After three weeks at sea, the Antivan merchant schooner Asha finally moored into the newly rebuilt docks of Kirkwall.
The quay had few vacancies: row after row of anchored ships and sailboats crowded the piers, bobbing against the gentle waves.
It was a fine morning to arrive at the City of Chains. The warm air was moist, heavy with the smell of wet rope and seagull droppings.
Still a shithole, but a slightly cleaner shithole at least.
Dorian wrinkled his nose when a sailor rushed past him pushing a wheelbarrow full of rotting fish. The sharp, damp scent was repugnant to him, yet a secret warmth arose within at the memory of a man with dark, quiet eyes.
Though sieged with barren emptiness by the amulets' magic, Trevelyan had shared with him a part of himself when he little left to give. He watched over Dorian, guarded him from harm, even long before he truly knew him.
It seemed like another lifetime, now.
In the distance, the outline of the Sundermount peak stood out clearly against the brilliant blue of the cloudless sky.
Courtesy of the ever-gracious Lady Josephine, Dorian had hitched a lift with the House Montilyet fleet departing from Minrathous, before transferring aboard one of the Kirkwall-bound ships at Antiva City.
The three-masted galleon had sailed through the calm waters of the Waking Sea, its hull full of the world’s finest coffee beans, rum, and sugar, as Dorian spent most of his time inside his private cabin, trying not to be overcome by nausea.
The nightly conversations with Trevelyan via the sending crystal helped some, but he could not deny the relief he felt to have solid ground under his feet once more.
Wharf-labourers began unloading the sacks and crates onto the quayside, lumbering down the narrow gangplanks with their heavy hauls. Warehousemen stood by their mule-drawn carts, barking out instructions as dockers stacked the goods in neat rows, later to be transported to storage buildings nearby.
Dorian paid for a porter to deliver his trunk to the Trevelyan estate. Shouldering his travelling sack, he made his way down the main thoroughfare to the lift station.
One of Varric’s first orders of business as Viscount was to commission the construction of a new lift that ascended along the western edge of the Vimmark Mountains. The gigantic water-powered hoist raised and lowered stone platforms, taking up to twenty people at a time.
Instead of clogging up the busy laneways of Lowtown, then hiking up flights after flights of winding stairs to reach Hightown, for a small fee, merchants and loaders could now transport their goods with ease directly to and from the docks.
As a result, commercial trade improved. There was a reduction in traffic congestion in Lowtown, which in turn led to fewer altercations in the streets.
With the renewed and expanded wharf, allowing larger ships to transit and unload on Kirkwall docks, the port city was flourishing once again.
The journey took approximately fifteen minutes, during which a billy goat butted against his leg, and another nibbled at his cloak. The vendor grinned apologetically at him, but did nothing to dissuade the animals.
By the time the lift came to a gentle halt at the top of the incline, his cloak, a beautiful garment made out of twilight-grey wool twill, was dark in patches with goat slobber. Marvellous. Now he’s going to smell like a walking farm for the rest of the day.
The Trevelyan Manor was located in the corner of the southwestern quadrant of Hightown. A three-storey house typical of early Orlesian architecture, with narrow vertical windows and steep curb roofs, it was a vivid reminder of the city’s colonial past.
Dorian rapped twice on the doorknocker, a heavy brass ring adorned with a bear’s head. An ostentatious thing, really, but it was apparently a gift from Varric.
You have to fake it ‘til you make it, he’d said to the then newly-minted Comte of Kirkwall. Nobles are a snobby bunch.
Dorian smiled kindly at the surprised servant who opened the dark oak door.
The elven youth promptly took his bag. “My Lord? But we thought – ”
“Yes, got here just a mite early,” he said as he undid his cloak where it was clasped at his throat. “Is the Comte here?”
He followed the sounds of shouts and clashing metal – down the main hallway, past the formal dining room and the adjourning parlour, and turned right into the inner garden.
The mansion was built around a private courtyard, cloistered on all four sides by stone walkways. Early afternoon sun drenched the quadrangle in golden light, and a breeze picked up the refreshing fragrance from flowering embrium and crystal grace.
A long stone bench stood at one side of the courtyard, where Gus and her nursemaid, Abbie, sat sharing a bowl of sticky dried figs. Her short legs dangled over the edge, swinging back and forth as they spectated the sparring between Kirkwall’s Guard Captain and her Comte.
“Keep your shield up in front of you! It’s there to guard your chest. Not your side!” Aveline shouted as she heaved her sword in wide arcs. “Fight that instinct of swinging both of your hands. You must keep your shield arm in position!”
Trevelyan warded the blows with his shield, a circular expanse of cast iron attached to his artificial hand, metal chiming.
After months of designing, tweaking and tinkering, Dagna built Trevelyan an improved prosthesis that could withstand the stressful impacts of melee combat. Made out of black obsidian, the artificial forearm was enchanted with defensive runes, and snugly secured to the elbow by a leather half-cuff and a shoulder harness.
The hieroglyphs glowed silver, only blurs of light and movement as Trevelyan parried forward, countering Aveline’s quick, powerful attacks with his longsword.
Dorian was no swordsman, but it was apparent even to him that Trevelyan had improved considerably since he last saw him five months ago. It must have been a painstaking effort to master a new discipline – transitioning from a two-handed weapon to a single-handed sword and shield.
Beads of perspiration flew from Trevelyan's brow with each and every swing, glittering like tiny jewels in the sunlight. The wet sheen of his bare chest tempted Dorian’s fingers, as did the muscles of his strong back rippling and coiling under crossed leather straps when his sword clashed against Aveline’s over and over again.
He was breathtakingly beautiful.
Then, Gus spotted him in his hiding place behind a shadowed pillar, her large brown eyes widening in happy recognition. Dorian quickly raised a finger to his lips, gesturing for her to remain quiet. She grinned, showing two missing front teeth, and nodded eagerly.
The warriors’ boots thumped against the paving stones. Trevelyan advanced with a forehand swing at Aveline, who parried the heavy strike with her sword, sending forth a burst of sparks.
Without stopping, Trevelyan spun on his heels, circling his blade and gaining momentum to deliver a powerful backhand strike. His longsword hissed through the air, but it was thwarted by Aveline’s round shield that rotated inward to block his blow. Metal connected in a resounding clang, then Aveline’s blade darted out from above the buckler, stopping only mere inches from Trevelyan’s face.
For several long seconds, they stood still, their breaths hard and heavy.
Finally, Aveline lowered her sword. “The shield isn’t just for defensive manoeuvres,” she said. “Not only can you use it as an offensive weapon, but also subterfuge to conceal where your blade will strike from.”
Trevelyan blew out a puff of air and grumbled, “I didn’t have to worry about that before. My two-handed greatsword wasn’t so easily blocked.”
A bubble of laughter escaped Dorian, startling Trevelyan. His gaze quickly darted to the direction of the sound, and gaped at him in shock as Dorian stepped into the light, shaking his head with a smirk.
“Tsk tsk. Is brute strength all you’re capable of, my lord Comte?”
He was rewarded with a smile so broad, so utterly unguarded, that it felt like a whole new world to luxuriate in.
The longsword was hastily returned to the rack in a terrible jangle. Trevelyan raced across the courtyard to him, laughing, and picked him off his feet with his free arm tight around his waist. Dorian let out a horrifically high-pitched squawk when he was twirled around in a full circle.
“You’re here,” Trevelyan said before claiming Dorian’s lips in a heady kiss. He tasted of salt, of earthy heat, of everything good and right in the world.
The warm hand on the small of Dorian’s back urged him closer as Trevelyan’s mouth opened over his, deepening the kiss, and it took all of Dorian’s willpower not to melt against him.
When they broke apart, slightly out of breath, Dorian gave a half-hearted push at Trevelyan’s chest.
“You’re sweaty and disgusting,” he said with a grimace.
Trevelyan laughed. “I love you too,” he replied, nuzzling his nose against Dorian’s. “I thought you weren’t due to arrive until next week.”
“We were blessed with favourable winds sailing out of Antiva City,” he said blithely. At Trevelyan’s knowing smile, Dorian pursed his lips, confessing, “And I left Minrathous a little earlier than planned.”
Trevelyan kissed him again, softly this time. “I’m glad you did.” He reached up, threaded his fingers through the short hair at Dorian’s nape. “And you cut your hair.”
“Ah, yes, I did,” he replied, suddenly bashful. “I was growing tired of the evil Magister look.”
“You look just as you did the first time I saw you,” Trevelyan said, brushing a thumb against his temple, now closely shorn once more.
Something in his eyes made Dorian’s heart lurch with awareness of him, of his nearness, of the hard heat of his body. Feeling his cheeks warm under the attention, Dorian turned away.
“All right, you lovebirds,” Aveline said, rolling her eyes good-naturedly as she returned her sword to its scabbard, “if we’re finished for the day then I’ll be off now. I’ll be seeing you tonight.”
Dorian blinked. “What’s tonight?”
“Supper at Varric’s,” Trevelyan said before a pair of small but very determined hands pushed at their legs, prying them apart.
“Dorian!” Gus bounced restlessly at their feet, giving him a gap-toothed grin. “Look! Look! The faeries took my teeth!”
Dorian shot a questioning glance at Trevelyan, who shrugged. “That’s what my mother told me when I lost mine.” He ruffled Gus’ hair, chuckling at the annoyed glower aimed up at him. “At least the faeries left you a whole sovereign. I’d only gotten only two lousy bits for my tooth back then.”
She giggled. “That means my teeth are better than yours!”
“It’s called inflation, Gus,” Trevelyan said. “I’ll tell you all about it before bed. That should knock you right out.”
Dorian laughed. “Nothing like a primer on basic economics to put a five-year-old to sleep.”
Gus threw her hands up. “Five and a half!” she corrected.
Trevelyan nodded in amusement. “That you are.” He gave Dorian a gentle peck on the lips. “Why don’t you head inside with Gus? I’ll be there in a moment.” He gestured to the metallic limb attached to the heavy shield. “This will take some time to…disarm.”
He grinned, and Gus made a noise of disgust, clearly familiar with her uncle's painfully unfunny jokes, until Trevelyan reached down to tickle her sides. Her squeals and laughs punctuated the beauty of a clear autumn’s day.
Dorian smiled. This was the sound of family; this was the sound of love. Somewhere deep within, he could almost hear a lonely young boy laughing along as well.
* * *
The stolid, imposing keep just off Hightown had served as the home to every sitting Viscount of Kirkwall, and the seat of government since the city gained its independence during the Blessed Age.
Dorian had only been inside once before – the last time he visited Kirkwall, Varric practically dragged him by the hand, insisting on giving him a full tour.
The informal breakfast room was on the main floor of the keep, much nearer to the kitchens than the grand dining hall. A welcoming space with warm timber, its walls were covered in velvets of wine and gold – the Free Marches colours – and a fire crackled merrily in the wide stone fireplace.
The old-oak carved table was laden with food: roast grouse dressed with wild mushrooms, a full leg of mutton, large game pies, thick cheeses, dark bread, and crocks of butter.
Varric sat at the head of the table, wearing a gold-trimmed maroon shirt that showed off more chest hair than was strictly appropriate. Aveline and her husband, Donnic, sitting across from Trevelyan and him, raised their glasses in a welcoming toast before tucking into their meal.
Life as the Viscount had treated Varric well – his hair was shorter and slightly greying at the temples, and if not for the perpetual twinkle of terrible mischief in his eyes, he’d almost look distinguished.
“So, Sparkler, you planning a permanent move down here yet?” Varric said after taking a long swig of ale from his glass goblet. “It’d save me a lot of trouble if Comte Trevelyan over there doesn’t run up north every couple of months.”
“I did recover those missing bushels of corn and beans in the end,” Trevelyan said, already finishing off his third helping of pie.
“Yeah,” Varric scoffed, “three months after I asked you to.”
Trevelyan popped a small square of hard cheese into his mouth, and smiled over at Dorian. “I was busy.”
Busy. That’s one way to put it, he supposed.
At their secluded villa along the coast of Carastes, they spent their days with Gus, playing games and laughing, catching fish in shallow waters, languishing in the very essence of idyllic living. Then, they made love all night, relearned old callouses and explored new scars, until they're both exhausted and fell asleep entangled in each other’s arms.
One week of domestic bliss, until duty pried them apart once more. It wasn’t ideal, this arrangement, but Dorian would take every crumb he’s offered, for as long as it lasted.
As though reading his mind, Trevelyan leaned close, tasting the rim of his ear. “I can’t wait to ravage you, repeatedly,” he whispered, “every inch of you until you’re boneless and wrecked beneath me.”
Hot breath tickled the base of his neck, lighting a kindling of heat. A familiar, yearning ache stirred low in Dorian’s belly.
He shuddered despite himself. “You are incorrigible.”
With an impish little grin, Trevelyan pressed a soft, lingering kiss over the beauty mark high on his cheekbone, before settling back properly in his seat.
If any of the others had noticed their private little tête-à-tête, none gave any indication, thank the Maker. He quickly took a large gulp of ale from his goblet to hide the burning in his cheeks.
“Too bad you didn’t make it here earlier,” Varric said when the conversation lulled. “You could have come to my birthday party last month at the Blooming Rose.”
“You can’t be serious,” Dorian said, grinning. “The Viscount’s birthday celebrations at Kirkwall’s finest brothel? How scandalous!”
Aveline chuckled. “You should have seen Seneschal Bran’s face when Varric made the announcement. I thought he’d pass out right in front of me!”
“Good party though,” Donnic added, “almost worth the horrid headache the next day.”
Dorian gave Trevelyan a sidelong glance. “Did you have a good time, my lord Comte?”
It would seem his amatus was far more interested in spreading more butter on a thick slice of bread.
“It was all right,” Trevelyan said casually before taking a hearty bite.
He did not wear his prosthetic to supper, the left sleeve of his white doublet neatly pinned up to elbow height, and he smeared the yellow grease one-handedly with a round-bladed knife, with rather impressive dexterity.
“Don’t worry, Sparkler. Your boy was on his best behaviour. Kept his hand to himself all night despite many interested parties.”
“Oh? Interested parties, you say?”
“Come on, look at him. Tall, handsome, noble-born and the former Inquisitor – he’s a great catch!” Varric winked at Trevelyan, who nearly choked on his food. “Isabela sends her regards, by the way.”
Dorian bristled at the thought. “Caught the eye of the Admiral, have you now?”
He’d read Tale of the Champion, of course – twice, in fact – and Varric certainly didn’t skimp on words describing the pirate’s irresistible feminine wiles and her rather considerable womanly assets.
“She’s very…friendly,” Trevelyan said cautiously, the tips of his ears pinking. “Spent all evening telling us stories of the raids across Ferelden and Orlais when she served as an Inquisition field agent.”
“She was definitely friendly when she invited you to ‘raid her ship’s hull’,” Donnic chortled, yelping when Aveline jabbed at his hand with a well-aimed fork.
The Guard Captain smiled genially at Trevelyan, ignoring her husband’s muttering sulk. “Have you told Dorian about that thing Sister Nightingale found yet?”
“Oh, not yet.” Trevelyan straightened in his seat, looking relieved at the change of subject. He turned to Dorian. “One of Solas’ agents attempted to smuggle an artefact out of Orlais some weeks ago. He was intercepted by Leliana’s people at the Nevarran border and died fighting to protect it. She was hoping you could take a look at it, seeing how Tevinter magic has elven roots. Perhaps you could tell us what Solas wanted with it.”
Dorian frowned. “Where is it now?”
“In my desk in the study.”
“Did he manage to find another orb?”
“No, this one is hollow. And it has little…” He made a vague gesture with his hand. “Round…nubs?”
Dorian tried not to laugh at his confusion. “Round nubs?”
“You’re the scholar,” Trevelyan said, his mouth drawing up to something so perilously close to a pout Dorian wanted to kiss it right off his face. “I just beat things until they stop moving.”
* * *
They walked home in the silver silence of the night. The streets of Hightown were empty, save for the occasional outline of a city guard patrolling the area.
Still, Dorian’s heart fluttered at the warmth of their linked hands, feeling the familiar callouses as Trevelyan’s thumb traced circles on the back of his hand. Such a simple act would have been unthinkable back home: the upper class of the Imperium scoffed at public displays of affection, deeming it a graceless expression only fitting for the ill-bred.
But here, now, under the waning crescent twin moons, in a town square enshrouded in still darkness, rank and titles had ceased to have much meaning or importance. They were just two lovers, walking hand-in-hand in the crisp night air, eager to return to the sanctity of their bed.
Soon, he found himself pressed against the bedchamber door, trapped between hard mahogany and a broad, solid chest, his world narrowing to Trevelyan’s mouth on his.
Tender, slow, searching – their lips moved in fluid motions, unhurried in their exploration, gaining in heat with each teasing bite to swollen lips, each hot pass of their tongues. Dorian surrendered to the exquisite hunger of Trevelyan’s mouth, claimed his breath as his own as the kiss grew and expanded.
His fingers found the collar of Trevelyan’s doublet, deftly undoing the row of brass buttons. He ran his hands over the expanse of Trevelyan’s bare chest, tracing the ridges of his abdomen, feeling the muscles shift beneath his palms.
Trevelyan exhaled a low, breathless laugh when Dorian went to his knees and took the leather ties of his breeches between his teeth. Trevelyan watched, breathing harder now, as Dorian skilfully tugged at the cords with his mouth until they gave way and the fabric slid apart, exposing his prize.
Thick and hard and pulsing with heat, Trevelyan’s cock twitched against his stomach in anticipation. Dorian licked his lips, the scent of Trevelyan’s arousal flooding his senses – the need to taste, to please, to feel the throbbing weight heavy on his tongue.
Looking up through his lashes at Trevelyan, Dorian mouthed along the smooth length before closing his lips around the flushed head. He swirled his tongue around the velvety crown, savouring the salty dew that gathered there and was rewarded with a deep rumble that rolled from Trevelyan’s chest.
Strong fingers wove into Dorian’s hair, grasping it to a delicious pain. Dorian took Trevelyan deeper into his throat, hollowed his cheeks with each pull, lips sliding up and down the thick shaft with deliberate slowness.
“Stop,” Trevelyan panted, tugging his hair. “Come back up here and kiss me.”
With one last swipe with his tongue, Dorian released him with a wet pop that made Trevelyan groan anew.
Trevelyan reached for him, pulling him up. Their lips crashed together once more, ravenous and claiming, desperate hands ripping at clothes that were left crumpled where they fell.
Trevelyan caressed the line of Dorian’s jaw, down the column of his throat to touch the small gold ring he wore on a delicate chain around his neck. A promise from a mother to her son. A favour from a man to his lover.
Trevelyan gazed at the diamonds glittering against the centre of his chest, his eyes gleamed with something Dorian couldn’t name.
“I love you,” he whispered with a soft smile, and took Dorian’s mouth in another drugging kiss.
The plush mattress of the mahogany bed dipped beneath his weight as he climbed in, pushing himself up onto his hands and knees. Dorian’s blood thrummed in his veins – the cool silk sheets did little to soothe his passion-flushed skin.
The first warm touch of Trevelyan’s breath against his entrance had him sinking down onto his elbows, a cracked moan upon his lips. Trevelyan licked and lapped at his hole, circling the sensitive flesh with the tip of his tongue before delving within.
Pleasure crashed through him, raising gooseflesh on his skin – the wet heat of Trevelyan’s mouth was equal parts torment and bliss. Hands fisted tightly in the sheets, Dorian felt himself quiver around that clever tongue.
He pushed back, writhing. “Amatus…please…” His cock swayed heavily between his thighs, its tip leaking wanton strips of precum.
Trevelyan hummed against aroused skin, running his tongue along the relaxed rim one last time before pulling back. Rough fingertips traced over Dorian’s aching hole, spreading the wetness there.
“I love the way you taste,” Trevelyan murmured, “but not more than the way you sound when I do…this.”
He eased a finger inside him, and Dorian let out a soft moan, squeezing his eyes shut.
“Kaffas…” he cursed breathlessly into the sheets as Trevelyan worked his finger and mouth in tandem, before pushing another finger into him.
Dorian’s whine melted into a helpless sound of want when Trevelyan curled his fingers to find that hidden spot within him. Pressing soft kisses to the smooth skin of his arse, Trevelyan moved his fingers steadily in and out of Dorian, a maddening rhythm that mimicked what was to come.
The first breach of his body was always an exquisite burn.
Dorian whimpered, hovering in a haze of distended pleasure as Trevelyan guided himself to his entrance, slick with ambrosia-scented oil, and sank into him slowly. The stretch, the fullness, the intense heat of Trevelyan’s length – Dorian could only shudder as his body opened up to his lover once more.
After so many months, they were one again.
Trevelyan’s one hand reached for the curve of Dorian’s waist, fingers stroking the bone of his hip, and held him steady as he began moving. Slow at first, excruciatingly so, letting Dorian adjust to the intrusion before quickening his pace.
Trevelyan loomed over him, the press of his chest warm against Dorian’s back as he drove into him. Leaning down, Trevelyan traced his tongue across Dorian’s back, trailing wet, open-mouthed kisses as if drawing invisible maps upon his skin.
“I’ve missed you,” Trevelyan whispered, the words hot against the sweat-damp skin, groaning when Dorian clenched around him. “Maker… Dorian, you’re so tight.”
Dorian rocked back into Trevelyan, wanting more, needing more. “Amatus,” he gasped, arching his spine in a shimmer of pleasure. “Harder…I need it harder, please…”
Trevelyan pulled him up, flush against him. His right hand passed across Dorian’s chest to cradle the column of his throat, tilting his head to the side to suck a bruise into the tender skin of his neck.
The smooth stub of Trevelyan’s left elbow held him close as he snapped his hips forward in quick, hard strokes. He plunged into Dorian with fervent need, deep and forceful. The briny smell of sweat and sex, and the wet staccato of their flesh colliding and parting, sent Dorian spiralling higher and higher.
Stars danced in Dorian’s vision, the sweet friction against the sensitive cluster of nerves within drawing senseless gasps and whimpers from his lips.
Dorian, he heard Trevelyan call. He blinked at the sound of his name, trying to focus. He angled his head so their mouths met again. Soft, erotic glide of their tongues and lips in long, lush kisses.
Trevelyan made a noise of assent, low in his throat, his arms tightened around Dorian, bringing him closer.
Dark eyes burned into his when Dorian drew back. Banked and hidden for so long, the fevered joy blatant on Trevelyan’s face chased a flood of heat up Dorian’s throat.
Inquisitor. Comte. Amatus. His.
Dorian’s body tensed. He reached down to pump his own cock. “I’m- ughnn…amatus, please…I’m so close.” His voice came out in a rush of breathlessness, mouth falling open as Trevelyan slammed into him harder, with lost abandon.
A stinging bite on his neck, then a soothing tongue. “Come for me, then.”
Dorian cried out in delirious pleasure as he was pushed over the glorious edge and into sweet oblivion. His body shook, tightening around Trevelyan as he spilled messily over his fist.
It didn’t take long before Trevelyan followed him into the bliss of release. With one final, hard thrust, Trevelyan stilled with a shudder, groaning into Dorian’s neck as his cock pulsed to fill the gripping heat with his seed.
Passion-swollen lips slowed to lazy, lingering kisses. They sank underneath the golden waves of afterglow, hearts beating in unison.
Finally, Trevelyan withdrew gently and rolled off onto his side.
“Now you’re sweaty and disgusting too,” he laughed softly, brushing away sodden strands of hair plastered to Dorian’s forehead.
Dorian harrumphed, but his retort faded into a sigh when Trevelyan kissed him again. This time, it was gentle, soft-lipped.
Trevelyan’s thumb trailed across Dorian’s brow, down to the corner of his eye, stroking the soft skin there.
“Oh no,” Dorian frowned, “I don’t have a new wrinkle there, do I?”
A throaty laugh. “Hardly. How many virgins do you sacrifice a week?”
“No blood magic involved, I assure you. I simply inherited my mother’s youthful complexion. Though I dread the day when I look into a mirror and see a shrivelled-up raisin.”
“And I’d still find you just as lovely.”
Dorian gave him a wry smile. “Really? I thought you hated raisins.”
“I do,” Trevelyan said, placing a quick peck on his nose, “but you’re my raisin.”
The surge of warmth, centred in his heart, was a lovely thing.
Trevelyan ran a finger along the shell of his ear, touching the line of jewelled studs and earrings. Dorian’s spine tingled.
“Hmm, that’s a new one.” The slightly rough pad of a thumb grazed his earlobe, where a small golden snake nestled, emerald-eyed and frozen in mid-slither.
“You know how it is in Tevinter. Bedazzle friends and enemies alike with fancy clothes and garish baubles, lower their defenses with shiny things.” He nuzzled into Trevelyan’s hand, smiling. “It worked with you.”
Trevelyan wrinkled his nose. “That’s not true. I wasn’t fooled by all that.”
Magisters did not giggle, not as a rule, but Dorian was too jelly-limbed and sated to care. “Course you weren’t. Obviously, I’d ensnared the Lord Inquisitor with my captivating charm and disarming cleverness.”
“There’s that, and your perfect teeth and hair.”
Dorian ran a hand through the sweat-curled locks. “Less perfect, now.”
“I can't imagine anything more perfect,” Trevelyan said, fingers tracing the reddening marks on his throat. There was renewed heat in his eyes. “Just as you are, like this.”
Dorian bit his lip, arched his neck into his touch. “You’re insatiable. Savage.”
Trevelyan hummed with a glint in his eyes. “I’m a savage, all right.” He looked thoughtful for a moment, then asked, “Does it hurt? Piercing your ear?”
“Not terribly. Why? Would you like me to pierce yours?” Dorian laughed, then Trevelyan push himself off the bed. “Wait – you’re serious?”
Pulling on his sleeping braies, Trevelyan hopped on one foot as he headed for the door. “I am. What do you need?”
“If you’re certain about it: an embroidery needle and a cork.”
Several minutes later, Trevelyan returned to the bed with the requested items, along with a few damp washcloths.
Dorian cleaned himself up with one, and with another, wiped down a simple golden hoop he’d removed from the top of his ear.
After giving Trevelyan’s right earlobe a thorough rub with the cloth, Dorian took the soft flesh between his fingers.
“This will be slightly cold,” he said, and summoned a weak burst of ice magic to his fingertips.
Trevelyan shivered at the sudden chill. Dorian smiled and leaned in to kiss him, tracing his tongue along the seam of Trevelyan’s lips before slipping it inside the warm mouth.
The kiss stretched on, soft and yielding as he held onto Trevelyan’s lobe. And Dorian would have happily kissed that sweet, seeking mouth until the sun touched the horizon, if not for fear of Trevelyan’s ear dropping off from frostbite.
Dorian rose to his knees when they broke off, feeling slightly breathless. He placed the cork behind Trevelyan’s icy earlobe and with a minor fire spell, heated the tip of the embroidery needle.
“Just a little prick.”
Trevelyan wiggled his brows, nudging his growing hardness against Dorian’s thigh. “Not that little. Kiss me a little more and you’ll see.”
Dorian shot him a withering look, but it was broken by a smile. “Sit still or this will hurt. Are you ready?”
Trevelyan’s face scrunched up, eyes squeezed tightly shut. “Mmm-hmm.”
Vanquisher of the Darkspawn Magister, saviour of Southern Thedas, slayer of Hakkon Wintersbreath, bracing himself for the imminent jab of a small needle like a child.
Really, this giant of a man had no business being so utterly adorable, and yet here they were.
The fingers on his waist dug in a little as Dorian plunged the needle through the lobe and into the cork in one swift motion. He pushed the earring through the fresh piercing before even a drop of blood was spilt, and sealed the wound shut around it with healing magic.
“There. All finished.” The gilt of the earring shone warmly against Trevelyan’s bronze skin. A gold ring for a gold ring. It seemed only fair.
“How do I look?”
Dorian passed him a shaving mirror. “All you need is a hook hand, then your pirate transformation is complete. Perhaps Admiral Isabela would even take you into her crew.” He flicked at Trevelyan’s shoulder. “Clearly she wants you to raid her ship. Hoist her sails. Sing together a sea-shanty duet.”
“I see somebody’s been reading Varric’s stories.” Again, that playful little smile. “You’re not jealous, are you?”
“Me? Jealous? Perish the thought. As if you’d run off gallivanting with a woman who makes a living on the water.”
“That does put a damper on the whole thing, yes.”
“Besides,” Dorian extended his arms into a long, languid stretch across the burgundy silk, turning over onto his stomach, “you have yours truly right here in your bed.”
That got Trevelyan’s attention. He finally stopped admiring his new earring and put down the mirror.
His mouth came down on Dorian’s. “And pirates do love their treasures.”
Dorian smiled into the kiss. “I’ll bring you a parrot from Minrathous next time.”
“Yarr, matey, a trusty parrot be just what I be needin’,” Trevelyan said, making him laugh. His hand wandered once more, skimming down the smooth line of Dorian’s back to grip his arse, gently pulling aside the globe of flesh to make way for his fingers.
“But first,” he said against Dorian’s parting lips, “let me go back t’ enjoyin’ me booty some more.”
* * *
The sky was still dark and star-splattered when Dorian awoke.
The heated press of Trevelyan’s body against his back brought a sleepy smile to his face. Entrapped by the one long leg tucked between his, and the nose that burrowed into his hair, he was loath to leave the warm comfort of Trevelyan’s arms.
But he needed to use the privy, and after yet another round of ardent lovemaking, he could really do with a quick wash.
