Chapter 1: A Beginning of Sorts
Haven. Yet, another place where they hold me captive.
I had thought with the Mage rebellion in full force, I would finally be able to escape my captivity. I fled when Ostwick’s Circle fell. I didn’t pack my bags. I didn’t gather my cooking supplies. I just walked out the door, not even looking back. Many mages in the Circle did the same. Taking their first steps to freedom in many years.
But my mistake was in returning home. I didn’t know where to go but seeking out my father seemed like a good idea. I would show up at his doorstep, he would welcome me with open arms and we would be a family again. I was too quick to forget many of my relatives would have no qualms seeing me executed on sight. A mage in a family of Templars and Chantry sisters. The Maker has a sense of humor.
Until my magic was discovered, I had been headed down that road myself. The Noble House of Trevelyan. The most devout House in all of the Free Marches. I was trained in the Chant of Light. I was brought up to believe that magic was a curse as bad as the Blight itself. Magic had been bred out of our bloodline long ago, or so many thought.
I should have known better.
Instead of welcoming me home, they sent me, as well as a few of my relatives, to the Divine’s Conclave. Sent me away almost as quickly as I had returned. And for what? So I could fall through the fade with no memory of what happened? So I could be deemed the so-called Herald of Andraste?
I’m sure my family will love to hear this news.
I had only heard the news a few days ago and it still hadn’t quite sunk in. I flip my hand over examining it for the millionth time. The green light pulses, as it does so close to the Breach. Cassandra had mentioned that the mark was killing me, yet I feel no pain. For the moment, it is a constant reminder that I am at the mercy of yet another institution.
The Inquisition. Lead by a Seeker, a Spymaster, an Ativan diplomat, whom I could swear I’ve met before, and a blasted Templar. Second in command of the Templars from Kirkwall, no less. I recall the stories. Maker only knows how many of them are true.
I harbor no ill will toward Templars in general, but it’s hard to discern the motivations of this particular one. When we first met he seemed angry with me. He blamed me for the men he’d lost. I tried to play it off, telling him he wasn’t the only one hoping Solas was correct about me, but that only earned me a scowl and a “We’ll see. Won’t we?”
Then, when I woke from my initial confrontation with the Breach, in the War Room he tells me he’s pleased I survived. His smile seemed genuine. I still don’t know if he meant he was happy I was alive or happy the Inquisition didn’t lose its only means of closing the rifts popping up across Thedas.
Now, he seeks me out on matters that I feel I have no business dealing with. Then, after asking my opinion, he voices his own, as if mine didn’t really matter. It is infuriating.
When I returned from dealing with Master Dennet and informed him he would need to build watchtowers in order to gain the mounts he wants, he nearly threw a hissy fit about people only wanting to help if we assisted them first. I have done my best to avoid him and the War Room since.
“Herald?” His gruff voice reaches my ears and I slide further back along the roof of my small cabin. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hide up here forever, but I was hoping for one moment's peace.
His bulging form is making a beeline for my door. He seems to be in quite the huff. His gloved hand raises and the door to my cabin opens.
Without even knocking, really?
He never knocks. He’s even walked in on me half-dressed, only my breast band on my upper body. I’m not modest, but it was an unwelcome intrusion, all the same.
“Herald?” His gruff voice questions again. This time muffled from the inside of the cabin itself. “Where is that blasted girl?”
I can hear him pacing around in my small cabin, his heavy boots echoing through the interior. Did he think he’d find me hiding under my bed? In the wardrobe? To be fair, I am hiding in a ridiculous place, so I can’t fault the man too much.
Soon another voice joins in, this one singsongy and pleasant. “Don’t worry Commander. I will look for her.”
“She is needed in the Chantry. Please, have her join us as soon as you find her.” I can hear his frustration, almost as if his words can’t help but resonate complete irritation at the thought of me.
I peek over the edge of the roof just in time to see the Commander walking away, his hand reaching up to massage the ache I seem to give him away. I follow his path to the Chantry, my eyes never leaving him, which is why I am startled to realize someone else has joined me on the roof.
“The stars are quite beautiful from up here, no.” The singsongy voice states from just beside me.
I turn to her. “So, you found me.” I sigh and turn over, my back flush to the roof underneath me. The frost covered boards feel good, cooling my own irritation. I shouldn’t let the Commander get to me. I just don’t like the fact that he seems to hate me one minute and then exalt me in the next breath.
A small grin stretches Leliana’s small lips. “Oh, please. I knew where you were.” She crawls over to me, stretching her legs out in front of her. She shifts, trying to find a comfortable position, and pulls her robes around her to stay warm.
“I had a friend who used to do such things.” She gestures to the rooftop we are sharing. “She always hated that everyone was so reliant on her, and at times she felt the need to escape. Granted we did travel a lot, and I usually found her dangling on a tree limb, but it wasn’t a hard guess.” She turns to me with a slight grin on her face.
The smile is something I have noticed that she executes at will, not always genuine but sweet enough that you can’t help but smile back. “The Seeker, I assume?” I sigh. Sitting up, I pull my knees up to my chin and wrap my arms around them.
“Oh, goodness no,” she exclaims. “Can you imagine the Seeker climbing trees in the wilderness?” She chuckles at what I assume is the mental image. “No.” She states again as she tries, unsuccessfully, to calm her giggling fit. “My friend Katarina. She had much the same burden that you now possess.” She nudges my legs with her elbow. “She too felt the burden of duty. She too had only just escaped the Circle to find herself captive to a cause.” Her eyes search mine and I can’t begin to fathom what she hopes to find there.
I also wonder who she may be referring to but she is the Left Hand of the Divine. Who knows how many powerful mages she’s encountered?
Her eyes soften. Her face relaxes into an almost dreamy state. “You know, I used to believe I was chosen, just as some say you are. I thought I was fulfilling His purpose for me, working with the Divine, helping people. She believed me, or maybe she believed that I believed. Either way, she helped me to see, truly, that’s all we can do. Help people, do what needs to be done.” She pauses and gazes toward the heavens and I can’t tell if she is praying or simply thinking.
Then, she turns back to me, a strange glint in her eye. “You remind me of her. Her fire, her wit. She was always a quick thinker, never one to give up hope. She suffered a lot but she always came through it. I imagine you will be the same.” She reaches out a hand and places it on my shoulder. It’s a small gesture but I can’t help but smile at her gentle comfort.
It’s my turn to gaze to the heavens. Escaping the Circle seems so small, so distant now. Under the weight of becoming the Herald, it seems so… insignificant. Again, I examine the mark. Again, I wonder at its true purpose. Again, I wonder why this burden fell to me. I am no one. Nothing. I am a healer, a cook, not a warrior or battle-mage. I am a girl who has yet to live my life. I am a girl who has only ever wanted a life of her own. I didn’t ask for this.
Leliana is about to stand when I ask, “And what happened to your friend?”
Again, that smile traces her lips. “She saved all of Ferelden from the Blight, of course.” She states before hopping down onto the crates I had been using as a makeshift ladder.
“We must begin making plans to approach the Templars.” The Commander states from behind the door I have been reluctant to open. I hear his meaty fists hit the table and I jump. It shouldn’t startle me anymore but the sound always seems to unsettle me. His anger towards me, his irritation at every little thing I do is apparent in everything he does.
“If she has decided to shirk her duties as Herald, we can proceed without her.” He pauses and I can imagine him pacing the room, hand massaging away at the constant ache that resides at the apex of his spine. “I thought you said you had found her.”
“Commander, control yourself,” Cassandra barks. An order but also a reminder that they have a common goal here.
I push open the door, not wanting to give the Templar any reason to doubt Leliana. “I am here. What did I miss?”
“There you are, finally,” the Commander groans.
Our eyes meet across the expanse of the massive War Table. His anger and irritation seem to dissipate as I hold his gaze. It is in these moments I am sure that a part of his growing irritation stems from the fact that he is slightly afraid of me. Given his past with Mages, it is not so hard to understand. But did he have to judge or assume based on other’s actions? I am the furthest thing from the former Mages he’s encountered. I have no lust for violence, no want to see bloodshed. But that doesn’t mean I am entirely soft. The Circle builds in a Mage a core of steel. It is necessary to undergo what we must train to do. And I am certain that is what he sees when he looks at me.
“Herald,” Leliana starts, pulling our attention away from each other. She casts us each a look that says, ‘cool your heels’. It brings us back to the here and now but it doesn’t stop the Commander from casting another quick look my way.
“We were just discussing our options for approaching either the Mages or the Templars. After Val Royeaux, we must begin sorting through our options.” Her arms cross in front of her as she looks to the two spots on the map we have marked as the headquarters for each sect.
I lean onto the table, the weight of decision hangs on me and I am not sure what to do with it. “There are just the two, correct?” I ask, not knowing what other options they could be referencing.
“Yes,” Josephine begins, “However, an invitation to Redcliffe has already been extended to the Inquisition. What we must decide is to accept that invitation or to try and approach the Lord Seeker.” She waves her quill in a flamboyant gesture. Then, returns to scribbling notes on her tablet.
Looking at both of the places on the map does nothing to help in my decision but I hope that it at least looks like I am thinking about what to do. That I am somehow formulating a plan to deal with this chaos. As my eyes land on the marker for Therinfall Redoubt, I feel the tension in my shoulders rise, the stressful ache builds in my neck. I know my nervousness at the prospect of approaching the Templars is showing because the Commander grimaces. His glare is penetrating, but I do my best to speak up on the matter, regardless.
Already uneasy, my voice does little to exude the confidence I need at this moment. “With an invitation already extended from one party, shouldn’t we at least attempt to pursue that route?”
Cullen opens his mouth to speak but I hold up my hand, halting his words, for now.
I try again, this time with a little more false confidence. “I know seeking the aid of rebels is not ideal, but an offer has at least been extended, if not cemented, on their end. What truly matters is sealing the Breach, not who our alliances may be.” There, that sounded diplomatic, didn’t it?
I cannot discern the look the Commander darts my direction, but it’s not as sharp as it was moments ago. He seems to be deliberating the idea I set forward. When he speaks, his words are controlled, careful. “As I have said before, I don’t believe more magic is the answer. But…” He sighs, fingers coming up to massage the bridge of his nose. “The Herald makes a good point.”
All eyebrows raise at this revelation. Even Cassandra seems surprised.
The Commander scowls, but continues, “If we go to Redcliffe, we may find that they are not the answer, we may find they want nothing to do with this, and as our Ambassador has pointed out, we do not yet have a way to approach the Lord Seeker. I do, however, think it best that Cassandra accompanies you. She will be able to evaluate any dangers these rebels may present.”
Still surprised at this change of heart, I nod my assent, glancing over to see Cassandra is doing the same.
“Very well,” I say, straightening my posture and attempting to inflect some authority. “The Seeker and I will head to Redcliffe in the morning. Are there any other matters to discuss?” I look to the faces of my advisors, the Commander simply turns away from my gaze. Josephine shakes her head and gives a slight bow before heading for the door and Leliana tilts her head in a meet me outside gesture. I nod my acknowledgment of the gesture and turn to leave.
I don’t know why but before I step out the door, I turn back to the Templar. “Thank you, Commander.”
He is leaned over the War Table, much in the same posture I was before but he looks up, his eyes meeting mine for just a moment before he nods.
I feel a small smile tug at the corner of my lip before exiting the room.
Chapter 2: Niceties
I wanted a more organic conversation with Cullen than what was provided in the game. This is my answer to that.
Standing out in the cold mountain air, I huff and cross my arms over my chest. While I am used to being awake early in the morning, I didn’t get much rest. The night had been filled with discussions, preparations, and late night, unwelcome visitors. And not a soul had thought to offer me any coffee. That was the most heinous crime of the morning.
The next was the Commander’s unwelcome presence at my door. I had a hard enough time dealing with him and his shenanigans when I was wide awake but to grace my doorstep when the sun had barely begun to rise… unforgivable.
“The journey to Redcliffe should take less than a week. Are you certain you have the supplies you need?” The Commander shifts my packs once again, as he checks my tack and provisions for the third time.
I try to give the man my attention but this is getting redundant and my brain can no longer handle it. “Commander, I am aware that I have not done much traveling in recent years but I did spend much of my early childhood on the back of a horse. My life wasn’t entirely spent in the Circle.” I lean heavily against the post where my horse is reined. My arms fold tighter around my chest, trying to close in on myself. The air is crisp but that isn’t the problem. I just want to be in bed again under my cozy blanket and maybe another hour of sleep. “Cassandra assisted me in packing. She told me what I would need. There’s no need to fret.” I yawn and brush my hands over my face, attempting to rub some life into my tired eyes.
In fact, last night the Seeker spent no small amount of time doing just what the Commander is doing now. She packed, double checked, and then rechecked all of my additions to the pack before leaving my quarters long after I had planned to be in bed. I find it frustrating that two people who want my opinion on important matters refuse to accept that a girl from the Circle knows how to travel. I think they forget I was not born into the Circle. That I come from a Noble family. Nobility rarely stays in one place for too long, especially in the warmer months.
Watching the Commander inspect the contents of my packs isn’t quite as irritating as having Cassandra toss things out she didn’t think necessary. His examination seems to be more about ensuring I have necessities, rather than critiquing my choices. That I can at least appreciate and I must admit I find the Commander’s keen interest in me and mine a little unnerving. And, maybe a little endearing.
“Yes, well, we can’t have our Herald dying on us due to starvation or for want of proper medical supplies.” He grins, setting the gold of his eyes dancing playfully.
His words wake me up a bit. “Commander did… Did you just make a joke?” My hand covers my mouth in mock surprise. But in reality, I am surprised. It is completely unexpected.
A faint warmth crosses his cheeks as he turns his face away, busying himself with the straps on the horse’s bridle. It makes me wonder if the Commander has ever cracked a joke before this moment. A casual conversation with him always devolves into stammering and embarrassed flushes. He is always so uneasy in my presence. At first, I thought this to be a characteristic of the man himself, but he seems confident and educated when speaking with others. In the War Room, he has no trouble putting forth battle-strategy and stating his opinion on matters of import. I quickly came to the conclusion that the Commander, for all his battle savvy, was somewhat frightened of me. I have, in recent days tried to alleviate his fears, to no avail.
I place my hand over his constantly moving ones. “If you are so worried, why not join us?” I tilt my head, trying to capture his eye but he won’t look at me. “We could show the Mages that a Mage and Templar can be friendly.” My joke does not go over as well as his. He pulls his hands from mine, one reaching up to stroke the back of his neck. I wonder what I did to earn it at that time.
“I… uh… have many matters to attend to here. I am more than certain the Seeker will suffice.” He bends to check the horse's shoes, nodding his approval when the task is complete. He stands and faces me, flush now gone, rubbing the dirt away from his gloved hands.
“Just not so certain she knows how to pack properly?” I gesture to the packs that he has spent most of the morning examining.
This time I am rewarded with a crooked grin. I can’t help but notice how much younger he looks when he isn’t scowling.
“You know, you should smile more. It looks good on you.” Maker, Scarlett. Where did that come from? I cough, to dislodge the words from my throat, but there is no doubt he heard them.
My embarrassment of the statement is mirrored on the Commander’s cheeks. I thought he would look away from me again but this time, he tries to continue the conversation as if nothing had happened. “On the road to Redcliffe, there will be two forward camps. At both, you will be able to resupply and have something better to sleep on than a bedroll on the ground.”
I roll with it. Better to avoid the awkward subject than to sit here and wonder why the words had slipped from my lips. I push away from the post and begin my own awkward fidgeting; checking my staff for any damage, though I know there won’t be any. “A cot will be nice, though a bed would be better, I won’t complain. I will just be happy to be breathing the open air. I honestly can’t recall the last time I did that. My family ordered a carriage for the trip to the Conclave. I was crammed in with my cousins for the entirety of the trip.” I relax a bit at the thought, closing my eyes and taking in the sun beating down on me, the cool breeze drifting down from the mountains. I know I must be grinning like an idiot but I can’t help it. This trip will be the closest to freedom I have known in many years.
“You have been going on missions for a little while now.” He states, breaking me from my reverie.
“I suppose I have, but this time I am not walking into battle. Simply a meeting of the minds.” A meeting with the Grand Enchanter, no less. I must admit, I idolize Fiona a bit. She was key in assisting the Mage’s freedom efforts. When word reached our Circle that the Mages were free to walk away and that the Templars had abandoned the Chantry, stories of her and of Anders spread like wildfire. There isn’t a Mage in existence that doesn’t owe both a debt of gratitude.
I turn back to him and I can tell by his scowl that he knows the thoughts in my head. That he has assessed where my mind had wandered to. Either that or I may have said some of it out loud. My tendency to mutter my thoughts without the coffee filtering my awareness is a problem I have always had. They say that some people cannot function properly without it. I am one of those people.
In an effort to bring us, and our newfound civility back on track, I shift our focus on something else. “Not that I don’t anticipate some trouble on the road. I’m not that naive.”
I’m going to meet my people on their terms. I can’t expect a Templar to understand. I can’t help but hope this will mean a new beginning for Mages. We can take them on as allies and all of Thedas can see the good magic can do. They can help us seal the Breach. We can stand in a united front for the first time in ages. So many people have feared us for so long and now we have a chance to set those fears aside.
His scowl softens but doesn’t quite leave his lips. His brows crease together and his hands find their way to the pommel of his sword, an action that always makes me a little uneasy. “Might I make one request, Herald?”
I know my body has gone rigid, on the defensive and I try to relax, making my next words not hold the weight I am feeling settled over me. “Depends on what you are requesting, Commander.”
He seems nervous as if whatever he may say won’t go over well with me. “Don’t rush an alliance with the Mages. Remember, you said yourself, this would just be a meeting. One that would give us time to meet with the Templars as well.”
I know he assumes I hold a low opinion of Templars. It is a natural reaction for Mages to hate them without provocation. Most assume that a Mage needs no provocation where a Templar is concerned. In most cases, they would be correct. I know the stories of his Order. I know the stories of Kirkwall. In the beginning, I wanted to despise the Templar standing before me. The stories of his Knight-Commander were enough to give any Mage nightmares.
Yet, I find myself wanting to reassure him that I harbor no hatred for him. I want to explain why I don’t feel the need to shut down or decimate the Templars. “Commander, I want you to know, my time spent with the Templars wasn’t horrible. I harbor no hatred toward them.” I want to place a reassuring hand on his arm, but before my hand closes the distance, I pull back. He has never liked when I touched him in the past, always pulling away, and putting distance between us. Once, at the War Table, I moved closer to him to get a better idea of where he was gesturing to on the map. As my side brushed against him, he nearly jumped out of his skin. He recovered quickly, but Leliana and Josephine both began giggling uncontrollably.
Instead, I sigh and lean back into the post, turning my head side-to-side to feel the small pops as I attempt to relax my tired muscles. “I do know of the abuses elsewhere but I did not see the atrocities that befell Kirkwall, nor did I see the Templar’s abuse of power.”
The Commander’s face turns from irritation to the mask of control he attempts to wield when he is uncomfortable. I can only assume it is because I mentioned Kirkwall, his past.
Not wanting to leave our conversation on a sour note, I add. “My Circle was sedate, sometimes boring even. In the Ostwick circle, it wasn’t unheard of for Mages and Templars to have relations. Friendships form when people are shoved in close quarters.” I had been in one of those relationships. Close friends with the Templar in charge of my care. It wasn’t unnatural for us to flirt, spend extra time together, or even kiss. We had never been physical with each other, not in a sexual way. But there was no denying that, given the chance, we wouldn’t have turned each other down.
“Templars are meant to keep a certain distance from their charges.” He states, but it there is no conviction behind it. In fact, it seems as if the Commander may be remembering his own past.
I don’t want to dwell on that little question and his statement makes me wonder if this is how he views me. His charge. Am I just another Mage tossed into his care? Does he feel the need to distance himself from me because someday he may be forced to ensure I do not become an abomination? I watch as a host of emotions plays over the Commander’s tense features.
Instead of giving in to those thoughts, I press on. “I’ve only ever seen Templars as they were meant to be. They watched over our Harrowings, ensured no abominations were found within the Circle, and they let us be. I know at times you don’t want to trust me because I am a Mage, but I have always been true to my word. I’ve never had a reason not to be.”
This strikes an unexpected chord within him. His eyes dart to mine and he schools his countenance back into steel reserve. “Herald, if I have made you feel uncomfortable or out of place for any reason, I apologize. I’ve seen the suffering magic can inflict. I’ve treated Mages with distrust because of it – at times without cause. That was unworthy of me. I have tried not to do so here.” He seems to want to continue that thought but stops.
I am on the verge of reassuring him I am not a threat, when Cassandra and Vivienne step around the corner of the stables, reigns in hand, leading their mounts to where the Commander and I rest in tense silence. And Vivienne, blessed Vivienne, is holding a mug, steaming with the nectar of the Maker himself. I can smell it, like a sixth sense, even over the strong animal odors of the stables and my mouth begins to salivate profusely. When she extends the mug, I want to wrap my arms around her and give her the biggest hug. But, with Vivienne, a small thank you is all she really wants, so I do so and she smiles brilliantly.
I can complain about my captivity all day, but one thing is for sure. In the Circle, and here, I always have someone looking out for me. I have people who have my best interest at heart. I have people who want to take care of me and see me succeed. Coffee is a small thing but the fact that someone thought to bring me some when I hadn’t shown in the dining hall was more than I expected.
Chapter 3: Images on Loop
Cullen attempts to clear his head. He is unsuccessful.
Cullen was exhausted. He had been on the brink of setting his last missive on fire, holding it just above the candle’s flame, before deciding it was probably a bad idea. The ceaseless war reports, the updates on training, the countless missives that landed on his desk, all were adding up to an extreme headache. He knew when he took this job that the title would come with a large amount of responsibility and that he thought he could handle. What he couldn’t handle were the petty squabbles, the unending debates, the constant bickering of anyone and everyone around him. And the blasted Mage that wouldn’t leave his thoughts. Scarlett, no The Herald, was a walking mystery to him. He never knew how to act around her. He didn’t know why the small girl gave him so much trouble. She was kind, considerate and never one to show off her magic. Yet, she unnerved him, unsettled him, in a way he hadn’t known since his youth.
When he took this position, he believed he was setting himself up to regain some control over himself and the Order he abandoned. Now, it seemed that the goal would be forever out of reach. With Scar… The Herald’s visit to the Rebel Mages, he just knew she would somehow convince herself that they were the answer. And the answers he needed about the Templars and their current situation would be forever lost.
To be fair, Cassandra had come to Kirkwall, not in search of him, but of Hawke. The Mage who’s boyfriend blew up Kirkwall’s Chantry. The Mage who, for years, had to try to make him see the injustices in his city, in his Order. The black-haired spitfire who took it upon herself to see the city brought back from the brink of chaos. The Mage who was a cousin to the Warden of his past.
He’d thought of Hawke and the Warden more often lately. This battle, this war, it could be because of them. Because two people, two women, stood up and said, “We’ve had enough.” Not that either would have wanted a war but they had set themselves up in positions of power. They had stared the Circle, the Chantry in the face and spat in it.
Hawke had insisted that Mages were people like anyone else and for a short while, he would believe it. He could see the good in her. The way she fought for the city, for the little people, and for the Mages. But then his mind would always go back to Ferelden. He would think about the blood magic, the demon summoning, the time he spent held in a magical cage. Those Mages were monsters.
But, he couldn’t think of all that happened there without thoughts of the Warden. He still recalled how compassionate she was, even as he yelled and screamed at her, even as he called her an abomination. She had cried for him, tried to reach out to him. Then, he was forced to recall another incident with her. He had been so young, so stupid. She had reached out to him before in a very different way. He would never forget it. The way she smiled at him. The way her hand brushed over his metal gauntlet. And then, how she stood on her tiptoes and brought her face mere inches from his as she spoke. He had known what she wanted. But he also knew it was his duty to keep his distance. However, panic set in and instead of explaining himself, he ran. He ran and wouldn’t see her again until the day she showed up to save the Circle from utter destruction, from blood magic.
When blood magic began cropping up all over Kirkwall, it frightened him. When his own recruits turned to the awful rite, Hawke was there. When the blood mages began escaping, Hawke was there. When there were rumors of Necromancy and demon summoning, Hawke was there. When all was said and done, there was one Mage who didn’t frighten him. One Mage who actually gave him hope.
I let Hawke walk away that day. I even let Anders walk away. We stood there, face-to-face and I backed off.
Cullen had decided then, he was done with taking sides. Two of the greatest women he’d ever known were Mages. He couldn’t continue to think of them as monsters. Yes, blood magic existed. Yes, it needed to be quelled, but there had to be a better way. Templars were meant to be a balm against the darkness, not some tyrannical Order set on destroying magic. Scarlett had said that her Circle was like this. “The Templars as they were meant to be”. Her words had struck a deeper chord within him than he had realized at the time.
Did he hate Mages? No. He hated blood magic. Did he hate magic? No. Without magic, who would have stopped the Blight? What’s the old saying, “Fight fire with fire”? Without magic, where would the healer’s clinics be? Without magic where would he be? What would he be? How would they fight what they were facing now?
He couldn’t take it anymore, locked away in his tent, missives, and reports spilling into his lap. He needed to get out. He needed to do something to take his mind off everything, if only for a moment.
He didn’t know what made him step into the tavern that night. He had thought, time spent with his men -- away from the training grounds -- might be good for him. He even thought a mug of ale might relax him enough to want to fall asleep. He couldn’t remember the last time he drank. As a Templar, a clear head was vital.
He sat down at a small table in the corner, back to the wall so he could take in everyone in the room. A few of the men greeted him but no one joined him. He could only assume that the men were unsure if they should join their commanding officer in a drink. So, he sat there, sipping his ale and watching the drunken hilarity ensue around him. Men and women were playing Wicked Grace, singing along with the Tavern’s bard, and passing around cigarillos. There was even a couple getting fairly handsy in the opposite corner.
The low light of the tavern was made warmer by the blazing hearth. The pops and crackles setting juxtaposed to the noise and frivolity of those in attendance. Cullen found he liked this contradiction. The calming atmosphere was doing its diligence and settling his nerves, while the boisterous activity was giving his mind something other than his winding thoughts to focus on.
He finished his drink, placing his coin and a little something extra on the table for the barmaid. She smiled sweetly as she picked up the extra coin and placed it in her pocket. She knew that he wanted nothing in return, as some men would have, he was simply being kind. Cullen had been striving to be more like that lately. To be more compassionate. And don’t they say, it’s the small things that matter most?
Cullen picked up his cloak, wrapping it around his shoulders and made this way to the exit. He was about to leave when a conversation caught his attention.
“Have you seen her out there practicing with her staff? She looks like some dark deity.” One of the newest recruits leaned into his fellows and rubbed his thick beard. He took a hearty swig from his mug and groaned aloud when his mug hit the table.
It piqued Cullen’s curiosity. He slowed his steps, making a bit of a show in how he was attempting to put his gloves back on.
“Have you seen the ass on that woman?” Another of the fellows piped in. His friend clapping him on the back as both nearly spit out their mead with their shared laughter.
The second continues, “You know she likes to go outside the gates and pick elfroot. I can’t stop myself from trying to catch a glimpse as she bends over.”
