Moments

Moment of Choice pt 5

Fires blazed beside the lone aravel, its roof creaking in the mountain winds as the sail whipped forlorn in this alien world. Moldan prodded one pyre to coax a few flames free, then shifted to the second, while a few humans watched from the sidelines. One of the merchants folded up her shop while holding a solitary watchful eye on the jolly dalish elf. I shuddered from the glare no one would dare turn upon me anymore, but Moldan wiped it away like a spiderweb. He kept three small sticks jammed in his mouth, and yanked out two to call to me, "Lethallan!" The third stick garbled his words, but it seemed important it remain trapped below his tongue.

I stepped into the light of the fire, the warmth failing to reach my face. Moldan glanced up at me, then passed over one of the sticks. I accepted it but sighed. The tinder match, enchanted to strike in any weather, was highly unnecessary. But Moldan waved me towards the final pile of logs. "You already have two fires, what do you need a third for?" I asked.

"Thought Rhodri'd bring back something worth eating, and if not, Eria was scheming up an idea for forging."

"Well, neither are here now," I said, folding my arms and tapping the end of the match against my shoulder.

"Ain't no reason to not be prepared," Moldan said, then waved me towards the logs. Reason ran scarce today, but arguing with the man was about as wise as trusting Rhodri to not accidentally shoot you in the back. Moldan had tented the final logs inside one of our few traveling pits. I fished out a piece of bark, shredded from one of the paper trees native to the north, and snapped the end of the match off. Fire, in the purple hues of magic, jumped from the stick to the kindling. Watching it take for a moment, I breathed upon the bark, then dropped it below the logs.

"Figured I couldn't do it anymore?" I asked, rising as the first of the logs burst into the oranges of fire.

Moldan chuckled, "Course not, who forgets how to light a fire? Just didn't feel like doing it myself."

I shook my head at the poor lie, but was in no mood to challenge it, "As you say."

That was apparently even funnier, the old story teller whacking his knee from such a laugh. "This has been a thing and then some. Whoever thought da'assan would grow up to wear the big britches with shemlan, ordering 'em around on high like some king of theirs?"

"I -- you know that's not how this works."

Moldan's right milky eye rolled to me, "Aye, wanted to make sure you did too."

"Subtle," I sighed. A snap echoed from inside the aravel, as if someone cracked apart a small corner of the veil to harness just enough power to warm a teapot. My brother called it a waste of magic even as he did it himself. For a moment my hand throbbed from the energy draw, the anchor skipping a beat from the fade back to this world, but it faded back to sleep.

Moldan glanced from the sound back to me, "Been in to speak with your mamae, yet?"

"I don't have a mother," I repeated the old mantra, as bitter as ever, "I have a Keeper. We all have a Keeper."

"Sure, sure, should still go and talk to her."

My hand wandered up behind my neck, trying to rub away the worry building behind it, but I froze, a blush rising as I realized where I picked up the habit. Moldan busied himself with his prodding stick, mashing the logs into the pit to kick out higher flames. Summoning a strength I didn't need to face down the ancient magister, I stepped towards the Keeper's aravel.

Before my fist could bang against the door, Moldan spoke, "For what it's worth, Lethallan, the clan did miss you."

"I don't know if that helps or not," I spoke plainly. Moldan only chuckled at my pronouncement and returned to his stirring. Rapping twice upon the door, my mother's commanding tone ordered whoever was beating upon her landship to get inside. Turning the handle carved out of shed halla horn, I slipped open the door.

Smells of the fade hit me square in the jaw, the aroma like rotten meat struck by lightning. The anchor crackled to life before I realized it wasn't a rift; the Keeper was casting one of her more elaborate spells. She stood beside a churning fire of her own, this one contained inside a glass cylinder blazing with sparkling purples and greens. One of many rituals she only shared with my brother.

