas.
There was a quiet acceptance within the group as they disbanded for their respective mounts.
Voss stepped up into the stirrup and swung her leg over the saddle of the chestnut Forder. With a click of her tongue and turn of the reins, she directed the stubborn old horse along after her companions.
“You seem to like the sea. They don’t have water where you’re from, Vell?” Bull piped up from the back of his warhorse.
“Lavellan,” she corrected for what had to be the hundredth time. It wasn’t that she disliked the nickname, simply that the shorter Lavellan had gotten, the closer in it crept on reality. It wasn’t too far a step from Voss and surely smarter people would figure her much more quickly.
Not, of course, that Bull wasn’t smart.
“I’ve seen water, lakes and rivers, nothing like this though, is it always this loud?”
“Yeah,” said Bull, “Around here it is. But it can be quiet, peaceful even.”
“I don’t think I like it,” she said, “even if it were. It reminds me of the stories the dwarves tell, about falling up into the sky, except I know if I did, I would sink.”
“Not a swimmer?”
“I have many strong suits, swimming is not one. Sinking though,” she pointed with her free hand, “now that - I am quite good at.”
“You should be mindful, then, about standing so close to the water’s edge,” said Solas.
“Are you saying you would not jump in after me?” Voss asked.
“No,” said Solas, “It would be foolish of me to do so. We would both drown.”
“Don’t worry,” Bull said, “We won’t let you drown.” He looked to Solas then corrected himself, “Well, I, won’t let you drown.”
Their horses pushed on up the coast and to the ridge, stumbling every so often on the rocks, but never fully losing their balance. It was a great effort exhaled on harsh grunts as they lunged against the incline rewarded by Voss with elvish praise spoken in a tone reserved for infants.
Solas quirked a brow as he dismounted, running his slender fingers over the horse’s neck as if testing his presence in space.
“That is a full grown horse, you do know that right?”
“Yes,” said Voss, “and he’s a handsome horse too and very brave for climbing all the way up here,” she added in that same infantile tongue.
The Forder ignored her most completely and turned its nose to the prickle of green grass and began to tear it up with its teeth. Voss smirked, gave a final pat, and began to remove her gear from its back.
Solas offered a quiet thanks to his own horse before following suit, carefully undressing the Forder of his things and joining the others about the circle of their presumed campsite.
“This seems like a good spot,” Blackwall said.
Bull agreed by tossing his pack down into the muck. “Good for me.”
Solas frowned as mud splattered up in waves, just barely missing his already very wet and very dirty robes. “I don’t believe that was necessary,” he said, as if a little more mud would be his ensemble’s undoing.
The coasts fought them violently, the winds like ghostly hands tearing the lines from their grasp. Each one battling to keep a grip on the canvas in their hands and tie it down tight to the iron in the ground. None of it was pretty and none of it was easy, but they helped each other, wrapping the ropes about their knuckles, pounding the stakes deep, and drawing their quarters taught.
“That should do it,” Blackwall said as the last tent came to form, “easy,” and he laughed a hearty chuckle.
They all stood awkwardly in their circle, each knowing they couldn’t start a fire in this weather and that if they intended to eat then it would be dry rations for the cold, wet night.
And that’s what was silently agreed.
“I’ll take first watch,” Bull said.
“Alright, I’ll take second,” said Blackwall.
Voss and Solas nodded along, each offering a hand should they require it in the night and both being assured that it wouldn’t be necessary.
They cast each other a look. Solas’s eyes were an educated harsh, the kind saved for scholars who knew everything before even being told a word of what they should. She could feel him measuring her in that fixed glance, he had been doing it the whole trip, looking for the cracks in her armor that might give way to some further insight to what kind of person she was.
“Good night, Solas,” she said.
Voss pulled back the tent flap and retired to the nothing special inside. The danger of the ridges would not allow any comforts in rest and as such she didn’t take to removing her armor or even her boots. She set down her belts though, her pouches too, and struck her daggers into the ground.
She awkwardly fell into her bedroll, cursing the travel and all the rains that beat down upon them.
In the winds she heard a howl of response.
