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Amidst The Shadows

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Chapter One: Guilty Pleasures

 

 

In my darkest dreams I do not dare

To fancy upon the deviant cares

For all I am is broken pieces

Of churning lust that never ceases….

 

I awoke that morning hating everything. Hating Thedas and the Inquisition. Hating Corypheus and the breech. Hating Skyhold and it's cracked walls and crumbling roof. The repugnant smell of dung that lingered through the open windows, or the sound of hacking lungs coughing from the people in the courtyard below. The repetitive strike of a smithy hammer against the anvil echoing through the keep, and the constant caw of the ravens sitting on the battlements. All of it was filling me with insurmountable levels of rage.

 

The people that I had murdered never left my mind, their blood seeping into my dreams until I woke up screaming in terror and my sheets were drenched soaking wet with a cold sweat. I couldn't shake the horror of surviving the blast at the Chantry Conclave, or the attack on Haven. Seeing the people fall as I defended that damn trebuchet. I couldn't erase the memories of the dead. I tried to, by the Maker I really did, and sometimes I convinced myself that I was okay. But then I would walk into the main hall of Skyhold and start shaking uncontrollably, even violently, my hands quivering as I tried to hold them still to no avail. The shock takes it's hold and I am lost to it, like a hungry wolf in a forest finally finding it's prey.

 

I used to glorify the brave warriors of Thedas, and when I rose to the occasion of becoming one myself I dreamt of days where I would be that heroic mage soldier. I would destroy evil and protect the good. There would be no grey, no shadows, no in between. What did I know? My childish notions of good and evil dissipated when I discovered that there was no such thing as evil and no such thing as good, only a blurry shade of something in between. By the time I made this revelation it was too late. The faces of those I had killed never left my eyes, their voices never left my ears. When the last breath left their lips, I breathed it in as if I breathed in the very essence of their soul, and before I knew it that essence had consumed me and I had become a monster. I was the evil that I was trying to fight, staring back at me until I transformed into it over and over again.

 

According to the council, the Inquisition serves a righteous purpose. So why do I find myself murdering so many innocents in the name of our cause? People who have been victimised and forced to fight on a side, just like I have? Only some people are on the wrong side in the eyes of the Inquisition. We shall dispose of them for the greater good. What is that? I know deep in my heart that this is not glory. It is anything but.

 

I spent the day trying to forget my woes, and by nightfall I was drenched in Golden Scythe 4:90 Black, wandering the battlements in hope of a friend. The evening was filled with drunken cheer, spilling out of The Herald's Rest and onto the stone courtyard of the keep, but it was nothing to the oblivion I had found myself in. No rowdy soldier or sloshed mage could appease me now in the utter lament that had befallen upon me.

 

Cullen.

 

I let out a heavy sigh as my thoughts lingered on the ex-templar. The Commander intrigued me. A man so serious that he hardly ever smiled, always keeping himself busy, and when you looked at him you could tell he was plagued by events in his past. Another tortured soul, perhaps we did have something in common? Not that we were friends. Cullen was a singular sort of man, keeping to himself for the most part. When I had crossed paths with him in the hope of exchanging a few words he would often sternly walk by. I understood the desire to be alone, I wasn't judging him for his behaviour. When Thedas has messed with you one too many times, all you desire is to be rid of the place and the people in it. A moment of silence, when there is just you and your darker thoughts to contend with. Nothing more, nothing less.

 

My eyes were blurry and I knew I should not dare venture near his study, not in this intrepid state, but the spirits had numbed my senses and I pushed forward. Stumbling over the cold stone steps, climbing the battlements with sheer determination, I approached Cullen's secluded part of Skyhold. Twisting the handle of the door, I was surprised that it was open, and even more so surprised that there was no one in his office. It was late and I should have known better. I knew I should have left, but I heard noises from his quarters in the loft above. Damn my curiosity, but it had gotten the better of me.

 

Fumbling for the rungs of the ladder, I pulled myself up quietly, peeking up into the loft above. And there he was. Cullen was stripped down to his bare flesh, his rigid cock full mast and hard. His hands were wrapped around his meaty member, and his eyes were closed, moaning so loudly I had no fear of being heard. None of that mattered however as my eyes widened in fear. Wrapped tight around his neck and connected to the poster of the bed was a red silk cloth, cutting off the oxygen as he continued to furiously stroke his cock, red faced and vicious. His eyes kept rolling back, the moans louder and louder, wild crashing waves that threatened to drown him, and possibly would, as the air evaded him. He was unleashed and I had never seen this side to anyone, let alone the Commander, as his chest rose up and down, deeper and faster. Crimsoned faced, he let out a final loud cry, high pitched and drawn out, almost as if he was in agonising pain and sheer ecstasy all at the same time.

 

Loosening the ligature from his neck, a heavily panting Cullen collapsed backwards onto the pillows behind, depleted and apparently overly satisfied. His forearm was resting across his eyes, his member somewhat deflated now although it still lay long and semi aroused, and his stomach and chest were utterly coated in his white stickiness.

Dead in my tracks I remained on the stairs, head poking up into the loft, wide eyed and speechless. I needed to descend for at any moment Cullen would see me. Slowly, I took the first step down the ladder.

 

Squeak.

 

Withdrawing his arm, Cullen's amber eyes fearfully drew to the loft entrance. Grabbing a blanket to cover himself, his gaze fell hard upon me.

 

'Inquisitor.' he remarked in shock. His eyes drew around the room nervously, knowing he had been caught out and there was no escape, before turning to me once more. 'Please, could you give me some privacy.' he barked, his embarrassment now transforming to anger.

 

I didn't need to reply, I didn't even need to hear another word from Cullen. All I needed to do was escape from that room. I never descended a ladder as fast as I did that night, scaling down it like a frightened rat into the night, bolting through his study and scurrying into the shadows of a deserted part of the keep far, far away.

 

Feeling well sober now, I couldn't shake the image of Cullen gratifying himself like that. I had never seen self-stimulation taken to such an aggressive, insatiable level. It was heated and furious, as he unleashed his wrath on his member mercilessly. I caught my breath as my mind wandered to other thoughts. Was he trying to pleasure himself, or was he trying to…end his life? Is that was I had stumbled upon? Cullen's last moments in this world, only to be foiled by my sudden appearance?

 

'No.' I muttered, reassuring myself 'He took the silk tie off his neck. It was his choice.'.

 

I ambled back to my quarters and fell asleep in an exhausted heap. All I needed was another experience to be haunted by, and thanks to my damn wandering eyes I had succeeded in that. Not that it disturbed me like the other memories that plagued my mind. In secret, I had been fascinated, dare I say titillated, watching Cullen manipulate himself the way that he did. His muscular arms and torso, and the look on his face as his eyes rolled back in his head in sheer ecstasy. Wearily my eyes fluttered shut, a soft smile on my lips, as the realm of dreams took over my mind.

 

 

****

 

 

Sitting at my desk in Skyhold the next day, I was drowning in a pile of correspondence that seemed to never end. Offers of support to the Inquisition for the right price, favours, deals, and even a few death threats. It seemed everyone was out to profit from or destroy the Inquisition, and I was cursed to read each drivelous, rambling letter.

 

My head throbbing from the previous night's indulgence, I lifted a shaky hand to tear off some bread on a plate close by, eager to ease the growing nausea.

 

Tap, tap, tap.

 

'Enter.' I called out wearily, expecting a messenger to present me with more letters, and to pile them unceremoniously on my table.

 

Ascending the stairs into my chambers however, the Commander walked in. He was dressed in his usual attire of metal cuirass, gauntlets and pauldrons, finished off with a red cloth and gorget of black raven feathers, his short mop of sandy blond waves neatly presented. Cullen looked at me almost arrogantly, a small curl on the right side of his lip where his white scar lay, throwing a smile my way.

 

'Inquisitor.' he remarked pleasantly.

 

'Cullen!' I replied hastily 'Uh..how can I help you?'

 

The atmosphere was awkward, and painfully drawn out as he stood firmly in front of me, a smirk ever present on his lips. Taking a few steps towards me, he stopped, rubbing his neck achingly as he looked my way.

 

'About the other night.' he remarked suddenly, his amber eyes piercing into mine 'Ah..don't get the wrong idea, I wasn't trying to kill myself. I wasn't trying to commit suicide. I was….masturbating.'.

 

He remained silent, eyes fixated on me as I stared back, stunned as I was in his chambers the previous night. Did I just hear what I thought he had said?

 

'I shouldn't have been there in the first place.' I replied with a frown 'You don't need to explain yourself.'. My cheeks were bright red, and I didn't need a looking glass to know that. They burned with intensity, like searing flames under my skin.

 

Cullen moved over to the seat by the bed and eased himself in it comfortably. 'I know,' he murmured 'I just wanted you to know, in case you thought it was...something untoward. I hope I did not frighten you.'. He ran his hand across the unshaven stubble of his jaw, as he continued to watch me.

 

I put down my quill and paper, and turned towards the Commander, giving him my full attention. He looked so calm and composed, considering the topic of discussion. The confidence was actually quite unnerving.

 

I shook my head in confusion. 'Forgive me but….what were you doing?' I asked.

 

'Autoerotic asphyxiation.' Cullen simply replied, adding mischievously. 'Got a ride. My bad.'

 

He drummed his fingers across the armrest of the chair, the smirk on his face not diminishing in his admission. If anything it grew larger, as if he was enjoying my unease at the brutal honesty of his confession.

 

'You choked yourself. For an orgasm.' I replied doubtfully, a confused albeit uncomfortable smile on my face.

 

Cullen sighed, lifting his eyes to meet mine. 'It wasn't just an orgasm, it was the orgasm. Of a lifetime, you have no idea.' he chuckled, before noticing I was not reciprocating in his amusement. 'I'm sorry,' he replied apologetically, waving his hand 'I have never spoken to you of what happened to me at the Kinloch Hold in Ferelden, and then in Kirkwall. Sufficed to say, life has been...hard. Unforgiving to be brutally honest. I try to forget a lot of what has happened and it never goes well. So I resort to...other vices, to sate my desire to be happy, for a little while at least.'

 

Some part of me knew what he meant. That desire to forget that which never went away.

 

'So it felt good then?' I inquired curiously, blushing slightly at the question although knowing I secretly was growing more aroused as the conversation progressed.

 

Cullen laughed. 'Better than any drug you've ever had, although I've ever had includes a quite extensive list I can tell you.' he muttered. He rubbed his neck achingly around the base of his neck, moving his shoulders side to side. His amber eyes smiled wickedly at mine and I caught myself feeling very turned on by the Commander. 'How long where you watching for?' he asked softly.

 

'Uhhh,' I replied shakily 'not that long. Just the end really.'. I was mumbling and shifting my eyes anywhere but to my companion. I knew he could sense my discomfort, but why did I get the feeling he was actually enjoying it?

 

'It is okay,' he whispered 'I am not angry that you saw me. In fact..'. He ran his thumb teasingly across his bottom lip '...the thought of it excites me more than a little.'

 

A short, sharp breath released from my lips as I grinned back slyly 'Perhaps I enjoyed watching more than I should admit.'

 

'Better and better.' Cullen chuckled in response.

 

'Isn't it a tad bit dangerous though?' I remarked suddenly 'I mean, strangling yourself is never safe now, is it?'

 

He shrugged 'Risky actions excite me I confess. Perhaps it was all the years of brutal willpower enforced upon us as templars, forgoing everything for one's duty. All those years of wanting to lose all sense of fucking control and never having that release.'. Cullen ran a hand loosely through his sandy blonde hair as he drew a deep breath 'The act itself creates this semi-hallucinogenic state, then you bring in the act of stimulating yourself.'. Noticing my perplexed expression, Cullen straightened in his chair 'Look, all I'm saying is you cut off the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, your dick gets unbelievably hard. It's why these guys who are hung get these stonking boners and ejaculate when they die. You get this euphoria...'. Cullen's voice was smouldering as he described the act, like warm, oozing honey.

 

I caught myself holding my breath as he spoke so freely of his darkest fetish. We had never even spoken as friends, and now...this. I adjusted the position in my seat, feeling the ever slight sensation of warm arousal between my legs.

 

'It sounds pleasant enough.' I quipped back teasingly, trying to diffuse the intensity in the room that threatened to consume me.

 

Cullen laughed in response. 'Pleasant is nothing compared to it. It's like having one foot in heaven.' he replied softly 'Sex is a portal to the Maker. That feeling of every nerve and fibre of your being filled with complete pleasure, losing yourself in that moment and everything blurs into pure fucking elation.'. He shook his head, as if even the very thought was sending shivers all over his body 'The act itself is enough of a reward to make me cope with the rest of the shit I have to deal with in my head on a daily basis.'

 

'I know the feeling of wanting to escape.' I murmured 'You saw a quite sloshed version of me last night. Vices make life worth living sometimes, eh?'

 

Cullen raised an amused eyebrow 'If I may ask, what were you doing wandering about in my chambers at so late an hour?'

 

I bit my lip. 'I just wanted to say hello.' I lied. I knew what I wanted to happen. Every time I was near Cullen all I wanted was for him to put his hands all over me and push me hard up against a wall, kissing me until I was begging for mercy.

 

As if guessing what dark and dirty thoughts were filling my mind, Cullen slowly rose to his feet. With drawn out steps he approached me, never tearing his eyes from mine. My chest was rising heavily up and down as he towered in front of me, finally placing his hands gingerly on my waist so our hips were facing directly in front of each other.

 

'Hello.' he murmured devilishly, a wide grin growing on his lips.

 

Cullen's lips were pale pink, full and tender, and I saw that white scar begging for me to lap at it with my tongue. I wanted to suck it, to bite it and devour it.

 

I let out a chuckle at his reply, but only for a moment, before I was quietened once more as Cullen drew his hands, lingering along the curves of my figure, teasing me with his touch. Moving his hands to my breasts, he rubbed his thumbs across my mounds, over my nipples, fondling the fabric standing in the way, before placing his right thumb between his lips, licking his digit and coating it with his saliva.

 

Easing my top down with his other hand, my breasts were presented bare and shivering as he pinched his wet thumb and forefinger hard over my right nipple in an unforgiving manner. I yelped from the surprise of the sensation, but it felt good. Too good.

 

'Pain and pleasure.' Cullen murmured softly, as he pulled and pinched my nipple, refusing to let go. He leant his head towards mine, brushing his lips against mine but refusing to submit to what I expected. I tried to move closer, but he withdrew his face, his lips curled in a smirk. 'Does the Inquisitor want to play? Perhaps experience the drug I speak of?' he asked gently, lulling me to him as his hands ran across my bare arms.

 

'If you show me how,' I murmured breathlessly 'I want to.'

 

'I would like that also.' smouldered the Commander 'I can take you places you have only dared to entertain in your wildest fucking fantasies, but you need to trust me. And if you are willing, let me do what needs to be done.'

 

'Including the silk sash?' I asked precariously.

 

'I confess I did not think to bring it with me.' mused Cullen, his eyes lighting up suddenly as he moved his hand to his armour 'But I think we could improvise, just this once.'

 

Cullen moved his hands to the large belt around his waist securing the red material, and unbuckled it, placing it carefully on the desk. He then commenced removing the feather shoulder piece, before unwrapping the red material and dropping it to the ground. As he unbuckled and pulled off his armour, piece by piece, he held my gaze fiercely and I dared not turn from it. Pulling his metal gorget over his head, he dropped it with a loud bang against the cold stone floor of the chambers, followed by the cuirass, gauntlets, pauldrons, faulds, greaves, cuisses, tassets and poleyns. Finally all that remained was a loose white shirt and black cotton pants, his hair slightly dishevelled in brushed waves of sandy blonde.

 

Lifting the shirt over his head, Cullen revealed his torso, rippled with muscles across his abdomen. His smooth, pale white skin was sun kissed and revealed a few long, white scars from former days of battle. Cullen grinned widely as I blatantly stared at him, unwilling to look away from such a fine chiselled work of art.

 

'Would you like me to take off my pants?' he asked mischievously, a low growl in his voice.

 

I knew I couldn't wait that long and rushed over to him, wrapping my arms around his neck and bringing my mouth to his, but the Commander pulled away again.

 

'You will get your reward when I say so.' he replied sternly but still holding a soft smile 'Now, take off your clothes.'

 

I let out a gasp, followed by a laugh. Cullen's authoritative nature was even more arousing behind closed doors. I wanted to yield to his will, to let him take full control over me. Standing close to me, the Commander was easily one foot taller than me and much stronger as well. He could overpower me so easily and I wanted him to. Something in me wanted him to use that strength against me until I was begging for his mercy.

 

I pulled the black top I was wearing hastily over my head, exposing my pale breasts and torso, before unbuckling my belt and pulling off my pants, leaving me in my bloomers and nothing else.

 

'I said all of it.' Cullen ordered dangerously, using the stern voice he presented for the recruits in the training circle.

 

Cullen leant back against the desk to watch me step out of my under garments, and I presented myself naked in front of him, waiting with an intrigued grin.

 

A satisfied sigh left his wicked lips as he held his gaze fast on me. I could see he was aroused, his pikestaff was pushing unforgivingly hard and upwards from under his pants. Cullen caught my line of vision and chuckled.

 

'All in good time,' he remarked softly 'now come.'.

 

With one hand he pulled the belt off the desk, and with the other he took my hand, leading me to my bed. Cullen sat down on the edge of the bed, and pulled me to straddle his lap, his member prodding beneath me as I placed myself across his legs.

 

'Tonight you are my lady, and I am your Commander.' he informed with a grin as he gently brought his hands across my back, slowly bringing his belt to my neck.

 

Never leaving my eyes, he slowly wrapped the leather strap around my neck as I breathed heavily in my chest, trying to control the nervous tension I was feeling. Cullen tightened the belt so it sat firm around my jugular, but I could still breathe easily. Looking into my eyes he pulled it a little tighter.

 

'What do you say?' he growled.

 

My heart was beating fast as I caught my breath. Cullen played the authoritative role a little too well and it was driving me crazy.

 

'Yes Commander'. I smirked.

 

I couldn't believe I was entertaining such peverse delights in my chambers at Skyhold with Commander Cullen, of all people. It was dirty and utterly perfect.

 

With a smile that flashed his brilliant white teeth he loosened his grip, letting the belt rest around my neck as he cupped my face, bringing his lips close to mine, barely touching. 'When I fuck you tonight,' he whispered 'I am going to tighten your leash so you cannot breathe. You need to ride that wave of pleasure, let it fill you like an empty cup, and take you higher and higher than ever before. When you get scared, do not be afraid. Your brain will tell you to breathe but you need to trust me. Your body will thank you when you experience the greatest fucking high you have ever reached.'

 

'What about you?' I asked 'Do you want me to tie something...?'

 

Cullen smiled 'I shall take that in my own hands, don't worry. You have a lot to learn. Now, on your back.'

 

The Commander stood up and in one swift yank pulled off his black pants, revealing a hard full mast erection in front. It was long and quite thick, with a smooth bulbous shining head. I wanted to touch it ever so badly.

 

Cullen pushed me back on the bed as he spread my legs, bending them at the knees.

 

'You have been good, my lady, for listening to your Commander and letting him play with you thus far. You shall get a boon, I think.' murmured Cullen, as he brought his lips onto the soft skin of my inner thigh. My stomach fluttered as he began to place light, wet kisses starting from the inner side of my right knee, trailing upwards with soft and teasing puckers until he reached between my legs.

His warm breath tickled my lips and heated my exposed fleshy entrance as he looked up to me, lustfully. 'Our first kiss, my lady.' he whispered, as lowered his lips onto mine and bestowed upon them an open mouthed kiss. I gasped as Cullen's tongue ran along my labia, the point teasing the bud of my clitoris in cheeky swirls. He chuckled in amusement as he produced a delighted groan from my throat.

 

Two of Cullen's fingers dipped into my moist depths as he continued to assault my pink, fleshy entrance with his tongue. Sucking and licking and lapping, in swirls and flicks, over and over again. My breathing was ragged as my hips rose higher to greet him, and Cullen moaned as he lapped at my juices, sucking them enthusiastically before lifting his head with a wide grin.

 

'A perfect first kiss.' he remarked pleasantly, looking extremely mischievous.

 

The templar crawled over me as I remained laying down, his strong, muscular arms supporting his weight as he continued to prowl towards me. Except he did not stop when his eyes met mine, only to throw a wicked look before moving higher above me until I was looking up, face to face, with his hot and furious dick.

 

'Open wide, if you please, my lady.' Cullen smouldered, but I was already ahead of him, eagerly rounding my lips as he eased into my mouth. I could taste the salty pre cum on his head, tangy and moreish as the soft smooth skin of his hardened member filled me. Cullen was so warm, so exquisite, and I wanted to devour him whole. I could hear Cullen grunting softly above me as he began to move his hips slowly with small thrusts in my mouth, over and over again as I tried to take him in. Cullen was being purposely gentle, and I soon realised why, finding myself gagging on his rather large intruder. His skin was so smooth and his scent musky, and I felt that desire he spoke of filling me as he filled me.

 

'Try to relax, and hold your throat open as I go deeper.' murmured Cullen, pulling out for a moment to ready me before entering in again. With a deep breath I relaxed, trying to stop my gag reflex as I felt him slowly draw his entire length in, holding it in at the hilt for a few moments until I found myself gagging once more. He left me gasping as he withdrew, but I felt extremely titillated by the experience.

 

'Did you like my tasty morsel, my lady?' Cullen smouldered, looking down at me from further above, a few small waves of his hair brushing down on his forehead. I knew he was checking to see if I was alright, and I liked that even in his dirtiest moments he still held that concern.

 

'Yes Commander.' I hoarsely replied with a devious smile, before I was greeted by Cullen's member sliding into my mouth once more.

 

Cullen was straddling my chest now, and I could enjoy the view of his sturdy, muscular thighs as he pumped into my mouth. In one long thrust, he held his member deep in my throat, only this time he pinched my nose, holding me in place. Unable to breathe for a few moments, he released me again and withdrew, the pleasure creeping over me as I gasped under him.

 

''The lack of oxygen is exhilarating,' he remarked 'but it is only half the pleasure. You need to combine it with a body wracking, ground shaking orgasm to feel the full effects of what I speak.'. Dismounting me, Cullen pulled me up with a smirk, as he led me to the balcony. 'Rest your hands on the ledge and look out across the view.' ordered the Commander.

 

Naked and exposed, I could feel the cold air nip at my chest and pink exposed lips.

 

Thwack!

 

I cried out suddenly as Cullen landed a large, flat smack on my behind with his hand. He was a strong man and knew how to deal a blow. My ass stung as he rubbed it tenderly with his hand afterwards. Running his fingers up to the belt still hanging around my neck he pulled it towards him, whispering softly in my ear.

 

'Do you like your arse being spanked by Commander Cullen?' he murmured.

 

'By the Maker, yes.' I replied breathlessly, giddy with excitement.

 

Thwack.

 

I cried out in real pain this time.

 

Cullen pulled the belt sharper 'You didn't call me Commander.' he growled 'You need to be punished.'

 

Leaning over, he placed a few soft kisses on my cheek before laying a stinging slap on my other cheek. It felt sharp but pleasurable, the wetness growing within me, and I moaned louder and louder as he continued to slap my arse until it was bright red and warm to the touch.

Falling to his knees, Cullen placed kiss after kiss along my derriere until I was mewing like a kitten. My pink lips exposed, he offered a long lingering lick along my labia, pushing his tongue in between the folds. I gasped as Cullen began to assault my well wet depths again, moaning deeper as I was filled with his tongue. He held my hips sturdy as he open mouthed kissed my lips, over and over again. I squirmed in pleasure but he would not cease, driving his tongue more furiously against my clit until I started to moan louder and louder, a wild relentless pleasure building up.

I couldn't stop the waves coming over me, the intensity of his tongue was bringing me closer to release on every lick. Lifting my leg higher on the balcony, Cullen had full access as he assaulted my entrance, sucking and slurping until I felt my muscles tighten and I revealed a high pitched yell that echoed across the peaks. My body was wracked with an uncontrollable convulsion as I came hard onto his mouth, and Cullen remained eagerly in position as he sucked greedily at my nectar that was now flowing steadily.

 

I crumbled over the ledge of the balcony, but Cullen swept me up in his arms tenderly, holding me close. He looked down into my eyes gently, lowering his head as he brought his lips to mine and kissed me deeply. It was a soft and passionate kiss as he explored my mouth, moaning softly into mine before pulling away.

 

'By the Maker, you make me feel fucking alive.' he whispered breathlessly, as he carried me to the bed.

 

I was panting, still recovering from the pleasurable assault on the balcony, but I managed to cup my hands across his chiselled jaw and bring my mouth onto his once more, heatedly kissing his soft lips.

 

'I want you to take me, all of me.' I whispered 'I want to take one step closer to the Maker with you.'

 

Cullen released an aroused groan, smiling as he moved over to pick up the red cloth of his attire, lying on the ground. Standing before me, he wrapped the red cloth around his broad neck, wrapping it a few times round, presenting himself like a present.

 

'The first time is like nothing you have ever experienced.' he warned 'If you've never felt yourself losing your fucking mind, you are about to.'

 

Leaning over the corner bedpost at the headboard of the bed, he looped one end of the material around the pillar, lying down on the bed but not letting go of the cloth in his hand as it connected securely to his neck.

 

'One tug and I will be joining you soon enough.' he grinned, beckoning me to move towards him. His pikestaff was hard and furious, standing tall and ready. 'Climb on top of me.' he purred with a smile, eyes fixated on my body as I crawled over to him.

 

Positioning myself over his lap, Cullen torturously positioned his member to my entrance, covering his dick with my wetness before I lowered myself onto him. Cullen impaled me, thick inch by inch, moaning in release as he filled himself to the hilt.

 

'Maker's breath.' he murmured shakily as I started to move on top of him, sliding him in and out of my depths, my weight falling onto his shaft and transforming us both into quivering, breathless participants. The sensation had me rolling my eyes back in my head and finding words too difficult to ever murmur.

 

Cullen's eyes were also lulling shut, his head leaning back and exposing the red material tied firm around his muscular neck, his hand holding onto the other end firmly but not pulling on it...yet. I could feel the Commander getting more and more aroused on every thrust, moving his hips higher to greet me on every ride, and a soft moan escaped his lips, over and over again.

 

Opening his amber eyes once more, he ran his free hand across my breasts before cupping my cheek tenderly.

 

'Trust me.' he murmured as he brought his hand to the belt still wrapped around my neck.

 

The ex-templar pulled firmly and I felt the leather strap tightening all of a sudden, choking me, as Cullen began thrusting hard upwards into me. With his other hand he pulled his own red material tight, cutting off the flow of oxygen.

 

Blurring and hazy, I could feel myself losing sense of reality as Cullen continued to thrust up into me, harder and harder, unrelenting and forceful, his thick member spreading and penetrating me as deeply as he could drive, rock hard and furious. A buzzing sensation grew in me, a deep satisfying tingling warmth starting in my belly and spreading through into the rest of my body. I could feel this electric sensation of pleasure filling my every raw nerve and I wanted more and more.

 

The build-up was intense and the lack of air was making it unbearable to endure, such was the exhilaration of the moment. Cullen was crying out in moans of unrelenting pleasure as he continued to assault my depths, both of us bright red in the face and transcending into another state of blissful consciousness. His grip was tight on both ends he held, his left hand pulling the red cloth tight and his right pulling the belt on my neck, the ecstasy filling us until a final sharp thrust sent us both over the edge.

 

Cullen and I screamed out in release without any inhibition, echoing loud in my chambers. The Commander let out curdled sob as he released himself deep into my belly.

 

The Commander released his grip on us both immediately, and we gasped for air, our chests rising and falling rapidly as he still remained deep in me. His brow covered in sweat, he cupped my face in his broad hands, bringing his lips onto mine and kissing me over and over again.

 

'Thank you,' he murmured 'that was the furthest I have ever flown.'

 

His hands were trembling as I placed my hands on his cheeks, continuing to kiss him deeper and deeper.

 

'That was….'. I shivered, knowing no words would come close to giving it's due.

 

'….fucking euphoric.' replied Cullen, with a grin 'I know.'

 

Cullen eased me off him, and into a warm embrace as we came back down to reality. It was there that we lay together until day break, finally enduring a night away from our darkest thoughts and instead, entwined in each other's arms, finally at peace.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two: Ruins of Chaos


 

The turn of the season came fast upon us at Skyhold, and all through the summer we enjoyed the endless days of blue skies and warmer nights with an almost childish delight, our troubles dissipating in the warmth of the season by the bright sun above and the soft soil beneath our feet. Shoots of grass sprung from the frozen grounds and there was life in places that there had never been before. The realm was changing before our very eyes and anything seemed possible under that blanket of hazy hope that shrouded our shoulders. However as autumn fell upon us, we could all feel the echo of summer calling out to us one last time as it was slowly drowned by the arrival of an unwelcomed intruder that was winter. Before we knew it, we were wrapped in furs and our breath was icy upon the air once more. The blissful ignorance of our plight had been forgotten, and now we were being reminded once more that nothing ever ended, and although we longed for stagnation, it only changed evermore…..

 

We found ourselves in Denerim that morning in early winter, to meet with a merchant, Farius Terryn. Terryn had sent word that he could provide the Inquisition with a collection of rare and highly valuable magical weapons fresh from a carrack that was coming to the docks from across the Amaranthine Ocean that day. It was questionable as to how the Ferelden merchant had managed to acquire such a valuable bounty, but we all knew we were in no position to question anything that might aid us in our plight.

 

Cullen and Leliana had joined the expedition, adding a brutally unforgiving and severe dimension to the journey. The pair held a similar disdain for pleasantries in general, keeping their focus on the road ahead with no time for small talk to ease the discomfort that silence often brings, leaving me to while away the hours in my head as the emptiness grew thick across the company of soldiers marching with us.

 

To be honest, I had wondered at times whether my previous interlude with Cullen had been a result of my wild and vivid imagination, especially now in the aftermath, such was the way he was acting towards me, and such was the oddity surrounding our unexpected, lustful session. There was not even the slightest acknowledgement of my person on Cullen’s behalf, apart from the expected civilities owed to each other as we travelled across Ferelden. A firm nod, a sharp order and a stiff jaw, these were the only offerings bestowed upon me, and it left me rather disillusioned even at the best of times.

 

Often I would cast my gaze across to the Commander on his steel plated steed and see him deep in thought, a frown covering his face and hardened lines heavy on his brow. He was troubled, that much he had already confessed and that much was clearly evident, but I wondered whether passing so close to the life he once had been a part of had caused him further pain at present. Surely this journey brought back too many memories he had wished to forget?

 

My nature was one that urged me to grab his hand and squeeze it reassuringly, perhaps in the selfish desperation that my comfort would in turn be reciprocated. Perhaps that was a flaw of my own self, despite my belief in thinking I wanted to help the Commander, I in secret only wanted him to help me. Perhaps he already knew this much in his infinite wisdom, and merely knew how to act accordingly. With silence.

 

Arriving at the city a few hours after a red sun rose across the amber plains, we were all relieved for the break of ceaseless riding. I sighed heavily as I led my horse to the stables just outside of Denerim, handing the reins to the stable boy a little too eagerly, before following my escorts through the large wooden gates of the city. Denerim. The capital of Ferelden and birthplace of our holy Andraste. Many a legendary bard’s tale had been spun thanks to this city, and it was indeed humbling to grace such a mighty place. During the previous blight, Denerim had been almost destroyed, and even after all this time there was still evidence of the destruction it had left in its wake. The city had been rebuilt, but there still remained charred and blackened ash burnt deep on some of the stones, perhaps left as a reminder to those that nothing was safe from the evil that seeks to destroy us. In the end, no one was safe.

 

‘Inquisitor,’ called out the Commander from a way ahead, walking towards me with a focused pace ‘I have spoken to our soldiers and we have agreed to meet at The Gnawed Noble Tavern at midday to converse with our merchant trader, Farius Terryn. You are free to wander the city until then.’

 

‘Free?’ I replied with a smirk, hoping to produce one from the Commander. He, however, did not reciprocate.

 

‘Yes.’ Cullen replied directly ‘Although unless you have other business in the city before then, I would like your advice regarding some of the magical equipment we intend to purchase, before the merchant arrives. It shouldn’t take too long.’. Cullen drew his hand outwards, directing me towards a strip of shops in the alley nearest to us ‘If you please, Inquisitor.’

 

‘Of course.’ I replied darkly, hating the way Cullen insisted on only addressing me by my formal title rather than my name. Perhaps it was his intention, but it dehumanised my being into nothing more than a superficial role and I knew it was unworthy of him to do so while others made the effort to address me by my actual person.

 

Cullen nodded to the remaining men, directing some to the gate while others set off to their own devices, most likely to the loving arms of The Pearl. Turning back to me, Cullen proceeded to direct me through the tired and dusty laneways of Denerim, walking by my side in silence. After many narrow twists and turns, I realised we were completely away from the prying ears of any unwanted company, and I turned to my silent companion in somewhat of an act of desperation to appeal to his senses once and for all.

 

Suddenly aware of my presence, something I questioned whether he had been fully aware of before this moment, Cullen slowed his pace to a halt. We were in a part of the city that was quite abandoned, only for the loose crumbling rock foundations of abandoned buildings and the skeleton of wooden frames from buildings yet to be completed.

 

‘Interesting place to discuss business?’ I remarked dryly, throwing a sceptical glance around the ruins of the city ‘Unless you were hoping to be robbed before then? Then I’d say this was an excellent place.’

 

Cullen chuckled, a devious smirk growing on his lips as his hand suddenly grasped mine and pulled me aside, pushing me against a tired wooden beam close by, and pressing his armoured body firmly against mine.

 

‘No rogue would dare interrupt me now.’ he remarked lowly, almost growling, as his amber eyes drew into mine.

 

My breathing intensified as I felt the Commander move his hands to my shoulders, drawing his lips to my neck as his fingers lingered across my collarbone before exploring lower over my chest, fondling my breasts as he continued to pleasure me with his mouth.

 

‘This journey has given me no release,’ Cullen murmured ‘and I’ve been tortured from having to watch the back of you as you ride your damn horse for over a week now.’. He brought his lips to mine and roughly kissed me, biting firmly at my bottom lip before pulling away. ‘I need release.’

 

I raised an amused eyebrow ‘Here?’

 

‘Why not?’ Cullen growled, tightening his grasp around my waist so we were pressed tightly together ‘I’d fuck you in the middle of the merchant square at midday if I could, and take delight in seeing all the perverse eyes of the men and women watching me conquer you mercilessly until you were screaming out my name on your hands and knees, begging for more.’

 

I grinned back at his mischievous remark, a deviant smile reflecting on his own face that seemed entertained by the thought. Cullen’s loose sandy blonde hair fell across his brow as he held my gaze, almost as if he was challenging me to protest so he could chastise me. I often felt he took delight in trying to take me off guard. To shock me with his confessions. Little did he know I was beyond that. I loved the way his Templar nature came out when the Commander was aroused. Cullen was so stern and unforgiving, and it always tempted me to inflame him further, and the more he spoke of his depravity the more I found myself desiring to be part of it.

 

Cullen started to undo his cuirass, quickly unfastening the buckles on each side and pulling the steel over his head with his feathers and red fabric still attached. It was evident Cullen was not interested in preserving the attire his position demanded, throwing it down like a pile of old rags at his feet as he tugged the remaining loose cotton white shirt over his head. He revealed his smooth sun kissed abdomen, tight and firm, with broad shoulders and large, well defined arms that could easily overpower me whenever it took his fancy.

 

Running his hands across my belt, Cullen began to unbuckle the clasp with firm pulls and tugs, yanking me with it so I was pulled closer towards him. I wanted to make him furious at me, such was the way of my delight, so I pushed off him roughly in protest.

 

‘You’ve not said one word to me since you left me in my room weeks ago.’ I remarked angrily ‘I deserved a little more than that. And I don’t exist to entertain you when it suits.’

 

Cullen raised an amused eyebrow, obviously entertained by my heated observations. ‘What would you have wished me to say?’ he inquired politely, a smirk on his lips ‘Or perhaps do? Offer you a posy of flowers perhaps?’. With a final hard tug, he released my belt and hooked his fingers into my pants, pulling them slowly down to expose my flesh. ‘The only flower that concerns me is the one between your legs.’ he growled. Suddenly the Commander pushed me furiously against the beam behind me, running his hands through my hair as he embraced me furiously with his hot mouth, before grabbing my locks sharply with a clenched fist. ‘Or perhaps I should have been whispering sweet nothings to you since that day? Sonnets perhaps, of a Templar knight pure and true, determined to protect your honour...when all I really want to do is tarnish it with my darkest deeds. Drag you into my perversity. My thoughts are nothing but sweet, and I refuse to deceive you with anything but. I lie awake at night thinking of all the immoral acts I would like to indulge upon you, to sate my insatiable desire until I am weak and dripping, a shadow of my former self quenched of all his darkest fucking desires. Pleasant civilities do not enter into the realm I wish to enter with you.’

 

Rendered more than a little speechless at his brutal honesty, I let out a surprised gasp. I could feel how unforgiving his cock was right now, pressed hard up against me, even with all the trappings between us. Cullen was heated and aroused, as was I by his filthy confessions, his honesty making me quiver with delight, his broad chest stirring my temptation. My fingers edged towards the concealed bulge as Cullen kept himself pressed against me, and I could feel him grinning next to my ear as I desperately tried to release him in that moment.

 

‘Then what do you want from me?’ I whispered, finally managing to wrap my fingers around the soft warm skin of his hard member.

 

Cullen’s eyes shut and he released a moan as I stroked him with a firm hand, up and down his hot dick. He was incredibly hard, maybe from the many days of tension building up, or maybe that was a delightful regularity of Commander Cullen.

 

‘Right now, at this moment, I want to fuck you before we have to meet this fucking merchant.’ he groaned in reply, responding to my touch with enthusiasm. Opening his eyes once more, he threw me a grin, his mischievous hands having pulled my pants now over my hips, and down to the ground around my ankles. Kicking off my boots, and pants, I watched as Cullen released his member from amidst his own attire. The Commander was ready.

 

‘I never talk about my past to anyone, but there is something about you that makes me want to, for better or for worse.’ he muttered as he held his erection in one hand, while holding me close with the other ‘Before I was tainted with the cruel hand that fate bestowed upon me, I was but a naive Templar who had faith in my duty but also trusted the mages left in my charge. We were to keep a distance from the mages, in order to supervise them effectively. We could never be close. But I had faith in their purpose, and that they would arise to the same amount of integrity that the Templars upheld. That I upheld.’

 

Cullen rubbed his throbbing head across the pink of my folds before positioning to enter, slowly easing into me as he kept his eyes held fast on mine ‘And so the day came when they betrayed that faith I had. I saw so much evil in that tower, and I saw my fellow Templars slain like cattle before my very eyes. By the end I hated mages. I hated magic. What I endured was unspeakable. It was abhorrent. Now, however, there is something about mages that makes me so angry...and so fucking horny at the same time. Like a swirling pool of maddening lust that I cannot control. You do that to me.’

 

‘I am not like those mages.’ I responded breathlessly as I felt his generous length fill me to the hilt, the warmth of his breath on my shoulder as he supported my weight beneath me with his strong arms, easing out again to repeat what he had begun. My breath drew into shallow pants as Cullen starting to thrust up into me with long, rhythmic thrusts, slow at first but increasing in intensity as he spoke.

 

‘I know,’ he muttered ‘yet to me that circle represented what mages across Thedas are capable of and that is enough to secure my disdain. I was tortured in that circle. Perhaps you would say broken. The things they did to me, the things those abominations showed me.’. He thrust harder up into me and I cried out. It was forceful and the roughness was sending me over the edge. ‘I cannot be the man you want,’ he grunted as he continued to sate himself ‘or the one I was meant to be. I cannot bring you flowers and entertain you in idle pleasantries, taking pleasure in the flightless pursuits of a perfect courtship that can never be. I cannot be that person for you...or for me.’

 

Moaning against his continual wave of intrusions, I kissed the base of his neck as he continued to assault me. ‘Cullen,’ I murmured between forceful penetrations ‘I never asked you to be anything else than what you are.’

 

Cullen used his weight to hold me against the beam as he wrapped his hands around my throat, his thrusts becoming harder and faster, his fingers pressing firmly into my flesh and covering my skins in excited bumps ‘All I can do is fuck you with every part of my being, my soul, my mind. I give these to you freely, but I warn you, you will not like what you find there. My mind is a dark labyrinth of unfulfillment and disappointment that you will surely drown in.’

 

I could feel an uncontrollable urge to come as he held me tight, and Cullen knew it. He released me suddenly and I wrapped my arms around his shoulders, resting my weight heavily on him as his held me up against him and furiously unleashed himself on me, fucking me harder and harder on every thrust with unforgiving diligence as I fell down on him again and again.

 

‘Dig your nails into me.’ he ordered sharply ‘Scratch and rip my flesh. Do it!!!’. There was an almost desperation in his voice, as if Cullen needed the pain in order to feel his release. As if the two coincided with each other, and one could not be felt without the other.

 

Without hesitation, I dragged my nails heavily across the smooth, white skin of his muscular back. At first I only left a few white trails of scratch marks but as I continued the scratches cut deeper and deeper until I could feel myself tearing his flesh and Cullen started moaning uncontrollably. ‘More!’ he growled ‘Hurt me, damn you, tear me to fucking shreds!’

 

Dark angels danced around us, of that I am certain, their black wings flapping as we rose on the wave of delight, taking us higher and higher into a realm of forbidden desire. I knew I was a part of something much bigger than just being fucked by Commander Cullen. He was opening himself to me, perhaps the first person he had ever done so with, and his was a mind of riddles and mazes, threatening to consume my own mind perhaps as I tried desperately to understand him. There was something about Cullen and his darkness that fascinated me, drew me towards him and craved him even more. I could feel my soul weeping for his, as if it felt what he felt when he revealed himself from behind that black curtain of his past. His shadows were my companions and I knew even if I wanted to run away, his sad song would lull me back. I was under his spell.

 

His thrusts were sharp and unforgiving now, and it was rough and ecstatic as I mercilessly ripped and scratched the skin on his back with my nails as he held me up, the smell of blood and sex in the air as he fucked me harder and harder until we both screamed out in total uninhibited….release. Cullen shuddered, filling me deeply with his splendour, the sweat on his brow touching my lips, salty and pure as the release we had both just experienced.

 

Cullen held me against the wall, still deep inside me, as he drew his lips to mine and kissed me between breathless pants. Perhaps in that brief moment, there was a short time where the Commander was at peace. His touch was softer, almost tender, as his soft lips lapped over mine gently before pulling away.

 

‘Thank you.’ he muttered withdrawing from me, and I felt alone, an emptiness that wasn’t a result of physical means. Cullen turned to retrieve his breastplate, revealing the many scratches and smeared blood from the fresh cuts left on his back.

 

‘You’re bleeding’ I remarked in concern, feeling guilty for being the one who had injured the Commander. An addition of injuries to the already long list.

 

With a smirk, Cullen drew his eyes back towards mine, pulling the loose cotton shirt over his head. ‘Like I said, thank you. I used to cut myself, after what happened at the Circle Tower. In Kirkwall in the privacy of my chambers, I would delight in running a blade over my skin on different parts of my body and every time it felt so...good. Every time that heavy pain in my gut started, when the memories came to haunt me, the physical pain of piercing my flesh would ease me. Your nails felt wonderful.’

 

I hesitantly moved closer to him, grabbing his hand as a cold breeze scattered loose leaves in the isolated corner we had come to pass in. ‘I don’t want to cause you further pain.’ I appealed.

 

‘You’re not,’ Cullen replied shortly, a faint smile following ‘in fact it is quite the opposite..’. Cupping my face, his amber warmth held my gaze ‘You could never hurt me, but I could hurt you. I warn you against getting close to me.’

 

‘The sun may warn the shadows to stay away, but we all know it is the light that allows the darkness to prevail as much as the darkness allows the light.’ I replied with a shrug.

 

‘Perhaps, but you are no shadow.’ replied the Commander bluntly.

 

‘We are all shadows.’ I muttered ‘You are not the only one that has lost faith in this life.’

 

Pulling away, he continued to dress himself in silence until he was once again a pristine image of a Commander of the Inquisition.

 

‘We meet at The Gnawed Noble at midday. Until then Inquisitor.’

 

‘Until then Commander.’ I replied dryly, if not accusingly, berating him for using my title so formally at such an informal moment. To turn on such titles after such intimacy boiled my blood, and left me feeling even more alone than when I started. His emotional detachment was like a blade against my own skin, although I felt no pleasure in it.

 

Cullen chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck bashfully as he acknowledged his cold manner, and flashed me wink before turning away once more.

 

Turning away, I was once again alone. Drawing a deep breath, I sighed heavily as I dressed myself. Perhaps Cullen was right, perhaps he would only hurt me in the end. So why was I so drawn to him? Why did his suffering make me want to care about him more? Every time he opened up himself to me, he showed me parts of him that were terrible, indeed flawed. So why did I find them curiously beautiful? Why was I so attracted to his darkness, and the shadowy deeds he was capable of? Why was that what appealed to me the most, that of which Cullen feared would destroy me in the end?

 

There was such a sadness in the Commander’s eyes, as if once he had beheld all the beauty in the world only for it to have been ripped from him, piece by piece, until there was nothing left to behold except the emptiness of his soul staring back at him, a shallow vessel of grief and despair. Hallow and discarded, a steady stream of sadness that had taught him to be a wiser person, even perhaps a better person, compared to those who rely on affirming their existence on the approval of others, and cast a blind eye on the suffering of the world for they have never been a part of it, only to pass it every now and then with a bat of an distracted eyelid. Cullen had found himself in the spiralling depths of torment and pain and somehow had managed to survive it. He had survived and he had returned a changed man, a beautiful mirror that was now shattered into a thousand shards, although still intact it was a piece riddled with flaws.

 

I couldn’t fix him, but even if I could I never would.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three: Shadows of the Past

 

 

‘This is a shield.’ yelled Cullen ‘It’s not for decoration, it’s not for balancing your sword’s weight. It’s not for eating your dinner off at night in the barracks when you’re in need of a table and there’s none to be had.’. Murmured chuckles sounded around the yard before growing quiet once more as the Commander continued ‘It can however defend you, and it can be used to attack your enemies. If you have a shield in your hand, use it.

 

The new recruits were gathered around Commander Cullen in the courtyard of Skyhold that midday, the warm sun beating upon their fresh steel as they listened attentively. Like fresh ducklings in the wild, they stood together wide eyed, uncertain yet curious, and somewhat alert as the Commander addressed them. They varied from bright youths barely reaching fifteen to those late in their years and well rough around the edges. It mattered not however, for the Inquisition did not discriminate when it came to fighting their cause.

 

Armed and ready, Cullen pointed his sword towards a black haired man in his early twenties that stood at the front of the group. ‘You there, what is your name?’

 

‘Kieran, sir.’ mumbled the man.

 

Cullen nodded ‘Well, Kieran, come at me.’

 

Nervously, the young man cast his black eyes around the crowd, hoping to disappear amongst his fellow recruits rather than being singled out.

 

‘Come on man!’ yelled Cullen ‘Do you think the enemy is going to leave you alone in the heat of battle? You’ll be faced with one, if not five or more enemies coming at you at once, ready to spill your blood as best as they can. Now come at me.’

 

Cullen’s last words were stern and low, with a tone that could not be interpreted as anything but an immediate threat. Standing tall in the middle of the sparring circle, the ex-templar’s feet were firmly planted in the ground, sword and shield ready, as if he had done this a million times before and probably had.

 

Raising his right arm that was holding his blade, the young man lunged towards the Commander. Kieran swung his sword diagonally across at Cullen, who effortlessly took a step back to avoid it, leaving the recruit to fall forward, his blade hitting the dusty ground with an unceremonious clang. With one short, sharp shove, Cullen rammed Kieran with his shield, and the young man fell backwards onto the ground with an oomph. A few men and women chuckled in the crowd before silencing quickly as the Commander threw his eyes dangerously across the group.

 

‘Do you think this is a joke?!’ he roared ‘If this seems funny, I can imagine how hilarious it will be to see you all run through by an enemy blade on our next mission.’. The courtyard went deadly silent, not even the pigeons that resided in the wooden rafters of The Herald’s Rest dared coo when the Commander was in such a mood. ‘To those of you who are actually interested in learning how to fucking fight, did you see how I used my shield as a weapon to destabilise him? I used it on the offence. I used it as a weapon, with more force to push my enemy off his feet than a sword ever could. When you’re fighting the enemy remember to use what you have in your hands to the best of it’s abilities.’

 

The Commander stood over Keiran and extended his metal gauntleted hand, helping the recruit up off the ground. It was clear that Kieran was struggling under the weight of his metal cuirass to gain his foothold.

 

‘It’s hard to move in this armour.’ winced Kieran achingly as he rejoined his fellow recruits. A few nodded in agreement, and there was more than half a dozen shifting uncomfortably in their steel dressings even as they stood idle.

 

‘We could train better without it.’ observed one of the younger recruits, producing a few ayes in the crowd.

 

Cullen nodded briefly and raised his eyebrows as if pondering the thought. ‘Yes, you’re probably right. You could swing a sword better without the cuirass, and you could move easier without the pauldrons.’. Walking slowly and sagely, like a man who had seen more in one lifetime than a dozen soldiers ever would, Cullen threw his eyes sternly across the recruits. ‘Has anyone heard of The Great Serf Rebellion of Bastion?’ he asked, looking around at a sea of blank faces ‘No I thought as much.’

 

Throwing his shield to the ground, Cullen rested against the stone wall of the foundations behind him. The sweat from his brow glistening in the midday sun. ‘Bastion, for those of you who do not know, is a large city in the south of Antiva, well known for it’s feudalistic tendencies, and the subsequent peasants obligation of serfdom under that regime. The land is controlled by a handful of extremely powerful merchant families, I believe the lords of the land are referred to as Merchant Princes over there. Fifty years ago there was one group of serfs that worked over a rather extensive part of Bastion under the servitude of Lord Sarzurious, a man who owned many of the lucrative mines and vineyards in south Bastion. Forced to work for the Merchant Prince, the Bastion serfs under the regime of Lord Sarzurious were offered little in return that amounted to adequate protection or food. In fact, Lord Sarzurious treated his serfs worse than slaves for the most part. As you can imagine, over the years the serfs became somewhat...disgruntled in their predicament and decided to overthrow their tyrannous master. Now Lord Bravadius, another Bastion landowner in the region, desired such a rebellion. He knew that it would open up an opportunity to take over the lucrative estate of Lord Sazarious, something that would otherwise never fall into the hands of Lord Bravadius.’

 

Cullen held up his longsword to the recruits, the silver steel’s reflection from the sun blinding their eyes ‘In secret, Lord Bravadius funded the serfs in their planned rebellion, providing them with exceptional quality Antivan steel weapons and armour. For a year the serfs trained to fight in secret, practicing with sword and dagger, bow and axe, until the day arrived that they decided to strike. Lord Sazarious naturally had soldiers protecting him, however they were half the number of the serfs that approached the gates of his manor in the early hours of morning on that fateful day. Each and every serf was donned in the finest steel plate armour, and each held an exquisite weapon in their hands. The outcome of the day was assumed obvious and victorious in its result. However...’. Cullen turned his sharp gaze upon the crowd ‘..they were all misled in their assumptions. As the battle began, the serfs struggled and stumbled to fight as they were met with the soldiers and knights of Lord Sazarious. For all the weapon training they had performed in secret, not one of the serfs had practiced wearing their armour. Not one. The weight of the steel exhausted them, drained them of their stamina. They couldn’t yield their weapons, and they couldn’t move with agility. Although not outnumbered, the serfs were struck down that day effortlessly. Each and every one slaughtered at the entrance of their master’s estate.’

 

A heavy blanket of silent unease fell across the courtyard. Satisfied by the response, Cullen nodded before continuing ‘This is why we train in our armour. This is why when you are not training, you will continue to wear your armour throughout the day, right up until you retire for the night. These heavy, uncomfortable steel trappings are now your second skin, and if I see anyone not wearing them in their entirety there will be repercussions. Do I make myself clear?’

 

‘Yes Commander.’ replied the group of recruits.

 

‘Good.’ remarked Cullen ‘For the rest of the afternoon I want to see you in groups of five, using your shield for attack and defence. We will not stop until the sun goes down. Proceed.’

 

The recruits hastily joined off in groups, eager to placate their Commander. Everyone knew Cullen Rutherford was an exceptionally talented warrior, however he lacked the bedside manner that others may have bestowed when teaching. To the Commander the only thing that mattered was results. He would push every recruit under his command to their limits, and refused to coddle and comfort in between. Perhaps he would get little thanks for it in the short run, but Cullen knew in the middle of a fight his recruits would be eternally grateful for his method of teaching. When they returned alive and breathing, they would be thankful. 

 

Running his stern gaze over the group, Cullen could see Leliana approaching in the distance, descending the stairs from the Great Hall with a light swiftness in her step. Silently she approached the sparring circle and sidled up to the Commander with a raised eyebrow, looking towards the soldiers fumbling about with their shields.

 

‘Give them time, they will come good.’ muttered the Commander.

 

‘Time is something we may not have.’ observed the spymaster with a hint of doubt. Leliana looked tired, her ginger hair lay scattered across her face limply, and dark skin bulged under her eyes. It was apparent she had enjoyed little sleep or respite for many days. ‘I have had word that Samson was spotted near the Emerald Greaves but a week ago. One of my spies was taken by his Red Templars. I'll be heading out tomorrow at dawn to track them.’

 

‘Use your fucking shield, Flinders!’ Cullen roared towards an older recruit in the corner of courtyard. With a heavy sigh, he turned back to Leliana. ‘They will be ready, even if they do this all night.’

 

A curl grew on Leliana’s lip as she observed the agitation of the Commander. She knew Cullen too well to believe shields were the real reason of his displeasure on this particular afternoon. ‘I assume Cassandra mentioned I will be taking the Inquisitor with me?’ she added.

 

‘Of course.’ muttered Cullen, turning his back to observe his recruits. With his face concealed, Leliana could not see the shadow that fell across it at the mention of Trevelyan. ‘Hopefully you will be able to locate Samson, as well as your agent. If that is all, I must return to my duties.’

 

With a swift nod, Leliana withdrew back to the steps, eager to ascend into her study at the top of the tower once more.

 

‘Leliana.’ called out Cullen

 

‘Commander?’

 

With dark amber eyes that glared into her green quite sternly, he stopped for a moment. ‘Keep her safe.’ he said in a softer voice, before turning with a sharp step towards his recruits once more.

 

The spymaster watched Cullen curiously as he returned to his recruits, already barking orders at several. With a small smirk she departed the courtyard to prepare for the next day’s journey. There was much to be done and little time to ponder anything in between, however much she may have wanted to do otherwise.

 

 

****

 

 

Stumbling through the green forest of the Emerald Greaves, a peace had fallen upon us that dreamy afternoon as we drifted through the broken sunlight filtering through the leafy branches above. Holding my hands above me, outstretched into the endlessness, the warmth peppered across my fingers, begging me to dance with it like a long lost lover, revelling in our reunion after such a very long, long time. Such euphoria at such a simple moment, I dared not close my eyes for I knew what would come to pass. What often crossed my mind in the silence of a rare moment to myself. Cullen.

 

While the others drew up their cloaks tight to their necks and blew warmth into their fingers, I was oblivious to the unforgiving chill in the afternoon air. The pink flush on my cheeks had nothing to do with the threat of an impending winter frost on the air, nor was my lack of hunger a result of having had my fill of nourishment. As many a fool before me, I was stumbling along the path of my life with my eyes shut tight, humming the sweet tune of infatuation all the way along, unaware that the shadows loomed close by.

 

Not even Corypheus could dampen my spirits at present, and that was why I knew what I was feeling was dangerous. Unrealistic. Perhaps even delusional...but I did not care. None of this mattered anymore. All that I wanted, all that I truly craved for was the company of a man whose time was scarcely bestowed upon me. Unrequited. Unreturned. Unwanted. For every action of his that warranted serious question, I was eager to excuse it with the flippant excuse of fate. Of destiny, to which we fools are ever obliging to use to explain why two people meet. Time had chosen to bring Cullen and I together for a higher purpose, so who was I to question the troublesome facts?

 

Of course I knew I was being ludicrous. Cullen was nothing more than the keeper of my affections, a wonderful and most cruel master that dangled a small sceric of happiness before me before pulling it away from my grasping hands. I wasn’t even sure if he knew he was doing it half the time, so powerful was his hold over me that merely being in his presence filled me with strange comfort and delight. The more I feasted on that delirium, the more I wanted, and the more I needed it, until I was nothing more than a rabid beast in the wilds craving it’s next meal in uninhibited, wanton desire.

 

The pendulum of my psyche swung from bliss to despair many times in every breath I took. I was losing control over my every part of being and the sad desperation of the Inquisition had sent me drowning into morbid reality. I was suffocating, if not dying already, and I was using Cullen as a rope to pull me out of it. I knew however that the temporary ignorant delight I experienced through him only led me further into the depths of that pool of ruin. When I finally opened my eyes, when I tried to draw my one last breath, I knew I would be long past saving myself and there would be nothing to be done about it.

 

The sound of a second horse approached from behind me, it’s hooves softly treading through the long wet grass of the damp forest floor. Looking across to my side I was greeted by Cole, serenely looking about the forest as he rode beside me, the brim of his hat hanging low across his face. ‘Falling, falling. Ever falling.’ he whispered in a sing-song manner ‘The water is rising above your head and you are sinking into the depths. Flaying arms and short breaths, you are losing control and you wonder what to do. But what can you do? To love is to feel pain, and no one loves pain. He does though. He loves it, and he knows he will cause it. He wants to cause it.’

 

A heavy sigh released from my lips as I looked away from the rogue. I didn’t need this, not now. I knew Cole was reading my thoughts. I knew he had read Cullen’s. However I did not want to know. Not like this.

 

‘The pain is so strong,’ continued Cole placidly ‘seering like white heat, and there is no escape. I try to take it away from him but it is sewn into his flesh and blood, flowing through his veins, running deeper to his core. It is bound to him and I cannot take it away lest I destroy him, for now the darkness and him are one and the same. They cannot be parted, they cannot be torn apart.’. Cole sighed sadly, his shoulders hunched over as if he could feel the very pain himself and could not bare it.

 

Casting a frown to my companion, I pulled my reins to slow my horse to a halt. ‘Do you have something to say?’ I asked sharply.

 

‘Bad things, terrible things happen to people and there is no way to remove them from the past they have endured. It becomes apart of them, and they change. They are transformed, liked a caterpillar into a moth, and even though the nightmares have changed them, they are no less beautiful than the butterflies of the world. Dark winged creatures of despair, so perfect. So...perfect. It has changed him and shaped him into the man that he is now. If I took those memories away he would be a different person. Cullen would cease to be.’

 

‘No one is asking you to fix Cullen.’ I snapped.

 

‘Yes, you do.’ replied Cole sadly ‘You want to take away his pain all the time. That is why you need to understand. That is what I am trying to make you understand.’. His eyes lifted from under the wide brimmed hat, and drew patiently into mine ‘He likes you but fears to love. If he opens himself to you, you will see...you will see.. and he knows you will not want to see.’

 

Digging my heels into the side of my horse, I quickened the pace and left Cole behind. Perhaps what he said was true, but I didn’t want to hear it.

 

As the sun fell behind the trees and darkness began to engulf the forest, we set up camp, Vivienne, Varric, Cole, Leliana and I. A small grove of trees provided us with some concealment, and a small fire burned brightly, a warmth that was eagerly welcomed. One of the Inquisition’s agents had gone missing, and it was imperative that we find them. We had been wandering through the forest for less than a day, searching for any signs that the Red Templars had ventured this way, although to our dismay and possible relief we had found nothing except the deep serenity of the forest.

 

Shaking my head, I threw some twisted up leaves I had been diligently tearing away at into the depths of the camp fire. Ever since I had spoken to Cole, I had been thrown into a most foul mood. My bubble of my infatuation, idealising the misconstrued actions of Cullen, had been burst by the observant spirit that took pleasure in analysing the minds of others. Cole was trying to help, of that I was certain, however like many with such good intentions the result often rendered quite the opposite.

 

I spent the better half of the night meditating on idle thoughts, trying to distract myself from what I craved to think about, until all my companions had retired to bed and I was left alone with my mind to haunt me once more. Leliana was also awake, however she too seemed plagued by her own demons that night, quietly observing the silence with welcomed reverence. She lent her ginger head against the log behind her, and was looking up to the stars, as if searching for an answer from the Maker above.

 

‘The stars are so beautiful in a clear night sky,’ she obsereved quietly ‘I almost forget how much so when I spend too long at Skyhold, locked away in my study.’

 

‘Yes,’ I murmured ‘out here it almost feels how life should be.’

 

‘Life is never how it should be.’ replied Leliana bitterly.

 

I turned my eyes to the spymaster, half interested in that remark, half concerned. I was under no pretences at how important Leliana was to the success of the Inquisition. If she was losing faith, then we were all doomed.

 

Leliana’s eyes were wide and looking deep into the night, as if only slightly aware of my presence and her observations were rather directed to herself.

 

‘I spent many nights like this in Ferelden,’ whispered the spymaster ‘especially after I left Lothering. I would sit and tell so many stories to my companions on a nightly basis, like a naive little child, unaware of what foul events would come my way as the days progressed. How I long for that innocence again, in our blissful unawareness of the impending terrors fate bestows upon us all, perhaps it is only there where we can truly be happy?’

 

‘Cassandra mentioned that you travelled with the Hero of Ferelden?’ I remarked, interested in holding a conversation that could distract my spiralling thoughts.

 

‘Hero.’ scoffed Leliana bitterly ‘Hardly. She killed an arch demon but does that act alone make you a hero? No. Heroes are just people, and people can do terrible things. I believe a hero must be selfless in their sacrifice. She is self serving until the end.’

 

Raising my brows, I shifted my body to face Leliana. ‘What did the Hero of Ferelden do to warrant that assessment?’ I asked curiously, if not a little surprised.

 

A tired sigh departed Leliana’s lips, her eyes glassy at the memories filling her already consumed mind. ‘There were many things that Sierra Amell did, where does one begin? Ah that’s right.’ chuckled the bard bitterly ‘She murdered me.’

 

‘What?!!’ I blurted out.

 

A hardened expression grew on Leliana’s face. ‘Yes.’ she replied sharply ‘At the temple of Sacred Ashes. Sierra intended to taint the ashes of our holy Andraste for the sake of a ridiculous cult, The Disciples of Andraste. They worshipped a high dragon which they believed was the reincarnation of Andraste herself. What fools. We all knew they were delusional and dangerous, but the hero knew she could use this to her advantage. The leader of the cult, Kolgrim, asked her to pour a vial of the dragon’s blood onto the ashes of Andraste. Sierra agreed to to it.'

 

‘Why would anyone do such a thing?’ I asked in horror.

 

‘Why indeed.’ muttered Leliana ‘To defile something so pure...’. The spymaster sighed heavily, finally turning her gaze away from the heavens and towards me ‘In return for such an act, Kolgrim offered her a rather large amount of coin, and membership into the cult. She was only after allies, and a way around the dragon she did not fancy to fight. Sierra did not care what else came of it. For that is the way of the hero, the end always justified the means, even before there was an end to pursue.’

 

I shook my head in disbelief ‘But, why turn on you? One of her very own companions?’

 

‘After she tainted the blood, I was angry.’ explained Leliana ‘You cannot imagine how angry I was. You cannot imagine the frustration I felt in that moment, after everything that we had gone through to find that forgotten place that had been hidden for so long. Such a holy place where just being there sent shivers across your skin. And then to witness Sierra so willingly corrupt the remains of our holy mother in such a way without a moment’s thought or hesitation. Sierra was not one of the faithful, but there were others that did believe, many, many others whose faith guided them. People like me. The ashes would have served as hope for all these people, no? It would have given them so much faith in a realm filled with so much despair. I knew that anyone who tried to destroy that was wrong. I challenged Sierra and she became angry, nay furious, at my refusal to accept her decision. I could not back down and neither could she, so we fought each other. She ran me through in that chamber. The light left my eyes and I was dead, for that I am certain, but then I woke up again in the cold moutain side of the temple many days later without a scratch on my skin. I had been brought back for a purpose. The Maker had saved me.’

 

‘That is….remarkable.’ I exclaimed, somewhat uncertain whether to believe it or not ‘Although I am sorry for what you went through. Such betrayal.’. I paused, noticing that the sad look that Leliana held had now amplified in her confession to me ‘I always heard the inflated stories of the hero of Ferelden and Alistair the Grey Warden. The tales are usually of the lovers more than the details of the Blight. I guess everyone loves a good tale of true love rather than be concerned with the actual facts?’

 

Leliana scoffed even more bitterly ‘Don’t mention that to Cullen.’

 

My heart leapt more than a little at the mention of the Commander’s name in such an unexpected context. ‘Why-why would I...’ I stammered, but Leliana cut me off.

 

‘You fancy each other, I know.’ she stated bluntly. I began to protest but she drew her eyes sternly into mine. ‘I know.’

 

‘Okay,’ I replied, growing red in the face and thankful that the shadows of the night concealed it ‘but why would Cullen care about the stories of the Hero of Ferelden?’

 

‘Because he was in love with her at the circle tower.’ replied Leliana flatly ‘His first true love.’. Leliana paused, looking slightly surprised as her lip curled. ‘He never mentioned her?’

 

‘No’ I replied darkly ‘I don’t suppose he did.’. Not that Cullen and I had spoken much in general, but I wondered if this was the reason behind his distance towards me?

 

Leliana shrugged ‘I’m sure he had his reasons. Not that he feels fondly about her now I imagine, I wouldn’t worry about that. Sierra left him at the tower to be conscripted as a Grey Warden, only to return to the tower when it was under seige...with her new lover, Alistair, by her side. All the time we travelled together Sierra never mentioned one word about Cullen, not even to Alistair I suspect, that poor doting fool. Even when we found Cullen in the tower, she pretended they were little more than general acquaintances. Sierra is devious and manipulative in that way.’

 

‘You knew Cullen from the Kinloch Hold?’ I asked in surprise.

 

‘Of course,’ replied Leliana with a smile ‘I helped contain the tower during the seige, that was when we came across Cullen.’. Leliana sighed ‘That poor man. We all thought he had lost his mind. He was begging us to kill him there and then before he realised we were not abominations. Ah, but Cullen is a strong man. When everyone around him broke he stayed strong until the end. That is the way of the Commander.’

 

‘That’s horrible.’ I murmured ‘After all Cullen endured in that tower, to have to face Sierra’s betrayal of their love in tow.’

 

‘Love often is horrible,’ muttered Leliana ‘and makes a mockery of us all.’

 

‘There is nothing going on between Cullen and I,’ I added guiltily ‘you read too much into it if you think otherwise.’

 

Leliana let out a high pitched laugh, almost a giggle, light hearted and free ‘Oh please Inquisitor, you may try to conceal your feelings and I applaud you for trying, but the Commander has already exposed his hand long ago. His eyes, you see, betray him every moment you approach, it is but a small but rather obvious tell tale, and you needn’t be an assassin to know that, I assure you.’

 

‘If you say so….’ I replied more than a little in doubt. Perhaps his eyes took interest, but I questioned whether his heart followed suit.

 

‘The Commander has had an unforgiving life,’ muttered Leliana ‘but he is in a better place now. Old wounds may never fully heal, but he is for the first time in control of his life. He serves the Inquisition and the Inquisition serves him well. I would not lose all hope for the Commander just yet. I have known Cullen for quite a while, and he is one of the most strongest and selfless people I know. He is a good man who has experienced terrible things, that is all.’

 

The soft call of the night birds was the only reply left to be said. Leliana and Cole may have known more about the Commander than I, but it gave me little comfort in the end. I had no control over my heart, and it had already made it’s own opinion of the Commander of the Inquisition.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: Confessions


 

The weeks passed by and we endured it, unable to track any sign of the Red Templars or Samson until we begrudgingly accepted that they were long gone and our efforts had been in vain. We all felt we had failed our missing agent, especially Leliana, and her deathly quietness made us wish the journey back home would go fast. The atmosphere was heavy as we rode back to Skyhold, with Varric’s light hearted banter not even able to lift our spirits. With frost bitten fingertips clutching at the reins, the Keep came to greet us on the horizon. We were home.

 

Riding along the drawbridge into the courtyard, the stronghold was busy in the late afternoon. Master Dennet was yelling orders at the stable boys, and the sweet smell of hay lingered in the air while the whinny of horses sounded every now and then. The new recruits hastily gathered around to see our arriving party, hopeful to witness some terrible enemy we may have happened across and decided to bring back to the keep.

 

Unsaddling in haste, we all departed our separate ways, eager to find some isolation after so long travelling together. Leliana and Vivienne scurried off to the warmth of the Great Hall, while Varric murmured something about the Herald’s Rest under his breath before heading off. Cole, as usual, had simply…..disappeared.

 

Wearily I started to climb the side stairs leading up to Skyhold’s kitchens when I suddenly stopped. Even now I’m not sure what brought the sudden change of heart. Perhaps it was the familiar smell of ram stew from the kitchens, or the usual sound of the smithy in the distance, the repetitive dull striking of the hammer against the anvil, over and over again. Perhaps it was nothing at all, but in that moment I knew that all the comforts of home, all the familiarities that once existed were now nothing more than strange sounds and odours to me. I couldn’t be here.

 

With a turn and a dash, I hurriedly made my way for the gate of the stronghold and didn’t stop until I had cleared the bridge. A few guards looked on in confusion, calling out my title uncertainly as I rushed by, but I did not care to stop or reply. It wasn’t my name and I didn’t want that responsibility anymore. It didn’t matter where I was going, as long as it was away from Skyhold.

 

My boots trudged heavily against the gravel and ice on the road before me as I set out for my new course. After enjoying a few minutes of silence the heavy thud of two horses came riding up behind me, and stopped at my side.

 

‘Inquisitor.’ spoke one of the guards ‘We have orders not to let you wander outside Skyhold unattended.’

 

With a flash of furious eyes, I pointed an accusing finger at the man, my hand glowing green so as to cause unease. ‘Leave me be.’ I hissed breathlessly, hastening my step and leaving the befuddled men behind once more.

 

Stumbling along the rocky path as it zigged and zagged around the towering terrain of the Frostback Mountains, I barely noticed the sun as it began to sink behind the mountains. I pressed on knowing the further I walked the further away I would be from my prison keep. The sharp jagged rocks cut into the soft soles of my shoes every now and then, as if reminding me I was wandering aimlessly on an ever dangerous path. Amber waves of deep orange spilled into blood red across the heavens as the afternoon transformed into evening, and I stopped finally to take in the last moments of it’s magnificence. Leliana was right, we had forgotten the beauty of the world amongst our despair. The simplicity of the stars and the wondrous nature of the evergreen forests. All were forgotten, including ourselves. Who were we now? What did we stand for? To fight, to serve, to protect. We would bathe in the blood of our enemies and be reborn into something we never were meant to be.

 

Behind me the loud gallop of hoofs approached, set at a determined pace. I refused to turn, I did not care whether it be friend or foe.

 

‘Inquisitor.’ called out a sharp, low voice that I instantly recognised. It was that of Cullen, an ever so faint hint of question in his voice as if uncertain of my present state of mind.

 

‘Commander.’ I replied dryly, refusing to hold his gaze. Of course we were using titles amongst each other. ‘Go away.’ I added. I knew it was harsh of me to speak so but I wasn’t concerned. When everything was crumbling around me, what did I care about civilities?

 

Cullen proceeded at a trot beside me as I walked faster. ‘You’ll be walking a while,’ he remarked in a calm, matter of fact manner ‘there is no respite out here for another five miles or so. Unless you are heading to Skyhold? In that case, you are walking the wrong way.’

 

Cullen held an amused smile on his chiselled jaw as I kept my gaze forward on the road, not wanting to engage, although I could see him clearly in my periphery. The Commander was looking splendid in his full armour upon his shiny, black steed, that ever present smirk on his scarred lip present even now.

 

‘Enough of this nonsense, come, let me take you back.’ he replied firmly, holding down his hand towards me.

 

Moving my shoulder away from his reaching grasp, I spun around wildly. ‘I’ve had enough of Skyhold, and you for that matter. I foolishly thought my life at the circle was pitiable in comparison to the lives of other free men and women out here in the realm. What a fool I was. Now I know what was awaiting for me out there-’ I waved my hand carelessly around me ‘I would have been better locked up in the circle for the rest of my days. I can’t do this anymore. You can find another puppet to pull the strings to.’

 

The Commander pulled his reins tight, perhaps in suppressed anger, although he refused to reveal it anymore than that. ‘Five miles it is’ muttered Cullen ‘Although let me ride you there at least. You are free to do what you will, but you will freeze on the roads tonight before you even reach your destination, of that I am certain.’

 

Cullen dismounted heavily off his steed, the sound of his metal armour rustling and the crunch of the gravel trudging under his feet. Moving towards me, he gently grabbed my arm as I tried to walk on. ‘Trevelyan,’ he murmured in a softer tone ‘please.’

 

Trevelyan. My name. There was a tenderness in his voice that I had only had a mere taste of back in the ruins of Denerim. I was vulnerable to it and it made me stop dead in my tracks. With a strong grip, Cullen refused to release my arm as the metal gauntlet pressed into the soft cloth of my forearm. It was firm yet gentle all at the same time, and I wasn’t mentally strong enough to break from it. With a slight nod, I allowed Cullen to lead me back to his steed, and we mounted and continued on into the night.

 

There were a thousand things to say and yet neither of us uttered a word, although I could sense the frustration Cullen must have been experiencing, brimming with questions, however he was not a man to fill the empty void of silence with idle gossip and stories along the way. The stillness of the night was what I wanted in that moment and he respected it.

 

Plumes of frosty breath escaped our mouths as we rode on, the night being clear and bitterly cold, although it made the journey easier to navigate with the glowing crescent moon bright overhead. In a more agreeable circumstances, the ride might have been looked upon as almost favourable, as we lay our eyes on the shimmering rock and ice under the moonlight, the stars of the Frostback Mountains. My hands held fast against the lower waist of the Commander, at the edge of his metal cuirass, and I could feel his breath draw deeper whenever I adjusted my fingers to balance my position. There was a soft, almost sweet, scent coming from his waves of sandy hair and soon I found myself breathing deeper and closer to his neck than I probably should have, the feathers from his gorget tickling my nose and cheeks.

 

My eyes drew heavier and heavier as the Commander rode on, and I was lulled into that blissful state somewhere between the realm of dreams and reality, until finally we approached the small lights of a roadside tavern, tucked away cozily on the side of the seemingly endless, winding mountain path. A tired wooden sign swung in front; Ortik’s Tavern. Whoever Ortik was, I was glad he decided to make the tavern here and no further up the road.

 

Exhausted and weary, I dismounted at the entrance before Cullen did the same, handing his horse to the stable boy before leading me into the brightly lit room of the foyer of the tavern. The smell of yeasty warm bread and heady ale overwhelmed my senses, and we were greeted by a brightly lit room leading onto a larger area full of roaring fires and two dozen or so merry patrons busily chatting away the plights of their day in festive respite. Cullen left me at the door while he walked over to the innkeep standing by the well worn oak bar, a tall and burly looking man that I supposed could have been Ortik himself, and could well have been a warrior in his younger days. The pair talked quietly amongst themselves for a while, before Cullen finally returned to the foyer.

 

‘Come.’ he muttered darkly, brushing roughly past me and leading me to the stairs at the side of the room, ascending them heavily. Uncertain whether the order was that of Cullen or the Commander, I followed on hesitantly until we reached the top of the stairs, following down the dimly lit hall until Cullen stopped at a door and opened it with the key in his hand.

 

‘I took the liberty of arranging lodgings.’ he murmured, allowing me to enter but standing fast at the door. I half expected, nay wanted, him to follow in after me, but the Commander remained unmoved.

 

‘What now?’ I asked, almost accusingly.

 

Cullen shrugged. ‘You have made your mind up it appears, I must wish you well on the rest of your life.’. He threw me a small smile at the end of his comment, as if even in all my seriousness he knew it was anything but. It was a typical manner Cullen used with me.

 

‘I’m sorry for...’ my eyes flickered away in embarrassment. ‘I don’t know what came over me. I’ll return to Skyhold tomorrow.’ I murmured, looking one last time in his amber eyes as he stood over me in close proximity.

 

The curl of his lip revealed his white scar in the soft light. ‘Good girl.’ he murmured, taking another step towards me and then further into the room. ‘Perhaps I can stay with you a while longer then?’

 

 

****

 

 

The night unfolded in unexpected splendour and delight, that of which we both could not have anticipated. A small four poster bed pushed up against the side wall, and a small wooden table with two chairs was all that adorned the modest accommodation. However it’s simplicity did not concern us for the company made up anything else that room may have otherwise been lacking. Taking our places at the table, we shared our first meal together. A modest spread of bread, warm meat, dried fruit and soft cheese. Between us stood two bottles of Vint-9 Rowan’s Rose, of which we were more than happy to entertain.

 

‘Now that you have me here, it brings me to mind of your true intentions.’ mused Cullen wickedly, swirling the crimson liquid imprisoned in a metal goblet in one hand while tearing off some sour dough with the other ‘I can only assume that was your cunning plan all along?’

 

‘Quite possibly.’ I grinned.

 

‘Well, lucky then that I didn’t send Harritt after you instead.’ chuckled Cullen, producing a laugh from both of us. His amber eyes drew into mine suddenly, like a warm flame. ‘Would you have really left?’ he asked seriously. There was a glimmer of michievity in his face, but also perhaps a small part of something else. Hurt? Disappointment? I couldn't’ tell, but he waited patiently to hear my reply.

 

‘I-’. My voice faltered, not knowing where to begin ‘The recent trip to the Emerald Greaves gave me a lot of time to think about things.’

 

‘Indeed?’ remarked Cullen ‘What things?’

 

With a large swig of the sweet liquid to my lips, my eyes scattered across the barren room trying to fixate on anything but the man before me. ‘You. Me. Everything.’ I begun ‘What we were before all of this, and what that makes us now.’

 

The ex templar eased back in his seat, a small smile permanently on his lips ‘Ah, now I am getting a better picture. You spent near a month with that gossiping bard. I don’t suppose Leliana had anything to do with these revelations? She and I go back quite a long way and I recall confiding in her, perhaps unwisely, about my former days on many occasion. Last time I confide in such loose lips. ’. Running his right hand across the table, he strummed his fingers lingering over my hand with a lower voice ‘Did she talk to you about my time in Kirkwall? Is this what has troubled you?’

 

‘Not Kirkwall,’ I replied, taking another hasty sip ‘it was about...the Hero of Ferelden.’

 

Cullen raised his eyebrows in genuine surprise ‘Sierra Amell?’. He shrugged as he leant heavily back into the wooden chair once more ‘I imagine Leliana had a lot to say about her.’

 

With focused aggression, I began tearing pieces of the bread on the table apart between my fingers as I watched him. So calm and collected in his indifference at someone he had held so dear. How could he act like that? I knew my anger towards the Hero of Ferelden was an unreasonable response to a person I had never met, and yet all I could think of was that Sierra Amell was the reason Cullen kept pulling away from me. She was the real reason.

 

As if sensing, if only a sceric, of my unworthy thoughts, Cullen poured himself another glass of wine contemplatively before he spoke. ‘I’m not sure how much you know, or how accurate Leliana’s account was.’ he muttered ‘From your reaction I can assume Leliana’s account of my past gave neither one of us any real justice.’

 

‘She told me enough.’ I replied hastily.

 

‘Apparently not.’ remarked Cullen shortly ‘Or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Amell was one of my charges at the Circle Tower before the Blight. I was not nineteen the first time I met her. We were both very young and naive, me a new templar in the Order and her a mage. We had no actual experience of the real dangers that magic presented. Naturally being a templar I wasn’t permitted to fraternize with the other mages, especially my charges.’. He drew his hand wearily through his locks as he continued ‘Naturally I ignored this, and we fell for each other, and got quite close. Shortly after her harrowing she foolishly tried to help one of her mage friends, a blood mage no less, in escaping the tower. At the time I was blinded by my feelings I admit, and thought she had just made an error in judgement. A Grey Warden by the name of Duncan came to the tower and conscripted Amell into the Wardens, and she happily left rather than face the repercussions of her actions.’

 

‘And you are still in love with her to this very day.’ I murmured half to myself, if not entirely, but loud enough to produce a scoff from the Commander’s lips. My eyes drew hastily to his, embarrassed by my comments.

 

‘Hardly.’ remarked Cullen firmly ‘I was fond of her, and perhaps believed myself to be in love while we were at the Tower. However after she left, she changed a great deal. She returned many months later to the tower to help with the siege.’. Cullen shook his head in disgust ‘She sided with the mages, saving as many of those corrupted monsters as she could. I dare say she would have spared Uldred if she could have. Even as she witnessed the terror those mages had unleashed on her home, she still defended each and every one of them to the very end. Leliana told me of what happened in the tower, and how Sierra allowed the mages she came across to escape. She even let a desire demon escape with a templar.’. A disgusted sigh escaped Cullen’s lips, as if even now he was still shocked by Amell’s actions.

 

‘Why would she do that?’

 

‘I have no idea.’ remarked Cullen in disgust ‘Leliana told me Sierra felt she was being kind to the templar. Apparently the demon had given the templar the illusion that he was living a happy life with a wife and family...the demon was his wife. Leliana urged Sierra to kill the demon before conversing with it, but she refused to listen and by the end allowed the demon and the possessed templar to escape.’

 

‘Utter madness.’ I scoffed.

 

The ex-templar rubbed his aching neck ‘I agree. After the siege was over, Sierra left shortly after with her new love, another Grey Warden by the name of Alistair.’. Cullen chuckled, adding ‘I assure you I was well over that short chapter of intrigue by that point. The cold hard slap of reality can knock the sense into anybody.’

 

With a frown I looked over to my companion. ‘I had no idea.’ I murmured.

 

The Commander tilted his head with a smirk ‘Is this what has been troubling you?.’. He held a grin now that would not be wiped despite my disapproving frown. The words of Leliana regarding Cullen had scarred my very soul for over a month and to now hear Cullen simply disregard it all in jest. I felt more than a little ashamed for my incorrect assumptions.

 

‘Leliana made me think Sierra-.’

 

‘Broke my heart?’ taunted Cullen ‘No, I fear that is the minstrel in Leliana coming out to cause mischief. Besides, I was somewhat distracted by what happened to my fellow templars at the tower to take anything else too personally. That, I confess, may have broken my heart.’. A silence came over us for a mere few seconds but it felt like an eternity, before Cullen looked up to me again. ‘When I saw what Sierra had become, when I saw what she was becoming, I knew it was not the person I had fallen for in the tower in former days. I assume Leliana mentioned how Sierra tried to murder her in the Temple of Sacred Ashes after tainting the ashes of Andraste with dragon’s blood?.’

 

‘Yes she did,’ I replied as if still in shock by the fact ‘I was mortified. No one mentions that in the stories.’

 

‘Of course not!’ chortled Cullen ‘I can’t imagine the truth is ever good for tale telling. No story will defend the actions of Loghain Mac Tir, no matter what the truth might actually reveal in itself. Nor do they mention that the Hero of Ferelden practiced blood magic while trying to defeat the darkspawn!.’. He sighed wearily, emptying his glass hastily ‘Sierra Amell has earned her title as the Hero of Ferelden, but heroes are not always pure of heart. Even if you put aside the fact that she tried to kill our master of spies, Sierra’s choices were something I could never accept. She was a blood mage. Her actions stemmed with an objective to serve herself. Leliana grew to know her quite well as they travelled together, and was kind enough to inform me of her true nature. I assure you, whatever I may have felt in my younger days, I have no feelings for our beloved Hero of Ferelden.’. He strummed his fingers on the table, amused at my silence ‘Dare I ask, is the Inquisitor...jealous?.’. Cullen grinned in wicked delight, running his fingers across the unshaven ruggedness of his chin as he observed me from across the table.

 

Rolling my eyes I poured another wine too hastily, spilling the contents onto the table in undignified slurps ‘I had simply thought she was your one true love.’

 

‘Do you always believe people are hopeless romantic vessels of unrequited love and torment? Or is that just reserved for me?’ Cullen asked with a chuckle.

 

I looked up at him in sudden anger ‘I was away for over a month, and every recruit was lined up to greet our return. Half of Skyhold perhaps! Where were you? Did I even cross your mind while I was away, risking my life and nearly losing it a dozen times over?’

 

In a series of unbecoming dramatic gestures, I stood up and paced over to the window, trying to distract myself with the dark view outside. I wanted to ask him why he didn’t love me, scream it at his face like a child throwing a tantrum, but something held me back. A final sceric of dignity perhaps…

 

‘That is a stupid question.’ growled Cullen ‘Do you equate me waiting eagerly at the gate, like some idiotic puppy, to mean I care more for you? We are running a fucking Inquisition here. I am responsible for more than your ever jaded feelings.’. He downed the last of the liquid in his goblet in agitation, clearly vexed by my accusations. A shadow fell across Cullen’s face, and his eyes grew stormy as he turned around to me. ‘You cannot imagine what thoughts go through my mind every time you leave Skyhold’ he muttered bitterly ‘You do not know how many times I wished it was I who received that mark of Corypheus. I am not afraid to sacrifice my life, and all that I am to this cause. Yet to know that you have that burden. To know that you could not return one of these days...’. The Commander shook his head ‘Do not ask me why I do not wait for you to ride in through those gates.’. He looked furiously towards me, standing up from the table ‘This is why we cannot be together. I will not be the one responsible for your pain. I told you that.’

 

‘You are already doing that.’ I scowled ‘Don’t you understand? You could have done anything, anything at all, and I wouldn’t care less. All I want is you Cullen. You.’

 

With more than a few obscenities under his breath, Cullen slammed his fist hard against the wooden beam of the bed, shuddering the frame. ‘By the Maker, you are a mage Trevelyn!’ he roared ‘A mage. You could be corrupted by a demon at any time, and turn into one of the many abominations that I saw at the Kinloch Hold and Kirkwall. Do you think I can see you in any other light?’

 

‘I am not an abomination.’ I retorted darkly.

 

‘What? Should I take your word on that?’ he sneered ‘Oh, okay then! Do you know how many mages, like you, have claimed they were in control only to have turned into abominations? And do you know what I did to those mages, in Kirkwall under Meredith’s orders?’. The Commander started to laugh a drawn out and contorted laugh, black as night and deranged as a maddening waltz. It was the kind of laugh that made one uneasy. ‘We executed and tranquilised mages, hundreds of them.’ continued Cullen ‘Put out the light in their eyes, one by one. Meredith may have been harsh in her methods but she was right. If you give mages even an inch of freedom, they will abuse it. Wherever I turn, this is what happens eventually to the mages around me. You all cry injustice and yet do you ever think of the victims that have suffered under the foul hand of your magic? You know what I think of mages. Do you not understand? I will never trust you, and you most certainly will never trust me. I have hurt your kind, and maker preserve me I never do that to you...’

 

Cullen looked accusingly at me, waiting for a reply as I stood there with a pained expression carved across my face. His chest was rising and falling heavily, and I could hear him breathing in and out deeply, obviously distraught at the reality that lay before him. Was I really that abhorrent to him? How could someone that meant so much to me think so little of me in return. It seemed cruel and unfair, and I knew the only way to replace the hurt I was feeling was to hurt him more.

 

With a look that could have killed, I drew my palm wide and uttered some words under my breath, drawing a bright orange flame ball to my hand suddenly. In all honesty, there was no reason for the act except to punish the Commander’s cruel words. If he truly despised mages and magic, if he truly could only hate me, then I hoped he would strike me down now and end my suffering.

 

The look in Cullen's eyes told me how much this act hurt him. A flash of brilliant blue light emitted from his hands as he performed a spell purge on the area. The shock of the purge knocked me flat against the wall behind me, the flame in my hands diminishing without a moments hesitation. Before I could gain my balance, a pair of firm hands pushed me hard against the wall, Cullen breathing rapidly now as he held my hands in place.

 

‘Don’t you ever do that in my presence again.’ he growled, eyes lowered into mine threateningly.

 

I tried to move but was defenseless under his tight grip. ‘Or what, Commander?’ I yelled back ‘Will you turn me into a fucking tranquil?’

 

Panting with rage, Cullen pressed himself against me as I struggled to escape, squeezing his grasp on my wrists tighter and tighter against the wall until I yelped in pain.

 

‘This is what you wanted, isn’t it?’ hissed Cullen ‘For me to hurt you? Is this what you want from me? Maker be damned for throwing you into my path, I would have preferred Corypheus himself. Curse you for plaguing my thoughts and haunting my dreams, until I question my very own sanity, for no one should feel the things I feel towards you.’

 

I could scarce feel my wrists anymore, the blinding pain searing into numbness. Holding his gaze I remained calm and became quiet. ‘Do what you must Cullen.’ I murmured sadly ‘You could never hurt me.’

 

The words echoed in the room, like a sad toll of a chantry bell when someone had passed, wiping the hardened frown on Cullen’s face. Heavily breathing, Cullen drew his panting lips to mine, suddenly releasing my hands in order to wrap his own tight around my waist and pull me towards him, devouring me in a deep kiss that threatened to drown us both in it’s intensity. Still constrained, the ex-templar used his torso to hold me against the wall, consuming me in a series of laps and sucks and lips, biting and pulling my bottom lip before starting all over again.

 

Finally pulling away, Cullen held my face firmly in his hands, pressing his forehead against mine. ‘How can I possibly hate something that makes me feel like this?’ he murmured ‘You mean too much to me and it terrifies me. I keep on pushing you away because I fear to lose you. What madness possesses anyone to do such a thing?’

 

‘I would never hurt you.’ I whispered with a quivering lip ‘I’m so sorry for casting magic. I would never use magic on you. I would willingly wish it away forever if it gave you even a moments peace.’

 

Cullen brought a finger to my lip ‘Shhh, I won’t hear it. I deserved worse for what I said. Forgive me and my temper. I am better than that.’. His sandy waves of hair fell down across his brow as he lowered his gaze from mine.

 

Bringing my hands to his face, I drew his eyes back to mine. ‘You could never hurt me.’ I murmured ‘Let me in and I will never leave your side, I swear it.’

 

He shook his head, placing another soft kiss on my lips before withdrawing ‘Foolish girl. You are already in.’. Cullen cast me a unimpressed look with a grin ‘I knew you would be trouble for me, and it turns out I was right.’

 

I wanted to laugh but the seriousness engulfed me. ‘I can’t convince you to trust me as a mage,’ I pleaded ‘and I understand that. I really do. But know this, there is nothing you can tell me that would change how I feel about you. Nothing.’

 

Cullen nodded briefly, perhaps unconvinced by my claim ‘In time you will get to know me, and we will see. Until then, I can only assure you that you have nothing to fear from me. I would never hurt you intentionally. That is all I can promise.’

 

The faint light of the sun on the horizon began to dimly light the skies outside, and we retired, Cullen and I, to the bed out of sheer exhaustion. Wrapping his arms around me, we fell asleep in each others embrace as the new day approached, unaware of the turbulent night we had endured. Of all the moments we had experienced until that point, I remember never feeling so intimately connected to Cullen as I did on that rickety old bed in Ortik’s Inn in the wee hours of the morning, blissfully entwined in a deep slumber. The warmth of his breath on my neck and the soft throbbing of his pulse against my skin, these were the most precious gifts I could ever have received from Commander Cullen.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five: A Broken Heart


 

None of us could recall a colder season than the one we had found ourselves hopelessly in that particular winter. Perhaps being hauled up in a drafty Keep in the heart of the Frostback Mountains didn’t help our cause, with the iciness managing to penetrate even the sunniest of days. Varric had once claimed he had found snow deep in the nook of a crag in the high of summer, and I was now inclined to believe him. Even Blackwall confessed he had found frost on his beard on more than one occasion. Fires were lit throughout the Stronghold, in every room and in the pits outside in the courtyard, even on the battlements, yet it provided little comfort.