I waited for her to finish, watching as her sleeves dusted the waning countertop, her knotted fingers dropping a wad of grass into her conjuration. Whatever it was supposed to do either failed or worked as the purple light zapped away to leave behind a charred black husk in the glass.

Finally, she turned to me, wiping her hands across a towel. "Emm'asha, at last you come to speak with me."

I laughed at her choice of words, "It's been a long day."

"Yes," her eyes narrowed and she drew out a knife with a slice of blood across the blade. Whether a threat, reminder, or something she forgot to clean the message failed to reach me. "Rhodri shall not be able to safely travel for a time."

"Here it comes."

But the Keeper chuckled, a disconcerting one, "I know that man, perhaps better than you."

"Creators, I hope not," I muttered under my breath.

She ignored my aside, "He's arrogant, but he's one of ours. You're still one of ours."

"Is that why you're here, then? To claim your property?"

The Keeper moved closer to me, but I threw my arms up across my chest, stopping any attempts on her part. "You're my child. I would never leave you behind."

"Ha, 'your child.' I ceased being that the moment you stopped being First. You were rather insistent upon it, in fact. 'Congratulations, you have something greater than a mother. You have a Keeper now,'" I repeated the words burned into my brain. At eleven years old, I lost my mother not to disease or blade, but promotion. She couldn't afford to show favoritism, not when so many in the clan depended upon her. So, I was banded about to a few of the other couples, or left to my own devices to find my path. I was never certain if my brother was lucky to have magical talents or not. She could obsess over him, needing to train him in not only magic, but the ways of the people. I was free to roam the forest, skinned knees and chipped teeth, knowing there was no one to soothe the scrapes upon my return.

I don't know what I expected from her. Perhaps a confession, an airing of her sins, begging for forgiveness. Even a moment of empathy, to admit that she worried what I'd face so far from home alone from all I'd known, a path she set me upon. Instead, I got a clucking of her tongue as she eyed me up and down in my Inquisition attire and said, "You no longer speak the people's tongue. Have you forgotten?"

"Garas quenathra?!" I sneered, needing to hear her say the truth.

She rocked back at the explosion of elvhen, as if I hadn't explored deeper into our people's history than she could ever dream. Some days fell right on top of it. "I am here for you," the Keeper said, cocking her head, "as I already said."

"I know why you're here. but I don't know what you're up to. Rhodri said you want me to be your First."

Anger snarled across the Keeper's face. "That man can never follow direction."

"Tell me about it. I hope someone's warned Eria."

The snarl wavered for a moment, as if I could draw a laugh from the Keeper, but she bit it down. Folding her arms across her stomach she said, "It is true, da'len."

"That's impossible, Keeper. No, insane. I can't be your First. I don't have any magic." My manic words grew in volume as if shouting could somehow jog her memory. She knew this, she knew the rules better than anyone else here.

I expected her to glare at me, to place her finger to her lips or insist I use my inside voice, but she deflated. Her forehead slid down her face, pocking the flesh below her eyes and dragging out the bags. I watched my proud and vengeful Keeper dissolve into a scared, old woman. The transformation caught in my throat.

"The loss of my...First cut us all deep," her breath shuddered for a moment, but she continued. "We are rudderless without him, without a secure line the clan could fall to chaos. What am I supposed to do?" she asked, her eyes watering.

"There was your second, shouldn't he be first now?"

My mother glared at me, "You know Koldo. Would you entrust him with anything more dangerous than a wooden sword?"

"Even with a wooden sword there's a chance he'll accidentally slice a limb off, somehow." It seemed a cruel curse that some elves touched by magic presented every risk to the clan from demons but couldn't summon even a simple fireball for protection. At the time, no one thought much of Koldo becoming the Second. Cariad showed not just promise in spell casting, but in lore and philosophy, and everyone bloody loved him. The only one more beloved and befriended in the clan was the procurer of balms after we all learned what poison ditchweed looked like.

The Keeper snatched up her staff from its position leaning against the casting table, "This is about more than Koldo's precarious position as First. You may not have been born with magic, but it has found you now."

