Moment of Home
"Watch your flank," he shouted, yanking the reins of his horse to emphasize the order. The chastised soldier only rolled his eyes, but veered off into the bramble, not about to disobey the command.
I urged my horse closer to him and said softly, "Cullen, we're on the road. I think we're good."
"There have been reports of bandits in the area, and we need to remain sharp lest any catch us off guard." His eyes darted through the dappled bracken, clipped and maintained across both sides of the road. It seemed the least likely place in Ferelden for someone to spring out and demand your gold or your life, unless the bandit was very foolhardy or it was his first day.
"It's been, what, a year? Year and a half? I think we're safe from Corypheus, the Venatori, and any lingering Red Templars. Haven't even run across a rift in near on four months," I said. Clouds rolled away, casting a sunbeam across my face to beat warmth through the light leather armor. The ride had been near picture perfect, with even a few fluffy rabbits pawing adorably by the side of the road. Of course, that only gnawed deeper into my poor Commander's nerves who needed something to go wrong either to feel useful or to distract himself.
"That does not mean there are no other dangers. Rumors of a rise in darkspawn due to the loss of Grey Wardens in the area crossed my desk."
I cracked an eye from my sunbathing horse-side and spotted the lone cloud rolling above his head. "Are you all right?" I asked. "This was your idea."
Cullen glanced to our flanks, noting the men and women he scattered into the forest far enough away to not overhear us. The retinue, while only a few soldiers, was still far too much for this meager trip upon the King's road. But, over-planning made him feel better, and who was I to argue?
"I haven't seen them in a time, a very long time. I..." his fingers curled tight around the saddle horn, flicking at a tear in the leather.
With the grace of a bronto on ice, I reached over to hold his hand but bumped his elbow by mistake, nearly sliding out of my seat. Almost two years with the Inquisition and I still barely kept in the saddle. No wonder enemies were always throwing me off the damn thing. Righting myself I said, "It will be all right. It's your family."
His honey eyes turned to me and he smirked, "Because the visit from yours was no trouble."
"Ouch," I laughed. "Low blow. Fine, if your sister and brother intend to drag you away from me to lead some city-state they're forming then I'll concede your point."
"I'm uncertain who to root for," Cullen admitted, smiling softly at me. But there was a tinge still, a bead of worry that creased his brow if talk of the future ever crossed our lips. I gave him my word that if or when I intended to return to the clan I'd tell him. That he would be a part of my plans, but some nights he'd grip tighter to me, as if afraid I might vanish into the darkness without a word.
"Always side with the Inquisitor," I quipped, spurring my horse past him. Ferelden's winding landscape shifted, and I twisted my horse past a copse of trees that had no intention to move for the road. Further in the distance I spotted a massive wooden gate embedded into a rocky cliffside to the left. The door was thrown open and a few carts squatted in the way of it. They looked immobile, chickens pecking around the road's grit beside their broken wheels.
Spinning in my saddle, I watched the prick of nostalgia bloom to sweet remembrance across Cullen's face. "Honnleath," he declared, gesturing to the village we'd set out for. The other soldiers pulled in closer, guiding their horses into a formation unlikely to make it through the gate. But it wouldn't do well for the Inquisition to have a shabby presentation even if it was just for a small village in the farming hills. I tried to slow my horse up so Cullen could take the front, but the soldiers pressed in. There was no choice but for me to continue leading. Story of my life.
A few townsfolk glanced up at us, curious at the commotion, then returned right back to their morning chores. They were unimpressed by the glint of golden insignia or embroidered banners hanging across saddles. There was the price of sorghum to bicker over -- a few shiny strangers mattered little in the grind of life. That was until Cullen passed through the gates.
"Is that the Rutherford boy? The younger one."
"Can't be, heard he was off with the Templars before they went crazy."
"Templars were always crazy. Have to be to face down mages every day."
"Looks just like that other one...Branson."
Through the whispers Cullen's back straightened, his head held higher. He'd waded through the river of political shit that was the Winter Palace by refusing to play, but here he wasn't Ser Cullen of the Inquisition, only the "Rutherford boy what once broke old Olaf's cheese knife." They said you can't go back home, but that seemed less a curse and more advice. It's not that you can't go home, it's that you really don't want to.
