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Green light filled her eyes and the pain in her wrist was agonising. Swallowing a moan, Liz cradled it to her stomach and blinked, trying to clear her vision, trying to make out what was around her, peering through the smoke. Smoke, but no fire she could see, beyond the green lights that were plaguing her.

Rubble. Gradually, rubble came into focus, hewn pieces of granite. And beneath them, what looked like twisted pieces of burnt fabric-

No, not burnt fabric. She blinked again, smoke stinging her eyes, tears pouring down her cheeks in an effort to wash the ash away, trying to disbelieve what she was seeing.

Bodies. Twisted limbs, arms and hands and the occasional foot twisted an an impossible angle, burnt black and unmoving, some joints unnaturally spindly where the flesh had been burnt away. Suddenly she was aware of the smell in her nostrils, carbon and burnt flesh, like the one time she'd forgotten a joint in the oven and realised only to the acrid smell that seemed to stick to her lungs.

Someone touched her shoulder and she jumped. Trying to ignore what her eyes and nose were telling her had meant she completely missed she couldn't hear anything either – the only thing she could was a roaring in her ears, a deep ringing noise that seemed to come from inside her head.

She looked up, to the person touching her. They seemed covered in metal and shiny. A voice boomed from the person, but it was too loud – the ringing blurred it and meant she couldn't make out so much as a syllable. She blinked blearily, and opened her mouth to explain she couldn't hear them-

A harsh croak was all the emerged, swiftly followed by a horrible choking sensation – both hands flew to her throat, feeling torn wet flesh. She gaped, gasping and unable to draw breath, staring at the metal person above them in horror.

They stepped forward and grabbed her, just as the world went black.

 

The next time she woke, it was on a cot. Or...actually, on closer inspection, it was a blanket slung over a pair of haybales, but it wasn't body strewn rubble, so it was better than it had been.

As she blinked, the world came into view once more, and she realised she was in a tent. A long tent, and it wasn't quiet. All around her, people bustled, none of them even looking at her. Most of their attention was focused, instead, on those around her, who all seemed to be in far worse shape than she; she could see blood pooling on floors, and from the crowd of people at the other end of the tent, she could hear what sounded like muffled screams.

The urge to help, to do something in the face of so much pain and suffering, was overwhelming, and she shot upright, then regretted it when the world spun. 'Oh crap,' she thought, willing her stomach back into place when it had lurched out of it. 'I'm actually injured.'

It was something of a shock, facing her mortality in such a brutal fashion. But she didn't get much time to consider it.

A woman had separated from the bustling and was stood at the foot of her bed. They stared at each other for a moment, Liz still feeling woozy, herhead not quite stopped spinning and like she ought to sleep for a week.

“Has benitha och ta,” the woman said.

Liz blinked at her.

“What?” she tried to say, but no sound came out, only a wheezing choke, and then she burst into a coughing fit.

She calmed down and looked up to find the woman offering her water in a carved wood cup, looking slightly impatient. “Init mosta hufrite. Has benitha och ta,” she said again, her tone less understanding than it had been the first time.

Liz could only blink at her again, desperately trying to understand. It didn't sound like any language she knew. Or even she had heard – not French or Spanish. Not Mandarin or Cantonese. But other than that... she cursed her lack of ability with language. She'd been just like any other English speaker, arrogantly assuming her own tongue would get her by in any country she cared to visit....

...Visit. Helplessly, she tried to indicate with her hands to the woman she couldn't understand her while trying to remember where she was. The last thing she remembered was being on a bus. She had been travelling...somewhere. Where? Where had she ended up?!

The woman, obviously out of patience with her, turned her head to gesture to a man, and it was then that Liz's brain froze, unable to process what she saw.

The woman had pointed ears. Not just a small point either, the sort cosplayers did with a little glue to look like Vulcans – these were longer, stretching back halfway past her head, twitching as she spoke, like a dog would move it's ears to communicate mood. She was short and very slender, and now she looked closely, her eyes were just a little too big for her face.

The woman stood at the end of her bed was, absolutely, positively, but unnervingly subtly, not human.

She stared, and then, with growing desperation, glanced around the tent. Now she looked, she could see others like her – men and woman that were shorter than they ought to be, unnaturally slim in a way that seemed they'd never fit all their organs inside them, eyes that dominated their faces in a way that seemed appealing in anime characters but when confronted with in real life, was just a little too out of place.

Elves, and Liz felt her head spin at the realisation. Trying to make her brain wrap around this new fact, she clutched her hair, and carried on staring.

A shorter – much shorter – woman walked past. Unlike the elves, she was sturdily built – wide hips and shoulders, thick arms and legs that all suggested she could lift far more than her lack of height would suggest she could. As she turned, Liz caught a glance of a snub nose and no-nonsense features and Liz estimated that had she been standing up, the woman's – the dwarf's - head would have come midway up her rib cage and no higher.

A hand waved in front of her face, and she realised she had been staring open mouthed around her.

A man – a human this time – was crouched down by her bed, robes pooled around him. He said something, and she shook her head. Her head was spinning more and more, her stomach felt queasy and her eyelids had weights on them.

She retched and threw up on the man next to her, who recoiled. She tried to burble 'sorry' as consciousness escaped her, but again her voice failed to respond to her commands, and she fell into darkness.

Chapter Text

The next time when she awoke, it was quieter, and she was alone in a far smaller tent than she had been. And no longer on the haybales – now she was on a blanket on the floor, and the light was fading.

Rather than move, this time she lay quietly and assessed what she knew, and what she didn't know.

Fact: She was injured – her left hand and wrist were roughly bound, and light touching on her throat revealed lumps in the skin that hadn't been there before – new scars? Quietly testing her voice, that still wasn't working either, and she sighed. Gently, she tested her wrist as well, and found it sore – tender to touch, and it made her wince to move it – but she could use it. Probably not broken – maybe just strained?

Gingerly, she sat up, stomach muscles screaming – she felt like she'd been worked over thoroughly with a baseball bat. With soft fingers, she checked her face. She had a scratch on her temple, but other than that, nothing that seemed out of place. Her nose still felt like it always had, her teeth still in place. Her hands were covered in blood and checking under the blanket, she was clothed in nothing but shreds of fabric, all remnants of her jeans and t-shirt ripping into pieces unrecognisable as what they had once been. Her hair, when she ran her fingers through it, was matted with grease and thicker liquid that broke off in dark clumps when she tugged at it, making her wince.

Swallowing, she moved onto the next thing she definitely knew, trying - trying - not to think too far ahead, trying to avoid the whirling sensation in her mind when she looked at the whole picture.

Fact: She was somewhere she couldn't understand the language. While being unable to speak.

This would be a problem, she thought ruefully, trying to work out if she could raise herself off the floor to stand up. She couldn't mime, she couldn't write it out, communication was generally going to be an issue.

A shadow passed the opening of her tent. In the light outside, she could see a silhouette. One with pointed ears.

Her stomach sank again, and she allowed herself to flop back down, burying her face in the blankets as if trying to hide from reality.

Fact: There were non-human sentient species here.

She groaned, only to regret it when no sound emerged but instead caught in her throat and left her coughing in a way that made her head split and her suddenly aware of how dry her mouth was and how full her bladder was.

She swallowed instead, forcing her brain to move onto the next item.

Fact: These elves, and dwarves, bore an uncanny resemblance to a certain video game.

Inside her head, she made a sound of resignation. 'Say it Liz, say it.'

Thedas. Ferelden. Dragon Age.

Only the pain in her head stopped her from groaning again. She'd played the first two games, played them almost to distraction, but she'd been busy when this third one had come out. She'd bought it, yes, and she'd started it, yes, but she'd not gotten much past....

Past Haven getting destroyed. Ok, now she suddenly found she had the strength to get up.

Taking it slowly, with a lot of wincing she did eventually succeed in getting to her feet, finding a robe someone had thoughtfully left for her, and stumbled out of the tent barefoot.

She sucked in a breath between her teeth, wrapping arms around her. It was freezing, the wind biting and brushing through her robe as if it wasn't there. She took a step and winced, stopping – the stones were sharp against the soles of her feet, and after a few seconds she retreated into the tent again, beaten and feeling sorry for herself.

Back inside she wasn't much warmer, so she picked up the blanket she'd been sleeping in and wrapped it around her like a cloak. She considered going back to bed but no, damnit, she really had to go, and it was only now she thought about it that she realised how her stomach was growling. She was about to brace herself to go out again when she spotted something poking out from under the fabric of the tent, and bent to root for it.

She was rewarded with a pair of wooden clogs – when she put them on, they were far too big for her, rubbing against her feet when she moved them, but it meant that when she stepped outside again, although she started shaking almost immediately, but she could walk without crippling herself on the stones beneath her feet.

Hazily she stumbled in the direction of a lit building, from within she could hear the sounds of voices, when she realised what she was smelling.

The night was far from the pleasant smells of snow and woodsmoke she'd always imagined it would be in the game. The acrid stench of dead bodies was still thick in the air, the smoke from fires, both the rubble still burning and the cooking fires she could see dotted around the immediate area. But now that the wind had picked up, she could smell the stench of...well, of a lavatory.

'Somehow, they never covered this in the game' she thought, turning to find the source of the smell. 'But then, no one really wants to have to dig virtual latrines rather than heroically battle an archdemon.'

They were even cruder than she thought, a single trench with planks of wood laid over the top for you to stand on as you squatted, a crude wooden frame with fabric hung from it that flapped in the wind dividing the trench into 'cubicles' giving some pretence at privacy. Even in the freezing cold, the entire thing stank so badly she ended up holding her breath, just to ensure she wouldn't throw up.

If she threw up, she reasoned, she might pass out. If she passed out, she was going to end up falling face first into the trench below her, and she'd honestly give a limb to ensure that possibility never came to pass.

Bladder empty and feeling a bit more comfortable, she resumed her trudge towards the lit building, but the sky drew her eye in a way it hadn't before. The green glow was obvious, peering over the horizon which was still jagged with the ruins. Her eyes had adjusted, and around her she could see the details of the camp, the tents half erected, forge unlit.

'The breech is barely a day old,' she realised, glancing around the camp. 'Maybe two at most.' The green light, now she was looking for it, was everywhere, the tear in the sky drawing the eye – it was impossible not to feel your stomach shrink at the sheer magnitude of it; it looked like some odd form of wormhole that was about to swallow the planet, making her feel like she was in a 70s sci fi movie, and not a-

'Fuck me,' she thought wearily. 'A video game.'

Trying not to let her head spin, she turned to head to the lit building, sliding in through one of the doors that stood slightly ajar, letting the noise and the light escape.

Inside it was crowded, people crushed against a bar at the front and crowded on tables in the room. Multitudes of candles clustered the cast iron chandeliers hanging from the roof, and more were squeezed into alcoves along the wall. She paused on the threshold, eyes watering with the light and the hazy smoke. Her shivering stopped though – at least it was warm in here. The smell assaulted her as well, a crush of unwashed humanity and stew and fireplaces that were kept burning round the clock.

'Only they don't have clocks,' she thought, somewhat hysterically, eyes tearing up and trying to suppress the urge to sink to the floor and laugh like she'd lost her mind. 'What do they say instead, around the sandtimer?'

She pressed a corner of the blanket to her eyes, trying to hide the sob that rose in her throat. This was ridiculous. Impossible. Some sort of hallucination, and she had no idea why she had ever entertained it as a possibility. It had to be – the alternative was that she was trapped in a fantasy world, unable to speak, unable to understand them or be understood, and yet had to somehow warn them that once that breach closed, this place was going to be under an attack it couldn't withstand and a large proportion of them would die...

A hand gripped her elbow, and she turned to see the elf woman who had been there when she woke the first time. She smiled at her and said something while Liz wiped her eyes and tried desperately to pay attention to the words.

It was no good – it made as little sense as it had the first time she spoke, and she could see the impatience and disappointment in the woman's eyes as she failed to respond.

'Fuck' she thought with sudden realisation, panic overtaking the sense of alienation. The Divine had just died – been murdered. They were desperately searching for explanations. Even as tshe stood here trying to work out what to do, in the cellar of the chantry Solas and Cassandra were probably arguing over the Inquisitor's unconscious body, which represented their best hope for an explanation. A woman no one knew, who didn't speak any language they'd be able to try with her, appearing from no where in the middle of the ruins might catch their attention in exactly the wrong way. She needed to be able to explain this somehow. And she needed one now.

The elf was turning away but Liz grabbed her elbow to drag her attention back. Panicked, she gestured to her ears, then made an 'explosion!' type gesture with her hands, then back to her ears again, before slamming both hands over them, as if she couldn't hear anything at all.

The elf's eyes widened. “Iato!” she said. Liz stared at her uncomprehendingly. The woman grinned suddenly, and gestured with her hands to her own ears, and repeated the word. Liz smiled and nodded frantically, then regretted it when her head spun.

“Iato!” The woman turned and shouted the word to someone in the crowd, and in among the figures, Liz could spot the man she'd thrown up on.

Iato. Well, at least she now had one word in their language. Deaf.

It wasn't perfect, but it was better than other possibility.

With the sudden surge of understanding that Liz couldn't understand what was coming out of her mouth, the woman's attitude got a lot brighter, and Liz found herself shepherded to an empty seat, and a bowl of broth, a slice of thick dark bread and a tankard of water placed in front of her.

The woman gestured to the bowl, made a downward motion with her hands, and then, with a grin, pointed at the male human healer, who was extracting himself from a press of bodies on the other side of the bench.

'Eat slowly, or you'll throw up,' Liz translated and smiled to show her understanding. She took a mouthful and tried not to groan in case she started coughing. Logically, she knew that there were probably unspeakable things in this food, things she'd never under ordinary circumstances eat, but her hunger was so great that everything tasted amazing, and the warning to eat slowly was hard to remember in her sudden need to bolt the lot. Instead, she focused on chewing thoroughly and swallowing very deliberately.

She jumped therefore when the human touched her shoulder, and smiled a greeting at him around a mouthful of bread.

He waved, enunciating his words clearly, with hand gestures along for the ride.

'This might actually be the best spur-of-the-moment idea I've ever had,' she couldn't help but think, watching wide eyed.

Hands to his head - concussion - then his throat - soft tissue injury? - a slashing motion and lots of grimacing - serious soft tissue injury! He tilted his head back and pretended to drink from a small bottle he produced from his belt pouch. Healed by potion? Then he wheezed and groaned and tried to enunciate, but failed. 'So that caused my throat injury and my voice will be out of action for a while.'

He gestured to one side of her, then tracked his finger up in an arc, following it around in a circle until it was leveled at the opposite side to where it had started. It wasn't until he did it a second time to her blank look she understood. A day?

He nodded and flashed fingers at her, two handfuls, four, six- she lost count and waved him away, as he then waggled his hand in front of him as if suggesting it was only a possibility. 'Lots of days to maybe get my voice back.'

Then he clutched his throat, looked sad and shook his head. Then another waggle. She swallowed, the surge of brightness that had arrived with the realisation they could communicate fading. 'Or maybe, I might never speak again.' She nodded to show she understood, trying to ignore the sinking in her stomach. She would get better. She would.

He must have seen the sudden fall in her expression, as he smiled ruefully, speaking softly and reached out to gently squeeze her shoulder, expression kind and sympathetic. Then he rose to stand.

She didn't want him to go – talking was a novelty and precious in this place where foreign, alien tongues filled her ears and she understood nothing. She grabbed his arm, then when he looked at her gestured to his robe, then mimed sadness and embarrassment. Sorry for throwing up on your robe.

He waved her away with a grin. Don't worry about it.

She stopped him as he turned away a second time. This time it took quite a lot of gesturing before she managed to express her question. What is your name?

He looked surprised. “Eckerd,” he said, with a smile. She pointed to the elven woman who'd been with them earlier, eyebrows raised to ask the same for her. “Julia,” he supplied smiling. Then he pointed to her, to the bowl, and pressed both hands together in a saintly gesture before pressing them to the side of his face. Eat that then sleep.

She nodded, knowing she'd have had to do so anyway – now she wasn't so appalling hungry, she could feel her eyelids starting to droop.

In the end, Julia had to steer her back to the tent she woke up in, as she was so sleepy and in the light of the breech made everything look the same to her tired eyes. The elf left her to slump on the hard frozen ground with a small wave, disappearing off into the darkness.

As Liz drifted off, she had one last thought.

'What the hell do I do now?'

Chapter Text

When she next awoke, it was daylight outside and she could hear conversation and voices.

Blinking against the light, she sat up and quickly assessed herself. Wrist? Still tender. Throat? She didn't even bother to try speaking; given what Eckerd had said, trying too much too early might something that prevented or stalled her recovery further. For now, she'd resign herself to having to mime everything she wanted.

Everything else? Getting up to stand, she was still sore, but not as badly as yesterday. It was still cold outside, but the sunlight was bright, even within the tent, she could see clearly. She inspected what she could of herself; she was covered in light, thin scratches, like she'd had a close encounter with a lot of broken glass, and she had bruising primarily down her left hand side. Her hands and one of her legs were crusted with dried blood in patches across the skin and under her fingernails; she must have been out of her head not to have noticed last night.

Bruises on her left and her left wrist busted? Had she landed on her left side while falling? Potentially – her head still felt a little fuzzy, which she took to mean she actually did have some form of concussion.

She was hungry and she needed to visit the privy again, but first she sat and tried to organise her thoughts – she might not get another opportunity to.

'Think.'

What did she remember? Her name, that was no problem. Age, birth date, birth place, occupation – all relevant facts clearly lodged in her brain. Of little practical use in her current situation, but they gave her comfort, little jewels of information, bits that made her her, even in this world where she was a fish out of water.

What else? What did she remember before-

She was on a bus. She could remember being jostled in her seat, her bag in her lap, because it was busy. Trying to ignore those around her while tears ran down her cheeks, aware she was attracting odd looks.

Crying. She'd been crying? Why?

These things were harder to remember, shapeless in her mind and slipping through her grasp like smoke. It's just the concussion, she told herself, forbidding herself to panic. Nothing permanent – she'd get better eventually.

Still, it was a strange and distressing sensation, reaching for information that you knew should be in your brain only to stretch for it and find you grasped nothing but empty air.

Calm.

Think.

Dave. What about Dave? They'd broken up. It had been nasty. Yelling – she had a vague memory of something being thrown, but she couldn't remember what or by who, just a vague recollection of the violence of it, of something breakable exploding into shattered pieces against a wall, but it hadn't scared her. It had just seemed like a fitting expression of the emotion in the room at the time. She could remember packing in a hurry, stuffing clothing and keepsakes alike, no thought spared for neatness, into the black duffel bag her paranoia had always insisted she keep at his flat. Paranoia that now seemed a lot like common sense in hindsight.

She remembered the station – trains cancelled, something about the weather. So she ended up in the bus station. On the right one. Gosh the man next to her smelled, but there were no other seats, fully booked, last ticket – was going to take hours, her music in her ears and the slim USB-key that was her MP3 player in her hand, wishing she'd not tucked her tablet and associated charging apparatus so far down the duffel where she'd never reach it. She remembered the grey of the motorway out of the window, blurry through the rain on the glass, light fading, headlights in the darkness.

Then – she frowned. The next memory seemed tinged with pain and distress. There was a jerk that had thrown the man next to her from his seat, then another, more violent, a screech of tyres...

Darkness. She could remember nothing beyond that until waking to the green light in the rubble.

Hell. Her lips formed the word automatically, but she had enough presence of mind to not try to say it outloud.

So, somewhere between the bus accident and the Chantry exploding, she'd managed somehow to end up in this world. How? She'd say through the breach seemed the obvious choice, but the breach connected to the fade. The fade was where magic, and spirits, and demons came from. None of which actually existed in the real world, so it presumably followed that the real world wasn't connected to the fade, so she hadn't come through there.

Ok, maybe not the 'real' world, she thought, looking around her ruefully, at the blanket, and tent, and ground and everything that was almost dismally real. 'Maybe it's just my world. Apparently they're both...real.'

Swallowing, she pushed the thought from her mind. Tackling those sorts of problems, and getting home, was apparently going to be a long term goal. For now she had shorter term goals.

Learn the language. Get well again. Survive.

And related to that, right at this minute – find the privy in the daylight, and then find some food. And while she hesitated to suggest it given how cold it was, potentially find somewhere to wash.

Donning her wooden clogs and blanket-cloak again, she stumbled out, shielding her eyes from the light while they adjusted.

Thankfully, the privy was as easy to find in the light as it was in the dark, even if the smell was even more pungent. Then she found the building from last night, which turned out to be the local tavern, where good natured looking people in Chantry robes were handing out bowls of porridge; there were no spoons so you ate by putting your lips to the bowl and drinking, like the world's thickest soup. There was no cream or sugar to go with it, and now she wasn't quite as starving as she was last night, she could detect a grainy texture to it.

Of course, she thought, chewing with a wince when her teeth bit down on something that, when she spat it out, turned out to be a stone that was maybe a few millimetres across at most. No health and safety standards here – no quality control for edible food stuffs, and no modern processing methods for food. No way of making sure all the grit had been removed from something before you ate it unless you washed and inspected it yourself, and when you were trying to feed people on this scale in these conditions, who would have the time for that? They ate what they had and were grateful for it; it wasn't easy to feed a camp of several hundred people, halfway up a mountain, in winter, with a potentially world-ending phenomenon hanging over their heads.

Handing the bowl back with a smile and nod of thanks – thankfully they didn't try to talk to her; had news of her status spread so quickly? - she looked at her still blood-encrusted hands and sighed.

Washing. Right.

It was easier said than done. Unsurprisingly, given their main religious leader had just been blown up, they had other priorities than setting up baths, and now she was looking for it, everywhere she went, people did seem to have a sort of unsavory...baseline smell. Like no one bathed very often at all.

Shivering in the wind while she tried to consider what to do, Liz huddled against a tree trunk and watched people about the camp. It was something of a rude awakening to go from a world where to skip your morning shower was considered rather slack to somewhere where bathing more than once a week was considered a waste of time and resources and frankly, really rather a selfish indulgence and one that everyone expected to get thrown out of the window when there were more pressing things at hand.

She shivered as she tried not to consider what they did in terms of brushing their teeth.

'Well, thankfully it's not like I'm planning on snogging anyone any time soon.'

Even the lake was entirely frozen, she discovered, when in desperation she wandered out of camp and down to the lakeside, just in case so she didn't even have an easy source of water. Left to her own devices, she tried to get inventive. First, she just shoved her hands in the snow, waiting for it to melt on her fingers and then using that. But given how her shivering kicked up and how fast her nails turned blue, it wasn't going to be an option for long.

Wandering back into camp, she stopped as she spied an unused iron bucket beside the forge, along with an abandoned rag.

'Might be time to do it myself,' she thought, grabbing the bucket and the rag and was delighted to discover a small dark square wrapped inside it that stank of coal, but at the same time, proved to lather up in water. Soap!

Filling the pail with snow, she found one of the campfires that was only sparsely occupied, and, ignoring the strange looks, hooked her snow filled pail into place above the fire on the tripod.

A few minutes later, she sighed with satisfaction when it had melted to water that was...well, it wasn't warm, but it wasn't turning her fingers blue to put her hands in it either.

Grinning, she retreated into her tent.

The first pail of water went to getting the top layer of dirt and blood off her hands and arms, and washing the inside of the pail itself. The second scrubbed her hands clean, washed her face clean of it's muck and let her run a wet cloth at least over her arms and legs, although she, then shivering, put her robe hurriedly back on as fast as possible, blanket over the top.

The real issue was her hair – she could feel it was grimy and clumped with what she assumed was dried blood, but it wasn't going to be possible to rinse in the privacy of the tent. Sighing and resigning herself to more odd looks – let's be honest, it was hardly like she was going to be seen as the soul of normality here – she stepped outside and found an out of the way corner to pour things over her head in peace.

The remnants of the second pail went over her head first, wetting her hair and loosening the gunk. Then she set a third to melt while she did her best to pull the clumps from her hair and use the wetness to it up, using the coal soap.

Yes, she was definitely getting odd looks now. She tried not to care.

The third pail rinsed the first batch of soap from her hair, but careful inspection showed her hair wasn't clean, so she did it a second time, and now, at least, her fingers squeaked when she ran them down her hair, for all she now vaguely smelled of coal, it was still better than the old blood, dirt and death that had been clogging her nose.

Of course, now she had wet hair, outside, in the freezing cold. Already, at the edges of her vision, she could see strands of her hair were sporting white frost, and as the rest started to ice up, the cold was making her head feel like it was stuck in a vice.

She had to get somewhere warm. Now.

To one side of the chantry, near the huts that Solas could be found at in the game, she could see one large building that she wasn't familiar with, with smoke pouring out the top of its chimneys.

'Did I miss it in game?' she wondered, then dismissed the possibility; it was too large, and too smoky for her not to have investigated if it really had been there. This was obviously something only restricted to the real world Thedas, not whatever bastardised version had been in the game.

With only a little hesitation, she pushed open the door.

The heat hit her in the face like a wall, and she was confronted with an open room around which she could see multiple ovens, with large, flour covered tables in the middle of the room, around which half a dozen people were stood, who had looked up at her entry.

A bakery.

She felt a hand on her shoulder just as a man stepped down from the table – and she didn't realise he was a dwarf until he stepped down - and she turned to see Julia smiling at her.

She said something and gestured to her half with a tone that wasn't quite sympathetic. Liz interpreted it as 'you'll catch your death with wet hair in this weather.' Liz only nodded apologetically.

Julia smiled in a can't do anything about it now sort of way and turned to the dwarf who had come to look at Liz strangely. He turned to look over his shoulder at the rest of the people who were stood around the tables, staring at her, and barked some sort of an order. At once there was a bustle of activity and everyone returned to what they were doing.

The dwarf looked satisfied and turned back to Julia, who started talking rapidly, gesturing to Liz as she did so. Liz tried to pay attention, but her attention kept being drawn to the source of the green light outside that she could see just out of the corner of her eye. Something was nagging in the back of her mind.

Eventually, the dwarf smiled thinly and nodded to Julia, gesturing to Liz to come inside. She nodded, checking over her shoulder to Julia, who smiled and waved her inside.

She followed to an open space on a table, only to have an enormous ball of dough plunked in front of her. She looked at the dwarf quizically. He gestured to himself. “Wodon,” he said, loudly, and she nodded acknowledgement of his name, stifling the urge to mouth his name back to him. That would really scupper her 'explain the lack of language skills' plan away.

Taking the spot next to her, Wodon produced his own ball of dough, and slowly, his gestures artificially slow, started kneading it, showing her what to do.

Slowly, she copied him – he nodded in satisfaction and went back to his own spot – as he did so, he shouted something over his shoulder to the others working the table. They all shot her sympathetic or shocked looks, and no one attempted to make conversation. 'Either that is confirmation I am considered unacceptably weird already,' she thought, 'or that was him telling everyone I'm deaf, and there's no point in talking to me.'

The work wasn't difficult to master, just hard on the muscles, and while the others kept up conversation for a short period of time, which Liz listened intently to – any hints would be helpful in understanding this language, any at all! - eventually everyone fell silent, breathing hard, hands working the enormous amounts of dough.

It didn't take long before Liz's arms and shoulders started to burn. Her occasional attendance in the gym and haphazard exercise routine taken into account, it still wasn't enough to allow her to keep up here – she worked in an office, for god's sake!

For a few heartbeats, she considered the possibility of giving up. Blaming her injury, gesturing to her head to Wodon as an excuse and ducking out again. Two things stopped her.

The first was that it was warm in here, and the memory of the freezing outdoors was not one she was keen to relive.

The second was that she felt guilty. Honestly, truly guilty. These people, in here with her, were breaking their backs to feed everyone, against impossible odds. Elsewhere in the camp, the injured were getting tended to, latrines were being dug, firewood collected. Liz herself had been patched up, clothed and fed without them asking anything in return. They didn't even know her. And they'd still taken her in.

This was a war. She'd never been in one, and very often when looking at political conflicts she was never sure which side was right anyway, but right now she didn't really care about right and wrong. Right now, she wanted to keep as many of these people as alive as possible, and given her injuries and lack of ability to communicate, she had limited means to do that. So for now, she'd pitch in, and work with everyone else, and try to do her share.

She'd figure out the rest later.

For the moment, she did her best to ignore the burning in her muscles, the way her shoulders were complaining and trying to lock up any second. Her ball of dough was removed, dumped in a large metal bowl with a damp square of what looked like muslin draped over the top, and put to one side, and she was handed a second. Then a third. She could feel sweat beading on her forehead. 'So much for all that effort I put into washing,' she thought dryly.

Trying to distract herself, she tried to think back. Something had been nagging in the back of her head earlier? What was it?

Several minutes of trying and a new ball of dough later, she gave up, and couldn't remember. Instead, she thought about Julia and Eckerd. She hoped they were alright – she hadn't seen many injured, but given what was going on, she couldn't imagine there was a shortage-

She paused, her hands pausing along with her, but she hurriedly restarted when she noticed frowns directed at her. She hadn't seen many soliders. How could that be? Haven as she remembered it was practically crawling with them, all sizes, all roles. She hadn't seen any of the companions that ought to be here either, why not?

She wracked her brains. It had been three days since she woke up, three days since the breach first appeared, since the conclave.

Three days? Wait, didn't that mean-

The explosion rocked the building. People screamed and fell to the floor – Liz clutched the table and struggled to stand, for a second memories crowding her eyes - green light, so much green light, her throat hurt, it was hard to breath, smoke, can't see! - until she blinked and with a sheer force of will pushed past it. Willing her legs to work, she wobbled towards the door, getting faster as the explosion died down.

Yanking it open, she stepped outside to panic and stared at the sky to a decreased-in-size-but-still-very-present breach.

She swallowed, trying not to feel panic.

At least the timeline from the game was holding.

Third day. The inquisitor was awake.

Chapter Text

That evening when she returned to her tent, she discovered it wasn't her tent any longer. Inside, she found two injured soldiers, one man and one woman, both bandaged, being tended to by Julia. The elf gave her a sad smile and shooed her out again.

Right. Well then, time to find somewhere else to sleep. She nodded, grabbed her pail, which contained the soap and the rag and constituted the entirety of her worldly goods, if you could call pilfered items as such, and headed out into the rest of the camp to find a spare bedroll.

It was easier said than done – there were plenty of tents, but all of them were occupied, now that the main fighting force had come down from the breach.

The time immediately after the explosion had been chaos. People were running and screaming, fingers pointing at the sky, some just dropping to their knees where they stood, praying loudly.

Stop it! Liz had wanted to shout. It's not happening here – no avalanches, no dragons, no demons – hell, the damned thing had actually gotten smaller.

It didn't seem to matter, and Liz supposed she couldn't blame them; their world had been turned upside down a couple of different times in the last generation, and it made sense that if their current situation changed, most people's default reaction would be 'fuck, it's getting worse'.

Eventually, they calmed down though – it had been helped by the sight of the army matching methodically back down the hill towards the camp. Yes, there were a lot of injured, some on wagons being dragged by druffalo, but still – this wasn't a march to war, or a panicked retreat. They were just coming back.

They'd arrived looking exhausted after sundown. By that point, Wodon had banked the fires in the bakery (Liz had been shooed away when she'd tried to help) and everyone had crammed – or tried to – into the tavern again, but they all flooded out into the bitter chill of the night air when they arrived.

There was no applause as the marched into camp. It would have seemed like a mockery – there had been no victory on the top of that hill, as the leering green opening in the night's sky, bright enough you couldn't see any stars and needed no torch to see during the night, could testify to. But they had survived. Whatever they had done, it was enough and it was something, because they were the ones that had come home, rather than hoardes of demons streaming down the mountain, which was the awful alternative.

But to say what they'd done went unacknowledged was untrue. It seemed everyone in camp spilled out to meet them, and the second they stepped through the gateway, there was a surge as people stepped forward to greet them, to help, hands took bags and shepherded weary, blood covered soldiers to places they could sleep. The originally silent crowd that had met them shattered into noise, as people called names, delighted at being reunited when they found someone they knew. Liz was swept up in the chain that people formed to unpack the sacks of supplies that they'd brought down with them. It took all of two sacks for her to wince at the pain in her wrist and step out to find something else to do – kneading could be done with just the one hand, but sacks of grain and flour needed two. Instead, she ended up carrying around bundles of blankets under one arm, distributing them to the warriors who had sat on the first available spot, shivering in the cold and faces slack and grey with exhaustion, just too tired to move any further. She draped a blanket around them, and moved on when she realised the healers were moving in to herd anyone who was too tired to figure it out for themselves to where they should rest.

She was so focused on trying to help she forgot to look out for any of the companions in game, and as a result, nearly fell over Varric when she collided with him, unable to see the dwarf around her blanket stack.

“Toi!” From what she could work out, it was more a sound of surprise than an actual word, and she spun, ready to grimace her apology, all the while her brain trying to tell her she knew that voice, when she saw who it was and froze, gaping.

He looked up at her and chuckled. “Esk rith nah, hachit of meen.” He made a gesture as if he had a self denigrating sense of humour and knew it.

She couldn't get her mouth to close. It was so very odd, hearing the voice she knew, but speaking such a different language, and his face-

There was, she was swiftly learning, a significant difference between the computer animated sprites, no matter how good your console was, and having people here, truly here, in the flesh. Elves, in person, were far less human in appearance than they were in game, where you'd be hard pressed to tell elven features from a fine boned human some of the time. Dwarves too, had wider features – she almost wanted to call them sturdier, but then, everything about dwarves was sturdier. And in person, Varric was too, which only made him more of a reassuring presence, oddly. Even in the dim light of the breach and the flickering of a nearby campfire, she could see his jaw wasn't as square as they'd made it in game, the end of his nose flatter, the bridge more arched. His grin was still crooked, and he had a nick that looked fresh taken out of one ear. Plus, his hair was dirty in the same way everyone else's seemed to be, one strand falling over his forehead despite his ponytail. Bianca was still strapped to his back.

He was looking at her in a way that was odd and a little uncomfortable, but with a sheepish grin still in place and she realised she was still stood open mouthed and staring at him. She closed her mouth, and then tried to smile.

'He thinks I'm a fan,' she realised, noting his self conscious stance. 'Some slack jawed, star struck fan. I'm an idiot.'

She grinned and mimed an apology for knocking into him.

He frowned. “Toi, hask beneeth-”

She cut him off with a wave, first touching her neck and shaking her head, then her ears, followed by the same shake. His eyes widened in comprehension.

“Iato! Iato esk hablain!”

She grinned and nodded, mentally assigning the Fereldon words to English. Iato she already knew. Hablain, dumb. Esk, and. Apparently.

He grinned back, and gave her a big thumbs up with both hands. She blinked, surprised – it was the first time she'd seen the gesture, then nearly wilted in relief. Possibly too much relief, given his surprised look – she was, afterall, supposedly only apologising for bumping into him – he wasn't to know he'd just given her a gesture from home that would actually have meaning here. She was over doing things. A lot.

Trying to stop herself making it worse, she flashed him a thumbs up in return, and vanished into the crowds, having a sigh of relief.

Definitely something to think about later.

Once she'd handed out blankets, she was grabbed by the Chantry sisters in the tavern, ladling out bowls of stew for the new arrivals. Through the open door, she caught a glimpse of Cullen – more scarred and worn than he was in game, and seeming a little older; in game he looked late twenties. Here, he was definitely mid-thirties at least, or seemed that way, and his skin was as worn and grey with exhaustion as that of his warriors, his armour dirty and dented, and he was missing a vambrace.

He didn't come in – she didn't even know if he got to eat, actually.

Despite keeping a keen eye out for others, she didn't see any of them. Cassandra, nor Josie, nor Solas. She was guessing Josephine was probably in the Chantry, trying to keep the religious leaders from revolting. Solas was probably prodding the anchor embedded in the Inquisitor's hand, and Cassandra was probably suspiciously watching Solas's prodding with an attitude that said if he did anything she found even remotely inappropriate, she'd cleave his head from his shoulders before anyone could blink.

Eventually, at what had to be long past midnight, everyone was fed and she was waved out to trudge tiredly in the direction of her tent, only to find it occupied.

As it turned out, as she stamped around in the cold, progressively loosing feeling in her toes, everywhere was occupied. Even the floor of the tavern was strewn with bodies of the kitchen workers there and any warriors who'd been unable to find anywhere else to sleep.

Exhausted, she leant in the doorway, fighting tears as homesickness swept through her. She was tired, lonely, and fed up. What she wanted, more than anything, was some familiarity – to hear her own language. To have a hot bath. To sleep on a bed, with sheets, or eat something where she didn't have to try not to think about where it came from, that tasted less than alien and didn't come in a bowl. And right now, she'd have given just about anything for a hug from someone, anyone, she knew from back home.

Giving in, she hunched in the shadow of one of the trees next to the tavern and wept into one sleeve of her robe, trying to be as silent as possible so as not to strain her throat and give herself another coughing fit.

Someone shoved a soft square of white cotton under her nose, and she looked up to see, of all people, Cassandra looking at her with sympathy, proffering a handkerchief.

For some reason, that only made her cry harder – it made her feel like a small and unworthy thing, that here was Cassandra, one of the great heroes of the age, who probably thought she was weeping over one of the warriors who had not made it back – Liz had seen them, wagons of bodies, stacked like firewood, covered in burlap which everyone averted their eyes from respectfully – and instead, it was nothing so valiant. 'It's not worth that,' she wanted to tell her. 'I'm not that good a person – I'm crying because you're trying to save the world, and I'm being selfish and feeling lonely and sorry for myself.'

The shame of it made her cry more, as much as she tried to stop it, taking the handkerchief and trying to look grateful. The Seeker obviously had other things to do, however, as she gave her a soft squeeze on one shoulder in comfort, and then turned to stride off into the darkness. 'Probably to look after the Inquisitor,' Liz thought, which brought on a new wave of tears. The Inquisitor was about to go through seven sorts of hell, had something attached to her hand which would likely kill him or her, and had had their life thrown absolutely upside down. But at least they had someone looking after them. Liz very much doubted that if she wandered off into the night and froze to death unseen beyond the trees that anyone would notice beyond Wodon being a little frustrated he was short a person at the kneading table tomorrow. The thought made her ache with the sensation of being utterly, truly lost and alone.

The thought of Wodon made her turn towards the bakery. It had at least been warm in there – maybe it was somewhere she could sleep?

The door responded to her shoving, and she stepped out of the freezing wind to the warmth, and sighed in relief. In the light of the oven, she could see sleeping figures on the floor – she hadn't been the only one with this idea. One of them sat up at the intrusion, and she waved sheepishly at Wodon as he scowled at her in the dark for waking him. With a dismissive gesture, he pointed her towards the storeroom – presumably where she'd find free floor – and lay back down again.

Carefully, she picked her way across sleeping bodies into the storeroom. Maybe she could use a sack of grain as a pillow? Just the thought lifted her spirits a little, a realisation which made her feel more than a little silly.

The storeroom, however, was so full of sacks of grain it would have been impossible to lie down on the floor. For a second she considered sleeping on the sacks themselves, then realised there was no way to do it without tipping the contents all over the floor.

She threw her head back and sighed heavily, trying, desperately, not to burst into sobs again. She just wanted to sleep, for fuck's sake.

In the gloom, she took a moment to realise what she was looking at.

There was a gap in the ceiling.

Sort of – it was on one side against one of the walls, where the timber of the beams all met. There was more beams along the walls, which she could, she thought, maybe climb?

She didn't have any better ideas. She shoved her pail up onto her shoulder, and, gritting her teeth, used the beams to climb up like a ladder.

It was dark and she couldn't see a thing. Feeling around, she found a flat surface, or what felt like one.

Fine. She didn't care. Right now, she was tired, and it was somewhere to sleep.

Wrapping her blanket around herself, she closed her eyes, and slept.

Chapter Text

She woke the next day to light and noise.

It took her several seconds of blinking before she remembered where she was – the bakery, no space to sleep. Right.

She sat up, surprised when she hurt, but didn't hurt nearly as much as she had previously.

'Well, how about that,' she thought, stretching and enjoying the ability to do so without her spine screaming in protest at her. 'A night sleeping somewhere other than the solid ground in temperatures a little above freezing when you only have a blanket does wonders for you not feeling like shit.'

Feeling significantly better than the night before, she looked around, and then did so a second time just to make sure.

She'd lucked out. She was in a lift space, clear but for a few scattered pieces of wood among the eaves – given the shards of wood, this place must have recently been used for storing crates of food, but at the moment it was empty.

'We're eating food as fast as it arrives; no need to store anything,'she realised.

The ceiling was low – she might be able to get on her knees in here, but she couldn't stand up, even at the highest point. The chimneys from the bakery below were brick towers going straight up the middle of the loft at several points, heat radiating off them.

'Fires must be going already.' Under any other circumstance, she was sure she'd find this atmosphere stifling, but the cold outside was extreme enough that for the first time in days, she felt comfortable, her muscles no longer complaining about constant tightness and tension from being on the verge of shivering all the time. 'Thank FUCK.'

She was smiling when she scaled down the wall to an empty storeroom. She yanked the door open to find Wodon and the others already pouring sacks of flour into the mixing vats while more people stirred with wooden sticks. She waved sheepishly, feeling back she was up later than they were, and shot out of the door to use the privy so she could be back as fast as possible to pitch in.

She had to push through crowds to get to the latrines. 'Hell, the warriors being back really makes a large difference,' she thought, bad temperedly shoving her elbow into a man who was half a head taller than she and seemed to be taking his height as a reason to not bother moving out of the way so others could get past, stood in the middle of the path. He did take a step to one side, but that was all – probably due to the leather jerkin he was wearing.

She rolled her eyes and used the privy fast – fuck, that smelt! - and staggered out again, before she realised that everyone, far from going somewhere or doing something, being busy in anyway, seemed to be just...standing around.

What was going on?

It wasn't until a door on one of the huts opened that she realised what they were all waiting for, as they all turned to look, a hush falling over the crowd. Only a few whispers remained here and there, ringing out clear as bells in the sudden quiet. None of it made sense to her, but the word 'Andraste' was spoken once or twice. Names apparently carried across languages.

 

The woman who stepped out of the doors looked a great deal like she'd like to be none of whatever was being said. She was petite, her hair so blonde it shone white in the winter sun. Delicately pointed ears and the vivid green makings over her nose, cheekbones and forehead marked her as a Dalish elf even before she came close enough for Liz to make out her features. She was beautiful, for all her inhumanity.

She also looked terrified, and became more so at the sight of the crowd waiting for her. Liz could see her eyes darting one way and then the other, as if looking for a way out, but while the crowd had left the path respectfully clear, they were crowded thickly along the edges of it, meaning the elf had exactly one path open to her – right down the middle of the crowd.

Liz pressed her lips together, feeling a surge of impotent sympathy. She could understand it all only too well, but she couldn't do anything about it. Could she create a distraction?

There was no need – rallying herself, the elven woman took a deep breath, raised her chin, and slowly processed down the path left for her, regal as a queen despite her fear. Liz could practically see her gritting her teeth, but she couldn't help but feel admiration for her sheer nerve as she reached the point where she turned to look up at the Chantry-

-And her nerve broke and instead turned and walked hurriedly towards then past the tavern. If she continued up that path, she'd meet Solas. 'Hopefully, he'll calm her down,' Liz thought. Although if she was relying on the other elf that much this early, she knew how the romance was going to fall out in this iteration.

She frowned – she hoped that didn't cause problems. She generally tried to avoid spoilers, but she could vaguely remember coming across something that hinted the Solas romance ending badly. Was he going to break her heart eventually? Maybe it was something like Alistair in the first one, where you couldn't get married unless you were the same species or something? Maybe you just had to make some sort of difficult choice.

She shook her head and headed back to the bakery, hoping Wodon wouldn't be too annoyed.

As it turned out, he wasn't, and she couldn't work out why at first – her injury maybe? He gave her a bread roll, which appeared to be part of the first batch that had come out of the oven – she groaned in pleasure, or would have if her voice had been present, the warm bread breaking under her teeth – and then got on with helping mix up the batches.

It wasn't until Julia turned up past midday to check up on her and a lot of gesturing took place before Liz worked out what was being said.

Two shifts. She could have groaned at not grasping what was going on. The first shift stacked the fires, put the rolls that had been prepared yesterday on to bake, and started mixing up the new dough. The second shift kneaded and shaped that dough once it had proved before setting it aside to prove a second time and get baked the following day, then cleaned everything, swept the place down, and removed the ashes and banked the fires for the following day.

She managed to negotiate her place on the first shift – it wasn't like she could have slept through the noise and heat anyway, and there weren't a lot of other takers – before doing her work that day on the second shift.

By the time she was done, she was exhausted. She hadn't realise they'd been taking it easy on her the first day, but the end of it, it was clear how much by. By the time the fires were banked – this time Wodon hadn't waved her off – her shoulders and arms were killing her, she was soaked through with sweat, and both her hands and feet were raw. Her hands from scrubbing the baking equipment, her feet from the wooden clogs. Taking them off and sitting on the floor for a few blessedly quiet minutes, she inspected her feet and wasn't surprised to find several angry looking blisters.

'Maybe I should just take them off and go barefoot in here,' she considered, but not seriously. Everyone else seemed to wear wooden clogs, the baking tools were all large and unwieldy, plus there was no end of hefting large, heavy flour filled sacks. To do so would be asking for at least a broken toe, but at the moment, she'd have gone without sleep for three days if it would have gotten her a pair of modern sports shoes.

'Hiking boots, trainers, running shoes, I'm not even fussy at this point,' she thought rather sourly, wincing as she massaged her sore feet with gentle fingers. She didn't even know if she was doing any good besides causing herself more pain, but it was a vague hope.

The door slammed open and Wodon stepped back in, obviously looking for something, although he snorted with something that sounded like amusement when he saw her feet.

“Masit as na!” he pronounced, one finger held up like he was imparting wisdom and disappeared out again.

Well, that was weird, thought Liz to an empty bakery.

Several minutes later – just as she was contemplating putting the clogs back on and going out to fin food with gritted teeth, painful feet or no, he banged back in again, and presented her with several well worn pairs of knitted wool, and some balls of fluff, which he pressed into her hands.

She looked at him blankly, until he clucked, gesturing at his own feet, then her clogs. Finally, getting frustrated, he pulled his own clogs off to show her – the wool and balls of fluff were wrapped around his own feet, cushioning them against the wood of the clogs.

Had it not marked her so obviously as an outsider, Liz would have face-palmed at her own stupidity. Instead she nodded sagely like she'd known what he was talking about, mimed her own exhaustion in an attempt to explain her lack of comprehension, and tried her best to ignore the strange look he gave her while he left.

Sighing, she set about wrapping her feet. 'Just one more thing I'll have to remember,' she thought, getting up to go and find food.

Chapter Text

Liz's days settled into a routine, with a few variations. She woke before the dawn, every day, to help with the first shift at the bakery. That finished a little after midday, and she'd spend her afternoons around the camp, helping where she could and learning people's faces, and occasionally their names, normally given to her at loud volume and over-enunciated, for which she couldn't blame them. Given the lack of any kind of official sign language, there seemed to be an assumption that she could read lips to one degree or another, or there was no point her having names.

Her evenings were spent crammed into the tavern with everyone else, grinning, raising her tankard (full of water) to answer cheers when everyone else did, and listened intently to everyone else's speech, desperately trying to make heads or tails of the language, but it was slow going. Eventually, she'd stagger back to bed, exhausted, and climb into the warmth of her hole in the ceiling.

Every night, before going to the tavern, she'd pack her pail full of snow and leave it next to one of the still-warm chimneys in her loft, allowing her to come back to a bucket half full of luke warm water to wash with. A couple of times, she'd also scrubbed her robe and draped it around the chimney to dry, in an attempt to keep that as clean as possible.

But even still, her occasional attempts at laundering aside, she was still vaguely aware that her robe was smelling less than sanitary. Her underarm and leg hair had grown back, and despite her enthusiastic but pained finger combing, the hair at the back of her head was a constant tangle. The freezing winter temperatures meant her lips were constantly chapped, and the harsh soap meant her skin felt dry, and even the parts of her hair that weren't knotted felt stiff and harsh to touch.

'I'd kill for my toiletry bag,' was one of her rueful thoughts when she woke up one morning, about ten days after her arrival. 'Just some conditioner and moisturiser would probably be worth maiming someone.'

She was starting to make headway on certain things – she had some key words down in their vocabulary, and now knew most of the inhabitants of Haven by sight. She was reasonably proficient with the bread they baked, and had long stopped minding that she seemed to be permanently stuck with little crescents of dough lodged under her nails and kept finding flour everywhere. But other things were harder to get used to.

She was still lonely, and horribly, horribly homesick. Every couple of days, it would get too much, and she'd have to take herself off somewhere and sob for a good hour or two. It was worse if she saw something that reminded her of home – she'd caught sight of Varric before the Inquisitor left for the Hinterlands (or that's where Liz assumed they were going) along with Cassandra and Solas a couple of days after the warriors arrived, and he'd given her a thumbs up with a great big grin across the campsite when he'd spotted how she was staring at their little group. She'd managed to get away from everyone else before bursting into undignified sobs.

It was strange, what she missed. Music, for instance, she would have laid money on missing, but she didn't. Not really. She was always too busy, or too tired, or too confused to really think 'gosh, I'd really like to listen to something with a beat right now'. She missed potatoes – they seemed not to have them here, the staple carbohydrate being bread instead, which in a queer way she was grateful for, or she'd be out of a job, most likely. She spent about four days being unable to stop thinking about chocolate and sugar, and then stopped suddenly and hadn't craved them since, but salad was perpetually on her mind. And broccoli. Anything green, really – vegetables were few and far between here, breakfast being porridge, lunch being a bread roll with a thick slab of cheese and dinner normally was stew with questionable meat, and, if she was really lucky, a couple of chunks of unnamed root vegetables. Liz was becoming acutely aware that she hadn't had a piece of fruit in nearly a fortnight, and paranoia about scurvy meant that when she spotted barrels of small, hard apples being unloaded with the new supply shipments one afternoon, she stole three, before later she felt guilty and sneaked two back into the barrel. She'd have returned all of them but she'd already eaten one.

She had also kept a keen eye out for any kind of opportunity to run into any of the advisors – her preference would be Josephine, as Cullen had been a templar and therefore would likely find it hard not to jump to the conclusion that anything not from this plane was a demon, and Leiliana's history as an assassin meant Liz would have preferred to have such a potentially tricky conversation with someone a little less... deadly. But there was never any opportunity – none of them were ever available. Cullen was forever surrounded by people in armour who were either presenting him with clipboards with reports on, or asking him for training in this or that method of killing someone. Josephine never emerged from her office, having seemingly back to back, constant meetings with nobility and people who generally considered themselves as far more important than one 'deaf and dumb' refugee in a borrowed and ill fitting robe while wearing a blanket for a cloak, and Leiliana could never be found in the first place.

'The game completely underplays how much that woman is never in one bloody spot!' she thought in an exasperated fashion, having checked the tent in the middle of haven for what must have been the hundredth time, only to find it bereft of the Orlesian. 'There the spies always come to her, she doesn't have to go to them!'

After a few days she reasoned that there was no urgency behind having the conversation at all. As far as she could tell, there was no easy way to or from her world, and even if there was, she'd hesitate to recommend contacting them, never mind allying with them – the idea of the conflict between templars and mages being escalated to involve machine guns or fight planes was close to nightmarish, never mind what the general public on her world would start making of the 'alien' races.

Which meant that, for now, she was just another perfectly ordinary human, one more trapped by this conflict. Or possibly, a below-average human being; afterall, she was less fit, less able and less skilled than most people in this world. She was used to a soft existence where you bought your food in shops and earned your living staring at a screen for 8 hours a day, or at least that was how it worked for most people, whereas here working from before dawn until after dusk was not unusual, and finding a role that didn't involve some manual labour of some kind was extremely rare. Even scribes had heavy lifting to do when it came to shelving large, dusty tomes, or grinding up the ingredients for their inks. She knew about...nothing.

No, better to keep her origin secret, and just help out. Not to mention, she couldn't imagine how a conversation with any of the three advisors would go. What proof could she provide? That she didn't know very much, and could speak a language none of them could think of? More than likely, they'd think her delusional and toss her out on her ear for the safety of everyone else. No matter what angle she imagined telling them from, there were no positive outcomes to it, and plenty of negatives.

But still, the eventual destruction of Haven weighed on her mind. And she had no idea how to handle it.

It was becoming harder and harder to remember not to make remarks outloud. By the end of the first week, she could say the odd word, in a low voice at low volume, without pain. A couple of days of practise, and it became two, then four.

The return of her voice was cheering, but brought problems. It would have been far more useful had she actually been able to speak the language. As it was, she was starting to become paranoid about forgetting herself and swearing when she dropped something or slipped, or muttering to herself when she thought she was alone.

People still turned to look at her whenever she entered a room sometimes – she presumed it was due to word of her injuries, and did her best to ignore them when they stared, and smile gratefully when someone took time to communicate with her in gestures, normally talking loudly and slowly while they did so. She could normally pick up a new handful of words that way.

At the end of the first week, Julia appeared and took her by an elbow, steering her to a storage room inside the chantry, inside which there were several other people, and sacks of clothing stacked against the wall, along with boxes of other items – in one that had it's lid off, she could see pairs of wood clogs.

Julia produced another robe, and held it up to Liz, as if measuring its fit.

Liz mimed surprise. For me?

Julia nodded. Yes.

From where?

It took a lot of miming before she eventually grasped the answer. This all belonged to those that died in the service of the inquisition.'

Liz recoiled. Those that had died? And this was how she was supposed to honour them, by taking their things?

With an obviously disgusted look on her face, she shoved the robe back at Julia, who was frantically waving her hands. You've got it wrong.

Liz took a deep breath, before gesturing for her to go on. How?

It took several more minutes of interplay before Liz began to understand. 'No family. No friends. Nowhere for them to go. They gave their lives for this cause – to not allow them to do everything for this cause they can, even in death, even in giving their belongings to those still alive, diminishes that.'

Liz gave her a very reluctant look. Julia looked steadily back, and proffered the robe again. 'Please?'

Several minutes later, and feeling very guilty, Liz left with another thick woollen robe, a real cloak, a second pair of clogs, and two thinner cotton under robes, along with half a wooden comb.

She stashed them all in her loft, and tried very hard not to think about the people they'd belonged to, the men and women buried in the trenches dug outside the camp, marked with wooden headstones that would rot away long before the span their lives ought to have expired.

She spent most of that afternoon barely emerging from the thicket of trees past the apothecary's hut, so great were her sobbing fits.

That night, a face appeared that she recognised from in game, clad in the strict robes of a Chantry mother. Mother Giselle.

But no Inquisitor – or, Herald, as she was at this moment in time, Liz supposed – with her.

Liz spent a lot of time the following afternoon hanging around the training yard before she heard the words 'Val Royeaux'.

Right, so the Herald had gone straight there from the Hinterlands? Good to know, if frustrating. Of all the people she thought she could approach who might believe her, or at least, would bear what she said in mind, Varric was high on the list, but there was no way she'd ever be able to approach him if he wasn't in camp.

Sighing, she headed off to find what else she could do.

She had something of an epiphany three days later, when she wandered into the Chantry in the afternoon and was handed a broom by a chantry sister that looked somewhat bad tempered and waved towards the spare clothing storage room. Inside, she found the shattered pieces of what must once have been a mirror all over the floor.

She winced and got to work sweeping – glass was extremely costly; if someone had left the inquisition a mirror only for it to get broken, that was an expensive trinket to lose. No wonder the sister in question was annoyed at herself.

She decided to pick up the larger pieces and then sweep the smaller shards and bits of glass outside to the latrine – bending, she picked up the biggest piece, and caught sight of herself in it...and stopped.

Her hair, for all it was as combed as she could make it, was far from neat, sticking out from her head in odd waves and with a stray curl here and there, probably due to how dry it was. Her nose was red from the cold, her cheeks ruddy for the same reason, and she could see how chapped her lips were, and she had shadows under her eyes from lack of sleep. She was paler from the lack of sun, and all the manual labour had meant she'd lost weight, which, she reasoned, wasn't going to do her any harm.

But...

She'd been forgetting, all this time with a lack of reference points, that she came from a place where she'd had the right nutrition when she was a child. Where dentists could do things other than rip out rotten teeth when they started hurting. Where vaccinations and skin care and hygiene were all known about and indulged.

Resultantly, she'd never considered what she looked like when compared to the other people here. Many of them weren't just thin, most were gaunt with hollowed cheeks and the sallow complexion that came with inadequate diet not just for a few weeks, but for years, maybe even their whole lives. She had curves – not on her body, but on her face, cheekbones and jaw – rather than harsh points. She stood up straight, her bones strong and whole, and her teeth were white and present, rather than broken or black. Her hair might be dry to what it had been, but compared to everyone else, who could barely grow theirs past their shoulders before it gave up or broke, it was thick and luxuriant. Her eyes were clear and focused, and she – unusually for anyone around her – had no scars to speak of, at all.

Back home, she had been average looking, on a good day. Here, due simply to her comparative good health and how it shone through her, she was good looking in a way that caught the eye.

Well, now she had an answer to why people looked at her when she walked into a room. She wanted to bury her head in her hands at her obliviousness.

Feeling newly vulnerable, and slightly paranoid, she finished the job, and then hid in the loft for the rest of the afternoon, under the pretence of doing laundry.

The sun had long since gone down when she was considering venturing out to find food. The bakery was empty, and she was stood in the main kneading room, wondering if she could go hungry this evening or if she was feeling mentally strong enough to go into a room full of people that would look at her oddly and none of which spoke her language while pretending to nod and listen.

The door opened while she was mid-consider, and a man stepped in from the cold, making a 'br!' noise as he did so, and closed the door behind him to stop the draft.

He looked up and smiled awkwardly, and she realised she'd been staring with her mouth open.

Cullen was stood in the bakery.

“Hast been Wodon est?” he said, stepped forward, and she blinked, feeling slightly panicked.

He looked at her again at her lack of answer, then his eyes widened slightly and muttered something to himself. “Och! Ilst la mota iato...toi....” He looked supremely uncomfortable, trying to gesture, talking loudly as he did so. She had to smother an absurd giggle when he tried to mime being a very small person for Wodon, but he caught on, looking at her with a self deprecating smile, before standing up straighter and scrubbing his hand across the back of his neck and muttering something.

She grinned, and lowered her hand. Wodon. Then pointed to the Chantry. Is in there. Then gestured to her right. First door on the right as you go in.

He smiled a thank you, and flashed a thumbs up as he left in that direction. Smiling, and feeling just a little better, she pulled her cloak on to head to the tavern – some food would do her good.

If she hadn't been pulling the door shut behind her, she'd have missed the way Cullen glanced over his shoulder at her, before pushing open the chantry doors to go inside.

Chapter Text

Words. She was drowning in words, but at least she had some.

It was, she thought with gritted teeth, trying to follow the narrative in an anecdote in the tavern, rather like building a house. Once the foundations were in place, everything else went a lot faster.

Or perhaps it was more like an avalanche. That made more sense, in a way. At first a single word would take her most of the day to pin down before she was sure of the meaning – the difference between 'campfire' and 'fireplace' was subtle and required careful attention to be paid between the 'th' and 'ss' sounds, but she got it eventually.

Now, however, she was almost picking up words faster than she could remember them; she was flooded with them, overrun. A little context, and she was able to piece together entire sentences, entire phrases. A few keys words and suddenly she could grasp nearly everything that was said – her vocabulary was growing in leaps and bounds, even if she still took a little time to get the grammar and tenses right on occasion.

Conversations around her slowly made more and more sense, like a photograph coming into focus as the weeks went past.

“Hach bread oy so fritha-”

“Toi told him dun vorn ast Andraste said-”

“-nem benita not risen, there ba not enough varnia.”

“Toi! Watch your hishla, the beam's moidre low!”

“I can't locin my cloak clasp, noid barne seen it?”

“I find fin attitude an ba excersi troubling-”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall-”

“I reqiuste the report on the state of our supplies, s'vers worried we'll run out of-”

It held a whole new realm of challenges. Pronunciation, for starters, and sentence structure. Listening to it was not nearly the same as speaking it, and when she could only manage a handful of words a day before her thoat felt like it might kill her, she lacked the opportunity to practise.

Another week, though, and she could manage more than double that. And she was starting to suspect a lot of the soreness she now felt was simply due to lack of use. But she ended up quiet anyway – there was no way she could think of that would allow her to disguise the inevitable accent she'd have.

In the meantime, she fretted. The Herald still wasn't back from Val Royeaux. What if she went straight from the city to either the mages or the templars? What if Liz didn't get a chance to warn people about Haven's fall before it happened?

She estimated it had been about six weeks since her arrival – since the breach first opened – before she started having nightmares that woke her gasping and covered in sweat. She'd seen people she knew – Julia, Eckerd, Wodon, the chantry sisters, slaughtered, left for dead, all because of her inaction?

She didn't sleep again that night, curled against the warmth of the chimney though she was, and Wodon scolded her the next day for her lack of enthusiasm when mixing the bread dough together, her everyday language skills now good enough she understood what he said.

“It won't rise properly!”

The words were more for reminding the others than her – a disapproving grimace and a wagging finger was all that was required to convey it to her. She nodded and made a motion of hanging her head in shame before getting back to work, but that afternoon, found herself fidgety, unable to settle, unwilling to help with anything. It all felt wrong.

She'd gotten so used to the cold that she didn't give wandering out of camp a second thought, through the main gates and down to stare at the frozen lake, hoping the beauty of it might prompt an answer from deep within her brain. What could she do? What would she do? This was all...too much.

“Don't fall, we aren't sure how thick the ice is,” said a voice from behind her, and she froze, her instinct being that she should spin and respond, but she wasn't supposed to be able to hear them. “Hey!” said the voice again at her lack of activity, and this time they stepped forward so she could see their shadow in front of her, giving her an excuse to spin.

She almost wished she hadn't as she came face to face with Cullen again. Fuck, but she really didn't need him paying close attention to her; her story was too shoddy, and any slip ups she made could lead to questions she didn't yet have the vocabulary to answer.

“Oh, it's you!” he said as she looked up at him. Immediately, he looked awkward. “No wonder you didn't respond – erm. Oh Maker, how do I tell you-? Er.”

She smiled, and he hesitantly smiled back, before pointing at the lake, pointedly stepping, then waving his hands as if she shouldn't go forward. She nodded, trying not to grin. In her play through, she'd been romancing Dorian, but Cullen was definitely on her to do list for future games; he could be very appealing.

“You'll, erm, I mean, you might fall...” He mimed the ice breaking and him falling through. “I mean, death...and all that,” he finished, having mimed screaming under the ice. Then he stopped, looking extraordinarily sheepish. “Maker,” he swore again.

Liz had to sit on the instinct to roll her eyes. Didn't the man know any other curse words, or was that the only one he was willing to use? Or possibly she was just being cruel, and should give him a bit of an out.

She smiled, holding up her hands and pointing to his mouth, and then nodded enthusiastically.

“My...my mouth? How do you mean...” he frowned, trying to work it out. She mimed writing something, then pointed to his mouth again.

“Writing, you're...scribing? Reading? Oh! You're reading my-” The last word was one she wasn't familiar with, but it did sound a little similar to 'mouth', so...lips, maybe?

She nodded, and then held up her fingers so they were only an inch or so apart.

“So you can read my lips a little. Well, that's still better than nothing,” he finished, interpreting correctly, and smiling as he did so – he looked almost as pleased with the communication as she was.

“Ser, the squad's ready for you,” a woman in the green cloak and hood of a scout appeared over the ridge. Cullen nodded. “Right.” He turned back to Liz. “Excuse me,” and with that, he turned to go.

She watched his retreat, smiling slightly, then let it fade. Not that running into a cute commanding officer wasn't a nice break, but she had bigger things to worry about. Like saving Haven.

With a sigh, she sat on a rock near the frozen shore. She needed to approach this logically – it was the same as when she first arrived. Take on too much, and she panicked, her brain froze, and she just ended up doing nothing.

Ok, so with that in mind, what was her overall goal? Tell them Haven was going to fall, the night after they closed the breach.

Why couldn't she do that?

Mainly because she had no way to prove it. 'I'm from a different world in which you're all fictional characters' was likely to go down like a lead balloon even if they believed her, and they weren't likely to.

So what did she need?

Proof. She needed proof she was from a different world. What the hell could she use for that?

She was drawing a blank. In theory, she could march up to Leiliana and tell her all sorts of stupid little things from defeating the Blight, things that in theory no one who wasn't there would know, that Origin had handily allowed her to be party to. But Zevran was an awful gossip, Oghren was worse, and it was far more likely Leiliana would think she was a spy who was trying to buy her way in with patchwork pieces of information from the Crow or whoever Oghren had gotten drunk with.

She was still without any ideas at all by the time the sun touched the horizon and she knew she had to get up to walk back to camp. And it was as she walked through the gates that she saw it.

They were unloading the latest batch of what had been recovered from the conclave. They had people up there anyway, keeping down the demons that fell through the main rift, so when they changed guard, it was little hassle to ship some of the broken metal or glass back with them as they did so – it could all be used again, and supplies in Haven were generally scarce.

It was in with the rest of the scrap metal. If she hadn't had to skirt around the pile outside the forge, she'd never have noticed. Doubtless to everyone else, it looked like just another bit of metal, broken and twisted beyond recognition by the force of the explosion.

Not to Liz, who spent a good few seconds staring at it before someone jostled her and she had to make her excuses and move on.

It didn't matter how broken and twisted it might be, she recognised a bus door handle when she saw one.

Chapter Text

She was so shocked as she walked in to fetch dinner that Julia grabbed her arm and asked if she was ok, waving her hand in front of Liz's eyes as if checking her eyes focused.

While eating, for the first time in months – it had been months she'd been here, hadn't it? Fuck, that was an uncomfortable realisation – she paid no attention to the chatter around her, able to understand it though she was. A bus door handle.

If the handle was there, then somewhere in the rubble, presumably, was the rest of the bus. The one she'd been on. The one that had crashed. It didn't answer the question of how she came into this world with nothing but a cut up throat and a strained wrist while everything else was blown to smithereens, but it would be enough to maybe stop them from thinking her delusional or a mage gone mad. It might be enough for them to listen.

She needed that handle. How? How to get it? If she just marched up and started rummaging in the pile, people would stop her, or ask what she thought she was doing. And, to everyone else, it was just a damned bit of twisted metal – they might not even agree it was anything out of the ordinary. She had a momentary nightmare vision of Cullen, presented with the metal in question, saying 'oh yes, old Ser so-and-so had handles like this on his armour for tucking his weapons into. Pity he got blown apart. What nonsense were you saying about another world?'

She scowled, and pinched the bridge of her nose. Fine. She'd get the handle, then examine it. If it had markings on it – maybe the number plate stamped somewhere on it, would be ideal! - that definitely marked it as something beyond what smiths in Thedas could manufacture, she could tell them all. First thing. As dawn broke, she'd be at Cullen's door, waving the bar of metal and shocking the shit out of him with the realisation she could talk.

She frowned. Josephine, she'd be at Josephine's door. Less chance of getting accidentally smited if panicking ensued.

And if she had the bar and it wasn't enough...well. She'd consider that later. How to get the bar?

It took another few minutes of thought before she wanted to face palm from her own stupidity. It was just scrap metal. Fine, if she tried to take it while people were watching, likely she'd have to answer awkward questions, but that didn't mean it was considered valuable enough to guard. She'd just wait until everyone – or nearly everyone – was asleep, then quietly wander out, collect the necessary piece from the scrap pile, and nonchalantly wander back. Simple.

She couldn't sleep when she got into the loft that night. She'd planned on maybe getting a quick nap so she wasn't quite so tired, but she couldn't bear to close her eyes. She was so close! Not to getting home, she'd grant, but to making sure everyone would be ok! To being able to explain herself, to talk to people, to have conversations, and not have to fake being deaf or understanding everything that was going on!

It wasn't until the possibility of being able to talk to someone was suddenly so close that she realised how much she missed it, how achingly, jaw droppingly lonely she was, simply for the lack of being unable to open her damned mouth.

When the last of the movement stopped outside, she made herself count slowly to three thousand before she got up. As silently as she could, she climbed down, and stepped gingerly across those laid on the floor of the bakery. Wodon opened one eye with a grunt, but closed it again when Liz grimaced her standard apology and gestured to her stomach as if she was going to be ill.

Outside it was even colder than normal, and wrapping her arms around herself, she made her way quickly in the direction of the forge, wanting to get the handle and get out of the cold as quickly as possible.

She'd barely put a foot past the gate when a scream rang out. A second voice joined the first, then cut off abruptly.

She froze – it was coming from the direction of the forge. Altruism momentarily battled common sense in her mind – common sense said run away, she couldn't fight. Altruism said it might be something she could help with, and damnit, someone obviously needed help.

Altruism won enough for her to peek around the corner – she could already hear movement in the camp behind her, so back up was on the way – and came nose to nose with a rage demon.

Fear froze her. In game, they looked a little silly. Small figures of lava that looked a little bit like glowing red slugs – hardly intimidating. In real life though, they were terrifying; the creature towered over her, the stench of brimstone wafting off it, claws and teeth glowing with malice – she could see in one hand it held a dangling corpse of what ad used to be a dwarf that had been eviscerated, it's neck broken and half its face caved in – she couldn't even tell what gender it had been.

Beyond that though, she didn't see, as she threw herself backwards on instinct, hitting the ground with bruising force, but it was lucky she had as the thing's claw swept through the space she'd been standing in. It loomed forward to strike again when there was the sound of running footsteps, and someone was between her and the thing wielding a shield and a sword and no armour, but the shield took the hit and not her, and for that she was grateful, and more so for the shouts behind her that said more people were on their way.

Between the person's legs, in the distance by the forge, she could see who she presumed was the first screamer – a human man who was pressed up against the fence by the scrap pile and still screaming, although he was getting weaker. Why was immediately apparent, as she could see he was now missing the lower half of his right leg, and the wound was spewing great gouts of blood.

'He'll bleed out,' she thought, horrifiedly. She'd love to claim, later, that what she did next was the result of careful thought, where she weighed the pros and cons and decided risking her life was worth it for the chance of saving someone else, but she acted purely on instinct. Some muscle memory from earlier in life, long thought lost, allowed her to scramble to her feet and dart around the warrior and the demon both, feet falling in exactly the right spots, clogs gripping the icy stones with a surety that she'd never have expected, but somehow it worked. Two seconds and she was at the man's side, yanking the cord from an amulet around his neck to wrap it once, twice around the messy maw of flesh that was his right leg, pulling it as tight as she could.

“Please stop bleeding, please stop,” she muttered, not realising the English words that were coming out of her mouth until long after the fact. The man cried out in pain at the makeshift tourniquet, but didn't try to stop her, for which she was grateful.

The bleeding had just slowed, responding to her force, when his screams got louder again. Confused she looked at him, then followed his gaze over her head to-

The demon towered over both of them, a ring of warriors behind it closing in, but not fast enough.

Unthinking, she grabbed the first thing she could from the scrap pile and tried to block the swing of its claws. The door handle – of course, just her luck she'd grab that – met the thing's blow, and was enough to stop the claws from sinking into flesh but did nothing to diminish the force behind it. It slammed the handle into her, and she in turn slammed into the fence, hard enough that the fence came down with her, and she was thrown a good few feet beyond that. Inside her, she felt something crack, and there was a splintering moment of white hot pain where she was aware of nothing around her. Blinking, she came back to herself to find she clutched a single chunk of metal in her fist – the handle had shattered on impact – and the demon was still looming over her.

There was an enraged battlecry, and something slammed into the demon, barely making it flinch from the impact, but it was enough to draw its attention. Cullen swung again, and again, templar shield and sword both flashing in the light as he fought against the demon, practised controlled blows belying his experience fighting these creatures. It shoved him, it's sheer physical force allowing it to put him on the back foot, and raised one claw-

A stream of magic, white and glowing, shot past Cullen's raised sword, encasing the demon in ice. With a semi feral grin, Cullen brought his sword down on it's frozen head and it shattered.

Liz gasped for breath, unable to draw in air without pain, unable to move. Cullen stared at her for a second, then turned to the man on the ground who had lost his leg. “Healer!” his suddenly shouted, and Liz wilted, one hand going to clutch her ribs. “Healer! Men down!”

Someone with white blonde hair and pointed ears shot past him to kneel by the man on the floor, snatching a potion bottle from her belt pouch, uncorking it with her teeth and unceremoniously dumping it down his throat.

From off in the shadows, Liz could just about make out more figures in the darkness, when a familiar voice rang out.

“Darling, is it always so interesting here? This shall be entertaining.” Vivienne, Liz thought tiredly, unable to muster any emotional response to this development. Which meant-

The blonde woman rose from her first patient and turned to come towards her, dropping the first potion bottle in her rush so it shattered on the frozen stones as she drew a second. Liz knew those features, had seen them when she'd first woken after her first attempt at fixing the breach.

The Herald's back, she thought, as the woman in question, with equally little ceremony, uncorked the second bottle and tipped the contents into Liz's mouth. Liz just remembered swallowing before passing out.

Chapter Text

She woke in the Chantry, and her first response to this was annoyance, because it was far colder in here than in her loft. She wanted her loft, damnit.

On second thought, she speculated while staring up at the vaulted stone ceiling, the annoyance might have been a handy emotional hiding place for the fact she'd met her first demon, and almost died. She was probably due some more sobbing fits, but right now, she'd stick with being annoyed.

But she didn't say any of that, because Julia was bending over her cot, looking worried. Liz tried to smile up at her, and she half smiled in return, running her hands over Liz's ribs without saying anything.

Liz sighed and submitted to the ministrations – it wasn't like she could argue, and it didn't hurt quite so much to breathe at least.

Eventually Julia was done, and tapped Liz on the shoulder to get her attention.

“Broken ribs,” she said, miming a breakage and then pointing to the cot. “You're staying here, not moving, for at least-” Liz lost the number. She was bad at numbers – they were hard to pick up in casual conversation, but the number of fingers Julia flashed at her was less than a handful.

Still, she frowned at her in argument, the first time she'd ever disputed the healer's orders. 'Why? They gave me a potion' she mimed, then winced when the movement of her arms caused her chest to hurt again.

Julia gave her a look. “The potion didn't heal everything,” she said, shaking her head at her. “And if you slip or rebreak them and they are knocked out of place, it might tear your-” a word she didn't understand, but from the breathing motions the elf was making, she was betting it meant 'lung'.

She winced and nodded. Julia stood and turned to go, but Liz waved at her, stopping her, to ask, through slow, careful gestures, whether the man who'd lost his leg was alright.

Julia looked sad and just shook her head, not saying anything. She didn't need to – Liz's heart sank.

It hadn't been enough. He'd died anyway.

The elf had left while she was still staring blindly into the distance, fighting all the 'what if it had been me?' thoughts that crowded her head.

She lost the battle, and spent the rest of the afternoon buried under the blanket, weeping softly, out of her own fear and shock, and in grief for the man who'd died. There was nothing more she could have done, and she knew that logically – but it didn't stop her guilt.

The four days bed rest that Julia had mandated passed with teeth aching slowness. Liz slept for a large part of them – she had nothing better she could do, and there was only so much one could appreciate the beauty of the Chant before she felt like she'd hear it in her dreams. She couldn't read, even if there had been books, and everyone was too busy to talk to her. Mother Giselle spent one afternoon teaching her the rudiments of chess, which she'd never played on her world, but other than that, she was left to her own devices.

So she planned. She'd lost the handle – fine. But there had to be other bits from her world up on that hillside. She needed to get to them.

Idly, she prodded the pieces around the chess board. She wasn't even nearly good enough to play against herself, but it was something for her hands to do.

How? How could she get to the debris?

She couldn't just wander off up there and go looking – she might run into another demon. Or more than one, and then she'd be really sunk.

But...she tugged at her hair, trying to remember the game. Corypheus didn't appear until many hours after the breach was closed. Everyone had gotten back to Haven and had been in the middle of a big party. There would, theoretically, be a gap between when the rift was closed and the attack.

And all she needed was to be able to give them an hour or two's warning. It was never a fight they were going to be able to win in their current condition, she just wanted people not to die, to get out in time.

So, she could, theoretically, wait until the rift was closed, then run up to the wreckage, find something, anything – a piece of tyre, a bag, anything – that would prove her story. Run back down the hill, grab the advisors, or Cassandra, or the Herald herself, and explain, and start shuttling the civilians out the back route while the warriors prepared for the fight.

Roderick might even live through it this time, she thought. Wouldn't that be a lovely headache to have to put up with at Skyhold? Even here, listening to him too much made her teeth ache. The subject of her thoughts appeared at the Chantry doors, ranting at Cullen as he walked past. Cullen rolled his eyes as he turned his back on the man, teeth gritted and jaw clenched as he walked into Josephine's office.

It was a plan, and it allowed her to focus on something, anything, that wasn't the less-than-irrational fear that another demon would be lurking around every corner. Where she had felt nothing but sympathy for mages prior to this, now she felt just a little sympathy for those afraid of them as well – how must it be? To live with, love even, people who if they fell to temptation, slipped even a little, could manifest something like that?

It made things far more complicated than she'd have liked them to be, and she threw herself into work the second she was allowed to, the days passing in a blur of exhaustion and productivity so she didn't have to spend too much time thinking.

The upside was that she was starting to see more familiar faces from the game around the camp. Sera was constantly around and into something – her accent was hard for Liz to decipher and her vocabulary was worse, and more so than that, the one time they ended up on the same table at the tavern and Sera had her injuries explained to her, the elf woman took great joy in miming things at her that made no sense but resulted in some spectacularly undignified poses. But, Liz thought, at least she seemed to mean well?

Vivienne was also present, in the Chantry mostly, complaining about the food. Liz avoided her as well, all too aware of her keen eyes and the glances that oscillated between pitying for those beneath her and judgmental for those that hadn't made better of themselves than they had. Despite the fact she now knew what she looked like to people here, Liz still felt all too aware of her somewhat-ragged robes and wooden clogs where Vivienne had hand stitched leather boots and embroidered gowns. It was more comfortable to be out of her sight.

Blackwall appeared less than a week later, a kind, quiet man, who seemed to have endless patience and did what he could to help out around the forge and creating weapons and armour for the soldiers. He didn't really communicate with her – she got the impression he was horribly self conscious about miming things to her, and she couldn't really pretend to lip read for him, his beard covered too much of his mouth.

But at the day ten mark, the person she had most worried about arrived.

The first time she saw the qunari, she stared. She couldn't help it; her only comfort was that everyone around her seemed to be having the same reaction. Jaws dropped and eyes widened, chatter just halting every where in the vicinity to leave a ring of silence.

He was enormous. Beyond big. She'd always mentally pictured him as just a very tall, wide human, but this was beyond what any human could be in terms of sheer mass. His name was well earned – it was like a huge bull standing on it's hind legs. Only this one carried a huge slab of metal strapped to his back that was apparently a greatsword, and seemed to rather enjoy the attention, grinning widely and waving at the awestruck people around him, right until Krem hustled him out of the village to their tents on the far side of the fence.

The Iron Bull. Ben-Hassrath, and trained to notice everything. If there was anyone who could spot what she was – or wasn't – and blow her out of the water before she could prove what she said she was, it would be him.

She became almost religious about avoiding him – if he arrived at the tavern, she left it. If he glanced at the forge, she remembered something she had to do elsewhere. Better safe than sorry (or dead) became her motto as she wandered nonchalantly away from him on yet another occasion. Better by far to never even gain his notice than to risk exposure.

Her only consolation was that the Herald was apparently getting on with things as quickly as possible. She was apparently no more a fan of the breach being open than anyone else was. Word was that with the Iron Bull successfully hired, she had headed back to the Hinterlands to speak with the mages at Redcliffe. The missions on the war table must be ticking away, and everyday she woke wondering if this would be the day that the party, with Dorian and Fiona, would arrive on the horizon and she'd be that much closer to the day in question.

A week to the day after the Iron Bull arrived, Liz found herself in the unusual position of being out of things to do, and decided she'd occupy herself by going for a walk around the lake. The light was good, and in the back of her mind was the knowledge that her job when the breach closed would be a lot easier if she was fit enough to make the trip up and down the hill swiftly – she'd been doing every labour intensive task she could find, but actually going for a good hard hike would be the best preparation of all.

It was cold, and the going was hard – once she was off the beaten paths, the snow came up over the top of her clogs, soaking the wool she'd stuffed in them as well as the bottom of her robe. She'd never been so grateful for her cotton underrobe in her life. Fine, it got wet as well, but it meant the wind didn't quite cut through her like it would have done.

“Hey!”

It was second nature now to ignore shouts or other noises that might be directed at her unless she could actually see something, so she ignored the yell from behind her, continuing to trudge on.

A breath or two later, a snowball impacted her shoulder and she spun, lips open in a soundless word of protest.

“I said hey, are you deaf?!”

Krem stood, a second snowball in his grip and an unsheathed sword in his other hand. She saw the weapon and automatically recoiled, hands up. What the hell had she walked into?

The Tevinter frowned, looking from her to the sword. “I didn't do anything!”

Bull, huge and how the hell had she not realised he was out here stepped up behind him out of a copse of fir trees. He glanced at Liz. “Because she actually is deaf, Krem. That's the one that maid in the tavern mentioned, remember? And you've got a weapon bared.”

“Shit.”

Bull made a 'calm down' motion with his hands while Krem put the blade away. Liz let herself be soothed, relaxing a little, thinking frantically all the while.

“What are you doing out here?” Bull curled his finger at her to summon her over, his words carefully pronounced in an exacting manner. Typical – trust him to have heard about the 'lip reading' so she had no way of misunderstanding his gestures.

She made a walking gesture with her fingers. Krem scoffed. “Walking? We've had reports of wolves out here, what were you going to do if you got attacked? Wave for help?!”

She frowned, cocking her head at him as if she couldn't understand.

“You're going too fast for her,” Bull muttered at him, before turning back to Liz, drawing her attention back to his mouth with a gesture. “There are wolves out here. It's dangerous. Krem will walk you back to Haven.”

“I will?” Krem looked surprised, glancing between them. “I mean, right.”

Liz smiled thinly at him before they both turned to walk in silence. Krem seemed perfectly content with the lack of conversation. Liz felt like her heartbeat was showing in her skin. 'So much for staying out of their notice.' The second she was in sight of Haven, she gave Krem a thumbs up and made a beeline for the gate, as if to reassure him she'd be fine from there and he could go away.

He got the message and turned to head back to the Chargers, and she felt muscles she didn't know she had untense.

She'd have gotten away with it, she thought later, if that had been the end of it. But that night, while eating dinner, she looked up to see the Chargers flood in through the door, shoving and squabbling among themselves and heading for the bar for drinks and food.

She swallowed a particularly tough piece of druffalo and looked for a way out. She'd only just started eating, and was sandwiched between two big groups of people – getting out would attract a lot of attention, and would look especially odd if she didn't finish her dinner first. She'd just have to eat quickly and leave as soon as she was done. Thankfully, Sera was just behind her and had launched into one of her normal wild stories, handily drawing everyone's attention.

Trying not to be obvious, she ate fast, chewing with enthusiasm and having to cough a couple of times when she swallowed because chunks of meat got stuck in her throat. It seemed like eternity but eventually her bowl was empty, and she stood, sidled her way out of the crush, and handed her things back to the elf who was collecting them at the bar,before heading for the door.

She'd gotten three steps outside it when there was a yelp from behind her, followed by a crash of a body hitting the floor and the shout of 'Heads!'

Years of training as a teenager, of being not so popular and having more than one item thrown at her head, meant she responded on instinct and ducked – just at the right moment as well, as a catapaulted tankard flew over her head, airborne from someone's tumble in the tavern.

She turned to look over her shoulder at where it had come from; she was in a position so that you'd have to be leaning against the wall beside the door of the tavern to see her. To see that she'd heard a shout she shouldn't have been able to hear, to duck a missle she shouldn't have known was incoming, dodge a blow that should have hit her.

She froze, her blood stopping in her veins and her stomach sinking into her feet.

Iron Bull was looking at her, pointedly, through the gap. Their eyes met, and he pushed himself off the wall as if to step outside, when another shout rang out, this time from the front gate.

“Incoming!”

They both froze. Then, immediately after, the same voices again

“It's the Herald!”

“She's back! And she brought the mages!”

The qunari's step forward was blocked by a sudden surge of the crowd inside the tavern trying to get out, all the better to welcome their hero home.

Liz made sure that by the time Bull actually managed to get outside, she was long out of sight.

Chapter Text

She ran to the loft, feet flying across the frozen ground and then up, into the hole and huddled behind the furthest chimney from her entrance, desperately trying to think. What the hell was she going to do?!

She must have stayed there for nearly an hour in blind panic before she heard the door to the bakery open below her.

She slammed both hands over her ears, tangling her fingers in her hair, panic making her hands shake. Don't be Bull, don't be Bull, please god, not him.

Instead, she heard Wodon's voice filtering up through the gaps in the boards, and she wilted with relief so drastic she felt boneless for a few seconds.

“-heading up the hillside first thing tomorrow – say they're leaving before dawn breaks.”

Heart pounding, she gave into temptation and knelt to press her ear to the boards beneath her knees, listening closely. Was the Herald really leaving so soon?

“That fast?”

“Wants it over with – no point in waiting is there? So, I want the early shift here earlier than normal – so everyone can leave to go help if people get injured. But bread still needs baking.”

“I'll tell them.”

With that, the door opened and closed and silence fell again, but for some snuffling below her that Liz identified as Wodon lying down to sleep.

She was closing the breach tomorrow? That didn't leave her much time to prepare. But at the same time, it might be for the best – Bull knew something was wrong, and would doubtless keep looking for her. It meant she only had to get through tomorrow morning, and if she was really lucky, he'd go with the Herald and everyone else up to the breach on the hillside.

Tomorrow then.

She didn't feel particularly comforted by the thought.

She barely slept, unwilling to emerge from her hidey spot; the last thing she needed was Bull sticking his head in and dragging her out while she was asleep. A good hour before dawn she heard Wodon and the others stirring below her, getting up to start the baking – almost as soon as they did so, there was a knock at the bakery door.

No one normally knocked at that door.

“Hey,” Bull's voice was friendly and Liz froze, blood pounding in her ears once more. Trying not to move, trying not to breathe. Hastily, she looked at herself – was she firmly behind the chimney, was there any part of herself or her robe sticking out that could give her away if someone looked in?

“I heard the deaf girl sleeps here – she around?”

“I think so,” Wodon sounded uncertain. “I haven't seen her this morning, but she normally sleeps in the roof. Why?”

“I just need a chat,” Bull's tone was determinedly upbeat. “Mind if I pop my head in?”

It didn't sound like he waited for a reply before stepping in, Wodon muttering his assent. “In the storage room, there's a gap in the ceiling – through there.”

She heard the storage room door open, and frantically she tried to will her heart to stop beating so loud.

A shuffle. A creak. The sound of someone breathing in her loft with her.

Oh god. Fuck. Bull had literally stuck his head through the hole and was looking around.

If it was possible to become one with a brick chimney through sheer terror, she would have.

“Weird,” said Bull, his tone disturbingly close. She struggled not to draw a panicked breath that would make noise, instead using sheer will to keep her breathing low, and slow and steady. “All her stuff's here. But she's not.”

“She's a good girl – good worker that one.” Wodon sounded almost indignant. “If she isn't here, she'll have good reason. Last time, it was she got hurt trying to save someone from a demon.”

“Really?” Bull sounded at most casually interested. “A demon all the way down here in Haven? Where did that come from?”

“No one knows,” said Wodon, stubborn in his defense of her, and Liz felt a swell of sentiment for the grumpy dwarf. “But still, she nearly got herself killed trying to save people from it.”

“Well, good for her.” The sound of someone stepping down, and the voices retreated slightly. “If you see her, tell her I need to talk to her, will you? Although it'll have to wait until we're back. The boss is taking us with her for this breach business.”

“Will do,” said Wodon, in much the same tone as you might say 'shove off'. “Good morning to you.”

A grunt of acknowledgement, and then the sound of a door shutting.

Liz didn't move, not daring to even so much as twitch for at least half an hour. After that, she unwound slightly from her ball behind the chimney, but still made no move to actually leave the loft.

They were going today. Bull obviously knew something – she couldn't let him catch her before she got proof. What to do?

Wait. It was the simple answer. Let them go up the hill, close the breach and come back down. If they were starting before dawn, they'd be done before midday, it wasn't that much of a journey. Let the party get started. Use the confusion to slip outside, get up the hill herself, grab what she needed to, and get back.

Straightforward. Easy. All she had to do was wait.

Waiting, it turned out, was harder than it first sounded. She fidgeted, trying not to move but wanting to, muscles in her legs cramping in protest at the sudden inactivity. She might have been used to sitting, unmoving, for 8 hours a day at a desk in her world, but here, she'd spent months being on her feet all day, working and building her strength. Her body was used to work – now it didn't have it, it complained.

But she couldn't move. She was terrified of making a noise, of someone hearing her shift in the ceiling above them. Then they'd stick their head in, and then they'd ask awkward questions about where she'd been when Bull was looking for her. Questions she could probably circumvent now he was out of camp, but still questions that would take time and draw notice. She needed to be unnoticed for now. Just for a little bit longer.

She sang in her head, to pass the time. Three months with no music was enough to have obliterated the memory of all but the best known or best loved songs from her memory, so she started with what she'd known from childhood – Christmas carols were easy, and time consuming, even if she couldn't remember the third verse in 'Silent Night'. Then theme songs. She spent a good hour trying to remember something other than just the chorus for the teenage mutant ninja turtles before giving up and moving on. Despite it not actually being a part of her childhood at all, the Barney song was came disturbingly easily to mind. Then she rick-rolled herself a couple of times, just for kicks.

Eventually, she heard the shouts. Then the cheers – lots of them. Those still working in the bakery abandoned their work – she could hear the door slam open and running steps outside, silence reigning below her. Success, it seemed, had been had.

Despite her own discomfort, she was pleased for them, and for the Herald in particular. 'Good. I hope they're cheering for you. I hope they're carrying you on their shoulders. I hope they're buying you drinks and you get a moment alone with Solas to bask in your victory and his approval. I hope, just for a little bit, you can stop being worried.'

She made herself count. A slow count of three thousand six hundred – approximately an hour. After that, she, groaning in pain as now her legs protested at moving – uncurled and crawled out of the loft.

She put on everything she owned. Both cotton robes, both wool ones too, and the cloak over that. She stuffed every piece of wool she had into her clogs – she couldn't take her spare pair, or the pail, and there was only the tiniest part of the soap left, but she tucked her comb in a fold in the cloak.

It was an odd sensation, she thought, to actually wear all she owned, and know there was literally nothing else she could call her own.

There was a pile of just baked buns beside one of the ovens. Smothering the inevitable guilt, she snagged two of them, wrapping them in a square of muslin and tucking them under one arm.

Slowly, warily, she opened the door and snuck outside – in the main camp, she could see a hell of a party going on. Bull in particular, over by the huts near Seggrit's stall, seemed to be having a whale of a time, his voice booming across the crowd as he waved his tankard to emphasise whatever point he was making in his anecdote, making a thorough spectacle of himself.

She hid a smile. Good. Perfect. With him occupied, she was clear to go.

Keeping her head down, she walked swiftly towards the exit – walking with a purpose had much the same effect here as at home. If you walked like you had somewhere to be, people assumed you were official and left you alone. There were no more guards on the gate to watch her go – afterall, the breach was closed. What was there left to guard against?

The image of the people she knew dead or dying at the hands of the red templars flashed through her mind and she frowned, blinking away the image. She'd get back in time. She'd tell them, show them. She'd make them believe her. They'd be ok.

The road outside of haven was quiet and empty, the ground well travelled by all the feet that had marched up and down this road once today. Only the breeze stirred the branches of the trees alongside the path; there was no other movement.

