Bracing the heels of her hands against the roughshod table that the map of the Exalted Plains was nailed to, Meryell glared down at it as if doing so would make things move faster. She had done so many things since arriving – arrested three idiot mages, aided a Dalish clan enough to perhaps earn an ally, sorted Duke Gaspard’s forces, and murdered a shitting lot of Freemen – yet she still wasn’t done.
And, most annoyingly, the rest would have to wait until they got stonemasons out to clear what she’d learned was called Ghilan’nain’s Grove. Not even to mention that the fighting couldn’t be said to have officially come to a halt until she spoke to the Empress’ Commander…who was on the other side of the broken bridge at Pont Agur.
“If it’s not one fucking thing it’s another,” she grumbled under her breath. The matters of the Inquisition seemed to be following the same trend recently since Cullen’s attack and Halamshiral. No, actually, since the beginning. First it was the Venatori, then the Red Templars, then the remnants of the Orlesians civil war, and now there were these Freemen of the Dales to add to the mix of people fucking shit up.
Sighing, she sat heavily down in the camp chair and planted her elbows on the table, cupping her hands around her cheeks. She frowned at the map before her then shifted her position to reach out one hand towards the rough clay cup that held the map pins. Driving one into the marking for closed off that someone had made on the entrance to Ghilan’nain’s Grove, Meryell muttered, “Stonemasons.”
She then picked up another and stabbed it into the table in the middle of the Enavuris River. “Engineers.” The land on the other side of the river was blank since they couldn’t currently reach it but she still stuck a pin there and murmured, “Orlesians.”
Meryell then sighed and reached for the smaller rolled up map of the Inquisition holdings tucked off to the side of the table and opened it, pinning it to the edge. She then picked up two pins and stuck one each into their current location in the Exalted Plains and another into what was marked as the forward camp in the Emerald Graves.
“Travel time,” she noted to herself before grabbing a third pin. Hesitating a moment, Meryell then placed it on Skyhold and sighed sadly. She stroked her finger along the pin for a moment before resting it against the parchment next to the tiny depiction of the keep.
It had already been two weeks since she had left Cullen behind her in Halamshiral and it was shaping up to be longer still until she was able to make it back home.
She smiled and closed her eyes at that, shaking her head a little. It seemed…silly…thinking of Skyhold as home. Because eventually the Inquisition would come to a close. They would disperse and go to new things or back to what their lives had been before (if a little different given the things they had seen).
And what would she do?
Could she really just disappear back into her old life, foist off the mantle of the Inquisitor and vanish back into the Fangs? More importantly, what would Cullen want to do? If they survived everything and stayed together, she had no intention of leaving him.
Would he follow her?
Or, if he asked, would she follow him?
Meryell then flinched, jerking her left hand away from the pin as pain lanced across her palm, distracting her from her thoughts. She bared her teeth, grinding them together against the pain, as the Mark opened across her hand to light up the command tent with an eerie green glow. It sparked briefly and she hissed, drawing her hand back to her and pressing her right thumb hard against the base of it.
“Shut up, you fucking worthless whoreson,” she spat at it. “I know we had a shitty day of it but that’s no reason to get cocking pissed at me.” They’d closed the last three pesky rifts in the region that they could get to yesterday, which had had to be left to the last due to needing every man they could get on them. Her hand had ached something fierce after the third but it hadn’t been anything near what it had been in the future or even close to what it was right now.
As if in response, it spread open further, causing her to hiss in agony. Tears sprang up in her eyes but she furiously blinked them away.
Her pain was in her voice, however, as she snarled, “What the fuck do you want from me?”
It sparked angrily and then abruptly dissipated, the effects of its little temper tantrum immediately vanishing as if they had never been there. The jagged green gash that had split her palm yet not faded back into the faintly discolored skin of dormancy as if it had never been active at all. To her eye, however, that discolored skin appeared just that little bit wider across her hand than it had been before.
Abruptly she realized how tense her entire body had become since the pain had settled in and slumped onto the table, burying her head in her arms and fighting back the sudden childish sniffle that wanted to come out. Meryell stroked a finger over the discolored skin on her palm and tried to not think of how absolutely terrified she honestly was of this thing. The Anchor that she had never asked for, that had bound her to a cause she had never wanted, that had made her a target of a madman and his minions, and that sometimes made her question just how much she wanted to keep her hand.
She hadn’t even shared that last thought with Cullen yet.