"What do you speak of?" I asked.

She reached out and pulled open my left hand, uncurling my fingers. "You wrote to me, told me yourself that this is not only of elven design, but a magic from the time of Arlathan. A true piece of elven history embedded in my daughter's hand. No one would argue that that does not give you the rights of First and eventual Keeper."

"You don't understand what this does, what it is," I tried to close my fingers, but she kept them extended, her grip tighter than I remembered.

"Hush, da'len!" the Keeper snapped. "I know more of the lore than you do. I've read the volumes discovered from before the fall of the Dales, spoken to other Keepers who visited ancient ruins, translated forgotten runes etched in --"

"You don't know a thing!" I screamed. The anchor split for a moment in my rage, green light spilling forth. My mother reared back, sensing the fade energy pouring off it. But I snapped my fingers closed, silencing it quickly.

"Don't you dare speak out of turn," she said, a familiar phrase I'd heard growing up, but there was a wariness in her eyes. The mighty Keeper never expected the anchor to hold so much power.

A chuckle rumbled in my throat, soft and only shaking my shoulders. At her pinched look, it grew in strength until I had to reach out to steady myself. With the anchor, I wiped away the bitter joke tearing my eye. "We were wrong, mother. Everything we thought, everything we spoke. It's all wrong."

"What are you...you're incomprehensible," she said, withering from me, but I wasn't about to let this go. I hadn't intended to tell my clan the truth, they wouldn't accept it. Not easily. And in some ways, the truth seemed crueler. To hold ourselves up as the eternal victims for our whole lives only to have it crushed with a single sentence? I'd heard it, seen it with my own eyes but some days even I hardly believed it.

"The elves weren't destroyed by Tevinter, we did it to ourselves."

"That's not possible. How can you know that?" the Keeper scolded me, passing her staff back and forth in her hands.

"Because, I spoke to Mythal." And there it was, the trump card I'd been hiding behind my back ever since first meeting the spirit of a god. My mother could shake off the temple, claim they were flat ears or another crazed Dalish clan lying, but this was something else entirely.

She reached to her forehead to touch the markings of the mother goddess. "I do not understand."

"That's a first," I muttered.

"The gods were all locked away, tricked by the Dread Wolf. How can you speak to one? How can..." she sagged against the counter, using it to steady her body. I faltered and reached out to help, but she waved me away, staring out the window towards Moldan and his fires. After a beat she said, "Do you have proof?"

"If you're asking if I'm sure, yes, I am. The Inquisition is still excavating the temple of Mythal."

The Keeper shuddered, either from the idea of shemlans clawing over our people's history, or that such a place existed without her knowing of it. "Have you told the others? Do they know that...why did she abandon us? Not answer our prayers?"

I reached out, touching my mother's shoulder, "I don't know, she wouldn't give an answer. The gods are...not what we thought. It's all--" I sighed, my own religious crisis still teetering on a ledge. One day it would tip or right itself, but for now it dangled, waiting for a push. "No one in the clan knows. No other dalish either. Only the Inquisition."

She gripped my fingers for a moment, summoning up a strength from them, then rose, her back rigid, "Good, it is an issue that will have to rise within other clans. Be debated and discussed."

Watered down, buried, forgotten so we can keep telling the same lies. I knew exactly how it'd go, which was why I kept the truth to myself. Just hearing about the fall of Arlathan, about elves warring with each other would send the clans into a tizzy. Mythal being in the body of human, even one known to us as the woman of many years, would be utter chaos.

"Regardless," my mother said, drawing my attention back to her, "I require you. The clan requires your services."

I snorted, "I doubt the walls of Wycome provide ample opportunity for many hunters."

A pang shook my mother and for the first time she spoke frankly, "Da'len, I don't know the first thing about running a city. We did not intend it to be permanent, just to assist with saving the flat ears and then moving on. But after so many shemlan were lost, and control was passed to us, it seemed unwise to abandon the opportunity."

