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Looking Into the Abyss

Chapter Text

“Under the Qun, everyone is born for a purpose, with a purpose, and is a purpose fulfilled.”

Six weeks ago, Zarah Adaar was a mercenary, working with the Kalo-Vas. She had been hired as security for the Conclave called by the Southern Chantry’s Divine. The theory was that, as a Qunari, she would be able to stand between the Mages and Templars if things went badly. Things had gone badly, of course. They always do, but not in the way anyone expected.

There was an explosion, and a breach appeared in the sky. Zarah, the only survivor, was seen first as the only suspect, and then as the only one with the ability to close the breach. Elevated to status of Herald of Andraste, she had spent the time traveling through Ferelden and Val Royeau, trying to make friends and influence people. Mostly, it had been spent killing people, being yelled at by clerics, and dodging arrows. She was still getting paid, though, so it wasn’t much different from life before the Conclave.

Instead of Karaas and Herah as traveling companions, she had others, less well known to her, but just as competent at fighting. Today, it seems, she would be meeting another. He called himself The Iron Bull, and he, like her, was Qunari.  

 

Zarah was an early riser. As a child born into the Qun, it is a habit that began early in life. By the time she was taken from Par Vollen, it was as natural to her as breathing. Zarah rose and began dressing. Donning the Antaam-Saar was complicated. Each knot had to be precisely placed. Like the Qun, they were there for a purpose. The design wasn’t just decorative, each twist and braid connected to a pressure point on the body. They were there to enhance agility and reduce stress on the body as a whole. In Haven, Harrit had made her some human armor, but she preferred the freedom of movement the traditionally Qunari armor offered. It didn’t offer much in the way of protection, but the additional agility and speed made up for the lack.

She took her time, making sure that each knot was tied and secured properly. Using her fingers as brushes, she painted the lines and curves of Vitaar on her skin. It was a ritual of sorts. A time for gathering thoughts and achieving calm before battle. Today she was meeting the leader of the mercenary company that offered the Inquisition their services. As it dried, it became hard, but flexible. More armor-like than the cloth. Her skin became toxic to anyone that touched her.

When discussing this with the council, she advised against it. If this Iron Bull was Tal Vashoth, he shouldn’t be trusted. If he wasn’t Tal Vashoth, he was Ben Hassrath, and couldn’t be trusted. Trying to explain the difference to Southerners was frustrating. She herself was considered Vashoth, and the people she trusted and loved were both Vashoth and Tal Vashoth but trusting another person just because they had horns was, well, stupid.

You are only Qunari if you follow and live within The Qun, the Tamassrans taught. If you were born to the Qun and left, you were Tal Vashoth, if you were born outside the Qun, you were Vashoth. If you were human, elves, or dwarves, you were kabethari, or those that need to be taught. If you were willing to be taught, you were viddathari. Having horns does not make you Qunari. The Qun does that.

Southerners judged others only on what they looked like, how they dressed, or how much coin was in their purse. To those born under the Qun, this made no sense. What people did, how they acted, the honor that they held themselves to was more significant. While most of her life was spent outside the Qun, that early learning held true.

Ducking her head, she left the tent. Only the sentry was awake, no one else in the camp stirred. He nodded briefly and continued his rounds, while she strolled to a nearby clearing, and drew her blades. She breathed in and began the forms. Lunge, parry, attack, guard… feet dancing, arms moving in tandem; an eloquent expression of motion and lethality that had taken a long time to master.

For an hour she moved, aware of her surroundings, yet unaffected by them. As the other members of her party awoke, the drifted in an out of her consciousness as they watched, then returned to what they were doing. They knew better than to interrupt. The Seeker had once and ended up on the ground with a blade to her throat. It was all it took to impress upon them all the seriousness with which she took this part of her day. It was meditation; preparation for the day to come, and to Zarah, it was sacrosanct.

She shouldered her knives and made the short walk to the fire, where porridge was waiting for breakfast. Unlike some, she wasn’t a picky eater. It filled the empty belly and was nourishing. Her mother taught her that food was food, and to appreciate it as it was. Some tasted better than others, but in the end, it served a purpose. That’s what matters. She ate in silence, listening to the chatter around her. Varric was picking at Cassandra, trying to get her to make that noise that showed she was disgusted with something he said. Sera and Solas were fighting about something elfy, and the First Enchanter was sniffing delicately at the food in front of her.

Finishing breakfast, Zarah stood, and told her companions it was time to meet the mercenaries. She chose Varric, Cassandra, and Solas to accompany her, and started the short walk to the designated coordinates.

Zarah suspected that this was going to be a disaster, but there was no avoiding it. It was time to meet this Iron Bull.

Chapter Text

“Honesty is a tool. One can be honest and still hide the truth.”

The tide of the battle turned the instant the Herald and her team took the field. It was if she possessed a lodestone, and enemies were drawn to her. She cut through the tide gracefully, her feet moving like a dance, and her blades moving with deadly accuracy. After he dispatched the Vints in his immediate vicinity, Bull took a moment to watch, as Zarah waltzed with Death.

This, he thought, Was not in the reports.

He knew, of course, that the Herald of Andraste was Vashoth. She was with the Valo-Kas, a mercenary company that had been on Ben Hassrath horizon for a while. He hadn’t been ordered to work with them before, and he now wished that he had. If the Valo-Kas were all as good at this one, the Qun needed to know.

After the melee ended, he spoke quickly to Krem. He gave instructions that he really didn’t need to give, and then approached Zarah. He had a large smile on his face and had his Tal Vashoth mask on. His instructions from the Ben Hassrath were clear. He needed her to trust him. 

“Hot Damn,” he started. “It’s true. The Chantry must love you! A Qunari mercenary as the Herald of Andraste. Who’d have thought?”

“Certainly not the Chantry,” Zarah answered. “And if love means ‘wants me dead,’ then you’re right.”

Reaching out with her right hand, she introduced herself. “Zarah Adaar. You must be The Iron Bull. Iron Bull… The Chargers… Clever. I’m assuming that you needed to keep it simple for the nobles?”

Bull reached out and clasped her forearm firmly. “Yeah. Some of them aren’t too bright. Bull’s Chargers… It’s easy to remember.”

Reluctantly, he let go of her arm and turned toward the shoreline. As he walked, he said something about how good the Chargers were, and the value they could bring to the Inquisition. It was the standard sales pitch; he’d done this dozens of times. Turning, he sat on a large rock. “You’re not just getting the boys, though. You’re getting me.

“You need a front-line bodyguard. I’m your man. Whatever you need; demons, dragons. The bigger the better.” Bull looked up and she was staring at him. Skeptical. It wasn’t often that people doubted his ability to do his job. He was pretty sure he didn’t like it.

“There’s one other thing, might be useful, might piss you off. Ever hear of the Ben Hassrath?”

Tilting her head to one side, Zarah uttered a curse… in Qunlat. It was at that moment that Bull knew shit had gone sideways.

“Yes, I’ve heard of Ben Hassrath. Liars, re-educators, spies, and solvers of problems in sneaky fashion… Am I right?” Zarah snarled. “Fuck! I told them that this was a bad fucking idea, but did they listen? Fuck no, they didn’t. Shit, shit, shit… My mother is going to murder me if I agree to this, and Cullen is going to murder me if I don’t.”

Turning away, she took a few steps away from him. “Seeker!” Zarah yelled, “I’m not making this decision. This is on your head.”

She turned back to Bull and gave him a look. THAT look, the one he saw hundreds of times on the faces of Tamassrans that were not happy. “If Cassandra says yes, you go to Haven, and do what they tell you. Understand, you are not my front line anything. I do not need you around, I do not want you around. We are not friends, I do not trust you.

“If you betray the Inquisition, you better run fast and hard. And you better pray that I never catch up with you, because if I do, I will end you in the most painful way I can think of. I have a very vivid imagination, in case you’re wondering. Are we clear on this?”

Bull had been raised by women like this. He knew to be scared and he knew what to say. “Yes, Ma’am. I understand perfectly.”

Cassandra walked up behind them and touched Zarah on the shoulder. “Is there a problem, Herald?”

Looking at the Seeker, the Herald nodded. “You could say that.” She looked at one, then the other before continuing. “I’m not making this decision. You are.”

Looking at Bull she said, “You will tell her everything you just told me. You will be honest and answer all her questions, and if I find you left anything out, you will live to regret it.” She turned once again to the Seeker. “If, after hearing everything this Bas has to say, you still want to hire him, it’s on you. For the record, I still think it’s a stupid idea.”

With that, Zarah walked away, past Varric and Solas, and sat on an overturned boat, facing the Waking Sea. She closed her eyes and took deep, even breaths. One, two… In, out… In with the calm, out with the bull shit.

It wasn’t even noon, and already it had been a long fucking day.

 

In the end, Cassandra made the decision to hire the Chargers. She also made the decision to send the Chargers to Haven and have the Iron Bull accompany the Herald’s group. When she tried to explain her reasoning, Zerah walked away without listening. It was obvious that her comfort or trust meant nothing, and it wasn’t anything that arguing with the Seeker could solve. In the end, it was what it was, and Zarah dealt with it.

To his credit, Bull did his part. He chatted up the other companions and didn’t force his company on the Herald directly. When they came upon a battle between a giant and a dragon, he was obnoxiously impressed and when the time came to kill that giant, he was good in a fight.  He got along with the others by joking with Varric, flirting with Cassandra, telling crude jokes to Sera, and discussing chess with Solas. He even managed to wring a smile out of Vivienne by calling her Ma’am and sucking up like he was born to it.

Zarah could feel his eyes on her, though. He was studying her, trying to figure a way in. She did her best to pretend he wasn’t there. It didn’t work very well, he took up a lot of space, and not just because he was huge. Even as he tried to stay out of her way, he was there, at the edge of her periphery, waiting for a chance. It was only a matter of time before she was forced to give it to him.

It wasn’t going to be soon, and it wouldn’t be by choice.

 

Bas… Thing

Chapter Text

“If it’s not one bloody thing, it’s another.”

 

Zarah grabbed a bow and told Cassandra that she was going to hunt. She needed to get away from Bull before she did something that she’d… well not regret. She wouldn’t regret putting a knife between his ribs, exactly, but it would probably make things worse with the Seeker. They had come to an understanding, if not a friendship, but it was hard to explain to anyone why she didn’t want Bull around. They’d all asked.

How do you explain the fear, the anger… the absolute white-hot rage that the name Ben Hassrath filled her with? It was hard to explain it to herself. Her memories of childhood in the Qun were hazy, but she remembered the stories. The lessons from her mother were etched into her mind with the acid of anger. The lessons from her father were etched with despair. She was 8 when they took her from her bed and out of Par Vollen.

She was 15 before she understood why.

Zarah knew she was being followed. She knew who was following her, and why. It would have been so easy to end this now; to turn and fire an arrow into his chest. A hunting accident is easy enough to explain. The Seeker might not believe her, but she wouldn’t openly question it. A hunting accident was plausible, and that was all she really needed.

She didn’t turn, though. She kept moving, silently stalking the ram. It cleared her mind, and distilled things to a simpler equation. The council believed that the Inquisition needed the Chargers. That meant dealing with the spy in their midst. Or in the case of the Inquisition leadership, not dealing with him. She wasn’t in charge. She wasn’t making the decisions.

She knew how to take orders. She didn’t have to like them. She’d made it clear that she didn’t. It was all she could do.

She stopped, lowered herself to her knees, and raised the bow. In a fluid motion, she nocked the arrow, pulled the bowstring, and fired. One arrow, one kill. Just as Papa taught her.

“That was fucking impressive.”

His voice was louder than she expected, meaning that he had closed the gap between them. He was quieter than she thought, so he wanted her to know he was there.

Bull passed her, pulling a knife as he did. When he reached the ram, he cut the throat, and began field dressing the kill. He knew what he was doing, she’d give him that. He didn’t sit back and make others work for him.

“Where’d you learn to hunt, Vashoth?”

“Where did you learn to be an asshole, Ben Hassrath?” she answered. “Why did you follow me? Are you planning to kill me, or just ask questions until I kill you?  Even Qalaba are smart enough to know to stay away from hunters.”

“Ouch,” Bull laughed. “Your tongue’s sharper than those knives of yours. Seeker wanted me to come with you. She said you might need help carrying meat back to camp. She was lying. She’s hoping that you’d get it all out of your system now. Your - let’s call it dislike - of me is uncomfortable for everyone.”

 “If my dislike was going to be an issue for her, she shouldn’t have told you to stick around. You could be halfway to Haven by now, and I wouldn’t be pissed off.” Zarah shoved him out of the way and picked up the ram. “I’ll finish this at camp.”

She started to walk away, when she heard him ask, “So, how old were you when you left the Qun?”

Bull didn’t realize how big a mistake that was until the ass end of the ram hit him in the face. By then, it was too late to stop her from kicking his feet out from under him, and kneeling on his chest, knives crossed at his throat.

Shit. She’s fast.

“Understand this, Ben Hassrath. I tell you nothing. I give you nothing. There are people out there that I care about, and I’m not going to help you hurt them. Is that clear?” She spoke through clenched teeth. Her voice seeping venom with every syllable. “We are not friends, we will never be friends. You may have Cassandra fooled, and you may very well be able to fool the rest of them, but I know what you are.”

Zarah shifted her weight off him and rose to her feet. “Cassandra has decided you’re traveling with us, so I’ll deal with that. I don’t have to like it. Stay out of my way, do your job, and don’t talk to me. If you manage that, we won’t have any problems.”

 

 

Zarah walked into camp alone and tossed the ram at Cassandra’s feet. “I don’t need a babysitter, and I don’t need help hunting. If you like him so much, keep him with you.”

Cassandra stood and looked behind Zarah, obviously seeking a large Qunari behind her. Not seeing him, she looked back at the Herald. “Did you…”

“No,” she smiled. “I didn’t kill him, though I was tempted to. He won’t shut up, and he asks the wrong questions at the wrong times. I didn’t even hurt him, much.  The only thing that’s bruised may be his pride. Perhaps his head, if he hit it on a rock when he hit the ground. He was still breathing when I left him. It would be too much to ask for a bear or bandit to finish him off for me.”

Zarah was kneeling, cutting meat from bone and placing the meat on a spit. A scout approached and offered to finish the task for her. She sighed and nodded, then, with the Seeker following, she went to the water’s edge to rinse her hands.   

“Herald,” Cassandra began, before correcting herself. “Zarah… I don’t know why his position in the Qun bothers you so much. Maybe you can explain it to me one day. I do believe that he wants to help us close the Breach. I believe that he means you no harm, and if you’d give him a chance, he could prove it to you. Please, just… dislike him all you like, just don’t make it harder for him to assist us. Please.”

 “I wish I could explain it to you. Maybe… Do you remember when you told me about your brother; about how you hated mages after his death?”

Cassandra nodded and Zarah continued. “The nearest I can come to something you would understand is that. He is… a part of something that hurt a lot of people that I love. If the Ben Hassrath find them now, they can still be hurt. He admits that he’s going to send reports back to his superiors, and I can’t trust that he’s not going to lead them to…”

“Your family,” Cassandra finished. She reached up and touched the taller woman on the shoulder. “I’m not sure how we can protect them, but I will speak to Leliana, and we will find a way. I will kill him myself if he puts innocents in danger. I promise you that.”

Zarah reached up and covered the Seeker’s hand with her own. Brown eyes met grey and Zarah smiled. “No Seeker. If he hurts my family, he’s mine.”

 

 

Qalaba ... A type of cow that the Qunari breed known for its stupidity.

Chapter Text

“I wanted to drown my sorrows. How was I to know the little fuckers could swim?”

 

Bull sat down on the log next to Zarah. He uncorked a flask and handed to her saying, “Here. This will help.”

She pushed the arm, and the flask away brusquely. “I don’t need your fucking help, thank you.” She made to stand up, but he held her down.

“Shutting those rifts hurts, am I right? First you have to fight with the demons, then you have to close the rift. That one was bad for you. If you want to keep the others from knowing, take a drink.”

Zarah took the flask and sniffed at the liquid inside. “Should I ask what this is?” she asked before taking a swig. “Where in the absolute fuck did you get Maraas Lok in the middle of Ferelden?”

Bull slapped her on the back as she coughed. “I picked it up outside of Kirkwall on the last job we took. There’s a dwarf there that learned to make it during the occupation.” Bull took a long pull on the bottle and continued. “It’s not like they make it at home, but it’s not bad. He doesn’t use enough pepper for my taste.”

He handed Zarah the bottle again and she drank before making a face. “Not enough pepper. Do you not have any taste buds?” She shook her head, "Still, it makes me homesick. My…. Fuck!“ She stood and faced him.

 “Oh no… We’re not doing this. I’m not going to… Grr….”

As she stomped away, Bull grinned. “It’s a start.”

 

Bull lounged on the sofa in Josephine Montilyet’s office and watched as Zarah and the Ambassador fought it out. In the contract they just signed, the Inquisition gave the formal job of front-line bodyguard to The Iron Bull. When she found out, the Herald of Andraste had some very predictable, and loud, objections.

As a party to the negotiations, he sat and waited for the two women to come to terms. He sipped from a dainty porcelain tea cup and watched the show. The mage that shared ambassador’s office, Minaeve, had abandoned her post for safer shores about 10 minutes ago. He didn’t blame her, things were becoming, no had become, heated. He contemplated reaching for the teapot for a refill, but he decided that was a bad idea. When in the vicinity of predators, one stayed still. He didn’t want either of these women turning on him.

The argument he was watching gave him a chance to think. The information he had been given prior to the assignment had been lacking in detail, and the ones he had were just as likely to be incorrect as anything else. They were spot on when it came to the Inquisition leadership, but they were, well wrong about anything to do with Zarah Adaar. She was no simple Tal Vashoth mercenary caught up in Chantry Squabbles between mages and Templars.

The thing was that somewhere between being called a Bas and getting slapped with the ass end of a ram - hell, maybe even because of the ram - Bull had started to like the Herald of Andraste. He was at a loss as to why, or how to make friends with her, but he liked her. She was funny, smart, tough, and fearless. She gave as good as she got, and she had earned an impressive amount of loyalty, personal loyalty, from the leadership, and from the rank and file of the Inquisition itself. She went from outcast murder suspect, to grudging Herald, to follower magnet in a very short length of time.  Charisma had everything to do with it.

She was also hot. Whether it was punching bears with Cassandra, or filling bandits with arrows alongside of Sera, she was a bad ass. It was frankly annoying how hot she was. It was also annoying how much she didn’t give a shit about him or anything he did. Nothing seemed to make a dent in the condescending and loathing disdain she aimed in his direction.

It was a puzzle, and Bull loved puzzles. They were the best part of his job… Well puzzles and redheads.

Oh, and there was that part of the hotness factor.  Just to make it unfair, she had long, braided red hair, and skin that looked like she rolled in gold dust. Shit, you asshole, Bull berated himself. Stop with the fucking poetry. She’s not that… well, she is that good looking.  She really was.  Long, lithe limbs, grey eyes, full lips; he’d spent hours listening to Sera growl, woof, and drool over Zarah. It wasn’t just him, and it wasn’t poetic nug shit.

The Herald of Andraste was beautiful.

“He’s a fucking spy, Josie. You’re telling me I have to travel with a Ben Hassrath spy? How in the absolute fuck does that make any sense?” Zarah yelled.

Josie was now trying to be reasonable. “Herald… Zarah, please. Leliana is a spy and you trust her, don’t you?”

Bull didn’t have to be able to see her eyes to know that Zarah just rolled them at the Ambassador.

“Not really, no,” Zarah started. “Well, partly, yes. To my knowledge, Chantry spies have never tried to kill me. Ben Hassrath spies have tried… and failed… a couple of times… Well, at least a dozen. How many isn’t really the point.”

Bull stood up and stood next to the Ambassador. “Wait… You’re sure about that? Ben Hassrath spies have tried to kill you. You, personally, not someone you were with?”

“Yes, I’m sure. The last one had orders on him. We found them after he failed to do the job. They were written in Qunlat and named me specifically. They also named a member of my family, but as far as I know they haven’t found…” Zarah tilted her head and looked him straight in the eye. “Wait, you didn’t know?”

“No, I didn’t.” Bull took a step back, giving her space, and leaned against the wall. Things were making a lot more sense now… And less sense as well, when he thought about it. Why…

“Now I get it. The dossier I got before this assignment lacked specificity when it came to the you. They got everything about the others right, down to the Spymasters shoe size. But, the details about you were all wrong. You were supposed to be a straight up warrior, not a rogue, and you were supposed to be Vashoth, not Tal Vashoth. It said nothing about previous attempts to…

“You are Tal Vashoth, aren’t you?”

Josephine started taking a glass and bottle out of her desk while Zarah crossed to the couch and sat.

“Technically, yes. I was born in Par Vollen. I was taken out when I was almost 9. My mother just put a cloak on me and walked me out the front gates, never to return.” Zarah drank deeply from the glass before continuing. “She didn’t tell me where we were going or why. No one tried to stop us, no one even questioned her. She never looked back and never let me look back.”

“No one tried to stop her? That means…”

“I know what it means,” Zarah snapped.

“Yeah,” Bull answered, kneeling in front of the Herald. “Look, the Ben Hassrath didn’t think this was important for me to know, so they must not think that I can give them information about your family. Great, that makes it easier. I don’t tell them anything. We never even had this conversation. The information I send them is going to go through the Nightingale anyway, so this never goes in.”

Bull and Zarah were now eye to eye. “They never asked me for anything on this, so I don’t send them anything. How am I supposed to know that it’s important to them?”

Tilting her head to one side, Zarah looked at Bull. Her eyes were narrow, her look, skeptical. It reminded him of his the looks his Tama gave him when she knew he was up to something.  

He chuckled softly. “I was bred to be in the Antaam, but I was sent to the Ben Hassrath. Know why?”

Zarah shook her head.

“A member of the Antaam needs to follow the letter of the order, but also the spirit. I wasn’t really good at that. Once, I ate all the meat off my plate, and I left the vegetables. Tama told me that I couldn’t go play until I ate two more bites, so I took two pieces of meat out of my pocket, put them on my plate, ate them, then ran outside.”

“You did what she said, not what she meant.”

Bull grinned. “Exactly. So, I do that here. I’m going to do what they said, get close to the Inquisition leaders, and pass back information. I just don’t have to tell them everything. You have people you care about. I have the Chargers. I get it. So, I don’t give the Ben Hassrath anything they didn’t ask for specifically. Problem solved.”

