The Sordid Tale of Meryell Verlen, Chapter 33

Push through…one more…one more…

Cullen gritted his teeth, hearing them grind against each other as he forced himself through another push-up. He was barely through the normal amount he did upon waking and he was already sweating like he had run several laps of the battlements. His arms shook weakly from the effort, every muscle straining, but he refused to give into weakness.

He couldn’t afford weakness.

The Inquisition couldn’t afford weakness.

Snarling wordlessly, he managed two more before his arms refused to continue. As he hit the cold stone of the floor below his loft, he cursed loudly.

Fuck!

For a long moment he just laid there, eyes closed and breathing hard as the coolness of the stone leached some of the excess heat from his body. Then he curled his lip and slapped angrily at the stones with both hands, frustrated beyond words at his weakness.

What use was he if he barely had the strength of a kitten? What use was he when most of the time lately he was blinded by headaches so fierce that he couldn’t see?

What use was he to the Inquisition like this?

To Meryell?

The ache twisted inside him then, a sharp pain focused somewhere around his stomach and Cullen gasped. He turned onto his side and curled up reflexively, bringing his arms in to wrap around himself. It did nothing because this wasn’t a pain that physical touch could soothe.

No, only the cool blue liquid inside his old kit, mixed precisely and accurately, could quench the ache. It would smother the feeling in light and warmth and he would feel so good . All it took was reaching into the bottom drawer of the his desk for the box…

And his chains would tighten around him again.

No ,” Cullen snarled aloud, turning his head towards the cool stone to rest his forehead against it. He was stronger than this.

He was more than an addict .

He would not give in.

He would not.

Letting out a harsh breath, he slowly forced himself to uncurl and climbed to his feet. Everything hurt but he still had time for the sensation to work through itself. Given that he’d gotten little sleep from the nightmares – which always seemed to take a worse turn nowadays when Meryell was away – it wasn’t even dawn yet. He had time.

Tilting his head back, Cullen rested his hands on his hips and just stood breathing for a moment. Then he turned and walked over to his desk, sighing a little as he sat down because the chair was soothingly cool against his bare back. For a moment he just sat before scooting forward to pick up his quill and open the ink pot to dab the tip into it.

There was work to do.

ornament

“Commander, are you well?”

“Hmm?” queried Cullen as he looked up from his perusal of the war room map. His focus on it and the hard grip he had on the hilt of his sword was literally the only thing keeping him from collapsing right then and there. The pains of the morning hadn’t gone away at all and now he had a headache to go along with them, lancing pains at his temples and the base of his skull that made it hard to think at times.

He found Josephine frowning at him worriedly from across the table, Leliana having already vacated the room judging by the open door, and furrowed his brow slightly.

“I’m…I’m sorry, Ambassador,” he said softly, blinking at her. “Did you ask something?”

The Antivan woman slightly dropped the arm holding up her ever-present board and replied, “I asked if you were well, Commander. You missed several questions that Leliana and I asked during the meeting and you seem…” She pursed her lips and he imagined she was looking for a polite way of saying looking like shit. The descriptor was certainly what he felt like right now. “…distracted.”

Cullen nodded before he frowned, asking, “I missed questions?” He didn’t even remember missing something. Had his memory lapsed? Or had he simply been so caught up ignoring the aches in his bones that he’d missed them?

“Yes,” she answered lightly. Josephine then laid her board on the table where she stood across from him and rested her hands on either side of it. “Is it the Inquisitor’s absence distracting you?”

Part of him needled at him to answer honestly, to say that no he wasn’t okay because he hurt and barely slept for the nightmares and he wanted lyrium so badly that it made his teeth ache…but he didn’t.

Instead he merely forced a smile onto his face and nodded as he said, “Yes. It’s quite…well… quiet without Meryell around. I apologize for my lapse, it won’t happen again.”

Lifting a hand to flick it idly towards him in a dismissive gesture, she returned, “No apology needed, Commander. I understand the distraction of missing someone you care for.” He tilted his head curiously at her comment but didn’t have a chance to say anything as she went on. “Do you need anything?”

“What?” asked Cullen, a little confused. Josephine had never asked such a question, not in the time they’d known each other. “No. Thank you, Josephine, but no. I’m fine. I believe I’ll stay in here for a while and get some work done.”

