Meryell stood silently on the other side of the war table from the leaders of the Inquisition, her arms crossed and eyes focused into a hard gaze that flicked from one to the other as they spoke. The spymaster was furious that something had gotten past her, Josephine was worried about the few allies they had balking at being tied to a mercenary group (even though they weren’t at fucking all), Cassandra was bristling because she saw it as betrayal, and Cullen was eerily silent. Well, eerily silent to everyone but her as they’d discussed how he should act at this meeting while she was still stuck in bed regaining her strength.
She dearly wanted to just scream at them but she waited. Waited until the worst of their anger burned out, until they thought her perhaps a little cowed by their rage. She was good at waiting.
When they finally shut up, Meryell looked at Cullen, who gave her a subtle little nod, and then she took a breath.
Calm. Keep your head. Treat it like a job.
If she treated it like a job, she probably wouldn’t attempt to stab anything.
“Now that we’re done with the yelling part of the program,” she began snidely, “let’s start this over and I’ll answer one question at a time. Josephine, you can start.”
The ambassador looked a little shocked but she quickly recovered and tapped her fingers against whatever paper she had sitting atop the writing board that was her almost constant companion. “Your letter,” she said softly, “was addressed to a man named Folke. We’ve come to understand that he and yourself are members of the mercenary company known as the Fangs of Vimmark.”
Meryell arched an eyebrow because there wasn’t a fucking question there and nodded slowly.
“May I inquire as to how many years you’ve served with them?”
“Not something you can find out?” she asked with a smirk, cocking her head slightly towards the spymaster. Honestly, she probably shouldn’t be prodding the other woman but if there was one thing she hated it was people who worked solely in secrets alone. Anyone who delved that deep into other people’s shit had the tendency to not be all that stable and what she’d seen so far of the spymaster spoke of a woman treading the line between killing for good reasons and killing blindly for the cause. It was one step from religious zealotry and she’d rather kill a zealot before they got the idea to stab her in the back.
Josephine flashed a tense smile as the spymaster stood in silent reply and hurriedly said, “We attempted to contact the Fangs but, upon our asking about you, they returned only silence.”
Shrugging, Meryell explained, “Normal protocol. I was out on my own on a job and they probably think I’m fucking dead given that the job involved getting into the Conclave. That and the company doesn’t just blindly trust anyone asking about our own.” She shifted her weight onto the balls of her feet then back to her heels before she continued, “As to how long I’ve served, over ten years. I joined them in 9:30 just before the cock-up at Ostagar wiped out the King’s army. Did one job in Ferelden then we high tailed it out of the fucking country.”
“You were lucky,” commented Cullen quietly, barely enough of a vocalization for anyone else to hear. Meryell had elf ears, though, and she’d honed her hearing over the years to make sure she heard everything that she could. He sounded…wounded. She filed the comment quietly away for later and cocked her head at Josephine.
“That is all for now. Thank you, Herald.”
Growling at the title, she tilted her head towards Cassandra.
The Seeker snorted before asking, “Who is this Folke you wrote to?”
“My…mentor…for lack of a better term,” Meryell replied. “He’s a hedge mage.”
“A hedge mage!”
She could see Cullen shift his weight at Cassandra’s repitition of the term and sighed. “He has enough magic to be dangerous but not enough to bring demons down on his head. Just enough to tweak the nose of the Maker, as he likes to say.” It wasn’t like Folke being a hedge mage was a big deal. Even with her avoiding his smug ass for the most part, she’d gotten the fact that Chuckles hadn’t been trained by the Dalish or a Circle, which also put him into the particular category.
Cullen actually snorted at the turn of phrase and seemed to relax a little – but enough – and said, “Scholars call it arcanist derangement when one is a hedge mage. It’s claimed by and large by many of them and the Order that those with it often have short lives.”
“If Folke were here he’d tell you that’s straight bullshit,” commented Meryell. “And then he’d go on a long ass fucking spiel about all the ways that the Chasind and Avvardeal with magic better than we do and just make you want to stab him in the throat so he’ll shut up.”
“Common topic?” he asked with a hint of a smile.
