“Magister,” repeated Cullen slowly. “There is a Tevinter Magister occupying Redcliffe Castle.”
“Yes, Commander,” confirmed Cassandra in a clipped tone.
“And another Magister warned the Herald that this is some sort of plot to trap her?”
“Not a Magister,” corrected Meryell as she leaned her hip against the map table, her eyes focused on the marker that had been placed over Redcliffe on the map of Ferelden. “We use the term as a sort of blanket word for all Tevinter mages but Magisters are all members of the Magisterium, one of the ruling legislative bodies. Judging by our friend’s fine clothes, manners, and the fact that he had a Magister as a mentor, he’s probably an Altus. Still high class but he seems to have enough fucking sense to know that the usual blend of Tevinter we think of down here isn’t the way to go.”
Cullen arched his eyebrows at her curiously and she shrugged one shoulder as she flicked her eyes briefly up from the marker while grinning at him. “We’ve never worked out of Tevinter but I got interested in their culture after Boots gave me the Chantry rote on how they were all evil slave-owning blood mages. It’s rather hard to find books about them that don’t follow that vein though so I never went much deeper than general society.”
“Boots?” repeated Josephine.
“He’s the company historian. Don’t ask me where he got the fucking name, man’s been a Fang since long before I was born. Not to mention fucking irrelevant to our conversation.”
Meryell then sighed and continued, “It’s also not just a trap laid by a Magister. There’s this…time magic…which, while useful in a pinch to stab the shit out of a demon or two, is twisting the Veil even more than the rifts already are. Now, I’m not a mage but I’ve listened to Folke, Gil, and some of the other company mages talk a lot about magic. Rule one: you don’t fuck with the damned Veil.” She paused to hold up a hand with two of her fingers already extended and the others curled into her palm before she extended a third. “Plus there’s apparently a cult after me because of whatever this piss on my hand is. And, going back to the initial points: the fucking bulk of the whole damned mage rebellion is indentured to a Magister and said Magister has kicked out the rightful Arl of Redcliffe.” The final two fingers of her hand extended as she made those two points and then she let her hand fall back to where she could tap her fingers against the table.
“Now,” she finally finished, “I may not like nobles, mostly because a lot of them seem to be fuckwit’s – present noble company excluded…”
Josephine smiled at the comment while Cassandra rolled her eyes, though Cullen could see her mouth twitching as if she wanted to smile. He was still astounded by the fact that Cassandra and Meryell had become as friendly as they had because he certainly hadn’t expected it.
“…but I’ve always heard the Guerrins were a decent sort. And I’d like to not have a Tevinter force have a foothold in my home country.”
“Those are all fair points,” Cullen began, fearing that he knew where this was going. With her second father being a hedge mage and her lack of fear around magic, he could easily see Meryell leaning towards going to the rebel mages. Especially since before meeting him she didn’t seem to have had a very favorable viewpoint of templars in general, at least not for those that were still willingly serving. “Yet it still stands that even with your company and the Chargers, we simply don’t have the manpower to take the castle. So either we find another way in, or we leave Redcliffe for another day and go get the templars.”
“And let Redcliffe remain in the hands of a Magister?” hissed Cassandra. “That cannot be allowed to stand!”
Feeling a headache starting to come on, Cullen rested his hands on the hilt of his sword. “Redcliffe Castle,” he began, trying to keep his voice as level as possible, “is one of the most defensible fortresses in Ferelden. It’s repelled thousands of assaults. Going in there is a death sentence.” Turning to look at Meryell, he finished, “I won’t allow you to throw your life away. Not while I have breath.”
Her eyes widened and she started to open her mouth but Leliana beat her to speaking. “If we do not do something, Commander,” the spymaster said firmly, “we will lose the mages and leave a hostile foreign power on our doorstep!” She then smirked and added, “I know that you have been away for some time but I expected you to want to defend your home country.”
Gritting his teeth together at her words because he remembered her being in that group that found him in Kinloch and she knew what had happened to him, knew why he had asked for reassignment – any reassignment – outside of Ferelden after he’d been deemed fit for duty again. This Leliana and that Leliana, however, were as different as him and his past self.
Narrowing his eyes at her, Cullen gruffly replied, “The Breach is the priority here, not Ferelden.”
“As it stands,” interrupted Josephine before the spymaster could speak in retaliation, “we cannot assault the keep. An Orlesian Inquisition’s army marching into Ferelden to assault one of its foremost towns would provoke a war, no matter that we were attempting to roust an enemy from its nest. Our hands are tied.”
