Power in Stories

“There's power in stories, though. That's all history is: the best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine.” – Varric Tethras

The Sordid Tale of Meryell Verlen, Chapter 23

She was fucking late .

Late because apparently a pair of merchants got into a snit over which place they should be occupying in the lower part of the keep. They had promptly started fighting with each other verbally before descending into a full on fist fight and that had lead to someone going to Josephine. Who had promptly sent someone looking for her because fuck knew that when folks started throwing punches in the keep that the new Inquisitor had to be involved.

To say that Meryell was pissed was putting it fucking simply.

She’d spent the last hours of her afternoon and the early hours of her evening being polite to the merchants alongside Josephine. Of course, once she’d learned the reason behind their little spat, she’d promptly chucked polite decorum out the proverbial window and told both men that they were fucking idiots. To her credit, Josephine hadn’t said one thing to interrupt the little tirade she’d followed that up with until Meryell had threatened to throw both of the fools out on their ears.

So, instead, Josephine had negotiated permanent spaces for them that were equal in positioning but far enough away from each other and Meryell had stood off to the side and glared menacingly. As if to say I don’t want you here and she’s the only thing keeping you from losing coin .

It probably hadn’t endeared her to those particular merchants but it had certainly endeared Josephine. And anything that helped their ambassador get more shit done was perfectly alright in Meryell’s book even if she had to look like an asshole to accomplish it. Wouldn’t be the first time she’d played the part to get something done and she knew how to exude menace with the best of them.

Though it probably helped that these two knew she’d gone up against the thing that took out Haven in one fell swoop and walked away.

Now it was fringing onto full dark and she was only just now crossing the upper courtyard on her way to the tavern from the main keep. Already she could hear the sound of dozens of voices raised in cheerful chatter, the occasional drunken shout, and several that were singing something she couldn’t quite make out.

Obvious they hadn’t waited for her to start drinking – and she wouldn’t have wanted them to, honestly – but she hoped Flissa had at least saved the official naming until she got there. Given that there was no sign hanging outside, which the woman had noted she’d had made with some pride, Meryell guessed that she had waited.

As soon as she pushed the door open, noise hit her like a slap in the face. It set her ears to ringing for a moment, since elven ears were somewhat sensitive to sound, but she quickly recovered. Years of walking into the various celebratory sessions that followed a successful job had done its work well.

“Swears!” cheered Varric from directly ahead of her in the center of the room where a broad table had been placed. There was already a game of Diamondback in full swing, made up of mostly faces she didn’t recognize by name. Sera was also present and already looked fucking sloshed but Blackwall was sitting at the little elf’s side so she wasn’t worried about the younger girl getting into too much shit. The older man was ruddy in the face from drink but she’d seen him hold his liquor a night or two back at the Singing Maiden. That and she got the impression that their strange friendship was one of older sibling to younger, so she knew he’d make sure she ended up alright.

To her delight, Folke was also already present at one end of the table and Rylen was sitting awfully fucking close to him with the most glorious smirk on his face. She’d happened to grab the Knight Captain on her way down to the lower courtyard to start dealing with the merchants and explained the general plan for the night. He’d laughed but blushed at the same time and suddenly she’d put more fruit on the tree of her baba’s saying the man swung both ways.

Judging by the scowl on her baba’s face, he knew he was being played and couldn’t decide if he liked what it had gotten him or not.

“Varric!” she replied in the same tone of voice as she came around the table to fold her arms across his shoulders. “Already started without me, I see.”

“The locals were getting restless,” replied to dwarf with a smirk as he shuffled cards for another hand. “You want in?”

Meryell shook her head and replied, “ Fuck no . I am in serious need of a drink after the shit from earlier and I want to know what Flissa named the tavern!”

He shook his head in reply. “She made is clear that she was waiting on you , sweetheart. Get over there before we start again so she can get the last official shit done.”

“Ser, yes, ser!”

Straightening up, Meryell turned towards where she knew the bar was but couldn’t see it from the sheer press of bodies surrounding it clamoring for drink. The Bull, however, was seated in the middle of the unholy mess and grinned brightly as he spotted her.

“Glad to see you made it, Boss!” he boomed out, his voice carrying effectively across the tavern to catch the attention of almost everyone. Including Flissa who was up to her elbows in tankards alongside the taciturn dwarf named Cabot she’d hired to help her run the tavern.

“Herald!” exclaimed the woman with a bright smile. “You’re finally here!”

Meryell smiled tightly and replied, “I’m late thanks to Josephine and two merchants with less sense between them than a horde of darkspawn. Now what’s the name of the damn tavern?”

Laughing, Flissa merely gestured to Bull in reply and he extended an arm across the bar to the slight woman. She stepped up onto something that Meryell couldn’t see behind the counter then she was up on top of it. “Your attention if you please, everyone!” she called out, drawing the attention that Bull had already attracted to her. “As I’m certain you’re all aware since you’re here, we’re celebrating the opening of this very tavern!”

