His brain – traitorous thing that it was – said that this was the right decision to make.
His heart, on the other hand, felt like it was breaking at what he was considering.
Burying his head in his hands, Cullen leaned forward to rest his elbows on the desk. He was mad to be thinking what he was.
And yet his brain wouldn’t shut up about fucking protocol and what could come out of continuing the delicate relationship he had with Meryell any further onward. It wasn’t that people hadn’t seen them together; no, the whole of Haven had been certain that they were far more of a couple than they actually were for months . He knew, he overheard the gossip himself and got informed of some of it by both his own men, Cassandra, and unsigned notes left on his desk that were in Leliana’s hand. And everyone who’d survived Haven had heard the tale of what had seemed to be a last desperate kiss – their first, though only a few knew that detail.
They weren’t who he was worried about.
He was concerned about those to come: the soldiers, the diplomats, the needy who were flocking ever more to the banner of the Inquisition. With Skyhold and their ever growing force that was spread out in makeshift tents and huts on the plains below the keep with the bulk of the fighting force, they couldn’t always be seen together like they had been. Could not sit comfortably in the tavern with the knowledge that no one would bother them.
He was ever looking at more and more paperwork with the bulk of the real soldiering left to his lieutenants, the mantle of Commander tugging him deeper under its hold.
And Meryell was the Inquisitor now. Not just the Herald or the foul-mouthed elf that he cared for beyond reason.
She was the damned Inquisition.
Pressing his fingers against his eyelids, Cullen muttered a blistering line of curses that would have drawn surprised looks from his men and an impressed whistle from Meryell. Logic and protocol that had been drilled into him for all the years he’d been in the templars screamed that he could not be with her as her subordinate. They’d already seen how well that had worked out in Haven when everything had been on the line and they’d taken precious time needed to face the force outside to kiss in a corner. It was a potentially dangerous mistake that they could never afford happening again.
And yet, his heart labored in his chest at the thought of losing her. Not to death but to duty . To never be able to rest his arms comfortably across her shoulders again, her warmth steady and more than a little drunk against his side. Never curl his fingers into her short hair while his lips pressed hard against her forehead while he shook as her small callused fingers tentatively slid underneath the edge of his tunic to stroke his stomach. To never hold her against him as he’d done that night before she’d left for the Hinterlands or undress her or sleep with her breath soft against his throat. He would perhaps never know how she felt bare against him and slicked with sweat from love making if he took that path.
Just as Cullen hadn’t been ever fully certain he would have healed from her dying in Haven, he didn’t think he’d ever entirely recover from losing her. He didn’t dare say that he loved her – he did but he wasn’t sure yet that it was that kind of love – but he cared deeply for her. She had never berated him for his past after learning it but had never let him back away from the fact that the things he had done had been wrong. No, Meryell had merely accepted them as having happened and told him do better . Even when he’d woken her up in the throes of a nightmare – never certain of where he was and struggling against the constraints of their covers – she had simply waited for reality to resettle back for him before tugging him back down against her, kissing his forehead as she curled her fingers into his hair as if to secure him to the then and now and to her .
She was so much fucking more than a broken addict like him deserved.
Abruptly rising to his feet, Cullen drew in a sharp gasp of air and wiped away the moisture threatening the corner of his eyes. He could not discuss this with Folke. The hedge mage would not be reasonable at all given that his daughter was involved in the discussion. That and he was certain that Folke would see even thinking about going through with leaving her as hurting Meryell and Cullen would be forced by his own honor to give in to his promise of putting himself at the older man’s mercy if he did such a thing.
Maker, he’d practically fling himself at the hedge mage’s feet right now just for having the thought.
So who could he go to to discuss this?
If Cassandra had been in Skyhold, she would have been his first choice as she was both his friend and Meryell’s. She, however, was on her way back down to the Hinterlands with the woman that he was conflicted over along with Dorian and Sera to check on their forces that had been left behind there after they’d fled Haven.
He wasn’t going to give Leliana any further ammunition than she might already have. Josephine was an option but she was even more busy than he usually was nowadays. That and he was more than a little fearful that their ambassador would recommend that he go with the first option. Even with what she’d done to finish his rooms, he still feared censure from her. Neither of them, however, were very close to Meryell so he pushed them out of mind.