“Vell,” Bull grunted within its veil, “Interesting girl.”
“That she is,” Blackwall responded and commented an illegible note behind the storm.
“Yeah,” another mumble.
Blackwall had yet to shield himself from the vicious night, content to the company of the Iron Bull for just a few more minutes before tempting sleep. Voss could understand that. Ever since The Calling she’d found herself keeping vigil for more hours than a day could offer, unwanting to succumb to paralytic slumbers dressed in blood.
Though she could barely hear them behind the roll of thunder, she let their conversation carry her, focused on learning the words if only to keep her mind occupied. The trip had been exhausting, fighting the terrain and all the winds and rains with it. She felt it in her, heavy and resting, knew that once she had settled down on her bedroll she was not getting up from it for quite some time. She noted her blinks coming slower now, tempting lasting darkness as they grew longer. Just a few seconds, she would gamble, just a few seconds.
And those seconds turned to minutes and then - hours.
She could no longer hear Bull and Blackwall, nor the rains that poured down upon her tent. It was - quiet, save for the echos. Far away, but familiar.
“Are your dreams always this ... red?”
And The Stuffed Bird Laughed
Bloody and red crashed down upon them, lost within the fortress never meant for the banner of victory. An old terror upon the land, washing over the Wardens where centuries long promises drowned in its horror.
She stood and watched it all.
Again. And again.
Sometimes they still called to her, screamed from their graves and clawed at her armor.
She could see their horns behind the skulls they wore of all her friends. She learned to ignore their anguish.
“I’ve never seen the Fade quite like this,” Solas’s voice echoed in her dream, “This is Ostagar...during the Blight.”
“It’s always Ostagar....” Voss stood, a familiar statue of a warrior meant only for here, her knuckles white beneath plate of armor, wrapped around the bone of a well used blade imbued with the hatred of her magic.
“You were there,” said Solas without question, “you’re one of the Wardens.”
The words fell heavy about them, thick and undeniable. She ignored them all the same and looked back upon the horrors she left behind.
And Duncan - he looked back at her.
From his death he looked back.
And she did not go to him.
She turned her gaze away from the field of battle, dark curls falling and embracing the narrow cut of her cheeks.
“Does Blackwall know?”
“I haven’t told him.”
“You don’t intend to,” Solas said, the words trailing off in their realization.
“No,” said Voss.
“Why?” Solas’s own steps fell in behind her, light and almost missed, an echo to her own heavy boots.
“You invade my dreams to ask a question you already know the answer to? You must be fun at parties,” Voss exhaled a chuckle through her nose.
“I apologize,” Solas said, “I knew you were an apostate, though I assumed you were a blood mage. I did not expect this.“
“No, I guess you wouldn’t,” she said, “I’ve tried hard to hide it these past few years. It’s nothing I’m proud of. And nothing you deserve explanation to. You shouldn’t even be here,” she said.
And that was true.
Solas - did not belong.
A ghost of another world stripped from the fabric and stitched loosely back. A bead barely clutched to the string of this new history - her history.
“Neither should you,” replied Solas.
She narrowed her gaze upon the crunch of human bone between jaws of inhuman men.
“And yet it calls to me every night,” she stepped forward, her boots sticking to the ankle deep gore that spread from the world, exacerbated by the cancer of this ashen Fade. “I guess that’s how it works. It infects things, it gets inside us and it comes to us in nightmares. Until we can’t stand to see them anymore and we take our swords and our shields and march ourselves down into the Deep Roads in some last ditch hope that killing them will stop the dreams.”
“You’re speaking of the Calling,” said Solas.
“Why are you even here?” Voss asked and did not answer.
“Commander Cullen thought I might be able to help you,” he said, “The Fade offers more privacy than anything else. I thought that I might be able to talk to you here.”
“You still want to do that?” Her question was heavy with sarcasm.
“I do,” said Solas, “I have to admit that I am far more interested than I was before. I have been many places in the Fade. I have even watched the battle at Ostagar before, but never have I seen it in this way. It’s fascinating.”
