Moment of Choice pt 2
I tried to leave my clan alone to settle themselves in the first available space Josie scrounged up. But every moment I attempted to go, the Keeper found one more minor question for me, one more small problem for me to solve. It was Blackwall of all people who rescued me. Wandering out of his barn, he eyed up the aravel and waved me towards him, awe in that patch of skin between hair. The Keeper supervised the men unpacking a set of tents for those who wouldn't sleep inside the ship, while Eria carted around her far too massive axe trying to find a hunk of wood to whack in twain.
Blackwall didn't even have a chance to ask me a question before she spotted him and shrieked, "Sweet Andruil! There's a badger on his face!"
"Wha?" Blackwall staggered back, shaking his head about as if there must be some other man with a face gnawing badger behind him. Unfortunately, the movement only encouraged Eria's twisted belief and she ran full bore towards him, still clutching her axe. I used the confusion to slip away, though I did pause to make certain no one was seriously injured.
It was Varric I found first, sitting at one of the tables just inside the great hall. He swirled a stein in contemplation. "That's a hell of a thing, eh?"
"Where are the others?" I asked, ignoring his question.
He jerked his head back, "Where do you think?"
I nodded curtly, stepping away, but an idea pulled me back. "Varric, the rumors about this could be detrimental. So..."
Chuckling, he sloshed down his mug and propped a foot up on the chair across, "Boss, you really think anything I can spin will top one of those elf forest ships rolling through Skyhold and threatening to run off with you?"
"I suppose not." This was a disaster no matter what I did. Nodding once more to the dwarf who seemed in no rush to catch his ship now, I trudged through the streams of doors to get to the war room. Why did we need so many of these damn things and insist on always keeping them shut?
While lifting the iron pull upon the door the full weight of the situation caught my chin harder than any shield bash could. What was I going to do? What did I want to do? I'd entertained the idea of returning home through every step of this journey, some days the ache growing almost impossible to bear. When someone grew cross eyed at my dropping an elvish word into conversations, or my still waning table skills sent a snail fork skittering across the floor I dreamed of sailing through the forest in my old aravel. What state was the poor thing even in after so much time? Assuming no small animals chewed through the floor, I could easily patch it up and...
Return to being another hunter in the clan. Was that why I did all this? Just to return to the past? My head collided with the door, softly pushing it inward to revealed the hushed voices of two disturbed advisors. The last remained silent.
"How do we mitigate this?" Leliana asked.
"We can't," Josephine cut back, the worry amplifying her accent and rolling her vowels.
"There must be some solution," Leliana continued.
"This is what we get for propping her up as the face of this institution. Nobles throw their support behind her first and foremost, not us. She's built up the alliances."
"Josie," Leliana scolded, reminding the ambassador to not discount her massive role.
"If we lose her, if she goes back to the Dalish - her clan, we'd probably lose the mages first. There aren't many left in the hold now, but being able to call on the college as a possibility was a boon for other pockets of rebels. Fiona wouldn't trust anyone else's word. She's made as much clear often."
"That doesn't spell the end of the Inquisition," Leliana argued back. I pressed deeper into the door, the carving molding to my cheek.
"It is a rain drop to portend a typhoon. Ferelden is certain to renounce any warm ties. The alliance is shaky enough after Redcliffe, and the crown was not assisted as greatly as Orlais and her civil war. Once one country withdraws support the others will too."
"And we'd just begun inroads with Rivain," Leliana cursed, bringing up her own hard work while everyone was still working off a Corypheus hangover.
"That will not happen," Josie cut in. Scratchings filled out her words as she no doubt etched her plan down while speaking it, "The few templars we have will most likely remain as they have nowhere to go while the chantry rebuilds, but I am uncertain of the other soldiers. Cullen?"
I pressed deeper into the wood to try and hear him. His whispered words fell to the floor compared to the spymaster's bickering tone and the ambassador's commanding one. "I don't know how many would continue to follow if we lost support, especially those from Ferelden. Many come from there and probably wish to return home."