I twisted my horse around and dismounted, still sliding less than gracefully to the ground, my legs straining from the reach. Cullen did the same, passing his reins off to one of our soldiers. "There's a barn at the end of this path," he said, pointing to one of three in the entire village, "you can house the steeds there."
"Commander," Vasta said, dipping her head, "we were told to see you here and then return to the Inquisition campsite near the Hinterlands."
"By whom?" he asked. The soldier glanced towards me, pulling Cullen's focus with her. I nodded my head once, then passed off my own reins. Unable to argue against the mighty Inquisitor's word Cullen only sighed, "Very well. I'll...contact you when I need you."
"Ser!" Vasta saluted, dragging our horses away to enjoy some time in the country. The other soldiers followed suit, digging their heels in for a long ride back towards Redcliffe.
Cullen ran his fingers across his face, scrubbing as if to dig away the grime of the road. It mostly left streaks across that pale skin and brassy hair showing its first signs of grey - not that I'd let him know I noticed. Slipping my hand into his, I squeezed tightly. He returned it in kind, drawing a bit of strength from the gesture. Hand in hand, he guided me up a small hill. Unpainted houses circled an open area I'd call a courtyard if anything important were inside it. But only a half ring of fencing and a barely maintained grassy mound broke it apart. A few people moved across the two roads flanking it, not stopping to look at the blank space in the middle.
"Huh," he paused, staring in the middle of the field, "there used to be a massive statue in that very spot."
"Oh?" I asked, sidling closer.
"Six, perhaps seven feet tall, roaring back in rage. My sister dared me to climb it once."
A sheepish but proud burn climbed his cheeks, "I was up to its shoulders by the time father caught us. Ordered us to never go near the thing. I wonder what happened to it."
"Maybe it broke," I said. "It's not like statues just get up and walk away." A shudder shook Cullen's spine and his eyes glared back through his own life. How could I forget? He didn't talk often of those days, but I'd gather bits and pieces. Varric filled in a lot about Meredith and her retinue of horrors coming to life and climbing off daisies to attack Hawke. I touched his elbow lightly, drawing him back to me. He blinked, his dark thoughts evaporating away. Rather than remove the dirt, I added more to his face, my fingers sliding along his cheek. Hopping up onto my toes, I aimed for a kiss when a woman's voice cried out from behind me.
He turned away, but still kept a grip on my waist. "Mia!" he called back, waving to a woman standing in a stand of grass.
Judging from the way he spoke of his sister, I expected her to be nearly as tall as Cullen with the gravitas of a Tammasran. But she was maybe five feet at most and could blow away in a heavy wind. Mia favored her right leg, limping towards us. Cullen increased his gait towards her so she need not walk far. Bending low, he scooped her into a warm hug. She patted his shoulder, kicking dust off the fur pauldrons that never saw a wash.
"I didn't expect you until tomorrow," her size might be waifish, but her voice could command nations. Even Cullen blinked back, abashed from her words as if arriving early was some grave accident.
"The roads were quieter than expected," he said, rising up.
"Seems some big hats staying up in the mountains have been clearing them," she smiled, then glanced away from her brother towards me, "Is that her?"
Cullen waved me over, "Mia, meet the Inquisitor."
Her face was softer than Cullen's with a spattering of more wrinkles crunching beside her eyes, the jowls rounder either from comfort or smiling more. But they had the same lion eyes, gazing across the land before them, maintaining an eternal watch and protection of their domain.
Rolling my eyes at his choice of terms, I stuck out my hand. Mia gripped it tighter than most chevaliers, her skin calloused from life on the farm. "Please don't call me Inquisitor."
"Lady Lavellan, then?" she quipped, then grabbed the edge of her apron as if to curtsy.
I shot Cullen a look, but he held his hands up, absolving himself of his sister's whims. "No, you can just use- "
A whir of legs and feet scattered my thoughts when a child bounded out of a door and ran straight through Mia's legs. She tried to stretch wide to allow the child through, but bent too far. Cullen steadied her while the boy grabbed onto my thigh, using it to slow himself. Red jelly handprints followed his wake as he swung too and fro around me.