Cullen couldn’t help but wonder who they were speaking of. There were a few mages who enjoyed venturing outside the city gates. He had assumed it was mainly for the novelty of being able to do so. But they did have a few Healers in their ranks that did so more often than others.
“And what about her tits? They are so big. I just want to plant my face in them and give ‘em a good shake.” The third man in the group of four raised his hands in front of his face as if he were cupping said breasts and blew, making an odd noise as he did so. But it was well enough to know what the man was attempting to imitate.
The men started chuckling.
“I’m telling you, if that woman offered, I’d bend her over a barrel and fuck her till she called me The Herald of Andraste.” The fourth man raised his tankard.
“Here, here!” The men clinked their tankards together.
Cullen was unaware he had made his way to their table until he was towering over them.
One by one, the men took notice of who had just joined them at the table. And one by one, they began making apologies.
Cullen had no desire to hear any of it. If he hadn’t caught them speaking this way about Scarlett, they would have continued for only the Maker knows how long. “If I ever hear any of you speak of the Herald in such a way again, you will be praying to the Maker that you had never been born.” He met each of their eyes, ensuring his words sunk through their drunken minds.
Once he was sure the men understood, he turned on his heel to leave the tavern. In his anger, or more so, irritation, he slammed the tavern door hard enough to rattle the hinges. He would have to apologize for that later.
Outside, he inhaled the cool mountain air. His skin flush with his anger but his mind is no longer on the men inside. Every time one of them spoke they seemed to conjure the images in his head. He hadn’t known they were speaking of her until the very end but that hadn’t stopped his mind from wandering to her with everything they said. And now he had those images firmly implanted.
He remembered the time she had accidentally knocked a piece from the War Room table and bent to pick it up. His eyes had followed the curve of her cheeks to her shapely thighs. She had bounced up and down in her attempt to retrieve the piece and he couldn’t look away. He was sure Leliana had noticed. There wasn’t much the Spymaster didn’t notice. She grinned at him as he turned to her and away from the shapely Mage.
Then, he remembered the time he had walked in on her with nothing but her breast band covering her top half, how the curves of her large breasts were barely contained within. Scarlett had barely even flinched. She hadn’t moved to cover herself. Instead, she turned to him, eyes defiant, as if daring his eyes to roam any further.
Now, he had a new image to join the others. The thought of Scarlett, bare-assed, bending over a barrel, beckoning him to enter her. He could just imagine her full bottom lip sinking below her teeth -- an infuriating habit she had when anything pleased her -- her skin soft and warm, her moans of pleasure as he sank his shaft deep within her. He imagined her reaching her hand back for him, as she tried to bring his body even closer. He knew he should stop thinking of her this way. He was a Templar, and she, a Mage. There would be no way she would even entertain the idea. And how would it look if she did accept? Her position within the Inquisition would be compromised, leaving the newer recruits to entertain the same ideas as the men he had just left. Yet, he couldn’t stop the images played on a continuous loop in his mind.
Frustrated beyond belief, he makes his way back to his tent, with another forming uncomfortably in his trousers. How embarrassing! He tries to adjust but people keep walking past. If he is too obvious, people will catch on. If he doesn’t hurry, people will know for sure.
He quickens his pace, which isn’t completely out of character for him, he is always rushing from one hazard to another. But this time he can’t help but feel guilty as he brushes past people attempting to speak with him, only holding up a hand to stave off their words. They accept, as they know he is a busy man and must be on some mission, which only makes the embarrassment so much worse.
When finally inside his tent, he sheds his armor. Before he can even lie down, his manhood demands to be relieved, aching and throbbing. As the loop plays in his mind he strokes himself, slow at first but the images demand more. His grip tightens and his pace quickens. He tries to stop, tries to control himself. He knows in his mind that this is wrong. He shouldn’t be using Scarlett like this. She is much more than a pretty face, an amazing body. But the thoughts won’t leave him. It is akin to the Desire Demon in the way it tugs at his mind. The slow tortuous agony of want and need. Of desire and desperation. Then his mind locks on the look she gave him as she left the War Room. She had turned back to him, eyes hooded and a small smile on her lips as she thanked him. That look was all he needed and he is spent, the evidence of it coating his hand and his blanket.
Maker, what am I going to do now? I was nervous enough around her before.
I will just say, Cullen is a man. We all know that men tend to think this way... well, don't we all at some point. Plus, I like writing dirty Cullen and there... that's my excuse.
Chapter 4: Girls Night at Camp
A night of brandy and gossip has Scareltt wondering if she has misread the Commander this whole time.
The journey to Redcliffe would take as little as five days, or as long as a week, depending on the many underlying circumstances of the trip. So far, they had yet to encounter bandits, rouge Templars or Mages, or anything else that would slow their pace to the city.
I have to admit, it is shaping up to be the trip I had been hoping for.
We did not make it to the first forward station but we did find a nice spot to make camp. As everyone began setting up their tents, I started a fire, much to Sera’s discomfort. She actually jumped away from me and it gave Cassandra an endless source of amusement. She had been goading her for some time when we all finally sat down to relax and unwind. It was nice to see the Seeker laugh, though laugh may be a strong word. It was more of a chuckling hum than anything.
Sera scowls at the Seeker. “You know, you shouldn't make fun of people being scared of magic just because you can scare them back,” she states sourly.
I knew bringing Sera along on this journey would be questionable at best. She has made it well known that she cares nothing for magic and that she is wary around Mages but she is also one of my closest friends at Haven. Her easy humor and befuddled determination give us much to talk about and an easy, comfortable discourse. Even though she is wary of my magic, she doesn’t hold it against me, even if I use it in her presence.
She folds her legs under her as she settles down by the fire. The way she sits reminds me of a child, or someone who is incredibly uncomfortable and attempting to make themselves small and unnoticeable. I know from what little she has told me about her past that it is probably the latter. Even though she is young, she is only childlike in humor. If someone farts or burps, she giggles. If someone cracks a dirty joke, she breaks out in uproarious laughter. It is all part of what makes me like her so much.
All of us follow suit, taking up a place around the fire. The stew I had made that night sat in bowls on the ground near all of our feet. Steam rose from each, sending up wafts of the herbs I had used to give the campfire food some flavor. I still remembered the first few camping excursions where Cassandra had served nothing but roasted boar skewered in tiny strips to make cooking quicker, more efficient. It was also hard, chewy and flavorless. And after a while, I knew I had to do something about it. I didn’t have my cooking equipment from the Circle and one could hardly travel with an oven but I knew enough to make due with what I had. While stew took longer to cook, the leftovers could be reused and made the next night’s stew even better. We had since adopted this style of cooking over the other.
“I take it you think I’m frightening?” Cassandra smiles around a mouthful of the stew. She watches Sera’s reaction over the brim of her bowl. She seems to enjoy being intimidating.
I roll my eyes, but her focus is on Sera and it goes unnoticed. These two like to antagonize each other and to be fair, both of them like to antagonize everyone. Cassandra is a bit more mature about it but the Seeker likes to get under people’s skin just as much as our dear Rogue.
“Not naked.” Sera begins, returning Cassandra’s grin.
Cassandra’s grin to shifts into a slow scowl, her body stiffens. None in this group are modest. We’ve seen each other’s bodies, but Sera seems to take a special pleasure in making others uncomfortable and the Seeker is more modest than the rest of us.
“You’re well fit.” Sera wiggles her eyebrows at the Seeker. “But all armored up and fierce? What do you think some stable boy sees?” She flings stew, little droplets splattering onto the fire, as she gestures with her spoon.
Sera must have hit a nerve with her question, because Cassandra looks hurt, if only for a moment. I wonder if this is something she’s heard before.
In a careful and controlled voice, Cassandra responds. “A Seeker on the side of righteousness.”
Sera chose not to comment on the Seeker bit, instead, she addresses her initial question. “Here's what I learned in the alleys: ‘Ahh, Mages! Ahh, Templars! Ahh, Tevinters! Aaah, hungry!’ When you're little, everything is ‘Ahh!’ Her words are in conflict with the smile on her face. It is as if these words mean little to her now. It is just something she has lived with all her life, a point of fact. Never mind that she basically just told us all that she had been scared of people like us for nearly her entire life.
Intent on shifting gears Cassandra turns to Vivienne.
Madame de Fer has somehow managed to remain superbly clean throughout our journey, the white of her tunic standing out in stark relief on her dark skin.
“I assume your parents were Riviani, Vivianne?”
Vivienne draws her hand to her face in a flourish, almost as the ladies of the court would do when they flipped their hair, feigning disinterest. But Vivienne has no hair and the gesture looks quite odd. “They were merchants, originally from Dairsmuid... or so I'm told.” The pompous tone of her voice falters for only a moment before she recovers. She straightens her back and turns her eyes to Cassandra as if daring her to say the question bothered her in any way.
The Seeker clears her throat, sensing the shift in Vivienne’s mood, but presses on. “You don’t remember?”
Vivienne rolls her eyes and takes a deep breath. “I was taken to the Ostwick Circle when I was very young. So far as I'm concerned, my life began there.” She waves off the subject, but at the mention of Ostwick’s Circle, she needn’t have bothered because Sera and Cassandra’s eyes suddenly shift in my direction.
I pause, my spoon halfway to my mouth. I don’t know why, but I have the sudden feeling I am under extreme scrutiny. I shift uncomfortably as I force myself to appear unaffected by their mutual gazes. Bringing the stew the rest of the way to my mouth I chew as the camp falls silent.
I try to think of something to say, anything to make this weird feeling drift away with the wind but I can’t seem to think of anything. I have talked to Cassandra about the Seekers. I have spoken at length with Vivienne about the Circle, and I doubt Sera is ready to divulge any of her secrets to me in our present company. I open my mouth to try and see if I can force something out, but words escape me. Instead, I let out a heaving sigh.
Finally, I decided that if we are going to discuss my past, I would need to grab the bottle of brandy I had stowed away in my pack. I have yet to open up to anyone about my own past and I have never been too keen on letting people in. It is another of the things you learn in the Circle, never let anyone in enough to hurt you. This is especially true for those of us that came to the Circle later in life. Mages have trust issues and that can develop into further issues down the line. What people tend to forget, what people choose to ignore, is that it was betrayal that put us in the Circle, generally by those we trusted most.
“I’ll be right back,” I say, as I set my now finished bowl aside and make my way to the horses. From my pack, I grab the brandy, four small travel mugs and an extra crust of bread, in case I need it later.
Sera’s eyes widen as I reach the campsite and her eyes alight on the bottle in my hand. She is about to be offered free alcohol and the glimmering playfulness that is always present has her nearly vibrating in pleasure by the time I take a seat beside her.
However, Cassandra and Vivienne don’t seem to share her enthusiasm. Both turn their noses up at us and share a look that seems to tell us both that we are children if this is the way we were going to act.
“Herald, do you truly think this wise?” Cassandra asks as she gestures to the now open bottle in my hands.
I sigh as I pour the first of the glasses. “When Vivienne mentioned Ostwick’s Circle, you all looked at me as if I was about to reveal some dark secret from my past. So, if I am going to be sharing anything tonight, it will be drinking with friends before gossip.”
I fill each mug to about a quarter and pass them around the circle. To no one's surprise, Sera’s is gone before the rest of us can take our first sip. I gladly refill her glass but remind her to go easy or she will regret it in the morning. She makes a “pfft” sound but takes her second glass a little slower.
I take my first swig of the amber liquid, hoping it will settle me enough to even begin having this conversation. “So,” I start, pausing as each set of eyes turns toward me again. “What would you like to know about the woman now known as the Herald of Andraste?” I ask with more flair than was necessary, but it brings slight smiles to all three of my companions.
For over an hour the three women fired question after question at me. Where was I from originally? What was my Circle like? Everything from, what my favorite color is, to how I spent my downtime in the Circle. I informed them that my favorite color is amber, my favorite food, a dish I learned to make myself, Starkhaven Fish and Egg Pie. They learned that I have an affinity for coffee and pastries. My downtime in the Circle was spent reading and cooking, two things that gave me great joy. They commented on how the stew they were currently eating was quite good. It was a fun and enjoyable conversation for the most part until Vivienne asked me about the Templars.
We were having fun and poking fun at each other. The subjects ranging from each other's choice of dress to accents. I don’t even remember how we came to be talking about Circle matters or the Templars but it happened.
“My dear, you must have an opinion about Templars.” Vivienne states. Her slight mocking tone has me giggling. Of course, I have opinions about Templars, all Mages do.
She sobers a bit and I realize she is truly asking me, no longer in jest.
“I know during my time in Ostwick they were pleasant conversationalists, most having studied a great deal of history. I made many friends while there. I am intrigued to know if you had a similar experience.” All eyes return to me once more but now they seemed more eager than ever to hear my response. Vivienne’s view of Templars is widely known. She respects them and feels they are a necessary tool in the Chantry’s arsenal.
“Yeah, Templars, great at conversation.” I hadn’t meant to say that out loud, but it slipped anyway.
The three women giggled, sharing knowing looks across the campfire. We were all feeling the effects of the fine drink now. We were all sharing too much and they knew my comment was about the Commander.
I try to clear my head and give a coherent answer but the brandy is making my thoughts swim. This is too deep a forest to be foraging through when I am most obviously inebriated. I want to state that I have no opinion on the matter, but that would be a lie. Plus, if Cassandra had been talking to Josephine, she might have let slip that I had a crush on one of my former guards.
Finally, I decided it best to let my companions know the truth. It may be the brandy talking but I want to get it off my chest. To have it out in the open. I can’t stop the giggle that slips past my lips as I begin speaking. “To be perfectly honest, I’ve never had a problem with Templars. They were always there, but I never felt constricted or worried around them. In fact, there was this one Templar in my Circle. Tall, well-built, tanned skin, luscious lips. He would be with me most days and we struck up a friendship. We would read together, joke, take walks in the gardens. I knew he was there to guard me, or against me if need be, but toward the end, it felt like more. I wanted him. I wanted to be with him.”
“No!” Cassandra exclaims, hand drawn to her mouth, which was hanging open in a slight “O”. She nearly topples over with the quick movement making the rest of us laugh uproariously.
“You’re shittin’!” Sera proclaimed, at almost the same moment. She had seen what most people had seen of Mages and Templars. She knew the scandal it would be in most places.
I look to Vivienne, the only one who didn’t burst out in exclamations. A knowing smile plays across her lips and I feel the heat rising in my cheeks. “Our Commander is tall, well-built, with luscious lips and eyes that just so happen to be your favorite color.”
The brandy catches in my throat, burning a path up my nose as I cough. Caught completely off guard I have no idea what to say. I had only thought about the Commander once, maybe twice this evening. I have no idea why this is now a topic of conversation. Did she fancy the Commander and was fishing for my opinion on the matter, or did she see some correlation in my short story and my current situation?
“I… uh… I suppose so.” I try to force my mind to see him as someone other than the Templar that probably hates me. Was he attractive? Well, that was quite obvious to anyone with eyes and attracted to men. Sure, he was pretty but what about the rest?
“He does have that wicked scar that makes it impossible not to stare at his lips.” I don’t know why but I touch the place on my lips where his scar resides causing Vivienne and Cassandra to burst out in another fit of laughter.
Frustrated with this nonsense, I continue, “But have you heard the way he speaks to me? The man is so frightened of me that he can’t string two words together unless it’s about a mission.”
“Maybe,” Vivienne raises a defiant eyebrow. “But I’ve seen the way he looks at you, especially when he thinks no one is looking.” She plucks at her clothing, removing some unseen offense to her perfection as if she is now bored with the topic.
“What?” I nearly spit the next sip of brandy all over myself and feel the dribbles run down my chin.
“No,” I shake my head adamantly, maybe a little too hard and my head spins a bit. Placing my hands on the ground, I steady myself wanting to finish this conversation. Vivienne is clearly insane. “The Commander is not interested in me. He doesn’t like Mages. He’s made that point quite clear.” Even as the words leave my mouth, I can feel the heat rising in my cheeks. I, however, am no longer certain if the heat is from anger at him or embarrassment of this conversation.
“Not true,” Cassandra slurs, raising her mug, a little of the amber liquid sloshing over the sides. She eyes the brandy sliding down her arm for a moment before choosing to ignore it.
She leans forward as if wishing to divulge some secret but the gesture losses some of its intention as she is feet away from me and not inches away, but still she raises a finger to her lips letting us know that what she is about to tell us is probably some juicy gossip that shouldn’t be spread. “You wouldn’t be the first Mage he was attracted to.”
All eyes turn incredulous looks her way. She can’t be serious.
This was Cullen Rutherford we were talking about. Knight-Captain of Kirkwall.
She laughs, hiccupping in the same breath. “Most people don’t know this, but the Commander had a crush on the first Mage he was assigned to.” Again she brings her finger to her lips.
SHHH, it’s a secret.
She takes another swig of brandy making me truly question if this had been a good idea. I had heard the term sloshed but it never really made sense until this moment. Her body swayed like the liquor in our mugs.
She sniggers again and I begin to flush even before she has a chance to say anything. “Plus, he likes to stare at your ass when you bend over. He thinks we don’t notice, but you have got to stop dropping things and bending over the table in the War Room.”
This time I do successfully spit brandy everywhere. The heat of the fire is suddenly too much as the heat in my body continues to rise. My armor feels too tight.
I’d never considered that the Commander would think of me in that way. Why would he think of me that way? Had I given him cause to do so? I try to think back over the last few weeks, months. I had only been attempting to make our conversations more civil, less heated. Had I led him on by doing so? I guess I had inquired about his vows. It was merely curiosity. Did he take that as me flirting?
“Oh, don’t look so uncomfortable, dear.” Vivienne pipes back in. “I was merely stating an observation. I had no idea about the rest of this. But do not worry yourself so. The Commander has too much control to act on it anyway. Unless you make a move, he won’t do a thing about it.” Yet, her smirk and the look in her eyes, tells me she is hoping I will.
I do not like Cullen!
Woah, Magey! No one said that. They are telling you he likes you. They aren’t assuming you like him.
I continue to argue that point with myself for the remainder of the night.
Chapter 5: Living in Memories
A letter arrives for Cullen.
I wanted to show that the memories of Kinloch Hold are never far from the Commander's mind, to show just how little it took to send him back there.
This is my take on what happened to Cullen in the Circle Tower.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It had been over a week, time ticked by in unyielding silence. There had been no word from the scouts, no word from the forward camps and it was driving Cullen crazy. Leliana told him not to worry so much but they should have been there by now. They should have some report stating the Herald’s progress through Ferelden. Someone should know something.
He ran his fingers through his hair, tugging the strands a bit to relieve some of the pressure building in his head. He knew the old saying that ‘no news is good news’ but good news for who? His anxiety raised daily, his worry that the Herald would make some rash decision. A decision that he would have to commit to. A decision that could change the course of the Inquisition. A decision that would lead him further from the Order he had devoted his life to. He didn’t want the ties to his old life. He lived daily attempting to shake that life. He was here as proof of that but that didn’t mean that he didn’t want the chance to help redeem others of his Order. He couldn’t be the only one that was forced to see how twisted it had become.
Where are they? The words nearly screamed through his brain.
He knew he should try to calm down but the things he would normally do and the things he had recently tried would be no help. He would not turn to the lyrium again. Drinking had produced results that he didn’t wish to repeat. And it was the middle of the night. He couldn’t pull a recruit from their bed and tell them he needed to train. He wished he had someone to turn to in Haven, someone he could just talk to. Maybe someone who wouldn’t mind late night training sessions that would help clear his mind. Cassandra probably wouldn’t mind, but she wasn’t there and Leliana, well… she was just slightly terrifying. He also knew she would use it as an excuse to pull information from him, get him talking. That was what she did, lured you in, get you relaxed just enough to divulge a piece of your heart, then she’d hold that piece of information until the time was right to use it against you. He didn’t think less of her for it, it was why she was the Spymaster. But it didn’t make him keen to seek out a friendship with her. In fact, the only people she was truly friendly with were Josephine, Cassandra, and Scarlett. It didn’t matter; she already knew more about him than he was comfortable with anyone knowing and he wouldn’t give her any more.
So, he busied himself with the waiting missives, sorting through what he could handle on his own and what should be left for Cassandra and Scarlett when they returned. He was always shocked to see some of the requests that made it to his table. He wished for the millionth time that someone else would sort through these reports and only give him the ones that actually were worth fulfilling. He had no interest in rumors, hunting beasts that farmers had lost, they were busy hunting demons. Was that not enough? Then there were the diplomats requesting the most ridiculous things, tests of honor, tests of lineage. They honestly didn’t have time for all of this and not for the first time, he was grateful for Josephine.
He was just about to turn in for the night when a scout appeared, pulling back the flap of his tent. He cleared his throat since he obviously couldn’t knock to announce himself.
“Missive for you, Ser.” The scout proffered the rolled parchment.
He had just signed off on a missive requesting aid to send soldiers to help Sera, of all people. He had no idea what the Herald of Andraste was doing with a girl like her. She was trouble and whatever he was sending his men into was surely as much trouble. “Just leave it on the desk. I will get to it in the morning,” he nearly growled. He couldn’t help his frustration at this point. He was brimming with it. It bubbled to the surface even in his thoughts.
The poor man standing in the entrance to the tent began fidgeting “It’s… uh… It’s from the Herald, Ser.”
Cullen never really understood why many of the new recruits harbored a deep-seated fear of him. His tone simply brokered no argument. But he would cut the boy some slack. He knew all too well how he could be when he was frustrated. He would say things he didn’t mean, be more forceful than he meant to, he’d even push people away who were trying to help him.
After a few moments, he took the rolled parchment. He hadn’t meant to make the boy more nervous by not standing to take the missive immediately but he didn’t want to seem too eager for news. Sure, he was concerned, everyone was. But his interest ran beyond the news of the Herald. He wanted to know Scarlett was okay.
He waited for the scout to leave before lying on his cot and unrolling the letter.
I am deeply sorry. I know that before I left, I made you a promise.
I know that you may not believe me, and honestly, who could blame you. The situation in Redcliffe is much worse than any of us could have ever anticipated. We arrived, only to be greeted by an Elven slave from Tevinter. I am unsure what has occurred, but I met a Mage by the name of Dorian. He promises to aid us in bringing down the Magister who has taken over Redcliffe and the Rebel Mages.
They are using time magic here. Something that shouldn’t even be possible. The Magister’s son, Felix, has even mentioned some sort of Tevinter cult. They are calling themselves the Venatori. He doesn’t know why but assures us the cult is obsessed with me. Well, I don’t know if assure is the right word.
Please, consider what this could mean for the Mages, for all of Thedas, if the Magister is allowed to stay in Redcliffe. I know you want me to meet with the Templars, and truly, I wished the same, but we must help my people. We cannot let them fall slaves to Tevinter.
All I ask is that you consider what I have just said. As I said before, I have never gone back on my word and didn’t intend to this time. I do not wish to see the Rebel Mages fall into enemy hands. Think of the consequences. Tevinter would have full control over most of the magic in Thedas. This we cannot allow to happen.
Cullen clutched the missive in his hand. He could hardly believe what he had just read. She was going to offer an alliance to the Mages. She had sworn to him, she would do no such thing. The last thing everyone needed was to have more magic brought into this already frightening situation.
His mind was reeling. The cot no longer offered any reprieve from the memories that constantly plagued him.
Uldred’s Mages had come into the barracks, pulling sleeping Templars from their beds, restraining them with blood magic. The ones who fought back were killed on sight. The spells these Mages were using were unlike anything the Circle had seen before. There was no dispel that could repeal their magic; there was no way to fight the binding restraints. They were led to the top of the tower and trapped within a magical cage.
None of us knew how long we were in there, but the mages would come, and one by one, our numbers diminished, until only I remained.
During the day, for I could only assume it was daytime, the mages prodded my mind, trying to find what weakness they could, but I had only one. Maybe this was why they kept me alive. Maybe this was why I wasn’t turned into an abomination like the others.
I loved her, and they knew it.
At night, when the Mages had their fill, they sent a desire demon to my cell. She would not be the razor-clawed, nude demon that all Templars knew. She would be her. She would be Katarina.
When she first came to me, I had thought only of salvation. She was the most powerful and clever mage I had ever known. I remember taking steps toward her, wanting to fall into her arms. I remember the tears of joy I shed as she opened her arms for me. And I remember seeing the red eyes when they should have been blue. Blue like Lake Calenhad. Blue like a clear morning sky. Not red.
The last time I had seen her, the real Katarina, was just before she left the Circle. She had wanted some alone time with me. In fact, she insinuated that she wanted more from me. I remember her blue eyes twinkling with delight, her long blonde hair brushing against my armor as she raised herself onto the tips of her toes. She knew what I thought of her and she was ready and willing to make good on it. Her breath skimmed across my neck, as she whispered, “Maybe we should get to know each other better.” And, what did I do? I ran. I ran from a woman, this woman, who had only wanted to care for me.
It wasn’t until I had placed my hands in hers that I realized her eyes were wrong. But, by then, it was too late.
Using Katarina’s voice, the demon spoke to me. “Oh, Cullen, how I have missed you,” she purred. “I have been gone for so long and have thought of only you every single day, every night.” The demon stroked her hands over her body sensuously making it hard to look away but Maker, I tried. I tried not to think that this was how Katarina had truly felt about me. That this could have happened if I had just allowed it. But the image of her on her toes, extending her long slender neck just to be closer to me was there, something the demon could see, could use, could remind me of.
Just as I was beginning to gain some control over my mind, her clothing melted away. Katarina stood naked before me. In my heart, I knew this was the demon and not her, but at the sight, my body responded. I leaned in, pressing my armored body into her naked form. She stood on her tiptoes, once again, and this time I didn’t hesitate. I devoured her mouth, feeding on her like some animal.
This went on for a few nights. The torture in the morning, and then an all-new brand of torture at night. I don’t know what made me begin to fight against the desire demon, but I knew in my heart, it wasn’t really her. It was empty.
When next she came to me, she held out her hand. I didn’t take it. She frowned. “Cullen, I have missed you. I have thought of only you. I want only you.” She purred. Walking on slow circles around me, her fingers, no, her claws caressed me. The more I thought of them as such, the more it became reality.
“Be gone, Demon!” I shouted and closed my eyes, not wanting to see the form of my desire morph into some razor-clawed, horned veilspawn.
To my surprise, the demon had vanished. When I looked up, the only thing I saw was the magical barrier holding me in place. I cried that night. I knew the wailing and screaming was coming from me, yet it seemed so distant. I cried for the loss of a love I never really had and I cried because all I wanted was for the demon to come back, to let me live my fantasy for one more night. Even though I knew it was empty and I would realize it and turn her away again, I still wanted it more than anything.
For nights upon nights, the demon would come, always nude, always Katarina. I couldn’t even say how long this went on and every night I would be forced to turn away the one person I wanted to love and wanted, at one point, to love me in return. The Mages knew true, unyielding torture.
Then one day, the demon came in full armor but I wasn’t fooled. This was just a new ploy to get me to surrender. A way to make me think this time it was different, that she was really here and had come to save me from this void.
She was surrounded by people I had never seen before. That should have been my first clue but I tried to banish her, as I had for countless days before, but she wouldn’t leave.
