Chapter 1: Warrior
It wasn’t long before all of Haven knew of Essa’s latest misadventure. That her survival was being viewed as yet another miracle was just one more absurd card in the precariously balanced house of Essa Trevelyan. After an afternoon with the healers and her advisors—why were they her advisors again? A figurehead was supposed to be without major decision making power, right?— Essa had fled. She could still hear them arguing over whose aid to seek in closing the Breach. The endless rise and fall of tumbling words droned until she felt every raised voice, every shout reverberating down her still aching spine.
They all clearly expected her to go to the mages for help. It had taken Essa a moment to realize that their heated debate was not merely over to whom they would turn for aid, but rather which side the Inquisition was backing in the war itself. Essa had attempted to remind them all that the Ostwick Circle had remained strictly neutral.
“Neutrality is not a luxury the Inquisition has,” Leliana had told her in a surprisingly cool voice.
Essa had thrown up her hands in frustration. “Then make the damn choice!”
“We are evenly divided on the matter,” Josephine said in a more diplomatic tone.
“And you need me to break the tie,” she had realized.
No one had spoken. Essa couldn’t decide if she would better served by laughing or screaming. She chose stillness and then she let the weight of it fill the room. They lowered their voices first, each taking a turn at studying her for weakness or temper. Essa squared her shoulders. Waited for them to shuffle into silence. Finally she sighed.
“Two days,” she said.
The look that she shot Leliana was enough to quiet the spymaster before she could dissent.
“Give me two days and at least some time to myself. I will bring you a decision the morning after next.”
She hadn’t waited for their agreement, she had been too close to pleading for the time, Breach and all other worries be damned. She didn’t know how well they could read her. Ostwick had taught Essa some small measure of pretense; she could keep most of her emotions off of her face now. Either way, she hadn’t seen any of them since. She had slept in the barn that night, bedded down in Geri’s hay, the gelding munching contentedly around her.
Essa awoke with the chickens. The loud cry of the rooster filled the stable while she lay petting Geri’s nose, and breathing in the warm scents of hay and horse. She watched a hand appear over the stall wall, dumping grain into the horse’s feed trough. Essa didn’t see who was feeding up—they proceeded to the next stall without peering in—but as her stomach growled, she idly wished she could get on the feeding rotation. She dreaded a trip to the mess tents, and she felt too guilty to sneak to the kitchen and beg favors from the cooks.
With a sigh, she climbed to her feet, dusting hay off of her clothes. She knew she smelled like a barnyard, and she pretended that she didn’t know why it would bother her. It wasn’t something she herself found offensive after all. Essa kissed Geri’s jaw and received a grainy smear of affection on her sleeve on her way out. She was still wiping at the leather with the tugged down cuff of her tunic sleeve when she emerged from the stable and walked face first into a broad armored chest.
“Andraste’s Mabari!” she swore, stumbling back and rubbing her nose.
Cullen was a syllable into apologizing before she looked up.
“Of course it’s you,” she said with grumpy exhale. “You don’t sleep do you? You’re always alert and ready to face the day before the rest of us stop drooling.”
No, he didn’t sleep. He tried to blame lyrium withdrawal, but he had stopped sleeping with any regularity long before he stopped using.
“And your excuse for being awake before the rest of Haven?” he asked mildly.
She offered him a hesitant smile.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m being an arse. It would be easier on me if you were too. Could you just say something hateful? Maybe ‘ergh, argh, I hate all mages and they should be put to death’?”
Cullen stared down at her in bemusement. There was a time when her flippant comment wouldn’t have been much off the mark, and too often that bothered him, but something about her scowling face had him smiling down at her.
“I brought breakfast,” he said instead, lifting the covered pail he carried in one hand.
“UGH!” Essa yelled at him.
She stomped one foot at him and his grin widened. Before he could tell her how young she looked with hay in her tousled hair and one hand on her hip, Essa poked him in the breast plate with her index finger.
“Listen, Commander, I have decided that I liked it better when I didn’t like you,” she all but growled. “You being nice is. Not. Helping.”
He watched her with an unflinching patience that only made her temper seem that much worse. She didn’t want his sympathy. Essa rubbed her eyes with one hand, put another step of distance between.
“Just take me to yard and wear me out?” she all but pleaded. “I’m so sick of thinking.”
His lip quirked up on the right, his scar flashing white as it rose in mischief.
“Don’t you dare flirt with me this morning,” she hissed in a whisper. “I meant training and you know it!”
She was mad at all of them, she reminded herself. The last thing she needed was him being so bloody charming. Essa thought back on those early weeks when she had kept him off balance with too personal questions and strategic flirtations.
“I do not flirt, Lady Trevelyan,” he told her in a tone that she would have believed if she hadn't seen the glint in his eyes. “You can ask anyone. But I’ll be glad to teach you whatever I can.”
She suspected he was being earnest with her, but Essa’s imagination hadn’t fallen in line with her temper that morning. The images that filled her head had her eyes going wide. Heat bloomed beneath her skin. Essa retreated another step, breathing slowly through her nose as she glared at him.
Cullen fidgeted beneath her gaze, one hand reaching to rub the back of his neck as he turned hiding his smile from her.
“Breakfast first. I promise not to speak of the most recent debate at the war table. There’s also nothing wrong with a bit of silence.”
He stuck his elbow out toward her and Essa slipped her hand into the crook before she caught herself. She scowled at both of them as they walked to the drill yard.
“You enjoy knocking me off my game,” she realized with impressed annoyance.
Cullen chuckled. “I might,” he admitted. “Or maybe I just don’t like to see you brooding and this is my bumbling attempt at distracting you. It’s possible you give me too much credit as an antagonist.”
She dragged along beside him, not feeling remotely awake enough for banter.
“It’s easier on me than the alternative,” she said honestly, though she didn’t tell him what that alternative was.
She thought he knew, but there was no point in starting down a path she couldn’t walk, no matter the company. No matter how much she wished she could. And wasn't that the most disconcerting of all? The night that they had spent in the cove had been a double edged gift. A memory she would treasure, a glimpse of a life she couldn’t have. One she hadn’t realized she wanted until she woke up next to him. The silence between them was too easy, she thought. Everything was, with a list of reasons as long as her arm for why it shouldn’t be. Essa desperately needed the night at the spring to be an anomaly. A result of the rare respite they had just happened to find together, rather than a consequence of their company.
They sat in front of the command tent and shared breakfast as the sun rose. The rooster was still the loudest sound in the yard as light changed from grey to gold and Haven stirred to life. Cullen unpacked the bucket. Essa sighed at the aromas that wafted up to her. The bread was fresh, she just knew it. Cullen tipped the bucket toward her and she reached in with as much restraint as she could manage.
“Sweet Andraste.” She tried valiantly not to make obscene noises as she bit into a still warm scone. She couldn’t remember how long it had been since she had a decent meal. Four weeks? She thought, trying to count days even as her eyes closed in pleasure.
“You can have whatever you want, Commander,” Essa mumbled around the bread. “You want templars, by the Maker, I will get you templars.”
Templars, Cullen thought wryly, were not presently at the top of his list of wants. A fact for which he thought he should have felt at least moderately guilty. Instead, he found himself watching her carefully, lost in the play of emotion across her expressive face.
“There is some ham as well,” he said, ignoring her theatrical declaration. “And Ola sent you something special.”
Ola was one of the cooks. She had a soft spot for Essa that had nothing to do with religious devotion and everything to do with an instinct for mothering that recognized those who most needed it. She understood why the Herald wasn’t comfortable joining everyone for meals, but she had yet to convince Essa to come beforehand. It bothered her to see one who did so much for so many come after meals, taking whatever leftovers she could have.
And with gratitude.
Essa peered back into the bucket and saw a tiny bowl of gleaming red jam.
“She said to—and here I quote—‘tell her worship to bring her arse to breakfast early or I’ll be holdin’ back all the best portions and savin’ them for her’.”
“That is a shrewd woman,” Essa complained cheerfully. “And your impression of Ola was dead on, Commander.”
Cullen smiled as she plucked a piece of ham from the plate in the bottom of the bucket. He watched her place it on top of her scone before licking her fingers clean.
“One of us should have noticed you weren’t getting enough to eat.”
His statement surprised a laugh from her. Essa choked halfway into her next bite.
“I’m hardly starving,” she admonished, casting around for the nearest water bucket.
He handed her a water skin and she took it thankfully.
“I get the same camp rations as anyone else when we’re in the field,” she told him after a few gulps to clear her throat. “I just avoid the mass chaos of the mess tents.”
“You should be getting rest and hot meals in Haven,” he argued sharply. “Sleeping in a bed. Not passing out in the stable and begging for scraps at the kitchen door.”
The idea made him more furious than he realized. Cullen wrapped his food in the clean kitchen towel and dropped it back into the bucket. He was a breath away from getting up to pace. It was that or shake her.
Essa glanced up at him through her lashes. Was he angry with her? She thought his ire might be rooted in concern, but as he glared down at her, she was momentarily distracted by the templar colors and the insignia on his vambraces. She felt old tensions coiling up in her stomach. Too many years of biting her tongue and diverting arguments. Essa held up one hand to stop him. She had taken orders well enough in the Tower, but most of the templars there had either been warned early or learned the hard way. Essa Trevelyan didn’t take commands well.
She’d done a lot of learning over the years too.
Hers was an order, though she meant it as a request. She saw him bristle, his jaw tightening in response.