Sighing, Meryell sat up and then nearly jumped straight off of the camp chair as she realized Folke was standing there, looking like a rumpled cat rustled out of its warm spot, with his coat wrapped around him and a cup of something steaming in one hand. His gray eyes were alert, however, despite the morning scruff on his cheeks and the disheveled rat’s nest of his dark hair.
As she managed to right herself by gripping tightly to the edge of the table, she stared at him before asking, “How long have you been standing there, baba?”
“Long enough,” he replied sternly. Then he stepped forward and around the table, setting his cup down as he dropped to one knee next to her with his hands out. “Let me see it.”
Folke snapped his fingers right under her nose and snarled, “It’s not fine, ara vherain! I just saw it react to absolutely fucking nothing. I saw it hurt you.”
Meryell snapped her head around to look down at him with a hard glare and hissed, “Not like I haven’t been hurt before.”
“Don’t be stubborn about this, Poppet.”
He spat something harsh and guttural in the Chasind tongue, a clash of mostly consonants and few vowels that she had no translation for because he had never taught her the language (not more than the few curses it had). Then one of his hands came to rest on her knee underneath the table and Meryell frowned down at his suddenly bowed head.
“Let me in, girl,” he breathed, his voice sounding almost pained. “Stop hiding from me.”
Immediately she flinched and turned her head away, a sudden lump in her throat. “Fuck you,” she hissed before thrusting the marked hand in his face. Meryell closed her eyes as she felt his rough fingers closed around her hands and felt the press of magic against the Mark. It reacted briefly and she knew even without looking that it was only glowing faintly inside her skin. There was no pain this time.
Folke pressed his thumbs in on either side of her palm and heard him suck in a breath that sounded vaguely like he’d been punched in a gut.
Slowly she turned to look at him, kneeling there next to her with her faintly glowing palm cupped between his hands. He grimaced before asking, “It’s been getting worse, hasn’t it? With every rift?”
After a long moment she nodded, unable to find the words to speak, and he nodded.
“We need to have a talk with Chuckles when we get back to Skyhold,” Folke said as he continued to look at her hand. “He’s the one who kept it under control at first, that’s what you told me.”
“Yes, baba, according to what Varric and others have told me.”
He hummed in reply and Meryell frowned before asking, “You think you can get him to actually tell you anything?” Gray eyes darted up to meet hers in response and Folke smiled grimly.
“He’ll tell me something. At the least how he calmed it the first time and why it might be acting up again.”
She snorted at that. “How do you know he’ll say anything?”
Folke huffed out a breath before he released her hand and got to his feet. He didn’t straighten up to his full height, however, and remained partly bent over to rest his hands on her shoulders as he stated, “Because I’m not going to be approaching him as some little shit seeking knowledge, I’m going to be going there as a father looking to help and protect his daughter. You don’t get between a father and his daughter.”
“You really think that will convince him?”
“Probably not but I’m pretty sure my fists will if he proves to be stubborn.”
Huffing out a little laugh, Meryell quickly sobered. Bringing her right hand to her left, she stroked her fingers over the inert once again mark as she stared down at it before asking softly, “And if he still won’t?”
Folke dropped back down next to her, closing both hands over hers and gripping them tightly. She lifted her head to look right at him as he swore, “We’ll find a way, ara’vherain. Trust me. Nothing will happen to your ha…” Abruptly he trailed off, his mouth open as the last syllable died on his tongue as his eyes abruptly lost their focus.
A wyrding. One of the rare ones that took his sight for a single breath, showing a fragment of the current future. She could remember one happening before and the only other one she knew of had been in the years before her and the company, when Folke had still been a boy with his family and his gift still new. And that one had heralded the death of his older sister, though a nine year-old Folke hadn’t known that when he’d seen it.
She was the only one besides his blood family who knew about it and that was only from the accident of catching him in a depressive mood while deep in his cups back when she was seven and ten.
And the one she had witnessed two years later had been him seeing the death of his father. This particular variation of the wyrding seemed to be keyed to one main thing: his family and those he considered amongst that immediate circle. And it seemed to only herald pain and death.
Bile rose in her throat and Meryell held her breath, knowing better than to try and shake him out of it. The one she had witnessed had only lasted a moment anyway and he gasped as his eyes refocused.
And she saw fear.
“Baba,” she asked, aware her voice was shaking, “what did you see?”
His jaw trembled and he bowed his head abruptly…but not before she caught the tears welling up in his eyes.
“Baba, you’re fucking scaring me.”
Folke nodded in acknowledgement but didn’t raise his head until he drew in a harsh, shaky breath and even then she could still see the tremble, still see the tears trying to come. He silently moved both hands to fully cover her marked one as he breathed, “I won’t let it happen,” almost as if to himself more than anything else. Then, more fiercely, “I fucking refuse to let it happen.”
