Fear – unbridled, ridiculous fucking fear that had no place yet still lingered like a plague – choked her throat, trying to throw her over the already shaky line between sanity and madness as she rode hard towards Haven ahead of the others.
That future she’d experienced with Dorian in Redcliffe hadn’t been real. Varric and Cassandra riding behind her with their eyes and voices clear of the effects of red lyrium was proof enough of that. The bright blue of the sky, that her hand didn’t burn like there was fire in the veins underneath her skin, or that they had ridden out of Redcliffe with the village intact and the castle itself in the hands of the Queen, all of these were proof that that terrible nightmare was in fact just that. Yet the fear still ate at her.
Fear that she would return to Haven and find the worst of news involving their Commander. Her treacherous mind had come up with many a scenario on the trip back to Haven: dead by a templar sword, slain on the road by bandits, ambushed by the templars and force fed lyrium, or a dozen other imaginings each worse than the last. It had done the same for every other member of the Inquisition and member of her company as well (including every soldier and scout she knew the face of but not the name) but Cullen…Cullen was the worst.
Until she saw them all safe and whole and alive, that fear would keep eating at her.
She rounded the last curve in the road and Haven’s walls rose up, steady as ever, to her left. Ahead she could see soldiers drilling on the training field and could make out the mismatched armor of company members amongst them as the veteran fighters had agreed to help teach the green Inquisition members. The sight stilled a little of the fear before it rose up hot and choking again as she saw silver steel and dark hair standing watch over the field instead of fur and blond hair.
Somehow Meryell retained enough decorum to slow her horse and steered the heavily breathing beast towards Rylen. The former Starkhaven templar saluted her with a clenched fist over his heart before saying, “I’m glad to see you returned, Herald. Sorry to say that the Commander’s not back yet. Sure you expected him and not me on the field.”
Trying to swallow past another surge of the choking fear with Cullen’s corpse dancing behind her eyes, Meryell replied, “Not your fault, Captain. Any estimation on how much longer he’ll be away?”
“Can’t say, messere. Sorry…Herald.”
“I’m practically a Marcher myself merely from how long I’ve lived there, Captain, so I don’t mind the common forms of address. Better that than calling me fucking Herald.”
He grinned up at her – a lopsided sort of expression that twisted the tattoos lining his chin. “Noted, messere,” Rylen commented warmly and she couldn’t help but smile back in return since he’d actually listened to her. “As for news about the Commander, messere, you’d have to go see the Nightingale. I know she’s been keeping in contact via her birds but beyond that I haven’t heard much.”
Before Redcliffe she’d have curled her lip at the prospect of having to go to the spymaster for anything. Now she wanted to go almost merely to see her face whole again and not wrecked by torture.
She still didn’t like her but the el’u’verelan had sacrificed herself for their escape. It may have meant merely an end to that horror of a fucking life for the future’s spymaster but it had been more than that. That Leliana had given them the time they needed to escape and the chance to make things right. If she could stop her from digging so deep into her own secrets, Meryell might just like the woman under the mantle of spymaster.
Or, she could just go looking for Cullen herself. She was a decent tracker and he’d been travelling with a mixed troop of templars, soldiers, and scouts along with Blackwall and Sera. They’d leave tracks even with the scouts who knew fieldcraft covering them behind them. All she had to do was trade horses, point her nose towards the east, and go.
It would calm every fear she had.
The second she was decided, Meryell felt a heavy hand come down on her shoulder and turned to look into the Iron Bull’s sole eye as she was slightly taller via her horse. “Hey, Boss,” he rumbled. “You’re sitting here thinking awful hard. Didn’t even notice the Captain telling you he had to go or the rest of your crew coming in.”
He then paused before asking, “Not thinking of riding out after the Commander, are you?”
Distressed at being so easily read, Meryell tilted her chin back and snapped in response, “And if I am?”
“I’d suggest you talk to that redheaded spymaster of yours first.”
Stiffening in the saddle, she did curl her lip now, snarling, “What if I don’t want to talk to her?”
Bull started to open his mouth then immediately closed it as suddenly from behind Meryell came the Captain’s voice – her Captain’s voice.