“Is it that easy for you?” Zarah asked.

“Yeah,” Bull stood and nodded. “The Inquisition is paying me and the boys pretty well. I’m supposed to help you close the Breach in the sky. It’s a fair trade.”

Chapter Text

“Words mean things, sometimes very specific things.”

 

There was a knock on the door. Leliana had barely looked up before the door opened and The Iron Bull strode in. “You wanted to talk to me, Red?” He asked.

“Indeed. I need… a favor of sorts. I hesitate to ask, but you are the only one that can accomplish this task.” She looked down at the paper in her hand, then held it out for the Qunari to take.

Bull took the letter and saw how it was addressed. “The Herald wrote this to her family. You sure you want to know what’s in it?”

“Open it,” she commanded. “It’s suspicious. If she can’t be trusted, I need to know.”

Opening the letter, Bull saw what was upsetting the spymaster. It was written in Qunlat.

Shit.

Since joining the Inquisition, Bull spent a lot of time trying to earn Zarah’s trust. Or, rather… Trying to get her to hate him just a little less than the day before. It wasn’t going as well as he’d like, and he wasn’t looking forward to setting that process back if she found out that he helped Leliana. On the other hand, he had to earn the Nightingale’s trust as well, and this endeavor would fast track that.

Shit…

“You know, Red,” he began, “I’m always willing to help you out.”

Leliana smiled slightly, “But?”

“Yeah, but… She doesn’t like me. She doesn’t trust me, and if she finds out I’m helping you read her mail, she’s not going to. I need her to trust me if I’m going to protect her in the field.”

Handing Bull a large mug of tea and a scone, Leliana nodded. “I do understand. I don’t like the need to do this either. However, we know almost nothing about her, and I need information. I won’t tell a soul. I give you my word.”

“Great… Yeah, okay. You just want me to read it to you, or do you want a written translation?”

Hiding a tiny smile behind her teacup Leliana answered. “Just read it to me. If there is a need for a written copy you can do it later.”

So Bull began:

 

Dear Maman,

I know I haven’t written in a while. I hope that the message I sent after the Conclave reached you. If it didn’t, let me know. I’ll have to find out why. I’m certain this one will arrive. It’s being handled by the Spymaster, and I’m sure she has secure communication routes. I’m not a fan of sending this way, but I don’t have another option.

I have a mark on my hand that closes the rifts in the Veil. I tried to close the big one but failed. We now need to find a way to get enough power, and those in charge can’t get their shit in one boot. Fuck, if they do manage that, they’ll lose the stupid thing and we’ll have to start over.  I’m sure they have good intentions, but the execution is piss poor. I’ve seen better organized riots.

I hope you and Papa are well, and that you’ve managed to teach Ataash sharpen a blade without mangling it. I do miss all of you. I’m willing to say now that you were right. I shouldn’t have joined the Kas. I’m stuck in Ferelden, with a glowing green thing on my hand. The people I travel with, well the less said the better. They actually make me miss Kaaris and his crappy poetry.  Okay, it’s not that crappy, but I’ll deny saying it. Next time you see Shok, you can tell her that it’s her fucking fault I’m here, and I’m still on her payroll. I’ll take it out of her ass if I have to.

Now to the bad bit. You all need to be on guard. One of the shit for brains I have to travel with is Ben Hassrath. He was a Hissrad, once upon a time, but he goes by the name the Iron Bull now. Spent time in Seheron. A lot of time, if he can be believed, though I’m not sure he can. The Spymaster says that she reads everything he sends to the Ariqun, but I don’t believe that for a second. If she thinks he doesn’t have other ways of getting information out, she’s hopelessly naïve. I haven’t given anything away, but still. There’s no telling what they know, what he’s given them already, or if my threats to cut his testicles off will keep you safe. He seems pretty fond of his balls, gets lots of use out of them, so that’s the one that may sway him, but I can’t be positive. I’m doing my best to keep attention on me, but these fuckers are relentless.

I’m trying to wrap this up quickly so I can get back to my own life, but I have a feeling it’s not going to be that easy. The leadership can’t agree on what to have for supper, much less anything of any importance. Most of the time I just do what I want and hope for the best. I hope it works this time. I can’t leave, though. You taught me to do what’s right, not what’s easy, and if I don’t stay, we’re all in danger. I have to see this through.

I love you, and Papa, and even Ataash, though I don’t know why. I’ll come home when I can.

Zarah

On the second page was written:

Leliana

I hope you enjoyed the letter to my Mom. Did it give you what you wanted, or are you going to keep reading my mail? While I’m on the subject of privacy, I’d also like to lodge a complaint. Whoever you have going through my smalls, looking for whatever you think I’m hiding, needs to learn to refold them properly. Sloppy, Snoopy. Really sloppy. I guess they think that because I’m Qunari that I’m stupid. Think again.

If you want to know something, you could try asking. I might even answer, especially if there is liquor involved. I like my whisky from Starkhaven.

 

Oh, and Bull, doing whatever redheads ask is going to get you into trouble. Learn to say no. Honestly, if you were a woman, you’d be perpetually pregnant. I’ll forgive you once, because you’re an idiot and I’m in a good mood. Don’t let it happen again, or I’m going to be carrying around your nads in a bag around my neck.  I could use better accessories.

Adaar

Bull stood and gave Leliana the letter. “I hope you learned all you needed to, because I’m not doing this again. It isn't worth it.”

Rising to meet him, the Sister agreed. “There will be no need for this again. Thank you for helping.”

Leaving the tent, Bull glanced toward the Chantry and saw Zarah leaning against the wall.

Shit.

 

 

She was having an ale in the Singing Maiden when Bull saw her next.

“You set us up,” he said, his tone subtly admiring.

Without even looking up from her book, she said, “I may not be some super spy, but I do know how to stage an ambush. There was a chapter about it in the Mercenary Work for Dummies book. There was also a chapter in it about not falling into a trap. You should read it.”

He looked down at his hands, and then back to her. “For what it’s worth…”

“Save it,” she said, placing a book mark between the pages. “I knew she’d ask you, and I knew you’d say yes. Now you both know that I’m not foolishly trusting, and we can go from there. I don’t want you around, but since I’m stuck with you, it’s best that we know the rules up front.”

“Which are?”

Zarah sighed, “We work together, and we stay out of each other’s way when we’re not working. We only talk business, and if you betray me, I kill you. It’s simple enough for even you to understand.” She stood and picked up her book. “We leave at dawn. Try not to fuck too many Chantry Sisters and barmaids tonight. We’re not waiting for you to shake off your shag-over.”

Chapter Text

“Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

 

“Look,” Bull said. “It’s a big green hole in the sky, shitting out demons. Let’s worship it!” Speaker Anais, the cult’s leader was already walking back towards the keep, the portcullis retreating to admit their entrance.

Zarah punched him in the shoulder. “Shut the fuck up. We’re here to help these people, not make them feel stupid.”

Bull gave that deep throated laugh that reminded her of her father. “What? We can’t do both at the same time?”

Zarah rolled her eyes. “Let’s just kill the demons, close the rift, and then see if these people will help us. If you want a philosophical debate, talk to a Chantry sister. If you really like frustration, you should talk to Chancellor Roderick. I just want to do the job and get out of here. Crazy people creep me out.”

“They have ale, so they can’t be that crazy.  I could handle waiting out the apocalypse with a stein in my hands.” Taking the axe off his back, the large man heads toward the back of the keep. “But I gotcha, Boss. Kill the demons. That I can do.”

As he walked away, Zarah muttered, “When did I become the boss? I don’t want to be the boss.” He left it alone, figuring that it was a conversation to be had when they weren’t ass deep in demons.  

He smiled, though. Of course, you don’t see it. It’s why you’re good at it.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of demons dying. It’s a good day when he could kill these assholes.

 

 

They closed another rift that day, found and marked a couple of mage caches, killed any number of bandits, templars and other thugs, and Zarah was tired by the time they got back to camp. After washing off the Vitaar and changing into a pair of trousers and a tunic, she left her tent to get some dinner. Stew… again, but one of the soldiers manning this camp had gotten their hands on some ground corn. They had made a sort of pan bread from it, which was really good. Could use some butter, maybe some jam, but that didn’t matter much. Any difference in diet was welcome. Tasty food in the field was a gift to be savored.

Zarah’s reverie was interrupted by Varric. “Hey, Princess… Any idea who we’re going to be killing tomorrow?”

Across the fire, she heard Bull’s laugh. That long, hard and loud guffaw that couldn’t be faked. She knew what was coming. Maybe she could…

“Wait, Varric. What’d you call her? Princess?” Bull laughed again. “Where did you get that?”

Fuck me running, she thought. Here it comes.

“C’mon Tiny, look at her. She’s regal, carries herself like nobility. She’s always trying to do the right thing. She acts like a princess, so that’s her nickname.”

By this time, Bull was doubled over, laughing so hard that he was crying. Zarah approached and grabbed him by a horn, forcing him to look up at her.

Parshaara, Bull. It’s not that funny. Keep it up and you’re staying here tomorrow. I don’t give a rotund rodent’s rump if the Seeker or Ambassador likes it. Got it?” She released his horn and returned to her seat.

Cassandra chose that moment to appear and ask, “What won’t I like?”

“Apparently,” Solas began, “There is something funny about Varric’s nickname for the Herald. If Bull continues to laugh, he will remain here tomorrow.”

“Really? Herald,” Cassandra said, “Isn’t that a bit… petty?”

“No… well, possibly,” she glared at the Iron Bull.

Varric picked up his notebook, ready to take notes. “So, what’s the not funny joke?”

Shrugging, Zarah shot her male counterpart a look. “You started it, they aren’t going to stop until you tell them…”

“Hey, I didn’t start it-”

“Just fucking get it over with. Then we can get all the jokes out of the way at once.”

“Yeah, well, Varric,” Bull said. “Her name, Zarah, means Princess in Qunlat.”

It took a few minutes for that to sink in. Solas recovered first. “I would not have thought that the Qun would have words for royalty in their language.”

Zarah took a deep breath, shrugging. “You wouldn’t think so, would you? It’s probably a vestige of the language before Koslun. It’s not used anymore, and it’s only in books. There are a couple of children’s stories that have it, but it’s fallen into disuse. For obvious reasons.”

“You guys have children’s stories?” Varric began.

“All cultures have children’s stories.” Bull grunted, a little uncomfortable. “In the case of the Qun, they’re closer to morality tales than anything else. This person or that one falls away from the teachings of Koslun, they get into trouble, then they are either punished or find their way back onto the path of righteousness… Blah, blah, blah. Typical crap. We have stories about demons and shit, too. Fear of not following orders is a big thing for kids in Par Vollen.”

By this time, Bull had taken out his flask and uncorked it. As a way of apologizing to Zarah, he handed it to her.

Zarah drank and continued where he left off.  “Under the Qun, there aren’t names. There are… designations? I guess that’s the word in Common. It’s a series of numbers and letters. The Tamassrans use them as a code to all the genealogical information. By looking at it, they know who your parents are, how many siblings you have, and any traits to look for. Until around the age of 6, most education is in structured play. They’re looking for strengths and weaknesses, how people get along with others, who leads and who follows, and who complies with the rules and who doesn’t. 

“After the age of 6 or so, there’s a more structured education; reading, writing, arithmetic, basic sciences, and that kind of thing. Everyone in the Qun gets the same basic skills taught to them. It’s not until children are 12 that roles are designated, and formal training begins. By then, the Tamassrans have figured out what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what everyone is be best at.”

Zarah stopped for a moment to take another drink. Solas took the silence as an opportunity. “And if they are wrong?” He asked.

Narrowing her eyes, unsure if it was a question or a dig, she replied. “From what I understand, they rarely are. Oh, people may not want to do what they are best at, but the Tamas are really, very good at figuring out what people are good at.

“I’m not going to defend the Qun. I was still young when I was taken away, and I wasn’t assigned a role yet. I can tell you that among the Tal Vashoth that came through our settlement after leaving the Qun, all of them were good at their role, and if they tried something else, they always went back.”

She smiled, all teeth. “You can disagree with the system, and I certainly do, but it is effective, and it does work for some people.”

“I didn’t mean…” Solas said, bowing his head as if in apology.

“Sure, you did. For people not raised in the system, it’s easy to see it as brutal and say that it squashes free will. You’re not wrong. What is wrong is to judge someone for something that works for them because you wouldn’t want to live that way.

“You don’t crap all over people’s lives because you don’t like it. It’s rude and tends to piss them off.”

She took the flask from Bull again and raised it to her lips. She may not like him, but free booze was free booze, and Bull drank the good stuff.

“Anyway, when my mother took me out of Par Vollen, I needed a name. A real one, not numbers, and Beres-Taar, my Dad, well, the man that raised me, decided that mine would be Zarah. That’s it. To him, I was going to be a Princess, something I couldn’t be under the Qun. It was like his own kind of rebellion. I was – am - his symbol. He didn’t want me to be defined, he wanted me to define my name. Or something like that.”

Smiling, Cassandra reached over and took the Herald’s hand. It almost felt like they were becoming friends. “That is a sweet thing he did. Zarah suits you.”

“Thanks, Seeker.” Turning her attention to the Dwarf she asked, “So, any chance you’ll change your mind?”

Looking up from his notebook, Varric smiled, “Not a chance in Thedas, Princess.”

Sighing, Zarah took Bull’s flask again. “Brilliant.”

Looking Bull in the eye she said, “This is your fault, Defransdim. Don’t think I’m going to forget it.”

 

 

Zarah is a derivative of Sarah, which in Hebrew means Princess.

Defrandsdim… Dick or Balls. Literally “little friends”

Parshaara… Stop

Beres-Taar… Shield

Chapter Text

“If a duel is like a dance, can dancing be like a duel?”

 

The fight was quick and brutal. It started with an arrow to a shield and ended with an arrow to the face. In between knives slashed, swords clashed, and Bull swung that hammer of death. Symmetry. Sometimes it works out that way.

 The Grey Warden they were in the Hinterlands to find, Blackwall was his name, fought hard and well. Zarah wasn’t sure how good he was against Darkspawn, but against bandits his sword was damn useful in a fight.

“You’re not a farmer. Who are you?” he demanded.

“Zarah Adaar,” she said, holding out her hand. “I’m with the Inquisition. The Grey Wardens in Ferelden have disappeared, and we’re looking into a possible connection between that and the murder of the Divine.”

The Warden shook his head. “Maker’s balls, you can’t think… Wardens disappear all the time. The Archdemon dies, the Blight is over, and the Wardens aren’t needed anymore. I will tell you one thing. The Wardens didn’t kill the Divine. Our purpose isn’t political.”

“Everything is political, Warden Blackwall.” Zarah sighed. “You can deny that all you want, but it changes nothing. If you can’t help me get the information I need, then we have nothing further to discuss.”

She turned on her heel and began walking away. It was a wasted trip, and chances were good that Leliana would have them chasing more wild geese later, but for now it was done. Time to move on to the next thing.

As she walked away, Blackwall called out. “Inquisition, agent, did you say?”

She turned back to face the approaching Warden.

“The Divine is dead, and the sky is torn open. Thinking the Wardens are absent is just as bad as thinking that we’re involved somehow.” His voice earnest, he continued. “If you’re trying to make things right, maybe you need a Warden at your side. Me, maybe you need me.”

“You want to join the Inquisition?”

“I do. I may not be able to close the hole in the sky, but I can kill demons while someone else does it.” He looked up at Zarah and smiled. “It’s what Wardens are supposed to do, isn’t it? Protect people; save the fucking world?”

She held her hand out again. As he took it, she said, “Welcome to the Inquisition, Warden Blackwall.”

 

 

The Herald of Andraste leaned against a tree, watching the figures at the fire. Bull, Sera, and the new guy, Blackwall, were tossing bullshit around like it was a game of catch. Each one would catch it, juggle it a while, and toss it to the next one like it was a game. It was less a game, really, and more of a complicated way to judge the others. It was a test of mettle and camaraderie. Finding out where the lines are is important when you need to trust each other to have your back in a fight.

In a way, Zarah was jealous of the ease in which Bull related to others. Maybe it was because he was older. Maybe it was because he spent so much more of his life with other races. He was certainly more gregarious by nature than she was. Her life had been spent mostly among Vashoth. She met humans and elves on a regular basis, but Varric had been the first dwarf she’d ever had a chance to talk to.

She felt a soft touch on her elbow, and a deep accented voice asked, “Why don’t you go talk to them?”

She looked at the Seeker. “I don’t want to make the new guy uncomfortable. He seems to want to see me as some Holy Icon. Listening to the Herald of your Blessed Prophet laughing at Sera’s fart jokes may be a little much for him, now. Leliana would kill me if I drove him off before she could talk to him.”

Giving a little snort, Cassandra agreed. “Fair enough. Does it bother you, being the Herald?”

Zarah rolled her eyes a little before she answered. “Shit yeah. People expect me to be perfect. Three days ago, some woman wanted me to bless her baby. That’s not me.

“I know it’s a useful tool, but I really hate it. Don’t you hate being the Hero of Orlais?”

“I understand. I do hate it when people call me that.” Cassandra looked up at Zarah and made a motion for her to follow. As she led the way to a nearby log, she continued. “What I did was work with mages to save lives. It was what I was trained to do. I don’t see it as anything remarkable.

“Why were you at the Conclave?”

“It was a job.” Zarah made the statement without elaboration.

Cassandra didn’t want to let her off that easily. “Is that it? Just a job?”

“Basically, yes. Leliana wanted Qunari Mercs for security. As I understand it, we were considered neutral, and highly visible.” She sat cross legged on the ground while Cassandra sat on the log. It made it possible for them to look at each other eye to eye.

“I speak Common. It’s unusual for Tal Vashoth.” Zarah smiled, as if remembering. “You may not know this, but Common is a difficult language to learn, especially if your first language is Qunlat. They have very little in common.”

She smirked at Cassandra who groaned a little at the pun.

“It was good money, and it seemed like it would be pretty easy work. How hard could it be to stand between Templars and Mages?”

Cassandra leaned forward, “What happened then?”

“Really, I don’t remember. It drives me crazy. I wake up sometimes, and the memory seems so close.” Zarah shook her head, “I can never catch it, though.”

From the direction of the fire came a burst of laughter. Sera’s giggles filled the air, and Bull’s distinctive laugh provided a bass line to it all.

Cassandra waiting until she caught her friend’s gaze. “You still don’t trust him,” she said.

“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “He’s lying. He’s not what he says he is.”

“He told us that…” Cassandra began.

Zarah interrupted. “Yeah, he said he’s Ben Hassrath, and that’s the truth, but he’s not here to spy. He’s an assassin waiting for orders. It’s the only thing that makes any sense.”

Lifting an eyebrow, Cassandra said one word. “Explain.”

“If they wanted information, they would have sent a Viddathari; probably an elf to infiltrate. Humans don’t pay close attention to elves in their midst, especially if they keep their eyes down and look afraid. If they wanted to know what’s going on, that’s how they’d do it. It’s who Leliana would send. But they didn’t do that.

“Truth be told, they probably did that, too. I’ll need to talk to Leliana about that.”

Zarah reached down at picked up a twig. Twirling it between her fingers, she went on. “But they sent this big, loud guy who announces that he’s a spy, and he’s told us exactly what he’s here to do. His exact words were ‘I’ve been ordered to join the Inquisition, get close to the people in charge.’ Why were those his orders?”

“To spy, he said that he was supposed to send reports back to the Qun.”

“I know, that’s what he said, but like I already said, if they wanted reports, a Viddathari would be a better choice. He was sent to take care of leadership… Of me, in case the Ben Hassrath decided the Inquisition were a threat.” Zarah shook her head. “It’s the only way all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, Cassandra.”

Looking into the Herald’s eyes, Cassandra asked, “How do you know this, Zarah? How do you know so much about how the Ben Hassrath think?”

Zarah stood and offered the Seeker her hand. “Walk with me a bit. What I’m about to tell you can’t go any farther than you. Please.”

“But Leliana…” Cassandra started.

“I don’t want her to know this, not right now. It’s… I don’t know how secure she is. She works with a lot of elves, and the Ben Hassrath is filled with elves that are Viddithari. It’s important to me, and if it’s known… Please just promise.”

Cassandra had never heard Zarah plead like that. She promised, and the Herald continued.

“My mother was Ben Hassrath, before she left Par Vollen. Ben Hassrath aren’t just spies, though that’s what they do outside of Qunari territory. They’re more like priests, defending the faith. It’s how they see the work they do. Does that make sense to you?”

For Cassandra, it was if a light went on, and she could see things more clearly. “Absolutely it does, Zarah. In a big way, that is how the Seekers of Truth were supposed to be, before we lost our way. We were to do the work of the Maker and protect others. Our mission became corrupted. Is that why your mother took you and left the Qun?”

“Explained in it’s simplest terms, yes, though things are more complicated in the telling.” Zarah sighed in relief that Cassandra understood, at least a little. She stopped walking and faced the Seeker.

“I’m not even sure he understands what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s not really a danger until he gets the orders, and I don’t know if, or when, those orders will come. I can’t protect the others without compromising my family, and they need protection more than you or the others do.”

Giving Zarah a warm smile, Cassandra tried to comfort the other woman. “I will speak to Cullen, discretely, about your concerns. I won’t tell him anything other than your belief that Bull may be planted, and we will figure out a way to keep people safe.”

She gave Zarah and awkward hug as they headed back toward the camp. “Thank you for trusting me, Zarah. I am honored.”

Chapter Text

Spying is the only way we know who’s a friend and who’s not”

 

 

“So…” Sera said, jerking her head toward their traveling companions. “You two got a thing?”

Zarah wrinkled her brow and looked down at the archer. “Bull? Not a chance. Why?”

“Well, you know… Both biggies. I thought you’d like that. Don’t seem to want to bump uglies with anybody else, you know?”

“Bump Uglies? What…” Sometimes talking to Sera was like trying to interpret a different language. “If you mean sex, no. I mean if all it took was being Qunari, I could ask if you and Solas were…”

“Ewww… He’s all ‘Elven Glory,’ and shite. He probably yells that when… Now I got that stuck in my head.” Sera smacked Zarah on the arm. “You’re evil, ya know that? Herald of Andraste, my arse.” Sera giggled manically. “So what? He’s not Qunari enough for you?”

“Too Qunari,.” Zarah replied. “He’s all ‘Qunari Glory’ and shit, if you know what I mean. Besides, even if I was interested, and I’m not, I’m not going to wait in line for him to finish with the Chantry Sisters and serving girls. No man is worth waiting in line for.”