"This is my fault," Leliana said. "Why didn't we see this coming?"
A silence filled the air before Josephine said, "I don't believe any of us wanted to think of it."
"We built all this upon an unknown, an unknown I supported," Leliana cursed, that support of hers fading fast in the face of me no longer dancing to their tune. "Contact Cassandra."
"I've already drawn up one letter, but it's doubtful she'll be able to arrive soon. Her duties could take months, perhaps half a year."
My fingers slipped away from the unfriendly cold of the latch as I sank down to the floor. Like a child, I scooped my legs close to me, hugging them tight. It felt a lifetime ago that I ran out of that room and straight into the snows of the mountains, vowing to never return. To never serve under the shemlans. And all that time they'd been building upon me. If I left and I returned to be with my people, it would shatter the Inquisition after its first steady steps.
Cullen's voice rose above a whisper, anger raw inside his words, "Then we choose a new Inquisitor and forge ahead."
"Commander," Josie said.
"I'm aware it wouldn't be easy, but it is a solution, one better than sitting around waiting for everything to die beneath us. We stopped Corypheus, saved the world, to see it all end now would..." his words faded back to that whisper, "wouldn't be fair."
"Our first step, then, is to contain any rumors before they get off the mountain," Josie said. "As far as everyone is concerned we still have an Inquisitor."
I staggered to my feet, wiping off the dust, and finally pushed open the door. Josephine and Leliana whipped their heads towards me, trying to gauge how much I must have heard. Cullen stood alone, staring out the window. Still, Josephine covered for him by saying my name. I watched his head drop but he didn't turn.
"The aravel is secured for now, though I'm certain they'll need supplies. We don't do well on snowy mountains," I said trying to shrug it off like a joke, but they reared back at my use of 'we.'
"I see," Leliana said. "Is there anything else your people will require?"
Cullen threw back his hands from the window and finally turned around, but he didn't raise his head. Instead, he stomped towards the door, only muttering, "I should check on my men." Winds colder than anything the Frostbacks could manage followed in his wake. I tried to turn to him, but he slipped out, slamming the door behind.
"This has been an interesting and exciting morning," Josephine said, always the diplomat. "My lady, I don't want to push the issue, but what are your plans."
Just an hour earlier I'd been skipping around the hold, anticipating long nights and longer days wrapped up in the arms of a man. A shemlan. It didn't bother me then; not even a trickle of guilt when I'd have to rewind my speech and translate elvish words for him, or I'd remind him that the carving of a god he held was not Ghilinilian. But now, with my clan yards instead of countries away, a dark hole chewed through my innards.
"I can't answer that yet," I said truthfully.
"I understand, it is a big decision and..." her sentence trailed off as she turned to Leliana. Always the big sister was our spymaster, taking Josie under her wing and keeping her safe. The two ganged up on Cullen like he was their baby brother, but in the caring familial way. There were some meetings I'd walk in to find them pages into a discussion about nothing important. I'd never thought of myself as a part of that close banter, but now the family seemed broken. One of its own threatening to leave and strike out on her own.
"Well," Leliana said, breaking the silence, "I'm afraid you'll have to find a new hobby, Josie."
"Leliana!" she cried back, a blush clawing up her cheeks. "Stop!"
Embarrassment grew thicker than elfroot and I had to prod, if only to find something to distract me. "What hobby?"
"Oh, it's nothing Inquisitor, a small way to pass the time," she rubbed up and down her forearm while failing to lie and ended with a giggle. I watched her, waiting for an explanation.
Leliana shook her head, "She was planning your wedding."
"I was not!" Josie shouted, then mumbled to her chest, "I was planning many people's weddings including yours. It's a good way to test ones skills of how well you know the current fashions and trends in each land as well as any cultural significance of..." her words trailed off at the look I gave her. Josie turned and glared at the spymaster, "I hate you."
Leliana chuckled, "No you don't."
"What did you have down for me?" I asked, curiosity driving me to ignore the bronto in the room.