“Cullen… Oh, Cullen.” She began. Always beseeching me. Always with her hand extended in comfort. She knelt down this time, trying to catch my eye but I wouldn’t let her. I didn’t want to see those red eyes in my Katarina’s face anymore. I didn’t want to know there was a demon walking around in her skin. I didn’t… I didn’t know what was real anymore.
“Cullen, it’s me. It’s Katarina.” She pleaded.
The tenderness of her voice pulled at my heart, pulled me out of my head and made me turn my face to hers. There was undoubtedly something different. The way her eyes roamed over me, examining me, looking to see if I was hurt.
I remember mumbling something about the demon tempting me with the one thing I always wanted but could never have and then I remember the startled expression on her face. I remember the side glance to the warrior at her side. I remember the Elven rouge at her back sniggering and saying something about all men seem to want “our Warden”.
That was when it hit me. This was the real thing. Katarina was really standing in front of me. She had really come to rescue him, to save the Tower. They had called her Warden and he remembered the day she left. That was where the First Enchanter had said she’d gone. Not to him directly, but to others and he happened to overhear.
And judging by the look shared between her and the warrior, my time with her had passed. That was a blow I was not prepared for. She had finally shown up and I wouldn’t even be able to tell her how I felt about her, about what had happened to me here. I knew that she wouldn’t return to the Circle and that she would forever be out of my reach.
She crouched down closer to me then, pushing at the barrier in front of me. “I’m so sorry, Cullen. I should have come sooner. If I would have known what was happening…” her voice trailed off and tears sprang to her eyes. Her sparkling blue eyes.
She cared for him.
This woman standing before me, truly cared for me.
Her hand remained on the barrier between us. It must be causing her pain but she couldn’t bring herself to pull away. She was willing to suffer with him.
I thought of my nights spent with her. No, not her, the demon. A wail assailed my ears, and it lasted longer than I’d like to admit, but the piercing voice was my own.
They stood before me for some time, deliberating what their next move should be. Katarina demanded they find a way to break him from his cell. The others knew there were more important matters to deal with. She wouldn’t hear of it, screaming that the man in the cell was her friend.
That I was her friend.
The warrior beside her seemed to sense her growing panic and placed his hand on the naked small of her back. It was then, I noticed, she wore Dalish styled armor. Her middle was bare, the armor exposing the taut muscles that now resided there. I had seen her naked form before but there were new lines of muscle in her abdomen that the demon didn’t know about. I could feel my desire rising as I thought of doing to her what I had done to the demon so many nights ago.
What finally broke the tirade of images in my mind, were the warriors next words.
“So, this is the man I must thank for you not hating Templars?” His lip quirked in a sickeningly sweet smile. Oh, how I wanted to rip the smile from his face.
My anger got the better of me then, and I knew my next words were harsh. I told them to leave me be and go deal with Uldred. I told them that the Mages had all gone insane and that they should kill them all. I knew I was asking her to kill her friends. I knew I was casting her in their lot, but I couldn’t think beyond losing her. I didn’t care what happened to the other Mages. She was already lost to me. Lost to me to another Templar.
When Cullen finally came back to the present, he realized he had been ready to do the same with Scarlett. Ready to cast her into the lot with the rest of the Rebel Mages, but she was not a part of that. She had been at the Temple. She had come to partake in the Divine’s Peace. She wanted a peaceful solution. He had to remember that. He had to keep in mind that she had promised to seek out an audience with the Templars.
He decided to read her missive again. She had said she was sorry, but for what? She had said nothing about an alliance. In fact, she said nothing of meeting with the Rebel Mages at all. The only things in the letter were her pleas for assistance. She wasn’t telling him that she had decided this course of action; she was begging him to see this was the only course of action.
He must have stared at the letter for ages before realizing how she had chosen to start her letter and finish it. Dear Commander, Your Herald. Maybe he was reading too much into it, or maybe he had read too many missives chock full of demands. What did “Dear” mean? Was she being polite? Did she consider him dear? Was this a part of her plea? Normally, he would have just written it off, but she then signed the missive, Your Herald. Not, The Herald of Andraste, which would be her title now. Not simply, her name. Your Herald.
And why would she not send this missive to Leliana?
Because the words in this missive were meant for him and him alone. This wasn’t her formal missive to the Inquisition. This was a letter she sat down and wrote to him, not as the Commander, but to someone she had been trying to forge a better relationship with. This was her plea to the Templar, to the man she knew he once was.
A new realization dawned on him, she was coming back. Likely already on her way here, and this was something she meant to discuss personally.
I like putting characters in compromising and/or awkward situations to see how they will react. I hope you like the next story because I had a lot of fun writing it.
Chapter 6: Wounded Pride
Awkward situations are kinda my jam. I really enjoy writing them and since I am more of a "let's see what happens when the characters are faced with this situation" type of writer, it is really enjoyable to see where it goes. I let the characters lead me where they will. Usually turns out pretty well.
Cullen had been waiting to hear the anticipated cry of trumpets upon the Herald’s arrival. After her letter, he wanted to make sure he was the first to speak with her and he wanted to get her alone before she approached Josephine and Leliana with this information. He hadn’t told anyone that she had written him a personal letter. And her two other advisors had not said anything to him regarding the contents. He was sure Leliana’s scouts had sent word ahead, they always did, and he was sure that Leliana probably knew he possessed a letter from the Herald. Yet, she said nothing. He could only assume that she was choosing to discuss it when the party returned, just as he was.
The trumpets never sounded. But what he did hear was the clomping drumbeat of their horse's hooves striking the ground. He heard the raised voices of those just outside the city rousing to greet the incoming party.
There seemed to be quite a commotion ensuing just outside his tent, but when they had arrived he was asleep and only in his smalls. Leaping to his feet, he pulled on his tunic and trousers and was just about to step outside when the cold bite of the Frostbacks hit him full force. He considered just throwing his cloak over his shoulders but the chill had already seeped into his bones.
No sense in rushing around only to freeze as the Herald debriefs me.
As he was putting on the last of his armor, a scout poked his head into his tent and announced that she had indeed returned. Before he could ask where to find the Herald, the scout had disappeared into the night.
He wrapped his fur-lined cloak around his body and headed for the Chantry, sure he would find the Herald debriefing Leliana and Josephine in the War Room. He pushed his way inside.
The room was dark, not a single candle lit. He heard voices drifting into the room, but none were any he had hoped to hear. Where was Leliana, Josephine, Cassandra? Where was the Herald?
He peered into Josephine’s office to find a bleary-eyed elf.
“Commander, has the Herald brought in new items to study?” The elf asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and yawning. Her hair was a tangled mess and her tunic seemed to be one she had slept in.
“I have not yet spoken with the Herald, but I’m sure whatever she may have found can wait until morning.” He held open the door, waiting for the elf to make her way out of the room but she didn’t move.
The Elf looked confused. “The Ambassador said I should always be available when the Herald…”
Cullen cut off her words. This was ridiculous. “Go back to bed. Whatever she needs doing can wait until morning.” Did Josephine really expect people to be at Scarlett’s beck and call at all hours of the night? People needed to sleep.
The elf was slow to acquiesce, but she eventually stumbled her way out of the door and back to her own quarters. Cullen had to wonder if this girl was once a slave. Who would wake in the middle of the night just to see to her ladies affairs? He’d not been around nobility much in his life, so he didn’t really know what a servant or slave did. They had the tranquil in the Tower and in Kirkwall but those people, those things were a different breed altogether. Still, he didn’t see the necessity of any of it.
But wasn’t that what he was doing now? Waking in the middle of the night to see Scarlett. Hoping to catch her and speak with her before anyone else.
Leaving that thought behind, he quickened his pace to the doors of the Chantry. He pushed the heavy wooden door open only to find Sera and Varric outside bowed over in a fit of laughter.
“Andraste’s tits, Varric.” Sera could barely speak through her amusement. “It was the most hilarious thing I have ever seen. The bandits had us pinned down. Cassandra was bearing down on some piss bag, when out of the corner of her eye, Scar saw the Archer. She cast that protective spell of hers but she knew it wouldn’t be enough. She raced to Cassandra, throwing herself between her and the arrow…”
Cullen didn’t hear any more of the conversation. Scarlett had taken an arrow for Cassandra. He raced to the healers quarters, accidentally shoving some man who came between him and his destination. In his haste, he nearly tripped over a crate between the healer’s quarters and one of the other cabins. Luckily he caught himself before he could face plant into the snow-covered ground.
Cassandra was standing just outside, shaking her head and smirking. He had thought she’d seen his near fall but she wasn’t even looking in his direction. He closed the space to the door in mere seconds.
“Commander, don’t…” Cassandra warned, but she was too late. He could hear Scarlett’s muffled “OW, ow, ow” from the other side.
He pushed the door open. The sight had him standing ramrod straight, his mouth going dry and his fists balled at his sides.
Scarlett lay, bent over the bed, the top of her leggings, completely sheared away. Her taut, round bottom completely exposed. She had a gash that ran the length of one cheek, but that was not what held his attention. Her tanned rear end was presented to Adan. His hands working over her flesh to seal the wound. His throat tightened as she turned to look at him.
“Getting an eyeful, Commander? Might as well, everyone else has.” Her words were playful but he could hear the hint of embarrassment behind them.
“I… “ He couldn’t find the words. His thoughts had ventured back to the conversation at the tavern and his actions that followed. He had pictured her just like this many times, minus that gash. He could feel his body’s response to her. Could tell he was getting hard and with her in the position she was in, her face at the right level, she would certainly be able to tell. He needed to erase those thoughts and quickly.
He tried again. “I had heard you were shot. I only came to check on you. To ensure you were alright.” He knew he should leave but he couldn’t make his feet move. It was as if she’d cast a binding spell on him.
“Hey, how about grabbing me the salve off that table over there,” Adan grumbled, nodding to the table next to Cullen.
Finally, he peeled his eyes away from Scarlett to look at the table in question. A small blue container was resting in the center. He assumed this to be the salve. He handed the jar to the healer and watched as he dipped his fingers into the shiny ointment. Adan then spread the ointment along the gash. Scarlett moaned as the numbing relief of the herbs set in, causing Cullen to shift uncomfortably on his feet.
“You’re lucky,” stated the healer. “It only got your fleshy bits. Not too deep.”
She snorted. It was a sound he’d never heard her make before. Undignified and sort of… cute, given her current predicament.
“Why is it, I can heal most wounds on other people with a touch of my hand? But when it comes to a gash on my ass, I am left bending over a bed letting some man slather goop on me?” Scarlett’s blue eyes meet his. They are not the blue of Lake Calenhad or of the morning sky, but something more brilliant. Something fiercer. Sapphires, like the blue of sapphires.
It takes Cullen a moment to realize the question is directed at him. She had been trying to make conversation with him and all he can think about is the color of her eyes. It was better than the other thing that had previously held his attention, but this was the first time he’d let himself focus on them and in the firelight they gleamed.
He squirms under her questioning gaze. What had she asked? He tried to recall. Something about being unable to heal herself. “I… uhh… I would imagine, it has something to do with Mana being summoned from the Mages lifeforce.” Wasn’t that what the Order had taught him? He couldn’t remember. Why couldn’t he focus around her? What made her so captivating? It wasn’t like he’d never been in the presence of a pretty girl before. Maker, even Hawke was stunning. But she didn’t unsettle him as Scarlett did. She didn’t make him lose every ounce of focus with a simple word or gesture.
“Huh. I never really thought of it that way.” She nods her head as she mulls the thought over. “Makes sense.”
He couldn’t help but feel relieved that his answer was even coherent, let alone made sense to the girl but it was a small comfort.
Scarlett lets out a weary sigh bringing Cullen’s attention back to the reason he had come in the first place. She had been shot. At this point, he was well aware that the wound was nothing serious, so why was he still standing there? Was he really unable to turn away from the sight of her bent over the bed? No. In the last few moments he hadn’t been thinking about her bare skin but her eyes. He had been thinking about her beauty and not in a sexual way but in a… Maker’s Breath. He was enamored with her. With every aspect of her being.
Pull yourself together soldier. You cannot keep entertaining ideas about this woman. She is the Herald of Andraste and a Mage. She wants nothing to do with you.
“Well,” Adan broke through Cullen’s thoughts. “With your particular abilities, Herald, this should be healed up in no time. Are you ready for me to stitch up the worst bits?” Adan reached for the needle and Scarlett closed her eyes, bracing for the pain.
He turned to go, but the Herald’s voice called him back. “Cullen, would you mind staying with me?”
Cullen? Not Commander? It was the first time she had ever used his name and she chose this moment?
“Talk me through. Give me something else to focus on. Please?”
She reached out her hand to him and he took it. What else could he do?
Chapter 7: Tipping Points
Cullen and Scarlett had an uncomfortable discussion, under uncomfortable circumstances. Now they must decide what the Inquisition will do. Will she still fulfill her promise to meet with the Templars, or is the situation in Redcliffe too immediate to ignore.
The Commander paces the interior of the War Room for so long that Scarlett is sure, if you look close enough, there will be tracks embedded into the floor where his feet continue their constant back and forth. His hands find their way to his perfectly coifed hair, mussing it in a wild, curly mess.
“Herald, you assured me before you left that you would meet with the Templars before cementing an alliance with the mages.” His fists land on the War Table, causing me to jump. And then, my stitches to pull against the fabric of my leggings.
“I know we discussed this last night, but I am still not happy with this decision!” And we had. We’d talked about the contents of my letter. I explained who the Venatori were, at least what we currently knew of them, and I informed him of the Magister’s plans to take the Rebel Mages, making them slaves to Tevinter. But, he’d let me talk. He hadn’t said much. I had thought he was listening to me but now, I can only assume he was only doing so to keep me distracted.
Before I can respond, Cassandra intervenes. “The Magister has taken over Redcliffe. Do we truly wish to stand here debating Mages and Templars while a hostile foreign power takes up residence in one of Ferelden’s most formidable strongholds?”
He turns on Cassandra. “Yes. One of Ferelden’s most formidable strongholds, as you just said. We do not have the manpower to take down the castle.” His fierce gaze lands on me. “You must recognize the futility of this.”
I sigh. I had hoped that we had come to some understanding of the situation last night but my words were hot air in his face, nothing more. I am growing more and more irritated with him and this conversation. It bubble and boils within me but I try to control it, try to reign it in. “Commander, I understand your frustration. It’s true. I did make a promise, but we couldn’t have known what was happening in Redcliffe. You are asking me to abandon my people to Tevinter. They will be slaves.” I try to keep my rising ire from my voice but the gash on my bottom pulsing angrily isn’t helping. I shift uncomfortably trying to find a less painful stance. It’s hard to argue, or even think clearly when the linen of your trousers seems intent on pulling the stitches from one of your most tender places.
All eyes turn to the Tevinter in the room. Dorian had joined us as the “expert” on what was going on in Redcliffe, barging into the room as we began our discussion. It was another reason for the Commander’s current frustration. Another Mage, and a Vint, had found their way onto our council, if temporarily.
“Alexius’ time magic is not only punching a hole in time. It will eventually unravel the world. He must be stopped. I was his apprentice. I know what he is capable of.” Dorian shifts uncomfortably under the Templar’s scrutiny but he refuses to stand down. “You don’t need to take the castle, but you do need a way past his magic. I can help with that.”
I reach out to Dorian, giving his arm a squeeze, my thanks, and my support. During our return trip from Redcliffe, we’d become fast friends. He was easy to talk to and had so much to say. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and that was a welcome change from the company I usually kept.
Now, he stands facing down the Commander I’ve always been a little too afraid to provoke. I’ve done my best to make our relationship a companionable one, but my efforts always end up being flung to the wayside on matters of Mages vs. Templars.
The Commander straightens to his full height, knowing he poses an intimidating figure. He towers over me as he speaks, “I still think a meeting with the Templars would be more beneficial. With them on our side, we could deal with the Mages in Redcliffe.”
At his words, my anger took on a whole new form. The beast rose within me. We had discussed all of this last night. We hadn’t come to any real solution, but I thought we had landed on a better understanding of the situation. Apparently not. “Deal with the Mages? Deal with the Mages! And just how do you propose we deal with the Mages, Commander?”
My anger, no longer in check, grows to fill the room. Leliana and Josephine share a startled look between them. Cassandra glares at Cullen, her look says it all. Now, look at what you’ve done. The electric energy raises around me, pulsing and pushing. Spreading in a current of pure force of will.
He starts to speak, but I cut him off. “Do you really think I would allow you to march your Templars into a town filled with already frightened Mages? Do you honestly think I could stand by as your Order decimated what was left of my people? Do you think so little of me?” I don’t remember moving but I end up toe-to-toe, nose-to-… chest, with the Templar. “If you think for one second, that I would do that to my people, then you know nothing about me. I may not have had the experiences that most Mages have had with the Templars, but I will be damned if I let a single one of your Order hurt one of mine again.”
So much for trying to build a relationship with this man.
My anger has reached its tipping point. If I don’t control myself, I fear flames will begin to shoot out of my hands and pin the Commander to the wall. I make an undignified gesture to the Commander before storming out of the room. I can’t take this, I can’t take him anymore.
As I exit the room, The Commander calls, “Wait. Scar… Herald. That’s not what I meant.”
For hours, I paced the small interior of my cabin, but it did nothing to cool my anger. We had talked about this. We had discussed my reasons for wanting to help those in Redcliffe. Cullen had held my hand as the healer shoved a needle through my backside. I thought we had reached a new level of understanding. I thought that our relationship had taken a turn for the better. Was he only agreeing with me because I was in pain, or because he didn’t want to focus on my precarious position on the bed? I didn’t know. I still don’t.
Finally, I decided I should probably go to bed. My thoughts won’t calm and this mark on my hand is making the impromptu show of power so much worse. It pulsed with the beat of my heart now, holding onto the power I had summoned and held it within me. Normally, it would fade with time or use, but since gaining the mark, I couldn’t get the power to fade, to calm. It burned within me, wanting, needing an outlet.
I can walk through my meditations and try to find solace in dreams. That would at least calm my mind. Or, I could go to the healer’s clinic and use up this stored energy.
The pain of my wound answers for me. I need to settle, need to rest.
Gingerly, I remove my leggings, the stitches catching, even though I pull them as far from my skin as I can. As they fall to my ankles, I realize there are tiny dots of blood on the inside where they sat over my wound. It doesn’t seem to have seeped through though and I thank the Maker for that. If it had, I’d be worried I had busted a stitch in my tantrum.
I pull off my tunic, sliding into a worn, but soft one I have been using to sleep in, missing the silk nightgowns I had at the Circle. The cool fabric would do nothing to stymie the cold coming through the cracks of the cabin, but the material would feel so good on my overwrought body. I remove my smalls to give my stitches the air they need to heal and lay on top of the covers of my lumpy bed.
On days like this I miss the luxuries the Circle afforded, not just my sleeping gowns, but the plush mattress in my chamber, the downtime, even the simple touch of a lover's hand. Not that I’d had many, but idle hands do wander. In the Circle, it was more about companionship than full-blown romance. Even with our Circle as sedate as it was, the Templars would not be happy if one of their charges ended up pregnant or in love, for that would eventually lead to a child. So we made do, trysts in alcoves, always taking precautions to prevent pregnancy. Never spending too much affection on a single lover. It may make Mages seem a little easy, or like harlots to some, but to us, it was another way to cope with our existence.
Now, more than ever, I need that sort of companionship. These rifts, this mark… They are doing things to my body. Every time I seal a rift, keen hypersensitivity sets in. My skin tingles, my nerve endings set on fire. It does not abate until I have released the energy from my body. The pulses become painful if not fulfilled and the magic builds to an unbelievable height. I have thought, on more occasions than I’d like to admit, of taking on one of my companions as a lover. Sera has seemed willing enough, but I’ve never really been attracted to my own sex. She is beautiful, in her own way, and Maker knows she makes me laugh, but I would hate to hurt her. If and when she realized I was using her as a means to calm the tide rolling through me, she might even hate me. Bull has offered, but the idea of what he’s packing is daunting, in more ways than one. I have experimented with other means of releasing the magic but have yet to find a suitable substitute.
I am mulling this over when a light knocking sounds at my door. I laugh to myself, thinking it funny that maybe by mere thought, I had summoned someone to help my predicament. I could picture the moment in my head. “Herald, I heard your call. I am here to serve you. How would you like it, my lady?”
Laughing, I pull the blanket up over my bare bottom before bidding the guest entry.
The door opens slowly. The red cloak I’ve come to recognize on sight billows in with the chilled breeze and instantly the humor bubbling inside me turns to stone in my gut.
As the Commander pushes the door open further, his hulking figure filling up the space between the jambs, I can feel the rage returning. The need to slap him sharpens the pain in my hand as if the mark wants me to follow through with the thought. His predatory glare sends pulses through my body, none of the welcome but some definitely unexpected.
I chalk up that part of my reaction to the mark and its side effects. I have already stated that the Commander is pretty and there is no denying it at this moment. The fierceness of his amber gaze just adds to his broad shoulders, his thick lips, and the power his body possesses.
Not wanting those thoughts to fester, I turn away from him. There is no sense in dwelling on any of that, no matter my current needs. I could imagine how it would be, both of us tearing into each other in an entirely different way. But, no, I would not give in.
I wait a few moments before finally asking, “Did you need something, Commander?”
This seems to shake the stillness from his body and he steps into the room, closing the door behind him. “Herald, I…” He starts but can not complete the thought. He crosses the room to me but I refuse to turn and look at him. He does not need to see any of the emotions running through me at the moment and he certainly doesn’t deserve to see the desire coursing through me, no matter what was causing it.
We stay like this for a while, him standing over me, me refusing to look at him. I have no idea what brought him to my cabin in the middle of the night. He doesn’t seem eager to share.
“Cullen, either state your business or leave.” I lay my head on the pillow giving me a glimpse of the man. I can see that the fire has left his eyes. Now, he just looks nervous.
“Did you need something?” I ask, again. This time turning my head slightly to look at him.
He gestures toward a chair perched in the corner of the room. I nod, giving him the go ahead, and he pulls the chair to my bedside. He doesn’t speak for a moment. He simply sits, elbows on his knees, fingers steepled in front of his mouth, as if in prayer.
“Herald, I…” He starts again but then growls as the words refuse to leave his mouth. His gloved hands cover his face, rubbing his eyes and the stubble across his jaw.
If we were actually going to speak, I want it to be face-to-face. I turn to him, elbow propping my head up, shifting my blanket to remain covered. The blanket rakes across my wound and I can’t help but suck in a breath through my teeth.
“How are you feeling? Does it still hurt?” He asks his voice tender.
His concern is a punch in the chest. I want to be angry with him. He’d pissed me off. He deserved it. “I… it’s… I’m fine.”
Great, Scarlett. Now I’m the one stammering.
His eyes lock onto my ass making me want to squirm under his scrutiny. Cassandra had told me his eyes tended to wander there when I wasn’t paying attention but this isn’t about that. He looks as though he may pull the blanket away to check for himself. In fact, if the wound wasn’t where it is, I’m sure that would have been his exact reaction.
He smirks, pulling the scar above his lip taut. “It seems to be a bit on the sensitive side if pulling the blanket over it hurt.”
I can’t help but smile back. “I’m fine.” I reiterate. “I’ve been moving around too much. The stitches don’t like it. I should be putting the salve on it and letting it get more air, but we… the Inquisition doesn’t have time for that.” I lay my head back down on my pillow, sliding my arm underneath to keep my eye on the Commander.
“I could talk to the advisors. Convince them you need the rest.” His offer seems genuine. He rests a gloved palm on my arm. “You need to be able to stand and fight when the time comes.”
I close my eyes then, sighing. “Fighting, I never thought I would be doing so much of it.”
His gloved fingers begin making slow circles along my forearm and I let out a soft moan of relief. This was what I needed, touch.
“I… I’m sorry.” He pulls his hand away from me, reaching to the back of his neck.
My mind wars with itself. I want to be mad at him. I am mad at him. But I also want him to continue stroking me. Damn this man. Why did someone so infuriating have to be wrapped up in such an enticing package? I fight the urge to bring his hand back to my body and focus on calming myself. Yet, my mouth opens and something altogether different comes out.
“Cullen, a comforting hand is always a welcome gesture. You don’t have to apologize for touching me. I’m not so easily offended.”
Dammit, Scarlett, focus. You don’t even like him.
He smiles but makes no effort to return to the touch I am craving so badly.
“Were you coming just to check on me?” I ask, after a few beats of silence.
“I… uhh… No.” He clears his throat, a sign that usually signifies whatever he is about to say will make him uncomfortable. “I’m sorry for reacting the way I did in the War Room. I didn't mean to offend you in any way. Words are not my strong suit, as you may imagine.”
Laughing, I nod my assent and it brings another small smile to his face.
“I do not wish to see the Mages fall into Tevinter hands. In fact, that is one of the worst things I can imagine. But as you said about not abandoning your people, I feel the same about the Order. I know many have done wrong, but they are still my people. I joined the Order when I was thirteen. They have been my family since.” His eyes plead with me, his hands clasped, begging me to consider his position. But that is not what gets to me.
“Thirteen, that is so young.” The compassion in my voice shocks me as much as it seems to shock him. Thirteen. I can’t help but recall the way I entered the Circle, or how my magic chose to manifest.
Before I know it, the words are leaving my mouth.
“I… I was sixteen when I was taken to the Circle.” I don’t know why I am telling him this. I have no reason to, but the hurt, the pleading in his eyes makes me want to tell him, he’s not alone. He wasn’t the only one who found a family outside their own.
“My magic had manifested long before then, but it came and went subtly. My mother had this rose garden. One spring they all got sick.” I can picture the garden even now. The tall trellises, the fountains, the neatly trimmed hedges. And amongst all that greenery and stone, hundreds, thousands of blooms, red, white, pink and yellow.
“Many of the buds started dying off and it broke her heart. She wouldn’t even walk outside anymore.” If she had to pass her dying roses, she would die a little inside. That was what she had said.
“So, I went out there. She had told me that if you spoke to the roses, told them how beautiful they were, and how soft, they would bloom more beautiful every year just to live up to your words.” I knew I was holding my hand up as if the rose was still in my hand. I knew I was petting air, but the memory stuck in my mind, made the images, the sensations so vivid that for a moment I could feel the petals of the flower in my hand, on my fingertips.
“I took one of the sick buds in my small palms and began whispering to it, telling it to heal, to grow.” My mind trails off. This is a memory I tried to forget, that my mother wanted me to forget.
“To my surprise, it did.” I glance up, worried that I will find a disgusted look on the Commander’s face. Yet, I find only interest, intrigue. He nods telling me to continue. “
“I was so excited. I couldn’t wait for my mother to see that her trick had actually worked. I went to bed, thinking to show her the next morning, but I awoke with her startled cry just outside my bedroom window. I rushed over to see what was wrong and to my surprise, the entire garden was full of the most beautiful roses. Not just the one, but all of them.”
The memory, while painful is a beautiful one, for a moment. Even if this was a turning point in me being sent to the Circle, I can still look back and say, ‘I did that.’ I created that, brought it back to life. My magic did that. How could anyone think that evil?