 

There was something that made this season especially unforgiving. Most blamed it on Corypheus or an impending Blight, with stories circulating that the heat from the sun was dying, the untamed winds slowing, the once nourishing earth was now barren and the cool flowing waters of the rivers had turned rancid. All omens of terrible times to come. Although as Solas simply put it, fear and the dormancy of the season merely fed on the ignorant imaginations of the men and women of Thedas. Nothing more.

 

Omen or not, it was true that the last harvest had yielded poor results across the realm, and the larders were not as abundant as one could have hoped for. More and more people were seeking refuge at Skyhold from the icy bitterness, people that could not be turned away despite the Keep’s larders running ominously low and the blankets and clothing being far and few between.

 

The responsibility of so many lives weighed heavily on all our shoulders, and the Counsel of the Inquisition felt its effects in particular. Leliana worked late into each night and hardly retreated from her tower although many agents were seen coming and going at all hours of the day. Cassandra consumed herself in her training with a level of discipline that seemed excessive, and Josephine refused to take a moments break until exhaustion overtook her and she fell asleep at her desk. Cullen had been called away to the Griffon Wing Keep in The Western Approach the day after our last encounter, and it had now been over eight weeks since I had seen the Commander of the Inquisition.

 

I retreated to my chambers whenever I was spared a moment of respite, longing for the silence that no other part of the Keep could afford. An untoward chill invaded every part of me even when the fire of my room blazed strongly and it’s intensity turned my white skin pink and flushed, although I could not blame the weather for that. I knew who was to blame and they were no longer in Skyhold.

 

Eight weeks prior, Cullen and I had hardly exchanged even a few words between each other when we awoke in our room at Ortik’s Inn. Whatever sentiments the Commander had held towards me in the previous hours seemed to have evaporated in our dreams and Cullen once again seemed distant and distracted. Of course the confession of his disdain for mages did not help our cause and by the time we arrived back at Skyhold, I was relieved to be parted from the uncomfortable silence of our travels. I was notified by Josephine later that day that Cullen had been called away to the Griffon Wing Keep. Leaving for the Western Approach, he never said goodbye. Cullen had simply left.

 

With all the self hate and loathing I already had for myself, this new revelation of Cullen’s had reduced me to utter contempt. Yet shamefully I still wanted to be near him, even if he hated me, and I knew being close to him would offer me some comfort. That was my sad reality now. For all the pain I was feeling, something in me justified each and every one of his actions in the desperate hope that some good could be made of it. I was being a fool, but my heart appeared to be bigger than my head even at the best of times.

 

 

****

 

 

Bright burning candles filled Skyhold’s Undercroft with a wonderful glow that evening as I worked at the armour crafting table. Thankfully the heat from the furnace and fire pit made the room invitingly warm and welcoming, despite the open design of the chamber exposing us to the elements at one end of the room.

 

Harritt had already retired for the day, and so Dagna and I were left to our own devices with the wonderful crafting equipment of the Undercroft to keep us company. The scent of dragon skin leather, freshly cut oak, smoke and warm steel delighted my senses and the Undercroft was one of the few places in Skyhold I enjoyed whiling away the hours.

 

A bang sounded from the entrance and suddenly the door flung open and a wild eyed Cullen stormed through, furiously searching the room until he laid his eyes on me sternly. My heart skipped a beat on seeing him after so long. Cullen had returned.

 

Dressed in his full armour, I could see the metal of his cuirass and greaves splattered with mud and red flecks of what I could only assume were blood of the unfortunates that crossed paths with the Commander. It was evident by his rough appearance that Cullen had only just returned, most likely just come off his horse. His sandy hair had grown a little longer and was more than a little disheveled, while the unshaven stubble on his jaw had become more rugged, and his face a little more tanned. A fresh cut presented across his brow, although it looked like it had been inflicted a few days prior and was already healing.

 

Not seeing the female dwarf arcanist looking hesitantly up at him, Cullen almost tripped over Dagna before casting his furious gaze down at her.

 

‘Leave us.’ he ordered dangerously.

 

Poor Dagna looked terrified as she scurried out of the room, muttering something nervously about the timing being good for she needed to visit the Skyhold library. Dagna closed the door quickly behind her, and I waited in slight amusement as Cullen continued to glare at me from the entrance of the Undercroft.

 

‘You spared Alexius’ life?!’ yelled the ex-templar in heated accusation ’What the fuck were you thinking?’

 

My momentary period of amusement drained from my face at the mention of Gereon Alexius. He had been in the Skyhold prisons awaiting judgement for many months now and my hand had been more than a little forced by Josephine to make a judgement recently. Being anything other than coincidence, I had chosen a time to do so when I knew the Commander would have been out of Skyhold. Unfortunately I was unaware Cullen would have been informed of my judgement so quickly on his return.

 

Wearily I rubbed my brow, flicking a quick glance to Cullen before turning away to my work once more. ‘Alexius has a huge depth of knowledge in magical equipment,’ I began ‘we all thought he would best serve the Inquisition in his research and-.’

 

‘We? We? No, no, no, it was your decision and yours alone.’ Cullen remarked angrily. ‘How could you be so reckless? After everything that you saw him do. Or is it because he is a mage?’

 

‘This has nothing to do with mages,’ I replied sharply, turning back to Cullen with a frown ‘apart from your reaction.’

 

A bitter scoff echoed in the chamber as Cullen shook his head at my reply. The sharp tap of his black boots rasped against the stone steps as he descended further into the Undercroft. His eyes pressed hard on me, before stopping at a nearby weapons rack. Roughly, Cullen grabbed a wooden prototype shield and training sword off the side of the rack and threw them on the ground towards me with a sharp clash, causing me to flinch and return a wide eyed look of bewilderment.

 

‘Defend yourself.’ he announced authoritatively, as if addressing an opponent.

 

‘What?!’ I asked sharply.

 

‘I act on behalf of the Inquisition and I believe, as Commander of the Inquisition, that you have acted carelessly and recklessly in your judgement. You had no right to make a decision like that, a decision that affects us all in such a negative way. As Commander of the Inquisition I am going to punish you for acting out of line. So pick up your weapon and defend yourself or feel the full wrath of my fury, unprotected.’

 

I began to laugh an amused, albeit uncertain, high pitched laugh that echoed throughout the Undercroft. A laugh that was trying to retrieve one in reciprocation from my companion. A laugh that unfortunately failed to do so. Cullen held my gaze fast and stern. He looked terribly, terribly….angry.

 

‘You’re serious?’ I remarked hesitantly, only to see Cullen move to grab his own wooden sword and shield from the rack. ‘What was I supposed to do?’ I continued quickly, hoping to calm him down ‘Alexius was in the pocket of Corypheus. He has knowledge about our enemy. Knowledge is power, surely you see this?’

 

‘You are a fool if you think Alexius has changed loyalties.’ Cullen responded coldly ‘Men pledge their loyalty to that which they fear the most. Who do you think is more of a threat? You or Corypheus?’. The Commander started towards me, wooden sword held in his right hand and shield held in his left.

 

To say I was concerned was an understatement. Jumping away from the crafting table where I had been, I scattered away just in time to avoid the ram of Cullen’s shield into the wood. It hit the side of the table loudly and knocked several crafting items onto the floor with a series of clashes and clangs.

 

‘What is wrong with you? This is hardly fair!’ I shouted in protest ‘You’re a fucking templar. And I’ve done nothing wrong!’

 

‘Ex-templar.’ corrected Cullen darkly, making his way towards me again ‘And was it fair to all the people that you saw in the future that died and suffered by the hand of Alexius? Was it fair to all of them that you dismissed Alexius of his crimes today?’

 

‘I stopped that from happening!’ I replied quickly before leaping away as Cullen came rushing towards me again. He narrowly passed me, but turned quicker this time, directing his gaze onto me once more. ‘Stop this Cullen! I’m the damn Inquisitor, it was my call. You can’t bloody punish me for doing my job!’

 

‘No,’ roared Cullen ‘you are the Inquisitor but not the Inquisition. You put us at great risk by your actions and decisions. If a soldier does that, they are punished. Now come here!.’

 

‘I’ll cast magic, damn you!’ I cried out in threat ‘You are out of control!’

 

Cullen shrugged ‘It’s a pity you’ll find you cannot cast magic in here. Harritt was concerned our arcanist would end up killing him with her experiments so we magically protected this area so nothing untoward would happen.’

 

My heart sunk a little at this news.

 

Cullen proceeded once more, approaching as I stood in front of a shield stand. Desperately I grabbed a steel helmet off a spike and threw it at the Commander, only for him to knock it away with his shield in an effortless manner. That action cost me any opportunity to escape from the impending blow, and Cullen rammed me hard with his wooden shield so I fell back onto the cold stone floor. The air escaped my lungs as I hit the floor, dazed and confused as I tried to locate my aggressor.

 

‘I want you to say you were wrong and Alexius needs to be executed.’ stated Cullen sternly as he stood over me, casting his amber eyes down on me in judgement.

 

‘Cullen stop this!’ I appealed. Crawling backwards quickly, I managed to unceremoniously escape the Commander via under the weapon crafting table, gaining my foothold once more and drawing a real steel blade lying on a nearby table to protect myself.

 

‘Steel it is.’ muttered Cullen as he unsheathed his own long sword, approaching me once more.

 

‘You said you would never hurt me!’ I yelled at him angrily.

 

‘There is a difference. I am punishing you for something you did that was wrong.’ growled Cullen ‘Everyone is accountable in Skyhold, even the Inquisitor. Stop this nonsense and let us get this over with. Come here and you can take your lashings or we’ll continue this until you submit, and then I’ll lash you even harder.’

 

‘Fuck off!’ I yelled, edging around the table and making a final desperate dash to the entrance.

 

Tripping over the jagged stone steps, I felt a rough pair of gauntlet equipped arms grab me hard around my waist and fling me onto my back on the nearby crafting table. Pinning me down with a strength I couldn’t compete with, Cullen grabbed both my hands above my head to keep me in place as he breathed heavily into my hair.

 

‘You’re making this harder than it has to be.’ he hissed, grabbing some scrap plaidweave cloth and tying my hands together as he pressed me down on the table ‘If you just submitted I wouldn’t have been forced to do this.’

 

For all the protesting and cursing I could muster, I couldn’t move an inch under the Commander’s firm hold. He bound my hands tight, his teeth clenched as he pulled the cloth tight before standing me up and marching me to the back of the room towards a rack of flails, maces and morningstars. ‘It gives me no pleasure to hurt you Inquisitor, but this needs to be done.’ he remarked in an unnerving, carefree manner, as if being asked to perform some tedious task.

 

Like a rat being threatened with drowning, I dug my heels desperately into the stone floor, my grip slipping on the cold smoothness. Cullen had a firm grip on me and dragged me towards the rack, his fingers digging sharp into my skin as he pulled me across. I knew this had gone too far and I wasn’t going to wait to be bludgeoned.

 

‘Damn you, you’ve gone mad!’ I shrieked as he strung my hands up onto an angled corner wooden beam directly above me.

 

‘Settle yourself!’ he growled ‘Or I’ll bind that mouth as well.’

 

My heart was pounding through my chest and my lungs taking in too much air, a string of foggy thoughts filling my head as Cullen strung me up and turned me to face the wall. I couldn’t see what was happening but I heard the soft clang of metal from the rack behind me, and then the footsteps approaching me closer….and closer….

 

Suddenly I felt Cullen behind me, his hands wrapping around to the front of my waist to lift my top. He drew his warm lips to the side of my neck and began kissing me softly.

 

‘Tricked you.’ he grinned beside my ear.

 

Cullen continued to gently kiss my neck as his hands trailed to the bottom of my shirt, running softly over my naked shivering belly and up towards my chest. The rough skin of his large hands grabbed a breast in each, massaging both with unbridled enthusiasm and kneading my nipples, pinching and pulling them harder and harder as he ran kisses along my neck and shoulders. His hands were warm, hot almost, buzzing with an energy that felt exquisite against my skin.

 

‘You bastard.’ I cursed, half serious ‘Is this what you do in your free time? Take delight in torturing people?’

 

‘Not all people, just you.’ he replied devilishly, turning my head to his and drawing his mouth to mine. His kiss was hard and focused, determined to taste me with his deep tongue as he turned me around, still strung up and helpless to his touch. ‘Maker’s breath how I’ve wanted you.’ he whispered in my ear, playfully biting my lobe ‘I’ve wanted to fuck you so badly, you have no idea. I came here the moment I arrived.’

 

‘And so you planned to pretend to be angry and flay me on your return.’ I scoffed with a shake of my head ‘Wouldn’t an intimate walk in the herb gardens have been more appropriate?’

 

‘I said I wanted to fuck you,’ quipped Cullen with a smirk ‘not take a turn in some damn herb patch.’. He drew his lips to mine and playfully bit my bottom lip for a lingering moment. ‘I could punish you if you like?’ teased Cullen as he continued to rub his hands over me in my helpless position ‘I can’t say the idea didn’t cross my mind when I heard of your decision this afternoon.’

 

‘So you were angry?’ I replied accusingly.

 

‘Your decision was a terrible one,’ replied Cullen darkly ‘but perhaps we should not dwell on that for now.’

 

Cullen began to unbutton my top, smirking at me as he effortlessly pulled apart each button. I watched on helplessly until he parted the material, exposing my hard nipples to the cold night air of the Undercroft. He drew his lips to them, one by one, sucking them softly between pinches and playful bites, as his hands ran up against the warm flesh of my back

 

‘I can’t say I haven’t fantasised about punishing you.’ he murmured.

 

‘Really?’ I whispered as he blew his warm breath against my breasts before planting his lips on them again in a shower of open mouthed kisses ‘I hope they didn’t involve morning stars or maces….’

 

Cullen grinned, looking up at me as he sank slowly to his knees, curving his fingers into my trousers and pulling them down slowly down over my hips, exposing me. ‘Hardly.’ he chuckled, planting warm kisses on my belly ‘I suspect I would put you in the stocks and let you take me in and out of your exquisite mouth until I filled your throat with my release. Perhaps in the courtyard of Skyhold so everyone can witness your punishment? Or maybe I would tie you to the courtyard gibbet, pulling the ropes tight across your bare flesh, binding your thighs against the wood with thick ties, the coarseness digging into your soft milky skin….’. He trailed off, kissing my inner thighs and his locks of sandy blonde waves tickling me with delight as he delved between my legs, finally reaching my exposed lips with a moan.

 

Feather light, he parted my lips with his fingers and flicked the tip of his tongue lightly against my pearl as I squirmed above, my arms aching more and more from the constraints that burned my wrists. The moistness of his mouth on my mound sent me over the edge and I writhed in utter torment as he engulfed me.

 

‘Maybe I would constrain your hands on an above wooden beam,’ murmured Cullen between licks, his hot breath tickling my thighs ‘and do what I wish until I was spent, and then leave you all strung up....’. My head fell back and a deep breath drew in my chest as he inserted his fore and middle finger into me, pushing up to his knuckles before withdrawing to repeat the assault again, and again, while he continued to ravage my fleshy bud with his warm, pink tongue. His large hands held my thighs steady, but I was beginning to tremor more than a little. Cullen pulled away and looked up with an amused grin.

 

‘Did you miss me?’ he grinned, standing up once more to face me, drawing his mouth to mine to plant a deep, lingering kiss.

 

Biting my lip with a smile, Cullen nodded with a smirk. Pulling away, he reached over to unsheath a poignard attached to his left cuisse, drawing a sharp, shiny blade.

 

‘Don’t move.’ he purred as he ran the tip lightly across my collar bone and trailed lower down the middle of my abdomen past my sternum and lower to my belly.

 

My breath was shallow, I could feel the threatening sharpness of the blade although it made no impression on my skin. Cullen was enjoying teasing me with it a little too much, I could see him bulging hard from below as he ran the blade over my flesh in circles and swirls. He pressed the cold blade against my belly, before turning the blade towards him and running the hilt lower and lower.

 

‘My lucky poignard.’ he murmured wickedly, holding my gaze with a smile as he moved into position.

 

I gasped as I felt the rounded handle of the dagger spread me as Cullen ran along my lips, coating the hilt in my juices. The cold metal aroused me to be sure, although it was nothing compared to the owner’s intimate dagger I desperately craved for. The Commander took great enjoyment in prodding and rubbing me with the hilt, curiously watching me with delight as he pleasured me.

 

Finally Cullen pulled away the dagger and raised the blade to my constrained hands, cutting the material securing them to the beam. With a pained gasp, my hands were released and the blood came back to them once more as I collapsed onto my knees in front of the Commander.

 

Still on my knees, I crawled over to the ex-templar who was watching me with a smirk on his lips and throwing me a lustful look, still holding the blade in his hands as he hit the flat side against his palm repeatedly. My fingers ran to release his bulging member, something I could manage while he was still dressed in his armour. I pulled down the coarse material covering his crotch and his dick sprung out erect as I released him, pressed hard up against the base of his metal cuirass. The sensation of his blood filled cock, hot and ready, against the cold steel of this armour made Cullen release a moan from his lips.

 

The Commander maintained the hold on his poignard as he grabbed a fistful of my hair, encouraging me towards his member. Not that I needed encouragement. The beads of salty pre-cum melted on the tip of his cock and needed to be tasted, and my lips were begging me to appease their curiosity. Sinking my mouth over his bulging head, I slowly devoured his fleshy pikestaff as Cullen breathed heavily above me. I’d never felt the Commander so hard, so warm and divine. He oozed more pre-cum into my hungry mouth, moaning softly above me, and I greedily lapped him up as I ran tongue up and down his length, easing him through my lips and feeling his smooth, warm skin against my throat.

 

Still holding the back of my hair, his grip was becoming firmer and more forceful, his arousal revealing itself in the eager thrust of his hips and pull of his hands amongst my hair. His member twitched each time I ran my tongue over his throbbing head, and his body stiffened as I drew him deep into my warm mouth. Cullen’s breaths were growing shorter and it took all of his willpower to finally pull out of my mouth with a painful moan.

 

‘Maker stop.’ he growled ‘I can’t endure that.’

 

‘Good’ I purred, but before I could place his member between my lips once more I felt a firm pair of hands grasp my shoulders and lift me from the floor.

 

Raising a playful eyebrow, Cullen looked at me heatedly, his hands still holding the dagger. My hands trailed to the side buckles of his metal cuirass, eager to release him from his own constraints.

 

‘What goes on in that mind of yours?’ I grinned, starting to unbuckle his armour ‘Do you want to cut me with that blade? Hurt me perhaps?’

 

Cullen cast a serious look towards me as he pulled the metal breastplate over his head, ‘I meant what I said, I never would wish to hurt you. I find no pleasure in your pain I assure you.’. His white teeth playfully grazed his bottom lip as he threw me a grin ‘I did, however, enjoy fighting you before, perhaps a little more than I should have. To see you strung up so...helplessly, and me able to do whatever I desired.’. He drew his breath fast, a shiver crossing over his skin. ‘That is something I enjoy.’ he added huskily.

 

‘I let you win.’ I scoffed as I watched him pull his cotton shirt over his head. His scent filled my senses and I loved the smell of Cullen, that musky perfume of amber and spices mixed with a hint of sweat that overwhelmed me whenever I came in close contact with his bare chest.

 

Cullen threw me an entertained look, rubbing his shoulders and kneading the flesh of his tight muscles in his neck as he stared down at me. ‘Just how strong is the Inquisitor without magic?’ he mused ‘Show me what you’ve got.’

 

‘Says the warrior.’ I chortled.

 

The Commander let out an amused chuckle and began unbuckling his greaves, kicking them to the floor before undoing his pants and removing the remaining attire. Standing in front of me, full mast, Cullen opened his arms out towards me ‘Shall we proceed?’

 

I shook my head, and Cullen playfully nudged my shoulder to stir me on, throwing me a dashing smile that I couldn't resist. Knowing this would only end badly for me, I came towards him foolishly laughing as I reached for his arms to try and seize him. Even if I had the strength, Cullen’s amber eyes bore into mine with such an intensity that I found myself helpless before I had even begun. Before I could even touched the smooth white skin of his defined, muscular arms, he had grabbed my waist and spun me around, pushing me hard across the weapon crafting table, so my chest was pressed down against the wood.

 

‘Tut, tut. tut.’ murmured Cullen, as he held me face down against the woodgrain ‘Helpless again I see?’

 

I could feel the warmth of Cullen’s skin radiating against mine, and tried to press back against him.

 

‘You wouldn’t stand a chance, would you?’ he growled as he lent over me, and I felt the unforgiving rock hard prod of his member warm against my buttocks. Cullen was breathing heavy as I felt the head of his member slide between my folds. I remained bent over the table as he coated his pikestaff generously, stroking teasingly up and down my pink entrance.

 

I could feel his hand firmly holding my back down as he eased into me, inch by torturous inch, the force of his weight pressing my breasts rather unforgivingly against the table. I could barely breath, let alone move, as the Commander began to thrust deep, long thrusts into me. It was full of intensity and aggression, unreleased desire that had been building for weeks and weeks, and as a result his cock was overwhelmingly hard. Each stroke released a gasp from our lips, each stroke sending us further into the madness we had begun. Before I knew it the thrusts had become so forceful, Cullen was banging aggressively against the table and sending vibrations throughout the room.

 

‘I wasn’t joking.’ he growled into my ear ‘You need to be punished.’

 

Withdrawing suddenly but not releasing me, I could hear him reach for something behind me before I felt the familiar cold steel of his blade lightly tracing across my ass. With a sharp flick, he landed a stinging blow of the flat of the dagger against my cheek and resulted in a cry from my lips, before he rammed his cock into me again. His thrust was unexpected but deeply satisfying, and I cried out as he remained deep within me before he began to grunt in short, sharp deep thrusts in me, alternating with sticking flicks of his blade against my cheeks.

 

‘Do you want me to hurt you?’ I asked as Cullen continued to fuck me.

 

Cullen stopped suddenly, withdrawing and releasing his grip on my back. I turned around to see him breathing deeply as he cast his eyes to the weapon rack close to us. ‘Hurt me with those weapons.’ he replied, drawing his intense gaze into mine ‘Fuck me and hurt me without holding back.’

 

Knowing better than to question Cullen, I moved over to the rack, running my eyes over a variety of foreboding spiked weapons. I couldn’t use steel on him, there was a limit to my desire to please him, and there seemed something wrong about beating him with a walnut quarterstaff, so I decided on a simple whip with braided leather straps, the kind that pirates liked to torture their prisoners with in order to retrieve information. Turning back, I held the whip in one hand and in the other I picked up a large beeswax candle sitting on a nearby ledge.

 

Stroking his member slowly as he watched me return, Cullen sat on the cold stone floor, leaning against the wall.

 

‘Now that is an exquisite sight that will haunt me forever.’ he mused, extending his hands to me ‘Come to me.’

 

I dropped the weapon beside us as I stood over him, and he grinned as he pulled me down, directing his member to ease up into me. It was incredibly thick and entered me deeply from this angle, and I couldn’t help but catch my breath as I took him deep into me until I was sitting firmly on top of him.

 

Leaning up to me, the ex-templar kissed me deeply, running his hands to wrap around my neck and applying the slightest of pressure. ‘I love the way you yield yourself to me.’ he whispered.

 

Without warning, I grabbed the candle from the floor and poured the large pool of hot wax from the candle in splashes across his chest. The Commander more than winced a little from the unexpected pain as he released me suddenly.

 

‘I never said I yielded.’ I remarked with a grin.

 

‘By the Maker, yes.’ he growled, his flesh growing red around the wax droplets. Excited by the sensation, he thrust up to impale me harder, and in turn I poured more hot wax on his chest, this time directly onto his hard nipples. Groaning from the sensation, Cullen’s head went back as he took in the pleasure of being tortured with the molten wax, over and over again, until his chest was covered more than less so with the white, waxy coating.

 

Wild eyed and ravenous from the sensation, Cullen flipped me roughly onto the cold stone floor and began thrusting harder into me once more, transformed into an untamed creature more animal than human. There was nothing uttered except the grunts that parted from his lips as he rammed his member into me, his hair falling across his sweat covered brow.

 

‘What were you going to do with your weapon.’ he growled as he fucked me furiously.

 

Barely being able to respond, I caught my breath. ‘Whip you’ I breathlessly replied ‘Across the legs, torso...’. I cried out as Cullen thrust harder.

 

‘Then do it!’ he snarled, the darkness in his eyes screaming out to inflict his pleasure. My hand reached for the braided whip at my side, and finally my fingers found the wooden handle. As Cullen continued to fuck me, I lifted the whip and landed a blow against his back. The smack of the multiple straps released a sharp sting against his broad shoulders and Cullen groaned at the impact.

 

‘Hit me again, but this time harder.’ he ordered, withdrawing from me so I could gain my footing. Standing, Cullen lent his hands hard against the stone wall, bracing himself for the next assault with his muscular, rippled back turned on me.

 

Biting my lip, I planted a stinging blow on the back of his thighs and the Commander yelled out in pain this time. I could see the red marks I had left and I froze in fear.

 

‘Cullen...’ I remarked cautiously.

 

‘Trevelyan, just whip me!’ he commanded, bracing himself again as I landed another stinging flail against his buttocks and then continued another two, three, four blows across his body until he was red, bruised and covered in thin cuts. Each time I landed a blow, he begged me to strike harder.

 

Turning suddenly, Cullen wrenched the whip from my shaking grip and pushed me against the wall. Lifting me off the ground from under my buttocks with his muscular arms, he let my weight drop onto his throbbing, rock hard dick. He knew he was in control, and held me there fucking me as furiously as he could as I submitted to the raw pleasure of his full mast inside me until there was no where to go except scream in complete ecstasy as he seeded me with one last, deep satisfying roar.

 

‘I love you….’ I breathlessly whispered as he held me there in that final thrust, deep inside me. I bit my lip, growing redder by the moment as I realized the words that slipped out of my mouth were released without my full consent.

 

Cullen’s eyes drew to mine, but they were not brimming with hope and admiration, of relief and gladness at my sentiments. His amber stare was narrow and cold, dark and unforgiving as he withdrew from me promptly.

 

‘Don’t ever utter those words in my presence again.’ he murmured in a low voice, turning away suddenly.

 

Watching him walk away, my shame transformed rapidly into blinding fury. ‘You speak as if I said something terrible.’ I replied angrily.

 

‘You did.’ remarked Cullen heatedly as he snatched his clothing scattered across the floor. ‘You said it in the vain desperation that I would say it back to you.’ he scowled, gnashing his teeth as he pulled on his pants and loose shirt ‘You say it to secure some hold on my heart, although I have already offered you freely what I have. Is that not enough? Why do you seek more? Do mere words have more of a hold over you than actions speak plainly?’

 

‘I said what I felt, damn you!’ I replied defensively ‘It was not for some sinister motive, although I am ashamed to have revealed my feelings considering the reception it has brought forthwith. Your heart is yours to give to whoever you choose, or keep it, if that is your will, locked away in your prison of rage.’

 

Throwing a dismissive wave as if to will him away, I continued to dress in silence.

 

Drawing his fore finger to a point, accusingly directed my way, Cullen demanded my attention ‘Do not play the jaded lover with me. I never had a heart to give you, and I never pretended to bestow any such thing upon you. Do not fool yourself into believing I am capable of love and all the deluded fancies your womanly desires may yearn for. I feel nothing, for I am not a person, only a vessel of ruin and despair, dashed against the rocks of my intrepid reality. Only instead of death embracing me as it should have and rescuing me from this maddening existence, I remain cursed and alive, and numb to the world. To you. To everything….’. The Commander broke off, his face clouded with thoughts I could not even begin to imagine.

 

‘Why didn’t you say goodbye when you left for the Western Approach?’ I asked suddenly.

 

‘What?’ asked Cullen.

 

‘When you left for the Griffon Keep eight weeks ago,’ I continued ‘why didn’t you say goodbye to me before you left?’

 

Cullen shook his head, turning his gaze softer on mine for a moment. ‘You know the reason.’ he murmured. There was pain in his eyes as he turned them away from me, concealing his face.

 

‘Then you do have feelings for me?’ I accused, perhaps more than a little childishly.

 

The Commander threw me a scowl as he finished attaching his breastplate. ‘To feel is not to love.’ he replied sharply ‘I feel nothing but hate, malice and lust. That is all you will find in my...heart, Inquisitor.’

 

The last words stung like poison, and perhaps that was his intention. Roughly grabbing his longsword, Cullen stormed out of the Undercroft, his heavy stride banging across the stones unforgivingly. I felt sorry for anyone that crossed his path in his present temper, but secretly hoped someone did. Someone needed to witness that devilish state that seemed ever so fond of my company.

 

‘Perhaps you were right Cullen.’ I muttered darkly under my breath as I moved towards the armour I had been crafting, scattered like leaves across the stone floor. The broken mirror was flawed and there was nothing staring back at me except my jaded reflection.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six: How the Fallen Rise Again

 

 

Red is the rose that my love grows for you

Black is the night that my lies weave on through

Red is the blood that I spill in your name

Black is my soul when I tire of the game

 

For the first time I could recall I was actually thankful to have been called away from Skyhold after Cullen had returned from The Western Approach. Several days of his brooding silence had slowly chipped away at my very soul, and if there was even a skerrick of remorse at his behaviour in the Undercroft I was yet to see it. With unforgiving diligence the Commander kept busy in his study, and mentoring recruits in the training yard, only leaving either to meet at the war table when duty demanded it. Instead of usually dining in the main hall, Cullen took all of his meals in his study. Instead of usually asking me questions relating to the Inquisition in person, he would send messengers. And instead of taking the shorter route through the Main Hall to access the lower rooms of the Keep, Cullen insisted on walking the longer way round and entering from the lower garden courtyard, in that way avoiding most people, including myself, along the way. It felt personal, and once after he passed me with a cold shoulder when we crossed paths in a stone corridor it finally dawned on me that it was.

 

Before I departed, I had the pleasure of one final war table counsel, of which Commander Cullen addressed my mission. That was the only time Cullen spoke to me, and it was unforgivingly straight to the point. His cold amber stare brushed over me as if I were a mere intruder to the counsel, someone who had managed to weasel my way into his superior presence. In his most sternest voice, the Commander informed me that the Inquisitor was to travel to Emprise Du Lion to locate the Red Templars that had been spotted in several locations in the area. Best of luck on your journeys Inquisitor.

 

So we set off, Varric, Vivienne, Cassandra, Blackwall and myself. Off into the Highlands of the Dales. The change was more than welcomed, however to our dismay Emprise Du Lion was as chilling, if not more so, as the Frostback Mountains, scattered only with crag and ice, elven ruins and frosty winds. I knew however that there was more warmth awaiting me here than in Skyhold, so I dared not complain even when the others bitterly did.

 

After a long, albeit cheerful, journey with Varric entertaining us with tales from his time spent living at The Hanged Man, we finally arrived in the Orlesian village of Sahrnia, a small village located in the north-east of Emprise Du Lion. Snow covered and poverty stricken, the villagers were struggling to survive. The winter sickness had spread, and there was barely a moment we didn’t hear a lung racking cough echoing through the town.

 

For the first time in my life I was thankful for being kept away from the harsh realities of survival that existed outside the circle tower. Somehow being cooped up in a circle tower where meals were bestowed upon us three times a day come rain or shine seemed more palatable now. Never had I been exposed to entire villages slowly dying, one person at a time, until all there was remaining was a cold pile of bones. Blackwall and Leliana, however, seemed unusually familiar with the misfortune we had stumbled upon, and took it in their stride with a hardened expression. That, I confess, made me most sad of all.

 

The unfortunate reality was the Orlesian Civil War had caused the once flourishing trading village of Sahrnia to come to a grinding halt. With no trade, Sahrnia had suffered greatly. To make matters worse the Red Templars had taken over the region, including the mines that the villagers relied on for work. All that was left was for the people of Sahrnia to revel in their ruin, fading away into nothing more than a memory of what once was.

 

‘These poor folk won’t last the winter.’ muttered Blackwall, casting his stormy gray-blue eyes somberly towards two shabbily dressed peasant women and an infant boy huddled over a small fire near the remains of a crumbling stone wall. A heavy sigh departed his lips, while his brow held a stern frown ‘An Empress and Grand Duke fight over the throne, and all they achieve is hurting their own people. The damn people they are supposed to protect.’. He shook his head in disgust.

 

‘That is the way of politics, darling.’ remarked Vivienne nonchalantly ‘Rulers only care about holding their title, and someone is always bound to suffer as result. Usually the innocent.’

 

‘If people serve their rulers, why shouldn’t rulers serve their people?’ muttered Cassandra darkly.

 

‘Oh what a pair you would make in the Orlesian court! You both are utterly divine in your innocence!’ mused Vivienne ‘Your radiant hearts would delight the nobles ever so much!’

 

Blackwall frowned ‘I’ve seen enough suffering to know injustice when I see it.’

 

‘You cannot right all the wrongs in the realm, my dear man.’ dismissed Vivienne ‘It is the way of life! It is the game.’

 

‘Aye but we’re here, aren’t we?’ replied Blackwall sternly ‘Hunting down those blasted Red Templars. That is righting the wrong. That is what the Inquisition serves to do on a daily basis.’

 

‘We’re here because Corypheus threatens to destroy us all. We wouldn’t be here righting the wrong if a bunch of villagers were merely suffering from lack of trade as a result of their Orlesian court being in disarray. I adore you idealising the cause of the Inquisition my dear, but do try to see the reason behind our actions are not always driven by righteousness.’

 

Blackwall looked angry and was about to reply, only for something to catch his attention. ‘There’s someone up ahead.’ he called out before charging forward.

 

Digging our heels into our steeds, we rode towards a group fighting in the nearby distance. The flurry of steel and the unnatural red glow of armour alerted us to the Red Templars, however they seemed to be more interested in fighting the lone man before them. A man with golden hair and magnificent deep blue plate armour with a golden lion’s head sigil on his breastplate. He swung a large silver long sword heavily against the continual assault of his enemy’s blades, turning swiftly to defend himself from all angles as the Red Templars approached.

 

Cassandra and Blackwall were already by his side, as Vivienne and myself began casting electricity and ice towards our fiery foes. The sharp click of Bianca could be heard beside me, her bolts hissing by my side and plunging lethally into the bodies of more than one Red Templar.

 

Before we knew it, eight Red Templars lay at our feet and our mysterious stranger stood before us with a relieved smile.

 

‘Thank you,’ he remarked warmly, standing to face me and my companions ‘Ser Michel de Chevin at your service, your worship. I saw the Inquisition’s banners from afar. Never expected to see the Herald of Andraste herself.’

 

The chevalier’s eyes pierced deep blue as he held mine, genuinely curious at our meeting. Michel was a tall and well built, muscular man in his thirties, with long, swept back golden tresses, and porcelain white skin that presented a soft flush of pale pink in his cheek and lips, and a well defined jawline, high cheekbones and a broad neck. His eyes were bright and cheerful, as if full of laughter and delight, and were as clear and deep as the waters of Antiva’s Rialto Bay in the mid of summer. From temple to cheekbone, a vertical scar adorned the left side of Michel’s face, with a smaller scar striking through his left eyebrow, no doubt endured from some dashing fight full of bravery and heroics.

 

Indeed, Michel de Chevin’s face was full of honour, grace and valour, and his physique reflected the elegance of a chevalier. On all accounts, I would have wagered none in our party had ever come across such an impressive knight, with even Cassandra being at a loss of words as he stood there before us. It was as if the light from the sun emanated from Ser Michel’s armour, an enchanting being that radiated his honour and valour, blinding the rest of the raggle taggle group that stood before him.

 

Ignoring the comment about being the Herald, a title that I had despised from the beginning, I quickly moved onto formal introductions amongst our party, and Ser Michel respectfully held each of my companion’s names with the greatest of attention and respect. Every remark directed towards the chevalier by our ineloquent lips was met with remarkable civility, as if Michel had never been so fascinated by each and every word that came from our mouths. Such politeness I had never encountered, and by all accounts Ser Michel de Chevin appeared to be the most charming creature to grace the lands of Thedas. We were all so besotted that by the time he asked for aid in vanquishing the demon Imshael, we could hardly refuse such agreeableness.

 

‘Inquisitor,’ began Michel ‘I hunt a demon. This one calls itself Imshael and has settled in Suledin Keep, up in the Hills. Imshael is alive because I made a mistake. I will see him destroyed. Now that the Inquisition is here, perhaps the Red Templars who guard the Keep can be routed. All I need is one chance.’

 

‘Of course we shall help!’ I replied immediately, looking over to my companions in hope that they also approved ‘A demon being protected by the Red Templars is something we cannot ignore.’

 

‘Then I am in your debt.’ replied Michel, his hand on his chest. He lowered his gaze in respect, before looking up to me once more. ‘I fear I must stay and defend the village of Sahrnia in case the Red Templars come this way. The people do not stand a chance if they are attacked, and I cannot have their blood on my hands.’

 

‘That is a good idea.’ replied Cassandra ‘We shall head towards Suledin Keep now.’

 

‘Be careful of Imshael,’ warned Michel ‘he is a desire demon and has wandered Thedas for a long time, growing to know the weaknesses of the mere mortal very well.’

 

We were too busy to notice at the time, but Michel’s face looked dark and wearisome as he spoke of the demon. Turning towards the Keep, we departed leaving the chevalier behind to guard the village, alone with his shadowy thoughts once more.

 

 

****

 

 

Trudging through the snow, our determination to reach the demon was also met with a growing curiosity of our newly met acquaintance, and as a result our party was not left for want of words.

 

‘The villagers of Sahrnia are lucky Ser Michel came into the area when he did.’ observed Cassandra.

 

‘I could have sworn you felt the same way Seeker.’ taunted Varric with a wide grin.

 

‘I see he has made an impression on you Varric.’ quipped Cassandra ‘I’ve never seen you grow so quiet in anyone’s presence.’

 

Varric laughed ‘Are you kidding me? He could charm an Orlesian noble out of their last gold coin. Heck, he won me over at Ser Michel de Chevin at your service!’

 

I threw my Dwarven companion a chuckle, and he threw me back a nod of approval.

 

‘Oh I agree darling, Michel de Chevin is like fine Orlesian silk.’ mused Vivienne, and the mage and dwarf grinned to an apparent private joke with raised eyebrows, a joke that none of the rest of us were privy to.

 

‘He is a man with honour and principles.’ interjected Blackwall ‘You can’t fault him for that.’

 

‘Ugh!’ scoffed Cassandra ‘You have only just met the man. How can you possibly know what his true intentions are?’

 

‘What about you my dear?’ asked Vivienne, throwing her gaze towards me ‘What is your opinion of our valiant chevalier?’

 

I gave a careless shrug. ‘I like the man.’ I replied ‘Not forgoing his impeccable inclination to be anything but highly agreeable, he is concerned with the wellbeing of the villagers of Sahrnia with no gain or self profit. And he seeks to destroy demons.’

 

‘Precisely.’ agreed Blackwall.

 

Varric started to laugh. ‘Ok, I’m already in the Ser Michel de Chevin fan club, so I hate to say it - but, is anyone going to address the treasonous elephant in the room?’

 

‘Yes, thank you.’ nodded Cassandra ‘Have we forgotten that Ser Michel is a traitor?’

 

‘He was declared a traitor darling, the two are quite different titles I assure you.’ dismissed Vivienne.

 

‘Traitor? Surely not!’ I protested, more than a little shocked ‘That man has more honour than an entire order of knights. What could he have possibly done?’

 

‘Michel de Chevin was Empress Celene’s Champion.’ informed Vivienne, eager to entertain us with Orlesian politics ‘He was to duel Celene’s cousin, Gaspard de Chalons, to the death. The duel weighed on the fate of Celene’s kingdom, it was all terribly important. Michel de Chevin beat Gaspard in the duel and was to land the final blow with his death, but at the last moment Ser Michel yielded.’

 

‘Why would he yield?’ asked Blackwall.

 

‘Haven’t a clue darling.’ replied Vivienne ‘All we know is that action resulted in Celene losing the duel. Such an act, to go against the Empress and yield to her opponent, resulted in Michel being stripped of his title as Champion and being declared a traitor. Michel escaped before Celene could execute him, oh and believe me when I say she would have done the act happily herself, such was her anger at his actions. Naturally Ser Michel’s name was removed from the Acadamie des Chevaliers and he is now disgraced. I highly doubt our poor ex-chevalier will grace the Orlesian courts ever again.’

 

‘Sparing a man's life is surely an honourable thing? What was the reason behind his actions.’ I pondered ‘Was Michel close to Gaspard?’

 

‘No my dear, he was by all accounts a very loyal subject to Empress Celene.’ remarked Vivienne ‘It was a huge scandal and everyone was quite shocked, I assure you.’

 

’Perhaps we will never know Ser Michel’s real story but I believe his actions now excuse any past behaviour he many have come to regret.’ murmured Blackwall.

 

‘I agree.’ I replied hastily, eager to dismiss any shadow cast on Ser Michel’s shining character ‘Orlesian politics can stay in Orlais for all I care. Michel de Chevin is a man who wants to help those in need. That is all I need to know.’

 

‘And yet, you know next to nothing about the man.’ muttered Cassandra half under her breath, in disapproval ‘At least we can all agree this demon needs to be destroyed.’

 

Upon reaching Suledin Keep, we did find many Red Templars and Imshael himself, determined to the very last to strike a deal to save himself from his demise. For all the coin, lust and power he could offer, Cassandra landed the final blow through the demon’s heart and Ishmael was finally rid of the realm.

 

We returned to find Michel de Chevin standing alert and ready to defend Sahrnia. After recounting our tale of victory we could all see Michel was overwhelmed with the news of our defeat of Imshael, as if the demon had been a burden on the chevalier’s shoulders for quite some time.

 

‘It is finally over.’ Michel muttered in shock ‘I wish I could have heard him scream but...Sahrnia is safe. It is a good day.’

 

I lifted my eyes curiously to the chevalier, intrigued by his somewhat strange comment regarding his wishes to hear the demon scream, yet my other companions seemed to have not noticed anything unusual so I too disregarded the comment.

 

‘You hear that Seeker,’ chimed in Varric, eager to taunt his female companion ‘it is a good day!’

 

Cassandra rolled her eyes at the dwarf before turning to the chevalier ‘Ser Michel, where shall you go now that the demon has been defeated?’. It was a loaded question, and we all knew our counsel member was after something.

 

The chevalier pondered the question as he rubbed his jaw. ‘I confess I had not dared hope Imshael would be vanquished so suddenly.’ exclaimed Michel ‘Now I find myself free to choose a new direction.’

 

‘The Inquisition is always looking for highly skilled warriors such as yourself.’ continued Cassandra.

 

With a warm smile, Michel bowed his head, holding his right forearm firmly upon his chest ‘Then I would be honoured to serve the Inquisition, if it would have me?’

 

‘The Inquisition welcomes you Michel de Chevin.’ I replied, more than a little pleased that we had managed to secure an Orlesian chevalier as an agent. By the smile on everyone’s faces, I could tell I wasn’t the only one.

 

Consequently we returned to Skyhold with an extra party member in tow. None of us were able to get a word in as Vivienne spent the entire trip back plaguing Ser Michel with questions about Empress Celene and other gossips and tidbits about the Orlesian Court. The poor man was so polite, and even appeared cheerful to discuss Orlais, even though we all knew his disgrace would have made any light hearted banter about his time as the Champion to Empress Celene quite painful to recount. Regardless, our chevalier rode on with valiance and courage in his heart, for that was the way of Ser Michel de Chevin.

 

 

****

 

 

A brilliant blue sky without a cloud in sight greeted us on our return to Skyhold, six weeks from when we departed. There were only a mere few days until spring and we could already feel the dancing Green Man all around us. The heady scent of Embrium and Felandaris lingered in the warm afternoon breeze, and whispered of better days to come.

 

As we rode across the stone bridge, through the giant stronghold gates and into the courtyard of Skyhold, we were greeted by a large group of mages and soldier recruits. There were a lot of fresh new faces, gathering eagerly to witness our return. Strangely enough it felt like I was returning home, and my eyes lifted with fondness to look across the magnificent keep, proud to see it was flourishing even when I had been away for so long. My wandering eyes came to pass a lone figure standing on the upper battlements looking down at us. The light caught a silhouette of a feather gorget, armour clad figure, and there was little doubt in my mind that it was Cullen. Resting his hands on the parapet, the Commander continued to study our party from high above as we rode on through to the stableyard.

 

Michel de Chevin sidled up beside me, his head turning around in wonder as he took in Skyhold for the first time. ‘Incredible!’ he remarked in awe ‘The Inquisition has found a most magnificent place to reside in.’

 

‘Oh this old place.’ I mused cheerfully ‘It must be a great deal less impressive than Val Royeaux - oh -’. I stopped with a frown, realising the insensitive nature of my comments. ‘Sorry. I’m sure the last thing you want to be reminded of time and time again is your former home.’

 

Michel threw me a small smile and waved off the comment ‘You are too kind, perhaps more considerate than most, and for that I thank you.’. Looking more serious he continued ‘Inquisitor I am most grateful and eager by this new opportunity to prove myself. I assure you my past will not interfere with my dedication or loyalty to you and your cause.’

 

‘I did not doubt that for a moment.’ I reassured, dismounting as the stable boy took the reigns of my tired steed ‘We are most fortunate to have you fighting on our side.’. Extending my hand to lead the way, we commenced walking up to the main courtyard, to ascend the stairs to the main hall. ‘This place was originally a ritual site for the elves.’ I explained as we walked ‘I believe Solas called it Tarasyl’an Te’las.’

 

‘The place where the sky was held back.’ murmured Michel.

 

‘How did you-?’ I remarked in surprise, stopping in my tracks.

 

The pale pink hint of colour in his cheeks flushed darker for a moment, before Michel laughed dismissively in reply. ‘Oh I have heard mention somewhat of Skyhold and it’s history from various people in Orlais. Forgive my interruption, please do continue. I would rather hear such tales from the Inquisitor herself than mere gossip from abroad.’

 

‘Well the keep was built later on,’ I continued ‘I think by the Fereldens, to act as a watchpost of sorts. Being on the border of Ferelden and Orlais, I suppose this would have served as an excellent fortress for such a purpose. I believe over the years, the keep was passed from hand to hand by a wide range of owners, why even a Ferelden enchanter resided here for a while! Naturally it was long abandoned and in a state of utter disarray when we came across it, under the guidance of our elven mage Solas.’

 

‘Remarkable!’ exclaimed Michel ‘What a fortunate discovery, and from what I hear, at a time you most desperately needed it.’

 

My face darkened at the reminder of Haven and Michel lowered his eyes.

 

‘My apologies Inquisitor, and for what it is worth I am deeply sorry for all those who were lost at Haven.’

 

‘Thank you.’ I replied ‘And yes, you are right, Skyhold was exactly what we needed after Haven.’

 

Stepping through the large wooden doors into the main hall, we were met with a sea of inquisitive eyes, eager to see the new addition to Skyhold. Michel de Chevin smiled across the room, greeting each pair of strange eyes as if they were his most dearest friends and family. I grinned, watching the chevalier woo the hall so effortlessly. Varric was right, he could have easily charmed an Orlesian noble out of their last gold coin.

 

At the side of the room, my eyes met with our head housekeeper, Mistress Elizabeth Bernadette. ‘Liza,’ I called out cheerfully ‘This is Ser Michel de Chevin. He will be joining us permanently, so he will be needing his own chambers.’

 

A portly middle aged woman, robust and jolly in demeanour with neat brown curls tucked under a cream cotton bonnet nodded briefly at the smiling chevalier, her pinafore as pristine white as her rounded cheeks. Mistress Bernadette was a bustling, hard working woman who oversaw the day to day domestics of Skyhold. It was said there no better cook, cleaner or seamstress in all of Thedas than Mistress Bernadette, and everyone looked to her with a fondness of a mother, for she took it upon herself to ensure every person living in Skyhold had a belly full of food and a warm place to sleep.

 

‘Aye,’ nodded Mistress Elizabeth ‘Right this way Ser, I’ll show yer to a wee place yer can stay.’

 

Looking back to Michel, I threw him nod of encouragement and smiled ‘Take your time to settle in, and make sure you get down to the kitchens for a decent feed. I need to address the counsel to see how you can best serve us while you are here. Can you embroider tapestries?’

 

Ser Michel chuckled as I threw him a grin. ‘Oh yes, and the finest dresses you have seen this side of the border.’

 

‘Perfect, I shall let the counsel know.’ I teased ‘We shall speak soon.’. I turned towards the back of the main hall, leaving Michel to follow Mistress Elizabeth.

 

‘Inquisitor.’ called out Michel.

 

‘Ser Michel?’ I replied, slightly puzzled, as I turned back to face him once more.

 

‘I beg your pardon,’ he continued ‘but I never learnt your name?’

 

‘My name?’

 

‘Well, I know you are the Inquisitor,’ observed Michel warmly ‘but what is your actual name?’

 

‘Oh! Ophelia.’ I replied pleasantly ‘Ophelia Trevelyan.’

 

‘Well met Ophelia.’ replied Michel with a beam that revealed his brilliant white teeth ‘Thank you again, Inquisitor.’. He turned to walk towards Mistress Elizabeth who was waiting impatiently by a door leading out of the main hall.

 

‘Please, call me Ophelia.’ I called out, and Michel turned around momentarily to address me again. ‘I would rather you call me that rather than Inquisitor. It’s a tad too formal.’ I added.

 

‘But of course.’ replied Michel warmly with a small bow before turning to leave.

 

Setting off once more, I made my way to call a meeting, unbeknownst to me that a small smile stayed on my lips from the main hall to the war table, never diminishing along the way.

 

 

****

 

 

‘So the Inquisition has secured Michel de Chevin as an agent?’ remarked Leliana, her green eyes sparkling with untold plans she was already spinning in her mind ‘Most impressive.’

 

Cassandra, Josephine, Leliana and I gathered around the war table, eager to discuss the events of our latest journey and the unexpected recruitment of Ser Michel de Chevin. Three large dripping candles burned on the edge of the great war table, and filled the room with a soft, sleepy scent of honey.

 

‘He is an exceptional warrior.’ remarked Cassandra ‘We witnessed him fighting many Red Templars single-handedly as he tried to defend the village of Sahrnia.’

 

Tapping my finger on the table, I pondered where Michel should be assigned. ‘The question is, how would such a warrior best serve us?’

 

The tired wooden doors of the war room opened as the council continued to contemplate the matter. We turned our heads to see Cullen, who silently entered the room and took his place by the table, acknowledging us all with a brief nod.

 

‘It is good to see you have returned successfully from your journeys abroad.’ the Commander remarked, casting his eyes from Cassandra to myself, lingering a moment or two longer on my eyes, before drawing his attention to a pile of documents lying on the table.

 

‘We have secured another agent that may be of some interest to you, Commander.’ informed Cassandra.

 

‘Michel de Chevin, yes.’ replied Cullen firmly ‘The chevalier that bested Grand Duke Gaspard in single combat, I believe? A most impressive feat. Michel is someone I desperately need to aid in training and developing our recruits.’

 

‘Oh and what makes you think he is to be your agent?’ quipped Leliana with a smirk ‘I have it on good authority that Michel has had first hand experience with the Eluvians. We could use him to aid in our research.’

 

‘You have Solas for that.’ replied Cullen disinterestedly ‘Besides, Michel is a warrior. Let him use his skills to the best of his abilities.’

 

‘You forget, Michel is someone I could benefit from aswell.’ chimed in Josephine ‘An Orlesian Champion that has been in the heart of the Imperial Court and knows the pitfalls better than anyone is invaluable. I have many contacts who would be willing to pay a great deal to discover what Michel has learnt along the way.’

 

‘Mere gossip for sad nobles.’ dismissed Cullen with a flick of his hand ‘We have actual soldiers who desperately need mentoring and I am already spread thin as it is.’. The Commander rested his hands against the table, looking more frustrated by the minute. 

 

Cassandra sighed, obviously as weary as myself from a day of travelling ‘Perhaps we should let the Inquisitor decide and then let us be done for the day.’

 

The room grew quiet as the counsel drew their attention to me, although I only really felt the piercing amber eyes of Cullen fixate on me from across the room. It pained me to take sides with Cullen, but I knew it was the best place for Michel.

 

‘Michel was the Champion of Empress Celene,’ I observed ‘and his skills would greatly benefit the recruits.’

 

Cullen nodded as the rest of the company pursed their lips and kept quiet.

 

‘Thank you, Inquisitor.’ replied Cullen in a softer tone.

 

His eyes were deep as he held my attention for a moment, and threw me a half smile to me, although I couldn’t be certain it wasn’t a smirk. I pulled my gaze from his, eyelashes blinking in distraction as I turned to Leliana. She was watching me with an amused grin, and I could guess her thoughts at that moment.

 

With a frown I added ‘If that is all, I think Cassandra and I should like to retire for the evening.’

 

Without waiting for an answer I turned sharply, pulling the wooden doors open and descending into the corridor, eager to leave the war council behind. The atmosphere was suffocating, and I longed for escape. Perhaps it was the clarity I had found those six weeks on our travels, but I had felt somewhat carefree in Emprise Du Lion only to return to those piercing amber eyes, and for all my world to come crumbling down around me once more.

 

‘Inquisitor.’ called out a familiar voice, and I turned to see Cullen at the doors of the war room ‘A moment if you please?’

 

There it was. My heart started pounded and my skin trembling as I stood there, waiting for Cullen to approach my side. I was ashamed of my behaviour even more than his, if that was even possible. How could I let anyone make me react like this whenever they were near?

 

‘Thank you for that decision,’ remarked Cullen ‘Michel de Chevin is someone I can benefit from greatly.’

 

‘He is a magnificent chevalier, you said it yourself.’ I replied, not slowing my pace as I headed for the main hall.

 

Cullen paused, regarding me curiously for a moment before continuing. ‘Would you care to take a turn with me?’ he asked in a low voice, his lip curling.

 

‘Not today, no.’ I replied sharply.

 

Cullen stopped in his tracks, grabbing my arm firmly to slow me down. ‘There is much to be said between you and I, as you are well aware,’ he acknowledged in a quiet voice, adding a little more sternly ‘and I don’t take kindly to playing games.’

 

With a sharp tug I pulled my arm free from his grasp, resulting in Cullen throwing me a surprised look. ‘Playing games is all you do.’ I whispered back angrily ‘You had the chance to talk before I left.’

 

Throwing him a scathing glare, I proceeded towards the main hall.

 

‘I waited for you on those battlements every day since you departed.’ Cullen called out.

 

It was a confession that stopped me in my tracks, pulling my gaze back to him once more.

 

Rubbing his hand through his sandy hair, Cullen revealed a pained expression ‘Every time an agent came riding through the gates I thought it was someone coming to tell me you had been killed. Every week that passed gave me more reason to believe the Red Templars had struck you down. I waited on that battlement and I swore that even if your dead corpse was carried through those gates, I would be there to greet you and to wrap my arms around you in an embrace one last time. To lay my lips on yours one last time. After what you had said, I thought you deserved that much...no matter how much it tortured me to think of such things.’

 

‘Maker stop.’ I pleaded, my eyes filling with tears as I moved back to the ex-templar.  Grabbing his hands affectionately I interlaced his fingers through mine,

 

Cullen pulled me away from the entrance to the main hall so we remained in the isolated corridor. Wrapping his large hands over mine, he drew his body closer to mine, his demeanor growing softer as he looked down at me. ‘I am so sorry.’ he apologised in a low voice, drawing his forehead to my head and resting his brow against mine ‘What I said before you left was unforgivable.... It had nothing to do with you and everything to do with me.’

 

Breathing in deeply, I could smell that intoxicating scent of amber and spices lingering on the warmth of his skin. His words had stolen mine away, and all I knew was I didn’t want to break free from his hold.

 

Cullen’s jaw remained rigid and his eyes drew into mine, eyes that were full of regret and deep with pain as he moved his hands to cup my cheeks ‘Say you forgive me or Maker be damned I will curse him and myself for eternity. My temper is black and should never be cast upon you.’

 

‘I’ve been away for a month and a half with your hate in my mind. You have tormented me in my thoughts a thousand times a day.’ I muttered darkly.

 

Cullen looked wounded and he clenched his jaw ‘Do not speak that way. Do you not think I haven’t been tortured every second of the day knowing I sent you out into danger with that as your last memory of me? I have cursed myself day and night, wandering the battlements with only the stars to keep me company and knowing they looked down upon you while I could only gaze up at them. Those glittering jewels of devilish torment, laughing at me from up high. I damned the heavens each night for their advantage, and I grew bitterly jealous of the skies.’

 

Cullen closed his eyes, keeping me close as I drew my arms around his strong neck, pulling him into an embrace. Holding each other close, our cheeks now pressed against each other, I could feel the heat of his skin radiating into my very being. There was something intense and unspeakable that we both felt in that moment, with the quiver of his breath in the nook of my neck, and his tight grasp around my frame that threatened to break me.

 

‘Say you forgive me now,’ growled Cullen ‘please I beg of you, or seal my pain forever, for I will never forgive myself for an eternity if you do not.’

 

Drawing my lips to his, I placed a kiss on the ex-templar’s mouth, securing my answer.

 

‘I forgive you.’ I murmured as Cullen drew me to his lips again, a smile growing on his lips as he ran his hands through my hair.

 

‘Thank you.’ he whispered softly, nuzzling his head in my neck as he began to softly kiss the dip in my collar bone ‘You are my passion, both dark and light.’

 

Our breathing was drawing fast as Cullen softly caressed my neck with drawn out kisses that neither one of us wanted to pull away from. His hands ran across the curves of my body, as if touching me for the first time, running up the bend of my spine and down the side of my torso to my hips.

 

‘Commander! Uhhhh-’ exclaimed an unsteady voice behind us, and we both turned to see a flustered Josephine standing in the corridor trying to access her study.

 

Cullen threw me a devious grin before pulling away, turning to our intruder.

 

‘Yes, Josephine?’ replied Cullen plainly, with a calm countenance disregarding the intimacy that had been intruded upon. It was if nothing had happened at all. 

 

‘I have those letters you requested.’ she replied quickly, holding a group of papers awkwardly.

 

‘Please don’t let me interrupt. I really should go,’ I intervened quickly ‘before I fall asleep in the corridor. I am exhausted!’

 

Cullen threw me wink as he turned to Josephine. I threw him a grin and turned out the door into the main hall, drawing my eyes once more to admire his physique from afar. I longed to run over and draw the ex-templar into another embrace, but my eyes were lulling me to slumber. With a foolish smile I pressed on towards my chambers, leaving Josephine and her angry fist clenched tight, holding the papers requested by Commander Cullen…

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven: The Calm Before the Storm


 

A large group were gathered around the training circle, mages and soldiers eagerly pressed shoulder to shoulder, with more citizens filing in behind, filling the outside courtyard of Skyhold. Desperately, the crowd tried to catch a glimpse of the two men facing each other ready to fight. Dressed in loose fitting white shirts, black pants and buckled knee boots, both combatants grinned at each other as they stood ready with their double handed longswords. Commander Cullen and Michel de Chevin were ready to entertain the growing sea of faces who watched on in delighted anticipation.

 

The sun was blazing down in a clear blue spring sky, while the larks and thrushes took turns and dives between the battlements as the crowd cheered on below. A warm breeze had settled in, a pleasant reminder that the long and harsh winter was finally over, and this in itself filled everyone with joy. Sufficed to say, nothing could dampen the spirits of the folk of Skyhold that fine day.

 

A smirk grew large on Cullen’s face as he stood face to face with Ser Michel, the ex-templar’s hair glowing like burnt sheaths of wheat at daybreak. ‘Do not have cause for concern,’ the Commander called out to the crowd ‘I will go easy on our newest addition to the ranks’. The crowd chuckled in reply, including Michel de Chevin.

 

‘Why Commander, I do believe you are sweating!’ jested Michel ‘Is this fear perhaps? To face an opponent such as myself?’

 

‘Perhaps a fear of not giving the crowd an equal fight to enjoy.’ quipped Cullen, adding with a chuckle ‘I can change my sword to a wooden one if that would put your mind at ease?’

 

Grinning, the ex-chevalier moved towards Cullen in a sudden rush, his body agile and strong as he clashed steel with the Commander, drawing a few gasps from the onlookers. The men hit steel against steel several times over before pulling away once more, circling each other again.

 

‘If it would make you feel safer, I could change my sword for a feather? I’ve done it before for you Fereldens.’ taunted Michel with a mischievous grin. Michel was of course referring to his infamous duel with Teagan Guerrin, a duel that was performed with a chevalier’s feather. It was a weapon of choice requested by Empress Celene in order to placate the duel into nothing more than a harmless affair. Even after all this time, the story in itself was ludicrous at best, unbelievable at most, but nevertheless true in it’s entirety.

 

Cullen laughed loudly, the rich timbre of his voice echoing throughout the courtyard, and the crowd followed suit in their amusement. The Commander’s eyes shone bright, and there was a liveliness in his step. It was indeed a rare occasion to see Cullen so vibrant, and the recruits were eager to enjoy the experience. Everyone was well aware that the ex-chevalier, Michel de Chevin, had brought out the best in their Commander’s mood since he had arrived, and the soldiers were happy to relax for a brief moment while their mentors joked amongst themselves.

 

Cullen lunged towards Michel, hitting blades sharply once before jumping out of reach of the ex-chevalier’s swift, retaliating swing. Cullen lunged again, and Michel dodged the blade effortlessly, moving his own blade with a finesse that surprised even the Commander, landing a hard blow against his opponent’s sword that sounded a sharp ring, echoing out into the courtyard. The crowd gasped and applauded.

 

‘A man so strong, so powerful, a warrior commanding the world at his fingertips.’ yelled out Michel to the eager crowd ‘...and while we’re waiting for that man to come along for the tournament, I shall continue to practice on your Commander.’. The crowd chuckled loudly, and Cullen smirked with amusement.

 

‘A chevalier and a jester, what a splendid combination.’ remarked Cullen ‘Of course bravado will only get you so far in this tournament.’

 

The pair met with their steel again, sweat beading on their brows as they came at each other with focus and determination, the metal ringing in the courtyard as their blades hit hard against each other, moving backwards and forwards as each one gained the upper hand only to lose it once more. Their skill with a blade made the fight more of a dance than a combat, mesmerising and hypnotic as the clash of cold steel on steel transformed into a beautiful, haunting song.

 

The Inquisition was busy preparing for their first tournament, The Skyhold Grand Tourney, to be held on the mid spring festival. A popular tradition amongst the Orlesians, the grand tourney was an idea proposed by Michel de Chevin in order to booster the moral of the troops whilst simultaneously spreading the influence of the Inquisition further across Thedas. An idea that was welcomed with great enthusiasm and interest from all of those apart of the Inquisition.

 

The tournament was open to all men and women in the realm, to fight in single combat with a blunted, straight double edged blade until the first person yielded. The successful opponent would move on to the next round, until one combatant was remaining. The winner would be declared the Maister of the Blades, the most skilled swords person in the realm, and rewarded with five thousand gold pieces.

 

Naturally the prospect of a tournament and subsequent days of celebration created an ever growing buzz of excitement amongst the people of Skyhold, and as every day drew nearer to the day of the tournament the keep began to transform into a bustling place of festivity. Colourful banners, ribbons, and heraldry were being hung across the courtyard, wooden spectators seats assembled and a large gold tournament tree was erected, decorated with silk bows of green, purple and white; the colours of the mid spring festival. The darkness of winter and tragedy of Haven had all but quenched the people of their happiness, however a distraction such as this was, as Cullen put it, a step in the right direction.

 

‘Fighting with a longsword relies a lot on the strength of the upper body and the shoulders.’ informed Cullen towards the soldiers gathering around ‘However sword fighting is much more than strength and dexterity. You need to know your opponent before they know you. It is about reading their fighting style, anticipating their moves and using it to your best ability. You need to be alert, fast, and have your wits about you.’

 

Cullen stepped forward to Michel, lunging directly at his middle as he jumped backed, a little surprised, the Commander’s blade nicking the chevalier’s cotton shirt and ripping it from upper rib to navel, exposing Michel’s chiselled torso to the crowd as the wind whipped the loose material aside. More than a few whispers and giggles of admiration sounded across the courtyard.

 

Cullen grinned mockingly to his opponent ‘Sorry about that.’

 

‘Not at all!’ replied Michel brightly, flicking his golden locks off his brow ‘It must be nice to get a break from the admiration now that I am in Skyhold.’

 

With an amused smile, Cullen spun the hilt of his blade between his hands, swirling the weapon with ease as he studied his opponent. ‘The key is to avoid being on the defensive side of the fight.’ he called out to the crowd ‘You need to be on the attack and always be moving.’

 

‘Does that include spinning and juggling your sword? Are we teaching the recruits how to be entertainers now?’ mused Michel as he suddenly flanked Cullen in a short, swift flurry of steps, determined to the get an offensive angle on the Commander.

 

Without a moment's hesitation, the ex-templar crouched down, holding his sword horizontally across the ground, ever so slightly to the side of him, and with both hands still on his weapon lunged into a forward roll, before quickly jumping up with his blade in his hand once more as he turned to face an amused Michel. The crowd applauded loudly, with many people quite excited to see the agility of the Commander first hand.

 

‘And you call me the jester!’ chortled Michel.

 

With a satisfied smile, Cullen threw a brief nod to the crowd. ‘Perhaps we should let the others have their practice.’ he called out ‘The tournament is only five days away!’

 

A cheer sounded across the courtyard, a wave of excitement and delight spreading throughout. The ex-templar and ex-chevalier clasped arms with each other in a friendly shake, both highly amused at the effect they were having on the crowd, who still continued to whistle and applaud. They knew, as did the people of Skyhold, that finally things were changing for the Inquisition, and most likely, for the better.

 

 

****

 

 

Dashing through the kitchens that mid-morning, I narrowly missed a steaming glazed honey ham being carried out of the ovens only to step backwards into a table laden full of butteries, oatcakes, apples and warm bridies. The jolt into the heavy wood by my clumsy legs caused a jug of fresh milk to fall from the edge of the table and shatter on the ground, producing a series of curses from Skyhold’s cook, Madame Ruthie.

 

‘Now just what do yer think yer doing here skulking around the kitchens?!’ she chastised, pointing her wooden spoon accusingly at me ‘I just sent that damn Orlesian knight away, so don’t think I wont be doing the same to the Inquisitor.’

 

‘Surely I am more important?’ I protested with a foolish grin, trying to smuggle a few apples and butteries behind my back as cook glared at me.

 

‘Yer as just as important as the recruits or the smithy lads, and they have to wait until the sun is high above before they get their midday grub. So scram!’

 

Not wanting to stay around and be beaten with cook’s wooden spoon, with a leap and a dash I headed for the keep’s back door that opened to the outside stairs, leading down to the stables. As I departed the kitchen, I once again found myself colliding into something as I stepped onto the grey stone steps. It was Michel de Chevin, sitting at the top of the stairs, happily eating an oatcake in one hand and drinking a hot cup of tea in the other.

 

‘By Andraste!’ I cursed, pulling myself backwards before I tumbled to my ruin down the stone steps ‘What are you doing sitting at the top of the blasted stairs!’

 

The ex-chevalier chuckled in startle. ‘My apologies! I was trying to escape the kitchen and found this to be the perfect place of solitude and reflection.’

 

Like all the soldiers of Skyhold, Michel de Chevin was dressed in his full suit of armour, however his chevalier’s blue steel cuirass with the golden lion’s head had been replaced with a plain Ferelden steel plate mail. It seemed the ex-chevalier had abandoned his Orlesian armour, and whether it was done out of respect for his fellow soldiers or his own regard, I was glad to see the transition towards the Inquisition.

 

‘The perfect place for my untimely death.’ I muttered. Shaking my head, I suddenly noticed the fragrant steaming beverage in his hand. ‘How come you got tea!?’ I exclaimed in amused outrage ‘All cook gave me was a reminder that the Inquisitor doesn’t get any special treatment.’

 

‘Ah but did you compliment cook on her fine choice of dress,’ grinned Michel ‘a colour that certainly brings out the best in her blue-grey eyes. Eyes that remind one of the dawning of a winter’s day when all is calm and still on the frozen valleys, scattered with bracken and thistle more stunning in it’s simplicity than a thousand rose bushes in the Imperial City gardens in spring.’

 

I rolled my eyes in disgust as Michel started to laugh louder, jiggling his cup of tea tauntingly at me.

 

‘Mind if I join you?’ I asked, adding with a satisfied grin ‘I managed to grab butteries, and apples before cook could see.’

 

With a fine chiseled jaw, the ex-chevalier smiled warmly at me, moving near the edge of the steps that ended in a steep drop over the edge, so I could sit beside him on the safer side against the wall of the keep. It was a chivalrous gesture, and one of many I had grown accustomed to since getting to know the Orlesian knight.

 

‘It would be my pleasure.’ he replied pleasantly.

 

Michel de Chevin cast his blue eyes across the yard below us, a calm and serene expression on his face as he sipped away at his tea once more. Master Dennet was far below, eagerly discussing something with Blackwall, while a few people passed every now and then to peruse the merchant wares nearby.

 

‘How are you settling in, Ser Michel?’ I asked between bites of bread.

 

‘Please, it is just Michel now.’ remarked the ex-chavalier in a serious voice ‘I cannot go by a title that was stripped from me. I am no longer a chevalier, and can no longer be referred to as Ser anymore. I am simply, Michel.’

 

‘Of course.’ I replied regretfully ‘Sorry...’

 

He waved off the apology with a smile, before taking a deep sip of the warm brew. Michel rested his head back against the rough cut stones of the keep, exposing the small lump on his throat and his muscular neck. ‘When you train to be a chevalier, you are taught there is nothing more important than serving Orlais.’ remarked Michel ‘The honour instilled in our hearts is more important than that even of our own lives. There is no greater shame than being dishonoured.’. He grew silent, taking another sip before continuing ‘Even when I found myself disgraced and exiled, those feelings instilled into me as a chevalier never dissipated. I did not think I would be able to pursue another path, especially one that was not serving the Orlesian Empire….’. Michel drew his eyes to mine with a soft smile ‘...and yet I find myself serving the Inquisition with as much passion in my heart as when I began training at the the Acadamie des Chevaliers. I have a purpose here and a new chance to start over again. To make some good in the realm. It is an opportunity I wake up thankful for, each and every day. My old title offers nothing for me now, and only serves to remind of darker days.’

 

‘Do you miss your old life at all?’ I asked hesitantly.

 

Michel’s blue eyes grew somber, as if his mind was filling with unpleasant memories.

 

‘I’m sorry Michel, I did not mean to-’

 

He threw a small smile, rubbing his hand through his blonde hair and disheveling his tresses ‘You are very considerate, thank you. It is hard to long for a life that ended in shame and dishonour. By the code of the chevalier, I should have willingly gone to my death. There are times however, I have discovered of late, when we are forced to make a decision and either choice laid before us will be seen as both honourable and dishonourable. Different eyes see matters in a different light.’

 

With a frown, I struggled to understand the meaning of the ex-chevalier. Not wanting to pry, I resided to relate to my own set of circumstances ‘Well, I’m a mage and I dare say half of Thedas, if not more, see me as an abomination and would consider me better off dead. More perhaps, after what happened in Kirkwall. Others see some good in magic. As you said, different eyes.’

 

‘I do not think anyone who knew you would judge you.’ he replied warmly ‘Your skills as a mage have been used to help so many. You are a good person, with a unique talent.’

 

Shrugging, I took a bite of apple, not convinced.

 

‘There is a life energy here that I have longed to be amongst for some time.’ continued Michel as he cast his eyes around the keep ‘In Skyhold there are so many things happening around us, and so many people living their lives as they should. No suffering, no anger or lies and deceit. No drawn out politics and childish games. No cruelty and injustice, especially directed towards those of lower social standing. It is so different from my time in Orlais. To answer your question, no, I do not miss my old life.’

 

I handed across two butteries, which Michel took with a grin ‘And Ferelden food is growing on me.’ he added ‘Plainer perhaps, but heartier and more satisfying.’

 

‘Cullen says the key to happy soldiers is knowing at the end of the day they get a well cooked meal.’ I observed ‘Sometimes the simple things in life are the most satisfying.’

 

‘He’s right.’ replied Michel, taking a hearty bite into the bread.

 

‘It’s good to hear you are settling in so well.’ I added, biting into a butterie hungrily ‘Cullen says nothing but shining reviews about you, and trust me, that is saying something.’

 

‘I have never met a more honourable man.’ confessed Michel, taking another sip of his tea ‘He would have made a magnificent chevalier. Cullen acts for the benefit of others in such a selfless way, and he cares a lot for his soldiers, but isn’t afraid to reproach them for their betterment as warriors, dare I say even as respectable citizens. I find that healthy balance is the mark of a great Commander and a great man. Truly, I am humbled to be working alongside such a person.’

 

I bit my bottom lip as I smiled, quickly shoving more bread into my mouth lest my foolish idolatry should be noticed.

 

‘And this tournament you have organised,’ I added quickly ‘it couldn’t have come at a better time. It has rallied the spirits of everyone. Why I received word just this morning that over five hundred people are traveling on their way to attend!’

 

Michel turned to me, his eyes smiling ‘The Skyhold Grand Tourney will be celebration of magnificence. The people of the Inquisition deserve some happiness for all the hardship and sacrifice. You deserve some too. You rule over so many and are responsible for so many lives, and yet here you are eating stolen butteries with me on the steps on the battlements. It is humbling....’

 

‘Cook’s right, I’m nobody special.’ I shrugged.

 

Michel cast his blue eyes passionately to me ‘You are the Inquisitor. You protect, clothe and feed these people, and they in turn serve the Inquisition. You are special, Ophelia.’

 

Narrowing my eyes, I held Michel’s ardent gaze ‘You’re just after my apples aren’t you?’

 

‘Well you had no dress to compliment, so I improvised.’ he chuckled, before shaking his head and growing serious. ‘No Ophelia,’ he spoke in a gentle voice ‘I meant what I said.’. His blue eyes fluttered away from mine as I lifted my attention to him. Michel remained silent, deep in contemplation once more as he cast his attention out over the yard before continuing ‘I see a different sort of honour here and it is a disturbing revelation in itself, I fear. It is something I have being trying to come to terms with since arriving in Skyhold.’

 

‘How so?’ I asked curiously.

 

Michel sighed in frustration ‘The honour I see here is so...pure, more true in form than that of what we upheld in Orlais. There are many practices as a chevalier that are... anything but honourable.’. Michel paused, growing deadly quiet before adding softly ‘I guess being away from that life makes me realise that more and more each day.’

 

If Michel had looked troubled before, he looked downright miserable now. Perhaps the reflection of his former self, what he had considered himself to be compared to what he actually was, had somehow revealed itself since arriving at the Inquisition. A revelation, it appeared, that had filled him with deep regret and remorse.

 

‘Well it is like you said, this is a second chance.’ I replied lightheartedly, although I was feeling anything but. ‘We all come from different lives, old lives, and for many they have not been pure and honourable, but the Inquisition gives us all a common purpose and I believe that we are living our lives for the better now. Thedas is becoming a better place, and the realm is changing for the better. Our common enemy is a common cause.’

 

I felt terrible for lying so plainly to the ex-chevalier, considering my real opinions on the subject and my own inner turmoil on some of the decisions we had made. Irrespective of this, my desire to cheer up the Orlesian somehow justified my gallant fabrications. What was the point in filling Michel’s head with all the doubt I carried around on a daily basis? Surely there was no need for such cruelty.

 

Easing myself up, I shook the bread crumbs from my lap onto the grey stone steps. With a small nod and a smile to my companion, I set off down the stairs and into the courtyard below, a chevalier watching me descend into the plight of the day with ardor in his eyes once more.

 

 

****

 

 

To my dismay, Cullen’s study was abandoned that evening. The cobblestone walls of the keep enshrouded the room in an eerie darkness, with three lone, three-tiered candelabras struggling to fill the room with light. One large iron candelabra resided on either side of the arrowslit windows, and one nestled in the corner beside a large bookshelf. Cullen loved to peruse over the pages of his collection of written word late into the night, and I wondered what he studied so faithfully in his privacy. What were in these pages that delighted his senses?

 

Many loose papers lay scattered on his chair and desk, and one in particular caught my attention. It began with Dear Brother, and to my shame I realised I never knew Cullen had a sibling.

 

‘I heard a curious piece of gossip today.’ remarked an amused voice from behind me.

 

I spun around to see the Commander standing at the entrance, arms folded and leaning against the arched doorway, a smirk on his lips, obviously entertained that he had caught me red handed reading his private letters.

 

He walked slowly into the room, the sound of his boots cutting the silence of the room sharply on every step. Cullen held my eyes, demanding my attention in his authoritative demeanour, as he came up to take the letter off me, placing it on the table once more.

 

‘This looks bad,’ I replied with a sheepish grin ‘I would say I wasn’t reading your letters but it appears that I may have been doing just that. In my defence I came here to find you, but the study was empty...’. I trailed off nervously as Cullen watched me calmly, a smug look ever present on his face. ‘You never told me you had a sister?!’ I added quickly.

 

‘You never asked.’ remarked Cullen, raising an eyebrow ‘Of course there is not much to tell. I have two sisters and a brother, but I haven’t seen or heard from them for many years. We are not close.’

 

‘Mia? Is that your sister?’

 

‘Yes.’ replied Cullen disinterestedly ‘She found out I was here somehow and sent me a letter full of annoying questions.’. He threw me an amused smile ‘You are inquisitive, aren’t you?’. He drew his amber eyes to mine, still smiling with some recently discovered information lingering on his lips.

 

‘Ok, don’t tell me about your family.’ I muttered ‘What is this curious information you speak of?’

 

‘I overheard two of my recruits discussing the latest gossip,’ continued Cullen ‘of the Inquisitor and Michel de Chevin sharing an intimate moment together on the battlements.’. Cullen threw me a taunting grin as I rolled my eyes.

 

‘Are the recruits that desperate for topics of conversation these days?’ I groaned.

 

Cullen continued to watch at me, his amusement not wavering, refusing to ease the uncomfortable silence with a reply.

 

‘I stole bread and apples from the kitchen, and bumped into our chevalier on my escape.’ I remarked casually ‘We shared my stolen goods and had a chat. I had no idea it would result in such a scandal amongst our troops. I also spoke to Iron Bull, Krem, Scout Harding, and Pip the stable hand before midday.’. I shook my head, adding in a mocking tone ‘Would you and your recruits like to know about those intrigues as well?’

 

Cullen refused to let the subject go, nor his mischievous smile, adding in jest ‘Should I be concerned?’

 

‘About me stealing from Skyhold’s kitchens?’ I remarked ‘Quite possibly yes, I can’t promise you I won’t try it again.’ A laugh escaped from my lips as I drew my attention to the Commander. He was joking to be sure, but I could sense there was an ever so slight hint of jealousy in his comments. An underhanded sting of envy, concealed in a handful of jests and mocking remarks. I couldn’t resist adding teasingly ‘Are you...jealous, Commander?’

 

‘You would like that wouldn’t you?’ Cullen scoffed ‘However fear not, I do not think for a moment that Michel de Chevin would cross that line. Aside from the fact that he would willingly talk the ear off a stone wall given the chance, he is a chevalier at heart, and knows duty and pleasure do not mix. Chevaliers are extremely disciplined, they go through the some of the most intense training I believe an order can put its members through, both mentally and physically. Michel would know that was a line he could never cross. Me on the other hand...’. Cullen threw me a devious look as he ran his fingers through my hair ‘I enjoy crossing that line time and time again, indulging in the darkest of deeds with my Inquisitor.’

 

Cullen swept me up in his arms, placing a brief kiss on my lips before biting my bottom lip softly, withdrawing with a devious grin.

 

‘I’m not a jealous man,’ he smouldered ‘but I would damn any person that tried to come between us.’. He stroked my cheek with the back of his forefinger as he held my gaze ‘Maker knows it, I would not rest until I had cursed their very soul and plagued their life and death with my lament. Any person who dared take you away from me would be sealing their fate, as they surely would have done mine.’

 

‘Would you defend my honour then?’ I grinned ‘In the name of The Skyhold Tournament?’

 

‘Hah!’ exclaimed Cullen, his eyes narrowing in scornful delight ‘I knew you were after some display of courtly love in that tournament. Once a lady, always a lady!’

 

‘I’m no lady.’ I scowled.

 

‘Of course you’re not, Lady Trevelyan.’ taunted Cullen ‘You’re one step away from coating me in ribbons and lace, and forcing me to read love sonnets to you while I brush your noble hair!’

 

Unable to stifle a laugh, I pushed his shoulder in playful annoyance. Smiling, Cullen mischievously pulled me into a tighter embrace around my waist so I couldn’t pull away. I ran my hands across his cuirass, admiring the armour as Cullen grinned at me.

 

‘I could offer you my scarf to tie around your arm, while you fought for me.’ I replied with a smirk.

 

‘I want you, not your damn scarf.’ mused Cullen wickedly ‘Besides, even if I wished to combat a dozen or so ridiculous nobles and rough peasants, which I assure you I do not, I am not permitted to contend in the tournament.’

 

‘On whose authority?’ I frowned.

 

‘The Commander of the Inquisition.’ quipped Cullen ‘Someone needs to be defending Skyhold when we open our gates to every troublemaker in the lands, lest we be entertaining Corypheus as one of the contenders!’

 

‘So none of Skyhold’s soldiers are participating?’ I remarked.

 

‘Not exactly, there were nominations.’ informed Cullen ‘A few select soldiers are participating. Michel de Chevin is one of them actually, although he was more of a popular choice rather than a self nomination. There is also a handful of men and women from the ranks, including our very own Knight Commander Rylen.’.

 

‘Oh.’ I remarked, slightly disappointed.

 

Cullen’s amusement was growing by the moment ‘Maker’s breath! You were serious? You wanted me to fight in your name! Admit it!’

 

‘Never!’ I grinned.

 

Cullen wrapped large his arms around me tighter ‘Don’t you worry, there will be plenty of time to celebrate in between my official duties during the tournament.’. Grinning devilishly, he began running his lips along my neck ‘Perhaps I can lure you into a dark and isolated corner of Skyhold and fuck you with all my honour.’. His amber eyes smiled wickedly as he drew his lips to mine ‘I don’t need the title of Maister of Blades to prove my longsword is worthy enough for the Inquisitor.’

 

‘It has served me well thus far.’ I observed, producing a chuckle from the Commander.

 

‘I should hope so.’ purred the Commander, placing a soft kiss on my cheek before drawing his mouth to my ear. ‘I know how busy you will be in a few days time and I intend to take you whenever I can.’ he whispered darkly ‘There is something about all this damn celebration and cheer that is making me want to pervert you in public all the more. I ache for it...’

 

‘You’ll get your gossip then.’ I smirked ‘Commander Cullen and the Inquisitor. Come to think of it, how have they not talked about us yet?’

 

‘I value my privacy, and I shall take care to keep it that way.’ growled Cullen ‘There is a reason we don’t share meals together on the battlements in the open of day. As you can see it draws attention, and these men and women are desperate for it.’

 

I drew my hand through his sandy waves, running my fingers across his brow and feeling the soft skin of his temple and jaw, a shiver growing on my skin as I felt the ex-templar so close to me.

 

‘There are so many things that could pull us apart, but I am not one of them.’ I whispered ‘You are everything to me.’. I turned away, recalling previous confessions that had long gone undiscussed. ‘You already know that.’ I added darkly.

 

Cullen’s amber eyes darted towards the arrowslits, a heavy sigh departing from his lips. ‘I have grown to know a lot about the world,’ he muttered ‘a great deal too much most would say. I knew why I remained in the shadows while others lingered in the light. I knew the happiest people that roam this world are the ones that experience the least of it, and in their naivety and childish state of being, this life is full of nothing more than endless possibilities, good deeds and happy encounters. Dreams that have yet to be shattered.’. Cullen shrugged, turning back to me ‘Of course the saddest people are generally the ones that have experienced the unforgiving realities of the world, with that memory ever present in their minds until they live out their days.’. Cullen’s frown softened a little ‘The harsh realities I endured have taught me so much about life, you have no idea Trevelyan, and yet I am ashamed to confess it seems I know little about myself at times. I was so certain there was no redemption from the shadows....’

 

Cullen’s eyes were full of passion as he held my face with his hands ‘I am yours, in flesh and blood and bone. As black as it is, my heart is yours...’. He drew his lips to my hand, placing a soft kiss on it as he kept his eyes fixated on mine ‘It was something I was unwilling to say in the Undercroft only because I feared of what I felt. But I know what I feel, and I know how I felt when you were away in Emprise du Lion. I know how I feel now, now that you have returned. It is anything but nothing.’

 

‘Nothing ever is.’ I murmured, my heart pounding at Cullen’s words. Words that melted my defences and fused into my very soul. How could mere words make all that was, now, forgotten?

 

‘No, I suppose not.’ muttered Cullen, pulling me towards the ladder of the loft, eager to retire for the day.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Eight: A Fool’s Pursuit Is A Fool’s Rue

 

 

For love, love who art thou?
Playing the happy tune of the piper’s song
When all around doth shine the sun
I am yours and you mine, we are but one

For love, love who art thou?
Playing the jealous tune of the piper’s song
To see your smile bestowed on another
When you, you promised your heart to no other

For love, love who art thou?
Playing the loathed tune of the piper’s song
My heart has been shattered, my love gone away
And I am alone at the end of the day

 

The first rays of the golden morning sun filtered in through the three arched, double paned stained glass windows that rose high above the back of the main hall of Skyhold. Broken fragments of blue, red, purple and yellow scattered onto the tired stone slabs of the floor, crafting a beautiful pattern of swirls and lines. The chandeliers hanging above were lit, torches mounted to the walls were a blazing, while many candles on ledges were burning brightly, and the fire pits roared with intensity. Despite such a warm and welcoming start to the beginning of a fine mid-spring day, there was not one person in the usually busy hall. Instead the people that filled the room had been replaced with row after row of wooden banquet tables and chairs, awaiting the festivities later on that evening.

 

 

Footsteps echoed against the cold stones and into the empty spaces amongst the wooden rafters of Skyhold, with only the heavy flap of raven wings to greet them, as I departed my chambers and entered into the isolated hall, looking around in wonder.

 

 

‘Darling that colour on you looks positively simple!’ remarked a voice near the fire pit by the Undercroft door.

 

Questioning whether that was in fact a compliment or an Orlesian slight, I turned to see Vivienne approaching. The first enchanter was outfitted in a scooped, floor length moon-white gown, her dignified refinement outshining everything else in a murky shadow of clouds.

 

‘I could have sworn those dreary black clothes that you insisted wearing on a daily basis were stitched into your very skin!’ she added pleasantly.

 

 

With a cynical glare, I looked the mage up and down ‘I see the seamstress favoured you. I, on the other hand, look like a fool.’. I peered down to my attire with a grimace, adding ‘A fool with my chest on show for all of Thedas. I can't go out looking like this.’

 

 

To my somewhat dismay, the council had agreed that formal attire should be worn for Skyhold Grand Tourney, however it was too little too late to know what that actually meant until I was sprung upon by the keep’s seamstress a few days prior. Presented with a corseted forest green dress worn over a crinoline caged skirt, I was convinced someone was out to punish me or disguise me as some sort of strange shaped shrub. The seamstress informed me the attire was in tune with the latest Ferelden fashions, and the green would make the most of my complexion, eyeing my unruly chestnut hair and pale skin with a pair of disapproving pursed lips.

 

 

Sidling up to me, Vivienne interlaced her arm through mine with a charming smile ‘Low cut bodices are all the rage my dear, and besides, one would rather a lovely display of apples than nary a fruit in site. You also may find it to be the most dangerous weapon in all of Thedas, if presented right.’

 

 

‘I have my magic for that,’ I muttered darkly ‘and a sharp sword if that fails.’

 

 

Vivienne lifted her eyes to the ceiling with an exasperated sigh ‘Dresses are the expected formal attire for a lady on occasions such as this. You are on display to the entire of Thedas, and the people wish to see a magnificent, dare I say mythical, creature that is the Inquisitor. Today may be all about a grand tournament and other such nonsense, but we all know the real reason we are putting on this parade. Political purposes, my dear, always political purposes.’. Vivienne nudged me with her hip ‘Besides we couldn’t have you looking like a vagabond for Ser Michel, could we?’

 

 

I cast her a pair of narrowed eyes ‘You’ve been entertaining gossip.’

 

 

The first enchanter’s flighty laugh filled the main hall like the call of a bellbird, light and free spirited ‘Oh darling, gossip only serves to entertain me!’

 

 

As we reached the main doors of the hall, I noticed the council of the Inquisition standing on either side outside on the stone platform, formally facing the courtyard, awaiting the appearance of the Inquisitor. Cassandra was dressed in her Inquisition plate armour, and Leliana was wearing a smart green tunic over black pants, while Josephine had donned a high collared red and gold damask patterned dress. Cullen was standing tall in his full plate armour with his sandy tresses neatly combed back, rather than the usual dishevelled state it found itself in.

 

 

Passing the council members, I threw a side glance towards Cullen. As if we could sense each other’s gaze, and to be honest I never knew how we managed to find each others eyes at the same time, Cullen drew his sight to mine, a deep and intense stare before running his wicked amber eyes up and down my outfit, holding a devious smile that I knew was fueled by thoughts that were anything but pure.

 

 

I felt a soft pull of my arm and my Orlesian companion led me to the top of the outdoor stairs of the keep. ‘Cullen is looking scrumptious as ever, wouldn’t you agree my dear?’ whispered Vivienne. It was a loaded question that I wasn’t about to give credence to. I remained silent, but threw her a closed lipped smile.

 

 

As we looked down upon the open courtyard, we were met with hundreds upon hundreds of men, women and children from all over Thedas. Our ears were overwhelmed with the sound of merry tunes playing, and a plethora of loud and eager voices talking amongst each other. Bellows and guffaws of laughter sounded across the keep, of hearty conversations and giggles and cries of cheer, of the tune of fiddles playing a reel and dogs barking to the notes of tin whistles being entertained by groups of children. There were many nobles engaged in gossip, eyeing one another dressed in silk and satin, lace and ruffs, sitting on the wooden spectator seats while the peasants gathered around, resting on the dusty ground, on stones of the keep and even in the trees, eager to secure a good viewing spot for the day. There was shouting and cheering, laughing and dancing, frolicking and prancing. A merriment of soul filtered throughout the courtyard along with the morning sun, and as the clear blue sky greeted us above without a cloud to trouble ourselves, we all knew that the Skyhold Grand Tourney would be a day to be remembered.

 

 

‘Darling, there he is!’ remarked Vivienne teasingly, who had spotted the ex-chevalier in the far corner near the quartermaster’s, Ser Morris, door. ‘What a magnificent specimen of masculinity looking absolutely stunning in such plain armour! One could only guess he looks even more becoming with nothing on at all, wouldn’t you agree? He has large hands, and you know what they say about that!’

 

 

I stopped in my tracks to throw a bewildered look to my companion. ‘How are you a mage and not a scout? You must have the eyes of a hawk! There are over a thousand people down there and you spot Michel de Chevin without a moment’s hesitation.’. Vivienne continued to smirk at me, although I too couldn’t conceal the smirk on my lips or the devious wandering thoughts of our Orlesian agent. ‘If you like him so much Vivienne,’ I added nonchalantly ‘perhaps today will be your lucky day?’

 

 

‘Oh my dear you are too sweet!’ oozed the Orlesian ‘However chevalier’s are not to my taste. No matter how delectable they appear, a chevalier is merely an entree. Richly satisfying in small portions, and always secondary to the main meal. Also to steal the favourite of a friend is very unbecoming.’

