“Kill these wolves, Herald. Find my druffalo, Herald. Cut my grass, Herald. Suck my fucking dick, Herald.”
“No, no,” commented Varric wryly, sounding out of breath from behind her as they climbed yet another fucking mountain, “tell us how you really feel, Swears. I don’t think I quite caught it.”
Meryell growled through gritted teeth in response, which drew a rusty laugh out of the dwarf and one of Cassandra’s noises of disgust from further behind her. Though the latter was probably more about her language than Varric’s comment.
It had been nearly a month since they’d left Haven for the Hinterlands and almost two months since the whole cock-up at the Temple of Sacred Ashes that had led to her being claimed the Herald of Andraste. At the beginning of their trip, she was utterly certain that this was some sort of test from Cassandra and the spymaster that she was supposed to utterly fail. She’d been fairly convinced that both of them thought her a fuckwit.
As soon as they’d hit the Crossroads and became embroiled in the fighting, Meryell had firmly grabbed the reins of the little group and tugged. People were suffering and she wasn’t going to fucking have it, not if there was a single damned thing she could do to stand against it. She saw the chaos there and deliberately went from person to person that had gathered there, taking note of names and the things they needed while silently thanking the company’s old quartermaster Morys for teaching her years ago how to keep things straight in her head as well as remember them clearly. For Vale and all of his men, she had suggestions of what they could do in the meantime before she was able to bring back the things that were needed.
Then she’d led her little core group and a small selection of some of the Inquisition soldiers that had accompanied them to the region out into the middle of the damned war between the mages and templars and took both camps by fucking storm. The trust that she’d felt with the company wasn’t there but the feel was there, especially as she and Cassandra got the hang of working around each other in the field. She still didn’t like the woman as a person but fuck all if she ever wanted to face her in a knuckle down, drag out fight. Meryell was good with blades. The Seeker was a force of fucking nature with a shield.
Her decade plus of experience with the company continued to come in handy after that and she secured supplies, forged allegiances, and cussed her way up and down the hills while killing a whole mother fuck of people. Varric probed her for exactly how she was such a good leader but she just scoffed at him, saying that she was an utter shit leader. Cassandra pressed the same point, stating once point blank that they had expected her to not be much more than a figurehead, and she’d told her that it was true and she couldn’t organize an orgy in a brothel. Chuckles had just lurked on his own side of the fire fucking watching her and she’d snarled curses at him in Elven every time she felt her skin crawling with his gaze.
Now they were climbing the hills towards Redcliffe and she could feel all of her left arm jolt with pain from fingertips to shoulder. The mark sizzled across her palm, feeling like it was splitting her skin open despite the fact that she knew it wasn’t. Hurt didn’t describe the pain she was in.
“Rift!” she snapped and reached over her shoulders for her daggers while mourning the loss of her old gear at the Temple. If nothing else, she had to contact the company so she could get her spare harness sent. After too many years with the same rig, changing her draw pattern up was screwing with all of her motions in battle.
No, no, she didn’t need her damned fucking extra harness. She intended on helping them close the Breach since she was the only one who fucking could and then she was gone. No more, no less.
After eleven rifts and far too much of everything else, they fell instantly into pattern as demons spilled forth from the shifting green tear in the Veil. Cassandra charged at the enemy behind the closest, drawing the attention of the latter and turning it away from the group. Meryell took that one first with Varric, her blades tearing into its core while he slammed poison tipped crossbow bolts into its skull above her head. Then she dove to the next closest one, hampering it with her blades enough that Varric could kill it with a few well placed shots or Chuckles could slam home a ball of force into it while Cassandra held the attention of them all with sword and shield. It was basically rinse and repeat after that point.
That’s the way it should have gone, anyway.
Instead Cassandra missed her charge because the demons moved too fucking fast and had to compensate with a spin that brought her shield smashing in a downward swipe into the closest demon skull. Meryell felt sluggish as she darted forward then immediately faster as soon as she stepped into the same space as the demons. The mark flared, fresh agony sizzling through it and making the skin all along her arm twitch while her whole body screamed that something was fucking wrong.