“Then you’ll do as you’re fucking ordered, girl,” he snapped in a commanding voice as he closed one hand around her horse’s reins just under his chin. She instinctively went straight-backed at the tone, long ago having been set into the pattern of obeying that particular voice no matter what.
Grinding her teeth together, Meryell ground out, “Arnald…” only to have him snap the fingers of his other hand right underneath her nose.
“Captain,” he hissed.
Bowing her head in response, she echoed in a murmur, “Captain.”
“Better,” growled Arnald. He narrowed his eyes up at her for a long moment before he spoke again. “I read the report your Seeker sent back ahead of you, girl. Sounded like it was a shit hole of a job despite your success in getting the mages on the Inquisition’s side. Y’need rest after a pisser of a job like that and I know our lot beat that lesson into your head. So get off the horse.”
Fear choked her again and Meryell turned to look back towards the road, softly beginning, “But I…” before Bull stepped into the path of her vision and Arnald laid his freehand on top of her right knee.
“Get off the horse, girl.”
Dragging her eyes away from the road, Meryell meekly nodded, unable to do anything else past the lump in her throat. As she slid down from the saddle and hit the ground with a jarring thump that shook her from bottom to top, she felt her knees wobble. Arnald’s firm hand on her back a moment later and her grip on the saddle were the only things that kept her from collapsing.
“Fuck talking to the spymaster,” commented Iron Bull suddenly. “I think you need bed, Boss.”
The cry was out of her mouth before she could stop it, far louder than she’d intended but fear had driven it out of her lungs like a hound loosed to hunt. She felt Arnald’s hands on her shoulders then and he slowly turned her to face him, lifting her chin with two fingers as she tried to tuck her face into her chest.
“Meryell,” he rumbled softly, “what happened in Redcliffe?”
She froze, staring at his eyes, and slowly shook her head. “I can’t. If I sleep I’ll…I’ll…” she trailed off, unable to complete the sentence with the words. She hadn’t managed more than an hour of sleep every night on their way home, her dreams haunted by the all-consuming red light that swallowed up everything and everyone she held dear. “Just…let me go talk to Leliana.”
“Since when do you call her by her name?”
Since she looked at me with the face and eyes of a woman dead and yet still lived. Since she gave her life so I could live.
“Since fucking now,” replied Meryell, reaching for annoyance and rage in an attempt to fight the fear that was causing her hands to shake. She stepped away from Arnald then and he let her go, though she could see worry still reflected in his eyes. “I just…”
Halting, she closed her eyes before finishing weakly, “I just need to see that everyone’s okay, Captain.” Without waiting for either of them to respond, she started walking.
Meryell made a slow round of the soldiers encampment, smiling at every face that was warm and alive. She then made her way into the Chargers camp, which was positioned at the wedge between the back of the soldiers and the Fangs, and just counted heads because she didn’t know them well enough yet for anything else.
Walking into the Fangs camp, she called names and greetings as she went, returning them in kind. She asked about absent faces and went over the rolls again and again in her head until she’d accounted for practically everyone.
She walked to the blacksmith and chatted briefly with Harritt and his workers, running her fingers over the pristine ridges of the Inquisition’s eye on a breastplate to cement that reality over the battered and broken ones she’d seen in the future.
Dennet happily told her about the newest requisitions of the stable and they talked briefly about where the company got their own mount’s from.
Then she mounted the steps up into Haven proper and began making her rounds of the streets. She smiled at everyone out and about, spoke at length to Seggrit about how business was doing, checked in with Flissa to make sure no one was bothering her, visited Adan to tell him that they’d bought up some herbs that Haven didn’t have while they were in Redcliffe, inquired several minutes with Threnn about Inquisition supplies, and finally finished her minor rounds with Mother Giselle inside the Chantry, asking about the clerics and healers that they had.
Meryell poked her head into Josephine’s office and then ducked back out when she saw both she and Minaeve looked heavily involved in their work.
Almost there. Just…just one more.
Exhaustion hit her as she stepped into Leliana’s tent and Meryell gasped as she felt her knees buckle. Rough, callused hands caught her and she felt leather and chainmail press against her cheek as she was manhandled into a chair. She heard her title – that damned, miserable title – and then a moment later the unbelievable.