"It's been months since you claimed Wycome," I said, "Don't you have a council?"

"I know about aravel repair, halla training, procuring ingredients for poultices. But now all I get are questions regarding taxes, road maintenance. And something called crop rotation is vitally important, apparently. One of us hasn't planted a seed since the fall of the Dales! I am at my wits end with the shemlan merchant," my mother crumbled, folding her face into her hands.

I snickered, remembering my own early days struggling through the first decisions, each choice seeming to come with three consequences. "You will endure. It's what the Dalish do best."

"We will if you come back, become the...oh, what do they call it? Viscount? Princess? Whatever the term is, the position is perfect for you, emm'asha. Lead the city."

"What?" I stumbled back. "How, I, why would I?"

"You've led this entire Inquisition from nothing," my mother said, for the first time showing an ounce of respect for it.

"I had help."

"And we will be behind you, as will your old colleagues from this place, I'm certain. All of us working together to build and mold the first true Dalish city to something spectacular."

There it was. It had nothing to do with my becoming First, that was a lie she spun to Rhodri - either to explain her plan or to distract him. She didn't even care about rescuing her daughter from the dirty shemlans that held her prisoner. All she wanted was my power trapped beneathe her grasp, just like that spell she cast inside the glass jar. I'd be the puppet on the throne, while my mother yanked upon the strings.

"What reason could I possibly give to...I can provide far greater assistance here as the Inquisitor."

Hope drained from my mother's eye as she realized I wasn't like the others in the clan. I didn't greedily yearn to build something great for our people, to make a name for myself. I already had. She'd have to try another tactic. "I did not want to believe the rumors, people can speak such horrid and silly lies."

I blinked, shaking my head to find sense from her change in subject, "What rumors?"

"Your soldiers, the ones you sent to help secure the city. They liked to speak of you, how you were getting on, your victories in the south, and your fascination with a commanding officer."

Blood drained from my face, my mouth falling slack. She couldn't be serious...

"Of course, the clan knew it was idle gossip. How could one of ours, the Keeper's child no less, take up with a shemlan?" her eyes bore through my skull, dissecting my brain.

"I don't know what you think you know..."

"Da'len," my mother said, then patted my cheek as if I was a child caught fighting in the mud just needing a bit of discipline and guidance, "you were never a subtle child. A dalliance far from home is forgivable, but to use it as an excuse to avoid your duty..."

My hand swung up fast, snagging her wrist and yanking it away from me, "So, it's to be blackmail then."

She sighed, unimpressed with my response, "Airs are tense amongst the clan. Many do not like our remaining in the city, they think it's abandoning tradition. Why do you think I brought Rhodri with me?" My eyes flickered out to the campfires, and she read the dark thoughts across my face. Snickering, she said, "What? To torture you with reminders of the past? I am not so cruel. No, I needed to keep a watch upon him. He speaks of plans to rally the clan, to return to the forests and relinquish our first foothold. Tradition is his standard barer, the death of our First his weapon. He is unable to see the opportunities before us. This may have been born out of necessity, but we could turn Wycome into a future for our children. A true home for the Dalish."

"I-" I stepped back, releasing her wrist.

She snaked it under her sleeve and dipped her head, "I've given you much to think upon, and I'm certain you shall come to the proper decision. That clan still loves you, da'len. Never forget that."

Unable to summon a response, I cracked open the door, stumbling down the stairs to escape. My mother condescendingly called out, "Dareth shiral."

***

Only the call of the lone owl nesting in the upper echelons of Skyhold kept me company-- the solitude of night blanketing out all distractions save the thoughts tormenting me. I kicked my feet against my bed, rubbing my hands up and down my thighs repeatedly as if that would pop an answer into my exhausted brain. My bed -- to think, less than a year ago I was horrified of the thing and would often strip off the blanket to sleep on the floor. I feared growing soft to it, abandoning my heritage and turning flat ear from a night in the soft embrace of a mattress. In reality, it slipped grain by grain through my fingers, every decision pulling me further from the people -- even if the choices were something I wanted. I glanced to my closet where a pair of slippers tumbled free, golden threads to mimic my own tattoos embroidered upon the tips. A gift from Leliana, who was shocked at my lack of footwear.