He caught just the bare edge of her frown before it disappeared alongside the clear worry in her eyes. Josephine picked up her board then and cradled it against her chest as she dipped a knee in a slight curtsey.

“Then I leave you to your day, Commander.”

“Good day, Ambassador “

She pulled the door almost shut behind her as she left and Cullen sagged almost immediately against the table. He kept one hand on the map to brace himself and freed the other from his sword so he could pinch the bridge of his nose. The ache at his temples lessened for a brief instant before it came roaring back and he let out an involuntary grunt of pain in response. Immediately after he stiffened and stared at the door, wondering if she’d heard the echo of it down the short hall in her office.

When there was only silence and his own breathing in response for several moments, Cullen relaxed. He looked down at the map again and as soon as the letters of the Frostbacks began to swim, he knew he would be actually taking the time spent in the war room to try and pull himself back together. There wasn’t any work that could be done when he couldn’t even see where his men were or where he might need to send them.

Closing his eyes for a moment, he leaned on the table for a long time until he felt like he could stand without support. Cullen then slowly made his way over to one of the chairs in the room and sank into it with a heavy sigh. He dropped his head back against the top of the chair and just tried to breathe.

The day had barely started and he could only feel like it was going to get worse.

ornament

Hours later he managed to make it out of the war room and into the great hall right as the lunch hour was starting. Unfortunately his stomach immediately roiled at the delicious smell of the stew that had been prepped into the kitchens. Cullen fled out the main doors in response and breathed deeply as soon as his boots touched the ground of the upper courtyard.

He needed food but if he couldn’t stomach the smell, it wouldn’t do much good for him to get anything. It either wouldn’t make it into him at all or he would just end up expelling it later when his stomach inevitably rebelled.

Sighing, he shook himself and turned to head down the stairs to the lower courtyard. At this hour the training yard opposite the stables would be empty and he could work through exercises without being interrupted (for the most part). Doing those usually helped take his mind off of the pain in his head and the ache in his gut. Not to mention glossing over the fact that it wasn’t the exercise making every muscle hurt.

Cullen stomped down into the yard, already working at his belt so he could lose his coat and armor. He’d learned the hard way that if he was going to do his usual training exercises, it was best to not be wearing either. The first time he’d tried had ended up with him overheating so much that he’d spent the rest of the day half-feverish in his tent, puking into a bucket.

Once everything was off and stacked neatly on top of the old stump that sat at the edge of the yard near the keep’s well, he rolled his shoulders from one side to another. Something cracked in his back in response but he ignored that and the twinge of pain that flared down his spine (which he was certain was age and not withdrawal ) to head over to the practice weapon racks. They had sheltered them right up against the stable wall, fashioning an extension to the eave of the roof so it would give them some cover from the elements if they didn’t end up covered with the oil cloths specifically set aside for that purpose. At the moment the cloths were folded up off to the side given the run of decent weather they’d had lately and the fact that he knew that Rylen had had men training this morning.

Pulling a sword from the rack, Cullen tested the feel of the weighted wooden blade for a moment before he brought it up into a sharp salute in front of his face. He nearly hit himself in the process and, though he wasn’t certain whether it was the weight or the weakness of his arm, he traded the sword out for a slightly heavier one before he picked up the one of the few full-size practice shields.

Saluting again, this time to an invisible opponent, he turned his attention to the closest training dummy. Almost immediately his left shoulder started to ache but he ground his teeth together and pushed through.

He counted swings and kept up a running commentary in his head as another way to distract himself.

One-two…parry…three-thrust…dead.

Slowly Cullen lost himself in the movement, in the counting. There was only him, the dummy, and his sword and shield.

One…feint…two-three…parry…four…dead.

Time slipped away and he wasn’t certain how long if had been. Normally he could tell by how sore he was but that was an invalid method of determination when he was this deep in withdrawal. Everything hurt, so how could he know when there was more?

Parry…one-two…

“Fancy a real opponent instead of that lump of straw, Commander?”

The sudden voice made Cullen jump, which caused his sword to miss its downward swing. As the blade bounced off the dummy’s shoulder, sending a slightly jarring pain rattling up his arm, he regained control of the weapon before he turned to regard his visitor. Blackwall arched his eyebrows from where he leaned against the corner of the stable and let out a short huff of breath when he did but the other man didn’t say anything.