“That’s a fact. Smelly, nasty… Men are all pokie-pokie, anyways. So, women then?”

Zarah looked at the little elf with affection as she danced next to her. She didn’t want to dash Sera’s hopes but… “Sorry, Sera. Strictly dickly here. I like men, just not Bull. He’s not my type. I’m not his type either.”

“I didn’t think you were into women but had to ask. No hard feelings, yeah?”

“No hard feelings, Sera.”

Sera tittered and wiggled her eyebrows. “You change your mind, I’ll be right here, sticking arrows in baddies.”

Laughing, Zarah replied, “You’ll be the first person I tell.”

They continued walking for a while, and Zarah half listened to Solas and Bull play a game of mental chess. It seemed that Bull was losing.

Good, Zarah thought. Maybe he’ll figure out that he’s not as smart as he thinks he is.

Sera cut through her thoughts. “Ya know. You’re wrong about you not being his type. Bull, I mean. He definitely checks you out when you’re not watching.”

Zarah stopped dead in her tracks. It took a couple of steps for Sera to realize her friend wasn’t beside her. When she did, she stopped, turned around, and put her hands on her hips.

“What? Shit yeah. He spends a lot of time looking at your ass. You ask me, you wouldn’t have to wait in line if you wanted that.” Sera started to cackle. “You’d get bumped to the front of the line so fast.” Sera giggled again. “Bumped… Bumping uglies… Get it?? Anyhow, he watches the way your tits bounce around in that armor, just like everyone else.”

“Nug sh… Everyone else? What’s that supposed to mean? Has ‘watching Zarah’s tits’ become some sort of spectator sport? That’s…” she searched for the proper word. “Disturbing. Really disturbing.”

Sera leaned in and nudged the larger woman with her shoulder. “Know what’s disturbing. You bein’ all smart and shite, but not knowing who likes you and who doesn’t. Noticing people is important.”

“You think I don’t know? It would really be weird if I went around watching people watch my… How did this start, anyway?”

“You… You like him, but you don’t want to like him, and you think he’s spying, but he already admitted that. You think he wants to hurt you, but he’s always standing between you and bad things.” Sera nudged Zarah with her shoulder again. “I know that you think he’s a baddie, but would it hurt so much to be nicer to him? Just in case you could both get what you want?” Sera snickered, “You can always kill him later, if he does something terrible. I mean, enemies closer, and all that shite.”

“I don’t want-“

“You keep telling yourself that, Horny.”

Zarah frowned.  Sera was too observant by half. “I’ll think about it. No promises, though.”

“Fair enough.” Sera danced around Zarah excitedly. “Ya know, if he is a baddie, and ya wanna get real close, you could, you know…” She wiggled her eye brows suggestively. “That way he could come and go at the same time! Hahahaha”

“Nope. Not happening, Sera.” Zarah laughed, though. Sera’s mirth was infectious. Her words also hit Zarah on a more visceral level. Her mind wanted to travel down roads that she wasn’t prepared to allow.

“Gotcha thinking bout it, dint I?”

Zarah looked at Sera and saw her grinning broadly. “You’re thinking bout him like that, ain’t cha?”

“Sera. I am definitely not thinking about him like that. I told you, he’s not my type.”

“Yeah, yeah… Beardy’s not your type, too much hair. I seen ya lookin at the Jack Boot, but you only seem to wanna figure out how he gets his hair like that. AmIright?” Sera counted men off on her fingers. “You’re not really interested in anybody else, so’s gotta be Bull.”

“It could be that I’m just not interested in having sex with anyone, you know.” Zarah sighed. “I’m the bloody Herald of Andraste. I got this stupid thing on my hand, and because of it, I’m expected to solve problems that I didn’t cause. Half of Thedas wants to kill me, and the other half wants to worship me.”

“Well,” Sera said, “That could be fun too…”

Zarah kept going, “The one person around here that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t break is someone I have sworn to loathe for all eternity.”

Sera stopped right in front of her, and Zarah swerved to miss her.

“Wait… Break?”

“I never have, but I’ve heard stories about…”

Sera held up her hand. “What do you mean by break?”

“I’m twice your size, Sera. I’m stronger, my bones are thicker, I have horns, for fuck’s sake. If I forget who I’m with and things get… boisterous, somebody could end up needing a healer.”

“Rawr…” Sera sighed.

“You’re a very strange girl. You know that, right?” Putting her arm around Sera, she continued. “It’s really not that great, and it’s the reason that I have never been with anyone that wasn’t Vashoth. I don’t want to take that risk.

“Take you and me, for example. Say I want to go down on you. The way my horns are, one wrong move by either of us, you get a horn stuck in your thigh. That’s not nearly as great as an orgasm, is it?”

“Uhhh, guess not.” After a moment, Sera asked, “But doesn’t that happen with, ya know, other Qunari?”

“We learn to navigate the world with horns. It’s something we’re aware of all the time, to some extent. Ducking through doors to keep them from getting caught. Learning how to sleep without impaling pillows, that kind of shit. So, when you’re with another Vashoth, you’re both making that kind of calculations, and it doesn’t happen. Besides, if I’m going to be really honest with you, a little blood or pain isn’t actually a turn off for most Vashoth. I mean, I don’t really go looking for it, but if it does happen, it’s just a bit of spice on the sweet.” Zarah shrugged. “That was probably more information than you were looking for, but…”

“I could stand to hear a bit more. It’s just…Wooooof”

Before Zarah could formulate an answer, the anchor on her hand flared, throwing green sparks, and she hit her knees. Bull appeared through the trees.

“Hey Boss,” he yelled. “Rift up ahead.” Looking at Zarah, with a twisted mouth, he said, “Guess you know that already, though, huh?”

“Ya think?” She rose, squared her shoulders, and took her knives from their sheathes. “Let’s go kill some demon assholes.”

 

 

As they approached the rift, Zarah took stock of the situation. “Sera, you get on top of that rock. You’ll have a better line of sight from there. Put arrows in anything that’s not one of us.”

“Shit yeah,” yelled the elf as she took off to clamber up a rock.

“Solas, close to the rock, but not on top of it. Sera can provide covering fire, and you can help her with barriers if they get too close. Magic everything else. Sound good to you?”

“Excellent plan, Herald,” the mage said as he sauntered toward his position.

“You’re with me, Bull. Just kill everything but me, and we’ll get this done.”

Giving his axe a few hefts he said, “Let’s kill some demon pieces of shit.”  Zarah pulled her eyes away from his forearms flexing as they gripped his weapon.

As if in sync, they both took off at a run toward the rift. Zarah slipped into stealth and ran up behind a rage demon, striking once before Solas encased it in ice. It only took her two more hits before it exploded in a shower of snow. Panting, she looked across the field, to where Bull was surrounded by several sloth demons. There was only one way to help him from here, and Zarah had a clear moment. She lifted her hand toward the rift, disrupting it for a few moments. That gave Bull all the time he needed to finish of the demons, turn and give her a cocky thumbs up paired with that smile she loved to hate.

Zarah rolled her eyes and slipped into stealth for the next round of demons.

And then the Pride demon appeared.  “Fuck me,” she groaned, and Sera giggled. She hated those bastards. While Bull engaged head on, she flanked and slashed her way toward it. Several wisps died on her way to the back of the large horned demon, and her blades blurred as she attacked it. Solas’ fire and Sera’s arrows flew as fast as her daggers and Bull’s axe, and at last, the demon fell, and Bull spat on it before it dissolved back into the Fade.

Lifting her hand to the rift, Zarah screamed as the pain tore through her even as it sealed shut without a trace. Sinking to her knees, her right hand rubbed her face. Her head hurt, there was ringing in her ears, and she was having a hard time focusing on the hand in front of her.

There were voices, she thought, vaguely.  Maybe that was Bull? Sera?  In her disorientation, she didn’t even feel when the bandit mage’s spell hit, and darkness enveloped her.

 

Chapter Text

“There are some losses that are more acceptable than others.”

 

Bull watched as Zarah closed the rift. He saw her knees hit the ground and started toward her when the flash from the mage’s staff caught his eye. He started moving forward before he saw her fall.

He bellowed and started swinging the axe. Solas raised his staff and put a barrier between Zarah and any stray arrows, then began summoning lightening, aiming for the bandits wearing plate armor. Sera fired rapidly at the other archers. Her aim and range was better than theirs, and they fell quickly.

Solas ran out of enemies first and headed toward the Herald. As he got there, he started to reach for her, and he heard Bull yell, “Don’t touch her!”

Solas looked up as Bull finished with his last enemy, running full speed at him.

“She’s injured. I’m trying to….” The mage began.

Bull hit his knees next to Zarah and rolled her onto her back. “Yeah, I know, but she’s wearing Vitaar. It will poison you if you touch it.” He checked to see if she was breathing, and if any bones were broken in the fall.

As soon as he realized that there were no life threatening injuries he took a deep breath.

“Got any health potions on you? We’ll give her one now. I’ll carry her back to camp and clean off the Vitaar. You can patch her up after that.” Bull gathered her gently in his arms and stood. “She’ll be fine. Takes more than a crack on the head to kill a Vashoth.”

On the walk back to the base camp, Solas peppered Bull with questions about Vitaar, its use, and the materials it was made with. Sera danced around them both, looking worried and cursing. Bull mentally recited a list of what needed to be done before Zarah would be safe to heal.

He was also anticipating an unpleasant conversation with the Seeker. Why the fuck didn’t she tell them about Vitaar?

Bull already knew the answer, but Cassandra wasn’t going to like it. Until now, Zarah had only worked with Tal Vashoth, or other Vashoth. It didn’t occur to her that the other races didn’t know about Vitaar’s real purpose. It didn’t just protect, it killed as well.

Water, clean clothes, and potions, he thought, centering himself on the necessities. She’ll be okay. She has to be okay.

 

Zarah first became aware as she felt water cascading over her arm. Then a cloth, softly wiping the water off, and again with the other arm. For a moment, she was a child again, remembering her mother caring for her when she had a fever. The softness, that gentle and reassuring touch helped her drift back into a dream of riding on her father’s shoulders, and spicy meals filled with laughter.

Later, when she opened her eyes, it was to a different man with horns and an angry Seeker having a heated debate in whispers. Mostly about her. The words ‘stupid’ and ‘irresponsible’ tumbled out of Cassandra’s mouth.

Zarah couldn’t remember moving, or making a sound, but she must have.

“You took a nasty hit on the head,” Bull said quietly. “Don’t try to get up. You’re back at camp and everything is okay.”

“Cassandra didn’t sound like everything is okay.” Zarah winced at the sound of her own voice. It sounded too loud in her own head.

There was a small chuckle from Bull. “Cassandra is just pissed that you’re her friend and she can’t do anything to make you better. She’ll get over it. Solas says you’ll be okay as soon as the headache goes away. He wants us to stay in camp tomorrow, just to be safe, but you’re gonna be just fine.”

Putting his arm under her shoulder’s he helped her sit up and gave her a cup of water. “Solas said that the combination of the spell and your head hitting the ground may make you feel sick. He wants you to start slowly. If you keep this down, there’s broth for you.”

“No Maraas Lok this time?” Zarah laughed a little, then winced at the pain. “I’d prefer it.”

“I tried. Solas isn’t buying the ‘Maraas Lok will cure everything’ line.” He smiled. “Besides, until the throat goes numb, there’s coughing. That would hurt more than the laughing did.”  Bull lowered her back onto the cot. “Still dizzy?”

“A bit.” Zarah took a long, deep breath, then exhaled. “Wanna tell me how I got back here, and where my clothes are? I’m assuming that you…”

“Yeah, well after I convinced Solas not to touch you until after the Vitaar came off,” he paused. “You’re going to have a conversation with the Seeker about that, you know. Fair warning.”

She winced.  “Thanks for that…”

“No problem. So, I picked you up, carried you back her, and washed you up. Then Solas did his thing, and here we are.” He spread his hands to indicate the tent.

“So you…?”

“Yeah, it was me. Don’t worry, I didn’t get to enjoy it.  Much. Cassandra was standing behind me the entire time, hand on the hilt of her sword, watching like a hawk. I couldn’t tell if she was going to kill me, or cut off bits if I did anything she considered improper. Not that I would. You’re hot, but I like my partners awake and participating.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Great. If you want to Ride the Bull, let me know. I’ll make room in my busy schedule.”

In spite of herself, Zarah laughed, then winced in pain.  “Not happening, Bull.”

That earned her a real laugh. “I figured. Can’t hurt to ask, right?”

“I suppose.” She tried to sit up again and couldn’t. After he helped her up again, she continued.

“Just wondering, though, why my sex life, or lack of one seems to interest so many people.  Sera insisted on talking about it this morning.”

“You’re a damn fine-looking woman, for one thing,” he said, counting reasons on his fingers. “You’re powerful, and you’ve got fantastic tits. Ass isn’t bad either, if you want the truth. A lot of people are going to be talking about your sex life. If you decide to bed someone, that person is going to be very important, because Orlesians, right? Sex and Politics, Zarah. They make Thedas the shit hole it sometimes is.”

She had the cup to her mouth when he said the last part, and she dropped the cup, water spraying out of her mouth. Then she groaned.

“Don’t make me laugh, you Asshole. It fucking hurts.” Bull didn’t apologize. So, she kept going.  “Also, I hate you. It’s not fair, making me laugh, trying to get me to like you. Stop…”

A huge smile appeared on Bull’s face. “I’m a funny guy, and I like your laugh. Think I’ll keep doing it. No offense, Boss.”

Before she could answer, she heard a scratch on the tent canvas. Solas voice could be heard outside. “Herald, if I could….?”

“Of course, Solas,” she answered. “Please come and rescue me from this crazy person.”

Bull stood up and ducked his head through the tent flap, making room for the elf to enter. “Glad you’re doing better, Boss.”

“And I’m not your damn boss,” she yelled after him.

Walking toward the fire, listening to the soft sound of Solas’ voice ask how she was feeling, Bull answered her, very quietly. “Keep telling yourself that.”

Chapter Text

“The plan, and what actually happens, ain’t always exactly similar.”

 

Cullen, Josephine, and Leliana sat in the Ambassador’s office, going over correspondence from the field. This was a regular occurrence since the early days of the Inquisition. The Herald’s reports were factual, straightforward, and without any embellishment at all. To get a real idea of how things were going, they used Varric’s letters, along with reports from Bull and Cassandra to piece together a cogent whole.

It quickly became clear that this was going to be a time-consuming endeavor, as the focus from all three was vastly different. Opinions and views differed, and what each considered important complicated things. It became a puzzle in which there was no picture to judge whether they were putting the pieces in the right places.

It was late in the day, and all three were frustrated.

“So, if we’re understanding this correctly, the rebel mages aligned themselves with this Tevinter Magister, Gereon Alexius.” Cullen rubbed his temples. “Why would Fiona think that’s a good idea?”

Leliana poured him more tea and slid the honey pot closer. “It’s worse than that, I think. Varric uses the term ‘indentured servitude.’ They aren’t allied, Cullen. They’re slaves.”

“Merde,” Josie spat. “I’ll get to work contacting the Templars. They’re our best option now.”

“They always were,” Cullen said, stirring honey into his tea. “We don’t need more mages close to the Breach.”

“I still think that we should wait until the Herald gets back before we make a decision, Cullen.” Leliana stated plainly. “I’m certain that she will have an opinion, and Zarah isn’t one to blindly follow orders.”

Cullen sighed. “True enough. She mentions a Tevinter magister…”

“Altus,” Josie corrected.

“I doubt there’s much difference between the two.” He continued.

“I’m quite certain,” Josie lectured, “That the Altus would be of a different opinion. Words do matter, Cullen. If he truly is an ally, the niceties must be maintained. Please remember that?”

Cullen sighed. “Of course, My Lady.”

Leliana looked at the Commander and giggled like a girl. “Cullen, don’t ever play Wicked Grace with Varric. You have far too many tells.”

“I beg your pardon?”

‘You only call us ‘My Lady’ when you’re cross.” Smiling again, Leliana continued, “Don’t worry about the Altus. If he’s not truly an ally, Josie will let you pummel him. I promise.”

“I do not want…” he stammered, then stopped when he saw them grinning. “Maker’s breath. You two are worse than Mia ever was.”

Handing him a piece of shortbread Josie replied. “I shall take that as a compliment.”

“I would appreciate meeting your sister one of these days, Commander,” Leliana trilled.

“Over my dead body,” he replied earnestly.

“Hopefully not.”

 

A few days earlier…

“I’m sorry, Grand Enchanter. You did what?”  Zarah couldn’t quite believe her ears.

“We pledged ourselves….” Fiona began.

Bull interrupted. “This, right here, is why you can’t trust mages.”

Zarah turned to him and growled. “Shanedan, pashaara. Ebasit Y maraas-toh, tal-eb iss mer-toh ari-van.”

“Yes Ma’am.” He replied and took a step back.

She looked at Cassandra and Varric. “Anyone else want to make a pithy remark, or can I continue my conversation with the Grand Enchanter?”

Wisely, both remained silent and Zarah continued. “You thought that joining with the Imperium while you’re in the middle of Ferelden was a good idea? How does that work, exactly? Half of Thedas already thinks you’re murderous scum. That wasn’t good enough, so you had to try to convince the rest?”

“That was tactful, Princess…” Varric muttered.

“Stuff it, Dwarf…”

Zarah sighed, pinched the bridge of her nose, and returned her attention to the elven mage in front of her. “I’d like you to explain why you thought this was a good idea. Magisters from Tevinter are not known for their kindness toward strangers. You really thought this would work out well for you?”

“The Conclave exploded, Herald,” Fiona stated blankly. “We were being blamed for the Divine’s death. The Templars were getting closer. We were desperate, and Alexius appeared and offered us a chance to escape. We took it.”

“Do you have a plan for getting to Tevinter? Maybe a time frame, because if you can spare it, help with the Breach would be lovely,” Zarah snarked. “It’s a little out of your way, but saving Thedas is worth a little trouble, isn’t it?”

“I believe that it is to me that you should be speaking,” a male voice said.

Zarah turned to see an older man in red approaching her. “So, you,” he continued, “Are the Herald of Andraste. The Survivor from the Temple of Sacred Ashes? I am Magister Gereon Alexius, and the Southern Mages are under my command. I am the one you need to negotiate with for their services.”

Alexius turned and walked to a table. He sat and indicated the chair in front of him as hers.

 “So, they’re slaves?” She asked.

The magister waved his hand as if shooing away a pesky fly. “Of course not. They have indentured themselves to me. Entrusted me with their safety, really.”

“So… Slaves…” Zarah said again. “Well, perhaps…”

“You need mages to seal the breach. I am surprised you are even willing to attempt it.” Alexius feigned concern. “It’s an ambitious undertaking. There is no telling how many mages you’ll need.”

Zarah played along. “We don’t think small here. A big, green hole, shitting demons all over Thedas is something that we need to take care of.” She looked him in the eye and gave him a toothy smile… or was she baring her teeth?

“There will have to be payment, of course, and I’ll need assurances that your Templars will not interfere with them leaving when the job is done.”

She leaned forward, but before she could answer, Zarah felt Bull’s hand on her shoulder. “Hey, Boss,” he said. “Can I talk to you for a second?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m in the middle of something here.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s important.”

Turning back to Alexius, Zarah said, “If you’ll excuse me for just a moment. My colleague here has information for me.”

Zarah stood and followed Bull to the corner of the tavern. “This better be good, Bull.”

Bull used his body to block Zarah from the room. “Look, I know you want to throat punch that asshole. I want to, Cassandra wants to. Fuck, even Varric wants to. He’s an asshole, and he knows it. He’s using it. Playing a game. We’re quickly heading into ‘this is gonna piss off Josie’ territory. I thought a little cool down might help.”

“You think I wanna punch that little fucker for being an oily little toad?”

Bull laughed. “Your fists do, at least.”

 Both looked down at Zarah’s clenched fists. When they looked up again, Bull lifted his eyebrow and tilted his head slightly.

“Fine. I won’t punch him.” She raised her finger.  It creaked with the effort to remove it from it’s neighbors. “No promises next time I meet him.”

“We can arm wrestle for the honor of who kicks his ass, later. Let’s just get out of here before Josie has a mess to clean up.” Bull stepped aside so Zarah could return to the table.

She took long strides toward the table where the Vint sat… smirking. I’m gonna love wiping that smirk off the slimy eel’s face.

Just before she reached the table, Alexius stood. “Inquisitor, may I present my son, Felix?”

On instinct, Zarah reached her hand out to shake the newcomer’s hand and was surprised when, instead of grasping her outstretched palm, he stumbled into her. Catching him with one arm, she felt a slip of paper being placed in the other.  For an instant his eyes met his, then he looked away quickly.

“I’m so sorry, My Lady. I’m usually not that clumsy.” His eyes met hers again, silently asking her to play along.

“It’s okay,” she said, smiling. “I’m used to having men fall for me. Most don’t do it quite so literally, though.”

Alexius was at his son’s side in an instant. “We’ll continue this at another time,” he said brusquely. He placed his arm around Felix and escorted him away. Shouting for Fiona, he gave not another thought to the Herald of Andraste and her companions.

Cassandra gave Zarah the once over, looking for stab wounds or signs of poison.

Bull asked, “You okay, Boss?”

Zarah lifted her hand, note between her fingers. “I’m fine. I got a note from a boy, though. Wanna bet it’s an invitation to a ball?”  She tutted, “And me with not a thing to wear…”

Varric took the note and read. “He wants to meet you in the Chantry, Princess. Trap, you think?”

The other three replied in unison. “Trap.”

Zarah shrugged, “But it doesn’t really matter. To the Chantry we go.”

 

“You two should get a room,” quipped Varric on the way to the Chantry.

Zarah whirled around and faced the dwarf. The scowl on her face should have scared him into silence. It didn’t. “What? You two have been arguing about who should set off the trap since we left the Tavern. I figure you two should get a room and get it out of your system. Have hate sex, beat the shit out of each other; it doesn’t matter as long as you stop fighting in public. It shows a lack of unit cohesion.”

“I’m not going to fuck him, and a fight indoors will just break the furniture. You ever see a tavern after some moron challenges a Vashoth to a fight? There’s usually nothing left standing.”

She turned, took a few steps, then swiveled her head to face Varric again. “The Inquisition doesn’t have the money for that kind of damage right now, and Cullen will kill me if I take Bull out. You’ll just have to suck it up and deal.”

“You’re assuming you’d win,” Bull countered.