“Favorite topic.” Meryell then looked at Cassandra again and asked, “You want to know anything else about him? Favorite food? Whether he sleeps naked? The size of his co-”
“No,” interrupted the Seeker fiercely.
Smirking, she turned her attention to the spymaster and said coldly, “Your turn.”
The other woman didn’t bat an eye at her tone but just stood there looking at her with those hooded blue eyes. Then she smiled – and it was a cold smile, the sort that sent ice down the spine – and asked in her lilting Orlesian voice, “Do you still plan to abandon us once the Breach is sealed?”
“I’ll remind you,” replied Meryell with a clenched jaw, “that you and Cassandra told me I could leave whenever I liked. If the Breach is closed, you don’t need this shit on my hand anymore, right?” When no one immediately answered her, she snarled, “Right?!”
“We cannot answer that question because we do not have an answer,” pointed out Cassandra. She then planted her hands on the table and leaned forward, dark eyes accusing. “And what if rifts remain after it closes? You would merely abandon those who suffer from their presence simply because you feel the need to run away?”
“Fenedhis!” snarled Meryell, her temper bucking against its leash but she held it. “I am no hal’am’shirelan! I owe you and your Inquisition nothing! You imprisoned me, declared me something I most certainly am fucking not without even waiting for me to wake up, begged me and blackmailed me at the same fucking time to stay and help you, and when you find out what I am you sneer behind my back.” She straightened to her full height, which wasn’t all that impressive but Folke had taught her how to make her presence felt when it needed to be. And she remembered, oh fuck did she remember, the words her father had said every night with her, their own little prayer as he had abandoned the Creators and both had never deigned to believe in the Maker like her mother had. We are the last of the Elvhenan, and never again shall we submit. They were spawned from Dalish words, from a world she’d only known bits and pieces of thanks to her father, but they had made them theirs. She would not bend a knee to these fools who couldn’t even deal with her fucking past. Not without her legs being fucking broken.
“I will not stay,” she growled, “where I am by and large not wanted. I will return to my family, because make no mistake that my company is just that, and we will close the rifts ourselves before I do such.”
Cullen looked almost stricken at her words and she was so close to taking them back. He was one of the two things actually bearable in this situation and she wanted…Maker’s aching cock, she actually wanted to see if that unspoken thing between them could be something more. If she could be something more than a momentary tumble in a man’s bed.
But she would not, could not, stay where she wasn’t wanted. She’d done it from eleven to fifteen and she had sworn the day she walked out of South Reach at Folke’s side that she never would again.
Silence reigned for a long moment then the spymaster said in a low voice, “Then we should work to trust each other better.” She’d expected those words of Josephine, of Cassandra, but not of the cold-tempered keeper of secrets. “I suspect,” she continued mildly, blue eyes a little less dark than they had been before, “that we sometimes forget that you are a person and not merely a symbol. The exception being our Commander, of course.”
Cullen coughed at the mention of his name and lifted a leather-clad hand to rub the back of his neck. Meryell knew that gesture now and knew too that, though she couldn’t see it because of the fur being in the way, he was blushing in that exact spot.
For some reason that motion – all too familiar since he’d spent the majority of his free hours with her recently – calmed her temper. Taking a deep breath, Meryell let her arms fall apart and leaned into the war table, looking steadily from one of them to the other, starting with the spymaster and working her way down to Cullen. “You want my help,” she began, “you deal with my shit. You deal with my past, my language, my job, and my fucking family without saying shit. Non-negotiable This is who I fucking am and I will not change it unless I feel the need to damn well do so. Now…” Trailing off for a moment, she turned her attention to Josephine, “I’ll pen another letter to Folke about this shit, clear up me being marked dead in the rolls. My first suggestion would be if you want to keep control of how people find out about my past, we hire my company.”
“Of course,” said the ambassador with a sharp nod. “I imagine even with one of their own working with us, they would not deign to give their skill over to us freely.”
“Fuck no. Arnald’s a decent man but he doesn’t do charity work. He might give a discount from the usual wage of hiring the whole company because it’s me and no one’s hired the whole company in years.”
Josephine’s eyes gleamed in anticipation. “I look forward to conducting business with him. I assume he leads your company?”