Cullen wasn’t close enough to any of the other inner circle to approach them, though he was gaining an appreciation of Blackwall as the man had taken up training with his soldiers (often alongside the Iron Bull, Cassandra, and Captain Arnald) and had a fine hand at training some of the younger ones. That didn’t mean he was the one to go to about this.
Stretching his hand across his face to rub both temples at the same time, he was suddenly hit with an epiphany.
There was someone who knew Meryell well and himself decently enough. Who stood a lower possibility of pulling a Folke on him, though he wasn’t entirely certain of that.
Striding out of his tower onto the battlements, Cullen quickly descended the closest stairs that led down behind the stable and asked one of Dennet’s new hands – a scrawny little whelp of a boy who had ended up an orphan from Haven – to see about getting his horse ready.
He needed to head down into the Fangs’ camp.
“Commander! Didn’t expect you down here so soon!” greeted Zarru as he rode into the camp, the dark-skinned woman standing in a wide-legged stance before a group of the mercenaries who were training some of their newest recruits. She was wearing far less than she normally was, steel set aside for more flowing Rivaini garb that showed off more of the tattoos that lined her flesh, despite the fact that it was still winter. He’d have expected a northern-born soul like her to have been more the sort to cover up in the south but guessed that she’d gotten used to different climates over the years.
From what he’d been able to garner from conversations with Meryell and Folke about the company’s second-in-command, she’d been a pirate from a young age before becoming a mercenary after some incident on the sea had made her put that life behind her.
“Zarru,” he replied, inclining his head as he slid down from the back of the big grey beast that Dennet had said was the horse for him. Patting its neck before he turned over the reins to one of the company youths who’d run up to take it, Cullen flicked his eyes over their new recruits before he could stop himself. Habit of years being in charge of men and women who were as likely to hurt each other as themselves. “New blood?”
“New blood for the ground at this rate,” replied the woman seriously. “Most of them aren’t much in a fight. Farmers and the lot…though I s’pose you deal with the same.”
“So I’m told,” grumbled Cullen, more than a little annoyed at himself for not currently having the time to observe his own men.
Zarru snorted at that. “Well,” she drawled, “I hope you and yours have more luck. Harvard was always better with the young ones but, eh, we Fangs make do. Someone will replace the old man eventually.”
Abruptly he recalled that the old man had been one of the casualties of the Fangs and the loss had been one that had torn Meryell up. He’d been the trainer of their recruits for years and had always had a soft spot for, in her words, a foul-mouthed brat. Yet, at more than seventy years old, Harvard had picked up a sword alongside the rest of the Fangs and had fought like a man half his age against the force that had come down on their heads in Haven. His death had been one of the witnessed one, with one of the Fang’s archers – the former Dalish elf that Meryell had introduced as Pod during their long walk to Skyhold – saying with surety that he’d fallen while defending the wagons that had left by the lower gate outside of Haven.
Having already made his condolences with Arnald and Zarru about the losses the company had suffered, Cullen said simply, “One can only hope that his replacement will turn out as good of Fangs as he did.”
The woman grinned at him, her teeth bright white against the dark of her skin, before she crossed her arms and turned her attention back fully to the new recruits. “So,” she drawled after a moment, “sure you didn’t come down here to bullshit with me, Commander. And since our Meryell’s out and Folke’s up top at what you lot are calling a mage tower , I’m guessing you’re hunting the captain.”
Zarru nodded then jerked her head towards the right in the direction of a modest sized tent with dark canvas and one of the Fangs banners planted in front of it. “He’s in there doing some sort of plotting for the job we’re supposed to go help with down in the Fallow Mire. Just announce who you are before you walk in.” She broke off with another grin before finishing, “Our Meryell wouldn’t be too happy to come back and learn that we’d knifed what’s hers.”
Feeling his neck flush at both the words as well as the reminder of what he’d come down here for in the first place, Cullen nodded his thanks and headed that way. As he reached the tent, he started to extend an arm to scratch against the canvas in the way that his own soldiers usually did to announce their presence but was interrupted by Arnald poking his head out from between the closed flaps.
“Ah,” commented the older man, his eyes blinking against the light of the afternoon sun in that way that said he’d been in the dark for too long. “I thought I heard your voice, Commander. Come in, come in.” Then the Orlesian man’s head disappeared back into the tent and Cullen followed, blinking his own eyes several times as they adjusted to the dim.