Cheers went up along with a thrusting of mugs, tankards, and cups into the air and alcohol was generally sloshed about in a way that made a rush of curses and giggles break out. Then Bull coughed and the noise banked itself down as he reached through the people to grab Meryell, pulling her towards him. With little effort, he lifted her up onto the counter alongside Flissa a moment later and as she straightened, the woman called out, “And now that our Inquisitor has finally graced us with her presence, I can finally tell you all what our humble establishment will be called!”

Another cheer went up and Flissa turned, smiling at Meryell, as she reached out to tug at the bit of fabric that she hadn’t noticed covering something directly above the bar. As it fell away, her eyes widened as she saw that it was a large wooden sign hanging by two chains from the floor above them. Someone had attached a wooden circle to the center with a carving of a hand with a green flame radiating from the palm set in the center and on either side of the circle were carved the words Herald’s Rest .

Flissa leaned in as the crowd cheered loudly and breathed in her ear, “I named it because you spent so much time in the Maiden in Haven. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“What else would they tell me?” asked Meryell as she quirked an eyebrow at the other woman.

“That I named it such because Andraste would wish for her Herald to have a place of rest or some other such shite,” replied the woman with a little bit of viciousness. While Meryell knew that Flissa was religious, she’d also learned that the woman didn’t take to fibbery or lies with any manner of tolerance. If she said the way the things were, then they had better well be repeated that way else she was liable to get up in arms. And Flissa up in arms at you tended to get you cut off from alcohol. “I’ve got another copy of the hand to hang outside thanks to your Warden. Got a lot of skill with his hands, that man does. Anyway . I have a bottle just for you of that whiskey you prefer if the Iron Bull will help us back down.”

There was some sort of innuendo in there about Blackwall’s hands and she was decidedly not going in that direction.

The Qunari turned his head at the sound of his name and smiled as he said, “Anything for two of my favorite ladies.”

Meryell snorted as she put her hand in his as he offered it, Flissa’s joining it a moment later as his hands were large enough to hold both of theirs at the same time. As she glanced down to see what the tavern owner had used to step up earlier – it was a sturdy looking crate – she commented, “You only like me because I let you come with me to kill things!”

“And I provide you with alcohol,” pointed out Flissa.

“Which are two of my favorite things,” replied Bull with a broad smile as well as a wink. As soon as they settled on the floor, he picked up the overlarge tankard that Meryell remembered him being handed when they’d met on the Storm Coast and saluted her with it. “This is already a good night, Boss. Watching your father slowly lose his clothes is probably going to be the entertainment of the night.”

At that, Meryell turned around and stared hard at the Diamondback table, where another hand had already started up. Bull was true to his word because, as she watched, her father was pushing himself back from the table to pull off his boots to the delighted looks of both Varric and Rylen. Rolling her eyes, she grumbled, “Maferath’s rotten balls , if he’s already losing clothes this early, we’re all going to get a bloody show.”

“Is it at least worth it?”

Turning to blink at the big Qunari, Meryell replied hesitantly, “I guess? Fuck, Bull, he’s my baba . I may have seen his cock but it’s not like I go looking for it.”

He smirked and leaned on the bar, waggling his eyebrows as he repeated the question a bit more forcefully. “But is it worth it , Boss?”

“Shit. Fuck. I don’t…” Trailing off, she spotted Evune in the crowd of faces and stepped up onto the crate to shout across the tavern, “ Evune! Inquiring minds have a question that you are readily able to answer!” The older elf lifted her eyebrows in surprise and slowly made her way towards them through the crowd, slipping through with the ease of any Dalish hunter worth their bow or blade.

“And what do we have to ask, da’assan ?” she asked when she finally made it to them, leaning her elbows casually on the counter next to the Bull. Meryell grimaced in reply before she realized that Flissa was holding out a bottle towards her and silently mouthed Bless you at the woman. She quickly tugged the cork out and swigged a more than decent mouthful of it before she felt ready to ask the question. Talking about her father’s sexual shenanigans didn’t make her uncomfortable but dear sweet fuck she hadn’t had nearly enough to drink for this to be the first conversation she’d ended up in tonight.

“Is it worth seeking baba bare assed?” she asked bluntly and Evune promptly burst into giggles . Obviously she’d been drinking wine as that was the one thing that made the normally serious woman burst into giggles.

It took a long moment for Evune to regain her composure and when she did, she asked, “By the Creators, who is asking?”

“I am,” rumbled the Bull in response before he jerked his chin towards the ongoing game. “Given he’s swiftly losing everything he’s got thanks to the dwarf and the Captain, I was asking if the show was going to be worth it.”

Watching as the look in Evune’s eyes went from curious to downright scandalous , Meryell said shortly, “That’s it. I’m so done here,” and promptly fled from behind the bar with her whisky. But not before she caught the other elf making an incredibly lewd comment and Bull sounding far too impressed.

She was not half as drunk as she needed to be for this shit.

And, so far as she could tell, her normal drinking partner was still in his office fucking working . Which meant not only no company in whatever corner she decided to sequester herself in but that she couldn’t have the damned conversation that she’d intended to have with him.