“I remember telling her what I had done and her sudden joy turned into sheer and unbridled panic. She kept saying things that didn’t make sense to me then. ‘Never, and I mean never, do that again.’ ‘This family hasn’t produced a Mage in over a hundred years.’ It went on and on for some time, but being a Mage didn’t make sense to me. I had only done what I had seen her do so many times before. She had told me that was the secret to her garden’s beauty.” I was so naïve, so willing to believe that my mother had a magic all her own. That she could do something like that with just the touch of her hand. Then, to find out I actually could and have it thrown in my face as dirty or wrong. It soured the memory. Soured my view of my mother.
“But then she never went out into the garden again. I had tainted it. They were the most beautiful roses her garden had ever produced and she cut them all down. Not because she didn’t love them anymore, but she didn’t want anyone finding out how they came to be.”
Cullen takes my hand in his. I had almost forgotten he was there; I was so lost in my story. It is such an intimate gesture and I have no idea what to say or do about it and he isn’t even looking at me anymore, his head hangs in his other hand. I can’t see his face, gage what he is thinking or feeling.
“I’m sorry,” Cullen’s voice is a quiet whisper.
His eyes meet mine and I can see the pain in them, the hurt. But why would he hurt for me? I am a mage. This would be something he saw and heard all the time, wouldn’t it? I know the answer to that question. He’s never asked.
Again, I have to question why I opened up to him in the first place. Now, I wonder if I’ve shared too much. I definitely overstepped a boundary. But I couldn’t take it back now. The words, the emotions were already out there.
Choosing not to swell on those thoughts, I redirect to our former discussion. “Anyway, I’ve heard stories of Mages finding out their powers by setting their childhood home aflame, but that’s mine. Besides, that’s not why you came here. You wanted to talk to me about the Templars. I apologize for rambling.” I lower my eyes, somewhat ashamed for pouring out my heart to this man.
He squeezes my hand, it still being in his possession. “Thank you for trusting me with that. It is not often a Mage will share with a Templar how they came into their power. Your story is actually quite beautiful.” We share a smile and I can feel some of the tension in my belly release.
“This is part of the reason I walked away from the Order. I had seen too many atrocities committed against innocent people. There was a Mage in Kirkwall who did nothing but help people. She even helped out the Order on more than one occasion. She was a firebrand, but she always had the good of the city at the forefront of her priorities. When my commanding officer threatened to have her executed, I knew I couldn’t stand by and let it happen.” With each word, something inside the Commander loosens. His shoulders lose some of their rigidity. His arms relax, and he leans into me. It’s almost as if some weight he has been bearing is lifting off of him. I wonder if it is the Templar mantle he has carried since leaving the Order. If by sharing this little glimpse of his past, he’s released a piece of the armor that had been weighing him down.
“You are speaking of Hawke? Varric talks about her often. Did you know her well?” I can’t help my curiosity. He seems to hold her in high regard. I also can’t help the sliver of jealousy that creeps in unexpectedly.
“She called me a friend once. Always made a point to seek me out when she visited the Gallows, even if Anders was with her. I think she knew a little bit about my past. I was friends with a cousin of her’s. It wasn’t until our final year in Kirkwall that she stopped coming to see me. By then, I think she’d convinced herself that I, that all Templars, were a lost cause. It didn’t stop her from fighting against the blood mages in Kirkwall. She even stopped a plot to bring down Knight-Commander Meredith. She tried so hard to stay neutral, to not take sides. But in the end, we had pushed her too far. She had to stand and fight for her people.”
“So you see why I must do the same?” I ask cautiously.
Cullen releases my hand but his posture doesn’t change. He is still leaning into me, still relaxed and calm. “Yes, I do. I am not blind to your cause. But you are from the Ostwick Circle, tell me you didn’t know good Templars there. Tell me all are like the ones in Kirkwall. If you can say with honest conviction that you faced what Hawke faced in Kirkwall, what our Circle faced, I will not pursue the Templars any longer. But if you can’t, I have to believe there are good men being forced to do bad things in the name of their commanding officers. Meredith was a tyrant, but I fear the Lord Seeker is far worse.”
To Therinfall we go!
Chapter 8: The Herald's Predicament
Cullen made a convincing argument. Scarlett couldn't deny her apprehension or his words, so she made the only decision she could. They would go to Therinfall. The Mages weren't going anywhere, yet. There was even a letter from Magister Alexius requesting she return to Redcliffe when she could. They knew he wouldn't make plans to return to Tevinter until he had finally met with her.
After a few days, and some rest, Scarlett had healed. Cullen was apprehensive about this fact, knowing it should have taken longer, but Scarlett's only reply was, "Spirit Healer, remember."
When the tents were assembled and the fires began crackling in their pits, Dorian comforted their exhausted bodies and weary minds through mugs of steaming cocoa. Cullen brought the mug to his lips, surprised at the bittersweet taste that lingered on his tongue and rolled down his throat. He could feel the warmth spreading in his belly as he hungrily drank from the cup and wondered at the concoction’s contents. Was there magic infused into the brittle brown slab Dorian had broken up and thrown into the pot?
“What is this?” Cullen found himself asking aloud.
Dorian smiled brightly at the commander’s excitement. “It is hot chocolate, an Antivan delight,” he said matter-of-factly, his eyes darting to Scarlett across the fire. The commander took another deep drink from his mug as the Tevinter mage continued. “It is said to have healing properties that boost the mood and relieve sexual tension.”
Cullen suddenly choked on his hot chocolate, forcing it to spurt from his nose and dribble down his chin as he fought to inhale past the pain. As delightful as the drink was going down, it was a scalding nightmare coming back up. Scarlett grinned into her mug and kept her eyes focused on her hot chocolate as Dorian chuckled to himself.
The group around the campfire burst into raucous laughter as Cullen wiped the fluid from his chin with the back of his hand, his face burning with embarrassment. His eyes found Scarlett across the fire, but she was no longer laughing. The Herald was all but sq uirming in her seat, her hands tugging at her leathers, then at the scarf around her neck. Her movements were exaggerated by the fact that she couldn’t seem to hold still, shifting uncomfortably from side to side. Everyone else had been drinking from their mugs or chatting amongst themselves, too busy to notice, but not Cullen. When her eyes finally found him, she ceased her movements, her face flushed and frowning.
“It is as good as you promised, Dorian.” She said quietly, turning her gaze to the mage with a warm smile as she held up her mostly empty cup. He grinned and dipped his head in a small bow in return.
The fire had burned down to comfortable embers as some of the party dissolved, retreating to the safety and quiet of their tents for the evening. Sera and Iron Bull continued to discuss the thrill of dragon hunting in broad gestures and excited voices while Scarlett rested her head on Dorian’s shoulder as she stared into the flames. The mage leaned into her as if they were holding each other up after their long day of travel. Cullen stared into the bottom of the empty mug wanting more cocoa but worried that Dorian would try to choke him with it if he asked for another mug.
Scarlett sighed a tired, heavy sound, and pushed herself up from her seat. “I saw a stream not too far from here; I am going to see if I can get some of this road grime to wash away.” Cullen was graced with an amazing view of her posterior as she bent to grab her extra tunic from the confines of her bag. His face warmed as he quickly cut those thoughts short, turning to the others around the campfire.
Sera and Dorian shared a knowing glance that confused Cullen, but he chose not to ask until Scarlett had stepped away from their small camp.
“Ahh, our poor Herald,” Dorian started with a sigh before Cullen could ask what was going on. “ Poor, sweet Herald.”
“Poor Herald? Poor Herald?” Sera’s questions an exclamation, her shrill voice rising with every word. “What about poor us, who have to travel with her, huh? Hearing her at nights. The sounds she makes…” Sera rolled her eyes, her voice trailing off with what seemed to be an excited shudder. Cullen furrowed his brow.
“I have offered my assistance, but she told me she was fine. Too bad, I like redheads,” Bull growled around the mug as he brought to his lips.
“She gets pretty snuggly with me no one’s watchin’, but she ain’t asked for that kinda help from me either.” Sera’s bottom lip protruded in a dramatic pout.
Cullen’s confusion amplified with every statement that shot across the fire. “What are you all going on about?”
Sera giggled and shared a knowing look with Dorian once again, but neither spoke.
“Is there something I should know?” The Commander barked, causing the twin conspirators to jump in their seats. Bull’s scarred eyebrow raised a fraction of an inch as he glanced at Cullen over his mug.
Dorian cleared his throat before deciding to speak. “Our Herald has been suffering a… strange side effect after closing rifts.” At Cullen’s confused grimace, Dorian continued. “It seems that after closing a rift, her body goes into a state of… hypersensitivity.” He makes a showy gesture with his hand as if he was filtering through the words he chose. “Clothes irritate her. She can feel a gentle breeze like the brush of a hand.” He sweeps his fingers across his own arm, raising gooseflesh in its wake. “The slightest touch sends her body into overdrive. She has found only one way to release the pent-up energy coursing through her.”
Cullen's cheeks burned as crimson as the coals in the fire. “What…” he asked, but couldn't bring himself to finish the question. He cleared his throat but his mind began racing with images. Images of Scarlett pleasuring herself; Her fingers sliding into the slick folds of her flesh, nudging the taut nub at the crest, the way her face would light up with unbridled passion as she brought herself to release.
It was his turn to begin squirming uncontrollably. His pants suddenly felt too tight. The tunic across his shoulders, too heavy. He pulled at the fabric, creating a soft breeze between his skin and the linen stretched over it.
“We've experimented with other things, of course.” Dorian’s smirk let the Commander know that he was aware of what he was thinking.
Cullen found his voice then, though it quavered with each word. “Ahh, hence the hot chocolate.”
“Yes, hence.” Dorian lifted his mug to his lips and made a low, delighted moan in his throat as he finished the last of his cocoa. “But we’ve all got to enjoy some of the benefits of our experimentations.”
“How so?” Cullen asked.
“Well, this lovely concoction for one,” He said, holding up his empty mug. “We’ve also had her utilizing her special abilities immediately after, had her practice new magic, potions, tonics. None have had the desired effect.”
Cullen knew the confused look must have remained on his face because Dorian continued. “Surely this has come up in the Inquisition’s reports. Leliana was the one who suggested the hot chocolate.”
Not on any missives that had crossed his war table, he thought, but that didn't mean anything. It would hardly be appropriate to inform the military commander that the Herald was suffering from an extreme case of arousal , but that was not what Dorian had said. Those were Cullen’s own musings. Dorian had called it, what… hypersensitivity.
“I was not made aware of our Herald’s… predicament, no.”
Sera couldn't stop herself from laughing. “That's ‘cuz you don't travel with us. I doubt anyone who sleeps in the same camp with her can stop from hearin’ her. Most times it's just the moanin’ but she talks too. Like she's imaginin’ someone there.” Again, she grinned and shimmied her shoulders at the thought.
“Is this… does this happen every night?” Cullen shifted in his seat a little as he attempted to adjust his growing manhood without drawing too much attention to himself.
“Like we said,” Bull chimed in. “It happens after she closes a rift.”
“And she's been riding in a saddle for an hour since the last one, woof.” Sera’s smile has a slight edge to it, making her look like some devilish sprite.
They all sat in silence for some time, too excited or embarrassed to speak. Sera moved to her tent, Bull to his. Cullen considered going to bed, but he wasn’t really tired. He didn’t think his mind would allow him to rest easy if he did lie down, anyway. Instead, the Commander leaned back, enjoying the few moments of peace, the crackling fire, the warm cocoa in his belly, and the stars dancing overhead. He hadn’t had many moments like this lately. He recalled Scarlett’s excitement about this very thing only a few weeks ago: maybe deciding to accompany them to Therinfall was going to be the break he’d been wanting so badly? Missives would be piling up, but he was sure Leliana or Josephine could handle anything important. His main concern now was to reach Therinfall.
Dorian’s voice broke into his thoughts, derailing him from his peace. “Our girl has been gone a while, maybe it is best I go check on her.” He scooped up his robe, readying himself to follow the path she’d walked away from the fire.
“I’ll do it,” Cullen insisted a little too quickly, catching the playful glance from the mage as he turned back toward the commander.
“It’s probably best if I go, Commander.” Dorian protested. Then, a little more forcefully, he added, “ she won’t thank me if I allow her to be caught unaware.”
“Sorry… I… uh…” the man stammered, trying to find his thoughts past the feeling building in his lower half . “I was only thinking that perhaps my skills as a Templar could help.”
Dorian smirked a quick, devilish turn of his lips. “Yes, Cullen, and what skills are those, exactly ? What can you do to help her, other than the obvious? Are you going to dispel the magic from her body? I’m sure she will appreciate it.”
On second thought, Cullen decided that actually wasn’t a horrible idea.
The skin around Dorian’s eyes and lips tightened. He was ready to argue but Cullen pressed further .
“I mean, no one has tried to suppress the magic, correct?” He began fidgeting with the edge of his tunic, trying to find more words to add to his argument. “I could do that, I have trained to do exactly that. I know she won’t like it, but as you’ve said, there hasn’t been a better solution. Maybe she will welcome my aid on those merits alone?” He hadn’t meant the last part to come out as a question as if he was asking permission from Dorian, but the Mage mulled it over.
“I suppose that’s fair.”
A huge shout out to my friend Kirstie who has decided to help me with editing this work!!!!!!
Chapter 9: A Helping Hand
Scarlett has stepped away from camp. She knows the others are talking about her "condition" but she decides to ignore it. Another attempt to quell this madness has failed but she had little faith that chocolate would be the answer. She had heard the rumors that the euphoria it induced could equal orgasm, but she was living proof that it just wasn't true.
Now she's left with the only other option she knows to work... or so she thinks.
I was thankful that the stream wasn’t too far from camp; with every step, I became more aware of my surroundings due to the burning mark within my palm. I can hear the scurrying feet of small animals in the foliage below my feet, feel the cool breeze softly caress my shoulders as I make my way to the water, and smell the snow that caps the distant mountaintops. The air is intoxicating, overwhelming my senses with the sharp scent of evergreens as I pass between their trunks, mixing with a bittersweet tinge of the cocoa that still lingers on my tongue.
From this distance, I can hear the sound of voices rising from our camp, but I block them out and focus on getting to the water. I can only imagine what the others are telling Cullen. I’m sure that Dorian will attempt to be discreet. But Sera, Bull? Not a chance. In fact, I can imagine Sera reenacting the events of my evenings in outlandish gestures with dramatic gasps and sighs for the Commander. Though she had previously warned me to stop talking when I needed to “do that,” it is always much more difficult to stop myself in the moment when the rush hits me. At least I am careful to not say anything that would make them believe I had someone specific in mind, and usually, I don’t.
As I continue through the trees, aching to reach the stream, I remember the way my body ached when we encountered a group of warriors training with swords and shields. One, in particular, was quite handsome, and I couldn’t keep my eyes from trailing down his body as the sweat dripped from his skin, gleaming in the sunlight. It had awoken something primal within me, and I imagined him pressing my body against the rough bark of a tree, scratching at my skin as I tore into his with lips and teeth as we devoured each other. I used him in my imagination as I would have used him in the Circle. But tonight would have been different. Tonight, I have no doubt there would be a specific person on my mind.
I crest the hill and find the stream I knew would be there, my skin tingling with the need to immerse myself. I follow the curve of the water’s edge to a small pool where the current lapped slowly along the rocks. It may not be deep enough to submerge myself beneath the shallow waves, but it will cover enough of me to fulfill my need. Our party had stopped at this same pool previously on our way to the Hinterlands, and I can still recall how the cool water greeted the sensitive flesh of my chest as I stood in it all of those days ago.
I unloop the scarf around my neck and set it aside, placing my clean tunic on top. My restrictive armor is next, followed by my boots and leggings. Free of the confining material, I make my way to the edge of the pool.
The water is crisp and cool, making my already aching nipples perk on contact. A hiss escapes my lips, spreading the ache to my teeth and lungs. I bend down, crouching in the lip of the water and summon fire to my fingertips, running them through the water. The pain lessens as the water heats and I step the rest of the way in.
When I reach the middle of the small pool, I sink below the surface, wetting my entire body. Before dipping my head under the water, I pull the band holding my long braid together and brush the tangles out with my fingers. When the majority of them have loosened, I dip my head back and let the water consume me.
I lay there for a while, body half afloat, before actually making efforts to clean myself up. I start with my arms, massaging away any dirty residue I find, moving down my body. I cup my breasts and the ache in them threatens to return. My palms smooth over my belly, down my legs. I find a knot in my left calf and massage it out. The pressure feels good, almost a little too good.
Now the part I’ve been dreading. I reach between my legs, meaning only to clean myself, but the pressure of my fingers is too much. My back automatically arches and a whining moan escapes my lips. I pull my hand away.
Frustrated, I find a place shallow enough to sit in and bring my knees to my chest. There has to be a better way, something else that will bring my body relief. I ache all over. I can feel the tiny pebbles in the silt under me. The silky spindleweed grazing my legs like caressing fingertips.
It’s all too much. This is too much. Maybe this is how the mark is killing me, slow burn, overstimulation, leading to a complete burnout of all of my nerve endings. At this rate, it would certainly kill me before the demons could get hold of me.
The wind picks up, gently tugging at my wet hair. I lift my head, allowing the loose tendrils to get caught in the gust. I close my eyes and breathe in the wet cool air. It stings, but it also cleanses my racing thoughts.
I can do this. It isn’t the worst thing in the world. If this is what I have to do to stay sane, to not have this overwhelming pressure constantly building within me, then it’s what I have to do. I reach my hand between the warmth of my thighs, then hesitate.
It’s not what I want. It is empty, meaningless. There is no thought, no true desire here.
I stare out along the treeline, afraid of the betrayal of my own need for release for what feels like hours. How could such a relief feel so hollow? Why was I so inclined to make it more than it needed to be?
The rustling of leaves catches my attention past the trees on the far side of the water and I slide deeper beneath the small waves.
It is likely Dorian. He doesn't like seeing me this way. Sure, at first, he joked about it. “If this is the worst side effect of the Mark, I’d say you were damn lucky.” But after the first few “episodes” he realized how much I was suffering. Frustration builds within my gut every time I see the way his eyebrows knit together, his forehead lined with concern, and I realize how deeply he cares but is unable to do anything to help. It is strange how close we’ve grown in such a short time but I thank the Maker he walked into my life when he did.
When the bushes part, it is not Dorian that stands before me, but Cullen. My lower half pulses with an aching need, welcoming the man closer to my body as my brain screams in silent protest.
“Cullen? What are you doing here?” I sink lower into the water, trying to hide all of my flesh from him.
“I… uhh… Well…” He brings his fingers together, twisting them around each other before trying to rest his hands on a pommel that isn’t at his hip.
“You what? Wanted to bathe yourself? Wanted to see me naked?” I don’t know why I said the last part, but the look on his face made it worth it. His cheeks burned so brightly with embarrassment that I swear it was visible in the moonlight.
“No. No, that’s not why I came. Maker’s Breath.” He turns his back to me, his head turning to gaze at anything other than the water where I sat.
“You mean you don’t want to see me naked?” My tone laced with false hurt.
He turns to meet my eyes with his amber gaze and falters, seeing the playful smirk across my face. His full lips twitch into an innocent grin as the blush returns over his chiseled cheekbones. Cullen’s eyes dip, peering at the grass beneath his boots as he speaks, “Do you want me to see you naked?”
I can’t tell if he is joking or not, but I laugh. “So, did you need something? Something that couldn’t wait until I got back to camp?”
“Actually… “ He pauses, hand reaching up to massage his neck. “I was hoping there was something I could do for you.”
He couldn’t possibly mean what I think he means. His blatant admission stuns me, halting any witty response that I may have snapped back at him. My body pulses, pleading for him to follow through with the imagined sight of his naked body writhing against mine, but I swallow past the thought and sink lower beneath the water. I have no words to say to him. He couldn’t be offering to submit himself to my need for a physical release, could he? Our eyes lock for a moment that feels as if it stretches into oblivion.
Finally, he breaks the silence. “Dorian mentioned that you were experiencing a buildup of magic. That it was causing you… discomfort.”
Well, that was the tactful way to put it. I nod.
“I thought maybe we could try something. If you trust me, that is.” He looks to my discarded clothes and then back at me, waiting for me to say something, anything.
I still can’t wrap my thoughts around what he is suggesting. Would the Commander of the Inquisition offer himself for the pleasure of another? Perhaps he doesn’t quite grasp what it is that I need in order to feel true comfort. But he hasn’t truly suggested anything, yet. I compose my voice and my mind. “Okay, Cullen. What do you have in mind?”
I watch in stunned silence as he undresses, laying his clothes next to mine. The man strips himself of his clothing, piece-by-piece, as my mouth falls open at the sight of his body. Even in such a vulnerable state, his form is masculine perfection, like a predator cloaked within the scarred but otherwise flawless skin of his body. He keeps his smalls in place but they do nothing to hide the bulge between his thighs. Cullen gracefully steps into the water as it ripples against his movements, sending shockwaves across my flesh as I gape at his glorious form. My body screams with need. His calloused hands, his luscious mouth, his thick manhood all need to be on my skin, tearing away at the aching pain that resounds deep within my mark. Yet, I can do nothing. I’m frozen in place, staring up at the man that can give me the release that I need, afraid to reach out and make contact with his warmth, to take what he is offering.
When we are within arms reach of each other, I can see the heavy rise and fall of his chest, hear his labored breathing. It is oddly comforting to know I am not the only one nervous about the outcome of this encounter.
“Give me your hands,” he commands in a gentle, but firm tone. Without thinking, I comply.
His calloused fingers glide across my palms, sending a shockwave of pleasure through my body. I bite my lower lip to hold back the moan caught in my throat. His grip tightens and he pulls me closer to his body and I feel the heat of his skin against mine beneath the cool waters.
“I… uhh…,” he pauses, considering his words as his hands begin to quake softly around mine. “I have never tried to do this gently but I am hoping I have enough lyrium left in me to dispel the lingering magic in your body.”
“What?” This was not what I was expecting. I try to pull my hands from his grasp but his grip tightens.
Hearing my name cross his lips stops my feeble attempt to pull away from him. I stare up into his golden eyes, bewitched by the softness in which he uttered it. He’s never called me by my name before.
“I am only trying to help. Dorian said you’ve tried everything else. If this works you won’t have to suffer anymore.” He gazes imploringly into my eyes, his hands never leaving mine. After a hesitant moment, he relaxes his fingers and their grip around my hand.
His words strengthen my resolve. I find my voice again, focusing all of my attention to ensure that my words do not quaver weakly. “All right, but you must know, dispels feel like a punch in the gut. It is painful. You will be stripping me of a piece of myself.”
“Oh… I didn’t know. If you don’t want to do this…” His voice trails off as he releases his hold on my hands. My fingers tingle in the chilled waters with the sudden lack of his warmth. He shifts beneath the water, awkward and tentative as if he is unsure of what to do now that he feels he has failed his mission.
I don’t want him to walk away from me thinking he’d failed. He had come here intent on helping me. I gather the rest of my resolve. If he thinks this will help, I will allow him to do it. Maker knows it’s better than the alternative. Right? “Can you channel it, filter it? Can you make it like a siphon instead of a full-blown attack?”
He turns back to me then, seeming encouraged by my questions. “I… I don’t know. I’ve never tried.”
Taking his hands, grateful for his skin on mine once again, I ask the same question he had asked of me only moments ago. “Do you trust me, Cullen?” I try to search his eyes but he looks away. When he turns back to me I am surprised to see him nod his head, telling me yes, he does trust me.
I slide from his hands and create a fireball in my palm. “This is raw magic, Cullen. This can’t be controlled. Its flame will ignite anything it touches.” I toss the fireball onto a nearby boulder and we watch as it engulfs the rock in flame.
“Now, this” I place my palm in the center of his chest, “is control.” I send a warming pulse out through my palm and watch as its faint red glow shivers over him. “One of the first things a Mage learns is how to control magic and not be controlled by it.”
“That was… nice.” He smiles down at me and his hand covers mine, holding it to his chest.
Slowly, I pull away. I don’t want this crumbling into an act of passion. I have to have control. Isn’t this what I am currently trying to show him?
I clear my throat and begin again. “Learning how to send the proper amount of magic from your body takes skill and practice. The use of your Templar abilities holds no such finesse. You use them as a weapon. To create a slow bleed of magic,” I place my hands in the water, heating it just enough so we both feel the difference. “One must focus on not just the target, but how you wish to affect the target. If I wished to light a candle, I wouldn’t throw a fireball at it. Do you understand?”
“I think so.” Lines crease his forehead as he tries to take in all I am telling him.
“Lyrium is different. You aren’t pulling at strands of magic, you are pulling from your own blood. Controlling it is different. A Mage can use it to boost failing mana, but a Templar has no mana to work with. The lyrium, for a Templar, is a raw source of power, much like the fireball. It wants you to latch onto it. It wants to be in control. If this is going to work, you can’t let it take control or you will be carrying my naked body back to camp and explaining to Dorian what you have done.”
His features tighten and his lips press into a thin line before he moves toward me, taking my hands back into his. “I can only promise to try.”
I nod, shaking the nerves from my body. “Focus on the Mark. Let your mind think of only the magic pulsing from it.”
He closes his eyes, centering himself. He readies the ability and attempts to heed my words.
“Sweet Maker,” I scream as his dispel crashes into me. Cullen’s hands in mine are the only things keeping me from sinking completely under the water.
“Oh Maker, I’m so sorry. I did it wrong.” He pulls me against his body and holds me upright, warming my flesh against his.
“No.” I begin, but find my breath is shaky, my words wavering between us. “No, that was not as bad as it could have been.” Still having little control of my extremities, I lean into him, allowing his strength to keep me stilled. “You didn’t throw me across the pool with your blast. That’s a good thing.”
My hands shake as he brings them to his shoulders, giving me more balance. “I hurt you.” He whispers softly. “Maker, I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
I can’t help but laugh a small, quiet sound that betrays how weak I feel. “If you had meant to hurt me, I don’t think I would be standing here.” I rest my face on his chest, my neck suddenly tired of craning to look at him. I can feel his muscles tense as my cheek meets his chest, but I don’t care. If he could dispel me, he could hold me as the effect wore off.
“Did… Did it work?” He asks after a few moments. His amber eyes are intense as they search mine, darting across my face and down my body in question.
I pull away from him, stretching my awareness out to my limbs as I try to feel a difference. “I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
“How do we find out?” He asks patiently.
“Give me a moment.” I walk away from his warm embrace, stumbling. He reaches an arm out to steady me but I pull away. “Cullen,” I chide softly, giving him a small smile. “I won’t know if it worked if you are still touching me.”
“Oh… alright.” He takes a step back, wrapping his arms around his broad chest in an attempt to keep his hands off of me.
I turn away from him and close my eyes. Finally, I am able to stand and I push myself to my feet. The water slides down my body, caressing my curves, but the effect isn’t as potent as it was moments ago. The chill in the air makes my nipples perk, but there is less of a bite to it. I slide my hair across my back and over my shoulder, and the strands tickle but they no longer irritate my skin.
I turn back to Cullen but he is now facing away from me. I call his name but he doesn’t turn.
