Moment of Choice pt 1
He hunched over the war table, the cozy autumn light highlighting those golden rings of hair. Using a bottle from one of the Grey Warden vintages, Cullen debated where to mark something on the big map. No one'd been willing to crack any of the bottles open to have a taste. Not even Dorian nine silk sheets to the wind was willing to try "some tainted swill probably urinated back in the bottle thrice over that you unearthed from the blighted ground." Skyhold was a lot more empty without him.
Silently shutting the massive war room door, I tiptoed towards the commander currently in a debate about whether the Dragon Piss should provide aid to Lydes or Jadar. Cullen started as my arms slipped below his drapery, pulling myself deeper into him. Even through the armor, I felt his warmth and the hints of a body I craved to crack out of it.
"For the Maker's sake, I hope that's you."
"Does someone else sneak up behind you and kiss your neck?" I asked.
"I would not put it past Cole," Cullen jibed, drawing a laugh from me.
I had to stand on my tiptoes to rest my chin upon his shoulder and gaze across the far emptier map before us. Smells of iron, sunlit dust, and that personal musk I found every morning on the pillows wafted from the fur below my chin. Digging even deeper into him, I asked, "What are you doing?"
"Checking." He decided the ale worked best in a small hamlet in Ferelden, and ran his fingers across mine.
"Checking on what? We stopped the demon army, saved the Empire, and - oh yeah - obliterated Corypheus into tiny magistar pieces. Been pretty quiet since."
"There are a few matters still requiring attention. Did you see the report about the rise in bandit activity along the...?"
I squeezed him tighter, cutting off his concern. The commander faded away to reveal just the man below the armor. "Cullen, this is break time. Putting down the sword for a bit and breathing. I think we deserve this vacation."
He twisted in my arms, spinning until he could beam those amber eyes upon me. Josephine still got letters extolling their exquisiteness from the nobles at the Winter palace, as well as comments about that whiskered jawline one could lick for days, and how that ass was poured into our Inquisition finery. She let me read and reply to the really steamy ones.
Cullen gripped onto me, fingers digging into my back. His hugs were never half assed. It was either full on ensnared pulling me into him or nothing. "I quite agree," he said, catching me off guard.
"Really? The commander can put away his duties for a fortnight? Forget all this rebuilding the world stuff and relax? I'll believe it when I see it."
He snorted at my impertinence, then leaned forward for a kiss. I took advantage of the opportunity, lightly sucking upon his bottom lip and entangling our tongues.
"I have been known to relax from time to time," his fingers drifted ever downward as his voice dropped to a whisper, "when there is sufficient cause." The smirk fell away as he glanced back at that map, "But there yet remain a few fires to manage before we depart."
"Like packing?" I asked.
"I've already finished that and..." he paused, searching my face. "Have you not begun?" I shrugged, it was on my to do list right after mauling my commander in the war room. "You know we leave tomorrow, right?"
"Of course, I can do it later. Not as if I need much. An outfit to the seaside villa and one to return in. Maybe a sack to hold souvenirs."
"We'll be gone for two weeks," Cullen said.
"Yes, two weeks of just you, me, surf pounding against an emptied retreat, and no pants." It was a shame those Orlesian poets weren't around to describe the blush strafing his cheeks with a greater might than our army. How many words rhyme with rouge?
"That's, well...I hadn't considered, if you--" his stammer fell into a whisper and I cut the flow off with a kiss.
"See, that's why I'm the one in charge. I've got all the big ideas. You just figure out how to execute them."
Smirking, my commander wrapped his hands under my buttocks and scooped me up. I couldn't stop the giggles as he spun me around to plant me upon the war map, scattering our forces northward. His lips danced across my jaw, down my neck. I don't know which of us growled in anticipation, perhaps both.
My fingers traipsed through those blonde curls, knotting hair and giving just the right tug. It elicited just the sigh I wanted, and I used the moment to make my request.
Catching his eyes, I whispered, "No armor, though."
"What?" he twisted his head to catch up, all the blood in his brain pooling elsewhere.
"On this trip, it - Commander and Inquisitor - stays here. We're just two people with a lot of catching up to do," I enunciated my point by sliding my fingers up his thighs and drumming them just beside the White Spire.
Even then, duty couldn't fully slip away, "What if we're attacked by --?"
He tossed his head, accepting defeat gracefully, "As if I could ever refuse you."
"Actually, you have on quite a few occasions --" He leaned into me, pushing me down further onto the map while his fingers began working the first of five hundred buttons down my tunic.
"Ruffles said you might be in here and..." The door to the war room slammed open. "Oh for...Andraste's asscheeks," Varric moaned. Cullen sprang away from me, but kept his back turned to the dwarf shaking his head in the doorway. Not all of him could come unsprung quickly.