His body was wonderfully sore – in places it hadn’t been in quite some time – as he extracted himself carefully from the tangle of blankets and limbs. Trevelyan mumbled something incoherent, and rolled forward to bury his face into his pillow.
A swell of affection bloomed in Dorian’s chest, pushed against his ribs. He drew on a grey wool dressing gown, and pressed a gentle kiss on Trevelyan’s hair before leaving the bedroom.
The stone-tiled bathing chamber glinted under the magelight as Dorian refreshed himself at the washbasin, with a soft sponge and the sandalwood soap Trevelyan was so fond of. The deep, woody scent filled the mild night air, clearing the fog of sleep from his mind.
He towelled himself dry and slipped back into his dressing gown before making his way into the corridor.
It wouldn’t be long before daybreak, but thin moonlight still touched the narrow windows in a pale and pearly glow. The small ball of magelight bobbed along ahead of him, lighting his way.
The lure of climbing back into bed with Trevelyan was enticing, waking him up with kisses as he rose for his morning meditation. But curiosity pecked at Dorian like a hungry vulture, insistent.
Instead of returning to the bedchamber, he found himself following the luminous globe down the grand staircase, past the inner parlour and into Trevelyan’s study.
An ancient relic the Dread Wolf’s agent guarded with his life could yield vital clues to what Solas’ next step was. If they’d come upon another somnaborium, a foci with which to access the Fade at will, perhaps he could unlock its secrets and, in time, even learn to wield it.
Trevelyan’s stately desk, recovered from his Skyhold quarters, sat in front of a wall bearing a beautifully woven tapestry of his crest. Blotting paper and several books piled neatly in a stack next to an oil lamp, the feathered edge of a quill protruded from a brass inkwell.
Retrieving the key hidden in a hollowed-out copy of Swords and Shields on the bookshelves, Dorian went behind the desk to open the locked drawer.
And there it was, wrapped in layers of cloth. He picked up the artefact, turning it over in his hands and tracing the delicate markings with his fingers.
In shape, it was an intricately-designed dodecahedron – a twelve-sided hollow prism the size of a small apple, each face punctured with a circular hole of varying diameter in the centre.
There were spherical knops on each corner – the ‘round nubs’ Trevelyan was referring to – and appeared to be made of a mixed metal alloy of some kind.
Dorian had seen fragments of such devices once before – he’d stumbled upon sketches of such archaeological finds in the restricted section of the Magisterium’s archives, the rare volume nearly falling apart from age.
No one knew exactly what these fragments were: the book seemed to suggest they were parts of an ancient surveying instrument, or perhaps a religious artefact predating the fall of Elvhenan.
Extraordinary. He was holding, in his very hands, what could be the first fully-restored model of a device left by a long forgotten empire, at the height of their civilisation.
What did Solas want with this? Just what powers could this small object unleash if awakened in his hands? Whatever it was, surely it had something to do with his diabolical plans of tearing down the Veil –
A distorted susurration of voices hummed around him, faint, as though far away.
Hair stood on the back of Dorian’s neck as a rush of arcane energy flowed through the artefact, and the hollowed centre flared with green flames.
Like a thousand indistinct voices speaking at once in an echoing chamber, the murmurs grew louder and louder. A knot of panic rose in his throat when he tried to drop the artefact, but the knops of the dodecahedron were firmly fastened to his hands, bound to his skin by the blazing arcane fire.
Tendrils of magic slithered under his dressing gown and touched his skin like cold, wet fingers. A plethora of colours leaked from the circular holes of the artefact, like glistening waterfalls, as its power continued to swell.
Dorian staggered back; the surge of crackling energy crashing into him like waves, over and over, too much for one man to contain. He felt his eyeballs would explode from their sockets.
A stab of harsh, blinding light – and then, darkness.
He thought he heard himself screaming Trevelyan’s name, but if he had, the sound was drowned out by the tide of magical energy that engulfed him.
* * *
The painful pounding in his head dragged Dorian back to consciousness. A narrow shard of sunlight stole through the windows, pressing on his eyelids. He felt ill; his stomach was churning and his head spinning. And why was it so bloody cold?
He nestled his face deeper into the pillow and pulled the blanket over his head against the bone-numbing chill.
Just as he drifted off to sleep, a sharp knock at the door jolted him awake.
“My Lord Dorian? The council has already begun. The Inquisitor and the advisors are waiting in the War Room.”
Dorian’s eyes flew open with a start. Advisors? The War Room?
Despite the throbbing in his head, he took in his surroundings – an overfilled bookshelf against one wall, a small desk littered with books and papers, and an upholstered chair in one corner, against which leaned a well-worn staff.
Vishante kaffas. He was back in his room. At Skyhold.
“Lord Dorian?” the voice called again.
“Yes, yes, give me a moment.”
Dorian rolled out of bed, looking around to find his leather armour in a jumbled pile by the desk.
Right – this old thing.
He threw off his dressing gown and stepped into the outfit, taking a deep breath before giving the belts a sturdy tug one at a time. Kaffas. What was he thinking with all the straps and buckles! And he’d nearly forgotten how cumbersome it was to tie these cords over his shoulder.
At least the armour still fit after all this time. Thank goodness for small favours.
He flung open the door to find himself facing a startled runner. “What year is it?”
“M- my lord?”
“What year is it?” Dorian repeated, with more force this time.
“It’s, uh, 9:41 Dragon, ser.”
“Marvellous,” he muttered under his breath. “Bloody marvellous.”
He spent the better part of the walk to the War Room formulating in his head, how best to explain to Trevelyan his current predicaments. It would be a particularly precarious discussion, one that he’d rather have in private with the Lord Inquisitor.
But the thought of seeing Trevelyan, still bound by magical amulets – a detached, stoic man who hadn’t yet softened toward him – brought an unexpected pang to Dorian’s chest.
He quickly pushed those feelings aside.
This was a simple mishap, he’d tell Trevelyan. Time magic was his forte. He’d find his way back soon enough. Nothing to worry about.
The massive doors opened with a tremourous groan, and the Inquisitor straightened up from the map spread across the war table.
Dorian felt his skin crawl, his stomach turning again. It couldn’t be, could it?
“It’s unlike you to be late, Dorian,” the woman with brown hair said, her brows knitting together. “Are you all right?”
No. He hadn’t gone back in time. He’d been pushed into another timeline altogether.
The frantic, mad dash back to his bedchamber was a blur, the current of his blood rushed through his veins like streams of ice.
The hinges chirped when Dorian threw open the door. He glanced around the room, eyes hurriedly scanning corner to corner.
Where is it?
From what he could adduce, the dodecahedron had squeezed the vacuum surrounding them, creating negative energy and pressure, and pulled him through a thus far only hypothesised tunnel that connected one region of space and time to another.
Which meant the artefact should have travelled through dimensions with him, bound to the particles of his mass by the magic’s latent magnetism.
It must be here. Without the device, he would never find his way back. Adrift in a reality without Trevelyan, trapped in a world foreign to him.
Dorian felt beneath the pillows, shook the coverlets and blankets out around him. He peeked behind the drapes, checked the closet, the armchair, the desk.
He dropped down, knees popping in protest, to look under the bed. The bloody Free Marcher bedstead so low to the ground you’d need to be a mouse to get under there.
A globe of magelight sprang to life from his palm, but its cursory lap under the mattress slats proved useless, finding nothing but a few stray books, an ivory comb, and a bag stuffed full of socks.
Then, a dull, brassy gleam at the foot of the bookshelf caught his eye – a single rounded knop jutting out from beneath a mound of crumpled parchment.
Dorian scrambled across to it, and slowly lifted the dodecahedron with both hands. Oh, thank the Maker – it’s undamaged, as far as could be judged visually.
He examined the grooves and apertures of the artefact, touched the small spheres at each of its vertices.
Time to go home.
Taking a deep breath, he poured into the hollow a steady stream of mana.
The hush of unfolding magic suspended the dodecahedron in mid-air, a quiet vortex. Rotating slowly at first, the artefact then spun faster and faster until it was a shimmering blur.
Dorian pressed on, filling the dodecahedron’s void with more mana. But there were no green flames, no distorted voices. Nothing but the whirring sound of the spinning device.
Kaffas. The artefact worked entirely differently from Alexius’ amulet.
Traveling physically through space and time required energy - lots and lots of it. According to his letters, Alexius was only able to manipulate time within the interval in which the Breach existed. It was the only way he could draw the vast amount of power necessary – by pulling charged particles directly from the rift.
Unlike Alexius’ amulet, this elven artefact didn’t need the Breach’s magic to fold the fabric of time. The dodecahedron was charged with enough arcane energy to create a temporal disturbance: it warped the shape of the known boundaries of their dimension and propelled him into a parallel time sleeve.
Whatever it was that powered the device, the colossal rush of energy that overflowed like a waterfall, had been utterly and completely depleted.
Dorian severed the magic, and caught the dodecahedron in its fall. It’s mind-boggling to even conjecture, let alone experience, the reality of his current quandary.
But one thing was certain, that he must navigate through this alternate world with caution: even the smallest change in this dimension could create ripples in the curvature of time, greatly decreasing his chances of slipping back through the same tunnel.
Carefully, Dorian wrapped the artefact in an old undershirt, and wedged it at the back of the bookshelf.
One by one, he took off his earrings and slipped them into a small cloth bag. He touched the gold ring that lay against his chest, feeling its smooth curves, before tucking it inside his collar, out of sight.
He must pass as the Dorian of this world, at least long enough to formulate a plan. And there was only one way he could get answers.
He would speak to the Dread Wolf himself.
* * *
It’d been years since he’d last stepped foot in Skyhold. Even in this alternate world, some things remained the same.
The braziers still burned sweet-smelling cedar, large candles threw circles of light onto long tables spread with crown roasts, wheels of cheese, thin loaves of Orlesian bread, and flagons of wine.
Dorian walked slowly through the soaring great hall, pausing to take in the vaulted ceilings, the stained glass, the one-eyed throne, the Inquisition banners that billowed lightly in the soft breeze.
Everything whispered fond remembrance to him.
So much had happened within these hallowed walls – in the two years he called this place home, he’d learned of love and loss, strength and anguish, friendship and forgiveness.
The faintly urinous smell of crushed limestone filled his nostrils as he passed through the door to Solas’ study in the atrium of the rotunda.
Dorian knew little of the craft of frescoing. But having spent months observing Solas’ meticulous work from the gallery above, watching him grind earth pigments and apply layers of wet plaster to the walls, he’d grown somewhat accustomed to the lime’s unpleasant stink.
His gaze moved over the murals of the conclave explosion, the howling wolves, the shadowed shape of a corrupt Templar, the cloaked figure of the darkspawn Magister hovering over a burning village – and settled on the beginnings of the blue gown of Empress Celene.
So this was not long after the Winter Palace, then.
The study stood empty, the sole desk in the room a morass of open books, journal papers, and research materials. A shard glowed low and menacing, giving off a steady hum as Dorian drew closer.
It was still beyond him, that Fen’harel was in their midst all along.
The hobo apostate who dressed as if the only clothes he owned were made out of old flour sacks, who complained ceaselessly about everything from the acridness of his tea and bird droppings to the pitfalls of the Qun and the mistreatment of spirits, was, in fact, the trickster god himself.
It would be laughable if he weren’t so dangerous, determined to carry out his diabolical plan of tearing down the Veil.
Dorian wandered up the curved stairway, trailing a hand along the roughness of the stone wall.
His window alcove was no different here than the one in his world. Soft sunlight streamed in through the lattice, illuminating the golden threads of the richly-embroidered rug.
Small hills of books and scribbled notes cluttered around his plush armchair. Half-burnt candles spilled the scent of wax and propolis, mingled with the mustiness of old parchment. The entire recess smelled of knowledge. Of thoughts and ideas.
He ran his fingers across the spines of the books. Interesting. The order in which the books were arranged was the same – nonfiction was grouped chronologically by subject, fiction sorted by genre and author.
It appeared this Dorian was every bit as particular about the way his books were organised as he was.
He heard heavy footfalls approached behind him, metal brace clinking with every second step.
Bull’s voice boomed through the quiet of the rotunda. “Dorian. How’s it goin’?”
He half-turned to meet the Qunari's grinning face.
“I’m fine, thank you.” A touch anxious and frustrated, but fine. “Would you mind keeping it down? This is a library, Bull.”
That grin only grew wider. “Dirty!”
Dorian resisted the temptation to roll his eyes. Some things just never change, even in an entirely different universe.
He crossed his arms and leaned his shoulder against the bookshelf, treating Bull to a withering glare. “I meant your voice.”
Bull laughed. “Sure you did.”
Dorian’s patience, rarely bountiful, nearly exhausted. He made a sound halfway between a groan and a sigh. “Have you seen Solas? I need to speak with him.”
“Boss said he needed some time off after his spirit friend died.” Bull gave him an odd look. “You were there at the Exalted Plains.”
Kaffas. “Ah, right. Must have slipped my mind.”
“You okay over there? Heard you were late to the war council this morning.”
“Yes, I’d…uhm… overslept.”
A sly smile spread slowly across Bull’s face. “Wore you out that much last night, huh?”
Dorian blinked up at him. Paused. Blinked again. “I beg your pardon?”
Bull took a step forward and braced one hand on the bookshelf, bracketing him in. “Yeah, you know I like it when you beg, big guy.”
Dorian stared, open-mouthed, as Bull lowered his head and inhaled deeply. “And you found the time to bathe too. Mmm…sandalwood. Fancy. Makes me want to get you all messed up again.”
Oh, no, no, no. This couldn’t be happening. This was not happening.
Vishante Kaffas. This dimension’s Dorian was – had been bedding the Bull. Things were quickly growing complicated, evidently. Just perfect.
Dorian pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache bloom behind his eyes.
“What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at the tavern? On your fifth pint of the day by now?”
Bull chuckled, straightening back up. “Came to give Red up there some reports. My superiors are getting antsy about the Grey Wardens moving into the Western Approach. They want to know what we’re doing about it.”
Ah. They had yet to lay siege to Adamant, it seemed.
“And have you heard much about what the plan is, exactly?” Dorian asked cautiously.
He had walked into the Fade once, which was already once too many. He’d rather like to skip out of this world long before the arduous march to the fortress.
“Don’t know,” Bull replied. “Hawke’s Warden contact said something about some Venatori mage. But nothing solid yet.”
Erimond. A hot-tempered little fellow who fancied himself a mastermind, but in fact more closely resembled a dribbling toad.
Perhaps Dorian could warn them of his plans, intercept the Magister before he could establish a stronghold at the ritual tower, stop him before the Grey Wardens were sacrificed, and –
No, he reminded himself. Meddling with events in this world might set off other consequences. Fasta vass.
“I see,” Dorian heard himself say instead. “The sooner we know more, the better.”
* * *
Ancient elven magic kept the grounds of Skyhold a perpetual pocket of warmth in the snowy Frostback Mountains.
Birds trilled in the trees, butterflies fluttered in clusters of flowers, and dogs barked in the distance. A crisp, gentle breeze stirred his hair, bringing with it the aroma of baking bread wafting from the kitchens, and the smell of fresh hay in a cart on its way to the stables.
The sun was high now, in its full golden glory, bright in the pale blue sky.
From the battlements, Dorian could see black smoke curling out of the chimney of the blacksmith’s shop. Orlesian chevaliers rubbed shoulders with Inquisition agents; traders and pilgrims and travellers exchanged the latest news and gossips coming out of Val Royeaux.
Where was Trevelyan in this world, he wondered. Living in Ostwick, perhaps? Married to some backwater noble’s ugly daughter for his family’s economical gain, living an utterly conventional life, surrounded by fat children.
Or did he suffer the same fate as his Inquisitor lover: exiled by his kin, still bound by the stifling magic of the amulets, wandering the countryside of Free Marches.
Or maybe – just maybe – he’d found happiness he never did in their world. With his elven priestess, alive and well by his side.
Dorian felt something sharp in his chest. Their paths might never cross at all.
Here in this universe, Trevelyan never saved him from a rock-throwing giant. Dorian never chased after him to the Hinterlands, never made love by the waterfall. Trevelyan never became Tranquil, they never said their goodbyes. Never found each other years again later, and promised their hearts to each other.
They’d never even know.
A hand closed around his arm, halting his thoughts.
“His skin smells like sweet soil, smile soft, secret, treasured. You're not Dorian… you're you. The shape is the same but the hurt has faded.” Cole's grip grew vice-like. “Who are you?”
“Right. I’d almost forgotten how creepy that was.”
“Kissed by evening’s breath. What does it mean?” Cole’s pale brows drew together. “Why are you missing someone who doesn’t exist?”
“It’s difficult to explain,” Dorian began. “I am…not of this world. Your world. I am Dorian but not the one you know.”
“Are you a spirit like me? One that took the form of the real Dorian?”
“Not quite. For one, the other Dorian is still very much alive – at least I hope so. Think of me as his reflection that stepped out of the mirror. Same, but different. Do you understand?”
“I didn’t think you would,” Dorian sighed. “The thing is, the more I tell you, Cole, the less likely I’d find my way back. As it is, I have already said too much. But I promise I’ll fix this and set things back to the way they should be.”
Cole nodded. “I want to help.”
“You can start by unhanding me. Strong grip you have there.”
“Oh, yes.” Cole quickly released his arm, his smile turning sheepish. “I’m sorry.”
“Please keep this to yourself for now, at least until I find out more.” Dorian smiled at the wide-brimmed hat, then the blue eyes peering from beneath it. “But it’s good to see you again, Cole. It’s been a long time.”
The training yard near the infirmary, where Cassandra spent most of her hours, had a row of straw figures set up for target practice.
The strawmen were crudely stitched together out of old rags; the seams had begun to split from daily abuse.
In the Seeker’s absence today, he found the Inquisitor some forty paces away from the targets, plucking reclaimed arrows out from a barrel.
Bent shafts were discarded into a growing pile, then she checked the fletchings for signs of wear, before slotting the ones that passed her inspection into the leather quiver slung over her back.
Tall and straight-spined, the Inquisitor was almost regal in her bearing. She had the lean, taut build of an archer, with high cheekbones and dark, serious eyes. The afternoon sun glinted on lighter strands that had escaped her loose ponytail, auburn threads woven among the rich brown.
She was beautiful in a cool, sculptured way.
Once the quiver was filled, she picked up her bow. Reaching behind, she pulled three arrows, nocking one and leaving the other two to dangle from her release hand.
“Dorian,” she said without turning her head. “See that belt buckle hanging from the practice dummy’s neck over there? Could you make it swing, please?”
Dorian arched a brow. “Your wish is my command, Inquisitor.”
With a bit of force magic, he vaulted the brass clasp into the air, then letting it fall into a pendulum swing.
In a flash, the Inquisitor loosed the arrows in rapid succession. They whistled through the air – thud, thud, thud – sinking deep into the effigy’s head.
Without pausing, she pulled another shaft from her quiver and sent it flying again, straight and true, pinning the swaying target to the straw figure’s chest.
A most impressive display.
“Bravo, Inquisitor,” Dorian said, clapping his hands together. “Is poor Sera feeling quite threatened yet?”
The Inquisitor turned to him, and gave a soft laugh. “Not until I perfect my backflip shot, I don’t think. I’m still working on that one.”
There was something familiar about her: the way her woodland brown eyes softened when she smiled, the warm tone of her Free Marcher burr…. Though Dorian couldn’t quite place where or when he might have met her.
“Even after all these years,” she continued, “I can sometimes still hear my teacher screaming at me: “Heidi, eyes straight ahead! Heidi, hold your breath! Heidi, hold your chest up!” I suppose I should thank him for pushing me so hard back then. Never thought I’d be killing demons and darkspawn one day.”
Heidi – where had he heard that name before?
As Dorian stood transfixed, combing his mind for any memory of her, one of Leliana’s agents came up to them.
“Your Worship,” she said, handing over a folded and sealed letter. “A message from Sister Nightingale. She said it’s quite urgent.”
Dorian’s eyes widened at the name across the front of the note.
Inquisitor Trevelyan, in Leliana’s spidery scrawl.
Dorian drew in a sharp breath. A Trevelyan. Heidi Trevelyan.
He looked up in wonder at the woman before him. She was Trevelyan’s sister, one that he'd only mentioned in passing.
It was so obvious now, the undeniable family likeness in their dark brown eyes, in the curve of their full lips.
But if she became the Inquisitor, then where would Trevelyan be now?
“It seems like we’re needed in the Emerald Graves,” he heard the Inquisitor say as she read Leliana’s message. “A man named Fairbanks says he has information that could help us, but first we must help them eliminate these ‘Freemen of the Dales’.”
Dorian nodded, only half-listening. “Forgive me, Inquisitor. Do you have any siblings? Where are they now?”
Heidi’s brows lifted, but she looked more surprised than annoyed at his interruption.
“I’m the youngest of four, with three older brothers. Bernard and Norman are still living in Ostwick; Emery is currently in Nevarra.” She tilted her head to regard him. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” he said, forcing a wane smile. “Just idle curiosity about the family life of Andraste’s Herald.”
Heidi did not look convinced, but thankfully didn’t press the matter. “I must summon the war council to plan the campaign to the Graves. I’ll speak with you later.”
She turned to leave, but paused in her step for a moment, seemingly lost in thought.
Then, quietly, “I had a younger brother once.” She met his gaze. “But he died many years ago.”
This wasn’t his world. This wasn’t his amatus. And yet Dorian felt his breath trap painfully in his lungs.
Thank you Voidmancer for the beta, and greystree for your help with horsey things!
The skin-clinging, murky haze of the Fade slowly thinned as sunlight trickled through the dreamy realm, patterning a rosy glow behind his eyelids.
Dorian fought to stay a little longer – the hairs at the back of his neck yet stood at the fading sound of his name on hungered lips; the trace of feverous breath still damp on his skin.
Despite his best efforts, the illusion was soon pierced by shafts of light. As the last of the phantom warmth ebbed away, Dorian shivered under the thick blankets. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut against the sting of tears, pressing his hands to his face.
Two days, three hours and seventeen minutes since he found himself in this confusing mirrored world, alone and stranded.
The dodecahedron remained as silent and unresponsive as ever. Solas had yet to return from his mysterious sojourn after the demise of his spirit friend. Every minute, every second that passed took Dorian further away from the starting point.
The rising sun’s silvery rays flung dusty ribbons across the stonewalls, but they brought little warmth to the frigid southern air.
Dorian blinked against the pale morning light, and slipped out of bed.
The second bell rang as he began his daily routine: heating the water in the basin, washing, brushing his teeth, shaving, dressing.
When he was done, he pulled out several clean shirts and smallclothes from the wardrobe and tossed them into a haversack. A few personal essentials followed, some potions and salves, two rolls of bandages, an empty waterskin… And where did he used to put his small tin of leather grease?
The Inquisitor had requested him to be part of her team venturing out to the Emerald Graves to assist the displaced refugees under Fairbanks’ care.
There were worse locations to revisit – the Hissing Wastes sprang to mind – still, he had very much hoped his days of roughing it in the wilderness were over.
A loud, obnoxious knock made him pause, and the door sprang open before he could answer, letting in blast of cold air and a giant Qunari with a shiny, double-bitted axe over one shoulder.
“Hey, morning, Dorian,” Iron Bull said, his voice sounding much too loud in the close confines of the small room. “You still packing? Cutting it kind of close, aren’t you? We’re leaving in an hour.”
He wasn’t intending on being here this long, Dorian thought unhappily.
“I’m almost finished,” he replied with false gaiety as he stuffed an extra pair of socks into the well-filled bag.
If Dorian had learned anything after years of traipsing around Southern Thedas, it was to never underestimate the value of warm, dry feet.
Bull ambled closer. “I can’t wait to get back out there. Skyhold is nice and all but I have a mighty need to kill things. Crush some skulls. Boss even had Dagna specially craft this for me. Forged silverite, gilded copper handle, enchanted with a frost rune.”
He raised the war-hatchet, thumbed over its sharp edge. The blades gleamed with menace. “Can’t wait to slaughter some demons with this beauty.”
Dorian spared him a quick glance. “Watch where you’re pointing that thing.”
Bull’s answering laugh was a dry, hard cackle. He came another step closer.
“Say, remember how that Terror Demon got you in Crestwood? That thing clawed you good, slashed you across your arm.”
“What?” Dorian said distractedly, wrangling the straps of his bag.
“You were bleeding so much, must have nicked an artery or something. We thought we’d lost you for a while.”
Another step. Too close now.
Bull stared down at him from his not inconsiderable height, his one eye flashed with the sinister glitter of a predator.
Dorian’s smile faltered, warning signals feathering down his arms as Bull towered over him, the gelid blade of the silverite axe near enough he felt the frost nipping at his nose.
Bull’s grin widened, an almost feral tilt. “You had all of us worried there for a moment. But you pulled through, as you always do.” He leaned forward, caging Dorian in. “The ordeal left you some pretty battle scars.”
Dorian took a sharp breath. Kaffas.
Bull’s hand lashed out and seized his arm, fingers digging painfully into the smooth and perfectly unmarred skin.
His voice was low, stretched tight on the knife’s edge of control and fury. “Where is Dorian? Think hard before you answer that question. Ben-Hassrath over here, I will know if you’re lying to me. If I don’t like what I hear, you die.”
“Bull, please, it’s not what you think —”
“What are you? Demon? Shapeshifter?”
Dorian swallowed hard, forced himself not to flinch. This would be yet another shift, a new divergence from the starting state. But he was without choice.
“I’m neither of those things, believe it or not,” he said with as much feigned bravado as he could muster. “I am Dorian, just not the one you know. I come from a different timeline – an alternate existence, if you will. An accidental temporal distortion had resulted an unfortunate fold between our two realities. I’d somehow time-slipped and ended up here in your world. And I posit that Dorian from this world took my place in my home universe. I can assure you he is safe where he is.”
He could only imagine Trevelyan waking up to a bewildered doppelganger of his lover screeching nonsensically about Kirkwall and a house full of strangers.
Bull looked skeptical, but his hold on Dorian’s arm eased. It was a long way from trust, but it was a start.
“Here, let me prove it. Ask me something he’s told you that he said he’d never told anyone. Anything about his upbringing or his childhood,” Dorian winced, and with less certainty, “those things should remain the same, more or less.”
Bull was quiet for a moment, then: “That time at Magister Rabirius’ estate in Qarinus, at her son’s birthday party.”
Dorian’s mouth fell open. “I told you that?”
A self-satisfied smirk, and a smug nod of the head. “Yep.”
“Of all the things to share,” Dorian mumbled, feeling his face warm. “Eggplant. There was an eggplant involved. I was young and stupid, and that is all I will say about that.”
After a long second, Bull released his grip on him, stepping back. “Okay. That’s good enough for me.”
Dorian sighed, relief rushing through his veins quicker than his blood to the numbed left arm. He rubbed at the tender flesh, felt it tingle with returning circulation.
“I have been trying for days to reverse the travel, but the device that brought me here lies dormant, no matter what I try. Solas is the only one who can give me the answers I need.”
He went to the bookshelf, pushing aside the well-read tomes to retrieve the dodecahedron.
“There must be a way to activate this again,” Dorian said, peeling back the old undershirt covering it.
Holstering his axe on his back, Bull gave the quiescent artefact a dubious look. “Stupid magic crap,” he grunted. “No one knows where Solas is right now. It could be weeks, even months before he comes back.”
“The longer I linger, the more deviations my presence accumulates. Until I find out how exactly I got here, I intend to disturb things as little as possible.” Exhaling, Dorian felt his shoulders slump, as though they were trying to pull him to the ground. “It appears I have no choice but to go along with the flow of events in the meantime.”
“Whatever does the job,” said Bull. “I just want things to be back the way they were.”
Dorian managed a weak, wane smile. “You and I both.”
“Well, get packing then. Looks like you’re coming along to the Graves after all.”
* * *
It had been a few years since he last travelled on horseback, and Dorian’s body ached after only a day of riding.
There were new blisters on his hands, his thighs and knees were sore, and the pain in his hindquarters had emigrated to his lower back. Clearly, he had grown terribly accustomed to the comforts of well-padded carriages.
The Inquisitor, on the other hand, seemed tireless. She rode ahead on her snow-white steed, eyes trained on the horizon, watching for any signs of approaching danger.
Bandits, demons, Red Templars – their enemies were many and devious, but at least they were foes one could openly set on fire. A refreshing change of pace from the Magisterium, he supposed.
Behind her, Varric’s and Bull’s horses kept a steady trot side by side as they quibbled about the authenticity of espionage tradecraft in fiction.
They rode southward along the west flank of the Frostback Mountains, through rocky passes and down steep slopes. The swirling air grew warmer as they descended, snow and ice retreating to little clumps of white beneath alpine shrubs.
By the time they reached a small clearing, the sun had dipped low enough to wash the sky in flaming golds and reds.
The few small, deciduous trees offered little shelter, but it was a relatively flat spot among the jagged crags, so Heidi decided they should make camp here for the night.
After feeding and unsaddling the horses, they built a fire and unfurled their bedrolls near the crackling flame.
Dorian groaned when he sat down near the foot end, feeling every muscle in his body howling in protest at the movement.
Varric ladled a generous helping of boiled beans and salted pork into a bowl from the pot over the fire. “Here,” he said, shoving it into Dorian’s hands. “You’ll feel better with something warm in you.”
Dorian peered down at the thick, brown sludge. The sensational memory of the briny, waxy goop sliding down his throat was one he most definitely did not wish to relive. But his stomach growled, betraying his hunger.
“This vile concoction you Southerners try to pass as food,” he said as he stuck a heaping spoonful into his mouth.