Thinking he is in some way trying to preserve my modesty, I dip back below the water and swim my way to his side. I take his hand in mine and he finally turns to look at me.
“I think it worked. Although it’s not completely gone, it hurts less. It’s not so demanding now.”
He gives me a tight smile, squeezing my hand before releasing it, and takes a step to the shore.
“Cullen,” I say, halting his movement. He turns back to me, his face a mask of steel reserve that always set my nerves on edge. The warmth that he’d given me moments before have suddenly fallen back into the stoic reserve that I’d become used to witnessing in the War Room. I push past it and say what I need to say.
He nods his golden head and turns to make his way from the pool.
For some reason, I already feel bereft of his presence and even though he is only feet away from me, the comfort of his touch is no longer there. He never turns back to me. Never looking at me once he’s stepped away, and my heart aches.
I should have asked him to stay.
Chapter 10: Don't Take it Personally, Commander
Why Cullen walked away.
An unexpected addition to the story. (Guest Appearance from Mass Effect)
Hope the addition doesn't throw people but I needed a counter to Cullen and didn't want to add Rhys or give her an unlikely relationship with Dorian.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Cullen had thought he would dream of the Herald’s naked body pressed against him. He had thought the image of her emerging from the pool would be stamped into the forefront of his mind for eternity, her red hair fanning out as it glided across her back. But that was not the case. Instead of the images he had seen play out in his mind over and over, he had a new problem. This woman, this Mage, seemed to see into his soul.
Every time they were alone, she would open her mouth and speak to the heart of him. She didn’t know him, couldn’t know him. He hadn’t allowed her in, he hadn’t allowed anyone to know the things she seemed to know about him.
No dreams of the Herald came. In fact, he hardly slept at all. Last night, it wasn’t the demons that kept him awake. He remembered the words that tore from her lips and burned into his mind. Templars as they should be. Lyrium wants control. How… How could she say these things to him? She didn’t know his heart. Yet, in both moments she had only been trying to help him. To help him see that she didn’t think badly of him. This time she’d even been placing her trust in him. Her trust, given to the one person who may actually want to hurt her, knowing that he might succeed. She was trusting him to be a Templar as they were meant to be.
Then, even after he’d dispelled her, even after he’d caused her pain, she leaned into him. Her breath had grazed across his neck, his chest. She had held onto him, pressing her body into his, as she regained her strength. He had physically hurt her, but she was accepting and even happy that he had been able to bring her some measure of relief. He had hurt her and she’d thanked him for it. And, despite it all, he was almost positive she’d ask him to do it again.
The camp began to come alive as Cullen made his way out of his tent. Dorian had begun a fire and had a pot of mushy, grey porridge bubbling away that smelled pleasant, despite the unappealing sight. Sera was checking her quiver, counting the arrows inside. Bull wasn’t anywhere to be seen. When Cullen asked, Dorian informed him that he had gone to find a place to relieve himself. He noted the Herald’s absence as well, but assumed she had gone, just as Bull had.
After Bull had returned, everyone began readying their packs for the continued journey. Cullen noticed Dorian packing away a few of the Herald’s things. In fact, most of her stuff was already on her mount. Had she packed and left, not wanting to face him after last night?
“Where is Sca… The Herald?” Cullen finally asked.
“Sleeping, I would assume. She hasn’t come out of her tent yet.” Dorian shrugged, nodding toward her tent.
“Was no one going to wake her?” Cullen demanded, knowing that he sounded a little frustrated, but they needed to be on the road, and quickly.
“Ha!” Sera barked. “We’ve all learned that lesson. Ain’t nobody steppin’ foot in that tent until she climbs out herself.”
Cullen didn’t know what Sera meant but didn’t see why he shouldn’t at least try and rouse her. He got to his feet and made his way to her tent, then pulled the fabric curtain aside, pouring the dawning sunlight inside. She was outside of the covers in her smalls and an oversized tunic that had ridden up well past her waist. She lay on her side, one leg nearly up to her chest. Her messy red hair curled in sleep exaggerated madness around her, spilling over onto the ground.
He took a step closer, thinking to at least cover her exposed body, but paused as an animalistic growl emanated from the woman before him.
“Get out.” She didn’t scream, but the force behind her words was undeniable.
Cullen’s words were cut off when a book nearly caught him in the head. Her grimoire, a book most mages cherished, lay at his feet.
“Are you deaf?” She sat up and the look she turned on him was full of fire and loathing.
Cullen’s throat tightened and he turned, leaving the Herald. He didn’t understand. Last night she seemed to be happy with what he’d done. Now he wasn’t so sure.
“Aww, don’t take it personally, Commander. She’s like that with everyone, every morning.” Dorian grinned when Cullen flushed. As he stepped further away from the tent, he heard stifled chuckles from around the campfire.
“She… She threw her grimoire at me,” he muttered, surprise filling his tone. He found he was still unable to process her actions and her look of sheer hatred. Had her opinion of him changed so drastically in so little time?
Dorian raised his mug of coffee, a sort of salute to the Commander. “Be glad it was just a book. She clocked Bull with a wine bottle one morning. Luckily his head is so thick, it didn’t do much damage.”
“There is one trick though.” Sera intoned, holding up one finger as if she were teaching a lesson. “She likes morning cuddles.”
Sera popped up from her seat and made her way into the Herald’s tent. Within moments, giggling and playful banter could be heard from within.
It wasn’t long before Sera and the Herald made their way out of the tent, hand in hand. Sera walked her over to a place next to Dorian and she held her hand out to him. He placed a steaming mug into her outstretched palm.
Cullen felt so separated from the scene that played out before him. These people knew so much about Scarlett and him, so little. They got to spend nearly every waking hour in her company. They knew her quirks.
He didn’t know it would irritate him to see how intimate she could be with others. She welcomed Sera’s head on her shoulder. She giggled at Bull’s inappropriate jokes. Maker, she was even standing among them in nothing but an oversized tunic. He knew this lack of intimacy was his own doing. Cullen had always pulled away from her, distanced himself. He knew she had stopped placing a hand on his, or trying to touch him in any way because he always reacted badly to it. He’d never had someone who wanted to reach out and touch him, simply because they could. His mind had coursed through these thoughts again and again before he realized that Scarlett had seated herself beside him.
“Sorry, I’m a bit of a bear in the mornings.” She raised the still steaming mug to her lips and Cullen caught the bitter, rich smell of coffee.
He tried not to shift away from the nearness of her body. He wanted to let her know he was okay with it, that he would be willing to accept it from now on. “Don’t worry about it. They warned me, but I didn’t listen.”
She smiled then, and it was bright and welcoming. “I’ve always been that way. I can’t ever recall a happy morning. Sleep is a glorious thing. It seems such a waste to not give it a sad goodbye.”
Cullen couldn’t help but laugh.
They had been on the road for a few hours, Scarlett never keeping to one place in their party. She was so good at ensuring each of her companions received equal attention, never favoring one over the other. Cullen found this was one more thing he admired about her. He knew, at Haven, she could be found in any number of places. He had thought it had more to do with her inability to hold still, but he was now seeing her frequent stops were places her companions liked to be. He even recalled that she liked to round them up, have them all in the same place. This didn’t always work, but he’d seen her deliver invitations of Wicked Grace to Solas and even Vivienne. They always declined, so she would stay for a few minutes and chat with them before heading off to the tavern.
This wasn’t to say she was a people pleaser. She had her fair share of arguments brewing. Vivienne and Scarlett didn’t quite see eye-to-eye on the Circle. She didn’t like Cassandra’s brash attitude, but he could tell they were becoming close in spite of it. She rarely spoke to Varric about Mages and Templars but would hound him about Red Lyrium and stories about Hawke. In fact, the only three he’d never seen her argue with were the ones accompanying them now. These seemed to be her closest friends. It was easy to see she adored each one.
“I hope it doesn’t bother you to be traveling alongside a ‘Vint’, Iron Bull.” Cullen heard Dorian say from just behind him.
“That what you are? You people all kinda look the same to me.” Bull’s voice was flat, lacking emotion in favor or against the mage’s upbringing. Cullen found this curious since the two people had been at war for quite some time.
“I’m also a Mage. Would you prefer me bound and leashed?” The lilt in Dorian’s voice made Cullen wonder if there wasn’t a hint of flirtation in the question.
Apparently, Iron Bull thought the same. “I’d buy you dinner first,” he replied quickly, his tone dropped the nonchalance and transitioned into something deeper, more intimate.
“Hopefully before you sewed my mouth shut,” Dorian nearly hissed. There was no doubt, the Tevinter didn’t know when to quit talking. The question made Scarlett squirm a bit in her saddle. He even thought he heard her whisper ‘Maker, not again’ under her breath.
“Depends how much you keep yapping ,” Bull retorted, losing the flirtatious note in his voice. There was a bite to the big Qunari’s words. It was obvious Bull didn’t keep to the ideals of the Qun. Him being here, serving under Scarlett was proof of that.
He didn’t know how long the argument would have lasted, for as they crested the hill in front of them, the telltale glow of a rift greeted their view.
“Demons!” Scarlett shouted from her seat next to him. She dismounted quickly and rushed forward. The rest of the party followed suit.
When they reached the rift, they were all surprised to find a Mage already battling the demons spewing from the green glow. He cast fire and ice, nearly in tandem. His staff crashing down and adding more ice to the battle. A demon crashed into him, knocking him to the ground, but the mage drug his staff through the dirt creating a shield of ice between him and the monster. He wasn’t out of danger yet, for a rage demon approached from behind him.
Cullen felt, rather than saw, Scarlett cast a barrier spell over the Mage just before the rage demon made a swipe at the young man. She stretched her palm toward the rift and a jet of green light connected her to the glow. As the magic crested, it froze the demons in place, severing their connection to the Fade for only a moment. But the moment was all the Mage needed. He cast again, encasing the rage demon in ice.
Scarlett once again cast her barrier spell, but this time it was for the party surrounding her. She sent out a barrage of lightning, the magic pulled from her chest, creating a momentary shield around her body. Cullen couldn’t help but watch, he had heard others speak of her power but every time he saw it with his own eyes, he was astounded at the amount she could wield with one attack.
“A little help here,” Dorian yelled, calling him back to the task at hand. But Cullen witnessed Scarlett’s power yet again.
He didn’t know what spell she had just used, but Dorian was suddenly encased in a green glow. Spirits wrapped themselves around him, fending off the demons when he failed to.
“Cullen, some help would be nice.” Scarlett nudged him to the fray.
Finally, he leaped into action. His blade coming down on a demon who had finally noticed Scarlett.
Soon, the battle was over and Scarlett raised her hand a final time to seal the rift. The energy bounced back, knocking her a little off balance but she recovered quickly, shaking her arm in an effort to shake the magic away. Her eyes met his, and he knew what she wanted.
Before he could take a step to her, the strange Mage they first saw made his presence known again. “Bloody hell! What in the Maker’s name did you just do?”
Scarlett froze, her eyes intensely narrowing on the stranger. Cullen knew the trepidation of her response. They had yet to encounter a Mage on the road that wasn’t hostile. He turned, his sword arm braced and ready to face this new threat but was not prepared for what he was about to witness.
Scarlett threw her staff down and ran. She ran directly at the Mage that was less than fifteen feet in front of them. To his surprise, the Mage didn’t attack. He held his arms in open invitation as Scarlett leaped onto him, wrapping her legs around him and planting kisses over his cheeks and forehead. They fell to the ground, Scarlett straddling the Mage, his hands landing on her hips.
“Ryder!” She shrieked, her voice echoing off of the surrounding hills . “What are you doing here?”
The Mage raised himself onto his elbows but made no move to push Scarlett away. Cullen’s stomach turned at the very public, very blatant show of affection. Or was it envy, he thought. Surely one of them had to realize they should be embarrassed by this position. It was certainly making Cullen uncomfortable. Her arms snaked around the Mage and she buried her face into his neck. It was then Cullen got a good look at the man Scarlett had pounced on. His dark hair was long on top, mussed and falling into his eyes. His smile, which hadn’t left his face since Scarlett’s attack, was wide and his teeth perfectly white. His full lips pressed into the top of Scarlett’s hair as she snuggled deeper into his embrace. This man was so handsome, it made him itch to pull Scarlett away from him.
When she finally stood, pulling the other Mage up with her, he could finally breathe again. She held his hand as they made their way to our group.
“Everyone, this is Scott Ryder. He is a friend of mine. We were in the Ostwick Circle together.” Her smile was devastating, so bright and so full of happiness, that Cullen felt a small piece of his heart sink into his stomach.
“Ryder, this is Dorian, Iron Bull, Sera, and Cullen.” She gestured to each person in turn.
Ryder shook hands with each person, giving broad smiles and sharing pleasantries. Cullen had to admit, the man oozed charm. Cullen’s eyes lingered on Scarlett’s hand where it still clutched the man and grit his teeth.
“Ryder, would you mind if the Commander and I stepped away for a minute. There is something I need to take care of.” He told her he didn’t mind, and Dorian seemed more than willing to entertain their latest addition. He kissed her on the cheek before she stepped away.
The Herald and her Commander walked a fair distance away from the party, both silent. When she turned to him, she held out both of her hands just as they had done in the pool the night before. She turned her eyes back to the party, to the man, they had just left.
“I didn’t want to do this in front of Ryder. Dorian knows what I’ve been going through, but he doesn’t. I wouldn’t want him to get the wrong idea. No need for him to think you are hurting me on purpose.”
Cullen sighed a heavy sound. “Scarlett, we don’t have to keep doing this if you don’t want to. Besides, I don’t know how many times I will be able to do it myself.” At her questioning look, he decided he’d be honest with her. He was wanting to build a better relationship with her, after all. “Scarlett, I’ve stopped taking lyrium. It’s been months now. What little I have left in me, I’ve used to help you. It won’t be long before it is all out of my system and then you will have to let someone else dispel you.”
She was quiet for a moment. “But the lyrium withdrawal… “ Most mages know of it, even if no one really speaks about it. “Are you… Are you in pain?”
“I can withstand it,” he stated flatly, his eyes turning to the ground to avoid her gaze. He wasn’t sure whether his words rang true or not, but he couldn’t risk Scarlett worrying herself with his own matters.
“Cullen,” her voice was soft, full of concern. “Cullen, don’t do this.” She pulls her hands from his, her face downcast. Her brows knitted together with worry as her azure eyes darted to the ground as if she were searching for the right words.
The Commander shook his head. “This was my choice. If you think…” He hadn’t meant to get angry with her, but she needed to understand why. She needed to see he wouldn’t tie himself to the Templars or that life any longer.
Her eyes dart to his, full of surprise. “No. Cullen, that’s not what I meant. I respect what you are doing. I only meant, don’t do this. Don’t use what reserves you have left to purge me of my magic. Maker knows it is unpleasant for me, but I can’t imagine what it will do to you.” Her hand lifted to gently cup Cullen’s cheek and he pressed into the touch. It brought a small smile to her face.
“I’m sorry. I should have told you sooner.” He whispered into her hand.
“No, don’t be sorry.” Her eyes meet his and he saw the admiration in them. She realized what this meant for him and she was proud of him.
“But what about you? What about your problem? We need to find another Templar willing…”
She cut off his words with a sharp look, pulling her hand away from his face. “I trust you. That doesn’t mean I am going to trust any random Templar to do what you did. I will get by. You are a good man Cullen, but the same can’t be said about all of those in your Order.” She pauses, rethinking her words. “The Order.” She restates, not placing Cullen among their ranks any longer. “You were a Templar. You must know what many of them think of Mages. You have proven yourself a friend to me, but do you now trust all Mages you see?”
“No.” He sighed but left it at that.
“It’s not so bad.” She shifted uncomfortably, and Cullen saw it for the lie it was. “There are worse things that could have happened. I will just have to deal with it.” She walked away and didn’t get far before she mumbled, “Or find someone to help me deal with it.”
Love is a-brewing.
Kudos to anyone who recognized the scene between Scarlett and Ryder.
Chapter 11: Confession
Scarlett is put on the spot.
It is confession time.
The new addition of the Mage that held Scarlett’s attention so easily made Cullen more uncomfortable than he cared to admit. He’d thought that the relationships she had built with her other companions, after long evenings on the road or early mornings at Haven, were forged from necessity rather than genuine affection. It made sense for the woman, who they all hoped could save the world, to rely on some of the members of the Inquisition that were closest to her, but to see how she interacted with this defiant mage…
To Cullen’s dismay, when it came time to build their camp for the night, Ryder announced that he’d lost his tent after being separated from the group he’d traveled with prior to finding his long lost friend.
“You know, Scar,” Ryder said coyly. “I don't mind sharing your tent.” The handsome Mage nudged Scarlett’s arm playfully.. The two smiled at each other before Scarlett looked away, tugging at her scarf.
It felt as if Cullen’s worst nightmares were coming true when Scarlett stated that Ryder was welcome to her tent - the Herald had just closed a rift and he knew that she’d be sensitive, needing release. Though she quickly amended her offer upon seeing Cullen’s face fall at her words, the thought of Scarlett sleeping with Sera or Dorian didn’t make him feel much better. Sera was a little too thrilled at the prospect of snuggling with Scarlett, the Commander thought, and while he didn’t believe that the two of them were romantically intimate, he didn’t want her considering the option.
Cullen’s recollection of the Mage lifestyle at The Circle flooded his thoughts - same-sex couples were widely accepted, even encouraged in some instances, because pregnancy was to be avoided at all costs. While not every mage was bisexual or gay, he didn’t want to assume Scarlett’s preferences after spending so much time in The Circle - especially since he’d hoped she’d prefer him.
The Commander’s amber gaze lifted to see Scarlett as she dug her thumbnail into the crook of her staff, idly busying herself to avoid eye contact. The others had been preparing the site where they’d make camp; Dorian fussed over the cooking spit to prepare supper, Sera whittled sharpened tips for her arrows, and Iron Bull rested against a large stone with his eyes closed, though Cullen knew he wasn’t sleeping. While Scarlett wouldn’t look directly at him, he could feel the heat of her intention as she forced herself to remain focused.
A warm blush spread across her cheeks as her eyes flicked up to Cullen’s awaiting gaze. “Normally, I wouldn’t mind the company, but I-I don’t think that…” she stammered, seemingly unsure of what to say. Her sapphire eyes met the Commander’s once again with a look of mild panic.
Ryder caught the glance between the Herald and her Commander, raising an arched eyebrow in response. “Ah, but I see that you have already been spoken for. Now I understand.”
A burst of laughter resounded from their companions at the Mage’s words. Bull, who’d been filling his belly from a mug of ale, spat the drink onto the fire pit as he roared with laughter. The Qunari smacked his thigh with a meaty fist, then wiped his chin with the back of a thick arm as he continued drinking the brew. Dorian nearly dropped the cooking pot that he’d been assembling to the spit, doubling over with his sonorous chuckles, and Sera’s shrill giggles echoed on the trees around the encampment.
Cullen didn’t think that he’d ever been so publicly humiliated before. His face heated with the familiar blush he’d been experiencing in their travels, and while he tried to turn away from the group, they’d already seen his reaction. Scarlett, who’d frozen at Ryder’s words, stared directly at the Commander as he tried to shrink away from everyone. The tension between the pair was palpable, and although Cullen didn’t want to admit it aloud, he could feel the gravity between them from the moment he’d met her. She’d always had that effect on him, but lately, it seemed that he’d begun to have the same impact on her. At first, he thought he’d been imagining it; surely she had better things to do than spend time with him in the War Room going over strategies and tactical moves. But in the past few days, her eyes would find his when she felt stressed, her hands would reach out to the Commander with a gentle brush of her fingertips, her words would soften when she spoke to him.
But then, his mind drifted back to their evening in the stream. They’d nearly been naked together and her hands didn’t wander, her eyes didn’t linger on his body as his did on hers. Not that he had encouraged it, either. He had done what he could to be a gentleman in the situation, giving her the space she needed while ensuring that he didn’t make the first move. He would admit that his eyes wandered over her body but she was trying to teach him control. She had no idea that she was tempering his thoughts with her words but it had helped him to focus on something other than her milky white flesh, the way her bottom lip pouted in concentration, the way her red hair fell in ribbons around her shoulders and framed her breasts.
After the laughter had died down, Ryder looked to Scarlett for an explanation. Cullen watched her internal struggle with the proper word choice; how could she explain that she needed to have a Templar dispel her in a way that wouldn’t sound like he was trying to hurt her? How was she supposed to define their relationship when they weren’t even sure where they stood?
Finally, after twisting her scarf into knots between her fingers, she met Ryder’s gaze and she said, “No. Nothing like that.” Her lips quirked in a half-smile before she returned to cleaning her, as far as Cullen could tell, immaculately clean staff.
“Oh.” He shot Cullen a quizzical look. Cullen shrugged, not sure of how else to respond. He couldn’t claim Scarlett and she wasn’t claiming him. And it wasn’t his place to tell this newcomer what was going on within Scarlett’s body or why they had stepped away earlier. He would not be the one to enlighten this man. He would rather that the Mage knew nothing about her situation. He didn’t want to know what it would mean now that she had a friend amongst them that could help her in ways he had not offered to do so.
When no explanation was forthcoming, Sera decided to speak for her. “Our Lady Herald is having issues after closing rifts.” She wiggled her eyebrows, an attempt to convey her meaning.
Thanks for that, Sera. The knot of tension that seemed to constantly reside just between his shoulder blades gave a twinge. He brought his hand to his neck to rub away the ache. The Commander tilted his head from side to side, feeling the cracks of relieving pressure, and worried that the dull ache in his head would turn into a torturous withdrawal. By leaving Haven when he did, he had thought to gain some measure of release from the stresses he faced daily. Instead, the stressor just had a strange name and held a mage’s staff.
Scarlett sighed heavily and glared at the young elf . Apparently, she didn’t want to explain the situation any more than Cullen had. But with Sera’s open admission of her bodies needs, The Herald was compelled to elaborate.
“My body goes into a state of hypersensitivity for hours after.” Scarlett’s flush was now almost as bright as the flames in front of her. She twisted uncomfortably making Cullen wonder if it was more from the topic of conversation or the magic of her mark.
Cullen found that he enjoyed seeing Scarlett unsettled; not as if he liked her being in pain, but it was humbling to see that such a confident, strong woman could also be nervous and flustered. She rarely backed down from anyone or anything, yet this talk of what her body needed made her act as if it was shameful. It wasn’t as though she asked for the ailment; those privy to the understanding of her condition knew she didn’t have control over it. He sympathized with her in that degree; he was always on edge around Scarlett, always nervous and flighty. If he were being honest with himself, that stimulation may have been part of what drove his attention to her any time she was near. Though it always made him feel crazy, seeing the way he would react around her written as bold and bright as daylight in her own expressions, her movements brought him some measure of relief.
“Oh,” Ryder started, but then he seemed to realize what she meant. A devious smile curled the Mage’s lips. Cullen didn’t know what the Mage was thinking but he was sure that in time, Ryder planned to test this out, see exactly how sensitive the mark made her.
“And this happens every time?”
“How have you been dealing with it?” He smiled flirtatiously at her. He was goading her into spilling her secrets. Trying his best to get her to open up and be honest about her hardships.
“Oh, you know, experimentation, potions. That sort of thing.” She tried to brush the subject aside with a sweeping gesture of her hand but Ryder seemed to have no end to his curiosity on the topic .
Ryder continued past her obvious attempt to dissuade the conversation. “And what kind of experimentation are we talking about?” He looked to those sitting around the campfire. No one spoke. It seemed everyone but Ryder was picking up on how uncomfortable Scarlett was becoming.
Then, his eyes landed on Cullen. He remembered her pulling him aside after closing the last rift.
Maker, please don’t let him go there.
But, of course, the mage did. “And I assume, when you pulled the Commander aside earlier, you were working on said experiment?” His smile held a hint of amusement and what Cullen could only say to be jealousy.
“Yes,” Scarlett challenged. Her gaze narrowed with a sharpness that rivaled the blade at Cullen’s hip. The Commander knew that look, he’d been the focus of that glare before, and he braced himself for the storm he knew her to be brewing. The air felt charged as her intensity continued to build. Cullen cast a glance between Sera and Dorian, their eyes just as uncertain as his while the Herald continued to bore holes through Ryder’s head with her anger. Scarlett waited for the mage to respond as if she was testing his ability to challenge her, but his eyes never left hers, his lips didn’t utter another word.
“Oh,” Ryder finally replied, dismissing the discussion with a lopsided shrug. To Cullen’s surprise, Scarlett’s tension immediately lessened, her shoulders relaxed as the static in the air dispelled. Though she continued to watch Ryder, Cullen could sense that she was more willing to answer his questions now that she’d won the standoff.
The Commander bit back his frustration for how quickly her anger had tempered with the mage, feeling the words trying to force their way out of his throat to hiss between gritted teeth. Why does he get a pass? He was clearly trying to get a rise out of you, Scarlett, don’t you see? Scarlett could stay mad at him for hours, days even. But with this new mage , her anger dissipated as quickly as it came.
“Yes,” she said again. “Cullen has been helping me. We had found one way that seemed to work. We were only able to try it once before we realized it was no longer an option.” She didn’t say anymore and Cullen was thankful for that.
The look of jealousy left Ryder’s eyes in an instant. He turned to her. “So you’re telling me if I do this…” Ryder reached out a hand and stroked it along Scarlett’s exposed neck. Her body shuddered at his touch and her lip sank below her teeth. Cullen could see her nipples perking behind her thin tunic. She turned lust-filled eyes on her friend but quickly turned back to Cullen. When she noticed where Cullen’s eyes were on her body, she closed her jacket, buckling the strap holding it together.
“Woah.” He pulled his hand back and readjusted his seat beside her. He chuckled, holding up his hands in mock surrender as he spoke. “Alright, I don’t want to deprive you of your tent, Herald. I could just bunk with the Commander or Dorian.”
Scarlett seemed to mull this over for a moment. Cullen couldn’t tell what she was thinking, he could only hope her mind hadn’t swayed to extend her previous offer. He didn’t think he would be capable of letting that specific scenario play out. Her moans, his welcoming response. Just the thought of them together conjured loops of visions, imagined sounds, and the bitter jealousy he so desperately tried not to think of.
“No, I still think you should take my tent. It will work out better for all, I think.” She made no mention of her sleeping arrangements but the mage seemed satisfied, if a little disappointed, with her answer.
“Where’s food?” Sera suddenly interjected, interrupting the ever-growing unpleasantness surrounding the campfire. “I’m starvin’!”
Ryder grinned in response, clasping his hands to his stomach. “Please tell me you are going to cook, Scar. It has been way too long since I’ve had a decent meal.”
“Of course. Do you think I would let my children starve?” Scarlett got up to collect her pack and Sera followed after. Ryder joined them after a few moments.
When they returned, they had the pheasants Sera had caught earlier that day and one of Scarlett’s saddlebags. Sera handed a bird to each man sitting around the fire and they started cleaning them. Cullen had never actually cooked for himself and tried to follow what the other men were doing. He wasn’t sure how successful he was but Scarlett said nothing about his abilities one way or another when she took the bird and began preparing it for roasting.