"Oh, well, it's nothing set in stone by any means," she flipped up her papers and thumbed through a pink sheet at the bottom. "I was thinking a dress of silk brocade for you. With an inquisition blade forged just for the day, in everite of course. It seems to be your favorite. The ceremony would take place in Skyhold, in the gardens to limit the number of guests as I fear the amount that would wish to observe could overwhelm us. At twilight, when the sun skirts just over the horizon to illuminate the lattice in our gazebo, setting the air aflame with the light's reflections off the pale yellow leaves. Furs from a snowy white lynx would dot the Commander's shoulders and he'd...um, he'd--" Josie covered over her little fantasy, and smoothed down the papers on top. "It was just an idea."
"Is that how most human bonding rituals go?" I asked. "With dresses, and guests, and sunlit gazebos?"
"Not all," Josie said, a glimmer of her ego poking through. She put in a lot of work on that fantasy of hers. "How does a Dalish wedding work?"
"We don't really have ceremonies, not like that. There's one for the vallaslin, for taking your place in the clan, for birth, and for death, but..." I struggled to find an explanation for the two most refined women I'd ever called friends. "Like, I'm a hunter. So to prove my merit to someone I'd venture out and kill a beast, then present it to whomever I was interested in. There's a bit later with using the hide to make a shield or leather if you choose to commemorate and because it's common sense, but the accepting more or less seals the deal.
"If you were a craftsman you'd make something useful like a pot, or a bow, or repair his aravel. A First would probably compose some convoluted ballad comparing her blue eyes to the fall of the dales."
Josie nodded, smiling at my people's traditions as if they were quaint little things people stuck in the woods got up to. We didn't need to have massive ceremonies to announce our intentions to love this one person. It was a small clan, most knew before the beloved even did, and offering to help with the proposal.
Josephine jotted a few lines on her papers then asked, "And what would Commander Cullen's proposal be? His position?"
I turned away, blinking against a pain behind my eyes, "He wouldn't have one in the clan."
"Oh, well, I..." her awkward words trailed off.
I needed to find him before everything grew beyond approach. Leliana stared through me, as if I had some control over my clan's plans and the Keeper herself. Somehow that crafty little dalish elf pulled one over on the spymaster and plotted to bring an entire aravel to Skyhold without anyone the wiser! Ah ha! Take that people I entrusted my life with. This is how we give gratitude. Creators only knew what Cullen was thinking. Barely bothering with an excuse me, I stumbled out of the war room. Let them work through a solution. Between the two of them they could probably shift the entire focus of the Inquisition without anyone making a peep. Invade Antiva and put Josephine on the throne as both King and Queen? Sure, why not. We can pull it off right after lunch.
Despite Skyhold offering a myriad of hiding places, most employed by that strange man with the endless questions and eye searing garb, I knew where I'd find Cullen. All the doors to his hideaway were closed, not even a soldier shuffled out rubbing his neck from a mountain of orders. Never a good sign. Silence pervaded Skyhold; the birds themselves seemed to be holding their breath waiting to see what would happen next. I thought about knocking, but the threat of his refusal stuck to my core. Instead, I cracked the door open, those traitorous hinges whining to announce me.
He stood beside his bookcase, one of the thinner tomes open in his hands. To anyone passing, it'd appear as if the Commander was merely doing a bit of reading, but I could see the furrow between his shoulders, a clench building in the back of his jaw, and the tight curl of a fist trying to follow the same sentence.
I stepped in and spoke the first daft words to drift to my mind, "It's a good thing the breach is closed or we'd probably have a rage demon clawing through the veil in here and...this isn't really helping, is it."
Cullen glanced towards me, his eyes shrouded. He wore the same mask some mornings, waking in a pool of sweat refusing to speak of what cracked into his skull and haunted him but needing me to be there. Not to tell him it would be all right, but that I was real and I wasn't some demon trick about to vanish in thin air. I couldn't heal him, but I could help. And now...