A demon’s claw caught her marked arm at the elbow as her pain wracked limb faltered through a strike and tore her flesh open from joint to joint, elbow straight down to wrist. Meryell spat in its face on instinct and slammed her other dagger home into its skull all the way to the hilt. As it dissolved back into the Fade, she darted forward despite her left hand being limp now, her dagger fallen point first into the ground behind her as she streamed blood in her wake. She kept moving because you never ever fucking stop in a pitched battle and all too quickly she forgot the wound as the fight rushed over her, making it feel as if she wasn’t wounded at all despite her useless arm.
It was all breathe and kill and survive now, a constant repetition of those words as she sliced her blade through demonic hamstrings and spun just short of stepping into the rage of one of Chuckles’ blizzards.
And then, it was over.
Meryell swayed, light-headed from blood loss, and dropped her other dagger. With her free hand she gripped her wrist, not thinking about the warm wetness of her own blood slicking her fingers and the palms of her half gloves, and somehow focused enough to push the mark at the rift. As it snapped shut, she blinked slowly at her bloody hand and the gash that had flayed open her arm and breathed, “Fuck me blind.”
Then her eyes rolled back in her head just as she realized she was falling backwards like a cut tree and then there was blessed nothingness.
Consciousness came back painfully slow and the first thing Meryell heard was the sound of two people arguing while trying not to raise their voices.
“You knew this, Commander, and did not tell us?”
“I told her that her secrets were safe with me, Cassandra. I don’t break my word once I’ve given it.”
“This is something we should have known! To have a mercenary as the Herald…”
“She is no different than she was when you left for the Hinterlands!”
“There are few who would follow her knowing her past, Cullen.”
“And I will run to be at the head of that obvious gathering of fools who see a good woman and not some caricature of a sellsword.”
Meryell managed to crack open her eyes at that statement, which made her feel warm to the core and guilty at the same time. She was not a good woman. How had she left him think she was? She didn’t deserve such praise from him.
Cullen stood with his back to her and he seemed somehow…smaller? She could barely see Cassandra from the way he was standing, nothing more than her mud spattered boots and pants visible between his legs. But why did Cullen seem smaller?
Cassandra made a noise of disgust then her head tipped around his shoulder, her eyes darkening with obvious distaste. “She wakes,” commented the Seeker, her Nevarran accent slightly sharper than it usually was. “I will return to the Chantry to see what Leliana and Josephine have thought of to fix this.” The door of the cabin slammed shut in her wake as she spun on a heel with all the fury of a small storm and Meryell couldn’t help the small groan that rattled out of her throat.
Just when she and the Seeker were starting to tolerate each other, they somehow discovered her past. Cullen hadn’t given up her secrets though so how had they known?
“Are you alright?”
Refocusing, Meryell blinked as she realized that Cullen was leaning over her, his forehead creased with the telltale signs of concern. Trying to smile, she realized suddenly why he seemed smaller than usual – his face wasn’t framed by the red-black ruff of fur like it usually was. Instead his chest plate was bare of both it and the red and gold fabric that was normally wrapped around him…because it was laying on top of her.
Panic welled up in her throat, fighting for dominance against the sudden heat in her belly and she wanted to fucking scream.
Good men didn’t want to fuck dirty elf girls.
She chanted it silently like a mantra as she licked her dry lips and rasped, “How the fuck?”
The lines of concern on his face loosened then and she knew why: the company had the same rule as any group of soldiers – if you can still curse, you’ll probably fucking live. He chuckled and asked, “How did you get back to Haven or how did they find out?”
“Both,” she replied.
“Let me get you some water and something to eat first then I’ll tell you the whole story. You’ve been unconscious for more than a week and with all the blood you lost Solas has been worrying about the rate you were getting it back since we haven’t been able to get much of anything into you while you’ve been out.”
As he rose, Meryell croaked, “You don’t have to babysit me, Cullen. I can…” She stopped as he pressed a finger to her lips and resisted the temptation to taste him because he wasn’t wearing those fucking gloves of his. His skin was even warmer than it had been that night when he’d joined her on the barrels and she wanted more. Maker’s swollen prick, she really needed to take a man to bed.
The problem was the only man she really wanted in Haven was far too good for her.
“It’s not babysitting,” he said gently, removing his hand quickly as a blush rose up his neck, a sight she could see much easier without the fur in the way. “I want to be here.”
He left before she could say anything else and Meryell let out a little huff of breath after he was gone. Part of her wanted to dance because all signs said he wanted her but the jaded half of her took a swift blade to that optimism. Cullen was merely being kind and kindness didn’t mean that he cared for her in any way bedsides friendship.