“I know concern when I hear it,” she said in a gentler tone. “And I appreciate it, but when you use your ‘bossing the ignorant mage around' tone, all I can see is templar red.”
And it made her want to punch him in the mouth, but she kept that part to herself.
“I don’t think you’re an ‘ignorant mage’,” Cullen told her on a sigh that seemed to deflate most of his anger. “Stubborn perhaps, but I have been told that isn’t a stone I can throw.”
She smiled up at him. “I have problems with authority,” she admitted. “Ostwick was good for me, but the first few years were hard. And the templars didn’t care about making it any easier for me. It seems the only time I’m any good at not seeing you as one of them is when you’re out of that damned coat of yours.”
Essa had the great pleasure of watching him flush furiously and stumble for words. Dammit, she thought, as the memory of him very much out of the surcoat in question teased through her mind. She would not lose her briefly gained upper hand by blushing in return.
“Yes—well…I seem to forget too easily that you’re a mage.”
She shook her head a little at the absurdity of it all and busied herself foraging in the bucket for another scone and the gifted jam.
“I wish I could say the same,” Essa admitted.
They finished their breakfast in companionable enough silence. Cullen was slowly growing accustomed to her shifts of mood. She was unpredictable. Quick to advance, just as quick to regroup, and she snarled when she wanted to deny her own smile. He wondered what she was like when she was truly angry. For all her volatility, she exercised careful control of her temper. She made it nearly impossible for him to predict the sharpness of its edge. He really shouldn't like her so much.
“Give me a few minutes to warm up?” she asked, bouncing to her feet.
Cullen nodded. “How’s your back this morning?”
“Stiff,” she admitted, silently thanking him for not mentioning that sleeping in Geri’s stall probably hadn’t helped that fact. “But better. I figured you would just want to do a basic assessment this morning?”
“Yes,” he answered. “Fin brought a staff model by last night.”
He cleared his throat. “Essa,” he began.
She knew in that moment that Cullen understood some of the effect his speaking her name had on her.
“We must discuss your magic.”
“What do you need to know?” she managed the question without gritting her teeth too much around the words.
He gave a small nod, as if giving her credit for the effort it took. “How much do you cast during combat?”
He raised a brow and Essa jerked one shoulder in a rebellious half-shrug even as she paced in small, tight circle.
“Enough,” she repeated. “People die, usually screaming. If they’re lucky, Cassandra puts a sword through them or Varric puts an arrow through them and they die a little quicker for the mercy.”
She stomped off, grabbing a wooden practice sword from the nearby stack of training weapons. Cullen worried for a moment that she meant to attack one of the dummies—the exertion could only aggravate her fading injuries—but she merely spun the sword in her hands, fingers expertly moving over the grip. He watched her for a moment then strode to the command tent to retrieve the staff model.
“Heads up, Trevelyan!”
He threw the staff to her, smiling when she reached up with her shield hand to catch the thing. He checked a grin when she nearly dropped it. Essa’s eyes went wide, but she held on. She spun the staff in a quick rotation, using its momentum to swing one end up and tuck half the length between her right arm and her body. She never dropped her sword.
“It’s weighted,” she said in surprise.
“At both ends,” he confirmed. “Cassandra believes we should train you like a battle mage.”
He watched her spin the staff slowly, experimenting. She was awkward with it; a shield was a held more tightly, moving in shorter extensions of the arm and shoulder. The staff was more fluid; it pulled longer sweeping lines farther from her body. It would be similar to dual wielding unmatched swords and it was possible that Essa didn’t have the aptitude.
“A battle mage?” she asked, moving in a slow loose pattern of footwork.
“An old specialization,” Cullen told her. “Predecessor to the knight-enchanter.”
She paused. “You think I could fight like Vivienne?”
The skepticism was plain on her face. Cullen chuckled. “Uh…no. Not precisely.”
Vivienne was all fleet and grace. A whisper of death upon the field. Essa would never be anything but a roar.
“But I think that you would find the path itself more natural to you.”
Cullen walked to the training racks and picked up a weighted leather ball the size of his fist. He watched as she began to carefully twirl the staff and when she wasn’t paying attention he threw the ball at her accompanied by a shrill whistle.
Essa turned, knocking the ball away with one end of her staff. She didn’t reach for her magic, but she spun the staff, arm raised parallel to the ground as she pointed the other end at him. She lifted a brow and he nodded to confirm the point. If he had been an enemy, she could have torched him. He noticed the way her sword arm and back foot reached slightly behind her for balance. She had reversed her grip on the practice blade, tucking the line of the sword against her forearm. Any threat advancing close behind her would suffer for the trouble.
“Did I pass?” she asked, straightening.
“You did. It’s going to be work,” Cullen warned.
“I’m not afraid of work,” she said with a glower.
“That’s obvious, but you already work hard enough. Are you certain you want to add this level of training on top of it?”
“Will it put a blade back in my hand?” she demanded.
Cullen smiled. How had she survived so long in a Circle? “That is the intention.”
Her face lit with a smile.
“But it will take some time,” he added, lest she get her hopes too high too soon. “And there will be bruises.”
Her smile broadened until she was grinning openly at him.
“I won’t dissemble, Commander. I’m looking more than a little forward to knocking you down a few times.”
“Yes, well,” he had to turn away so that she wouldn’t see his grin. “We’ll see how that goes.”
Chapter 2: Heart Ties
In the wake of Essa's decision between the mages and the templars, the Inquisition prepares for Essa's departure. It can't always be well adjusted self-aware shenanigans. Sometimes even the best of us can be total jerks.
She had chosen the templars and now Andraste was punishing her for it. Essa lay on the ground staring up through the bright morning sun at the man who had apparently taken it upon himself to carry out the Bride’s vindictive will. His scowl would have been more impressive had she the energy to devote her attention to it. Instead, Essa was too busy trying not to whimper as every single muscle in her body ached. She had gone too soft in her years locked in that stupid mages tower, she thought. Even during her brief training in the arts of a chevalier, she had not been so thoroughly beaten. She should be getting up, she thought angrily. Clambering to get her feet beneath or something, instead of doing her best attempt to sink into the ground.
It had easily been one of the the longest two weeks of her life.
Essa’s staff lay useless in her limp fingers, elbow tingling, arm numb. How she hadn’t dropped the damn thing she would never know, but she hadn’t been able to keep the rest of her upright in doing so. Had the ground gotten harder since she slept on it? It had to have, she thought, blinking in an attempt to focus past the crack to the back of her skull.
“Do you know what you did wrong?” her punisher asked.
Essa tried to remember. Had she moved too slowly? Dropped her guard? Given away her move again by lifting her shoulder a second before her arm? The exact sequence of events that had landed her on her back was fuzzy.
“Came to you for training?” she offered, falling on humor when all else failed.
Cullen growled at her. Actually growled. Essa’s half-hearted smile turned into a very real grimace as he reached for her wrist and yanked her to her feet. He was in a particularly foul mood, had been for the past two days. Essa knew that the stress was wearing on all of them. She was leaving for Therinfal Redoubt in the morning. There were so many preparations to make, and she knew that he was worried—they all were—about what sort of reception she would receive from the templars. Both he and Cassandra had argued vehemently for her to seek the templars' aid, but they had not expected her to choose their side. Once she did, they had both shifted their worry to the implications of her being a mage.
As if it hadn’t occurred to either of them beforehand, Essa scoffed. She knew that they both wanted to question her about her decision, but she had remained determinedly silent, belligerently ignoring their attempted interrogations. For nearly two weeks Essa’s entire life had been reduced to training and preparation. Cullen had stepped up her new training regimen, working her beyond what had to be mortal limits. The only advantage was that she was too exhausted to spare much apprehension about her upcoming mission. She certainly didn’t have trouble sleeping.
“If you keep setting your weight on your front leg, you will keep landing in the dirt,” he snarled. “And you. Will. Die.”
She was definitely off of her game, but Essa thought that she might have been paying a bit more than was her due. Cullen turned away, but not before Essa saw the tension tight around his eyes. She let go of her staff, dropped her practice sword, and somehow found the energy to launch herself at his back. His guard was down; she caught him in the middle of his back, her body tangling with his legs as they both went down. They kept the training yard as clear of snow and ice as they could, but the ground was still frozen. The dirt felt like stone as they crashed to it.
Essa drew on her magic and Cullen swore viciously as he twisted beneath her. Even without the use of lyrium, Cullen could feel her connection to Fade. Her torso was stretched in the cradle of his legs and her chin bounced hard against his breastplate. She winced when her lip caught between her teeth, eyes darkening in a mutinous storm. Essa’s magic did not answer her quietly; it rushed into her body in a torrent. He could feel the increasing warmth of her skin even through the layers of cloth and leather between them. Cullen caught the shadow of her raised hand out of the corner of one eye. Before she could strike, he wrapped both hands around her throat. He had pushed her too far this morning, he thought in self-recrimination, and now they were both about to suffer for his error. He squeezed just hard enough to get her attention.
Essa’s eyes went wide with betrayal before her temper caught, and Cullen realized then that whatever the purpose of her tackling him had been, she hadn’t been angry before. He knew that he had mere seconds to decide the best way to immobilize her.
Blue fire sparked against the flint grey of her eyes.
“Idiots!” There was no mistaking Cassandra’s rage.
The water was cold. It hit them in the face with enough force and surprise to snap them both from their fury.
“Get me another bucket!” the Seeker shouted.