Meryell could only think of one reason he would say such while holding her hand. He had just seen a moment where she lost it. He had seen her lose her hand.
“How?” she asked, voice trembling.
“I don’t know,” he replied softly. Shaking his head, Folke went on, “I didn’t see the loss. Just a hand and forearm made of wood and metal.”
Maker’s dripping cock, how much of her arm was she going to possibly lose?
Licking suddenly dry lips, Meryell softly stated, “We need to tell Brewe. And find a good craftsman, one who’d be useful to the Inquisition as well.”
“I won’t let it happen,” insisted Folke again, his voice adamant even as his body language language continued to relay sorrow.
“Baba,” she said with a firmness in her tone that she didn’t quite feel, “we can’t just not prepare for a fucking just in case scenario. We can’t do this on our own. I…I can’t.” Now she trembled and it was in her voice as well as it dropped to a whisper. “I made a promise to Cullen. It was over just one fucking thing but…shit, no secrets between lovers. You’ve always told me that when I asked how you and Evune worked.”
There was silence from her father for a long moment then he asked in a gentle tone, “Your first kill? You hadn’t told him? But you are going to?” When she nodded three times in answer to each question, Folke dipped his head into a firm nod before adding, “Good. I’m glad you listened to me on at least one bloody thing. And you’re right, we’ll need help.”
Nodding, Meryell said, “We’ll have to elaborate on your gift.”
“Curse,” he spat in reply, his tone bitter and angry. The scar on his cheek rippled as he grimaced. “Today we’re going to call it a damned rotten curse. I could have lived without knowing that future.” Then he shrugged and nodded before he spoke again.
“I’ll tell the el’u’verelan and the air’amelan what we’ll probably need to look for after we break the news. You want the order to be Cullen, then them, then potentially the rest of the circle?”
Folke just snorted at that. “That one was a given.”
He then squeezed her hand with his own and asked, “You want me there during them all?”
Meryell felt a sudden lump in her throat at the idea of facing telling everyone this on her own and nodded frantically. “Even with Cullen?” he asked a moment later and she closed her eyes, taking a moment before she replied.
Could she tell this news to her lover without him? Certainly.
Did she want to? No, she wanted…no, no, she needed her father next to her. Needed his strength to bolster her own…and to help smother her own fear later on. Only he and Cullen might see the fear consume her.
“Please,” she finally managed to reply, her voice a bare whisper. Then she felt Folke’s hands cupping her cheeks and opened her eyes to look at him, his expression the fiercest that she’d ever seen it in her life.
“I will fight this with everything I have, ara vherain, and you’re going to help me,” he said fervently with all of the gravity of an oath given with blood. “You fucking hear me? You and me, Poppet, against the whole damned world if we have to be.”
Lifting her hands up, Meryell rested them over his as she nodded, tears prickling at her eyes. “I hear, baba,” she breathed. “You and me.”
“Good,” Folke said firmly. Then he rose up and moved one hand to press it against her forehead, his brow furrowing. “Have you even slept since we got back in from the field?”
“A few hours of a nap.”
“That won’t do. Come on.”
She didn’t even try to argue with him as he straightened up fully, snatching up his cup in one hand as the other tangled with hers. Meryell let him draw her out of the command tent into the wee hours of the morning, dawn just beginning to crawl over the hills. Parts of the camp were already stirring – which was already in evidence since Folke had come in with a hot drink against the morning chill – but not a one of them batted an eye as the pair of them moved through.
They slipped into his tent and Meryell caught a glance of a camp table piled high with notes and odd jars as well as random bundles of herbs and plants before she was pitched off of her feet and into the disheveled lot of blankets piled up on his cot. She burrowed into them, breathing deeply in the scent of lyrium and herbs and something else that was home and safety, and the tension buried deep in her limbs began to uncoil just a little.
Folke settled down on a camp chair right next to her, setting his cup to the side, and he stroked her hair back from her face. His voice was low and gentle as he asked, “Shall I tell you a story, Poppet?”
Laughing because he hadn’t asked her that in years – not since she’d finally stopped being permanently attached to his hip at every moment – Meryell nodded. She was far too old to be told stories like a child…but the soothing sound of his voice was always a balm. And she’d always had a love of stories thanks to her babae.
“What sort of story?” he asked.
Meryell grasped his hand as it made another pass through her hair, squeezing tight for a moment before she brought it to her lips. As she pressed a kiss to his worn knuckles, she breathed, “Something with a happy ending.”