“You offering?” he asked after regaining his breath.

“Only if you want something that hits back,” replied Blackwall. “I’m no Cassandra but I think I can give you enough of a fight.”

Chuckling, Cullen admitted, “I don’t think I could handle Cassandra today anyway. And I certainly won’t turn down a sparring partner…particularly not one I hear my men speaking so highly of.” Blackwall looked oddly uncomfortable at the compliment but perhaps that was the way of the Wardens. It wasn’t like he was particularly knowledgeable in the workings of them with his only interactions being the few moments Amell and Alistair Theirin had been in the Tower (which hadn’t been the best of circumstances obviously). He didn’t count the few rare occasions in Kirkwall when he had so happened to see Anders as they had mostly been from a distance.

As the other man straightened up and began tugging at the ties that fastened the padded gambeson he usually wore around Skyhold together, Cullen asked, “Shields or no?”

“Your preference, Commander,” came the reply, slightly muffled as Blackwall tugged the fabric over his head. He tossed it over the stone edge of the well before he began rolling up his shirt sleeves so they sat just above his elbows. “I’m the one that interrupted your exercises.”

“Less exercise than distraction,” muttered Cullen as he loosened the strap on the shield to pull it off his arm. He was certain that he’d kept his voice low enough so as not to actually be heard by the other man but that impression was swiftly cast aside with Blackwall’s next comment.

“Missing the lass, then?”

He couldn’t help how his shoulders stiffened up just a little at having been heard because he felt like that comment had given away too much. Obviously Blackwall hadn’t taken it the way he meant it, assuming he was talking about a distraction from Meryell’s absence and not the withdrawal, but the idea of someone else knowing itched at the back of his mind.

Those that already knew about it were also knowledgeable in how templars worked, in what lyrium did and could do to them. The population at large, however, didn’t know about templars and lyrium. If they knew how the Inquisition’s Commander hungered …well…they might not look kindly on an addict being in charge of the army.

Sometimes he felt like others could just look at him and know .

“Right,” he managed to comment lightly after a moment, trying to force his tone away from the unease it wanted to fall into. “It’s never quite the same when she’s out in the field.”

“Ha, never is,” noted Blackwall. “The tavern’s always more quiet without her around. Though Sera doesn’t get into as much shit.”

“Maker’s breath, don’t even remind me of what a mess those two are together.”

That made the other man laugh and Cullen smiled slightly as he put the sword he’d been using back into the rack, replacing the shield as well. Then he removed two of the long two-handed practice swords from their fastenings and tossed one towards Blackwall. The Warden grunted as he caught it and asked, “Thinking of changing your tactics, Commander?”

Shrugging, Cullen turned away from the side of the stable and took a few steps as he swung the sword experimentally. It was considerably heavier than the one-handed sword had been and put a far greater strain on his arms and shoulders but he could take the pain. He then turned to grin at the other man as he replied, “I keep in practice with both. And I think you can call me Cullen, Blackwall. You aren’t a subordinate of mine.”

“No,” he replied, “but it’s a matter of respect. You’re a good Commander, I can tell by how your men talk about you.”

Would they do the same if they knew? If they knew about the nightmares and the cravings and the nights spent in agony? Would they still see someone to respect…or only someone to pity?

“We’ll call saying my name respect enough,” Cullen said as he tried to shove the thoughts away but they burrowed into his skull like mice in the grain stores. He needed distraction. Bringing his sword up into a high guard, he dropped into a defensive stance as he barked, “Attack, ser!”

Blackwall’s dark eyebrows furrowed for a moment, as if he were considering something, then he nodded sharply and readied himself. When he swung a moment later and Cullen caught the jarring strike on the metal quillons fastened around the top of the wooden hilt, all he could think was Yes. This is the distraction I need.

ornament

Unfortunately like most things, the distraction didn’t last.

Cullen’s attacks and parries finally began to flag when the muscles all along his shoulders and upper back began to burn constantly. Blackwall was the one that called it off, however, begging off as tiredness and needing to be elsewhere. He had a briefly delirious thought that the other man knew how bad off he was when he asked Alright there, Cullen but shook it away, dismissing it as the madness it was.

