Chapter 1: Cullen's Folly
Cullen's insecurities bring about an unexpected surprise for him and Essa.
“You bought me,” Essa drew the words out slowly and carefully as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing. “ A baby horse?”
The Orlesian Courser was beautiful, with a carefully kept lineage that stretched back farther than the Trevelyans’. The soft down of her mane and tail were purest white, wisps that would one day grow into dramatic flourishes glinting with rainbow lights. Her golden coat had been groomed to perfection. It hadn’t been a difficult task; there was so little of her. The filly’s head barely reached Essa’s shoulder. There was a ridiculous blue bow around her small neck.
“She’s been weaned three months,” Cullen told Essa proudly, as if he had a single clue of what that meant.
Essa rubbed her eyes with one hand. Her other arm was draped over the foal’s slender neck. Behind her, she could hear the horse master trying not to laugh.
Cullen had been grinning when he dragged her to the stable to reveal the surprise that had been months in the working. He had researched Orlesian Chargers for weeks before contacting a breeder, paid an obscene amount of gold for the foal and her transport to Skyhold. He had thought Essa would appreciate the gift. She brought home horses from all over Ferelden and Orlais after all. But Essa wasn’t happy, in fact she watched him now with mild suspicion in her grey eyes.
His grin faltered.
“She’s beautiful, Cullen, truly. But have you any idea how much time a foal requires?”
He didn’t-–of course he didn’t-–but Cullen didn’t do anything without careful planning so he had read books and spoken to Dennet enough to at least think that he did.
“I know you can’t care for her while you’re away,” he explained practically. “But Dennet can take care of her while you’re gone from Skyhold. She’ll be waiting for you when you get home.”
“You already try not to complain about how much time I spend in the barn,” Essa pointed out.
“Yes, but this will be a new—“
He was flustered; he didn’t stop the words in time. Essa watched his face flush with the realization.
“A new horse?” Essa asked. “Because there’s something wrong with my “old” horse?”
Behind her, Dennet gave up on containing his laughter. Cullen’s blush darkened to a scowl. He reached up to rub the back of his neck, glaring at Dennet until the man quieted.
The filly danced in place, long spindly legs tangling around Essa’s as the foal pranced with nervous energy. Essa sighed, and turned her attention from Cullen to quiet the little Courser with soft words and gentle scratches.
“Would you like me to take her for a few moments, Inquisitor?” Dennet called helpfully.
Essa nodded. “Thank you.”
She handed him the filly’s lead.
“She’ll make a fine officer’s horse,” the horsemaster commented, exchanging a smile with Essa that Cullen couldn’t read.
“Yes, Master Dennet,” Essa agreed. “I believe she will.”
Essa quit the yard then, disappearing into the barn and leaving a bewildered Cullen no choice but to follow. He found her—predictably—in front of Geri’s stall, leaning forward across the half door, arms and torso pressing against the neck and chest of the chestnut gelding. Geri glared at Cullen over Essa’s back, his dark eyes filled with distrust. The horse snorted as Cullen approached and Essa slowly turned to face him. Just that brief contact with the Forder had restored her gaze to its usual calm.
“Cullen, are you jealous of Geri?”
Cullen’s hand slipped from its habitual resting place on the pommel of his sword. The motion caused his weapon to slap angrily against his leg, as if to punish him for what he was beginning to see had been a series of gross miscalculations. He straightened his belt and drew himself up, taking a single breath in an attempt to regain some shred of dignity.
“You can’t be serious,” he said, with a touch of disdain. “Don’t be absurd.”
Essa relaxed against the stall door. Geri leaned his head over her, jaw a tight press over her shoulder.
“Absurd or not,” Essa replied, a smile teasing the corners of her mouth. “I asked you a question, and you haven’t answered it, which may be a first for us.”
“I am not jealous of a blighted horse,” Cullen muttered.
But Geri and Essa were watching him with too much understanding in their eyes. Cullen had had enough.
“If you do not want the filly, Inquisitor, I am certain we can find someone who will take her off your hands.” His words were clipped, tacitly professional. “Now if you don’t mind, I have work that I should get back to.”
To Essa’s amusement he didn’t wait to be dismissed, even though he had thrust them into a formal exchange with that “inquisitor” business. She covered her mouth with her hands to muffle her laughter as she watched him stalk away.
