She’s so cold.
Shivering and frostbitten with snow plastered to the leather of her armor, the fabric of her pants so stiff with ice that it’s a wonder she managed to keep going…but she is alive. Cullen tightened his grip around Meryell as Cassandra reached towards her, refusing to relinquish her if he was asked to, but the Seeker only gently touched a snow covered shoulder before she began snapping out orders to those that followed them away from the edge of their final camp for the night.
“Folke,” he managed to growl as they made their way back through the snow, trying to ignore the way she shuddered in his arms. The mage had barely been gone an hour after so many spent standing at the edge of camp, muttering under his breath and casting one spell after another until even Cullen could feel him pulling only dregs from the Fade, having being dragged off forcefully by one of the Fangs’ elves and he knew he needed to see Meryell more than he himself had. Cassandra turned her head towards him, her eyes wide, and she gave one quick sharp nod before she was gone from his side.
Cullen paid her no heed after that, his attention set upon one of the two larger tents they had which had been set up for the sole use of the healers and the injured. As he ducked inside with Meryell in his arms it was like the whole world stopped for a moment. Then one of the mages – who was a Fang given the black lion tooth that hung from around her neck on a thick leather cord, one of the many varieties of badges that the company had – stepped forward barking orders. She set the rest to the task of getting a bed ready or scuttling off to see to the same things that Cassandra had sent folk running for before slowly approaching him.
“Commander,” she said softly, “I’m Gil.”
The name rang a bell in his head but it wasn’t important enough to distract from the woman in his arms.
“Where?” he asked, assuming she knew what he meant. He was a Fereldan despite not having been home for over a decade and they had a saying that a true Ferelden winter laid permanent frostbite onto the souls that survived it. One of the first things they needed to do what get her free of her clothes and armor.
Gil gestured at a nearby cot that was free of any sort of bedding and he swiftly moved to it, carefully lowering Meryell down. She made a noise in her throat, a bare and broken whine that cut him to the core, and he immediately jerked off his gloves to start pulling at the frozen buckles of her weapons and armor. To his surprise, Gil merely took his aid in stride and worked in concert with him, her magic humming against what was left of his senses as she cast several spells over Meryell’s body. For once, he didn’t mind magic being cast in such close proximity to him.
By the time they got down to Meryell’s boots – he removing them inch by careful inch while Gil worked low-level warming spells into the elf’s flesh – Folke burst into the tent. The mage’s grey eyes were wild with dark bags underneath them and he was in full disarray, utterly missing his coat and armor and wearing only a light tunic that couldn’t possibly be keeping him warm. “Ara vherain,” he breathed and started to rush forward only to be drawn up short by Gil snapping out his name in as sharp a tone any of Cullen’s lieutenants.
“Calm,” ordered the woman, never moving her eyes from where her hands were carefully working over Meryell’s right ankle to free it from her boot. Folke stared at her, his nostrils flaring, then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Cullen watched the mage center himself while he waited for Gil to finish her work and only looked away when she nudged him with her shoulder.
As he eased her boot off, finally freeing her from the last of her outer clothing, Cullen couldn’t help the gasp that escaped him as the mage next to him carefully removed one of Meryell’s socks. Frostbite had done its heinous work upon her toes, turning them as white as the snow with cold blue blemishes, but Gil merely flicked her fingers at him, saying, “It looks worse than it is, Commander. Trust me. I’ve healed more than my fair share of frostbite from a Ferelden winter.”
She bent over her patient’s feet again as she said, “Get her out of the rest of those freezing clothes, gentlemen. And I mean all of them. Be careful with her left shoulder, though. I’ve repaired some of the damage but it’s going to need a lot more work than I can give it tonight. Frostbite and heat are our priorities right now.”
Cullen froze for a moment at the thought of Meryell naked but it was swiftly drowned underneath the seriousness of the situation. He stepped forward at the same moment Folke did and they quickly did as Gil had ordered, tossing the frozen clothing on top of the pile of armor and other gear. Then he heard the mage say he should probably leave and clenched his jaw around an immediate and furious no.
“Gil,” spoke up Folke, his eyes narrowed, “let the Commander stay. We can use him.”
After the cold shoulder the mage had given him after he’d held Folke back from following Meryell out of the Chantry, Cullen was more than a little surprised at the statement. He’d been certain the hedge mage wouldn’t want him anywhere near his daughter again.
She frowned, her brow furrowed, and turned to look at him. Her eyes gave Cullen an appraising glance – but it was the appraisement of a healer, not the lecherous sort of appraisement that he was often the victim of nowadays – and then she turned to arch her eyebrows at her fellow mage. “You sure you want him in bed with your daughter?” she asked, setting Cullen’s cheeks aflame with embarrassment.
Folke just chuckled in response, saying, “He’s already said he’s hers, Gil. She’s as good as claimed him herself, though not in so many words.”