Scowling, Meryell made a slow round of the bottom floor of the tavern with her bottle and found it to be, by and large, Inquisition soldiery and scouts other than the occasional Fang face and those playing Diamondback. As she circled back around to where she’d started, she caught a hint of familiar voices coming from the floor above her beyond the cacophony of the first floor and headed for the stairs. As she mounted them to climb upward, she noted idly that Krem had joined the table by squeezing in between two of the other players with a loud clapping on the back that confirmed the two as fellow Chargers and her baba had lost his shirt.

“Darling,” she heard Dorian purr as soon as she stepped up onto the floor, “what fascinating thing is going on downstairs? I’m seeing a rather lot of skin.”

Sidling over to stand next to the mage as he leaned on the railing, a seemingly ever-present glass of wine in his hand, she replied, “That is my baba making an absolute fool of himself. While possibly also engaging and perhaps succeeding in getting the Knight Captain in bed.”

Dorian arched his eyebrows at that. “ Fasta vass . I was utterly unaware your father was inclined towards men.”

Snorting, Meryell noted dryly, “ Baba is inclined towards almost anyone willing to share his bed. He also has a thing for accents.”

“Oh, I do see the draw he finds in the Captain then, darling. While it’s certainly not my thing, per say, I can see how it can be appreciated.” Dorian then turned to lean only one elbow on the rail, smirking as he lifted his wine glass to his lips. “Now,” he purred after he took a sip, “where is your dashing Commander? I haven’t had nearly enough people around to tease into a blush tonight.”

“Still working, it seems,” she grumbled. Not that she blamed Cullen for the delay as he did have an awful lot of work since they’d settled in Skyhold. She understood that some things came first. Mostly it was that she’d had a day that had become decidedly shittier as the hours went by from the almost pleasant way she’d spent that morning. And all she really wanted was to curl up underneath the weight of his arm across her shoulders.

The mage frowned and straightened up, lifting his free hand to waggle a finger in her face as he said, “That won’t do at all, my dear Meryell.”

Blinking at his finger, she asked, “ What won’t do?”

“Why that scowl on your face.” Dorian then promptly swung around to stand beside her, wrapping his arm snugly around her waist and pulling her away from the second floor railing. “Come along, darling. Some of your Fangs are over here telling the most delightful stories of jobs and the glorious shenanigans they have gotten into over the years. And I think you have been desperately lacking time spent with them.”

Meryell frowned at his words but couldn’t deny it. She’d barely had time for Cullen lately, let alone her own company. Shit, she’d only been down to the new camp once since they’d settled into the keep and that had been for the funerary rites they’d held for the dead a month back. She’d cried with the lot of them and they’d spent the night drinking and reminiscing until dawn all of the best and worst things about those they’d added to the dead roll that night. Then it had been immediately back to work with a hangover that felt rather like that avalanche that she’d nearly gotten killed in.

“What about…”

I ,” proclaimed the mage with a broad, vague gesture of his glass laden hand as he steered her along the floor, “will keep an eye out for our dashing Commander, darling. You are to sit right here…” At this point he trailed off as he pressed her right up into the circle of seats and amongst her company. Dorian beamed broadly at them, his smile a weapon that she’d found he readily made use of, and finished, “ And enjoy yourself . Laugh, cry, drink, or whichever combination of the three makes you happy but by all that is holy you need to relax ..”

Asa’ma’lin ,” Pod said warmly as the mage retreated, reaching out towards her as he shifted over on the wooden bench he and Hart occupied. For a moment Meryell hesitated because he had his arm wrapped around the other elven woman’s waist in an overly familiar fashion, though she didn’t recall the two of them ever being anything before now. He immediately scowled and hissed, “We’re not fucking on the damned bench, sister. Now come sit by me and drink some of whatever you have in that bottle. I get the feeling that you need it.” Hart snorted a laugh in response to his statement and Meryell rolled her eyes before she reached out to take his offered hand.

As he tugged her forward and she settled onto the bench next to him, Meryell cast a glance around the little gathering they had. There were no more than fifteen Fangs squeezed into the seating area underneath the stairs that led up to the third floor of the tavern. Pod and Hart occupied the bench placed on one side of the stairs up against one of supporting columns, while Roddy, Bel, and Urien were crammed into the matching bench on the other side. Two chairs had been jammed up underneath the stairs and one was occupied by the elegant form of the copper-skinned Tyrrania while the other had apparently been claimed by someone currently not present judging by the full mug of beer holding the chair. Astrid and Bernard were at the table that sat immediately on the other side of the support poles, currently engaged in what appeared to be both an arm wrestling match and who could drink their mug dry the quickest. Seated on top of the end of their table was the ever flirting Sancha and the Antivan woman was doing her damndest to gain the attention of Rhiryd who was seated across from her. The big Avvar man, however, had all of his attention focused on the tiny form of Sister Cecilia who was in a chair tucked right up next to him, reading to him in her lilting Orlesian tones.

Lortho turned out to be the occupant of the other chair and as he flopped down after picking up his mug, he grinned at her. “Yeller!” he exclaimed more than a little drunkenly. Judging by the loose laces on his trousers that she could see hanging down from underneath his tunic, his absence was most likely explained by his having to go take a piss.