Maybe he looked like shit but he certainly didn’t look like the withdrawn addict that his mind kept insisting he did.

So he replied that he was fine if tired, put away the weapons, and gathered up his things to make his way slowly back up the stairs to the upper courtyard and into the keep. He returned to his tower to stow his armor and resisted the urge to just go ahead and climb up into his second floor to fall into bed, instead going up only for a fresh tunic and breeches. Then he headed back across into the keep and went down to the bathing room that had been Josephine’s own little pet project to get setup inside. Mostly for the use of herself and Leliana but the invitation for using it had been expanded to the rest of the inner circle and himself as well as Meryell.

Not that he complained at all about her project. She’d brought in dwarven engineers to redesign what had been a small hall on the third ground floor and had spared little expense now that they had funds coming back in, even putting in runes to control the water flow as well as heat if desired. Normally he didn’t appreciate such luxuries (a quick bath from a basin was usually good enough for him most days when he was in a hurry) but the heat had turned out to be a good cure to his aches.

Some of the time anyway.

Today was not one of those days. Instead of soothing the aches, the heat merely leached the soreness temporarily out of his muscles but did nothing for the bone deep ache in them. And, rather like Gil’s potion that he’d taken before leaving his office this morning, it did nothing for his pounding headache.

He lingered longer than he normally would have, still hoping for a change, but finally accepted that it was as good as it was going to get. By the time he was dressed again, there were spots behind his eyes from the pain in his head and he was swaying slightly. If he didn’t know how long it would be before he would be found, he would have seriously considered just collapsing in the floor.

Instead he forced himself out of the room with his dirty clothes in hand and slowly began climbing the stairs that led back up to the second ground floor of the keep. He found himself breathing hard all too quickly and Cullen was doubly frustrated when he had to grab the wall of the stairwell to steady himself.

What bloody use am I like this?!

Abruptly there was the sound of quickly approaching footsteps from above and he straightened painfully. As he leaned against the wall of the stairwell, while wondering how he was going to explain his lurking, he looked up and saw the familiar face. Immediately he relaxed, closing his eyes as he murmured, “Rylen.”

“Andraste’s puckered nipples, Cullen, what are you doing?” snapped the Starkhaven man. He bounced down the last few steps between them and reached out to steady him, pushing him back against the wall. “You look like shit .”

Snorting, Cullen opened one eye and said, “I’m glad I can rely on you to always be honest with me.”

“Shit warmed over,” grumbled his captain. Rylen then looked him up and down before he asked softly, “It taking the piss out of you?”

“I’m fairly certain it’s already taken that and more,” he replied weakly while silently thanking the man for not mentioning lyrium or withdrawal by name. The walls had ears, after all.

Rylen just snorted then said, “Fuck all then. You can’t go through the main hall in a state like this; there’s nobles up there at the moment all fluttering about. Last thing we need is them whispering that our Commander’s unwell. Guess we’ll have to get you out back to your office another way.”

Cullen grimaced at the mention of nobles before he nodded weakly in agreement. Then he caught the slightly stressed we that Rylen had said and frowned. “We?”

“I wasn’t coming down here alone , Commander,” replied his captain, a bit of a flush in the man’s cheeks. Almost immediately more footsteps came pounding down the stairs and Cullen stiffened before he could think too hard on that blush. Then the owner of the steps called out and he relaxed in relief that it was him and not a stranger.

“You wouldn’t believe how fucking hard it is to get away from that wretched woman,” Folke was saying as he rounded the turn in the stairwell. He slowed immediately at the sight of them and his brows furrowed before he stopped with a grunt. “You look like shit, isha’len.”

“So I keep getting told today,” Cullen commented dryly.

Folke snorted before saying, “We can’t take him through the hall.”

“Already covered that.”

The hedge mage flipped a hand errantly at Rylen before he scratched at the faint stubble on his jaw. “There’s an old servant’s stair on the second floor that I think leads up to that area above the hall. It’s on the other side of the floor though.”

“We can get him there.”

“Darling, I know how able bodied and strong we both are but we’re both shorter than our dear Commander. Not to mention that he’s all but falling down if not for that wall.”