She hurried along the path – just up ahead, she could see the fork in the road. The one on the left led up the mountain, to where the conclave had been, to where the breach had been, to where the wreckage from her world – she hoped – still was. The path on the right led back down, around the lake. The one on the right was far larger than the left; afterall, the left led nowhere but but the breach. Very few had had any reason for treading that path for months.

She took it, steps quickening. It was working, her plan was actually coming together!

There was movement behind her, but before she could turn, strong armoured hands grabbed her shoulders, yanking her back, and then grabbed her wrists, forcing them behind her back. She yelped in pain, her bundle of bread falling to the floor.

“I hate it when the chief's right,” said Krem's voice in an off handed sort of way, as Liz felt the cold of metal against her wrists, echoed by the sound of the locks on the shackles snapping closed.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Liz struggled automatically against the manacles, her months of hard labour meaning she actually put up a struggle that made Krem grunt in annoyance until he yanked on the chain. “Wait!” She pushed against the manacles again but the build was solid and wouldn't move. “You don't understand! I'm not-” Her voice was rusty with disuse, and the Ferelden language was strange on her tongue – she knew she was getting the pronunciation wrong, but she had to try.

“Sure thing sweets,” Krem was no nonsense, and didn't even bother to make eye contact. “I'm sure you can explain it all nicely, but don't bother giving it to me. You're going to see the chief. Grim,” he turned to the man as he came out from the copse of trees, with more people stepping out behind him – hell, had the entirety of the chargers been lying in wait for her?! “Scout on ahead with the others, see if you can find whoever she was supposed to be meeting. Makes interrogation a lot easier if there's two of them.”

“No! Don't! You're looking in the wrong direction, it's not-” she cried as Krem started to drag her back towards the camp. She was rewarded with a hard slap to the back of the head from the Tevinter warrior.

“Shut up. We don't take kindly to traitors, and the chief's extra pissed. Suggest you speak when spoken to.”

Obligingly, Liz shut up, trying to blink away the tears of fear rolling down her cheers, mind racing. How bad was this? Traitor? They thought she was a traitor?!

The tears didn't stop.

Krem didn't talk to her as he and Dalish dragged her back. Through the crowds, which stopped and stared as they made their way past them, into the Chantry, down the stairs to the cells. She caught sight of Wodon and Julia in the crowd as she was marched through, and shame made her hang her head; they thought her a traitor?

The Iron Bull and – Liz's stomach sank further – Leiliana were waiting for her. Bull was lounging while leaning against a set of stocks, while Leiliana was consulting a clipboard. They didn't look up when Krem didn't bother shoving her in a cell, but instead left her in the middle of the floor outside them. As he shoved her down to her knees, he grabbed her arm, his grip hard enough to bruise, then bent and whispered – none too quietly – in her ear “Not. Unless. Spoken. To.”

She nodded frantically to show she'd gotten the message and he let go, straightening to go back to the Bull. “For someone who's spent so long pretending not to be able to talk, she sure as shit won't shut up now.” She hunched, arms still stuck behind her back, tears starting to stream anew down her face.

“Good job Krem – go get the boss. What'd I tell ya Red?”

Leiliana nodded as Krem left. “You were right. A pity – she's well liked. It will hurt morale.”

“Please,” Liz's voice was low, but she had to try, had to make them understand.

Bull laughed. He laughed, and Liz fought down a sob. “We ain't even picked up the hot irons yet and she's talking! What you got to say sweetheart? Tell us everything, and maybe we'll put in a good word with the boss.”

“Yes, who are you working for?” Leiliana looked up from her notes. “I'd have said an enemy of the mages, but you were here before we allied with them. My reports say you were present at the conclave; one of the survivors pulled from the rubble, so logically, you're with this Elder One Alexius mentioned. I imagine you must know then who is responsible for the Divine's murder.” The bard's tone and facial expression were hard as flint when Liz looked at her in shock.

“What?! No!” Liz gasped, shaking her head frantically. “That's not it at all! It's a long story, but we don't have much time. Please, Haven is going to be attacked – I was going to get proof so you'd believe me, that's all! I wasn't meeting anyone, I'm not working for anyone, I just want people to survive!”

Both of them fell silent and solemn, and shared a glance. There was the sound of a door opening and footsteps on the stairs, and more people filtered into the room. Liz looked up to see the Herald, Cassandra, Solas, Josephine and Varric all enter. Most of them leant against the wall, looking at her but Cullen, a frown on his face, went to Leiliana and immediately started reading whatever she'd written on her clipboard over her shoulder. Liz had started shaking at seeing them all in one room. All together. All discussing what to do with her.

“Krem says we've got a spy of the Elder One who's been working here all along,” Varric said as the others found places. “That's a bit cliched – I'd never have written it.”

“She's saying Haven is going to be attacked,” Leiliana was still staring at Liz, gaze harsh and unmoving.

“Never heard that accent before,” mused Bull.

“It is going to be attacked!”” Liz insisted. “Corypheus is going to come over those hills tonight with an army of templars he's corrupted with red lyrium and attack! He's the elder one!”

Disbelieving silence reigned.

“Shiny, you gotta lie better,” said Varric, breaking the silence and chuckling in a way that was absolutely no comfort whatsoever. “Pulling a dead villain out of one of my books to blame it all on? You can't think of a better cover story than that? You need to read more things from the non-fiction section of the store, might help you spin these things.”

“You are right,” muttered Josephine to Bull. “I have not heard that accent before.”

“No, Varric, it's true – you killed him in Kirkwall but it didn't stick. He's also got an archdemon! I think – it was a really big dragon, and everyone called it an archdemon!”

More silence, obvious disbelief on everyone's faces, and then Bull sighed, a slight smile cracking over his face. “Ok, whoever she's working for, we're obviously going to have to work her a little before she breaks proper. Everyone go drink, we'll call you back when there's news.”

“Why don't we,” Leiliana gestured to the others, turning to leave. “Discuss this outside.”

“No! Please! Wait!” Liz struggled as Bull picked her up as easily as you might pick up and scruff a kitten before dropping her in a cell. “You've got to run!”

The cell door slammed shut, and Bull smirked at her before turning to go. “Don't! Listen to me!” She tried to get to her feet to stand, but it was hard with her hands behind her back. She shouted the whole time, trying to get them to believe her, but by the time she was on her feet, she couldn't see anyone.

Footsteps that echoed along the corridor as they left were the only answer to her pleas.

Liz nearly screamed in frustration...then she lent her forehead against the bars and wept.

She didn't know how long they left her – she had no way of telling time down here. She tried counting, but every so often, fear made her weep and lose her place. There were no windows, no passing of the sun. Her arms ached, her head ached, her stomach growled, but she had no idea how long it had been when the door to the stairs finally opened again.

Footsteps – some light, some heavy – proceeded them, as Bull, Leiliana, Varric, the Herald and Solas came into sight. Cullen brought up the rear, closing the door behind him.

Liz, who had spent the last however long wracking her brains for something, anything that might give her a veneer of believability, knew what she was going to say.

“Roderick!” Liz cried.

They all stopped. “What,” was Bull's only answer.

“He'll lead you out – he knows there's a back exit to this place, not one anyone knows about – everyone else that did died at the conclave! That's how you can know I'm telling the truth.”

They were all looking somewhat taken aback – whatever they were expecting her to say when they came back in, this was apparently not it. Frantically, she ploughed on. “Look, I know this looks bad, but you have to believe me. Ask him – ask him if there's another way out, and if he's mentioned it to anyone. He won't have. If he can't think of any way I should have known that he knew, then you have to believe I'm telling the truth about everything else!”

Silence as they all looked at each other, a sudden sombreness coming over them, wiping away any levity. “Time magic has already been involved,” Solas said, slowly. “Perhaps we should not be so swift to dismiss this – is it possible she has seen what is to come? Although I sense no magic on her.” He cocked his head in a way that in game meant he was thinking. “And have not before.”

“But she just happened to be there when this demon attacked,” Bull replied, as if Liz wasn't present. “She or her allies could have summoned it. And yesterday – what the fuck was she doing just walking around the lake if not meeting a contact?”

“I can explain, but you have to ask Roderick!” Liz interjected. “Please, I know what I'm going to tell you sounds mad – you'll think I'm crazy, that I'm imagining it, but I'm not, and all I want is for people not to die. That's all I'm asking!”

They were looking unsure now and looking to the Herald – apparently she was going to be the decision maker in all this. “Bring Roderick down here. As for the rest – is there any risk to preparing as if we're going to be attacked?”

“Yes,” said Cullen, at the same time Liz said “Yes!” They looked at each other, and then Liz crumpled, dropping her gaze – it was only when he'd met her eyes that she'd realised how incredibly angry Cullen was. For some reason, that made her feel even more wretched, her stomach twisting.

“If we prepare,” the ex-templar turned back to answer the Herald, and somehow she didn't think the fact that he got to turn his back on her in the process was entirely a coincidence. “And someone's watching, it will tip our hand. It would be a clever way to actually call off an attack now that we're aware they're there. We should make it look as if everything is as it would otherwise be. I've already given my men orders to look like they're celebrating but to stay sober and armed. I recommend we continue as we were.”

“But you need to run!” Liz couldn't make herself stay quiet. “You can't win this, you shouldn't be preparing, you need to go!”

The Herald held up a hand. “Bring Roderick down,” she met Liz's gaze with solemnity. “Cullen, go fetch him, please.”

Cullen went, anger and disappointment still present in every line of him.

A few minutes of silence passed as everyone stood, unwilling to speak before they had anything else, when Cullen hustled the cleric in with an expression that said he morally objected to being in the man's presence any longer than absolutely necessary.

“Excuse me!” Roderick looked about as displeased at his treatment as Cullen looked at having to give it. “I demand to know-”

“Shut up,” Leiliana's voice was harsh. “This is a matter of utmost secrecy, and I need you to answer truthfully; is there a back route out of Haven?”

“I-” Roderick looked like he was about to argue, but as if on cue, Bull stood, shifting his weight, so he loomed menacingly behind Leiliana, and suddenly the cleric seemed to think better of it. “Why...yes. Yes, there is. How did you know?”

“Never mind,” Leiliana's tone was still harsh, but now – was Liz imagining it? - she looked just a little worried. “Have you told anyone about this path? Have you mentioned its existence? To anyone, even just to yourself, outloud, in the last few months?”

“Since the conclave was destroyed, you mean.” Roderick, Liz thought in an odd moment of introspection, would be a lot easier to handle if he really was as stupid as he sounded half the time. “No. Although, now you mention it, I supposed I must be the only one left who knows about it – everyone else who was informed when this place was built died there.”

Silence reigned, but this time, it was a different sort – it was the sort that had the party all looking at each other, their sense of surety gone from their eyes, and the fear clenched around Liz's heart eased just the slightest bit.

“Thank you, that will be all.” The dismissal was obvious in the Orlesian's tone.

“Now wait just one minute!” Roderick almost seemed to swell in indignation. “You dragged me down-”

“Nope!” Bull's tone was cheery as he physically bustled forward and picked up the protesting cleric, slinging him over one shoulder and, with a broad smile still on his face, walking out with him. Roderick's outraged squawking could be heard for quite some time.

Watching them go, Liz blinked and realised where everyone was looking.

At her.

“I think that's enough for us to listen to what you've got to say,” the Herald's voice was still cool, but not as outright disbelieving as it had been. “Why don't you explain this to us?”

“Start from the beginning,” Varric advised her. “It's always easier that way.”

Liz took a breath, slowly trying to order things in her mind and work out the best way of phrasing them, so they'd be believable.

“I'm not...from this world.”

“The fade?” Solas apparently couldn't stop himself interjecting, a look of shock on his face. “You bear nothing in common with any spirit I have met.”

“No. Somewhere...beyond it. I think.” She sighed, and decided just to skip the explanation of games and electricity and how they worked – there were an awful lot of convenient truths covered up in fantasy movies because of 'magic' – why couldn't it work the same in reverse?

“Our magic is not the same as yours – to explain how would take a long time, and I can do that later, but there isn't the time now, but we aren't connected to the fade. Or, at least, we thought we weren't. What we can do is see your world – I was...exploring, it?” She pulled an uncertain face – she wasn't sure that was the right word, but the vocabulary she'd picked up eavesdropping in the tavern really wasn't sufficient to discuss this sort of thing.

“It's hard to explain. I've read you, read you a lot. It...allowed me to see all the possible outcomes from a decision, if I took the time to look. I...I know everything that would have happened, could have happened, when you stopped the blight.” She looked at Leiliana, who was watching her solemnly, silently. “I know about Kirkwall, and everything that happened there,” she looked at Varric, who was looking like he wanted to disbelieve her. “But...not here. I had only just started looking into here when...there was an accident. And I was here, suddenly.”

“Can you remember how?” Solas was staring at her, utterly fascinated by the tale. She supposed she ought to have guessed her talking about a new type of 'magic' would draw him like a moth to a flame.

“No. I remember a crash, and then a lot of green light, and then I was in the rubble from the conclave. No one's ever...it's not supposed to be possible, there is no connection between our worlds, but suddenly I was here and I don't know how!”

“All right,” Varric collected a cup of water, opening the cell door and putting it to Liz's lips – it wasn't until she drank that she realised how dry her mouth was, how sore her throat was. “Calm a little Shiny. Can't tell it if you can't talk.”

She drank her fill, then pulled back. “Thank you,” she muttered.

“So if you've only just started, how do you know what's going to happen here?” That was Cullen, his face carefully blank – she had no idea what he was thinking.

“I'd only just started, because I had only looked at one...” she had no idea how to word that, so settled for the best word she knew in their language. “Thread? I'd only looked at this, and not very far. I know Corypheus comes back. I know he has an archdemon. I know he attacks Haven, and a lot of people die, and those that don't run out of the back route. But...not much further.”

“When?” The commander's face was still hard.

“At night. I know it's sometime at night, the day you close the breach, but I don't know the time.”

There was a moment of silence where they all looked at each other with an expression Liz didn't know how to interpret. “What?” she said, haltingly.

“It's already after sunddown,” Varric said.

Liz gaped in horror.

Chapter Text

Leiliana was already yanking her to her feet when Cullen stepped in.

“Herald, I must protest! There's nothing here that is hard evidence, this could all still be a trick, lies and deceit made to look like truth! We could be playing into their hands!”

“Commander, the odds that-” Leiliana started, turning on the Ferelden man when Liz, fed up with this interjected.

“You had a crush on a female mage in the circle in Ferelden just before Jowan used blood magic and it all went to hell.” She all but spat it at him, but her venom was interrupted when Leiliana released her wrists; she couldn't help but cry in pain – her shoulders had long since seized up from being locked behind her, and to be able to move them again was agonising.

Cullen was staring at her, face pale.

Liz's attention whipped around to Leiliana. “The warden gave you white flowers, when you were fighting the blight. You sang by the campfire. Sten secretly liked cookies and played with a kitten you found and then claimed he was training it when you caught him at it.” There was still a challenge in what she said, but her voice was slightly softer – it wasn't as aggressive as she'd been with Cullen.

Now the bard was staring at her.

“I can keep going,” she said, the threat blunted by the fact that tears were rolling down her cheeks from the pain in her arms.

“My point remains,” Cullen said, looking stiff and stubborn. He wasn't looking at her.

“She stays with us.” The herald looked apprehensive and Liz couldn't blame her. “If nothing's happened by dawn, then you can pass judgement.”

“Good enough.”

They all headed back up the stairs. Ahead of them, Liz could still hear Roderick arguing with Bull, who seemed to be taking great pleasure in refusing to do anything he said. They stepped outside the door, and the cleric saw them and started towards them, face screwed up in anger. Josephine trailed behind him, looking desperately like she'd like to lessen any damage he was about to do. “Commander-” he started, his tone far more nasal than it had been.

“Incoming! To arms!”

The shouts came from the front gate, and everyone froze.

“No, no it can't be,” that was Josephine's soft plea

“Maker's breath,” Cullen swore, with feeling, and then fled towards the gate. The rest of the group followed and Liz found herself running along with them.

“Where?” Cullen demanded of the guard as they approached at a run. “Are they flying a banner?”

“None ser,” said the guard who met them there. “A large force, coming over the mountain.”

The closed gate thumped once, twice, three times. From outside, a pitifull voice cried “I can't come in unless you open!”

They all stared at Liz, who couldn't work out why for a second. “Is it safe?” Leiliana asked.

“What?” Liz looked around, panicked. “Yes, yes of course it is, it's just Cole!”

Cullen and the Herald flung open the doors and headed outside to talk to the spirit. Varric grabbed Liz's wrist. “You need to start talking Shiny,” he said. “You said people died here – how? What do we do to avoid it?!”

“Erm, ok!” Liz screwed her eyes up, trying to think. “You-you tried to hold Haven. But you can't, it's not a fortress, it won't withstand that sort of punishment.”

“So, we need to start running?” Leiliana wasn't looking at them, but rather, at the sea of lights coming over the hillside towards them – the normally pale redhead was ashen.

”Yes,” said Liz as emphatically as she knew how in their language.

“All right,” said Leiliana, and with that, she was gone, towards the gate to speak to Cullen and the Herald.

Liz almost jumped out of her skin when Bull clapped a hand on her shoulder. “You,” he said to her, and then pointed to another three people in the crowd that was stood, looking out at the lights on the hillside. “You, you and you – go with Roderick, start getting people out that passageway.”

“But-” Liz protested.

“Why?” Bull leant down so they were on eye level, and for some reason it drove home how massive he was, exactly how much bigger he was than any human, never mind her. Possibly because all she could see behind him was the width of his shoulders.“You telling us you can help fight and you just forgot to mention it?”

“Er...no,” said Liz, the wind suddenly taken out of her sails.

“Then go; do something useful.” He turned his back. “Chargers!” They ran to him, heading to muster up ahead of the gates, where Cullen was rallying the warriors to stand against the force for as long as they could. Over the sounds of panic that were starting in the crowd behind her, she could hear snatches of his speech carrying on the wind. She felt a sudden surge of heart sickness – how many weren't going to make it out of this?

“They are giving us the best chance we can to run,” Josephine whispered in her ear, suddenly beside her. “All of us. We have to go.”

They did. People carried what they could grab, sacks of supplies and warm clothing, tents and hastily loaded wagons drawn by sleepy and irritable druffalo – anything they could lay their hands on that could be of use was taken. Liz saw one mother berate a small child clutching a doll – the doll was removed and the child given more blankets to carry instead. The child, tears rolling down their cheeks, took them without complaint, but Liz saw them glance back as they went, to where the beloved doll was being trampled under foot.

It broke her heart, in some small way.

“This way!” Sera harried those at the back, constantly roving, eyes everywhere and outward, an arrow permanently on her bow but somehow still moving fast as a dream even with a sack of supplies strapped to her back. Vivienne, Liz could see, was in the middle of a group of refugees, staff glowing. It was when Liz drew nearer she saw all those around her were elderly or crippled, and would otherwise not been able to flee fast enough – their gait was curiously fast and silent until Liz realised none of their feet touched the ground; Vivienne's magic was carrying them.

She could see Julia and Eckerd, travelling with wagons loaded with the wounded, bottles of healing potions and bunches of herbs tucked inbetween the stretchers like bubble wrap around delicate objects on her world. Once or twice she heard Wodon's characteristic bellow, once used for marshalling the workers as they mixed dough in the bakery, now he herded a pack of teenagers of all races, none of whom seemed to be travelling with an adult.

Orphans, she realised, or those whose parents were still in Haven fighting the retreat, leaving them with no one else. When had Haven become such a safe retreat for the misfits of the world?

When we were the only ones who would fight for them, she realised with a wrench of something inside her. And now they might die for it.

She didn't know when tears had started streaming down her face, but they didn't stop.

The night was dark and bitterly cold. 'For the night is dark and full of terror,' she thought once with dark irony, then cursed herself for treating this like a joke on any level. The crowd was silent, cowed and grieving around her. Many had already given up for dead those who had stayed behind to fight. Liz caught a few reproachful glances thrown her way, but no one said anything. The snow drifts were high and deep – the druffalo and the wagons broke their path, followed by those who had trouble walking. The more feet passed over the pressed snow, the more slippery and ice like the path became – those with the surest footing went last.

Roderick called a halt when they had been moving for what seemed like hours. Everyone was too tired to argue, or even question. They worked in near silence to raise the tents, everyone looking up every time someone new staggered into camp. Nearly every newcomer was greeted by someone with relief, but also by ten times as many others who looked back down, hiding their grief and disappointment that the one they wanted had not come through.

Bull and the chargers were the second to last to arrive. One woman, somewhat timidly, touched his arm, and asked about the others behind him.

He shook his head slowly. “Only Cullen, Solas and Dorian are behind us. I am sorry.”

She turned away, face striken with tears.

Trying to muffle a sob, Liz stepped out of the firelight to hide in the shadow of one of the tents. It meant she was one of the first to see Cullen coming into camp.

It also meant he saw her.

“You!” He greeted her with an accusatory finger, the half-shout cutting like a knife through the muted quiet of the camp.

Liz recoiled, looking for somewhere to hide and finding only stone at her back. Cullen kept on coming, until they were almost nose to nose.

“You could have stopped this,” he all but hissed at her, his voice no longer raised but far more poisonous. Liz cowered away from him – unable to back up any further, her knees gave way and she started to sink.

“What?! No, I-”

“You hid in the shadows for as long as possible,” he cut her off. “You could have spoken sooner, could have made us understand, could have told the truth, but instead you cowered, like a snake in the grass, and now people are dead, she's dead--!

Liz was on her knees, hands half raised against an attack that wasn't about to strike her, but she had no other way of protecting herself, sobbing and she wasn't sure when she'd started, when Blackwall interrupted Cullen's rant, all but body checking him away from her.

“This helps no one!” he informed Cullen, who staggered away and then looked up at him, looking for a second like he was about to direct his ire at the warden instead.

There was a long second, strung out so tight that Liz could almost hear the note that could be played on it, broken only be her own uncontrollable sobs.

Then Cullen straightened, and nodded. “You're right,” he said to the other man. “We ought to go and do what we can to help.”

She could hear the implication in his voice. Help – like she hadn't. And look at where it had gotten them.

They disappeared back into the light of the campfire. It was then, through her tears, Liz looked around to realise she was alone – everyone else had gone with them.

She was left in the dark of the camp, outside the circle formed by the light of the fires and the tents, the ring of inclusion where everyone else had gone...except her. Just like she had been that night when they had come down from the breach – where if she was to wander out into the dark and the cold and freeze to death, no one would notice or care.

Unable to do anything else, she buried her head in her hands and broke.

Chapter Text

She wasn't sure how long she cried when a little voice spoke up in the back of her head.

Fix this.

She recognised that voice. It was hers, from long ago. It was the same voice that made her get up and pack her things when she and Dave broke up, rather than stay there and have things thrown at her. And it had been hard, to believe in herself enough to walk out of that door.

But she'd gone.

It was the same voice that had gotten her to get up and go to school, all those days when she had no friends, and nobody on her side, and knew she'd enter the room to have things flung at her head, again. And it had been hard, to face that sort of abuse and know there wasn't any escape from it if she wanted an education.

But she'd gone.

You can fix this.

How?

Emptiness greeted her, but it wasn't a silence that meant there was no answer. It simply was there and waiting to be filled. It meant that there was an answer...she just hadn't thought of it yet.

And she would think of it. No one else trusted her at the moment – fine. That she could cope with.

Provided she trusted herself.

Ten minutes later, and she had a plan. She wasn't too sure it was a good plan. But it was a plan. And it would either work or she'd be dead, but as options went, at the moment, she was actually ok with that.

Everyone was so huddled around the fire talking amongst themselves that it was easy to stick to the shadows and snag a coil of rope. A lantern. A short sword. A water bottle. Several scarves and three pairs of gloves.

She walked out of camp, around the big rock- and went face first into Solas.

“Does she survive?” he asked without preamble.

Liz stepped away from him, looking out into the endless darkness – beyond the little copse that circled the rock and its clearing, she could hear the wind howling. It sounded, disturbingly on a number of levels, much like the templars had.

“In what I saw, yes,” she said, her voice odd and hollow – she was all cried out. On a logical level, she knew she ought to be terrified of what she was about to do. But she wasn't. She didn't feel anything. I have enough energy to do this, or to be afraid, she thought, disjointedly. I choose to do this. “But I don't know how my early warning has changed the balance – it might have swung things against her.”

Solas regarded her coolly. “And what do you intend to do?”

Liz met his gaze without flinching. “I'm going to swing them back.”

He turned away from her to look out into the dark. “Do you know how to survive in a blizzard?” he asked. His tone almost sounded the same as it had when he spoke about the fade and his journeys in the game, as if this was nothing more than just another casual interest. It was only because she was stood so close to him, with no one else around, that Liz could hear the tone of desperation underneath it all. Here was a man who was terrified and was holding things together by a thread, but he was holding things together. Just.

His question was also a warning, and Liz could almost hear it. 'You're probably going to die out there' it said.

“I read about it in a book once,” Liz replied. 'I know' was what she really said.

“I'm coming with you,” he said. She blinked at him in all the surprise she could muster, and then looked down at his bare toes in a silent question.

He simply looked at her. She shrugged. “As you wish,” she said.

They wrapped scarves around their faces, up their legs to form leggings, layers of them, around their noses and their mouths and as close to their eyes as they could and still see, even then squinting against the snow; Liz had never realised that snow could blow so ferociously that it would hurt but this did.

They put on everything. Every scrap of fabric, every last thing they had, wrapped around fingers and toes, layered over whatever else they had.

It still wasn't enough – the cold was enough to steal her breath, slipping through gaps in her clothing she hadn't realised were there to bite at her flesh. Behind her, she heard Solas swear in elvish, and then the pain left her.

“I'm cocooning us with magic,” he had to all but scream it to be heard over the shrieking of the wind. “But I can't do it forever!”

“Just enough for us to keep moving!” Liz shouted back. “Just that much!”

The heat disappeared and Liz whined despite herself, but the magic was obviously still present in some small way – she was freezing but she was no longer in such terrible pain.

They couldn't see more than a few feet in front of them. No way of making trail signs, and their own footprints took mere minutes to fill with snow again until it was like they had never been. Instead, Liz carved a great slash of bark out of every tree they passed, a large gouge that even the snow couldn't disguise, that her fingers could find even if her eyes could not. She thought she saw Solas nod at her action, as if agreeing with the wisdom of it, but she couldn't be sure.

As a final, and inadequate, safety measure, they roped themselves together, so they couldn't lose each other. It didn't do much, but as they floundered, the snow deep to mid-thigh even under the trees, unable to get their footing, it was something. Wordless in the shriek of the wind, they set up a system, each of them taking it in turn to cling to a marked tree while the other ventured forward to find a hand hold, then they'd switch.

Liz's mind raced the whole time, trying to remember this section from the game. The way the Herald had staggered – the trees had been on the left the whole time, right? That meant if she kept them on the right, she ought to find the trail she would have taken.

Hours passed. She and Solas drained the water bottle once, then packed it full of snow and tucked it inside their clothing to melt, then drained it a second time, then a third. The pace was brutal, her breath coming fast, her heart pounding – just staying upright and moving forward was a battle unlike anything she'd ever faced in her world. In many ways, it was a testament to how much she'd changed, to who she had become. The Liz of three months ago, the Liz who had fallen through the breach, the Liz who had spent her days curled in front of a computer and her nights tucked up in a warm bed, would have given up and died hours ago.

This Liz kept fighting.

Eventually, the snow fell to knee level, then to mid-calf. The stone under foot felt firmer, more stable. Looking up and shielding her eyes, she saw the dark shadow of the cliff looming through the snow fall.

“Here,” she managed to gasp to Solas. He nodded, and together, they staggered across the plane between the trees and the cliff, clutching the line between them as the drifts got absurdly high – first Liz plunged into one up to her neck, then almost as soon as she, shaking, sodden and freezing, crawled out, Solas disappeared into another.

Eventually, they made the shadow of the cliff and the wind dropped again. “Which way?” Solas shouted, his voice hoarse.

Liz fished out the water bottle, and passed it to him as she waved in the direction away from where they had come. Fuck, she hoped that was right.

They'd not gone far when Solas gave a cry and ran ahead, throwing caution to the wind. At first Liz couldn't see what he was aiming for, but then, as he knelt, she saw her.

She had no idea how he'd spotted her – the white blonde of her hair against the snow was all but invisible, and as she'd fallen, she'd sunk into the drift, then more had fallen on top of her so she was half-buried. Liz would never have seen her.

Frantically, Solas lifted her out and fished at her neck for a pulse. “Barely,” he shouted. Glancing over her shoulder, Liz made out a darker shadow in among the rock.

“Cave!” she shouted to the elf, and together, they half carried, half dragged the inquisitor inside.

Fingers numb and clunsy in her layers of gloves, Liz fumbled for the lantern and striking stones before Solas took them off her and lit them with ease. In its flickering light, they examined the tattooed woman in front of them.

She was ice cold and her lips were blue, her skin a shade of white Liz had never seen on a living creature. “How is she alive?” she gasped, unable to stop herself.

“That is not a question we need answer now. We need to get her back to the camp. Look!”

He held up the inquisitor's left hand – the tip of her little and ring fingers were turning black. Liz swore.

“Solas, your magic-?”

He shook his head. “I have but a spark. Not enough to do anything useful with.”

Liz looked down at the unconscious woman, mind racing. Then she stood and started untying the rope at her waist.

“What are you doing?” Solas didn't stop her but he was watching her warily.

“Something stupid, but being stupid got us this far, and I don't have any better ideas.”

She took off everything but her innermost layer, freezing and teeth chattering in the chill of the cave even without the wind. Then, with the rope, they tied the inquisitor to her back, and then replaced the cloaks and scarves, wrapping some around Liz and others around the elven woman.

“I can boost your strength,” said Solas. “Enough to help with the burden, but I will not be able to warm us if I do.”

Liz nodded, shifting against the new weight – she was surprisingly light. She made a mental note that if they lived through this, she was going to make sure the woman was eating regularly; she obviously needed to. Out loud, she said “That's fine. We've found her now – no need to go slow anymore, we can just run back to camp.”

He didn't call out her lie; they both knew they'd been going as fast as possible on the way here. Now they were without any rope to tie them together either, and they were both tired to the point of tears.

They were going to die out here.

“We can do this,” she said, but she wasn't sure exactly which of them she was saying it to.

“We can,” Solas confirmed, turning towards the cave mouth.

They stepped back into hell. With the added weight, Liz went even slower, sank further in snow drifts, fell more often. Now they didn't strike out separately, but rather Solas stayed within arm's reach, there when she fell, lifting her when she stumbled, grabbing her hands to lift her up, or the inquisitor's to take some of the weight when Liz struggled upright yet again.

Reaching the trees felt like a miracle in itself. When she considered they still had hours of walking to do to get back to the camp, she could have laid down and died where she stood, but she didn't.

She did the first thing that came to mind.

She sang.

Anything and everything she could think of – she started with Imagine, of all things, by the Beatles, then Bohemian Rhapsody, then, Hit Me Baby One More Time, then Hakuna Matata, then more, until she couldn't think what was coming out of her mouth as long as it was noise.

Not that she could hear – not that anyone could hear, but it gave her something to walk to. Something to focus on. Together, she and Solas groped their way through the trees , fingers guiding them along the grooves they'd gouged in the wood, unable to see, hardly able to breath.

Her voice was a rusty croak that never changed from one note to the next – she'd never been a singer. But it was something – it was a tiny piece of home. She was going to get them home, even if that home, at the moment, was a straggling group of refugees around a temporary campsite in a blizzard. It became a mantra in her mind, repeated over and over again as her mouth mechanically formed the words, her feet took one more step, she clenched her hands on the ropes holding the inquisitor to her body, willing feeling back into her fingers one more time.

Home.

Just keep going.

Home.

One more step.

Home.

Just.

Keep.

Going.

The hours ticked away in a blur of exhaustion.

So narrow had her focus become that when the blizzard finally fell away it took her by surprise, and the sudden lack of force meant she toppled forward, landing in the snow and narrowly missing Solas, who had already collapsed. She looked up, bleary, disbelieving in the face of the sudden quiet.

Ahead there were lights.

She blinked, slowly. Lights were something significant, something she ought to be going towards, but she couldn't remember why.

Then she heard the shouts. “It's them!”

Oh, right. The camp. The inquisitor.

“Help,” that wasn't her speaking, it was Solas, as tired and stiff and croaky as she, but somehow he staggered to his feet, arms waving, staff dull in the firelight with not even a spark flickering from the crystal in the top – he had drained himself dry. “Help!”

Figures ran towards them – she could see Cullen, followed by Cassandra and Leiliana through the snow towards them. Her head felt like it was made of lead, her eyelids refusing to stay up no matter how much she fought them.

Cullen drew his sword as he got within reach, and the only emotional response she had was gratitude; if he was going to kill her that meant that it was over, that maybe she could sleep now, and registered disinterested surprise when he cut the ties that bound the inquisitor to her instead.

More people were around them now, picking them up, taking them away. Cullen was looking from the inquisitor, to Solas, to Liz, in astonishment and shock.

“How...” was all he managed.

Only managing the one eye open, Liz met his gaze. “Helping,” she said flatly.

Then she passed out.

Chapter Text

It was with no small sense of deja vu that she woke lying on a pair of haybales covered by a blanket.

She tried to speak and her voice came out a croak. Hands helped her sit up and a wooden cup of water was shoved under her nose.

“You make no ripples!”

She swallowed gratefully, unnerved by how her hands shook – the person next to her, Dorian she realised – steadied the for her, allowing her to drink.

Out loud, she managed to croak “Hi Cole.”

“I think he's been wanting to tell you that for a while. Been muttering about your 'lack of ripples' since they carried you in.” Dorian was looking as wrung out as the rest of them, deep shadows under his eyes, his moustache and hair dishevelled and rips in his clothing that were edged in blood.

“But she doesn't!” Cole sounded a mixture of distressed and impressed by this fact. “Everyone else has ripples. Ripples in the fade, waves on the world around them, magnifying, shouting to existence, even those that don't dream, but you don't. You're just...you. Little and so hard to hear, but so full of hurt, I know, even at a distance, but I can't make out the details, I can't make it better!”

“Don't-” Liz tried and then coughed again. Dorian fed her more water. “Thank you,” she muttered to him. “Don't try to make me better,” she said to Cole. “I'm-I don't need 'better' right now. Enough of thinking about what I want, for a while. Maybe later, I'll answer questions. But not now.”

Cole looked distressed at this, but something across the fire drew his gaze and he wandered away without another word.

Inevitably, her gaze was drawn across the camp. She wasn't even sure which sure which tent she was looking for, but Dorian guessed anyway.

“She'll live,” he said, answering the question she hadn't gotten to ask yet. “She'll lose the tips of a couple of fingers, but she'll live.”

“Good,” Liz replied, not sure what else to say. She still felt a little numb inside.

They sat in silence for a few seconds before Dorian broke the silence.

“So, if you're to be believed, you already know who I am then?”

“Dorian Pavus,” she managed in response. “You're...I don't know the word in your language, but you're interested in men. You come from Tevinter. You were friends with Felix and studied under Alexius. But not more than that.”

“Well...I suppose it could be worse. It's really very odd to meet someone who knows all about you when you didn't know they existed. Even if what they know isn't exactly secrets from the depth of your mind.” He shot a sideways glance at her. “Just in case, you do, in fact, know about that thing I do at midnight with the melted cheese, try to keep it to yourself, will you?”

The sudden absurdity of it surprised a laugh out of her, and although it was just a chuckle, she immediately felt better, and felt a surge of warmth for the man sat next to her.

More silence fell. She let her gaze drop to the floor in front of her, but in the end, she couldn't help asking.

“Is...is everyone still angry?”

Dorian sighed. “That's not a simple question. Or it is, because the short answer is yes. You saved the herald; good for you. But no one act, however courageous, is going to be enough to counter the inconvenient fact that you've lived for months among people claiming to be something you are not. Many feel, and continue to feel, betrayed by what you did, and that you bear some of the fault for those that died at Haven.”

“But I couldn't have done anything! I didn't speak the language, I couldn't actually speak and even with proof, they barely believed me in time when I told them when Corypheus was nearly on top of us!” To her shame, Liz felt tears well in her eyes before she blinked them away.

“I said your fault, not that you bore the blame – there is a difference.” Dorian looked at her and smiled slightly as she raised an eyebrow at him in confusion – she obviously had the translations of those words wrong.

“I don't think anyone is saying you caused the attack. Very few are even claiming that they would have been able to do any different to what you did if they were in the position – you bear no blame. But! The fact remains that you had the power to mitigate what damage was done. Had you told us when you first arrived, we might have been able to fortify Haven. We might have made efforts to approach both the mages and the templars. We might not have believed you, true, but then the fault would have been ours, not yours. But you didn't, because you were more concerned with how we would react to you than the lives you might be able to save – we could have mocked you, disbelieved you, thought you delusional, even dangerous and reacted accordingly. So, you stayed quiet. A thoroughly human course of action, but that doesn't make it any less of a selfish one. And that is where the fault comes from.”

There was a pause, and then he added “And when I say 'we', I, of course, mean...well, them.”

She looked at him, frowning. He sighed. “You aren't the only one with fault around here. I could have told someone what Alexius was up to – I could have acted when I suspected something. But, like you, I sat on my, admittedly extremely attractive, backside, because I couldn't see a better course of action. And...well, here we are.” He sat back, elbows resting easily on his knees, his movements easy and graceful. “You and I, peas in a pod in this.”

“Then why aren't they angry at you?” Liz couldn't help but ask, a little glumly.

Dorian smiled thinly. “Some of them are. But you're an easier target – you lived among them, they know you, your 'betrayal' is fresher and makes you an easier target. They're in pain and mourning those they lost, and you were someone very convenient for them to throw that emotion at.”

He looked out over the camp. Cullen, Josephine, Cassandra and Leiliana argued in harsh whispers over a table with maps on it by the fire, but other than that, it was quiet.

“Then,” he sounded wry. “You and Solas wandered out into a blizzard no one should have survived, found our herald, who possesses a magic no one ought to have, who had lived through a fight that should have torn her limb from limb, and then brought her back on a path that should have left you all as frozen corpses in a drift somewhere. And now no one knows what to make of you; you've confused them. Some still believe this is all an elaborate ruse – that the sheer fact you found her is proof enough that you're working with the enemy. Others are starting to see you in a better light.”

She leant forward and rested her head on her knees, turning her head to look at him. “Why are you telling me this? If they might be angry at you as well, surely you talking to me won't do you any favours?”

“Well, maybe not, but if being popular was ever an ambition of mine, I've been cocking that up ever since I hit puberty.” He looked at her and smiled in a way that she couldn't interpret. “I'm talking to you because...well, because I don't have many friends, at all, really. I probably won't find any here. I have no idea if we could be friends. But I think we could be allies. And I could use an ally, and from what I've seen, I think you could use one too.”

He paused for a moment, still staring at the rest of the camp; the four that had been arguing had drifted into sullen and unhelpful silence, each focused on their own worries. “Plus, I can't deny having someone around who knows something of how future could turn out to be a mite helpful.”

“I don't know very much more of the future,” she muttered.

“Well, the rest of the point stands.”

She smiled. “I think that would be a brilliant idea.” She failed at sounding upbeat when her voice cracked halfway through and she dissolved into tears.

“Oh duck,” he muttered, and shifted so he was sitting on the bales with her, one arm slung around her shoulders while she sobbed into his chest. “It's been a while since you had someone to talk to?”

She could only sob harder, nodding into his now sodden shirt. After a couple of minutes, gulping, she sat back, swiping at her eyes. Though her gaze was bleary, she could see the inquisitor as she walked out of a tent into the firelight, looking grim.

“Feel better?” Dorian asked, patting her shoulder.

“Yes, thank you” she said, drying her cheeks on her sleeve. “But you're going to need to sing in a second, so you'd better stand.”

He stared at her, then looked around at the campfire to where the inquisitor was standing and Mother Giselle had just stepped out of the shadows, the first words of the hymn on her lips. In the shadows behind them, she could see Solas hovering, looking torn between being protective and not wanting to draw attention to himself.

“Just so you know,” Dorian muttered, getting slowly to his feet. “That was extremely unnerving.”

Chapter Text

The journey to Skyhold took three days and was uncomfortable in just about every way imaginable.

They were a slow group, with wagons of supplies and injured, trudging through snowy paths that, at best, were slippery to tread, and at worst were broken and hard going, where groups of them had to physically lift the wagons over the uneven ground – the first wagon had had to be abandoned after they tried to drive over it regardless and they shattered an axle.

Dorian proved to be Liz's own personal saviour – he seemed to be constantly around in some way or another, joking, laughing, mispronouncing her name or insisting they needed to teach each other to swear in their native languages. She had 'vishante kaffas' down on the third try, but it took him the better part of a morning to learn 'may your crotch be infested with sandfleas and your arms too short to scratch' in English. He laughed for a full minute when Liz finally told him what the translation was though, and Varric, who had been not-so-subtly eavesdropping, snorted in amusement too. Neither of them were easily able to pronounce 'Liz' though, instead defaulting to 'Liss'. She found she didn't mind – their company was very gratefully received now she could talk freely and be honest about where she came from. Especially as it seemed no one else wanted anything to do with her.

She'd approached Wodon to help on the first morning, seeing him struggling with lifting a pack onto the back of one of the horses. She'd reached over to tie it in place only to look down and see him backing away from her with an expression of disgust.

“Stay away from me,” he all but spat, and turned to disappear into the crowd, leaving her stood alone while those around them listened avidly but pretended not to notice.

She fled to Dorian's side, eyes wet with tears, and he'd raised his eyebrow at her in a silent question, but, bless him, hadn't asked what had happened, but instead told her to make herself useful, and handed her a stack of books to carry.

She met Julia's eyes through the crowd a couple of hours later, and couldn't find the courage within herself to approach, especially when the elven woman stared at her with what Liz could only describe as open hostility. Instead, she dropped her eyes in shame and hurried to catch up with the Tevinter mage.

The only upside was it meant they were left alone in their tent, where others were crowding together so much that, leaving to visit the latrine before dawn each morning, Liz spotted several tents with pairs of feet sticking out of the bottom of them. Even where the two of them would have normally been cold, Dorian's magic combated that, although he complained endlessly about the temperature and having to expend magic on it. Sometimes she thought he did in on purpose just to use the old Tevinter swear words. He did it so loudly on the morning of the third day that Bull overheard.

“Not enough slaves to rub your footsies?” If Liz didn't know better, she'd swear he sounded almost teasing, but his capture of her was still fresh in her mind, so she quietly positioned Dorian between the Qunari and herself and made sure she had an exit path she could flee down. Just in case.

“My footsies are freezing, thank you!” Dorian snapped back. But he didn't complain after that, and Liz spotted two spots of colour high on his cheeks – embarrassment, and she could guess why. It wasn't like complaining about lack of slaves was going to do anything for his popularity among the others, even in jest.

Skyhold looked far more magnificent to Liz than to any of the others – she, of course, had never seen a medieval castle that was anything more than a crumbling ruin on a history trip when she was at school. This might have had the odd ceiling caved in, the odd floor given way, or occasionally you had an unnerving moment where the staircase you were on turned out to lead nowhere but empty air, but other than that, it was a functional castle.

She must have stood in the courtyard looking around open mouthed in astonishment for a good few minutes before Varric, frowning slightly, said “Haven't you already been here Shiny?”

She shook her head. “Only a couple of times, and then I sort of...saw it from above? Hard to explain, but it's so much bigger in person. And it's a castle. We don't really have them any more where I'm from.”

“'Any more'? What, they go out of fashion?”

“Erm. Sort of. A lot of countries have different methods of government other than the monarchy or the church. So...palaces now, they're just offices or places people go see rather than being lived in...” Try as she might, she'd been unable to find a word for 'tourist' in their language, although she frequently wanted to use it to describe herself. “But the majority were just left to crumble until they're nothing but ruins.”

“This is barely more than a ruin.” She hadn't seen Cassandra come up on her other side, but the Nevarran was looking as displeased with this place as Liz was enthralled. “How did Solas come to know of its existence?”

Liz shrugged. “Fade journeys, he says. Occasionally I want to shake that man just to see what information falls out.”

“I'll thank you to leave off the shaking, thank you,” came the elf in question's voice from above them on a nearby parapet. Liz grinned – she and the elf hadn't spoken on the journey, but she had noticed that on the occasions their gazes had met, he'd nodded respectfully before continuing whatever he was concentrating on. His own personal addition to the 'get Liz less hated' effort, she supposed.

They camped in the courtyard the first night at Skyhold – they'd arrived not long before sun down, and no one wanted to check which floors were stable and which shouldn't be trodden on by nothing but torchlight. The ground under her blankets was hard and stoney and Dorian tossed and turned, unable to settle, but somehow, Liz dozed off easily and quickly, and slept deeply.

So deeply she was awakened by a hand grabbing her foot and yanking her out of her tent the next morning well after sun up.

A very large hand.

“Up,” Bull said, looking her over. “Get up! On your feet.”

“What?!” Liz gasped, coming fully awake and rubbing sleep from her eyes, feeling newly vulnerable at Dorian's absence. Her sleepy mind jumped to what she thought the obvious implication was – they were here to execute her. “But I've not done anything wrong! You can't!” She scrabbled to her feet, backing away, only to back straight into Krem.

She paused, knocked out of her panic by the fact they both seemed so utterly confused.

There was an odd moment where she looked between them, and they looked at her, everyone very much not understanding what was going on.

“Let's try this again,” Bull said, slowly. “Get up. There is a ceremony about to happen – not that she knows it. We need to move the damned tent.”

“Oh,” said Liz, feeling very small. Obligingly, she shuffled to one side, then froze at Krem's hand on her shoulder. “Don't go far,” he muttered before moving off to direct more chargers to continue clearing the courtyard and bring in boxes of supplies.

Trying not to panic, Snipe went in search of Dorian, and found him in the lower courtyard. “What's going on up there?” he demanded.

“Bull and Krem are being weird and threatening,” Liz snapped, hurrying past him and then sticking to his far side, like he was a shield.

He looked at her with both sympathy and exasperation. “You can't hide behind me forever, you know.” His tone was gentle where his words weren't.

“I know,” Liz replied. She glanced up at the courtyard where people were gathering. Looking upwards. “I just...it's only been three days, and I'm already fed up with people threatening me, or glaring at me. How the hell do you make it stop hurting?”

“Honest answer? I don't. I just try not to care, and any time I do, I remind myself that I can shove lightening bolts so far up their arses that their teeth would glow in the dark were I to so indulge.” He grinned at her. “That, and I also bear in mind that I have much better hair than they do.”

Liz sniggered, then looked up. Something clicked in her brain with what was going on. “Oh hell,” she muttered. “They're making her the inquisitor.”

“What?”

Liz tugged his arm. “Come on. We'd better get up there and watch and put on our enthusiastic faces, or we'll just end up with even more un-loyal fans.”

Chapter Text

Liz ended up watching the ceremony from a shadowed doorway near the main gate. She found herself feeling strangely emotional as she watched the Herald – now Inquisitor – take the sword and raise it over the crowd of cheering people. She found herself grinning as enthusiasm swept through the crowd, and almost leaned forward to join in.

Then she saw Cullen at the front of them, rousing their cheers to greater volume and his gaze swept across her – he didn't pause, or even meet her eyes, but the memory of his anger was enough to quash the urge, and she lowered her arm, feeling foolish.

As the Inquisitor and her advisers, along with Cassandra, disappeared into the hall, she looked around to see the crowd was dispersing and Dorian appeared to have dispersed right along with it. She couldn't see anyone she knew, in fact. She felt suddenly uncertain.

It didn't help that she had thoughts swirling around her head that she'd rather not work through. She'd really have liked a distraction right at that moment in time, but there were none about.

Liz had stayed away from religion as a whole on Earth. She was young enough and had been privileged enough that prior to being thrown to Thedas, she'd never really had to consider her own mortality. She'd never been close to anyone who died – grandparents, yes, and friends of friends from school where you oohed and aahed in sympathy over young lives cut short or old lives lived well brought to a close, but beyond a momentary shiver of the consideration that one day, she too would die, she'd never given it deeper thought. It had just been one of those things.

Playing the game, for all those hours, she had thought that the total non-believers on this world were idiots. They lived in a place with magic. With the fade, where spirits were real, tangible things, where souls were things you could actually percieve, talk to even. With dragons and dark spawn and physical evils that couldn't be explained away by differences in culture or surroundings. Of course there must be some higher power; it was obvious!

But then, she'd thought the Chantry was idiotic as well, to dismiss the stories of the elves that were older than they were. To be so conservative in a world where so much was possible. She'd thought they needed to open their minds a little. She'd thought if she lived here, things would be simple in that regard, and she wouldn't need to wonder.

Well, now she was here. And she didn't feel any different. There was no subtle sense that anyone was watching out for her, that anyone all-powerful loved her. She'd seen magic performed, but it had felt like machinery on Earth – simple. Utilitarian. You could puzzle over how it worked, but it wasn't particularly mystifying to see, once one had gotten past the sheer oddness of watching Dorian juggle fireballs.

But...the Inquisitor. In game, there had never seemed to be any answers either. In game, her Inquisitor was always a little sarcastic, a little jokey, but mostly good, at the heart of it. Always trying to prevent harm to people. That was it; all she was.

But not the one that was actually in this world. The woman she'd just watched accept the sword had something else about her. She didn't stick to the scripts Liz had seen, and seemed to speak only when she needed to, but did so in such a way that every word rang. There was nothing about her besides run-of-the-mill-prettiness that Liz could put her finger on that was special about her, but she carried a cloud of charisma so thick you could almost see it. People jostled to be around her, to hear what she said, to do what she asked. She smiled easily, got angry rarely, and always seemed to have half a dozen things going on behind her eyes.

That was the sort of person it was easy to believe was the chosen of some divine creator.

And the parallels to the church on Earth... Now that was an uncomfortable topic. She'd always presumed that Thedas had been written to have similarities, yes, but now it turned out to be an actual world... What if this 'Maker' was the same one in her world? What if Earth had gotten his son, and Thedas had gotten his wife? What if...what if it was all true?

It was some very uncomfortable thinking. She grasped inside her own mind, hoping, willing, something to feel different, something to give her some clue as to what the greater workings of two unlikely universes were.

There was nothing there. She still just felt like Liz.

Impulsively, she decided to see if she could find the chapel. She knew it was around somewhere, and maybe it would help. Sort of.

She hoped.

It took her quite a long time to find her way – in game she knew that the easiest route was through the great hall. In reality, Skyhold was larger and more derelict than it had ever been in game; even if she'd been willing to risk running into the advisers, there was no way past in all the debris that scattered the hall, so she had to find another route.

Below the hall, built into the mountain itself, were warrens of rooms, each level's rooms smaller and set deeper than the one before; living quarters for servants, she supposed. There were precious few windows, and many corridors had been overgrown with vines or roots, and for a couple the walls had completely collapsed, so it took her time before she finally found a stair case that came up behind the gazebo in the garden.

The door to the chapel was half jammed closed – she had to wrench it open, planks of wood falling away as she did so. Inside was scattered with similarly shattered beams, half smashed pews, vines of some unknown plant twining around the statue and what looked like cast iron candle stands. She had to shove her way inside, leaving the door wide open behind her, stripping the vines away so she could look up at the statue. And felt...

Nothing.

Maybe she ought to try talking? She tussled with the possibility, then decided to go for it. Afterall, she could use someone to talk to, even if it was a statue. What possible harm could there be?

“Hi.” She immediately felt foolish. Behind her, a cloud rolled across the sun as the light through the doorway dimmed. What the hell did one say to a statue of a prophet for a deity that existed across two universes independently and she still wasn't sure existed?

“I-I'm sorry. For not talking to you before. I just...wasn't sure if you were real. Still, am not. I suppose.” Automatically, she was speaking Ferelden. Thedan god, Thedan language – it made sense to her. And gave her the chance to practise her language skills.

“I...I don't know what to say. Back home, people confess. I...don't know if you do that here. But even there, you do it to a priest, not a piece of stone.” She immediately felt bad. “A very well carved piece of stone,” she reassured it. “It's just...it's all tangled up. And I don't know how to untangle it. I did what I thought was best, and people are still angry, and I don't know what to do and I was hoping...”

She trailed off, then paused to consider what she was saying. “Vishante kaffas, this was a bad idea,” she muttered, turning to go.

Then froze.

It had not been a cloud rolling across the sun. Cullen was stood in the doorway staring at her with hard eyes.

“I-” she said, grasping for something, anything to say. Shit, was there anything she could say?

“Sorry,” she spluttered, eventually. “I...I'll get out of your way.”

He stepped to one side, as if to let her through, but as she moved forward as if to leave, he said, so quietly she nearly missed it. “How could you do it?”

Her heart sank, and she looked up at him in a silent question.

“Live among us,” he clarified, his gaze still hard. “Help us, work with us, try to build something greater than yourself, when all the time you knew-!” He broke off, his breathing carefully level, but given the way the muscles in his jaw and throat kept tensing, it was a real struggle for him not to yell at her.

She shrank back, unwilling to pass him when he was like this. He noticed. “I apologise,” he said, stiffly, after a moment. “This is unworthy of both of us.”

He turned to go and she felt a sudden desperation to say something. “I didn't know what else to do!”

He stopped and looked back at her, his gaze flat, his expression disbelieving.

“I didn't!” she protested. “At first... at first I couldn't really believe I was here. And I couldn't understand anyone. I couldn't speak, never mind I couldn't your speak language, I still can't write it. I...I thought about going to you. But I had no proof, and Leiliana would think I was a spy – still does! - Josephine would give way to Leiliana, and you-”

“And me?” he prompted when she paused.

She let out a breath, looking away. “I...I saw what happened in Kirkwall. I...I was scared, that all you'd hear is 'from another plane' and assume I was possessed. An abomination. A mage gone rogue who would have to be put down.” She met the eyes of the man in front of her, and thought about Cole, who had travelled here unharassed by any templars at all, and knew she'd been wrong in a lot of ways. “I...I am sorry for that. It was unfair of me. To think you would. But, but it's hard to trust that much in someone you've never met. When you might die trying to save them.”

His gaze didn't soften, not even a little bit.

“Thirty of my men are dead.” His voice was low and full of pain. “Forty more are injured, and some will not survive their wounds. Because you couldn't find it in yourself to speak.”

He turned to walk away, and for a second before Liz felt like sobbing, because something clicked into place in the back of her head.

Hold on a second.

“I'm sorry for the loss of their lives,” she called after him. He paused. “I'm sorry for those that were hurt, I'm sorry for their pain.” She pulled herself up, and glared at his back. “But I am not to blame for it.”

He turned to look at her, mouth open as if to argue and she stepped forward, speaking before he could. “Thirty lives is a tragedy, but it was not my doing.” She met his eyes and did not flinch. “I considered the alternatives, you know. I did think, even if you dislike I did not tell you beforehand. Had we withdrawn too early? Corypheus would have found Haven abandoned, would have rolled through it like a cart through a field, his army would have met our retreating backs on the road to Skyhold and we would have been slaughtered.”

He didn't look happy, he looked very much like he'd like to argue in fact, but there was nothing that could be said to that.

She stepped towards him. “Or we could have stood and fought, and what then? No matter our fortifications, the inquisition would never have been in a position to defend Haven from that army, Corypheus and an archdemon. The world at large would never have believed us if we appealed to them for assistance. We would have stood, ally-less against a force that was too strong for us, and we would have fallen.”

He frowned then and opened his mouth. She cut across him. “Yes, I could have told you. Yes we might have been able to do something, but the risk that my involvement would have changed things was too great to be calculated. As it was, things played out nearly as they would have done, only with far fewer deaths, and as payment for that, we nearly lost the inquisitor. And no matter what I did, or what I said, or what I told you, there would have been nothing to stop Corypheus coming over that hill with an army. That, and the lives lost from it, are not mine.”

He was still glaring at her. Still angry. Something inside her protested at the unfairness of it all – he wasn't this angry with Dorian!

Something inside her head fit together, like she'd just realised something.

He wasn't this angry with Dorian. Why not?

“What else is going on here?” she asked him, the words out of her mouth before she could check them.

He looked at her – it was a long, uncomfortable look, and there was still no softness or give in it – then silently turned and walked away, back into the hall.

She wanted to scream, so in frustration, she kicked a rock instead. It bounced off the bottom of the statue of Andraste. “Sorry,” she muttered to it, and turned to go back the way she'd come.

Chapter Text

She staggered back into the afternoon sunlight of the courtyard feeling like she'd been wrung out. She'd stood up for herself – and this was where it had got her?

“Things were better when they thought I was mute,” she muttered to herself irritably.

Her thoughts were interrupted by an armoured hand landing heavily on her shoulder, and she jumped, squeaking, then spun to find Krem.

“You're riding with us. We leave in ten minutes,” he informed her. His tone was rote, as if this should come as no surprise.

“What?” she managed thoroughly confused. “Riding out? Going where? It'll be sundown in a few hours, between going there and getting back, we barely have the time to go anywhere!”

The look he gave her suggested she was slow, or missing something. “We aren't coming back,” he told her, words spaced as if he thought she might have trouble understanding. “Not for a while – we've been posted to the Hinterlands.”

“What? Me? With-with you?!”

Now he looked slightly insulted. “Me and the chargers, yeah. You got a problem with that?”

“No!” Fuck, the last thing she needed to do was insult him. “But-but I need time- my things, I need to tell Dorian, unless he's coming with us!”

“No, he's been given a different assignment. And you've got,” he checked the sun. “Eight minutes. Or the chief will come and get you.” That last sounded like a threat. “Better run.”

She ran, hurtling up the stairs to the main keep, mind racing – where would Dorian be? And what the hell was going on?

Thankfully, Dorian met her halfway down the same staircase, travelling at about the same speed she'd been going up it.

“You're going!” he proclaimed at exactly the same time she said “They say I've got to go!”

Liz made a 'slow down' motion with her hands – weeks of pretending she was mute had apparently stuck her with a hard to break habit of gesticulating at everything. “You first,” she told him, catching her breath.

“You're being sent to the Hinterlands, with the Chargers. I'm off to the Storm Coast, with occasional visits to Denerim if they need me,” he snapped, looking out of sorts. “And they want us all on the move as soon as physically possible – Bull's said he'll take the Chargers and you out tonight, the crazy bastard!”

“Why?!” Liz cried. “What's going on?”

“Politics,” said Varric's voice from up the stairs, as he came down to join them. “The Inquisition isn't as well thought of as it needs to be. We got sympathy from the attack, but we allied with the mages, which did not make us popular, and in order to get the support that was needed, the Inquisitor and her diplomats mortgaged us to the hilt in terms of favours, expecting when we closed the breach everyone would be nice about letting us pay them back in time. But far from having time to do that, we got put under fire, and now we need even more support than ever to take down the crazy 'Vint with a power complex – no offense,” he added to Dorian who waved it away. “That, and they need an emptier castle than they've currently got to do repairs, so we're all getting sent to where ever we'll do the most good. I'm going with the boss, along with Cassandra and Solas.”

“I'm told Vivienne is being shipped back to Orlais to help unruffle feathers – she couldn't be more pleased,” Dorian put in, looking annoyed.

“Why me with the Chargers? And how long will this take?” Liz was trying desperately to keep up with everything, her head spinning – this was not how it had worked in game!

“Up to six months,” Dorian replied, looking grim.

“Six months!” Liz cried. She wanted to scream – six months? With only the Chargers? What the fuck was she going to do?

“Yes, but listen, that's not the important thing,” Dorian was looking over her shoulder with a worried frown, and when she checked, she could see Bull walking towards the bottom of the staircase. “I've gotten someone to put your pack in with the Charger's things, so you'll have that. You need to write to me. And you need to make friends.”

“What-make friends? How? Everyone hates me!”

Dorian rolled his eyes. “You managed it before, despite being not able to talk. So, whatever you did then, do it again. Only more this time.”

“And write letters – regular ones!” Varric put in.

“But-but I can't write!”

“Then learn,” snapped Dorian. Varric gave him a look.

“Yeah, because it's that easy to do. Shiny, write to me as well – anything. Anything at all. In your own language, send us dry leaves, lipstick kisses on parchment, I don't care, but send us something. At least once a week, d'you hear?”

“You have to,” Dorian's tone was uncharacteristically grim.

“Yes, all right,” Liz was trying very hard not to freak out, and their sudden and weird insistence on this was not helping. “Why is this so important?”

“Kid!” Bull's bellow from the bottom of the stairs was loud enough that everyone around stopped to stare.

“Go,” Dorian gave her a shove in his direction. “And don't forget – write us!”

Utterly confused and feeling quite shaken, she descended the stairs to a scowling qunari.

“Ready to go?” he asked. His tone suggested saying 'no' would be a bad idea.

“Y-yes,” Liz managed, trying to meet his eye and failing. He turned and walked towards where the Chargers had gathered beside the main gate with horses, pack ponies and a couple of wagons. Bull, lacking a horse that could carry his bulk she presumed, took the driver's seat on one of the wagons.

Dalish, holding a horse with a saddle and a bridle but no rider, waved her over. Liz went, still feeling vulnerable and confused.

“Can ye ride?” the elf asked without preamble.

“Er, sort of,” Liz admittedly. Dalish raised an eyebrow at her in a question, so she expanded. “I could once. A lot time ago. When I was...six.”

The elf sighed. “Well, we can't risk ya relearning while we're on mountain paths – fall off here, and we'll never find you again. Into the wagon with ye.”

Feeling glum, she climbed in, arranging herself on some sacks of what felt like grain. From her position she could see Dorian and Varric still on the stair case; they waved to her as the wagon turned a corner and they were gone from her sight.

She desperately wanted to cry. Had they still been in Haven, this would have been exactly the point at which she'd have snuck off to the loft or a copse of trees and bawled her eyes out. But surrounded by the Chargers and feeling so vulnerable, she didn't dare. So instead, she sat with her feet dangling out of the back of the wagon, staring out at the scenery and trying not to feel travel sick at going backwards.

They travelled across unfamiliar paths for several hours before, obviously at some signal from Bull or Krem, they drew to a halt and everyone set to pitching tents and setting up camp. Remembering Dorian's words about 'making friends', Liz pitched in where she could, but there really wasn't much for her to do; the group was obviously used to working together, and barely needed to talk while they were going it, cooperation second nature to them, so Liz ended up spending more time than anything dodging around and trying not to get in the way.

She was surprisingly tired when they sat down to eat, and she accepted a bowl of trail ration soup with gratitude. The meal was tasted wonderful to her – hot and savory with chunks of druffalo and hunks of bread – but the Chargers were obviously bored with it, because each of them got little 'additions' out of their own belt pouches to add – dried meats, fruits, nuts or cheeses seemed to be most common, and no small amount of bartering went on between each of them as they swapped and changed around, everyone appreciating the variety, although Skinner produced a tiny glass bottle full of some sort of sauce that everyone else claimed made food so spicy it was all but inedible – unsurprisingly, no one bartered with her.

Food eaten, clean up done, the group lapsed into the quiet of easy company. Grim produced a small flute and played easy tunes in a smooth key. Krem and Stitches played cards – from the sounds of things, they were wagering clean up duties. Bull sat watching over the game, but from the way he glanced around, she could tell he was checking up on what everyone was going. Given the number of times he glanced her way, that included her.

She, meanwhile was left alone, which given she wanted to think and was so tired she could barely keep her eyes open, she didn't object to. Trying to turn it around in her mind, she watched Bull watching the Chargers.

Why send her with him? They already knew what she was – there was no point putting her under the eye of someone who ferretted out secrets when she'd already told them all of hers. Dorian and Varric's entreaties to make friends and write to them also made little sense. It was like they were afraid she was going to-

Her brain stopped. Whirred. Stopped again.

No. No, she didn't want to consider that as a possibility.

But she did, and she could, and unwilling, she found herself staring at Bull in horror. He glanced up, and made an expression she would later interpret as 'smug', but right at that moment, she didn't know what to make of it.

“They sent me with you because they still aren't sure if they believe me – they still think I might be his spy.” The words fell out of her mouth without permission, harsh and uncensored, and Bull nodded.

Around them, all other conversation ceased.

“Knew you were a smart one,” he commented, his tone light.

Liz was still scrabbling to follow this chain of logic, this horrible, awful chain of logic, this chain she didn't want to be there, but there it was, and worse, she was dangling from it.

“Who decides if I am what I say I am?” The question was whispered, because she really didn't want to ask these questions, but knew she had to.

“I do,” Bull said, tone even and easy.

She swallowed. Please let her be wrong, please let her be wrong...

“And what happens if you decide I'm lying?” Her tongue felt too big for her mouth, the words clumsy, her voice disbelieving.

Krem snorted. “Isn't it obvious?” His tone suggested this entire conversation was obvious, and they were idiots for having it in the first place.

Bull ignored him, and answered in a tone as light and as kind hearted as if he'd been discussing a kitten they found on the roadside.

“We kill you.”

Fuck.

Chapter Text

She was so terrified by the revelation she didn't sleep that night.

Immediately after Bull had spoken, she'd turned so pale she thought she might pass out, and then had sat in silence as the others returned to their previous pursuits.

Kill her.

The words whirled around and around in her head. Paranoia dogged her, made her dizzy. She might be what she said she was, but what if she got something wrong? What if she gave an impression she didn't mean to give, what if a word she thought she'd learnt meant something else? What if, despite it being truth, she made them think it wasn't?

Then-

Then what would happen? How would he do it? Would he have her brought before him, Krem and Stitches, one with each arm dragging her, grim faced as she struggled and screamed her innocence until Bull brought his sword down on her neck? Or would she fall asleep to never wake up, Skinner having been sent to slide one of her blades through Liz's ribs while she was sound asleep, a strange sort of mercy, to not know her end was upon her? Or would it be some barbaric Qunari ritual, her allowed a head start as they charged behind her, hunting her like dogs hunted a fox, whoops and shrieks filling the air as they closed in.

She wasn't sure when her worries became the nightmares that chased her through what little rest she had, but she woke with a cry before dawn, much to the irritated grunt of her tent partner, a broad shouldered woman called Callie who wielded a greatsword with almost as much ease as Bull did and she'd never seen in the game.

She lay awake for the rest of the night, watching the sky lighten until there was movement outside the tent, and then she got up, scrambling out, hurrying to stack the campfire for breakfast, to fetch the water, to toss last night's ashes into the latrine.

Make friends, Dorian had said. Well, what she'd done to make friends the first time was keep quiet, to herself, and do whatever work needed to be done. Now, it took on a new fervour.

She barely spoke, but whenever they stopped, she was down off the wagon before anyone could say otherwise, fetching the water bucket and tankards to offer them around. She spoke to no one. She made eye contact with no one. She didn't laugh, didn't joke and didn't smile. When they made camp the next night, she pitched her and Callie's tent with previously unachieved speed, then set about unpacking the supplies they'd need. When she found a tear in the cover of the wagon, rather than relax with the others after supper, she spent her time mending it, straining her eyes in the dark, her fingers sore with numbness in the dark, clumsy around the bone needle and thick skein of wool which was all she could find to repair it with.

Even then, she didn't sleep, her terror keeping her awake and still and trying not to annoy Callie.

The next morning when she staggered out of the tent and started stacking the fire, Krem watched her for a minute from where he'd been sleeping under a wagon, then called her too him as he stood, slowly stretching out.

She walked over and waited, impatiently. She wanted to get back and keep working – it would only be good if she could have breakfast actually cooking by the time the others woke. Especially Bull.

“Did you sleep?” He sounded suspicious.

“Yes.” She mentally considered adding 'ser' to the end of that, but decided it could too easily sound like sarcasm.

He looked her up and down. “How much?”

She frowned. “Some,” she eventually managed.

He frowned at her, then waved her on. “Back to...whatever you were doing.”

She saw him talking to Dalish later, and didn't think a thing of it until the elf brought her horse around.

“What?” she stared at it, then at the woman. “I thought you said-”

“Well, it's levelling out a bit now,” Dalish retorted, apparently unwilling to take 'no' for an answer. “You'll be fine.”

With some misgivings, Liz mounted, and immediately felt unstable. Had it been this hard to sit upright as a child? She was sure it hadn't been – now whenever the bloody thing stepped, she felt like she was lurched from side to side, stopped only from tumbling off by the strength of her thighs. In the end, she gave up on holding the reins to wrap her hands around the horn of her saddle, her knuckles white with the strain.

But however much physical activity she'd done at Haven, it had not been adequate preparation for a day of being on horseback. After an hour, her thighs and calves felt like someone had pounded them with a tenderiser. By the time Stitches handed out the hard tack and jerky that was what passed for lunch, she was stifling a scream whenever her legs moved.

They called a halt early that evening, as apparently they'd found a camping spot too good to pass up. It took sheer effort for Liz to dismount, and when her feet hit the ground the pain was so severe she couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't do anything – she just stood with her head against the side of the saddle and wept as silently as she could, hoping no one saw her, but not having the strength to do anything about it.

Eventually, she wiped her cheeks on her sleeve managed to take several staggering steps away from the horse when Dalish appeared. “Ah ah,” she chided. “Ye need to take off his tack, curry him, an' then stake him out. See?” She gestured to everyone else who was in the process of doing all these things.

Teeth gritted, she did as directed, as Dalish showed her how to remove the bridle but leave a single lead rein, how to drive a peg into the ground to lash the lead rein to, to put out a buset with food and another with water, how to remove the saddle – so heavy Liz nearly fell over – how to tie the blanket in place to keep him warm up here in the rocky hills and then wrap the tack and put it neatly in the back of one of the wagons.

“And at least once a week,” the elf said brightly. “Ye'll need to go over everything with a good amount of oil – stops it cracking or getting dry.”

“Oh, is that all?” Liz muttered, the sarcasm escaping her before she could stop it, not having the energy to care.

She saw Bull watching them with an odd half smile, but could only focus on putting one foot in front of another to help Callie erect their tent before slumping in front of the fire to be handed food. God, she was exhausted.

She was therefore incredibly dismayed when, once food was finished, Bull got enthusiastically to his feet. “Ok, enough taking it easy – Chargers! Drill time!”

Krem motioned for her to join them. She didn't move at first, but eventually she got to her feet when it looked like he might come over and haul her up and had to pause once she had to catch her breath at the pain – not as bad as when she'd first gotten off the horse, but bad enough that walking was a daunting prospect.

“Are you joking?” she said to him, her voice flat with exhaustion. “I've never swung a sword in my life.”

“And that's why you're going to learn,” he replied. “Stitches! She's all yours!”

Liz looked up to where the healer was stood with two wooden swords and a grin.

Vashedan,” she muttered, simply because it seemed the most appropriate thing to say, and across where the rest of the chargers were gathering, she heard Bull snigger.

“Here,” Stitches offered her a sword. “No, not like that – hold the hilt like you're shaking hands with it.”

It began – first he showed her how to hold it, then how to set her feet. Then blocks. The four basic ones, two high and two low, over and over again, until she had the rhythm and her shoulders ached. Then faster, and she started missing, earning herself a bruise whenever she did, and soon she had them on both legs, both arms and her collar bone where she'd missed an overhand swing in a spectacular way.

Stitches was an incredibly patient teacher, never seeming to get frustrated when she missed, or when she couldn't remember, or when she had to hop around swearing after earning a new bruise, merely smiling and waiting for her to be done.

Eventually, long after the sun had gone down, Bull called a halt. Liz tried to be glad he'd done so, but was so tired she'd lost the ability to feel her feet. She didn't remember Stitches retrieving her practise sword, but he must have done so.

“Go to bed Shiny,” said Krem. Crap, she hadn't seen where he'd come from either.

“Yessir,” she muttered automatically, and turned to shuffle – all she could manage at the moment was shuffling, her legs had gone past pain and just morphed into some sort of throbbing mass – in the direction of her tent. She had just reached it and put her hand on the tent flap when the fact Krem had been smiling in a rather smug way finally reached her brain.

“Hey,” she said, turning. He looked up from where he was laying out her own bedroll. “You're doing all this so I'll be too tired to worry, so I'll sleep, aren't you?”

He grinned. “It's working, isn't it?”

She didn't have the energy to answer; she merely stared at him for a second, then knelt with a wince of pain to climb into her own bedroll.

It was only inside the tent that she admitted, yes, it really was.

She fell asleep so fast Callie had to pull the blanket up over her when she came in.

Chapter Text

The days fell into a routine. They travelled, then camped, ate and practised combat skills, and then if she was lucky, she remembered crawling into her bedroll.

For Liz, they passed in a blur of exhaustion. They rose earlier than dawn, and fell asleep long after sunset. She got used to the idea of constant pain and ache in her knees and her hips, bruises on her wrists and ribs from sparring with Stitches. The constant hunger, the cold wind biting at her fingers and nose. The lack of ability to bathe – she stunk when they were low on water, and when they weren't, she washed her top in cold water and wore it wet and thanked whatever deity was up there that she didn't get colds very easily.

Mindful of Dorian and Varric's warnings, she did it all without complaint, helping others where she could.

It might just have been her imagination, but it seemed to be helping.

Bull still didn't interact with her unless she cornered him, preferring to watch her with the Chargers. Privately, in her less exhausted moments, sat atop a horse and trying to keep her mind off how blue her fingernails had gone, she wondered if he used them like she'd use a barometer, taking readings every so often to see how she was getting on.

Krem, meanwhile, seemed to soften over time. He never went soft; to call him that would have been a mistake, the man was never soft. But he no longer stared at her challengingly whenever she asked him something as if it might be a trick. After the third day, she actually heard him start to joke with Bull again.

As if that was some sort of signal, the others started warming up to her as well.

Stitches, it turned out, was the most sarcastic man on the planet, but, unasked, he appeared at her side when she slid off her horse on the fourth day, and hitched her trousers up to peer at her knees.

“Do you mind?” she croaked, shocked past the pain, which, she was gratified to note, was not quite as great as it had been on day one.

He ignored her, feeling the joints of her knees and wincing in sympathy when she hissed as he touched a sore spot. “I've got a heating poultice for this,” he told her. “And you're to stay off your feet tonight, you hear me? And every evening, until this is more settled.”

The last was directed at Krem, who grunt. “S'fine,” the Tevinter replied. “We're practising battle movements tonight – she can yell when someone steps out of formation.”

He kept her to it as well, seating her on a crate with heated, herb smeared rocks tucked under each knee, watching as the Chargers formed a pack and then moved as one, over craggy ground, maintaining an outward perimeter, weapons on the outside forming a ring of steel.

Or, rather, that was what they were aiming for.
“Dalish” she murmured, the first time the elf got distracted and half stepped out of line in a way that would have given an enemy archer a wonderful shot.

“What?” yelled Krem. “Speak up, Off-worlder, for fuck's sake!”

“Dalish!” she yelled back, annoyed and taking Krem at his word.

“Damnit!” The elf looked put out, then grinned at Liz. “If you get caught out, you have to buy a round,” she explained, half yelling across the distance. “Normally the chief does it.”

“Yeah yeah – again.” Krem stepped in, ever the slave driver.

“Skinner!” Liz yelled a little while later, to be met with a string of curse words in several languages, none of which she knew.

“Rocky!” “Cal!”

“For fuck's sake!” Krem eventually threw his hands up in disbelief. “Was the Inquisition too much of a hayride for you fuckers? Have you gone soft? That's it, we're starting from scratch!”

From the chorus of groans that met this pronouncement, Liz took this to be a bad thing.

It was. Feeling relief she wasn't among them, she watched as Krem made them run drills, do push ups, sit up, squats, lunges, in rotation, double speed. Even Skinner, normally cool as ice in her sparring sessions, was red faced, sweating, and looked like she was about to make Krem eat one of her daggers if he yelled at her one more time. By the time everyone staggered to bed, they looked as wrung out as she was normally.

“Fuckin' 'Vint,” murmured Callie to her as they settled in to sleep.

“It looked hard,” Liz tried for sympathy.

Callie's expression softened. “It's for our own good really – stops deaths, or so many of them, and all that. Doesn't make it less than a pain in the arse though, and getting grumbled at is part of the job.” She winked at Liz. “Wouldn't do to go letting them off now, would it?”

She lay back and closed her eyes, and Liz went to sleep with the warm feeling of something like friendship glowing in her chest.

It took another four days before the scenery flattened out, the cold eased and sunlight shone through the clouds, and by that time, Stitches pronounced her fit to join in again. By which time, she'd learned some things.

Callie, try though she might, saw the good in everyone. Skinner saw the bad, but would drop an argument if Callie told her to. Stitches loved cards, but had the worst luck with them – he said he used up all his luck healing his patients. Liz liked his sentiment, but didn't let it stop her winning three days of choreless evenings off him and grinning like the Cheshire cat each time she revealed her winning hand.

Then the Krem, the bastard, joined the game and won everything, and Liz was staring at double tack cleaning duty for the next week.

Dalish, when she was in a good mood, sung elven lullabies, changing the tune to be jaunty and upbeat and would dance to her own song, even if she was in the saddle at the time. Rocky hated music, so sometimes when they were squabbling, she sung them at him, until he'd lose him temper and throw things at her. If he had nothing to hand, he'd throw his own boots, then clump after her to retrieve them again.

And they did squabble. Everyone in the Chargers did – it seemed to be their way of life. As the cold seeped out of the air, the life seemed to seep back into them, and Liz gradually got used to being woken by angry yelling first thing in the morning.

“Get off my head!” That was Stitches.

“But it's so fuzzy!” That was Krem, who seemed to have one purpose in life and it was to wind up the people he loved. And he did love them – it was clear to see, now she was used to them all, that this wasn't just a unit of fighters, and they didn't just see this as a job. As much as Liz suspected she could take a hot branding iron to each of them and they'd never admit it.

“Morning,” Callie muttered, emerging from her own bedroll. Liz could only grunt in reply – sometimes, she really missed coffee.

That evening, she joined in the formation practice for the first time. “Surely this is unnecessary?” she murmured to Rocky, who happened to be stood next to her.

He peered up at her from under his hood. “Nah,” he grinned. “What happens if a larger force ambushes us? Breaks a battle line? You're never going to be completely safe, and you'll never be such a fighter you'll end up on the front line. But you need to know where to stand if the tunnel floods.”

She blinked at him. “Tunnel?”

He waved her off. “Dwarven thing. You know what I mean. Now pay attention.”

She tried to. It was confusing, the press of bodies all trying to move together. She was fine for the first couple of tries, squashed in the middle with no weapon and trying to keep her attention on how everyone else was moving.

Then they gave her a sword, and it all went wrong. First she tucked it in her belt and ignored it, which earned her a slap to the back of the head from Stitches. “If you've got it, you use it,” he snapped, and chastened, she took it out again.

Then she got so worried about not stabbing her own side in the back accidentally, she forgot to watch the people to the right of her and ended up nearly splitting the group.

“You!” boomed Bull from his vantage point, smug smile in place.

Liz, not particularly happy with being reduced to a single article, ground her teeth and got back in place, only to somehow – she wasn't sure how – end up as part of the barrier around the unit on the next go.

“You!” Bull's call out was loud and unmistakable. Krem frowned at her, and Liz groaned and got back into position.

“You!” She half trod on Skinner and sent them both tumbling out of the group, and received an earful of curse words for her trouble.

“You!” She put her foot down a rabbit hole everyone else had somehow avoided.

“You!” She dropped her sword and narrowly missed relieving Grim of several toes.

“I have a name you know!” she snapped, eventually.

Bull grinned. “I know. But you've not asked me to use it.”

Liz jerked her head up and stared at him. Around her, she was aware everyone had paused to watch them, and had a fleeting thought that possibly this moment had more significance than she realised before annoyance chased it away.

“Hey Chief!” She glared at him, back straight, voice carrying. “My name is Liz - use it. Please.”

He grinned in something like approval. “Sure thing Liss.”

It would do. She turned back to get back in position and was slightly nonplussed when Callie clapped her on the shoulder.

“I don't know why you lot are so happy,” she muttered. “It's not like I have any money to buy you rounds with anyway.”

“True,” said Krem. “In which case...drop and give me fifty.”

Liz stared at him then, obediently, dropped. She didn't give him fifty though. She managed thirteen before she was reduced to lying wheezing face down in the dirt.

“Well, you can practise again tomorrow until you can give me fifty,” Krem told her in an unbearably smug fashion. “Chargers! Quiet in the camp in ten, suggest you're in your bedrolls unless you're on watch!”

“Ok, ok” Liz muttered, hauling herself to her feet. “I'm going.”

That night in bed, she tried to work out what the deal with the name had been, but couldn't think of anything before she felt sleep was imminent.

'I'll think on it in the morning' she decided, drifting off.

Only for her to be wakened by the sound of screaming.

Chapter Text

Her eyes snapped open, and she automatically scrabbled for the tent flap, trying to stand and falling through it to the outside instead, her legs still tangled in the blankets she hadn't undone from around herself, the sudden surge of adrenaline making her heart pound in her ears as she hit the ground with a 'thump!'

Another scream, and a pair of running feet shot past her vision – Liz looked up to see a civilian boy, who couldn't be much older than ten, splattered with blood rush past her, heading to who-knew-where.

“What-” she managed, freeing her legs and staggering to her feet. The tent behind her lay quiet; Callie had had sentry duty, when an arrow streaked after the boy, narrowly missing him and Liz too.

Yelping and covering her head with her arms, she crouched and looked around as the chaos became apparent; Krem and Rocky, each dressed only in bits of their armour, were at the front of the camp and battling three men who were pressing them hard; then she looked again, and reevaluated it to two men and a thing that had used to be a man, but now had red lyrium poking out all over him and resembled the hunch back of Notre Dame. She could see an enemy archer on the hill that took aim at Rocky, only for the arrow to bounce off his helm.

Around her more people crawled out of their tents, not bothering with armour or just slapping on a helmet if it was in reach, placing more emphasis on weapons and shields. Dalish's tent burst into flames when she didn't bother to exit it through the flap, instead burning her way out, fireballs flying from her fingers with a gesture as she groped for her staff.

“Chargers!” She spun – that was from Bull who was keeping another two back on the other side, on his own, she wasn't sure how, but no one should be capable of handling a sword that big as fast as he was – dual handed, he swung it side to side with as much ease as she'd swung a conductors batton. “Horns up!” His roar brought anyone who hadn't already been up out of their tents, the fabric structures falling like dominoes around her as the supporting ropes were knocked out of place as people raced into the fight.

Panicking, unable to think, not knowing what to do, Liz staggered backwards, trying to look everywhere at once and failing to so much as see the tangle of ropes at her feet, which caused her to stumble, yelping, hands up around her head as if she expected to be hit any second. What the fuck was she supposed to do?!

There was a yell and she spun, looking up to see a man in a templar's uniform towering over her, blade raised. She screamed and threw herself backwards and his sword hit the ground where she had been. She scrabbled backwards, gaining her feet but the ground unsteady beneath her, making swift retreat impossible. The man raised his sword again, stepping in for the killing blow when-

“Liss!” Skinner stepped in from the side as if she'd been there all along, as cool as if this were nothing more than another combat pracitse session, one, two, three neat stabs with the blade, into his chest, between the ribs with surprisingly little fuss – really, it was no more messy than carving a pumpkin, or sliding a knitting needle into a ball of yarn - and the man in front of her collapsed, gurgling blood, blinking blindly before his body trembled and then went horribly still.

She stared at his collapsed form, mind blank. He was dead. She'd just seen him die. Skinner had killed him – she felt like she was outside herself, looking down.

She'd never seen anyone die before.

“Liss!” the elf yelled again, and Liz snapped back to attention, feeling like she needed to vomit, an arrow spinning past her head causing a sudden screaming feeling in her head trying to tell her they were all going to die-

“The child!”

She turned – the boy was cowering near one of the downed tents, looking like a rabbit cornered by dogs. Bull was fighting mere feet away from him – it would only take one enemy getting past the Qunari to ensure the boy would die.

The pressure of another life hanging in the balance, one even more fragile than hers, let her push the screaming sensation away, for now. Darting between tents, she grabbed the boy, who cried out and fought against her grip seemingly on instinct. She ignored him when his blows fell off her with about as much impact as he might make on a locked door – was that the adrenaline or the months of hard labour, she wondered in a detatched fashion – and then picked him up body to run to one of the wagons that was still loaded with sacks of supplies. Two arrows slammed into the side of the wood, and she scuttled around, making sure they were on the opposite side of it to the archer.

She lifted him into the wagon, putting him in between two sacks of grain so he had even more cover from the high sides. He stopped fighting at stared at her, eyes wide in a blood and tear streaked face.

“Stay there and stay low,” she snapped, then realised that next to him was the small leather sack Stitches normally put his back up potions in. With trembling fingers she undid the clasps, and counted – one, two, three small potion bottles, the same colour as the one she remembered the Herald dumping own her throat back in Haven.

Swallowing, she picked the pouch up and slid the strap over her head, looking out at the fight around her.

As she did, she saw Krem drop the second of the two humans he'd been fighting – the first must have been killed when she wasn't looking – but the red lyrium creature swung at Rocky, hissing as the blow landed, and the dwarf stiffened and cried out, falling. The thing reared back for a second strike, but Krem slammed his shield into it's face, knocking it backwards.

Liz reacted on instinct, darting forward. Head buzzing with fear, she reached Rocky at about the same time as the creature lurched back to its feet, but Krem was there, between them.

“Get him clear!” he shouted over his shoulder, leveling his shield and preparing to charge again.

Liz, with a grunt, hefted him over her shoulder, and half stood, scuttling back towards the wagon. Against her, she felt a 'thud!' and Rocky's body jerked as she reached it – she threw them both behind the cover onto the ground, not caring she was skinning her knees and ripping her robe, flipping him over to see the extent of the damage..and realised she couldn't, as he now had an arrow shaft protruding from the back of one leg.

She swore, and heard a wail of fear from the child still in the wagon as a second arrow thunked into the wood of the wheel next to her.

“Dalish!” she all but screamed it.

“What?” The elf was across the fight, stood slightly back from Bull, staff twirling with acrobatic enthusiasm as if to a silent rhythm as she froze, paralysed and exploded anything within her range.

“Archer!” Liz pointed with a shaking hand towards the spot where the man was stood, her voice cracking with terror.

“Got it!” Without missing her beat once, Dalish spun, staff twirling, and the man who was so close to killing her died in a heartbeat, becoming an ice block before Liz had time to properly process what was going on.

Suddenly, magic seemed a lot more deadly than it otherwise had been.

Desperate to see if Rocky was still alive, she snapped the arrow shaft and turned him over, moaning in fear when she realised there was a huge rent in one side of his chest armour, through which she could see torn flesh and the white spikes of what might be bone, which was spewing blood at the moment, but as Liz watched, the flow was slowing...

Unable to think of anything else, she uncorked the first of the bottles, pried Rocky's mouth open and poured the contents in, then held his mouth shut and stroked his throat to make him swallow.

“Just like with the cat taking a pill,” she muttered. “Please don't die, please don't die...”

He swallowed, and she felt a shudder go through him, and when she checked the wound again, it was still raw and bloodied and open, but it was no longer bleeding, and his breathing was easier.

Grunting under the strain, she picked him up and wrestled him into the cart along with the boy, who was staring into the middle distance, shell shocked to everything around him.

She felt a brush of sympathy, turning to look out over what was their camp. Ruined tents were everywhere and a couple were on fire. She could see bodies, but none that she recognised. Bull and Dalish had finished everything where they'd been standing and were wading over to help Krem.

Stitches suddenly appeared beside her, causing her to jump and stifle a scream. He ignored her and focused solely on Rocky, hands and eyes checking his injuries.

“Serious,” he muttered. “But not fatal. Not anymore at least. Good thinking with the potion.”

“Nothing else I could do,” she replied, handing the pouch over and turning so the wagon was at her back and she could stare out behind them. The last thing she wanted after all this was to get charged from the rear while it was unguarded.

“Think we're mostly done,” Stitches added, and she could tell he was looking out over the fight, as she had done. “Considering they jumped us, think we got off lightly. Only one injured – could be far worse.”

She nodded shakily. “How did they jump us? I thought there were supposed to be...”

She trailed off, stomach sinking as she turned to stare at Stitches in horror. In the background she could hear Bull's roar of triumph as the last enemy fell. “Oh no,” Stitches said with the same tone dawning horror she had.

“Sentries!” Liz shot off, feet ahead of her brain, way ahead of it. Up the path, out of camp to the west, there, the little alcove on the right, that was where Callie was supposed to be on watch...

She could hear Stitches feet pounding the rock after hers, as she took in the patches of blood, the lack of movement. She was aware she was muttering 'no, no, please God, no,” under her breath in English, but didn't care.

She found Callie, lying on the floor not ten feet from where she'd been stationed. Her legs were lying limp, her entire lower half at an odd angle to the rest of her, eyes staring up at the sky and blinking furiously, mouth working but no sound coming out. There was blood around her, soaking the stone and the moss, so little blood for what should have added up to an entire person, it seemed too inadequate for what it was supposed to be.

STITCHES!” She screamed it despite knowing he was only footsteps behind her, despite knowing that there was nothing he could do here, that the way Callie was torn and twisted, realising the dark patches Liz could see sliding out from under her armour were not merely blood soaked fabric but exposed organs was nothing anyone could survive with any amount of potion...

“No, no, please, stay with me!” She dropped to her knees beside her, hands going to the woman's face because she had no idea of where else to put them.

Callie's eyes focused and found hers, and something like a smile twisted her face for a second before there was a gurgling noise, Callie blinked once more, and then her eyes went blank, focus sliding away and features going slack as her life slipped out of her.

Dead.

Chapter Text

They burned the body, the smoke pouring from the pyre stinging her eyes and making even more tears roll down her cheeks.

She couldn't quite remember the details of the immediate aftermath. She remembered hitting the floor, the ground hard on her elbows as she landed, when Stitches shoved her out of the way to get to Callie. She remembered Krem's quiet 'oh no' as he rounded the corner. She remembered the smile at their victory dropping from Bull's face in stages when he saw their little group, as if it took him that many seconds to grasp what was going on.

She remembered his vehement 'SHIT' almost hissed through clenched teeth when he finally understood.

She remembered Skinner's wail, disbelieving, outraged, heartbroken, begging the body in some language Liz didn't speak for something Liz didn't know but could guess. She remembered watching Rocky and Grim hold her as she fought, fists flailing at no one in particular, but more out of need to fight against the world, to reject reality violently, anything but to believe Callie was dead.

She remembered the troop as a whole slowing almost to a stop, as if their dead team mate insisted the rest of them lie still along with her.

Bull broke their camp almost single handedly, while Krem let Dalish weep on his shoulder, his own tears rolling impassively down his cheeks. She got up and helped the Qunari, not able to feel her hands but working automatically, mind whirring through a thousand things at once, unable to concentrate on any of them.

She'd known Callie a handful of days. Had only met her when the Chargers arrived a month ago. What right did she have to mourn over those loosing someone they had fought loved and lived beside for years?

They wrapped her in the remains of the tent Dalish had burned her way out of. Put her with a gentleness she could no longer feel in the back of a wagon, the child still cowering in another.

They found his family further down the road, or what was left of them. Bodies bloodied and broken. A woman who might have been his mother with a hole where her throat should have been. A man with half his head sliced away that might have been his father. A girl, younger than he was, lay like a broken doll on the outskirts of the clearing her family lay in, face down, arms and legs splayed as if she had been cut down while running away. There was an arrow through her stomach, and a blood trail behind her from where she'd dragged herself; it had taken her time to die.

Past them, they could see a veritable trail of destruction the lyrium addled templars had cut, annihilating everything they could lay their hands on. Mindless. Wanton. Barbaric.

The next village was close enough they reached it before the day's end. There was a chantry sister there - they gave her the boy, who was still blood covered, still mute, still staring in terror into the middle distance, locked in some nightmare that they hadn't the knowhow or the energy to break out of him. Seeing their grey faces and mournful expressions, a merchant said he had a store house that was empty - they could stay for a couple of days, if it would help them.