“Can we not call me that, Lorth?” she asked as she leaned against Pod. Lifting her bottle, she took his advice and downed a hearty swig before she added, “You know I hate that fucking name.”

The Nevarran born Tevinter man grimaced and leaned forward, saying gently, “Sorry, lovely, I forget sometimes that you always hated Camden calling you that.”

Meryell rolled her eyes and grumbled, “Can we not talk about that asshole either?”

Urien snorted from his spot across from her and lifted his cup towards her in a half-hearted toast as he said, “You’re the one that told us not to complete our violent massacre of him when he fucked you over years back, girlie. And told the Captain to keep him.”

“I wasn’t going to be the reason we lost a good bowman, Uri,” she growled back. “And if anyone was going to murder Camden for what he did, it was damn well going to be me . No one else but maybe Folke gets that particular pleasure.”

“Damned right!” exploded Roddy. “That rat bastard deserves no less.”

“But that ,” interjected Hart in her rough, gravelly voice that seemed so out of character with a slight elven woman who was at least two hands shorter than Meryell, “is not why we are here tonight.” Lifting her mug, she looked around at all of them – including Astrid and Bernard, who had seemingly finished their little match with the former the winner of both – and intoned firmly, “We are here to drink .”

Bel nodded firmly alongside Roddy and Urien then Tyrrania spoke up, gesturing towards Meryell with the elegant motions she hadn’t lost despite leaving her noble family behind more than a decade ago.

“And I believe,” she said with a smile, “that we have been given something of a mission by our Lord Pavus.”

Lortho sat up at her words, grinning broadly as he winked at her. “Helping our Meryell, you mean? That has to be it ‘cause she looks mighty down.”

“Indeed,” replied the woman with a sly smile. “Until her…what was the word he used to describe your Commander?”

Meryell scowled a little at the question and took another swig of her whiskey before grumbling, “ Dashing .”

Dashing? ” exclaimed Astrid as she abruptly moved from table to a chair, plunking it down right next to Meryell’s end of the bench. The big Anders woman wrapped an arm about her shoulders and growled, interrupting whatever Tyrrania was going to say, “Man’s a warrior , you drunken sots. You don’t call a man like that dashing .”

Sancha, distracted by the conversation (and possibly because it was overly obvious that Rhiryd was absolutely smitten with Sister Cecilia), shifted around to their end of the table and giggled drunkenly. She took a second swig from the tankard Meryell hadn’t noticed the Antivan woman holding before saying, “Especially when he’s such a fine specimen. Have you seen those pants, they are so escandaloso! What I would give to have my hands on that delicious ass…”

That got Meryell’s back up and she abruptly said loudly, “That’s my fucking delicious ass, Sana, and don’t you forget it.” Her declaration had the whole group either immediately bursting into laughter or hissing jokingly like cats.

“Oh, cuchilla , I know full well not to play where I’m not wanted,” Sancha proclaimed with a broad smile. “He has eyes for none but you .”

“Yet,” pointed out Pod, “ you still oogle his ass.”

“I am a weak woman, mi amigo .”

Bel giggled and chirped, “That’s most of us!”

“Men as well,” noted Bernard quietly with a smile, the first thing he’d put forth to the conversation. He then shrugged and Meryell caught his eyes as he added, “But, again, the Commander only has eyes for you.”

The nervousness, involving telling him what vhen’an’ara meant that had been following her since the conversation with Folke, was pressed down by their words. She felt buoyed by them, lifted up to giddy heights of pleasure at hearing such things (though that was probably also the alcohol). Fuck, even hearing that others were eying him up, which might have added to the already numerous excuses her mind came up with, didn’t touch her.

“Still not dashing ,” piped Astrid, bringing the conversation back around to her original comment.

So dashing,” argued Bel. “You obviously didn’t see him carrying her back into camp after they found her in the snow.”

The Anders woman started to open her mouth but Tyrrania beat her to saying something. “We are to speak of good things,” she pointed out. “Not things that may not be quite so fond memories. So our Meryell may enjoy herself, yes?”

Bel looked somewhat cowed by the Tevinter woman’s response and Astrid snorted. “Sure,” she growled before releasing Meryell, leaning back in her chair to take a long swig of the contents of her mug. “We can tell you about what the Captain and your ambassador had us doing in the Hinterlands after we joined up?”

As Meryell shook her head in response to the question, Lortho piped up, “Or the Storm Coast! Shit, shit, Bernard, we’ve got to tell her about that!

“We have time,” the big man rumbled with a smile as he sipped his drink. “I think Astrid’s claimed first dibs to story time.”

“Fucking right,” growled the woman with a sharp nod. She then launched into her story immediately, putting great detail into who went with her, what they were doing, and apparently anything else that seemed remotely relevant (or even irrelevant) to the story.

Meryell smiled and settled heavily against Pod’s side, leaning her head back against his shoulder as she took another drink from her bottle. She let Astrid’s voice roll over her, more paying attention to the familiar timbre than the actual tale she was telling.