Cullen frowned before slowly asking, “Folke, how exactly do you know how able Rylen i…” His jaw snapped shut as his mind caught back up with the fact that the mage had been chasing his captain ever since the arrival of the Fangs in Haven. As the mage turned and arched his eyebrows curiously, he quickly added, “Nevermind. I really don’t want to know what either of you get up to in your spare time.”

“Not even…” began Rylen teasingly but Cullen lifted a hand in a gesture for him to stop.

“Don’t let it interfere in your job. End point.”

“Ah,” said Folke airily as he stepped down to the stair just above the one both Cullen and Rylen were standing on. “You run by the same rule as the Captain. But our extracurriculars are unimportant. Getting you in bed is the priority.”

Groaning, Cullen hissed, “It isn’t even halfway throu…”

Isha’len ,” the mage interrupted sternly as he laid a hand on Cullen’s shoulder, his gray eyes starkly serious, “I know you have a habit of pushing yourself through terrible situations and fair reason as well as experience for doing so. This is not something that you can do that with all of the time. If this is how you treat yourself while attempting to come out the other side of this, I and Gil need to have a serious sit down talk with you.”

Bristling slightly because he knew his own damned limits, Cullen straightened up against the wall so he could stare the man in the eye as he hissed, “About what ?”

Folke narrowed his eyes in return, his stare turning hard, before he replied in an undertone, “ Lyrium and the things we’ve seen it do. Don’t push away those that know things, son. Not with this. Not with my daughter in this.”

The mention of Meryell cut all of the wind out of his sails.

Cullen bowed his head in the wake of the look that he could only describe as disappointed and let out a breath. He steadied himself against the wall with his shaking left hand, curling the right that was holding his clothes into his chest. Then he murmured, “I apologize.”

“Don’t need an apology , Cullen,” said Folke as the mage carefully took hold of his left arm, slipping underneath it so it fell across his shoulders with a speed that reminded him of the man’s many years as a mercenary. He’d probably helped to carry many fellows, both drunk and injured. “I need you,” he continued as he secured his grip on Cullen’s wrist, “to stop being such a stubborn shit like most templars are.”

The man then snorted as if to himself and Cullen looked up as Folke smiled at Rylen. “No offense to you, darling.”

Rylen just snorted before he reached out to gently grab Cullen’s right wrist in one hand and the ball of dirty clothes in the other. Heat flared across his cheeks and the back of his neck in embarrassment at the situation and for a moment he fought to not relinquish his grip on them. Unfortunately the withdrawal and exhaustion mixed with the lack of food didn’t lend him much advantage and Cullen’s grip fell slack as the muscles of his hand and arm shook. He cursed under his breath and both of the other men seemingly ignored it as his captain turned around to face the same direction as he was, drawing his arm across his shoulders.

“None taken,” commented Rylen finally. Cullen caught the other man’s jerk of his head out of the corner of one eye and frowned as he added, “I’ve hung around this one long enough to know he’s a whole different class of stubborn from the rest of us.”

“Traitor,” grumbled Cullen goodnaturedly. Even if he was slightly annoyed, he knew that Rylen meant well.

Folke also meant well, in his own way.

The Starkhavener just grinned, a bright flash of teeth against the dark contrast of the tattoos on his chin, then said, “Well, come on then. Let’s get him to bed. On three.”

Somehow after that Cullen lost track of time, losing it in a haze of muttered voices and the smell of unused places and the distinct feel of strong arms being the only thing keeping him upright. By the time he came back to some kind of coherency, he was sitting up on the edge of his bed and Folke had him by the shoulders. Or perhaps sitting up was too broad a term as it felt like if the mage let go he would topple over.

Blinking, he looked around his room for a moment before starting to say, “How…?”

Folke shook his head as he interrupted, “You pretty much passed out on us after the first step down. I don’t think you quite realized the point that you pushed yourself to, isha’len .” He then carefully braced one hand against Cullen’s shoulder as he reached with the other towards the half-tied ties on his tunic. “It’s not the sort of thing you can do in your situation.”

“No,” replied Cullen, feeling like his tongue was abruptly thick in his mouth, “no, I knew.”

“You nughumping fool ,” spat the mage immediately, his temporarily free hand coming back to rest on his shoulder. Folke shook him slightly as he leaned down to lock eyes with him, his expression both shocked and appalled as he asked, “Don’t you know the risks of that? The side effects?”