"'Ello Auntie," the boy said to Mia. Then he turned to the man shifting from the toddler's glare and to me, narrowing his eyes in concentration, "Don't know you. Do you know Da? Do-you-like-my-shirt? Auntie-made-it-for-me. I'm Mmmblim."
I rather doubted Mmmblim was his given name, but his words slurred from excitement as he spotted an inchworm wriggling across the ground. Far too busy to wait for a response regarding his shirt or who I was, he dashed off after the insect. I wished more of my introductions went that way. "Who are you? Uh huh, uh huh. Not important, there's bugs to catch."
Cullen chuckled at his probably nephew's lack of focus. "I take it Branson's here."
"Arrived two days ago," Mia said, then nodded at the boy crawling along the ground on that beloved shirt, "That one's been tearing through the place, trying to build his own fortress out of the apple crates. He insists we all salute him and call him Ser. Can't imagine what's influencing him." She rolled her eyes towards Cullen.
I couldn't bury the laugh at Cullen's face, a soft grimace from her jibes. But Mia took it in stride, "It's been all the boy's wanted to hear. Tell me about Cul and his great stories."
Cullen shifted on his feet, "They're hardly bedtime fodder."
Mia shrugged, "Perhaps to you caught in the middle of it, for the rest of us all we hear is the dashing uncle who stood against a dragon and stitched up the sky."
He twisted his head to argue, but I interrupted, "That's exactly how it went. Dragon standing, sky stitching, lots of dashing. Right, love?"
For a moment his frown snarled back, but he sighed, rolling his eyes. "Where is Branson?" Cullen asked, "I don't enjoy being outvoted this quickly."
Mia limped to the side and pointed towards one of the doors thrown open most likely from the child still pursuing worms. "He's been cataloguing some of grandmother's stranger antiques. Why mother kept them all..." She began working towards the house at the bottom of the hill, sliding her foot under her.
"Where's your cane?" Cullen asked. He dipped beside her so she could hook an arm inside his and use him as leverage.
Mia glanced back towards the child, "I believe it's currently the only weapon that can save us all from the Archdemon."
Together the siblings walked down the lane to the house with the door wide open and a barren windowsill planter hanging out of the second story. I glanced at the boy still hunting for worms at my feet, uncertain if I was supposed to bring him with - or how. Luckily, as soon as I began to lean down to speak to him, he jumped up, something clutched tight in his hand, and ran off for his aunt.
"Lookie, look, look what I found!" he shouted, holding his blackened fingers out to Cullen.
"Yes, beautiful," Mia interrupted before Cullen had a chance to even see what was found, "Go show it to your father." The boy dashed away inside the house, his only speed seeming to be full gallop. His shoes clomped up the stairs, the sound echoing all the way back through the square as Mia and Cullen both slipped into the house. I followed behind, curious what to find.
Living indoors was still a strange endeavor to me. To spend ones life encased in what was basically a wooden box and call it a home seemed a peculiar way to live. I grew accustomed to Skyhold by having Josephine's master sculpture create a few marble trees for me. Took a lot of translating, and he kept staring at me as if I wanted to consume his first born, but eventually I had my own small forest in my room. The golden and silver vhenedal tree he carved for me proved so popular amongst guests they became all the rage in Val Royeaux the next year.
A massive table greeted people entering this house, with benches lined along both sides that could sit all my companions if Bull stood. Wooden crates filled it, piled in a certain order that must have made the child's dream fortress invulnerable. Behind the table the hearth burbled fire trapped behind smooth grey stone. A lone kettle swung off the spit across it, hissing for attention. Someone hung a sign painted upon old barnwood over the fireplace. I could only make out the words "Heart" and "Rutherford" through the grime and scripty carving.
Mia slid away from her brother to land upon the throne of the house. It looked as if it'd been carved in a single piece from the heart of an ancient tree, with an intricate design of bonded branches forming the back and arms. She leaned back, the chair tipping with her until it rocked forward in a smooth motion. Judging by the fact no one else raced to help, it was probably supposed to do that.
"We've begun some work on the house, nothing major. Despite being abandoned, it's still in relatively good shape."
Cullen pushed aside one of the crates and ran his fingers along something on the table."Gran did build things sturdy."