“People died,” Voss said with bitterness on her tongue, “save your fascination until we are all dead.“
“My apologies. I did not mean-“
“You did,” she said, “I get it, you like to learn things and everyone finds war interesting. Those of us who fought them, we don’t. Better to keep that to yourself, not everyone will be so nice about it.”
Solas nodded once in understanding.
Another body fell to the pierce of an arrow. He looked up at them with a twisted smile, whatever creature that lived in his Fade skin relishing in the horror it played part in.
“The Archdemon’s power here is suffocating. How you manage to come here every night and return- I cannot imagine...” said Solas.
“You get used to your nightmares,” Voss said dismissively, “Whether or not you succumb to them - that’s always your choice.” She paused amidst the dead and looked up to see her tower there on the horizon, “I never saw this part,” she said, “the tower or all this blood. The Fade reminds me what it looked like for them. It’s worse each time,” arrows pierced through the sky and reigned down over ramparts and flying horrors.
“I am sorry.”
“Why?” She offered him a look that warned him against such considerations, “I lived.” Her grief for this fact was palpable.
Solas did not respond.
“So,” she started, “is this going to be an everyday thing?”
“That depends,” said Solas.
Voss thought for a long moment, her eyes never once softening upon the carnage, no matter how soft the voice that spoke in her ear, “You spend our whole journey here giving me side eye, then you invade my dreams and ask to stay? At least Cole had the decency to talk to me first.”
“I understand your frustration,” said Solas, “but as I said, this was the only way.”
“No,” Voss said, “you knew exactly what you were doing.”
Solas didn’t have the confidence to contradict her, and truly he couldn’t, for she was right. He knew exactly what he was doing, using the Fade, as he always had: to learn, to see. They were never such lucid nightmares, not for the others he’d tip toed in on, never even did the strongest mage turn to him and cast him out as, not a demon, but another conscious. Voss never questioned that about him, because somehow she knew, knew just as well as he, that the person here with here - was a person. In so many words.
“You should go,” It wasn’t a question, nor formed in any kindness of tone. Answered immediately in the silence of Solas’s absence, forgotten somewhere in the dreamworld memory. On any other occasion she might welcome the company, but not tonight. She could feel the Blight, see it black and spoiled through the blood of war, heard it called in her ears with every thump of heartbeat. It was stronger here, fed by the caverns of the Stormcoast, overlapping the parapets of Ostagar as blurred, black shadows.
If Solas stayed, it would kill him.
And if it didn’t.
And the Stuffed Bird Laughed
“Hero of Ferelden...Are they still calling you that?”
Voss knew his voice, a sweet memory corrupted on the tongue of a demon, sending shivers up her spine like it always did. She couldn’t look at him, couldn’t stand to try. So she stared ahead, hard too like she hated the horizon for bringing the sun to set.
“Some,” she said and amended rather quickly, but not so quickly that it seemed important, “but not many.”
”It suits you, you know?”
“Maybe once,” Voss replied, “not anymore.”
Understanding comes with reply, the kind of caring reserved for fathers and mentors, “I was always proud of you.”
“Yeah well, you’re not Duncan. So stop acting like him,” her voice was low, controlled and dangerous, but so was Duncan’s, responding with equal venom cold and unforgiving. Honest.
“And you are not Lady Lavellen.”
Voss slowly turned to meet his gaze, dark beneath his brow with so much life in them even here. It wasn’t his though, it never would be.
“What do you want.”
Voss laughs, throws it back in his face because she knows it’s just a mask. No demon offers heart and soul for their Mage. No, he’d just found a temporary costume that played on her weakness. She hated it. Hated “him.”
“You have the chance, now, to stop all of this. Everything. But you must be honest with yourself and with them. These lies - these secrets. None of them belong to you.” He spoke like a dream, all watery and distant, like he was drowning, “what then? What happens when the realm finds out?”
Voss exhaled an annoyed breath, “Oh. We’re doing this again?”
Duncan is quiet, watching her carefully like a vulture, he sees through her. He always did, even when he was himself.
“I don’t know what happens then. But I don’t think I care,” she wasn’t always like this, at some point in her life she did care. She cared a lot. Probably the reason why she tried so hard not to now, honesty hurt too much.
