Kate raced up the steps, growing more and more dizzy by the moment. The staircase wound steeply upward: it was the sort made from large slabs of stone that had been cut in wedges, stacked together, then fanned out to make a spiral. A century’s worth of passing feet had grooved the steps in the center, and so Kate clung to the outer edge of the stair. Her toes would have found no purchase on the inner side. If she missed even a step, Kate feared she’d tumble headlong down the center spiral. What a horrible deathtrap, she thought as she climbed. She hoped Cullen hadn’t fallen. She kept expecting to stumble over him in the dark, collapsed halfway up the stairs.
But as she climbed, she did not see him. She did not see anyone, dark as it was. The few slit windows let in scarcely enough light to see by, and Kate didn’t bother summoning a magelight. Even if she had any energy left, she would have saved it for Cullen, in case he needed it. Where was he anyway? Surely this stair could not wind itself up into the storm clouds. Kate was beginning to grow sick from running around and around in circles.
Then, just as she thought that, Kate heard a loud bang overhead. She looked up with a start, but saw only the underside of yet more spiral stairs. It was getting lighter, however. Perhaps she’d reached the top. Or perhaps it was just another slit window.
“Cullen?” Kate called.
More banging answered her. Kate took that as encouragement enough. She redoubled her pace, stumbling up the steps until she came to an open door. Kate pushed past it. She took in the room at a glance: stone walls, a pile of rubbish in one corner, two narrow arched windows to her left, an oak door to her right. It looked like any other store room in any other castle. Only there before the opposite door was Cullen.
Cullen, Kate thought, breathing a sigh of relief. He was alive and awake and upright - well, mostly. He was bent double as if his back ached him, and he was cursing at… The door? Yes, he was cursing at the door opposite Kate. As she watched he rattled the handle and gave the thing a kick.
“Locked, locked!” Kate heard him growl. “Strong enough to break down a crumbling wall, but I can’t kick down a door? Blast it!”
At his name, the commander whirled around. He looked wild, Kate thought. His hair stood on end, it seemed as though half his armor had sloughed off. His breastplate had been left down in the courtyard, Kate knew, but now his fur mantle seemed to be going the same way as the rest. The cloak hung from his shoulders and his leather jacket was open at the neck. His bracers hung loose, as if he’d unbuckled them, but not shrugged them off. One of his boots was untied.
“No,” Cullen breathed, his eyes widening at the sight of Kate. “No, no, no.” He thrust his hands into his air.
“Are you alright?” Kate demanded at once, rushing toward him, “Are you hurt? Is the lyrium…?”
“No, no!” he cried, raising up his hands to ward her off. He spun away from her, stalking back to the door again.
“Cullen, I…” Kate froze, arms out, not at all sure what to do. She’d assumed the posture she would have taken with a skittish horse, but that seemed disrespectful somehow. She curled her fingers, drawing them back to her chest.
“I’m just trying to help,” she said, and instantly hated how her voice sounded. But Cullen did not seem to hear her. He was pacing now, from the door to the window and back.
“Not like this… Get a hold of yourself! Never run away from a battle! Never run from a battle!”
Kate couldn’t tell if that was an admonition or a statement of fact. Either way, she stepped forward and tried to catch his attention.
“The battle’s over,” she said. “We’re all fine. We were just worried about you. Are you alright? Do you feel…”
Kate reached for Cullen as he paced by, but he held up his hands and took a step closer to the wall.
“Cullen…” Kate said. She knew that repeating his name over and over was not likely to be helpful, but she didn’t know what else to say. The man wasn’t listening to her. Instead, Cullen stalked over to the window again. His boots crunched some broken glass that had been knocked loose from the frame.
“Damn it all,” he growled. “I didn’t want you to see me like this. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this!”
“So long as we’re seeing you alive, we don’t care,” Kate returned. But Cullen only turned his face to the wall.
“Cullen, I mean it,” she said. “We thought…” Her voice broke there, but she recovered: “I thought I’d lost you.”
Kate scarcely got those words out. Her throat tried to close over them, and she felt her eyes well with tears. And that was no good, she thought. Cullen didn’t need her weeping over him. He needed…
Well, Kate didn’t know what he needed. She’d felt so frightened in the courtyard, but she hadn’t had the luxury of panicking. Now, she didn’t have the luxury of relief. How could she feel relieved when Cullen was so obviously in distress? His skin was ashen. The smudges under his eyes were dark purple, like a bruise. When he’d looked at her, there had been something wrong with his eyes. But as he was now looking away, Kate couldn’t tell what it was.
“Cullen, please,” she said. “Are you alright? We thought…”
“You thought I’d gone mad?” Cullen asked, whirling around. “Well I had. I did! I panicked. I ran up the stairs, looking for a place to hide. To hide, Kate!”
His voice roared through the room, and Kate blinked in surprise.
“But that’s enough, isn’t it?” he said, stalking to the window. “Enough to lose their trust. Enough to undermine the whole operation. Damn it all, I should be taking it. I should be taking it!” He punched the door again in fury.
“Lyrium,” Cullen said, pulling his hand back and flexing his fingers. “I shouldn’t have given it up. Too much at stake.”
“You did well to give it up,” Kate said. “I’m glad you did!”
But even as she said that, it occurred to her that if Cullen hadn’t given up lyrium, that spell wouldn’t have knocked him down. She wasn’t about to say it aloud, however.
“And what am I in the end?” Cullen asked, stalking angrily to the window. “Just one soldier in a greater army. Or I ought to be. Ought to be the commander. Ought to be capable to holding myself together through a battle. Through one battle.” He held up his index finger, bare and streaked with mud. “But instead, I… I…”
Cullen reached to the window, and braced his hands on either side of the broken frame. He began gulping, as if he were struggling for breath.
“Can you breathe?” Kate asked at once. “Maker save you, just take deep breaths. Calm yourself…” She reached out to him, touched his shoulder at last. Cullen whirled away.
“No!” he exploded. “It’s not the breath! It’s the memories!” He sliced a hand toward the door they’d just come through. He gestured as though said memories were lurking in the stairwell.
Kate blinked. “The memories?”
Of what? was her first thought.
Oh dear, was her second.
For now she understood - or rather, she thought she did. Something about that mage’s spell must have reminded Cullen of the battles in Kirkwall. And memories were something for which she had no cure.
“I thought I was stronger than this!” Cullen went on, stalking back into the empty room. “I’ve beat the visions back so times before. Too many times. I had to learn how. It was either face the fears, or live the rest of my life in that abbey.” Cullen sneered the word, as if it were disgusting to him.
“So fighting?” Cullen whirled around and held up his thumb. “I had to do it. Had to force myself back into the training ring. Had to learn to take a blow. And blood?” Now he raised his index finger. “The smell, the sight - can’t let it make me sick. Can’t stop to stare at it when it drips.” Cullen shuddered, and jerked his head to one side, as if to shake off that thought.
“And storms?” Now he had three fingers raised. “If you live in Thedas, you’ll see storms. So I’ve learned to endure the sound of thunder, no longer shudder at the sight of lightning. Can never forget how it feels, though. Arcing through a body, lighting every nerve with pain. It doesn’t leave a scar, you see. That’s why they favor it. And puddles?” This Cullen ticked off on his fourth finger, even as Kate gaped at him. “For the Maker’s sake, I’m a grown man, and I’m frightened of puddles. But they look like blood if it’s dark enough. And I woke up in pools of blood… so many times…” Cullen trailed off mid-count, and his eyes went glassy.
“Pools of blood?” Kate repeated. “Lightning?”
Good Maker, the way he described it, it sounded like Kirkwall had been nothing but butchery.
“But the nothing,” Cullen said, holding up his pinky finger all by itself. “That nothing? I couldn’t handle that. Couldn’t have trained against that. Blind. Suffocating. Couldn’t even feel the ground beneath me. A prison without walls - without locks or a door. Like being swaddled in death. Like being suspended in the Void. That’s what damnation is like. It’s not fire. It’s not torment or demons. It’s just you, trapped in your own head, and… nothing.“
“Is that what happened when the spell hit you. You felt trapped?” Kate didn’t understand, didn’t know what questions to ask.
“Trapped,” Cullen nodded. He dropped his pinky finger, his expression bleak. “Maker’s breath, how long was I trapped like that? How long did they keep me there?”
“Five minutes?” Kate suggested, taking a tentative step toward him. “Ten? But I’m sure it felt like…”
“Weeks?” Cullen interrupted. “Months? In and out of that nothingness. Butchery and silence and bouts of temptation all running together. And how are you the same after that? How can you be the same?”
Cullen ran his hands through his hair, over his ears. His fingers locked at the back of his neck. His elbows stuck out before him, shielding his face.
“And then, when those lights came for me?” he murmured. “When they flooded me…?”
“You mean the wisps?”
Cullen didn’t answer. Instead, he suddenly dropped to the floor. He sat down so heavily, it looked like he’d gone down like a stone. Kate dashed forward, skidded to her knees in front of him.
“Cullen!” she cried, grabbing him by the elbows, for that was the first thing she could get hold of. “Maker’s breath, was it the wisps that frightened you? Did they remind you of something in Kirkwall? I’m sorry, I don’t understand, but please. Please help me understand. I want to help. I want to understand.”
And now she was babbling, Kate realized. She was babbling and hanging onto his elbows, and she didn’t know at all how to help.
“Cullen please,” she whispered. “I… Oh!” For in that moment, Cullen let his arms drop, and Kate looked right into his eyes.
His eyes looked wilder than the rest of him. He’d broken a blood vessel in one eye, and his pupils were so dilated that irises were mere rings of brown. Kate found herself looking into mismatched while and red, with twin black mirrors reflecting the room.
“Cullen…” Kate murmured.
“Your eyes glowed,” he said, softly. “That’s why I ran.”
Kate blinked. “You ran because of me?”
“They glowed damn it!” Cullen shouted right in her face.
Kate fell back from her knees to her bottom, looked up and blinked at him stupidly.