Essa didn’t wait for Cassandra’s order to be carried out. She scrambled to her feet hoping to avoid a second deluge. Cullen caught her wrist and jerked her back down beside him.
“Don’t,” he whispered. “You’ll just anger her further.”
They sat contritely as Cassandra threw the second bucket of water over them.
“Your poor armor,” Essa murmured, blinking cold water out of her eyes.
The words were as much sympathy as an offering of tentative peace between them.
“It’ll clean,” he said. “At least you’re not wearing your leather.”
She trained in the same cotton and wool as everyone else, and she was especially grateful at that moment. She tried to pay attention to the stirring lecture Cassandra was railing at both of them, but she was too busy going over the whole mess in her mind.
“Are you listening to me, Herald?!”
Essa flinched at the shout. “I’m sorry, Cassandra.”
“For what?” Cassandra prompted angrily.
“Conduct unbecoming…” Essa floundered for the appropriate words.
“A gross lack of professionalism,” Cullen said beside her. “There is no excuse for our behavior, Cassandra. I’m afraid we’ve pushed the Herald too much this week.”
“The Herald is fine,” Essa gritted between her teeth. “Her judgement has not been impaired.”
Clearly, she thought Cullen’s had been. He felt compelled to remind her that she had attacked him.
“The Herald,” he said with subtler emphasis. “Attacked her training officer after he had quit the field.”
They were so caught up in glaring at one another that they failed to see the Iron Bull very helpfully pass Cassandra a third bucket of water. The Seeker pitched it at them with unremitting displeasure. Ice chunks rained down over their heads and Essa shrieked.
“Andraste’s Mabari!” she shouted. “Did you pull that straight from the damned lake?”
Bull chuckled. “Sorry, boss.” Funny, Essa thought, not laughing. He didn’t sound sorry. “But you weren’t cooling off fast enough to suit the Seeker. I didn’t want her to have to hurt one of you.”
Essa stormed to her feet and Bull whistled appreciatively. She didn’t have to look down to know that her clothes were nearly transparent. She lifted her chin.
“You ogle the goods, you better be ready to hand over some gold,” she said, loudly enough that any onlookers would hear.
Two coins flew through the air toward her. Essa barely caught them before they hit her in the face.
“It’s all I have on me,” Krem said with a grin. “But maybe you could start the Chargers a tab?”
She was still fuming, but Essa couldn’t help laughing as she slipped the coins into her sodden pocket.
“Just take it off of whatever we owe you,” she said, her bravado encouraged.
Essa tried not to look at the crowd that had gathered. She steadfastly avoided glancing down at Cullen, certain that the Commander’s gaze was very respectfully in any direction but hers. Given his sensibilities and his protective compulsions, she’d have wagered her newly earned money that he was fighting not to cover her with his surcoat to preserve the modesty he already knew she didn’t have. Essa counted five small thuds as a handful of coins landed at her feet. There was laughter from the crowd as she grinned and dropped a curtsy.
Cassandra gave a disgusted grunt. “Are we done here?” she asked coolly.
“We are,” Cullen said, plucking the coins from the ground as he rose to his feet.
“Show’s over!” he shouted sternly. “Everyone back to work! And the next person I see disrespecting the Herald will have latrine duty for a month.”
The crowd began slowly dispersing. Cullen turned to glare down at Essa. “Your wages, Lady Trevelyan.”
The disapproval in his voice would have stood her mother proud. Essa refused to be chastised. She raised her chin and smiled at him, eyes wide and jejune.
“Thank you, Commander,” the sweetness in her words could have hidden poison.
“We should talk,” he said quietly.
Essa shook her head. She had reached her limit for the morning. The last thing she needed was to have some reasonable discussion about how she needed better control of her magic before storming the templar stronghold. If he thought so little of her that he believed she had lost her temper and attacked him, then he could stew in his low opinions.
“I’m afraid I don’t have time,” she said, fingers fidgeting with the coins in her hand before sliding the six—
Essa recounted slowly, confirmed that there was indeed an extra coin. She watched Cullen suspiciously as she added the coins to her pocket. His scowl never wavered.
“We leave in the morning,” she reminded him.
She walked to retrieve her practice sword from the ground and return it to the barrel of wooden training weapons beside the command tent.
“Make time,” he ordered crossly.
Cassandra cleared her throat menacingly and picked up Essa’s staff.
Cullen tried again. “I would appreciate a few moments of your time. We need to discuss your last training session.”
Essa frowned and was about to refuse again, when Cassandra rather forcefully returned her staff to her. She caught one weighted end in the abdomen and doubled over.
“My apologies,” said the Seeker.
“My arse,” Essa gasped on a cough.
Cassandra wasn’t fooling anyone.
“At your convenience, Commander,” Essa grudgingly told Cullen, all the while glaring at her friend.
“After the evening meeting.”
Essa nodded and he stepped into the command tent presumably to deal with his wet armor.
“Walk with me,” Cassandra said.
The grimness in Cassandra’s tone would have made her shudder were Essa not already shivering. Now that her temper had worn off, an edgy nervousness was setting in. She glanced around at the yard. It wasn’t empty, but everyone very purposely had something else to attend. She wrapped her arms around her chest. She fell in line beside Cassandra, taking on a familiar air of forced contrition.
Essa heard his footsteps behind them and tensed, not knowing what to expect from another confrontation. She focused on that uncertainty rather than the damning realization that she could pick his steps up out of a yard full of people.
“Herald,” Cullen called politely. “A moment.”
Essa blinked back unexpected tears and considered ignoring him altogether, but Cassandra had already paused. There was no point in prolonging the inevitable. Essa slowly turned to face him.
“Can’t have you catching cold,” Cullen said, holding out a haphazardly folded blanket. “You can bring it back this evening.”
Essa’s hand was shaking as she reached for the softly woven wool. His scent lingered on the fabric and she knew the moment that she brought it to her chest that it was the one from his cot, not some extra stored in a trunk. There weren’t a lot of extra anythings around Haven these days.
“Thank you,” she said with quiet earnestness.
Cullen blushed. Her gratitude over such simple kindnesses tore at him. As if she never expected the consideration she showed so many others to be returned.
Whatever he might have said was lost as tears filled her eyes. She turned away, toward the frozen lake, her steps stumbling away from Cullen and Cassandra as her tears spilled down her cheeks. Cullen glanced to Cassandra in confusion, but she appeared just as perplexed as he.
“Andraste, preserve us,” an exasperated voice signaled Fin’s arrival. “What in the Maker’s name have you done to her now?”
The smith shoved past both of them. He had been too busy at the forge to catch most of the spectacle. Luckily Krem had thought to fill him in. Her worship had looked harried beneath her swagger, the merc warned him. Maybe someone whose kindness wouldn’t undo her should go check on her.
Krem knew a lot, Fin thought, about managing the needs of a deep heart hiding desperately behind too much bluster. Maybe he should give lessons to the Inquisition’s advisors.
“Essa,” Fin shouted after her as if nothing unusual were going on.
As if he weren’t two seconds away from dressing down a pair of superior officers. He watched her pause, noted the tension in her back as she wrapped the blanket Cullen had given her around her shoulders.
“Can you come help me with Geoffrey?” he called. “He’s thrown a shoe.”
Cullen and Cassandra exchanged confused expressions. They both had the grace to look abashed when Fin turned to glare at them.
“Herald or not,” he muttered. “She is still a person. You should both try treating her like one.”
“We all do what we must,” Cassandra retorted in her most deadly calm. She had a lecture about self-sacrifice on the tip of her tongue.
Fin pointed to green rift in the sky.
“You want that blighted thing closed?” he demanded angrily. “Don’t burn out your only hope of doing so.”
He turned to Cullen, hoping the man would see reason.
“Whatever you two want from her can wait an hour.”
“Cassandra, with me,” the Commander said turning back toward the training yard.
She was about to offer protest, but he caught her elbow in one large hand.
“Don’t make me drag you,” Cullen said softly. “We’ve had more than enough spectacle for the day.”
She huffed at him and jerked her arm away.
“So be it,” she muttered.
Then to Fin: “Do what you can, blacksmith.”
Chapter 3: Honorable Intentions
Where we learn Essa's motivations for choosing to go to the templars for help with the Breach.
“So,” Fin began, pausing to sip from the water dipper. “We gonna talk about you going to the templars, my dear mage friend?”
Essa gave Geoffrey’s replaced shoe a final inspection before easing the horse’s foot back to the ground. Fin smiled benignly as he refilled the dipper and passed the ladle to Essa. She glared at him as she drank, dropping it back into the bucket with a splash before replacing the wooden cover.
“I don’t see where we really need to,” she said, turning back to slip Geoffrey a shriveled chunk of carrot.
A few weeks ago, Fin would have worried that it was the last of her stores, but between his and Varric’s careful convincing, Ola’s threats, and the commander’s rather impressive scowl, they had all finally gotten her to start taking her share of the food supplies. She either couldn’t or didn’t want to see how much of an impact she’d had on the Inquisition—on Haven—or just how much she had helped the refugees and the people of the Hinterlands. But their numbers were growing, as were their supplies. The Inquisition’s was not yet a strong position, but they were no longer scrambling for basic necessities. Most importantly, she was not taking from someone else by asking for something for herself, something she wouldn’t knowingly do.
Essa, Fin thought with a smile, had always made a terrible noble. He blamed her father.
Essa didn’t comment further, hoping that he would take the hint and let the subject drop. He didn’t.