“I believe that might be the first time our dear Commander has spoken falsely to me,” she said, dropping a kiss on Geri’s wide cheek.
The Forder snuffled snuffled her arm, gave her a nudge in the direction Cullen had gone.
“I’m going,” Essa told him with a laugh. “You could be nicer to him, you know. He thinks you don’t like him.”
Geri drew in a deep breath and let out in a long suffering sigh.
If she gave herself time to think, she would be angry with him, and Essa didn’t believe Cullen deserved that. She knew that he had insecurities. She had understood that long before he kissed her and she kissed him back. They had discussed the paranoia. It was one of the worrisome effects of lyrium use and it seemed to attack without warning as the vile stuff slowly left his body. In the past, he simply told her about his fears and she had taken them seriously, whether he was disconcerted with her closeness to Dorian, Sera, or even Bull.
She knew it wasn’t about him not trusting her, or about him not trusting the members of her team. They both understood that sometimes it was his fears that couldn’t be trusted, but they still had to be acknowledged, dealt with. They had gotten past the worst of it without anger or tears, and it had been months since such an episode.
But then he had gone and bought her a horse.
To replace Geri.
Essa’s temper simmered. She knew she was angry because he had come at her through one of her dearest. He was a little envious of Fin, of the history they shared and the bond, but not in such a way that he would ever try to come between them. Essa understood that. There were nights when she felt the same about Cullen and Cassandra. When she wished that her voice was strong enough to call him from despair.
But this was different.
She stalked up the stairs to his office, every step spoiling the good humor with which she had been determined to meet this current madness. No, now she was just mad. He could have spoken to her about this so many weeks ago. Getting the Courser here had taken months of planning, which meant he had been feeling whatever he was feeling about Geri for longer than that, so close to their beginning?
Essa repositioned the guards at the door. “Why don’t you take a walk?”
She made the suggestion pleasantly enough that if the keep gossip wanted, it could think she was just sneaking into Cullen’s office for a kiss or three. She had done so often enough that it would be more likely than the reality. She rapped loudly on the door to announce her presence, but opened it quickly enough behind the sound that any warning was moot. She had expected to have to dismiss any number of Cullen’s staff. She was surprised then to find him alone, bent over his desk, staring morosely at the endless paperwork that he usually didn’t seem to mind.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized before she could speak.
“You don’t get to be sorry this time,” Essa retorted smartly. “At least not until I’ve gotten to yell at you.”
Cullen glanced up in astonishment. Essa rarely yelled. She might speak loudly to throw her words across a greater distance, but he couldn’t remember her ever shouting at someone in anger. He watched her warily, preposterously curious as to what she would be like in such a temper. She stalked toward him, kicking off the short, slip on boots she favored over those ridiculous knee-high laced inconveniences Josie adored. She wasn’t wearing socks and she never apologized when her feet smelled lightly of clean sweat and leather. Her bare feet slapped hard across the stone floor as she stomped in front of him.
“GER-RI!” She shouted, her ire stretching the Forder’s name into two long furious syllables.
Essa slammed her hands down on the edge of the desk. “GERI!” she repeated, just in case he’d missed her the first time. “MY. HORSE!”
Her eyes sought his and Cullen knew better than to avoid her gaze. Essa didn’t appreciate false submission any more than the genuine article. She would have made a terrible officer, and a worse soldier, he thought fondly.
She was, he mused despite all attempts to discipline his thoughts, quite beautiful when she was angry. He would tell her later, when her smile was hovering around just beyond her lips and she wasn’t glaring at him as if she wanted to punch him in the face. When Cullen didn’t answer her, Essa kicked his desk. The stalwart oak didn’t budge, the force of her irritation only hurt her toes, but it seemed to ground her for a moment.
“Why didn’t you say something?” she asked in a more careful tone. “Why did you talk to me about it, Cullen? We always talk.”
“I know, Es,” Cullen sighed. “But this is different.”
He ran one hand through his hair, disheveling the carefully corralled curls. Essa’s fingers itched to follow the path, to soothe the tension she could see gathered around his eyes.
“How?” she whispered.
“Because it’s not the lyrium,” Cullen confessed tightly. “Essa…as ridiculous as it is…I think my feelings about Geri are my own.”
Essa stared at him for too long, mouth gaping slightly. In another situation, it would have been comical. Cullen had never seen her so shocked.
“Why would you think that?” she finally asked in disbelief.