“No, no,” he said, hands over his face again. “No, you saved me. I told myself you saved me. Even as I ran, I told myself I was alive, that you didn’t… that you wouldn’t… But would you?” he asked, dropping his hands. “Did you? What was the cost they asked of you? What did you have to give them in order to save me?”
“And did they possess you?” Cullen asked, his bloody expression bleak. “Or did they possess me? Which one of us is the abomination now?”
Kate’s jaw dropped.
“Or both?” Cullen added, his throat catching as he swallowed. “It might be both of us, after all.”
“I– You– That– No!” It took Kate a few tries to get to the refusal she was looking for. “Maker’s breath, Cullen! I should think you know me better than that!”
“I don’t know what to think!” he shouted. He threw a hand wide. “I was lying there, unable to breathe or hear and then I couldn’t see! They always came for me then, Kate! When I was weakest. When I was so isolated and insane that I might have agreed to anything - anyone - rather than be alone! It was just like… It was just like…” A sudden flash of lightning lit the window. Cullen flinched and curled up on himself. “Ah, Andraste…” The thunder rolled out over his cry.
Kate didn’t hold back this time. She didn’t care if he tried to shake her off. Propriety and protocol be damned, this was too much for one person to take on all by himself. Kate plunked herself down right beside Cullen, legs folded up by his side. She threw her arms around him. Her face got all mushed up into his shoulder. She felt Cullen tense, then shudder, as if he was sitting in icy water. But thank the Maker, he didn’t push her away.
“You’re not alone,” Kate said, fierce and low. The words came out all muffled, so Kate lifted her head. “You’re not possessed, either. And I’m not possessed. And I didn’t do blood magic or…” She shook her head, trying to find words when all explanation eluded her.
“They’re just wisps,” she said, grabbing hold of the simplest description. “Not even wisps. Part of a wisp, maybe? I don’t know. But they follow me around - in the Fade, that is,” she added, when Cullen began to tremble. “They trailed me through the Veil. I’ve never tried using them before. I didn’t dare. But when that mage clashed you, he blew every bit of lyrium out of your body. And with your nodes bleeding your life energy into the Fade, I had no choice but to try–.”
“He did what?” Cullen cut her off. A faint thudding now came from the stairwell, but neither Kate nor Cullen turned to heed it. “The mage did what to me?”
“He clashed you,” Kate replied. “Cast Mana Clash on you,” she amended. “Ella couldn’t heal for it. She was struggling just to keep your lungs going. I did a lyrium protocol, and there wasn’t any lyrium left in you, not that I could see. Your body was bleeding energy out of you, and we couldn’t find any other healers because Dorian was still asleep and we were running out of options…” Kate gulped for breath, for she’d said all of this at one go.
“So I summoned up the spirits to help.” She took another breath. “I would have tried something else or asked your permission at the very least. I didn’t have the time and so…” Her breath failed her again.
“But templars can’t…” Cullen murmured. “All the lyrium, you say?” He addressed this out into the room, as if he was having an argument with the shattered glass on the floor. “Maker’s breath, I never should have stopped taking it.”
“Yes, you should have,” Kate said, giving him a little shake. “I don’t know what this means now, and I should probably do a lyrium protocol on you if you’ll allow me. But you made the right choice about the lyrium.”
“Did I?” He didn’t sound convinced. “But at least I’m not possessed. I’m not possessed, right?” Cullen glanced over at Kate, his one bloodshot eye fixing on hers.
“No, you’re not,” Kate said.
“Good,” Cullen said, nodding, taking a breath. “That’s good. No, not good.” He buried his head in his hands once again, and began shaking anew. “I believe you. Oh Maker. I believe you.”
Kate drew back, completely bewildered. “Why is that bad?”
“I can’t just believe you,” Cullen said, shaking even harder now. “I put Keran on probation for years - years, Kate. And all because he might have been exposed to possession. He was supposed to be cast out entirely.”
“Cast out of what?”
“The templars! We ought to have had him executed, if we were being consistent about it. Mages certainly wouldn’t have gotten the benefit of a doubt. ‘Never trust a mage’s word on the subject of demons’ - that’s what Meredith always said.”
“What? That’s rubbish. What did she imagine that we studied all day? Turnips?”
“And yet, you say I’m not possessed,” Cullen said, ignoring her remark. “You say you’re not possessed. You say you’re not a blood mage, and I believe you, just like that!” He snapped his fingers, or tried to. Shaking as they were, they only made a soft, rubbing sound.
“Maker’s breath, I’m losing my objectivity,” he moaned.
“It seems to me as if you’re finding it,” Kate returned, unable to keep her annoyance out of her voice. “And I should hope you’d take my word for it, Cullen. I should hope I’ve earned your trust after all this. Besides, you don’t feel them inside do you?”
“Well, no, but –”
“There you are,” Kate said, as if concluding an argument in rhetoric class. Only this was not rhetoric, and Cullen did not appear convinced. Maker’s breath, Kate thought. What did she have to do to convince him?
“I feel like my head is going to explode,” Cullen said, grinding his forehead into his knee. “Those demons - wisps. Whatever they were. They filled me. They ran all through me. They laughed at me, Kate!”
“Oh,” Kate said. “Yes, they would have laughed, wouldn’t they?”
Cullen’s head shot up, and he fixed his bloody eyes on her. “They laughed at me!”
Kate drew back at the anger in his voice.
“And then your eyes glowed,” Cullen said, looking away and covering his face in his hands once more. “They glowed Kate. Just like they do in my nightmares.”
Kate blinked. Surely she hadn’t heard that right. “You have nightmares about me?”
“Yesss,” Cullen groaned from behind his hands.
Well then. Kate had felt stung before. Now she felt like a little trickle of venom had slipped in. She tried to tell herself that Cullen was wounded and reeling and angry. She told herself that he was lashing out at her because she was the person closest by. She tried to remind herself that she’d summoned wisps that thus triggered memories of the worst of his time in Kirkwall. But still, to have nightmares about her? That seemed more than mere unease.
“Do you have nightmares about every mage you know, or just me?” she asked, her tone sharp.
“Just you lately,” Cullen’s voice was strained. “It was Amell before…”
“Could be anyone. That’s what I learned. Their faces haunt me. Ripped to shreds by abominations or they became the abominations. That’s why I can’t… That’s why…”
He ducked his head, and his fingers clawed through his hair. His nails dug deep into his scalp. Kate felt the tension thrumming through him, felt the shaking rattle through her. And she also felt sorry that she’d gotten angry at him just a moment ago. Maker’s breath, the man was reeling. She had to do something. Kate placed her hand on his back and began rubbing his shaking shoulders in wide circles.
“It’s alright,” she said, though she wasn’t certain if that were true or not. “It’s going to be alright.” Come to think of it, she couldn’t promise that, either.
“Sweet Andraste, I’m never going to get over it, am I?” Cullen whispered to the room. “I can train myself against the memories. I can weather what’s left. But it will never really be gone. Can’t burn it out. Not with a spell, not with lyrium. How could I?”
“After what happened to you at Kirkwall,” Kate said gently, “I don’t know if a person ever could get over…”
“Kirkwall?” Cullen snorted, lifting his head. “Maker’s tears, that was mere pinpricks. Reminders everywhere, certainly. But nothing like…” His eyes went unfocused again as he stared out at the storm.
“The way the gore coated the windows,” he whispered. “Every day I woke to darkness. Or to red. Daybreak through bloodstains is the worst sort of sunrise.”
Daybreak through bloodstains? Kate wanted to squeak. And what did he mean, pinpricks and reminders? Was he talking about Kirkwall or not?
But before Kate could say anything, she heard a thumping from the stairwell. It came as an odd echo, all round, stony shapes, and with it came muffled voices. Kate turned her face toward the passageway just in time to see a mustached face appeared in the doorway. It was followed quickly after by a horned one.
“And there’s the top!” Dorian exclaimed. “Finally! And… Ah! Here they are.”
Dorian staggered into the room, with Iron Bull right on his heels. Both of them were soaking wet. The leather of their boots was so dark with rain as to look nearly black. But where Bull was dripping water all along his grey skin, Dorian had attempted to cover himself with a long cloak. Neither of them seemed particularly surprised to find both Kate and Cullen cuddled up on the floor.
“Good work, boss. Glad you caught up with him. How’s he doing?” Bull stalked over and crouched down at Cullen’s eye level.
“He’s able to speak for himself,” Cullen returned, raising his bloodshot eyes to Bull.
“Good, good,” Bull nodded. “Figured you might be. But sometimes you can’t right after a battle. That’s okay, too.”
“I’m fine,” Cullen said, tightly.
“Of course he’s fine,” Dorian said, sitting down in a heap on the floor. “He was in good hands. And we’re fine, too. Thanks for asking. We just…ah,” Dorian yawned loudly, then smacked his lips. “Maker’s breath, that Ella knows how to cast a sleep spell.”
“We wanted to make sure you were both alright,” Bull finished for Dorian.
“Let it be known that it was my idea to check in on you,” Dorian said. “And I didn’t ask for company.”
“You wouldn’t have made it up the stairs without my help,” Bull countered. “You nodded off halfway up.”
“And you had to walk with your head turned sideways just to make it up the stairs.”
Bull’s lips thinned, and he turned from Dorian to address Cullen. “Castle’s secure, commander,” he said.
“Good,” Cullen said. Then he blinked. That one bit of information seemed to have brought Cullen back to himself.
“Maker’s breath,” he muttered. “I should be down there. I shouldn’t be here…” He started to rise, shaking off Kate’s arms.
“Cullen–!” Kate began, but Bull beat her to it.
“Hey, hey,” the qunari said, placing a heavy hand on Cullen’s shoulder. “I didn’t say it was your shift. Just that the shifts are still goin’. We got it, commander. You need to rest.”
“Rest?” Cullen snorted. “I shouldn’t be resting, I should be…”
“Resting,” Dorian said, emphatically. “Sweet Andraste, you nearly died down there! It’s a good thing our Kate knows a thing or two about spirit healing. Um, that was a spirit healing, yes?”
“Er…” Kate hesitated. Iron Bull and Dorian were looking at her warily. Cullen had swiveled his face toward her as well.