As she continually reminded herself, good men didn’t fuck knife-eared bitches. It had been proven to her time and time again as well.
Wiggling her shoulders experimentally as a distraction, she slowly pulled her left arm out from underneath the blankets to get a look at it, noting absently that she was wearing only her small clothes and a loose shift that didn’t fall much lower than her breasts. There was a line of freshly healed pink running from her wrist to her elbow and she could feel it stretch as she bent her arm to get a look at it. She wondered if the muscle had been damaged and if she was going to have to work it back up to strength.
As the door opened against, Meryell practically threw her arm down onto the bed in a sudden fit of absurd panic and immediately regretted everything. Pain lanced through her arm but it was blessedly not the pain that the mark spawned. No, it was just the normal pain of healing muscle and flesh but it still fucking hurt.
Blinking past the sudden tears in her eyes, she frowned as Varric entered her cabin with a tray balanced in one hand and a book tucked under his arm. He grinned as he saw her and said, “Special delivery courtesy of Curly. Hot tea and broth straight from the kitchen. He got dragged into that mess in the Chantry and I offered to bring this to you.”
The dwarf sat the tray and book down on the small table near the door then moved towards her. “Come on, Swears,” he said warmly though she could read strain in all of his bearing. “You’ve got to sit up to eat.”
Grunting as he flipped her blankets down – which took Cullen’s fur away from her – she grumbled, “I can fucking sit up on my damned own, Varric.” As soon as she shifted her left arm and put the slightest pressure on it, she deemed that statement utterly fucking false. Varric wasn’t having no for an answer anyway so she just let his large hands move her about and when she was finally resettled, he tucked the blankets back up around her waist. Making sure that the ruff of Cullen’s fur was right up against her belly, which was bared by her shift.
She froze, staring at him in terror, and he blinked at her in honest confusion. “Swears…what’s wrong?”
“You know,” she breathed, not able to get anything else out.
“No, sweetheart, you’re going to have to enlighten me because I’m completely in the dark here.”
Meryell swallowed and curled her fingers into the warm fur as she bit out, “Cullen, Varric.”
The dwarf blinked for a moment then stepped close to the bed, one of his hands large enough to cover both of hers as his other hand curled around her upper arm. “Curly likes you, Swears, anyone can see that,” he said gently. He then frowned at her and breathed, “And that scares the shit out of you. Why? Come on, Swears, talk to Uncle Varric. What’s wrong?”
She tried to keep the words in, wanted to sew her own lips shut to keep them inside but she was weak.
Bowing her head so she didn’t have to look him in the eyes, she breathed, “Good men don’t fuck knife-ears.”
Varric growled and then the hand that had been on her arm was on her chin, callused fingers gently forcing her head back up and around to look at him. Meryell expected to see what she always saw in people’s eyes – that yes, that’s true – but there was only a painful sadness in his. His voice was low and rough with emotion as he asked, “Who told you that, sweetheart?”
She didn’t remember the first time she’d heard it. Had it been Brandon, who she’d lost her maidenhead to at fourteen after a successful theft had left them giddy? Camden after she’d joined the company, who’d bitten her ear so hard he left a permanent scar and made her flinch from men touching them? The nameless Orlesian stable boy she’d ridden in the hay loft after her first solo job for the company, who’d made her fly before bringing her crashing down by calling her rabbit? Or did it trace back to her father and her younger self the first time she bled and his gently spoken words about how shemlen were not to be trusted with her heart because they wouldn’t understand her?
Meryell stared at him open mouthed with not one answer to give.
A heavy weight pressed down on the side of the bed then and she was pulled into Varric’s chest. He wasn’t as warm as Cullen but he was steady and solid and Andraste’s dripping cunt she needed someone like that at her back. She sank against him, tucking her head underneath his chin and loosened one hand from the fur to curl her fingers into the fabric of his tunic. One of his hands cupped her bare back at the base of her spine – yet somehow wasn’t sexual at all – while the other ran lightly up and down her back over the surface of the shift as he started to hum randomly. He couldn’t keep a tune probably to save his life but the vibration rumbling through her via contact was soothing. It reminded her of being sung to sleep by her father when when was still a little girl.
After a moment Meryell asked softly, “You hug a lot of half naked women, Varric? You see very comfortable.”
He chuckled then replied, “Remind me to tell you a few of the more salacious stories about Hawke. The real stories.”