“Madame de Fer seems to think you have chosen to pursue the templars because you believe mages should be kept in circles.”
Essa grimaced over her shoulder at him.
“Madame de Fer can only hear ‘circle, chantry, or chaos’ as possible futures for mages,” she retorted. “I do believe that we need the Circle, but not everyone belongs in a cage.”
“And who decides the ones that should be?” Fin asked reasonably.
“No one taught to hate and fear them,” Essa snapped. “That’s for damn sure.”
She paced down the main aisle of the stable, spun sharply and paced back toward him.
“You really want to have this conversation?” she demanded.
She didn’t, but she was slowly coming to the conclusion that she needed to have it with someone, and she would rather it be him.
Fin met her eyes, his expression quite serious.
“I do,” he said. “It will help you get your thoughts together before your advisors and the templars demand the same.”
He was right, but she wouldn’t thank him for it. They had let her brood for two weeks. That she had most of that time had been spent in or near Haven and alone was its own sort of record. That they had largely left her to her training should have been suspicious. Essa had been too exhausted to notice.
“I can’t tell them why,” she said, grabbing a curry comb from the tack bin and stepping into Geri’s stall.
Fin closed the door behind her and leaned against it, arms resting comfortably on the top.
“Can you tell me?”
She buried her face in Geri’s neck and leaned against the solid comfort of his shoulder. She took a deep, calming, horse and hay scented breath. The gentle noises of the stable soothed her. The shuffle of hooves, the rhythmic crunching as a dozen mouths munched contentedly on their well-deserved hay. There was the occasional snort or rattling sigh echoing in the weighted stillness. With the smallest suspension of reality, Essa could imagine herself anywhere else. She had always found peace in the quiet refuge of stables—even at the Tower—and that comfort was the same in all well-tended barns. Anywhere animals were cared for and loved, Essa could find herself at home.
The muffled ringing of the blacksmiths’ hammers struck molten metal against heavy anvils, forging weapons for war. Home, she thought with a rueful laugh. As if she had ever dared to hope for one.
“Es?” Fin prompted carefully.
“Templars are made,” she told him, straightening abruptly from Geri’s neck. “Mages are born.”
She began running the curry comb in small rough circles over the forder’s coat, dislodging the small amount of dust the horse had managed to find in the day since she last brushed him.
“I can’t ‘fix’ the mages,” she explained, carefully choosing her words. “Honestly, I’m not sure at all how I feel about the loyalists or the rebels. I do know that I don’t believe apostates are vile creatures to be hunted down. People deserve to be free.”
“Even dangerous ones?” Fin asked.
“Being a mage doesn’t necessarily make someone dangerous,” Essa countered. “You’ve met Minaeve, does she seem dangerous to you?”
“You know that I don’t think all mages are dangerous,” Fin replied pointedly.
“I know,” she sighed.
Essa bent to scrub furiously at a matted spot on Geri’s belly. She could feel herself getting angry, and while they both knew it wasn’t at Fin, her passion was the reason she didn’t like to talk about the entire mess.
“It shouldn’t matter anyway,” Essa fumed.
Neither of them heard the door open at the end of the stable aisle. Cullen paused, politely waiting for a break in their conversation to announce his presence.
Essa rose, currying Geri with a bit more ferocity than was strictly warranted. The gelding leaned his shoulder into her, appreciative of her temper as her words tumbled out in a rush.
“The world is full of men and women with weapons. Some who have been trained to use them to frightening effect, but no one is locking them up! No one should be imprisoned for a crime they may commit.”
He should have felt guilty for eavesdropping, but Essa’s rant was the first of her thoughts that any of them had witnessed. Not knowing the Herald’s mind was a strategic disadvantage, one that he had vociferously condemned despite Leliana’s insistence that Essa’s secretiveness be indulged.
“Then why pick the templars?” Fin frowned. “If you believe mages should be free, then I would think the rebels would be the logical choice.”
Cullen stood just inside the door, obscured by a tall stack of hay bales. The horse in the stall across from him was Cassandra’s. For once he was glad of the surly mare’s longstanding refusal to acknowledge his presence. He wished he could see the Herald—Essa’s eyes did not allow for subterfuge even if she knew how to use her voice to her advantage—but he knew better than to chance his position. Unlikely spy that he was, Cullen committed to gathering what intel he could. If they were successful at closing the Breach and everyone survived to cheer the day, he couldn’t care if Essa was affronted by his sneaking.
“The Circle has done good work,” Essa pointed out with a sigh. “Because mages should have a place to go to for aid. Theirs is not an easy path. Not all would want the life of an apostate. There should be a place for mages to go, for sanctuary, for protection, for education...”
She stopped brushing Geri and stood staring hopelessly into space.
“There’s too damn much fear, Fin,” she spoke softly, as if afraid to give voice to her thoughts.
“Folks are afraid of mages who are afraid of templars, who—coincidentally—are also afraid of mages. Only their fear has been turned by the Chantry into hate.”
Fin waited patiently when she stopped talking.
“And it’s just a cycle,” she whispered. “You know the kind of men who generally choose to serve.”
Was she alluding to her brother? Cullen wondered. She didn’t say anything for several breaths, and he found himself waiting with his bated.
“Hate is a terrible weapon,” Essa said, sounding too much like a mage who had suffered for the Chantry’s neglect.
She had told Josephine that her dealings with Ostwick’s templars had been minimal. That she had kept out of their way, but Cullen was beginning to have his doubts.
“Too many templars become monsters worse than any abomination.”
The impulse was there, to defend what he knew himself to be true. Cullen caught the words before they could betray either his presence or the man he was determined to build from the ashes of a life Essa would have rightly called monstrous.
“And too many good men and women suffer in the name of the Chantry’s fear,” she continued, weariness burning away in the heat of conviction. I can’t ‘fix’ the mages, Fin. But there are good people here. Cassandra and the Commander…they can help the templars. And maybe, just maybe my being here will help the mages.”
“It can’t hurt,” Fin told her.
“Going to the mages would,” she opined. “I couldn’t ask for their help with nothing to offer them.”
“The Inquisition could have offered them a great deal,” Fin disagreed.
“Not by my hand,” Essa pronounced with surprising certainty. “I want the Circle restored, but it would barely be recognizable when I was through with it. That’s not an option anyone here has given me. Maybe things will change if the templars change. Maybe the Inquisition can offer understanding and compromise where the Chantry only offered fear.”
Andraste preserve them, Cullen thought in disbelief as Essa’s soliloquy faded. It was worse than he had imagined. The woman was an idealist.
And she wanted to save them all.
Chapter 4: Magefire
Nightmares and confessions. Cullen and Essa talk about the horrific inconvenience of their feelings...and the fight they had that morning.
The evening meeting had ended hours ago. It was well past midnight and Essa still had not met with Cullen as she had agreed. He knew that she had things to do, but they were no longer at a point where he could be considerate of those duties. She had nearly gotten herself killed that morning. There had been moments all day when he could still feel his hands around her throat. He had pushed her too hard, he realized that. He hadn’t slept at all the night before. Every time he had laid his head down, the near constant ache had become a screaming tempest. The lyrium whispered promises of ease and relief to him. Promises that he knew were true.
But those were not the truths he wanted in his life.
Cullen knew that he had taken some of that out on Essa. She was right to be angry, but she should not have launched herself at his back and called to her magic. To behave even half so foolishly with the templars would result in her death. Or worse. Still, he was surprised to find that she was avoiding him, that she had gone back on her word.
“No,” Essa said clearly, startling him from his thoughts.
Cullen glanced around, but he didn’t see her. Her voice had sounded close.
The negation came from behind him, and she sounded more distraught that he had ever heard her. Cullen strode quickly toward the tents, glancing into the shadows between them. He couldn’t find her, and he was about to wake everyone and call them from their tents when he heard a struggle from his own, and a weaker, quieter “no.”
Later, he would remember how that one syllable ripped him apart.
He ducked into the tent just as she was sitting up amid the tangle of his blanket. Her dark hair was disheveled, eyes wide and searching. In the stuttering light from the mark on her hand, he could see the leaping pulse in her throat and the tracks of coursing tears down her face.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized quickly. “I was waiting for you and I must have fallen asleep.”
Only to be awaken by a nightmare she thought she had long left behind. Essa wiped ineffectively at her tears. They weren’t stopping, and the lingering terror of the dream still rode hard on her shoulders. Her hands shook as she gulped in air, releasing each breath in a slower staggering exhale.
“Take your time,” Cullen offered, gently. “I’ll wait outside.”
He didn’t ask her any questions. He knew too well the cloying cling of bad memories visited upon him by his vengeful, sleeping mind.
“Please stay,” Essa said, words broken by chattering teeth. “You don’t—you don’t have to look at me—or talk to me, but just—stay?”
She had been alone at Ostwick, he reminded himself. If properly trained and functioning, the templars would have hovered like specters, not speaking or interacting with their charges unless there was a problem. He already knew she had lived largely alone. Trapped at night in a small room with no one to turn to for conversation or comfort.
“Come on,” he said, reaching down to offer her one hand.
She watched him warily for a moment as she slipped one trembling hand into his. Cullen’s fingers gripped hers snuggly, an anchor as he tugged Essa to her feet. He backed out the tent and she followed him, still clinging to his blanket.
“Wine,” he said, in a tone that suggested an order rather than an offer.