“Because with Dorian or Bull…” He didn’t continue the list. “Part of me always knew that was I was feeling wasn’t what I believed. Wasn’t me. I just couldn’t stop how I felt, couldn’t get away from the panic and the fear until I felt I was choking on images in my head—“
Essa caught his hand, fingers tunneling between his own. Cullen stopped abruptly, shook the old, dead paranoias away. They no longer held power between them. This was something else. This was real.
“But Geri…Essa you don’t understand,” Cullen implored earnestly. “He hates me.”
Essa pulled away from him, clapping both hands over her mouth and nose. Above her fingers, her eyes sparked, but whether with laughter or temper, Cullen couldn’t tell. He watched in trepidation as she sank to the floor, crossing her legs before her.
“Geri doesn’t hate you.” The words were mumbled against her hands.
“He does,” Cullen insisted. “You don’t see the way he glares at me over your shoulder. I’m afraid to be alone with him! How would I explain to you that he attacked me and I had to defend myself? I don’t know but a few terrible ways to defend myself against a horse, Es. Can you imagine me having to tell you that?”
He wandered around the room, pausing listlessly at one of the book shelves.
“And forget trying to wake you when you fall asleep at that brute’s feet!” he exclaimed.
Cullen paced back around his desk to stand before her. His amber eyes flashed, nostrils flaring slightly with righteous indignation. Essa would never tell him how much he had in common with the brute he was going on about.
“I’ve tried to make friends with him,” he groused. “Do you know how foolish I feel saying that out loud?”
Essa blinked at him in confusion.
“I tried to take him out to graze in the fall, the last time you went to the Hinterlands,” he said. “He…”
This was certainly the first Essa had heard of it, and the sweetness of the gesture was leeching away any residual annoyance with him. She hadn’t wanted to leave Geri behind, but he was healing a strained tendon in his front leg. Essa dropped her hands.
“Did he try to bite you?” she asked, seriously. “Kick you? What?”
“No,” Cullen admitted sheepishly. “Nothing like that. But he just kept glaring at me. Like he knew it was my fault you weren’t here.”
“How in Andraste’s name was it your fault?” she demanded incredulously.
“Well, you know it wasn’t,” Cullen replied reasonably. “And I know it wasn’t, but your horse did not seem to think so.”
That did it. The dam burst. Essa lay back on the floor and laughed until she was sobbing, gasping for air.
“And you thought—“ She gasped out the words, tears streaming down her face. “Oh, Maker, preserve me!”
She gave up and let the laughter pull her back down again. She could feel him glowering down at her, but her eyes were sealed tight with mirth, her face red, jaw aching.
“It’s not that funny, Es.”
She struggled to draw breath. “It is,” she argued. “By Andraste’s Mabari, Cullen it is. But it’s adorable. And it will be fine.”
She sat up, grabbed his wrist and jerked him down beside her. She kept his hand in hers, lacing their fingers together and pressing her palm to his.
“Is this about who I love more?” she asked.
It was an important question. The answer she awaited was more so. There were many things between them, but there was no room for chains.
“What?” He stared at her. “No, of course not.”
She believed him.
“I just thought…” He sighed heavily. “I thought that if you had another horse, one that knew me from when she was young…”
Essa smiled. “Then you might be able to spend time with me while I was with her.”
Essa leaned her head against the cold metal over his bicep. She squeezed his hand.
“You will have to get to know Geri better,” she said patiently. “You can’t read him for shit. He likes you. He actually pushed me after you just now.”
Cullen glared at her because he felt he should, not because he was actually angry with her.
“I am not versed in four-legged communications, Inquisitor,” he sounded so prim that she giggled. "And we have a march--"
"Yes," Essa said wryly. "But you sent for the filly before we knew that, and foals and crops care nothing about the battle plans of men."
He rolled his eyes. "Cacique does."
She laughed. "How is that he doesn't bother you?" she demanded.
"He like me better," Cullen smirked.
Essa leaned toward him, bumped him with her shoulder in a gesture very like the warhorse in question.
“Well you need to start training with the others,” she determined. “First of all, you can’t just replace someone’s bonded with a cute younger version. The filly is precious, Cullen, but by giving her to me, you simply added to my four-legged family and I barely have time for them and my two-legged family as it is. Second, I can’t keep her.”
At this he frowned slightly.