Oh, yes, besides having Cullen actually here, this was exactly what she had needed to end the day with. Whiskey in her belly, a warm buzz in her head, and her family (the familiar one of a decade, not the new and nebulous one she suspected was forming out of the Inquisition) around her with true stories and ridiculous lies pouring from their mouths. That was a way to end a day.

Of course, good things – like she had learned long ago – never last. Which is how she found herself on the battlements outside the third floor, leaning over the side with Rhiryd holding her while she puked her guts out all over Skyhold’s walls and Sister Cecilia wiping her mouth with a wet rag between bouts of sick. Bright side, she was mostly sober now.

“There, there, my girl,” the Orlesian woman said in soothing tones as she brushed sweaty hair back from Meryell’s forehead. There was little for her to use her rag on this time as Meryell had made the fool mistake of not eating, thus most of what she was doing now was dry heaving. “I think you’ve got it mostly out now. Rhiryd, be a dove and go find a glass of water? And if he’s still sober, that mage Dorian.”

The big man rumbled what Meryell could only assume was an acknowledgement in Avvish and gently lowered her to the floor of the battlements. As Cecilia settled next to her, leaning her over so she could rest her head on the older woman’s shoulder, he paused to look at the former Sister with a softness to his dark eyes. At least that’s how it looked to Meryell but she was admittedly pretty damn drunk. That could very well have been a look of pity for her. Then he was gone, thumping off back through the open door of the tavern with the heavy footsteps of a warrior utterly unfamiliar with stealth.

Sighing, she closed her eyes and breathed, “Fucking stupid.”

“Yes, my girl, it was,” replied Cecilia as she gently carded her fingers through Meryell’s hair. “And I will scold no more than that because you know you did a fool thing.”

Smiling, Meryell turned her head further into the Sister’s shoulder. “You’re the best sort of Chantry Sister, you know that?”

“Because I scold only when it is obvious you lot have no idea you’ve done wrong? Yes, I know, dove.” The older woman then asked, “Do you think you could stomach something if I sent Rhiryd to the kitchens?”

The very idea of food made Meryell’s stomach roll and she lurched away from Cecilia, her eyes snapping open as she went. That motion didn’t help her stomach at all and she ended up hacking bile flavored spittle all over the battlement wall as the older woman held her up from behind.

“No more talk of that then. It is only water for you tonight, my girl.”

Nodding weakly, she slumped back against the woman after hocking one last gob of spit onto the wall. “Fuck,” she breathed.

“There will be none of that either.”

Tilting her head back as now she was settled against Cecilia’s chest, Meryell muttered, “I think I know my limits, Sister.”

“Truly?” asked the Sister with a wry smile. She then looked up and away towards the door at the sound of heavy footsteps returning. Only it sounded like…more than one set? “Ah, I see you found someone to aid our endeavours.”

Thinking it was going to be Dorian, Meryell turned her head slowly in that direction to avoid jostling the sharp pain that was already sparking behind her eyes. Instead she found Cullen standing behind Rhiryd, free of his armor for the night and looking incredibly concerned.

As the Avvar man put the cup of water gently into Sister Cecilia’s open hand, Cullen moved forward to crouch down beside them. He then reached out to pick up her right hand in both of his, bare fingers running over her skin, before saying softly, “You started and ended the party without me, dear thief.”

“You’re late ,” replied Meryell pointedly, clenching her fingers around his. She then sipped at the water as Cecilia moved the cup up to her lips, sighing contentedly at the soothing sensation on her throat even as she noticed his expression turning dark.

“Yes,” he replied steely. “There was far more paperwork than Jim first estimated.”

Rhiryd snorted a laugh at that and Cecilia said, “Oh dear. Whatever did you do to the poor dove?”

“Nothing.” Cullen smiled slyly as he added, “But what he thinks I may do to him will last for some time. Hopefully it will be enough of a lesson.”

“Beat him and he will learn,” commented Rhiryd roughly in his thickly accented, still mostly broken Common. Then he made a vague gesture at Cullen before saying to Cecilia, “Let him take care?”

The older woman hummed and looked down at Meryell, gently stroking hairs from her forehead again before she turned towards Cullen. “Have you cared for someone sick of drink, Commander?”

“Myself once or twice,” he replied with a slight shrug of his shoulders. If Meryell had been a little more towards sober, she probably would have paid more attention to the expression on his face when he said that. Particularly since he’d told her straight out that he had never drunk very often until he’d met her.

“We will leave our Meryell in your hands then. I doubt I need to tell you to have a care with her, but I do say only speak of water.”

Cullen just smiled and abruptly Meryell realized she was leaning back against him instead of Cecilia. When had they shifted her around? Shit , when had he sat down and the Sister stood up?  “Upset stomach?” he asked wryly.

The Sister’s expression went dark as she replied, “She was a fool and did not eat before throwing herself into drink.” Meryell’s stomach rolled immediately at the word eat but she managed to keep it from utterly revolting. The look suddenly on Cullen’s face, though, made her wish she was capable of running right then.

He looked so disappointed .