“Meryell, here. Drink this,” said Leliana and she realized that the woman was pressing a cup into her hands.
“Not poisoning me, are you?” she asked, trying to cover her moment of weakness with a deflection.
“Not today, Herald.”
Meryell frowned at that, her eyebrows wrinkling, and asked, “Why not?” She then remembered that Arnald had said he’d read Cassandra’s report about what had happened in Redcliffe – the report she’d sent to the very woman in front of her right now – and she shook.
One callused hand cupped hers where she had them curled around the cup, lifting it easily up to where the rim touched her lip. Meryell inhaled the scent of warm cinnamon, apples, and the richness that came with a long-steeped dark tea and looked up to lock her eyes with the spymaster’s. Leliana’s blue eyes were utterly missing the hard, flinty look that had accompanied them for her tenure in Haven up until this moment. The eyes looking at her now were starkly sympathetic and that was what finally pushed her to lifting the cup to drink from it.
As the warmth curled down her throat and into her belly, she softly asked, “Why suddenly so kind?”
“Because what you witnessed was a terrible thing,” replied the other woman. Leliana then turned towards one of her many tables and picked up a heavy looking piece of parchment. She ran her fingers along the edge before she spun back around on a heel and extended it towards Meryell. “This is the last letter I received from the Commander. It came two days ago.”
Fear clutched at her gut, her throat, her hands, and Meryell just stared at her for a moment. Then she took another sip from the cup, the heat of the tea helping to draw her back to reality, and lowered it with one hand as she reached for the letter with the other. She flicked her eyes across Cullen’s careful hand – so different from her scrawl but he’d had the benefit of a Chantry education where she’d only had what her parents knew – before finally finding what she sought.
Sera has been most useful in helping to find ways for templars who want to join us to escape the Redoubt since the Lord Seeker barred the gate. She does, however, report that this last run may be her final as they seem to be hunting down her entrances. That and those who’ve joined us report that their superiors are acting increasingly erratic. I loathe to leave the Order like this when there are no doubt more within who need aid but I have successfully completed the task Meryell recommended for me.
We will wait another day after I send this letter in case of others then begin making our return to Haven. Over three dozen templars will be accompanying us, though I will question each on our return trip to make sure that they will be able to serve alongside the mages.
Relief made her sag in the chair Leliana had sat her in and her hands shook again. It wasn’t him there next to her but it was enough. Enough that she could finally rest.
Licking her lips, Meryell held the letter back out towards the other woman before saying, “Thank you.”
Leliana merely inclined her head before turning her attention back to her tables and…whatever it was that she did in this tent. Without looking over her shoulder she said, “Finish your tea, Herald. I have one of my runner’s looking for your father.”
Nodding, Meryell tipped her head back, resting the base of her neck against the top of the chair’s simple wooden back. After a moment she closed her eyes, just listening to the sound of papers shuffling inside the tent and the bustling noise of Haven in full swing coming in from the wide open door flaps. She sat like that for a long time before she opened one eye and focused on the back of Leliana’s hooded head.
“I was actually happy to see you, you know,” she commented softly. As the other woman froze but didn’t turn, she went on to ask, “Cassandra related what happened in her report?”
“As well as that mage you brought back with you could describe. He told her a great many things about that so-called future.”
Meryell nodded absently then asked, “Did it mention your part in everything?”
For a moment she didn’t think the other woman was going to answer, then Leliana turned to lean against the table she’d been working at, bracing her weight on her hands. “In brief,” she replied. “I believe Cassandra was waiting for all of us to be present again before a full debriefing about what happened was done.”
“It does. What does not is why you were happy to see me.”
Sitting up, Meryell drained the rest of the now cooling tea and extended the cup towards Leliana. As the other woman took it, she replied, “They had tortured you, done unspeakable fucking things to you…and yet, you resisted. For no reason that I could grasp other than that you weren’t going to give those bastards one inch of fucking satisfaction.” Shaking her head, she continued, “You helped us for revenge, to see them pay, and I thought for a while that it consumed you. Then, when the cards were down and our lives were trotted out on the fucking line, you stepped up and held it so we could escape.”
Leliana arched an eyebrow and said, “That should not surprise you.”