“A form of it,” she hedged. “But don’t expect me to be able to do something like that again.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Bull said. “I know how folks can get a rush of strength in battle. I just didn’t realize it worked on spirit shit as well.” He shuddered.
“It wasn’t…” Kate began, but then she decided that she didn’t want to try and explain. She shrugged instead.
“How are you feeling?” Dorian asked Cullen. “Not well, I imagine. You look like death.”
“Nice, Vint. And you call me rude?” Bull elbowed Dorian in the shoulder, and Dorian pitched sideways.
“I’m just saying,” Dorian sniffed. He yawned again. “So, how are you, commander?”
“Not wanting to be fussed over,” Cullen replied tightly.
“No worries,” Bull said. “We won’t stay long. Just wanted to make sure you weren’t dead.”
“As you can see, I’m alive. How are the troops?”
“Oh fine, fine,” Bull said. “Great, actually. This was a training exercise, and they all learned something.”
“Be ready in case the commander falls?” Cullen said, wryly.
“Yup,” Bull nodded. “Hard lesson, but they learned it. Good thing is, you didn’t actually die.”
Kate shuddered. She didn’t like this turn in the conversation, or the reminder that they’d almost lost Cullen. But she was glad that Bull and Dorian had come to check in. Cullen was already looking more himself in their company.
“Anyhow,” Bull went on, “They’re all back to work. Charter’s got everyone setting up camp. Lysette and Barris are securing the inner courtyard doors. We would have shored up the outer doors, only someone can’t fix the gates.” He leveled a look at Dorian.
“I’m an altus, not a tradesmage,” Dorian sniffed. “Even if I had the supplies, I wouldn’t know how to build a door.”
“Yeah, but you could blow one up just fine.”
“So glad you noticed.” Dorian buffed his nails on his sopping-wet cloak. “That was some of my best work, I’ll have you know.”
“Everyone’s alright then?” Cullen asked, his voice tight. “Everyone’s…” He winced, then doubled over.
“Cullen!” Kate said, gripping his shoulders. “Hey!” Bull said, placing his hand on Cullen’s chest.
“I’ll ask it again, commander,” Dorian said. “How are you? Not ‘Are you capable of marching about and giving orders?’ Clearly you are. But how are you feeling?”
“Awful,” Cullen ground out. “Like I’ve got a fever. Or just survived one. Muscles… like wet paper. And I’m shaking, like I’m cold.”
Bull put a hand to Cullen’s head. “You’re not cold. Not hot, either.”
“Probably the after-effects of that spell,” Kate murmured.
“Undoubtedly,” Dorian agreed. “Ella told us what happened.”
“Yeah, she did,” Bull said. “Good on you, commander. Givin’ up lyrium? That’s hard core.” He held his fist out in front of Cullen’s face. Cullen stared at it.
“You’re supposed to pound it,” Bull said, nodding at the fist. Cullen ignored that.
“Does everyone know?” he asked. “Does everyone know about the lyrium?” He sounded horrified at the possibility.
“Yes,” Kate said. “I told them. I didn’t want to betray your trust, but I didn’t know how to keep them from giving it to you.”
“Oh Maker,” Cullen groaned, and hung his head.
“What are you ‘Oh Maker’ing for?” Dorian wanted to know. “No one thinks less of you for it. Quite the opposite, really. Everyone’s mightily impressed. In fact, Ser Barris and Lysette are engaged in a debate right now about whether they’re going to do the same.”
Cullen’s head shot up. “No,” he said, scowling. “No, that’s… Blast it! This is exactly why I didn’t want anyone to know! If they die because of me–”
“Hey, calm yourself,” Bull said, holding up a massive hand. “That’s their decision to make, not yours.”
“We’re just saying that we understand,” Dorian said, gently.
“You understand?” Cullen sounded as if he doubted that very much.
“Hey, I understand,” Bull said. “I’ve taken hits that landed too hard and sent me to another place entirely. And after the shit you’ve seen?” Bull whistled low. “I’ve been there, too, commander. Asala-taar is what we call it. Soul-sickness. Can’t count the number of times I’ve staggered off one battlefield, just to fight on in here.” He tapped his temple.
“But no one’s judging you, commander,” Bull went on. “There’s no shame in fighting wars that no one else can see.”
Cullen let out a sigh. His shoulders relaxed just a inch - no, not even an inch. If Kate hadn’t had her hand on his back, she never would have felt the tension going out of him. But he relaxed all the same. As he did, Kate felt her chest go tight and tears pricked her eyes. She wished she could have been the one to find words that reached him, but she was just grateful that such words had been said. Kate looked up at Bull and mouthed, ‘Thank you.’ Bull briefly met her eyes, nodded, and turned his attention back to Cullen.
“So hey,” Bull said, thumping Cullen on the shoulder. “Take some rest. And since we can’t give you any lyrium –”
“Well, we could,” Dorian put in. “It would just kill you. Probably. What’s the verdict on that, by the by?” He asked his of Kate.
“Not a good idea,” she said.
“Well then,” Dorian said. “We’d better give you this instead.”
With that, he pulled a large jar out from under his damp cloak. The glass had been stained green, and it looked as if it contained lumpy lawn clippings.
“My elfroot,” Cullen said, reaching for it.
“Uhhhh… You’re gonna give him that?” Bull shot Dorian a questioning look.
“It’s his medicine, isn’t it?” Dorian replied. “He sneaks the stuff daily.”
“Also sneaks off with boss daily,” Bull muttered.
“What?” Kate blinked at them both. At her side, Cullen’s head had just shot up. “Excuse me?”
“I’m just saying, you sure that’s medicine?”
“What else would it be?” Cullen said, uncorking the lid.
“Elfroot pellets, yeah? Amrita vein base?”
Cullen looked into the jar, frowning. “I don’t know about the base, but…” He broke off as Bull snagged three pills and popped them into his mouth.
“Hm…” Bull said, chewing. “Drier than I’m used to. But it’s got the same – Mmmmmm… Oh yeah. There’s the kick. Yeah. Hoo,” he cocked his head to one side. “Gives you a buzz, huh?” He swallowed, then pointed a meaty finger at the jar.
“That there’s an aphrodisiac.”
Cullen nearly dropped the jar. At his side, Kate gave a squeak.
“Aphrodisiac. Helps boost the sex drive.” Bull reached for another one.
“I know what an aphrodisiac is!” Kate slapped Bull’s hand away from the jar. “Don’t just eat them!”
“Yes, we wouldn’t want you even hornier than usual,” Dorian murmured. He gave Bull a considering look.
“Did you know about this?” Cullen asked, rounding on Kate.
“Of course I didn’t know about that!” she cried back. “I–” She broke off, then closed her eyes.
“I am going to strangle Coll,” she announced.
“Nah, don’t do that,” Bull said. “I like Circles. ‘Sides. It’s an ingenious use of ‘em.”
“I’ll maim her then.”
“Cool,” Bull nodded. “I’ll watch. As I have some of these as a snack.” He reached for the jar, then paused and looked up at Cullen.
Cullen held the jar out dumbly. Kate scowled at them both.
“It’s not candy!” she cried. “Look, whatever Coll put in them, they are helping. I think. Are they helping?” she asked this of Cullen, whose ears were now red.
“I thought so,” Cullen said. His voice seemed caught in his throat. “Now I’m not so sure.”
“So are they a placebo or a joke?” Dorian wanted to know. “Or an excuse? You two have been sneaking off together so often…” He trailed off meaningfully.
Cullen had been holding up a pill and studying it. Now he dropped it into the jar as if it had caught fire.
“What?” Cullen asked, staring at Dorian.
“The two of you. Moonlight. An elfroot aphrodisiac…” Dorian waggled his eyebrows.
“No!” Kate said, her eyes going wide. “It’s-because-of-the-lyrium-protocols!” She practically shouted it - all as one word, too.
“Because of the what-whats?” Dorian repeated.
“Lyrium protocols,” Kate said, more slowly, more emphatically. “In the south, templars take lyrium. So mages regularly check their lyrium levels. Take a templar by the hand and just…” Without thinking, Kate wrapped her hand around Cullen’s wrist. He managed not to drop the jar, but he froze quite suddenly.
“How quaint,” Dorian said. His moustache twitched.
“With Cullen no longer on lyrium, I had to check more often, that’s all.”
“Much more often,” Dorian agreed. He now wore a cat-in-the-cream smile.
“It was entirely professional,” Cullen put in.
For you, maybe, Kate thought. She couldn’t help but notice the feel of Cullen’s skin under her fingers. His skin was soft, and his pulse was right under her thumb. Kate drew her hand away at once.
“It’s just for medical purposes,” she said, placing her hands in her lap.
“Yes, I can see that,” Dorian said.
He and Bull exchanged a look.
“Whelp, we’d better be going,” Bull said abruptly. He stood, and motioned for Dorian to do the same. “Come on, Vint.”
“I have a name, you know,” Dorian said. He stood and brushed off his rear. Bull took interest in that, watchin Dorian’s hands as they smoothed over his leather breeches.
“Does everyone else…?” Kate began. “That is to say…?”
“Do they share our assumptions?” Dorian asked, pausing mid-swipe. “You know, I’m not sure. Not everyone was in on the betting pool.”
“Betting pool?” Cullen gaped.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Dorian said breezily. “They have all sorts of improbable pairings in there. Varric put down a bet on the two of us, if you can believe that.”
He hiked a thumb from himself to Bull. It might have been Kate’s imagination, but Bull’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly.
“There’s also a bet on you and Barris.” Bull said to Dorian.
“Yes, true,” Dorian said, flushing.
“And Cullen and Barris,” Bull went on, ticking the pairings off on his large fingers. “And Kate and Barris, and Cullen and me,” – by now, Cullen was sputtering – “And Kate and me…”
“That’s… enough,” Cullen coughed the words out, rather than speaking them.
“Indeed,” Kate agreed. “Maker, I think we need to send out a memo regarding the subject of sex-based gambling. And here I thought Robert was just exaggerating.”
“That’s one memo that I’m not writing,” Cullen said.
