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Of Temples Sought

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Guardian, sometime after Wintersend:

She had finally grown into her father’s hands. Essa leaned against the balcony railing, flexed her fingers in the early morning light as it bounced cold and white off of the mountains. Her hands were not quite as large as his--her father had been a large, imposing man before age and health’s decline--but they were bigger than those of most women. Wide palms, long fingers that would never have been called dainty even before she inflicted her life upon them.

When she was a child, especially when he was holding a book, or showing her how to carry a shield, Essa would wonder if her small hands would ever be so large and sure as her father’s. She remembered placing her palm against his, dirty fingers with ragged nails and torn cuticles reaching toward the broad square tips of his fingers. Her father’s hands were always warm. She had inherited her mother’s rage, but Essa wondered sometimes if her fire had come from her father. If what lived so coldly within Miranda Trevelyan had met the heat of her husband only to become an inferno in their youngest child.

Essa called flame to her hands, watched it send the cold morning air waving in a faint halo. She had learned a lot about fire over the years. What burned brightest and hottest, how the fuel changed the color of flame through gold, orange, red, and azure. Blue wasn’t always the hottest, but for her the bright cyan was the color of the Fade’s desire. She had watched it burn in the eyes of one of the demons at her harrowing, never expected to find it sang the same brilliance as lyrium dreams. Most days it licked beneath her skin, or banked beneath calm and discipline and blessed exorcism, but sometimes her nerves stirred the coals back to flaming and she had no choice but to let them burn.

Today was one of those days, and the last of many that winter had brought to her as Inquisition scouts and soldiers scoured the Arbor Wilds, hoping to find what Corypheus sought before he did. Word had come finally come late just two days before, and the first of their army marched already to join with their allies, to claim the Temple of Mythal, and hold it from their enemy. Essa watched the blue shimmer across her left palm, falling deep into the green light of the anchor and burning hotter against the pull of the Fade. Already she had visited the undercroft giving the forge extra fire, the kilns too. Harritt had let her work herself to exhaustion before the sun had even risen, but she was calm now. Her hands her own again.

Praises be to the Maker, my rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”

There were scars on her knuckles. Too many to count. The first at the age of three, bloodied on the door of an accidental prison. The second at four, when she had been too clumsy with the small practice sword her father had given her.  Oh! How she had howled, her small voice rising, calling Greta to her side. The mabari had bristled, hair standing in a great ridge down her back, but there had been no enemy, nothing to defend the child from but her own lack of skill. She had gotten better, of course, and quickly, taking to the tools of war with an adeptness that shocked her father even as it filled his chest with pride.

Nearly the whole of her life’s lessons lay marked on the backs of her hands. Lines smooth or jagged, some near white with age, others still rose and purple. They all glowed faintly in the seething light, and still, she felt the memory of lips more keenly than the ghosts of old wounds. Cullen liked to linger on the roughest scratches, the crosshatching from rasps and picks, the glancing teeth of horses not quite patient enough for two children trying to teach themselves the physical skills necessary for trimming and shoeing. She had told him every story, how it had taken her and Fin too long to master filing. How she had lost considerable skin in her self-inflicted education. There was a diamond-shaped scar at the bottom of her thumb, a smaller point of exit on the other side. That lesson she had learned faster than others. The nail had been hot, Fin so proud at having cast his first set, and Essa had hit the not quite flat head just wrong. It had cauterized itself, so that was something.

She had laughed until he soothed the marks with his teeth, eyes warmer than her skin.

Life had added layers upon the those early layers. Blisters that turned to calluses the times she forgot to wear her gloves. Burns from the first month she had tried to help in the kitchen at Ostwick Circle. She had never cooked before, of course, nothing beyond roasting something over a campfire anyway, but she had wanted to learn. There was a rough tear at the base of her left ring finger, a dog bite, some poor cur begging for scraps at the kitchen door. The templars were going to put it down, but Essa had begged Aubreg and he had conceded her the pup if she could tame it.  They had a rocky start, but Percy came around, eventually became a favorite of the magelings.

Children should have a dog.

“Es?”

She took a breath and exerted her will, watched as the light faded obediently from her hands just before Cullen stepped out to join her.

“I’m here.”

It galled her that there was no proof of him upon her skin. She could not look in the mirror without seeing Diar’s smile in the crooked bridge of her nose, or the relief in Aubreg’s gaze as he pulled the knife quickly from her throat, sharp edge slicing beneath her jaw. She bore shimmering stretch marks on her hips, thighs, and breasts, the miracle of her body giving life to Hope. Since joining the Inquisition, she had taken wounds in the place of most of her companions, could name a scar from sword or arrow for all of them, but Cullen had left nothing on the canvas that she was.

He who she cherished most of all.

“Did you sleep in the stable or up here last night?” Cullen asked, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her into his embrace. He was not yet in full armor, having left his with Harritt and Dagna the night before for the enchantments Essa had insisted be added.

She leaned against his chest, settled close in the quiet, rose with each slow, deep breath he took, as she waited for her body to calm further, until she could feel the steady beat of his heart against her shoulder blade.

“The stable,” they said together.

“You smell like hay,” he added, pressing a kiss to her neck.

She laced their fingers together at her waist. “I always smell like hay.”

“Sometimes more than others,” he chuckled. “More and more as the mountains warm.”

Winter was gone. There were crocuses pushing, dark violet and splendid gold, through the last snow lingering in the garden, and even with the sheer green shroud of spring creeping up the mountainside, Essa could only marvel at what a beautiful winter it had been. They had laughed and loved and argued through the long cold nights, found a stronger unity for the incessant tangle of their minds. Satinalia had been a tender, ecstatic joy surrounded by their loved ones, First Day a raucous celebration in defiance of darkness that yet loomed. Whatever new, trembling love they had found in the year before, theirs was a stalwart force now, unshakeable and immovable, and if she could have launched that might at Corypheus, she had no doubts that he would be yet dead at her feet.

But love was not so easily crafted into a weapons and armor. Drawn from the forge of such hearts, it still needed hands to wield it. She wasn’t certain if she was the warrior or the weapon.

“Essa?” Cullen held her tighter, lifted one hand to his lips, breathed soft against her knuckles.

“Hmmm…?” She let her head fall back, exposing her to the promise of the new day.

“I love you.”

“And I you.” She closed her eyes when he feathered a kiss over Fin’s diamond.

“He’s waiting for you.”

“I know.” Her voice shook and she struggled with breath to fight it back even. “I don’t want to send him away.” She sighed. “It feels too much like giving up.”

“No.” Cullen turned her in his arms, held her close with arms and gaze. “It’s hope.”

*

She was sitting in the stable annoying Fin’s father. He had helped her shoe her father’s horse that morning and Essa was positively giddy at having helped drive her first nails into a hoof and having done so smoothly and safely. Rance was laughing fondly at her curiosity, answering a dozen questions, most of them the same asked in different ways. Looking back, Essa realized he was a bit proud.

“We’ll make a proper farrier of you yet.” He ruffled her hair back from her eyes.

“You’ll have another to train soon,” Fin’s mother said as she joined us.

It was Fin’s first visit to the stable, to get him dirty, so he would grow up strong and healthy. But she held him close as if she wasn’t ready to see the tiny sweet smelling creature smudged with barn dirt.

“You do the honors,” she told Essa roughly, moving his swaddlings to expose a round pink face and a shock of bright red hair.

He was sleeping, and Essa was too young to fully understand the import of the tradition that was both a dedication and a blessing.

“Just rub a little dirt on him.” Rance reached out with one finger to trace a line that didn’t quite meet his baby’s skin.

Essa reached for Nara, her father’s mare, scratched her cheek until the horse leaned into her palm and Essa’s hands were dusty.

“Good girl,” Rance murmured in approval as Essa rubbed that dusty affection on Fin’s forehead. Fin’s eyes opened, met her with a wide stare so blue she thought they were made from sky.

Essa didn’t know what to think as the child cooed in greeting, one fist raised toward her straggly hair. She leaned forward, let him wrap those tiny fingers around the coarse braid. He tugged, hard enough that she winced, and Essa knew that was as much hers as he was anyone else’s.

Mabari bond fiercely and forever.

“Did you read Cullen the riot act?” she asked as the door to the tower opened and Fin stepped inside alone.

He laughed, but his blue eyes were guarded, wary in ways she couldn’t remember ever seeing them.

“I might have,” he said with a shrug, closing the door behind him and joining her at the narrow window closest to Cullen’s bookshelves. “He takes most of the fun out of it though, not enough ego to bristle at my impudence. Loves you too much to do anything other than promise to do his best by you.”

Essa’s chuckle fell flat as she watched a wide swath of snow slide fast down one of the distant mountains. Melt was a dangerous season in the Frostbacks, but at least the paths were clear and their soldiers already in the lowlands.

“I brought your gloves,” Fin said roughly. She braved a glance back and he lifted his chin in a stubborn expression she knew he had gotten from her. “I would see you in your armor before I go. We worked hard on it.”

Essa followed his glare to the armor stand, to black dragonhide and gleaming silverite. The fine scales overlapped with perfect precision, the armor as much a work of art as an instrument of war. She would look more dragon than human when she stood before their army.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, eyes never leaving his face, as if she hadn’t long ago memorized every quirk of his nose and scattering of freckle.  “Fin?”

“Yeah?”

“You’ll tell her everything right? Even if the bad stuff? I don’t want her believing all the ridiculous things they say about me. I’m not some holy, faultless creature.”

“She’ll see that for herself.” His laugh was a whisper of hope and soft, the first pale bruise of light through storm clouds.  “But yes,” he added when Essa’s eyes narrowed mulishly. “I’ll tell your child what an impossible brat you are.”

“Thank you, Fin.”

He caught her in his arms, pulled her close to the broad brawn of his chest, wrapped her tight and held her until she remembered how impossibly large he was. A blacksmith, she reminded herself. It was hard to remember when they weren’t touching. He had been a child when her magic took her from him, ten years old, the top of his head not quite brushing her shoulder, and in the year and half since the Maker saw fit to return them to one another, she had not yet accepted how grown he was.

“You’re a right beast, Fin Larkson,” she mumbled into his chest, drawing in the scents of fire and steel, horse and iron and leather. “Am I going to have to start watching for suiters? Because I’m not ready for you to be of courting age.”

His bark of laughter shook her cheek, echoed loudly in the stillness of the Cullen’s office. “What is it with you women?” he asked. “You find yourselves smitten and expect that we’re all chasing some grand romance. I’m not nearly ready to settle down.”

He set her gently from him. “Though you and the commander make it look like much less of a tragedy than my parents did. It might not be so bad one day.”

Her eyes misted and he rolled his in reply. “None of that now. Andraste’s mabari, we’re getting sentimental in our old ages. You gotta hold it together, woman. Just a few more weeks.”

Essa blinked. “What?”

“It’s nearly done,” he explained and the sheer finality of his statement sent her reeling. “You do realize that, Es? It won’t be forever. Whatever this thing is that Corypheus wants, you’re going to beat him to it.”

“Fin…I’m—” she spread her hands helplessly between them. “How can you be so certain?”

He reached for her, laced their fingers together in a web of history so tight she could barely see the decade they had spent apart. His hands were so much bigger than hers now.

“I understand why you’re sending me away.” She opened her mouth to correct him and he shook his head. “To. I understand why you’re sending me to her, and I won’t lie, I’m pretty nervous to meet your spawn. She might wrap me around her little finger like I have you.”

“You do not!” Essa denied, face splitting in a wide grin. He did, in fact, have her wrapped around his little finger.

“It goes both ways,” he said with a laugh that finally reached his eyes. “But I do.”

She grinned. “Oh, Fin….” She swallowed past the lump in her throat, tried to give him words he didn’t need.

“I’m not telling you goodbye,” he interrupted her harshly, clutching her fingers hard enough that she winced before he released her. “So if that’s what you want, you’ll have to find someone else with a flair for the dramatic. Someone who loves you less.”

He spun her once, checking the fit of her new leathers. Black-tanned ram-skin, the gambeson was long. It fell to mid-thigh and was quilted, lined with silvery grey silk that was the softest thing she had ever worn beneath her armor. She’d had them for almost a week to break them in, not that they had needed it, but Fin had been determined the fit be perfect. The boots she’d had a bit longer, the leather just as dark and supple, the fit perfect though she’d had to accept the laces necessary to assure it.

“Really didn’t expect you to take to the black,” he assessed as she spun, arms spread wide. “But it suits you. You look fair as dangerous as we know you to be. You’ll inspire every soldier that sees you cutting through the jungle.”

“I’m a long ride from the jungle,” she pointed out.

“You are, and likely you’ll need the journey for that brute you call a horse to get used to his new finery as well. You won’t look nearly so deadly for the first day with him jangling and side-stepping beneath you.”

“Oh, Maker…you made Cacique armor too?”

“Asshole would have been jealous if we didn’t.”

It was true, so she didn’t bother arguing. “Alright,” Essa decided with more resolution than she felt. “Arm me, Master Larkson.”

“That’s Ambassador Larkson,” he replied smugly. “Now be quiet, this is a big moment for me.”

She was grinning when he began, but the serious expression on his treasured face stole any merriment she tried to cling to. The morning settled firmly around them, sunlight piercing the shadows, glinting off of the mirror-shine of hundreds of silverite scales. Fin moved around her silently, the only sounds her unsteady breath and the shift of metal, the cinch of buckles. Every now and then he would give a small grunt of approval before he moved from one piece of armor to the next.

You have girded me in strength for battle,” Essa murmured as Fin settled greaves and poleyn into place over her boots. The quote came to her unbidden, an old text, its author long forgotten, but the extolling of the Maker had never felt more appropriate to her than in that moment.

Even if she gave the words to Fin instead.

Righteousness shall be her belt,” he replied, smirking a little at the surprise on her face. “And faithfulness the sash about her waist.”

He dropped the scale tunic over her head, and Essa felt more than the weight of the impeccably worked metal.

“I do read,” he teased. “How’s it feel?”

She moved quickly through a casting sequence, raised her arms and reached for her spirit blade first with one and then the other.

“Mobility is good. You gonna steal that from me with those very spikey pauldrons?”

Fin snickered. “I’m not. They are pretty impressive looking though. Not just ceremonial either.”

He held up one hand and she saw a healing puncture wound on his palm.

“Fin!” She grabbed his hand with a scowl. “Let me?”

Essa was already calling to her magic when he pulled away. “No,” he shook his head. “Let me keep it.”

“Fin…” But she understood. Essa ran her fingers beside the thick scab.

“No goodbyes,” he repeated gruffly.

She bit her lips, held back any wounds she might make with her heart so full in her throat. He settled her pauldrons on her shoulders, turned her head—two fingers beneath her chin—to either side to show her that she would not injure herself.  

“It’s well done,” she whispered as he cinched her bracers into place. The combination of plate and scale stopped a little high above her wrists. “Are they…?”

“Too short?” Fin scoffed. “Oh, ye of little faith. They are not.”

He turned to Cullen’s desk, picked up the gloves he had come in with.

“For you.” He held them out, black leather and scale extended across his bare, open palms. The solemnity of ritual was not lost in the heavily gilded morning.

“There’s a small pocket,” he told her as she took the right one from him. “It’ll lie just over your wrist.”

Essa reached wordlessly for the pocket of her trousers, withdrew the small silver coin she had carried since the fall. Fin nodded, bent his head over her hand, and showed her how the two overlapping pieces of leather folded to secure the coin in place. It lay with the weight of a stone over her pulse, and twice as comforting.

‘Thank you.”

“We aren’t quite through.” He held out the second glove and Essa gave him her hand, let him snug it into place over trembling fingers. The glass bezel caught her eye immediately, a locket of sorts, clear glass framed in silverite, mounted to the back of the glove’s wrist like a bracelet.

“It’s enchanted,” he explained as she held her fist to the light for a better view. A small twist of hair, black as night and shining coarsely, coiled with a tiny braid of dark mink, a curl of gold, a lock of red. “We dropped an anvil on it this morning; Dagna tried to blow it up all winter. It’ll handle anything you can and probably a lot you wouldn’t.”

“Fin…” Essa covered her mouth with one gauntleted hand, could only shake her head as her eyes filled.

“We’re going with you, you see?” He turned back to the armor stand, grabbed her helmet and plunked it down onto her head without ceremony.  Essa stared through the wide, jagged slits in the sharp dragon-faced visor.

“The—“ she choked, cleared her throat and glared fiercely at him. “The visibility is astonishing.”

“Yes, it is,” he agreed. He ruffled the fall of black horsehair that spilled from the top of the gleaming scales. “We argued about this,” he admitted, bringing his fist down smartly on the top. “But the mane suits you.”

“It does,” she whispered.

He nodded once, turned sharply toward the door. He had made it halfway across the office when she shouted after him.

“Fin Larkson!”

“I said—“ he began.

“I will never tell you goodbye, do you understand?” Her hands were on her hips, and even clad in the grandest armor she could imagine, Essa felt like an intractable adolescent, staring stubbornly across the inconsequential space between them. “You’re mine, do you hear me?”

She waited for him to nod.

“And if the Maker calls me to his side, he’ll just have to wait. I’m not going anywhere so far without you. Not ever again.”

Chapter Text

Essa’s heart was heavy by the time they reached the Arbor Wilds, heavier still as they made their way farther into the dense jungle. The winter at Skyhold felt like another life, one of glittering snow and warm hearths. Even with Cari at Clifton, Essa had not felt her sister's absence until she and Krem departed for parts unknown just before Wintersend.  They had left Vivienne and Rylen to Skyhold’s defenses and she missed the Grand Enchanter, not only for their shared distrust of Lady Morrigan.  

Morrigan. Essa sighed, darted a glance toward the mage as she took her helmet off, risking Cassandra’s ire. The other mage stood, as always, a bit apart from the group. In the weeks at Skyhold, she had remained aloof, and in the journey to the Wilds she had fostered little camaraderie with Cassandra, Cole, or Dorian. Not that Dorian hadn’t tried. He was a great hoarder of knowledge and was generally willing to discuss and debate, but Morrigan did not warm so easily.

“Old elven magics linger in these woods,” Morrigan said for what had to be the fifth time in as many hours as a wave of cold air drifted to them, tinged with the scent of green and fresh blood, haunted with moans that did not sound like the dying.

Yes, there was magic in the Arbor Wilds, though Essa hardly needed Morrigan to tell her so.  The smug, insouciant tone still echoed from when they had been forced to leave behind their increasingly uncontrollable mounts, and Morrigan’s reminders only frayed the remains of Essa’s temper.

She reminded Essa too much of Solas and if there were dark memories from the winter they involved him. She had trusted him too implicitly for too long, but his secrets had begun to wear on her, and after Blackwall—Thom, she corrected herself—divulged his own, she hadn’t the patience for more. Thom’s betrayal had hurt, she wasn’t one to suffer a lie easily, but his actions spoke more for his character than he believed. She did not have the investment in the noble Grey Warden ideal, and certainly not after Adamant. She could understand running from his past, and she could respect atonement. He was still surprised at her forgiveness, did not find himself worthy of it, but Maker willing they would all live to get past that.

Solas was another creature entirely.  He seemed to forget that she was had been raised by one who could smell a lie. Omission was one thing, but he had come too close to outright falsehood. There was a certain arrogance in the way he attempted to turn a phrase, but a cunning tongue would not fool a mabari. She had given him chances to correct the errors, but the persistent disapproval from him when she dared ask anything that might be construed as personal had soon set them at odds. Oh, he was willing to educate the ignorant, especially about magic and the Fade and spirits. All the things that humans and elves and everyone but Solas—obviously—had wrong.

But for all his wisdom, the anchor still blazed on her hand, and she no longer trusted him at her back in a fight.

“Helmet on,” Cassandra muttered, corking her waterskin and dropping it to hang back on Cacique’s saddle. The seeker was more disgruntled than usual now that they had been forced to abandon the other horses. She might not be fond of the creatures, but she preferred them to cutting their way through the jungle on foot.

“Cassandra...”

Essa managed only a mild complaint before she capitulated. The next group of Venatori was on them before Cassandra could retort with a look of I told you so. She did it anyway as Essa clunked the helmet back down over her head. The silverite lay, hot and cloying against her skin. At least the horsehair helped with the flies.

Andraste’s mabari, her new armor might be glorious, but after all day of the worst fighting they had seen, it was fucking heavy.

And that was before the added misery that was the Wilds themselves. The heat reminded her a bit of home, though the time of year was all wrong for the sharp slant of oppressive sunlight, and while the air was thick, it was cooled by the heavy tree canopy and sinister magics. It wasn’t summer in Ostwick, that was for sure, but the change in climate so close upon the dragging heels of winter was an affront to most Fereldans, and certainly no comfort to Essa either. She had acclimated too easily to the Frostbacks and the Hinterlands. Two summers spent in the milder temperatures and she had nearly forgotten the muggy misery of Justinian and Solace in the north. Cari often asked her if she missed the Marches. The answer to that was an unequivocal no. Her blood ran far too hot for such unrelenting heat.

“Pay attention,” Cassandra barked the order as Essa vanished into the veil, reappearing within a tight cluster of Corypheus’s soldiers. She blasted them back, spirit blade singing in a violent arc.

“I’m paying attention!” she called.

The skirmish was short and flameless. One of the first things Essa had abandoned when reaching the jungle was her fire. It was far too dangerous; even now parts of the forest raged, magefire running wild, sending vibrantly-colored birds screaming into the air, plumage a rainbow against the endless green. There were caws and screams, the rustle and snap of plant life breaking between the sounds of four-legged creatures rushing for safety they would not find. The wilds were crawling with Calpernia’s mages, red templars, and behemoths. For most of the winter, Leliana’s scouts and Celene’s soldiers had harried the small parties of explorers, deterring and misdirecting as they all searched for the elven ruins. She had been concerned that winter would delay the Inquisition army too long, but she had not understood the jungle, had not realized that the months would stretch long and fruitless for all of them.