“That’s not what surprised me.” Reaching around to brace a hand on the back of the chair, Meryell rose on still shaky legs to stand in front of the other woman. Catching her eyes, she finished softly, “What surprised me is that after all that horror you turned and looked at me with hope in your eyes for one fleeting instant right before you took the step forward to stand between us and the horde coming to destroy us. You…she…earned my respect and my gratitude for that but I am so very fucking glad you aren’t her.”
“And yet I am.”
“Could be,” corrected Meryell sternly. “I sure as shit don’t plan to die anytime soon so that world, timeline, whatever won’t ever happen. Things are just starting to get interesting after all.” She then smiled at Leliana, saying, “If you weren’t such a secret-hogging zealot, I think I could like you, el’u’verelan.”
Leliana arched an eyebrow before asking, “Is that word a compliment or an insult?”
“It’s a descriptor,” replied Folke before Meryell could as he entered the tent. Though she’d already spotted him down in the Fangs’ camp, some of her fear abated again at the sight of him. “And an accurate one,” he added before turning to hold out his hands to her. “Come, ara vherain. Evune has been helping me put your cabin in order and you look like you desperately need to be in bed.”
The fear of the nightmares – of seeing them die or half-consumed by red lyrium like Fiona had been in that future – lanced through her and Meryell took a shaky step towards him. Leliana’s hand caught her elbow at almost the same time that Folke caught her hands and she shuddered in their grips as they kept her upright.
“Leliana,” said Folke firmly over her as her voice trailed off, “may I ask a favor?” Meryell assumed that the spymaster nodded but she didn’t see it as the woman released her elbow while Folke slowly pulled her in against his chest. “Send one of them down to the Fangs camp to our healers tent. There’s a particular sleeping draught that one of our mages makes. Just have them say it’s for Meryell – not the Herald, they have to specifically say it’s for Meryell so they get the right one – and bring it to her cabin.”
“I’ll see it done. Herald…” Meryell turned her head to look at the woman, her cheek pressed against Folke’s shoulder, and saw there was still sympathy in her eyes. Then they cleared, that hard look coming back, but the hand Leliana rested briefly on her back was gentle. “Be well. We need you in this as much as anyone else.”
Before she could say anything in response, the spymaster had turned back to her tables and Folke was steering her out of the tent. He then paused in front of Threnn and quickly divested her of her dagger harnesses in a few swift moves before tossing them on the quartermaster’s table with a query about getting them cleaned up and returned to either the Herald’s cabin or the Fangs’ camp. Then he swung her up into his arms and Meryell wrapped her arms around his neck as she buried her face against his jaw. She breathed in his scent – faint hints of lyrium and herbs alongside the leather and sweat that came from common exertion – and finally felt the last of the tension drain out of her body in one fell swoop.
Mostly because Folke smelt like home.
Meryell was in a bit of a daze after that, exhaustion having finally fully caught up to her now that she’d stopped fiercely guarding the proverbial gate. She was vaguely aware of them reaching her cabin and registered Evune’s vallaslin – honoring Andruril, she had learned the patterns from her father’s teachings – above her as she was divested of armor and then clothes. Then it was just Evune there (because Folke respected her privacy despite knowing she didn’t care about family seeing her naked) as she ran a warm wet cloth across her skin in lieu of a full bath to wipe off some of the sweat and grime. It seemed only a moment later that her father was back and helping the older elf finish putting a loose pair of pants and shirt on her before they both tucked her into bed.
Evune pressed a kiss to her forehead and murmured, “On nydha, da’assan.” Meryell smiled tiredly in response and settled heavily into the bed as she watched the other woman leave, somehow fully registering the lingering hand that she rested on Folke’s shoulder.
As he walked over and settled on the edge of the bed, leaning back against her curled up knees with one arm behind her back to brace himself, she softly asked, “Did you and Evune come back to your understanding?” They’d been dancing around each other for years, her adoptive father and the former Dalish woman, since long before Meryell had even joined the company. She knew they’d shared each other’s beds many a time (she’d literally walked into Folke’s room back at headquarters plenty of times to find them still abed in a tangle of limbs) but they’d never made it anything official. They just called it their understanding since neither of them were committed to settling for a single relationship (mostly because Evune didn’t care to be tied to one lover’s bed and Folke had pointedly said that Meryell was the main lady in his life).