"This is why I'm glad I'm heading back to Kirkwall soon," Varric said. But he still chuckled as the Herald of Andraste jumped off her almost defiled war table. "It was bad enough running into Sparkler and Tiny playing subjugate to the Qun."
"We were only..." Cullen began, guiltily glancing at me.
"You don't need to draw me pictures, Curly. I'm sure dozens of smut peddlers across Thedas are way ahead of you."
"What?" Cullen spun around, that terrifying focus that could fell nations back. It was a credit to Varric's resolve that he barely acknowledged it.
"The Herald of Andraste and a fallen templar turned leader of the Inquisition's army? Hard to get more salacious than that. There are probably a few out there that involve you two and a dragon."
"Slaying a dragon?" Cullen asked, eliciting a snort from Varric.
I patted him on the shoulder, happy to leave him to his blissful ignorance. "What's the word, Varric?" I asked.
"Got the marching orders from that massive elf running the coach schedule. I'll be heading out in the morning. Just wanted to get in a few goodbyes in case you're too, um, busy. Seems I got the timing wrong."
"So soon?" I asked, stepping towards him.
"Aveline's been punching her way out of some political bullshit with choir boy and Ostwick playing stabby face with Kirkwall in the middle. She thought I could lend a merc group or two her way. Seemed the time to finally book the boat trip home."
"Nothing like a massive wave of people trying to kill you to provide a warm welcome," Cullen said.
"You were in Kirkwall, Curly. That is our greeting."
I held a hand out to Varric, "I'd try to think of something to get you to stay but it's hard to compete with merchant guilds and prince wars." Varric took my hand in his warm one and clung tight to the fingers. "It's hard to imagine Skyhold without you, Varric."
"It'll be a lot more boring, that's for sure."
"I believe Sera's still running around," Cullen added, getting a chuckle from both Varric and I.
"Great, I leave just as Curly finds himself a sense of humor." Cullen grumbled at the cut, but good-naturedly. Their last hand of Wicked Grace ended better than before, except for Blackwall, who still hadn't been seen outside of his barn loft. "Don't think of this as a goodbye, just a to be continued," Varric said, shaking my hand.
Smiling, I pumped my hand. But that wasn't enough for one of the first people to throw himself into this cause, to fight by my side and never once question if I could handle it. I wrapped my arms around him, pulling him close for a hug. Varric returned it, his hands staying high on my back. He even waved at Cullen to emphasize the point.
As we broke away, Varric said, "If you're ever in Kirkwall be sure to look me up. Unless another demon army falls from the sky. I've had enough of that for a lifetime."
"I think we all have," I said.
Feet clattered down the stone hall and one of the messengers appeared behind Varric. A young elf with mounds of straw colored hair dropping over his eye dipped his head while struggling for a breath. "Ser," he said through pants.
I glanced back at Cullen. It could refer to either of us. The messenger gained his breath and stood tall, "Inquisitor. There's something you should see."
"Oh, what is it?"
"I don't know," his eyes danced from me back to the commander, "I was only ordered by the lookout to fetch you."
I turned back to Cullen, his fingers gripping around his sword's hilt. "Varric?" I asked.
"Bianca's ready as always," he said, patting his crossbow.
Leading the charge, I crossed quickly out of the great hall. A few people milled around in the courtyard just below the stone stairs, but even those stood and pointed at something in the gate to Skyhold. Picking up my steps, the object of contention shifted into view. Purple fabric wafted in the breeze, unpinned from the mast of the land ship trying to wedge its way through the gates.
"What in the Maker's name is that?" Cullen asked behind me. But I knew it.
"It's an aravel." I spun around to the poor kid who still gulped at his first glance of the Dalish. I barely counted to the city elves running around Skyhold, having become as much a part of the chantry as the bowl's of fire. "Were any Dalish scheduled to arrive?"
He couldn't even close his mouth as his head pivoted a no, then a shrug in case it might have all gone over his head. More of the Inquisition jumped to the aravel's aid, shouting out orders and probably getting a glare or three from the elves inside. We didn't like outsiders touching our things. They tended to leave greasy prints behind.
Slowly the ship creaked through, only the occasional crack of wood echoing from the attempt, and rattled to a stop in our now empty courtyard. All the people who had filled it stood behind the aravel, watching expectantly to see who or what was going to exit. They weren't alone. I leaned closer to the edge, wishing I had a spyglass. Someone inside kicked open the door and tossed down the stairs rolled inside. Waving a hand as if testing the air, the occupants began to emerge. From the perch all I could make out were a few elven heads in familiar Dalish armor. Two male, one female, all armed of course, and --
The last of the group stepped out and blood drained from me. I couldn't see the face, or even the body below her massive traveling cloak, but that staff topped with a green crystal carved inside the winding talons of a griffin could only belong to one person.