And he thought he had problems keeping track of when candles needed to be lit to have light to work by. Arnald seemed to have made it into an art given that he seemed to have been working for some time over the desk in what at first seemed like near darkness.
The Captain cursed as he muddled around the tent for a moment before he came up obviously fiddling with something that Cullen couldn’t quite make out yet. “Forgive me, Commander,” he said. “I often miss the point when I need light to work by. Zarru often reminds me that it’s going to one day cost me my eyes sooner than later.”
Waving a hand, Cullen replied, “No need to apologize.” He lifted a hand to rub at the back of his neck quite before he was aware to be doing it and let the motion lie. “I’m a culprit of the same myself.”
“Burden of command,” Arnald noted with a smile that could now be seen as he lit the candle wick he’d been fiddling with and planted the stand he’d set it into into a hole in the absolute chaos that was the table that occupied most of the tent. He shuffled papers further away from it for a moment before he lifted an actual chair by it’s back and canted it towards Cullen. “Here, have a seat and tell me what brings you down from the lofty heights.”
As he took the chair, Cullen smiled, saying, “I’m not sure Skyhold counts as lofty .”
“She’s above our heads, is she not?” replied Arnald as he manhandled another chair out from under the table and sat down in it. “Now…what’s this visit about? Surely it’s not the job down in the Fallow Mire as we’ve already met to plan that out and you stated fairly clearly the last time that it’s solid.”
“Ah…no. It’s not about that.”
Arnald arched a graying eyebrow and Cullen sighed before he leaned forward, resting his elbows heavily on his knees as he closed his eyes and fought the sudden upwell of terror and disgust. He could do this . He was no longer that tormented child who’d barely escaped Kinloch with the last shreds of his sanity. There was no shame in seeking out help and advice.
“May we speak as…friends?” asked Cullen abruptly. “Of a sort?”
There was a long pause from the other man and then Arnald said gently, “You come seeking advice on something. Something which there is no one else – at least here – that you may go to for?”
It was rather fucking terrifying how well anyone who claimed the title of spymaster could read him sometimes. Leliana had the same damned trait and used it like the point of a knife most times to dig out what she wanted to know. Thankfully Arnald had always seemed a little more kind about it.
Opening his eyes, Cullen looked at the other man for a long moment before he simply nodded. In return Arnald simply ran a hand through his silver-streaked hair and gestured wordlessly with one hand for him to begin whenever he wanted.
It took more time than he was comfortable admitting to get his tongue to untie itself from the knot it was abruptly in so he could say softly, “It’s about Meryell.”
“Ah.” The Captain nodded his head before adding, “Hence why you are here with me and not Folke.”
Arnald sat in silence and Cullen closed his eyes briefly before reopening them to look at the man patiently waiting on him to begin. Given the closeness that he’d observed in the Fangs – least of all how every one of them referred to Meryell as our Meryell – he imagined that the Captain had sat with his men in many meetings such as this. He was a listener and a far better one than Cullen had been attempting to be since the Gallows had become a veritable war zone along with Kirkwall.
Blowing out air between his teeth, he finally began, “I am torn between the thing that I want and what my brain thinks I should be doing.” Sitting up, Cullen gestured with one hand as he continued, “On the one side, I have logic , which dictates that the relationship between a commander and a subordinate shouldn’t be one of…” Love is the word he wants to put there but his throat tightens around it and refuses to let it loose. “…anything more than respect.”
Holding out his other hand, he added, “On the other side, I have my heart , which…”
“Wants things,” interjected Arnald, his soft tone and the slightly distant look in his eyes saying more than anything. “Things that the logical side of you, the soldier , believes are not yours for the having.”
Maker’s breath .
All he could do was nod and the Captain smiled before he stood, moving around to the far side of the tent where a smaller table sits. He picked up a bottle from it and two cups, returning with them held in one hand as he pulled the cork on the bottle out with his teeth. Arnald poured a generous helping of golden looking liquid into both cups before he sat the bottle on the edge of the main table and extended one cup towards him.
As Cullen took it, the other man leaned back and lifted one leg to rest his booted ankle against his other knee. “I felt like that once,” Arnald mused as he took a sip from his cup. “When I still had my commission in the Imperial Army. I had just made sergeant and there was this girl in a village. She was a sweet young thing but had an arm fit to nail any man a staggering blow with a sling. A farm girl, raised out in the countryside all her life, dedicated to herding sheep and milking cows.”