"And wrap you across the knuckles if you broke anything," Mia chuckled. She rolled a few more times in the chair, a quilt tossed upon the back cushioning the blow against the wall. "How long's it been since you were last here?"
Cullen rose up, his fingers fiddling with that sword at his side. I almost suggested he leave it behind at Skyhold, but then I worried what he'd do without the thing to keep his hands busy. "A year before I left for Templar training, I think. When we spent the summer in town. We loved it."
"You loved it," Mia said. Sitting up, she reached for a box beside the chair and shuffled through it. "Mother, however..."
Cullen chuckled and raised his voice to pantomime probably his mother, "'Feed me to the wolves before I get so feeble I have to move to town.' It never seemed that bad."
The stairs creaked and I expected another flurry of child limbs and insects, but the well worn boots of a man appeared. Taking his time down the bowing steps, he appeared looking like the stretched version of Cullen. His face was more gaunt, the cheeks pulled back tighter, and his forehead longer. Even his legs and arms appeared extended, wrapped tightly in cotton and worn leathers, dusty from work.
"I thought I heard the sound of my baby brother returned home, but that seems impossible," the man said. "He's far too busy saving the world." He stopped on the stairs and tilted his head at the proceedings. I'd met a lot of nobles in the Inquisitor business who'd run the gambit in looks from spoiled snot to possibly a bear someone stuffed in pants, but this was a gentleman. Every gesture was measured and precise as he wiped a small bit of dirt off his clothes with a kerchief before folding it properly back into a pocket.
Cullen, looking even more out of place in his armor than usual, stumbled around the piles of packing materials to throw his arms around the man. "Branson."
I'd expected a soft pat on the back, perhaps a side hug, but Branson returned the expression fully. I suspected the Rutherford crest should include two bears in a massive embrace, followed by a chess game. After stepping back from Cullen, he turned to me, "And this must be..."
"We're not supposed to call her Inquisitor," Mia shouted from her perch.
Branson smiled a far too familiar one, and I stuck my hand out. "I'm trying to get away from all that for awhile."
He eyed up my traveling gear, still overtop chainmail because there are somethings I can't talk the man I love out of worrying about. Then he turned to Cullen and sighed, "I see you couldn't break him away from it."
"Only for a few brief moments, I'm afraid," I said. "Mostly at night, or early morning."
Cullen stuttered, "They don't need to know, that's not pertinent to...I can enjoy myself outside of...Maker."
"We grew up on a farm, Cullen" Mia said. "I think we all know how it works." She said it straight, but I swore I caught a quick wink at me.
"You're not helping," Cullen grumbled, but it only encouraged both of us to laugh. Branson remained in his brother's corner by not saying anything. Instead, he picked up some of his son's fortress boxes and laid them upon the floor before sitting in the chair opposite the door.
Mia sat forward, drawing my attention. "I am curious, if you'll indulge me..." I nodded, sliding my leg across one of the benches to sit at the table. "How did you two meet? My brother was lax on the details, as usual."
"I was not!" Cullen tried to defend himself as he yanked back a bench, finding the sword unwilling to compromise. His sister shot him a pity look, shaking her head.
"Funny story, really," I said. "First I was his prisoner, then I rescued him from a demon horde, and stopped the expansion of the giant whole in the sky. After that it's pretty much fairy tale tropes."
"So, it was love at first demon?" Branson asked.
"Took a few more demons, but yeah, eventually," I smiled at the man turning a few shades of pink from his siblings interest in his love life.
"Is it just to be the three of us?" Cullen suddenly interrupted, trying to find any way to change the subject.
Mia rolled her eyes, but Branson interpreted, "No, she's not coming. Our youngest sister's in Denerim."
"Denerim?" Cullen asked, "When did she go there?"
"A few years after the blight," Mia said, "She heard about some tavern named for the Grey Wardens and simply had to work there. Thought it was fate guiding her."
"She always was more of an uncalibrated trebuchet," Cullen said.
Mia shrugged, "It's not that surprising, she was young when the Hero of Ferelden saved Honnleath and held it all in awe."
That caught Cullen's attention. He shifted away from some hazy memories of his youngest sister to focus on Mia, "Recuse? The Hero of Ferelden? When did this occur?"
"During the blight," Branson said. "Darkspawn swarmed into the area, and we thought it'd be safest to find shelter in town with others. Lone farms were easier for those monsters to pick off."