It would, and they did - the effort of not having to camp, of being out of the still-cold wind, made a difference. Even then, Bull, and later Krem, seemed to be everywhere, cooking, cleaning, chivvying people to wash and bathe. Bull and Skinner disappeared into a nearby wood for the morning before they burned her, and returned looking no different, but there was the steel of determination behind Skinner's eyes.

They built two pyres, one for the boy's family, one for Callie, carefully constructed with tunnels to channel the air, ensuring it would grow hot enough to burn through bone. They lit hers last. The smell was horrific, but they endured, stood in a silent circle around the flames, watching everything crumble to ash in the white heat, bearing witness to what she had been, and all she would never become.

Then, as one, the Chargers all turned to head back to the barn, and Liz stumbled along behind them, eyes still blurry with tears, her heart physically aching from the pain.

Inside, Krem broke out whiskey - or what smelt to Liz like whiskey - in small metal tumblers, and set the rest of that bottle and two more on a table in the centre of the room.

In silence, they all drank - some merely sipped. Skinner, Liz noted, barely touched hers. Krem almost slammed his back in the same way you would do tequila, then reached for a refill.

He'd barely taken a sip when a smile spread over his face and he laughed.

Liz stared at him, disbelieving. He was laughing?! How disrepectful-

She stopped mid-thought when she realised no one else, not even Skinner, had joined in her outrage. Rather, they were looking at him expectantly, the silence grown tense.

Krem, finally, spluttered "Do you remember? That time! With the chicken!"

It was like someone had let air back in the room again, and she could see smiles breaking out across the faces of the others.

Bull finished his shot, poured himself another with hasty motions, and sipped the second before replying "Yeah! The egg yolks! Over both eyes! Fuck, thought I'd piss myself!"

"That time in Orlais - that man who said he needed money to get home to a pregnant wife...and she believed him!"

"That time she punched you out Chief!"

"The prank she played with the flour!"

All around the room, people were slamming their first shots back and then joining in. Liz realised there was a strange rule here no one had explained.

One shot to mourn the dead, she thought, eyeing her own tumbler. The rest to celebrate them.

"-and I swear there will never be anyone, ever, who could skin a squirrel like she could!"

She understood it. Respected it even; the love that blazed from the faces of those around her was obvious, and in an odd way, she felt maybe, when the time came, that's how she'd like to be remembered; one shot of sadness. The rest spent while her loved ones wrapped themselves and each other in the joy, happiness and positive things she'd brought to their lives, even if she was now gone.

But this sudden merriment didn't go with the sinking feeling in her stomach, with how raw her own grief was, even if she had less right to that grief than those here.

Suddenly feeling sick and like she needed to sob, she quietly slipped from the room and through the door outside. In the melee of people rushing to refill their drinks, her movement wasn't noticed, she thought.

Outside, she buried her head in her hands, and wept.

She didn't even know what for, anymore. For Callie yes. Also for herself, for the life she'd left behind. For the realisation that people could, and did die here, it wasn't like the game where you could reset or you'd wake up after a fight. Because even if they were coming to accept her, she was tired. And alone. And she hadn't had a hug or someone smile at her or heard English in months. Because she was scared. Because she was terrified and trapped and out of options and a hundred other reasons besides.

"Never seen someone die before, hunh?"

She jumped, Bull's approach utterly silent. She nodded, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. "Sorry," she muttered, looking away from him.

"Hey now," he looked at her in a way she couldn't interpret. Then he sighed. "You're an odd one, you know that?"

It wasn't exactly what she'd call sympathy, but it was nice enough that she started sobbing again, great uncontrollable gasps. She didn't even have time to consider if she should get away, or excuse herself, or anything, before she felt Bulls' warm hands wrap around her arms and drag her into a hug, lifting her off her feet while he did so like she was a child.

"It's ok," He smelled like smoke and whiskey and carbon, like the smell of a chalkboard and roasted roots. He radiated heat, and his skin was tough enough it was a bit like crying into a horse, but she couldn't stop. His hand was gentle as it stroked her hair, and it wasn't until she'd managed to calm down slightly after several minutes of sobbing that she realised he was crooning, a deep noise from low in his chest, like a mother did with an upset baby.

Eventually, she sat back, wiping wet cheeks and flushed with shame for her outburst, but all cried out.

“You're....not even a little ok, are you?” He was looking her over with a concerned expression.

“Yeah,” she managed, voice hoarse and croaky. “Mostly.”

“Liar.”

She sniggered, unable to help herself. “Well, maybe I'm not. Would you be?”

She sighed, one hand scratching his chin. “Probably not. I'm guessing this isn't all about Callie?”

She shook her head. “I know...that makes me a horrible person. You're all grieving, and here I am-”

But he was shaking his head. “You need to get it out, you need to get it out. That's what I'm here for – keeping everyone up when it's all going to shit. The rest of them just don't cry on me quite that hard. Or hadn't you noticed the amount of fucking chasing I've been having to do to get people to eat?”

“I guess so.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

“So talk.” He nudged her with one elbow, and even the nudge was enough to nearly knock her off her feet.

She sighed and leaned back against the wall of the building. “I...feel alone. Like all the time. I still don't understand everything in your language, and I don't know all the social mores. I can't fight so I'm useless in fights, I'm terrified of violence; we don't have this sort of thing where I come from. I miss my home. I miss my family, my parents, my pets. I miss chocolate and sweets. I miss hot baths and clean clothes and shaving my legs. I miss feeling safe, and I'm so fucking tired of my life hanging in the balance for something which wasn't the best decision, but I didn't have any good choices I could have made in that situation, only bad ones. Dorian and Varric, and maybe Solas after we saved the Inquisitor together, are about the only ones who aren't angry with me, and Cullen is so angry he practically spits when he sees me-”

She hadn't realised but she'd been speeding up, her words coming faster and faster, everything she'd locked inside coming pouring out, as Bull simply sat and listened, his face nonchalent, until suddenly she was out of breath and had a thousand more things to say and at the same time, nothing else at all, because anything else would just be repetition, her mind racing while she struggled to pull air back into her lungs.

He patted her on the shoulder. “Dorian and Varric aren't the only ones. Or haven't you noticed the boys taking to you?”

“Sort of? Varric told me to make friends.”

“He's a smart one, that guy. He's right, and you've been doing good. The pitching in, the not complaining even when you're in pain, the training, the keeping your mouth shut most times, but having the balls to stand up to me when I don't use your name...they notice it all. Krem especially, because he's the one you've gotta impress.”

“Is that why he's been the one giving me orders?”

“Yeah. I may have the final say on what goes, but if I don't keep everyone happy, we wouldn't work together so well. Krem's good as an indicator for what everyone's generally feeling, you know? If he's not happy, they're not happy, and eventually, it's all gonna go to shit.”

She looked at him strangely. “Aren't you in charge though?”

He laughed. “Don't get me wrong, they'd die for me, but dying for me is one thing. Putting up with continually being treated like crap is another. And if I went foisting another team mate on them without checking they liked you? Holy shit. They'd be pissing in my coffee for months.”

She was staring at him. “Another...team mate? You're saying I'm a Charger?

“Don't get ahead of yourself! And not yet. But you will be.”

“But-”

“That's what she said, you know.”

Liz blinked. “Leiliana?”

Bull laughed. “No. Her.

“The Herald?!”

He nodded, expression thoughtful. “She's got a good brain between those pointed ears. Sees more than she lets on, reads people better than most would be comfortable with. No wonder she and Solas have been making goo goo eyes; he's probably the only one who can keep up with her. Only one who'll ever know the true reason why she's doing something, I think; she'll have three or four other perfectly plausible reasons she'll give you otherwise if you ask. Said that there would always be some people in the Inquisition who would be angry at you, and no one would be able to change that, so the best thing would be if you were included in another group, one that supported you and people would hesitate to mess with.”

“Which meant you.”

“Mostly. She figured it was win-win for her. Either you came with us, got accepted and came back a Charger, or you fucked up again, I killed you, and it was a problem off her hands. Either way, she comes out on top.”

Liz considered this, slightly taken aback that in the middle of all the chaos of Corypheus and an archdemon turning up, an Inquisition being founded and nearly freezing to death, the Herald had still somehow found time to think all this through in her head.

Bull must have read her expression, because he chuckled. “Yeah. I get the impression a lot of us are going to be making that face about Her Worship before this is over.

Liz considered this. “Then why was Cullen so angry? If she already had a plan for dealing with me?”

“Oh that? No. Longer story.”

She gave him a look and he held up his hands as if in surrender. “Ok, ok. So, when I first arrived, Red isn't so happy with the decision to take me on. Ben-Hassrath spy in the middle of her own camp? Think I trod on her toes a bit in a way Varric never did. So she hands me a list of people in the inquisition she thinks are dodgy and need checking out, as a way of 'proving myself', but we both knew she was testing me. You're on the list. Cullen finds out and argues against it, saying you've gone nothing to deserve it. He wins and you get taken off the list...and then later that afternoon, we catch you going for an unexplained stroll into wolf territory an all the red flags start flying. And it turns out you're up to something afterall. So I think that would be his professional pride getting snubbed there. He vouched you were ok. And you weren't.”

She stared at him. Cullen had vouched for her? Why? He'd barely known she existed!

“Why vouch for me?” She asked in the end.

He shrugged. “Beats me; you'd have to ask him.”

From inside, the noise was getting louder, and something that sounded like singing had started up. Bull smiled and straightened. “That's my cue to get back inside and join in on the drinking. Listen, Shiny – let it out a little, eh? You've done the stoic hard-worker thing. Broken the ice. That's good. Now they need to get to know you a little. Ask them questions. Hear their stories. Tell some of your own. Don't be afraid to talk.”

She nodded, mind still whirling.

“Come back in when you're ready. Do both them and you good to be part of this tonight.” She nodded again, and he smiled and disappeared inside, leaving her to try and calm the confused tangle that her thoughts had become.

Chapter Text

“Hey Krem?”

A muffled groan was all that answered her, so she poked the foot that was sticking out of the bed roll. “Krem!”

A sleep-creased face framed by tousled hair and bearing an 'I-will-KILL-you' expression emerged. “What?!”

She smiled innocently. “What was it like where you grew up?”

He stared at her, then threw a pillow at her head before going back to sleep, mumbling something about pain in the arse offworlders who didn't even have the decency to let a man suffer through a hang over properly.

She tried again later that afternoon, when he wasn't so hung over as they were loading the wagons together. This time he scratched his chin.

“Why the sudden interest?”

She shrugged – she could probably tell them Bull had told her to start asking, but it didn't seem right. “Well, I don't know, do I?”

“Not something your magic doohickey told you back where you're from?”

She shook her head. “Never got that far.”

He shrugged back. “Grew up in Tevinter. Parents are good people, but...yeah, not really equipped to handle someone like me, I guess. My father...think he always knew. Used to let me pretend to shave with him when I was little, when my mother wasn't looking. Then, as I got older, she got more and more uncomfortable when I kept wearing breeches, kept trying to arrange me a marriage to some nice local boy. Joined up. Got found out. Ran – got caught. Bull saved me. Ended up here.”

Liz was shaking her head. “Yeah...but that's not what I mean. I mean...what was it like?

Krem looked at her for a second, then half smiled. “You're a strange one, you know that?” he said eventually.

“Ok, so in the summer, we all used to wake before the dawn. Even if you aren't a farmer in Tevinter, unless you're a mage, you grow some food in your garden, you have goats for milk, hens for eggs, and they all need tending. Used to stumble out of doors still barefoot and in my night clothes to rummage around the hen house and find what had been laid that day – crafty little fuckers, hens, you know? If they could lay in a sneaky spot, they so would, sometimes I think just to piss me off. You've got to get them, or they go rotten and then stink to the fade and back. Used to crawl under the hutch, or through thorn bushes to get those.“

Out of the corner of her eye, Liz could see some of the others had drawn closer, were listening in.

“Then I had to milk the goats, and those... Well, goats, they're like cats, if you gave cats the intelligence of a really stupid dog, and about the same sort of ability to interact with humans and then made them goat size. If you've got something, they want to know what you're doing. But then if something else catches their attention, they want to know about that. Try to tie them in one place, and they'll just end up throttling themselves trying to get away. Imp-fucking-possible to handle. So, what I used to do, was take a piece of salt lick and jam it inbetween stones in the ground before I milked them. They'd spend the entire time stood there trying to work the salt lick out, and forget I was slowly filling a bucket. Worked better than anything. I'd give the lot to my mother and go and wash before breakfast, and by the time I came back, she'd have made pancakes out of them and we'd eat them with cream and honey and whatever berries we'd picked from the garden. Best fucking meal ever.”

He trailed off, smiling, lost in the memory, and Liz felt her heart twist for the young boy he'd been who would never go back to that time.

Then Krem noticed that she and the others had been watching him, and flushed. “All right you horrible lot! Back to work!”

They scattered to their jobs, grins exchanged.

That night when they made camp, she crawled into the tent she now shared with Krem and stared at the odd white rock left prominently on his bed roll. He, crawling in behind her, saw it, swore, grabbed it and backed out again.

“Dalish!” he yelled. The elf, who had obviously been waiting outside for a reaction, laughed and ran. “I'll salt lick you!”

“Baaaa Krem!” she called back, unrepentant and disappearing into the night. “Baaaaa!”

Two days later, she approached Stitches while they were sat around the camp fire. It was a wet and unpleasant night, and they'd tied oil skins into the tree branches overhead to give them over, and there seemed to be a general consensus that no one wanted to do more than low intensity sparring.

“Hey Stitches,” she opened with, and he looked up from where he was grinding herbs with focused intensity. “What was it like? During the Blight?”

He cocked his head at her. “Don't you know?”

She shook her head. “I followed the thread for the hero of Ferelden, not citizens.”

The man shrugged, his gaze returning to his pestle and mortar. “I was a simple labourer, then. Mostly worked dockside, helping unload the boats that used to come up the Drakon, but in winter, that work falls away, so you take what you can get. Digging out honey pits, repairing houses when it's too cold to do anything but patch them up; you name it. Winter's hard in the city as well as the country. Then the darkspawn hit the city and...”

He trailed away, and across the fire, Liz could see Bull watching them, his eye sharp.

“They weren't like a normal army,” Stitches said quietly. “I mean...the chance that Orlais would ever invade again to try and take Ferelden back was remote but Loghain was paranoid enough he saw to it we were prepared if that was the case. Multiple wells dug since we regained our independence, good solid foundations for the battlements, that sort of thing; Marric and then Cailan indulged him.

But a normal army, when they take a city, there's limits to what they'll do. They might poison a well or two, but they won't do all of them, or they'll have nothing to drink. They might take the food supplies and you'll go hungry, but they won't leave everyone to starve in the streets, or they'll have no one to serve them. Burn the odd house? Sure, but raze a city and there's no point in what you've marched for. But darkspawn... they don't care for any of that. I've never seen them have to eat or drink or sleep. They don't care if there's a roof over their head, a fire to warm their feet, wine in their bellies. They just kill, destroy, annihilate. Anything they can lay their hands on, whether it's a threat or not, whether it's valuable or not, they don't care. They just...destroy.”

Silence had fallen around them – she hadn't noticed when.

Stitches was staring at the fire. “There was this old granny, up on Cheap street. Used to feed the street urchins in exchange for 'work'.” He glanced at her. “Not really work, you understand – weeding her garden, painting the fence, running errands. Nothing she couldn't have done herself, but she was a good cook, and it took time off the kids' hands and filled their bellies. They had set up shelters for people in noble houses when it all went to hell – the nobles didn't half complain at that – but she wouldn't go, because all the kids didn't trust the militia, but they trusted her. City under siege, darkspawn everywhere, one house fill of children with one elderly woman. It was never going to be a good thing. A hurlock got in and tore the place up. I got there after they'd killed it, but there was no surgeons around, not even a midwife – they all just stood around gaping as these screaming kids and this woman with her belly torn open were bleeding out on the floor. Then more of them came in the door, and I just...reacted on instinct.”

He shrugged, then his gaze turned to her, as if seeking to change the topic.

“And you,” he said, and now everything really was quiet. “What are wars like where you're from?”

Liz wanted to groan. Naturally, she couldn't start off by talking about the wonders of the internet, or communication technology. No, the first question she'd get asked would be about war – but then, she supposed they were a band of mercenaries.

She thought for a minute. “Deadly,” she said at last. “We...we don't use swords or the like anymore, not unless the circumstances are really unusual. We've gotten...really good at killing each other. We use guns which are... Qunari black powder!” She had a moment of clarity, and watched Bull sit up straighter. “We learned, among other things, to put it in, erm, devices which are metal tubes?”

She was making no sense. Why had she not paid more attention in that engineering class they'd made her sit through in college?

“So,” she tried to sketch it in the air. “You have a strong metal barrel that can withstand the force of the explosion. You put the black powder at the bottom, put a small object to be the projectile on top of it, then light the powder, and it shoots the projectile out of the tube and into whatever you've pointed it at; if you get it right, it has enough force to tear through armour, flesh, even brick.”

She had everyone's attention now. She sighed and kept talking. “Or, those were the first designs. Now, most bullets – that's what the projectiles are called – come with the powder inside them, so you just have to tap them at the right angle, or heat them up and they go off.”

“So,” that was Krem. “If you get hit by one of these...”

“Armour?” Rocky asked, fascinated; she should have guessed he would be the second she mentioned blackpowder.

“Magic?” That was Dalish.

Liz pointed at Krem. “If you get hit by one of them, it's not good. At the very least, it's like someone's shot you with an arrow – it's made a hole, and depending on where that hole is, it's survivable or not. If you get hit by a big on though, it'll just go straight through you and might make a...very large hole. It could blow a limb off, you could die on impact. Like I say, we've gotten really good at killing, and they aren't even the worst of it.”

She pointed at Rocky. “We have some armour for it, but it's not brilliant. For starters, even if it works, it hurts to get shot – the force of the blow has to go somewhere. You might not have a bullet ripping up your insides, but it'll break bones. It doesn't work on your head or your limbs so much, because there isn't so much flesh to cushion it, and what armours you against bullets doesn't stop blades or the other way around. And if you get hit by something big enough, the armour's useless anyway.”

And finally, she turned to Dalish. “And we don't have magic. Not like here. Technology and machines, so advanced you can't see how they work sometimes, that's our magic.”

Dalish had her mouth open to ask more questions, she could see Rocky counting something on his finger tips, but Krem got there first.

“You said they aren't even the worst of it,” he put in, eyes sharp. “What is the worst of it?”

Bull, previously silent, nodded. “You said you don't have this sort of violence where you come from; can't be that bad surely?”

Stitches put in too. “You ever had anything like the Blight? I mean, a really big war? With stuff like this, you couldn't, right? I mean, a little squabble, nearly everyone dies, and it's all over, right? No one would fight past that?”

“I...” Liz swallowed hard. She did pay attention in history. She did know this. She wished she didn't. “I don't know your number...what's a thousand thousands?”

There was a low whistle. “A million.” That was Skinner, watching from just outside the circle of the campfire with hard eyes.

Liz shut her eyes and breathed hard. This was a distinctly uncomfortable topic. “We...there is still fighting. Where there's something powerful people want, or times are desperate. If you have money, you can live somewhere away from that sort of thing. Money, it lets you insulate against it.”

She could almost feel the guilt creeping over her. She'd made earth sound was like some pacifistic paradise, and now she stopped to think...it really wasn't. She was just one of the lucky ones, the ones born to enough wealth and privilege that the worst she'd ever personally been confronted with was a punch up in a club when things got heated. She didn't deal with violence and death and poverty on her doorstep, but just because it wasn't shoved in her face all day didn't mean it wasn't there, and that she'd unthinkingly voiced that that was the case made her feel like the worst kind of idiot. And it wasn't even like she had done anything to deserve the safety she lived in – she'd just been born in that position, the same way so many who lived with crime and poverty had been born in that position, yet somehow in her head she'd twisted it so neither of those things were pure chance, but rather, must have been the outcome of some nebulous action she and they had or hadn't taken.

Now she was distant from her home, sat with a group of people who had taken her in under duress and where she only had food in her stomach and clothes on her back out of the good will of others, somehow it was so much clearer that that viewpoint was a load of bullshit. She grew up and lived in safety because she was lucky. Others did not because they were unlucky, but that didn't mean she should accept that unfairness just because on this occasion she was the one on the up.

If she got home, she promised herself, when she got home, she was going to help do something about that. Something about living through a war, fighting monsters and narrowly avoiding dying suddenly made the idea of a little activism almost paltry by comparison.

Outloud, she made herself continue. “There are slums or poorer areas where crime, violent crime, is a real problem. There are countries where wars are still going on, horrible brutal wars, some of them for very good reason, but most that draw in innocent people who are just trying to live their lives. We don't have different races – no dwarves, or elves, or qunari – but we find plenty of other ways to pick on each other. Skin colour, religion, who you take to bed, how you take them, gender... wars and fights and violence have occurred over all of them. But, erm, but the one that effected my country the worst in living memory ended about 70 years ago – it effected my country, all the countries surrounding it, and a few others around the world as well. The main reason was because they were systematically killing people who followed a religion they disliked, but there was a bunch of tension between them already because there had been another war a few years before that was very bloody and ended badly.”

“What happened?” Bull was watching her with that unnerving spark of intelligence in his eyes.

Liz shrugged. “What happens with most wars: the ones doing the killing invaded other countries to do more killing. Others stood up to them, yet more allied with them. Eventually we got more allies on side than they did and pushed them back, and eventually the man who was the head of all the killing ended up killing himself in a bunker to avoid the shame of capture.”

There were nods from around the fire – this was apparently not unusual.

“And a million? That is how many died from this?” That was Skinner again. She saw winces on the faces around her. To these people, where cities numbered in the tens of thousands at most, that was an unimaginably large number.

She shook her head, chewing her bottom lip. “Towards the end of the war, one of our side's final acts before surrender was we dropped what's called a nuclear bomb,” she lapsed into English for the words. “On a strategically important city. That, on it's own, killed a hun-dred and fift-y thousand people.” She paused over the numbers, getting the words right, and there were inhalations from around her, along with a couple of people muttering 'what?!'

“Since then, a lot of countries, they have bombs like this, all pointed at each other. They're powerful enough that one may be able to wipe out the planet-”

“Wait, everyone?!” Krem interjected, looking horrified.

Liz nodded, unsteadily. This was possibly the worst possible light they could be hearing about her world in. But through the camaraderie she shared with them, the last thing she wanted to do was lie. “But there would be a gap between when we knew it had been shot and when it hit, so then everyone else would shoot theirs and...it means no one pushes anything too far, because if they did, they wouldn't win. It's just that everyone would lose.”

They were staring at her, horrified. Liz thought, with no small amount of ruefulness, that perhaps that was because her world, the world she'd been so proud of, turned out to actually be horrifying in many ways, when she had to stop and explain it.

“How many did that war kill?” Bull looked grim.

“Sixty million.”

Krem went pale. Dalish was just staring in horror with her mouth open. Even Bull looked a little peaky.

“Off worlder, don't take this the wrong way,” Stitches was also looking taken aback. “But I really, really hope we never meet another person from the same place you are.”

Liz thought about it for a moment. “Yeah,” she admitted. “I can get behind that.”

Chapter Text

The next day, the group rounded a corner and all of a sudden, from sparse and patchy ice-covered scrub land, the land in front of them was green and rolling and lush.

As if in collective awe, the Chargers all paused, taking it in, and Liz was suddenly aware that the air in her lungs no longer held the sharp edge of frost and cold; it was warm, like someone had abruptly turned on the switch called 'Spring'.

Bull stepped out ahead of them, then stopped, head thrown back and breathing deeply.

Then he turned, threw his arms open wide and with a delighted grin pronounced “Boys! Welcome to the Hinterlands!”

Liz could see Krem open his mouth to make some sort of smart arsed reply-

When there was a roar from the bushes to the right of Bull, and, with a animalistic howl, a lyrium laced Red Templar appeared and hurled itself at the Qunari.

That sort of set the tone, really.

 

“Go on, tell us some more,” Krem demanded, as he and Liz circled each other warily that evening in the shadows cast by the camp fire.

“What?” Liz asked, trying not to be too pleased with herself that she'd progressed enough in swordplay that circling was now part of the order of events, rather than her opponent just stepping in and trouncing her. “More what?”

She feinted and Krem not only didn't twitch, he actually rolled his eyes at her. “Things from your land. Or is it all wiping out entire nations and threatening to destroy the world?”

Liz poked her tongue out, and realised too late she'd closed her eyes as she did so – the flat of Krem's sword was laid next to her ear when she opened them; she'd not even heard him move.

“Sloppy,” he reprimanded her. “You owe me a tale.”

She sighed, thinking, then grinned. “We've walked on the moon.”

Krem stared at her. “What?”

She gestured to the sky where, sure enough, the moon hung in silent watch – it was half full. “Up there. That one. We've walked on ours.”

The Vint was still staring. “How?!” he eventually spluttered. “Did you build the world's biggest trebuchet? Make a magic sailing vessel?”

Liz smirked. “No – well, sort of, but not that you know it. It's like a submarine.”

“What's one of those when it's at home?” put in Dalish from the side lines, who had come to watch.

“Block and strike,” Krem told her and they fell into a rhythm she often found herself counting in her sleep nowadays. High strike, high block, left, block, mid, block, low, block. Repeat. She didn't need to think on it anymore.

“Big air tight metal containers that you can get to the bottom of the sea in,” she said in explanation, panting slightly – but only slightly, she realised with pride.

“You're all mad,” Krem said bluntly, picking up speed. Liz stayed with him. Strike, block, strike, block.

“No! There's interesting stuff down there, volcanoes and creatures unlike anything you've ever seen.”

“Are there creatures on the moon then?”

“No. It's just dead rock; there isn't even air. Well, not enough of it to breath. They had to take their own.”

“So why go?”

Liz shrugged and missed a block, earning a bruise on her arm. “Ouch! Because we want to know our place in the universe? Like you do here, only you have it easy; you have the fade to go exploring here if you want another world. We have nothing of the sort, so we go up. Only there's nothing there that we can find, not that will talk back.”

Krem paused, letting her rub at the spot he'd hit her. “Your world sounds like its lonely,” he said at last.

Liz cocked her head to one side. “You know, I think maybe we are.”

 

Her previous letters to Varric and Dorian had been nothing but a thumb print sent on scraps of parchment. This time, she felt like she ought to send more.

She had no idea what, and she still hadn't had time to ask anyone to teach her, so she paused over the quill in front of her – a great unwieldy thing made from the wingfeather of a goose Grim had shot down, not the neat little glass pen she'd spotted Josephine using back in Haven.

After several minutes of thought, eventually she gave up, and drew a big smiley face on each of them, then ended it with her habitual thumb print.

“Really?”enquired Stitches over her shoulder.

She shrugged. “Hey, I'm not lying.”

 

The Templars were like roaches, she decided. Big, ugly, unsanitary, and no matter how many got squished, there always seemed to be more. They left nothing behind them but death, destruction and disease, and more often than not, created crime even beyond their own behaviour, as displaced refugees all too often turned to banditry to fill their bellies when all other avenues had failed.

The only upside was she was getting good at knowing her place in a melee formation, and had stopped being the hindrance she once had been.

“Dalish, rock!” She called, spotting the elf about to step backwards into a spike of granite that would surely have tripped her. Meanwhile, she had a hand on each of Krem and Grim's backs to help them back up in unison away from the behemouth that was advancing on them.

“Chief!” Krem yelled over the din.

No sooner had he said it than the wrecking ball that was The Iron Bull appeared and slammed into the larger creature with enough momentum to send it staggering. Liz would have cheered, only Rocky skuttled in next to her, bleeding heavily from a deep gouge in his left arm and swearing a blue streak. She really would have to educate Dorian, she thought, digging through her belt pouch for the roll of bandages she knew was there...ah!

“Here,” it was with more enthusiasm than skill that she wrapped them around the wound, but it was tight enough to stop the bleeding, and in this mess, they couldn't be fussy.

“Better,” Rocky confirmed when she tied the ends off. “Duck!”

She did so instantly, knees hitting the floor with jarring force as the dwarf brought his hammer up over both their heads to catch the incoming sword blow. Liz rolled to the left, out of the way, as Rocky, in one smooth motion, shifted his grip, disengaged the hammer, and then swung in fast and low-

It impacted the templar's knee with a sickening crunch, and the creature howled and dropped to the floor, allowing Rocky to raise his weapon and bring it down again to one more crunch and stillness.

Blood splattered Liz's face, and she felt mildly ill, but wrestled her stomach under control and scrambled to her knees, staggering back into the middle of the group, making sure she kept a fighter on all sides of her – she'd long since learned that not leaving the enemy an opening had as much to do with her positioning as it did those holding the weapons.

Skinner shot past her to throw a knife at something she couldn't see but that shimmered into existence when the blade struck home. Then, in the strange way it seemed to be with fights, it was over, and stillness descended once more.

“Ok?” Krem looked around.

A dead man's blood on her face. Yet Liz nodded all the same.

 

“What is that?” They were spending a rare night inside walls – the walls of a ruined castle, certainly, but still, it was inside. Liz was watching Dalish work some new conjuring and hadn't been able to resist asking.

“What?”

“That...there! When the magic glows, there's that layer, between it and your skin, sort of. But it's only there sometimes – what is it?”

Dalish grinned. “That's my aura. Or that's what my keeper called it – no idea what the humans do. It keeps my magic from burning me.”

Liz leaned forward. “Explain?”

Dalish waved a hand and an easy fireball appeared. “You see, if I throw this at someone, it'll burn them. Theoretically, it should burn me. But your aura is part of your magic that surrounds you and dictates how fast you can cast. It's like dropped a stone into a pond; you have to give the water time to rush back into place before you can do it again. Too many spells are like too many stones; the water doesn't come back, and you can damage yourself. It's not only the strength of your power that's important – it's also the depth of your aura.”

“Hunh,” Liz watched, absorbing the information – that had never been mentioned in game.

The elf grinned. “Go on.”

“What?”

“I think Krem's got the right idea of it – tell me about your world then. Something good.”

Something good? Liz thought for a second, then grinned. “There's a lot to tell, but let's start with our healers.”

“Your healers?” She snorted. “What, they can raise the dead?”

“Sometimes,” Liz agreed, quietly gleeful at the way Dalish's eyebrows rose. “But only under certain circumstances. We don't have your magic, so we're stuck using the equivalent of herbs and roots, but we can still do more than you can here. We can save children who would have died at birth previously. If someone dies but their organs are still good and they match someone else who's ill, they can be transplanted to help them live longer. If someone accidentally slices off a hand or a foot, sometimes, we can put it back. We've eradicated many of the diseases that used to ravage the population, people now live to see a full century sometimes. We can see inside people's bodies with special, erm, picture frames, can view babies in their mother's bodies before they're born, clean people's blood when their kidneys fail, grow skin for burn victims in dishes, implant machines into people's heads to help people see or hear when they might otherwise not be able to-”

“Stop stop!” Dalish held up one hand, frowning. “You're making all this up!”

Liz shook her head, grinning. “I'm not! Truly! It's taken centuries and we still have things we can't cure, but honestly, I don't lie – we can do all those things.”

Dalish was grinning now too. Liz couldn't understand why until she turned and came nose to nose with Stitches. “Uh, hi?”

The healer's mouth twisted. “Stay there,” he said, and seated himself uncomfortably close to her. “Now. You said your people can do all that with herbs?”

“Ye-es?”

“I want to know how. Start talking.”

“Ah.”

By the time she went to bed, she could have sworn her throat was about to crack from dryness and Stitches headed to his own tent, a new appreciation for washing, hygiene and cleanliness dutifully instilled.

Chapter Text

The bandits would have broken her heart had they not been attacking them right at that moment.

She had a sword in her hand and was stood shoulder to shoulder with Grim, facing down opponents that would still be in school on her world. They were pale beneath the dirt, too skinny, eyes wide with fear and desperation, holding make-shift crude weapons in hands that shook.

Behind her on the other side of their defensive circle, she could hear Bull talking to one of them in a low soothing tone – the sort of thing you might use if you were trying to calm a frightened animal.

She figured she may as well try the same thing; it was hardly like Grim was going to.

“It's ok,” she told the one stood opposite her. “I know you're cold and you're hungry, but we can take you to the chantry – they'll feed you and clothe you and-”

“No listening to their lies!” It was half screeched by a man who emerged from the bushes behind them, an adult, but still just as under fed as the youngsters in front of her. “They'll split up our family, take you away from us! You know what to do!”

It was the staff in his hand that gave it away. Liz swore as the three across from them stepped forward, blades shaking all the harder.

Apostate. Apostate that would rather his family starved to death in the woods or murdered any that passed through rather than return to civilisation and risk imprisonment in a circle that no longer existed. If it had only effected him, she'd have all been in favour of it, but those they'd already killed and the starving people around her ready to take on a well armed mercenary company with nothing but desperation and lack of choice meant some part deep inside of her wasn't unhappy he would likely come out of this encounter dead or in chains.

The one nearest her swung and she blocked, the blade barely jarring in her hand, so little force was behind the blow.

“Stop this,” she told them desperately. “Please. You'll just get killed, there are other ways...”

He shook his head and swung again, but was several paces away from her so it was more making his point than anything else. Beside her, Grim grunted, blocking the two that had focused on him with obvious ease.

“I said fight!!

A surge of magic hit the area, and on instinct, Liz cried out and stepped back as it flooded her eyes, leaving her dazzled for a brief second. Then it faded-

There was the plucked noise of a released bow string, and the noise that is only made when an arrow sinks into flesh half a heart beat later from just behind her.

Liz half turned to see and saw Krem, falling to the floor with an arrow sprouting from his neck.

NO.

There was an inhuman howl from Bull, who barrelled forward, blocking Krem's fallen body with his own as Dalish grabbed Stitches and teleported across the battlefield. Movement in front of her caught her eye, and she turned to narrowly block a strike that came in from the one stood in front of her. His eyes were wide and terrified, and his movements were jerky, as if he wasn't in control of them-

“Stop!” she told him, blocking frantically.

He shook his head, sobbing now, but still he moved, still he swung, even as tears flowed from his eyes and he shouldn't have been able to see and it took several seconds before she realised what it was – he genuinely wasn't in control of his movement. The magic surge from the apostate hadn't effected the Chargers – it had effected their enemy, and was forcing them to fight.

“Dalish!” She cried, terrified – what was she supposed to do?! Rocks were at her feet and got worse behind her – she couldn't keep backing up, and she wasn't a good enough fighter to keep blocking him.

“Busy!” screamed Dalish from behind her, obviously still focused on Krem.

He swung, she blocked, swing, block, swing, block.

She realised what was happening half a second after it was too late. She'd fallen into the rhythm they had when they sparred. Block-strike-block-strike. His swing came in, she blocked it, and then automatically, her blade snapped out, moving as if of it's own accord, and his arm jerked, magic or conscious effort she couldn't tell, but he missed catching her blow-

Her blade flashed on and cut through his throat as if it wasn't even there.

He fell in a gurgled of blood and gore, his imminent death apparently breaking the spell, thrashing twice before going still. She recoiled, dropping her blade and clapping both hands over her mouth. What had she done?

There was a scream that cut off abruptly as Bull made it as far as the apostate and cleaved him in two, the blow going diagonally through his chest in a way that left him not as a man, but as a pile of broken rib bones and exposed vertebrae, internal organs gleaming wetly in the morning sun.

His death broke the spell and around them the bandits threw down their weapons and sank to their knees pleading for mercy.

They were as a one ignored, as the Chargers as a whole turned to where Stitches and Dalish were crouched over Krem, faces pale and blood smeared. Eventually, hands shaking, Stitches looked up.

“He'll live,” he announced. Liz almost collapsed in relief.

 

Stitches found her later sitting by the pile they'd made of the dead bandits.

“Hey,” he started, then stopped. “All torn up about your first kill, hunh?”

Liz sighed, and ran her hands through her hair. “Yes,” she said. “No. I'm all mixed up.”

The man settled himself on the floor next to her. “Spill it,” he said. “I've just talked Bull down over the fact Krem's going to be ok. It would be nice to comfort someone who isn't three times my size.”

Liz snickered dryly and then sighed. “I know I ought to feel bad. And I do – I really do. I hate that people are being forced to this, I hate that they were literally forced to this by magic even, even when they didn't want to. I hate someone had that much control over them. I hate that his last months of life were spent hungry, and cold, and afraid and scrabbling in the dirt to survive. I hate that he died alone and scared and in pain. I hate that he died at all. But...I'm not sad I killed him. I mean, I'm sad circumstances meant I had to kill him, but I'm not...second guessing myself. I know I had to do it. I couldn't keep blocking forever, I had nowhere left to back up to, he wasn't going to stop coming. So I killed him.”

Stitches was listening intently and nodded. Frustrated, Liz got up and paced.

“And...and I'd do it again! I would – given the choice between him and me, I chose me. Because that was the choice I had. And I didn't use to be the person that would chose me. I didn't use to be the person who would fight back. I used...I used to be the person who sat on her arse making bread for weeks, rather than risk telling a templar something weird. I...don't understand. If I'm not that person anymore, who am I? A person who kills people? I don't know if I want to be her if she is, but if that's the case, why don't I feel bad for killing him?!

Stitches was watching her with a wry smile and got to his feet to stand before her. “You are making this far, far too complicated,” he informed her, putting a hand on each of her shoulders. “Someone was going to kill you – you stopped them. It doesn't matter if they meant to kill you or not, they were still going to. Yes, you killed them, but you didn't have a choice. You didn't make them. You didn't put them in that position – but they were going to do it anyway. Don't feel bad - you are worth fighting for. You are worth killing to protect if it comes down to you or someone trying to kill you. That this time you did your own fighting and your own killing doesn't make it less true, or a bad person. And what you are is really, really simple.”

He smiled, lifted his hands and turned to walk away. Liz stared after him, confused. “Hey, wait! What does it make me?!”

He turned to throw a cheeky smile over his shoulder as he went. ”A Charger.”

 

When Stitches had said Krem would live, he hadn't been lying, but it became readily apparent that living was not the same as being 'ok'. At least, not immediately.

“Nicked the artery,” he told her later, when they loaded him onto a litter as gently as they knew how. “Dalish froze it shut before he lost too much blood, then I stitched it as fast as I could. But I don't know how well they're going to hold, and I don't want to open him up again in case of shock or,” he nodded towards her in an acknowledging manner. “Infection.”

No speaking. No sitting up. He was fed and watered through a straw that Stitches hovered over as he used, entreating him not to suck too hard in case he twisted his muscles in some way that meant the stitches came undone.

It left them slowly trundling towards the southern most point on their map where the Inquisitor had marked a camp. For a while there had been a debate about going to Redcliffe, but in the end, they'd decided against it.

“Too many people,” Bull had growled. “Too many risks. Too many well meaning idiots, or wanna be assassins. Too many healers thinking they know best, too many unknowns. Better to be just us, people we can trust.”

She had nodded along, and only later realised everyone, including herself, lumped her in with the 'us's. She guessed she really was a charger now.

It took them a fortnight to get there, travelling bone achingly slowly. It didn't take more than a few days for Krem to start looking thinner than he had been and for Stitches to start worrying.

Fortuitously, the next day, they passed through a stretch of forest where Liz spotted a man tapping trees for sap. A few coins and some sweet words, and she spent half a day being taught how to tap and what types of tree would give up the sweet, and more important, calorie filled liquid. They were travelling so slowly she was able to set up the taps in the evening, and then collect the outcome the following morning before catching up. Some liquid was fed straight to Krem. The rest she poured into shallow metal trays and left on warm embers overnight – come the morning, it would have evaporated down to a toffee like substance she could cut and wrap in waxed parchment and then boil in water when she needed more of the sweet liquid to give to Krem.

Fine, she told herself, it wouldn't ward off scurvy, but in the short term it gave Krem the energy he vitally needed to repair such a life threatening wound.

Eventually, they made it to the camp. It was a good one, surrounded on by high stone walls with only two ways in and out, which made it highly defensible by a small number of people.

And a small number of people would be all they had. Bull had taken her, Stitches and Dalish to one side that morning and informed them they'd be staying behind to look after Krem and guard the camp while everyone else went off to keep going the Inquisition's work.

“Shitty that one of us is hrut, but that doesn't mean we stop,” he told them. Dalish and Stitches had protested, loudly, but Liz had stayed silent – she knew there was no point keeping her with the main group, she was still more of a hindrance than a help in a fight.

Only Bull grabbed her and dragged her back when the other two, accepting orders but obviously not happy with them, stomped their way back into camp. “I'm not leaving you because you slow us down,” he told her.

She snorted, disbelieving and not caring it was rude. “Why not? I do.”

He shook his head. “You haven't got weeks now. You're level headed in a fight, you know your limits, you work hard – I'd take you if I could. But you're also the only one who can tap the sap for Krem, and you've got a good level head about you in fights – both Dalish and Stitches can get carried away. They need you here.”

Liz blinked at him for a second, his words sending a shock wave through her head. She was needed here? That was an odd sensation. Ever since she got to Thedas, she'd been put in places where she could do the least damage, not the most good.

The change was pleasant an made her stand a little straighter. Grinning, she opened her mouth to reply only to have her words cut off by an inhuman roar that came from the sky and was so loud it made her bones shake.

Bull screamed the word in jubliation before she could give voice to it, so staggered was she by the shock.

”DRAGON!”

Chapter Text

“Oh fuck,” Liz managed.

It happened fast. Bull's enthusiasm meant he barely communicated what he was about to do to anyone else before barrelling through the tunnel at the back of the camp, and the rest of them were left scrambling to catch up.

“We need to get you some armour,” Skinner muttered to Liz as they hurtled after him, Rocky, Dalish, Grim and Stitches behind them.

“If you've got some you can just produce” Liz snapped back, not bothering to curb her sarcasm. A dragon. A dragon. What the hell was Bull thinking?! They were not prepared to fight something that was effectively a biological fighter plane of fire, scales and death.

They rounded the corner and Liz's heart sank as she saw the huge creature swoop overhead, it's focus on them meaning it misjudged a turn and took out half a stone outcrop.

It didn't even flinch at the tonnes of rock and rubble it sent hurtling to the ground.

“Oh my god,” she muttered, swapping to English in her shock.

“Come on, the chief's going to get himself killed!” Stitches pushed past her and kept running.

Heart in her shoes, she followed, steps slowing. What were they doing?

They splashed through shallow pools of water, and into a...well, it was a bowl. From the undergrowth all around them, youngsters emerged from the bushes. Three had surrounded Bull.

With almost casual ease, he swung and removed the nearest one's head.

As if she knew, overhead the adult dragon gave an outraged scream. Liz looked up to watch her swoop in overhead, and land with a crash that shook the ground and knocked her off her feet.

She landed with a thunk, the wind knocked out of her. For a second, she wheezed, trying to draw breath, before her lungs finally started cooperating with her. She looked up to realise she was now surrounded by dragonlings as she struggled to her knees. Beyond them, she could see the others also getting to their feet, as the dragon towered above them, opening her mouth and inhaling-

“Oh. Fuck.” She dove for the floor again as the dragon spat a ball of fire over the top of them that sped through the air and crashed into a rock face behind Liz. She could feel the heat of it on her face as the burning ichor splattered everywhere, and she recoiled.

One of the dragonlings on her right took advantage of her terrified gasps to dart in, sharp teeth locking on her left wrist. She screamed, yanking back and dragging her arm free – a mistake, as the teeth shredded her flesh and pain lanced up her arm. The creature lunged forward again, jaws snapping. Panicked, she swung at it, blade catching it behind one ear and knocking it over.

Another darted in on her right. She stepped away and swung again – it got a thunk on the head, but dragon scales, even ones on immature dragons, were hard – she barely dented the scale, never mind doing any damage.

Height, she thought frantically. She needed height. She saw a slope of debris to her right, with a large rock at the top of it. Heart in her mouth, she shot over the dragonling that was still getting to its feet, and scrabbled up the slope, the blood on her hand making it slippery, the adrenaline having dulled the pain to an ache rather than the agony she was sure she was going to be in once the fight was over.

If the fight was over. Looking down, the dragonlings were now less of the problem – where she with speed and human cleverness could make it up the scree slope, their short, sharp claws were having less effect – none of them could make it more than halfway up before sliding back down again. She could breath for a second, tear a strip off her tunic and wrap it tightly around her left wrist, which was dripping blood in a worrying way, using her teeth and her still good hand to tie the knot.

Looking beyond the cluster of smaller creatures beneath her, she could look across the open space to where the others were fighting the dragon. Stitches was seeing to a nasty cut Grim had, hustling him out of the way, while Bull, Dalish and Skinner were still in the fight. Dalish's ice bolts weren't enough to freeze the dragon solid as they did with smaller enemies, but it was enough to encase a limb for a few seconds, to slow it down.

And that slowing was crucial for Skinner and Bull. Bull ducked in, sword swung with sheer power rather than any finesse, at the base of the creature's tail. It bit deep, crushing a scale and dark, thick dragon blood welled around it. The creature shrieked in pain, head snapping around and rear leg lifting to swipe at the Qunari, but Dalish's ice was there, holding it – it lasted less than a second before there was an awful cracking sound and the leg ripped free, from the looks of things, taking some of the scales with it, leaving patches of raw, vulnerable skin on the rear, but that second was enough for Bull to twirl, light footed and nimble in a way that belied his size, under the thing's abdomen and round to the other side. It was enough for Skinner to appear as if from nowhere in the melee of the fight, and lunge forward, daggers flashing in on the dragon's breast plate, from the blood that they were coated in, apparently finding their way around the scale.

Another ball of fire – not at Liz now, she was apparently no longer a concern, but rather it splattered over Bull, who she could see even from this distance grit his teeth and fight on even with the flames, until Dalish put them out with her ice, lightening sparking from her hands to dazzle the dragon as she did so, buying them precious seconds. That was all this fight was coming down to – the right second and knowing it was coming.

She glanced down – the dragonlings had lost focus on her, and were turned, watching the fight just as she was. That made her blink – she would have thought they'd either mindlessly keep trying to attack her, or focus on something else to kill. Instead they were clustered around the base of her rock, watching like anxious children watching-

She stopped, a horrible sinking feeling in her stomach.

Like children watching their mother die.

Bull landed a particularly effective blow on the dragon's front leg, and it screamed, going lame as the limb failed to hold its own weight. The dragonlings at the base cried as well, as if worried for it. With a hair raising cry, it took to the skies, circling once and then landing again on a nearby rock outcrop, as if it couldn't bear to fly any further.

“Wait,” Liz said through numb lips, mind flashing too fast to keep up, but one word was looming large in her mind.

Extinction.

This wasn't some fantasy video game anymore. There wouldn't be a respawn point around the corner. These were dragons. She thought of rhinos. Of elephants, and tigers, and sharks and whales and dodos. Of every creature that humanity had ever desired to possess or simply where they couldn't stand to not be the top of the food chain, and as a result, not just individual animals had died, but entire species.

Gone.

Wiped out. Never to return, and the unimaginable damage done to ecosystems as a whole with their absence.

How many dragons were left?

“Wait!” She said again, screamed it this time, scrambling down off her rock, but they couldn't hear her, they were running, charging up a narrow path that led them to the top and the injured creature. The dragonlings were running with her as she did, but ignored her – they only wanted to reach their dying parent, it would seem. Guilt gripped her – if these were the mindless killing machines that people liked to present them as, why weren't they attacking her?!

“No, no, no, no,” she cried, running as fast as she could. She hurtled over rocks and up the path, the dragonlings just behind her. Remembering the ease with which Bull had killed the first one – the dragon had only attacked when they'd killed one of her young, oh God, Maker, what were they doing?! - she stopped, frantically trying to bar the way. “Go back, go away!” she grabbed one that was trying to push around her by the scruff of the neck and shoved it back down the slope. It didn't even fight her, but simply looked at her in confusion. Two more slipped around her other side, and unthinkingly she put her other hand out to stop them, then yelped in pain with her injured wrist.

They ran on. Desperately, she grabbed a fallen bough from a tree and shoved it across the path. It wouldn't stop them, but it would slow them. “Go!” She screamed at them. “Go away, go!” She waved her arms and roared, but to animals that had been raised by a fire breathing monster, that only served as a dare, and two surged forward and trumpeted a challenge in return.

She couldn't do any more for them. Desperately, she turned and ran, up the path, the rocks slippery beneath her feet, first with damp, then with blood, lungs gasping, heart pounding as she staggered over the top of the slope.

“Stop!” It came out a whisper, because she had no breath to scream it with. She looked up-

Just in time to see Bull's blade fall and the huge creature go still.

“No,” she moaned, but it was drowned in Bull's roar of triumph.

Dalish turned, obviously surprised to see her. “Liz!” She looked delighted. “I thought you got stuck with the little ones – we'll come finish them off in a moment. Did you see? We did it!”

“What did it do?” Liz asked hollowly.

“What?” Dalish looked confused. “No, we did it – we killed it, do you see? Did you get knocked on the head?”

“NO!” Liz's sudden shout burst out of her, and Dalish jumped, staring at her. Bull and the others rounded from behind the mound of body, abruptly quiet and staring at her. “I said, what did it do?

“I don't know what you-”

“Had it been raiding villages?!” Liz snapped. “Destroying livestock, killing people? Because to me, it looks like it's been here a while,” she gestured to the piles of well chewed bone around the area. “Did it show up here and drive people from their homes? Eat children, terrify old ladies? Or are you telling me, we just killed an innocent creature because it had the audacity to attack us after we invaded its territory and killed its young?”

There was a moment of silence. Then, slowly, and in a tone of voice that suggested he was explaining something of great simplicity to a four year old, Bull spoke.

“It's. A. Dragon.”

Liz stared at him, then each of the others in turn, and they too returned a bewildered look, as if the notion of not killing something like this, something that could be a trophy, couldn't possibly occur to them.

“Right,” she said, eventually, too heartsick to argue, the word sounding like it was torn from her throat.

Blinking away tears, she turned to walk down the slope back towards camp.

Chapter Text

They left the next morning. Liz still hadn't said anything to them – she was too upset, and she didn't know how. She didn't have the vocabulary to talk to them about ecosystems and knock on effects in the environment. Or maybe she did, but right now, she just kept seeing the dragon's body in her mind, and hearing its screams, and trying to translate what she wanted to say in English into unfamiliar Ferelden was just not what she had energy for.

It didn't help that Bull, almost as if he was trying to prod her into actually verbalising something, had carried armfuls of the scales into camp the previous evening and loaded them into wagons for their departure. They'd had to wash the blood off in the stream when they were done.

Liz had turned her head away and gone to make sure Krem was alright.

Stitches was tentatively helping him sit up for the first time in a fortnight. “If you're here to watch him, I'll go help the others,” he told her, and disappeared in the direction of the wagons.

Liz sighed and looked at Krem. “Hungry?” she asked, holding up the goblet and the reed they used to let him drink the tree sap.

Krem gave her a flat look, then reached out and took the goblet and reed from her. She could practically hear what he wanted to say. I can't talk. I've still got arms.

“Sorry,” she muttered, and scarpered as soon as Stitches was back.

Now it was barely after dawn, and she'd strapped her sword to her back and had a sack full of sap sticks, as she'd taken to calling them – having eaten one, they tasted like a cross between maple syrup and toffee with an edge of smoke – and her tree taps and was walking, trying to find a new batch of the trees in question to put them in. It wasn't urgent – they probably had enough of the dried stuff to last Krem until he was back on at least solid food that was mushed up, rather than pure liquids, but it gave her something to do, and she wanted the walk.

Should she say something? The question loomed large in her mind. The enthusiasm Bull and the others had shown for what was, at its heart, pure bloody minded slaughter was extremely unnerving. Up until now, being a Charger had meant nothing more than protection, inclusion, hard work and companionship.

She supposed that there were far far more uncomfortable ways to be reminded that these were mercenaries she'd joined, that made their living – or had until relatively recently – by fighting for money. Sheer numbers meant there had to have been times when they killed people who didn't deserve it, weren't fighting, had been stabbed in the back by a friend. Mistakes were present in any job, it was just when your job was killing people, mistakes became so much more of a big deal.

A doctor probably had similar worries, she thought dourly. But at least the doctor had the moral salve that they were trying to save people, not kill them, even if mistakes meant people died all the same.

She sighed and leant against a tree – her wanderings had taken her to the top of one of the steep slopes that seemed to litter the Hinterlands, and she admired the view for a second, everything bright sunshine and green in the morning light, dew still glistening in some places where the rays were only just touching.

“Well,” she said out loud, leaning more of her weight against the tree and peering down – she was over the same canyon they'd killed the dragon in yesterday, but thankfully out of sight of where the body was lying, the numerous streams sparkling in the light, and not too far away, she could see what looked like some sort of dock. “At least it's pretty.”

There was a loud cracking sound.

“Wha-” she managed before the tree she'd been leaning on gave way, crashing down the slope. She wrenched herself back just as it did so, but not far enough-

She teetered on the edge, arms windmilling, trying with all her might to throw herself backwards. For a second it looked like she might succeed...then one of the rocks beneath her foot gave way.

She plunged forward, back hitting the slope, then rolling, she lost track of which direction, trying to form a ball with her body, arms up around her head, the world roiling around her until, what seemed like an eternity later, her descent slowed and she tumbled onto a soft grass slope, the wind knocked out of her.

For a second she lay, looking at the sky, trying to will breath back into her lungs. After eventually drawing a successful breath, she struggled to her elbows to sit up and look around, then immediately winced – she was bruised and battered all over, and had wrenched her shoulder by the looks of things. Trying to stand also made her yelp – her ankle was sore and disliked having to take weight, and her bandaged dragonling bite from yesterday had started weeping blood again.

Looking at the slope she'd just fallen down, she realised quickly it could have been a lot, lot worse. The tree that had fallen seconds before she had had cleared the large debris and rocks out of the way with the force of its fall. Looking at the broken branches and scraped up ground, she could have ended up impaled on a piece of wood or smashed a bone against a protruding rock had that not been the case.

She checked her bags – her tree taps were all empty – scattered as she fell, she presumed, it was a miracle one hadn't ended up sticking into her. But tightly wound bundle of sap sticks was still safely in her pouch – mostly, a handful had spilled out - so that was something.

Looking around for a stick to lean on to make her way back to camp, she could spot none in easy reach. She was just about to go looking for some in the bushes at the base of the slope when those same bushes rustled.

She froze, hand going slowly to her sword on her back only to realise it wasn't there any longer – she must have lost it in the fall.

Shit. Please go away, please be a fox, or a ram, or a duck, please-

A large dragonling appeared from the bushes.

“Oh fuck,” she gasped, staggering backwards as fast as her injured ankle would allow her.

It chirped at her, and charged. Fuck her ankle, she turned and fled, trying to push past the pain that lanced up her leg, the way her body screamed at her for subjecting it to such abuse. Thankfully, she didn't have to go far, the remains of the fallen tree were only a few feet away – she hurdled the trunk and then turned, trying to keep the tree between it and her.

Sure enough, it wasn't large enough to clamber over the trunk?

She was right, as it skidded to a halt, eyed the wood, and then tried shoving its head underneath it to get at her – it didn't fit, given its annoyed growling.

“Oh, shit” she breathed, for a second taking in what a precarious position she was in. She could have sworn Dalish had said they'd finished off all the dragonlings yesterday – they must have missed one.

She'd consider the irony of her issue with their killing of the dragon later, she decided, dodging to the right as it snapped at her over the top of the log. It missed her, but got her pouch with the sap sticks in it and yanked.

“Hey!” She yelled without thinking and yanked back, slamming its head into the tree trunk as she did so – it hadn't been prepared for its prey to fight back, so it connected with a hard 'Thunk!'

It backed off and hissed at her, letting the pouch – now in tatters - go and sap sticks tumbled out of it to scatter on the floor.

Liz swore and tried to scoop some up, only to realise that she was putting herself in danger the second she bent to grab them, as the dragonling jerked forward.

She shot back upright, trying to get out of the way, only to realise...

It wasn't going for her, but the sap sticks.

She stared at it for a second, as it completely ignored her in favour of the hand sized sweet chewy sticks, chewing them and gulping them down. When it was done with the handful it had, it continued to ignore her, instead rooting on the ground as if looking for more, it's head moving in a way that seemed oddly familiar.

Liz stared some more, utterly, utterly baffled.

“But you're a carnivore, you shouldn't have a sweet tooth,” she eventually said, stupidly and without thinking.

Out loud.

The creature's attention snapped back to her and she swore when it lunged again, this time going for her hand...

Her hand which still had sap sticks clutched in it, she realised.

“Hey!” She yelled, holding the hand above her head and shoving the other one forward, like you'd do with a dog that wouldn't stop jumping up. Later, she'd consider what a monumentally stupid thing this had been to do. Incredibly idiotic. Had it not worked as it had done, she would have been dead, or lost a hand. True nightmare fuel.

As it was, the dragonling reacted...well, not quite as a dog would, but it did take half a step back and make a chirping noise at her, head cocked to one side, wing buds slightly spread.

It was then that Liz noticed the bone structure, and worked out what it reminded her of. The curve of the neck, the way the head cocked back...it looked sort of like a crow, if you were to turn a crow into a dragon.

Corvids. She could actually hear her old biology teacher's voice inside her head. Crows, ravens, jackdaws and magpies are the most common. Incredibly intelligent animals, some of the most intelligent in the world. Highly social. Highly adaptable. There have even been some recorded cases of domesticated animals being able to hold basic conversation.

“Holy crap,” she breathed, staring at it. “You...are not stupid. And...” she looked around. “You're the only one left.”

She tossed it a sap stick. With a 'chirp!' of satisfaction, the dragonling dove for the stick, barely even chewing before swallowing and then resuming what was now obviously to Liz's eyes a begging position.

She stared at it, mind racing. It had large gold eyes, its scales a dark brown, but in the sunlight, there was an edge of gold to them. Given the parent they'd killed yesterday, this must be the camoflaged immature colouring, something that would later moult, maybe? Or did they keep the same scales and the colour just changed as they grew?

She tossed it another sap stick, and it dove for that as well. Could she get out from behind the log? How long would it take to reclassify her in its brain from 'food – should eat it' to 'provider of food – do not eat'?

“Hey,” she decided talking to it might be a good thing? At least it would get used to the sound of her voice. “So, who are you, little guy? Fuck, I hope you weren't the one who bit me yesterday.”

It looked at her oddly, then resumed begging...far too close to the log for her liking. “Back up,” she said, dangling a sap stick from her right hand, leaning out over the log, as if persuading it to retreat. “Go on-”

It jumped for her hand, jaws closing with a 'snap!' on where her fist had been a second ago. Liz shrieked and flung the sap stick as hard as she could.

The dragonling turned and charged over to where it landed, leaving Liz free for a second to clutch her chest and breath hard.

What was she doing?! It was still a wild animal – a deadly wild animal at that, as the bite marks on her wrist could attest to. This was a foolish endeavour – it was hardly going to be bribed out of its nature by a few sweets!

The dragonling, having collected the sap stick, was charging back to her, and skidded into position with its begging position.

“Ok,” she breathed, tossing it another one. She checked – how many more did she have left? About twenty.

Regardless of the bigger picture, she had to get out of this valley without getting eaten. The dragonling liked the sap sticks? Fine, she could work with that – she'd have to, to get out-

There was another rustle in the bushes, and Liz froze. Please god, not another one...

A ram stepped out, bleating and blinking stupidly in the sun. Liz relaxed a fraction.

The dragonling charged.

It was over so quickly Liz barely had time to breath – a rush of scales, the sheep turned to run, but the giant lizard grabbed it by its hind leg to drag it back, then the next bite was around its head. With brutal efficiency, it twisted. There was a loud snapping sound, and the bleating stopped.

Liz stared, frozen. Suddenly the fact she was still breathing seemed like far more of a miracle than it had thirty seconds ago. There was a loud tearing sound as the dragonling set about dismantling and eating a leg, attention now totally focused on its meal – apparently raw sheep was far more exciting than even sap sticks.

As quietly as she could, Liz turned and limped back to the camp, casting hesitant looks over her shoulder the whole way, but the dragonling didn't follow her.

Naturally, it was noticed when she limped back into camp from the opposite direction she had left it, covered in scrapes and bruises and lacking her weapon and pouches. Dalish stared while Stitches hurried over to check her. “What the hell happened?!” he demanded, rotating her shoulder as she hissed in pain.

“Tree gave way, I fell off a cliff,” she replied.

There was a moment when she paused. When she knew she should have said 'oh, and then I was attacked'. She should have told them about the dragonling, and where she last saw it. She should probably have pointed them in the direction she saw it, and let them kill it.

She couldn't bring herself to. Stitches sighed and hustled her in the direction of their tent, where Krem was already an invalid. “You need to get ice on that foot, and stay off it until at least tomorrow,” he chided her.

“Great,” she muttered, mind still somewhere else entirely.

Chapter Text

Krem grunted his annoyance at her. “I know, right?” Liz muttered, tossing and turning on her own blankets, the bruising all over her back and shoulders having well and truly bloomed and meaning there was no position she could find to lie in comfortably – she'd been unsettled and twitchy for a while. It had to be well past midnight.

“What happened?” The whisper was harsh, from a throat that hadn't been speaking for weeks. Liz jerked upright in surprise and sat upright, then regretted it when her wrenched muscles screamed at her.

“You aren't supposed to talk!” she managed, spluttering.

Krem gave her an unimpressed look, the moonlight filtering in through the cloth of the tent meaning she could just about make out his features well enough to recognise the scowl.

“Ok, ok,” she muttered, lying back down and staring at the ceiling. “I fell off a cliff.”

“...Don't get clever.”

She sighed. “Ok, fine. There was a dragon.”

She could almost hear his Well, I know that.

She sighed, wondering where to start. “Things...aren't great, in my world. With animals.”

“...is there anything your world is great at?”

The sarcasm was pure Krem, and it made her laugh and slap his arm. “Hey!” She had a sudden surge of tightness in her throat. She had missed him, his wry sense of humour, his cheeking Bull in a way no one else could, the way he'd wander into a conversation, make a joke, take charge, hand out orders and then wander out again. The relief from everyone when he wasn't going to die had been palpable, but it wasn't until he'd spoken that she'd realised how much she'd felt his absence while he recovered. If she hadn't been worried about jostling his stitches, she'd have hugged him.

She could hear his harsh breathing staccato, which she took as him laughing, or as close as he could get without stressing his throat. “We have plenty of things we're great at, thank you! We...we can fly, we can talk to people on the other side of the world, we have art and beauty that you just can't physically achieve here-”

She felt his hands, gentle on her shoulder, patting in a way that she was sure was meant to be a mixture of comforting and patronising.

They giggled for a few seconds, and then, feeling better, Liz started again.

“We've expanded. We have a lot more people than you do. We need more space for farms to feed them all, more places to live, more roads to get from one place to another. And we also need to mine for minerals to make the things that let us fly and talk and so on. So that means there's less wild space. Less room for things that aren't humans to live. So...we have an endangered list.”

She didn't know the Ferelden word for 'endangered' so she used English instead. She could hear his question in the dark. “Endangered means...there aren't many of them left. It means we've nearly killed them all. It means that if we don't change something, we will kill them all, and then there will be no more at all, ever. And that is really bad – most things we wipe out, they tend to be other large predators. Things that don't normally hunt humans, but when the humans get too close to their territory, they don't mind adding us to the menu. Only once they're gone, it's only then we realise how important they were to the whole system of nature. Predators like that normally fill an important function in controlling the population of everything they eat. Without them there, that population can get out of hand, and then we're left not knowing what to do. It's all a horrible mess and there are some things that are gone and never coming back because we didn't know what we were doing.”

Silence. She could hear his thoughts whirring.

“Your dragons are like that,” she said, quietly. “Big scary predators, but that one, at least, wasn't doing anything wrong. Humans had moved into its territory, not the other way around. And we killed it anyway. Because it was there. And what will happen when the dragons are gone?”

More silence. Then, in a low croaky voice “You know...if we hadn't killed it, someone else would have.”

“Not easily,” Liz retorted. “We're good at what we do, and Bull's made his living this way because there aren't many other troops as good as us – you told me that. Maybe they'd have killed it anyway, but it would have taken more of them to do it, maybe some would have died, maybe enough of them would have done that the next time a rumour went around saying a dragon was 'causing trouble', they'd look at it and tell the damned idiot humans to stop going into its territory, rather than slaughtering it.”

She stopped, thinking, then sighed. “No, you're right, that wouldn't happen, not for most people. Dragon slaying is too much of a mark of...well, something. Dickishness if you ask me.” Krem snort-giggled again. “But everyone else thinks it means honour, or prowess in battle. As long as that belief was there, they'd still go after them. And the more people get killed by them, the more it'll reinforce it...”

She trailed off and sighed again. Krem said nothing. Instead they lay in silence, Liz staring at the ceiling.

“You still have animals where you come from though, right?” Krem eventually asked.

“Yes, of course we do. They're just mostly those, we, y'know, eat.”

He must have heard the depression in her voice, because – awkwardly so he didn't jostle his throat, he reached over in the darkness and patted her on the shoulder before ruffling her hair. Liz squashed a sudden and odd urge to curl into him.

“I know. Thanks Krem.”

He didn't answer.

It was a long time before sleep took her.

 

The next morning, she left camp again – not the same route she had taken, this time she circled around in the opposite direction to the one the dragon's lair lay in, the handful of taps they'd had left tucked in one pocket, and armour on her back, at Skinner's scowling insistence. She just wanted the space and the time to think.

Something about what Krem had said was stuck in the back of her mind.

You still have animals...

They did. They really did, it wasn't like they were rare. But which animals did they have?

Cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks...things that they could eat. Dogs, cats, rats, rabbits...things that served humanity, even if it was just in a companionship sense. Before the car was invented, horses, donkeys, asses and oxen too.

Domestication? Could she domesticate a dragon?

She racked her brains for any examples she could think of where humanity successfully domesticated a predator that was bigger than they were and was having trouble coming up with answers. Big cats were the closest she could think of, and 'tame' lions or tigers weren't exactly the sort of thing you'd trust to leave a child with, more things you patted gently and hoped got bored and wandered off before eating you. In terms of large herbivores that had been used, there was elephants, she supposed? But even then, you occasionally saw news stories about them going on a rampage and crushing people to death.

Not hopeful. But then, dragons were probably more intelligent than either big cats or elephants, or so she thought. What was intelligent?

Apes? They'd been taught basic sign language, although they were stuck at about the age of a 7 year old human. But that was because they practically were human. She needed something less like them, and more alien.

Dolphins? Whales? Dolphins could be trained and had never hurt anyone, as far as she could remember. Orca whales had also been trained, but there had been issues with them. But then, there were also issues with orcas and then being treated humanely; she supposed if you kept any reasonably intelligent creature in the equivalent of a bathtub for all its life, you ought to just be grateful if all they did was kill a few people who kept trying to teach them ball tricks, rather than growing thumbs out of spite and using them to steal machine guns and mow down crowds of humans.

It also meant, perhaps, it wasn't an idea that was totally useless. It just meant she had to work out how on earth you would domesticate a dragon.

She had no idea. She had no idea how the hell she'd even find the dragonling in question either, other than trying to circle around and hope it hadn't gotten itself killed by a bear in the meantime. And wasn't hungry for human. And still liked sap sticks. And-

There were an awful lot of 'and's in that sentence.

The bushes rustled, and she spun, drawing her sword, only to relax when a ram emerged from them into the sunny grove she was stood in, looking at her oddly. She sighed and relaxed.

There was a second rustling, then a rush of scales and claws and, with a harsh bleet and a spray of blood, the ram was dead and the dragonling from yesterday was stood in the sunspot, most of a dead goat lolling from its mouth like a dog with a chew toy.

She stumbled backwards. “What the fuck-!” she managed to yell.

The dragonling, in contrast, seemed to recognise her, and leaped forward. She backed up as rapidly as she could until her shoulders hit a tree behind her with a thunk. She had a split second to wonder if she ought to scrabble at the lower branches to try and get out of its reach, but before she could decide whether to jump or die on her feet, it skidded to a halt in front of her, head tipped back, mouth open, wing buds spread, and doing the odd foot-to-foot dance that she was starting to associate with excited begging.

“You-”

It whined and hustled closer, jaws still gaping open.

Hurriedly, she dug in her pocket and produced one of her few remaining sap sticks and tossed it to it.

It snapped, chewing, then swallowing before resuming begging.

'May as well try it...' Liz thought, 'it's not like I have many sap sticks left.'

“You have a whole goat left!” she proclaimed out loud and pointed at the goat. “Go eat that!”

The dragonling looked around over its shoulder back at its kill, then up at her again, and whined.

Social animals, she told herself. He's probably lonely.

She didn't believe it, not totally, but it made things easier.

“Go on, I...look! I'm coming with you!” She pushed off from the tree and took a brave step forward, trying to ignore the fact her knees were shaking. “Go!”

He whined again, but now turned, as if to walk with her, head cocked up at her, looking like an extremely attentive scaly dog.

Ignoring the fact that she'd never in her life seen a dog as big as he was.

“Go!” She made a lunging motion towards the dead ram, as if she was going to get there first.

That did it, he broke and ran, grabbing the meat in its jaws before returning to her and then sitting at her feet to eat it, half an eye remaining on her as if to ensure she couldn't disappear.

She stared at it, then sighed.

“You and I,” she told it. “Are going to get into so much trouble. And it's probably a bad thing I know this...and I'm going to do it anyway.”

Chapter Text

The first thing she tried was to get him – she had decided he was a 'him', for no reason in particular; it just seemed to fit – to learn was to sit on command.

The dog training shows she remembered involved getting the dog interested in a treat, then lifting it so to keep their attention on the treat, they automatically lifted their head and lowered their back end.

Of course, no dog she'd ever seen trained on one of those programs had been a Leonburger on steroids and growth hormone, which is about the size the dragonling was.

By the third time she'd had to drop a sap stick and retreat at speed, she downgraded her ambition, and decided the first thing she actually needed to do was get him to take a treat from her without sinking his teeth into her arm. The armour she was wearing at the moment was nothing more than thickened leather, but Skinner had insisted she pack metal gauntlets in her bag before she left. She unpacked them and put them on, before taking another treat and holding it out over his head.

This time when the dragonling jumped for her hand, she didn't allow herself to pull away, but rather let him seize her fist in his mouth.

It did hurt – it was like having her hand squeezed by a giant vice - but it wasn't unbearable, and after several seconds of squeezing, he let go and dropped back to all fours, looking confused at the lack of sweet chewy treat his action had failed to product.

Taking a deep breath, she opened her hand to show him the treat and then closed it again, before raising it and saying, in a loud, firm voice. “Sit!”

It took three more attempts at him chewing it out of her hand, but eventually, he grasped the concept. Grinning like an idiot, she fed him a sap stick with one hand and scratched him behind his skull ridges with the other. “Good boy!” she praised loudly. “What a good boy!”

He responded with the odd foot-to-foot dance thing, and begging for more sap sticks.

He followed her for the rest of the morning as she found more sap trees and set up taps and buckets, in between periodically stopping, redonning the gauntlets and getting him to sit. By the end of the afternoon, she'd say he was responding to the command more times than he wasn't. He also ate another goat and a duck, with a fox narrowly missing being added to the the menu, and when he dozed off in a sunspot on a rock, scaled belly bulging as a result of his gorging, she took the opportunity to sneak back to camp, taking the gauntlets off and stuffing them in her pack before anyone could notice the new scratch marks on them and ask what happened.

Thankfully, no one remarked on her absence – Stitches was helping Krem sit up for the first time in more than a fortnight, with Dalish dancing nervous attendance on the pair of them, ready to step in and slap an ice spell in place should the strain prove too much.

It didn't, and Krem, voice still low and croaky and cut off on occasion by Stitches if he tried to say too much at once, sat around the camp fire with them that night for a few hours, while they told jokes and each treated themselves to a mug of ale and generally enjoyed the fact he was in their company again, even if his contributions to the conversation were, at the moment, limited to wheezing insults on occasion, and he had to retire to bed after only an hour, the strain of being up doing funny things to his body.

The second morning the dragonling was waiting for her as she crested the rise that marked the beginning of the copse where she'd left most of the taps from yesterday. He greeted her by chirping loudly and rushing to her. She dug one gauntleted hand in her bag for a sap stick in anticipation of his begging, and was somewhat surprised when he didn't – instead, he skidded to a halt inches from her leg, and then, solidly, thumped his head against her hip.

She stared down at him. He chirped again, did it a second time, and then...threw his head back, and begged.

She laughed. “Right. Good to see you too. Sit!” He did so immediately. She gave him a stick and scratched his brow ridges, earning a chirping purr that reminded her of a cat, and the impression was doubled when he twisted his head against her hand, letting her get at the itchy spots. “Clever boy! Like that hunh?”

A rabbit, shooting out of the undergrowth, distracted him and he set off in hot pursuit, Liz left watching and for a moment reflecting that it was a good thing he was feeding himself, because there was no way she would have been able to.

Letting him go, she set off to check her buckets, most of which were gratifyingly heavy when she emptied them into her own container. She had done three when he reappeared, thumping her hip with his head again in greeting.

“Is that a dragon thing now?” She asked, looking down at him. He begged again in response to her stare, but, taking a chance, Liz instead knelt and scratched behind his head again, to which he preened against her hands. “Ok, scritches are an acceptable substitute for sap sticks, that's good.”

She stood and went back to work, and, thankfully, he seemed curious enough about what she was doing that he was content to simply trail her steps and watch, head cocked to one side. She tried to talk as she went, to get him used to her voice, but rapidly ran out of things to say, so instead tried to take more regular breaks to get him to sit, treat him, and get him used to her hands.

“You,” she eventually announced after she was done and had sat to drink from her water skin. He was happily sleeping at the base of the hill in a sun spot. “Need a name.”

He ignored her.

“There's...erm, fuck, what is there? Smaug? Possibly not, given you aren't living under a mountain on a pile of stolen gold. Jabberwock?”

He snored.

“No again then. Maybe we ought to avoid names that come from bad dragons – don't want you getting any ideas. Er, that leaves...what? Eragon?”

Another snore, punctuated by a snort.

“Yeah, I didn't think so either. Oh, damnit, Toothless? That wouldn't fit at all. William? Hopefully you won't be the last male left of your kind. I don't know what else-”

He snored, and turned over.

She stared at him for a second, something rattling in the back of her brain.

“...Draco?” The name came slowly. “I mean, it's unimaginative, but let's face it, no one can hate a dragon voiced by Sean Connery.”

There was no response.

She smiled at her own stupidity. “Draco then. Afterall, it's not like you're going to care one way or another.”

She got up, put the water skin away and, gingerly in case he woke and snapped, patted him on the side. He didn't stir. She smiled as she left.

 

She fell into a routine. She rose before dawn to work out with Stitches and Dalish, trying not to disturb Krem. Then she packed her things and headed out to 'check the taps' – Krem was now onto solid, if very well cooked and mushed up, food, but no one questioned her continued production of the sap sticks; it turned out both Dalish and Krem had a serious weakness for sweet things, and she'd even caught Stitches sucking on one when he didn't realise anyone was looking. In a camp where they were stuck without most of their comrades, limited rations besides what they caught themselves and little to amuse themselves with, anything that provided some diversion and got one of them out of camp was a welcome thing. Even if it was something as minor as sweets.

In the afternoons she lent a hand to whoever needed her. In the absence of anything else to do now Krem was out of danger, Stitches spent his time manufacturing as many healing potions as he could lay his hands on ingredients for, sparring with her, and occasionally trying to teach her the basics of how to write in Ferelden.

Krem was barely up and around, but sometimes Liz would help him walk, slowly, so slowly, around camp, trying to keep up bluster and make jokes when the first time he tried it, he ended the circuit pale and sweating and Stitches snapped at both of them to sit down and rest, for fuck's sake. Liz steered him towards a box to sit on, post haste, and tried not to think about how her heart had been unable to stop beating unnaturally fast when he'd leaned on her hard enough she could feel the heat of his body through his clothing.

Dalish taught her about putting together magical bombs – something she couldn't do on her own, but she could prepare the herbal base for them, before Dalish embedded the spell in them and they sealed them up. She taught Liz how to mend her clothing, how to use wax to reseal water proof items, the signs to look for in muddied ground to spot if a bear had been past recently. Liz tried teaching her the basics of the English language, but she'd barely stumbled her way through the grammar basics before Dalish had wrinkled her nose and stopped her with an exclamation of “You call this a language?!”

“It's an old language,” Liz retorted. “And it's picked up strays along the way. There's a saying that English, as a language, tends to ambush other languages in dark alleys, knock them out, and then go through their pockets for spare vocabulary.”

Dalish had laughed, and then declared learning it to be a waste of her time.

That didn't mean other things didn't progress though. Namely, Draco.

On the third day, she'd been continuing to teach him to sit – he'd had a sudden surge of sullenness the day before which meant he'd spent 90% of his time begging and ignoring her commands and she'd left for the day wondering if maybe the entire thing was a mistake – when he seized her hand in his mouth and chewed it.

Liz no longer flinched at this – it did no damage and the best thing she'd learned was just to wait it out.

Normally.

This time he seized her arm from an unusual angle, and one of his bottom teeth slipped around the plate of her gauntlet, slipping straight through the leather, and into her arm.

Liz, taken by surprise, yelped loudly and ripped her arm free, staggering back, peeling the glove back to see how deep the bite was – thankfully, the answer was 'not very'.

But when she looked at Draco, she realised he, too, had cringed back, her mouth open, and she realised, in retrospect, while she had removed her arm swiftly, he hadn't exactly hung onto her.

“Did you...let go?” she asked, warily.

Social animal, she reminded herself. He was, afterall, a social animal.

She repeated the experiment later that afternoon, waiting until he seized her fist to chew on again and then yelping loudly, even though this time he hadn't hurt her – sure enough, he let go immediately and backed off.

She stared at him. “No way,” she breathed. “No. Way.”

Day five he started looking up at her when she called his name. She did a quick happy dance around the grove, and tried not to overuse it for the rest of the day. For the second half of their morning, she took the plated gauntlets off, and tried handling him with just the leather gloves. He seemed confused by this, inspecting the gauntlets solemnly before turning and presenting his rump for scritches.

When a week had passed, he was sitting reliably about four times out of five, and coming to his name – or her whistle – about half the time. And that half the time was mostly dependant on whether or not he was eating at the time. Liz swore he was bigger than he had been – there was a very fine line between 'over sized great dane' and 'shetland pony', and she definitely thought he'd left the former behind and was well into the latter.

She also tried taking off the gloves entirely. Heart pounding, she offered him a bare hand, and couldn't help but reflect as she did so, how soft and pink and defenceless her flesh looked, especially in comparison to his teeth as he sniffed her.

Then, in something of an anti climax, he shrugged and went back to his normal game of try-to-get-in-Liz's-bag.

On the ninth day she had somewhat frustrating confirmation of her hypothesis he was getting bigger when he greeted her that morning with a bucket on his head.

Her bucket, she realised, when she was done laughing at him and was trying to wrestle it off. One of the ones she hung under the taps- oh no.

She checked the first, then the second, then all of them – he'd gotten everything but one bucket's worth, and that was probably because she'd positioned it in such a way that you had to climb onto a branch to get at it. The others were all empty and on the floor, having been knocked to the ground and drunk, and two of them had been smashed. She also found chew marks around two of the taps.

“You realise you can't get sap out like that, right?” She told him grumpily, ignoring his persistant headbutts for more sap sticks – if he'd already had the day's supply of sap, she didn't think he needed any more sugar.

She was right – he couldn't sit still. He also couldn't shut up, producing a succession of sounds Liz had never heard before, going from the ubiquitous chirp to a low grumble to an odd chortling sound produced deep in his throat, seemingly to himself as he wandered around, inspecting everything, even the things she knew he'd passed before without comment. He didn't take his normal midmorning nap; instead he managed to catch three goats in quick succession, and then didn't eat any of them, instead piling the carcasses up into one heap and plonking himself next to them, looking rather dopey, and very pleased with himself, before rushing round the glade again, seemingly at random.

“Wow, someone's sugar high,” she said, looking on and smiling despite her bad mood at the destroyed taps. “Or drunk.” She had a thought. “Fuck, I hope this isn't, like, the equivalent of alcohol for you and I've slowly been turning you into a booze hound.”

There was no good way to replace the buckets – it was unlikely the nearby farms would have spare to trade, and there was no way they could make the trip to Redcliffe. But if she was no longer collecting sap...what could she do as a reason to be out of the camp?

She reset the taps higher in the trees, hoping if even she had to climb on tree limbs to get to them, it would stop him, and then, to fill the time, went collecting elfroot. Draco accompanied her, until they came to a stream, which was apparently a bigger distraction, because with a bleet of enthusiasm – a bleet? She thought. He'd been spending too much time killing goats - he threw himself into a pool at the side of the river with sheer rock on the sides, rolling over and over again in the calmer water.

Liz sniggered and splashed him a couple of times for good measure, letting him snap at the water, then went back to plant collecting – there was spindleweed along river banks – until she heard a lot of splashing, followed by a somewhat piteous high pitched whining.

Hurrying back, she found him still floating, with his head on the side, looking somewhat put out. The problem was relatively easy to guess from the large gouge marks in the side of the pool.

“Draco? Are you stuck?”

He lifted his head and whined again at her. She couldn't help but laugh. “Awww, poor all powerful dragon got stuck in a stream? Hang on.”

Looking around, she found a large tree branch and managed to drag it over to the pool, shoving one end in with him, which he could use as a grip to haul himself out.

He did, shaking himself off and growling in annoyance before finding a sunspot to curl up in and sleep.

She laughed, and went back to camp.

Krem was sitting up and writing something when she arrived and gave Stitches the herbs she'd gotten. “Bear must have gotten into the buckets,” she told them when she poured the pathetically little dribble of sap into the drying tray. “I've moved them further up the trees – hopefully that will help.”

Stitches nodded, Dalish didn't appear to be listening,but Krem...Krem was watching her with an odd look in his eyes.

Stomach doing an strange squirmy dance, Liz went to help Stitches with the chopping needed for the potions.

They had finished eating supper that evening when Krem got up, put his bowl to one side, walked around to the spot Liz was sat in, and deliberately sat down next to her.

She watched him warily. He watched her back. “What?” she said, eventually.

“So, wanna tell us?”

Her mouth went dry, the bottom fell out of her stomach and her heart rate tripled in about two seconds flat. “Wha-tell you what?” she managed, hoping she was lying better than she thought she was.

Krem sighed and gave her a look. “Whatever it is you aren't. Did you think it wasn't noticed you've been disappearing off on your own for the last fortnight?”

She swallowed, and realised that from across the fire, Dalish and Stitches had also gone quiet and were watching intently.

'Fuck.'

“I...I've been collecting sap,” she said it slowly, both to measure her words and to try and sound confused. “And then today, a bear got at them, so I got herbs instead. What's to tell?”

Please, please please-

“Right.” Krem's disappointment was obvious. “Thought you'd learned from the last time you knew something and kept it a secret. Nice to know where we rate. When you've decided to actually be honest,” he got to his feet. “We'll be over there.”

With that, he walked around to the other side of the fire, and he, Stitches, and Dalish started up a card game.

Pointedly, without her.

Feeling very very small and trying to blink away tears, Liz stared at the fire, and then, quietly, went to bed early.

Chapter Text

The next morning when she woke, Krem was already awake and out of the tent.

Assuming he had slept in the tent at all, she thought, sourly. There was always the chance he'd crawled in with Dalish or Stitches.

She couldn't bring herself to stick her hand in his bed roll to see if any trace of warmth still lingered – that struck her as just a bit over the line of privacy intrusion, so instead she lay and stared up at the canvas that was just starting to lighten as dawn took hold.

So, she obviously hadn't been as sneaky as she thought she had been. They knew...well, they knew something was up. She couldn't help but rankle at the fact they were treating her as a child, deep down inside of her, and yet...

Yet, she thought with a wince, Krem had a point. Last time she'd kept something to herself, it had ended badly. She had failed to take the leap of faith that would have meant more people could have had the information, more lives could have been saved. At the time, she'd told herself it was because she barely knew them – their game personas could have been bare silhouettes of who they really were, and to hand over that sort of knowledge might have doomed them all.

But the Chargers...

The Chargers, she admitted, had taken her in and made her their own. They had trained her, sheltered her, and backed her up. They had mourned with her, laughed with her, triumphed with her. To claim she didn't know them would be an abject lie, in the same way that she couldn't claim they didn't know her. They did, and they knew her well – no wonder they had realised something was wrong.

As a group, they pulled themselves through bad situations that few others would by that absolute trust they had between them – that sense that everyone knew everyone else, at least in Bull's inner circle, and knew them well. It was the trust that meant even if she was half dead with exhaustion when they stopped at night, she still pitched tents with numb hands in the dark because she knew everyone else would be doing the same and they wouldn't ask it of her if it wasn't needed. It meant she knew she'd never go without clothing on her back – because Dalish would spot it and mend it – or have to ride a horse that had thrown a shoe – because Rocky would take care of it – or go into a fight on her own, because Grim would show up, silent as always and take a staunch spot on her left hand side to cover the gap she always managed to leave in her guard. And then Krem would take a spot on her right, because he knew she was too soft to push the advantage early because it seemed unfair and he'd spare her the long fight if he could. And then Bull and the others would turn up behind them, because goddamnit, no one messed with one Charger if they didn't want all of them piling in to help.

It was the trust that meant if she shouted at Krem to duck in a battleline, he'd drop to his knees without bothering to check what the fuck she was talking about.

And it was that trust that gnawed on her now, because they'd asked to be told. And she'd turned away. They'd handed her their belief in her and her judgement, and she'd refused to return it.

She felt like the worst sort of coward.

Worry still tore at her – what if they disagreed? What if they killed Draco? What if they thought she was mad?

She pushed it to one side. They trusted her. They had for weeks. Now, she needed to trust them that they'd think it through. That they wouldn't act without thinking. That they'd talk to her.

And maybe she needed to consider that she didn't know it all. And maybe, just maybe, she was wrong on this. And if that was the case, she needed to trust they'd tell her.

Heart in her mouth, she crawled out of the tent and blinked in the growing light. The camp stood empty. A single set of snores was coming from Dalish's one man tent, and the medical tent where Stitches normally slept only had a single pair of boots left in the porch.

She found Krem asleep on a bundle of empty sacks in the back of the wagon. For a reason she didn't quite understand, that made her feel better.

She shook his knee, and jumped back when he immediately lunged for her, coming out of sleep in an adrenaline fuelled rush that she had anticipated.

She waited for him to wake up enough to realise who she was. Then he blinked at her in confusion.

“Hey!” She managed to sound cheery. “So, erm...” She fiddled with the edge of her tunic. “I...might have something to show you all. If you want to come.”

 

Half an hour later, they were stood just in front of the rise that marked the beginning of the copse of trees where she normally met Draco, where she knew they'd be out of sight. To say she felt nervous was an understatement.

“Gotta say, you aren't making me feel any better about this,” Krem said with a frown, hand still protectively on his sword hilt, as she'd completely failed to persuade any of them to leave their weapons behind.

“Look, I know,” she tugged at her hair in frustration. “Just- ok, trust me. Please. If I start screaming, then feel free to come running in, but if I don't? Then regardless of what it looks like, or what you'd normally do in this situation, please, please, please, please don't come in swinging. I promise it isn't what it looks like.”

They were all watching her with serious, unhappy faces. Eventually, Stitches sighed. “You are asking a lot. But I agree.”

“Aye, but...me too,” said Dalish.

Krem just nodded.

“Do you all have your sap sticks?” They nodded, still looking mystified – Liz had given them each a small bundle of them and refused to tell them what they were for.

She took a deep steadying breath. “Ok then.”

She walked slowly up the slope, knowing they were following, crawling on their bellies so they could peer over the top without making their presence known. As tempting as it had been for Liz to consider just walking them all in, she had to admit that it would be unwise – Draco was used to her. Three more unknown humans was a different matter entirely. Better to take it slow.

The dew was still up as she walked into the glade and whistled. She could almost feel their eyes on her back, and fought the urge to fidget. Please don't let this be the day he decided to be elsewhere, please don't let this-

With an enthusiastic chirp of greeting, he burst from the bushes, rushed to her side and headbutted her solidly enough in the hip that she staggered a little.

We might have to work on that one, she acknowledged, dropping to one knee. “Hey Draco,” she crooned, fingers finding the itchy spots she knew were there under his chin and at the back of his skull. “How's my good boy?”

He preened under the attention, and over his shoulder, she dared sneak a peek at the reaction she was getting.

Dalish and Stitches were still lying flat against the ridge, but Krem had sat up, and even from this distance, she could tell he was staring with his mouth hanging open is absolute, utter shock.

She continued scratching, returning her attention to the reptile in front of her who was twisted into the most awkward looking of positions so she could get at his itchy spots. “Ok,” she said, louder so her voice would carry to the others. Draco opened one eye and looked at her oddly at the abnormal volume. “I've got some people to introduce to you now, so if one of them wants to slowly come over and we can get acquainted...”

For a long, long handful of seconds, there was no movement behind her, and she had a moment of panic that they were conferring among themselves over the fastest way to kill him, when eventually she heard footsteps, a soft, light footfall that she could identify as Dalish without looking.

She glanced over her shoulder and smiled at the rather pale looking elf. “Hey,” she said softly.

Dalish was staring at Draco with a look that was somewhere between awe and horror. “That's a dragon,” she said, voice barely above a whisper.

Liz smiled, trying to look reassuring. “Just a little one. Do you have your sap sticks?”

Dalish nodded and held up one closed fist that was shaking very very slightly, and Liz had a moment of sympathy remembering how scared she'd been when she'd first tried this with Draco, and he'd been a lot smaller those two weeks ago.

It was at that moment Draco decided to open his eyes and spotted the elf. He blinked, froze, then made a nervous cawing sound and retreated at speed, but the problem was he hadn't really been prepared to move, so he ended up falling over his own tail.

Dalish stared, then giggled. Liz shook her head and sighed. “Hold them out,” she told her.

Hurriedly, Dalish did so, and Draco, ever the greedyguts, spotted what she was offering and stopped. He stayed rooted in place, clawing the ground nervously, looking between the sap sticks and Liz.

“I don't get it,” Liz muttered. “He was really aggressive with me...” As if to reassure him, she reached out and patted Dalish on the shoulder while Draco watched, wary.

Slowly, slowly, Draco sidled forward and with an incredible amount of delicacy – and Liz couldn't help but notice, in a way that showed off almost all his teeth, and her opinion of Dalish rose when the elf managed to stay still – removed a sap stick from Dalish's hand, then backed away and chewed rapidly.

Dalish was still staring, and slowly a smile was spreading across her face. “Holy shit,” she managed.

Liz grinned. “This time when he takes one, try to scratch him behind the ridge on the back of his head.”

Dalish glanced at her wide eyed. “No, really, it's ok, look!” Liz reassured her, reaching out and scratching Draco in the aforementioned spot – the dragon, trying to keep his eyes on Dalish, arched into it despite himself and the smile slowly returned to Dalish's face.

“Alright then – c'mere ya big fiendish brute,” she said, proffering another stick. Sure enough, Draco reached in to take it, and Dalish slowly, very slowly so he had time to jerk away if he didn't want her, reached out and scratched him.

Chewing, Draco seemed to take a moment to decide whether or not he liked this attention from a previously unknown person. Then he made up his mind and arched into Dalish's hand as he had done with Liz, nudging at her fingers for a sap stick he was sure she must be hiding.

“I'm stroking a dragon!” Dalish squeaked at Liz. “I- I'm actually stroking a dragon!!”

“You are!” Liz agreed, laughing at her surprised delight.

Draco, having now decided that humans who provided such things as sap sticks as a greeting gift were obviously good, shoved his head under her arm to try and sniff at her hand. Dalish laughed and fed him her remaining sticks, scratching behind his head with both hands once they were free, giggling as he preened at the attention.

Smiling Liz looked up towards the ridge. “Er...next?”

