By the time they reached camp, Cullen’s ears were burning.
He hadn’t been able to hear everything that the elf and Kate were whispering about, but he had heard enough to know that both he and sex were among the subject matter. It didn’t seem that those two topics were linked, however, judging by Kate’s protestations. For his part, Cullen was studiously keeping his mind as blank as possible. Good thing the Chantry had taught emptying one’s mind of sinful thoughts as part of morning meditations.
So instead of listening to Coll, Cullen considered the conversation he’d just had with Kate. He imagined picking it up in his mind, and sorting through it as he might sift through the papers of a report. He wasn’t quite sure where to file the thing, but of course he couldn’t very well throw it out of his head. After some consideration, Cullen set it aside in his consideration, as if under a heavy mental paperweight. He was far too tired to properly examine this now, he decided. He’d think on it in the morning.
The trio reached camp as the final slice of the sun melted down behind the outline of the hills. The shadows began to wash together, casting the farms in darkness. There were two fires going among the bustle, with twenty-odd people were around their light. The smell of fried meat called to Cullen’s growling stomach. Off to the far end of camp, Cullen saw one small tent set up all by itself.
Ah, Cullen thought. It seemed someone had anticipated his arrival. He wasn’t sure if he felt grateful that someone recalled his singular sleeping habits or if he felt depressed at the thought that his tent looked like a lone runt puppy kicked out of the pile. The other tents were all nestled together, their sides glowing orange in the firelight.
As Cullen, Kate, and Coll approached the camp, several voices shouted in greeting. A chorus of “There you are!” and “What took you so long?” rang out. This was trailed by, “Sausages, you lot! Get ‘em before I eat ‘em all,” which came from a fair-haired elf. She had a bow at her side, and sat on a log, stuffing her face with potatoes and sausage.
Morris was also seated at the fire, Cullen saw. The moment Morris saw Kate, he grinned. “Aaaoo pee-ieee maah kaa!” Morris called out, around a mouthful of bread. Cullen could only assume the fellow meant to say, “Hello, pretty mage Kate!” Kate smiled and waved back.
“Hello everyone,” Kate said.
“Here now, Kate,” Coll said, as Cullen came to a stop beside the two women. “Here’s the fellow I wanted to introduce you to.”
She nodded at the fire, grinning maniacally. A large shape detached itself from a group of soldiers seated along a log beside the campfire and materialized as a great, horned giant. The qunari sauntered over with an easy swagger. As he approached, Kate’s neck craned up and up and her jaw dropped open slightly. The qunari stopped in front of Kate and looked down at her in blatant approval.
“So,” the qunari said. His voice made Cullen think of an echo from the bottom of a cast iron kettle. “You’re the new boss. Niiice.”
He said that in the flat accent that dwarves and qunari favored. It sounded like ‘naaaahyyyssss’ to Cullen’s ears.
“Oh. Um…” Kate managed no more than that. She might have been stunned to see a qunari up close, Cullen reflected. But she didn’t need to stare quite that blatantly, did she? And yes, her eyes were right on line with the fellow’s nipples, but did she really need to stare at his bare chest?
The qunari looked far too conspicuous to be Ben Hassrath, Cullen mused. He had an eye-patch, a bit of a beard - or as much of a beard as Cullen had ever seen on a qunari - and the most massive horns Cullen had ever seen on any creature. Instead of curling back against his head all compact-like, the qunari’s horns stuck out to the width of his sizable shoulders. How in the Maker’s name did the fellow walk through doorways, Cullen wondered?
“Name’s Bull,” the qunari said, hiking a thumb at himself as Kate just stared. “The Iron Bull.”
Coll elbowed Kate in the side. Kate sputtered, then recovered herself.
“Delighted to make your acquaintance, Iron Bull,” she said, her tone perfectly proper. She held out a hand to the mercenary.
“The Iron Bull,” the fellow corrected. “Don’t forget the definite article.”
With this, he bumped his massive knuckles against the tips of Kate’s fingers. She looked down at her hand in confusion, then let her arm drop.