Closing my eyes, I thudded back upon the bed, my legs rising up to my chest as I hugged them tight. What my mother said gnawed at every nerve in my body. She was as wrong as ever, but so infuriatingly right in her wrongness. An opportunity to lead the first Dalish settlement since we lost the Dales... How could anyone turn that down? But did I want it? How was trading one future as a leader for another any better? I dug my fingers into my shins, clawing against the leather boots.

Soft coughing cracked open my eyes, and I sat up to find Cullen standing at the landing. Exhaustion tempered his brow, or perhaps something worse -- the circles under his eyes heavy with shadows. He glanced towards me, and lifted a shoulder, "I wondered if you didn't wish to talk."

Releasing my grip on my legs, I sat up and nodded. "I think I would."

He rose up the stairs, then paused, adjusting his gait beneath himself. It was a small gesture, one most people wouldn't notice, but I picked up on his need to favor the left leg, putting almost all his weight on the right.

"Are you okay?" I asked, sitting up higher and moving to help. "How bad is it?"

He raised a hand, and continued working towards me, "I'm enduring."

"Cullen..."

"My leg's burning. A bit too much today with the bear, the assassin, and..." he left the last part dangling in the air, not wanting to voice the effect my own life had upon his.

I patted the bed beside me, scooting over. He didn't argue, the pain biting deeper than he'd voice, as he crashed beside me. Some days he may not even show signs of lyrium withdrawal, dashing about Skyhold, then others he'd need to spend the day behind his desk, taking it easy under Inquisitor orders. With Corypheus gone I thought he might finally have that chance to rest, not have a thousand worries dangling upon his head. But I had to go and shatter his world apart without thinking.

"Are you all right?" he asked, turning to me.

It was the smallest gesture, but my resolve crumbled, dragging my face with it. Cullen broke as well, shock at causing me pain cracking his weary features. My face thudded into his shoulder, the fur cushioning my fall, and he rocked to the side from the force. Softly, he threaded his fingers through my hair, combing the ends and laying each unknotted section back behind my ear.

"That bad?" he whispered, his voice light but solid.

I grumbled into him, mashing deeper into the fur. Maybe if I kept burrowing I could disappear forever. His fingers stopped and settled upon my shoulder. I leaned up facing down his own exhausted eyes and something twanged inside me. All the worry, the pain, even the tinge of fear winnowed down to anger.

"Oh no, everything's perfect. I've just got a spymaster with a stack of assassin contracts for my head, a political advisor trying to marry me off, and a mother forcing me hand to lead her city. You'd think those last two should be switched around."

"What assassin contracts? I thought Leliana took care of-- Hold a moment. Marriage?" Cullen glanced around the room, as if expecting someone to pop out and declare the whole day had been a massive prank. Not even Sera was that cruel.

But I was too wound up to answer him. Hopping off the bed, I paced back and forth just out of his reach, needing to vent. "Do you know what she did? Why she came here? The Keeper wants me to take over in Wycome. Thinks she can pass me off as her First because of this damn anchor."

I twisted back to him, expecting to see the same look of shock I wore when my mother told me but his eyes were hooded, his lips pulled tight. "That is a sound strategy."

The soft words nearly sent me spinning in shock. Shaking my head, I said, "You can't be serious."

He caught my wandering hand, the left marked with the magic of my people, and tugged to hold me in place. "I don't want you to, I mean if you were thinking of. For your Keeper, given the Dalish lack of governing it is understandable why someone with little..." His eyes slipped closed, and he pinched his nose.