“The Magister…” began Cassandra, sounding almost wounded by the news.
“Has outplayed us,” snapped Cullen firmly. He then caught Meryell rolling her eyes and turned to look at her. “Meryell?”
The elf shook her head at him idly before she looked around at all of them, saying almost snidely, “I like how we argue over the semantics of attacking Redcliffe Castle when I never said a damned thing about attacking the fucking keep. And are we forgetting that I have a cult following me?” She raised her hands up into the air in obvious exasperation as she exclaimed, “Cults just don’t go Oh, I’m sorry that we’re ruining your day, we’ll just go find someone else to stalk and disa-fucking-pear!”
Silence reigned in the room for a moment and Cullen, despite everything in him screaming don’t because he feared her bringing the mages to them along with all of the risk of possession and blood magic and fear that could come with them, asked softly, “Then what was your plan?” He trusted her, he reminded himself, enough that he’d told her in the vaguest way about Kinloch and all of Kirkwall. That trust should extend to trusting her with this.
And yet he feared – desperately feared – being surrounded by so much untrustworthy magic.
Meryell tiled her head towards him, her eyes narrowed and full of question. It took him a minute to realize that she was silently asking if he was okay and he shifted his stance as he felt abruptly awkward at being so easy to read. Then he jerked his head a bare inch to the left and then the right in a sharp gesture of no.
She pursed her lips in response then began to speak of her plan despite looking like she wanted to suddenly interrupt the meeting and drag him aside. Not that he would have argued with her if she wanted to as just thinking about being surrounded by mages was making him feel somewhat claustrophobic.
“Redcliffe Castle is just like any other noble’s,” she explained with a casual shrug. “They’ve all pretty much have some sort of fucking secret passageway built into them, it’s just a matter of finding it. I can’t tell you the times that we’ve had a job to find some fuckwit who thought he was safe just because he was all holed up in his precious keep only to turn around and find us behind him. Find it and we can sneak in all easy like and get rid of the Magister before any of his lackeys notice that shit is up.”
“You continue to surprise me, Herald,” commented Leliana suddenly. “Such is almost the thinking of a bard.”
“Surprise you,” asked Meryell with a smile that was all teeth, “or infuriate you?”
The spymaster simply tilted her head to the side, her gaze flitting over to Josephine for a moment, before she replied, “Surprise.” She then continued, “There is a passage underneath the castle, designed as a method for the family to escape if the need arose. It is too narrow for our troops, but we could send agents through…provided that we had a distraction.”
Meryell snorted and Cullen felt his throat try to close up in terror as he realized where this was going. As she darkly joked, “Is this a way to try and get rid of me?” he tried to retain his composure.
In the war room, they were not Cullen and Meryell despite him continuing to call her by her name. They were Commander and Herald here and he needed to remember that. He had to remember that, especially given that he’d already made one comment that as good as shouted his feelings to the sky.
Struggling around his suddenly thick tongue and the fear tightening his throat, he managed to say, “It’s risky, but it could work. If we indeed do go to the mages…”
Meryell let out a heavy sigh and leaned on the war table, her palms flat on the edge of the map of Ferelden as she stared down at the two most prominent markers currently placed upon it’s surface. She stood there in silence for a long moment before she looked up at Josephine and asked, “Have we heard anything from the templars?”
He just barely caught the surprised jerk of the three other women in the room out of the corner of his eyes as his own mouth fell open in shock. Josephine, of course, was the first to recover and managed to answer the question.
“Since it seemed that status is what the Lord Seeker wishes,” she began, “I have been reaching out to some of the noblest houses in Orlais to approach him with us. If they arrived with us to demand the templars help in closing the Breach, it might be enough to get us inside.”
Meryell pursed her lips and he found himself entranced by the motion until he realized she was looking at him, amusement in her eyes. Blinking, he looked around to see the same in the eyes of the other women and coughed, before asking, “Yes?” He did, however, resist the urge to grab the back of his neck.
She continued to give him that amused look as she said, “I asked if you thought that might work, Cullen. Would a bunch of noble pissers demanding action get a rise out of the templars?”