“Ah,” she said. “The Iron Bull. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Coll has spoken of little else on our way over here.”
She gave her friend a short, speaking look. Coll smiled and gave Kate a thumbs-up gesture. Kate pasted a brittle smile on her face and turned back to the qunari.
“I’m Kate Trevelyan…” she began.
“Yeah, I know,” the qunari replied, grinning. “I know.”
“Um, right,” Kate said, looking a bit flustered now. “Oh. And this is Commander Cullen. He’s…”
The qunari’s gaze shifted to Cullen. “I know,” he interrupted.
“Ah,” Kate muttered to herself. “Well then.”
The Iron Bull looked Cullen over, his grin nearly as appreciative as when he’d been looking at Kate.
“Also nice,” he said.
It was a shorter ‘nice’, more like ‘nahys,’ but it was accompanied by a wink from the qunari’s one good eye. Cullen blanched and nearly dropped the bags. The Bull wasn’t trying to flirt with Cullen… was he?
Before Cullen could fully register that possibility, the qunari nodded down at Kate’s left hand.
“So,” he said. “That’s it, huh? Mind if I…?” He made a motion as if to reach for her wrist.
“Oh, um, yes,” Kate replied. She drew off her glove, and held out her hand to him.
Cullen frowned at the sight. He hadn’t taken a close look at the mark since the day he’d bound it up. He had thought that Kate’s hand had healed since then. But now he saw that her left palm was crisscrossed with scar tissue, and over it, the mark pulsed like a living thing.
The Bull took Kate’s small hand in one of his massive ones. The qunari cocked his head this way and that as he stared at it, his great horns swiveling like the sails of a windmill.
“Weird-ass looking thing,” he muttered. His lips curled in distaste. “Keeps floatin’ in and out of your hand. Like it’s not really here or there.”
“Well, in a way, it’s both,” Kate replied. “It can reach into the Fade, so I guess it would make sense it’s half in this world, half in the next. Like a key left in a lock.”
“Does it hurt?”
“It hurt at first,” Kate told him. “Now it just buzzes sometimes.”
“Ehh,” Bull concluded after one last look. “I don’t like it.” With that, he let her hand drop.
“None of us like it,” Varric put in, walking over to join them. “But when you think about it, it’s a damn good thing someone ended up with it. Otherwise, we’d be well and truly screwed. And you’d be dead,” he added, pointing at Kate.
“Thank you for the reminder, Varric,” she said dryly.
“So,” Varric said, “We doing introductions? ‘Cause I found you your warden, Duchess.”
“Duchess?” Cullen blinked at Kate.
“One of Varric’s nicknames,” Kate explained. “In rank, I’m just a lady. Courtesy title, naturally.”
“Naturally,” Cullen repeated. Kate shrugged, as if this was nothing. To her, it probably wasn’t.
“Hey, Blackwall!” Varric shouted at the fire. “Come on over and meet the Herald.”
”‘Duchess’ is a crap nickname,” Bull told Varric as a burly fellow near the fire rose to his feet. “Sounds like something an Orlesian asshole would name his lap dog.”
Coll snorted with laughter at that. “Sure but you’re right!”
“You think you could do better?” Varric asked in challenge.
The qunari smirked. “I know I could.”
“Ten to one he’s going to start calling you ‘Red,’” Varric said, looking at Kate with a sigh.
Coll chuckled. “But hasn’t he already named the Nightingale that?”
“See?” Varric said, waving his hands wide, “What did I tell you? Nicknaming is an art that few people can master.”
“If it’s an art, then how did I get saddled with ‘Curly?’” Cullen wanted to know.
“Curly?,” Coll said, turning to Cullen. “Why would he call yeh…? Ach! Get on with you! Yeh straightens it! That’s why I smell the oakmoss on yeh. And…elfroot?”
Coll grabbed Cullen about the ears and clawed him down to her level. Cullen nearly fell over as she sniffed at his head. From his contorted position, he caught sight of Kate. She had covered her mouth with her glowing hand, and her eyes crinkled with laughter. Cullen couldn’t help but smile back.
