“…ullen? Comm…len, can yo….ear me?”
It felt like coming up from beneath the depths of the lake near his childhood home when he’d fallen through the winter ice. He was completely numb, his mind fluttering, and the only thing he was aware of really was the shaking in his limbs.
A cool hand pried his eye open and Cullen flinched at the sudden light. There was also a secondary sensation – a tearing, ripping feel along what was left of his senses that had him crying out involuntarily in pain – and the voice from earlier gasped.
“No hea…agic! You…ake it worse. Go find…olke.”
His head kept sliding in and out of the then and now, barely able to process what he was hearing. One moment he was at Kinloch standing watch inside the library then he was in the courtyard of the Gallows. Then he was standing in Haven, watching in horror as a familiar pillar of light exploded into the air – only green, not red – before an invisible wave knocked him flat. Back to Kinloch, Kath’s broken body lying on the floor while he tried to just breathethrough the grief. Facing down his Knight-Commander. Watching Meryell run out of the Chantry before he physically held her father back from following.
There was a sudden crash, like thunder echoing around and through him, and he heard another voice. A hand came to rest against his throat, fingers pressing against the pulse point, as they asked, “Lyrium attack?”
“Shows the signs,” replied the other and he knew them. Knew that he knew them but the names just wouldn’t come.
“ Fuck . Becker, run over…nd get some mo…lers. Studey, fi…eed herbs. Move, lads! ”
There was a sound like yelping dogs – he remembered the hounds in Honnleath, the non-Mabari hunting hounds, sounding like that – and then there was another crash. It made him flinch and he was certain he cried out in response.
“Not happening. Floor will do…pallet.”
Cullen felt like he was dropping again, like he had before his father had hauled him out of the lake. He’d been so tired …
His eyes got wrenched open again but this time he didn’t have the ability to even make a sound. He did, however, feel a heavy hand grip his tightly and squeeze .
“Stay with us, isha’len ,” that second voice urged. “Sta…ith us.”
Out of everything he grabbed onto that one word and for a brief, flickering second his mind cleared . Cullen licked his lips slowly – they were dry, so dry – and then tried to open his eyes despite the weight seeming to drag them down. He didn’t manage and instead just asked, “Folke?”
“Aye, isha’len ,” replied the man. “Now you’ve go…ay with us. You understand? You do…king think of falling asleep.”
“Tired,” he murmured, feeling the cold starting to drag him back down.
“No, no, no , come on, lad. Don’t you sodd…o me. Don’t you fucking dare .”
Rough hands grabbed his face but even that sensation was fading away, lost to the cold consuming him. Cullen was barely aware of anything then before thin fingers touched his temples and a new voice softly said, “Fading, fading away into the cold. Like slipping beneath the ice, lost, lost, lost, until a strong arm dragged him back. Memories flicker like shadows, echoes in the empty place inside.”
Was it said? Or was it in his head ?
“ Cole! ” barked Folke. “Don’t let him go!”
“She would be sad, would lose her heart. I will not let him.”
Meryell , thought Cullen with sudden panic, though it did little other than thrill through him and absolutely nothing to drive back the cold. Maker, am I dying? He fought to hang on to what shred of coherency he had left, to stay awake as Folke had demanded, but his body as well as mind had other ideas. As his mind touched upon place after place and person after person –Honnleath, Kinloch, his parents, Gregoir, Kirkwall, Haven, Meredith, Hawke, Skyhold, Home, Meryell, Meryell, Meryell – he was dimly aware of his body abruptly jerking off the floor. Seizing, the word was; he remembered from it happening to a mage during his first years in Kirkwall.
He felt fingers press on his forehead and hands on his shoulders but after that, he knew no more.
Pain was the first immediate impression.
Surprise was the immediate second.
Cullen blinked up at the ceiling of the main part of his office for a long moment before he realized that he was lying in a pallet tucked up against his bookshelves. By feel, it seemed like someone had hauled the whole of his bedding down from the loft…minus the actual bed, of course. He slowly went through a careful regard of his body, twitching fingers and toes and giving a slight flex to aching muscles, before being satisfied that his body was in seemingly working order if heavy feeling. Then Cullen turned his head to look around the office and found Gil sitting in his desk chair, a book folded around a finger on her lap as she smiled down at him.