Stitches, on wobbly knees from the amount of time it took him to get up, eventually staggered to his feet, face pale in a way that made the scars on his cheeks stand out more than they normally did.

“You-” he was staring at Dalish. “This...was not what I was expecting.” Without being told, he held out one of his sticks.

Draco watched him for a second, still wary but nowhere near as much as he had been with Dalish. The stick, however, seemed to clench it, and he rushed from Dalish to Stitches, head back and begging with enthusiasm as he used to do for Liz.

Stitches smiled and tossed him a stick.

“What did you think I was doing?” Liz asked, curious despite herself.

“Me?” Stitches knelt and offered a stick with more dignity this time – Draco took it carefully and allowed himself to be scratched, apparently having now adjusted to the idea of having multiple humans present to fuss him and feed him things. “I thought you were having a rendevous with a local lad. Maybe a hunter. Figured you'd been finding bushes for your tryst; my money was you were going to come back and say you were in love and wanted to run off and raise sheep and have lots of babies.”

“...I think I might be insulted.”

“Hey, it seemed the only logical explanation.” He shrugged.

Dalish nodded, kneeling to continue petting Draco. “You did keep coming back with grass stains on your knees and clothing – it seemed the only logical explanation.”

“Oh.” Liz thought for a second of the amount of kneeling down to handle Draco, the tumbles she occasionally took when playing with him. “I...guess I can understand.” She looked up towards the ridgeway where Krem was now stood in full view. “Hey, you coming down to meet him?”

Krem looked at them all for a second....then turned and walked away.

“Ah. Shit,” murmured Stitches.

Liz watched him disappear from sight feeling like her stomach had suddenly been changed to stone. “I...but why?”

Dalish nudged her with an elbow, hands still busy scritching Draco. “Go ask him,” she advised.

 

 

There was a stream not far from their camp that was shallow and clear and fast, the water cold but sweet. She found Krem sitting on the bank, having taken his boots and socks off, breaches rolled up, dangling his feet in it.

She paused, not knowing how to start, but Krem had apparently heard her approach anyway.

“Do you know how pissed the Chief's going to be?” he asked, turning to look back at her over his shoulder, frowning. “You've got one of the most dangerous creatures in existence, and you've trained it to think humans might have food for it. So it'll approach them.”

Thinking, Liz stepped up beside him and then removed her own footwear, wordlessly rolling her own trousers up, ill fitting though they were, to sit beside him, putting her feet in the water as he had done. The water was cold enough to make her hiss through her teeth, but it was pleasant in the warm spring sunlight once she was used to it.

For a few minutes, they sat in silence, Liz turning words over in her head, but not saying anything. Krem had said the Chief would be pissed. He'd said nothing about himself.

Eventually, he did speak again.

“Endangered, hunh?” The English word was barely recognisable he'd mangled it so badly but it was there.

Slowly, she nodded.

Krem sighed. “Do you really think getting one of them to come for treats, like a dog with scraps, will help them not die out? It's just one dragon.”

Liz swallowed. This was her ambition. Her plan. This was the thing she'd never put into words for anyone else, had barely even thought it, but she should have known Krem would be the one to ask, the one she'd have to lay it out for.

She picked her words carefully. Tried to.

“No.” Krem looked at her. She smiled, trying to look more confident than she felt. “He is just one dragon. But...that's not it. That's not all.”

Krem was frowning. She pushed on. “There is a thing, from my world, a stage in developing a new product. Almost like a test, to see if what you're making will work, how it will work, whether it's worth making in large numbers. It's called a prototype. It's like...it's a proof of product. It's to show what it could be.”

He was staring. She tried to ignore it, and turned to look out over the water in front of them.

“That war I told you about? With all the death? There was one island nation that held out against them, for far longer than they should have done. Far longer than anyone would ever have predicted they could have. Long enough for help to arrive, for them to push them back, to win. And there was one thing that made the difference, that made sure they couldn't roll over them like everyone else, and that was that they controlled the sky.”

She glanced up at the clouds. “Both sides had things that could fly, but they were better, more daring, had more, had better equipment. So the stories go. They did things, pushed themselves further, in the name of keeping their home free, and it meant they won.”

She was very aware of his silence, the intensity with which he was watching her.

“There isn't a lot from our world that I can do to help. I can't heal, I can't engineer machinery, I can't set up communication networks. I might be able to work out the basics of a gun, using black powder, but...is that really what I want to bring to your world, what anyone here needs? More destruction, more killing? You already have so much death and pain, no one should ever have more. But this...”

She struggled for the words, not knowing how to say what she needed to, just giving voice to whatever came through her head, and eventually it burst out of her.

“I can help you save the dragons. And maybe the dragons can save you in turn? It's...it's the best idea I've got and, I....I just... They...they took your sky, Corypheus and that dragon! Draco – you can train horses to war, I know you can, I've seen it, and if you can train dragons, and you can train dragons, then you can train dragons to war. For you. For your side, against those that would take everything! So we'll train Draco. And then we'll train more, and, fuck them, they may have taken the sky but we can take it back!

She stopped, suddenly, breathing hard. Krem was staring at her.

She swallowed. Smiled shakily. “Save the dragons. And maybe save yourselves. I don't know, it seemed like a good plan at the time...”

She trailed off, staring at the water. Now she'd said it out loud, it didn't sound ambitious, it sounded ludicrous. What had she been thinking?

Out of nowhere, Krem put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her into a half hug. “So...flying cavalry, hunh?”

She nodded against his shoulder, hugging him back.

He let her go and looked over her shoulder. She turned to look, and could see Dalish laughing as Draco and Stitches wrestled for control of a branch he had in his mouth.

“You know how much work this is going to be, right?”

She nodded again.

He sighed, then smiled. “I'll tell you one thing off-worlder; life with you is never going to be boring. We've got two weeks until the Chief gets back. If we want him on board? Better get started.”

Chapter Text

The training process over the next fortnight taught Liz a litany of new things.

The first, she realised, watching Krem scratch Draco on the chin while trying to manouver a looped leather belt around his neck, was that if she thought her periodic attempts to get the dragonling to sit were anything like actual training? She had been deluded.

Krem had insisted that they put a collar on him. And ideally a leash.

Liz had protested. “He doesn't need one!”

“No, he didn't need one.” Krem scowled at her. “Out in the wild coming to you for occasional treats is a different thing to staying in camp and being trained to commands. He's small now. We can physically force him to do certain things now. We won't be able to for long – we need to get him used to the idea he can't walk all over us, go where he likes, that he has to do what he's told while he's small enough for us to be able to get the message across, and for us to survive it if he decides it isn't for him. That means-”

She sighed and held up her hands. “Fine! But, y'know, good luck!”

Lesson one: Have something to hang on to, she mentally labelled it.

He'd needed the luck – Draco had not been amused by the notion of a collar, and had hissed his displeasure at Krem. Then promptly bitten through it the second the man stepped away.

“Fucking hell,” Stitches had muttered, looking at the pieces of leather on the ground and the distinctly smug dragonling next to them. “What now?”

“Now,” Krem's mouth had been set in a grim line. “We do it again. And again. Until we eventually prove we're more stubborn than he is.”

The second thing Liz learned, that same afternoon, was that Draco might tolerate, or even like, the other Chargers, but at some point over the last few weeks, Draco had decided Liz was His Human and would take having the proverbial foot put down only from her. This came with both advantages and disadvantages.

An advantage was that when she, after Krem had gone through twelve of their spare belts and leather thongs trying to get Draco collared, finally put one on him, he left it there.

A disadvantage was that that still didn't mean he was happy with it, and he'd looked from the thing around his neck, to her, back to the thing, and then made an unhappy whining noise, pupils narrowed to slits in disgust.

“Oh no you don't,” muttered Liz, turning around to go and do something else.

Draco dogged her heels every step of the way, never leaving her side except to whine his unhappiness at her whenever she paused or stood still.

For six hours.

“This is not funny,” she snapped at Krem when she, at the end of her tether, eventually slumped by the campfire for supper.

“Yes it is,” he told her, grinning around his nug stew.

She'd accepted a bowl of the same from Dalish gratefully, and then was promptly informed of lesson three, which was that Draco now considered everything he and Liz owned to be of communal ownership for both of them, and this included her dinner.

“Get off!” she yelped, when he tried to get at her food – she'd have described the motion as crawling into her lap had he still been smaller, but now he had grown, what he mostly did was stand next to her and angle his open mouth hopefully in the direction of the bowl. “Hey! My food! Not yours!”

She shoved him, with only minimal success, in the direction of the goat carcase heaped on a bare spot that was still within the bounds of the camp site. “Go eat that instead!” she said vehemently and it was only after several minutes of remonstrating that he did so.

The next affirmation came when she crawled into her bed roll later that evening...and he tried to climb in with her.

“Oi!” She yelped when he stuffed his head under the blankets, far too tired at this point to be gentle or kind. She had a brief moment of thanks when he raised his head – half her bedding still stuck on his horns – that he wasn't three inches taller, or it would have been their tent stuck on his horns instead. “Go sleep outside! Goddamnit, go!”

Huffing to himself, he wandered out, thankfully only after she had retrieved most of the fabric stuck on his head.

Krem was looking at her through heavily lidded eyes as, swearing in English because even after months of living with a mercenary company she didn't have the vocabulary for this shit, she tried to reassemble her bed.

“Congratulations,” he said, yawning. “You've got a toddler. A big, scaly, potentially fire breathing toddler.”

“Yay me,” she said, sarcasm colouring her tone as she tried to work out why her blanket no longer appeared long enough to cover both her shoulders and her toes.

He laughed and ruffled her hair before turning over to sleep. “Remember this, next time you have a zany idea, off-worlder.”

They woke at their normal pre-dawn hour the next day and Liz crawled out of her tent and blinked in the gloom. Then looked around.

Then looked harder.

“Er...” she said, staring at the ashes of their campfire. Or rather, what was on the remains of their campfire.

Draco, now covered in ash, opened one eye, huffed as if communicating his displeasure the earliness of the hour, and then closed it again.

Krem was peering over her shoulder.

“He...slept.”

“In the fire,” Liz confirmed.

There was a moment of silence as they both stared at him. Then Liz groaned and rubbed her eyes.

“Lesson four,” she muttered. “Fire dragons really like fire.”

“Lesson four?” Krem was smiling. “What were the other three?”

“Erm, have something to hang onto,” she ticked it off on her fingers. “If he won't listen to anyone else, get me to do it, and what's mine is his.”

Krem sniggered and went to grab their gear for morning sparring practise. “You're going to have to wash him, you know?”

“I know,” Liz affirmed, stretching and feeling her heart rate start to pick up, eyes half on Krem – he was still recovering, so they wouldn't spar for long. “Hey, you aren't the one he's likely to cover in that damned stuff when he climbs on you.”

“Brought it on yourself!” Without further delay, Krem lunged, going high and making her block with enough force that she was suddenly wide awake. “Just like this arse beating I'm about to hand you!” He swung again, once, twice, Liz meeting him each time, only able to do so because he was slower than before the injury.

“Oh, you're going to have to do-” she retorted, only to be cut off by the most unholy noise she'd ever had the mispleasure of hearing – it was somewhere between the shriek of metal and the roar of a lion. If she'd ever thought the dragon they'd killed could make a racket, it had nothing on this.

She turned to see what it was when Draco rocketed through the space between her and Krem and threw himself at the Tevinter, who was now blocking frantically in an attempt not to die to an outraged whirlwind of teeth and claws. “Liz!” He yelled.

Lacking anything else to do – she was reasonably certain that even if she swung at Draco it would be her sword that got hurt, not him – she threw herself at the dragonling, wrapping one arm around his neck, and the other around his muzzle, trying to hold his mouth closed. Using her body weight, she tried to pull him away.

She wasn't heavy enough for that, but she did manage to pull him off balance so he ended up sat on his rump, mouth half open and now motionless, but giving Krem a look that would have killed if he'd been able to.

Lesson five, Liz thought disjointedly, hanging onto him with everything she had. Turns out dragons are ridiculously protective. No wonder the mother landed after Bull killed that baby.

Krem was stood with his back pressed against the wagons, looking pale. “Ok,” he said slowly. “So, until we've taught him the commands for friend and enemy, no more sparring with you.”

“Might be best,” Liz agreed breathlessly, as Dalish and Stitches both staggered out of their tents, armed and half armoured and expecting the fight of their lives.

When she was sure Draco wasn't going to go for Krem, she eventually let go and then poured a bucket of water over each of them to get rid of the worst of the soot. This prompted a sulk from Draco, who was only cheered up – and bribed back into liking Krem – by being allowed his own serving of porridge from their breakfast.

Not that he ate it – they all watched in amusement as he smushed his face into the bowl, licked off the porridge, and then, judging by the speed and the noises, rapidly ate some more goat to get rid of the taste.

“Lesson six,” Krem nudged her with his elbow to get her attention as they laughed at the oat-covered Draco. “Dragons can eat everything. Doesn't mean they actually want to.”

Lesson seven became readily apparent after only a few hours that morning – however intelligent she'd thought dragons were, they were more so. The sporadic commands of 'sit' and coming to his name were nothing to what Krem showed her how to teach him, and like a child finally getting an interesting lesson at school after years of boredom, Draco suddenly was paying attention, rather than rambling off after wildlife everything five minutes.

Sit, stay, come, go left, go right, hide, stay there, friend, enemy, attack, feint... She lost count after a while. Draco didn't get all of them, not even nearly, but he watched with interest the entire way through, and got some of the basics. He understood friend rapidly, and proved that his intermittent responses to his name were not because he didn't know it, but rather because he'd been reasonably certain Liz had nothing interesting to show him.

“He might even get to the point he can understand basic human speech,” Krem said when they flopped down for their midday meal, gulping water from skins like there was no tomorrow.

Exhausted – wandering about sap gathering was absolutely no preparation whatsoever for hours of dragon training – Liz nodded, feeling like she needed a nap. Krem might know more about animal handling than she did, but Draco still responded to her commands better than anyone else's; she'd been on her feet and running most of the morning.

Dalish bounced into camp grinning. “Who wants to see what I found?” she announced, looking incredibly pleased with herself.

“If it's another one of him, I quit!” retorted Stitches.

Dalish just grinned. “Better!”

What she'd found was a small pool off the stream about fifteen minutes walk up river. It was lined with bare rock, and rather than the fast flowing stream, in it the water seemed calm. If cold.

Liz looked at it in confusion. “Ok, it's a pool. So...?”

But the other three were smiling. “Exactly what we need!” Stitches announced, and promptly started stripping.

Liz didn't blink – months of hard living meant she'd seen every member of the company naked at least once and they'd returned the favour. The Chargers as a whole didn't care about gender division or any such nonsense like that. If you wanted to bathe or change? You got naked, end of point. If someone was naked around you? You tried not to look. It resulted in a remarkably fuss free environment.

“Why are you so much more excited about this? We bathe in the stream every other day...” Liz was looking at them confused as Krem was also removing his trousers. Dalish meanwhile was squatting over the pool and waving hands that glowed and then-

There was a slight shuddering in the ground, and she watched as a wall of rock rose to cut off the pool from the stream entirely. Dalish looked over her shoulder at Liz, raised an eyebrow, then thrust one hand into the pool and inscribed something on the rock that also glowed.

“Fire glyph,” she announced, starting to remove her own armour. “Which means-”

“The water's hot!” Stitches lowered himself into the pool, then winced. “Or it will be, if we give it time to warm up.”

Draco was stood at the edge of the pool eyeing the water warily while Liz, laughing and excited, shucked her clothes – no one had had a hot bath since they'd left Haven. This would be a touch of home.

Krem entered with a splash. “Wassa matter, you!” he said, scrubbing a wet hand along the underside of Draco's chin.

Draco snorted in frustration.

“Last time he got in the river I had to pull him out,” Liz explained, hopping to remove her loincloth and then getting in along side Dalish.

The water was cool, but not nearly as teeth-chatteringly frigid as the stream was normally, and she could feel waves of heat starting to drift their way from the glyph. “Oh, that's nice,” she muttered when the first tendril of heat curled around her toes. “Why don't we do this more often?”

Dalish grinned at her. “You need the right spot for it – somewhere that's got fresh clean water but can be cut off from the main river or whatever, or you end up boiling everything that lives in it and screwing up everything downstream. Rare to find a spot while we're on the move. But now I know this is here, and we're stuck here for another couple of weeks...”

“I'm seeing something that can be worked into our daily routine!” Krem announced, grinning.

Draco, still not convinced about joining them, grumbled, sat, and dunked his tail in the water. Liz laughed.

Their days took shape after that. Training in the morning, Liz's sparring sessions replaced with endless jogging, press ups, sit ups that Krem insisted she do to not lose condition, Draco often accompanying her when he wasn't watching the other three spar with a confused and unhappy look in his eye. Then they'd work on his commands until the sun was past the midday point, Draco's progress growing with every day.

The afternoons were a mixture of sap collecting – everyone was still fond of them, afterall, and now they kept Draco occupied enough that they didn't have to worry about him raiding the buckets – and hunting to keep Draco fed. Thankfully, the dragonling helped with the second, falling into step with them easily and quickly, so that everyone ended up alternating between who was flushing the game and who was dispatching it.

Their evenings were spent lazing in the hot pool, playing cards, or playing with Draco. They learnt his love of fire extended to just about anything hot, and often he'd present Liz with a half burned branch with glowing embers still at one end, stolen from the campfire, for her to scrub him down with while he arched against it like a cat with a catnip spiked grooming brush. He liked sitting with his head on Liz's lap while they played cards, and would occasionally play stalk-and-mock-pounce with them, which did not endear him to Stitches when the man didn't pay attention and ended up being knocked to the ground and then having a very smug dragonling follow him around for the next few minutes, chortling his triumph.

There were moments when Liz had to pause and wonder what on earth they'd done with themselves when Draco wasn't in camp – he just seemed part of the scenery now.

He'd even stopped complaining so loudly when she insisted on washing the worst of the ash and soot off him each morning before they started the day, but even with that, Liz's hands started taking on a grey tinge from the amount of dirt she was picking up from his scales, and Krem seemed to be forever sporting a smudge of soot somewhere – most often on the end of his nose, which made her laugh.

The days seemed to pass very quickly indeed, and they had just arrived back in camp with buckets full of sap – carefully kept away from Draco - on the afternoon of the tenth day when Dalish arrived at the run, breathing hard and looking pale.

“It's the Chief,” she gasped. “It's everyone. They're back.”

Chapter Text

“What?! They're four days fucking early!

It turned out that when stressed and flustered, Stitches had quite a mouth on him.

“Quiet,” Krem snapped. His expression was grim, his mouth tight, eyes narrowed in thought. It was the same look he wore during skimishes where the lie of the land wasn't to their advantage or they were outnumbered and Liz knew it generally meant he was adding things up inside his own head to work out how to outmanoeuvre the problem. He looked at Dalish. “How far off are they?”

She shook her head. “Barely behind me – I'd say maybe ten minutes? I wasn't even looking, was barefaced luck I spotted them.”

Shit.” He looked around, and spotted a small copse of trees just outside their camp. “Draco? Hide.

Draco looked at him uncertainly – Liz noticed that his pupils were narrowed and the ridge of spines leading down the back of his skull was more erect than normal; he was picking up on their panic, and it wasn't helping.

“Hide, c'mon, good boy, hide now,” she said, pointing at the thicket. He responded to that, but reluctantly, slinking in among the shrubs with obvious hesitation.

Krem looked at Liz and the other two. “You two,” he pointed at Stitches and Dalish. “Mostly? Stay quiet and keep back. Liz, this is your idea, and I'm in charge, so it's on you and me. We tell the Chief straight off – no more room for secrets or misunderstandings, you got it?”

They nodded and turned to walk back so they were by the opening to the camp, some paces away. Krem turned to Liz.

“You need to do the talking on this,” he told her. “You know it best, and you're the one who believes in it hardest. We can back you up, but it needs to be you that explains things, mostly at least.”

Liz's stomach hit her feet, or it felt like it did. “Right,” she said, feeling suddenly panicked and put on the spot. What the hell had she said to Krem to convince him? Could she remember it to say it again?

She didn't have any longer to fret – she could hear voices now, carried on the warm breeze that flowed over the hills and through the gaps in the vegetation. “Hell,” she muttered in English.

Krem nudged her with one elbow. “Trust yourself,” he told her. “It'll be fine.” Then he turned to walk back to the others some paces away.

So it was Liz standing out on her own when the Iron Bull, Rocky, Grim, Skinner and everyone else finally rounded the bend to see them.

Rocky lifted one hand. “Ho!” he shouted in greeting.

Feeling like she might be sick with nerves, Liz lifted one back but didn't say anything.

Bull had gone from grinning a greeting to looking at her own tense and nervous face with an expression of concern. “What's wrong?” He stopped in front of her, looking her over with obvious confusion, then looked over her shoulder at the other three as everyone else paused rather than continue into camp, the previously joyous mood had given way to tense confusion. “You're all here, so no one's dead. What happened?”

“It's...a long story,” Liz started, desperately trying to find the words.

“What, you been making new friends or something?”

“Maybe? I don't know if 'friend' is the right wo-” The words were out of her mouth before she had a chance to check them. Had she not been so panicked, later, she wondered if she'd have caught it. Remembered the command Draco had taken to best, not used the word as he was hidden in a thicket well within earshot.

But she was, and she didn't, and the word came out of her mouth anyway.

Draco emerged at a run as if from nowhere, head back and mouth open. To Liz, to anyone who knew him, it was his begging position, his immediate response to new two-leggers, especially those dubbed 'friend' was that they more than likely had something tasty to feed him by way of saying 'hi'.

It was only now Liz realised how threatening it must look to someone who didn't know him – mouth open, teeth exposed, grumbling noise being made deep in his throat, and approaching at top speed. It looked to all the world like an attack anyone would respond to, never mind a group of highly trained, well drilled mercenaries.

Bull was no exception – in one smooth motion, he dropped the sack he'd had over one shoulder and unsheathed his sword from the back scabbard, handling the massive piece of metal with more ease than Liz would swing a light wooden staff. He was fast, almost a blur, and Liz felt like she was moving through treacle – what should she do? Jump in front of the blow and she'd be killed. But let it land, and Draco would die – neither of them could take the force of that swing and survive, and she was too far away, too slow, to grab Bull's arm, to put him off balance, to do something.

As if in a nightmare, feet not responding fast enough, she watched his muscles bunch, watched the blade swing down, over his shoulder, towards Draco's unprotected neck-

Krem was there. Suddenly, and suddenly it was like the world sped back up again, normal speed, his shield taking the full blow at its original velocity – there was a crunch and a shriek of metal as it buckled, the wood warping, the metal twisting under the force of it, but it held, Krem's face twisted in pain and effort to maintain his footing under such a blow.

Behind him, Rocky and Grim had also reacted to the threat, dropping their gear and going for weapons, Skinner grabbing for a bow, but they didn't get time – Liz felt all the hair on the back of her neck as Dalish, no time for subtlty, slammed her magic down between the two groups, a wall of ice growing from the ground like some sort of time stop animation.

“Stop, stop!” Stitches was there too, his blade still in its scabbard, hands held up as he stood between everyone else and the stand off between Krem and Bull. Liz stepped up next to Krem, no weapon in her hands, but both hands open and thrust back behind her. A signal to Draco. Stay.

By whatever god or gods or universal forces or whatever existed, Draco stayed, back arched like a cat, the spikes along his tail and neck stood absolutely vertical, teeth bared and a noise that was half growl, half odd clicking noise that she'd never heard him make before. But he stayed.

For a moment, everyone stopped, the Chargers in apparent horror at the fact Krem and Liz had dared stand against the Chief, the other four as if waiting to see what else they'd have to defend against.

Bull was glaring at Krem. “Cremisius,” he said, voice more growl than anything else, and Liz started to realise she had never heard him call Krem that, nor speak to any of them in that tone.

Ever.

Fuck.

“Explain.”

Krem pursed his lips, just slightly – if Liz hadn't been sharing a tent with him for weeks, she might have missed the motion, but she knew what it was.

Krem was afraid. And, more than anything else, that shook her.

“Liz,” Krem said, and it wasn't a request.

“Draco,” her voice was harsh, it brooked no argument. This wasn't playtime, in jest, or a fond parent to a favored child. This was her speaking as someone who was deadly serious. “Sit.

Still making that hideous clicking noise in his throat, Draco sat. A breath Liz didn't realise she was holding went out of her. “Down.”

Eyes still on Bull, pupils narrowed so much that his eyes seemed nothing but alien orange and gold irises, Draco lay on his belly.

“Stay.” She stepped away.

He stayed.

Bull was watching all this with an expression that she didn't know how to read. Krem hadn't moved – neither had anyone else.

Eventually, he heaved a sigh and straightened, returning his sword to its place on his back. “You and I need to talk,” he told Krem.

Krem nodded and straightened himself, dropping the ruined shield at his feet. Together, they turned and walked away from the rest of them, back into the Hinterlands.

They had turned a corner and been gone from sight for a good minute before Skinner finally stepped forward and asked what everyone was undoubtedly thinking.

“What the fuck is this shit?!”

 

At around the two hour mark, Liz's nerves had gotten to the point where she couldn't sit still, and was pacing around the camp site. Draco, despite having been introduced to everyone else, and stuffed so full of sap sticks that Liz was privately surprised they weren't having a repeat of the sugar high incident, was accompanying her, occasionally pausing to look in the direction Krem had gone and whining. He was no happier at the man's absence than anyone else.

“It'll be fine,” Dalish said for the seventh time. Liz, who had by now lost the will to argue, didn't say anything. She'd feel better about the protestation if she didn't think Dalish wasn't saying it to try and convince herself as well as everyone else.

“What's taking them?!” she eventually snapped at no one in particular.

Rocky, sat nearest to her, shrugged. “You dropped a big thing on the Chief. Doubtless they're working it out.”

“In the dark, at this rate,” she retorted – the sun had set a few minutes before, and the clear sky meant dusk was rapidly fading into the sort of deceptive twilight that left you with bruises on your knees from walking into rocks when you thought you were seeing more than you actually could.

“There!” Rocky rocketed to his feet – not that it made much difference – and pointed into the rapidly darkening gloom beyond their camp fire.

Liz turned and squinted. Sure enough, she could make out...yes, it was Krem's outline, and just a few steps behind him, she could see Bull's horns.

“Thank fuck,” she breathed, tension flowing out of her.

She thought he smiled at her, and then stepped into the light from the campfire...revealing a bruised and rapidly darkening left eye.

She stared at him in horror, throat working but no sound emerging. What the fuck? Around her, everyone else had come to a halt as well, staring as she was.

A handful of seconds later, the Bull also stepped into the light. Liz glanced at him and then double took.

His bottom lip...was also badly bruised and rapidly darkening, swollen and slightly split on the left side.

She gaped.

Everyone gaped.

Krem and Bull exchanged glances, then burst into laughter and slapped each other on the back.

“What...” she managed.

Bull crouched and offered a piece of sap stick to Draco, who hissed and did an odd crabby side step around to stand between him and Krem. Bull laughed. “Yeah, yeah, ok, I get it – gonna have to work to get you on my side.” He looked up at Liz. “Krem explained.”

“Sorry for stealing your thunder,” Krem told her. “It was just-” He didn't get time to finish before Liz threw herself at him in a hug that was the best thing she had to express all the emotions flooding through her. “Erk,” finished Krem.

She let go and turned away to wipe at suddenly watering eyes. “Stupid campfire smoke,” she muttered, fooling absolutely no one, least of all herself.

“So,” Bull stood. “Four months until we go north again. Four months to get this one trained,” he indicated Draco. “And do everything the Inquisition asks of us besides, along side making sure the Inquisitor's name is being praised from here to Ostagar.”

He raised an eyebrow at Liz. “Helluva a lot of work.”

She nodded, and, smiled, suddenly. “Well, you know.” She shrugged, nonchalantly. “Horns up.”

He laughed just as suddenly as she'd smiled, the sound booming across the camp and making Draco click at him. “Horns up,” he agreed.

Chapter Text

She was awakened by the sound of applause, and Krem laughing and cheering.

She blinked, trying to clear the sleep from her eyes, and sat up, pushing the blankets to one side to see the Tevinter kneeling in the open tent.

“Wha?” she managed, crawling to the entrance and giving Krem a good hard shove to say both 'good morning' and 'get out the way'.

She was greeted by Grim and Stitches, both looking rather red and a mixture of smug and embarrassed, emerging from the medical tent.

She frowned not understanding what the fuss was about as both men disappeared in the direction of the river. She looked at Krem.

“I've missed something.”

He snorted. “Look again.”

She did, and then realised that Grim hadn't even bothered to pitch his tent, instead sleeping with Stitches in-

“Oh.” She had a thought. “How does everyone know they weren't just sleeping?”

Dalish, on the other side of the fire, snorted. “Because you weren't camped next to them.”

Liz couldn't help a grin. “Oh?”

Krem was also grinning, getting to his feet and pulling on boots. Draco, from the looks of things, was still asleep in the firepit, too tired from yesterday's excitement to have woken yet. “They've been dancing around each other – as much as either of them dance – for months. Reckon the chief splitting them up for a good amount of time might have been the shove they needed.”

“Well, good,” Liz said, genuinely pleased for their happiness. “I hope they keep Dalish up for a great many nights in future.”

“Hey!” yelped the elf.

Liz laughed, then got up to help break camp.

 

Draco was thoroughly unsettled by the notion that they were moving... whining at Liz, at Krem, at just about anyone who would listen, with the exception of Bull who he still shied away from, no matter how many sap sticks he was offered.

The horses were a problem. Draco had never seen one before, and had to be vehemently dissuaded that they were not just overly large, extra tasty goats.

Similarly, the horses had to be persuaded that he wasn't going to eat them at the first opportunity.

Privately, Liz wasn't completely sure they weren't lying to either party.

Trying their best, they rolled Draco in horse manure first, to try and get rid of the predator smell, and then ordered him, sternly, to heel.

The horses weren't having any of it – most of them rolled their eyes and scattered out of fear, a couple rearing. The only one of their veritable herd of riding, pack and wagon horses that would so much as tolerate him was a dark grey pack pony with an infamously bad temperament, called Cloud, mainly because her coat was the same colour as an incoming thunderstorm. She gave Draco the side eye, tolerated his sniffing with bad grace and impatience, and then when he had the audacity to try and walk behind her, kicked him in the jaw, causing him to yelp and run to Liz.

“There is no way you're hurt,” she told him, but kneeling down to check anyway. Sure enough, he wasn't, but he did click in frustration at Cloud whenever he went near her from then on.

Eventually, they decided he'd just walk on the outside of the group, and they'd have to acclimatise to each other.

Or, they tried. He followed the group readily enough, but half a day's travelling later, he was flagging.

“I don't think training with us was nearly as much work as walking for a full half day,” Liz told Bull when they halted as Draco flopped, panting into a sun spot.

“We can't just leave him,” Krem commented, frowning at the dragonling.

“So what?” said Liz.

“Wagon,” said Bull, eyeing him.

“What?” said Krem and Liz at the same time. Bull shrugged. “Like you say – we can't leave him. Can't wait for him. So, he'll have to go in the wagon – we've got the room, as we're low on supplies.”

Sure enough they did, but getting him in was a different matter. He was too small to clamber in on his own- no, that wasn't it, Liz realised, watching him try after it had taken a great deal of 'up!' and 'come here boy!' to get him to understand they wanted him to get in it. He was plenty big enough, or his body seemed to be, but his legs were still too short.

In the end, Bull had to lift him in, huffing as he did so, Liz reassuring Draco with constant commands of 'friend!' while the dragonling held himself rigid with stress and clicked constantly, claws bracing against wood to scuttle into the wagon as soon as he could.

Bull took a breath and stretched. “Don't remember any of the ones we killed being that size,” he muttered. Draco, who was now longer than the wagon was when you included his tail, tried to curl himself up into a comfortable position, but had only succeeded in tangling himself because he wanted his head to be near Liz.

“I don't think they were, but I have a theory,” put in Stitches, who had been watching and offering the occasional sarcastic comment as revenge for the morning greeting he and Grim had received.

“Oh?” Liz said. “No, Draco – your tail needs to go here.”

“We never see more than one dragon in an area, right? I mean, you occasionally get some close to each other, but it's not like you'll find a pack of them sharing a den like you would with wolves. But you find all the smaller ones altogether.”

“So?”

Stitches shrugged. “I think they can control how fast they grow – probably not consciously, but in response to how much food is available. There will never – or I can't think of a situation where there would be – enough food in a single area to sustain multiple adult dragons.

So I think they can pause at any stage in development until there is room and food for them to grow. You might find he's been a 'child' for years, even decades. Otherwise, why would a dragon have that many young? She can't sustain them? Once they're past infancy, she wouldn't even be able to feed them and herself, and if she makes them leave, that's reproductive effort wasted, and if she leaves, she's done herself out of territory. So, instead, they breed but then the children wait, until the adult dies, leaving an opening in the environment for one of them to grow into.”

“Like a tree in a thick forest,” Dalish suggested, having drawn near. “They stay as saplings for years, then the second an older tree comes down and they get the opportunity for sunlight, they're off like a fireball.”

“Exactly,” Stitches agreed.

Liz scratched Draco, who was obviously not entirely comfortable in the wagon but too tired to whine much, under the chin, causing his grumbling to cease. “Is it true?” She asked him. “Are you older than I am under all that?”

He sneezed, looked at her with disdain, then put his head down to sleep. She laughed. “Guess that's as much of an answer as we're going to get...”

 

As the days went on, they settled into the same routine as ever, this time with Draco tagging along for the ride. The amount of time he had to spend resting in the wagon lessened with each passing day, and his emnity for Bull lessened as well, although he still was obviously not fond of the Qunari; his responses when offered a sap stick were still to click and turn away.

“Sorry,” Liz offered later than week.

Bull, ever patient, shrugged. “We'll get there.”

In the meantime, the Inquisition's work wore on – Red Templars were everywhere, as were desperate starving peasants who had turned to banditry in their hunger. Demons also crawled the land, and whenever they found a rift, they killed everything that had come through and sent a messenger back to Skyhold with its location and details.

“How is she ever going to fix all these?” Liz heard Krem mutter to Bull one afternoon as they wiped demon gore off their blades.

Bull shrugged. “At least she can fix them.”

Draco, for the most part, wasn't a hindrance. He could look after himself for the most part, and needed no persuading to accompany them – Liz was barred from going into Redcliffe when they stopped for provisions after it was realised nothing they could do would persuade Draco to not follow her in.

“Sorry Shiny, last thing we need is to cause a panic,” Bull had explained regretfully.

Half an hour later, there was a noise at the entrance to the camp. Liz, who had been sat mending tack with Draco thoughtfully chewing on a bone beside her, got to her feet; it was too soon for them to be back yet. “Did you forget-” she turned to see a rather large bear had entered the camp about three seconds before it charged.

She yelped and backpedalled, reaching for the sword on her hip that she – thank you Krem – was never without these days. She had a ludicrous moment of realising that she was likely going to die anyway, when a large, scaled creature went crashing into its side, clicking frantically and tearing with teeth and claws.

The bear howled and listed to one side, staggering under Draco's weight as the dragonling hung on, shaking his head like a terrier. Liz gave her own yell and lunged in, swinging high and bringing her blade down on the thing's head – her grip twisted at the last second so the flat of the blade smacked it between the eyes, not the edge, but it was enough to stun it.

Enough for Draco to adjust his grip, dig both claws in and give his head a violent jerk-

There was a snapping noise and the bear suddenly went limp, its eyes dull, as it slid to the ground.

The rest of the Chargers returned to find her an Draco sat with the body, looking somewhat shellshocked. Well, Liz did – Draco just looked smug.

“So,” she said, looking up at them. “Anyone fancy a bear skin cloak?”

 

They cycled around each camp in turn, using it as a base, their routine the same – check for problems in the area, check for rifts, solve both, as much as they could, resupply, move on. Draco's training progressed smoothly, and he continued to grow at the same ridiculous rate – they had to commission a new collar from a confused blacksmith when he outgrew the belt they'd been using.

Liz could scarcely believe a full month had gone by when they returned to the southern camp where she had first met him. He could now meet her eye over Cloud's back without taking any feet off the ground. She mentioned it to Krem as they pitched their tent back in the same spot it had stood for so long.

He grinned at her. “I know! He's even-” he glanced over her shoulder at the dragonling and then stopped, frowning.

Liz turned to look, and saw Draco, lying on his side, mouth open and panting.

“What...Draco!” she called, confused. They'd barely walked a morning, how could he be tired already?

He opened one eye, looked at her, then grunted and closed it again.

She laughed. “You old lazy bones, get up!” She walked over to him and put a hand on him to shove him...then drew it back startled.

“He's hot,” she turned to look at Krem who hadn't moved, frown on his face and growing.

“I'm getting Stitches,” he announced suddenly, then turned and ran.

Fear building, Liz put her hand back on Draco's side – his scales were warm, far warmer than normal. When she slipped her fingers between the gap of two of them on his neck then yelped and withdrew them – his skin was like a pot that was on the boil.

“Draco? Draco!” she said sharply. He whined again and barely opened one eye. Not tiredness or fatigue, she realised, horrified. Barely conscious. She turned and screamed. “Stitches!

He and Krem came at a run, Dalish and Bull just behind them.

“Krem said,” he said before she could say anything. He opened Draco's mouth and peered into it, pulled his eyelid back – Draco didn't even complain Liz noted with sinking stomach – checked his belly, between his claws, under his tail.

He sat back on his knees, expression twisted into anxiety. “I don't know,” he said at last. “There's no discolouration. No swelling. His breathing isn't impacted, his pupils are responsive. He's hottest on his sides around the shoulders, which suggests fever, but I can't see a wound. We could give him willowbark to try and cool him down, hope his body breaks through it?”

“No.” Bull's answer was abrupt. “Stitches, think. He sleeps in a fire. Cooling him down is the wrong thing.”

“What do you expect us to do, heat him up?”

There was a moment of silence. Then Liz broke it. “Yes.”

Dalish turned. “Fire,” she simply muttered, and magic streamed from her fingers, igniting the pile of deadwood in the firepit that Rocky had already stacked.

“Draco, come on boy,” Liz coaxed, trying to get him to his feet. He didn't stir.

“Here, Krem, you and me,” gently, Bull pushed her to one side, and slid his arms under the dragonling. Krem took his other side, and together they lifted – he was too big now for even two of them, his tail dragging behind them, but it was enough, as they dragged him towards the fire that Dalish was encouraging into a raging inferno.

Together they placed him on it as gently as they could, which still involved mostly dropping him onto it.

He gave a muffled whine, then turned onto his side, then the other as if uncomfortable, but at least moving.

Liz stared at him, mind racing. Were they doing the right thing? What if Stitches was right, what if there was a maximum temperature dragons could stand? What if they were killing him.

Dalish was still pouring fire onto him, but it was eating through the wood unnaturally fast. Bull, bearing burns on his shoulders and arms she noticed, nudged her. “No time to worry, we need more fuel,” he said.

She turned and ran for the copse – she could see other Chargers around her already doing the same, Rocky, Grim, Dalish, Skinner, all heading to look for dead wood that would burn easily and hot.

She brought back armful after armful, piling what wasn't immediately used beside the fire, while Dalish kept up a steady stream of magic. She didn't know how long they worked for – the shadows lengthened, the temperature dropped, the dew rose. Rocky handed out packets of dried rations, and others sat to rest.

Liz couldn't, her heart wouldn't let her, looking at Draco's frailness in the flame, still shifting in one place as though unbearably uncomfortable, the heat distorting and twisting his silhouette. She moved constantly, searching, searching, picking and placing, back aching, splinters in fingers, but she didn't dare stop.

She had just dropped her latest load off, a little after sundown, when Dalish staggered and fell, a whimper escaping her mouth.

Krem was there and caught her with almost heart breaking gentleness.

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry!” she cried, tears in her eyes. “I'm out, I'm dry, I've been trying-”

Sure enough, Liz could see her hands were blistered and raw from channelling magic she didn't have, as Draco panted and whined as the fierceness of the fire suddenly fell from 'hellish' to merely 'scalding'.

“It's ok,” Krem said, soothing her. “It's ok – Stitches-” But the healer was already there, gently lifting her in the direction of the medical tent – when had that been pitched? - as she cried and fought to keep her eyes open. “We'll take care of it.”

“How?!” Liz demanded, eyes still locked on Draco, the reduced heat meaning she could see him more clearly, could see his shoulders seemed swollen and malformed as he panted.

Bull appeared. “I will take care of it,” he corrected Krem. She blinked at him, and then realised in his hands he held one of the biggest set of bellows she'd ever seen. “I had Skinner ride for it, after about the first half an hour. Some blacksmith got the deal of his life,” he explained. “You two are going to sit and rest. You can take over in a little bit.”

He set to, placing the mouth at the coals beneath Draco's belly, and starting to pump, pushing the heat back up, as Draco opened his eyes a slit and then relaxed into the heat again.

Liz swallowed water that tasted like ash and food she was assured was edible but tasted like dirt. Beside her, Krem appeared to think the same thing.

“What if he dies?” she muttered eventually, giving voice to her worst fear.

Grimly, he stared at Bull working, massive muscles bunching, glistening with sweat in the heat and light of the fire, and said nothing.

She staggered to her feet after minutes, unable to sit still. Bull let her take over pumping the bellows while he banked more firewood into the pit, but within two pumps it was obvious she was too small to keep the fire going for long – they were too stiff, and fit and healthy as she was, she wasn't strong enough.

Hands covered hers. “Together,” Krem urged, and in unison, they forced it down, lifted the handle back up, muscles in their backs straining as Draco, moving more now, whimpered on the fire.

“What the hell is happening to him?!” Krem ground out through gritted teeth.

“Just keep pumping,” Liz gasped.

Bull returned a couple of minutes later and shooed them off. “Stack the wood if you can,” he told her when she protested. “I'm better doing that than you are.”

She nodded, too tired to do anything than follow instructions, and shoved more logs onto the fire.

Krem sat, waiting for more wood to be needed. “M'just closing ma eyes...” he muttered, and was asleep almost instantly. She fetched a blanket, covered him with it, then piled another batch of wood in place.

She didn't know how long she worked – she knew midnight came and went as Bull pumped, pumped, pumped, never faltering, never letting go. She fetched wood, cut pieces that were too long, fed him water from a ladle and bucket, and then ran to the river to refill the bucket when they drank it dry once, twice, three times. She didn't remember sitting down to rest.

She didn't remember falling asleep.

The next thing she knew, Krem was nudging her awake. “Liz, Liz look!”

She blinked awake, taking a moment to work out what she as seeing.

Dawn's thin light was breaking over the horizon, the dew still around them, an edge of chill to the air.

Bull was still kneeling in place by the bellows, looking exhausted. His skin was a deeper grey than normal, his skin sweat drenched, his eye closed as if he couldn't bear to keep it open, even his horns seemed to droop. Draco was stretched out on his belly, his nose an inch from the Qunari's, trilling what Liz recognised as an encouragement note.

Stretching from each of Draco's shoulders, wet and glistening and fragile as a spiderweb in the rain....were wings.

“He...he...” she managed, a sob rising in her throat.

Bull, eye opening through what appeared to be sheer force of will, smiled and gently stroked Draco's head. The dragonling – the dragon – trilled equally gently and pressed into the touch.

“Wings,” Krem confirmed, tone awed. “And I think...that makes him...a her.”

Liz nodded, pressing hands to her face, unable to prevent the tears that wouldn't stop falling, watching Draco, new wings spread to dry in the morning sun, and Bull staring into one another eyes examining each other.

Beside her, Krem cleared his throat. “Hate to interrupt the moment,” he said in a somewhat gruff voice that made her think he was as touched by this as she was. “But we should probably go get the chief before he falls over.”

Chapter Text

The problem with Draco and Bull being friends, they discovered, was that it was like being constantly stuck in the middle of a prank war.

Bull slept for a full 12 hours initially, Draco also snoozing in the still warm fire pit, wings spread to allow them to dry, hardening as they did so. At the base of them and around his – her, she kept reminding herself, she was a her, by the Maker, how big would she get?! - her shoulders, Liz was fascinated to see the muscle structure changing.

She ran her fingers over Draco's back when she woke, chirping, and came to Liz for scritches and realised there was no change in the underlying structure, just a shift in priorities. The shapes were familiar, but now more pronounced – muscles that had been dormant were now preparing to build and bulk until they would be enough to support Draco's soon-to-be massive bulk in flight.

The first day was easy. Draco dozed. Bull woke at dusk, had a short sparring session with Krem, and then both of them ate their own body weight before going back to sleep.

Bull woke first the following morning, and Draco had blinked at him then shut her eyes again in the ash of the firepit she'd claimed as her own, while they all went about their business. Nothing abnormal, Liz thought with satisfaction as she left to check on her taps.

She was startled, as she came back with a full bucket of sap, to hear a yell that sounded like...Bull?

The tent in front of her collapsed as a ball of Qunari and dragon came rolling through it, seemingly heedless of what they crashed into on the way, leaving snapped tent poles and torn fabric in their wake. Liz yelped and leapt to one side as they tumbled past – she'd have been worried were it not for the huge grin on the Qunari's face.

She stared as they went, and turned to find Krem next to her.

“This,” he said, watching the pair of them go. “Is the start of something...annoying.”

Liz blushed and went to make sap sticks, telling her face to cool down the entire way.

Krem was right – in Bull, Draco had finally found someone to play fight and rough house with, and was taking advantage every waking moment, or so it seemed. He'd be halfway through a briefing, or eating dinner, or washing when there would be a rush of scales and wings and the dragon would be on him, and the rest of them scrambled to get out of the way.

Thankfully, Bull seemed to enjoy it, and Draco remained as obedient to commands as ever; potentially, now even more so as she had someone to take the extra energy out on.

When she wasn't actively hunting she was with them, watching, learning with a focus she'd never displayed before – she started waking up early enough to pay active attention to their morning sparring and drill sessions, tracking movements with narrowed pupils the same way a cat tracked a mouse before pouncing. The second week, Liz spun to block a blow she knew she wasn't going to catch on her left hand side and already mentally prepared for the bruise it would leave, only to yelp and stumble back when she realised Draco had appeared in the gap, on her hind legs, Grim's blunted practise sword clanging off her neck scales, followed by a click and then she swept his legs out from under him with her tail.

Everyone else had stopped to gape as well, especially when Draco then paused, sniffed the downed Grim in a proprietary fashion, and followed up with a friendly, but somewhat smug, headbutt.

“Well, shit just got interesting,” commented Bull, pulling on a shield.

That morning, Liz and everyone learnt very swiftly what tactics with a shield barge would work against a growing dragon....and which ones really would not, as Draco retreated at speed with her prize for bowling Bull over – his left boot – clutched in her mouth as he hopped after her.

“We could tell people about this, only no one would believe us,” muttered Krem, leaning on Liz's shoulder in a friendly manner.

Liz was concentrating too hard to notice. “Wings,” she muttered.

“Hunh?”

“She's not using her wings,” she said again, and it was true – the new appendages were folded neatly along her flanks, occasionally extended for balance purposes, but never flapped. “We need her to exercise them – she's not doing so.”

Krem nodded, also frowning.

Then Liz smiled, an idea forming.

That was how, two weeks later, she found herself and the rest of the chargers taking it in turns to fly a kite off the top of one of the windiest hills they knew of, while Draco flapped and snarled and tried to reach the small packet of sap sticks they'd tied to the bottom of it. She had worked out within the first ten minutes that if she attacked the person holding the kite string and wheeled it in, she'd get to the sap sticks faster, but a stern 'No!' from Liz had stopped that nonsense, so now, she was jumping for the dangling sap sticks, wings flapping energetically, seemingly enjoying herself.

Not enough to hold her yet. But they would be.

“I wonder when you should start thinking about putting a saddle on her,” said Krem, flopping down next to her having handed the string to Skinner.

She tried to ignore the way the skin on her arm that was closest to him was tingling like she'd just picked up a year's supply of static. “Have to find a saddle that fits first,” she grunted.

He grinned. “Well, that's an afternoon's job then,” he said, getting up and wandering in Bull's direction.

She watched him go, uncomfortably aware of how he walked, how his hair was falling, how she could see the glisten of sweat on the back of his neck and somehow found she couldn't look away.

Crap. Not what she needed. Trying to put it out of her mind, she got up and took the string from Skinner.

It turned out putting romantic thoughts of Krem out of her mind was harder than expected. They were still sharing a tent and she found some nights where she would lie awake, angry at herself for being acutely aware of his closeness, swearing she could feel his body heat through the blankets. When they disrobed to bathe, she found her cheeks heating and had to look away. Twice he'd sat down next to her at the fire and offered her a drink, and she'd been so busy trying to play it cool, she'd spilt the booze down her chin and earned herself a mocking from those around her.

She'd always hated having crushes. Here, with the Chargers, where everyone worked and lived as one, it seemed extra ridiculous – they depended on each other! This sort of hesitation could cost lives!

She scowled at the fire, berating herself once more, before looking up and realising he was looking at her with concern across the flames.

He raised an eyebrow – are you ok? It seemed to say.

She shook her head, waving the concern away, as if to say it was nothing.

He nodded, then pulled a face, crossing his eyes and sticking his tongue out to make her laugh before returning to his chess game with Bull.

She laughed so hard she hiccuped and then spent the next hour cursing her own hormones.

They arrived back at the southern most camp the following afternoon, and deciding a good hot soak was what she needed, Liz pestered Dalish into setting up the pool again the second they were all set.

She was gratified when everyone else apparently found things to do, and she couldn't help but let out a sigh as she sank into the warm water, letting her troubles drift away with the steam.

About three minutes later she opened her eyes at the sound of a footstep to see Krem stripping off his shift.

“Erm,” she said, intelligently.

“Hey,” he didn't bother looking at her while bending to take off his boots. “Skinner and Dalish are running races, and everyone else is betting on them – figured it was a good time to come see if a soak would straighten out my neck after the way I slept on it last night.”

“Yes. Right. Of cour-” she sort of trailed away when he turned half away from her to step into the pool and she could see how the muscles in his back were working together and the word sort of trailed away into a half whimper that she swiftly disguised by sinking into the water so it covered her mouth.

He gave her a strange look. “You ok?”

“Fine!” she blurted, mind spinning. She couldn't get out, she had only just got in. She couldn't not look at him, or be bashful – they'd bathed together, changed together, on one particular night they had both agreed never to speak of, eaten bad cheese and spent several hours stick in the privy together. She was stuck.

They sat in silence for several minutes. For Krem, eyes closed and head back on the bank, they seemed peaceful. For Liz, they were very very loud minutes as several different voices inside her head all yelled what to do at her in conflicting ways.

“So!” she said eventually, so loudly Krem jumped. Then stopped – she had no idea what she was going to say after that, she'd just needed to break the silence. “Stitches! And, er, Grim...”

Krem grinned. “Yeah, they're cute, aren't they?” He stopped and cocked his head to the side. “Never let them know I said that.”

She smiled and shook her head. “I'm surprised, you know. That two chargers would...well, y'know. I mean, there was Skinner and Callie, but they were the exception? I mean, you lot hardly go around coupling up...”

Krem laughed. “Maybe? But it's not like the Chief has a problem with it unless it impacts on your work – it's just we live a hard life, and often, people don't want people like themselves to settle down with. They want someone the opposite – someone soft and understanding and forgiving who won't have nightmares about lyrium creatures or be able to belch the alphabet backwards. But you do get some arrangements. Dalish, when she first joined years ago, there were another pair of elves that she was a trio with, but they left to back to their clan eventually. And she...couldn't.”

“That's so sad!”

He shrugged. “In the end, they had to choose, and they chose what would make them happy. Can't blame them for it – you only get one life. Live it for other people and that's a fast way to end up on your death bed with a lot of 'I wish' bullshit.”

“And you never...” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.

He looked at her strangely. “Er, no. Can't say I did. Honestly, had enough trouble getting by, why would I add extra on top of that with romance?”

Liz nodded. “In Tevinter, sure. But what about now? I mean, you don't have to worry about it now...”

He was still looking at her. “Well...yeah. I mean, I guess. It's never really come up. I had the job, and honestly, I don't tend to get interested in people very often. I have to know them first, know them for years, before I can get to that level of comfort, except in very very rare circumstances. I...haven't so much as kissed someone in years. Haven't really wanted to.”

“But you haven't tried? I mean, how do you know?”

There was a second where those words hung between them like a physical thing, and had they been, Liz would have seized them with both hands and shoved them under the water to drown them – what the hell was she saying?! Why were these words falling out of her mouth?! She certainly wasn't trying to say that.

Krem cocked his head to one side, an odd smile on his face. “You offering?”

Another silence that was a physical thing where all the hair stood up on the back on Liz's neck, and she shrugged, her heart beating wildly as she tried with all her might to look nonchalent. “If you like?”

He leaned forward, his fingers brushing under her chin to bring her head up. His mouth on hers was soft and sure, his lips gentle. He tasted like summer rain and grass, his breath on her face, those fingers tracing gently down her jawline to tangle in her hair, bringing her closer as the kiss deepened, his fingers tangling in her soaked hair, tongue light against her lips.

Then it was over, he was drawing back. She swallowed and examined the look on his face – he looked...passive. Just as he had before the kiss.

“Anything?” she asked in a manner she hoped looked at least a little scientific, and drew attention from how she couldn't help but lean forward as if yearning for him to do it again!

He shook his head, smiling ruefully. “Nothing. Guess I'm just ok being me.”

She nodded, disappointment harsh and painful in her stomach. She bit her bottom lip – don't show it, don't show it, don't show it.

If she thought being trapped in a hot tub with her crush was bad, being trapped with a crush that had just turned her down was worse – frantically she searched for a reason to leave or something else to focus on when, as if answering her prayers, Draco appeared from nowhere and flopped down beside her on the edge of the pool, butting her shoulder in a request for attention.

She laughed, and clambered out. “I'm coming, I'm coming!” she said, mostly to him.

“Have fun!” called Krem, staying where he was but raising an arm in farewell.

She made it back into her clothes and around a good couple of bends – definitely out of sight – before she dropped to her knees and wrapped her arms around Draco's neck in a hug while she struggled not to sob.

It was just a crush, just a stupid crush, she told herself. Get over it already!

As if she understood, Draco crooned and wrapped one wing around Liz's shoulders, letting herself be clutched.

Chapter Text

Heartache dogged her. She'd describe it a little like loneliness, only there was no logical way she could be lonely – she was surrounded by people, Krem was there when she slept, she was forever training, working, fighting with the others – if anything, the problem was that she was never alone.

She couldn't work out why she felt so bad – it had been a crush, for heaven's sake! She'd had them before, she'd have them again. It wasn't like she'd been in love with him.

“Maybe it's like a papercut,” she muttered to Draco one evening by the fire, when the dragon had rested her head in Liz's lap while everyone else was cheering as Krem and Rocky were arm wrestling on the other side of the light. “If it was an actual wound or a bruise, I'd suck it up and get through it. But because it's tiny and stingy and ridiculous, I can't help but whine.”

Draco huffed up at her, as if she could understand, and then went back to snoozing.

People had started noticing too. Krem gave her worried looks and she occasionally panicked he'd put the pieces together with the timing of her funk and their ill-fated kiss in the bath, but he never seemed to, just occasionally hugging her out of nowhere and made sure she ate enough. Dalish also caught her eye over the fire a couple of times, and twice Liz went to bed to find presents on her bedroom – large leaves Dalish had folded like origami into birds and boats, small flowers decorating them. She hugged the elf the next day, and plaited them into her hair and twisted them into her armour for luck.

Stitches also popped past, a businesslike hand on her forehead and then cool fingers on her pulse point. She waved him off with a snort of annoyance. “I'm fine!” she snapped.

“Well then,” he said and left her alone.

Rocky and Grim, however, two days later turned up with a trump card, and appeared holding it mid-afternoon.

“Look what weeeeee got!” Rocky sounded triumphant.

Liz – and everyone else – turned to look at the bundle of leather and straps they were brandishing.

“I..am having thoughts, but please don't make me say them outloud,” said Krem, staring at it.

“Oh..wait!” Rocky fiddled with it, and from the middle of it, produced something where the leather was a glossy deep brown, smooth and wide-

“It's a saddle!” Liz yelled, during to her feet. They beamed at her.

“Yep!” Rocky's triumphant look returned and even Grim looked smug. “Figured there was no point getting one made that was polished and perfect, because she's still growing, so we bought this off a farrier and got the local leather worker to alter it. Want to try?”

Draco looked at them oddly when they approached her with it, and was cooperative enough as they placed it on her back, wiggling it between her wings and then padding it with spare riding blankets, trying to cushion it between the spines and get it to sit flat. Her body was now larger than any of the horses and her wings, at first small compared to her body, were growing at such a rate that Liz was surprised they couldn't see them expanding. The frantic flapping that had once been present when they trained her with the kite was no more, instead she took leisurely movements to get to it, for all she'd still shown no incentive to actually fly.

She did not like it, however, when they fastened the first strap around her chest.

“Whoa!” Liz yelped when she bucked, hissing, from side to side and spun away from them, sending Rocky flying in the process. “Draco! Calm it!”

Draco clicked, clawing at the strap with her hind legs.

“Hey, stop that now!” Liz ran to her, trying to stop her from cutting the leather.

Draco hopped back and clawed some more. Krem ran at her, and Grim on the other side, trying to get to her.

Draco, head whipping like a snake, backed up, looking torn between retreating and removing the constraint.

“It's ok girl, we'll take it off, just don't-”

She could see the leather strap start to give way. “Damnit Draco!” she yelled and lunged.

Draco, clicking her annoyance, hopped back, wings going out and flapped once, twice-

Airborne, as she took off from the slope, gliding gently down the valley and away from them, wobbling the entire way like a child riding a bike with no stabilisers for the first time.

Liz stared. “She...she...!”

“She's flying!” Krem's shriek of joy was far less restrained than Liz's reaction. The whoops from Rocky and Grim joined in. From the way Draco glanced back over her shoulder, she was intensely enjoying their reaction.

She was barely halfway down the slope before she touched down again, coming down too fast and too hard so when her claws touched the grass- her grip didn't hold and she tumbled, turning head over tail as she did so, eventually coming to a stop at the bottom in a tangled ball of dragon, the saddle lying some distance away, the blankets scattered behind her along the gouge in the grass her impact and scales had left.

She had barely righted herself before Liz reached her, throwing her arms around her neck, the others right behind her. From the extremely smug headbutts they all received, the dragon was as pleased with her achievement as they all were.

 

The key, they discovered after a long and exhausting day experimenting, was not to put anything across Draco's chest in front of her forearms. Under both wings was fine, and behind the forearms, around her belly, was also fine, as was, weirdly, around her neck.

But not her chest.

“I wonder if its because it impedes movement,” said Bull idly that night.

“No idea,” said Liz, too exhausted to speculate. “But she won't have it, so we'll work with it.”

“Hm,” said Bull, looking at Liz with what she realised in hindsight was an examining eye.

The next day was spent getting Draco used to the weight on her back. She was big enough for Liz to ride without worry of crushing her, but they'd be waiting another few months before Liz's weight was small enough compared to the dragon's that flying was an option.

The first time Liz mounted up, Draco thought it was a wrestling game, clamped her mouth around Liz's left shoe and dragged her off again.

“This,” said Liz, dangling upside down from the mouth of her charge. “Might be interesting.”

It took three tries before Draco grasped they weren't playing. Another fifteen before she'd let Liz up for more than thirty seconds without deciding she didn't like it and rolling to get her off. What everyone found hilarious was that as soon as the dragon rose and checked that Liz was, as she'd intended, flat on her back on the grass rather than still astride, she'd give her a friendly headbutt, as if to assure her there were no hard feelings.

“The worst thing is there's no malice in it,” said Liz, staring up at the sky, again, as everyone else couldn't stop laughing. “It would be easier if she was just being a stubborn ass.”

“Hold on, I've an idea,” said Bull, who had dropped by to watch the spectacle. “Rocky, c'mere.”

Liz ignored them and dragged herself back into a sitting position, then, groaning, stood.

Draco whined as she approached again. “Yup,” said Liz. “We'll do it 'til you like it.” Stubbornly, she caught the saddle horn and hauled herself up-

“Hey you two!!”

Liz whipped her head around and then stared.

Rocky was riding pig-a-back on Bull...and waving a bundle of sap sticks.

“You are joking,” she managed.

“Can't catch us!” Bull grinned at them and took off, running at top speed away from them.

Draco watched them go, frozen, for a long second – just long enough, Liz discovered, for her to get her leg over and shove her foot into the stirrup if she didn't care about being graceful – then took off like a bat out of hell, chasing as fast as her legs would allow, wings open and beating occasionally as if to provide extra thrust.

Liz, bereft of anything like reins – because if Draco couldn't handle being ridden yet, reins might be a step too far – clung to the saddle horn and clamped her thighs on as hard as she could, and still felt like a ragdoll being tossed around. She kept her jaw clenched after Draco decided that going around fallen logs was for losers and jumped over instead and the impact of the landing, softened by the wings though it may have been, brought her teeth together in an uncontrolled 'snap!' that left her glad she hadn't just managed to sever her own tongue.

Even with Liz on board though, Draco was still faster than Bull – they were gaining on them rapidly when the Qunari ducked into a copse of small trees, still laughing.

Draco sped in after him, and immediately, they discovered why he'd done it – the trees were too large to be pushed over, but growing in close enough quarters that Draco couldn't manoeuvre and chase and grab at Bull – she could do two, but not three of those things, as she discovered when she finally managed to wiggle her way into grabbing distance, the second she tried to actually get at him, he jerked backwards, through the trees and out of reach.

Draco hissed in annoyance, and followed. Liz, now the rate of travel had decreased to something less than 'death defying', once they were in range took the opportunity to make a grab for the hand Rocky was holding the sap sticks in. She missed and got a fistful of sleeve instead, which she lost her grip on when Draco shifted her weight unexpectedly.

Rocky yelped, caught off balance, and it was only Bull quickstepping to the side that saved him falling off. Draco clicked, looking between Rocky and Liz as if putting pieces together. Then she made a low, smug, grumbling sound that sounded like the noise a dragon would make if she were grinning.

Liz grinned back. “Hell yeah girl. Let's do this.”

In the end, it was fairly simple once Draco had realised that she and Liz could work together – less than five minutes later, sap sticks clutched in Liz's sweaty hand, they were racing out of the copse and back towards the camp, Bull and Rocky pounding after them, laughter ringing through the air.

They skidded past the row of tents and came to an abrupt halt. Muscles she didn't know she had aching, Liz gingerly climbed down and, with a grin, fed Draco most of the sap sticks.

The dragon looked both smug and resigned, as if please she'd won, but also finally admitting that maybe Liz had a point about being on her back.

Bull and Rocky tromped in after them, to concilliatory cheers.

“Well played,” Liz greeted them. Draco, grumbling a welcome, headbutted the pair of them.

“The was a hoot!” Rocky was beaming as he slid from Bull's back.

“See? Ya just gotta find a way to explain to her it's in her best interests too.” Bull stretched. “I think after that, I need a soak. Liz, can you join me? Got something I wanna talk about.”

Liz shrugged. “Sure.” That wasn't unusual – Bull would often pull one of them off to chat about something they were the expert on. Dalish on magic, Krem on stores, Stitches on medical supplies. They'd had a chat a couple of times about Draco's training – she assumed this would be the same, and she could do with a bath.

She therefore froze when she was lowering herself into the hot water already occupied by Bull when he said “so, shit with Krem didn't work out so well, hunh?”

She stared. “Who...I mean what, I...”

Bull shrugged. “I saw the way you were watching him. Saw you come back that day with salt stains on your collar. Saw the way you've been not watching him ever since.”

“Oh fuck,” Liz buried her face in her hands. “Does he know?”

“Who, Krem? Nah.” He chortled. “That guy's so oblivious to anything squishy he'd probably just think he stood in fox muck. Don't worry – unless someone spells it out to him, and they won't, he won't realise.”

“Does that mean...everyone else?”

Bull shrugged again. “Most of them have realised something's up. But not what exactly. But that was what I wanted to talk about. You seem...I mean, you've known him a really short amount of time to be in love with him-”

“I'm not in love with him!” Liz interrupted, horrified. “I- it's just a crush! A momentary attraction! That's all!

“Hunh.” Bull blinked in thought. “You've been doing a lot of moping for something that was just momentary.”

Liz sank in the water, shoulders and chin sinking under the surface. “I know,” she admitted. “I...I don't know what's wrong. I just...feel sad.”

There was a moment of silence while they both thought. Then Bull spoke.

“Back on your world – who did you used to have physical contact with? I mean like, hugging and whatever.”

“Well, erm,” Liz thought. “My parents, my pets, my boyfriend – although I'd just broken up with him – my friends, my grandparents...”

“That's quite a list. And here – when was the last time you hugged someone who wasn't Krem or Draco?”

There was silence while Liz racked her brains, trying to ignore the growing lump in her throat. “I...I don't-”

“Ah.”

Two huge arms, skin silver and tough, wrapped around her and picked her up, as Bull dragged her onto his lap and hugged her. “Feeling a bit out in the cold, hunh?”

She buried her face against his shoulder and struggled not to sob, nodding – inside, the part of her that wasn't engaged in trying to stop the tears was mystified and bewildered. Where had all this come from?

Bull said nothing for a few minutes, just held her, comforting and solid, while she regained her composure.

“There's a reason Qunari treat sex like it's no big deal,” he said at last. “And it's not just because we don't do romantic entanglements. It's because we acknowledge that everyone has a need for physical contact, and deserves for that need to get met. You've been all sorts of walled off – there's nothing wrong with needing a little more contact than someone else. And heck, you're getting less than most people – Krem is the only other two legger you hug, but he'll curl up with other people. I saw him and Dalish sitting together this morning, arms around each other. No shame in it – but that's why you'll be off and this feeling's getting bigger than it ought to. You need to touch people more – doesn't have to be sex, just...contact.”

She nodded again, relaxing into him, then snorted with amusement. “Good thing it doesn't – not exactly like I have many options for sex out here.”

Bull gave her an odd look. “Depends what you're looking for. Plenty of friends you could ask to help you out...if you wanted.”

Liz blinked and then looked up at him, suddenly extremely aware that they were naked and pressed together, and as far as male specimens went, Bull was...impressive.

How long had it been since she'd had an orgasm? She racked her brains. Months – there was never any alone time, she'd always shared a tent, or had work to do, or been looking after Draco. No privacy. No opportunity.

Suddenly, she was ravenously hungry for that sort of intimate connection, for that release – suddenly, she just wanted someone. Or hell, ten minutes alone with nothing but her imagination and a promise she wouldn't be walked in on.

“I want release,” she said, bluntly. “I want...I want that pleasure.”

“How?”

“Hands, mouth, Maker, keep the others away I'll do it myse-augh!”

He lifted her, hands sure and strong around her lower back, placing her on the edge of the makeshift tub that they were in so she was half sitting on the bank.

“Lie back,” he said, as blunt as she and spread her legs, hands running with firm assurance up the inside of her thighs.

“Are you-oh!”

So long without touch, without stimulation of any sort had made her incredibly sensitive, it seemed, so when his fingers, gentle but blunt, spread her open and his tongue unerringly found her clitoris, the shock of the sensation that went through her at that first touch was enough for her back to arch and her to gasp without being intending to.

That tongue continued to circle, soft and firm in turn, as those fingers slid lower, stroking her entrance that was suddenly soaked – it had been so long that the pleasure was building faster than it ever had before.

“Oh fuck!”

She couldn't help it when he slid one finger inside her and curled it into a 'come-hither' motion, then a second, stretching her wonderfully and making her spread her legs wider, as that tongue still worked, fingers sliding in and out, as she gasped, pleasure going higher, and higher. She grabbed his horn with one hand, the other going to her breast, pinching her nipples...

The extra sensation was enough to send her over the edge, crying out and mewling as she did so, lights dancing behind her eyes.

When she came back to herself, she glanced down to find Bull wearing a very self satisfied expression. “Thank you,” she said, earnestly. Then smiled. “Want me to return the favour?”

Bull laughed. “Naw – I should be getting back. I've got reports to finish now I know you're ok. But you're under orders, understand? Hug more people! Now enjoy your bath.”

She laughed and saluted. “Yessir!”

 

Krem found her still soaking half an hour later.

“Hey, you-” he looked her over, frowning. “You look better.”

Liz smiled and stretched. “I feel better, yes.”

“What happened? Did I miss it, or can I smoke some too?”

She laughed and flicked water at him. “Nothing like that. Bull and I...exchanged favours. And I'm under orders to hug more people. That's all.”

“Oh.” Krem frowned, a look of concern on his face. “You...” He sighed and sat. “You...ok?”

She blinked up at him, and then frowned in turn. “Ye-es...why? What have I missed?”

“Nothing, I just...” he sighed again. “I don't want you to get the wrong idea about what happened with Bull. Sex with him doesn't mean he's interested in something more – it just means friendship.”

Liz looked strangely at him. “Oh course – I know that. We discussed it. Krem, I don't want anything with Bull. I just wanted the contact and the release, and he was nice enough to help me out. That's all.”

“Oh.” Krem looked somewhat taken aback. “That's...that's good then, I guess. You wouldn't be the first to exchange favours and think it means something more.”

“No, no risk of that. I-” She stopped pieces coming together in her head, then stared at him. “Wait. You say...did you?!”

Krem sighed and nodded slowly, looking slightly embarrassed. “ Just after I'd taken my commission with him. In hindsight, I didn't actually have feelings for him. It was just after I'd signed up, and I wouldn't normally be interested in someone if I've not known them that long, but...it was the first time I'd gone to bed with someone who saw me as a man, you know? Everyone before that, I'd either been a woman who happened to masquerade as a man to do a job, or...or I didn't bed them. Having sex with someone who knows and acknowledges what you are...that's a really validating and important feeling.”

Heart aching for his younger self, she put her hand on his knee. “I'm sorry. What happened?”

Krem smiled, a little ruefully. “He realised. He took me to one side and explained – very nicely – that I'd gotten the wrong end of the stick. He was as nice as you can be about such things, but it still stung. Didn't want to see you go through the same thing.”

Liz patted him. “No worries there, but I'm sorry that happened.”

She blinked, realising for a second that during this entire exchange, she'd not thought of him in a romantic fashion, even inside her own head once. Internally, she took a moment to do a jig of victory.

“Time for me to get out anyway,” she said, starting to climb onto the bank. “Are we spending a couple of days here before we move on? I've got some mending to do.”

Krem shook his head. “That's why I came to find you. A messenger arrived – we've been summoned back to Skyhold. As fast as we can travel – the Inquisitor's found something. We leave at first light.”

Chapter Text

The pace they took heading north was brutal, but not because of speed. They travelled heavily, weighed down with wagons of gifts, supplies, donations, and trading goods, more horses than they'd started with and each of them bearing a rider or heavy packs strapped down their backs.

“If it's that urgent,” Liz grunted to Rocky as they worked together to shove a length of timber under a wagon wheel that had become hopelessly bogged down as they forded a river. “Why aren't we leaving them behind?”

“It's not urgent enough to abandon the original mission,” Rocky grunted in return, waving to Dalish who was stood some ten paces behind them that the wood was in place.

The elf waved back, and light flickered around her hands, matching light around the wood, shoving with more force than Liz and Rocky could have managed. The wheel lifted with a groan and then popped free.

They watched as the oxen started to haul, and the wagon – this one filled with sacks of grain, traded for painstakingly in Redcliffe – sprung free and then continued on its way. “We were sent to do this,” Rocky waved at the convoy as if illustrating his point. “To improve the Inquisition's reputation, to set up trading agreements, to earn good will, to prove we are a force to be reckoned with, but one that the common people can go to, and that above all, we will fix the sky and Corypheus if we can but we need help. We've spent the last five months getting that message across, quite successfully, might I add. We're not abandoning it now. Whatever the Inquisitor's found, the Inquisition will still need all this.”

“Yeah,” said Liz watching them go. “It just feels like trying to run through sap syrup.”

Rocky grinned at her. “Just use the time to memorise what your toes feel like when you can still feel them inside your boots. Another few weeks to the north, and you're going to lose that!”

“Thanks for the reminder,” said Dalish, come up behind them, dourly.

He was right though, Liz thought. Every few days she would blink and realise the grassland around them was getting less verdant, the trees less lush, the greens of the foliage just a little dimmer, then more scarce. By the time they were at the northern edge of the Hinterlands, they were starting to see more and more patches of bare rock, and the nights were frigid enough that every single spare blanket in the supply train how now been claimed, and Liz estimated that long before they got to Skyhold, people were going to start sleeping with extra clothing on.

They were met by a pair of riders on the northern pass just as they were leaving. They wordlessly handed two large sacks to Bull, who nodded solemnly. They nodded back, then turned their horses south again.

“What the hell was that?” Liz asked him.

Bull shrugged and smiled in a way that sent up all sorts of red flags, but before she could pester, snapped the reins to the wagon he was driving, and moved on again.

“Something,” she muttered to Krem. “Is up.”

The Tevinter grunted in response – he'd been getting even less sleep recently, as it turned out the colder air was causing the scar from the arrow wound to ache and throb. Stitches had given him willowbark tea and said with time, it would adjust, but until then, Liz had woken a couple of times to find him staring at the canvas roof, eyes open and mouth pressed into a firm line.

That night, sat around the campfire – slightly bigger than they'd made them on the way down, to accommodate Draco's increasing bulk – there seemed to be an air of hushed expectation.

Liz glanced around at the others, who were all studiously ignoring her in a way that was so blatent it would have been funny if it weren't annoying. “Someone tell me. You're all about as subtle as a rock to the nose.”

Rocky sighed dramatically. “You're no fun.”

“Ok, ok,” Bull was laughing, and gestured to Dalish who produced the two sacks she'd seen handed over earlier with a rapidity that she suspected meant they'd been waiting for this. He stood, lifting one in each hand as easily as if they were stuffed with cotton wool, and stepped in close to the fire so he could be heard by all, even as he seemed to be addressing mostly Liz. Even Draco, dozing in the heat, opened an eye. Putting the sacks down, he spread his hands and started in a loud voice.“So, you're a Charger now through and through-”

He had to stop for a second as cheers and whooping went round the fire. He mock glared at the others who laughed in response. Eventually, the noise died down.

“As I was saying,” the raised eyebrow only got laughs this time. “You're one of us. And I know I, for one, am sick and tired of seeing you tromp around in those hand me downs!”

More cheering greeted this, and Liz felt a twinge of indignation. Yes, her clothing was all cast offs that mostly fit badly, and had been stitched and patched by her painstakingly over the months, but it wasn't like she had money to buy anything else, nor did she need to look good. She was sure Bull was leading up to something, but in the meantime, she put on as neutral an expression as she could manage and waited.

“Plus, your appearance reflects on us...and fuck, it's not like we're ever going to get the opportunity to say we dressed a dragon rider ever again! So, these, are for you!”

He tossed her the two sacks, one of which hit her in the midrift and sent her over backwards with an 'oof!' It had mass but not much by way of weight; it felt like it was full of fabric. The other landed on her right.

“What...” she said, opening it. Draco stuck her head out of the fire to sniff at it.

Softness met her fingers, startling considering how rough the wool of the clothes she normally wore were. Wordlessly, she pulled the items out.

There were leggings and tunics spun with something that felt like cotton but lighter, all undyed but beautifully fine. Underthings and the strappings she'd seen on Dalish that passed for bras on this world. Socks of varying thicknesses. Then breeches and tunics out of something that Krem, his father's tailoring knowledge obviously put to good use, whispered in her ear was cambric, heavy and stiff and hard wearing but still wonderful compared to what she wore now. Then woolens – finely spun, and unlike everything else, these had been dyed, golds, yellows and reds chasing each other over the garments, dyes she knew were costly and expensive to get, runes that glittered with Dalish's magic stitched painstakingly into each hem, each seam, on the breeches, tunic, arm wraps, leg wraps, socks, scarf, hood...

It was a stunningly expensive collection of items, knowing now as much as she did about this world now. Yet, somehow, it felt...incomplete? Hollow? She paused, the contents of the sack spread carefully over her lap.

Krem nudged her, grinning widely. “Open the other one,” he urged when she looked at him.

She opened the top of the second sack, reached in....and her fingers met leather.

Trying to keep her jaw from dropping, she drew out what she felt...to see a bracer, a piece of leather armour that wraps around the forearm.

It was a gorgeous blood-red in colour, darker than a ruby, like a rose by candle light. Etched onto the surface were, when she brought it into the light, patterns that echoed of the pattern of Draco's scales. When she turned it over, slipped her arm in, and tightened the buckles, it fit like a dream.

Heart in her throat, not trusting herself to speak, with careful and shaking fingers, she emptied the second sack, to discover a second bracer, greeves, pauldrons... The chest piece was made of overlapping layers, a split skirt hanging from it that would then strap around each thigh, knee and elbow guards designed to strap into place, gauntlets to go over her hands, two pairs of boots, one red and etched to match the rest, the second undyed and thicker, without any of the design, but when she ran her fingers around the inside of them, the leather still felt soft as butter.

She found the helmet last. There was no guard or grill on it – it left her face and her vision open, but leather straps, similar to those on the chest piece, hung from the bottom to protect her neck, and the leaher was cut so that from either side of the helmet, extended back, were two pieces of leather shaped like wings.

Her fingers found an etching under the left one. When she held it to the light so she could see, she couldn't read the word.

“It means 'Rider',” Bull told her gently.

She looked up with surprise and realised that other than him, Krem, Dalish and Stitches, they were alone. She looked at the elf.

She shrugged. “They saw you weren't hugely comfortable. Decided they all had things that needed doing.”

Liz struggled past the lump in her throat. “I...I don't know what to say.”

She shrugged again. “It's all designed so you can wear the layers together. We thought you'd need it, when she starts flying – will be cold up there. And the runes on the wool – they're for fire proofing and strength. It won't hold if she flies into a volcano or mean you can take an ogre on by yourself, but if you get caught in a fire, you shouldn't burn up, and if you get shot at, the arrow should leave a bruise and bounce off, not go through you.”

“The gauntlets are designed so you can hold reins while you wear them,” put in Krem.

“The helmet's structured to not impede your hearing or your sight,” added Stitches. “You're going to need both up there.”

“And this,” gently, Bull reached out and turned the helmet, showing the etching under the right wing this time.

It was a pair of bull's horns, pointing up.

“This is to show that no matter where you fly to, you're still a Charger. And we've always got your back.”

Liz opened her mouth to speak, but no sound would come out. Instead, she burst into tears.

Laughing, Bull pulled her into an embrace, swiftly joined by the other three.

“Like we'd let you get back to Skyhold dressed like that,” Krem muttered. “Honestly.

 

Liz wore her new gear the next day, and was greeted with whistles of admiration as she mounted Draco, who sniffed her but otherwise seemed to have no overall reaction to the change in her appearance.

Liz, however, felt wonderful. After months of old cast offs, scratchy robes and picking clothing on the basis of whether or not it would keep her warm enough to function, having clothing that fit, supported and suited her was a revelation. She was reminded of that morning, all that time ago, when she awoke in the loft over the bakery in Haven and discovered how much better she felt just for having slept in the warm. The change was like that. She'd even washed her face and brushed her hair, a routine she never normally bothered with in their constant cycle of eat-sleep-train-work.

The saddle was on its last legs, she thought, as she slung one leg over. She'd started riding the dragon regularly as soon as they'd headed north, starting for bouts of just a few minutes, but getting longer. As they left the Hinterlands into the passes heading north, past where you'd turn off for Haven and onwards to Skyhold, those minutes turned to an hour, then two, until she was spending longer on Draco than on her horse.

It was, she thought, an education by experiment. She'd fashioned reins out of leather thonging and the deconstructed parts of an old bridle, but putting a bit in Draco's mouth would have been stupid. Instead, it was looped and knotted around her horns, under the jaw, with a couple of wrappings around her neck.

Of course, she couldn't use the reins like she would for a horse either – you could tell a horse where to go. With Draco, nothing was so easy. The intelligence Liz had glimpsed became readily apparent when she was stuck on the dragon's back and Draco had decided she just had to investigate that thing over there, and no amount of hauling on her horns would turn her around.

The first two weeks, they frequently got stuck in stalemate – Draco insistent on going one way, Liz making her life difficult when she did so.

Eventually, as with all things, they found a balance – Draco's foraging was curtailed by Liz's desire to stay close to the group, but what exploring they did was extra productive, aided by Liz's extra vantage point. Rather than Liz steering, they developed a system of what Liz privately referred to as 'suggestions' – a tug on the rein drew Draco's attention to the rabbit standing motionless in a tuft of hedgegrass. Draco's shift of weight and the cock of her head meant Liz could see the cave she was just itching to stick her head into and knew to brace herself for it. Liz shifting her weight forward signalled that they needed to go faster...a sentiment that Draco rarely disagreed with, even if she had to do it on four feet instead of two wings, so the pair of them haring ahead of, beside or behind the main convoy became common, and they covered three times as much ground as anyone else.

“You look like you were born up there,” Krem remarked, as Draco skidded into camp one evening, Liz firmly on her back and not moving an inch.

“My legs disagree,” Liz said drily, not so much dismounting as tipping sideways and slowly slumping to the ground. Draco watched and then headbutted her when she hit the floor. “Yeah, yeah – I'm fine.”

“Think you're going to have to change some things though,” Rocky observed, holding up what looked distressingly like restraints.

He was right – once Draco was in the air, no amount of gripping with her thighs was going to keep her seated, so, as always, they improvised, tying Liz to the saddle and the saddle to Draco – clumsily at first, but later working out what worked best with fewest ropes.

The improvement in communication between Draco and Liz was immense – now she barely needed the reins, mostly keeping them for something to hang onto and to snap one of them if she needed the dragon's attention. Now Liz was tied to Draco so well that the smallest shift or lean and Draco felt it, the slightest change in Draco's stance and it fed back to the tension Liz could feel on her anchoring ropes...

...they were working as a team.

As they got higher and the air got thinner and colder, Liz started wearing more of her layers, then, all of them. She'd forgotten what the chill did when it reached your bones, the sensation of having forgotten what it feels like to be warm. She wore everything she owned – even the old stuff – to bed, and she and Krem still woke up wrapped around each other, shivering in the dawn's light. She got used to cracking ice off the edges of their tent to pack down and blinking herself awake to frost on her eyelashes.

She'd worried about Draco and the chill at first, but Draco seemed merely annoyed, taking to sleeping with as much of her on the fire as she could – she could no longer fit all of her on it – and when their campfires became puny little things that they could barely coax to life in the icey evenings, frequently, she and Krem would wake to discover the dragon's head in their tent, pillowed on their sleeping forms and dozing.

“I suppose she'd have to be able to deal with the cold on some level,” Krem remarked one evening as they combined their sleeping rolls again in a desperate effort to remain warm and Draco stuck her head in again. “Her wings are in, and she'll be able to fly at this altitude. If she couldn't cope, she'd freeze and fall out of the sky.”

Liz snorted. “Yeah, so she just gets grumpy instead.”

Five weeks had passed, and they were moving faster over the rock and solid ground of the mountains than they had been in the warmth of the Hinterlands, even if the wagons were taking more damage from it. They'd had to stop for an hour the previous day to repair a broken axle, the metal having shattered in the cold.

Eventually, just when Liz thought she couldn't take it any more and Stitches had started looking worriedly they spotted smoke in the distance – thin and spindly at first, then as they got closer, thicker columns of the stuff, until finally the fortress came into view.

“Hold up,” Bull help up one hand.

“What?” Liz couldn't help but whine – fine, it was still on the horizon, but it was right there they would be there today, tomorrow at the latest, and she really, really wanted a hot bath.

Draco, sensing her agitation, whined as well.

He gave them both a Look. “Nightingale said she wanted us to spend the first night outside the walls. Didn't say why though, but there's a camping spot just around the corner – she should be meeting us there.”

The convoy trundled on – as Draco needed to run, Liz took her back the way they'd been, checking their own tracks and over the pass they'd been on out of old habit – nothing following them, nothing sneaking up behind...

Unable to find anything, eventually, they turned to follow the others, taking a breakneck speed down, into the curve of the path, jumping one, two, three, four rocks, and then hit the ground hard, skidding into place in the middle of the camp-

A crackle of magic leapt at her from her left side. She twitched back, Draco spinning when Dalish's more familiar flare flashed in front of her, taking out the enemy spell. Liz drew a breath to yell for help when a familiar voice cut through the air.

Vishante kaffas! What the hell is that?!”

Chapter Text

It took all her strength to hang onto the reigns. “Friend!” she yelled, frantically, as Draco spun and snapped and hissed at this new person who had thrown magic at him.

Between two tents in the campsite, Dorian stood looking a tad grey under his moustache. His mouth was open, and any second Liz expected a string of unrepeatable Tevinter swear words to pop out of it, but he remained silent, seemingly too shocked to say anything.

Krem grabbed the dragon by one of her stubby horns and managed to get Draco calm enough for Liz to undo the ties and slide off, bending her knees for the impact as her feet hit the ground. Then she turned to Dorian, heart suddenly in her throat. Had she missed something? Had this been something the game hadn't shown her yet, that dragons were unclean to 'Vints somehow, was that the reason for his silence?

She stared back for a few seconds,searching for words, when there was a whoop from one side of her and a small rocket seemed to hit her in the sternum – it was in actuality, when she inspected it, Varric moving in for a top speed hug.

“I heard it, but I didn't believe it, I couldn't write this, are you JOKING Shiny?!” He yelled, seeming torn between greeting Liz and wanting to inspect Draco, who had taken to this short, loud newcomer a lot better than the the taller one who had thrown magic at her.

“I have no idea what to say,” Dorian said, voice a little breathless. “I...I hadn't heard it. You...where did you find it, for a start?!”

“It's a her, not an it,” Liz explained as she stepped forward to greet him, shaking a hand he seemed to have not realised he'd accidentally offered her as he still stared at the dragon, trying not to grin. Over her shoulder she could see Draco was making life difficult for Krem to strip her of her saddle, because Varric had something edible and was using it as leverage for friendship, which worked about as well for dragons as it did horses – that is, very. “And it's a...long story.”

“I'll say. I don't know if this will quell the mutterings about you or make them worse.”

Liz bristled. “Well, they can frankly fuck off.”

There was a beat as Dorian looked at her, and then, laughed as if it surprised him, colour seeping back into his cheeks. “You really have changed. And definitely not for the worse. Nice to know that the time apart did one of us-”

“WHAT IS THAT?!”

Leiliana's voice cut across the campsite, shock and outrage in every syllable. Liz turned to see her having just emerged from Iron Bull's tent.

“Oh dear,” muttered Dorian.

“Hey, I told you,” said Bull, who had stepped out behind her, his tone indignant.

“I didn't think it was real!” replied Leiliana, her voice all high and breathy. “I thought it was a message!”

Bull was giving her an odd look. “What” he said flatly.

Leiliana gestured with her hands, apparently flustered, as Draco clicked at this new person who was making such interested noises...but it wasn't enough to distract from Varric who had apparently had jerky in his pockets and showed no compunctions about giving it all away if it got him more dragon time.

“You know! I thought it was making a point – you're a Ben-Hassrath, you are as trained for this as I am, I thought you had deliberately won over my agents and made them send me an outrageous lie as proof that you could match me in my skill for the game!” If Leiliana had been a less poised person, Liz thought, she'd be tearing at her hair with every sentence, but as it was, she had just moved to gesticulating with her hands a lot. “I thought it was you trying to scare me, trying to intimidate me, by proving you could reach every agent I put in your path, and make them sing the same song! You-you're telling me, it's real?!”

Bull was staring at her in annoyed disbelief. “Wait...” he said slowly. “Is...is that why you've been really pissy to me in your missives? Do NOT tell me that's why you had us go digging through the fallow mire – it took us weeks to get the stench out!”

“I...I...”Leiliana was still staring at Draco, and Liz decided enough was enough, and it was time to take the iniative, trotting across the campsite towards them.

“Then, in that case, can I introduce you?” she asked, stepping forward towards the flustered red head, hoping to redirect the conversation before Bull gave into the impulse to start yelling she could see building by the way the muscles in his shoulders were tensing and twitching. Behind her, Draco was still inspecting Varric.

“I...is it safe?” She was stepping forward before Liz had time to answer, she noticed, so interest was obviously winning her over.

“Mostly – sometimes she's a bit unaware of her own size and strength, but she never does anything on purpose,” Liz explained, gesturing forward and leading her towards where dwarf and dragon where exchanging curiosity. Over Leiliana's shoulder, Bull gave her a look that said he was still going to yell at the spy-mistress for this. Just...likely not in public, right now. Liz gave the tiniest of nods in acknowledgement. Just providing he wasn't mad at her...

Draco seemed to take to both Leiliana and Dorian, by the time Liz had equipped them with sapsticks and taught them both how to say hi, and the distraction meant that Krem and Liz could wrestle the saddle off, finally, for it's nightly cleaning. Eventually, the sapsticks had run out and the fire was built enough that Draco went to nap in it, eyes closed to slits, giving every impression, to Liz at least, of a snoozing toddler who is trying to stay just awake enough that they'll be alerted if someone said the word 'chocolate'.

“Not to be a limp member at an orgy,” said Dorian, evidently trying not to stare as the rest of the chargers worked around Draco to prepare their food as if it was perfectly normal. Which for them, it really was, thought Liz. “But have you given any thought to how you're actually going to get her in to the castle?”

Liz gave him a strange look. “Er...walk with the rest of us?”

Varric snorted. “He's gotta point there – you walk that thing in, you'll cause a panic. And then there's the question of where you think it's gonna stay? In the stables? Look, your horses have been living with that thing for months and they're still skittish around it. There is no way Dennet is going to let you panic his entire herd for the sake of a single dragon.”

“Well, we aren't just leaving her out here!” Liz protested, not least because she really, really had her heart set on a warm bath the second she could manage it, but she wasn't about to leave Draco on her own outside Skyhold.

“I agree,” Leiliana said, stepping into the conversation. “Bull has told me about your eventual plans for her, and they sound...interesting. And certainly worth a try. I'll send commander Cullen out here to discuss options.”

“I'll come back with you,” Dorian said to her. “Frankly, I'd forgotten how unbelievably frigid it is out on these paths. Worse than my great aunt Glynis – used to sprinkle the sheets of newly weds with itching powder to encourage them not to 'indulge' too long. Varric can stay though – he's hiding.”

“What” said Liz, at the exact same time Varric said “I am not!” in an indignant tone.

“Oh?” said Dorian nonplussed. “Forgive me – I must have gotten the wrong impression when you ran off the battlements at such a speed it was like someone had set your short hairs on fire and you were trying to blow them out.”

“It's not hiding!” Varric said again. “It's just...letting the seeker calm down a little so we can have a productive and respectful discussion, rather than-”

“Rather than her beheading you for hiding the location of the Champion of Kirkwall, like you knew she wasn't just a bit obsessed with him,” Dorian finished, voice utterly cheerful. “I'm not complaining, I'm really not. You not telling her until he got here means we've had a day of homicidal rage, rather than months of it, and as long as she's angry at you, the rest of us could let a hungry nug loose in her underwear drawer, and still be in the clear.”

Varric sighed. “Look, I really didn't know where he was, I just...had instructions on how to get a message to him. And those means take a while. And then him travelling here...that also took time.”

“Well, whatever it is, her inquisitorialness is currently meeting with him,” Dorian turned to Liz. “While Cassandra is interrogating every hidden corner of the castle until she finds our friend here. So staying here with you, with both the Chargers and a dragon for protection, is likely the best course of action.”

“I concur,” said Leiliana, looking bemused. “I'll be sure the commander comes to see you tonight so you don't have to spend too long out in this cold. Come on Dorian – let's go get our horses.”

They turned to go while Liz, with a churning stomach, looked down at Varric.

“I don't suppose,” she said, hesitantly, “whether you know if Cullen is still angry with me or not...?”

Varric looked sympathetic and patted her arm. “Let's just handle that when he gets here, ok Shiny?”