He kept her hand in his as he reached for the wineskin on one end of his desk. She took it gratefully and he gave her a hand a squeeze before letting go. Cullen took the blanket from her as Essa obediently uncapped the skin and shot a stream of wine into her mouth. He untangled the blanket and shook it out before draping it carefully over her shoulders and around her. He stood close. Close enough that she could pretend he was shielding her if she wanted, but not so close that she would feel threatened.
“Here,” he held the edges of the blanket out to her with a nod.
Essa passed him back the wineskin and took the blanket with both hands, holding it around her like a cloak.
“Let’s go stand by Bull’s fire.”
She realized then that everything Cullen did was a calculated strategy. He had gotten her moving, dragging her body from the grips of sleep and clearing her mind of the nightmare. He had taken her outside, knowing her dislike for not being able to see the sky above her. The wine had cleared the taste of her own terror from her mouth, and now he was taking her to the fire, offering warmth and safety with one of her trusted sleeping steps away.
“Thank you,” she said quietly as they drew near the fire and stood, staring down into the flames.
They could hear Bull snoring inside his tent. The sound was a familiar comfort after weeks in the field with the Qunari.
“I understand,” he told her. “I have become rather adept at shaking them off, but those first few moments never get any better.”
“No,” Essa agreed. “They don’t.”
She could only guess that his nightmares were worse than her own. She took a slow breath, found that she was already steadier.
“I wasn’t attacking you,” she said suddenly.
She had realized her error too late, in that instant when his hands had wrapped around her neck, thumbs pressing into her windpipe. She still had bruises hidden behind the short fall of her hair.
“This morning,” she felt she owed him the explanation. “I wasn’t taking advantage of your turned back. Well I was, but—“
She broke off and pulled his blanket more tightly around her, burying her face in the edge for a moment.
“It was an impulse,” she admitted. “I was so mad at you, but then I saw that you were hurting, realized it was—I hope—the biggest reason you had been such an insufferable arse to me all morning. I was…”
“You were…?” he prompted.
She shuffled in place and glanced away.
“I was going to heal you,” she mumbled.
She surprised a laugh from him. The sound was loud enough that Essa looked around wide-eyed, waiting for Bull or Krem to wake.
“You ambushed me to heal me?” he asked in a quieter tone.
She nodded. “Like I did—“
At the hot spring, but she didn’t say the words.
“Before,” she substituted with a rueful smile. “But then I realized it wouldn’t be like before, that I should ask you before putting my hands on you.”
Cullen ran one hand over his face wearily, shoving away the wildly inappropriate thoughts conjured by her choice of words. Any doubts that he has possessed about Essa Trevelyan being the Bride’s Herald were gone. He carried around enough guilt, he thought. The weight of his past threatened to crush him daily. So many wrongs that he could never make right. No one, nothing, had punished him for those crimes like seeing the sincere apology in the Herald’s wide grey eyes. If she knew him for what he was, Cullen thought, she wouldn’t look at him as if she had wronged him.
She still thought he was one of the “good templars.” She would learn the truth soon enough. If she succeeded in her mission, Haven would soon be overrun, and gossip would spread through the camp. He had not kept his past a secret—Leliana had files on all of them and the Herald had been encouraged to read them—but Essa claimed to have no desire to pry into people’s pasts.
“You should read my file,” he insisted suddenly.
Essa blinked. “What? Why?”
“Take the copy with you when you leave," he continued as if she hadn't asked anything. "You can read it on the way.”
“Copy?” She was still trying to catch up to his line of thinking.
Cullen’s smile was a little dark.
“I am certain that Leliana has more than one copy. I imagine you could ask Josephine for it. Or…”
He turned away, staring out into the night.
“You could just ask Varric about Kirkwall.”
Essa stared at his profile, at the sharp clean lines limned in firelight.
“Do you want me to ask Varric about Kirkwall?” she asked quietly.
Cullen closed his eyes as if in pain. She couldn’t know that her kindness was a lash.
“What I want or don’t want doesn’t matter,” he avowed. “You should know. And I—”
He didn’t have the courage to confess to her.
“It’s alright,” Essa assured him. “I’ll see to it. It won’t matter, but I’ll see to it.”
It won’t matter, he thought in disdain. Or course it would. Essa’s hand landed on his arm and Cullen jerked away as if she had burned him.
“I—“ Whatever she was going to say stuttered away. He watched her rally her emotions.
“The sixth coin was yours,” she said dragging him from his thoughts.
It was his turn to stumble along the path of conversation.
“What?” Cullen tried not to sound indignant as his mind caught up to her.
He glanced farther away, hoping she couldn’t see the blush that suddenly blossomed in his cheeks.
“I counted each thud as they landed at my feet,” she pointed out. “There were five. You handed me six.”
Essa tapped her foot expectantly. She saw his lip twitch, as if he were holding back a smile.
Somehow he made the admission sound like an insult rather than the compliment she chose to take it as.
“Did you now?” There was laughter in her voice. “For someone ogling, you didn’t seem very pleased with the display.”
He turned back to her then, smiling despite all intentions to the contrary. “The last thing you or any of the others needed was encouraging,” he stated so primly that Essa snorted with laughter.
“Can’t have our commander laughing it up with the rest of us,” she agreed sagely. “And you paid your dues, so you’re above reproach there.” Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “If I’d realized there was coin in it for me, I would have charged you for—“
Her words were suddenly muffled against his hand. Essa’s eyes brightened with tears of merriment as Cullen covered her mouth. She dragged a chortling breath through her nose and he glared at her.
“Enough?” he asked.
He was trying to be serious—she could tell—but there was a determined streak of playfulness in Cullen’s personality. One that even the Templar Order had been unable to destroy. Andraste preserve her, she wanted to tease him, wanted to watch laughter brighten his gaze to sunlight’s gleaming.
Essa nodded, granting him a reprieve.
“You don’t like that you like me,” she said as he removed his hand. “Do you, Commander?”
She had to give him points for honesty.
Cullen jerked his chin toward the breach in the sky. “You are the only hope we have for closing that thing,” he told her.
“And for all you know,” she said finishing the thought that he was too polite to complete. “It will kill me.”
“What if that’s what it takes?” she inquired. “What if the breach requires my life?”
She knew the answer that a good leader would give. She held her breath waiting for it.
“One life?” Cullen mused softly. “Have you any idea how many have already been given against that thing?”
She did. It was one of the few reports she didn’t shy from. She would know the cost, even if she was still trying to figure out why it existed.
“One life,” she confirmed.
He turned to turn meet her stare and Essa saw resolve over the sadness in his eyes.
“Then I would march you to the ruins myself,” he answered. “And pray the Maker have mercy on us both.”
Essa nodded slowly. “Good.”
Her approval only made him like her more, which made the truth of his statement all the worse. He did like her, and it was a blighted inconvenience. He couldn’t afford the sentiment. Until the Breach was sealed she was a tool, a weapon, another soldier waiting for her chance to die in service. That she was pragmatic about the whole situation should have made it better, but Cullen knew that one day her death would join those who haunted him most.
“Do you—“ he sighed. “Do you have any reason to believe that is what it will take?”
“Not especially,” Essa shrugged. “But it’s powerful magic. Seems possible it might want blood, and if it does, mine would be the most likely.”
She bumped him with her shoulder and lifted her right hand. “May I?”
Cullen looked at her as if she had lost what little mind was left of what he believed her to have.
“You still wish to heal me?” he asked in disbelief.
“Your head stop hurting?” she returned practically.
“Yes,” he said.
She eyed him skeptically.
“I mean yes, you can,” how had she put it? “Put your hands on me.”
She grinned. “You’re flirting with me, Commander.”
Her hand cupped the back of his neck before he could turn away flustered.
“I have told you before that I do not flirt,” he retorted, nobly fighting back a blissful sigh as the warmth of her hand settled firmly against his skin.
Her fingers were rough; Cullen could count the calluses on her palm from years of wielding a sword. Essa took a breath and sent gentle healing into his body. He swayed a bit on his feet and the magic paused.
“Is it not helping?” Essa asked. “I warned you before that I’m shit at healing.”
Cullen reached up to catch her wrist before she could pull away.
“No, it’s—nice,” he said. “Thank you.”
She stood facing him, eyes trained on the thick fur of his collar. For a moment they stood still, his fingers brushing across the pulse in her wrist. Her blood beat so strongly that Cullen could count the rush even with the leather of his glove separating their skin. He closed his eyes as the waves of comfort spread from her hand, a balm that pushed through the deep tension in his neck muscles before easing the knots of pain in his head.
“You are not ‘shit at healing’,” he told her.
“I am,” Essa argued on a soft laugh. “If you get a battle wound, Commander, don’t call the Herald of Andraste.”
“It’s Cullen,” he corrected her. High time she used his name, he thought. She was managing to get beneath his skin in ways few ever had.
Essa shook her head and when she lifted her chin to meet his gaze, he saw a tumult of blue fire swirling across the field of grey.
“Not until the Breach is sealed,” Essa reproved mildly. “You should know, Commander…I don’t like how much I like you either.”
Chapter 5: Apostate
Before and After Therinfal Redoubt.
Without Fin’s direction, Cullen would not have spotted her on the bank of the lake. Dawn was still a promise on the horizon, and Essa had chosen a clearing that was carefully out of most lines of sight, tucked behind a rocky outcropping and a small copse of fir trees. He leaned against one of those trees and watched her, feeling less like a lecher and more like he was assessing a recruit as Essa straightened out of a few deep stretches and flowed into a series of dance-like forms.