"Smart idea until the darkspawn came into town with us. We hid in that strange old mage's basement until the Warden saved us," Mia elaborated.
"Why am I only hearing of this now?" Cullen's voice slipped into interrogation mode.
"Probably because you didn't bother reading your letters," Mia cut back, smiling wide from her win. Cullen scowled, but didn't have a response knowing she was right. The sound of wild horses rampaging down the stairs echoed through the house until the child jumped off the last one to join us. He still held his hands tight, hiding whatever he found, but holding it aloft.
"Come here," Branson said, patting his knee. The child scrambled up into his father's lap, Branson having to do most of the lifting. "Ugh, you grow heavier with each hour." He only smiled at his father's funny joke, twisting around to face us. "If this little toad had been born a girl we were going to name her after the Hero."
"Just like half of the Ferelden babies now," Mia said, but she smiled as if she'd planned the same.
"Did you get to meet her, the Hero of Ferelden?" I asked Mia.
She shook her head, "Only for a moment, most of us ran once she slaughtered the darkspawn. Though she did stay to save that girl Amelia - oh you probably never met her, the Wilhelm boy's child - and kill a few more demons without needing to. It's not my place to ascribe traits to her, but if pressed I'd probably call her focused."
"Wasn't she a mage from the circle in Ferelden?" Branson said, trying to see around his wiggling son, "You must have met her before, Cullen. Or did she become a warden before your time?"
Cullen balked from his brother's words, his eyes focused on the table while his fingers pricked at the wood. I spoke for him, "More than met, he was in love with her."
"What?"Mia sprang forward, almost falling out of the chair. "You knew her, more than knew her, and didn't say anything?"
"It was a...complicated time. Things didn't, I don't like to talk about it," Cullen sighed. "And I didn't love her, it was an infatuation only on my end. A youthful indiscretion of...complicated times."
Slowly Mia turned to eye me up, "The Hero of Ferelden and the Inquisitor."
"He certainly doesn't want for standards," Branson quipped. It broke whatever tension boiled in the air as all of us laughed even as a blush crawled up Cullen's cheeks.
Mia rose off her chair and said, "That kettle's been abused enough, I'm getting a cup. Anyone else?"
"Sure," I said, moving to rise. She held a hand up, finding the energy to fish a mug from one of the crates.
"What would you like?"
"I'll have whatever's available," I said.
Mia sniffed the kettle then slopped it into two cups, "I believe this is ancient nettlevein tea, with hints of orange peel and dust. Don't mind the spider legs."
I stood up to grab a cup and tried to ignore the eyes boring into me. Taking a careful sip, I swallowed and said, "The spider legs are extra protein."
I must have passed some test, as both siblings turned to their brother and smiled wide. Pouring a third and fourth cup for her brothers, Mia finally grabbed hers up and sat down at the bench beside Branson. The boy tried to reach for her cup, insisting he loved tea, but his father only shook his head.
"No, it's too hot for you, son." I kept waiting for someone to say the child's name. It had to happen eventually. You couldn't call him boy for an entire week.
"News of the Inquisition doesn't reach us as often as we'd like," Mia said.
Cullen shook his head, "It's grown quiet, for once."
"Sweet creators," I said, "did you just admit things are well and not about to fall apart? Someone mark this day." He shook his head, but I only grinned, taking another sip of the spider leg tea. It was growing on me.
"I did hear you mentioned in a song," Mia said to Cullen.
"Oh," I put down my mug, "the one that calls him stout and bright. He hates that. Makes him sound fat."
"It does not. I don't...It doesn't bother me in the least. I...simply don't enjoy my life being put to verse," Cullen grumbled. I shot him a patronizing look, having heard his complaints every time Marydan's song punctuated our tavern. He growled, that sneer in place.
Mia shook her head, "No, it's not that one. This is much more...salacious."
"What?" Cullen sat up at his sister glancing away. She seemed to find the ceiling fascinating, while Branson was distracted or distracting his son.
"It's rather good, actually. Not the most catchy thing, but lyrical. Though it's rather hard to think something that steamy could be regarding your baby brother who once ran around with small clothes upon his head."