It was every bit as revolting as he remembered.
“What I would do for some glazed ham with a dollop of blackcurrant compote,” he sighed loudly before taking another bite, chewing at the slimy mush and forcing it down. “Or perfectly baked sea bass with romesco sauce.” Another mouthful. “And honeyed figs topped with crushed walnuts for dessert.”
“That’s quite a feast you’re describing there,” Heidi said, sitting down opposite him on her own bedroll.
“Oh, you don’t know half of it,” Dorian grumbled.
The first time Trevelyan ate a honeyed fig, he made a noise so indecent Dorian wanted to drag him back to their room and tear off all his clothes.
“Tevinter banquets are known for their excess and overindulgence, with every fine delicacy imaginable: golden platters of roast meats and fish, fancy pastries and sweets; wine and ale flowing freely from jewelled pitchers all night long. It can be quite a spectacle.”
Behind Heidi’s answering smile lurked the shadow of her brother, and Dorian’s heart turned over in his chest.
He ate quietly, and watched Heidi as she unstrung her bow to wipe the wood with an oiled rag until the double-curved limbs glistened. Then, she rubbed a small block of beeswax along the full length of the bowstring, worked the oily substance into the long cord with careful fingers until it penetrated into the strands.
“Tell me, Inquisitor,” Dorian began, taking care to sound nonchalant, “what was it like growing up as the youngest child in the Trevelyan household? The only daughter as well. You must have been spoiled rotten.”
“Not really,” Heidi chuckled, the sparks of the campfire danced in her eyes. “My younger brother was the apple of our parents’ eye. Mother doted on him, called him her “little prince”, and he adored her in return.”
She tried to hide the rancour in her voice with a long sip from the waterskin, but he’d heard it.
“How did he…” Dorian swallowed a lump in his throat, unable to finish the question.
Heidi stared morosely into the crackling flames. “Our father sent him away at an early age to live with an elven clan. Ten years ago, we received word the entire clan was slaughtered, by either bandits or desperate Fereldans fleeing from the Blight. We never found out what happened.”
They'd succeeded. Dorian’s insides knotted with guilt. And anger. And pain. They'd succeeded in this timeline.
It was the Venatori who’d hounded Trevelyan and his Dalish family incessantly, determined to get their blood-stained hands on a rapidly ripening Dreamer.
It was his countrymen, mad with their deluded dream of restoring the Imperium’s ancient glory, who’d robbed this world of the Trevelyans’ youngest, and forever changing the course of events.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, voice fraying at the edges.
Heidi tucked the beeswax back into her knapsack, tied it shut. She pushed a strand of brown hair from her fine-boned face, eyes unreadable. “It was a long time ago.”
Across the campfire, Bull paused in his wiping down of his war-axe. “You okay there?”
Dorian straightened his back and recovered his smile. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
The Qunari’s one eye was shrewd and assessing, but at least he did not to press the subject.
The campfire burned to a gentle glow as the night waned. As Heidi headed off to higher ground to take first watch, Dorians settled into his bedroll, pulling the heavy blanket up to his chin, and closed his eyes.
That night, the Fade took him to places unknown, and he did not dream of Trevelyan.
* * *
Ten more days of battling the elements had to pass before they reached the verge of the Emerald Graves, and Dorian couldn’t be happier to see the luscious greens of towering broad-leafed trees.
They dismounted and continued on foot, leading the horses by the reins as they set out toward the Inquisition forward camp.
Bird song filled the forest canopy above. Brown nugs darted through the dense understorey of shrubs and saplings, squeaking as they scampered away from thudding hooves.
Rain had fallen recently. The damp grass crunched underfoot as they trod the uneven ground, its heavy dew darkening the leather of his boots with gradually expanding blotches.
Dorian took a deep breath, held the peaty fragrance of crushed bracken and fresh earth in his lungs for long seconds, as his heart trembled in its secret place.
A raven flew overhead, its winged-shadow fracturing the sunlight for a split moment. Distracted, Dorian stumbled over an exposed tree-root, staggering forward, and caught himself just before landing face first in mud.
Behind him, his mount stared confusedly for a moment. A handsome chestnut with flaxen mane, the warhorse's tall and muscular body radiated strength and discipline. A majestic beast, it was - though decidedly less so when it blew a soft snort that sounded awfully like a chortle at his clumsiness.
“Whoa. Easy there, mage boy,” Bull said, tramping up to his side. “Told you to hike up your skirt.”
Dorian tossed him a hard glare. “I’m not wearing a skirt.”
“Huh.” Bull’s brows arched in amusement. “That’s what he said.”
Dropping his voice so only Dorian would hear, Bull leaned closer. “So, in your reality,” he said the word as if he were trying it on for size, “you and I aren’t…” A vague gesture between them. “You know…?”
Dorian looked up in incredulous surprise. “Uh, no. Not for the lack of trying on your part, of course. I am, after all, incredibly handsome and charming. We did kiss a few times, but nothing came out of it.”
“Wait, I kissed you, multiple times, and nothing happened from there. You’re kidding me, right?” He balked when Dorian smiled, shook his head. “Okay, looks like alternate Iron Bull has lost his touch.”
“It wasn’t entirely you, to be perfectly fair,” Dorian said, as mildly as he could.
Bull chewed on that for a moment. “I see.” Then, he shrugged, flashing a toothy grin. “Your loss, vint.”
Dorian rolled his eyes skyward with a scoff, but couldn’t stop the amused twitch of his lips as Bull and he went to catch up with the others.
Scout Harding was already waiting for them when they arrived at the Hill Camp later that afternoon.
The befreckled dwarf clapped a fist to her heart in salute, her face lit with an easy smile. Reddish hair pulled up in elaborate braids; neat, as if freshly done.
Dorian looked down at himself, feeling thoroughly worn and rumpled. His once white robes were now stained with dirt and ichor, and no doubt he smelled as awful as he looked, having lacked a proper bath in weeks.
Two young soldiers came, and led off their wearied horses to be foddered and watered.
While Heidi was occupied with Scout Harding’s report – something something, Fade rifts, something something, Fairbanks; nothing he didn’t already know – Dorian made his way through the perimeter of the site.
Field tents were pitched on opposite sides on raised stone platforms, with canvas roofs stretched above for additional shelter.
Sealed casks of wine stacked upon barrels of smoked mutton and brined fish. Grains and beans stockpiled in dusty sacks next to bundles of timber, sawn and dried ready for use.
Freshly-polished swords and shields gleamed bright on the weapon racks, flanked by barricades of sharp wooden stakes.
It was a large and well-supplied camp by Inquisition standards.
Dorian replenished his stores at the potions table, slotting the vials into his belt one after another.
The wild berries and forest nuts that were laid out on a nearby trestle bench to dry shone like jewels in the light of the sun, and he couldn’t resist picking up a small handful. He popped them into his mouth, savouring the sour-sweetness of the fruits’ nectar and the satisfying crunch of the seeds.
Varric strolled over casually while Dorian pilfered a bar of rough-cut tallow soap from a half-opened crate.
“Good luck finding a bathtub out here,” the dwarf said, nodding at his prize as Dorian tucked it into his belt pouch.
“Happily, there’s a river up ahead just past Watcher’s Reach.” Dorian sniffed himself and grimaced. “I can’t wait to wash off this layer of grime and filth.”
Varric’s brows raised a fraction at that. “You never said you’ve been here before.”
Dorian slanted the dwarf a withering glance as his mind groped for a plausible explanation. “I have eyes, Varric. I can read a map.”
“Well, someone came prepared.”
Dorian tapped his chin with his fingertips. Surely a little harmless fun wouldn’t alter the world too much.
“Ten royals,” he said. “Ten royals says on the way to the Reach, we’d pass a hunk of pure white petrified wood shaped like a man in recline.”
“With a luscious tumble of deep mushroom growing out of where the crotch would be,” Dorian added with a long smile.
“That’s awfully specific, Sparkler. What kind of map have you been looking at?”
Dorian ignored his question. “Do we have a bet or not, my hirsute little friend?”
Varric narrowed his eyes at him. “Something tells me I should sit this one out.”
“Come on, don’t be such a milksop, Varric,” Dorian teased, raising his shoulders in an innocent shrug when he caught Bull shaking his head with a grin on his face as he passed by.
“My mother didn't raise any morons, Sparkler. No deal.”
The sound of their footfalls echoed dully off the steep valley walls as they followed the narrow, stony path into the canyon. The rock face stretched higher and higher about them, draped with lichen and rashvine in the few places where sunlight could penetrate.
The trail wound under the shade of magnificent old trees, and boulders that had tumbled down the cliff long ago, now moss-padded and wedged in the bottom of the canyon.
If Dorian hadn’t been here before, he would have felt quite lost in the giant crevice.
Finally, the rock-lined passage opened up into the Watcher’s Reach, the flat of the valley floor surrounded by overhanging branches and precarious wooden walkway.
There, at the entrance of the cave, stood a sullen-faced man. He was neatly dressed, in garments of better material than usually fell to the lot of Orlesian peasants, but he had the weathered hands of someone who’d laboured for a large part of his life.
Hello again, Fairbanks.
“It is an honour to meet the Herald of Andraste,” the Orlesian greeted in his thick brogue.
Heidi smiled cordially. “You’re too kind.”
“As much as I admire you, however, I didn’t reach out to the Inquisition just for this,” Fairbanks continued. “As my missive stated, we can help each other. The Freemen have killed a dozen of my people. We have been fighting back, even formed a militia to defend against these rebels. Our captain was a former bounty hunter, and he did his best to train the refugees as soldiers. But we’re poorly armed, and most of the men and women were farmers and peasants with little skill at war.”
His deep-set blue eyes were bloodshot and weary from weeks of inadequate sleep, but they held a fierce determination.
“The Freemen are colluding with your enemy, Inquisitor. I’ve seen rogue Templars through the woods, heading for the Freemen bases, leaving with crates. Help us destroy the Freemen, and they’ll lead you straight to the Red Templars.”
“I’ll look into it, Fairbanks,” the Inquisitor said evenly. “In the meantime, tell your people to stay close to camp.”
Fairbanks nodded. “Thank you, Your Worship. The Freemen’s patrols venture further each day. Too many of us have died at their hands.”
They were interrupted by a single blast of the hunting horn, signaling the return of the rangers. Soon after, three men and one woman emerged from the folds of the canyon, stepping into the sunlit dell of the valley.
They all wore dark, pitted armour that had seen better days – worn in places, scattered plating and leather patches were added over time for more protection, but they bore no markings or insignias.
“New recruits?” asked the woman, her voice deep and gravelly, muffled by the helmet. She gave them a once over. “They look tough too. Fantastic! We could really use the help. The Freemen are killing us out there.”
The stout man with the greying beard elbowed her. “Hush up, Kevan, it’s the Herald of Andraste.”
“Oh,” she said, sounding sheepish. The dark-skinned man behind her laughed at her expense.
The tallest of them, the one who’s obviously their leader, was a broad-shouldered man who had yet to speak a word.
Fairbanks raised a hand, motioning him over. “Captain Rick, the Inquisition is here to help us.”
The winged helmet obscured his face, but Dorian knew those hands.
He’d seen them lift heavy swords and stained with blood. Those hands had once fed him peeled grapes, gently brushed the hair from his forehead on a warm summer day, conjured magical fire and ice. They had eagerly undressed him, anchored their bodies together, held him as he came down from his climax.
He knew those hands well. He knew him.
Dorian’s mouth parted in a silent gasp, words piling up in his throat. You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive. His soul reached out, an almost physical leap in the man’s direction.
Captain Rick pulled off his battered helmet, and shook the sweat from his eyes before ruffling his flattened hair with his palm.
He looked like the Maker captured a shard of sunlight and built a man around it.
The captain’s gaze passed over them, before fixing upon the Inquisitor.
He smiled, but there was something behind it. Something Dorian didn’t recognise.
“Well met, Your Worship.”
Thank you for your patience! An update, finally.
It's an action-heavy chapter, loads of fight scenes.
Content warnings: death and graphic violence.
The Watcher’s Reach, like so many parts of the Emerald Graves, was a relic of ancient elves, an unmourned past that was quickly swept under the rug of history by the conquering Orlesian Empire.
Even in ruin, the archway built into the side of the ravine was an impressive sight. A thin curtain of brambles and creeping vines clung to the walls, slick from earlier rain. Twin owl statues guarded the soaring entrance; the winged messengers to the elven pantheon sat in lonely grandeur, now mottled green with moss and algae.
The elves might not live here any longer, nor did they remember who the mysterious hooded figure overlooking the valley was, but this was life fashioned in stone. An indelible mark that even time could not completely erase.
Carved into the bowels of a hill, the Reach opened up into a circular cavity large enough to house a small amphitheatre.
Ramshackle tents and crudely-constructed shacks lined the walls of the hollow, furnished with thin bedrolls and threadbare blankets. The resident smith, Jolenn, hammered glowing steel on a too-small anvil mounted on a tree stump, sending sparks flying and blinking out like shooting stars.
On the far side of the hollow, a plump woman with brown hair and a cheerful face busied herself stirring a huge, steaming cauldron over a makeshift stove of stones and clay. Several children took turns rotating a skewered hog roasting over an open fire, its smoky aroma wafted in the air, the fat spitting and sizzling as it dripped onto the hot coals below.
The misty waterfall gleamed in the daylight, thousands of frothy fingers reaching down the sheer rock face to skim the angular form of the wolf statue, before slipping into silver-green pool below.
As decent a home as the refugees had made out of the place, it was not, however, a tactically sound location to hole up in.
The two narrow passageways in and out of the cavern made natural choke points against invading forces; that’s a plus. But if the enemy were to gain control of the high ground on both sides of the ravine, with no safe exit from within the Watcher’s Reach, they’d be sitting ducks. That was a worrying minus.
Not that it was something the captain hadn’t already considered, for as soon as they walked into the Reach, he and his enervated companions handed over their scuffed helmets to the relieving patrol to sweep for any sign of pursuing enemies.
Now divested of her helmet, the tips of Kevan’s sharply-tapered ears peeked through the mass of damp dark hair. An elven rogue, then.
She unstrapped the leather greaves from her legs and tossed them at the lanky young man who’d soon take over her shift.
“They better come back unscratched, Flynn,” she said with a grin.
The other rogue snorted as he fastened the greaves around his calves. “There’s enough blood caked on these to make a whole stick of black pudding, Kev.”
Kevan ignored his retort. “And no more fooling around on the job, you and Bennet,” she said, nodding at a handsome, black-haired soldier who took the shield from the brawny warrior with the greying beard. “Unless you want Rick to split you up into different patrols again.”
Flynn glared at the elf, but it only made her grin wider. “We’ll behave,” he mumbled.
Dorian watched the easy camaraderie with equal parts envy and admiration. There was no denying their deep friendship and trust; it was something he’d missed dearly, having traded battlefields for the senate floor.
He peered sideways at Trev— at Captain Rick.
At first glance, he looked no different to the man Dorian called amatus. The splash of freckles across his nose and cheeks attested to a childhood spent roaming the forests and plains of the Free Marches. Those full lips remained perfect for taking between eager teeth. His hair was darkened with sweat, the afternoon sun lacing gold in every strand.
But the captain was younger, and leaner – too thin, in Dorian’s opinion – his face more angular, bronze skin flushed by sun and wind.
He bore scars and chafings Dorian did not know: a long, faded line ran along the side of Rick’s throat, disappearing into the fine layer of stubble on his jaw; another cut through the tail of his right brow – recent, still livid red – making a gap where the hair didn’t grow back.
And, most glaring of all – Dorian watched as Rick unslung the greatsword from his shoulder before setting the scabbarded claymore, point downward, against a nearby boulder – this world’s Trevelyan still had both his hands.
Rick followed wordlessly as Fairbanks ushered them to a seating area kitted out with cut log stools, his gaze never quite leaving Heidi’s face.
He knew. But of course he would.
Since the explosion at the Temple of Sacred Ashes, the world had kept a watchful eye on the rebel Inquisition and its ‘Herald’. Every aspect of Heidi’s public and personal life would have been breathlessly dissected in every corner of Thedas, as it had with Trevelyan in Dorian’s own reality, her every move scrutinized and discussed ad nauseam.
Rick must have known for a long time now the leader of the Inquisition was his long-separated sister.
But the captain said nothing, betrayed no emotion – not quite ready for a family reunion, perhaps.
Dorian could understand the sentiment.
When they sat down, the camp cook brought them crusty rolls and dishes of hot stew. Lottie, as Dorian would later learn, was a farmer’s wife, and had years of practice rustling up hearty meals out of meagre provisions. The muttonbroth was thin but flavourful; and in lieu of butter, they spread herb-seasoned marrow over warm bread.
It was no feast by any means, but having subsisted on nothing but slimy pork and beans for nearly two weeks, this humble fare felt positively extravagant in Dorian’s belly.
“Who are these Freemen of the Dales?” Heidi asked after she was finished.
“Most are deserters from war, tired of fighting and dying for a cause in which they’ve no stake,” Fairbanks said, chewing around on the food. “But recently, the Freemen have organised, started attacking anyone and everyone. Their new leaders are driving them to take the Dales for themselves.”
He shoved the last bite of stew-soaked bread into his mouth, dusting his hands off on his breeches.
“Your Worship, our situation is dire. We are under constant attack from all sides, and it is only a matter of time before they break through our defenses. We’ve already lost too many to Sister Costeau’s men, too many to count.” Fairbanks shook his head. “I’m tired of making the same announcement of yet another death, Inquisitor.”
“Well, if things go well, you might have to retract that last announcement.”
“I— what?” Fairbanks gawped incredulously, turning to face his captain. “What are you saying?”
Rick set his bowl of unfinished stew down on the ground. “We had followed the Freemen scouts to Sister Costeau’s base, in the veridium mine north-east of here. We skirmished for much of the day for an opening, but couldn’t gain ground. They tried to get around our flanks and almost succeeded. Kaydence’s squadron was forced to retreat to the hill due east.” He squinted at the mellowing daylight glinting off the waterfall. “They should be back anytime now.”
Fairbanks’ brows wrinkled. “You don’t sound too upset about this.”
“No,” Rick said, an almost-smile on his lips. “We created enough of a diversion at the front and kept those bastards occupied while Kevan sneaked into the mine. She saw them.” His dark eyes shone lively. “They’re alive, Fairbanks. They’re all still alive.”
“Maker’s Breath! That’s… That’s…” Fairbanks managed a choked laugh of relief, but his reply was cut short by a rush of commotion near the mouth of the cave.
A human woman, carrying a war-hammer as long as she was tall, lumbered into view. Her short-cropped red hair was damp from recent washing, but the iron plates of her armour were bespattered with dried blood and dirt.
“It’s good to be back in one piece. That was a close one,” she said as she took a seat beside Rick, the massive head of the war-hammer meeting the ground with a dull thud. “Captain, please tell me we got something out of that particularly grueling exercise.”
“Lieutenant Kaydence, Your Worship,” Fairbanks said by way of introductions.
Kaydence’s eyes widened at that, quickly lowering her head in a bow. “Inquisitor.”
Dorian did not miss the glance she slid in Rick’s direction, or the nearly imperceptible shake of head he gave in return.
Interesting. It appeared the secret Trevelyan had divulged his lineage to his trusted second-in-command.
Fairbanks seemed not to notice the wordless exchange. “Kevan saw them!” he said, grinning widely. “Bless the Maker — Gertrude, Chauvin, Jacques, Devon; they yet live!”
Kaydence looked up in alarm. “Kevan did? She went behind enemy lines alone?” She whipped her gaze back to Rick. “Is she—”
“She’s fine.” Rick gave her a reassuring smile. “You should go check in on her. She’d like that.”
Kaydence nodded, uncertain, but the tension in her shoulders eased.
“We have the Inquisition on our side now. This is a battle we can win,” Fairbanks said, turning to Heidi. “Your Worship, you must help rescue our friends, and put an end to the Freemen’s barbarism once and for all. Rick will go with you. He knows the terrain better than any of us. He can lead you through to the enemy’s flank without detection.”
Heidi looked to Rick, who met her gaze, held it. “All right,” she said, “We leave at dawn.”
* * *
They rose before dawn the next day.
The first light of morning bloomed over the horizon, its golden haze melting away the night sky, heaped with white rolling clouds shadowed in apricot-grey.
Few things could compel Dorian to leave a cozy nest of blankets in the frigid south, but the smell of fresh coffee was one of them.
The ground was still damp with dew when he exited his tent. The sharp air nipped at his face, his breath streaming out in front of him in a white plume.
The Inquisition camp had stirred into activity long before he’d awakened. A soldier prodded the embers of the campfire with a stick, coaxing it back to life with fresh logs, while two young recruits fetched water from the river and saw to the cooking.
Yawning, Dorian stretched his back, rolled his head from side to side. How dearly these old bones were missing the luxury of a nice soft bed, he thought as a few joints popped noisily back into place.
The hearty breakfast of eggs and sausage and hot coffee, along with thin loaves of wheaten bread Lottie had insisted they bring back with them — “It’s an old family recipe, passed down from my nan!” — restored some warmth to his body.
By the time they’d gathered their weapons and made the trek down the Watcher’s Canyon, the sun had climbed over the rim of the hills, gilding the tree’s green crowns with its brilliant shine.
Rick was already there by the entrance of the Reach, turning a newly-polished helmet over in his hands, inspecting it for damage. Fairbanks stood beside him, arms crossed, his body taut with anxious tenseness.
“Inquisitor, I hope you are ready for a long day ahead,” said Fairbanks, his accent thickened in his obvious agitation. “Our night patrol came back with news of Red Templars gathering near the mine, at least twenty strong. Your arrival has made the Freemen cautious, Your Worship, I’m afraid this rescue mission will not be an easy one.”
There was a pause as Heidi absorbed his words. “I have the best of the Inquisition with me. We will free your friends, Fairbanks,” she said. “Nevertheless, I’d like to speak with the scout.”
Fairbanks’ smile was thin, but present, peeking out from behind an uneven growth of stubble. “He’s resting in his bunk. I’ll take you to him.”
While they waited, Dorian nodded at Rick’s helmet, now tucked under his arm.
“I’m pleased to see you’ve found yourself a better helmet. That other one wouldn’t have lasted much longer,” he said. “This one’s from the Free Marches, if I remember correctly. Seems apt that you should use it.”
Dorian could almost see the man’s hackles rise. “I beg your pardon?”
“Your accent,” Dorian said quickly, hoping to allay his suspicion. “I heard you spoke yesterday. You have a faint but recognizable Ostwickian lilt — quite pleasant on the ears, I must say.”
It didn’t hurt to befriend this Trevelyan while he’s stuck here, Dorian told himself, just being neighbourly was all.
His efforts to gain the captain’s goodwill, however, had gone entirely wasted.
“I heard you’re a scholar from Minrathous,” Rick said.
Dorian smiled. “Indeed, I am.”
“Here’s a lesson for you, then: learn to mind your own business.”
Indignation churned in Dorian’s stomach, and he felt his face heat.
What if– Perhaps– If only he could just see… as though kissed by the evening’s breath. The mark that had drawn them together in another life, stamped onto Dorian’s skin by the Maker himself.
He angled his face at Rick, purposely displaying the mole high on his cheekbone.
An awkward pause later, Rick raised a dubious brow. “Is your neck all right?”
He showed no recognition — his eyes held none of the warmth, none of the affection Dorian had grown so used to seeing.
Dorian’s chest deflated, feeling slightly foolish to even think that the prophecy would carry over to a different reality — if it were even real to begin with.
“Yes, yes. Terrible night’s sleep at camp,” he replied, only half-lying. “I’ll need some time to get used to straw pillows again.”
Rick sighed, shaking his head as he adjusted the buckles on his vambraces. “You better not slow us down. I don’t have time to look after some noble brat who only wanted to piss off his parents.”
“Is that why you think I joined the Inquisition?”
“Why else would a Magister’s son be here?”
“Because the hole in the sky affects us all? That the Inquisitor is an inspiring leader, one whom I hold in the highest regard and whom I am proud to serve? Or, at the very least, maybe I’m here to assuage my guilt for all the wrongs my countrymen have committed in the name of restoring the Imperium’s ‘glory days’.”
Testingly, Dorian continued, “The Venatori have already done enough damage, as you would know.”
Rick narrowed his eyes at the remark, his jaw clenching. “Just stay out of my way.”
Well, that was that then. Off to a great start, they were.
At this juncture, Dorian was reasonably sure of two things: one, this charming lad was without those pesky amulets; and two, if his baser nature was given full reign, Trevelyan could be a bit of an arsehole.
As Rick walked away to the far side of the vale, putting considerable distance between himself and the party, Varric elbowed Dorian in the side.
“So Sparkler,” he said with a smirk, “how come I don’t remember you ever telling me how pleasant my Marcher accent is?”
“Oh, shut up you.”
The six Freemen dawdling near nettle pass were easy pickings.
An hour before their shift change, Rick had explained before they left the Reach, it was the perfect time for an ambush.
And he was right. Tired and yawning, the men had grown lax in their duties, holding their weapons carelessly as they waited for the guards who would relieve them to show up.
The first spray of arrows caught two Freemen in the neck. They fell, clawing at their throats, gurgling as they tried to scream but instead drowned in their own blood.
Bull charged into the midst of the stunned soldiers, his axe raised high above his head, knocking one to the ground.
“No crown, no nobles, no Inquisition!” the Freemen captain yelled. “You can’t win. We own this place!”
He did not see Rick’s greatsword until it slammed into his tower shield with a metallic thump. The Freeman staggered backwards from the impact, mindlessly swinging his mace.
Dorian sent forth a flurry of frost magic, trapping the man in a sheet of ice long enough for Rick to deliver the final blow.
They finished off the remaining soldiers with little effort. Satisfied that the area was secure, they put away their weapons and removed their helmets for a breath of fresh air.
“That was way too easy,” Bull said as he kicked a still-twitching limb.
Varric surveyed the scene before them. “Don’t worry, Tiny. Pretty sure that was just a warm up. You’ll have your fun later.”
Rick ignored their idle chatter. He raked his fingers through his sweat-flattened hair, and it stood up in soft spikes Dorian wanted to smooth back in place, but didn’t.
Crouching beside a dead Freeman, Rick rolled the body over onto his back to pat down the belt pouches for potions or decoctions that might have survived the incursion.
After a long drink from her waterskin, Heidi bent down next to him and began rifling through another dead soldier’s clothing with practiced ease.
Rick paused in his search and eyed her with incredulity. “You’re the Inquisitor,” he said with no small amount of judgement. “The Herald.”
Heidi shrugged, pocketing the newly-acquired gold. “It means Andraste approves. Every bit helps.”
Her answer did not appease him – if possible, he seemed to grow more mortified as Heidi began stripping the dead soldier of his armour.
“This one’s tall. His tassets should fit you, Captain,” she said as she unhitched the protective leather from around the man’s thighs and plopped the bloodied article on the grass by Rick’s feet. “You might want to give it a good clean first, though.”
Rick blinked at her, his mouth slightly agape, looking utterly flummoxed.
Dorian brought a hand to his mouth to hide the growing grin.
Evidently, the role of the overbearing older sister came quite naturally to Heidi, even if she didn’t know it yet. Must be a Trevelyan family trait, this high-handedness.
Save for their dark brown eyes, Heidi and Rick bore little likeness to each other. But seeing them side by side, it wasn’t difficult to find some physical similarities: they shared the same generous lips, and the same angular jaw – both handsome, with a long-lashed, almost feminine delicacy.
Dorian would not presume to know why Rick kept mum about his identity — Trevelyan never said much about his childhood or his noble family, except for his mother’s calamity that led to his exile. It was obvious that part of his past still pained him, even many years later.
Perhaps, in time, Rick would find the bridge to reconnect with his flesh and blood.
Before they reached the western perimeter of Freemen territory, Heidi spotted a spherical elven artefact half-hidden behind a thick bush — one of those veil-measuring devices Solas had used to strengthen the wards, which, in hindsight, seemed terribly unlikely.
As Heidi activated the globe with the anchor in her palm, Dorian almost jumped at the strange vibration that erupted from his haversack.
Fasta vass! His hand flew to grasp the offending object from outside the bag. It was warm to the touch, and a faint glow emanated through the fabric.
The dodecahedron! It’s reacting to the artefact!
The veil-measuring apparatus flared with coiling green energy, and for long seconds, the dodecahedron pulsated along with it.
And then the vibration stopped as abruptly as it started, and Dorian was left with even more questions. Why was the dodecahedron responding to the device? How did they interact? What exactly did those elven artefacts do? What did this all mean?
And, most important of all, was this his way home?
He shelved his myriad of emotions, and withdrew his staff from his back. There were people to rescue, lives to save.
Later, he thought. Later, he’d hunt down Solas and demand answers from the trickster god himself.
Their checkpoint was some thirty yards from the Freemen blockade, where they could safely observe a large cluster of Red Templars and several veterans keeping watch behind barbed wooden barricades.
The Chantry’s banner flew high above them, the fine fabric stained grey with ash.
“This is the closest we can get without being discovered,” Rick said in a low voice. “We took out most of the Freemen archers on the west path yesterday, so their ranged attacks won’t be as substantial. Their numbers have thinned out some, but the Red Templar reinforcement will be a challenge.”
Bull made a gruff sound, peering over the dense growth of fern that concealed them. “I see three shadows, two marksmen, and four armed guards. That’s still a lot of them Templars.”
“And that’s just outside the mine,” Varric added. “Oh boy, this is gonna be fun.”
Heidi turned to Rick. “Any suggestions, Captain?”