Cold anger flared up Cullen’s spine and he managed a snarl as he spat, “How the fuck am I supposed to know about the side effects, Folke? I know descriptors of how withdrawal goes and how it feels from both experience and the one healer that the Gallows still had but other than that I have nothing .” Staring hard at the older man, he continued, “You think the Chantry tells us what happens after? You think those sons of bitche s let us know what we will go through? All we know half the time is that our memory will start to go and that they’ll take us out of service when that happens. The only reason I know anything more is because I was at Greenfell! I saw it! Those poor fucking bastards, so lost in their pasts that they don’t even know what day or year it was!”

He wanted to wrench away from the man’s touch out of anger but he didn’t have the strength .

“All I got that I didn’t know was that it coming out of my system would make me run hotter than normal. Other than that I already knew everything from going through it temporarily before. That and the choice could kill me. So what more do you fucking want me to say?”

Cullen wanted to plow on that sometimes pushing through was the only thing that kept him going, that kept him from pulling that damned box out of his desk. That kept him from taking that one more sip, just one more that his body wanted. Driving himself to exhaustion was often the only way to keep it at bay.

But he didn’t.

Instead he just stared at Folke, breathing a little hard after his outburst, as the hedge mage’s expression softened. The other man’s fingers clenched slightly on his shoulders and then Folke let out a breath, bowing his head.

“Maker, we cocked this up,” muttered the mage. Then Folke straightened up and said, “I assumed you knew the risks when I realized that you showed the signs of stopping. Told Gil and some of the other healers the same. As long as you had served, high as you served, there was no way you couldn’t know.”

“We’re definitely going to sit down and have a talk,” he continued. Folke then reached for the ties on Cullen’s tunic again. “Though first you need to get some sort of food in you as I’m certain you haven’t eaten given your weakness and then sleep.”

Unable to help the flinch in response to the comment about food – which just made the mage scowl since it confirmed the question – Cullen softly began, “Folke, I…”

“Maker help me, isha’len , if you attempt to apologize for that little outburst, I will beat your ass up and down your precious training yard once you’re capable of defending yourself.”

Blinking at the man, he managed a chuckle despite the slight guilt bearing down on him at yelling at the man. Angry as he was at the question, Folke hadn’t deserved that sort of outburst. “Is that so?” he asked.

Folke tilted his head to the side and smiled. “You think I can’t, son? I’m a fair hand with a sword.”

Cullen just smiled and shrugged before he sobered once more. Tilting his head, he weakly lifted his hands from where they hung limp at his sides to rest on the bed and held them palm up. “May I apologize for unjustly taking out my anger on you?” he asked.

“No,” replied the mage coldly, “and I’ll tell you why . Because it’s better for you to yell at me and get that rage out at a safe target than to have you aiming it at someone who’s not a safe target. And believe me, I’ve been yelled at by a few templars in my life.”

That drew his eyes to the scar on Folke’s cheek and the mage grinned wryly while shrugging. “That was less yelling,” he said, “and more automatic smiting. All the yelling was Meryell.”

Cullen snorted at that and managed a smile as he commented, “I don’t doubt that. She’s fierce.”

“That’s one word for my girl,” the other man commented with a smile. They then both looked over at the yawning space where the second floor fell away at the sound of one of the tower doors opening. When the lock slid home, Folke smiled. “Ah. That’d be one of the lads with food.”

“Folke?” called a female voice from below and as the mage frowned, Cullen commented, “That doesn’t sound like a lad , Folke.”

“Keep your teeth together, isha’len ,” growled the mage. He then called out, “Evune, love, we’re up here. I told Rylen to send for one of the lads to come help me.”

There was a soft ah in response and then nothing before the nearly inaudible whisper of feet upon the ladder. A hand bearing a tray crested the edge of the floor first, holding a steaming bowl, a shallow cup of something dark and equally hot, and what looked like a collection of herbs. Then Cullen saw a head with long auburn hair piled up in that messy but controlled way women somehow managed and pointed ears appear immediately after. The elven woman smiled, which made him register the copper colored lines tattooed on her face, as she finished climbing up and bent to retrieve the tray with one hand. As she calmly walked around them to set it down on his bedside table, Cullen noticed that she let her free hand trail along Folke’s back in an affectionate way.