Walking away, Varric could still hear her muttering. “This shit’s worse than dealing with the damn twins.  At least they shut the fuck up occasionally… I hope there’s something to kill when we get there, otherwise I’m going to have to hit Bull… At least he can take it. Fucking asshole Magister piece of…”

Hands clenched at her side, arms swinging, she picked up speed. Bull was impressed at how quickly people moved out of her way. He also took a moment to admire her long legs, and her ass as she moved.

Get a grip. Now is not the time… he thought.

As they approached the, Bull saw the mark on her hand flare green. She flung the doors open before he could stop her. Inside there was a very pretty mage, clubbing demons with his staff in perfect time and with a grace that could only have come with years of training.

“Oh good, you’re here. Care to help me with this?”

 

 

Shanedan, pashaara. Ebasit Y maraas-toh, tal-eb iss mer-toh ari-van... Means “Enough, I hear you. I’ll make you disappear if you don’t shut up.” Or as close as I can translate it does. We don’t have a Qunlat word for I, so I HC that the Y means I…

Chapter Text

“It’s only really a trap if you don’t know it’s there. Once you know, it becomes a challenge.”

 

Zarah unsheathed her daggers and sprinted forward. “It would be my pleasure.”

A moment later she was in combat, taking a savage delight at the speed of her blades. Slashing and cutting, her knives penetrated demon after demon, sending them to the Void.

This was her element. For the first time today, she felt in control of the situation. It felt good.

There was a slight lull in the battle, and Zarah found herself thinking. Josie has her words, and Leliana has her secrets. But all in all, I agree with Cullen. There is nothing like a good fist in the face to let someone know you’re serious.

As the rift flared again, she was caught in some sort of time distortion. Her actions were slower, and no matter what she tried, she couldn’t make herself move faster. Zarah gritted her teeth in frustration as she moved; the demon in front of her seemingly no closer to dying that it was before. She watched in slow motion as a crossbow bolt entered the demon’s chest. The demon fell to the ground slowly. It’s face, if you could call it a face, set in a grimace of pain.

With the death of the last demon, time returned to normal, and Zarah’s momentum pitched her forward. Landing on her knees, and sighing with relief, she braced herself for the pain and lifted her hand to the rift.

She could feel the Fade pulling on her hand, like hooks imbedded in her skin, and the rift snapped shut. Freed from the tension, her hand recoiled and she relaxed.

She was still sitting on her knees when the mage reached her. “Are you all right? Anything I can do to help?” He held out his hand and helped her to her feet.  “How does that work, anyway?” He continued, seemingly without the need to draw breath. “You don’t even know, do you? You just wiggle your fingers and… Rift closes. Interesting.”

“You are?” Zarah asked, hands on her hips.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sometimes my enthusiasm gets the better of my manners. My mother would be appalled.” The Tevinter mage bowed with all the flourishes of one used to life in an Imperial Court. “I am Dorian Pavus, recently of Minrathous. At your service. Alexius was once my mentor, and I believe I can help you.”

A low growl echoed through the room. “Boss, you can’t trust the pretty ones.”

Slowly Zarah turned to face Bull. “We just closed a rift, and this is a Tevinter Magister…”

“Altus,” Dorian interjected.

“Whatever,” she shot over her shoulder. “And the one thing that you find untrustworthy about him is that he’s PRETTY? What the fuck is wrong with you? Did you hit your head and forget to tell anyone? Are you possessed by a demon of STUPIDITY? How in the absolute FUCK does that make any sense to you?”

“Well, Boss…”

“No, I just… Walk out that door. Leave. Wait outside. You’re in a time out. I.. I…”

“Hey, I’m just…”

“Bull, if you don’t leave right now, I’m going to geld you and dip your balls in Silverite. I’ll get a pretty chain and hit other stupid people with them as a warning. Am I making myself clear?” She closed the distance between them. Standing nose to nose, she looked him in the eye and pointed toward the door.

“Get. The. Fuck. Out. Of. My. Sight.”

Without even checking to see if he did as he was told, Zarah turned back to Dorian. “Now… where were we? I remember. So, you sent me a note.”

Dorian smiled. “I did, indeed. Even before the note you had to know you were in danger. Alexius arrived here just in time to save the mages, yes? As if by magic. What if I were to tell you that magic was involved? Would you be interested in knowing how?”

“You can tell me how?” Zarah narrowed her eyes.

“I can, yes. Magic… Time magic, to be specific. I worked with Alexius on it when I was his pupil.”

“Time magic?” Zarah laughed. “You know how crazy that sounds, right?”

Dorian reached up and twirled his mustache, then began pacing. “Yes, it sounds outlandish, but you’ve seen the truth of it. The pockets around the rift here… time moving slower in some areas and faster in others. It’s an effect of the magic, and it’s getting worse.”

Cassandra stepped forward. “We have seen it before, Herald. In front of the gates of Redcliffe. The same thing happened there as here. Perhaps he isn’t lying.”

“True,” Varric said. “Why would he want to help us? He said that Alexius was his mentor. Why…”

“Because, Tevinter or no, I don’t want to see the world torn to shreds.”

Dorian stopped pacing and looked Zarah in the eye. “Alexius has gone mad. He’s willing to destroy the world. Regardless of why, he needs to be stopped. I believe you can do that, and I want to help.”

There were footsteps from the side of the Chantry. Varric pulled Bianca off his back and Zarah reached for her blades.

Felix emerged from the shadows. His eyes were lined with worry and fatigue surrounded him like a shroud.

“He did it to get to her.”

“Me?” Zarah quizzed. “Why me? I mean, I’m flattered, but… I’ll have to have Josie send him something.”

Dorian leaned in, and in a conspiratorial tone of voice he said, “Send him a fruit basket. Everyone loves those.”

Zarah chuckled and Dorian winked in response. Varric looked between them, glad that Bull was no longer in the building. This boded well for no one.

Felix returned to the point at hand. “My father has joined a cult of Tevinter supremacists. They call themselves Venatori. They’re obsessed with the Herald. I can’t say why.”

“You’re working against your father. Why?” Zarah was skeptical, but willing to listen. Felix was relieved to see that.

“For the same reason Dorian is. I love my country and I love my father. Time magic? Cults? This is madness. For the sake of all of us, especially my father, he must be stopped.”

Dorian looked at Felix, then back at Zarah. “You survived the Temple of Sacred Ashes, and you can close the rifts. Is it possible that there is a connection?”

“Anything is possible, Dorian.” Felix replied. “If they’re behind the breach, they’re worse than I thought.”

Zarah caught Cassandra’s eye, and the older woman gave a slight nod. Turning to Felix, she asked, “Do you have any suggestions?”

Dorian answered for him. “You already know that you’re the target. It will help you avoid any traps in the future. Personally, I can no longer stay in Redcliffe without being caught. Alexius is unaware that I’m here, and it’s safer for everyone if he remains in the dark. I would like to be there when you deal with him, if you don’t mind.” Dorian’s voice had an edge to it now.

A slight smile appeared on Zarah’s face. “If that’s the case, come to Haven with us. It’s hardly what you’re used to, but it’s better than camping.” Her eyes met Dorian’s and he could have sworn he saw a twinkle in it. “Maybe you can help me convince the Council that this is worth pursuing. In any case, you’ll be out of Alexius’ sight there.”

“I may just do that.” Dorian looked to Zarah and smiled. “I shall meet you outside of town and we can travel there together. I rather doubt that a mage from Tevinter arriving at the door alone will be given a warm welcome, burning at the stake being the exception.” He looked back at Felix with a smile. “And Felix, try not to get yourself killed while I’m gone.”

Dorian left through the back door, as Felix said quietly. “There are worse things than dying, Dorian.”

After both men left the building, Cassandra said, “Cullen will not be pleased. Neither will Leliana. She hates having people near if she doesn’t know everything about them.”

“Ruffles will be overjoyed, though,” Varric said. “She likes making new friends.” He looked pointedly at Zarah. “Who’s going to tell Bull that we’re going to be traveling with a Vint?”

Zarah looked at the door, and an almost savage smile appeared. “That will be my pleasure,” she said, reaching for the knob. “My pleasure.”

Chapter Text

“Right in the middle, between anger and calm, is where apathy lives.”

 

Zarah didn’t even look at Bull when she walked out of the Chantry. She didn’t wait for him to catch up. She continued walking, even choosing to lengthen her stride, trying to outpace her anger and frustration. She wasn’t certain WHY she was so angry at him, she just knew that, as her mother always said, her “Vashoth” was showing.

She reached the gates and saw that Dorian was not there yet. Spying a few benches close by, she walked and sat down on one. She counted silently, one to ten, hoping to get control of her feelings before she stabbed Bull.

“So,” Bull asked. “Why’re we stopping?”

He always had to ask, didn’t he?  She took a deep breath before answering. “Dorian is meeting us here and traveling back to Haven with us.”  She didn’t have to wait for long.

“You’ve got quite a soft spot for the Vints, don’t you Vashoth? You know that they’re the enemy, don’t you?”

Zarah stood and faced Bull head on. “Maybe I wouldn’t need to rely on them if the Ben Hassrath were less concerned with which Orlesian nobles were playing Humpy Squirty with each other, and more concerned with useful information.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Dorian approaching.  Perfect timing. “We’re headed for the Crossroads camp. Varric, Cassandra, you’re with me. Bull, head to the one near Lady Shayna’s Valley, get everyone else, and meet up with us.”

Bull crossed his arms and planted his feet firmly on the ground. “Boss, I’m your bodyguard, not an errand boy. Where you go, I go.”

“Is this supposed to impress me, Bull? Am I supposed to be frightened or intimidated here? You’ve clearly never met my mother if you think a bit of arm crossing is going to sway me one way or another.” Zarah pinched the bridge of her nose, counted to ten, and continued. “If you want to survive another day, today, at least, you are an errand boy. I don’t have the patience to deal with whatever existential issues you have with Vints - I mean, Tevinter citizens. I’m trying to stop the end of the World, and I need all the help I can get. Today, that means traveling with a mage from Tevinter.”

“He could be a spy, or an assassin, Zarah. It’s not safe.”

Zarah rolled her eyes so hard that she could see Cassandra, behind her, rolling her eyes as well. “You’re a spy, Bull. You admitted it, and you could be an assassin. For fuck’s sake, he’s the only lead we have. I’m taking him with me. Deal with it.”

Refusing to give up, Bull asked, “And if you’re wrong?”

“He’s one mage,” she answered leaning in to share a secret. “Kind of a runty one, too. Cassandra will be very insulted if she finds out that you don’t think she can handle one puny mage.” She shrugged, “Truth be told, I’m kind of insulted, too.”  She straightened, all business again. “So! If you don’t get your ass out of here and do what I’m asking, I’m telling her and making a bet with Varric to see how long it takes her to kick your ass.” Zarah grinned, trying to soften the blow a bit.

It worked, if Bull’s snort was any indication. “Go... Get everyone else. Make a few bets with Blackwall and Sera about how long it will take before Viv and Dorian get into some sort of magical pissing contest.”

“Cullen’s going to have a stroke when he finds out a Vint’s coming to Haven.” Bull gave a chuckle. “Did you think about that?”

“It’s not a homecoming if someone isn’t bitching about something I did while I was gone.” Zarah shrugged, the typically Orlesian gesture looking out of place on her massive shoulders. “Go, I’ll be fine.”

Bull shouldered his axe and took a step away. “That mage kills you; I’m not going to be the one to tell Cullen.” Passing Dorian, he leaned over and whispered. “You hurt her; they won’t ever find your body. Got that, Pretty Boy?”

Dorian turned and watched him walk away. “He’s quite protective, is he not.”

Zarah huffed, and Varric laughed. “Best not talk about that now, Sparkler. It’s complicated, and we just met. Varric Tethras,” he said, making a courtly bow. “At your service.” The dwarf grabbed Cassandra by the hand and pulled her over. “This is Cassandra Pentaghast, Seeker of the Chantry and Right Hand of Divine Justinia V.”

Dorian stepped close to the Seeker, took her hand, and genteelly brought her hand to his lips. “Charmed to meet you, My Lady.”

Cassandra snatched her hand away quickly with an unladylike grunt.

“Pentaghast…” he said, thinking. “My mother has a friend that’s a Pentaghast. Perhaps you know him.”

Cassandra rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips. “The Pentagasts are a large clan, Ser Pavus. I couldn’t possibly know them all, nor, to be honest, do I wish to.”

“That’s too bad, I often find that shared connections make things go more smoothly. Still, he’s an enormously fat man, three chins, four mansions, five ways to sell you out, as Mother likes to say.” He flicked an imaginary bit of dust off his ornate leather armor. “Someone as lovely as you shouldn’t know anyone like that anyway.”

“Oh,” she answered, her tone moderately surprised and disgusted in turn. “I do know him. Cousin Loren, with the wandering hands. He has more of them than he should.” She smiled sheepishly as they walked. “More than one woman has accused him of being a mage because of it.”

Zarah laughed as she walked behind them. At least they were trying to get along, which was more than she could say for Bull. What in the Void is his problem? Thinking as she walked, eyes scanning the horizon and her ears alert for the sounds in the underbrush, she was paying little attention to the conversation going on near her.

“So, Serah Varric,” the new addition began.

“Just Varric. I don’t put on airs like my brother did.” A look of combined pathos and amusement crossed the dwarf’s face.

It didn’t look out of place, there, Dorian thought. It’s a look he wears often, I guess. “I recall an author by that name. My mother called him pedantic and trite, so, of course, I had to get the books and read them all.”

Varric chortled loudly while Cassandra made a sound of disgust. Varric laughed louder. “That’s me, writing all the books to irritate the parents. You must be the one person in Tevinter that read Hard in Hightown.”

Dorian shook his head, “It’s quite popular, really. My mother insists it’s plebian. Good enough for the Laetans and Soporati, but not nearly exalted or lofty for ones such as ourselves. Between you and me, she’s a ghastly snob.”

“If she considers it so terrible, I wonder that she admits to reading it.” Cassandra seemed a bit more upset than the conversation called for, and Dorian made a mental note to find out why. Good information helped with chances of survival, and Dorian’s survival instincts were well honed by now.

“Yes, you’d think so, wouldn’t you?” He twisted his mustache a bit as he thought. “Of course, she likely had it read to her. Picking up a book does interfere with the drinking of the wine. Putting down the wine goblet is so bothersome…” He sighed, exaggeratingly.  “Whereas, if it’s read to her, she can honestly say that she didn’t read it. Among the upper class in Tevinter, honesty is so hard to come by.” Dorian said, using his entire body as punctuation. “We tend to celebrate what little there is.”  

Thawing, slightly, Cassandra considered this. “It’s much the same in my family. One of the reasons I left, truth be told. The nobility is often that way, I suppose. Lying has it’s purposes, distasteful as I find it.”

Paying more attention to the conversation than their intrepid leader, Varric almost walked, face first into her ass, because he didn’t realize she’d stopped in front of them. She was amused, he was non-plussed. It’s a situation that dwarves found themselves in more often than they’d like to admit.

“So,” Zarah said, entering the conversation. “You don’t lie? Ever?”

The object of her questioning placed on hand on his hip, and the other over his heart. “Of course, I do. Everyone does. I simply restrict myself to the common place and very ordinary ones. ‘Why yes, Lady Whozit, that frock is simply lovely. Where on Thedas did you get it?’ That, of course is a lie. It’s a dreadful dress, and if I ask where it was made, it’s only so I never accidentally go there.” Zarah grinned, and he took it as encouragement. “I leave the big lies to the professionals. ‘I do agree with you, Archon. Blood Magic isn’t the problem they say it is in the South. So passe.’ That is a big lie, and one I will never utter.”

Cassandra narrowed her eyes. “Really?”

“My lovely lady,” he began. “Not everyone in the Imperium uses blood magic. I certainly don’t, for several reasons. First, it’s incredibly lazy, and while I refuse to peel my own grapes or buff my own nails, magical shortcuts are unforgiveable. It’s also messy – have you ever had to get blood out of leather? It’s impossible - and makes it more difficult to reach the Fade for real magic.  Blood magic simply doesn’t boost the spell enough to compensate for the cleaning bills.”  His flippancy became him.  “It’s not a popular stance in the Imperium, hence I am here,” he said indicating with his left hand… “and not there,” indicating with the other, presumably in the direction of the Imperium itself.

“Intellectual rigor and cleaning bills,” Zarah stated incredulously. “Those are your reasons for not practicing blood magic?”

“Can you think of better? Why do you not rampage through the countryside, killing all who oppose you like a ‘real Qunari’ should?”

Zarah leaned against a tree and laughed. Dorian liked the sound and liked her. He could easily see them becoming good friends, and it lightened his heart.

“I’m afraid of my mother,” She said.

“Excuse me?” Dorian said at the same time Varric said, “Say what?”

“My mother disapproves greatly of rampaging Qunari, and she’s quite creative with punishments for transgressions. She feels that she’s failed if she has to stoop to violence, and… let’s just say that she has a sadistic streak.”

Zarah reached into her pack for a piece of jerky and started chewing. Around the mouthful of meat, she said, “I don’t rampage because if my mother found out, her wrath would be terrible, swift and merciless. Also, point of fact, probably disgusting.”

By this time, they had arrived at the camp near the Crossroads, and found the others waiting for them. There were introductions all around, and snark exchanged. Varric was particularly amused by the look of relief clearly displayed on Bull’s face when he saw Zarah safe and sound.

I’m going to have to change the odds on the fucking pool, he thought. The Princess may not be interested now, but he is.

Zarah changed out of her armor and joined the rest around the fire. Sitting with Dorian on one side and Bull on the other, she was more relaxed than she had been for a while. She refused to overthink the reason, though. Preferring to listen as the Grand Game of Boundaries was played.

She turned toward Dorian when she heard her name. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

“Quite alright, I just wanted to ask. Earlier you mentioned your mother and her diabolical penchant for punishment. I’d love to hear more,” her new friend said. “If you don’t mind, of course. I don’t want to pry.”

A wide smile appeared on her face. She knew just the story to tell. It was a good memory, and one that would amuse those around the fire.

“Well,” she started, “There was the first time I got drunk. I was about 16, and Shokrakar showed up with some Maraas Lok. She and Papa took to drinking and before long there was a couple of drunk Tal Vashoth in Maman’s house. They were singing raunchy tavern songs and swapping stories about Seheron. I took the opportunity to sneak a bottle of the stuff and get lousy drunk.”

Bull nudged her and handed her his flask, smiling at her ease. It wasn’t often they weren’t at odds. He was enjoying this.

“Anyway, I’m pretty sure Maman knew what I was doing; she’s not easily fooled, but she’s also someone that let’s you learn from your own mistakes. So, she didn’t do anything… At the time.

“The next morning was a different story.” Zarah was giggling at the memory. “There she was, ass crack of dawn, in my room banging pots and pans around. ‘Time for work, Lovie,’ she said.” She stretched her feet out, closer to the fire. “I haul my sorry butt out of bed and find her cheerfully cooking breakfast. Had I not been so fucking miserable, that would have been the first clue that shit was going to go sideways. Alas… I wasn’t paying close enough attention.” Pausing for dramatic effect, and taking a swig from the flask, she then said, “Maman was never a morning person.” She handed the flask back to Bull. “Anyway, next thing I know, she’s giving me breakfast. Two eggs, Sunny Side up, and bacon, arranged artfully to look like a face on a puke green plate.”

A long, welcome dose of laughter rose around the fire.

Blackwall was the first to ask, “Did you make it outside before you emptied your stomach?”

“Barely,” Zarah said, amused. “When I came back in, the offending plate was gone, replaced by the blessed gruel, and a note telling me to make sure I chopped wood for the week. She never said a word about it.”

With a tone of awe, Dorian said, “I have a need to meet your mother, Herald.”  Bull grunted, in apparent agreement.

For a day that started out so badly, Zarah was at peace. Dorian was going to fit in, here. She just knew it.

Eventually, anyway.

Chapter Text

“Sometimes funny for you, sometimes funny for me.”

 

They were nearing Haven, and Dorian was becoming nervous. As if summoned by a spell he hadn’t known he’d cast, Zarah’s horse pulled in close.

“We’ll be getting to Haven soon. I’m going to have to do some Herald shit, and the advisers are going to want to talk to you.” She looked over at him and smiled. “I won’t let them do it without me there, so no need to be worried. I got your back. I’ll take you to what passes for home here, and you can wait there while I beat the Council into submission.”

“You beat them?” Dorian was intrigued. “Sounds fascinating. Can I watch?”

“Only metaphorically, though it’s a near thing sometimes.” She smiled as she continued. “Cullen is nice to look at, but he’s unreasonably stubborn occasionally. Think Cassandra with better hair and an ass you can bounce a sovereign off of.”

Dorian shifted slightly in the saddle. “That sounds… lovely, I suppose.”

A very loud “Ha!” came from Zarah’s lips, causing everyone to look in her direction. She leaned in and whispered, “I knew you liked men.”

Dorian was more than a little uncomfortable now. “And…”

“Oh, shit, it’s not an issue. It’s just… Varric runs all sorts of betting pools, and you’re in the running for the first man I bed.” Turning toward him, she gave a conspiratorial wink. “I knew that it’s a swing in the dirt, but people believe what they want.”

“We….” He sputtered. No wonder Bull was so hostile. “I certainly don’t mean…”

“You’re thinking about Bull, aren’t you?” she asked, rolling her eyes. “Don’t bother about him. That’s not ever going to happen. He thinks it might, or something, I don’t know, but it won’t.” Dorian remained unconvinced, from his expression.  “Anyway, when we get to Haven, I’ll take you to my cabin, and you can wait there until I sort things. Then, you can meet the Council and after that… dinner and booze. Lots of booze. Bull has been exceptionally repugnant this trip.”

“Aren’t you concerned that someone will get the wrong idea about us?”

Eyeing her new friend, Zarah grinned. “I’m actually counting on it. Sleight of hand… While they’re worried about the Qunari and her new friend from Tevinter, I’m going to convince them that going back to Redcliffe and letting me punch Alexius in the face is a good idea. They all seem to be drifting toward the Templars. I need to get them back on course.”

“I should think,” he began, “That allying yourself with a group of warriors would be your preference.”

After a minute of thought and a large sigh Zarah responded. “Working with the Chantry’s version of the Beresaad is not my first choice. I want more than people following orders without questioning. The only good thing about the War Council is that they aren’t afraid to tell me when they think I’m wrong. As annoying as it is, I need more of that, not less. Templars follow orders; it’s how they’re trained. It’s what got us into this shithole mess. More of the same is not going to get us out.”