“Your over-sized Qunari and I charge directly into their assault line, break their battle rank while you two provide long-range cover from that ridge on the right.” He pulled on his fingerless gloves, flexing so the leather stretched and released over his knuckles. “Rain fire on them while he and I slaughter whoever comes running out from the mine. Then we storm the place before they can regroup, and slay Sister Costeau on sight.”
“A sound enough plan to me,” Heidi said, unshouldering her bow and silently nocking two obsidian-tipped arrows. “Are you all ready?”
Bull’s grip on his axe tightened with a leathery squeak. “Oh yeah.”
“Bianca is more than ready to kick some ass,” Varric said, cocking his crossbow and loading an explosive-tipped bolt.
Dorian glanced at the thick wooden spikes protruding upwards from the ground.
“I’ll escort our warriors with a wave of flames. Do try to stay away from anything flammable, will you?” Then, unable to help himself, added, “Please be careful, Captain Rick,” and regretted it immediately, seeing the confused frown on the man’s face.
Avoiding his companions’ inquiring eyes, Dorian cleared his throat. “Let’s get a move on, shall we?”
Once they were in position, Heidi gave the signal.
With the advantage of high ground on the crest of the ridge, the heavy shower of arrows and bolts she and Varric let fly had found most of their marks behind the blockade, skewering faces, necks, and arms. The human targets fell, but the Red Templars only snarled in fury, shards of crystals breaking off their grotesquely encrusted heads when they swiveled to point in their direction.
Drawing deeply from the Fade, Dorian raised a colossal wall of fire and sent it surging across the grassy terrain and into the heart of the blockade. The smell of burning flesh filled the air, as did the piercing screams of agony.
Rick and Bull vaulted over boulders and burst through bushes, charging from opposite sides into the Templars in a savage collision of metal and brute strength, war cries rolling from their throats.
Dorian brought up a barrier around them before blasting the angry Templars with a chain lighting spell, stupefying a shadow assassin long enough for Bull to cleave it from neck to sternum.
After giving him a wink and a thumbs-up, Bull barreled into a Templar Knight, simultaneously driving his axe into its chest.
“A qunari’s kiss just for you!” he bellowed with a grin as he slammed his forehead into the Templar’s face.
There were nine of them, five of them now lie dead on the ground. Only four to go.
Tingling heat hummed under his skin as Dorian ceaselessly pulled arcane energy from across the Veil, shaped it into flame and ice. The rush of battle enlivened his senses, made his blood race through his veins with exhilarating speed.
He had missed this more than he’d thought. As much as he enjoyed politicking and excelled the power game — and the Magisterium would be so utterly dull without his sharp wit and fashionable flair — Dorian of House Pavus had faced and defeated an ancient darkspawn. He was a battle mage, honed and forged through trials and tribulations of a brutal and exhausting war.
A war that had yet to be won in this world.
Striking the ground hard with the base of his staff, Dorian hurled spell after spell at the Red Templars, conjuring flames and unleashing spirits of fear.
“Enemy reinforcements!” Rick shouted, clipping the last Templar Knight in the back of the head before darting to the mouth of the ravine.
The earth shook slightly at the thump of their feet, as more Red Templars and Freemen swarmed into the narrow passage. Bull and Rick met the onrushing stampede at the top of the valley — they were vastly outnumbered, but only a few Templars could get through the chokepoint at the time to fight them.
Trapped, the Red Templars and their human comrades were defenseless when a blanketing cloud of arrows flew over Dorian and rained down on unshielded heads and shoulders.
A second volley of arrows thudded, this time with explosives. More men fell screaming. The screams of dying.
Seeing an opening in their ranks, Rick and Bull ran full speed into the lot of them, ramming into the Templars. Bodies went flying, and the warriors swiped at anything that moved.
The smell of blood scented the air as they pressed forward, carved their way deep inside enemy formation, hacking their way through the Freemen defenses.
Varric and Heidi repositioned themselves at the edge of the valley, providing cover fire as the warriors neared the entrance of the mine.
The ravine was so choked with bodies, Dorian nearly stumbled in his haste to reach the bottom. Rounding the bend in the path, he dodged the unsteady axe of a wounded Freeman, spun and sank his staff blade into the man’s throat.
Melee combat was not his strongest suit: it’s barbaric and messy, and bloodstains were so difficult to clean from fine reeled silk, but it was effective — and he must conserve his mana if he were to keep the offense afloat.
With Templar eyes all fixed upon the warriors, Dorian slithered his way up atop a massive, moss-covered boulder. Staying low, he swept his staff in a half circle, and felt the weft of the world warp. Solid gold streaks trailed his fingertips as he traced a glyph in the air. Haste magic unfurled around him like shimmering bloom, until it erupted into a dome of iridescent light.
Time slowed, and the sounds of battle faded to a distant din.
Rick’s next blow was aimed at the Behemoth’s monstrous arm when a Templar guard attacked his flank. Deflecting the slash with his vambrace, he pivoted to his left to avoid the Behemoth’s backhand swing, only barely, and kicked the guard off his sword, knocking him back. With his heavy boot, Rick stomped on the Templar’s throat, and Dorian heard the sickening crunch of bone breaking.
The guard’s death-cry was drowned out by the Behemoth’s shriek, now frenzied with bloodlust, pink foam frothing from its crusty mouth. Rick lunged, thrusting his long blade at the monster’s torso. But he wasn’t quick enough – the Behemoth blocked his blade with a downward hit of its overgrown arm.
“Fuck,” Rick hissed under his breath, jumping back to avoid being pummeled by the Behemoth’s crystallised fist.
But then, the monster’s motions lagged, as if moving through heavy mud. As soon as Rick recovered from his surprise, he swung his two-handed greatsword at the Behemoth’s knees, arcing out low, and with two swipes, severed both its legs. The monster squealed as he plunged his long blade into its chest.
Rick’s eyes found his across the distance between them, and Dorian couldn’t help the little swell of pride that warmed his chest when he nodded his approval.
Then the warrior took full advantage of his heightened speed.
Ducking one blade and parrying another, Rick brought his greatsword down onto a Templar Horror, slicing it from nose to chest. He retrieved his blade, allowed his body to follow the momentum and thrust the sword into an advancing Freeman soldier, sending it through his solar plexus.
Blood misted over Rick’s face, and he roared in triumph across the battlefield.
His taunt was answered by a flying mace, hurled in an arc with deadly precision. The weapon slowed only marginally as it entered the fading dome. Rick sidestepped, and the baton narrowly missed his chin as it sang right past him.
Standing in the arched doorway of the mine was a looming figure, ice-bright armour spotless and unsullied by blood, her face hidden behind a silver mask.
It was Sister Costeau.
The blue plume of her Orlesian helmet curved like a wing, and it looked like a bird ready to take flight when the breeze rustled its long feathers.
She raised another golden flanged mace in the air. “Kill them!” she yelled. “You will never get out alive!”
With a growl, Rick sped straight for her. Costeau widened her stance as their weapons clashed.
“We meet again, Captain,” she gritted out. “Even the Inquisition won’t save you now. We’ll get you, then we go for Watcher’s Reach!”
Bull moved in behind her and leapt, bringing his axe down hard in an overhead cut. But Costeau was a battle-tested warrior – without turning, she caught the blow with her heavy tower shield, unfazed. Bull’s axe skidded over the metal in a streak of sparks, the resounding crash echoing through the canyon.
Dorian targeted the centre of the brawl, willed his power into his hands, and launched a barrage of lightning bolts at Costeau. The blasts flew to their mark, struck the metal of her armor, snipped through the gaps in the plating. Costeau cried out, and Dorian heard the sizzle of burning skin.
Bull and Rick capitalized on the momentary lapse in her defense. Their blades whistled through the air as they smashed blow after blow on Costeau with brutal force. The Freeman leader’s shield swung up, but it hardly protected her from the onrush.
Heidi and Varric joined in the fray, pelting ancillary enemies with arrow fire thick as locusts. One by one, Templars and Freemen fell, fatal wounds opening across throats and chests.
With both hands, Dorian slammed his staff into the ground, and a spell of horror roared into life. Costeau let out a bloodcurdling screech as the fearsome spirit gorged on her terror. She swung her mace blindly, striking nothing but air.
Sweeping her shield aside, Bull rammed the pommel of his axe into Costeau’s ribs. As she spun to defend, Rick knocked her mace from her grasp, sending it clattering into the darkness of the mine.
Defeated, Costeau dropped to her knees.
“It’s over. Stand down,” Heidi said. “Sister Costeau will be brought to Skyhold for judgement.”
“No! No mercy!” Rick barked. “For too long she and her men have terrorized and butchered innocent people — men, women, children.” He levelled his sword at Costeau’s throat. “I will show you the taste of steel, vermin.”
“This isn’t your decision to make, Captain. It’s mine,” Heidi replied, unflinching. “Let her go.”
Rick’s eyes were black with rage. He pushed the edge of his sword into skin. “I do not answer to you, Inquisitor. Costeau dies here.”
“Stand down,” Heidi repeated. “I promise you, Captain, there will be a proper trial. Justice will be serv –”
A brief flash of light sliced through the air between them, and Costeau’s head snapped backwards. Blood bubbled through the iron mask’s mouth-hole as she clutched the slim dagger embedded in her throat.
Rick’s gaze never left Costeau; he watched as she choked in her own blood, body spasming, until she finally went still.
Only then he turned to the direction where the dagger came from, where an elven rogue stepped forward into the clearing.
“For little Vladka,” she said with a smile, albeit a small, watery one.
Rick nodded, looked away. “For little Vladka.”
* * *
They fell into a subdued silence as they entered the veridium mine.
The ground was hardened from countless footsteps, scattered with loose gravel and dead leaves. It was clear the Freemen had been encamped here for some time now. Tables were strewn with playing cards and half-eaten meals, upended chairs tossed haphazardly on top of dirty bedrolls.
After some effort searching, Heidi finally found the key to the cell and freed the prisoners.
Gertrude came running to hug Kevan tightly, tearful and relieved. The others squinted as they came into the sunlight filtering through cracks and crevices, smiling as they breathed in the sweet air of freedom.
They knew the Freemen were conspiring with the Red Templars, so it came to no one’s surprise when Varric discovered an enormous red lyrium deposit in one of the mine’s chambers.
The dwarf was only too happy to see it destroyed. Crunching a stray shard under his heel, he shook his head, sighing, “Not this shit again.”
Having had a dangerous brush with a red lyrium infestation himself, Varric’s sentiments echoed Dorian’s own. If it weren’t for Trevelyan, he could very well have become one of Imshael’s puppets, lost to mindless rage and violence.
Dorian took a quick glance at Rick, who obviously felt none of the same concern Trevelyan did for his well-being. How could he still look so much the same, and yet so different?
Oblivious to Dorian’s inner turmoil, Rick stepped around him to examine the crusted bodies of the fallen Templars, now slowly disintegrating.
“Pure red lyrium,” he said, nudging a small block of crystal with his boot. “These would sell for a pretty penny in Val Royeaux.”
Dorian’s hand shot out, grabbing his arm before Rick could pick it up. “What are you doing?” he shouted. “Are you mad?”
Rick’s wide-eyed surprise quickly gave way to annoyance. He yanked his arm out of Dorian’s hold.
“If you hadn’t noticed, we’re not exactly rolling in it. We need blankets, we need medicine, proper food and warm clothing for the children.” His lips arched into a sardonic smirk. “But I suppose you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you? Pay attention, vint.”
Dorian’s jaw tightened, and he felt a vein throb in his temple.
Vishante kaffas. What an infuriating, unpleasant man.
“I’d listen to Sparkler if I were you, Captain,” Varric concurred. He jutted his chin out at the glittering lyrium. “I’ve seen first-hand what this crap can do to people, and trust me, it ain’t pretty.”
Rick eyed them both warily but at least he made no further argument. Thank the Maker for small blessings.
They received a hero’s welcome when they returned to Watcher’s Reach.
Soldiers cheered wildly as they came down the canyon, their swords raised high. The refugees roared with thunderous joy, tossing arbor blessing petals in the air as families were reunited: brothers and sisters, parents and children, lovers and friends.
Fairbanks and Lieutenant Kaydence awaited their arrival by the entrance, wide grins on their faces.
“You saved my people!” he said, eyes alight with elation. “We’d given them up for dead. Perhaps the stories are true.”
“I didn’t do it alone,” Heidi demurred. “Sister Costeau will no longer be a threat. But we found her correspondences with other Freemen cell leaders, a Commander Duhaime, man named Maliphant, and a chevalier named Auguste. They would have to be eliminated for your people to truly be safe.”
“Thank you, Inquisitor,” Fairbanks replied, clasping his fist to his chest in gratitude. “The chevalier has taken up residence at Argon’s Lodge, north-west of here. It is well-positioned with natural defenses and adequately fortified. If you could help us build a community there, we might finally have a town to call our own!”
“Very well,” Heidi said. “We’ll start there. Tomorrow, before our enemies recover.”
“As a token of my gratitude, I offer you the services of our captain to the Inquisition.”
It took Rick several seconds before he registered Fairbank’s words. He looked up in bewilderment. “Wait, what?”
Fairbanks ignored his question. “You have seen his prowess in arms, his grasp of strategy and tactics. He’s an excellent commander, Your Worship, and would be an asset to your Inquisition.”
“Hold on a minute. You can’t just gift me away like a dowry sow! You need me here!”
“The civil war has ended, Rick,” Fairbanks said. “Once the rest of the Freemen are defeated, our most immediate concern is for the hole in the sky to mend.”
“No ‘buts’. You know you want to,” Kaydence said, smiling with a knowing air.
Rick shot her a glare. “I really don’t.”
“I appreciate the offer, Fairbanks, but there is no need.” Heidi’s tone remained even and polite, but Dorian could sense her patience with Rick had worn thin. “The good captain belongs here, helping your people.”
“Thank you, Inquisitor,” Rick said quickly. “See? They don’t want me there.”
“Nonsense. We’d be delighted to have you working for the Inquisition.”
All eyes turned to Dorian, and he met the raised eyebrows with a jovial smile, ignoring the one scrutinizing frown directed solely at him.
“We’re an upstart, so we’re not exactly in a position to be turning away help. It would be remiss of us not to accept your generous offer, dear Fairbanks.”
“Now, vint, what are you—”
“Dorian,” he smiled, extending his hand. “If we’re to work together, I’d prefer it if you called me by my name.”
Too many pairs of curious eyes swiveled back to Rick, and for a moment, Dorian thought he might stomp off in a huff.
“Dorian,” Rick said. He reached out to take Dorian’s hand in his. Calloused, warm, strong. Familiar.
His dark, dark eyes probing. “Dorian,” he said again. “I'll keep that in mind.”
Thank you Voidmancer for the beta, and greystree for your help with the Orlesian and horsey things!
Twice daily, the ordinarily quiet rookery above the library erupted in a restless frenzy of squawking and flapping.
As soon as the ravens caught sight of the scullery maid and the bucket of meat scraps in her hands, they shrieked with hunger, black wings beating against the bars of the cages.
She filled the metal cup attached to a long wooden handle with the bloody morsel, then extended the pole out and emptied its contents into the hanging enclosures, one after another. It was only then the ravens quietened down as they pecked at the offering, with the occasional rustle of feathers when two fought over a choice bit of meat.
Dorian breathed a sigh of relief. Finally.
He rested his elbows on the railing, leaning forward as he resumed the idle rolling of the dodecahedron between his hands.
Since its unexpected interaction with the elven artefact in the Emerald Graves, Dorian had examined the device daily, studied every groove and every notch, willing it to reveal its secrets.
But it was a futile task. The dodecahedron lay dormant, the patina-coated metal remained cold and unyielding – nothing but a broken key to an invisible lock.
If only he could observe the device’s vibrating response to the elven artefacts, measure it even, and then correlate the data with known energy levels of the time magic research he and Alexius had spent years pursuing.
There were several of the globular apparatus lying about in the Hinterlands, if memory served him correctly. Perhaps it was time for a jaunt through the charming Ferelden countryside.
One floor below, the door to the great hall swung open with a rasping, metallic groan. Heidi stepped into rotunda, wearing a brocade doublet so thickly-starched it could have stood on its own. She carried with her a blood-darkened sack, neatly tied at the top in a big knot.
Dorian groaned inwardly. Helisma’s little desk of horrors, mere yards away from his alcove, was already heaped with demon entrails and animal extremities even without the Inquisitor’s latest contributions.
The odour was, in addition to Southerners’ startlingly poor concept of hygiene and the brutal cold of the Frostback, something he most certainly did not miss from his time with the Inquisition.
Dorian watched Heidi pause at Solas’ table, shifting the sack from one hand to the other. She flipped through several weathered pages of a hardbound book and, finding nothing, turned her attention to the tiny scribblings on the many sheets of parchment fanned out before her.
The Inquisitor’s optimism was commendable, but it was highly doubtful Fen’harel had left them a note detailing his whereabouts.
On the far side of the rotunda, another door opened; then footsteps – heavy footfalls made by a heavy man. Or – as Cullen came into view, metal plates jangling with each step – a man who insisted on wearing a full suit of armour wherever he went.
Heidi looked up from a piece of papyrus scrawled with incomprehensible runes. “Commander.” She nodded in greeting. “Good morning.”
Cullen cleared his throat. “It is indeed. Quite a pleasant morning.” He winced visibly, right hand flying up to rub the back of his neck. “I mean, yes, good day to you too, Inquisitor.”
Dorian barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes. A crush. How utterly darling.
Though he supposed it was a fine match: the noble Inquisitor and her loyal warrior commander, bound by duty from whence love came. A tale as old as time itself.
Cullen was handsome enough in his uneasy, slightly abject fashion – a humility that was at odds with the strength of a man who faced daily battles with lyrium withdrawal.
If Dorian were to be perfectly honest, during the early days of the Inquisition when he and Cullen would toil for what seemed like hours over the chessboard, he had entertained the possibility of inviting the commander to his room to bend over for something of a more…vigorous nature.
That was until another handsome warrior swept into his life like a beautiful, chaotic whirlwind, pulled him into depths of his heart and never let go.
Dorian turned the dodecahedron in his hands once more. Smiling, he thumbed one of the ‘round nubs’, as Trevelyan called them.
“What is that?”
An odd tenderness flared in his chest at the familiar voice. Dorian glanced over his shoulder to find Rick approaching, dressed in a simple tunic of grey cotton which did lovely things stretched over his broad chest and shoulders.
“It’s a paperweight,” Dorian said, straightening up, careful to keep his voice neutral.
At the skeptical lift of Rick’s eyebrow, he qualified his answer, “From Tevinter. A very highly sought-after collectible. Not that you southerners have the good sense to appreciate fine crafts.”
The brow didn’t relax, but Rick was either too preoccupied or too indifferent to question it further. “No, I suppose not,” he said.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, my dear Captain?”
Rick’s eyes lifted to Leliana’s station upstairs. “I’ve been summoned to meet with the spymaster.”
From the way he said it, it was clear he understood it would be more of an interrogation than a friendly social call.
“It’s merely a formality,” Dorian said, waving a hand in dismissal. “A quick chat to ensure you’re not some enemy spy looking to infiltrate our ranks.”
Rick gave him a stony stare. “Never mind that I didn’t want to be here in the first place.”
“True.” Dorian couldn’t help the guilty little chuckle that followed. “For what it’s worth, I am sorry for putting you on the spot.”
“Well, now that I’m here, I might as well stay and make myself useful.” Rick gave the spymaster a slight inclination of his head, as she watched them from above with acute interest. “That is, if I pass the evaluation.”
“I have no doubt you and Sister Nightingale will get along swimmingly,” Dorian said as he gave her a little wave. Leliana was Trevelyan’s closest confidant, one of the few with whom he could share his feelings and burdens. There was no reason to believe the same shouldn’t hold true here. “Once she sees you have every intention of keeping the Inquisitor out of harm’s way.”
Rick eyed him with a closed expression of guarded annoyance. “You presume to know a lot about me.”
“Do I? I hadn’t noticed,” Dorian said with an arch grin.
Rick’s mouth opened, only to snap shut again when Heidi emerged from the stairwell.
“Gentlemen,” she greeted them, the revolting sack of flesh still in her hand. “Please, don’t stop on my account. I’m only passing through.”
“It’s fine,” Rick said quickly. “The spymaster is expecting me. I should go.”
There was a lilting melody in Trevelyan’s voice when he’s tense, imperceptible if Dorian didn’t know him as well as he did – his alternate self was no different, it seemed.
Without waiting for a reply, Rick nodded a curt farewell and strode from the library, his boots echoing softly in the vaulted dome ceiling.
They watched his retreating back, tall and straight and austere, until he disappeared up the stairs.
“I apologise for interrupting what I assume was a riveting conversation?”
“Might I suggest, Inquisitor,” Dorian said, pivoting on his heels to face Heidi, “if the good captain is to work closely with the inner circle, perhaps a little team-building exercise is in order. Something to break the ice, so to speak.”
Heidi crossed her arms, and the sack swung dangerously close to his knees. “What do you have in mind?”
Dorian took a discreet step back, then another, remembering to breathe through his mouth.
“How do you feel about a little excursion to the Hinterlands, helping farmers and refugees? He seems to like that sort of thing,” he said, tapping his fingers to his chin. “Naturally, you’d be bringing with you the most charming members of the Inquisition. I am the most obvious choice by a long margin, but I’m happy to let Varric tag along as well.”
“I suppose I should make more of an effort to get to know him. Our interaction thus far has not been friendly, to say the least.”
“It would be good for the two of you to spend some time together,” Dorian smiled, “get to know each other.”
Heidi frowned at him, suspicious. “You’re not trying to play matchmaker, are you?”
There was a pause as Dorian tried, rather unsuccessfully, to smother the burst of giggles that soon rolled into breathless laughter.
“Good heavens, no!” he said once he’d composed himself enough to speak. “I assure you, nothing of the sort crossed my mind.”
“Very well, then. I’ll inform the advisors this afternoon.”
“Fantastic! Now, why don’t you hurry along?” Dorian scrunched his nose. “Helisma is waiting and I’m starting to feel faint from the tiny gulps of air I’m permitting myself.”
* * *
“You know,” Dorian said as he looked over the forest-clad mountain range stretching across the clear blue sky, “I camped in these hills for two weeks when I got here. Me, camping!”
Unlike his first visit here, when the earth was numb and the grass frosted grey, the Hinterlands had been touched by spring. Wildflowers carpeted the peaty slopes – yellow, white, and lilac blooms swayed gently, stirred by a breath of wind he could not feel. The air was languorous with the heady scent of silver fir and the hum of foraging insects.
Beside him, Varric increased his pace a little, trying to match his long strides as best as his stout dwarven legs would allow.
“Huh. With all the complaining you’ve been doing, Sparkler, it’s so hard to tell you’ve done this before.”
“Well, I never said I’d enjoyed it,” Dorian said. “And my standards haven’t quite slipped far enough to delight in sleeping on bedrolls thrown over a pile of leaves and eating meals of ram jerky so tough you could sole a shoe with it.”
“Hey, this trip was your idea, remember?”
“Indeed, it was! See? It’s already working. Look how well they’re getting along!” Dorian nodded at their two companions ahead: Heidi crouched over a patch of scrub grass, boot-knife in hand, cutting stalks of elfroot and throwing them into a sack held open by Rick, who looked utterly bored having been relegated to bag duty.
Varric scoffed. “Well, if you set the bar low enough…”
“There’s nothing like bonding over a little demon-hunting,” Dorian grinned. “Hurry now, Varric, I believe we’re nearing a Fade rift!”
The rest of the day went by in a blur.
Between sealing rifts, fetching breathing potions, and convincing demonic cattle to return home, they’d settled into a bit of friendly competition concerning the number of bandits killed.
Varric led the count for much of the afternoon, until his gloating became unbearable, and Dorian took the initiative of unleashing devastating energy barrages long before the dwarf’s arrows could ever reach their intended targets.
Good-natured heckling over the legitimacy of his methods was exchanged; even Rick joined in Varric’s jocular protest when Dorian declared himself winner.
By the time Heidi planted the last marker to claim the supply caches left behind by fleeing apostates, the sun had dipped behind the Frostback Mountain range, spilling pinks and purples over the cloud-dappled sky.
The camp at Dwarfson’s Pass was set on a rise, bracketed by a surviving stone wall and the foot of the steep hill fringed by several scattered sand pines and low-lying shrubs.
The open-fire blazed merrily, throwing out prancing shadows against the crumbled remains of what used to be a watchtower. Two soldiers busied themselves hobbling and tethering a band of horses to a rope tied between two trees, while a third gave the steeds a last rubdown for the night.
“Inquisitor!” The requisition officer gave a snappy salute. “Apologies for the crowded conditions. These horses are en route to Skyhold, only camping here for the night, unless you have other plans for them, ser.”
Thanks to Master Dennet’s meticulous planning and coordination, the Inquisition had in place a far-reaching network of horses across Southern Thedas. From packhorses and messengers’ palfreys to coursers bred specially for war, every major Inquisition camp rotated a steady supply of fresh mounts, ready for the tasks at hand.
“It’s all right,” Heidi said. “We’ll be on foot while we’re here.”
Varric sat heavily on a crate, wiping sweat from his brow. “Hey, this dwarf wouldn’t mind a ride while the rest of you walk.”
“We may have a tiny problem there, Varric,” Dorian said. “I don’t see a pony. Do you?”
He laughed when Varric made a rude gesture in return.
One of the grazing horses perked up at the sound of his voice. The stallion’s ears pricked forward and whickered a greeting, tossing his head up and down, beckoning Dorian to come closer.
“Hello there.” Chestnut with flaxen mane – it was the same warhorse he’d ridden to the Emerald Graves all those weeks ago.
“His name is Zarzamorano,” the young groom said in her tinkling, melodic accent. Southern Orlais, probably. “Very smart, very loyal. Only a thick stubborn streak keeps him from being Master Dennet’s best horse.” She gave a slight bow. “Recruit Eva, ser.”
“Zarzamorano. That’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it?” Dorian stroked the flat area between the stallion’s large brown eyes. “I think I’ll call you… Zarzam.”
The warhorse nuzzled his soft snout into Dorian’s chest, swishing his broom of a tail. “That’s a yes, then?”
“He likes you,” Eva said with a grin. “He doesn’t usually like anyone new.” She dug into her leather pouch and retrieved half an apple. “Here.”
“That’s because I’m not a stranger.” Dorian smiled as Zarzam happily lipped the fruit from his palm and crunched it between his teeth.
“We’ve met before.”
The soldiers made a thick pottage for supper. In the iron pot suspended over glowing coals, the stew of turnip, wild barley, and bacon simmered away gently. Its meaty aroma reached Dorian as he joined the others around the campfire, his hunger poking at him.
The moons were mere sickles of light on this balmy spring night. the canopy of stars pressed close to the earth, like a dark blanket armoured with precious stones.
Tucking into their meals, they traded tales of past exploits, serenaded by chirps of nocturnal insects and the crackling of embers. Varric spoke of Hawke, not of his heroics as the Champion but as the brash but loving friend that he was, including a ghastly story of a night spent collecting goose shit to make his own Redblossom Special in a bid to raise funds for the Deep Roads expedition.
Rick had travelled across Southern Thedas, chasing fugitives in the warmer months and hunting game in the colder seasons. He recounted the first time he slayed a wyvern; the thrill of battling a creature of incredible beauty and power, the two broken ribs he suffered, and the pleasingly hefty sack of gold he sold its hide for.
Heidi described her own upbringing in which her father encouraged her to excel in both academics and physical pursuits. From a young age, she’d received lessons in archery and horseback riding as well as studies of grammar, arithmetic, and music.
Dorian did not miss the way Rick’s face softened as Heidi boasted of besting her older brothers in almost every subject, and how she often read to their sickly mother to divert her mind from sleep-terrors and apparitions.
The untidy mix of longing and guilt fogged those dark, humid eyes – Trevelyan’s eyes – and Dorian’s chest tightened around a secret ache that wasn’t his.
Another log was tossed onto the fire as they broke open another cask of ale.
Dorian sipped at his refill, and wiped away with a linen cloth the lacing of white on his moustache left by the frothy head of the dark brew.
“So, Inquisitor,” he said, clearing his throat. “I couldn’t help but notice our commander has been making calf eyes at you. Any plans to capitalise on that?”
Heidi did not choke on her ale, but it was a near thing. “For the love of—” She coughed and laughed at once, sounding like a cat with a hairball. “No, Dorian. That is not going to happen.”
Varric snorted into his mug. “The Inquisitor has her eyes on someone else.”
“Hush, Varric!” She slapped him on the shoulder playfully. “I told you that in confidence!”
Dorian replenished her mug with more ale from the barrel. “No need to be shy, Inquisitor! We’re all friends here. Do tell.”
Heidi shook her head and accepted the brimming cup. “I don’t see you spilling the beans about Bull.”
“Yeah, Sparkler, what’s up with you two? I don’t see you at the tavern much these days.” Varric gave him a sly wink. “Lovers’ quarrel?”
Dorian took a long sip to buy some time as he pieced together an explanation.
“I had recently gone through some personal changes that I feel a hiatus would be beneficial, even necessary. At least until such time when I can…reattain my previous state of being, one that is infinitely more congruent with the Iron Bull’s expectations.” It was a reasonably truthful answer – one that they deserved. “In the meantime, he and I remain close, but entirely platonic, friends.”
Varric’s smile flattened. “That’s a lot of big words to say you guys are ‘on a break’.”