Only his gray eyes broke at the request and she tried to pretend that she only imagined the tremble in his lips as Folke leaned down to press a kiss to her forehead. “Only the happiest for you, my lioness,” he whispered.
Then he leaned his elbow on the edge of the cot and began his story in a low voice, deliberately pitching it into the deep rumble that had once soothed the ragged edges of a lost little girl’s soul. And Meryell closed her eyes and let herself believe, if but for a moment, that she might just get that happy ending.
“Savhalla, Keeper Hawen,” greeted Meryell as she and Cassandra walked into the clan’s campsite two days later. Folke and Blackwall had deigned to stay at the boundary with their horses instead of coming into the camp. As soon as she strode in, she noticed that it was in a state of ordered disorder with aravels in clear evidence and halla close at hand. It didn’t take much to realize that they were packing up their camp to leave.
“Savhalla, da’asa’var’lin,” replied the Keeper with a brief nod, not even bothering to turn his head from observing the motions of his clan. “What brings the Inquisition to us today?”
Shrugging vaguely, she answered simply, “Checking in. We’ve cleared the Plains as much as we can until access is available to Ghilan’nain’s Grove and we can build a fucking bridge across some stretch of the Enavuris.” Stepping up to be even with him so he could fully see her out of the corner of his eye, she jerked her chin vaguely towards the clan. “We’re packing up as well to head on. Seems your clan has the same idea.”
“Such is the Dalish way,” he said simply in return. It wasn’t an insult but it still made her want to curl her lip. Mostly in that this was a thing the Dalish did without question.
She’d learned all too well to question the Dalish teachings.
“Off to new grounds?”
The Keeper merely smiled then finally turned to look at her for a moment before he answered. “Perhaps new, perhaps old. It depends upon which of our grounds may be safest during such turbulent times.”
That made Meryell freeze and she asked, “You weren’t thinking about heading to the Emerald Graves, were you?”
“We have grounds there but, no, that is not to be our destination. I sense, however, that it is yours, asa’var’lin.”
Nodding, she replied, “There are Red Templar forces there that we intend on routing out. Not to mention these damned Freemen of the Dales.”
“Shemlen fools flailing against their own. I wish you a good hunt if it is them you chase. The clan has never met their ire since they rose up but we have seen the destruction they bring to the land even as they shout the differences between them and their warring kin.” She watched as his jaw briefly clenched before he continued, “Liars all. The world might improve without such within it.”
Meryell flicked her eyes back towards Cassandra, who she couldn’t see but knew was standing behind her at her shoulder, and then asked, “Just them or all humans, Keeper?”
Hawen stared at nothing for a moment in silence before he chuckled, turning his head fully to regard her. She then watched his eyes slide over her shoulder to where she knew Cassandra stood and beyond to where he would be able to see her father and Blackwall with their horses.
“Only some,” he replied. “I believe you know the sort I speak of, Inquisitor. You and yours do not fall into such categories.”
“I do know but always good to double check that I don’t have to watch their backs for a murder attempt from our allies.”
The Keeper hummed softly before he said, “We go north towards Nevarra, Inquisitor. After that we travel to the east.”
“To the Free Marches?”
“And the land our kin who walked before us called their home. The land that was once ours and ours alone, to meet where our secrets are still hidden.”
Meryell turned to stare at him for a moment before she breathed, “Cass? Give us a moment?” There was silence in reply then she felt the reassuring thump of the Seeker’s fist against her spine before hearing the older woman walk far enough away to give them some sort of privacy. She then asked, “What are you telling me, Keeper?”
“I am telling you, da’asa’var’lin,” Hawen replied, his voice pitched low, “where we will once again meet with the Suinasvenla. Where we and our cousins will speak of the time that has passed since we last met in the tongue that our kin have largely forgotten. To speak the vi’dirth’vhen’an to each other and teach what new words we have discovered of the old.”
Her breath caught in her throat and and words she wanted to say stilled there, captured as easily as a fly in a spider’s web. The Keeper seemed to take her silence in stride and continued on.
“There is an ancient ruin near the banks of the Minanter River,” he went on, “hidden by brush and overgrowth and a natural valley from all those who no longer remember it was ever there. North and a little east of Starkhaven, between two of the Minanter’s small tributaries. We will be there in four months time, on the twenty-fifth day of the shem’len’s Drakonis. It will be the first time the Melaithers has met with the Suinasvenla in five years.”
“And I may pass?”
The words were a bare whisper but the Keeper heard them.