“Real stories? You mean to say that you, Varric Tethras, lied in one of your books about how events happened?”
Varric did laugh at that one. “Didn’t I tell you I’m prone to extragant lies?” he asked. Then he gently pushed her back so he could look down at her, saying, “No matter what the rest of them say or what anyone says, there’s nothing wrong with you, Swears. And we may not be your company but Curly and I’ve got your back.”
Tears welled up in her eyes at his words and Meryell dove back into his arms to hide her face against his tunic. He just hugged her close and after a moment she was able to mutter, “I’m usually not like this.”
“Chuckles said you’d probably be acting a little strange when you woke up. You lost a lot of blood in that fight, Swears. Scared a few years off my life too when he wasn’t sure you were going to make it for a bit.”
She flicked her ears in annoyance at owing the other elf her life again. Sighing, she muttered, “I’ll actually have to thank the masvian. Fuck me.”
Varric chuckled, a deep rumble that shook her whole body, and said, “I think Curly would be upset if I had my merry way with you, Swears.”
Meryell felt the heat of a blush in her cheeks at the thought of someone – especially Cullen – being upset about her sleeping with someone else. She’d never had someone want her before, not anyone that she was attracted to. There had been elves in the past who’d made approaches and tried to win her over but she’d learned what she craved in a man when she was still a skint-kneed alienage brat. It had been a South Reach guardsman, one of a pair on the usual rounds in the alienage, and she’d been thirteen sitting in the low branches of the vhenadahl. He had been young, handsome, all broad shoulders and height, and he’d smiled up at her as he caught sight of her in the tree. No elf had caught her eye since that day.
But she had only given her body to men that wanted only the one tumble since that day. She had perhaps listened too well to her father that once. Now she wasn’t sure how to break herself from thinking that she was only worth the time of those who used her.
Her whole body shook and Meryell slowly pushed away from Varric, leaning back to she could see his eyes. “How,” she began and the words tried to catch in her throat but she wouldn’t let them, “how do I do this?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to that one, Swears. I’ve written a few romances but real life never turns out that neat.” He smiled then and said, “Just be yourself, sweetheart. Curly likes it, swears and all.”
Varric’s face then went stern as he gently grasped her chin and darkly rumbled, “And do me a favor, Swears. I don’t want to ever hear that slur come out of your mouth again. No thinking it either.”
Meryell nodded and murmured, “I’ll try.”
“Good.” Varric then tilted his head towards the tray and said, “Now that that’s settled, you’re going to eat. I think if I let you go hungry after all the work he did getting it, Curly would gladly set me up in place of one of the Seeker’s training dummies. I even brought a book to read to you.”
At the thought of him all trussed up and wide-eyed in place of one of Cassandra’s much abused dummies, a laugh burst out of her. She shook her head and softly asked, “What fine novel did you bring to read me, Master Tethras?”
“None of that now or you don’t get to hear a word,” replied Varric with a waggling finger as he extricated himself from the bed and helped her scoot back to her spot against the headboard. He brought the tray over and carefully situated it on her lap before he retreated to the chair that had been moved next to her bed – likely by Cullen or Chuckles originally – settling himself in it with book in hand. “As for what it is, only the best for you, Swears.”
Meryell smiled then leaned forward, inhaling deeply the steam still rising from the bowl. After a bit of finagling with her weak arm, she managed to lift it and drank straight from it. The taste reminded her of the alienage when it had been home and not just somewhere with a roof and a bed. After a moment she pulled it away from her mouth and asked, “Tale of the Champion?” with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“Much as I like to talk about my own work, no. I actually delved into the Chantry’s library and found a copy of the Adventures of the Black Fox, so I figured I should rescue it before someone decided it wasn’t fit to be anywhere near the building.”
She’d read all of the adventures years ago when she’d snitched a copy of one of the variations of the book from a South Reach shop and owned two actually honest copies that she’d purchased with her own coin during a job in Val Royeux and somewhere in the backend of Antiva the whole once the company had gone there. All of those copies were, of course, back at the company headquarters in the Free Marches, nice and secure in her chest.
She wouldn’t tell Varric any of that, of course.
Smiling to herself, Meryelle finished her broth and water as Varric began reading and just pushed the tray down to the end of the bed instead of interrupting him. As the first of the Black Fox’s adventures came to an end, her eyes started to droop and she slowly inchwormed her way down the bed, careful to not put too much pressure on her marked arm. It didn’t take long after that for sleep to take her, the warmth of the bed and the rumble of Varric’s voice lulling her easily down into dreams, and she woke later to a different voice reading the book aloud.