“With perfectly good reasons, I assure you.” He risked a glance at Rick, who seemed deep in thought, his gaze lowered to the flickering campfire. “Perhaps one day I can tell you more.” Dorian grinned, then. “Even if I’ve been told to never trust a dwarf without a beard.”
“Well, now, that’s just cruel.” Varric clasped a hand over his heart in mock hurt. “You should know better than to listen to baseless slander. And you call yourself a scholar!”
“But I am a scholar! Well-versed in temporal magic, the discipline of necromancy, classic history – and if I’ve had enough to drink – divine linguistics of the filthiest kind.”
Varric guffawed, slapping his knee. “Good man.”
“You know, I’m also trained in the art of palmistry,” Dorian said, draining his mug and setting it down on the ground. “I can read your past life’s doings through the lines of your hands.”
He’d probably regret this tomorrow, when the haze of alcohol cleared, but what was the point of time-travelling if he couldn’t have a little fun?
“Now give me your paws, Varric.” The dwarf gave a skeptical snort, but obeyed.
“Hmm. It appears you were an expert marksman in your past life as well. Now, this line says you’re a compulsive gambler and gifted storyteller. And this one says you were an adventurer, having travelled across Thedas.”
“That sure sounds like me all right.”
Dorian squinted dramatically at the dwarf’s hands. “Interesting. Your path eventually led you back to Kirkwall, where you were made Viscount.” He let out a little gasp. “They would go on to name you Viscount Poils du Torse.”
At that, Varric laughed and snatched his hands away. “You asshole.”
Rick’s brows furrowed in confusion, until Heidi mouthed the words ‘chest hair’, waving a hand in a circle over her torso. Realisation sparked light into his dark eyes, and his lips curled into the smallest of smiles.
Heidi was next, taking off her gloves before putting her hands in Dorian’s.
He inspected her hands, oohing and aahing every so often. Admittedly, he could only share whatever scant details Trevelyan had told him in passing.
“You had married into a wealthy and distinguished Starkhaven noble family, with two – no, three – children. Two daughters and a son.”
Dorian struggled to remember if Trevelyan had ever even mentioned their names.
“It was a marriage alliance but it was you who’d negotiated and brokered the pact. The union brought stability and prosperity to both houses.” He gave Heidi’s hands a gentle squeeze, smiling. “Your parents were very proud of you.”
It took a firm nudge to his side from Varric – “Come on, Squiggles!” – before Rick would put down his mug.
Dorian straightened up slightly as Rick walked over and sat angled toward him, side by side, almost close enough for their knees to touch.
The campfire coaxed few glimmers from the bloodstained plates of his armour. There was a drying cut on his lip, slightly bruised and swollen. The way Rick probed at the ridge of the wound with his tongue was so terribly distracting.
Dorian cleared his throat again. “Let’s see what we have here.”
Rick’s hands were warm and strong, long fingers calloused in places Dorian was familiar with. His palms bore old, faded scars – Dorian explored them with his thumbs, down to where fingers joined the palms, brushing against the smooth little pebbles worn into the skin from years of sword use.
“You were born noble but did not live the life of a lordling,” Dorian began. “Fate had denied you many things: parents, a family home, a normal childhood. You ought to be full of resentment and bitterness, but you were filled with love, so much that even the strongest magic couldn’t completely snuff it out.”
He traced a fingertip down a line on the left palm, where the anchor would have been, and felt Rick shiver in response.
“Your road to happiness wasn’t easy. But after many trials and tribulations, you would one day have a family to call your own.”
Their eyes met, and Dorian’s heart stuttered in his chest.
“What about you?” Rick asked. He didn’t shrink from Dorian’s gaze, nor did he withdraw his hand from his clasp. “What happened in your past life?”
Dorian bathed in the familiar warmth of his lover’s touch for a long, blissful moment before pulling away.
“I fell in love with a man,” he said with a small smile. “It was a time of war, a time of great uncertainty. There were grief and ruins, and so we took every moment of happiness without reserve. Within his arms, the world disappeared. In him, everything sank.”
Dorian’s hand moved to his chest, where Trevelyan’s ring rested under his clothes.
“I thought I knew love, but I was parched, you see. The world was a soulless, arid place, and I’d no idea an ocean awaited.”
Dorian pushed himself out of the chair, yawning widely, then stretched his stale, tired body to roll the kinks out of his back.
He’d spent all night in Skyhold’s underground library, poring over the many old books and codices. Try as he might, the content of the text, though perfectly preserved, was far beyond his grasp of the elven tongue.
He had hoped to find a match for the dodecahedron in one of the many intricately illustrated tomes, or at least one of similar design. But there was not a scrap of documentation to speak of, none that suggested the device existed, let alone used by the ancient elves.
That night in the Hinterlands, whilst everyone slept, Dorian had snuck out of his tent and made his way to the Winterwatch Tower, just south of camp.
He stated his pretended errand to the night-guard at the gates, flashing the shimmering seal of the Inquisition – “top secret assignment,” he’d said, “by order of Her Worship” – and was promptly waved in without a second glance.
On the top floor of the main tower, the elven relic remained undisturbed. It sat in the same spot Dorian had seen it in years before in his own world, on a small table against the end of the balcony. Its cold, emerald light blazed against the ink-black sky, the arcane energy swirling and pulsing like a living thing.
The dodecahedron did not vibrate as it had when Heidi activated the dormant artefact in the Graves. Though when he fumbled it out of his haversack, he felt the device turn warm in his hands and, curiously, one of its twenty spherical knops began to glow a phosphorescent green.
Measuring the Veil, my arse, he’d thought.
Dorian stretched his arms wide, and rolled his shoulders again as he made his way to the door. It’d be a long time since supper, his growling stomach reminded him. Hopefully, he wasn’t too late for breakfast.
At this late hour of the morning, pickings were slim on the long tables in the main hall. Still, the stag sausages were perfectly browned, the smoked river trout adequately moist, and he even managed to nab the last honey cake on the plate.
Varric wasn’t in his usual place at the table near the fireplace, quill in hand, hunched over a sea of parchment. Instead, Dorian found Leliana seated there, sipping a cup of tea as she read the latest scout reports.
He settled himself in the chair opposite her. “Don’t tell me,” he began, cutting into a sausage. “Cassandra finally got her wish: you gave her permission to abduct the dwarf so she could exact her revenge, at long last. Poor Varric. Shall I prepare a eulogy?”
Leliana’s lips quirked at the corners. “Varric went willingly. Only because Cassandra promised to play nice.” She reached out across the table and broke a piece off the honey cake, ignoring his protest. “The Inquisitor had asked for you too, but my runner didn’t find you in your room.”
“I was in the underground library all night,” Dorian said, swatting at her thieving hand. “Where are they off to in such a hurry?”
“Lady Trevelyan, the Inquisitor’s mother, has passed,” Leliana replied. “A raven flew in from Ostwick early this morning with the news.”
Dorian felt his smile dwindle. Maker’s Breath, how could he have forgotten this? His head swam with images of a darkened tent, of a man bloodied and bruised, and the ravening kiss that spoke of fear and longing, loss and desire. It was Lady Trevelyan’s death that had set off a spiralling series of events that culminated in a night in the soft hills of the Hinterlands that forever changed everything.
“Does everyone know?”
“Yes, we made the announcement shortly before the party left Skyhold.”
The constricting grip around Dorian’s heart tightened. “Who else went with her?”
“I sent one of my best agents, Cillian,” Leliana said after she finished her stolen treat. “Don’t worry, he’s a very capable arcane warrior. You won’t be missed much.”
He allowed a grin to show. “Impossible! My shoes are much too large for anyone to fill.”
“It’s a simple escorting mission.” Leliana picked at his honey cake again, and he let her. “The family wants the Inquisitor to be present at the funeral ceremony. I heard they were close, mother and daughter.”
“When’s the funeral?”
“In ten days’ time. The Inquisitor said she’d return before Summerday.”
Dorian nodded, clasping his hands together. “I suppose that means you shouldn’t mind too much if I took a personal trip with Captain Rick, then.”
Leliana eyed him for a long, cool moment. “To?”
“Somewhere nice, quiet. Unbearably romantic, ideally,” Dorian said as he folded his linen cloth with slow, deliberate movements. “I feel like he and I had a…connection, shall we say? And I’d like to see where that takes us.”
Leliana’s face gave nothing away, and he briefly wondered if she’d always been this inscrutable, apparently unruffled by anything.
“Be very careful there, Dorian,” she said finally. “I can’t have you leave a trail of broken hearts behind you within the inner circle.”
Dorian rose from the table, smiling. “Consider your concerns duly noted, Spymaster.”
The warhorse blew a loud flutter of lips when Dorian entered the stable, whickering in his stall in greeting.
“Not now, Zarzam,” he scolded, but nevertheless was lured by those big brown eyes into giving the chestnut an affectionate pat. “You haven’t, by any chance, seen Captain Rick, have you? Tall, handsome, perpetually scowling?”
Enclosed by crenelated curtain wall, Skyhold was a massive three-storied keep, providing plenty of nooks and niches for one to hide away. Dorian had tried the tavern, the sparring ring, Rick’s room, even the barn – all his usual haunts, but the man was nowhere to be found.
“You talking to the horse or me?”
“Master Dennet,” Dorian said as the gruff man emerged from the back room, carrying buckets of horse feed. “Didn’t see you there.”
The horsemaster gave him a raised eyebrow. “I don’t know about your pampered horses in Tevinter but the ones down south won’t answer you back.”
Dorian brushed off the jab with a dry laugh. “Didn’t hurt to try.”
“But if you’re looking for the militia captain, I saw him in the lower courtyard after the Inquisitor and her party left Skyhold.” Dennet poured the mix of grains and beet pulp into the wooden troughs with practiced deliberation. “That was hours ago, though.”
And suddenly, Dorian knew. He knew where he would find Rick. “You’ve been more helpful than you realise, Master Dennet. Thank you.”
The air in the courtyard was mild and soft, scented with the fragrance of wood smoke and freshly picked herbs. Dorian paused to let a potter and his two-wheeled cart pass, then crossed the last few yards to stand before the iron-hinged door.
It seemed so obvious now. A place where one could be alone, a secret hideaway where they wouldn’t be disturbed. Trevelyan and he had a place like that, too, many years ago, in this very same castle. It was, for a time, their refuge from monsters and hurts.
Dorian pushed the creaking door open, followed the stairs down and into the torch-lit prison.
And there he was, sitting in the decrepit part of the dungeon, feet hanging off the end of the broken ledge.
Dorian’s eyes traced the familiar shape of the man’s back – he was so still, staring off into the middle distance, unmindful of the waterfall that stretched away beneath, roaring into the long and narrow gulf.
Dorian approached slowly, letting his presence be heard. Rick threw a glance over his shoulder at the sound of his footsteps.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” he said, and returned his eyes to the same spot.
At least he sounded sober.
“Oh, pardon me,” Dorian said, handily slipping into sarcastic banter territory, “must have missed the notice that said the Inquisitor left you in charge.”
“Go away, Dorian. I’m in no mood to entertain your nonsense,” Rick said, but there was no fire behind the words.
Ignoring his inane demand, Dorian joined Rick at the edge. He carefully sat down, swallowing hard at the nerves that jumped up into his stomach. Goodness, it’s a long fall down to the rocks below.
“Captain. I need you to get off your arse, go to your room, and pack your bag. Then, meet me at the main gate as soon as you’re ready to leave.”
“Why?” Rick asked quietly, the word almost lost under the growl of the rapids. His eyes were dry now, but red-rimmed, filled with a distant sorrow so heavy that Dorian felt choked by it.
Dorian took a steadying breath. This could end terribly, augmenting the realities of others, not to mention the high possibility being pushed off the ledge before he could finish speaking. But Dorian knew Trevelyan, knew the stain of his guilt and pain would forever remain, if he didn’t at least say goodbye.
So, Dorian curled his fingers around the rough stone, and said: “You and I are going to Ostwick.”
Rick straightened slowly, his grief shifting into a guarded tension. “Why?” he asked again, more forcefully this time.
This was a gamble, but one that Dorian must take.
“I know you’re Heidi’s brother,” he said, meeting Rick’s stare levelly, “the one she’d thought long dead.”
Rick’s eyes flashed hot and sharp. “And why would you think that?”
“Do you know you have the same laugh?” Dorian asked with a touch of genuine amusement. “The same smile, the same dark eyes. The family resemblance is faint, I grant you, but it’s there. Not to mention, you speak with nearly the same soft Ostwickian lilt, and suffer from insatiable sweet-tooth. Your mannerisms give you away, too: you both look up when deep in thought; and chew on your bottom lip when you’re concentrating on something. I’ve spent more than enough time around you to put two and two together.”
His smile faded, and he turned his gaze to where the pale blue sky met snowy peaks.
“I’d lost someone, too, some years ago. He’s…” Dorian paused as he groped for a suitable way of putting it. “He was like a father to me, even if he’d done things that I probably could never truly forgive.
“I was at the Winter Palace when I’d received the news, incidentally, on a diplomatic visit orchestrated by him.” He shook his head with a soft chuckle. “One of the most powerful magisters, felled by an assassin’s blade.”
His mind had been a chaotic jumble of every emotion at the Exalted Council. The message of his father’s sudden passing, succinctly reported on a small crumpled note; seeing Trevelyan again after two long years, not knowing where they stood with each other, how much of ‘them’ was left ….
“Despite everything, I wanted to say goodbye,” he continued. “So, I went home after the assembly, picked out my most splendid mourning robes, put on a gorgeous coronet of laurel leaves, and pushed aside all the paid weepers to see his face one last time.”
After a long moment, Rick asked quietly, a whisper, “What did you say to him?”
Dorian’s eyes stung, but he blinked the moisture away. “That I know. I wish things were different, but I know.”
Silence draped itself over them, heavy and profound. Below them, the waterfall continued its frothy barrage, seemingly endless and eternal.
Finally, Rick took a long breath and pushed himself to his feet.
“I’ll meet you at the gates,” he said. As he headed up the stairs, Dorian allowed himself a quick, private smile.
* * *
The Inquisitor had a bit of a head start, having already reached Jader and boarded the galleon bound for Ostwick before they’d even left Skyhold.
To make the journey in time for the funeral, they must ride hard to reach Highever within six days, where they would then catch a cargo ship across the Waking Sea.
That plan met its first resistance right out the gates of Skyhold, when flurries of snow fell from grey clouds overhead. It made for poor visibility, and the descent down the rocky terrain treacherous. They had little choice but to rely on their horses’ instinct to find their footing on the snow-slicked mountain trails.
Dorian hunched his shoulders against the frigid air and tucked his chin inside his collar. The flakes drifted softly, gently down around them, adding to the powdery snow that crunched beneath steady hooves.
He could have summoned a barrier if he had the energy to do so, something large enough to shield both men and horses from the cold. But he hadn’t slept a wink last night, and exhaustion pulled at his bones.
“The things I do for you, amatus,” he mumbled into the stiff fabric. Zarzam whickered under him, as if in sympathy, blowing clouds of vapour into the wintry air.
It took longer than usual to reach the lower slopes of the mountain, but at least the snowfall had eased to a light flutter. Dark forest hugged the trail on either side, the needles of its evergreens remained edged with frost.
Dorian sniffled miserably. Maker’s Breath, it was cold. His cloak was now laden with snow, and the heat of his breath melted some of the flakes, soaking his collar and chilling his neck.
He sighed, regretting again – for the thousandth time? – everything that had brought him to this moment. If only he’d returned to Trevelyan’s bed, instead of tinkering with ancient artefacts he had no knowledge about, he could still be in a large, warm bed, snug in the arms of his large, warm lover.
Dorian stole a glance at the man riding by his side. Rick, rosy-cheeked with snow-tipped lashes, seemed unfazed by the freezing conditions. He turned and met Dorian’s gaze, eyes sharp and scrutinizing.
If his face wasn’t so frozen, Dorian might have been able to emote his confusion better. “What?”
Rick expelled a breath from his nose. “You.”
“Follow me,” Rick said curtly. And before Dorian could object, he’d rowelled his horse off trail and into the thick of the forest.
“Kaffas, what is it this time?” Dorian said out loud, urging Zarzam to hurry after Rick.
There was nothing special about the spot where Rick finally stopped. Dorian watched as he circled his horse around a large spruce, eyes sweeping the landscape.
“We’re stopping here for a rest,” Rick announced.
“What? Why?” Dorian squinted at the sky. A silver line of geese streaked above, honking noisily as they went by. “It’s still several hours away from nightfall, and I’m hoping to get as far as Gherlen’s Pass before dawn.”
“No, we stop here now,” Rick insisted, already dismounting. “You look like you’re about to topple over.”
“Nonsense,” Dorian replied, stubbornly. “I’m perfectly fine.”
“You have a fine horse under you. But even a stallion as spirited as he can’t do much with a rider too tired to sit upright.” Rick unharnessed his mount, a deep-chested courser, and turned it loose to graze. “We’ll make better time once you’re rested.”
Dorian sighed loudly, swinging off the saddle. In truth, he was tired, and cold. And the prospect of rest did sound so very enticing. “Very well. But only for a little while.” With numbed fingers, he slipped off Zarzam’s bridle and set him to forage. “What now? Do we pitch a tent? Build a fire? Sing a little song?”
Rick pulled out a wool blanket from his sack and sat on the dry ground at the base of his chosen tree.
Leaning his back against the trunk, he said, “Come here. I’ll warm you up.”
Rick rolled his eyes. “Not like that.”
“Are you quite certain?” Dorian asked, sitting where Rick patted, the open space between his legs, with his back to him. “From my experience, this seems to be heading in a very specific direction.”
“I have never been more certain about anything in my life,” Rick said as he threw the blanket over both of them.
“Now, now, there’s no need to be unpleasant,” Dorian replied. “I’m merely saying I can hardly feel your body heat under all that armour. If we are to huddle for warmth, shouldn’t we be - oh!”
He broke off when a wave of delicious warmth rolled over him, making his skin tingle. Around them, a silvery dome shimmered into being, small enough that Dorian could reach out and touch its translucent surface.
“I suppose there’s no point in hiding it anymore, since you already know,” Rick said, tugging the blanket closer around them. “Better?”
Dorian sighed happily. “Much. Thank you.”
“What had you so worn out you couldn’t conjure even a simple barrier?”
“If I had known I’d be setting out for Ostwick today, I wouldn’t have stayed up all night reading.”
“Must be some book.”
“Oh yes, a collection of naughty Antivan poems, dating back to the Towers Age. Care to know what they did with a gourd filled with angry bees? Truly ingenious.”
Rick made a huffing sound that was almost a laugh, warm breath teasing the small hairs at Dorian’s nape. “I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Fine. Be boring then.” Humming, Dorian wriggled his toes inside his leather boots as the prickly sensation grew. “I can feel my feet again. Hooray.”
“So, you know what I am?” Rick asked after a moment. “What I am capable of?”
“You’re a mage,” Dorian said simply. And a surprisingly decent one, evidently, at least compared to his Inquisitor alter-ego.
“I’m much more than just that.” The acerbity in those words hurt more than Dorian cared to admit. He resisted the impulse to place his hand over Rick’s. This man was not his to comfort.
“Your father did what he thought was right, but it doesn’t mean he was,” Dorian said slowly. “People will always fear what they don’t understand. If only you’d been born in Tevinter, you would have had a proper education, learned to control your powers before you could even walk.”
“Or I could have been kidnapped and groomed to become some Venatori Magister’s mindless and obedient killer.”
Dorian winced inwardly, realising his misstep. “That’s a possibility, yes. The Venatori are a tumour on the soul of my country. But with every cluster we eliminate, we free Tevinter – and Thedas – of its hold, little by little. And now, with a powerful dreamer on our side, I’ll say the odds are in our favour.”
Rick seemed to consider this. “Why haven’t you said anything to Heidi?”
Dorian suppressed a yawn. Poorly. “I’d assumed you had your reasons for not telling her yourself.”
“Is that why you asked me to join the Inquisition?”
“No. I thought you had a nice arse, and I wanted something pleasing to ogle while I drag myself up the rolling hills of the Graves.”
This time, the sound was unmistakably a laugh. “Is that so?”
“Well, your breeches could stand to be taken in a bit – ” the yawn finally escaped him, fatigue weighing his eyelids down “ – I could arrange something with Josephine’s tailor, if you’ve a mind.”
Dorian valiantly fought the compulsion to sag against the solid chest behind him. Though it became inevitable, as each second passed swaddled in warmth, that it was a losing battle.
“Sleep,” he heard Trevelyan say, “I’ll wake you when it’s time to leave.”
Outside of their glistening shelter, thin snowflakes continued their silent dance to earth, dampening the sounds of the forest.
As he slipped over the edge of slumber, Dorian thought he felt arms close around him, gentle and still, enfolding him in a protecting cocoon of blankets and limbs.
* * *
Dorian had slept soundly, dreamless. Full dark had fallen, along with the temperature, when he was nudged awake. A haze of frost clung to the surface of the dome, ice crystals feathering out like outstretched hands, all of them disappearing the instant Rick brushed away the glyph he’d traced into the earth and dispelled the shelter.
They rode through the night under a canopy of stars, gradually descending until the mountain pass widened into a broad expanse of open plains. A few isolated farmhouses and barns scattered among the fields and patches of wild heathland.
With their way lit only by waxing moons, they spurred their steeds up onto the elevated stretch of the Imperial Highway, and begun their journey along the coast of Lake Calenhad, turning north-east, steadily moving farther away from Skyhold.
When both riders and horses tired, they would set up camp by the side of the highway. They ate rations of smoked meat, hard tack, and dried berries. On the third morning, Rick bought barley bread and a large wedge of soft cheese from a farmer’s wife, and they broke their fast under the sparse shade of an old alder tree.
The spread was plentiful – with hard-boiled eggs and apples they’d filched from a local orchard, in addition to the newly acquired bounty.
Dorian must have been staring, for Rick gave him a chary glance as he topped his bread with a far-too-generous helping of cheese.
“What?” he said, taking a defiant bite. “I like cheese.”
“So I’ve noticed,” Dorian replied, holding back a grin. “Is it a Trevelyan thing, this obsession with dairy?”
Rick raised an eyebrow as he chewed. “Do you know a lot of Trevelyans?”
“You’d be surprised. Sometimes I feel like I can’t throw a stick in any direction without hitting one of you.”
Rick seemed satisfied with that answer. “We are a large clan, I suppose.” He ripped himself another handful of bread and plopped another thick hunk of cheese atop it. “Ostwickians have a strong tradition of dairy farming. For us, a meal without milk is no meal at all. We may not be the biggest nor the most powerful city in the Free Marches, but we do have a long and proud heritage of making the best cheeses in Thedas.”
“True. When I was in Kirkwall, years ago, the lovely blue-veined cheese I’d purchased from an Ostwickian vendor was about the only bright spot of the visit.”
“Why Kirkwall?” Rick asked, deftly peeling a hard-boiled egg before offering it to Dorian.
He accepted it. “Morbid curiosity, perhaps. I wanted to see for myself the aftermath of the Chantry explosion, what the people made of the calamity. I wanted to learn more about this Anders – the Warden apostate who will forever be known as the man who started a war – and everything that’d led him down this path.”
“Anders is a product, not the cause, of an oppressive regime supported by a corrupt Chantry to serve their own interests. I don’t believe he’s the monster many paint him to be, but nevertheless, what he did in Kirkwall was excessive and irresponsible. Only time will tell, whether he’s the villain or the hero of the story.”
“Do they teach you that in Tevinter Circles?” Rick asked, nonchalant as could be. “The diplomatic art of using a lot of words to say nothing at all.”
“No, I was rather good at stepping on everyone’s toes. It’s my specialty, actually.” Dorian flashed a wry smile. “But alas, being a pariah meant I had to learn a pesky little thing called ‘tact’.”
“It must be quite different for you down south, then.” Rick’s tone was neutral, but loaded with insinuation. “No slaves, for one.”
“Back home, slavery is an institution that requires no justification – it’s everywhere. Some voluntarily sold themselves into servitude, others were purchased like cattle. House Pavus had many slaves, that is true. We treated them better than most, but they were slaves, nonetheless, subject to their masters’ whims. I have never owned a slave myself, and I hope I live long enough to see the trade abolished in my country.”
Rick gave him a long, measured look. “How long exactly have you been practicing that little speech?”
Dorian chuckled. “Let’s just say, you’re not the first person to interrogate me on the subject. I gave the wrong answers the first time, and I won’t make the same mistake again.”
Harper’s Ford was a port town situated in the centre of the Highever Terynir. For much of the Blessed Age, the territory was locked in long and bitter conflicts between the Howes, who sided with the Orlesian occupiers, and the rebel-supported Couslands. The town eventually fell to the Couslands, and Tarleton Howe hanged for his treachery.
Now, dual banners flew high above the entry gates: one bore the laurel wreath of House Cousland, the other the Highever heraldry of twin spears crossed over a raindrop.
After boarding their horses at the town’s public stables, where the exhausted mounts were grateful to find hay and oats waiting, they made a quick stop at the docks to buy themselves passage on a grain-transport vessel heading back to Ostwick the following day.
Dorian balked at the price – “Forty sovereigns, are you joking?” – but Rick had already tossed the burly, heavyset man a hefty coin purse.
“That’s more than enough for two people,” he said, “as well as food and water for the journey.”
The ship’s captain spat out the long stalk of wheat he was chewing on and began counting the gold pieces. “You’re twisting my balls, mate. This is half of what I asked for.”
“It’s a fair deal and you know it, my friend. Take it.” Rick gave the man a tepid smile, the sort that said he was wasting his valuable time.
“Fine,” the captain grumbled, pocketing the money. “This will buy you two bunks in the steerage. We leave tomorrow at noon. Don’t be late.”
“I hope you have more where that came from,” Dorian said after they left the docks. “Twenty gold for a one-way trip. That’s daylight robbery if I’ve ever seen one.”
“The Inquisition doesn’t provide much of a stipend, I see.”
“With so many refugees still pouring into Skyhold, one can hardly expect a wage for doing the right thing.” Dorian cast him a pointed look. “If you hadn’t noticed, we’re not exactly rolling in it.”
Rick smiled, seemingly amused at hearing his own jab thrown back at him. “It’s good that I picked up the red lyrium after all, then. The chatty dwarf who lives in the undercroft was ecstatic when I sold her the shards. Said they were the purest she’d seen yet.”
Dorian groaned, shaking his head. “You went back to the mine. Even after I explicitly told you they are dangerous.”
A slight shrug of one shoulder. “I was careful.”
“If only you knew what I know,” Dorian muttered under his breath.
Soon, they passed around a corner and walked along the alley until they arrived at a two-storey inn called The Drunken Varghest.
Dorian looked up at the sign. The picture painted on the wood was worn and faded in several places, but he could still make out the beast, standing on its hind legs, mouth wide open in mirth.
Though still early in the evening, the inn’s tavern was already half-filled with patrons, loud with raucous voices and gales of laughter. There were tables of men and women playing Wicked Grace, tossing coins as carelessly as they tossed back their drinks. In the centre was a small dance floor, and in one corner, a trio of musicians played a delightful tune with a blend of lute, fiddle, and recorder.
The dark wood flooring had seen too many boots and too many spills, but otherwise swept clean.
Rick gestured for Dorian to follow him to the bar, where a large Qunari woman held a massive keg over her shoulder as she poured foaming ale into tankards, the muscles in her arms bulging with every movement.
It was difficult to tell the age of Qunari from their appearance, but her horns were long, curving backwards and up in the shape of a lyre.
“Look what the cat dragged in!” she bellowed with a broad grin, dropping the barrel on the ground so heavily the tankards leapt a good inch off the counter. “Taking a break from playing captain, huh, Rick?”
“Good to see you too, Nessie,” Rick replied, with obvious affection.
“You looking for jobs?” Nessie gave a quick nod. “I could help you steal a few bounties out from under Ida’s nose, if you want.”
“No. I’m only here for the night. I have business to attend to in Ostwick.”
“Well, I hope you got your transport sorted already. It’s been busy here all week. Loads of people going up north. I heard some noblewoman died.”
Rick’s smile became a thin, delicate thing. “Must be someone important.” Grasping one of the filled tankards, and pushing another to Dorian, he continued, “I don’t suppose you still have any rooms for us?”
“I have only one room left. So you and your friend here will just have to learn to snuggle.” She winked at Dorian. “Good thing he’s a pretty one, this one.”
Well, then. Dorian liked her already.
He gave a slight blow with a flourish. “Why thank you, madam. The moment I saw you, I’d already known you’re a woman who knows quality.”
“Well, aren’t you silver-tongued, young man.” Nessie pulled out a brass key from under the bar and slid it across the counter. “Enjoy our best room. I call it the ‘Wow Suite’.”
Rick scoffed as he accepted the key. “It’s called that because you’re utterly without shame, Ness. As in ‘wow, I can’t believe I’m looking at the innkeeper’s privates’.”
Dorian laughed, incredulous. “What?”
Rick took a deep draught of ale before saying, “There’s a giant mural on one wall. A nude.”
“Hey, it’s a tasteful nude!” Nessie objected. “By a talented Antivan artist who’d spent many months studying my impeccable musculature.”
“I’m sure she did,” Rick said dryly.
Nessie let out a booming laugh, slamming a hand on the counter, and the tankards shook again. “Get yourselves seated, boys. I’ll get you some supper. On the house!”
They found an empty table by the hearth, where a fire blazed warmly. An elven barmaid brought them fresh tankards of dark ale, each filled to the brim, and a small plate of ham, cheese, and bread.