 

 

Descending the stairs to the stone mezzanine platform between the main entrance of the hall and the courtyard below, we were greeted with a cheer as the people applauded the Inquisitor’s arrival. Two heralds stood on either edge of the stone mezzanine floor and blew their long herald trumpets with a regal sounding tune as I stood between them uncertainly, taking a short bow before sitting on the awaiting throne chair on the viewing platform.

 

 

‘They do realise I’m not royalty?’ I muttered to myself under my breath, already well tired of the pomp and ceremony that came with the title of Inquisitor.

 

 

The crowd settled down as the melodic tune of the trumpets blared again, and this time a short bald man, as wide as he was tall, dressed in an opulent pair of oversized breeches and gold shirt emblazoned with a large Inquisition crescent approached the platform, facing the people below. ‘Good women and men of Thedas,’ he cried out ‘the Inquisition welcomes you all to The Skyhold Grand Tourney!’. The crowd responded with claps, whistles and cheers before settling down once more in eager anticipation. ‘Hear ye now, the Code of Tourney.’ continued the announcer ‘Each competitor is to fight on foot, in armoured combat with one blunted, double handed blade, against one other combatant, the winner being the first to disarm his or her opponent. Let it be known that no spoils of combat are recognised in this tournament and claims to armour or weapons cannot be made by the successor. The successor shall move to the next round to compete against another successor of that round, and so forth unto the next round, until there is only one combatant prevailing. The winner shall present this red rose to the Inquisitor of Skyhold.’

 

 

The announcer waited as a young woman came up beside him holding a white velvet tasseled pillow with one long stemmed, deep crimson rose lying upon it. ‘Upon presenting the Inquisitor with this rose, the title of Maister of Blades shall be declared, and they will be known henceforth.’ continued the announcer ‘A purse of monies shall be awarded to the sum of five thousand gold pieces, and a blade of the Inquisition bestowed. Good luck to you all. Let the tournament begin!’

 

The trumpets sounded again, and the commencement of excited chatter grew thick once more amongst the people. Over the next several hours eager combatant after combatant faced each other in the fighting arena, and surely but slowly the competitors grew less and less. Many a lace hanky coated the fence line, and it appeared every maiden, and even a few lads in between, had come to promise tokens of affection to the brave competitors of the tourney.

 

 

I confess I grew somewhat weary of the festivities after the first few hours, being obliged to remain in my chair for appearances sake and watch Pots the Baker duel Dawson the village idiot with a rusty blade, and many copies of their like. There was much name calling and running away between competitors, with more than half a dozen pairs of combatants so drunk they were unable to wield a blade between them if their life depended on it. However by the early afternoon the level of competitors had improved greatly, with the riff raff, as Cullen had referred to them, being finally eliminated.

 

 

The crowd eagerly watched Michel de Chevin defeat an extremely talented sellsword from the Anderfels, Krem Aclassi fight a barbarian from the Frostback Mountains that towered over seven feet tall, Knight Commander Rylen go up against an Antivan Merchant Prince coated in gold, and Threnn combat a wild looking Nevarran pirate lord with only one hand. It was around this time that we all begun sitting on the edge of our seats, nails and lips gnawed and bitten, until finally there were only two combatants remaining. The heralds blew their trumpets and the crowd grew deathly quiet as the announcer stepped forward.

 

 

‘For the final round of The Skyhold Grand Tourney, I present Michel de Chevin, soldier of the Inquisition, and Ser Perth, knight of Arl Teagan Guerrin of Redcliffe.’ 

 

 

Low whispers and murmurs filled the courtyard as a tall and elegant knight in his early forties, clad in the gold armour of his order, with a dragon’s head sigil etched on his breastplate, stood before the crowd. His hair was a deep reddish brown, the same colour of the rich soil Redcliffe boasted, and his locks were long and straight, tied in a low ponytail down his back. Ser Perth held a handsome face, with pale blue-grey eyes and elegant brows, a Ferelden nose that was slightly longer than that of an Antivan or Orlesian, a chiseled jaw and high cheekbones, and a slight unshaven ruggedness on his chin. Standing proud, he faced his equal in grace, Michel de Chevin.

 

The bright eyed Orlesian stood ready, armoured in full steel platemail as his blonde hair scattered loosely in the cool breeze of the afternoon. His strong and broad neck was encased in a steel gorget, while his torso was covered by a silver cuirasse, the symbol of the Inquisition carved onto his breast. Attached to one shoulder, a magnificent silver spaulder presented itself, etched with ornate swirling patterns of silver and gold, while steel bracers adorned his forearms. His legs were covered in steel cuisses and plate greaves, and simple black ram leather boots adorned his feet. In his hands, Michel held a magnificent double edged silver long sword with strange markings carved into the blade, and on the silver hilt a green metal was entwined, like that of wild vines from the forest. Unlike any Orlesian or Ferelden blade I had ever seen, it was a magnificent weapon in its craftsmanship, and I wondered where Michel had found such a treasure.

 

 

Both Michel and Ser Perth faced towards where I and the rest of the Inquisition council were sitting, bowing respectfully before turning to face one another. In tradition of the Grand Tourneys of Thedas, the two opponents were allowed an exchange of words before the combat began; one rule of quite an extensive chivalric code of conduct. A fight was considered to be a common affair and knights facing each other were worthy of formalities, even at the commencement of a mock combat. The exchange of words elevated the combatants from common feuders of the lower classes, to chivalrous competitors. The chivalric codes of conduct had always been somewhat of an odd assortment of perplexities to most who were not a part of the order, however we all knew the two men before us were as knightly as they came and worthy of whatever traditions they chose to uphold. As a consequence, the courtyard held a respectful silence.

 

 

Ser Perth held up his steel Ferelden bastard sword, two hands on the hilt, secured tight, to the middle his sternum, and held his gaze with Michel. ‘With pride in my heart, I fight with honour.’ he announced loudly, resulting in a wave of applause from many in the crowd.

 

 

Michel de Chevin held his own longsword across his torso, on the left side where his heart lay. ‘Death before dishonour.’ he called out to Ser Perth, a common phrase that the chevalier’s of Orlais used to salute one another before a fight.

 

Once again, the crowd applauded eagerly. The men stood ready, as the sound of the herald’s trumpets sounded to commence the final round of the tournament.

 

 

With swords outstretched, the pair began to move in a circular motion around the fighting area. It was Ser Perth who stepped forward first, lunging at Michel and hitting his blade hard, a loud ringing of steel echoing throughout the yard, before the knight pressed forward five or six steps, clashing steel on steel at every pace. Michel used the final impact of blades to gain momentum off Ser Perth’s sword, spinning around the knight and gaining a side attack of which Ser Perth was not entirely ready for. Gasps sounded as Michel swung at Ser Perth, and landed his blade heavily on the right arm bracer of the Ferelden knight. The force would have rendered any ordinary warrior to drop their sword instantly, however it appeared Ser Perth had a high endurance for such things and held his blade fast despite the pain that would be surging in his forearm and wrist.

 

 

With adrenaline pumping and a flash of red hair, Ser Perth swung his blade horizontally across in front, swiping at Michel’s chest, and the ex-chevalier moved swiftly backwards, only to be faced with Ser Perth rushing at him in a series of attacks, hitting his sword again and again. On the final blow the knight refused to leave the steel of his opponent, instead swirling his blade with Michel’s so the pair were circling their swords round and round. It was a disarming tactic, and once in the cycle it was near impossible to hold onto one’s blade for long. Regardless, the ex-chevalier held his sword firm, refusing to drop his sword in the assault.

 

 

Ser Perth finally relented and lunged into a flurry of short spars on the attack, pressing Michel further and further back, the agile ex-chevalier dashing aside before colliding with the wooden fence, producing more gasps from the onlookers. Pressing onwards without hesitation, Michel headed back to the center of the fighting arena once more.

 

 

The knight refused to let the ex-chevalier gain his breath and came at him aggressively, hitting blades with a loud clash of steel, their blades crossed outstretched, held upwards with one arm each. Coming from underneath, Michel swiftly grabbed Ser Perth’s hand that was holding the hilt, scooping the sword and twisting his wrist so the knight was forced to let go of his blade. Without a moment’s hesitation, the ex-chevalier grabbed Ser Perth’s blade, while still holding onto his own, and with a chiseled smile held up both blades to the crowd as they roared in applause. Cheers rose across the grounds and the trumpets blared. Michel de Chevin had won the Grand Tourney.

 

 

Ascending to the entrance of the outside doors of the main hall where the rest of the Inquisition council now stood, I joined in with the crowd in their applause for the fight just won. Michel de Chevin was a brilliant warrior, that much we knew already, however the finesse he displayed with a blade was humbling, and the Orlesian was indeed a master in his bladework.

 

 

Ser Perth and Michel warmly clasped hands, a knightly display of defeat and victory, and both exchanged a few pleasantries between one another, united in their honour no matter what the result of the day had rendered. Meanwhile, the announcer of the tournament sailed merrily across the courtyard to the middle of the fighting arena where Michel de Chevin was standing, presenting the rose to him on the white pillow.

 

 

Sheathing his sword and with a spring in his step, the ex-chevalier grabbed the rose from the pillow, holding the crimson bud upwards to present to the crowd, who cheered loudly in response, before turning his attention towards where we, the council, were standing. Rose in hand, Michel begun in the direction of the main doors but refused to ascend the stairs. Instead, the dashing ex-chevalier bypassed the stairs altogether and approached the cobbled stoned wall of the keep. A cloud of confusion fell over the crowd as they watched on in slight confusion, which turned into great applause and excitement as they witnessed Michel de Chevin place the long stem of the rose between his teeth and proceed to climb the rock wall up towards the entrance of the main doors.

 

It was a feat none of us fathomed could even be possible, especially by someone who had just competed in a day of gruelling combat and was donned in full plate armour. Nevertheless Michel scaled the wall, with the sheer determination and will of a knight, placing his hands and feet on the jagged jutting grey stones of the cobbled wall, one by one, pulling himself up until he climbed to the top platform. With the red rose still between his teeth, Michel knelt on one knee, finally removing the stem from his mouth to present to myself, a brilliant smile on his lips as his bright eyes held mine. Only a chevalier would be so theatrical, and to the delight of the onlookers they were more than a little delighted by the feats of Michel de Chevin.

 

 

‘If the Inquisitor will permit it,’ called out Michel as he remained kneeling ‘I would ask for the purse of monies to be donated to the people of the Inquisition. But as I offer this rose to our Inquisitor, I would also ask a favour.’

 

 

‘Of what favour is that?’ Leliana asked in wake of my confused silence.

 

 

Michel held my attention but spoke loudly enough for all the courtyard to hear. ‘I fear I am not worthy of such a token, but dare I be so bold as to ask for one kiss from our lady Inquisitor?’ he asked in reply, rising from his knee with a soft smile, his blond hair shining in the afternoon sun.

 

Cheering, clapping and whistling grew louder as the ex-chevalier turned his dazzling beam to his adoring crowd. Nary less than a thousand people filled the grounds below and I had no doubt each and every person, from peasant to noble, child to adult, unconditionally adored the ex-chevalier. How one man could manage such a feat was beyond me, but there it was, and done as effortlessly as he had won the tournament and climbed the wall of Skyhold.

 

 

Narrowing my eyes with a grin, I presented my outstretched hand, which was met with loud booing and hissing from below. Michel graciously accepted and with strong hands held my palm as delicately as if it were a flighty dove, his large fingers running along mine with an electricity that sent tingles across my skin. Protests of booing, and yelling for a proper kiss sounded even louder below, and the ex-chevalier turned his head towards the crowd, genuinely surprised at the reaction, yet amused at their fervour.

 

 

‘I fear we may both have to do better than that.’ observed Michel softly, raising his blue eyes into mine, respectfully and gallant.

 

 

The crowd continued to yell out kiss, kiss, kiss, and a few other obscenities that were best forgotten in the moment, as we continued to look at each other in awkward silent anticipation of what, I confess, neither of us knew what. As the chanting grew louder and louder, and before I was able to offer my cheek, the ex-chevalier gently pulled my outstretched hand towards him, drawing me to his chest. Cupping my head in his strong hands, Michel held my gaze fast, and the sea of people below melted away, as silence filled the air. There was nothing, nothing at all, except Michel and I.

 

 

As softly as the breeze blowing around us he whispered to me ‘With your permission, my lady?’

 

Looking at the ex-chevalier, he stood there so graciously. Michel had been cast aside by the order of chevaliers but his honour and respect had remained stronger than that of a thousand knights. Full of valour, he was a true knight of the realm, and I found myself unable to refuse such a proposal.

 

 

‘Of course...’ I replied.

 

 

His chivalrous face reflected a smile of one who was genuinely happy, as he tenderly drew his head closer, his lips searching for mine, and presented one soft lingering kiss on my mouth. Michel’s scent was warm and masculine, of citrus, clove and cinnamon, and tingled my senses as he drew near. His lips were warm and salty from the sweat of the day, his bottom lip full and large, surprising me with how soft it was as he melted into my mouth, his hands like velvet on my cheeks. The tenderness of his mouth on mine made my insides flutter, his supple lips so gentle. The kiss was brief, but full of passion and even when Michel pulled away it felt like his lips lingered on mine.

 

 

Michel may have withdrawn his lips but he didn’t pull away from my gaze, and perhaps he didn’t want to, as he continued to hold my face with his strong hands. Letting out a shaky breath, the sound of the crowd filled my ears once more, and we were transported back into the thick of the tournament, mid stage for all to see. The people below applauded and whistled as Michel pulled away, a bashful smile on his face, his cheeks flushed pink as he drew towards the delighted crowd, that grew louder and louder by the second. Michel turned back to me and bowed once more.

 

 

‘Such is the generosity of our Inquisitor.’ he called out loudly so the crowd could hear below ‘I am as always, now and forever, your humble servant.’

 

 

Interrupting the moment, and perhaps for the better, Leliana stepped forward with a brilliant steel greatsword lying flat on her outstretched palms, the symbol of the Inquisition etched on the hilt in gold.

 

 

‘The Inquisition presents to you, the people of Thedas, Michel de Chevin; The Maister of Blades.’ Leliana called out.

 

 

With shaking hands, I reached for the ceremonial longsword and presented it to Michel, who threw me a smile in return as he accepted it from me.

 

 

Bowing lowly, Michel rose once more and grasped the hilt strong in his right hand, turning to present the blade to the delighted crowd with an outstretched hand.

 

The merry tune of crumhorns, dulcimers and lutes commenced and finally, the people began the celebrations of the Mid-Spring Eve. There was, however, one person who refused to place their hands together and take pleasure in the moment. One person who refused to break into smiles and festive cheer for the victor of the day. An ex-templar stood at the entrance of the main hall, eyes deathly cold, as he pressed his unforgiving gaze hard on Michel de Chevin, The Maister of Blades.

 

 

 

****

 

 

The calm of evening had brought with it the soft sprinkle of rain, falling lightly as mist on the courtyard as twilight arrived and a deep blue-black sky grew overhead. The main hall and upper level of Skyhold had been converted into a giant feasting room for the night, while the outside of the courtyard and The Herald’s Rest provided drink, food and entertainment for the many guests of the tournament.

 

 

A lively band of lutes, pipers, fiddlers and a harpist played merrily in the fighting area, while fire jugglers and jesters on stilts entertained delighted onlookers. Many of the men and women donned brightly coloured masks, the usual attire of the mid-spring festival, dancing happily with each other in circles. While there were many who upheld the ways of the chantry, there were many who still followed the old ways of the land, and it was widely believed that a good crop would be yielded only to those who celebrated the festival of the gods. In large groups, the people danced wildly under the moonlight, the magic of the fairy folk in their steps as they lightly treaded the happy tune of the pipers song that carried along in the wind.

 

 

Indeed the courtyard had transformed into a mecca of bustling ethereal energy, and sadly I had been whisked away into the main hall to continue my official duties with the lords and ladies of Thedas that had graced our grand tourney instead of partaking in its splendour. Politics. The only thing that consumed my mind at that moment however was Cullen. I wondered how he would react to what had happened earlier that day, and to my dismay the longer I pondered on it, the lower and lower my heart sank into it’s shameful depths. Surely it was no coincidence that the Commander had been avoiding me since the ceremony? 

 

 

As the time dragged on in my regretful state of reflection a moment of opportunity finally presented itself and I managed to escape from the hall. Perching in the shadows at the entrance of the main hall, I scouted the courtyard for any sign of Cullen before I noticed the light in his study burning bright. Without a moment's hesitation I commenced to set across the courtyard, and half way across I spotted the ex-templar on the stairs of the battlement.

 

 

To my somewhat amazement and somewhat novel delight, Cullen descended the stairs of the battlements into the main courtyard dressed not in his usual attire. He was adorned in a crisp white shirt under a waist length, black velvet doublet, etched with a silver brocade pattern, and wore black knee length breeches with a vertical striped charcoal panels, and knee high black boots with silver buckles. Cullen entered the courtyard looking more magnificent than any king or lord of the land. His hair was set loose and wild once more, giving him an untamed rugged look, and his unshaven jaw line remained, thankfully unaltered, for the no doubt disapproval of the awaiting nobles of the banquet.

 

 

‘Cullen!’ I cried out, weaving my way past the festive folk who spun around the gold tournament tree with coloured ribbons in their hands.

 

 

The Commander had stopped for a moment, exchanging a few words with a group of soldiers standing nearby, and I pressed hard on through the thicket of men and women, desperate to reach the ex-templar before he disappeared into a sea of faces. Finally I managed to cross into his path, or stumble into it, but to my dismay Cullen threw me the blackest of looks as I approached. Reaching for his arm, he recoiled furiously.

 

 

‘Don’t.’ he warned darkly before passing me with a cold shoulder, leaving me amongst the merriment of the courtyard.

 

 

Curse that festive music that taunted my ears, for there was nothing merry in that moment. Angrily I turned my heel and chased after the Commander, who continued walking through into the lower outdoor courtyard. He pressed on hard, determined to depart without me, and I kept on following at a distance, unable to catch up while wearing my confining green garb, narrowly dodging masked folk here and there.

 

 

Stumbling through the grey arched cloisters, we finally approached the keep’s rose gardens, full of all the colours of spring; of reds, whites, pinks, purples, yellows and greens. Less people were gathered in this part of the keep, although there were still plenty around to hear me call out to Cullen, and turn their heads curiously.

 

 

Not caring who saw me, I lunged for his hand and with a lowered voice I whispered ‘At least let us talk about this?’

 

 

The ex-templar frowned, his jaw clenched in displeasure as he cast his attention back to me. ‘Come then.’ he muttered, turning once more and walking further into the depths of the garden, finally finding a place that was quiet enough to exchange words without any wandering ears.

 

Cullen’s eyes met mine, and they were dark and serious. Indeed they were the kind of eyes that haunt a person until their very last breath; tormented, ardent and overflowing with emotion. Like a wild horse he was untamed and beautiful, his passion raw and unbridled, yet savage and frightening.

 

 

‘Please don’t be angry,’ I began ‘it was nothing.’

 

 

‘Nothing?’ scoffed Cullen, shaking his head in disgust ‘Nothing.’. Raising a clenched fist, filled with all his aggression and frustration, Cullen slammed his hand into the wooden trellis besides me, shaking petals onto the ground and causing me to startle. ‘Did you enjoy it?’ he asked heatedly 'Did enjoy that little bit of nothing with the Maister of Blades?'

 

‘I didn’t have a choice.’ I argued defensively ‘I didn’t know Michel de Chevin was going to do that in front of everyone, I don’t even think he did. All he asked for was a kiss on my hand. The damn crowd took over and pushed him into it.’

 

 

‘You dare defend him to me? Damn your wickedness!’ growled Cullen ‘I warn you Trevelyan, don’t play me the fool.’

 

 

‘This whole tournament was based on securing more support.’ I continued, trying to conceal my frustration ‘I couldn’t flatly reject the champion of the day, regardless of what I wanted to do. What would that have made me look like?’

 

 

‘What else would you have let him have done to you in the name of the Inquisition?’ the Commander asked cynically. He kicked the ground in fury, green grass ripped up from under his boots ‘I’m no daft dullard, Trevelyan. I saw the way you kissed him, Maker knows I had the best damn view of it in the keep. Indeed, we all enjoyed that ridiculous spectacle, and saw that it was no innocent peck. Dare I ask what else have you done with him?’

 

 

‘How dare you!’ I hissed, furious at the accusation laid at my dust covered feet.

 

 

Cullen began to laugh bitterly ‘Oh don’t you dare play the slighted party here. You dance around the question like a common whore dances for coin in a brothel.’

 

 

With a scathing look, I turned to leave. ‘I refuse to make this a bigger deal than it is.’ 

 

 

Grabbing my arms, Cullen forcefully threw me against the rose trellis, the sharpness of the thorns stabbing into my back as he secured me in front of him. I yelped in pain but the Commander refused to release me.

 

 

‘Damn you to the Maker, you will answer me!’ threatened Cullen ‘Do you want to fuck Michel de Chevin, Inquisitor?’

 

 

I glowered as Cullen growled at my disdain, holding me tighter. ‘Look at your devilish state and tell me who is the wicked one here!’ I reproached.

 

 

With pain and turmoil, passion and fire, I held Cullen’s eyes and he held mine, and our chests rose and fell in a silent chaotic pool of swirling anger. There was nothing to be said until our lips drew passionately together, and our tongues searched aggressive reassurance from each other, as our hands bound our bodies closer together.

 

 

Cullen devoured me in kisses, grabbing my hair in angry fistfuls as he drew me heatedly to him, sucking and biting and licking and gnashing his mouth against mine. Roughly he ran his right hand down my dress, grabbing handfuls of material and hitching up the skirts until he reached my undergarments. The Commander proceeded to aggressively push his hand down them, past my waist and further below, his warm hands finding my most intimate parts before tracing to my lips and parting them with his digits.

 

 

‘Do you think about Michel touching you like this?’ Cullen growled huskily, rubbing his fingers along my labia in drawn out, teased strokes.

 

 

‘Cull-’

 

‘Do not speak.’ he ordered sharply ‘Look into my eyes and imagine it is him, if that is your devilish will?’

 

 

Suddenly he moved his fingers inside me, curling them higher, reaching a pleasurable spot that I wasn’t aware existed myself, leaving me gasping for air.

 

 

‘I don’t want him.’ I moaned ‘I want you.’

 

 

‘Liar.’ growled Cullen, continuing to stroke me deeply inside, knuckles high and unforgivingly rough, yet pleasurable beyond words. He started to unbuckle his belt with one hand while fucking me with the other, his eyes blazing with lust.

 

 

The tightness of the corset and my heavy breathing made me fade in and out, and as I drew my gaze to Cullen I could see his fleshy member between his left hand.

 

 

‘Undo this corset, it’s too tight.’ I begged.

 

 

Falling to my knees, Cullen spun me around roughly, like a limp rag doll, as I waited for him to loosen the cords that bound me. I could feel him grabbing for the green ropes, but instead of loosening them I felt them being yanked tighter, each lace through each rivet, one by one, being tightened further and further, drawing me in. I gasped as he bound me snug with a series of unforgiving sharp tugs, finishing with a firm knot tied at the bottom of the corset, before spinning me around again.

 

 

‘You’ll get no sympathy from me.’ warned Cullen as he climbed over me, positioning himself over my nakedness, all the while ignoring my pleas.

 

 

With undivided concentration, the ex-templar suddenly rammed hard up into me with his hot, hard prick. Crying out, the sensation was more intense than I had experienced before, and I fell back onto the soft green grass behind me, lying amongst the scattered rose petals. Deep into my core, I was buzzing from the spot Cullen’s hard cock had just hit. Intense and heady, I drew short, shaky breaths as I felt his throbbing, bulbous head linger at my entrance. With a loud grunt, the Commander pushed in once more and thrust hard a second time, producing a loud scream from my lips. The pleasure was more than I could handle, every nerve and fibre of my being being sparked with delight as they took in every part of Cullen, from the thickness of his warm cock, to his soft skin melting into my depths, and the hardness of his member stroking me deeply in my core.

 

 

The veins in Cullen’s neck bulged as small moans evaded his lips, enjoying the sensation of tightening around his shaft, his breathing heavy as he fixated on me below, intensely watching my reaction as he thrust into me even harder than the former, producing another cry from my lips as my head grew lighter and lighter. A deeply warm, vibrating electricity buzzed in my core, starting from my deep within my belly and filling me deeper and deeper as I desperately opened myself up to Cullen’s fury, trying to take every inch of him, to feel every inch of him. I needed more and more, there was nothing else in my mind except needing him in me as deep as he could reach, over and over again.

 

 

Concealed amongst the roses, Cullen began to grunt and groan as he unleashed himself on me, his member twitching and trembling to my inner shudders, resulting in more moaning from the ex-templar. Restricted in breathing from the binds, every breath I drew came from my belly rather than my chest, and heightened my response to Cullen’s fucking. It was more than either of us could handle, and I could see how hard Cullen was trying not to release himself into me.

 

A more furious creature I had never beheld, his eyes wild as Cullen began sating himself.

 

‘Yes’ the ex-templar murmured hotly as he unleashed all his stamina on me ‘...yes ride it, go with it.’. Supporting his weight on his strong, muscular arms, he lunged harder and harder, drawing his lips to my neck. ‘Let me fill you...surrender yourself.’ he growled ‘Take me in and consume me. Yes, by the Make-!’

 

 

With head spinning euphoric bliss, I began to tighten and I knew Cullen could sense I was about to tip over the edge. He drew his hands hard across my mouth as I let out a blood curling scream, before releasing himself deep inside me with a roar of his own. His member spurted a few more times, his seed filling me with a warm satisfaction I had grown to fiendishly crave.

 

 

Cullen had always carried a smirk on his scarred lip, but the smirk he held on his lips as he drew his hand from my lips was the largest that I had ever witnessed. He looked totally and utterly spent, heavy breathing and sandy hair falling messily across his brow as he remained deep inside.

 

‘Maker’s breath.’ he groaned, finally withdrawing and pulling me up off the ground, reaching around quickly to undo the ties, loosening them as I remained somewhat breathless. ‘Deep breaths now Trevelyan, slow and deep, that’s it. Good girl.’ he murmured, stroking my neck and chest as I regained myself.

 

 

Gasping for breath, my head was scrambling for words. ‘I’ve never.....never felt...’

 

 

Cullen drew his thumb to his lip, his pink tongue peeking from behind, as he held a wickedly devious smile ‘...that good?’. He rubbed his neck, keeping his eyes on me. ‘Andraste preserve me, fucking you in a corset was better than I anticipated’ growled Cullen, as he placed soft kisses on my cheek ‘Next time perhaps no damn ridiculous skirt with more fabric than I care to contend with.’

 

 

I threw him a small chuckle before growing serious, once again reminded of our previous discussions. It appeared for a moment Cullen had forgotten also, only to be awakened once more.

 

‘I know.’ replied Cullen, shaking his head with a heavy sigh. He ran his hand through his hair, struggling to find the words until he abandoned them altogether and began to adjust his breeches and doublet, with pulls and tucks back to its formal state.

 

 

‘I’m sorry it happened, Cullen’ I murmured.

 

 

‘So am I.’ he muttered. With a frown, Cullen drew his attention back to me, still sitting with loosened ties among the rose bushes. ‘You said it yourself Trevelyan.’ he remarked plainly, perhaps a little sadly although it was dark and his mood always reflected the shadows ‘Nothing is always something.’

 

 

‘No.’ I frowned ‘This was nothing. Damn the rumours that have tainted your mind Cullen, Michel means nothing to me, surely you know that?’

 

 

His eyes looked up at the stars, a serenity covering his face as he stood beneath their grace. ‘I cannot know you how to feel.’ he murmured ‘You are the keeper of your secrets, something I will never be privy to.’. Cullen let out a cynical laugh as he kept his sight on the heavens, whispering half to himself ‘Of hideous demons that we fear from the murky depths of our imagination, we forget the cruelest of creatures oft hold pretty faces, with damnable intentions, stealing what small light we hold within and replacing it with handfuls of darkness.’

 

'No.' I replied adamantly 'You're wrong.'

 

 

Cullen turned his amber eyes, a swirling pool of melting honey and sap. ‘I offered you my heart and I cannot take it back now whether I wished to or not.’ he remarked darkly ‘If you choose another...if Michel de Chevin has your affections, even in the slightest, then we cannot be. I would rather damn myself, and you for that matter, then share you with another, Perhaps my envy will be my demise, but it can be no other way. Whatever you choose, know this. I will not take my heart back. It is yours, to my ruin, it will always be….yours.’. With a look of daggers, he added ‘Yet do not think I will dwell in my misery. You may be keeper of my ruined heart, but it never served me well when I was it’s owner. I hope it curses you as much as it has me.’

 

 

With a sharp turn, Cullen melted into the darkness of the night, leaving me alone in a maze of roses, wondering how nothing had all of a sudden become something that could destroy everything?

 

 

My heart grew heavy that evening. I knew what had happened at the tournament would have displeased Cullen, but I could never have fathomed to the extent it had procured. My love was strong for the ex-templar, if not to a shameful obsession, and there had only ever been Cullen. So I couldn’t understand why Michel stirred these small, insignificant feelings. Mere trifles that made me feel terribly ashamed, and I was ashamed, because I knew if I further pursued these feelings, entertained those thoughts, I would be throwing my happiness away. It was a foolish thing to do and yet, as often others have learnt, a fool's pursuit is a fool's rue.

 

 

In truth, I felt myself falling back into that pool of despair, knowing I deserved neither of them. They played the merry tune to my heart and it was a sweet melody. Maker forgive me, or better damn me here and now, for what mere mortal could turn a deaf ear on such a sweet tune?

 

 

 

 

****

 

 

 

Determined paces echoed throughout the cloisters, somewhat lighter than the owner’s usual stern step. Even in all her seriousness, there was something about an evening of merriment, song and banqueting that made Leliana feel light-hearted and happy. Passing the blazed torches on the wall, one by one, she finally reached the wooden door painted red with patterns of gold and blue, a traditional Antivan design.

 

Knocking three times, the spymaster waited, only to be greeted with silence. With a frown, Leliana knocked louder, yet still no answer presented itself, prompting her to try to turn the handle. It was unlocked and Leliana entered into a dark room with only the light from the moon outside shining in. A figure sat by the window, catatonic and as silent as the grave.

 

‘Josie?’ remarked Leliana hesitantly ‘What are you doing here in the dark?’

 

Josephine remained quiet as her friend approached, taking a place behind her as the Antivan continued to look blankly out into the void of the Frostback Mountains.

 

‘I detest her, Leliana.’ murmured Josephine.

 

The spymaster raised an eyebrow in interest ‘Who Josie? Who do you detest?’

 

A pause followed, before Josephine replied darkly ‘The Inquisitor.’

 

‘Ophelia Trevelyan?’ remarked Leliana in more than a bit of surprise ‘Why?’

 

The ambassador frowned, continuing to hold her undivided attention to the darkness outside ‘She has him.’

 

‘Him?’ queried Leliana ‘Who Josie? Ser Michel de Chevin?’

 

‘No, Cullen.’ hissed Josephine ‘I saw them. In the corridor.’

 

‘The corridor?’

 

‘Yes. A few weeks back.’ replied Josephine sharply

 

‘You saw them….in a corridor?’ remarked Leliana, somewhat still confused as to her friend’s meaning.

 

‘Kissing.’ Josephine added bitterly.

 

Leliana raised her eyes in surprise ‘You fancy...the Commander? For how long? You kept it hidden well, not even I suspected anything.’

 

‘Did you see her at the Grand Tourney today?’ grimaced Josephine ‘Poor Cullen. What an insult. He deserves so much better. If it were me-’. She hesitated before growing silent.

 

‘What?’ smirked Leliana ‘You wouldn’t have accepted the rose from Ser Michel?’

 

‘That kiss was unforgivable. Cullen deserves better than...that.’ scorned Josephine.

 

‘Oh Josie,’ sighed Leliana ‘you are so innocent in love. Cullen is not all sweetness and chivalry. You deserve someone like that, someone like Michel de Chevin.’

 

‘Ser Michel is a disgraced Orlesian noble.’ scorned Josephine.

 

‘Cullen isn’t a noble at all.’ quipped Leliana ‘Your family would never approve.’

 

‘I know,’ muttered Josephine ‘but I don’t care. All I care-’ 

 

‘Josie stop.’ interrupted Leliana hastily, if not a little firmly ‘You know Cullen fancies the Inquisitor. Why continue to torture yourself for someone who does not hold you in his affections?’

 

‘If he was with someone worthy I would stop.’ replied Josephine indignantly ‘All I have are my eyes to inform me, and the actions of others to guide me. Any woman who truly cared for him would not have accepted that kiss from Michel de Chevin. Cullen deserves better.’

 

‘And you think you are that person?’ mused Leliana ‘Has Cullen said something to you?’

 

‘No...we never speak.’ murmured Josephine. She shook her head, turning to her friend ‘When the Inquisitor was away in Emprise du Lion we spoke once, for a while. Cullen looked so dismal, and I stayed awhile hoping to cheer him up. Oh Leliana we only spoke of general matters, day to day life at Skyhold compared to our former homes. It was nothing really, oh but it was something to me.’

 

‘Hush’ replied Leliana ‘Trust me, this will only end badly for you. Poor dear Josie, you must not think this way for a moment longer.’

 

‘I can’t help thinking maybe there would be a chance, maybe a small one, if the Inquisitor were not with Cullen. If he could see the harlot she is, maybe...’

  

Leliana shook her head sadly ‘Josie, no. All the Inquisitor did was accept a kiss, that I’m sure was more for display than real feelings. Michel de Chevin is no fool, he knows we desperately need the people of Thedas to be talking about the Inquisition. He merely gave them something to talk about. Ophelia is with Cullen, and from what I have gathered she has been for a while now. And consider this, why would she kiss someone she fancies so openly in front of all of Thedas? If it were a secret they would not display their affections for all the grand tourney to bear witness. No, it was all for show, nothing more.’

 

Josephine’s face changed suddenly, and she turned to her friend once more ‘Perhaps you are right. I shall not think on it any longer. Yes, I promise Leliana, I will put Cullen out of my mind. Forget we ever spoke of this, I am ashamed to even think about now.’

 

Leliana smiled softly to her friend ‘Come now, the banquet starts in an hour and you are not even dressed! I’m sure once you have a glass of vintage Lake Calenhad Estate in your hand and a lovely noble by your side at the feasting table, you will be none the worse for it.’

 

The spymaster nudged Josephine playfully before leaving the room once more, leaving Josephine to her company once more.

 

‘Fear not, Cullen.’ murmured Josephine, returning her attention to the darkness of night ‘I’ll make you see the true nature of your sweetheart yet, and when I do you will rue the day you met Ophelia Trevelyan....’ 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine: Anywhere But Here

 

The fragrant scent of Elder tree blossoms lingered on the breeze and enticed our senses as the weeks moved on after the Mid-Spring Festival and the Skyhold Grand Tourney. Twenty five days to be precise. Twenty five days since Skyhold had opened it’s gates to Thedas and presented to the realm all that was the Inquisition. I confess I was not entirely sure what that was, but when passing people in the halls they whispered of the magnificence of the Inquisition in it’s righteous pursuit of cleansing the evil of the realm. Such sweeping grand statements were flattering indeed, but left me somewhat uneasy as I walked by, wondering what magnanimous expectations were attached to such opinions, and whether we could truly live up to them?

 

The aftermath of the tourney had been significant to say the least, and the support overwhelming. Sovereigns began to flow into our coffers from all over the countryside, while offers of land were graciously bestowed, possibly in the hope that the Inquisition’s influence would protect the manors and estates scattered throughout the realm. A favour for a favour, and more obligations were secured for better or for worse. Many a skilled warrior, talented mage and learned scholar made pilgrimages from all over to join the Inquisition, offering up their skills for the benefit of our plight. Finding ourselves in a position none of us dared dream of, with more resources and numbers at our fingertips than we could have ever hoped for, we knew the events of the last month had not been in vain.

 

Twenty five days. It had also been that long since I had exchanged words with Cullen, our last conversation being a few heated moments in a flourishing rose garden. For all his anger and passion, his silence was the worst side of him. I had been exposed to this part of Cullen before, a cold and aloof persona, an emotionally detached person devoid of any real feeling or sentiment towards me. His eyes never met mine, briefly skimming over my person, his indifference suffocating and causing me to turn my heel in an instant. Even in his most darkest of moments, it was nothing to what I endured from him now. With no council meetings arranged whilst we were all busy entertaining the guests of Skyhold, Cullen was not obliged to exchange one word with me, and he took that opportunity with great aplomb. If I existed, he did not acknowledge it, and I ceased to be all together. It made me miserable beyond words, a sadness that leaves one cold and empty with a shiver across one’s skin and a heavy pit in one’s stomach. Questioning my own self worth, I resided to the fact that I was not only hated by Cullen, but by the entire Inquisition. A Serpent card in a game of Wicked Grace, a lowly pawn in a game of chess. All that I was, all that I ever could be, was an insignificant piece in a game too large for me to contend in, let alone win.

 

Unable to digest the steady stream of rumours about the Inquisitor and our ex-chevalier, I had made it my top priority to avoid each and every person. Perhaps it was an irrational goal, considering I was the Inquisitor and lived in a bustling keep full of hundreds of people, but I diligently kept to my room most days, busying myself in the study of arcane tomes that had never caught my interest in the past, and happily signing as many documents as were delivered to my door. Every morning I awoke hoping to be notified that I was required to venture into Crestwood or the Hinterlands, secretly wishing a lair of troublesome Darkspawn, or even Red Templars, had been discovered and I was required to drive them out. To my dismay, however, I was told that my presence at the keep was essential while we had visitors. Visitors that were happy to overstay their welcome for many a tedious week, armed with ceaseless chatter, wiggling eyebrows, flamboyant limbs, and tiresome questions. A sea of nameless faces consumed my every waking moment and the charade dragged out for weeks, and weeks, until finally, on the twenty fifth day since we had opened our gates, the last noble departed the gates of Skyhold.

 

Resting my head against the moss covered stone wall of the keep, I let out a heavy sigh. I had made it my duty to find the most secluded part of Skyhold to escape to, whenever the confines of my room became too much to bear. A small arrow tower in the east corner of the stronghold became my abandoned abode, a prison of sorts that I felt I deserved, scattered with broken glass and split rotting wooden chairs and tables, cobwebs and dust, graciously left by the previous occupants of the keep. Small splits of light filtered through the arrow slits in the walls, and it was there, amongst the squalor that I sat on the dirt covered stone floor with one lone candle burning, and played out the obsessive thoughts in my mind, with the shadows to keep me company and the silence to amplify my fears.

 

‘Mind clouded, cold and awake, sweat beading and hands shaking, a dagger in one’s heart.’ whispered a small voice in the bleak room ‘The heaviness drags until there is no will to fight anymore. Sadness, despair, loneliness, helplessness. Soaring through the air, flying higher than ever before, only to be dashed upon the rocks the next. He wants to be away from here, but he knows that his duty is to protect the people. So he stays, trying to think of a way to leave, and all the while you are also trying to think of a way to leave. Even in your desire to escape, neither of you can see that you desire the same thing. Running away will not take you further from the pain, distance doesn’t heal pain. People always think that it will, but it never does…’ 

 

‘Cole.’ I muttered, casting my eyes around the dimly lit room, searching for the spirit until I recognised his shape sitting on a broken cupboard in the far corner of the room. With hunched over shoulders, and a miserable expression, his hair spilling loosely across his face, Cole looked even more disheartened than even I was at present.

 

‘Twenty five days,’ continued Cole darkly ‘twenty five days since your thoughts, and his thoughts, have plagued me night and day. I cannot walk the battlements for he fills my head with such torment, and you are in the keep and fill the rooms with thoughts that make me want to cry. Of demons and mages and death, and chasing the coat tails of a man who cannot be caught. Scattered hopes and shattered dreams, the purest of intentions now transformed into the darkest of actions. The heart is a powerful weapon that can heal old wounds….or cause new wounds that never heal.’

 

‘It was one damnable kiss!’ I barked into the silence. Fists clenched and trembling, I shook my hands willing the anger away.

 

‘That is not of what I speak’ murmured Cole sadly.

 

Miserably I looked back to the lone flame before me. ‘I’m sorry Cole,’ I replied woefully ‘I would never wish you to feel what I’m feeling these days.’

 

‘Tired...so tired.’ whispered Cole ‘You dream. Why do you dream so much? You chase him in your dreams, trying to get him to notice you, but he always turns his foot before you reach him. You wish he will talk to you. Look at you. Want you. But he never does, and you spend those sleeping hours being ignored, only to wake up and realise it is also your reality. How can dreams be so real? How can dreams be so sad?’

 

‘I don’t know Cole, they just are’ I replied, biting my lip to hold back the tears that his accurate words had revealed. Hating the spirit knowing my every dark thought, I wished he would go away, only to look up and notice...he was gone.

 

A sharp collection of small steps sounded, ascending the stairs towards the tower, and caught my attention. I lifted my head wearily to see a ginger haired spymaster appearing at the doorway.

 

‘Leliana.’ I remarked.

 

She flickered her eyes curiously around the empty room before drawing them finally back to me ‘Inquisitor-’

 

‘Everything is fine’ I interrupted sharply, anticipating the question ‘I came here to be alone.’

 

A smile curled on her lips as she took a few cautious steps into the room, navigating between broken bottles and ripped, soggy parchments from books ‘Not missing the company of half of Thedas?’

 

Rubbing my eyes wearily, I shook my head ‘Not one bit.’

 

‘I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the Inquisitor cannot afford the luxury of hiding away from the world.’ Leliana informed, resting against the edge of a broken table ‘Your absence is starting to be noticed.’

 

I threw my council member a frown ‘You refuse to send me out into the realm to actually do any good, I have been trapped here for weeks. What do expect me to do? Dance in the courtyard for my supper?’

 

‘Would you?’ smirked Leliana, before adding ‘I was going to suggest you merely come out of hiding, but a dancing Inquisitor seems more fun for all of us, no?’. The spymaster let out a little giggle before noticing my half serious face. ‘I shall get the point then.’ she added in a more serious tone ‘I need you to set off to a town near Jader, tomorrow at dawn.’

 

Flashing my eyes to hers, my demeanor sparked up without a moment's hesitation. ‘Of course!’ I blurted out a little too enthusiastically ‘What’s in Jader that needs to be done?’

 

‘Jader is a port town on the coast of The Waking Sea, directly north from the Frostback Mountains. It is the main port of call that our Inquisition supply ships arrive at and depart from. Food, supplies, materials, weapons, armour, you name it, we bring it in through this route. The goods are then taken via land through the merchant paths up to the Frostback Mountains and into Skyhold.’

 

‘Has something happened in Jader?’ I asked.

 

‘It’s actually a coastal town slightly to the east of Jader that has come to our attention.’ replied Leliana ‘The village of Shrimstoke, that resides in a rather rocky and perilous part of the coastline, and has been causing somewhat of a problem for the ships that pass it’s way.’

 

‘What could a bunch of villagers be doing that affects us so?’

 

‘Most coastal villages have lighthouses or beacons to guide the ships through the perilous parts of the The Waking Sea shoreline.’ explained Leliana ‘Shrimstoke, however, has never been one of those coastal villages. In fact they refuse to aid the ships. Our boats have relied on the kindness of a hermit that lives in the upper cliffs of Shrimstoke, providing a large fire at night from his abode to guide the ships. However the villagers have become somewhat displeased at his endeavours over the years. The number of shipwrecks have diminished significantly and the people of Shrimstoke have been left without the spoils of their treacherous coastline.’

 

‘What?’ I scoffed ‘You mean they actually want the ships to wreck?’

 

‘Indeed.’ replied the spymaster ‘There are many valuable goods on the ships that sail from the Amaranthine Ocean through into the Waking Sea. One fully loaded carrack would allow enough goods for the fellow villagers of Shrimstoke to survive the better part of the year.’

 

‘What about the people on board, or the owners of the cargo?’ I scorned ‘Surely they would not reside to the villagers being the owners of their cargo if the ship goes down?’

 

Leliana raised an eyebrow ‘You’re not familiar with the rights of salvage, I take it? Any ship that is at peril at sea, and its cargo, is allowed to be salvaged by any other person. The salvager is entitled to the monetary value of the cargo salvaged, or if that is not awarded by the ship, then the cargo itself.’

 

‘That sounds unfair.’ I remarked.

 

Leliana shrugged ‘Such is life, no? Regardless, we have received word from the hermit in question begging for protection. He fears for his safety after a number of failed attempts on his life in the last year. We cannot afford to lose our ships, crew and cargo to the village of Shrimstoke, therefore I need you to go and address the matter.’

 

‘Do you think they’ll listen to me?’ I asked doubtfully.

 

‘I’m sending Cullen with you.’ Leliana added ‘I believe a stern word from the Commander of the Inquisition will set them straight, that along with half a dozen soldiers in tow. However it doesn’t hurt to send you as well, so the people can see how serious the matter is.’

 

‘Irrespective,’ I continued ‘if this is their livelihood we’re talking about, I doubt a stern word from anyone will set them straight.’

 

‘You would be surprised at what people would be prepared to do when they feel unprotected and vulnerable in such dangerous times.’ replied the assassin.

 

‘Is Corypheus planning to do a spot of sailing to Shrimstoke in the near future?’ I mused with a grin.

 

‘Stranger things have happened,’ smirked Leliana ‘but no, I don’t believe so. Of course the people of Shrimstoke need not know how far or close to real danger they actually are. All they really need to know is they will be defenceless and ruined if they do not have the support and protection of the Inquisition.’

 

I shrugged, still unconvinced but not wanting to forego a trip with the Commander. ‘Of course’ I replied pleasantly ‘I shall prepare for the journey straight away.’

 

Easing myself up from the floor, I noticed Leliana lingering at the doorway. ‘Michel de Chevin is supposed to be arriving back in Skyhold in a day or two.’ she added, looking at me carefully for a reaction.

 

‘I didn’t know he was gone from Skyhold’ I remarked in honest surprise. My isolation had left me in the dark on a number of matters, and of this one, I confess, I was grateful to be none the wiser.

 

The spymaster’s lip curled ‘I just thought you would like to know.’

 

‘Not you as well’ I exasperated ‘No, I assure you it doesn’t concern me even in the slightest.’

 

‘Of course.’ replied Leliana, standing erect once more ‘I shall take up no more of your time. Safe journey, Inquisitor.’. With a brief nod, Leliana departed the room as fast as she had come, a frown on her face as her mind filled with thoughts she had no time to contend with.

 

 

****

 

 

‘So let me get this straight.’ exclaimed Varric ‘There’s a man who lives in a seaside cave by the shore of Shrimstoke, and he spends all his time trying to direct ships away from the rocks, but the local villagers are angry because they are losing their main source of income. From pillaging the wreckages of ships! So they want to kill this man?!’. The dwarf chuckled as he stoked the fire, the plumes of grey smoke shrouding his shoulders in the dark of night ‘You know that’s gotta be true because it sounds completely unbelievable.’

 

‘A good deed, Varric, is not necessarily the most popular one, or the most economical.’ replied Cullen, resting his back comfortably against the trunk of a large oak tree near the campfire ‘You’ll soon find the coastline of The Waking Sea to be a barren, wind swept place peppered with dry shrubs and coarse thicket, where crops do not grow because the soil is too salty and animals cannot be reared because there is no grass to feed them. The survival of the people of Shrimstoke depends on the ruin of the ships that steer its course into the rocks of their shoreline.’

 

The rogue shook his head ‘Well I’d wager it’s time for the fine people of Shrimstoke to move on to greener pastures.’

 

‘Bloody land pirates, aren’t they?’ muttered Blackwall in disapproval ‘What happens if they refuse to let alone this man? What was his name again?’

 

‘They call him the Star of the Southern Shore.’ replied Cullen ‘Well, the sailors do. I’m sure the villagers just refer to him as bastard, or dotard, or something of the like.’

 

The dwarf chuckled in amusement. ‘No way did I just hear the Commander of the Inquisition just make a joke!’ remarked Varric with glee ‘This journey has more promise than the house ale at The Pearl.’

 

‘Yet less than the house whiskey at The Hanged Man.’ added Cullen with a smirk.

 

‘Why Curly,’ exclaimed Varric clutching his chest dramatically ‘don’t tell me you actually drank at my dear home in Kirkwall?!’

 

‘To my everlasting regret and shame.’ replied the ex-templar dryly ‘I remember venturing in there when I first came to the city. A few of my fellow templars and myself made the unfortunate decision to try a few dozen drams of The Hanged House Whiskey. I woke up a day later in Darktown with a dragon of a hangover thumping in my head, and a pile of rats for my bed.’

 

Varric’s laughter echoed into the night, lighthearted and free, a faint memory of his old self coming through. ‘Ha ha ha! I’ve seen an entire crew board the wrong ship and try to sail into the wharf after drinking that fine drop all night!’

 

The ex-templar chuckled, the shadows and the light from the flames dancing across his face. Cullen looked at ease this particular evening and it was apparent the Commander found more pleasure being out in the wild, with the rich soil under his feet, the evening breeze on his skin and the clear night sky overhead. Grabbing a piece of wood lying nearby, he tossed it onto the flames, sending orange sparks flying before the light engulfed the timber in molten licks. ‘Well, I learnt enough that night never to go back, not even for the pig oat mash.’ remarked the ex-templar.

 

‘You see that’s where you went wrong!’ chimed Varric ‘The pig oat mash is notorious as a hangover cure. Why, drinking at The Hanged Man and eating a bowl of the stuff go hand in hand. Ah, you templars never learn.’

 

‘Hah!’ scoffed Cullen ‘We templars learnt that there was a time when the mixed meat stew at The Hanged Man was more human than animal.’

 

‘Do they eat humans in Kirkwall?’ queried Cole innocently, sitting above Cullen on an overhanging branch.

 

Cullen nodded ‘Apparently so, although I suspect our long term Dwarven tavern resident here wasn’t aware of it. There used to be a cook at The Hanged Man, went by the name of Denny Dawson, more infamously known as The Butcher of Lowtown?’

 

‘The Butcher of Lowtown?’ remarked Blackwall, sitting up in interest from the overturned tree trunk that lay before the fire ‘It sounds like he wasn’t your typical butcher.’

 

‘Unfortunately no.’ muttered Cullen ‘When I started working in Kirkwall we were faced with a task of investigating the disappearance of some of the mages from the Circle. It coincided with the disappearance of a handful of residents from Lowtown. The Kirkwall City Guard and the Templars set out to investigate it, although neither of us could locate any of the missing parties. At first we thought they had simply run away, it’s not uncommon for mages to escape, or for people to leave their partners or family, especially in the poorer areas of the city where hardship is thrust upon the people more than they care for it. The Templars and the City Guard were ready the dismiss the case in it’s entirety, turning up no promising leads as we could not find one body. Not one. It was around that time, however, that the owner of The Hanged Man notified the City Guard of something strange that had come to his attention. He was becoming suspicious of the tavern’s cook, Denny Dawson, after he realised Denny had been cooking meat every night but the owner hadn’t paid for any meat on the stock orders in over three months.’

 

A few of the soldiers looked at each other in confusion, although Varric and Blackwall looked at each other nervously, knowing exactly where the story was going.

 

‘Meat, as you know, is not an item that comes cheap, especially in Kirkwall.’ continued Cullen ‘It turned out Denny Dawson had a perverse little hobby of abducting and murdering his victims, and putting them into the mixed meat stew of the day at The Hanged Man. A different meat each day of the week.’

 

‘‘I’m going to be sick.’ muttered Varric, looking mortified ‘I’d wager I ate that stew nearly every night of the week.’

 

‘Did they taste like chicken?’ asked Cole to Varric ‘I heard people taste like chicken.’

 

Cullen burst into laughter at the look of the dwarf’s face, and even Blackwall couldn’t keep a straight face. A few of the soldiers gathered round broke into hysterics as Varric remained gobsmacked.

 

‘And that, Varric, is the reason you never saw me down at The Hanged Man.’ informed Cullen, a wicked smile on his lips.

 

‘And on that note, I’m going to sleep.’ grimaced Varric, clutching his stomach as if he had just eaten a bowl of the corrupted stew.

 

‘I think I’ll retire as well’ remarked Blackwall with a chuckle, rising from the ground and heading towards his tent.

 

Cullen nodded, pointing to his soldiers ‘You’d best do the same, we set off early tomorrow and I want everyone to be their sharpest.’

 

The men and women shuffled away on the order from their Commander, silence finally ascending upon the campsite as Cullen was left alone staring into the flames, the smile on his lips slowly fading until it was serious once more. The orange of the fire made his amber eyes radiate, his features softened by the warm glow, his bare hands outstretched to feel the raw heat on his skin.

 

‘You’ve been awfully quiet since we left.’ he murmured, looking past the flames, over to where I was sitting in the shadows near a large Black Walnut tree, a distance from the fire, concealed in the darkness ‘I don’t think you’ve said one word this evening.’

 

‘I didn’t have much to add to the conversation.’ I muttered, my heart beating nervously knowing that Cullen was finally talking to me again. I half expected the Commander to ignore me throughout the trip.

 

The Commander rubbed his neck and moved his shoulders stiffly, looking across the flames towards me ‘You must be freezing.’ he remarked ‘Come, sit closer by the fire.’

 

‘I’m fine here.’ I replied darkly. Twenty six days of silence from Cullen had turned my regret into anger, and while in my weaker moments I dearly missed the ex-templar, in my stronger moments I detested his cruelty towards me.

 

Pulling off the black woollen cloak surrounding his shoulders, Cullen unclasped the silver buckle at his neck and arose from his spot by the oak tree, approaching me slowly. Stopping at my side, he crouched down to drape the material across my shoulders.

 

‘I won’t be responsible for your sickness if the cold reaches your bones tonight.’ he murmured, wrapping the cloak tight and buckling the clasp once more. His fingers lingered across my upper arm for a moment more than was necessary, and I turned to catch his deep eyes staring into mine. ‘Please, let us sit closer to the fire.’ he added in a lower voice, well aware our companions were in tents close by.

 

The Commander reached out his hand gently and pulled me up to him, our bodies face to face, his head tilted down to mine looking up at him as he held my fingers, a moment of electricity building up between us. It was an energy that surged whenever we were near, and awoke every nerve and fibre of my being. Maintaining the grip on my hand, Cullen led me closer to the fire, directing me to where Blackwall had previously been sitting on a tired log near the embers. The soft hum of crickets filled the silence as we sat side by side, staring intently into the flames with more concentration than was warranted.

 

‘I thought you incapable of talking to me’ I observed bitterly, throwing some loose leaves scattered on the dirt into the fire. I could hear Cullen sighing heavily at my comment, stirring impatiently next to me, possibly agitated at the bluntness of my manner.

 

‘I was merely giving you the space to make a choice.’ muttered Cullen after a few moments of silence ‘Clarity to follow your own path without interference or influence from myself.’

 

‘My path has been chosen for some time,’ I replied sharply ‘and it has been isolated and dark thanks to you.’

 

‘I am sorry to hear it.’ he muttered.

 

‘I haven’t spoken one word to him,’ I continued angrily ‘considering it was never an issue in the first place, why would I? Michel has never tried to meet me in secret. Maker knows we never talk in private, and we knew that kiss was only for display, and there it has remained. Indeed, Leliana mentioned to me just yesterday that Michel de Chevin was not even in Skyhold at present, and I hadn’t the faintest idea of it!’

 

‘I know that now.’ Cullen replied with a frown, waving his hand in dismissal as if to stop my continual assault of words. He raised a cynical brow, tilting his head to mine ‘You can hardly blame me for questioning your intentions?’

 

It was my turn to return the frown and I did it rather well, and Cullen held my expression intensely. ‘Your silence towards me cuts me like a thousand blades.’ I scowled ‘You may find it easier to dismiss me for weeks at a time, but I confess it takes a little part of my spirit each time you do. You have no idea how your actions affect me Cullen.’

 

Cullen drew his eyes shut, as if pained by my confession ‘Trevelyan, please.’

 

‘It’s true.’ I replied, almost ranting ‘I spend all my time sitting in the abandoned parts of the keep drowning in my thoughts. And for what? For the actions of Michel de Chevin? I shouldn’t have kissed him, I know that, but your coldness towards me was unwarranted. Why do you have to be so hurtful?’

 

Cullen sighed ‘I am only human, Trevelyan.’. Reaching his large hand, he reached out to grasp mine, pulling my palm to his lips and placing one deep kiss on it, holding my gaze as his mouth lingered on my skin. ‘After my time in Kirkwall,’ he remarked ‘I’ve finally had the benefit of being able to put some time between me and the events I have experienced.’. He added with a bitter laugh ‘You’d think it would have done me some good, but I fear after everything that has happened it is hard for me to return to a normal life. I’ve forgotten what it is to live...just live. To be human once more...’

 

‘I can’t imagine what that would have been like.’ I replied, almost immediately regretting my heated accusations, no matter how warranted they may have been ‘I’m so sorry for what you went through.’

 

‘Thank you.’ murmured Cullen, drawing his gaze back into the flames.

 

With a squeeze of his hand I added with a soft smile ‘But you survived….’

 

The ex-templar shrugged, his face half cast in shadow, half in light ‘I was tortured Trevelyan, tortured for so long in that tower that I knew I was never going to survive. After all that pain, all that fear, dragging myself on the cold stones screaming for the Maker to take me, finally I knew I was going to die. I made peace with that fact, I welcomed it, for I knew that I didn’t want to live after what I had been put through and what I had witnessed.’. The ex-templar shuddered, suddenly drawing his hand away from mine and pressing his fist in the palm of his other hand ‘The demons made me watch as they flayed my fellow templars alive. Six in total, stripped of their skin and screaming in curdled pleas of terror and despair while it happened. I can never erase the sound from my mind. And there was nothing I could do....’

 

‘Cullen,’ I replied gently, although my heart was pounding in fear, grabbing his arm in reassurance, trying to hold his hand once more ‘you’re not alone anymore. I want to help you through this.’

 

He shook his head sadly ‘Trust me, there is no getting through something like that. I’ve changed and I accept that. After being tortured for so long, I was ready for death. I was prepared for my departure from this place.’. Cullen went silent, his sandy blonde hair spilling over his forehead ‘But I didn’t die. The one thing I knew that would take away all the pain, my death, and it never came. When all hope was lost and there was not a skerrick of chance left to absolve me, I was saved. Somehow I survived.’

 

‘But you didn’t want to?’ I queried in a mumble, knowing the answer already but hoping I was wrong.

 

‘I didn’t know what to think at the time.’ muttered Cullen ‘It was surreal. Walking out of the Kinloch Hold was stranger than any experience I have ever experienced. I knew I was alive but I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t trust it. It felt like at any moment it would be taken away from me. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t even deserve it, that I had somehow managed to cheat death. I felt like some strange spirit lingering between life and death, trapped in between two places, and not knowing where I belonged. The memories were so fresh, and I tried to move on and for the most part I was able to block my thoughts of the past. Distract myself. At first I was sent by my Knight-Commander to Greenfell, where I stayed a while at the Chantry to rest. Eventually I was sent to Kirkwall to serve at the Circle, and later on I was promoted to Knight-Captain.’

 

‘So things turned around for you?’ I remarked, half unconvinced by my broad sweeping statements. How could things ever turn around for someone who had been tortured by a tower full of demons?

 

The Commander raised his brows ‘I finally had a purpose I had longed for, and I saw it as my chance to turn things around, yes. Unfortunately, I discovered you cannot ignore the past forever and it has a remarkable way of reminding you of it. The memories began to creep back into my mind. Flashbacks, nightmares. Drenched in sweat, clinging to my sheets in sheer terror, feeling like I was reliving the horrors every night. Every time I saw a mage I began to see the abominations at the Kinloch Hold. Can you imagine?’. Cullen let out a bitter laugh ‘A templar and I couldn’t bare to look at a mage. I began to take more and more lyrium, more anything that I could get my hands on, anything that could dull the pain. It’s funny how many templars were doing the same, although they had not even witnessed what I had, yet still they desperately wanted to drown out their reality. Perhaps that says more about the Order than we care to acknowledge?’

 

‘Mages and templars alike.’ I added, half to myself.

 

‘Despite my efforts to dull my senses, nothing ever worked,’ continued Cullen ‘and just made things worse. I drowned my sorrows in addiction, sex and the righteousness of my position, determined to the very end that what I was doing would make a difference. A difference that I couldn’t make at the Kinloch Hold.’

 

‘You were in a terrible situation Cullen, you must see that?’ I defended ‘You weren’t to blame.’

 

‘Do you really believe that?’ he scoffed, narrowing his cynical eyes towards me ‘You, a mage of all people? I would have executed you, or tranquilised you, had you been in Kirkwall at the time I was there.’

 

‘I don’t believe that.’ I murmured in unease.

 

Cullen drew a sharp breath, looking away before turning his eyes on me, eyes that were stern and very, very unforgiving ‘If you had cast magic on me in Kirkwall, like what you did back in Ortik’s Tavern, I would have had you tranquilised.’

 

Somewhat shocked at the confidence of his predictions, I remained silent.

 

‘Knight-Commander Meredith was my greatest advocate in my hatred of mages.’ continued Cullen ‘Say the wrong thing, try and escape the circle, even utter the words blood magic, and you would have sealed your fate. I was a merciless master, I can assure you that much.’. Gnashing his teeth, Cullen ran his hands in frustration through his hair. ‘If you could have seen how many mages were turning to blood magic in Kirkwall,’ he grimaced ‘it was as if the city was cursed with damn blood magic, and we needed to display a firm hand. However I forgot a firm hand keeps the guilty, as well as the innocent, in check, and not always justly. What we did to some of the mages....’

 

I knew Cullen’s silence meant terrible things, although I knew I didn’t want to know the details. He came to me in contrition, but in truth I did not know whether I could absolve him.

 

‘Well,’ muttered the Commander ‘sufficed to say it disgusts and shames me what Meredith made me do, but to be fair, when all is said and done, I can’t even blame her, can I? My actions are my own and they were horrific. I look back at that man in Kirkwall and I am loathed to think he is the same person here professing to….’. Cullen drew quiet.

 

‘Professing to?’ I remarked in confusion.

 

Turning his head, Cullen leaned towards me suddenly and drew his lips to mine as his hands ran up through my hair, his strong mouth devouring mine, his warm pink tongue searching for mine. Finally he drew back, inches apart, looking deeply into my eyes, holding my head in his hands. The sandy tresses falling over his high forehead, the dark stubble running over his chiseled jaw, his amber eyes full of light, deep set brows and a defined Ferelden nose. It was a handsome, stern face full of intense affection and admiration.

 

‘I love you.’ Cullen whispered ‘I love you, Ophelia.’

 

His words were powerful, beautiful, yet foreign and strange, welcomed with joyful enthusiasm by myself as I reflected his smile. I was drowning in his eyes, and it was there I wished to stay forever. ‘

 

I love you.’ I whispered back ‘I don’t care what you have done in your past, by Andraste I swear it.’

 

A soft smile formed on his lips as Cullen pulled me onto his lap, straddling me across his thighs as I sat face towards him. The Commander’s metal chausses dug hard against the underside of my leather thighs, although I barely noticed, my attention being consumed by the man before me. Cullen ran his arms around my waist, pulling me tight against him, his lips running lightly across the skin of my neck, my cheeks, my forehead, and then finally fluttering onto my lips, the ex-templar exploring my mouth with increasing enthusiasm. His amber eyes filled mine as he reluctantly pulled away.

 

‘How can I love you and protect you,’ he murmured ‘if I can’t be certain I can protect you from myself?’

 

‘I trust you.’ I whispered, softly kissing his neck with a grin ‘Maker damn you, how many times do I need to say it!’

 

Throwing me a devious smile, Cullen nodded ‘I know.’. His amusement turned serious all of a sudden, a cloud drawing on his face. ‘I want to take you away from all this fighting and death.’ he muttered ‘I’ve seen history repeat itself over and over again. One man falls, only to be replaced with another, blood spilling into more blood, until there is nothing left to fight for. It’s only a matter of time before one of us will be expected to spill our own blood for this cause, and Maker be damned I don’t intend to wait for that to happen.’

 

My eyes drew away, and Cullen noticed the troubled expression ‘Trevelyan? What is it? What is the matter?’

 

‘I meant what I said to you on the road to Ortik’s Tavern’ I replied shamefully ‘I don’t want to be the Inquisitor and I don’t want to be here.’. Running my hands through his sandy locks I added ‘I have more to lose now than I did before I joined the damn cause.’

 

‘As do I.’ replied Cullen softly, holding me tighter in his arms ‘Life is fragile and it can be taken in a moment’s breath. Look around at the people of Thedas. Most of the common folk struggle to survive a winter, let alone the onslaught of a crazed ancient Magister. I’m the Commander of this Inquisition, I serve to protect the people....’. He clenched his jaw, his eyes dark ‘..but I know I can’t protect them all. To add further insult, I can’t even protect the one person I care the most about, and living with that truth is killing me. I want you away from harm.’

 

I drew my eyes to my glowing hand. ‘As do I’ I murmured ‘However there is one small problem.’

 

‘That damnable tear in the sky.’ scorned Cullen, grabbing my face in his hands suddenly ‘I want you to leave all this. Ride away into the dark of night, find some place better.’. His eyelashes fluttered, his face in confusion, struggling to understand the thoughts in his head ‘I’d rather see you ride off into the distance and never see you again than live with the fact that I sent you to your death.’

 

‘As would I to you,’ I replied firmly ‘but I will not leave you.’

 

‘I fear, then, we are both as stubborn as each other’ chuckled Cullen sadly.

 

‘Cullen,’ I murmured ‘I used to trust in fate, and know that if something was meant to be, then it would happen. Now however, especially after how close we all came to death in Haven...how can we trust that fate is on our side? How do we know this isn’t all in vain?’

 

Cullen shook his head. ‘Welcome to the wonderful world of warfare.’ he scorned ‘Trevelyan, you are no warrior. You were a shielded mage living in a cage that us templars like to call the Circle. A mage that has been flung into a fight that was never yours. Now you are the one responsible for pulling us all out of this mess. Whatever happens, I will be by your side until the very end. However if I can find a reason to keep you out of danger, I will be fervently advising it. I fear the other council members will not be so solicitous.’. Cullen held my attention sternly, like that of the Commander to his recruits ‘Do not trust the other council members with your life, they do not make decisions with that concern as their primary objective.’

 

‘I want you out of danger also.’ I replied, trying to ignore the shiver that crossed my skin from Cullen’s warning ‘I couldn’t bare if something happened to y-’

 

Cullen drew his finger to my lips and whispered a shhhh, softly smiling at me as I remained quiet. ‘You forget Trevelyan,' whispered Cullen 'I am a warrior. My job will always be to fight and defend. Let me put it to good use, for you.’

 

Unable to bear thinking of what a life would be without each other, running my arms around his neck and his around my waist, we embraced in the calm of the night, not letting the other go, feeling our chests rise against each other, and the sweet warmth of our breath against each others skin, bound together until the crackling fire had died down into nothing more than glowing coal. We wanted to run, but we chose to stay, and the reason was apparent. Our cause was a mutual one, stronger than stone and wilder than flame, and it had nothing, nothing at all, to do with the Inquisition.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten: No Helpful Act Ever Came Without A Price

 

 

Gusts of air breezily swept along the grey stone floor, invading from the outside through insignificant cracks and stones missing in the walls of the keep. All was deathly quiet in the late hour of night, so still that the light patter from the feet of mice could be heard across the floor, the gentle ruffle of feathers from the ravens stirred every now and then, and the soft coo of pigeons nestled in the rafters above that lulled the evening into a dreamy embrace.

 

With a nervous tap tap tap of her calligraphy pen, striking hard against the sturdy writing board clasped tight in her hand, Josephine Montilyet paced the isolated lower chamber of the keep, waiting and watching for any sign of movement in the shadowy room. Catching her breath, she edged closer to the door as a few kitchen hands passed by, in blissful ignorance of the dealings that were going on within.

 

‘Lady Montilyet.’ called out a low voice with a common tongue.

 

Josephine spun around to see a soldier stepping out from the shadows, wearing a cuirass of the Inquisition on his breast. He was stout man with a barrel chest with a head full of shaggy red hair, a face riddled scars old and new, and skin like tanned leather.

 

‘Webb, did anyone see you come here?’ she asked nervously, stepping hesitantly towards the soldier. Her wide dark brown eyes scoured the room, half expecting someone to jump out. ‘Were you seen by anyone? Anyone at all?’

 

‘No, me lady.’ replied Webb ‘I’ve been ‘ere for about an hour as you asked, an’ I entered through ‘em lower doors.’. The soldier hesitated a moment, casting his eyes around the room before adding in a whisper ‘I did what you asked ov me...you know, on my recent journey to Shrimstoke.’

 

‘And?’ asked Josephine, disinterested at lingering on civil inquiries as to whether her companion fared a good journey or not. Her eyes pressed sharply on the soldier ‘Did you hear anything of import?’

 

The soldier frowned ‘Aye, I tried to listen in on their conversations an’ such.’

 

‘Tried?’ replied Josephine agitatedly 'What do you mean you tried?'

 

‘As much as would’na draw suspicion to me’self.’ added the soldier defensively.

 

‘Stop dragging this out.’ snapped the Antivan ‘Did you hear anything of interest or not? What did they say?’

 

The soldier shuffled uneasily on the spot, apparently not too comfortable at being asked to report on spying on his superiors. ‘Few times Commander Cullen spoke ‘bout his early days as one of em’ templars. Most in hushed whispers mind you, but there were parts I heard. Oh and a lot was just sweet nuffings between lovers, between Commander and the Inquisitor, know what I mean?’

 

Drawing a sharp breath, Josephine turned away for a moment to gather her composure. Finally she turned back to her companion, anger seething in her eyes. ‘Well? What did he say about his past? Did they talk about Michel de Chevin?’

 

‘Maister ov Blades?’ remarked the soldier, slightly confused at the question. ‘Nay, heard no talk ‘bout him during the journey.’

 

With tight fists, the ambassador let out a frustrated sigh ‘What then did they speak of?!’

 

The man paused for a moment before answering. ‘Commander Cullen did talk a lot about his hatred ov blood mages...one evening when we was all gone to bed for the night I heard him and the Inquisitor talkin’ ‘bout that, all serious an’ everything.’

 

‘Hatred of blood mages?’ Josephine repeated in slight confusion.

 

‘Aye, heard him say he tranquilised a lot of ‘em in Kirkwall. That and his time in Ferelden before that, somethin’ ‘bout some demons an’ such.’

 

Josephine nodded hastily. ‘Yes, yes Leliana mentioned Cullen was at the Circle Tower in Ferelden...but how does that help me?’ she muttered.

 

‘Help you?’ replied Webb uncertainly.

 

Waving her hand to dismiss the question, which was not directed at her companion in the first place, Josephine looked at the soldier sharply. ‘Anything else Webb? How did the Commander and Inquisitor get along on the trip?’

 

Webb shrugged ‘Commander was in good spirits, an’ he spent most ov the time riding with the Inquisitor during the day and talking with her ‘round the fire at night. Got pretty cozy in front of us, why they even shared a tent most nights.’

 

Brow furrowed and pursed lips, the Antivan shook her head as she tried to muster her thoughts, a swirling pit of jealous inflicted sickness churning in her gut.

 

‘What of the Inquisitor?’ pressed Josephine, her eyes growing madder by the second ‘Did she do anything that aroused any suspicion? Any conversations with other people? Did she go off without Cullen? Was she hiding anything?’

 

If Webb looked confused before, he looked downright bewildered now. ‘No, me lady. The Inquisitor did nothing ‘cept ride out to Shrimstoke, an’ kept to ‘erself most ov the time. She wasn’t up to nuffin’ dark or unnatural, if that’s what you mean?’

 

With a roll of her eyes, Josephine’s lips began to curl into a grin, an idea suddenly coming to mind, a splendid epiphany that her face could not contain.

 

‘Of course...’ she whispered in delight ‘It is so simple and yet...yet I never thought of it before. OF COURSE!!!’. Tapping the board in delight, her spirits lifted once more as she turned back to her companion.

 

‘Lady Montilyet?’ remarked Webb hesitantly.

 

‘You’ve done splendid,’ replied Josephine promptly ‘and as promised.’. Diving her hand hastily into her pocket, she thrust a blue velvet pouch of coins into the hands of the soldier ‘Speak of this to anyone, even a whisper, and you will be silenced by my own means.’

 

The soldier nodded seriously ‘As always, you ‘ave me word, me lady.’

 

‘One more thing,’ she added eagerly ‘are there any crones in these parts of Thedas?’

 

‘Crones, me lady?’

 

‘Yes crones, or witches? Or hags? Charmers?’ replied the Antivan impatiently ‘Are there any? Someone who would dabble in a little blood magic perhaps? I need someone who can do blood magic.’

 

The soldier frowned, shaking his head and crossing himself with the sign of the Chantry. ‘Nay none o’ that round these parts, thank the Maker. An’ I don’t know any crone that’ll dabble in blood magic, that there is what they call molifi...meelificrum...nay, what is it? Maleficarum, aye that’s it. Folk would stone a maleficar before ‘em kind could settle round these parts.’

 

‘Three pouches of coin.’ replied Josephine firmly ‘I need you to find a maleficar for me.’

 

The soldier shook his head wildly. 'Nay mistress, I couldn't be involved in such darkness. The Maker would hang me by the boots.'

 

'Six pouches of coin.' replied Josephine sharply.

 

With the promise of that much coin, his moral dilemma suddenly melted away and a name came miraculously to the soldier’s mind. ‘Aye,’ piped up Webb ‘no crones come to mind but there be a wise woman who aids ‘em folk ‘round these parts, deals mostly in ‘erbs and such. Mistress Margery, most folk go to her for cures and a few curses in between. I’m guessin’ she knows a lot o’ people, might be a malificar or two. She’s as old as the hills ‘emselves. I could ask ‘er perhaps, if she knows ov any such folk that could help you?’

 

‘Go tonight.’ ordered Josephine ‘We cannot waste any time. If you want more coin than you know what to do with, you will find me the location and arrange a meeting with a maleficar who is willing to sell their services to me. Discretion is imperative Webb, I don’t have to tell you that.’

 

With a dismissive flick of her hand, the soldier threw an uncertain half bow to the ambassador and departed quickly. Josephine followed on a few moments later, the nervous tapping of her pen on her board echoing through the corridors as she pressed towards her study, her mind consumed with more thoughts than she could possibly contain.

 

 

****

 

 

The sun had already sunk behind the mountains for a few good hours when we were called to the war council room that night. The torches were blazing bright attached to the walls as we traipsed the halls to our meeting. Fingers entwined amongst the darkness of the cloisters, Cullen and I pressed on at a somewhat leisurely pace, hoping to steal a few more moments together before they were inevitably stolen from us.

 

‘You’ll be off by tomorrow, mark my words.’ muttered Cullen in displeasure. Pulling at my arm to slow me down even further, he drew me close to his chest. ‘Maker damn them all.’

 

Succombing to his embrace, I relished his brood frame with my fingers. ‘We just got back from Shrimstoke a week ago. Surely the council wouldn’t be that sadistic? No, they must be calling us tonight because of some new information. Another agent missing perhaps?’

 

Casting his gaze across the deserted walkway, the ex-templar shook his head. ‘We don’t call late night war council meetings for such things. I've a bad feeling.’ Squeezing my hand, he somewhat reluctantly pulled me onwards ‘Come on. The sooner we find out what it is, the sooner we can return to what we were doing before that blasted messenger knocked on your door and ruined our night.’

 

With a grin I followed on. Cullen and I had been enjoying the evening away from the people of Skyhold, tucked up in my room with more food and wine than was feasible for either of us to consume. Cullen had jokingly referred to our stockpile as equalling, if not outdoing, the supplies at the siege of Castle Perrinbrock, an infamous siege that had lasted for the duration of two impressive years. The Commander had a knack for spouting random historical facts that I had neither heard nor likely ever would, yet he knew the facts of each and every story with prestigious detail, and I suspected took great delight in recounting them, like that of a bard entertaining patrons at an inn.

 

Despite the glut of food and wine we had hoarded, we were even more so ravenous for each others company, and our recent return promised some time alone that we desperately craved. After weeks of travelling in the close confines of an entourage of Inquisition soldiers, the temptation of a roaring fire, crimson wine, roasted boar, fresh oat bread drizzled with warm butter and complete and utter privacy held our interest more than anything else in Skyhold, or even Thedas, ever could.

 

Walking further down the narrow corridor Cullen stopped suddenly, a sinful smile revealing itself from the light of the moon shining through the lead glass paned windows. He pulled me into a dark nook behind a pillar and drew me close, his lips pressing against mine wantonly as his hands explored with a familiarity that was anything but chaste.

 

‘Damn the council,’ he growled 'come, let’s ignore this one’. His warm breath lingered on my neck as he proceeded to playfully bite at my left ear lobe, teeth grazing my flesh as his fingers grasped harder into my skin. ‘I have pressing matters of my own.’ he added, pushing himself hard against me.

 

‘They know where to find us.’ I groaned, running my fingers along the soft skin of his temples, and tracing down his jaw to the scar on his lip, his amber eyes holding mine as his chest rose and fell. 'There is no escape Commander.'

 

‘I wager you could find us a murky, isolated, filthy place in this keep that no one has graced in over a hundred of years.’ Cullen mockingly replied, drawing his lips to my collarbone and neck to continue with kisses, his growing hardness pressing firmly against my lower stomach as he secured me against the cold stone wall of the keep. 

 

‘Thanks, I think?’ I grinned ‘Still, even Leliana managed to find most of my hiding places. I’m afraid we are doomed to grace the war council on this night.’

 

Cullen groaned in frustration, wrenching himself off me as he took in a few deep breaths of the cold night air, trying to regain his decorum now knowing our small tryst would not be fully indulged until after the council matters were attended to. With a reluctant tug of my hand, the Commander led me onwards, and after a few more twists and turns down numerous passageways we finally reached the wooden doors to the war council room. Cullen pushed them open forcefully, with me following in tow.

 

‘There had better be a damn good reason for calling a meeting at this abominable hour.’ announced the Commander sternly as he entered the room. His eyes looked accusingly across the room at Leliana leaning against the table with Josephine next to her, and Cassandra by the window who was looking out into the still dark of night below.

 

Raising an amused eyebrow, the Spymaster darted her eyes behind Cullen to where I was standing before bringing them back to the Commander. ‘Did we disturb something?’ she asked politely, yet even more so tauntingly.

 

‘As a matter of fact you did disturb Ophelia and I.’ informed Cullen plainly, moving towards the table where a pile of documents were laid out ‘We just returned from your last irritating mission but a week ago and deserve some time alone.’

 

Biting my lip, I turned to secure the doors shut, trying to wipe the smile on my face. It was the first time Cullen had openly acknowledged some form of involvement with me, and for the most part I was glad to be out of hiding, although I felt myself growing more sheepish by the moment as I turned to face my companions and their curious faces.

 

‘This should not take long.’ interjected Josephine sharply, briskly drawing a letter from her board to lay out on the table ‘I have received word from Orlais. It seems they were unaware of the Inquisition’s dealings with their ex-chevalier until word of the recent Grand Tourney drew their attention.’

 

‘What of it?’ muttered Cullen ‘They declared him a traitor, they wanted nothing to do with him.’

 

‘A matter of principle it appears.’ replied Leliana ‘Empress Celene is not happy that her disgraced champion is now Skyhold’s new champion. The Maister of Blades.’

 

The Commander scoffed, shaking his head in disgust ‘Then you need to send Empress Celene a clear message that the Inquisition is not concerned with the politics of Orlais. We have bigger issues to contend with than the hurt feelings of that mockery of an empire.’

 

‘Whether we agree with the opinions of Orlais or not, we need them as an ally and we must try to keep the peace.’ observed Josephine firmly ‘There is more at stake here.’

 

‘What does keeping the peace actually entail? I asked precariously, an ill premonition overcoming me of where this meeting was tending towards.

 

‘Empress Celene has asked for a public trial,’ answered Leliana ‘for the people to determine Michel de Chevin’s fate, and justice to be finally served.’

 

‘But they’ll murder him!’ I retorted angrily.

 

‘Michel de Chevin is too important to lose.’ observed Cassandra ‘The Inquisition and he are bound together now. There are many people from all across Thedas that support us purely because of the antics performed by the chevalier during the Tourney. The people love him.’

 

Cullen threw a dark look to the spy-master and the ambassador ‘Even more importantly, he a good soldier. Michel had aided in the betterment of my men and women from the moment he stepped foot into Skyhold. He is popular in the ranks, and it appears across the whole damn realm now. We need him alive and in the Inquisition.’

 

Leliana nodded ‘I agree. Which is why Josephine has managed to offer the Orlesian court a compromise.’

 

‘What compromise?’ I asked suspiciously, producing an equally sceptical look from the Commander.

 

‘I wrote to the Orlesian Court suggesting a meeting, a meditation of sorts,’ replied Josephine ‘between you Ophelila, Michel de Chevin, and Empress Celene.’

 

‘What could that possibly achieve.’ scoffed Cullen ‘For all we know all she intends to do is obtain justice through her own underhanded ways while he is there. You are putting him in danger, and the Inquisitor for that matter.’

 

I cast a concerned look to Cullen, recalling what he had warned me at the campfire on our recent journey away. ‘I agree with the Commander. The Orlesians are not renowned for their compromising nature. Empress Celene has requested we send Michel de Chevin back with the intention to be tried. She would never reside to a civil mediation in its stead. He was declared a traitor, and a chevalier who is a traitor is expected to take his own life.’

 

‘It is the only way to try and keep some form of peace and good relations between the Inquisition and Orlais.’ replied Josephine in slight agitation. ‘If you do not agree to this meeting, the Empress will see the Inquisition as being hostile. Our relationship will turn sour very quickly, and when we need the aid and support of Orlais when facing Corypheus we will soon regret not keeping them close by our sides. Is one man really worth the collapse of our main cause?’

 

‘It’s a matter of principle.’ argued Cullen sternly ‘If you begin kowtowing to the demands of every ally then we become less about serving for the greater cause and more about serving the interests of rulers who have no qualm in using the Inquisition to their own advantage.’. The Commander threw a frustrated scowl to Leliana. ‘Why are you playing into the hand of this wretched Empress? If Gaspard de Chalons were ruling Orlais, he wouldn’t be wasting our time with pointless trivialities like this over one man that fled the empire.’

 

'And yet he's not.' replied Leliana a little colder 'Celene is, and she is someone that does not forget.' 

 

‘Cassandra, what do you think?’ I asked, looking towards the Nevarran who had been rather quiet during the meeting so far.

 

‘I agree with Cullen,’ replied Cassandra ‘it is a waste of our time. However I think you should go and meet with Empress Celene as a formality, to keep the peace for now. Our ties with Orlais hang by a loose thread, I would not want this to be the severing tie.’

 

Leliana nodded. ‘I agree. Orlais is not an ally to insult by ignoring this request. They have been generous enough to accept a compromise, despite their initial request, and we should not keep them waiting.’. She looked towards me adding ‘Of course, it is up to the Inquisitor.’

 

Being caught between a rock and hard place was an understatement as I pondered the matter with displeasure, with every pair of eyes in the room pressing hard on me in silent anticipation. Everything in me wanted to say no, but my role as Inquisitor informed me that I should say yes. ‘A mediation means I will be bringing Michel de Chevin to Orlais and then back to Skyhold at the end of the trip. There is no compromise in that. ’ I declared with a frown ‘As long as we are all clear about that, I suppose we must go.’

 

With a displeased sigh, Cullen rested his hands heavily against the strong oak table. ‘Very well, I shall escort the Inquisitor with a dozen of my own soldiers.’. He raised his head to mine, his amber eyes holding mine sternly ‘That is not a request.’

 

‘Then you shall set off the day after tomorrow. I shall send word to Val Royeaux of your impending arrival.’ replied Josephine animatedly ‘We cannot delay this journey I am afraid.’

 

‘Someone is going to have to tell Michel de Chevin.’ added Cullen darkly.

 

‘Leave that to me.’ replied Leliana ‘I will make him see reason, and convince him that he is in no danger.’

 

Rolling my eyes, I knew Michel deserved better than that. ‘He’s not stupid, Leliana. He’ll know the Inquisition is most likely sending him to his death.’

 

‘Perhaps you can talk to him also?’ added Josephine, throwing a half smile in encouragement. ‘Michel may take your words closer to heart?’

 

Casting my eyes across the table, I looked to Cullen who was growing more agitated by the moment, both of us distracted from the slight smirk on Josephine’s face, or the disapproving glance that Leliana was throwing towards her friend.

 

‘You want Michel de Chevin to go to Orlais, fine.’ growled Cullen, casting his unforgiving gaze upon the Antivan ambassador ‘But you tell him yourself. He needs to know who is behind this devilish plan.’. Flinging the papers loosely onto the table, Cullen proceeded for the door ‘If that is all, I've a dozen soldiers to ready in a days time.’

 

Drawing his attention to me, Cullen waited at the door for me to join him, and I was more than a little thankful for a way out of the room full of displeased women. I hurried my pace to try and keep up with the Commander as he bore heavy strides across the cold stones of the corridor.

 

‘They're putting you in needless danger.’ he growled, his eyes flashing with anger. ‘Sending you to fucking Orlais for a damn assassination attempt.’

 

‘I agree, but we really do need the Orlesian support.’ I replied softly, reaching out for his hand to slow Cullen down. ‘It'll be alright. And thank you for insisting on coming with me, I feel safer knowing you’ll be there with me.’

 

Stopping by the entrance of the main hall, he turned to me momentarily ‘There is no way I would have let you make this journey by yourself. There is more at play here, you do see that? Josephine is too smart to know this is a simple mediation, and Leliana is all but too aware of the ways Orlais hands out justice. One way or the other, I intend to bring you back from that damn place alive and breathing. I cannot guarantee Michel de Chevin will be so lucky.’

 

Drawing his lips to my cheek, Cullen placed a kiss, the stubble from his cheek rubbing against my skin combined with the supple tenderness of the warm flesh of his lips. With a certain possessiveness, he wrapped his large arms around my waist firmly. ‘I must go ready my soldiers for this mockery of an expedition.’ he murmured ‘You should go and sleep, you need to rest before we leave.’

 

A few idle stares and whispers passed our way as we lingered at the entrance of the hall, with Cullen finally letting his fingers go from my hips to descend into the courtyard below. With a worried expression, I turned my gaze from the departing Commander up towards the clear sky above, where a prominent red ring around the full moon caught my attention. 

 

Blood on the moon, an ill omen commonly known across Thedas.

 

An ill omen I was desperate to dismiss as idle folklore this particular eve, even though in my heart I dreaded to turn my gaze upon it for a moment longer. Turning my heel, I was determined that ignorance would be my bedfellow for the night, and the journey ahead would be one without trial or tribulation.

 

 

****

 

 

On the back of a black steed, she mounted in the early hours of morning before the stable hands had even risen from the soft hay in the loft of the barn. The sky was still dark overhead, although the night had begun to transform into the swirling grey pool of dawn, that eerie moment between night and day, when both meet momentarily and all the world seems to stand still. It was at this time that she galloped out into the frost covered gravel road that followed the curve of the mountainside and eventually descended into the greener parts of Ferelden.

 

As early morning passed into early afternoon, she came to the edge of a small forest growing beside the base of the mountain, a pretty part of nature where the plants grew wild, reaching up towards the trees, as if dancing together in a blur of different shades of green and brown intermittent with speckles of floral red, purple and white. The soft chirp of crickets and low hum of cicadas could be heard, baking in the rays of the warm sun that filtered through the trees, and spilled onto the old hut covered in ivy and vines, that sat nestled amongst the tall trees, rock and thicket, concealed to those who were unaware of it’s whereabouts. A narrow dirt path lined with smooth pebbled stones drew to the entrance of the dwelling, a tired and sagging abode with a splintered, brown wooden door.

 

Dismounting with a certain degree of uncertainty and apprehension, Josephine walked along the path and hesitantly knocked thrice on the door of the hut.

 

A few moments passed until a voice on the other side finally answered ‘Who is it?’

 

‘My name is Josephine.’ replied the Antivan with an air confidence that concealed her nervous flutterings ‘I was told by an acquaintance of mine, Webb, that I could find someone called Levyn living here that could aid me?’

 

The door clicked twice, a locked being released, and a muttering of words sounded before a flash of light from under the door revealed itself. Josephine caught her breath as she watched the door open, and a tall man greeted her. He had pale white skin and dark black hair that fell to his shoulders, heavy set brows and black intense eyes that fixated strongly to wherever he looked. The man was in his early thirties, yet held a face that had seen many more trying experiences than was deserving. Calm and collected, if not serene and borderline smug, his was an intelligent and pleasant face that greeted the Antivan at the door.

 

‘Josephine, I have been expecting you.’ greeted the man ‘I am Levyn. Please come in.’. His dark eyes scattered quickly past her, scouring for any sign of unwanted guests ‘You have come alone?’

 

‘Naturally’ replied Josephine, adjusting her green riding coat that had become tangled in her dark hair ‘I believe both of us value our secrecy in matters such as these.’. She hesitated at the threshold for a moment before taking a step in to the unknown dwelling.

 

Levyn closed the door behind her, and muttered some words under his breath, the door suddenly glowing in strange blue markings.

 

‘It is a dwelling protection spell.’ reassured Levyn, beckoning her with a smile into the large room in the centre of the hut ‘One can never be too careful these days. Please, take a seat by the fire.’

 

‘I must admit, I expected someone older.’ begun Josephine.

 

‘And more evil looking? With blood drenched robes and a sinister appearance?’ chuckled the mage in playful jest ‘I'm afraid I have disappointed?’

 

With a nervous grin, Josephine shook her head. ‘I admit I have never met a blood mage so I should not know what to think.’ she replied, taking her attention around the room to the many shelves full of herbs and poultices, stones, metals, feathers and dried vegetables, some familiar but most not, with cluttered piles of books and scrolls in between.

 

‘Not that you know of.’ remarked Levyn with a raised eyebrow ‘To be certain there are many mages that practice blood magic, and most of them try to remain as anonymous as possible.’

 

‘Then Webb mentioned to you that I was looking for someone to aid in me in such practices.’ acknowledged  Josephine ‘I will speak plainly. I need you to turn someone into a maleficar.’

 

The dark haired man threw her a bemused look, almost as if he was entertained yet slightly annoyed by her ignorance. His black eyes drew intently towards his guest with a slight tilt of his curious head. ‘It doesn’t quite work like that. To practice blood magic, the art of the maleficarum, there needs to be intent. A true practice of blood magic. You cannot turn someone into a maleficar, they become so by their own will, by choosing to practice blood magic....amongst other things.’

 

‘You are a blood mage, yes?’ asked Josephine

 

Levyn nodded ‘I have practiced blood magic for over a decade and have grown to know it very well.’

 

‘So, could you teach someone how to cast a blood spell?’

 

‘I could teach someone to practice blood magic, yes’ replied Levyn.

 

‘Could you do it so the person did not know it was actually blood magic they were being taught?’ asked Josephine hastily ‘The person I speak of is a mage already.’

 

‘Without them knowing?’ Levyn remarked cynically ‘Unless the mage in question is the most dim-witted mage in all of Thedas I don’t see how that would be possible. I would assume this mage you speak of has been raised in a circle, and taught from an early age that the use of blood magic is strictly forbidden. This mage would know, for you need to use blood to practice blood magic.’

 

The ambassador narrowed her eyes in concentration, her fingers nervously pulling at the loose thread of her grey sleeve. ‘What if we were to convince her it was the only way, the only option?’ murmured Josephine, half to herself ‘A solution to a riddle, the answer to a question that can never be answered any other way?’

 

‘I’m not sure I quite follow your meaning.’ frowned Levyn, settling down into a chair by the fire.

 

‘What if we could convince this mage that summoning a demon was the only way out of a bad situation?’ replied Josephine ‘That might work just as well?’

 

‘A situation?’ replied Levyn curiously ‘What situation might that be?’