Meryell nodded then rotated a finger in the air before pointing it at Cassandra, having counted Josephine’s inquiry as her question. “Your turn.”
“We are still playing this incessant game?” the Seeker asked with a sigh. After a moment of silence in response she said, “Fine. You have said you were born in the South Reach alienage. What of your childhood?”
The question was like a sucker punch, burying itself under her ribs and burrowing up into her heart. Meryell had to take a deep breath, fighting against the imaginary pain, before she spoke.
“I was born in 9:15 during Drakonis, the first birth to survive that year in the alienage. My childhood was…normal…to what one might find in any alienage. In 9:26, a coughing sickness took hold of the city but it festered in the alienage. My mother died of it and, after it was gone, my father was murdered during the recovery for his coin. The hahren took me in but I was angry, bitter, always fighting him, so I joined a gang at thirteen. Two years later Folke and his partner hired us to help them gather information for a job and then gave us the recruitment spiel after we hauled their asses out of the jail. I’ve been with the company ever since.”
That was the least she would tell the three women. None of them were trusted enough yet to know any more and she wouldn’t say anything unless confronted about it. Though there was probably little that even the spymaster would be able to find given that the only records kept in alienages were births, deaths, and marriages. They would find nothing about who her father or mother were unless those that knew them still lived and those were few and far between.
It was more comforting a thought than the one she’d had upon waking days ago, when fear had blinded her and made her forget. Her life with the Fangs was open. The years before that still had a chance to escape a close perusal.
Shaking the thoughts off, Meryell looked to the spymaster again. The other woman just smiled, saying, “You have already answered the only question I wished to ask,” and she filed that statement securely under creepy.
“Anyone else then?”
“Not at this moment, Herald,” Josephine replied, ignoring her immediate mutter about finding a new fucking title, and continued, “Since you have been ill there has been some news. The clerics are gathering in Val Royeaux and Mother Giselle believes you should attend to speak to them.”
“You want me in the same general area of a bunch of piss skirts who’d rather see me in chains or dead? Ambassador, I might end up killing them on principle.”
“If they’re like Chancellor Roderick,” Cullen commented with just the slightest upturn of a smirk, “I doubt anyone would mourn them. We’d have to find some way to get you out of jail, of course.”
Meryell grinned at him while the other women looked more than a little confused. Obviously he didn’t show his sense of humor to a great deal of people. “I’ll save forcing the Inquisition having to break me out of jail for when it wouldn’t be Val Royeaux’s dungeons. Y’ever been down there? Utter fucking piss. Now Ostwick, they have a nice jail.”
Josephine managed to look pale despite her dark skin at that comment and asked, “Just how many times have you been arrested?”
“More than you want me to tell you. So,” clapping her hands together, Meryell asked, “when do we leave?”
“When you are well, Herald,” replied the ambassador in a delicate tone. “Solas made it very clear that it would take at least three weeks from your waking for you to be travel ready. Luckily for us, the clerics convene in five weeks, which leaves enough days for your journey to Val Royeaux with extra to play with.”
“Fucking Chuckles,” growled Meryell but she wasn’t going to openly argue that she wasn’t in top form. It had taken several days for her to even get the energy to get out of bed and she grew tired incredibly quickly still. She’d discovered that fact by trying to practice her fighting forms to strengthen her arm yesterday and had ended up in the floor, having to crawl back into her bed. She just wasn’t going to tell Chuckles that he was right. Thanks for saving my ass, sure. You were right about me being as weak as a fucking kitten was right out.
Sighing, she nodded and said, “Fine.”
“Good. We shall take the time you are recovering to plan.” Cassandra crossed her arms then and asked the room, “I believe that is all for today, correct?”
“Yes,” replied the spymaster as she leaned a hip against the table. Meryell caught her eyes as the woman continued, “I await your letter to your company, Herald.”
“I’ll have one in a few days,” she replied in a clipped tone while narrowing her eyes. This time she was going to write the damned thing in the company codes which annoyed the shit out of her. She loathed the fucking codes the company had developed decades ago during their inception that allowed them to pass missives without worry of someone intercepting delicate information. The spymaster reading mail that she didn’t want her to read wasn’t going to happen again, so she’d suffer.