“Nessie is quite a character,” Dorian said, nibbling on a piece of ham laid on bread. “You two seem very familiar with each other.”
Rick slathered even more butter on his roll in a distinctively Trevelyan fashion, with careful strokes as if creating a work of art. Dorian felt his heart smile.
“She taught me everything about being a bounty hunter. Nessie was one of the most successful thief-takers in southern Thedas. Almost three thousand criminals captured over twenty years. She retired at the peak of her career, came to Highever, and bought this inn.” He layered a thin slice of cheese onto the bread, and passed a discreet hand over it to melt down the curd. “I stumbled in here, ten years ago, with no idea where to go, what to do next. Nessie took me in, showed me the tricks of the trade.”
A human woman emerged from the door behind the bar, carrying a tray laden with food. Nessie stopped her, whispered something in her ear, and the two giggled like little girls.
“That’s Martita,” Rick said as he ate. “The Antivan artist. And the reason Nessie quit bounty hunting.”
Martita was small in stature, the more so since Nessie was so large. Her dark skin glowed golden with vibrancy, and a touch of rouge stained her ample lips. Smiling warmly, she made her way to the table.
“Rick, how lovely of you to visit!” she said in a charming mix of Antivan drawl with a hint of lofty Highever inflection. She set down two fowl pies, a dish of fried herring, and some onion stuffed mushrooms before giving Rick a peck on the cheek. “And you brought a friend this time.”
“He’s not my friend.” At Dorian’s questioning look, Rick breathed a sigh, and continued, “This is Dorian. We… work together. Sort of.”
“Oh, how wonderful!” Martita patted Dorian’s arm with her free hand. “Forgive us, Dorian. Nessie and I are just a little bit excited. You see, Rick has never brought anyone to meet us before.”
Dorian returned her smile. “I’m honoured to be the first.”
“Mea will be so upset to hear of this,” Martita said, chuckling. “The poor girl has pined for you for years, my dear.”
“Oh?” Dorian straightened a little in his seat, grinning. “Please, do tell.”
“There’s nothing to tell,” Rick muttered, digging into his pie.
“The shoemaker’s daughter from down the road,” Martita explained. “She’s fancied Rick ever since she stepped into the Drunken Varghest to drag her father home, nearly seven summers ago now. It didn’t help, of course, that Rick was hauling kegs of ale without so much as a shirt on his back.”
Dorian laughed. “Well, you can’t blame a girl for knowing what she wants.”
“Mea was heartbroken when she heard Rick had joined the efforts in the Emerald Graves,” Martita said, kindly. “Let’s not tell her he came back with a dashing companion in tow, shall we?”
Rick emptied his tankard, and raised it at the barmaid for another refill. “I haven’t had nearly enough alcohol for this.”
“All right, all right. I’ll stop embarrassing you. I’m just glad to see that you’re well.” Martita put an arm around Rick in a quick hug. “And it was very nice to meet you, Dorian.”
As the afternoon melted into night, the tavern became more crowded, with the locals congregating for drinks and merriment.
Tailoring their repertoire to the new, rowdier audience, the musicians had begun to play their livelier tunes, loudly above the din, and a few people danced on the floor, laughing and clapping their hands to the beat of the tambourine.
When they’d finished their supper, Nessie brought over a bottle of single malt. “My wife insisted I bring you the good stuff I hide under the counter,” she said, plunking down two tumblers.
And it was indeed a splendid whisky. Mild spicy and oaky on the nose, rich warm peat and fruity leather on the palate. Who would have thought Fereldans would actually be good at something?
Dorian said as much, and to his surprise and enormous pleasure, Rick’s lips curved in an impish smile.
“This whisky was made for royalty. Literally. We’re drinking His Majesty’s private reserve.”
Dorian almost choked on his drink, but it’d dawned on him the amber liquid was now too precious to spill even a single drop. “What? How?”
Rick drained his glass and poured them both another dram. “One of my first jobs, actually. We picked up a bounty chasing some bandits who’d ambushed and robbed a supply envoy headed for Denerim. None of us knew it was destined for the palace until we caught up with the bandits near Lothering, and saw all the royal seals on the caches.”
His smile widened. “For our services, we were handsomely rewarded, even if half a dozen crates of fine whisky went missing, according to the manifest. It was terribly unfortunate we did not manage to intercept them before those thieving bastards smuggled them out to an unknown party.”
“I had no idea you were quite this devious, my dear Captain Rick,” Dorian said with a delighted grin. He raised his glass. “To the King.”
Rick followed suit. “To the King.”
Dorian downed the whisky in one gulp, savouring the rush of heat down his throat. “So, is the ‘good stuff under the counter’ bounty hunter-speak for dubiously acquired goods?”
Rick laughing was a lovely sight, his face softened by whisky and mirth. “Something like that,” he said.
There were more dancers prancing about now, the crush of them spinning and swaying out of the floor, heedless of other patrons. An ample-bosomed woman whirled carelessly, squealing with drunken glee when she crashed into the side of their table, and tumbled into Rick’s arms.
“All right, that’s it,” Rick said after the woman flittered away.
Rick tossed back the rest of his whiskey before turning to Dorian, dark eyes alight with gaiety. “You know what they say: if you can’t beat them, join them.”
“Dance with me”, he said, tugging Dorian to his feet before leading them into the twirling circle of men and women.
Someday, Dorian would explain to him he had never stopped.
An update, finally. Sorry about the long wait!
The white-gold of the noon sun blazed dazzling in a cloudless sky, its warmth a pleasant reprieve from the cramped and dank conditions of the ship’s steerage.
After two days of sailing across the blue waters of the Waking Sea, the grain carrier finally reached its port of destination, drawing slowly and sedately into the crowded quay.
Once the ship slipped into her berth, the sailors cast mooring lines to dockers on land, who skillfully looped the fat brown ropes around steel bollards, fastening the vessel to the wharf. Rick and Dorian were quick in tottering down the loading ramp, knapsacks clutched tightly in hand, eager to plant their feet back on solid ground.
And here they were. Ostwick.
The city-state’s famed double walls stretched further than the eye could see, fortified with watchtowers set at irregular intervals. Strengthened over time with grey bricks and hewn stone, the defensive rampart had withstood the onslaught of Qunari armies over two Ages ago, which led to the invaders turning their sights toward Starkhaven and Kirkwall.
The southern gates were staffed with richly caparisoned guards in the gold and wine livery of Ostwick. They watched the traffic of people, carts, and animals with impartial blankness, more concerned with keeping the throng of bodies moving along than stopping anyone from entering.
Rick and Dorian passed beneath the iron fangs of the raised portcullis, over a drawbridge across a dry moat, before stepping through the secondary curtain wall and into the city proper.
The grounds opened up into what looked to be a market district. Dozens of vendors filled the cobbled square: weaver, brewers, carpenters, goldsmiths, bakers, and farmers hawked their wares from open stalls. Children darted in and out of the crowd, while mabari hounds snoozed under tables.
Though he’d never been to Ostwick before, Dorian felt as if his heart knew the ground, every inch of it.
This was Trevelyan’s birthplace, his ancestral city, where his family was the latest link of an unbroken chain of forebears who’d survived wars, famine, and occupation for hundreds of years.
“When was the last time you were here?” he asked, as he narrowly dodged a woman carrying a basket of red radish going the opposite direction.
“I haven’t set foot in Ostwick since I was eight,” Rick said. “There was no reason for me to come back.”
His demeanour appeared relaxed, but Dorian could see the shuttered expression in his dark brown eyes, the tightness in his jaw.
“Has it changed much?” Dorian took in the sprawl of dwellings and shops. The air smelled of fermenting ales and roasted nuts, of spices and smoke and seawater.
“The streets are the same, but nearly all the shops are different now.” Rick pointed at a fishmonger’s store where silvery bodies of mackerel, herring, and crabs glistened in hay-filled crates. “That used to be a bakery. Marla’s Sweet Treats. Specialised in glazed applesauce cakes with boiled raisins.”
He pulled a face of such horrified disgust that Dorian laughed.
“I take it you don’t like raisins.” It was comforting to know some things stayed consistent even in alternate realities.
“They’re nothing but shrivelled pockets of horror. What kind of sadistic, foul person would purposely put boiled raisins in otherwise perfectly good cakes?”
“Take comfort, at least, in knowing the great city of Ostwick agrees with you,” Dorian said, “since the bakery is no longer in business.”
That earned him a lopsided smirk. “More likely, they’d moved to the Upper Market Square where all the fancy stores are. Perhaps Marla had finally managed to wheedle a good contract out of some noble house.”
All this talk of food had made Dorian acutely aware that they’d not had a proper meal since The Drunken Varghest, and his stomach rumbled in eager anticipation.
“I don’t suppose you’d know where one would find a good, hearty repast, would you?”
Rick’s dark eyes lit up. “Hmm, I wonder if it’s still there…”
A few wrong turns and a bit of backtracking later, Rick found what he was looking for: a mule-drawn cart parked by the side of a busy thoroughfare, with a large sign mounted on the back that read, ‘Home of Ostwick’s Best Pie Floaters’.
“Pie Floaters.” Dorian enunciated the words with a ping of reluctance. “That does not sound very appetizing.”
He watched as the vendor removed a meat pie from the warming cabinet and placed it upside down in a bowl, then ladled over it a generous helping of pea soup before adding a dash of red wine vinegar.
He examined the steaming bowl of green mush handed to him. “And to the surprise of no one, it does not look at all appetizing either.”
“It’s an Ostwickian staple that’s required eating for any visitor to the city,” Rick countered good-naturedly, and gave him a light shoulder bump. “You must try it.”
The familiarity of the playful gesture brought stark memories of Trevelyan, and Dorian’s heart gave a tight flutter, almost hurting.
They sat on little stools under the shade of a thatched roof and ate their soggy meal with slow relish. Despite its questionable appearance, the floater was surprisingly delicious. The meat – whatever animal it came from – was rich and flavourful, the pea soup thick and savoury with bits of ham and flecks of carrot, complemented beautifully by the tartness of the vinegar.
True, it was a peasant dish made of humble ingredients grown in the region, basic fare that was almost artless in its simplicity. But the floater was forthright and unpretentious, much like the Marchers themselves, and it glowed with a refined honesty unfound in the polished artificiality of glorious Tevinter.
“How did you enjoy your first pie floater, oh Lord Pavus?” Rick asked when they were done. He ordered two pale ales from the vendor, and paid for their meal in Orlesian pennies.
“It was hot and not entirely inedible, I’ll give you that.” Dorian accepted the frothy cup of beer and took a long sip, licking the foam off his upper lip.
Rick eyed the now empty bowl sitting in Dorian’s lap, scraped clean of every speck of soup. “Mm-hmm.”
“Fine, fine. It was scrumptious,” Dorian conceded with a flippant grin. “It could use some work on the presentation, though, if I am to be honest.”
“It’s not a proper pie floater if it didn’t look like lumpy river sludge,” Rick said, shrugging one shoulder.
“Now, how did the son of a Bann come to know so much about peasant foods?”
“Our nursemaid used to bring Norman, Heidi and I here whenever Lady Trevelyan had a delirious episode. Let us wander around the marketplace on our own.” Rick gave a soft, but what Dorian felt was an obligatory, smile. “It was kind of her to spare the younger children their mother’s terrified screaming fits.”
His voice trailed thin into the hum of the streets.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Dorian said, gently.
“Yes, it was,” Rick replied, with a mildness that didn’t reach his eyes. “There’s no point pretending otherwise. She’s dead now.”
Dorian’s heart knotted in his chest. He yearned to reach out, to hold the man he had loved in another life, share the burden of his grief and guilt. But his arms remained inert, as if filled with lead.
He watched wordlessly as the other man sculled the rest of his ale and stood up.
“We should go,” Rick said, setting the empty cup upside down on the stool. “The funeral will begin soon.”
Dorian simply nodded, and followed him into radiating sunlight.
* * *
The long line of well-heeled mourners, nearly all of whom dressed in dark clothing without shiny adornments, shuffled forward for their turn to pay their last respects.
Dorian took note of the heraldries cunningly sewn into expensive cloaks and mantles: there was the iron wheel of Wycome’s House Tarlough, the blue songbird of House Orrick of Tantervale – that’s the Lord Chancellor himself, presumably – and the gnarled dragon of Kirkwall, worn by none other than Seneschal Bran, currently the city’s Provisional Viscount.
It seemed as though all of Free Marches’ nobles and gentry had gathered at the sprawling Trevelyan estate to bid farewell to Lady Tatiana of Ostwick.
Rick and Dorian joined the tail of the queue, behind a large party led by a corpulent, bearded man whose velvet cloak was patterned with an emblem of a tusked-boar.
A rather fitting sigil, Dorian thought.
“Quite an assemblage,” the nobleman said to his aid in a lilting Starkhaven brogue. “To be honest with you, I don’t even remember what Lady Trevelyan looked like. But His Highness is here, and so shall we all be.”
The procession moved slowly across the length of the estate’s front courtyard. Lined with the blooming bushes and groomed trees, the garden would have once been a grand playground for the Trevelyan children.
Soon, they left the sunlight behind them, stepping through a pair of bronze doors and into the marble splendour of the great hall.
Lofty and filled with light, the rectangular-shaped room had a high, wood-beamed ceiling, and mourning banners hung on stone walls on both sides.
A bard sang softly songs of sorrow and loss. Grievers crossed the hall toward the far side of the lobby, where the body of Lady Trevelyan lay on a wooden bier set upon a low dais, adorned with white lilies and blue delphiniums.
The house’s seneschal oversaw the flow of attendees, noting the names of all visitors with a book and quill.
“Thank you for coming, my Lord Darragh,” he said to the beardy Starkhaven noble, bowing deeply.
“Of course. All of Free Marches mourns with you today.”
The seneschal bowed once more before moving onto Rick and Dorian.
“Thank you for coming, my Lords…” he trailed off, sharp green eyes searching and failing to find a heraldic crest on their persons.
Dorian raised an eyebrow and looked to Rick for what to do next.
In a perfect, broad Nevarran accent, Rick announced, “Ford Vaulene. Nephew to Lady Trevelyan, thrice removed. Our apologies for not being dressed more formally. We were on a hunting trip in Cumberland and left at once when we’d received word of her passing. This is my squire, Hugo.”
Dorian’s surprised stare quickly turned into a scowl. Hugo? Why couldn’t he pick his own alias? He didn’t even look like a Hugo.
The seneschal nodded and scribbled. “House Trevelyan appreciates your kindness during this difficult time, Lord Vaulene.”
“Our condolences to the family,” Rick said, his voice a little thick now. “Aunt Tatiana was a wonderful soul, and I will always have fond memories of her.”
By all accounts, the late wife of the Bann had been a recluse for so many years, trapped within the madness of her own mind, that few, if any, of the mourners had been close to her.
Teary-eyed women dabbed their cheeks with silk handkerchiefs, though it was doubtless that most attendees were more interested in catching up on social gossips and latest happenings than the service.
One by one, they filed before the dais, murmuring fragments of the Chant for the Departed as they lit candles in Lady Tatiana’s memory.
She lay mute as a marble statue that had fallen upon a bed of spring blooms, bathed in the soft light of incensed candles. Her long flaxen hair, threaded with grey, was combed into an elaborate braid studded with small white flowers and glittering pearls. Clothed in richly embroidered robes of wine and gold, she was visibly older than when Dorian saw her image, repurposed by a desire demon, in Trevelyan’s dream years ago – more pale and gaunt as her illness took its toll, but her regal beauty remained.
The hall broke into a hush of curious murmurs when Rick climbed the steps to stand before the bier. Those whisperings grew louder still as he removed his glove with slow deliberation and touched his hand against Lady Tatiana’s cheek.
Whatever Rick said to his mother was lost in the din. Leaning down, he pressed a kiss to Lady Trevelyan’s forehead, his dark eyes glossed with a quivering sheen when he rose.
“We should go,” he said after he alighted the dais, without meeting Dorian’s gaze, “before they start asking questions.”
The crowd bowed their heads as the funeral cortege set out from the gates of the Trevelyan estate and into the city streets. Led by armoured guards, four servants hoisted the bier to their shoulders, bearing the body of their mistress. The Inquisitor and her family followed, dressed in mourning garbs. Heidi held her head high, but her face was ashen, eyes red-rimmed.
The Trevelyan men were broad and strong-limbed – two were fair-haired, unmistakably siblings of Rick’s: Bernard who’d tormented Trevelyan endlessly as children, and Norman, who would one day father a little girl Dorian cherished as though she were his own. The other two were dark-haired: Emery, the brother about whom Trevelyan hardly ever spoke, and beside him, Bann Garrin Trevelyan, whose greying beard billowed in the soft breeze as tears stained his cheeks.
Men, women and children lined on both sides along the route to watch the procession, throwing flowers onto the cobbled road as they strained their eyes for the last glimpse of Lady Tatiana.
As was the Andrastian custom, the shrouded body of Lady Tatiana was carried to the city’s Chantry square, where she would be cremated when the sun began its slow decent.
Hundreds filled the grand central square as the hour drew near, pressed around the Chantry. Cordons of guards kept onlookers at a distance as the procession reached the pyre, ready-built, a goodly stack of dry timber and brush such as would befit a woman of noble blood.
Rick and Dorian pushed through thick throng of spectators until they were close enough to see the servants carefully laying the shrouded body atop the wooden heap.
Neither spoke, but grinding grief held every line of Rick’s body captive.
They watched as the arc of people – members of the very large Trevelyan clan –swell around the pyre, and the Revered Mother of the Ostwick Chantry emerged from the parting crowd, holding high an enormous goblet.
“The Light shall lead her safely,” she sang out sharply, “through the paths of this world, and into the next.” She stepped forward to where the Inquisitor stood, passing her the brass goblet. “For she who trusts in the Maker, fire is her water.”
Heidi took the heavy chalice with both hands, and kissed its rim before pouring its contents, some sort of clear oil, over the lower levels of the pyre. The goblet was refilled by a sister before the gesture was repeated. Bann Trevelyan pressed a tearful kiss to the holy brass grail and emptied it over the dry wood. His sons stoically followed suit; cousins, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces and distant kin took their turns dampening the pyre until the logs were oil-soaked.
A hush fell into the vast crowd, while many wept under the weight of emotion, just as the last light of day shone on the Chantry square.
Heidi lit the fire.
The flames rose high in the air, and plumes of smoke swirled into the grey skies of the approaching evening.
As the crowd began to sing verses from the Chant of Light, Dorian felt Rick’s hand seek his, the warm furtive pressure of his fingers against his own. So, he took Rick’s hand and gave it a soft squeeze, holding it tightly as they watched Lady Tatiana’s body swallow up by the hungry fire.
* * *
“Captain Rick…” Dorian managed through gritted teeth. “I don’t think… that this—” He took another deep breath before throwing all of his strength into boosting Rick up even higher by the heel, “is a such good idea.”
Maker’s Breath, was the man heavy as a boulder!
Just when Dorian thought his ribs might crack under the weight, Rick finally grabbed the top of the wall and pulled himself up.
“You’re right,” Rick said, swinging one leg over the ledge, straddling it. “It is an excellent idea.”
Dorian scoffed as he shook out the pain in his knuckles. His arms felt like they were about to fall out of their sockets. “I said I’d accompany you to the funeral, my dear Captain. I never agreed to breaking into your ancestral home in the middle of the night.”
“There’s not a room left in all of Ostwick’s inns. Unless you prefer to sleep in the city stables, snuggled against our horses?” Carefully, Rick lowered himself to his stomach, and held out a hand. “Here, I’ll pull you up.”
Dorian stared at the hand for several seconds before reluctantly accepting the help.
“And what if we’re caught?” The words had barely left his mouth when Dorian found himself lifted off the ground.
Strong fingers wrapped around his left wrist and the powerful grip bit into his flesh as Dorian scrambled against the wall. His boots found little purchase on the stone, and a few feet from the top, Rick’s arm began to tremble from the effort.
“Nearly there,” Rick said, his voice rough. With his free hand, he reached down to grab Dorian by the belt and hauled him up onto the ledge like a sack of potatoes.
“Oof!” Dorian gasped when he landed. Not the most dignified entrance he’d ever made, but effective, he supposed.
They scaled down the wall and moved quickly across the courtyard, now dark and empty, until they reached the left rear of the manor.
Rick ushered them behind a dense lilac bush next to a pair of outdoor privies. The cloying scent of the flowers barely masked the foul odour emanating from the latrines.
A lone owl hooted in a tree above.
“Are we waiting to be invited in?” Dorian asked, surlier than he meant to. “Oh hello, Bann Trevelyan, will you please spare two beds for the night in your lovely home?”
He was exhausted, and his arms were sore. Suddenly, sleeping in the city stables didn’t sound too unpleasant after all.
“Shh.” Rick placed his hand on the small of Dorian’s back. “Ready?”
The gesture – the warmth of Rick’s touch – sparked a familiar heat in Dorian’s blood. He took a long breath to clear his thoughts. “For?”
As if on cue, the back door swung open on well-oiled hinges, and out shuffled a thin-faced man clad in dark livery, with a backsword sheathed to his belt. A night guard, perhaps?
Leaving the door ajar, the young man strode hastily in their direction, already undoing his trousers, before disappearing into the privy closet.
At the sound of the latch falling into place, Rick and Dorian hurried across the short distance between the bush and the mansion, and slipped quietly into the darkened kitchen.
Rick conjured a small flicker of fire in his palm, and pilfered from the table what looked like a loaf of pumpernickel bread and half a jar of ruby-hued berry jam.
“Breakfast,” he announced in a half-whisper, and directed the ball of light to an open door that led into a spacious, airy foyer. “This way.”
Dorian followed him into the antechamber, whose ceiling stretched up to the second floor. Lavish tapestries adorned the walls, and the wrought-iron chandelier above dripped dim light that puddled on the polished stone floor.
The mansion wasn’t nearly as grand as the Pavus estate – or most Tevinter nobles’, for that matter – but a surge of sentimental warmth swept over Dorian. This was Trevelyan’s boyhood home, the place where he learned to walk and talk, to read and write. It was here that Trevelyan was cosseted by a doting mother and a studious father, until he was sent away to be raised by a Dalish clan.
Dorian glanced over at Rick. Did he also fall in love with Nehra, the wise priestess? Were the Venatori after them, too? Did she perish, along with the rest of the elven clan, at their hands?
How much of Rick’s past overlapped with that of Trevelyan?
They ascended the sweeping staircase with care, their footfalls muffled by the thick carpet runner.
Quietly, they started down the elaborately decorated hallway, past several closed doors, before turning into an older wing of the house. Though well-maintained, the corridors here were narrower, the ceilings lower, and the air carried the mustiness of age.
“It’s been over twenty years, yet their fear still lingers,” Rick said, softly.
The magelight bobbed along toward the end of the hall, illuminating their way in the darkness, until it hovered in slow, lazy circles in front of a door in the corner.
Rick tested the door. It was locked. Unperturbed, he cast a spell of silence around them, wrenched the tarnished brass knob and threw his shoulder into the door in one coordinated move. The sharp crack reverberated within the magical barrier, then the timeworn lock gave way, breaking through the old wooden frame, and the door swung wide.
The globe of pallid fire drifted inside, swelling to the size of a small apple, illuminating the room.
As Dorian removed his cloak and gloves, he studied his surroundings. Side by side against the wall to the right were two small beds, one covered with red and gold quilts, and the other blue and cream.
In the opposite wall was a fireplace, readied with logs and kindling, into which Rick sent the ball of swirling flames. Soon enough, the fire in the hearth crackled to life, drenching the room in warm, golden light.
A child’s table held place in front of the hearth, and a rocking horse rested idly beneath the window. Next to a low bookshelf, where a beautiful porcelain doll sat in her faded yellow dress, a wooden knight mounted on a black horse stood proudly on a chest of toys.
This room, Dorian realised with a start, was Trevelyan’s old nursery, one he’d shared with Heidi.
“That’s Ser Alfie Puddington, and his trusty steed, Bubbles.” Rick leaned his greatsword against the door frame and wedged a chair under the knob. “They were a gift from my father for my fourth birthday. I played with them all summer, took them with me everywhere I went.”
Dorian picked up the toy knight, his heart tugged with the thought of a happy, trusting boy, unaware of the horrors that awaited him.
“But you didn’t take Ser Puddington with you, when you were sent away?”
Rick pushed the beds together to make a larger one, and flopped down on one side, crosswise, with a contented sigh. He stretched his large frame, his booted feet dangling off the edge.
“No,” he replied. “I wasn’t allowed anything that could expose my lineage.”
Dorian brushed a finger over the brightly painted Trevelyan coat of arms on the figurine’s little red shield.
“I see.” He plucked the shield off the knight’s wooden arm. “May I have this?”
Rick turned his head to him, and wrinkled his brows. “Why?”
“A memento.” Dorian smiled. “Of an adventure I shall remember fondly.”
Rick snorted softly at his words. “Breaking into a low-rank noble’s home could hardly count as an adventure.”
Dorian settled onto the bed beside him, careful not to touch. “Does it feel strange to be back here?”
Rick studied him furtively, through his eyelashes. “A little,” he allowed. After a pause, he elaborated. “I was only eight when I left, with nothing but a sack of gold for my new custodians. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
He turned to stare at the ceiling again. “Until today, anyway,” he said, his voice a tissue of sorrow.
A swollen ache lodged in Dorian’s stomach, unmoving. “I’m sorry.”
Rick exhaled, and when he spoke again, it was gently. “I never thanked you.”
“For insisting that I come. And for accompanying me,”—he glanced over at Dorian— “despite my less-than-polite countenance towards you.”
Dorian snorted. “You mean despite your being a complete and utter arse since the day we met.”
“Yes. That.” Rick’s face softened with the first genuine smile Dorian had seen from him. “Thank you, Dorian.”
Dorian felt his heart give a happy little lurch. “You’re welcome, Captain.”
They fell silent, and resumed gazing up at the ceiling, each wrapped in private thoughts, until sleep finally overtook them.
I had a lot of fun writing this chapter :) Happy Holidays, everyone!
One of the things Dorian had missed most about his life in the Tevinter Imperium was the simple pleasure of a warm, relaxing soak in the great baths of Minrathous.
In the capital alone, there were over eight-hundred bathing houses dotted throughout every vicus of the city, from smaller, privately-owned neighbourhood establishments, with only two to three modestly-appointed rooms, to the imperial thermae complexes with their soaring colonnades and wide-spanning arches and domes, built to inspire awe.
The Baths of Almadrius, located in heart of Minrathous, was a magnificently monumental building that boasted a profusion of marble columns, gold-gilt ceilings, gleaming mosaic floors, and a wealth of paintings and sculptures.
It was open to all classes and strata of Tevinter society – the entry fee to the communal calidarium pool was a mere two coppers. When a Magister or an Altus wished to gain public favour, it was common practice to give out tesserae tokens to the baths, bearing the cost of one day’s admission so even the poorest – sometimes even slaves, if they’re feeling particularly generous – could enjoy the comfort of a hot bath.
Within the complex of Almadrius, on the higher floors, the baths reserved for Magisters and Altus mages were even more lavishly decorated, with colourful majolica tiles and marble revetment in every room.
Dorian was most recently there for a private meeting with several high-ranking Magisters. He’d spent so many hours in the baths, cajoling and charming these powerful people into supporting Lucerni’s cause that by the end of the day, his skin resembled that of a wet prune.
The next morning, he’d wake up to find an obscenely large gift basket sitting in his breakfast room, filled to the brim with pots of rich creams and jars of silky lotions, with a note attached that read: “Dearest Dorian, your sacrifice was well-rewarded. They have agreed to move the bill forward. Now give yourself some well-deserved pampering before you head off to meet your handsome Comte. Love, M.”
Two weeks after that letter, he fell through a magical rift and landed in an alternate world.
Dorian breathed out a heavy sigh through his nose.
Skyhold’s bathing chambers were adequate, if a little threadbare and careworn. The one closest to his room was at the back of the great hall, on the floor above the kitchen so the warmth of its many hearths would heat the air.
But the hour was late by the time he and Rick arrived at the Frostback Mountains. It was a long journey back from Ostwick, and they had hurried on their horses, made camp only when it became too dark to push forward, to return ahead of the Inquisitor.
A long, restorative bath after such a cold commute would be heaven sent, but it’d be unkind to wake the servants now to fetch hot water for him. And the mere thought of having to conjure enough water to fill a large wooden tub and then magically heat it before he could even begin to clean himself fatigued Dorian even further.
As soon as he reached his room and closed the door behind him, Dorian stripped away his travel-weary clothing and kicked off his muddy boots. Unearthing the well-used bar of pilfered soap from the depths of his carrysack, he laved himself with the ewer and basin, washing himself as best he could.
Not bothering with night clothes, he collapsed on the bed and burrowed under the thick blankets. Sleep came to him quickly. The sounds of the night disappeared. His bed, that desk littered with musty books, the window with the maroon curtain, the walls of his room disappeared as he sank into slumber.
Then, he heard the gentle hum of honey bees and the sweet chirping of songbirds. A soft breeze rolled over him, caressed his face, carrying with it the smells of spring, of damp earth.
He opened his eyes, and lifted his face to the sun above.
The sky. Dorian smiled and a small laugh broke through. The sky was the colour of pale lavender, dappled with clouds.
It was the colour of the Trevelyan’s sky.
He was in Rick’s dream.
There was a familiar pull from the centre of his chest, as though someone was tugging at the strings tightly laced around his ribs.