Not that she was complaining, the last thing any of them wanted was Corypheus finding what he sought. She did not want to think about what the Elder One could do with an eluvian added to his arsenal. Essa shuddered. The memory of her introduction to the artifact still haunted the edges of her dreams.  As if she didn’t have nightmares enough. By the mabari, she wasn’t comfortable with Morrigan having one, and she damn sure didn’t like that thing was at Skyhold. Key or no key.

“Inquisitor!”

She didn’t know who shouted. Essa lifted a gauntlet on sheer reflex, deflected the arrow even as she pulled on the veil, charging forward undetected to emerge behind the lone archer. Her spirit blade dealt him a swift death and she turned back to her party just as Cacique raised a clarion of warning.

“Cassandra!” Essa threw a barrier over the Seeker as the horse knocked her sideways. She could hear Cassandra cursing as Cacique bore down on a pair elves. Essa slid down an embankment, boots heavier for the mud that caked them by the time she reached Cassandra’s side.

“He saved you,” Essa muttered dragging Cassandra to her feet, sending a wave of revitalization into her body. “Consider yourself lucky.”

“I will not.” She pulled away with a frown of annoyance, but she drew shoulder to shoulder with the irate warhorse, back angled toward him, shield lifted to protect them both.

Essa would have rolled her eyes did she not need them. She scanned the dense flora, ears peeled for sounds beyond the endless litany of For the Herald! For the Inquisitor! For the Divine! That last bothered her the least, of course, but after Adamant, Essa had no heart for hearing her honorifics lifted by dying lips and faltering voices. They had lost too many to the jungle, the distant temple, and Corypheus’s army.

They would lose too many more before the day was through.

“We’re clear here, Inquisitor!” An unfamiliar Orlesian voice announced yet another squad of their allies.  “We’ll hold. General Cullen advances north on the temple entrance.”

*

Essa dodged, barely fast enough, but she was getting tired and “barely” damn well counted. Her spine bent back, an over-drawn bow, and she was forced to put her sword—and her hand—in the dirt just to keep from landing on her ass. She pushed off, muscles snapping back toward standing, but her palm slipped on the grip of her sword, fingers pinching between the steel and the rough ground. The back bend faltered, and she forgot all about straightening from the static coil of energy, all about using it to spring forward, to crowd and overwhelm. Gravity dragged her down and she could only let it, could only turn her fall into a high kick, catching her opponent with a boot to the throat and chin. She had the satisfaction of hearing his teeth clank together as she fought the coarse acrobatics into something that might resemble a safe landing. Falling prone was not an option. If she went down, she might as well stay there.

The day had stretched into forever, as pitiless and endless as the Fade had at Adamant. She wasn’t fast enough, wasn’t strong enough. She’d grown soft over the winter—a lie, that. Cullen and Helaine had trained her harder than ever, but this was no protracted siege; it was guerilla warfare and no sleep, no rest and undrinkable water. The Wilds fought against them every step of the way, more vengeful than mages, templars, or Corypheus’s most twisted creatures.

“For the Elder One!”

The tower shield was a righteous gleam, and the silver griffons seemed to mock her, flashing bright in the spears of sunlight that filtered through the thick jungle canopy. The Senior Warden caught her broad, sent her tumbling into the water. Essa landed hard, staff arm twisted beneath her, joints straining, water soaking her leathers and dragging her down into the soft bottom of the small lake. Cullen caught the corrupted Warden’s attack on the face of his kite shield.

“On your feet!” he shouted, pushing the Grey Warden back.

Essa was already scrambling; she spat a mouthful of bloody water beside her boot. She deserved it for ducking between him and his opponent, but with the Wardens and the red templars, the lake was hardly an easily fortified position. They had come up on the fight in a forbidding moment. Whether he liked it or not, her seemingly impulsive leap from Cacique’s assisted charge had spared Cullen significant injury.

“I’m up!”

Andraste’s mabari! Her heart could hardly take the glory of watching him fight. The man was relentless, and brutally quick. Hardly sparing his opponents more than three devastating blows before he left them to their end on the jungle floor. Essa was torn between addled adoration and a beloved’s concern. Watching his golden eyes blaze with righteous fortitude, she leaned a little bit more toward addled, but that could have been the last shield bash. Her ears were, after all, still ringing.

“And call your blighted horse,” he added as the brute in question lowered his impressively armored head and rammed a red templar to the ground. Fin had been right; Cacique looked like a nightmare, and in the jungle, that intimidation was just another weapon shamelessly employed by a creature who looked more monster than horse. His barding was as black as hers, croupiere, peytral, criniere, and chanfron all forged of heavy plate and leaving very little of the piebald’s mostly white coat visible. The chanfron was a work of menacing art, adorned with a bladed horn spiraling front and center, two shorter but broader single edged blades set below. She watched the warhorse lower his head, blades tearing through the neck of a red templar. He flung his head to dislodge his enemy, sent a spray of blood against the endless green.

“Maker’s breath,” Cullen muttered. “The horse is a sadist.”

“He’s a warrior,” Essa laughed, casting a column of flame on a comparatively distant enemy. The man burned in calf-deep water. She watched him fall screaming, made certain he did not emerge from the murky waters. “Leave him to his own, he’ll be fine.”

Cassandra, Dorian, and Cole were aiding other soldiers. Cole dealing mercy blows to ally and enemy alike. His daggers winked in the afternoon light, ended the protracted struggling breaths of the templar Cacique had incapacitated and left behind. The horse spun, eyes rolling as he took in the battleground.

“You can’t be serious,” Cullen protested.

Essa grinned, the first in too many days and the curve of her lips split, sweat stinging the cracks as she added more blood to her smile.  

“Quite serious. The temple entrance isn’t far, I’m told. I can’t take him with me.”

“Archers!” Someone shouted.

Essa cast a barrier over an injured inquisition soldier, then again on Cullen and those closest to them as he lifted his shield, caught three arrows on the unscratched mabari that prowled through holy flames. It took mere moments before the archers were dealt with.

“Clear for the moment!” Cassandra called.

“Just north.” Cullen shoved his visor up, squinted down at Essa through sweat and grime. “Are you injured?”

“Nothing that matters,” she replied. “You?”

“No.” His gaze was falcon bright as he lifted it to the dense undergrowth. “Nothing that matters.”

“Cool hands?” She grinned at him with bloody teeth, lifted her palms and called to her limited grasp of frost magic.

He smiled slightly, nodded once. Essa placed her cold gauntlets against his cheeks, fingers wedged between the sides of his helmet. Even through her gloves she could feel how overheated his skin was; Cullen hummed in appreciation.

“Drink.” Cassandra thrust a waterskin at him and he obeyed without more than a quirked brow. She smiled at him, a hard baring of her teeth more than a lifting of parched lips. She waited until the skin was empty, then glanced to Essa.  “We continue, yes?”

“Yes,” Essa answered before she wavered, before her conviction faltered utterly. Maker, let them end this day with even half of what they had started…

“Take care of my horse,” she ordered as Cacique pranced toward them.

Water splashed up beneath the punch of his hooves, diluting the gore on his armor, sending it running in bright crimson rivulets down his once white legs.  He stopped before them, chest bowed out proudly and she rubbed the horse’s nose hard with her left hand. He leaned into her touch, then pinned his ears back at her for the indignity. “And you take care of him,” she added, jerking her chin to Cullen.

Both warriors, human and equine, glared at her in indignation, nostrils flaring, so alike that she might have smiled. Essa released Cacique, turned to catch Cullen’s surcoat with the same rough hand. She pulled him down for a kiss, a clinging of lips that was too brief, too bitter, spiced with salt and blood and too much death.

“For luck,” she said, forcing a smile.

She turned from him even as they broke apart, charged north without warning her party that she was moving, and moving fast. She didn’t wait to hear Cullen’s reply, didn’t look back to see if there was hurt in his eyes. There was nothing that he could say now that would matter, and nothing she could do.

The last words he had spoken to her had been a lie.

*

Geri. Fin. Cari. Hope. Essa repeated their names, held the images of their faces before her as grief raged, a living, seething thing. It crawled beneath her skin, made her armor too tight and too hot until she thought she would burn from the inside out. Her feet singed the ground, smoke rising from everything she touched. Already Cassandra had been forced to pry her fingers from Morrigan’s throat. Bull, Krem, Dennet. She continued, naming each of her friends, every horse in the pastures of Smoke’s Valley, every creature who had found its way to her and Skyhold’s stable.

It seems an eluvian is not the prize that Corypheus seeks. Morrigan’s insolence repeated, a quieter refrain, distracting in its indifference. Yes, I was wrong. Does that please you?

Please her? It was only the persistent invocation of those whom she loved that kept Essa from killing the woman. As it was, the scent of her flesh burning was becoming too familiar. As were Cassandra’s shouts, the cool surge of Dorian’s healing magic. Cole paced beside her silently, murmuring poetry that barely kept her grounded in her resolution.

Warm breath like summer hay. Eyes of summer sky. Heart like a storm but tender and true. Hope. She has her father’s eyes. You should see them.

They mattered. Essa clung to them like a prayer. There was so blighted much that mattered. She knew it, knew that she would not be able to live with herself if her demons cost so many lives for nothing, but she had never expected such helpless anger to be waiting, black and fathomless within her. Twice, she thought. Twice more she had lashed out at Morrigan, after she confessed to keeping secrets at the first shrine, and when she and Abelas were arguing over the well. There might have been other times, but Essa wasn’t entirely sure. The hours had become a blur of bodies falling and magic roiling. The veil was thin here in Mythal’s temple and those who served the lost goddess glowed with it, as did every stone, every tree, every fall of clear, cold water.

Though she knew it for the falsehood that it was, there was no Well of Sorrows greater than her own. She was a selfish woman.

There had been too many horrors waiting beyond the arches Cullen and their soldiers were even now dying to defend. Elven magics had not been able to stop Corypheus. He had breached their defenses, sacrificing his body, destroying the Sentinels. Essa remembered the horror of her companions, but she couldn’t connect with it, couldn’t reach beyond her fury to feel even a drop of fear or disbelief as the Elder One leapt into the corpse of a Grey Warden, twisting it into his likeness. Of course he hadn’t been destroyed in the explosion. To even hope that it would be that easy was a fool’s song. Though why he would choose that ugly, ridiculous form over and over was beyond her, but it seemed to send people fleeing before him.

Essa needed no such caricature of evil if the look on Dorian’s face was any indication. He had not known her for the monster she could be, Essa realized with a sigh of remorse too quickly lost to the flame.

She should not be here. She was a scion of the wrong goddess, but the temple itself offered up its memories, a timeless rage that only fed her own. She was not as lost as she had been in the Fade at Adamant, but she was close. Her vision was blurred, her body exhausted, the cost of flame and death. The worst parts of herself rose along with her magic, joined the chorus of ancient enmity that resounded through the jungle. In the forest beyond she could hear the din of battle, the roar of Corypheus’s dragon as it rampaged. Fury sang in her head, until her own demons were louder than the whispering well.

“They are dying,” she whispered, tongue thick, twisting with curses in every language she knew. Dorian and Abelas shrank back from the edge of the well. Only Cassandra and Cole stood fast beside her.  It was bad, Essa thought, when the ancient elves retreated at the sight of you. “And you still seek only for yourself.”

“Not. Only,” Morrigan gasped, throat working beneath the crush of Essa’s palm.

“Inquisitor!” Cassandra’s hands were wrapped around her arm, glancing off of scales. Fitting, that Fin had armed her as a dragon. “Essa!” The seeker tapped the clear glass on the back of Essa’s left wrist, drew her gaze to something more important than vengeance. “Make it worth their sacrifice.”

She knew, Essa realized. Through a haze of blue flame, Essa saw the knowledge in Cassandra’s eyes, but more devastating was the sympathy. A part of her had clung to hope, that she might be wrong, that healers might reach him in time, but the shared grief in Cassandra’s eyes confirmed her fears. Essa’s fingers tightened, she could feel the ghostly weight of her spirit blade as it shimmered into her other hand. Morrigan’s magic hummed just below the surface, healing as quickly as Essa’s touch charred. There was no fear in her yellow eyes, nor apology. In another life Essa might have respected her, but not this one.

How many had died while they performed ancient rites, collecting lore Morrigan had claimed to know as they made their way through a temple not of her gods? She should have let Abelas destroy the thing, would have already had not Calpernia confirmed its usefulness.

Humble him, the mage had implored her once Essa revealed Corypheus’s plans to enslave her. I will give you some time. I go to confront my master.

Now the choice was her or Morrigan. Morrigan wanted the Well and power as much as Essa did not. She would not be bound. To Mythal, the Maker, to anyone she did not choose and deem worthy.

But she was loathe to give that kind of magic to one she could not trust.

“Take it then.” Cassandra found a pressure point on the inside of Essa’s wrist and her grip spasmed dropping the slighter woman to the ground. For a moment they stared at each other, hatred so fierce it nearly rent the air around them.

“You will not forgive me.” It was not a question, though Morrigan let the words fall soft and without ending.

For being wrong, for costing lives. For costing so great a heart. Essa finished the sentence a half dozen ways, but none of them granted absolution. No, there would be no forgiveness for such wasteful arrogance. That one woman believed her personal quest more important than the lives of so many…Everything Essa had come to fear in herself she saw in Morrigan, and she hated her for it.

“Drink, Lady Morrigan,” Essa said, voice hissing like a pyre. “Take what we need to stop Corypheus.  I can always kill you later.”

Morrigan laughed as she stepped to the edge of the water. “You think that you could stop me so easily, once so much knowledge is bound within me?”

“You forget yourself,” Essa said, shoving her visor up, meeting her hollow stare. “I am the Herald of Andraste, and I will have slain a god before this is done. If I survive it, what trouble will I find you?”

Essa smiled, vision narrowing to a single searing point.

“It’s yours,” she told Morrigan, nodding toward the well. “Take your knowledge. Pray to the voices that whisper in the water that I do not survive our confrontation with Corypheus.”

Chapter Text

“Send me back!”

They had not stepped fully into Skyhold and already Essa was making demands. Cassandra still had a firm grip on the Inquisitor’s right arm and Cole was clinging to the left, but more, Cassandra suspected, for his own comfort than to help drag Essa through. The journey through…whatever it was they journeyed through had been…unsettling. None more so than for Cole it seemed.

“Send. Me. Back.” Essa pulled away and Cassandra let her, watched as her momentum cast her and her temper to the stone floor. Cassandra waited a breath to see if she would break, but Essa bounced up like she wasn’t weighing a third of her weight again in armor.

As if she weren’t grieving.

Her eyes flashed, still more blue than silver, but Cassandra had seen her lose control, and she had seen her not lose control. The fury that burned in her eyes was consuming, but because of Essa’s will, not in spite of it. She saw the grab—Maker’s breath, after the afternoon in the temple, how could she have missed it?—and put her shield in Essa’s chest before she could grab Morrigan again.

“I am sorry,” the mage murmured, quieting the shifting face of the eluvian with lifted hands. “I cannot.”

“You have the key now,” Essa nearly shouted. “What good is all that power—?!“

“The eluvian at the Well has been destroyed.” There was regret in Morrigan’s voice. “I am sorry.”

Cassandra believed her, and some part of Essa must have as well; she did not visit more violence upon the woman.

“Ravens,” Essa decreed before any of them had caught more than two desperate breaths of home and safety. She charged out into the corridor without a glance behind her. Cassandra supposed she didn’t blame her. They were all safe, even if Skyhold was suddenly the last place Essa wanted to be.

“Cole?”

The boy nodded. “I will follow her.”

He did not reveal her true motivations for dismissing him, a kindness Cassandra wasn’t certain she deserved. She watched Cole vanish, waited until she heard his familiar singsong muted but unwavering as he caught up with Essa down the hall.

“Cullen?” Dorian ventured quietly.

“It was not good,” Cassandra admitted, eyes blessedly dry even as her chest ached. “But we cannot know.”

“And that is the most difficult part,” Morrigan added quietly. She glanced back at the eluvian. Her gaze was unsteady, and Cassandra could not imagine what power she must be sifting through. Was her head even now filled with voices not her own? ”I will see if there is anything—“

She stumbled and Dorian caught her arm. “You should rest, Lady Morrigan.”

Morrigan nodded. “I should, yes,  but first I will see if there is anything to be done for the Inquisitor’s return to the temple.” She frowned. “I do not believe that there is, but I shall try.”

“I will return.” Dorian shared her concerns; Cassandra took solace in the nearly imperceptible dip of his chin. It would not do yet to have Morrigan unsupervised. They did not know what the Well of Sorrows held for her. 

“Send a templar to guard the door if you must,” Morrigan waved her away as Dorian helped ease her to the floor in front of the silent eluvian. “I will not be going far.”

*

Skyhold became a blur as Cassandra strode through the empty halls. There was an unnatural stillness to the fortress. With so many in the field it felt desolate, ghostly. She shook away maudlin thoughts; they would do her no good. There was too much to be done. There would be time to grieve, later, for whoever survived.

She caught a servant in passing, a face she knew, but a name she could not recall from amid her worries.

“Food,” she said. “Water, wine. Fetch them to end of the passage for Lady Morrigan and Ser Pavus.”

“Yes, Seeker Cassandra.” The boy was young. He stuttered over her title, green eyes wide with worship. She would rather he had struck her.

“Thank you.”

She could not hear the weariness in her voice, but it seeped into her hands. They shook, a fine tremble that she clenched into steady fists before she nodded him on his way. There was no time for such foolishness. Up ahead there was the distant sound of combat. The Inquisitor’s sudden appearance at Skyhold was not being met with joyous reunion.

“I said, stand. The fuck. Down.”

The command in Essa’s voice would have rivaled Cullen’s at his most domineering, not that it sounded like anyone was listening. Cassandra burst into the main hall and didn’t bother to hide her groan. Two men were down: one templar, one scout. The scout looked as if he might recover, but the templar had a grim wound that she knew Essa would even now be trying to heal if someone hadn’t attacked her with her own mana. Cole stood just beside her, blades drawn, eyes narrowed in confusion. He was silent, and Cassandra couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

There was a half circle of men and women, two templars and three soldiers, surrounding Essa and Cole. The skirmish was at a brief standstill, but Cassandra knew it wouldn’t last. There was confusion and distrust on too many faces. Essa was holding the fallen templar’s sword and shield and had the punchdrunk look of a mage who had been hit with smite. More than once, if Cassandra had to guess; she had seen the stubborn woman shrug off a single hit too often. Maker’s breath, if she and Cullen ever had children, the creatures would have heads made of solid stone.

“Stand down,” Cassandra shouted to the others. “Where is Knight-Captain Rylen?”

She did not offer an explanation for their sudden appearance, there wasn’t time with Essa bleeding from a day’s worth of wounds, struck by two templar attacks, and barely on her feet. Her eyes were slowly sinking toward a flat cold grey that Cassandra feared more than the blue.

“Seeker Pentaghast!?” Rylen charged through the door to Josephine’s office and Cassandra offered a prayer that the man had been in the war room and not at the command tower.

“Knight-Captain, you will call off your men before they commit further blasphemy against the Herald.” She swept her gaze from his thunderstruck countenance to the men at Essa’s feet. “We can prove ourselves, I think, in some way that does not result in so much bloodshed.”

“Ser Edgar,” Essa said, taking a short step back so that the wounded could be carried away. “Send Ser Edgar to Leliana, let her know what has happened.”

Her legs weren’t steady, and she looked as if she might drop where she stood, but she held onto her commandeered weapons, knuckles as white as her face beneath the dirt and sweat and blood of the day. Cole sheathed his daggers and reached out, caught the elbow of her sword arm with strong hands.

“And have Dennet get Geri and Sinister ready,” Essa’s voice wavered, exhaustion and heartache taking their toll. “Rylen,” she turned her unsteady gaze to the knight-captain. “You’re needed in the Arbor Wilds.”

Rylen blanched, face going pale beneath nearly a year of sun in the Western Approach.  He knew what such a call would mean, and Cassandra regretted that she could not reassure him.

“You leave at dawn,” she said instead, glaring at Essa when she started to protest. “And I will chain you in the stable myself it that is what it takes to keep you here through the night. Knight-Captain Rylen and I have much to discuss before you leave and you need rest. Food.”

“I’m not hungry,” Essa said softly.

“No,” Cassandra agreed. “I don’t imagine you are, but you’ll eat. It’s a week’s ride back. Food means energy. Cole?” The boy lifted his chin, pale eyes peering through the mess of his hair. “You’ll see to the Inquisitor.”

“Yes, Cassandra.”

*

Those who oppose Thee shall know the wrath of heaven. Field and forest shall burn.”

If this was the Maker’s idea of victory, Leliana thought, hands wrapped tightly around Cullen’s palm, then He could keep it.  Two days after Corypheus and his forces fled the field and the jungle still smoldered, so much reduced to ruin. Where streams twisted or lakes pooled there was a persistence of green. Wildlife clung to water like islands, exotic creatures she had never seen, stags with long spindly legs, sides still heaving for breath, birds with singed feathers and broken songs lifted over their dead and dying.

For two long days the camp had been filled with the same, the Chant rising in a tangle of voices, Fereldan, Orlesian, the occasional compliment of elvish or Marcher. Never the one she hoped to hear. The air in the command tent was fetid and dark, but she dared not open the tent flaps until nightfall. They were keeping Cullen’s condition as secret as they could. He was wounded, yes, but still issuing orders and reading reports as far as anyone knew. The man’s legend grew by the hour as soldiers recounted tales of his heroism and fortitude. Led the charge at dawn…hasn’t slept more than an hour two days running…I heard Corypheus’s dragon took one look at the general and fled…

She could only pray he survived to hear his own accolades, that he would live to scowl at each of them.