“Oh hell,” she muttered.

Chapter Text

The sun had set and the light long faded from the sky by the time there was more movement on the pass between the camp and Skyhold, by which point Liz was well and truly pissed.

Skyhold's position in terms of defence and vantage point was fantastically advantageous, but as a result the only place they'd been able to pitch tents was in full blast of the wind, which was frigid beyond what Liz had considered possible, and the sky was clear. She was certain she'd have been deeply appreciative of the breathtaking view of the stars and galaxies scattered across the sky, ice lit diamonds on black velvet, in other circumstances. In other circumstances, she might have been cursing her lack of knowledge about constellations so she could compare these ones with what had been in the sky at home and racking her brains to explain the star signs to the chargers...

You know, had frost not started forming on her eyelashes.

With Leliana's assurance that they would be moving into the castle tonight, they had started striking tents, pulling pegs which were little more than ambitious splinters after weeks of being forcibly driven into ground that was frozen solid out of the sheet ice beneath their boots. They'd long since given up on using the metal pegs that had been better for them in the Hinterlands; those had shattered at mallet blows once they were cold enough.

But they'd left a handful standing for wind protection, and they now huddling in their shelter, blowing on fingers and stamping feet, Draco curled sulkily in the smoking heap that had been their fire, her wings up around her to form her own wind break. They'd have moved to the wagons had Leliana not taken them back with her, and had there been room.

“How the fuck were we ever supposed to sleep in this?!” muttered Liz disbelievingly to Krem, who had simply shaken his head and pulled his hood around his ears tighter, which given the shortness of his hair, were looking disturbingly pale.

So it seemed like hours before Varric and Rocky, who seemed less effected by the cold in general but were still, in Varric's words, 'frozen as an ice giant's tit', started prodding the people around them and pointing at the flickering torches and lanterns which marked the approach of a group.

“Thank fuck,” came a growl from the mismatched pile of fur that Bull had piled around him. They were the untreated pelts from the animals killed for their meals while they were on the move – the Chargers planned to cure and sell them once they got to Skyhold, but until that point, they stank. Bull claimed the cold was worse than the smell, and had taken to sleeping in them. He stood, the furs sliding off him in a way that would have been comedic had anyone been in any mood to laugh.

“About time,” he boomed at the group. Cullen was in front – Liz could make out the outline of that ridiculous fur ruff he always wore.

The lanterns gathered around as Liz's eyes adjusted to the way even they were flickering in the wind. Cullen, four more humans and two elves.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Draco raise the corner of her wing, peer at the new arrivals and then huff in disdain before slowly uncurling. She didn't seem slower or less aware to Liz's experienced eye as a traditionally cold blooded lizard might – maybe her sulking was purely because no one had been willing to play with her and it was the first time her normal fire had gone out so quickly, the flames unable to stand against the raging cold and wind?

“Bull,” said Cullen, apparently in no mood for niceties when he addressed the Qunari. “I'm told you're ready to move back to the....Maker.” He trailed off, staring at something behind them.

Liz glanced over her shoulder; having stood, Draco was silhouetted against the glittering swirls of stars in the night sky, making her seem a lot larger than she was. It didn't help that in the dark, no details were apparent, instead it was like a 2D cut out; she looked like some nightmarish shadow come to life. No wonder Cullen and those with him were looking a little taken aback.

Credit where credit was due though, she had to note grudgingly. He didn't look scared. Or at least not run-away levels of scared, although two of his accompaniers had their hands on their sword hilts. She supposed she shouldn't be expecting any less from the man who survived the cleaving of the Ferelden Circle and the fall of Kirkwall and those he'd had a hand in training.

“Draco,” she called, accompanying it with a hand gesture they used in fights which meant 'to my side, right now'.

Emitting a low grumble, Draco trudged over to her, not enticed any longer by the novelty of new people – she didn't know if the lack of speed was because she couldn't see the hand gesture in the light or if she just didn't want to move about in this weather.

“Erm, yes,” said Cullen, voice temporarily slightly higher than it had been. “We've found somewhere we think will be suitable to store it, especially once renovations are complete-”

“Her,” interrupted Liz. What the hell – if he was going to hate her anyway, the least she could do was stick up for Draco.

He stopped, and looked at her, his eyes narrowed, chin lowered slightly. “I beg your pardon,” he said in a tone that made it clear he wasn't begging anything from her.

“Her,” she repeated stubbornly. “Draco is a her, or she wouldn't have wings.”

Varric, ever the peacekeeper, stepped in. “And they aren't sure how much human speech she is capable of understanding,” he said, sounding utterly reasonable. “Until we do, it might be best to treat the giant fire breathing lizard with a bit of respect, I would say.”

For a second, Cullen pinned the dwarf with a stare that wavered between being disbelieving and hostile.

“Ye-es,” he said, drawing out the word, as if to emphasize scepticism. “As I was saying, we've located you a place to use as a stable for...her. We'll walk her in – it's late, and it's cold, and we've got men having cleared the way so hopefully we shouldn't have too many civi...”
He trailed off as Draco stepped forward to inspect him, nostrils flaring as she huffed him. Cullen froze and his two subordinates took a step closer to him.

Liz tugged at Draco's reins. “Back,” she snapped at her.

“Probably not used to someone without horns giving orders,” Bull chimed in from left her. She didn't have to look to hear the smugness in his voice.

For a second, it looked like Cullen would take the bait and snap something back, but after a second he stood up straighter and squared his shoulders. “Follow us,” was all he said.

The procession was an odd one, and possibly at any other time, Liz would have been curious to see the reactions of those around them. Last time she had stepped foot in Skyhold she had been greeted by being pointedly ignored at best, or outright hostility at worse. Now...now she was cold, tired, and had a dragon.

What people thought of her had somehow been bumped firmly into the category of 'things she gave not a fuck about' over the course of 6 months training and living with the Chargers, provided no one was about to come out and start shooting at her. And if they did, they weren't likely to live very long, given how twitchy Dalish was looking and how Draco was sniffing the air.

Which had, she thought in a moment of reflection, been exactly what the Inquisitor was aiming for, although she likely hadn't forseen Draco. In an odd way, she resented not being able to finish the game in her world – what would it have been like, playing a character that damned intelligent?

The main gates loomed overhead and in the dark she could just about make out what she thought were the outline of the guards above it, distinguishable from the crenelations only due to the fact they moved. Draco, intrigued, paused for a moment and sat up on her hind legs, wings slightly extended for counter balance to examine the structure.

She could feel Cullen's disapproval as the rest of the group stopped to account for her lack of progress. “She's never been allowed near a human habitation before,” Liz remarked loudly to no one in particular by way of defending the behaviour before tugging sharply on Draco's lead rein. “Dra, I said down! Now! Don't make me ride you...” she hissed.

Somewhere behind her Varric sniggered. “On the list of 'things I never expected to hear as a threat' Shiny, that's up there.”

They moved off again.

As Cullen had predicted, it was quiet, and those that they did see moving about seemed not to notice Draco in the gloom, surrounded by armed men – maybe writing them off as just another of the guard units, she thought. Everywhere Liz could see signs of habitation, smell yeast and beer and roasted meat and, from certain directions, latrines. There were lights in just about every window she could see, paths of straw laid out through the court to counteract the mud parts of it had sunk into. Cullen led them up a long staircase and she tried not to think about the lack of handrails; in the upper courtyard new cobbles appeared to be being laid, the debris and unsteady flooring, broken walls and cracks in plaster that had been so readily apparent 6 months ago were all things of the past.

Cullen paused before a door on the far side of the courtyard. “We have plans, but obviously the lack of notice means currently this is...not as we'd like it to be. Rest assured, we won't be leaving it like this, just so you're aware.”

Over Draco's back, Krem and Liz shared a look of mild concern, then nodded and moved in, Draco's enthusiasm starting to dim as she stepped under a roof for the first time, the passage way they were in steep, with a low ceiling and not enough room for the humans in the group to walk two abreast.. “Easy now,” Liz muttered, putting a hand up under her chin and rubbing between the spines there before stepping in front of the dragon when she made a whining noise, her tightly folded wings still brushing the walls. She could hear Krem saying something in a similarly soothing tone on her other side before falling back.

Ahead of her, as they pressed on, she could hear Bull's voice saying something in a low tone, words she couldn't make out. Cullen's slightly indignant reply was more easily heard. “Well of course we're not expecting her to come back out this way. She'll fly from the stable, but we had to get her in somehow, and she does fit!”

A pause.

“Mostly.”

One flight of stairs, two. Liz had to try and time her steps so as not to step on the heel of Dalish in front of her, or get trodden on by Draco behind, and stopped looking up, so it took her by surprise when suddenly she was in front of one last door and then-

“It's a jail,” she said flatly. It was – pillars were regularly spaced either side of the centre, but along both sides were cells, complete with bars and locks. At the far end of the room, a large hole had been chiselled in the wall, beyond which she could see a walk way that looked none too stable, and then open air over a waterfall that roared dully. At least the ceilings were high.

Cullen kept his back to her so she couldn't see his face. “We're planning,” he announced like she hadn't said anything as everyone else filtered in. “To make this your stables and dragon living quarters. That hole will be opened outward to be big enough for her. The bars taken off the cells and each of them used for storage for armour and supplies, food, repairs, that sort of thing. The walkway there will be rebuilt and turned into a platform for landing and launching, and if the experiment is entirely successful, the Inquisitor wants us to look into plans to dig down into the rock and also further outwards so that more than just yours could be stabled here.”

Liz bristled at the implication that Draco might fail, but thankfully Bull was already directing the conversation.

“And where do the rest of us sleep?”

“You've all been assigned living quarters in the same section as my men, below ground on the east side. But I wanted you all to be aware of where your dragon was being stored – you are all responsible for her, afterall.”

“Yeah. We know.” Either Liz had gotten far more finely attuned to the subtext Bull included in his tone, or Cullen was deliberately ignoring the face the Qunari sounded unimpressed.

“If you want to settle her in, I'll show you where you all-”

“I'm staying.” The words were loudly out of her mouth before she could stop them. This time Cullen did turn to stare at her, as did everyone else. “She's never been in a building before. She's never been over a waterfall before. She's never been away from all of us before, not since we started this. I can rectify one of those things, and as I'm responsible, I'm not leaving her.”

“I'll stay too,” Krem chimed in, his tone so utterly bland Liz wasn't sure if it was because he was trying to convince others he would look after her, or if he was subtly giving Cullen the finger for stationing them away from Draco.

After a couple of seconds, Cullen shrugged. “Up to you – I'll have your bedrolls and gear brought down to you. I'd have recommended prioritising a good night's rest, but it's up to you.”

Liz just nodded, not trusting her tongue, as the others turned to go and leave. Draco whined uncertainly at their going – she wasn't used to them splitting up – but Liz and Krem's presence seemed to steady her.

“Right, see you at 9 of bells tomorrow then,” said Cullen as he turned to leave the room.

She could feel the Chargers exchange a confused glance. “What,” said Liz, slowly.

Cullen turned to look at her, his expression unreadable. “I thought Leiliana would have told you. The Inquisitor has approved giving you a chance to see if you and...she,” he gestured to Draco. “Can fit in with our forces and become an asset to the inquisition. I am in charge of those forces, and therefore I will be directing your training. For the next month. And at the end of it, I get the final say on if she can stay.”

Somewhat shellshocked silence greeted this pronouncement.

Without a further word, Cullen left the room, everyone else trailing after him.

Eventually, Krem, Liz and Draco were left alone together. Krem broke the silence first.

“Well... Shit.”

Chapter Text

Stitches made a hissing noise of sympathy as he pressed the chunk of ice Dalish had conjured wrapped in a scrap of fabric against Liz's cheek.

“This is still going to shine up into a hell of a bruise,” he told her.

“I know,” Liz muttered, trying desperately hard not to move her mouth.

“So what's the plan?” Dorian's elegant drawl seemed to be coming from somewhere near the door, but Liz wasn't about to move her head to check. “That's what you people do, I understand, is have a plan when it all goes to dragon dung. No offense.”

From the grumbled grunt, Liz was guessing that last comment had been directed at Draco.

“It's what Chargers do,” snapped Krem from where he was stood leaning on a pillar. “And you aren't a Charger.”

“It's a Liz problem, and we're all in it because we are her friends and allies. So, here I am. You'll just have to thank whatever lucky stars you have for my assistance later. For now, I shall content myself with merely assisting in the plan. Once you all tell me what it is.”

She wanted to snap at the lot of them, but the mouth moving was a problem, so she flapped a hand impatiently instead, but before she could brace herself to speak, someone else's voice boomed out.

“I know what we're going to do,” came the deep, drawling tones of Bull when he was deeply, deeply unimpressed. Liz winced, thinking back to what had taken place.

 

It hadn't been nearly as bad in the stables as they'd worried. When morning came around, Liz was pleasantly surprised to find that even though they were open to the air, the lack of wind chill and the open braziers meant she could crawl out of bed and into clothing without worrying she was going to lose a digit to frostbite in the process, and given the lack of swearing from one cell over where Krem was sleeping, she guessed he'd had the same discovery.

Even Draco, curled around one brazier in particular, opened one eye in a hazy but somewhat self satisfied way when Liz woke, and a couple of kitchen workers delivered them breakfast shortly afterwards – or at least, they knocked on the door and then ran – to make things even better. Two large bowls of porridge with sugar, cinnamon, cream and some small dark berries that were both sweet and tart, for her and Krem, and what looked like the back leg of a druffalo for Draco. By the time anyone else arrived, Liz felt awake, well fed, and full of positive energy.

That was about where the good part of the morning ran out.

Cullen arrived approximately ten seconds early, with Cassandra at his elbow and another three warriors behind him, one woman and two men. All wore heavy armour. All were huge.

“Alright then,” Liz heard Krem mutter behind her in a way that sounded like a challenge. Her stomach flipped and she tried desperately to conceal the nervousness that suddenly seized her. They were fine, they were good. Draco was a force to be reckoned with – Cullen couldn't do anything, surely, that would jeopardise this.

Surely.

“Right,” said Cullen, consulting something on a clipboard without bothering with any other pleasantries. “First; Bull mentioned one of the main aims of this unit would be to control the airspace above our forces. So we need to see how she flies.”

He looked expectantly at Liz.

“Erm,” she said, heart sinking. “She, she doesn't really fly yet-”

He was frowning. Fuck. Her nervousness ramped up again – they couldn't fall at the first hurdle!

“But!” she hurried on to say. “She's never really had an opportunity for a take off like this before, it's all been hills and dales and such, so, we should see!”

She looked at Draco, trying to hide the urgency in her tone. The dragon was looking at her with what she could only describe as the draconic equivalent of a raised eyebrow. “C'mon Draco.”

She signalled her and then walked out through the hole in the back wall, leading the way onto what appeared to be the stablest section of platform remaining.

Draco remained at the break in the wall, sniffing the air suspiciously.

“Draco!” Liz snapped, making the come here motion.

Draco ignored her, eyeing the platform and the waterfall below, and the several other, increasingly expressive, signals Liz gave, each one more urgent than the last.

Over the dragon's shoulder, she saw Cullen frown again, and then mark something on his clipboard. Cassandra was watching with a frown.

“It's a new environment,” Krem's voice, overtly annoyed, cut in. “And she's young still. You can't expect her to just go jumping into it when she's barely settled. Talk about a lack of survival instinct if she did.”

“Ye-es,” Cullen said in response, obviously unconvinced. “Well, another time then maybe. For now, we'll test your reactions and combat skills.

That, if anything had been worse.

First Cullen asked her mount so they could test her against Cassandra and the three warriors while Cullen took notes.

Draco wouldn't pay attention in the slightest. The second Liz mounted up, Draco did something she hadn't done in weeks and threw her off. On the second attempt she rolled. The third, she grabbed Liz's leg and dragged her off, then tossed her the length of the room so she landed at Cullen's feet in a heap, before play bowing at Krem, who was looking progressively more and more despairing.

“Somewhat...undisciplined,” observed Cassandra, her voice dry as Liz got to her feet, feeling bruises along her legs that she knew would bloom into deep purple poppies on her skin come the following morning.

“She isn't normally,” Liz snapped, unable to help herself. “She was at first, but we'd trained her out of it. I don't know why she's doing it again now.”

Like I said, could be the new environment – she's never been inside before,” offered Krem, who had stepped forward to grab Draco's reigns and stop her from doing anything that might look even worse, like trying to go back to sleep beside the brazier. “And new people. She's only ever been around Chargers or enemies to be killed. You're the first to be something else.”

“Maybe we should just move on,” said Cullen, his tone utterly unreadable, which Liz took as a bad thing, but she couldn't think of any way to make it better. “Let's see how she fights on her own.”

“Right,” said Krem, suddenly upbeat. Liz knew why – they'd run combat drills against Draco before. Even when one side lost, it still looked damned impressive. Hopefully it might be a way to make a better impression.

It wasn't.

She and Krem lined up with swords first, both of them against Draco. Liz gave the 'spar!' signal and both of them lunged in-

Draco, rather than counter attacking as she normally did, dodged them both and ran away, ducking behind the pillars on the other side of the room.

“Draco!” Liz couldn't help but sound despairing. “Get back here!”

A lot of shouting and rebuking later, during which she was becoming increasingly aware of the glances Cullen and Cassandra were sharing, none of which were good.

Finally, they managed to get Draco to spar, only for it to be incredibly apparent that her size now meant just the two of them were not sufficient to demonstrate her abilities – Liz got taken out by her tail almost instantly, while Krem managed to dodge for about three seconds before ducking and going low for a blind spot on Draco's left, only to get clotheslined by her wing.

Not impressive. So Liz was surprised when Cassandra spoke. “Well, that is hopeful, at least. We shall try and see how she does.”

“Er, ok,” she said, getting up and standing to one side. Krem did likewise, muttering 'uh oh' in Liz's ear very very quietly.

Liz looked at him, confused, and raised an eyebrow, before looking back to Draco and giving the spar/play signal, and pointing at the four warriors.

Draco looked back and forth between Liz and Cassandra for a second, making an unhappy deep grumbling sound in the back of her throat.

Cassandra lunged in just as the fighter on the other end of the line – the other woman – went high. Draco ducked the sword swing, tail lashing around to whip Cassandra at the back of her knee, causing her to stumble. Draco lowered her head and rammed the other woman while the two men closed in, but the heavy armour meant she didn't go flying as most of Draco's opponents did. Rather, she sort of got stuck on her horns, and for a second they staggered together, each of them struggling to get free.

The two men both lunged in, landing strikes that, even with blunted practise weapons, made loud thuds. Draco growled, pulled herself up mostly onto her hind legs, wings half extended for balance, and shook her head hard. The warrior went clattering to the ground as Cassandra rejoined the line with the two male fighters.

Draco looked at the three of them, hissed...and then darted past them, running straight for Liz and Krem.

“Hey!” Liz managed to yell as Draco skidded to a stop in front of her and then headbutted her, gently but firmly in the stomach. It was very much a headbutt that said 'I don't like it. Make them stop.'

“Go, go back!” Krem was gesturing and pointing at the warriors. Draco made a grumbling sound and slid behind the nearest brazier, resting her head in the coals and closing her eyes as if hoping they'd all go away.

“You've got to be kidding me,” Liz burst out. She looked at Cullen, who was grim-facedly noting something down. “She's not normally like this!”

“I...see,” Cassandra's voice hadn't gotten any warmer as she lowered her sword. Cullen nodded, as if to himself.

“Right, then, last one before I have to go and draw an, erm, training plan,” said Cullen, voice utterly neutral. “Liz, fight Dylon.”

One of the male warriors stepped forward.

Liz looked at him, unable to hide her confusion. “Me?”

“You are applying to be a member of our forces. We need to know that, deprived of your mount, you will be able to hold your own in battle.”

“Al-right,” said Liz, slowly stepping forward and accepting the sword and sheild Cassandra was offering her, eyeing her opponent up.

“Begin,” Cassandra said, as they started to circle.

Liz looked the man across from her over. Dylon wasn't that much taller than she was, but he moved like a well oiled machine, handled his own sword and shield with an ease that spoke of decades of experience, and was clad in head to toe in metal armour. She had a shield that was a little too heavy, a short sword that she'd never used before and the weight felt just a little off, and 6months of sporadic 'keep you alive against bandits when it goes to shit' training.

She was fucked. But she was damned if she was going to go down without a fight.

She sliced in, trying an overarm strike to see if he'd think her overconfident and take the easy response. He did, and she smacked him on the wrist with the edge of her shield. On an unarmoured opponent, that would have been enough to make hi drop the sword, but on a wrist covered in chainmail, it simply resulted in him withdrawing the blow.

They circled some more – it would appear Dylon's strategy was to wait her out. Grimly, she tried again, stepping inside and twisting the blade to get at his elbow; the blow clanged off and she earnt a bruise on her forearm from his counterattack. She went low, raising the shield and swinging for his knees, which again, did nothing. She aimed a strike at his grip around the hilt of his sword, but he was too fast, even armoured where she wore nothing.

She was starting to sweat, keenly aware of Cullen and Cassandra's gazes, and she could occasionally spot Krem looking serious and unhappy. Draco, the traitor, was still pretending to be asleep in the fire.

Now Dylon decided to attack, with fierce speed. She parried frantically, almost forgetting she had a shield to block with at times as she stepped backwards, giving more and more ground, trying to keep out of his reach, using the pillars for occasional cover. She was starting to tire – these weren't her weapons, and she wasn't used to duels. She had to end this before she did something truly humiliating like dropped her weapon.

What had those self defense articles said? Weak points – groin, instep, eyes. Groin and instep were too heavily armoured here. She'd need to go for eyes, when she had her moment. She dodged another blow and lead them back to the centre of the floor, watching his movement.

She waited until he swung again then darted in, dropped her shield – this would either work or it wouldn't and regardless of which, she wouldn't need it any more – inside his reach, as if he was embracing her, bringing the hilt of her sword up as she turned to strike his helmet, aiming for the slit where his eyes were-

She twisted, trying to put the force of her turn into the blow, only for something hard to impact her right temple and the world went black.

She blinked her eyes and was looking up at Draco's belly. She could hear loud growling and Krem's voice saying something in a soothing tone. Groaning and tasting blood in her mouth, she pushed herself up onto her elbows and patted Draco on the stomach.

“Hey,” she said, and then regretted it when a split lower lip made its presence known.
Draco stopped and turned. Liz had an odd moment of thinking she was seeing things at the bright glow coming from the dragon's face when she realised she really wasn't – Draco was just holding fire in her mouth.

Right. This was new. And of course she'd pick now to do it.

The door slammed. Draco's head whipped around, and Liz could see past her that they and Krem were now the only people in the room. Krem had his head in his hands.

“What hap-” Liz managed before she put her hand to her mouth and made a squeaking noise at the pain.

“You...” Krem sighed and looked up. “You knocked yourself out on his shield when you hit – rammed your head into it. Then she,” she gestured to the dragon who was chewing whatever it was in her mouth now. “Got protective, and charged in, so you sort of, smashed your face on something when you went down. I'm not sure if it was the floor or his foot. They start to leave, she's still angry, so pulls a new trick. Cullen was not happy. Annnnd I'm getting Bull.”

He turned and left, and Draco curled up beside Liz, giving her what was supposed to be a reassuring headbutt.

So now she had Bull looking quietly pissed off, Dorian leaning against the doorjam, looking smug in a way that seemed to be designed to piss off the Qunari, plus Stitches and Dalish hovering over her.

“Wha?” She grunted in Bull's direction.

“I'm annoyed,” he said, in a slow drawn out fashion. “Because that was not how you give someone a chance. You didn't walk into the Chargers to have Krem test you on if you could fight, could be trusted, could keep your head in a fight...because it wasn't fair. You needed the opportunity to show you could learn that stuff, even if you didn't know it, because no one joins an army or unit battle ready. Everyone needs training. If he'd been playing by the unspoken rules, he'd have taken you and her out and told you to show him what you could do. Instead, he came in here with his group of metal heads with a set of expectations deliberately designed to show you up and break you down. And that. Makes. Me.... Frustrated.”

The last word was drawn out in a way Liz hadn't heard before, and he had an expression on his face that looked like he wanted to snarl but was trying to hold it back.

“So like I said,” Dorian interjected, examining his fingernails in great detail as if making a point of how unimpressed and unaffected he was by Bull's well contained anger. “What exactly is the plan?”

“Training. We taught you how to survive, not how to take down soldiers on a battlefield in full armour. So, it's time to change the focus. Before the week is out, we'll have you knowing how to send any one of those idiots head over tit.”

“When, exactly, are we supposed to do that Chief?” Krem crossed his arms, skeptical. “You heard Rutherford; he's planning on having her train every minute she's awake and some that she's not. We just gonna conjure more time in the day out of thin air?”

“Nope.” Varric sounded cheery as he arrived at the door and shared a grin with Dorian. “No conjuring required.”

“Timewise, at least,” Dorian added in a nonchalant fashion, conjuring a purple fireball into one hand as if he was barely thinking about it.

“You don't make more time – you just, you know, steal it back from Curly up there,” the dwarf crossed his arms. “So to speak.”

Liz raised an eyebrow, but it was Stitches who spoke. “An' how, exactly, do we do that?”

“You? Don't.” Dorian smiled and Varric nodded. “Leave that little detail...to us.”

Then Draco broke the mood by headbutting Varric and inspecting his pockets for something to eat while Liz and Krem exchanged somewhat unsettled glances.

Chapter Text

Dorian and Varric's plan didn't become apparent until the second day into what Liz had dubbed 'hell month', both to herself and to Krem, privately, when he'd been around and she'd been able to talk – which between the exercises and the supervision by Cullen wasn't much.

She'd woken at the first light the day after their disastrous evaluation session, before dawn had even really come to be; the sun hadn't risen, but there was light in the sky, thin and grey and such that she couldn't help but feel from the way her breath misted in the air that she was adding to the way it seemed stretched across the land.

Of course, no normal person would be awake voluntarily at this hour, and she wasn't either.

“Up,” said Cullen again from the door way. Draco grumbled her annoyance at him from her brazier , or at least the one she seemed to spend most time sticking her head in.

“Friend!” Liz yelled before the dragon could get any smart ideas, clawing her way upright. She blinked sleep out of her eyes and met Cullen's gaze. She got the impression he was putting significant effort into not sneering at her, and had a moment of wondering what her hair was doing to cause such a response.

They both paused, Draco still with one eye open at the pair of them to see how this would play out.

Cullen seemed to take a deep breath. “This is the only day I will bother coming down here to wake you. In future you are to report to my office, at dawn, for your day's assignment.”

He turned and left. Liz wondered how long she had to wait before being able to swear loudly without him overhearing her.

He didn't even look at her when she turned up, instead pointing to a woman in armour who was there dropping off a load of clipboards.

“With me,” she said, leading the way out of the office and handing her a breadroll stuffed with cheese and some unfamiliar pickled vegetable by way of breakfast. Liz scoffed it as they went, and it was a good thing she had, as the woman led her down to the courtyard and proceeded to shove Liz in with a unit that looked about as awake as she was, and started jogging around Skyhold in unison just as the sun broke the horizon.

Well, they jogged in unison. She started having flashbacks to when she started training with the chargers. She was used to training, used to sparring, used to having to work.

But they'd not done long periods of running – they didn't need that sort of stamina, not in that way, at least. They'd definitely never done it in the freezing cold and at altitude. The nausea started almost immediately.

She made it to the second lap of the castle before she had to stop and throw up her hastily eaten breakfast. “Fuckitall,” she muttered in English, hurrying after them and staggering only a little. She was willing to bet if she fell behind that badly, they not only wouldn't wait for her, she'd have to make up the work.

She was right. Laps done, the training master split them and sent them off to new assignments; no opportunity for making friends here, she wasn't around anyone long enough. She ended up hauling sacks of grain for the kitchen, then helping move haybales for Dennet. Then, just when she was falling into the swing of things – this was exactly the sort of work she and the Chargers had spent months doing, the nausea and head pain had even stopped getting worse – she got hauled out and put in a unit that was in the middle of drills.

That was another mess. She didn't know half the blocks and attacks they were using. The shield she had been given to use was markedly heavier than her normal one – that was light and wooden and designed for deflecting blows so the user could step in and take advantage when the enemy was off balance. This one was designed for taking punishment. Their rhythm and stances were different, and the method of interplaying with your allies in a line just seemed to make no sense to her.

Every misstep cost her ten press ups; another activity the Chargers had not prioritised. By her twelth batch she had to struggle not to simply lie face down on the ground and groan quietly, retching every so often. Maybe if they thought she was dead, they'd leave her alone.

No such luck. They continued until sundown, before the training master finally dismissed them. Grateful, she went to stagger in the direction of the 'dragon' stables, only to get tapped on the shoulder and pointed back at Cullen's office.

“You'vegottabekidding,” she managed, and instead staggered up the stairs and into his office... without bothering to knock.

His head snapped up from what he'd been looking at on the desk, and his eyes narrowed at her.

“It is customary to ask permission, soldier,” he snapped.

“Yesser,” she said automatically, but neither withdrew nor dropped his gaze. What was she supposed to do now, go back out and try again? Hell no. Also, she wasn't sure she could as she could no longer feel her knees, and was reasonably sure that if he wanted her to knock before entering, vomiting on his floor immediately after stepping in would be a definite no-no.

He pointed to another desk set up in the corner that hadn't been there this morning. It had a stack of papers on it and a single candle. “Those are summaries of the units, their stations and purposes, their current locations and their objectives. If you want to be a part of this force, you need to know it. You will sit and study.”

She automatically walked over and sat obediently, picking up the pages to study them before her brain clicked into gear.

“Erm, Cullen?”

“Commander.”

If she threw something at him, the nicest thing he'd do would be to make her run more laps. Or more pushups. She'd rather run right off the battlements than do that. She bit her lip, took a deep breath and counted to ten inside her head as fast as she could. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten- “Commander?”

“What is it?”

“You do realise I can't read these, right?”

He put down the slate he'd been studying, the expression on his face indicating he'd very much like to throw it at the nearest wall. “What.”

“I can't read your language.”

He seemed utterly dumbfounded. “Still? What were they doing with you out there?!”

She struggled not to let the snarky come back out of her mouth and ended up having to physically bite her tongue to avoid it, so sat in silence in the face of his disdain.

He, meanwhile, stared at her for a second. She couldn't work out if he as honestly expecting her to say something or not – now she looked closely, especially in the candlelight, he looked as worn out as she felt – before finally closing his eyes and sighing. “Fine. I'll arrange lessons – maybe give Fiona something to do. For now...go.”

She went, and later couldn't recall exactly how she'd gotten back to their stable. Krem had barley, bacon and paprika (or what tasted like it) soup waiting for her, with a hunk of bread that she recognised as Wodon's recipe, some good strong cheese and some dried meat that she dropped into the soup and let soak rather than attempt to chew her way through.

“That bad?” he asked, having to shake her awake about two thirds of the way through her bowl.

“Like when I started with you, only worse,” she confirmed, putting her plates down and going back to crawl into her bedroll, all attempts at dignity forgotten and hoping that what she'd just eaten stayed put; she needed the energy.

“Chief swung by, “ Krem said, stopping her mid-crawl.

“What about?” She replied, too tired to turn around.

“The probationary period. It's been extended to 3 months.”

Liz took a moment to reorganise her thoughts until she was sure the words that came out of her mouth wouldn't be solely swearing.

“Cullen's doing, I presume?”

“He wanted to fail you immediately. Apparently the extension was the best the Inquisitor could argue him down to. Josephine was certain he was going to resign over it if she had completely overruled him.”

Liz paused to take this in. “Vashedan,” she said at last, and resumed crawling. Krem grunted his agreement behind her.

She woke twice in the night to stumble to the edge of the falls and vomit; everything she'd eaten for dinner the first time, and whatever her wretched stomach could dredge up the second time once there was nothing solid left in it. Judging from the snores, Krem continued his unconsciousness throughout, his profile unmoving in the dull light of the braziers.

She wrestled the temptation to wake him up so as to have company in her misery, and just barely managed to stuff it back in its box.

The next day she barely made it to Cullen's office on time. Her head felt about three sizes larger than normal, her stomach lurched with every step, and her muscles felt like they were made of heated cheese. This was not good.

She stepped into his office into pandemonium – people crowded around the desk and shouting and waving clipboards.

“Erm,” she said, wondering if this fell under the 'should have knocked first' rule.

An advisor stood in front of Cullen's desk turned, saw her, and then said something to the man in the middle of the huddle. Cullen stood up, looked at her, and pointed to the door again. He looked even more stressed than normal.

“You're dismissed from physicals today, go and see Fiona,” he said sternly, pointing in the direction of the library.

“Yesser,” she muttered, turning to obey.

Dorian stepped out from the shadows as soon as she entered the building, looking smug.

“What did you do?!” she demanded in a harsh whisper.

“Nothing too bad,” he whispered back, taking her by the shoulders and steering her into the great hall, and not in Fiona's direction, she noted. “A little bribe here, some sweet talking there, one well connected dwarf applied with gusto and hey presto, you have a scouting report that makes it sound like they really, really need the unit you were training with to go and investigate possible Templar activity three days south of here.”

“Dorian!” she yelped, scandalised. “These are trained soldiers! They have jobs! You're risking lives-”

He cut her off. “No, I'm not. The short trip will be good for them, and test their preparation. We still have a fighting force here more than capable of holding the castle if we're attacked in the meantime, and they'll be on their guard the entire distance there and back against the threat that isn't actually there. In the meantime...”

He led her down a set of stairs, and then a second, through a series of corridors, and then another set of stairs, until all she knew was that they were well and truly under the mountain, and she was well and truly lost.

She could have cried when Dorian opened the door into a wave of heat that hit her in the face. Beyond it she could see a white tiled room that had benches, changing screens and tables set up, and multiple doors the other end of the room.

“The bathing rooms,” he explained to her. “Vivienne ensured they were up and running about as fast as they could have them. You,” he steered her in and shoved her behind a screen. “Need to strip off and soak in the tub behind door number three. It'll help with the illness.”

“How did you know about the illness?” she said, peeling her clothes off and grateful when he tossed the Thedas equivalent of a towel – a large section of thick, absorbent woven cotton – over the screen at her.

“Everyone gets it. We think it's the height. The herbal soak in your bath seems to be the best thing we've found; helps it pass quicker, days instead of weeks.”

He paused, and from the other side of the screen, Liz could almost feel his hesitation.

“What?” she said, finally, wrapping the drying cloth around her and stepping out to look at him. Sure enough, he looked awkward as hell. “And where is Varric, incidentally?”

“Engaging Bull in a conversation about the best training syllabus to apply to an reasonably experienced scrap fighter who needs to fit into an established military force in a short period of time given extreme restraints on how much training time is available,” Dorian's voice was curiously neutral as he steered her towards the door he'd said her tub was behind.

She thought for a moment as she opened the door, pausing in boneless gratitude when the wave of steam washed out and around her like a blanket, the herbal scent suddenly enveloping her and curiously almost like mint. The room was lit by lanterns giving off clean yellow light, the bath large enough to fit three people if one was inclined to share, dark wood and runes under it glowing softly, keeping the water warm.

“You mean,” she said, stepping inside, motioning him in after her and closing the door. “He's keeping Bull occupied with a conversation that need to be had so he won't be too suspicious...Dorian, what's going on? And will you freak out if I get naked, because, by the Maker, I need this bath.”

“Get in, get in,” Dorian waved at the bath. “After the number of prostitutes my father threw at me in an effort to change my tastes by blunt force, I'm likely more familiar with breasts than you are.”

She slung the towel on a hook and clambered awkwardly into the tub, sighing when the heat seemed to sink into her bones. “Talk.”

The Tevinter sighed as he leaned against a wall where they could look at each other. “Don't take this the wrong way.”

She bristled. “Then don't say it the wrong way. Dorian, it's Bull. He's saved my life, saved all the Charger's lives, hundreds of times, I couldn't count how many. Why shouldn't I be wary if you're suddenly trying to imply I shouldn't trust him?”

“Because I'm not implying it, I'm outright saying it!” he snapped, hand slapping against the walls as if to punctuate his point.

“What?!” She half rose, outraged. He motioned her back down and after a wary silence, she sat again. Mainly because the heat and the herbs had made her knees weak, but she didn't want to show that.

He sighed and his hand rose to his hair as if he wanted to run his fingers through it, but was afraid of messing up the styling. “That...came out wrong. I didn't mean to be so blunt. Listen, Liss, I know you like and trust him. Admire him even. But you need to consider this – you feel that way because he wants you to. Because it's his job.”

“Yes,” snapped Liz, sarcasm heavy on her tongue. “ Because as a mercenary leader, he's supposed to alienate both his employees and potential employers, and give an impression of incompetence and creepiness, ensuring no one listens to him on the battlefield. Do you hear yourself?”

“No, you're not understanding. His job. Vishante kaffas, he's a ben hassrath! He is a good mercenary captain because they told him to be. You need to understand if they told him to be a nug smuggler, or a dwarf wrestler, or a pastry chef, he would do exactly that, and be just as competent and proficient at that too. He is loyal to you right now because that is what his orders are, and as long those orders stay the same, you are safe, but if they change...”

“Fuck off!” Liz hissed, unable to contain her temper, glaring at him. “You're just letting your prejudice blind you! Just because Tevinter and the Qun-”

“Oh give me some credit! Fine, we have our differences, but I at least have seen the results of the devastation that they can cause when you're on the receiving end!” He glared right back, then his gaze softened and he took a breath, his tone gentler. “I know he's charismatic, and I know you think he's earned your trust, but he's part of the same force that rampages through villages and schools when it's advantageous to them and trust me, the conversion options are not nearly as friendly as they would like you to think, especially not for any mage, no matter how young.”

He sighed, looking almost wistful for a second. “I also know our forces have done some pretty hideous things too, so I'm not speaking from a position of great moral authority, but I am speaking from the position of someone who has watched two different nations convince themselves that the horrific, awful depths they have sunk to in war were necessary and unavoidable. And I am concerned about what will happen if they suddenly decide that you – or we, as the Inquisition – are worth sinking that far.”

Liz stared at him. “He lost his eye to save Krem,” she said, flatly. “I'm not going to argue he doesn't have some torn loyalties, but that? Was going above and beyond what any pretence would have required. If push comes to shove, he might turn his back on us, he might go back to them – I don't think he would, but I am willing to admit he would consider the possibility – but I am absolutely drop dead certain that he would never, ever stab us in the back with it, or that this will all turn out to be an act.”

He looked at her with a sadness that caused a sudden surge of fear around her heart. “I hope you're right. I really, truly do.”

She nodded and then silence, awkward and lumbering loomed between them. After a handful of seconds, Dorian coughed, looking uncomfortable. “So...now I've made this as unpleasant as possible, I...should really go.”

“No, wait!” Liz said, frantically. He was her ally, and – she hoped – her friend. This was not how she'd wanted their first heart to heart after her return to go.

“No, really, it's not the horrific awkwardness that's doing it – I'm on a time limit, and need to make it back in time to ensure this little charade doesn't fall over.”

“Can you at least tell me what the long game is here?”

“Long game? Teach you enough that you can leave any of theirs in the dust. You have the underlying fitness and skill levels, it's just making sure you now have the knowledge and information to be able to fit in with his forces and do what he requires of you in order to pass.”

“Great,” she replied, feeling somewhat let down. “So I've got, what, 6 days for this 'illness' to pass and somehow get sufficiently better to win Cullen over? That's an incredibly short period of time. What if I've not got this down before that unit gets back? What if this isn't enough?”

“Oh, my small, favorite nugling,” said Dorian, reaching forward and tapping her on the crown of her head with one finger, smiling wryly. “Of course 'this' time isn't enough – 'this' is us just getting started.”

 

He was right. After 6 days, Liz was keeping food down and able to keep up with the Charger's training schedule, and Fiona had just about pounded the Thedan alphabet into her head. They also took time at the beginning and end of each day to try and encourage Draco to try flying, but the dragon seemed afflicted with her own version of altitude sickness, and ignored them, preferring to spend her time sleeping. Given how she as a human had been feeling, Liz couldn't blame her.

She reported before dawn to Cullen's office feeling better than she had thought possible in such a short amount of time the morning after the unit arrived back. She then proceeded to almost break her neck during unit manoeuvres, earned a black eye and a split lip during sparring, and it took her the entirely of the evening to make her way through a single supply order sat at that rickety desk in his office trying not to freeze her fingers off.

Two days after that, someone – Varric was conspicuously absent – let several dozen hens loose in the barracks, and training was called off for 24 hours while they caught them and cleaned up the mess. Bull took the opportunity to steal her for training with Blackwall, in an attempt to learn how to upend an opponent dressed head to toe in metal armour – it turned out, use their new centre of gravity against them and dump them on their arse. Children's books – easy to read and that improved her written skills in leaps and bounds compared to the dry dusty tomes Fiona had been using for teaching materials – appeared next to her bed, and Krem spent the afternoon going through them with her, pointing out the grammatical quirks and exceptions to spelling rules that seemed to make Thedan as difficult a language as English.

Three days after that, a set of orders 'mysteriously' got mixed up and her unit – without her – got sent to do a supply run east that would take them two days in each direction. She could have sworn she saw Sera pause and glance at them on her way to the tavern as she followed Stitches who had come to collect her. Cassandra – having been bribed by Varric with something neither of them would name – spent the time going over drills, step by step, with her, at a speed that hadn't been allowed as part of the larger group, until she wasn't perfect, she was reasonably sure she was no longer going to end up risking accidentally headbutting someone else's elbow in formation if she got the rhythm wrong.

The day after they got back, all the unit member's tack and supplies somehow ended up drenched with pig manure, and Liz entered Cullen's office to find him having a blistering argument with the woman in charge of it.

“It's her!” she snapped, pointing at Liz as she came in.

“I-what?” replied Liz, somewhat taken aback. Cullen scowled and pinched the bridge of his nose as if staving off a headache.

“Ser,” the woman – Liz had no idea of her name, she'd just called her 'Lieutenant' – taking a deep breath, as if trying to get her temper under control. “I appreciate orders are orders, but it is my duty to bring to your attention when something is effecting the capability of your forces, and there is. I have no idea who has it in for her, even if I'm sure why, but my unit is suffering because we're the ones training with her. Morale is so low it's in the latrines, and we're spending more time chasing our tails than we are doing anything productive. It has to stop!”

Cullen sighed. “Wait outside,” he said to Liz.

She retreated and leant on the wall outside to do so, trying not to shiver in the wind that came howling across the battlements.

It took her a minute to realise there was someone leaning next to her. She turned to see a man with dark unruly hair, and a weapon slung across his back in a way that was so familiar to her...

“Hawke!” she yelped, so delighted to see him that she had to physically stop herself from hugging him, reminding herself that she might know him, but he did not know her.

Instead, he grinned at her, seeming delighted. “You're Varric's friend, aren't you? The one from out of time? You've been mentioned.”

“Oh?” she said, grinning back. “I didn't realise.”

“Yes, I'd hoped to see you before we went,” he said, kicking a pebble at his feet. “I just...the ten years in Kirkwall were such hell, I, sort of, wanted to see someone who had been there with me. Even if you hadn't actually been there. Varric mentioned that you....knew me?”

“I do! Or I did,” she assured him, grinning. “It's good to see you!”

“It's good to be seen. I...must see if we can find time for a drink,” he was still grinning back. “Maybe I can actually return the favour and get to know you a little in return and you can tell me what it looked like from the outside. When I get back, maybe?”

“Yes! That would be amazing!” She laughed. “Where are you off to?”

“Oh, Crestwood, chasing up a lead, and then from there, on, to where-ever the lead happens to take us, then...back here eventually, I suppose. You'll be kept well occupied in the meantime, or so the grapevine tells me. Do you really have a dragon?!”

She laughed and nodded. “If you stick around a few more hours, I might even be able to introduce you.”

“That's ok,” he grinned again but started backing away. “Technically, I'm already late, I just wanted to say hi before we left. When I'm back then!”

“You got it!” she yelled in response as he turned and ran, then turned back to the door to Cullen's office...and found her nose all but pressed up against his breastplate.

“Erm, hi, ser?” she tried, looking at him with what she hoped was an unobjectionably neutral expression.

He glared down his nose at her. “You have been rejected from your unit, at the commander's insistence.”

“Ah,” she said, which was about all she could think of to contribute to the conversation that wouldn't make him even grumpier.

There was a pause, while he seemed to be wrestling with what to say.

“The inquisitor,” he said, eventually, his tone of voice suggesting said inquisitor was a person he held in the highest of esteem that nevertheless seemed to have made a grievous mistake on this one occasion. “Requires that you are given a fair chance, and as I have agrees, honour demands I arrange for this. But there are no other units in the castle for you to train with – they all have seen what happened to the first, and have more important tasks than dealing with that sort of nonsense.”

He stopped again. She stared at him. He was giving her a chance, but she wasn't to train with any of the units? What did that even mean?

“So,” the words from his mouth seemed bitten off, as if he was forcing each word. “From now on, your physical training will be either given or directly overseen,” another pause, more bitter regret in his tone. “By me.”

Chapter Text

Liz wound back her arm and threw the chunk of druffalo meat as hard as she could, watching it sail over the falls.

Draco watched it go with slitted eyes, then sniffed the platform's edge before grumbling and retreating several paces. Beside her, Krem sighed. “Maybe we should never have brought her down here in the first place.”

“Too late now,” muttered Liz, her bad mood seeming to expand to take in everything around them. “She's stuck and won't go out. Her wing muscles are going to weaken, I'm going to get my ass handed to me by Cullen fucking Rutherford. We're going to fail and then-”

Her voice choked off, as images danced in front of her eyes. A dragon who liked humans was too dangerous to leave alive. Bull loved Draco...but he was also under orders from the Qun to stay a part of the inquisition. Given the choice between going rogue to keep Draco alive and executing her to stay and obey orders, she couldn't pick which way he'd swing. Didn't want to even try and predict what he'd choose; she was too afraid of the answer. Dorian's words seemed to hang forebodingly over her head.

Krem slung an arm around her shoulders and gave her an awkward hug, oblivious – or so she hoped – to the sudden destruction of her faith in their mutual boss.

“We'll work something out,” he muttered into her hair. “When's he due to show up?”

“Any minute,” Liz admitted, downcast. “He had to reorganise some things. He's taking me for combat and military instruction each afternoon. Cassandra's overseeing my basic strength and fitness exercises in the morning. And Fiona is still teaching me reading and basic education over lunch, but we've been moved to a desk in Leiliana's loft.”

“All the places no one will fuck with your training because they're too scared of the consequences,” Krem translated. “I'm surprised he didn't ask Vivienne to school you in magic and the avoidance thereof.”

“He tried. She...said no.”

“She didn't just say no.”

“Well, she used a lot more words than that. But it boiled down to 'no'.”

“Kaffas.”

“Yeah.”

Behind them the door opened. Draco whirled and growled. “FRIEND!” Both Krem and Liz yelled, getting to their feet in a hurry.

In the doorway, Cullen paused as Draco stopped half a dozen paces away, turning her head to look him over closely with one eye. Awkwardly, he pulled a couple of sap sticks from his pocket and offered them to her. Suspiciously, she took them, then backed off, looking him up and down.

He would, Liz reflected internally, of course, have worn his full templar armour down here, and therefore look in no small part like the enemies they'd been fighting in the Hinterlands. She'd have suggested leaving that off too, but she thought he might have just kicked her out there and then, Inquisitor be damned.

“Easy girl,” she said, patting Draco on the neck. Draco, obviously annoyed, shock her head and grumbled off to one side, curling up next to her favorite brazier.

“Later,” said Krem, disappearing out of the door.

Cullen pursed his lips and glared and her. “Are you quite done?”

She bit her tongue for a second before answering. “Yes ser,” she replied, as neutrally as she could manage.

It wasn't terribly neutral.

His eyes narrowed and he pointed to her weapons. “Pick them up. We'll be testing your defence first.”

She did so, strapping the shield in place and testing the sword's weight in her hand. “Friend,” she repeated to Draco as she did so. “Friend. Stay.”

She took a ready stance. He nodded and gave the signal to begin- then lunged in.

She stepped back, refusing to be ruffled by the sudden blur of movement. He went high, low, high, and she met him on each thrust, the force of his blows making her wrist ache.

He continued, merciless, backing her around the stable. Liz was acutely aware of Draco watching them with narrowed pupils, but she didn't trust she could spare a glance at the dragon without loosing the fight for it – in terms of speed and strength, Cullen was matching Bull for both.

She tried the trick she'd been taught the previous week. Step-step-turn-

It was a move that had knocked Blackwall on his arse, a sudden twist in the angle of the fight designed to use the weight of any armour wearing opponent against them and cause them to topple over.

Cullen stepped out of it as smoothly as if she hadn't done anything out of the ordinary, giving what appeared to be a surprised nod of respect at her ingenuity before remembering who he was sparring with.

“Enough,” he said a few minutes later. “Drink.” Obediently she trotted over to the pitcher of water in the corner and drink a ladle-ful from it as Cullen pulled a flask from his own hip. “How many times did I touch your shield?”

“Three,” replied Liz, quietly pleased with herself and trying to discrete massage her aching wrist.

“Correct. Far too few.”

She blinked, feeling sudden annoyance. “Too few?” She hated the way her voice had suddenly gone shrill with indignance.

“It is a shield. It can be a weapon if pressed, but it is meant to protect you. You should be taking a majority of blows on your shield, not blocking them with your blade. Blade blocking is faster and more flexible but it punishes you – you have been relying on it as a Charger, because they are skirmish fighters. We are teaching you to be military; most of the time you will be in a line with people to the right and left of you. They will block half of the blows meant for you, and you will do the same for them. Skirmishes are short and energetic, and you can catch your breath in between. Fighting as part of a larger organised unit is one long, hard grind. You need to conserve your energy - your wrist must be agony.”

It was. She refused to admit it as he raised his weapon. “Again.”

She tried, and as she did so she noticed he was a fraction slower than he had been. She hated to admit it, but she needed it, as she angled the shield into position, taking blow after blow. Her shoulder started to hurt, but a different pain to the one in her wrist – the wrist was sharp and hard, a pain that meant it wouldn't have been long before her grip started to shake and then fail. This was a deep low pain, almost like a bruise; she would hurt in the morning, but if necessary, she could and would go on this for hours.

Or so she thought – she angled it forward to take an overhead blow that would have slashed her from navel to groin had it hit, and while she caught it, a sharp pain shot through her left forearm that made her yelp and stagger back.

Draco was immediately on her feet, until Liz followed it up with a pained mutter of “friend! I said friend, damnit.”

Cullen lowered his sword and stepped back. “That isn't right, hold on, let me see-”

He put his own sword and shield down and stepped in to peer at her grip on her shield's handle. She had an odd moment where she couldn't help but notice that his fingers, callused as they were, were gentle and competent. “Your grip,” he said, interrupting her thoughts.

She looked at him with a raised eyebrow.

“You're taking the strain in the wrong place, and you've got that buckle...that can't be comfortable, can it?” he finished.

She shrugged and regretted it when her shoulder complained. “It's worked up until now.” He smelled like weapon oil, clean sweat and leather. His stubble in the light glinted gold. The scar on his upper lip was faded almost to silver. She should not be thinking about this.

“Here, let me-” Awkwardly he pulled it off her, and bent to adjust it, frowning. “Give me your arm.” She obliged as he buckled her in, feeling a bit...off.

This was awkward, she acknowledged, internally. After Cullen's treatment of her, she had been mentally braced for mistreatment. For sneering disdain. For cutting remarks and a focused attack on her self esteem.

Instead, here he was...actually being helpful. Teaching her in ways that were productive.

Training!Cullen was decided different to Normal!Cullen. And she might quite like Training!Cullen. He was respectful, quiet and focused.

Balls.

“Try that,” he finished, standing back upright.

She straightened as well. “It doesn't feel any different,” she muttered.

He picked up his own weapons. “Let's test that.”

 

Several hours later, and Liz thought she was doing quite well to still be upright. Cullen looked like he'd worked hard, but no where near the level of exhaustion she was showing. She was propped up by Draco, who stood, shook herself off and gave her an affectionate headbutt. “Hey you,” she muttered, scratching at the scales behind her head horns.

Draco 'gronked' in relaxed appreciation, which changed to a noise of curiosity as Cullen poured a ladle of water over his own head. “Friend,” Liz reassured her, for what felt like the fiftieth time. Cullen helped by tossing her a sap stick.

“Tomorrow, then,” she said, bending to take her greaves off.

“Tomorrow,” he replied, his tone changed and Liz glanced up in confusion to meet a sneering expression. Normal!Cullen was back.

“You don't have to keep hating me, you know,” she said, before she could stop the words coming out. “It's ok to stop.”

He didn't even look at her as he left the room.

 

Liz was awoken, bruises and all, by the door slamming open to the stables rousing her well before the dawn was even showing on the horizon.

“Friend!” she yelled instinctively, rolling out of bed to see what the problem was, coming up to face a very pale looking young man in a messenger's uniform.

“See-er,” he stammered out. “Your dr-r-ragon...”

“What about her-” Liz said, looking around to see what Draco was doing now.

Only to stop, feeling like her insides had turned to stone.

Draco wasn't in the stable.

At all.

Krem staggered to the front of his stall, his eyes doing the same sweep hers had, and coming to the same conclusion. “Where?!” He barked at the young man.

A single trembling finger pointed up the stairs.

They ran. “Of all the fucking times for her to fucking decide she was going to fucking fly now,” Liz swore as they hurtled up the narrow passageway.

“Probably just wanted food and went after the pigs,” Krem answered at her heels as they neared the door to the courtyard. “I'm sure it can't be that ba-oh FUCK.”

“Oh Maker, we are so, so so dead,” muttered Liz, skidding to a halt in the middle of the courtyard.

Across the way, against the paling sky, they could see the outline of Skyhold's walls, the crenellations and occasional guard helmet, and Cullen's tower.

Which had a certain dragon's tail poking out of the hole in the roof.

'Friend' Liz realised. Over and over and over again, yesterday, she told her 'friend' when it came to Cullen. Apparently Draco, having decided, finally, to go and stretch her wings, had gone to find her 'friend'.

“He's going to fucking skin me,” she muttered.

“I'll get her saddle,” Krem said brusquely, apparently not disagreeing with Liz's assertion. “You go minimise the damage until we can get her out of there.”

He ran back the way they'd come, while Liz propelling her unwilling feet towards the tower. If you'd asked her yesterday to name her worst nightmare scenarios, she was fairly certain this would come in at number three.

She could hear his voice before she'd even mounted the steps.

“No, you bloody dragon, get out of that!”

Then there was a smashing sound. Followed by more swearing. Liz stifled an urge to pause and beat her head against the stone wall next to her, but made herself keep climbing, entering his office at a run, the door thankfully ajar.

Cullen was sort of half hanging off the ladder to his rooms, apparently unwilling to share his space with Draco, but similarly unwilling to abandon his bedroom to her merciless curiosity either. His feather ruffed coat was thrown around his shoulders – whether for warmth in the pre-dawn chill or to prevent Draco from using it as a chew toy she couldn't decide – but other than that he was bare chested and wore only a pair of tight knitted woollen legging type things, that were the Thedas equivalent of thermal underwear, that reached midway down his calves, his bare toes curling around the rungs he was stood on as his head was stuck through the opening to his room to continue to yell at the dragon.

She had an utterly surreal moment of realising that half naked Cullen clad only in thermal underwear – extremely tight thermal underwear, she noticed – was a very pleasant sight, regardless of the occasional scar that drifted, lightly as a spiderwb, across his skin – she could see a few around his waist and another curled around the bottom of his left calf before disappearing under the fabric. In her time, had he not gone into the military, his future as an underwear model would have been assured.

She shook herself out of it. “Cullen? I mean, ser?”

He pulled his head out of the hole and glared at her.

“Fix it,” he ground out from between gritted teeth.

“Erm, right,” she managed, getting to the bottom of the ladder and starting to climb. There was an awkward moment where she had to squeeze past him, acutely aware of his body heat through her own clothes, her elbow brushing against his torso as she climbed and then she was clambering into the loft.

Draco had a blanket stuck on her right hand horns, and wreckage around her front claws – it looked like the remains of a wooden chest, and there were also fragments of porcelain – had she smashed a vase? Cullen hardly seemed to type to have one in his room.

Draco greeted her with a chirp and a headbutt, for which she had to surge forward, tearing the hole in the roof open that little larger as her tail was pulled in after her. “Stop it, stop it!” Liz hissed, painfully aware of the gouges her claws were opening in the floorboards under them. “You've already done enough damage! Stay still! No!”

Too late. Draco, unable to be contained, had turned to inspect something on the bedside table, and the small box went flying, along with what looked like a vial of glowing blue liquid... Lyrium.

It landed, thankfully, on a stray pillow, unharmed. Liz let out a breath. Behind her, she heard Cullen swear.

“Give that to me. Now. And get her out of here.”

“Krem's gone for her saddle ser,” Liz said, diving for the vial before Draco could get into her head to test what it tasted like. “He shouldn't be long.”

She turned and was nearly knocked over by Draco trying to inspect the glowing thing in her hand. “No, stop it,” she snapped, giving the dragon a hard shove on the nose, then clambering over the upturned furniture to be able to toss Cullen the vial. “How did she get in here, anyway?”

“Why ask me?” he snapped back. “I was up early reviewing some papers and the next thing I know, there's a dragon on my bed.”

Liz winced. “Sorry. We told her you were a friend yesterday. Apparently she took it a little...literally.”

Cullen apparently didn't know what to say to that, so simply glared and stayed silent. Liz had never been so glad when there was the sound of a door banging open below them and Krem's voice calling up the ladder. “I've got it, I'm coming up!”

Cullen looked down at the other man. “Switch – I'll come down.”

He disappeared from sight, as Liz had a moment to reflect that he'd trust Krem in his room unsupervised, but not her, and inwardly sighed. So much for Training!Cullen.

Krem appeared a second later, the mass of straps of the saddle slung around his chest so he could climb.

“Kaffas,” he muttered, getting to his feet. “Here,” he removed the saddle and tossed it over Draco's back, moving to do the straps up on his side, Liz doing the same on hers before tying the reigns around Draco's horns. “Just...get her down to the courtyard, ok? Nice and easy.”

“Nice and easy,” Liz repeated, heart starting to sink. The towers were tall. The courtyard was a long way down, especially if she was trying to aim for the lower one where there was less chance of landing on a runner. She wasn't going to have enough of a chance to tie herself in as she normally did, and she didn't have her armour; she was still in her sleeping gear.

Short hop though this may be, it was still going to be a nerve wracking one.

She mounted, mouth pressed into a thin line. Krem met her eyes over Draco's back. “Nothing you haven't done before,” he said, confidently.

“Yeah,” Liz said, giving the reigns a hard tug. “C'mon Draco.”

The dragon grumbled, ignoring her and moving in the direction of Cullen's bed. Krem planted himself in the way and gave the dragon a hard shove before pointing to the hole. “Go,” he said, sternly.

Faced with a no-nonsense attitude from both her friends, Draco, still grumbling, seemed to change her mind and twisted, causing yet more damage as she did so and clambered out of the hole onto the roof.

The cold air was a shock as it stirred Liz's hair, dawn showing on the horizon and Skyhold stretched out before them, seeming a horribly long way down.

“Ok Draco,” she managed. “Just...a nice little hop. Onto the wall, then down to the courtyard, you can do this..” She tugged Draco's head in the rough direction of the yard and kicked with her heels while shifting forward in the saddle; their private signal for go.

Draco shook herself, opened her wings, and then- leapt.

Away from the courtyard.

A smoothly and as tightly as if she was on rails, Draco spun, wings angled almost like she was pivoting on the point of one, out across the castle walls and above the yawning chasm that surrounded the castle.

Liz, for lack of anything else to do, dropped the reigns and slammed both hands onto her saddle, hanging on for dear life, too scared to even scream. They seemed miles above the ground, the harsh updrafts stinging her eyes and making her feel criminally unstable and oh fuck she wasn't even tied in-

They wobbled, dropping suddenly, causing her to yelp, before rising sharply, now gaining height even above the tower they'd leapt from, a tower where she could see a bare chested figure step out onto the walkway and seeming to stare in wonder at her, the woman riding a dragon over Skyhold.

Draco made a smug noise in her throat. Liz had an odd moment where she didn't know whether to howl in despair and fear or scream in triumph.

“We're flying,” she managed, voice choked and tiny, the air freezing her hands and her ears and her nose, but she wasn't letting go of the saddle, not for anything, as the land stretched out between them in the dawn's growing light. “Draco...Draco, we have to land.”

The dragon didn't react, lazily continuing her spiral over the castle, over, over, until they were on the other side of it, where the light was starting to glint off the windows, the Inquisitor's balcony seeming curiously tiny – far too small for them.

“Draco,” Liz started again, unwilling to release even one of her grips to try and grab for the reigns- when she realised they were dropping. The top of the towers was almost at eyeline now, and another spiral and they were even lower.

She could even almost see...yes, there, around the corner, still in shadow, the entrance to their stables, and it was almost like Draco was lining up for it.

She was lining up for it, she realised, as the dragon straightened and she suddenly wobbled. Gliding aimlessly was apparently something Draco had no problem with but aiming for a specific point was harder.

Now they were coming in, closer, closer-

Too fast.

Draco apparently realised it as well, pulling up with a jerk just as they slid under the overhang, wings pumping as she tried to slow without stopping altogether.

She didn't manage, they hung, seemingly suspended in midair above the falls, wings flapping frantically to stay aloft, Liz clutching her saddle as it bucked underneath her, but despite her death grip, she could swear she was starting to slip-

“DRACO DOWN!” she shrieked, panicking.

Draco got the idea, sort of twisting mid-flap to half propel herself forward, landing half on, half out of the hole into the main stables, tail and one hind leg still over the waterfall for a heartstopping second, until she scrabbled in, claws scraping on the stone, while Liz threw herself clear to give her move freedom to move.

They both lay, panting on the floor, for how long, she wasn't sure – Liz struggling to comprehend what just happened, Draco breathing hard but looking, to Liz's experienced eye, smugger than she'd ever seen her.

Then there were pounding footsteps on the stairs, and Liz didn't even have time to get up before Krem burst into the room, sprinting across to her and snatching her up in a bearhug with a rather unmanly shriek of joy.

“You did it!” he crowed. “You flew!”

“We...we did,” Liz admitted, smile beginning to creep into place.

In the doorway, Cullen also paused, still only half dressed, the expression on his face saying he was having as much trouble believing it as she was.

Chapter Text

Beneath them, she could see a pair of green flags flash once, twice, three times, waved enthusiastically by Dalish, as Draco leaned into the wind to bring them around for another pass.

Liz racked her brains, trying to translate. Both flags held vertically overhead meant 'dive', the flicking off to the side meant...something about support? The waving around the legs meant 'hold your fire', that she was certain of, but in the larger scheme of things, wasn't useful. At best, she'd just have to guess...

She leant forward and kicked both heels against Draco's neck regardless, their own personal signal for 'down, fast', and the dragon folded her wings and dropped with a compliance that would have made Liz suspicious had it not been nearly dinner time. A month of training and another few feet of growth and Draco was still ruled by her stomach. Only the maker would be able to help anyone who entered the dragon stable with food for themselves but no suitable dragon bribe.

The ground surged up to meet them, the ice and rocks looking even more hostile than normal as they approached at speed – until Draco threw up her wings and beat them once, twice, bringing the pair of them to a teeth-rattling stop in mid air just a few feet above the ground, before touching down gently, the ice under her claws creaking in protest.

Across the rocky ground, Dalish beamed at her. “Perfect!”

Liz smiled back, grateful she'd gotten it right. “Want a lift back to Skyhold?” It felt somewhat odd to be using the English vernacular in a world where there were no cars even if it was correct.

“Erm,” was Dalish's reply. They were all very much in favour of Liz flying. Most of the Chargers so far were less in favour of getting up themselves.

Liz pulled a face at the elf. “It's an hour's walk if you don't. We'll tie you to me for safety...” she added, cajolingly.

“Alright,” Dalish muttered, digging in her bag and producing lengths of leather thonging out of it.

The flight back was calming and cool, Dalish tucking her head against Liz's shoulder to stay out of the wind as she had fewer layers on. The light was dropping, the sun having disappeared over the horizon and the scarlets and violet hues that had accompanied the sunset fading to watercolours over the mountain. Below them, the darkness of the ground lost definition, and above them, Liz could pick out the odd twinkle that were likely the first evening stars.

“Ready for a drinking session tonight then?” yelled Dalish into the wind.

“Maker yes!”

They rounded Skyhold just as the lanterns were being lit, the windows and courtyard looking against the magnificence of the sky like a castle Walt Disney could only have ever dreamed of creating. They were careful to spiral around the castle to reach the stable opening, rather than fly directly over the courtyard; most of the civilians were well aware they had a dragon on their side and training, but there was a difference between knowing that and being able to stay calm when you saw one flying directly overhead and dangerously close. When a significant proportion of their civilians still exhibited what Liz thought was likely a form of PTSD from the incidents at Haven, they took pains to ensure they didn't do anything that could resemble those events unless it was absolutely necessary.

A gangly teenage boy – Marno, Liz had learned – was there with a trough full of fresh meat for Draco. He'd been assigned to be their 'stable hand' not long after Draco's first flight when it had become apparent that even with the best will in the world, it just wasn't going to be possible for Liz to learn everything she needed to, and train, and drill Draco, and on top of that see to the dragon's growing needs as well, so Marno had appeared one morning, shaking, pale and obviously assigned as punishment duty.

Three weeks later, and it was with absolute confidence that he approached Draco to remove the halter so she could eat, and didn't flinch when she nudged him in the side in fond greeting. Liz and Dalish each waved their own hellos before dismounting.

“Good flight?” he asked, attacking the buckles on the saddle. Draco ignored them all and pulled what looked like half a side of druffalo out of the trough to chew on it in a more comfortable position. “Oh, do you have to?” Marno asked plaintively, as the blood dripped all over the tile stones.

“Erm,” said Dalish, who looked a little pale from the flight still.

“Great,” Liz said enthusiastically. “It sounds odd, but I wish we had some worse weather to practise in. The last month it's been clear skies and gentle winds – I think we need to know what we can do in sterner stuff.”

“Don't curse it, some of the traders were muttering about storms in a week or so,” Dalish replied, heading for the door. “See you in the tavern!”

“See you!” Liz called after her, heading for her own 'stable' where her things were still stored. “You going to be ok cleaning that up Marno, or will you need a hand?”

“I got it, don't worry,” he said, wrestling the saddle off Draco's back. “I'll just dump a load of sawdust on it and then when she's done, shove the lot over the falls.”

“Sensible,” Liz replied, shucking her training gear and finding a tunic and pants without too many holes in them before shoving her feet back into her boots. “We're all going to be up in the tavern if you need us.”

“I heard, official night off and everything! Didn't sound like Cullen was too keen on it.”

Liz snorted but kept her mouth shut, searching for an appropriate response, as she ran a comb through her windswept hair, wincing as it snagged on the tangles. The commander's disdain for her existed in an odd limbo of being both known and disbelieved – he was too well loved by anyone not a mage for her to get away with bad-mouthing him, no matter what he did, so she kept her mouth shut. But it was a dual edged sword in that Cullen couldn't do anything too outrageous to them, or he risked harming his own glowing reputation. It was a little bit like a stand-off, especially as Draco's popularity was slowly growing, at least in theory. The soldiers of the Inquisition had slowly warmed up to the fact they were able to claim to superiority to the armies of Ferelden, Orlais and Tevinter by being the only ones to count a dragon in their ranks.

Sooner or later something was going to give. She had no idea what and didn't really have the spare time to spend pondering the subject.

“Well, we've all got to have a break now and again,” she said eventually, neglecting to mention the fact that all the other units got significantly more than a single evening off every couple of months. “I need to go, or I'll end up being made to drink that stuff the chief's been fermenting in the laundry room by way of catching up with them all.”

Marno winced. “Run then. I heard the quartermaster arguing he wants a portion of it to kill down the rat population.”

“Going!” she yelped, running for the stairs, quietly pleased at the conversation. Marno, from the gossip Dorian had gathered, had originally been a quiet and somewhat absent minded stable hand with a nasty habit of daydreaming and thus forgetting to do half the errands he'd been assigned, which had all combined to leave him firmly at the bottom of the social ladder, and barely managing monosyllabic responses to questions when he'd first been assigned to them. Having risen to the challenge of looking after a dragon, he'd slowly come out of his shell, and according to Dorian's eavesdropping, had started wearing the title of 'Dragon Handler' with enough pride he'd risen in the opinions of his peers. She hoped the improvement continued.

The tavern was noisy and crowded when she pushed into it, the smells of unwashed bodies, alcohol, leather, smoke and roasted meat hitting her in the face, the heat of the crush a direct contrast to the cool night air outside. Over the press, she could see Bull's horns and Krem stood on a chair to reach over people's shoulders and take the drinks Stitches was passing back from the bar. Skinner, Rocky and Grim were all hunched over some sort of card game, and Dalish was sat next to the Chief holding a quiet conversation. To her surprise, Cassandra was on The Bull's other side.

“Seeker! I didn't expect to see you here,” Liz blurted out by way of greeting, sitting down.

Krem sniggered and passed her a pint. “Drink” he said. “You obviously need to be drunker...is that a word?” He grinned, taking a swig of his own drink.

“You're admitting you have a head start on the rest of us then?” Liz shot back, taking a gulp and trying not to gag. She drank in Thedas mostly as a bonding exercise with the others rather than for enjoyment, and found she missed Earth's alcohol, or at least the fact it was filtered, when she did.

“Maybe!” Krem declared and Cassandra smiled. “I was having a conversation with The Iron Bull, and he invited me to join him,” she replied, ignoring the grinning Tevinter.

“Commmander stick-up-his-ass is muttering about assigning us to the Seeker, or at least work with her initially,” Bull interjected.

“That is not a respectful way to speak about the commander!” Cassandra interjected.

“You're right, my apologies, must have gone to my head faster than I thought,” Bull immediately responded, brandishing his mug in a rueful manner. Liz, however, did not miss the sharpness of his gaze or the way he'd been focused on Cassandra out of the corner of his eye – he was testing her, she realised.

“Yes well....” Cassandra paused for a second, as if tempted to say something similarly unflattering about Cullen, and Liz felt tension rise in her, wondering if she'd take that step. “Drink can do that,” she eventually finished, somewhat lamely.

Liz sat back, both relieved and annoyed. “It can,” Bull agreed jovially. “I think I might get something softer for a couple of rounds, just to give us breathing room. Liz, can you come help me carry?”

“Er, sure,” said Liz, putting her pint down beside Dalish, who had shifted over to talk to Krem, and getting up to follow him.

They were leaning at the bar when, in the crush of noise, Bull put his head down and muttered to her “You leave the politicking to me and just relax tonight, ok?”

She squinted at him. “Hunh?”

He rolled his eye, while accepting a glass that had something fruit based floating in it. “I saw you watching – hard not to, your eyes were practically bugging out waiting to see if she'd take the bait. You've got enough to worry about; ignore what I'm doing, trust I've got it handled, and go have fun.”

Liz shrugged. “You got it,” she said, accepting her own pair of glasses and heading back to the group, easily refuting Krem's cry of 'wuss!' by stealing his mug and downing the lot, then handing him one of the fruity drinks. “Your refreshment, milord,” she announced gravely, bowing over it.

The night passed in a happy blur of friendship, drinking games, and Liz being acutely aware of Bull drinking right along with the rest of them...which actually wasn't nearly as much as the Qunari actually needed to get drunk, although you'd never have known it from the way he was acting, grinning, slurring and generally behaving like he was an extremely happy drunk. At one point, Dorian appeared in the group to say hi to Liz, then turned around to discover Bull was stood only half a hand's width from him, bent down so their eyes were level.

“Hi there,” purred Bull, his eye bright with appreciation.

“What are you doing?” spluttered Dorian, actually clutching his drink and raising it as if trying to hide behind it.

“Saying hi to the prettiest thing in this bar,” Bull purred in response. Then blinked. “Er, but not if it makes you uncomfortable,” he said, his tone and body language suddenly changing as he took a step back to give the mage more space.

Dorian seemed even more flustered by this predicament than before. “I..er..”

Liz watched, fascinated even through her drunk stupor. Unless she was very much missing the mark, if she didn't know better, she'd say Dorian seemed to be stuck between wanting to be outraged that Bull had started that in the first place and....also being equally outraged that he'd stopped.

Apparently he took the middle road and decided to just go with 'outraged' and not ask any questions further than that. “Well I never!” he muttered, storming off.

Bull watched him go. “Well, that's a shame. Never mind,” and turned back to a bemused looking Cassandra to continue his conversation, as Liz made a mental note to try and find out what exactly that had been about from her Tevinter friend.

Eventually, the bell was rung and they all staggered out of the tavern in various states of disarray. At some point, Rocky and Grim had swapped most of their clothes – she couldn't quite remember when – and most of them were having to lean on each other to stay upright. Krem had disappeared at some point during the evening and so while she waved everyone else off to their rooms, she was left to try and stagger back to the dragon stables on her own.

She had never realised, she thought in a muggy sort of way, how same-y different parts of the courtyard all looked in the dark if you were drunk. It seemed a cruel trick of landscape to have just outside a tavern. Someone ought to put up signs.

She grew fonder of this idea when she walked straight into a training dummy.

“Whoops!” she said, grabbing at it to stay upright. “Sorry-hey. You aren't-” she stopped, squinting at the painted hessian sack stuffed with straw and realising it wasn't a person. “Signs,” she told it, confidently. “We ought to put up signs, you and me.”

She spun and turned to go – if she was running into training dummys, she had gone too far – when three steps later, she ran into yet another figure. “Damned dummys,” she muttered, trying to push back.

She realised it was flesh under her hands and not cloth covered straw a second before the man punched her in the face.

Her head snapped back, and she went down hard, sprawling on straw covered cobblestones and thanking whatever variety of the Maker actually existed that her training in how to fall correctly had stayed with her. She could suddenly taste blood, but there was no pain.

“Wha-” she managed.

She couldn't see the details of the man stood over her, just his silhouette in the shadows of the lights behind him...and those of two more people – she was reasonably sure they were both male and human, but couldn't be certain – moving up to join him.

“Traitorous bitch,” the one who had punched her spat, and she was too shocked to even try to dodge, his spittle hitting her cheek.

“Think we can't get to you?” said another. Her brain seemed to be moving extra slow. Attack. They were attacking her. She had to fight. How? She had no weapon. No armour. Everyone was asleep. Draco was too far away. “Hiding behind that dragon and that cow like a coward?”

Get to your feet said some sensible part of her brain. Obediently, she rolled to try and get to her knees but one of them took the opportunity to step forward and kick her in the belly, knocking the wind out of her with a 'hoof!' and instead she was reduced to retching on the floor.

She felt one of them seize her by the hair and drag her head back, forcing her up to her knees, pain, now she could feel pain, in her mouth, her neck, her stomach, she could barely breathe, skinned hands, knees, it was like her brain had suddenly taken an inventory of all her injuries at once.

“This,” his breath was sour as it flooded her ear and the side of her face. “This is for-”

He suddenly fell on her with a yelp, his weight taking both of them forwards so they were both face down on the cobblestones, him on top of her. “What-” he managed, as suddenly adrenaline flooded her and she started to struggle out from under him.

Above her she heard a “Hey!” and then cries of pain, the sound of something wooden hitting flesh, the fall of one body to one side of her, then another on the other side, just as she managed to turn onto her back and push the man off her, something yanked him upright – no, someone yanked him upright – and there was a 'crack!' before he was dropped again, partially onto her.

The shadow reached for her, and this time she was ready and threw a punch as it reached for her.

It caught the blow. “Hey, hey, easy!” was the voice, and she realised she knew it, just as he gently slide an arm around her shoulders to lift her to her feet.

Cullen looked over her with a detached air. “Are you alright?”

She stared at him, disbelieving. “No,” she managed, and then she threw up, and up, and up. Everything she'd drunk and eaten that evening, from what it felt like.

She expected him to drop her, to back away in disgust, but instead he just helped her kneel on the cobblestones as she emptied her stomach, one hand holding her up to stop her from falling into the mess, the other smoothing her hair back.

She wasn't sure, but she might have vomited on his shoes. He didn't say if she did. She was sure she vomited on at least one of her assailant's trousers, but she couldn't muster feeling anything about that except a vague sense of satisfaction.

When she was done, he lifted her to her feet again. “Going to go back to your stable now, ok?” he said, slinging one of her arms over his shoulders.

She nodded wearily against him. “Draco,” she managed to mutter.

“That's right.”

She'd like to say he walked her back, but in reality, it was more like he lifted her back with her feet still on the ground, taking the stairs slowly and carefully, saying what he was doing the whole time in a gentle calm voice like you were supposed to do with a scared horse.

The stable was deserted except for Draco, who was dozing with her head in the fire pit that had been built especially for that purpose. The dragon raised her head at their entry and then grumbled her surprised concern at Liz.

“Good girl, stay there,” Liz managed to muster – the last thing she needed was Draco getting over-excited and causing havoc. Cleaning up after a vomit covered dragon would put her in Marno's bad books until the next coming of Andraste.

Cullen dragged her into her sleeping area and laid her gently down on the bed. “Stay there,” he muttered, then walked away.

Well I'm hardly going anywhere, she wanted to snap at him but couldn't muster the energy for doing so. She knew she ought to be grateful, and on some level she was for him helping her. But on another, she was annoyed and angry – couldn't he just make his mind up on whether or not he was going to be a prick? This half and half business was just making her dizzy.

He returned with a huge tankard and a bucket, the latter of which he placed beside her bed. “Take a mouthful, swill and spit,” he said, handing her the tankard. She did, and was relieved to taste nothing but clear sweet water, which helped get rid of the awful sourness in her mouth, along with the blood that had half clotted around her tongue.

“Good, now drink that,” he said, gesturing to the rest of the tankard. “It'll stop you feeling so bad in the morning. I'll go find Krem so you have someone here with you.”

He stood up and turned to go, but as he reached the doorway he stopped, turned to her as if he had something to say, then paused.

She watched his emotions chase each other over his face, and it was almost like Jerk!Cullen was warring with Training!Cullen in front of her eyes. Under ordinary circumstances, she'd have been fascinated. As it stood, she was sick, in pain, and tired.

“It would be great if you could just make your mind up,” she snapped. “I'm getting rather fed up with waiting for you to decide whether or not I deserve you being a prick to me all the time, you pillock.”

He stepped back from her in surprise, which had the side effect that his face fell into shadow so she couldn't read his expression. “Good night Liz,” he said, his voice unreadable.

She had been planning to reply, but her eyes closed automatically at his command, and she fell into the comfortable darkness.

 

 

She woke with the sun a couple of hours into the sky, her bottom lip feeling like it had gotten stuck in a door and her mouth tasting like a dark spawn had defecated and then died in there.

“Urgh,” she managed, prying herself upright and grabbing for the tankard. It was dry but Krem plonked another one down beside her almost as soon as she moved.

“Morning,” he said, sounding somewhere between concerned and amused. “Had a bit too much to drink and took a tumble, did we?”

She squinted at him, taking a sip of water. “No?” she managed. “Didn't Cullen tell you?”

Krem looked confused. “I just had a runner find me and tell me you were sick and had taken a blow to the head and needed someone to keep an eye on you.”

She shook her head and then regretted it. “Three men. Jumped me outside the tavern.”

“WHAT?!” Krem roared, bursting to his feet, causing a similar response in Draco while Liz clamped her hands over her ears and whimpered at the noise.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “You feel up to telling me what happened?”

She took another sip. “Not much. They cornered me, got a couple of blows in, Cullen stepped in and saved me. Then I threw up on him. I think. Then he put me to bed. Then I-” she stopped and groaned. “Then I called him a pillock.”

Krem whistled. “All the boxes checked last night, hunh?” His hand was gentle as he stroked her hair. “I've got some dry bread with a little butter here, do you want to see if you can keep that down?”

“I think so,” Liz muttered, levering herself up, when the door flew open, and a runner came striding in. Liz couldn't help but whimper at the slam of the door against the wall.

“Ser!” he said, snapping to attention.

“What?” snapped Krem, hostility blatant in his tone.

The messenger didn't seem put off. “Commander Rutherford needs to see the Dragon Rider. Now. Immediately ser.”

“No doubt revenge for the 'pillock' comment,” Krem muttered. “She'll be there in five minutes” he said to the messenger.

“Now ser,” was the implacable reply.

“Five minutes unless you want her naked as the day she was birthed!” roared Krem. “Out!”

The messenger retreated. Krem helped her into clean clothes and helped her comb her hair to a semblance of presentability. “Oh Maker Krem, what if he's really angry?”

“Then fuck him,” said Krem angrily. “You were drunk and had been attacked – not a soul here would allow him to seriously penalise you for a single comment you made under those circumstances.”

“That doesn't help a lot.”

“I know, but it's the best we've got. Now go.”

Liz went, her stomach roiling every step of the way, and having to fight the temptation to put her head in her hands and hide in a dark room when she stepped into the courtyard. Maker, was it always this noisy, this crowded, this busy? The masses of people and soldiers hurrying everywhere and the gabble from them seemed to press in on her, people shouting orders and children running underfoot shrieking were like needles in her temples and she paused, leaning against a wall to catch her breath before continuing on to Cullen's office.

She knocked, then pushed the door open before waiting for a reply, and was greeted by another pair of messengers leaving through the door she'd entered through. Cullen didn't look up from where he was frantically scribbling something on his desk.

Liz cleared her throat, then abruptly decided she may as well address the elephant in the room. “Ser, about last night-”

“It was nothing,” said Cullen waving it off. “I need-”

Sudden rage flooded her. So she was important enough to needle and bully and back into a corner, but not important enough for her comments to actually anger him. How dare he?!

“On the contrary,” she retorted, refusing to be spoken over. “I believe it-”

“Whatever you believe can wait for another time,” snapped Cullen impatiently. “We've received urgent orders from the Inquisitor. She's found the Grey Wardens. We march for Adamant Fortress immediately. Today. Now.

Chapter Text

She was met on the stairs by Dorian as she hurried down, rolls of parchment in one fist.

“Here,” he said without preamble. “Krem told me, drink this.”

He handed her an earthenware tumbler, and she peered into it.

“Is that....raw egg in there?”

“Among other things – look, there are very few things worse than having to march off to war, but having to march off to war while hung over is one of them. Down it, or be prepared to have the part of the Inquisitorial army that doesn't still hate you start doing so when you, their precious dragon rider, holds them up by having to periodically stop to vomit.”

He had a point. “Hold these,” she said, handing him the parchment so she could pinch her nose with one hand and down the drink with the other with risk of soaking them.

“Certainly...what are they?” he said, taking them.

Liz, eyes closed and nose pinched, threw her head back and swallowed. It was awful. Rotten tomatoes with a bitter sour aftertaste all wrapped up with a slimey mouldy texture. She didn't answer for a long moment in favor of shoving the mug back at him and them slapping her hand over her mouth and trying not to throw the entire lot back up again as the world around her swam and dipped with the effort and she wondered if she was actually going to pass out-

-When as abruptly as it had started her stomach settled, the pain receeded and all seemed right with the world again. Even the taste in her mouth disappeared. “That's amazing,” she said, eyeing the mug in his hand with wonder. “What was in it? It was almost like magic.”

“That's because it was - any fool can mix up some Qunari spices with a mouldy tomato and an egg; if that was all that was needed to do the job, I'd have just sent it with a runner. Now, what orders do you have?” He brandished the papers.

“Those are just requisition papers for new bags and canvas,” Liz retorted snatching them back. “I was told to hurry but I don't know why – even if I crawled, me by myself would be faster than the rest of the army getting themselves together.”

“I wouldn't be so sure,” Dorian was giving her an odd look. “Cullen might be an ass, but he knows what he's doing; I'd run if I were you.”

She did so, taking off at a light jog in the direction of the quarter master.

Dorian's advice was well given. She had just finished with Marno, her necessities stuffed into saddlebags and loaded behind Draco's saddle, when the door slammed open and Skinner stuck her head in. “Zee chief says we are assembling outside the battlements, and you are to report zere,” she advised without pre-amble.”

“Got it,” Liz said, mounting up and tying herself in. “C'mon Draco.”

The dragon wriggled, unsure of what she made of the new weight with the supplies, but nevertheless, hopped forward and sprang out over the falls, wings extending as they fell, catching the air and coming up in a smooth arc, the mist from the water leaving dew like droplets in Liz's hair – and, as she blinked, eyelashes - as they emerged from the cavern, finding a helpful thermal and gradually gliding higher, the occasional wingbeat only necessary to correct their course.

Gradually, the grounds outside Skyhold became visible over the crenellations, and Liz couldn't help her jaw dropping.

The rocky outcrops outside of Skyhold were hives of activity, with formations of troops slowly beginning to emerge out of the chaos – she estimated there must be a few thousand. Some were shouting and pointing at her. Enormous wagons loaded with lengths of wood and coils of rope that were thicker than Liz's thigh were already being towed out by teams of oxen, and ahead of them, Liz could see other, covered wagons, and unit of what looked like mounted calvry.

A pair of waving green flags caught her eye, and she pulled at one of the anchor ropes, turning Draco down to where Dalish was waving them.

They landed with a 'whoosh', Liz uncomfortably aware everyone had been staring and thanking whatever was out there that their pull up had been smooth. “This is fast,” she blurted to Dalish.

The elf grinned. “No, this is an army. A good one too. We'll all be on the road by midday, Cullen's hoping to put us at double pace. The messenger didn't know when the Inquisitor would make it to Adamant, but we're trying not to leave her without backup, he says.”

“Ok, so when are we moving?”

“Now,” Dalish said. “We're riding after the artillery to provide security for that while the main troops will march after; both the marching and the wagons will churn up the ground, but it's easier to get troops over muddy terrain than it is wheels. The commander's said he wants you flying laps over the entire army as we march, making sure we aren't going to get ambushed on the way. Any problems, you signal for help, then engage if necessary; try not to scare the horses if you do,” she added, handing over a pair of red flags and two loaded belts, each strung with small pouches. “They aren't used to you two yet.”

“We haven't done all day flying,” Liz protested. “We do half days only at the moment.”

“You will now. We've got a spare wagon in case she really tires herself out and needs a break but...” Dalish looked around and leaned in conspiratorially. “We aren't sure she'll fit in it anymore. But we had to say she would, or he'd have left you here, and we need to come out of this with Draco having pulled her weight. Gives us avenues of protest in case he ever...y'know...” she shrugged, but Liz got the meaning.

“Got it,” she said flatly, putting one belt over each shoulder so she was wearing them diagonally across her chest. “If you need anything, wave when I go past, I guess.”

Dalish winked and pointed at the bottom pouch on one of her belts. “That's half of rock I enchanted; I've got the other half. If something big hits and we need you right then, I'll shatter my half. It should make yours give off a small ice blast; it won't hurt you, you'll just notice it's really really cold. If that happens, come find us, fast as you can fly. I hope – I've not tested it as exensively as I'd like.”

Liz nodded as Dalish stepped away. “Ok Draco,” she said, settling herself in. “Let's earn our keep.”

She kicked her heels. Draco grunted, shifted, then trot-trot-jumpFLAP-

Take offs from flat ground were never particularly graceful manouvers, but a couple of minutes of teeth jarring flapping and they were high enough to glide at least some of the time, the winds having gotten stronger updrafts catching them here and there.

The marching army below them curved out below like a giant disjointed snake, the armour of the men and women below her glistening in the sun like scales here and there; at the front were three riders each bearing a banner; the Inquisition, the Chantry, and a third one she didn't recognise.

The air was chilled but not cold, thanks to the sun. She nudged Draco forward, then leant back to dig an earthenware pot out of her saddlebags; thankfully she'd put it near the top. Yanking the top off, she smeared the smelly mixture inside over her face and neck, and wished once more for some sunscreen from Earth, rather than this stinky Thedan equivalent. Still, she'd wear it; she had learned the hard way that flying meant more sun, and the last thing she needed now was sun sickness.

They swooped a little lower, passing the front of the train. She glanced down, surprised when she saw the driver of the front wagon scrabble behind him then produce his own pair of green flags. He flashed the signal for 'all ok' at her.

It made sense, she supposed – they must have some sort of signalling language for long distances. She just...hadn't expected for word to be spread it could be used to talk to her.

Nevertheless, they drew out in front, both of them scanning the path and the surrounding shrubland for any hint of movement, any glints of metal in the sun, any unsual tracks. There was nothing.

Using her own flags, she flashed the same message back at him as they turned, heading towards the back of the train, the people she could see just starting to leave the muster grounds. On her second pass, she could see Skyhold's drawbridge being lowered, and it might just have been her imagination, but she couldn't help but feel a little concerned how many fewer people patrolling the walk ways she could see silhouetted against the sky.

The hours passed. In many ways, it reminded Liz of her old job – it was repetitive, necessary...and boring. Draco got grumpy around hour 2, obviously similarly bored, and decided first to go off course – Liz hauled her back – then swooped down to see if she could spot any of her friends – she spooked the horses and Dorian sent a friendly firework back up to get her away – and then tried to land, which Liz circumvented by tugging her main anchor tie which she knew put pressure on the dragon's chest until she pulled up again.

Thus defeated, Draco resumed a quiet and uncooperative sulk, meaning that by about hour 6, Liz's shoulders and arms were aching from having to bodily haul the dragon around whenever they reached the front or back of the train, which didn't leave Liz in the best of moods either.

“Fucking dragon,” she announced to Krem, who met her when the train had finally stopped for the night and was setting up camp and they touched down a little outside it, having located the Charger's flag in the fading flight. “My arms.”

“Yeah, but she's tuckered as well,” Krem pointed out, helping Liz untie herself. “Look at her.”

Liz did, and couldn't help but notice Draco's drooping. “Fuck,” she muttered, stepping forward to scritch her under her chin spikes. Draco closed her eyes in bliss, but didn't seem to get anymore awake.

“She just needs a little looking after, I think,” Krem said, patting her on the nose himself. “Stitches bought a few jars of honey and has smeared them over the joints we've been sent for her dinner. Might act as a bribe?”

It did; apparently combining Draco's two favorite things of raw meat and sweet things woke her enough to manage her entire meal before she fell sound asleep, her head in their small cooking fire, all but smothering it, and end of her tail draped over the one in the next campfire over.

“I should take watch,” Liz announced to Dalish, trying to stand and being slightly surprised when her legs didn't respond.

Dalish snorted. “Nope, you're under orders; we just have to travel tomorrow. You're lookout; if you fuck up, the consequences are a lot worse than if one of us dozes off and falls off a horse. Get to your roll.”

Hips screaming at her when she eventually managed to get moving, Liz did so, discovering exactly how tired she was when she didn't remember anything after her head hitting the blanket, despite the ache in her hips.

 

Stitches woke her before dawn with a couple of hot rocks wrapped in towels to press against each hip and a tonic that tasted like mint and horse manure but he swore would help with the pain. “Thanks,” she gasped when she tried to sit up. “Fuck – didn't Cullen say it would be weeks of travelling? How the hell am I supposed to survive this?”

“It'll get better,” he reassured her grimly. “Just like riding a horse; starts off bad, gets worse, then gets better.”

“Great. Thanks,” she managed through gritted teeth, not sure if she was sarcastic or grateful.

He was right though. The third day she would put up with one of the worst experiences of her life – the chargers had to cut her out of the saddle and lift her off Draco themselves, because she lacked the ability to dismount herself, and even Bull made a couple of noises about her possibly taking a rest day in the back of a wagon the next day.

Liz refused, drinking every disgusting tonic and smearing on every stinking poultice Stitches, Dorian and Varric found, bought or bullied their way into presenting her with and sat herself back in the saddle the following morning. They were right – they needed the lookout and Draco might deign to carry someone else at Liz's direction, but she'd not take any other rider but Liz. The few times Krem had tried mounting up, she'd given him a scornful look and then proceeded to ignore him and his instructions, regardless of incentive or punishment.

