“I see you are feeling better, da’len.”
Meryell flicked her ears in silent acknowledgement of Solas’ words. Gil had finally released her after five days with the firm stipulation that she be careful and keep her left arm in a sling to let it finish up its last bit of healing. That and she was to always wear plenty of layers because the last thing they needed was her to get another bout of frostbite right behind the one she’d barely gotten past.
The last had led to a hunt around the camp by both Folke and Cullen for what were deemed suitable clothes for her since her things hadn’t made it out of Haven. It hadn’t given her a lot of matching things – which she didn’t care about except that some of them clashed as terribly as Sera’s wardrobe and she’d didn’t not care that much – but it had gotten her a very nice pair of fur-lined boots.
“Better is debatable, Chuckles,” she replied as she realized he’d come to stand beside her.
She’d been looking back down the way she’d come, the long walk through a blizzard that should have rightly killed her. They couldn’t see Haven from their position further up in the Frostbacks but she didn’t need to see it. The memories of the village burning around their ears was seared into her memory for some time to come.
“True.” She did turn to look at the other elf then and arched an eyebrow when she noticed that he was standing next to her not only on top of the snow without breaking it – which was a feat even she wasn’t capable of – but was doing so with his feet mostly bare. The mage smirked, obviously noting where her attention had gone, and said imperiously, “Magic.”
“Of course it is,” muttered Meryell as she shifted her attention back to the hill. “So what do you need, Chuckles? Just come to bother me?”
“Oh the contrary,” he replied. “I came to give you direction since you now seem able to take it given your recovery.”
She could practically taste the smarm rolling off of him as he answered, “Is direction not what the Inquisition seeks right now?”
Snorting, Meryell replied, “Guess we do.” Turning to face him, she tugged the fur around her shoulders a little bit higher with her good hand to cover the back of her neck before asking, “So what brilliance have you got to share with me that you couldn’t tell someone else before now?”
He merely smiled before turning even more starkly sober than he normally was – which was a damned fine feat for the mage. Solas turned his gaze away from her out towards the calm of the mountain air as he said in a quiet voice, “The orb you described to us in our second discussion. I have…I have seen it’s like in my travels in the Fade if what you told us of how it looked is true. Both it and the power he used against you are ours.”
“Ours?” she repeated with a slight curl to her lip. As she started to say that they didn’t have anything in common, Meryell caught on to what he meant. “Elven,” she breathed. “You mean to tell me that it’s some kind of…ancient fucking Elven magic item?”
“A foci, yes.”
“So basically an ancient power equivalent of a staff or a wand.”
Solas arched an eyebrow and she smirked.
“My baba may not be much of a mage but he does use foci,” explained Meryell. “They’re nothing like what someone like you or Gil or anyone else uses but I know what they are. I’ve listened to all of them plan enough to give to our enchanter to know the general principle.”
The mage gave her what looked like it was almost an appraising look and she stuck out her tongue at him childishly.
“Charming,” he commented wryly. Then Solas clasped his hands behind his back and said, “I believe that Corypheus used the orb to open the Breach. His unlocking of the orb must have triggered the explosion that destroyed the Conclave.”
Snorting, Meryell twitched her left hand underneath the fur. “Still doesn’t explain this Anchor business.”
“I imagine that he meant to wield it himself. Yet somehow you took it for yourself.”
“Yeah,” she muttered, eyebrows scrunching as she fought to think of those hours before she’d awoken in Haven a prisoner. She could remember getting into the Conclave with the Dalish, could recall finding two of the things she’d been hired to retrieve, but after that…nothing. There was still a blank spot in her recollection and it itched like a healing wound. “Somehow.”
She then shook her head before asking, “What happens when folk find out that the thing that took out the Conclave was Elven? Will they care that it was wielded by a Tevinter madman or will the fools turn all of their anger on our kind like they’ve done so many times before?”