“Good morning, Commander,” she said warmly, her voice low. She leaned forward conspiratorially to add, “I can’t imagine your voice has recovered much but do try not to speak loudly. Folke and Enchanter Fiona are sleeping in cots on the other side of the room.
Cullen merely arched his eyebrows – Maker, even those hurt – confused by her words. He had so many questions. The first one being why would he have needed to let his voice recover?
Instead he licked his lips and asked, “What happened?” His voice was low and rough, like he’d been shouting orders for hours on end, but knew he hadn’t. Or at least he thought he hadn’t. Honestly he didn’t even know what day it was.
Gil grimaced and quietly folded a scrap of paper into her book, setting it on his desk, before simply pushing herself out of his chair. As she sank onto the floor, she extended her hands towards him then paused to tip her head sideways and ask, “Before I answer, I wish to cast diagnostics on you. May I?”
More confused than ever, he just nodded and as she started to move again, he asked, “How did you know?” When she frowned, Cullen added, “To ask.”
Her mouth opened just slightly and then then lifted a hand to her face, closing her eyes as she chuckled darkly and shook her head. “Maker,” she muttered, “I thought you’d realized. Perhaps my memory of you is better than yours of me.”
Cullen blinked, confused, before shaking his head. “I know…Meryell said you were at Kin…at the Tower. That I…no, that the way Commander Greagoir handled…things…was why you left.”
Maker , he was stuttering about like a youth again.
“You. How he handled the situation with you ,” murmured Gil as her hands glowed softly with magic before she laid one on his chest and let the other hover over his forehead, fingers moving in slow circles. He fought to not flinch when it came near, feeling the ache of the magic in his bones . She obviously noticed because she immediately said soothingly, “Only a moment, Commander, only a moment. I will not hurt you. I will not .”
The woman sounded so resolute and when her voice cracked on the last word she uttered, he closed his eyes and just focused on breathing. He imagined for a moment that it was just a woman sitting next to him, just a normal healer, before realizing that that was unkind of him. Gil had done her level best to help Meryell. She was the reason the woman he loved had feet , the reason that the frostbite hadn’t done its worst. The reason shelived .
No matter his fear of magic, he could not simply forget that she was a mage. To do so would discount what she had done for Meryell.
So, instead, Cullen took a deep breath and opened his eyes to look right at the magic gathering around the fingers fluttering above his eyes. The power was subtle, barely a flicker of usage despite the ache it caused in him, and he just took a moment before he slowly let out that breath.
“I believe you,” he managed to say on the exhale and the smile the woman gave him was blinding. She was true to her word as well in that it was only a moment before her magic faded, though it left him aching and sore.
“The worst has passed,” she murmured, suddenly clutching a hand to her heart. “Maker and his Bride and all the Creators be praised.” He arched his eyebrows at someone praying to both the Andrastian and Elven gods in one breath but let it lie. Mostly because whatever had happened sounded like it had been bad.
Gil then leaned forward, pulling the blankets covering him up around his shoulders and smoothing the edges down with a serious expression on her face. “We nearly lost you,” she said quietly. “There is….I will be honest, Commander. I know there have been many who have lied to you in your life and I will not be one of them along the likes of Greagoir and Meredith.”
“You know there have been templars amongst our ranks,” she went on as he tried to process what exactly she might know about his relationship with the two Knight-Commanders he’d served under.
“Meryell told me,” replied Cullen with a slight nod.
“But she did not tell you of what some of them have gone through.”
Shaking his head slightly back and forth, he said, “No. Merely that she had seen a good many go through withdrawals with more dying than living.”
“I see. Well…perhaps Folke shielded her from the worst.” Gil shook her head and muttered, “Maker knows we have tried to keep the company and even some of the templars who survive from knowing how bad it is at times.”
Cullen frowned at that and gathered up what strength he had to growl sternly, “ Tell me .”