Dorian pressed his hand over the twinge, his smile widening. “Just like a magnetite,” he said softly to himself, almost in a whisper.
He followed the compulsion, letting it take him across the undulating green sea of prairie grass that stretched as far as the eye could reach. Time meant little in the Fade – it could have been five minutes, it could have been five hundred years when Dorian finally found him.
Rick looked so peaceful, lying with his hands behind his head, his eyes closed, surrounded by a field of wild yellow daisies.
“Fancy meeting you here," Dorian said, smiling broadly.
Rick cracked open one eye, and closed it again with a groan. “You’re wasting your time.”
Dorian blinked at him. “I beg your pardon?”
“It’s not going to happen,” Rick replied, with an air of finality. “So why don’t you go find someone else to bother.”
He rolled himself up to sitting, and peered up at Dorian, squinting. “At least you’re properly dressed this time.”
Dorian looked down at his clothes. He was wearing his usual assortment of light armour, nothing out of the ordinary. “I, um, I don’t think I understand...”
Rick sighed. “Look—”
“Well, well, isn’t this delightfully awkward?”
Dorian turned to the source of the intruding voice, his mouth falling open when he saw who it was. Draped in a long robe that shimmered silver like moonbeam, so sheer it left nothing to the imagination, was himself, smiling with a wicked glint in his eye.
“Fancy meeting you here,” the other Dorian said in his voice, giving him a coy wave.
Rick snapped his head back and forth between the identical men, his brows raised high. “Why are there two of—” His eyes grew comically wide when his gaze swept over Dorian, evidently seeing something he didn’t before. “Oh, no.”
The other Dorian giggled, smoothing a hand down his exposed chest to palm himself through the thin fabric of his robe. “You know, I’m open to sharing, just this once.”
A desire demon. Dorian felt his face flame as realisation dawned on him. Rick had been visited by a desire demon, one who had elected to take Dorian’s form to tempt him.
They stared at each other, speechless, as the implications of this revelation sank in.
The other Dorian bristled, taking a step forward. “Are you two going to spend all day gawking at one another, or will we finally move onto something more… satisfying?”
Rick’s eyes slid away from Dorian’s to fix a sharp glare at the desire demon. “You have three seconds to leave or I will end you.”
“Are you quite certain?” the other Dorian said, letting out a soft sigh of pleasure as he made a show of toying with his nipples. “I know what your heart wants.”
A mottled flush stained Rick’s cheekbones. He growled, “One… two...”
“Fine, spoilsport.” The demon dropped his hands to his sides, pouting. “You’ll wish you had when you wake. Until next time, then.” He flashed Dorian a wink and sauntered into a swirl of violet smoke.
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Dorian cleared his throat. “Captain—” He didn’t get to finish his sentence. Rick stood quickly, throwing a hand up. The air rippled around Dorian, as if he were the pebble that struck the pond, and then a blinding light wrenched him out of the dream.
He woke with a start, and found himself back in his bed, in his room, inside the big, dusty keep of Skyhold.
As Dorian lay in the early sunlight that stole through the window, the soft ray pointing like a golden finger through the dancing dust motes, the chuckles came. The chuckles graduated to giggles, which then turned into cackles of laughter he tried to stifle with his hands over his mouth, his shoulders shaking from the effort.
And when he finally quieted, wiping his eyes, his face was still wreathed in smiles.
* * *
As expected, Rick deftly avoided him for the next few days.
The good captain didn’t come to the main hall for his dinners, nor did he attend the daily war council meetings. When he was summoned to be reprimanded by Leliana for his tardiness, he’d even taken the long way around to reach the rookery, just so he wouldn’t have to pass through the library.
Heidi, who returned three mornings after they did, noted Rick’s deliberate evasion.
At her homecoming feast, she took the seat across from Dorian at the long table, and poured herself a goblet of dark red wine. She sipped as she gave Dorian a measuring look.
“I’m told you took Captain Rick on a little getaway during my absence,” she began, with a small smile tucked at the corners of her mouth. “It either went very well, and you two decided to maintain some professional boundaries, or it went spectacularly poorly, so much so that you can’t bear to be in the same room together. So, which is it?”
Leliana, you tattletale. “My dear Inquisitor, a gentleman never tells.”
Her smile turned to one of amusement. “Very well. Will it be a problem if I stole you away for a few weeks, then? I need a mage to help me move some boulders in the Western Approach, and Vivienne hates sand.”
“And I don’t?” Dorian scoffed.
Heidi drained her goblet and gave him a grin. “I am much less afraid of annoying you than her.”
He heaved an exaggerated, long-suffering sigh. “If only Solas were here. His whole apostate hobo ensemble is, tragically, ideal for desert conditions.”
If only Solas were here, Dorian would have already tied him to a chair until the conniving, duplicitous bastard helped him get back home.
The Inquisitor stared into her empty wine cup. “I had no choice. The pride demon would have broken out of the summoning stones sooner or later. And I couldn’t have let Solas kill those mages, as stupid as they are.” She leaned back into her chair and exhaled, her brown eyes seemed to be looking in the past, at something far away. “To bestow upon mere mortals powers they can’t control, and watch them destroy families, communities, whole nations. The Maker has a cruel sense of humour, doesn’t He?”
“Not all of us are blessed with the fortitude to discipline our magic. But with proper training, most manage to find their footing, eventually.”
“And sometimes, they never do,” Heidi said with a soft, mirthless chuckle. “My younger brother was a mage. His powers manifested when we were children. Harmless things at first: a wisp of fire here, a zap of lightning there. He begged me not to tell anyone so he could stay and not be sent to the Circle. Then, one night, the entire household was awakened by our mother’s terrified screams. I turned to my brother and found him giggling in his sleep.”
She refilled her cup, and took a deep drink. “He said he was only playing hide and seek with her, building labyrinths and mazes so she wouldn’t find him. But he was a dreamer, and his little game left my mother’s mind broken and trapped forever.” With a smile edged with broken glass, she met Dorian’s eyes. “I’m not proud to admit there were many days I wished I had said something. Luther might have been made Tranquil at the Circle, but I would have still had a mother.”
He ought to feel anger and disgust at Heidi’s confession. The memory of Trevelyan’s cold and unfeeling existence as a Tranquil tore at mended places in Dorian’s heart. But the only thing that came was sadness, a wash of quiet sorrow that brought wetness to his eyes.
So much pain, so much suffering. So much regret. Would they ever be free from it all?
The Herald’s Rest was quieter than usual, with most of the tavern’s regulars lured to the main hall to join the festivities. After all, it wasn’t every day one got to sample the finest Ostwickian apple brandy, generously supplied by House Trevelyan.
Only half a dozen soldiers and civilians scattered throughout the common room, nursing mugs of ale and minding their own business. Without much to do, the barmaid worked on her embroidery in one corner.
At the end of the heavy, scarred wooden bar, where Cabot busied himself wiping a tankard with an old rag, a lone figure sat hunched over what looked to be a bowl of stew and remnants of rye bread.
“Mind if I join you?” Dorian said, slipping onto the stool beside the man. “I am, as you can see, quite sufficiently clothed.”
Rick looked startled, opened his mouth to reply, but immediately snapped it shut when Cabot trudged over to them.
“Good evening, dear Cabot,” Dorian greeted. “How’s business?”
“Slow,” the laconic bartender said simply.
“Do cheer up. It’s only for the night. Tomorrow, the Skyhold kitchen will go back to serving their usual provisions, and you’ll have us all back under your thrall.”
Cabot ignored his remark. “What can I get you?”
Dorian flashed his most winning smile. “Whatever that doesn’t taste like something you clean the latrine with, if you please.”
The dwarf came as close as to rolling his eyes as Dorian imagined he ever had, and poured him a tankard of honeyed ale from a large barrel set on a low shelf.
Dorian took a long drink of the brew and wiped the froth from his lip with the back of his hand.
“You can’t avoid me forever, you know,” he said, teasing.
Rick scoffed into his own cup and mumbled, “I can try.”
The memory of Rick’s flushed, mortified face brought a fresh round of giggles Dorian couldn’t fully suppress. “I’m so sorry,” he said, biting his lip. “But you must admit, it was very funny.”
The glare he received was more than enough to inform him that Rick disagreed.
“Come now, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Captain,” Dorian said, grinning from ear to ear. “I am handsome, witty, and irresistibly charming. I would be surprised and hugely offended if the demon didn’t at least try it once.”
“Not to mention spoiled, arrogant, and conceited. Thank you for the reminder, I think I’ll sleep well tonight,” Rick said, face deadpan, but his eyes danced with amusement.
Dorian tamped back a delighted giggle. “Glad to be of help, then. I’m relieved you never gave in to its temptation.”
“Of course not,” Rick said quickly, and Dorian watched how the colour rose in his cheeks. “I saw through the demon’s illusion and knew the shape of its true form.”
Frowning, Rick thumbed the rim of his mug. “What I can’t understand is, how did you end up in my dream? That has never happened before. Not uninvited, anyway. Unless there was already an existing tether, you shouldn’t be able to slip through my guard.”
Dorian couldn’t very well admit that he had stumbled into Trevelyan’s dream once before.
“You and I had been spending a considerable amount of time together, during which you experienced moments of great stress. It’s not inconceivable that I should fall through your mental defense,” he reasoned.
Rick looked unconvinced, but nodded. “Perhaps.”
“Fortunately for you, I shall be leaving with the Inquisitor in two days’ time. I’ll be out of your hair for at least three weeks, likely more.”
Rick’s gaze lingered, and Dorian thought he saw disappointment in his eyes before he turned away. “I see. Where are you going?”
“The Western Approach,” Dorian said, none too happily. “I can’t wait to see my soft, supple skin turn to leather.”
Rick nodded again. “Be careful.”
Dorian smiled. “I always am.”
* * *
It was a dewy morning when Dorian, well-wrapped in his cloak and his staff secured across his back, set off from the gates of Skyhold.
Trailing behind the Inquisitor and Cassandra, who were engaged in a lively conversation about mutual acquaintances in their social circles, he let himself be lulled by the gentle rhythm of Zarzam’s gait, the chestnut warhorse he’d come to think of as his own.
Still sleepy from the warmth of his bed, Dorian closed his eyes and tipped his face up to the weak rays of the sun peeking through the thick, churning clouds.
“Late night last night, huh?”
Dorian glanced behind him and saw the Iron Bull’s grinning face. “Not really. I’m just not much of a morning person.”
The dracolisk screeched as Bull spurred it forward. The creature’s protruding scales gleamed like little dark plates of armour, its long-forked tongue falling out from between menacing fangs as it fell into step beside Zarzam.
It was an ugly beast, but also the only mount strong enough to carry a Qunari as enormous as the Iron Bull.
“Yeah,” Bull laughed, with an unconscious note of tenderness in his voice. “I remember. Just thought you’re still tired from your little outing with that Rick guy.”
A pang of guilt struck Dorian. He hadn’t even considered telling Bull before he’d left.
“It wasn’t like that. What I’d said to Leliana, that was,” he paused, searching for the right word, “subterfuge.”
“I know,” Bull said coolly, “I don’t smell his scent on you.”
Embarrassed heat flared inside Dorian. “Maker’s Breath! Will you stop going around sniffing at people? That's vulgar.”
Bull chuckled under his breath. “Sorry. Can’t help it. Heightened Qunari senses and all.”
Dorian grumbled, but the look on Bull’s face halted the rest of his complaint.
“You’re not him, I know that." Bull levelled his one-eyed gaze at Dorian. "But when I heard you asked for leave to go away with our new friend… Gotta say it didn’t feel great.”
Dorian fell silent for a moment as the mountain pass opened into a wide valley nestled in the foothills of the majestic Frostback. Birds sang their delight of the warming sun. A dozen wild rams grazed on wet morning grass while their young played. A pair of rabbits darted across the path before them before disappearing into the safety of their warrens.
“He’s… I know Rick from the other world, by another name,” Dorian said finally, with a softness in his voice that surprised even him. “And I had to bring him to see his family, to right a wrong, before it was too late.”
“You two were close?”
There was no sense in lying about it.
One word that carried so much within it, when spoken as he had.
Bull ruminated this information, and said simply, “I see.”
“I’m sorry. I should have told you.”
“No, you don’t owe me anything,” Bull said, shaking his head. “Just don’t get too comfortable. You need to get that device fixed, and put everything back to the way it was.”
Dorian nodded. “Between here and the Approach, we’re sure to find more of those elven artefacts. For each one the Inquisitor activates, a knob on the dodecahedron becomes charged with its arcane energy.” He patted the inner pocket of his robes, where the apparatus rested. “I only need seven more. Then, presumably, I would be able to trigger the very same temporal distortion that brought me here.”
Dorian flashed a smile of confidence. “It so happens that time magic is my specialty. Or haven’t you heard?”
“Yeah,” Bull snorted, then, softly, “I miss him, you know?”
“I know,” Dorian said, with a small smile. “I miss him, too.”
They rode on in quiet, both hearts ached for their missing pieces, and followed the Inquisitor westward to the deserts of the Western Approach.
The thing with sand was that it’s coarse and rough, and it got everywhere.
Sitting at the foot of his bedroll, Dorian groaned in irritation as he shucked off his boots, tipping out the abrasive granules and small stones that had found their way inside. He removed his thick socks carefully so not to upset the small blisters that were forming on his feet. He daubed elfroot salve generously on the sores, and gently worked it into the wounds until the pain subsided.
The hot breath of the desert licked at his nape, even within the confines of the tent. It was an odd sort of heat: old and oppressive, as though it had been accumulating for years instead of hours. Perhaps it had something to do with the Veil being exceptionally thin in the region.
Dorian ran a hand across his face and grimaced at the rasp of stubble against his palm. He hadn’t had a shave in days, and he was filthy – his skin felt sticky with grime, sweat, and that Inquisition-issue sun ointment that smelled like a nug’s arsehole.
How did he ever survive this terrible place, he wondered? Scout Harding called it ‘the worst place in the entire world’, and Dorian was inclined to agree.
One week in the Western Approach saw them investigating the Still Ruins, where he’d acquired an ‘old-new’ staff (yay) and charged another knob on the dodecahedron (double yay) with an elven artefact.
On the other hand, his talents remained grossly underused—save for a few darkspawn hurlocks and Venatori spellbinders, the most taxing task he was made to do was to energise some rusty iron grates at the Coracavus prison to seal off tunnels that led to the Deep Roads.
Dorian of House Pavus. Magister, necromancer, construction specialist. Pleased to make your acquaintance.
The Griffon Wing Keep was a hive of activity this evening. Cullen had the wisdom and foresight to send ahead an envoy of supplies to ensure the Inquisition party and the soldiers stationed here were furnished with a good meal at the end of a hard day.
The keep’s sole cook had become quite enthused about the fresh provisions, churning out dishes like salted rabbit in wine-currant sauce, stewed mutton ribs, and honey-mustard eggs.
As dinnertime neared, the flurry of excitement outside his tent grew.
Dorian undid the clasps of his armour and lifted the leather cuirass from his shoulders when a horned head poked in through the opening.
“Hey, food’s here.”
Dorian heaved a sigh that was equal parts yawn. “What is it tonight?”
“Stuffed pigs’ feet,” Bull replied. “With some kind of mushroom gravy.”
Dorian made a face. “Delightful.” He wasn’t feeling much hunger in the dry heat of the desert, and now even less so. “I can’t believe they made one of my favourites.”
Bull chuckled good-humouredly. “You should eat something anyway. Boss says we have a big day tomorrow.”
“Whatever could it be, I wonder?” Pitching his voice high, Dorian mimicked Heidi’s rounded, feminine Ostwickian voice. “Dorian, will you repair this damaged ramp? Dorian, could you restore this collapsed wall? Dorian, can you possibly translate some ancient Tevene for this idiot professor? Ugh.”
Bull laughed, throwing his head back, one of his horns almost cutting a tear in the ceiling. “You’re such a grump when you’re tired.”
“Trekking back and forth across the desert just to move a few rocks isn’t exactly my idea of fun.” Dorian rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands before laying back on the bedroll. “Please, do enjoy the feet without me.”
“Okay, then. You rest up.”
Dorian mumbled an incoherent semblance of a reply. His last thought, as his consciousness ebbed, was that he wished the Western Approach wasn’t so far from Skyhold, if only it meant he might find himself in Rick’s dream again.
The landscape at the Western Approach was a continuously morphing, ever-changing expanse. Sand dunes consumed, gradually, gaining great heights brought by the wind. They dwindled, too; split in half, eroded by the same zephyr.
The bright, harsh light of the sun carved graceful arches and stark shadows into the dunes. Dorian would have been in awe if his feet didn’t sink into the loose sand, making each step a challenge.
Knight-Captain Rylen was kind enough to provide them with capacious cowls, more suitable to the desert climate than their heavy iron helms. Still, the glorious sun pressed upon his back like a hot iron, his mouth felt full of dry dust even as sweat drenched his garments.
“Are you all right, Dorian?” Cassandra asked, handing him a waterskin. Even she looked slightly out of breath.
The water was lukewarm and tasted of leather, but he drank deeply before returning it. “I’ll be all right once we leave this Maker-forsaken place.”
“We’re almost there,” Heidi said, nodding at an ancient structure that had long succumbed to the cruelties of the desert.
Ah, so this was what the Inquisitor meant by the ‘big day’ ahead of them.
It was the old abandoned ritual tower where Magister Livius Erimond—that abominably repugnant moron—would ensnare a band of Grey Wardens with blood magic, before fleeing to the Adamant Fortress.
They had met several times at social gatherings, Livius and he, during Dorian’s very brief stint at the Vyrantium Circle. It was clear, even then, that the man had lofty ambitions, but lacked both intellectual and magical abilities to amount to anything more than grandiose chest-thumping.
When Dorian heard the elder Erimond had met an ill-fated end several years later, he could only guess if young Livius had a hand in his father’s demise.
This shouldn’t take long, Dorian thought, if things were to proceed the same way as they had back in his own timeline.
As they approached the ritual tower, two figures became slowly apparent at the foot of its entrance. It was Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall, and standing beside him, clad in gleaming silver and blue armour, was—Dorian slowed in confusion— the King of Ferelden?
Sensing his bewilderment, Bull lifted an eyebrow at him. “Something wrong?”
“No, I was just taken aback, that’s all,” Dorian replied. “That man isn’t the Warden contact I know. He’s king, in fact, in my world.”
“Wait, Alistair?” Bull’s eye bulged at his remark. “King of what? Cheese and bad jokes?”
Dorian shrugged haplessly. “Ferelden, believe it or not.”
“Huh. Stranger things have happened, I guess.”
“Glad you could make it,” Warden Alistair said when they arrived at the archway. “We’ve seen lights coming from the tower.”
Hawke crossed his arms with a scowl on his face. “It has to be blood magic. I hope we can stop them before more people get hurt.”
Just as they were in the other timeline, they had come too late to save the Wardens already corrupted by demons. A dozen of them lined one side of the rampart, eyes glowing eerie red, seemingly unperturbed by the gutted bodies of their comrades that lay in twisted positions before them.
With a flourished bow and an oily grin, their host greeted, “Inquisitor, what an unexpected pleasure. Lord Livius Erimond of Vyrantium, at your service.”
Alistair glowered. “I’m guessing you’re not a Warden.”
“But you are,” Erimond said with a dramatic sigh. “The one Clarel let slip. And you found the Inquisitor and came to stop me. Shall we see how this goes?”
Dorian remembered how it went: poor, snivelling Livius taking off with his tail between his legs. He’d rather like to set the bastard on fire now, if it meant not having to listen to him droning on endlessly about how clever he was.
“Wardens,” Heidi called out, “This man is lying to you. He serves an ancient Tevinter Magister who wants to unleash a Blight.”
“That’s a very serious accusation. Let’s see what the Wardens think.” Livius’ demonstration of his control over the Wardens wasn’t any less chilling than it had been the first time.
“Corypheus has enslaved them,” Alistair spat.
“They did this to themselves. You see, the Calling had the Wardens terrified. They looked everywhere for help.”
Alistair shook his head in resigned disbelief. “Including Tevinter.”
“Yes,” Livius’ smiled. “And since it was my Master who put the Calling into their little heads, we in the Venatori were prepared. I went to Clarel full of sympathy, and together, we came up with a plan… Raise a demon army, march into the Deep Roads, and kill the Old Gods before they wake.”
“That was the future I saw at Redcliffe,” Heidi said. “An army of demons marching across Orlais.”
“And now you know how it begins. Once the rest of the Wardens complete the ritual, the army will conquer Thedas.”
“Do you really want to see the world fall to the Blight?” Heidi demanded. “Why? What do you get out of this?”
“The Elder One commands the Blight. He is not commanded by it, like the mindless darkspawn. The Blight is not unstoppable or uncontrollable. It is simply a tool.”
Dorian couldn’t help himself. “No, Livius, you’re the tool.”
“Why, isn’t it Dorian of House Pavus?” Erimond sneered, as if he’d only just noticed his presence. “Pretty little Pavus, I hear daddy dearest isn’t angry at you anymore. How heartwarming.”
“Oh, shut up, you treacherous cretin!”
“And to think I had such high hopes we would become best of friends,” Erimond intoned longingly, eyes alight with something dark. “If your father weren’t such a useless fool, letting his precious son get away. You could have been standing here beside me, in service of the Elder One.”
His words, like fingers around Dorian’s throat, left him struggling for air.
“Wh— What did you say?”
Erimond’s grin widened. “You see, I was the one who suggested that little blood magic ritual to Magister Halward. It would have made you more… pliable to reconsidering our ideologies. Alexius had praised you to the skies, and it seemed only proper for mentor and apprentice to work together for the glory of the Imperium.”
This can’t be… No, no, no, it didn’t happen this way!
“Alexius… knew?” Dorian croaked. He hated how weak and reedy his voice sounded.
“That old buffoon? No,” Erimond said, emphatically. “He was too busy mourning his dead wife and defective son, which, in all honesty, wasn’t part of the plan. They were both meant to die so he could focus on his work for our Master.”
Dorian’s hands balled into fists. He felt the familiar tingling heat build in his palms; the taste of magic heavy on his tongue.
“Dorian,” Bull cautioned in a low voice.
Dorian trembled as he fought to control himself.
“I promise you this, I will kill you,” he growled, teeth clenched. “I will make you suffer, Livius, and then I will destroy you.”
“You are welcome to try,” Erimond said, unfazed. “When the Elder One rules from the Golden City, we, the Venatori, will be his god-kings here in the world.”
Heidi took a step forward with fury and contempt in her stare. “Release the Wardens from the binding and surrender. I won’t ask twice.”
Erimond’s top lip curled back in a smile that showed yellowed teeth. “No. You won’t.”
Magic erupted from his hand, glowing a sinister red. He thrust his arm out toward Heidi, fingers splayed wide, and she bowed over, hissing as if in pain.
“The Elder One showed me how to deal with you, in the event you were foolish enough to interfere again,” he said. “That Mark you bear? The anchor that lets you pass safely through the Veil? You stole that from my Master. He’s been forced to seek other ways to access the Fade. When I bring him your head, his gratitude will be—”
So wrapped up he was in his soliloquy, Erimond hardly noticed Heidi had recovered from the shock of the assault. She brandished her luminous anchor, as her brother did, in another time, and summoned the force of the Fade.
This was not what Erimond had expected. He cried out as the blast sent him tumbling like a rag doll. He was dazed, flummoxed, and enraged all at once.
“Kill them,” he bellowed before running out into a hallway, and a dozen different hellish moans filled the air in unison.
Heedless of their personal safety or anything resembling tactics, the possessed Grey Wardens and their new demon friends charged towards them.
Good, Dorian was itching for a fight.
He didn’t need much encouragement to unleash a barrage of destructive lightning that staggered the enemy and made the tower shudder. He threw up barriers over them, hurled white-hot streams of fire at the shades as the Inquisitor made pin cushions out of the possessed Wardens.
The air smelled of burned flesh and ichor. Against the glare of the sun, the Iron Bull and Alistair cleaved into the demons with their blades, hewing off limbs and gashing necks.
It wasn’t a fair battle by any means. But Dorian couldn’t care less – all his rage, all his despair, all his pain channeled into the snapping glyphs that exploded into shards of icicles, piercing and ripping through skin and bones.
And then it was over.
His hands were still shaking when someone gently took one. It was Heidi.
“Are you all right?”
“No,” he said, more sharply than he’d intended, the hard kernel of resentment still lodged in his chest.
Heidi, bless her, didn’t press him any further. “We’ll find him, Dorian, and he’ll answer for his crimes.”
A brief but welcomed downpour of rain brought a cool change to the desert night.
Campfires blazed in the courtyards of the keep, underneath large cauldrons filled with rich potage. Soldiers and scouts spoke in boisterous voices, drinking and laughing as they helped themselves to their well-earned dinners.
Dorian took his usual seat around the so-called ‘high table’ of the Griffon Wing Keep, which was really the same campfire spruced up with better-cushioned stools, between Heidi and Cassandra. Behind them, the Iron Bull lounged on bales of scratchy hay, a beer tankard in hand.
“What’s for dinner?” Dorian asked, holding out a bowl to receive the soup ladled out of the iron pot by a food steward.
“Stew of venison and butter beans.” Cassandra passed him the bread basket. “Are you all right, Dorian?”
He ignored her concerned look. “Real venison?”
“I didn’t ask,” Heidi said, “and I suggest you do likewise.”
Across from him, the Champion of Kirkwall and a weary-looking Alistair were engaged in a testy exchange.
“Hawke, they made a mistake, but they thought it was necessary,” Alistair said, his tone very dry, waving his spoon around like a baton.
“All blood mages do,” Hawke groused between bites of stew. “Everyone has a story they tell themselves to justify bad decisions… and it never matters. In the end, you are always alone with your actions.”
Alistair made a noise that sounded like a snort of contempt. He shovelled more potage into his mouth, chewed on it, and swallowed. “I may know where the Wardens are. Erimond fled that way…” He gestured southward with the tip of his spoon. “There’s an abandoned Warden fortress in that direction. Adamant.”
“Which means you and I will go scouting tomorrow,” Hawke said, wiping the last bit of soup with a chunk of black bread. “A quick go-around Adamant to make sure the other Wardens are there.”
He turned to Heidi. “We’ll meet you back at Skyhold. Then, we can plan our next move.”
More drinks were poured, more conversations pursued with mouths full of bread and meat. As the evening wore on, one by one, the companions retired to their tents.
For a long while, Dorian stared into the fire, his mind furiously rifled through a list of possible things he would like to do to Erimond.
Did the same truth hold in his world as well? Had Erimond orchestrated every tragedy he’d had ever endured? Halward’s planned violation, Alexius’ downfall, Felix’s death. Nothing but ploys designed to bolster the Venatori and their political control over the Magisterium.
Dorian did not move his gaze from the campfire in front of him. “I’ll be better once everybody stops asking me that.”
“We’re just worried about you,” Bull said, breathing a broad sigh as he sat his large frame on the stool beside Dorian.
“I know. And it is appreciated.”
The crackle of the fire popped loud in the silence that followed. A log fell apart, split into a cluster of glowing white coals and hot cinders. The flame subsided, growing morose and feeble.
“So, did you guys manage to get Erimond in the end?”
“Yes. He was sentenced to imprisonment for the rest of his life. I’d heard he was killed in a vain attempt to escape some years later.”
Bull grunted a laugh. “Serves him right, asshole.” He was quiet for a moment, his voice lowered when he spoke again. “Whatever Erimond said… I’m guessing that didn’t happen in your timeline?”
“I don’t know,” Dorian said. “If it did, I was never told.”
His fingers tightened around the mug until his knuckles paled.
“What if it was because of me? What if my intrusion to the world did all this? Changed the course of events? What if… what if I was the one who altered things for the worse?”
Bull mulled over his words as he swilled ale in his mouth. “You said Alistair was king where you’re from,” he said, casting a pointed glance at the oblivious Warden.
“So, this Alistair didn’t make it to the throne over ten years ago,” Bull said, scratching his bearded chin. “Which means things had already been changed, long before you got here.”
Relief, mixed with onerous guilt of feeling so, seeped through Dorian.
Bull was right: This world had already diverged from his own, even before the morning he woke up here. Something—someone—had tossed that first stone into the water, a new path split, a different choice made.
He wasn’t the catalyst for all this. It wasn’t his fault.
Bowing his head, Dorian let out a long, shuddering breath. He glanced up at Bull, managing a thin, but genuine smile. “Thank you.”
Bull blinked at him in surprise and gave him a puzzled look, then attempted to hide a chuckle into the foam of his ale. It did not go unnoticed.
Dorian frowned. “What?”
“Nothing,” Bull replied with shrug and a grin. “I’m just not used to you being so candid and so…” He gestured towards Dorian’s face. “…in touch with your feelings.”
Dorian rolled his eyes. “Ugh, please. Just because I have learned to be more forthcoming with gratitude doesn’t mean I’m going to start weeping into a kerchief.”
“Now that’s the Dorian I know,” Bull laughed and clapped him hard on the back. He refilled both their tankards. “But yeah, good for you.”
The campfire sputtered, sending a small shower of sparks into the night air, then sank to a low glow. The silvery radiance of the twin moons became more apparent, gilding the desert with their touch.
Dorian took a swig of ale, and then exhaled slowly. “Give him time,” he said after a while.
Bull gave another quizzical look. “Huh?”
“It took me a long time to come to terms with what I want, and what I can have,” Dorian said. “Affection doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s frightening to let someone in, when I’ve spent so much of my life hiding and denying what I knew to be true. I can’t say for certain he will ever come around. But have patience with him.”