Solas shrugged. “I do not know the answer to that, da’len, but I too fear what may come of the knowledge being widespread. There are many who may not care about who wielded it.”
“Yeah,” replied Meryell, her jaw clenching. “I’ve met plenty that would.” She then shook her head and flashed a hard look at him as she said, “Now, enough about the fucking orb. You said direction, so I sure as shit hope you meant an actual one because we can’t stay on top of this Maker cursed mountain.”
The other elf smiled – that damned know-it-all smile – as he replied, “I have undertaken many travels through the Fade, to the now and to the most distant of the past. There are places in the world – places of power, of purpose – that can be put to the use of the Inquisition. One such is very close within our reach.”
He then turned away from the slope that lead downward towards the wreckage of Haven, gesturing vaguely with an arm for her to do the same. As they both turned to face the camp, he pointed off to the north as he said, “Take scouts and go ahead. Be their guide.”
Tired of his cryptic answers, Meryell growled, “Give me a solid fucking answer, Chuckles. Where am I going?”
Smirking, Solas replied, “The nearest place to use is simply waiting for a force to hold it. It is somewhere that the Inquisition can build, can grow, can become what it needs to be.”
“I’m not sure that counts as a solid answer but forget it.” Sighing, Meryell briefly touched the fingers of her right hand to her forehead before she asked, “What’s this special place of yours called?”
Wrinkling her nose, she mouthed the unfamiliar name several times to herself before she said hesitantly, “The place of the sky? No, that’s not right. Kept. The place where the sky is kept.” When there was no immediate answer, Meryell turned to look at the other elf and found him regarding her with one of those odd expressions of his that she couldn’t read. “What?”
“I have met many Dalish clans, da’len, but few have ever held the vocabulary that you claim.”
Shrugging, Meryell off-handedly said, “Babae’s clan was adamant about keeping as much of the old ways alive as they could. Just so happened that the language was one they held onto decently.” She then frowned and cocked her head at the mage. “Where’d you learn to speak it? No, wait, don’t tell me…the fucking Fade.”
When he just smiled at her, she shook her head and waved a hand at him. Smug asshole.
“Nevermind. It have a name in more common terms?”
Solas slowly nodded before replying, “Those who found it later and built the fortress that sits upon the land called it Skyhold.”
“Skyhold,” repeated Meryell softly, her eyes fixed on the sky to the north. She then turned to look back behind her, back down the hill towards Haven, towards where she’d very nearly met her death. That was the past.
What have I told you about facing problems?
Her mother’s voice echoed in her ears – though only the fucking Maker knew if she actually remembered the woman’s voice correctly, it had been so long since she’d heard it – and she turned away from the slope towards the sky and ever rising ridges of the Frostbacks. In that direction was a hope for the future.
“Alright, Chuckles,” she said after a long moment, “we’ll see if we can find this special place of yours. Not like we’ve got many other options for places to go.” Meryell then jerked her chin towards the open area where a makeshift sort of war table had been set up with a map that Arnald had pulled out of his own belongings that had made it into the wagons. “Now move your ass. You get to come with me to spring this new plan on everyone else.”
Solas chuckled lowly but followed her as she started moving, asking from behind her, “And how shall you explain listening to me?”
Snorting, she replied over her shoulder, “Easy, Chuckles. I’ll tell ‘em that I threatened to gut you with one of my daggers if you were lying. Same as I’m doing right now.”
“I ponder at times how you have managed to make it through life upon threats alone.”
“Oh, it’s not a threat, hahren,” Meryell replied in a low purr. “It’s a promise. I don’t take kindly to being fucked over.”
Almost a week later, Meryell hauled herself up one-handed onto a rock and stood cautiously up into the bracing wind that had been chasing them through the Frostbacks for the past few days. She fully expected to find only snow and rock before them once more but, for the first time in so many days, she actually got a surprise.