He nodded his head and said, “You and one other. I will make the arrangements myself. It may be…easier…if you brought one of the People but…” Hawen paused and then tipped his head slightly to the side. “If there is another you would have with you, it may be allowed.”
Meryell stared at him, heart in her throat, before she managed to breath, “My baba.”
“The new shem’len who follows you now in place of the shielan who is no longer by your side?”
Frowning at the word, she nodded and replied, “He knows the tongue. I taught him it myself. And we have former Dalish among our company, so we both have some knowledge of what to expect among other clans. You’ll get no shit from either of us.” Then she cocked her head to the side and asked, “Why wanderer? It’s not the first word that’d come to mind for Chuckles.”
If Hawen was surprised, shocked, or appalled by her sharing the tongue his clan and her father’s had so long protected, he didn’t show it. Instead he took in the information with a nod before saying, “Our clans have little quarrel with the shem’len so long as they do not quarrel with us. And if he is respectful there will be no issue.” Then he paused and his tone became darker as he added, “You will be under the banner of my clan, da’asa’var’lin, even if you are Suinasvenla in blood. A wrong word or deed will place a burden upon us that we can little afford with our cousins.”
“We’ll keep the peace, Keeper. You can bloody count on it.”
“Good. As to the name…is he not so?”
Sighing, Meryell shrugged. “I suppose?” she answered. “He’s not Dalish.”
“Yet also not one of our city kin like yourself. He is…different.”
“Very,” was all she was willing to reply because Chuckles certainly was different. When she had the very rare occasion to sit down to think long and hard about it, he made no sense. A mage as well trained as he was, who knew the things he did? That didn’t just come out of being a backwoods apostate who managed to avoid the templars all his life. It surely didn’t come from just wandering in the Fade like he apparently did. She didn’t believe that shit nowadays for one second.
But getting Chuckles to talk was like pulling teeth from a dragon’s jaw.
Hawen nodded slightly then stated, “Then we shall see you in four months with your…father. Dar’eth shiral, da’asa’var’lin. May your paths be clear wherever you tread.”
She blinked then Meryell inclined her head slightly, replying, “Dar’eth shiral, Keeper.” Other than the typical Elven farewells in the tongue, she didn’t know anything like he had said. It hadn’t been a part of what babae had taught her when she was small and she’d never bothered to learn any from Evune or Pod. So she shrugged and gave him the least rude of the Fangs ones. “Safe roads, good booze, and a job well done.”
When he gave her a confused look, one eyebrow slightly arched, Meryell just smiled and shrugged one shoulder.
“Sorry, Keeper, I don’t know any Dalish farewells, so you’ve gotta make do with one from my company.”
Hawen’s eyebrow just went a little higher in return then he chuckled, shaking his head slightly. “I wonder,” he mused, “what you would have been like amongst us, Inquisitor. Alas that such was not to be.”
“Alas,” she echoed, even though her heart rebelled at the thought. She would have never been born to a clan because her mother there would not have been the woman she remembers, the one with rough hands, a gentle voice, and the Maker’s Chant on her lips. The girl who would have been raised there would have never been her.
That Meryell or whatever her name might have been would never be her father’s pup.
He nodded at her then before he moved away, as one of the other approached calling his name. She watched him go, watched them speak for a moment before she let her eyes roll across the steadily collapsing camp, across the aravels and the faces with their vallaslin.
This was not her world.
It never could be.
And that…that was as it should be.
Turning away with a sad smile, Meryell strode back over to where her father and Blackwall stood, Cassandra falling into place beside her in silence. As they approached, Folke held out his hand for hers and asked, “All’s well, Poppet?”
Reaching out, she gripped his rough hand in hers and replied, “You and I, in four months we meet babae’s clan. In the Free Marches. Keeper Hawen gave me the location.”
Folke just nodded in return, his fingers clasping hers tightly, and Blackwall huffed out a breath before commenting, “Guess we best get moving then, lass. Those bastards in the Graves aren’t going to wait on us.”
“You’re too fucking right,” Meryell agreed. “Soon as we get back to Path of Flame, I’m sending a raven back to Skyhold, and we’re going after those shitbags and the Red Templars with all the force we’ve got.”
“And?” asked Folke, a feral sort of grin twisting his mouth. She grinned right back at him with the same smile, knowing already that he knew her answer.
“We send the bastards back to the Void that fucking spawned them.”
da’asa’var’lin – little cousin
vi’dirth’vhen’an – native language, literally ‘home way of speech’
shielan – wanderer from shia (to wander) + elan (to create agent noun)
Dar’eth shiral – safe journey