Haven was now clearly in view. Near the stables, standing at attention, were two Templars. Zarah groaned. “I was hoping to do this the easy way.” She stopped her horse and looked directly at Dorian.

“They’re going to try to take you, but I’m not going to let that happen. Stay with me, don’t use magic, and follow my lead.” Her hand went to his shoulder. “Trust me. I’m going to take care of this, and you. They’re also going to get the shit scared out of them, but that’s sauce for the goose. Trust me?”

Dorian smiled and twirled his mustache with his right hand. “After you, Dulci mea…”

She touched her heels to the horse’s flank and rode into Haven, shoulders squared, and head held high. Vaulting quickly off her horse in a fluid motion, she handed the reins to a stable boy, and waited until Dorian dismounted. The two templars moved to intercept Dorian, and were surprised to find, not the mage, but the Herald blocking their path.

“Pardons, Herald. Our orders are to escort this… man to await questioning. Your presence is needed by the War Council in the Chantry.” With that, he attempted to reach around Zarah, and grasp Dorian by the arm. Zarah’s step to the left thwarted that attempt, and left the Templar red faced after grasping, not the arm of a man, but the right breast of the Herald of Andraste.

Pulling his hand back as if scorched, and turning a shade of garnet, the Templar stammered, “My Lady, the Commander has given us an order to…”

Zarah stepped in closer to the Templar, forcing his partner to step back. He looked up, a shadow from her horns falling across him and her height advantage was more than emphasized. She leaned in a little closer and growled, causing him to take half a step back before catching himself in retreat. Attempting to regain control of the situation he stepped forward, pulled himself up to his full height, still a good foot shorter than her, and placed his hand on his sword.

He took a breath to make a speech, but the Herald of Andraste spoke first.

“This man,” she said loudly, “is my friend and guest. Until we can sort out accommodations for him, he will be staying in my cabin… with me. I don’t give a rat’s ass what your orders are, and I don’t care who gave them to you. He stays with me.”

“The Commander himself…” the Templar started, before righting himself. It was clear that he was unused to being put in the position of explaining, and he didn’t like it much.

Zarah held up one finger and quietly spoke. “Before you continue Ser….”

“Matthias,” he provided.

“Ser Matthias. Ask yourself one question.” Zarah smiled. “Right now, in this moment, what do you fear? Are you afraid of digging latrines? Or are you afraid of pissing off a tired, hungry, dirty, and irritated Vashoth that hasn’t hit anyone in over a day?” She watched him patiently, looking intently at his face until he met her eyes before continuing. “I don’t want to meet with the Council right now. I’d rather eat, change, and have a bath, but I’m not going to get what I want. That makes me unhappy. Do you want to make me more unhappy or less? Simple choice. Take your time, I can wait…” She paused, for a moment and revised, “Sister Leliana may not like it, but I can wait.”

She watched the conflict play across the face of the poor bastard just trying to follow orders. She found that the urge to laugh was almost too strong to resist. It was a testament to her self-control that she didn’t even crack a smile. Arms crossed, perfectly aware of the crowd that had gathered, she stood, unmoving, calmly looking down at the befuddled man in front of her. The thought that her mother would be proud crossed her mind.

She paid no attention to any of that. This was a teaching moment; one she wasn’t going to mess up. They wanted her to be the Herald of Andraste, then by Maferath’s hairy ass, she was going to be treated as the Herald of Andraste.  A holy savior, sent to save them all, with all the privileges and rights that should come with it.

“Oh, for the love of the Maker,” interrupted the Seeker, impatient with the posturing. “Enough of this bullshit.” Zarah stifled her grin.  She wasn’t the most impatient person in her group of companions, after all.

After Cassandra put a gentle hand on Zarah’s wrist, she allowed her Grey eyes to meet her friend’s coffee colored ones. “I will see Ser Pavus to your cabin,” the Seeker said. “It will be well. You go speak to the others about what we found.”

Zarah nodded and took a step back, moving slowly through the mass of people watching the show. As she moved away, she listened as Cassandra took the Templars to task for disregarding the wishes of the Herald. Her steps grew longer and faster after she passed through the gates of the town and before she reached the stairs, her mind had gone from the win she had to the fight yet to come.

In the meantime, quietly leaning against a pole in the smithy, The Iron Bull watched a memory of a Tammassran, accompanied by two others, carrying a child out of Par Vollen while he watched helplessly from a ditch, play out against his mind’s eye.

He swore silently before deciding that this was something that neither the Qun nor the Inquisition’s command needed to know. With little outward effort, but with a heavy head, he shoved himself upright again, and made for the Charger’s camp.

He needed something to hit, and maybe Krem still hadn’t mastered the Shield Bash.

Chapter Text

“Meetings are the evilest form of torture imaginable.”

 

 

The Herald of Andraste strode through the Chantry toward the room in the back. Her arms were swinging in time with her footsteps and at the end of those arms were hands clenched into fists. inch of her was a testimony to her irritation. Those in her path scurried to clear the way, and those that weren’t in her path glued themselves to the walls to stay out of it. Even Mother Giselle, normally the most loquacious of the Chantry, stayed silent. 

She opened the door to the War room, and three pair of eyes turned toward her. “You’re back,” the spymaster said. “Good, we have much to discuss.”  The redhead looked at the closed door. “We were expecting Cassandra as well.”

“Is that a question or a statement?” Zarah queried. “She got held up on Herald business.” Looking the Commander in the eye she elaborated. “She just saved two of your Templars from getting their arms ripped off and beaten with them. You should thank her.”

“What happened?” He asked, eyes wary.

Zarah took a deep, calming breath. “They tried to take my friend into custody. ‘Escort him to await questioning,’ was the way they put it. They didn’t want to take no for an answer.” She looked up to see Cullen rubbing the back of his neck. “I take it that they got their orders wrong?”

“They were told to check out the situation and report back. I said nothing about escorting him anywhere.” He looked up and met her eyes. “I apologize for the misunderstanding, and I will speak to them about following orders more closely. It won’t happen again.”

“I thought that was the case,” she replied. Her shoulders relaxed, and her hands began to uncurl. “You usually like to make sure someone deserves to be punched before hitting them.”

Cullen looked around the room uncertainly. “Thank you… I think?”

Zarah’s attention was drawn by the approach of the Ambassador, teacup in one hand and biscuits in the other. “I thought you might like a snack, Herald.”

Her face brightened as she reached for the treats. “Ooohhhh biscuits. Are these the cinnamon ones? I love those!” A sigh of contentment and a look of absolute bliss followed as she quickly dunked a cookie into the tea and took a bite, eyes closing slowly as she drawled. “Josie, may you always escape the lairs of your enemies without slipping on their innards.”  After another dreamy sigh, Zarah opened them again, just to see Leliana smiling, with a twinkle in her eye. Cullen was rubbing the back of his neck and studying the map intently, cheeks a little pinker than usual. Josephine was wide eyed, appalled at the unherald-like blessing bestowed upon her.

Zarah had the sense to look somewhat abashed. “Sorry, Josie. That’s something Papa says to Shokrakar whenever we leave for a job. It’s a good thing, really… You know, making it back unscathed, nothing embarrassing happening?” Her words trailed off, “I’ll try not to say that again.”

“While I appreciate the sentiment, Zarah,” Josie started, trying to be tactful, “It’s probably best if you don’t. I can give you a list of more… appropriate blessings for the future. If you’d find it helpful, that is.”

A large grin appeared on the Herald’s face. “That would be an excellent idea.” She then turned to Cullen. “I did mean it as a compliment, by the way. It’s always a good idea to make sure someone deserves the beating you give them. A fist to the face is only effective if it’s warranted.”

Turning once again to the Ambassador she asked. “Josie, I know we agreed that standing around this table serves the purpose of keeping meetings shorter…”

Cullen cut in, “It doesn’t actually work.”

Zarah laughed, “I’m aware. In future, if I’m fresh off the road, can we make an exception?”

The Antivan nodded. “I’ll take care of it, Herald. I can have chairs brought in now, if you’d like?”

“Yes, please, Josie.” Zarah walked to the sideboard while Josie opened the door to make the request. “Gives me a chance for more tea and cookies, too.”

Chairs were brought and placed around the table. Everyone had tea and biscuits, and Josie was thoughtful enough to ask for sandwiches. Comfortable and fed, the meeting began in earnest. “Before we get to the three-ring shit circus happening in Redcliffe, I’d like to talk about Dorian,” Zarah stated. “If no one minds.”

Leliana nodded. “Best to get that out of the way first. What can you tell us?”

“He’s the only son of a magister, Halward Pavus. His mother is, if I remember correctly, also a member of the magisterium. He’s the black sheep; kicked out of schools, defies his parents at every turn. According to him he had to leave home because he refused to marry the woman they wanted him to.” Zarah picked a sandwich off the tray. She took a bite and chewed, taking the time to gather her thoughts. “After getting kicked out of the last academy, they placed him with Gereon Alexius as his mentor to finish his education. He lived with the family and excelled at his studies. He and Alexius’ son Felix are close friends.  Felix and his mother were attacked by darkspawn about 6 years ago. The wife was killed, the son became ill. After that, Alexius was changed; he and Dorian grew apart. Not long ago, Alexius contacted Dorian again, and asked him to join the Venatori, an invitation Dorian declined. They haven’t spoken since, and Alexius doesn’t realize he’s in Ferelden.”  The Herald leaned back in her chair and looked at Leliana. “You can ask him all the questions you like, he’s more than willing to help, but when you do, you will keep in mind that he’s a friend and ally. He’s not hostile, and I won’t allow him to be treated poorly. Is that understood?”

“Of course,” the redhead replied. “If I may ask, though. Why do you trust him?”

Zarah reached for her cup of tea. “Fair question. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure. He looks me in the eye when he speaks. He never hesitates to answer a question. He’s not overly servile and willing to please… All of those are reasons, and good ones, but mostly…” Zarah chewed her lip before continuing. She knew that this part was going to be hard for the others to accept. “Mostly, it’s a feeling; instinct. He feels… right.”

Cullen scowled and opened his mouth to speak, but Leliana put a gentle hand on his arm.

She smiled, “I understand. In my line of work, there is a good amount of gut feelings, and we ignore them at our peril. If you believe he is to be trusted, then I will trust your judgement. If, however, we get information to the opposite?”

“Then, you tell me, and I take care of it.” She looked each of her companions in the eye before she continued. “I clean up my own messes. If he’s lying to me, I will deal with it. Agreed?”

Leliana smiled again, looking at the Herald with respect. “Agreed. I believe that Josie and I can handle the questions, yes? I can ask, and Josie can ply him with kindness and teacakes.” She smiled and laughed. “He won’t know what hit him.”

“Excellent.” Zarah turned to Josephine. “He’s in my cabin for now. He’ll need a more permanent situation though. I don’t mind sharing, but I’m certain that the Qunari Herald and her Tevinter Mage sidekick will cause more than a few diplomatic headaches?”

“Like a fart during Chantry services, I’d wager,” Cullen quipped before realizing who he was with.

Leliana and Zarah laughed heartily while Josie looked a bit shocked.

“Space is at a premium, Zarah,” the Ambassador replied, her cheeks still pink. “We are rearranging some people, but if he doesn’t mind sharing it won’t be a problem.”

“Give him a real bed under a real roof, a warm fire, and decent food, and he’ll be as snug as a nug in a rug.” She gave Josie a conspiratorial wink. “He’s not much for roughing it. I will be keeping him with me on the road for a while, I think. He’s damn good in a fight, and it will keep him out of Roderick and Giselle’s way. I suspect they aren’t happy with the turn of events?”

Cullen answered. “Indeed no. The Revered Mother is not objecting as loudly as the windbag, but she still expresses concern to anyone that will listen. Rylen is refusing to come near the Chantry. She talks his ear off about it.”

“I’ll speak to her.” It was a conversation that Zarah wasn’t looking forward to. Any and all conversations with Giselle ended with a plea to convert. “You’re on your own with Roderick, though.”

Josie got up, walking the circumference of the table refilling teacups. “So, tell us about Redcliffe…” and the meeting took another turn, much to Zarah’s relief.

Dorian would be safe, for now.

 

Chapter Text

“All worries are lessened after a good meal.”

 

She opened the door to find Dorian sitting at the table. His legs were crossed at the knee, a book in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.

A glass of wine. Not wine in the bottle, but an actual glass, with the ‘come hither’ aroma of roast chicken wafting through the air. And potatoes, glorious, fluffy potatoes with gravy sitting next to an entire loaf of bread, with an actual slab of what smelled like honey butter on a tiny plate with a knife spelling out its impending doom.

Zarah was convinced that this was some sort of fevered dream. Had she died of boredom and awakened in some sort of Paradise?

Then again, she didn’t care.

She was hungry.

Dorian looked up from his book and smiled. “Oh, there you are. I thought they were holding you hostage or something. I’ve had a lovely afternoon, and while I’m looking forward to telling you all about it, you look too famished to do my stories justice. Wash up, and I’ll fix you a plate.”

“If this is what coming home to you would be like, I have to ask.” She batted her eyelashes, and put on her sweetest, most sultry voice, “Dorian, love of my life, will you marry me?”

Dorian laughed; the sound brightened her day. “I would, but we’d end up making each other gloriously unhappy. Still,” he said handing her a glass of white wine, “your quarters are better than mine. And the company is better as well. They have me living with a hairy, balding mage. He likely passes gas in his sleep and snores louder than Sera.”

“I’m surprised you got out at all.” Zarah said, taking a sip of a crisp white wine.  

“Varric was here earlier,” he replied, gesticulating with his fork. “He brought a very attractive Templar from Starkhaven. Rylen was his name, I believe, and he said his orders were to show me about and make me feel welcome.”

“Did he? Make you feel welcome?”

“He took me to my cabin, showed me the tavern and hot springs… All the local sights, such as they are, and made is clear to all and sundry that I’m not a prisoner. Your doing, I suppose.” He grinned and wiggled his eyebrows. “I would have felt more welcomed if there were fewer clothes involved, but all in all, I’m not unhappy.”

She felt as ease with Dorian. He was good company, better than Karaas, truth be told. Good conversation, nice to look at, and no poetry. Yet, at least.

“Rylen is decorative, that’s for certain.” Zarah took another sip of wine and rummaged through the dresser. “I didn’t arrange it. It was probably Cullen. We had a conversation about the reception you got, and no doubt he was trying to fix it. Rylen is his second in command.”

“After the tour, I went back to the hot springs for a lovely soak, then to the Tavern where Varric and I had some revolting ale. I got back here not long before you, and just in time to admit a very sweet young woman and this wonderful repast.”

Zarah rose gracefully from her chair and made her way to the chest. “Mind if I change?”

“Not at all. Would you like me to turn about, or…”

“Don’t be silly. I’m a merc. Modesty is a luxury that I don’t need.” She unbuttoned her shirt and left it open while searching for a clean tunic. “Cassandra and Josie may think that my virtue needs protection, but that ship left port long ago.  Good riddance.” She stopped talking long enough to take off one shirt, wet a rag and run it quickly over her torso, and put on another. “I don’t know what’s wrong with Chantry folk. Virtue… Virginity… It’s not like some man’s dick has the power to change a woman.”

Dorian was in the middle of sipping wine and promptly spit it out with his laughing.

Zarah smiled at his curses and lunging for napkins. “I mean, I know men think that their cocks are miraculous, but honestly, it’s wishful thinking. They don’t think sex with women changes men in any way. Why the other way around?”

“Speak for yourself, my dear Herald.  My cock changes everything.”

After a moment of indecision, Zarah decided to forgo breeches. She had no real desire to struggle her way into leather, just to have to peel them off later. Instead, she walked over to the table, filled the wineglass, and sat. She looked at Dorian who was still wearing a look of incredulity on his dark features.

“What?” she asked.

“How many Chantry sisters have you killed with your opinions? Just asking. Can I watch when you kill the next one?” He lifted his glass to toast. “Here’s to you, Herald of Beloved Andraste, slayer of demons, bandits, and idiot Chantry members.”

“Cin Cin… I think that’s what they say in Tevinter.” She took a sip. “Did I say that right? I can read Tevinter pretty well, but I’ve never had the chance to hear it spoken.”

“You know Tevene?”

“No, I read it, though. I learned when I was little.” She leaned back in her chair, tucking into the food on her plate. “The Tamas figured out that I had a gift for language, so they gave me books. I speak Common, Orlesian, Qunlat, Rivaini, and a bit of Dalish and Antivan. The Dalish is much harder because there are so many dialects and layers of meaning for each word. Each clan seems to add its own words and interpretations. I don’t think there’s a way to create a proper lexicon, and it’s… You’re staring at me. Why are you staring at me?”

“You are not what we’re taught Qunari are in Tevinter. You’re supposed to be rapacious savages, and here you are, funny, intelligent, and gifted in languages. What more will I find, I wonder?” He moved his chair close enough for their knees to touch. “Tell me. Why did you ask me here? Why trust me? No one else did. Why you?”

“It felt right.” She said. He started to smile, and she continued. “I know that it sounds really crazy, but sometimes I just… know things. When I met you, I just knew to trust you.” She made an impatient noise, “It’s a feeling I get, or almost a voice I hear. I can’t really explain it better than that. It was just the right thing, and I knew it.” She shrugged. “I’ve been doing it for a long time, since I was a child. Maman said it was one reason she took me when she left. It was too dangerous for me to stay.”  

She held her wine glass out and Dorian refilled it. “Papa,” she continued, “Always said that I was the reason she left. She left sooner because of him, but she wouldn’t have stayed until I was placed.” She shrugged and took a bite. “Papa is right, of course, I’ve always known that I was the reason. I’m not sure why. She wouldn’t just tell me.”

Dorian’s eyes narrowed a little as he took a sip of wine. “When you say that you’ve been doing ‘it’ for a long time, what do you mean by ‘it?’”

“Sometimes I know things before they happen. I can… see if someone is, I don’t know, lying maybe?” Zarah shook her head. “No, that’s not right, I can tell if they don’t believe what they’re saying. That’s better. I’m doing a terrible job of explaining it.”

“There is no good way to explain something you don’t understand, Sweetie. I couldn’t explain why I prefer men to women if you paid me.” He looked a little sad. “I know, I tried. It didn’t change anything. In the end, it’s something that is, and we have to accept it.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way, Dorian. Thank you.” Zarah smiled, took another bite and a sip of wine.

“But tell me, why would you need to leave the Qun because of it?”

“According to Maman, the Triumvirate doesn’t like things it can’t understand. They would have studied me; broke me is the word Papa always used.” She laughed ruefully. “Maman has always tried to live by the teachings of Koslun. She didn’t buy all the ‘savage Vashoth’ horse shit, but she did, and still does, believe that rules are important. When you’re big and can easily hurt people, you need boundaries; lines you don’t cross.” She rolled her eyes. “The Qun provides that, albeit somewhat badly. In any case, in order to help people, find their place in the Qun, they need to understand what makes them tick. I was something that they didn’t understand. If they couldn’t understand me, they couldn’t place me. If I couldn’t be placed, I’d be broken and used as field labor. Maman didn’t want that.”

Dorian leaned back in his chair. He crossed his knees and Zarah could see the gears in his mind spinning, puzzling out the problem she presented.

Her new friend’s silence lasted for several minutes, and Zarah began to get nervous. Did she just put a wall between her and the only person in this damn place that didn’t seem to worship her in some way?

When he finally spoke, she exhaled a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.

“Is this feeling, for lack of a better term, the reason you dislike Iron Bull so much? It’s telling you that he can’t be trusted?”

Zarah reached up and scratched the base of her left horn. The random wish for better horn balm passed through her mind before her thoughts settled on Bull. “Not really. If it did tell me that, he would have gone missing before now. He likes to follow me when I hunt. Arrow… Chest, problem solved. The term ‘hunting accident’ will explain a multitude of sins.”

She smiled as another thought struck her. “No one ever dies of natural causes in Orlais, you know. Hunting accidents and falling off horses are the leading cause of death among nobles there. There can’t be that many clumsy people among the nobility. Is it that way in Tevinter?”

“No,” he replied. “At home we’re much more honest about our ambitions. We kill each other out in the open like civilized people.” He took another delicate sip of wine. “It’s no use being dangerous if no one sees you that way. Subterfuge is such a waste of time.”  He sighed, “But, enough of that. You’re making me homesick. Back to the subject at hand.” Leaning forward and putting his hand on her knees. “Iron Bull… He’s admitted he’s a spy and why he’s here. Why don’t you like him?”

Zarah sighed. “It’s a dream, I think. I can see him, in the dark with a sword. It’s… he’s menacing and dangerous.”

“A memory, perhaps?” Dorian prompted.

“No, I don’t think so… I don’t know.” She lowered her head and rubbed her face with her hands. “I can’t get rid of the image, and I don’t know where it’s from. Until I do, I can’t trust him.”

“Besides,” she added, “If he finds out where my family is, and tells the Ariqun, they could be hurt… or worse. I can’t risk that.”

After a sip of wine and a twirl of his mustache, Dorian asked, “Future or past, or can’t you tell? Is it at all possible that you’ve met him before, or seen him? He is… imposing. Perhaps your mind is filling in a gap using him?” He paused, “I’m not going to convince you to trust him. We all have good reasons for feeling what we feel, even if it can’t be explained.” He stood up, walked to the window and gazed out. “Still, trying to figure it out can’t hurt, can it?”

Zarah started to speak but yawned instead. A huge, jaw cracking yawn that was the sign of a weariness Dorian refused to ignore. “Well, we won’t figure it out tonight, will we?” He stood, took the wine glass out of her hand, raised her up, and led her to the bed.

“Time to tuck you into bed, young lady,” he grinned as he folded the blankets carefully under her chin. “We can speak more tomorrow. Don’t let the bed nugs bite, or whatever banal phrase they use here in the ass end of civilization.  I’ll let myself out.” With a grin and a wink, and a sharp wave of his hand, the candles extinguished and he blew her a kiss.

He thought he heard her say, “G’nite Dorian,” as he closed the door, but it could have been wishful thinking. She was probably asleep long before that.   

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Knowing changes you. Understanding changes the world.”

 

5 Arvaraad, 9:21 Dragon

The mission should have been a simple one. Kill two men, grab a child, take the child back to Qunandar. If the woman doesn’t fight, bring her back, too. Otherwise, kill her or let her go. Disengage only if the child is in danger.

“The child is the mission, Hissrad,” the Ariqun said. “She must not be harmed. Understood?”