Trying to shake the sudden anger off, Meryell looked at Cullen and asked in a more pleasant voice, “Good ser, may I ask for an escort to the tavern?” She ignored the odd looks the question garnered her from the three women, choosing to focus solely him. Her eyes focused on the way his scar twitched with his lip, how his eyes glinted with some silent bit of humor – what had he thought of there, she did wonder – then he was coming around the table with his arm canted towards her.
He inclined his head just slightly and murmured in a low voice pitched for her ears alone, “Of fucking course.” And he didn’t even blush while saying it.
Bursting into laughter at him playing her vulgarity against her playing his politeness, Meryell locked her arm into his and they strode out of the war room without another word. As soon as the door closed behind them, she sighed and leaned a little more into him as a sudden wave of exhaustion rushed up on her. Leather-clad fingers pressed warmly against her hand and then Cullen asked, “Are you certain you want to go to the tavern?”
“Certain as fuck,” she replied, trying to sound sure. “Just…tired. Fuck, I hate being this tired.”
“You shouldn’t fight it, Meryell,” he said gently as he pushed one of the doors of the Chantry open and they stepped out into the slightly chilly night air. “It’s your body trying to tell you what it needs.”
Huffing out an exasperated breath, she muttered, “I know.” Shaking her head, she turned to look up at him. “I don’t deal with being sick well. Not even when my parents were alive.”
He hummed in response and they walked in silence for a moment, making their way through the village towards the tavern, before he spoke again. “Your parents,” he said, “you’ve never spoken of them before.”
“They’re not a topic I like to think about often.” Closing her eyes, Meryell impulsively leaned her head against his arm, thankful that he’d apparently decided to forgo his armor today and was wearing only his coat with it’s fur over his tunic and trousers. Speaking softly, she continued, “I watched my mother die, shaking and choking on her own spit, unable to do anything but sit in the furthest corner of our home and hope that I wasn’t next. There weren’t even any tears left at that point. I’d spent them all when the Arl sent men in who piled up the bodies and burned them in a corner of the alienage days before. There weren’t even any left weeks later when I found my father dead only a few feet from our door.”
His arm tensed underneath her cheek as she spoke and she was certain now that it wasn’t where he’d seen the conversation going. When she got tired, however, she had a tendency of getting melancholy. Another reason why she hated to be at the point of exhaustion.
Cullen opened the door of the tavern then and the soldiers who were in residence greeted them with a hearty call of their titles before they drifted back to what they had been doing. Only one more reason why she preferred spending her time with these men and women rather than some of the others in the budding Inquisition. They knew when to keep their fucking mouths shut.
“Here, sit,” he offered, pulling out one of the two chairs against the wall at one of the few corner tables with his free hand and delicately steering her into it. Meryell fell gracelessly as directed and she could see it made Cullen smile as she tilted her head back while he scooted her chair across the floor so it was closer to the table. “A drink for the thief? And perhaps whatever Flissa has in that pot hanging in the hearth?”
“Please. You’ve drunk with me enough now to know my preference.”
She leaned her elbows on the table, chin propped against both hands, and watched him as he crossed the room. He spoke freely to every soldier – and the few scouts who were also present, she now saw – as he went, sure and steady as you please. She envied that poise and wondered if it had come naturally to him or learnt during his years as a Templar. What she had was mostly what the Antivans in the company called bravado and what everyone else had dubbed the brassest set of balls you’ve ever seen on a woman. And half of that was fueled by that angry little girl from the alienage who’d had her family stolen from her.
Meryell sighed, rubbing her fingers into her temples, then sat up as Cullen returned with two mugs topped with froth and a bowl of steaming stew. Her stomach growled as the delicious smell of boiled vegetables and meat hit her nose and immediately dug in as soon as the bottom hit the table. He laughed as he took the seat directly next to her at the other wall-backed chair – a habit they’d discovered when they’d shared the first night of many once he’d actually taken her up on the offer of drinking with her before she’d gone into the Hinterlands a month ago – and leaned back to sip at whatever he’d gotten to drink.