 

‘I’m not sure what, I was hoping you could tell me.’ replied the Antivan impatiently ‘I’m not familiar with such things.’

 

‘Perhaps you can start by telling me who this mage is?’ replied Levyn calmly, his black eyes narrowing in the slightest annoyance. ‘Josephine, please I assure you there is nothing to be fearful. Like all my clientèle, I guarantee you of my complete silence. Anything you tell me will remain within these walls.’

 

With nervous eyes dashing around the room, noticing the side room behind him, one that was sparsely furnished with a small wooden bed, to the humble table laden with strange bowls of salt and root powder, Josephine was desperate to avoid the question presented to her.

 

‘Fine.’ she finally murmured 'It is the Inquisitor'

 

The mage looked surprised, before shrugging and reaching for an iron poker to stoke the fire. ‘Might I ask as to why her of all people? By all assertions it would seem your Inquisitor is not unpopular, or useless in this plight of yours? Why would you seek to make her practice blood magic, for what I can only assume will lead to her untimely disgrace from the Inquisition?’

 

‘Too many questions from someone who is standing to gain a great deal from this.’ replied Josephine sharply.

 

The mage's lip curled at the spiteful reply, as if hostility amused him more than anything. ‘In the past I have worked for people of great status against people of great status, and came a little too close to death for even my liking.’ remarked Levyn flatly ‘I cannot be linked to something involving the Inquisitor, it is too risky. There is a reason I live as a hermit these days in the middle of nowhere, and it has nothing to do with a love of dry rot and sparse company.’

 

‘There would be no way of connecting you to this as I am the only person, aside from Webb, who knows of our dealings. And if Webb is a problem for you I can deal with him.’ reassured Josephine ‘I would not risk my own reputation either, I promise you. I am also willing to pay you whatever you require for your services.’

 

The mage tapped his foot against the wooden chair, deep in contemplation before raising his eyes to meet Josephine’s.

 

‘Money I have plenty.’ remarked Levyn ‘But I find favours are always a valuable commodity.’

 

‘A favour?’ replied Josephine uncertainly.

 

‘When the time comes, if at all, I would seek a favour from you. All I require is that you aid me when I ask of it.’

 

‘That all depends on the request’ replied Josephine cynically.

 

Levyn shrugged with a carefree chuckle ‘Well there is a dilemma, for I shan't know of what that would be until the time comes that I need a favour! It is unknown, and I was never any good at foretelling the future.’

 

‘As long as this favour doesn’t involve death or a kingdom’s worth of coin, then you shall have my help.’ replied Josephine urgently, eager to begin with her own plans ‘Can we proceed now?’

 

Levyn threw a dark smile to his companion ‘With pleasure.’. Strumming his fingers on the armrest of his chair, the mage pondered over his thoughts in silence, finally turning his attention back to the ambassador who was watching him somewhat impatiently.

 

‘I cannot make someone a maleficar, nor teach them blood magic without suspicion. However there are other ways to lure one into the pool of blood magic. Say I bring a demon into somebody of interest to your Inquisitor?’ suggested the mage ‘The Inquisitor could be forced to make a deal with the demon, and perhaps that deal may involve her releasing the demon? Using, say, blood magic?’

 

‘Convince her into performing blood magic to release a demon?’ puzzled the Antivan ‘Why would she want to do that?’

 

‘To release the person the demon has possessed, and save them from death.’ replied Levyn brightly ‘Does the Inquisitor have someone she is close to?’

 

'Not Cullen’ frowned Josephine ‘He needs to be able to see all this when it happens.’. The ambassador stared intently into the fire ‘A child perhaps? Could you summon a demon into a child? Or a mother?’

 

The mage frowned, memories coming to mind of a time that he would rather forget. ‘Of course it is possible.’ he informed darkly ‘However if I can avoid such things I would prefer to do so. May I ask why specifically a child or mother?’

 

Josephine shrugged carelessly, waving her hand nonchalantly. ‘A mother, a child, a sweet innocent maid, I care not. It just has to be someone vulnerable enough that Trevelyan could not refuse. She needs to be in a situation where saving the person is more important than killing them to vanquish the demon.’

 

‘Well,’ replied Levyn ‘you will need the Inquisitor to deal directly with the demon either way.’

 

‘It’s not enough that she speaks to it.’ replied Josephine with a frown ‘Yes...we need her to be convinced that the only way to save the person is to perform blood magic.’. She drew her dark brown eyes to the mage ‘I need her to perform blood magic.’

 

‘Does the Inquisitor have family?’ inquired Levyn politely ‘Family often pulls at the heart strings where others do not.’

 

‘I’ve never seen them, let alone heard her speak about them.’ muttered the ambassador ‘They never have visited her at Skyhold so I would assume there is no close bond between them.

 

‘A friend perhaps?’ asked Levyn ‘A lover?’

 

‘No.’ replied Josephine sharply ‘Perhaps one of the members of the Inquisition...Varric? Sera?...Oh...’. With bright eyes, Josephine turned her gaze on the mage watching her curiously.

 

‘You have someone in mind?’ he asked with a knowing smile.

 

‘Michel de Chevin!!!’ blurted out the Antivan in delight ‘How could I have been so foolish? The answer was there all along. Yes, he is perfect!’

 

‘That name sounds familiar.’ frowned Levyn ‘Where have I heard it from?’

 

‘He is a member of the Inquisition.’ replied Josephine ‘He won the Skyhold Grand Tourney.’

 

‘Ah of course, that is it.’ the mage nodded ‘You see? Even us hermits know of the champion of the Grand Tourney. Is he someone the Inquisitor values enough to perform blood magic to save?’

 

‘Yes I believe so.’ she replied confidently ‘How long will it take for you to...find a demon?’

 

The mage frowned, pausing for a moment ‘Josephine, I must be certain that you understand what I propose? You are asking me to release a demon into the realm?’

 

Looking away sheepishly, she nodded briefly ‘Some things need to be done regardless of what may come of it. I would not do it if it was not the only way….will-will it cause trouble? The demon that is, once it is released?’

 

‘Most likely yes.’ answered Levyn seriously ‘Once it is released there will be more death in it’s trail, you need to know that. Lives will be lost.’

 

‘It is the only way.’ reassured Josephine.

 

Levyn shrugged ‘Well, as long as you are aware. I can perform a summoning ritual whenever you are ready. When and where you wish this possession to take place, well, that will require more details.’

 

The ambassador nodded ‘The Inquisitor and Michel de Chevin are to travel to Val Royeaux, the matter has been pressing for some time and they make this journey tomorrow. Could the demon take possession on the road during their travels?’

 

‘A better arrangement I could not have proposed.’ replied Levyn cheerfully ‘There will be less people around and I can set up a trap along the way.’

 

‘A trap?’ frowned Josephine.

 

‘A demon snare.’ explained Jowan.

 

‘A trap to snare a demon?’ remarked an even more confused Josephine.

 

‘Not quite.’ replied Levyn ‘A trap that contains a demon, to snare a human. A place for the demon to remain waiting until Michel de Chevin passes by. Would I be correct in assuming your party will have to ride along the Imperial Highway into Halamshiral before crossing over the Waking Sea to Val Royeaux?.’

 

‘You are well travelled for a hermit.’ observed Josephine in surprise.

 

Levyn nodded with a knowing smirk ‘A seasoned traveller yes, but perhaps not by choice. I'm very familiar with the Imperial Highway and know of the very tree I can fix the trap to. Your party will have to pass under it, anyone travelling along the highway passes under this tree. When Michel does, the demon will be free to possess his body.’

 

‘And can you be certain a demon will agree to this?’ she asked, her eyes grower more excited by the moment as she could finally see her plan coming to fruition.

 

‘Finding a demon that is willing to work with us in exchange for their freedom should be relatively easy.’ shrugged Levyn ‘It shouldn't take too long to find a willing participant if you will give me a few moments to perform a summoning.’

 

‘What? Now? Shouldn't you do that..by yourself?’ asked Josephine a little fearfully.

 

‘If there are any details the demon needs, I would prefer it if you are in the room to answer any questions.’ informed the mage ‘You won’t have to speak to it, you can direct all your answers or questions to me.’

 

With a warm smile, as if he had done this a million times before, Levyn beckoned his guest to the side of the room, along with the chairs and the rug spread over the wooden floor. Underneath a large circle was carved deep into the wood, almost as wide as the room itself, with strange markings scrawled over it.

 

‘Whatever you do, do not enter the circle.’ advised Levyn, pushing his black hair back from his face, revealing the deathly white skin of his high forehead.

 

Josephine nodded, her face ghostly white. ‘I assure you will remain where I am.’

 

Grabbing a large dish of white salt from the table, the mage scattered it loosely across the circle, murmuring a chant under his breath softly as he circled, a chant that grew louder and louder until he reached the beginning of the circle once more and was now shouting at the top of his voice. Duirth di monantan ro-argth. Duirth di monantan ro-argth. Duirth di monantan ro-argth. DUIRTH DI MONANTAN RO-ARGTH.

 

A low tremor shook the room, and the light from the fire grew dim as a swirling flame intertwined with crimson plumes of smoke appeared in the middle of the circle, weaving over and over, a symbol of eternity searing into the air like hot metal into flesh.

 

‘I seek a demon to aid in the possession of a man named Michel de Chevin.’ yelled out Levyn 'Who will answer my call for aid?'

 

Silence filled the room for a long period of time before a low, dark laughter erupted forth. Once it began however, it never seemed to stop and Josephine clutched the wooden table in terror, her nails digging into the splinters and drawing blood.

 

‘Jowan, Jowan, Jowan…..’ an oozing voice growled, filling the room with a heavy atmosphere as the red swirling smoke and flame remained in the centre of the circle ‘You asked for someone to possess the body of Michel de Chevin? I have answered.’

 

The mage narrowed his eyes in suspicion. ‘I can sense you demon. You are a much older and stronger than I would have expected for such a trivial task. Surely you could possess any human of your own accord without the aid of my workings?’

 

‘I have recently been exiled from the realm of men.’ growled the flame in the middle of the circle ‘I lack the strength to return immediately, though I wish it dearly.’

 

‘I’m not interested in unleashing a powerful force into the realm’ replied Levyn dismissively 'You sound like too much trouble to bargain with.'

 

‘Do you think a weaker demon would cause less chaos?’ the voice scorned ‘You, malificar, should know better than that. I’ve seen young demons cause more terror than you would dare dream in your darkest nightmares. However I know that such deeds will only bring attention to myself, and I intend to remain permanently in the realm of men this time. If you are seeking to release a demon into the realm, then let it be me.’

 

‘What is your name?’ Levyn asked firmly.

 

‘Imshael.’ replied the voice.

 

‘Imshael.’ repeated Levyn ‘Well, Imshael, I shall aid you back into the realm with my magic in order to possess the body of Michel de Chevin as your vessel. You must first agree to some conditions, for they are the only means by which you are to secure your freedom into the realm once more. Stray from them even a little and my magic will send you back from whence you came.’

 

‘Then state your conditions, Jowan.’ replied the demon in a low voice.

 

Running his hands through his limp black hair, Levyn nodded in satisfaction. ‘The deed shall take place on the Imperial Highway about forty miles out from Halamshiral, coming from the direction of the Frostback Mountains.’ informed the mage ‘First you must inhabit the body of Michel de Chevin, but this is only to gain the attention of his travelling companion. The Inquisitor, Ophelia Trevelyan.’

 

The demon hissed at the name, resulting in Levyn to pause momentarily with one raised black eyebrow.

 

‘This is not the first time you have heard of that name, I suspect?’ observed Levyn.

 

‘She and her minions sent me back into the fade.’ growled Imshael 'They made me weak so I now linger in this tepid place.'

 

‘Well the world is full of irony, isn’t it?’ dismissed Levyn ‘Is this going to be an issue for you, Imshael?’

 

‘No.’ hissed the demon.

 

‘Good. Now back to my conditions.’ responded Levyn ‘Trevelyan will want to save Michel de Chevin, and you must allow her to release you from Michel’s body.’

 

‘If that happens I will have to return to the fade.’ growled Imshael.

 

‘Not if she performs the blood rite of release.’ informed Levyn ‘You must tell her yourself that this is the only way to save Michel de Chevin.’

 

‘Very well, I accept your terms.’ replied the demon. ‘And if she kills Michel de Chevin? What do I get in return if I am sent back?’

 

‘I will release you into the realm myself, you have my word.’ confirmed Levyn.

 

The demon laughed, an evil and blood curdled laugh that filled the room with loathsome feelings in the pit of one’s stomach ‘Jowan, you would expect me to take you on your word? A mortal’s promise is more feather light than a dandelion floret on the wind.’

 

The mage’s eyes grew blacker than the still of midnight, when the moon hides behind a cloud of grey remorse, and drew dangerously to the swirling plumes of red smoke and flame. ‘Do not think you are the first or even one in a handful of demons I have dealt with, Imshael.’ warned Levyn dangerously. ‘My word is my word. If you cannot accept it then I will find another demon who will.’

 

‘Very well.’ snarled Imshael ‘You will have my cooperation in this matter. I am ready. When will this happen?’

 

Josephine looked frightened, but spoke clearly towards Levyn, who gave her an encouraging nod ‘Tomorrow they will set out from Skyhold to Val Royeaux.’

 

‘Most likely they will reach the Imperial Highway by the second day.’ observed Levyn ‘I will summon you again before then Imshael, to arrange your transportation. There is a large oak tree, a giant and aged species of blackened gnarled limbs and twisted roots, whose thick and contorted branches overhang a part of the Imperial Highway, about forty miles before you reach Halamshiral. You will possess Michel de Chevin at this spot, and it is there that I will set up the trap for which you can snare him, in the branches of that old Oak tree. I will tie the red flowers of a Hollyhock and white flowers of Hemlock around the drugged body of a rat. When I summon you again I will transport your spirit into this rat and you will remain in the possession of the rat until the moment Michel de Chevin passes under the very branch it’s body resides on.’

 

‘You must carve the ruins of release on the bark of the oak with a red handled scythe.’ growled the demon.

 

‘I know.’ replied Levyn matter a factly ‘It will be done when I place the rat in the tree. Even in your weakened state you will find it easy enough to pass from the body of the drugged rat into Michel de Chevin, and at that time you will reveal yourself to the Inquisitor. You must not wait until you reach Halamshiral or there will be others to aid her. I stress that time must be a factor, she must not think she or any of her companions can ride out for help. Tell the Inquisitor that Michel de Chevin will die immediately unless she performs the blood rite, and it must be then and there, or else you must kill Michel and return to the fade.’

 

‘With pleasure.’ hissed the demon.

 

Levyn turned his gaze on the demon sternly, sensing there was more to those words than he was privy to ‘There will be witnesses to tell me what has happened on this occasion. If I find out you merely killed the man without trying with all your will to convince the Inquisitor to perform blood magic, I promise you you will stay in the fade for longer than anticipated. You may be a powerful demon Ishmael, but have no doubt that I am a powerful Maleficar. Do not test me on my skills to hunt you down and destroy you.’

 

The swirling red grew larger, the demon obviously seething at the threat but unwilling to respond. ‘Is that all of the conditions?’ growled Imshael.

 

Levyn looked over to Josephine who nodded silently. ‘Yes, you may go now.’ replied Levyn.

 

The red plumes of smoke and flame died down and the fire in the pit grew strong. Levyn and Josephine were alone in the room once more.

 

‘Thank you.’ she whispered shakily, wiping a few beads of sweat on her dark brow ‘I will make sure the party set off tomorrow morning without fail.’

 

‘The less people, the better.’ replied Levyn firmly ‘For all our sakes. You need to send someone to watch over this and report what happens.’

 

Josephine nodded and proceeded to the door, before pausing and looking back to the mage. ‘Jowan?’ she remarked curiously ‘Why did the demon call you that?’

 

The mage held her gaze, his face stern and his black eyes clear and deep. ‘That was my name a long time ago.’ he replied coldly ‘However there are some things that we must let go in order to secure our anonymity in the world.’

 

Josephine nodded and turned to leave.

 

‘My curiosity will get the better of me.’ the mage called out suddenly, hands crossing in comfort across his chest ‘Forgive me Josephine, but why are you doing all this?’

 

The Antivan continued to the door, determined to ignore the question, but even in her blinding determination she knew there was no one else she could confess her dark secrets to. No one to listen and hear her, and perhaps empathise at the jealous green snake of envy that burrowed in her heart.

 

‘Have you ever done something drastic for love?’ she asked softly, shoulders falling forward as she continued to face the door, hands pressed against the wood as if in confession.

 

Jowan pursed his lips, displeased at reminiscing to darker days. ‘Indeed I have done terrible things in the name of love. Years later, however, I realised my deeds were selfish and had nothing to do with the person I professed to love. In the end, it was only ever about me.’

 

Josephine turned around sharply, a coldness in her eyes ‘Then your experience and mine are nothing alike. Everything I do, every action I take, is only for the person that I love.’

 

With a sharp turn, Josephine left the hut and into the murky depths of the night, leaving Jowan alone in his cabin once more. With a wide curl of his lips, he turned back to the fire and drew a chair close to the flames. He was less interested in the childish outbursts of his newest client, and more interested in the fact that no helpful act ever came without a price.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven: The Journey Awaits

 

Warm and snug in my four poster bed, tangled amongst the soft cotton sheets and wolf pelts, I reluctantly stirred from my slumber. A thin sliver of sunlight had managed to sneak in through a narrow opening of the red curtains in the room and crept onto my pillow, whispering to me to wake up. Eyes fluttering open drowsily, I became aware of a large hand with coarse fingers gently running along my cheek and up through my hair.

'Shhh.' whispered Cullen with a gentle smile, his head resting on the pillow beside me as he lay on his side 'Let me enjoy this moment a little while longer before life and all its woes return to my head.'

'Is it really today?' I murmured, my tired eyes drifting shut once more.

'Unfortunately it is.' replied Cullen darkly 'Time to put us all in danger for the sake of good relations with Orlais. Utter madness. As long as Celene sits on that throne I say curse them and their opinion of us.'

There was more concerning me that just that, and last night I had tossed and turned thinking about how the council meeting had played out the prior day. 'It worries me that Josephine made agreements with Orlais without consulting us first.' I frowned 'She went over our heads on that one.'

'Josephine Montilyet is a fake, social climbing fool like the rest of them.' muttered Cullen 'Never trust anyone who values status and money over everything else.'. Looking more and more irritated by the moment, Cullen sat up a little straighter in annoyance and began to rub the knot in his shoulder.

'You really hate the nobility don't you?' I mused 'Not a fan of social climbers?'

With a stern face Cullen rose to meet my eyes. 'Tell me what chance do the people of Thedas have when it is filled with people like Josephine and Celene? Nobles. These vile creatures that leave children, women and men starving in the streets, while they ride by in their gilded carriages, more interested in assets than lives. The very people who stitch their rabbit trimmed boots and gowns, clean their chimneys and grow the very food that passes their teeth are the ones who are dying right in front of them. We live in this world where people are happy to turn a blind eye to the suffering while they chase idle pursuits of fancifulness. That is something I utterly abhor. How can we endure being apart of all this? Playing this damn game of politics with nobility. Hang them all.'

He turned to me with a teasing smile 'Of course, I forget that you are a noble so I should better stop now.'

'A Trevelyan with a Rutherford. How scandalous.' I replied haughtily 'Honestly though, I agree with you. Anyone who steps outside their front door can see the unfair divide between the rich and the poor, yet no one bats an eyelid. It is the way it has always been. I admit I was never exposed to the suffering out there, being a child from a noble family and then being locked away in the Circle, but since the Inquisition I've seen it in spades. The unfortunate truth is we need people like Josephine to win over the hearts of these rich bastards so we can have more influence, and hopefully, help more people for it.'

Cullen shrugged, not fully convinced 'I've seen how power plays out Ophelia. I saw it Kirkwall, and by the Maker I see it even more now in the Inquisition. We hope to make a difference, but let us take care not to fall into the game like everyone else. Treading over the peasants to get what we want.'. With a yawn and a stretch he added wearily 'I envy you. I never sleep before an expedition. Last night was no exception. You on the other hand could have snored through a blight!'

With a playful nudge under the sheets towards a smirking Commander, I ran my hands through my dishevelled hair. Frowning suddenly, I turned to my smiling bedfellow. 'You didn't sleep? You needed rest, especially since we're heading out today.'

'I relish the nights I can evade my dreams.' muttered Cullen 'Even if they are replaced with troubled thoughts and sleep deprivation.'

I could tell his mind was already filling with these thoughts, the woes of life that he spoke of already returning to him as he stared off into the distance with a detached expression, his amber eyes aloof. Mere echoes of his pain, a torment that never left him. How I wanted to take it away from him, but the more time I spent with Cullen I realised all too sadly that Cole had been right. The maddening terror that Cullen had been exposed to had become part of him, and there was no way to separate the man from the torment of his former reality. Cullen carried this weight on his shoulders, including the well being of his soldiers, and now it seemed he carried the troubles of the underprivileged across Thedas as well. It was a lot for one man to bear.

Reaching for his arm, I squeezed it gently. "Cullen? What is it?'

Propping himself to sit up, muscular bare arms outstretched and resting on his bare knees, he shook his head 'Nothing, just a feeling...'

'A feeling?' I remarked dubiously.

'When you've spent most of your life entertaining danger you tend to have a sense of these things.' he observed bitterly. Noticing my silence, Cullen turned to me with a softer expression 'I did not mean to worry you. I just want you to be careful on this trip.'

'Surely you don't think the Orlesians want me dead?' I replied uncertainly 'I never did anything to them.'

The Commander shrugged 'No one has my full trust. Perhaps you have yet to learn that.'

Oblivious to what Cullen was actually saying, and thankfully perhaps for my own feelings would have inevitably been hurt by such a comment, I replied defensively 'I don't trust everyone!'

'Says the most naive woman in Thedas.' scoffed Cullen 'Why I believe you would let Corypheus come to dinner at Skyhold if he promised to be on his best behaviour.'. With a deep laugh, quite amused, Cullen reached his large arms around me, pulling me up to his chest . 'My lady! Did I offend you?' he added with a chuckle 'It wasn't meant as a slight. I like that about you, truly.'

Rolling my eyes, I tried to evade his arms to no avail as he held me tight, enjoying to watch me struggle against him 'Sure, you like the naive fool that's running the Inquisition. I wonder if you would be so fond of the idiot if they were a man?'

Cullen grinned devilishly 'Are you saying I am only nice and accepting towards you for more sinister reasons Inquisitor?

'I don't doubt it Commander.' I accused, running my hands along his naked chest as he continued to chuckle.

'Perhaps there is an element of truth in that statement.' continued Cullen with amused eyes 'However I do recall a time, back in Haven, when we were not so intimately acquainted. A time when I saw you perhaps a little too fresh and inexperienced to fill the role of a leader, and perhaps a little doubt filled my mind. Actually a lot I confess. However your somewhat innocent, dare I say naive, faith has brought us further than I suspect even the most well experienced and sceptical leader could ever have done.'

'Thanks, I think?' I replied with a yawn.

'Don't tell me you're still tired!?' chortled Cullen.

'No I dreamt too deeply,' I muttered 'and I feel more tired for it now.'

'Corypheus?' remarked the Commander darkly.

'No.' I muttered, shaking my head as I recalled the dream that had disturbed me. 'There was this bird with brilliant scarlet feathers..always the same dream, again and again.'

The Commander raised an eyebrow in interest and I nodded.

'It's always the same. It's a grey morning, bleak and still, with not a whisper of a breeze on the air.' I continued 'I'm walking along a small creek, with small trees and shrubs on the banks, and clear water trickling over moss and stone. I'm not sure how long I walk. Hours? Days? it feels like I am walking forever down this river until I reach the edge of a cliff and the stream turns into a rushing waterfall. I look over the edge and the drop is deep, so deep I can barely see the water at the bottom. I turn to step away, and I am confronted by this shrieking large bird with scarlet feathers, wings outstretched and furious. The creature is so angry. I'm not sure why it scares me so much, but I'm terrified of it. It pushes me backwards and I fall over the cliff.'. I sighed with a shrug 'Perhaps I envy you for not sleeping last night.'

Easing back to lie down and rolling onto his stomach, resting on his elbows, the bed sheet pleasantly covering only the lower half of his buttocks, Cullen threw me a reassuring smile. 'I will be by your side this entire trip, and you must promise to stay close to me. Nothing will harm you, and Maker help any red birds that dare get in my way.' Leaning towards me, Cullen placed a soft kiss on my lips, lingering for a moment or two.

A relaxed sigh to my lips, I lay back down and stretched in comfort on the soft bedding of the four poster, as the ex-templar suddenly rolled on top of me with a grin, a thick and firm member brushing against my thigh.

'Why Commander, is this what you meant about me staying close to you?' I taunted, a grinning Cullen lowering his lips to my chest, revealing a loose mop of sandy tresses, before raising it once more.

'Surely you wouldn't deny me one last tryst before we set off?' he whispered lasciviously in a deep voice oozing with desire. 'Surely you wouldn't be that cruel?'

Cullen held a deviant smile on his lips, dark amber eyes smouldering as he lowered down my chest with soft kisses, travelling lower past my stomach with drawn out kisses and finally to my legs, kissing the soft skin of my upper inner thighs. Looking back up at me he teased my pink lips with his warm breath, the stubble on his jaw scratching me delightfully, and the light brushing of his mouth teasing me before finally running his tongue along the length of my clit. Arching my back, I began to writhe in pleasure.

'Yes.' growled Cullen between licks 'Make sure you stay close to me for the entirety of our trip and I'll be extremely happy.'

Lowering his mop of hair down once more, I ran my fingers through his soft tresses as he continued to devour me, swirling and sucking and lapping with great enthusiasm before retreating to meet me, face to face, once more. Cullen's cock was hard and prodded heavily between my thighs and up towards my entrance, finding it's familiar place and easing in thickly, producing a sigh from both our lips as his member moved slowly and deeply to the hilt.

'Just when I was enjoying fucking you in this rather comfortable bed, we must go back to tents again.' growled Cullen as he stayed inside for a moment looking down at me with lust as I adjusted to his girth.

'I'm sure you can find a back alleyway somewhere in Orlais for a change of scenery.' I taunted.

Pulling out again slowly, he pushed his hard cock back in more firmly with a grunt. The ex-templar rested his weight on his bulging arms and I had the pleasure of running my fingers across them and his chiselled abdomen and shoulders as he busied himself with more pressing matters producing moans from both our lips. His skin had become more tanned since spring, his arms, neck and chest more muscular from the extra training he had been doing with the wave of recruits that had flooded the gates since the Grand Tourney. The man was taut, sunkissed, and hard as stone.

The Commander grinned as his pushed harder into me, thrusting with more aggression now. The ex-templar liked it rough and to my delight it was never too long before his thrusts became unforgivingly straight to the point. My lips met his collar bone and playfully I bit him quite hard on the shoulder. Cullen moaned in pleasure.

'Wicked creature, I knew you'd enjoy that morning in Denerim when I took you against that wooden beam.' he growled 'You're not so sweet and innocent are you? Bite me again Inquisitor.'

Again I bit harder, feeling my teeth sink into his firm, warm tanned skin. Cullen twinged, and raising his hips higher began administering firm short fucks that reached deep inside.

'Who's the wicked one now?' I grinned, grabbing fistfuls of his sandy locks in torturous, blissful agony as I tried to hold my own composure.

'I'm your master.' murmured Cullen darkly as he wrapped his arms around my neck 'And you will surrender to me.'. Holding me firm, I could the tightness around my neck, loving his full control over me, as he continued to stare deeply into my eyes, fucking me, that wave of pleasure growing and growing, his strong arms holding me down firm before...

Knock, knock, knock.

'No ignore it.' groaned Cullen.

Knock, knock, knock

'Hey Inquisitor? Are you in there?' called out a deep dwarven voice.

With a grin, Cullen covered my mouth firmly with his hand, preventing me from answering, as he slowed his thrusting, evidently determined not to finish quickly in order to accommodate our guest on the other side of door. Reaching my hands down and around Cullen's torso, I grabbed his tight ass in both my hands and sunk my nails hard into his flesh while simultaneously biting his hand rather unforgivingly. Cullen yelled out quite loudly in surprise, foiling his attempt at silence, and I burst out laughing.

'You'll pay for that.' growled the ex-templar, bracing his arms and planting them firmly on either side of me, slowing down to short, sharp thrusts that used all his stamina and strength and pushed my whole body upwards quite aggressively as he began to fuck me as hard as he could. It was my turn to cry out as he impaled me, which turned into loud moans as Cullen unleashed himself on me. Refusing to let him get the upper hand, I lifted myself up to bite his chest, the sweet smell of his skin intoxicating me as his muscles tensed from the sensation of my teeth.

'Andraste's knicker weasels...' moaned Cullen, trying to stave off the inevitable high that he was reaching, his pace intensifying in a series of frenzied fucks. Teeth gnashing and grazing, I continue to penetrate his skin and with this act of pain his wildness was revealed, beads of sweat forming on his neck, veins throbbing with lust. His breath was heaving and his moans were loud as he felt me come hard around his cock.

Knock, knock, knock

'Inquisitor? Are you in there?' called out the voice again.

'Fuck off.' roared Cullen as he came hard, releasing himself deep inside.

Silence followed before the voice at the door replied uncertainly 'Ahhh it's rather important...Curly?'

The look on Cullen's face was priceless, furious and perplexed, hair wild and panting hard. I burst out laughing, and Cullen's scowl turned into amusement, raising an eyebrow curiously down to me.

'Andraste's knicker-what?' I teased.

With a deep laugh, Cullen shrugged as he withdrew himself and propped onto his knees, a wide smile on his lips 'I have no idea, but you can use that one whenever you want.'. Throwing a wink before jumping off the bed, Cullen grabbed the bed sheet to wrap around his waist as he marched to the door. No longer smiling, he wrenched the door open to be greeted by a smirking dwarf.

'Well well, if it isn't Curly in nothing but a bedsheet.' quipped an amused Varric with a smug grin 'I was actually hoping to find her Inquisitorialness? Is she about?'

'Can't this wait, Varric?'. The Commander shook his head, growing more impatient. Even in his bare skin, wrapped only in a sheet, Cullen's authoritative sternness was not diminished in the slightest.

'Believe me I wouldn't be here right now unless it couldn't wait.' chuckled Varric, eyeing the sheet with amusement.

'It's okay.' I called out to Cullen, hastily grabbing a sheet of my own to conceal my own bareness.

Cullen grinned as he watched me fumble with the oversized cloth, stumbling down the stairs and over to the door, ungraciously sidling up to him. Two guilty parties facing the worst possible witness; Skyhold's most enthusiastic pair of loose lips. Varric Tethras.

'Ah now kids, don't act so caught out.' dismissed Varric light heartedly 'Everyone in the keep knows about you two love birds. I'd be more surprised if Curly wasn't in here.'

'That's reassuring.' muttered Cullen.

Grinning at the Commander, I turned back to our guest. 'So what's so important Varric?'

'Ah.' replied the dwarf more seriously 'Well it's about your journey today. I'd like to tag along, if you don't mind?'

'You want to go to Orlais?' I remarked in surprise "Why?'

Cullen's eyes narrowed cynically. 'Precisely, why?'

'Why, Curly,' chuckled Varric 'your suspicion in me is flattering but unnecessary. I merely have a meeting lined up with a publisher in Val Royeaux. With you fine fold going there it's a prime opportunity to follow that up.'

'We're walking into a potential assassination attempt.' replied Cullen dryly 'You do realise this?'

'All the more reason for me and Bianca to come with you!' replied Varric cheerfully 'I'll wager any assassin will think twice before taking on our Orlesian Goldilocks with us by his side.'

Shrugging, I looked over to Cullen 'I don't see why not? Although this expedition is being run by you. It's your call.'

'Curly I will be forever in your debt if you say yes.' pleaded Varric 'I can't pass up an opportunity with this Orlesian paperhouse, and you know these folk never leave an invitation open for too long. Ah those Orlesians, frustrating bunch eh?'

'I wanted this expedition to be as small as possible, so as not to draw attention.' replied Cullen shortly.

'Well thank goodness I'm a dwarf then!.' quipped Varric 'Thanks heaps Curly, and thanks Inquisitorialness. I'll get my things and we'll be on our way. The soldiers are getting ready in the courtyard as we speak, so lets get a move on. Chop chop you two!'

With an amused nod, Varric turned and departed down the hall, a spring in his step as he whistled a tune out of sight.

'Funny, I don't recall actually saying yes to him coming along.' muttered Cullen, closing the door sharply.

'Yes Varric has a knack for doing that.' I grinned 'He swears I gave him full rights to write the official story of the Inquisition after this is all over. I still can't recall having that conversation with him.'

Cullen scoffed. 'If he is anything like the Varric I knew in Kirkwall, he has already written the damn thing, made a deal and this meeting is probably a book signing. He's probably been promised more coin if he can bring the Inquisitor and Commander along with him.'

'Perhaps we should read a copy of what he is planning to publish on the road?' I frowned.

'Maker's Breath, don't encourage him!' sighed Cullen 'I can't tell you how many copies of Hard in Hightown have mysteriously made its way onto the bookshelves in my study.'

'Oh yes you'll be hard pressed to find a book that isn't written by Varric in Skyhold' I added in jest 'Although between you and me, Cassandra is his number one fan of Swords and Shields.'

'And here I thought Cassandra was the most sensible of us all in Skyhold.' muttered Cullen shaking his head 'There's no hope for us now.'

Cullen growled as he wrapped his arms around my shoulders in a tender embrace, nuzzling his head to my neck 'I need to saddle my gear and weapons for the journey. You, regretfully, need to get dressed.'

Our lips met each other, a soft kiss leading into a deeper one. Cullen grinned as he pulled away reluctantly, his deep amber eyes filling mine.

'Andraste's knicker weasels...I must go.' he added playfully.

Rolling my eyes, I gave him a push away and Cullen scampered off with an amused chuckle, quickly pulling on his clothing that lay scattered at the base of the bed. The Commander passed once more with a cheeky slap and a peck on the cheek before descending the stairs humming a tune to himself as he moved out into the cold halls of Skyhold, ready to prepare for our departure to Val Royeaux.

The warm late morning sun of summer welcomed our departure with a clear blue sky overhead and a promising warm breeze predicting an even more promising day of travel. A small entourage of seven Inquisition soldiers, Varric, Cullen, Michel de Chevin and myself set off, bound for Orlais and whatever trouble was awaiting us at Val Royeaux. Leliana had sent several of her spies ahead, ready to offer aid once we reached the palace. However Cullen was not convinced they would be of any use and remained disgruntled.

Our Maister of Blades was unusually quiet along the narrow, windy path of the Frostback Mountains. In truth I felt sick to my stomach that we were forcing the Orlesian back to the home that had declared him a traitor and demanded his life. I was furious at Josephine for agreeing to this mediation without consulting the council. Even more so however I was furious for going along with it. My hands were tied, and so were Michel's.

I hadn't seen Michel de Chevin for a long time, not since the Skyhold Tourney itself, give or take a few days after the ceremony. At every chance we happened upon each other, even at the banquet afterwards, we never brought up that kiss. Not once. I knew there were things to be said but if I had been distant before, Michel de Chevin seemed to have now taken my cue and followed suit. Varric had already confirmed that my personal relationship with Cullen was common knowledge, and inevitably our ex-chevalier would now have been privy to that fact. Not that I considered Michel jealous or even interested. However he seemed more distant towards me, and I wondered whether that could have played a part in it?

In my own humble opinion, and upon many hours of painful reflection in my own miserable isolation after the Grand Tourney I had come to the sound conclusion that everything that had happened between the ex-chevalier and I had been nothing more than a grand gesture solely for the entertainment of the guests of the tournament. Unfortunately what made it awkward now was that Cullen was riding alongside us, like a strict ever watchful mentor, painfully aware of any exchange of conversation between Michel and I. I wasn't willing to reveal Cullen's somewhat justifiably jealous nature on this trip, and resided to an uncomfortable silence in its stead.

As a result of my deliberations on the matter, the Commander and the ex-chevalier led the entourage and shared more than a few deep discussions over our first day of the journey, leaving Varric and I lagging at the back end of the company of soldiers.

'This is terrible.' observed Varric in amused outrage 'I can't hear Curly or Goldilocks from back here. How about you?'

'Of course not, why would I care to listen to-' I began, before noticing Varric's raised eyebrow. Rolling my eyes, I sighed in frustration. 'Okay, I admit I can't hear a damn word either. I don't suppose we could overtake the soldiers and ride behind them without them noticing?'

'Oh yeah.' chuckled Varric 'I'm sure the two most talented warriors in all of Thedas won't hear the clumsy mage and dashing dwarf trotting up to eavesdrop behind them.'

'Cullen thinks I'm naive, and now you think I'm clumsy?!' I replied in outrage 'What a great dolt your Inquisitor has turned out to be. I should do you all a favour and run myself through with my blade.'

Varric laughed merrily 'Take off your armour first, I know a man in South Reach that would pay top coin for that.'

Rolling my eyes again, the dwarf playfully prodded me in the arm with his finger.

'Now now, we can't all be brave, brilliant rogues with outrageously good looks that would make even Ser Perth jealous. Seriously though, out with it. What did Curly do after the tournament?'. Varric added with a grin 'If I know our Commander he was probably more serious and gloomy than usual?'

'Something like that.' I muttered.

'Oh come on!' protested Varric 'Don't tell me you're not going to spill the beans even to your favourite dwarf!? You sulked away for weeks after the tournament, so much I reckon you gave the kid a run for his money.'

Chuckling, I nodded. 'Actually it caused Cole to sulk even more.'

'Out with it.' demanded Varric.

'Ok Cullen was furious,' I sighed 'and rightly so. That kiss at the tournament was for Thedas, not for me. Michel did it all for show. But Cullen didn't know that at the time.'

'I knew it!' exclaimed Varric gleefully 'If you could have seen Curly's face when Goldilocks planted one on you. Ha ha ha I swear that look could have killed a horde of darkspawn. So he was angry at you, and I'm guessing...' Varric nudged his reins towards Michel '..Goldilocks over there?'

'Let's just say he wasn't a fan of our Maister of Blades on the day. I don't know if Cullen spoke to Michel about it.'. With a frown, my attention turned to where the men were talking amongst themselves at the front of the line. 'They appear to be on ok terms now I suppose?'

'Ah well, it seems things worked out for the best.' replied Varric, pausing with a smug grin 'So...her Inquisiitorialness and the Commander?'

A smile curled on my lips. Hearing that being said out in the open felt good and I liked people knowing Cullen and I were together despite Cullen's preferred secrecy on the matter. When I wasn't frustrated with the man, I wanted to sing it from the rooftops. Then again, it seemed everyone already knew and most likely would just tell me to shut up.

'Is there anything in particular that you want to know Varric?' I replied in amusement.

'Why Inquisitor, I would never pry into the affairs of others!' mused Varric 'I'm just perplexed as to how our naive and clumsy mage managed to end up with the most serious Commander in all of Thedas.'

'Oh thanks, now I'm unworthy!' I replied defensively in jest, although perhaps there was a little truth in it. Truth be told I often had wondered the same thing. Why me?

'Now hold up,' remarked Varric more seriously 'I didn't mean you're unworthy. You're great, kid. It's just..well, how do I say this? Look I knew Curly in Kirkwall and he's not the guy I would have ever picked to have fallen for a mage. As in ever. '

'I think he surprised even himself' I replied with a shrug 'I'm under no illusion as to his true opinion of mages. He hates them.'

Varric shook his head. 'Ah now, don't be too hasty. You'd be surprised how one person can make you change your whole opinion on things like that. Like magic. Hawke is a mage and I remember thinking when I first met him- oh shit, why am I inviting this kind of trouble down into the Deep Roads with us? Bartrand was enough to contend with! Ahhh but by the end Hawke showed me that magic wasn't to be feared. No, it was the person who held magic in their hands that makes it good or downright terrible. I soon learned some mages, like Hawke, were good sorts and used their magic to help others. Then again, that damn Blondie...'

'Blondie?' I puzzled.

'Anders.' muttered Varric 'Bloody Anders. You know, the one that blew up the Chantry in Kirkwall and pretty much ruined everything and sealed you mages with a reputation as nothing but evil for eternity.'

With a grimace, I nodded. 'Ah him. Is he truly a bad person? I mean, wasn't Hawke with him?'

'Well that's a good example of love blinding one partner to the other's fucking insanity.' muttered the dwarf with a shake of his head. 'Blondie wanted freedom for mages, and Hawke knew he was passionate about it. Heck we all got an earful of Blondie's shit. We never thought Anders was capable of blowing up the chantry. Hawke loved that idiot so much that even when he was faced with what Blondie had done, Hawke still fought by his side to the very end and ran away with him. That's how loyal Hawke is. True to the end, no matter the cost. You see? It's not magic that makes you the person you are, it's all about your actions. Curly knows that. He's gotta or he wouldn't be shaking sheets with you.'

'I think that's harder for Cullen to acknowledge after his time in Ferelden and then Kirkwall.' I frowned grasping the reins tighter in frustration. 'He's been through a lot of shit.'

'I didn't know Curly well back in Kirkwall but I can tell you this much. The Knight-Captain Cullen I knew in Kirkwall is nothing like Commander Cullen of the Inquisition.'

'What do you mean?' I asked, intrigued by his meaning.

Varric laughed. 'Heck the Cullen I saw this morning at your door is alive compared to the frustrated templar I knew back in Kirkwall. The one that stood second in command to that nutbag Meredith. You could tell Curly was dealing with some heavy shit back then, he looked pretty damn deflated every time Hawke and I came across him. Real good guy but with the weight of the world on his shoulders, know what I mean? But now? Now he's helping others, and leading the soldiers, heck he even jokes sometimes. I dunno about you, but if I had to guess I would say he may have even eased up on his opinions of mages a bit.'

With a small smile to myself I nodded in appreciation 'Thank you Varric.'

'The way I see it, Cullen ended up with the best naive and clumsy mage in all of Thedas.' added the dwarf with a grin 'Come on, I think we can squeeze our way a bit further up the line. Maybe hear a word or two of gossip along the way, eh? I need some more material for my book.'

'What!?' I asked suspiciously.

'Nothing!' replied Varric hastily 'Come on, there's a gap over there between those soldiers.'

Exchanging nods, we continued the day's journey. For my part it was more light-hearted and fancy free than I had felt for a long, long time.

Chapter Text

After everything I went through, from the explosion at the conclave, to Corypheus and my certain demise at Haven. Of the rejection of my family when they found out I was a mage, to the isolation and loneliness at The Circle at which I was raised. To have never felt loved or cared for, alone and miserable in a world that I didn't belong in. For the times I looked down to see the blood of the dead, red on my hands, that I scrubbed and scrubbed yet never came off. For all the days I woke up wishing I could fade away and cease to be, and for all the time I spent in sadness and despair, nothing made me feel like you did.

For good and for worse, you made me feel both, and for that I love you…and I hate you.

We awoke on the second morning of our travel to Orlais a little less cheerful, with a thick fog shrouding our camp site heavily. After a lot of cursing on the weather depriving us of a cooked breakfast and damning the marshy terrain of the south coast of the Waking Sea, the Inquisition entourage finally set off and was on the Imperial Highway. The sun finally came out again from behind the clouds and moral was lifted once more as we headed towards Halamshiral.

I decided to take the lead that morning, eager to ride a little faster to our destination. This nervousness would never diminish until we left Orlais with Michel breathing and in one piece, so it was better to meet Empress Celene as soon as we could. As strange as it sounded, I felt entirely responsible for this journey. Michel had come to serve the Inquisition in good faith, and we had failed him miserably. Why did I feel like I had betrayed Michel de Chevin?

'It has turned out to be remarkable day!' observed a pleasant Orlesian voice riding up from behind me. Even as he marched to his possible death, nothing ever seemed to dampen the ex-chevalier's spirits. Michel de Chevin's blue eye's sparkled as he rode alongside, a small smile on his lips as he met my eyes.

'Yes very remarkable.' I replied awkwardly, casting my gaze nervously across overgrown thicket and waist high grass on either side of the path. 'I thought it would have rained last night. But it didn't rain, so that is good? Doesn't look like its going to rain today either. Well except those clouds over there.'

Michel grinned at me silently, apparently amused at my odd remarks. 'Yes I suppose rain is a possibility.' he acknowledged politely.

With a sigh, I knew he deserved more than fake observations about the weather. 'Michel, I'm so sorry about this whole trip. You need to know our main objective, our only objection, is to see your through this mediation safe. We will never leave your side, not for a moment. You have my word.'

Michel nodded sagely as if he had heard this speech several times before now. 'Commander Cullen had assured me of this. For both of his and your concern, I am grateful. Please do not feel remorse for this situation I know face. I understand why this must be done, and at the end of the day who else's fault is it if not my own?'

'I hope you're not residing to your fate.' I warned 'You're one of us now, and an important member of the Inquisition. We stick by our own.'

Michel chuckled sadly 'I don't think Empress Celene will care for such things unfortunately. But fair not, I don't intend to be assassinated on this trip. I do not go to my death Ophelia, I assure you I have not resided to that in this trip. I want to live. You and the Inquisition and the people in it. You have given me the passion of life.'

'Passion of life?'

'The will to live. A purpose.' replied Michel with a pride that seemed to be bursting from his heart as he spoke of it. 'My life is dear to me for I have nearly lost it once. You never truly appreciate something until it is taken away from you. You set me on a new direction and gave me another chance at an honorable life. When I was called out to greet the people of Ferelden after the tournament, in my new title as Maister of Blades, I was met with so much hope. The people were uplifted because of the Inquisition. They were not fearful as they had been before for now they held a united purpose. I never realised it before but the most important thing a leader can give it's people is hope. They have this, Ophelia. They have it now. Corypheus is a terrible threat and instead of running away they wish to stay and fight because they fight for the common cause, and they fight under the one united banner that seeks to serve them. We serve the people and the people in turn serve each other instead of fighting each other. Strip down the pomp and ceremony in Orlais and all you'll find is noble fighting noble for land and title. Here there is honour, and I shall not let Orlais take that away from me or the Inquisition.'

I breathed a heavy sigh, one of relief. It was easy to be drowned by the constant barrage of tasks presented by the war council and forget that we were making such a difference to so many lives. There was hope yet.

We rode on in silence for a while, the winding trail running along a cluster of apple trees on both sides. The sweet blossoms lingered in the air, and we relished the serenity of the moment. Walking into the lions den somehow didn't see so daunting when summer was all around, with the sun shining down and the birds twittering happily in the trees above.

'I fear I owe you an apology Ophelia.' observed Michel quietly, eyes shifting to make sure no one was listening. 'At the tournament when I kissed-'

'No, no there's nothing to apologise for.' I replied nervously 'I understand it was for show and honestly the crowd enjoyed it.'

A broad smile on his chiselled jaw, Michel nodded bashfully 'Yes I confess I enjoyed it myself.'. I could feel the heat rising to my cheeks as I looked away. With a more serious face he added 'I did not think of how it would affect you and...other people. '

'Other people?' I remarked in slight confusion before it dawned on me 'Oh, you mean Cullen?'

Michel nodded silently, appearing remorseful. 'I think I would have rethought my actions on that day had I known you were involved with my Commander.'

Feeling guilty, I looked away.

'Oh do not think I blame you,' added Michel quickly 'that is not what I meant. It is none of my business naturally, I just felt an apology was owing to you and to him. I have so much respect for you both. I would never want either of you to think I come here to the Inquisition to offer insult and disregard.'

The ex-chevalier's brutal honesty made for awkward conversation, and I bit my lip trying to think of a way to lighten it once more and focus on other things. Michel however didn't seem so keen to do the same.

'The code of courtly love frowns upon my actions, and I must too.' added Michel as he rode ahead from me 'As the saying goes...

They dare not love, although eyes betray
Two unspoken souls who cannot say
What the heart may feel, for it shall be concealed
Only to be betrayed once more by their eyes, revealed

With a frown, I watched the man ride on ahead, his riddle going through my head. In those hazy moments I struggled to grasp his meaning, yet I had no time to process the words for the moment was stolen from me and replaced with a sickening scream. It's strange how terror unfolding in the moment feels like an eternity played out.

My eyes flashed forward to Michel falling sideways from his horse, a blur of steel collapsing to the ground, everything in slow motion. The dull sound of his body hitting the ground reached my ears and yet before I knew what was happening Cullen had overtaken me on his horse and dismounted with a few of the other soldiers in tow. They knelt around Michel de Chevin, who was screaming in agony, his body twisted and contorted like a gnarled branch from the old black oak tree outstretched above us.

'Michel, Michel!' yelled out Cullen as he held the ex-chevalier firmly by the shoulders 'What is it? Tell me where it hurts? Talk to me!'

The Commander looked worried, his eyes searching across the body of his companion who was moaning in agony and unable to speak. A few of the soldiers had begun to remove his armour, and Varric came forward with a flask to offer to Michel's lips. Writhing around, the honey coloured liquid trickled somewhat in his mouth and down his chin before Michel spat out the remainder in a hiss. His body fell into stillness before a dark laugh came from his lips, a deep and horrid laugh that sent a shiver down my spine. From the look on the faces of the soldiers, they were too unnerved, dropping the armour suddenly before them and stepping back.

'Michel...Michel…ahhh I feel you now.' spoke Michel in a sing-song voice, holding his arms out and studying them with great interest.

'Commander.' exclaimed one of the soldiers, pointing to the ex-chevalier in horror 'His eyes.'

Stepping away from Michel, Cullen retreated back slowly. 'Soldiers keep your position a few paces back.' instructed Cullen calmly, holding his arm to my direction although not turning his sight from Michel. 'You stay back.' he warned me.

Frozen in my tracks, I couldn't tear my sight from the bright white eyes of Michel now studying the party surrounding him. It was evident that something more sinister had happened to Michel than him merely falling from his horse. He look...possessed.

'Michel, talk to me.' called out Cullen sternly 'How can we help you?'

Michel began to laugh again wildly 'I'm sorry but Michel is no longer here to be helped. I am Imshael, and I have missed my dear, dear chevalier for quite some time. Orlesian bodies are soooo delicious!'

Varric and I cast frantic eyes to each other as we both recognised the name and realised what had happened.

'Imshael is a demon' I warned Cullen 'Michel was hunting him in Emprise du Lion. We thought we had killed him on that trip.'

Michel narrowed his white eyes and held his attention upon me now 'You..' he hissed '..foul wench, your pathetic magic CANNOT KILL ME! Now I have returned to claim what is mine!'

Cullen unsheathed his blade, the sting of metal ringing as he drew it, followed by the sound of the other soldiers drawing their own weapons.

'Michel has been possessed.' warned Cullen to his soldiers 'There is only once course of action. Stand ready.'

'Ready for what?' I blurted out hastily as the soldiers held a strong circle around Michel. My words appeared to fall on deaf ears. 'Cullen, what course of action? What are you doing?'

'Ha ha ha ha!' cried out Imshael in delight as he looked around the circle, hissing at the soldiers. 'Yes please do tell what we are preparing ourselves to do?'. He growled and snapped like a beast at a few of the soldiers, whose weapons trembled in their hands.

'Trevelyan you need to stay back and let us do this.' warned Cullen sternly, his eyes fixated on the ex-chevalier. 'This is not Michel de Chevin anymore. This is a demon and we need to kill it.'

'You cannot kill me, you fool!' snarled Imshael 'Oh but I can kill you. I can kill you all. I will enjoy doing that before I devour Michel's soul and take his body for my own. He's still in here but not for long.'

'So he's in there still?' I yelled 'Prove it.'

'I don't follow orders from parasites.' hissed Imshael 'He is here and so am I.'

'You're not leaving here with Michel's body.' Cullen replied angrily 'You're a demon and you will be destroyed right here.'. The ex-templar stood firmly, as still as a statue, focused and attentive towards the demon, his giant steel longsword secure in his hands.

'Now, now Commander I only want to return to this delightful realm once more.' insisted Imshael nonchalantly 'I confess Michel is not what I want to claim. I want only my freedom. You can have him back now if you like, unharmed and alive, but I need a mage to perform the release. If not, I will sadly have to take Michel with me as my host.'

'What release?' I asked hastily, unable to tear my eyes from the twisted body of Michel. If something could be done, surely I had to try?

'We do not make deals with demons.' growled Cullen in a threatening tone.

Imshael shrugged 'Have it your way, although if you don't release me I will leave Michel's body as soon as I gain my strength and can find another host. He will die when I do this. If you do not cast this spell, Michel will die.'

Dismounting my horse, I started to take a few steps towards the group, trembling as I did. 'What spell can release him?'

'Stay back Inquisitor.' barked Cullen 'This has nothing to do with you!'

'If we can save Michel then-' I began in protest.

'He's a fucking demon!' roared Cullen furiously, his eyes wild and angry as he turned to me for a split second 'You need to keep quiet Trevelyan. That's an order!'

Imshael began laughing again 'Oh Commander, the mage knows as well as I do that a demon can be removed from a host safely with one small spell. Of course they don't teach it in your Circles I imagine.'

'Blood magic.' warned Varric, Bianca aimed straight at Michel 'Ophelia trust me, I have seen enough of this go reeeealllly wrong. Kid, it's not a good idea.'

'Michel deserves for us to try at least.' I protested 'You can't leave him to be possessed by this monster!'

'Saxon, Mavers.' ordered Cullen 'Take the Inquisitor far away from here and bind her arms. I don't want her performing any magic'

Knowing a serious order when they heard one, the men started towards me.

'Cullen please!.' I cried out 'Let me try to save Michel! We owe it to him! Do not let him die!'.

'Take her away now for fucks sake!' roared Cullen furiously.

Darting my eyes frantically towards the men, I knew I had to make a decision then and there. Beside me Varric was nervously looking me, as if he anticipated what was about to happen.

'Think about this Ophelia.' Varric warned softly 'You could risk killing us all. Michel wouldn't want you to risk everyone's lives like this.'

'Varric that demon will kill us all if I don't do this!.' I argued fearfully 'The only way we managed to rid of him last time was because I had Vivienne's magic with me. He'll kill us all if Cullen tries to attack him. We'll all be dead, including Michel.'

The men were half a meter before me and without further thought I drew my hand into a large orb, a clear pulsating ball of energy emerging in a flash, rotating as I threw it to the ground, it's energy spilling over the ground as I yelled out the words L'ariber Forte Esq Quendium Too'gwa'uah. The orb spread out and Varric first collapsed to the ground beside me, followed by Saxon and Mavers before me. In the distance I saw Cullen fall heavily on the path, his sword discarded next to his body and his eyes closed. Every person in the party was asleep, a rather powerful spell stealing their consciousness for a short while.

Michel was now laughing in hysterics 'Ha ha ha oh dear, oh dear! Guess who's going to be in trouble when your friends wake up?!'

'We don't have long.' I warned, stepping closer to Michel's body. 'Tell me what blood magic I can do to release Michel.'

'Why should I help you?' growled Imshael 'You are nothing to me, wench.'

'If you do I swear I'll never send anyone out to banish you.' I assured 'You'll be free to go into the realm once more. I swear.'

'Bah! I'll be long gone before you can send anyone after me.' replied Imshael.

'Maybe' I continued hastily, knowing I didn't have long before the soldiers would wake 'But what happens after a few months and years pass. You will make yourself known, like you did in Emprise Du Lion, intentional or not, and when that day happens I promise the Inquisition will protect you. You can stay in this realm forever.'

Michel grinned darkly 'Forever is a long time. Swear it to be and you shall be bound. Swear it!'

'I swear it.' I replied hastily 'Now hurry up.'

'Then it is done.' observed Imshael.'Now cut your palm deep, and let the blood pour over Michel's face.'

Unsheathing a dagger at my thigh, I ran the blade with a stinging slice against my left palm. An ice cold pain seared into my flesh as I clenched the wound in my fist, letting the crimson droplets fall onto the pale Orlesian's grinning face.

'Mmmmm.' moaned Imshael. 'Now repeat after me Ard Go 'eth Rened Moorg, Valama Fiest Valama Norsk.'

'Ard Go 'eth Rened Moorg, Valama Fiest Valama Norsk.' I repeated quickly.

A howling shriek emitted from Michel's body, twisting and convulsing as a dark plume of smoke erupted from his mouth. It was Imshael. The smoke rapidly descended into the air above the oak tree, higher and higher past dark and twisted branches and lea. Imshael had escaped and was now free in the realm.

Falling to my knees, I grabbed Michel's limp body in my arms, cradling his chest in my lap. His eyes were shut and the man was unresponsive.

'Michel, Michel.' I cried out fearfully 'Are you in there? Please be in there still.'

A sudden gasp of air, Michel's bright blue eyes flashed open in terror before closing again, and he began moaning to himself.

'No. No. No. Noooo...' he cried out as if dreaming a terrible nightmare 'No, no, nooo...'

'It's okay Michel.' I whispered, noticing my hands shaking uncontrollably as I tried to hold the bloodied ex-chevalier. Shock was setting in as I felt myself grow cold as ice. With a short breaths, my attention drew away from the wailing ex-chevalier to the stirring of bodies on the ground close by. Cullen and the soldiers had began to wake from the spell. Moans and coughs sounded from the stiff bodies waking up once more.

My eyes darted fearfully from Michel to Cullen, Cullen to Michel, and finally locked onto Cullen as he picked himself off the ground. With a stoney face his amber eyes pierced mine, deathly cold as he looked down at me, a hardness that pierced me and filled me with dread as he approached Michel and I.

'What have you done?' asked Cullen in disgust, looking at the blood covered Michel and then down to my bleeding palm. The Commander was mortified, unable to fathom what was before. 'You performed blood magic?'

Utterly ashamed, I could see how revolted the ex-templar was. Cullen looked down at me the same way he had done to the demon Imshael, and it made my heart grow heavy.

Michel continued to moan 'No, no, no, nooooo.' and the soldiers began to surround, anger in their faces as they looked upon me.

'You made us fall asleep when a demon was at us.' accused on the soldiers. 'You tried to kill us.'

'No.' I replied defensively 'I was trying to help you.'

The Commander shook his head in disbelief. He was disgusted beyond words.

Hastily I stood up, backing away from the party towards the clearing of the meadow. 'I saved Michel, I had no other choice.' I explained desperately 'He would have died. You all would have died.'

'Soldiers, detain the Inquisitor so she can be taken back to Skyhold to be tried for blood magic.' ordered Cullen coldly, his furious eyes never leaving mine. 'Be careful she does not try to cast magic on us again.'

'What?!' I exclaimed in outrage 'You're going to arrest me?! I saved you all! You should be thanking me!'

'I should kill you here on the spot for doing what you just did!' roared Cullen furiously. 'You put us all at risk and have used outlawed magic. Consider this a courtesy, Inquisitor.'

'I didn't kill anybody.' I yelled back angrily, backing away from the soldiers 'You were no match for Imshael. I had no choice. Don't you see he was too powerful for you all?!'

'You made a deal with a demon, performed blood magic and attacked the members of the Inquisition.' yelled Cullen as he pointed at me in accusation 'You are a traitor and a blood mage, and will be tried accordingly by the people of the Inquisition. Now arrest her!'

'Curly, uhhhh maybe we should talk about this?' called out Varric nervously, looking over to me with a nudge of his head, as if encouraging me to get the hell out of there.

'Quiet Varric.' shouted Cullen.

I threw my eyes upon Cullen one last time, taking in his anger and fury. It was shocking to behold. Not even an echo of his tenderness towards me remained. He looked upon me as I imagined he would have at a blood mage in Kirkwall. I knew what had to be done. Hastily drawing my shaking hands outstretched to the sky, I mumbled a few words and an orb of invisibility surrounded me.

'Blast it, she's put on an invisibility cloak. Find her!.' ordered Cullen, drawing his arms out to cast a dispel magic to the area. A blue orb exploded from Cullen's hands, expanding around him but it was too late for I had already fled to the trees and didn't intend to stop running for all that my life was worth.

In times like this a mage's worst enemy was a templar and I knew I had to escape him if I wanted to remain free.

What did it matter?

I asked myself this question for hours and hours as I stumbled aimlessly through the wild swampy marshland of Orlais, mud splattered and bracken cutting my legs, dead branches scratching my arms, tears pouring wildly down my cheeks. Cullen had broken my heart and destroyed my faith, and I was nothing but a broken vessel of misery, despair and ruin.

Chapter Text

 

A new dawn rising over the misty-grey Frostback Mountains greeted the ex-templar on horseback. Wearily leading a second horse behind him, a pale ex-chevalier was slumped over the beast, drifting in and out of consciousness. Sometimes the Orlesian screamed out in pain, as if his mind tormented him with some terrifying image, while other times he remained catatonic for hours on end, a blank and aloof expression etched on his face. And at the back of the party an even quieter lone dwarf travelled behind the two men on a third horse, silent as the grave as he followed on.

 

On the orders of the Commander, the seven soldiers of the Inquisition entourage had remained in Orlais and were directed to scout the area of Halamshiral and surrounding woodlands to locate the escaped Inquisitor. While the search commenced, Commander Cullen, Michel de Chevin and Varric Tethras had ridden straight through the night, desperate to bring the frail Orlesian back to the safety of Skyhold. With quickened hooves and a desire to be rid of the Imperial Highway, they had finally made it back onto the trail of Gherlen’s Pass, winding it’s way around the craggy mountain back to Skyhold.

 

The party had ridden in silence ever since they had set off the afternoon before, the night on frozen horseback not chilling their bones as much as the memory of what had just passed. The horror of Imshael had not diminished, especially whenever they heard a bloodcurdling scream pass from their Maister of Blade’s lips. It left a heavy churning in their guts and a shiver across their skin.

 

‘Uhhh-no! No. No...nooo!!!!’ wailed Michel as he began moaning again, his eyes drifting shut and slumping over the neck of his brown mare.

 

‘Maybe we should stop?’ observed a worried Varric ‘He’s not looking so good.’

 

Cullen turned to check on the Orlesian, his amber eyes examining Michel uneasily. 

 

‘What do you expect?’ observed Cullen darkly ‘He’s been possessed by a demon.’

 

Taking cue, Varric continued hastily, eager to encourage any conversation after an entire trip devoid of any communication. ‘Well, even more reason to let him rest for a while by a fire, the man’s as pale as a ghost. And freezing. Curl-...Commander, come on, just for a short rest.’

 

'Fine.' replied Culled tiredly 'We could all use some rest.'

 

With a clenched jaw and unforgiving frown, Cullen turned off the trail to lead the horses to a small cluster of pine and fir trees at the edge of the rocky path. Body aching from the cold armour encasing his body, Cullen dismounted his black steed heavily, the stones crunching hard under his feet as he moved over to Michel to help him off his horse. The ex-chevalier slumped forward over Cullen’s shoulder, his blonde hair spilling over the black feather gorget as the Commander carried his companion onto a soft patch of grass.

 

A concerned looking Varric quickly gathered pinecones and twigs to make a fire, casting his eyes over to Michel and Cullen every now and then in nervous agitation.

 

‘We should talk about what happened.’ began Varric hesitantly after a few moments of silence passed, already anticipating the negative response his words would be met with.

 

‘There’s nothing to talk about.’ replied Cullen icily. He appeared unwilling to acknowledge what had happened and preoccupied himself by adding more sticks to the fire to encourage the flames. ‘You were there yourself, you saw what happened.’

 

The rogue nodded. ‘Okay, well I can tell you what I saw, but I’m guessing it might not be the same as what you may have seen?’

 

Flashing his furious eyes to the dwarf, Cullen glared at Varric angrily. ‘Don’t you dare try to justify her actions. Not now, not ever. I'm well aware of your sympathies towards blood mages.’

 

Varric looked annoyed at that comment but refused to retreat. ‘Well someone’s gotta have her best interests in mind.’ he replied shortly ‘Call me crazy, but I could have sworn it would have been you Curly.’

 

‘Blood magic is blood magic, Varric.’ barked Cullen, the shadows of the pine trees covering him in a shroud of darkness as his face danced with the light of the flame. ‘It’s evil to the core, a rotten and corrupt practice, and she did it. She put all our lives at risk. Yours and mine included. She turned on us and got that demon to aid her.’. Cullen ran a shaking hand to some loose leaves beside him, throwing some onto the crackling fire ‘She is just another maleficar....that is all she is.’

 

‘Bullshit!.’ replied Varric hotly, refusing to accept Cullen's assessment. ‘She did one spell, one spell, to save Michel’s life. Heck to save all of our lives. You weren’t there in Emprise du Lion when we dealt with this Imshael demon. He was powerful, so damn powerful that we barely walked out of the ruins alive. Ophelia knew this, and she knew you were about to be slaughtered if you tried to take him on.’

 

‘So she puts us all to sleep and goes along with the demon’s plan? Is trusting a demon the better choice?! He could have turned on her in a second and then killed us all while we fucking slumbered VARRIC!’ roared Cullen ‘One spell. One spell of blood magic is all is takes for these mages. Just one. We don’t know what in the blazes happened when we were all passed out. For all we know this Imshael has now taken over the body of the Inquisitor. He could still be in Michel de Chevin. Don’t you see? You cannot trust demons, it only takes one to cause horrific pain, death and suffering to everyone around them.’

 

‘You’re not even listening.’ replied Varric heatedly ‘She did it to save you!’

 

‘Then she’s a bigger fool than I gave her credit for.’ snarled Cullen ‘She knew the one thing I would never abide was blood magic, not even for my life. Especially not for that.’

 

‘You’re not thinking straight.’ appealed Varric, tugging at his gold neck chain in frustration. ‘Ophelia didn’t cast blood magic because she is some maleficar, or even because she wanted to. She did it because she loves you and she didn’t want you to be killed by that asshole demon, or Michel, or me and the rest of your soldiers. That is why she went along with the spell. The girl is that much in love with you she was willing to taint her very self to keep you alive, heck to keep everyone alive! And yet you stand here and curse her and claim she is a maleficar? That’s just pure and utter shit.’

 

Varric stood up from the fire, kicking the dirt as he paced in anger at a distance while the Commander frowned into the flames in silence. 

 

‘She made a deal.’ moaned Michel, deep blue eyes slowly opening in a dazed awakening. Peaky, pale and shivering, he weakly struggled to sit himself up as Varric and Cullen turned their eyes to the frail Orlesian. After a night of travelling, it was the first time Michel had gained full consciousness, let alone uttered a coherent word.

 

Cullen quickly withdrew a flask of water from his hip and offered it up to the ex-chevalier’s lips, who accepted it willingly.

 

‘What deal?’ asked Cullen after Michel had had his fill of liquid ‘What deal are you talking about Michel?’

 

The Orlesian shook his head, hunched over he rested his arms on his knees, cradling his chest as the memories came flooding back. ‘I remember everything.’ he shuddered ‘Imshael was in control of my body...as if he filled every part of me...but I remember. Ophelia made a deal for Imshael to release me.’

 

‘She what?’ replied a mortified Cullen, bringing his hands up through his hair in frustration ‘She made a deal? She made a FUCKING DEAL!!?!’. Eyes wild and bloodshot, the ex-templar lunged for an nearby fir tree, ramming his fist as hard as he could into the coarse trunk, the branches from the very top shaking violently and spilling needle-like leaves and scattered cones onto the ground. Over and over, the ex-templar pounded the tree, his fury relentless and splinters flying, until his fist was red, raw and bloody, crimson droplets falling onto the dirt.

 

The party remained uneasily silent until finally, Cullen had finished his assault, and sat back down on the ground in defeat.

 

'She was only trying to help.' muttered Varric, shaking his head at Cullen. 'She wasn't doing it for any other reason.'

 

‘What was the deal?’ Cullen asked flatly, ignoring the dwarf. 

 

‘Protection from the Inquisition.’ replied Michel hesitantly ‘Indefinitely.’

 

The Commander was shocked. ‘Protecting a demon? Has she gone utterly mad? Why would she agree to that?’

 

Michel looked miserable, eyes shifting away from the furious attention of the ex-templar. ‘She did it to save me. ‘Imshael knew the spell to release me, and he asked Ophelia what she would give him if he agreed to help. She promised that the Inquisition would protect him in the realm if he agreed to release me. Forgive me Commander, this is my fault. I am so sorry.’

 

‘Ah heck you weren’t to know a demon would possess you.’ dismissed Varric ‘Just like Ophelia wasn’t to know.’. The dwarf threw an accusing look at a scowling Cullen. 'I'll say it until the cows come home Curly. She's innocent here.'

 

‘Why would she trust that thing?’ asked Cullen in disgust ‘Why would she risk the lives of hundreds, thousands, maybe more, for the sake of-’

 

‘One life.’ muttered Michel sadly ‘I wish you would have struck me down then and there. She had no right to release Imshael back into the realm.’

 

‘Exactly.’ agreed Cullen savagely, looking over to Varric in anger.

 

‘She tried to talk to you about it and you shut her down.’ retorted Varric furiously ‘Or have you forgotten that you ordered her to be bound while she was trying to discuss the situation? Who the heck says that?’

 

‘We don’t make deals with demons!’ declared Cullen sternly ‘She knew there was nothing to be discussed.’

 

‘He’s right Varric.’ croaked Michel ‘My death is nothing to what she has now unleashed back into the realm.’

 

‘You arseholes.’ spat Varric ‘The girl has sacrificed every part of her being to this wretched cause. She's sacrificed a heck of a lot more for you both to remain alive. You think she didn't realise that demon could have possessed her? Murdered her? Of course she did! But she tried to help anyway.’. He stopped to cast his brown eyes darkly at the two men ‘And the moment things go pear shaped you both point the finger at her and condemn her, as if she's some evil monster. She was trying to help.’

 

‘Good intentions don’t excuse blood magic.’ argued Michel ‘Ophelia trusted a demon, and cast a spell that he instructed her to cast. Imshael could have been instructing her to do anything.’

 

The dwarf shrugged ‘Well shit, it worked didn’t it?’

 

‘Imshael could be murdering an entire village as we speak.’ observed Michel fearfully ‘Women, children, and men…all slaughtered. I’ve seen him do it before. Don’t you see Varric? My life was not worth it.’

 

‘Well to her it was worth it!’ reproached Varric ‘Fine. So maybe she didn’t think it through, but maybe the alternative would have been the same? Imshael would have killed us all and he’d be killing a village via your body at the moment.’

 

‘Or we could have banished him by running a blade through Michel.’ muttered Cullen, producing an nod in agreement from the Orlesian.

 

‘So what now then?’ asked Varric tiredly, throwing his hands up in defeat. ‘What are you going to do? Hunt her down and murder her? Imprison her for life? What is it that you want since you both seem incapable of letting this go?’

 

‘That will be up to the council,’ remarked Cullen testily ‘but there will be a trial no doubt. We’ll find her soon, she is easily recognisable. Of course we still need her to seal breaches, and aid with bringing down Corypheus. However she will likely be a prisoner of the Inquisition now, I can’t see any way around that.’

 

‘Prisoner?’ Varric shook his head, getting up in sudden disgust. As swift as he could, the dwarf mounted his horse before turning back to the men who were still sitting by the fire.

 

'Varric it's not safe travelling alone on this path at night, come sit down.' muttered Cullen.

 

The dwarf scoffed at the observation. 'If it's a choice to hang out with you judgemental pricks or be eaten by wolves, I'm choosing the latter.'

 

'Fine.' replied Cullen, unwilling to entertain the dwarf.

 

‘If there’s one good thing that comes out of all of this,’ observed Varric bitterly ‘it’s that Ophelia has finally managed to rid herself of someone as cold hearted as you. Shit Curly, you’re not a templar anymore but you sure do act like the mage hating bastard we all came to love back in Kirkwall.’. Varric cast his eyes to Michel in reproach. ‘And you, ex-chevalier. Ophelia gave you another chance at an honourable life, and then saved your damn life. What have you given back to her except judgement and disapproval? Some champion, eh?’

 

With a kick of his heels Varric galloped off along the path towards Skyhold, leaving the two men alone in their pursed lipped silence. For all the truth in Varric’s words, both were blinded by their pride, a pride that even Imshael in that moment would have been fiercely proud of.

 

 

****

 

 

There were many strange things about living at The Ostwick Circle Tower growing up as a mage. However the most memorable thing that I recall from a somewhat stifled childhood in a dreary tower full of ancient texts and long winded lessons was the study of our first enchanter, Aard Tarnias.

 

In this particular study, which was perched at the very top of the Ostwick Circle, there resided a bird cage; a beautiful green metal cage that twisted and twirled like wild, growing ivy and oft reminded me of something the Dalish might have crafted. In this wondrous cage resided one large white bird with soft downy feathers on its breast. Often I would wonder why a mage, already caged in the world and therefore somewhat empathetic to such things, would choose to do the same to another creature. However I would always examine that bird with great interest whenever I found myself in the study of First Enchanter Tarnias, and dearly wished I could unlatch the cage and let it be free. I would imagine the bird spreading it's feathery white wings and fly out through the arch window of the study, never looking back as it soared higher and higher into the sky, a gift of freedom that would never be taken away from it ever again.

 

As I wandered the wild swamp lands of Orlais after fleeing Cullen and the Inquisition entourage, it finally dawned on me how foolish I had been. Running through the marsh in that first moment of freedom, I also stumbled across the sad truth. The mud flecked reality that splattered my naive and untarnished belief that freedom was the answer. It wasn't. The truth was now apparent. The wilds of the world were no place for a caged bird, even if that bird should have been free. Freedom was now the most dangerous threat that I or the bird could face, for we were utterly defenceless. 

 

Bleary eyed and covered in filth, I finally emerged onto a part of the Imperial Highway and there I waited, like some strange creature fearing the world and it’s own shadow, until a tired merchant cart came rolling along hours later. A rickety wagon piled high with swedes heading to Jader, I offered up a few coins from my pouch for the merchant to allow me to travel concealed under his merchandise. The request was met somewhat with suspicion but the coins soon silenced the matter and we set off without another word, except with a warning not to damage any of his swedes.

 

A waning full moon in a dark blue sky had risen we finally reached the coastal port town of Jader. A pile of swedes ungraciously dumped behind a vendor’s stall, I found myself on the edge of the docks district and smelling now of turnips. The yells and roars of laughter from seafarers filled the streets near the pier, the high pitched giggles, cackles and calls from the ladies of the night plying their trade. Taverns brightly lit, the merriment spilled out into the streets with festive Orlesian tunes. Rum soaked and vomit stench filled my nostrils and here and there I could see narrow eyes shining out from the dark of the black alleys, searching for a pretty pocket to pick. Completely out of my depths and a stranger to this even stranger life, I ambled along with only the intoxication of fear and freedom to push me further, step by step.

 

As I stumbled across towards the last, aging pier of the docks, a heavy wooden sign of a tavern swung before me. The Copper Coin. With nowhere left to turn and a pier about to lead into an abrupt drop of cold sea water, I turned into the brightly lit tavern. The tavern was drinking house bustling with humans and dwarves, laughing and talking, singing and dancing, the happy patrons packed to the rafters with giant pitchers of ale in their warm hands.

 

Bumping shoulders one after the other, I edged my way to a corner of the crowded room, finding a place by one of the roaring fires. The flames were my only guidance, and they danced vibrant and furious, the molten lick and the hiss of a log. 

 

Cullen. Cullen. Cullen 

 

There were no more tears left in me to cry. All that remained were the hollow words of the Commander that rang in my mind, over and over again until I feared I would go mad.

 

I could hear Cullen shouting at me on the Imperial Highway. Nothing could erase that words full of hatred. 'I should kill you here on the spot for doing what you just did!’

 

Eyes glaring with rage, I stared fiercely into the flames, the fire stirring enmity into my heart. Was that what amounted to a promise never to hurt me? Of all the moments we had shared, every touch, every time he drew me into those amber depths and made my skin shiver. His breath on my neck, the warm moorish scent of his sun kissed skin, sweet almonds and musk, beads of sweat dripping down his skin as he moved in me, assuring me all the while that I had his heart. Had I been under some delusion? Was I genuinely a fool? A fool in my head and a fool in my heart? Could Cullen truly have felt nothing of what I felt with every nerve and fibre of my wretched being? For every way I tried to justify it otherwise, the miserable answer to these questions was yes, for that was the only way to explain what had played out.

 

‘Aye, I know that look luvie.’ bellowed a wild looking tavern wench with raging red hair, handing two flagons to a pair of dwarves beside me. ‘Booze. Ya need booze.’ she added with certainty. 

 

‘Just the house ale.’ I mumbled, handing her some silver with a concealed hand under my cloak.

 

Apart from the rejection, fear and feeling like everyone in Thedas would soon look upon me with disdain and disgust, the most difficult hurdle before me was concealing my green glowing hands from the world. Even if I had wished to fade away into a sea of people, my hands would sooner or later betray me. There was no hiding the mark.

 

The woman came back and placed a drink beside me with a nod. Lingering a moment to polish the table, with more curious motives at play rather than cleanliness, she finally drew herself to face me. . ‘Trust me luv. They’re all bastards.’

 

I looked up in surprise, and red haired woman threw me knowing smile. ‘So what did he do? Beat ya? Rob ya? Shack up with yer friend?’

 

‘He wants me dead.’ I replied coldly, staring back into the flames.

 

‘Pfft, sod ‘im.’ scoffed the woman. Drawing another dirty rag from her apron she proceeded to mop up the spilt ale from the table. ‘Anyone who wants yer dead ain’t worth yer time.’

 

I shook my head as I took a big swill of the ale, trying to stave off the tears I could have sworn were all dried up. Perhaps this stranger was right? But even when I couldn’t change the facts that resonated in Cullen’s heart, the truth in my own heart was I still loved him. Even when he looked upon me with all the hate in the realm and cursed me to my grave...somehow, I still loved him.

 

‘Yer got family? Friends?’ she added somewhat hopefully.

 

‘No one.’ I replied, taking another deep swill ‘I need to leave here as soon as I can. He’s going to try and find me.’

 

With a nod, the woman plonked herself down beside me. ‘Me name’s Rosie.’ she announced pleasantly, outstretching a lace covered hand with a quick shake that I awkwardly accepted through a cloak covered hand.

 

‘Jane.’ I muttered with shifting eyes.

 

Rosie raised her brows, as if she suspected that wasn't my name. ‘Well Jane, now listen,’ instructed Rosie ‘there are half a dozen sailors here who’ll take you across the Waking Sea if yer good for the coin. Start up a nice and fresh life in Cumberland or Kirkwall. That’s what my cousin did, fled to Kirkwall when her husband tried to whore her for coin. Mind you Kirkwall was in shambles ‘bout a year ago but things ‘ave turned around some since then I’m told. You can get lost in that city, savvy?’

 

My eyes flashed up to hers at the familiarity of the name ‘Kirkwall? Is Kirkwall near here?’

 

‘Nay, not near Jader,’ replied the waitress ‘but a ship’ll take you across the sea here and just up along a bit east, and you’ll find Kirkwall sure enough. Yer not from around here, can tell by yer accent. Ferelden?’

 

‘Free Marches.’ I muttered.

 

‘Free Marches?’ chuckled Rosie ‘And yer don’t know where Kirkwall is?!’

 

‘I lived a secluded life.’ I replied with a shrug ‘Never made it further than Markham.’

 

‘But ye know people in Kirkwall?’ asked the waitress curiously.

 

‘Not exactly.’ I muttered darkly ‘But I know of someone who’ll never want to go near the place again.’

 

The woman smiled with a satisfied nod, getting up again to grab some empty flagons near by. ‘Well Jane it sounds to me like you got yourself a plan. See those men by the corner of the bar, near the door? They’re decent enough folk, they stick to shipping goods to the towns and cities along the Waking Sea and shouldn’t give you too much trouble if you need a way across. Dunno if anyone is going to Kirkwall, but it’d be worth asking them first.’

 

‘Thank you.’ I replied with a small smile, hiding my glowing green hands further under my cloak. ‘It’s rare to find someone so helpful. Thank you.’

 

‘Goodluck luv and remember,’ advised Rosie as she turned to leave ‘he may have have had yer heart, but no man has yer head. Use it.’. With a firm nod, the waitress disappeared into the sea of patrons until only her cackling laugh could be heard rising above, adding to the bustling cheerful merriment of The Copper Coin.

 

 

****

 

 

‘We need to extend the search out across from The Frostback Mountains to The Western Approach.’ ordered Cullen sternly. With a firm finger he pointed to the western side of the large map of Thedas that was lying on the table of the war council room. ‘She may be in the desert far west. Maybe even far east in Ferelden itself?’

 

‘You said she escaped on foot with no supplies.’ observed Leliana doubtfully ‘I hardly think Ophelia would have made it pass Lydes, let alone to the Western Approach?’

 

The people of Skyhold who happened to be in the courtyard that midday were surprised to find a lone dwarf riding full speed into the stables. Varric Tethras was seen muttering a few words to the stable hands before heading towards The Herald’s Rest, his face as dark as the ominous clouds that hung overhead. Hours later Commander Cullen and an ill looking Michel de Chevin rode furiously through the gates also. Taking the entire courtyard by surprise, Cullen had yelled out to the guards to find everyone in the Inquisition Council and meet him at the war table immediately. Michel was led away by few of the stable boys to find the keep's healer.

 

Whispers and murmurs soon spread across Skyhold like wildfire. Where was the Inquisitor? Where were the rest of the entourage? Had something terrible happened to them and were any of them still alive? Had Corypheus captured the Inquisitor?

 

If the skies promised rain that afternoon, an even heavier cloud hung over the war room of Skyhold. Cullen presented his angry account of the previous events on the Imperial Highway, while Leliana, Cassandra and Josephine all listened on in disbelief, growing more and more shocked by the moment.

 

‘We need to keep this search quiet.’ warned Cassandra ‘We cannot let the people know that the Inquisitor has fled.’

 

‘Fled? Or chased away?’ muttered Leliana, her green eyes glaring accusingly towards the Commander. 'You know we need her to seal the rifts. Why did you let this escalate?'

 

‘What would you have done?’ growled Cullen ‘Applauded her for setting Imshael into the realm with the promise of Inquisition immunity, while the rest of us took a forced nap? Whether you want to acknowledge it now or keep it secret, there is one thing that is certain. Ophelia Trevelyan is not fit to lead this Inquisition. Her title of Inquisitor needs to be stripped.’

 

The spymaster raised her brows in surprise, holding back her words as she studied Cullen for a moment. By all appearances the Commander was physically and mentally exhausted, his eyes wild and frantic, as if a thousand thoughts were going through his head but he couldn’t focus on even one of them.

 

‘I agree with the Commander.’ piped in Josephine eagerly ‘We cannot have a mage that performs blood magic holding the title of Inquisitor. It is abhorrent. She allowed a demon to be released into the land. Really, what sort of person is Ophelia Trevelyan? Have we asked ourselves this?’

 

‘Thank you Josephine.’ replied Cullen, staring around to the other Inquisition members, hoping they too would see reason.

 

‘By your account she did it to save Michel de Chevin and the entourage.’ observed Cassandra sternly ‘There are reasons behind her actions perhaps that we have not taken into account?’

 

‘She made a deal with a demon.’ snarled Cullen ‘Anyone of you here that think releasing a demon into Thedas is acceptable behaviour is deluded. And no other than a demon that we all knew was already working with Corypheus and the Red Templars!’

 

‘Although that was not the Inquisitor’s intention when she released Imshael.’ pointed out Leliana shortly, displeased with the growing tension in the room.

 

‘She’s put everyone at terrible risk.’ scoffed Josephine ‘It is disgusting.’

 

Leliana cast a disapproving look to her friend, who seemed more energised and vibrant since this meeting was called. ‘Nevertheless, Ophelia Trevelyan is at the forefront of the Inquisition. You cannot simply remove the Inquisitor without damaging what we have been building.’. Running a frustrated hand through her ginger hair she noticed Cullen glaring at her. ‘Fine I will send my agents to search for her, but I advise no soldiers partake in this. We need to make sure no one knows the Inquisitor is gone, especially not our enemies.’

 

‘I agree with Leliana.’ added Cassandra ‘We need to bring Ophelia back to Skyhold without anyone knowing.’

 

‘We need to arrest her for being a maleficar.’ added Josephine fervently ‘Blood magic is evil and all our connections that have been made will be destroyed if we allow her to return without repercussions.’

 

Cullen nodded ‘My thoughts exactly.’

 

Throwing another displeased look towards Josephine, Leliana shook her head. ‘Then let my agents deal with this. They will be able to find her easier than soldiers with the Inquisition symbol blazed on their breasts, announcing they are coming for her a mile away.’

 

‘Leliana is right,’ implored Cassandra ‘we should keep this quiet for now and let the agents find her. We can tell the people that the Inquisitor and the soldiers are on a mission, however Michel de Chevin was injured and needed to return.’

 

‘Cullen you should make sure the soldiers that are in Halamshiral swear their silence on the matter.’ added Leliana ‘I will send one of my agents to remind them of this.’

 

‘This mad woman is a blood mage and you are more concerned in protecting her reputation?!’ yelled Cullen, growing more and more frustrated.

 

‘Protecting the Inquisition’s reputation’ corrected Leliana flatly. ‘What is more important than that? Also, and I’m sure this goes without saying, Ophelia deserves to explain her actions before we cast judgement here, no?’

 

‘And we should not forget that she has the mark,’ frowned Cassandra ‘and that in the hands of the enemy would be terrible. We need her.’

 

Banging his fist on the table, the room shuddered. An echo of Cullen's fury for all to bare witness. ‘I cannot be here, do what you will.’ he muttered in disgust, stepping away from the table and heading for the door. ‘If the Inquisition condones blood magic then I want no part in it.’. Ripping the doors open with his brute strength Cullen stormed out, his boots rasping angrily onto the stone floor and echoing into the night.

 

Hastily gathering up a bunch of papers, Josephine began for the door also.

 

‘What? You too?’ remarked Cassandra in surprise.

 

‘Forgive me.’ remarked Josephine in a fluster ‘I have to be somewhere.’. She scuttled out of the room, leaving Leliana and Cassandra frowning to themselves as they brought their attention back to the rather large map of Thedas.

 

‘Cullen is being irrational.’ observed Cassandra dryly.

 

Rubbing her eyes, Leliana looked out the window wearily 'Yes, but it's only his past coming back to haunt him Cassandra. I understand him too well to think otherwise. This little liaison he has been having with the Inquisitor has left him feeling like he has been entertaining a blood mage all along. Can we blame him for acting that way? He feels betrayed. And worse than that, he blames himself for it.'

 

‘It doesn’t help with finding the Inquisitor.’ pointed out the Seeker ‘I fear she will not return of her own accord now, thanks to Cullen’s part in all of this.’

 

‘She won’t be able to hide for long.’ replied Leliana ‘We will bring her back. It is not that which I fear. She is safe out there, but if people learn of what she has done...well, I fear she will never be safe in the Inquisition again.’

 

‘You forget.’ sighed Cassandra, commencing for the door tiredly ‘She never really was.’. With a raised eyebrow, Cassandra left Leliana to herself.

 

Frowning, Leliana returned her attention to the bleak scenery outside the window.

 

'No I remember.' muttered the Spymaster 'The problem, however, is that the Inquisitor has likely begun to realise the same thing.'

 

 

****

 

 

Stumbling along the stone battlements his sword ran it’s blade along the parapets, one by one, the dull clank on the cold rock echoing into the valley below. Clank, clank, clank. Loudly he wandered aimlessly until Cullen finally found a spot to sit. Dropping his weapon it clashed to his side and the steel hilt hit the stone floor hard as he drew up the large bottle of whisky to his lips, drinking deeply.

 

Feeling the warm breeze on his skin, the ex-templar tried to turn his thoughts away from what had happened. Such attempts were in vain, and all he noticed was how deathly still the night had become.  Flashes of lightning stirred on the horizon, followed by the low rumble of thunder. Staring out into the oblivion, pain filled every part of him like an empty vessel as he continued to drink the liquor deeply, longing to reach that state of numbing oblivion.

 

Unsheathing his poignart suddenly, the ex-templar ran his finger along the silver blade, a sharp sting bringing one red drop of blood to form a bead on his skin.

 

'How could she?' he whispered darkly, running the blade suddenly across his left forearm, the cold metal piercing his skin deeply and angrily. Cullen sighed in release as his blood ran free. Raising the bottle to his lips, he viciously took another swill of the amber liquid. Blood spilled down his forearm as he cast his gaze up to the stars.

 

‘Haven’t you finished torturing me yet?!’ he yelled up to the Maker in fury ‘Tell me again what damnable act I partook in to produce this much indignation from you? Damn you! Curse you! You sit and judge and make fools of us all. I will forget you and despise you for eternity.’

 

Clutching his head desperately, Cullen’s eyes squinted shut, the memories of being trapped in the Kinloch Hold overcoming him like a wave of blood as red as the dripping wound on his arm…

 

A young templar, eyes flashing around wildly as he noticed something wasn’t right in the tower that morning. The screams alerted him, and he ran curiously to the source, only to find his fellow templars being tortured before him. Of flesh and muscle ripped off the bone, men and women screaming in gurgles of blood before being silenced. Frozen in his tracks, he had never witnessed such horror. Shaking…beads of sweat...a pulse that beat so strong it threatened to break open his chest and spill his insides all over the cold stone floor of the chamber…

 

‘Cullen?’ called out an ascending voice from the stairs, and his eyes startled, opening once more.

 

Raising a shaking bottle to his lips he grunted in reply, eyes lulling shut calmly as the whiskey burned down his throat in fiery comfort.

 

A blurry figure of Josaphine approached, finally kneeling down to him where he sat.

 

‘You’re bleeding!’ she observed uncertainly, her Antivan accent thick. Dressed in a purple silk dress, her figure revealed itself in a tight hour glass shape. Cullen ran his bleary eyes over her for a moment before turning his gaze back to the horizon.

 

‘It’s nothing.’ slurred Cullen ‘What-what do you...What you want Josephine?’

 

‘Nothing, I was merely taking a walk around the battlements and spotted you.’ replied the ambassador. With a frown, she reluctantly lowered herself onto the cold stone floor, taking care to avoid the drips of blood on the stone. 'You looked as if you could do with some company?'

 

Taking another large sip, the Commander turned towards the Antivan, offering up the bottle with a nod. Josephine maintained her smile, accepting the bottle and running her lips wantonly around the rim of the glass, finally taking a leisurely sip.

 

‘I'm sorry about what you had to go through in Orlais.’ she added softly, handing the bottle back to the Commander.

 

Draining the last sip, Cullen threw the glass bottle with all his might over the side of the battlements, the glass shattering onto the rocks below. ‘As am I.’ he growled 'Fucking sorry.'

 

‘Did you know Ophelia was a blood mage?’ asked Josephine gently.

 

Cullen’s blurry amber eyes passed unsteadily over hers, the veins in his neck bulging as he swallowed back the concept. ‘You think she was a blood mage all along?’ he asked uncertainly.

 

‘Of course.’ declared the Antivan confidently ‘A lot of mages hide that part of them from everyone. They are devious like that.’

 

‘No, no she would have told me.’ slurred Cullen, shaking his head ‘She knew how much I hated...she knew.’. Sandy tresses spilling over as he bowed his head, Cullen looked utterly defeated. Exhaling a heavy sigh, he suddenly pulled himself off the ground, sheathing his sword and dagger.

 

‘I need another bottle.’ he muttered, stumbling along the battlements as Josephine trailed closely after him.

 

After a few more turns, Cullen roughly pushed open the wooden door to his study and lunged at the bookshelf where a few bottles of Vint-9 Rowan’s Rose served as a book stopper on the top shelf. With a cold expression, Cullen wrenched a bottle off the shelf.

 

‘We shared this same drop in an inn once. I told her how I could never trust mages.’ Cullen snarled, ripping out the cork of the bottle with his teeth and spitting it aggressively to the floor. ‘Fuck mages. FUCK ALL MAGES.’

 

Concealing a grin, Josephine turned to close the door, softly turning the lock before turning back to the Commander who had commenced sculling the red wine, before stumbling back into his chair.

 

‘Mages can never be trusted.’ agreed Josephine ‘They always end up doing terrible things.’