“Eh, don’t bother,” Bull told them. “Soldiers need something to worry about besides the possibility of their own death. Anyhow, since you narrowly missed dying today…” he pointed a finger at Cullen.
“Rest,” Bull said.
“I’m the commander here, not you,” Cullen said, glaring up at that finger.
“No, but she’s the boss,” Bull said, nodding at Kate. “It’s her order that matters.”
Everyone turned to look at Kate.
“Um, rest?” she said. It came out as a question. Cullen frowned.
“At least let me do a lyrium protocol,” she said.
Cullen made a face - a rather disapproving one. But he said, “Fine,” all the same.
“Lovely things, protocols,” Dorian said with a wink. “They let a man know exactly what rules are worth breaking.”
Before Kate could say anything, Bull and Dorian headed to the door – the locked door. Kate turned in place, calling out:
“Oh, no. That door’s…”
“Locked,” Bull finished for her. “Fine. We’ll go the way we came.”
“We could blast that door down,” Dorian suggested. “Or you could ram it with your head.”
“Nah,” Bull said. “Let a rogue deal with it.” He headed back to the passageway.
“See you later, commander. Bye boss.”
“Good bye!” Dorian said cheerfully. To Bull, he said, “Where are we in the castle anyway? I can’t understand the layout of this place at all.”
“I think we’re up near the high ramparts,” Bull said, his voice now echoing through the tubular tower. “We’ll need to close up this passage if we can’t get that outer gate shut.”
“I told you,” Dorian’s voice floated from far below now. “Just send for someone in the village. I’m certain that those farmers would be thrilled at the prospect of coin in exchange for carpentry…”
And then they were gone, their voices nothing more than murmured from the stairwell. Kate realized she’d been staring after them. Now that she turned her head, she saw Cullen had been staring at her. As soon as their eyes met, Cullen dropped his head and glanced away.
“Well,” Kate said.
That was as far as she got. Bull and Dorian seemed to have taken all the light and conversation with them, and Kate now felt cold and desperately self-conscious. But at least Dorian and Bull had checked in, Kate thought. Cullen seemed more settled now. At least he had some color in his cheeks. True, it had been brought on by blushing, but Kate wasn’t about to be picky.
“How are you?” she asked him, gently as she could.
“Fine,” Cullen said, tersely. With no Bull to hold him down, Cullen tried to stand.
“You really ought to rest,” Kate said, scrambling to her feet. “You– Oh!”
Cullen pitched over to one side. Kate half caught him, and he half caught himself. He stumbled to the wall, braced a hand against it, and double over.
“Maker,” he gasped. “I feel awful.”
“Then sit,” she said. “Please sit,” she amended. “Let me check you.”
Cullen didn’t argue this time. He slumped down at the base of the wall, back to the stones, legs out before him. Kate knelt at his side. Before she even asked, Cullen held out his hand to her. Their hands were already bare from the protocols in the courtyard, and Kate took his hand in hers. His fingers were freezing, and muddy besides. When they touched, Cullen winced, squeezed his eyes shut.
“It hurts that much?” she asked, softly.
“Just awkward as the Void,” Cullen murmured.
“Bull and Dorian, you mean?” Kate hazarded a guess.
“That too,” Cullen snorted. He turned his face toward the ceiling, eyes still closed, face drawn. Kate hesitated, then asked:
“Is it the memories?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Cullen said, tightly. “Just do the protocols.”
Kate felt as if he’d shoved her away with his hands. Even so, she found she couldn’t blame him. She ought not have pried.
“Alright,” she said. “I’ll try and be quick about it.”
Kate closed her eyes, then dropped into that in-between space in her mind. It wasn’t quite like sleeping, nor like a trance, either. Instead, it was similar to the place she found herself when she was studying all day, or lost in a good novel. It felt rather like dreaming, and Kate often lost track of time and space here. But while she floated here, Kate could control her thoughts and focus. She thus directed her attention to Cullen’s body - and tried not to get distracted.
The feel of his hand in hers, the rough callouses of his fingers - she had to move past that. Kate also set aside the awareness of muscle and sinew twisting through his hands. She pressed on through lifeblood, past bone as well. And hidden deep, along the pulses of nerve, Kate found the strange, branching thorns that were his lyrium nodes.
They were quiet.
They were there, which meant she hadn’t simply misplaced them. In a normal person - well, a person who had never drunk lyrium - would never have such formations. A mage would have such nodes, but they would have been thinner and finer, more organic in structure. Cullen’s nodes reminded Kate of a poorly built highway. It was like someone had hauled out a bunch of stone, built part of the road, and then left the rest of the materials in heaps upon the ground. There were no workers, no traffic, and no buzz of liquid song. There were just paths to nothing, nodes half-formed, half built. And all was still.
Kate wandered in that place, up one road and down the next. She was scarcely aware that in waking life, her fingers trailed up Cullen’s arm right up to the inner side of his elbow. She didn’t notice how she pushed aside his sleeve to do it. Then her fingers grazed his neck, his ear, the back of his head. If she’d been more conscious of it, she would have realized she was discomfiting him. But her awareness was here, in this Fade-space. And everywhere she looked, from the base of his skull to the bottom of his spine, she sensed only remnants, and heard only silence. The lyrium was gone.
Well, that’s good, she thought.
Or was it, she wondered? What did abandoned nodes mean for a body? Would Cullen still have the inclination to drink lyrium, or would he find himself cured of that? She suspected that he’d still desire the draught. It wasn’t as if a half-built lyrium highway didn’t want finishing. And what toll would this take on him, she wondered?
Maker’s breath, I’m right back where I began.
She really was no use without Coll, Kate thought. The best thing to do was to get Cullen back to Skyhold, and let Coll take a good, long look at him. And I can ask Coll about that elfroot stunt while we’re at it, Kate thought. She came floating back to full consciousness on a wave of frustration, only to open her eyes and find that her position was rather precarious, indeed.
Kate opened her eyes to find that her right hand rested over Cullen’s heart. He was no longer looking at the ceiling, but right at her. And for some reason, Kate was now straddling Cullen’s outstretched legs. She had no memory of doing that.
Kate made an inelegant noise and dove off of Cullen. It sounded something like: “Gnack!”
“Maker, I’m so sorry,” she gasped, once she’d plunked herself at his side again. “I was probably pinching your knees, wasn’t I?”
“Not the knees,” Cullen grunted. With stiff movements, he pushed himself back into the wall.
“I’m so sorry,” Kate said again, feeling like a fool. “I wasn’t even thinking… I’m sorry.”
”’S’all right,” Cullen said, still with that tight voice. He grabbed his left leg under the thigh and pulled it up so that he had his left knee propped up, and the right leg outstretched. He settled his mantle over his lap, then let out a sigh.
“Better,” Kate asked.
“Somewhat,” he replied. “What’s the verdict?”
“The ver…? Oh, well,” Kate shook her head, scooted herself to a seated position beside him. “The lyrium is gone.”
“Gone,” Cullen repeated, looking to her abruptly. “As in, I’m cured?”
“Not exactly,” Kate said, her mouth pulling to one side. “The nodes remain.”
“And what does that mean?” Cullen asked. “No, don’t tell me,” he said, as she opened her mouth. “You don’t know.”
“I don’t,” Kate said. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry,” Cullen said, scowling at his hands. “I never should have gone off the stuff in the first place.”
“Don’t say that! What you’re doing is still the right thing to do. It doesn’t change in value every time we hit a slight snag.”
“A slight snag, do you call it?” Cullen said, disbelieving. “Kate, I nearly died because of a spell that ought not have affected me. I ran out on my soldiers down there,” he added, more quietly.
“No you didn’t” Kate said. “They were already gone on ahead. You merely…” She searched about for a way to explain it. “You were looking for a good place to sit down.”
Cullen gave her a look to say that he didn’t buy that.
“Cullen, you heard Bull. No one’s angry at you. You have room to rest.”
“And how many people might fall as I do?” Cullen said.
“One,” Kate said, turning to him fiercely. “One person fell today, Cullen. That person was you, and…”
She found she couldn’t speak. The whole of it was catching up with her now - the battle, the fear, and the way she’d struggled to reach Cullen when he’d been turning blue back in the courtyard. Now it seemed she still couldn’t quit reach him, and she very much wanted to.
“And I reacted very badly, I know,” Cullen sighed.
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Kate said.
“Well, I did,” Cullen said. “Don’t deny it. It’s just…” Cullen waved a hand, helplessly. “I don’t understand. And I like to understand.”
“To understand what?”
“Everything,” Cullen said, and Kate couldn’t help but smile slightly. She wanted to understand everything as well.
“I don’t do well with surprises,” Cullen went on. “And I prefer to know the rules of engagement whenever possible. When it comes to magic and demons…” He broke off and shuddered.
“They weren’t demons,” Kate said, rather defensively.
“No?” Cullen said, turning his head to look at her. “So you said, but there was something strange about them. You might have convinced everyone else, Kate, but I felt them inside of me. Those were not healing wisps.”
Kate swallowed. And now they were back to this. Kate supposed she wasn’t getting out of it, either. Oh Maker, how much to tell him?
“They aren’t demons…” she began.
Cullen’s bloodshot eyes searched her face, and his expression was questioning and guarded. Kate found her throat go tight.
“They aren’t healing wisps either,” she admitted. “But you don’t need to be worried. There’s nothing nefarious about them.”
And of course, that made it sound quite nefarious, indeed. Andraste help her, what to say?
“It’s complicated,” she ventured.
“How complicated?” Cullen asked, tightly.
“Just complicated?” Kate gave a helpless shrug. “But wisps are like that. They’re small, leftover bits of…”
“Demon,” Cullen supplied. “They’re demons who never found a host body in this world.”
“That’s Chantry semantics. It’s more accurate to say that they’re fragments of thought. They get lost in this world, lost in the Fade. They’re fairly harmless.”
“They lure humans into peril, into places where demons dwell.”
“Maybe some do. In fairy stories, perhaps.”
“Kate, I do know something about demons,” Cullen said, eyes narrowing.
“And I know something about these wisps,” she replied, growing angry. “I’ve been living with them my whole life.”
Cullen’s eyes widened.