I gripped his fingers, folding my hand into his. The small gesture was enough to revive him, a whisper of a smile flitting across his face. Leaning closer to him, I cupped his cheek, running my thumb across his whiskers, longer than usual and curling upward. "I haven't decided anything."

He nodded his head, then turned up to me, "But you will need to soon."

Sighing, I released my hold on him and continued pacing. "What would you do?"

"I'm not much of an impartial party here," he said, getting a moments chuckle from me. "If I wanted to enact real change, I'd remain where the greatest power is, with the Inquisition. Where I can do the most good."

Such a simple answer, and exactly the reason I opened my heart to him. Even as he stumbled and fell, he still rose anew each day striving to bring more into the world, to make it better. To fix something wrong. But that wasn't everything for me, to spend every moment of my life devoted to saving the world would hollow me. Leave behind nothing of what I once was, but the husk.

"I miss it." My eyes screwed tight, I let slip the truth buried deep in my heart. "Running in the woods, bathing in streams, telling undead stories around the fires. It was so much a part of my life, to trade it for an endless parade of soirées, conclaves, and kissing up to nobles...I, I can't picture myself doing this for the rest of my life."

Silence hung in the air, heavy with tension. Slowly, I opened one eye, then the other. Cullen's hung head didn't look up at me, but he whispered, "I doubt I could either."

"But, what the Keeper's offering isn't a return to the old. It's more of the same here yet on a smaller scale. I wouldn't meet with empresses or dukes, but merchants and guard captains. When this began, I thought I'd close the breach, do my part and leave the rest in the hands of whoever wanted to take over. Return home, pick up my bow, and hunt deer for the clan still traveling through the woods."

"And now?" Cullen asked.

I flared my fingers out, the anchor crackling awake, "This marks me, probably forever. As long as I have it, I'm a target. A danger to those around me from fanatics, assassins, and anyone else with half a mind to challenge the woman who closed the breach."

So many flinched when I broke out the mark, but Cullen only slid his fingers below mine, his thumb caressing my palm. "The Inquisition would not abandon you if you stepped down." I heard the words he dare not speak. Even if I left, trundled back to the Free Marches alone to serve my clan, he'd still do everything in his power to keep me safe. Creators, that stung deeper.

"It isn't just what's good for my people, or Thedas," I said, sitting beside him. Picking up his arm, I leaned my head across his chest, feeling the rise and fall of his breaths against my own. After a few heartbeats they matched in rhythm. "You're a part of my decision too."

"I didn't want to presume," he said cautiously. But his fingers gripped tighter into my arm, pulling me closer.

"Leaving you would..." Would what? In all the day's travails I never once thought what that would mean. To not have that reason to fight harder than I thought possible, knowing I needed to return to him. No longer knowing that when all of Thedas was throwing me against the wall, one man was certain to stand at my side. "Blessed creators," I mumbled into his chest, "this would be so much easier if you were an elf."

Cullen enveloped me, bringing his other arm around to my side. His chin dug into the top of my head, the pressure a welcomed pain. "I have given it some thought, and if your heart was set on returning to Wycome, to your clan, I could go with."

I broke from his hug to stare up into those eyes, so willing to sacrifice for my sake, my happiness. "I wish you could."

He blinked, "I don't understand."

His arms fell slack from my body as I folded my hands together as if in prayer. Hunched over, I melded my fingers against my lips and whispered into them. "I thought you knew, or, no, I should have told you. It would have been fair, better before, long before I...Even if you came to Wycome, even if you found peace and stability serving beside the clan, we could no longer be together."

"I understand the dalish hesitation around humans, but..."

"It isn't, it's so much more complicated than...If I'm with you, if I have children with you, they will be human. Their blood might be half elven but they'd look human, be human in the eyes of the clan. They'd never be accepted. Most dalish who dally with humans are shunned on principle alone."

"Oh," he sat back, staring ahead through the windows overlooking the balcony. Josie worked tirelessly to find a glassmaker who could etch branches in them to remind me of home. "I didn't think about, didn't realize..."