“She is yours,” Essa continued. “She will make the Inquisition’s commander a fine charger one day, and I think you’ll benefit from raising and training her. I’ll ask to Dennet help, but I’m afraid she’s your responsibility now.”
She interrupted him before he could remind her of the long list of obligations he already had. “She’ll be good for you. If you find that you’re not a match, we’ll consider in alternative, but if you’re going to worry over my relationship with Geri, then maybe you should learn a bit of what that connection is.”
Cullen could see she was determined. He supposed he deserved the lesson.
“Fine,” he acquiesced more easily than she had expected. “But you have to name her.”
He leaned in to press his lips tersely to hers. Essa grinned, grabbed him by his fur collar and pulled him in for a proper kiss.
“Cullen’s Folly,” she said, laughing as he groaned in exasperation. “I think it’ll suit, don’t you?”
“I’m never going to hear the end of this am I?” he asked.
“From me? Probably. I’m due for my own bit of foolishness,” Essa admitted honestly. “But from Dennet?”
She laughed. “Dennet will have to be ordered to keep his laughter to himself, and I’m not doing it.”
Chapter 2: Swagger
Michel de Chevin is being recruited. His first night in Skyhold is as much an interview process for Essa as for him. She handles the entire exchange with her usual aplomb.
“I am curious, lady Inquisitor,” Michel said, taking a sip from his tankard. “What is it that you plan to do once Corphyeus is dead, and Thedas has no further need of your particular…skills?”
There was just the barest of pauses between his last two words. Enough to suggest her skills were of dubious existence or merit. He had drawn a chair up to the Charger’s table, but there was a small space between it and the cluster of others, sufficient to set him apart. His body was arranged in a careful affectation of relaxation, but Ser Michel was not at ease in the Herald’s Rest. Essa had made the mistake of letting him know that she knew it, and now he was insulting her in the most polite Orlesian style.
Essa smiled. She leaned back in her chair, pitched it back on two legs, and clunked her heels up on the table by Bull’s elbow. Her left hand flung out, and the bottle Fin slid across the polished wood hit lightly against her leather fingerless glove. She lifted the mouth of the bottle to her lips, took a long swallow that wrinkled her nose and made the Chargers laugh.
“I plan,” Essa replied, sliding the bottle back. “To plant my arse in Smoke’s Valley. Raise warhorses, cabbages, and hopefully some apples, build a chapel—”
Michel had only just arrived, and she did not yet know if he would join them. She was hopeful that Dennet and the horses would recruit for her once he visited the stable in the morning, but she figured she may as well let him know how things stood tonight.
Essa’s grin broadened, and she kicked Bull affectionately with one foot. “And a tavern—“
“You know it,” Sera agreed in boisterous interruption.
Sera raised her ale and the Chargers cheered. Essa held Michel’s blue eyes for a heartbeat. Then another. When her stare fell away, it was for decorum rather than deference. His chin hitched up with the slightest acknowledgement.
“I might try adding a grist mill at the falls,” Essa continued boldly. “I might not. But when the next power-hungry politician fucks Thedas over with another Elder One, or whatever other nasty bugger their political machinations breed, I’ll be waiting with my horses, and my cabbages, and my very particular skills to take the gold of those who think themselves my betters and slay their demons for them.”
The cheers became roars and the thunderous ovation of fists on tables and heels on hardwood spread through the tavern. Essa’s haughtiness earned a smile from Michel, and she was surprised by the brief flash. She knew he found her coarse and boorish. Their personalities seemed to intersect only around the subject of horses.
“You are quite the mercenary,” he mused. His quiet, cultured tone coiled with unspoken reprimand beneath the din. Michel raised his tankard.
It was Essa’s turn to nod. “If my personal strategies are too bloodless for you, ser, I am sure that my advisors can find you more agreeable work.”
“That is good to know, Inquisitor.” The Chargers called for another round of ale. Michel skimmed a coin across the table. “On me, please.”
They were on their feet cheering Michel as he left, and when Essa rose—intending to help collect pitchers from the bar—Bull grabbed her up in a bone-crushing hug. He kissed her soundly on the mouth, and that she laughed, that she didn’t flinch or stiffen, was testament to how far she had come. He held her, half upside down and laughing, for Dalish and Sera to plant kisses on her cheeks before passing her bodily to Fin who spun her out onto the floor in a jolly quickstep before treating her to another kiss.