The woman looked him in the eye in response and replied firmly, “In short, the shock of lyrium loss to your system became too much for it to handle and it couldn’t take the stress. So it attempted to shut down entirely.”
Suddenly he was very aware that by We nearly lost you she meant that he had nearly died. Cullen felt the blood drain out of his face as he abruptly felt faint and sick to his stomach before he breathed out one word.
“ How? ”
“We gave it what it wanted.”
For a moment he was stunned, certain that he hadn’t heard what he thought he just had but the look on Gil’s face said it all. Then he noticed the lack of his almost ever-present headache, which had been a near constant background sensation despite the efforts of her potions and Folke’s teas lately. Even with the pain he was currently in, he should have noticed it. Now it was practically negligible.
Then the anger hit and he fought to keep it inside, trapped in his chest like the animal it was. That didn’t stop the growl from spiraling out of him as he hissed, “You gave me lyrium? ”
“Would you rather I have let you die? ” she snarled back, equally as furious. Gil sat on her knees, hands folded in her lap, back straight, practically a picture of calm propriety. Her eyes – pale brown, the color of the pages in the oldest books in the Tower, he noted in some faraway fashion – told an entirely different story; that of a woman enraged, of one who was hanging by a thread.
And suddenly he remembered in a burst standing guard over one of the teaching sessions focused on healing in the Tower. At the time his attention had all been for Kath, sitting pert and proper in the front row as the perfect example of an attentive student. On second glance, he sees the teacher’s face, sees how she is perhaps ten years older than he and Kath at the most but certain, steady as she sits in the same manner as now while speaking about the nature of healers. Remembers the flash of her pale face over the shoulders of his brothers when he somehow staggered his way into the entrance hall on the heels of the Wardens’ party, snarling about demons and abominations and how they had to kill the survivors.
“Gil. Engill ,” gasped Cullen. “Enchanter Dryton.”
Just like that, she softened and smiled down at him. “I haven’t been an Enchanter for a decade, Commander. Not since I left the Circle.” Then her stern anger reappeared as she snapped, “That, however, is beside the point, Commander. Your continued treatment is the point.”
That sent a prickle of irritation up his spine and brought all of the anger that had been temporarily shocked out of him at recognizing her roaring back. It sounded like the crashing of storm waves against the Gallows docks, that booming, all-encompassing sound that had terrified him during his first years. His fellows had laughed at him but he hadn’t wanted to explain that it reminded him of the doors slamming open and shut in the Tower, of never knowing whether it was friend or foe on the other side. Couldn’t have explained even if he’d wanted to, he’d been tied up so tight inside himself. Now it was roaring in his ears again and all he could feel was rage .
“You gave me lyrium ,” he repeated, his tone clipped and accusatory. “Aftermonths without.”
“And a single hour more without,” Gil snarled right back, “might have killed you. I have watched it kill men and women, Commander. Young and old, frail and strong, it takes and takes and takes without giving an inch in return. I have served these eight years with the company as a healer and I have watched far too many good people succumb to that shit the Chantry forces into its templars. And I remember every one that died. Every. One.” She then leaned forward, furious and with her teeth bared, and Cullen pressed himself back into the mattress in automatic response. “So I will not regret one whit in saving your life by whatever means I have at hand, Cullen Rutherford, whether it be lyrium or fucking blood magic. I will not let another templar die if I can stop it. I will not.”
Blinking at her for a long moment, he licked his lips as Gil stared hard at him before she leaned back. He was still angry that she had done it but having the fact out there that she had watched every templar who had come through the company in eight years suffer…that put a damper on his temper. Instead he reached for calm instead of temper and slowly asked, “You’re certain I would have died without it?”
The woman nodded firmly in response, her stern facade softening again now that he was trying to be calm. “Yes,” she replied and there was no lie in her tone. “Folke and I might not have managed it if not for that boy.”
“Boy?” he repeated.
“Cole, I believe Folke called him?”
And suddenly Cullen remembered a dozen or more half forgotten glimpses of skinny limbs and straw blond hair. Of sitting behind Meryell in the healer’s tent after Haven with his hands shaking and seeing a boy just appearout of nothing. Discussing the wild spirit roaming the keep with Cassandra and coming to the mutual decision that it was not a danger yet.