Chuckling, he replied, “After we thought you were…well, I won’t go back into that. So, yes, for the moment she’s letting me warm her bed again. Though I’m working on that dashing Captain your vhen’an’ara has.”
Unable to stop her flush, she murmured, “You heard that. At the game.” Then she registered his other words and blinked at him several times. “Baba, I’m pretty sure Rylen doesn’t swing that way.”
Folke just grinned and reached forward to brush hair back from her face. “I have good information that he does. You know I can’t resist an accent…minus Orlesian.” And he thankfully didn’t make another comment about how she referred to Cullen.
“No offense to the Captain,” she said with a small smile, quoting his usual words that followed that whenever he said it.
“Aye, no offense to the Captain.” He then held up a little wax stoppered phial that was half filled with a murky pond scum colored liquid, shaking it slightly at her as he said, “The spymaster’s runner came through with the sleeping draught while Evune was cleaning you up. Do you still need it?”
Fear flickered through her again but thankfully now Meryell was so fucking bone breakingly tired that she barely felt its touch. Her mind, however, it could go so many places once she drifted into the Fade and there it could reach her. So she just nodded and Folke smiled before pulling his belt knife to pop off the seal before he slipped an arm around her shoulders to lift her up enough to not choke on it. As the potion made its way down her throat – which even felt slimy – she freed a hand from her blankets to reach for his.
With their fingers entwined, she asked softly, “Don’t leave me alone.”
“Never,” replied Folke, as he leaned over to kiss her forehead. Meryell just nodded in response and curled over deeper into her bed and rubbed her face against the pillow, already feeling the draught start on its work. It dragged her under moments later and she went willingly, completely trusting her father to guard her dreams.
Nearly two weeks later, a scout found her in the blacksmith and alerted her to movement of a large, mostly templar force on the road with the Commander at its head. Meryell immediately dropped the new blade she’d been working on with Harritt then froze, an apology tumbling out of her mouth automatically at the disrespect to the weapon (a lesson that old Morys had taught her). He just waved her on with an understanding smile and she bolted for the stable next door.
Without bothering with a saddle, she just slipped a bridle over her Forder’s head and swung up onto its bare back. Urging him out of the stall and down the road, Meryell felt a quiver of the fear that had haunted her on the way back to Haven. It was considerably weaker, helped by so long back amongst the bulk of the Inquisition as well as knowing he was right there, but it still itched at the back of her skull.
As soon as she swung her horse around the bend in the road, though, she heard Sera shout, “Glowy Bits!” and saw the three of them riding at the forefront of the group. Blackwall was even smiling, which was odd for the normally rather serious man. Probably over feeling like he’d done something for the good.
Then her eyes fell on Cullen and relief crashed into her like a fucking bronto. There were new scuffs on his armor that hadn’t been there before and a bandage on one cheek but he was whole and there and he was smiling at her.
Urging her horse forward, she fell in between him and Sera and – ignoring the exaggerated kissy faces the younger elf was making – reached out for one of his hands. He didn’t pause at all in curling his fingers around hers then she watched him frown, worry creasing his brow.
“Are you alright?” he asked. “Cassandra, Josephine, Varric, and Leliana all wrote me on the way back telling me that they were worried about you. Leliana, Meryell. They all said that something happened in Redcliffe?”
Shaking her head, Meryell said firmly, “I’m fine. I don’t want to talk about that right now. We’ll tell Josephine to set up for the full talk about it this afternoon. Right now…” She trailed off for a moment, thinking of him alone, of him leading an assault on Redcliffe Castle to find her, of him dead on the battlefield, and tightened her grip on his hand.
“Right now,” she finally finished, “I just want to be with you.”
He obviously was still worried and had numerous questions but Cullen just nodded as they rounded the bend in the road. Then he leaned over to peck a kiss against her temple and murmured, “I would like that, dear thief.”
No matter that she had to face that horror again later, to relate the things that had happened, Meryell felt utterly content. She was alive, he was alive, Haven was alive, and they were still in whatever this fight was.
And she could face anything knowing that they were all safe.