“What?” he gaped at her.
“That sounded worse than I meant it to. What I mean is…”
“Those things haunt you? Or are you…? I thought you said you weren’t…”
“I’m not,” Kate said, quickly, firmly. “I’m not an abomination. Not exactly.”
“How is one not exactly an abomination?” Cullen wanted to know.
“Carefully?” Kate suggested, trying to make a joke of it. Cullen did not smile. “Alright, alright! Maker’s tears, it’s hard to find words when you’re looking at me like that! I never talk about this! And for good reason, too.”
“Then explain it to me,” Cullen said, imperiously. “Explain this to me and let me understand.”
“Will you understand?” Kate couldn’t help but ask.
Kate hesitated. ‘Try me,’ was not ‘yes.’ And even ‘yes,’ could not be guaranteed in such a case. But at least Cullen was listening to her. And more than that, he wasn’t shaking and the bleak look at left his eyes. His one eye was still an angry red, but his pupils were growing smaller. Maybe if she told him this, he would no longer fear her? Perhaps he’d stop having nightmares about her, too.
Or maybe this would give him new fodder for his fears, Kate thought. But she supposed she owed Cullen an explanation. He was, after all, intimately acquainted with those wisps now. She’d sent them into him, and she ought to tell him what they were. At the very least, she ought to give him a bit of the story.
“I got sick.” The words came out breathless - and queasy. “I got sick and I had a fever and…”
No, no good. Her breath could not support the weight of these half-truths.
“It was my Harrowing,” she tried again. “During my Harrowing, I…”
Again, she lost her breath. She couldn’t seem to speak the simpler version of the tale. But to start at the beginning? At the very beginning?
Kate opened her eyes again, and there was Cullen. He was looking at her so intently that she felt her chest ache. Kate closed her eyes and let out a breath. Breathe, she thought to herself. That’s what she’d told Cullen to do, down in the courtyard when his lungs wouldn’t work. Now Kate told herself to do the same:
Breathe. And then… Speak.
“I tried to kill myself.”
Silence met her words. Kate cracked an eye open to see that Cullen’s face had gone grey as stone. All his muscles seemed to solidify as well. Kate glanced away and looked to the floor. The floor seemed a safer thing to look at than Cullen’s face.
“I know, I know,” she said. “It sounds awful. Anyhow, it obviously didn’t work…”
“When was this?” Now Cullen’s voice was like stone, too - like stone with cracks in it.
“Just before my Harrowing,” Kate said. She spoke to the floor, to her hands, to the locked door. She looked in every direction except at Cullen.
“I knew I would fail the test, you see. I hadn’t applied myself to my studies at all. I’d just moped ever since I’d arrived at the Circle. I suppose I’d thought that if I didn’t get too far along in magic, someone would come and take me home? It was a foolish notion. All I did was make myself ignorant. I knew only the most basic of spells, nothing that would help me survive in the Fade. So I was frantic, and seeing as how I was so young…”
“How young?” Cullen interrupted.
“Thirteen?” Kate raised her gaze at last. Cullen’s lips parted and his eyes went wide.
“You can’t be serious,” he said, and his throat tightened as he spoke. “How dare they send a thirteen year old girl into a Harrowing chamber!”
Kate dropped her eyes and gave a one-shouldered shrug. His anger was touching, she supposed. Still, it rang a bit hollow. Harrowing a thirteen year old was the least of the Chantry’s abuses. Still, Cullen seemed to find it unconscionable.
“That’s outrageous! Chantry law clearly states…”
“Chantry law says that any mage may be Harrowed at any time. The only requirement is that the Circle leadership deems the ritual necessary.”
“Yes, but… thirteen?”
“I was a problem pupil,” Kate said, again speaking again to the floor. “I put on airs that first year and a half. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but I did. I tried acting like my father, thinking it would get me out of that place. Instead, it made me insufferable and gained me few allies. And that templar I told you about - the one who struck me and got sacked? He had friends - friends who held grudges. Also, he had a lover. The First Enchanter, in fact. It didn’t help that the only person who liked me was an ambitious young mage named Lydia. She made no secret of her hopes to groom me to become a high ranking enchanter within the Aequitarian fraternity and replace the loyalist stranglehold with backing from the Ostwick aristocracy and… Well. Politics. You know how it goes.”
“So they plotted to be rid of you.” Cullen seemed to choke on the words.
“Exactly so. Harrowing was the easier solution. The rules about Tranquility are more rigid by far. And if I’d been made Tranquil, my parents would have been furious. It would have embarrassed the whole family. But if I died in a Harrowing - or in an ‘accident’ in the hallway outside? Then my parents would have continued their guilt-assuaging monthly donations and the Circle would have been rid of one snobby, troublesome apprentice.”
“Maker’s breath,” Cullen softly swore.
“I’m sorry. That sounds rather bitter.”
“Not at all.”
Kate shook her head. “It does, but I was bitter at the time. More than bitter, I’d completely succumbed to despair. Ever since I’d arrived at the Circle, I’d grown more and more melancholy. I’d hidden it from everyone, but most of the time, I just felt dead inside.”
Kate paused there, feeling a pang of sorrow just to remember that time. “Most people think that melancholy is mere sorrow,” she murmured. “But it’s not. It’d not being sad. It’s moving past the point of tears to where you’re just… numb.”
“Numb,” Cullen repeated. “Yes, I’ve been there.”
“I suppose you have,” Kate said, softly. “Though my struggles weren’t nearly as difficult as yours…”
Kate offered the words as a doorway, of sorts, a chance for Cullen to speak about himself if he liked. He waved the door closed.
“I wasn’t making a comparison.”
“I didn’t say you were,” Kate said. “I just mean…”
But what use was there in prying, she thought to herself? On impulse, Kate reached out and took Cullen’s hand instead. He sucked in a short breath, but he didn’t pull away.
“Go on,” he said, squeezing her fingers.
“Well,” Kate said, feeling flustered now, “That’s when I decided to kill myself. Maker, that still sounds awful. But I couldn’t very well face a demon, now could I? I’d either get turned into an abomination or cut down by a templar–” At those words, Kate felt Cullen’s fingers tighten around hers.
“Or I don’t know,” Kate finished hastily. “However it happened, I knew I’d die. I’d just become part of that dark stain on the Harrowing Chamber floor. The blood never comes out, you know.”
“I know,” Cullen said, darkly.
“So, I decided I’d jump into the sea,” Kate said, airily as she could. “Leave my blood in my body, I thought, where no one could use it for ill magic. It seemed very poetic at the time. It wasn’t though,” she added, frowning to herself.
“You jumped into the sea?”
“I tried to. There had been a suicide the first week I arrived at the tower. Hard to get that sight out of my head, when they dragged the body onto shore. People actually seemed sorry for that mage. They were never sorry about failed Harrowings. I guess I thought… I didn’t think really. I just copied another person’s pain. But I’d entirely miscalculated the tides. Poor scholar that I was, I didn’t even think to look it up in an almanac.”
She gave Cullen a slight smile, but he did not return it. Kate ducked her head once more.
“I thought more about the look of the thing than getting it done. I planned it so that I’d be all alone on the cliff, with the wind whipping about my face. I looked out to sea as the sun set - very artistic, if anyone had bothered to paint the scene. And then, just as the sun went down, I jumped.”
Cullen swallowed. His hand pulsed around hers.
“I guess I believed I’d just jump into Death. Dive in and there I’d be, swimming around in the Fade. Only that didn’t happen, not by a long shot. I hit a wave halfway down - or it hit me. It caught me up and smashed me up against the rocks. Broke my arm. Bone came clean through the skin. The pain of it made me go cross-eyed. And then I was blinded entirely, because I was underwater and being dragged out to sea. But the undertow sucked me up and out and then, wham! Smashed into the cliff again. I got dragged out and smashed back… Oh, Maker, I forget how many times. But I’ll never forget that feeling, just churning under the waves. My arm was screaming with pain, as if it were shouting obscenities at my brain. I still dream of it sometimes. And all the while, some stupid, stupid part of me kept wondering, ‘What was I thinking? What was I thinking? This was the worst plan ever.’
Cullen made a noise in his throat - sort of a strangled hum, and his fingers were now squeezing Kate’s so hard that it hurt. But Kate did not pull her hand away. She continued on:
“Then one wave set me higher than the rest. Suddenly, I was up above the surf, wedged between the rocks. I couldn’t climb for higher ground with my arm all smashed up. I was shivering and disoriented and losing blood, too. Really, the plan was so stupid. I probably would have died like that, clinging to the rocks. Only…”
“Only the spirit arrived,” Cullen finished for her, tightly. “When you were at your weakest.”
“Not at my weakest, no. It came when I was laughing.”
“Laughing?” Cullen’s hand went slightly slack with surprise.
Kate nodded. “It sounds absurd. It was absurd. There I was, stuck in the cliffs, water spraying up to my chin, my legs trapped in my robes, my arm completely mangled. And then… I laughed. I mean, I was rather delirious, but suddenly the whole thing struck me as ridiculous. Here I’d been running away from a Harrowing, and then I put myself to the test in a way that no templar could ever have devised. No demon could have done the damage to me that I’d just done to myself. No spirit of the Fade could harm me more than my own shame and fear had done. I was my own worst enemy. I saw that then. I saw it in an instant. Me against myself. That was the fight I’d failed. And I…. Oh, I’m not explaining this very well. It came to me all in an instant, and it made perfect sense in my head. Just this crystal ball of truth, appearing quite suddenly, and going away just as quickly.”
Kate glanced over at Cullen. He was looking at the room, his brows furrowed, his mouth tensed. Kate didn’t know what else to do but forge on.
“And then,” she said, “as soon as I saw the lesson clearly, I realized that I didn’t want to die. I thought… No, I found. I found this thing inside of me, this desire to keep going. My parents might not care if my life story ended suddenly. They’d rather given up on me the day that I was sent to the Circle. And everyone else might forget about me and move on. But I would not forget about me. Well, I would if I was dead, but you know what I mean. I mean that it was my life. I wanted to live it out. I wanted to find out what else could be gotten from it. I wanted to find another lesson, to put it into practice. I wanted to try those spells they’d attempted to teach me. And now I was wildly curious. Could I have survived my Harrowing? Could I, a young, completely unprepared child, have fought off a demon? Suddenly I wanted to try. I wanted to see what came next. I mean, the story hadn’t finished, had it? I had been about to throw the book away, just as things got interesting.”