Even in his pain-addled state, he remembered Meryell once mentioning that her father and an elven woman in the company shared beds on occasion in the most casual of ways. This then must be her.

Evune turned after she sat down the tray to say, “Your pet templar did send down for a lad but after his runner explained what it was about to the Captain, he decided to send someone who might actually help you.”

As Folke frowned, Cullen said quietly, “Arnald knows?”

The elven woman turned her gaze to him and nodded solemnly. “He respects your desire to keep it secret. Those of us that know what it is templars face, that have aided our own and recognize the signs, do the same. Your secrets are our secrets, Commander, and we do not surrender secrets.”

For a moment he just blinked at her, unable to comprehend what to say in response, then Folke grumbled, “Rylen is not a pet, love.”

Ma’halla , I tease. I know how you are,” replied Evune with a gentle smile. She then stepped forward and leaned in to kiss his cheek as she added, “Now, I have brought a simple broth, some of your headache tea, and a bough of your burned woman’s laurel.”

“Good. Come now, isha’len , let’s get that shirt off of you.”

Cullen stiffened and stared at the mage, feeling a blush creep up the back of his neck. “Folke,” he said quietly, “I’m beginning to think you want to see me naked.”

At that the older man just laughed, tipping his head back in a starkly familiar way. It hit him a moment later that Meryell laughed in the same way when something caught her off guard, drawing a full and honest laugh out of her. Suddenly he was torn: on the one hand he wanted her back so he could touch her, could kiss her, could simply sit and speak with her into the long hours of the night…yet he didn’t want her to see what he’d fallen to. She didn’t need dealing with him and his issues on top of the issues of the Inquisition.

Especially not after having to deal with the situation and feelings that asshole Camden had spawned before she’d left for Crestwood.

“Oh, darling,” drawled Folke as he abruptly moved a hand to gently pat Cullen’s cheek. “You’re adorable and I do appreciate such a fine form , but you aren’t my type at all. Now …shirt off then food and bed. You can keep your trousers this time, I promise.”

As Cullen involuntarily blushed at the innuendo the man had put into the last sentence, Evune theatrically fanned a hand at her face. “Oh my,” she gasped, her tone a high-pitched mockery of. “Such scandal! Our own Folke and the Commander!”

“Maker’s breath,” he muttered, closing his eyes briefly. “You two are terrible.”

“It’s why we work together so well,” commented the mage with a laugh. Then he made a gesture towards Evune and the elf stepped closer so she could lean down to grab the loose fabric of Cullen’s tunic. He felt on fire with embarrassment as the pair of them divested of him his shirt and it didn’t help when the woman whistled.

Folke good naturedly slapped Evune on the thigh in response and she giggled before turning away, moving back across the room towards the tray. “I swear,” he muttered under his breath, “she acts younger than she is sometimes.” Without waiting for a comment, he clapped his hands together and said, “So…think you can feed yourself or shall I embarrass you and feed you like a child?”

“I think I can manage,” Cullen replied uneasily. The situation was embarrassing enough without the man doing the latter.

“Suit yourself, I’m easy.”

As soon as the mage moved to step away, however, it was revealed that Cullen was not as steady as he felt. Thankfully Folke didn’t take up his offer of embarrassing him and instead helped him move up the bed so he could lean against the headboard. As he was handed the soup, Cullen saw that Evune had moved the brazier back into the middle of the floor from where he normally shifted it off to the side during the day and was lighting what looked like the herbs she’d brought inside of it.

She caught his gaze as she looked up, smiling before she blew gently into it again. “ Radladara ,” she explained. “Your burned woman’s laurel. We burned it in my clan for those who were suffering all sorts of pains, so perhaps it will ease some of yours, Commander.”

“Thank you,” replied Cullen after a moment. He then awkwardly shifted in place, looking down at the bowl in his hands, before he softly said, “Neither of you have to stay here. I’ve dealt with this on my own for months…” As Folke abruptly sat down on the edge of the bed, his voice trailed off and he looked up to meet the man’s eyes.

Isha’len ,” the mage said gently, “we are not here simply because we must be. We are here because we care for your health, and not merely for the sake of Meryell or the Inquisition. There will be no accusations and no guilt thrust about. You do not have to do this on your own. Not unless you choose to.”