"It's why human-elf relationships are looked upon in such disdain." I paused rethinking the truth of the world, "One of the reasons. In exchange for one pairing, an entire line is snuffed out. No more elven children, our blood washed away. We lose even more of us to an already uncaring world."

Cullen reached over to me, stumbling to find a touchstone. I caught his hand in my own and kissed it. A silly gesture more than a few Orlesians tried on me before I'd flare the anchor and send then scurrying away, but he gulped at the contact. "I don't want to hurt you," he said.

"It's not your fault I fell in love with a human," I said, then smiled, "though you could be a bit less handsome."

He shook his head, "No, I mean while I was in the infirmary with your Keeper and the others, the way they glared at me, I suspect that they overheard..."

"Yes," I interrupted, "she knows about us. Knew before even arriving. Soldiers and loose lips," I said, rising back.

"Wouldn't that cause you to be removed from your people? Wait, which soldiers were gossiping?"

I chose to ignore the last part as I had no idea, though I suspected he'd get to the bottom soon enough, "She needs me, and there's nothing my mother loves more than a good redemption story."

"I see," he said. Our conversation lulled to an uneasy silence, only the hooting of that owl punctuating the air. After a time he turned to me and asked, "I suppose, the real question it comes down to is what do you want?"

"When I was younger, I'd spend days by myself exploring the forest, following old paths, trodding in forgotten ponds, stumbling through broken rocks that were once part of walls or fortresses long claimed by vines."

"All right?" he asked, confused where my mind went.

"One time, when I was sixteen I think, I was chasing a small rabbit. Not very seriously, a half hearted practice. I lined up a shot and the leafy ground gave out below me, sent me tumbling nearly twenty feet onto a stone floor. Broke my ankle, and I had no way to climb back out. There was no choice but to explore the ruins to find an escape. For a week, I dug out caved in sections, drank water dribbling off the stones, found a nest of nugs for food. By the time I finally got out the clan grew worried and sent someone to find me. Even in pain, my ankle tied to my dagger, dehydration setting in, it was a time I look back on and smile about."

"Why are you telling me this?"

I shrugged, the hazy memories of my misspent youth slipping away, "I can never return to that. Everything's changed, for good or ill."

Cullen pulled me to him, planting a kiss on the top of my head. He may not have understood my story, but he captured why I needed to tell it. Hugging me tight once more, he released me and rose from the bed. My questioning eyes followed him, "You have much to decide. I should leave you be for the night."

"Cullen, you're exhausted and in pain. A long walk back isn't helpful for either of those. Stay," I grabbed his hand.

He closed his eyes, his thumb rubbing over mine, but then he shook his head, "I should not persuade your decision. And after the day I don't think, I'm not in shape to..."

I rolled my eyes and said, "You know, you can use beds for just sleeping. Or so Josephine kept insisting after she caught me using the mattress stuffing to cushion armor."

"I don't remember this," Cullen said, shaking his head.

"Back in Haven, she was probably more embarrassed than I was at the time and covered it up." Still clinging tightly to him, my voice dropped, "Please, stay. I doubt I could fall asleep alone."

He sighed, and returned towards me. I shifted aside, giving him room to fall onto the bed. He worked off his boots first, then slowly dropped each piece of armor to a familiar pile beside his side. I took the time to dampen down the lamps, leaving only the embers in the fireplace to cast a whisper of light upon us. Sliding under the blankets, my fingers danced across the warm muscles of his back. Cullen twisted onto his side to face me, and I turned around, cupping against him. His arm at first fell slack beside me, as his breathing slowed to a soft gurgle of sleep sounds. But after a moment, he clutched my stomach, pulling me tight to him.

In the dark thicker than any forgotten ruin, he whispered into my ear, "I don't want to think every moment with you might be the last."

I wrapped my arms around his, always strong and unwavering, "Nor do I."


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