Essa was laughing as Fin passed her into another embrace. The arms were strong and familiar; she had a moment’s recognition before Cullen’s lips came down on hers.
Hard. This was no friendly smooch of jubilant camaraderie, nor the slow, sweet passion of stolen moments on the battlements. Cullen’s kiss was exultant. The tavern receded from the forefront of Essa’s awareness. There were only the faint scents of clean cotton and the lemony balm of the soap they shared. Her body yielded against muscle and cloth, the harder contours of belt and boot. She was still absurdly disconcerted when he made a public appearance without his armor. As simple as it was, his off-duty wardrobe unmade her utterly.
Essa’s eyelids fluttered closed as Cullen’s hands glided too low down her waist for strict propriety. The tips of his thumbs slipped beneath the wide waistband of her trousers, and Essa’s breath caught at what for him was a brazen display. She pressed against him audaciously, stealing his air to replace what he’d taken.
It was only the increase in noise, and no few catcalls, that brought them to their senses. Cullen lifted his lips from Essa’s and she slowly opened her eyes, gaze darting around to share their friends’ cheer. When her stare returned to his, Cullen’s regard was a weight she felt crawling slow and heavy down the fault lines of her body.
“Do you have some time?” he inquired, voice low with a thrilling hint of urgency.
“I think I could get away,” she whispered, so faintly that he leaned closer to ask again for her answer.
She kissed him instead of repeating, teeth nipping his lower lip, tongue soothing the sting.
“Did you hear?” Essa spoke louder this time. She broke away with mirth sparkling in her eyes.
“Your tavern rousing declarations?” He smiled slightly. “I might have.”
Her grin threatened the soft joy on her face, turned it sharp and bright and more infectious than it already was.
“So all that swagger and bluster does it for you?” she demanded in astonishment.
“It might,” he admitted, amusement threatening the usual severity of his lips. “And your unlady-like language too.”
She laughed in surprise, arms twining around his neck, fingers threading into still damp curls.
“It wasn’t just bluster,” she told him.
“I know.” Another kiss. “That’s why it works.”
The Chargers were singing. A bawdy shanty that would have probably made Cullen blush if he paid too much attention to the tale of the knight and her captain. The crowd of bodies around them swayed with song.
“Would you two hurry up and get out of here?” Bull said, shoving them both toward the door. “They won’t be distracted long.”
They ducked out like inelegant thieves, laughing and stealing kisses as the burnished edge of twilight crept in to dampen the sounds of the tavern and turn them umber. The yard was unusually quiet, Essa thought. Almost everyone who would have been milling out in the autumn night was inside enjoying some precious revelry. Essa caught Cullen’s hands and began dragging along.
“Where are we going?” he asked, trying to snatch a kiss as she tried to rush him through the yard.
“Your tower,” she said, dancing away from him, feet nimble and almost skipping. Her eyes shone with mischief.
“I am not going to chase you through the yard,” he warned.
They’d had the conversation before. Essa could run through the castle grounds without raising alarm, but the Inquisition’s general could not.
Essa winked cheekily. “Then I’ll beat you there,” she jogged a little circle around him, placed a clumsy kiss on his neck before darting out of reach. “And if you make me wait too long, I’ll have to get started without you.”
His eyes closed on groan.
“You said you like my swagger,” Essa reminded him, taking a dancing step closer to him.
“No one ever accused me of being a wise man.”
His eyes opened with a flash of gold and Cullen caught her in his arms, pressed her up against the nearest wall, and kissed her giggles away.
“I want you naked,” he instructed, the words rumbling and wet against her throat. “Except for my coat.”
Essa sagged against him, bravado eclipsed by need. Cullen stepped back, a cocky grin on his face when her hands flailed out against the stone, legs barely catching her.
“I thought you were in hurry,” he said smugly.
“So that’s how it’s going to be?” Essa rallied, got her feet back under her with a mutinous challenge in her eyes.
“I think it is,” he replied.
Her scarf hit him in the face, followed swiftly by her tunic. The tips of his ears were flushed as he caught the fabric with his hands.
“Escalation,” Essa smirked, as he pulled the cloth away to meet her gaze.
“Start running,” Cullen ordered roughly in a voice that had terrified more than one recruit.
Essa’s laughter was quick, breathless and consuming, but somehow she managed the run to the command tower, the glad sound trailing behind her.