Instead of snapping the book closed he returned to it, butchering the spine further. I wasn't about to be ignored so easily.
"I had no idea the Keeper would pop up like that. I should have known she'd do something for attention, but taking an aravel across a sea and up the mountains without sending a letter, it's..." still he wouldn't turn to face me, his scar crawling upward in a sneer. "Cullen, please talk to me."
"You didn't refuse her," he said, his hollow words stinging deep. He was right, I didn't call her out. I stammered, and I obfuscated, and I pushed it away, but I didn't tell her no.
"I've faced down Grey Wardens, Magistars, an Empress, made split second decisions that could shape the world," I said, wrapping my arms around myself. "But this is my mother."
He snapped the book closed, sliding it back onto the messy pile of the bookshelf. Unable to face me, he leaned into the bookcase and asked, "What do you intend to do?"
"Don't you mean 'what do I want?'"
Finally, broken amber eyes turned to me. The same heartbreak when he thought he wasn't strong enough to overcome the lyrium burned inside him. "I'm scared of what the answer is."
"Cullen..." I stepped towards him -- wanting to hold him -- but he moved back, for the first time throwing a barrier up between us.
"I told you the truth before, when..." his eyes wandered over his desk. "I'd wanted to be a templar, but after what that life cost me I needed something, anything to fix what I did. But the Inquisition is something other than atonement, it's..." He whipped around, that eternal simmering anger rolling over his sorrow, "That night was not some farce, a ploy to...I didn't want to lose you."
"By all the- I love you. That hasn't changed."
He shook his head, "That isn't what's in question. Do you want to be with me, stay with me?"
And there it was. The easy answer was yes. This morning I'd have laughed at his even asking it again and needing that reassurance I wasn't going to slip through a floorboard. I hadn't thought about returning, not really. How would the clan take me after so much time away? With this magic ripping apart my hand? How could I leave him?
A but hung so evident in the air, it was a wonder Sera didn't doodle all over it. They were my people, my family. The ones who'd taught me, needed me, loved me...
"Cullen," I squeaked as pathetic as a lady's pet nug. Instead of shriveling away from the Herald of Andraste's blubbering, he opened up his arms. I took not a second thought to fall into them, burrowing my head into his shoulders. To think at one point I considered a mouthful of fur off putting. Calm enveloped me as he closed his hands, locking my chest to his. Through the cracks in his armor, I felt his body below, the warmth lightly trembling. Serenity may be impossible to find out there where responsibility reigned, but what if I remained here for all eternity? I know a couple Tevinter mages that could probably make it happen. No decision necessary. Problem solved.
A sob rolled with a laugh at my absurd idea, and Cullen squeezed tighter; perhaps he had the same dream. But duty would always be there. It was the unwelcome relative stopping by during a hunt and sniping your kill just before the final blow.
"This hasn't solved a thing," he said, his head resting upon mine.
"I don't want to lose you," he caressed my arms so softly the touch was barely evident through my leathers. "But..." Cullen swallowed down the emotion in his sentence, then continued, "I won't impede you if you must go."
His frail words shattered my own meager resolve. I twisted my arms free from his hold. He released me willingly, a pang of confusion and pain crossing his face, but I caressed his cheek and rose on my toes for a kiss. I don't know why I paused a breath from his, my thumb wiping at a minor tear dribbling down his cheek. He could walk away now, it might be easiest in the end. Creators, I hadn't been strong enough before. Even when he asked me to tell him what I planned for the future, I passed it off back to him. "As if you have to ask." Yes, he did, and I knew it, but I didn't want to admit it.
He scooped me closer, his lips plunging onto mine. My finger migrated up to those curls, wadding them around while my tongue did a bit of exploring on its own. Always the gentler soul, he caressed the back of his hand across my cheek, coolness evaporating with the tears I didn't realized I wept. Melting deeper into him, Cullen's hand climbed higher, digging through my own scattered hair when he paused. His fingers hung over the pointy tips of my ears. That damn reason we could never work. He stepped away, but I slid my hand behind his, holding it tight. I don't know what promise I made, but those shattered and reforged eyes burned into me, accepting it.