“Elflower,” Coll pronounced, letting Cullen’s head go at last.
“Guilty as charged,” he replied. Varric rolled his eyes at them all and cleared his throat.
“So anyhow,” the dwarf said. “Your warden? Remember how the wardens were missing, and Sera and I found the only one left?”
“Right,” Cullen nodded as Kate said, “Of course.”
“You’re welcome, by the way,” Varric added.
At this, a burly man with a thick, dark beard approached them. The fellow wore dusty, serviceable armor with a warden insignia on the breastplate. He gave a short nod to Cullen, but upon turning to Kate, the man’s eyes widened a bit.
“My lady,” the warden said.
Kate introduced herself - and Cullen, too. The warden - Blackwall, his name was - bowed to her and Cullen in turn. His manners were far more courtly than his gruff appearance would have suggested, Cullen thought. For a moment there, it looked like he was about to kiss Kate’s fingers instead of shaking her hand.
“Varric tells me that you’re looking for the Wardens,” Blackwall said, glancing back and forth between Cullen and Kate. “Afraid I don’t keep up with them much when I’m out recruiting. But if they’re missing, I’ll be joining you. We can search for them together. Well, and deal with the sky, of course.”
“Storybook hero, isn’t he?” Varric said, giving Blackwall a searching look. Blackwall frowned at this, and Kate quickly stepped in.
“We’re happy to have you join us, Blackwall,” she said. It almost sounded as if inviting him to a dinner party, Cullen thought. “Having a Warden on our side will be most welcome.”
“Sure it will,” Coll agreed. “And now you’ve met the Warden and the Bull, come on and meet the Chargers, Kate.”
With that, the elf grabbed Kate’s arm once again and swept her friend away toward the campfire. Cullen had half a mind to point out that Kate was tired and could probably use some food, but they were already gone. That left Cullen alone with the qunari, Varric, and the warden.
“Gentlemen,” he said. He turned to walk on into camp.
“Here commander,” the qunari said, reaching out a hand. “Let me take me your bags. That scout over there needs to speak to you.”
“Uh, alright,” Cullen replied, automatically holding out the packs. “My tent is over…”
“I know,” Bull replied. The qunari took both bags in one hand. He held them as easily as anyone else might hold a purse.
“Ah,” Cullen said. “And which scout was looking for me?” There were no fewer than a dozen in the camp.
“Over by the requisitions table,” Bull clarified “The one that looks like he’s ready to piss himself, he’s so eager to talk to you.”
This could have described any of the scouts waiting by the requisitions table, Cullen thought. It seemed that he was back to business as usual.
And that was good, Cullen reminded himself. His brief intermission in the Fallow Mire had ended, and work had resumed. Cullen certainly didn’t wish himself back in that swamp, dealing with undead, worrying about the soldiers, arguing with Kate…
Cullen glanced back at Kate, watching as Coll cheerfully introduced her to some soldiers there. For a moment, Cullen allowed himself to consider Kate, to consider what had happened in the mire and what had happened after. Because something had happened, surely - something more than the sum of its parts. Something had changed that had nothing to do with their argument or the mission or Kate’s list or any of it.
Cullen felt his mind hover over that mental paperweight. Then he drew back. He had other duties to occupy himself. And so Cullen headed for the requisitions table, out of the light of the campfires.
Kate tried not to feel disappointed when Cullen slipped away to work. Of course, he would have a million things to catch up on, she told herself. He was the commander of the troops, after all. He didn’t have time to sit around and chat with her any longer. Their earlier conversation had achieved it’s purpose, and she ought to be thankful for that. She shouldn’t sit around moping because she wanted to talk with Cullen some more.
Not that she did, Kate told herself. She still didn’t know what to make of that mission in the mire, and she certainly wasn’t about to try and sort out her thoughts in front of a crowd. Instead, she would put on a pleasant face and attempt to mingle. This would be like a party back home, she told herself - only with tents and campfires rather than tapestries and ballrooms.