Idly he thought that the mage probably wouldn’t be saying that if he’d witnessed their parting in the Chantry. That kiss had…no, best not to think of how many things it had both said and left unsaid.
“Well then. You’d best strip yourself, Commander.” She then winked as she added, “Though you can keep your under things on. Our Meryell tends to not appreciate others lusting too much after her things.”
“Maker’s breath,” muttered Cullen, wondering what exactly was wrong with all of the women around him. He then turned to look at Folke, asking, “Just what am I doing?“
When Folke went so far as to step around Gil, who was still working her magic on Meryell’s feet, and Solas, who had appeared like a ghost to pick up one of the elf’s hands to let his magic flicker over the half-frozen digits, Cullen had a bad feeling. The mage looked up at him with serious grey eyes for a moment then drew him a few steps away from the others and those who were still on the far most secluded side of the tent making up a cot piled high with furs.
“As I’m certain you’ve noticed, Commander,” the mage began in a low, tight voice, “the effort of your body burning off the lingering lyrium in your system makes you run hot. Certainly hotter than any of us in camp except for maybe that Qunari.” When Cullen nodded tightly in confirmation, Folke continued, “Magic can heal her frostbite but Meryell still needs heat to re-regulate her body temperature. Honest heat because magic can’t do it on it’s own, which is why Gil cast only a minor heating charm on her core and even lesser ones on her limbs. Magic can get her to a recoverable level but you can help bring her past that.”
The thought of all of her skin bare against his had Cullen’s pulse jumping and he closed his eyes, shaking his head against the images that summoned. There was no place for that sort of thing in their current situation.
When he reopened his eyes, Folke was smirking at him.
“Time to get naked, Commander. Once Gil and Chuckles there get done with their work, we need to get her into the bed. With you.”
That made his cock twitch and Cullen growled, “You’re enjoying torturing me a little too much, Folke.”
“Oh, isha’len, if you’re going to eventually be part of the family then you’ve got to get used to that.”
He narrowed his eyes at the mage, wondering what that particular word meant while trying not to blush at the rest of the sentence, then rolled his eyes skyward to ask the Maker for strength. Then he quickly unbuckled his belt before unfastening his coat and shrugged out of it, handing it over to Folke, who was still standing next to him. As his hands mechanically went through the familiar ritual of unbuckling his armor, Cullen focused on that and not the idea of lying in a cot with Meryell. He sat each piece carefully down on the ground next to him and by the time his last bracer was placed there, Gil was calling over that they were ready.
Glancing at Folke, Cullen flushed as the mage waggled his eyebrows at him before he tugged both his padded gambeson and tunic over his head in one motion. The rush of cold air across his skin was all too soothing for a moment but he knew full well that it would do little to actually affect him other than giving him eventual frostbite if he wasn’t careful. He’d had the full warning to not be an idiot by the one healer that the Gallows had left after Meredith (who’d thankfully seen at least one templar attempt to break from lyrium) and never assume that he wasn’t cold just because he didn’t necessarily feel it and he’d taken that to heart.
“Commander, help us move her,” called Gil and he strode over as he let the fabric drop on top of his armor. Gil and Folke had Meryell’s legs carefully lifted between them with the stronger mage still working gently swirling spells over the elf’s feet and he moved to lift the rest of her easily into his arms. They carried her across the space of the tent to the made-up cot and lay her carefully down onto the furs that had been used to cover the canvas bedding.
Cullen stepped back with a frown as she was settled, worrying at his lower lip with his teeth as it certainly didn’t look like he’d fit there with her, then jumped at a light strike on his arm. He turned his head to blink down at Gil, who was glaring up at him.
“You either get in that cot, boy,” she growled, “or I’ll go find that Qunari. I’m sure he’d be more than happy to be completely naked next to his boss.”
Bristling at the thought of the Iron Bull climbing into bed with her, Cullen stared right at the mage, not at all surprised that she’d followed the same line of thought as Folke had. He continued to deliberately stare at her as he stepped out of his boots and shucked off his pants, furiously trying not to blush and failing miserably. Now Gil did give him one of those lecherous appraising looks before she laughed and gestured him towards the cot as she turned to head back to the rest of her patients.
He started to call after her, to ask if Meryell didn’t need more spells, then stopped himself. Instead he moved around the cot to climb in behind her, focusing as he’d been taught to feel out magic as a way to distract himself as he did so. He barely acknowledged the feel of her bare skin sliding against his or the cold that still radiated out from her as he concentrated. It took much longer than it would have months ago when he was still taking a lyrium ration but his senses did eventually waver into existence and stretch out. In a situation like earlier with a mage casting right next to him, he could easily still get a sense of their power. After a while, however, that faded and he had to work to reach out and test whether a spell was still ongoing.