 

The Commander clicked his fingers, and directed an unsteady forefinger towards her .‘That is the smmmmartest thing I've heard since arriving back in this damn place.’

 

‘The council did not heed your words, but I did. Cullen I want to help you, any way I can. Is there any way I can help you Cullen?’

 

Cullen pointed an unsteady finger at Josephine as his eyes lulled ‘I was wrong about you. I thought you were just like all the rest of them.’

 

The Antivan grinned, moving to sit on the table in front of Cullen, her silk derriere pressing firmly onto his papers. Carefully she prised the bottle of wine from Cullen’s hand, her fingers gently stroking over his as she did so. ‘I assure you, I am unlike anyone you’ve ever met.’ she purred as she took a long sip of the liquid 'I'm full of surprises.'

 

Cullen chuckled ‘That’s what they all claim.’

 

Running her hand along the table, she quickly dropped it to run along Cullen’s leg, kneading her fingers firm into his muscular thigh that bulged through the loose black cotton pants he was wearing. ‘I can ease this pain if you let me? Sometimes you need to just let go of all the stress. ’ she whispered ‘I’m not a mage, you can trust me.’

 

Taking another sip of the crimson, Cullen remained eased in his chair and a smirk on his face as Josephine lingered closer to his ear, whispering in it.

 

‘In Antiva we like to play with knives...knives like the one you were playing with up on the battlements before. I could show you things?’

 

Cullen’s breathing grew shorter as the Antivan drew her tongue up to his lobe and sucked it before pulling away, a lustful grin on her lips.

 

Rubbing his eyes, the Commander stood up abruptly. His chair fell backwards as he stepped away from the desk. With an uneasy cough he moved unsteadily the door ‘Josephine I'm tired, you should go.’

 

‘It’s okay.’ reassured Josephine ‘I’m not after anything from you. I just want to make you feel better.’

 

‘I feel fine.’ affirmed Cullen ‘Forgive me, but I’m in no state for company. I've been drinking too much. You should go.’

 

Moving towards Cullen, Josephine began to wrap her arms around his torso, clad only in a loosely fitting white shirt. With rough hands, the ex-templar pushed her off him in agitation, throwing her back a few unsteady paces.

 

‘I don’t want that.’ he informed sternly.

 

All the fury in the world could not have filled the inflamed look that the Antivan flashed towards Cullen, anger seething in her eyes. ‘So you’d fuck a blood mage but I’m not good enough for you?’

 

The Commander scorned at the comment, shaking his head in reproach. ‘You need to leave.’ he growled, wrenching open the door before releasing it was locked. Glaring at her coldly, he unlocked the door with a sharp click and opened it.

 

‘Why?’ yelled Josephine, her quiet self transforming into one of pure rage. An abomination in itself, unleashed onto the Commander.

 

‘Because I love her.’ growled Cullen angrily ‘That’s the fuck why. Now GET OUT!’ 

 

With a hiss, Josephine stormed past Cullen, muttering as she passed ‘I wish the demon had possessed Ophelia under that tree and done us all a favour.’

 

Cullen scoffed at the remark, turning to slam his door shut on the Antivan.

 

With a look of daggers, Josephine turned her foot quickly and descended into the night, a snake descending into the pit once more.

Chapter Text

 

 

Enshrouded in his black cloak of chaos, his was a most perfect soul, a raw reality, a splendid and passionate being torn between the highs and lows of this crumbling prison that we call life. Yet he left me with such cruelty I could not fathom.

 

A cruelty to know you will never see the one you love again,

 

…..but even crueler still, to know that person loves you no more. 

 

As if a looking glass reflected the sunset spread across the horizon, a tired carrack floated across the still waters into the port of Kirkwall. The sea was rouged, although it was not for blood’s sake. The recent storms had stirred the red sands that lay at the bottom of the Waking Sea, tinging the waters crimson and causing more than one sailor to cross themselves in concern.

 

‘Tis a bad omen when the Waking Sea wakes red.’ muttered a greying sailor standing on the portside of the carrack. Looking dubiously into the murky depths, puffed on his pipe. ‘Waters turned like blood before the Kirkwall’s chantry was blown up by that evil mage. It was a dark and stormy day...’

 

‘Horse shit!.’ cackled another sailor from the deck above, a man missing several teeth and half a right arm. ‘I was in the port the day it ‘appened. Bright sunny day and clear blue waters. Dark n’ stormy day my arse!’

 

The first sailor scowled, throwing the ropes to another man waiting on the pier, as they secured the small carrack to the dock. ‘What would you know, ye drunk bastard.’ he muttered. Turning his head, he threw a look to the crates where I was sitting ‘Aye Serah, yer good to go.’

 

With a nod of thanks, I was more than happy to leave the possibly cursed red waters of the Waking Sea after a half day journey staring into them.

 

Kirkwall. The City of Chains. For all the stories I'd heard of it, it was nothing compared to the spectacular sight that greeted our ship. We sailed past an enormous, if not ominous, black wall and carved guardians into the cliff side. The figures appeared pained, if that was possible for statues, and made me feel rather uneasy. As we sailed into the port we passed through two giant bronze statues, The Twins of Kirkwall, and I couldn’t be sure whether the shadow cast by the structures was actually the cold reality of my situation. The realisation that this was my new home. Varric had spoken so fondly of Kirkwall, yet all I could feel was trepidation as I stepped foot onto the docks for the first time, tightly cloaked and ready to blend into the city.

 

Of course I knew why I had been drawn to this mecca of madness. The chaos of the city of Kirkwall would be the one place I would be able to hide, like a rat amongst thousands of others, fighting for crumbs in the shadows. With no idea of where to go I decided there was one place that felt familiar, even though I had never stepped foot into the city before. One place that might be able help me find my bearings in the new situation I had found myself in.

 

‘The Hanged Man.’ I sighed wearily, heading off into the thick of the city, hoping luck would find me before trouble would inevitably pass my way.

 

 

****

 

 

The clouds in our mind oft change like the weather
Oh damn that turbulent weather…

 

A golden sun rising bright on the horizon, Michel awoke drenched in sweat and even more restless after a full nights sleep at Skyhold. The ex-chevalier spent the morning anxiously pacing the gardens, hoping for some answers from the nature surrounding. As minute by painful minute dragged on the song of the birds wore on his nerves and the sweet scent from the elfroot blossoms irritated his nose. By mid-morning the Maister of Blades had still not obtained the epiphany he was hoping would save him and reluctantly he made his way to the courtyard, knowing what needed to be done.

 

Mounting the stairs to the battlements, Michel arrived at the study of Commander Cullen, and with a deep breath knocked twice.

 

‘Yes.’ called out a deep and croaky voice from within.

 

Pushing the door forward the ex-chevalier found a disheveled Cullen at his desk, with an appearance of one who had been fighting darkspawn the entire night.

 

‘Trust me, I feel worse than I look.’ reassured Cullen gruffly. His messy hair scattered across his pale brow and bloodshot eyes met the Orlesian courteously.

 

‘We call it the Orlesian flu.’ mused Michel ‘Or you had the misfortune of drinking from a dirty glass?’

 

‘I didn’t use a glass, must have been a dirty bottle.’ grimaced Cullen with a shake of his head. Lifting himself off his chair, he drew hands with the ex-chevalier in a warm shake. ‘It’s good to see you on your feet. How are you feeling?’

 

‘Well I feel better than yesterday,’ remarked Michel tiredly, easing himself into a chair opposite Cullen ‘although I feel tainted since Imshael left my body. Unclean no matter how much I bathe. I’m sure it will pass in time.’. The Orlesian paused a moment, appearing to want to say something that was pressing on his mind. ‘I never got to thank you for taking me back here to Skyhold. For the most part, I cannot remember the trip back, but I’m sure I would not have made it without you. I owe you my life.’

 

‘I never leave my men behind.’ replied Cullen firmly ‘I’m just glad you’re okay.’

 

‘I am.’ reassured Michel ‘This will not interfere with my duties. I wish to forget what happened and move on.’

 

‘I wish for all our sakes we could forget about what happened.’ agreed Cullen darkly, shifting through some papers on his desk with displeasure. ‘The more I think about it, the more I am revolted. And in turn, the more I think about it unfortunately.’

 

‘You cannot blame Ophelia for everything.’ added Michel quietly ‘There were other forces at hand. Dark forces.’

 

Cullen waved a miserable hand to dismiss the comment, more emotions filling him than he cared to reveal. ‘Forgive me Michel, I cannot talk about Ophelia at the moment.’

 

‘I think we must, for her sake?’ added Michel shamefully ‘Varric’s words have bore away at me all night.’

 

‘Don't you see?’ frowned Cullen, throwing the papers down in annoyance. ‘I cannot forgive her even if I wished it. Anything, anything at all I would have understood, but not that. It's personal with her and I. I cannot expect you to understand it, but Ophelia was well aware of my opinion about blood magic.’

 

Rubbing his hands in agitation, Michel placed them suddenly on the table in front of him. ‘Forgive me I cannot swallow this shame one moment longer. I tried to keep it from you all when I arrived here from Emprise du Lion, but I cannot now, not after everything that has happened.’

 

The Commander threw Michel a concerned look, ceasing his work to listen to the Orlesian. ‘What is it? asked Cullen, genuinely surprised.

 

‘I never told you how Imshael came into the realm,’ confessed Michel ‘and that is because it was my fault. A few years ago Imshael was summoned by a Dalish clan, Clan Virnehn. The elves held Imshael in a binding circle while they sought help in unlocking the secrets behind the Eluvians, but Imshael refused to help so the elves kept him bound in the circle. A while later the clan received Empress Celene and I, when I was still her champion, as guests. We wanted to ask for help in the fight against Gaspard de Chalons. I-’. Michel paused for a moment, uncomfortable with what he needed to say.

 

‘Go on.’ remarked Cullen sternly, his attention now painfully fixed on the Orlesian.

 

‘While I was there at the elven camp Imshael used blood magic to lure me to him,’ continued Michel remorsefully ‘to the circle where he was entrapped. He told me about the Eluvians and their purpose, and he even tried to make a deal with me, but I refused. Instead I went and told Empress Celene what had occurred and we returned to where I had found Imshael.’. Michel frowned, adding in displeasure ‘Celene’s interest in the Eluvians led us to order that Imshael produce a keystone for the Eluvians.’

 

‘You asked Imshael for a favour?’ replied Cullen flatly.

 

Michel slowly nodded his head, lips pursed in utter shame. ‘Yes.’ he replied with regret in his voice ‘Imshael created a keystone that would enable its keeper to travel through the Eluvians to the central place where all the Eluvians were connected. It was there that we could reactivate the Eluvians and create a new word to enable us to travel through them whenever we wished to.’ Michel sighed shakily, the memories flooding back ‘We took the keystone off Imshael.’

 

‘You made a deal with him.’ stated Cullen flatly, this time shaking his head.

 

Michel looked terribly ashamed. 'It was the wrong thing to do, I know that. So I tried to make it right. I tried to destroy the binding circle to send Imshael back to the fade. Imshael deceived me into thinking that if I did destroy the circle then he would return to the fade, but when I did I...I accidentally released him into the realm.'. Michel turned deathly white as he continued 'The first thing Imshael did when he was released was murder every elf in Clan Virnehn, apart from the children and one other...an elf named Mihris.'

 

‘What happened then?’ frowned Cullen.

 

‘Imshael possessed the body of Mihris, and she accepted this with a plan to join Gaspard de Chalons and seek revenge on myself for the death of her clan. She promised Gaspard that she could lead him to Celene through the Eluvians, which she did. Celene and Gaspard and myself found ourselves at the central room through the Eluvians, and I duelled Gaspard for the fate of Orlais. As we dueled a spell came upon me to make me falter, and I discovered later it was Mihris who was responsible. It was then that we discovered Mihris had been possessed by Imshael, but he left her body a while later and escaped into the realm.’

 

‘And so that is why you were hunting him so adamantly in Emprise du Lion.’ muttered Cullen ‘I should have realised there was more to your story.’

 

‘I could never wash the blood of Clan Virnehn from my hands.’ admitted Michel sadly ‘and I knew I would never be forgiven for that. Killing Imshael was my only contrition, for the heinous deeds that I was responsible for. That day when Ophelia and her party came across me defending the village of Sahrnia, I dared not hope or imagine that they would be able to go and kill Imshael. You do not know how long I had sought to destroy him.’. Michel breathed out a heavy sigh. ‘When Ophelia returned saying they had killed him, I wanted to believe it with all my heart. After all that time hunting Imshael and knowing how powerful a demon he was, I wanted it to be over.’. Michel shook his head in disgust ‘I should have told Ophelia, warned her about Imshael. Instead I concealed my shameful past involving Imshael and hoped it was behind me.’

 

‘Ophelia, Vivienne, Varric, Blackwall, and Cassandra were certain they had banished Imshael.’ informed Cullen ‘How could Imshael possibly have returned?’

 

‘Perhaps there was someone nearby that he possessed. Another vessel perhaps?’ suggested Michel ‘It is difficult to say what Imshael is capable of doing.’

 

Rubbing his neck wearily, Cullen nodded. ‘Thank you for your honesty. Not that I suppose it matters now. Imshael's in the realm and that is all that matters.’

 

‘Commander, I cannot convince you how to feel towards the Inquisitor, but for my part I cannot judge her.’ confessed Michel ‘When faced with Imshael I asked for something, the key, and it shall be to my everlasting shame. I must live this life knowing I sought gain from a demon. Ophelia only tried to save my life. All our lives. The Inquisition is sworn to leave Imshael be, but perhaps she was thinking there were other ways to hunt him once more? If this means leaving the Inquisition to do so, I will continue to hunt Imshael for the rest of my days until he is finally destroyed.’

 

‘She trusted a demon.’ replied Cullen furiously, half to himself ‘how can anyone forgive that?’

 

‘Imshael deceived her, yes. For what reason we may never know?’ replied Michel ‘I don’t know why Imshael possessed me only to leave me unharmed, but I know that everything that demon does has a reason behind it. I fear he deceived her, like he deceived me all those years ago.’

 

The Commander began pacing the room, his brow furrowed as he thought deeply about the situation. ‘You have a point. Why did he possess you only to leave? Did he specifically ask Ophelia for Inquisition protection?’

 

‘No...’ recalled Michel with a frown ‘He...what did he do? Let me think. She performed a spell of sleep on you all, and then asked Imshael to tell her the spell that could release me. Imshael asked her why he should help her, and she offered, rather hastily, assurance not to pursue him. Yes, that is how it happened.’

 

‘So he didn’t ask for anything specific.’ queried Cullen ‘Why would he possess you in order to help aid her cast a spell? Why would he do that? If he was already free in the realm I assume you would be the last person, that and the Inquisition itself, that he would want to face again. And even if Ophelia didn’t banish him in Suledin’s Keep, why did he possess you again to help Ophelia? I need to make sense of this yet I cannot see any reason behind Imshael’s actions?’

 

‘It makes me uneasy as well’ agreed Michel ‘I would have said he was after Inquisition protection but no, that was Ophelia in the heat of the moment.’

 

‘Could Imshael have planned that all along?’ suggested Cullen ‘You said he was extremely cunning.’

 

‘Unless he planted the very words in her head to offer to him such a deal. But no...I was apart of Imshael as he was of me at the time, I am certain I would have sensed that. It felt...different. It felt like his only intention was to make her cast that spell. Yes i am certain of it. He only wanted her to cast that spell to release me from him.’

 

‘After he just possessed you?’ frowned Cullen ‘There is more to this and we must find out.’

 

‘Do you think this could involve Corypheus?’ asked Michel.

 

‘Whatever the reason, we need to find it and find it quickly.’ Cullen replied sternly ‘Including finding the Inquisitor. We need to bring her back to Skyhold before she ends up in the hands of the enemy.’

 

 

****

 

 

Two weeks from the day Commander Cullen, Michel de Chevin and Varric had ridden back into Skyhold, the remaining seven soldiers of the Inquisition entourage finally returned to the keep. Like fanning embers in a fire, the return of the soldiers stoked the smouldering coals as people across the keep speculated more and more as to what had become of the Inquisitor. The continual reassurance of the council members that Ophelia Trevelyan had merely been kept away, busy with official duties, began to sound less and less convincing and by the third week people had began to grow extremely suspicious.

 

The search for the Inquisitor had been fruitless so far, with Leliana’s agents finding no leads. Finally growing impatient, Commander Cullen and Michel de Chevin had made the decision to go out into the realm themselves and search for the Inquisitor. Surrounded by maps large and small, old and new, the men sat in the Commander’s office studying their options for the journey ahead.

 

‘We could start in Jader and then move west?’ suggested Cullen ‘For the more I think about it she wouldn’t venture into Ferelden being so recognisable there.’

 

Michel looked doubtful ‘The soldiers searched Halamshiral with no luck, and the surrounding areas.’

 

‘She’s not stupid.’ scoffed Cullen ‘She would know that we would be searching for her in the nearest town. There is every chance she continued along to Lydes or Verchiel and remains hidden there? Perhaps in some abandoned hut?’

 

‘Leliana’s agents have already been through those villages. With her accent she would stick out like a sore thumb in Orlais,’ pointed out Michel ‘I doubt she would remain in the area. What about her family? Would she go seek help from them?’

 

‘Leliana has already sent an agent to her family residence in the Free Marches.’ informed the Commander ‘Of course if I know Ophelia, that would be the last place she would go.’. Cullen sighed in frustration ‘She could be anywhere by now.’

 

Blonde hair spilled forward as he leant over a map studying it carefully, Michel pointed to an area above the Waking Sea ‘What about The Free Marches? Wasn’t her circle in-?’

 

‘Ostwick.’ answered Cullen ‘I suppose she may be familiar with the area, but I doubt it. We do not allow the mages to leave the circles that they are kept in. Besides I fear it is too obvious, she would know we would be searching the area. Also it’s not like she can go back and take up residency in the tower.’

 

A shuffling of feet sounded outside the door, followed by a loud knocking.

 

‘Maker’s breath.’ muttered Cullen impatiently ‘Come in, and be quick about it!’

 

With a grunt, the door swung open and a large Qunari, solemn and silent, followed by a smirking younger man with brown short hair stepped in, both running their eyes around the room curiously. It was the Iron Bull and his lieutenant, Krem Aclassi.

 

‘Commander I’m just gonna come right out with this. You’re paying your soldiers too much.’ begun the Iron Bull.

 

Preoccupied with the map before him, the Commander continued to study the parchment. ‘You think twenty silvers a day is excessive do you, Bull?’ muttered Cullen, walking over to the bookshelf to pull down a larger map of The Free Marches on the top shelf. ‘I’d hate to think what the Ben-Hassrath paid you.’

 

‘I got to live. It worked for me.’ replied the Iron Bull flatly. Crossing his arms over his chest, the Qunari refused to relent. ‘You’re going to cause a mutiny by paying some of your soldiers more than others, including my guys who are pretty pissed off at the moment.’

 

‘Wouldn’t be so stingy with the good stuff if we all got paid that much, eh Boss?’ added Krem with a grin.

 

‘You’re missing the point.’ Bull replied to Krem ‘I wouldn’t pay any of you one coin more than what you’re getting now. Pay a soldier too much and he begins to think more about his pay and less about his work. If you all had enough to get pissed twenty-four hours a day, who’d be doing their job? No, the Commander needs to reduce the wages to keep the order and maintain a good, honest group of soldiers.’

 

Krem shrugged with a grin ‘I could still fight good and proper with a heavier pouch of coin. Try me, I dare you!’

 

Not turning around from the bookshelf, Cullen was now trying to find a particular text. It was apparent his mind was preoccupied with other matters. ‘Bull, every soldier gets the same amount, including your mercenaries. Twenty silver, three meals a day, and lodgings.’

 

‘If that's the case, how come your men are shouting drinks on the house all night at The Herald’s Rest?’ asked Bull sternly.

 

‘What men?’ asked Michel, looking up from a map he was studying on the table.

 

‘That red haired one that came back from your personal entourage the other week.’ replied Bull ‘What was his name Krem?’

 

With arms folded, the young man nudged his head smugly ‘Webb. Ugly mug and bad taste in piss.’

 

‘Webb. Webb Tanner.’ nodded Cullen, eager to prepare a search route and finish the present conversation ‘Yes, as I was saying, he gets paid the same as everyone else. What are you getting at Bull? Why exactly do you think Webb, of all people, is being paid in excess? He's a mercenary, nothing more.’

 

‘Well that soldier, Webb, has been buyin’ drinks on the house for the last three nights at The Herald’s Rest, acting like a damn rich ponce.’ informed Krem ‘Saw it with me own eyes. Would have sent a king bankrupt. And all I know is a few weeks back he didn't have two brass coins to rub together and now after he returns from your expedition he's swimming in coin.’

 

‘Commander, you are paying the entourage too much.’ informed Bull seriously.

 

‘Aye he’s piss poor to boot.’ added Krem ‘Ain’t no where else he’d be gettin it.’

 

‘And if it’s not from you Commander, then maybe you should be finding out where your men are getting so much coin on the side of their full time jobs?’ added the Iron Bull ‘I don’t wanna say it, but it smells fishy.’

 

‘Fishier than the fish pie that Madame Ruthie serves for lunch mid-week.’ added Krem with an amused nod.

 

‘By Andraste.’ muttered Cullen impatiently ‘Fine, we’ll get to the bottom of this so I can get some damn peace. Bring Webb to me now.’

 

With a roll of his eyes, Cullen recommenced his planning as the Iron Bull and Krem ducked off in search for the soldier Webb Tanner. An hour passed, and Cullen and Michel finally came to the agreement to start searching in Ostwick, hoping to find some lead or connection to the Inquisitor. Although Ostwick was by all accounts Ophelia's prison, it was the only place she had known and therefore, they concluded, was the only place she was familiar enough to be drawn back to.

 

A knock on the door distracted the men once more, and once again their attention was brought back to the concerns of the Qunari.

 

‘Commander’ called out Iron Bull, producing a worried looking soldier with shaggy red hair ‘We found him.’

 

Cullen sighed wearily ‘Let Webb come in. You two, wait outside.’

 

Webb waited nervously by the door as the Iron Bull and Krem threw him a suspicious look, finally leaving him alone in the study with Commander Cullen and Michel de Chevin.

 

‘You reek of stale piss Webb,’ obsereved Cullen in disapproval ‘and half of The Herald’s Rest seem to think you have a bottomless coin purse. So I know you don’t come from a wealthy family. Tell me, where did you get the coin from?’

 

‘I...uhh...’ Webb looked utterly taken aback by the question ‘Me uncle died an’ left me some coin. Fine man he was.’

 

Pausing in his tracks, the Commander turned to lean heavily against his table, arms crossed in comfort. ‘Your uncle.’ mused Cullen ‘Good old uncle -?’

 

‘Clancy.’ replied Webb.

 

‘Uncle Clancy!’ Cullen replied with a click of his fingers ‘Of course. So how’d he die?’

 

‘Consumption. Out in Redcliff.’

 

‘Consumption in Redcliff?’ exclaimed Cullen, throwing a surprised look to Michel who was reciprocating the act with a slight curl of his lip. ‘At this time of the year? Well that’s unfortunate. Where does he rest now?’

 

‘Ah, back in Redcliff.’ replied Webb hastily.

 

‘Indeed.’ replied Cullen ‘Well, come on then.’. The Commander sprung off his desk and headed towards the door.

 

‘Wot?’ remarked Webb in surprise, his eyes shifting to Michel who was staring straight faced towards the men.

 

‘You serve the Inquisition Webb, and your respect to the cause deserves mine in turn.’ informed Cullen seriously ‘I wish to pay my regards to your uncle. Right now.’

 

‘You wanna go to his grave, now?.’ remarked Webb uncertainly.

 

‘Yes, and pay my respects as Commander of the Inquisition.’ affirmed Cullen ‘I have horses saddled and ready, so lead the way.’

 

‘Uh we can’t,’ replied Webb ‘he-he wasn’t buried in a cemetery. He was uh...burned. Yeah, turned to im ashes.’

 

‘Strange?’ remarked Cullen curiously ‘A man like Uncle Clancy not being buried in the cemetery at Redcliff. Only the diseased and very poor generally end up being cremated.’

 

‘Coffins are expensive.’ added Webb.

 

‘You said he had money.’ frowned Cullen 'He gave it to you remember?'

 

'Well, aye but-'

 

Cullen glared at Webb as he squirmed in his steps. ‘Out with it, Webb.’ ordered the Commander sternly ‘Where’d you get the money?’

 

‘Aye it’s not what you think.’ the soldier replied defensively ‘That is to say it ain’t stolen or nuffing. Been doin’ jobs on the side for coin, that’s all.’

 

‘From who?’ asked Cullen, growing darker in demeanour by the second.

 

‘Nay, no one special.’ appealed Web fearfully 'i swear its not important.'

 

Michel straightened in his seat, throwing a concerned look to Cullen who returned it in a flash of his eyes. Both men suspected something sinister. 

 

Grabbing the man by the throat, Cullen wrenched Webb hard against the stone wall ‘Are you working for the Red Templars? Corypheus? WHO!’

 

The soldier’s eyes bulged as he desperately tried to release the unforgiving hands of his superior. ‘No! Nay! Never!’ he cried ‘Never, I swear!’

 

‘Then who!?’ growled Cullen ‘Who has been paying you? Dammit you’ll tell me now or I’ll run my blade through your gullet!’

 

‘Lady Montilyet!’ shrieked the soldier, fear streaked on his face.

 

‘What?!’ frowned Cullen, loosening his grip on Webb. The soldier fell to his knees gasping for air in coughs and splutters. ‘Josephine Montilyet, our ambassador? Why does she value your services so highly?’

 

Beads of sweat dripping down his face Webb looked utterly scared ‘Please Commander...she-she told me not to say. I swore sire, please...’

 

‘And now I am commanding you to tell me before I throw your worthless self into the dungeons and let you rot there for eternity.’ replied Cullen heatedly 'Or worse.'

 

‘She wanted me to find someone for her, that’s all.’ replied Webb with a quivering lip 'I was only following orders.'

 

‘You got paid all that money to find someone? Who?’ asked Michel hastily from behind him, growing more and more curious.

 

‘Nay...’

 

‘WHO!?’ roared Cullen.

 

‘A-a mmm-maleficar.’ stammered Webb ‘S-s-someone who could do blood magic.’

 

Cullen threw a wild look to Michel, who was appearing as shocked as the Commander.

 

‘Why?’ urged Michel ‘Why would Lady Montilyet want to find a maleficar?’

 

‘Nay, she didn’t say.’ replied Webb quickly ‘I swear she never told me. Just wanted me to find someone who could do blood magic.’

 

‘And who did you refer her to?’ asked Cullen sternly.

 

‘Th-th-this hermit who lives at the base of the Frostback. Levyn was his name.’ replied Webb fearfully ‘That’s all I know Commander. I swear.'

 

‘If I find out you’ve hidden something from me-’ begun Cullen, pulling the man up by the front of his shirt.

 

Webb raised his hands fearfully ‘Aye okay, okay, there was something else. Lady Montilyet asked me...well that is to say, uh, asked me to spy on you and Inquisitor. A while back, on our mission to Shrimstoke.’

 

‘What?’ remarked Cullen angrily ‘You were spying on me?! Why?’

 

‘Yes why would she ask you to do that?’ asked a baffled Michel.

 

‘Nay not sure I just follow orders.’ appealed Webb ‘Lady Montilyet just wanted to know what you an' the Inquisitor were talking about. What the Inquisitor was doing. Information an’ such’

 

‘What did you talk about?’ asked Michel curiously, looking to Cullen.

 

‘This is insanity.’ remarked Cullen, the confusion apparent on his face as he started to pace the room. ‘I’m not sure. We weren’t on good terms when we departed, I remember that much, although we sorted that out on the first night when I spoke to her about-’. He went silent, turning to the window, his hands leaning heavily on the stone. ‘We talked about our pasts, my time as a templar. My hatred for demons and…’

 

‘What’ asked Michel hesitantly.

 

‘Blood magic.’ uttered Cullen darkly ‘No, surely not? Tell me Webb, did Josephine know I abhorred blood mages?’

 

Webb nodded fearfully ‘Aye yer discussions ‘bout blood mages. I told her ‘bout that. I’m so sorry Commander. Have mercy sir.’

 

Cullen lunged over to pour himself a glass of water, stopping suddenly at the sight of a wine bottle standing on his bookshelf. ‘Maker preserve us all, what has she done?’ he whispered fearfully.

 

‘Cullen?’ remarked Michel, ‘What is it?’

 

‘The tree.’ he remarked in loathing. With a roar that startled even the horses in the stables far away, Cullen rammed his fist in the side of the bookshelf, the works of The Noladar Anthology of Dwarven Poetry and a copy of Swords and Shields falling to the ground.

 

‘SHE KNEW!!’ he yelled angrily, pointing an accusing finger at Webb who was cowering in the corner now. ‘BULL! KREM!.’

 

The study door opened quickly, the Iron Bull and Krem looking around the room eagerly to see what the commotion was about.

 

‘Commander, is everything alright?’ asked the Qunari.

 

Furiously writing a letter, Cullen finally finished it and folded it sharply. Hastily he reached over for his seal and a stick of red wax. Running the stick over the flame of the beeswax candle on his desk, the red droplets fell onto the parchment before he hastily stamped it with the crest of the Commander of the Inquisition.

 

‘I need you to take this letter and deliver it, with Webb, directly into the hands of Commander Rylen of the Griffon Wing Keep.’ ordered the Commander.

 

‘You’re sending me to The Western Approach?!’ exclaimed Webb fearfully.

 

‘I'm imprisoning you there until I send word.' muttered Cullen.

 

Knowing a dire task when presented with one, the Qunari nodded ‘We leave straight away.’

 

‘Mention none of this to anyone, especially not the Inquisition council or Jospehine Montilyet, and ensure that no one sees you taking Webb out of Skyhold.’ added Cullen sternly.

 

‘Make him disappear. Got it.’ nodded Krem.

 

Grabbing a protesting Webb, the Iron Bull and Krem dragged the man out of the room, leaving Cullen and Michel alone in a silent panic.

 

‘Cullen what is going on?’ blurted out the Orlesian as soon as the study door closed ‘What does Josephine know? Tell me?’

 

Breathing heavily, Cullen drew himself to the window once more, his hands leaning hard on the stone ‘A few weeks ago Josephine came here to my study late at night. I was completely drunk, and she tried to make her advances.’

 

‘Advances?’ puzzled Michel with a small grin.

 

‘She wanted a fuck, clear enough?’ growled Cullen ‘I turned her down and she didn’t take it well. She ended up storming out of the room saying how she wished Ophelia, instead of you, were possessed under that tree.’

 

Michel shrugged ‘She was angry, I suppose. She knows you are fond of Ophelia. Women say such things when hurt.’

 

‘You’re missing the point.’ replied Cullen sharply ‘She mentioned the tree. Remember that large old oak tree you fell underneath from your horse.’

 

‘Uh yes, vaguely?’ frowned Michel ‘Did you mention it to the council? Perhaps the soldiers from the entourage mentioned it?’

 

‘No I never said a word, I mean it was insignificant by all means.’ muttered Cullen ‘And the soldiers had not returned to Skyhold to mention it at that point.’. He looked sharply at Michel ‘But Josephine knew about it. Josephine referred to it, as if she knew exactly where you had been possessed. As if she were aware of all the details, even though we had never mentioned it.’

 

The ex-chevalier began looking more and more disturbed ‘You don’t think?’

 

‘That Josephine was aided by a maleficar to somehow get Imshael to possess you?’ remarked Cullen sternly ‘Yes.’

 

Michel chuckled uncomfortably, hoping his Commander was joking. ‘For what purpose? She knows nothing about me and Imshael. There is no reason to think she would be behind it.’

 

‘That wasn’t her purpose.’ growled Cullen, his eyes narrowing in displeasure. ‘Her purpose was to get the Inquisitor to perform blood magic.’. The ex-templar grabbed his hair desperately in his hands 'Maker's Breath, what have I done?'

 

‘But why?’ replied Michel, still trying to grasp the situation 'Why would Josephine do that? Why would she want to taint the Inquisitor's name?'

 

Shaking his head, Cullen rubbed his neck achingly ‘I don’t profess to understand the motives behind her insanity.'

 

Michel sighed. 'Mon dieu, of course. You said it yourself. Josephine was interested in you the other night. She likes you, and obviously she wanted you to hate Ophelia.’

 

Cullen scoffed, however as Michel remained serious, the ex-templar began to understand what he proposed was quite likely true.

 

‘So Imshael was most likely summoned from the Fade, but this maleficar Levyn?’ continued Michel ‘He must have summoned Imshael to possess me in order to get Imshael to encourage Ophelia to perform a blood magic spell in order to release me?'

 

The Commander shook his head in disbelief. 'Why would Josephine arrange such a thing?!’ 

 

'People are complicated.' observed Michel 'Desire makes people do things even more complicated.'

 

‘She has sealed her fate, nothing will protect her from that.’ growled Cullen, fist clenched ‘Never trust a fucking Antivan whore. How could someone in her position even fathom doing something like that to Ophelia? To you? To us all!? She was playing us like pawns in a game of Wicked Grace.’. The Commander shook his head in disgust, for disgust was all he felt towards this new revelation they had stumbled upon.

 

‘We have the word of one less than reputable soldier and your word about a late night rendezvous. It’s hardly much evidence?’ observed Michel doubtfully ‘Even if Josephine did this, what good can it do now? The deed has been done.’

 

‘The maleficar may be able to help us in summoning back Imshael?’ suggested Cullen 'It is all we can hope for now.'

 

‘No he is free now.’ sighed the Orlesian miserably ‘He cannot be summoned from the realm, only the fade. Of course, I confess I have no knowledge of the abilities of a maleficar? Perhaps he can aid us in locating Imshael at the very least?’

 

Cullen nodded. ‘My thoughts also. Until then, we need to pretend like we know nothing about Webb, Levyn or Josephine’s involvement.’

 

‘I can start a rumour around the barracks that Webb has gone awol?' suggested Michel 'I’m certain Josephine will eventually notice her lacky is missing.’

 

‘Yes do that, but keep the rumour small,’ ordered Cullen. Standing up from his desk he moved hastily to the door. ‘Let it filter through the ranks by itself. That way there will be no suspicion. Our search for Ophelia must wait until we deal with Josephine and this blood mage. We need to lure her back to Levyn somehow. That will be enough evidence of her guilt.’

 

‘How are you going to do that?’ queried Michel, following the Commander from his room.

 

‘Leave that to me.’ muttered Cullen darkly, walking ahead from his companion and down into the depths of Skyhold, his shoulders growing heavy in anticipation of what was to come.

Chapter Text

 

Kirkwall, o’ Kirkwall
A stone city of chains
Home once to the slave
Replaced now by the mage

 

On the seas, the Qunari, sailed to Orlais
For the Tome of Kulsun, alas, a pirate stole away
In Kirkwall the Arishok stayed, they plotted revenge
Attacking the city, spilling blood to avenge

 

Kirkwall, o’Kirkwall
A Champion came
To liberate the city
Hawke was his name

 

Orsino and Meredith refused to back down
It wouldn’t be long before one of them drowned
A sea of chained mages dripping in blood
A city of templars consumed by the flood

 

Kirkwall o’Kirkwall
Freedom you claimed
All around was oppression
Suffering and pain

 

The Divine turned her eye as your Chantry grew tall
Who knew that a mage would one day destroy it all
Kirkwall, O’Kirkwall
Oh, how the mighty fall...

 

Ambling along the streets of Kirkwall with time on my side and not much else, I soon began to appreciate the subtleties of life. The beautiful contrast of bright green moss and lichen growing between dirty grey cobblestones on the laneways. Laneways that led to the many shops and homes piled high upon each other, rising up into a billow of soot and grime, right into the overcast sky above. Stray shaggy brown dogs and grot smeared children with wild hair and tatty clothes played in those lanes, while merchants beckoned the unsuspecting passersby to view their wares, all the while narrowly dodging the dirty water, warm piss and vegetable scraps being thrown out of the windows above.

 

As I pressed forward through the leering eyes of the docks, and turned into the passing nods of Lowtown, I soon discovered another world brimming with possibilities. The hustle and bustle of everyday life continued, as strong as ever, and for all intents and purposes Kirkwall seemed all but oblivious to the terror that had befallen them in darker days. After gaining directions to my destination in Lowtown, with a few wrong turns along the way, I finally came across a tired looking tavern. A creaking wooden sign of a man hung upside down by one foot swung overhead from the entrance. The Hanged Man.

 

Anticipation filled to the brim I was unable to contain myself from beaming as I stepped into the tavern, only to stumble across the threshold into a tired and rather neglected room. With distressed wooden floors and cracked red timber tables and chairs that were stained with food, wine and ash. To the left of the room a grey stone bar resided with an older man with blondish-brown hair busily pouring drinks and chatting away, while a few scattered patrons of human, elvish and dwarven decent drank from dark mugs in even darker corners of the room. Great iron fire pit chandeliers hung high above from the ceiling amongst tatty ripped and aged, red mast-like material. All this gave the tavern the word Varric often threw about to describe the place. Character.

 

Ironically Cullen’s account of the tavern had been more accurate than the somewhat grandiose version that Varric had recounted. It really was the kind of place you would expect someone to end up being served in the stew of the day, or indeed a place where they used to hang people upside down by their legs. Charm or no, it was the only place that felt familiar to me. I had a sneaky suspicion this was as good as it got.

 

Diligent not to order any meat on the menu that evening, I sat in solitude at a wooden table by a tall stone column rising high into the center of the room, and listened to a drunk bard sluggishly strum away at a broken lute by the fire. Taking in my surroundings and watching the few patrons come and go as the night progressed, I could imagine Varric sitting at one of these tables telling stories about his adventures with Hawke. That brought a small, albeit sad, smile to my face.

 

‘Aye, wot’s this? A new face? What’s a pretty thing like you doing in a pretty place like this?’ yelled out a black haired, black eyed man dressed in an oilskin doublet. Lingering by the bar, he grabbed three drinks and passed them to his friends before turning back to where I sat, a swagger in his step and a vibrant spark in his eyes.

 

‘Taking in the pretty ambience.’ I muttered, looking fearfully at the soup just served up before me. With suspicion, I poked the orange swill forming lumps in strange places. Turning my head up in opportune I added ‘And looking for work. Don’t suppose you’ve heard of any?’

 

‘The Rose is always up for fresh girls.’ jeered a red haired man beside his friend. A few cackles laughed across the room. 'What do you reckon?'

 

‘Good luck with that one.’ I replied with a nod ‘With a mug like yours I’m sure you’ll go far.’

 

‘Aye she’s got a mouth on her this one.’ chortled the black haired seafarer, grinning to the others.

 

‘Coincidentally also a brain,’ I muttered, half to myself ‘with an appreciation of dry wit when the chance presents itself.’

 

‘Take care someone don’t cut that pretty head off, you mouthy wench.’ snarled a bald man at the back of the group, his eyes dark and violent. He was drunk and agressive, the kind of person that would end up in prison for murder one of these days.

 

Flashing my eyes to the man, cold and expressionless, I added a little foolhardily ‘Then I’d burn off their face off if they tried.’. On cue, my hands charged green, the mark spluttering electricity in uncontrollable sparks of anger. My stomach sunk, a desperate moment when I knew I had been caught out. To my great relief however, I realised the patrons thought I had performed a bit of magic for theatrical effects, nothing more.

 

Silence hung thick in the air as my eyes darted to the men now staring directly at me, the room uneasy and suffocating for a split moment before breaking into bouts of laughter. Claps applauded and a few patrons shouted for me to do it again. Nodding in amusement the two men close to me carried on their banter, while the bald man held his serious gaze on me from afar.

 

After a few more spoons of soup that tasted like a dank puddle in Skyhold, the dark haired man from before took a chair at my table with a cheerful grin. Most likely in his late twenties, he was very tall and had shoulder length wavy black hair and eyes as black as midnight. Rough around the edges, unshaven and unkempt, he donned a sword of black ink tattooed down his right arm, and his ear held one piercing of a ring. Black.

 

‘Aye, so you’re a mage then?’ he observed cheerfully ‘Thought all you lot cleared out from here? With how the templars were acting after the Chantry blew up I could have sworn I’d never see a mage again.’

 

‘Just passing through.’ I murmured. Throwing him a nod, I decided to be civil. ‘My name’s Sparrow. Don't suppose you know of work or a free place to stay around here?’

 

The man nodded in turn. ‘Dryn Na’Druist.’ Taking another swill of his ale, he turned to point his mug behind him ‘That flamey bastard over there is Keets, and the bald one over there is The Mad Dagger. Don’t worry about him, he’s a right royal prick to everyone.’. Throwing a shifty glance around the tavern, Dryn edged his way a little closer and lowered his voice ‘Yeah, so I may know of someone who could use someone like you, with magic that is. Maybe? And it’s not honest work. If you're looking for that kind of thing?’

 

‘Can’t be choosy at this point.’ I shrugged, finishing the soup with a grimace ‘As long as I get paid and the Maker won’t damn me for eternity for doing it, I’m interested.’

 

‘Ah, can’t promise you that!’ chuckled Dryn with a wide smile ‘Besides the Maker ain’t in Kirkwall these days, didn’t you know!?’

 

‘The Maker ain’t in bloody Thedas last time I checked.’ eavesdropped the red haired man named Keets, plonking himself down at the table. ‘Fucking place is going to shite out in Ferelden and Orlais. All these damn green holes are appearing in the sky. As big as this fucking tavern from what I hear.’

 

‘Aye.’ nodded Dryn solemnly ‘’probably safer in Kirkwall these days than it is anywhere else. The irony, eh? What’s Thedas coming to? I blame those nugs, always the nugs fault, them bastards carry the blight did you know?’. The man flashed a wink before sculling his glass, more amused by his own antics over anything else in the tavern.

 

With a silent nod, I drew deep from my own glass. ‘So are you all...pirates?’ 

 

Dryn laughed, his voice echoing into the rafters above ‘Aye a fair while ago now, but we got out of that life. Problem with pirating, you see, is more often than not you end up dead!’.

 

'Ain't that the bloody truth.' muttered Keets.

 

'Coin's good though?' observed Dryn 'Kind of miss that gold through me fingers.'

 

'Can't spend coin when yer dead.' retorted Keets.

 

Dryn sighed. 'Ain't that the bloody truth.'

 

I chuckled as Dryn drank the few last drops dry from his empty mug, before knocking his knuckles on the wooden table ‘Aye these days we’re just good ol’ dock hands. Patchin' up galleons, carracks and gabbarts for the most part.’. Standing up, he started for the bar before turning to add ‘Give me a few days and I’ll see if me guy has any work for ya.’

 

With a small sigh I looked around the room uncertainly. ‘Well, you know where to find me.’

 

 

***

 

 

Running his fingers across her shoulders, he eased the soft cotton material of her dress down, revealing two ample breasts, the milky white of his teeth flashing a brilliant smile to the woman before he brought his lips to her bosom. Tongue running along her nipple, he licked and sucked with enthusiasm, eager to be savouring such delights as he pulled the dress further and further down, past her waist and hips, until it fell limp to the ground.

 

The woman sighed, running her hands enthusiastically through his blonde hair and across his muscular neck, trailing down his chiselled back to feel each ripped bulge along the way. His was a body that was hard and muscular, every part toned from the years spent in training, high thighs as hard as stone and his cock was a thick and mighty specimen, worthy of a man that kept such an impressive title.

 

Drawing his soft lips up to her red mouth, his pink tongue lapped warm into her, deeper and deeper. His ardour grew as he climbed over her and eased his cock up into her moist depths, his hands gently running through her red hair as he held her head gingerly. The rhythmic thrust of his cock started slowly and tenderly up into her core, courting her intimately, releasing a breathless collection of gasps and moans, as he withdrew and pushed back in, over and over and over again.

 

Running his large scar covered hands over her bare hips, he brought his grasp to her legs, holding them gently aside his waist as he began to increase his pace. Energetic and electric, buried hard and firm, his blonde hair spilled over her as he began to fuck her more vigorously. It was no longer courtly, it was no longer polite. Just firm iron fucks that needed to be done in order to get his release.

 

The woman’s moans were now growing louder and louder, drawing to a peak as the warrior moved inside her, his eyes closed in ecstasy as he pounded away, the pleasure growing and growing until she wailed out in pleasure. With one final thrust, he reached that point of no return.

 

‘Ophelia!!!’ he cried out as he came hard, releasing himself in a splash of sticky white cream.

 

Michel’s blue eyes opened fearfully, looking down at his companion.

 

‘Ophelia?’ replied the red haired woman in annoyance, pushing the man off her.  ‘Fay. My name’s Fay, remember?’

 

‘I’m so sorry Fay.’ the ex-chevalier remarked hastily, trying to catch his breath ‘Fay, please...’

 

With a scowl, the women pulled back her long red hair and picked her brown dress from the bed. Roughly she pulled the garment over her head in furious silence, before walking past Michel with a salute of a finger, and out of the room leaving the naked Orlesian still panting on the bed.

 

Throwing his hand over his deep blue eyes Michel groaned in embarrassment, trying to block out what had just happened. In all honesty, he wasn’t too concerned about Fay, a woman he had only met hours prior at The Herald’s Rest. That was not his main concern. The issue that weighed heavily on his mind was irrelevant for the time being, and although he dreaded the Commander ever finding out about his hidden crush, he knew it remained safely tucked away. For now.

 

 

***

 

 

Easing himself into a rickety wooden chair in the main hall of Skyhold, Varric put his feet up and produced a small letter from his pocket. The ravens had arrived not an hour prior and a message boy had delivered the letter into the the hand of the dwarf, holding out the other in anticipation of a sweet, which Varric was always happy to oblige.

 

Hoping the letter would be from a publisher in Nevarra, he was surprised to find it was instead from an old acquaintance. To his further delight, the news was better than he could have ever anticipated.

 

Varric grinned, opening the letter to read once again for the hundredth time, the parchment already well worn at the edges.

 

 

Varric,

 

That girl you sent word round the network, the one you were searching for? Well there’s someone at the H.M who just arrived a few weeks back that matches that EXACT DESCRIPTION. Coincidence?

 

Corff

 

 

‘Well I’ll be....’ Varric muttered with a grin, shaking his head in delight ‘This day keeps on getting better and better.’. Unable to wipe the smile off his face, he folded the letter once more into his pocket with a pat.

 

A spring in his step and a merry tune on his lips, the rogue set off towards his chambers to send word immediately to Corff, innkeeper at The Hanged Man.

 

 

***

 

 

‘Oi! Are you gonna buy somefing or are ya just takin’ in the view?’ yelled a greasy bald innkeeper from behind the wooden bar. Pointing his short stubby finger at a cloaked figure slumped in the corner table of the room, he refused to ease up. 'Get the fuck out if you got no coin!'

 

‘Give me a minute.’ I muttered wearily.

 

‘Oh I’ll giv’ ya a minute, I’ll giv’ ya a bleedin five, outside on the street! Now buy somefing or get the fuck out of here! Paying patrons only.’

 

Standing up, I marched past the counter for the door, knocking over the tip jar on the way. The loose copper and silver coins rolled all over the floor as the innkeeper yelled more profanities on his knees, chasing desperately after the scattered coins.

 

Already growing dark outside, I continued along the laneway, taking a swift turn at the third alley, and walking on until the dead end approached.

 

‘You got it?’ whispered an eager voice, tucked away in the shadows.

 

‘Too easy!’ I grinned, producing a small journal. ‘You didn’t even need magic for that, just a distraction.’

 

‘Hah! Brilliant!’ exclaimed the voice. Hesitantly he came out of hiding behind the crate, a man of remarkable similar appearance to that of the bald innkeeper. With eager hands he grabbed the merchant ledger with glee. ‘That bastard brother of mine will get what’s coming to him now.’. Beaming, the man handed me a pouch ‘As agreed. You earned it.’

 

‘A pleasure.’ I replied, pocketing the reward. With a jump and a skip, I turned back into the main laneway, and began walking towards the docks.

 

Two days after arriving in Kirkwall I had made the unhappy discovery that my Inquisitor pouch of monies had run dry, leaving me in desperate search for somewhere to lay my head. After much deliberation of where to go and who to trust, I took it upon myself to befriend some of the local urchins who gathered about in the alley next to The Hanged Man, playing knuckles amongst the scattered wooden crates. My experience in a life full of nobles, cutthroats, peasants, farmers, templars, mages and soldiers, I found children to be the most honest and trustworthy of them all, so I knew who to ask for help.

 

Poor as chantry mice, they had not one copper between them, but what the urchins lacked in material assets they made up with a wealth of knowledge about the city, including safe places to sleep. After a few games of marbles, shadow puppets and hopscotch, I was directed to an abandoned warehouse in the docks where a few of the homeless families and many orphans resided. It was there, in one tiny room no bigger than the throne itself in Skyhold, that I made my home. It was mouldy, rat infested and dark but it was safe.

 

I was somewhat used to sad nights in The Ostwick Circle Tower, and at Haven, and then in Skyhold, but it was nothing compared to the first night sleeping in an abandoned warehouse. Looking around with tears in my eyes, I couldn’t fathom how I had ended up in such a situation. Once an Inquisitor of the mighty Inquisition, and now a homeless mage in Kirkwall. It wasn’t the loss of position that bothered me, and in all honestly I didn’t miss the responsibility one bit. No, it was the loss of my other half that left me cold on the inside.

 

My soul was crying out, nay screaming out, for Cullen Rutherford and yet still he didn’t answer back. Why? Why, when two souls so entwined, were we not able to communicate to each other? Did he hear me calling out to him, I wondered? In Skyhold, did he lift his head from his pillow at night and hear me whisper his name? Could he sense me thinking about him? I craved him desperately, wildly and even mournfully, for he had been my reason and my purpose, and now...he was gone.

 

True to his word, Dryn had managed to hook me up with a few odd jobs for coin, most of them involving putting people to sleep to rob their houses, or setting a noble’s hanky on fire so someone could grab their purse. Perhaps petty theft wasn’t as honourable as the role of Inquisitor but to be honest I couldn’t completely differentiate between the two positions, recalling how much looting we did on our missions throughout Thedas. Either way, I wasn’t too concerned. The more I spoke to Dryn, the more I was convinced that my survival was more important than ethics. 

 

The moon was high above as I continued to walk towards the docks, juggling my new earnings in my hand. Knowing one drink and a warm meal at the tavern was all I could afford, I intended to drag it out all night next to the fire instead of that cold warehouse. Of course, there were other reasons to seek the company of the tavern this particular night.

 

Happening across Hightown a week prior, I had spotted a remarkable pair of gloves for sale by a seller of magical weapons and armour, in a shop called Robes by Jean Luc. To my intrigue the gloves prevented one from casting magic, and to my further hope and delight, the moment I put them on the mark on my hand simply...vanished. At five sovereigns I knew I needed less than reputable work at a higher profit, and was determined to find Dryn to see if he knew of any more jobs.

 

The evening crowd at The Hanged Man was well on it’s way into drunken stupor when I entered the inn, heading for bar past a large group of pirates gathered around a table playing cards.

 

‘Aye you, Sparrow.’ called out Corff ‘Here’s yer key.’

 

The innkeeper dangled a brass key hanging off a loop of red ribbon, waiting for me to take it.

 

Narrowing my eyes, I folded my hands tight across my chest, standing back from the counter. ‘What's that for?’ I asked suspiciously.

 

‘Yer lodgings have been paid for the next six months.' advised Corff gruffly  'Room four, up the stairs to the left. Keep yer door locked all the time. Don't leave any bloody candles burning if yer not in the room. And no grog in the room unless its from here. Savvy? Got good friends, eh?’

 

‘Hah!’ I chortled ‘All my friends play stick sword fights in the alleyways and ride old brooms for horses. What are you playing at?’

 

‘Tethras sent you some help, okay?’ he whispered, drawing a note from his apron ‘And he asked me to give you this.’

 

My heart skipped a beat as I hastily grabbed the note off the bartender, my fingers stumbling to quickly unfold it under my cloak;

 

 

Well shit! Of course it makes complete sense now where you’ve ended up. To rub it in my face! I guess the jokes on me, whilst you live it up in the finest place in Thedas I’m stuck here with this lot. Speaking of idiots, they don’t have a clue where you are. I'll keep it that way.

 

Anyway it’s good to hear you’re safe kid. Don’t ever look back. Oh and make sure you take up my offer, sleeping in Darktown is overrated.

 

P.S. Stay away from any clinics run by vigilante mages in Darktown

 

Your most dashing friend,

 

V

 

 

Corff nodded soundly as I looked back up at him in complete surprise. Leaving the key on the counter, he turned to pour more ale for a group of pirates at the end of the bar.

 

Gobsmacked and thankful, it felt as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders as I folded up the note and grabbed the key. With a grin I made my way to the back rooms, praising the Maker for sending me a friend like Varric. After the last few weeks I was more than a little eager to settle into such a fine establishment, at my new residence, The Hanged Man.

 

 

***

 

 

Haunted by actions that were about to unfurl, Cullen closed his amber eyes and drew his fingers into a tight clenched fist. His hand was held up to the door in miserable hesitation, desperate to delay the inevitable. In the other hand clutched a bottle of Carnal, 8:69 Blessed. The wind scattered leaves across his boots as he lingered outside the red door painted with gold and blue patterns. 

 

‘Forgive me.’ he whispered regretfully as his fist knocked sharply on the red door.

 

Knock, knock, knock

 

Muffled footsteps sounded on the other side, and the door creaked opened, revealing a displeased recipient.

 

‘What are you doing here?’ frowned Josephine, her eyes darting suspiciously to the Commander before her. 'What do you want Commander?'

 

The ex-templar flashed a warm smile, rubbing his neck with one hand while holding out the other that clutched the Orlesian bottle. ‘A peace offering, and a sincere apology for what happened a few weeks back. I confess I was in a terrible state, but even so that is no excuse for my monstrous behaviour.’

 

‘And you only came to apologise now?’ accused Josephine coldly, straightening her blue sleeve with agitated precision. ‘Not the day after? Even a week after? I’ve seen you since then in Skyhold, you had many opportunities to say something Commander.’

 

Cullen nodded seriously ‘I fear the warrior in me is ill accustomed to proper behaviour. And perhaps the man within is not as brave as the warrior. Not when it comes to beautiful women.’. With deep amber eyes, he held the Antivan’s with intensity ‘Josephine, can you find it in your heart to forgive me? I acted terribly, I am so sorry.’

 

Pausing for a moment, eyeing him up and down, Josephine suddenly broke into an embarrassed small smile ‘The entire thing was so silly. Of course, of course. We are fine.’

 

‘Good.’ smiled Cullen, taking a step closer to her ‘Because I would rather start over again, properly this time.’. He flashed a small smile before bashfully looking away, a smirk on his lips as he ran his hand through his mop of waves. 'May I come in for a short while?'

 

Stepping aside in surprise, Josephine silently held her hand out towards her room, and with a grin the Commander stepped forwards, taking in his surroundings as he walked into her abode.

 

‘What the-!? How is this room so much better than mine?!’ observed Cullen, playfully pretending to be outraged ‘It’s double the size of my loft, and look there! Is that a mahogany armoire? And that over there - where’s my red velvet daybed?’

 

Josephine laughed, walking over to an elegant wood and glass cabinet to withdraw two crystal glasses. ‘Oh yes Commander, I could see you lounged out on a daybed while you ordered your recruits to train.’

 

‘Now there’s a brilliant idea.’ entertained Cullen ‘I shall bark orders at them while some elegant Orlesian paints a portrait of me spread out on my meridienne.’. Waving his hand in jest he added ‘No, I fear your Antivan luxuries are better suited to more refined people, such as yourself.’

 

‘You think I am refined?’ mused Josephine, pouring the liqueur into the glasses ‘I do my best.’

 

‘I can see that.’ remarked Cullen softly, his thumb brushing playfully over his bottom lip. 'You take good care of yourself.'

 

Growing red as the rose liqueur in the glass she held, she offered it up to Cullen. ‘What shall we toast?’ she asked nervously.

 

‘To new beginnings?’ suggested the Commander.

 

Biting her lip, Josephine nodded ‘I think so...yes.’

 

Clinking the glasses, the pair drank deep, lost in an awkward moment that new friendships often produce in more intimate settings. Cullen kept his eyes on the ambassador, those smiling eyes drawing her in further and further.

 

In a fluster of nervousness, Josephine suddenly turned and walked over to the cabinet, pretending to busy herself with some trinkets. ‘Cullen.’ she spoke in a tremor ‘I appreciate the apology, but I fear I cannot forget your words from the other night.’

 

‘When I said that I loved Ophelia.’ replied Cullen softly.

 

‘Yes.’ replied Josephine ‘You said you still love her. So why are you here being so pleasant as you are?’

 

Cullen sighed, turning to pace the room as his thoughts unfolded ‘Can I speak plainly with you? What Ophelia did was unforgivable. By Andraste, I cannot and will not forgive her. But accept what she has done I must, and I believe the last few weeks have enabled me to process this.’. The Commander walked up towards Josephine whose back was still turned, and he gently touched her arm, causing the Antivan to turn back to him nervously. ‘Do I love her?’ remarked Cullen gently ‘To be honest, and I do want to be honest with you Josephine, I do love her. Do I want to feel that love anymore? No. I wish I could be rid of her now, and all the things we shared. For they do not matter to me if I cannot respect her.’. He shook his head, taking another sip ‘I am from the Order of Templars. We dedicate our lives to the Maker and we value morality very highly. Well, you can guess what we expect of mages. These values are something I require from a partner. Ophelia has let me down and there is no going back.’

 

‘Ophelia does not possess these values.’ agreed Josephine ‘She never did.’

 

‘You're right.’ agreed Cullen ‘I know that now, and accept it. When you saw me that night on the battlements, I hadn’t had the time to obtain that clarity or to understand it as I do now. You saw me angry and betrayed, and I in turn unleashed that on you. For that, I am terribly sorry.’

 

Josephine grabbed Cullen’s left hand intensely, interlacing her fingers through his ‘I forgive you. I meant what I said, I want to be here for you. Ophelia did betray you, she did, in the worst way possible, but at least you now know what she is. Don’t you see? You are lucky to be away from her and unharmed. She is a foul deceptress.’ 

 

His eyes softened with a tilt of his head and his hand reached out to her face. 'May I?' he asked ever so sweetly.

 

Josephine bit her lip and nodded with a smile.

 

With a gentle but strong hand, Cullen cupped Josephine’s face in his palm. ‘So gracious and wise a creature I never beheld.’ he murmured ‘Why have I not seen this until now?’. Placing his glass down on the table, the Commander brought his other hand to her cheek, drawing her closer towards him.

 

Approaching gently, the Commander’s lips were inches away from hers, before he pressed them lightly upon the Antivan’s mouth in a soft kiss, running his arms around her waist as she drew hers around his shoulders, the two melting into a warm embrace.

 

Pulling away, Cullen bashfully went back to his glass of wine, taking a rather large, drawn out sip as the Antivan remained grinning, looking at the floor in gleeful delight.

 

‘I have wanted to do that for some time.’ confessed Cullen ‘Forgive me, was it too much?’

 

‘No.’ replied Josephine with a delighted giggle ‘Just...unexpected.’

 

Easing himself back onto his chair, Cullen poured another glass of wine. ‘But not unrequited, I hope?’. Raising his glass, he added with a laugh ‘I have another toast. To my new endeavour!’

 

Josephine sipped, only to pull away with a puzzled look ‘What endeavour is this?’

 

‘I confess I am in better spirits as of late for many reasons.’ chuckled Cullen ‘Ophelia's betrayal has forced me onto a righteous path. I have finally found my purpose, something I was not able to pursue to its full extent whilst I was apart of the templar order. But now? Over the last few weeks I have dedicated my time to writing a doctrine to cleanse the realm of blood mages. I call it the Declaration of Morality, and the wheels are already set in motion.’

 

‘Really? How wonderful!’ remarked Josephine, taking another sip with a pleased smile ‘How do you intend to rid of them?’

 

‘My agents will weed them out.’ answered Cullen confidently ‘If it takes my last breath I will rid the realm of every last blood mage.’. With a concerned look, he added suddenly ‘Forgive me, I should not discuss such barbaric details with a lady. Let us stop conversing about such things immediately.’

 

Josephine laughed ‘Oh Cullen, I have heard of more disturbing things during one hour in the Orlesian court than you could ever tell me.’

 

‘Well then.’ grinned Cullen ‘Can you promise to keep a secret? I confess I am so excited about it I cannot contain it a moment longer.’

 

‘I assure you of my secrecy.’ grinned Josephine, taking another sip.

 

‘We have located three blood mages in the local area already.’ remarked Cullen in a hushed whisper 'Can you believe it?'

 

‘Really.’ remarked Josephine, taking a hasty sip.

 

‘Yes.’ replied Cullen sitting straighter in his chair, his enthusiasm growing ‘And we intend to raid each of them in three days time at dawn. Three mages in three days, it sounds almost poetic doesn't it? I can scarcely wait to be honest. No trial for these monsters, I shall be their judge, jury and executioner. Oh we shall execute them, don’t you worry...well after we interrogate them, naturally.’. Cullen poured more liqueur into his glass, turning to do the same for his companion with a warm smile ‘I shall have the pleasure of running my blade through these maleficar again. It is more than I could have hoped for.’

 

‘Why bother interrogating them, just kill them all.’ dismissed Josephine, turning to draw the curtains to conceal the concern covering her face.

 

‘Well no, that’s the most important part.’ explained Cullen ‘We shall obtain the names of other maleficar that those maleficar know of, and their connections, and all the details of their disgusting practices. Names, places, people, I want every last skerrick of information before I kill each and every one. The trials will be large and the details sordid, it'll get the heart pumping I guarantee you.’

 

Turning around once more, Josephine threw a weak smile ‘Well, cheers to that.’

 

‘Indeed.’ replied the Commander cheerfully.

 

‘Now, where were we?’ grinned Josephine, eager now to change the subject.

 

With a smile, the ex-templar stood up as the Antivan approached, drawing her hands to run along his metal cuirass. ‘I’d like this off.’ she teased 'May I?'.

 

‘Some more liqueur first perhaps?’ suggested Cullen ‘This Orlesian liqueur is sinfully pleasurable.’

 

Josephine shook her head, biting her lip as she drew closer to the ex-templar.

 

A small flicker of his eyes to the door, Cullen chuckled, drawing his hands slowly to her waist, pulling her against him, and placed a soft kiss on her cheek. Growing more aroused, Josephine began to tug at Cullen’s attire, fondling for his belt. The Antivan skillfully undid the clasp after a few moments of tugging, and without a moments hesitation lowered her hands into the Commander’s nether garments, her slender fingers finally brushing against what she had been desperately searching for.

 

A sharp knock at the door interrupted the pair, and Cullen quickly pulled himself away from the Antivan.

 

‘Ugh what now?’ cried out Josephine, retreating to the door and opening it to reveal an uncertain Michel de Chevin.

 

‘Uhh Ambassador, what a lovely afternoon it is?’ greeted Michel, kicking his black boots awkwardly into the grey stone wall next to her door ‘I don’t suppose, uh, that the Commander is in there by any chance?’

 

‘None of your business, now go.’ snapped Josephine, ready to close the door again.

 

The ex-chevalier quickly held the door open ‘It’s just that one of our recruits said they spotted the Commander pass this way. Into your chambers.’. Flashing a charming smile, the Orlesian added ‘The recruits are all waiting for him, you see, at the training circle. Right now.’

 

‘Dammit.’ muttered Cullen from within the room.

 

‘What is it?’ replied Josephine in surprise, turning to the Commander behind her.

 

Rubbing his brow, Cullen waved off the question ‘Foolish, I forgot I was meeting my blasted recruits for the sunset drill today. Michel, can’t you take this one? Come on man, you owe me a favour.’

 

‘I apologise Commander,’ replied Michel, looking embarrassed ‘I’m not familiar with the procedure of the sunset drill. If you don't get there soon someone is going to get injured by that trebuchet and I won't be able to stop it.’

 

‘Perfect.’ replied Josephine in annoyance.

 

‘Fine.’ muttered Cullen, before turning to Josephine. ‘I shall make it up to you.’ Cullen murmured, stroking her waist ‘Soon, I promise.’

 

‘Perfect.’ grinned the Antivan, allowing the Commander to pass her.

 

‘Until next time, my lady.’ Cullen whispered next to her ear as he turned to depart with Michel, leaving Josephine and her chambers.

 

Sweeping down the stone cloisters, Cullen hastened his pace as he strode furiously through the gardens. Devilishly mad in spirits he wiped his mouth in disgust, and spat into a nearby bush of dragonthorn, muttering under his breath ‘Oh I’ll make it up to you, don’t you worry about that.’

 

‘Cullen? Is everything alright?’ asked Michel uncertainly, trying to keep up with his companion’s heated pace.

 

‘You took your damn sweet time.’ growled Cullen, throwing a displeased look to the ex-chevalier ‘What exactly were you waiting for? A blasted invitation?’

 

‘I had my ear pressed hard against that door the entire time.’ replied Michel defensively ‘Whilst trying not to look like some Orlesian lurker when the occasional person passed by.’

 

‘We agreed you’d knock immediately after my speech about the raids on those three mages.’ replied Cullen furiously 'All you had to do was knock. One thing. One simple bloody thing.'

 

‘I couldn’t hear a thing except murmurs.’ retorted Michel indignantly ‘Her door is four inches thick of solid oak at least. When the talking ceased, I decided it was best to knock. What did you exactly do in there?’

 

The displeased look on the Commander’s face was all the answer Michel de Chevin needed to keep quiet on the subject.

 

‘So...do you think she took the bait?’ asked the ex-chevalier in a low voice.

 

Cullen frowned as he threw his eyes around the courtyard, ensuring no one was listening to their conversation. ‘I believe so, yes.’ he muttered softly ‘She knows our plan, now we must watch her.’

 

‘So now we wait in the stableyard, up in Blackwall’s loft, for three days and nights until she decides, if she decides, to go warn this Levyn character.’ remarked Michel doubtfully ‘I still think it sounds a little optimistic.’

 

‘If I was relying on Josephine’s compassion for another to lead us to Levyn, then yes I would agree we are wasting our time.’ replied Cullen ‘However she knows her dealings with this blood mage are at risk of being revealed to the Commander of the Inquisition. Don’t worry, she’ll go and warn this mage in order to save her own neck.’

 

Michel shrugged ‘I guess I’m off to the stables then. I’ll see you there when you’ve finished the sunset drill.’

 

‘I look forward to it.’ muttered Cullen wearily, turning towards the training circle. Perhaps the drill with his recruits was the last thing the Commander wished to do at present, but he was more than eager to ram his shield hard into the wooden targets, imagining all the while it was one person in particular.

Chapter Text

Crisp pages aged in ram leather binding and a heady mustiness of paper sweet and stale lingered in the air. Soft flamed oozing beeswax candles lit the dark chamber with a gentle light that tickled and teased the heavy shadows, and the warm scent of honey threatened to lull even the sharpest minds into a blissful state of slumber. Hurled up in a corner of the circular library and barely awake, one Nevarran was busily spending the morning reading through a large pile of Andrastian texts. Brow furrowed and lip bitten, Cassandra was growing more and more frustrated by the hour, unable to find the answer she was desperately searching for.

Loud footsteps resonated behind her, and looking up she was greeted by a familiar dwarven face approaching.

'Varric.' remarked Cassandra with a small curl on her lips 'Have you come to help me research?'

Reaching out his hand curiously, Varric turned the book Cassandra was holding to view its front cover, shaking his head with a chuckle upon reading its title.

'Well now I know why you've been carrying around that kill me now expression on your face for the last few days!' chortled the dwarf 'What have I told you about reading Andrastian literature? Apart from inducing nausea, self loathing and uncontrollable bouts of shame, it'll send you into an early grave!'

Cassandra burst out laughing, a flighty and happy laugh that she never revealed to many. Grinning, Varric whipped out the item he was concealing behind his back.

'Forget that nonsense Seeker, I have a real book for you to study.' announced Varric theatrically, handing over a roughly bound collection of loose pages on his forearm, as if presenting the council member with a magnificent sword of steel.

'No!' gasped Cassandra, eyes lighting up in delight 'It's not...?'

'The latest instalment of Swords and Shields,' confirmed Varric with a grin 'ink's still fresh. You're welcome Seeker!'

Hastily, if not downright desperately, Cassandra seized the book off her friend, letting the other chantry text she was studying fall unceremoniously to the ground. Eagerly she began leafing through the papers, consumed for a moment, before finally looking back to her companion. A curious tilt of her head, she noticed the rogue was dressed in his travelling gear.

'Are you going somewhere?'

'Alas this handsome dwarf must fare thee well.' confirmed Varric dramatically.

'You're leaving?' she added doubtfully 'For good?'

'Ha ha hah!' laughed Varric 'Now Seeker, what would you do without me? I'd hate to think. No, just a short trip. Family duties I'm afraid. A quick visit to Bartrand in Kirkwall and I shall return.'

With a roll of her eyes, she produced a small laugh before growing serious again. 'How is your brother?' asked Cassandra, a small crease presenting on the crest of her eyebrow, a mark revealed whenever she was concerned 'Has he improved much since the incident?'

'Oh he's positively seeing red at the moment.' quipped Varric. Sighing wearily he added 'As good as one could expect someone to be after being addled by red lyrium. Ah but he's none the wiser as to everything that happened. Gotta take your wins when your can.'

'Does he remember anything?' asked Cassandra gently.

Varric appeared dismal, but in the typical style of the dwarf refused to be overwhelmed by it. 'He has his moments, a few seconds when he recognises me, and then returns to his ramblings. I dunno, I gotta tell myself that deep down he knows I'm there for him even if he doesn't know it. Family has to stick together eh? Through thick and thin. That's the way its gotta be.'

With a caring, and quite possibly affectionate smile, Cassandra placed her hand on Varric's arm. The dwarf startled for a split second before throwing Cassandra a warm smile of his own.

'Now don't you go getting all sentimental on me,' warned a rather pleased looking Varric 'you'll turn this dwarf into a blubbering mess.'. With a gentle squeeze of his own hand on her arm, the dwarf threw a nod of appreciation to his friend.

'Come back soon Varric, that's an order.' added Cassandra before turning her eyes eagerly back to the story before her.

A fond smile on his lips, Varric took one last glance of Cassandra before turning to head down the stairs, eager to reach his destination and enjoy a few drams of The Hanged House Whisky by the end of the week.

 

 

*******

 

 

Soft brown leather boots lightly tip-toed amongst the loose limp hay that lay scattered on the ground, its sweet aroma mingled with the pungent smell of fresh manure. Quietly, she crept through the loft and towards the stairs, ascending carefully, stepping on the outer edge of the steps to avoid the inevitable wooden creak of the tired timber planks. Eyes lifting as she ascended to meet the upper level, she discovered two men with their backs to her, eagerly watching Master Dennet and his horses through the slits in the wooden loft wall.

Without a sound, quiet step after quiet step, she crept behind the dwellers before clearing her throat loudly in annoyance.

'Ahem'

The two men jumped like frightened mice as they spun around to face the woman, causing a smirk from the spymaster.

'Commander Cullen and Maister of Blades. I've been looking for you both since this morning. A few of your soldiers kindly informed me that you had both been called away to the Western Approach, although I suspected it would have been hard to ride all that way with your horses still saddled in the stable yard, no? Curiosity perhaps took hold, and here I find you both...in the intimate settings of a stable loft.'

Cullen rolled his eyes whilst Michel replied with an amused chuckle.

'He promised a candlelit supper as well.' grinned the ex-chevlier 'With the prospect of dancing afterwards?'

'One could only hope.' replied Leliana dryly, throwing a cynical raised brow to the Commander.

Leliana remained steadfast, arms crossed, waiting for an answer.

Austere in manner and looking utterly consumed by the past few weeks, Cullen motioned for Leliana to join them. 'Come sit down, we have some very serious matters that need to be addressed, and I fear you will be all the worse off for it when you hear what we have to say.'

Cullen and Michel began to recount their trials over the last four weeks, leaving the spymaster to grow more and more rigid and stiff jawed by the minute. By the end of their tale, two dimples presented hard on her porcelain white cheeks, as she pursed her lips in utter contempt.

'You knew all this and kept it from me? From the council?' observed an incensed Leliana 'How could you be so reckless?'

'Josephine is apart of the damn counsel!' replied Cullen heatedly 'This was our only chance to gain proof that she was responsible for what had happened on the Imperial Highway.'

'And you couldn't have just come to me with this information?!' hissed Leliana 'Josie and I are not attached to the hip.'

'It's funny because it appeared to me like you and Josie were.' retorted Cullen sharply 'I'm well aware your friendship with her goes way back.'

'As does ours.' retorted Leliana coldly.

Cullen frowned at the comment. 'It wasn't about you. I feared you were too close to get you involved.'

'Then tell Cassandra!.' growled the spymaster 'Tell someone Cullen, instead of always keeping everything to yourself. You are not the council in its entirety.'

'Neither are you, spymaster.' growled Cullen 'And this is not the time for us to argue about power plays. If I have information that could weaken our cause if put in the wrong hands. You have a conflicted interest where the Ambassador is concerned. I'm sorry you didn't know sooner, but you know now. As for Cassandra Pentaghast, once again, I assumed The Right Hand would have been keen to inform The Left.'

'And do you think I would put the Inquisition and the Inquisitor at risk and dismiss Josie's actions?' pressed Leliana angrily 'I would have thought you out of everyone would have known the sacrifice I have given to this cause. I would not let anything or anyone stand in our way.'. Leliana threw a displeased look towards Cullen, a hint of hurt betraying her eyes, and he in turn softened his stern face.

'I was mistaken.' apologised Cullen 'I could not take the risk. I'm sorry Leliana, I never meant to hurt you.'

'Andraste guide me, I cannot believe all this that you've told me.' sighed Leliana 'A malificar? Why would Josie do that? No, it cannot be. What would possess her to do such a thing?'. Her green eyes flickered to Cullen 'Then again...'

'What is that supposed to mean?' frowned the Commander.

Recalling a former conversation with Josie after the Skyhold Tourney, Leliana sighed tiredly. 'Josie mentioned to me once that she fancied you and considered Ophelia somewhat unworthy. I dismissed it as a mere infatuation. Looking back now perhaps I underestimated her interest in you?'

'Infatuation does not even begin to describe it.' muttered Cullen with disdain 'Do you see now what we're dealing with?!'

'I still can't believe what you have told me.' frowned Leliana.

'Can't or won't?' accused Cullen 'It is a huge betrayal to the Inquisition. She has disgraced herself and in turn, all of us.'

Resting her back against a bale of hay, Leliana sat with the men. 'Then I shall reside to wait here until the truth is presented, or hopefully dismissed.'

'We might be here for a while.' warned Michel.

'It takes as long as it takes, but we will have this resolved.' replied Leliana darkly.

A blue sky riddled with streaky wafts of white cloud slowly faded into a purple red sunset by the evening, and still the three remained in the loft, ever watchful. As the sunset melted away into a clear, frosty night of blue black hue, there was still no sign of Josephine Montilyet, to the dismay of Cullen and the relief of Leliana. The soft hoot of a barn owl in the wooden rafters above and the ragged deep snoring of Blackwall below were their only diversion as midnight came and passed, eyes lulling as they maintained their desperate attention through the small cracks of the wall. However as the first peak of sunlight filtered across the horizon, like the outstretched hands of the Maker embracing the land, two silent figures swiftly approached the stable yard.

'Look, there is someone approaching.' Cullen observed eagerly in a hushed whisper 'Is it her? I can't see who it is with that damnable cloak over their head.'

With sad green eyes, Leliana nodded her head. 'There is only one person I know that wears a purple damask coat in Skyhold. It is Josie.'

'She's going to warn him.' growled the Commander 'What else would she be doing? We must be prepared to leave at once.'

'Who's she with.' frowned Michel, sleepily trying to focus his eyes on the second person.

'One of the keep's errand staff.' whispered Leliana, watching the helper saddle a brown horse for Josephine as she remained hidden in the shadows by a birch tree near the wall of the keep. 'Josie what are you doing?'

Leliana appeared woeful as she spied on her friend through the wooden slits. Slowly she eased herself off the hard loft floor, beginning to leave, and Cullen and Michel followed suit before being stopped by the spymaster.

'No. I go alone,' instructed Leliana 'I know how to track someone without being caught. You two will only bring attention in your full plate armour and war horses.'

'Not a chance.' argued Cullen sternly 'You're going to face a maleficar, you'll need more than yourself to deal with that. Perhaps you can track better but you can't dispel magic. We can ride far back from you and track your trail, but we're going one way or the other.'

'Fine, but stay back.' warned Leliana 'If Josie hears other horses on her trail your chances of finding this maleficar are over.'

Returning to the wall, the men watched silently as Josephine mounted her horse and galloped hurriedly through the courtyard of Skyhold, out across the bridge and down the path of the Frostback Mountains. Several minutes later Leliana rode out on her black horse, silent as the grave.

'Come on.' muttered Cullen to Michel 'It's time to ready out horses.'. Hastily the pair retreated from the loft to mount their horses, a growing sense of uneasiness covering them as they realised they were soon enough going to be entertaining the company of a blood mage.

The coarse leather of the reins were cutting into her frozen hands as the spymaster continued to follow Josephine down Gherlen's Pass, hours passing along the shard stone path until they turned onto the leafy forest paths of Ferelden, at the base of the mountain range. The hopes of her friend merely taking a ride for the fresh morning air had somewhat faded by the time midday approached and then passed. All hopes were dashed in their entirety when Leliana spotted Josephine dismounting at an old hut covered in vines, as much a part of the forest as the trees themselves, and only recognisable to those who were familiar of its location.

Biting her lip, Leliana dismounted a distance away before pressing on, inching closer towards the door of the hut that remained ajar since her friend had desperately barged in. As the spymaster approached, she discovered a frenzied Antivan appealing to a man inside.

'You're not listening!' cried Josephine desperately 'They know you are here, you have to leave now.'

'You are certain?' the man replied, already fastening numerous items to his belt pocket 'Who told you?'. Looking displeased, he fumbled for a pouch on the top of his herb shelf, knocking several bottles onto the floor, the glass shattering 'How did they find me?'

'What does it matter!?' snapped Josephine 'They just did! You need to leave here before they capture you and interrogate you.'

Rubbing his temples, it was apparent the man was trying to wrap his head around the situation of fleeing, casting his dark eyes across the room before noticing he had an uninvited guest, watching intently at the door.

Stepping into the room with an arrow drawn fast, Leliana threw a surprised look towards the mage upon seeing his face, for it was not the first time it had graced her presence.

'Jowan?' uttered Leliana in surprise 'Jowan, is that you?'

Shaking his head, the mage muttered a few obscenities under his breath before addressing the spymaster. 'What are you doing here?' he asked coldly, throwing an accusing look to Josephine 'You covered your tracks well, I see? Didn't care to think you were being followed?'

'Leliana, wh-what are you doing here?' cried out Josephine, her voice trembling as she realised she had been discovered in such a place.

'Funny, I was going to ask you the exact same question.' replied Leliana dryly 'How could you Josie? I know everything.'

'Everything?' asked the Antivan with a quivering lip.

'Everything.' replied Leliana sternly.

'Unbelievable.' muttered Jowan. Pointing an accusatory finger at the Antivan, the mage looked irate. 'That is the last time I help anyone ever again.'

'I didn't tell a soul!' protested Josephine, throwing a desperate look to the mage 'She must have followed me!'

Gasping a yelp, the Ambassador's attention was now drawn behind her friend, to the door, where she recognised a pair of furious looking men who had suddenly appeared, swords drawn and seething with rage.

'You?!' remarked Cullen, eyeing the mage in disbelief. 'Jowan? By Andraste, don't tell me...'

'Cullen?' remarked a startled Jowan, looking a little more fearful now yet still somewhat amused. 'It has been too long between visits. What a lovely reunion this has turned out to be.'

'You know each other?' observed Michel in surprise, his hands firm on his sword and outstretched, ready for an attack.

'Cullen used to watch over me, isn't that right?' smirked Jowan 'We were one big happy family in the middle of Lake Calenhad, weren't we?'

'He was a mage at the Ferelden Circle Tower.' informed Cullen 'A blood mage that fled before the siege.'

Jowan released a scornful laugh at the Commander's comment. 'Resorting to name calling already? Tell me Cullen, do you have something against maleficar now? Don't you know templars in glass circles shouldn't throw stones!'

Michel threw Cullen a confused look. 'What's he talking about?'

Leliana held her arrow pointed firm at the mage. 'Don't encourage him.'

Shaking his head, Jowan looked over to Michel and Leliana 'It appears Cullen forgot to mention that he was involved with a maleficar at the Circle? Lovestruck fools, well...one fool and one blood mage I suppose. How terribly, terribly hypocritical.'

'It's no surprise to me now that you and Sierra were in cahoots.' scoffed Cullen, disinterested in being inflamed by the mage before him. 'Although tell me, which one of you started down that corrupted path first? I can't for the life of me figure out who was the brains in that endeavour. You both seem pathetically inept.'

Jowan shrugged 'Chicken or the egg? You can't tell me that our wonderful knack of blood magic hasn't served Thedas well though? Look at Sierra now! Hero of Ferelden.'

'You seem to be doing remarkably well also.' observed Michel sarcastically, eyeing the squalor filled ageing hut with more than a little disdain.

'Oh don't let this place delude you as to what I have accomplished over the years.' replied Jowan pleasantly 'Appearances will deceive you time and time again, but I do not have to tell that to an Orlesian now do i?.'. Turning his attention to Leliana he added with an amused smile 'You have helped me once? Surely you could manage the same thing again? Let me go Leliana and I won't tell everyone how you released me from the Redcliffe Castle dungeons, against the orders of the Arlessa.'. Grinning he added with a chuckle 'Loghain Mac Tir gets me to poison the Arl, and this one here lets me go on my merry way. Just like that! I assumed such acts made us friends?'

'Sierra released you.' replied Leliana, drawing her bow sharper 'I would have happily left you there to rot.'

'Well hindsight and such.' dismissed Jowan, raising his eyebrows nonchalantly as he continued to pack items from a nearby table into his pockets.

'So you are the one behind all this?' growled Cullen 'Did you release Imshael into the realm?'. Drawing his attention angrily onto Josephine, Cullen added 'On this fool's orders, I suppose?'

Frantically, as if possessed by her own desperation in light of what she had done, Josephine ran towards Cullen with her hands outstretched. 'Cullen I did it for us. For you. I knew what Ophelia was like and I knew I needed to protect you from her.' she pleaded.

Placing her hands on his armoured chest, Cullen's face was contorted in loathing vehemence.

'Get away from me.' he growled.

'I love you Cullen, that is why I did this.' appealed Josephine, refusing to leave the man. 'You were involved with a mage and see how easily she turned to blood magic? You cannot trust her.'

Steel sword clutched tight in his left, he raised his gauntleted right and used the back side of his hand to smash her hard across the face, a sickening crunch of impact filling the room and the force throwing her backwards onto the floor with a loud thud.

Jowan shook his head, casting a frown to Josephine who was now sobbing on her knees, bloody hands covering her face in pain .

'Well since my partner in crime is at a loss for words, I shall say on her behalf it was only done out of love.' informed the mage 'The sweet, blissful, ever so pure act of love. Surely that diminishes her actions somewhat?'

'Josie how could you?' scorned Leliana 'Why would you even contemplate such a thing?'

Tears splashing down her bright red cheek, merging with the trail of blood now descending from her nose, she smeared the liquids with her already moist sleeve. 'I wanted him Leliana, that''s all.'

'You disgust me.' spat Cullen 'Mercy stay my hand from running you through in this very room, for I cannot promise it won't come to that. Did you realise what danger you've put us all in? Not just the Inquisition, but all the innocent victims that demon is now murdering. I absolutely loathe you.'

'Now, now Cullen that is undeserving.' reproached Jowan with a sarcastic snicker 'Anyone who summons a demon for you is a well worthy suitor. There's a lot of effort behind that gesture.'

'Why Imshael?' demanded Michel who had been seething in the shadows until now 'Why summon him in particular?'

Jowan shrugged 'I summoned a demon to aid me in possessing the man Josephine asked to be possessed. Imshael answered and was more than happy to oblige.'

'You bastards, do you realise what you have unleashed?' cried out the enraged Orlesian 'You have the blood of many on your hands now, and more will come.'

Breaking out into more hysterical sobs, the Antivan pressed her hands on her face and started shaking.

Jowan sighed wearily. 'I warned her of that, really I did. Truly I'm as innocent as the rest of you.'

Cullen scoffed as Leliana tightened her bow aim on Jowan.

'You'll both be executed for this.' threatened Cullen, resulting in a cry of hysterics from Josephine and an even heavier sigh from Jowan. 'And you Jowan are even more pathetic now than when you were back at the tower.'

The amusement suddenly drained from the mage's face, his demeanour growing suddenly cold.

'Pathetic?' observed the mage, the candles flickering dangerously in the hut 'Do you know who is the truly pathetic? You non-mages, the people that judge and scorn and claim we are the disgraced children of the Maker. I was abandoned by my own parents at the age of five because they were disgusted by magic. Five. Can you imagine what that does to a child, knowing your parents are loathed as to what you are. Something I have no control of? My mother called me an abomination, that was my name until I was dumped onto the stairs of a chantry like an old, discarded faeces covered rag. And I'm not the only one, most mages began their life on similar terms. Out of the frying pan into the fire, and you templars only added to that concoction of misery. We all grew up feeling inferior, born into a life of servitude with only loathing and distrust as our payment, while all along faced with people like you calling us pathetic. PATHETIC! You stand here and judge us for resorting to blood magic? WE HAD NO CHOICE! Force a man into a corner with a sword in his face, he will retaliate.'

'If you're looking for sympathy you'll find none here.' dismissed Cullen 'Playing the victim will not save you now.'

Raising a cloaked arm, Jowan thrust it towards the Commander 'And there it is! Unwilling to acknowledge, let alone try to understand, another perspective. An Order full of sheep. Tell me, how is the Harrowing any less barbaric than blood magic? Throwing a defenceless mage into the fade as part of a trial, and if they fail? It's like throwing an infant into a pond and telling them to swim to the shore or die. Oh, and then of course there is that insidious practice of The Rite Of Tranquillity! You take away our spirit by your own foul practices. And for what? To punish those mages with the gall to think independently. The ones that you interpret as being uncontrollable? You make us face demons, and then wonder why some of us see that as an option down the track. No, you templars are the real demons. You are the pathetic ones.'

Cullen's eyes narrowed hard on the mage before him 'Do not justify your foulness to me. Your blood magic only hurts everyone around you. Or do I have to remind you of Lily?'

'Do not speak her name.' threatened Jowan dangerously 'Don't you dare insult her memory. My magic never hurt her.'

Cullen shrugged in an unconvinced manner. 'That's a matter of perspective. She helped you escape the Circle, and when you were caught she found out about your disgusting little practices when you cast blood magic in front of us all. She could have fled with you, had a life with you, but your blood magic revolted her and kept her bound to the Order.'

Deathly quiet, Jowan glared at Cullen with a look of utter hatred.

'Do you know what happened to her?' asked Cullen darkly 'I do. After you fled, Knight-Commander Greagoir sent her to the mage prison Aeonar. Can you imagine? She wasn't even a mage, and she was subjected to that place.'

'Be quiet.' threatened Jowan, his dark eyes pressed angrily on the Commander.

'She spent a decade imprisoned in that stone dungeon.' continued Cullen 'I suppose you've never been there? Well I have and I can tell you the Circle tower is an Orlesian palace compared to that place. A decade she spent there, locked up and subjected to some of the most disgusting and invasive tests ever created by the order, all to determine whether she was possessed.'

'I said BE QUIET!' shouted Jowan, clutching his head in agony 'Do not speak of her! Lies! Lies! All lies!'

Cullen's eyes drew heatedly onto Jowan 'Lily died in the prison. Tens years of torture beyond your wildest dreams and then she died alone. Her last moments in this life, shackled to a stone wall in Aeonar, her last breath NO DOUBT CURSING THE DAY SHE MET THE LIKES OF YOU BLOOD MAGE!'

'SILENCE!' screamed Jowan, his moist eyes growing bloodshot and wild.

Filled with uncontrollable rage, a ball of fire emitted from Jowan's hands, hurling it towards Cullen who leaped out of the way and crashed heavily to the ground. The wall caught fire, hissing and spitting into the dry wood of the cabin.

Grabbing Josephine's hand, Jowan suddenly swooped over her, wrapping his black cloak around them both. An arrow hissed by Cullen and Michel, landing into the black material that fell limp to the ground. One loose black cloak on the floor of the hut with no one underneath it. Jowan and Josephine had simply vanished.

'What the fuck was that?' roared Cullen in outrage, standing over the discarded cloak 'What just happened?! Where are they? How did he do that?'

Walking over to the cloak, Leliana removed the arrow from the material, studying it with intrigue. 'Magic like nothing I have ever seen. A teleportation spell taking another with him, and so effortlessly.'. She looked up to Cullen, genuine concern in her face 'Jowan has become extremely powerful.'

'Let's get out of here.' frowned the Commander 'Wherever they are, they're gone. Now we need to plan as to how to get them back.'. Kicking the door open, the Commander marched out.

'Jowan may be the only key to locating Imshael.' warned Michel, looking fearfully at Leliana 'How will we ever find them?'

Coughing from the smoke now filling the hut, Leliana hastily made her way past the ex-chevalier towards the door. 'I don't know but there's one thing for certain I am sure of. They know where to find us.'

'They won't come looking for us, surely?' replied Michel.

Leliana threw an angry look out the door 'After what our Commander just said to Jowan I fear you may be wrong in that assumption. Let us hope you are not.'. Turning to the ex-chevalier, she grabbed his hand, encouraging him out of the burning hut 'Come, we have to advise the members of the Inquisition about this horrid state of affairs.'

Playfully grabbing me around the neck, the dark haired pirate pulled me along. Our black boots scuffed heavily along the walkway as we paced the stone courtyard of Hightown.

'You and those poncy gloves.' mused Dryn 'Are you happy now? Going on at me to hook you up with another job. Oh please Dryn, please Dryn, you're so wonderful Dryn, I have no money to buy bread, please do you have a job for me? Next minute I know you're living in The Hanged Man and buying pairs of fancy brown gloves from Hightown.'

Chuckling, I admired my recent purchase with arms outstretched, my fingers wriggling in delight and without one skerrick of the mark in sight. Never had I felt so normal and so happy for it.

'I never said you were wonderful.' I taunted 'Besides, do you know how many pickpockets I had to do in order to earn these. So I like wearing gloves. Lost my last pair a while back.'

'You flamin' lyin bastard!' retorted Dryn 'You're trying to impress someone aren't you?'

'With gloves?' I replied flatly, raising my eyebrow to the smirking ex-pirate 'Who the blazes would try and impress someone with gloves? Does that even work?'

'Ah hah! Avoiding the question.' jeered Dryn 'There's someone!'

My demeanour suddenly grew quiet, as we turned down the stairs towards Lowtown. 'There's no one.' I reassured.

'Right-o.' taunted Dryn 'Sounds like it.'

'Okay lord insightful there was someone once but he turned out to be...what's the phrase you use?' I clicked my fingers 'A right royal prick.'

'Sounds like a scullion.' grinned the ex-pirate 'What'd he do? Insult yer gloves?'

Sighing, I rubbed my gloved hands together uneasily. 'I was a mage and he was a templar. Well you know how the rest goes. He never trusted mages, and in the end it all came...spilling out onto me.'

'Hah, best take cover when that sort of thing happens.' jeered Dryn 'You must be a sucker for punishment. What dolt of a prisoner falls for their jail keeper! That's insanity that is, who'd go for a stuffy glorified chantry guard?'

'Someone who likes punishment.' I quipped 'Anyway fuck him, I'm not spending my down time here talking about that shite. When the ship's heading for the rocks, it's the best time to jump.'. With that, I leapt from the third last step, landing heavily onto the stone path of Lowtown.