Instead of more miles of snow and ice and rock, the mountains suddenly dropped off ahead of her into a valley that was still full of mist this early in the morning. And out of the shifting mists rose the bulk of an ancient keep, its walls just barely painted golden by the first rays of the sun that were starting to show.
“Fuck me,” she breathed after a moment.
“The Commander may have an issue with that,” commented Pod as he clambered up next to her. He then whistled a high note and she turned to see his eyes were wide with surprise. “Damn fine find though. You want me to grab that lightfoot of the spymaster’s and see if we can find a way down?”
Snorting at the way he referenced the slight young man who seemed far too small for his proclaimed age of ten and seven years, Meryell replied, “Just find a path that can be traversed by normal people and not mountain goats like you two, eh? Last thing we need is someone breaking their fucking neck.”
Pod flashed her a mostly belligerent salute, his grin twisting the branches of his vallaslin so they showed instead of the ink nearly fading into his skin thanks to the similar shade. Then he was bounding off, shouting the name of one of the other scouts before he clapped his arm around the youth’s shoulders. After a moment, they bolted off together and she shook her head while smiling.
Then she heard the sound of boots scuffing against stone behind her as well as a familiar grunt and turned to find Cullen rising to stand next to her. The wind blew his fur back a little from his shoulders and set his curly hair (which he had stated outright wasn’t a priority to set to rights until they were resettled) into even more of an unruly mess. He sighed dramatically before grinning at her as he tipped his chin towards the keep in the distance.
“I see that Solas was correct that there was something to the north.”
“Vaguest fucking directions ever,” she replied with a smile.
Cullen chuckled and nodded before saying, “They turned out, though.” She watched him as he narrowed his eyes and held up a hand to block a bit of the wind from blowing into his gaze and causing his eyes to water. Watching him assess what they could see of the keep was almost as fascinating at observing Folke at work because she could tell when he was noting something particular. His eyes lingered on whatever it was, narrowing in with an intensity that was more than a little daunting, before they were on the move again.
It made her wonder how often he focused that sort of attention on her when she wasn’t paying attention.
Shaking herself, Meryell realized he’d said something and asked, “What?”
Laughing, he replied, “I said it certainly looks like it has kept together for however long it’s been abandoned but there’s no telling until we get closer how badly damaged the insides are. We can only hope it’s a purely stone structure and not largely wood on the inside. If it’s the latter we’re going to have our work cut out for us for a while.” Then he leaned forward and his voice dropped several octaves as he growled, “Whatever were you thinking, dear thief? You were awfully lost in thought.”
“Was I?” she replied airily, turning away from him back towards the keep in an attempt to hide her flush. With the wind, it could be easily excused away as the cold taking hard to her cheeks.
“You were.” Cullen then sidled a step closer to her, one arm wrapping around her waist as he rested a hand lightly above her hip. It was a subtle sort of grip, especially with the layers of clothes she was wearing underneath the fur-lined jacket, that didn’t veer much towards intimacy. Not that anyone in the Inquisition would care as she’d learned that the story of their kiss in the Chantry had spread in hushed whispers, accompanied by the quick recitation of him carrying her icy body into their camp and then promptly disappearing for the rest of the night. A tale of heartbreak and hope was the description she’d heard about it and nearly curled her nose in disgust.
She didn’t mind folks knowing about her relationship with him or them seeing them together but she was damned well against them turning it into some kind of a sappy romance out of one of Varric’s terrible novels. They had their issues and neither of them had the spotless record of the main romantic characters in those sort of books. If someone was going to write about them – and no doubt Varric eventually would – they had fucking better get them right.
Leaning into him, Meryell hummed before saying, “Just admiring your hair.” Despite everything, they still weren’t at a place where she was comfortable admitting what she’d been thinking. Maybe someday but not now.
Cullen groaned and shook his head before commenting, “I don’t understand why you like it. It’s more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Maybe that’s exactly why I like it.”