Cullen was surprised to see that the little bag Scarlett had brought into the camp had been filled with endless herbs and other cooking supplies. He had harassed her when she dismounted for the fifth time while on their journey to pick one thing or another. There were herbs he recognized and others he did not. There were fresh apples and a few vegetables that he could see. She pulled out a large handful of mushrooms and a small pot. When she realized she was overburdened, she called him over.
“Here take these.” She put the handful of mushrooms into his hands and reached back into her bag, pulling more of the fungi free. “Can you rinse the dirt off of these?”
“Of course.” He took the mushrooms back to his seat and cleaned them.
She came back to stand over him after she had finished her preparations, setting the pot under one of the pheasants to catch the dripping fat. He presented the cleaned mushrooms to her and she frowned. He didn’t know what he’d done.
“I should have told you to be gentle. Oh, well. They are still edible.” She returned to her cooking without another word.
By the time the pheasant was done cooking, she had prepared a mushroom gravy to go on top and cinnamon apples as a side. Bowls were divided up and handed to each member of the party.
Cullen enjoyed watching Scarlett be domestic. He had never seen this side of her before. It made him wonder what she would be like as a wife, as a mother. He found he liked the idea of her with children scurrying around her feet, cooking, baking. She was good at caring for other people, he already knew, but this was different. Seeing Scarlett in such a maternal manner made his heart ache. Would she ever know motherhood when this was all over?
“She’s full of surprises, isn’t she?” Ryder’s voice suddenly chimed out beside the Commander. Cullen hadn’t even realized Ryder had sat down beside him until he spoke.
“Yes. I’ll admit, I didn’t even know she could cook.” Cullen knew he was blushing, but when it came to Scarlett, he couldn’t seem to stop. He didn’t try to hide it from the mage.
Ryder nodded toward the Herald. “She’s also very careful about where she places her trust. Yet, you seemed to have earned it.” Scarlett’s eyes met his and she smiled, confirming the Mages words.
“We haven’t always got along. Her trust is fairly new,” Cullen replied, though he wasn’t certain he believed his words. It wasn’t as if she’d suddenly begun believing in her Commander or trusting his instincts; those attributes had always been part of their working relationship. But it had certainly… evolved, he thought, smiling to himself as he watched Scarlett spoon more of the cinnamon concoction over a plate.
The mage snorted a small laugh, grinning toward his friend. “Yes, well… It isn’t always easy for a Mage to trust a Templar, is it?”
Cullen was dumbfounded at the question. He didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t told Ryder about being a Templar, and Scarlett had pretty much told him that she knew that was his past. She knew he didn’t want to be associated with the Order. Of course, that wasn’t completely true either. They were on their way to Therinfall because of him.
“Don’t look so upset. I only know because I cornered her earlier,” Ryder said, clapping a hand on Cullen’s shoulder at his sudden shock. “I wanted to know what experiments you all were putting her through. I asked her about what experiment you two had been about to attempt. She told me you were going to purge her magic. I’m not happy about it, but she said that it had helped.” Ryder paused, turning to Cullen. “But I will say this. I love that girl. She was my rock at some of my darkest times. If you break her heart, I will come after you.” The Mage sprung to his feet, and Cullen was left staring after him.
Break her heart. Maker, they weren’t even in a relationship. How could he break her heart?
Scarlett chose that moment to sit next to him, her eyes bright and her smile warm. “So, what did you think?”
“What?” Cullen couldn’t wrap his mind around what the Mage had just said, let alone try and discern what Scarlett could be talking about.
“The food, silly. Was it good?” She gestured to the bowl in his hand.
“Oh… uhh… yes. It was very good.”
Her smile fell for a moment as she examined his face. He didn’t know what she saw there, but as always it was too much.
“Hey, don’t let Ryder get to you. He’s just looking out for me. We grew up together. He thinks of me as his little sister.” She giggled at the sister part. “Okay, maybe his little sister that he doesn’t mind flirting with. We’ve always been close, but we’ve never been romantic. He’s a big flirt, but I’m not really his type.” Her eyes drifted over to Ryder, who was now chatting up Dorian. “Dorian on the other hand.” She shrugged, nodding her head side to side.
“Then why didn’t you want to share a tent with him?” Cullen wasn’t sure why he’d asked the question but found he really did hope she’d answer it.
“I love him. He’s sweet. I have no doubt that if he saw how badly the mark affected me, he would do what he could to help,” Scarlett explained with a shrug of her narrow shoulders. “I don’t want to use someone like that. It wouldn’t be fair. Why do you think, after all this time, I haven’t just been sleeping around? I want someone I feel a connection to. I want someone I trust. I want to be with someone who is capable of loving me, of being with me, when the lust wears off. Ryder might be willing to, but I can’t ask that of him. It wouldn’t be fair to him.”
“But you just said you have those things with him.” Cullen knew she wouldn’t be the kind of girl to take advantage just because she could. He knew what she meant. He didn’t know why he was so intent on her just coming out and saying she didn’t want him, but he felt deep down that he needed to hear it.
“Yes, and I also said he preferred the company of men . How selfish would that be? Do you think he would like pleasuring me, to be offered nothing in return? Eventually, he would hate me for the arrangement.” She began tugging at her scarf. The fabric, he knew, growing ever more uncomfortable by the minute. She looped it around her neck, pulling it free and began pulling her jacket and tunic away from her body, venting the flush he could see creeping up her neck.
“How… How bad is it?”
She paused, only then realizing what she had been doing. “It’s… uh… it’s building.”
The weight of her meaning hit him then, leaving him breathless. “Last night, when I came to you… “ He couldn’t finish his question. The words stuck in his throat, his mouth going so dry he had to peel his tongue from its roof.
“What about last night?” She asked, prodding him to continue. He turned to her but she wouldn’t look at him, instead, concentrating on her feet.
“I…” Maker, why is this so difficult . “Were you hoping…” Again, he froze. He wanted to know. But Maker, what if she says, no .
“Cullen, I don’t know what I was hoping. When you said you had come to help, I was shocked. My body responded, it wanted your touch more than anything. But my brain was saying other things. When you told me you were there for another reason, part of me felt relieved.” She took his hand, lacing her fingers between his and finally looked into his eyes. “But a part of me wanted you as I’ve never wanted anything before. When you held me, I wished your hands would have wandered. And when you left, the thing I wanted most in the world was to ask you to stay.”
Cullen couldn’t think. His mind was spun out of control. He wanted her, he wanted her to want him. She sat before him admitting that she had wanted him to stay last night. He wanted to pin her to the ground and take her, right there in front of everyone. He didn’t care who saw. This woman wanted him, and if her earlier words were any indication, she wanted more than just his body. But she was the Herald, and he the Commander of the Inquisition. How would it look if he took her in the middle of the camp?
No . Not like this, he thought.
He schooled his thoughts, tapping into his steel reserve. He wouldn’t act. Not now.
Scarlett pulled her hand from his, mistaking his change of mood for rejection or dismissal. “I’m sorry, Commander. I was too forward.”
Cullen took her hand back into his. “I am only trying to prevent myself from making a very untoward assault on your body right now.”
Chapter 12: Confession, Part 2
We have come to the bits I am sure everyone has been waiting on. Enjoy!!
Cullen gripped my hand, but the steel reserve remained. I knew I had said too much. I knew I shouldn’t have pushed. Maker, I was only hoping to see where these strange feelings were leading. I can not admit that I am completely sold on the idea of an “us” but when Ryder said I was spoken for, I saw the blush color his cheeks. I saw his amber eyes ablaze with more than the heat of the fire. More than a few times over the course of the night we found each other, sought the other out, shared looks, requests for assistance… or was that just me? I had instigated most of our interaction tonight and aside from the time they spent in the pool, wasn’t she always the one trying to initiate something, anything with him? So why didn’t he just let go. Why grip her hand harder?
When he finally speaks, it is through clenched teeth, and he refuses to look at me. “I am only trying to prevent myself from making a very untoward assault on your body right now.”
The words are so heated, I can feel them like a flash of flame across my skin as gooseflesh trembles its way up my arm. My fingers tingle where he holds them. I can barely make my mind understand the words but my body is comprehending just fine. My insides roil with desire, the effect of the mark amplified to an unwelcome new height. My body hums with unshed magic. Just as when I had been getting angry, I feel the air ripple and crack around me. My pulse pounds in my ears, my chest, and other parts. I try not to let it all show but when he finally turns to me, his amber eyes seer into mine and I find myself having the desire to make a very untoward assault on his body.
Dorian breaks the spell that we have now both fallen captive to, clearing his throat to get our attention. “Darling, I am going to bed if you wish to join me.” He seems concerned, but that is all tempered as his concern shifts to a sly smile. It seems that the spell wasn’t broken in time or he was only paying attention to my rising need and mistaking it for irritation as opposed to true sexual need.
Still, the Commander and I release each other’s hands. Both of us shift uncomfortably, trying to right ourselves before addressing Dorian. I can feel the pull of the Commander’s gaze. While I am trying my hardest to focus on the Mage and what he is suggesting, I want to scream. This was the slowest torment of my life. I knew in my mind that it was only moments but it felt like I sat there forever staring dumbly at the tent in question.
The Tevinter doesn’t miss a beat. “Or not. I’ll be here. Just try not to wake me if not completely necessary. I must get my beauty sleep.” He blows me a kiss and wiggles his fingers, waving goodnight.
Cullen and I share a guilty look. We shouldn’t have been embarrassed at getting caught. It wasn’t as if we were acting on those feelings, simply holding hands. I still couldn’t explain to myself why it had been a good idea to goad the Commander into this precarious position, a confession from us both and no real solution. He is my Commander, after all. What are we meant to be if I cannot control myself around him? And does this mean that I would use him to calm the storm the mark creates inside me? Or was I actually considering something beyond sex with him? We are not exactly friends. We have our moments, for sure but to be with him…
Ryder crosses in front of us, breaking me out of my inner turmoil. “I guess I should be off to bed, too.” He makes his way behind me and crouches down, planting a kiss on my cheek. “You sure you don’t want to share a tent?”
“I’ll be fine, Ryder,” I reassure him, placing my hand over his where it rests on my shoulder. I turn my face to his and give him my best ‘everything is fine’ smile.
His green eyes sparkle mischievously and he looks between me and the Commander before shrugging and dramatically sighing, “Yeah, I don’t much like your options. I think Sera will enjoy your company, but the Vint? He just doesn’t seem the type. You could always go for the Qunari, though I’d hate to see you riding in the saddle tomorrow.”
I draw my arm back to punch him, but he slides away before my fist can connect.
“Just sayin’, love.” He winks at me and laughs when he sees Cullen’s scowl.
“Oh, and you’d be so apt to give me the pleasure I desire.” I roll my eyes but laugh a little, not sure if I'm laughing at his joke or the fact that my nerves were getting the better of me.
Ryder breaks into a beaming grin. “I will have you know, many people find my skills more than acceptable.”
Rolling my eyes again, I push him toward the tent. “I love you, Ryder. Goodnight.”
He plants another kiss on my cheek before stepping away.
I turn to see Cullen’s murderous glare, where Ryder had stood moments ago.
“He’s only kidding.” I nudge Cullen in the side, bringing his eyes back to me.
“You know, I’m not positive he is.” Cullen takes my hand back in his and places a gentle kiss on my knuckles, as he brings it to his lips. “I should be going to bed, as well.”
He stands, never releasing my hand, forcing me up with him. We walk to his tent. Before he pulls the flap back to enter, he turns to me.
“Goodnight, Herald.” He says my title with all the reverence a title like the Herald of Andraste should hold. It makes my heart flutter.
He releases my hand, bringing his up to push back a strand of hair that has fallen into my face. As his fingers brush across my cheek, I turn into his touch. He palms my face, allowing me to hold onto the moment a little bit longer before he smiles and makes his way inside.
I stand outside his tent wondering why he sent me away for longer than I’d like to admit. My body screams at me, begging me to follow him. I don't want to push him further than he's willing to go. I don't want him to think I am forcing the issue and I really don't want him to think I only want him because of the magic. I don't know what to do.
Finally, I decide to leave, heading for Dorian’s tent. It's better for both of us. There will be no awkward moments between us if I just excuse myself from the situation. There will be less to concern ourselves about come morning. I will avoid having to explain to other people why the Herald is sleeping with her commanding officer. This was going to take some time, some serious thought of the repercussions.
I push the flap open and step inside.
The inside of the tent is dark, Dorian having blown out the single candle residing be his bedroll. It takes my eyes a moment to adjust from the light of the fire to the total darkness.
“Really, after that display you just put on. You come into my tent.” Dorian blurts out. He sits up and I can make out that he is shifting around but not much else.
The lie comes quickly to my lips. “We didn’t think it would be appropriate…”
He cuts off my words. “Screw appropriate. Screw him.” He stands, making his way to me and pushes me back out of the tent.`
I stand outside again, wondering what I am supposed to do. How was I going to explain this to the Commander? How was I supposed to tell him that I wanted him without him worrying that it was my mark speaking and not my own desires?
“Cullen?” I whisper hesitantly as I open the flap of his tent.
“Maker, Scarlett. You shouldn’t have come back.” Even in the candlelight, I can see desire color his expressions. He is laying on the bedroll but when I make no move to lay beside him, he stands.
Before I can respond, his lips are on mine. I hear myself let out a shriek of surprise against his lips. His rough hands grip my face, pulling me further into the tent. His hungry kiss reaches into the depths of my soul. I can’t breathe, don’t want to breathe. He pulls away, and my heart constricts at the loss. I want more.
His amber eyes glow in the dim candlelight. His fingers trace the outline of my lips leaving trails of molten fire in their wake. He sighs as he presses his forehead into mine.
“Maker, I have wanted this for so long.” He whispers into my ear, leaning in to take the lobe into his hungry mouth. He sucks and pulls, causing a moan to slip from my lips.
My mind cannot seem to think past the physical contact. I had wanted to discuss this. I had wanted to give reassurances. I had meant to talk, to discover what we were beyond military officer and Herald, beyond tenuous aid and bickering allies.
Kisses, light, and tender are trailed down my neck. Each press of his lips against my skin is like a brand. My skin receives it and I know it will forever hold his mark. There will be no going back from this. There will be no way to return to anything less than a relationship after this. My mind had wandered to thoughts of him, of us since Cassandra let slip that Cullen was attracted to me. I could now admit that it made me more than a little intrigued to find that he couldn't help but stare at my backside during my stint in the healer's quarters. And later, when he'd come to my home at Haven, I'd thought of taking him into my bed then. That had turned into something unexpected with me sharing more of myself than I had with anyone in a long time. Was this what we were always headed toward? Two forces meeting and coming to the inevitable storm of sexual desire and communion of flesh. Passion was something both of us had in spades.
He tilts my head back and his teeth tease my tender flesh. I suck in the air between my teeth, my body's sensitivity making the gentle nibbles almost hurt. He seems to realize this and his tongue follows, soothing the ache left behind.
Impatient now, I pull on the straps that hold my leathers to my body. I want my armor off. I want to feel his body pressed into mine.
My fingers are clumsy, slipping on the buckles. I growl my frustration, pulling away slightly to get a better idea of why my fingers keep slipping, but Cullen pulls me back, not yet ready to break the hold he has over me. He lifts my chin to look into my eyes. I don't know what he sees there, but whatever it is, brings a smile to his face before he kisses me again. His thick lips press into mine gently. I can feel the impression of his scar, the slight stubble on his jaw and I know they will linger in my mind long after this is over. The touch of him, the added sensations of Cullen and the subtle differences that come with him being who he is.
Soon his fingers join mine, tugging until the straps slip free. He pushes the jacket off of my shoulders, not waiting for it to slide down my arms, before pulling my tunic from my trousers. His eyes search mine as if asking if he should continue. I know there is pleading in my eyes now, a desire that needs release. The mark on my hand seems to pulse with my heartbeat, which is only quickened by every touch of his skin on mine.
His hands slide across my belly and wrap around my body. The calloused hands rubbing my tender skin adding to the sensations coursing through me, reminding me of how strong he is, this warrior. I have seen him wield a sword, seen the power in his arms as he pushed his recruits to learn the proper way to sling a blade, hold a shield.
Pulling my body flush to his, I feel his hard cock press into me. Maker, he is big. I didn't know what I expected. Cullen was a hulk of a man. His shoulders twice as wide as mine, his arms thicker than most of the men I knew. It was only fitting that he was big everywhere.
His fingers find the waistband of my trousers and I can’t help but giggle at his eagerness. “Slow down, Commander.”
He pauses, breathless, taking a step back from me. His eyes are now uncertain. “I’m sorry.” His voice so low I barely hear the words.
Using the waistband of his trousers, for that’s the only thing he’s wearing, I pull him back to me. “I didn’t say stop.”
Grinning now, he pulls me in for another kiss. It is long and languid, forcing my knees to go all wobbly. He grips my arms to steady me. “Better?”
“Yes. Maker, yes.” The words leave my mouth on a breathless sigh.
Gently, he slides my jacket down my arms and waits for it to fall to the floor before lifting my tunic over my head. I can’t help but smile as he gazes longingly at all of the flesh he’s just exposed. My promos to go slower allowing him a moment to enjoy seeing what he's said he's desired for so long.
He glides his calloused hands from my hip bones to my waist. His hands seem to want to find every curve and crevice of my body.
I sink my fingers into his loose curls as he bends to place soft kisses along my collarbone, pulling a needy sigh from deep within my soul.
He grunts his appreciation and I feel his lips curve into a smile against my skin.
Tugging, none too gently, on the strings of my breast band, he releases the rest of my upper body to his wandering hands.
Before he removes the unwanted fabric, he cups my breasts, sliding his thumbs underneath the band to caress my already throbbing nipples. I gasp as a wave of pleasure mixed with pain assails my body. He lifts the band over my head and takes a step back.
The look in his eyes is one of sheer and blatant adoration. It reminds me of the way he chose to use my title earlier.
“Maker, you are perfect.” His voice is breathy, full of pent-up desire. It calls to me, makes me react in ways I would never have expected. I want to tell him that he is perfect. The sight before me surely carved by the Maker himself. But before I can his mouth seals over mine, drawing nothing but a whimpering cry of need.
His hands cup my now bare breasts, massaging the pure ache of the mark away. My nipples rub against the tiny red-blonde curls at the center of his chest, causing me to hiss at the friction. As if he realizes the cause of my discomfort he pulls away, only enough to breach the contact. His thumbs press into them, as he attempts to massage the ache from them as well, but I shake my head. That’s not what they want.
I bring my hands to the top of his head, guiding his lips to the hardened peaks. He lets out a small chuckle as wet heat glides over my skin. He flicks my nipple with the tip of his tongue before taking it fully into his mouth. He sucks gently, pulling the tip with his lips. His eyes find mine and he watches as they flutter with every languid lick, every pull of his sucking lips.
My hands find his waist, but at this angle, I can do nothing but stroke his sides, his stomach, his chest. His muscles quivering with every stroke.
He knows what my hands truly seek. He releases my nipple and steps closer. His eyes follow my questing fingers. He wants to see me take hold of him. Finding the laces of his trousers, I untie them. I waste no time, sinking my hand below the waistband. His cock is long and thick, heavy in my hand. Feeling him for the first time, the velvet softness, makes me shudder. I know that my smalls will be soaked when he pulls them from my body.
I wrap my fingers around Cullen’s shaft and his hips thrust forward, pumping into my grip. He groans as I force his hips to steady, wanting to stroke the length of it myself. As I stroke, Cullen pushes his trousers, and smalls, down to his thighs.
His lips fall onto mine. My arm now trapped between our bodies, but I don’t stop stroking. His erection presses into my belly making my grip even tighter. Heady moans are released into my mouth. His tongue darts out begging entry. My lips part and his tongue delves deeper. With the press of his body, I am forced to release him.
His palms find my breasts one more time before, gripping my hips, he lifts me. I wrap my legs around his waist and my arms around his shoulders, as he carries me to his bedroll.
Gently, he lays me down. I can feel the press of the ground beneath me, the small pebbles in the soil, the rough blanket he's using as an extra layer of comfort from the hard ground. The mark determined to make me feel discomfort but I try not to focus on that. I try to bring my mind back to the Commander.
When he tugs his smalls the rest of the way off, it is all the distraction I need. Seeing him naked before me is a pleasure all of its own. He is beautiful. His skin seems to glow in the half-light of the candle. I know it is the sheen of sweat from our heated exchange but it is almost ethereal. I almost laugh to myself, the Herald having an ethereal lover. But the moment quickly turns back to our growing passions.
He raises my arms, pinning them above my head. Almost lazily he grinds his erection into my hip. With his free hand, he rakes his nails softly from my wrist to my shoulders, from my shoulders to the waistband of my pants. Taking his time, he unties the laces, looping the string between his fingers. My hips buck at his slowness. I know I had told him to slow down but now that his cock was bare before me and I lay half-naked on his makeshift bed, my eagerness has come to a quaking peak.
Finally, he slides his palm under my smalls. His fingers seeking the center of me. My mind screams for him to just remove them, have them off and his flesh meeting mine. I regret telling him to slow his pace.
“Already ready for me?” He smiles down at me, as his hand makes contact with the wet heat.
With one finger, he begins slow circles around my engorged clitoris. I scream at the touch and the hand that had been holding my wrists slips over my mouth to silence my cries. “Scarlett, you are going to wake everyone. Try not to scream.” He laughs as if he doesn’t really care if they hear or not.
As his finger slips between my folds, dipping into my core, I scream again. He chuckles and I realize that he intended the reaction. He strokes his finger in and out of me until I am loose enough for more.
My body refuses to be still, squirming and writhing beneath him. His body presses into mine, an attempt to quell my struggles but that only makes it worse. It is as if my skin reacts to the feel of his body like a hungry beast. It needs more.
When he inserts the third of his fingers, he hooks them to find my sweet spot, stroking harder as I bite down on my lip to prevent further cries.
His thick fingers pump into me as the heel of his palm grinds over my mound. His lips meet my shoulder and his teeth gently scrape against me. It makes me wonder if he wishes to mark me but knows it will only bring me pain.
Soon my hips are bucking and my body spasming as he brings me to orgasm.
He pulls away, giving me time to realign my body with reality. In my post-orgasmic haze, he pulls my pants off and kneels before me, again taking in every inch of me before bringing his lips to mine. His fingers slide back inside of me as he spreads the slick juices of my orgasm over the folds of my sex.
Sliding his leg between mine, he pushes them into a V that encompasses his body. I wrap my legs around him. His hips rock into mine. I can feel the length of him pressed into my mound, sliding over my clitoris, but my body wants him and wants him now.
“Cullen, please,” I beg, not wanting to wait another moment.
“Please? Please, what?” He whispers into my ear, his heated breath on my neck sending another ripple of pleasure straight to my core.
“I need you inside of me. Please.” I don’t know what he expected me to say if he had thought I would say ‘Fuck me’ or something to that effect, but my words receive a primal growl before he lifts my hips and plunges his full length into me, driving me into the ground. He pulls back slowly before slamming into me, over and over.
The unexpected mixture of pleasure and pain has me whimpering into his shoulder.
He pulls away, not leaving my body, but just enough to search my face. “I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”
“No,” I say. “More.”
This time he picks up speed, no longer pounding me into the ground but fast, hard thrusts. His hips pumping in a steady rhythm. It won’t be long before I cum again.
He shifts, pushing my left leg over his shoulder, causing him to sink in deeper, finding my sweet spot with every stroke. I press my mouth into his neck, trying to stifle my ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck’. My nails dig into his shoulders and he sucks in air through his teeth.
“Maker, Scarlett. Are you trying to mark me?” His voice is breathy, heated.
“Maybe.” I giggle, allowing a moan to escape the confines of his neck.
He pumps faster, harder. His urgency, now driving my own and I cum hard. My juices flowing between us. His pace slows and I think he’s about to cum, but then he pulls away, flipping me over and raising my hips. His thumb traces the scar across my cheek. I have only a moment to wonder if he had thought about this moment since that day before he slides into me again.
He grips my hips but he doesn’t have to force my body into him. I am already moving my hips with him, my body now doing a majority of the work. He reaches up and grips my shoulder, pulling me back harder than my current position should allow. I am on the brink of another orgasm when I feel him lose his rhythm. Still, I want that next release. I reach between my legs and find my swollen nub. As he pumps I stroke.
My orgasm comes hard and fast, but Cullen hasn’t stopped. I know he’s close so I reach back a little further. His balls are heavy and wet with my juice. They slide between my fingers easily as I massage them.
Cullen cries out. “Fuck, Scarlett, Fuck.” And with one last thrust, he collapses onto my back.
Chapter 13: To Therinfall
Back on the road. Cullen and Scarlett have shared an intimate night together but what did it mean? Cullen isn't sure.
Cullen awoke to small arms snaked around his midsection and lips nuzzling along his neck. Initially, the warmth of skin against his was a shock. He had tensed, his hand reflexively reaching to where the pommel of his sword would rest, had he been clothed. But he realized, after a moment, that the heat he felt belonged to Scarlett. It was no invader, no dream demon to be fought. The Commander didn’t entertain visitors inside of his tent often, didn’t care to undertake a task as difficult and emotionally draining as caring for another. Commanding the Inquisition forces was a duty that he’d held with honor and vigilance, but offering the cockles of his heart? That was another matter entirely.
As recollection flooded his mind, images of the woman he cared for writhing beneath his body, moaning and crying out his name as their flesh met with a passion that he’d never known, he felt himself relax in the comfort of her embrace. He felt the dull sting of the scratch marks that she’d clawed down his shoulders, the throbbing of bruises that had begun to form at his hips, and the ache of his exhausted muscles along his stomach and thighs. This woman, this intoxicatingly beautiful creature, had inspired hundreds of followers to their cause, driven demons and monsters back into the Fade, and had worn him out until he had nothing left to give.
And yet, there she lay, snuggled into the crook of his arm with her mouth partially agape, her eyes flickering in a dream. He carefully brushed a wild strand of hair the color of bright, fresh blood from the curve of her cheek, enamored with every detail of her face. The tension that usually plagued her forehead and tightened her gaze was nowhere to be seen; instead, her lips relaxed into a lazy smile, her face turned into his skin as she slept.
Was that look for him, he wondered? Was he the reason she wore a small smile even in sleep?
Even as he stared down at his Herald in wonder, he heard the distant sounds of birds singing as the rest of the world woke around their tent. He wished that they could stave off any unwanted advances from the rest of the Herald’s followers, even for a moment, so that they could revel in each other’s embrace a little while longer.
But, he knew that they would come calling soon enough, and he would never have the chance to wake her in ways that he’d imagined many times, so he shifted his weight and rolled the woman onto her backside.
The sight of her porcelain skin outstretched alongside the Commander made him bite his lower lip as he felt the pressure begin to build once again. Even now, hours later, he could still feel his manhood protest from exhaustion; the tenderness of his skin from their night of passion pulsed between his thighs as he grew firmer. He knew that he couldn’t trap her here in his tent while the rest of the group traveled, but he was going to take every opportunity to seize her when he could.