Essa knew that someone was close. He hadn’t exactly been quiet with his approach, and the clank of armor and creak of leather had accompanied his light footfalls. It annoyed her that out of hundreds of men in haven—no few who were also clanking around in plate and creaking around in leather—she recognized Cullen without looking. She wanted to shout at him, scare him away for his own good. But as ludicrous as it was to think that Cullen could be cowed like a pup or a foal, it was equally ridiculous to think he was lingering on the edge of her vision with the same tentative hope that her four-legged friends possessed. There had to be a reason for his seeking her out, Essa told herself firmly, that had nothing to do with her company.
If he had come to badger her about reading his damn file again, she thought angrily, she was going to punch him. Her eyes narrowed, but her steps never faltered. Her movements were sharp and controlled, oddly graceful as she paced through the form of the careful dance her father had taught her. She had memorized these steps long before she could waltz and a year before she was given even a practice blade. She had repeated the pattern nearly every morning until that day she knocked on Ostwick’s Tower door. It had been hard to keep in practice there, her footwork constrained by the walls of her small room.
Essa tried to put Cullen from her mind. She took a deep breath, felt the inhale raise her spirit into the morning even as she lifted her borrowed practice sword, arm and blade at a fierce horizontal, tip pointed over her raised left arm and the shield she didn’t carry. Cullen watched her spin through the surprisingly intricate arrangement of footwork and postures, her movements natural and certain, no sign of her professed clumsiness or the hesitancy she showed when she trained with the staff. He reminded himself, not for the first time, that she was a mage. One of the more powerful if Leliana’s information was to be believed, and it usually was.
She was sweating lightly by the time she finished her practice. The sun was just brightening Haven’s shadows to pearling and but the chill of the night had not yet faded.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
Cullen waited as she took a drink from her water skin and tried not to follow with his gaze the path of goose flesh that pebbled her exposed skin.
“Your friends wanted to deliver this in some grand ceremony,” he said stepping away from the tree to reveal a darkly forged staff. “Fin and Harritt refused to participate, I believe mostly for your sake. Your blacksmith snuck it out to me this morning.”
Essa stared at the staff for a moment, undisguised glee in her eyes.
“You all made me a staff?”
Cullen ducked his head a little, then checked the bashful motion. There was no reason to be embarrassed at arming a soldier, he chastised himself.
And yet from the look on Essa’s face he may as well have brought her flowers.
“You could hardly take the practice model with you to Therinfal Redoubt,” he told her.
Cullen took another step away to give her space to reach the staff. Essa grabbed for the weapon a little too quickly and bashed herself in the forehead for her eagerness.
“Ow…” But she was laughing as she ran her hands over the stone and cloth, metal and wood.
The staff was brutally crafted. It screamed of destruction in a way that Madame de Fer would have never approved. There was no elegance in the heavy, dark lines. The ends were weighted, one tapered, the other a little wider and blunt for resting on the ground. Each bore Drakestone bound in sharp iron. The grip was a thick twisting wrap of samite. Fire and will. If it had been possible to forge Essa’s resolve into a mage’s weapon, Fin and Harritt had done so.
Essa stepped back, hands hefting its weight. She glanced at Cullen skeptically.
“It’s heavier than the model.”
“Not by much though,” he countered. “And if you were any other mage, I would say it was ridiculous, but it’s still lighter than a sword and shield.”
She chuckled. “And I’d train back up to those if it didn’t seem so much like cowardice.”
“You can’t ignore—“
She shook her head. “I know I can’t. And I haven’t tried.”
Essa spun the staff, feet moving in the less familiar patterns that Cullen had been teaching her for the past two weeks. The weapon gained speed, rotating so quickly it skipped within her grip. Her hands had proven quicker than they had expected for a decade and a half of shield work. Essa smiled as she turned with the staff, feet whirling her body in a dizzying arc. She brought the blunt end of the staff down before her with a resounding thud and fire engulfed her.
Cullen took a half step toward her before he caught himself. He had never seen her call her fire, but she was hardly the first mage to do so in his presence. Still, it was too easy to forget what she was, and years of training shouted in his head that she was a dangerous apostate.
Essa smiled a little sadly at him as she met his eyes through the searing column. The flames surrounded her—alive and hungry—but her eyes were cold and the fire did nothing more than melt the snow beneath her feet. Flames licked along her skin without injury and burned not a single leaf though the fire stayed beneath the tree line.
She closed her eyes and the flames extinguished.
“It’s beautiful work,” she said, leaning casually on the staff. “Thank you.”
“I didn’t do anything,” he demurred. “It was all Fin and Harritt.”
“I will thank them as well,” she assured him. “But you and Cassandra both helped with the design, and my training. So thank you. I will try not to get myself killed in the next few weeks.”
“Do that,” he ordered as lightly as he could.
He could tell she was waiting for him to comment on her magic, but he wasn’t sure what words she wanted from him, much less if he were capable of giving them to her.
“Be careful,” he said instead. “You’ll make them nervous just by being yourself.”
They were fools, he decided with a pitch of dread in his stomach. Fools to send her to the templars.
Essa laughed, oblivious to his concern. “I know,” she said. “I make myself nervous too.”
Essa was angry before they had traveled halfway to Therinfal Redoubt. She listened quietly to Varric’s account of the events in Kirkwall, asking specific questions about what he knew of Cullen’s involvement. Varric didn’t seem surprised by her interest, so she could only assume that Cullen had warned him that she would be asking. The dwarf knew Essa well enough that he would not have expected her to pry otherwise.
By the time they joined up with the Orlesian nobles, Essa wanted to ride back to Haven and knock the Inquisition’s commander on his ass. After listening to—and somehow indulging—the nobles from ten of Orlais’s “most prestigious houses” for what felt like time unending Essa was spoiling for a fight. Finding that Lord Seeker Lucius was actually not the Lord Seeker any longer, but an envy demon had almost been a pleasure. Essa was getting good at killing demons and depriving them of their desires, and she had made another friend in the Fade. She couldn’t wait to talk with Solas about Cole.
But not before she punched Cullen in the face.
“You’ve brooded for nearly three weeks now, Mirabelle,” Varric said as they made camp.
He knew why too. Essa didn’t understand what the blighted point was in goading her about it. It was their last night in the field. They would reach Haven late the next afternoon. Victory had not cooled Essa’s temper and she had worried and prodded at her anger as if it were a sore tooth. There would be no curing the ailment now, not without a complete extraction.
“So what if I have?” Essa snarled.
She had been terrible company and she knew it. Cassandra and Vivienne had taken to ignoring her, and Essa had been appreciative of their obviously superior levels of maturity. Varric—who had spent the first part of their return recording the events of Therinfal Redoubt—no longer had better ways to occupy himself. He’d gone back to trying to draw Essa out of her fury.
“Oh, leave her alone,” Cassandra ordered from her spot across the fire.
“If I leave her alone,” Varric replied in an insufferably practical tone. “You’re going to need to drag another few buckets of water behind her for when she next sees Curly.”
Cassandra glanced up in surprise even as Essa shot Varric a mutinous glare.
Varric held up both hands as if somehow that made him harmless.
“I’m just tellin’ her like I see it, kid.”
He shrugged. “Maybe it would help if you told me why you were angrier at him than the entire Templar Order.”
“Do I look like I want to talk about this?” Essa demanded.
“Yes, darling, you do.”
They all turned to Vivienne. Rarely did she bother to engage in their coarse exchanges. The Lady of Iron had spent most of the trip reading a heavy leather-bound tome and occasionally sharing ink with Varric so that she might take notes from her studies. She closed that book now, setting it down upon her knees with an economy of movement so smooth, it never even crossed Essa’s mind to envy her.
“Well, this,” Essa gestured to her face dramatically with one hand, “lies!”
Her declaration tore laughter out of all of them. Vivienne’s chuckle was the most disbelieving, and Essa took it as a strange sort of compliment.
“Child, you might be able to keep your secrets, but there is no lie in you. That is one of the things we most adore about you.”
“And why when you have money,” Varric added teasingly, “we would love to sit you down to a game of Wicked Grace.”
“She will never have coin,” she said. “The Herald turns everything over to our ambassador the moment we reach Haven.”
“Well, not the exact moment,” Varric amended for her. “First she has to tend to all of our horses, snuggle that blacksmith of hers, and glare at our fair commander.”
Essa stared at Varric, utterly scandalized that her routine was the subject of such casual summary. Vivienne tisked at her.
“That will not do, my dear. You should keep something back for yourself. Is there nothing you would like to save for?”
Maker heap his blessings upon the enchanter, Essa thought as she was spared from making what would surely have been a lame retort to Varric’s insinuation.
Essa shook her head. “I have everything I need. And if I don’t, I put in a req order like everyone else and it gets taken care of eventually.”
“And when the Breach is sealed?” Vivienne inquired.
Her quiet, cultured tone never quite seemed to reveal the warmth Essa suspected lay beneath the iron facade.
“What will you do then?”
Essa stared at Vivienne. She was the first person who didn’t appear to have any doubts about Essa’s surviving their attempt to seal the Breach. Further, she was the only one who hadn’t assumed that Essa would remain with the Inquisition if she did live through the ordeal.
“I—“ Essa faltered. “I guess I’ll stay on,” she continued with a frown. “If they’ve need of me.”
The look on Cassandra’s face was answer enough, but the sincerity in her friend’s eyes was almost too much for Essa to bear.