Dryn laughed, jumping down the steps. 'You're coining the pirate phrases like a proper sea rapscallion. My job here is done!'

'Oh no you don't.' I grinned 'You don't get to interrogate me and then change the subject. What about you Messere I once was a pirate and now I'm a law abiding citizen? What's your story?'

'Too many questions.' replied Dryn with a smirk and a knowing wink 'You're as bad as that fortune teller down at the docks'

'What are you talking about.'

Dryn clicked his fingers. 'You know the one! That woman that always sets up on the red crates at the end of the pier. You ask for your fortune and she asks a thousand questions, only to end up tellin' you you're under a curse. Always got a curse on ya come rain or shine.'

'A curse?' I grinned.

'Aye, you know like, may your pipe never smoke and your teapot be broke.' replied the ex-pirate with an amused look.

Chuckling, I continued down the laneway 'You need to get into the hexing profession Dryn, you'd do well at it.'

'I got plenty more.' declared the dock hand 'How about this? May you sit on your cat, and your thumb be quite fat. Or how about, may dung be your rose, and thorns grow on your nose.'

With a shake of my head, we continued on our way with Dryn reciting every curse he could make up. Perhaps we were just two nobodies in a stone city with no prospect of ever moving up the chain, but in all honesty I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be. Kirkwall had warmed to me and I finally realised there were many worse off situations to find oneself in. Life wasn't so bad.

Laughter echoing through the dusty laneways, the ex-pirate and I descended into the heart of Kirkwall, light hearted and without a care in the world, chuckling and cursing the entire way.

Late night greeted the party as they galloped through the gates of Skyhold, dismounting and rushing towards the main hall of Skyhold in a flurry of hastened steps. Leliana, Cullen and Michel de Chevin stormed into the war council all a fluster, followed a while later by a bewildered Seeker.

'What is going on?!' asked Cassandra sternly, casting her eyes furiously across the room 'The entire council disappears from Skyhold without a word, only to return at dark, bolting through the gates like a dragon was pressed hard on your heels. I feel like there is something you have not been telling me?'

'Josephine has betrayed us.' informed Cullen shortly 'She has fled with a maleficar named Jowan.'

'Nonsense.' replied Cassandra furiously 'What is really going on?'

'Cassandra it is true.' affirmed Leliana urgently 'We need to call everyone to the room. Vivienne, Solas, Iron Bull, Varric, Cole, Dorian. We need to inform them all as to what has happened. All will be explained, Cassandra.'

The Seeker shook her head 'Most of the members are away at the moment. Vivienne is in Orlais, Iron Bull is the Western Approach, Varric is in Kirkwall, Solas is in the Dales and I haven't seen Cole since that incident with the turnips a few days back.'

Pausing from studying the map before her, Leliana brought her head up suddenly. 'Why is Varric in Kirkwall?'

'Visiting Bartrand' replied the Seeker 'He goes to see him often.'

Leliana frowned, not liking what she was hearing. 'He just left Skyhold and didn't tell anyone?'

'He mentioned it to me.' shrugged Cassandra 'I suppose he just forgot to formally mention it. It's Varric, he never plays by the rules.'

'Who cares' dismissed Cullen impatiently, pushing some papers roughly off the table so he could afford a better view of the map 'We have more important things to think about rather than Varric up and leaving all of a sudd-'. The Commander stopped in his tracks, amber eyes suddenly darting to Leliana.

Leliana ceased what she was doing and turned to Cassandra. 'Did he say Bartrand?' she asked curiously 'Did he specifically say he was going to see Bartrand?'

'Yes.' Cassandra replied confidently 'He is concerned about his brother, that is all. What is going on with you all?'

'Bartrand isn't in Kirkwall.' informed Leliana flatly 'He was moved from the Chantry Sanatorium after the Chantry was blown up. He is in the Cumberland Chantry Sanatorium now.'

'Well, perhaps he meant to say Cumberland.' dismissed Cassandra, throwing a doubtful look to her friend 'Why would he lie about that? It was obviously a mistake?'

Leliana turned her eyes swiftly to Cullen who held hers keenly. 'Ophelia' they replied in unison.

'Across the Waking Sea from Orlais.' murmured Michel, running his finger across the route on the map 'Of course, why did we not think of that?'

Clenching his fist, the Commander began to pace. 'Five weeks we have been searching for her. Five weeks of trailing maps, countless agents searching, countless hours revising, and that bastard dwarf knew exactly where she was this entire time?! I'm going to kill him. I AM GOING TO KILL HIM!'

'We don't know that for certain?' defended Cassandra 'It could still be nothing?'

'We have to retrieve her immediately.' informed Leliana swiftly, convinced that it definitely was something. 'This has to be our pressing mission. Cassandra and I will stay here with Cullen and continue the search for Josephine and Jowan. Michel, you should go to Kirkwall.'

'I will go also.' added Cullen sternly.

Leliana frowned, her lips pursed impatiently as she looked up at Cullen. 'Do you really think that is wise? You were the reason she ran off the first time.'

'I want to make this right again, and she needs to hear that from me.' declared the Commander.

'Besides Cullen knows Kirkwall,' added Michel 'whereas I have never been to the city. And you know what they say about Orlesians and directions.'. He waved his hand cheerfully in the air, as if revelling in his hopelessness of geographics.

The Commander threw a nod to the Maister of Blades, one of deep appreciation.

'This is ridiculous, however if indeed you are all serious, and Josephine has indeed fled, I suppose Leliana and I can start with the search.' confirmed Cassandra 'Cullen, make sure you bring back that dwarf as well. I personally will have a word with him after this is all over.'

The Spymaster was displeased, but nodded in defeat. 'Fine. Cullen and Michel should rest until morning and set off immediately. Remember that we need Ophelia back here. We've wasted enough time. There are rifts to be sealed, and her mark is the only way. The only way. Bring her back, irrespective of either of your opinions on the matter. Bring her back to Skyhold lest I make you both regret returning here without her.'

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Stumbling into the main room of The Hanged Man, my pounding ale headache made me stop by a nearby open window, eager to breathe in some fresh air. The sound of the faint toll of the ships bells arriving in the docks, the busy chatter of the Lowtown Bazaar and the squawking gulls fighting over the bin scraps in the alley beside the tavern greeted my ears. Another splendid day in Kirkwall well on its way. Already mid morning, I had the luxury of sleeping in these days and not spending the hours traipsing through Inquisition documents. The simple things in life were now becoming my favourite pastimes, and I somewhat revelled in it.

 

‘Pig oat mash.’ I called out wearily to one of the waitresses, before hearing a deep chuckle the fire in the corner of the room.

 

‘Don’t do it kid, it’s not worth it.’ warned the dwarf.

 

Spinning around in my seat, I came face to face with Varric dressed in brown leather pants, red shirt brazenly unbuttoned at the chest revealing copious amounts of reddish brown hair, and a gold chain adorning his wide neck. 

 

‘Flaming salted swines in a pickle jar! Varric!’ I yelled, wrapping my arms around the rouge. 

 

‘Look at you kid!’ chuckled Varric, returning the hug with enthusiam ‘Cussing like a pirate and living at The Hanged Man like some big shot! Ah, you’re making me proud.’

 

Shaking my head in disbelief, I watched as the rogue took a seat at the table, a more content smile on his face I had never recalled. Varric was home again and he radiated a joy that was more than a little infectious.

 

‘Varric I can’t begin to tell you how thankful I am for setting me up here.’ I begun emotionally ‘Saving me from a fate of rat infestation would be an understatement. You saved my arse big time.’

 

‘Ah don’t mention it.’ chuckled Varric ‘I was just happy someone managed to track you down, well someone that wasn’t an old Tevinter Magister asshole. Can’t tell you how bad I feel about how everything turned out. Some ventures just don’t go well, eh?’. Noticing my sudden sombre demeanour he added ‘For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about Curly. I know how much you took a shining to him.’

 

‘Yeah me too.’ I muttered. Throwing the dwarf a shrug, I knew better than to wallow in that misery. 'Doesn't change the fact that he ordered for my arrest and did me a mercy of not executing me on the spot. Nice guy eh?'

 

Varric chuckled. 'Kid I'll tell it to you straight - you got screwed over big time! Forget the bastard and move on.'. Flashing a wink to the waitress as she passed by with the dwarf’s order, Varric grabbed a pitcher of ale off her and started pouring two cups. Raising his mug, he drank deep until finishing the very last drop, belching in approval. ‘That house ale, boy how I missed it.’ 

 

‘Does anyone know you’re here?’ I asked uncertainly ‘How did you get a pass to leave Skyhold?’

 

Varric’s face somewhat diminished in spirit as he took another sip ‘I just told them I was visiting Bartrand. Took a detour here and actually saw the bastard.’. The dwarf grew strangely quiet, studying the contents of his cup as if reading tea leaves.

 

‘I’m sorry Varric. It must be hard to see him like that?’

 

Downing the mug, Varric eagerly began to pour again ‘Never gets easier, trust me. Asshole screwed us over in the Deep Roads, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t him that was behind that. Bartrand’s always been a bastard, but that damn idol turned him into a monster. Still, I can’t help feeling guilty...maybe because it could have easily been me in his place had things turned out differently?’

 

‘I know it’s not the same, but in the circle I used to feel terrible for the tranquils. I couldn’t fathom the horror of taking away another’s mind and leaving them hollow on the inside to live out their days. Someone pointed out to me one day that while it was horrible what happened to them they were happier in their present state of mind than most of us, none the wiser, and always content.’

 

‘Do you really believe that?’ asked Varric cynically, taking another sip.

 

‘No.’ I replied sadly, knowing that I didn’t. ‘I guess what I'm saying is - it's just another way to look at it? Sorry I'm making you feel worse.’

 

'Only if you don't drink up kid.'. Enthusiastically pouring another drink, Varric added ‘Come on, let’s get drunk and forget about everything. Just for one day.’

 

Knocking his mug with my own, I added with a miserable laugh ‘Make it a lifetime and you're on.’

 

 

****

 

 

As the ever flowing amber ale of a day turned into a burning spirited night, it seemed as if every second Kirkwaller in the city had made the pilgrimage to The Hanged Man to have a drink with Varric Tethras. Drams were poured, ale was spilled, and the chuckles, shouts, shrieks and chatter grew louder and louder, drowned in a forest of merry flutes, dulcimers and bladder pipes. Smoked haddocks laden the tables amongst black puddings, neeps and tatties, festy cocks, and bannocks. It was the tucker of Kirkwall and the hungry patrons were digging in with enthusiasm at the end of a working week and a fresh pay under their belts.

 

Sitting at my usual table by the stairs I took in the festivities of the room with a sense of gratitude. Everyone was so happy so I wondered why such happiness left me with a twinge of sadness, heavy in my gut?

 

‘He drank ale from a bloody boot!’ cackled Keets, sidling up to my table ‘Seventy copper ale mind you, not even the ninety copper stuff. Your friend Varric is tougher than the kipper on the menu. Where’s yer drink?’

 

‘I can’t drink from morning to night, something about vomit, hangovers and waking up in a puddle of rat piss.’ I grimaced, still recovering from the morning of drinking with Varric.

 

Dryn laughed as he joined us at the table. ‘You see that’s a weak attitude right there. You got no balls!’

 

‘Thank goodness.’ I retorted, producing a chuckle from the pair.

 

A heavy dwarven laugh sounded across the room, and we all turned to see Varric deep in conversation with a large group by the fire, all engrossed with the words spilling from the rogues mouth. Most likely it was all utter bullshit.

 

Another wave of laughter sounded across the tavern, and Keets and Dryn toasted in merriment. Questioning my own sanity, I was starting to suspect I was incapable of merry making and would live out the rest of my years in woeful lament.

 

‘Ophelia.’

 

Turning to Keets and Dryn, they were now deeply absorbed in a game of arm wrestling. I frowned, trying to shake off the uneasy feeling that had come over me. Was I hearing voices now?

 

‘Ophelia.’ called out a voice again, a distance behind me and my heart suddenly dropped.

 

‘Blimey you just went white as a ghost.’ chuckled Dryn, pointing his pitcher of ale at me. ‘You’re gonna spew aren’t you, you damn cheap drunk!’

 

Fearfully I turned my head towards the door, eyes darting past Corff pouring ale, across a group of patrons playing darts, to where a Commander stood. The room had grown quieter as the new patron sternly entered the tavern. Like a fish out of water, the heavy metal armour Cullen shone like a bright blade cutting through the murky darkness of the tavern. Even Varric had stopped his storytelling, and was now looking more than a little worried at The Hanged Man’s newest patron.

 

Turning to see what I was staring at, Dryn added ‘Eh Sparrow, you know that one?’

 

Cullen stood firm in his position, his will as strong as the metal cuirass on his chest. His eyes. Those amber eyes fell into mine and demanded my attention as they pulled me in, drowning me desperately, hopelessly, unforgivingly...until suddenly I ripped my eyes away.

 

‘He’s no one.’ I answered hastily, grabbing Dryn’s mug roughly off him and taking several rather large gulps.

 

‘Uh, why is the big one coming this way then?’ added Dryn uncertainly.

 

I flinched as I felt a metal gauntlet touch my shoulder firmly, the strong fingers sending shivers down my skin. Those fingers, so intimately acquainted against my bare flesh, now begging to be reunited once more. However everything had changed and now all I felt was a coldness I wished would leave my shoulder.

 

‘Ophelia, it's me.’ informed Cullen, before coming round the table to stand before me.

 

The Commander looked tired, as if sleep had not been on his agenda for many a week. Dishevelled hair, his jaw unshaven and his forehead heavy with worry, Cullen rested his hand on the hilt of his sword as looked down at me.

 

‘Are you sure you don’t know him?’ mused Dryn, leaning back in his chair and taking a big swill of his ale, enjoying the entertainment now unfolding. 'He thinks your name is Ophelia, Sparrow.'

 

I cast a deathly cold look up at the ex-templar standing before us. I was unwilling to parley on this night of nights. ‘Dryn do you remember that templar I was talking about?’ I asked sharply, turning my attention to the pirate.

 

The dock hand began to laugh. ‘What? Right royal prick?’

 

‘The very one.’ 

 

Dryn eyed the Commander with a grin. 'So what? You came to collect your prisoner or something?'

 

Jaw clenched, the Commander stood unwavering. ‘Can we go somewhere more private to talk.’ muttered Cullen, running his eyes over Dryn for a moment before turning back to me.

 

I confess I don’t know what came over me in that moment. It was as if all the fear and trauma since fleeing erupted and came back to haunt me, filling me with a twisted, maddening laugh that filled the tavern, and demanded the tavern’s silence in it’s wake. Could one call it a laugh, or the release of a demon of my own back into the world. It was Cullen’s demon, one that had churned and twisted the knife in my gut time and time again. Of all the misery and doom, it escaped my lips in guffaws. When I finally finished my hysterics, with several patrons giving me a look of one that has truly gone mad, I calmly looked back to the Commander who in turn was looking somewhat uncertainly at me.

 

‘Fuck off Cullen.’ I hissed, turning back to nab Dryn’s drink.

 

Dryn grinned in amusement as Cullen glared angrily at me, suddenly grabbing my arm roughly.

 

‘Whoa, whoa now templar man.’ warned Dryn a little more seriously ‘She told you to flog off fair an’ square.’

 

'Best you listen to him matey.' added Keets. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, following cue with his friend. It was a friendly warning, but a warning nevertheless. 

 

‘Trevelyan, enough of these damnable games.’ frowned Cullen 'I need to speak with you.'

 

‘Oh I’m Trevelyan now?’ I remarked in amusement ‘I was Ophelia a moment ago. Will I be Inquisitor next? Or shall we just skip to blood mage? Maleficar? She who should by all rights be dead?’. I spat out the words like poison, hoping Cullen would be tainted by them as much as I. His face was furious, yet I could see the hurt in his eyes.

 

Dryn raised a doubtful eyebrow, unsure whether I was being serious or not, while Keets kept on drinking, oblivious in his drunken stupor.

 

Kicking the table in frustration Cullen stormed off to the bar, furious as the roaring fire that Varric was sitting by nervously. Shaking my head, I turned my eyes away from the ex-templar to the door, seeing an ex-chevalier standing quietly by the entrance, watching the unfortunate scene play out.

 

Michel...’ I murmured, catching my breath as I looked upon the Orlesian. Meeting my eyes, the ex-chevalier beamed a broad smile, his merry face and deep blue eyes filling me with joy at the sight of him breathing and full of life.

 

Lunging across the room, knocking over a mug of ale and several patrons along the way, I threw my arms around the ex-chevalier’s neck, and he in turn drew me in around my waist, holding me tight as we curled into each other’s bodies, nuzzling into each other’s necks. Before I knew it I was sobbing into his hug, weeping into his blonde hair and warm neck, refusing to let go as I let all my emotion from that awful day spill out, drowning in relief and joy that I could see Michel was still alive.

 

‘I thought you were going to die.’ I sobbed ‘I couldn’t let that happen. I just couldn’t let Imshael do it to you.’

 

Michel drew me in tighter against his armoured body, his grasp so firm I feared I would be crushed as he bound himself to me.

 

‘Thank you for my life.’ he whispered, his voice shaky ‘Thank you.’

 

I could feel warm beads on my neck as the ex-chevalier wept with me. It was relief and sadness, all that pain being finally acknowledged. Faced with the chance of never seeing each other again, and now to be in each others arms. His life was precious, to him and to me, and we revelled in it at that moment. Never had there been an embrace that lasted as long, and still we refused to part from each other as we stood there, a growing spectacle for the drunken lurid eyes of the tavern.

 

‘You’re alive and safe.’ observed Michel with a wide smile, pulling back to wipe my eyes with his thumb. ‘And you were living in Varric’s old home all along?’

 

‘Not the whole time no.’ I frowned, my eye catching the seething Commander silently watching us from across the room.

 

Turning his head, the ex-chevalier noticed where I was looking. ‘There is a lot that has happened that you do not know. You need to talk to Cullen, for all our sakes. You need to hear the truth.’

 

‘He wanted me dead for casting blood magic.’ I replied sharply ‘The Cullen I knew died along with that outburst.’. Standing back, I pulled away from our embrace. ‘I’m sorry Michel, I don’t need to hear the truth. I already know it. I'm not going to reunite with him.’

 

Feeling the watchful eyes of Cullen, Michel, Varric, Dryn, Keets, Corff and the rest of the patrons hard upon me, my heart started racing. Pounding in my chest until I couldn’t breath in the stale, ale-stenched air a moment longer. Knowing I needed to get away from them all, I headed for the entrance of the tavern and descended out into the streets.

 

Passing the docks, I knew where I needed to go and it loomed before me ominously, a secluded fortress ever watchful. 

 

The Gallows.

 

Home to the Templar Order and the Circle of Magic. My heart was pounding furiously in my chest as I made my way to the fortress in the glumness, ascending into the riddle of twilight. I needed to make sense of all that had happened. I needed to see why this place had turned Cullen into what he had become. For weeks I had avoided the place but it was time that I faced the haunted ruins of my brethren.

 

Upon reaching the dark stone courtyard it fell far from the terrifying stories I had heard but echoed of sadness. It was abandoned and shut off to the city, overrun with red lyrium deposits and a mark of shame to it’s name. Even the stones of the Gallows seemed to radiate a grief of their own, burdened by its terrible past. The years of horrors were only to be replaced by more horrors in a never ending cycle of suffering. A Tevinter prison where over a million slaves stumbled into its stone chasm, then transformed into a prison for mages, and now overrun with red lyrium. It was a shrine of nightmares, and I knew this terrible place had altered my love’s mind, and now I was left to stand here in its wake, sad and alone.

 

‘You can’t imagine what it was like fighting Meredith in this courtyard.’ observed Cullen behind me ‘Even now, I struggle to convince myself that it was real and not just some terrible nightmare.’

 

Turning, I was faced once again with the Commander. His armour emitted a soft shine under the clear twilight sky, a magnificent warrior standing on a battlefield he had once fought in, victorious yet the echo of that terrible day still filled his mind. Some battles perhaps were never won. Cullen walked up beside me, taking in the familiarity of his surroundings with a certain degree of displeasure. Shoulder to shoulder, we cast our eyes across the abandoned ruin before us, silent and watchful.

 

‘I would stand here as a templar, watching those contorted statues of the slaves watch over me. I'd think to myself, what an ominous, gloomy place it was that I had ended up. They used to bring the slaves straight off the boats to this courtyard. I read somewhere that it was a strategic move by the Magisters to instil terror into the very hearts of the slaves, as they looked upon those tortured statues, all twisted and contorted in pain and misery. Forever bound to this place, cast in metal, agonised and bound for eternity. Of course the templars were not like the Tevinters of old, we were not slavers. That is what we told ourselves as we imprisoned mages here, bound to a place that they would never be set free from, tightening the grip on their leashes until they were suffocating.’

 

Cullen went silent once more, a reverence on his face that made him appear almost a divine creature, a spectacular iron immortal cast among mere beings who would never be capable of fathoming what he knew.

 

‘When Knight-Commander Meredith became vigilant in her pursuit of blood magic, I too saw it as my duty in this place.’ continued Cullen ‘This horrible stone prison in Kirkwall. It was nothing like the Ferelden Circle, with its green hills and fertile soil beneath my feet, the air so fresh and sweet that sometimes you'd look out the Kinloch Hold and forget you were in a Circle tower entirely. But here? No. A stone prison was all this place could ever be. We were told this was where mages truly deserved to be. It had to be this way.’

 

Cullen shook his head ‘I realise now that I was wrong.’. Looking over to me, he added ‘It doesn't excuse my actions but you have to let me explain. Please.’

 

Knowing I didn’t want to hear what he had to say, nor did he deserve an opportunity to do, I still remained by his side. There was no reason why I should have stayed and listened, but I decided to. ‘Fine, say what you need to say.’ I replied darkly. 

 

Running his hand across his chin, his unshaven sandy stubble more rugged since our last encounter, Cullen eased himself against a stone ledge. The cold metal of his armour scraped against the stone, as he achingly rubbed his neck from side to side. ‘What happened on the road to Halamshiral was a set up. Josephine Montilyet made a deal with a maleficar named Jowan to possess Michel. She intended the demon to convince you to cast blood magic. It was all a trap.’

 

Utterly gob smacked, I turned to Cullen. ‘What did you just say? Josephine? Our ambassador? What are you talking about? Why would she do that?’

 

‘I know it sounds utterly ludicrous’ scoffed Cullen, shaking his head ‘I’m having a hard time believing it myself, even now. But I assure you it is true. To put it plainly, Josephine has had some infatuation over me. I had no idea. However she knew that if I saw you cast blood magic then I would reject you. She employed a blood mage to help her with the whole affair.’

 

‘And she confessed?’ I asked, still in shock ‘She told you this herself?’

 

Cullen nodded. ‘Yes, in the end. Although she has fled with that particular maleficar in question.’ 

 

Staring into the night, I was so surprised I became at a loss for words. Could everything that had happened really have been as a result of some love-struck Ambassador trying to tear Cullen and I apart?

 

‘Ophelia?’ Cullen whispered softly ‘Are you alright?’. Reaching over, he gently placed his hand on my arm, running his thumb affectionately across my skin. 'I am so sorry my love. For everything.'

 

‘Why would she do something so callous?’ I murmured ‘She could have killed us all. It’s incomprehensible?’

 

‘And utterly disgusting.’ added Cullen ‘She has fled but we will find her and she will atone. Leliana and Cassandra are trying to locate her as we speak.’

 

‘Madness. Utter madness...’

 

The Commander nodded, running his hands through his hair in hesitation before turning to me. Grabbing my hands in his large palms, Cullen held them tight, the warmth of his skin penetrating mine ‘Ophelia I am so sorry. I will say it again and again. I am so sorry for how I acted when I found out you had cast blood magic. Forgive me.’

 

Tears in my eyes, I turned my gaze back on the abandoned ruins before us, pulling my hands from his. ‘I can’t forgive you. You sent me to my death, whether I chose to run or stayed that day, you would have tried to...'. Turning to him sadly, I shook my head. 'In all honesty I don't know what you would have tried to do, and that makes it even worse. I can’t forgive that.’

 

‘I was angry.’ explained Cullen softly ‘It doesn’t mean I would have done any of those things. I would not have hurt you.’

 

‘You already did .’ I replied tragically ‘Perhaps your opinion softened on hearing Josephine’s part in all this, but in all honesty it changes nothing. And I have had to live with the knowledge that my one true love would have advocated my death. Or imprisonment? Trials? How could you propose to do those things to someone you claimed you loved? No matter what you say now, or do now, that is the only thing that resonates in my mind over and over again.’

 

‘I do love you.’ declared Cullen 'Anger makes us say and do foolish things that we regret that. That is all it was, I swear.'

 

Shaking my head, I didn't want to believe it. ‘Did it cross your mind that I could have died trying to escape you that day? I was lost in those damn marshes, who knows what was lurking out there and me in such a weakened state. I didn’t have the energy to cast another spell, all it would have taken was one bandit or one wolf and I would not be here now. Even here in Kirkwall I could have slipped into the wrong ally, come across the wrong person who wanted me dead, or someone who realised who I was and tried to ship me off to the red templars. I slept in a fucking abandoned warehouse, scared out of my wits. You did this to me and I cannot forgive you.’

 

Hunching his shoulders, Cullen rested his elbows on his knees, his hands cupping his head. Head bowed down, the ex-templar looked completely overwhelmed by my accusation. After a few minutes of silence, he raised his eyes to mine sadly. ‘You cast blood magic.’ he replied softly, although I could tell he was trying to conceal his passion ‘I was going to react badly. I couldn’t accept you doing such a thing. Not after everything that I have experienced.’

 

‘It was an act of love that I cast that spell. I wanted to keep you and Michel alive. You foolish bastard, you still can’t see I did it out of love?'

 

Eyes narrowed and unable to contain his feelings, the Commander's regret began to transform into creeping jealousy. ‘Love for whom?!’ asked Cullen darkly ‘The way I saw you embrace Michel before in the tavern I'm beginning to wonder who exactly you were trying to save on the Imperial Highway.’

 

Gobsmacked, I threw the man a dirty look. ‘Unbelievable. After everything you have done you now start accusing me of this nonsense again.’. I shook my head in disbelief as the Commander glowered at me. ‘Perhaps it should have been for Michel? The jokes on me, isn’t it? Look at how my faith and love for you has rewarded me? I did it for you but I wish it were for him. I wish it were for anyone else, anyone but you.’

 

‘You're not listening.’ replied Cullen sharply as he grabbed my shoulders passionately ‘Don't you see? You should have never done it for me!’

 

‘Well I did!’ I replied furiously, feeling the searing pain from his fingers press tight in my shoulders ‘For your life I cast blood magic. And I would have done it again, and again, and again.’

 

‘I would have done anything to keep you safe and untarnished by that foulness!’ Cullen roared ‘Even if it meant my death.’

 

‘You stubborn bastard.’ I sobbed, pulling away from his grasp and turning to conceal the stream of tears in my eyes. ‘You would rather be dead than for it to be the way it is? You and I now alive and safe? Do you hear yourself? Your hate is so strong it blinds you. I am no blood mage and I am not tainted. Yet you believe it. So that in turn will be my ruin. The red bird that pushes me off that waterfall. So be it Cullen.’. Turning back to him, my face was plagued by shadows ‘You have bestowed upon me disappointment and rejection, but I shall not accept it. You will not take any more of me, to shape and mould in pain and despair. I shall be rid of you and your hate, and you will be gone from my life once and for all. You said you would never hurt me, and here I am drowning in pain. Curse you for what you have left me to become. Curse you!’

 

The ex-templar grew deathly quiet, running his eyes across the Gallows. Memories lurking amidst the shadows that etched away at his heart. ‘You're right, I have not changed since then.’ he confessed  ‘I know that now. My convictions are stronger than my common sense, and ironically you lead me to the very place I was at my worst. I warned you of what would happen if you pursued me, and now I have caused pain to you. Maker damn me for that hurt. A hurt that I promised never to bestow, and yet hurt you I did. I cannot forgive myself so how would I ever expect you to?’

 

The Commander stood up from the ledge, his face haunted. ‘I shall leave you now, for I know it is for the best.’. His amber eyes pierced in my green, almost resentfully. ‘My soul is already damned, you would best be away from it once and for all. I warned you many times, but I shall not take delight in crowing over my victories now. I wanted you to leave all this, leave the Inquisition behind, and I still do. You deserve to be happy, to live a life away from death and suffering. To start a new life you deserved to be living all along.’

 

Taking one last look around the courtyard, the ex-templar finally turned to face me ‘I shall return to Skyhold immediately, but I part with this...’. Cullen paused, his thumb brushing against my lips as if recalling a tender moment between us. ‘Know this Ophelia,’ he murmured ‘there was once a man who loved you so much that he knew he had to let you go…’

 

Leaning down towards me, the ex-templar placed his warm lips on my cheek, the stubble scratching me lightly as he lingered but a moment, flesh on flesh, his moreish scent overwhelming me before he drew away. His step turned fast as he paced away, boots rasping on the cold stone, never looking back.

 

Cullen had left me in the Gallows, not as an ex-templar or a Commander. He left me as a man with a broken heart, torn by the pain he felt and the pain he had brought upon someone he loved. The revelation of his true self, time and time again, had worn down the black heart he professed to hold. His beliefs were sewn into that black heart and they ruled over the ex-templar stronger than the chasm that entombed them. That black heart that I kept dearly. That I loved dearly. For love him I did, more than I had loved another person, but my hate boiled within me from the memory of his betrayal, and tainted the affection I held dear. I couldn’t bare to be apart of it any longer.

 

A final reminder of why he cursed this devilish life he was miserably apart of, Cullen walked away. In that moment it felt like the last small part of me that was still alive had now perished. If his heart was black, mine was red and desperately bleeding.

Chapter Text

 

Freedom. Does it truly exist? We strive for it, chase after it like dandelion florets in the wind, and yet who of us grasps one of those feathery tufts in the palm of our hand, only to keep hold of it? To live in a world without responsibility or regard? To owe nothing to yourself, for there is nothing to be owed. To care for no other for there is nothing to be concerned about, in that rather disenchanted state. Surely if this was freedom then this was no life at all? A life of meaninglessness, soaring the heights of complete and unconditional liberty. For from the moment we were born we formed attachments to this existence, and the longer we live the more chain us. Take hold of us. Ground us. Perhaps some held us down in restraint, but not all the chains were abominable. Some ensured we stay whole and did not fall apart, scattered to the wind in the name of freedom.

 

We are not free and perhaps none of us ever would be, but the alternative somehow seemed so much worse..

 

I recall an evening once with Cullen, back in Skyhold before I had fled, when he had told me about the legend of the first true King of Ferelden. Two men, Richard of Southron and Daniel of Bannorn, loosely joined in blood and each with a claim. They were apart of two families that had long fought over the throne for many years. Daniel of Bannorn had recently claimed the throne by force, and in his determination to destroy all other ties to the crown began to rewrite the royal lineage of Ferelden, and in essence remove any hold Richard of Southron may have had over it.

 

As a result Richard sailed across the Amaranthine Ocean with an army equal to King Daniel’s, determined to pledge his claim once and for all. As Richard landed on the shores of Ferelden, he fell to his knees, sinking into the sand as he cried out to the skies; Judge me, oh Maker, and favour my cause. Richard knew he came to those shores to meet his destiny as equal to his demise. However it was his faith that forced his hand as he rode out onto that battlefield. Richard of Southron and Daniel of Bannorn met on the battlefield that fateful day, and it was there that King Daniel of Bannorn turned his sword to his opponent and proclaimed; Today I fight like a king, or I die like one.

 

One man had put his faith in the Maker while the other had put his faith in himself. The only man that rode out of that field alive that day was King Daniel of Bannorn. The one who had put faith in himself.

 

Later on I realised what Cullen had been trying to explain to me. Our actions were the only true cause we could put our faith in, not the vain hope of a higher purpose that would somehow miraculously intervene. As a man of the Chantry I was somewhat surprised by Cullen’s convictions, but as I began to see how the realm around us unravelled in bloodshed and chaos, I started to understand. Cullen knew our only hope relied on our own actions, and not the disillusioned convictions of faith. 

 

We had a weapon in our hands and we had to use it.

 

 

****

 

 

‘I don’t do refunds Varric.’ frowned Corff. Wiping his grubby hands thickly on his leather apron, he pointed an accusing finger at the rogue. ‘Only credit, you know that.’

 

‘Corff, you’re killing me!’ exasperated Varric ‘Drinking five months worth of rent on ale in the Hanged Man will be the death of me.’

 

‘Policies Varric, it’s out of my hands.’ shrugged Corff.

 

‘What policies? You own the tavern!?’ chortled the dwarf, throwing a bewildered look to the inn keep who merely shrugged in response. ‘Okay then, you're forcing my hand here. My review of The Hanged Man is in my upcoming book Taverns of Thedas. Don’t blame me when you read it.’

 

With a scoff, Corff turned to pour more ale. ‘Drink Varric? Your tab is pretty high at the moment.’

 

With a wave of annoyance, Varric turned away to return to the fire where I was waiting.

 

‘Any luck?’ I asked doubtfully.

 

‘Stubborn as an ox that one.’ scorned Varric ‘Let’s just say I’ll be shouting rounds here until I’m old and grey.’. The dwarf shrugged ‘There are worse things I suppose.’

 

‘I’m sorry, I’ll pay you back one day.’ I replied guiltily.

 

‘Hahahah! Tell me, how much are they paying the Inquisitor at Skyhold these days?’ asked an amused Varric ‘I recall being offered a loose form of a stipend when I joined the Inquisition, although it seems to only involve bland food, cold lodgings and complaints from Solas.’

 

Frowning for a moment, and feeling rather foolish for my delayed revelations, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t received anything amounting to proper wages since joining the inquisition.

 

‘Back pay.’ I nodded with a curl of my lip ‘They owe me at least a few coppers, surely?’

 

Shaking his head, the rogue grabbed his worn fennec skin satchel off the floor of the tavern. ‘Are you sure about this?’

 

Frowning, I looked down at my glove concealed hands. ‘I can try to pretend the mark doesn’t exist. Turn my eye from the rifts, or the Red Templars, or even Corypheus himself. Maker knows that sounds fine to me. I fear however it comes across a tad bit selfish on my behalf. Anyway I can’t shake that guilty feeling of forsaking the people of the realm and letting everything fall into the clutches of an evil bastard. Call me crazy?’

 

The rogue chuckled ‘Living in the Hanged Man or risking your life saving the realm from an evil bastard. Tough choice.’

 

‘Isn’t it? Of course my old position as Inquisitor doesn’t seem so bad now I know I’m not destined to a life behind iron bars.’

 

‘The way I see it, you probably would have ended up that way had you stayed in Kirkwall.’ chuckled Varric ‘Come on, Skyhold awaits.’

 

Walking over to the bar I presented a well handled letter to Corff, a small note that I had been fumbling over in my hands all morning. ‘Give this to Dryn next time you see him, will you?’

 

The innkeeper raised an eyebrow ‘Not saying goodbye in person?’

 

Miserably I turned to the door. ‘I’m not good at goodbyes Corff, never was.’ 

 

Throwing a nod to Corff, Varric held open the door of the tavern. ‘Come on Sparrow, the cold draughty keep atop the mountain of frost awaits us both. Although between you and me, I don’t think that’ll be the coldest reception awaiting us somehow.’

 

 

****

 

 

The journey from Kirkwall to Skyhold went exceptional fast, as is the usual way when someone fears the impending doom lurking and it comes hurtling towards them in leaps and bounds. Seeing the keep soar high in the distance I tried to convince myself that I had made the right decision in coming back, and yet the magnificent structure struck fear into my heart. Would this be my final resting place? Would I ever get to taste the freedom I had enjoyed in Kirkwall? I was no soothsayer but the answer whispered tauntingly in my ear and sent shivers across my skin as I clutched the reins tight and trotted forward.

 

Riding through the giant bridge and into Skyhold that mid-afternoon, it appeared our return had brought with it a surge of relief and reassurance throughout the stronghold. People stared and smiled, and even the guards looked more than a little relieved to see the Inquisitor finally back from her speculated mystery trip somewhere out in Thedas. The rumours of my demise had finally been disproved. The Inquisitor was alive and returned to Skyhold.

 

With cheers, waves and applause, the men and women in the courtyard greeted us, and even the ever so serious Master Dennet looked extremely jovial to see me at the stables once more, slapping the rump of my horse with great enthusiasm and causing the creature to cast an uneasy eye at the horse master.

 

‘Come on.’ muttered Varric wearily, seemingly disenchanted by the prospect now facing him ‘Let’s get this over with.’

 

Turning towards the main hall, like two disobedient children knowing they would have to face the chastisement of their wrongdoings, we made our way to the war room with heavy shoulders and dragging feet. The hall was filled with loud murmurings and every pair of eyes fell upon us as we meekly smiled our way through the crowd.

 

Drawing our direction towards the left corridor immediately before the Skyhold throne, I threw a disconcerted look towards Josephine’s old study, still piled high with papers and books. She had fled, but it felt like her presence still lingered in the room, and I felt a cold shiver cross me as I passed by and up towards the heavy wooden doors of the war council. Even now, I couldn’t fathom how someone could deceive so many right under our very noses. If Josephine was capable of it, how many more like her were here among us?

 

Throwing me a nod, Varric pushed the war room doors open and we entered precariously, only to be greeted by a red haired bard, arms crossed and staring intently at the pair of us from the other side of the table.

 

‘Inquisitor,’ remarked Leliana with a small smile ‘it is good to see you again.’. Frowning, she set her green eyes sharply onto Varric, who was looking sheepish as ever ‘Varric, back from visiting your brother I see?’. Shaking her head, Leliana waved a hand to dismiss the comment ‘Forgive my pertness. Truly, I am glad to see you have brought back the Inquisitor safe and alive.’. The spymaster turned back to me with a frown ‘Cullen told me you had decided to stay in Kirkwall and that fact has troubled me greatly. Tell me he was wrong?’

 

‘He was.’ I replied a little too aggressively ‘What about what happened on the Imperial Highway? Is the Inquisition going to follow up on my actions on that day?’

 

Leliana threw a curious look towards me ‘Why ever would we? Under the circumstances you made a decision that saved the entire entourage. Sometimes we have to make terrible decisions, where neither option is preferred, but one is required. The Inquisition stands by your actions as the Inquisitor.’

 

Varric nudged me in reassurance as I breathed out a sigh of relief. ‘I told you.’ he whispered.

 

‘You however.’ continued Leliana, turning her narrowed eyes on Varric in displeasure ‘You attempted to conceal information from the Inquisition.’

 

‘He helped me, Leliana.’ I implored ‘Who knows what would have happened to me if he hadn’t helped me hide out in Kirkwall. You should be thanking him.’

 

The dwarf shrugged ‘I was trying to protect her, Nightingale. No one else seemed to be.’

 

‘Perhaps you are right,’ frowned Leliana ‘but there will be repercussions. Cassandra will deal with you, she has assured me of that much.’

 

‘Great.’ muttered Varric darkly.

 

Footsteps sounded behind us, and the heavy doors of the war council once again creaked open. We turned to see Cassandra and Cullen making their way into the room. The Seeker threw a look of disapproval down at Varric as she settled at her usual place by the window, whilst Cullen cast a similar look towards me before making his way to the war table. Rolling my eyes, I couldn’t wait to be rid of the suffocating chamber of reproach.

 

‘The Inquisitor has returned.’ announced Leliana to the other members, a pleased look on her face ‘Thank the Maker for guiding her back to us. We have much to do to make up for lost time, but nothing that can’t be settled soon enough.’

 

Cassandra nodded to me with a pleased smile ‘It is good to see you again Ophelia, and to see that you are well.’. Glaring at the dwarf, she added in a lower and accusatory voice ‘Varric.’.

 

The Commander remained deathly quiet, paging through the papers on the table. He was intentionally distracted from paying attention to anything or anyone in the room, especially myself.

 

‘We’ll need to arrange another ambassador for the council.’ informed the Commander sternly ‘There is more correspondence here than any of us can contend with at present. Leliana, do you have any one in mind?’

 

‘There are a few people I am considering, yes.’ she replied ‘I need more time to make arrangements of our offers.’

 

‘I suppose I need to leave immediately to seal rifts.’ I added.

 

Leliana nodded ‘There are a few close by that need urgent attention, they should only take a quarter of a day to reach. As soon as you are ready, you should head out.’

 

‘Of course.’ I replied ‘If that is all for now?’

 

Leliana smiled ‘For now, yes. On behalf of the council, we welcome you back Inquisitor. And thank you for deciding to stay with us.’

 

Casting my eyes to Cullen, he still refused to look at me, although I could tell he was furious from the clenched jaw and heavy forehead frowning down at the documents. Pursing my lips, I turned and walked out of the room.

 

In all honesty I wasn’t expecting any better reception from the Commander, but his behaviour left me feeling empty and disappointed all the same. That was the moment, the very moment, that I knew I had truly come home.

 

 

****

 

 

The plight of the Inquisition had recommenced in full force. Sealing rifts, sourcing iron, clearing out beasts from the forests, and locating logging stands and quarry sites for the cause seemed curiously more palatable than I had previously recalled. My companions had ample amounts of gossip to entertain themselves during our missions, talking endlessly about Josephine and the mysterious maleficar Jowan who had whisked her away. Whilst Vivienne and Sera took delight in the scandal, I noticed Blackwall was somewhat more quiet on the subject, a hint of woebegone at the ambassador’s disgraceful departure. Considering my feelings towards the woman, I didn’t want to pursue his silence on the matter, although I suspected its meaning. Like a spiralling staircase of melancholy, it served as a reminder of the powerful hold that one person could have over another.

 

Every evening when I retired to the keep, I was keenly aware of Cullen’s avoidance of me. His voice resonated loud across the yard during training sessions, his towering presence crossing my path in the main hall, or through the cloisters, always courteous to me yet nothing more. Civilities had never felt more malicious, and I ended up wishing he would yell or berate me rather than continue on such false pretences.

 

Our anger was mutual so it seemed only natural that we weren’t on the best of terms. Instead of wallowing in it however, as I usually would have succumbed to, I decided to start afresh. Perhaps a part of me missed The Hanged Man, or perhaps I knew I needed to try to distract myself for my own sanity. As as result, at the end of the second week of my return I ended up spilling into the courtyard at twilight with the rest of the light hearted folk of Skyhold, eager to spend their night making merry at The Herald’s Rest.

 

The last hint of summer lingered in the warm breeze of night as I stepped into the brightly lit tavern, where I was greeted by the haunting song of a lute and the voice of the bard Maryden. Captivating her audience, the patrons were mesmerised by her song, some even holding a tear in their eye that they hastily tried to drink away their emotion in large gulps of mead.

 

Like a mouse in a room full of cats, I tried to make myself unnoticed and crept towards the bar as close to the wall as possible. Leaning against the oak wood grain, I looked around as I waited to be served, some small part of me wishing Dryn would sidle up and begin chatting away about his conspiracies about the hidden treasures buried in the Seheron Isles. Instead my eye caught a familiar face happily laughing and talking intimately to a woman in the close confinements of the corner of the window. An ex-chevalier’s lips lingered softly against her ear, whispering hidden delights with an alluring smile of white teeth, that produced smiles of delight from the lady in question.

 

‘Inquisitor!’ greeted Cabot the innkeeper ‘It’s good to see ye after so long! They’ve been workin’ you too ‘ard, eh?’

 

‘Don’t they always?’ I shrugged, turning my attention away from the Orlesian ‘How've you been Cabot? How's Skyhold been holding up?’

 

‘Better now yer back.’ replied Cabot sagely ‘It’s been a ruckus round ‘ere of late, thought something untoward mighta ‘appened to ye the way everyone was acting. Aye, but here ye are, here ye are! All’s well that ends well, eh?’

 

‘Wise words Cabot.’ I chuckled ‘Just a house wine thanks.’

 

‘Righto.’ nodded Cabot, pouring the cheapest ferment in Thedas from a dull green bottle ‘On the house.’

 

Nodding in appreciation, I turned awkwardly to find a place to sit. A stranger in The Hanged Man, I had felt more comfortable in a matter of moments compared to this place packed full of familiar faces. On one side of the room sat the Iron Bull and his mercenaries, splayed out and drinking across several of the tables, whilst Sera was playing cards with Blackwall and a few of Cullen’s recruits near the stairs. Pausing, I flashed my eyes back to Michel de Chevin, who was still keenly wooing his companion, now stroking her cheek as he gazed deeply into her eyes. His eyes raised for a moment, and suddenly caught mine, and the ex-chevalier paused for a moment as he held my gaze, before returning to his conversation.

 

Cheeks growing warmer than the roaring fires in the tavern I grabbed my glass and headed for the door, departing into the night once more. Determined to enjoy my somewhat forced solitude, I headed to the grassy area at the side of the tavern where Cassandra enjoyed training during the day. At night it was a dark and shadowy respite that beckoned me to come revel in, and I wearily sat on the cool ground, back against the cobbled stone wall, and sipped the burning red liquid in blissful silence.

 

A lone wolf in the shadowy depths of my imagination, I took comfort in the still of night. Sip, after sip I relaxed a little more, until I somewhat miserably ran out of wine and my reality started seeping back into my head. Bitterly I refused to enter the tavern again, unwilling to be subjected to any further displays of affection from the Maister of Blades.

 

As if my thoughts had manifested into physical form, through the side door my attention was drawn to a man exiting the tavern, looking around the courtyard in search of someone before turning to the corner where I sat. A smile of recognition on his Orlesian face, Michel set out towards me upon spotting me by the wall. For once, Michel wasn’t dressed in his armour and simply sported a dark brown leather jerkin over a long white sleeved shirt, with black pants and calf high black boots. The light of his blonde hair seemingly glowed in the moonlight and his soft white skin appeared porcelain white.

 

‘I thought I saw you escape.’ he obsereved in pleasant accusation, striding up to me as he cast his eyes curiously around the secluded area ‘Why are you sitting out here all alone in the dark?’

 

I shrugged in silence, somewhat embarrassed at confessing I felt I hadn’t a friend in the world. Attuned to my misery Michel could tell I was upset, and he crouched down to me, reaching down his hand with a gentle smile. ‘Come with me.’ he beckoned softly with an encouraging beam.

 

Resisting his pull, Michel chuckled and tugged at my hand harder until I reluctantly let him yank me up off the grass. Hand in hand he gently led me towards the tavern, and then past it, further on into the courtyard.

 

‘Michel.’ I protested, looking back to the tavern with a frown ‘Look I realise that you have company back in there. Go back to your lady friend and enjoy the night. I'm fine, honestly.’

 

The Orlesian pulled my arm tighter and interlocked it through his, like a gentleman escorting a lady through the cobblestoned laneways of Val Royeaux on a midsummer’s night. As he continued to walk close besides me, he threw me a smile. ‘And yet funnily enough, I am exactly where I want to be at this very moment.’ he replied mischievously, playfully nudging me with his hip as he led me towards the direction of the Skyhold gardens.

 

After several turns in the twisting maze of leafy foliage, he found a spot of grass secluded between a large birch and maple tree and collapsed onto the grass, beckoning me to do the same.

 

‘Whenever I feel sad, I come to nature and she always cheers me up.’ he informed pleasantly ‘I suspect you need that tonight?’

 

Sitting on the grass, I knew the man was right. 'It's hard to return here after being in Kirkwall.'

 

Michel nodded. 'I feel that way about Orlais sometimes.'

 

The Orlesian began pulling off his black boots, revealing his large feet that he planted against the soft grass. Breathing out in contentment he rested his back against the stone bench behind him. Finally he opened his eyes and grinned at me.

 

‘I love the feel of the grass beneath my toes,’ he confessed ‘like I’m grounded as the birch and maple around me, at one with the soil, growing strong like the plants and trees.’. He took a deep breath in, the air filling his lungs ‘I relish the evening breeze in summer, that sugary scent at dusk, like boiled Orlesian sweets. It lingers in the air and makes me want to inhale it until I am intoxicated and dizzy with delirium.’. He breathed in deeply and smiled, before turning to me cheerfully.

 

Looking at the ex-chevalier, I caught myself smiling fondly at him. His charmful insight lifted the weight off my shoulders, if only for a while. My attachment to the Orlesian seemed to flourish as much as his love for the plants surrounding him.

 

‘How have you been?’ asked Michel gently, yet it was a question full of concern as he brought his full attention on me. 'It can't be easy to have been chased away from the Inquisition and now to have returned?'

 

I shrugged, picking away at the grass as my side, trying to deflect the question in short, sharp tugs of green. ‘It’s great to be back in Skyhold.’ I replied in a high pitched voice ‘Yes, I’m truly happy.’

 

Michel chuckled, playfully nudging me with his bare foot ‘That was the worst lie I have ever heard, and I used to be apart of the Orlesian Court!’

 

With a sad smile, I nodded by head. ‘I’m a terrible liar. In all honesty Michel, I don’t know what to think about being back? I know I need to be here, it’s just I don’t think everyone at Skyhold is glad that I’ve returned.’

 

The Orlesian frowned a moment before his expression softened into one of understanding. ‘You speak of Cullen, yes? Well he cares for you, I do not doubt it. When you were away he spent every waking moment trying to find you and to prove Josephine was to blame for this whole incident, rather than you. If it weren’t for him-’

 

‘I would have been here all along.’ I replied sharply ‘You forget, he was the reason I fled.’. Frowning in anger, I tossed aside the grass I was picking at. ‘You do realise he left me in Kirkwall and told me to stay put? And when I returned here he refuses to speak to me. Well apart from hello and good morning and such nonsense. He makes me feel like a blaggard.’

 

Michel laughed in amusement ‘Someone has been mingling with pirates in Kirkwall for too long!’. The ex-chevalier shrugged, drawing his attention back to my issue ‘Cullen is a proud man of little words at times, but a good man nevertheless.’

 

Rolling my eyes at the ex-chevalier, I threw some grass playfully at the man. ‘You and he I see have become quite good friends these days? I fear I’ve unwisely chosen a poor pair of ears to listen to my complaints.’

 

‘I’m just as much a friend to you as to the Commander’s.’ informed Michel seriously ‘I’m also more than glad you came back. When Cullen said you were staying behind I felt like I had lost a friend, and that made me quite sad. The trip back to Skyhold was very grievous for me.’

 

My cheeks grew warm, even though the breeze was growing cool. ‘Thank you.’

 

Michel nodded with a smile. 'Well you're back now so all is well.'

 

Looking over to the ex-chevalier, I frowned. His kindness was chivalrous but I knew his attention was more interested in the woman back at the tavern. ‘You should go back to your lady friend.’ I observed rigidly ‘I appreciate you trying to cheer me up but I’d rather you return to your friend now. Go and enjoy the night, I think I'll retire to bed anyway.’

 

Although hard to perceive in the dark of night, the ex-chevalier stirred in his position. ‘She was a distraction, Ophelia,’ he remarked in low voice. Lifting his eyes to mine, he added gently ‘I want to be here with you.’

 

The fluttering of my stomach urged me to try and change the subject, to prevent the stirrings Michel’s words were having affect on me. Yet for all my struggle, I knew I only wanted the kind words of another at this very moment.

 

Spotting some flowering embrium beside him, Michel leant over and picked a few of the stems, offering it towards me with a smile. ‘I know I have a bad reputation for offering you flowers,’ he acknowledged with a hint of mischievousness ‘but I always favoured the scarlet embrium over the red rose. A flower that runs wild through the Hercynian forest of  like a free spirit. Every time I see it, it reminds me of you.’

 

Narrowing my eyes, I added ‘You always had a way with complementing the ladies. I recall you saying something similar to our cook, Madame Ruthie?’

 

The ex-chevalier chuckled, his voice light hearted as he ran his deep blue eyes across me. Drawing closer to me on his knees, he presented the flower between his forefinger and thumb. Yes but with you I meant it.’ he confessed. Sweeping his blonde hair back with his hand, he threw me a warm smile ‘With your permission?’

 

‘Thank you?’ I smiled, extending out my hand.

 

I reached for the flower he presented. As I drew closer towards the ex-chevalier he refused to part with the embrium, and we found ourselves both holding the flower, our fingers entwined. Michel's broad fingers ran over mine affectionately as he looked upon me with a warmth that excited me and melted me to the core. My heart was pounding as I looked into his eyes. Unable to resist I ran my fingers tenderly over his, craving that affection that his large knightly hands produced. Michel’s fingers beckoned me and I responded willingly.

 

Drawing closer to me the ex-chevalier softly lowered his lips, smiling at me so affectionately before placing his strong mouth onto mine. A moan escaped our mouths as we finally connected, falling into each others arms. This kiss was ours and ours alone, not for the eyes of Thedas, and we both surrendered to the moment of true intimacy, drowning in a soft and passionate embrace as our lips and tongues danced against each other in delightful discovery.

 

The flowers fell the ground as Michel eased me gently back onto the soft grass, refusing to part lips as his hands tenderly moved across my hips and waist, caressing me as I felt him firmly on top of me. He ran his hands lovingly through my hair, gently, as if stroking a dove, as he melted into deep kiss after deep kiss. My core burned with desire as I felt his strong weight anchor me, enticing me with sensations I craved more and more. His skin smelt of orange and clove, and he tasted even sweeter, as he tenderly kissed me. Finally the ex-chevalier pulled away, looking down at me lovingly before lifting me back up to sit once more.

 

‘I am sorry.’ he remarked politely ‘That is the second time I have enjoyed kissing you. Once again, I shouldn’t have presumed-’

 

Drawing my eyes to his I shook my head. ‘Don’t be sorry. That was the second time I enjoyed it.’

 

Rubbing his hands together, the ex-chevalier appeared very happy at my reply and drew his arm around me in a tender hug as we sat resting against the stone bench, side by side, looking up at the stars. The Orlesian turned his head to me with a beam that could not be erased, his eyes falling over me as I sat watching the night unfold.

 

‘I’m sorry for how they treated you in Orlais.’ I obsereved quietly, somewhat out of the blue.

 

Michel turned his head, curious at my meaning. 

 

‘It goes over in my head so often. You are one of the most kindest, nicest and most decent people I have ever met Michel. I know it’s ridiculous, but after I was informed as to how they treated you in Orlais I began to loath Empress Celene. Even now, I try to avoid appeasing their issues when addressing the war council.’

 

Michel shook his head, as if to dismiss the comment ‘I deserve a lot more for what I’ve done.’

 

‘Leliana told me about Imshael.’ I added, guessing this was the regret now covering his face.

 

The ex-chevalier shook his head ‘No. I-’. He turned to me somewhat miserably ‘There are things about me that you would never forgive, and that makes me so very sad.’

 

Taking his large hands in mine, I squeezed them with a smile ‘I would never judge you.’

 

Ir abelas, ma melava halani an belamas vol arlen’tha.’ murmured Michel, throwing his eyes desperately across the garden.

 

‘You speak elvish?’ I exclaimed in surprise ‘What does it mean?’

 

Refusing to let my hand go, Michel squeezed it hard ‘It means...I am sorry, you have helped me and I have deceived you.’

 

Tilting my head, I had no idea what the man was referring to. ‘Deceived me? How?’

 

‘I am half-elf.’ confessed Michel, his deep blue eyes looking intensely into mine ‘It is a secret I hold close to my heart.’

 

‘Is that all!?’ I smiled softly, shaking my head in confusion ‘What of it? How is that a deception?’

 

The ex-chevalier shook his head, appearing troubled. ‘You do not know my past Ophelia.'

 

Throwing him a reassuring smile, I nodded to him. 'Then tell me?' 

 

'My mother was an elf and my father a human commoner.' began Michel 'I grew up in the slums of Orlais, in an alienage in Montfort. My mother dies when I was young and I was orphaned as a child. I was adopted when I was ten. A noble, Comte de Chevins, took mercy and changed my identity to Michel de Chevin, a distant cousin of the Chevins.’. The ex-chevalier chuckled bitterly ‘Very distant. Don’t you see? I am a falsehood. A lie. Pretending to be what I am not. You see a Orlesian noble before you but that is not my true fabric. I want you to know me, and yet my past is riddled with lies, dishonour and deceit, even to the point where I have rejected my heritage and put my own people to shame. I am shrouded in a false cloak of honour.’

 

Running my hand across his golden hair, I stroked his broad neck tenderly. ‘No.’ I whispered ‘You are too hard on yourself. Look at all that you have accomplished? I couldn’t begin to fathom what it would have been like to live as a half elf in an alienage? From the alienages I have seen, including Kirkwall’s, they are terrible places to live in.’. Holding his head tenderly in my hands, I held his attention ‘Michel, your present actions have shown me who you are, not your past. You are brave and skilled warrior full of honour. And more importantly, you have a good heart. You should be proud of the person you are.’

 

‘I have not always been the man I am now Ophelia.’ Michel warned, looking as deathly as a graveyard. ‘In the alienages, the chevaliers would come and kill the elves to test their blades, often.’

 

‘The chevaliers? Why would they do such a monstrous thing?’ I asked.

 

‘No, you don’t understand...I..I am sorry.’ Michel looked mortified, turning his eyes away from me in shame. ‘I am not what I am. Forgive me, Ophelia’. Withdrawing his hand he stood up abruptly. Looking at me with eyes that could have melted the coldest of hearts, Michel added ‘I want to be honest with you but I loathe the words of my confession on this night. Soon I will tell all, until then I can only hope that one day you will forgive me.’. Sadly, the ex-chevalier turned away, his shoulders heavy as he marched off into the night, leaving me in utter perplex.

 

‘Michel?’ I called out, but the only response was the soft rustle of the trees above.

 

I wanted to run after him and reassure him, but I knew the ex-chevalier desired to be alone. Racking my brain I couldn’t fathom what had just happened. Was being part elf so shameful in his eyes? There had to be more to it, but what?

 

Casting my gaze down to the grass, I brought my hand to the loosely scattered embrium blooms. Laying limp on the grass the flower was an echo of it's former self, now crumbled, discarded and already starting to wilt.

Chapter Text

 

 


Come hither, Come hither
Let us go thither
Do as thou wilt
I will see you anon

 

My apple, my cinnamone
So faire in the spring
I shall offer you a pear
And a black lon dubh wing

 

By my troth, you are sweetness
Prithee, what is thy name?
I have but naught to offer
But my heart in it’s flame

 

Off we shall fled
On Summer’s eve wed
Come hither, come hither
Let us go thither

 

-  sonnet by a love struck fool

 

My dreams refused to let me rest that night, asking me over and over, growing more furious in turn, what was the meaning of betrayal? A rush of wind swept past me, telling me that it was the fond thought of another. The water of the ocean spilled over my waist and roared that it was the aching to be apart from another. As I fled back to the warm ground of the forest, it wearily murmured that betrayal was in a physical act. My heart burst in flames as the furious fires fiercely informed me that betrayal was the burning desire you could never quench.

 

With a sharp breath I awoke in my bed at Skyhold, a few peaceful moments passing by before the memory of the kiss in the herb gardens came flooding back into my mind. That kiss. Cullen’s paranoia over Michel and I had proven, to my shame, to be somewhat accurate, and I was feeling riddled with guilt. I loved Cullen, so why had I enjoyed that kiss? Was it still a betrayal if the Commander wanted nothing to do with me? Did it matter either way?

 

My thoughts were drowning me in loathing before I was distracted by yelling and loud noises that sounded all the way from the courtyard in Skyhold. The whinny of horses, the clatter of armour and weapons, the raucous of soldiers preparing themselves and the barking orders of the head officers directing the men and women to their positions, I could hear it all and it filled me with concern.

 

Rushing to the entrance of the main hall, I joined a large group of people eagerly watching below from the platform outside. Casting my eyes in confusion, I could see at least forty Inquisition soldiers and a few dozen mages, some saddled and ready, while others were prepared on foot. Barking orders to the soldiers at the front of the group was Cullen, mounted on his black steed in his full plate armour. Holding up his long sword, he appeared to be instructing the soldiers how to thrust out and across, possibly a tactic to use while on their mounts.

 

Walking up beside me, Cassandra threw me a worried look ‘A group of Red Templars have been spotted on Gherlen’s Path.’

 

‘How far away from Skyhold?’ I asked fearfully.

 

‘Close.’ she replied ‘Although our scouts inform us there are about thirty in total and no more following from what we can tell. Nevertheless, I fear this will be a terrible fight.’

 

‘I should go with them.’ I replied hastily ‘They’ll need my magic.’

 

‘No’ replied Cassandra sharply ‘We need you alive. We are sending twenty mages with the soldiers.’

 

‘What?’ I remarked angrily ‘And you don’t need them alive?’

 

‘This is what the Inquisition is about.’ replied Cassandra sternly ‘Your mark is the thing that keeps us from sending you out onto the field unless necessary. Have you not realised this yet Inquisitor? If you fall today, we all fall tomorrow.’. Turning in agitation, Cassandra proceeded down the steps towards the soldiers.

 

Casting my eyes down at Cullen on his horse, my heart dropped. If Cullen fell today, I too would fall. He was about to ride out into danger as I was helplessly looking on. All it would take was one blade, one arrow to pierce his flesh when he was looking the other way, and he too may fall.

 

Many things had been left unsaid between us, and Maker damn me but I needed to touch him, even if was for the last time. The desire was too much as I hastily began pushing past the group on the stairs, desperately trying to make my way down to the courtyard, only to see the soldiers commence riding out when I was halfway down the stones. A magnificent stampede, they shook the round like a herd of wild brumbies as they rode out to meet the enemy, and I managed to glimpse the back of Cullen’s head as he rode out through the gate.

 

‘No.’ I murmured to myself, easing myself onto the cold stone steps, the empty gates mocking me as the crowds dispersed, going about their day once more as if nothing had happened. What if that was the last time I ever saw him? Our last moments in this life a reunion of silence, and a memory of heated conversations and accused disappointments in its wake. It couldn’t be this way. Maker please, it couldn’t…

 

The day continued like any other day, with Bull’s mercenaries training beside The Herald’s Rest, the sound of Harritt making armour in the Undercroft and Sera practicing her archery on a target residing precariously beside an ornate stained glass window near the Chantry temple room of worship. Michel de Chevin had remained behind, and was busy training recruits in the circle, and I desperately avoided him throughout the day as I crept about the keep.

 

Driving myself insane, I tried to distract myself, but nothing appeased the uneasy sensation of knowing Cullen was risking his life at the hands of the Red Templars while I aimlessly drifted Skyhold. Having fought a few red templars myself, I knew how strong an enemy they were. Brute was their strength, unnatural as their red lyrium glow. But thirty of them? That was too many contend with.

 

With wringing hands and biting nails, the morning passed painfully through into afternoon, and I remained perched on the battlements like an ever watchful stone gargoyle, waiting, as Cullen must have had done many times before for my sake. I was beginning to understand his madness. I finally understood what he must have felt, and that revelation made me feel even more ashamed. I knew Cullen cared for me, whatever had happened, I knew that now. Josephine had plunged a stake between us, and foolishly we had let her win. Cullen and I were at each other’s throats, and for what? I loved him and he loved me, that was all that should have counted. Yet he tore me down, and then I tore him down in turn. And for what?

 

The faint gallop of an entourage sounded in the distance by late afternoon and heart pounding, I cast my eyes hastily across to the men and women who rode back through the gates. Deathly white, the bodies of some lay slung over the horses, limp and unresponsive, while others rode injured, and a lucky few rode in strong.

 

Where was Cullen?

 

I searched and searched frantically amongst the sea of faces, my eyes turning hazy as I looked upon each without recognition. Where was he? Tears in my eyes, I scoured the bodies that were being lain on the ground, looking for a tuft of sandy waves or a gorget of feathers, crumpled on the dirt.

 

Breaths growing more and more shallow as I rested my hands hard on the parapet, my attention was brought back to the gate where one last soldier rode in, and a wave of relief overwhelmed me. It was Cullen, cradling an injured mage in front of him, and yelling something out to the soldiers at the gate before riding hard into the courtyard to join his army.

 

‘Thank you.’ I breathed out in relief, edging my way down the cold stone slab of the parapet to take a moment to gather my wits. Head cradled, my hands were shaking and I knew that sickening feeling would haunt me forever as I sat there slumped on the battlements, waiting for the fear to subside. Who knows how long I sat there, thanking whoever was watching out for Cullen over and over again. Finally, I gathered my strength and rose to my feet. I knew what had to be done.

 

Making my way through the courtyard, down to the soldiers quarters, like walking in a dreamy daze of surrealism, I reached the Commander’s prep room, knocking hastily as the soldiers passed me in the hallway with nods and ayes. Moments later, the door opened and I was met face to face with the ex-templar, looking rough, battered and consumed from the recent battle, and somewhat surprised at my sudden appearance.

 

‘Ophelia?’ Cullen remarked as he achingly rubbed his shoulder, a fresh wound surfacing on his chin from the cut of a blade ‘What is it?’

 

Breathing out in relief at the sight of him up, I threw him a concerned look as I examined his wound ‘You’re hurt.’

 

‘It’s nothing, just a scratch.’ dismissed the Commander ‘A damn marksman came at me with a dagger when I was trying to fend off a red templar knight.’

 

‘I’m so glad you’re okay, you have no idea.’ I replied in relief ‘I need to speak to you. Please can I come in?’

 

Somewhat perplexed, the Commander nodded and let me pass into his soldier’s office quarters, and I entered into a room with a desk in the corner, some books piled on top and a half empty weapon rack and armour frame on the adjacent side of the room. A rather simple preparation room for the head of an army.

 

As the Commander closed the door and turned back to me, I literally jumped at the occasion to blurt out my sentiments. ‘Cullen...I saw you ride out this morning and feared the worst.’

 

‘It was a hard battle, but we were victorious.’ remarked the Commander wearily ‘Although I am afraid some will not live to tell the tale.’

 

‘How many?’ I asked somberly.

 

‘Five mages and seven soldiers.’ he replied bitterly, pouring a chalice of water from a jug and downing it in furious gulps. Putting down the cup, he started to disarmour, unbuckling his cuirass achingly as he raised it over his head and placed it on the armour stand. Pulling off his tassets, the Commander continued to peel off his trappings until he was left in a white shirt and black pants, that he wore underneath his armour.

 

‘You came back.’ muttered Cullen after a few moments of silence ‘After everything I said, you still came back.’

 

‘I came back for the Inquisition.’ I replied adamantly ‘It was the right thing to do for the realm.’. I threw a stern look at the Commander as he frowned back at me ‘I know what you wanted but I don’t follow orders from you, okay?’

 

Breathing out heavily, Cullen shook his head in agitation ‘Is this why you have come to speak to me? I have just spent a day in battle Ophelia, surely this can wait?’

 

‘I need to stay here and fight for the Inquisition’ I repeated sternly ‘I just needed you to know that.’

 

'Duly noted.' replied Cullen crisply, recommencing to remove his armour before pausing in his tracks. The Commander shook his head in frustration, throwing his hand towards the door ‘Did you see what happened today? Our soldiers and mages are dying. They fight and they die, and they fight some more and they die some more. That is the way of war.’. Shaking his head, he turned his gaze hard upon me. ‘I don’t want you to die.’ yelled out Cullen ‘Damn it Ophelia, we were apart and it destroyed me, but I knew you were safe in that cesspit of a city. I left knowing you were finally safe.’

 

‘I thought you just wanted to be rid of me.’ I replied miserably, cursing myself as my lip started to quiver uncontrollably.

 

‘What man in their right mind would leave someone they loved to live in The Hanged Man?!’ replied Cullen furiously ‘Do you really think I wanted that for you? For me to be away from you? By Andraste, of course I don’t! You are everything to me. It took every part of my strength to leave you and now you come back just like that? Go back to Kirkwall, for pity's sake, and leave this madness. I implore you.’ Passionately he grabbed my hands in his, running his fingers along my forearm desperately, as if begging me to understand.

 

‘Do you want to know the truth?’ I appealed ‘I know I have a duty to perform, and that is what I must do. I also know I want to be here because it is where you are. I saw you leave this morning and faced with the reality that I may have never seen you again I was sickened. I love you and I can’t live without you. Whatever has happened, I let that keep me away from you. Don’t push me away, I beg you.’

 

The Commander’s face softened as he moved towards me, cupping my face heatedly as he pressed his mouth against mine, before covering my face and neck with savage, pent up kisses.

 

‘I want you here with me, of course I do.’ he murmured heatedly ‘That is all I have ever wanted. I didn’t think you would ever want me after what I did.’

 

Frantic and desperately I kissed him back, grabbing his head in my hands and tasting him deep, the ex-templar running his lascivious salty lips across mine.

 

‘Say you forgive me, please Ophelia.’ Cullen murmured between kissing my cheeks, and forehead, neck and shoulders, pulling away at the material of my top to suck hard on my skin ‘I need to know you do.’

 

‘I forgive you. I forgive you’ I whispered breathlessly, a shaky laugh on my lips ‘I forgive you.’

 

Grabbing his hands across my cheeks, Cullen held my head and pressed his forehead against mine. ‘Thank you.’ he murmured.

 

Running his hands across my waist, I could sense the ex-templar’s breathing growing heavier as his eyes lulled shut for a moment, as if possessed. Catching my breath, Cullen pushed me a few paces back so I was pressed against his desk, as he began kissing as my neck more aggressively, forcing my hands down hard on the table as he pushed himself onto me. Suddenly he pulled himself away, turning back to drink more of the water in the chalice on his desk in hasty gulps.

 

‘You should go.’ he added after he had drained another chalice ‘I’ve just run my blade through a dozen enemies. My blood is up.’

 

‘What does that mean?’ I scoffed, watching him as he tried to distract himself from looking at me, removing the greaves off his legs, the metal stained red as he cast it against the wooden rack. ‘Are you ignoring me again?’ I accused sharply.

 

The Commander shook his head, throwing a desperate, if not carnal, look my way. ‘No of course not.’ he replied darkly ‘You don’t understand, the moment after battle, the exertion and stamina, blood and sweat in the air, the feel of your pulse throbbing as you plunge your blade into your foes, that adrenaline surge...all of that makes me incredibly...savage in the aftermath. I’m in no mood to play nice.’

 

‘So you’re warning me to run before you ravage me?’ I chuckled, raising my brow in intrigue.

 

Cullen looked in utter torment as he ran his eyes up and down me. ‘You don’t understand. I need to seed you.’ growled Cullen ‘I know you’re ripe at the moment, and you are doing things to me that no woman should do to a man. I have very little willpower at present, so I beg you, you need to leave.’

 

I grinned, knowing he was right, although his memory of my cycle was a little disconcerting. Two weeks after my courses, and many a week without Cullen’s intimacy, I was feeling the same primal instinct, post battle or not.

 

‘Then fuck me.’ I teased, deciding to play along ‘and bury your seed deep. You know I take thistle and wild carrot seed poultices to avoid any mishaps. Take me now, if that is your will?’

 

Cullen ran his hands through his hair in anguish ‘It’s not just that. I mean it, I can’t play nice Ophelia.’ he warned ‘I’ve craved you for so long and with this blood lust surging through my veins at present, I risk taking you somewhat more savagely. I cannot control it, and I do not want to hurt you.’

 

That was enough to sate my curiosity and I began to unbutton my top. ‘Do your worst.’ I remarked in wicked delight.

 

His eyes were wild and frenzied, and I could still see specks of red flecked on the Commander’s face from the blood of his enemies. Heavily breathing, Cullen heatedly ripped off his white shirt and threw it to the ground, following on with his black pants that he kicked off furiously, until he was stark naked, muscular, hard and covered in a sweat covered scent that made my senses scream in wanton lust.

 

Roughly the Commander lunged at me, pulling my hips barbarically against his body. ‘I’d breed you every month if I could.’ growled Cullen, loosening my belt and unbuckling it sharply, before pulling down my pants roughly as he lowered onto his knees. Running his lips lightly across my stomach, his warm breath sent bumps across my skin. ‘The mere thought of filling your belly makes my dick swell and become so fucking hard.’ he whispered heatedly ‘Conquering you mercilessly, savagely and relentlessly in this primal urge I cannot fight.’

 

Rising once more to meet my eyes, like a predator meeting its prey, he pushed me back against the desk. Grabbing his erection in his hands, a few drops of pre-cum had oozed out.

 

‘It’s been waiting a long time to fill you again.’ he murmured. Running his fingers over the drips of sticky semen, he brought them up to my lips.

 

‘Taste’ he purred, his eyes drilling into mine, running his forefinger across my lips, smearing me with his glistening divinity, and encouraging me to suck his saltiness while he growled deeply in approval. He was a brute smearing his scent across me as if claiming me as his own, and I relished the hold he had over me.

 

Pushing me back against his desk, the ex-templar roughly spread my bare legs aside, as if he owned them and what were between. Cullen groaned as he let his middle and fore finger trail down across my pink slit, the wetness coating his digits as he drew them up to his mouth and tasted them.

 

‘Sweetness’ he growled, returning for more.

 

It was incredibly erotic seeing the Commander taste me so brazenly, like he was savouring the juices of a ripe melon, running his fingers into his mouth and sucking them dry. Cullen was indeed wild in his state, his blood up and all he wanted was to fuck, a need I could see in his frenzied eyes. It was hot and completely fascinating to see him so fixated, and naturally I was perversely turned on by it.

 

Standing before me, his massive girth pulsated, mast high before me, as hard as stone as it gorged with blood. With my ass pressed against the table, Cullen came between my legs and positioned himself.

 

‘Take me deep.’ grunted Cullen as he thrust himself through my slickness, up into my core. So aroused, I surrendered to the Commander, relaxing my muscles and giving myself completely over to him as he sheathed himself as deep as he could possibly reach. I could feel the tip of his intruder on the limits of my insides, hitting that spot mercilessly as he moved in and out of me as I milked his cock. It had been too long since either of us had release, and we both moaned at the sensation of his penetrations. Opening up, I let him use me to his will as he pounded angrily into me, driven by an impulse that he couldn’t escape. Cullen needed to use me, and Andraste preserve me, I wanted to be used.

 

Growling like a wild animal, like a beserker on the battlefield, Cullen lent firmly over me, his prowess demanding the authority he had over me, performing his primal urge as he thrust hard. Aroused and swollen, his cock was pulsating in my depths, and he moaned at every firm stroke, a throaty huskiness escaping from his throat.

 

Running his lips lightly over mine, Cullen refused the kiss I wanted to bestow, pulling away cruelly with a smirk every time I tried to make impact. Instead he kept his eyes directly above mine, staring deeply into me as he fucked me with long strokes. Every thrust of his member I cried out, my eyes lulling shut in possession as he conquered me.

 

‘Look at me.’ threatened Cullen as he watched me shudder through each thrust, his muscular frame pushing up harder with force ‘Straight into my eyes, I want to see your soul staring back at me while I fuck you.’

 

Almost as if punishing me, he would fuck firmer and harder before pulling back to slow, tender strokes. My core buzzing, all I could think of was taking him deeper and harder, but he knew the control he now had over me and was growing more and more aroused by it. Panting in arousal, Cullen played me in delight, enjoying my whimpers and pleas for more.

 

With a smile, he felt me tighten around him and the ex-templar slowed his pace suddenly to a halt. ‘You’re not thinking of doing that yet?’ he murmured devilishly ‘I cannot allow that. I want you to beg...when the time is right.’

 

‘Never.’ I grinned, and grinning back Cullen forced himself hard up into me, producing a whimper from my lips.

 

With a dominant hand, Cullen pressed my chest down so my back was flat against the table, and raised my hands above my head, securing them firmly with his grip, as he continued to torture me with long strokes, his breathing growing more and more shallow as he ravaged me. I craved for his aggression, moaning as he forced himself furiously into me as I helplessly accepted it, only for him to slow down once more. Cullen mocked me with tender, gentle penetrations that were only done to taunt and tease me.

 

‘Beg me.’ demanded Cullen again ‘I can continue with this pace for a long, long time. You know I rather enjoy torturing you when you don’t submit to me.’

 

‘You’ll come before then, and I don’t submit.’ I hissed, raising my hips higher to try and take him in deeper. Wrapping my legs around him, I tried to encourage his more forceful penetrations.

 

‘Tut tut.’ replied the Commander, withdrawing suddenly and wrenching me off the table roughly. Turning back to the pile of clothes discarded, he rummaged about before procuring his black, leather belt. Slapping it hard against his hand, the heavy smack of the leather cracking sharp in the silence of the room, he walked back to me with a dark smirk on his face. I couldn’t draw away from his amber eyes as he looked wickedly at me, a master standing over his submissive, his height and towering frame overshadowing mine as I knew I was helpless against his wrath.

 

Stroking my nape with an aroused sigh, Cullen brought the leather around my neck, and I gasped as he secured it tight around my jugular.

 

‘Good girl.’ murmured Cullen ‘Accept your collar.’

 

The beating in my chest was overwhelming, I had never seen Cullen this ruthless before. He had transformed into a sadistic master, one that wanted to inflict all sorts of pain and pleasure on me for his own gratification. A dark prince beckoning me into his kingdom, and I wanting to join him.

 

The Commander placed one soft kiss on my cheek before yanking the leather with him firmly as he led me on. Choking and spluttering, I stumbled on, being pulled quiet roughly, more aroused than ever as a naked Cullen dragged me along, as he would a prisoner.

 

‘Come.’ he muttered, opening the adjoining door, to my horror, and leading me through into a weapons room. The thrill of someone seeing us was titillating, and yet thankfully there were no awaiting eyes. The room was similar to the former we had been in, although there were many racks of weapons, and shields, and a larger table in the center of the room.

 

‘Lie flat on the table.’ Cullen ordered sharply, like he would order any recruit, turning to secure the lock on the door ‘And don’t you dare move an inch unless I say.’. His voice was stern and unforgiving, and I was under no delusion that I would suffer the repercussions if I didn’t obey him.

 

Making my way to the center of the room, I climbed onto the table and lay myself on the hard, wooden surface, the roughness of the grain scratching my naked skin as I waited in ragged breaths of anticipation. I didn’t know what Cullen was capable of in this state, and I was more than a little nervous and excited.

 

Cullen watched me from across the room, his fingers dancing across his lips, his erection hard and mast high. He stood silently, taking me in for a long while as he firmly stroked his dick. After may torturous moments of waiting, the Commander slowly came over to my side. With one hand still firm around his erect cock, he outstretched his other hand, running his fingers lightly across my face, the warmth of his skin brushing against my eyelids and nose, forehead and temples, cheeks and lips, as he trailed to my neck, tugging at the leather belt a few times to hear me gasp, before wandering his hands to my chest. Arching my back, I craved for his fingers but Cullen pulled them away sharply.

 

‘I told you not to move.’ he growled, pulling my collar up towards him so I gasped and choked for a moment ‘What do you say?’

 

‘Yes Commander.’ I murmured, biting my lip in delight. I had missed the sadistic perversity that Cullen produced behind closed doors. I was mewing for it like a kitten for its milk.

 

Extending his hand, he ran his fingers over my nipples and slowly began to pull them up, the sharp pain feeling incredible as my once soft peaks turned into hard nubs. Alternating, he squeezed and pulled my points with his fore finger and thumb, breathing heavily as he watched me in silence. Casting my eyes across I could see his member oozing a little more pre-cum, the ex-templar hot and ready. Growing rougher by the minute, the Commander began pulling my skin tighter and my peaks higher and higher until they couldn’t extend any further and I cried out.

 

‘Shhhh, take the pain from your Commander.’ murmured Cullen, kneading and pinching my nipples hard a few more times before releasing me.

 

Slowly he ran his fingers down further, lightly tickling my thighs before running his middle finger ever so lightly across my dripping cunt, teasing it with light strokes, flicks and pinches over my bud of nerves, manipulating my clit to swell and throb, watching me with a wicked smile on his lips as I writhed under his touch.

 

‘Don’t move.’ he threatened as he continued to finger along my labia, watching me like a hawk to ensure I took the pleasure in complete stillness. His chest heaved as he continued to tease me, to prod me, and to transform me into a writhing body of flesh for his gratification.

 

‘You’re moving again. Turn over.’ he ordered angrily, and obediently I turned to lay face down on the table.

 

My breathing was fast as I could hear him retreat to the side of the room, only to hear his footsteps once more, heavy on the stone returning to my side. Moments later the sensation of a thick, coarse rope trailed lightly across my skin. Cullen let it run across my back, teasing it down my hips, and along the crack of my buttocks, his breathing heavy as he drew it across my flesh in swirls and flicks. Suddenly the Commander withdrew the rope and began binding it tight across my back, wrapping it once under the table and then wrapping it a second time across my hips. The coarseness of the material dug hard into my flesh and I was left bound and unable to move.

 

Cullen breathed in deeply, and I could feel him watching me as he ran his fingers along the ropes, brushing my skin along the way. ‘I’ve bound you tight so you can’t escape.’ he murmured ‘Do you like being bound by your Commander?’

 

‘Yes Commander.’ I whispered breathlessly.

 

‘You moved before when I told you to be still, and you need to be punished for that.’ continued Cullen ‘Does my lady wish to be punished?’

 

My heart skipped a beat before I replied ‘Yes Commander, please punish me.’

 

‘Good girl’ murmured Cullen.

 

Moments passed, maybe more, as I waited in silent anticipation, knowing I couldn’t move. There was no escape from whatever depravities awaited me. Suddenly four stings of sharp pain stung against my ass. Cullen had began spanking me with a strip of wood, most likely the flat side of a mock sword.

 

‘You naughty creature.’ purred Cullen, running his finger at my glistening entrance ‘Look at how wet you are getting from me spanking you. Does the pain make you so slick? Or the thought that my cock will soon be ramming into you without mercy? Now, thank your Commander for spanking you.’

 

He landed a hard whack across both my cheeks and I cried out in pain, the wood was thick and landed a painful blow. Biting my lip, I added a hoarse ‘Thank you.’

 

With all his force, Cullen now belted my ass again and I screamed out this time, my flesh searing with heat.

 

‘Shhhh.’ murmured Cullen, running his hands gently across my skin. He paddled the inside of my thighs a few times on each leg and I flinched in pain. ‘What do you say?’

 

‘Thank you.’ I whimpered.

 

Cullen continued to hit my ass, more aggressively than I’d experienced before, each whack growing harder and harder until there were tears in my eyes and my cheeks bright red and inflamed. Every time I cried out, I could tell he was taking erotic delight in my discomfort, and it was more filthy than I had could have ever imagined. When the pain reached a level I couldn’t handle, Cullen would stop every now and then, and switch to flicking me with an arrow, the narrow sting whipping me with less force but more sharpness. His punishment was indeed agonising and I wondered whether he would release me before bruising me purple with welts.

 

Finally Cullen stopped the assault, dropping down to place soft kisses on my cheeks, the heat from his lips adding to fire on my skin and the burning that ached for him within. He continued to kiss and rub my ass, whispering to me about how pleased he was as I lay bound.

 

‘Good, good.’ he whispered ‘You take your beatings from the Commander well. This makes me happy.’

 

Moving to the head of the table, Cullen stood before me as I lifted my eyes, face to face with his cock.

 

‘Look at the mess you’ve made.’ growled Cullen suddenly ‘I’m leaking.’. Pulling the belt up, my neck and head were lifted manually to meet his throbbing penis.

 

With a grin, I eagerly opened my mouth as Cullen pushed his salty cock through my rounded lips, and I sucked him with enthusiasm, the twinge of his member shuddering against my tongue. His cock tasted so musky and I wanted to savour him more and more. Keeping my mouth open, I remained still and let him take control, to thrust back and forth into my mouth at his own pace, the way he often enjoyed it, until I could hear him groaning loud, and I more than a little gagging from his enthusiasm. Pushing his tip to the back of my throat, he kept his dick deep and still, using his thumb to wipe a tear from my eye as his member stirred and spasmed. Locking my eyes with his sinfully smiling pair, I held him in my throat until I spluttered and was released. Moaning from the sensation, Cullen pulled away suddenly and retreated to the back of the table once more.

Loosening my ties slightly, he dragged my hips closer to him as he remained behind me, raising my ass in the air and my chest pressed firm on the table. Cullen ran his hands fondly across my red checks before moving his cock between my buttocks, lingering his tip at my rosebud to tease for a moment, a moan from his lips as he taunted the ring of muscles that pulsated at his touch, before lowering down to my other wet entrance.

 

Holding his cock at my cunt, he growled ‘Beg me to seed you.’

 

Biting my lip, I couldn’t refuse. All I wanted was him inside me. ‘Please Commander.’ I moaned ‘Fill me.’

 

Lips curling at his scar, Cullen smirked as he pushed himself into me.

 

‘Good girl, now let me go deep.’ he whispered before he began to stretch me out with his thick member, slowly entering and holding still as he filled me to the hilt. I could hear his deep breaths in the silence of the room as he stopped to feel me writhe and squirm helplessly beneath him, my muscles adjusting around his large intruder. Finally, he started to pump in and out, slow at first and then faster and faster.

 

Cullen grabbed my hair, forcing me to arch my back as he aggressively fucked me, hot breath from his lips caressing my neck as I submitted fully to his assault. The force of his cock pulling out to the tip and then ramming back in, over and over and over was driving me wild, his balls slapping savagely against my ass repeatedly, and Cullen grunting in deep satisfaction.

 

‘You don’t come until I tell you’ he whispered in my ear dangerously.

 

‘Yes Commander.’

 

Pushing my head down against the table, Cullen grabbed my hips higher and began ramming viciously into me, causing me to cry out from the sharp hit his cock was producing in my aching cunt. Moaning louder and louder, Cullen savagely fucked me as he held me down, his dick pushing to the limits inside my chasm. It took all my willpower not to come, my breath catching as I desperately tried to hold on.

 

‘Come.’ he ordered sharply and I cried out, a flood of ecstasy overcoming me as I orgasmed hard around his shaft, my muscles spasming violently around his cock as I whimpered in more pleasure I could bare to take.

 

Moments later, Cullen let out a loud animalistic groan and seeded me deeply, holding me down against the table as he released numerous ejaculations, a deep and satisfied grunt on each release, and brutally savage til the very end. His blood lust was finally released.

 

Head thrown down, his sandy waves covered my face as we panted on the table, utterly sated and spent. Finally Cullen withdrew from me, and moved to undo the ropes before pulling me into his arms, holding me close.

 

‘Thank you for coming to find me’ he murmured breathlessly, a more than satisfied smile on his lips as he held me affectionately.

 

Still trying to regain some decorum after such an assault, I added breathlessly ‘If that was us making up, I want to fight more often.’

 

Lip curled in amusement, Cullen chuckled ‘Of course you would say that you saucy minx. Mmmm but I enjoyed that.’. He moaned, kissing me tenderly on the mouth ‘Maker’s breath how I enjoyed that. Do you see what perversities you make me want to do to you?’

 

‘My fault?’ I replied in amusement.

 

‘No mine.’ growled Cullen ‘You were just in the right place at the right time.’

 

‘Are you always like that after a battle.’ I baffled ‘I had no idea it had that affect on you. I feel I should start escorting you more on the field.’

 

Rubbing his neck, Cullen chuckled. ‘Sometimes, yes. It’s a battle surge, and it releases a somewhat untameable side to me.’

 

‘Must be a warrior thing.’ I shrugged ‘I usually just want a cup of tea, a biscuit and a nap after battling a few bears’.

 

Cullen laughed, running his hands affectionately across my back as he held me close ‘Ophelia, I have missed you so much.’

 

‘I can tell!.’ I scoffed.

 

‘No.’ he replied with a frown ‘I missed you. To think I’d lost for forever, only to find you and then know I had to let you go.’. Cullen’s expression grew dark ‘I thought I was doing the right thing by keeping my distance.. Thank you for coming to find me. I can’t say it enough, but I am sorry for what happened, and it will take time for you to trust me I know that. I will earn your trust again, I swear it.’

 

Curling my fingers around his hair affectionately, I nodded ‘I won’t pretend it’ll take a while, but I am where I want to be. I love you.’. Looking utterly miserable all of a sudden, I added ‘When you left this morning I realised the most important thing to me was you. I was hurt, and that will subside….but to live without you...’

 

‘...would be a life not worth living.’ murmured Cullen, wrapping his arms around me firmer, refusing to release the embrace we both desperately wanted to stay in forever.

Chapter Text

 

 

A blood curdled scream echoed throughout the cave, a horrific sobbing of distress that resonated and bounced against the dull blue jagged stones, intensifying as it permeated the chasm and filled the empty spaces.

 

Head clutched in his hands, body twitching every few seconds, Jowan refused to open his eyes. The cave was pitch black yet he craved for it to be darker. The sound of a woman crying came beside him, the soft shuffle of hands against the dusty ground, she desperately searched for him in the pitch blackness. It mattered not to Jowan, for he did not care to comfort or reassure. There was nothing in his mind except the sorrowful abyss he was falling helplessly into, waiting to be embraced at the bottom by the deathly arms of grief.

 

‘Jowan?’ whispered a meek voice beside him ‘Jowan, are you there?’

 

‘Do not speak to me.’ he muttered, knees falling onto the cold dirt floor as his head fell forward in defeat.

 

Hours passed as the mage remained still, existing but not living, somewhere between life and death where all the thoughts of his existence flocked to torment him. He remembered everything. Although he begged them to stop, and the voices laughed at him in mockery, only replaced every now and then by the fearful whisper of Josephine calling out to him. Each time he simply told her to be quiet.

 

Silence

 

Lily had filled Jowan's thoughts every waking moment since he had fled from the Ferelden Circle as a nineteen year old mage. Every day he had thought of her, for there was no words to describe his love for the woman. A woman who loved him unconditionally. She was an angel. To Jowan, Lily had been his radiating light in a tower full of fear.

 

While he was still living at the Kinloch Hold, he received information that his life was in danger by the templars at the circle. On suspicion of his practice of blood magic, he knew they would come for him soon. Jowan had broken down on the cold marble floor in the library that day, a distraught man in desperate fear of his life knowing he had been found out. Forever he would have remained on that floor, melting into the stone, surrendering to his fate that awaited him at the tip of a cold steel blade. However it was Lily who picked him off that floor and told him she would find a way to save him. With tears in his eyes he had told Lily it was okay, he would go to his death for there was no escape for a mage in the tower. Lily simply kissed Jowan's cheek and told him even if he gave up she never would. She vowed she would help him escape and they would be together, forever.

 

With the help of Sierra Amell, the three of them broke into the room where the mage's phylacteries were kept. Once Jowan had destroyed his he would be able to located when he escaped. After Jowan and Lily had destroyed his phylactery they tried to escape only to be discovered by Knight-Commander Greagoir and First Enchanter Irving. Greagoir immediately sentenced Jowan to death and Lily to Aeonar, and it was then that Jowan’s hand was forced. He knew there was no other way. There was only one way to save them both, and it was there in the Ferelden Circle Tower that Jowan performed blood magic to protect her. The look on her face when she witnessed him perform the blood spell had haunted him to this very day. Jowan had witnessed the very moment her love had transformed into repulsion. Lily refused to flee with Jowan and choose to accept her punishment instead. 

 

Jowan fled in desperation and soon became tangled up in the web of Loghain Mac Tir. Before Jowan knew it, he had been locked up in the Redcliffe Castle dungeon, and it was there that Sierra Amell had found and released him. His friend told him about Lily’s fate, but they both predicted that she would not stay long in Aeonar. Lily was a chantry initiate, not a mage, and she hadn’t cast magic. She had no place in a mage prison, and Jowan knew she would have been released soon enough. Perhaps Lily hated Jowan for what he done, but at least she was alive out there somewhere in Thedas. Living perhaps in a small cottage on the side of a seaside cliff, where she would look out on the stormiest of days and think upon the brief moment they shared together. Surrounding perhaps with bairns of her own, and a husband that loved her dearly. Lily was living a life of happiness. That is what Jowan told himself. 