“They never needed a reason,” she muttered bitterly.
“And what did you expect? You are a city elf, a blood mage, and a Grey Warden. Of all the things you could choose to become, you picked the worst of them. And worse yet, you sacrificed everything that wasn’t yours to give...and left this world worse for it.” He paused, long too, letting it really sink in. “That doesn’t mean you can’t make it right.”
“Don’t,” Voss winced and warned, “That was their choice. Not mine.”
“You made it possible.”
“Shut up,” she’s got murder in her voice, sharp at its edges and looking for blood.
“Sooner or later,” he repeated, resigned but calm “they’ll all know.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance, a dark and brooding sound that chased lightning across the sky. Voss woke to the shadows on her tent, groping branches, naked things with shaking leaves, long fingers and horror filled dreams. She almost couldn’t catch her breath, everything red, rain like blood upon the canvas, trickling down into the mud.
Slowly the dreams faded, washing away in the downpour of black and grey. Voss sat up, pressing her forehead into her hands.
“Fuck,” she breathed.
For a long moment she sat there, listening to the waves upon the shore, restless in their rage and the storm above, just as much the same. She wondered how late it was. She couldn’t have been asleep for long, but then again, she had no way to tell. Dreams were a terrible timepiece.
She sighed and lifted her head from her hands. Darkness fled and her night vision took hold, chasing shadows and fixing definitive accent to the bare bones tent. She rolled up to her feet and pushed her way out and into the downpour.
Warden Blackwall sat alone, idly carving away at a piece of driftwood. Even with a dagger he was skilled, blocking out the body of a griffin and all her feathers. In another life he’d make quite the Artisan.
“You’re awake,” he said.
“Need a break?” She asked.
“No, but I wouldn’t oppose the company.”
Voss took a seat beside him. It didn’t take long for the rain to soak her through. She shivered.
“You going to be ok?”
“Just the leathers,” she replied, feeling them cold and heavy upon her, “I’ll be fine. What’re you making?”
Blackwall half smiled down at his figure and held it up to show Voss, “Griffin, bout the only thing I’m good at making,” he announced with a chuckle.
She took it gently from him and inspected it. It was rough, in between just starting and getting there, but Voss could see the beauty it would turn out to be, “You are rather good at it,” she agreed and handed it back.
Blackwall continued his carving, careful with every turn of the blade. “Keeps the mind busy. What about you? Any useless talents of your own?”
“I can wiggle my ears,” Voss said.
“Thought that was just an Elven thing.”
“You said useless.”
Blackwall chuckled, “I guess I did.”
Voss smiled beneath the rain, “I’m not much of an artist, I can’t carve or paint, or draw,” she said, “I suppose I write, nothing romantic or anything. Just journals, whatever happened in a day. Rather boring if you ask me. Though,” she thought about it, “I haven’t written anything in quite some time.“
“Any reason for that?”
“If I can be honest,” she said, “people started looking for me. Not for anything bad, I’m no criminal. But, what else would I say, right?” She chuckled, “I lost my last journal somewhere in Ferelden. Someone must have found it because I suddenly started getting letters,” she groaned, “so I stopped writing. To myself and to them.”
“Any reason why?”
Voss took in a deep breath, speaking at the same time she said, “I did some things I’m not proud of,” and added, “Did some things I am proud of too. I know it’s fucked up to say, but I had a lot of responsibilities that I didn’t want. So I figured I would just ... I don’t know,” she threw her hands up, “run away. But, that didn’t fix anything, just made it a little harder for it to catch up.”
Blackwall listened intently, chipping quietly away at the griffin in his hands, knowing that Voss had secrets much deeper than that, perhaps just as deep as his. “These responsibilities,” he asked, “have anything to do with those Templars?”
The rain fell loud in their silence.
Voss was about to answer, to lie even, when something caught her attention deep within the night beyond them. She froze, eyes trained to those rain drenched shadows, watching for movement in the outlines.
Blackwall noticed the twitch of her ears as she listened through the rain, then turned his gaze to follow. “See something?” He asked quietly.
“Who goes?” She called into the night.