“I really don’t think that’s the answer. And I don’t think you were admiring my hair.”
Smiling, Meryell canted her head back to look at him upside down, saying in a sing-song voice, “I’ll never tell.” Then she laughed before adding, “I’m not lying when I say I like your hair.”
He suddenly broke into a grin, lifting his free hand with one finger extended. “Ah ha!” Cullen exclaimed victoriously. “And that confirms you weren’t admiring my hair at all. Telling me you’re not lying is telling me something, so obviously that wasn’t why you were distracted.”
“I confirm nothing.”
“Oh no,” he said firmly, “I’m onto you now, dear thief. I’ll find out what’s going on in that head of yours.”
Laughing at his determination, Meryell said, “Over whiskey?”
Cullen shrugged off-handedly before saying airily, “If I could manage to find a bottle.” She’d learned well in the time they’d spent together that he had a penchant for squirrelling alcohol away (though he claimed she had inspired the habit so he wouldn’t have to walk all the way to the tavern for a bottle) and the soldiers had made sure to get the main contents of their Commander’s tent in the wagons leaving Haven. Somehow the two bottles he’d had stored away hadn’t broken in transit and they’d already celebrated publicly with the inner circle with one on the day she was officially released from healers. Which left one for their own private use. Then he grinned down at her, his voice lowering in volume as he asked, “Tonight in my tent?”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” she replied, nuzzling her cheek against the fur of his mantle. “No Inquisition talk.”
“What will be the topic of the night then?”
“Tell me more about Honnleath. And your siblings.” Meryell then froze and asked, “You did send a letter to Mia already, didn’t you? Fuck knows that word will get out soon about Haven getting decimated and the last thing I want is your sister storming the gates trying to figure out if you’re alive.”
Cullen chuckled and reassuringly rubbed his hand in a circle over her hip. “No,” he replied, “there won’t be any storming of the gates happening. I took your warning about not writing to her to heart the first time and already sent a letter when there was a raven free.”
“Good,” she said sternly. She’d only learned about his siblings after that day-long talk of theirs when he’d also told her about Kirkwall, which had softened her outrage at his bad writing habits considerably. Family was a thing she’d always taken seriously and it had only become more so after she’d no longer had any of her own blood. She always did her best to keep Folke informed when she was out in the field and he’d always done the same for her. Meryell had understood Cullen’s reluctance to expose his siblings to what had happened to him (especially after explaining that they had become orphans after the Blight) but they’d still deserved more than I’m alive after having to track him down.
“If I am to tell you about Honnleath,” Cullen asked in a somewhat cautious sounding tone, “will you tell me about South Reach?”
Wrinkling her nose, Meryell replied, “There isn’t all that much to tell.”
“Maybe not, but I’d like to hear what it was like growing up in the alienage just the same.” She heard more than felt him rub his fingers against her side, the leather of his gloves scratching against her jacket. “I’m curious as to what you were like as a child.”
Snorting, she said, “Depends on when we’re talking about.”
Cullen sighed and he lifted his other hand to lightly touch her cheek, turning her face upwards towards his with a gentle press of his thumb against the underside of her jaw. “Dear thief,” he rumbled warmly, sending a jolt of lust straight through her at what delicious things it did to his voice, “haven’t you gotten it yet that I want to know it all? That everything about you fascinates me?”
Blinking several times, Meryell softly answered, “It seems I need a reminder.”
“It seems you do. Tonight?”
“Fuck. Yes,” she hissed, already thinking of times past when they sat together on the floor of his tent or laid on her bed. When gloves and armor had come off and between drinks they had talked and let hands wander. They rarely dipped below clothes; it was more about learning responses and each other. Such as he’d learned that running his fingers up and down the outside of her thighs would set her squirming in frustration and she’d learned that raking her nails down his back (done initially because he was trying to reach an itchy spot) would make him loose the most delicious growl of pleasure she’d ever heard a man utter. There were a dozen other things found in their painfully slow exploration and she longed for the day they were both ready to delve deeper.