At the beginning of the second week, their vigilence paid off when Liz spotted movement in the trees a hundred paces ahead of their scouts or so and flashed the appropriate warning flags to the front of the convoy. It was gratifying to see a group of bandits flushed from the undergrowth with no injuries or damage taken, and even more so to see their dropped jaws and wide eyes as she and Draco completed another pass; if they were released, she was willing to bet word would spread quickly through whatever criminal underworld there was in Thedas that, among their forces, the Inquisition could count a dragon in their ranks. She hoped it might decrease the chances of anyone getting jumped on the road while carrying out the Inquisition's business if the worry of a dragon appearing overhead to smite them was suddenly a consideration.

The weather worsened, the clear skies they'd enjoyed over Skyhold giving way first to light cloud, then to heavier cloud with mist and winds, until eventually she resigned herself to the fact that whereever they were headed, apparently they'd just have to get used to working in an ever-present weet drizzle that could soak you through to the skin in minutes. It was like being in the Fallow Mire all over again, only this time it was worse; the Fallow Mire, all they'd done was kill anything trying to kill them and try to stay warm. Here, the sticky mud would snare axels and suck boots from feet, and all too frequently, Liz found herself and Draco flying in circles around a stationary army while they tried to unstick a crucial supply wagon or trebuchet from where it had gotten jammed.

The night before they were due to arrive at Adamant, Liz was surprised to land and find Cassandra in the camp waiting for them.

“Hi,” she said to the Seeker as she dismounted. Draco grumbled a perfunctory greeting before going to find Marno and her dinner.

“Good evening,” Cassandra smiled faintly. Looking closely, Liz could spot the lines around her eyes and an uncharacteristic smear of mud on the corner of her breastplate. Other than that, she was as spotless as she normally was.

Spot the seasoned veteren, Liz thought droley.

“I have just given The Iron Bull our – and your – instructions for the attack we will be mounting at Adamant,” she informed Liz.

“Already? But we don't even get there until tomorrow.”

“And likely it will be tempered a little in the interim time, with some finer details to be decided once we actually see the battleground. But Adamant is a fortress that is ancient and well mapped; the strategies that we are using to attack it are well devised and thought through. The more time we give you to familiarise yourselves with the plan, the better all will adhere to it.”

“Well, ok then,” Liz said, continuing to undo her armour, privately wondering why Cassandra was bothering to tell her this – if the instructions had been left with Bull to explain to the Chargers, there was no reason he wouldn't have explained this as well.

As if sensing her confusion, Cassandra sighed. “I suppose I should be the one to take responsibility for telling you this. We do not anticipate you and Draco flying in the battle; you have both been stationed on the ground.”

Liz's head snapped up. “What?! Why? We need this to prove we can fight!”

The seeker looked at her levelly. “And you will. But the development of your manouvers that will work with the army has only just been started, nevermind finalised and drilled. You might know what you're doing, but everyone else does not; we have not worked out how to coordinate with you when we use the trebuchets and other artillery. Nor have we found a solution that would allow you to use your firepower overhead in such a way that you are guaranteed to only hit enemy targets rather than sabotaging our own scouts. If you are shot down, we have no protocol for finding you; you would be on your own, behind enemy lines. I'm sorry if you feel we are hampering you, but you will get the opportunity to prove you can fight and work as part of a larger whole, as you need to. But it will not be from the air. Not this time.”

Liz looked at her for a long moment, wanting to argue, wanting to protest, but the words stuck in her throat – after so long in Thedas, so long training, arguing back to a superior officer was no longer something she could fathom doing over something as minor as snubbed pride and misplaced expectations, no matter how disappointed she was. Instead she nodded formally, aware her movements were stiff and jerky. “Ser,” was all she said in acknowledgement.

Cassandra nodded back, then turned and strolled away.

“She told you, hunh?” said Krem from a nearby shadow behind a tent.

“Yeah,” Liz replied, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. “My desire to punch Rutherford in the face has made a come back with a vengence.”

He slung an arm around her shoulders in a half-hug. “C'mon. The Chief's gonna take us all through it once we're all sat and watered; I'm sure there has to be something we can take out of this.”

 

The next day was as grey and wet as the others had been. Now the end of the trek was in sight, they seemed to be going even slower, which did nothing for either Liz, nor Draco's moods. The dragon was snappy and frustrated, and even managed to land once beside the wagon Bull was sat on before Liz finally hauled on the traces enough to get her to take off again.

“Fine,” she finally snapped at the back of her head. “It isn't what we wanted. We won't be flying high, dropping grenades on our enemies and emerge from the air and come out of it in a blaze of glory. I know already. No need to make it worse.”

Draco grumbled and snapped at something Liz couldn't see, causing her to jerk forward for a second, obviously displeased.

She sighed. “We'll still show them Draco. Fine, we'll be up to our knees in blood and guts and mud, and it'll be a hard grind, but we can still-”

She cut off, struck by a thought. The hard grind she'd just described was exactly what normal soldiers went through on their first battle...or, heck, any battle. They didn't have the luxury of trying to demand they should fly over the top of the damned thing. What they would be doing would be what every other member of the Inquistion's army would be looking at doing – even those in the cavalry. Horses were of limited use wheen clambering up ladders to break a siege. What she was complaining about was nothing other than what everyone else had signed up to do.

What had Dorian said? The half of the army that didn't hate her. Which meant half of them still did. Even allowing for Dorian's habitual hyperbole, it was likely a significant proportion of them did. Cassandra had said they had no protocol for getting her back if shot down, none for using her and the trebuchets at once.

If half – or even some! - of the army hated her, then without those measures, once she was in the air, it could be she'd be in more danger from her own side than the enemy. All it would take would be one misplaced rock to injure Draco, and then they just would take their time coming to get her; she was a competant swordswoman, but she wasn't that good. She wouldn't be able to hold out in that position, even with Draco's help.

And how did you get members of an army not to hate someone? She had seen it herself, been through it herself with the Chargers; you made them fight together. Made them stand, side by side, and go through the same shit and the same danger. And when – if – they came out the other side, something happened on the battlefield, some bonding in some way, but that tie between people who had stood shoulder to shouder...it changed people. And it might change those who approved of the three who had attacked her the night before they left.

It wasn't what she'd hoped, but that didn't mean it wasn't presenting her with a very much needed opportunity. One she hadn't even stopped to consider – in truth, she'd pushed her memory of the night of the attack to the back of my mind every time it had come up. There had been no reason to dwell, as she'd been told her attackers had been left to recover from their injuries at Skyhold and she'd never left the Charger's cooking fire. At no point had she given thought to the fact there were others who felt like they did...or what to do about them.

The other very uncomfortable consideration she now needed to think on was that, far from Cullen deserving a punch in the face, this might actually be his attempt at helping her.

Maker. Really? Could it be?

She still hadn't decided when she pulled in to land a little after sundown, the army setting itself up as it habitually did, although at the front of the camp, she could see surges of activity that were a bit unusual towards the front of the camp – she guess it must be messenger outposts being set up. They hadn't been bothered with while they were on the move.

Stitches – somehow – had their dinner ready for them by the time she'd finished oiling off her armour and Draco's saddle, and she couldn't help a moan of thanks when she took a sip of the contents of her bowl; heavilyspiced broth stuffed with dried meat and vegetables crammed full of noodles.

She was therefore a similar level of resentful when a runner came haring into their camp fire and interrupted them before they were done.

“Muster!” he spluttered before any of them had a chance to greet him.

“Whoa, easy there,” said Bull, who was responding to his attention being redirected from his meal with far more grace than the rest of them. “We know our instructions for muster, so no panicking, have some water-”

“No! You don't understand!” the man cut in. Liz could now see, despite the firelight, he was pale beneath his travel grime. “Word's arrived from the Inquisitor. She's here already. She says we can't delay – we're mustering! Right now!”

“Shit,” Bull muttered, getting to his feet, as around them, Liz felt rather than saw, the army surge into action, and horns started to sound.

Chapter Text

Chaos reigned immediately, even within the Chargers camp. Liz had seen them muster at a run before, but never for a battle, only a skirmish, and even Stitches accidentally shoulder checked her when they both hauled themselves to their feet, heading for their armour.

“Marno!” Liz shouted – or tried to – over the hubbub. She winced while she jammed her chest piece over her head, noting her voice was just a little shriller than normal. Of all the times for her nerve to start showing...

“Here!” Draco came shouldering her own way through the crowds, Marno staggered after her, his arms full of leather; Draco only had half her tack on, and gave Liz a somewhat hesitant headbutt which Liz interpreted as 'I'm confused and worried because everyone's shouting and we've broken our routine.'

“I'm sorry girl,” Liz muttered, using her teeth to help tighten her bracers. “I know we wanted time to rest, but we need to fight now.”

She tried to do mental calculations in her mind of how long they could both hold out – the traveling they'd done meant they could now tolerate entire days of flying, but that didn't exactly mean they were burdened with an over abundance of energy at the end of it. She'd fought while half asleep before, in the Hinterlands, invariably woken by someone attacking the camp, but fending off half a dozen malnourished bandits while dead on your feet was very different to trying to assault a castle in the same state.

“I'm staying with the healing tents,” Marno informed her, running the straps around Draco's wing bases far faster than Liz could manage it these days. Liz nodded in acknowledgement as she finished with one leg piece and started on the other. “We're still not completely sure about dragon physiology these days, but I brought some things I hope might help if the worst happens, and we'll keep a big fire nice and hot...just in case. If...if you need anything, if she needs anything, come and find me.”

“Thank you,” Liz said sincerely, clapping him on the shoulder. “Please don't take this the wrong way, but I really really hope not to see you.”

He grinned at her, teeth bright against the grim on his skin. “Me neither. Here,” he handed her sword to her as she arranged her scabbard to lie at the right angle.

“Chargers!” yelled Bull, already starting to move slowly away from camp.

“Shit,” muttered Liz. “Good luck,” she said to Marno, then “c'mon Draco.”

They pressed through the mud, moving up to a clumsy half-jog when they had everyone, which was the fastest they'd be going in the morass underfoot.

They pushed their way past ranks of soldiers forming up into organised units, some of them madhandling extraordinarily long ladders, and a couple of groups pushing the wheeled contraptions with logs handing from them, used for breaking gates. Over her shoulder, Liz could see rapidly constructed trebuchets slowly angled towards the fort.

The fort. She hadn't had a good look at it yet, but now it loomed out of the darkness over the heads of those in front of her, a seemingly impossible hulk of stone and shadow. How the hell were they ever going to assault that?

“The Iron Bull!” Cassandra was notable in many ways, Liz thought disjointedly, but her ability to remember to use the proper article in times of stress was particularly stand out. “Wait!” She shoved her way through towards them.

They all paused in place, a sudden rock in a sea of people moving around them. “What?” Bull all but growled.

“There has been a change of plan – I am now accompanying the Inquisitor.”

Bull paused to consider this. “Ok. Where do you need us?”

“Report to Commander Cullen. He is going to be center of the field directing the battle, behind the gate breech. You are to assist him with holding his position.” She looked a little harried, Liz realised. How bad were there odds here, exactly, for even Cassandra to look harried?

“Sheee-it. Alright,” Bull said, and without saying anything further, turned and started moving at a different angle.

It was all happening shockingly fast. Liz would be surprised if it had been so much as half an hour since the muster call went out, and it was getting easier to move as more and more people were in place, neat lines of soldiers formed, standards hanging at intervals between them, barely stirring in what little wind there was on what promised to be a cold wet and bloody night.

They found Cullen in a group of people in the center of the field, accompanied by not only the Inquisitor and Solas (who were stood just a little too close to one another, Liz was amused to note) but also Varric, several people wearing the uniform of messengers, a slightly harrased scribe who was carrying a satchel stuff with parchment in a surprisingly organised fashion and several quills, and also another man who wasn't wearing the standard uniform of anything Liz recognised, but whose face was smeared with something that made it black and non-reflective in the light of the torches.

Both Bull and Cassandra gave Cullen a respectful nod as they joined, Cassandra stepping into place beside Varric. “We'll need you to hold a defensive line around the post as we move forward with the battle,” said Cullen to Bull. “Apologies for the short notice.”

“Ah, these things happen,” said Bull, seemingly now in a better mood now they were positioned. “Chargers, perimeter!”

They all responded automatically, having relied on the ability to keep and hold a perimeter in the Hinterlands so very frequently. Liz was quietly grateful for having to do something she was familiar with for her first battle. Beside her, Draco grumbled as they got into position.

“It's fine,” she muttered, quickly scratching her under the chin. “We can do this. It's just some fighting, same as before, just a bigger scale. You'll see. Back home for tea and medals before sunrise.”

She glanced over her shoulder at the others, and Varric gave her a grin and a thumbs up from where we was stood. She grinned and returned the gesture.

They stood, waiting, in silence, eyes out – Liz had been warned of this. That so many battles could be summed up as 'hurry up and wait'. They couldn't do anything until everything was in position...or more likely, there would be no point. The enemy couldn't reach them without coming out from the fortress, which was about the last thing in the world they'd want to do. So they would stand and wait until they were ready.

More runners came in, arriving either with parchment slips that Cullen examined then passed to the scribe, or verbal reports that he listened to silently before giving replies so quiet Liz couldn't hear them. Despite the organised chaos around them, Cullen exuded an aura of calm competence, like he knew everything, expected everything, and nothing took him by surprise. Like if you just did what he said, there was no way in the world anything could ever go wrong.

One of his many skills as a battlefield commander, she realised. There was no way an army would remain disciplined and ordered if their commander was running around in a flap or letting the stress get to him. It was an entirely different command style to Bull, who was loud and jovial and such an incredible force of nature that it seemed nothing could ever go wrong that you couldn't overcome it. Cullen didn't have that, would never have been able to pull that off believably. Instead, with Cullen, you just got the impression that nothing ever really went wrong in the first place. That he had plans on top of plans, that there was a response in place for every contingency, and that no matter what happened, Cullen would say 'ah, I see', pull out a plan for that, and everything would work out.

Given the magnitude of what they were about to do, it was something even she found herself relying on. Maker, how many of their fighters were like her? Not quite green newbies, but suddenly staring down the barrel of the magnitude of what they were about to do, and wondering if it was all a big mistake.

Cullen glanced up, meeting her eyes, and she realised she had been staring at him. Flustered, and blushing slightly – why? Why was she blushing slightly? He was a self righteous git, and whatever the hell her subconscious was up to, it needed to knock it off! - she looked away, staring down the ranks of soldiers standing alongside them instead.

Well, too late now. No one ever actually got what they wanted when they uttered the words 'stop the world, I want to get off'.

Just don't die, she repeated to herself. She wasn't entirely sure if she was talking about herself, or the Chargers, or Draco, or the Inquisitor, or the soldiers, or even Cullen. But she desperately wanted them all out alive.

Just don't die.

“Alright,” said Cullen's voice suddenly from behind them, raised slightly so all in the area could hear him. “Signals one, two and three please. Let's get this started.”

She could hear a flutter of fabric moving – flag signals she suspected – and for a second, it seemed like the battlefield took a breath. Tension strained, as everyone strained to hear what was happening, who was moving in response to that command, what was-

A large section of the wall of the fortress blew up, the explosion so forceful she could have sworn she felt it ruffle her hair. Her jaw dropped despite herself.

With that, there was a surge of movement forward, too many things happening to see them all. She kept step with everyone else as they moved up, keeping her shoulder in line with Dalish, Draco behind her, Cullen and his scribe at the back of the group as the Inquisitor moved to the front, but she could see siege towers moving, and ladders going up as the soldiers marching in step sounded like some sort of weird drumbeat. Overhead, a glimmer of movement caught her eye and she looked up in time to miss the flaming missiles flung from the trebuchets hit the walls. She craned her neck to see what would happen next, only for a loud thudding noise to alert her that the battering ram had connected with the front gate.

She jumped when Dalish jabbed her in the side with an elbow.

“Hunh?”

“Quit gawking like a greenshoot – we have a job!”

“Sorry,” Liz muttered, shame faced, refocusing on what was in front of them. Dalish was right – she was too experienced to spend her time staring around when they had a job to do by way of keeping their battlefield command alive.

The noise was horrific – she could hear shouting, screaming, and roaring coming from the front at the wall, the shriek of metal on metal, of rocks falling, and people giving orders at the top of their lungs – still the dull drumbeat of the march carried under all of it as more and more soldiers surged forward to reach the walls, occasionally punctuated by a short lived shriek and then the thud of a body when someone fell off it. It became an effort of will not to look as they edged forward, not to strain to see if the people falling were the woman who'd always signalled to her from the rear of the supply chain, the man who had topped up Stitches spice supply yesterday. Don't die, don't die.

More booming thuds, followed by a terrible crunching sound announced the battering ram had done it's job and they were through. She saw the Inquistor move forwards through the gap, swiftly followed by Cullen to brief, she supposed.

There was a crunch to her left. “Shields up!” Bull suddenly roared.

She reacted on instinct, glad she did when she felt a missile hit her shield with enough force to wobble it – they were throwing things from overhead on the battlements.

To her right, there was a scurry of panic and people trying to get out of the way – not fast enough. A large boulder slammed down – there was a spray of blood, a woman trapped half underneath it, only her chest and above visible. She was screaming, screaming- then someone stepped in front of her, and Liz couldn't see anything more, but the screaing went on until it died away, replaced by frantic gurgles that were swallowed by the sound of battle.

Liz had to bite back a sudden surge of bile in her mouth.

“The Inquisitor is clearing the battlments!” Cullen shouted, edging back around the battering ram. “For now, we'll back to let the men move into the courtyard – they can make a nuisance of themselves and distract them here, and this position is untenable for us.”

“Move back!” Bull barked.

They shifted, moving through the gap as the ram was dragged back, exposing enough of the hole that even Draco could have squeezed through as the men took advantage of the hole. From what Liz could see, the courtyard was a mess, rubble and bodies strewn everywhere, the light patchy and flickering from the multiple torches that were providing light. Sounds of engagement rang out almost immediately as they withdrew back, until Bull pulled them to a stop. “Far enough,” he murmured.

They halted, and Liz couldn't help but feel twitchy. In front of them, she could see glimpses of movement and hear battle ongoing. She could see the fighting on the battlements, see the people scrambling up ladders and engaging, hear the screams of the dying, the roars of the demons, the shouts for help, to give order, to warn. And they were stood in an increasingly empty field doing nothing but standing at the ready, as more and more – the majority now – of their forces were committed to pressing on the castle, a steady stream of messengers still coming and going for Cullen.

Beside her, Draco gumbled. Bull at the front drew a breath as if he was about to say something, then let it out in a whistle through his teeth. The lack of action must be weighing on them as well.

It was official, Liz thought grimly. Even when you were with a group of well trained fighters who were all spoiling to join in the fight, war sucked.

Another scream came from inside the battlements then cut off abruptly, making Liz wince. 'Don't die, don't die.'

Another few minutes passed before Cullen spoke. “The courtyard looks clear – let's move up. If I keep giving orders from out here, we're risking the runners.”

“Alright,” Bull said – someone who didn't know him well would miss the undertone of tension in his voice.

The gates were now stood wide open after so many had passed through them. The courtyard was in as much disarray as she'd thought, with bodies everywhere – some of them in Inquisition uniforms. Liz was momentarily awash with first relief and then an overwhelming wave of guilt that none of the dead had faces she recognised.

Bull at the front barely had time to glance over his shoulder before two demons, with big spikey helmets and glowing hands, skirted forward from the shadows to swipe at him.

More followed, with the occasional human in amongst them, spreading out around them, swiping in as if they were testing their lines. Draco, out of patience, swiped at one with claws, leaving it rent in two, and then bowled a second over for Liz to step forward and decapitate it. More immediately took their place, spilling out from doorways and large cracks in the walls.

“Shit, they were waiting for us,” Bull growled.

“So I see,” replied Cullen grimly – there was the sing of steel as he drew his sword from his belt and took a shield off one of the bodies at his feet, strapping it to his arm in a business like fashion. “Let's correct their assumption that we're the soft backline.”

With that, he stepped into the line beside Bull, and they all went to work.

Chapter Text

It was tough fighting – the hides of the demons were not too dissimilar to Draco's scales when she'd been younger, so while the demons weren't particularly skilled fighters, it took energy to kill them, and they were all tiring quickly after the day of travel. Liz was only glad the battlements had been cleared – trying to handle this and missiles from overhead would have been impossible.

As it stood, they were hard pressed, and making mistakes. Skinner went down temporarily when she misjudged a thrust and took an arrow through her forearm. Expression grim, she ripped the arrow from the wound, and then gulped a healing potion before stepping back into her place. She saw Krem miss a block and hiss in frustration when a blow landed – on his armour, not his flesh, but it would still leave a nasty bruise that could slow him down. Rocky ended up out of the fight, his face covered with blood and loosing conscoiusness and propped up by Cullen's scribe, who was still stood in the middle of them, keeping his head down and trying not to get hit, as their circle edged tighter and tighter, pressed in by the weight of opponents.

Draco, meanwhile, was playing more than her part – her bulk and wings blocked the rear of their defensive circle entirely, meaning they couldn't be surrounded with any kind of effectiveness, and some part of Liz felt a grim satisfaction that no matter what happened now, Cullen would absolutely not be able to dismiss her contributions in this. Regardless of how this fight turned out, Draco's place with the Inquisition was safe.

Then it all went to shit.

Somehow – Liz wasn't sure how - Dalish dropped with a scream.

“What-Stitches!” Liz yelled, stepping in front of her, desperately trying to block as three more demons stepped up opposite her. “Problem!”

“I'm busy!” Was the yelled reply; Liz couldn't look away long enough to see, but he didn't sound anywhere close. The circle was shattering, their line breaking up as they all had too many opponents to handle and too much to protect to stay side by side.

“It's a-ah!” Dalish's words were cut off by another yelp of pain. Draco extended a wing to cover her, but Liz kept her attention on the three demons who were waiting, just out of sword's reach – as if they were going to make her choose between helping her friend and protecting herself. “Fuckers,” she hissed at them.

A shield appeared on her left. “I've got them, help her,” Cullen said through gritted teeth; the side of his tunic was dark with blood.

Liz didn't question, but turned and ducked, looking Dalish over; behind her there was a clash of steel and claws as Cullen engaged.

Dalish's left hand was nearly severed at the wrist, hanging off at an angle connected only by some skin and sinue. Dalish clutched at the wound with her right hand, but a disturbing amount of blood was still spilling out.

“I can't get the potion open,” the elf hissed through gritted teeth – her skin was alarmingly pale beneath the battle grime. A healing potion lay, blood smeared, on her lap.

Liz uncorked it and tipped it down Dalish's throat, then ripped a length of fabric from the bottom of the other woman's top, and wrapped it around the wound, knotting it as fast as she could, wincing in sympathy when Dalish cried out at the pain.

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” she muttered to her. “I have to fight, but I can't let you bleed.”

“I know,” the words were more a whimper. “Go.”

“He can manage,” Liz started, scrabbling at her belt pouch to give Dalish her healing potion as well – she really didn't like how much blood she'd lost, when she turned to check on Cullen and the world slowed.

It was like she could see it happen ahead of time. One of those moments when you realise several fundamental truths at the exact same time and they change everything as a result.

Cullen was swinging in a half-crescent to his left. She knew that move. She'd practised that move with him, over and over and over again, until her shoulder ached and she thought her arm might fall off. And then he'd made her do it some more.

That move ended with a sidestep to the right, slightly back from the original position.

There was a tankard, lying in the exact spot he was going to step to – it must have fallen off the belt of someone else, maybe someone who had passed through or one of the dead lying here. It was dark and leather-covered metal, and he wouldn't be able to see it, even if he looked, because of the shadows – she was only able to see it because she was kneeling down next to Dalish.

He would put his foot square on it, and it would roll. His foot would go out from under him – he would try to compensate, and it wouldn't be enough.

He would fall, his leg at an awkward angle, knee twisting inwards.

He would angle forward and to the left – he always favoured that side, she'd seen it a dozen dozen times when they'd trained. She'd seen all of this when they trained. That would twist his shield, making it lie awkwardly on his arm, lifting the base point.

That would expose his side.

A demon was stood right there, the last of the three, hanging back as if it was half waiting. A single stride, that exposed vulnerable spot – Cullen wouldn't live through it. He would fall, and then so would everyone else in the courtyard.

She was moving before she knew she was moving. It was automatic. Her sword was in her hands and she was surging to her feet, even as he stepped, she stepped, into the spot he should have been if the tankard wasn't there, as he fell, she swung in shield up – crunch! - take the hit from the demon, sword blow to the right as a second swooped in to try and split her attention-

Cullen's sword flashed and the arm extended against her parry came off in a spray of greenish blood. As if they'd coordinated, she stepped back to allow him space to rise, then in again – he always rose with his right leg bearing his weight which meant that enemy over there-

He stepped behind and around her, his own shield blocking the gap he knew she would have on her left side. He parried a blow coming in, she thrust through the opening. He moved to an overhead block, she used her shield to punch forward-

He stepped behind her, his back touching hers as something came in away from their attention, trying to get to Dalish, and she didn't look, didn't need to look, he was going to move to his right, down, low, sweeping, so she would cut up, over-

It was a dance. An odd, jerky dance of cut and block, and move and protect-

Don't die don't DIE!

-where each of them knew what the other would do, just about, all those hours, of days, of weeks of training, of drills, came together. She wasn't perfect – her fighting was just as flawed as it had been yesterday, but he knew those flaws. He compensated for them. And she compensated for him being just one fighter – a viscious, deadly, incredible fighter, but still just one – in a space surrounded by enemies where blind spots were inevitable, and so they moved together, one following the other, compensating for the other, because he was always where she knew he was going to be, and it was the same for him.

It was a shock when she shoved the last demon off her blade, looked for the next target and realised there were no more left. They were surrounded by bodies, human and demon alike, her arms numb with effort, breathing harder than she'd ever done in her life. Behind her she could hear Cullen panting the same way.

“Clear!” barked Bull from across the way, and then started picking his way over to them, Krem, Stitches and Grim doing similarly.

She glanced at Cullen, who was looking red in the face and still not as exhausted as she felt, damned man. He met her eyes for a split second, and then they both looked away as if scalded.

'What the fuck it that?!' she couldn't help but think.

Thankfully, with the exception of Draco, who made an odd grumbling noise at her, and Dalish who was staring at them pale and wide eyed – but Liz sort of hoped that was the blood loss – no one else seemed to have noticed, too busy fighting for their own lives.

Beside her Cullen cleared his throat. “If we're done here, we need to push inwards. If the Inquisitor needs support, we should stay nearby.”

“You got it,” said Bull, looking around at those down. “Can your-”

“Commander!”

Dorian appeared at the top of the stairs. His clothing was torn and burned, a smear of blood on one cheek, dark stains on his hands, leaning heavily on something stone that at one point might have been part of a wall. “There is...you have to see!”

In the air above him, a green glow shot up from somewhere deeper in the castle.

A rift? Why would there be a rift in Adamant fortress? Liz thought disjointedly, a split second before the ground itself shook with the sound of an unearthly screaming roar.

Heads turned and for a second, everyone in the courtyard was staring in horror at Liz.

No, not her, she realised.

At Draco, behind her, whose head was raised and bristling at the sky.

“No,” she said softly. “ Oh no, no, no -”

Above them, a rush of wind and something dark and foul smelling as a dragon, an enormous, monstrous dragon, flashed past overhead.

“Oh fuck,” said Krem, giving voice to everyone's thoughts. “Oh fuck fuck fuck-”

Whatever spell had been holding Liz immobile with horror broke. “DRACO COME!” she shrieked, turning to the dragon then running for the nearest stone tall enough to be a mounting point.

“Liz!” bellowed Bull.

“You can't!” Krem yelled, running to meet her. “You weren't supposed to fly, we don't have any of your tether ropes, there is nothing to tie you in with-

Liz ignored them as she scrambled onto the rock and put a hand on Draco's back – thank fuck the saddle was part of the normal tack. What did she have by way of grenades? She checked her pockets as she tried to put her foot into one of the stirrups.

Krem grabbed her arm, yanking it away. “No,” he told her sternly. “This is suicide, you're both still just babies compared to that thing-”

“Wait.”

They all stopped and turned to look at Cullen, who was standing watching them, a slight frown in place, then at the dragon, then at the green glow, as if doing frantic calculations inside his own head.

“Cullen,” she said breathlessly. “Cullen, you have to let me go – the Inquisitor is exposed, she has no air support, I can distract it, she's going to die if we just leave her there, Cullen, please!”

He just stared at her.

She took a deep breath and tried for calm.

“Please.” She was proud of how steady her voice was.

A muscle twitched in his jaw as if he was clenching his teeth. He gave a short nod. “Fly,” was all he said.

She let out a breath. “Thank you.” She mounted up, unsteady, leaving her sword and shield where she'd dropped them.

“Wait,” said Krem, shortly. He stooped then came back up with strings that he started rapidly knotting together to tie in place of her normal tethers. “Chief, I need Dalish's and Rocky's as well.” Bull and Skinner were both already moving, handing more thonging to Krem as he worked.

“Are those...your shoelaces?!” Liz asked disbelievingly.

“I'll take replacements off the dead, you can't do anything while you're up there,” Krem said shortly, still busily tying. “It won't be exactly as you're used to, but it might make the difference.”

Sudden lump in her throat, Liz just nodded as Krem finished and stepped back. She opened her mouth to give a command to Draco when a sudden hand on her wrist stopped her.

There was a long pause as Cullen looked at her, his hand warm even through her tunic. “Do NOT die,” he said eventually.

Unsure exactly what was going on here, she nodded and he let go.

Settled, she turned forward, gripping the reigns with hands that shook.

“Ok,” she said. “Draco! UP!”

Hop-

Hop-

FLAP-

And they were airborne.

Chapter Text

The ground soared away from under them, Draco's frantic flapping the only thing that got them above the paraphet in time; whatever thermals were here, they were sparse and sporadic; unreliable. Using sheer force and nothing else, they shot over the top of the walls and wheeled, the better to see where it had gone, and what they were dealing with.

Maker.

It was only now they were up here, on a level with the lyrium spotted monstrosity, that Liz could appreciate the size of the damned thing, even if it was all the way across the other side of the fortress.

She had thought this would be like trying to use a sparrow to bother an eagle.

She was wrong.

So, so wrong.

She wasn't a sparrow, and that wasn't an eagle – she was, at best, a bumblebee, and that was a fucking aeroplane. It was massive, larger by far than Draco's mother had ever been.

They had no hope – this was suicide. She tugged Draco in that direction anyway.

She checked her pouches, grateful her hair was staying put under the helmet rather than getting in her eyes; Dalish had been proactive and loaded her down with everything she could find; Antivan fire and pitch grenades, along with confusion potions, and a couple of healing mists and rock tonics, which she presumed were supposed to be for her, but if they would delay or distract their opponent, she'd gladly hurl them in. Quickly, she separated out the positive effects, rucking them into pockets and on her belt, fingers moving nimbly. She could actually feel the warming runes on her equipment start up – it was freezing and wet up here, which could have made her stiff and slow otherwise.

“Ok,” she said outloud to Draco. The wind mostly swallowed her words, but she wasn't sure if she was speaking to reassure the dragon or herself. “We can do this.”

Lies. Big fat whopping lies.

She brought them around in an arch. Think about this logically – what where her advantages?

...Absolutely none. Ok, different tack, what were Draco's weaknesses, and would they scale up?

Blindspots. It came to her in a flash – Draco had a blindspot. A huge great wacking one, actually – and Liz was sitting in it. Dragons, like predatory birds, were designed to soar above their victims and then swoop down on them; they had little to no capability to look above them. Little flexibility either, and something that large would carry a lot of momentum; it wouldn't be able to change direction swiftly to get at them either.

If she and Draco could just stay harrying above it, they might have a chance, keep it from being the one to hunt them, keep it turned around on itself-

But they were out of time. The other dragon had landed on top of a flat tower and was eyeing the courtyard below it, head moving sinuously as it sought a target.

“Up!” Liz screamed at Draco, tugging the reigns, thankful more than she could ever say for the Charger's shoelaces, while digging for a grenade with her spare hand. “Draco, we have to climb!”

Too late – a bolt of electrical energy sang out from the courtyard and pretty much just bounced off the thing, but it annoyed it enough it spat something back – a ball of what looked like lightening, death, and red lyrium corruption, all mixed together. Getting hit by one of those would be a bad idea.

Oh no.

They had climbed enough that in the courtyard she could see the Inquisitor's white-blonde hair shining like a beacon as she rushed into battle with what looked like a pride demon, Solas flinging fire over her shoulder, Cassandra to the other side of her.

The dragon shifted its weight, tracking them. What would happen next seemed inevitable; it was going to hop down in the courtyard, block off all exits, and then casually lay about itself. Nothing in there would survive – how could it? Against something that massive?

“Dive!” She screamed, putting all her weight forward on the saddle.

Draco obeyed, wings folding, bringing the air streaming past them – to hell with staying out of the way, to hell with being safe. This needed to be done now.

She flung the grenade in the same heartbeat that Draco's claws raked across the dragon's back – too little, too small to do damage, she doubted that it even hurt it. Fire burst behind them, a wash of heat against her back.

It got it's attention – its head whipped around after them and with a roar it took off after them – Liz glanced over her shoulder, then wished she hadn't.

They had a head start. It wouldn't last for long.

She kicked her heels at Draco's side, a sign for 'go faster' they hadn't needed in weeks, heading for the corner of the fortress.

Momentum. They were smaller than it was – even if they were moving at the same speed, it would have that much of a harder time turning with them. That was what they needed to do now – just keep turning.

They took the corner close, the world seeming to spin as Draco whipped her wings from flat to slanted – Liz looked behind them and saw the lyrium dragon shoot past, wings flapping frantically, but it lost ground on them.

If she ever got back home, she was going to send her old physics teacher fucking flowers.

Keeping the angle, Draco shot between two spires, Liz ducking low to her back. She glanced back to see if the dragon woould go around them, or just through-

The other dragon swerved back in the direction of the courtyard, ignoring them entirely now they were too far away, spitting another red-laced fireball at something she couldn't see.

“Fuck!” Liz threw herself to the side, bringing Draco back around. They'd have to do multiple passes and keep its attention on them at this rate.

She fished another grenade out of her bag – pitch this time – as they doubled back, now chasing the lyrium dragon as it soared over the walls towards the courtyard. Don't land, don't you dare fucking land!!

The second they were within range, she flung the pitch – and missed, it hitting the stone beneath it instead, but some of the dark burning liquid splashed onto the thing's belly. It's head whipped around, and it hissed at her, wheeling towards them.

They did likewise, turning to the right and diving, staying close to the walls, uncomfortably close, and it, clicking venemously, followed, before pulling up again, towards the courtyard.

Fucking thing!

Draco, touched off a tower, turning in midair in a manner not dissimilar to how competition swimmers turned at the end of a lane in her world, streaking after it. Getting desperate, Liz flung two grenades in quick succession; fire and then confusion. The first missed and set a tower alight, the second struck directly, and for a second, she saw it shake its head, and look around as if disorientated while she and Draco soared over it's head, climbing as fast as they could.

Beneath her, the inquisitor had killed a little under half the demons in the courtyard, and showed no signs of leaving soon.

How long would the confusion last? Should she throw another?

She checked her bag – she had two more. Two more to buy time. It would be enough to stun a battlefield of enemies for half a minute or so. How long would it work on something the size of a 747?

Not long enough – it was already circling, it's movements back to predatory and viscious, rather than confused and dazed, seemingly having forgotten them.

'Guess we're just not a big enough threat,' she thought, hefting the second confusion grenade as they circled above it, matching pace. She wanted to time this right-

There!

It dove, so they dove, wind whistling past her ears, arm back, fling, pull up, pull up-!

They came out of the climb and circled around, Liz relieved to see that the potion had obviously hit, and the dragon had veered off course again, climbing of it's own accord away from the noise, head shaking once more.

Below Solas froze and shattered a pride demon. Varric and Bianca put down an enemy mage. Cassandra and the Inquisitor seemed to be the only ones with big opponents left.

“Come on,” she urged them, tearing her eyes from them to watch the Lyrium dragon who was already coming around for another pass. “Come on – you have to get out of the open!”

Nope, it had entirely worn off this time, and apparently they'd annoyed it as, with a growl, it rounded on them, climbing towards them faster than she'd thought possible.

“Go, go!” she muttered to Draco, leaning in, who barrel rolled – thank fuck for shoelaces – and dove towards the otherside of the castle, past some of the few towers that were still intact.

A roar and a crash behind them – but not far behind them, Maker, how fast could it move?! - told her that this time it was actually following them. Good – she needed it to loose track of the Inquisitor.

They darted to the right again – just in time, as one of those red fireballs shot through the space they'd been occupying, then up, up, round, Draco's belly skimming the wall before using claws to spring away, heading out over the rooftops, a fireball hitting behind them.

They could see the courtyard from here – nowhere in it was there any sign of the Inquisitor. It had worked! She was gone!

Liz gave a whoop and then regretted it, as that roaring scream sounded from behind them, and the stench of sulfur and death enveloped them. Liz turned to try and see, and regretted it when one of her anchor tethers snapped, the shoelace giving way.

Fuck.

The confusion grenade was still in her hand, but at this range, it wouldn't be enough. She could hear it breathing-

With her free hand, she undid the buckle on her bag of grenades, and then flung it blindly behind her.

There was an explosion and a screech that she could have sworn made her ears bleed, but the smell fell away, and – gripping the saddlehorn with her free hand in something of a death grip – when she looked back, it was floundering in midair, bits of it on fire and burning.

“Ok,” she said, unsteadily, looking at the confusion potion in her hand. That was her last one.

Grimly, she downed a rock tonic – just in case – and then tucked it in the spare slot on her belt before looking back at the fortress.

Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck – the lyrium dragon was circling again, and streaking along the covered walkway on top of the walls, Liz could make out a flash of that blonde hair....shit!

They dropped, wind in their faces – great, Liz thought disjointedly, the first breeze and it's going the wrong way - Draco flapping frantically to reach them, but it was obvious; the lyrium dragon was going to get there first.

An involuntary grunt of effort escaped her as they streaked down, Draco snapping her wings open as they wheeled to face her, but the other dragon had half landed, slamming its head into the gaps bewteen supports for the roof of the walkway to sprew red fire down on whatever was in there, friend and foe alike.

They shot towards it, Liz groping for the confusion potion, but Draco took matters into her own claws, rearing back as she flew, all four sets of claws out, and slammed into the lyrium dragon from behind. Liz was similarly smashed against Draco's back, and felt two of her back tethers snap – fuck – and after a moment of dazedness, realised Draco had clamped onto one of the thing's spines with her teeth and was tearing at it with both front sets of claws.

“Wha?” she managed, and then caught sight of the inquisitor, hiding behind a boulder at one end of the walkway, Solas beside her.

The lyrium dragon roared and let go, twisting to try and reach them as it did so. Draco twisted away from the sinuous head, unclamped her jaws, and unceremoniously spat fire in the thing's eyes before dropping like a stone.

Liz didn't have time to be shocked or surprised. They hit the ground with a crunch, but Draco didn't pause, tearing through the rubble and under an archway, bounding up the remains of a statue and back into the air. Liz made do with clinging, white knuckled, to the saddlehorn, acutely aware of how few tether lines she had left and exactly what would happen to her with this style of flying if the remaining ones broke as well.

A scream behind them told her that they were nowhere near far enough away yet.

Draco took to the air, flapping twice, then giving up and using claws to ricochet off the corner of a spire and climb higher before banking sharply left.

A rush of air and that foul stench punctuated how finely they were cutting this. Liz craned her neck to see behind them, then threw herself forward having been greeted by the dragon – far too close – with a mouthful of red fire.

“Down!”

They dropped again, running under a walkway and then an overhang that crunched above them as the dragon landed.

Draco skidded to a stop, both her and Liz panting.

Liz whipped her head from side to side. Which way? Forward or back out the way they came?

Crunch, crunch.

Gritting her teeth, she drew the confusion grenade from her belt, and leant just slightly back in the direction they'd come from.

“Draco,” she said, voice low. “Go!”

Draco whipped around and hurtled back, wings extended as much as they could be and half flapping to accelerate them.

It wasn't fast enough, and as they shot out, Liz felt, rather than saw, movement above them and without thinking, hurled the grenade straight upwards.

Directly into the lyrium dragon's open mouth, as it happened. She caught glimpses as she and Draco rocketed up the side of a wall and then sprung away, wings straining as they rose, higher and higher and shot over the battlements, Liz scanning for where the inquisitor's party had gone.

It didn't take long to find them, running along a walk way towards two people, a man and a woman in some sort of argument, at the other end of it. Draco swooped lower.

“Clarel!” Liz heard the Inquisitor scream, just as the man blasted the woman – a woman who was wearing Grey Warden armour, Liz realised – halfway up the walkway so she landed on her back, looking dazed. She and Draco swooped towards them in an shallow dive-

From her left, she heard a muted growl; the lyrium dragon was up again and closing...not on them, but on Clarel.

“GO!” she screamed, throwing herself forward. Draco stooped into a harder dive as the lyrium dragon approached them, almost at a direct right angle, as they shot up the walkway over the Inquistor's head, it was coming in hard from the right-

They weren't going to be able to stop, they were going too fast, the dragon was too close, too close, she refused to move her head from the woman in front of them and look, but she could see movement out of the corner of her eye, now she could actually smell it-

Draco didn't even land, as far as Liz could tell, a jolt that shook her in the saddle was all she felt, and she barely registered that, as she ducked instinctively, as they sped past, and Draco seemed to sort of scoop Clarel out of the way – the woman was flung off the walk way into what appeared to be the branches of a dead tree – but it meant the dragon missed them.

But only just; there was a ground shaking crash behind them as it slammed into the walkway-

The entire thing gave way in a shower of rock and stone; Draco reached the opposing wall and used it to ricochet back, wings extended as they shot back. “Run!” Liz screamed at the Inquisitor, but it was too late; they had turned to run as best they could, but it wasn't enough; the stones beneath their feet gave way and they fell-

She locked eyes with a horrified airborne Cassandra, too far, too far away to grab, for half a heartbeat before there was a flash of greenlight, and they were gone.

For a second, she and Draco seemed to hang, heartbroken in the air.

They were gone? They were really gone?!

No, wait. She took a breath.

It was a rift. That meant the Fade. Which the Inquisitor had been in before, and with Solas, who was an actual expert on that place. If there was ever a pair that could get them back, it would be those two.

“It ain't over until the fat lady sings,” Liz muttered, in English. “And I don't hear any-”

A screaming roar announced that far from removing the Lyrium dragon from the battle, all the walkway collapse had done was make it angry.

Draco dove and pinwheeled past a half collapsed tower; the other dragon just crashed through it, narrowly missing them.

A ball of red shot over Liz's head.

Fuck. No Inquisitor meant no more distractions for it. Meant nothing to stop it from focusing on the very things that had deprived it of its prey.

They were going to die.

Another scream, and Draco banked suddely right, and then soared upwards on an unexpected thermal; just in time, as another fireball shot past them.

Outside, Liz thought disjointedly. They had to get outside the castle – if it hunted them down playing hide and seek over it, they'd just cause more deaths in the army.

She used her hands – one tether rope, she realised, feeling numb, only one left, how did that happen? - to tug on Draco's saddle, turning them to shoot over the walls, over the gate and the mustering points, turning to circle the castle at a distance from the outside. At a distance, she could still see torches burning around the trebuchets, flurries of movements around their bases even now.

The dragon streaked after them, still roaring, Draco rolled and took a corner overly sharply, joltingLiz in the saddle, as the heat of a fireball hissed underneath them, the sound of the other dragon's wings getting perilously close.

Maker, they were going to die. They were really going to. Draco, I'm so sorry, Liz suddenly wanted to tell her, but there was no time.

They banked again, harder, when an almighty creaked announced one of the heavily damaged towers was giving way – Liz leaned forward, but Draco had already spotted it, and shot underneath the mass of rock as it came tumbling down and out the otherside, gaining just a little more breathing room as they rounded another corner, back towards the gateway again-

A flutter of movement from below caught her eye.

Cullen stood out on his own in the middle of the churned up field, a pair of her signalling flags in his hands, flashing the same message over and over again.

-CIRCLE-REPEAT-CIRCLE-REPEAT-CIRCLE-REPEAT-CIRCLE-

What? He wanted them to do another circuit of the castle?

A roar behind them let her know that whatever grace period the collapsed tower had given them, it had expired.

Well, we may as well circle the castle, Liz thought slightly hysterically. It's not like we have any other social engagements.

“Come on Draco!” she yelled, leaning forward and throwing all caution to the wind by letting go of the saddle and grabbing one of her spines instead. “We can do this!”

Lies. Big fat lies.

Liz leaned, bringing them in close to the wall – so close, too close, in fact, Draco's wings starting to shudder from the way the air moved this close to a solid surface – using it to throw off the other dragon who couldn't follow them there; it was too large.

It could still throw fireballs at them though, and Liz, hopelessly, unhooked her remaining two rock tonics, then uncorked them with her teeth, downing one herself, and optimistically dumping the other all over Draco's scales. A fireball smashed into the rock beside them, spraying them both with shrapnel, and making Draco howl and veer away from the wall and out into the open.

Maker, they were so fucked.

Gripping with her thighs with everything she had, she threw herself at Draco's neck, tugging her in what could frankly only be described as insane flying. They barrel rolled right, then pinwheeled left, touched off from a rock and sprang back into the air, dodging fireballs all the while, the other dragon closing the distance, closing, closing-

They shot around the final corner so close to the wall that Liz had to throw herself forward and hug Draco's neck so as not to smash into the stone. The turn brought them no more than half a heartbeat's breathing room – the stench was overwhelming, the deep rancid breathing behind them loud in their ears.

Cullen was still standing in the field, flags moving frantically, a different message now.

HERE-IMMEDIATE-LAND-HERE-IMMEDIATE-

He wanted them to land?! Was he crazy? If they were dead in the air, they were doubly dead on the ground! That was suicide!

LAND-HERE-IMMEDIATE

She heard the grumble of death in the breath behind them. If she obeyed the orders, they'd die. There was no other way. Was that what Cullen wanted?

HERE

Was it for a greater purpose? Could she trust him with that?

LAND

Did she trust him with that?

IMMEDIATE

“Draco DOWN!” She screamed, putting all her weight into it as Draco closed her wings and dropped.

It wasn't a landing, it was a crash – they hit the muddy ground and slid, Liz with no tether ropes left flung free and her body half skipped across the field towards where the commander had been standing-

Cullen threw himself on top of her. “Stay down!” he barked, arms on either side of her head, her nose pressed into that damned ruff.

There was a rush, and then a horrible stench of burning and an unworldly scream shook the earth.

Cullen stayed where he was, breathing hard.

The sound of loud and frantic wingbeats...then, starting to fade.

There was a long, long pause.

“Maker,” Cullen breathed. It was only now Liz looked she realised he'd had his eyes squeezed shut.

“What-” she started, when they were both interrupted by a very worried chirping noise, and then Cullen was forcibly shunted off of Liz.

Draco stood in the space beside them, her saddle half torn off, absolutely covered in mud and tufts of grass sticking out from all over, and then gave Liz an astoundingly gentle headbutt.

“I...” she said, stammering. “I'm...ok.” She looked around, frantically, but the other dragon had gone. “What..?” She looked at Cullen, utterly bewildered. She could hear faint cheering.

He gave a very tired sort of half smile. “We loaded the trebuchets with buckets of burning pitch,” he said. Now she thought about it, the cheering did seem to be coming from the direction of the trebuchets... “We just needed you to get it into position. Our strategists theorised that if it was badly injured enough, it would withdraw, and they thought pitch might do the job.”

Liz stared at him, brain working very slowly. “If the pitch hadn't worked...” she said, drawing each word out as if double checking it before she voiced it. “If I'd landed and it hadn't been driven off...you'd have died.”

“So would you,” Cullen pointed out reasonably.

“Yes, but-” Liz started, but he cut her off by getting to his feet.

“There are still demons inside the fortress that need dealing with,” he said. “The healers are on their way to you now, let them check you both over thoroughly before you even think of rejoining the fight. That's an order.”

“Yesser,” she said automatically, as he turned and jogged back towards the open gate without another word, leaving her staring at him.

Chapter Text

It would have been uncouth and insensitive to celebrate – despite their win, many had died on both sides, and injuries among the living were widespread and in many cases, severe.

It had been nearing dawn when the demons in the courtyard had suddenly seemed to waver as one and the Inquisitor stepped back into reality, banishing them with a wave of her hand. Her expression was grim and pissed off.

Varric and Cassandra looked pale and grief stricken.

Hawke wasn't with them.

And, unless Liz was very much mistaken, Stroud had either taken a very luck strikey to the nose which had somehow broken it without caving his head in, or someone had punched him in the face.

Nevertheless, with the Wardens having agreed to go under the strict supervision of the Inquisition – Bull had muttered a comment about putting them on a lead – there was a grim sense of accomplishment that pervaded the survivors and meant a lot of people were suddenly dropping by the Charger's campfire to share a drink, meet Liz, and say hello to the resident dragon.

Draco, tired and stuffed full with her favorite raw-lamb-and-honey combination, and thus out of use for all the newcomers, even when they bore sweets, had eventually gotten grumpy and retreated to sleep in the middle of the overly large fire Marno had prepared for her, out of reach of anyone without scales.

Liz, meanwhile, decided to go and find somewhere a little out of the wway to empty her bladder – she had seem the camp latrines and was not touching those with a tent pole – and get a moment of peace to process what had happened and wandered out of camp into the woods in the direction of a promising looking thicket.

And nearly tripped over Varric when she entered it.

“Oh! Crap!”

“Shit!”

Liz looked up at him from the ground. “Sorry Varric...” She trailed off. His eyes were red.

He managed a weak smile back. “No worries. Heard you had a heck of a battle Shiny.”

“It was...a learning experience. You... I mean, I'm sorry. About Hawke. I don't mean to pry if you don't want to say, but would you like to talk about it?”

Varric gave a wry smile. “I keep forgetting – you knew him, didn't you? As much as you ever could know any of us.”

Liz nodded, staying silent, not knowing how to explain not only had she known Hawke, she'd known Hawke as male, and female, and having romanced several different companions.

Varric sighed, and leaned against a tree trunk next to where she had ended up sat– like this, they were almost of a height.

“There was a demon,” he started, his voice quiet. “A really big demon. Too big. It was waiting to come through the rift when it was big enough, we think. Someone needed to stay behind to distract it so the rest of us could get away. It was supposed to be Stroud. The Inquisitor picked, we all supported the decision, even Hawke seemed to go along with it, until...”

He put a hand to his forehead, silent for a moment, struggling. Liz impulsively leaned forward and hugged him. She felt him give a single sob against her shoulder before straightening up and wiping his eyes.

“Ah crap, sorry. Anyway, Hawke waits until the last possible minute, then punches Stroud in the face and kicks him after us while he goes after the demon. After that...no choice. We had to go, or we'd all have died. So...we went. And we left him there.”

His voice broke and his hands went to his forehead again. Liz rubbed his shoulder.

“I'm so sorry,” she said quietly. “Do, do you know why? I don't understand why he'd do it.”

Varric took a deep shakey breath and let his hands drop again. “Anders” was all he said.

Liz frowned at him. “What? I thought Anders was dead?”

Varric nodded. “He is. But Daisy had this pet theory – you see, by the end, Justice and Anders were so intertwined that you couldn't really tell them apart. It was like they were one and the same. When Anders was executed, without a body, Justice returned to the fade, but Merril thought that because they were so entwined, he might have taken Ander's soul with him. And once back in the Fade, because it was where he'd come from, Justice would slowly separate out, and eventually, they'd go back to being two separate entites. And Justice would go where ever spirits like him went and Anders would just sort of..stay there.”

Liz took a moment to process. “So...he chose to die because Ander's soul might be in the fade? That's...” She trailed off, torn between saying 'really damn sad' or 'really foolish' or possibly, saying both.

Varric nodded. “Yeah, I know. But...he never got over it. Blamed himself, I mean. He thought if he'd been more proactive, if he'd taken a harder line, maybe sought him some help, or taken him out of Kirkwall and found some templars who weren't dicks, or...fuck. He loved him. He knew that how the mages were treated was wrong, but he didn't like how Anders dealt with it. How Justice dealt with it...all those people dead. He blamed himself for not seeing it coming and doing something about it. He never...never really got over it, you know?”

Liz nodded, wordlessly, not knowing what else to say.

Varric looked at her again. “I may not want to know the answer to this, but...you said in your world, you could see all the possible outcomes of a decision, or an incident. Was...was Hawke right? If we'd done something different, said something, could we have...stopped it, somehow?”

Liz shook her head, heart quietly breaking. “No. I, er, I went over that a lot. If you were nice, if you were angry, or mean – whether you supported Templars or Mages. I even went back further and tried to sabotage Anders back when he was in the Grey Wardens. Even if he was positioned in a spot he should have died, he always lived through the experience. Always joined with Justice. Always blew up the Chantry, in the end. Some things changed, but Anders...that outcome never could.”

 

Varric let out something like a sigh. “I suppose it's weird to be relieved when you learn that the deaths of the hundred or so folk that one of your companions murdered was unavoidable, but I am. Means we didn't cock up. Means we didn't...I mean, we weren't responsible.”

“You would never have been responsible anyway,” Liz said, glad that she could at least reassure him on this. “You never were. It was always Justice. In someways Anders. In some way Meredith and Orsino. Never you.”

Varric nodded. “You gonna be ok?”

Liz gave a hollow laugh. “Me? I liked Hawke, and I'll miss him, but surely I should be asking you that?”

Varric gave a half-smile. “Maybe. But sometimes it's nice to step outsie your own grief for a while just to... check on someone else. Gives you a break, y'know?”

She rubbed his shoulder again in wordless support as he pressed fingers to his eyes, struggling for support. “Ah hell. I guess...well, Bartrand was never much of a brother, really, and Hawke kind of ended up stepping into the hole in my life he should have filled even before all the shit with the red lyrium. I just...I thought he would always fill it. Figured we'd see each other out to the end. It's just...he was the Champion of Kirkwall. Never thought he'd be the one to go first.”

“He made his choice,” Liz offered. “It wasn't your fault.”

“I know. And whether he lives or dies, he will stay in the Fade, and maybe he'll succeed. Find Anders. Live happily for the rest of eternity haunting the crap out of the rest of us together. Hope they come see me first, I want to arrange to be there when they drop in on Aveline. You know, there was this one time...”

He trailed off and was silent for a moment. “Gonna be telling a lot of stories about him, I guess. I mean, I already have, but I always thought I'd get to write more books, and had so much I hadn't said yet...”

“I know a lot of people who would be happy to listen,” Liz said.

He chuckled darkly. “Yeah, but I've talked your ear off enough already. I oughta spread it around a little. I should....I should get back to camp, before Leiliana starts sending people looking for me. Thanks for the chat.”

“Any time,” Liz said, watching as he left to head back in the direction of the tents, a sinking sensation in her stomach.

Had she killed Hawke?

Had her actions caused this somehow? Caused a deviation from the plot that ended with him getting killed?It didn't seem likely he would otherwise...

Stop it she told herself. This wasn't the game. This wasn't even the same universe as the game. This was a real world, with things and people and deaths in it that were never featured in the game. They had probably deviated from the plot months ago, and would have done whether Liz had been there or not.
Worrying, she told herself sternly, was not productive, nor was it logical. This was her grief for Hawke manifesting in odd ways, because she didn't quite know how to take his death. Afterall, she'd known the video game character, but as she had long established, the people in this world were not identical to the game characters she knew. Just look at the Inquisitor. Heck, look at Callie and Wodon and Marno and Draco.

Not your fault, she told herself, as she peed and headed back to camp, trying to ignore that sinking feeling in her stomach that still hadn't gone away.

 

 

It was late into the afternoon when Bull, seemingly by accident, nudged her in passing while trying not to spill his ale, and caused her to look up – only to spot Cullen hovering uncertainly on the edge of the light spilled from their fire. He raised an eyebrow at her in a way that was an unspoken summoning by one's commander.

She got up to her feet slowly, taking her time to brace herself. The fight was over. They were not in the sparring ring, nor in his office memorising manouvers. Which meant training!Cullen was gone for the day, and Jerk!Cullen would be back up and running at full speed, and she really, really didn't want to deal with that right now.

She made her way over to him. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Dalish watching him with a scowling expression that said 'one word from you, and I will freeze his underpants and then kick him in the balls for good measure, just one word'.

It made her feel a little better.

“Yesser?”

“I wondered if I might have a word,” he said, raising an eyebrow in Dalish's direction, and then gesturing to the area behind the camp, swathed in lengthening shadows cast by the fire. “In private.”

Private. Fuck. She suddenly wanted to cling to Krem like he was some sort of security blanket. She was too tired for this!

But, like it or not, he was her commanding officer.

“Yesser,” she said automatically, and followed his lead.

To her relief, they didn't go far – only a few dozen paces behind the tent there was a fallen tree trunk lying at a little below waist height, and the barrier of the tents did a surprisingly amount to negate the noise of the conversation around the campfires.

She stopped and turned, looking at him as he drew a breath.

“I believe I owe you several apologies.”

Wait, what?

He glanced up from where he'd been looking down – he was looking down, she hadn't noticed, he never looked down when she was around! – and made something between a grimace and a self deprecating smile.

“What?” She managed to get out, after a moment of jaw-dropped stammering.

He shook his head as if shaking a thought away. “Admittedly, one of them is for taking so long with the first two. I do not wish to bore you – you are no priest, and this is not a confession and it would be unfair to treat it as such, but I owe you both apologies and explanations. I have been unprofessional in my dealings with you, have treated you poorly and, I must confess, did not judge you, or Draco, fairly when you first returned to Skyhold. I apologise. It will not happen again.”

He held her eyes, and Liz struggled to maintain enough dignity not to out and out gape at him.

“Thank you,” she managed after a few seconds – he did, indeed, look ashamed. “I...I would like to understand why.”

He nodded, then gestured to the tree trunk. “Would you like to sit?”

They both sat, her still staring at him, him looking off into the distance as if struggling internally with something, before returning his gaze – an extremely unsettling gaze, she noted – back to her. His voice was quiet and, for reasons she wasn't quite comfortable thinking about, gentle in a way she found hypnotic.

“After Haven, I was angry. For obvious reasons. I still....disagree with the course of action you took, but I can now appreciate why you did, and the conclusions you arrived at. My anger in response to the truth of your origin was...misplaced. Truly, it was because of something in my past which I still struggle with. I am sorry; I find myself unable to speak on it, but I will work on it, and when I am able, I shall share it with you.”

She was still staring at him, slightly unable to believe that this was real.

There was a long pause, and she realised he was waiting for her to say something. “Er, thank you,” she offered.

He smiled slightly wryly, and reached for a scroll case on his belt.

“In light of this, and your performance in this situation, it should come as no surprise that I have communicated my wholehearted approval at your inclusion in our forces on a permanent basis moving forward, effective immediately.”

She smiled at that, a real, genuine smile. “Thank you,” she said again, this time with more sincerity.

He smiled back, and proffered the scroll case.

“There is an additional document in here. Given the magnitude of what I'm apologising for, I thought it might go someway to showing I mean what I'm saying.”

“Oh?” She undid the leather thonging and gentle tugged the parchment out, trying to scan in.

After a few seconds she gave up – despite her best efforts, a lot of written Thedan still looked like chicken scratch to her.

“Could you summarise?”

He smiled, and for the first time, she felt like it wasn't because he was mocking her lack of literacy.

“It's an order seconding you, with the Chargers, to Crestwood. There is a dragon there that is attacking people in the area, and needs to be put down.”

Liz gave him a flat look. “This...is your idea of an apology for being mean about my dragon? Making me responsible for killing a different dragon?”

He winced. “No, no. I'm saying this badly. The dragon is also reported to have young in the area.”

Liz went very still.

“Given the age and size you reported Draco to have been when you started to work with her, we thought...I thought that you might consider them as the beginnings of a larger unit. The document states your boundaries on budgetary contraints, but you have full autonomy on selecting your potential riders and handlers. Separately, I have also instructed work to begin on enlarging and improving facilities at your stables immediately, which should hopefully be well underway by the time you return to Skyhold.”

Liz was gaping at him, utter disbelief, and, eyes blurring, fumbled for the parchment again, running her eyes over the characters on it, as if she was afraid it would disappear. It was only a couple of seconds later when she realised there weren't two pieces of parchment in the case – there were three.

“What's the last one?” She asked, voice shaking slightly.

He gave a wry grin. “That is, should you decide you want it, pre-emptive authorisation for the Chargers, while operating as part of the Inquisition forces, to become a full or partially mounted air-cavalry unit.”

Chapter Text

The wagons were, compared to how they had been for the Hinterlands, lightly loaded and they travelled swiftly, which didn't do a great deal for Dalish who was still healing and sat in the back of one of them.

“Is there a reason you aren't sitting up front?” Liz asked from the comfort of Draco's saddle when they landed to walk alongside the others for a while.

Dalish gave her a sour look. “Can't even hold the reigns. Bad enough being thrown about in here – at least I can brace myself. Do you know how much mockery I'd get off Krem if I fell off the driver's seat?”

Liz blinked. “Ah. Good point, well made.”

Given Stitches kept making unhappy faces when he inspected the wound on Dalish's wrist, where she still couldn't move her smallest finger despite being all but cocooned in healing potions, Liz privately thought she was lucky to be along at all.

Dalish, however, on being told the healer's exact opinion on the wisdom of her accompanying them, had asked for a private meeting with Bull, and they had both emerged half an hour later in agreement that Dalish would be coming along but taking it easy. Neither one would be moved to comment any further on the matter.

Dorian, riding a long legged chesnut mare who was almost as showy as he was, seemed to appear out of thin air on Draco's right.

“Talk to me,” he said, with an air of desperation.

“What?”

“Talk. To. Me.” Dorian repeated. “About something – anything – other than dragons. Vishante kaffas, he hasn't said a word, not one single word, about anything else since you came back with that dratted scroll. I swear, he keeps deliberately tracking me down to ensure I am the one he speaks to. He has an entire mercenary company! Who are all just as excited as he is! Why me?!”

“Nice weather,” said Liz, keeping her tone deliberately light and conversational while inside feeling deeply amused.

Dorian's eyes brightened. “Isn't it? Clear skies-” his tone was so jovial it hurt.

“I wonder if it's a Northern Hunter! We would need to think about what sort of fire it'll spit!” Bull's enthusiastic booming voice cut in, as he peered around the side of the wagon he was driving to peer at Dorian. “Dorian! We need a mage's opinion!”

“Liz needs me here!” he countered with a hostile edge to his words.

“Oh come on Altus!” Krem joined the chorus, traditionally gleeful at the prospect of winding up a travelling companion.

“You know, I feel a sudden need to scout,” muttered Liz, just as Draco grumbled, presumably at the fact they were still walking when they could be flying, and Liz let slack into her reigns, the leather running through her fingers.

“No, Liz, wait! Don't leave me here! With them!”

“Later!” Liz called, as Draco took to the air – more smoothly now than previously, Liz noted. Her wingspan was increasing, and with it, her take offs and landings were gaining grace.

They reached a comfortable altitude and then banked, soaring over the party below them and taking in the surrounding landscape.

Bull – and all the chargers, but Bull especially – had been suitably excited when Liz had returned, still slightly dubious from her talk with Cullen.

Their reactions had helped steady her – if he'd let her get this public with it, he wasn't going to take it away, was he?

Krem, typically, had been to spot that she'd just been stood at the side of them, smiling wryly, rather than joining in the wild whooping that was taking place around the fire. He drew her aside.

“Everything ok?” he said, brows level with concern.

“Yeah, I guess. It's just...Cullen was being nice. I...I don't know if I trust it.”

The Tevinter's left eyebrow shot towards his hairline. “Well, miracles will never cease. I...” he paused, thoughtful. “He did act a bit funny on the battlefield, now you mention it.”

Liz cocked her head at him. “Oh?”

“When the Inquisitor disappeared and that bloody monstrosity started focusing on you, Cullen came up with the plan to launch pitch at it from the trebuchets when we saw you throw those grenades at it. Dorian and Bull got into an argument over who would go and signal you. Dorian wanted to use magic to draw your attention to the flags. Bull said that you'd spot the flags regardless, and anyone stood out there waving flags would draw the dragon's attention as well, so he ought to go as he's the only one big enough to maybe survive a dragon bite.”

“So how did they react when Cullen said he was doing it?”

“That's the thing, he didn't say anything. He just grabbed them and went. No one realised until those two looked up from arguing, we'd all been too concerned with repositioning and loading the trebuchets, and he was gone. The chief actually started fretting.”

Liz blinked. “What? Why? I didn't think he was all that fond of our beloved commander.”

“Eh, he's not overly impressed, but he doesn't hate him. No – it was because anyone stood out there was going to make themselves a target, and sooner or later, the dragon would see them, and likely, would go after them. So if you didn't trust the orders, if you hadn't landed in time-”

“Cullen would have died,” Liz finished, feeling a little off kilter. “But..that makes no sense. Why on earth would he risk himself?”

Krem shrugged. “Bollocked if I know. The chief was worried life would get even worse for you if you didn't land, the commander of the armies died and then people blamed you for it. But you did.”

“I did,” Liz confirmed, echoing his words.

“So you trusted him.” It wasn't a question.

“Yes...” she trailed off.

Krem looked at her quizzically. “With your life...but not your reputation?”

“Well he's always been nice over training!” Liz pointed out hopelessly. “It made sense to trust him then!”

“And when you're drunk and get ambushed and people punch you in the face,” Krem supplied.

“And that,” she agreed. “It's just everywhere else...”

They both paused. “Maybe he just realised he was being a dick,” Krem offered.

“That's what he said,” Liz confirmed glumly. “He said he couldn't tell me why, but that it was his problem, not mine, and he was sorry.”

The Tevinter laughed. “Well, then what are you worrying about? He's fucked up plenty, but he's never apologised before! You're all clear.”

Liz shifted her weight, unconvinced but unable to name a single logical reason for it. “I guess,” she muttered.

Krem clapped her on the shoulder. “Look, you're cynical. I appreciate that. It's fair. The guy has pissed you off, royally. But some things to note – we have pissed him off in return. He's never endangered your life. And part of accepting an apology, actually accepting it, not just thanking someone for saying it or acknowledging that they've done the right thing, is giving them another chance, or at least, looking for when they're trying. And he sounds like he's trying. So let him try. If nothing else, sounds like we get more dragons out of it.”

“True,” said Liz, trying to ignore the nagging feeling in her stomach that kept telling her she hadn't figured out all the angles on this yet. “I guess...I'll try.”

“Good. Now go sort particulars with the chief before he gets too deep in his cups to handle logistics and hands it all off to me.”

Talking about the particulars with Bull had been...challenging, given his excitement. Eventually, though, she'd managed to nail him down – she would be heading up a new 'branch' of the Chargers they had temporarily labelled the Riders, and while Liz had autonomy with leading it, she still ultimately answered to Bull, who in turn, answered to the Inquisition.

“For the moment at least,” Bull had told her. “We end this war and decide to go our own separate ways? We'll handle that when we come to it.”

For logistics, based on the reports of the number of young dragonlings present, she had selected five potential new 'riders'. On Bull's advice – or rather, he gave her a brief numbers run down of exactly how they were funded and what it would mean if they left the inquistion – they had decided it would be unwise, politically, to take Cullen up on his offer, however well meaning, and just mount all the Chargers as quickly as possible. Instead, only three Chargers had been volunteered to Ride for the moment – Dalish, Skinner and Grim. Each Rider then had two handlers as back ups, to spread the workload somewhat. Draco had required all of the Chargers to pitch in at times – Liz couldn't imagine trying to ask each individual Rider to handle their charge solo without a support system of some sort.

Krem had surprised her by taking her to one side early on and stating, quite firmly, that he'd be keeping his feet on the ground. At this point at least. “You'll find Riders, or people wanting to ride, for two a copper. What you really need is someone to direct the training. I can do that. I can get myself a dragon later, once we've got some sort of syllabus down that works. Plenty of time for that.”

Bull too, had pointed out that his fighting style meant he'd go from being effective on the ground to practically useless in the air, and thus would sit out the 'first wave' of dragons, planning instead to find one that suited him at a later date once nearly everyone else was mounted and the Chargers as a whole had an air presence.

Instead, the pair of them had helped Liz select the two Rider candidates that weren't from the Chargers, which was help Liz had gladly accepted once word got out, and it seemed like half the damned Inquisition army had turned up to apply.

They ended up evaluating them in groups, putting them through standard Charger drills to start with, and dismissing anyone cruel, proud, inflexible or whose boasting marked them as seeking glory as a main motivator – Liz didn't think they'd be able to raise a dragonling without problems. Then she set the remaining groups at tasks that didn't have a solution – fences too high to scale alone, or ditches too wide to jump, and then sat back and watched the candidates.

In the end, she chose Galen, an elf from Denerim's alienage who had managed to construct a rudimentary bridge over a drop that had left everyone else wallowing in mud, then hopped nimbly across, only to fall at the last hurdle and sit up laughing – she liked his tenacity, good nature and flexibility in approach – and a dwarf called Brillia who had stopped her own attempt after a couple of tries to comfort those who had failed, heedless of the way she was getting splattered by others passing by. Liz liked her kind heart, and saw enough steel in her eyes that she knew on instinct that she wouldn't allow that kindness to be a weakness others could use to override her.

The applicants to become handlers for the Riders she sent to Dennet to test, with instructions to have them care for his most ornery mounts for a few days, and see which ones handled themselves with grace and good humour regardless of what happened before letting the Riders pick for themselves from those shortlisted. She thought Marno might explode with pride when she'd asked him to set down guidelines and skills they'd need to learn to handle a dragon. If he'd enjoyed being her Dragon Handler, the prospect of being Head Dragon Handler had apparently sent him into paroxisms of joy that would last a while.

In the meantime, they had rapidly packed a caravan to head to northern Ferelden. Cullen had assigned Dorian to the Chargers temporarily for magical support.

“But I'm an archer!” Dalish had wailed.

“Of course,” Cullen seemed unruffled. “But given our lack of other....archers that we can spare at present time, Dorian will have to do for you in terms of ranged support.”

The Tevinter had sulked all the way to his tent at the news. If anything, Bull had seemed even more smug than he was already.

Now, over a week later, and they were nearly to Crestwood, the land stretched out beneath them, golden in the sunset's light. Ferelden always seemed to be as well planted as they could make it, and Crestwood was no different. Under Orlais, the scrubby land below would probably have been left barren, but Ferelden's history and therefore almost irrational desire to be self sufficient so it could cut ties with other nations at need meant that even the scree covered slopes and bare rock faces had had plants cultivated where they could, sheep and goats roaming over the parts that grew nothing humans could eat.

“At least it's interesting scenery,” she told Stitches that night, sat around the campfire.

“Interesting gets boring when it's days without change,” he retorted.

“Ze chief, he says maybe two or three more days,” Skinner put in. Then Rocky broke out the cards and everyone but Bull and Dorian immediately started betting heavily to try and lighten their own choreload.

Liz didn't say anything to anyone about the fact she saw Bull glance over at Dorian maybe one too many times. Later, she was too annoyed by the fact that she'd ended up with tack cleaning duty twice over to pay much attention to her surroundings when she left Draco curled up in the fire and stumbled out into the darkness to empty her bladder. Rising from her squat behind a rock, she heard voices from just outside Bull's tent.

“Yes, I am very familiar with your skirmishing strategy and my place in it!” Dorian sounded utterly exasperated. “Afterall, Dalish went over it. Then you. Then Krem. And now you again. Why don't you just say what this is about? That you don't like having a 'Vint at your back? And that you don't trust me as far as you can throw me?”

“Hey,” Bull's voice was both smug and amused, as if he enjoyed Dorian's exasperation. “Just checking – afterall, their lives depend on this. Besides, you can't tell me you don't enjoy the view.”

“And you can't deny you enjoy butchering my people, and that you'd do the same to these people you claim to be so eager to safeguard.”

“Hey, butchering implies I'm gonna eat 'em. Most Vints are just gristle and fat in a red wine marinade.” His voice didn't waver, not single iota, from the good natured tone.

“At least that is true,” snapped Dorian, stalking into the darkness. Try as she might to avoid him, Liz couldn't help but bump into him, stood in one of the paths out of camp.

Dorian caught her arm, meeting her eye with a serious expression. “I hope you took note,” he said, his voice low in her ear. “That he did not deny it.”

She gave a brusque nod, and he let go to pass her by, probably on the same errand she'd just run.

She tossed for a good hour before finally falling asleep that night.

Chapter Text

It was three days before they saw signs of a dragon, great claw marks in the rocks and scorch marks on streaks along the earth.

“That's not fire,” Krem remarked, examining one. “Or ice either. Lightening, maybe?”

“Great,” muttered Liz, thinking of the now useless fire salves she'd ensured they'd packed. “It'll be...interesting.”

They camped some distance outside the area, not wanting to risk the mounts or their supplies, and made their last preparations.

“Battleplan?” Liz muttered to Bull as she packed and repacked her grenade belt, checking each stopper in turn; the last thing she needed would be to set herself on fire mid-fight, even if it would make for an interesting obituary.

“Ideally, we'll fight it on the ground,” he replied, settling one of his bracers into place. “More of us, and it's less maneuverable down there, so we have the advantage. Your job is to circle and lay down ground fire so it can't get into the air. If it does, you are to do your best to bring it within fireball range so Dorian can blast it out of the sky. Then we put it down. Nice. Simple. Straightforward. I won't say easy, because it's still a dragon, but nothing we shouldn't be able to handle.” He sounded remarkably upbeat.

“Maybe if we're really lucky, it'll be asleep,” Liz muttered. Nearby, Dorian gave a short and somewhat mirthless laugh.

They weren't really lucky. It wasn't only awake, it spotted them before they spotted it, roaring it's challenge from amidst the ruins it seemed to be squatting in. The differences from Draco were immediately obvious; it was larger, yes, but also the colouring – stripes? It was striped? - and horn structure – two horns that curved around the front of its face, rather than the way Draco's went backwards – were very different.

“Magnificent,” she heard Bull proclaim as it turned to lock eyes on them.

And, to quote Krem, aggressive as fuck, from the way it stood, pawing at the ground, and then spat lightening at the group, who threw themselves to one side in the nick of time.

“Chief!” she yelled, sudden realisation hitting her. “I'm going to stay back – she's focused on you already!”

“Got it!” came the cheery reply, Bull already hefting his axe and charging into the fray while Dorian, who was letting loose...was that ice?

She gave Draco her head, taking to the skies and climbing, higher and higher, watching the battle below them, Bull and Krem taking lead with Dorian freezing and setting aflame in turn anything he could lay his hands on. Grim and Skinner danced around the thing’s back legs – how had they even gotten over there? - blades bloodied already. She spotted Rocky speed out from behind a small boulder, throw a grenade at a wing, and then mistime his retreat and get knocked backwards. He didn’t get up.

She leaned forward, Draco already dropping without her asking, and they hurtled towards Rocky's form, Draco scooping him from the ground using her front claws as they sped past, then deposited him gently on the ground out of range. “Stitches!” Liz yelled, looking for him.

“I'm here!” was the cry, and Liz turned to see him sprinting across the plain towards them.

“M'ok, just a little dizzy's all,” muttered Rocky, trying to sit up but flopping around on the ground instead. He then unceremoniously turned green and threw up all over his own trousers.

They took to the air again, leaving Stitches to deal with it, banking around just in time to see the damned thing try to take to the air.

“LIZ!” Bull's yell echoed up to her but they were already moving, using their height advantage as Draco glided easily into the thing's blind spot. Liz unhooked a couple of pitch grenades and hurled them. They hit, shattering at the base of its right wing, and Draco spat a fireball after them; it glanced off but it was enough to set it alight.

It screamed and twisted in midair, losing altitude – it must have been low enough to bring it within Dorian's range, because just as Liz was reaching for another grenade, the wing that wasn't on fire was suddenly encased in ice, and it dropped like a stone, roaring the entire way.

It hit the ground with a loud cracking noise that made Liz wince, but glancing down, it didn't seem all that injured as it snapped and spat at the Chargers attacking it on foot.

“Damnit,” Liz muttered to Draco as they circled higher. “So much for a quick kill.”

But whatever the fall had done, it was enough to keep it on the ground. Deciding against dropping more grenades in case of friendly fire – she'd never hear the end of it if she dropped a jar of bees on Krem – instead she and Draco swooped low, trying to catch its eye to draw some of the lightening it kept spitting.

The entire thing ground to a fairly sudden halt when blood suddenly spurted from the dragon's neck, great gouts of it. It shrieked for a second, then its eyes rolled back in its head and it slowly collapsed, not unlike the one occasion back on earth Liz had seen a hot air balloon deflate.

Skinner appeared from beneath the arch of its neck, absolutely drenched in blood.

“Do you know how long it took me to get the knife between its scales?” she demanded in annoyance when Liz and Draco landed.

Liz cocked her head at her. “Have you considered asking Stitches to take a cast of how the scales lie on the neck so you could look into having a dagger made that's shaped so you could slip it in there quicker?”

The elf blinked and looked down at her own knives. “You know, I hadn't...” she said, tone curious.

“That's why she wasn't taking off,” Bull called. They both turned to look at him from where he was lifting one of thing's claws, which was covered in some sort of weird slime.

“What?” Liz said, straining to see.

Bull tossed the foot to one side – it made a squelching noise as it landed. “Egg,” he called. “Not far off hatching either, but....yeah, we ain't adopting that.”

Liz looked for Stitches and Rocky to find them both approaching on foot; Rocky looked a lot healthier than he had been.

“Nothing a healing potion couldn't clear up,” Stitches announced. “Thank whoever you want to that the Inquisitor actually sent a batch of them with us on this assignment.”

“Ok,” said Liz, dismounting from Draco. “Do we have- Ah, Galen, Brillia, there you are.”

“Great,” said Bull. “Everyone spread out, and look for tracks or signs of dragonlings. When we find them, everyone who isn't hoping to become a Rider, back away, let them try first.”

It took nearly an hour to find them, in a cave in a cliff some distance across the plain from the ruins. They'd have missed it were it not for the scrape marks leading in and out underneath an overhang that was no higher than Liz's waist. Inside they could see nothing but darkness.

“Looks like Momma wasn't welcome,” muttered Krem. “No way she could have gotten in there. Let's try to tempt them out first; somehow, I don't think prying them out after invading their sanctuary will work all that well for building trust.”

Clad in more armour than Liz had thought was possible to fit on individuals, her five Riders gathered around the spot, and Dalish tossed a handful of sap sticks in through the opening – they heard them land on rock, some way back.

Silence.

More silence.

Krem and Liz looked at each other, Liz starting to pull a face she hoped communicated 'hey, should we maybe take a look inside?' when there was a scrabbling snapping noise, the sound of something swallowing, and then more silence.

“Ok, Dalish, again,” Krem breathed. “But closer to the entrance this time.”

She tossed the sticks, and they all knelt, peering into the darkness.

This time the scabbling came faster, and Liz could have sworn she saw something move.

“Closer, again,” muttered Krem but it was unnecessary. This time Galen tossed his so they landed right at the edge of the shadow.

Scuffled noises, as two dragonlings in obvious competition for the bundle rolled into the light. They were sort of purplish in colour with stripes all over them, as opposed to just the tail as the adult had been.

Realising they were surrounded, both of them stopped and hissed, trying to retreat.

Brillia and Grim both tossed more sap sticks, and they stopped, uncertain.

One of them lost its nerve and backed all the way back into the shadows, but the other stayed, edging closer and closer to one of the bundles-SNAP.

“Wow, that – she, he? Ah, it is a lot faster at eating than Draco was,” Liz muttered to Krem.

“They're a bit bigger than she was, I think,” Krem replied.

Skinner had shuffled forward, and was proffering some of the sap sticks to it.

It took half a step forward, sniffed- then retreated back into the darkness.

Liz groaned. “We are going to be here a while.”

 

The sun had set and they'd set up camp outside the cave entrance by the time they'd actually clapped eyes on all five dragonlings the scouts had reported.

Dalish and Galen had had the most success with bonding with a dragonling, both of theirs having eventually been coaxed out with the application of far too many sap sticks, and then offered a slightly more substancial leg of goat which was apparently enough for them to consider the two elves not outright threats. The other two would eat sap sticks thrown to them, but were refusing to come anywhere near Brillia and Skinner. The last remaining one – which by default fell to Grim – they'd only caught a glimpse of in the flickering firelight when another one had shoved it out of the way.

“Minrathous wasn't built in a day,” Dorian sighed. “How long did it take you and Draco to get on?”

“Weeks,” Liz replied. “And that might even have been a faster process because she was lonely and bored. They at least have each other.”

“Ah. Well, better get used to the local scenery, I suppose,” Dorian waved at the surrounding countryside. “It's not so bad. Would be improved by the liberal application of decent wine and dancing boys, but still, it could be worse. Could be those bloody bogs again.”

 

Two days passed of trying to bribe the dragonlings with various applications of food. Dalish managed to get to the point of scratching hers under the chin before it fled back to the cave, which led to her doing an odd jig of celebration around the campfire. Galen announced he was dubbing his dragonling Enansal, which apparently meant 'blessing'. Dalish pronounced hers Falon, which simply meant 'friend'.

Skinnner snorted. “Too long. Shouting those over a battlefield will tie your tongue in knots. It should be simpler.”

“So what are you naming yours then?” Dalish's voice held a challenge.

Skinner tossed another gobbet of meat to her dragonling, who took a single step towards her to eat it; the elf smiled when it didn't back off immediately. “Shem Killer.”

Dorian burst into peels of laughter. Even Bull and Krem were snickering. “You call that short?” Dalish demanded.

Skinner shrugged enigmatically. “I will shorten it to Killer most of the time, of course.”

It took Liz physical effort not to face palm. “Well, she's your dragon,” she muttered, deciding now was a really good time to take Draco for a flight and to check no hostiles had moved into the local area at the same time.

The next day Bull caught her coming out of her tent and dumped a scroll in her hands.

“Request for a progress report from the commander,” he said.

“Hunh? Don't you handle those?”

Bull laughed. “Not for the riders – you're in charge, and with that comes the responsibility of making decisions, sorting logistics, and, oh yeah! Sending reports.” His grin showed a lot of teeth. “Let Krem know if you need a hand. He knows how to present them.”

“Right,” Liz muttered, watching him walk away.

In charge.

In charge. For some reason, that hadn't quite rung in her head in the same way as it did now.

She was in charge. Dalish and Skinner and Galen and orders on a battlefield, requisition and supplies, logistics-

Fuck.

She looked at the parchment in her hand, then went to find Krem.

 

The missive she sent Cullen was written in a hand that looked shamefully like chicken scratch and had more crossings out than was polite, but they lacked the spare parchment for her to start again, and Krem refused to write it for her or even take dictation, the traitor. She included in it a request for any books or scrolls he might be able to recommend for learning to command a small unit with better than average mobility.

Chapter Text

It took a week for any one of the dragonlings to venture out any distance from the cave. By that point, Brillia had announced she was calling hers Onyx – Liz decided then was not the moment to introduce them to the concept of Pokemon – and Grim had been teased and nagged into revealing his would be 'Stripes'.

“That's why she hasn't come out! She's ashamed you gave her such a stupid name!” Skinner was unimpressed. Grim grunted and turned away, as unmoved as usual.

Falon, it turned out, was the trailblazer and led the way into the open area and then looked around, out of the shadow of the cliff for the first time. Ensanal paced the edge of their previously worn boundary and whined.

Then Draco raised her head and made a curious honking noise and nearly undid all their hard work when Falon shrieked in alarm and tried to retreat at speed, only to be scuppered by tripping over his own tail.

“Whoa, hey, hey!” Dalish crooned, immediately proffering meat to try and calm her down.

“Draco, down!” Liz said at exactly the same time.

It was an unnecessary order. Draco lowered herself until she was on her belly like a cat, and was pointedly looking away from Falon. If she'd been human, she would have been doing an uncanny impression of Vivienne inspecting a new manicure.

Falon righted herself and hissed.

Draco continued to study the horizon, eyes open only a slit, seemingly completely oblivious to the very small – Maker, Liz thought, when the hell did the size difference get that drastic? - dragon in front of her.

Falon took half a step closer, and snapped.

Dracon yawned and lowered her head to rest it on the ground. From her angle, Liz could see her eyes were still open a slit, attention rigidly on anything but Falon.

Falon, unsure, headbutted Dalish and whined.

A large, deep grumble sounded from inside the cave. Dalish and Dorian grabbed for staffs as everyone else fumbled for weaponry left out of reach.

“What-” Liz managed before there was a rush of scales and hissing and snapping and Bull was suddenly in front of her.

“-the hell!” she finished, as there was the sound of something hitting the Qunari, hard. Bull didn't move so much as an inch backwards, but it was obvious he was struggled with something.

“Whoa, got a feisty one!”

“Er, chief? That's, er, that's a drake,” Krem sounded a little shocked from his viewpoint off to the side.

“I know, right?!” Bull's shoulders heaved and he threw the thing sideways, like someone would do with a horse that needed branding, and pinned it to the ground.

It hissed and flailed, but it wasn't strong enough to budge him, and so eventually stilled, pinned with it's cheek on the ground, one yellow eye rolling in it's socket before fixing on Bull with what Liz found to be an unnerving amount of hostility, the pupil narrowed to a paper thin slit.

She couldn’t be sure, but she didn’t think it was fully grown - all she could see from this angle was half the head and a frantically thrashing tale. As a matter of fact, it looked only a little bigger than Draco had been when Liz had first adopted her.

There was no mistaking the body shape though. It was slender to the point of almost being whippy, missing the muscles that corded the female’s shoulders, making them broad even while immature, longer, the proportions all different, and the stripes far less pronounced, his entire hide dull and slightly mottled; compared to the females, he was incredibly camoflaged. There was also a maturity about the head, the teeth, that made Liz think he was probably the oldest dragon here. Did drakes grow more slowly than females, maybe?

“Right,” Krem sounded unsure. “Liz? That doesn't look fully grown, but..I don't know about killing it. I think it's what our five have been...seeking for protection. If we off it-”

“He'll be mine,” said Bull before Liz could answer.

“I'm sorry...what?” Liz managed, staring at him.

Bull turned his head and grinned at her. “I said, he'll be mine.”

“Chief, you know he'll never fly, right? Won't even grow impressively large, you could probably get bigger horses...”

“Yeah, but look at him! All riled up and full of fire and ready to fight the world!”

“No, just ready to fight us! Chief, there's no way this will work! At best, we'd have to cage-”

“Sure it will! Now we can have dragon based ground troops as well! You remember what Draco could do to a battle line when she was stuck on the ground? He can do it for us all the time! It'll be great!”

“He's not a baby! This isn't a young impressionable dragon that we can persuade to like us, that's a bonafide teenager!”

“Ah, he just needs someone to take him in hand.”

“And you're going to get him not to try and murder us the second you let him loose, how exactly?” Liz said, letting her voice sound as skeptical as she felt.

Bull looked back at the drake with enthusiasm. “I'm a Ben-Hassrath, remember? Just leave it to me.”

 

'Leave it to me' turned out to be code for 'let me get the camp a little bit messed up, and no one minds if I break this, right?'

Basra, as Bull named him, was spiteful, mean and above all, hostile, to everyone and everything, especially Bull.

Krem, stitching his tent back together two nights later, sighed. “I shouldn't be surprised really. It's Skinner all over again.”

Liz was sat next to him and examining her cooking pot, wondering if it would be worth trying to knock the dents back out. “Skinner?”

“And Rocky, and Dalish, and...well, all of us really. Didn't matter how angry, and didn't matter how broken. Or inappropriate. That's what Bull cobbled the Chargers out of. Those of us left behind or left out or run out. You know my story. When Dalish first turned up, she missed her clan so much she insisted on doing all these rituals and prayers to her people's gods, just to feel like she was close to them, and he put up with it; even made us join in. Skinner was so hostile to humans she cost us three different contracts when she first joined; just couldn't stop mouthing off. He still grinned and said we'd get work elsewhere for a while. Stitches cost all of us months of decent sleep – used to have screaming night terrors from the fall of Denerim. Rocky, Grim, Callie...everyone.”

Liz cocked her head to the side and thought for a moment. “He was never going to let us kill that drake, was he?”

“Not a chance in hell.”

 

The upside of Bull taking personal charge of Basra's rehabilitation was that all five dragonlings were suddenly a lot more sociable.

“I think that big bully was keeping you inside, yes he was,” Dalish cooed to Falon one afternoon, and Liz thought she might have a point. Without Basra to hover over them, each of them had blossomed into their own personalities.

Falon was adventurous and impulsive, and Dalish more often than not could be heard exclaiming with an odd mixture of pride and despair when she'd gotten into something she shouldn't, most often food. She, of all the dragonlings, was the only one happy to clamber all over Draco, which the older dragon bore with good grace most of the time, unceremoniously dumping her off when she got fed up. Ensanal was clingy and loyal, and always needed to be around someone. Most of the time, she trailed Falon, but after a lot of hard work was slowly beginning to transfer her affection to Galen.

Killer was, in an awful mismatch of personalities, the class clown and seemed to love being the center of attention, to Skinner's utter chagrin. Stripes was starting to build something of a rapport with Grim, but was utterly terrified of both Basra and Draco, and would make frightened squeaks and run away if either of them paid any attention to her. Liz thought Draco was secretly frustrated by this, as she'd spotted the dragon flatten herself to the floor and make crooning noises at the younger one in an attempt to entice her into interacting when she thought no one was watching, and then taken herself off to sulk with her head in the campfire when it didn't work.

Onyx was the only one who bore any resemblance to her name, and suited Brillia down to the ground. She was quiet, observant, and when she'd made a decision, absolutely refused to be moved from it. Liz had observed her squaring off against Basra the one time he got the opportunity to try and steal her dinner, heedless of the size difference or the damage he could do. Bull had intervened before the drake could decide he was mortally offended and react accordingly.

Slowly, slowly, they came together into something like a group.

 

She was somewhat gratified when, three weeks later, Cullen's reply came accompanied by a small, well worn book on skirmish tactics and leadership. It had his own commentary scribbled in the margins and annotating the diagrams inside. Tucked inside the front cover was a simple note. 'Start with this – I did.'

 

The showdown between Draco and Basra had been on the cards for a while, and finally happened late one afternoon when Liz was rubbing Draco down from a scouting flight they'd taken. Krem was off taking the others through the basics of 'sit' 'stay' and 'lie down', and using Draco as a demonstration tool had as many downsides as it did advantages so in the end Liz had taken her away for some air time.

At least Draco's launches and landings were now things of beauty. Liz hadn't realised it until they'd moved out from Skyhold, but the strong thermals and air currents around the castle acted like stabilising wheels for flying – no wonder when Draco had to do without them, she wobbled. Now, having had to jump start from flat plains with little to no wind to speak of, she was smooth and considered. Her increased wingspan, she suspected, also helped.

Finished, Liz gave Draco a friendly slap on the rump and turned to deal with her tack. She'd not even taken one step when Basra rounded the corner and hissed.

Liz sighed. The drake wasn't getting any easier to handle, and she was starting to wonder if she was going to have to have a quiet word with Bull and give serious consideration to euthanising the male. He was too much of a handful for anyone but the Qunari to handle, had destroyed or damaged a significant amount of their belongings and showed exactly no signs of being trainable.

“Bull!” she called.

“Wait.”

He stepped out from behind a tent; she'd been entirely unaware he was there.

Liz stared at him. “What? But-” she turned to look worriedly at Draco, who had pulled herself up to her full height, towering over the drake, wings spread slightly, lips pulled back to expose teeth but was so far silent. “They could hurt each other!”

“Nah – she'll hurt him. Doubt he'll manage to do anything serious to her.”