Clomping noises outside the door caught our attention. We broke apart, racing to find composure. Varric's voice screamed out behind the still closed door, "And sometimes our INQUISITOR needs to visit with the COMMANDER to CHECK on the state of the TROOPS!"
The dwarf threw open the door and gave a thumbs up at our state of not entanglement. Behind him a surly voice mumbled, "You need not shout, durgen'len. I can hear you, not that I care."
"Well, ain't you a ray of sunshine," Varric muttered before glancing at the pair of us still sliding apart. "Ah, here we are, the Inquisitor, just like you demanded."
Rhodri stepped into the threshold, his trademark cowl back in place. Only the reedy nose and flash of long auburn braid poked out of the mounds of green fabric. Within the shadows of the forest it worked for him, but in the bright confines of Skyhold he looked ridiculous.
"Sweet creators," Rhodri cried. "Lethallan, I've been searching all over this..." he pirouetted his hand in thought, "ruin for you."
I felt Cullen clench his fist at the descriptor. "What do you need?" I asked, trying to head off a fight before it broke out.
"The clan is hungry. I assumed you knew some good hunting patterns for the area, unless you forgot all your skills during your time here."
"Skyhold would be more than happy to supply the five of you with food. I'm certain Josephine is working on a banquet right now," I said.
"I think she's got some of those magenta birds from the Arbor Wilds all fried up with the feathers stuffed back up their assess," Varric said, "Very fancy."
But Rhodri scoffed, "I would sooner starve than accept a shemlan handout. We put our trust in them, our reliance, and we might as well slap on the chains ourselves."
"I've been eating their food for over a year," I scowled. He was always pretentious, but I hadn't heard this conservative rhetoric from the man before. Rhodri was more of the 'I'm going to pull off this really amazing kill one day that'll somehow win our people land and I'll be a great hero' pomp. Perhaps my own rise in the echelons cut deeper than I expected.
He smiled below that hood, a shimmer of white in the shadows, "And you worked for it, yes? Doing their dirty work, as elves always do. But I will not be beholden to this whatever it is."
I slipped my hands behind me so I could claw at Cullen's desk to keep from screaming that his very being here took up Inquisition resources. The halla dined upon our hay, they rested in our grass safe behind our walls. But why bother. There was no changing a tusk's spots.
"Fine," I said, "I'll take you hunting myself."
"I will accompany you," Cullen said. I twisted away from the desk, but he didn't look at me. He was far too focused on that cocky Dalish elf adjusting the belt crossing his chest. Oh for all the, when did he start wearing that? It made him look like an absolute twat.
"A shemlan hunting with the Dalish? That should prove most interesting, assuming you can keep up," Rhodri said, tipping his head towards Cullen's knees.
"I'll do my best," Cullen bit back.
"I think I'll come as well," Varric said, rubbing his hands.
"Are you serious, Varric? Hunting involves outdoors and walking in the outdoors. I thought you hated that stuff," at this point I wanted everyone to stop volunteering to come along. The sooner I got Rhodri some small mountain ram and drug the carcass back to the clan, the quicker I could try and find a solution to all this.
But the storyteller shrugged, "A chance to hunt with the fabled Dalish -- that isn't just picking marigolds out of the Viscount's garden. Who could turn that down? Think of the research. I could add some real depth to that Dalish elf and secret human prince serial I've got started."
Rhodri struck a pose, an honest to Elgernon pose, in the doorway. Some days I could understand why so many other elves couldn't stand us. "Well, Lethallan, before we lose the light," he said, smug thick in his throat.
I glanced towards Cullen, the man I trusted to lead thousands of people to battle and himself rip through abominations by the dozens but I'd never seen take down so much as a nug. He fiddled with his scabbard, tightening the loops as if that would cut down on the noise a full set of armor stomping through the snow would create.
"Fine," I gave in, "let's go hunting."