With that thought in mind, Kate turned her attention to Coll. She greeted all of the Chargers at the elf’s behest, doing her best to make a mental note of names and weapons of choice (which was something Kate noticed seemed to matter a great deal to mercenaries). Then Kate settled her gear in her tent, changed into a clean shirt, and returned to the campfires to ask after Solas. The scouts met this question with a frown. Solas, they regretted to inform her, had indeed gone to Redcliffe. However, upon returning, he looked more solemn and silent than usual, and had subsequently disappeared. No one had seen him since.
“Did he say what was wrong?” Kate asked. And was something wrong with Redcliffe, or with Solas, Kate wondered?
“He said he needed to dream,” Morris replied. He picked up another dinner roll from a basket and stuffed it into his mouth.
“He needed to dream?” Kate repeated.
Morris nodded, his cheeks stuffed up like a squirrel’s.
“And what does that mean, precisely?” she asked.
“He’s sleepy?” Morris suggested, around a mouthful of bread. Only it sounded more like, “Eees fweepee?”
“So while we were all busting our asses, the elf’s been napping for four days?” Varric asked.
Vivienne sniffed. “And people wonder why I have such a low opinion of apostates.”
“Did Solas say where he was going?” Kate asked. She highly doubted the elf would be sleeping for four days. Kate hoped he hadn’t just taken off. Perhaps the apostate had finally decided to let the Chantry-humans fend for themselves, Kate thought. She sincerely hoped not. He knew far more about the Veil than any of the rest of them.
“Solas said he’d come back when you came back,” Morris said, swallowing his mouthful of bread.
“Ah,” Kate said. She looked around the campfire - the very Solas-less campfire. Obviously, that had not happened. Kate supposed she’d give him until morning, then go speak to the mages without him.
“Crazy bald elfy elf,” Sera said, rolling her eyes. “Here, Herald. Forget ‘im. Come have supper.”
The elf scooted over to make room for Kate on the log.
“Alright then,” Sera said, “We’ve got sausages - don’t ask what’s in ‘em. I think it’s druffalo or wolf maybe. Spicy though, you’ll be feelin’ that all night. Buttered rolls - gone cold, but good. Baked potatoes, smoked ham, got a wedge of cheese left. Apples…”
As Sera named each item, Kate heaped food upon two plates.
“Whoa, there,” Varric laughed, watching her, “You sure you can eat all that, Duchess?”
“I could,” Sera informed him.
“Yes, I saw that,” the dwarf replied.
“I’m just glad not to be eating rations again,” Kate told them.
Once she filled her plates, Kate settled herself beside Sera. Varric sat on Sera’s other side, and Morris sat by himself on a flat rock. Cassandra and Vivienne shared a bale of hay, clearly the softest, best seat around the campfire. Vivienne remained as regal as ever, Kate noticed. She didn’t even blink when the wind blew a couple of embers her way. The enchantress simply looked at the sparks, and they shriveled up into cold ashes. Kate wasn’t certain if Vivienne was casting a spell, or merely willing the embers away from her fine clothes.
Across the fire from Kate, Coll was seated next to Krem on a log. The two passed a bottle of wine between them and laughed over something Krem had said. The rest of the Chargers packed in around them, on the log and on the ground in front of the fire. Just then, Iron Bull came over, saw that there was no room for him among the Chargers, and sat beside Kate instead. Kate scooted over at once. From across the fire, Coll waggled her eyebrows encouragingly. Kate shoved another bite of potato into her mouth.
So,” Varric said in, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “Now that you’re back, Duchess, I gotta tell you the story of how we tracked down Blackwall here.”
“Is a ‘ood one,” Sera said, around a mouthful of food. “‘e’s as loony as the rest of all you lot.”
“Maker’s balls, not this again,” Blackwall grumbled. But in spite of the Warden’s frown, Varric related the story of how he and Sera had found Blackwall saving some farmers from bandits. The warden seemed quite embarrassed by his own heroism, Kate noticed, or perhaps he was just a little shy.
As soon as this tale was done, Bull decided to tell the tale of Coll and the Blades of Hessarian. Unlike Blackwall, Coll reveled in every minute of this, and cast significant glances at Krem throughout the re-telling.