“So, why are we standing here?”

Bull gave her a knowing sideways look. “Don't think I haven't noticed. I'm fond of him, but I'm not stupid or deluded enough to think he's anything but a liability at the moment. No matter what technique I use, he won't accept my authority and we need to be able to move soon. So...this is it. She,” he gestured to Draco, who was still sitting, unmoving as Basra inched closer, still hissing, “is his last shot. He either can submit to her, or....”

Liz looked at him. “Or?”

He didn't get a chance to answer, because Basra blurred into movement, throwing himself at Draco, hissing and spitting.

Draco, despite her far larger size, moved out of the way nimbly, wings extended for counterbalance, and he skidded past her, claws scrabbling in the dust. She didn't let him recover, slamming him with her tail and sending him flying.

It took him a few seconds to right himself, shaking his head and still hissing. Draco looked thoroughly unruffled and almost regal, and stayed stood where she was, posture still unconcerned, waiting to see if he'd take the hint. Liz wondered if this was how she herself had looked when up against a Charger when she was first learning to fight.

Basra tried again, not a wild charge this time; he was steadier as he stalked up to her, rearing up onto his hind legs as if to claw at her wings.

She didn't give him a chance, spitting fire at his feet before he struck, causing a shriek and for him to scramble away. She was standing now, her pupils slowly narrowing, which was her own personal signal for 'I am getting annoyed'.

This subtlety was apparently lost on Basra, who Liz had now internally labelled as having the survival instincts of a radish; he threw himself at her side.

Draco whirled, snapping, all patience gone. It was sudden, swift and brutal. His claws all but bounced off her hide, whereas one strike from her drew blood along Basra's side, before she unceremoniously clamped her jaws around his neck and pinned him to the ground, snarling deep in her throat.

There was a moment of stillness as no one moved.

Then Basra hissed and writhed as much as he could, and Draco growled again; Basra's breath become hard and laboured, the growls becoming pathetic squeaks, as her jaws tightened – a warning.

Liz had no idea how many warnings she would give.

Basra went limp, head lolling on the ground.

Slowly, Draco released him and raised her head, nostrils still flared, breathing heavily enough that deep growls still rumbled from her chest.

Basra, eye rolling to keep an eye on her, stayed where he was.

Draco looked away from him – Liz was amused to note she still had one large paw on Basra's foreleg, just in case he decided to be stupid – and looked up at her, as if seeking...what, reassurance? Approval?

Liz went with both.

“Good job girl!” She walked over, deliberately not looking at Basra and keeping her body language casual and relaxed. She scratched her under the chin. Draco preened. “Clever Draco.”

Draco honked and then headbutted first Liz, and then Bull, before wandering off in the direction of the as yet unlit fire pit.

Basra, her weight gone from on top of him, slowly raised himself up, looked at both of them, and then, slowly and deliberately, headbutted first Liz, then Bull, before trundling after her.

Bull beamed at Liz. “Told ya,” he said, blinking in an odd way until Liz realised a second later it was supposed to be a wink. “Ben Hassrath.”

Chapter Text

Basra's submission to Draco's dominance seemed to indicate a turning point in the training of the five younger females, and Krem staggered in from training one evening a few days later looking gratifyingly smug, if utterly exhausted.

“They got it,” he announced. 'It' turned out to be the basics of sit, stay and answering to their names – apparently, even Basra had managed it - which meant they could consider travel as an option. Prior to that, with no control over the little ones, it would have been asking to lose them somewhere along the way.

Debating it privately with Bull, however, they decided to stay put, at least for the moment. Depending on what had put itself between them and Skyhold, the journey back might be perilous, and it would definitely be long. As Bull pointed out, this wasn't the Hinterlands; it had taken them a far shorter period of time to get here than their previous excursion but that didn't mean it wasn't a very long distance for some sets of comparatively short legs.

With that in mind, Krem and the others switched from focusing on obedience training to stamina – even with the wagons, fitting all the dragonlings and Basra onto them once they got tired would be a physical impossibility, and they wanted to get back to Skyhold as soon as possible. For many reasons, but one stood out among them.

The dragonlings’ appetites were insatiable. Liz couldn't be sure if they ate more than Draco ever did at their size, or if the Hinterlands were just more fertile with better hunting so it was easier to keep her fed, but they seemed to eat anything. Whereas Draco had once turned her nose up at the porridge they tended to eat for breakfast, Dalish had taken to sitting on Falon in an effort to keep her out of her bowl. Basra could and would chew on tent ropes, and the only occasion Ensanal ever showed courage that Liz saw was then she launched a frantic smash and grab on Draco's dinner one evening and made off with a leg of goat almost as large as she was while the larger dragon just sat and watched with a slightly nonplussed expression on her face.

It probably helped that Ensanal held jurisdiction over the leg for all of approximately thirty seconds before she was mugged by her sisters for her prize, and Liz got the impression Draco was vastly more entertained by watching them squabble amongst themselves over it than she would ever have been if she just ate it herself.

This led to two very different things taking place.

The first was a result of Skinner one day stalking out of her tent in an absolute fury and throwing down one of her leather gauntlets in outrage at Dalish and Liz's feet as they were sat talking.

“Er,” said Liz to the infuriated elf, who responded by hissing things in Orlesian that Liz had no hope of understanding.

“Ah,” said Dalish in an understanding tone, having picked up the gauntlet – it had a large chunk now missing, and unmistakably around the edge were teeth marks.

“You did not have this with her!” Skinner finally managed in common, gesticulating in a violent fashion towards Draco. “Or so you say! I think you are lying! I think you think this is funny! I think-” she broke off into Orlesian again, but from her hand gestures, Liz got the impression she was instructing them to go and do something physically impossible to themselves in punishment for 'holding out' on the secrets of persuading a dragon not to eat your belongings.

“'Ere now, knock that off,” Dalish finally interjected. “No, Draco didn't eat anything like that. But then, there were four of us raising one of her, not twenty-something raising six. There has to be something they don't like the taste of?”

Taking that as a challenge rather than an obstacle, stamina training over the following week involved longer and longer hikes to different parts of the area, and paying special attention to what the dragonlings avoided and what they ignored.

Nothing, was the answer they initially came back with. They ate everything edible by humans with equal enthusiasm, even when Bull broke out his secret stash of the Thedosian equivalent of chillies strong enough that they left Liz with watering eyes from just sniffing the bowl, never mind eating one.

Rotten or moulding foodstuffs were no obstacle either, nor was fermented fruit, as evidenced by the time Basra got into an abandoned cart full of cooking apples that a merchant had left which smelled like moonshine, although the site of him flopping around and unable to walk straight did raise a few laughs - up until he belched lightening and nearly set Rocky's tent on fire. They also ruled out the faecal matter of other animals, given that accidentally treading in fox muck did nothing to deter Onyx from her mission to try and pry one of Brillia's shoes from her for consumption when she sat down.

With that, they turned to herbs, which meant Stitches spending long hours pouring over notes and calculations to check that if they chewed on something laced with a herb, it wasn't going to kill any of them. They tried crystal grace first but that did nothing. Nor did elfroot, blood lotus, embrium, spindleweed or deep mushroom.

It wasn't until Grim purchased a bushel of rashvine from a merchant that they had any success.

“Not the leaves,” Stitches had explained later. “They leave a rash that's just awful, I mean, we're talking amputation level awful here. But look.”

He took one of the thicker vines and broke it by twisting, hands clad in thick gloves, until a thick white liquid slowly oozed out of the snapped part

He lifted the plant. “Smell it, don't touch the leaves,” he instructed.

Liz carefully leaned in and took a deep breath and instantly regretted it. It was like someone had flooded the inside of her nose with crushed up roses mixed with sugar to the point she couldn't smell anything else, almost like something had sprouted there. It made her breath actually catch for a second. “It smells....floral, wow, that's strong.” She coughed, trying to get the smell out of her sinuses and failing.

The man nodded and then proffered the same plant to Falon, who, as always, was trying to see what they were doing. The dragonling sniffed, then immediately retreated and snorted, shaking her head.

“Ok,” Liz said. “But...will it do us any good? I mean, that was also my reaction. It's not going to be any use if we can't then wear anything because it causes us problems as well.”

“I've tested it when it's so heavily diluted that it's not offensive to our noses and it's just like strong perfume instead; they still have the same reaction to it.” Stitches looked grimly pleased. “And in order to have any negative effect, unlike the rest of the plant, this stuff has to be ingested in significant quantity.”

Liz coughed. “No chance of that happening accidentally if they won't even lick it. Great work.”

Bull was not so impressed. “Well shit, your armour having dragon bites taken out of it looked awesome. Now we just smell like-”

“Like we live in an Orlesian brothel and wash our clothes in their toy chests,” Krem finished, looking gleeful at everyone else's discomfort. “Chief, you can wear a bow on your head! Or maybe we ought to advertise prices? We could offer a special two for one discount!”

Dalish, who was also sitting around the campfire, gave them both a scathing look, and Liz stifled a snort of amusement - which only encouraged Krem, and by the end of the evening, she honestly thought one of the others might sneak into their tent that night and rub him down with undiluted rashvine ointment just to shut him up.

Thankfully they didn't, but Liz sort of wished they had when she stepped foot outside the next day and sank ankle deep into their second issue. It might have helped with the smell.

She had always taken Draco's cleanliness for granted. Given her, at times cat-like behaviour, Liz had assumed that dragons, much like cats, were born with an inbuilt desire to remain clean, or at least use a single designated area as a litter tray. Certainly Draco's messes had always been remote, neat things that they nearly never stumbled into and that she took herself off to make with very little prompting needed.

Apparently, this was a trait not shared by the younger dragonlings, and unfortunately scat distribution was not a subject noted in any great detail by ay previous scholars of dragons she'd been told about, which meant she had no idea if certain breeds were unusually messy or if it was a learned behaviour the others just hadn't gotten the hang off....

….But either way, it stank, and it seemed to be everywhere. Six ravenously hungry young dragons who ate anything and everything they could put their teeth in made a lot of dragon's muck, and they all seemed to spend long periods every other day gathering twigs to put together into make-shift brooms to sweep the mess out of camp into one, big, foul smelling pile downwind that made Liz glad Vivienne wasn't with them, or she'd have had plenty to say on the subject. Dorian, as it was, took to threatening death by perfumery whenever one of the dragonlings strayed too near his tent.

As it was, they ended up spending a shameful amount of time cleaning their boots and smelling bad, which eventually resulted in an odd and somewhat desperate attempt at 'housetraining'. This actually translated to a roughly dug trench outside camp, and then each of the riders following their charge so closely you would have been forgiven for thinking one was tied to the other, waiting until they displayed that telltale 'waddle' motion to grab them under the front legs and wing buds and haul them bodily in the direction of the trench while making positive encouraging noises.

Or, at least, that's they were doing with the dragonlings. Liz didn't know what Bull was doing with Basra, who was a bit too large for that sort of treatment, and she refused to ask. He didn't volunteer either, but Liz did spot him sitting by his tent at one point, scowling in an obvious bad temper while he cleaned something unspeakable off his harness before re-oiling it. Dorian, naturally, just couldn't resist making a snide remark that could have escalated into a full out argument, but Krem headed it off by innocently asking if Dorian's trunk always had those chew marks on it - which diverted his attention, even if it did nothing to stop the indignant squawks that could be heard from his tent shortly thereafter.

Her previous missive to Cullen had been less a report and more a single sentence summary followed by questions on troop formations when in the air, so she was gratified when a rider arrived from the nearest Inquisition camp bearing a satchel full of scrolls, and two of them were for her. She had just cracked the seal on the first, squinting to read it in the light of the campfire, when Bull all but barrelled out of his tent, stopped, looked around, and then bellowed her name.

“Ow, I used to have an ear drum,” she muttered. “I'm right here Chief – what?”

“Mount up, you fly tonight. Now,” he said brusquely, holding a slip of parchment out to her.

“What?” She stood automatically, reaching for her greaves.

“We are riding for the storm coast at sun up, and we need the Inquisitor to meet us there,” he said, sharply. “Don't just reach the nearest camp; she's in the Western approach right now, head for the outpost over near-”

“I know which one is nearest the Inquisitor,” Liz said, waving her hand. “I mean, why? Can you tell me now, or does it need to wait?”

“We'll start packing up as soon as you've gone, so no harm in telling you: we've been offered an alliance. By the Qun.”

“I...er...that's a big deal, isn't it?”

“If you mean that it's never been done before, then yes. They're looking to assist our movements against the red lyrium shipments by the 'Vints. I think the boss'll say yes, but we need her answer so I can tell them whether we'll be at the rendez vous. Red has confirmed it's legitimate as far as she knows. Get to the outpost, get a reply, come back and find us by the trail markers; they have ravens.”

“Going,” Liz said shortly, running for Marno and, with him, Draco's saddle.

The night air was cool, the thermals still strong enough that Draco – grumpy at being woken from her spot in the fire – could glide for much of the journey; the air currents were warm and sweet smelling under her wings and lifted tendrils of Liz's hair from where it escaped from under her helmet. The sky was bright and clear, the moon casting shadows on the ground below them, the stars – familiar after all these months, but still strange in a way Earth's weren't – silent onlookers to a peaceful journey that did nothing to calm Liz's nerves.

The Qun. An alliance.

Unheard of.

Was this her interference? Her doing? Or was this how the game should have gone? It was impossible to tell, and as such, the logical thing would be to set it aside, but it lived like a black mark in the back of her mind that she wasn't able to shake.

Maybe it wasn't, she told herself. The red lyrium was a problem – they would have known that from Kirkwall. Even given the then-Arishok's actions, if they knew it was becoming a problem again, they would of course get involved, especially if they had a Ben Hassrath inside the Inquisition feeding them information on exactly how bad the situation had become.

It wasn't her.

It wasn't.

She hoped.

 

She caught up with them three days later; night had long fallen, but Basra saw them coming and sat up on his haunches and trilled – when had he learnt that trick? - a greeting as Draco landed gracefully on the outskirts of camp, then rushed forward to headbutt her. Bull was there to meet Liz as she dismounted, ostensibly to help her unsaddle Draco and rub her down, but she could see the tension in his shoulders and his walk before she had even gotten down.

“She says yes,” she said without pre-amble. “They're already on the move. I'd have brought her with me, but she wants Harding and a bunch of other logistics with her as well, so they're moving as a caravan. We should get there at about the same time.”

“Good,” Bull said, his voice full of approval. “Go take a weight off – the others are around here and there, and Stitches left some of the goat for you.”

Liz grunted in approval as she hefted Draco's reigns across her shoulder to head off to oil them.

The journey was shorter than they would have thought – Draco, with Liz, spent most of her time in the air, both scouting and running messages between themselves and the Inquisitor's party, which Liz was delighted to discover included Varric and Cassandra as well. Bull remained a bit snappish, working Krem overly hard in the training ring while trying to 'teach' him how to handle a shield barge; at one point, Liz honestly thought he was going to go flying, armour and all. Draco seemed to pick up on his tension, however, and Liz came out of her tent the night before they were due to reach the rendez vous to find Bull in the practise ring with the dragon herself.

It wasn't quite wrestling as they used to do, as Draco could probably now do Bull serious damage just from sitting on him, but was more a case of seeing if Bull could successfully disable or hamper a limb for any length of time before she pried him off. He wasn't getting very far, and she seemed to keep knocking him on the head with her tail more than anything else, but they both seemed entertained and happy, so Liz chuckled and went in search of the pond she'd been told was nearby to wash up.

As she rounded a tent, she paused. Something wasn't right. Squinting into the darkness, eventually she managed to pick out, against the night sky, two silhouettes, standing very close and talking in low voices.

Friend or foe? She didn't want to rouse the camp if it turned out to be Stitches and Grim having a rendez vous, but neither did she want to give the enemy a head start if they were hostile.

Slipping into the shadows, and carefully picking where to put her feet, she slowly, slowly edged around the pair until the light from the camp let her see just a few details, if she could just get a bit closer...She blinked as she realised it was Dalish, and Krem.

Krem stood stiffly, shoulders back, as if he was...surprised? Dalish seemed relaxed, her knees and shoulders loose, her hands behind her back clasped lightly, half a smile on her face, and...was it a trick of the light, or was she looking a little flushed?

Liz grinned and stood up, prepared to uphold the proud Charger tradition of 'putting her foot in it' and drew breath to ask what they were doing, just as Dalish leant forward and pressed her lips firmly to Krem's. Liz was so surprised that all she could manage instead was 'hunh?'

They both jumped, Dalish whirling to look at her, Krem stood stock still as if frozen.

“Liz!” They both sounded surprised.

“Er,” managed Krem.

“I'm just turning in for the night,” interjected Dalish smoothly. “See you both tomorrow.” With that, she strolling in the direction of camp, hips swinging slightly, stride confident.

Liz blinked at Krem, unable to hide her grin. “Was that-”

“I'm not talking about it,” muttered Krem, whose ears she could now see had gone scarlet.

“Are you two-”

“No!”

Companionably, they both trudged towards the pond, and Liz found she couldn't stop grinning. Eventually, as they stopped at the water's edge, Krem muttered “We've never...I mean, I didn't think...she never said anything...”

“So do you like her?”

“I...yes? But I liked her before! I don't know if I like her, like her. I mean, she's...she's Dalish, and we've got something important we need to be doing, and....kaffas, I don't know what to think. I never thought about her like that, that's the issue.”

“Could you?”

“I think....maybe? I'm not sure, and, fuck. We have shit to be doing, I can't think about this now.”

They were silent for a few minutes as Liz industriously stripped before wading into the cold water and starting to scrub.

“I'll think about it tomorrow,” Krem said, standing and staring glumly at the water. “I can't focus on that right now. This is important and the Chief is stressed to buggery, and I can't go join her in her tent right now-”

That's what she was saying?!”

“Among other...things, right, look. I'll think about this tomorrow. Right now, we should just focus on being normal. Then I can think about whether I like her like that.”

“Even though you think you do,” Liz put in helpfully.

Krem opened his mouth to argue, then stopped, eyes narrowed. “This is payback for the time I put a nug in the tent when you were sleeping off a hangover, isn't it?”

“The teasing?” Liz did her best to look angelic. “Well, I wasn't thinking about that incident in particular but yes, something like that.”

Krem sighed. “Ok, fine. I'll...I'll tell you what we decide first, if you like. But right now-”

“Right now, we're the Chargers, we have a job, and our horns should be up, and not pointed at the pretty elf who just propositioned you?” Liz asked with a grin.

“Oh by the maker's undies Liz, shut up.”

Chapter Text

The day dawned, as ever on the Storm Coast, grey, cold and windy. There was light mist in the air, and the ground was soaked. Nevertheless, everyone was up while dawn was still nothing but thin light in the sky, nerves affecting them all.

Even the Inquisitor seemed perhaps a little jumpy, her lips tight as she strolled through their shared campsite, supposedly casual but eyes sharp and noticing everything. Liz spotted Varric shoving not one, but four spare bowstrings into his pack, and a fifth into his boot, muttering 'just in case' as he did so, and Cassandra's sword was being polished so much it could have been used as a mirror.

Dorian took to insulting Krem, who looked all too ready to rise to the challenge until Onyx made a pest of herself by trying to eat the mage's furred robe’s hem, which caused him to retreat at speed. Bull had gone into full on mother hen mode, and was currently inspecting Skinner's armour in far more detail than was necessary, and given the elf's expression, Liz suspected that had it been anyone else doing it, she'd have just shanked them in the head and walked off in annoyance, but as it was she bore it with comparatively good grace, which meant he didn't fret over anyone else too vocally.

This was probably a good thing, Liz reflected, watching Dalish spin her staff in non-stop circles, the motions smooth and compensating for her still-injured wrist with ease. Stitches packed and repacked his supply kit as if he knew he'd forgotten something but couldn't work out what, and Grim and Rocky were playing poker with mouths set in straight, unhappy lines, no stakes specified that she'd heard, but both of them betting small and grimacing with distaste when they lost.

Eventually, the sun had emerged over the horizon enough that they could leave for the rendez vous; Brillia and Galen were staying with the dragonlings and Basra at the camp along with Harding and the support crew, back from the coast and out of trouble. Everyone else was with them.

Conversation was sparse as they made their way; the shale was loose under their feet, but their passage was swift, drops of mist clinging to eyelashes and pearling on leather armour, soaking everyone through even though no rain fell. Liz rode Draco, staying on the ground – they'd agreed that taking to the air might get her spotted by enemies and give the game away before they were ready – but stopped and slid off to walk the last part as the camp came into sight; the dragon stayed at her left shoulder protectively as if she could sense the mood.

The activity at the Qunari camp was obvious from a distance, and Liz was surprised when a slight elf with an oblong face, dark brown hair and a ready smile stepped out to meet them – she'd been bracing herself for another Qunari, mind full of Sten's unemotional comments or the Arishok's arrogance. This was...a surprise.

“Gatt!” Bull seemed both surprised and highly pleased. “Last I heard you were still in Seheron!”

The elf shrugged a little – it was barely visible given the armour he was wearing. “They finally decided I'd calmed down enough to come back out into the world.” His smile was pleased and proud.

He really liked Bull, Liz realised with surprise.

It shouldn't have surprised her, really – Sten and the Kirkwall Qunari were all very stoic when she'd seen them in games, but The Iron Bull was proof positive that while such attitudes were common among the Qunari, they weren't ubiquitous, and finding others within the Qun who were so obvious about treating those around them with kindness and friendliness and enthusiasm....she should have known it would happen.

It made her feel worse for some reason. 'He'll do whatever they need him to' echoed in her head in Dorian's voice.

She pushed it away just in time to hear Gatt say “And this must be your dragon rider.”

“Yeah, this is Liz. She's had an....interesting time.”

“Chief, your talent for understatement remains as incomparable as ever,” Liz replied easily, the response automatic and thankfully, showing none her internal nerves. “This is Draco. Draco, Gatt.”

Draco snorted but showed absolutely no interest in coming any closer to the elf, even when Gatt held out a hopeful hand as one would with a shy horse, instead lowering her head defensively, pupils narrowing in warning as Gatt thankfully got the message and backed off. Liz smothered a smirk and felt a rush of warmth for the dragon's loyalty.

“Well, she certainly looks impressive,” Gatt said, and unless Liz was much mistaken, his smile for a second seemed a little less ready, a tiny bit shaken. Hah. “I look forward to seeing what she can do in the field.”

Liz just grunted. There was no reason for her to dislike this man. Mouthing off to Dorian aside – and who didn't mouth off to Dorian? - he'd done absolutely nothing wrong, but instinctively she didn't trust him.

Krem must have picked up on something too. “Chief, we'll back off while you talk logistics,” he said, and as one, the Chargers withdrew. Over their footsteps, Liz could hear Gatt saying something about a Qunari dreadnought.

“That one can fuck off,” Skinner muttered, voicing all their thoughts.

“Shut up,” snapped Krem, so brusquely that Liz suspect he actually agreed with her. “The Inquisition needs this alliance. Our job is to help Bull and facilitate that. Anyone not on board can leave the fucking field.”

“I don't take orders from you anymore, I answer to Liz,” Dalish snapped back just as quick.

Internally, Liz groaned. “And I take orders from Bull, and I agree. Get on board or leave the ship,” she said, quietly. “And for pity's sake, whatever you do, keep your voice down!”

They all stood in uneasy silence, watching as the others came to some sort of rapid agreement – Bull then left and came over to them, while the Inquisitor and the others stayed to chat with Gatt some more.

“Right,” said Bull, rubbing his hands together, but it looked a little...odd. Normally, when he did that it seemed to convey enthusiasm, a readiness to get stuck in – now it just made him look like he was cold and trying to chafe warmth back into them. “'Vints are bringing in a red lyrium shipment. We have a Qunari dreadnought lying off shore out of sight. We need to clear the two areas that the Vint mages could attack it from; they come in, blow the shipment into little pieces, and hey presto, one alliance and a job well done. The boss, her crew and I are going to clear that area,” he gestured to a hillock behind them. “And when we're done, signal the dreadnought and hold the area. You all need to clear and hold that hilltop. You'll need to signal too.” He turned to gesture to a different hill behind the Qunari fires. “Liz, you're going to be flying cycles between the two once we're engaged, providing air support and back-up as needed; Krem and I, we both have signalling flags if we need them. Any questions?”

“Nope, sounds simple enough,” said Krem shortly.

“Don't forget: once they're down, send up a signal; that'll let the dreadnought know it's clear to come in.”

“Alright Chief,” said Krem, voice utterly bland, as if Bull hadn't just repeated the same instruction twice in thirty seconds.

“Remember, you're gonna want a volley to start, but don't get suckered into fighting at range. They've got mages.”

“It's all right, we've got a mage of our own,” Krem said, his voice wry.

“I'm not a mage!” Interjected Dalish.

“We've got a dragon too,” said Krem as if she hadn't spoken.

Bull ignored both of them. “Get in close and take their enchanter down before he takes over the battlefield.”

“He'll be dead before he knows it,” Krem confirmed, voice upbeat, but Liz could almost hear him wanting to roll his eyes at the babying.

“Just...pay attention, all right? The Vints want this Lyrium shipment bad.” For a second, Liz honestly thought he was going to gather them into a hug or something.

“Yes, I know. Thanks Mother,” Krem said dryly, apparently worried about the same thing Liz was.

That at least seemed to snap Bull out of it a little. “Qunari don't have mothers, remember?”

“We'll be fine, Chief.”

The smile Bull gave them in return was tight and worried. Liz could understand why. The best way to fight a mage was with a mage, if you had no templars. Vints were nothing but mages. Not only that, but the Qunari would be here to see how they did. It was like trying to take an extra difficult exam with a badly made pen while your friends looked on and judged how you did.

“All right Chargers, horns up!”

“Horns up,” they chorused in return.

They turned to go, Liz to mount up, when Krem caught her by the elbow. “No stupid risks, ok?”

Liz blinked at him. “Hunh?”

“Just...” he scowled. “Got a bad feeling on this one. No stupid risks.”

Liz gave him a long level look. “You too,” she said eventually. He nodded and turned to go with the others.

Less than a minute later, and the clearing was silent but for the crackle of the Qunari's still-burning fire. Draco fidgeted, shifting from foot to foot, the shale crunching under her feet as she did so, then whined, shifting her wings, taking a cautious step forward as if she wanted to take off until Liz tugged her back.

“Wait for it,” she muttered, straining to hear something...anything.

Only the wind and her own heartbeat sounded loud in her ears.

The minutes ticked by, Liz's head snapping around every time a branch rustled in the wind or an animal in the undergrowth dislodged a stone. Eventually, she heard the smallest of small sounds of metal on metal, from the direction the Inquisitor's party had gone in.

“Hup!” She was so wound up she jerked Draco's reigns possibly a little harder than she should have, but the dragon was so eager she didn't notice, springing into the air, wings pumping as they spun to shoot towards the sound.

Sure enough, between the trees, she spotted the telltale crackle of Dorian's lightening, and an unfamiliar mage shot out from between the trunks into the open, red light pooling between his palms. Liz flung a confusion grenade at him, catching him on the knee and he yelped and then tripped, eyes gone wide and unfocused as Varric stepped out from behind his cover and put a crossbow bolt through his throat.

She and Draco pulled up, riding a handy breeze that lifted them higher, drifting back in the direction of the hill Krem and the others should have been taking.

As they soared overhead, the Chargers were already engaged, outnumbering the Vints that had been in the area and needed no support from her. Liz grinned despite herself as Krem ducked easily away from the line of impact of an enemy fireball, then stepped into the gap and beheaded the thrower – trust Bull to take the harder assignment and spare them the majority of the danger. If she should be fretting over anyone, it should be him.

With that in mind, they turned again, climbing higher yet, and headed back towards the Inquisitor and frowned when she saw them fighting one wave while another was close to joining them. She was just unhooking a pitch grenade when Draco beat her to it, spitting fire in a neat line down between the Vint's forces, leaving two on fire and screaming in pain and fear, and splitting the rest of them, meaning Cassandra and Bull could finish them off at their leisure rather than being overwhelmed. She and Draco turned a wide circle as they put them down, and Cassandra raised her sword – bloody and dripping, Liz noticed – to wave as they went.

A shower of green went up from the Charger's hill – their signal. Their hill was taken and safe.

Bull and the others still had half a hill to climb, and Liz could see more Vints waiting for them, a whole group at the peak, and probably still more in the trees leading up to it.

“Let's give them a really bad day,” she muttered to Draco, steering with her knees and fishing her pitch grenades from her belt.

They soared closer, closer- then Draco folded her wings and dropped, spitting fire as Liz hurled the grenades, letting the mages scatter as they pulled up and sped past the hill, two of them down and screaming and another pair beating frantically at their robes, trying to put the flames out.

Two balls of frost, hissing like they were alive, shot over Liz's shoulders; the mage's retaliations. Draco banked and dropped some more, avoiding more missiles thrown at them, before finding a shore breeze and riding it higher, higher, now out of range of the Vints. It didn't stop them throwing magic at them anyway in vain hope, and beneath them in the sea, Liz was startled to see a cluster of frost spikes suddenly appear; apparently one of them felt the need to ensure if she and Draco fell, they wouldn't survive the landing.

'How pleasant' Liz thought, disturbed, and felt absolutely no remorse at all when a shout went up from the group as Bull, Cassandra and Gatt suddenly appeared out of the treeline and set about them, the distraction meaning a little under half their number fell in the first attack.

Dorian, Varric and Inquisitor appeared seconds later, but by then, it was mostly over, the Vints routed and defeated, and as they turned, Liz watched from a distance dispassionately as Dorian thunked one last frozen Vint on the head with his staff, shattering him into a thousand pieces, while the Inquisitor bent and used the now abandoned firepit to light their own signal. More green light flew into the sky, beautiful but eerie – the colour seemed not too far off how the rifts glowed.

The dreadnought had rounded the corner of the cliff the next time she and Draco banked – it wasn't as large as she'd thought. Based on how reverently Bull had spoken of it, Liz had been mentally preparing for something not too far off a modern day aircraft carrier. Instead, it was smaller, but heavily populated, more like something she'd see in a museum when talking about the Mayflower, although maybe larger and definitely more armoured. Curiosity getting the better of her, they drifted a little in that direction, and on the deck, she could make out faces peering up at her – some of them elven, yes, but mostly the grey-silver colour, many with horns.

A flash of movement caught her eye. Fabric – Bull was signalling something, the flags' movements frantic and jerky against the woods behind them – she squinted trying to make it out-

CHARGER CHARGER CHARGER

What? She turned and looked to the hill Krem and the others were defending and her heart sank as she saw an entire unit of Tevinter mages had emerged from the trees and were heading with definite purpose towards the hill. Fuck. What had been there must have only been a token scouting party, the main force hidden in the undergrowth.

Shit.

Draco must have seen too, because she twisted in mid-air without Liz having to direct her at all, wings suddenly pumping frantically, throwing Liz back in the saddle as they all but leapt forward, wind first whistling, then howling as they sped up, hurtling towards the incoming force.

They weren't going to make it before they engaged, she thought disjointedly, fingers automatically reaching for her grenades – pitch in one hand, confusion in another - steering Draco with her knees.

She was close enough to hear Krem yell “Hold the line!”, shield up tight to his shoulder, Grim next to him, expression dour, Stitches braced on the other side, Dalish behind them magic already building between her palms, when Draco closed her wings and dropped. The wind became a scream in Liz's ears, tether lines the only thing keeping her in place as her body left the saddle, and the dragon spat, one, two, three fireballs, scattering the main body of the force and leaving them fractured, but they were too close to the ground, too close, too close, they were going to hit-

Defying physics like she was born to do it, Draco's wings snapped open and she pivoted, wing tip almost touching the ground, body horizontal, giving Liz the perfect opening on the mages on the right hand side – she flung both grenades, hitting dead on while Draco rocketed forward, claws outstretched, grabbing one of the enemy mages, wings pumping, up, up, up, before dropping him-

His scream cut off abruptly, but Liz didn't even bother to pay attention, instead straining to look over her shoulder – the scattering effect was working, fire and mayhem everywhere, and through it all the Chargers were holding, they were , as the enemy went down in dribs and drabs, their lines broken and their discipline gone.

Which wasn't to say the heat wasn't effecting Krem and the others as well; Liz could see their skin starting to take a redm unhappy tinge, when a brainwave hit, and she unhooked yet another bottle, from her belt this time, and flung it – not at the enemy this time, but at her own line.

The rock tonic hit the ground just behind Krem and burst, splattering him, Stitches and Grim, and through the smoke, she thought she could see a grim smile flicker across his face for just a second until he stepped forward to engage a man swinging a sword in an inexpert but enthusiastic manner.

They were shifting now, their formation changing from the line they'd held into the circular defensive formation they'd used so much in the Hinterlands, Skinner stepping into position, and Dalish moving up beside Rocky as the Vints tried to rally. But they were now scattered and unsure, even if they surrounded the Chargers. Their numbers were still greater, but not by so much, not anymore, and half of them were watching Liz and Draco as they turned to come back in for another pass, their attention on the fire spitting enemy in the sky, rather than those wielding steel and spell on the ground.

'We've got this' Liz thought in grim satisfaction when Draco spat another fireball and most of the targets skittered out of the way, but it meant Krem could step out, swing, remove a limb and then step cleanly back into formation. 'We've got this', as Rocky and a slingshot dropped a mage that had been surrounded by a crackle of lightening and Skinner materialised in the resultant gap and downed two more. 'We're going to be ok' as Dalish met spell after spell from the enemy enchanter, her staff movements smooth and her barrier crackling in and out of existence like clockwork, as she moved to deflect an incoming fireball into a charging enemy who had his sword low and forward-

-and she missed.

Her bad side, Liz would think later. Her wrist wasn't fully healed, and she could compensate for it, but it was still her bad side. The world should have stopped. It should have stopped, it should have slowed, but it didn't, nothing changed, nothing changed as the man, unimpeded, stepped forward and rammed his blade through Dalish's chest until the point showed out the other side, but Liz could feel her own heart stop-

Draco screamed.

It was a sound like nothing Liz had ever heard before, unearthly, unholy, rage and grief and torment. It shook her bones and the trees and everyone on the battlefield seemed to stop as it hit them like a physical force.

Her wings closed. They fell, and Liz wasn't sure what was screaming in her ears, if it was the wind or her own voice or Draco or all of them but her sword was in her hand and they hit the battlefield like a tsunami, with a rage that no demon had ever managed. There was no finesse here, no strategy, no thought, just rage - it was like being strapped to the back of a bucking horse, but no horse ever breathed fire, ever had claws and teeth and tail and had no hesitation with rending with all three, as Liz slashed and struck and screamed herself whenever an enemy came in range, and all she could see was blood, blood and fire, and Dalish, Dalish, and the rage came all over again. She was vaguely aware of a ball of lightning flying past them at some point, of a smaller, slimmer creature on the field, and only realised what it was when Basra wrapped himself around a Vint Draco had seized the arm of in her teeth and together they tore him apart as the man screamed, and she didn't care, didn't care-

She didn't know how long they'd fought for, only that there came a sudden moment, unexpected, when they stopped after what seemed like forever, and there was blood everywhere, in her eyes and teeth and her tongue was sticky with it but the only people still upright were Chargers and all around them else was just death, and blood and things that might at one point have been alive but weren't any longer.

She turned to look – they all turned to look – as with numb fingers she undid her tether straps and slid to the ground, aware that her knees were wobbling like they wouldn't hold her. So she leaned on Draco, who was ignoring everyone else and making low crooning noises, the ones she always used when she was trying to get someone's attention.

Dalish was still lying on her back – her eyes were open wide and staring sightlessly at the sky, the sword still jutting from her chest. At her side, Stitches knelt, but his face was buried in his hands, and Grim squatted down beside him to wrap his arms around him and bury his face in his neck, shoulders shaking. Draco's crooning reached new, desperate tones, but Dalish was never going to answer and Liz honestly thought the pain might tear her apart.

A sob choked her throat, and she stifled it, turning to see Krem standing stock still. His face was white, his freckles stood out like drops of ink, the blood splattered over him seeming somehow blasphemous, like it was smeared on a statue in a Chantry somewhere. Unbidden, his words from the previous evening sounded in her ears.

”I'll think about it tomorrow.”

Oh Maker, Maker, this wasn't fair, no no no.

She wanted to say something, wanted to say anything, but the pain clogged her throat, and all she could do was watch, her knees giving way and leaving her kneeling on the ground, as jerkily, Krem unfastened the signalling flags from his belt and flashed the one message across to the Inquisitor's team that they all knew, and hoped to never, never use.

CHARGER DOWN.

CHARGER DOWN.

Chapter Text

They were still all standing around her when Bull and the others arrived. Skinner, tears streaming down her face, had yanked the sword free and hurled it with unnecessary force into a nearby stream, and no one had protested. Leaving it there seemed wrong, almost obscene.

But neither did anyone move to close her eyes, or change her position. Somehow, it seemed inappropriate to do it before the Chief had had a chance to arrive. Like doing so would remove his opportunity to say goodbye.

Krem sat on a rock, his eyes on the horizon,and hadn't otherwise moved or said anything. Draco, still crooning occasionally, lay on her belly nearby, Basra curled against her. Liz realised with some shock that the dragon had a large gouge along one shoulder, probably incurred when they'd landed. In all the blood and gore, she hadn't even realised she was injured. She'd have to ask Stitches to look at it later.

Bereft of anything else to do, she went and sat beside Krem, sword still in one hand. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, and realised she had nothing, so closed it again, swallowing hard against the sudden dryness in her throat. The pain in her stomach, in her head, was incredible.

Krem gave a shakey intake of breath. “Fuck,” she heard him mutter under his breath.

She slung an arm around his shoulders and squeezed hard, not caring that he didn't react. She shut her eyes, wanting to cry, wanting to reject the world, wanting to deny that this was reality.

‘Fuck’ indeed. She ended up concentrating on her own breathing - in through the nose, out through the mouth, slow and steady, certain that, at some points, without such effort she could have drowned in the hurt, suffocated in the pain.

She wasn't sure how much time had passed, but eventually there was the sound of feet trudging on shale, and finally the Inquisitor's party appeared on the hillside.

Bull came to a stop, gazing at Dalish, his face unreadable, but Liz thought she saw him mouth the word 'shit' as he walked over.

Krem looked up at him from where he sat. “Chief,” he said simply, his voice flat. Normally he would have stood. He would have asked for orders. He would have offered a report.

Now he simply...sat. So Liz stood instead.

“Position-” she started, then her voice cracked. She swallowed and tried again. “Position held. One casualty, some injuries. All enemy combatants dealt with Chief.”

“Hissrad, I'm sorry,” put in Gatt, stood to the side. Liz wanted to roll her eyes at him – didn't he know that this was exactly the wrong moment to offer that sort of emotion to Bull? Everyone else knew it; even Dorian was keeping quiet.

Bull, in what she thought was a heroic force of effort, ignored him and nodded at her, then looked up, his gaze sweeping the rest of them. “Goodooof!” Draco interrupted him with a headbutt that all but took him off his feet, Basra close behind her. For a second, Liz saw Bull's face twist, then return to normal. “Yeah, yeah, I'm fine.” He shoved her off, but didn't rebuke her further, attention returning to the rest of them. “Good job. Let's....let's take her back to camp. The dreadnought doesn't need us any further.”

 

Gatt seemed to have finally gotten the message and stayed quiet on the long, slow walk back. They all walked like they were injured, even those who bore scrapes at worst – it was the internal pain that was the problem.

Liz leaned heavily on Draco – or possibly Draco leaned heavily on her, impossible to tell in some ways – all the way back. She got the impression that neither of them felt like flying, even had it been possible with Draco's injury. Flying was a thing of joy, or of defiance, or protection, or exploration.

Right now, she just felt broken.

Her brain, for some reason, wouldn't shut up. It kept making Dalish's voice ring in her ears, from the first time they'd spoken. 'You'll be fine' she'd said with easy confidence when Liz – the Liz who was still scared, and a little angry, and a hated outcast with one friend and no idea what was going on – had been presented with a pony she wasn't sure how to ride.

To this morning. This morning, Maker, it had only been this morning.

“I don't take orders from you anymore, I answer to Liz!”

She answered to 'Liz'. Maker, she answered to her.

I was in charge, Liz realised, her stomach lurching – she hadn't realised that was possible while she felt this hollow. I was in charge.

Was this her fault?

She'd known about the injury. Known about Dalish's propensity for overestimating her own resilience, known that Bull was too distracted to think about it, known that Krem was too busy not thinking about Dalish to think about Dalish, as it were.

Fuck.

She could have prevented this.

For a second, she honestly thought she was going to be sick.

She should have spoken up. Should have said something. But she hadn't – why? Because she hadn't believed it was necessary, because Bull was in charge, because everything normally worked out ok when he was.

But with the extra people around, with the dragonlings, with the handlers and new riders and Draco's flying and fire attacks incorporated into their fighting style....she knew how Bull operated, which was he knew every person under his command. More people meant his attention was stretched thinner. It meant he missed things, or didn't have as much time to consider them as he used to.

Liz was the head Rider. She was supposed to have picked up that slack. She hadn't.

Sweet Jesus Liz thought. I got her killed.

For one dizzy second, she felt like she had all those months ago after the destruction of Haven, when Cullen had rounded the hill and screamed at her. She almost wished he was there to do it again – it would be the least she deserved.

The guilt was crushing, overwhelming – she couldn't breath with it, and her feet actually stopped moving until it meant she got thumped by Draco's wing and started up again.

Her first instinct was to resign on the spot, but....what would that do? They needed Draco, and without Liz to ride her, she would be useless. They'd have to put her down, for resources given the amount she ate if nothing else. And Ensanal, and Falon, and Onyx and...

The list went on. Fuck, how had this many people, many creatures, come to depend on her? It was ludicrous!

She couldn't let others bear the weight of her fuck up, or - she glanced in the direction of the mount they'd slung Dalish's body over to get back to camp – no one else bear the weight of it.

She hung her head for a second, struggling to breath through the pain. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

There was no way to bring Dalish back. She....she would think, about what she owed the Chargers, what she owed Krem. Maybe, one day, she'd find something, some way, of repaying them for her mistake. But in the meantime, what it meant was she wasn't allowed to fuck up again. At all.

That meant no quitting. No stepping down. She'd taken this responsibility. She'd see it through if it killed her.

And she'd see it through better.

She swore it.

 

Harding met them on the path with a concerned expression that became a pained one. ”Shit” Liz heard her say, the words heartfelt.

They laid Dalish's body in her tent back in camp while the funeral pyre was assembled, and Stitches went to get his pack to check everyone over.

Gatt turned to the Inquisitor, Bull at her shoulder. Liz saw Dorian, Varric and Cassandra retreat behind a tent, but – she noted with a detached interest – still within eavesdropping range.

“Inquisitor, my superiors ordered you named Basalit-an,” the elf said, a smile on his face. Liz wrestled with an odd urge to punch him, and she wasn't sure why. “It means respected one. We would be honoured to join you in the fight against Corypheus; you'll have Qunari support on the seas as well as our full intelligence network.”

The Inquisitor glanced at Bull, as if sharing a congratulatory moment, but from her angle, Liz saw her raise her eyebrows, just a hair, as if asking a question. Bull gave a small smile back, the tiniest nod of his head looking for all the world like he was just changing his stance.

Ok. At some point the Inquisitor and Bull had come to a good enough understanding they could manage that level of communication. That was interesting.

Or, it should have been interesting. Right now, Liz felt as hollow as a drum. The pain had swept everything else away.

“Thank you – we hope that the reputation of the Qunari is well earned in these matters,” said the Inquisitor sweetly.

“You won't be disappointed.”

He turned to Bull, and said something to him that started with the word 'Hissrad' but the rest was in Qunari and Liz didn't follow, but Bull looked at least a little mollified, and said 'Panahedan' in response, so she mentally filed it away to investigate later.

Then Gatt turned to her. “You must be very proud,” he told her. “Your flying was like nothing I've ever seen; we'd all thought Hissrad's reports were exaggerating, but no, his praise was well earned!”

Liz blinked – that she was featured in Bull's reports was something she should have expected, but the fact Gatt spoke to her with such familiarity as a result of it...it was making her skin crawl.

“Thanks,” she replied instead, her voice flat.

“I can see why they're so excited about the potential military applications for you and your dragon in Seheron. And just think what you'll be able to do once the little ones have grown up!”

Liz blinked, blood running ice cold, breaking through the grief for a heartbeat. “I'm sorry,” she said, not sounding sorry at all. “What?”

Gatt looked at her, as if mildly surprised. “Well, with that much potential, they were hardly going to place you somewhere you weren't going to see action-”

“No, I mean, why do you think I'll be in Seheron at all?” Liz snapped, not bothering to hide her agitation. Bull and the Inquisitor were both stepping closer, and she could see Dorian and Varric emerging from behind the tent they'd been standing behind. Dorian's expression said that he'd very much welcome the opportunity to turn Gatt into well grilled elf steak.

Gatt's expression changed, gaining a hard edge. “You're under Hissrad's command,” he replied, his voice just about not condescending, but not far from it. “You and your dragon, and all the little ones. You're all sworn to him, yes?”

“He's called The Iron Bull,” Liz snapped. “And so what?”

Gatt shrugged infuriatingly casually. “Hissrad is under the Qun's command. And if the Qun decides that he and the resources he has with him – that's you – would be more effective elsewhere, then that's where they'll send you.”

“I am not-” Liz started, at exactly the same moment the Inquisitor stepped forward and started snapping “You can't possibly think-”

Gatt held up his hands. “I'm sorry, but orders are orders. I'm just the messenger; it's no good arguing with me about them. Tell them, Hissrad.”

As one, they all seemed to turn to Bull. “Chief,” Liz started, only to be stopped by a cold, cold stare by Bull.

She had never seen him look at her – at any of them – like that before.

“We have a Charger to lay to rest,” he said, the words formed like he'd bitten them off something. “I am not going to get into this conversation until that has been done, and I expect the same respect from all of you.

He didn't wait for them to answer, instead turning and walking in the direction of the ever growing funeral pyre, leaving Liz and the Inquisitor staring helplessly after him.

Gatt shrugged, and walked in the direction of Harding's desk, but Liz caught a flicker of...something across his face. Annoyance? Fear? She couldn’t be sure.

Dorian and Varric all but materialised beside them.

“By the stone,” the dwarf said, sounding dismayed.

“He did it,” Dorian muttered. “He actually did it. I didn't think he'd do it!”

“So, what's the plan?” Varric asked, looking between Liz and the Inquisitor.

Liz met the elf's eyes, who looked as horrified as she felt, grasping for an answer, any kind of answer.

“I have no idea,” was all she could eventually manage.

Chapter Text

The inside of her mouth was dry, no matter how many times she swallowed.

The sun was long past its peak, heading for the Western horizon, and they were standing around the pyre, Liz beside Krem, Dorian on her other side. Stitches and Grim were leaning on each other; Skinner stood ramrod straight and expression like a mountainside. Rocky, from somewhere, had gotten hold of a hat and was clutching it over his heart in a position that would have been humourous in just about any other situation, but right now...

Right now, he looked like his grip was the only thing keeping him sane and together, and Liz met his eyes for a brief second and nodded respectfully before returning her attention to the pile of wood, carefully stacked, surrounding Dalish's cloth covered form placed in the middle of the fire pit.

Krem's breath beside her caught for a second before smoothing out, and Liz stifled an urge to scream at the sky.

Bull stood on the far side of the pyre, lit torch in hand. Gatt stood on the same side, but not beside him – the elf had originally stepped up to be at his right hand side, like they were some sort of team, but Liz had been gratified to see Bull turn the same cold, unfriendly gaze on Gatt as he had on them earlier, and the elf stepped away, looking discomfited for a few seconds before his expression returned to the same infuriating smugness as earlier.

Behind her, Draco grumbled – she'd been refusing to be separated from Liz at all since the fight, not even allowing her to go out of sight, although Basra had eventually been successfully corralled back with the other youngsters, who were being watched by Harding's people.

'Falon; we're going to need to find someone to take over her training,' Liz suddenly thought out of nowhere with a wrench of pain, then shook the thought away. She would handle that later.

Galen and Brillia stood off to the side a little, present but respectful of the Charger's grief. The Inquisitor, Cassandra and Varric stood with them.

Across the pyre, Bull met their eyes, and then, without a word, stepped forward and slowly, carefully, placed the lit torch in amongst the wood. The rising crackle of flames started as it caught, slowly spreading.

A hand, cold and shaking slightly, grasped hers – Krem was staring straight ahead, face pale, but tears streaming down his cheeks, shoulders shuddering slightly, lips pressed into a firm, colourless line.

She gripped back, intertwining her fingers with his and squeezing so hard she swore she could feel her bones creak, but he squeezed back in the same manner.

She could hear Skinner gulp back a sob, and a lump in her throat rose until she thought she might break. She bit her bottom lip so hard the taste of copper flooded her mouth, but eventually she beat it back, unable to stop a few tears leaking from her eyes to stream down her cheeks.

The flames continued to grow for some minutes as they watched, the heat starting to dry the tears to leave just sticky salt residue on their cheeks instead, when behind Liz, Draco shifted forward as if to move.

“Huh?” she managed, half turning, only for the dragon to gently shunt her out of the way, then shoved Dorian lightly in the other direction, pushing her way through the gap between them.

“Draco, what are you doing?” Liz demanded, temporarily confused out of her grief.

Draco appeared to ignore her, instead circling the pyre like it was something precious, tucking her tail around – Maker, how had Liz missed that she had gotten that big? - and her wings half extended as she sat, half in the flames, encircling the entire thing, tightening herself around the fire as if embracing it.

“Draco!” Liz started, horrified, when the dragon took a deep breath, opened her mouth-

Normally, the fire Draco spat was balls of flame that she launched across the practise or battle field in neat little balls of death, red and orange and spitting sparks as they went.

This was not that fire. This was a waterfall of white hot flame that spilled from Draco's mouth, carefully breathed like a child who was trying to see their breath fog on a winter's morning. The heat was so scalding, so fierce, it drove them all back one step, then two and a third. Liz held a hand up to her face, trying to squint past her fingers into the flames to try and see what was going on but the light was so bright it was like trying to peer into the center of a white-hot forge, or look directly at the sun. What little Liz could see looked like a river of stars.

A few seconds later, and the flames died back slightly – the heat was still fierce, the light still bright, but now they could look, hands dropping from where they had shielded eyes-

The entire pit was alight with brilliant white flame. Draco's unmoving silhouette could be seen against it, a dark shadow in the light, eyes slitted closed, wings half up, like she was statue set to guard, or a defender sitting vigil.

Or a friend, she thought, heart cracking. A friend, saying goodbye, in a way only a dragon could.

Beside her, Krem made a noise she could only describe as breaking and sank to his knees, face in his hands, sobs shaking his shoulders. Liz knelt next to him, flinging her arms around his neck and holding tight, unable to stop the tears from coming. On his other side, Skinner appeared. Then Rocky. Stitches and Grim were last, until they were all just hugging, bawling, one big ball of them, leaning on each other.

Eventually, Liz sniffed, wiped her eyes, and felt...not better. Very far from better. But she didn't have tears clogging her throat anymore, and was able to nod reassuringly at Draco when the dragon turned her head a little to check on Liz before going back to her vigil stance.

Through the flames, she could make out Bull, standing on the other side of the pyre, his face blank, staring into the flames. Alone.

Some distance off, she could see Gatt watching him.

She felt something inside her harden.

'I will fix this,' she thought, the words sounding harsh even inside her own head. 'So help me, Dalish, I swear, I will fix it.'

 

 

For all of their collective tears at the pyre, when they were all sitting in the large Inquisition tent and staring down their traditional shot of whiskey, none of them actually reached to drink it.

Sitting with them, Liz could see the others – Lavellan, Dorian, Varric, Cassandra, Brillia, Galen and Gatt – all share slightly nonplussed glances between each other and their own shots, as if utterly confused by this ritual, but not wanting to interrupt rudely to ask what exactly was going on.

Liz's mind, meanwhile, was racing.

What had Cullen summarised that passage in the book to?

'As a commander, if frank discussion with a peer or superior is needed, by the Maker, do not shy away from it – they are your people, you are responsible for them; stand up for them. Do not avoid necessary conflict. However, unless absolutely required for morale purposes, do not have the confrontation in their view either – even should you win the discussion, someone's injured pride might get in the way of obtaining the objectives you seek, and if you lose, doing so publicly will undermine your authority. Speak up and question as frequently as you feel is needed, but do it in private.'

“Bull,” she said, louder than she intended, drawing stares. “Could I have a word with you? In private.”

Bull looked at her for a long moment, and for a second, the weight of his gaze felt heavier than normal. Eventually he nodded. “Let's talk,” he said, standing and gesturing for her to lead the way out of the tent.

She did so, pausing only to tell Draco in her sternest tone of voice to 'stay!', heading to a clearing a little ways off she'd spotted the previous night, frantically considering and then discarding potential approaches in her head. Yell? Anger would likely not be respected as a negotiating strategy. Cry? Worse. Brute force? Draco was now large enough that she suspected if it came to a fight, Bull would lose, but pointing out that he didn't have the physical ability to force them would likely not get her what she wanted and might result in him turning up with reinforcements at an inopportune moment.

Fuck it, she thought savagely as they stepped into the clearing and turned to face each other. Honesty – let's try that.

“I don't want to work for the Qun,” she said simply.

Bull gave her a level look. “What you want is of little concern.”

She scowled at him. “Allow me to rephrase: I'm not going to work for the Qun.” She studied him for a minute and then blinked as a realisation hit her. “And you don't want me to either, do you?”

Bull shrugged, but she could see it now – see the twist around his mouth, the way his eyes weren't focusing on her, but on their surroundings. “What I want is also of little concern. Orders are orders – I will obey, and so will you.”

“Nope,” said Liz, not bothering to specify which statement she was defying, turning her head to watch him carefully. “I know you. You know we'd work better under the Qun if we wanted to be there. If you wanted us to go, you'd be persuading us. You'd highlight the benefits. You'd be taking Gatt to one side and telling him how to pitch it to us so we wouldn't balk, or at least, not quite so hard. You'd be enticing us. Instead, you let him drop it on us with the same finesse as a rock falling off a cliff, and now you're stonewalling me. You don't want us to go!”

“This discussion is over – you're going, I'm going, we're all going, and that is final.” He turned to walk back to the path, but Liz beat him there, stepping in his way and gritting her teeth to stare him down.

“No, it isn't, and no. We. Aren't.”

Bull stared down at her. “This is an alliance with the Qun. Not some petty troop of bandits or a group of wanna-be bards. They control continents. Vast information networks. The full might of the Qunari military is something no one else can beat. And they're willing to lend it all to help against Corypheus. You think you, and one trained dragon, is worth throwing all that away for?”

“I don't know, and I don't care,” Liz retorted hotly, refusing to be moved from the point. “I'll worry about them later. Right now, all I know is you are the one sending us, and you are the one making us, and you don't actually want us to go.”

“We cannot throw away this alliance with them! You are going!” Bull's words seemed to burst from him, as he started to look seriously annoyed – was he even verging on anger?

Aha, thought Liz.

“Quick question...but when did you start referring to the Qun as 'they' and not 'we'?” Liz said, voice deadly in its innocence.

The clearing got very very still, and very very quiet.

Bull was glaring at her with such anger that if he was ever going to strike her in rage, it would be now, mouth pressed into a hard line with fury, although she couldn’t tell if it was truly aimed at her, or at himself for not realising what he was saying. Liz met his gaze with grim determination - under ordinary circumstances, she was sure she’d be scared in this situation, but she was so exhausted from grief that sheer stubbornness seemed to be all she was capable of.

“We've done without the alliance before,” she said, trying not to growl the words. “We could make the argument to continue doing so. You won't even make the argument. Why?”

“Because I know what the answer would be,” he growled back, teeth visibly gritted.

“You've never shied away from a fight before; why this one?”

“Because,” Bull growled, as if that entire word answered the question, veins standing out on his neck, and Liz honestly thought he might be about to start swinging, but she refused to let that stop her, taking half a step in, as if daring him, gaze still locked on his.

“Why Bull?”

“Be-”

Why Bull?

”Because otherwise she died for nothing!!”

He roared the words, and then stopped, breathing hard, as they stared at each other.

“What?” Liz managed.

He shut his eye and pressed the heel of one large hand to his forehead, as if fighting for control of his temper. “Dalish...she died for this alliance. To seal it. I saw you were getting overwhelmed, and I could have sounded the retreat, but I didn't.”

“We had it in hand, mostly,” Liz pointed out, dumbfounded.

“Mostly. Still a risk. I figured it was a worthwhile risk, given what we stood to gain. But if we gained nothing...” His expression twisted, into one of anger, of frustration, of regret.

“Dalish died because she had a job to do.”

“A job I gave her. I made her pay that price – if I throw away what we bought with it, it's as good as saying she was worthless.”

“Bull-fucking-shit!!” Liz surprised herself when she yelled it. “That's utter horse crap, and you know it! She made a choice!”

“I gave an order!”

“And she made a choice to follow it!” They stared at each other breathing hard.

“Listen here,” Bull snarled. “I gave that order. I decided that the payoff was worth her potential sacrifice. If I throw away that payoff, I may as well be saying that I didn't value her.”

“Fuck that,” Liz said hotly. “No, you're going to listen to me, and you're going to let me finish. You made a choice, but so did she. And you have been operating with people not of the Qun long enough to know how choices work! Choices have consequences – that's the way the world works. But she knew what she was going into. Knew the risks, knew the possible outcomes. This was not a trade. No spirit of alliances came through the fade and offered you this as a straight swap, her for the Qun. We are nothing, in this world, but the sum of the choices that we make. If we want to remember her, if we want to honour her, and the choices she made, then we respect them. She made the choice to get into this war on the hopes that it would do some good. And regardless of the alliance, she did exactly that. All the templars we've stopped, all the civilians we've saved, all the red lyrium shipments we've disrupted – those have all saved lives and swung the balance in our favour. If you throw her choices away, if you go through the alliance even when you know it's the wrong thing then what difference did her choice make? What autonomy are you according her? She was Dalish, not some random elf you picked out of a crowd. Her choices made her her. We have to honour her by respecting not just the fact that she chose to spend the coin of her life, but where she chose to spend it..”

She ran out of words and breath abruptly, dragging air back into her lungs with a gasp, watching as Bull still didn't look completely convinced. Frantically, she grasped for something more.

“A wise man once told me, er, he once told me,” she started, fumbling for the memory of his exact words and failing. “When I asked him, why I was spending all my time being ordered around by his second in command rather than by him, he told me that it was one thing to ask someone to die for you, but it was quite another to ask them to live for you. Bull, she chose to die for you. We all, if and when the time comes, choose to die for you. Please don't...don't ask us to live for you.”

There was a long moment where he just looked at her, and she stared back at him. That was it. She was out. She had no other arguments, nothing else she could try. He believed her or he didn't.

She bit her lip and tried not to prompt, squashing the urge to fidget as she waited for his reaction as too many emotions passed over his face for her to even guess at.

Eventually, he scowled and unclenched his fists. “Ah shit.” It was a resigned tone. “How the hell are we going to break this to the Boss?”

She nearly collapsed with relief, her knees seeming to turn to jelly beneath her.

“Oh, I think the boss will understand.” Lavellan, cool and collected, stepped out from behind a tree.

Liz almost levitated with surprised and then whirled to face her. “You were there? All along?!” she squeaked. “Why didn't you say something?!”

The elf shrugged, a slight smile on her face. “You seemed to have it all in hand.” She turned to Bull. “Honestly, I’m not sure us handing over our dragon unit is a cost they’ll stick to charging us for the alliance, but personally, I think the Chargers and the Dragon Riders are a far better investment than a Qunari ally if it comes to it – our riders are a known quantity, whereas the Qunari are not, and they have just proven they're willing and ready to relieve us of any assets they feel they can assert a claim to. What’s next, claiming our mages? I'm sure I could bring my advisors around to agreeing with me. I'm just glad Liz convinced you of the fact rather than me trying to do it.”

“Yeah, well, better go break it to Gatt,” Bull sighed. “He...isn't going to take this well.”

Liz paused. “Chief, speaking of not taking things well...Krem.”

Bull nodded. “I noticed. I'm not surprised – he and Dalish went back a ways.”

“No. I mean, yes, but it's more than that – last night, she...well, she and he...”

“Ahhh shit!” He scowled. “I shoulda made that one. Fuck. Ok – thanks for the heads up. I'll handle it.”

 

When they got back to the tent, Liz had expected Bull to take Gatt quietly to one side, break the news privately. But either Bull thought this was a morale-crucial situation or he wasn't leading from the same rule book Cullen was teaching Liz from.

“Gatt!” he announced as he walked into the tent where everyone was still sat. Liz, trailing behind him, was delayed from entering by Draco welcoming her back and checking her over in case she'd sprouted new injuries.

She would have protested, but remembering how fond Bull and Krem were of working out disputes with their fists...she couldn't complain that hard, but managed to shove her off in the end.

“Hissrad?” said the elf from where he'd been standing unintrusively at the back. No shot of liquor for him, she noticed.

But then, even those that had a shot still had it sitting untouched in front of them. Her stomach twisted in sympathy. She felt about as not up for saying goodbye as she imagined it was possible to feel.

“You will not be taking our dragons, or their riders, back to Seheron with you.”

Gatt blinked, looking stunned.

Around the room, everyone sat up straighter.

Out of the corner of her eye, Liz saw Dorian's jaw drop, his expression utterly shocked. If it was possible for his eyes to be out on stalks in shock, they would have been.

“But...but Hissrad! You can't do this – You-! You're throwing away an alliance between the Inquisition and the Qunari?! You'd be declaring yourself Tal-Vashoth!”

Bull quirked an eyebrow at him, but his voice was kind. “Gatt, my title is not Viddasala. I was never recruiting. The Qun does not have final say over the Chargers, or the Riders.”

“But you do Hissrad,” Gatt seemed frantic. “You do! If you-”

“And I say no. If any of them follow of their own free will, that is their choice. But I will not order it.”

There was a snuffling sound at the entrance to the tent, and Liz glanced over her shoulder to realise Draco was watching carefully, her pupils narrowed to slits. Liz shifted her weight so she was in a better position to intercede if the dragon decided the best way to resolve this unhappy noise was to eat the elf at the center of it all.

Gatt, heedless of this, looked like he might explode with anger. “You know what refusing this order means! I stood up for you, Hissrad! I told them you would never become Tal-Vashoth! Even when half the Ben-Hassrath thought you'd defected already!”

Bull looked at him. “They're my men,” he said, each word enunciated carefully, clearly, as if repeating it would somehow prompt Gatt to greater understanding.

“All these years, Hissrad! And you throw away all that you are – for what?! For this?” He gestured to the tent and camp around them with a dismissive smirk. “For them?” The occupants of the tent were included in his next arm sweep.

She saw Krem, for the first time that day, raise his head, a spark of anger and defiance showing on his face, aimed at the elf.

“His name,” he said, getting to his feet. “Is Iron Bull.”

The Iron Bull,” added Stitches, getting to his.

Silently, Skinner, Rocky and Grim all rose to theirs, and then the others – Varric and Cassandra and Dorian and Harding, all on their feet, wordless but supporting.

And all glaring at Gatt.

Somewhat resigned, the elf stared back at them. “Yes,” he said, his voice strained like he'd lost something important to him, “I suppose it is.”

Chapter Text

Gatt turned, focusing on the Inquisitor as if the rest of them were no longer there. “Inquisitor,” he said formally. “It is my duty to inform you that the offer of alliance between our peoples has been withdrawn. Further, you will be receiving no more Ben-Hassrath reports from your Tal-Vashoth ally.” He said the last two words like they tasted bad.

Bull looked tired, if a little contemptuous. “Are you under orders to kill me then Gatt? To come back in the night and hope to put a blade through my throat?”

“No,” Gatt barely glanced at him and then looked away, his entire demeanor suggesting Bull was such a non-person he was barely worth bothering with. “The Ben-Hassrath have already lost one good man. They would prefer not to lose two. I'm sure, Inquisitor, you'll understand if I retract my acceptance of your invitation to stay the night in your camp; I think it would be better all round if I returned to ours.”

The Inquisitor nodded and made no move to stop him as he strode away, spine straight as if he knew how many people were glaring daggers at his back as he went. Liz had to accord him some respect for the fact that he strode right past Draco without flinching, regardless of the hostility the dragon exuded.

“Nice work Chief,” said Krem, returning to his stool.

Bull shrugged and said nothing, gaze sharp as he examined Krem.

Liz eyed her shot of liquor, and then, taking a breath, picked it up and downed it.

The others, halfway through rearranging themselves back to where they were sitting, all froze, staring at her as she choked and coughed at the burn as it went down.

‘So much for dignity,’ she thought.

“Er...Liz?” asked Dorian, somewhat hesitantly.

“I want-” Liz started and then coughed again, trying to clear her throat. “I want to talk about her, by Andraste's tits!” She ignored Cassandra's disapproving look. “I want to remember. And if that means I have to drink, then so fucking be it, someone top me off!” She held out her tumbler and Grim obliged.

Liz swallowed, looking down at the liquid. “The first time she met Draco...” she started. “She was the first one to do it. She was shaking like a leaf, but it must have taken her....Maker, no more than a minute? Before she was all hopping around and gleeful and excited to be stroking a dragon. Just seemed to be how she was – she loved everything. And she protected what she loved, even in small little ways. When we were in the Hinterlands, I was sad for part of it, and she used to make me these little...figures? Stars and swans and flowers, out of old folded dry leaves she'd find, all the colours you could think of. She'd plait them into my hair for me sometimes.”

“When I first met her,” Rocky put in, and Liz glanced at him, surprised – she hadn't noticed him drink. “She knew I was missing the stone. She spent days going through every rock and jewellery store in Nevarra trying to find some hunk of something that would make me feel more at home. After she came and showed me about the fiftieth one, I didn't have the heart to tell her none of them were going to work, so I made up some story about a particular sort of stone and setting that would do the job, thinking that there was nothing of the sort out there, and she'd give up. Well blow me, she found something that matched my impossible description. Bought it on the spot. Cost her half a month's salary! But then...That was Dalish.”

More people were slowly edging in, Liz was aware – more of those in the camp, the logistics staff and stable hands, Marno and the other handlers, all creeping forward for their shot of liquor, and to sit and listen...and in some cases, contribute.

“When I couldn’t sleep after the attack on Haven, she enchanted a rock for me to use so I’d always have light, even at midnight. I still sleep with it,” put in a man Liz didn’t know.

“Last season I twisted my ankle; she enchanted a rock for me as well,” put in someone else, smiling. “Only that one was to be cold so I could use it to help the swelling go down.”

“When I couldn’t sleep, she would tell me the tales she learned as a child,” Skinner murmured. “When it was the night before a big fight, she would deliberately make them the boring ones so I’d drift off without knowing it.”

Varric drifted into place beside her as more and more people were stepping forward to talk. “Nice job Shiny,” he said, voice low.

Liz couldn’t help making a derisive noise. “All I did was yell a lot. I don’t even think I made sense at some points; Bull was just looking for an excuse to, y’know, back out.”

“Sometimes, that’s all anyone needs.” He surveyed the group, talking among themselves. Liz noticed Bull had somehow migrated through the tent to stand at Krem’s right shoulder, casually, as if the positioning were entirely accidental.

“Yeah, sometimes,” she murmured back. “I guess.”

 

Stitches finished looking over Draco’s shoulder and winced. “No flying,” he said, his words remarkably steady given how many drinks he’d had.

The camp was getting quiet, as people were turning into their bed rolls or heading to their watch posts. The Inquisitor had ordered all Chargers off watch duty for the night, stating that Harding’s people could cover it and they needed the rest. Galen and Brillia had even waved them away from the dragonlings and recaptured Basra, stating they’d look after them.

“For how long?”

The Ferelden shrugged. “Piece of string job; can’t tell. She’s never been injured like this. I’ll pack and wrap it and hope for the best. I found an old formula in one of the books the Commander sent us that’s supposed to be some sort of natural remedy for dragons, helps prevent infection, so I’ll give her a dose of that. Only issue is it’ll make her drowsy, so don’t go expecting her to be awake bright and breezy first thing tomorrow.”

Liz shrugged. “Works for me. Doubt I’ll sleep much tonight anyway, so at least one of us gets some shut-eye.”

Stitches stood, pulling reams of bandages out of his bag to start work on Draco. “Yeah, about that. I have a potion that makes dreaming...harder. Doesn’t work very well if you take it frequently, and means you sleep like the dead, but given the circumstances…”

Dalish’s lifeless body flashed before her eyes. Could she rest while seeing that on the inside of her eyelids? They had people on watch. One night of assured sleep would go far. “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”

Stitches nodded, and handed her a small bottle. “That’s what everyone else said as well.”

 

She and Krem had just about gotten their sleeping rolls straight when, without warning, their entire tent shook, juddered, and then sort of bent on one side.

“What the shit,” muttered Krem glaring at the newly lowered ceiling before sticking his head out of the entrance to see what was going on - no one had shouted an alarm, Liz thought, prodding at the taut fabric. Couldn’t be that bad.

From outside she heard Krem swear under his breath and, rolling her eyes, struggled to her feet to join him.

“Ah,” she said when she looked outside.

Draco was, in her new found dislike for being separated from Liz, sitting around their tent, now sporting a bright white set of bandages over one shoulder, courtesy of Stitches.

As in, literally, around the tent.

Her head was near the opening both she and Krem were standing in, looking at them as if confused by their confusion, but Liz could see her pupils were starting to widen to far larger than they would normally be given the light levels; the medicine Stitches had given her was obviously kicking in. The rest of her circled the tent, and she was on the guy ropes on one side, which explained why their ceiling was bending. She wasn’t quite big enough for her tail to meet her chin as she lay her head back down, but…Maker she wasn’t far off.

Draco’s head waved sinuously for a second, a little bit like a cobra, eyelids fluttering as if she was fighting to keep them open, before she apparently gave up on her mission to retain consciousness and put her head down, closing her eyes, secure in the knowledge that Liz and Krem were close by.

“I didn’t notice she had gotten this big,” Liz muttered to Krem. Fine, their tent wasn’t exactly spacious, given it just about fit the two of them and their gear, but that didn’t mean it was tiny either.

“Me either,” he replied, staring at the dragon. “That...erm.”

Liz shrugged. “I can’t see it doing the tent much good, but I don’t think she’s going to agree to move.”

As if to punctuate this, Draco gave a low snore.

“Nope,” agreed Krem. “I...fuck it all Liz, can we just sleep now? I’d really like to not be in today for a little bit.” His voice cracked slightly.

Liz nodded, pretending not to notice, and led the way back to their bedrolls.

 

Someone was shaking her hard, both hands grasping her shoulder with enough force to bruise.

“Liz, WAKE UP!” Krem’s yell was loud in her ear, and brought her back to consciousness with unpleasant suddenness.

She finally wrestled her eyes open - her eyelids felt like they had lead weights on them. “I’m awake, what?” she replied grumpily.

Then her brain caught up with her mouth as she realised that through the opening in the tent, it was still dark outside, and she could smell smoke on the air.

“What the shit,” she managed, scrambling out of her bedroll and out of the tent still in her sleepwear and socks, taking her sword but not bothering with the scabbard. Her limbs felt about five times as heavy as normal.

Draco was still asleep where she’d been earlier. But the camp was in uproar, a hive of activity, and on the far side of the camp, there was a plume of smoke streaming into the night sky.

Liz felt her blood run cold.

The dragonling’s pen was on that side of camp.

“There!” Given Krem’s stumbles, he felt as awake as she did, but he pointed to the Inquisitor’s main command tent, where she could see the elf’s silhouette inside.

They looked up as she and Krem marched in - not just the Inquisitor, but Dorian, Varric, Cassandra, Harding and Bull as well.

Several sheet-covered figures lay at their feet, six in all.

“Oh god,” Liz muttered, reverting to English for a rare second. “What happened?”

“I miscalculated,” the inquisitor looked grim but apparently understanding her tone of voice.

Liz looked again.

Not grim, furious. Her mouth was pressed tight and her fists were clenched, and her eyes were narrowed, glaring at one particular covered figure at their feet, chin jutted forward as if in challenge.

Without asking permission, she stepped forward and flipped the cloth off the face of the corpse in question.

Gatt’s lifeless eyes stared towards the ceiling, blood staining him from the neck down.

“What happened?” Krem asked while Liz was still boggling at the body and trying to get her brain to make sense of it.

“I thought- uh!” The Inquistor slammed her fist into the tent pole she was standing next to with enough force the tent juddered, despite her delicate frame. “I thought wrong. Obviously.”

She met Liz’s eyes. “From what we can piece together from reports, they’d been watching us. During the watch switch over, they moved in, removing both pairs of scouts on that southern side. It should have given them the full two hours to get in, remove the dragonlings to the dreadnought, and then leave with the tide to give them a sufficient head start that we’d have difficulty following even had Draco been able to fly.”

“Should have?” Liz felt her blood run cold.

“They didn’t factor in that Brillia and Galen were staying with the dragonlings - thought they were in their own tents like the rest of the Chargers,” Bull said. “Brillia managed to get away and raise the alarm while Galen did what he could to delay them. We put up a strong enough defense that they didn’t achieve their full objective.”

“Full objective? As in, they got some?” Krem wasn’t one to mince words.

“Basra and Stripes.” Neither was Bull. “We think, since none of them were cooperating, they prioritised getting their hands on what they hope will be a breeding pair. From what Brillia said, Galen managed to kill Gatt while she was running for help, but when our forces moved back in to assist, Galen had been killed too and the rest of the Qunari forces gone. They set some things on fire on the way out to cause confusion and slow us down - lotta folk being treated for smoke inhalation right now.”

“This...this is war,” said Harding slowly, as if she wasn’t able to quite believe it. “I mean...it’s a declaration of it, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Dorian. “Against the Inquisition, and, it could be argued, against Ferelden as well. That’s a lot of new forces to bring onto the playing field against themselves, and to do it at once-”

“With Corypheus in play, they’re probably hoping that Tevinter’s support will be weakened enough that they can handle it. We knew they were interested in the dragons,” said the inquisitor. “That’s why they only offered the alliance after your performance at Adamant. We knew they were interested...nothing that we had, none of the information, none of the maneuvering, nothing indicated they were so focused on them that they would make a move this drastic to get their hands on them. I’d thought Gatt’s play for the Riders was a shot in the dark, a lucky hope, and nothing more.”

“What do we do?” Liz said, voice flat, still on her knees besides Gatt’s body. Galen, dead. Brillia, injured. Basra and Stripes-

Maker, this was too much to handle.

There was a beat when she realised no one had spoken, and everyone was looking at the Inquisitor.

Who, in turn, was looking at Liz with something like sympathy.

“Liz,” she said. Her voice wasn’t exactly gentle, but Liz could tell she didn’t like whatever she was about to say. “We cannot allow the Qun to gain dragons. And there’s no way to mount a rescue for them either - like we can’t allow them to have dragons, the Qun will do all it can to keep Basra out of our reach.”

“Whether it’s Basra or some other drake doesn’t matter,” Liz retorted. “If they lose him, they’ll just go find another dragon somewhere else.”

“Not easily,” Cassandra said. “All the dragons in their lands were killed generations ago, and while dragons do move sometimes, it is not predictable, and they are not known for migrating large distances. In order to gain any more, they would need to go somewhere that has them.”

“Or arrange for another force to conveniently put its dragons right where they can be easily stolen,” snapped the Inquisitor, looking furious all over again. “This was all a trap from the beginning, just for the dragons. The alliance was probably never on the table, not in truth - had we taken it and allowed them to take the dragons, they’d have fobbed us off with some superficial information and some trinkets in return. By the Dread Wolf, how was I so stupid?!

“Hey, easy there,” Varric spoke for the first time. “None of us knew. And red lyrium is a serious threat. We all think so - it would have been an easy lie for us to swallow, to believe they were as concerned about it as we are. The only way we’d have won this would have been for the Riders not to be here at all, and they knew that wouldn’t have happened, as they’re with Bull.”

“Nah, even that wouldn’t have worked for long.” Bull sounded an odd mixture of resigned and pissed off. “We didn’t bring them the first time? They’d have found some issue or mission that needed to be dealt with, proposed it be tackled with a combined force, requested the dragons for support, then just turned up with three times the number of troops you expected and taken them that way. There was never any good outcome here.”

Liz blinked, one fact making its way through the morass, and looked up at Bull. “There was never any way for you to come out of this without being Tal-Vashoth, was there?”

“Yeah there was. I could have ordered you to go. You’d have refused. They’d have recalled me and I’d have been reassigned for the next year spilling every little piece of information about dragon training and combat to the record keepers while they tried to find dragons to test it on. It was a slim chance, yeah, but it was there. I’d just have to lose the team.”

“So they only mostly considered you expendable. That must be heartening.” Dorian almost sounded snarky.

“Can’t blame them for it - it’s how they are, how they operate.” Bull seemed to shrug, but Liz could see the tightness in his jaw, and around the eyes. This was hurting Bull, this realisation.

“Well, as someone who has also been kicked from their homeland without so much as a by-your-leave for nothing more than being who they are, you have my sympathies.”

Bull looked mildly surprised. “Thanks,” he said, meeting Dorian’s eyes.

There was a beat, and Liz could have sworn something passed between them in that moment before Dorian blinked and looked away, looking discomfited.

“The point is Liz, we aren’t going to be getting them back alive,” the inquisitor said, bringing them back to the original topic.

Unable to trust herself to speak, Liz nodded, getting to her feet slowly and making a point of brushing her knees off to hide the tears that had welled up in her eyes.

“How do you propose stopping them from getting them at all?” Harding asked the Inquisitor. “You can’t just wait for Draco to get better and then have her firebomb them from the air - they’ll be home by then.”

“This is war, so we’re treating it like one,” replied the elf. “Harding, I want runners sent to king Alistair to apprise him of the situation and suggest he consider any Qunari activity within his kingdom, including his territories at sea, active hostility. Dorian, we’re going to use your contacts in Tevinter to flood their information network with the news that ship carries a very powerful Saarebas, and if they sink it, they’ll be depriving the Qunari of a significant asset.”

“Clever,” muttered Dorian. “Also means they won’t try to take it for themselves.”

“We are heading back to Skyhold at the earliest opportunity - Liz, how soon can Draco move?”

“She can move as soon as the drug has worn off, she just won’t be able to fly for a while.”

“Good, we start heading home no later than mid morning. Harding, can you organise logistics on that as well please? Bull, I trust you to organise the Chargers, Liz, likewise the Riders. Varric, I need you to light up your information networks please - given the magnitude of how we didn’t see this coming, I want everything that’s come in double and triple checked and verified - I want to know if we were just that gullible, or if the Qunari were really just that good at keeping quiet. If it’s the former, we rectify it, and if it’s the latter, we take it into account in future. Cassandra, you need to reach out to your Nevarran contacts - if they try to find new dragons once we have removed them, I want them blocked at every turn. We can do better than this. We will do better than this.”

‘Yes,’ thought Liz as they all left the tent, the smell of smoke and blood still in the air. ‘We will - I will.’

Chapter Text

Liz barely remembered the journey back to Skyhold – it became a blur of hard work, pain and sleepless nights.

She refused anymore sleeping potions, as did everyone else – even if the Qunari were now an ocean away, and even if their camp was large enough that any bandits or Red Templars or passing blood mages decided to take a chance on them, they'd have been put down before they got anywhere near them, it didn't seem to matter; even the notion of taking one made her stomach jerk and heart sink.

The 'what if's’ dogged her.

What if she hadn't taken the potion that night? What if she'd stopped Stitches dosing Draco? Would they have been able to protect Galen? Save Basra and Stripes?

She still saw Dalish's body every time she closed her eyes, but that was a different sort of pain for the most part; that was an ‘active’ missing her – Liz kept turning and expecting to ask her a question, or show her something, and she wasn't there. For Dalish, there was more than ‘what if’, it was a little like they were all missing a body part. Not a big one, not most of the time, but there would be moments when she would automatically turn and Dalish wasn’t there and it was like suddenly her center of gravity just wasn’t where it should have been.

She saw Krem doing it too, and Skinner, and the others, and each time, felt a pain so sharp that sometimes it made her sick.

Basra and Stripes...that was something else. That was an eternity of knowing that it had been entirely avoidable. They weren't like Dalish – had Liz known beforehand, she could have ordered Dalish out of the fight, and there was every chance she'd have turned up to it anyway, because that was how the elf was. But the dragonlings – they had no chance.

Because she and Draco hadn't been there.

It had seemed like common sense, needing little thought behind it, to have Grim training Falon, and promote one of the handlers for Ensanal. Marno had been asked but turned them down, as had Rocky, so Liz picked a woman called Mousa, a broad-built older soldier with streaks of grey in her short hair who smiled easily at the dragonlings but no one else - but on the third day, Stitches came to find Liz with an unhappy expression.

“He says it hurts too much,” he'd explained. “That he's trying to concentrate on Falon but all he can think of is how scared Stripes must be with only Basra there with her. They never got on. He says...he says he'll stay on the ground for now. Come and work in the healing tent as a guard, perhaps. Maybe in future, when we have another batch, he'll think about it, but for now...”

He trailed off and Liz, doing her best impression of Bull, had clapped him on the shoulder and told him of course she understood, no hard feelings, it was a painful time for all of them, if there was anything she could do...

One he'd gone, she'd looked at Krem in despair – at no point had they ever anticipated having too many dragons for their riders.

“I'll take her,” Krem said shortly. “I know her, and I can handle it, especially given that Draco listens to me too. Bull can help with some of the training aspects to make up the shortfall, you can step into a more active leadership role, and...” he trailed off, until Liz nudged him gently with an elbow.

“And it's what she'd have wanted,” he finished, quietly. “For Falon to stay with a Charger, not farmed out to the first glory hog we find who wants to ride a dragon because it looks good.”

Liz nodded, understanding that the thoughtless insult against Brillia and Mousa and Galen came from grief and nothing more; that night after Krem had drifted off to sleep, Liz snuck outside to sob into Draco's shoulder – at least the dragon bore it with good grace.

Brillia had been, in Stitches' traditional manner of understatement, 'lightly stabbed', the injuries taking out her thigh and one shoulder, but made up for it by tying herself so she sat at the back of one of the wagons, legs hanging off the edge, to chat at Onyx while they moved; the dragonling followed her with a dogged determination that led to her outstripping her sisters in stamina. Skinner reached new levels of protectiveness over Killer, snapping at anyone not a Charger who came too close to her, until Liz gave up and redistributed Killer's handlers to help Krem with Falon because Skinner left them nothing to do. Her paranoia was ironic given the dragonling was so hardy she cost them a full morning's travel by spending one night, unseen by anyone else, chewing the axle off a wagon; apparently her supper had been insufficient.

Bull was quiet and seemed thoughtful, for the most part, methodical in his observation and interactions with his team. Sometimes it was like something on the horizon would catch his eye and he'd spend his time staring at it, lost on his own trail of thought.

Liz deliberately did not mention the amount of time she spent watching Dorian watch Bull when he stared that way – the mage's gaze was no longer overtly hostile, but rather, puzzled, as if the Qunari was a riddle he hadn't solved.

They'd get to wherever they were going without her intervention, she supposed.

She didn't ride Draco for a full week after the battle; no matter how sternly she tried to order her to stay on the ground, once Liz was mounted, Draco found the temptation to fly just too great. So for the first seven days, she was stuck on horseback, which left her with an aching back and knees when she realised that while she might spend a great deal of time mounted, riding a dragon had distinctly different rhythms to riding anything else.

Liz threw herself into work. She covered Brillia's share of tack and camp work, along with her own, and would muck in with the handlers from time to time with the dragonlings, and in the evenings, spent her time pouring over the resources Cullen had sent her and pestering Cassandra for her command and leadership strategies.

Nevarran leadership, it turned out, was based a lot around 'setting an example' and 'never ask your people to do something you can't'. Conscious of this, Liz started rising earlier each day to train before they packed up and moved on, including Draco on the occasions that the dragon was bored enough to join in; she learned to incorporate hand signals and cues smoothly into her fighting style without giving away openings or leaving her vulnerable. The dragonlings would sometimes sit and watch, and after the first few days, Mousa, apparently determined to catch up to the rest of them, joined her.

She didn't allow herself free time; any time she spent sitting idle she found the feeling of guilt creeping up on her, gnawing at the back of her throat and her stomach; she would look around the campfire and wonder who would be the next one to die, whose body she'd look down at and think that if she'd given more effort, they could still be drawing breath. Wondering if Dalish's shade was somewhere she couldn't see, cursing her for her laziness.

She didn't sleep much either, Dalish, or Basra, or Galen, or Stripes, or even sometimes Gatt's corpses dancing under her eyelids. The lack of meaningful rest made the world seem disjointed or out of sync at times, and she was acutely aware of all the times she’d dozed off in Draco’s saddle - thank the Maker for tether lines. Krem, normally observant, seemed to still be grieving too hard to notice her spotty concentration and regularly dazed expression, which she remained both grateful and pained over.

She would have given anything for him not to be mourning. But she was also glad that he wasn't there to nag or corner her into slowing down. She didn't think she could right now.

She was quietly pleased when Solas joined them after a week or so's travel, seeming to materialise out of the undergrowth. The inquisitor greeted him professionally, a hand clasp and a word of welcome on her lips, but the way their eyes sparkled with warmth and eagerness for each other's company when they looked at each other was so heartfelt that it made Liz's insides twist.

The morning after he arrived, the Inquisitor announced that she and Solas were heading off to the Exalted Plains, and taking Varric and Bull with them – Cassandra and Dorian would stay with them, heading back to Skyhold. Liz could have gone on ahead with Draco, but now mindful of the fact the dragonlings might actually be targeted, decided to resume her lap flying and guarding tendencies over the caravan. At least their group moved faster than the army did.

When she undid her pack that night, she found a set of scrolls, with a note in Solas's hand writing that read 'These might help'. When she examined them, she found they were theories and dissertations on the flight patterns of different types of birds. One was a mathematical explanation of why geese flew in a V-formation; another examining the dive bombing capabilities of swallows; another speculated on the soaring and hunting tendencies of eagles; one was about the underwater capacities of seagulls; the list went on.

All useful. All applicable. She stared at them until what little sleep she got was broken by dreams of flying through the dead, Galen and Dalish and Basra and all of them, even the first bandit she’d ever killed, their bodies hanging in the air like stars, eyes blank and glassy, seeming like they hung from the very air currents she’d been reading about.

The last three days before she got back to Skyhold were spent with Dorian, heads bent over rough schematics for rocks that could line pits and spit out electricity, or fire, or ice, or whatever else was needed; he had listened fascinated, as she recounted how Draco had sprouted her wings, and agreed that a magical solution for the new group of dragonlings would be more efficient than repeating the group effort that Draco had needed. They had a sheaf of papers and plans to discuss with Dagna by the time Skyhold's familiar crenellations came into view, and she and Draco circled endlessly until she was assured that all members of the caravan had passed through the gates safely, some tension inside her easing as she and Draco drifted easily in the direction of the stables.

Only for her jaw to drop.

For the most part, Thedosian construction was markedly slower than it was on Earth, which made sense, she supposed – the buildings here were lower and simpler, but everything was done by hand, not by machines.

But she had forgotten the exception to that – everything was done by hand except for when it was done by magic.

And now that the attempt to close the breach had failed, they had a whole crowd of mages hanging around the Inquisition with supposedly nothing to do.

Apparently the stables were where they had decided to direct their efforts.

From the one single opening that had been in place where they left for Adamant, now three different platforms extended from the rock at different levels – the top one appeared totally finished, but the bottom two looked like they were still in progress, the waterfall still pouring from beneath the lowest one. Inside, she could make out movement, doors and lights where there hadn't been any, pits and troughs and...Maker, what the hell had they done to the place?

She and Draco landed on the top platform simply because she couldn't see any other place to set down. A man in uniform waved them in, and she dismounted under cover and looked around.

Dagna stepped forward from behind the beams and grinned at her, waving a large roll of parchment.

“Would you like to see the plans? The commander wanted your approval before it went much further.”

 

The plans were impressive and thoughtful. Someone - and Dagna was skittish about naming who, exactly - had put them together, and had obviously spoken to just about everyone who had been left at Skyhold that had had some sort of contact with Draco and Liz. Each of the three platforms were designed to support both launches and landings, and structured so that one could also fly from one to another for shorter, practise flights; it wasn't like they were going to be able to take any of the future dragonlings to the Hinterlands to do as Draco had and exercise their wings down rolling grassy slopes. Parts of the stream from the waterfall had been diverted into sunken runways through each layer to provide drinking water that was fresh for the dragons, and large refuse shoots were installed at the sides of each platform that would allow mess and muck to be swept into them to then go over the falls below.

The cells that Liz and Krem had once slept in had remained as sleeping quarters, but were now proper rooms with beds and storage, and lockable doors rather than just steel bars; the connected to the main area, and generally looked a lot nicer and more comfortable than they had been before. Liz even had a large office just off her own living quarters. Some of the rooms connected to the smaller stables, allowing riders and younger dragonlings access to each other at all times for bonding purposes. There were also unfinished plans for their own bathing space, but those were incomplete and several of those rooms had big question marks in the margins.

There was an eating space laid out like a barracks as well, plus feeding troughs for the dragons carved into the walls at varying heights. The large braziers were still in place, but they were now not the only source of light, with torches and lanterns scattered liberally throughout, lighting previously dark corners. The lower platform had open spaces that would allow for drilling and sparring to be done with dragonlings too young to manage the flight out from Skyhold to the open spaces around the fort, and with all the extra stone in the way, the roar of the falls was muted, but still present in a way that made it comforting, soothing.

“We hadn't considered security aspects,” Dagna admitted. “But after what the Qunari did on the Storm Coast, we may have to. I'll think about it.”

“This is all...I don't know what to say,” Liz admitted. “I honestly don't. It's fantastic.”

The dwarf flushed. “It's bigger than anything I've worked on before, and it's not strictly within my area of expertise, but it was intriguing, thinking about how magic could be put towards larger construction purposes, especially when working in a cooperative fashion. We had to use teams, and there was this odd interplay between spells when two objects manipulated by magic came too close to each other, and a humming almost like a tuning fork. It was fascinating. If I don't manage to isolate the cause by the time we're done, I may ask the inquisitor to let us overhaul some other area of Skyhold, just to try again!”

“Ah, er, yeah,” Liz managed, not entirely sure what she was talking about. “Listen, we might need to include one more feature – you'll need to see Dorian about it though; he has the preliminary write ups.”

“Sure. Oh, and the nightingale wanted to see you!”

“Oh...yay,” muttered Liz.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be not quite as simple as that, as Draco objected to Liz leaving her sight in the strongest possible manner, and Liz swiftly realised that the dragon was now big enough that if she wanted to block Liz from getting to a door, she was going to. It was only when Krem and the others arrived, staring around them at the improvements to the stables with open mouthed shock, that she managed to slip out and into the corridor, and she made a mental note to speak to Dennet about how to ease separation anxiety in traumatised animals.

 

Leiliana, as it stood, was not in attic where she operated, but one of her people was, and they were only too happy to load Liz down with stacks of reports and other paperwork.

“What the hell?” Liz demanded. “What even are these?”

The man in question, whose appearance was suspiciously average in every way and about as lacking in memorable features as the average potato, blinked at her expressionlessly.