He was given a location that was almost perfect for his needs, and he waited. Not long after, he saw them… Two men, one woman, and a child. His plan was simple, wait for them to pass, take out the two men, grab the child and deal with the woman only if necessary. Simple, elegant… damn near fool proof.

He was hidden in the ditch when they passed, he rose up silently, daggers at the ready… The shield hit him before he saw what was happening. His feet were kicked out from under him and a sword started the downward path toward his throat.

“Stop,” a small voice said in Qunlat. “Don’t kill him. He’s important.”

The woman knelt next to the child and pulled down her hood. “Imekari, he was sent to stop us from leaving. He needs to die to make sure we’re safe.”

Leaving the woman’s side, the little girl knelt next to Hissrad and put a small hand on his face. Her grey eyes looked directly into his, and the world spun a little. She stood, walked back to the Tamassran and said, “He needs to live, Tama. He won’t follow, and he has a part to play. It will be fine, I promise.”

The woman looked at Hissrad, then back at the two men. “Do as she says.”

With that, she raised her hood, picked up the child, and began walking. The two men followed, neither saying a word.

As he watched them leave, he could see the eyes of the girl glow slightly in the night. When they passed out of sight, Hissrad felt even more alone than he had before.

 

Bull woke up sweating. He sat up, rubbed his face with his hands, and took deep, even breaths to clear his head. He stood slowly and, ducking his head, left the tent. He spent a moment getting used to the crisp, cold air of Haven, and looking over the lake he thought; First dream about her that’s not fucking, and it’s this.

Shit.

He’d left the Singing Maiden alone, something out of the ordinary for him. There had been plenty of offers of company, but the scene earlier preyed on his mind. There had been something so familiar, so….

He shook his horns and growled. There was only one way to get to the bottom of this shit, and there was no way it was going to work the way he needed it to. He needed to talk to the one other person that was there, and he couldn’t be sure she remembered.

No, scratch that. He was certain she didn’t remember. He wasn’t certain that it really was a memory, it was that hazy. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed like someone else’s memory, or a play he’d seen; not something he’d lived through.

He started walking the perimeter of the lake, sorting his thoughts. He needed to figure out why the memory, and he was now pretty certain that it was a memory, seemed hazy and appeared out of nowhere.

Re-education. When it came to mission debriefing, it was standard for at least one re-educator to sit in on all sessions. It saved time. They identified problems and pro-actively solved them. The stated purpose was to identify symptoms of Asala-Taar and make adjustments as needed to prevent the necessity of using Qamek.

They were also there to smooth the edges over memories that could be security risks later on. A little forgetting now was preferable to having a large mess to mop up later. Bull had always seen this as sensible; logical even. The needs of the Qun were far more important than one individuals’ memory.

He wondered how many times they’d tinkered inside his head and he just didn’t remember it. Obviously, this was one.

It left him with a problem… a knot to unravel. Why? Did the people that sent him to join the Inquisition know of that mission a long time ago? If yes… Why take the risk of sending him and having that memory surface?

Taking a lap around the lake, Bull picked up the pace. He wasn’t really running, but his long legs were traversing the distance quickly. His mind occupied, he didn’t see Krem standing by his tent, eyes following his Chief, calculating how long he should let Bull run before becoming a sounding board.

It was math that Krem was good at. If he let it go on too long, the boss would think that he had it figured out and wouldn’t talk about it. Too soon, and he didn’t have enough time to gather his thoughts first.

Two more laps, Krem figured. Two more and he’ll be ready to talk it out. Or, he’ll shield bash me into an early grave.

 

As Bull continued to run, his mind ran through plans, how to get Zarah to talk to him, how he could get the information he needed to figure this out. Each scenario ended the same way. Failure. He needed to face a few facts.

She didn’t like him.

She didn’t trust him.

She said no more to him than necessary, and he needed to find a way to change that.

He approached the town, and spotted Krem standing on the shore. Bull slowed his pace. By the time he got to his Second, he was walking, and his breathing was starting to slow. “Crème de la Crème! What got you up this early?”

Krem pointed his head slightly eastward. “Sun’s coming up, Chief, and I have a meeting with the Commander and Lady Ambassador. Wanna come?” He handed Bull a towel to wipe off with. “It will be fun. Rocky and Digger want to play in the tunnels and mines around here. They say there’s a whole system of mine shafts and caves. Rocky wants to map them out. Could be useful.”

“That’s a good idea,” Bull agreed. “The maps would be good for caching supplies, and a possible escape if attacked.” Bull gave a chuckle. “It will also give Rocky something to do.”

“That’s what I thought, Chief.” Krem said. “It was Digger’s idea. He saw Rocky talking to that apothecary, Aden is his name, I think, about getting ‘supplies.’ All I could think of was Rocky blowing up half the town with one of his ideas.”

Bull stopped and looked toward the area where his company was camped. He loved the crazy assholes like family, or what he thought family would be, but they were more trouble than toddlers. Rocky and Digger, like all good sappers, liked to experiment with new ways to bring down walls quickly.

“Blowing up the town we’re supposed to be protecting would look bad on the resume,” Bull agreed.  When they got back to his tent, Bull turned and faced Krem. “Anything else you need?”

Krem sighed, “You’re really going to make me ask, aren’t you Chief?”

“Krem…”

He sighed again and rubbed his forehead. This was the part of the job that he hated. Giving Bull the bad news. “Chief, the guys, well… They wanted me to talk to you about your… Shit, damn, fuck Bull… They’re worried you’re going to screw up the sweet gig we have. Okay? They, well we, like it here, and if you keep pissing off the Herald of Andraste, when you really want to be doing something else to the Herald of Andraste, we’re going to have to start taking contracts to fight squirrels again.  Fucking squirrels!  Nobody wants their families to get a letter saying they got killed by a rodent or stepped on by a fucking giant. They wanted me to tell you to get your shit together and do better.” Krem finished in a rush and waited for the explosion.

The explosion that never came.

 He looked up to find his boss looking down on him, head slightly askew, and the brow over his one eye tilted upward. “Anything else, Crème de la Crème?”

“If I say yes, are you going to shield bash me into a conversation with Stiches?” Krem was now calculating the odds of survival.

“I’d say that the odds of that are pretty close to 100% at this point, but I’m willing to listen.” Bull paused. “Tell me the truth, and those odds may get better for you. They may not, but life is full of risk, Crème Brulee.” Bull took Krem by the arm. “We’ll talk over breakfast. Flissa makes this porridge with syrup and raisins. Good stuff. Keeps you regular, too.”

“Sure, Chief… If it keeps me alive while we talk, I’ll have some.”

Bull slung open the door to the Singing Maiden and ducked inside. He sat at a table near the door, back to the inside, and lifted two fingers toward the server. Then he looked at Krem.

“Say your piece. I’m listening.”

Before he could start, the server returned with two steaming cups of tea, a pot of honey, and a small jug of milk. Krem took his time, adding sweetening and milk to his tea. Collecting his thoughts, he wanted to do this right. It could be like walking a tight rope, telling Bull that he was wrong, but the Chief wasn’t unfair or unwilling to listen right now. He took the plunge. “You have a bug up your ass about the Herald, Chief. Even she can see it. You need to get rid of it.”

Bull sipped his tea before he spoke. “Antagonism… interesting tactical choice, Krem. Why’d you go there first, instead of working up to it, slow like?”

Krem decided that if a visit with healers was in his future, he was going to earn it. “It’s the one you usually choose with Zarah Adaar, you know, the Herald?  Heard of her?”  Bull didn’t even blink, but Krem was dedicated to his sarcasm now, and continued, “You use it so naturally, I figured it was your favorite. And when you’re not pissing her off, you’re studying her like she’s a rat in a cage. Neither are working. You know what they say about doing the same thing and expecting different results, right, Chief?” No guts, no glory...

The porridge arrived with a jug of syrup, and Bull handed the young woman a few coins. She smiled appreciatively and ran her hand down his bicep. The action was both thank you and invitation. Bull filed the information for later and turned back to his man in front of him. “You got any better ideas? She’s not in the market for another friend. She just got a new one, or didn’t you see? Poncey Vint asshole, you know the type.”

“We’ve met, sure. As far as Poncey Vint assholes go, he’s not that bad.” Krem took a sip of tea. “I’ve met worse. He’s not your enemy here, Chief. You are, and you know it. At least don’t try to lie to me about it. I know you better than that.” He took a deep breath, “According to the Chargers, you have two options. Dalish and Skinner think you just need to get the sex over and done with. Just bang like a shutter in a hurricane and get it over with.  Wham. Wham. Wham.”

“Thanks for the onomatopoeia, Krem.”

“I’m a helper.”

Bull put the teacup down. “One little problem, though. I do that, she kills me. I thought you all wanted me to survive this.  Or do your ambitions aim higher than second in command?”

“You misunderstood, Chief.” Krem countered with a grin. “They want to keep the job. If your life is the trade off, they’re willing to make it.”

Bull looked incredulous and Krem sped through to the finish. “They’re Mercs, Chief. What do you expect?”

“A little loyalty would be great,” Bull pouted.

Krem laughed at the sight of the huge, grey man with horns, bottom lip stuck out like a child deprived of a toy. He poured his boss another cup. “Stitches, Grim, and Rocky think that you should just let her hit you with a pointy stick until she likes you. You know… a sparring match. She’ll kick your ass, feel better, maybe you get laid, and we keep getting paid. It’s nothing you haven’t done before. Take one for the team, Chief.”

“You’re assuming she can kick my ass.” Bull said, continuing to pout. “I am bigger than she is.”

Krem took a bite and chewed, thinking about what he should say next. Should he soften the blow?

No, of course not. “She’s faster, Chief. Bookies say that she takes you down quickly. Ten minutes is the time they have the odds on.”

“Ten minutes? That’s it?”

“Five minutes to toy with you, and the other five to make you hit the ground, and still spare your precious feelings.  Herald cares too much to make it faster.”

Bull growled, the sound echoing through the mostly empty tavern. Krem had him, now. If five years with the Bull had taught him anything, it was where the levers in Bull’s mind were.

“I’m not saying they’re right, Bull, but that is where the odds are.”

The Iron Bull finished his breakfast and tea, then stood and headed for the door.

“Where ya going, Chief,” he called, knowing the answer already.

“Gotta get my axe.”

Krem raised his mostly empty teacup in salute.  “Go get ‘em, big guy.”

 

 

 

 

Asala-Taar: Literally means Soul Sickness. A combat related illness similar to Shell Shock or PTSD.

Qamek: Substance used by the reeducators to turn those who refuse to convert into mindless laborers, functionally lobotomizing those subjected to it. It's always used on captured mages, who are seen as being beyond saving.

 

Chapter Text

“When you’re walking the road to the Void, look down. See those bones? Those are the bones of the people that didn’t know when to put down the sword. “

 

The sun wasn’t up fully, and it was a Maker bedamned time to be awake, but his roommate did, as predicted, emit sounds from orifices that Dorian didn’t even want to think about, and so sleep had become impossible. He knew from his time on the road that Zarah enjoyed time for her meditations early in the morning, and so he found himself emerging from the gates of Haven in search of the Herald.  He could bring up the ungodly hour with the Maker’s representative personally this way.

His hope was that he could break his fast with her before the questioning began in earnest. When he’d returned to his cabin last night, he’d found a note from Lady Montilyet, requesting his presence in the mid-morning for “light tea and cookies.” After that was a luncheon meeting with the Left Hand of the Divine.

It was very clear that the invitations’ phrasing was deliberate. They were meant to convey a spirit of conviviality. His mother would call it the “Death by Courtesy” invitation. It couldn’t be helped, and if he wanted to stay and help, and he did, Altus Dorian Pavus would have to call upon all his charm, wit, and political skill to convince this Council that he wasn’t a threat.

Lost in his own thoughts, Dorian wasn’t paying attention to where he was going, and collided with Iron Bull, who also seemed to be lost in thought. Out of habit he said, “I’m sorry. I was…”

Bull looked down his nose and sneered, “I thought Vint Magisters didn’t apologize. When they walk, everyone gets out of their way.”

Such hostility could only be met one way.  Dorian snarked back, “Perhaps I could get away with that back home, but alas… Here in the Barbaric South, the Orlesians have already appropriated that privilege.  Me? Follow in their path? It would be an outrage.  So alas, during my sojourn here, I will have to apologize just like the Soparati do.” He looked up and narrowed his eyes, aware of how attractive the fall of his eyelashes were at that particular angle. “At least I admitted that I wasn’t paying attention. Do you have an excuse?”

Bull wasn’t in the mood to cross words with anyone this early in the morning, particularly the annoyingly attractive Tevinter that was standing between him and finding Zarah. “I’m not exactly unnoticeable here, Vint.”

 “Nor are you unsmellable, but I wasn’t going to mention that. Since rudeness seems to be the rule of the day, I will.” Unfortunately, witty banter wasn’t in Dorian’s plan for the morning. “I am assuming that you’re looking for someone.  Oddly enough, so am I. The Herald of Andraste, perhaps? We could help each other, if you’d be willing to stoop so low as to help a ‘Vint’.”

Bull looked suspicious. “Why would you want to help anyone, especially me?”

Dorian began sauntering slowly toward the lake, forcing Bull to follow. “Why wouldn’t I? It’s clear to everyone that you fancy the lady. She is very fanciable, and happiness should be encouraged.”

Bull stopped, reached out and grabbed Dorian by the arm, forcing him to stop and turn to face the Qunari. “First, she’s my Boss.” From the slightly raised eyebrow, the man didn’t buy that excuse. “Second, even if it were true, why would you help? Third, are you saying that you’re not interested?”

“It doesn’t matter who she is, Iron Bull.” Dorian smiled. “A cat may look at a Queen, after all.” At the look of confusion on Bull’s face, he smiled. I’ll have to remember that metaphor isn’t easy for him to follow. He may be smart, but not well read. “I’d help because she is my friend; I want her to be happy. And no, I’m not interested in her body.”

“Because she’s Qunari?”

Dorian laughed so hard that the half-awake people beginning to stir around the encampment began looking over at the conversation. Bull was unsure if the attention was a good thing. “Something funny?”

“She’s a woman. Now, were we talking about that delicious Commander, this would be an entirely different conversation.” Dorian looked slyly at Bull, hoping he didn’t connect any dots that didn’t need to be joined.

“So… no women at all?”

“Not even in the slightest.” He turned and walked toward the edge of the lake. “For someone that claims to be good at reading people, I’m surprised you had to be told. Perhaps your own desires are clouding your judgement?”

Coming to water’s edge, or rather to the edge of the ice, they looked across the water at the small dock to the northeast. On it, bathed in the early dawn light, was Zarah, performing the forms of the Asana-Aqun.

As he watched Zarah move, a memory rushed to the forefront of Bull's mind, merging with the scene in front of him.  He saw another woman as well. She was slightly shorter than Zarah, and her figure was more ample than that of the woman before him now. Her movements were lush and sensuous, where Zarah’s were lithe and athletic. Rows of copper-colored braids adorned with beads at the end danced across the back of the memory, while Zarah’s hair was carmine, and in a single braid. Yet their movements were almost identical... The same grace; the same elegance and economy of movement.  

Bull could not deny the physical similarities, the...   There could be no doubt that there was a familial connection between the two women.  He'd spent too long observing people not to realize that the women's similarities ran deeper than simply both being Qunari.  It was in the blood.

Dorian watched, amused, as Bull stared at the Herald of Andraste. He had no idea what was going on in the larger man’s head, but he knew one thing. Bull was interested in the Herald of Andraste, and it wasn’t just business. As Bull’s attention was elsewhere, Dorian looked him over. He needed to make sure that the two Qunari got together, and it needed to happen quickly; Bull was altogether too much to his taste, and the sooner temptation was out of his reach, the better. If his ancestors hadn’t been safely immolated, they’d be spinning in their graves knowing that the Scion of House Pavus was having lustful thoughts about a Qunari.

“Shit,” the men said in unison.

“I beg your pardon?” Dorian said at the same time Bull turned and said, “What?”

Dorian recovered first. “Well, this is somewhat awkward. Is there a problem?”

“Yeah,” Bull began, then he changed his mind. There was no need to tip the Vint off. “No, I just… I forgot the leg brace this morning. My knee…” he finished, looking helplessly at the leg without the brace.

Dorian wasn’t fooled. “You know, Iron Bull,” He mused. “I have heard that exercises like stretching and such can help that sort of thing… injury.”

Bull tilted his head slightly. Dorian wondered how he didn’t topple over, those massive horns being off balance like that. He wondered, briefly, what they would feel like if he clutched them, while….

He shook off that thought. “You could ask the Herald if you could, well, join her in the practice of… Damn, I forgot what she called it.”  He waved his hand, as if searching for the phrase.  “Enlighten me, if you would?”

“The Asana-Aqun; It means Soul Balancing.” Bull grinned slightly. “I never learned.”

Dorian was genuinely surprised, not just that Bull didn’t know how, but that he admitted it openly. “Why not? I’d think it would be taught to all?”

“I was supposed to be military. They have other ways of teaching us balance.” He chuckled a bit. “Mostly through hitting things. Asana-Aqun is taught to farmers, tradeswomen, Tamassran… Anyone who would need another way to channel more aggressive thoughts. I wasn’t supposed to need that.”

“Well,” Dorian said smugly. “That’s even better. You can ask her to teach you. It could be a… bonding experience, as it were. You could learn something new and have something to talk about instead of annoying her all the time.”

Bull’s expression changed. He became brighter somehow, and Dorian struggled a bit to control his breathing. This, he thought, rather wistfully, is not good.

“That’s,” Bull began, speaking slower than was his usual pace, “A better idea than mine.”

“Let me guess,” Dorian snarked. Now fully recovered from his bout with an unfortunate attraction. “Your idea was to hit each other until she liked you?”

“Well… Yeah…” The larger man blinked.

“You,” Dorian answered, poking the larger man in the chest, “Have the imagination of an Orlesian Noble. She’s not your enemy. Treating her as if she is will only earn her hostility. If that’s the reaction you’re going for, then good for you. Off you go, if you continue to let her beat you up, things will never change.”

For a moment, Bull went back in time. There she was, the woman again. The one that was so like Zarah. ‘The hardest part, Hissrad, will be knowing which targets are hostile and which are not.’ One of his oldest lessons and he’d… “Shit.”

Dorian looked shocked at the vehemence of the exclamation. “I’m sorry?”

Shaking his head slightly, Bull waved him back. He’d been a massive idiot. “You’re right,” he said, looking at the puzzled mage.

He turned and took a few steps toward his tent. He’d leave the axe, go find Zarah Adaar, and change his tactics. But first - stopping quickly, he turned back toward Dorian. “Thanks, Dorian. You did me a solid. I’ll buy you an ale next time you’re in the Maiden?”

Dorian squared his shoulders and donned his best Tevinter Noble aplomb. “I despise ale.”

“Great, more for me. See ya around, Vint.”

Dorian watched Bull sprint toward his tent, moving faster than such a large man should.  Especially without a leg brace. It was a good day’s work, he thought. I removed Temptation out of my path and into hers.

He then flicked a bit of imaginary dust off the expensive leather robes and headed toward the Chantry. After that, the Ambassador would be easy.

 

 

 

Asana-Aqun: The words mean Soul and Balance. As I envision it, this is a kind of cross between Tai Chi and Yoga.  An exercise/meditation/martial art type of practice. There isn’t anything in canon, but in a race and culture like the Qunari, there had to be something similar. This is my own invention, and not something in game.

Chapter Text

“Strategy is buying someone a drink. Tactics is convincing them to drink it.”

 

Bull was in the Singing Maiden when she entered. He could tell when she strode into the tavern. There wasn’t less noise, nor did the bawdy behavior slow in the slightest. There was just a shift in the way people moved. The feeling in the room pivoted, as if something larger had to be accommodated. He’d noticed it before, how her presence provoked a chain reaction in people.

When he thought about it, he concluded that she probably had that effect on people long before she became Herald of Andraste. Some people just did. The woman he kept seeing with her, or in her, had the same type of presence. It wasn’t coincidence; it was genetics.

Zarah moved toward him slowly, subtly working the room. A back slap here, and whispered word there; it was why she was accepted so readily by all. It was why she was the Boss. She knew what people wanted and needed from her, and she gave it to them without thinking. She was born for this kind of leadership. She wasn’t following the tide that Koslun talked about, she was the rock the tide was forced to flow around.  That was why the Ariqun wanted her back so long ago. Well, one of the reasons at least. He hadn’t figured out what the other reason was.  There had to be more than one, woman like her.

She reached his table and stopped. “Mind if I sit?”

“Sure,” he answered as he held up a hand to Flissa. “First one’s on me.”

One elegantly sculpted eyebrow rose, but she didn’t outright refuse like he thought she might. “Since when do you buy me drinks?”

“I give you booze all the time. I just haven’t bought you one here.”

“You’ve never bought me one anywhere.” Zarah flashed a grin. “Why is that, do you think?”  

Bull leaned forward with a knowing, almost conspiratorial smirk. Zarah leaned forward to meet him. “You don’t like me,” he mock-whispered.

Zarah leaned back and laughed. It wasn’t a polite laugh, either, it was a full throated, loud guffaw. People looked at the two Qunari, then put their heads back down to debate what could have caused the Herald to laugh like that. Bull found it amusing their conversation seemed to carry so much weight, but it wasn’t surprising. When all was said and done, Haven was an armed encampment, and rumor was currency in any military.

The Herald of Andraste and a mercenary captain, the only two Qunari around, getting along after a public history of animosity… That would get tongues wagging. Could work in his favor, if he let it.

The ale arrived. The barmaid, Sheila he remembered, set the mugs down on the table. Smiling at him, she gave him an inviting look from under lowered lashes. When she turned toward Zarah, the temperature in the space lowered considerably. “Herald,” she muttered. She gave a slight curtsey before turning away.

Zarah gave Bull a look. “One of your special friends, I take it?”

He looked down at the table with an expression that almost touched upon embarrassment. “Well…”

Zarah chuckled. “Don’t worry about it, Bull. We all know that you’re rather… egalitarian when it comes to choosing partners. It’s refreshing when you think about it. Too many folks worry too about ear shape or skin color.”

Bull thought about it and chose his next words with care. “What about you?”

“You asking me out, Bull? How sweet,” Zarah quipped. She reached up and gave the base of her horn a little scratch. Bull waited, patient. “I worry about breakage. When I joined the Valo-Kas, Shok had one rule; Never do anything that you don’t want to explain to the healers.”