He frowned in response, lifting a hand to rub the leather of one gloved finger across his lower lip as he contemplated his answer. “It would depend upon the Knight-Commander. Or, in this case with the Lord Seeker, whoever is leading them,” he replied honestly. Closing his eyes, Cullen let out a quiet breath because the remainder of his answer was going to lead to them going for the mages. He would not keep it from her despite that fact. He would trust. “If I had ended up in a similar situation in Kirkwall, I would have been moved to at least listen to the complaints of the nobles. Commander Meredith, however, did end up in several such situations and, that I am aware of, did little to either answer their complaints or even acknowledge them.”
Meryell nodded her head at his answer before saying, “Then…I say we go to the mages. Though if we want to keep fucking arguing about it, I’m willing to hear any other reasons for why we shouldn’t.” His heart sank at the reality that his brothers and sisters – no, his former brothers and sisters, he was no longer a templar – were to be abandoned. “But…I have a side project.”
“Side project?” repeated Cassandra.
Nodding, the elf lifted a hand from the table to rest it on top of one of the markers – the one for Therinfal. Cullen stared at her hand for a moment then slowly dragged his eyes up to her face and found a dearth of sympathy that he hadn’t expected in her eyes as their gazes locked. She didn’t particularly like templars but she wanted to do something for them despite that.
As his heart swelled with affection for the woman, Leliana stepped forward to rest two fingers of each hand lightly on the edge of the war table and asked, “What does this…side project…of yours involve, Herald?”
“A small force,” replied Meryell, “to go to Therinfal.”
“The Lord Seeker,” began Josephine but her voice trailed off as the elf shook her head sharply.
“Fuck him,” she growled. “He doesn’t want shit to do with the Inquisition, so let’s let him have his way. I bet, though, that not every templar that followed him has the same view of us. I sodding bet you that a fuck sight of them only went because it was the only course of action they thought they could take.” Meryell lifted her hand from atop the marker then and jabbed a finger down onto the map’s surface in front of it, growling, “So someone goes there and stands outside that damned gate and talks to them. Tell ’em they’ve got choices.”
Leliana leaned forward slightly as she stated, “And you believe some will come.”
Suddenly Meryell’s eyes were locked with his again and Cullen felt his mouth try to twitch into a smile as she spoke again.
“If we send our Commander, yes.”
Blinking, he stared at her for a moment then burst out laughing because of course he was the choice to go. Rylen was only a Knight-Captain, he had a scattering of Lieutenants and Corporals as well as several unranked members of the Order who’d followed him from Kirkwall, and whatever remnants had escaped the Conclave that had joined them. Other than that there were only the former templars amongst the company. As Meryell had explained to him, however, any that had come to them had been disgraced or expelled from the Order, so they were out.
And he…he had been Knight-Commander (if unofficially) of Kirkwall for four years.
“It is not a terrible idea,” Cassandra said slowly.
“Oh fuck you, Seeker,” snapped Meryell but there was no anger behind her tone. Cassandra also merely brushed the comment off with a snort instead of the outraged response that they all might have witnessed months ago. Further proof of that strange sort-of friendship that the two women seemed to have formed. She hadn’t moved her gaze from him, however, and asked, “Well?”
Cullen just looked at her for a moment in silence, contemplating his answer. Really, though, was there any other answer but yes? Especially since he had given her an answer that led to the Inquisition officially taking on the rebel mages as their allies if possible? And if he could give some a different path than the one they were on, did he not have an obligation to do so? If not obligation, desire to do so?
Smiling at her, he answered, “I will go.”
Meryell grinned brightly at him in response and the fear-driven knots that had coiled up in his chest loosened just that little bit, enough that they weren’t as choking. It would be hard…but he would endure. He had survived Kinloch and Kirkwall, after all.
He would trust her, would trust the decision the five of them had come to, and he would try to save at least a portion of the Order.
Not unexpectedly, he found Meryell sitting in the darkness of his tent later that night when he had finished seeing to the start of the preparations for his trip to Therinfal. Cullen stopped in the doorway for a moment, staring at her bare feet (which was all he could via the light of the full moon), then he let the flap of the tent fall behind him. As darkness fell again, he set about removing his armor to place on his stand and waited for her to begin the inevitable conversation.
Stiffening because an apology was not the first thing he’d expected to hear from her, Cullen finished settling his breastplate on the shoulders of the armor stand. Then he turned and carefully made his way over to his cot where she was sitting, going by memory. She, thankfully, opened her eyes as he got close and the cat-like gleam of her green eyes helped him to find the edge of the cot so he could ease down onto it. Their thighs pressed close against each other automatically and he wrapped an arm around her waist to pull her even closer.