Thunder rumbled, a low growl that seemed to roll through the jungle rather than from overhead. Leliana ran a cool, wet cloth over Cullen’s face. She could scarce believe that her hands were yet clean.  There had been so much blood, her fingers first dark and slick with it, then dry and cracked, the brown flaking off each time she clenched their fists together in prayer. There had not been time for such niceties as cleaning, not two days ago when the forward camp was filled with the cries of the wounded and dying. It was better now, or worse, perhaps, she wasn’t entirely sure. Those injured had either succumbed to the worst or were stable. The last report listed only a few dozen who lingered with uncertainty. Fever and infection were the greatest and most immediate fears now.

Leliana laughed soundlessly, though she did not know if she could disturb the unnatural rest Cullen lay in. That wasn’t even close to true. The Herald was missing, her companions along with her. They had scoured the temple, found the bodies of elves and wardens, mages and red templars, but no sign of Essa, Cassandra, Morrigan, Dorian, or Cole. The temple itself was hostile; they had lost two dozen scouts before she had called them off. Too many lives had been sacrificed already and who knew what waited? They might have need of them, to die later, somewhere else, probably just as far away from home.

“But, you,” she whispered the words against her fingers, could only hope they would goad him. The man was a fighter. She had lost count of the times that the healers had raised their voices in urgency only to sigh, moments later when the stubborn man refused to go to the Maker’s side. “You.are too pretty to die, aren’t you Commander?”

It was a small mercy that he had collapsed just after Corypheus and his forces fled the field. News of Essa’s vanishing had not yet reached him. She could only hope that, wherever she was, Essa was likewise spared the knowledge of Cullen’s condition. Leliana had been the first to reach him and still she had only left him for the most basic of life’s necessities. She did not know how many hours she had lingered in that first taut stretched night, murmuring prayers against Cullen’s hand, as the healers and chirurgeons and Cullen fought death back with faith and belligerence. They had done all they could, she had been told sometime after the first dawn. If he lived to see the second, they would worry about infection and fever.

The first raindrop struck the waxed canvas of the tent with a crack like a falling arrow. For a moment the day camp hushed and she could picture faced turned toward the sky. The next drop was a whip crack, then a pause before the sharp staccato descended. Lightning popped, but it would find little left to burn. The jungle soon filled with a roar of wind and water.

The seas shall rise and devour them, the wind shall tear their nations from the face of the earth, lightning shall rain down from the sky…”

“Es?” It was the first word he had spoken that didn’t foam his lips with blood and Leliana’s heart leapt, gaze jolting to Cullen’s face.

His eyes were yet closed, but there was the faintest marring between his brows. His fingers shifted like sighs between her trembling hands.

“Cullen.” For a breath, she considered. Maker forgive her, it would be too easy to pretend for him. “It’s Leliana.”

He breathed her name again and she felt his pulse quicken beneath her thumb.

“She’ll be along,” Leliana whispered; the lie was wormwood on her tongue. “Just rest for now.”

*

He was sitting at the end of the dock, sunrise dancing red and gold through wind-tousled curls. Essa could smell autumn on the breeze that rippled the water, wavering the reflections of violet, snow-capped mountains and a painter’s sky. The mabari sitting beside him was familiar, dark brindle, wide pink tongue lolling as she stared at the man beside her. He held a fishing pole in one hand; he gave the dog the other, scratching ears until the short nub of her tail twisted her hindquarters into a dervish. He was clad in undyed linen, the cuffs of his pants rolled up over bare feet that didn’t quite touch the water.

“This isn’t real.” Essa whispered.

“It might be,” Diar said, stepping up beside her. His hand slipped into hers with long lost familiarity. Essa clung to him, tethered herself to him, to the land that stood firm beneath her feet. She didn’t trust herself to cross the rolling slats of cypress. “She wanted to meet him. Stubborn dog, your mother.”

The mabari barked once and Cullen’s laugh bounced across the lake. Greta licked his face, lifted her voice to join him, a more joyous hymn the dawn would never see.

“I don’t—“ she shook her head in denial. “This is just a dream.”

“It might be.”

“Fuck me,” Essa rubbed grit from her eyes, sat up gasping. The Fade clung, and she pushed it back, dragging herself up to sit. She flailed out one hand, knuckles clunking hoof and fetlock. Geri lipped at her hair, but there was no comfort in the affection, only presence. Wherever they were, she wasn’t with them. That was all she knew.

“Last night.” Rylen offered the only assurance that mattered after four days and nights on the road. The uncertainty had eaten away at her. Essa would not free herself to grieve until she knew what had happened. Cassandra’s despair had only confirmed her own fears, not the reality, and hope was a slow, sweet-tasting poison. “We should reach the camp late this evening, don’t you think?”

Essa moved exhausted limbs, dragged at her reeling mind, tried to find some focus beyond the lingering of the dream that had plagued her since Skyhold.

“I think so,” she croaked, reaching up to catch the waterskin Rylen threw to her.

Rylen was good company, and by good company, he didn’t waste time trying to be company to her. Or with anything else for that matter. Not with talking, not with resting, not with making and breaking camp. Cassandra hadn’t allowed them to leave Skyhold on their own, but that hadn’t stopped the man from ordering the squad of soldiers to return a day behind them. The keep was poorly defended as it was. Sending what few troops they had to attempt to keep pace with the fastest horses and one of the best riders in the Inquisition was simply foolhardy. And he didn’t mind telling her so.

“We’ve made shockingly good time,” she said, rinsing the ashes of anguish from her mouth.

“Not so shocking,” he grunted. “That forder of yours runs like no horse I’ve ever seen, and the other three are damned happy to follow him.”

They had ridden for as many hours as the horses had rested, and ridden fast at that, swapping mounts every hour. Rylen had spent the first day getting as much information from her as he could about the jungle and the battle, but he had not once asked her about Cullen. He said nothing of her dreams, nothing of her suspended grief. If he heard her crying in the dark watches of the night, he left her to her own.

He was a good man.

“How are you?” Essa asked, jerking her chin toward him as she made her way to the river’s edge. She splashed water over her face, tried not to watch the sunrise in the lazy current.

Rylen watched her across the grey-white coals of the dying fire. She couldn’t read him, which wasn’t the same as looking at a man and knowing he had secrets. Essa was finding she rather liked that about him. If nothing else it was what she needed. She was drowning enough in her own. She didn’t think she could handle another’s.

“My legs hurt and my ass is tired, but I can rest when we get there,” he said, grin sharp as a dagger’s edge, and keener than the lie. He leaned forward to check the porridge he was cooking in a large steel cup. “How are the horses holding up?”

Geri forced stops at midday and late afternoon, then again when the sun began falling below the horizon. After being cooped up all winter and too often relegated to light duty in the seasons since Smoke’s death, the horse had been more than willing to charge down out of the Frostbacks beside Rylen’s mare, relief horses in tow. He was a faithful lead horse, and he set a pace Essa could only be grateful for, trusting the horse knew what his herd would endure without injury.

“They’ll appreciate that rest you think you’re going to get,” she said, a gallows smile stretching her lips into a grimace. She watched Geri pick his way through the grass alongside the river, the other three ambling slowly in his wake. “And the heavier grain rations.” She went to one of the saddles, pulled the last sack of their stores and poured four piles on the grass. She whistled the horses over, ran a trembling hand through Geri’s mane. “But they’re fine. Two stops today, I’d wager, and then we’ll make the forward camp.”

She had dreaded those stops the entire journey. Not as much nightfall, of course, but stopping meant quiet. Stopping meant aching muscles and breaths that were supposed to be easier, but only strangled in a chest tight with regret. Stopping meant seeing a pair of amber eyes in every spear of sunlight. It meant long still moments when rage and despair coiled so tight within her that she shook, lips pressed together to keep her silence.

“One more day, lass,” Rylen said, handing her a hot steel mug. The kindness in the endearment threatened what little composure she felt she had left.

“Rylen…”

“Now, eat,” he added brusquely, saving them both. “Or I’ll make you.”

*

The forward camp was almost cheerful as the sun set beyond the jungle. Campfires burned brightly, sparks drifting up like fireflies in the balmy night. Meat roasted in dugout pits, potatoes and fruits wrapped in thick leaves and steaming beneath coals. The air was sweet with flowers, still crisped on the edges with ash and char. Dirges were lifted with the same pride and exaltation as songs of the Maker’s glory. Though many had been lost to secure the day, mourning was left for private moments, the ebb of solitude around distant fires. No, tonight, the Inquisition celebrated.

There was a crowd of soldiers and templars around the command tent. Individual voices had long become an indistinct drone, myriad accents rising and falling against the night sounds of the jungle and the crackle of fires.

Essa’s voice cut through them all. “Well,” she said, disapproval clear in the drawn out syllable. “I suppose we did win the day.”

“We did,” Josephine answered.  “And you have returned to us, unharmed. There is much cause for celebration.”

The chatter rose, but Essa scowled silence into the night. Between them, the soldiers parted like a bridal veil and fell back, as all her opponents invariably did. Essa stood, hands on her hips as she glared into the command tent, Rylen a shadow of support at her back.

For a moment, Cullen couldn’t remember how to stand, couldn’t remember to breathe. In his defense, he had to go about both a bit carefully now, but he was honest enough to admit that his trouble had less to do with his healing injuries and more to do with the sheer wondrous menace of her. She had discarded her mail—he could only presume back at Skyhold—and wore now the snug black leather foundation with Fin’s scaled gauntlets. She carried neither sword, nor staff, only a tightly coiled rage. He could see it shimmering blue behind the flat grey of her gaze. There were shadows in her eyes, bruises beneath them, and a dozen cuts and scrapes scattered among the freckles on her face. Some had needed stitching; they bore thick ugly scabs. There was a thin slice down the side of her neck, puckered and red. It would need lancing before the week was through.

Maker’s breath, she had never been more beautiful.

“You…” She stomped into the tent, stared down at him before he could rise. Rylen stayed close beside her. Only he seemed unperplexed by her temper.

Cullen was too busy staring at her to catch the warning in his second’s eyes.

“Inquisitor.”  Cullen offered her a foolish smile. “Rylen. It’s good to see you both. We received your raven three days ago. You needn’t have come back all this way…”

Rylen caught Essa’s hand, spun her in a tight circle with a laugh that anyone else might have mistaken for pure jubilation. Her feet caught on his, and when she stumbled, Essa let Rylen take her weight, leaned her forehead on his shoulder.

“You’re alright.” The words were for Cullen, but they echoed off of the other man’s chest. “Andraste’s mabari,” she mumbled. “You’re alright.”

Well, of course, he was alright. There was no reason for her to think otherwise. When last he saw her, he had kissed her, told her he was fine, and sent her to defeat their enemy. Cullen stared at Rylen in confusion and finally dragged himself to his feet.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” He held onto tightly to his desk. It wasn’t the sturdy beast from Skyhold, but it was a far cry from the door and sawhorses he had used back at Haven.

If either of them should have been worried, it was Cullen, though he had slept through the pair of days it had taken Ser Edgar to fly from Skyhold, so all his fears at her disappearance were retrospective. He had allowed himself the panic of an hour, taken a stiff drink with Leliana, and then gotten back to as much work as they would let him while he tried not to go out of his mind waiting for her return.

“Essa?”

She pushed away from Rylen, and the Knight-Captain stepped back, helped Josie with her less subtle herding of Cullen’s visitors outside the tent. The tent flaps remained open to the cool night air, and he knew their privacy was only token, but the space inside quieted. Cullen glanced around for his cane, saw it leaning on the other side of the desk. Without it, the distance between where he leaned and Essa stood was an offense.

“Es?”

She would have to come to him. Cullen adjusted his grip, moved his feet with care for the wound on his thigh and the stitches he couldn’t hope to count. Maker willing, she would do it for him, sprawled beside his bed where she belonged, trading war stories late into the night, but now, now he only wanted to touch her, to hold her. To confirm every promise his eyes were making to his heart. She is here. She is fine. She is whole.

“I knew,” Essa whispered, shoving angrily at the wind-tumbled mess of her hair. “I knew when I left you at the arches that you were wounded. That you might not--”She bit down on her lip and took a step toward him, hands closing into fists on the opposite edge of the desk. “That you might not survive.”

“So…” Cullen tried to catch up. He was finding it bit harder than he liked this week, but nearly dying would do that. “You’re angry with me for not...dying?”

Essa’s eyes flashed. “I’m angry at you,” she gritted, upper body stretching toward him over the desk top. “Because I knew.”

Her voice broke and she flicked her gaze down his body. His bandages weren’t obvious. Leliana and Josephine had made certain of that, but Essa’s gaze lingered on every obscured wrapping, every improperly carried muscle group, every favored limb.

“Mabari can smell a lie,” she reminded him. “And there have been too many, too close of late.” Her hair fell forward again, brushing his cheek with hay and sunshine and fury. “Suddenly, we were at Skyhold.” Essa’s words fell hollow and cold; she glanced down at his hands. “And you were here, dying.”

Cullen’s heart stopped.

“Never again,” he promised, leaning forward as much as he dared. He nudged her chin with his nose, rubbed her cheek with his when she didn’t pull away. “Never, Essa. Maker, I’m sorry.” He waited for her to meet his earnest stare. “You have my vow.”

“Good.” Essa’s breath whispered against greedy lips.

“Now, kiss me, please, then help me back to my chair?” He offered her a pittance of the smiles he had been saving. “I would like to avoid falling on my ass, and ruining the Legendary Reputation of the Inquisition’s General. Leliana and Josephine have been working very hard on it.”

She kissed him, something infinitely gentle, fragile as ashes but soaring from them. “I love you.” Her touch left gentle brands on his lips, his chin, the scruff of his cheek. Each kiss murmuring I love you. I love you. Outside the tent, someone yelled, a shout nearly as victorious as when Corypheus quit the field. Essa’s laugh was warm on his face as their soldiers took up the cheer. Some ridiculous chant that Cullen couldn’t quite catch over the pounding of his heart, something about their Brave Herald and her Fair General.

Chapter Text

Essa’s hands were on him before he had drifted completely awake, and that Cullen pressed into the touch with a low rumble of pleasure, of surrender, before he even knew what she was asking was a victory he gladly took. There had been too many nightmares since the Winter Palace, too many again on his slow return from the Arbor Wilds. Too many hands that didn’t feel enough like hers. He reached for her, fingers tunneling into her hair.

“How do you want me?” she murmured. 

They had to be careful, positions required caution, and a planning, and situational awareness on his part. Essa turned her cheek into his touch, lips stretching wide against his palm as her teeth razed the muscles beneath his thumb, and Cullen tried to focus enough past the sharp edge of pleasure to take stock of sore muscles and healing wounds. Essa’s clever fingers were already tugging at the ties of his sleep pants. She had been less patient lately and he wasn’t sure if it was the threat of his mortality or her own that made her so greedy.

Maker, forgive him, but he couldn’t bring himself to mind.

Cullen struggled to open his eyes. He had been sleeping heavier of late while his body healed. Essa nuzzled against his palm, kisses trailing over years of calluses. Her teeth bit down gently on the tip of his thumb as her hand slid beneath his clothes to wrap around the hard ache of him. A soft moan escaped her lips as she stroked him once, a heated slide all the more dangerous for its familiarity.

He could feel the warmth of her as she leaned over him, but beyond the intimate press of her hand and mouth, there wasn’t nearly enough contact between the two of them. He had fallen asleep at her desk again, in the high-backed, over-stuffed chair that had been a gift from Dorian. He reached to tug her down with him.

“You’ll pull the last of your stitches.”

Her admonishment was forgiving as she shifted away. Her retreat slid her hand and mouth in maddening strokes and Cullen bit back what might have been a whimper. He refused to think about it. He felt her chuckle around his hand, and when he finally opened his eyes, the sight of her drove precious air from his lungs.

“They should have come out already,” he complained, the refrain so common it now lacked any real heat. He smiled when her eyes narrowed slightly. “Maker’s breath, you are beautiful.”

The words fell reverently into the night, and she no longer looked at him as if she couldn’t believe them. She was wearing one of her favorite gowns, a floor-length fall of heavy cobalt linen. The contrast of blue against her bronze skin always reminded him of magefire and Cullen realized with a start that the comparison no longer troubled him. He was more concerned that he wasn’t going to have the patience to unbutton the dozen tiny wooden buttons that held the top of her gown closed.

Her hair was a messy pile atop her head; Cullen reached to tug down a silken lock. Essa made a small noise against his skin, and wrapped her lips around his thumb, fingers still teasing him beneath worn cotton. Her other hand was pressed firmly on the armrest. She held herself too far away. Cullen’s hands moved along the chair, the velvet slowing his reach for her hand. He tangled his fingers with hers on a sigh of homecoming, until between their touches he couldn’t find beginnings or endings, only abiding.

Cullen lifted his gaze to the bold claim in Essa’s eyes, found her cheeks flushed dark rose as they compressed around his thumb. She held his stare,and released him slowly, ran the flat of her tongue over his nail. Her brows lifted in askance, reminding him of her waiting question.

He cleared his throat and she squeezed her fingers around him, stealing his voice. In punishment, no doubt, for not answering quickly enough. Cullen hid a smirk and arched into her grip, felt her breath stutter. She scowled briefly, turned her lips to draw lightly at one of his knuckles in retaliation. Cullen’s thoughts scattered and her hand moved over him in a perfect slide as he watched. Watched her teeth grazed over him, lips tugging his thumb deeper into the warmth of her mouth. Watched her cheeks hollow as she sucked, lightly, then none-too-gently.  In the low light of the room, her eyes lit with mischief. She dragged her teeth back up. Nipped him as she let go.

“I believe I asked you a question, General.”

Her voice was low, teasing, and near trembling with want. Cullen smiled, ran his freed thumb along her jaw in a damp caress. Her eyes slid from flint to smoke. Maker help him, he loved her.  More every day. In their time together they had replaced so many of his nightmares with wonder, with laughter and love.  In the moment that spun, heady and hallowed between them, he knew that no matter what awaited them, surely any darkness that remained could be beaten back with such bright defense. The steady pounding of his heart stumbled and Cullen grinned, took a chance, reached for more than he had yet dared.

“On your knees, woman.”

He meant the command playfully, but Cullen’s sleep-stroked voice was a confession of need.  He opened his mouth to take the words back. They were supposed to be a jest. Safe. Words that she had given him nearly a year ago with precious humor and utter acceptance.  A teasing script. He had given her the line with a smile, waiting for her block. She was supposed to hit him, to laugh.

But Essa wasn’t laughing. Her hand on him stilled. Her breath caught sharply in her chest. Cullen’s thumb was trapped mid-sweep across her cheek, and for one interminable moment she stared down into his eyes. Essa’s pupils blew wide at the full weight of his words, desire pushing back the fire in her gaze until it was a thin ring of blue.

“Are you certain?”

Her hesitation fortified his daring. Cullen caught her face in his hands and pulled her close, kissed her until neither one of them could think enough for her to worry, until only her mindfulness of his injuries kept her from climbing into his lap.

“Yes.” He breathed that certainty into her mouth, tasted a tumult of desire and devotion as she kissed him back, lips coarse and teeth gentle. Her hands were suddenly back at the waistband of his pants, the loss of her warmth jarring as she let him go to tug as quickly as she dared until Cullen lifted his hips to help her ease the fabric away.

“You…” she shook her head, casting the words aside as her gaze swept over his body. She paused to scrutinize his bandages in frank assessment, but the look in her eyes was not one of concern or fear. She had never treated him as if he were fragile. “You are stunning,” she said.

Essa stood between his knees, fingertips trailing lightly along his thighs. He could feel the fine tremors in her hands, watched her thoughts rush across her ever-expressive face. She glanced towards the fireplace, and he realized that she was more nervous than he.

“Es?”

She shook her head again, casting aside his concern. The fire had dwindled in the hearth; she called the flames until they revived, crackling pleasantly to dispel any chill that might have crept into the room.  Firelight moved over her face, cast golden shadows in the valley of her throat. Cullen watched her take strength from the blaze; he wanted to chase the flames across her skin with worship.

“Are you warm enough?”

He nodded, let his eyes slip closed on a moan as her touch grew bolder. He wanted her hands on him, wanted the familiar ecstasy of her body over his.  He was greedy too.

“Come here.” He coaxed roughly with his words, knowing that a soft demand touched her more acutely than desperate petitions. “I want to touch you.”

“No,” she whispered.

He was already reaching for her. Cullen dropped his hands back to the chair with a frown of confusion.

“No?” He opened his eyes to find her smiling down at him, her gaze shadowed as the fire burned behind her.

“No,” Essa repeated firmly. “If I let you touch me, I won’t be able to wait to have you inside of me.”

He groaned beneath her confession, hands tightening on the arms of the chair until the furniture protested faintly at the abuse.

“Unless you’ve changed your mind,” she added quietly.

Cullen shook his head, swallowing thickly against passion’s grasp. He coughed slightly, managed to say “buttons,” and could only hope he sounded more articulate than the single word allowed.

Essa grinned, her nervousness dissolving on a giggling exhale. “Buttons? Ohthese buttons?”  

She glanced down at the neat row down her chest, plucked the first one from its loop with maddening lassitude, made a show of struggling with the second. When he didn’t answer ,she stopped.

Cullen sighed, and her grin broadened as she settled back into herself, into them.

“Yes.” Even to his own ears the affirmation was a growl. “Those buttons.”

