“Come to the Singing Maiden when you get free tonight,” read Cullen after tugging down the note that had been pinned to the open flap of his tent. “Be ready to relax. Oh, and leave your armor in your tent.”
The handwriting was Meryell’s, he recognized it easily after seeing it so often on the reports she sent in from the field. However, the drawings underneath the text were obviously Sera’s work. Both were naked figures having quite a good time and, judging by the fur over the shoulders and the ridiculously over-proportional cock on one as well as the large tits and exaggerated pointed ears on the other, they represented himself and Meryell. The doodles also did what he assumed was their expected job of making him think about her naked, which immediately caused an uncomfortable tightness in his pants as well as an embarrassed flush across his face because Maker only knew how long it had been pinned there.
Sighing at the scribbles, he ducked into his tent and tossed the letter onto his desk to figure out later what to do with it. He then shrugged out of his coat after loosening the ties and unhooking the clasps that secured the heavy mantle to his armor, idly amused that he wasn’t even thinking of denying her request. Back in Kirkwall he’d had to be practically dragged out of the Gallows on the rare occasion of his non-business visits to the Hanged Man in Lowtown. Though that hadn’t lasted long as no one had cared to approach the aloof Knight-Captain (or Meredith’s Pet, one of the unsavory titles attached to him) after Samson had been ejected from the Order. He’d never gone back until Rylen had arrived in the city and dragged him out on the worst nights of rebuilding, though even then it had been more chore than anything else.
He actually looked forward to spending time with Meryell in the tavern.
By the time he finished stripping off his armor and hanging it on the stand situated in the corner of his tent, the tightness in his groin had thankfully dissipated. Cullen shrugged back into his coat, wrapping it loosely back around himself before he closed the open flap of his tent and headed towards the Singing Maiden.
There was one soldier standing outside the tavern door as he approached, a permanent post that he had set up on the rare chance that anything happened inside. He hadn’t spent much time at taverns himself but he’d seen plenty of men come back to the Gallows bloody because they were full of drink and could no longer curb their tempers. The woman – Laurence was her name – grinned at him before asking, “Y’come for the game tonight, Commander?” in her thick Starkhaven accent.
Cullen frowned, immediately taken aback, and asked, “The game?”
Laurence blinked in response before replying, “Aye, ser. Herald set up a game inside, taking over the whole tavern from what I can tell.”
“The whole tavern, Laurence?”
That suddenly explained why there had been so many on the streets of Haven during his walk. It hadn’t seemed all that odd on his way up, mostly on the fact that he wasn’t often inside the town this early in the evening, but now he realized how odd it had been. This early his men and Leliana’s scouts would have mostly still been occupying the tavern and not milling through the streets. “I’m sure the men had something to say about that,” he commented mildly while wondering how in the Maker’s name Meryell had convinced soldiers to give up their drink for a night.
“Oh no, ser,” she replied. “All she had to do was say she wanted to have a game with some of the inner circle and her company and we were glad to let her have it.” Laurence then shrugged casually and grinned sheepishly at him. “She may have promised to pay for all our drinks one night as well.”
Now that, Cullen thought, was probably the larger bit of motivation for his men. He couldn’t discount them doing it just for Meryell though because she’d asked politely (for her, at least). They respected her because of the casual manner that she treated them with and the fact that she’d sit shoulder-to-shoulder with them to have a drink or meal. He knew it was a product of a decade with mercenaries that were more family than simple colleagues, most of his men assumed it was just the way she was.
Shaking his head, he warmly said, “Then if everyone is getting a night to themselves, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t as well. I doubt that there will be any kind of fight tonight.”
Laurence just raised her eyebrows, her eyes wide, and he knew why. He was normally firm with the duty schedule and anyone that wasn’t at their post was immediately punished with one of the more embarrassing camp duties. Him changing his opinion on that for even the few hours left in her shift was a shock for the both of them.
“Unless you want to hold your post,” began Cullen, immediately chuckling when Laurence shook her head frantically.
“No, ser!” exclaimed the woman. She brought one arm up across her chest in a salute before saying, “I’ll come back before changeover with Edan so he doesn’t have a heart attack.”
“Dismissed then, soldier.”
Laurence saluted again before she gave a sharp, “Ser!” and walked off. Cullen watched her go, smiling as caught a hint of the wide grin on her face, before he reached for the tavern door.
He was instantly greeted with a boisterous array of noise as he stepped inside. Sliding his eyes around the tavern to assess what was different. Flissa was at her normal place behind the bar but the woman was relaxing back in a chair with a book, a smile on her face as she sipped something from a glass. That told him that her presence was merely to either see that no damage was done to her tavern or to control the supply of alcohol that was arrayed across the bar. Both was also an option.