"I did no such thing!" Cullen denied, but Mia giggled and held up not one but two fingers. It seemed a particular favored activity of his.
"There, there," I soothed his ruffled fur, "I'm certain you were a very dignified child strutting around with underthings on your head." A massive blush burned up his neck, and the sneer seemed a permanent fixture now, but as my fingers trilled across the back of his head his face smoothed down to accepting things. A memory triggered in my brain and I turned to Mia, "Wait, is this the song about the dragon succumbing to an ex-templar's charms and transforming into a beautiful woman?"
"Yes," Mia said, "that's the one! Very, um..."
"Tell me about it," I murmured into my mug.
"I...what?" Cullen twisted from his sister back to me. "You've heard this song? Why didn't you tell me? How am I the last to know this?"
"It's only in orlesian, I needed Josie to translate most of it. She was happy to after we heard your name, and then the blush on her as it got to the later verses...I still think she faked the ending, though." Cullen's panicked glare from the information got only a slow roll of my eyes. "What? You weren't with me in Val Royeaux. Though it'd have been priceless if you were." I chuckled at the idea of it slowly dawning what the song version of him got up to trapped in that nest of dragons, though it seemed unlikely the bard would have escaped with his life.
"You'd think...concerns about my private life would have slowed," Cullen growled. He hadn't touched his tea, only glared it into submission like an errant soldier with a drooping shield. I reached over and gripped his fingers - at first he sat slack the anger simmering, but by a time he returned the touch.
The boy in Branson's lap suddenly perked up, his shoes kicking into the table as he asked, "Are you the...the...Inquil, Inkur..."
"Inquisitor," Branson said softly to his son. "It's pronounced In-Quiz-It-Tor. Remember?"
"I'd really prefer..." I began, but the boy had greater concerns than what to call me.
"Are you an elf?"
Every human held a breath, trying to watch me out of the corner of their eyes without making it evident. I finished my sip, then placed the mug down on the table before turning to the boy. His eyes honed in on me, that same amber shade as the rest of the family. Smiling, I said, "Yes, I am. Ears are usually a good giveaway."
"Oh," he nodded his head, then leaned forward, flopping out of his father's hands, "Do you wish you could be something else?"
If the tension was thick before, it shattered everyone now. Branson clung tight to his son, hissing something incomprehensible in his ear about being good while Cullen and Mia both sat rigid. She stirred her mug and Cullen glared at the boy. "What?" I coughed, clearing my throat, "What do you mean?"
Shrugging off his father, the boy sat forward, focused on me, "Watcha want to be if you could be anything? I'd be a big dragon!"
My laughter gurgled from the simple joys of childhood. I looked the child in the eye and said, "I knew a mage that could do just that. Turned into a dragon to help us save the day."
His eyes grew massive from that news, his lips quivering, "Did, did he breathe fire and fly around going woooshy swoop!"
"She breathed a magical sort of fire, and did a lot of flying. I don't remember the wooshy swoop but I was in the middle of battle at the time."
"Really!" the boy crawled across the table, his father only keeping him in place by his foot. "I should show you, Da can I show her? Please!" He flipped around waving his pudgy fingers before Branson's face.
The exhausted father shrugged to me, "Is it all right?"
"I suppose," I said. The boy didn't even need my forced resignation, he'd already climbed off Branson's lap and pulled on my arm. As my hand dropped down from his machinations, he slid his smaller palm inside mine, pulling with all his might. Sliding my legs out, I staggered to my feet while the child continued to pull me towards the open door. At the frame I turned back to catch the adult's eyes and said, "I'm a bit scared of what I just agreed to."
Before anyone could explain I was yanked out of house, pursing a three year old with the same determination of my commander.
"Will she be alright?" I asked, watching my nephew drag her out by the fingers.
"He knows better than to wander too far," Branson said. "They should return before the hour's up. Probably covered in mud."
That sounded like most of the ways I'd find her after a mission, mud splattered not just across her pants and armor but her hair and face. She'd just shrug it off as camouflage and fly repellent, then race me to a bath. It felt strange to confess I found my love more beautiful in that state, her hair ratted and muck smudging her face instead of cosmetics. But her eyes sparkled under it, the trappings of the forest bringing a life to her that the politics tried to dampen.