Kate glanced up. Cullen’s expression was pinched, his face grave.
“I’m sorry, she said, “I’m getting long-winded.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, please. Don’t stop.”
“I forgot where I was… Oh, yes. The spirit. That’s when it arrived. I was laughing, and it just floated in off of the sea. It looked like a star at first, and then it became a light - a wisp.”
“And what was it a demon of? Er, spirit, I mean.” The correction sounded heavy on Cullen’s tongue, but Kate smiled gratefully at his attempt. “It sounds like Perseverance,” he went on. “Such spirits are rare.”
“Whimsy,” Kate replied. “I always thought of it as Whimsy.”
“Whimsy?” Cullen repeated. There was a pause. “The Order’s records say nothing of such spirits.”
“That doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” Kate reasoned. “Chantry classifications are rather arbitrary, I find. The Fade reflects thought, but human thought is so nuanced. Anyhow, ‘Whimsy’ was what I settled on years later. It was as good a name for it as any other. ‘Humor,’ I suppose I could have called it. Or the spirit of a joke. Maybe it was Perseverance after all. Only it had a melancholy side to it - a clear-eyed perception that wavered halfway between laughter and a sigh. It’s seeing things as they are, and then finding a way to laugh about it. It’s that sense of ‘well, why not?’ when all hope seems gone.”
A muscle ticked in Cullen’s jaw. “Whimsy,” he murmured.
“You don’t quite believe me, do you?”
“No, I…” he huffed as he adjusted his shoulders against the wall. “I was just thinking. Down in the courtyard, when I was caught in that spell, the demons looked like lights. I heard laughing. And then I began to remember things. I remembered a joke I’d told at the campfire last night. No one else got it, except for you. You hid your laughter behind your hand. It made me feel… Well, whimsical, I suppose. And there was another memory,” Cullen went on, “Varric and I were on the boat, watching Kirkwall slip away. I said… I don’t recall what I said. Some poor joke. A kind of gallows humor. The Gallows humor, I think that was the punchline. And just now, in the courtyard, I wanted to laugh. Even as I was being possessed - or thought I was. I wanted to laugh. Here I’d warned everyone about that bandit mage at least ten times over. And then I was the one who fell to the spell.” Cullen gave a low chuckle, then caught himself.
“That is rather ironic,” Kate said, lips twitching.
“Varric will be ribbing me about it for weeks,” Cullen said, shaking his head. “But in that moment, I started to laugh along with those demons. Wisps, rather. That was why I feared I’d been possessed. I couldn’t tell if the laughter came from me, or from them. I thought perhaps they were invading me, infecting me with their thoughts.”
“Oh, Cullen. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s alright. They’re gone, as you say. And now I understand why I laughed along with them. It’s just that I haven’t always been able to find the humor in life, that’s all. Sometimes I do, but much of the time, I’ve been trained for seriousness. I could have done with more whimsy in my life, I suppose.”
Kate felt her throat go tight. She squeezed Cullen’s hand, but that didn’t do anything to convey the squeezing sensation at her heart. She wished she knew how to express the tenderness she felt, without completely making a fool of herself.
“I’m sorry,” Cullen said, shaking himself. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you. You were saying…”
“I was listening to what happened to you.”
“But you were telling your own tale. About Whimsy. That’s what you called it.”
Kate frowned at the way his shoulders remained hunched. “Are you alright?” she asked him. Cullen shook his head.
“I dislike spirits of any kind. I wish they’d stay on their side of the Fade where they belong. But please, finish your tale.”
“I hesitate to,” Kate said, wrinkling her nose. “Because, well… You’re not going to like this part. The spirit… That is to say, I let it, um…”
“Ah,” Cullen said. His hand seemed to go limp. At once, Kate slipped her fingers from his. She folded her hands and placed them primly in her lap. She didn’t have to look up at Cullen to see the disapproval in his eyes. She could feel it in the air around her.
“I see,” was all he said.
“It’s not like that,” Kate said. “Or maybe it was,” she admitted. “Maker, I don’t know how to explain this part. Because then the spirit said… Mind you, I don’t know that it could speak. I just sensed that it wanted to help me. And I said… Or thought, rather… Well, I thought, ‘yes.’ Yes, I wanted to go back to the tower and yes, I wanted to continue the story. I wanted to live.”
Cullen said nothing. The air around him seemed to have stopped still.
“I don’t think it possessed me,” Kate said, hurriedly. “I mean, maybe…? Oh, Maker, I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Well, I’m not possessed now, am I?”
“No!” Kate frowned. “Surely you’d have seen a flash of it if I was. Glowing eyes, or unexpected moments of power…”
Cullen gave her a speaking look. Kate wrinkled her nose.
“Fair enough,” she said. “But that was just today.”
“You’re also quite, um, whimsical,” Cullen said, uncomfortably.
Kate wasn’t certain if that was a compliment or an insult or a question.
“Even if I was,” she said, “It’s not because I was possessed by a whimsy spirit. I was good humored as a child - at least I was until they took me to the Circle. Maybe the spirit came to me because we suited each other - like calling to like? But no, I’m not possessed. It’s just me in here. Though for a while, I must confess, I wondered about it. What the wisp did to me - it was rather strange.”
“Strange how?” Cullen asked.
“It floated toward me. And then… Well, this is where it all gets fuzzy. I was losing consciousness, but I think it sort of melted into me.”
“Sort of. It floated off of the ocean, landed right over my heart. I felt a pain, and then…” Kate found she’d placed her hand over her heart as she spoke, and let her hand drop.
“Then I blacked out. I have strange memories, but they’re all hazy. I recall lying on the ground and Lydia was screaming into the darkness. She later told me she’d been sitting down to read, only she felt this odd prickling at her neck. She came tearing through the tower, raising the alarm. She had the Void of a time explaining to the templars that she didn’t know how she knew to find me out at the cliffs. But she found me - in the dark, too. Then I have memories of her sitting by my bedside, and memories of a furious argument about whether they were going to throw me into the Harrowing chamber with a fever or not.”
Kate stared at her fingers, trying to recall more. But as usual, those patchy visions were all she could dredge up from her mind. At her side, Cullen was still as a statue.
“And then, one day, I woke up. The room was empty. I was empty. The spirit was gone, and I was healed. And I felt peaceful. I felt calmer than I had in years. I felt older, too. And I laughed. Of course I laughed.”
Kate smiled to think of it, but Cullen remained frowning.
“That’s why I was convinced it wasn’t a possession,” Kate went on. “I’d felt the spirit inside for a moment, but that was all. And I’ve never heard of anyone becoming un-possessed, have you?” Cullen did not reply, so Kate answered her own question. “No, of course not. So it must not have been a possession. It must have been some kind of healing. Wisps have different abilities than spirits, or at least, they seem to. I’ve been studying them ever since.”
“Studying what? Wisps?”
“Naturally. I was fascinated by them, and not a little invested in making sure that I was not possessed. Because it was gone, you see. The wisp was gone. And yet,” she added, “In a way, it was not gone. I could sense that it was near, but it faded. Fractured, I suppose is a better word for it. It had become like crumbs left after a meal. Or maybe healing me used up its power? Or perhaps I changed it’s nature? I’m not sure. I’ve long suspected the original wisp died, and those laughing specks of light were born from its memory. I don’t know. But when I woke, I sensed I was alone, whole - and I sensed the little wisps, gathering on the other side of the Veil. When they sent me to my Harrowing, those wisp-crumbs were waiting for me. It was quite the reunion.”
“They still sent you to be harrowed after all that?”
“Of course. My Harrowing was a complete joke, however. The wisps made it into a joke. They followed me like a cloud, turned the whole Fade into a kind of child’s dream. They seemed to think this was some sort of lark, and not a mage-testing. Andraste’s tears, the way they… Well, that doesn’t matter. I’ll tell about you it some other time. The point is, I passed my Harrowing - at thirteen, no less. And things got rather better after that. Lydia was vindicated most spectacularly; the enchanters took a liking to me. I took a liking to them, and though no one ever knew quite what to do with me, I managed to make a place for myself. I spent my time learning everything I could. And when I had a quiet moment and no one was around, I went out to some lonely corner of the island and studied those wisps.”
“That was rather dangerous,” Cullen said, looking troubled at the thought.
“No more so than learning to heal with spirits,” Kate returned. “That’s what I thought they were, at first. Only I soon learned that they weren’t. They just hover near the Veil - almost a part of it, really. They bring a great deal of energy with them. That was useful, I can tell you. I never had a great deal of energy on my own, but I learned to dip into the Fade as easy as breathing. It got to the point where I could cast without ceasing. At least, I could have done before this mark appeared on my hand and messed up all my technique. It scatters the Fade’s energy like anything. But maybe Coll and I can come up with a solution yet. Dear Coll,” Kate sighed. “When she arrived at the tower, she sensed something was odd about me right off. We teamed up to be study partners and it’s been an alliance ever since.”
Kate smiled. Getting to the part where she made friends was definitely a nice way to end this tale.
“Coll knows about your attempted suicide then?”
“Oh,” Kate’s smile faded. “No. I never told her. You see, Lydia - Maker rest her soul - she warned me not to speak of this to anyone. She wouldn’t even let me tell her the tale. The moment I mentioned suicide, she told me to stop. We were never to speak of such things in a mage tower. And Coll was never one for talking about the past. She doesn’t like me to pry into her history. We speak about my wisps, but never talk about how they got there. We talk about her healing, but never inquire about how she became so intimately acquainted with wounds in the first place. I often wish… Well, it doesn’t matter. I haven’t been outside of a Circle long enough to quite get used to confessions. So as you see, I’ve never told anyone about this. Only now…” Kate shrugged, and lifted her eyes to Cullen’s.
“Now I’ve told you.”