A shout of “Curly, you actually came!” from Varric dragged Cullen back to the rest of the tavern’s occupants. Someone had dragged two of the tables together in a line and there were people crammed around almost every edge of it. Varric was sitting on the side facing him, expertly shuffling a stack of cards, as he went back to telling some story he’d been embroiled in telling before Cullen’s arrival. To his right was Arnald, his eyes still hidden behind his mask and on his left was Sera, looking more than a little drunk already. The old mercenary Harvard was seated to the Captain’s left, followed by an empty chair that took up that end of the table.
The big Qunari that headed the other mercenary company Meryell had convinced them to bring under hire was taking up the other end of the table, though that was more out of sheer size than anything else. Next to him sat Rylen,who saluted him with a grin, and on his right was…
“Josephine?” queried Cullen, surprised to see the ambassador not only in the tavern but in this particular company.
The Antivan woman turned in her seat and he abruptly saw that she too was shuffling a deck of cards, handling them with a skill equal to Varric’s. “Hello, Commander,” she greeted.
“No titles!” boomed the Qunari, lifting a tankard that was at least three times the size of the others on the table in the air. “Those were the rules.”
“Rules?” repeated Cullen as he flicked his gaze to the last player at the table on Josephine’s right. Folke grinned up at him as he looped one arm over the back of his chair and nodded.
“No titles,” came an all too familiar voice from behind him then. “No rank, no file, no bullshit.”
The Qunari – whose name he now recalled was the Iron Bull (the article was important according to what Meryell had related the night she returned) – laughed loudly before saying, “I promise I won’t shit on the tavern table, Boss.”
“You’d be cleaning it up if you did,” came Flissa’s stern voice from behind the bar, the woman not even looking up from her book.
Cullen turned to face Meryell then and found her standing directly behind him, smiling. “I’m glad you came, Cullen,” she softly murmured as she reached out to take his gloved hands in hers. He abruptly cursed habit having him left them on then swallowed as she took it upon herself to slowly relieve him of them. “I think it’s going to be an…exciting…night.”
Turning his head back towards the table, he noticed that the only two empty chairs were at the end of the table between Folke and Harvard. “Exciting, huh?” he asked softly, wondering what exactly she had planned besides the game.
As he looked back at her, Cullen’s breath caught in his throat at the affection in her eyes and the seductive edge to her smile as she finished slowly pulling the glove off his left hand. Normally this sort of attention to him was reserved for the dark confines of his tent or the solitude of her cabin. It hadn’t yet gone anywhere besides teasing with the occasional daring touch but standing in the tavern with Folke right behind him was entirely different from the norm. Working hard to control his breathing, to keep it steady and even, he growled under his breath, “You are an evil woman.” Because judging by the gleam in her eyes, she was doing this deliberately to him.
“Yes,” she confirmed as she freed his other hand, tucking his gloves into her belt before entwining her fingers with his. With a smile that could only be described as shit eating, Meryell replied in a bare whisper, “And yet you seem to enjoy every second of it.”
“It’s you,” he replied honestly.
“Lovebirds!” rang out Folke’s voice, interrupting whatever an abruptly blushing Meryell was opening her mouth to say. “Are we going to play or what?”
“Baba,” growled Meryell as she rolled her eyes and released Cullen’s hands to step around him, striding towards her adoptive father. He turned to follow her as she grabbed the hedge mage gently by the hair and pulled his head back to where she could glare down at him. “You are ruining a moment.”
“It’s my duty as your father, ara vherain,” replied the man with a practically identical shit eating grin. Folke then turned his head, gray eyes meeting Cullen’s own, saying, “Sorry, Commander.”
“Titles!” boomed the Iron Bull.
“My apologies. Cullen. Are we ready to play now, asha’lan?”
Meryell growled before releasing Folke’s hair, lightly smacking the back of his head as she dropped into the seat next to him. “Yes,” she grumbled in exasperation. Then she turned and smiled at him, patting the seat of the chair next to her. “This one’s for you, vhen’an’ara.”
Cullen caught Folke’s raised eyebrows at the Elven word and wondered once again what exactly it meant. Usually Meryell didn’t say it until he was drifting into sleep, the last thing his mind heard as they laid (fully clothed) at each other’s sides on the occasion that they fell asleep together. Making a mental note to ask her later, he moved towards the chair, asking, “What exactly are we playing?” as he sank down into it. He then flicked his eyes at Meryell as she tucked her legs into his lap before curling one hand around the leather of her boot where it covered her left ankle.