Drops of water fell fat into the puddles of their shoe prints. The trees bowed to the weight of the storm, their leaves rustling with the winds that howled on through like waves of their own. Within the weather’s song, Voss had heard the snap of branches, the clack of tassets against armored thighs, even as the wearer had done his damnedest to quiet their clatter.
Blackwall put his hand to the hilt of his sword.
“Apologies,” came the response, “I saw your camp from the shores. I was hoping I might trouble you for some company. My name is Rylan Allegari. I am a Templar of the Order.”
Neither Blackwall nor Voss moved.
“You’re alone?” Voss asked.
“I am,” called back Rylan. “May I come closer?”
Voss and Blackwall shared a brief look, both in some quiet agreement. Not breaking her gaze, Blackwall replied, “You may.”
Rylan sloshed through the muck, his armor hanging off of him, loud and unfit, awkward even. It bore the crest of a Templar upon its chest, emblazoned proud in all its pomp and colors. But the man stuffed within it was everything short of its honor, dark eyes and disheveled hair, a weary smile on his lips that was anything but honest. Voss had known rats with faces more pleasant. He was no Templar. And he was not alone.
“What happened?” Voss asked, inviting him to sit across them.
He obliged her kindness, fiddling with his armor so that it fell right about his hips and allowed him the ability to sit. He sighed almost gratefully as he did, “we were attacked in the night by a bunch of Apostates,” he admitted falsely, “I got separated from my group.“
“Sounds scary,” Voss said flatly.
“How many of them?” Blackwall asked.
“Ah, I don’t know,” said Rylan, “maybe six or seven?”
“And how many were you?” Blackwall rejoined.
Voss and Blackwall both knew he was full of shit. It didn’t take a genius to piece that one together, but the more they strung him along the more comfortable he and his friends in the shadows got. So they spoke briefly, offered feigned sympathies and company on a rainy night. Rylan’s eyes couldn’t quite stay put, sizing them up as they talked, counting the daggers on Voss’s hips, measuring the salt of Blackwall who’s hand never once left his pommel.
They knew he felt big, hard not to when you had six or seven men waiting in the shadows to pounce. They had done this before, plenty of times, even got a one up or two on an ill prepared group of Templars. Lucky bastards they were, unfortunate it was going to run out here.
“Alright Rylan,” Voss stood to stretch, never minding to unsheathe her own blades, she was oddly relaxed. Blackwall noted the confidence, she was trained in more than just magic. But each one of them there at camp knew that already - except maybe Rylan. “Warden Blackwall and I both know you’re full of shit. Knew it the moment you sat down. Looks like you and your friends have gotten pretty lucky so far. Good for you. I’m going to give you the chance to keep that luck going.”
Rylan straightened, that terribly fake smile faltering on his lips. She knew it was for Blackwall. He must not have realized he was a Warden until she said it.
“You keep your little party moving along and we don’t kill you right here.”
Rylan snorted, “I don’t know what you’re talking about?”
“Okay,” Voss said wearily and made a motion for her daggers. This got Rylan up and to his feet. Blackwall, amused by this all, remained comfortably seated. Voss had handled nightmares and demons, Rylan Allegari was neither of these things, even though he might have thought he was.
“Okay,” she repeated, like she was preparing for the most mundane dinner. Steak again? That kind of indifferent, dagger in her hand, loose like it didn’t matter, and it really didn’t. She turned it over her knuckles, simple blade work, but it looked real fancy, had Rylan’s eyes wide, questioning himself, hoping his ranger friend was quicker on the draw than the elf. And elves he knew were quick.
Blackwall heard it, the whistle of an arrow cutting through the rain. He leapt to his feet too late for it to matter. It struck Voss in the shoulder, right there high on the back buried between the space of her armor. Blood blossomed from the wound and stained the shirt beneath, mixing with the rain. Blackwall drew his sword, half expecting her to collapse, but she didn’t. She regarded her injury with annoyance, pausing to acknowledge that it had truly happened, then snapping a narrowed gaze back on Rylan. Blackwall had seen that look once before, but never in the face of an elf - or any human for that matter. Dragon’s eyes.