As for Krem, Kate could not detect any particular interest on his part. He seemed amused by Coll - who wouldn’t be? - but he didn’t seem to notice her more or less than anyone else. It was a start, Kate supposed. Still, she imagined Coll would do better just to proposition the man.
Then, as the shadows turned to darkness and the first stars peeked out, the conversation turned to the business in the mire. Now it was Kate’s heroism that everyone was speaking of, and she reacted much as Blackwall had. Kate did not say a thing as multiple voices told the tale of how she and Cullen had defeated Widris and the Hand of Korth. Vivienne and Cassandra chimed in, as well as several scouts whose names Kate had, regrettably, forgotten. Other than answering a few questions, Kate mostly focused on shoveling sausages and potato into her mouth until she was full to bursting.
“That’s unbelievable!” Varric pronounced at last. “You can cast spells like that, Duchess? And here I thought you were kind of, well…”
“Worthless,” Sera put in, around a mouthful of potato. “Dwarf’s words,” she added, “Not mine.”
“Worthless?” Kate said, looking at Varric with a frown.
“Not worthless,” Varric hedged. “Just not really all that, you know, vicious. Your mark is useful, don’t get me wrong. But compared with some mages I’ve seen…” He seemed to stop there, momentarily at a loss for words. He gave a wry laugh instead and shrugged.
“Well,” Kate said, feeling a bit stung. “I didn’t realize I was competing with Hawke here.”
“Did you know that Hawke was a mage?” Morris asked Vivienne. “I didn’t.”
“You and most of Kirkwall, darling,” Vivienne replied dryly.
“Do not let it concern you, Katerina,” Cassandra said. Ever since the mire, the Seeker had taken to calling Kate by her name - but only by her full name. Cassandra allowed herself only so much informality, it seemed.
“You have my shield,” Cassandra went on, “Even if you are not the strongest of mages, I will protect you. The troops will protect you, too. Isn’t that right, Cullen?”
Of course Cullen had returned as they were discussing her lack of ability, Kate thought. That would be just her luck.
Cullen replied, “Um, well… We can spare a few soldiers, but…”
Kate sighed aloud.
“But it would be best if I could take care of myself,” she finished his sentence for him. “I understand,” she told the campfire in general. “I wasn’t trained for combat and I’m still learning the ropes. Here, Cullen,” she added, trying to distract everyone from this line of conversation. “I saved you some food.”
She handed him the second of the two plates she’d filled.
“Oh,” Cullen said, in surprise. “Thank you.”
“And here I thought that was all for you,” Sera said. “Was going to name you Lady Stuffs-‘er-face.”
Kate shrugged. At least her frustration at the Kate-can’t-fight conversation had overridden her concern about saving Cullen some food. Kate had worried it would look like she had been waiting for Cullen or favoring him or something like that. She didn’t want Cullen to think she was trying to earn his approval, either. Instead, Kate was certain that her gesture looked as casual as she had intended it to. It was, after all, something she would have done for Coll or Cassandra or anyone else.
Cullen took the plate from Kate, then looked around for a place to sit. Varric scooted over, giving Cullen a place between the dwarf and Sera. Kate sat on Sera’s other side, wedged between the elf and Iron Bull. The moment Cullen was settled, Sera tried to pluck a piece off ham off of his plate with her fork. Cullen frowned at her and pulled his plate away. Sera stuck her tongue out at him and went back to her own food.
“We’re going to have to work on that,” the Iron Bull said.
“If you can get Sera to eat off her own plate, I’m all ears,” Kate replied.
“No, not that,” Bull said. “The fighting. Shit isn’t gonna get any easier from here on out. And if I’m gonna be your bodyguard…”
Kate blinked at him. “My bodyguard?”
“Everyone was just sayin’ you could use some protection. That’s what I’m here for. Even so, you’d better learn how to fight. And I mean really fight. None of this whack-a-mage shit the scouts were talking about.”