“That is if they’ll have me,” she continued, “once I’ve rearranged their ‘fair commander’s’ face.”
“And we’re back to that,” Varric said laughing.
Essa shook her head. “No. It’s personal. If it helps at all,” she sighed when she saw Cassandra’s concern, “I will try very hard not to actually hit him.”
Cassandra nodded shortly. “Do that. Though I can understand the temptation.”
Essa smiled. “Thank you.” She stood. “I’m going to get some sleep. Wake me for last watch.”
The words were the same she gave them every night, but it was their last night in the field. They would let her sleep. They had all learned at one point or another over the past months that she slept poorly in Haven, whether in the quarters she had been afforded, or the stable, or in the Chantry’s sanctuary. She had been caught napping fitfully in all of those places as well as others. Her habit of sleeping wherever she was when she got tired enough to do so had caused such concern among the Inquisition’s followers that Cullen had threatened to lock her in her room. Not to her face of course. Leliana’s ire at his mocking suggestion had been enough that he didn’t make it again.
Essa grabbed her bedroll from the tent that she had—with the exception of rainy nights—never used. Her companions had initially worried that she would be injured sleeping so close to the horses, but the animals were more careful of her than of themselves. Wolves had attacked the picket line one night, and the equines had all but broken their own necks not to spook over her.
She spread her bedroll on the ground just inside the circle of light cast by the fire. She had learned that if she moved outside of it, Cassandra would lecture her on the dangers of exposure, no matter how Essa attempted to explain she was less susceptible than most. Essa drifted to sleep slowly, comforted by the quiet conversations around the campfire. The rise and fall of Varric’s storytelling was becoming one of her favorite sounds as was the reluctant laughter he could coax from Cassandra. Vivienne’s contributions were fewer, but they rippled like a cool stream through the warmth of the camp. They were in especially good spirits tonight. Hope and relief mingling together. Tomorrow they would be back in Haven. In but a handful of days the great tear in the sky might be gone utterly. Essa wished she could join them, but she wondered, just as she had mentioned to Cullen, if the process was going to claim her life. She had written to Prin, Erik, and Hope of course. Leliana kept those letters for her to be sent in the event of her death.
She hadn’t thought to plan in the event that she lived.
She would have to stay with the Inquisition, she thought, reaching out to toy idly with Geri’s fetlock. The Forder pawed at her hand gently with his hoof, an exchange of trust and affection between them. Essa knew that she couldn’t go back to a Circle, and she did believe that they would eventually be restored. She had meant what she said to Fin about helping the templars. Maybe with Cullen and Cassandra’s help she could teach them a little about how Ostwick had actually been run. It would surprise them to learn some of the Knight-Commander’s more unorthodox methods.
Essa woke just before dawn, unsurprised that they had let her sleep. She always took the early morning dark. Essa rarely slept until sunrise, and she enjoyed the quiet hours anyway, but also liked sparing someone else the earliest rise and therefore the longest day. Only Solas was ever able to take the last watch from her, and most of those mornings were shared while them speaking of Chantry heresies and the wonders of the Fade.
“Are you ready?” Cassandra asked quietly as Essa joined her by the fire.
Essa nodded. “I am. If we make good time, we could close the breach this time the day after tomorrow.”
It was a heady thought. And terrifying. Essa wasn’t sure who she would be on the other side, if she made it that far.
But first, she thought, with resolution, she had a few words for Cullen Rutherford. She’d be damned if she was dying in Andraste’s name without letting him know what an insufferable ass he was.
Chapter 6: Circle
Cullen discovers a bit more about Essa's time in Ostwick Circle. He isn't the only one with mage blood on his hands, but does Essa carry the remorse he does?
Covers sealing the breach and the flight from Haven.
Essa spent most of the day at the war table glaring at Cullen across the map and markers. He couldn’t blame her, not now that she knew him for more of what he was. He should have been relieved by the stormclouds in her eyes, but he found himself regretting the death of whatever ridiculous fancies he had let whisper silently between them. She could be dead in less than two days, a martyr, a memory. It should have been better that she knew the truth of him; he should have been relieved that Essa hated him now.
“Day after tomorrow,” Essa said, pulling Cullen from his thoughts.
Josie nodded. “You’re certain?” the ambassador asked. “That doesn’t give you much time...”
“To prepare for something I can’t prepare for?” Essa finished the thought with a wry smile. “If the templars will be ready, so will I.”
No one missed the pleading look the Herald shot her closest advisor.
Cassandra nodded. “Then let us be rid of the Breach,” she declared, ending the discussion.
“Very well,” Leliana agreed. “Get some rest, Inquisitor. I will speak with you soon.”
Essa smiled warmly at the spymaster, and Leliana smiled back. Cullen realized just how much a part of them she had become. How worried they all were at what she faced. The council dispersed. Josie placed a hand on Essa's shoulder as she left the room. Essa smiled gently and reached up to squeeze her hand.
"All will be well, lady ambassador," Essa said, eyes warming a little.
Josephine nodded tightly and filed out toward her office. Essa hung back to let the others depart ahead of her.
“Commander, a word?” Essa’s cool request allowed no room for refusal.
Cassandra glanced back over her shoulder, worry plain in her eyes. She must have found reassurance in Essa’s face; the Seeker nodded once then closed the door leaving Cullen and Essa alone.
She stood a moment in silence, letting him squirm beneath her thoughtful regard. She reached for one of the inner pockets in the long leather coat she wore and produced a folded piece of parchment.
“Here.” She leaned across the table to place the parchment as far past center as she could reach.
Cullen waited for her to straighten before reaching for it warily. Essa waited, arms crossed beneath her breasts and foot tapping to belie the patience she was doing her best to project. Cullen unfolded the heavily creased parchment. The sound was loud in the large room, echoing off of stone walls. Her handwriting was bold, strong, fearless strokes of ink across the page. It was beautiful to look at.
And damned near illegible.
He read over the defiantly collected list twice, made out nearly two dozen causes of violent death. A flourishing dash connected each to either an “M” or a “T.”
“Would you mind telling me what I am supposed to be reading?” Cullen asked politely.
“Out of respect for the dead,” Essa answered quietly. “I did not give you names, but that is a list of every mage and every templar I killed while in Ostwick's Circle.”
His eyes rounded in surprise and confusion. For a heartbeat, Cullen saw dark satisfaction on her face.
“The next time you want to wound someone with the blood that’s on your hands, Commander,” Essa told him coldly. “You might want to check that they aren’t elbow deep in the same.”
It was only years of discipline that kept him from gaping at her.
“Ask Leliana about Ostwick,” Essa told him in a hard voice echoing his own order weeks before. “You should know.”
He stuttered something after her as she turned to leave. Essa paused, hand on the door, fingers pressed tight against the wood in her anger.
“If you ask me,” she threatened, “I will tell you. And what righteousness will the image of your precious Herald cling to then?”
She had reached her limit in the past few weeks. She supposed it was a good thing they were so close to the end. She was tired of being a figurehead, and furious with him for placing her on the same pedestal everyone else had. A part of her understood the reasons. They had to protect their cause, had to protect themselves. Essa didn’t know why she had expected anything else from him, or worse, why she had wanted him to see her as herself. She had let the easy familiarity of a few unusual moments blind her to reality.
“How is this even possible?” Cullen asked.
There were more mages than templars on the list, but not by much.
Essa spun to face him, pressing her back against the door. He was not too close for propriety, but he was suddenly far too near to grant her any peace. She hadn’t heard him cross the room behind her.
“Murdersome mages are generally put down, right?”
He flinched at her words, but Essa wouldn’t allow herself to feel guilty for them.
“The Knight-Commander was a good man,” she said quietly. “There would be two more templars on that list if he hadn’t found me when he did.”
Cullen frowned in confusion.
“Aubreg ran a level ship,” Essa said tersely. “He didn’t suffer the kinds of things you experienced in Kirkwall. When he found the wrong sort of men under his command, he had them reassigned. Some still got through; it can take time to learn that sort of thing about a person. My second year, a new squad came in. Six men. For three of them Ostwick was their first post. The night they came in, the stable master had been called away on an emergency. I had been lucky enough to be the only replacement available on such short notice.”
She had looked forward to the evening. Had planned on sleeping in the garden beneath the stars. Essa shook the memory away.
“I don’t know how I offended them. I didn’t actually lie to Josie when I told her that I tried to stay out of the templars’ way. For nearly two years, I had done just that. But at some point they got bored. Decided to harass the stable hand.”
The way she said “harass” suggested something far worse, but Cullen couldn’t bring himself to ask for details. He was afraid that she would give them to him, and he was ashamed that he didn’t think he could bear their weight on top of his own crimes.
“My smart mouth got me in trouble first. I held my head too high, made direct eye contact. I didn't act enough like a servant. Someone called me “lady.” Shoved me. Then one of them made the connection that I actually was a lady. A few of them had known my brother, and that was all it took to kindle hate in them. They meant to show me my place.”
Cullen’s hands shook. He forced himself to meet her eyes.
“Their first mistake,” Essa all but whispered, “was thinking me mage. I didn’t need the magic they silenced to fight back.”
He closed his eyes, but his imagination was worse than the stark truth in Essa's gaze. He opened them quickly and when her eyes sought his, Cullen did her the courtesy of holding her gaze.