“I see,” he said softly. “Well, I thank you, Sister, for taking care of her. And you, ser.”

“Rhiryd,” grunted the Avvar man as he curled a possessive arm around Sister Cecilia’s waist. He then looked down at her with a somewhat childish expression as he asked, “Book?”

Cecilia laughed before replying, “Yes, my dove, we can get back to our book now. Perhaps you shall read a chapter for me instead of me reading to you?” When he smiled and nodded, taking one of her hands to lift it to his lips and press a long kiss to it, she turned back towards them. “Be good for your Commander, my girl.”

“I’m always good,” grumbled Meryell in response while wearily closing her eyes. As she listened to the pair walk off, she was aware of Cullen sliding his arms around her until he locked his fingers across her belly. For a long moment they sat like that in silence until she slitted an eye open to look up at the underside of his jaw, ever littered with a line of stubble. Very quietly she asked, “Are you angry at me?”

She felt him stiffen for a moment then he relaxed, shaking his head before he bowed it to press a kiss against her forehead.

“No, dear thief,” he replied softly. “Merely a little disappointed that you weren’t taking care of yourself tonight. Supper is important, particularly if you’re drinking.”

Quirking an eyebrow, Meryell opened her other eye and said, “I believe that’s the mabari talking about kaddis.” His neck flushed immediately in response before he growled in frustration and lifted his head sharply back up and away.

“My bad habits,” Cullen grumbled, “are no reason for you to start doing the same. Now, do you think you can walk or am I going to have to carry you?”

Flinching a little because she got the feeling she’d struck a bit of a nerve, she replied, “Carry. Cullen I…”

“Hush, vhen-an-arah .”

“But that’s…”

Shhh ,” he said, more than a little forcefully and she went quiet because damn the man but he was stubborn . Now annoyed and already hurting in the head from her impending hangover, Meryell proceeded to start alternatively squirming and going utterly limp as he tried to pick her up. Cullen kept letting out exasperated huffs of breath in response, which were followed by growls, and then finally a darkly rumbled, “ Fuck it.

Then Meryell’s whole world lurched, her stomach rolled, and she found herself high off the ground looking down at the stones of the battlements. Groaning, she closed her eyes as she realized that Cullen had thrown her over his shoulder once he started moving and the stones started to swim . He merely let out a grunt in response and grumbled, “I care for you but damnit , Meryell, if you’re going to be stubborn, I’ll treat you like one of my men. Hangover or no hangover.”

Clenching her eyes shut and trying to swallow the lump of bile trying to rise in her throat, she hissed, “I don’t think you’d throw one of your men over your shoulder if they were drunk.”

“If I’m the only one sober enough to get them back to their tent, I certainly will.” He then added, and fuck the man , she could hear the smirk in his tone, “And try not to spew down my backside. I have it upon good authority that it’s much appreciated. One of the mages and an Antivan woman from your company were particular to be sure I knew it too before that man, Rhiryd, found me.”

Half of her wanted to do it just to spite him .

The other half was amused because that sounded like he was trying to get a rise out of her via jealousy.

“Nah,” she replied as airily as she could folded in half over his broad shoulder, “I like your ass too much to ruin it, even temporarily.”

He hummed in reply and she was aware of them passing through one of the still abandoned towers that sat between the third floor doorway of the tavern and his own tower. Now his pace was slowing down from the abrupt, almost march that he’d first broken into when he’d slung her over his shoulder. By the time they reached the door of his tower, it was a sedate walk that didn’t do one thing to jostle her.

Then Cullen was sliding her off of his shoulder and carefully depositing her in his chair, an uncomfortable looking thing while sober but apparently fantastic while absolutely limp from drunkeness. He brushed hair away from her face with a gentle touch, old calluses catching her skin, and softly said, “Try not to fall out of my chair, hmm?”

Meryell tried to smile in reply, saying, “No promises.”

He snorted a laugh then pulled away, walking across the main area of the office back towards the door. She heard what sounded like him climbing the ladder she knew lead up to the wooden second floor of that part of the tower and frowned.

“Cullen?” she called out, not certain her voice would reach him with how weak it sounded to her own ears.

“Yes, dear thief?”

“I thought you didn’t have a second floor yet.

The last time she’d been in the tower, it had been deemed a hazard and judged in need of serious rebuilding.

“Apparently,” he called back, sounding more than a little exasperated, “Josephine decided that I needed to be rewarded for all of my hard work. That and, apparently as well, you needed somewhere decent to sleep that wasn’t a tent given that you’re now Inquisitor. Until she finishes whatever her project for you is, that is.”

The fact that Josephine already made the assumption that she would be spending her time in Cullen’s bed made Meryell both deliriously warm and embarrassed at the same time. Mostly for him since he was really at his core a very private man.

She had apparently gotten lost in thought because she suddenly become aware that he was half sitting on the edge of his desk, looking down at her with a bemused expression. If she’d felt better, she probably would have arched her back and batted her eyebrows while asking him if he saw something he liked. Instead Meryell just smiled and murmured tiredly, “Hi.”