“I’m hoping that once I learn how to cast around the mark…”
“Nah,” Bull interrupted her. “You can’t rely on magic. I mean, sure, use whatever you got. But you need to learn how to defend yourself when your mana or energy or whatever you call it dries up.”
“I suppose,” Kate said, doubtfully.
“Great,” Bull said, dropping his massive hand onto her back and giving Kate a jostle. “We’ll start your training in the morning.”
“Hah!” Across the fire, Coll laughed and pointed a tattooed finger at Kate.
“What?” Kate asked, frowning at her friend.
“And don’t think you’re going to get out of it just because we’re back from the coast, Circles,” Bull said, raising his hand off of Kate to point at Coll. “You just got a training partner is all.”
“Circles?” Kate asked.
”‘Cause of the circles on her face,” Bull said. He pointed at his own face, making twirling motions with his meaty forefinger.
“This here is the sign of Dirathmen, yeh dumb shite,” Coll said, pointing at her face. “It’s not circles, sweet Mythal the eejit…” She broke off grumbling and took another swig of Krem’s wine.
“Shit,” Varric said, snorting at Bull. “You’re terrible at nicknames.”
“Coll’s training to fight?” Kate asked, not quite able to believe it.
“Krem’s been helpin’ me,” Coll said, tipping the bottle at the merc beside her.
“She’s a quick learner,” Krem added. Coll beamed at him.
Maker, Kate thought. That elf had it bad.
“So,” Bull said, elbowing Kate with his meaty arm. “We’ll start you on the basics, first thing in the morning.”
“Have you ever actually trained mages to fight?” Cullen wanted to know. He leaned forward to frown at Bull from Sera’s other side.
“Yeah,” Bull returned. “Haven’t you?”
Cullen pressed his lips together and said nothing.
“Our commander is just being cautious, Bull dear,” Vivienne put in. “A mage’s staff is a most singular weapon.”
“I’m not teaching magic,” Bull snorted. “Don’t know the first thing about casting and crap. But the Antaam has a whole division of soldiers who fight with bladed quarterstaves. Close enough to your mage staffs.”
“Yes, but they don’t shoot fire from the end, now do they?” Vivienne asked, arching a brow at the qunari.
“No ma’am,” Bull agreed. “But we’re talking about what to do when the magic runs out. Techniques ought to translate easy enough. Though I think we’ll leave off putting a blade on your staff for now, boss. Don’t want you to lose fingers.”
“Uhh,” Kate said, uncertainly. “That sounds…” she tried to come up with the right word for it. “Great,” was the best she could do.
“But I have plans for tomorrow,” Kate added, “Maybe the day after…”
“First thing in the morning for an hour or two,” Bull said. “You can spare it, boss. You’ll have to spare it if you want to get any better.”
Kate couldn’t deny that. And if there was one thing Kate had learned from a life in a Circle tower, it was that education was endless. Far be it from her to turn down freely offered instruction.
“Okay,” Kate agreed.
Coll snickered, then elbowed Krem. The merc took a pull on his bottle of wine and said, “She’s got no idea.”
Coll replied by taking the wine from him and replying, “Not a one.”
Two spots down from Kate, Cullen glanced over at the Bull with a scowl. Then he turned back to his food.
Kate frowned. What was he so worried about, she wondered? Just an hour ago, Cullen had told her that he thought she was a capable mage. True, ‘capable mage’ didn’t translate to ‘seasoned fighter,’ but she was certain she could keep her spellcasting in check. She had been through a Harrowing, after all. How hard could this training be by comparison?
With that thought in mind, Kate said, “Thank you for the offer, Bull.”
The Iron Bull smirked, Cullen coughed, and Kate returned to her meal.
In the morning, Kate woke to a massive hand grabbing her leg.
“Hey boss,” she heard a deep voice speak into the darkness of the tent. “Time to get moving. You, too Circles.”
“Ah, feck,” Kate heard Coll mumble from the bed rolls right beside her. “Sure, but you’re wakin’ me earlier every day, I swear yeh are.”
“Nope,” Bull replied. “Day’s are gettin’ shorter is all.”