For a moment all Cullen could do was stare at the man, a sudden lump in his throat. He’d been facing quitting on his own for the most part, other than the occasional (and rare) check-in with Cassandra and more recently the comfort of Meryell’s presence. Both women had respected his decision to do so, though Meryell often did small things to try and help him when she could.

No one, however, had come out and told him that he didn’t have to fight alone. Silently said it, yes, but directly…no one had done that. Not since he’d left home.

Blinking his eyes several times to fight back the sudden moisture that realization had brought, he nodded and looked back down into the bowl. “Thank you,” he murmured before picked up the spoon in a shaking hand, moving it slowly up to his mouth in a move that he hoped the older man would read as the end to the conversation he wanted it to be. Folke seemed to indeed sense that as he patted Cullen’s left leg before standing up to walk over and have a quiet conversation with Evune.

He turned his attention onto the broth then, which was somewhat weak in flavor, but it didn’t make his stomach roil like the smell of food had earlier. Half of it was gone before he began to feel tiredness creeping in on him, causing the bowl to droop into his lap. Suddenly Evune was there, scooping it up out of his hands, and then Folke was proffering the somewhat cooler cup of tea under his nose.

“Come on, lad,” urged the older man gently. “Let’s get a little bit of this in you to try and help your head and then you can sleep.”

Cullen wrinkled his nose slightly but obliged the mage, opening his mouth since he was too tired now to even think about lifting his arms. Then it seemed like a blink of an eye and he was lying down on his side, one arm curled underneath his head and pillow with his blankets tucked firmly about him. He frowned, more than a little confused as to what had happened, then heard voices softly whispering from the end of the bed.

“You are staying with him, ‘ma’halla?

“Poppet claimed him, so that makes him as good as mine too, love. So I’ll stay, yes.” He then heard Folke sigh before he went on, “I don’t think there’ll be a problem tonight but we have to have a talk about this. Let Gil know the full story of what happened that I told you and make certain to note that he’s doing this on little knowledge. Add in a curse about the Chantry being colossal fuckers for me.”

Evune chuckled, a small musical sound. “I will do as you ask. But…”

“But?” pressed Folke.

There was silence for a moment except for the sound of the shifting boards of his floor before Cullen heard her ask, “You will be safe alone? I remember there have been the templars of ours who have smited you while they are going through this.”

The mage scoffed lightly in reply before saying, “Templars who still mostly had lyrium in their system, darling. Cullen’s been without for long enough that I’m certain there’s not anything like that he could do. Don’t worry yourself anyway, I know how to work through a smite.”

“It is not the smite I fear, ‘ma’halla.

“I don’t think he has magebane hiding under his bed either, Evune. And he wouldn’t use it on me. I trust him. You think I would have continued letting him anywhere near Meryell if I did anything less?”

A mage?

Trust him?

He wasn’t quite certain what to think of that.

Cullen managed a small smile as the woman scoffed, saying, “You think your da’assan would have listened to you? Especially when she has found a bor’assan ?”

“I will tell her when she returns that you find the Commander to be the bow to her arrow,” jibed Folke.

“I will tell her myself ,” replied Evune as he tried to comprehend how he exactly was a bow to an arrow. He didn’t send Meryell anywhere, unless one counting giving her advice at the war table as doing so. Or perhaps she meant it as only being a pair?

An arrow was little use without a bow and so was a bow without an arrow. Still dangerous in the hands of the skilled but never so dangerous as they were together.

Cullen was still trying to figure it out when Evune said, “ On nydha, ‘ma’halla. Watch well.”

On nydha , love,” replied Folke quietly.

As the woman slowly descended the stairs, he felt the bed dip at the end with weight before the older man sighed heavily. Cullen then felt a hand pat his shin before the mage called out, “Go back to sleep, isha’len . You need it.”

He was not only surprised that Folke had realized he was awake but that when he said sleep it was as if a spell had been cast over him. Cullen closed his eyes again as the bone deep exhaustion dragged him down and, as he did, swore that he felt a hand gently pat his shoulder and a voice say something soothing in his ear.

Whatever it said, however, was lost to the Fade.

ornament

Elven/Elvhen Translations

‘Ma’halla – my halla, an endearment for a close friend
Radladara – green healing (rad = green, emerald, ladara = to heal)
bor’assan – bow

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