She made her way down the row, swaying a little on her feet, and taking the time to hum a bawdy tune. She fought nerves with laughter, both his and hers. Cullen should have told her not to worry, that even with the future of Thedas in question, he was sure of her—of them, pf the force they were together—but he wouldn’t have stopped her for anything, not when she was smiling down at him as he were the very gift to her that she was to him.

The heavy folds of her skirt brushed against his bare skin and Cullen reminded himself that he was a patient man. When the last button was undone, Essa allowed the linen to part before shrugging out of the sleeveless top. The gown slid down her body, slithered against his legs before pooling, cold and radiant, at their feet.

Essa sank slowly to her knees.

Chapter Text

“Es.”

The syllable was all that he could manage, and it was a hissing exhale that she drew from him. Cullen forced the gasp into some semblance of endearment as pleasure gripped him in the clear disassociating wave that preceded bliss so close to oblivion.

“Es.” His fingers slid through her hair. It was longer now and she had finally stopped hating it. His fingers tangled in the dark, gripping gently in an attempt to tug her away from him. “We—you—“

He fought against a tempest of rough desire, floundered for words, lost them again when she drew upon him, mouth hot and tight.

“You have to stop.”

It was a miracle when he managed to speak and his body chided him for his consideration. Essa sat back on her heels, releasing him with quiet pop of sound that had his fists clenching too tightly in her hair. Even in the low light he could see her smile, but there was concern marring the skin between her eyes.

“Do you want me to stop?” She leaned forward between his knees, arms resting on his thighs, bare breasts warm and silken around him as she bent to place nibbling kisses along ridges that ran low on his abdomen, lips whispering against healing wounds. “Do you need me to stop?”

No. He hadn’t been prepared for the need she stirred within him, but stopping was not anywhere on that ever-growing list. Cullen looked away, stared past her shoulder into shadows that he had never expected to find comforting.

“Not for my sake.”

Essa lifted her head to grin at him and he stroked her hair back from her face, gathering it in his hands. “Just this once,” she murmured. “Let me worry about both of us.”

She dipped her chin down and she ran her tongue boldly over him. Cullen shuddered, but he didn’t relax his hold on her hair.

“I’m close,” he gave the words grudgingly.

She chuckled and blew a warm breath against the cooling wetness her mouth had left behind.

“Is that praise or reprimand, General?”

There was smug satisfaction in the gentle laughter that lay trapped within her words; it buzzed against the hard length of his cock as her mouth glided back down, tongue pressing, teeth lightly scraping to sing a hint of danger into pleasure’s threat.

“Praise,” he muttered as he swept his thumbs across the taut hollows of her cheeks.

She rolled her tongue against him, murmured wordless approval as his body wound tighter in reply. Cullen fought to gentle his grip on her hair and the slow stroke of his fingers on her scalp drew a shiver from her.

“Damn you, it’s praise.”

Chapter Text

Spring had finally and truly lay claim upon the mountains. Below permafrost peaks, a soft green shroud settled over the earth, cascaded like an avalanche down sheer faces to cast all the world in new, soft wonder. In Skyhold’s garden the crocuses had returned to their slumber, the ground and sun too warm a kiss for such tender faces, but in their places a riot of color bloomed. Bright orange and yellow daffodils, Andraste’s grace, white faces with hearts of dawn, snowdrops and crystal grace, delicate bells of white and pale blue. The walls of teemed with arbor blessing, deep green to pale, spreading in wide-leafed abundance.   

“Blessed by the vine in spring.” A shadowed smile curved Essa’s lips as she traced a leaf on the vine curling around her balcony rail. “I shall not fear the winter’s sting.”

Winter felt lifetimes away. How could she worry about the cold when so much would be decided before the full warmth of summer graced them?

“It’s supposed to be a good omen.” She turned toward him, face gilded in the rainbow brush of dawn, eyes distant. “Heralds,” her lips pursed with a little frown at the word. “A bountiful fall harvest.”

She fell silent, and the loudest sound in the waking keep was the profusion of birdsong trilling from the trees in the garden.

“If the world does not fear Corypheus,” she whispered. “Why should I? The seasons have kept moving, Cullen. Growing things and singing things. They do not fear this creature who would call himself a god.”

He stepped up behind her, touched her elbow with warning fingers before pulling her back into his arms.

“Then we won’t either,” he murmured between kisses dropped to the slow, steady belligerence of the pulse at her throat. “Come back to bed, my darling. Skyhold’s defenses are secure. The day will keep a bit longer.”

He tugged gently and she yielded, too easily, too quickly, as she had since she first returned to the Arbor Wilds.

“Es…” he shook his head even as her arms wound around his neck, tsked quietly just before her lips brushed his. “Where’s your fight?”

“I’m saving it for him.” She kissed him with gentle insistence, stepped forward into his space and backed him into her quarters. “You get only the sweetness right now.”

She nudged the door closed behind her with her foot.

“You’ll ruin me for the rest you,” Cullen teased. He watched in relief as her eyes sparked with mischief.

“You,” she said, running one hand down to the last lingering of his worst wounds. “Can’t handle the rest of me yet, General.”

Her fingers were warm against his bare skin and Cullen leaned into her touch, harder than she was expecting. She pulled away with a scowl. “Injuries, ser.”

“I’ve been fortifying an entire keep for the past three days, Inquisitor.”

He scooped her up in his arms, grinning when she squealed and swore at him.

“You put me down right now!” Essa hissed, clutching his shoulders tightly, as if she actually was concerned he might drop her.  “You have nothing to prove to me, you great ass!”

He stumbled in his sudden laughter and her eyes went round as he dropped her. Essa landed on the bed with a bounce, mutiny chasing the shock of falling from her eyes as she righted herself among the tangle of linens.

“Better,” Cullen affirmed with a short nod. He stared down at her, waited for her chin to lift in familiar hostility. “I’m not going to break, you know.”

Not now, not after all they had survived, all they had achieved.  She would call it an arrogance of faith, but Cullen could not believe that the Maker had brought them all this way to face defeat.

“It’s not you I’m worried about,” Essa whispered, eyes dropping to her hands.  “Andraste’s Mabari…Cullen, I’m just ready for it to be done.”

“I know.”

He climbed up on the bed beside her, settled back against the headboard. “Come here.”

She smiled and crawled toward him, limbs loose, gait almost predatory. The tunic she had swiped from him nearly a year ago was sleeveless now; it hung from her body, the pale linen a stark contrast to her sun-darkened skin. He made no attempt to hide his stare nor his appreciation.

“Really?” Essa grinned, continued her slow advance up his legs, pausing only when her breasts dragged his erection and Cullen arched up into the weight of her touch.

“Yes, really.” He reached for her, brushed back a long waving lock from her jaw. “Always ‘really’.”

She leaned her cheek into his palm, eyes falling closed on a rumbling sigh of pleasure.

“Come here,” he said again. He was as greedy as she was lately; it seemed they took turns being impatient.

“Not just yet?” She framed her reluctance as a question, rocked back on her heels so that her breath puffed against the now tight linen of his sleep pants.

The Maker had given them three blessedly quiet days back at Skyhold and even as they prepared for whatever Corypheus might bring, Cullen and Essa were burning through what firsts might be left to them. He nodded slowly, dropped his hands to the blankets on either side of him, fingers tightening to fists as she rubbed her cheek over his covered erection. This was still so new to them, something so many took for granted, and yet it was one of the last intimacies they had wrestled from the darkness of his past.

“That’s not where your hands go,” Essa breathed as she reached for the drawstring of his pants. She made quick work of the double bow, and Cullen lifted up enough for her to slide the well-worn fabric down his hips.

“You’re certain?” he cupped her cheeks in his palms. Her hair fell around his hands, obscuring her face, but he felt her cheeks rise in a smile.

“Maybe not always,” she said softly. “But until…” She dropped a kiss low on his stomach, her chin and neck pressing warm against more sensitive flesh. “Until we’ve given you more good memories than bad, yes?”

She had told him the first time, and the second, that she didn’t want him feeling out of control or at her mercy, but even with his hands on her face, Cullen couldn’t help but feel both of those things. Her lips brushed the head of his cock, and Cullen drew a sharp, ragged gasp, fingertips pressing hard against her skin as her mouth opened over him. She hummed a little as she took him in, the same sound she made when his hands or lips were on her. A sigh so tangled with ecstasy and homecoming, it was impossible to separate the deep sense of profound abiding from pleasure’s blaze of exaltation.

He was, absolutely, at her mercy.

Maker be praised.

*

She needed prayer, solitude, knew that she was unlikely to find either in a keep that prepared for war. They were all—mostly—certain that Corypheus would not lick his wounds indefinitely, that soon he would come for her and the anchor. Essa knew that she should look at each moment of peace as a gift, but she was ready for it to be over. Perhaps that was proof of hope persisting, that some part of her believed she would survive what was to come.

Maybe she was just tired.

“Do you know?” Cullen had asked, just that morning. “We’re halfway through Cloudreach.”

They had stayed abed longer than they should have, a tangle of sweaty, naked limbs. She had nearly memorized the multitude of scars he had acquired in the Wilds, though it was early yet. Most of them would probably heal to memory.

“We are.” She was placing kisses along his ribs when his hands stilled in her hair.

“It’s been a year,” he said, voice filled with wonder she should have been able to return. Instead, Essa had choked on it. “A year since I first kissed you on the battlements.”

Cullen had pulled her gently up his body, his skin a cool slide against hers that was just becoming familiar enough to be dangerous. He made her want more than she deserved, more than she should dare claim as her own.

“I know,” he had whispered against her lips, and Essa couldn’t be sure if he responded to something she had said, or something in her eyes. Still, he had kissed her until she was breathless from love rather than choking with sorrow.

“I’ll have to check my log,” he had murmured against her lips. “I think the day may be off, tomorrow or the next, but I suppose the sentiment remains.”

“And what sentiment is that?”

He had kissed her again. “Happy anniversary.”

Now there was a bouquet of crystal grace on her desk, the heavy blooms drooping on slender stems, heads bowed like a willow tree. The note he left simply said tomorrow, and Essa had scrawled the date in her own neglected journal, drawn a horrible rendering of flowers around it. It didn’t matter. Tomorrow or the day after…she couldn’t see anything beyond or before the day she awaited.

She was so tired of waiting.

“Where are you, you bastard?”

Her voice was loud in the stillness of her quarters. Essa ran one hand through her hair, pulling it from its messy braid. She felt more caged than she could remember since she awoke in Cassandra’s custody. Nearly two years, she realized, dropping her hand to stare down at the silent anchor. Two years since she stepped out the rift and began finding herself in bits and pieces all over Ferelden and Orlais. As if she were the Breach, and every small rift just another part of her waiting to be reclaimed from too many demons.

She wasn’t ready for it to end.

“Do you think you end?” Cole asked, appearing on the stairs.

“I don’t know, Cole.” Essa pushed back from her desk, crossed her ankles in some pretense of the calm she did not feel. “I used to believe we went to the Maker’s side, or that we could linger in the Fade, but Justinia was just a spirit, wasn’t she?”

“I don’t know.” He echoed as he sat at her feet. He pulled them into his lap, hands smooth and careful as he held her heels in his palms. It was one of her more soothing memories, Cullen holding her dirty feet, cooling her fury with deft hands while she hid under his desk, wounded by Diar’s memory. Cole couldn’t quite understand the intimacy of the affection, but Essa realized the simple touch was as comforting to him as he meant it to be for her.  She smiled when he squeezed her toes. “But the warm one. The laughing one. The dark one. You know that they wait for you, right?”

“The…what?” She stared down at him in confusion. “Who, Cole?”

“Warm,” he explained. “Eyes and coat like spice cake. Safe. She taught you to growl at the storms. Denning, not hiding.”

“Greta.” Essa’s heart ached.  “She’s waiting for me.”

“Always.”

“And,” she reached up to rub her eyes, casting tears away as if she could hide them from him. “The…the laughing one.”

“You know,” Cole replied, moving onto her other foot. “Eyes like laughter. Spring on the headland. He’ll wait until you tell him not to.”

“But…” she had told Diar goodbye.

“Not those who wore him. That wasn’t him. Never him. But he waited with you before. For Cullen. Just in case.”

Essa gasped. “That was—they were both there?”

She remembered dreaming of the lake, sunrise over near-still water, and Greta sitting beside Cullen while he fished. Diar beside her, fingers laced with hers.

“It was real...” she whispered.

“Just in case,” Cole repeated.

Andraste’s mabari. How close had she come to losing Cullen? Essa nearly stumbled over Cole as she leapt to her feet. She paced across the carpet, bare feet falling heavily, forcing herself to wonder after the third rather than lament events she could not change.

“You know,” he confirmed, was blessedly silent while she worked up the nerve to speak.

“Smoke.”

“Yes.”

Who was she to inspire such loyalty? Essa stared out the open balcony doors and tried to swallow past the lump in her throat. An apostate mage, a killer, a murderer, one loss of temper or passion from destroying those dearest to her.

“That’s not true.” Cole’s voice was hard with anger; she thought it might be the first time he had ever directed such at her. “Fire does not always burn. It warms. It saves. It cooks.” He glared at her. “You don’t fear the blue unless it’s singing.”

“Lyrium is a different kind of flame.”

“Chains,” Cole corrected and Essa could only nod in agreement.

“But you’re right about my fire.  I’m sorry. Sometimes…it’s hard when you want to deserve the blessings in your life that you know you can’t. I was wrong to despair.”

“None of us do,” he nodded. “The deserving." He frowned then. "But sometimes we do. It’s very confusing.”

Essa laughed. “It is. We keep trying though.”

“Yes.”

And she had done all she could. Her orders had been given before they marched on the temple. Cari, Fin, and Hope were safe. Krem and Sera with them. She had written her will, given it to Josephine, written so many letters of farewell…

“Cole,” she took a steadying breath. “There are letters in my desk.”

“Two dozen. You never expected them.  Not so many. Family found. Family built.” He tipped his head to the side, regarded her curiously through disheveled hair. “There’s one for me?”

“Well, of course there is,” she snapped, pacing back toward him. “I’m sorry.”

Cole waved off her unnecessary apology. “But I already know.”

“Knowing isn’t the same as hearing it, holding it,” Essa sighed. “Some people need to hold the words in their hands, their ears.”

Cole nodded. “Cullen is at prayers.” Essa frowned, but it wasn’t a great leap to follow his thoughts to hers, from love to Cullen.  “You’ll want to see him soon.”

Always, Essa thought. She turned back to face him.

“Cole?” He was beside her before she had drawn her next breath, hand cool as he took hers. “I’m helping, right?”

“You are,” he assured her. “We are. “

“We?”

He nodded toward her armor stand. The silverite was polished, dark leathers brushed and conditioned so that word might never reach Fin of how she had neglected his masterwork. It had lain in a pile in her quarters while she and Rylen raced back to the Arbor Wilds. The armor seemed no worse for wear now. She ran her fingers carefully over the metal. It gleamed like fire as the sun broke over the Frostbacks. They were hours from nightfall, but the other side of the mountains always stole the last hours of sun for themselves.

“We go with you,” he said, giving her a reminder she hadn’t realized she needed. “And I will go with you, when he calls.”

“What about Cullen?” With Sera gone, Essa had hoped Cole would stay at the keep.

“Dorian will remain. Solas will go to meet Corypheus.”

Essa laughed again. “You’ve decided it all for me then?” She pulled him into a hug before he could answer. “Thank you.”

His arms were fierce, love and caring undaunted by a world that would have tried to change him. “I’m helping, right?”

“You are,” Essa’s voice broke against his shoulder. “We are.”

*

The garden was quiet, the chapel empty. It was not large enough to hold the number of those asking for prayer, so Leliana had moved Mother Giselle to the main hall, opened the great double doors for all petitioners. Cullen had left the warroom an hour ago, completed yet another circuit of the battlements. Skyhold’s defenses were secure, or as much as they could be with so few left to defend the walls. He did not know what Corypheus would bring down against them, but he knew there was little they could do to stand against him.

“Though all before me is shadow, yet shall the Maker be my guide.”

He had left the doors open to the mild afternoon. Essa was right, the mountains knew nothing of what awaited them. The breeze teased in to flutter candle flames, mingled the sweet scents of hyacinth and embrium with the melting beeswax. Embrium for remembrance, his grandmother always said. Purple hyacinth for sorrow. He knelt in both, head and heart heavy with burdens he bore gladly. To do anything less would be to disrespect so many sacrifices. So many lives given in a cause not yet won.

“I shall not be left to wander the drifting roads of the beyond.”

Forgive me, Cullen added silently. Forgive my selfishness, my unceasing arrogance. He had tried to console himself that praying for Essa to be spared was not purely for his own sake, but Cari and Fin’s grief was second to his own fear. The sorrow of their friends yet a paler, distant sadness. He wanted her safe. Wanted the life with her that he had only just begun to dare to wish for. Wanted to watch her build dreams in the Hinterlands, grow her cabbages and warhorses in Smoke’s Valley. Surely she had given enough, served enough, that such peace was earned.

“For there is no darkness in the Maker’s light…”

And yet so many just as deserving had gone on before. Left behind wives and husbands, children and parents, and their own fading dreams.

“And nothing that He has wrought shall be lost.”

Please, do not let her be lost.

As if his petitions had conjured her, Essa’s steps fell behind him. Her tread was deliberately heavy, bare feet scuffing across the stones to warn him of her presence before she spoke.

“A prayer for you?”

“For those we have lost…” Cullen glanced over his shoulder, hands still clasped before him. They shook with the fervency of his devotions, and were too greedy to touch her. She did not look a warrior, nor really a mage, standing in the soft light clad in a sleeveless linen gown. There were freckles on her shoulders. Spring was hardly upon them and already she had been out in the sun enough to call them to her skin. “And those I am afraid to lose.”

“You’re afraid?”

He couldn’t meet the shock in her eyes. It would surprise her more--worse, he knew it would disappoint her--to know that even now a part of him he wanted only to whisk her away, watch the world burn from distant mountain?

“Of course I am.” Cullen stared at the feet of the Bride. Essa drew closer and the candle flames leapt, warming smooth grey stone. “Corypheus possessed that Grey Warden at Mythal,” he continued, unable to stop himself from railing at her. “What more is he capable of?”

Does it matter? He could all but hear her ask. And no, it didn’t. They would do what needed to be done, but his heart ached with uncertainty.

“It’s only a matter of time before he retaliates.” He rose, turned toward her, every movement furtive, defensive. “We must draw strength wherever we can.”

He paced by her and she let him, wide grey eyes as guileless as when he first met her, and yet…everything had changed since that day in the Valley of Sacred Ashes.

“When the time comes, you will be thrown into his path again.” Did she know? That she was the best of a life he had feared irredeemable? Did she realize how it tore at him, knowing that the Maker had not spared the most holy among them? Essa was no safer from the fire. “Andraste, preserve me, I must send you to him.”

She bit her lip, but her feelings betrayed her, and the flames burned higher. The candles melted beneath their fury, wax running like blood through the shadows cast by Andraste. Magefire crept toward her feet, a pyre’s ghost.

“What if I can’t?” Essa whispered, staring anywhere but at him as she raised her hands, dashed them toward the floor to extinguish the flames. “Cullen, if I don’t…”

“Maker, no.” Realization hit him then, remorse following, sharp and jagged and useless. She was afraid. And why wouldn’t she be? Cullen thought, except that the emotion came so rarely to her. He caught her chin in his hand, pulled her reluctant gaze to his and waited for her to find him through the storm in her eyes.

“Whatever happens,” he drew her to him, wrapped his arms around her and pulled her as close as the bulk of his armor would allow. “You will come back.”

Whatever certainty of hope he had managed to glean from his prayers, he offered that to her now.

“Is that an order, General?”

Cullen smiled. She had taken to “general” as quickly as Cassandra, but with a cocky grin that made something mischievous and intimate of rank she insisted he had earned long ago. He had not yet told her what such a simple-seeming change meant to him, to hear the life he had built, rather than the one he had left, shaped by lips he loved. There were no generals among the templars.

“No.” He pressed his cheek to her temple, whispered a kiss against her hair. “But as one of your advisors, I strongly recommend it.”

Essa laughed, and the sound broke softly against quiet stones. She stretched up into his embrace. “If you say so.”

Her lips brushed his chin, crept along his jaw. “I say so.”

 

Chapter Text

The sky was green again and what spring had scattered in verdant offering across the mountains, the breach now cast in sickly putrescence. Lightning cracked the sky, darker green, arcing in jagged descent from the swirling vortex about the Valley of Sacred Ashes. The wait was over, and if Corypheus had been impatient, Essa was more so. When the sky thundered and the anchor surged, Essa would have cheered but for the solemn faces of her advisors, the hard glint of resolve in Cullen’s gaze as he met her stare across the war table. A single sharp nod and they had all dispersed. They knew their tasks, had planned and strategized the entire trip back from the Wilds and in the four short days since their return. Skyhold was as defended as it could be with so much of their army still marching homeward.

“The horses are nearly ready, Inquisitor.” The runner seemed reluctant to stop her, but in truth, Essa had been wandering aimlessly through the yards.

“How long?” she asked, darting a glance back toward the stable.

Cacique’s armor glinted in the morning light. The warhorse was no doubt preening beneath Master Dennett’s praise. He had traveled back from the Wilds without a rider, and was as rested as he could be. No doubt had been bored with the last four days of quiet when Dennett and the stable hands weren’t braving his bad temper to spoiled the brute. News of Cacique’s ferocity in battle, and his defense of their general, having already made it back with some of Leliana’s scouts. He would be insufferable if they survived this last battle. His admirers would erect a statue of him and there would be no living with him. The horse’s ego rivaled Dorian’s and was twice as genuine. But then, Cacique did not have need of its defense.