He owed his life to a spirit .
Feeling suddenly faint again, he murmured, “He is not merely a boy.”
“He is and is not,” she replied vaguely. “We were lucky for his aid. He held you at the edge alongside Folke and gave our lads enough time to grab the supplies I needed.”
“And the Enchanter?”
Gil just shrugged as she replied, “She was the closest since she haunts the library and enough of a healer to take Folke’s place when he tired. That and that bald elf wasn’t lurking about. We had other healers in here as well but they’ve gone back to their duties now.”
“Were mostly company members at first,” she said pointedly, sensing his question before he even had it slightly voiced. “The lads Folke had with him when he came in went for them first. Fiona pulled in a few she swore could be trusted to keep their traps shut as well as that grumpy apothecary. You’ve nothing to fear about news of what happened getting out.”
Frowning, Cullen asked, “How long have I been down? What story have you been telling?”
“Five and a half days total,” replied Gil. “Counting both the hours after you collapsed and those so far today. As for story, there’s rather conveniently that sickness in the camps.”
“Right,” he murmured. The last months of winter in Ferelden usually came with a last bout of sickness and this year hadn’t been any different. It had been haunting the camps for a while now and it served an easy explanation since he was always getting visitors from in and outside the keep. “Rylen stepped in to command?”
Gil just nodded and a sudden tenseness that he hadn’t even noticed uncoiled inside his body. Abruptly tired – though a normal tired, not the dragging down sensation that he barely recalled from before – he closed his eyes again and asked, “So…treatment? Am I to go back on lyrium, Gil?” He couldn’t keep the bitter tone out of his voice as he asked the last.
Am I doomed to that life? To the surety of slowly losing my mind? To forgetting myself and those I love?
The woman sitting next to him lightly swatted his shoulder through the blanket and snapped, “Don’t be so melodramatic, Commander.” He opened an eye to peer at her and she smiled gently down at him.
“Much of this is what Folke and I would have mentioned to you when we were supposed to have our talk. We will begin as the company healers have with many templars,” she explained calmly, “with a small, diluted portion of lyrium. Nowhere near what you once made for yourself with your kit. We may or may not have to adjust that initial amount to find a happy balance that we can start from.”
Gil smiled as she replied, “Then we work our way down until you no longer have need of it. It will be a long, arduous process but it seems you have the bad luck of being one of those templars who can’t just up and quit. I still haven’t figured out why that reaction in particular happens but I believe it has something to do with the way lyrium lingers in the body for so long.” Her face fell a moment later and she sighed. “It will not be pretty and you probably will suffer through the worst of the withdrawals again. Likely similar at first to what they were when you first quit.”
Cullen let out a long breath at that, closing his one open eye once more and slowly shaking his head in disbelief. He felt her hand on his shoulder then, squeezing tightly in a gesture of comfort.
“We have done this many times, Cullen,” she said in a low voice. “You have already withstood so much. You survived without lyrium for this long, which is a feat beyond what I have seen from any who’ve served the length you have. This is not the end, do not think that. You can survive this. The company will see to it.”
Twitching in surprise, he opened his eyes to look up at her. The earnest expression on her face made him want to believe even as he doubted.
“The company?” he repeated.
She just smiled and replied, “Our Meryell has claimed you. So long as you are hers and she yours, the company will consider you ours. I have that from the Captain’s own mouth when he learned what happened.”
Gil then soberly added, “And I won’t abandon you to suffering again.”
Furrowing his brow in confusion as he tried to process that comment as well as apparently being declared honorary company, Cullen queried, “Again?”
“I was in charge of the templars who were starting to lose themselves in the Tower,” she explained. “Researching lyrium was a personal project of mine as an apprentice and one that Irving encouraged. I think the old fart had long been trying to get someone in with Greagoir to help his templars for a long time but…you lot are stubborn.”
He snorted and she flashed a smile at him.