“I killed three of them before the noise brought the Knight-Commander," Essa told him. "Aubreg executed two as I killed the last with a sword I’d taken from one of his brothers. There were cries among the other templars--and no few of the mages--for my execution. The First Enchanter reluctantly considered having me made tranquil, deeming my skill with fire too precious to waste. I was dangerous, but Aubreg pointed out that I hadn’t even reached for the Fade, not even to defend myself. I went unpunished—unless you want to count my injuries—and no one questioned him. I was…” Her words died on her lips. Essa stared past his shoulder, eyes deep and unfocuses for a moment. “I was not in a position to worry about trusting him. He promised no harm would come to me and I took him on faith. If he had intended me ill he could have left me to the others. No one would have questioned my death. Not even the Trevelyans.“
“And the rest?” Cullen asked softly, nodding toward the list in his hands.
Essa shrugged. “I was in the Tower for nearly a decade, Commander. Sometimes people needed killing.”
She turned back to open the door, to escape the tumult she saw in his tawny eyes. Cullen’s hand landed solidly against the wood above her hand, holding it closed, trapping her between him and four inches of oak. If she had recoiled from him, he would have stepped back. He would have mumbled an apology for his rudeness. But, no, not Essa. She didn’t cower. Instead she lifted her chin, chest rising, posture changing so that she filled the space between him and the door, crowding him in return. He could feel the heat coming off of her body.
No wonder she was never cold.
“And the mages?” he asked.
“Mages who didn’t pass their Harrowing, abominations. Demons I couldn’t defeat in the Fade.” Her reply was harsh and clipped.
“Some of those," Cullen said curtly, "are the jobs of a templar."
Essa shrugged again. The motion brought her chest that much closer to his. Still, he didn’t give ground.
“And I was trained by one of the good ones,” she affirmed so piteously that he knew she couldn’t realize her words were unraveling what remained of the world he thought he knew.
“And the other mages didn’t hate you?”
She killed her own kind. No wonder she had been shunned by the mages in the Tower.
Essa smiled coldly. “How could they?” she asked. “I risked myself for every abomination I killed. I went into the Fade with Aubreg’s blade at my throat. He would have killed me if I failed, but he trusted me enough to let me try to save them.”
“How many did you bring back?”
“I don’t know.” Essa’s laugh was a soft self-mockery. She sank against the door, eyes closing, head knocking back to expose the line of her throat. There was a scar, Cullen realized, thin and faintly silver against her sun-darkened skin. ”I can tell you the ones that I didn’t,” she said.
He stared down at her scar, at the perfectly precise line across the life beating in her throat.
“What is this?” he asked softly, fingers trailing the worn leather of his glove across that pale line.
Essa’s eyes flashed open. She didn’t lift her head, but even with her heart beating frantically against his touch, Cullen suddenly felt he was the vulnerable one.
“Close call,” Essa said breathlessly. “It was the first time my magic threw sparks in my eyes. I was just coming out of the Fade. Aubreg saw me behind the blue just as he made the cut.”
His thumb swept across her pulse slowly. Once, twice. Essa shivered.
“I thought you never got cold,” Cullen teased, so confident and gentle that Essa almost didn’t recognize his voice.
She stared up at him. Maker’s breath, when had he gotten so close to her? And why did she feel like he wasn’t nearly close enough? She was still angry with him, she reminded herself staunchly. Essa wet suddenly parched lips and Cullen tracked the movement too quickly, his eyes bright.
“Did I tell you that?” she asked in confusion. “About never being cold?”
Culen blinked and released her abruptly. As if Fin’s name had somehow broken the drawing tension that had been building between them.
“Some of us worried when you started sleeping in the stable," he said offhandedly.
He paced away from her suddenly.
“I’m sorry,” he said running one hand through his hair. “I do not know what I was thinking to be so disrespectful.”
Essa laughed then, the sound bouncing brightly through the war room.
“I assure you, Commander, if I felt disrespected, you would know it.”
She waited patiently for him to turn back to her. Then Essa grinned.
“If I’m alive two nights from now,” she said. “We should probably consider talking about this.”
“About what?” His lips twisted up on the right, just enough to let her know he was teasing.
“Uh-huh,” she stalked toward him, was more than a little intrigued when he stopped himself from taking a step back from her.
She halted less than a step from him and rose up on her toes. His hands cupped her elbow obligingly and he bent toward her automatically. Essa’s grin widened.
The word teased against his lips and Essa pulled away, heart pounding as she turned back toward the door. The exit felt leagues away, and part of her hoped desperately that he would stop her before she made her escape.
The rest of her was terrified. She had used up all of her bravado, and if he so much as called to her now, Essa was afraid she would swoon like some useless damsel in those romance novels her sister loved so much. She made it out the door, and had nearly closed it behind her when his laughter caught her.
“You are a dangerous woman, Essa Trevelyan.”
Inside the war room, Cullen leaned on the wall beside the partially open door. Outside, Essa did the same, their backs separated by stone.
“And you are an infuriating man,” she replied, a smile stretching her face.
She couldn’t bring herself to close the door between them.
“You’ll go with us to the Temple,” she said, reminding them both of their reluctance to explore what might be between them.
He had promised once to kill her if it was needed.
“I will,” Cullen promised quietly. “Will you be at drills in the morning?”
Essa laughed. “I’m still carrying bruises from my own staff,” she said. “I will definitely be at drills in the morning.”
“If you get there early, I’ve found some new forms for you to try.”
Andraste, preserve her, he was tempting her with weapons skills. Essa sighed. It was working.
“I will be there early,” she said. “I’m still mad enough at you that I wouldn’t mind an excuse to knock you around that Cassandra would find acceptable.”
Cullen chuckled softly and Essa closed her eyes, imagining that she could feel the sound in the stone between them.
“Good night, Commander.”
“Good night, Herald.”
The Breach was sealed and in the far too brief respite in which the people of Haven had to celebrate Cullen lost count of the number of times that he should have kissed her. The opportunities were easier to track. There had been exactly none. They had feasted. There had been dancing.
Then they had been running for their lives.
The first time Essa called him by his name, she told him goodbye. Not with words—there had been no time for those—but he had watched sadness cut through the storm of resolution in her eyes. Cullen, can you get them out? Them, not us. While he led Haven’s evacuation, she had charged off with Cassandra, Vivienne, and Sera to buy them time against a monster that even she couldn’t hope to defeat.
“Let that thing hear you,” he had told her, and prayed to the Maker for all of them.
Essa had made them proud. The Frostbacks had borne witness to her defiance. She had brought half the mountain down atop the Elder One’s forces. When Cassandra, Sera, and Vivienne caught up to the refugees, Cullen had dared hope that Essa wasn’t far behind. The Iron Lady had been all but carrying Sera; the rogue’s grief and injuries had stolen her feet from beneath her. Then Cassandra had met his gaze and shook her head, tears standing in her eyes, and Cullen had felt the ground pitch beneath him.
She couldn’t be gone, he thought, pulled between doubt and faith. Not such a determined force. They had made camp as soon as they could and gone out in small groups of volunteers. Cullen has been surprised by the number of templars who went out looking for her. She had won more respect than she knew with her treatment of them. Allies, Essa had insisted. The Chantry had too many in chains of lyrium and fear.
By some miracle they found her, barely conscious or breathing, shivering in a snow drift. Shivering was good, Cassandra said. It meant she hadn’t lost too much to the cold. Cullen didn’t have the heart to tell her that Essa’s body was trembling from shock, not cold. She whimpered in pain when he lifted her in his arms and there was blood on her lips when she coughed. She asked once for Fin and Cullen prayed the smith would be conscious when they reached the healing tents so that he could answer her.
Solas met them halfway to camp. He immediately began cataloging her injuries and administering what healing could be done as they made their way through the heavy snow. Cullen listened as Solas muttered in concern, sounding half in awe of the wounds she’d acquired and with which she had walked so far. Cullen knew that it could only be by the Maker’s grace that Essa was alive at all. He thought that if she made it through the worst part of the next few days, she might finally stop arguing with them about having been touched by Andraste.
There were cheers when they made it back to camp. So many fragile hopes caught and held in their hero’s stuttering breaths. Cullen didn’t want to let her go, but he also knew there was nothing he could do for her but turn her over to the healers.
“Commander, your surcoat.”
“Keep it,” he said gruffly, uncaring of the speculative looks tossed his way. “Put it where she can see when she wakes.”
When, not if. His unyielding faith was a greater comfort to those gathered than he knew.
“It is something of a joke between us,” he felt compelled to explain. “It will make her laugh.”
If any had even thought to argue, that last stopped them. Her stillness was unnatural, as were the soft sounds of distress she made during those terrible moments when she flirted with consciousness. The extent of her wounds was somehow less believable than the fact that she had made it so far into the mountains bearing them. Even beneath their weight, her stillness felt like a lie. Essa’s easy laughter was as central to her character as her brooding. As her indestructible constitution. Nothing could be a more welcome sound.
Solas placed the surcoat close to her cot, the dark fur spilling over the small camp table beside her.
“We’ll send for you when she wakes,” he promised.
The kindness was nearly Cullen’s undoing, and he shook himself from his fears. There was too much that required his attention. He wouldn’t hover all night outside the healers’ tent.
“I will check back in the morning,” he said, with a shake of his head. “If she wakes and asks for me, you can send for me then.”
“As you wish.”
Enough sentimentality, Cullen thought, stepping back out into the night. She would live or she wouldn’t. There was nothing he could do for her, but he could care for her people, and there was an entire camp of refugees who needed something from him that he could actually give.
To work then.