“Master Dennet said to tell you--” the boy stumbled nervously over his message, green eyes darting toward the breach in the sky. “To tell you half an hour.”

His fear was nearly palpable, it soured the edges of a morning that had dawned worthy of birdsong.

“Thank you, George. Tell Master Dennet, we’ll be along shortly.” She reached out, slow enough that her touch might be avoided if it was unwanted, and placed her hand on his arm. “It’s going to be alright.”

“Is...is it?”

She watched terror war with the faith in his eyes. Essa shouldered the burden gladly. “It is.”

“Then why is everyone afraid?”

She followed his gaze around the yard, noticed the pinched faces, eyes turned away from the discolored sky, the hushed, worried whispers.

“Because I have been remiss in my duties,” she realized. She squeezed his arm gently before letting go. “Thank you for reminding me of them.”

He smiled slowly, the tight lines around his eyes easing; it was no small thing to aid the Herald.

“Tell Master Dennet, we’ll be home late tonight,” she grinned. “And that Cacique is going to expect a welcome worthy of his arrogance.”

George laughed. “Yes, ser.” he bowed quickly, and several onlookers seemed to notice the change in the boy’s demeanour. “Yes, milady.”

He ran off, steps slapping cheerfully against the ground. Essa called good mornings as she made her way through the keep, waved and nodded in reply to a dozen greetings, watched hesitancy melt away before the force of her smile. She understood fear, and Mabari knew she sympathized.  She’d had her moments of doubt, confessed the whole of them to Cullen in the darkest hours of the night. He had met each with a conviction that should not have surprised her.

"’Heart that is broken, beats still unceasing, an ocean of sorrow does nobody drown’.” Cullen’s voice was soft, holy as he moved a lock of hair from her face. He dropped a gentle kiss on her temple, murmured the next verse against her skin. “‘You have forgotten, spear-maid of Alamarr. Within My Creation, none are alone.” He placed his hand over her heart,fingers warm against skin cool from nerves. “Whether I walk beside you, or you carry me with you here. We go together. You do know this?”

She nodded, reached up to slot her fingers between his. Essa held on. “I do.”

“And...” He offered her a smile when hers was too weak to take wing alone. “Cassandra has decreed that nothing could possibly stand before the might of our combined stubbornness.”

Her bark of laughter was unexpected, cheeks rising in its wake. Cullen kissed each corner of that fledgling grin.

“And what Cassandra has decreed...” Essa began.

“May as well be the Maker’s law.”

Her tears were drying on her cheeks as he bent to kiss them away, firelight casting his eyes deeper into gold. The hours turned in quiet reverence, and they moved between breaths from comfort to passion. When they made love, it was no tender, careful consummation of vows unspoken, but a fierce worship, as if neither of them had ever been, or would ever again be, fragile. Between crests of pleasure, Essa lost count of the whispered I love yous, knew only that each was as fervent as the one before.

“You will come back,” he assured her again, sliding from the warmth of her body to lay beside her. “I’m not yet through with you.”

“You are tonight,” she teased, body still trembling as she sprawled across the bed to cool. “Though if there is some future date of expiry,” Essa wondered on a yawn.“Should I start training a replacement?”

She pulled the blankets over him, snuggled her head to his shoulder. Cullen tangled lazy fingers in her hair, his breathing slowing, calling to her to settle into the stillness of them. To let tomorrow take care of itself.

“Not today.”

 

“Loni!” Essa caught a glimpse of the runner on the walk above her, pushed her memories aside even as she clung to them.

The woman stopped, peered down over the edge of the stone in consternation. “Inquisitor?”

“Take word to General Cullen, please,” she raised her voice, trusting the news would soon carry throughout the keep. “We leave in half an hour.”

“So early, ser?” And Essa might have kissed her for the question Loni would not usually have asked.

“May as well,” she grinned. “I’ve already had breakfast.”

Loni’s laughter was rich. Essa listened as she repeated Essa’s answer to the guards on the battlements. Shouts of approval soon followed.

“Yes, ser,” Loni grinned down at her. “I’ll tell him now.”

Yes, Essa understood fear, and she would not leave her people to its hunger.

The morning was still young as she made her way to the tavern. The slant of sun through the windows was pale and fair. Upstairs the windows were open to the cool, clean breeze, but the place still smelled of stale beer, hearth fire, and mingling sweat. The main room was quiet, it being early morning and all, but an expectant hush stole what voices murmured as Essa swaggered in through the open door.

“Horns up!” Essa shouted.

It was strange to see Krem’s chair empty, but the rest of the Chargers lifted their voices readily enough.

“Horns up!”

“That it then, boss?” Bull called as Essa nodded toward the bar.

“It is. Bastard’s back in the valley. You ready?”

She grinned at Cabot as she plopped down on a stool.

“Born that way, last I heard,” Bull said, sidling up next to her. He dropped his big palm down over the fine tremble in her hands. “Half a day’s ride, you might want to save the energy.”

He knew the difference between nerves and battle frenzy. Essa stood poised on a knife’s blade between the two.

“Celebratory round for everyone,” she called loud enough to be heard by all. “We’ve a god to kill. Riding out in half an hour. I plan on being home for breakfast tomorrow.”

Her voice was strong; it belied none of her feelings. Cabot smiled, something sad and knowing in his eyes as he slid a shot down the polished bar. Essa tossed it back, gratitude gleaming in her eyes like raindrops and mist.

“Fuck yeah, we will,” someone yelled.

Cabot nodded at Resi and the waitress began filling tankards with ale at the other end fo the bar.

“One for each of you or I’ll be knocking heads,” the woman shouted as scouts and soldiers wandered in to answer the call of free breakfast ale.  She was half Cabot’s size, and half his age, but twice as intimidating. Essa kind of loved her. “Except for you.”

Resi slid another shot to her as Cabot worked the other end of the bar. The Chargers were given first serve. They were riding out with the Herald.

“Booze for breakfast,” Bull grunted, tossing back his ale. “The Chargers approve.”

“And you?” Essa asked, raising the second shot in a salute as Maryden picked up her loot.

The bard chose a spritely, victorious tune, something with all the bluster Essa hoped to muster.  

“Me?” Bull smiled. “I think you’re doing alright, all things considered. Half an hour isn’t long.”

“Nothing left to say that hasn’t been said already,” Essa muttered toward the bar. “There could never be enough time. I’m ready to get this done.”

“Horns up!” someone—Rocky maybe—shouted from across the room.

Essa tossed back her shot with a grimace. It might be free, but it wasn’t the good stuff. They would save that for the return. She and a dozen others lifted their fists to their temples, index fingers spearing out like horns.

“Then we’ll get it done,” Bull said.

*

The Chargers started singing before they left Skyhold, a particularly bawdy tune that they lifted to sky just as Essa drew back from kissing Cullen senseless in front of the entire keep. There wasn’t a scullery maid or kitchen helper left inside. Every man, woman, and child had come out to see them off. Cullen glared at her, the severity utterly ruined by flushed cheeks and an exasperated smile. Essa grinned at him, unrepentant.

“We’ll be home late!” Essa yelled in order to be heard over the cheering crowd.

“I’ll alert the watch,” Cullen replied dryly.

Then he caught her hand, tugged her back into his arms and kissed her until her knees gave out.

“Damn you.” He didn’t even have the decency to help her onto her horse, and Essa lost half the ride to plotting some sort of very public revenge for once she returned.

“Craftier than he looks,” Bull said, turning Mabel in beside Cacique as they dropped into a resting walk. The large horse did not seem to have trouble keeping up with the brisk pace Essa had set for them, but by the Mabari she and Bull looked ridiculously jolly bouncing along.

“Who’s that?” Essa asked, hiding her smile as Bull smoothed one large hand over the roan’s neck.

“Cullen. Almost hate to pull you from whatever distraction he provided you this morning, but we need orders.”

“I know you do.” She glanced back at the rest of their party. Their numbers were small. “We won’t know for sure until we catch up to Harding, but I think I want you and the Chargers at Haven. I don’t know what’s going to come out of the valley, but we need to protect as many of the people as we can.”

“Alright. That leaves you, Cassandra, Cole, Morrigan, and Solas to go after Corypheus. Can’t say I like the odds.”

The Chargers began another chanty, something about their wild apostate.

“Dalish is going to kill them.”

Bull chuckled. “It’s not about Dalish.”

“That would imply,” said the elf in question, riding up alongside Bull,  “that I am a mage, and we all know that’s impossible.”

Bull grinned, and Essa tried to catch the strains of song. When we get back to Skyhold, I’ll stand whiskey all around...raise a glass for our apostate!

“It’s about you.” Dalish inclined her head in a kind of salute. “You’re as much ours as anyone else’s, your worship. You want us in Haven, we’ll go to Haven. But we’re with you all the way to the temple, if you need.”

Hey, ah, oh, ah! We’re almost done, clear the road, watch your toes, let the piebald run.

“Andraste’s ass, woman, are you trying to make me cry?”

Essa’s complaint surprised a laugh out of the generally taciturn woman.

“Not me." Dalish nodded toward Rocky and Skinner. “They might have been betting on who could manage it though.”

“Traitors!” Essa crowed toward the sky. “The whole lot of you!”

Their song eased into raucous laughter, and even Cassandra, who rode between a silent, watchful Solas and Morrigan, who had not truly smiled since the Well, grunted with humor.

“You all owe me drinks!” Essa shouted.

“You can’t handle that much booze, your worship,” Rocky offered helpfully.

Essa laughed. “We get home tonight.” She grinned. “And I may very well try.”

*

Corypheus did not bring an army and though she knew he did not need one, Essa was thankful for that mercy.

The Breach was a storm of chaos. The churn of green above them setting the natural laws of earth and sky against each other and themselves. Boulders floated about the ground, ashes hovered in the wind like mist, and the air in the valley roiled, a living, seething curse of malcontent. Red lyrium burned, crimson light only adding to the shadows. Lightning arced, a jagged chartreuse that she could taste—sharp and tingling—behind her front teeth. He had changed the landscape in the hours that she rode to meet him. The ruins of temple were blackened now, and demons raged across the desolation.

“You’ll go to Haven,” Essa said, ignoring the reluctance in Bull’s eye.

“As you say, Boss.” He slapped her on the ass, caught her by the waist when she turned to back to swat him in return. He set her up on Cacique as if she weighed nothing in full armor, patted her leg affably when she scowled at him. “You take care of her,” he muttered to the horse.

Cacique had the grace to look offended at the order.

They’d had to leave the other horses behind. The poor creatures had taken one look at the valley and nearly thrown their riders, not that any but Essa and Cacique could blame them. The haughty look that the piebald had given his fellow equines had coaxed laughter from all of them. There was a pool as to whether or not Essa or the warhorse would finally end Corypheus. Even Essa had put her money on Cacique, but then it seemed bad luck, and worse form, betting on herself.

Corypheus’s voice boomed across the spoilt land, reverberating with more than menace, a twist of ambition too many wished to wave off as madness, but Essa knew the more frightening truth. Madness was rarely necessary for such belligerent hate.

“Tell me...” The Elder One stood before the fallen face of Andraste. The orb blazed red in one hand, washed the wide, unseeing marble eyes in mottled crimson. Corypheus looked out upon the darkening day and sneered. “Where is your Maker now?  Call him. Call down his wrath upon me. You cannot, for he does not exist.”

Cacique reared, pulling at the reins as Essa fought to slow his charge up the sharp ascent. Rocks scattered, bouncing off the armor of her companions.   

“He has your fire,” Cole said undisturbed as he placed one hand against the black barding. “He burns as brightly as you, but colder.”

Essa tipped her head to the side. “He’s still just…he’s still just a horse, right Cole?”

They would never let her live down Sir Woolsey, and she would defend the ram to the death. Dangerous spirit, her ass.

“Not just,” he shrugged. “But there is nothing in him that was not born of earth and sky.”

Good enough. She could have lived with a spirit horse, explaining him to Cullen would be a different story altogether.

“I am Corypheus.”

There was indignation in the resounding claim and Essa grinned down at Cole, trusting he could see her smile even through the confines of her helmet.

“Should we be paying more attention?” she asked. “Is there going to be a test later on his villain monologue?”

Cole snickered, though Solas and Morrigan did not share their amusement. Cassandra snorted, a short sound of mirth that curved Cole’s smile wider.

I shall deliver you from this lie in which you linger,” Corypheus boasted. “Bow before your new god and be spared.”

“Never!”  There had not been many soldiers left in the valley, and of those only a few remained to defy him. Essa’s heart swelled, broke with the weight of pride as they stood against this foolish would-be god.

“As you wish.”

They gained the summit in a shower of scree, Cacique’s clarion all but drowning out the sickening screeches of the terror demons Corypheus summoned. His broad chest lifted, front legs reaching for the sky as he reared, striking out at the nearest demon. Beside him, Cassandra dealt the second a swift death. The Seeker did not break stride. Clearly, Essa had put her money on the wrong warrior.

“I knew you would come,” Corypheus said, pacing back and forth before the broken archway. He liked to hear himself speak. Essa could almost commiserate; as it was she was seriously considering taking her helmet off so that the Elder One could see the fullness of her disdain. Sarcasm was as much about the eyes as the tone of voice.

You are impudent. His words were suddenly in her head, a dark murmur, crowding and cloying. But I know what haunts you. What waits for you in the beyond.

Essa’s hand tightened on Cacique’s reins. She reached for the hilt of her blade with the other. So that’s how it was going to be.

“It ends here, Corypheus.”

Beside her, Cassandra nodded. She likely wouldn’t have tolerated too much snark anyway. Breath wasted when it could be saved for battle. Corypheus met her gaze across the rubble.

“And so it shall.”

He lifted his hands, and the earth shook beneath them. Cacique snorted, legs bracing wide, eyes rolling. Essa dropped to the ground beside him, one hand tight upon his nose as the ruins rose toward the Breach.

“You have been most successful in foiling my plans,” Corypheus continued. “But let us not forget what you are.”

Memories stormed through her mind, the same sickening barrage she had experienced in the Fade at Adamant, but older, infinitely more terrible

Mage. The condemnation echoed in another’s voice. Apostate. Fire and death consumed her, nearly sent her to her knees. The stench of terror and charred flesh rent the air, and for a moment she burned within it, choking on smoke and long cold ashes. Murderer. A mage’s throat cut, death dealt with merciful swiftness. How many of your own kind did you end?

As many as I couldn’t save. Essa clung to Cacique’s armor, dragged herself up on steady feet as the world stopped rising toward the storm of death above them. And you’ll have to find another thread to pull. That one doesn’t wound.

“A thief,” Corypheus declared aloud, and the magic in her hand pulsed, crackling beyond her will as time spun forward to the conclave, the thwarted ritual, the anchor searing into her palm. “In the wrong place at the wrong time.”

No. The rest she might give him, but that she did not believe. Couldn’t believe, not after everything she had become. She might not be certain of the Maker’s will, nor her place within his plan, but Essa knew one thing with certainty. She was exactly where she was supposed to be.

“An interloper. A gnat.”

Essa smiled, I must have really annoyed you these past two years.

The ruins shook, shuddering around them, but it was a trick that no longer worked, even Cacique tossed his head in defiance.

We shall prove here, once and for all, which of us is worthy of godhood.”

Oh, Essa thought. See, that’s the thing. I don’t want to be a god. But, while we’re on the subject.

“I’m the Maker’s chosen.”

Her declaration rang out and the fury that overtook his face rivaled nothing she had ever seen. Essa recalled one of the first lessons Bull had taught her. You get that mad, Boss, and your guard is already down.

The rest was a Very Dramatic blur, and that, Essa swore to herself as she hacked through yet another of however many shades, was exactly how she would record the events in her journal. There should have been music, was if she counted Cole’s helpful singing as he caught her sarcastic musings. There would be ballads eventually, she knew. Bards would compose towering tales of their heroism, of how the Witch of the Wilds became a dragon, her first flight one of daring, majestic defiance to bring low the Elder One’s red lyrium slave. There would be stories yet more stories of Cassandra’s already legendary prowess, and Varric would no doubt sulk for weeks that Essa had left him behind.

Once the dragon was down, the chase began, and while she understood that Corypheus’s constant retreats through floating levels were strategic, the chaos and shades, and demons and shifting terrain only ensured that Essa and Cacique were more annoyed than angry by the time they reached his final stand.

Enough!  The culmination of two years of war writ together upon the ruins and Corypheus was on his knees, praying to gods that had long abandoned them all, if they ever existed at all.

She had lost the others in the tumult of falling, could only hope they were safe. Morrigan had fallen hard, and Cole was with her. Essa could sense his worry, some distant song not quite a dirge. Her blood pulsed too loudly in her ears, battle rush still firmly upon her. Essa’s hands were steady, but they would shake later. If there was a later. Her legs were trembling now. She was wounded somewhere. A dozen little somewheres, but this was worse. Something dark and leaching deep inside, oozing through leather and mail. She couldn’t be certain how bad, but Cacique stood beside her, broad shoulder snug against hers, nostrils flaring, stance unflinching despite the blood and gore on his legs. She knew some of it was his.

The orb glowed in Corypheus’s hands, scarlet with his beseeching, but the anchor blazed and for the first time since she had come by it, Essa no longer saw the green as corruption, but life. The end of hers maybe, but the continuance of others. Spring, surging boldly over the valley. She reached, with hand, mind, all that she was, and the orb flew home to the power in her hand.

“You wanted into the Fade?” she asked. You can have it.

Corypheus screamed, and she opened a rift within him, watched the Fade drag at him, rage and terror contorting his already twisted visage. He clung, claws reaching, but Cacique was having nothing of it. The horse leaned forward, nudged the Elder one with his armored head, a touch so gentle it was laughable, but exactly enough to send him through.

“I am not,” Essa struggled for breath, tried to find the clean scent of horse and sweat over the choking ash, and taste of her own blood, “giving you credit for that.” Cacique stepped closer, and she let him take most of her weight. “Even if I did bet on you.”

The horse grunted. He was a good match for Cullen, she thought. Meaner than Cassandra but just as stalwart.

“One task left,” Essa muttered.

The world washed bright, a flash of infinite color across her eyes as she poured power from the anchor and through the orb. She had to remember to save it. It was important, a promise made to one before trust was broken, but there was nothing to be done for whatever might come. She watched the column of light pierce the sky, saw shimmers of green jewels, faceted like emerald fire, in the cascade. Magic, she thought, as she watched the sky heal, was ever multi-sided.

She didn’t see it close, though she  heard it. A boom that shook the valley, raised cheers of victory like a thundering sea. The waves faded soft in her ears as she slid down to sit at Cacique’s feet. The orb shattered and something broke, twisted in her side as she toppled.

“Inquisitor?” Cassandra’s call was not as loud as the voice that whispered in her mind. “Are you alive?”

“Maybe?” Essa tried to call back, but the words washed red and coppery on her tongue.

Your work is done.

*

The sky shimmered with aurora, rainbow lights fine as gossamer across a blue-black night. Stars glittered overhead, diamond caught against velvet. Torches burned bright, cast jubilant shadows on the walls. The portcullis was raised, guards standing in stalwart honor as they awaited the triumphant return of their Herald. Music bounced off of the stones, songs old and new, but the stories ever the same. Victory and spring, the return of life to the lonely mountains. Every door had been thrown open to the night, hearths blazed in welcome, and all of Skyhold celebrated.

Cullen could only pace.

“She is well,” Leliana told him for only the tenth time since the raven brought Cassandra’s tidings.

“That is not what the missive said,” he replied tersely, strides clipped, boot heels striking the warroom floor with sharp finality.

“No,” Leliana agreed patiently. “But it said she is alive. The rest is inconsequential, yes?”

“Yes.” Cullen’s acquiescence struggled from between his back teeth. “And the horse.”

She smiled. “And the horse." She stepped close, wrapped both arms around his and pulled his hand from the hilt of his sword. “Cullen.” Her voice was soft, and she smelled like his mother’s garden, tea roses and violets . “It’s done.” Leliana leaned her head against his arm, and when she sighed, he let out the breath he had been holding for what felt hours. “She’s coming home,” she told him.

He swallowed, repeated the words that had been his silent mantra all day. “She’s coming home.”

The bells clanged, the sound so brazen and sudden that Cullen jolted, had dragged her two steps across the room before his mind caught up with his feet.

“Leliana.” He righted her carefully, chose to ignore the delicate smirk that teased her lips. Cullen reached up to rub the back of his neck. “I’m sorry.”

She smiled, patted his arm in reassurance.  “Don’t be. I do not know that I would be any more reserved.”

The bells continued their joyful pronouncement, the sounds filling the keep, spilling through open doors, until their happy tidings seemed to shake the windows in their casings.  Josephine met them at the door to the Great Hall, her face radiant, hands nearly shaking with gladness. She caught Cullen’s left hand in both of hers, fingers clutching tight.

“Shall we?” Her voice was nearly as bright as her smile.

“After you, lady ambassador.”

Cullen did not think he had ever heard such noise. The roar of battle hardly compared to the celebration that filled the courtyards. He stepped out onto the landing and could barely hold back his own shout of adoration as Cacique and Essa crossed the bridge ahead of the others. Her helmet was tucked beneath her arm, reins held loosely in one gauntleted fist. Her hair was loose; it hung around her shoulders, casting shadows over her face. Silverite glinted faintly, too few patches left clean of blood and battle grime, but where it did, it shone, cold and pure as the moons. Her people crowded toward her, but Cacique was having none of it. The warhorse pranced forward, chin raised to the night, hooves pulled before damage was dealt, but the warning was there and it was heeded.

Bull and the Chargers followed close, Cassandra and Cole among them. Morrigan was being tended to in Haven. She would live—was too stubborn to die Leliana had assured them with a smile that spoke of history—but she had declined the hurried ride back to Skyhold.