 

Jowan clenched his eyes tighter, trying to force out the truth as beads of cold sweat trickled down his brow. That comforting story in his head that he foolishly entertained was nothing but a fabrication. A falsity. A foul fictitious tale. For the reality was much harder to digest now that it presented itself in its hideous form. Cullen revealed the truth and it disgusted the mage. Jowan had led the love of his life to her death, and she had died alone in that mage prison. It was his fault, and his alone.

 

Tears welled in his black eyes, like soft rain on a millpond in the middle of night, as he obsessively twisted at the leather braid around his wrist. Green and cream strips twisted and knotted together, it was the one keepsake his love had bestowed upon him as they met in the chantry room of worship in secret, nestled in the corner in excited hushed whispers and stolen kisses. Jowan had never taken it off his arm over the years and he kept it there as a reminder of her. His Lily, his sweet, sweet Lily.

 

Cold fingers of bone ran shivers down his spine, as if her dead corpse stroked him from the grave. Her tender cheek, skin like fresh milk from the pail, her brilliant auburn hair that was soft as lamb's wool in spring, that he stroked tirelessly and made her scrunch her nose in annoyance as it tangled with knots. All of that was now decaying in the ground, and her lifeless bones scattered. Did they even bury her? Was she given her last rites, or did the templars merely dump her lifeless body in an unmarked grave? Or did they purge her with fire and transform her to ashes, scattered to the breeze, her death the only moment she found freedom from that disgusting place?

 

‘Jowan?’ called out the female voice again.

 

Drawing his hand into a cup, a soft blue light radiated from his palm, and filled the cave in a gentle glow. Jowan sat there catatonically with his hand outstretched, a sad lifeless puppet in a theatre of the macabre. The mage’s face was long and his eyes were dark and heavy. He was a vessel of hopelessness and despair.

 

As the light filled the area, their eyes adjusted to a well supplied and richly furnished hideaway rather than a mere cave. A superior alchemists table surrounded by eight large wooden bookshelves filled with tomes resided at one end of the cave, while at the other end was a large wooden table laden with pots and pans. Shelves on the wall revealed glass jars with condiments, bottles filled with seeds and herbs, dried fruits and spices. Another large wooden round table and chairs sat beside the kitchen area, a pleasant glow of white stone radiating on the ceiling that would have made an enjoyable place to sit and eat. In the middle of the cave lay a beautiful embroidered large black and purple rug, and an ornate blue and gold Orlesian chair on top of it, surrounded by piles of well read books scattered on the ground.

 

‘Jowan?’ murmured Josephine, running her eyes nervously around the cave ‘Where are we?’

 

The mage remained as still as a statue, staring blankly in front of him, the empty void of his mind extending into the empty void of the dark cave before him.

 

‘I cannot see her.’ he obsereved flatly, although it was a statement not directed to Josephine. ‘Her face was so clear to me. Why am I finding it hard to remember her face now? I must live knowing I will never see her face again. She is gone from me, and I am bound to this foul existence to play out the horror of her final years over and over again in my head.’

 

‘Jowan-’ began the Antivan remorsefully.

 

‘To use her death as a mockery?’ he continued furiously. Jowan’s breathing grew ragged. Looking up sharply, he threw a fierce gaze towards Josephine. ‘You were after Cullen? Was he the reason for the summoning?’

 

Miserably Josephine dragged her fingers heavily through her hair, pulling at the dark strands in torment. ‘Please I cannot speak about him.’ 

 

‘Cullen.’ hissed Jowan in disgust, lifting his black eyes to meet the Antivan. ‘That pleb. Do you see his vileness now? Tell me you see that?!’

 

Tear falling down her cheeks, Josephine began to weep uncontrollably before wiping her face with her sleeve angrily. ‘He deceived me. He embraced me and said he felt nothing for Ophelia. It was all a lie. All of it.’

 

Jowan sighed, somewhat relieved that his companion was not entirely delusional. ‘How I wish he deceived me with his fouls words.’ he murmured ‘I fear he did not deceive me.’

 

‘Jowan I’m so sorry about Lily.’ began Josephine.

 

‘Do not-’ snapped Jowan, clutching his fist in fury before it began to shake uncontrollably, He withdrew it hastily back into his black robes. ‘Do not mock me with your insincere words of sympathy. I spit on your words. You did not know her and you mean nothing to me. Keep your words. Lily is dead and the templars let it happen. Templars like Cullen.’

 

Josephine remained quiet, her eyes to the ground.

 

‘He needs to pay. The templars need to pay.’ murmured Jowan ‘To suffer as Lily did. It will be then, and only then, that her spirit will be free.’

 

The Antivan looked fearfully to the maleficar ‘But-but-but Cullen didn’t kill Lily?!’

 

‘You defend him even now.’ scorned Jowan ‘Look at your face, all bloody and bruised. Tell me why you are defending him? He wanted you dead.’

 

Josephine began to cry. ‘He tricked me into thinking he desired me. I see it now was a trap to lead me to you.’

 

‘Of course he did.’ muttered the mage, easing himself off the floor ‘Your weakness was your undoing. Remember that, now that you have a second chance in this world. That lesson could save your life.’

 

Making his way around the large cavern, the mage began to light the lamps and candles. Several cast iron candelabras were located in each corner of the cave, and Jowan effortlessly brought light to them all, the room brightening until it resembled a luminous and homely abode rather than a murky dwelling in a cave.

 

‘What is this place?’ asked Josephine as she continued to study the room apprehensively.

 

Wearily Jowan made his way to the Orlesian chair in the centre of the room and eased into it, a heavy sigh departing from his lips as his head rested on the soft fabric. ‘My home away from home. My mouse hole tucked away in a labyrinth of shadows.’

 

‘Are we in Ferelden?’ 

 

Jowan raised an amused eyebrow ‘We are not in Thedas. We are in another realm, one that I discovered a very long time ago...when all was lost and hope was gone. A demon aided me and led me here, and the place has served me rather well since then.’

 

‘Demons?’ shuddered Josephine, looking more and more terrified. ‘Please I must return home.’

 

‘And where is that exactly?’ snapped Jowan irritably ‘To Skyhold? Or to wherever that annoying little accent of yours bids you home?’. He raised his eyes darkly towards her ‘You don’t have a home when you''re being hunted. Welcome to the life of a maleficar.’

 

‘But I didn’t-’

 

‘Consort with a blood mage to hurt the Inquisition?’ quipped Jowan 'I do hope they believe your evangelistic pleas, instead of choke on them as I am trying not to do right now.’

 

‘He’s ruined me.’ she cried out in horror ‘Cullen’s ruined me and disgraced my name.’

 

‘Then stop crying and do something about it.’ snapped Jowan ‘Help me destroy him and the templars. Pull him to pieces and perhaps, just perhaps, we will find some peace in our miserable state.’

 

Josephine shook her head violently. ‘I can’t kill something I love. I love Cullen and the Inquisition.’ 

 

‘Do not insult the concept of love by claiming such.’ scorned Jowan ‘Besides, I didn’t say kill Cullen. Cullen’s death would not satisfy me, nor would it ensure our freedom. We need more than death. A way to gain the upper hand. To gain control. We need the Inquisition to become the Inquisition.’

 

‘You seek power?’ remarked Josephine fearfully ‘That kind is impossible. You cannot use the Inquisition for your own purposes.’

 

The mage grew silent, his fingers pressed against each other as he delved into his thoughts. ‘Is this the moment they spoke of?’ asked Jowan to himself ‘Perhaps? No surely...but then again it could be? How did I not see this before? When all is dark and you are surrounded, the searing pain will force you to rise from the ashes into a sea of red.. I thought they were referring to blood, but perhaps it was red lyrium?’

 

‘What-what does that mean?’ asked Josephine precariously 'What are you talking about?

 

Jowan waved off the question ‘You wouldn’t understand. It is a prophecy I was given many years ago by a spirit much older than anything you could imagine. It knew my destiny the moment it laid eyes on me, and even that great spirit was overwhelmed by the revelation.'It feared me and what I was to become.’. Frowning, he strummed his fingers against the wooden armrest of the chair. ‘Yes...perhaps this is it? The demon army serves him, so why shouldn’t I?’

 

‘Demon army?’ asked Josephine, growing more and more uneasy.

 

Jowan pulled his attention back to his companion with a smirk. ‘Do you believe in destiny, Josephine? What do you think I ve been doing since I fled the Ferelden Tower? I have lived with the demons and I have listened to their song and danced to their tunes, learned their lessons, and milked their strength. They saw the potential in me and they trained me'in the dark ways. They told me there would come a time when I would be called, and that I would know when it was the hour of my accent. You are going to help me, as you promised to do so in my hut.’

 

‘What destiny?’ stammered the Antivan fearfully.

 

Jowan threw her a knowing smile. ‘I have known about the Elder One for quite some time. Many years ago they spoke about him, and the part they would play in his ascension.'

 

‘You mean Corypheus? Who spoke about him?’ asked Josephine, a look of utter confusion at Jowan’s comments.

 

Jowan sighed heavily in frustration ‘The demons. Demons Josephine, demons. The Elder One has hundreds of them. A demon army at his disposal.’

 

Josephine stared wide eyed and fearful at the mage, and Jowan nodded.

 

‘Yes, that’s right.’ he smirked ‘Now you, ambassador, are going to aid the other side.’

 

‘What can I do? I am disgraced.’ she replied hastily.

 

‘You need to return to Skyhold while I make an audience with the Red Templars. We are going to feed them information from the Inquisition, and in turn give it to Corypheus himself. In exchange we shall take control of the Inquisition, and bring down the Inquisitor and the members of the council one by one, until we can claim it for ourselves.’

 

‘You would work with the templars?’ she replied in confusion ‘You hate them.’

 

‘Yes, and in time I will find a way to kill them.’ he informed ‘I need power to do that, something I lack at present.’

 

‘That plan is madness’ scoffed Josephine, shaking her head towards Jowan as if to appeal to his senses.

 

‘Madness is what transforms mere mortals into gods.’ he observed, a dark smile on his lips.

 

Josephine shook her head. ‘Your path is different from mine. I cannot empathise with such hatred. I do not want to see the realm crumble at my feet.’

 

‘There is a fine line between love and hate, all you need is a push.’ muttered Jowan as he stood up, outstretching his hand towards her ‘Come and see, and clarity shall be yours.’

 

Pulling her up gently, Jowan approached a standing mirror nestled between two wooden bookshelves in the corner of the cave. The mirror looked very old, an oval looking glass gilded in heavy gold with lion claw feet. Waving a hand over the glass, Jowan muttered a few words as the surface began to shimmer and glaze, like cold ice.

 

An image presented in the frame, but it was not of Jowan and Josephine. Instead it was of Cullen and the Inquisitor at the war table with Cassandra and Leliana, their image fading in and out and then becoming sharper as Josephine focused on the glass.

 

‘Look at them, all jovial and back to work with you out of the picture.' reproached Jowan 'Does it surprise you that no one looks even a little forlorn? Look at Cullen. While you are here drowning in misery he smiles and reigns like a king in that keep. Cullen couldn’t care less as to what has happened to you. To all of them, your time is over.’

 

Her brown eyes darted from member to member, the cheerfulness piercing her heart like a sharp blade. Jowan nodded as Josephine turned her eyes coldly from the looking glass.

 

‘Why would Corypheus care about appeasing us?’ asked Josephine softly 'If we offer to help, why would he agree to work with us?'

 

‘He wants the Inquisitor dead more than anything.' replied Jowan 'We can lead the Inquisitor and the counsel to their demise, but not the Inquisition. We can take hold of that power across the realm. The people fear Corypheus and the Red Templars, well what if they didn’t have to fear them because they were on our side?’

 

‘How could that be?’ 

 

‘Corypheus, like any other master, has his subjects. He rewards his subjects.’ informed Jowan ‘Let us become one of his subjects and fall under his protection.’

 

‘The Inquisitor and Dorian went into the future and saw what would happen if Corypheus had control over the realm.’ warned the Antivan fearfully ‘The sky was full of rifts and red lyrium had corrupted everyone. The people of Ferelden were dead.’

 

Jowan sighed ‘That is because they resisted Corypheus. If we work for him we can decide our own fate, a fate better than that. Think about it? While the Elder One rules from the Golden City we will rule the people of Thedas. Would you spend out the rest of your days in poverty and waiting for death, or rise to the occasion and live like a queen? A queen that could rule over a realm that adores her, not like it is now with suffering and death, but flourishing. You would be their saviour, Josephine. Your name would be the greatest in the lands. Bards would write songs about you and the men and women would toast your name.’

 

Jowan smiled to himself as he turned to grab a tome off the shelf, idly flicking through the pages as his companion mulled over the concept. Perhaps it was the many years spent in the company of desire demons, but the mage had a knack of knowing a person’s weakness, and he knew he had found Jospehine's.

 

‘They would never have us back there at the Inquisition.'

 

With a grin, Jowan replied ‘Not looking the way we do. No.’

 

Josephine frowned as the mage nodded.

 

‘Yes, like that.’ he whispered wickedly.

 

‘It is impossible for a human to change into another form.’ stammered Josephine Ít cannot be done.'

 

‘There is a rite I once learned from an old desire demon called Yiluan, a desire demon who enjoyed changing appearance every week or so to avoid getting caught. The rite is advanced and I doubt there are many who could perform it, but I believe I am capable. All we need are two souls.’

 

‘Souls?’ she whispered ‘We must...kill them?’

 

‘Naturally.’ replied Jowan ‘How else are we to take their form?’

 

‘And this would allow us to return to Skyhold?’ inquired Josephine. She revealed an excited, albeit small, curl on her lip. ‘We could return undetected?’

 

‘Naturally.’ smiled Jowan ‘A fresh start in Skyhold could do us both a world of good. Who knows, perhaps even a fresh start with Cullen in due course? Or maybe a cage that he can sit in for ten years as your little prisoner. I care not, as long as vengeance is finally served. I will ensure he sees his love suffer and die in due course and I will revel in that.’

 

Josephine looked curious at the mention of Cullen’s love. ‘So I could keep him? Do whatever I wanted?’ 

 

‘Just so.’ confirmed Jowan, taking care not to laugh out loud at the obvious weakness of Josephine. It would be easy enough to rid himself of the Antivan later down the track, but for now Jowan needed her, despite his loathing. ‘Come now.’ he added with a reassuring smile, pulling her away from the mirror ‘We have much to do and little time to do it.’

 

 

****

 

 

‘A serving girl told me a thousand candles have been lit in the hall tonight.’ informed Leliana in a dreamy bard’s voice ‘Like a sky full of stars that we have created, mortal gods waving our magic. For who could argue there is any greater beauty than the wild flicker of flame illuminating our small and insignificant moment on life's grand stage?’

 

‘You need to come fight a few rage demons with us, Nightingale.’ chuckled Varric ‘That’d change your mind about the whole fire fascination thing.’

 

The main hall at Skyhold was brimming with people that evening. Men and women sat at the many long wooden banqueting tables laden with warm breads, salted olives, steaming meats of ram and pheasant, walnuts, figs stuffed with cheese, and jugs of sweet wine. It was a small but lively feast to celebrate the final day of summer, a tradition upheld across Ferelden. Offerings were made for a good autumn harvest, and the people were hopeful of a promising year ahead of them. There was a sanguine energy in Skyhold, and it was a positive sign of days to come.

 

At the back of the hall, a large of group of the Inquisition members sat around a sturdy oak table, including the Commander and myself. It had been a long time since wed all been united together for a meal, and as a result we were more than a little full of festive cheer.

 

Goblet of wine in one hand, and an arm lingering across the back of me, Cullen drew his lips to my neck.

 

‘Can we leave yet?’ he whispered devilishly ‘I have this insatiable hunger.’

 

Breathing warm air on my skin, his lips lingered for a moment before pulling away with a smirk. A few cheers and festive taunts sounded across from a nearby table as the leering eyes of Skyhold noted the public display of affection between the Commander to the Inquisitor. Cullen laughed loudly, taking a sip of wine before turning back to me.

 

'I thought you didn't like gossip?' I accused, playfully nudging him with my elbow.

 

Cullen laughed. 'Inquisitor don't you know me at all? I love positively love it!'

 

‘You joke, but I'm beginning to think you do Commander. Anyway considering we just arrived at the hall we can't really leave,’ I grinned ‘unless you give cause for further gossip. And dinner has just been served so you wont be hungry for long.'

 

Locking into my eyes, Cullen took another deep sip of wine, the lump on his throat bulging as he swallowed. 'That is not what I hunger for.' he replied with a wicked smile, pressing his wine tainted lips on mine for a deep kiss.

 

‘Ugh. Can someone pass that jug of ale over here?’ asked Cassandra in disgust ‘I fear reaching my hand between those two.’

 

‘You could have just asked?’ I grinned, pushing the jug across the table.

 

‘I have...eight times already.’ replied the Seeker dryly.

 

'Oh Cassandra who are we to scorn affection?' observed Leliana, running her green eyes around the table with cheer. 'Like the sweet call of the first warm breeze of spring, it comes and goes as it pleases. It can easily flourish like a flower growing in the heat of the sun, or it can be frozen like ice in a heart of stone. Infatuation will float away like a wisp of cloud, but true love will draw vibrant like a prick of a rose drawing one perfect drop of blood.'

 

‘Or it can be savage and merciless, like my stone cock fucking you relentlessly.’ whispered Cullen wickedly in my ear.

 

Stifling a laugh, I kicked the Commander under the table as he continued to grin deviously at me.

 

'You're a poet.' I observed sarcastically.

 

Turning to Leliana, Cullen pointed at the spymaster's cup with a grin. 'Speaking of poets, just how much have you had tonight?' he teased 'I haven't heard the bard in you come out in years. And yet here you are, all candles and blood from roses.'

 

Tapping her goblet with a slight drunken grin, Leliana nodded in encouragement. 'Idle hands make good for pouring wine, Cullen. Get me another and that is an order.'

 

'Your wish is my command.' chuckled Cullen, standing up to retrieve the wine jug from the other end of the table. 

 

Blackwall eyed the Commander walking by, only to turn to me with a curious look. 'So, you and Cullen? Not that it's my business but I find it an interesting match. Mage and templar. Inquisitor and Commander.'

 

‘The Inquisition has brought stranger people together, no?’ shrugged Leliana, not talking to anyone in particular but very adamant in her sentiments. The bard brought her eyes gleefully towards Varric and Cassandra who were sitting next to each other, now busily chatting away as if there was no other person in the room.

 

I smiled to myself as I noticed the way Cassandra laughed and covered her mouth as Varric whispered something to her, their hands touching each other in secret under the table, something I had noticed when I had clumsily dropped my bread roll moments before.

 

With jug in hand, Cullen returned to his seat and poured into several empty goblets surrounding him.  Grabbing Leliana's cup, he poured it mischievously right to the top so she couldn't move it without spilling the wine. 'There you go, nice and full.'

 

'Jokes on you, I'm a woman of many talents.' shrugged the spymaster. Bending over, she lapped away at the wine goblet like a cat as it sat on the table, causing the Commander to laugh even louder. 

 

My eyes darted to the other end of the table where a pair of deep blue eyes suddenly flashed into mine for a moment, before turning away. My heart skipped a beat as I tried to distract myself by sculling the rather full contents of my chalice, spilling several crimson drops on myself.

 

Cullen’s eyes ran over me, before turning to examine Michel de Chevin, who made the unfortunate decision to look at me once more.

 

‘He’s been staring at you all night.’ obsereved the Commander with an amused look on his face, turning to see me fumble about with the bread and cheese on my plate. Even in a room full of loud voices, I felt the painful sting of silence as Cullen waited for an acknowledgment.

 

‘Has he now?’ I replied hastily, pouring more wine into my cup.

 

‘You seem nervous? Good girls shouldn't be nervous.’ observed Cullen, his voice low and stern. A voice that I had the pleasure of entertaining behind closed doors, and to my somewhat shame made me quiver with excitement.

 

Biting my lip, I turned to Cullen with a meek smile ‘Wine?’. His amber eyes held my attention sternly and I sighed, rolling my eyes. ‘Why do you assume he's looking at me? Who's to say Michel wasn’t looking at you?’

 

‘If Michel de Chevin is looking at me like that I have greater issues to contend with than just Corypheus.’ scoffed Cullen ‘I have that nagging sensation that I’m not privy to something here?’

 

Looking at him almost desperately, I ran my hand to stroke the base of his neck, feeling his soft sandy curls through my fingers. ‘Do you really want to talk about this now? At dinner? In front of leering ears.’. I nudged my head towards Varric, who was shamelessly eavesdropping on us, a smug grin on his face.

 

Thankfully at that very moment Cullen’s attention was diverted by a messenger, a cloaked man presenting a letter stamped with a rather impressive looking seal.

 

‘Commander, word from Denerim.’ announced the man.

 

‘Maker’s Breath.’ sighed Cullen, standing up from his chair. ‘Forgive me, I shall return.’

 

As Cullen left I had the misfortune of a grinning dwarf sidling up to me. There was no escape.

 

‘That whole Goldilocks issue still chewing away at him, isn't it?’ asked an amused Varric ‘I never knew I was partial to facial expressions but the scowl on Curly’s face when he sees you and Goldilocks in the same room is inspirational! Bards will be singing about it for years to come!’

 

'How about we talk less about Michel and more about you and Cassandra?' I taunted, taking delight in the ever so slight tinge on Varric's cheeks now forming 'You both seemed very deep in conversation over there?'

 

'Okay new subject.' muttered Varric, shoving back to his old seat as Cassandra made her way back to the table.

 

‘Michel de Chevin needs a woman.’ obsereved Vivienne. She had been listening intently from across with table while sipping a glass of fine green liqueur that I was certain wasn’t from the old brown jug in front of her.

 

‘Or a superbly dressed Tevinter man?’ added Dorian, throwing a lusty gaze over towards the ex-chevalier ‘They say Orlesian men like it both ways. I have it on good authority.’

 

‘Well between the two of you I’m sure our Maister of Blades will have nothing to worry about.’ I scoffed. Grinning, I added ‘Dorian, I noticed that messenger Will spending more and more time in the library these days? Often without a message?’

 

‘Naturally.’ shrugged the mage ‘Considering the view, why would one need a message?’. The Tevinter continued to stare wantonly at Michel, biting his lip in angst. ‘Look at his complexion, as white as Orlesian cream. It is a crime to have skin as delicious as that. I just want to lick it to see if it tastes as sweet.’

 

‘Oh darling don’t forget his exquisite physique.’ added Vivienne with a wicked smile ‘All those bulges and tightness. Orlesian men are built to tease the eyes of everyone around them.’

 

Raising his glass, Dorian downed his cup with a grin. ‘Mind you, it’s a waste under all that armour. I mean we are in Skyhold at night for goodness sake, surely Cullen can let his soldiers have some time off from all that ugly metal?’

 

‘And what?’ I grinned ‘Let them walk around naked for your entertainment?’

 

‘Now there’s a brilliant idea.’ smiled Dorian.

 

'Vivienne laughed airly, lifting her glass in approval. 'My darling once I went to a summer soiree in Val Royeaux once where all the men wore grape leaves over their chevaliers, and nothing else. Perhaps we should encourage our chevalier to do the same?'

 

'He'd still have too much clothing on.' retorted Dorian wickedly.

 

‘Oh my dear you’re making Ophelia positively jealous talking about our dear Michel that way.’ taunted Vivienne ‘You really mustn't be so cruel.’

 

‘She’s with the Commander.’ dismissed Dorian ‘All the while that poor gorgeous man sits by himself at the end of the table pretending to be interested by that annoying little dwarven arcanist.’

 

‘Poor Michel, always so polite.’ agreed Vivienne, watching him smile as Dagna refused to let him get a word in. ‘I wonder if he sleeps with a sword under his pillow, I heard chevaliers do that?’

 

Dorian laughed ‘A sword under his pillow? Oh no no, I only allow two swords in my bed, never three.’

 

Vivienne cackled in delight ‘Oh Darling you are simply divine. You should go rescue him, for who of us can truly resist a knight?’

 

‘The Inquisitor apparently.’ muttered Dorian, flicking his hand towards me like a was an annoying insect.

 

‘You do realise I can hear you both?’ I remarked flatly, although the pair had gone off talking on another tangent, leaving me in an awkward silence at the table while Cassandra and Varric spoke on one side of me, and Leliana and Blackwall gossiped on the other. Cullen could not have been too far away, so I decided to go in search of him before he found himself consumed in his work and forgot to come back.

 

Leaving the main hall, I turned towards the courtyard, making my way across the stone pathway before stopping to notice Cullen’s room was dark.

 

‘Can we talk?.’ called out an Orlesian voice behind me.

 

Turning around, I could see Michel de Chevin approaching from the stairs, sweeping back his blonde hair as he drew closer.

 

‘You escaped Dagna?’ I joked, feeling extremely nervous. ‘Good job.’

 

The ex-chevalier nodded with a smile. ‘She certainly knows a lot of information about things I have never heard of before. And have heard before. And everything in between.’

 

‘I was just trying to find Cullen.’ I informed politely, the wine drawing flush to my cheeks 'It doesn't look like he's in his study. Let's go back inside and get a drink.'

 

‘There are just a few things I need to speak to you before that. It will only take a moment.’ reassured Michel. With a soft smile he added ‘Do not fear, I would not dishonour you by trying anything else. I see you have reunited with the Commander.’

 

‘I wanted to talk to you about that.’ I replied guiltily ‘So much has happened over the last few days.’

 

‘There is no need.’ dismissed Michel warmly ‘We shared one kiss in the leafy confines of a garden and there it shall stay. I for one am fond of locking up pleasant memories to recall solely for my own pleasure.’. He gently grabbed my hand, running his warm fingers across mine as he drew his deep blue eyes to me. ‘For what it is worth, I am always your humble servant.’

 

‘Michel.’ I began hastily ‘I’ve worried about you for days. What happened in the garden?’

 

The ex-chevalier cast his eyes back around the courtyard, his mind distracted. ‘I remember standing here at the Skyhold Grand Tourney, ready to fight Ser Perth.’. Breathing in deeply he smiled in fond recollection of the day. ‘Do you remember what I said before the final tournament?’ 

 

‘Death before dishonour.’ I replied with a smile. Of course I had remembered. 

 

The light diminished from his face, and sadly he nodded.

 

‘Death before dishonour.’ he murmured. Retreating to the base of the stairs, the ex-chevalier sat on the step, arms resting on his knees ‘That is the motto of the Chevalier. When I mentioned that the chevaliers came often to murder the elves in the alienage, I did not mention that I grew up to be one of them. A final test of our blades, we went into my home alienage one night and I murdered three elves in cold blood. Three innocent elves.’

 

Warm night or not, a cold shiver crossed my skin as I approached slowly to sit beside the ex-chevalier. What could one say to such a confession? It was chilling and yet there had to be more to the story?

 

‘So they forced you to kill three elves as a final test to become a chevalier?’ I acknowledged without judgement. I knew Michel had given himself more than enough with this terrible confession weighing heavily on his mind after so many years.

 

Michel shook his head bitterly. ‘No one forced that blade into those elves except my own hand. The finest order of knights across the realm and we all were born with the blood of innocents on our hands. Very honourable.’

 

‘That must have been terrible for you.’ I murmured ‘I can see you were put in a terrible situation.’

 

The Orlesian looked up to me in surprise. ‘No you cannot do that. You cannot excuse my wrongdoings Ophelia. I am shamed and will never be forgiven by whatever is waiting for us in the afterlife. Look at the horrors I am capable of?’

 

'But there is also good that you have done.' I frowned.

 

Michel stirred in frustration. 'You cannot take a life and then be absolved by saving one. The evil is done.'

 

‘So you ignore the good you've done, as if it counts for nothing?' I replied with equal frustration. 'What of all the people you have helped? Serving as a chevalier, and now with us in the Inquisition? What of the lives you have protected and saved from the Red Templars? Do any of those actions count for anything?’

 

Never had I seen the ex-chevalier so furious, but he was and it was obvious that it had everything to do with his past. He shook his head in frustration before glaring at me sternly. 

 

‘I unleashed Imshael into the realm.’ observed Michel angrily. 

 

‘As did I,’ I replied coldly ‘but it doesn’t mean we wallow in our misery and don’t continue to fight. We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of. Things that have resulted in the death of another. In Haven I had to listen to the screams of Flissa as the inn burned her alive while I fought off Red Templars that were upon a group of the townsfolk. I made the decision to choose their lives over hers. I've sent out countless agents on missions that ensured they never return alive.'

 

'That is not the same thing.' dismissed Michel.

 

'How about when I went to the Hinterlands and I murdered apostate mages that were hiding out in the caves and in the wilds?' I continued angrily 'Mages that only wanted their freedom, and here I came sweeping across the plains with my tainted cloak of the Inquisition, allowing my party to run their blades through my brethren so there was peace in the area. I could recount story after story of how my actions have resulted in the death of innocents. You think you’re the only dishonourable one amongst us? I’m sorry Michel, in this place you’re in fine company.’

 

Michel shook his head stubbornly. 'Perhaps I cannot dismiss my wrongdoings as easily as you can?'

 

Throwing him a hurt look, I silently arose ascended the stairs. After everything we had been through was that what the Orlesian truly thought about me? Whatever the answer, he had said it and his words stung like a cut from a blade. If Michel believed he was dishonourable, then we were all disgraced and I was at the top of that shameful list.

 

I returned to the feast table where the Commander was now sitting once more. He threw me a curious look as I plonked myself lividly back into the seat beside him.

 

‘Something vexes thee?’ smirked Cullen, running his eyes across me in amusement ‘Why you look positively wild Ophelia, although I cannot say I disapprove entirely. Don’t tell me it had to do with Michel and you in the courtyard?’

 

‘You saw us.’ I muttered ‘By the Maker, why didn’t you come and intervene?’

 

The Commander shrugged. ‘Why would I?’

 

Scorning at his comment, I roughly grabbed the jug to pour more wine. I knew Cullen was jealous of Michel and that infuriated me, however Cullen’s new stance on being indifferent infuriated me even more. I had conveniently forgotten to tell him about the kiss in the gardens, but I was beginning to wish I would at this very moment so Cullen would storm off to the courtyard and throttle the ex-chevalier out of his self hatred.

 

‘Michel needs to stop hogging the blame for everything that has ever gone wrong.’ I muttered angrily ‘If I didn’t know any better I’d swear he would claim he caused the rifts in the sky. And created all the Blights. And was behind the mystery of the turnips ending up in the fireplaces at Skyhold.’

 

Cullen rubbed his neck, sighing heavily. ‘This is my fault in part,’ he observed ‘I’ve been working the man too hard since he arrived here. Michel just needs some time off and a good wench at his side. I’ll see that he gets a break.’

 

‘He needs a chantry member to absolve him of his ridiculous long list of delusional sins.'

 

‘You cannot tell a soldier how to think and act, Ophelia.’ warned Cullen ‘Michel has experienced a great deal in his life. None of us are prepared for what our blade will draw us towards in service.’

 

I couldn't help but feel as if the Commander was placating me with patronising observations. It made me all the more furious. ‘We all have experienced that. Don’t play the soldier card. It’s not the matter of contention here.’

 

The Commander raised an eyebrow ‘Then what is the matter of contention? Your reaction doesn’t match the matter. Look at you!? You are angry, and anger is always personal.’

 

‘Here we go again.’ I muttered.

 

‘I speak as I find.’ Cullen observed nonchalantly, taking another sip of wine ‘Forgive me if I am deluded, perhaps you would care to explain it to me?’

 

‘Don’t you ever feel horrendously riddled with guilt about some of the decisions we have made? The times when our scouts were murdered, or soldiers lives were lost because we made the wrong call?’

 

Placing the cup firmly on the table, Cullen turned seriously to me, drawing his amber eyes sternly to mine. ‘I keep a list of every person that has died for this cause, and take care to look at it every day.’ he informed me gravely ‘You are emotional so I will not react to that foolish question. Just know that I never forget one person who has given their all for this cause of ours. Not one.’

 

‘I’m sorry.’ I faltered, feeling utterly ashamed of myself. ‘What a stupid thing to say to you. It’s just..I try to be strong, and then I have people like Michel that make me question everything. For every action he takes he ends up blaming himself for all the bad and refusing to acknowledge the good, but I cannot keep on doing the same. We cannot be drowned by this guilt, or else we’ll never achieve anything. Leliana once told me; If Corypheus is cold, I must be colder.’

 

‘Yes that sounds like her.’ sighed Cullen, rolling his eyes. ‘The sentiment is admirable but take care not to lose your humanity along the way. Benevolence is not a weakness, nor is empathy. A good ruler will rise to the occasion, but a great ruler will seek to understand all before striking.’

 

‘Wisdom instead of animus?’ 

 

‘In a way.’ shrugged Cullen ‘Anger can make you strong, but it can also blind you. Its better to try and understand your allies and foes. If you can see their perspective, you hold a far superior power over ignorance.’. With a sage look crowning his face like an enlightened soul, Cullen tapped his head with a knowing smile ‘The greatest of kings rule with their head, not their blade, nor their heart.’

 

Running my hands across my face, I groaned ‘Damn you and your irritating astute observations!

 

The Commander chuckled, appearing pleased the message had gotten through. 

 

'I feel so foolish and incompetent, while you Commander seem to have all the answers up your sleeve.' I added flatly.

 

Cullen rubbed his shoulders wearily 'Unfortunately you'll find experience will be your greatest mentor. I've learnt through experience, and most of it was unpleasant to say the least. As Inquisitor you will face your own battles and there will be lives lost, as you already know. However if you learn from every experience it was not entirely in vain. Michel may not have said it as eloquently to you, but he is a good soldier who feels the pain and loss of death. Trust me, the soldiers that lose that ability to feel are the ones you need to be concerned about.'

 

'You should be the Inquisitor, not me.’ I replied, shaking my head.

 

‘No thank you!’ chortled Cullen ‘Commander of the Inquisition is more than enough.’. Placing his hand on mine, he gave it a reassuring squeeze. ‘I wish I could tell you otherwise, but great leaders are always the ones that experience suffering first hand. If you do not feel that pain Ophelia you will never understand what you are fighting for, and what you are fighting against.’

Chapter Text

 


 

Take care when wandering about, in the wilds of the valley and heights of jagged rock. What a horrific garden of wonderland we have stumbled into; where a turn of one’s heel can lead to flowering jubilation, and another leads to the twisted and thorny thicket of despair....

 

‘Athalwolf! Brother dearest, make haste! We need to find the mulberries and return to mother before the sun goes down!’

 

A man in his thirties with black eyes and thick curly hair falling to his shoulders ran up besides a woman similar in age, her raven black hair matching his, as well as their porcelain white skin.

 

‘Let the servants do that.’ Athalwolf moaned.

 

The woman grabbed his hand securely and led him on. 'Come along!'

 

‘Mabel, please, let us take our horses out and ride across the valley.’ he pleaded ‘Just tell mother we couldn’t find any. This is a job for children. Besides mother doesn’t even make the pie!’

 

‘She asked us to find some, so find some we shall,’ chirped Mabel ‘just like we did when we were children. Oh! Look there! That magnificent bush on the hill yonder. Surely that is the largest mulberry tree I’ve ever seen. Come, make haste!’

 

Pulling a reluctant Athalwolf, Mabel set across the valley and up the hill towards the large fruits abundant on the tree.

 

‘Well met!’ called out a cheerful voice beside the leafy foliage.

 

Somewhat startled, the two siblings darted around to see a dark haired, dark eyed man with deathly pale skin dressed in an elegant black waistcoat. He appeared a gentleman, but appearances were often deceiving. A well dressed man and a warm smile was often enough reassurance of respectability. Little did Athalwolf and Mabel know that this man was actually a malificar named Jowan.

 

‘By the Maker you frightened us!’ exclaimed Mabel with a laugh, clutching her hand on her heart ‘Sir, are you a guest at the manor?’. Turning curiously to her brother, she added ‘Mother and Father didn’t mention we were having guests?’

 

‘No, no!’ replied Jowan cheerfully, bowing politely to the woman. ‘I come from the neighbouring estate, Wydnam Manor. I am Lord Decoteaux’s mage, Crickin Fortes. I fear I may have spotted the same berry bush on my tour of the estate, although foolishly I now realise I'm not on the same land. I apologise wholeheartedly and wish you both a very lovely day. I shall return to the manor!’

 

‘There are plenty to be shared.’ observed Athalwolf politely ‘Stay a while and come sit with us, for I too am a fellow mage. Also I fear my sister will drag me back without a plausible decoy, and you serve one just as well!’

 

‘An invitation I cannot resist.’ laughed Jowan as he lowered himself onto the grass before the bush.

 

Mabel busily plucked the fruits and placed them into her wicker basket, humming a merry tune to herself. 

 

‘I am Lord Athalwolf Guildersleeve,’ introduced the mage ‘and this here is my sister, Lady Mabel Guildersleeve.’

 

‘A pleasure to meet your acquaintance!’ replied Jowan ‘I had hoped to see some of that famous Orlesian summer weather and I have yet to be disappointed! I fare from Ferelden, but have been here for a few weeks. You are lucky to live in such a wonderful part of the realm!’

 

‘Oh Athalwolf and I am reside at the Orlesian Court in Halamshiral for most of the year.’ informed Mabel ‘We return here whenever we have the chance, isn’t that right dearest?’

 

‘Oh yes, my sister is an ambassador at the Orlesian Court,’ nodded Athalwolf with a grin ‘and takes great delight in gossiping about anyone and anything with a prestigious amount of inflation.’

 

Rolling her eyes, Mabel continued to pick the berries. ‘Hush now Wolf, how you fail to understand courtesans is beyond me.’. Bringing her attention to Jowan, she added politely ‘Wolf is a court enchanter at the palace, and he enjoys the banter whatever he may say otherwise.’

 

‘Delightful! It must be very lovely residing in the Orlesian palaces.’ remarked Jowan pleasantly ‘I believe Halamshiral to be the most civilised of all the cities in Thedas.’

 

‘Oh yes, the finest architects in the land created Halamshiral.’ observed Mabel ‘Oh and the courtesans that reside there are beautiful, elegant and talented. I’ve never met a noble who couldn’t draw, dance and speak several languages.’

 

‘A talent well spent.’ teased Athalwolf.

 

Jowan threw Mabel a smile, pointing to her basket. ‘Are the berries ripe enough?’ 

 

‘Look at their size.’ she observed proudly ‘I have no doubt they're delicious!’

 

‘Ah, I only mention it for the berries on the last tree I came across were quite bitter.’ replied Jowan with a grimace. Shuddering, he recalled the taste. 'Terribly bitter.

 

Shrugging, Mabel plucked one of the fruits and took a bite. ‘

 

Perfect.’ she grinned, wiping a drop of purple juice from her lip.

 

Jowan leant over and picked one particular mulberry from the bush. As he tasted it, he let out a shudder ‘My oh my, no! Bitter to the core.’

 

‘How can that be?’ muddled Mabel, looking doubtfully at the berries in her basket. 'How can one I tasted be so sweet and yours so bitter?

 

Chuckling, Jowan turned his attention to Athalwolf ‘Í fear you must be the judge my dead sir, for between your sister and I we are completely baffled on the matter.’

 

'A curious mystery I cannot resist solving!' declared Athalwolf. He plucked three dark purple mulberries from his sister’s collection and munching them down, before grinning towards the mage ‘I’m sorry Cricken, they are as sweet as honey!’

 

Raising his hands in defeat, Jowan shook his head cheerfully ‘Then the fates have decided I must be cursed with picking bitter berries!’. The three of them laughed as Mabel continued to pick the fruits. Turning his head to the manor in front of him, Jowan studied it with interest. ‘How long before you return to court? I would love to invite you both to dinner at the manor. His lordship adores to entertain and would be more than happy to oblige.’

 

‘Oh we will stay for another week at least.’ replied Mabel ‘I would love to see dear Lord Decoteaux again. How has he been? It had been four months at least since we saw him last.’

 

‘Ten at least.’ remarked Athalwolf ‘Just before the feast day of Andraste, remember?’

 

‘So it was!’ replied Mabel ‘Well then we simply must-must….’

 

Slumping heavily across her shoulders and suddenly weak at the knees, Mabel collapsed to the ground, her dark hair scattered across her unresponsive face.

 

‘Mabel!!!’ cried out Athalwolf fearfully, lunging to her side ‘Dearest, wake up! Her eyes are shut. Whatever is wrong with her!?’

 

Jowan ran over and put his cheek near her lips. ‘She is breathing.’ he reassured, casting his eyes quickly around the desolate area.

 

‘Cricken please, you must help!’ appealed Athalwolf ‘you must go find...you must go find…go...find.....’

 

Groggily the eyes of Athalwolf shut and he too collapsed like a limp rag doll, across his sister’s lap.

 

‘Help?’ replied Jowan with a smirk. Drawing his hands up, he formed an orb around the three of them. It shimmered blue, radiating stronger and stronger until the orb suddenly vanished and the party were gone, leaving one lone basket left on the hill. Sweet mulberries full to the brim.

 

 

****

 

 

The spymaster was looking pleased with herself as Cullen and I walked into the war room that morning at Skyhold. A messenger had informed us to immediately join Sister Leliana at the war table, and we were more than a little curious, if not altogether apprehensive at the urgency of the gathering.

 

‘Cullen, Ophelia, come in quick.’ called out Leliana, beckoning us in with her hand ‘Cassandra and I have been waiting for you.’

 

‘Let me guess, you’re sending one of us out on an expedition to some awful end of Thedas?’ accused Cullen as he approached the table. Standing beside Leliana he crossed his arms firmly. ‘I know that look, it only appears when you are either pleased or about to take delight in someone’s misery. I'm guessing it's mine.’

 

Leliana let out an amused laugh, the room echoing with her cheer. ‘My my, you are wicked today. I fear I shall disappoint you however. Nevertheless you have put the thought in my mind and perhaps I will muse on it later?’

 

Cullen raised one eyebrow playfully. ‘I don't doubt it. Well out with it! What is this news?’

 

‘Lady Mabel Guildersleeve and her brother Lord Athalwolf Guildersleeve have requested to join the Inquisition.’ announced Leliana, holding up a crisp white parchment ‘It is as if the Maker himself has sent us what we seek in our hour of need.’

 

‘The Guildersleeve family?’ remarked Cullen in surprise ‘Surely you are not referring to Lord Byron Guildersleeve?’

 

‘The very Lord Byron Guildersleeve himself.’ grinned Leliana ‘I thought that might interest you. His daughter, Mabel, has willingly offered her services to the Inquisition. She has connections of an immense proportion across the lands, including the great standing her family name upholds. Up until recently she served in the Orlesian Court as an ambassador. However she has expressed some restlessness as of late, and wishes to relocate here.’

 

‘Who are they?’ I asked, still in confusion as I watched the growing grins of delight mirrored between Leliana and Cullen. 'Why is this a good thing?

 

‘The Guildersleeve family are one of the most respected and wealthiest families in Orlais, if not Thedas.’ ánswered Cullen ‘Their entire line has chevaliers running rich through it. Lord Byron was the head of the Chevalier Order, although retired now. His eldest son, Brannigan Guildersleeve, is a chevalier. His youngest son Athalwolf did not follow the warrior caste, but serves as a court enchanter.’. Cullen shook his head in disbelief ‘We could benefit greatly from this alliance. Lord Byron has many connections to the Orlesian military. Access to weapons. Even specialist trainers. Something we have had great trouble laying our hands on while Empress Celene sits on the throne. Lord Byron has great influence over the court, this is just what we need to make Celene listen.’

 

‘The eyes and ears of the Orlesian Court willingly coming to our door could be spies?’ warned Cassandra ‘Have we thought of that?’

 

‘I have,’ affirmed Leliana ‘but I believe it is not so. From what I have learned about Mabel. For years she has felt somewhat trapped in Orlais. Josephine knew her when she was attending court, and she has confessed many times at despising the Empress. Mabel is a great admirer of Gaspard de Chalons, although it is a well guarded secret.’. Leliana shrugged ‘I am not surprised this has come to fruition, although I feel ashamed I did not think of her as a candidate as our ambassador until now.’

 

‘Are you thinking she could be a candidate as ambassador?’ I frowned 'Not knowing her personally, that could be a risk?'

 

‘If she leaves under good terms with Orlais, as I will advise her to do, then yes I believe she could perform an extraordinary role as Ambassador for the Inquisition.’ replied Leliana 'Not knowing her personally is not an issue.'

 

Cullen frowned. ‘What of Athalwolf? You mentioned he too wishes to come to Skyhold?’

 

‘The younger Guildersleeve siblings are very close,’ informed Leliana ‘one does not go without the other. I believe Athalwolf became a court mage for the Orlesian court for that very reason, just to be with his sister. I have no doubt he is a talented mage that we could put to good use.’

 

‘The more the merrier.’ I shrugged.

 

‘And Lord Byron, I assume he will show support since his two children are coming to join us?’ added Cassandra.

 

‘One can only assume.’ grinned Leliana, looking over to Cullen ‘I thought you would be happy about that. Imagine what gifts he could bestow in his favour? New trebuchets? You can spend all your time calibrating them to your heart’s content.’

 

Cullen chuckled as the spymaster teased him, his hand massaging heavily along the back of his neck as he smirked at her. ‘Maybe you’ll get some new crows and a closet full of ridiculous looking shoes?’ he taunted back 'The more ridiculous the better, am I right?'

 

‘Oh Commander,’ quipped the spymaster ‘if you saw some of the shoes I have obtained in Orlais you would be worshiping them on my very feet as I walked into the room.’

 

‘An interesting thought.’ mused Cullen with a small flicker of his brow ‘Although I’m certain I could melt them down and buy some better steel for my army. I’m sure I would have enough to equip an entire battalion.’

 

The pair continued to chuckle amongst themselves as they began to peruse the formal letter between them.

 

Pretending to distract myself, I looked over a few loose papers scattered on the table, trying to ignore the unexpected jealousy that was creeping over me as I watched the two simmer and smirk at each other. How had I failed to see it before? The truth was Cullen and Leliana got on remarkably well. Exceptionally well. Of course I knew they had known each other for a long time, but had anything else happened along the way to have produced such familiarity with each other?

 

‘Ophelia, what do you say about that?’ asked Cullen.

 

‘What?’ I replied in a daze, looking up from the paper I was studying, one that appeared to be upside down ‘Sorry, what was the question?’

 

‘Cassandra, Leliana and I all agree we should offer the position of ambassador to Mabel Guildersleeve. What are your thoughts?’

 

‘Oh yes, I think that is a good idea.’ I muttered ‘Sorry I need to go check on something. Is that all for now?’

 

My words seemed to have fallen on deaf ears as Cullen resumed his discussions with Cassandra and Leliana. Running my eyes over the spymaster curiously, I noticed how beautiful her fine ginger hair appeared in the sunlight coming through the window beside her. Pursing my lips as I tucked my own unruly tresses behind my ear, I turned to quickly pass through the doors, trying with little success to stop the unworthy thoughts creep into my mind.

 

 

****

 

 

An hour past midnight, I sat wearily on my balcony staring out into the serenity of the calm night. The moon was tucked away in an overcast sky and a cool breeze blew against my white cotton nightdress, sending a shiver across my skin. Since the war council that morning I had been somewhat distracted and was now trying to find some peace when I should have been sleeping. Of course it was hard to do even that when Cullen had not returned to my chambers as of yet. Although he often worked late into the night, this particular night I was beginning to wonder whether that was all he was doing when we were apart?

 

A loud creak at my chamber door sounded behind me, followed by heavy steps on the stairs leading up to my chambers. Throwing a brief glance into the room I could see Cullen drawing towards the chair besides the bed, easing himself into it as he pulled off his boots. A few more minutes went by as he peeled off his armour, his naked flesh in my periphery as he retreated to the wardrobe and pulled on a fresh black shirt and trousers, before eventually making his way to greet me out on the balcony.

 

'Sorry I had to work late again.' he apologised, drawing up behind me to place a kiss on my cheek 'I could throttle one of my soldiers. A clumsy git named Lance. He knocked over an inkpot on all my paperwork at the barracks. Took me half the night to rewrite everything.'

 

'Oh. That's annoying.' I replied aloofly, not too interested in warmly receiving the man at present. 

 

‘You’ve been avoiding me all day, and ignored three messengers I sent to you regarding matters.’ observed Cullen as he drew closer to me, running the back of his fingers across my bare shoulder ‘Why?’

 

‘It’s nothing.’ I muttered as Cullen eased me around to face him. I refused to meet his eyes, and he gently lifted my chin, demanding his attention.

 

‘Tell the truth.’ he replied sternly, a curl at his lips.

 

Pulling away from his hold Cullen grinned and roughly grabbed my hands, pushing them flat against the cold stone balcony behind me and pinning me against it. He leaned towards me, an amused smile on his lips. ‘Ah ah ah, no escaping.’ he warned ‘answer me first.’

 

Furiously I tried to release my hands but it was useless. ‘Fine. You and Leliana seem quite friendly?’

 

‘Like you and Michel?’ taunted Cullen, pressing my hands harder against the stone and causing me to wince. ‘Of course I don’t embrace her in public and spend intimate moments alone in the courtyard, so I guess it’s not quite the same?’

 

Ignoring his comments, I felt I needed to say what I was feeling. ‘In the war room this morning. If I didn’t know better I would have said you were flirting with her?’ 

 

‘Was I?’ asked the Commander in amusement, lowering his head to run his lips hotly against my collarbone. ‘Is that what your jealous beautiful green eyes saw? Pray, what else have I done?’

 

‘I’m being serious.’ I frowned, struggling helplessly against his weight as he lowered his mouth to the left string strap of my dress.

 

Peeling down my strap with his teeth and exposing my chest, Cullen looked up at me sternly as he rose once again to meet my eyes.

 

‘So was I.’ he growled.

 

‘Have you been with her?’ I asked.

 

Cullen chuckled, running his hands against my raw flesh.

 

‘What goes on in that filthy little mind of yours?’ he asked huskily ‘Always suspecting me of lusting after some woman from afar? You’re not going to accuse me of loving our spymaster next, are you? My one true love?’. Smirking, he lowered his lips onto mine softly, pulling me into a deep kiss that made me grow weak at the knees. His hands continued to knead my exposed breasts as his lips kissed sensuously along my neck. ‘I think you know what I love.’ murmured Cullen devilishly, as his hands ran down past my waist and then suddenly up under my nightdress to my nakedness underneath, his wicked fingers trailing up my thighs.

 

With all my willpower I pushed him away and he chuckled, releasing me as I readjusted my dress and walked over to the draw the curtains inside my chambers. Turning back finally, I could see the Commander looking out across the view over the balcony, serene as the calm night before him and without a care in the world.

 

‘You’re not answering the question Cullen.’ I observed angrily, coming up behind him to shove him roughly on the back his shoulder. Turning around slowly, he smiled before suddenly grabbing me at the waist roughly and pulling me tightly against him. I yelped in surprise at his aggressive hold on me.

 

‘My, my, the Inquisitor is feisty tonight?’ Cullen purred ‘Don’t get me wrong, I like it. I do. Do you want to rough me up some more? I’m sure I could endure a beating from you for whatever misconstrued crime I have apparently committed.’. Smiling wickedly, he began running his lips lightly across my neck, refusing to release me as I shivered from the sensation of his hot breath on my skin. ‘I could strip down and let you flog me if you like?’

 

‘Tell me.’ I demanded.

 

Groaning, Cullen pulled away and retreated to my study table to pour some wine.

 

‘Leliana and I have known each other for many years,’ he informed ‘but not like that. Honestly I don’t know where you get your ridiculous information from, it is ludicrous at best. However I will be the first to admit that Leliana, without the daily stresses of running an Inquisition, is a very entertaining person to be around. I always enjoy our conversations. And yes we are friends, and quite similar in many ways.’

 

‘Similar how?’ I asked, more in accusation than intrigue.

 

With a mischievous laugh, I heard Cullen mutter By Andraste under his breath before looking back towards me. ‘Well, we serve the Inquisition for one? We are members of the council, and of course there is that other shared common interest of ours.’

 

‘Interest? What are you talking about?’ I asked, grabbing a glass of wine from the Commander as he offered it to me.

 

‘Our spymaster is a little nymph behind closed doors’ informed Cullen in a sultry voice ‘and she enjoys the same play as myself.’. With a grin, he took a sip of his wine, taking in my growing rigidness, before adding ‘However talk is all we share on that subject.’. Cullen raised an eyebrow ‘Leliana is attracted to women, not men.’

 

‘Oh.’ I replied sheepishly.

 

‘Yes, oh.’ replied an amused Cullen.

 

‘So she likes to, what exactly?’ I asked curiously, a grin of my own forming.

 

‘She has tasted the sweetness of the sadomasochistic forbidden fruit.’ informed Cullen, taking another sip of the wine as he looked upon me ‘We both take extreme delight in dominating a submissive for sexual pleasure. I imagine she would love you.’

 

Rolling my eyes, I took a large sip of wine. ‘I had no idea,’ I muttered ‘but come to think of it I’m not surprised. Leliana does have that, what would you call it? A mischievous side’

 

‘That’s one way of putting it.’ scoffed Cullen ‘She told me once she liked to strip down her pets, bind their arms to their legs and run feathers across every inch of their skin for hours...amongst other things.’

 

‘Really?’ I remarked, drawing up to the table in interest ‘What else did she say?’

 

Cullen grinned, amused by my interest as he leaned towards me, his elbows resting heavily on the table as he cradled his chalice. ‘Well,’ continued the ex-templar in a smouldering voice ‘Leliana has a special interest in toys.’

 

‘Toys?’ I replied uncertainly.

 

‘Wooden phalluses, steel ones, even glass ones.’ informed Cullen wickedly ‘You know how she has a fetish for pretty things.’

 

Cheeks growing red, I drank more wine as Cullen’s smirk grew wider. His amber eyes took in my uneasiness with delight. He was enjoying making me squirm and had no intention of stopping.

 

‘Leliana told me one morning she ordered one of her pets to choose two of her toys from her collection.’ continued Cullen, running his thumb across his bottom lip as he examined me intently ‘She then made them undress before her...and then proceeded to insert one steel phallus between their sweet lower lips and a glass one up their budding derriere. She then redressed them and ordered them to walk around the whole day with both toys tightly secured thus, ordering them not to be removed lest they be punished by the full fury of her wrath.’

 

Spluttering my wine, Cullen started laughing loudly as I wiped the drips from my chin.

 

‘You’re making this up.’ I protested, looking more embarrassed by the moment. 'That's just insane!'

 

‘No I assure you I could never create something as delectable as that.’ grinned Cullen ‘Now that is the work of a true master.’. Stroking my arm he added deviously ‘This is making you uncomfortable, isn’t it?’

 

Drawing a deep breath, I turned to retreat to bed, before hesitating and turning back again to the grinning Commander. Biting my lip, I threw him a humble smile. ‘I’m sorry for accusing you like that. I don’t know why I always like to think of the worst.’

 

A flicker of appreciation came across his face and a small nod of acknowledgement, as Cullen approached and pulled me into a hug. ‘When I am with you, I am only with you. I may have given you reasons to doubt me, but never my loyalty Ophelia.’ he informed softly, clasping his arms fondly around my waist as I wrapped my arms around his neck. ‘There are men out there who would carry on with others behind their partner’s back, but I am not one of them. Do not have doubt in your heart, for in mine there is only you and you alone.’. Placing a soft kiss on my cheek, he pulled away again and smiled at me. That expression. His face was soft, his expression so loving and affectionate, and it made me feel terribly, terribly ashamed.

 

Leaning my head against his shoulder, I breathed out deeply. ‘I’m a jealous creature by nature when it comes to you. I want you all to myself.

 

‘So am I.’ remarked Cullen with a dark smile ‘I think I have already revealed that hand, perhaps somewhat undeservedly.’

 

I threw him a small smile, my heart dropping in further shame. Cullen’s suspicions were not so undeserved. To conceal the kiss in the garden from him was deceptive, but I knew I was protecting Michel by doing so, and also Cullen’s feelings on the matter. Of course my mind laughed at this logic and whispered to me in taunts of delight that the only person I was truly trying to protect was myself.

 

Shaking my head, I chuckled in disbelief ‘So Leliana has a devious side?’

 

‘Indeed.’ mused Cullen ‘Did I spark your interest?’

 

Refusing to answer the question and ignoring the excitement I felt whenever Cullen spoke about filthy fantasies, I retreated to bed. Climbing under the covers and rolling to my side, I closed my eyes tightly shut.

 

‘Goodnight Commander.’ I remarked tiredly.

 

The soft breath of Cullen filled the room as he proceeded to blow out the candles, before retiring to our bed. A pair of hands reached out and ran against my naked thighs, stroking them gently as he drew up behind me. I could feel his hard, naked body firm against mine, his hands running across my stomach as he placed one deep kiss in the crook of my neck.

 

‘You don’t need to hide your fantasies from me.’ murmured Cullen ‘As your Commander I would say I should punish you if you tried to. We are together Ophelia, and you need to open yourself up to me completely.’

 

‘I thought I already did that.’ I quipped, resulting in a chuckle behind me.

 

‘Witty one liners from a mage, who would have thought?’ scoffed Cullen.

 

‘Your desires are mine.’ I murmured sleepily, my breath drawing heavy as I lulled into the realm of dreams ‘Do to me whatever pleases you.’

 

‘Be careful what you ask for.’ warned Cullen’s voice, close to my ear and yet already sounding a million miles away ‘There’s no telling what I may do.’

Chapter Text

 

 

 

I chased a dream

A feathery dream

Whose eyes were black as midnight

And all that dream

This feathery dream

Returned was barren sunlight

A whisper on a terrible wind

Mere mortals, each act we scatter

Forgotten and forgiven but never forsaken

In truth, it did not matter

Her spirit so delicate like crisp white wine

While deep fire in the mountain, tainted was mine

You chose the light, and I was dark

When angels sings, the devils hark

The tune was played, they made me dance

To this spectacle of life, to preen and prance

While all around me turned their ear

They clutched their purse strings ever so dear

Yet still the merriment tainted your eyes

My sight stole away, filled bitter with lies

Your horrid little lovely face

That plucks the string of fate without stint

Another whispered destiny, another dismal hint

To rue the day and cry out in pain

Beckons the question

Are the mad, truly, the sane?

 

Of rolling green hills and valleys embedded with the promise of a fertile harvest, it was that time of year when the land needed to sleep once more. The leaves were slowly drying up and falling off the trees one by one and the sharp nip in the air grew cooler by the day. Despite the chill Redcliffe farms had never felt more lively that morning with eighty or so soldiers training hard under the guidance of Commander Cullen and The Maister of Blades, Michel de Chevin.

 

The new recruits had come from all over Ferelden to join the ranks of the Inquisition, and this was their initiation before they left their former lives and journied up the Frostback Mountains to meet their destiny. From young to old, crop hands to noble’s daughters, there was a vastidity of character and caste eager to take up arms for the good of the realm. It was often said that a Ferelden was the salt of the earth, and one could hardly doubt it on this particular day. The recruits were true and honest folk searching for better days ahead rather than the idle pursuits of glory. When that could be achieved then they would gladly go back to ploughing the fields and stoking the smithy, and all that once was would be as it were.

 

The targets were lined up against the burnt amber bales of hay as the eager men and women took aim with their shaky bows, while others kept an uncertain hold on the hilts of their blades as they were instructed to thrust.

 

Coated in Ferelden steel armour Michel de Chevin directed a large group encircled at the side of the field, mentoring the recruits in how to fight with a sword. Presenting up his impressive blade that had been bestowed at the Skyhold Grand Tourney, he held it firm with both hands as the group look upon it with admiration.

 

‘A blade is an instrument that will demand your respect.’ he called out to the group ‘Only you can choose whether to be at it’s mercy or it’s command.’. Swiping the steel in front of him in a figure of eight, it sliced fast and sharp across the air. ‘When you hit another blade in combat, take care to not meet its edge. Parry with the flat edge only, not the sharp part of the blade.’

 

‘That can’t be right.’ muddled one of the recruits, and a few in the group looked around in confusion ‘That’s how you fight. Blade on blade.’

 

‘I take it none of you have had your blade broken in battle?’ observed Michel seriously, casting his eyes around the group as they shuffled uneasily at the concept. Michel shrugged ‘Of course you can hit the sharp edge of your blade against your opponents. No one will stop you from doing as you will. Just remember it is the active part of your weapon, the sharpest and easiest to damage. If you strike upon the edge of a blade, it will chip or break entirely. Then you’ll be fighting your enemy with a hilt and nothing more.’

 

The ex-chevalier moved into the middle of the circle before a new recruit, eagerly waiting to parry with his mentor. Towering over the Orlesian, the Ferelden man was at least eight feet tall with a large barrel chest and waves of red hair. The giant of a soldier held a magnificent double handed broadsword in his hands, outstretched towards the Orlesian.

 

Michel walked lightly around the circle, holding his own blade firm as he kept his eyes fixated on the man. With a massive swing, the Ferelden swung his blade heavily across Michel, who agilely stepped back from the impending blow, an amused smile on his lips.

 

‘The strength of an arm and the weight of a blade may seem imperative,’ he yelled out to the watching crowd ‘however they are meaningless if you do not strike with precision and accuracy. You need to be in control your weapon or it will control you.’

 

With a frown the Ferelden swung heavily again, a diagonal blow across his shoulder, and once again Michel evaded the weapon effortlessly. With a flurry of clashes of steel, Michel pressed hard against the man who struggled to match his agile strikes, his footing stumbling backwards as the Orlesian pressed harder and harder onto him, the ring of steel sounding growing louder and more forceful. The ex-chevalier parried his opponent’s sword with the flat of his blade and knocked his weapon hard against the hilt of his opponent, causing the Ferelden to drop his sword, drawing his hand back in surprise as it crashed to the ground.

 

The group clapped as Michel grinned.

 

‘Do not fear the size of your opponent’s sword, it’s what he can do with it that counts.’ mused the Orlesian, and more than a few chuckles sounded across the group.

 

Michel went up and shook hands with the Ferelden who was muddling his head in disbelief as he looked at his weapon lying in the dust.

 

‘I’ve never lost a sword fight in me life,’ admitted the Ferelden with a chuckle ‘let alone be disarmed like that!’

 

‘Neither have I.’ grinned the Orlesian ‘You fought well, just remember to practice on precise attacks. Your weapon is heavier than mine, and where I gain agility you gain force. You can use that to your advantage but you need to make each swing of your blade count. If you don't, you're just wasting stamina.’. Turning back to the crowd he added ‘Now everyone pair off and start parrying. And remember, accuracy over brute strength. Reflexes over frantic thrusting. Your sword needs to be one with your arm. It needs to be apart of you, and your eyes need to be hard upon your opponent’s weapon.’

 

Scouting the field, he could see Cullen yelling at a rather confused looking group of recruits apprehensively holding pike staffs and awkwardly lunging them upwards at an angle. The Commander looked like a man that had run out of patience as he tried to instruct the group how to form a pike wall, an essential formation to contend with cavalry.

 

With an amused smile the ex-chevalier turned back to his own group of soldiers.

 

‘This is horse shit.’ shouted one of the new recruits, a young lad with matted brown hair and a hardened face ‘That group over yonder are sparring with friggin’ sticks, and look at those idiots over there who can’t even hold a bow let alone shoot one. How the hell are any of us a match for those Red Templars? Might as well have signed up for our execution in the town square.’

 

Michel turned to the recruit, a frown on his face as he drew his blade and pointed it towards every face as he turned the circle ‘A true warrior does not fight because of how well he yields his weapon or what that weapon is made of. A true warrior fights with passion in his heart. You all fight for a cause. A person that fights with passion in their heart is a force to be reckoned with. Do you think I became a knight in a day? It took years of dedication and hard training. You start with sticks because that is where you begin your journey. That is your first step and it will be the most important step along the way.’

 

The group fell quiet as Michel cast his eyes sternly to them. ‘Now go and practice.’ 

 

With a heavy sigh the Orlesian leant against the fence for a moment’s break. Whether he wanted to accept it or not, he was beginning to act as serious and hardened as the Commander. Sternness aside, Michel wanted to instil in these soldiers a passion that he never was encompassed with when he learned to become a chevalier. He wasn't interested in mentoring with an iron fist. No. What he desired to do was to show these soldiers the true meaning of honour, and ingrain it into their very character. Merely thrusting a weapon in their hands and telling them to fight seemed wrong, for he knew there had to be more to make them truly great warriors. That was his calling and that would be his atonement.

 

A rickety carriage rolled slowly by as the Orlesian rested, and he could hear the voices of two women as they passed, eagerly speaking in rather loud hushed whispers.

 

‘It’s him, the Maister of Blades!’ exclaimed the first woman, eagerly looking out of the coach. Her eyes lit up as the carriage came close to the fence where the Orlesian resided.

 

‘Imagine being given a rose by him?’ dreamily whispered the second woman, poking her head out of the window beside her friend ‘Makes you hate the Inquisitor even more than that ghastly dress she was wearing on the day.’

 

'He only did it because she's the Inquisitor.' dismissed the other woman 'It was an act. He's a bachelor ready for the taking!'

 

Wicked cackles of delight sounded as the carriage continued to roll along, with a few recruits nearby snickering at the comments made about their mentor.

 

Feeling his blood rise more than a little, Michel threw his sword on the ground and walked away from the recruits with a clenched jaw. Grabbing an abandoned bow lying beside the fence, he drew aim and released an arrow sharp into a target attached to a bail of hail. The arrow head landed square in the middle of the target. Again he drew another arrow, and another, and another, until his arm was burning. He did not care. The pain was a welcomed distraction.

 

‘I fear for the person that was intended for?’ mused a voice beside him. Turning, Michel saw Cullen approaching with a raised eyebrow ‘Did that target talk back to you?’

 

Dressed in his heavy steel armour, Cullen’s brow was coated in sweat and he looked spent like his companion. The hot morning sun in Ferelden was unforgiving, and their recruits were proving even more so. The Commander rested against the fence as he watched the recruits nearby flail their sticks about. Shaking his head, he turned his attention back to his companion.

 

‘I’m tiring of the incessant comments.’ Michel muttered, drawing his bow again and releasing another sharp arrow ‘The Maister of Blades has brought more condemnation than glory. More gossip than even I can handle.’

 

The Commander threw him a pouch of water, and the Orlesian caught it with one hand. Nodding in appreciation, he took a long sip before pouring the rest over his head. The beads of water fell over his blonde hair and he flicked it backwards, enjoying the coolness on his skin.

 

‘An unfortunate side effect of being the champion of the Skyhold Grand Tourney I’m afraid.’ observed Cullen ‘Titles are never forgiving. I still shudder every time someone refers to me as Knight-Captain.’

 

‘I am a soldier, ready to fight for the Inquisition. I thought I had left the pomp and ceremony behind in Orlais.’ declared Michel heatedly ‘Who cares what we were, or what we did? All that should matter is the present moment. Now is all that matters, and the cause we are fighting for!’

 

Kicking the fence in frustration, Michel grabbed the bow and began to shoot another arrow while Cullen watched him with a frown. After a few moments of silence, the Commander cleared his throat sharply, gaining the attention of the Orlesian once more.

 

‘I’ve decided to give you some time off.’ informed Cullen sternly ‘It is long overdue and all soldiers must take it, including the Maister of Blades.’

 

Michel looked up in surprise. ‘I didn’t request for time off. Thank you but I do not want it.’

 

‘That wasn’t an offer Michel, it was an order.’ informed Cullen firmly ‘You have had no respite since arriving at Skyhold. You are tired and overworked, and that is not productive.’

 

‘You never take time off yourself.’ accused Michel ‘There are some of us that can’t afford that luxury. The soldiers may have their roster of scheduled breaks but I do not desire such luxuries.’

 

‘It's as much a luxury as it is a necessity.’ argued Cullen ‘When you're overworked, you begin to make mistakes. You'll take two weeks off starting from tomorrow.’

 

‘No mistakes have been made on my part, and I don’t want time off.’ replied Michel in frustration ‘You want me to waste frivolous time when there is so much work to be done? We have just received this new batch of recruits! I do not need time so I can traipse around Thedas and be harassed by people like the ones here, gossiping about the champion of Skyhold and other such nonsense.’

 

Cullen sighed heavily, rubbing his eyes as he tried to muster all his patience. ‘Is this about the kiss between you and Ophelia?’ 

 

Michel’s deep blue eyes darted to the Commander, suddenly caught off guard. ‘Ophelia told you about that?’ he asked, somewhat surprised.

 

The amber eyes of the Commander looked up to his companion suddenly, narrowing in suspicion. ‘‘I was referring to your grand gesture at the Grand Tourney. You apparently were not?’

 

Michel’s heart sunk as he realised he had slipped up. ‘No...I..’ began Michel uneasily ‘Yes of course that is what I was referring to. I should return to the recruits.’

 

The ex-chevalier suddenly turned and began to leave before feeling a firm grip on his arm holding him back.

 

‘What kiss?’ asked the Commander dangerously, refusing to let go of his companion’s arm.

 

The Orlesian pulled himself roughly off the Commander only for Cullen to stand angrily in front of him refusing to budge.

 

‘If she wanted to tell you she would have.’ replied Michel angrily ‘It is not my place. Ask Ophelia.’

 

‘And yet I am asking you.’ scorned Cullen, looking more and more furious by the moment ‘And if you were involved then it is your place. So speak.’

 

Michel locked furious eyes with the Commander. ‘It was nothing, just a kiss. It happened after she came back from Kirkwall before you reconciled. She thought you hated her.’

 

‘So the chevalier came in to save the day?’ observed Cullen flatly ‘What else have you done with her behind my back? Come now, let’s have at it shall we?’

 

The Commander crossed his arms, refusing to move, and Michel brushed past Cullen knocking his shoulder quite aggressively. The Commander turned swiftly and pushed the Orlesian in the back, before Michel swiveled around and took a swing at the Commander, landing a punch square across his jaw.

 

Clenching his fist, Cullen threw a punch at the ex-chevalier, hitting his cheek hard and the Orlesian stumbled backwards.

 

The pair glared at each other before charging. Michel lunged for Cullen, grabbing him at the waist and knocking him over. Pushed backwards Cullen landed heavily against a target before it gave way and the pair fell onto the ground, throwing punches and kicking at each other as they rolled on the grass.

 

A group of recruits began to gather around the pair, eager to see a fight between their superiors, with more than a few cheers sounding as the men continued to throw punches at each other. Blood spilled out of both their noses, dirt and hay covered in their hair as they continued to push and punch and ram at each other.

 

‘You just can’t keep your hands to yourself, can you?!!’ Cullen shouted angrily ‘Or do you just enjoy other men’s women?’

 

‘It was one kiss, nothing more.’ yelled Michel ‘You left her heartbroken when she returned. Forgive me for actually giving a damn about her.’

 

Cullen lunged at him again. ‘It’s two kisses now you damn Orlesian bastard. And you weren’t giving a damn about her. You were trying to weasel your way between us yet again.’

 

‘It’s funny because you seem to be doing a fine job of that yourself.’ spat Michel ‘Between wanting her dead and accusing her of being....’. The ex-chevalier stopped, realising there were people listening and he had already said too much.

 

‘Enough!’ roared Cullen, standing up with blood staining the side of his mouth ‘You are taking time off immediately. Now go before I lock you up for insubordination.’

 

Michel threw a dark look at the Commander before turning away. As humiliating as it was and as loathed as he was to accept it, he had an order from his superior and he had to obey. Picking up his sword he marched across the field, refusing to look back at the Commander who was glaring at him with pure loathing in his eyes.

 

 

****

 

 

The keep was busy that late afternoon with the new recruits being received in the courtyard and assigned to their new rosters. I was anxious to steal away Cullen, having spent the last few days desperately missing the ex-templar as he recruited more soldiers in Redcliffe. It was funny how I missed the subtle things when he went away. Like the sound of his breathing at night beside me, always heavy and constant, soothing me into a deeper sleep. Or the steaming cup of tea that he brought in every morning from the kitchens before I had managed to even get out of bed, leaving it by my bedside table before starting a new day’s work. Perhaps it was the templar in him, well-conditioned to rigid discipline, but Cullen often awoke early. I, on the other hand, found the morning a strange and displeasing time of day and desperately tried to stay in bed as long as possible. However Cullen rose as the sun did and in my eyes, he was just as glorious.

 

Was this what wearing rose tinted glasses felt like?

 

I missed the way his voice sounded deeper and his amber eyes transformed into the colour of burnt syrup when he was tired, returning to me in the evening with a content smile on his lips as he eased himself into our bed. I missed his warm musky scent as I buried my head in the crook of his neck, and the way it pervaded my senses in deep intoxication. In every way possible, I missed Cullen whenever he was not by my side.

 

Eyes darting around the courtyard, I searched for the Commander only to spot Michel de Chevin unsaddling from his white horse, sporting a black eye and a split lip.

 

Fearing the worst, I rushed over to Michel who caught my eye as I approached and threw me a half smile.

 

‘Ophelia.’ he remarked dispiritedly ‘Redcliffe sends its greetings.’

 

‘What happened to you?’ I asked hastily, grimacing at the welt on his cheekbone ‘Were you attacked? Are you okay?’

 

Michel waved his hand to dismiss y concern. ‘No, no there was no attack. I had a little incident with the Commander.’

 

‘Incident?’ I asked in surprise, drawing closer as the Orlesian achingly walked over to the nearby stone wall of the keep.

 

Leaning against the cobbled rock, he shook his head as he kicked the dirt under his feet. ‘Cullen knows that we shared another kiss. I am so sorry Ophelia, I thought he knew about it. He mentioned a kiss, and I stupidly got caught off guard and self-confessed before I knew what was happening.’. Turning to me with wide blue eyes, Michel looked deeply apologetic ‘You must believe me. I would never have revealed that to him intentionally. Cullen is now furious. I would never wish to unharness that onto you.’

 

His last words were more than a little bitter and made me in turn feel uneasy. It was evident that Michel was furious at Cullen, and judging by his appearance he had every reason to be.

 

I bit my lip, feeling more than a little worried at the reaction of the Commander. Cullen had revealed his anger on the subject of Michel and I before and it was chaotic to say the least.

 

‘What did he say?’ I asked hesitantly.

 

Michel shrugged, pointing to his face ‘Well this is what he did, and that was after I tried to explain myself.’

 

‘Michel I'm so sorry. If I'd just told Cullen in the first place none of this would have happened. How could he do that to you?’

 

‘It was one kiss,’ Michel sighed ‘and Cullen overreacted like he always does.’

 

Straightening up suddenly, Michel’s attention was drawn behind me. Turning quickly I could see Cullen approaching us both. He too was sporting a bruised face, a large purple welt at his chin. Looking back to Michel I frowned. He had failed to mention he had returned the favour to Cullen rather well.

 

Cullen threw a cold glare towards Michel and I as he approached.

 

‘Cullen-’ I began.

 

Cullen ran his eyes over Michel and I like we were a pair of rodents, a disgusting pair of creatures that should be driven out of the keep rather than linger where we were. Cullen’s jaw was stiff and his demeanour was cool and unnerving.

 

‘Michel,’ he ordered sternly ‘I don’t want to see you around the barracks for the next two weeks. Is that understood?’

 

‘Yes Commander.’ replied Michel darkly, casting his attention away from the ex-templar.

 

‘Cullen? Are you okay? ’ I asked softly. Reaching out my hand, I placed it on the ex-templar’s arm but he wrenched it away.

 

‘Do not.’ he warned coldly ‘Michel, I suppose, had some decency to inform me about the two of you. My suspicions about you both were true, and I now know where we stand.’

 

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ I scoffed, looking over to see Michel was looking surprised at the comment also.

 

Throwing a disinterested look, Cullen passed his eyes over the pair of us with little enthusiasm.

 

‘It means you have both played me for the fool for the last time.’ replied the Commander sharply.

 

Turning his back, he made his way back to the recruits in the barracks, already barking orders at several along the way.

 

 

****

 

 

Riding in the carriage, Jowan looked idly out of the window studying the passing countryside with even less enthusiasm. After the hundredth dairy cow, the continual split wooden palings and tired stiles, and scattered hedging and clumps of green shrubbery, the Orlesian countryside was beginning to grow somewhat disenchanting.

 

After Jowan had transported Mabel and Athalwolf back to his cave, he had executed the rite of taking their forms. Josephine had fearfully watched on as he performed through hours of drivelous chanting, their life force slowly draining as the Orlesian siblings desperately screamed out for help in their iron cages. Hand in hand, the pair eventually grew weak and died, their eyes finally fluttering shut as Jowan and Josephine morphed into their figures, like two hideous butterflies emerging from the chrysalis of death.

 

Josephine took the possession of Mabel’s body rather well, giggling in delight as she gazed in admiration at her new form before the enchanted mirror of the cave. The Antivan had come a long way from the quivering specimen lying on the floor of his hideout in previous days. Perhaps that was the way of the world? When faced with one’s own ruin, perhaps the soul changed into a ravenous creature determined to survive under any circumstance or any means possible. Jowan knew that the harsh realities of life could harden and change the most rigid of characters. Anything could be broken, reshaped and remoulded into another form. Whether Josephine had been that twisted creature of malice before, she was indeed now a spectacular spirit of malignance that danced to his tune of darkness.

 

Beside him, Josephine could not stop fidgeting, looking at her arms and legs in amazement and running her hands over them in wonder.

 

‘Will you stop that?’ snapped Jowan ‘You’ve been obsessing over yourself for over a week now.’

 

Josephine grinned, continuing to examine herself ‘I can’t help it. My body and skin colour, everything is so different. It is so strange. Even my teeth feel different!’

 

‘Yes, well, we all have our own troubles.’ muttered Jowan, running his hands disapprovingly through his mop of black curls that adorned his head ‘Get used to it. I don’t want you acting like this when we are at Skyhold.’

 

‘My waist is so small.’ she confessed in wicked delight ‘Did you know I can fit into a twenty-two inch corset?’

 

‘Remarkable.’ muttered Jowan.

 

‘Mabel had all these gorgeous Orlesian clothing.’ informed Josephine in excitemeny ‘Lace. Silk. White linen. She always was disgustingly rich. Oh but I doubt even Empress Celene has a wardrobe to compete with Mabel’s. Her dresses are pieces of art. Like this wonderful dress I am wearing now! The feel of royal lace and beaded freshwater pearls against my skin is more exquisite than I could have ever anticipated.’

 

Drawing his fingers to his eyes, Jowan squinted in pain. A sudden recollection of more memories, they flooded into his head even now. An unfortunate but necessary side effect of possessing another’s body, Jowan had now taken on every memory ever collected by the late Athalwolf Guildersleeve. His life story, his childhood, companions, hopes, wishes, fears...desires. Everything. However the most recent recollections to fill his mind had become more than a little disturbing even for the mage to contend with.

 

Casting his eyes to Josephine, he watched her curiously as she continued to examine herself in delight.

 

‘How are you coping with Mabel’s memories?’ he asked precariously.

 

Josephine shrugged ‘She had many friends, and happy memories. What a life to live...well, to have lived.’.

 

Dreamily, she cast her gaze outside to the fields, her mind a million miles away.

 

‘You haven’t remembered anything...vexing?’ he asked carefully, running his eyes more closely over his companion.

 

Josephine grinned wickedly, turning back to Jowan. ‘You mean about Mabel and Wolf?’. She flipped her hand carelessly in the air ‘It is not so uncommon in some of the older and nobler families for such things to arise.’

 

‘Did you know they were lovers all along?’ Jowan asked in surprise.

 

‘They were extremely close, perhaps I had my suspicions?’ shrugged Josephine ‘What does it matter?’

 

‘You were to help me choose someone for the position of ambassador that would not draw attention to herself.’ he scorned 'I don't want any scandals bringing attention to us on our arrival.'

 

‘No one knows.’ dismissed Josephine ‘Besides you must admit we couldn’t have chosen anyone better. Look at us!’

 

‘It could cause unwanted attention.’ he replied dryly ‘That is the last thing we want.’

 

‘Their sordid little affair is in the past, as are their lives.’ reassured Josephine ‘We have a new start. Nothing will draw attention to that now.’

 

Jowan turned back to the window. He hated the feelings that were creeping into his head, of Mabel’s naked skin pressed beneath his hands and her sweet lips like pillows against his hungry mouth. The demons had taught him to distance one’s thoughts from the host and to separate them emotionally, so why was Jowan feeling so uneasily drawn to those memories? Why was he craving Mabel’s touch, as if he were Wolf himself?

 

Shaking his head, the mage closed his eyes. ‘Not long now before Skyhold,’ he muttered ‘and then the tiresome charade finally begins.’

 

 

****

 

 

Over the next few days, Cullen refused to visit my chambers and instead returned to his loft to retire for the night. The longer the time went by, the more desperate I admit I became. That horrible knot growing in my stomach, a feeling of knowing I could lose him over the foolishness of a kiss.

 

Of course he was right to feel betrayed. Michel and I had kept our feelings from him. In all his brutal honesty I had not returned the common courtesy. I had disrespected the man I professed to love, and it was filling me with guilt. Of course, like a wicked master, Cullen was punishing me with the one thing he knew would hurt me the most. His silence.

 

I wasn’t prepared to lose this battle to Cullen’s reticence, and with a surprising amount of courage at mid-morning I made my way up the battlements and barged into his study without a knock or salutation along the way. Cullen looked up in surprise as I stood there in the doorway, wild eyed and prepared for battle.

 

‘You can’t keep on ignoring me like this!’ I announced, my unbridled enthusiasm suddenly falling into bouts of ineloquence as Cullen looked sternly at me ‘We...uh...we need to talk about this….if you’re not too busy….’

 

Resuming what he was doing before I barged in, Cullen returned to reading the letter in his hand.

 

‘Why talk now?’ asked Cullen ‘You had plenty of opportunities to talk about this with me? I recall you having the audacity to accuse me of being involved with Leliana, while you were the real scarlet deceiver all along. Ironic, is it not?’

 

Throwing my eyes away from his in embarrassment, I pressed my nails into the wooden frame of a nearby chair, shamefully fidgeting my way through his accusations.

 

‘Im sorry for that.’ I murmured.

 

‘I saw the way you both acted around each other.’ observed Cullen ‘I saw the looks, and the disgraceful flush in your cheeks when Michel looks at you. You flaunted your relationship with Michel in my face time and time again, while denying anything was going on. You made me feel like the unreasonable one. Only now I find out my suspicions were warranted.’

 

‘There is no relationship between Michel and I. I returned to Kirkwall and your damn passive aggressive disposition greeted me. I didn’t know what to think. You weren’t talking to me, so-’

 

‘So you thought that was an invitation to indulge in Michel de Chevin?’ continued Cullen coldly ‘Is our bond that fickle that you could just as easily be with him than with me? Depending on what temperament Im in?’

 

‘No!’ I protested ‘But don't pretend you weren't being unfriendly, cold and completely aloof when I returned. Of course I thought you and I were over at that point.'

 

‘I do not share.’ he whispered dangerously ‘I told you that before. Yet you let him indulge.’

 

‘Indulge? It was one kiss for crying out loud! I wanted you. I’ve always wanted you. Honestly, if that kiss meant anything we could have taken it further but we didn’t.’

 

‘Is that supposed to make me feel better?’ chortled Cullen. With a sad look, he drew his attention to me ‘You have made a mockery of our love with that damn Orlesian fool. I need time to process all this.’

 

Feeling utterly dismal at the sadness in Cullen's eyes, I drew closer to the man. ‘I’m so sorry Cullen. Let us process this together. Don’t push me away.’

 

Shaking his head, Cullen presented his hand towards the door ‘I have work to do. You and I, and all this nonsense, will have to wait. There is an Inquisition to be run, and you are not getting in the way of that anymore.’

 

Ushering me out of his study, his large frame moving forward as I stumbled backwards, Cullen closed the door sharply. Looking around despondently, I clutched my arm defensively, rubbing it as if to console myself. Left alone on the battlements, I desperately wondered to myself in my growing wake of unease…was that Cullen’s way of finally letting me go once and for all?

 

 

****

 

 

Late that afternoon the council gathered in the courtyard at Skyhold as a magnificent black stagecoach rolled in through its gates drawn by four white horses and two opulently dressed coachmen. As the carriage drew to a halt, the coachmen jumped down and assembled a delicate set of stairs to the door of the vehicle, before opening the door.

 

The first to descend from the depths of the stagecoach was a remarkably graceful gentleman-like character, adorned in a long black velvet trimmed tailcoat, silk puff tie, black brushed cotton trousers and an elegant black top hat. He was tall and very handsome, with pale white skin that had evidently not experienced the harsh seasons that the working class were forced to endure. His hair was thick and black, rich with gorgeous silken curls, and he presented a pair of striking black eyes encased in dark black lashes. Indeed the lord’s features were elegantly refined, like that of many of the Orlesian nobility, and his slender frame held himself tall with perfect posture. The man possessed a wistful and sombre look in his eyes, a sadness perhaps inflicted many years prior that had now grown into his features. Yet the despondency suited him rather well, as if he was destined to be that mournful and pensive lord, a dark creature of the night coming to meet us that afternoon in his splendour. I couldn’t recall a more dashing, if not melancholic, lord in my life. It was a strangely alluring combination.

 

‘Lord Guildersleeve,’ greeted Leliana with a wide smile, her voice sounding more Orlesian than usual. ‘it is wonderful to see that you have arrived so soon, and without trouble I hope?’

 

Surprising the party before him, the serious man suddenly smiled broadly, looking across to us all with great interest.

 

‘We had a wonderful journey,’ he remarked pleasantly ‘I thank you!’. He cast his black eyes across the bleak keep, adding with enthusiasm ‘What a remarkable stronghold you have here! ’

 

Turning his attention back to the carriage, the lord helped a woman step down onto the stone courtyard. With brilliant emerald eyes, long black hair and pale white skin like her brothers, the lady was every bit as refined and perfect as her companion. She was dressed in a magnificent white dress, a pale bone lace corset cinched tight over her waist, following into a hooped skirt below that was covered by mountains upon mountains of silken fabric. Undoubtedly it was an Orlesian custom to dress in the most difficult of shades to keep clean, and this white dress was impeccably crisp and unforgiving. An ostentatious statement if ever I saw one, most likely to inform us that we were before a ridiculously wealthy woman who could afford the luxury of wearing white.

 

The pair stood out like stunning jewels amongst the dreary surroundings of the keep, and we in turn looked on in intrigue, although I confess I was more disinterested than the rest of my party. Yes they were rich and Orlesian, but surely it took more than that to secure one’s respect? Turning my eyes to the rest of my party, who all looked bedazzled, my heart dropped. The answer was apparently no.

 

Facing Leliana, the lord bowed politely before extending his hand with a warm smile. ‘We have not been formally introduced. I am Lord Athalwolf Guildersleeve.’

 

Leliana presented her hand to the lord, and he pressed his lips against hers before looking up with a warm smile. Turning, he extended his hand to his companion ‘This is my sister, Lady Mabel Guildersleeve.’

 

Smiling towards Leliana, Mabel nodded her head ‘We have met before, is that not so?’

 

‘At Lady Loevette’s soiree a few years back.’ replied Leliana with a grin 'How could we forget?'

 

‘The very one!’ remarked Mabel cheerily ‘Never have I been fed so many quail eggs in all my life!’

 

Leliana laughed, an echo of her courtesan tendencies revealing itself for the pleasure of us all to spectate. ‘It was hideous, was it not?’ she replied enthusiastically ‘To serve quail eggs and roasted quail on a plate of quail feathers. I could not look at a quail the same afterwards.’

 

‘I ordered my maidservant to throw out all my quail feather bonnets when we returned home that very night!’ replied Mabel with a roll of her eyes ‘I vowed never to go near the bird ever again and to this very day I fear the call of one whenever we venture near the woods.’

 

Leliana laughed airily in delight, before realising formalities were being ignored and introductions were needed to be made. Turning her hand to each of us, the spymaster introduced the members of the war council.

 

Mabel met each of the party with a soft smile, and when it came to our introduction it was somewhat polite and stiff, almost a forced courtesy as she beheld the Inquisitor with what I couldn’t help thinking was with a bit of disdain? Of course I had my own insecure reasons to question her manner, greeting a woman that everyone seemed smitten with. Her beautiful features were flawless and her clothing impeccable. You could see she was someone who prided her appearance to the point of obsession, but as I looked over to my companions it seemed her compulsiveness had done her credit. Everyone was infatuated, including her brother who doted on her like a cherished doll. I in comparison was a flawed creation and perhaps that was all I was feeling in our introduction. Resentment.

 

Cullen smiled, graciously presenting Mabel with his arm. ‘If you would like I can escort you and your brother to your chambers?’ he offered in a polite manner, as if speaking to a delicate rose ‘I can show you both some of the best parts of the keep along the way?’

 

Frowning I cast my eyes away from the pair to focus on an old bucket nearby, examining its weather worn appearance with a great deal too much interest, trying to ignore the hurt I was feeling. To say I abhorred the kindness the Commander was bestowing upon another would have been an understatement. It was childish on his part to act like that and I didn't appreciate it one bit.

 

‘Why thank you, I would like that.’ smiled Mabel, interlacing one hand through Cullen’s and the other through her brother’s. ‘What a merry party we shall be, traipsing the halls of Skyhold just us three!’. Their chuckles could be heard echoing throughout the cloisters as they departed to explore the keep.

 

‘Aren’t they adorable?’ observed Leliana with a pleased smile ‘I believe things shall be a lot more lively now the Guildersleeves are in Skyhold!’

 

With a spring in her step, the spymaster turned back to the stairs of the keep ascending into the main hall, while Cassandra and I remained behind with uncertain expressions on our face.

 

‘Well,’ I observed with a hint of disapproval ‘they seem a spritely pair.’

 

‘We have a saying in Nevarra.’ informed the Seeker cyically ‘Some bees create honey, while others leave a sting.’. Frowning, she cast her dark eyes towards me ‘I am not certain which are the bees we have just greeted.’

 

With a raised brow Cassandra turned towards the stables, leaving me to my deliberations. I was left alone on the desolate courtyard, a chill covering my shoulders as I watched the grey clouds tumble in overhead, growing darker as the evening fell upon us all.

 

 

****

 

 

It had been many years since Jowan had had the pleasure of living in proper quarters, and the warmth of a roaring fire in a large stone fireplace and the comfort of a Ferelden four poster bed brought a content smile to his face. In a strange way he felt safer now than he had for many years, and already he was growing rather fond of it. The simple pleasure of viewing a fine tapestry on the wall, a servant to bring him supper, and a warm pelt rug on the ground under his bare feet felt wonderful after many a dank and dismal nights he had previously spent in his hut at the base of the Frostback Mountains.

 

Of course the mage was well accustomed to never to grow content of any situation, but the current one had proven more promising than he could have hoped for. After an audience with the Red Templars which he easily secured through the help of his demon acquaintances, Jowan was directed to the Shrine of Dumat. It was there that he was introduced to the leader of the Red Templar’s, a man named Raleigh Samson. Samson was eager to gain any information from within the Inquisition, and seemed more than willing to inform the Elder One of the mage’s part to play. Surprisingly, Jowan found Samson to be quite solicitous to his every need. Of course Jowan pitied the man, who already looked half dead encased in his red lyrium armour. He would never be so foolish as to accept such a death sentence from anyone, let alone Corypheus. However Jowan was in slight awe at how powerful Samson appeared to be with his armour. There was power out there to be had, and perhaps Samson had only obtained a small fragment but it was glorious to behold nonetheless. The man was indeed unstoppable.

 

A light tapping at his door distracted his thoughts and Jowan quickly retreated to the entrance, opening it to greet his sister.

 

‘Mabel!’ remarked Jowan festively, casting his eyes across the hallway ‘Is everything is going well?’

 

Stepping aside, he beckoned her in.

 

‘Oh yes my dear!’ replied Josephine cheerfully ‘Come, let me see your room! Mine has the most wonderful windows that look onto the-’

 

Jowan shut the door. ‘You can stop with that annoying banter now.’ he muttered dryly ‘Why are you here?’

 

‘I need your help.’ she informed. She patted her cheeks that were rather rosey and flushed. ‘Did you see how pleasant Cullen was to me when we arrived? A personal escort, and all that wonderful conversation about his time Ferelden in his younger days. I had no idea how charming he could be? His arm was so strong as he escorted us through the keep, I couldn't bare to pull my own away.’