" Fenedhis lasa!" I cursed under my breath, but not so quiet that it didn't draw Cullen's attention. He tossed a questioning look at me, but I held my hand up to dismiss him. Instead, I stomped down the stairs to MY hold like a moping teenager angry that one of the members of the clan dared to arrange her bedroll without asking.
Josephine dashed from the courtyard, her clipboard in place. "I only just heard we had guests arrive. There was no mention of them prior."
"Looks like we got a drop by from the Dalish," Varric said.
Josephine glanced at the silent aravel, jotted a note down on her never ending list, then turned to me, "Are they friends of yours or an alliance that --"
Like with Cullen I held my hand up to dismiss her words. My jaw throbbed from how hard I ground my teeth, stomping towards the visiting elves. They didn't draw a weapon, but kept watchful eyes upon the uncertain but genial crowd gathering around them. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Sera trying to climb up Bull for a look. But once she spotted the visitors, she shouted, "Frig, elfy elves. I'm outta here."
I wished I could follow.
The elves huddled together, speaking in our broken and pieced together language. One of them turned around and spotted me, pointing. I didn't bother to acknowledge him, my eyes were all on the owner of the staff. She kept her head bowed, the cowl obscuring her vision. As the buzz around her people changed to excitement, she threw it off and turned those beatific eyes upon me.
"Da'len!" she said, extending her hand towards me the same way I would some visiting dignitary I'd never met before.
I skittered but reached out to her, "Keeper."
She yanked me closer, then pulled me into a stiff hug. The others of the clan folded around us, enveloping me into their circle. The faces, names, and strings between us snapped back into my memory. Despite the awkwardness, a smile bloomed in my heart and I folded, returning the hug to them all. Elven words roared around me so quickly I could barely follow; how I was keeping, if I'd been eating well, that shemlan food must be dreadful, and my opinion on the odor of humans. It must have been unbearable surrounded by so many.
Every time I tried to answer one, another rose, speaking over top each other. Only the Keeper, banging her staff upon the ground could bring total stillness to the conversation. "I have missed you, child," she said, patting my cheek.
"Inquisitor?" Josephine snapped me back to my place.
Blinking back a warmness bubbling in my eyes, I broke a few steps from the elves and said. "Right, Josie. This is Keeper Deshanna," I said pointing to the woman, "of clan Lavellan."
Shock reverberated through the crowd like a pebble tossed into a still pond. People passed whispers like candy, the ones at the back probably mishearing that this was another invasion by demons and we all had to wear purple hats to prepare. I risked a glance at Cullen but his face was stone, the templar slapped overtop.
Josephine rebounded first. Picking up the edge of her skirt, she lightly curtsied. "Andaran atish'an," she said.
"Josephine, that really isn't..." I started, waving my hand to get her to stop. But I already heard the others of my clan snickering at the shemlan's poor pronunciation. One even flapped his ears down to mock her.
Over my shoulder, I said to the man with more wrinkles than sense, "Len'alas lath'din, Moldan."
He laughed at the insult, but dropped his fingers. Josephine, used to being mocked to her face, didn't even blink. Perhaps after the Orlesian Game and growing up with Antivan politics, a few backwater elves mimicking her seemed quaint and adorable.
"Would you introduce us to the rest of your visiting clan?" she asked, pointing her quill at them.
I tipped my head to the one still snickering behind his hand, "This is Moldan, he tells tales that entertain himself and occasionally others if they suffered head trauma." He bowed his head dramatically, savoring the attention, as if that was something new.
"Eira," I said, indicating the other woman, "Apprentice crafter."
"Ah," Eria interrupted, rising up towards me, "no longer apprentice." Josephine scratched something out on her board. She couldn't actually be writing this all down?
I twisted to catch the last one as he threw down his hood and groaned. Of course. She had to bring him. Dejected, I held a hand out to the man scowling from shemlan, "This is Rhodri, a hunter."
"A pleasure to meet you all," Josephine said. She pointed her quill at Cullen, about to introduce them, but Rhodri stampeded overtop her.
"How long must we remain here?"
"Oh, well," Josie stuttered, snagging her balance, "That depends on what brings you here."
Rhodri had been speaking to the Keeper, but he turned back, intrigued by Josephine's impudence. Was he always such a twat?
The Keeper shooed the others away with her staff so she would stand before the might of the Inquisition. It'd have looked a pathetic sight, a woman barely over five feet and weathered from time and life in the forest facing against the mass of us, but she still had that same unbendable will that shaped the world to her whims.
"Word reached us that you conquered your Tevinter foe."
"Ancient magister," I mumbled. She side eyed me, either for interrupting her, or mumbling. Scoldings came about for both growing up.
"Ah," Josie said, grinning, "you came to celebrate. Wonderful!"
"No," the Keeper said, "we came to bring our child home."