Cullen stood at the top of the first flight of stairs as anxious as a bridegroom while he waited for Essa to dismount. He watched her gait, waited impatiently for her face to find the caress of torchlight. Beside him Josephine and Leliana stood, poise and polish carefully in place, smiles warm for their Inquisitor.

Cacique danced too close to a torch and the flames leapt toward them. Not close enough to burn, but too close for Essa’s hair to hide the bruises in her eyes. The grey was flat, cold as slate in a weary face, but she declined Bull’s subtle offer of aid, handed him her helmet instead before she dropped to the ground. Cullen held his breath as Essa made the long climb each step just a little slower than usual, but unfaltering.

She said nothing as she gained the landing, but she smiled—Maker’s breath, how she smiled—and Cullen tried not to shift back and forth between his feet like a new recruit, nerves strung tight behind protocols Essa would later mock him for. Let her, he thought with a grin. She deserved all of it. The bow of her general, the respect of her advisor, the devotion of the man who loved her more than anything.

Hello. She mouthed the word, lips quirking, eyes lightening just enough that the breath eased again in his chest. Then she was swaying toward him, and her arms, still covered in the blood of her enemies, wrapped around him.

“There you are,” he murmured, leaning down to draw her close. Essa sighed against his neck, breath warm, smelling of elfroot. She stretched up, made a sound of annoyance as their armor kept them too far apart. “It’s good to have you back.”

“I will give you,” she whispered in a voice usually saved for private moments, “every coin Krem has hoarded for me, if you will get me out of this armor and into a bath before Josephine commandeers me.”

Cullen laughed, a loud boast that flew in the face of all propriety. “I’ll see what I can do.”

 

Chapter Text

Sometime in the week after Corypheus’s defeat, Sera wandered into Skyhold. Cullen could never quite be certain exactly when. There was little enough rest for most of them, what with the constant stream of parties and visiting nobles vying for the Herald’s attention. Essa handled most of the fanfare with greater patience than he had expected, attending dinners, teas, and parties with Josephine, Leliana, and Vivienne, wearing shoes at least most of the time without complaint.

Until she didn’t.

Cullen found her in Geri’s stall early one beautiful spring morning, curled under a pair of lightweight saddle blankets, the forder standing protectively at the door. In the stall next to him, Cacique glared through a blacker mood than Cullen could recall seeing since the Arbor Wilds. He struck out at Cullen’s shoulder before he recognized him, left a dent in plate that had been kept even shinier than usual. It was nearly ceremonial now, and Cullen wasn’t any fonder of the change than the rest of them, but he didn’t think Essa was quite at the point of hiding.

“Es…?” He pushed Cacique’s attempt at apology away, stopped just outside Geri’s range of motion to stare down into the stall.

The blankets shifted just enough to reveal a pair of cranky grey eyes. She stared at him a moment, then twitched the coarse woven wool back over her head. Cullen cleared his throat, wondered how long he would have to wait before she remembered that he would, in fact, wait her out.

“She’s not goin’ to breakfast,” Sera said, dropping down from the loft.

Cullen startled as she landed beside him, a pile of gangly arms and legs already in ascension. Sera’s eyes narrowed through the pale shadows of the barn. Cullen caught her hand before she could reach for her knife to test him.

“You’ve gotten soft, Jackboot.” She poked at him with her other hand. “Is this what happens when you spend all winter sparring with her?”

“We were not sparring,” he retorted indignantly, realized his error the moment a wide grin crinkled her nose.

“No, you weren’t,” Sera leered. “And you won’t be today either.”

Cullen reached up, pinched back the headache that seemed to have been a near constant presence for the past six days. There was, it seemed, no immediate end in sight.

“I’m afraid to ask,” he muttered, glancing to Geri for sympathy and finding none. Cacique, still trying to win Cullen’s forgiveness, offered a mostly penitent stare.

“It is nothing.” Cassandra sighed as she joined them. “She suffers far less than most of us.”

She was carrying a plain, heavy mug. Black ceramic, chipped handle. It was Essa’s favorite. Steam curled above the rim, smelling strongly of mint and faintly of elfroot.

“Do not call me a baby,” Essa griped, sticking one hand out from between her blankets and reached toward the stall door. “I know you all hate me.”

“We do not hate you,” Cassandra grunted squeezing between Cullen and Geri to lean into the stall. She placed the cup carefully in Essa’s hand. “We are envious. Now drink your tea.”

Cullen waited until Cassandra had stepped back into aisle, did his best to ignore her irritation for his not having moved quickly enough to suit her. Essa’s hand--and mug--disappeared beneath her blankets.

“Alright,” Cullen snapped. “What in the Void is going on?”

“Oi, Esas’s not pregnant.” Sera shrugged, leaning back on a support post, arms crossed in front of her. “That’s all.”

Essa’s not pregnant. The words may as well have been in ancient elven for all that he understood them, and that, he was at least learning. Of course, Essa wasn’t pregnant. Essa couldn’t--Cullen stared at the pile of blankets, took a swift step forward that wasn’t fully there and slammed his foot into the door, hard enough to hurt. His sword banged against his legs, but all he could do was stare down at her, mouth agape. Geri moved his head between Cullen and the stall latch.

“’Not’--?” His stunned queries rose in volume, each louder than the last. “What do you mean?! When were you--? I thought--!”

Sera slapped her hand over his mouth, held on tight when he tried to jerk away. She shook her head, eyes rolling toward the rafters. Essa’s blankets shook and he couldn’t be sure, but Cullen thought he heard laughter muffled below.

“By the Mabari, Sera, are you trying to kill him?” Essa’s head finally emerged. She took a deep breath, pushed the end of her hay-strewn braid back from her shoulder. She blinked slowly in the growing light, eyes pinched at the corners. “Let him go.”

Sera stuck her tongue out at him as she released him and stepped away. Cullen was still too stunned to retaliate.

“I was not,” Essa said grumpily over the rim of her mug. “Nor did I think I was. That is our unsubtle way of saying I’m bleeding as if I’ve taken a horribly aimed arrow, and that I’m not fit to talk to anyone for a few hours.”

“A few hours,” Cassandra grunted, the paltry sum seeming to give offense.

“We hate her,” Sera added helpfully.

“Bleeding?” Cullen asked, ignoring the added commentary to meet Essa’s stare.

She nodded. “Not unusual. As much on schedule as ever.”

It was hardly the first time since they had become intimate, and Cullen was almost certain this was not the first time that she was actually at Skyhold for the end of her cycle.

“But…it isn’t always...this bad?” He didn’t know what ‘this bad’ was supposed to mean, but he had watched the woman take a shield to the face without pausing to do more than spit out a mouthful of blood. He knew that some women suffered horrible pain and emotional ups and downs, but for Essa to be hiding in the stable with the horses on alert was not a good sign.

“It is not,” Cassandra answered with a snort. “Every three or four months she has a bad morning, or a bad night, informs one of us she’s ‘not pregnant,’ and begs for peppermint tea. This was less of a shock,” she added dryly, “when the two of you weren’t…”

She waved her hand dismissively in his direction and Cullen blushed, the blood rushing hot and immediate to his entire face. He ducked his head, arm lifting in helpless defense to the back of his neck.

Essa curled into a seated position, knees drawn protectively up, mug clutched to her chin. “Cassandra,” she admonished. Her lips rose and fell on a quickly hidden smile. “Go easy on the man. It’s not the first time; it’s just the first bad time that I've been home for.” She reached out, slapped lightly at Geri’s leg. “Stop glowering.”

The forder sighed and stepped to one side. Cullen leaned across the low door, arms propped on the upper edge. He didn’t think the horse was quite ready to let him inside, but he no longer feared reprisal for his presence. He raised a brow at Essa in askance.

“I get a terrible headache,” she explained, pausing to take a sip of her tea. “Abdominal pains. Cramps. And I’m more likely to cry at pictures of puppies.”

“She’s also more likely to punch a noble in the face,” a cheerful voice offered from the end of the stable aisle. “But fortunately—“

Cari never got to finish her sentence. Cullen watched Essa’s face light, eyes rounding wide and filling instantly with tears. Her hands shook around her mug.

“Dammit,” Essa swore, reaching up with one hand to smear dust across her cheeks as she swiped hastily at her tears.  She didn’t get up from her nest, rather stared toward the aisle and waited expectantly. “You’re home,” she called.

“I am.”

She was, and as Cari walked into the dusky shadows of the stable, Cullen thought he had never seen her look so content, nor so perfectly out of place amid dirt and hay and horses. Her riding habit of quilted violet silk, black leather boots and gloves buffed to a high polish. A tall silk hat, black with a white sash, was perched atop her head. Beneath it, her hair was twisted into something artful, copper glints threading through the velvet brown. There was a bloom of embrium tucked into the sash above a wide brim. Within the deeper shadows cast by her hat, Cari’s eyes were mist and lavender. They stole color from the flowers in her scarf, offered it up to them, infinitely warmer.

“And I am not coming in there to greet you, Ester Donya Trevelyan,” Cari informed her. The haughtiness in her tone was such that only an older sister could muster, but it did nothing to taint the gentle smile teasing her lips. “I suggest you drag yourself up, dust at least some of that off, and give me a kiss.”

Essa scowled, thrusting her mug toward Cullen as she lurched to her feet, blankets sliding from her in a rustle of hay and dust. She couldn’t have been more her sister’s opposite than in that moment. Her leggings were patched in about a dozen places and she was wearing an old tunic of Fin’s. It hung well past her knees and had more than one singe mark; she wasn’t wearing any shoes. Cullen’s heart leapt at the sight of her, chest rising in a breath that came more easily than the last, felt somehow warmer in his chest. He stepped back, opened the stall door to let her out, and barely managed to avoid being trampled by her rush. Cari caught her in a tight hug, boots skidding in the aisle as the force of Essa’s affection threw them back into Sera’s waiting arms.

“By the Mabari,” Essa said, tears falling amid creative curses until Cari threatened to wash her mouth out with soap. “It’s good to see you.”

She kissed her sister’s cheeks, wiped helplessly at the dirt she left behind until Cari playfully swatted her hands away.

“Please,” she said, laughter rosing her cheeks as she leaned her head back to plant an awkwardly angled kiss on Sera’s waiting cheek. “You’re just spreading it around.”

“Dirt is love,” Essa retorted.

Sera giggled. “Yeah, it is.”

“Not today it isn’t,” Cari corrected, thanking Cassandra as the other woman reached into the tangle to extricate her from Sera and Essa’s arms. Cari smoothed her skirts, tugged the hem of her coat back into place, with a frown that none of them were buying.

“Now.” She squeezed Essa’s arm. “Take your tea, and get yourself inside in the dark. You know the sun doesn’t help your headache. I believe we’ve a perfectly good tower—”

“Without a real roof,” Essa interrupted following her sister’s pointed gaze to the command tower.

“That is still darker than the stable,” Cari replied mildly. She reached out to Cullen, drew him close enough to drop a warm kiss on his cheek as well. “It’s good to see you, Commander,” she said.

“And you, Sometime Inquisitor.”

Essa’s eyes went wider still, and she grabbed Cari again, planted a loud kiss on her lips and hugged her hard enough to shake the flowers loose from her hat. Sera caught the embrium before it hit the ground, offered it back to her without comment.

“Do you mean it?” Essa asked breathlessly.

Cari smiled. “Did you really think I was going to leave you to Josephine’s endless victory galas?”

“Maker bless you, Cari Trevelyan.” Essa kissed her again. “I will find a way to pay you back.”

“You saved the world,” Cari reminded her.

Essa grinned, reached back blindly with one hand for her tea. “For purely selfish reasons, I assure you.”

Cullen caught her hand, tugged her back against his side before handing her the mug. She leaned against him, body still humming with gladness as she took a gulp.

“Riigght,” Cassandra said.

It was a reasonable enough impression of Sera that they were all still laughing when Dennet shooed them out of the stable.

“Her worship’s welcome,” he grumbled, bumping past them all with Cari’s mare in tow. “But she lives here. The rest of you have things to do.”

*

The Herald’s Rest was anything but restful. Their troops had returned from the Arbor Wilds, and all of Skyhold seemed determine to celebrate right on through until Summerday. There were camps all along the river below the keep, templars mingling with Inquisition agents and soldiers. The portcullis had risen for Essa’s triumphant return from the Valley of Sacred Ashes and it had not lowered since. Bloomingtide was almost upon them, and as the nights grew warmer, hearts unfettered and peace abound. She knew it would not always be so. Already there was a stack of reports on her desk, treaties and requests piling across the war table. Orlais would not long be content with so many Inquisition holdings within their borders, and Essa was inclined to let them have them back, providing of course that they could keep the people safe.

The Inquisition’s days were numbered even if the newly poised Divine would have them linger.

“Still content to let them all go?”

It did not surprise her that Cari knew her thoughts, not nearly as much as it did to see her sister—dressed as always like a proper lady—standing in the edge of the shadows. Her full skirts just brushed the slant of light from the tavern’s open door where Essa leaned, a shamble of patched silk and well-worn linen. Cari’s face was nearly flawless; the now crooked line of her nose managed to give her a rakish beauty where the same injury only added to the mess of Essa’s sharper, harder angles. Essa had to wear cosmetics now for anything formal. It was the only way to continue their revolving game of “who’s the Inquisitor?” Tonight, neither of them were, and their faces were their own, Cari’s enhanced by a fine hand and soft palette, Essa’s sculpted by war and fire.

“I didn’t think you would come,” she said as Cari stepped into the light, threaded her arm through the jutting offer of Essa’s elbow.

Cari’s gaze skimmed through firelight and across the main floor. Essa smiled when Krem looked up, dark eyes warming like sherry when he saw them.

“Of course, I came.”

Cari’s fingers were bare; they flexed cool against Essa’s arm. In the lee of the stairs, Maryden’s lute soared from soft ballad to brazen tale and Cari’s feet tapped twice in time to the music. Essa grinned, gave her a little push through the door.

“Go on,” she said, when Cari glanced back over her shoulder. “I’ll be along.”

“They fit.” Cole's arm slid around hers, filling the spot Cari had just left. “She’s happy. He’s happy. Would you like to hear?”

Essa leaned her head against his shoulder. “Another time, yes. Right now...”

His hair was a soft rustle against hers, temple heavy against the top of her head, and he smelled like plums again.

“Right now,” he agreed so softly she almost missed his sigh over the Charger’s cheering when Krem swept Cari in a waltz around the floor. “We are home.”

“Skyhold has been good to us,” Essa agreed, head lolling back against his arm as she gazed up at the scattered stars.

“Not Skyhold,” Cole said simply. “You. You are our home.”

“Boss!!!” The Iron Bull’s shout preceded him and Cole laughed drifting into the tavern before she could reply. “You hiding out there all night? Or are you gonna DRINK?”

He saved her from her tears, and she knew the gesture was deliberate. Bull had been pulling her from the depths of herself for two years now, holding her aloft while she learned to swim on her own. The cheering became a thundering ovation and she grinned, stalking inside amid a crowd of lifted tankards and soaring shouts.

“You ever know me to hide, Bull?” she demanded, hands on her hips, chin jutting out. “I believe most of these louts owe me drinks!”

Rocky brought her the first shot, a very fine whiskey that burned like glory down her throat. Essa lifted stinging eyes to Cabot and the barkeep grinned. “Quality goes down the drunker you get, your worship. Not wasting the good stuff even on you.”

“I love you, Cabot!”

The man grunted, ruddy cheeks brightening in the warm light.

“You’re not that drunk yet, woman,” Cullen’s voice brushed across the back of her neck, a teasing brightness that accompanied a cool, brief kiss as he wrapped her in his arms. “Show some restraint.”

“Not tonight!” Sera bounced around them, pulling Essa away and toward the longest table.

Most of the Chargers were already gathered. Josephine sat at the head of the table, back to the open window, a deck of cards beside a goblet of what Essa new to be a very fine Antivan red.  Varric sat to one side of her, parchment and quill beside his ale.

“Oh, no,” Cullen said, steps dragging as Sera pushed Essa toward her preferred seat. “I’m not—“

Essa snickered. “Come sit by me and keep me upright,” she ordered smiling. “Also, I’m not opposed to running naked through the keep, but Krem’s too distracted to keep up with my money tonight, so keep me in my smalls?”

Cullen dropped down on the bench beside her, cheeks flushed and eyes bright with exasperation. “You do realize...”  His arm was around her waist, hand splaying wide toward her ribs, dragging linen over suddenly sensitive skin. Essa blinked, waited for him to take a swallow from the ale Bull passed him. “...that you’re the most difficult charge I’ve ever had.”

“’Charge’?” Essa was offended, though not enough to be distracted from the press of his fingers. “I most certainly am not.”

“Poor choice of words, Curly.” Varric didn’t look from his work.

“That’s not what I—I almost said subordinate—“

“Excuse you!”

Cullen released her, to cover his face with both hands. “Maker’s breath, it was a bad analogy.”

Essa giggled. “You poor man.” She pulled one hand from his furiously blushing face, dropped a kiss across the back of his knuckles. “I’m teasing you.”

“I know that.” He shook his head, helpless laughter escaping with his sigh. He slipped his other arm back around her. “It’s just going to get worse as the night goes on.”

“But...” She blinked up at him with exaggerated coquettishness. “I’ll also tell you that I love you.”

“Yes,” Cullen conceded wryly. “About every ten minutes, and in between you issuing the same declaration to everyone else in the tavern.”

“I’m not that drunk yet.” She wrinkled her nose at him, leaned in for the kiss she knew he would not refuse her.  “And I do love you. Very much.” She glanced around at the merry gathering of their friends. “More than anyone else here.”

Cullen laughed. “That,” he whispered, cupping her face in his hands, “is because...” He tilted her chin up and Essa blinked in the overhead light, watched the corners of his eyes crinkle, the hitch of his lip, happiness lifting and paling his scar. “Fin isn’t home yet.”

Her scowl was immediate, as was his descent. Cullen kissed away her snarky rejoinder, lips pulled tight, smile pressing against the taunt that lay half-formed on hers. His mouth opened on a sigh, the kiss sliding from playful to serious more quickly than she expected and without care for the hoots and shouts surrounding them.

“Well,” Varric said, laughing. “That’s one way to win an argument.”

“Who said I was arguing?” Essa smirked. Cullen’s fingers brushed gently along her jawline and her breath stuttered. “Not fair,” she muttered, as from across the tavern someone yelled.

“Kiss her again!”

*

Cari was Maker-sent and one day, Cullen would find a way to tell her what it meant to him, not as general or advisor, but as one who loved Essa, to have her back with them. She had assumed the Inquisitor’s diplomatic responsibilities without complaint, shifting her own duties at Clifton so that she could handle as much as possible via courier.  Though, Barris sorely missed her counsel. Cullen couldn’t be certain, but he thought Cari might have plans to settle somewhat permanently at the templar stronghold. For now she seemed content to spare Essa the most egregious of social obligations, and Essa was finally, finally getting the rest she needed. He could not have been more grateful.

“You have that look again,” Cari said, placing a goblet before him.

Cullen glanced up from the map, moved a marker more from habit than out of necessity.

“What look is that?” he asked, lifting the cup with a silent nod of thanks. The wine was bright and thinned with ice, not nearly as sweet as what Leliana kept on hand.

She stopped on the other side of the war table, made a note in the small blank book she carried.

“Like I’m Andraste come back to earth,” she smiled softly. “That should be my sister by all accounts.”

The gentle blasphemy charmed a huff of laughter from him, eased some of the tension he would probably never stop carrying. Cullen rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, left the worries of the moment to meet her open regard.

“I feared for her when first she returned.”

He had admitted as much to no one save Cole, and that was as much for his sake as the kid’s. Cole would have known regardless, and he tried so very hard not to pry. It was easier for both of them if Cullen just talked to him. Then Cole didn’t have to pretend not to know.

“There was something in her eyes.” He paced back and forth on his side of the table. “I thought perhaps she was considering running.”

“Oh, Cullen.” Cari covered her mouth with one hand, fingers just resting over her lips. She shook her head. “She would not have left you.”

Cullen took a breath, let it out slowly. “That was not what I feared.” Essa had been on the run before, an apostate that he might once have been duty bound to hunt. He had wondered once, if he would be able to let her go, he knew now that wherever Essa went, he would go too.

His confession surprised her. Cullen watched her eyes go wide, sparkling with approval.

“As Inquisitor,” she said, lips quirking to betray her even tone. “I can’t condone your abandonment of your duties, general.” She dropped her hand and grinned. “But as her sister, I greatly do.”

“This is better,” he said, smiling back.  

“It is.” She took a sip of her tea. “She’s better.”

“I believe so,” Cullen agreed. “She’s sleeping through the night. Mostly.”

He couldn’t quite stop his smug grin.

That,” Cari giggled, “hardly counts against your rest.” She held up one hand to stop him from replying, not that he would have. She was too used to Sera and Essa, who would have teased her mercilessly for her choice of words. “And I’m going to pretend I don’t know any such thing about the two of you.”

Cullen looked away with a laugh. “Moving on then.”

“Thank you.”

He glanced back down at the map, made a note on a scrap of parchment. There was a mine in the Western Approach that he thought they might relinquish without great losses. Added to the other small concessions, it might go a long way to soothing ruffled Orlesian feathers.

“Might I enquire…?” He let the question hang, trusting Cari’s nimble mind to follow, but leaving his curiosity silent so that she might deflect if she so chose.

Cullen watched from the corner of his eyes as she worried her lip, smile broadening, cheeks brightening beneath artfully applied blush.