Satisfied as he found that there was still magic working on healing Meryell, Cullen let out a relieved sigh. Then he nearly jumped out of his skin when Folke said, “You look very distracted for a man who just climbed into bed with a naked woman.”
“You delight in sneaking up on people, don’t you?” groused Cullen as he wrapped an arm around Meryell, letting his focus fade away along with the sense of the magic at work under her skin. Drawing her back against his chest, he bit back the groan that begged for release as he felt her skin against his and wished desperately that this was being done in better circumstances.
Not in a healer’s tent.
With Meryell very much conscious and aware of the proceedings.
Folke snorted and moved forward to tug the pile of furs at the end of the cot over them, tucking the ends firmly around Meryell’s face before he cupped her cheek. He then smiled and replied, “Only because you make it so easy, Commander.” The mage then sobered, his mouth drawing downward into a deep frown that made the man suddenly look his age and more while causing the scar on his cheek to stand out starkly. “Watch over her for me, Commander. I…I forgive your actions earlier because I know she asked you not to let me follow. That is a conversation I will have with her later.”
“You have my word.” He wasn’t going to say he was sorry for stopping him. She had asked him to protect her father and he hadn’t been about to forsake what might have possibly been the last thing she’d ever asked of him.
“‘Ma serannas,” breathed the mage before he leaned forward and kissed Meryell’s forehead. “Son era, ara vherain.“
The first words Cullen didn’t know as he hadn’t heard Meryell say them but she had explained what the others meant. Before Folke could turn and walk away, he said, “Son err-ah, Folke,” well aware that his pronunciation of the words wasn’t anywhere near as good as the mage’s or Meryell’s. But the look on the man’s face when he looked at him, the abrupt loosening of tension in his shoulders and the way he smiled easily for the first time since Cullen had spotted him during their interrupted celebrations, that made up for any way he might have said it wrong.
Folke just nodded to him then and was gone, leaving Cullen alone with Meryell on the now mostly empty side of the healer’s tent.
He lifted his head for a moment to watch them going about their work, then sighed as he let it fall back to rest against the furs. Meryell then shivered, her whole body shuddering against his own, and he didn’t even try to fight the reaction it caused. Instead he plainly ignored it as he drew her even more firmly back against his chest and tucked his knees up underneath hers as best he could with their height difference. Already he could feel the heat building around them as the heavy furs were keeping in the heat he put off and knew it was going to get oppressive.
For her, though, he’d suffer.
Leaning his head against hers, Cullen pressed a gentle kiss to the back of her neck, murmuring two lines of Transfigurations that suddenly flared through his mind.
“Unshaken by the darkness of the world,” he quoted softly into her skin, closing his eyes as her still somewhat damp hair tickled his nose, “She shall know true peace.“
He could only pray that, upon Meryell waking, such would be true.
As the words left him, Cullen finally felt the iron control he’d held himself under for so long waver. He’d lost all of his composure in the Chantry hours ago and no one had said a damned thing but he’d still felt shameful for it. In Haven’s need, he’d cast aside concerns about the health and safety for the people for one’s focused solely on the woman in his arms. And not merely for what she was to the Inquisition, it was for what she was to him.
She’d made him finally start to believe that someone could care about him. Could see him as more than a sword. Could…perhaps…love him. And he’d almost lost her.
He would have carried on probably. Shouldering burdens and moving forward was practically his job given how many times he’d done it over the years.
Yet, he would have been a shadow of himself if she hadn’t limped out of the snow as he stood there between Cole as the boy recited cold, so cold, look for light, look for warmth, look for him and Cassandra as she spoke the Chant under her breath. He hadn’t dared pray then, for fear that if he did there would be no answer.
Meryell Verlen had imprinted herself on his soul. She had changed him just as surely as lyrium had, as Kinloch, as Kirkwall. Only her changes were for the better.
Cullen felt his shoulders shake involuntarily and then the lump of a sob tightened his throat. Tears blurred his eyes a moment later and he closed them before burying his face against the back of her neck, remembering last minute to avoid her injured left shoulder. His whole body shook as he breathed in and out in great shuddering gasps, her scent so strong in his nose the only thing that kept him silent.
He hadn’t felt like this since he’d found Kath’s body in the Tower. Only now…now he could feel the grief as well as the relief. Now he did not have to be the stalwart templar, the rule-abiding Knight-Captain, or the Commander of the Inquisition.
He could be just Cullen in this moment and there was no one to judge him for it.
So he laid there, shaking and shuddering with silent sobs until he was finally – blessedly – drained of energy. Sinking deeper into the cot, Cullen pulled Meryell as close as he could, and let out a long breath across the back of her neck.
“Thank you,” he murmured aloud as he felt sleep rising up in a wave to crash down on top of him to drag him into the Fade.
“Thank you for not taking her from me.”