Kate peered down the length of her sleeping roll to see a horned shadow looming against a background of deep blue sky. She rubbed her eyes and frowned.
“But it’s still dark out there,” Kate said. “How are we supposed to train if we can’t see?”
“Get her bound up,” Bull said by way of reply. With that, he tossed something into Kate’s face.
“Wha..??” Kate sputtered as a length of cloth fell over her nose and mouth.
“Hurry up,” Bull added, before letting the tent flap drop.
Coll sighed, then a flame flickered to life in her hand. The light sent weird shadows scurrying to the corners of the tent. Coll then lit the lantern that hung from the center pole. In the far corner, Cassandra turned over with a huff.
“Do hurry along dears,” Kate heard Vivienne say. “Some of us are trying to sleep.”
Kate turned her head to see the enchantress was lying perfectly still on her sleeping roll, her arms at her side, a sleeping-mask over her eyes. Kate hadn’t heard any of these women crawl into the tent with her.
“Feck it all, Kate,” Coll muttered. “Why did we agree to this?”
Coll stripped off her sleep shirt, leaving herself sitting topless in the blankets. Kate didn’t have time to look away before Coll grabbed some of the fabric that Bull had tossed on Kate’s face. Coll proceeded to wind the cloth around her breasts.
“What are you doing?” Kate asked her.
“Bindin’ meself up,” Coll replied. “Qun-style. Oh, ‘twas all lovely it was the first time I did this. Krem helped me. Thought I was to die happy, I did. Only now I’ve learned, it’s ‘Sure, but can’t yeh do that yerself, Coll’?”
Coll snorted with disgust.
“What happened with Krem?” Kate asked. “When I headed for bed, you two were still working on that bottle of wine.”
“He sent me to bed ‘cause he thought I looked scuttered,” Coll replied, yanking the fabric around her torso in short, angry movements. “Quite the gentleman, he was.”
“Oh,” Kate said. “That’s…good, right?”
Coll stopped to glare at her.
“Say that again Kate,” the elf told her, “And I’ll bind yeh up so tight yer diddies will fall off. So help me I will. I wanna get fecked, yeh understand?”
“Maker’s breath,” Cassandra growled from the corner, “Be quiet, elf, or I’ll pick you up and throw you out of this tent.”
“I’d like teh see yeh try, yeh slag,” Coll replied.
“Coll!” Kate said. “I’m so sorry, Cassandra. Just…bind me up, Coll, and let’s get out of here.”
Cassandra glared at them both, then stuffed her head back under her pillow. Coll turned to Kate.
“Shirt off,” she told her.
Kate did as she was asked, and turned her bare back to Coll. Coll rose to her knees and swiftly wrapped the fabric around Kate, explaining her winding as she did so.
“Middle of the thing goes over the back of yer neck. Now cross in front, under each breast… yep. Then round the middle, like so… Tie and done. Tuck it up in there. And that’ll do. Not like yer knobs’ll do much bouncin’ around anyhow, two-backed wench as yeh are.”
Kate blinked at Coll’s snappishness. Coll must really have taken things with Krem badly. Or maybe it was sleeping on the ground that had her this crabby.
“Dears, please,” Vivienne sighed.
“Sure, sure,” Coll said, “We’re gettin’ on we are.” She paused, then jerked her chin at Vivienne’s chest.
“That one’d need at least three bindin’s to hold those fine knockers in,” Coll added.
“Coll!” Kate hissed.
As Vivienne lay there with her sleep mask on, her full lips curled in a smile. Apparently, the enchantress meant to take Coll’s comment as a compliment.
“Come on,” Coll said, reaching for the tent flap.
“Don’t we need shirts?” Kate asked, frowning. “It’s cold out there.”
“Kate-lass,” Coll said, grabbing the lantern. “The only way yer gonna get cold this morning is if Bull’s trainin’ kills you.” She paused, then added:
“And it might.”
“Very funny, Coll,” Kate said.
But Coll didn’t laugh, and Kate now felt very nervous. She grabbed her undershirt anyway, and slipped it over her head. Then Kate crawled out of the tent and into the dark morning.