“I should have written to you,” she apologized after a moment. “It seems such a simple thing to say thank you, but I wanted to do it in person.” She fidgeted with her empty teacup. “Thank you.” Her stare was earnest as she looked at him. “For what you said in Halamshiral. You were right.” Her gaze drifted to the window that bore the best view of the tavern, and he knew her heart reached even then for Krem. “He…well, ’doesn’t care’ seems the wrong phrase, because we do care about those parts of one another that we worry others might find lacking…that we have found lacking in ourselves. But...” Cari shook her head. “I’m sorry, that’s not what you asked.”

“It is.” Cullen waited for her to turn back to face him. “Though the choice of answer was yours. Thank you for that one. We would see you happy.”

“I am,” she whispered.

The bells spared them her tears, not that Cullen was opposed to them. Just as with Essa each was a precious trust. Cari gave so little of herself to so few; she was still learning that she could rely on those around her.

“What tune is that?” Cullen asked, as the erratic, irreverent toll resounded through the keep. It was not one that he had heard before, though every now and then Josephine tried to teach the campanologist a tune more complicated than their bells could produce.

Cari’s laughter was sudden. “Oh!” she clapped her hands. “Cullen! It’s Fin! That’s the welcome for Fin!”

She was out the door and down the hall when he caught up to her.

“It is terrible,” Josephine complained, rising from her desk as they passed through her office. “I believe the Inquisitor had them use only the loudest, most discordant notes.”

“She wanted it to break her from whatever she might be doing,” Cari explained fondly. “Maker’s breath, it is wretched.”

She caught Cullen’s arm. He wasn’t sure if she wanted to slow herself down or drag him along, but he guessed the former. He set a brisk but stately pace through the hall. Cari was not one to run pell-mell through the keep, even if part of her wanted to.

Essa was another creature entirely. He heard her shriek just as they reached the stairs.

“Fin Larkson!” Her voice echoed off of stone, louder than the dwindling cacophony from the bell tower. “I—“

The quiet was immediate, unnatural. Essa’s words ceased and silence filled the yard, cooler than the fading afternoon. Cullen drew on every shred of discipline he had ever believed himself to possess not to hurry down the stairs to discover the cause. Cari floated on his arm, fingers near weightless against the back of his glove, and he envied her poise, could only hope she didn’t feel the nervous energy that coiled through him. They reached the landing, and for a moment Cullen paused, trying to process the chaotic scene.

“Oh, Cullen...” And this time Cari did not even try to fight the tears that filled her eyes. “He brought them all.”

There were six horses in the lower yard, flanked by a pair of broad-chested mabari. Three women and the second largest man Cullen thought he had ever seen. Fin was the only one who had dismounted and his horse, Boomer, was already wandering toward the stable on his own, nickering to the stablegirl who ran out to meet him. Fin stood beside a proud, grey courser, one arm around Essa’s waist, the other on the restless horse’s reins. Essa had both arms around the mare’s neck, face buried in her dark mane. The mare’s chin was pulled in, tight against Essa’s back. Cullen could see that Essa was crying.

“Cullen,” Cari stumbled on a the stairs and he caught her. “Cullen, that’s Ingrid.”

“Ingrid?” He wasn’t looking at the horse, not enough. The name tickled something in his memory, but not enough.

“Her courser.” Cari’s voice wavered. “The one Father bought her for the Tourney.”

He would have laughed--maybe later he would--that Cari would remember a horse from twelve years past, but Cullen was too busy looking at Ingrid’s rider, waiting for Essa’s heart to catch up to a day that he knew would leave her reeling. The child, a girl of about eleven, stared out at the gathering crowd, green eyes shining from Essa’s face writ small.

“That’s Hope,” he said, when Cari’s grip tightened on his. He could feel her struggling to voice even one of what had to be a dozen questions.  

“Dear, sweet, Maker.” She swayed beside him and Cullen caught her arm, helped her down the last flight of steps. “I suspected there was a child.” She glanced up at him. “You knew.”

“Essa told me.”

“Good.” She nodded sharply, tried to release his arm as they reached the ground. “And Fin.”

Essa had pulled herself from Ingrid’s neck, thrown herself into Fin’s arms. Cullen met his eyes across the now meager distance.

“Yes,” Cullen said. “And Fin.”

The stable hands arrived and in the sudden flurry of activity, Cullen lost sight of new faces. Josephine eased Cari from his arm, and Essa turned, face tearstained and joyous, to help Hope down from Ingrid’s back.

“You are most gratefully met,” Cullen heard Essa say as the child took her hand. “Ingrid loves you so much and she is so happy.”

It was about the most Essa thing she could have said, and the greatest of compliments. Cullen could only wonder if the girl would understand. There was no telling how much of Essa was nature or nurture, no telling again what had passed to her daughter.

“Mum and Da have told me so much about you.” Hope’s voice was as soft as Cari’s and gentle, so incredibly gentle. “Gerald missed you too.”

Cullen had never seen Essa so surprised.

“Gerald?!” She left Hope without a backward glance, pushed through the crowd of guests and eager hands, pausing only to plant an exuberant kiss on the large man’s cheek when he bent to give her a glancing hug.

“I will get to you, Erik.” The threat quavered behind her as Essa made it through to the last horse and rider. A small woman with pointed ears, a dark face, and fiery hair sat upon the black courser. There was grey in his mane and around his eyes. He whinnied shrilly through his nose as Essa approached. “Prin.”

The woman smiled. “Are you going to cry on poor Gerald now?” The horse was already fighting at his bit to reach Essa properly.

“I am.” She reached with shaking hands for the heavily whiskered nose. “I imagine I’ll do the same for the rest of you later. Hope?”

Prin dropped lightly to the ground, gave Essa the courser’s reins.

“She understands,” Prin said. “Not much different than you around the four-legged folk. We’ll wait.”

Which was good, Cullen supposed. Essa’s eyes were only for Gerald, and this, this was a name he knew. Along with a dozen others, it had been inscribed on the back of a pendant he had worn for nearly a year now. He had only recently learned how seriously chevaliers took their pedigrees.

“I didn’t expect...” Essa’s voice was hushed, reverent. “...To ever see you again.”

She reached for him, and Gerald’s head dropped. The courser’s eyes closed, Essa’s too, tears sliding quietly down her cheeks as he pressed his forehead to her chest. A sigh, as deep as ages lost and found, shuddered out of both of them.

“Well.” The quiet greeting was almost familiar, and close to Cullen’s side. “I suppose there’s no point asking if she makes you happy. Ambassador Larkson was right, definitely worth the trip.”

Cullen’s jaw unhinged as he turned to meet a cocky amber stare. Sshe been a child when he saw her last, but there would never be any mistaking the challenge in her eyes. “Rosalie?!”

He nearly missed her grin, nearly missed the catch for that matter, as she launched herself up into his arms.

“Mia too, you ass.”

She thumped him hard on the chest, set his plate near to ringing, and then her arms were tight around his neck, legs kicking the air behind them. Cullen wrapped one arm around her waist, turned just in time to catch their older sister with the other.

“What--?” He couldn’t form words, much less sentences, could only cling to them while a lifetime fell away, rushed around them until he was thirteen again. It did not matter how much time had passed, how they had all grown or changed. “Branson?”

“Alma is about to pop,” Mia reminded him.

“He said to bring your lady and get your ass to South Reach,” Rosie added helpfully, the order muffled in Cullen’s collar. “War’s over big brother.”

Misa pressed a kiss to his cheek. “What is this awful thing you’re wearing?”

*

“I love them, Cullen,” Essa whispered so many hours later as they stared at the sprawl of sleeping bodies strewn about her quarters.

Dawn was just drifting down upon them, and sometime in the pearling hour, everyone who had not yet gone to their own rooms, had surrendered to sleep. Rosalie and Mia were tucked onto one of the long couches along the banister, Fin scrunched into two shoved-together armchairs beside them. He and Rosalie had fallen asleep arguing over horseshoes. Mid debate! It had been one of the funniest things Essa had ever seen. Cari and Krem were on the other couch; Sera was sleeping up in the loft, legs hanging half over the ladder. Prin and Erik were content on their bedrolls by the fire, but then, they had always moved around, preferring to wander. She would get them and Hope proper rooms tomorrow, but as the long, glad night finally yielded to a new day, the only ones who seemed to be going anywhere were Essa and Cullen.

“I love them all so much,” she said again, wrapping her arms around one of his and hugging herself to him. “But I cannot sleep in here with all these people.”

Vivienne had left around midnight. Dorian not long after, claiming he needed his beauty sleep, as if he weren’t the prettiest one there. Cassandra, Leliana, and Josephine had taken their leave a few hours before dawn. The Iron Bull was sprawled across Essa’s bed, Hope’s mabari, Greta—Essa couldn’t help but smile every time she looked at her—curled at his feet. The bitch had taken to him immediately, as had Hope. The girl was tucked into what spare room she could find at the head of the mattress, pillow over her face, one foot hanging off the side of the bed. She was snuggling Essa’s stuffed pony.

“Stable or loft?” Cullen asked, only to be answered by a plaintive whine. “Oh, Maker’s breath, Dire can’t climb the ladder.”

Essa smothered a giggle behind her hand. Dire was Greta’s son, the only pup remaining from her last litter. All the others had found their people, left home before they were a year old, but Dire stayed. Prin and Erik thought he had bonded with Hope, but she insisted he was for someone else.

“You wanted a dog,” Essa reminded quietly, watching as he reached down to ruffle Dire’s dark ears.

You wanted a dog,” he hissed back, grin breaking his pretense of scowl. “I’m not entirely certain he isn’t yours anyway.”

Essa snorted, motioning him—and Dire too—toward the stairs. “He is not mine,” she said, stepping over Cole. “But yes, he loves me too. Already.”

Dire huffed happily as he hopped over Cole and trotted beside them, ducking his head beneath Essa’s hand, sneaking a lick at her fingers. Maker, forgive her, but having been so long without dogs, Essa had already pledged herself to him forever. Her heart was so full she could barely keep her feet on the ground, what with Gerald and Ingrid in the stable with Geri, Cacique, and Folly and her quarters full of nearly everyone she had ever loved.

“Tower,” Essa decided. Her eyes were gritty, and the world was too real, too cool on not quite there edges, as they made their way down the stairs. She didn’t know how long the others would sleep, but they could fend for themselves she thought on a wide, jaw-cracking yawn. She wanted out of her clothes and into bed, with Cullen’s arms around her. She sure as the Void wasn’t going to make him sleep in the barn.

“By the Mabri, Cullen, you’re going to get what, an hour of sleep?”

He chuckled. “Given the night, I will take four,” he promised. “I believe Skyhold will survive the morning.”

Essa eyed him skeptically.

“I know that If I don’t, you and the dog will just try to sleep in a corner of the office while I work.”

“Look at you.” She leaned into him, nearly fell over as they walked. “Learning.”

“It has been known to happen,” Cullen deadpanned. “We’ll throw you a blanket for this morning,” he added to Dire. “And find you something better if we can’t get back in here tonight.”

He was as tired as she was, maybe more so. Essa had been mostly expecting her guests, though she supposed Ingrid and Gerald had been as much surprise to her as Mia and Rosalie had been to him. Still, horses were easier to talk to, and she had caught up with her friends in the space of an hour, left them contentedly munching hay under Dennet’s fastidious care. Mia and Rosalie were something else entirely, and Essa could only imagine the tide of emotions Cullen must still be swimming in.

“They’re wonderful.” She took his hand as they stole, inelegant as foals, through the slowly waking keep.

“Who?”

“Rosie and Mia.” Essa bumped his shoulder with her head. “Mia wants to know my intentions toward you, but she’s too polite to ask.”

Cullen laughed. “She reminds me a bit of Cari,” he mused. “I didn’t expect her to grow into such a lady. Truth be told, she was a bit of shrew when we were younger.”

“She was not,” Essa chortled in disbelief. Everything was funnier than it should have been, had been for at least the past two hours.

“You wait,” Cullen warned. “Get her in a temper and she’ll box your ears. She pinched me when she arrived. Managed to get right beneath my armor.” He sounded so indignant that Essa had to bite her lip to keep from laughing. “I’m sure I have a bruise.”

“I’m sure you don’t.” Mia wasn’t as quiet as Cari, but she was right and proper.  Sera would back her up. Essa tripped over her laughter as they stepped out onto the walk. “And Rosie…Cullen. Rosie knows my people.”

Rosalie had been as at home in the stable as she was the hall for dinner. Dennet had even told her she was welcome any time. All but ordered Essa to take her to the valley tomorrow. Today. Whenever.

“She does,” Cullen agreed, nodding to the guard outside his office. “And some you’ve not met, I’m sure. She had a falcon when she was a child. Coaxed it right out of the sky.”

“Oh.” Essa stared up at the watercolors above them, watched the sun peak the jagged spine of the mountains. “I would love that.”

They stepped into the comparative dark of his office and Cullen gestured toward the room with one hand.

“Go ahead. May as well learn your way around.”

Dire’s tongue lolled as he padded a quick circuit around the room. Essa’s teeth felt too big for her face. She covered her mouth, could only smile dumbly up at Cullen.

“Should I feel guilty for being this happy?” she asked, words quiet behind her fingers.

Dire’s growl twined with Cullen’s negation. “No. You shouldn’t.” He reached up, ran one hand through his disheveled hair. “We shouldn’t.”

“Then we won’t,” Essa decided, casting her worries away before they could settle any heavier amid the guilt he would always somewhat carry.

Cullen sighed. “I left my armor in your quarters.”

“Too late to be worrying about rumors now, General.” Essa waggled her brows at him until he grinned.

“I was—“ Cullen laughed. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It really doesn’t.” She stepped close, tucked her cheek against the worn leather of his gambeson. “You smell good. Have I told you that? All of my favorite colors.”

“You hadn’t.” He murmured a kiss into her hair. “But so do you.  Clean dirt, hay, and sunshine.”

“Smoke?” she asked, on a yawn.

“Only when you’re fighting,” he replied. “Marry me, Essa.”

“What?” His heart was thundering beneath her cheek, but Essa found she was the one too afraid to move.

“I mean—Will you?” Cullen sighed, hands sliding down her arms as if he might draw her away. Essa held on. “I had a plan,” he continued. “And…”

Dire whined.

“There wasn’t a dog.” His voice was layered with exasperation and hesitant, hopeful laughter. “But you were—it doesn’t matter.”

He finally succeeded in putting enough space between them that he could look down into her face. Dawn broke full and bright through the narrow windows, cast the stone around them in a golden hush of expectation. Essa closed her gaping mouth with a click, eyes wide as she met his gaze.

“I’ve thought of little else,” Cullen told her earnestly. “And I don’t need a plan. Only to know if you would…”

She caught his exhale on a gasp, kissed him breathless again before she remembered to answer.

“I would.” Essa wrapped her arms around his neck, sent them teetering across the room in a graceless dance.  “Cullen, I will.”

He caught their balance on the edge of his desk, held the press of her body with the long line of his, and took her face in both hands. “You will.”

There was no doubt in the words, no question, and Essa nodded, uncaring that she was crying—again—or that her magic glowed gently, warm and content as hearthfire, just beneath her skin.

“I will,” she said, again. Kissed him, again. Told him “I love you” again. Because she could, because it was forever.

Dire barked happily.

Chapter Text

Hope stood with one hand on the mabari’s head, wide, unassuming smile stretching a face that looked so much like Essa and Cari that Cullen couldn’t help blinking. There were freckles across her nose, and her eyes were green–like her birth-father’s had been–deep and shadowed like oak leaves beneath a summer sky. Her gaze, however, was as open and direct as both her mothers’, if slightly less challenging. There was only welcome in the girl’s stance and he wondered what she knew of him, what she saw when she lifted her chin and tipped her head to one side in a gesture so like Essa.

The mabari beside her was mass of scars and brindle whorls. Cullen wasn’t certain how old the dog was, but he had been hurt once. Perhaps a lifetime ago, he thought, as the hound seemed not to carry those ghosts beyond the marks on his body.

“I’m Hope.” She offered the hand not idly scratching the dog’s ears.

Cullen took it, knew that he shouldn’t have been surprised by the strength in her grasp or the calluses already forming on the insides of her fingers.

“This is Dire.”

He hid a smile. It made sense, he thought. Though long passed through the Fade, Diarmont Stanhope was still a part of the lives of those who had loved him, and would always be.

“It is a pleasure to meet you both.”

Hope released his hand, nudged his fingers toward the mabari who sniffed Cullen once, then nodded.

“We’re here to adopt you,” Hope informed him.

Cullen came awake slowly, and the dream—just one of so many memories from the day before—slowly released him. There was a warm, solid weight upon his knee, and a piece of parchment stuck to his cheek. The sun was almost too bright, a late-morning slant through his office windows and through the room above. He could hear Essa snoring. She had been sprawled naked mostly on the bed when he dragged himself down to his work. Too early, she had muttered and if he hadn’t agreed with her then he did now. Cullen couldn’t remember the last time he had fallen asleep at his desk, but it certainly hadn’t been when the sun was still up.

“How long?” He straightened, rubbing tension from the back of his neck with one hand.

Dire huffed a loud sigh against his leg, and Cullen reached to rub his sharp ears absently. The dog was not going to tell him how long he had been asleep on Rylen’s report. Cullen wasn’t certain why he had asked, only that he hadn’t felt as if they were alone.

“About an hour,” a clear, quiet voice said from the door. “I’m sorry to startle you.”

She hadn’t though, and that was the thing. Hope Graystone possessed her mother’s quiet stance—Prin, not Essa. The healer who walked nearly as softly as her husband.

“You’ve been watching me sleep?” Cullen rubbed one hand over his face, righted himself along with his desk while she regarded him impassively through the dusky light.

“No, I borrowed some of your quiet.” Hope uncoiled from the corner by the door, stretching tall on her toes, broad inhale turning into a yawn. “I would have asked, but you were both asleep when I came in. Dire didn’t see fit to run me out.”

She smiled slightly then, a little apology she wouldn’t make. Whatever guard dog the mabari turned out to be, none of them expected that he would ever turn Hope away.

“You’re curious about her." Cullen glanced toward the ladder. It made sense enough that she would come looking for her.

Hope shrugged, reached up to pull her hair free from its now disheveled braid.

“She’s what I expected,” she said, holding the leather tie in her teeth while she reworked her long, black waves into some kind of order. “Happier, which is good.”

She mumbled this last around the tie, studying him while her fingers worked, swift and graceful, over her hair. “You’re not.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Don’t be.” She finished her braid, tossed it back over her shoulder. Her green eyes were wide, but he had been wrong yesterday, they were not quite as guileless as Essa’s. Hope had been raised around people, she watched them for different tells than Essa did. “I like you.”

Cullen wasn’t certain what surprised him more, that she spoke the words so easily or how relieved he was to hear them. “You’re not as angry as I was expecting,” Hope continued. “Dire won’t have as much work to do.”

“I’m not—“ For a moment, he floundered. “What?”

The dog pressed harder against him, made a soft sound, something between a plea for attention and reassurance. Hope grinned, but didn’t spare him. She was more like Essa than he realized.

“As much work?” Cullen finally managed.

“He’s a warrior too.”

It sounded like the answer to another question he hadn’t had time to ask. When Cullen first saw Dire, he had thought the dog old, only later learned he was just a year old. He had not yet asked about his scars.

Cullen took Hope’s lead. “What happened?”

“Barn fire.” Something darkened her gaze. “He pulled me out.”

She reached for the collar of her tunic, moved the white linen aside to reveal brown skin stretched tight and shining with burn scars. Her birth father’s medallion shone silver bright in the hollow of her throat. Hope caught the pendant with one finger tip, flipped it so that Gerald’s name was against her skin.

“Fin says you kept it from hurting her. Thank you.”

It surprised him how protective Hope seemed to be of the mother she barely knew.

“How bad?” he asked, because he could, because Hope was as frank and practical as any war veteran. He reached for his now cold tea, tossed it back with a bracing gulp.

She shrugged. “Bad enough I’m glad mum’s the best healer in Ferelden. Also that I’m not as vain as they say Diarmont was. At least my face healed clean.”

“Fair enough,” Cullen smiled. “And you’re welcome. Not what you expected or not happier?”

He had learned with Nadie that children did not always follow linear conversations. Essa either for that matter. He was a little proud when her eyes narrowed and she realized he hadn’t missed her comment from moments ago.

“Not what I expected,” she answered frankly. “You’re prettier.”

Hope walked toward his desk, lips quirking up in a grin. “And you’re kinder. I thought you’d be gruff, a lot of bluster to get past. Haven’t really met a templar I liked yet.”

“Former templar,” Cullen corrected without heat. It had been a while since he’d had to, and he found the words came to his lips with less resentment than they once had.

Hope nodded, reached for Dire’s head, gave him a scratch.

“He’ll wake you from nightmares,” she told Cullen. “Remind you of things you might forget, candles burning, food cooking. A bit serious about fire not being left unattended.”

“Can’t blame him for that,” Cullen murmured, working his fingers between his leg and the mabari’s chin and scratching hard. Dire’s whole body wagged.

“Mum and I think he’ll help with headaches too.”

He couldn’t help the skeptical look on his face.

“You wanna wager on it?” Hope demanded.

The precocious child sounded so immediately her age that Cullen laughed.

“No." He shook his head. “I’ve learned not to bet against your—“ He frowned suddenly. “What do you call Essa?”

“Birth mother” seemed too unwieldy for Hope’s brisk nature.

“Mum always calls her my mother. My friend Ava has two, so I never thought much of it.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Do you think she’ll mind? I mean, I’m still going to call her by her name, but…” She stopped, stared at the floor in consternation. “I hadn’t thought about it.” She nodded suddenly, more to herself than to him. “But I will. Thank you, Cullen.”