Blinking slowly at Cullen, who had replaced Varric in the chair next to the bed and was actually not wearing his armor, Meryell held her breath. He looked remarkably relaxed sitting there in just trousers and a roughspun tunic that looked like it had seen better days, one leg bent to prop a dust covered boot on his knee. Judging by the renewed light in the room, he’d stirred up the hearth when he’d come in and the golden glow of the light washed over him, highlighting him from behind. She flicked her eyes up to his face, watching the movement of his scar and mouth as he read for a moment, then trailed her gaze on upward and…oh.
That was why Varric called him Curly.
Instead of the neat, ordered lines his hair was normally in, there was a riot of blond curls on his head. It made his hair seem shorter in comparison to its usual length and she could see why he had tamed it into a different look as it wasn’t very becoming of the Commander of the Inquisition to have the equivalent of a girl’s golden ringlets. Not with a soldier’s eye for personal pride anyway; her own mercenary bred eye was more focused on how well you did your damned job and less how good you looked doing it. To each their own though.
Meryell smiled and nuzzled her nose into the his fur, which had been tucked up around her face snugly, before saying softly, “I think I like your hair better this way, Cullen.”
He startled, the boot propped on his knee bouncing to the floor as he sat up straight while snapping the book closed. A hand rose to touch his head and he groaned before muttering, “Maker’s breath.”
“Oh come on. You’re a soldier, you can curse better than that.”
Cullen flashed a disgruntled look towards her but she’d succeeded at her goal: distracting him from worrying about those pretty curls. After a moment he intoned shortly, “Maker’s. Fucking. Balls,” while a fine embarrassed flush crawled up the back of his neck and turned his ears red. It was adorable and hearing the word fuck come out of his mouth made her toes curl with want.
Grinning proudly at him, Meryell chirped, “Good effort but needs some work before it’s up to my considerable standards.”
“I bow to the thief’s greater experience in such a field,” intoned Cullen in a purr that would have made her knees wobble if she was standing. He then scooted forward in the chair and asked, “Are you alright?”
“Sore,” she replied, “but I’ll live thanks to Chuckles. Though I think you still owe me a fucking explanation.”
He inclined his head slightly at that and proceeded to explain in the quick, simple words of a man used to giving orders quickly that the letter she’d intended to have delivered to Folke via the Redcliffe contact had been discovered when Chuckles and Cassandra had stripped her out of her bloody leathers. She closed her eyes at that information, cursing her own foolish pride that had had her tucking it close to her heart, and then sighed as she buried her nose in Cullen’s fur. The spymaster had all of the information she needed now to find anything on Meryell, including tracing her back to South Reach as she signed her letters with her surname. Which meant they could track her so long as she kept ties to her company or to her own name.
All of her plans for escaping after the Breach was closed were as good as fucking dust.
“Damn the Maker’s soggy asshole to the fucking Void,” she cursed. “Fucking shite.”
“I’m fairly certain you can’t do that,” Cullen said gently, causing her to open her eyes and look at him. He was smiling down at her as he continued, “Though given what I’ve learned about you, Meryell, I’m certain you’d try to make it happen.”
“Fucking succeed too,” she managed to hiss triumphantly despite not feeling it at all. It felt like there was a sudden void in her chest, like a sucking wound that was dragging her inevitably under.
His smile remained and he reached out with a tentative hand to brush back a lock of her hair, his fingers coming close to but not quite touching her ears. “I believe you,” he intoned softly. She shivered at the contact and this time when that phrase echoed through her mind it hurt a little less. Still there, still causing her caution, but she held on to what Varric had said about the man next to her liking her. Cullen pulled away then, settling back into the chair and idly waggling the book at her. “Shall I continue?”
“Please,” she replied and didn’t even try to hide the choked emotion in her voice, a mix of the void in her chest and the war against herself.
Cullen just nodded then scooted his chair closer, finding his place again before he laid his right hand on the edge of the bed, palm up in silent invitation. As he started to read, Meryell slid her own hand out from underneath the covers to grip it tightly, clinging to the contact like it was a safe port in a storm.
Elvhen/Elven Translations: :
masvian : combination of masa (ass) + vian (hole)