Bull laughed. “Why do you think I always let them be on top?”

Zarah scrunched her nose and stuck her tongue out in disgust. “Ewww. I didn’t wanna hear that.”

Laughing again, louder this time, Bull joked. “It’s safety first with me. Pain in bed isn’t fun unless it’s planned.”

“Great…” Zarah was looking at the table now, trying to be really interested in the pockmarks and tankard ring scars there.

The awkward silence went on for a few minutes, and it occurred to Bull that they had spent relatively little time getting to know each other. But if she was here, she wanted to fix that.

Knowing that she couldn’t build that bridge on her own, he took the plunge.

“I was thinking…” they said in unison. An awkward laugh was followed by, “Go ahead.” Again, both spoke at once. This time the joke was funnier, and they both chortled. Zarah raised her hand and motioned him to go first.

“Well,” he offered, leaning forward to be heard more easily in the noisy room. “I saw you this morning, practicing the Asana-Aqun, and I was thinking.” He paused, searching for words. “Stitches has been on my ass for a while. He says that the knee wouldn’t be as bad if I stretched more.”

He stopped, hoping that she’d take the hint and make the offer herself. No such luck.

She emptied the mug of ale while waiting for him to finish. Ordering another crossed her mind, but the idea of that barmaid’s scorn made the decision for her. No need to poke angry people at this stage of the game.

Bull, seeing her indecision, did it for her before asking his question. “I wanted to ask if you’d teach me… The Asana-Aqun, I mean. I never learned, and it might, you know… help the knee.”

For Zarah, time stood still for a moment. It was like picking a lock, when one of the tumblers falls into place, putting the goal closer than it was a second ago. She felt the universe click and knew that things were just where they were supposed to be. For the briefest moment, she felt her hand on a cheek, and a look of almost… gratitude in a pair of dark eyes. A whisper that she could barely hear registered in the back of her consciousness, followed by a feeling of rightness.

Bull had been trained to see the small things, and Zarah’s reaction didn’t go unnoticed. He didn’t know what it meant, but he wanted to. It was starting to become an obsession with him, the wanting; the need to figure out what this meant. The desire to know what made this woman tick…

He was also trained to know when to speak, and when to wait for the situation to play itself out. He hated waiting, but he knew he had to. Their rapport was delicate. Fucking it up would be far too easy at this point.

Zarah’s drink came, this time brought by Flissa. Bull tossed her a coin and gave her a smile, still waiting for Zarah to answer. When she did meet his eye, he pushed the mug closer and watched as she took deep drink.

“Sure, I’ll teach you,” she finally answered. “If you can get your ass up in time every morning.”

Finally recovered she then added, “And if you can manage to follow directions? I’ve noticed you have more than a couple issues with that.”

“Can do, Boss,” he replied. “If it keeps Stitches from giving me any more nasty tasting potions, I’ll get up.”

“Aren’t they poultices?  Internal medicine for a joint isn’t usually…”

Bull waved the question away, “So what did you need to ask?”

“About that,” she said, her voice lowering, “Can we… Go outside. We’re drawing a lot of attention and, well… It’s a little sensitive.”

Bull immediately rose and waited for her to do the same. Letting her take the lead, they strode to the door, pulled it open, and went outside, oblivious to the audience. Bull closed the door and let her choose the direction.

She took a right out of the side door. The path curved toward the right. Down the stairs to the left, and at Seggritt’s stand, she made a sharp left, moving quickly out the side gate leading to Cullen’s trebuchets. Her steps slowed a bit, allowing him to catch up. When he did, she stopped, leaning against the siege engine still under construction.

He stepped closer, close enough to smell the frangipani scenting her hair. It would be something he liked. Why couldn’t she use something that’s less appealing?

Meeting her eyes, he saw a slight upward tick at the corners of her merlot colored, all too kissable… Shit!

Bull couldn’t tell if she was amused or annoyed at the effect she had on him. He hoped it was the former. That at least contained the hope of something even more amusing at a later date.

 She shoved him, very lightly, but he could feel the strength behind it if he didn’t back off. “Focus, Bull… I’m not trying to seduce you. I just need to talk.” Zarah continued without pausing. “In a couple of days, I’m going to Redcliffe. We can’t leave the Vints in charge of a castle this close to our position, and we need the mages to close the Breach. Cullen is unhappy about the decision, but he’ll survive.” After a slight beat she said, “You listening?

“Yeah, sure,” he replied, pulling himself together. “Redcliffe it is… got it.”

“Good.” She was all business now. “Leli is convinced it’s a trap, and she’s probably right. Apparently, Vint magisters being complementary is a bad thing. In any case, I want you to go with me.”

“Sure, Boss. I can…” He stopped. “Wait, you actually want me to go? Like you’re asking… Usually…” He stopped again, watching the smirk turn into a grin on her golden features.

“It’s a trap, Bull. I’m going to need someone… well, bigger than me to grab their attention.” She shrugged. “You’re my only option there. Besides, even if we don’t really get along, you’re good in a fight.”

“Thanks, Zarah… I think. Who else are you taking?”

“Varric’s going. Bianca is really useful, and the jealous bastard won’t let her go without him.” Zarah halted briefly, looked at Bull and stated blandly. “Dorian-” In expectation of an argument, she held up her hand and proceeded quickly. “I know you don’t trust him, but he knows Alexius. He can spot magical traps that we can’t.” She stopped and waited for him to speak his piece. When he didn’t, she explained the plan. “You, me, and Varric go in the front door. Leliana and Dorian take a back way, leading her agents, avoiding traps, and killing people on the way. We keep his attention; they take the castle back. All of us meet up in the main hall, take the Evil Magister into custody and bring the mages back with us… Easy Peasy, as they say.”

Smiling at her optimism, he said, “It won’t be that easy, you know that… Right?”

“Of course not, but as far as plans go, it’s not the worst I’ve heard, or had, or made.”

It was kind of endearing, Bull thought. The way she hoped for the best. “I got your back, Boss. What can go wrong? It’s not like we’ll need to fight through demons and rifts and asshole Vints all at the same time, right?”

“Thanks Bull. I knew I could count on you.”

Zarah slapped him on the arm, and for the briefest moment thought about giving him a hug. He looked like he could give a really good hug. Strong arms… feeling safe…

Suddenly taking him along didn’t seem like the best idea. The idea of being comfortable around Bull was getting more dangerous than the Vints.

Bull felt, rather than saw the change in her. A slight relaxation of the shoulders followed by an almost imperceptible retreat. He decided to let it pass, they’d made enough progress for one day. No need to rush things.

“C’mon Boss. I’ll walk you home. That’ll get them gossiping.” He started walking toward her cabin slowly, only going more quickly once he was sure she followed. “When Krem catches me up on the scuttlebutt I’ll clue you in. It’ll be fun.”

“Yeah? You must not be used to other people talking about you, then.”

Chapter Text

“Some people just need killing.”

 

“This was not part of the fucking plan, Dorian.” Zarah screamed in frustration, kicking the Venatori agent in front of her. Drawing her knives, she stabbed him in the neck before turning toward her friend.

She watched as he clubbed the other over the head, then impaled him on the staff blade. Dorian agreed. “Don’t blame me, I didn’t make the stupid plan in the first place.” He kicked the dead man for good measure. “If I had,” he continued, straightening his clothing, “There wouldn’t be so much water.”

Zarah looked at him, puzzled. “The fuck are you talking about?”

“I can’t set anyone properly alight in this. I have to resort clubbing and stabbing like a barbarian.” He gave a rakish grin and tossed his hair back out of his eyes. “That’s fine for you, but my ancestors would be appalled at this chain of events.” He shuddered at Zarah’s grin, as she bent down to rifle through the dead guard’s pockets. “Did I ever tell you that it’s very disconcerting watching you do that?”

Zarah looked up from what she was doing. “Do what?” she asked.

“The way you go through their pockets.”

Zarah looked back toward the bodies and continued her search. “There’s useful stuff here, and they sure as fuck don’t need it anymore.” She stood and made her way to the next one. “Money, keys… Hey look,” she crowed, “It’s a necklace… Maferath, that figures. Still, it should bring some coin…” Standing, she looked at Dorian, staring at her, looking half-disgusted and half-admiring. “I am sorry if it bothers you. I’m a merc, and money is money.” She laughed, walked over, and put her arm around him. “It grossed me out at first, too. After a while, it’s just a body.”

She spotted an urn in the corner and strolled across the room to open it. “It’s a rule, you know. ‘If you kill them, you get to keep their stuff.’ Mercenary Work for Dummies, Chapter 4, I think. Kill enough people and you stop thinking about it.” Dorian still wasn’t happy, so Zarah added, “If it bothers you, I’d suggest not watching Sera after a battle. She doesn’t even leave them their breeches.” Zarah gave a shudder. “Now that’s not right. At least leave them their pants. Dead guy’s dangly bits… That’s a sight you really don’t want stuck in your brain.”

Giving a dramatic sigh, Dorian said, “This conversation did not go anywhere close to where I expected.”

Another squeeze and Zarah released him. “You’re with the Inquisition now, normal conversations are a thing of the past.” She looked around, taking in the situation. Several inches of water with more dripping down the walls. Bars and lock on doors; it was obviously a dungeon of some sorts, but where? “Got any ideas where we are?” she asked.

He looks around, taking in his surroundings. “Well, we’re in a cell, there are ugly statues of dogs about; Ferelden, definitely. I’m going to go out on a limb that these are the dungeons in Redcliffe. However, the pertinent question is not where, but when. When are we is the answer.”

“When?”

“Unless I’m mistaken,” Dorian started, “The amulet used by Alexius was the same one we worked on together.”

“The one you said didn’t work,” Zarah said, her voice barely masking an accusation.

Matching her accusation with his smirk, Dorian replied. “Well, he’s taken his research to exciting new heights. Persistence, my dear Herald, is a lesson he taught me well.” Dorian smoothed his mustache and began pacing before launching into an explanation worthy of a lecture hall. “The rift must have moved us to the closest confluence of arcane energy. I suspect that he was trying to take you out of time completely. If he could manage that, you’d have never been at the Temple at all, and couldn’t have mangled his Elder One’s plan.”

“Assuming that someone else wouldn’t have screwed it up for him.” Zarah thought for a moment. “If it wasn’t me, someone other Vashoth would have been where I was. Or some human, elf, or dwarf could have been there. My absence doesn’t mean no one else could have fucked things up for him.”

Dorian smiled broadly. “That’s what I like about you. You’re more than a very pretty face.” He paused, and spoke more slowly, “I think that you surprised him in the castle hall. It made him reckless and he tossed us into the rift before he was ready.” The mage shook his head, turned and began pacing again. “I countered the spell and it went wild. So here we are. I don’t even want to think about what this will do to the fabric of the world.” Even in the dim light, Dorian’s normally olive complexion looked pale green.

“Meaning?” Zarah wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

“Well,” Dorian began. “We didn’t travel through time so much as we punched a hole through it and tossed it in the privy.” She made a horrified noise, and Dorian put his hands on her shoulders. “Don’t worry, I’m here and I’ll protect you.”

Zarah reached down and did the same. “We’ll protect each other. You set shit on fire and I’ll stab them. In which ever order works best. What about the others in the room?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Varric, Fiona… Bull,” she replied, chewing on her bottom lip. “Could they have been pulled through this rift?”

Dorian rolled his eyes upward for a moment and put steepled forefingers to his lips in thought. His eyes widened for an instant before he spoke. “Doubtful. The rift was intended for you alone. He wouldn’t have wanted Felix or himself to be caught in it after all. They are where, and when we left them, in some manner or another.”

Zarah took a final look around, then headed for the door. “Well, let’s go find where and when that amulet dumped us, then get back to where we’re supposed to be.” Turning, she asked, “Do you have a clue on how to do that?”

Smiling, Dorian retorted, “I have some thoughts. They’re lovely thoughts, like little jewels.”

“Terrific. Just what I’d hoped to hear.”

 

They took their time, making their way through the dungeons; going through everything looking for loot and clues. Dorian had finally stopped complaining about it. He had taken to providing a running commentary on Redcliffe Castle, interior decorating in general, and the Elder One. On the last, he had some particularly scathing comments on both the would-be god and his idiotic followers.  

“The history of the Tevinter Imperium can be summed up in one sentence,” he opined.

She was rummaging through a basket, finding only a crappy dagger and a few gold. She looked up and half-interested, she asked, “That sentence is?”

Dorian struck a pose, as if he was a thespian on a stage. Obviously playing a politician, or an evil magister, he twisted his mustache and said, “Let’s play with magic we don’t understand. It will make us incredibly powerful.”

She laughed, a real one, not the pained and pitiful laugh he’d been getting before and put down the basket. “Are you saying that Tevinter Magisters can be irresponsible?”

“Can be,” scoffed the mage. “Are, much of the time. Each and every one of them has too many privileges and delusions of adequacy. I knew one that actually injected lyrium into a slave. Can you imagine?”

“What happened to him?” She knelt to pick the lock on a cell door. “The slave, not the magister.”

“Well, after many tries, one lived. He was Denarius’ bodyguard before he managed to escape.” Dorian was cheerful, relishing his job as storyteller. “Of course, Denarius refused to just let him go; hunted him for several years. Finally found him, in Kirkwall of all places.” Dorian paused for dramatic effect. “Then upon meeting him in a seedy tavern, the slave killed Denarius and lived happily ever after. The end.”

Zarah clapped a few times in appreciation, and with a flourish, Dorian sketched an elaborate bow. “Thank you very much.”

Dorian was about to pull open a door, when Zarah stopped him. Pulling her daggers out of the sheaths, she whispered. “Someone’s on the other side. I’ll go first.”

Grasping the handle, he turned it and pulled the door open. She dashed through. Two enemies, she counted. Using the dagger in her right hand, she cut up and through his stomach, while slashing his chest with the left.

Dorian threw fire at the other one. His target caught, trailing flames as he ran toward them. Meeting him in the middle, she jabbed once, catching him in the left shoulder. Withdrawing the blade, she kicked at the same time, and he tumbled backward off the catwalk. Only then did Zarah completely survey their situation.

The door in front of them wasn’t accessible. It had a bridge that needed to be lowered in order to get in. That left them with two options; a door to the left and one to the right.

She looked at Dorian. “You’ve been here before. What do you think, left or right?”

“I didn’t spend any time in this part of the Castle, you know. Dungeons are dreary and damp. It’s rather bad for my complexion.” Dorian considered the options. “One seems just as good as the other, though… I say we go to the right.”

Having chosen their path, Zarah and Dorian went through. There were no enemies, just more doors leading to more dungeons. Gritting her teeth in frustration, she opened the final door, expecting to find more nothing. Instead, Grand Enchanter Fiona, encased in Red Lyrium appeared. Her eyes glowed red, her voice was a pained monotone, as if she had no energy for emotion any longer.

“Harvestmere. 9:42, Dragon.”

“9:42?” Dorian asked. “Then we missed a whole year.”

Zarah growled. She approached the bars, fists clenched. Her eyes turned stormy; her lips curled in a scowl. “I’m here, now. I’m going to send that asshole back to Tevinter with his tail between his legs.”

“Not… Tevinter,” Fiona forced through dry lips. “Alexius serves the Elder One. More powerful than the Maker. No one… fights him and… lives.”

A calm hand on her bicep calmed Zarah a bit. “If we find the amulet that Alexius used to send us here, I can use it to take us back. Maybe…”

“Good…” Fiona sighed.

Rolling his eyes, Dorian answered. “I said maybe. It might also turn us into paste.”

“You have to try.” Fiona then looked at Zarah. “Herald, your spymaster and those you came with are still in the Castle. Find them and stop this.”

Zarah knelt and began picking the lock. As she opened the door to the cell Fiona moaned. “You can’t save me, Herald. You have no time.”

“I can’t leave you here like this. I can stop your pain.” In a smooth and fluid motion, the Herald of Andraste ran her blade across Fiona’s throat. There was no sound of pain or anguish from the older woman. Just an exhalation of relief, and it was over.

She stepped back through the cell door and headed for the corridor.

“This isn’t over. We’re going to find our friends. We’re going to find Alexius and kill him. You’re going to get that amulet and get us back.”

“If that doesn’t work?” Dorian murmured.

Zarah stopped in her tracks. Her head swiveled sharply as she faced the smaller mage. “If that doesn’t work, I’m going to kill a god. Doesn’t that sound fun?!”

She almost ripped the door off the hinges as she opened it and headed across the catwalk toward the door on the left. At that moment, Dorian believed that she could do just as she said.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“You can’t control your enemies, but you can kill them.”

 

Sweat trickled down between Zarah’s shoulder blades. There was something wrong. It took her several minutes to realize what that was.

There were no enemies.

After finishing with Fiona, they went back across the catwalk and through the other door. They saw no Vints, no mages… no one guarding cells, bringing food, or escorting other prisoners. They’d found nothing but more empty cells.

Zarah was silent. The quiet unnerved Dorian and he prattled on about everything but the lack of people. Maybe they were thinking the same thing, Zarah mused, but neither wanted to be the first to speak of it. The truth of the matter was that there were a limited number of reasons that there were no guards, and none of those reasons boded well.

Dorian’s chatter became increasingly manic, or maybe Zarah’s mood had become increasingly morose. It didn’t matter that much as they approached the last door in this section. If Bull or Varric wasn’t in here, they’d wasted a lot of time searching for friends that were already dead.

She reached for the latch holding the door closed, when she felt a whisper in the back of her brain. “They’re in here,” she said.

“You’re sure?” Dorian didn’t want to see her disappointed if she was wrong.

“Yes,” she said simply as she opened the door. In the first cell on the right, they found Varric, humming aimlessly.

“Andraste’s Sacred Knickers, you’re alive,” Varric said in awe.

“We weren’t dead,” Dorian answered for them both. “Alexius sent us into the future.”

“Really?” Varric replied. Turning his attention to Zarah he added. “Everything that happens to you is weird.”

“I can’t argue with that.” Giving a chuckle as she swung open the door to the cell. “We’re breaking you out.”

The mage continued where she left off. “We’re going to find Alexius and I just might be able to get us back to our own time.” He waved his hand to articulate his point. “Simple really.”

With a shake of the head Varric answered. “Not that simple. Alexius is just a servant these days. The Elder One is who you have to worry about. He assassinated the Empress of Orlais and led a demon army into the South.  The Elder One rules everything.”

“Shit.” Zarah barked. She turned around, scratched the base of her left horn, and pivoted back toward Varric. “Well, unless this Elder One has the amulet in his pocket, we can do this without him noticing. Right?”

She looked hopefully from Dorian to Varric. “Maybe?”

Shaking his head, Varric tried to play along. “You, Princess?? You came back from the dead. If anyone can do it, it’s you. Still, I’m guessing the odds aren’t in your favor.”

Zarah spat a word in Qunlat. There was no doubt that it was a curse, and neither Dorian nor Varric asked for a translation. Some things transcended language barriers. She looked around and asked, “Have any idea where they’re keeping Bull?”

“Down at the end on the left,” Varric said with a sharp motion of his head.

Varric hadn’t even finished the sentence before Zarah sprinted toward him.

She didn’t speak at first, not trusting her voice, seeing Bull as he was now. His eyes were red. They were filled with weariness and sadness. He stood in a cell that should have seemed too small for a man his size. But, he seemed smaller; Not shrunken, yet reduced in size. She was torn between the desire to hold him or get the fuck out of the dungeon and kill everyone that could have hurt him like that.

She was still trying to decide what to do when he spoke. “You’re dead,” he intoned. “You’re supposed to be dead. I watched you die.”

Bull looked at Dorian who had come to stand beside her. “There was a burn mark and everything.”

“Alexius,” Dorian answered, “Didn’t kill us. His spell sent us through time. This is our future.”

“Well, this is my present,” Bull hissed in return. His lips were thin, curled up in a dismissive sneer. “In my past I definitely saw you both die.”

Zarah smiled gently, almost begging him to believe that she was real. “But, I’m alive.”

Grunting harshly and rolling his eyes, it was clear that Bull didn’t believe any of this bullshit. “Great, now dead and not dead are up for debate.”

“This conversation,” Dorian mocked, “Has now taken a turn for the moronic.”

Zarah was wearing an expression of bewildered hurt, as Bull looked at her with angry disbelief. Dorian’s heart broke a little at the sight. “Zarah, Love, I’ll leave you to convince him. I’ll take Varric to see if we can find weapons.”

With that, Dorian pressed a hand to her forearm and gave a small squeeze. He trod slowly in the direction of the door, looking back at the two people, staring at each other. At the moment, there was nothing he could do about it, except hope that the aftermath wasn’t going to be too terribly hard to clean up. This had gone far worse than anyone could have imagined.

The two Qunari stood there, eyes locked, each trying to decide what to do next. Her eyes implored him to believe that she was there, alive. He struggled with wanting to believe, but this had to be a fever dream. Like all his hallucinations in the last year, she would disappear when he reached for her. This one was just more cruel than the rest. It seemed more real.  He had to be near death, then.

Torn, Zarah ached to reach out to him, touch him, slap him; anything to make him believe that she wasn’t going away. Reaching up, she scratched the base of her horn, and idly thought that she needed to find some horn balm. Looking down, around, anywhere but at Bull she started to turn away. Maybe if she gave him some distance, he could think; conclude that she was serious.

Bull saw her turn and panicked. Was this the part where she left… again? His heart pounded in his chest; blood thundered in his ears. Water dripped down the walls of the cells echoing the rhythm of the pounding in his brain. He may be dying; he was going to die. He knew that. He wasn’t going to lose this chance, even if it was a ruthless and relentless dream.

Time slowed as he reached out and touched her shoulder. Lightly pressing, guiding, he turned her back to face him, and he took a step toward her. She looked at him, her eyes a hopeful question. His left hand found her cheek, his right found her waist, and his lips found hers.

The kiss wasn’t demanding. It was a statement. It started as a desire to feel something real and it stayed that way. To Zarah it felt inevitable, something she’d been fighting since she’d met him. She wanted this man in her life, but she feared the wanting. She couldn’t deny that when the kiss stopped, the world was closer to right than it was before.

It was terrifying in its perfection. The only real problem with the kiss was that if the plan worked, only one of them would remember it, and it wouldn’t be the one that started it.  

Taking his lips from hers, Bull continued to look in Zarah’s eyes. He doubted that he could ever tire of this and whatever made her so damned different. Her gray eyes were calm. Normally rather stormy, there was a softer, misty quality that he wanted to dive into, like the spray on the Storm Coast where they’d met the first time. “Nope,” he joked, ripping his eyes away from hers. “You’re not her.”