I pushed back my untouched tea and moved to rise off the bench, "Seems a good time to get to work before the distractions return."
"Indeed," Mia said, but she didn't rise nor did Branson. Instead they shared a look. "Shall I begin or..." she said.
Branson closed his eyes, shaking his head as he always did when trying to get away from her scheming, "This is your idea, not mine."
Mia folded her arms, "As if you don't agree with me."
"All right," I interrupted, aware when I was being talked through, "I'm still in the room, or should I leave with the Inquisitor?"
Mia sighed and squared her shoulders, "We..." Branson coughed, getting an eyefull from our sister, "Very well, I wanted to talk to you about, well, you."
"Me?" I leaned back, pointing at myself in case there was some other mysterious third brother.
"You and your future," Mia said, stretching out her sentence, "with her."
"Oh," I groaned, rising up, "not you too. My business is my own, and hers, and it should only be discussed between..."
"Would you sit down? For the Maker's sake, this is important," she said, shaking her head. I slid back onto the seat, my tailbone rattling. The bench was harder than I remembered when I was a child. "This cottage has sat abandoned for awhile, too long for its good. I don't have the time to come into town to look after it. Even getting away for now is a strain on my husband and the kids."
I nodded, "That's why we're all here, to prepare it for a new owner."
"But should we?" Mia asked.
I turned to my brother, who seemed to find something in the fire fascinating now. "I'm lost, you just listed why we must."
"You should take it, Cullen," she said.
"What? I have no use for a house. And it would be even harder for me to get out here to tend it. I'm lucky for the break I can get now."
She turned to Branson, who finally joined back in the conversation. He shrugged a shoulder, "It only seems fair for you to take the spare house. Mia got the farm, I most of the herd."
"Father only left you out of the will because you joined the Templars," Mia said, "But you're no longer with them."
"No, I'm with the Inquisition. That's my life."
My sister sighed the same one she would when I'd make a particularly idiotic move in chess, "For how long?"
"As long as I need to," I said, shifting in my seat. I'd anticipated more than enough embarrassing questions about my personal life from my sister but not this full frontal attack.
It was Branson who spoke next, his softer words throwing me off balance, "And then what? Do you anticipate the Inquisition being your end?"
"I, well..." I leaned back, massaging the back of my neck.
Mia shook her head, "What about the Inquisitor?"
"She's a part of my life now," I said, lost.
"Now being the key word, brother," Mia said. She staggered away from her seat, away from me, and limped around the room. Her fingers bounced against each other as she spoke, "I know you don't like to talk about yourself beyond what I can pry free, and this is your first real..." she waved her fingers for emphasis, " love, but it isn't kind of you to string someone along."
"I'm doing nothing of the sort!" I cried, rising up, but Mia only held up a hand, silencing me. She'd had this speech planned for awhile.
"So much of your life has been at the whims of others. First the Templars, then that Seeker whisking you off to the Inquisition."
"I'm doing my duty for..."
"When do you start living for yourself?" Mia interrupted, pausing in her pacing to stare into my eyes. "When do you settle down? Get married? Start a family?"
Her stripped voice caught me aback. The fight drained from my words, "Who said I even want to...? I haven't thought about- You're making a lot of assumptions!"
"What about her?" Mia nodded her head towards the door as if I had no idea who the her referred to. "Have you asked her what she wants?"
"Of course, in a way that's...things aren't so cut and dry with her being-- You wouldn't understand," I flailed around the eternal bronto in the room between us. Of course I'd thought of a life with her, often while neck deep in political bullshit from some noble getting his golden slipper trod on. Something cozy and just the two of us without anyone else to interrupt with another vital report or to whisk her away to seal a rift or solve gentry squabbling. But I feared to voice the words, to ask her thoughts on the matter after she told me about the Dalish issues. It seemed cruel to force her to choose between losing her people or a future with me. She had enough problems already.
"Is this about the elf issue?" Mia cut across my thoughts as if she could read my mind.
"It's more than just an issue."
"Only if you make it. For the Maker's sake, Cullen. People can find love and togetherness across all kinds of barriers. You're already in the same social circle, whether you want to be or not. What's one more step?"
"Why are you forcing this issue? For the first time in my life I'm happy. Can that not be enough?"