She finished the stew in what was probably record time, draining even the juices left in the bottom of the bowl, and then promptly scooted her chair closer to him. Snatching up her mug and taking a sip, Meryell curled her feet up into the seat and leaned sideways into Cullen’s chest with an audible thump, drawing a chuckle out of him. The warm, heavy weight of his arm fell across her shoulders and he laughed before softly saying, “This will no doubt spawn even more rumor, dear thief.”
She resisted the urge to shiver and laid her head back against his shoulder, smiling up at him. They had sat like this only a few times but she could foresee it becoming more common. His staying with her during his free hours lately had prompted a great deal of touching between them. It was never anything untoward or too forward, just her reaching out for comfort or him somehow anticipating that she needed touch. She’d never have taken him for that much of a touch-heavy type but sometimes it felt hungry. Like he was a man who’d starved himself of human contact.
Which, to be honest, she was the same way.
And somehow – she wasn’t quite sure how and didn’t want to examine it too closely – this, whatever this was, was working. She still wanted him and sometimes she caught the tail-end of a guilty stare as his eyes flicked away and came so fucking close to saying something but she knew enough about herself (and made enough guesses about him) to know it wasn’t the time. Cullen was, for now, her friend and that was enough.
He was the one thing in Haven she could honestly trust that she could put her back up against and not be let down.
“So?” Meryell chirped with a smile as her head lolled against his shoulder. “We know what we fucking are, yeah? Let ’em gab. They need to see us being people for the same reason as I don’t care about them calling me fucking Herald.”
Cullen’s face was slightly flushed – whether with drink or embarrassment was a mystery – but he nodded just the same. His arm tightened around her shoulders and he hummed before replying, “Yes. We know what we are.”
“And what are we, Cullen?”
He laughed then turned his head to press a slightly messy kiss against her temple, making her flush with a mix of sultry heat and friendly warmth at the gesture.
“Damn right we are,” she growled as she clinked her mug against his. “To being fucking amazing.”
One Encoded Letter, Penned by Meryell Verlen to Folke
I’m fucking alive, you twat, so take me off the damned dead roll. You know I don’t appreciate you doing shit without asking my permission.
You and the company probably haven’t heard of the Inquisition or the Herald of Andraste yet other than the letters they sent. Well, fun news, I’m the one carrying the latter title. You’re probably laughing your fucking head off at anyone putting a religious title to me, so take a minute before you blow your heart, old man.
Short story, shit went cock-up at the Conclave. Arnald’s going to have to return the up front pay to our client from the coffers ’cause it and all my gear went up in flames with everything else. If he bitches, tell him it was the price for me not being fucking dead.
I’d tell you more but the Inquisition has a spymaster who handles the birds and I’m hooked to town from an injury so I can’t reach our contact in Redcliffe. You know I hate these fucking codes. Cramps my damn hand. I’ll fill you in on the whole bit of nugshit the next time I see you, which’ll be hopefully soon.
Don’t twist Arnald’s arm too hard getting him to accept the ambassador’s offer of employ, old man. You’ll hurt his manly feelings.
Oh, and bring my shit with you?
Fuck you, Poppet
Encoded Reply, Penned by Folke to Meryell Verlen
I ought to wring your neck bloody, you little shit. You know I wouldn’t have supported the captain adding you to the dead unless I was certain you were supposed to be there. I fucking searched for you, trying to trace your charm. Gil and Demut did too.
You’d be surprised what the company’s heard. Captain’s a little wary of accepting the offer given what Boots rambled on one night about the history of the Inquisition but he’s going to do it anyway. Coin’s coin, as we say. And it’s you vouching, girlie, so Arnald’s inclined to listen. He did, in fact, bitch about having to give away coin though.
As for them calling you the Herald of Andraste, who thought up that piece of buggery? Obviously they don’t know you well, my girl.
Now, I’m holding you to telling me the whole story when I see you next. Right after I squeeze the sodding life out of you. Don’t scare me like that again, Poppet.
And, yes, I’ll bring your shit. Fucking things I do for you.
Your Dearest Asshole
fenedhis : shit, fuck
hal’am’shirelan : deserter