“Hi,” he replied. Standing up, he then bent over her and slid his arms around her, hands finding her hips and lifting her up out of the chair with ease. “Let’s get you into bed.”

“Mmph,” was all the reply she could make as he lifted her high up onto his chest. She did manage to wrap her arms around his neck and tuck her knees about his ribs to hang on before she buried her face in the fur of his coat. His left arm locked around her back, holding her tightly to him as he carried across the room and slowly climbed the ladder.

Meryell turned her head as they crested the wooden floor and found the space to be as simple as she’d expected. There were his two personal chests tucked against a wall, a new armor stand (as the other had been left in Haven) which currently held his normal plate, a small metal brazier burning merrily in the center of the floor with a fresh flame to heat the area, and a small side table with drawers that had a low burning candle sitting on top of it along with a clay cup and pitcher and a book. Of course,there was also the bed but she only saw a glimpse of its battered looking headboard before she was lowered onto the edge.

Suddenly flustered by her state, because she knew she was covered in both spilled alcohol and her own puke in spots, she said, “Don’t sit me on your bed, I’ve got…”

Shhh ,” bid Cullen, his hands already deftly tugging at where her belt was looped around itself. “I have a plan, dear thief. Trust me.”

As if there was any question of her doing just that.

So Meryell tried to relax and let him go about his plan . Relaxing, however, was more than a little hard because his hands were on her. His hands were undressing her . Every touch set her pulse to jumping. Each brush of his fingertips across cloth and leather and the hint of skin had her breathing go fast and heavy.

And she could hear his breathing as it sped up as well, could feel the slightly nervous stutter in his hands that was decidedly not fucking caused by lyrium withdrawal.

As Cullen pulled her shirt up and over her head, a motion that required him to lean in close from where he sat on his knees in front of her as her limbs were all practically limp at this point, he leaned in to press a kiss against her collarbone. His breath was hot against her skin and his lips dry from it still being cold outside but the kiss. Fucking Maker and his flaming Bride, that kiss set her on fire.

He leaned back just as quickly as he’d moved forward and Meryell could see even in the flickering light from the candle that the dark of his eyes were blown wide, nearly drowning out the amber. There was also a naked want on his face and she was ever so painfully regretting every drink of the night now

“You are beautiful,” he growled and she managed a tired smile.

“And you haven’t even gotten my breastband off yet,” she commented, words that made that delicious growl she’d discovered when scratching his back ages ago come out. The one that rumbled out from deep in his chest and felt like it rattled her bones.

Cullen’s eyes flicked down to the fabric that was the last thing hiding the whole of her chest from him. Her breasts weren’t much, kept at barely more than a handful for her own hands due to the life she lived keeping her fairly fit, and most men she’d been with had never paid too much attention to them. Really it had ever only been just enough for them to get their cock inside her. Meanwhile, Cullen looked at her breastband like he wanted to set it on fire .

Another growl slipped out of him and Meryell watched him expel a long, slow breath. Then he dropped her shirt on the floor next to the bed and turned his attention to the her boots. With quick, methodical motions he loosened the leather ties that held her boots close against her calves and slid them off. Her socks – new and ridiculously warm, a gift knitted by one of the women who’d survived Haven – followed and then his fingers were tugging at the laces of her pants since he’d already pulled her belt apart

Breathing heavily, Meryell asked, “Do you want me to…”

“No,” interrupted Cullen with a growl. He flicked his eyes up at her as he tugged the last tie loose enough that he could slide his thumbs underneath the heavy fabric. Then he rose up so his face was nearly level with hers and pressed a soft kiss to her lips as he murmured, “Let me take care of you, dear thief.”

She tried to quirk an eyebrow but wasn’t entirely sure she succeeded before asking, “And what exactly does taking care of me imply, ser?”

“At the moment,” he answered as he settled back onto his heels, “getting you out of these clothes.”

“And after?”

Cullen flashed her a look before smiling as he wriggled her pants slowly down over her hips. As he continued working them free, he replied, “As much as I’m tempted to do other things, sleep is the goal for the night.”

Sleep? ” repeated Meryell, a little exasperated. “ Vhen’an’ara , I don’t know if I’ll be able to fucking sleep tonight after what you’ve put me through.”

“Lies, you’re as good as falling asleep on me right now.”

It was true since she was barely keeping her eyes open even with everything his actions were making her feel but she wasn’t about to let that stop her from arguing.

“Nuh-uh,” she said childishly.

“I will not argue with you like a child.”

At that she blew a raspberry at him and he laughed before finally freeing her legs from her pants. As he laid them on top of her shirt, Meryell suddenly felt overly exposed by the fact that she was in only her under things on his bed. In response, she shifted her heavy feeling arms into action, trying to fold them across her chest. Cullen caught her mid-motion and laced his fingers through hers as he pulled them away again.

“You are beautiful ,” he repeated and she flushed.

“You keep saying that but I’m not sure that makes it true.”

He shook his head at that, saying, “ Believe me, vhen-an-arah . You are.”

Meryell shook her head and argued, “I’m tiny . Breasts, body, hips, every bit is fucking sparse .”