“That one is... background checks on your new recruits,” he said, rifling through the pile and showing each to her in turn. “These are the requisition forms you gave us before Adamant, and resultant order completion forms – you'll need to tell us how much of everything was used and what it was used for. These are research requests from three different mages, courtesy of Grand Enchanter Fiona, although there's an addendum here from Lady de Fer on each one. This is a suggested training schedule from Seeker Pentaghast. These are training requests from various units, passed through from Commander Rutherford – this thick folder here is for coordinating with the trebuchet team and all the logistics that will need to go into organising that. This one is budgeting considerations they want your input on, which you'll likely need to speak to your handlers about as they'll know what volume of food you're going to need for each dragon. These are scouting requests that have come through from Harding, but it does come with a note that suggests navigational training, ideally the sea faring sort, would be useful first, so there’s also a form for organising that. This is from Lady Montilyet about armour and weaponry suggestions for your recruits, focusing mostly around uniform considerations, and this is from the resident alchemists requesting feedback requests on grenade usage from the air and half a dozen order forms for what you'll want in future. And these are-”

Liz wrenched them from his hands. “No! It's ok! I'll...you know what, I'll just go back to my office, and, er, have a look. You know, give them the attention they deserve!”

He nodded and turned, apparently not noticing – or not caring – about the slightly panicked look on her face as she made her way back to the stables, one hand clamped firmly on top of the paperwork to ensure they didn't go everywhere in the wind.

Krem gave her a look – and Draco made a chortle of welcome – when she re-entered, stack of papers in hand.

“Don't even ask,” she growled, and disappeared into her office, gratefully depositing them on the new - and rather large - desk in the centre of the room before clawing at her hair.

Maker, how the hell was she supposed to cope with all this?

Sort them, she supposed, so she at least knew what was in the damned pile. She did, scanning through each one, and trying to stack the ones that were sort of related to each other, but by the end of it, all she ended up with was a desk covered in paper and her heart in her boots – these were not going to be quick or easy things to fill out.

Towards the bottom of the pile, she found a single piece of parchment, which simply read 'We need to bring you up to date on troop movements; see me when free. -C' in Cullen's handwriting.

She would start with that, she decided. It would give her brain time to process all….this.

Never thought I’d be looking forward to seeing Cullen, she thought wryly, heading for the stairs for the second time that afternoon.

Chapter Text

She pushed Cullen's door open, stepped in, and then stopped in the open doorway immediately, brain shorting out when she realised what she'd just done. “Crap, I forgot to knock,” she announced.

Maker, how tired was she?

Cullen looked up from his desk and gave her a small smile. “I think I can let that go, just this once,” he replied, that smile telling her he was joking.

Liz blinked. Cullen had just made a joke at her? Fine, it was a small joke. Tiny, really. It wasn't even a joke, it was more teasing, but it was still odd in a way that sent a shiver down her spine. Logically, she knew he'd apologised. In practice, realising Jerk!Cullen was no longer a thing was just plain weird.

“Welcome back,” he continued, then his voice turned gentle. “I heard about your team mate, and the two dragonlings. I am sorry for your loss.”

The sympathy brought a sudden surge of grief so strong it almost made her nauseous.

“You sent a note about troop movements?” She managed around the lump in her throat, voice gruff.

Cullen, apparently really determined to prove he was going to be nice to her now, pretended not to notice, focusing on one of the piles of paperwork on his desk. For a split second, she almost wanted him to be a git again, just so she could yell and get some of the feelings that seemed to be trying to drown her off her chest. Maybe swear, throw some things, storm out if it suited her.

But he wasn't; instead he was nodding and pulling a map from one of his stacks – he actually had more paperwork than she did – and laid it on the desk.

“Your timing is impeccable; under ordinary circumstances, you would have to wait in line.” He gave her a smile that pulled one corner of his mouth up and suddenly made her very, inexplicably glad he wasn't back to being a jerk again. “Hopefully, this won't be crucial knowledge, but you ought to be aware in case of emergencies,” he continued.

She snagged a pencil and piece of parchment from the basket of blank scrolls he kept on a shelf, nodding, then positioning herself at the edge of the desk so she could scribble as he talked.

“Go,” was all she said.

He did, and it took all of about two sentences before she gave up on writing in Common and reverting to English, notes filling the page, then the other side, and then half of a second scroll she grabbed when she ran out of space.

Eventually, he stopped, and she shook her hand out gratefully. “Ok, well, it's not like that's much information,” she remarked sarcastically, standing and looking over her notes in dismay before looking at his map and the markers he'd laid on it.

He stood, straightening abruptly, tucking his hands behind his back – but not quick enough to hide they were shaking; she hadn't noticed when all she'd been concentrating on her notes.

“Are you alright?” The question was out of her mouth before she could stop it, and she regretted it instantly.

“Fine,” he said brusquely, in a way that just about screamed 'I'm not talking about it'. “Do you have any other questions?”

A million. On everything. From the logistics of leadership to the realities of it. She wanted to know how his stacks of paperwork were organised, how he kept from screaming at the parchment or falling asleep when filling out yet more forms, how he balanced the need to stay physically at the peak of his game with the long hours at a desk. She wanted to know if he'd ever failed his men, if he too had dead people with unseeing eyes that chased him at night. She wanted to know if there was a way to say 'sorry' to their loved ones in a way that didn't feel like hollow ashes on the tongue. She wanted to know when the nightmares would stop, and how to stop looking and expecting Dalish to be there when she wasn't, how not to feel like someone had removed her lungs the one time she saw Bull carefully tuck a piece of leather that had been part of Basra's tack into his pack like it was something precious when he hadn't known she was watching.

She wanted to shake him until all the secrets of his composure and his competence fell out, until she could understand how he'd been leading people in this sort of environment for years and still looked as well as he did, while she was mere weeks into it and felt like she had traded her soul to a demon and was falling apart regardless.

But the sudden distance in his eyes from her question, and the numerous memories of his snapped remarks and nasty asides were too fresh, too near, so instead she gave him a small smile of her own – one which she was grateful she could manage – and demurred, seeing herself out with a quiet “Commander”.

 

Back in her office, she sat in her chair, and then let her head slump until her forehead connected with the wood of the desk with a 'thump!'

“I take it that means I should be organising the training rota,” said Krem from the doorway.

Liz didn't bother to raise her head. “If you can give me a written copy of what you've planned for the next month, or better yet, three of them so I can have duplicates to distribute, I will name my firstborn after you.”

“Got it.” He went, and she could have kissed him for knowing what he was doing when she so didn't.

 

She cut more sleep from her schedule – there was nothing else for it. She gave up on such notions as 'dinner time' or 'recreation'. She ate on the run or at her desk, and on the third night when the rest of the Riders went to the tavern for a drink, she went to the stables to try and organise a time to go over saddle designs with Dennet, only for him to also suggest that her trainees might gain a more secure seat from helping him with the unbroken horses that had just arrived, and it made her want to throw something, but he was right, so she had to track down Krem and spend an hour redoing the training schedule to fit it in.

The sheer exhaustion she was running on made the days blur together, but even she could tell it was the sixth day after they'd arrived when she saw an unfamiliar shadow that definitely wasn't a rider or handler by the edge of one of the platforms in the early morning before sun up as she returned to her office clutching an apple from her breakfast.

The Qun immediately jumped to mind, and she was glad of Cullen's insistence that they all remain armed, even if Draco was well within summoning range if she yelled, asleep on a lower level. Carefully she put one hand on the hilt of her sword and edged forward, then took a breath and stepped into the torchlight's circle to confront the intruder.

“Show yourse-Inquisitor?!”

The blonde elf looked up from where she was sat with her legs dangling over the edge of the platform, and managed a small smile with what appeared to be a lot of effort. Falon was curled next to her, eyes half shut in bliss – she had one hand on her favorite spot behind her horns.

They were on the highest platform, which meant that if she fell, she'd fall to the next one down, rather than into the crevasse below them, so she was only dicing with severe injury and the possibility of death, rather than certain death, but seeing her so close to the drop made Liz's stomach clench.

“Hello,” she managed instead. What she meant was 'What the hell are you doing in our stables?'

“Hi,” the inquisitor replied, looking back to the dragonling. “I'm sorry if I disturbed anyone.”

“You...didn't. Well, except for Falon here, but she seems happy enough,” Liz shrugged. “Plus, I think this is technically your castle. So, y'know, you can go wherever you'd like... How are you here? I thought you were in the Exalted Plains.”

The elf smiled, her lips pressed together into a thin line. “I was – fade stepping is a very useful ability. And it's more our castle, especially given where I can go in it is so highly restricted.” She sounded bitter.

Liz stared. “What?” That hadn't been any part of the game she remembered.

The other woman sighed heavily. “All right, that might have been an exaggeration. Vivienne and Josephine both have a point; I can't be seen fretting on the battlements like an average woman waiting for her average sweetheart. It would worry people, upset morale, and give anyone wanting to destablise the inquisition with a lie that has a kernel of truth in it the idea that the Herald of Andraste is under the thrall of a blasphemous apostate knife-ear.”

Liz blinked, then sighed, and sat besides the other woman, trying not to look over the edge as she did so. “You lost me,” she said.

Lavellan made a small noise of amusement that was half lost in the noise of the falls. “Solas' favour – we helped a friend of his. Only, by the time we got there, the only help we could offer was as peaceful an end as could be had in the circumstances.”

“I'm sorry,” Liz offered.

Lavellan shrugged. “Solas was...upset. He has gone to sort himself out. Somewhere else. Away from here.”

She paused. Liz could hear what she wasn't saying. 'Away from me.'

“He'll come back,” she offered.

“This time,” Lavellan agreed. “But...I don't think he could give up the nomadic life if he tried. Eventually, there will come a point where all the help he could give has been given, and all the curiosity he had about things hereabout will be sated, and he will disappear off back into the world, and I...” She sighed.

Liz didn't know what to say, and groped for something, anything. “Love can...change people,” she offered.

“A single kiss in a dream hardly constitutes life changing love.” She sounded both bemused and bitter. “But, honestly, there's nothing to be done. What will happen with us will happen – there is no changing it, so no point focusing on it. I am mostly fretting because the roads are more dangerous nowadays, and he might be a powerful mage, but he is but one person, and even he needs to sleep some time.”

Now Liz chuckled. “Solas? Please, he'll be fine.”

“I know. But I also know I can't stop worrying, so I shall obey the advice of those who know better, and fret out of sight.”

“Well,” said Liz, eyeing Falon who still had her head pressed against the inquisitor's thigh, eyes half shut in bliss. “You are welcome back any time. Afterall, I think someone likes it when you visit, for some reas-”

Her voice cut off, as her brain caught up with itself. Dalish was – had been - a blonde tattooed elf who smelt like magic, and the Inquisitor was a blonde, tattoed elf who, thanks to Solas, smelt like magic.

All of a sudden, she wanted to sob.

The inquisitor must have seen it in her face, because she put her hand over Liz's. “It gets better with time.” Her voice was gentle.

“I know.” The words were rough, shoved through the tiny hole that the lump in her throat had left unblocked.

There was a moment of awkward silence.

“Oh yes, that was what I also wanted to talk to you about,” the inquisitor said.

“Oh?”

“With the developments with the Qun, it can no longer be ignored that you and your dragons – and their riders, but you mostly – are starting to garner notice from the bigger players on the stage.”

Liz snorted. “Dagna's been muttering about that since we got back – does this mean you've finally decided on security measures?”

The other woman blinked, surprised. “What? No.” She got to her feet, brushing her trousers off and then paused, head cocked to one side in thought. “Not that I know of, that is. What I meant was, in light of this, you'll be accompanying us to the ball at Halamshiral. Report to Vivienne when you have a free moment, and she'll fill you in on the training schedule for court etiquette, dancing, and basic political strategy.”

“Oh...yay,” Liz managed, words flat. Where the fuck was she supposed to find time for that?!

The elf threw her a smile over her shoulder, the coming dawn starting to paint her features in monochrome once she stepped beyond the torchlight. Falon stayed where she was, grumbling that her sleep was disturbed.

“It's ok – no matter what she claims, there's no way you could be worse than trying to teach Cullen! Even Bull's better than him!”

Then she was gone, and Liz was seized with an overwhelming desire to beat her head against a wall.

 

It was with wind tousled hair that Liz left the stables to report for her first etiquette lesson some days later. The last thing they needed was Draco getting out of shape, so the pair of them had still been aiming to spend between 4 and 6 hours a day in the sky, practising their navigational skills, or checking the surrounding areas, escorting outgoing or incoming patrols or running messages to nearby watchtowers. What took several days on horses took Draco and Liz a single day's round trip.

She had tried to enjoy the flights, but all the time they had been in the air she had remained acutely aware of how much work would be waiting for her when she got back. She had once tried taking some out on a clipboard - and had given up before they'd even risen above Skyhold's crenellations. Even Draco had seemed out of sorts recently, both snappish and clingy at turns, unable to settle, shunning even the company of the dragonlings.

The corridor to the courtyard was as dark and cramped as ever, but it had been empty when she entered it, so Liz jumped when, halfway up the staircase, there was the sound of a footfall directly behind her.

She froze, heart pounding in her ears, acutely aware that if she'd misjudged, if she'd missed something and this was a Qun infiltrator, she was about to die.

She touched one hand to the hilt at her belt, grateful for the sword she carried at Cullen's directive. Taking a breath, she swung, drawing the sword in an easy, clean motion and braced, arm extended, blade pointing towards the person.

In the shadows, she could make out a slender man wearing a wide brimmed hat who stood a handful of paces lower down the stairs.

“Echoes, echoes of echoes, like screams at the bottom of the ocean.”

Liz dropped her guard, slumping back against the wall in relief. “Cole.”

“I...I can't hear you! Just her! But you come through her, just a little, if we both try.” He sounded unhappy.

She pressed the heels of one hand to her forehead, resheathing the sword. She had liked Cole as a character concept, but she couldn't ever say she'd really gotten along with him. Now, overworked, sleep deprived, stressed and late, she felt little but spectacularly impatient with him. “I'm late Cole,” she started, trying not to sound as annoyed as she felt.

“She misses you,” he urged her.

Liz swallowed a sudden lump in her throat. He couldn't....no, surely not? Dead was dead, there was no way he could know what Dalish would feel. “Who misses me?” she asked instead, dreading the answer but not being able to avoid it.

“Wings and scales and queen of the winds, hot blood and cold clouds, ice and fire and glory in strength, in flocking, in the rush of being one of two,” he countered.

Liz blinked. “That's...that's Draco. You can talk to Draco?”

She had honestly never considered it, but it made sense.

He nodded, deeply earnest. “She worries. It was different when she was little, and you were big – there was fun and play and you laughed and so did she, and the world was green and easy. Now she is big and you are little and she thinks she got it wrong. She is big but it is not how it should be. Dark stains on your fingers and dogged by the white leaves, always the white leaves, smells like nightmares and fear, a pain under the wings that does not fade, like trying to glide crossways in a back breeze, and there is no laughter. No fun, no joy, no matter the winds she finds. The little ones do not know how things should be, and she does not know how to show them, not like this, flying off balance, the world at a bad angle.”

Liz's throat closed and she tried to speak, but honestly couldn't, staring at the floor that she couldn't see because her eyes were so blurred with tears.

“She-” she managed after several minutes of struggle. Maker, she had never considered what Draco might think of all this. Had never guessed the dragon would understand that much.

“She knows,” Cole said gently. “She wants to help, she can hear you, but I can't hear you, so I hear her, and it, it is too far.” The last word was exasperated. “Too many bends and angles, I can't help, not like I'd like to, it's shooting around corners!”

“It's not her fault,” Liz whispered.

“She worries,” Cole repeated, but the urgency was gone, and there was kindness in his tone.

Impulsively, she gave him a hug, possibly harder than she intended to, and stayed there for a moment, holding her breath in an effort not to sob onto his shoulder. “Erk,” he said. “You are squeezing.”

Liz nodded and let go, wiping her eyes. “But it helps,” she told him, drawing back. “It does.”

He brightened at this. “You can squeeze,” he reassured her, obviously delighted at the notion of having something to do to help.

“Thank you,” Liz managed. “I...fuck, I have somewhere I need to be. But – can you talk back? Can you tell her things?”

“Not as well as you can,” he said. “Not as well as you, but....maybe?”

Liz thought about it for a second, then forced a smile. “Cole, I need you to do me a favour, please? It would really help.”

“I can do that.”

“I need you to go and tell Madame de Fer I'm going to be late, and I'm sorry, but it's unavoidable.”

Cole blinked, suddenly looking nervous. “She doesn't like me. I make her think things that make things wobble and then she's not so sure anymore.”

Liz resisted the temptation to snort derisively. “Given how sure Vivienne is about everything else, she can stand to be a bit unsure about something, I'm sure. I won't be long...I just need to go talk to my friend first.”

He nodded and wasn't there. It was shocking in its suddenness – there was no puff of smoke or flash of light. He didn't even move. It was simply like...he wasn't there.

She couldn't remember from the game if that was actually how he teleported, or if he'd messed with her memory, but either way she couldn't find a part of her that minded either way as she about-faced and headed back to the stable at a trot.

Draco was in her space on the lower floor, a half eaten hank of druffalo abandoned on the floor next to her trough, peering morosely over the edge of the platform. Liz entered, now at almost a run, and threw herself at the dragon, who in turn gave a 'gronk!' of surprise; she rearranged herself to coil around Liz, nudging her with the side of her face, making reassuring 'murp' noises.

“I'm sorry,” Liz told her, face pressed to her side, tears streaming down her face. “I'm so sorry. It won't be forever, girl. I just...I just need to get it right. Then it'll all be fine. I promise. Just a little longer.”

Apparently nonplussed by this, Draco just 'murr'ed, pupils wide in appreciation of Liz's presence, content to have her while she could.

Chapter Text

“I do hope that's not the sort of entrance you'll be aiming for at the palace!” Vivienne's dismayed tone snapped across the chamber like a whip.

Bull, lounging against a wall, winked at her. Dorian and Cassandra, in a stance where Cassandra had one hand in his and her other on his shoulder while he had a hand on her hip, froze; Cassandra looked deeply grateful for the interruption while Dorian managed to twist to grin at her, graceful even in that stance.

Varric was leaning beside Bull. Solas and Lavellan were absent, as were Blackwall and Sera, along with Leliana and Josephine – Liz presumed the former wouldn't be coming with them, and the latter had no need of further training.

Vivienne, meanwhile, had apparently been dancing with Cullen but now dropped her hands from his like they were scalding and crossed the room towards Liz, her stride dignified, elegant and determined.

Cullen seemed to sag in relief.

“I mean, your hair! Honestly, we will have to do something about that! And soon! But for now...” She sighed, and turned, and Liz bristled under the insult. She spent her days alternately riding dragons and writing paperwork – her hair was not, and never had been since she'd landed in this world, a priority.

She opened her mouth to argue and then shut it again with a snap. She wasn't going to get out of this, and if she got mouthy, it would just cause an argument, which would take more time, and it would be longer before she could get back to the stables.

“Yes ma'am,” she said, trying not to sound like she was speaking through gritted teeth. She didn't entirely succeed.

“Now, how much do you know of court etiquette?”

“Less than nothing.”

“Oh...good. Well, you and the commander have something in common in that case. Bull, dear, you're the best to partner the Rider, and then later, she, the Commander and I can go over appropriate bows and methods of address-”

“We could do that now! I can help, if you would like!” Cassandra blurted out, looking a little desperate.

Vivienne's gaze was sharp, however, as was her tone. “My dear Seeker, you and I both already know you know these – it's your skills on the dance floor that need refreshing, given none of us will be able to pass through this with our reputations and that of the Inquisition intact without dancing at least once. Continue working with Lord Pavus on your steps for now, there's a darling.”

Bull looked thoroughly amused. “Yes ma'am.” He stepped forward, and with an odd amount of grace for someone so large, offered her a courtly bow.

“Er,” Liz, not knowing what to do, put her hand in his proffered one, and stiffened when Vivienne tutted at her.

“No dear, not like that! Do you want everyone to think you're for sale? Honestly!”

Oh, thought Liz, as the other woman stepped forward to turn her elbow to the 'right' angle. It was going to be a long afternoon.

 

They made it through a full hour before Vivienne stepped back from Cullen's grasp, leaving the commander looking more relieved than she'd ever seen him, and announced that was enough dancing, they needed to focus on court etiquette with those that needed it.

“Actually, Madam de Fer, that is all the time I can spare for you today,” Cullen said, turning away. “I have other duties than...this. Send a runner with the updated training schedule and I'll see when I can make it next.”

“Cullen, dear-” Vivienne's tone was draped in ice, but it did her no good at all as Cullen gave both her and Liz a brief nod and turned and left the room without another word, regardless of Vivienne's scowl. The others all also appeared to be gathering their things and heading for the door.

The mage took a deep breath and drew herself up, turning that glare on Liz, who had a sudden sense of doom as the other woman smiled, and led the way into her office.

 

Later that night, Liz knocked on Cullen's door, dutifully waiting until she heard a soft 'enter!' before letting herself in.

Cullen, looking tired as ever, looked up at her from his desk, and blinked at her. “Liz?”

“These are supposed to come to you, I think,” she said, crossing the room to proffer him a handful of pages. “There are the duplicates in there as well.”

He took them and looked them over. “Yes, thank you. How are you and yours? Anything I ought to be know about?”

Liz stretched as discreetly as she could – it was well after midnight and the tension of spending the night at a desk was a steady ache across her shoulders and in her temples. She desperately needed a good night's sleep, but thanks to that ache, she suspected she wasn't going to get one without sacrificing another hour to go and soak in a tub somewhere. She still couldn't make her mind up whether it would be worth it.

“Not much – the dual riding saddle Dagna and Dennet were collaborating on is finished, we're testing with Krem tomorrow. If that works, it will mean I can give all the Riders basic training on Draco rather than letting them have to figure it out with their dragons as they go, which should speed things up. If the youngsters follow the same timescale as Draco did, we expect their wings to come in sometime in the next few weeks. We've got both fire and lightning pits set up, just in case. Got some training planned with the trebuchet team next week; other than that,” she took a breath and prepared to tick down the list that she carried around in her head every waking hour these days, but Cullen held up a finger, then gestured to the papers she'd handed him.

“These – did you do all of them yourself?” He looked at her quizzically, showing her the pages where she could see her appalling handwriting scrawled over all of them.

“I...yes,” said Liz slowly. “There were three and a request for duplicates...fuck, please don't tell me I need to do them over?”

He stood, shaking his head. “Liz, we have clerks and we have them for good reason. You did not need to be the one to do this, you could have given them the original and they would have completed the remainder.”

Liz felt small. “Oh.”

He smiled at her, weariness in his stance but kindness in his voice. “Be careful. I appreciate your dedication, but you will do no one any good if you burn out. Do not be afraid to delegate, and make full use of the resources the inquisition can put at your disposal.”

Liz nodded, still feeling a bit stupid, like this was something she should have spotted. “Yesser,” she said, quietly.

Then Cullen did a curious thing. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then paused, and shut it again.

An awkward silence stretched out between them.

Cullen broke it first, while Liz was still scrabbling around in her brain trying to find something to say.

“You schedule basic combat training at dawn every day?” It was somehow a question. Liz nodded. Cullen checked a list. “I have two squads doing the same – your men can join them tomorrow. You need to sleep in.”

Liz blinked at him. “Why?”

“Because you are swaying on your feet,” he pointed out dryly. “And also...call it an apology of sorts. For leaving you to face Madam de Fer alone.”

“Ah,” said Liz. “Yes. That. I'm still not sure if I should be bowing lower to a Teryn or to a Comte, even after she spent an hour going over, and over, and over them with me, never mind what I should call one of them. You are a bad man for escaping as you did.”

Her eyes were tricking her. They must have been, because otherwise, she would have thought that, in the shadowed torchlight, he flushed. “Well, in any event, if they cause trouble, you can just have your Draco eat them.”

“Sit on them,” Liz corrected. “I've never seen her actually eat someone, but she sits on people with abandon. You should see her do it to Bull.”

He gave a low laugh that did odd things to her stomach. “Well,” she said hurriedly, not liking the sensation. “She says we're back on the dancing next time, so we'll both need luck. And I should turn in. Thank you, commander.”

He nodded as she turned to go, expression unreadable again.

She was not thinking about that, she told herself sternly on her way to the bathhouse. Nope nope nope.
She wasn't.

 

“Yaaaaahooooooooo!”

“You know, I had an eardrum once,” Liz muttered, bringing Draco around for another pass.

“I know, I'm sorry!” Brillia's volume didn't drop an iota. “It's just...you have to understand, at one point, I was worried I was going to fall into the sky – now I'm in it? On a dragon?! This is amazing!”

“Ok, well, one more pass then we're setting down!” Liz called over the wind.

It had been a busy few days of testing, ensuring that the saddle could cope under combat conditions and then getting each Rider comfortable with it, and then each handler in turn, just in case, and then Dagna once. and then Brillia had begged to go up again, and Liz had been curious to see how Draco's stamina would fare under the increased weight, so they'd been circling the castle for most of the afternoon and the dwarf's enthusiasm hadn't dimmed a bit. As far as Liz could tell, one of Brillia's biggest challenges on the battlefield would be not giving away their position to the enemy by excited shrieking.

And Draco? So far, she'd have to classify her reaction to carrying a second person, even one as dense as a dwarf, as 'hadn't really noticed'.

Not that she was looking forward to setting down – her evening was booked for another etiquette lesson with Vivienne and, in theory, she should have been grateful for the break from endless training, riding and paperwork.

In practise, she was acutely aware of how the paperwork was piling up now she was trying to prioritise time with Draco, and she was very tempted to see if Cullen would agree to train her squad for a couple more mornings, not for her to sleep, but so she could clear down some of the work.

So far, she'd held back from asking. She wasn't sure how much longer she could hold out.

Half an hour later, Draco pulled up above the platform and touched down, light as a feather, especially when Liz considered it in contrast to their first landing. She hugged the dragon and then left her in Marno's capable hands for a rub down and dinner and headed to her room to change.

She was surprised, when she stepped through the door, to find Dorian waiting in her office.

“Hi?” she said.

“Well good evening to you, my darling friend,” he responded smoothly.

“That's your 'I need a favour' voice,” Liz pointed out wryly, shucking her tunic and reaching for a clean folded one that some wonderful person had left on her dresser. One day, she'd figure out which one of the myriad of people who worked in the stables was responsible for the laundry and then she'd bring them back the biggest bunch of flowers she could carry while riding Draco all the way from the Hinterlands, but so far the mystery persisted.

“Oh, you've wounded me! Am I truly so transparent?” He sounded mostly joking, but underneath it all was a ring of tension that suggested there was something serious here.

Liz blinked. “Dorian, are...are you ok?”

The Tevinter tugged at his moustache and sighed. “Oh dear. If I'm that obvious, perhaps I ought to reconsider skipping tonight's lesson with Vivienne; I'll do us all in at the ball otherwise. I might be in need of some assistance.”

“What is it? You know I'll help.”

“Aha, I wouldn't be so quick to offer, were I you. I could be asking you to come and help me assassinate the black divine, or use that wonderful beast of yours to threaten half the magisterium.”

“Are you?”

“Well...no. But the point stands.”

Liz paused in her search for a comb – maybe if she at least brushed the wind-induced tangles from her hair, this time Vivienne wouldn't be so snide – and looked at him. “You're redirecting. Hard. Whatever this is, it's actually important to you, isn't it?”

The playfulness dropped from Dorian's face, and exactly how unhappy he looked with it gone was a shock. “Yes, well. You know me. If it has the capacity to hurt, it'll hurt less the faster you turn it into a joke. It's my father. I got a letter from him, through the Inquisitor, through Mother Giselle, of all people if you can believe it. He's asked I meet a retainer in Redcliffe.”

Liz studied him. “You want to go, but you're not happy about it.”

“Yes. No. I don't know.” He ran a hand through his hair. “It's family, and family is always...complicated. Look, I just want to know if you and Draco could give me a ride; the Inquisitor has said she'll come and fadestep all the way there, but that's not my area of expertise, and this would be a lot simpler if I could get it done and dusted fast and we could be in and out in a few days rather than on the road for weeks.”

Liz clapped him on the shoulder and then gave it a hard squeeze – she'd have offered a hug, but he was doing the 'manly stoic' thing so hard she suspected it would offend him. “Of course we can. You know, even if you didn't need the transport, I'd be honoured to come along as your friend to support you.”

“Yes well,” he paused, seemingly lost for what to say. “Thank you,” he eventually settled on. “I... that would be appreciated as well.”

Liz grinned and returned to trying to run her comb through her hair and wincing at the pain. “And if in doubt, we can always go with Cullen's suggestion and just have Draco sit on whatever pain in the backside your father's sent along.”

Dorian snorted. “Spending much time with our strapping young ex-Templar, are we?”

Liz snorted back at him pointedly. “I hand over paperwork, and occasionally bemoan Vivienne's teaching methods when I do so. Plus, I don't think he counts as 'young'...”

“My dear girl, where I'm from, any commanding officer you like has a significant amount of grey in his hair. For our darling commander to have nearly none? He's practically a babe in arms. And speaking of a certain Iron Lady's teaching methods...we are going to be late.”

“Oh hell,” Liz abandoned all sense of gentleness with the comb and dragged it through the last few strands before dropping it back on the bed and running for the door. “Come on. She thinks I'm slow in the head anyway; there's no need to give her extra ammunition!”

Chapter Text

Liz arrived at a run, while Dorian was only a handful of seconds behind her and despite this, he looked suave and composed as he strolled through the door.

Liz immediately decided that she was going to step on his foot if they had to dance together, especially when he winked at her when Vivienne wasn't looking.

Which, it turned out, was easy when the woman in question was looking at a scroll, a messenger waiting patiently to one side of her, her brows drawn together in what looked like fury. Cullen and Bull were the only others in the room.

“Well darlings, it would appear there has been an issue with your outfits,” Vivienne announced in such a tone of voice that Liz was surprised the scroll didn't up and burn from shame right there. “I will have to sort this out personally, and immediately. I would like you to work on the Antivan Turnstep in the meantime – Dorian, dear, you are familiar with that one, aren't you? You partner Cullen, Liz can partner Bull, and I will be back once this has been resolved.”

With that she swept out of the room.

They all looked at each other for a second with the sort of facial expressions that all students wear when in a class they do not enjoy with the teacher suddenly absent.

Bull voiced what they'd all been thinking. “What say we blow this off and all go for a beer?”

Liz thought lovingly of the three debriefs, one set of plans and four requests she needed to get done by the following morning - still sitting out on her desk - and tried to measure how long they'd take her to get through.

“Er-” she started, but Cullen cut in, looking resigned. “I will not be partaking,” he replied. “I am here for a reason, and if that reason is absent, I have other things I ought to be doing with my time. Are we training or not?”

“Quite right commander – I knew you wouldn't be keen to give up this opportunity to lead me around the dancefloor.” Dorian preened, and Liz was surprised to see a smile creep onto Cullen's face – a genuine smile, bright with friendliness, even if it was reluctant to start up. It somehow surprised her; she wasn't sure when Dorian had managed to strike up a friendship with the commander but apparently he’d succeeded at it. “Now, this is the gambol where the man starts only with his hand on the lady's waist...”

Bull gave a laugh and stepped obediently into place, and offered Liz that near-perfect, as far as she could tell, court bow.

She laughed, took his hand - her elbow turned the right way around this time - and stepped into position.

 

“No no no!”

Forty five minutes later, Vivienne wasn't back, and they were all looking a little, well, frazzled - Dorian especially, as Cullen had him half lowered into an extremely awkward position.

“This is not how you dip someone Rutherford!”

“It's how you just said to dip someone!”

“Stop sassing me and move your hands - unless you’d like me to take this as an invitation, that is?!”

“Well I've got it right,” Bull sounded smug, and lying in his arms, Liz had to admit, he seemed to - he was steady enough she wasn’t in the least bit worried about him dropping her.

Dorian glanced over at the pair of them and sighed. “You do,” he admitted, grudgingly. “Pity Liz looks like a dead fish that's just been hit over the head with a stick.”

“Hey!” Liz interjected. “It's being dipped, for shit's sake, it's not hard!”

“Oh no? Then what, by Andraste's toenail, are you doing with your hip?”

Grumpy, hot, and fed up, Liz stood and bad temperedly shoved Bull out of the way while she did so. Thankfully, the Qunari seemed to take this in his stride, as if sensing how close she was to losing her rag. “Fine,” she snapped. “The pair of you demonstrate. Cullen and I can watch. If we're getting it this badly wrong, maybe we should give it up for the night and try again another time.”

“Fine! One more try and we'll see how we do.” Dorian stalked over to Bull, who curled his fingers around Dorian’s waist. “Now together, one two three four one two three four-”

Their timing was perfect; together they glided around the space, nose to nose, not even having to look at each other's feet or where they were going. They took a neat turn, then a spin and three turns, hand across the shoulders, and Bull slid his arms around Dorian's waist and down they went, Dorian's body ramrod straight and forming a graceful line with the floor, Bull cradling him as if the weight were nothing, so entranced was he by the man in his arms.

They paused there, nose to nose, eyes locked.

And paused.

And paused.

Finally Dorian blinked and cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, well, if you'd like to lift me back up.”

Silent – but Liz caught that quirk of Bulls' eyebrow, the way his lips pursed - the Qunari returned the mage to his feet.

There was another long pause where the two examined each other, and Liz was very interested to note that the tips of Dorian's ears appeared to have gone bright red.

“And now you,” Dorian eventually said, turning to Cullen and Liz with an abrupt motion. “Why don't you-”

The door slammed open and Vivienne strode back in. From her expression, it would be understandable if anyone watching thought she'd been out taking a stroll on a beautiful spring morning; she was smiling beatifically, as if pleased and calm, her stride easy and relaxed.

It was only the slight stiffness in the movement of her shoulders, and the way her magic fluttered across the skin unpleasantly just for a split second, like a static shock, that gave away the fact she was fuming.

“My dears, I am so sorry to have missed so much of our time together.” She pressed her hands together in front of her as if prayer or despair, and Liz wasn’t sure which she’d be moved to when she saw Cullen dip someone. “I do hope you made the most of the opportunity. It has been confirmed that your outfits for the grand ball are going to be standard Inquisition formal uniforms – our darling ambassador will not be moved on our apparent need to present a united front. With this in mind, Liz, you and I will need to start over on your etiquette and your dances; you will need to be up to point on both the male and female parts of the Game, for as a woman who is not wearing skirts, you may need to play either role.”

Liz groaned, not bothering to hide it. To her surprise, Vivienne patted her on the shoulder sympathetically. “I know it's a challenge for your first engagement, but we must see this as an opportunity my dears. And just know that all the women in our party will be in the same situation, so you are not alone. You, the Inquisitor and I will have to meet more often to ensure everyone presents themselves as the asset to the Inquisition I know you all are.”

Liz blinked, nodding but inwardly taken aback – Vivienne was so often unfailingly nasty or selfish that for her to be encouraging was thoroughly unexpected.

“Well, how disappointing,” Dorian's voice was utterly bland of any kind of inflection, and that alone made her want to kick him in the shin. “We'll just be off then-”

“No, I want to see you dance a round on this – if you have this mastered, then it means next time we meet, we can move on to the Dance of the Six Candles. Come on now – Dorian and Bull, and Liz and Cullen, as you've arranged yourselves; I will count you in.”

Liz, wide-eyed, turned and looked at Cullen, who was eyeing her with equal amounts of wariness.

Ahem.” There was no one, Liz decided, this side of the Deep Roads who could wield a raised eyebrow like Vivienne did – the woman turned a mere facial expression into a weapon.

Obediently, they got into position,

“And one two three four-”

Cullen's hand on her waist was steady and sure, even if he was watching her feet rather than bothering to meet her eyes.

She, meanwhile, sternly told herself to watch his feet, rather than his face; up this close, he smelled like elderflower and something like cut grass - how the fuck did he manage that rather than stinking like the rest of them after an evening of dance training, some part of her wondered in annoyance - and only narrowly avoided missing the cue for the turn, her hand landing in his after a second's fumbling where he grabbed her wrist instead, which made her skin tingle unnervingly.

Then four steps later, she bumped into his chest by mistiming a step forward, and had to bite her lip in an effort not to dwell on why he felt so warm. He’s wearing armour for God's sake-

Another turn, and her back was to his chest as they stepped back and forward in unison, and she ducked her head to watch his feet, but then shot upright again in shock, making him flinch back a step, when his breath ruffled the hairs on the back of her neck and sent a shiver down her spine.

“Sorry,” she muttered, shamefaced, as they hurriedly got back into rhythm.

“My fault,” he replied, just as sotto voce.

Nearly there, she told herself. Three more turns with switching hands before one last spin and then the dip – two more turns – last one-

She tried to turn, but failed to follow his arm as he turned himself, getting her foot caught behind his ankle-

“Awk!”

She went down, nearly hitting the floor but strong arms grabbed her around the waist and jerked her to a stop, twisting as she did so, and she ended up with her face buried in Cullen's neck, one hand clutching his shoulder, the other thrown out to break her fall but now just stuck in thin air; he'd grabbed her midway down, and ended up with one knee on the stone.

There was a moment where they both froze, Liz unsure of what to do and also suddenly struck by exactly how strong he was – she felt like she was pressed up against a rock.

A very warm, good-smelling rock, but a rock nonetheless.

No sooner had she had that thought then she became aware of how their chests were pressed together, and she could feel his chest heaving as he breathed, surely too quickly given what they'd been doing-

She wiggled away at the exact moment he stood, hauling her back to her feet, where she wobbled for a second before regaining her balance.

“Sorry,” they both said at exactly the same time, and then looked away.

Which meant Liz ended up looking right at Dorian and Bull, both of whom were looking vastly amused.

“Oh dear,” muttered Vivienne, who appeared too dismayed to muster anything more vehement.

“Well, if that's all for tonight, I have...things that need doing,” said Cullen, sounding off balance but cutting her off before she could gather her wits any further. “Madam de Fer, excuse me.”

He left, and Liz turned to Vivienne with a wince.

The other woman met her eyes, an expression of dismayed resignation on her face. “Tomorrow-” she started.

“Ah, Dorian and I have business in Redcliffe,” Liz broke in, suddenly glad Dorian had a shitty father.

Vivienne peered over her shoulder to look at Dorian. “Then you can drill her,” she instructed, before sweeping out.

“Yes, well, somehow I rather think there's someone else who wants that duty,” Dorian said, causing Bull to snigger.

Liz sighed, hand going to pinch the bridge of her nose, but then stopped herself when she realised she was imitating Cullen.

“I have work to finish,” she snapped. She didn’t like these sensations - they left her feeling jittery and unsure, and she’d be very much obliged if both they and Dorian’s comments would fuck the fuck off. “I will see you in the morning.”

“Hold up,” said Bull. “I'll walk with you.”

They made their way back to the courtyard in an odd silence, and Bull didn’t speak until they were both down the main staircase.

“So, how you holdin’ up?”

The sudden urge to lay it all at his feet was so strong she tasted blood when she bit her tongue to avoid answering so pathetically.

“Fine,” she smiled wanly at him after a second. “I mean, the paperwork is challenging at times, but I think we’re getting there. How are you?”

He snorted at her. “Don’t do that shit. I am supposed to be commanding you remember?”

“You’ve got enough on your plate-”

“Well, so do you.” He sighed. “Look, Liz, we’re both treading new ground here. I’ve mentored people before, but this? Where you’re heading up a new unit with unique requirements? With more support staff than you’ll ever have front liners, where you don’t have final say over who you take? While I’m managing my own team doing different things? Turns out that it’s hard to find the line between ‘abandoning you’ and ‘being overbearing’. I don’t want to neglect you, but I don’t want to baby you; you’ve gotta fuck up to learn to a certain degree. I also don’t know how much help and support Cullen’s giving you, and no one needs to step on his toes right now, so we’re gonna have to trust each other on this, ok? You tell me how shit’s going, and how you need help, and I’ll find a way to give you that help.” He looked her in the eye. “You up for that?”

Liz blinked. “Erm, yeah? I mean, of course?”

Bull nodded. “Good. Now, you got anything you want me to cast my eyes over?”

Answers crowded her tongue, about the endless paperwork, and the growing tension between Brillia and Skinner that Liz knew was going to end in somone getting stabbed, and the dragonlings’ wings, and Dagna’s endless research requests and the training requirements and-

And she stopped herself, as if she could feel Dalish’s disapproving glare from the beyond.

He’d known her longer than Liz had, his loss was greater, before she even considered Basra. And...and none of them would be dead if it wasn’t for Liz. If she hadn’t come here, if she hadn’t mucked everything up.

You deserve the stress said a nasty little voice inside her head.

While she could mostly brush it off, she couldn’t help but admit that at the heart of it, the voice had a point.

The voice also sounded just a little like Cullen at his most snide.

“No,” she said, smiling brightly. “I mean, it’s a lot to get used to, and there’s always some adjustments necessary, but Krem’s being brilliant and Cullen’s helping where he can, so I think we’re ok.”

Bull gave her a long level look.

Liz held his gaze, refusing to let herself look away, ignoring the way her stomach rolled with an unnamed emotion.

Eventually, he seemed to buy it, nodding and patting her on the shoulder, and telling her to make time for a drink with him sometime next week. She nodded and left him to head to the stables and her office.

Internally, she should be pleased, she thought. She’d successfully lied to one of the Inquisition’s spymasters.

So why was the only emotion rolling around her stomach something that felt like dread?

Chapter Text

The wind was frigid as it whistled past them, even two and a half hours south of Skyhold as they were, and Liz had never been more grateful for her spelled riding gear than she was with Dorian shivered against her back, providing a thorough demonstration of the position she’d be in without it.

“So why are you in a snit then?” He half shouted over the wind at her.

“What?” Liz turned to glance at him over her shoulder before looking ahead again. “I’m not in a snit!”

The Tevinter gave up and wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face in her shoulder, making her yelp when his cold nose found her neck. “Hey!”

“Stop your fretting, you have warmth to spare!” At least she could hear him clearly now, speaking directly into her ear. “So, tell me - why are we grumpy?”

She glared at Draco’s reigns because she couldn’t do it at him. “”I’m not grumpy. But if I was, you condescendingly phrasing it as ‘we’ wouldn’t help.”

“You are grumpy - we’ve been up here for nearly three hours, and you’ve said all of three words to me.”

“It’s morning! I didn’t get much sleep last night, and I’m not a morning person at the best of times.”

Disbelief blazed from behind her, and the silence that stretched out was thin and awkward.

Eventually, shifting in her saddle, Liz cracked first.

“It’s yesterday.”

“Vishante kaffas, I didn’t think I was thatbad an instructor.”

She sighed and dropped her head. She was so so tired. “You weren’t. It was Cullen.”

She felt Dorian stiffen behind her. “Don’t tell me he’s gone back to being an unbelievable prat again.”

“No, no, he’s still being nice. But...I don’t trust it. But I do! I mean, I think I do. But I don’t want to. Does that make sense?”

“Mmmmno.”

“Fuckit.”

There was a thoughtful quiet for a few minutes. Liz was wondering if Draco would be able to tell if she handed the reigns to Dorian, told him to stick to the heading on the compass and then she dozed off on his shoulder - when her pondering was interrupted by the mage.

“Returning to the point, Liz, I don’t...I don’t mean to invalidate the difficulties you had with him.” Dorian’s voice was soft, careful. “He was an absolute cretin to you, truly, he earnt every insult that you, me, Bull, Krem, everyone slung at him. I think I even heard Solas muttering angrily at one point. But it has been months since Adamant, and yes, he was angry, and more obstructive than the magisterium if they don’t get their bottles on time, and so argumentative I truly thought you were going to just give in and lay him out at one point, but that is all he did. And he apologised, if I am not misremembering. And he, in that backwards Ferelden way of his that we all find so charming, does seem to be going out of his way to try and be, Maker help us, nice, even a bit gallant, where he can. Certainly, the designs for the dragon stables alone-”

“Wait, that was him?!” Liz’s head spun a little.

“Yes. Well, mostly. From what I understand of it, he collated just about every report that exists from the those that have been around you and Draco - getting some of them out of Leliana caused arguments that meant none of the cleaning staff would go into either of their offices for days Sera said - pulled all the relevant bits out in a series of separate reports and threw them through three separate architects to see what solutions they came up with. Then that was collated that into a rough overall idea which he handed off to Dagna for finalising and implementation. So, no, it wasn’t all him. They had been planning on expanding the stables anyway. But certain things like-”

“The fire pits,” Liz filled in. Why was this making her feel worse?

“Yes, and the feeding troughs and such, those were him.”

She wanted to cry, and scream, and turn in her saddle and punch him, and she wasn’t sure which one she wanted most or why those things, so instead she made do with asking, in a strangled voice “What’s your point?”

“Simply this: That’s a lot of time, and a lot of effort to put in. And you - we all, really, but you in particular - have been through some very hard things lately.”

More silence. “So?!” Liz eventually demanded.

Dorian sighed, but his hands around her waist squeezed in a preemptive hug. “So - and I’m not trying to be as condescending as you accused me of when I say this, I promise you - are you sure that this anger you have towards him, as potent and as stoked as you keep it, isn’t a diversion some part of you is focusing on to avoid thinking about such things as poor Dalish’s death or the incident with the Dreadnaught?”

She couldn’t breath for a second, the air a solid object in her throat, eyes flooding and streaming down her cheeks, fighting for control as her shoulders shook. She was not going to have a sobbing fit mid-flight and halfway to the Hinterlands, she wasn’t.

A few more seconds of struggle and she wrenched herself out of Dorian’s arms, not caring if her movement was abrasive.

“What about you?” She demanded.

“What?” He sounded confused.

“Aren’t you doing the same? This is your family, your father, all things you don’t want to deal with. How are you not certain you’re pulling shit out of your arse and coming up with stuff while ‘analysing’ me, only because you don’t want to have to think about the crapshoot you’re about to walk into?!”

The silence that settled between them was tense and uncomfortable. Liz was overwhelmed by another urge to sob, and ended up holding her breath until she thought her lungs would burst to make it go away. She wouldn’t lose control, couldn’t, mustn’t, mustn’t, mustn’t-

Another sigh from Dorian. “You might be right,” he admitted, voice very quiet.

Still choking on a sob, Liz didn’t reply.

“But,” his voice was so soft it was like being wrapped in cotton wool - the only problem was Liz didn’t feel she deserved it; she’d have felt better if he yelled. “Please consider - just because you’re right, it doesn’t mean I am wrong. I...I won’t bring it up again, if it upsets you. Just know that we’re here, alright? And we care about you, and if there’s anything we can do to help, we will. You have but to ask.”

He wrapped his arms around her waist and hugged her again, and she couldn’t find it in herself to shove him away, but didn’t trust herself to speak on the matter either.

“What do you want me to do in Redcliffe?” She asked, forcing her thoughts to change the subject along with the conversation; her voice was broken and crackly with tears, but thankfully Dorian ignored it, as did she. “I can hardly land Draco in the middle of a town, never mind leave her unattended-”

“No, no, that’s fine,” he replied hurriedly. “I wasn’t expecting you to, the ride is enough. Unless, of course, the Inquisitor and I don’t come back. Not that that’s likely, it’s just the last time we met a mage in Redcliffe, it went rather badly and one doesn’t get thrown through time into some hellish alternate future without beginning to consider contingency plans from that point onwards. And should that come to pass, I think it would be only fitting to the grandeur of my outfit that a magnificent beast should descend from the sky to come and rescue us. And Draco as well, of course.”

Liz managed a watery chuckle at that, and with that, they lapsed into a silence far more comfortable and friendly than it had been previously.

And if tears streaked down Liz’s cheeks all the way to Redcliffe, she didn’t mention it, and neither did he.

 

It seemed to take Liz a hideously long time to forget Dorian’s words and concentrate on the work she’d actually brought with her once he left. It felt like they hadn’t been landed that long at all before Draco shifted as if someone she knew was coming, and Liz, panicked, looked down at the parchment and felt like she’d gotten next to nothing done.

She looked up to see the inquisitor appear around the bend of the path without Dorian accompanying her, and she smiled at Liz when Draco’s coo of welcome made her abandon all pretense at work.

“Everything ok?”

“I think so,” the elf seemed thoughtful. “It wasn’t a retainer who turned up, it was his actual father.”

“Kaffas,” Liz shot to her feet, heat in her throat. “Should we-” only for Lavellan to wave her back to her seat - a boulder that Draco had wrapped herself around.

“Things were tense at first, but...I think they’re working it out. And if they aren’t, well - Dorian might not realise it, but he is more than a match for the man I met in there.”

“Really? Dorian seemed so...concerned.”

“Oh, there are various reasons for that.” She shrugged, her hair glinting in the gentle sunlight of the afternoon. “Children tend to regard their parents as all powerful regardless, even when the truth is somewhat different. And Dorian has had a lot of time away from his family, and has gone through challenges they couldn’t even dream of, that have forced him to improve his abilities beyond those of a normal Altus. If he isn’t back by sundown, then feel free to worry, but in the unlikely event we missed something and someone does try anything by force, I’d be shocked if he couldn’t handle them on his own.”

“Ok then,” said Liz, her heart rate slowly returning to normal. “As soon as he’s back, we’ll head for Skyhold-”

The Inquisitor made a rude noise. “No you won’t.”

Liz blinked. “Beg pardon?”

The elf smiled. “I appreciate the effort, and it’s nice to know you can fly through the night having already spent most of the day in the air, but I think we should save stretching Draco’s stamina like that for emergencies. You’re stopping the night over at the camp by the other side of the pass - you know the one?”

“Yes,” Liz said. “Are you sure?”

“Sure enough that the rest of the Riders were informed before you set out,” she said, smiling. “I did send you a note…”

“Ah,” said Liz, thinking of the bits of correspondence she hadn’t gotten around to yet with a sinking sensation in her stomach. “I….er….”

The Inquisitor patted Draco on the nose as the dragon inspected something she had in her pockets. “Don’t worry about it - I know the feeling.”

Liz looked at the work in her lap. “Doesn’t mean I’m actually managing to do my job,” she muttered angrily.

Lavellan sniggered, which made her look up. “What?” she asked.

“You get through so much more correspondence than I have ever managed to, while being more involved with your people than I have ever managed, while juggling the requirements of a unit that no one knows how to fulfill, so you’re making it up as you go. Have you ever considered that, for one thing, it wouldn’t hurt you to miss certain pieces of information, and for another, you’re being too hard on yourself?”

“Missing information gets people killed,” Liz retorted unhappily. “And my entire reason for being here is to do my job. If I can’t-”

“Spending too much time trying to remember irrelevant information will burn you out. And yes you are. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. You keep comparing yourself to this perfect standard, let me guess, that you set by Cullen?” Liz nodded. “Cullen, along with Leliana and Josephine, are my advisors and the heads of the respective inquisition forces because they are legends in the field. They have had years, some of them decades, to hone the skills they rely on to keep things running smoothly day to day and navigate what the Inquisition asks of us. You landed here from another world less than two years ago-”

Liz started. She’d been here more than a year?

Lavellan continued, but her sharp gaze indicated she hadn’t missed Liz’s surprise. “And yet you’re somehow keeping up with them. I’ve told each of them to see if they can find time to look in on you and give you some pointers, but in the meantime, please don’t be too hard on yourself. You are managing beautifully. Trust that.”

Liz didn’t know what to say - she felt just emotionally numb on the inside after it all. Instead, she made do with just nodding. The other woman nodded back.

“I’ll see you back at Skyhold when you get there,” she said cheerfully, and then disappeared in a cloud of fade energy.

Draco huffed her disappointment at the elf’s departure, and Liz patted her on the side. “Yeah,” she said simply. “I….have no idea what to do from here either.”

 

Dorian was quiet and thoughtful on the short ride to the camp, declining to talk about it until they had landed, eaten and drunk something, then been shown to the tent they were due to share.

It was only when they were both lying on the cots inside said tent that Liz broke the silence. “How was it?”

She could just about make out his silhouette in the gloom. “Hard,” he said, eventually. “You would think…” Then he sighed and turned onto his side.

A beat passed.

“After all this time, I thought all I wanted from him was acknowledgement of what he’d done. For him to admit his actions and what they’d done to me. To tell me he loved he as I was, and that he was wrong. He did all that.”

“You...don’t sound very happy.”

“I’m not. And I don’t know why. I got everything I wanted; why do I still feel so...angry?”

Liz curled up on her side as well, looking at the dark blob she thought was him. “Habit? Or maybe you were angrier about more things than you realise, and this was only ever part of it?”

“Maybe,” he seemed to mull it over. “I wonder...I think I’m falling out of love with my homeland. No, that’s wrong. Not out of love with it. It’s more taking off the blinders. Back when my father did what he did, I was angry at him and fled because of what he did and the fact that as my father, I had no other legal recourse...I didn’t stop to think how others would have viewed his actions. In truth? I think there are many heads of house out there who would have found his behaviour understandable, if not praiseworthy. That he has apologised as he has is…extraordinary given the expectations both I and he have on us, and...that is making me furious. I love my country, I do, but we can do better than this, in so many ways. Being with the Inquisition is something of an uncomfortable awakening, but I don’t know what I can do about it. So for now...I’m angry. I suspect I shall stay that way for a while.”

“I’m sorry,” Liz offered meekly, not quite knowing what to say.

“Don’t be sorry, for goodness sake. It’s hardly your fault or your problem. But...if you do happen to come across any sort of instructional pamphlets on how to cut the bloat from your society and drag their morals and mores into this century, screaming in outrage if necessary, toss them my way would you? I’d appreciate it.”

She gave a ‘huff’ of amusement. “Well, you can be angry, but if it’s alright with you, I’m going to sleep.”

“Yes yes. And goodnight to you too, my friend.”

For some reason, that put a lump in her throat, and she fell asleep clutching that gentle whispered ‘my friend’ as she went.

Chapter Text

Draco’s outraged scream cut through the night and brought Liz scrambling to her feet.

“Vishante kaffas!” Dorian shot out of his own bed with ice dripping off him, taking half the bedroll with him, and collided with her, meaning they fell out of the tent flap in an awkward bundle.

’If someone wants to stab me right now, I’m fucked,’ she thought disjointedly, trying to untangle herself from the mage while looking frantically around to see what had caused the dragon such a reaction. The camp came alive around them, and she could hear shouts and people running towards them and their tent.

Eventually she staggered to her feet and turned; Draco was rearing above the tent on her hind legs, shaking her head back and forth like she was worrying at something. She was horrified to see Draco turn her head and spit a body - too slight to be human - from her mouth just as she was surrounded by three inquisition soldiers all waving pikes and yelling. The elf’s body hit the ground at such an angle and with such a ‘thump!’ that there was no way it still lived, but Draco, as if she needed to be sure, ignored the men around her utterly and turned her head this way and that while she examined it, then casually spat a gob of fire onto the corpse as if deciding something.

“Draco!” she yelled, horrified.

The men as one turned on her. “Control your beast!” shouted one of them.

“That thing killed one of my men!” shouted another who wore rank insignia.

Their aggression meant Draco finally paid attention to them, as if they weren’t worth bothering with when they were threatening her but Liz was another matter. A tingle on the back of her neck was the only split second warning she had when ice slammed down between the two groups, as Dorian entered the fray and brought everything grinding to an icy halt.

Even Draco paused and eyed him warily, before shaking icicles off her wings in a casual fashion as if making a point that the spell was at most a minor annoyance to her.

“How about,” he snapped, heavily sarcastic, “you all stop behaving like cretinous lummoxes with this whole bit where you annoy the multi-tonne fire breathing colleague of my friend here, and discuss this like civilised people capable of actual deductive reasoning.”

A human man with command stripes on the arm of his uniform chose that very moment to appear around the corner of a tent, flanked by a pair of very large guards. His eyes swept the area, then locked onto one of the men that had been harrying Draco.

“Report!” he snapped.

The soldiers thankfully all took that as cue to lower their weapons and snap to attention.
Dorian sighed and dropped his hands, and the ice walls immediately began receding. “Let me get my outer robe if we’re going to be standing out here,” he muttered, turning to go back into the tent.

“It’s Nellas ser!” The man pointed to the still burning corpse. “We had just started our rotation when that thing” he jabbed a thumb in Draco’s direction, who was watching the proceedings with interest, “started making that racket; it ate her!”

She did not eat her, that much is patently obvious,” Liz snapped.

“Only because it was made to spit her out,” the other man countered. “For fuck’s sake, she was new as well; only transferred in yesterday. Probably lost track of her own tent and then your thing-”

“Enough,” the commander dismissed their squabbling. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Liz scrabbled for an answer. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “We were asleep, got woken by the noise, and came out to find…this. But she wouldn’t have attacked someone unprovoked! I don’t know what was done, but there must have been something!”

“That is hardly-” the commander started, before Dorian’s voice cut across them.

“I believe I may know the answer,” he said, sounding grim.

As one, they all turned to him, where he was stood at the mouth of their tent, his hands outstretched, a large glowing orb suspended between them.

Within the orb, rotating slowly, was a standard issue Inquisition dagger.

“No one,” Dorian drawled. “No one is to have physical contact with this weapon. And we should probably test it just to be sure I’m correct, but I would know the smell of it anywhere. Which leads me to the question,” he glared at the commander, “exactly how did a dagger covered in saar-qamek end up outside our tent?”

There was a beat.

The commander stared at it in horror. “Well, fuck me.”

Liz quite agreed.

 

It took several hours to straighten the camp, relocate the rapidly doused body and put the pieces together, mostly because of Draco’s anxiety and her absolute insistence that neither Liz nor Dorian could leave her sight. Liz was apparently more accustomed to being babysat by a dragon than the Tevinter.

“Liz, get her to let me out!”

“She’s worried. Can’t you stay close for just a little while longer? It won’t hurt.”

“It might fatally wound my dignity. I have to piss, thank you very much, and as much as I’m sure you and all around me would swoon were I to reveal myself, a man must maintain some air of mystery.”

“There is the latrine trench just over there - you wouldn’t have to go out of sight for that.”

“By Andraste’s merciful nose hairs, and I say that because if I go anywhere near that trench, mine will fall out, are you mad? Have you smelt that thing? Don’t answer; we both know you haven’t, or you’d have expired from horror. Don’t ask such a thing.”

“Dorian-”

“No, I simply can’t. And I am going to piss. Over there, in that wood somewhere, in refreshing privacy, without that mother hen you dare call a dragon and military force attempting to sit on me. You can either reign her in, or I will freeze her myself, and then the next time I have to relieve myself, I will ensure it is in your mug at Skyhold. And don’t doubt I can - I know where you keep it.”

In the end, Liz ended up sort of half draped over Draco’s nose while the dragon made pathetic little ‘toc-toc-toc’ noises deep in her throat, watching the trees anxiously until Dorian returned, at which point he was greeted with a low trill.

“Ridiculous beast,” he muttered, but put a hand up to scratch under her jaw bone regardless.

“Can anyone read this?”

A scout - a male dwarf - called across the campfire from where he stood holding up a piece of parchment. Draco growled at him until Liz tapped her on the nose. Dorian crossed to him and took it to peer at in the morning’s light, then let loose a stream of Tevinter expletives that Liz couldn’t follow and made the scout back away before disappearing back into the tents.

“I take it that means ‘yes’,” Liz said dryly.

“It means….I can’t read it. But I recognise the script. This? I’ve seen these characters before...from what’s been recovered from Qunari warriors after attacks. Bull could translate, more than likely.”

“Oh hell,” Liz put her head in her hands, thinking hard. “Elves...lots of elves went to the Qun after Kirkwall, didn’t they?”

“Exactly how many sleeper units do you think we have lurking within the Inquisition?” Dorian was looking slightly pale. “If you’re a high priority target, high enough that this one took a chance on you like this...”

Liz’s brain was running ahead of her. “We can’t let this get out,” she said, horrified. “Not...not to the general populace. Dorian, too many people already pick on the elves. Fuck, if we gave them an excuse for their racism to get worse-”

“It’s commendable on some level that thatis the thing you immediately worry about, rather than your own survival, but yes, I agree. For many reasons, not just those. We should talk to those in charge, but keep it quiet. Cullen, Nightingale, Josephine...they’ll know how to handle this. Until that point, stay only with those you can trust, or within Draco’s sight. I doubt she’ll let harm come to you.”

Liz managed a small, hard laugh. “Even if I can’t relieve myself without company.”

Dorian looked her, expression serious. “Liz, that much saar-qamek could have killed you even if all she’d done was give you a papercut. Until this is worked out? Take the dratted dragon to the privy with you. It’s better than the alternative.”

 

By the time they landed back at Skyhold, the sun had set - treating Dorian and Liz to the most glorious view as it had done so - and the torches were lit as they landed.

Krem was there to meet them, and laughed a little when Liz all but threw herself off Draco’s saddle to hug him, and had barely let go when Draco piled in, making ‘glad to see you’ chirps.

The man laughed and pushed them both away. “You’d think you’d been gone weeks!”

“No,” Liz smiled, and it felt like the first thaw after a long spring. Maker, how long had it been since she’d laughed with Krem?

Not since Dalish, she admitted internally. It still hurt. But Krem’s pain was worse than hers. If he felt up to smiling and laughing, she wasn’t going to squash it with her own measly concerns. “Just...stuff happened,” she finished.

He raised an eyebrow, as Dorian’s muttered ‘vishante kaffas!’ caused them to turn and look at the spectacle the mage was making of himself while trying to unhook from the saddle. “Can’t talk about it?” His voice was soft.

“Not yet. Need to run it past the commanders first. You know if Cullen’s still up? I should probably go to him first.”

“I think so. He had a big bust up with Cassandra earlier, Marno was up with the quartermaster and heard them chewing each other out. Apparently the Inquisitor had to wade in to sort it out. So, I know he’s turned over a new leaf and all, but just…”

“Careful I don’t get my head snapped off?”

He nodded, squeezed her shoulder, then sighed and went to rescue Dorian.

 

She paused before knocking on Cullen’s door, a moment of nervousness stilling her hand. Grim, who had agreed to accompany her, gave her a long look then turned away, as if agreeing with the hesitation.

Did she really want to do this now? Fine, it was dark and late, and there was a rare lack of other people around, but she’d had enough of being on the sharp end of Cullen’s tongue to last a lifetime.

Maybe she should try Leliana first?

From inside Cullen’s office, there the sudden ‘thud!’ of a body hitting the floor and a low, stifled cry of pain.

All thought went out of her head. With one hand she unlatched the door, with the other drawing a sword, she barrelled inside, Grim hard on her heels.

Cullen was slumped against the far wall, looking only semiconscious. A quick sweep of the room didn’t reveal the attacker still present - out a window maybe? - so trusting Grim to watch her back, Liz ran to him and frantically checked his pulse.

“Cullen? Cullen - can you tell me what happened?”

It was like he didn’t hear her. His skin was cool and clammy and had an almost grey tinge in colour, his pulse racing under her fingers. He seemed to raise his head with effort and peered at her through unfocused eyes as if he didn’t know her.

“Fuck,” she muttered, running her hands over his chestpiece, lifting his arms. Was it poison? There was no food on his desk, but she couldn’t find any blood that indicated a wound.

If she raised the alarm, people would come. The assassin could be among them. Even if they died in the process, they might finish the job. The Inquisition couldn’t afford to lose Cullen, he was too important.

“Grim, get Stitches and only Stitches, do you understand? No one else. And tell Krem I won’t be back to the stables for a while.”

The blond man nodded and left, closing the door quietly behind him. Liz took her up sword again; if someone came in she would be ready for them.

“Liz?” Cullen’s voice was uncertain, and slightly throaty, but his eyes met hers when her head whipped around for her to stare at him.

“I’m here,” she said softly, giving his arm a reassuring squeeze - or trying to through the armour. “I’m armed, they can’t get to you. Cullen, what happened?”

His gaze flickered towards the right hand door. “Lyrium,” he muttered.

In the gloom, she could just about make out shards of glass on the floor. Liz sucked in a breath. “They poisoned your lyrium?” she said, horrified.

He gave an odd half-smile, eyes falling shut as if he had to fight to keep them open.

“No,” he managed finally. “I...I stopped taking it.”

She stared at him. “You what?!” The words only came after several seconds of horrified silence during which the naked, emaciated figures of the templars under lyrium withdrawal that had been shown as in the first game danced in front of her eyes. Something visceral and full of dread twisted her stomach at the thought of Cullen becoming like that. “Cullen, lyrium withdrawal kills! Why?! Why would you-”

He let out a little ‘huff’ of breath. “I couldn’t stay,” he said, eyes fluttering. “Couldn’t....not after what I did. Not after what they did. Shackles. I just...I just wanted to take the shackles off.”

“You-” she ran out of words, unsure of what to say.

He gave her that small crooked smile again for a second before it was washed away by a grimace. “The pain…” he panted for a few seconds, chest heaving, muscles spasming. “I tried to resign. The Inquisitor wouldn’t have it. I can’t work with the pain.”

“Because you’re dying! This is killing you! There has to be a way to get you lyrium that doesn’t leave you beholden to the templars, Cullen, please! Don’t do this!”

He didn’t reply, just turned his face away. Liz yanked at her hair, trying to think. Fuck, there had to be some way, some means she could-

“What if I deserve it?” His voice was quiet and broken and harsh against the frantic silence of her panicked thoughts. “The things I did...what if I deserve this?”

“No one deserves this,” Liz said promptly. “Cullen, I don’t care if you befouled the golden city yourself, this is not-”

“They tortured me.” He turned his head back and he was looking at her with such an expression, like a plea, for absolution, for understanding, his eyes like silk-spun sunlight in the low torchlight. “In Ferelden’s tower. But you knew that, didn’t you? You saw it.”

Liz gulped. “Just...just the tail end. Just when the hero found you. But yes, I knew.”

His eyes closed, teeth gritted, and for a second his back arched, muscles locked and tense and yet quivering as if convulsing somehow, before relaxing again, making choked off noises deep in his throat, tears streaming from his eyes. “Maker, Cullen,” Liz put one hand to his cheek, gathering herself to argue with him that this was a stupid course of action again.

“That’s the pain,” he cut her off, voice hollow and panting. “That’s what this feels like. Again and again. Kirkwall, what I did, I can never be free of it. This is what it has brought me.”

“And what good does this do anybody?” Liz demanded, harshly. “You could be up and working to help in practical ways! You could help mages, you could reeducate Templars, you could work with the Chantry!”

He snorted. “The Maker works in mysterious ways,” he retorted. Under the pain, he sounded bitter.

“Well, fuck the Maker in that case!” Liz cried. “Fuck him! You serve, and you serve, and you serve, and you come out of it thinking this is what you deserve?”

He just looked at her with tired eyes and an expression that made her want to weep.

The door flew open and Grim ran in, followed by Stitches carrying a large leather satchel. Grim closed the door while Stitches came straight over to them.

“Grim said it was poison?” he said, opening the satchel and pulling out small glass vials.

Liz shook her head. “Lyrium withdrawal,” she replied. She wouldn’t cry with hopelessness, she wouldn’t. “He, he stopped taking it, the stupid nughead.”

“Oh,” said Stitches, pausing. “Well, that’s different altogether.”

Liz swallowed. “Is there anything you can do?” She was quite proud her voice didn’t shake.

Stitches looked at her curiously. “What? Of course there is.”

Liz blinked. “What? But in Origins...I mean, when I looked, I thought lyrium withdrawal always killed?”

He gave her an understanding smile, and shook his head. “No. Not on it’s own, not often. Lyrium, well, it’s still a drug, which means it’s sold on the black market like all the others. Saw it occasionally in use in Denerim, although mostly only by noble brats who were bored with being safe and well fed. It’s damned painful, fuck, I’d take a hot sword through an arm over going through those shakes, but it’s not always terminal. It just makes them very forgetful, and can also incapacitate. So they forget to eat, to drink, to care for any wounds. Then they get weak and can’t take it, and then they die.”

Liz stared. “But...the effects-”

“Those can be permanent,” Stitches shrugged. “But the body can heal, or learn how to get past most anything, given time. It’s normally governed by willpower, and how hard you work. If anyone has a shot at getting out the otherside, I’d say it’s our commander here. You suffer more the worse your life has been, because it tends to make you relive your most painful moments, but there are tonics and such that can be used to lessen the impact.”

“I didn’t know that,” Cullen’s voice was soft and held another emotion Liz hesitated to name. Shame?

Stitches gave the man a nod. “How many Templars who successfully left the Chantry were you allowed to stay in contact with? I presume not many, just occasionally got names of the dead read out to you?”

Cullen closed his eyes, as if in pain or denial. Or both. “Maker,” he breathed, before his body spasmed again. Stitches leant forward and placed both hands around the back of his neck, supporting it until he untensed again.

“I see,” he said he said when it was over, his voice kind. “Come on ser. Let’s get you into bed.”

 

It took Grim, Stitches and Liz all working together to wrestle Cullen up the ladder into his room, and then Liz looked away when the two men removed his armour and put him in bed after Stitches had poured something down his throat. Whatever it was was obviously effective though, as he was asleep before they placed him back on the pillow.

Stitches took her to one side while Grim did his best to tidy what they’d messed up from its regimental neatness. “He’ll need dosing every hour for the next four hours or so, then every four hours after that. Once he’s past that, I can mix him up something he’ll only have to take once a day, sort of as a preventative measure, but he will need someone to stay with him through tonight. The chance of him vomiting in his sleep is too high otherwise. I’m supposed to be doing a shift on with the refugees, but I could cancel? Or fetch someone?”

Liz pinched the bridge of her nose. Getting someone else meant pulling someone else into this, which meant word of Cullen’s condition could get out on the grapevine and that would be bad for morale. Theoretically, she could get Cassandra or the Inquisitor, but the Inquisitor was always busy, and Cassandra wouldn’t be welcome if they’d just had a big argument. And there was no way in hell she was depriving the refugees of a healer if they needed one.

“I’ll stay,” she said, coming to the inevitable conclusion. She wouldn’t think about how little she’d slept last night and how badly in need of sleep she was. Or how much she wanted a bath and how she must smell. “Could you tell Dorian I’ve been delayed and that he’ll need to go and speak to Leliana for me?”

“Of course.”

Ten minutes later, he and Grim disappeared down the ladder, and Liz, armed with more bottles of weirdly-coloured and bad-smelling liquids than she thought she’d ever need, settled down beside Cullen’s bed to wait.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t until just after she’d poured the fourth hour’s dose down his throat - by which point she was awake by sheer force of will alone - that he blinked and looked at her with any semblance of real recognition.

“Liz?”

She managed a smile, and she wasn’t sure how - her hands were shaking, and she felt cold to the bone, she was so tired. “Hi.” He, meanwhile, had regained colour in his cheeks and his eyes were clear; whatever Stitches had mixed up, it had worked.

“Maker,” he half sat, looking at her with concern, the sheet sliding down to crumple around his waist and some detached part of her brain noted that Stitches and Grim, the sadistic bastards, had removed his shirt before putting him to bed and then left her alone to deal with him. “Are you alright?”

No sane person could deal with a half naked Cullen when this sleep deprived and trust themselves to make sense, she decided, looking at him; it just wouldn’t happen. He was too damned pretty. In her current state, she’d be very pleased if she could make it out of here without first drooling and then sleeping on him. Being coherent would be a miraculous achievement and it would be unfair to expect to reach it.

“Fine, just...tired,” she managed, smothering a huge yawn, and looking at him out of the one eye she could keep open. “Stitches says he has a tonic you can take, in future. To stop it getting this bad. If you’re ok to be on your own now, I’ll just go…”

She looked at the ladder out of his room, and then at her own shaking hands. Cullen did likewise. “Can you make it out of here?” he asked, sounding skeptical.

“Yes,” said Liz, stubbornly.

“You’re lying,” he said, cursedly reasonable.

“Maybe,” she conceded. “But I can’t stay here-”

“Maker’s breath, yes you can. It’s a large bed, and if you’re uncomfortable, I’ll go.”

She gave him a flat look, or as much of one as she could manage at present. “I know what state you’re in. You couldn’t make it down that ladder any more than I can.”

“Fine, then I’ll take the floor.”

“Oh hell no,” Liz snapped, and then realised he wasn’t going to understand her because she’d reverted to English. “No,” she repeated, this time in Common. “Absolutely not. You’re the patient here. I’m just tired.”

“So tired you cannot stand. Either rest or I will leave this bed.”

“Fine, then I’ll take the floor!”

“I am not having the person who has exhausted herself tending to me sleeping on the floor like an unwanted Mabari pup!”

They glared at each other for a long moment - or rather, Liz tried to glare, but with only one eye open, it was less than effective. Cullen met her gaze without flinching.

“Fine,” she snapped, finally, unable to come up with an alternative plan that didn’t consist of yodelling out of the hole in the roof and hoping Draco heard and came to get her. “Have it your way, stubborn man.”

He didn’t smile, but he did close his eyes and sink back down into his pillow in what appeared to be relief, and Liz had to squash the urge to insult him just to restart the argument. You didn’t win this, goddamnit, you smug git.

Giving up on dignity, Liz didn’t even bother to get up and walk - instead, she crawled around to the other side of the bed before prying off her boots and then pausing and wondering if it was going to be worth the effort of removing her armour before passing out. Considering the state of her hands, likely not.

As she contemplated, gentle fingers undid the clasps on the back of her neck.

“I could have gotten those,” she grumbled, pulling the chest piece free.

“You lie a lot when you’re tired,” he sounded almost bemused.

“Yeah, well, boo to you,” she snapped, flopping into bed.

She thought he said something in response, but she was out as soon as her head touched the pillow so she couldn’t make it out.

 

When she opened her eyes again, the angle of the light said hours had passed, and it was well past the middle of the afternoon. She felt oddly rested. For the first time in weeks, since Dalish was killed, it was like she felt...ok. Not good, but not bad either. As if she was open to the possibility of the day turning out to not be terrible, rather than immediately wanting to hide under the bed or assuming it would be awful.

Hunh. Weird.

Inspecting herself, she found both her vambraces and one of her greaves had been removed, but all clothing was still present, even her socks, and Cullen was still asleep next to her.

She should have gotten up immediately. Or looked away. She knew that.

But it was hard to look away when he looked so...different in sleep. His eyelashes cast shadows on his cheeks in the afternoon sun, glinting gold, and his face was different - smoothed out and carefree in a way that he never looked while awake. It made him seem younger, and vulnerable. Even the scar on his lip seemed to fade slightly, and the sheet was crumpled, revealing stretches of his chest.

She bit her lip. He really was very attractive. Being in this position with him, some part of her brain seemed to take it as a go sign and lit up, making her feel uncomfortably aware of his presence.

Oh, that’s not good. She did NOT need those sorts of thoughts right now.

She let out her breath in a frustrated ‘huff’, and he opened his eyes.

There was a shocked moment where they examined each other.

“Hello,” he said finally.

“Hi,” she said. “I was just trying to wake you.” It seemed as good a lie as any for why he'd woken up to find her staring at him.

He smiled slightly, and it did unwanted things to her stomach. He’s your commander Liz, knock it the fuck off.

“Back to the grind?” He asked softly. “You needn’t for a while. Cassandra popped in to check on us. She told me you’d already instructed her that both of us would be out of contact for the rest of the day.”

“Oh, yes. Sorry, I forgot to tell you. It seemed best.”

He turned his head so he was staring up at the hole in the ceiling again. “It’s welcome, even if part of me thinks I shouldn’t.”

She stared at him then snorted in disbelief. “You work all hours of the day and night as it is - of all people, you deserve a break.”

He gave a low laugh that sent ripples down her spine. “Liz, I could say that about you.”

She refused to meet his eyes and sank back into her own pillow. “No you couldn’t. You meet your deadlines.”

“No I don’t.”

Shocked, she turned her head to stare at him, then wished she hadn’t. There was something incredibly vulnerable about lying in bed with him like this, even when nothing had passed between them. But she couldn’t look away from those eyes, rich brown tinted with gold.

“What?” she said eventually.

“I don’t, not always. Neither do my men. For one thing, I’m the commander of the Inquisition armies, so I also set the deadlines, but more importantly, I know my men. I know those working for me. I know when they have been giving it their all compared to slacking off. There is no point beating people around the head because they’ve missed an impossible target if they’re doing their best, and I would be a bad commanding officer if I did so. If that’s the situation, then it’s my responsibility to move the deadline, not berate the people who could never have met it. If something isn’t achievable in the timescale they’ve asked for, I - and you - can push back and tell them that - tell me that. I will trust your judgement.”

“....oh.” Liz suddenly felt small, and looked away.

His hand landed on her shoulder and squeezed lightly. “None of that,” he said mildly. “You’re still learning - how could you be expected to know?”

Liz’s mouth twisted. “Doesn’t make me feel much better.”

Cullen withdrew his hand and turned his head, looking at her with a thoughtful expression.

“What?” Liz demanded after a handful of seconds wherein her stomach really did NOT cooperate with her.

“Those reports on supply levels you handed in a few days ago - who completed them?”

“Me, of course.” She gave him an odd look.

“And the uniform recommendations?”

“That was me, yes.”

“And the blueprint feedback, and the training schedules, and the guard rotations?”

Liz gave him an unimpressed look. “What exactly are you getting at here?”

He put one hand to his forehead, and then pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is my fault,” he muttered.

Annoyed, Liz propped herself up on one elbow and glared at him. “What?

He looked at her. “Liz, how much of the paperwork on my desk at the moment do you suppose is done by me?”

“Well, all of it?” She shrugged. “I mean, that’s why it’s yours.”

“I do approximately twenty-five percent, if I was to pick a number. I do maybe the equivalent of another five percent of reports and notes for my own reference on top of that. Everything else is handled by those underneath me.”

Liz stared at him. “But-”

“I know. I’m sorry. I should have…” he sighed, and it did wonderful things to his stomach muscles and horrible things to hers. “It’s hard to remember, sometimes, that you’re new at all of this. You’ve been incredibly competent and needed very little by way of guidance once we - once I - finally stopped holding you back. I should have realised you needed more support, I should have made time for you. I must ask your forgiveness for that.”

She felt like crying suddenly all of a sudden. “Have I fucked it up so badly?”

“No!” He shot up, turning to put a hand on her shoulder, but she wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Maker, no. That is my point. You have performed beyond anyone’s expectations. That is why you’ve gotten a little...lost in the rush.” His fingers, gentle and reassuring, touched the underside of her jaw.

“So what have I gotten wrong?” She looked to the side, still feeling deeply inadequate. He dropped his hand.

“Do you trust the people you work with?”

“The Riders? Of course.”

“And their handlers?”

“Well, yes. I mean, they’re competent, they do their jobs well-”

“Was it explained, when you selected them, that part of that job is doing what you ask them to, not just caring for the dragons?”

“...” Liz opened her mouth and then shut it again, feeling she was missing something obvious and was more than stupid for it.

Cullen must have realised, because his voice was kind. “That supply report could have been done by them. Was intended to be, I believe, in fact. You needn’t have taken it on. As is the case with a great many of the things you’re currently overstretching yourself to complete.”

“Oh.”

“No, Liz, as I said, this is my doing. I should have taken you through in more detail. We have time today; I can take you through everything, delegation and reporting structures, logistics, how to pull it all together and what I need you to pass on. We’ll do all of it, bring you really up to date.” He sounded as if he was trying desperately to be reassuring, and part of her was very touched by it.

“Oh,” Liz said, forcing a smile. “In that case, I should probably brief you that a Qunari assassin made a try for me and Dorian when were at the Northern Pass camp yesterday.”

There was a beat where he stared at her, open mouthed. “Maker’s breath, you couldn’t have led with that?!” He rocketed out of bed and over to a chest and started pulling clothing out of it, pulling a shirt over his head.

“Well, in my defense, you were nearly dead!”

“Irrelevant - we need to see Leliana. Now.

 

Leilana’s desk in the loft was covered with pieces of parchment, all of which had arrows pointing to numbers that led to some sort of referencing system that was entirely over Liz’s head.

“No, you’re going to have to run that by me again,” she said, looking it all over as Cullen, Josephine and the Inquisitor all nodded their heads as if they entirely understood what was going on. Other than that, the loft was empty, with everyone having been dismissed, and Leliana insisting they stand in a certain area while discussing matters that apparently meant those in the library below couldn’t eavesdrop.

“To summarise, the sheer chaos and destruction that enveloped Kirkwall at the time of the mage uprising makes background checking anyone who was involved in that a very time consuming process, to say nothing of the money involved.”

“Even though we know a great many elves joined the Qun in search of a better life, an even greater number fled the city altogether.” Cullen’s voice was soft, as if in respect of the lives lost in that turmoil. “Working out who fell into which category is far too difficult to be practical to do for everyone.”

“We just do not have those resources to spare,” Leliana, by comparison, was looking annoyed. “Thus, as any organisation must do, we prioritised. Those that work within Skyhold, or in close conjunction to the Inquisition and her inner circle have all been more thoroughly checked. Members of the scouting teams who received little confidential information and had little contact with those outside their own units were not looked at so closely, as they had little opportunity to do harm. It seemed the wisest course of action.”

“Of course,”Josephine chimed in. “Spies are an inevitable part of political life; in an organisation the size of the Inquisition, we will never be without them, and it would be unrealistic to hope to be. Far better to learn who our spies are and use this to our advantage than to send them away. If we did that, they’d just send new ones, and those we might have more difficulty finding than we did the original set.”

“So this woman was a spy for the Qunari, we know that. And now we know why we hadn’t realised.” Liz looked at them. “So why do you all look so worried?”

“Because she shouldn’t have been able to attack you - our original assessment of her access and information was correct. There should have been no way for her to know where you were going to be.” Leliana looked grim. “She was at a different camp entirely, and they were not informed of your movements. Even in the camp you were to stay at, the only person informed was the commander. Bull translated the page you found - she was informed of your arrival the day before you left, giving her time to forge transfer orders and move to the camp where you were going to be in preparation.”

“But…I barely knew we were going the day before we left!” Liz protested. “Dorian only told me in the evening.”

“Dorian spoke to me early the previous morning,” Lavellan looked deeply unhappy. “And I briefed your Riders and their handlers to expect you to be out that day, and I mentioned where you were going to be staying.”

Dread and horror seized Liz’s stomach, and she recalled her words to Cullen, less than an hour ago in his tower.

“Do you trust the people you work with?”

“The Riders? Of course.”

“And their handlers?”

“Well, yes-”

She had meant it. She did trust them. What they were telling her made her instinctively want to deny it, and at the same time, made her a little queasy that she could have misjudged someone so badly, and that someone could hate her so much they would have arranged for her death in such a way while she lived and worked alongside them.

“They could have mentioned it to someone else. Or someone could have overheard. We’ve had work ongoing in those stables for months, we’ve got workmen, stone masons, lots of people wander through there every day,” she couldn’t help but point out, hoping against hope, but the expressions of those around her told her it wasn't the case.

But Leliana was shaking her head. “I made quiet inquiries. The stable was empty aside from your people, and no one spoke of it to anyone else that I can find.”

There was a beat while Liz tried to wrap her head around this. “We have a spy...no, I have a spy. In the Riders.”

“Yes.” Bard as she was, apparently Leliana saw no reason to soften this blow.

“Right. Fuck. What do we do now? I mean, how do we even know…” she looked at Leliana, who was holding her gaze steadily and her expression suddenly made sense. “...Crap. You already know who it is, don’t you?”

“No,” Josephine jumped in. “It is too soon for anyone to be sure of that. But we do have...suspicions.”

“Who?” She knew her expression was flat and unimpressed, and couldn’t help it. Or rather, didn’t care to.

“Brillia. Some of the things in her background are not adding up now we’ve tried to verify them again, and her movements that afternoon would give her an opportunity to leave Skyhold and dispatch a messenger bird.”

Liz blinked, but Cullen spoke first. “That’s...unusual. I didn’t think there were many dwarves in the Qun.”

“You would be surprised,” Leiliana’s lips pursed. “A comparatively large number come from the casteless who have made it to the surface, or those born here who were refused re-entry to Orzammar because they had ‘lost their connection to the stone’. But rarely do they have much of a calling for combat; the Qun prefers to use them in manufacturing, or engineering, so they don’t have much contact with outsiders.”

There was a silence then while they were all lost in thought. Eventually, Liz broke it. “Well shit.” She sighed. “What do I do now?”

“Nothing,” said Leliana, at the same time Cullen said “Work with me.”

They glared at each other.

“We are not certain it is Brillia, and even if we’re right, we have no proof. Changing behaviour now could tip off whoever it is. We could lose this opportunity.”

Cullen was unmoved. “Things need to change anyway. Liz and I were planning on logistics training even before this was known. We can use that as an opportunity to review what we know, ensure that any information that is sensitive doesn’t go to anyone we aren’t sure of, try to find opportunities to see if anyone behaves suspiciously.”

“Cullen is right,” the Inquisitor put her hand on the desk as if making her point. “Change is inevitable, we should make best use of it.”

“I will continue with our line of enquiry,” Leliana said. “Bull is helping as he can, but with his leaving the Qun, this may take a lot longer than we had hoped.”

The Inquisitor was the one to bring the meeting to an end, her words ringing with an air of finality. “Well, whatever you do, stay safe.”

Chapter Text

Cullen’s face when she showed him the piles of documentation on her desk, each neatly segregated from its fellows, was incredulous.

“I...this is your workload?”

Confounded, Liz nodded.

“Can you….would you allow me to look through it?”

She shrugged. “You’re here to tell me how to do this better, so knock yourself out.”

Gingerly, as if worried about invading her space, he stepped behind her desk and sat before starting to leaf through the piles of parchment in front of him. Then he glanced up at her and smiled briefly, as if bittersweet.

“You’re taking the news of a traitor in your ranks far better than I did with my first,” he said, flicking rapidly through her ‘urgent’ stack. “It sent me into a Maker-cursed mood for weeks. You seem calm in comparison.”

She blinked, slightly stunned her inner-turmoil wasn’t obvious to everyone looking at her. “Your first? You’ve had more than one?”

He pulled two pieces of parchment from the pile he was working on, set them to one side, and continued with his flicking, now with a different stack. “In the current Inquisition ranks that I am responsible for, we have at least 8.” His voice was as mild as if he were discussing the weather. “They are known quantities that Leliana and I manage between us. But the first time I was aware someone under my command had betrayed us, I was furious. Even tracked him down outside the city to try and get him to confess; ended up facing off against a demon. That was...unexpected.”

“I remember,” Liz said, suddenly recalling the quest he was referring to, although the memory was rusted and fuzzy. How ironic - she’d spent enough time in Thedas itself that her knowledge of the original games was fading. “Hawke found you, didn’t he? The cadets at the circle were worried that you were making their friends disappear.”

He looked up, wide eyed for a second, then smiled. “Yes. I forget what you must know. It seems very odd for you to have seen everything, for all you were never there where we could see you.”

“Odd isn’t the word I’d pick for it,” Liz admitted, sitting on the stool on the other side of the desk, watching him work. “It feels invasive these days, like I looked in on you all bathing. It was fine when you were just historic figures in stories. Now you’re actual people? It’s like I’ve taken something from you, crossed a line. I almost wish I didn’t know, wish I hadn’t looked.”

“I don’t,” he said firmly. “We would have to be fools, all of us, to regret your presence. I would not change a thing about you.”

A moment of disbelieving silence hung between them as Cullen blinked and then colour flooded his cheeks. “I mean, a thing about what you know, about your knowledge, ah, levels.”

“I, yeah, I understand what you mean,” Liz said hastily - anything to make him stop talking and for the little voice inside her head to stop running in circles while screaming.

He did stop talking, staring at the pages like he was hoping they’d talk back, then resuming his leafing through with vehemence, onto a third stack now. The silence stretched on.

And on.

And on. If silences could scream, this one was.

“So!” Liz forced herself to break it. “I, I had a question.” She did, she could have sworn, five minutes ago, and now it had gone completely out of her head, but she had wanted to break the silence, goddamnit. She wracked her brains, shit shit shit, what was it-

“Oh! Yes, you were saying about delegating work to other members of my team.”

He nodded.

“Won’t that…” she trailed off for a second. “Won’t that make them think I’m shirking my responsibilities? Making them do the work I don’t want to?”

He blinked, and then smiled wryly. “I have no knowledge of what growing up is like where you were a child, but did your parents ever restrict your activities based on your age? Or insist on refusing to allow you the autonomy to do as you wished, to make a decision?”

“Ye-es,” said Liz, squinting at him to know what he was getting at.

“How did it make you feel?”

“Well...frustrated. Like they didn’t trust me. Penned in.”

“And when you escort a child somewhere, do you walk in front of them, pushing others out of the way and clearing a path? Or do you walk beside to offer advice and guidance while letting them find their own way?”

“Beside,” said Liz, slowly.

“Being a leader is much like being a parent in many respects, especially in tasks such as paperwork - or so I’m told, having been a leader for years but never a father. Your eventual goal is to render yourself unnecessary. You are there to guide, to advise, to set boundaries and goals, and to step in when something goes wrong and they need help. It is not to remove their ability to function. To attempt to do it all yourself, far from looking noble and hardworking, makes you look like a parent who refuses to let them out past dusk.”

“Like I don’t trust them.”

“I don’t think they believe that,” he put the papers down for a second and looked at her. “Everyone in your unit is learning still, and the dragons need enough looking after that they have things to occupy them. But it is missing an opportunity you could use to indicate that you do trust them, and are willing to give them their part in the responsibility for the unit.”

“Oh,” Liz said, not knowing quite how to feel about that.

“I would also recommend, if I may, that you need to slightly formalise your command structure. Having an official second could-”

“Krem!” Liz blurted before he could finish the sentence.

He gave a laugh. “Yes, I thought you’d say that. We’ll update the rosters and lists so that it’s official; it will give him more clout and the authority to do things in your stead or on your behalf. That’s always useful. And speaking of command structure, this, I fear, is another failing on my part.”

He held out the sheaf of papers he’d slowly been amassing. She raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Staffing levels and allocation are decided based on workload. Given those under your command and who I knew was sending you requisitions and requests, I was under the impression you were adequately staffed. I was unaware that these people,” he indicated the papers in his hand, “were also sending you items to be dealt with. In light of this, I would like to assign a clerk to your unit, full time, for logistic purposes; they can handle scheduling, organising and assisting you with deadline management.”

Liz blinked. “Won’t that be another possibly security risk?”

“Not if we ask Leliana to give us a short list to chose from. And if we pick right, they’ll also act as a gatekeeper for certain requests. You have some here that, frankly, should never have made it into this room, and even if you were turning them away, that would still take up your time. They can act as a barrier and turn away those requests before they even reach you.”

“That would be amazing,” Liz admitted.

He smiled at her, as if her praise had genuinely pleased him; the expression made her feel warm in an unexpected manner. “Good. Now, your current method for organising all this has some merit, but would you permit me to make some suggestions?”

Liz turned on her stool, grinning and leaning in to see what he had for her. “I’m all ears.”

 

The sun was starting to set, the colours vivid in the sky, as she and Draco glided in an easy circle around Skyhold. The day had been cool, but the night was shaping up to be freezing, and she could almost feel the runes on her flight gear kick into action to ward off the chill.

It wasn’t that she was hiding, precisely; it was more that she wanted somewhere to think where she definitely wouldn’t be interrupted. Draco hadn’t objected, her eyes now half shut in bliss at the sensation of wind beneath her wings, both of them far too high up for any danger to be a worry; this was the perfect company and escape route for such things.

Trust. Cullen. Brillia. Halamshiral. In that order, those issues loomed large on her mind.

What the fuck was she going to do about Cullen?

She gave an internal laugh and had a passing desire to throttle her own subconscious. Typical that her brain went there first. That was definitely not her biggest issue.

That would be trust.

So many things came down to trust. Cullen said she should trust her unit, but that was a big, big ask. She knew it wasn’t logical, but she still felt like last time she’d trusted someone under her command to make the right call on what they should do, it had been Dalish and she’d died - and Liz still woke gasping in the night sometimes, so sure she could call her back that the arrival of consciousness was a bit like hitting the ground after falling off the cliff. The idea of that incident repeating itself because she’d handed over trust to someone who misjudged the situation when she could have saved them felt a little like being punched in the gut.

And then trusting the advice itself involved trusting Cullen, and that was a whole different can of worms. Or butterflies, given how her stomach felt when he was around. She really, really wasn’t sure how to handle that. If she even wanted to consider, even inside her own head, if something could be there between them.

He’s your commanding officer.

Yes. Fine. That was a consideration. But in the original game, he’d been a romance option, despite being the Inquisitor’s CO, so theoretically, that