“For what?” he asked softly.
“Going to the mages.”
She shook her head and closed her eyes again, cutting off his only indicator of some of her motion until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. “I was watching you,” she admitted. “You fear magic, Cullen. And I’m going to be bringing that here.”
He abruptly realized that she was apologizing for causing him pain. For making him remember when he’d been at the mercy of magic and demons.
Sighing, Cullen brought his other arm up and found her shoulder in the dark, following the line of it up until his fingers curved around her jaw. She let out an unsteady breath as he pulled her close, tucking her head underneath his chin. Then he felt her turn her head and she breathed out shakily against his throat as her fingers curled into the fabric of his shirt.
They sat like that for a long moment before he spoke softly.
“I fear magic untrained and unwatched,” he explained. “Left to their own devices, a lot of mages don’t have the capability to stay the course. They fall prey to demons or use their abilities to ill ends.”
“You don’t fear Folke and he never had a teacher.”
“Your baba is one of the more sensible mages I’ve ever met. He doesn’t count amongst those I’m most wary of.”
Meryell chuckled, saying, “First I get you cursing, now I’ve got you speaking Elven? What next?”
Chuckling along with her, Cullen noted, “You also have prompted me to accept mages and nobles in some small way via Folke and your Captain.”
“Arnald would beat me if he knew you thought him a noble because of me.”
“I’ll endeavour to keep such things between us then, dear thief.”
That made her laugh but it didn’t take long for Meryell to become sober again. He felt her other hand running softly up his side then across his chest, unable to stop his muscles from jumping at the unexpected touch. Then her callused fingers and palm were cupping his cheek and he looked down into her gleaming eyes as she leaned away from him.
Years ago he had found the reflective properties of elven eyes off putting. Even with Kath, he’d been unsettled when she’d look at him and her eyes glowed because it made his instincts scream demon. Now, with Meryell, he found it more fascinating than anything else.
“What are you thinking?” he softly asked. When she didn’t immediately answer, instead stroking her fingers across his cheek before she shifted her hand enough that she could press her thumb against the scar on his lip, Cullen cupped her cheek in his hand. “Meryell?”
“I’m thinking that I don’t want to fucking hurt you but I’m going to because the thing that’s going to hurt you makes the most damned sense to do,” she replied, her voice wavering. She shuddered in his arms and he frowned before grabbing her face in both of her hands, forcing her to look right at him.
“I will be fine,” hissed Cullen, though that was probably far from the truth. He’d suffered from frequent nightmares in Kirkwall – though that number hadn’t gone down much since then. In fact, they were worse when he was in the heavy grip of one of his harder bouts of withdrawal. Of course, in Kirkwall he’d had the benefit of his lyrium-fed abilities to keep him from stumbling over the edge into straight panic.
Now he didn’t have that ability.
Lyrium still lingered in his body (as evidenced by the fact that he could still feel casting) but it wasn’t enough for a smite. He knew that because he still sometimes tested his abilities and while the mental muscles still worked, there was no longer anything there to move. The thought of not having that ability and being surrounded by mages had his heart suddenly pounding in his chest, his pulse jumping in his throat, and he knew that Meryell probably felt one or the other.
Swallowing the sudden fear, Cullen repeated in a softer tone, “I’ll be fine.”
Meryell’s eyes narrowed up at him before she growled, “You are the most stubborn fucking man I’ve ever met.” Then her expression softened as she rubbed her thumb across his scar, ending the motion with the digit pressed against his lips. “Promise me that if…”
He cut her off by abruptly moving to cover her hand with his own, tugging it down just enough that he could press a kiss into her palm. As her cheeks flushed, Cullen murmured, “If I am uncomfortable, I will make it known. To you, at least.”
“Is that a promise?”
“Yes, dear thief, it’s a promise.”
That seemed to placate the woman in his arms and she leaned back into him, tucking her head underneath his chin once more. Cullen huffed out a breath as he wrapped his arms around her then tilted his chin to kiss the top of her head.
“Be careful,” he urged softly, thinking of all the ways that her trip to Redcliffe could go badly. At best she could come back with nothing to show for the journey. At worst they could lose her. He could lose her.
If that happened before he even had a chance, he didn’t know what he might do.
“Dirtha’vhen’an,” she muttered against his throat in reply. Without him having to ask, she immediately translated, “I promise, Cullen.”
dirtha’vhen’an – promise