Cullen huffed angrily at her before replying, “You are enough for me, Meryell Verlen.” And suddenly it didn’t seem like he was talking about her body but about her self doubts.

Squeezing her fingers around his where he’d laced them together, she breathed, “And you for me, Cullen Rutherford.” He smiled at that, all bright and shining but also a little shy, and then lifted their joined hands to press a kiss against the backs of hers.

A moment later he freed his hands and asked, “Do you want a shirt? The brazier never lasts long and it’ll get cold thanks to the hole.”

Hole? ” repeated Meryell. She then turned her head to the left and realized that there was a huge section of his wall that was damned well missing . Literally the only thing covering it was a large heavy oil cloth that only blocked half, likely enough to keep rain from getting in. “Josephine didn’t fix that?”

“I…I may have asked her not to.”

At the uneasy sound of his voice, she turned to look at him where he’d moved away to his chests, digging through them with his back to her. There was a sudden stiffness to his shoulders and even with as slow as her mind was right then, she connected the dots.

Kinloch . Being trapped at the top of the Tower. Why he usually always kept one flap at the end of his tent untied. It had always rung vaguely of a fear of enclosed spaces but she’d never made the connection until now.

“Oh,” was all she found to reply rather numbly. Rather than going on with that line of discussion because she respected his decision to not talk about what had happened to him, she asked, “Is it a warm shirt?”

He let out a somewhat strained chuckle in response, replying, “Warm enough. Do remember I’m getting into bed with you.” Not only did the words send a thrill up her spine but she was reassured that she wouldn’t be cold. She had been deliciously warm in those hours when they’d been jammed together into her cot in the healer’s tent after her long walk.

“One would expect nothing less since it’s your bed .”

Cullen chuckled in response then closed the trunk, turning back towards her. He had a threadbare looking tunic in his hands, one that looked like it had seen many years of wear and tear judging by the patches in it. It was a deep red with long sleeves that were once capable of being fitted at the wrist but was now missing its ties and long in length, likely long enough to be practically a dress on her. He then tweaked it by the shoulders and she saw the Sword of Mercy was stitched in pale yellow thread across the front.

“That’s a…”

“My training tunic,” interjected Cullen. “One of them from when I was, as you would say it, eight and ten. I’m not sure why I kept it. Memory of my last hours before taking my vows, perhaps.” He then grimaced and added, “If you don’t want to wear it, I can…”

“Cullen, no, ” breathed Meryell, shaking her head. Did he not know what he was offering her? This was not merely a shirt worn every day, not something from the last few years. This was from the last remnants of his boyhood, from when he’d stepped fully into the life of a templar and the terrible things that had happened to him during it. The things that had brought him here , to this moment with her. It only made her lo …care for him all the more that he was willing to share it with her.

Extending her slightly shaking arms, hands palms up towards him, she asked softly, “Help me put it on?”

His expression softened and he breathed, “Of course, dear thief,” before crossing the room to her. Every touch of his hands was gentle as he maneuvered her into the shirt before finally he pressed them flat against her ribs, the heel of his hands braced on either side of the symbol of his old Order. She had been right, of course, that it would be more like a dress on her. If she were standing the bunched up folds around her waist would probably just barely graze the tops of her knees.

There was a look in his eyes that she couldn’t quite decipher then he leaned forward to press a kiss to the top of her head. “Get under the covers. I’ll be there in a moment.”

Meryell needed no other incentive other than that and smiled as she slowly crawled her way across the bed. As soon as she slipped under the covers on one side and tugged a pillow underneath her head, she felt exhaustion finally hit her like a battering ram. She fought to keep her eyes open over the next few moments, knowing that any minute she was going to lose her hold on consciousness.

Thus she wasn’t even aware when Cullen slid into the bed next to her, only realizing it when her eyes fluttered open to find his face inches from hers. She realized then too that she had been drawn up against his body, held there by the loop of one arm, and that he was bare but for a pair of loose pants of some of soft material. His hand gently stroked hairs away from her face as he looked at her with soft eyes and a gentle smile.

There were no stern planes to his face here, no set to his jaw, no seriousness. Here he was not Commander Cullen, no, here he was merely Cullen . The man, not the former templar or the general or even the lyrium addict.

The difference took years off of his face.

Vhen-an-arah ,” he said softly, his voice a gentle rumble, “you should sleep.”

“Will you?” Meryell asked fuzzily. Wasn’t there something she’d been intending on telling him?

Cullen chuckled and replied, “I will. I sleep better when you’re nearby anyway.”

“Oh. Good.”

He laughed and shifted forward to press a kiss against her lips, humming contentedly when she returned it. “ Sleep ,” he bid, his tone commanding, and she found no reason to argue against the almost order.

Meryell merely squirmed her way into her preferred place against him, with her head tucked under his chin and one hand folded against his chest to feel to steady beat of his heart. Whatever it was that she’d forgotten would just have to wait as all clear thought fled from her a moment later, exhaustion and the heat of him dragging her firmly into the Fade.


escandaloso – scandalous (Spanish)
cuchilla – knife (Spanish

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