“Diamondback, Curly!” replied Varric with a grin before he finished shuffling the cards in his hand and sat them in the middle of the table. As Josephine joined her stack to it, the dwarf continued, “Swears was wanting a game of Wicked Grace but when I learned that everyone here knew how to play Diamondback I insisted we do that instead. Although…” After his voice trailed off, Varric locked eyes with Cullen.
“I’m wondering where you learned Diamondback, Curly.”
Arching an eyebrow, Cullen replied, “You don’t remember?” As the dwarf looked immediately confused, he chuckled and shook his head. “Maker’s breath, Varric, I learned it from you!”
“Me?” repeated Varric. “I didn’t…”
“9:32,” pressed Cullen. “You got roped by a man into teaching the group he was with how to not lose their shirts.” That particular learning experience had been prompted by Samson learning that neither he nor anyone else with them that night knew the rules to the game. Being too drunk too teach them himself, he’d bribed someone slightly more sober (ie: Varric) to do it instead.
“Maker’s knob, Curly, you were there? Were they all templars?”
Smiling at the dwarf’s panicked tone because he knew Varric was thinking of the fact that Treva Hawke had been in full form at her little table in the Hanged Man that night, Cullen chuckled. “Off duty,” he noted wryly. “Hawke was perfectly safe anyway,” he added as the dwarf still looked worried. “Even then I wouldn’t have let her get arrested.”
Even the still far too bitter and broken man he’d been then had recognized that Hawke was better off outside the Circle than in. Not only for the town but for her. And he would not, no, could not be responsible then for clipping that woman’s hard earned wings.
“That’s more reassuring than you know, Curly,” murmured Varric. He then recovered his good mood and, after rubbing his hands together, proclaimed loudly, “Let’s get this game started. Everyone draw a card…”
“Ha! I win!”
“Tha’s a Queen King!” argued a slurring Folke as he leaned heavily on to table. He lifted a finger to point it at Rylen as he said, “Does’n beat a King King.”
“Folke,” scolded Arnald, the man’s cheeks flushed with drink but his voice still firm. “I think you have your hands confused.”
Cullen arched an eyebrow as the table descended into utter childishness at that point as Folke and Rylen settled into an argument about which way the rankings of the winning card pairs went. Arnald shook his head at the argument and rose, saying, “I believe with that I am done for the night. Good night.”
“Nigh’, Captain,” murmured a sleepy voice from his lap and Cullen looked down to find Meryell awake, blinking slowly up at him. She’d slumped over onto him, fighting a losing battle against sleep, three hands ago and he’d turned in his cards at that point. It had only been himself, Varric, Folke, Arnald, and Rylen then anyway as Josephine and Harvard had begged off several hands ago, the Iron Bull was dozing in his chair, and Sera had long ago slid out of her seat to snore at them from the floor. That and he knew he wasn’t in the same playing league as any of them anyway. So he’d merely settled back into his chair and carefully shifted her to where she was leaning against him.
After the first hand after that, she’d shifted to lay in her chair with her head in his lap and one arm curled around the back of his knees (a position that had very nearly given him a heart attack while at the same time forcing blood to areas it really didn’t need to) while her legs ended up in Folke’s. The hedge mage hadn’t even blinked at the shift and had just shifted his legs where her own wouldn’t inadvertently slide off.
So Cullen had tried to relax his rapidly pounding heart and had ended up watching the last two hands with his fingers idly running through her short hair. As she looked up at him, he curled his fingers against her scalp to drag his nails lightly up the back of her skull. Meryell practically purred at the contact, her back arching upward…and he was abruptly, ridiculously hard.
The things this tiny whirlwind of a woman did to him…
She seemed to notice his…predicament…as well and her eyes came more alert, desire and mischief swirling in them. As he watched her, she carefully canted her head backwards further into his lap and it was just enough to put pressure on the bulge in his pants. Thankfully it was mostly hidden underneath the loose folds of his coat.
“Problems?” she asked softly.
Growling darkly, Cullen curled his fingers into her hair again, this time gripping the strands securely. She gasped – just a little breathy exhale – but he was watching her face. That and they’d been doing this teasing dance long enough that he knew the signs of her own arousal. Besides the wide dilation of her copper-flecked eyes, her cheeks flushed, her mouth dropped open, and her long tapered ears twitched twice. Always twice.
He wanted to pick her up and carry her off to her cabin, to have those muscled legs that he admired wrapped around him as he buried himself in her. Wanted to feel her teeth against his skin and return the favor in kind, to leave plum colored marks across her sun-darkened flesh and satisfy that urge to say without words that she was his. To know that he was the one she wanted in her bed, in her life, and never doubt that fact again.
Cullen wanted her more fiercely than he’d ever wanted anything in his thirty years. Not even wanting to become a templar compared to this.