Hope patted Dire’s head, started toward one of the doors. “Mia’s coming,” she warned just before Dire’s gaze settled on the central entrance. “Good luck.”

“Do I need it?” Cullen asked. But she had already slipped out of the office and onto the battlements.

*

The sun is setting, but it has not yet dropped back behind the trees. The lake clings to a painter’s sky, surface as smooth as glass. She is both in bed, body still warm and languorous, and standing at the end of the dock. They had made love, quickly and clumsily, too tired for much else but determined, and she can smell him on her skin, the faint musk, salty on air scented with pine and water. She hears the dog’s toenails on the gently swaying cypress, and doesn’t bother to look to see which mabari has come to her. She would know Greta’s steps anywhere. A child does not forget her mother.

“It’s really you then,” she says when booted steps follow the mabari.

Essa waits without turning, afraid to look, afraid to see if her memory has been faithful all these years.

“Would you believe any answer I gave?”                              

“Now?” she asks. It is because of Cole that Essa trusts this is not yet another demon testing them. “I think I might.”

Diar laughs, and it is nearly Essa’s laugh. The bright, open melody that she taught herself in his absence. It is being sung by another voice, a better voice, its rightful voice,  but the full throated, unabashed mirth, the rise and fall of breath and joy…it is so nearly the same that she can only be grateful.

Nightmare missed that in its torments, as had Essa’s Rage.

“It’s really me.”

She turns to him then, clutches the sheet that she’s wrapped around her body. She could have worn anything in the Fade, but here she stands in white, linen and skin still scented with another.

“You’re still too pretty for me.”

He isn’t pretty; he is beautiful. The demons who had worn his form had never quite grasped the reality of his charisma, the punch of his gaze, the laughter that never seems to leave his eyes and lips for long. This is no pale specter. He is alive, green eyes shining dark as oak leaves, black hair burnished with rainbows in the falling sunlight, and Essa could be twenty-one again, breath trapped behind a sigh she’s too stubborn to release.

“I am.” Diar smiles. “And you’re still too good for me.”

“I might have been.” She can’t bring herself to reach for him yet, and she certainly can’t reach the young woman she had been. “Not anymore.”

“Now, more than ever,” he demurs. “Not that I care.”

She grins. He hadn’t cared a lifetime ago either. If she’s fool enough to want me, then I’m smart enough to have her.

“You’ve really been with me all along?”

“I have.” He makes no move toward her, but he reaches, holds his hand out to her unhurriedly, nothing to belie his impatience

“You never—?“ Would she have known? she wonders. If he had appeared before her as he was now, so perfectly himself.

“I couldn’t." His lips quirk in a sad smile. “Not until after you defeated your demons. They wore me too well. You would not have believed me.”

It’s likely true, and there is nothing to be done for it. She can’t decide if she’s relieved at the turn of years or angry. Would it have done her harm or good to have held him, truly held him in her dreams?

“So now, what?” She can’t help scowling at his outstretched hand, at the grin that breaks like sunlight against the mountains, immediate, near blinding. Brightest before its descent. “You’ve come to tell me goodbye, pass me off to Cullen?”

Diar glares at her, but doesn’t take back his hand.

“No, I came to tell you congratulations, you quarrelsome woman.”

He moves then, fast enough to be alarming, not that she is. She still remembers the way he moved, going from stillness to striking quick as a courser’s kick. Diar catches her in his arms, her own trapped beneath her sheet as he draws her close. When he tucks her head beneath his chin, Essa leans into him with a sigh.

“Have you seen her?” she asks.

“She’s perfect.” His breath stirs her hair, and his hands are busy, soothing slowly up and down the line of her spine, as much for his own comfort as hers, she thinks. “The best of both of us, and none of the bad. I think she has Erik’s soft heart though, Prin’s had her hands full with those two.”

Essa snickers. “She’s theirs, you know.”

“I know.” She draws away a little, and he presses a kiss her forehead. “But there’s room for you too. Always has been. She’s a Graystone. We’ve always room for a reliable sword, a stalwart shield, or a good healer.”

“I’m some of those,” Essa murmurs into his shoulder.

“And so is Cullen,” Diar returns. He kisses her again. This time on her cheek. “He’s good people, Es. Not that you need me to tell you.”

“I don’t,” she agrees. She leans up on her toes, brushes her lips over his. “I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you.”

The kiss is tender. Her bottom lip is already trembling with goodbye when he catches it between his, and pulls her closer. Theirs isn’t a world where he can stay, and she probably wouldn’t survive if it was. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever understand how he’s remained this long. Cole has said it’s something unusual, almost unheard of for a soul to linger so long and still be itself.

“This a shitty wedding gift, Diarmont Stanhope.”

He laughs into her mouth, kisses her hard once, before setting her away from him.

“It isn’t. Though it’s not quite goodbye. Now that you’re alright, I’m going to haunt Gerald until he’s ready to go.”

“Diarmont Stanhope!” Her hands are on her hips now and he’s laughing before she stomps her foot at him. “If you take that horse from me...”

“Not soon,” he assures her. “And not without saying goodbye.”

“You promise?” It is a question she’s been too afraid to ask.

“I promise.” He gives her a little push back toward her bed. Back toward her life. “No farewells yet, Es. Just beginnings.”

She looks back and he’s standing on the end of the dock, Greta at his side. “Continue yours,” he orders.

Essa’s cheeks were wet when she fought herself awake. The sheets were tangled around her arms and legs and for a moment she panicked, too constricted, too caged. Her breath was tight in her chest, limbs still heavy from the Fade, and no matter how much she loved him, she knew she did not belong there with Diar.

“Fuck me,” she rubbed her eyes, cast her tears away to the morning, and listened for sounds of activity from the office below.

The tower was still quiet. She could only assume he had kept everyone out while she slept.

“Cullen?” she called, nerves still shivering his name.

“Es?”

“Talked to the dead husband, we’re clear for nuptials.” When all else failed, Essa resorted to humor. She could only trust he would understand, but she was unprepared for the depth of his laughter. The sound was light, an unexpected explosion, full-chested and unrestrained.

“Maker’s breath, woman!” He barely managed the admonishment between guffaws, and while Essa had heard him laugh before, it had never been quite like this.

“What he means is,” a not yet familiar voice said flatly from the bottom of the ladder. “’talked to the older sister, we don’t have to elope’.”

“Mia!” Cullen’s voice went high with indignation and Essa could only laugh helplessly.

“You know you were going to marry her no matter what I said,” Cullen’s sister retorted.

“I was,” he agreed.

“And you?” Mia called up.

“Maker himself wouldn’t have stopped me,” Essa admitted. “But the support is appreciated.”

“Good,” Mia said as if that settled everything. “I won’t ask about the dead husband.”         

“Good,” Essa replied.

“I’m going to,” Cullen called.

“Also good.” Essa stared up into sky. The wind was chasing bright clouds to fine wisps. Soon the day would be clear. “We really doing this, Rutherford?”

“Name the day, Trevelyan.”

She grinned.

“Tomorrow soon enough for you?” She covered her mouth with one hand to trap her giggles. She could only imagine the look of shock on his face.

“May as well.” His voice was pitched up to carry, but unwavering. “You’ll be dressed up anyway.”

“Who says I’m dressing up?” Essa shouted.

“Josephine will make you.”

“Ha!” Mia snorted. “You two deserve each other.”

Essa heard the door closest to the ladder open and close. When Cullen spoke again, his voice was near, just beneath the ladder.

“I believe we do.”

*

Essa stood on the edge of the blooming garden, draped in a storm and flame. Full skirts brushed the ground, layers of chiffon shifting violet and grey over a cold, ink blue. The bodice was sheer, the same cloud grey as the uppermost layer of her skirt. Crystals sparkled, strategically placed in some artful pretense of modesty, a glitter rainbow fire the golden afternoon. They covered her breasts, left glimpses of dark, scarred skin to tease behind sheer silk and cast fragments of light on the stone around her, across the dark petals of flower and twists of vine. Her hair was wild riot, caught back from her face in a crown of crystal grace, embrium, and snowdrops. The first delicate pink roses of the summer, nestled in among the heavier blooms, and all were bound with the sweet green leaves of arbor’s blessing. The scarf he had given her last spring, a fragile bit of wishes and starlight, was pinned carefully to the back of the wreath, it hung behind her shoulders, managed to emphasize rather than obscure the long line of her bare spine. The gown was the only memento she had kept from their time at the Winter Palace, and she had been wearing the dress the first time they danced together, an impromptu waltz across her quarters.

It was, she insisted, perfect for a wedding they had given no notice for. Cullen couldn’t help but agree.

“Oh,” someone sighed. “She’s beautiful.”

A single day to prepare. Josephine had nearly wept, but Skyhold’s garden had seemed to burst full overnight, as if the Maker himself had called forth the sleeping flowers to commemorate Summerday. Theirs was not the first, nor the last wedding of the holiday, but perhaps the quietest. A poorly kept secret for the sake of waning politics. Such subterfuge would not be necessary for long, and it was worth not waiting.

“Look at her,” someone else whispered.

As if Cullen was looking at anyone else. The day was theirs, filled near to excess by their loved ones. Cari, Prin, and Hope had twisted Essa’s crown together themselves, and after a far too brief discussion, Sera and Rosalie had made a matching one for Cullen’s brow. He was still pretending to mind, and Sera was still pretending to believe him, standing beside him with something that might have resembled decorum, in a yellow dress no one would have guessed she owned.

“She’s stunning.”

The awe was to be expected, he knew. Josephine, Leliana, and even Cassandra had been caught up in the romance, but the murmurs were laughable, and Cullen steadfastly avoided Sera’s sarcastic face as each hushed adoration fell to the next.

“Have you ever seen her more beautiful?”

He nearly laughed at that. Yes, he had seen her more beautiful, and he would again. Though if pressed Cullen did not believe he could narrow down every occurrence of her smile, every breathless soaring of her laughter, face lifted to sunlight or bathed in the moons’ glow. Nor could he ever hope to choose between them. At best there were countless favorite moments when she became a fixed point in the whirl of their lives, when the noise receded and even the loudest of his demons fell silent, burned to nothing by the sheer force of her.

There was Essa, wearing nothing but his surcoat, templar red and starlight, damp skin caressed by shadow and flame. He had not known then what she would be to him—this self-proclaimed apostate, reluctant Herald, more reluctant Inquisitor—but he after that night, he had known again what it was to dream, to dare to hope, for the first time in too long.

There was Essa victorious, whether against bears or thieves, or some greater foe. Eyes silver bright and sharp as a blade, righteous fury dimming into a smile exultant, hands and armor covered in the blood of her enemies.  

Essa, hands and gaze soft as moonlight and clothed in nothing more, spilling secrets into the night, wild and fanciful musings—did you ever wonder what lies at the bottom of the Waking Sea?—mind working, always working, their bodies falling toward that indulgent silliness that Cullen had forgotten could precede slumber.

There was the perfection of every first, stare shocked wide when he finally kissed her, wind carrying her gasp out over the mountains, her sigh of satisfaction too. The first time she called him from his past, gave him her own. Their first fight, their first dance. A hundred first touches before they finally made love, fully and completely together, worries and old fears, nightmares and demons falling before the might of what they had found with each other.

Yes, he had seen her more beautiful, but today was another first, and precious.

The music was soft, a tune he didn’t know, but imagined had been picked with care, and later, much later, he would ask Madame de Fer its name. Vivienne had surprised them all with the offer of her lute, freeing Fin from the responsibility as the only known musician in Essa’s inner circle. Now the blacksmith stood beside her, his scowl matching hers as they continued an argument they’d been having since the day before.

“I’m not giving you away,” Fin hissed, following her down the garden path. The flagstones were strewn with flowers, and Fin paused in his ire to kick the thorny stem of a rose from beneath the falling step of Essa’s bare foot.

“Of course you aren’t,” Essa griped back, without any regard for the supposed solemnity of the occasion. “That’s an absolutely preposterous tradition. Right up there with the bride and groom asking permission from the other’s family.”

Their friends were gathered below the gazebo. The garden benches was filled with  stools and chairs swiped from the tavern scattered amid barrels of dawn lotus.

“Absolutely barbaric,” Essa continued, while Cullen fought back what he knew was the most ridiculous grin.

They had tried to dress him in his uniform, but Dorian--thank the Maker--had nothing of it. The boots and trousers were fine, but the red, he had insisted, would simply not do. Now Cullen stood before them as much himself as he could in a borrowed jacket, but white suited the black and the day, so except for a slight pinch in the shoulders, he had no complaints.

“I wouldn’t have given permission anyway,” Fin complained, and Essa gasped, mock outrage rounding her eyes and lips.

Cullen heard Josephine’s broken sigh, watched Cari reach out to pat her in pained commiseration. There was a smile on her lips; none of them had expected a stately procession.

“Fin Larkson! I do not belong to you.”

She didn’t mean it, of course, but Fin’s blue eyes narrowed, snapped toward the gazebo as Sera dissolved into giggles.

“You do too.” Essa stomped one foot, snagging her toes in her skirt. Fin caught her elbow while she kicked at the long fall of silk. “And I belong to you, so it’s you or Geri—“

The horse in question was grazing not too far away, sneaking bites of elfroot when Master Dennet wasn’t looking. Cacique stood beside Rosalie, too proud to misbehave at what the warhorse had obviously decided was a Solemn Event. Cullen had to figure out how to break it to him, Josephine, Cari, and Mia. Nothing about their wedding was solemn or stately. Not when the bride was half-mabari, and her best friends were horses. There were five in attendance, and two as much for Cullen as Essa. Cullen smiled. This, he thought, shaking his head in disbelief. This was his life, and no one would have imagined it for him.

Maybe that was why it was so blighted perfect.

”Would you just walk me down the aisle so that I don’t trip over this damned dress again?” Essa harried poor Fin.

“Language,” Cari muttered, leaning past Krem to swat at Essa as she passed. “There are children present.”

Hope sat on the other side of her aunt, her parents and mabari just beyond her.  Essa stuck her tongue out at Cari and Hope giggled.

“Fine,” Cari said, with a little hmph. She pointed back the way Essa had come. “You two can go back and try again.”

The music stopped abruptly, and all whispers and snickers ceased.

“Excellent idea, Lady Trevelyan.” Vivienne looked surprised that she hadn’t thought of it, and Essa’s grin darted back and forth between the enchanter and her sister. “Do we have a second?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Bull said quickly, earning a glare from the disgruntled bride. “Go back, boss, less talking, more walking with the silk and the hips.”

Krem held out one hand and Bull obligingly slapped a coin into his palm. “Figured you were waiting,” he muttered.

“It’s a nice dress,” Krem absolved him.

“Yeah, it is,” Cullen said in such a perfect imitation of Sera that he barely caught her before she fell.

“Not you too,” Sera howled. “Cassandra was bad enough!”

Dorian’s sigh was longsuffering. He leaned toward Mia. “My apologies, dear lady, but I’m afraid this is the best we can expect from these ruffians. Despite my best influences, they have irrevocably corrupted your brother.”

“Here, here,” Varric added helpfully. “I have reams of parchment if you need proof.”

There was laughter in the garden, it spun brighter than sunlight and bolder, and as enduring. Essa and Fin stomped back to the head of the path, and when she turned back to face them, it was with a flourish. Her eyes found Cullen’s across the gathering of their friends and family and Cullen grinned, mouthed I love you. She flicked a quick glance to his sisters. Mia was still getting used to the improbable creature that she was, but Cullen thought Essa might already be growing on her. She will love you too.

“Shall we try this again?” Mother Giselle asked, a pained expression hiding behind her usual placidity. She didn’t for an answer, simply nodded to Vivienne.

The music began again, but Essa had not yet settled, she looked around, eyes narrowing.

“Wait, where’s Cole?”

“Here,” Blackwall’s—Thom, Cullen reminded himself—voice echoed low from the colonnade and Essa gasped, cheeks flushing with gladness as she turned toward him.

“You said you weren’t coming.” It had been the only pall on an otherwise joyous day, and both he and Essa had tried to convince the man to join them.

“He was wrong,” Cole offered from beside Thom.

“I was.”

Essa left Fin’s side to hug them both and Cullen knew there were tears shining in her eyes. She would be mad about that later. Maybe. She had cried a lot these past weeks, every drop one of joy, enough, she had wondered to him that morning, to maybe drown all those she had ever shed in sorrow. She would worry later about her fortune running out, but today there was no room for fear.

She planted a kiss on Thom’s cheek.

“Go on before you have me blubbering.”

She pushed them both toward the other guests and they went, Cole smiling softly, Thom with a thunderstruck expression on his face that Cullen could only meet with sympathy. Forgiveness of sorts came easily to Essa, and neither of them had expected such a gift, would probably never feel worthy of such a miracle.

“Today,” Mother Giselle intoned with admirable dignity given the gathering of dogs, horses, and delinquents they had thrust her before. “We gather to witness the bonding of this man, Cullen Stanton Rutherford, and this woman, Ester Donya Trevelyan.”

Today, Cullen thought. The word returned to him his own fervent declarations. A letter written over a year ago, one that he and Essa would forever hold as proof of his daring. Words that still bore truth, and some that did not.

Each day is only today. He had told her. One after the other without thought for the next beyond what time means to a moving army. For myself, there is only ever today.

Essa reached him without incident, made a point to stand Fin firmly in place beside her before she turned to Cullen, stunning him utterly by whispering his words back to him.

Today, for the moment, I am content with who I am,” she smiled, reached up with gentle fingers to close his gaping mouth.

“And that.” Cullen swallowed, took a breath before continuing. “Is a rare and precious feeling.”

Essa nodded, hands finding his and clinging.

“Just now…” His hands were shaking, but she threaded her fingers between his, held on tighter still, gave him a smile for courage. Maker’s breath this was ridiculous. He had never been more certain of anything in his life. “Everything feels like it was worth fighting for.”

“It was,” she nodded again, frowned a bit at the repeated motion.

Cullen smiled. “This is…”

Everything. How did he tell her? How could he ever tell her how impossible she was? How much she had brought to his life.

“This,” Mother Giselle said gently. “Is the part where you make a promise.”

I cannot make you promises, Cullen had written to her a lifetime ago.  And if I were so foolish, I do not believe that you would accept them. Promises are for those with futures. I don’t know what the future holds. For either of us.

He still didn’t, but that no longer mattered. Whatever the future brought, they would face it together. Today was no longer all that he had to give her. Countless tomorrows stretched before them, filled with yet unimagined potential.  He knew it wouldn’t always be easy, there would be days when their stubbornness and their pasts aligned just wrong, but they would battle those together. Good and bad, his tomorrows were hers.

Mother Giselle nodded subtly to Essa, and Cullen realized he had been staring, tongue stuck firmly to the back of his teeth.

“Oh, right,” he cleared his throat and she grinned at him, brazen and true. “I swear unto the Maker and to Holy Andraste to love this woman for the rest of my days.”

He was smiling at her again, or maybe still. Time stretched, slowed, and only her fingers, tangling just shy of pain with his, kept Cullen grounded. His voice caught, words failing him utterly as the day caught up to him. He had thought himself a broken man just three years ago, and now here he stood, still striving, still learning, and marrying his love on a joyous Summerday.

“Are you sure?” Essa whispered, surprising him from his contemplation. She gave him laughter, soothed his jagged nerves with unfailing strength. “I’m never going to be more than a woeful apostate.”

Mother Giselle’s brows drew down in faint disapproval and Essa continued in a loud, irreverent whisper. “You know, I’d nearly forgotten. Mages aren’t supposed to marry. Should we--?”

“Arrows,” Sera offered, the threat mild, but one Cullen didn’t doubt.

“We are working on that,” Leliana added.

Mother Giselle threw her hands up in exasperation, and Cullen chuckled softly. He would ponder his unlikely fortune later, for now, this was enough. So much more than enough.

“Besides.” He rallied behind Essa’s smile. “You are a terrible mage.”

She threw back her head, laughter shaking the delicate bells of crystal grace that hung over her brow. She rose up on her toes, pulled him down until her lips were a wish from his. Her breath was warm, her own promises yet waiting to be spoken.

“No matter what I am,” Essa murmured. “I am yours. Today is yours.” She gave him his words again, added her own. “And tomorrow.

“My every tomorrow,” he confirmed. “As long as you wish.”

“Take that, Chantry,” Sera crowed, and Essa kissed him, lips sliding quickly and clumsily against his smile.

“Just kiss her properly, General,” Mother Giselle sighed. “Before further blasphemies slip past someone’s lips.”

The sun was soft upon the mountains, and the garden spun gold. The liquid notes of Vivienne’s lute faded behind the boisterous shouts of their friends as Cullen released Essa’s hands, and tugged her into his arms. Her hands threaded up into his hair, fingertips urging him forward, as she pulled herself up against him. She was warm and solid, and Andraste preserve her, there was a smudge of dirt, just beneath her chin. Josephine would kill her, Cullen thought, watching as her eyes spun silver bright at his smile, so full of love he thought he would drown in her.

“I love you.” Cullen bent his head to hers, lips close enough that he could breathe in the warmth of her. A whisper, a taunt. A promise.

“I love you.” Her grin was fleeting, edged in mischief, and he had no idea what she was going to say, only that it would certainly earn the ire of Mother Giselle, possibly their sisters.

And so Cullen kissed her--properly--while their friends and families cheered. The wind swept, warm and clean, through the mountains, ruffling her dress against his legs, and filling the air with the sweet tumult of flowers and horse and hay. Essa was not, he knew, his redemption, nor was he hers, but with her at his side, Cullen was no longer afraid of what absolution the Maker might grant him. His lips moved over hers slow and earnest, promises whispered as silent prayers, reverence pressed against the blasphemies that curved her smile towards the heavens.