Bull was quiet for a moment, staring out over the seemingly illimitable reaches of the Western Approach.
“This is weird,” he said when he turned back to face him. “Talking to you about this.”
Dorian chuckled at the admission. “Yes, it is.” He stood up and dusted off the seat of his breeches. “I suppose this is goodnight, then.”
“Yeah. Long road ahead tomorrow. Back to Skyhold.”
Dorian stretched his arms above his head, yawning. “I can’t wait to sleep in a proper bed again.”
“In a week or so.”
He gave a non-committal grunt in reply, waving his farewell, and started for his tent.
He craned his head back. “Yes?”
Bull gave him a half-smile. “Thanks.”
And he returned it.
* * *
The journey back felt incredibly short.
That always seemed to be the case, for whatever reason: the road there endlessly long, but the return trip felt as if it took half the time.
Of course, it helped that the Inquisitor allowed them a one-day furlough in Val Royeaux. Cassandra was keen to visit her favourite bookstore in the capital, Bull went in hunt for this specialty crafted horn balm that purportedly smelled like Orlesian guimauves, while Heidi said she’d visit the Chantry to light a candle for her mother.
Dorian elected to spend the day in the lap of luxury, beginning with a sinfully decadent milk bath scented with rosemary, lavender, and juniper berry oils.
He left his clothes and armour for the inn’s laundress to take care of, scrubbed himself clean of dirt, sweat, and blood. With the exception of the few bruises, now fading to green and yellow around the edges, for the first time in days, he felt like himself again.
After a light dinner of fine cheeses and charcuterie, Dorian wrapped himself in a sumptuous, soft robe, and crawled into bed to stretch out beneath the plush blankets and the fortress of pillows.
Ah, to live again!
Sleep came to him almost immediately, and he dreamed of the time his father brought a box of colourful marzipan to his childhood room in Qarinus. The sweets were shaped like miniature fruits, apples, pears, and pumpkins, glossed with a clear, sugar glaze.
“From Val Royeaux,” he’d said. “By a confiseur granted the Royal Warrant of Appointment to the new Empress.”
The indulgent smile on his face was like a pat on the head. “Only the best for you, my son. Only the best.”
Dorian woke with a dull, aching sadness that settled between his ribs.
He forced himself out of bed when the second morning bell rung. Kicking off the covers, he dragged himself to his feet, relieved himself into the chamber pot, and washed his hands and face in a basin. He heated the remainder of the water and began shaving, carefully trimming his moustache.
The rising steam from the basin fogged the small mirror, blurring his reflection. Dorian pressed his finger against the glass and slowly made a line revealing only his eyes.
His father’s pale grey eyes stared back at him.
Dorian’s throat thickened, painfully tight. Halward was already a father when he was his age, still vibrant and filled with hope for the future. His only son, his heir, was both his pride and delight, once upon a time.
Dorian drew in a long breath and swiped his hand across the mirror, clearing the surface.
Finding his freshly laundered clothes and cleaned armour in a basket by the door, he quickly dressed himself and headed for the harbour. The brisk walk to the harbor helped him regain a sense of composure, any old hurt pushed down deep where it belonged.
The others were already waiting by the merchant ship when he reached the docks. The voyage across the Waking Sea to Jader was, happily, like sailing in a millpond, smooth and steady. By the time they arrived at the gates of Skyhold three mornings later, he was much calmer, and if truth be told, his spirit rose at the prospect of seeing Rick again.
Dorian bit back a smile. Had Rick been sleeping well, he wondered, or was the desire demon still tormenting him?
The stablehands brought stools for them to dismount and led the horses away to be brushed down and yarded. Attendants unpacked supplies, while the waiting squire collected their weapons to be cleaned and serviced by the armourers.
Heidi called for an immediate assembly of the inner circle in the War Room, where she would spend the next hour apprising them of the situation with the Grey Wardens and Erimond’s latest ploy.
Curiously, Rick was absent from the meeting – even when he was actively avoiding him, all those weeks ago, he’d still attended the War Council dutifully, only to slip away with the others before Dorian could so much as say hello.
When the briefing was over and everyone began leaving, Dorian made his way to Leliana’s side.
“It must feel strange for you, planning an attack on the Grey Wardens.”
Leliana crossed her hands behind her back. “Why would you think that?”
“You were a trusted companion to the Hero of Ferelden,” Dorian said. “You can’t possibly be happy about the imminent attack on his compatriots.”
“I’m not. But whether by deceit or by design, the Grey Wardens have become the enemy. I know even he would agree that between the destruction of the world and the deaths of deluded Wardens, the choice is simple.”
Friends today could be foes tomorrow. It was this ruthless pragmatism that served Leliana well as the Inquisition spymaster, and Dorian was thankful they were on the same side.
He nodded toward Josephine, who was scribbling busily on a parchment as Cullen moved markers for the various army units across the large war map. “Well, if you need help with strategising, I am quite familiar with the region.”
That earned him a surprised lift of a brow. “You’ve been to the Adamant Fortress?”
“Indeed,” Dorian smiled brightly. “Sightseeing. Absolutely dreadful at this time of the year.”
Leliana watched him closely, trying to read his face, but Dorian gave away nothing.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said finally. “Anything else?”
“Yes. Where is Captain Rick? It’s unlike him to miss the war council. He hasn’t taken ill, has he?”
“The Captain left Skyhold a week ago,” Leliana said. “We didn’t stop him.”
Dorian balked. “What? Why?”
Josephine interposed tactfully. “We’d received word from Fairbanks that Argon’s Lodge is under siege. It appears the Red Templars have returned and brought with them a horde of infected giants. He called for aid, but…”
The women exchanged looks.
“With the march to Adamant so close, we can’t afford to spare any soldiers,” Leliana said. “It would divert Inquisition resources from fighting our enemies where it counted. Rick wasn’t pleased with that decision and took off without permission. We haven’t heard from him since.”
“And you let him go? Alone?” Dorian barked, livid. “Fairbanks and his people are Inquisition allies. We’re duty-bound to protect them from harm!”
Leliana’s eyes turned hard and unyielding. “This is a war, Dorian. We can’t eliminate every immediate threat that presents itself. Our priority is to defeat Corypheus and close the Breach. Everything else is ancillary.”
It was a hard truth to swallow, that some people were considered expendable collateral cost of war. But it was the reality.
“Fine,” he said, his voice barbed. “Will you be so kind as to inform the Inquisitor that I’m taking a leave of absence to the Emerald Graves. And I don’t need your bloody permission, either.”
With that, he turned on his heels and hurried back to his room. As he began stuffing fresh clothes and potions into his travelling sack, he uttered a quick prayer under his breath.
One week. Seven days under attack by a swarm of Red Templars and their infected giants. Dorian could only hope he’d make it there in time.
Let him be all right. Maker, please let him be all right.
Content warning for strong violence, some description of gore and blood. Tis a battle, after all.
He saw the thin veil of smoke rising from Argon’s Lodge long before he could see the village itself. Only three hours since daybreak, yet the sun already seemed tired and heavy behind the rolling shroud.
The sinking pit in Dorian’s stomach swelled into something more, choking his throat. He dug in his heels, spurring Zarzam on into a full gallop. Every muscle in his body screamed its soreness as he drove the warhorse crashing through the forest.
Zarzam’s powerful hooves pounded against the earth, stirring up a trail of leaves and dust in their wake. Above the whistle of the wind, Dorian heard voices shouting, then a bloodcurdling howl that echoed through the dense woods, a hellish sound of pain and fury.
Kaffas. The giants!
Dorian wheeled Zarzam to the right and kicked him onwards, off the path, plunging through the thick brush of forest heading straight for the village. Brambles tore at his legs and arms, ripping through the samite of his robes. A thin branch lashed his face, stinging, and he felt warmth sliding down his cheek.
Once over the crest of a hill, Argon’s Lodge came into view. The once-meagre hamlet had grown to a settlement five times its original size, enclosed by wooden palisades and ditches to protect against any incursions. But now, a gaping hole marred the defense wall, its path torn through by the monstrous force of a launched boulder. The enemies had breached into the village proper.
Dorian dismounted and drew his staff from the sheath at his back. As he took cautious steps through the puncture in the wall, the smell of charred timber grew stronger, tainted with the reek of burning flesh.
The ruins of several homes still smouldered, drooling smoke into the morning sky, charred timbers jutting out from their remains like broken ribs. Dismembered bodies littered the ground, mostly Red Templars, but a few villagers, too. The corpse of a red lyrium-crusted giant lay stretched across the central space, its blood pooled on the ground in crimson puddles.
Dorian sucked in his breath. Was he too late? Had Argon’s Lodge already been overwhelmed?
Farm animals wandered freely—chickens and pigs and goats that had survived the attack now wreaking havoc on the cultivated vegetable patch of turnips and cabbages.
Dorian stepped over the wreckage of the fence and wound through a row of log cabins. Laundry flapped gently from clotheslines, greyed and tattered. Marks streaked across the walls of the homes from both fire and steel, but they stood intact. Fairbanks and his people had been busy. These lodgings were a far cry from the decrepit shacks he saw months ago when the village was first liberated.
Towards the west end of the Lodge was the only building made of stone. Surrounded by a high rampart of earth and wood, it was a simple structure that perhaps served as a gathering hall, the Chantry, or whatever else that might be needed at a particular time. But the doors were made of thick wood banded with iron, and its windows barred with steel grating.
It was clearly constructed to withstand raids.
The distant sounds of battle echoed thinly, increasing as Dorian approached the isolated building. The Red Templars had suffered great losses, their dead and dying were left strewn across the sand, covered in deep flesh wounds. But the wilted crowd of foot soldiers remained vicious and persistent. They lunged at the small group of defenders, blades grinding and clashing until sparks leapt from them.
Dorian recognised some of the men from Rick’s squadron—Flynn, Bennet, a mage named Marcel, the greying warrior Cargan. They looked utterly drained, their clothes drenched with sweat, their faces drawn and blackened by ash.
Tightening his grip, Dorian slammed the base of his staff on the ground and released a burst of arcane force that knocked a Templar Horror off his feet. It gave Bennet the few vital seconds needed to plunge his sword into the monster’s side, then Flynn dashed to his side and sunk his twin blades into the Templar’s neck.
Dorian swept his hand in an arc, and a wall of fire sprang up. He sent it careening toward the demonic Templars, engulfing them in bright yellow, orange, red flames. They screamed as they burned, until Cargan and Bennet silenced them with swift blades across their throats.
When all danger appeared to be at an end, at least for now, the men turned to Dorian.
“Thank the Maker you’re here, Dorian,” Bennet said, taking off his helmet. “We thought the Inquisition didn’t want to spare anyone.”
“No, but I made a very compelling argument,” Dorian replied. “Is everyone alright?”
“We got most of the villagers inside the assembly hall before the worst of it began,” Flynn supplied. “Mothers, children, the elderly, the sick and injured are safe inside.”
Cargan wiped a gloved hand across his face, smearing the soot. “But we lost a few good men and women along the way.”
“Rick, is he…” Dorian couldn’t say the word out loud, afraid of making it true.
“He’s still alive, at least as of three days ago,” Bennet said quickly. “He went with Fairbanks and Captain Kaydence to give chase to the giants, drove them out of the Lodge and down the valley.”
Flynn eased himself down to sit on a dead Templar Horror, giving the head a kick for good measure. “And we were given orders to guard against any remaining invaders. Nasty bastards.”
Dorian nodded, relief melting the lead that had filled his chest. “I’ll go lend a hand. Will you manage?”
Even though exhausted, Flynn gave him a thumb’s up and flashed a smile. “Give them hell, vint!”
Dorian followed a rough trail that meandered through the forest, running as hard as he could. His lungs burned with each breath, his heart pounded like a war drum. Faster. Faster. He sprinted through the tangled undergrowth, dodged trunks and low-hanging branches.
Guided by the gentle gurgle of the stream, he reached the edge of the forest where it opened up into the valley. Amidst a crush of Red Templar bodies lay another dead giant, weltering in dark blood. Its single eye bulged out, its long, forked tongue hung from the corner of a mouth still open in a grimace, as though the monster couldn’t quite believe it’d been slain.
Broken pieces of armour and torn bits of clothing scattered the valley’s floor. Dorian saw no dead humans or elves amongst the casualties, though the tracks of the advancing militia were marked with blood.
Another ear-splitting roar rolled through the forest, so deep and booming he felt it vibrating in his throat.
North. They went northward.
Dorian took off toward the sound, moving with renewed vigour, running along the riverbank through thick grove of trees. He leapt over a fallen, moss-covered log. It was a careless step—too late did he feel the loose rocks shift beneath his boot. His feet slid out from under him, peddles skittering. He tumbled helplessly over gnarled roots and crashed into the trunk of a large spruce, the force of it knocking the wind out of him.
Pain throbbed and seared through his right ankle. He groaned and rolled himself up to sitting, spitting out a blade of grass and something he hoped wasn’t an insect.
“Kaffas.” He winced as he gingerly tested the injured foot. “Again, I say, not made for the wilderness.”
Slowly, he picked himself up, dusting leaves and twigs off his trousers. The wrenched ankle pulsed and his boot felt tighter around it, but it bore his weight. He downed a potion in one gulp and tossed the vial aside. Even if it might not help with the swelling, the elfroot would dull the pain considerably, at least until the battle was over.
He resumed his path forward, but went only two paces before he heard a voice bellow: “Incoming! Take cover!”
Dorian ducked just in time. An enormous boulder sailed out of the canopy overhead, snapping through branches and smashed into the ground only by mere feet from where he stood.
At first, all was quiet. Then came the discordant clash of steel on steel, feral snarls and cries of rage, signalling that the militia had caught up with the fleeing Red Templars.
Despite the cool breeze, Dorian felt sweat trickle down his back. His body ached from the exertion of the past several hours. Still, he pulled himself upright and hobbled ahead.
A few more yards brought him to a clearing in the woods, where Fairbank’s militia and the Templars were engaged in a deadly skirmish without any regard for formation or tactics. Both sides were exhausted and strained from days of fighting, swinging and stabbing as they struggled for a foothold.
Fairbanks had lost his shield and was fighting with a long sword in either hand, skewering a Templar with the help of another soldier. Kaydence, the new captain, could only raise one arm. She parried the swing of her opponent’s blade with a bearded axe instead of her usual greatsword, while another militia warrior lashed at the demon Knight’s back, occasionally finding its mark despite the heavy armour, but inflicting only minor wounds.
Even Kevan, the elven assassin, moved with a sluggish rhythm, her helmet askew as she slashed at the last standing giant’s legs with her daggers, hoping to wear down its defenses.
But Dorian’s eyes sought only one man, only the sun-gold face of his beloved.
Rick had shed his helmet and most of his heavy armour, his once-white undershirt now frayed and stained crimson. With his greatsword planted in the ground near him, he stood before the giant, his arms outstretched as if in welcome.
Rivulets of blood flowed freely from multiple cuts, steaming and smoking as they ran down his forearms. His eyes were ablaze with unearthly fire, glowing coal-red.
Blood magic. Rick was using blood magic.
The air curdled with the caustic scent of the thaumaturgy. It felt agitated, alive, and Dorian’s skin prickled from the surfeit of energy.
A low, thunderous boom crashed over the din of battle. Eddies and currents of raw magic gathered and swirled above the giant, forming what looked like two whirlpools made of flames and light. Dorian felt himself becoming almost hypnotised—transfixed as the churning mouths of the vortices widened grotesquely before a pair of spectral hands erupted from their depths.
One shadowy fist reached down and seized the giant by its gagging throat, hoisting it off the ground. Another broke off its long tusks, one after another, and drove them deep into its back. The hulking beast screeched in agony, face distorting hideously as it swung its scraggy arms wildly at the apparitions.
Dorian had never seen blood magic used like this before. Not for power, greed, or possession—no, this magic possessed a singular, destructive purpose, and the world groaned under its devastating weight.
Rick bared his teeth in a snarl. Balling his hands into fists at the end of stiff arms, he willed the phantom hands to strangle the giant’s scrawny neck, choking it.
But black magic such as this was taxing to the mind and invasive to the body. Dark veins bulged under the flesh of his hands and arms, slithering up toward his heart like tangles of snakes, seeking fresh blood to consume. His breath grew more laboured with each passing moment, his broad shoulders trembling under an unseen burden.
So focused was Rick on the task ahead that he didn’t notice a Red Templar guard charging at him from behind.
Dorian swung his staff above his head in a wide arc. The barrier sprang into existence around Rick just as the Templar slammed into it. The shock-wave from the collision blasted the two off their feet and sent them flying backwards, landing in unceremonious heaps.
Dorian blasted the Templar with lightning and fire until he stopped moving.
Rick shook his head to clear it as he pushed himself up to sit. With furrowed brows, he scanned the landscape for the spell-caster, beyond the carnage of battle, beyond the field and into the trees. He blinked in dazed surprise when his eyes fell on Dorian.
But there was no time to linger. Rick’s magic was rapidly waning; the spectral hands expelled their last gasp of life, faltering mid-air before dissipating into the rapid winds. Set free, the giant crumpled forward, nearly crushing Kevan. It loomed above Rick, blood pouring from the gaping holes where the tusks had been.
Dorian saw Rick cast a furtive glance at his greatsword embedded in the dirt a few yards away. Their eyes locked again, and an understanding passed between them.
The giant swayed groggily, pink foam frothing from its mouth. It raised a foot, ready to crush Rick under it. As the foot came down, Rick rolled to one side, narrowly avoiding an explosion of ice that sprouted from the earth. The ice spikes pierced up through the beast’s foot in all directions, trapping it in place. Rick scrambled across to where his greatsword was pitched, grabbed the hilt and swung it backwards without so much as looking.
Three clawed toes severed in an instant. The giant bellowed in agony and fell on its back with a quaking thud; the tusks squelching their way out of the wounds from the impact. Seeing an opening, Rick leapt onto the soft belly of the beast. He dodged the giant’s seeking hands, left, right, left again. Charging with a final burst of strength, Rick let out a great cry, blade raised high above his head.
The greatsword burst into golden flames at Dorian’s command, sizzling as Rick plunged the blade into the giant’s heart.
The monster’s body went limp, hands falling to its sides. Dead.
Dorian turned his attention to the aid of Fairbanks, freezing his enemy in place so the mayor of the Lodge could force his sword between the steel plates and into the Templar’s chest. The horrific scream faded away soon after.
Kevan needed no help from him. With the giant defeated, she was free to dart across the battlefield with speed and dexterity. She found her mark, stabbing her knives into crusted belly of a Templar Horror, just above the groin. Before the Horror could swat at her, she jerked the dirks sideways away from each other, spilling the demon’s guts.
Fire, ice, lightning—Dorian struck the remaining enemies with a barrage of deadly spells. Under his cloak of attacks, the militia charged as one, weapons raised.
The Red Templar’s line crumpled. One by one, they were overcome. Soon, the battle was over.
Giddy and laughing, Fairbanks raised his swords in the air and let out an ear-splitting whoop of victory. Kevan helped Kaydence onto her feet and, perhaps forgetting who’s in charge for a moment, gave the captain a playful punch in the shoulder.
Kaydence yelped. “I have a broken arm, Kev!”
“Oops!” The elf didn’t seem at all apologetic. “Walk it off, Cap. Walk it off!”
Despite considerable odds, the small village of Argon’s Lodge held out against a brigade of Red Templars and giants. In time, more migrants would arrive to the settlement, and more would have cause to defend this territory. The Lodge should grow and flourish.
Dorian looked up to see Rick walk towards him slowly. Unshaven for days, his face was shadowed by a new growth of beard. Dried blood and dirt clung to his skin, his tattered tunic. On his forearms, beneath the numerous fresh self-inflicted wounds, were two distinct depressions in the flesh—the time-paled scars from removing Nehra’s amulets.
His dark eyes were unreadable as he stopped before Dorian.
“What are you doing here?”
Not quite the greeting Dorian had hoped for.
“I believe I just helped you finish off a band of Red Templars and a very, very angry giant. You’re welcome, by the way. I’ll have you know, I rode here as soon as I’d heard what—”
The rest of Dorian’s sentence was lost in the rough cotton of Rick’s shirt when strong arms enveloped him in a hug.
“You talk too much,” Rick said, muffled against his hair, arms wrapping tighter around him, gently. “Thank you.”
The base of Dorian’s spine tingled. He hesitated for a moment before returning the embrace.
“I just wanted to make sure you’re safe.”
Before I go back to my world.
For the first time, he felt a twinge at the thought of leaving.
Over Rick’s shoulder, he caught the curious glances the others cast their direction. Suddenly shy, and uncertain of the strange warmth that had filled his stomach, he gave Rick a few awkward pats on his back and pulled away.
Rick let him go, his hands falling to his sides. His dark eyes skimmed Dorian’s face, his forehead, the bridge of his nose, the outline of his mouth with an intimacy that felt both familiar and foreign.
“You look terrible,” Rick said finally, nodding at the bloodied cheek.
Dorian snorted. “You’re one to talk. You look like you were run over by a herd of brontos.”
“Feels like it, too.” Rick surprised him by chuckling, and Dorian’s heart gave a soft flutter at the sound of it.
For a moment, their gaze held, smiles on their lips, until Fairbanks broke the spell, appearing between them.
“You saved our hides back there. We can’t thank you enough.” Grinning, the Orlesian clapped Dorian on the back. “I’m going to name my first-born after you.”
“Well, I can’t think of a finer name,” Dorian preened, out of habit more than anything. “It would be an honour.”
Rick cleared his throat, intentionally loud. “Fairbanks, didn’t you promise just last week you’d name your first-born after me?”
“I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.” Kaydence joined them with Kevan in tow. “He says that to everyone.”
“Worry not,” Fairbanks said, crossing his arms. “You shall all have a spot in my family tree. Eventually.”
Kevan half-giggled, half-shrieked. “All? There are six of us in first squadron alone! Creators, I pity your future wife, whoever she is!”
Her words earned a round of laughter from the small group. Even Rick allowed himself a severely rationed chortle.
“So what now, Captain?” Fairbanks asked when the merriment had subsided.
“We return to the Lodge,” Kaydence announced. “Time to put the village back together again.”
They gathered up their gear and whatever was salvageable before starting the hike back. Dorian made to follow, but his ankle had reached its limit. The running and jumping had put so much strain on the injured ligament the joint now felt inflamed.
Dorian swayed on his feet, his legs seemed ready to buckle at any moment.
“Whoa.” Rick’s hand shot out to steady him, grasping him by the elbow. “Are you all right?”
The pain had evolved into a steady, pulsing throb, moving up his leg like a wave. Dorian winced. “I took a nasty fall near that grove on the western edge of the river. I must have turned my ankle.”
Rick considered him for a moment before slipping an arm securely around Dorian’s waist. “It’s a long walk back. Lean on me, if your ego permits it.”
Dorian tried to totter on his own, and made a futile attempt at swatting Rick away. “You can barely stand yourself.” He patted his pockets, feeling for the elfroot potions. “I’m fine. I just need a moment to catch my breath, then…”
He fumbled in his side pocket, where he was certain he had placed the dodecahedron. Yet his fingers did not find the tell-tale bulge of the device, closing on nothing.
The dodecahedron. It’s gone.
“What is it?” Rick asked.
“I lost something very valuable to me. It must have tumbled out of my pocket when I fell.” Dorian took a deep breath and tried not to let panic sweep over him. “I must go back and look for it.”
“Can it wait?”
“No,” Dorian replied emphatically.
Rick tilted his head up and squinted against the glare of the sun. “We only have a few hours before the sun sets so we have to be quick.”
Unstrapping the greatsword from his back, he called out to his companions, most of whom were already halfway up the knoll ahead. “Dorian and I need to make a slight detour. We’ll see you back at the Lodge!”
They merely waved acknowledgement without turning around.
After hiding the sword in a low bush, Rick turned his back to Dorian and bent at the knees. “All right. Hop on.”
Dorian blinked at him, incredulous. “You must be joking.”
“It’ll be faster if I carry you.”
“I can still walk.”
“You can limp, you mean.”
“I’m heavier than I look.”
“Thank you for the warning, but I’m sure I’ll manage just fine,” Rick said, glancing over his shoulder. His terse tone and stern countenance were belied by the twinkle in those watchful brown eyes. “Dorian, the longer you dawdle, the more daylight we lose. Let’s go.”
Dorian wracked his brain for alternatives and found none. He must retrieve the dodecahedron as quickly as possible, lest it fall into enemy hands.
Breathing a heavy sigh of resignation, he grabbed hold of Rick’s shoulders. “Fine. Try not to drop me. I do bruise quite easily.”
Rick huffed a laugh. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
He hoisted Dorian up with effortless ease, large hands tucked under his thighs.
A little tentatively, Dorian looped his arms around Rick’s neck. “Yes.”
“Hold on tight.” Rick bounced him up, tightening his grip on his legs and began heading towards the reverse side of the hill.
The scent of Rick’s damp skin inundated him, earthy and darkly sweet, bringing forth memories of tangled sheets and sweat-slick bodies. Dorian swallowed hard at the images flooding his head. Pressed against Rick’s back as he was, there would be no hiding. Now that would make for an awkward conversation.
So he did complex arithmetic mentally, then envisioned crying infants, smelly privies, giant spiders—whatever that would help quell the growing excitement.
It worked. Somewhat.
“So, the grove on the western edge of the river,” he heard Rick say, “shouldn’t take longer than thirty minutes, give or take.”
“An optimist, I see. It took me almost an hour to reach you. And that was without a full-grown man on my back.”
“I’ve carried heavier August bucks than you, and for much longer distance than this.”
“It must have been a difficult life for a young boy of high birth,” Dorian replied, after a while.
“It’s a difficult life for anyone.”
Dorian nodded, even though Rick couldn’t see it.
“Thank you,” he said softly. “You must be exhausted.”
“It’s the least I can do after what you’ve done for us.” He paused, then, “And what you did for me.”
Rick picked his way efficiently through the forest, avoiding obstacles that required large steps while maintaining a steady pace across the hilly terrain of the Emerald Graves. It was evident he knew the region like the back of his hand.
“So,” Dorian began, after a comfortable silence, “blood magic.”
“I was wondering when you’d bring that up.”
“I’m Tevinter. We’re sensitive to this sort of thing by nature,” Dorian said. “Did they know?”
“No, I’d never used magic in front of them. At least not until four days ago when the Lodge was nearly overwhelmed.” Rick bucked him higher on his back as they went up a grassy slope, urging Dorian to strengthen his grasp. “The only way out of it was to force their front line to break rank. So, I struck them with fire and lightning at close range to drive an opening, enough for us to whittle down their numbers and pushed them out of the village.”
“I can’t imagine your friends being too thrilled with the revelation.”
Rick let out a sigh that sounded more like a groan. “No, I got an earful from the entire battalion that night. They took turns lecturing me about trust and lies and all that, then made me promise there would be no more secrets.”
“Really?” Dorian drawled. “None at all?”
“None that matters, anyway.” Rick looked over his shoulder at him with an impish gleam in his eye. “I’m not telling them everything.”
Dorian’s susceptible, traitorous heart thumped against his ribs. He looked away quickly. “Good. They can’t possibly expect you to disclose all your private affairs.”
“Mhmm,” Rick said, suspiciously nonchalant, turning his gaze forward again.
Dry leaves and flowering grass crunched softly under Rick’s heavy tread. Brown nugs and August rams scattered as they heard them coming. Above, squirrels raced from treetop to treetop, chattering and flicking their bushy tails.
“Did it bother you?” Rick asked when they reached the river’s eastern bank. “The blood magic.”
The flow of the current was swift, but he was sure-footed and nimble, missing the rocks jutting from the water’s surface as he waded across the ankle-deep stream.
Dorian stared at the small beads of sweat that had gathered at the nape of Rick’s neck, weaving a path down his spine.
“My father taught me to hate blood magic,” he said, quietly. “I’ve seen how ruinous and horrific it can be. But it had also saved my life more than once. There was one time, when I was captured by the Red Templars…”
And he recounted what happened at the Suledin Keep with Imshael, making a few substitutions, most notably that it had been Trevelyan himself who’d saved him.
“I didn’t know blood magic could cure one of Red Lyrium infection,” Rick said when he finished.
“Neither did we.”
“Your friend sounds like a brave man.”
Dorian smiled, despite the soft ache in his throat. “He is.”
Soon, they spotted the trees collapsed by the giant’s boulders.
“There,” Dorian instructed, pointing at the cluster of black spruce.
Rick set him down carefully when they arrived at the patch of loose stones where he’d slipped.
They scoured the area, overturning rocks and branches, sweeping leaf detritus away from the dirt… but nothing.
“What am I looking for?” Rick asked as he knelt to look under a tree root.
“The Tevinter paperweight you saw in the library.”
“I take it you didn’t make us come all the way here for a simple paperweight.”
“No,” Dorian sighed. “It’s an arcane device of volatile nature. It would be disastrous if the Red Templars got hold of it.”
“What does it do?”
Dorian peeked under a wide bush. “Frankly, I am still trying to puzzle out how it works.”
Widening his search, he circled out from the spruce trees to find himself standing before the massive boulder that almost crushed him.
As he stared down, his eyes caught the dark glint of metal protruding from beneath the earth, along the trail left by the rolling boulder.
Air rushed out of his lungs, and the world spun around him. Dorian dropped to his hands and knees, his ears ringing. He did not hear Rick call his name, nor did he feel him walk up behind him.
Dorian only felt numb as his fingers grasped at the metal fragments of the dodecahedron.
His only way home. Broken into pieces.