Voss whipped a dagger into the dark, a wet thunk meeting her ears as it returned the favor of injury, piercing deep into the chest of a masked archer. Blackwall sprung forward, blade meeting Rylan’s own in a metallic crash of song, loud enough to rouse the others.
The Iron Bull made no quiet entrance, tearing through his tent and charging into the ambush like his namesake promised. Solas, much like a cat, joined them at his leisure, confident they didn’t truly need him at all. Which was an accurate assumption.
He laced his boots first.
Voss pounced into the shadows, a flurry of blades that sparked beneath the flash of lightning. Three men: one the Ranger, hurt but still trying, the other two pulling him up by the arms never stood a chance. Behind her, Rylan fell into the mud, Blackwall forcing the broad part of his blade to him like a hammer, like he might just bury him there in the mud. And The Iron Bull, keeping the rest at bay, all fists and horns. Laughing. “Nothing like an ambush to get the blood going!”
Solas just shook his head, forcing the remaining men to keep their distance with lazy magic. Things that seemed more dangerous than they actually were. He wasn’t a killer. That was obvious.
Blood arched over Voss like a macabre rainbow every time her daggers slashed through armor and skin. She was quick, quicker than Blackwell expected, and even in the face of ambush he could tell she was holding back, like she was embarrassed to show just how practiced a killer she was.
He could see quite easily, how all those rumors came to be. Crow. Mage. She was something - if not any of that - then something else. Something dangerous.
And as the men fell apart by their hands.
He was glad she was on their side.
“Their bodies will attract scavengers,” Solas said over the rain.
“Time to pack up?” Bull asked.
“Will you be ok?” Voss looked at Blackwall with concern and an arrow still in her shoulder. She worried for him, for his lack of sleep, ambushed before he could trade off for the night, knowing he’d not slept while Bull kept watch before him.
“Me?” He snorted, “you’ve an arrow in your shoulder.” He sheathed his sword, blood soaked down the front of his gambeson, “We should get that looked at before heading out.”
Voss took a hesitant step back. Blackwall wasn’t sure if it was getting touched that had her off put or the idea of cutting that arrow out.
“Not the worst thing in the world,” she said, “I can handle it, just give me a minute.” She reached over her shoulder, careful to break the arrow as close to her armor as she could. It was difficult, awkward mostly, and arrows weren’t easy to break. When it finally did snap, she felt the painful tug in the muscle of her shoulder and flinched, sucking in a sharp breath with it.
“Don’t know how you intend to cut that out yourself,” Blackwall said.
“Not unless you’re really flexible,” Bull added with an impish air.
“Fine,” Voss relented, “I suppose you’re right.” She nodded to her tent and led Blackwall in.
Bull gave Solas a nudge of his elbow, which was returned with a scowl and a “please don’t do that.”
And the Stuffed Bird Laughed
“I guess we’ll just take care of...all this?” Bull called from beyond the veil of the canvas backing. When neither Blackwall or Voss humored him with an answer, he grunted a dismissive “Ahhh” and began shuffling about the campsite.
Voss swept the wet curls from her face and tied them up in an effort to keep them clear of her shoulder. With little fuss she doffed her armor, Blackwall assisting with the straps that required her to contort just a little too much for comfort.
“Not the brightest lot,” she said as he unbuckled her ribs, “those bandits.”
“I would have to agree,” Blackwall said, “Can’t say they didn’t try,” he loosened the straps and helped it over her shoulders, “There you are.”
She slipped out of the black leather harness, wrapping it up in her arms neatly so all the little straps and buckles matched before placing it ahead of her on the bedroll.
“I mean,” she started in again.
Next came the tunic, a simple black thing with an equally as simple cord that tied through the cut of the collar. It was a soaking wet mess of cloth that stuck and dragged over every inch of skin as she pulled it up and over her head.
“The guy’s armor didn’t even fit. Tassets down to his ankles,” she chuckled, tunic catching up in a wet twisted clump around hair. “Looked like a -“ she gave a hard tug, sucking in a breath to the sting at her shoulder, “Ow.” After a brief tug-of-war her tunic relented and slapped against her armor wetly. “-Toddler playing in daddy’s armor. I wonder how many times that story actually worked.”