 

The mage threw the Antivan a disgusted look. ‘Not this again. So I look even slightly interested in Cullen? What do you want Josephine? Get to the point, I am tired.’

 

Josephine blushed, drawing a few paces closer. ‘I was wondering...that is to say…is there a spell to alter the mind of another? To make them fall in love?’

 

‘I have more important issues to deal with than this.’ snapped Jowan ‘Stop it! This is not the reason we came here!’

 

‘I wouldn’t ask unless I was desperate.’ she replied hastily, pressing her palms together to plea with the man. ‘I have one chance with Cullen and I need him to fall for me. I didn’t want to entertain the thought before because I wanted him to want me of his own volition. But now? Now I know it has to be done this way.’

 

'So you would have him desire you against his own free will?' replied Jowan with a raised brow 'That is not very romantic. It is also a dangerous game to play. Why not just let see how things play out with Cullen? You said he was being amicable to you, maybe something will come of it?'

 

Josephine glared at him coldly ‘You want me to report to you about the Inquisition’s affairs? Then do this for me.’

 

‘It would be unwise to try and blackmail me Mabel.’ observed Jowan icily. Pressing himself close to her, she drew her breath as Jowan pierced into her eyes. Slowly he ran his fingers along her neck. Josephine stepped back and the mage tightened his grip around her throat suddenly, securing her place. ‘I wouldn’t enjoy it sister but I could take your form if you proved to be less than useful.’

 

Taking a deep breath close to her, Jowan could smell her sweet scent and a slight shiver covered his skin as he inhaled deeply. Roughly he shoved her away, and Josephine was left gasping for air, fearfully looking at the mage whilst holding her throat.

 

'Please Jowan.' begged Josephine 'Of course I will help you in whatever way I can. Just please please help me with this.'

 

‘Fine’ he muttered ‘It is not a spell however, spells never last long enough. It is a potion.’

 

‘A love potion?’ replied Josephine curiously, still clutching her neck ‘Like those of the fairy tales?’

 

‘You cannot make someone love you.’ informed Jowan ‘Not true love, whatever that is. However you can make them obsess and lust over you, and all the rest that goes with that wonderful concept of infatuation. It is a potion that he must consume, and then it only lasts seven nights in duration. You can continue to drug him for as long as your tiresome plan pleases you, if that is your wish? If you do not his desire will quickly wane and all will be as it was once more.’

 

‘So all I have to do is make him drink a flask?’ she asked, somewhat surprised.

 

‘Do I look like some clumsy oaf of a mage that brews ale and calls it a love tonic?’ he snapped ‘No. It is potent, you only need a few drops. A bottle will last for months.’

 

Sighing in frustration, he threw his arm around the room ‘I am hardly equipped to do anything at the moment. I can prepare it in a few days, once all my items from Orlais have arrived. Now if that is all kindly leave.’

 

Ushering her out of the room, he opened the door once more with a broad smile ‘You worry too much, Mabel dearest. These lodgings are very comfortable and quite homely I assure you. Shall we dine together in a few hours? I heard someone mention we are having pigeon pie! What a delight! I wonder if the pigeons in Ferelden taste the same as the ones in Orlais?’

 

Josephine smiled widely ‘I have no idea, but what a splendid way to find out! I have some matters to discuss with Leliana before then. I shall see you soon dear brother!’

Chapter Text

 

 

 

After an onerous few days of repeated instructions, waning patience, multiple fights in the barracks and numerous reprimands, the new recruits from Ferelden had finally settled into their new life at Skyhold. It had been taxing work for the Commander, and he was more than a little happy to try and forget the recent days. No matter how distracting his duties were, Cullen still could not shake the anger that had consumed him from a week prior when Michel de Chevin had foolishly revealed the kiss he had shared with Ophelia. The ex-chevalier that Cullen had trusted and considered a friend had betrayed him. If there was forgiveness in Cullen’s heart it was well hidden at present, and all he could feel was bitter resentment.

 

Rubbing his tired amber eyes, Cullen was eager to retire to his loft bed and fall into an exhausted slumber. Pacing down the main hall at Skyhold, he turned through a side door into the large circular room where Solas spent time reading and painting murals. The elf was sitting at his table, deep in concentration as he poured over the pages of an old looking tome. His eyes darted towards the Commander and, with a small and knowing smile that he often held on his face, he nodded to Cullen in acknowledgement before returning to his studies.

 

Nodding in turn the Commander pressed on, opening another door that lead outside to the battlements leading towards his study. Stopping to admire the view of the mountains, the ex-templar took a moment to breathe in the cool evening air, hoping a moment of clarity would sweep over the ranges and finally free him of the weight hanging heavy on his shoulders.

 

Why Michel? Of all people, why did Ophelia like him?

 

Not that the betrayal would have stung any less had it been any other man. Yet there was something about being in the close proximity of Michel and Ophelia for so long and being kept in the dark from their secret that felt all the more treacherous.

 

'After everything that has happened, who am I to be so judgmental?' Cullen muttered darkly 'I'm far from perfect.'

 

Resting against the stone parapet, Cullen looked out across the barren horizon as the black raven feathers from his gorget stirred wildly in the breeze, their emerald sheen catching the last rays of sunlight. The truth was that he loved Ophelia, of course he still did. A kiss with Michel de Chevin didn’t change the passion he felt for the mage. They had grown close over the last few months, more emotionally intimate, and it finally seemed like there was some hope of moving on. Moving on from his callous treatment of her on the Imperial Highway. The ex-templar was ashamed of his actions towards the mage, but thank the Maker, she had forgiven him. Perhaps it was his turn to forgive her? With a hardened stare, he gritted his teeth.

 

No, it wasn’t as simple as that.

 

Cullen frowned, kicking the stones that had come loose from the wall with his black boot. The kiss had made him question the strength of the bond between himself and Ophelia. Shamefully he knew that he should not be doubting Ophelia's loyalty, but he could not help it. He was suitably possessive of her, and he craved every part of her for himself. Ophelia enjoyed his urges and he himself was consumed by hers. She intoxicated him. The drawn out suspense of bending her to his will which she in turned longed for him to do. The kindness she bestowed upon him with such affection. Her whimsical manner, and that unconventional borderline blasé view of the world that made her so different from anyone else that he had ever met. He wanted her, and only her. If he could not have her entirely, if Michel secured a piece of her heart, how could he not question their own bond time and time again until he drove him insane?

 

'Because some bonds are stronger than others, and always will be.' he answered to himself.

 

The ex-templar drew a deep breath as the fresh breeze blew against his face, a small smile curled on his lips as his eyes closed calmly. That moment of clarity at last. Cullen had to start accepting responsibility for his actions. His part to play in all of this. Of all the terrible moments he had put her through this kiss was not going to be something he would make her suffer in addition. Yes he was hurt but he needed to stop hurting her. He loved Ophelia and she loved him. The anger in Cullen was subsiding even now, washing away like a tide drawing back to sea, and he knew nothing had changed between them both.

 

Cullen loved Ophelia, and without even realising it, he had already forgiven her.

 

‘I might need to stop by the gardens to steal some flowers.’ muttered Cullen to himself, a small smirk on his lips as he contemplated the look on Ophelia’s face when she found him offering her a posy at her chambers. Something he recalled he had vowed he would never do in Denerim, once upon a time…

 

‘Cullen!’ called out a cheerful voice nearby.

 

Turning his head, Cullen spotted Mabel Guildersleeve skipping down the stairs from his study. Wearing a light blue cotton dress that breezily blew in the windy location they found themselves in, she drew towards the Commander as he turned his attention towards her.

 

‘Mistress Guildersleeve,’ greeted the Commander civilly ‘were you looking for me?’

 

‘I was!’ she smiled ‘And please, it's just Mabel. I wanted to thank you actually. Your advice about visiting the apple orchards near Lake Calenhad was wonderful. Wolf and I had the most treasured day, well that was until he decided to climb an apple tree and half a dozen apples fell onto his head!’

 

Cullen chuckled as Mabel revealed a light-hearted laugh of her own.

 

‘Anyway,’ she continued ‘I wanted to thank you for such a hospitable welcome. Wolf and I feel so accepted as a part of the Inquisition already.’. Grinning she handed over a small box concealed behind her back ‘It’s nothing exciting I assure you, but between you and me they are the finest chocolates you’ll find in all of Thedas. A wonderful Orlesian chocolatier in Lapin makes these.’

 

The Commander took the box hesitantly with a look of surprise before throwing an appreciative smile. ‘This is not necessary, but thank you. I'm glad you both are settling in well.’

 

‘Oh like I said, it’s nothing!’ dismissed Mabel with a wave of her hand ‘Wolf adores the dark ones and he eats far too many for his own good! Too many sweets will ruin one’s constitution, I keep on telling him and he keeps on ignoring me! Oh but don’t listen to my ramblings, please enjoy them! Orlesian chocolate is exquisite! Anyway I must go! Good evening Commander, and thank you again!’

 

With a skip in her step, she dashed away into the keep.

 

Cullen shook his head with a chuckled, inspecting the box in his hand as he set off back to his quarters. Unaccustomed to sweets he was somewhat curious to enjoy an unexpected dessert before retiring for an early night. He needed to wake extra early in the morning for he was eager to retrieve some nice smelling wild flowers and a cup of tea before Ophelia had arisen from her slumber.

 

 

****

 

 

In his new duties at Skyhold, Jowan had the displeasure of finding himself appointed to work in the recently built Tower of Magi in Skyhold. For such a grand sounding place, he was more than a little disappointed to discover it resided, or perhaps had been shoved, in the furthest corner of the keep, and required him to walk endlessly across the windy battlements to access it. The actual tower itself, if indeed it could enjoy the luxury of being called thus, was composed of three crowded rooms layered on top of each other in a higgledy-piggledy manner. A less impressive tower he was yet to see, and something seemed even more insulting at the prospect of working in such a pitiable atmosphere. Alone and aloft in the clouds of the Frostback Mountains was where he had been shoved.

 

Given the tiresome job of sorting through the bulk of stock standard magical apparatus commonly riddled through the mages circles, Jowan wearily worked through his first week for the Inquisition with more than a little bitterness. There were boxes of clear glass bottles and bundles of scrolls to sort, broken taper candles and dusty quills to mend, and page upon page of worthless items to record in inventory. In addition, leaking solvents and other aged poultices had spilled onto the few books he was supposed to be placing on a crooked bookshelf that was to be referred to as the mages library.

 

An apprentice passed by Jowan and secured a fresh bunch of elfroot to a metal hanging frame overhead. With displeased eyes Jowan clicked his fingers sharply at the young man.

 

‘Whoever told you it was acceptable to store elfroot next to blood lotus was clearly a muttonhead!’ he snapped.

 

‘I’m-I’m sorry.’ stammered the man, looking absolutely downtrodden.

 

Jowan brought his hand up to his temple, regretting his outburst instantly. This wasn’t the way he wanted to treat his fellow mages, barking orders at them like some abhorrent and scrutinising templar of the Chantry.

 

‘No, I am sorry.’ Jowan apologised, shaking his head ‘You are a mage, not some fool of a templar. Forgive me. If you would mind in future to keep elfroot away from blood lotus that would be most appreciated.’

 

The apprentice smiled and nodded ‘Of course, Lord Guildersleeve.’

 

‘Which circle did you fare from?’ asked Jowan curiously.

 

The apprentice’s face grew dark at the question and Jowan nodded in silent understanding. ‘For what it’s worth my time in the circle wasn’t all that splendid either.’

 

The apprentice threw a small smile before turning to leave. He hesitated at the door before turning around once more. ‘Best thing that happened to me, you know? The Inquisition letting us mages join as free citizens, away from the templars. Didn’t ever dream of a day I would be working as a free man let alone a free mage, but our Inquisitor made it happen. Some say she’s guided by the Maker, but I don’t think that’s right. The Chantry makes sure we all know how much the Maker hates us mages. But the Inquisitor? She choose to support the mages over the templars, and in my book that’s as miraculous an act as they come. She’s our saviour in a way? Gotta be some comfort knowing you have that on your side?’

 

Jowan watched the mage depart through the door, a pensive look on his face as he pondered the words of the apprentice. However the few short moments of reflection were interrupted yet again as another man appeared at the door, a wide brimmed hat adorning his head as he curiously examined Jowan through the scattered blond hair spilling across his eyes. It was as if he were studying an intriguing specimen that had been recently caught in a jar.

 

‘It’s strange,’ observed Cole softly ‘you are who you are and yet you are not? It’s like looking at two faces but you have only one head, and I can’t seem to make out either face because its a blur to me. Now that I am more human than I was, everything is more blurry.’

 

The mage caught his breath as his black eyes continued to çast widely at Cole, refusing to reveal the fear he was feeling upon hearing that chilling comment. Who and what was this person before him, and why was he picking up on Jowan’s concealed identity?

 

‘Are you wearing a mask?’ asked Cole curiously, taking a few steps closer ‘For it looks like skin on your face, but perhaps they make masks like that in Orlais? I know Orlesians like their masks very much.’

 

Jowan beamed a brilliant fake smile. ‘Indeed we do! In fact while I was working in the royal court at Halamshiral I wore a golden mask each and every day. It was dreadfully heavy and even covered my nose!’

 

Cole revealed a small smile. ‘How did you sneeze?’ he asked curiously.

 

‘With great difficulty!’ chuckled Jowan, before extending his hand ‘We have not formally met. I am Athalwolf Guildersleeve.’

 

Cole extended his hand rather oddly, presenting his limb hesitantly and half expecting the man to take it entirely off him. ‘I am Cole. I help people. I help the Inquisition. Sometimes at the same time.’

 

‘Well that is what I hope to do also.’ smiled Jowan, feeling more and more unnerved by the person before him. He needed to find everything about Cole and he needed to find out now.

 

‘They make cinnamon bread at the beginning of the week. You can get some from Madame Ruthie for breakfast.’ Cole informed as his eyes gazed about the room in interest.

 

‘Excuse me?’ asked Jowan precariously.

 

‘You like cinnamon bread.’ stated Cole ‘I know you like it, with a melted pool of butter on top. You used to eat it at Redcliffe castle for mid morning tea each day.’

 

‘Indeed I do.’ chuckled Jowan nervously, his heart pounding in his chest. Running an uneasy hand through his curls, he smiled at Cole. ‘Can..can you read minds?’ asked Jowan apprehensively, resting his shaking hand against his desk to support his weight in the fearful revelation of the moment.

 

‘Not like I used to.’ murmured Cole, somewhat remorsefully ‘The Inquisitor helped me become more human. Varric is helping me also. He’s already helped me so much. I used to be able to hear everything inside people’s heads, but now just echoes. I still feel another’s pain though...it’s just different now. That is why you interest me. And your sister. You both feel strange but then, so do I.’

 

‘Helping you become human?’ repeated Jowan in confusion ‘Are you not indeed human?’

 

‘I’m not sure...that is to say once I was a spirit and then I was not.’ faltered Cole. He shook his head ‘No, I am human now. I must acknowledge what I am and not question it. Varric told me I must accept that. I feel what I feel, except to feel human is to feel…feelings. A very lot of feelings.’

 

‘Fascinating.’ murmured Jowan, examining the person before him in slight awe and even more apprehension.

 

Jowan wasn’t sure, but he wondered whether he was in fact speaking to a demon possessing a human? And if so, why would the Inquisition willingly allow such a thing to take up residence in their keep?

 

‘Well,’ shrugged Jowan ‘you most likely are picking up the courtly mask of intrigue my sister Mabel and I were accustomed in donning in Orlais. It is said you must be two people in the Orlesian court. Your mask is the one you present to the world, and your true self is the one you must always try to hide.’. Jowan laughed merrily ‘It makes one sound frightfully secretive and paranoid, does it not?’

 

‘If everyone pretends to be who they are not, how does anyone know who they truly are?’ asked Cole with a confused frown.

 

‘I confess that is a question better suited for the philosophers than I!’ replied Jowan ‘You must think we Orlesians tend to over-complicate things, and perhaps you would be right? That is why Mabel and I are so pleased to have arrived here in Skyhold. Less drama, less intrigue.’

 

Cole nodded sagely ‘You would think that but there is always more going on than meets the eye.’

 

With an airy smile, Cole turned and wandered out the door without another word, unaware of Jowan still standing beside his desk, a concealed dagger clutched hard in his shaking hand.

 

 

****

 

 

The Antivan paced her room obsessively, tapping her fingers against the silver hand mirror as she hummed a tune nervously to herself. The stress of recent events had made her complexion a little more haggard of late, and she was concerned Cullen would notice the dark skin under her eyes. Josephine pursed her lips in disapproval as she withdrew the looking glass from her site, and began pacing again, only pausing every now and then to look to the door, hoping Jowan would arrive soon.

 

A sharp knock finally sounded and Josephine breathed out in relief, wrenching the door open and pulling in the expected recipient. Jowan would have been surprised at the frantic greeting of his companion, but he was in an even more nervous and irate state than Josephine herself.

 

Desperately fumbling at the lock, the mage turned the key that rested within the hole and drew back to face his companion.

 

‘You need to tell me who Cole is and why he can read people’s minds?’ Jowan demanded. With a long slender finger, he pointed it angrily at Josephine. ‘And you can tell me why in the blazes you never told me there is someone like him at Skyhold? Someone that could see who we really are!?’

 

Josephine gasped, drawing her hands to her mouth in horror. ‘Impossible. What did Cole say? Did he see that you were not Athalwolf?’

 

‘No,’ remarked Jowan ‘but he sensed I was wearing a mask. That is what he said. You damn wretched fool! How could you not tell me you had a demon possessing a human at Skyhold?!!’

 

‘No, no, no Cole cannot read minds like he used to.’ ressured Josephine fearfully ‘He became human and lost the ability. I know this for a fact. He used to be able to read thoughts and alter people’s memory but he lost it all when he became human.’

 

‘What are you blabbering on about?!’ hissed Jowan ‘You can’t become human if you are not.’

 

‘No Solas and the Inquisitor tried to explain this to Leliana and I in great lengths. Cole is very unique. He is a spirit. A being trapped between the fade and the realm, and he inhabited the body of a mage named Cole as he died.’

 

‘So he is a demon,’ scoffed Jowan 'And a mage to boot!'

 

‘No hes a spirit, not a demon.’ corrected Josephine adamantly ‘And hes not a mage, that is to say he has taken the body of a mage but he does not practice as a mage. In fact he's a rogue and fights with knives. Cole helps people in pain. Honestly I have spoken to him enough times after his transition to know he cannot do the things he used to do. He used to be able to know what I was thinking and tell it to my face. Now he is different. He cannot read our thoughts, I assure you.’

 

‘Whatever that thing is, he knows we are different.’ scorned Jowan ‘I told him it was just because we were Orlesian but unless he is a complete idiot that will not satisfy his curiosity.’

 

‘Did he believe you?’ asked Josephine.

 

‘He seemed to accept my reasoning. Maybe,’ replied Jowan ‘But how am I to know he won’t cause more trouble? Maybe he’ll want to try and remove our masks?’. Gripping his fists in anger, he paced the room as he pondered on the situation with growing unease. ‘You should have told me. Are you that doltish to not realise you risk everything by not telling me everything?’

 

‘I will find a way to send him away from Skyhold on a mission. Something only he can aid us with.’ declared Josephine ‘It will be fine. You said it yourself, he only sensed something and was confused and you set him straight. It will be all right.’

 

She placed her hand reassuringly on Jowan’s arm and subconsciously he reached his palm over her hand, softly stroking his fingers fondly across hers in an affectionate manner. They both looked down in surprise, and Jowan snatched his hand away suddenly, retreating to the window.

 

‘So why are you so troubled then?’ he asked quickly, trying to distract both of them from what had just happened.

 

Josephine returned to her nervous pacing. ‘The potion is not working. I gave Cullen the tainted chocolates a day ago and I walked by his study this morning and saw the box was empty. So he has eaten them, but then later today he passed me in the main hall and just nodded. And then-’

 

‘Must you bore me with every annoying detail about that damn templar!’ interrupted Jowan agitatedly ‘It will work, you just need to give it time.’

 

‘I gave you a pint of my blood!’ she cried out, still horrified by the fact ‘How can a potion need that much blood and not work already?’

 

Jowan waved his hand in dismissal. ‘You are not an alchemist and I haven’t the patience or interest to explain to you the fundamentals of blood magic. The potion Cullen has consumed is infused with your very life essence, and it will consume him quickly. It begins to corrupt his mind the moment he ingests the concoction.’

 

‘It has been a day already.’ replied Josephine impatiently.

 

‘Then it will take two, or more.’ hissed Jowan ‘Now no more questions about it lest I give you a chocolate of my own and make you quiet for good.’

 

Turning to the door, he threw her a cold glare. ‘Deal with Cole or I shall be forced to.’

 

Josephine frowned as the door slammed. Turning her attention, she looked in the mirror once more to gaze upon her reflection. Cole may be a problem for them but it wasn't her main concern. The only thing that really concerned her was the potion she had given Cullen and how long it would take to alter his mind.

 

 

****

 

 

Gasping for breath, his amber eyes flashed opened and looked fearfully around the loft. Beads of sweat trickled down his neck and bare chest as he arose from his bed. Trembling furiously the Commander withdrew to the window and inhaled the cold night air deeply, desperate to forget his dream.

 

For days he couldn’t stop thinking about Ophelia and Michel, entwined in each other’s embrace. It had plagued him and haunted him until he was sick in his stomach and it burned like a pit of regret and remorse, the betrayal of their lust stinging him like a blade. But he recalled a faint memory on the battlements a few days prior. He had resolved his inner turmoil and he was not angry. He was going to forgive Ophelia. However something else had consumed and clouded his mind that night, and he awoke the next morning feel dazed and confused, unwilling to see Ophelia and give her flowers. Or not wanting to?

 

That creeping feeling of restlessness had grown stronger now as he lay awake for the second night, feeling more disturbed than ever before.

 

The dreams. Or were they nightmares? His dreams dominated him and Cullen didn’t know how much more he could endure. At first it was a whisper, a mere echo of a stirring. It bothered him but he could ignore it. He could not dismiss it. Of her long dark hair and porcelain white skin, and those eyes. Those green emerald eyes. The hint of desire was growing and growing, and before he knew it he wanted her. He wanted Mabel Guildersleeve. Had it been days or only hours that these thoughts had embedded in his mind? Cullen could not say, and to his growing horror he could not remember. All he knew was that he wanted to hold Mabel down and ravish her, to tear her expensive Orlesian garb aside and thrust his member deep inside her. Pure lust in its untameable pull, urging him to take her and devour her.

 

Like the beating of a heart sounding the rhythm of a waltz, going one two three, one two three, he was caught in a dance he could not escape. It was the waltz of terror, beckoning him to turn and turn about that room until he was exhausted and screaming at the top of his lungs, begging to stop. Stop! Please just stop. He was screaming out for release but no one would hear him as the room turned faster and faster, his eyes spinning as his reality transformed into a spiralling vortex of pandemonium.

 

Shaking his head, the Commander drew his attention back to the window, taking deep breaths of the cold night air.

 

What of Ophelia?

 

Why had everything changed? Cullen did not feel the same towards the mage any longer. That burning desire was now foggy, as if he was lost on a lake surrounded by mist. Sometimes he could feel himself yearn for her, but mostly she was devoid of his thoughts. All Cullen could think of...all he wanted now...was Mabel Guildersleeve.

 

‘No!’ he cried out, as if pleading with his mind.

 

There was no rhyme or reason for his obsession, or why it was plaguing him without a moment’s rest. Where had this savage hunger sprung from and why was he so ravenous to feed? How could he escape the torment when it refused to let him rest? Why was there a heaviness in his stomach as he thought upon his former days with Ophelia? Why could he not find her in his dreams any more? Why was Mabel there instead?

  

Clutching his head in his hands, the ex-templar fell forward against the window, his sandy waves of hair spilling across his wet brow. Of all the twisted creatures in his tormented mind, this one was the most hideous he had encountered. He never knew it had slumbered until now, only to wake him on this night of nights. 

 

Dragging himself back onto his bed, his naked body collapsed into an exhausted heap. A final moment of consciousness now departed as he lay oblivious to the torment that slowly grew in his mind, his eyes twitching as the nightmares lulled him into the darkness.

 

A torment that had begun from a simple box now sitting empty on his desk. A box once full of chocolates, now consumed to Cullen’s unknown and everlasting regret.

 

 

****

 

 

It is a terrible truth to acknowledge to another yet even worse to one’s self, especially when you are your own worst critic, but I had begun to keep a close and stalkerish eye on Cullen. In hindsight it was an act I would come to rue, however I appointed one of the Inquisition personal assistants to keep watch on the Commander, with orders to inform me of anything out of the ordinary. Since the Commander only worked in his study and trained in the courtyard, I knew it was not likely there would be anything sinister to report, but if there was I wanted to know about it. I couldn’t shake the jealousy I had felt between Cullen and Mabel at their first introduction and that, I confess, was the source of my distrust.

 

Of course jealousy is a tiring companion, and I grew weary of the incessant whisperings of doubt that it threw into my head as the days drew on and Cullen continued to avoid me. I was all together ready to admit defeat and apologise dearly to my assistant for wasting their time with my paranoia when out of the blue, on the fourth day of their watchfulness, my suspicions proved to be not so unreasonable.

 

It was early afternoon and the sun was spilling across the horizon and filtering through the stained glass windows of the main hall, promising a spectacular sunset in an hour or two. Slouched over a table, Varric and I sat across from each other looking at our cards with more than a little displeasure as we played a few hands of Wicked Grace.

 

‘I can’t even bluff any more,’ I groaned ‘the last six hands have been the worst cards anyone could have been dealt in the history of the game. You’re rigging this, aren’t you?’

 

‘If I was my cards would be better than this.’ Varric sighed, throwing his hand on the table ‘Even Curly could beat me with these cards. And that's sayin' something.’

 

Shoving my cards back into the deck, I began to shuffle. ‘We need to go back to playing that other game, you know the one that those dwarven noble hunters play?’

 

‘Diamondback?’ Varric replied, shaking his head ‘Now do I look like the kind of dwarf that would play that kind of rubbish?'

 

Raising my eyebrow, he chuckled in response.

 

‘Okay,’ he admitted 'but ‘I’m terrible at the game. Are you happy? Maybe we should go start playing Samesies Snap Snap?’

 

‘The children in Kirkwall beat me at that game more times than I care to admit.’ I replied cynically.

 

‘It’s a game of chance and reflexes,’ teased Varric ‘of course the clumsy mage is going to lose. Yep we’re playing that one.’

 

Feeling troubled at the rather apt observation of my brutally honest companion, my attention was drawn to the serving girl who had been acting as part time spy for my own benefit. She ran up towards me, throwing a shifty glance at Varric before leaning down to my ear.

 

‘Inquisitor, he has just left his chambers to take a walk with Mabel Guildersleeve,’ she informed hastily ‘I saw them heading on foot out the gates of Skyhold.’

 

‘When?’ I asked quickly, glaring at Varric who was grinning at me in delight as he realised what I had been up to.

 

‘Just now, they left just now.’ she informed with an assured nod.

 

Standing up hastily, four concealed cards fell unceremoniously from my lap onto the floor. ‘I have to go.’ I announced, watching as Varric laughed heartily at the evidence of my cheating. ‘Not a word on this.’ I added with a frown.

 

‘About you cheating in cards, or spying on Curly?’ asked an amused Varric, crossing his arms smugly.

 

‘Both.’ I replied hastily and departed quickly from the hall, eager to see where the pair were going and, by the Maker, what they were up to.

 

 

****

 

 

Outside the entrance of Skyhold there was a quaint little stone path that curled around to the left side of Gherlen’s Pass and led to a gathering of old oak tree. It was a wild forest full of twisted limb, bracken and thicket. It was said that the fairies dwelled there, and whether true or not there were many a ring of red and white spotted mushrooms and soft green moss to be found scattered along the forest floor. Indeed it was a pretty place to escape the hustle of the keep, and an even better place for privacy if one cared for it. It was there that the guards posted at the gates of Skyhold saw Commander Cullen walking with Mabel Guildersleeve that afternoon.

 

Arm in arm, as the Orlesians are fond of doing, the pair walked at a slow and content pace across the bridge of Skyhold and towards the path that led to the woods, a small and content smile on both their faces as they took in the pleasant autumn hours before evening.

 

‘Thank you for suggesting a walk to clear my mind.’ acknowledged Cullen ‘I haven’t been quite myself as of late. Im sure it is because of all the new additions to Skyhold.’

 

Josephine turned her head to Cullen in slight concern. ‘I hope Wolf and I are not causing you too much stress?’ 

 

‘Oh no I didn't mean you, Mabel.’ reassured Cullen in a gentle voice, throwing her a soft smile ‘I meant the recruits. You have been nothing but agreeable.’

 

Josephine grinned to herself, more than a little thrilled at Cullen’s growing fondness towards her. His touch was meaningful, and his manner attentive. Never had Cullen treated her this way and she was growing more and more excited now that Jowan’s potion seemed to be working. Finally. Her heart never came close to feeling a pang of guilt about deceiving the Commander. After his heavy handed treatment of her in Jowan's hut she knew Cullen deserved everything that he got. And if it happened to be poison against his will, then so be it.

 

‘I forgot to ask, did you like the chocolates?’

 

Cullen rubbed his neck bashfully ‘Too much. I'm ashamed to say I ate the entire box in one sitting.’

 

‘Perfect,’ smiled Josephine ‘why not indulge yourself when you can?’

 

Drawing a deep breath, Cullen pulled Josephine by the arm further into the forest. Meandering their way between the old trees, the pair took in the beautiful surroundings. Every now and then her dress would get snagged on a branch and the Commander would graciously bend down and release her. After a few more twists and turns, they came upon a small clearing where the sun filtered in softly onto a large overturned tree trunk, nestled amongst the long green grass.

 

‘I had hoped for some privacy with you.’ confessed Cullen ‘Skyhold is rather loud and busy to ever obtain that.’

 

Drawing a shaky breath the ex-templar cast his eyes around the trees before they wandered back to Josephine and her green silken dress, down to the milky white of her breast bulging from the tight corset.

 

Catching his wandering eyes, she grinned and moved closer to the ex-templar.

 

‘This is a beautiful place.’ she observed, looking deeply into his eyes.

 

Cullen ran his finger along her cheek. ‘You are beautiful.’ 

 

Josephine’s heart started pounding and she could hardly stop herself from laughing out in utter delight as Cullen’s hands suddenly drew to her waist, pulling her close.

 

‘I like being alone with you.’ she admitted, feeling the metal of Cullen’s armour press against her soft frame ‘I was hoping you would say yes to this little interlude.’

 

‘Is that what this is?’ asked Cullen with a grin. He towered over her small frame, drawing his head down as she lifted her soft mouth up to his.

 

The pair fell into a deep kiss, their arms wrapping heatedly around each other. Hungrily the Commander ravished her mouth, moaning into her kisses as Josephine desperately embraced him back.

 

‘By the Maker you are so sweet.’ growled Cullen, pulling her tighter against him as he ran his hands over her waist ‘Sweeter than that chocolate I’d wager.’

 

‘Why Cullen,’ grinned Josephine ‘I dare say I am the sweetest of them all!’

 

Breathing heavily, he drew his lips to her neck. His mouth devoured her skin as his hands reached for her dress which he began to lift it up.

 

‘Cullen I wouldn’t want to get in the way between you and the Inquisitor?’ confessed Josephine, somewhat unconvincingly. 

 

'Hang her, I want you.' he replied darkly. His hands slipped under her dress and reached for her modesty.  With eager strokes, she moaned into his touch.

 

‘I want you.'confessed Cullen By the Maker I haven't been able to stop thinking about you.’

 

‘I feel the same.’ whispered Josephine, embracing the touch of Cullen in utter delight. His hands were strong and knew what they wanted. Her.

 

With lust filled eyes, Cullen suddenly span her around, bending her over a nearby overturned tree as he pushed her chest down on the rough bark. Josephine yelped in surprise as Cullen began to roughly bunch up her skirts. She tried to move but was unable to as he forcibly held her down and undressed her against her will.

 

‘Cullen wait...’ began Josephine in desperation, turning her head.

 

‘Shhh,’ replied Cullen sternly ‘we both want this.’ Unbuckling his belt, Cullen released his member at her naked behind, lingering for a moment in pure and utter desperation as if trying to will himself to stop. His eyes were glazed in possession as he looked upon the half-naked woman.

 

It was not the way Josephine had imagined their first time, and Cullen’s forcefulness took her somewhat aback, but she wanted him to take her. This had to be it.

 

‘Take me.’ cried out Josephine, her eyes growing dark with lust ‘Do it.’

 

Without hesitation Cullen plunged into her and roughly drove himself in and out. All the tender words and sweet nothings had evaporated as he sated his desire. There was only an urge that needed to be satisfied again and again as she was held secure beneath his unforgiving hold, the bark of the tree digging painfully into her skin. After a dozen hard thrusts, Cullen moaned out loudly as he released himself, the log shaking as he jolted against the wood. His hunger had been satisfied.

 

Pulling out, Cullen turned away and ran his hands through his hair as he caught his breath, his expression dark and reserved. The man remained quiet as Josephine redressed herself once more, a small smirk on her pleased lips.

 

Their shameful tryst was over, the deceitful act concealed in the wilds of the woods, or so they thought, being none the wiser to a pair of devastated green eyes filled with tears watching them from afar.

 

 

****

 

 

Sitting on the battlements, I sat blankly looking out towards the cold rock of the mountainside. I felt numb. Numb to the cold wind of the evening. Numb to Corypheus. Numb to the scene that had just unfolded before my very eyes hours prior. No longer was I a person, but instead a vessel of sadness, overflowing as I wretchedly looked into the vast nothingness of the present moment. I couldn’t go back to the past, and I didn’t want to move towards the future. Not now. Not ever.

 

Shutting my eyes I tried to will away the images of what I had seen. The pain was suffocating and I wanted to forget. Of stumbling back to the keep in a daze, leaving Cullen and Mabel to themselves in the woods after that terrible act. I wanted to run away, but instead I ran to the only place Cullen and I ever found comfort in being. Alone on the battlements.

 

‘Ophelia?’ called out a worried voice ascending the steps of the battlements. Michel de Chevin frowned as he spotted me sitting silently. ‘Cole begged me to come find you immediately. He looked as if he was going to cry and that made me a little…concerned. Did he put turnips in your fire place and you got angry at him?’

 

The Orlesian chuckled but his smile quickly faded away as he realised I was unresponsive to his remarks.

 

Moving hastily to my side, he added softly ‘Whatever is the matter?’

 

I was filled with too much pain to comprehend what had happened, and I continued to stare out into the distance as my companion ran his eyes over me in growing concern.

 

'Did I ever tell you about my childhood?' I murmured, only half aware Michel was even there. 'I had a terrible childhood. My parents were not fond of me. I wasn't a bad child, in fact I was extremely well behaved and feared to do otherwise. But I was sensitive and introverted. I'm not sure why but they found reason to resent such qualities, and I was often berated and reproached for it whenever they had a chance. Such was the way of life, and I suppose I knew no other way, so I accepted their disdain.'

 

Michel drew up to sit beside me on the stone, remaining close as he listened on intently.

 

Drawing my hand to rub my neck I continued. ‘When I was ten, just before I was sent to the Ostwick Circle, I fell sick with consumption. It was awful...it reached my lungs and I was coughing up blood and the very phlegm in my throat felt like boiling water. The pain was terrible, by Andraste I hope you never feel that sort of pain. No one could cure me as I lay in the dark of my room day in, day out. My parents never visited me, perhaps concerned about their own longevity. I’m not sure why but they never came to me. Not once. They sent the maids to attend to my needs, as I lay there in the darkness, slowly growing weaker. I was just a child. Ten years old and I knew I was going to die alone, without one person in this world that would care whether I lived or died. The pain and sickness never hurt as much as that realisation passing through my head as the months progressed.’

 

With tears in my eyes, I looked down to my hands and placed one palm over the other, holding it tight.

 

‘I used to hold my hands like this and close my eyes and pretend it was someone who loved me, just holding my hand as I lay in the dark with all that pain and fear. I would pretend they loved me so much they wouldn’t pull their hand away let alone leave my side, not even for a moment. This made up person loved me so much that I knew I would never be alone, even when I drew my last breath. They would always be there, holding my hand until the very end.’

 

Withdrawing my trembling hands, I drew them to my tear filled eyes and inhaled a deep breath. ‘I remained in that room for nearly two seasons, and spring finally came. One day a little light fell in through the window and willed me to get up and chase it. Perhaps it was the warm weather of that particular dry spring, but my lungs improved and slowly I got better. It was a miraculous recovery, few get a second chance after the consumption takes hold. I finally gained the strength to get up and move, and I grappled my way back from the claws of death itself, all by myself. A few weeks later I was sent off to the Ostwick Circle, my parents saluting me as I left, with a passing comment that I was looking remarkably well.’

 

Michel placed a hand on my shoulder, a look of sadness in his eyes as he beheld me. ‘I am sorry.’ he remarked softly.

 

I nodded, trying to continue without crying. ‘I learnt early on that there was no one who truly cared for me in this life. No one loved me and I grew to accept that. I reached the Circle and I was such a strange child, having grown up with no affection I was somewhat odd and detached and the other mages sensed that and disliked me. The templars disliked me. The mentors disliked me. I knew I was destined to be alone and that the only person I could truly count on was myself. I lived my entire life believing I was a strange creature that could not be loved, not even by my own kin.’

 

Tears falling soft on my cheek, I couldn't stop them. ‘That was until I met Cullen. Cullen showed me what it felt like to be loved.’. Running my hands through my hair I added desperately ‘And for that, I loved him more dearly than anything in this world.’

 

The Orlesian gently reached for my hand, holding it firm in his palm. ‘What has happened?’ Michel asked gently ‘Ophelia, please tell me?’

 

Closing my eyes, a single tear trailed down my cheek as I shook my head. 

 

Michel looked at me with deep concern, his hands now holding both of mine firmly. ‘Did he hurt you?’ asked MIchel fearfully. Casting his eyes desperately across the battlements, he turned back to me in growing worry. ‘Ophelia you must tell me. What did he do to you?’

 

‘I saw him.’ I whispered ‘I saw him with her.’

 

The ex-chevalier squeezed my hands, his face full of concern. ‘What did you see?’

 

Bursting into tears, I began to sob.

 

‘No.’ murmured Michel sadly, wrapping his strong arms around my frame and pulling me into him as I cried into his chest. ‘Please do not cry.’ he whispered, anguished at my pain as he tried to comfort me.

 

The ex-chevalier’s blonde hair fell over me as he held me tight and secure against his armour, as if he would protect me from anything.

 

Safe but heartbroken, all I could do was cry, my cheek pressed hard against the cold steel metal of his cuirass.

 

‘Emma lath ir abelas ma vhenan. Ar lath ma.’ Michel murmured, stroking my hair tenderly, over and over again.

 

The ex-chevalier’s voice was so compassionate and his gentle words made me feel calm, although I confess I did not know what they meant. In his intimacy, Michel spoke the language of his people and never had I felt so drawn to the words of another. Michel just cradled me and whispered to me in elvish, lulling me into his warm embrace. My world was falling apart, but somehow I felt so secure in his arms.

 

Wiping the tears from my eyes with his broad hands, the ex-chevalier threw me a sad smile. ‘Please da’vhenan, do not cry for it breaks my heart.’ he observed sorrowfully ‘Whatever has happened, we can get through this. You can tell me anything.’

 

I shook my head, eyes shifting from his kind gaze. ‘I followed Cullen just before. I saw him there with Mabel Guildersleeve.’

 

‘The new ambassador?’ replied Michel in surprise, or possible confusion ‘Perhaps they were discussing council matters?’

 

I shook my head. ‘No you don’t understand, I saw them in the woods... Cullen…’

 

My stomach lurched. I felt like I was going to be sick.

 

Michel held me tighter, refusing to let me fall. ‘What did you see Ophelia?’ 

 

‘I saw Cullen with Mabel...making love to her.’ I cried out with tears in my eyes ‘In the woods, I saw it all, Michel. I saw it all!’

 

‘He what?!’ remarked Michel in shock, his expression suddenly growing dark. ‘I cannot believe it.’. Shaking his head in disgust, he added angrily under his breath ‘That hypocritical bastard.’

 

‘What’s worse is he seemed to have forced himself onto her. I...I...I cannot be here Michel. How can I cope with what I have seen? Did he do this out of spite for the kiss we shared? Was this to punish me?’

 

Michel held me tight as he ran his fingers across my forehead, stroking my hair softly. ‘Shhhh,’ he whispered, his deep blue eyes looking into mine ‘be calm. Hamin da’vhenan.’

 

Sobbing into the arms of the ex-chevalier, I couldn't stop myself if I had tried. ‘He promised me. He promised me I was the only one for him. He held me in his arms and said there was no one except me. Cullen told me I had his heart and that he loved me.’

 

Falling into his chest, I wept as Michel held me tight, allowing me to grieve. For all the kindness I craved, Michel had once again given it to me effortlessly and without hesitation.

 

‘Ophelia I am so sorry,’ he replied gently ‘your heart is breaking and so is mine.’

 

Sitting on the battlements together, Michel wrapped his arms tight as he held me. When all my tears had gone I drifted into an exhausted sleep, all the while being cradled by the ex-chevalier who refused to let me go, holding my hand in his the entire time.

Chapter Text

 


 

Running. It was something I was guilty of doing too much in my life, and whenever I saw a chance I would seize upon it. Perhaps I was forced from my home in the Free Marshes to the Ostwick Circle, but I had felt like running from my home years prior to that. I ended up in a mages tower, of which ironically I soon dreamed of running from also. I definitely ran full speed from the Circle when the mages were liberated, joining a rebel group to only end up running to The Temple Of Sacred Ashes to attend the peace conference, desperately hoping for change. I ran from the Fade, the Divine herself willing me to run, and then I woke up in Haven. Before I knew it I was running for my life when Corypheus came with the Red Templars. Even at Skyhold I had tried to run out the gates, then to Kirkwall, and then back to Skyhold once more.

 

Unless something changed I would be forced into this cycle of flight for an eternity. I had to stop running and turn to fight.

 

So when I witnessed Cullen’s betrayal in the woods, instead of running I decided to stay and accept the cold reality. Not because I wanted to, but because I knew I had a responsibility to the Inquisition. Of course there were other ways to deal with the aftermath of what had happened and I decided to do the other thing I was highly experienced at.

 

Hiding.

 

Locking myself in my room I delved into my work with an insatiable and new found enthusiasm for documentation. Every trivial letter on my desk that had previously made me shake my head in reproach was now a welcomed distraction. Carefully I read over Dagna’s volumes of reports with great enthusiasm, highlighting passages that inspired me. I wrote letters to nobles in the Anderfels to secure more support. I even began writing a letter to Dryn, addressed to Corff, in the hopes it might reach my friend and perhaps I would hear back from him one of these days.

 

After the first day of me showing little interest in leaving my chambers, even for meals, Michel de Chevin once again came looking for me. It only took a moment for him to see what a miserable state I was in and he announced, or perhaps ordered, that he was taking me away from Skyhold for a break. Still being on forced leave himself, the ex-chevalier suggested we ride out into Ferelden for a few days. It took a bit of convincing for I flat out refused the first three times he asked, carefully explaining to Michel that I had yet to begin writing my manifesto for Skyhold, dust the bookshelves and pick the lint off my quilt. After the fourth request, and a warning from Michel that he would not take no for an answer, I reluctantly agreed. Secretly I saw it as another opportunity to hide for a while.

 

So the next morning the Maister of Blades and I set off, heading down Gherlen’s Pass into the heart of Ferelden.

 

The journey was quiet, and the icy wind and steep stony path of the ranges didn’t encourage any joviality as we descended the mountain. Suspecting my companion was already anticipating I wouldn’t have been the most entertaining of travelling partners, I noticed the ex-chevalier respected my silence with his own for most of the way. When Michel did speak it was only to point out the odd blackbird with a bright orange beak in an above tree, or a small brown fox in the bushes. It was a welcomed distraction  and by the end of the journey I was well educated on the flora and fauna of the Frostback Ranges thanks to my Orlesian friend.

 

Our journey led into the rich plains of Ferelden, the vibrant red dirt staining the hooves of our horses, and as late afternood fell upon us Michel finally called for us to stop. We had reached a quaint blue cobblestoned tavern with a watermill attached to the side, and a brightly lit lantern post out the front. In the distance there was a small stone bridge that crossed a river that ran alongside the tavern, and although hard to see as twilight fell upon us I could hear the steady trickle of water over rock and tree limb.

 

Tired from our journey Michel and I obtained the keys to our rooms, said goodnight and departed for a well-earned rest after a long day of travel. My companion informed me he would be away for the most part of the next day, but asked to meet him by the old stone bridge that crossed the river an hour before sunset.

 

The next morning I awoke late and enjoyed the luxury of knowing no Skyhold messenger would be knocking at my door. If I strayed outside my room, there would be no fear of bumping into the scatterbrained Ambassador or the silent Commander. Despite this new found freedom, I kept to my quarters. Leisurely I enjoyed the first half of the day soaking in the warm sun in the small private courtyard attached to my room. Two pigeons sat on the wooden fence and watched me curiously, and I so in turn, as we enjoyed aimlessly watching the world go by in swirls of fluffy white clouds scattered sparsely in a glorious Ferelden blue sky.

 

As midday passed, the time drew closer to meet Michel. Curiosity had weighed on my mind all day, a curl on my lip wondering what the Orlesian was up to? It seemed strange to convince me to take a trip with him and then abandon me in Ferelden. Not that I was complaining, the break was welcomed and perhaps that was his intention all along. As late afternoon approached I donned the only casual outfit I owned, a black cotton sun dress that fell to the knees and with a pair of black boots and departed for the stony bridge.

 

The bridge was isolated when I arrived. Watching the water trickle over the pebbles, I couldn’t help but feel at ease. It was the same feeling I would get in Kirkwall from time to time, realising perhaps there was another world out there. Some hope of a normal life to be obtained, if not today, then someday. Maybe one day I too could live a simple life in Ferelden, just spending my time sitting by a river without a care in the world?

 

‘There you are!’ called out Michel.

 

Around a bend I saw the ex-chevalier approaching. With a chiselled smile on his jaw he looked pleased, if not downright mischievous, as he walked up to me. It was so strange to see the ex-chevalier out of Skyhold, let alone out of his formal attire. Yet there he was in a white cotton tunic and black trousers with black boots, and a longsword attached to his brown leather belt. Today we were just two people in Ferelden, enjoying the sunny afternoon of a warm autumn day.

 

‘In Val Foret there is this spectacular leafy hedge maze that is over one hundred years old,’ informed Michel pleasantly ‘and quite infamous for no one can actually find the center of it. Shall I take you there now?’

 

I threw a confused look towards Michel as he grinned at me.

 

‘You do realise we are in Ferelden?’ I informed, a suspicious curl at my lips. ‘You Orlesians and directions.’

 

Michel chuckled. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a white sash of material.

 

‘With your permission?’ he asked politely, walking up to me.

 

I narrowed my eyes, a grin growing wide on my face as the Orlesian raised his hands to my head and gently wrapped the material around my head twice, covering my eyes, before tying it secure.

 

‘Is this the part where I get robbed?’ I asked.

 

‘You’ve got fifty silver and a brass button in your coin pouch, I think I shall pass.’ teased Michel.

 

I felt Michel step behind me as his strong fingers ran over my digits, his hands holding mine, one in each.

 

The warmth of his breath tickled my skin as he whispered next to my ear. ‘At this hedge in Val Foret you run down the leafy paths, twisting and turning, always feeling lost and never knowing which is the right way to go. The foliage scratches your legs and arms as you continue to stumble deeper into the maze, the hedges growing thicker and narrower the further you explore. In fact the hedges are so tall now you can barely see the sunlight up above.’

 

I felt Michel pull at my right hand. I smiled, unable to see what the Orlesian was up to.

 

‘Do you go right?’ he asked mysteriously. Pulling my hand left, he added ‘Or do you go left?’

 

Blindfold secured tight, all I could do was laugh in the dark. ‘This is a trick question. I’m guessing there is a sharp rock to the right of me and a river on the left. Go straight.’

 

Michel laughed behind me. ‘Are you always this skeptical?’ 

 

‘Yes.’ I mused. ‘Okay have it your way. Left, I choose left.’

 

I could feel his arm pull me as I slowly walked, letting him lead me away. It was hard to walk confidently not seeing the way before me and I took hesitant steps before I felt Michel wrap his strong arm securely around my waist, encouraging me further. After what seemed an eternity of steps, Michel stopped.

 

‘We stumble through the leafy trail and the soft sweet plucking of a harp can be heard across the wind.’ he informed pleasantly ‘It is drawing closer, and beckoning us to come forth. Can you hear it?’

 

Silence fell over us and all I could hear the faint caw of a raven in the distance.

 

‘If harp is code for bird...then yes.’ I answered cynically.

 

Michel groaned, and I laughed.

 

‘Okay, okay sorry. Why yes! I can hear the… uh sweet strum of a harp.’

 

Pluck.’ corrected an amused Michel, leading me on further ‘Harps are plucked, not strummed.’

 

‘Ravens don’t like to be plucked?’ I pointed out and the ex-chevalier nudged me playfully in the ribs.

 

‘Come along, the hedge maze is leading us this way.’ he exclaimed in delight ‘Oh what have we here?’

 

I could not help but smile until it hurt. I loved the way Michel sounded so intrigued, pretending to be in Orlais for my somewhat confused amusement. 

 

‘What do you see?’ I asked curiously.

 

‘Well now before us is a large oak wooden door with a splendid golden lock.’ he remarked in awe ‘I am certain this is the way to the center of the maze. Do you have the key Ophelia?’

 

‘Uhhh,’ I replied uncertainly, adding with a grin ‘I must have left that back at Skyhold.’

 

Gently holding both my hands as he stood behind me, Michel moved my right hand into the front pocket of my dress. I laughed out loud as my hand touched a large cold metal key. The Orlesian chuckled behind me.

 

‘Oh thank goodness.’ he exclaimed mischievously ‘I thought we would have to go back to the keep. Will you do the honour of unlocking the door?’

 

Laughing, I stood there uncertainly with the key in my hand.

 

‘Come now, let me take this ridiculous blindfold off.’ I protested ‘For all I know I am about to insert this key into a pile of horse dung for your amusement. I know a prank when one’s coming.’

 

Michel laughed spiritedly behind me. ‘Oh yes that’s why I dragged you all the way to Ferelden. To trick you into putting a key into a steaming pile of manure!’

 

‘It’s steaming is it?’ I chortled.

 

‘You cannot see.’ teased Michel ‘Go on, unlock it.’

 

Sighing in defeat, I waved my hand in front of me with the key, and drew my breath in surprise as it touched a wooden frame.

 

'There's a door here!' I exclaimed in disbelief.

 

'Told you so.' mused the Orlesian. 

 

I could feel Michel grinning beside my cheek as he directed my hand down and I felt the key fall into a lock. Turning my hand, the door clicked and I heard the wooden frame creak open as we stumbled forward into what, I confess, I had no idea.

 

Feeling Michel’s hands at the back of my head, he gently untied the white material covering my eyes and I stood for a moment blinking in the bright light. A garden of wonderland greeted my eyes; of leafy trees of green, brown and red, and soft grass, fresh and lush, spilling into the lavender and rosemary bushes scattered across the way. Wild rose bushes scaled up the four stone walls encasing the secluded place, so high up that even climbing a tree would have prevented me looking over and out into the realm. Stunning to behold, a blanket of creamy pink and white roses covered the stone, large blooms with bright yellow stamens in their center, their sweet fragrance lingering heavily in the air.

 

Indeed the scent of the garden was nothing less than tantalising, with the heady scent of mossy wood, sweet roses, spiced honey, rosemary, lavender, dried fruit and a hint of pepper overwhelming my senses on every breath. It was a divine perfume in itself, and I wished I could bottle it up and keep it forever.

 

Large and aged maple trees grew tall, their leaves displaying a stunning array of orange, yellow and red. Their large and leafy autumn foliage spread out generously above us to provide an enchanting canopy for our respite. In the far corner of the enclosed garden was a large pond surrounded by stones, and I could see gold and red fish swimming leisurely amongst the lily pads in the crystal clear water.

 

'Here, come this way.' beckoned Michel.

 

Leading me to the center of the garden, we came to an area of soft green grass, nestled between two large pear trees holding tantalising ripe golden fruit hanging heavy on the branch. Laid out on the grass was a thick white blanket. A wicker basket sat on the blanket, heavily laden with bread, cheese, grapes and other delicious delicacies . There were two plump cushions on the blanket, and surrounding it there were several lanterns, already lit, and each with a different panel of coloured glass of red, blue, green and purple. The vessels flickered softly, eagerly awaiting the sun to set so they could come to life.

 

‘What in the..? This is breathtaking!’ I remarked in awe, spinning around to see a pleased Michel smiling beside me. ‘Is this what you were doing all day? How did you find this place, let alone arrange all this?’

 

‘I came across it when we were training the recruits in Ferelden.’ confessed Michel, looking around in appreciation. ‘One of the soldiers mentioned they came from the Inn at Tanteridge, and worked as a grounds keeper in the Charmed Riverside Garden. Well, you know me and nature...the name caught my curiosity. I inquired after the directions and I managed to pass by on the way back to Skyhold.’

 

Curiosity got the better of me for I couldn't comprehend the purpose of such a place. ‘What's it used for? I've never seen a garden that has been locked up?’

 

Michel appeared surprised that I'd never seen such a place before. ‘Why it’s for the guests at the inn to enjoy, of course! In Orlais these types of gardens are very popular. Many ladies like to wear the ornate keys to their gardens around their neck, well that was the latest style when I was last back home.'. Michel chuckled, shaking his head. 'It sounds rather bizarre when you think about it.'

 

'A subtle way of one showing off their wealth, I suppose?' I teased 'Admit it, you probably have several hanging off your neck as we speak?' 

 

The ex-chevalier frowned, as if trying to recall how many gardens he did own. 'I believe I had eight in total? Or is that nine? That is I had nine gardens over three estates, and several of them opened up onto the manor so I cannot really count them as proper locked gardens.' he confessed, oblivious at how shocking that type of wealth appeared to someone such as myself. 'I never did much with the keys, my groundskeepers usually kept them in a safe place.'

 

Shaking my head in amusement, I sat down on the blanket. 

 

'It turns out the owners of this garden here are in fact Orlesian themselves.' continued Michel 'They came from the Arlesans, and actually landscaped some of the parterre gardens in Val Royeaux and the Royal Palace in Denerim. Now they have retired here and this little garden was a project of their own. They were nice enough to loan it to me for the evening, and seemed more than a little happy to oblige The Maister of Blades.’

 

Michel rolled his eyes.

 

‘You love it.’ I taunted. Grinning, I turned back to the beautiful surroundings before me. ‘I’m glad you did what you had to do. I’ve never seen such an enchanting place like this before.’

 

‘Well I thought we could share a meal together?’ he informed cheerfully, joining me on the blanket ‘Dining by the light of lanterns and stars is much nicer than the harsh aesthetics of a tavern.’

 

‘No one has ever done anything like this for me.’ shaking my head in disbelief as Michel set out the food before us. ‘Thank you so much.’

 

Michel smiled as he poured some warmed tea into two cups before us. ‘Someone should have by now.’

 

My eyes dropped, and perhaps my heart a little, suddenly reminded of Cullen. 

 

As if Michel knew what I was thinking, he shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, I did not mean… I meant someone, anyone, should have taken you on a picnic before now.’ explained the ex-chevalier somewhat regretfully 'I wasn't referring to Cullen.' 

 

Feeling foolish, I waved off the apology. 'It's fine.'

 

Michel frowned. ‘I worry about you Ophelia. How are you coping with what has happened between Cullen and Mabel?’

 

‘Hah!’ I scoffed cynically, rolling my eyes ‘You know me, it’s all good.’

 

‘That bad?’ sighed Michel. Taking a sip of his tea, he grew quiet for a moment as he contemplated the situation. 'It goes without saying that Cullen's actions are a reflection on himself, not you.'

 

'He berated you and I for a kiss and then he goes and fucks Mabel Guildersleeve.' I observed darkly 'You think you know someone? Look I know I can’t change what has happened. What can I say? It happened. Cullen and I are no longer together. He's with Mabel and that is the reality of the situation. I see that now.’

 

Michel shook his head silently. No doubt he had his own opinions about Cullen but I could see he refused to go into them with me. Perhaps there was already enough fuel on that fire.

 

‘I only wish he had just come out and told me.’ I added bitterly ‘Just a heads up that he was moving on with her. That way I wouldn't have stupidly followed them into the woods and seen what I saw.’

 

‘You don’t need anything else from him,’ replied Michel dryly ‘especially not another excuse. I fear that is all he would have given you.’

 

‘The fonder I loved him, the falser he grew.’ I muttered ‘That isn’t love. I can see that now.’. I drew my eyes up to Michel ‘All I know is I desperately needed to get away from Skyhold, if only for a while, and I am glad I am here. I am glad I am here with you.’

 

Michel threw a smile, gently nudging his hand against my chin ‘You break my heart when I see you so sad. I'm glad you're smiling again Ophelia, even if it's just a small one.’

 

‘It’s been a while, hasn’t it?’ I sighed. Looking around at the beautiful surroundings of the garden I knew we shouldn't be wasting our time discussing the past. ‘I don’t want to talk about Cullen to be honest. I want to enjoy this moment in Val Foret?’

 

Michel grinned ‘I told you we would find the center of the maze.’

 

The ex-chevalier had a way of making me feel like I was bathing in sunlight when I was around him. Everything felt so airy and free, and the heaviness of my mind and former days seemed to somewhat dissipate. I loved the Orlesian’s brilliant white smile, and his deep blue eyes that locked into mine when his head tilted to the side, a celestial being curiously taking in every part of me as I sat before him. Whenever I was near Michel gave me the full attention that only someone who generally is interested in another gives, with a small smile on his lips and a dreamy look in his eyes.

 

Running my fingers across, I reached out for Michel’s hand as he cast his attention to the soft swaying of the weeping willow that hung over the pond in the distance. Michel turned to me in surprise on feeling my touch but his expression softened as he saw me slowly draw over to him.

 

Placing my hands softly on either side of his face, I ran my fingers across his cheeks and smiled at him.

 

The curious expression Michel was politely turned into a curl of his lips, smiling back at me without question. Whatever he felt in that moment was disguised by his civility, yet his quietude spoke louder than words as he looked affectionately into my eyes. 

 

As I held his cheeks in my hands I grinned as I recalled Dorian mentioning the ex-chevalier’s pale skin, for indeed it was stunning. Against the paleness of his skin his cheeks were like the stain of blood on fresh snow, a soft flush of rose, while his eyes were as deep blue as melting ice. His eyebrows were light blonde like his hair, and sculpted with a beautiful elegance I could only presume was an elvish attribute, while the soft blonde stubble of his jaw gave his beauty a hint of ruggedness that his human side no doubt provided. Gently I ran my finger along the white scar that lay across his left brow and cheekbone, the harsh marks of reality on his otherwise flawless features.

 

‘How did this happen?’ I asked softly.

 

Michel continued to gaze into my eyes, a warm smile on his lips as he looked at me looking at him. Whether I cared to admit it or not, this wasn’t a moment between mere friends. It was intimate and it was something that I had felt with Michel before and secretly craved to feel again.

 

‘The one on my brow happened in a battle against the Nevarrans.’ replied Michel ‘Empress Celene wanted to reclaim the Bjornuo Hills, an area near the border of Orlais and Nevarra. It's a place rich with minerals and Celene was partial to it. Orlais lost the land to Nevarra during the Blessed Age. So we, the Orlesian army, were drawn to the battleground at Perendale on the first day of mid-winter. It was an unwritten formality never to fight in winter but Empress Celene decided to use this to her advantage. We fought on the frozen Lake of Knaves and I slipped on the ice when an arrow narrowly shot past me. A Nevarran soldier’s blade got too close when I was on the ground and that scar was the result.’

 

I frowned, feeling uneasy at hearing stories where Michel’s life was in danger. As if he could tell what I was thinking, he lifted his palm to my cheek.

 

‘It’s okay,’ he reassured kindly ‘I left the battlefield alive, that’s the only thing that counts at the end of the day.’

 

Running my finger along his upper left cheekbone, I traced along another deep white scar. ’Did this happen at Lake Knaves as well?’ 

 

Michel chuckled bashfully, his blue eyes averting mine for a moment in embarrassment. ‘That one was not so valiantly obtained Im afraid. The chevaliers in Halamshiral were drinking heavily one night with Duke Gaspard. That was a long time ago, when he was still welcomed at court. The Duke had just returned from his travels and had brought with him several barrels of his latest vintage from the northern region of Montford where his estate keeps a large vineyard.’. Michel shuddered, recalling the taste. ‘It was like ingesting cheap dwarven spirits. Before we knew it there were thirty chevaliers roaming the Imperial Highway and more than a little festive. We passed by some dwarven stragglers, which we foolishly began to hurl insults at. Well, they turned out to be two dozen or so of Orzammar’s Carta and they were not too pleased at being called a whiffle-whaffle fustylugs by Gaspard. We all ended up clashing steel, and a dwarven axe produced the guilty mark.’

 

‘You’re joking!’ I grinned ‘Maister of Blades you surprise me!’

 

Michel chuckled, nodding his head guiltily. ‘Perhaps I have a knack of finding trouble at times?’

 

The knight seemed happy at recalling previous days of being a chevalier, something I had rarely seen. It pleased me to see his spirit too had been lifted, if not just a little.

 

‘You seem to get into your fair share of trouble also?’ pointed out Michel with a grin.

 

‘Well, inbetween stealing butteries from the Skyhold kitchens and being a pickpocket in Kirkwall what chance did I really have?’ I mused. Suddenly I went silent, looking away in shame.

 

‘Ophelia?’ remarked Michel, drawing his hand to my arm 'What is it?'

 

‘The night of the feast in Skyhold, when we spoke in the courtyard.’ I recalled ‘You said something about honour. And I know you think I am dishonourable but-‘

 

‘I never said that.’ interjected Michel in a soft voice, shaking his head. ‘What would make you think I thought such a thing?’

 

‘No, you said you couldn’t dismiss all the wrongdoings we had done as much as I could.’ I continued ‘It made me wonder what you truly must think of me? I mean, in addition to all of that I was making my way in the world stealing off others in Kirkwall. You are so honourable and I suspect I fall a bit short of the chevalier’s code.’

 

Michel shook his head with a chuckle, grabbing my hands strongly in his hands. ‘You are the most honourable person I know, Inquisitor.’ he declared passionately ‘That night in Skyhold I was angry at myself. Your kindness was trying to steal that fury away from me when all I wanted to do was face that hurt. I am sorry for saying that, it wasn't at all what I meant.’. Raising his eyebrows in amusement he added ‘Notice how I used steal to describe what you did?’

 

‘So witty.’ I teased.

 

'I try.' replied Michel with a wink.

 

Growing quiet again as I looked at my companion. Michel noticed my silence and threw a curious look at me. Leaning over to him, I had no desire in speaking another word as I drew my lips to his. Feeling the fullness of his bottom lip touch mine, his mouth opened softly to welcome me as he drew me into a deeper kiss.

 

Drawing his arms around my waist, Michel pulled me tightly against his firm chest as he continued the passionate embrace. His body stiffened as I ran my hands down his chest and abdomen, moving under his shirt to feel the warmth of his skin hot against my hands. The touch of my fingers on his flesh was electric, and I desperately wanted more. Michel seemed to respond to my touch with more than a little enthusiasm, his kisses became deeper and more passionate as he gathered me closer.

 

Suddenly I pulled away from him, my breath drawing deep in my chest.

 

‘What is it?’ asked Michel in concern 'I'm sorry, of course you need space. We should have some dinner perhaps?' 

 

Taking another deep breath, my heart was pounding in my chest as I looked to the man. I knew what I wanted.

 

‘I want you to make love to me Michel, here, in this garden.’

 

The ex-chevalier’s blue eyes fluttered up to the trees, a bashful smile on his lips before drawing back to me. Michel hesitated, breaking off in an embarrassed laugh before he could reply.

 

‘Do you not want to?’ I teased, tilting my head in question and taking delight in his apparent discomfort.

 

The smile on Michel’s face fell away suddenly as he drew his blue eyes into mine. ‘Of course I do.’ he declared gently ‘The very thought of you and I stirs me greatly. It’s just that there is you and Cullen.’

 

Frowning at his comment, I didn't even want to entertain the thought of the man. Not after what he had done. ‘I'm not with Cullen any more. You know there is no going back to him after what he did? Surely you realise that?’

 

‘Well yes but I fear your heart may still be with him.’ replied Michel, casting his eyes away again to fiddle with some grass beside the blanket. ‘If I was the only one you truly desired then I would never mention such things. But people are complicated, no? The wound of Cullen's betrayal is fresh Ophelia. I know what that can do to someone. Being with me won’t help ease that pain.’

 

Raising a brow to the man, I couldn't hep but laugh at his oblivious nature to my feelings. ‘Michel have you not noticed how I am around you? You stole a piece of my heart from the first day you arrived at Skyhold.’

 

‘You stole all of mine.’ confessed Michel 'And from that moment I haven't stopped thinking about you.'

 

Rendering me a little speechless, Michel placed another soft kiss on my lips.

 

‘The time you sat with me on the stairs of the keep,’ he added ‘I remember thinking you were more beautiful than the first light of the summer sun glistening on the cold dew drops of morning. So selfless and kind towards others without any agenda. I was more than a little taken aback, and after that you never left my thoughts. Not even for a day.’

 

‘Cullen was right about my motives on the Imperial Highway, when I released you from Imshael.’. A sudden confession of my own coming forth, I knew I had to tell Michel why I had done what I had done. ‘Michel I performed blood magic to save your life because I cared deeply for you. I didn’t want to live in a world without you Michel, no matter the cost.’

 

Pressing his lips against my hand fervantly, Michel blinked away tears in his eyes. 'I wished you had not cast that spell and now I dearly thank the gods that you did. You have saved me on so many levels Ophelia.'

 

‘The truth is Cullen broke my heart, but not all of it for you also had a piece.’. I confessed ‘Why else would I feel what I am feeling for you? What I have been feeling for you for a while now? If you would have it, I’d give my heart to you willingly.’

 

The ex-chevalier grabbed my hands in his, lowering his gaze to them fondly before looking up at me. ‘Only if you accept mine.’ 

 

Michel drew his lips to mine again, more hungrily this time. It was a different and stronger passion in his embrace and I felt myself drowning in it.

 

‘Ophelia.’ he whispered, pulling away to hold my attention.

 

I looked upon that Orlesian face and saw the intensity of his affections as he held my gaze.

 

'What is it?'

 

‘You deserve someone who will cherish every part of you.’ Michel fervently declared ‘Let me be that man. I will never betray you.’

 

Reaching my arms around the Orlesian’s neck, I pulled him to me and he held me close, his arms around my waist as his head rested in my neck. I felt Michel breathe in heavily before a pair of lips drew to my neck, a deep and tender dance leading slowly back to my face.

 

His deep blue eyes pulled back into mine, our faces inches apart, chests rising and falling heavily before Michel pressed his mouth hungrily onto mine once more. An excitement grew in me as I felt the ex-chevalier’s strong hands run hotly against my body, his fingers drawing around my waist to the curve of my rear, pulling me into him. Michel continued to kiss me deeply before once more.....pulling away.

 

‘Tell me to stop and I will.’ he asked seriously ‘I want you but I will not continue unless it is what you truly desire also.’

 

Overwhelmed with desire, I pulled his head eagerly to mine to answer his question. Michel’s lips met and devoured hungrily as his hands clenched my hair tightly, as if he feared I would disappear.

 

My hands fell to his chest, past his waist to where I began to unbuckle his belt. It should have been an easy task but it wasn't and I began to curse at not being able to undo it. 

 

‘Allow me.’ he chuckled ‘These Ferelden sword belts are notorious for keeping their owners imprisoned.’

 

Grinning, I was happy to see him remove it effortlessly. ‘It’s very strange seeing you without armour. Come to think of it I’ve hardly seen you without armour but often wondered what that would look like in my mind. Actually, I think half of Skyhold have contemplated the same thing.’

 

‘Without armour or without clothing?’ mused Michel cheekily 'I am happy to reveal that mystery. To you, that is. Not the rest of Skyhold.'

 

'Spoil sport.' I teased.

 

The ex-chevalier grinned as he pulled the white cotton tunic over his head and dropped it softly to the ground, exposing his wide muscular chest and torso, rippled and firm, narrowing down into a tight abdomen. His arms were sculpted, bulging muscle after muscle, toned and strong.

 

Kneeling before me, Michel smiled as he gently removed my boots one by one before lightly moving his hands to my dress to slowly pull it over my head, revealing my bare skin beneath.

 

‘This may have crossed over my mind several times or more.’ Michel confessed, flashing his mischievous eyes over me.

 

Moving closer, the ex-chevalier placed his warm hands on my breasts. He whispered breathlessly in Orlesian under his breath mon dieu before lowering his mouth onto one and then the other, placing soft kisses on each peak and causing them to grow hard. The feel of his tongue on my skin left me speechless as he continued to taste his forbidden fruit.

 

A shaky breath escaped my lips as he lowered his strong frame over me. He gently took my hand and placed it on the warm skin of his chiseled abdomen.

 

'Do you feel my heart beating so fast?' he asked in amusement 'Not even in the Battle of Castiellon did it pound like this.' 

 

'Do I scare you that much?' I laughed. 

 

Michel bestowed another passionate kiss, deep and sensual. 'I do not fear death. I do however fear beautiful women'that hold me under their spell.'

 

I knew how Michel felt for it felt like he was doing the same to me. 

 

I could feel the concealed hardness of Michel press against my stomach and I dove my hand down into his material trappings, my fingers coming in contact with his warm and very stiff member. He looked surprised at my forthrightness but nevertheless pleased. Wrapping my fingers around his wide girth, I stroked him up and down slowly as he moaned at the sensation, ravishing my neck with kisses and growing more enthusiastic by the second. Being so erect I struggled to release him, however on his knees he aided me in pulling down his pants and a magnificent large cock was revealed, swollen and red with a bulbous purple head enticing me ever so much.

 

‘Well well, Maister of Blades!?’ I remarked in surprise, catching my breath at the monstrous size of the ex-chevalier’s manhood.

 

'You were expecting a dagger?' observed the amused ex-chevalier.

 

'A long sword perhaps, but certainly not a broadsword!' I teased, causing the man to playfully poke me in the ribs. 

 

Michel threw an embarrassed smile as he watched me come face to face with his Orlesian splendour. He stood up and removed his own boots and trousers before joining me once again on the blanket, fully naked and spectacular.

 

'Your turn now.' informed Michel as began to peel off my bloomers, revealing my full nakedness to him for the first time. Wasting no time, the ex-chevalier ran his hands up my legs as he drew near, a mischievous look on his face as he gently lowered me back to lay on the rug. I watched as the naked ex-chevalier suddenly stood up, retreating to the nearby fruit tree to pluck a ripe pear before returning.

 

My heart was racing as Michel dropped onto his knees before me, flashing me a seductive smile as took a large bite from the pear, its juices running down his chin as he savoured the first taste.

 

‘Enjoying that are you?’ I grinned, wondering what in the blazes my companion was up to.

 

‘Not as much as this.’ replied Michel deviously, lowering his head to my knee where he began kissing upwards along my thigh. The ex-chevalier’s lips were tortuously tender as they moved further up to my inner thigh. I drew a shaky breath as I felt him reach my intimate parts, his warm breath teasing my labia as he lowered his mouth upon my lips. The softness of Michel’s tongue melted straight against my clit and he began to lap along it hungrily.

 

Shuddering I could feel my hands running through his blond hair, subconsciously pulling him towards me as I moved my hips in approval. Eyes lulling shut and my breathing growing deeper and deeper, I suddenly startled as I felt the warm drops of pear juice trickling over my labia, a grinning Orlesian squeezing the fruit in his hand onto my flesh before greedily plunging back between my legs. Michel sucked and licked and lapped and swirled his tongue with a certain expertise that only a proficient could have mustered, and the sensation had me melting under his touch. His warm tongue running along my pink flesh was making my stomach flutter in delight, begging me to take the Orlesian into me. The build-up was so pleasurable it began to feel torturous, the feel of Michel’s mouth on my most intimate parts, teasing me over and over without mercy. His tongue continued to dance across my clit while his fingers dipped inside me, and had me breathing faster and faster until my surroundings were spinning and I grew tight, crying out in pleasure as ripples of bliss coursed through me, my body shuddering all the while Michel held his place, his tongue refusing to leave my clit until I had finished.

 

Revealing a pleased smile, he finally emerged and pulled me up to him, planting a deep kiss on my lips. Our tongues dived into each other, and I could taste a mixture of myself, Michel and pear juice. It was more than a little erotic.

 

‘That was what we Orlesians call the pièce de résistance.’ grinned Michel, drawing his fingers into his mouth as he sucked them dry.

 

‘Whatever that was, you can do that any time you like.’ I replied breathlessly, feeling utterly satisfied ‘That was delicious.’

 

‘Most delicious.’ replied Michel, his voice full of desire.

 

Drawing me into his arms, Michel’s searing hot member pressed hard against my belly as he passionately embraced me.

 

‘Come over here.’ he smiled, drawing my hand to pull me up. The ex-chevalier led me to a soft patch of grass nearby. ‘Let us consummate against the rawness of the earth.’ he suggested gently, encouraging me to sit upon the grass with him.

 

The knight lay me gently on the grass before crawling over me, the heat of our bodies torturing my senses as his deep blue eyes looked into mine. I could not believe we were here, together, naked in this garden and about to connect in the most intimate way. Nothing else felt so right or so necessary.

 

Holding my face tenderly, Michel kept looking into my eyes as he ran his hard member across my labia, coating himself in my juices before lining up the head of his cock.

 

Ar lath math.’ he murmured, slowly easing into me.

 

Our bodies shivered at the union, that feeling of his warm, hard cock easing up into me for the first time. The pent up desire was finally being released in that one deep penetration. My body ached for him, but also found him a large guest to welcome as I opened up to his thickness and length. Michel eased in slowly and gently until he was finally buried deep to the hilt.

 

‘What does that mean?’ I whispered, looking into his eyes as he remained deep inside me 'What you just said then?'

 

Michel’s melting blue eyes looked down at me, his blonde hair scattered across his brow as he held my gaze. ‘Ar lath math. It means I love you.’ he whispered back, an affectionate smile on his face.

 

Ar lath math.’ I whispered back to him, a tear trailing down my cheek as he remained still.

 

Drawing his lips to mine, he kissed me deeply before pulling back, chuckling as he looked down at me ‘Wonderful. You crying when I start making love.’

 

Laughing, I shook my head. ‘No I'm crying because of what I am feeling for you.’ 

 

‘I know, but don’t cry my love.’ whispered the ex-chevalier ‘You have shed enough tears, I would have you smile.’. Playfully he added ‘Perhaps I can help with that?’

 

With a devious grin, the ex-chevalier began to move in me, his face growing more serious as he began to lose himself in the pleasure of the moment. With breathless moans, he began to increase the rhythm of his strokes. I could feel his pulse throbbing, and I ran my hands across his back, my legs wrapping over his buttocks, my body willing him to fill me deeper and deeper.

 

‘Tell me what you want.’ Michel murmured breathlessly ‘Your wish is my desire. My only desire.’

 

‘Make love to me,’ I whispered back, drawing his mouth to mine as he began to thrust slowly and deep inside of me ‘however you like.’

 

‘No, what do you like?’ he repeated ‘I want to know.’

 

‘Forceful,’ I confessed ‘and hard.’

 

Michel raised an eyebrow in amusement, surprised but pleased nevertheless, placing another hot kiss on my lips as he began to thrust harder. He adjusted his hips slightly, pulling mine up at an angle, as he thrust deeper and now more forcefully, plunging to the hilt and hitting me in a spot that caused me to cry out in pleasure. His carefully angled movements causing the result he had intended. Michel's blonde hair spilt over me as he continued to thrust into the spot inside of me that was aching with desire. Grounding his arms firmly on either side of me, the ex-chevalier began to pound harder, each stroke going deep as his nimble hands reached down and deftly flicked at my clit causing me to draw my breath as the intensity of the moment rose.

 

With a smile on his lips and refusing to relent in his pace or withdraw his hands that played deftly, I cried out as I clenched hard around his member.

 

Closing his eyes Michel moaned deeply, a low guttural sound in his throat of agonising pleasure as he continued to thrust into me. It was clear the ex-chevalier had no intention of releasing so soon and ending the moment yet. The wave had passed and Michel began to thrust firmer, and I found myself catching my breath as I felt the desire beginning to grow once more. It seemed the devious Orlesian was intent on giving me multiple climaxes in this charmed garden.

 

Hooking my legs around his arms, the ex-chevalier pushed his cock in deeper and began to unleash his stamina as he fucked me harder, a groan on his lips as he transformed into a wilder being I had not had the pleasure of meeting until now. His blonde hair scattered freely across as he liberated himself, embracing the desire and lust of the moment in a series of raw fucks. The ex-chevalier was a machine of endurance, strength and stamina, and I found myself catching my breath as he unleashed himself onto me.

 

Michel shuddered through each stroke, his breath growing shaky as he tried to hold on. Bending down, he planted his lips on my breast and began to suck firmly, rolling his tongue over my hard nub. Our bodies moving together, Michel desperately clutched my head, drawing his eyes down into mine as we reached our climax, heavy breaths and deep moans on every thrust, his stokes growing firmer and firmer until we both cried out, beholding that expression of pure ecstasy on each other’s face as we experienced each other’s orgasm. 

 

Michel pulled me into an embrace while still remaining inside me. He was trembling, and I could feel his heart pounding against my skin. In truth, so was I. 

 

Ma emma lath, ma vhenan’ara.’ Michel murmured tenderly, leaning down to kiss me. Noticing the furrow on my brow, Michel chuckled. ‘You are my love, my heart’s desire.’ he explained.

 

‘And you are mine.’ I whispered, pulling him into another kiss.

 

Locked in an eternal embrace on the floor of the earth, neither of us was willing to leave the other, now that we had joined together as one. Our union had been sanctified by the evergreen, and we now felt as much a part of nature as the trees and plants around us, our bodies lovingly entwined like the wild roses on the stone wall…

Chapter Text

 

 

Fingers drumming hard on the oak wood table of the war room, her sharp green eyes ran curiously over the pair before her, narrowing thinly as she examined the Commander and the Ambassador standing side by side. It was the little things that Leliana was drawn to. The way Cullen’s hand ran up and down along Mabel’s forearm, drawn out in desirable strokes before running around her hip firmly, pulling her closer to him. Or the way he bent his head down to Mabel, kissing her delicate neck as she tried to read a document in front of her, before giving up and succumbing to his attention in a fit of soft giggles.

 

Leliana frowned, tilting her head as if her eyes were perhaps deceiving her. If the spymaster did not know better, she would have assumed she was in the pair's bedroom rather than a council meeting.

 

‘Ambassador, we need you to visit the capital city of Hossberg in the Anderfels.’ informed Leliana sharply ‘We have received an invitation from the noble house of Calaborne. In truth we have struggled to gain support from the Anderfels so we should not hesitate in accepting their hospitality now. House Calaborne has showed some interest in supporting the Inquisition in the past but never formally made a gesture until now.’

 

‘I would advise playing into their religious sentiments.’ suggested Cassandra ‘The Anders people are the most pious followers of the Maker. You should emphasise the Inquisitor’s calling as the Herald of Andraste.’

 

‘Their faith is their salvation.’ agreed Leliana ‘If they could see the Inquisition as being apart of that moral path then we could gain the support of more than one noble house. Perhaps even royal support? It's a big hope, but if we play our cards right who knows?’

 

‘I fear King Wilhelm Augustin is not interested in his own people, let alone the plight of the Inquisition.’ observed Cassandra judgmentally ‘Besides, he has no real standing or power amongst the wider population outside his precious stone city walls.’

 

‘Yes I hear the king is only interested in the royal city of Hossberg, forsaking everything else.’ added Leliana ‘Mabel, when you meet the house of Calaborne I would advise you to emphasise the stability and strength of the Inquisition. We may not be a kingdom, but we look after every single person who offers us support. Talk to them about how the Inquisition strongly supports the Chantry, and our religious affiliations. That included Cassandra and I being the former left and right hand of Divine Justinia. See how they respond to offers of power, protection and reputation by association to the Inquisition. At the moment all we can do is play into their vulnerable traits and hope that they bite.’

 

Leliana looked over to Mabel, whose attention was focused on Cullen as she whispered something into her ear.

 

‘Ambassador?’ remarked Leliana abruptly.

 

Cullen and Mabel both looked up with a startle, appearing almost surprised that they had company in the room. Neither of them had been particularly interested in hearing anything that the council had to say.

 

‘The Anderfels?’ pouted Mabel ‘That is so far away. When must I go?’

 

‘Tomorrow.’ informed Leliana shortly ‘As ambassador for the Inquisition travelling to far and foreign places comes part and parcel with the job I'm afraid.’

 

Cullen and Mabel turned their attention back to each other. The Commander wrapped his hands around Mabel's waist once more, pulling her close to him.

 

‘I shall go with Lady Guildersleeve on this trip.’ announced Cullen, not tearing his eyes off the woman. ‘She will need an escort to Hossberg.’

 

‘Something that can be easily done by the Inquisition soldiers.’ retorted the spymaster shortly, casting a frown to Cassandra who was also looking at the pair with a disapproving glare of her own.

 

‘Then I shall take some time off.’ argued Cullen impatiently ‘I'm certain to be owed some.’

 

Cassandra raised her eyebrows in surprise, the document in her hand drooping. ‘You are asking for time off?’ she exclaimed, a little taken back by the request.

 

‘Yes.’ replied Cullen with a certain degree of hostility ‘Do you have a problem with that Seeker?’

 

Somewhat shocked, which quickly transformed into annoyance, Cassandra cast Cullen a scathing look. The small crease on the crest of her eyebrow grew deep as she glared at him with growing severity.

 

‘Cullen you know that is not possible at present.’ interceded Leliana quickly, keen to dissipate the growing tension. ‘With Michel de Chevin off duty at the moment, there is no one who can take over your duties.’

 

‘Maker’s breath,’ cursed Cullen in frustration ‘well, I’ll get him back to work then!’

 

‘He’s not in Skyhold at the moment.’ replied Leliana crisply, adding somewhat bluntly ‘Michel and the Inquisitor have gone to Ferelden for the rest of the week.’

 

Looking unconcerned at the fact, Cullen merely shrugged ‘Then send a messenger to retrieve them.’

 

‘I can’t.’ replied Leliana sharply, growing more frustrated by the moment ‘They are entitled to a break, and so are you when they get back. Until then you will have to stay in Skyhold while Mabel goes to the Anderfels. Is this going to be a problem for you Commander?’

 

The fire in Cullen’s amber eyes suggested it was and he was about to say more on the matter before Mabel grabbed his large hand to placate him.

 

‘No Leliana, there is no problem.’ answered Mabel hastily. She threw another look at Cullen who was looking more than a little annoyed. ‘I shall start packing now.’ added Mabel a little dejectedly ‘Is there anything else?’

 

‘No, that is all.’ answered Leliana wearily ‘There will be a coach in the courtyard ready for your departure at daybreak tomorrow.’

 

With a pair of pursed lips Mabel nodded briefly to the council and left, followed immediately by her ex-templar shadow, leaving a bewildered Leliana and Cassandra behind in the war room.

 

‘Fine Commander, you can go too. Nothing important to discuss it is only the war council.’ muttered Leliana under her breath as the doors closed shut on them.

 

‘What was that? Did I miss something?’ exclaimed a bewildered Cassandra ‘I could have sworn Cullen was acting strange.’

 

‘Strange?’ chortled Leliana, throwing the papers onto the table in disgust ‘That was surreal..’

 

‘Did you know Cullen and Mabel were involved?’ remarked Cassandra.

 

‘I could have sworn Cullen was involved with Ophelia Trevelyan, not Mabel Guildersleeve.’ replied Leliana with a raised eyebrow.

 

‘Didn’t you say Ophelia was with Michel in Ferelden?’ observed Cassandra ‘I would guess that Cullen and her have parted ways?’

 

‘Odd, no? Cullen with Mabel, and now Michel and Ophelia are in Ferelden together?’ frowned Leliana ‘No, something is off here. I can feel it.’

 

‘Whatever could you possibly mean?’ remarked Cassandra cynically ‘Apart from the Commander asking for time off to leave on a diplomatic mission to mingle with nobility in the Anderfels.’

 

‘Precisely,’ scoffed Leliana ‘it is more than a little strange.’

 

‘Perhaps he is smitten with Mabel?’ shrugged Cassandra ‘Their irritating displays of affection suggest as much.’. The Seeker threw a displeased look at the place where the pair had been standing, as if the image was now burned into her mind and the memory irritated her greatly. 'Is that what love does to people?'

 

‘Cassandra, he was mauling her in front of our very eyes.’ exasperated Leliana ‘Who does that in a war council?’

 

Cassandra shrugged ‘Like I said, perhaps the Commander is smitten?’

 

‘Smitten!’ scoffed Leliana ‘I know Cullen. He is not the sort of man to get smitten, and especially not in public for all to see. How long was it that Ophelia and he kept their relationship secret before displaying their affection to everyone else? And what? He meets Mabel a week ago and they are now fondling each other in the war room like it is their own private boudoir?’

 

Cassandra frowned as she contemplated the situation. ‘I agree, something feels wrong about all this.’ 

 

‘That is not the half of it.’ continued Leliana ‘Mabel’s interest in Cullen is even more puzzling. Mabel Guildersleeve is from one of the most respected noble families in Thedas. Simply put, she would never be involved with anyone except another noble. Even then, they would have to be a noble of some great standing. Her reputation would never allow this sort of thing to happen.’

 

‘Cullen is Commander of the Inquisition?’ pointed out the Seeker ‘That is a weighty title few could match.’

 

‘Yes but he is not of noble blood.' argued Leliana 'Nothing else matters to the Orlesian nobility.’

 

‘Maybe she has changed?’ suggested Cassandra ‘After all she did leave the Orlesian Court to come aid Skyhold.’

 

Leliana shrugged. ‘Are we being too harsh? Could this perhaps just be the stirrings of a new intrigue and we have become cynical over the years?’

 

‘Even if that is the case, what was all that touching and scowling at me about?’ remarked Cassandra dryly, thrusting her hand to the space where Cullen and Mabel had been standing ‘Intrigue or not, Cullen was acting hostile to everyone except Mabel.’

 

‘Very unusual.’ frowned Leliana ‘I think we need to keep an eye on the Commander.’

 

Cassandra sighed, drawing her fingers to her temples and massaging them intensely. ‘I’ll add it to the never ending list of jobs that needs to be done.’

 

Exchanging frowns, the pair recommenced addressing the issues of the war council. A challenging task for five members to endeavour upon let alone two, and yet these days Cassandra and Leliana were beginning to get more and more used to the extra responsibility, taking it bitterly in their stride.

 

 

****

 

 

‘Abundant yet concealed, clouded ice of the gods. A pattern of turtle shell, and hard alike, but not a turtle in sight. Surrounded in darkness, you will find its soft green glow. Tears will not fall, but a faithful pungent cousin it remains. When the mightiest weed falls from grace, the sun shall shine onto fields of majesty.’

 

Looking utterly bewildered, the mage apprentice reading the tome looked up suddenly. ‘By Andraste, what does all that actually mean?!’

 

Pacing the room with great enthusiasm, and a jovial bounce in his step, Jowan rubbed his hands in analytical delight. ‘Okay let’s confirm what we do know. Abundant yet concealed, clouded ice of the gods?’

 

Jowan cast his attention to a dozen or so uncertain looking mages crowded around the first level of the mage tower at Skyhold. Blank faces and scratching of heads revealed their complete and absolute confusion on the matter being presented.

 

‘Quartz crystal.’ informed Jowan with an encouraging smile ‘It’s quartz crystal.’. Turning his attention back to the tome, he read the next line ‘A pattern of turtle shell, and hard alike, but not a turtle in sight.’

 

‘A conch perhaps?’ suggested a young woman, a mage with fiery red hair tumbling down her back ‘Conches have those patterns.’

 

‘A seashell isn’t hard though, is it?’ pointed out another mage sitting on a tired looking chair.

 

‘Greenstone has a pattern on it like a turtle shell?’ suggested a man with soft blonde hair, another one of the apprentice mages. ‘It’s a hard mineral.’

 

A few of the mages nodded their heads in certainty, agreeing with the suggestion.

 

‘Good, good. I thought that as well. Greenstone!’ nodded Jowan encouragingly ‘Now what about the next part. Surrounded in darkness, you will find its soft green glow.’

 

‘Deep mushroom.’ called out an elderly female mage.

 

‘Precisely.’ grinned Jowan ‘Tears will not fall, but a faithful pungent cousin it remains.’

 

‘Gerland’s socks are pretty pungent.’ joked another mage at the back of the room, playfully nudging his friend Gerland in the ribs.

 

‘Oh perfect, I’m sure the Inquisition will be delighted that we are brewing a potion with Gerland’s sock essence in it.’ chuckled Jowan.

 

The room filled with laughter before settling down once more.

 

‘Not an onion,’ frowned the red haired mage ‘but from the family. A leek? No wait, garlic?’

 

‘Yes I thought garlic too.’ affirmed Jowan with a pleased smile ‘Excellent! Now the final piece of the puzzle. When the mightiest weed falls from grace, the sun shall shine onto fields of majesty.’. He looked up to the now silent group of confused looking mages ‘Any thoughts?’

 

Whilst unpacking one of the wooden crates of magical items, Jowan had stumbled across an old and extremely powerful regeneration recipe in one of the tomes. Its effects promised to regenerate almost double the health of what potions they had readily available at present. The recipe had been tucked neatly in between two stuck pages of an old tome Magna Di Curant, Parva Neglegunt: The gods care about great matters, but they neglect the small ones. The title had peaked Jowan’s interest and even more so when he found the concealed recipe, destined to be forgotten forever if not for the curious mage. The recipe was cryptic to say the least, and was composed entirely in riddle. Rising to the challenge, Jowan had managed to decipher all the ingredients except for one.

 

‘What do we think?’ Jowan pondered, somewhat bewildered ‘I admit I have been baffled for days on this one.’

 

‘Is it elfroot?’ asked one of the mages, a young woman with brown hair ‘All health poultices have elfroot. Surely it has to be that?’

 

‘No, elfroot is not a weed.’ pointed out Jowan ‘Of course, how loosely did our fathers of old define weed from plant? Who’s to say?’

 

‘Dandelion?’ suggested an older mage, a gruff man with a patch over one eye.

 

‘Aye but it still makes no sense in regards to the riddle?’ pointed out the elderly female mage ‘We have to interpret what fields of majesty mean?’

 

‘It’s nug grass sir.’ called out a small voice. A boy no older than eleven was sitting on a wooden table at the back of the room, more interested in rolling two marbles between his right and left hand. The child raised his blue eyes up from under his mop of wavy brown hair, and nodded to Jowan, looking more certain in his convictions than the wisest scholar in all of the lands. 'Definitely nug grass.'

 

A curl on growing on his lip, Jowan looked up in surprise. His smiling green eyes met the boy’s.

 

‘Tithensheaf?’ replied Jowan curiously ‘The winter weed that dies on the first day of summer. Otherwise known as nug grass. Goodness gracious me that’s it! That is it!’

 

Jowan arose from his seat with a broad grin as he began to clap his hands slowly in ovation, applauding the boy mage as the rest of the room followed suit, cheering and smiling all around.

 

‘Well