“What was her name?” Cullen asked softly as he lifted the cup to his own lips, smelling briefly before he tipped it to identify the liquor before it reached him. It wasn’t the vein of whiskey that Meryell preferred – hers was darker and had a deeper, woodier tang to it – but it wasn’t bad.
“Loyse,” replied Arnald with a smile that made his face seem several years younger. “She had the loveliest golden hair that fell past her waist, legs to drive a sane man wild, and blue eyes the color of the fountains of Val Royeaux. Ah, mon amie , I drowned in those eyes many a night and spent many more worshipping the blessed fount between those perfect thighs.”
Despite feeling the blush rising up his neck at the man’s descriptors – Maker’s cock , he was thirty and had bedded at least one woman in his life – Cullen managed to hold onto his composure.
The other man smiled sadly and lifted his cup in a little bobbing salute towards nothing before answering, “Duty. Our station around the village came up and we were deemed ready to return home for a rest so as to visit our families. Of course I, young fool that I was, made a promise to Loyse that I could one day make an honest woman of her and give her my name. So I returned home, all alight with the news I was bringing to my family, before all of the shine was knocked off of it.”
“By your father?” asked Cullen, knowing that that was often the story behind a young man of noble blood who fell in with a peasant lass. The tale had always rankled his blood given that his own family had been simple farmers and any jumped up noble who thought to hurt his sisters like that had him going red in the eyes.
Snorting, Arnald replied, “No, no, of course not. If my father had cared that much about such noble shit, he’d never have allowed me to continue holding the family name.” He took another drink before continuing on. “No, Commander, that came from my mother. While my father believed in love matches, she certainly did not and expected me to be the good son and marry whosoever they told me to.”
“I was told very pointedly that I had a duty to uphold the Seraine name as well as her own family name of Gaiant despite having no solid connection to it except her. That duty was more important than love . Or whatever I thought was love since I surely would never lower myself to love a peasant girl.”
Feeling like a pit opened in his stomach, Cullen said, “And you held to duty.”
Shrugging, the older man replied, “I was a good son. Second in my line, expected to be the shining example of service in the Army since my older brother was to hold up the family business and name. So, yes, Commander, to my greatest regret, I promptly cast aside all thought of wedding my dear Loyse.” Arnald’s mouth then twisted into a grimace as he added, “Until a few years later, of course, when a bitch-child not long off her own mother’s teat claimed I took her by force. When I had nothing to my name after that but the ability to still bear the name of Seraine and wear the colors, I rode back to that little village.”
“But she had moved on.”
“With a simple man who loved her and had already given her two sons by the time I rode back into her life, with a third child on the way. They put me up in their loft for a while since I had nothing then and I helped her man work their fields for a handful of months before I finally struck out. She kissed me right there in front of him – an act I’m still stunned he didn’t gut me for as I would have slain a man who touched her when she was mine – and said that she prayed I would find happiness somewhere else in the world.”
“Which,” continued Arnald before taking a long drink, “I did. I found the Fangs and worked my way up through the ranks until I earned the Captaincy in the vote when the space went void more than twenty years back.” He smiled as he looked at the dark walls of the tent, saying, “Perhaps it’s not the life that young sergeant I was imagined but it is a good life. I may not have any permanent warmth in my bed but I dare say that I have more children than any sane man could ever want in a lifetime.”
Leaning forward, the man stared Cullen in the eye, his dark eyes intense behind his ever present mask.
“If I could do it over again, however,” he growled in a low voice, “I would tell my mother where she could promptly stuff her lineage and that I would marry who I willed. So, my advice, Cullen , that I highly recommend you follow, is to go with your heart and tell your head where it can fuck off to.”
“Is that as Meryell’s Captain,” asked Cullen as he resisted the urge to lean away from the man, “or as her secondary sort of father figure?”
Arnald just smiled. “We shall say both.”
Grimacing, Cullen gripped the cup with both hands as he growled out, “And what when we come to a situation like Haven again? How do I bury the need to keep her safe when she has to be the one to face down the monster at our door? How do I hand her two shitty choices at the war table – shitty choices that could easily end up with her dead – and not hate myself? How do I defend her against the inevitable whispers that she’s abusing her authority as Inquisitor by having me in her bed?”