Cullen chuckled and thumbed his finger lightly across the skin of her lower lip, softly saying, “I look forward to wherever we camp tonight them, whether it be in the valley or inside the keep itself.” The rough touch of his gloved hand tugging gently at her skin made her shiver and Meryell kicked her lips in response.
Then she met his eyes again and thought, There. That is what it looks like when he looks at me as intensely as he did Skyhold. It was both glorious and absolutely terrifying to be the target of such an intense gaze.
Pod’s shout had both of them jumping and Meryell turned with a snarl on her lips as Cullen pulled away from her with an abrupt blush gracing his cheeks. “What?” she spat, at both the untimely interruption and the use of that thrice-damned nickname.
The elf that was the target of her ire just grinned back at her, all of her rage just rolling off his back with no effect. He jerked a thumb back over his shoulder in the direction he and Leliana’s scout had gone and said, “The durgen hoarlin and I found you a path that won’t kill anyone. Figured you and the Commander would want to know straight off.”
Literally the only thing saving him from her launching herself at him and strangling the life out of him was that it wouldn’t do a damned thing. That and the Captain would kill her.
Instead she settled for striding forward to latch her right arm hard around Pod’s neck, forcing him to bend slightly to compensate for their height difference. As soon as his ear was level with her mouth, she snarled, “You’re lucky I don’t want to piss off the Captain, telsilathe. Otherwise you’d be eating dirt right now and I don’t mean in the me kicking you face first down into it kind of way.”
“Oh, come on, asa’ma’lin,” Pod groaned back as he lifted a hand to grab her wrist lightly. “Y’know I don’t mean nothing bad. Just friendly prodding, same as we always do.”
Nodding in response, Meryell said, “Oh, I know you don’t mean anything bad. You’ve always fucked with me when I’ve been in a relationship but never harshly or with ulterior motives.” She paused just long enough for dramatic effect before finishing, “But you, isa’ma’lin, just interrupted a Moment.”
Sighing heavily, he grumbled, “I’m getting the impression that I’m about to lose a body part over this.”
“Maybe after we’ve gotten settled.”
Pod chuckled uneasily and tilted his head enough to flick the tip of his ear against hers, a purely Dalish gesture that he and Evune had introduced her to. It was essentially both a way of asking are you okay and are we okay though considerably more convoluted than that. Like most Dalish things, she simplified it down to its most basic.
“The only thing saving me is my eyes, eh?” he asked.
Meryell squeezed his neck briefly before she flicked her ear back against his twice. Once meant you weren’t okay, twice meant you were. Simple. Plus it was a nice silent communication.
“Only damned thing good about your fool ass,” she replied before releasing him. Pod just grinned and she reached out to punch him hard in the shoulder before adding, “Go run and find the rest of the bunch for me, isa’ma’lin. Then we can go over this way down of yours.”
He dipped immediately into an overly exaggerated bow, saying, “Anything for our beloved Herald!” She promptly put a boot in his ass in return as he strode off, kicking him forward through a set of skittering steps that he laughing during. Then she turned back to Cullen and found him watching her with open amusement, though one hand still nervously rested at the back of his neck.
It was one of those gestures that reminded her how private of a man he really was, a trait he openly admitted that she somehow managed to sideline more than half the time. He was comfortable when it didn’t seem like people were paying them attention but when someone came right up to them, he instantly retreated back to friend from…well, whatever term they wanted to put to what was going on. It certainly wasn’t lover but it also wasn’t just friend.
“Ih-sah-mah-len?” he pronounced tentatively, his tongue stumbling over the unfamiliar pronunciation.
Smiling, Meryell sidled back up next to him and explained, “It means brother. Asa’ma’lin, what he called me, is sister.”
“Tell-sill-ah-they,” she corrected lightly. “Annoyance.”