She stopped there, her throat once again going tight, and breath once again leaving her lungs.
And now what are you going to say? Kate wondered.
What do I say to that? Cullen wondered.
What could he say to any of this? His thoughts had been scattered ever since that spell had hit him. For the past half hour, his mind had been spinning off in a million directions. Some of his fractured thoughts had been attempting to drag him back to the present. Some of his thoughts had attempted to comfort and calm.
Many more, however, had been lost to memory. When that prison of nothingness closed over him, it had transported Cullen right back to his past. In Kinloch Hold, the demons had used similar prisons to keep their prey alive - and desperate. Cullen had spent hours - days even - trapped in Fade-labyrinths, only to wake to fresh horrors and new temptations. The blood mages loved their carnage, and the desire demons loved to try on new skins and faces. Cullen would open his eyes to find at least one fellow templar dead – and one stunning beauty standing naked before him.
Cullen winced at the thought. Maker’s breath, was it any wonder that the spell had sent him reeling? For that matter, was it any wonder that he’d panicked when found Kate kneeling there before him? True, he’d been frightened by the Fade-fire in her eyes. Yes, it had reminded him of his nightmate. But more than that, he’d been shamed by a terrible realization:
He desired Kate even then, even when he wasn’t sure of her. Surely that was the worst sort of temptation.
So Cullen had run. He didn’t quite remember that part. He seemed to have forgotten a lot of the conversation after, as well. It was all fragments, and the scattered pieces of his thoughts were not putting it back together in any coherent order. He knew he’d made a fool of himself, that much was clear. He knew he shouldn’t be prideful in a moment like this, but he couldn’t help it. And it wasn’t just a matter of vanity, either. He had a duty to be strong and stable for his soldiers. Instead, he’d deserted them on the field of battle. That could not happen again.
Though according to Iron Bull, none of the soldiers had blamed him for his lapse. That was some comfort. And Bull’s words of understanding had been more comforting still. The giant had acknowledged Cullen’s trauma, but not sought to take it from him. That had meant more to Cullen than he’d been able to say. But for all that, Cullen still didn’t feel settled. How could he? His thoughts were still scattered, and memories still flitted in and out of his head. The damp on the wall was just damp - for a moment or two. But with every third breath, it seemed to him that the walls oozed with blood. The lightning no longer looked like mage bolts - for now. But it might turn back into sparks at any moment.
And when Kate had done that protocol - Maker, that had been the worst. Oh, she hadn’t seemed to mind it. Kate had been all magic and business throughout. But somehow she’d shifted her body - a hand here, fingers there. The next thing Cullen had known, she’d been hovering over him. The vee between her legs had settled right over his thighs. If she’d been mere inches closer to his chest, she would have opened her eyes to find that Cullen had risen to meet her.
So to speak.
Cullen swallowed. Good maker, of all the times to get so aroused. When she’d opened her eyes, he’d been unable to decide what to do with her. All this time, he hadn’t known what to do with her. Part of him had wanted to push her away and the other part of him had wanted to lay his head on her shoulder and weep.
And yet another part of him had wanted to haul her onto his lap and kiss her.
But instead of giving in to impulse, Cullen had asked Kate to explain about the nature of those healing wisps. It seemed a reasonable change of subject. He felt certain it would dampen his arousal. And so it had, but it had kindled something else: tenderness, and sympathy, too. A new memory haunted Cullen, and the memory was not his own. He now pictured a girl with fire-red hair, staring out over the sea. She was waiting for that sun to go down, so that she might finally throw herself into the waves. Cullen’s throat went dry as he tried to think of what he might have said to keep that girl from jumping.
But that girl was long gone, he supposed. And in her place, a grown-up Kate was staring at him intently. Cullen supposed he ought to say something to her, instead. He cleared his throat.
That was as far as he got. Cullen choked off just one word in.
No good. That wasn’t going to work either. Cullen settled for reaching out and took Kate’s hand in his own. There, he thought, the moment his fingers closed over hers. This was better. This was familiar. This reminded him of the lyrium protocols - the simple ones, that is. The ones that didn’t involve lap-sitting.
Still stuck at pronouns, Cullen thought wryly. At least ‘we’ was more promising. He liked the sound of ‘we.’ Now he just needed more words to follow after.
“You disapprove,” Kate said, her fingers curling around his. “You disapprove and I hardly blame you, because it was careless of me. Only I what else was I to do, I’d like to know? I was a child at the time! And anyhow, it worked out alright, didn’t it? If that hadn’t happened, I might not have been able to heal you today. I certainly wouldn’t have studied the Veil, and so I wouldn’t have known enough to do lyrium protocols on you. And surely you must know that I wouldn’t have let you die, not if there was even the slightest chance I could help. So even if you do disapprove, I don’t regret it. At least you’re still alive to be angry at me, that’s all I have to say.”
Cullen blinked at her in confusion. How in the Maker’s name did you get all that from my silence, he wondered? He supposed that was what came of taking to long to respond.
But then, before he could think of anything to say, someone spoke for him:
“Well, I think it’s awesome. Like, best backstory ever.”
Oh no, Cullen thought, freezing at the sound of that voice. No, no, no, no, no…
Whatever scraps of thought he had gathered together, Cullen now felt them blown away. It was as if a strong wind had blown through the door.
And that wind was named ‘Hawke.’ She now stood in the doorway - in the previously-locked doorway. Varric knelt beside her, a set of lockpicks in his hand. As Cullen glared at them, Varric gave both Kate and Cullen a sheepish wave.
“Hi there,” he said. “Oh, hey. Look at that. The door’s open.”
Varric said that as if the door had opened itself. Cullen found his voice at last.
“You might have knocked,” he growled.
“Yeah, but listening at keyholes is way more enlightening,” Hawke said, unrepentantly.
“Listening at keyholes?” Kate tensed. “You don’t mean to say that you overheard everything I just said?”
“Of course!” Hawke said, smiling. “Everything from the enchanters plotting to get rid of you, right up to the part where Curly was being a prude about spirits.”
“A prude?” Cullen found himself bristling. It was one thing for Hawke to sling mild insults at him. That was nothing new. But for her to eavesdrop on Kate? That was something else entirely.
“You’d better not spread that story around,” he warned. “No, I mean it. That tale is not to leave this room. Or this castle,” he amended, in case Hawke was planning to claim that the doorway did not count as the room.
Hawke made a face. “Andraste’s bits, Cullen, what do you take me for? I’m a rebel, not a narc.”
“Wait,” Kate holding up a hand. To Cullen’s disappointment, this meant that she withdrew her hand from his grasp. “You know this woman?”
That, Cullen supposed, was his cue to make introductions.
“Kate, that’s Hawke.” Cullen settled for a wave in Hawke’s general direction. He didn’t bother to stand. “Former Champion of Kirkwall, etcetera and so forth…”
“Ouch,” Hawke winced. “‘Former?’ Thanks for that, Curly. No really, way to rub it in.”
“And this,” Cullen went on, waving a hand at Kate, “is Her Worship, Inquisitor Katerina Rosella Trevelyan, formerly of the Ostwick Circle of Magi.”
Kate had been scrambling to her feet, but she paused at the top to look down at Cullen in surprise. “You know my middle name?”
Cullen felt his face heat. “It was in your file.”
He didn’t bother to add that he’d read through said file with great interest, hoping to gain some insight into the woman he was working with. Sadly, Josephine’s compiled notes were nothing more than boring, public details. The story he’d just heard from Kate gave him far more of a glimpse into her character.
That was why he was so irritated at Hawke’s intrusion, Cullen realized. What had begun as an intimate, shared secret was now known by the least discrete person of Cullen’s acquaintance. Cullen kept wanting to get to know Kate better, but everyone else kept beating him to it.
With a sigh, Cullen stood. He did so rather unsteadily, and held onto the wall for support. The room seemed to be bobbing about him, like a ship on the waves.
“Well, aren’t we all formal in the Inquisition?” Hawke said “Nice to meet you, Inquisitor, er, Worship… I didn’t get most of that. Kay? Is it?”
“Kate.” She offered Hawke her hand, and Hawke shook it heartily.
“Kate,” Hawke said, pumping Kate’s arm like it was a bellows. “That’s much easier. You don’t look like a Kate though. More like a baby Aveline. Can I call you Avvy?”
“Hawke…” Cullen warned.
“Kate works, too,” Hawke said, letting Kate’s hand drop. “Or Duchess, maybe? I’m still angry that Varric gave you a nickname and not me…”
“Get to the point, Hawke,” Cullen said.
“The point? Oh right, the point. I mean, the point beyond getting out of the cave I’ve been holed up in all last week?”
“Yes, that point. If you please,” Kate added.
“If I please? Wow. You guys are formal. I’ll have to brush up on my manners. Or you’ll have to get used the fact that I don’t have any. Okay, so here’s the situation.” Hawke paused for dramatic effect.
“Yes?” Cullen prompted, when she did not go on.
He should not have prompted.
“That. Was. Awesome!” Hawke’s voice rose an octave at least. “All that summoning-spirits-to-fix-up-Cullen shit? That was a trip! I’ve never seen anything like that outside of… Well, other people. And then you were once possessed or maybe but not? Brilliant!” Hawke’s voice rose even higher. “And then that boy out there? The one with the big hat? Did you know that he’s a spirit - that made himself his own body?” Hawke’s voice rose higher still.
“Cole?” Kate said, looking as though she had half a mind to stick her fingers into her ears.
“Ahhhhh!” Hawke said, pumping her fists into the air. “Yes! This is fucking amazing! Oh my Maker, it’s like the fucking Maker actually does answer prayers. And the same day after I started praying again too. Thank you, Andraste! Hallelujah!” Hawke clasped her hands in prayer, then looked down at Kate. When she spoke again, her voice had returned to it’s normal register.
“Okay, so hi,” Hawke gave a wave of her hand. “I’ve arrived. Nice to meet you. I’m keeping Plucky.” The bird squawked in agreement. “And uh…” Hawke glanced over her shoulder.
“Nope, no good. You’ve got templars all over the damn place. I mean…” She gave Cullen the once-over.