Gently, he stroked the sloping plane of her belly, his calloused fingertips tracing the tiny scars he hadn’t noticed last night, and wondered how she’d gotten each of them. He cupped her breast, causing goosebumps to ripple out across the mound as he placed light kisses over her soft flesh. Her nipples perked and a sleepy moan greeted his ears, quiet to the world outside of their shared domain but roaring through his senses. He pulled the taut skin between his lips, suckling softly before he released it, admiring how she drew in a quick gasp with each tug and her back arched against the ground. If it were possible, he thought he may have just found his new favorite playthings.
“Good morning, Commander,” Scarlett whispered seductively as a smirk twitched across her lips. He groaned softly in response, loving the tone of her sleep-riddled words as they rolled from her mouth. Maker, if she said his title in that timbre moving forward, he would be in big trouble.
Cullen’s knee slid between her thighs, nudging them apart as she welcomed his advance with a wiggle of her hips. He rolled onto his forearms, bearing his own weight as he looked down at the stain of her red hair against the grass, the smile upon her face. “Is it a good morning?” He asked playfully, bringing his mouth close to her ear. “I thought you didn’t like mornings.”
The wide smile she gave in response made him think she may be changing her mind.
“I think I could learn to like mornings if they started like this,” she grinned as her hands came up to his shoulders, tracing the memory of her nails down his flesh. Her eyes widened as she realized she'd left those marks upon him, her mouth falling open in surprise . “I am sorry about that. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
He could only smile down at her.
She closed the distance between them, propped on her elbows, and placed a tender kiss on his lips. He returned the kiss with another.
All too soon, she broke away from the kiss and stretched her body beneath him. Cullen’s eyes gazed down across the pale curve of her body, seeing the playful smattering of freckles that stretched from her sharp cheekbones down to her shoulders. In the dawning light, he could see the faint shimmer of scarred flesh torn across her left cheek, like a tiny bolt of lightning that had imprinted itself into her skin. The wild tendrils of her scarlet hair laid across his arm and bedding below, framing her delicate, yet somehow fierce features. Her rosy lips were parted slightly, her eyes watching him take in the sight of her.
Any living being could look at the Herald and see that she was an exquisite woman, but it wasn’t her fiery hair or the way she sauntered through Haven that had initially caught his eye; it was her eyes that had captivated him. They shone beneath moon or sun as bright sapphires, but in his arms, beneath the dawning rays of sunlight, he could see vivid streaks of green bursting from her irises.
“I’d never really noticed how beautiful your eyes are.” He murmured, unable to stop himself.
She chuckled nervously, still seeming to squirm under his close observation. “The blue I can fully claim has always been there, but the green is new. It happened after I closed the rift at Haven.” She turned her eyes from him then, and he could tell she was uncomfortable talking about it.
“Don’t.” Taking her cheek in his palm, he nudged her face back toward his. They stared into each other's eyes for a moment, neither willing to break the contact.
Cullen leaned down, grazing his lips along Scarlett’s collarbone, her neck. She wrapped her legs around his hips and he felt the wet heat of her press against him. His amber eyes flicked to her cerulean gaze in question - do you want this ? Scarlett nodded once, her hands pulling him closer as her mouth closed on his. He pushed his hips into her, letting her feel that he was hard and ready for her, but she pushed him away.
She came to her knees, guiding Cullen by his broad shoulders until he was stretched out below her, their bodies shifting in harmony with one another. She straddled him, lining the tip of his cock up with her wet opening. She pressed herself down onto him, sheathing his manhood inside of herself. Her body was tight from their encounter the night before and it made her descent slow. She lifted her hips coaxing more wetness around his shaft and inch by devastatingly slow inch he entered her.
“Oh, look who’s all chipper this morning.” Dorian quipped as Scarlett handed him a mug of coffee.
Cullen had been surprised to find that they were the first ones to wake that morning. He watched as Scarlett took in the cool dawn air with a smile on her face, turning to him, wanting him to share in her enjoyment. Cullen had watched as she built a fire, playfully slapping away at his attempts to assist, and began cooking breakfast for the group in a pot over the flames. She pulled out a small board and made little squares of dough, then plopped them into the heated oil within the cauldron. It sizzled and popped each time she dropped one in. From her pack, she pulled out a jar of preserves he presumed that she had swiped from Haven’s kitchens before leaving.
Scarlett smirked at his statement and handed Dorian one of the now cooled squares of fried bread. “Is it a written rule that I can’t have one good morning?”
“Whazzat smell?” Sera poked her head out of her tent, bleary-eyed, but clearly excited about the prospect of food.
“Frybread. I made enough for everyone.” Scarlett prepared their plates, dolloping each with a measure of the jam.
Once she was finished, she sat beside Cullen. He loved watching how deeply she cared for the members of their group, how she interacted differently with each of them. She’d make sarcastic remarks with Dorian every time they spoke. With Sera and Ryder, much to Cullen’s dismay, Scarlett would employ more physical affection, using light touches and quick hugs. Iron Bull and the Herald mostly swapped stories of their battles and travels. She’d always regarded the Commander differently; her eyes would either linger on his for a moment too long or not make contact at all. Now, she was close and wanted his attention after their morning of lovemaking. She handed Cullen a plate of fried bread.
Before Cullen had a chance to compliment Scarlett on her cooking, he turned to see that the smile that had been on her face all morning was faltering. She suddenly seemed nervous, unsure but about what, he couldn't fathom. He felt as if he should have known there would be repercussions for their nightly activities but she had given no signs that she was bothered by what they had done and her response to him this morning had nearly cemented the idea that they were something to each other, not just a one night stand.
She finished her meal in silence, not even glancing his way before she turned to him with an almost cold expression and stated flatly, “We need to discuss what we plan to do once we reach Therinfall.”
The abrupt switch from the woman who had only last night and this morning, been his lover, to the woman everyone else knew as the Herald made Cullen frown down at her. “I… uh… Of course.”
She placed her hand on his arm as if letting him know that she was aware of the things that had changed between them. He looked into her eyes and she smiled. “We can’t let last night get in the way of what we still need to do. I doubt anyone in this camp will be quiet about what happened. We will have to maintain a professional front when in public. We can’t have it said that we shirked our duties in favor of an affair.”
An affair? Cullen didn’t know how to respond to that. He didn’t know what she meant; He was an intelligent man and knew the word held many connotations. Did she view what they were doing as some dalliance, some way to scratch her new itch? Maker, he didn’t think he could handle that, but he also couldn’t bring up the nerve to ask her for clarification. He simply nodded, feeling the control he was so good at maintaining slip through him.
“Good. Okay.” She pulled her hand from his arm.
The next few days were pleasant enough, but Scarlett and Cullen had yet to discuss her ‘affair’ comment. Ryder had been injured, taking a blow to the head, and Scarlett had stayed with him. He had hoped that she would show up once everyone had fallen asleep, but her concern for her friend kept her at his side. She was even riding in the same saddle with him. He didn’t have a horse and could hardly keep pace without one. Cullen would turn to find Ryder’s hands on her hips as he tried to maintain his position behind her. He could hear her lilting laughter as Ryder would whisper something in her ear. He knew it was foolish to be angry with the man. He knew he couldn’t tell Scarlett to ride with him. It wouldn’t be professional. And he knew if she were riding in his lap, he would surely be maintaining a constant hard-on.
She pulled her mount next to his, just as he was imagining her rear rubbing against the front of him as his horse shifted.
“Commander, we should reach Therinfall within the hour. Is there anything I should know?” There was that blasted question. The one she always asked ‘the Commander’.
He knew he had flushed at her arrival because Ryder had a knowing smile painted across his face . He was looking between the two of them as if he was waiting for one of them to say something inappropriate.
Cullen cleared his throat before speaking. “There should be a host of nobles awaiting our arrival. Lord Abernache will be the one speaking on behalf of those gathered. Our goal is to meet with the Lord Seeker. Ser Barris sent a missive just before we left, stating that strange things were beginning to happen within the Order. He was vague, likely not wanting to raise any suspicion should the letter be intercepted. All we know for sure is that he felt the Order was in danger.”
“That can’t be good.” Scarlett looked away from him, back to the road ahead. “Cassandra said she thought there was something off about the Lord Seeker when we left Val Royeaux. She said he didn’t even seem to be the same man. Could this just be about the Order breaking from the Chantry? Could he have changed so much in so little time?”
“I fear I know little about the Lord Seeker. I cannot speak to his motivations. All I know is that something isn’t right. If nothing else, maybe there will be some who follow us back to Haven regardless of the Lord Seeker’s decision. Many Mages have made their way there, not wanting to be a part of Fiona’s rebellion. I think you gave them the courage to take that step. Maybe I can do the same for the Templars.”
The look she turned on him could only be described as crestfallen. “In Val Royeaux, when I spoke to the Lord Seeker, I tried to appeal to the others. I told them one of their own commanded the Inquisition’s forces. They told me that your ties to me made you a traitor to the Order.” He could tell this was something she hadn’t wanted to tell him, even though Cassandra had already done so. He saw how the Lord Seeker’s words made her heart ache.
“They hate me, Cullen,” she breathed. “ They hate me enough to speak badly of you just for our association. Whatever trepidation I have about approaching the Order, it is not born out of unfounded fear of them. They fear me. Fear makes people reckless. If this goes badly, do you think that will change?” She looked as if she was awaiting his answer, but decided to press on. “If this goes badly, I will be known as the Mage who brought the Templar Order to its knees. I will be the Mage who took down the last defense against magic.”
Cullen could tell this had been weighing on her mind for some time. He could see it in the deep frown lines that framed her lips, in the stiff set of her shoulders. Shoulders that Ryder now held, massaging his thumbs into each side of her spine in slow circles. Dammit, those should be his hands chasing away her anxiety. He tried not to focus on it. Ryder was just trying to help his friend.
“Not all in the Order feel the same as the Lord Seeker,” Cullen explained, his voice softened. “Barris’ letter reflects that. He may have sent his letter to a former member of the Order, but he met you. He knows the Herald is a Mage. He knows who I serve.” He hadn’t meant to say the last out loud, and he turned from her then. It wasn’t untrue. She had been the final decision on most of the large issues the Inquisition had faced. Only Cullen’s own stubbornness had them riding to Therinfall. Cullen was accustomed to having a leader, not being a leader himself. At times he let himself forget that he was just as integral to this endeavor as she was.
“Cullen, you don’t serve me. You advise me. You give me counsel. You hold my hand through the hard times.” Neither of them could stop their smiles at the shared memory. Her, bent over the bed, an arrow wound that was more than painful and his hand in hers as he gave her something else to focus on.
“Aww, you two are so cute. Are you going to get married and have babies now?” Scarlett’s swift elbow stopped the Mage from saying anything else on the subject.
“Hey, I’m an injured man,” Ryder complained, rubbing at the spot where her elbow had landed. “That was uncalled for.”
“You have been fine since this morning,” the Herald reminded the defiant mage. “And don’t act like you didn’t deserve it.”
Ryder winked at Cullen, making him feel like there was more to that elbow than he was aware. Had he been riding her this entire trip? Had he been sitting behind her making lewd jokes about the night they spent together? He decided he didn’t want to know.
Before they could reach Therinfall, Cullen caught sight of a camp. From what he could tell, at a distance, there were multiple large tents spread out around multiple campfires. He assumed this to be the nobility they were supposed to be meeting, but he couldn’t imagine any of the nobles, especially those from Orlais, setting up camp in the Ferelden wilderness.
As they approached, a rider came out to meet them. As the man came upon them, Cullen could see his wild fear filled eyes, the sheen of sweat and his stiff posture. Instantly, he knew something was wrong. He called to Scarlett. She joined him before the rider made it close and he whispered, “Something isn’t right. Look at him. He’s terrified.”
He watched Scarlett as she examined the rider. He watched recognition flush over her face as her eyes faded from scrutiny to shock, understanding that something was very wrong, indeed. “This doesn’t bode well,” was all he heard her say before her voice was drowned out by the stomping beat of the rider’s horse.
“Commander, Herald, we arrived last night. Lord Abernache had wanted to meet with the Lord Seeker before you arrived, hoping to garner some favor. We, none of us, were prepared for what we found when we arrived.” His face took on an ashen pallor. Cullen could see the man’s throat working as if trying to choke down something truly vile.
“What has happened?” Scarlett asked. Her tone was calm, and a reassuring wave seemed to settle over the man and Cullen himself. He had to wonder if this was Scarlett’s magic at work. He wasn’t fully aware of her abilities, but spirit Mages often wield a different kind of magic than other users.
“As I stated, we arrived last night. A group of us went to the gates, but there was no one there to greet us. We found this odd since only a few days ago we got word that there would be a meeting. We waited for some time, finally deciding it was best if we went ahead and set up camp. We brought provisions since we weren’t sure what the Lord Seeker intended. All was quiet for some time, but then we began to hear screaming. It sounded as if a pitched battle was coming from inside the fortress walls. A few of us went to scout out the area. That’s when I saw it.” A shiver ran through the man’s body and he brought a hand to his mouth as if holding back the bile he was desperately trying not to heave onto the ground. Cullen could hear the choking noises in the man’s throat, telling him his assumption was correct.
“Please, go on.” Scarlett’s calm settled the man a bit.
“We saw the Templars, but there was something wrong with them. Their faces were lined with black veins, their eyes seemed hollow. These Templars were cutting down their own men. Then I watched as one of the grotesque Templars morphed into something like an abomination, only it had red crystals growing from its body. The crystals pulsed with light as if they were filled with blood.” The man brought his hands to his face, rubbing as if he could scrub the memory away.
Cullen’s stomach threatened to heave up his breakfast as realization dawned over him. His throat tightened as his own mouth fell open. “Red lyrium. The Templars here were using red lyrium.” Cullen didn’t recognize the growling voice that came from his own lips. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Red lyrium. Did these Templars learn nothing of the events that befell Kirkwall?
Scarlett turned to him. He didn’t know if the stunned expression was from his comment or the force behind his words. At the moment, he didn’t care. “Cullen, I…”
“Don’t.” He forced out, biting back the need to purge his stomach of its contents. “I need to see this for myself.”
They rode into the camp, tying up their horses. Scarlett made some obligatory niceties before returning to him. “Okay, you and I will head to the keep. We will need to be somewhat stealthy, so the rest will stay behind. This is just a scouting mission. If we get there and find we can help, we will come back for the others.”
He nodded his assent, the only thing he was capable of at the moment.
Chapter 14: Nightmare
Scarlett and Cullen arrive at Therinfall to find nothing but devastation. What happens next, neither are prepared for
“Oh, Maker! Cullen, I…” The sight of Therinfall Redoubt, in its current state, would be forever etched into my brain. Templars sprouting huge chunks of red lyrium from their bodies. Blood coating nearly every surface. What was once a massive, stately fort was now a home for demonic abominations. What was it about the red stuff that corrupts anything it touches to such an extent? I remember the stories coming from Kirkwall, statues coming to life, warping the Knight-Commander into a terror of unknown strength and power, singing to the minds of the weak. To have actually ingested the stuff? This was the result?
I have no words of comfort for the man standing next to me. Templar bodies litter the ground. There are so many of them. I try not to look at the bodies too closely, but it’s difficult not to see the scattered pieces of armor, the blood coating the walkway.
Cullen makes a step toward the keep, but I grip his arm, pulling him back to our hiding place. “Wait, Cullen, look.” I lift my hand, pointing to the inside gate. I had caught sight of something moving within, something that gripped my heart and mind, setting a strong staccato to my heartbeat. I had an overwhelming desire to clench my eyes tightly shut and pretend the monster wasn't there but instead I became transfixed.
The sight was something born of nightmares. A hulking figure that seemed to be carved of red lyrium. The crystals encased what was once a person and they had expanded and grown far beyond what we had seen previously. This was not one of the abominations the rider had mentioned. This was something far worse.
My stomach churned as it stalked to the gate. One arm was thickly encased in the magical rock, giving the beast a solid lyrium hammer for a hand.
“Maker’s Breath,” Cullen whispers beside me. He shakes his head, slowly at first, but then vigorously as if he's attempting to shake the image from his mind.
“I am so sorry, Cullen.” I take his hand, lacing my fingers through his. This stops his movement and he stares at our conjoined hands in numb silence.
My grip on his hand tightens and I am not even sure I can let go now. It seems as though, now that I have something, someone solid to hold onto I can't stop myself from wanting his comfort as much as I need to be giving my own to him. It felt as though letting go of his hand would release my own tether to the world as if he was the root of my comfort as much as I was his. I knew that I should be the one to heal him, to provide the stability he desperately needed as he watched his brethren stalk the castle in chaotic madness. If only I knew how.
“I don’t think that we’re prepared to take on something like that,” I stammer, looking into Cullen’s amber gaze as he feels my hand tighten around his. I can barely hear the Commander’s response past the pounding of blood in my ears; his mouth is moving too quickly, his eyes darting wildly at the abominations within the fortress. My stomach churns, threatening to spill its contents upon the ground as we watch the fate of Cullen’s comrades in mirrored horror.
As if the Commander senses my oncoming panic, he squeezes my hand in return. “Scarlett, I…” He starts, but his eyes are drawn back to the beast who has moved back to the keep’s interior. “Look, there are more.”
I don't want to look. My body and my brain are telling me to flee or to curl up into a ball, wrap my arms around myself and pretend none of this was happening. But I need to stay strong. I need to prove I can be there for him, be this so-called 'Herald' everyone thinks I am. Again I want to scream that I am not Hawke, I am not the Warden. These heroes have something I will never have. They are the stuff legends are made of, not I. I am a healer. I am an excellent cook but I am not a battle-mage. I am a domestic hermit, a lover of stories and adventure but I had no plans of participating in those stories myself. I had no intention of trying to become the hero of any story. All I ever wanted was to live my life, not to sacrifice it.
I force myself to come back to the here and now. I make my eyes open and push through the pain that is holding my body still as stone. Lifting my eyes back to the gate, hearing the blood pumping hard in my ears, I make myself look. My eyes blur with the effort but I can make out the shapes, see the outlines of the people, the abominations that have come to stand before us. There weren’t more of the lyrium beasts, but there were more Templars. Even from this distance, it was easy to see the red crystals protruding from some of their backs, some of their arms.
Again, my mind and my body wish to flee this scene. We need to get out of here and we need to do it now. If the Templars spot us, there will be nothing that we can do, except run. I don't want to have this force following us back to camp. I don't want my indecision to place everyone else in danger.
“Cullen, I know this isn’t what you want to hear right now, but I think it has become vital to return to Redcliffe." I pause, awaiting a response but the Commander is still transfixed by the sight before him. I try shaking his arm, tugging on it to get his attention but he doesn't even seem to notice.
I try a different approach. "There doesn’t seem to be anything we can do here. I doubt the six of us could take on that many Templars, much less that creature.” My voice wavers, I can't seem to control my revulsion or my concern for the Commander. Every ounce of my being wants to hold him, comfort him but I can see it won't do much good. He doesn't even seem to be present as if his mind has gone to another place.
Finally, after any attempt of mine seems to have failed, he turns to me, eyes wide and mouth held open. I see the familiar look of shock is setting in; he’s blinking rapidly, breath uneven and catching in his throat. I can feel it bubble up in his chest as if it were my own shock.
I want to get him away from here. I don’t want to see what he will do once it wears off. I can only imagine him charging the gate, sword drawn, bent on destruction. He is brave, this I know, and he is fierce, but I don’t want to lose him to some crazy need for vengeance.
I stand, and with our linked hands, pull him by my side. We are halfway to the noble’s camp before his voice comes back to him. He tugs my hand, whipping my body around to face him. “We must go back. We must see if there are survivors.” His eyes are wild, darting from my face to our surroundings but he doesn't make any attempt to turn around. His hands are no longer trembling in mine, his shoulders firm in his resolve to push ever forward, to save those that he can.
I center myself and call on my magic. I need to infuse a sense of calm into the situation. Normally, I wouldn't use my powers in this way but I really need him to calm down. I know my powers of persuasion are a gift of my Panacea but it has always terrified me to know I was capable of bending people to my will. It is subtle magic. No real form of mind control, but dangerous in the face of a Templar.
I lift my hand to cup his cheek, adding my touch to the gentle force of my words. “Cullen, we can’t take on those creatures. Not without backup. At this point, we can only hope those that lived had a chance to escape.”
I can tell he wants to argue with me but I don’t give him the option. “If we walk in there, we will get ourselves killed. The Inquisition would lose its Herald and its Commander in one blow. The Breach remains, we must focus on that before we make any rash decisions based on what we saw here.” I drop my hand but realize too late that it was a little too soon.
His eyes narrow sharply, his eyebrows knit together as anger twists his features. The strong line of his jaw clenches as he grits his teeth and hisses his response between them. “So, you would abandon the Order, just like that?” Then, louder, he bellowed, “You would ask me to walk away from my people without trying to help them?”
My irritation peaks as he tries using my argument against me. He knew it wasn’t the same, but I could see his anger, his frustration. I knew he was seeking an outlet for it. I had long ago decided I would never be his punching bag. I was not going to let him treat me as if I were the bad little Mage.
My magic rises around us, the air cracking with tiny electrical currents splitting the air between us. This is not the healer within me rising, but the force of the mark, the power that calls to me to wield as I see fit. “Cullen, it’s not the same and you know it. We can’t risk walking in there, not knowing what we will be facing. Outside alone, there were more of them than there are of us. You and Varric have made me very aware of what red lyrium is capable of doing to a person. How many people did it take to bring down the Knight-Commander? And, even then, you had Hawke. She was a Battle-Mage, not a healer. Are you and Bull going to charge the gates, while Sera shoots her arrows at a beast made of pure lyrium? This fight would only bring more devastation.”
Cullen’s broad form towers over me, his chin defiantly tilted upward as he stares down his nose at me. I can see a battle going on behind his amber eyes. It seems as if he is trying to decide if he'd rather fight me or the abominations inside the keep. Though he knows my words to ring true, he cannot seem to remove himself from his post; he remains stubbornly planted in place, his mind conflicted between the logic I’m speaking and the loyalty he knows to his brethren in his heart. His pride and his devotion to the Order have always come first.
Finally, he takes a breath, closing his eyes as his lips press in a firm line across his face. He takes a deep breath before he looks to me again, and I know that the war within him is taking its toll. Cullen turns away sharply, his cloak whipping around him with the force of his rage as he storms toward the others. Over his shoulder, he calls, “Gather the others. We need to reach Redcliffe as quickly as we can.”
The camp is unusually quiet that night. Sera had nearly vomited into the campfire when we explained what we'd found at the fort but she actually made it to the side of her tent before releasing the contents of her stomach. Bull had the same notions as Cullen, charge in, take them out and be done with it but that notion quickly died when he saw my pure anger at the mere suggestion. Dorian seemed to waver between wanting to help and wanting to get the fuck out of here as quickly as possible. He had ulterior motives for wanting to return to Redcliffe but he also had a heart for the people who had been corrupted by the red lyrium. Ryder didn't care one way or the other. He had no love for Templars but he also held no love for the Rebel Mages. He was not for their actions in walking away from the Circle. He was not for their decision to start a holy war. He only wished to ensure I was safe.
The weight of what we were about to do, of what Cullen and I had just seen settled over us all. Ryder tried his best to stick to my side. He attempted to help me cook. He massaged my shoulders as we sat talking by the campfire, the only noise that came from anyone. He even attempted to talk to me about the new tension between Cullen and I. But I didn't want to discuss it. Yes, we had fought and yes, I was irritated but it would pass in time. Cullen just needed to calm down and speak to me rationally.
Ryder and I had made stew, but most of our bowls sat untouched. It seemed that everyone was feeling the effects of tension and anxiety. Even Sera had only finished a portion of hers. I managed to get at least half of mine, with the help of some leftover bread. Food would always be a comfort for me. It was something that could center me and calm me down when nothing else could. The cooking process alone helped more than anything. It gave me something else to focus on, something I loved doing.
Slowly each person retired to their own tents until only I remained. Ryder still occupied my tent but I hadn't closed a rift in a few days, so sharing wouldn't be a problem tonight. However, I didn't really want to be in his tent tonight. I wanted to be in Cullen's. It had been days since our sexual encounter. We hadn't even had a chance to talk about it. With Ryder getting injured and then riding with me through Ferelden, there just wasn't a good time.
Unable to confide my panic, my worry to the man that I wanted the most, I decide to distract myself and prepare a missive for Leliana. Writing out our plan and detailing all that we had seen would be cathartic and would give me the outlet I so desperately needed to cope with the conflicting feelings brewing inside of me. I had to convey the evil of what we had seen today, and she needed to know that we were making preparations to meet with the Magister. I told her we would need to find a way into the castle that wouldn’t garner too much attention. I could act as a distraction while her men infiltrated the castle through other means. This had been decided as Cullen, Dorian and I went over what would need to happen when we arrived.
I was finishing up my letter, ready to place my seal on the parchment when I heard Cullen’s voice.
“No, be gone demon. Leave me.” He shouted. It was apparent that he was clenching his teeth as he did so. I could hear the strain of the words, how he pushed them out, even through the fabric of the tent.
Maker, he must be having nightmares about what we saw. I really couldn't blame him. I know, without a doubt, that my dreams will be horrific tonight. Just closing my eyes conjures up awful images. Blood, lyrium beasts, all those people being transformed right before our eyes. My body gives an involuntary shake and my voice quivers with a nearly silent exhale of my overworked nerves.
I finish sealing my missive and walk it over to the scout we had met just outside Therinfall. He told us that Leliana had instructed them to stay close and report back if anything should happen upon or arrival. The scout seemed to understand that he should approach and accept a report from either me or Cullen if anything were to go wrong. Things had gone very, very wrong.
I return to the camp and make my way to the Commander’s tent. I wonder if I should but a second of his screams has pierced the silence of the camp. I have an overwhelming need to make sure he is okay. I may be furious with him right now, but that doesn't change the fact that I care about him.
Opening the flap, I can smell the sweat that clings to nearly every inch of his body. His chest and face glisten in the glow of the candle he forgot to put out. His arms fling forward, out to the sides. His legs kick and his entire body strains as if someone has him pinned down.
My heart breaks for him. I can’t imagine what he must be dreaming of. I knew my own dreams wouldn’t be pleasant this night, but to see what his Order had become... To see the bodies strewn about like fodder. I try to place myself in his shoes. How would I take seeing my entire circle decimated? How would I feel if we returned to Redcliffe to find the same devastation? Tears well in my eyes. I know there is one thing I can do for him. My touch should be enough to quell the storm of his ever-growing panic.
I make my way to the head of his bedroll, avoiding his increasingly violent limbs. It is almost as if he can sense my presence in the tent and wants to reach out to me. To lash out. I squat down and breathe onto my fingertips, warming them so that my touch isn't as much of a shock. Tentatively, I bring the tips to his forehead and brush them over his eyebrows, massaging the tension away and moving to his temples.
His fingers lock onto my arms. I hadn’t even realized he was reaching for me. I attempt to wiggle away, using his sweat-slicked hands to twist in his grip but it tightens every second. The more I move the more I can feel the damage he could do if I continue to fight against him.
“No,” he screams.
I can’t pull away. His fingers dig into my tender flesh. My muscles pop and twist under his grip. There is no pain yet but it is growing increasingly uncomfortable.
“Cullen, please Cullen. Wake up. You are hurting me.” The power behind his grasp is more than I would have imagined him capable of. He is normally so gentle.