Cullen snorted a laugh at that, shaking his head. “Oh, yes, brothers are that indeed,” he said. Then he cocked his head to the side and asked, “Why brother and sister though? If I may ask?”
Shrugging, she replied, “We came into the company around the same time. You know the story of how I got there but Pod…well. The way I heard it…”
“Heard it?” repeated Cullen as he interrupted her. “That sounds like you didn’t know each other very well at first.”
“Shit, we fought like fucking mad. Ferelden and Orlesian levels of wanting to murder each other from the day we met.” Shaking her head once sharply, Meryell went on, “Anyway, way I heard it, Pod got found half-dead on the way back from a job. Covered in fucking blood with his broken bow clenched in his fingers. One of the oldsters who’s no longer with us, Kord, he said he’d never seen anyone that injured rise up and take out a man so fast. Pod was half crazy, wild on battle high and the need to survive, and they had to knock him out to get him back to base.”
Cullen arched his eyebrows and asked, “So what happened?”
“He was a hunter – probably fucking obvious from his skill with a bow but whatever – and new to his vallaslin. Went out on a hunt with several others and they chased their quarry into some ruins. Turns out that giant spiders had taken it over as their home.”
By his sudden flinch, she got the immediate impression that Cullen had tangled with giant spiders at least once. Knowing what she did of Kirkwall and the Vimmarks, it was probably from chasing an escaped mage or an apostate.
“Pod was the only survivor,” she finished as she crossed her right arm underneath the sling holding her left. “We managed to find his clan while he was healing up and they…well, they’d already written the whole group off for dead. And they seemed more angry than pleased that he’d survived. Like he was supposed to fucking die with the rest.”
Gritting her teeth, Meryell continued, “Only reason I was there was Folke had the intent to teach me manners via having me observe the talking. When they said that, he told me to let loose, and I gave those fuckers the whole of my mind. His Keeper said we could have him as they would not allow a coward back into the clan and Folke promptly told ‘em that the company would be glad to have someone that could survive like that and keep going.”
“A loss for them and a gain for the company,” Cullen noted solemnly. He then smiled and lifted a hand, tilting it slightly back and forth. “And it seems a gain for Pod himself if that would have been their mood around him if he’d returned? Was you being involved in the talks the reason you didn’t like each other at first?”
“Fuck no,” she replied with a laugh. “That was just the good old shit piss of Dalish dislike for city kin. Nearly killed each other a couple of times until the Captain threatened to murder us both.”
He chuckled and asked, “So how did you not end up murdering each other, dear thief?”
Meryell laughed and just so happened to turn to answer him enough to see Pod returning with Cassandra and Josephine at his heels. Instead of explaining, she let her right hand fall away from gripping her left elbow and lightly tapped her knuckles against his breastplate. “That,” she announced sharply, “will have to be part of our discussion for tonight. Looks like it’s time to talk about how we get over there.”
Cullen smiled in response and said softly, “I think I can wait for the rest of that story.” He then held out a hand in a gesture towards them and said, “After you.”
Wrinkling her nose, she asked, “How about with you? I mean, I appreciate the chivalry or whatever but…wait, you always walk next to me after I told you fuck chivalry ages ago.” Stopping abruptly, Meryell scowled up at him. “You just wanted to look at my ass.”
“I admit nothing,” he replied completely straight-faced. There was a gleam in his eyes, however, that told her exactly how much he was lying.
She pointed a single finger at him with a serious expression before smirking and striding off anyway, giving him whatever time he wanted to look. It didn’t take him long to follow and when he did, one hand came to rest lightly against the small of her back. Meryell didn’t really look forward to another plotting session but if it got them closer to being out of the damned snow, she’d go through however many were needed.
durgen hoarlin – mountain lamb (because there’s no word for goat and he’s a kid)
telsilathe – annoyance
asa’ma’lin – sister
isa’ma’lin – brother