Yet now…now was still not the time.
She had her issues – ones she still hadn’t shared with him – and he had his.
So…for now…the dance had to be enough. Sitting with her like this, touching her back-shoulders-legs with clothes between his hands and her skin, sleeping beside her, drinking with her laugh in his ear and her warmth underneath his arm…it had to be enough.
With a deep breath, Cullen yanked his desire and emotions back under control. It was harder than it had been years ago in Kirkwall when he’d finally embarked on the rather dubious endeavour of bedding a woman. Though then he’d been fighting fear and rage at every step, working hard to not see the pretty, lonely widow who Rylen had convinced him to see (after learning he’d never taken a woman to bed, because when had there been a good time for him to learn that lesson) as that monster from the Tower. Now he was fighting more than that, fighting desire and need, and it was hard.
But never let it be said that Cullen Rutherford didn’t rise to a challenge.
“I think it’s time for bed,” he murmured and watched her eyes soften as he loosened his grip on her hair. She smiled and nodded, understanding, accepting, and he…Maker, he did not deserve this woman.
And yet he, the broken man, the failed templar, the lyrium addict, he had her.
Carefully he gathered her up in his arms, Folke not even noticing as her legs were removed from his lap as he was still arguing with Rylen, and stood. Varric, of course, noticed them and the dwarf winked at him before he turned his attention back to the arguing men, saying that he was the dealer so he made the rules. Cullen turned away as that statement started another argument and walked out the front door of the tavern with Meryell in his arms.
There was a fresh guard at the door – Laurence’s replacement – and the boy stared at him open mouthed as he exited. He couldn’t blame him as it wasn’t every day that one saw the Commander of the Inquisition’s army out of armor and flushed with drink, carrying around the obviously drunk and sleepy so-called Herald of Andraste. Still…the boy managed a salute.
“At ease,” Cullen said softly. He then turned back to look into the tavern and noticed that Flissa had abandoned her post behind the bar at some point, probably taken to her own bed. “Keep an eye on this lot and make sure they don’t cause trouble.”
“Y-yes, ser!” stammered the boy, saluting again.
Now Cullen realized he didn’t even recall the young man’s name despite Laurence saying it earlier. He knew him – he knew every man and woman that served under him thanks to how small their forces still were – but his alcohol and desire fuzzy brain wasn’t helping him.
“Edan,” breathed Meryell, shifting enough in his arms that she could smile at the boy. “Thank you.”
The young man, Edan, blushed bright red and ducked his head, saying hurriedly in a stammer, “I-it’s n-no trouble, H-Herald. Just d-doing my duty.”
Smiling, Cullen nodded to the boy and then strode off into the night, heading towards Meryell’s cabin. The woman who resided in it wiggled in his arms, trying to get somehow closer to him, until she had her face pressed against his throat. By the time he reached her door, he was breathing hard and fighting against just slamming her up against it once they got inside.
Instead he calmly opened it, stepped in, and proceeded to deposit her on her bed before taking several steps back. Meryell sat up on her elbows and watched him, her eyes bright and a truly sultry smile playing about her lips. Her hair looked disheveled thanks to his attention to it earlier and he wanted her so strongly he saw stars.
“You are an evil woman,” Cullen reiterated as he locked both hands at the back of his neck, rocking back and forth as he tried to work off steam.
She just smiled at him and scooted over on the bed before crooking a finger at him. “Yes,” confirmed Meryell. “Now get over here and lay down.”
“Unless you were planning on doing something else, fuck yes. I just want…” She trailed off and suddenly Cullen was looking at the woman who echoed that lonely little girl she’d once been, the girl who’d lost her whole world in one fell swoop and hadn’t dreamed of finding another. “I just want you, Cullen.”
Kissing her he could resist. He could resist the strong desire to take her to bed. He could resist his thirst for her. His thirst for lyrium.
Cullen could not, would not, resist that broken tone in her voice that screamed to him don’t leave me alone. Because he knew that empty ache all too well.
Shrugging out of his coat, he tossed it over the back of a chair and hurriedly removed his boots. Then he slowly padded over to the bed and carefully removed hers, setting them down by the bed as she crawled under the covers but left them open for him.
Sliding in next to her was an exquisite sort of torture and his body reacted instinctively as she molded herself against him. Cullen wrapped his arms around her, wanting her closer, wanting her everywhere, and buried his nose into the hair at the crown of her head. Meryell pressed a kiss against his throat, her breath heavy as she flattened both palms against his chest.
“I am here,” he murmured, and it was an oath, a promise. “I’m not going anywhere.”
She relaxed against him and as her breath evened, Cullen wondered what had happened to this brilliant woman in her past before he followed her into sleep.