His grip grows tighter still.
“Cullen, you’re scaring me. Please, wake up.” I beg him to open his eyes. My tears now for the pain. It was a quick onset, the shift from discomfort to pain. I know if he doesn’t let go, he’s likely to break me. I can feel the muscles in my arm trying to tear, the bones grinding together. A cry of alarm escapes my lips. I am trying to hold back what I can, not wanting to wake the others in camp. But I realize I may need help. Though, who could I call on? Ryder didn't possess the same magic as I and Dorian would put him in a binding spell. I didn't see how either of those would be beneficial. Bull would hold him down, resulting in the same effect as a binding spell, but more welcome for the fact that it wouldn't be magic. I'm sure Sera would just bring me a knockout potion but how would we administer it? It would be more likely that we'd both be the ones knocked out for our efforts.
And, Maker, what would they think of him, if they saw this. Their Commander brought to a shriveling husk of a man by the sight of his Order turned to shambles. They expect much of their former Templar-turned-Military Commander.
Explaining the bruises in the morning would be bad enough.
I bite into my lip and taste the metallic tinge of blood well into my mouth, but it doesn't stop my next cry of pain. Hearing it, his eyes dart open. I have a moment to thank the Maker as his grip on my now raw and throbbing wrists loosens for the span of a breath.
Then, he is on top of me pulling me down onto the bedroll. His hips center between mine and his hands grip my shoulders, but this isn't about sex, this is about control. He has taken a position that will ensure I cannot escape. As his eyes meet mine, I quickly realize he isn't even seeing me. Whomever he thinks he has trapped it is clear that he wants to hurt them. I send out a silent prayer, to the Maker, to anyone who may be listening that he return to himself soon. This was getting so far out of hand, so far out of my control that I am starting to truly worry for my safety. Blood is already coating my teeth, even though it was my doing, it makes the desire to fight all the more appealing. It was a dangerous thing. A mage with access to blood and on the brink of panic.
He lets out a growl of frustration. His eyes may be open, but he isn’t seeing me. A deep loathing sets the glowing amber aflame. “Demon, you will not have me.”
I fight back my growing panic. Focusing on my panacea, sending pulses through my body, willing to drain my mana to fight whatever has taken hold of his mind. I calm my voice, knowing some of my abilities lay within my spoken words. I need him to come back to the present.
“Cullen, look at me. It is me, Scarlett. No one is going to hurt you, but you are hurting me." I attempt to shift under his body but that only seems to irritate him more. As if feeling his body grind against mine is no longer something he desires but disgusts him. I try not to let that thought hurt. I know there is something else going on here but without some insight, it is only me he is hurting.
"Cullen, wake up. Look at me. Really look at me.” I send out another pulse of my magic, pushing through the barrier of his mind. I know this is dangerous, that I am on the verge of magic I have never wanted to tap into but the pressure of his body is becoming too much. I close my eyes and focus on my own magic, not the blood in my mouth. It is terrifying knowing how close that magic is. Knowing that there is enough there to use, to mold into something usable, something that will move the man on top of me.
Slowly, his eyes clear, his features soften. His breathing becomes labored as he comes back to himself.
“Cullen,” I whisper tentatively.
His eyes snap to mine. He takes in my body trapped under his, his hands gripping my arms. A look of sheer horror replaces the relief he had just begun to show. He releases me, sitting back on his heels.
“Oh Maker…” His hands cover his face and his body begins to rock. “Maker… Maker, what have I done?”
“Cullen…” I reach for him, but he pulls away.
“No. Leave me. I…” He collapses into himself, his shoulders shaking. Tears stain his cheeks and drip down his chin as his eyes glaze in horror at what he’d nearly done.
“No. I’m not leaving,” I murmur, my voice attempting to be comforting as I lean forward to reach out to him. He tenses and I retract my hand. “Cullen, you were having a nightmare. Whatever just happened, you can’t blame yourself.”
He looks down between his hands, his shoulders slumping shamefully.
I reach out once more, and this time he allows me to place my hand on his back. He flinches but doesn’t pull away. I begin making slow circles with my fingers. They glide across his sweat-slicked skin as I massage the tension from his shoulders. I see the little relief that I’m giving him and decide to take it a step further. Moving behind him, I run my palms along the muscles of his back, massaging and trying to bring him some measure of comfort. After a few moments, the pain pulsing up my arms and down into my fingers is too much to bear; I can already feel the bruises blossoming beneath my skin and aching every movement. I pull his body into mine, wrapping my arms around his middle. I press my face into his neck, not caring about the dampness of his flesh that now coats my cheek.
Cullen reaches out to my hands, lacing his fingers through my own as he brushes his lips softly across my knuckles. He then leans into my embrace, letting go of the haunting conjurings of his nightmares as he nestles into the safety of my arms.
We stay like this for what feels like hours, waiting for the moment when his breathing returns to normal and the tightness in his muscles release. He shifts away from me, turning to sit on his bedroll. I freeze, unsure of where to go and unwilling to leave Cullen’s side in light of the events of the evening. What else can I say to make him feel better? How can I bring comfort to a man that had just witnessed what very well could have been his future? I want to kiss the hurt away from his eyes. I want to lay with him, hold him through the night. I want to assure him that I do not hold him responsible for hurting me. Yet, I am unsure if any of these things would be welcome.
“Scarlett, I am so sorry.” His eyes finally raise to meet mine.
“Cullen, don’t apologize…” My words are quickly cut off.
“No,” he interrupts softly, weakly holding up a hand to halt my words. “Please let me say this. I should have warned you. I should have said something before I ever allowed you to spend a night in my bed. These… nightmares are not anything new. They have nothing to do with what we saw today. They have plagued me for years. Lyrium helps, but without it, they can be severe.” He looks at my arms, his eyes lingering on the red marks that will surely be bruised in the morning. He shakes his head letting it fall forward. “I failed you, and for that, I will be forever sorry.”
“Cullen, don’t ever say that. You have not failed me.” I move to crouch in front of him and take his face into my hands. He turns in my grasp, his eyes refusing to meet my gaze. Softly, I nudge his face back toward mine, forcing him to look at me as I speak. “You having nightmares in no way makes you a failure. Your life hasn’t been easy. None of our lives have been easy. You have faced true horrors. I understand. I am not upset with you. I care about you. This does nothing to change that.” I search his eyes for some understanding.
His calloused palms envelop mine as he pulls my hands away from his face, holding them tenderly in his lap. “Do you mean that? Even after… “ His fingers play over the marks on my arm.
“It was scary, I will admit, but I knew what was happening. I knew that you weren’t meaning to hurt me. I could see it in your eyes. You didn’t even know I was there.”
He smiles then, broken and tired but there all the same. He exhales a sigh of relief, melting the rest of the tension from his face as he glances up at me again.
“You know, I may be able to help with your nightmares. That was what I was intending to do when I came here. It won’t be a permanent solution, but as long as I’m with you, I may be able to stop them, or at least make them less intense. It won’t help when we return to Haven. I could hardly take up residence in your quarters or you in mine, but I will do what I can when I can.”
In an effort to prove my words true, I stand and remove my armor. Cullen watches me closely, no lust in his eyes, just uncertainty. In only my smalls, I make my way back to the bedroll and lay down. Cullen hesitates before laying beside me. He makes no move to touch me, so I pull his arm over my head so I can rest on his shoulder and that is all the invitation he needs to roll into me, wrapping his large body around mine.
I have lived with someone who has night terrors. It can be terrifying. Keeping yourself calm can generate a sense of calm for that person. I hope that came across well in this scene.
Chapter 15: In Hushed Whispers
Scarlett said she would be there for Cullen and she meant it. During the trip to Redcliffe castle, she does all she can to ensure he knows that.
Cullen realizes how much he cares for Scarlett, only to watch her vanish. In a moment she is gone, and he is left wondering if she will ever return.
Sorry for the extreme jump in time. I am trying to avoid rehashing scenes we've all played a dozen times. Let me know if it is too jarring and I will avoid doing so in the future.
Cullen awoke for the second time with Scarlett in his arms. Her back was pressed flush against his chest and he clung to her so tightly that his arms ached. As if by letting go just a fraction of an inch, she'd somehow disappear. He couldn’t handle that. Not after the few nights he’d spent with her. Not after he’d truly begun to know the woman Scarlett really was.
The herbal scent of her hair surrounded him, the wild red curls tickling his face. The warmth of her body called to him and he pressed his hips harder into her wanting all of the contact he could get.
After last night he was so afraid to let this moment pass. Afraid that if he were to lose his hold on her body he'd somehow lose her. He couldn’t believe she’d stayed. Cullen knew he didn’t deserve to have her there, in his tent, in his arms. He didn't move for fear of waking her. His breath clenched tightly in his chest so it wouldn't tickle across her ear. He knew he couldn't hold it forever but just for a few more seconds. If he could just hold on for another… he exhaled, managing to turn his head without moving too much. The rise and fall of his chest, the slight movements of his body made him extremely anxious.
He could feel fresh tears burning in his eyes. The memory of last night haunted him. In Haven, the withdrawals had begun. There were a few nights he’d woken up to cold sweats and a racing heart. He could feel the demon’s touch, hear her voice. Those memories were never far from his mind and in sleep, it was almost like he summoned them again. In Kirkwall, he’d never had to worry. The lyrium chased away the evil that corrupted his mind. It kept the nightmares at bay but also kept him tied to the Order. Kept him in a constant state of need. He didn’t want that anymore and he wanted to be able to work through these episodes on his own. It didn’t change the fact that he should have told Scarlett. It didn’t make the atrocity of last night any better.
When he had come to with her body pinned under his, he knew she would hate him. He could see the terror in her eyes, feel her body trembling under his. Her lip was bloody and tears streamed down her face. He was certain she would be so frightened she would never look at him again. This woman, who he was quickly falling for, would turn and run from him as surely as the sun would rise come morning. He knew it was too much to hope for that a woman like her would see past his misdeeds and he had proven he was a danger to her. Isn’t that what she had always feared? What all mages feared when face to face with a Templar?
He had grown more enamored with her every day. There was something about her, the way she carried herself, the way she loved, the passions that built within her and made her speak her mind. Maybe it wasn't just something, it was everything. He had yet to find a single thing he didn't love about her. She had even made him love her magic with her story of her mother and the rose garden. The way she used it to help others, himself included. That was another thing, no one in his entire life had ever done anything as selfless for him as what she did last night. The thought of losing her, he just couldn't.
He couldn’t stop his shame last night. He couldn't stop the tears from rolling down his face. He was afraid to see her walk away, afraid to see the hatred in her sapphire eyes, twisting her features into someone he didn’t recognize. He didn't want to see the pain and hurt he had caused her.
Yes, she’d been mad at him before, but this would be different. This would be loathing, a yawning hole of nothingness where only a few nights ago they had shared something so beautiful, so passionate.
It all raced through his mind so quickly. The chaos of the moment tearing his heart and mind asunder faster than any spell.
To his surprise, none of that came to be. Scarlett had instead reached out to him and tried to assure him that she was still there, still with him. The compassion that filled her voice, her hands on his back as he fought to gain control, these he never expected. It brought on an all-new shame. She was so understanding, so sympathetic. How could she care for him when he’d hurt her again? How could she pour her magic into him knowing she'd need it for herself? What would make her want to be there for him so fully when they fought and bickered more than they ever had a chance to love?
Then, in the midst of his shame, Scarlett had stood before him and stripped off her armor. He knew deep within his heart that she wasn’t preparing to bed him but he couldn’t keep his eyes from wandering over her perfect body. The fact that he wanted her, wanted to be inside of her had to be shoved aside. He couldn’t expect her to want that from him, not then. But he had to admit he was confused. Why take her clothes off?
It wasn’t until she lay next to him that he found her purpose. As her skin touched his, he felt Scarlett’s magic course through him. She had told him her touch could heal and he had heard the stories of Anders in Kirkwall. He could only assume that skin-to-skin contact was the most direct way for her powers to sink into him.
She was more than he could ever hope for.
Cullen buried his face back into Scarlett’s wild tangles, breathing in her scent of lavender and fresh green herbs. He loved that she always smelled like that. It reminded him of her skills as a cook and how she always made them stop when she needed to restock her supplies, of her excitement when they came across rosemary or a large patch of elfroot. He would memorize the scent, hold onto it for as long as he could.
He didn’t realize he’d been breathing on her neck until she giggled. That was not a response he was expecting but it lifted some of the tightness in his chest.
“That tickles," she croaked, her voice thick with sleepiness.
He loved how her voice sounded in the mornings. She didn't have a deep voice per se, but the tone was richer than most of the women he knew, except maybe Cassandra. But in the morning, the added reverberations made it almost musical, like the thrumming of a guitar string.
She rolled over to face him. “Good Morning, Cullen.”
Her eyes were hooded and her smile was genuine. Cullen's tension was washed away by the tender look in her eyes. His heart was still racing but he could finally loosen his hold on her without panic setting in.
With the extra room, she lifted her head bringing her lips to his in a gentle kiss.
He returned the kiss, his hand on the small of her back bringing her as close to his body as possible. Maybe he was fooling himself in thinking he could let her go or maybe he just wanted, needed to feel her bare skin on his just a little longer.
When she pulled away, he buried his face in her neck again. He wasn’t ready to look into her eyes. Even with the kiss, he didn't know what she was thinking. He didn't know if, once the fog of the morning left her brain, she'd remember all that had happened the night before.
“Commander,” she purred as she ran her fingers through his hair. “Are you trying to turn me on? Because it's working.”
Her hand began stroking along his back. First with her fingertips, then lightly with her nails.
He pulled away slightly, searching the depths of her eyes. Surely she couldn't be thinking about sex. How in the Maker's name could she possibly want him while she still bore the marks he had left on her last night? “Scarlett, how can you…” her fingers on his lips stopped his words.
“No," she stated sternly. Then her face softened, her eyes filled with a tenderness he could not explain. Then, she lifted a hand to his cheek, stroking gently and then back to his lips as he tried to respond. "You are not allowed to think like that." Her voice was soft, coaxing.
He knew she wasn't attempting to use her magic. He had felt that before but he couldn't deny that she knew she was talking him down. He knew she was saying what he needed to hear. He also knew she was being open and honest with him.
"There will be no dwelling on what happened last night. It was an accident. Now I know and I will be prepared next time.” Her lips replaced her fingers, telling him to shut up. She wasn’t going to have any more on the subject.
He couldn’t help the smile that came to his lips as she kissed him.
Camp packed his belongings away quickly. Scarlett wanted to make good time on the road. Her eagerness to see the nasty business of the Breach over with was matched by every person in their small party. With the Templars no longer being an option, they all knew the negotiations with the Magister had to go down flawlessly. It would take days to reach the castle but those days would also give Leliana and Josephine time to enact the plan Cullen, Scarlett and Dorian had discussed before everyone had fallen into silence the night before.
Scarlett stuck to Cullen’s side for most of the trip, always going over plans and rehashing strategy, or riding in companionable silence. With each mile that they drew closer to Redcliffe, the party grew more and more on edge. The plan, as it stood, was to offer Scarlett as bait. This sat well with no one. Sera kept suggesting all of the places she’d like to stick her arrows. Bull and Dorian grew ever more agitated with each other. Ryder suggested, on more than one occasion, that Cullen be the bait. Cullen sensed that Ryder’s irritation with him was more than his earlier teasing and mocking of the man that had caught Scarlett’s eye.
Scarlett sighed, shifting in her saddle in an attempt to face her friend. “Ryder, it’s me they want. What good would it do to send Cullen in my stead?” Scarlett was irritated with him. The tension between the two mages grew during their journey but Cullen was sure it had more to do with Scarlett's stubbornness and Ryder's need to protect his friend than anything else.
Each time Scarlett shot down the idea of Cullen being bait, the mage would glare at the Commander. It was as if the mage were trying to impose his will into Cullen by force. Cullen didn't know what to do with those moments. He didn't wish to fight with Ryder and he didn't wish to antagonize Scarlett. So, he stayed silent, wishing the same thing, that he could take Scarlett's place keeping her away from the danger they were walking into.
The only good thing that came of the journey to the castle was the fact that Scarlett no longer felt the need to hide that she was sleeping in Cullen’s tent. Ryder hadn't been too happy about this development and eyed Cullen every night. It had become more obvious over the course of the last few days that Ryder's main concern was Scarlett's safety and he did not deem Cullen safe.
The mage had noticed the bruises, Scarlett's swollen lip and had asked multiple times what had happened. Scarlett would shut down his questions with a glare that could cut to the heart of anyone she chose to turn it on. It wouldn't stop him from trying to ask later and it was apparent that the bruises on her arms were handprints. Ryder had even placed his own hands over the bruises to ensure his theory was correct. This had caused Scarlett to turn her face away from him and roll down the sleeves of her jacket. She had masked the bruises for the most part, but one afternoon the heat had gotten to her and she had rolled up her sleeves as if she had forgotten the marks were even there.
As they said their goodnight’s in the evenings, she walked hand-in-hand with him to their bed. Dorian and Sera had begun to grin at them, seeing that Scarlett was happy had made them less tense about her condition and their current course of action. Bull had tried to fist bump him, a gesture Cullen found odd. He didn't want to act like Scarlett was a score, a conquest but it did make him a little giddy that her friends were excited about him being with the Herald.
Every night she would massage his back releasing not only the tension of the day but keeping his withdrawal symptoms at bay, until he felt drowsy. Then she would lay beside him and curl into his body. Most nights they wouldn't fall asleep right away but talk about silly things. She told him about the night Cassandra let slip that he liked to stare at her butt. She told him about how her mother used to let her help in the kitchen at home, mostly to keep her out of the way, but also because she was so curious and then how that translated to her assisting with meals in the Circle. During these times Cullen couldn't keep his hands from wandering over her body. Her skin was so soft and he wanted to find every dip, every curve, every freckle.
Maker, he didn’t know how he was going to give this up when they returned home.
She never made another mention of what happened. She ensured that when she left the tent, no one could see the marks Cullen had left on her body. Minus the time she grew hot and rolled up her sleeves to get some relief. He tried to forget, as she had said to, but one morning he found himself tracing her quickly fading bruises. He was amazed at how fast she was healing.
When she woke to his touch, she frowned, quickly pulling the blanket over her arms. She didn't seem to be embarrassed but she didn't like that while she was sleeping he had taken the time to examine what he had done to her.
“Is that a part of your powers?” Cullen asked, not wanting her to think he was still dwelling on that night.
“What?” her brow creased.
Her confusion made him laugh. “You heal so quickly.”
“Oh, yes. I don’t know how it works or why, but I have always healed quickly. When I am injured, it does take a toll on the amount of mana I can summon, but I don’t live with the injury for long. It’s as if my body finds a balance between the two.” She smiled, her lips still holding some of the tension she was feeling but him showing interest in her magic was something she found endearing.
“That’s amazing.” It was all he could think to say.
“Yeah, it is nice. It doesn’t make me immortal or anything, just a little harder to kill.”
She had meant it as a joke, but the thought of her death was not something Cullen was ready to face. He pressed his forehead to hers. “Maker, please don’t make jokes like that. I’m worried enough about meeting with this Magister.”
“Cullen, I’ll be fine. You’ll be there to protect me. I’m not worried.”
He wanted to believe that more than anything.
How could he possibly continue to lead the woman he cared for, the Herald he adored, to the fortress gates where she would be offered as bait? How could he live with himself knowing that any harm that came to her, even a scratch, would overwhelm him with guilt? Cullen knew that Scarlett was strong, capable, and resilient; growing up in the Circle - or surviving the Circle, required a fortitude that most did not possess. Time after time, she showed everyone that she could handle whatever the world threw at her. Even when the sky tore open and demons poured over into their world, the Commander knew she would fight with everything she had. Regardless of the sacrifice to herself, in order to protect those she cared for, she would do anything. Deep in his heart, he knew that as long as she was standing before him, she would never drop her staff and she would never give up.
He smiled to himself, suddenly overwhelmed with pride at the endless determination of the woman before him. She would walk into the castle and come out on the other side, as she always had, even when surrounded by demons and mages, and lyrium-maddened Templars, with her head held high and a victorious grin upon her face.
His worst fears had come to pass. Scarlett was gone, vanished. Her and Dorian had been pulled into the rift Alexius had summoned.
Cullen towered over the kneeling Alexius, blade drawn on the Magister. It took everything he had not to cut Alexius down. He was furious but beyond that, he was terrified. He knew to send Scarlett in as bait was a bad idea. He knew sending her into the hands of a Magister would have dire consequences. He had tried to convince himself that she would be fine. He had imagined what her victory would look like here. But this, for her to just disappear with no explanation to where she was. This was not something he could have prepared for in the slightest.
“Where is she?” Cullen growled. “ What have you done with her?” He knew he should be concerned about Dorian as well, but he couldn’t. He could barely think at all. The tip of his sword lifted the Magisters head. Cullen knew that if he forced his arm forward, he could slit the man’s throat. It was an appealing thought but it wouldn’t help them bring Scarlett back. And this was the only man who could bring her back, the only man with any knowledge of the magic used here.
“It doesn’t matter.” Alexius spat. “The Elder One comes. The Inquisition’s time is over. Without your Herald, Tevinter will rise again.” The Magister’s cocky tone grated on Cullen’s nerves. He brought his blade flush to the Mage’s neck. A small drop of blood pearled the tip of his blade. He knew no one here would stop him from killing the Magister.
“Who is this Elder One? You mentioned him before but none of us know who you are talking about and none of us have seen this Elder One. Is he some made up Tevinter legend?” Cullen was goading the man. He knew this was a tactic Cassandra would use. He knew if he could get a rise out of the Magister, he might let something slip.
Alexius laughed. He refused to speak any further and Cullen could feel the tension in his muscles begging him to make that final push, to see this man’s blood coat the dais. It was a dark thought but one he didn’t fear. He knew this wasn’t part of his withdrawals. He knew this was about Scarlett. This man had taken the only solace he had ever known and shoved her through time and space.
Finally, he dropped his sword. There was nothing more he could do unless he actually decided to kill the man. It was infuriating. He needed Scarlett’s calm, he needed her arcane knowledge. He needed her. Cullen was out of his element. Even as a Templar, he’d never gone up against a Magister. This was beyond anything he could even wrap his mind around and he realized way too late why Scarlett had been terrified when she returned to Haven.
Hours passed as the Inquisition soldiers held the Magister on the dais. Leliana and Fiona, along with a handful of other Mages that Cullen didn’t recognize, went over all of the possibilities of Scarlett and Dorian’s disappearance. He understood very little of what was discussed but he stayed close needing to know that they were doing all they could to bring Scarlett back to him.
The Grand Enchanter had little insight to give. Even though her knowledge of the arcane was vast, she knew nothing of the Magister’s time magic. Felix, Alexius’ son, tried to help where he could, filling in some of the gaps of Fiona’s knowledge but in the end, they couldn’t come up with a solution for bringing their Herald back. None of them understood the intricacies of the rifts. He overheard Fiona say that if they had knowledge like that, the Breach would be less of a problem. He had to wonder why Solas was not part of the party that came to Redcliffe. If they knew they were dealing with a Magister, why not have every knowledgeable Mage on hand? He was the only one who had any insight on the mark, the only one who had some idea of what was going on at Haven.
“It is likely, she will have to find a solution on her own, wherever she ended up,” Fiona stated.
Leliana shook her head. She seemed just as upset that the Grand Enchanter had nothing more to give them, that Felix’s knowledge of the magic used was minor at best.
Cullen knew Scarlett was resourceful. He knew she would do everything in her power to return if she could. And wherever she was, she was with Dorian, the only other person who may know how to change their situation. He had studied under Alexius. He knew this magic. He had stated as much upon his arrival to Haven.
Leliana approached Cullen, “We cannot wait here forever. We must gather what Mages we can and try to seal the Breach.”
Cullen sighed. He took a seat upon the stairs of the dais. “What good would that do Leliana?” He met her eyes. She seemed at a loss and Cullen couldn’t help but feel the emptiness in his heart grow. “Scarlett is gone. Without her, we have no way to close the rift. Solas has explained this many times. No ordinary magic affects them.” Cullen let his face fall into his hands.
Leliana took a seat beside him and placed a consoling hand on his shoulder. It seemed the spymaster knew his concern reached beyond that of the Herald and closer to him losing Scarlett, the woman he cared for, not the one that others had chosen to exalt. “We should at least head back to Haven,” she stated softly. “We will need to make preparations for what will come next.”
Rage filled him at the thought of walking away. “You go. I’m not leaving.” He growled. “I will have answers from this Magister or I will cut him down myself.” Cullen knew he shouldn’t let on about his feelings for Scarlett. He knew that people would question the Inquisition if it was found that two of its senior members were romantically involved. He also knew this would not be a secret he could hide from Leliana long if she didn’t already know the truth of it. She was their Spymaster for a reason. She nodded her assent without any further questions and Cullen was thankful for that.
Cullen had no idea how long he sat on the stairs of the dais, praying to the Maker that she would return. His eyes were closed, head bowed in benediction, so he missed the green glow of the rift as it opened behind him.
“You’ll have to do better than that.” Dorian’s voice chimed from behind him. At first, Cullen thought he was hallucinating the Tevinter’s voice. He thought he had let his hopes get the better of him. Until he heard her.
“Is that all you’ve got?”
The snarky remark lifted his spirits and set his heart racing. This was how he had pictured Scarlett taking the Magister down a notch. He knew, even before turning to face her that she would be wearing that cocky, victorious smile that told everyone in the room she was in charge.
When he did turn to face them, Dorian and Scarlett stood above the cowing Magister. Maker, how he wished he could run to her side and pull her into his arms. Instead, he watched the scene play out before him. Scarlett had no patience with the Magister, tearing into him, showing him how idiotic his plan had been. She was stopped only by Felix’s concern for his father. He crouched down, begging the Magister to see reason.
At this point, Alexius seemed a broken man. He hung his head in shame of his failure. He continued to call Scarlett a mistake but the threat behind his words was gone. The life seemed to have been sucked from him with their return.
Scarlett had the Inquisition soldiers take him prisoner. She turned to him then, a small smile on her face. Cullen felt all of the tension leave his body as their eyes met and he saw the spark of passion that always rested just below the surface. Her sapphire eyes glinted with the victory. Her cheeks flushed with the thrill of her adventure. She took a step toward him and he sensed that she was about to make a very public display of her affection for her Commander but the sound of boots echoing down the hall halted her movement.
Soldiers marched into the throne room, but they weren’t any of theirs. In fact, Cullen was sure that these were Ferelden soldiers. Scarlett looked to him in confusion but Cullen had no idea what was happening either, so he could only shrug.
When the soldiers parted, King Alistair stood before them. He had come, not for the Inquisition, but for Fiona. He told the Grand Enchanter that the Mages were no longer welcome in Redcliffe. Fiona looked to Scarlett for only a moment before turning back to the King. She asked where they should go. What should she tell her people?
Cullen could see the answer plainly written on Scarlett’s face. They had come here seeking help with the Breach, and she stated as much to Fiona and King Alistair. He knew she wouldn’t allow the Mages to suffer under another’s thumb any longer. He also knew he would have a lot to answer for when they returned to Haven.