“When I passed my Harrowing, Irving somehow convinced Greagoir to let me start dealing with the older templars. I always had a guard of course – Ser Walter, you remember that old warhorse? – just to be safe. That was where I started learning that templars were just as trapped by the Chantry as we mages, even if they chose to serve.”
Gil shook her head before going on, “It was never anything like what I’ve done with the company. Mostly observation of them and being kind while making notes of what the effects of lyrium did to them. I learned how to handle them.”
“But you didn’t discover much of anything,” Cullen guessed.
“Not with what I had,” she replied with a shake of her head. “The templars affected who were kept in the Tower were only those just beginning the fall. A handful of forgotten memories here, a persistent headache or two. None of them suffered withdrawals and that was really the information I needed. What did they go through? How did it make them feel? What did a sudden lack and then a fresh dose do to a body and mind that had been without for days or a week or more?”
He blanched at the question and murmured, “Terrible things.” When she placed a sympathetic hand on his arm, Cullen laughed hoarsely. “But I think you know that now.”
“Not then,” she replied softly. “After…after everything, I asked Gregoir to turn you over to me. To let me handle your recovery and reintroduction to lyrium.” Gil gritted her teeth together and growled out, “He told me that it was handled , that you were fine , and that you’d already been given lyrium. He said that your fellow templars would handle it and that now, with Irving’s pet project good as dead since all of the older had fallen victim to the demons, I would be going back fully to the healer courses. I replied with a great many things he didn’t want to hear.”
Cullen could feel her hand shaking in response to her anger where it still rested on his arm. “Gil,” he said softly. When she looked down at him, he added, “I…thank you. For trying.”
Her angry expression instantly fell apart and her fingers clenched slightly. “Oh, lad,” she breathed. “Don’t thank me for something I didn’t do.”
“You tried ,” pressed Cullen. He turned his head to look at the ceiling then before growling bitterly, “That’s more than anyone else did for me. I doubt I would have been a very good patient though. And if…if I’d hurt you…”
“Best not to think on things that will never happen,” interrupted Gil. “There lies the way of madness.” He turned back towards her and found her smiling, her eyes showing a fondness that he was honestly a little shocked by. Especially ten years later and after surely hearing a little about his actions (or inaction) in Kirkwall.
“We’re here now,” he murmured quietly, the only thing he could think to say. What else was there beyond that? Other than commenting that it was the Maker’s own luck that they’d ended up near each other again after a very long decade.
Chuckling, she nodded her head and said, “That we are, Commander, that we are. You should rest now and try to regain some more of your strength. We’ll need that stubborn resolve of yours to be up to tip-top shape.” Gil shifted then, moving to stretch her legs out parallel to where he was laying with her back up against the wall of his office. Her hand came back to rest on his shoulder as she asked, “May I cast on you again? A minor alarm, just in case the lyrium in your system does something strange. It shouldn’t bit I prefer to be safe.”
“Whatever you deem best, healer,” replied Cullen with a smile as he felt tiredness sweeping over him almost immediately after she said rest .
“Only so long as you’re comfortable with it.”
“Maker’s balls, I think I’m too tired to care.”
Gil just laughed and he watched her fingers flick out of the corner of his eyes, feeling the magic hum and burn slightly for a brief moment before the sensation faded. “Our Meryell is a bad influence,” she commented.
Scrunching his nose as he closed his eyes, Cullen grumbled, “Why is everyone under the impression that I’m some sort of paragon of virtue?” When she just laughed in response, he shook his head and let out a long sigh.
“No worries, Commander,” she said softly after a moment, her hand sliding down to a comfortable position next to him on the pallet. “I’m here to watch your sleep once more.” At that, he flinched because that likely hadn’t been pretty and probably explained her first comment about his throat. It also made him more than a little embarrassed that more people were aware of his nightmares and dreaded to think of what he might have said in their grip.
Exhaustion had him in its firm grasp now, however, and he couldn’t have stopped the plunge downward into sleep if he’d wanted to. Before he was gone entirely, though, Cullen was vaguely aware of skinny fingers brushing over his forehead and a boy’s voice whispering in his ear.
“I will help. Help forget the elf girl with the demon’s eyes until you can test the chains again.”