She had found a small gap not far from the keep, hardly the size of a paddock, but she thought the light was good and the ground was a nice soft soil. She had scattered grain over the rich brown, pressed it into the damp dirt with bare feet, determined that at summer’s height she would sneak Geri down to graze in the solitude they both craved. Essa lifted her face to the cool morning air and drew in a breath. She could smell rain amid the frost. Spring was slower in the mountains. It did not burst across the world like green fire. It crept with gentle belligerence.
There was a lesson there.
She reread her sister’s letter for the dozenth time hoping for some cryptic message amid the stiff formality. The green light of the anchor held steady, flowing over the creased parchment and casting Cari’s perfect penmanship into sinister peaks and valleys. The letter was brief and very polite. She wrote on behalf of House Trevelyan, extended a number of platitudes in Andraste’s blessed name, but the letter was obviously meant for the ambassador of the Inquisition. It was not a personal missive to Essa; she had received nothing of that sort since she left the circle for the Conclave. House Trevelyan, the letter continued, was sending a tribute to the Herald. Lady Carilyna would be arriving in the spring with a modest token of the Trevelyan’s most fervent esteem and affection. One that the Bann and his family hoped the Inquisitor would remember.
Essa rolled her eyes. She knew her mother’s touch even if the hand was not hers.
Josephine had coordinated with Cari by letter over the long winter months. Essa had sent the Krem and the some of the Chargers to meet her. If all remained on schedule, Cari’s ship had made port in Jader a week ago. She would arrive at Skyhold any day, and Essa was anxious. She had not been close to her sister when they were children, but in the years that Essa had been at Ostwick, an earnest friendship had grown between them.
Of the Trevelyan children, Essa was the youngest. She might have been given to the Chantry and Cari kept as heir to the House had Essa been less of a waste, but she knew before she reached adolescence that she was of no use to her mother's piety. Of course she wasn’t the only disappointment. Her brother, the rightful heir, had eschewed his inheritance for the templar order.
Only Cari was left. She had left home before Mathieu chose faith over family. She had not served the Chantry long before their mother called her home. She had told Essa once that she almost envied her the quiet walls of the tower. Essa’s cage would have been Cari’s haven.
Essa hastily folded up the parchment, tucking it back into the pocket of her vest before silencing the anchor and tugging her glove back on. Her heart was pounding and she felt found out, though whether it was over the letter, her mark, or the fact that she was sitting not far enough away from the command tower, she didn’t know.
“Good morning, Commander.”
She turned toward him, unfolding from her perch within one the larger crenelations. Her legs hung down, but before she could jump he offered his hand.
Essa eyed him warily, almost teasing a smirk to his lips. He had begun to challenge her in small ways since their hilarious excuse for a chess match; she wasn’t quite sure what to make of the casual offers of physical contact. There was nothing untoward in the extension of his hand or elbow. He had certainly touched her in more familiar ways—she remembered drunkenly hanging over his shoulder with a mixture of mirth and embarrassment—and that they had been so utterly at ease in one another’s presence was just a part of their disconcerting attraction to each other. But this was different. This was… ordinary and deliberate. A hundred little touches that most people took for granted, that weren’t supposed to mean anything. Essa wasn’t sure if she had experienced them since she was a child, and she knew that Cullen had never reached for her so easily.
“Would you rather stay where you are?” He was still waiting, so patiently, for her to take his hand and drop down from her perch.
“No.” She reached for him with her left, watching his face for any sign of hesitancy or distrust as she placed the quiet anchor between them. She wondered if he could feel the faint buzz of magic that she did. It never really went away, but she had grown accustomed to it. She had an old training injury on her arm that did much the same from time to time.
Cullen’s chin lifted slightly; he saw her counter challenge for what it was. His fingers held hers firmly as she dropped down and they released her within the exact moments of propriety. Essa frowned.
“You’re late for your rounds at the stable,” he observed.
He started walking along the battlements and Essa fell in beside him.
“I am,” she admitted. “But I’m sure the horses will get fed.”
Cullen chuckled. “They will. Dennet has done well with them.”
“He has. He will have more room and resources once the stable is complete in the valley.”
“Have you thought about what you’re going to call it?” he asked. “We can hardly mark ‘the valley’ on our maps.”
Essa smiled. In a rare feat of diplomacy she had managed to acquire the neglected holding from the Arlessa of Edgehall.
“Not yet. But I should. If I don’t choose something soon, it’s going to end up like the tavern.”
“Yes,” he mused. “I believe I’ve heard The Herald’s Hope and Essa’s Repose bandied about.”
“Ugh. That last sounds like a place to bury me.” She shuddered. “I’ll think of something soon.” She paused for a moment, staring west across the mountains. “The fields will start to come alive in another few weeks.”