“For the first,” replied the older man, “you do the same damned thing you did in Haven. You take her aside, you kiss her, and then you trust her to come back to you. Because Meryell will claw her way back through the fucking Void itself if Folke asked it of her and I imagine that you are either already or are soon to be on that same list.” He waved his cup laden hand flippantly then as he continued on, “For the second, you give her the choices, give her the best damned aid you can in making it out of whichever one she chooses, and you trust her again .”
Cullen swallowed before he asked, “And the last?”
Arnald smiled – a feral, menacing smile normally reserved for madmen – and replied in a low growl, “You love that girl with every fiber of your being and you either ignore the rumors because you and she and every fucking soul that damned well matters know the truth. Either that or you stare them down with all the fury you’ve got that they dare say such a thing before you tell them how far up the Maker’s soggy asshole they can shove their worthless fucking opinion. Or, my favorite, both .”
Then the man abruptly relaxed, his smile turning back into the casual one that he usually wore, as he added, “That’s my advice anyway, Commander. Take it or leave it.”
Blinking several times at the man while wondering just how sane he was to come to him – though still saner than going to Folke with this – Cullen nodded before he tossed the remainder of the whiskey to the back of his throat. As it burned its way down into his gullet, he sat the cup down on the edge of the table and stood from the chair to smile down at the Fangs’ Captain.
“I’ll certainly take your advice and give it some serious thought,” he said slowly. “Thank you, Arnald.”
The older man grunted and waved a hand before he flashed a hint of that feral smile again.
“Just remember, Commander, that that girl has a veritable herd of brothers and sisters who will go looking for the blood of the man who hurts her. I’ve even let them have one of our own when he fucked her over hard and the only thing that saved him was her telling us to back off because the bastard wasn’t worth the effort of the bloodshed. Or losing a good bowman.” Arnald narrowed his eyes as he added, “Somehow I’m not under the impression that if you break her heart that there will be such a rescue.”
Years ago Cullen might have blustered at the threat or even demanded that it be retracted because of his position. He was no longer that man, however, and he was certain that it wouldn’t be necessary anyway.
Despite saying that he was going to give it thought…he was already pretty sure which side he was going to fall on.
So he just smiled and said, “I’ll keep that in mind, Captain. Good luck in the Fallow Mire and see to it that our soldiers make it back in one piece.”
“Some of us will be leaving in two days to head that way to meet up with our girl to do just that,” replied Arnald with a smile. He then lifted his cup in a salute and said, “Have a good evening, Cullen. We should bullshit over drinks again when the both of us have the time. I enjoyed the few nights we managed it back in Haven.”
Chuckling, Cullen nodded in acquiescence of the request. He hadn’t had as many opportunities to do such with him or Folke as he had with Meryell but he had taken time out of his nights on the rare occasion when she hadn’t been in Haven to find one or both of them for a drink. It certainly wasn’t as entertaining as the nights he spent with her but he’d come to like both men during their talks.
“We should,” he replied. “Good evening yourself, Captain.”
With that he ducked out of the tent and immediately heard Zarru let out a loud whistle as she called out, “Bort! Bring the Commander his horse, lad!”
Smiling as he stood waiting, Cullen shifted his gaze over to Zarru, who looked at him with her head tilted curiously to one side in a way that made the beads in her thick strands of hair clack together.
“Sort out your problem, Commander?” she asked, her blue eyes startlingly bright in her dark face.
Nodding slightly, he replied, “I believe I did, Zarru.”
“Good,” she replied with a toothy grin. “I’d hate to have to knife you.”
“I’d hate to be knifed, so we’re even.”
She laughed at that and Cullen grinned at her before he reached out to grab the reins of his big horse from the different company youth that bolted up to deliver the beast back to him. Swinging back up into the saddle, he turned to head back up the hill with the Rivaini woman’s laughter in his ears accompanied by the sounds of training and the echo of Arnald’s words.
Duty or love, he thought as he urged the horse back up the hill towards the heights, eager to get there before the sky got too dark. That’s the core of the question.
Maker, he’d given enough to fucking duty.
Perhaps it was time he didn’t .
Cullen laughed aloud as he reached Skyhold’s entrance bridge, shaking in the saddle as he steered his horse across it.
He’d expected the choice to be hard .
And…honestly…it was far too easy a decision once he wasn’t scared to pick a side.
mon amie – my friend (French)