“At least once,” said Blackwall.
“Poor bastards. Never liked Templar’s, but that’s just embarrassing. If that ever happens to me, make sure no one at Skyhold knows.”
Blackwall chuckled, “I’ll tell them you were mauled by a pack of wolves.”
“Possessed by demons.”
“That happened once.”
“On my grave. Now stop moving so I can get this arrow out of your shoulder.”
“What happened?” Voss leaned forward, resting her elbows over her knees and obliged command, sitting as still as the world refused to be while Blackwall inspected her shoulder.
“Pretty self explanatory. Wolves were possessed by demons.”
“I mean that can’t be everything.”
“Didn’t stick around to ask,” said Blackwall. His hands were a soldier’s weathered tread, like sandpaper, but gentle still upon her shoulder. “Got you good,” he mused.
“Not good enough,” quipped Voss, “I’m still alive.”
“That you are,” Blackwall said. He smoothed his thumb over the plane of her shoulder, feeling every groove of the scars that painted her back. “Not many elves with marks like these,” he drew his hands back as not to linger longer than would be appropriate. “Sure you’re tired of hearing that though.”
“Oh yeah,” Voss said, “Right up there with, ‘Teach me to swear in Elvish.”
“That happen a lot?” She could hear him unsheathing his dagger, focused though instead on the runic pattern that wrapped around her leather armors like it might distract her just enough. It wasn’t the blade she feared, or the cut that came with it, but how gently he pressed against her.
“Oh. All the time,” she snorted.
She inhaled at command and felt the all too familiar cut of blade “Son of a nobleman was one of the firsts, wanted to learn some Elvish for the sake of being a complete sorner. Didn’t care to bond with the Elvish community, just wanted a new way to let us know we were beneath him. So, I taught him the phrase, ‘Sulema-em b’as.’ Said it was the Elvish equivalent to ‘Fuck off.’ That Cox-comb didn’t even question it, he just pulled up his breeches and paraded around the Alienage greeting everyone with a ‘Sulema-em b’as!’ Elves, elves aren’t usually ones for short insults, we don’t have really anything that translates neatly. The closest equivalent to calling someone a bastard is more along the lines of “your mother was cursed the day of your birth.” So obviously, Sulema-em b’as is nowhere close to that. Essentially, this nobleman was walking around the Denerim Alienage asking for handouts of bread. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. Wasn’t so funny when he found out, but, can’t say I would have taken it back if I had the chance,” she winced and hissed a pained noise as Blackwall shifted the direction of the blade.
“You alright?” Blackwall quirked a brow in concern, as blood welled in new wounds and ran between his fingers and slithered down her side.
“Fine,” she said, “Anyway, it’s tradition now. There’s got to be at least fourteen people out there shouting for bread in Elvish.”
Blackwall chuckled, and it made Voss smile, “Almost done -” the arrowhead slipped out of her shoulder in a most unpleasant manner. Not that any blade ever felt good going in - or out. “There.”
“Are you two just about finished?” Solas asked amidst the storm.
“Yes “ Voss called back, and then much quieter, “Thank you.”
Blackwall nodded, “Of course. You need me to close that up?”
“It’ll be fine,” Voss said gathering her clothes which were so much more cold and so much more wet than she remembered.
“Very well,” Blackwall stood, as much as that small tent would allow him to, and reached for the opening.
She thought of Duncan, of Ostagar, and all her dreams, festering within the Blight, the blood that painted the inside of her eyelids every night in different shades of guilt. She wanted, so badly, to ask him - wanted to know if his nightmares shared the very same horrors that pulled her towards that pit within the ground - within herself.
But doing so.
Meant risking everything they believed in.
“You sure you’re going to be ok?”
“I wasn’t the one who got an arrow stuck in my shoulder.”
Voss rolled her eyes and shook her head, a small smile playing on her lips, “No. But you didn’t sleep.”
“Don’t sleep much,” he replied, and repeated once more, for her sake, “I will be fine. Now put your armor back on before we get ambushed again.”