She was looking forward to it with a sort of wonder that had surprised all of them. Well, except Fin. Cullen stopped beside her, following her gaze toward the far horizon where the last vestiges of night clung to the sky.
“I never took you for a farmer.” He glanced down at her, a soft tug on the corner of his mouth that might have been a smile.
“One of my favorite duties was helping tend the tower garden,” Essa confessed. “Vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. It suited me.”
She had enjoyed growing things. Tending life balanced the death she nurtured too easily.
“We shouldn't be so dependent on the lowlands,” Essa interjected before a comfortable silence could settle around them. He was making her edgy this morning and she wasn’t sure why. “The Inquisition needs more than Skyhold’s kitchen garden if we are going to feed a growing army.”
Cullen smiled. “Shouldn’t—“ he began.
Essa waved his words away. She knew what he was going to say. It was a conversation they'd had already had, and more than once.
“No, someone else shouldn’t be worrying with these details,” she replied firmly. “Josie would use our dependency to establish ‘strong trading relationships’ in Orlais and Ferelden. Have us survive on tributes from wealthy allies, but we both know politics are nothing if not fickle. I would not have our people hungry because I managed to insult some cossetted lord or lady who doesn’t have anything better to do than lurk around our stronghold waiting for some tidbit of gossip or divine drama!”
Cullen’s lips twitched, but he kept his tongue.
“Are you laughing at me?” Essa demanded.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he assured her. “And your acquisition of the land was well done, even Josie was impressed with your ‘uncharacteristic display of diplomatic skill’.”
Essa laughed. “Don’t praise me yet,” she warned. “My skill will be for nothing if we can’t get crops to grow. Most of the seeds and tubers will be in next week, but it’ll be several more before the rest do. We’ve started clearing the plots and the barns are going up. At least I’ve plenty of help.”
There were a number of hands not suited to holding a sword or a bow, men and women looking to trade their time and labor for the security that the Inquisition offered. Essa had organized a considerable force in the scant time that she had been back at Skyhold. Now she waited for the first brush strokes of spring to settle bright and clear and definite upon the mountains.
“You won’t do this forever, will you?” Cullen asked, catching her off guard.
“What?” She glanced up at him, fighting a scowl.
Essa reached for his arm before she caught herself and pulled her hand away with a mild grimace of chagrin.
“We both know I don’t lead us,” Essa said, holding her hands behind her back and turning again to their walk. “I’m the muscle, the anchor, and the tie breaker when the four of you are divided, but a coin toss could see to that last.”
“That’s not true,” he argued. But they both knew that it was.
“A coin toss would be more predictable,” Essa mused, staring at a crack in the stone beneath her feet. “But I’m in no hurry to leave, if there’s use for me here.”
“You’re the Herald,” he declared softly.
Essa smiled then and finally turned to meet his gaze steadily.
“I am the Herald,” she conceded. “But as long as I die in glory or service, the Inquisition would be fine without me. Well, once Cissyface is dealt with.”
She wanted him to smile. Had deliberately chosen Sera’s preferred address for Corypheus in hope of lightening his regard.
“Essa, you do know that I…,” Cullen glanced away, swallowed nerves and tried again. “That we see you as more than a weapon.”
“I do, and I’ve had all winter to realize what hurt that’s going to cause us.”
Essa always chose her words carefully. She watched Cullen turn each one, over examining edges and leads, following fault lines to the slight quake she hadn’t managed to keep from her voice.
“Going to cause us?”
“You and me.”
She sighed and pushed one hand through her hair. The buckle on her glove snagged on the braid at her temple and Cullen reached to carefully untangle her fingers and hair. He leaned close, breath cool against her cheek. Essa stared at the column of his throat rather than watch his earnest gaze as he smoothed the knots with a gentle hand. A bright glitter of silver caught her attention as the collar of his coat shifted with his movements. She had a brief glimpse before the chain of Diar’s medallion slid back into place, Essa’s most tender wound shielded behind Cullen's armor.
“I’m a mercenary,” she said instead of a dozen things she wanted to. “That I seem to have been hired by Andraste and paid in friendship rather than gold is beside the point. If I live long enough, yes, I think I’d enjoy being a farmer, but do you really think they’ll let me?”
“Let you?” Cullen’s tone suggested that he didn’t think that ‘let’ was a word that really applied to Essa.
“All mages are apostates now,” she reminded him, as if he could forget. “But when the circles are reformed, what do you think will happen to me if I’m not the Inquisitor?”
Her eyes softened, the grey deepening like shadows and storm clouds. “You forget too easily, don’t you?”
“That I’m a mage.”
“I shouldn’t,” he said.
“No,” Essa agreed. “You shouldn’t.”