Zarah shook her horns, confused. “I’m sorry?” she questioned.

“If you were really the Boss, I’d be on the floor clutching my nuts.” There was that grin, the one she thought she’d never see again. “Since I’m not, you’re still dead.”

They stood there, smiling widely at each other when Varric interrupted. “You guys coming to kill Vints or not?” He strutted in like he’d just won a large bet. “Found your axe, Tiny. Assholes didn’t even bother trying to hide them. Just left them next to a door for anyone to grab.” He reached around and patted Bianca fondly. “Good to know she made it. Needs a good polish, but she’s as beautiful as ever. You ready?”

Bull grabbed his weapon and hefted it over his shoulder. “Let’s go kill some Vint assholes.”

Leaving the cell, Dorian lifted an eyebrow as a question to Zarah. She shook her head and mouthed the word “later” as she passed. She wanted to talk to Dorian, no, she needed to talk to him, badly, but it would have to wait. Right now, they needed to get to Leliana, find Alexius, use the amulet, and get back to their time. After that there would be plenty of time to figure out what the fuck had just happened between her and Bull, and how she felt about it.

One thing was obvious, though.  Feelings sucked dragon balls.

Up the stairs and through the doors onto the catwalk, where Vints waited. Dorian traded spells with their mage until Bull reached the door, where the spells from the other side ended abruptly. The Qunari was like a spirit of vengeance, wreaking havoc and losses on the enemy. Zarah tried hard not to be impressed, or notice.

They climbed more stairs and found a torture chamber filled with the corpses of chantry sisters. In a corner, forgotten, was a skeleton with a scrap of gold cloth clinging to it. Josie, Zarah thought. Shit.

How many of her friends was she going to find dead, or tortured for information they couldn’t have? Were they even asked questions or were Alexius and his Elder One just sadistic bastards? Zarah didn’t consider herself emotional, but sorrow ate at her guts.

Alexius was going to pay. She’d kill him as many times as she needed to get back and stop this from happening. If the Elder One thought that torturing Josie, who fought only with lists and wits was a good idea, he was going to be taught otherwise.

Zarah Adaar wasn’t playing anymore.

It wasn’t Bull in the lead when they found Leliana, and when the door opened to the horror they found, Zarah was only sorry that Leli was the one that ended that bastard’s life. There was a perverse enjoyment to be had as she watched the spymaster strangle the man with her thighs. In a different circumstance, there might have been a joke or two regarding the way he died, but there was no time for them in this timeline.

Ignoring Dorian’s pleas for information, Zarah took off at a run. Up more stairs, “how many fucking stairs can one castle have,” she asked no one in particular, they came to some underground docks and finally found someone to vent her anger at. A blood mage, sacrificing a victim.

The killing was brutal and didn’t take long. First was an abomination. She killed that before Dorian could make it through the door. Her eyes tracked Bull, running toward a couple of men with swords. Seeing him, three more headed his way but they never reached him. She took the first down with a thrust to the kidneys. She twisted the dagger and pulled it out, reveling in the pained sound of the screams as he bled out. The second one died when she slashed downward, cutting a swath between the right shoulder and left hip. As he crumpled to the ground, she reached forward with the other blade and slashed at his throat.

The third was dead before she could get to him. Two crossbow bolts and burn marks on his clothes proved cause of death. Looking around, she tried to find someone else to kill. Anyone, anything to assuage the desire for blood.

Bull had seen, even felt, the signs of the blood rage burning her from the inside out. He’d hoped he’d never see the calm, careful woman in front of him fall victim to it. He reached out, palms up, trying to calm her, only a step away from Tal-Vashoth madness. “Boss,” he whispered. “They’re dead. Let it go.”

The Herald of Andraste ran past him to the edge of the dock. She bent over, hands on her knees, and emptied her stomach of what little had remained. He was there in an instant, hand on her back, steading her nerves, and reaching for the flask that should have been there. He felt something touch his hand and found Dorian there, handing him a bottle of something, he wasn’t sure what, and when Zarah stood again he handed it to her.

“What the fuck was that?” She’d never felt anything like that. It was horrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.

“We always just called it The Rage,” the warrior answered. “First time is the worst. It’s always disorienting, though. Take a drink.”

She held the bottle to her lips and took a deep swig, gagging as she swallowed. “That’s shit.”

“Drink is drink,” Bull replied, as if he were imparting some sort of ancient wisdom. “You okay, ready to finish this? We need you to keep your head in the game. Can you do that?“ He was more than a little concerned. If this was going to work, if she was going to make it back to stop this three-ring shit circus from happening, she needed to stay clear and in control. 

“I’m good.” She nodded, looking at each of her concerned friends in turn. “I got this. It won’t happen again.”

Moving quickly in the direction of the castle, Dorian paused and stuffed paper in his pockets. He’d been doing this all along. He hoped to have time later to piece together what happened. At the very least, he’d be able to take the notes back for use later. Any clues he could return to their own time would make it easier to figure out who this Elder One was and what he wanted. Besides, the scholar in him wanted these preserved for posterity. If posterity existed at the end of the day.

Before they opened the next door, Bull stopped and looked at Adaar. “I’m taking point. Don’t argue, Boss. You’re too important. I’m expendable. You’re the one that needs to make it to Alexius, not me. Got it?”

Still reeling from the loss of control, she only nodded and let him go first. Walking through the door, she didn’t see the expected sunlight, but a sickly green glow of rifts everywhere. She half listened while Leliana explained how the breach eventually took over the sky. The information didn’t register like it should have. All Zarah could think about was how she had failed so miserably. Her family was dead because she wasn’t good enough. Everyone was dead…

If she made it back, no, when she made it back, Zarah was going to make sure that this Elder One died in the most painful way possible. It didn’t matter to her if he thought himself a god. She was going to make an end of him.

Hack, slash, kill the demons, close the rift – at least something was familiar - then more killing… then next hour followed the same pattern. There were two rifts in the courtyard and another in the great hall. Demons, Vints, they all fell methodically beneath the combined onslaught of blades, arrows, and fire. They made their way through the castle, killing magisters and soldiers, demons; If it stood between Zarah and finding the cause of this madness, it died. They collected lyrium shards along the way, to open the door that led to Alexius.

In an idle moment, moving from one battle to another, she thought grimly that this was all Bull’s fault. “It’s not like we’ll need to fight through demons and rifts and asshole Vints all at the same time, right?” he’d said. When she made it to the other side of time, she was going to kick his ass for daring to speak that aloud. The shit for brains should have known better than to tempt fate.

Or maybe she’d kiss him breathless. Or both. Both sounded good. She’d decide in the past...

She had to get back, first. 

 

After the fact, killing the Magister and getting the amulet was anticlimactic. He was dead, Dorian had the amulet, and the Elder One was banging at the door. Time was short. She tried to follow as Bull and Varric walked out the door to sacrifice themselves in a bid for time, but Dorian stopped her. He needed her to stay close.

Bull winked - or blinked - at her as he turned away, the only acknowledgement that things had changed.

Dorian worked his spell and Zarah was helpless to do anything but watch as demons dragged Bull’s lifeless body back in. Leliana quoted the Chant of Light as arrow after arrow left her bow. Finally, the demons reached her, and seeing her throat cut made the bile in Zarah’s throat rise.

The demons were coming close and Zarah was reaching for her blades when the amulet activated. Suddenly, they weren’t in the bloody throne room of the future, but the pristine one of the past. Alexius was on his knees and it was over.

She threw up for the second time on the King of Ferelden’s boots. She almost felt bad for it, but not quite.

 

Zarah refused to stay at the Castle long after that. She made the decision to ally with the mages, told Fiona that she would meet her in Haven and walked out the door. Leliana wanted her to make nice with King Alistair, maybe apologize for the mess at his feet, but honestly, if Zarah spent another minute in that place she would have started stabbing things. He may be a decent man, but he sent no guards to protect the people of Redcliffe or the Crossroads in the aftermath of the Mage/Templar conflict. She wasn’t in the mood to lie for diplomacy’s sake. Leliana knew him during the Blight. Let her deal with him. If she stayed, she’d just make more work for Josie.

Josie, she thought as she ran to vomit, again, over the edge of a bridge.

On the way out of Redcliffe, Varric and Bull purchased a large quantity of Ferelden Rye. At camp, she ate what they gave her, drank what they offered, and answered no questions. Later, in the dead of night, she sobbed into Dorian’s lap. Bull was standing watch and listened, helplessly, while the strongest woman he’d knew fell to pieces.

Tomorrow, they’d find all the scattered bits and put them back together. They’d make it to Haven in time for Cullen’s bad mood, Josie’s fretting, and Cassandra’s questions. All Bull knew was that she made it back, and when she looked at him something was different. He had no idea what had changed, and it was driving him insane.

After a while, the sobbing stopped, and Dorian crawled out of the tent flaps. Without thinking, Bull handed him the bottle and the mage drank. No words were spoken, but in that moment, there was understanding. Their people were enemies, neither cared. She needed them both.

 

Chapter Text

“When all is said and done, only family will slap you upside the head and ask, ‘What the fuck were you thinking?’”

 

Zarah didn’t bother to get off her horse when she got to the gates of Haven. She simply ducked her head and rode through the gates, up the stairs and to the entrance of the Chantry. There, she dismounted and strode through the doors, fists clenched, and spoiling for a fight.

Dorian and Bull followed quickly on foot, running to catch up, pausing only when they heard shouting on the other side of the doors. After exchanging a few words, Dorian entered the Chantry. Bull shrugged and trudged slowly toward the Tavern.

He was exhausted. The traveling was bad enough, but the nights were worse. The trip to the future was horrific, and Zarah had nightmares every time she tried to sleep. Her companions took turns trying to help. Varric told stories of Micah Hawke and his adventures in Kirkwall, each becoming more outrageous in the telling. Dorian spoke in hushed tones, listening intently and answering quietly. Bull was helpless because she refused to speak to him. When it was his turn, all she would let him to was rub her back and murmur that she was safe. Progress? She was letting him touch her, at least…

He wanted a drink.

He sat at a sticky table and motioned to Flissa. He rested his head in his hands, hoping that the headache would ease soon. He also hoped that she brought the drink herself and didn’t send a barmaid. He wasn’t in the mood for flirting. Before he knew it, two tankards got slammed onto the table, and a woman was sitting in the chair in front of him.

A Qunari woman. A warrior. A long, thin scar inched across her forehead.  Another, deeper scar slashed across her cheek. She smiled at him, almost, and it showed a tooth chipped in a fight. Pushing one tankard closer to his hand, she lifted the other to her lips.

“Ben Hassrath,” she greeted, her low voice almost a growl.

“Do I know you?” he asked.

“You should, but you probably don’t.” She smiled, or it was supposed to be a smile. To Bull it looked more like a sneer. “My name is Shokrakar. I lead...”

“The Valo-Kas; the merc company that Zarah was in.” He picked up the tankard and raised it to his lips, pretending to drink. He didn’t trust her, there was something… off.

“Is in. I haven’t seen a letter of resignation.” Shok quickly drank the ale, while watching Bull delicately sip his. She slammed her empty stein down on the table and reached for the mug in his hands “For fuck’s sake, if you’re not going to drink it, I will.” This time the look she gave him was definitely a sneer. She saw through his façade and leaned in closer. “If I ever kill you, you’ll be standing, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.”

She took a long, deep drink. “See, not poisoned. I don’t strike in the dark, from behind like pissy Ben Hassrath cowards.”

Bull stiffened, remembering a night in the dark and a child…

Shok barked a laugh as she held up two fingers for Flissa. “I wonder if that damn woman ever gets tired of being right.” Flissa appeared and was paid with a sovereign. “Probably not, knowing her.” She drank again. “What do you remember?”

Bull picked up the tankard and drank. Then sat with his hands wrapped around the large mug. “What are you talking about?” he lied.

Turning serious, the woman looked him in the eye. “Boy, the Qun may have taught you to lie, but they taught me when to know when I’ve scored a hit. I’ve been punching people longer than you’ve been lying, so you’re going to need to do much better than that.”

She kept eye contact, waiting for him to answer. When no answer came, her lips turned upward. “Good, you’ve learned when to keep your mouth closed at least. ‘When a lie goes bad, stop talking.’ Isn’t that what you’re taught?”

“Yeah,” the spy grunted.

“Fan-fucking-tastic, Boy. We’re both on the same page now.” Shokrakar pushed his mug back at him and motioned him to drink. “You want to know what I know, yes? Can’t help you. Kasaanda told me what I can and can’t say. It’s better that you come to it on your own.”

Bull’s eyes narrowed and he returned her regard with disdain.

“If you tell me what you know, I can, perhaps, point you in the right direction?” She laughed when he lifted his eyebrow. “I thought that would interest you.

“First, a warning. A lot of people are very interested in protecting Zarah.” There was a pause to let that sink in. “If you hurt her, if you allow her to be hurt, you will regret it for the rest of your very short life.”

“I…” Bull started.

“Nope,” she interjected, raising a finger. “I’m not interested. Let me be clear. If you are extremely lucky, you’ll see me coming, trailing some of the best fighters you’ll ever meet. Better than the fancy boys you lead. We’ll give you a clean death.” Leaning in, her voice became low and menacing. “If you’re not lucky, the last thing you’ll see before the pain starts will be her mother. That death will be… messier.”

“You think about that for a while,” Shok said, rising from her chair. She took a step away before reaching back and grabbing one of his horns. “Gonna go find my girl now. We’ll talk later.” She threw it back away from her, shifting his balance more than he wanted to admit.

Bull lifted the tankard to his lips and mumbled a question to himself. He damn near pissed himself when he heard the low deep chuckle behind him. He turned, reaching for a dagger that had disappeared, and came face to face with another Vashoth. A man this time, about his age, twirling the missing dagger with a nimble hand.

Setting the blade on the table beside him, he reached out and grabbed Bull’s hand, shaking it vigorously. “My name is Kaariss.”

“Iron Bull…” he mumbled.

“Yeah, I know who you are. We all do. It’s cute, though, the way you think that Zarah had to tell us you were Ben Hassrath. It’s not that big a secret.” Kaariss’ face split into a wide grin. “Join me? I’ll buy you a real drink and introduce you to the twins.”

Bull turned his chair completely to find two very young Vashoth grinning maniacally at him. The woman was a mage, long dark hair, tied back in a bun, a staff leaning on the table beside her. Next to her was a huge young man with a war hammer strapped to his back.

The Valo-Kas had shown up in force.

And Bull, surrounded by his one-time people for the first time in years, was absolutely petrified.

 

After the shouting match masquerading as a meeting with the council, Zarah headed directly for the hot springs for a soak. She lay in the water, half dozing for a while, then grabbed soap for a thorough scrubbing. She lathered up several times, trying to wash away the feeling of failure after Redcliffe. She washed her hair twice, and rose from the pools, loathing the idea of putting that leather back on.

She couldn’t walk to her cabin without clothes though. Apart from the fact that it was cold in Haven, the idea of a lesson in propriety was enough to have her reaching for that smelly armor.

“Excuse me, my lady,” squeaked a small voice behind her.

She spun quickly to see a young elf, holding a bundle. Knowing that she now had the Herald’s attention, she offered the bundle to her. “It’s from Lady Montilyet, your Worship. She thought this would be more comfortable than your armor.”

Taking the bundle, she thanked the girl and asked her name.

“Alina, my lady. I’m sorry that I’m late. The Lady Ambassador expected you later in the day.” The girl put her hands behind her back and began backing out, bowing every few steps like Zarah was royalty. She thanked the girl again and began opening the bundle as the girl turned tail and ran.

It was annoying, the obeisance that the elves showed her. At first, she’d tried to stop it, but she’d long since given that up for a lost cause. As disturbing as the reverence that humans held her in, the genuflection that the elves believed was necessary was far, far worse.

She gave a little squeal of delight when she saw what was in the package. Clothes… real clothes made of cloth, not leather. Linen, to be precise. There were trousers, loose fitting and comfortable, with a drawstring to hold up the waist, and a rose-colored linen shirt. The neckline was open; plenty of room to get it over the horns, and ribbons to hold it closed after it was on.

It wasn’t the loose skirts and scarf like tops that wrap around the body that women wore at home. But it was a lovely color, relatively feminine, and not made of leather. “Josie, I could kiss you.” There was also a pair of fur boots, lined in what seemed to be sheep skin. They were soft and warm inside, and it felt like walking on clouds.

She encased the armor in the wrappings from her new clothes and walked back to her cabin. She was bone tired, hungry, and afraid of trying to sleep. The nightmares of the past few nights had left a mark. She half hoped that Dorian would show up, and that he could be convinced to stay. Fuck propriety. She’d put up with the lecture if it meant that she didn’t have to be alone.

Lost in thought, she covered ground quickly. She paused at the bottom of the stairs, briefly considering a visit to the tavern for a bite and pint, but Bull would be in there. That was a bridge she wasn’t ready to cross. She was going to have to talk to him, and soon, but she had yet to come to a decision on how to deal with him. Until she sorted out her feelings, or at least got them under better control, Bull would have to wait.

She made it inside her cabin and turned to shut the door. Dropping the armor bundle next to the wall, she leaned her forehead against the door as she locked it. She stayed there for a few moments, trying to muster the energy to make it to the bed. That changed when she heard the laugh.

“Damn, Girl,” the raspy voice from some of her earliest memories said. “You look like shit.”

She spun, convinced that her mind was playing tricks on her. Eyes hitting the figure lounging in the chair, she launched herself towards it. Her exhaustion was forgotten, and tears flowed freely down her cheeks. Shokrakar met Zarah in the center of the room, and when their bodies met, strong arms enfolded the younger woman and she felt safe again.

Zarah’s knees buckled, but Shok’s grasp held fast as she gently lowered them both to the carpet. They sat for a while, the older woman holding the younger like a child, rocking back and forth, murmuring endearments in an odd mixture of Qunlat and Common. Occasionally she’d hum a long-forgotten lullaby and kiss the top of sobbing Herald’s head.

Neither spoke as bonds that had been stretched thin tightened once more. No words were needed. This was family, home, and the comfort of the familiar. Soon, the tears dried, calm descended, and it was possible to speak. “Where were you?” Zarah whispered hoarsely. “Why didn’t you come?”

There was a soft laugh. “You didn’t need me, Pip.  You’re the Herald of Andraste, and these people needed to know you, not me.” Leaving Zarah sitting on the floor, Shokrakar got up, found a comb, sat back down, and proceeded to comb the tangles out of Zarah’s wet hair.

“You’ve done a fine job, my girl. Kasa, your daddy… all of us are proud of what you’ve done.” Shok began to braid. “Didn’t need us at all. You wanted us, but that ain’t the same thing, girly. You’re not a child. You know that.”

“Yes Ma’am,” she answered meekly. “Maman, Papa, Ataash… they’re all okay?”

“Right as rain, Pip.” Shok leaned forward and gave Zarah a hug from behind. Then, she planted a kiss near her ear. “They sent presents, too. Beres and Ataash made you some new blades, beauties they are. Kaariss tried to steal them… twice.” She smiled, hearing the low giggle from her Pip. “Your mama sent some of that stinky horn balm you like so much. I brought soap and a few pretties, too.”

Using a knotted ribbon, Shokrakar tied off the braid and added a few beads. She looked at Zarah through narrowed eyes and added, “Make that Ben Hassrath sit up and take some notice, hmmm?”

It only took a moment for Zarah to be out of her friend’s arms and across the room. She sat on the bed, knees to her chest, arms wrapped tightly around them, and looking at Shok with suspicion. She looked forlorn for a moment, but that turned to anger when the older woman began to laugh.

Shok got up, slowing made her way to the bed and sat on the edge. Still smiling, she reached over and grasped one of Zarah’s hands. “You didn’t think I could take one look at that man and know he was your type? Shit, girl… I’ve known you since you were eight years old. Give me a bit of credit.” She opened her arms, an invitation for Zarah, if she wanted it. When the offer wasn’t accepted, she shrugged and continued.

“That man is big as a house and uglier than Kaariss. He’s smart, he’s good in a fight, and I don’t think that even you could break him.” There was more laughing. “You always did fancy the sturdy ones. From what I’ve heard, you and Iron Bull haven’t stopped fighting since the day he turned up. You won’t offer, but you wouldn’t turn him down, if he asked.”

She laughed again and waited for Zarah to look up. “He will ask. Mark my words. He’s not the type to pass up a pretty girl like you.”

She watched Zarah shake her head in denial and waited. As soon as Shok had seen Bull and those distinctive horns, she’d remembered that night in the swamp. Zarah had been a child, and Kasa made certain that the memory didn’t stick, but Shok remembered. She was pretty sure that Bull did, in some way or another, but until he admitted it, there wasn’t anything she could do about that.

Don’t kill him. He’s important.

Shok was going to need to take a trip to Rivain soon. This was something Kasaanda was going to have to handle herself. Shokrakar was confident in her ability to teach Zarah Adaar how to fight. She’d done a damn fine job helping her learn to lead. But this was memories and feelings; way out of her wheelhouse.

Zarah looked up from behind wet lashes. Her grey eyes were so much like her mother’s. She wondered idly if Bull had made the connection yet.

“I don’t even like him, Tante. I don’t trust him. How can I…”

“Pip,” she said. “Look at me.” She waited for Zarah to meet her eyes. “For many people in the world, desire has fuck all to do with liking or trusting. You can want someone and hate their guts. You know this.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Changing the subject seemed like an excellent idea. Zarah would come back to it, when she was feeling more certain. Experience had taught that her Pip couldn’t be pushed. “You need to talk about… where was it?”

“Redcliffe, Tante,” Zarah answered with a small laugh. “Yes, I do.”

Shokrakar shifted her body, leaning against the headboard, making room for Zarah to lay her head on her chest. “Good, I want to listen.” She opened her arms. “Snuggle in girl and get it all out.”

An hour later, the lamp guttered, and the cabin fell into darkness. Throughout the night, quiet voices and small sobs punctuated the silence of the night, as two women did what women everywhere were known to do.

One listened as the other spoke about the hurts of the past, and out how to make it through the tomorrows.

 

 

 

Tante means Aunt in French, and I coopted it for Orlesian. Since Zarah uses the Orlesian for mother, it made sense for her to do the same for Aunt.

Kasaanda is a Qunlat word that refers to a carnivorous type plant. Like the Venus Flytrap, it lures insects in and eats them. The reason her mother chose it for her name will be made clear in due time.