“I’m not a templar any longer,” Cullen said. “Nor are the others.”
“Uh, huh,” Hawke said, in a disbelieving voice. “Sure. Look, I’d rather deal with mages, or old friends,” she added, placing a hand on Varric’s shoulder. Cullen noticed that Varric stood straighter at that.
“Here’s the thing, Miss All-the-Titles,” Hawke said, speaking to Kate. “We’re gonna have to move real quick. Plucky tells me that Carver heads out tomorrow morning, but you’ve got to fix a dam or a rift or the lake or something? So normally I’d suggest an exchange: we go fix your dam shit - see what I did there? And then we’d go fix my damn shit. Also, see what I did there?”
“Uh….” Kate blinked.
“Nothing like alliances forged over battles with demons,” Varric said dryly.
“I know, right?” Hawke agreed. “That’s how we met Curly. It’ll be all… What’s the word for it?”
“Narrative symmetry?” Varric suggested.
“Demons?” Kate blinked. “The dam? I’m sorry. I don’t…”
“Long story. Here’s a shorter one: come with me if you want answers,” Hawke affected a deep, spooky voice. “No, seriously,” she said, dropping the affectation. “Come with me and let’s kill some shit. We’ll talk along the way. Without all the templars around.”
Cullen scowled at her. “I won’t have you dragging Kate out into the rain just because you don’t like my company.”
“Since when was this all about you?” Hawke said, giving him a patronizing look. “It’s about all of you,” she waved her finger in a circle. “The whole Inquisition. I mean, I can’t have you following us if I don’t trust you, see?”
“If you don’t trust us, then why are you here?” Cullen wanted to know.
“To find out if I can trust you. Duh.”
“Your caution is understandable,” Kate said, kindly. “You only just met me, after all.”
“Yes, and you only just met her,” Cullen pointed out.
Hawke ignored him. “Here’s my thinking, Baby Worship. You and me fight together. If I decide I can trust you - as the leadery person - then we’re good.”
“What happens if you don’t trust me?” Kate wanted to know.
“Then we’re screwed, I guess,” Hawke shrugged.
“Oh,” Kate murmured.
“Come now,” Cullen scoffed. “We’re not going to hinge the success of our mission on whether or not you happen to take a liking to Kate.”
“Well that’s no way to get into my good graces,” Hawke said, folding her arms over her chest.
“It’s fine,” Kate said, giving a little laugh. By Cullen’s reckoning, it sounded a bit forced. “I’m sure we’ll all be great friends - or at least allies,” she added, “by the day’s end.”
“Nice,” Hawke said. “That’s real nice. Can’t tell if you’re sincere, Miss Mage, or if you’re just really, really prissy. At least you’re not treating me like Ferelden trash to my face. That’s a change. Alright, I’ll be waiting for you downstairs. Varric if you’re coming, don’t be a dick about it. And bring the spirit-boy! He’s the shit. Ah, this is great! I’ve been all cooped up and haven’t killed anything for at least a week…”
With that, Hawke was gone, out the door, and off into the rain. There was a long pause, as if the air itself had to catch its breath after being used by Hawke for all that chatter.
“That’s Hawke?” Kate pointed out the door. “That,” she said again. “is Hawke?”
“I know, I know,” Varric sighed, running a hand over his hair. “She’s…”
“She’s exactly like your books, Varric. Oh my Maker. You couldn’t have captured her more perfectly if you had shrunk her down and tucked her inside the pages.”
“You think so?” Varric brightened and let his hand drop.
“Yes,” Kate nodded. “Oh yes. Except she’s shorter than I thought.”
Varric pulled a face. “Don’t let her hear you say that. She wanted me to make her tall as Anders in the stories.”
“Just how tall is Anders?” Kate wondered aloud.
“Forget books,” Cullen said, irritably. “Do we have any idea what Hawke’s up to next?”
Varric’s expression instantly dimmed. “I’ve got an idea,” he said. “But I don’t wanna be right.”
With that, he turned away.
“That’s not—” Kate called after him. “Very helpful,” she finished with a sigh.
Cullen shook his head. “Hawke,” he grumbled. “She’s a whirlwind wherever she goes.”
“And it seems that whirlwind is my afternoon assignment,” Kate said, staring out into the rain. “So much for luncheon by the campfire.”
Cullen didn’t like the weariness in her voice. “Let me deal with Hawke,” he told her. “You get some rest.”
“Cullen…” Kate gave him a pointed look.
“What do you mean, ‘what?’ Maker’s breath. Not an hour ago you almost died.”
“All the more reason to get back to the work of the living,” he reasoned.
“No,” Kate said, frowning at him. “You need to rest. I’d stay with you if I could, but maybe Ella can sit with you…”
“I don’t need a nursemaid,” Cullen said. “I need to get back to the soldiers.”
He took a step toward the door, but just that one step made the room pitch. Cullen tripped into the doorframe, and Kate caught him before he went crashing down.
“Sit,” she said.
“No, I can stand,” Cullen insisted. He managed to stay upright, but he had to cling to the doorframe to do it. “I’ll go with you,” he added.
Now that was a bit ambitious. Cullen realized his knuckles were white against the doorjam.
“You need to rest,” Kate countered. “I’ve got strength enough to tromp around in the rain with Hawke. But you…”
“I’m fine,” Cullen assured her. “Alright, maybe I can’t keep up with you today. But at least take some protection with you. Bull for one. And Dorian. They had energy to spare. In fact, take half the company, while you’re at it.”
“It’s Hawke, Cullen. She’s half a company all by herself.”
“Yes. She is. That’s why you need your own troops.”
“Come now,” Kate laughed.
“I’m serious,” Cullen said, wishing he could make her understand. “You’ve never seen the sort of messes that Hawke leaves behind. I don’t like sending you off with her.”
“Sending me off with Hawke was the plan all along. Actually, this is better than the plan. I was supposed to find Hawke in a cave, but now she’s come to us.”
“Yes, and that’s not worrisome in the slightest. How did she find us, anyway?”
“I’ve no idea.” Kate said.
Cullen was about to say that he suspected the raven had something to do with it. But before he could say anything more, a sudden throb of pain went spiking through his temples. Cullen winced and grunted.
“What is it?” Kate asked, reaching for him. “More memories? The storm? The puddles?”
Cullen gave a thin laugh. “Nothing so dire. It’s a headache.”
“Oh,” Kate said, drawing back. “Yes, of course. Well, that would be unpleasant, too.”
“Indeed,” Cullen rumbled, pinching his nose with his thumb and forefinger.
“Take some of Coll’s pellets, will you?” Kate suggested. “That might help.”
“It might,” Cullen hedged. “But I’ll definitely wait until after…”
Until after you’ve left, he thought. He didn’t say it aloud, though. He wasn’t about to tell Kate that he wouldn’t risk taking an aphrodisiac when she was nearby. At least that revelation explained why Cullen had felt so restless every time Kate had taken his hand for a lyrium protocol.
Then again, Cullen thought, the elfroot was just one provocation among many. After all, the medicine hadn’t stoked his inclination for anyone else but Kate.
“Do take them,” Kate urged. “And get some rest. Get something to eat as well, and please don’t lift anything heavy. Sleep, if you can, and stay away from the requisition table. The way you get caught up in those reports–”
“Kate, I am the commander,” Cullen interrupted. He knew she meant well, but he wasn’t an invalid. “And I’ll feel better if I check in with the soldiers. They’ll feel better, too,” he added, lest she officially order him to stay put. “It will be good to give them assurances that I’m not going to run out on them again.”
“I’m sure they understand what an accident that was.”
Cullen’s stomach sank. If only he could be certain that it was an accident. Oh, the spell had been unexpected, to be sure. But his reaction to it? That was not so unexpected.
At least this time no one had to chain me, he thought, darkly.
“I’ll feel better once I’ve got a handle on things,” Cullen said, pushing that thought aside. “And we’ll all feel better once Hawke is settled as our ally. Maker’s breath, she must be causing a stir down there.”
“I’ll take her someplace where there are no crowds,” Kate assured him.
“Yes, do,” Cullen said. “Take her away before she burns the castle down.”
“Is that an order?” Kate asked, raising a brow.
“More a suggestion,” Cullen replied.
“Very well. Off I go, then.”
Kate sighed and looked out at the ramparts beyond. The storm raged on behind her, and she suddenly looked quite weary against the gathering gloom of the clouds. Cullen found that didn’t want to send her out into that storm, but what else was he to do? It wasn’t like he could keep Kate all to himself for the rest of the day.
Though I’d very much like to.
The thought came to him unbidden, and Cullen let out a sharp cough.
“Oh, and now you’re catching cold,” Kate said, frowning. “See, all the more reason you should stay in this room and rest. I’ll have someone bring the requisition table up to you. Just wait here.”
And then she was gone, off into the rain. Cullen watched her go, noting the way the rain began to darken her hair the moment it hit it, noting the way her armor fit her far too well for his comfort…
And then he remembered something. Of all the things he’d said and done, he’d completely forgotten to tell Kate one very important thing –
Well, he’d forgotten to tell her a few important things. But only one was relevant right now.
The wind picked up the words, seemed to blow them away. For a moment, Cullen feared that Kate hadn’t heard him. But then she stopped, and turned around. She took a step toward him.
“Thank you!” Cullen said. He took a step out of the door, got a drip to the face, and jerked back again. “For saving my life, I mean.”
“Ah,” Kate said, nodding. “You’re quite welcome. I…” She said something else, but a roll of thunder drowned it out.
“Hawke’s shouting for me,” Kate continued, pointing off to her left. “I need to go. But I’ll be back…”
Cullen didn’t catch the rest. But he didn’t want Kate to shout herself hoarse, so he held up a hand as if to say, Yes, yes, that’s fine.
“Just be careful,” Cullen called back to her. “And don’t let Hawke get away with anything. Anything, do you hear?”
Kate gave him one last bemused look before turning away. When she spoke, Cullen heard her perfectly, though the words did not comfort him in the least:
“Don’t worry, Cullen,” Kate cried before she walked away. “It’s just Hawke. How bad could she be?”