Branson scooted forward, the whine of wood against wood drawing my attention. "We know you're happy." Mia scowled from his words, but Branson shook his head at her and continued, "But Mia is afraid, and I share her concern, that if you are not careful or make arrangements things could shift underneath you catching you unaware."
"You think someone's going to come along and topple the Inquisition?" I snorted, mentally calculating the might of the arm we'd built over the years. We were more than just that an army, people looked to us to rebuild so much of Thedas. We were needed.
Mia sighed, leaning against the table, her energy spent either pacing or trying to get through my 'thick skull.' "Just, take the damn house, okay. Fill it with children, or soldiers, or mabari for all I care. But, it'll do us both good to know you'll have somewhere to call home."
"I..." my sister's cursing caught me off guard as her eyes pleaded with me to listen for once.
"Da!" a child's scream broke from outside the house as the door burst open. He ran in, his face splattered in green and the woman behind him covered in a mix of red and blue paint. She wore a grin stretching ear to pointy ear and twirled a twig in her fingers.
"Andraste's pyre, what did you get up to?" Branson asked, unfurling our father's kerchief to try and wipe at the blue across his son's face.
My love tried to weasel out of her shoes, leaving them at the door as she said, "That's just between you and I, right?" She winked at the boy who giggled and blinked back.
While the two shared a conspiratorial aside loud enough to echo through the house, Mia leaned over my shoulder and whispered, "Think upon what I've said. Please." Before I could respond she shouted to everyone, "Come now, we have much to do to get this house in order. Who wants to begin in the attic?"
"Is it haunted?" the Inquisitor asked, getting an 'ooooh' from my nephew. "I've got just the thing for stopping ghosts," she said and flared the anchor for a moment drawing delightful applause from both the boy and my siblings. Only I watched silently, my own thoughts churning.
Cullen pulled me closer to him, my head crossing his sternum as I struggled to keep my body on the bed roll. Even curled up tightly and nearly on top of each other, it was a tight fit.
"Is this how all humans sleep?" I complained, struggling to right the now tangled blanket, "On the ground while inside a wooden box?"
He chuckled at me, his chest undulating and lulling my peevishness from the warmth wafted off him. "Normally we try a bed, but there are only the two in this house. When I grew too old to share, I'd come down here and sleep by the fire."
Cullen twisted a bit to stare at the embers still sparking in the hearth that just cooked one of the best venison stews I'd had in ages. Skyhold meals, with its fancy meats from across Orlais and Ferelden were nice but tethered, almost sterile at times. It was hard to beat a gamey stew made from whatever you could find in the stores. The haphazard flavors yank one back to the bone of home. I suspected Mia considered my continuous compliments a farce until I took to polishing up the cooking cauldron with my spoon.
"Early mornings," Cullen said wistfully, "Gran would somehow sneak past my dozing head to light the fire. I swore every time I'd wake and surprise her by striking the kindling myself."
"Did you?" I asked.
He smiled, his hand clutching mine tighter to his chest, "Once. Two days before I was to leave for Templar training. I'd only beaten her by five minutes at most, but it was enough for the look of shock on her face." His fingers lifted off my hand to run down my face, circling my tattoos which he seemed to have memorized. After a beat he asked, "Are you ever going to tell me how you got covered in paint?"
I shook my head softly, "Can't. It's a secret."
"What? Even to me?"
"Especially to you. Your nephew was very specific in his orders I not tell Uncle Cul. Seems you have a bit of a reputation for being a spoilsport."
My killjoy snorted at that apt description as he glanced across the room. "I was wondering, what do you think of the house?"
"The house? Not your sister, or brother, or the one I'm in a secret paint pact with? All right..." I tried to twist my neck to look around, but all I could see was a one eyed view of the stones and a floor piled high with packed crates shoved aside to fit us. "It's very...what's the nice way of saying small?"
"Cozy," Cullen said, his voice flat.
I shifted up, attempting to look into his eyes but they were churning through the ceiling with such concentration a pit burned in my stomach, "I didn't mean offense, I just...don't have a lot of house experience. It's either the massive room in Skyhold I share with ravens on occasion or an entire forest."
Cullen smiled wanly, rising a few inches to look at me. His hand caressed my exposed shoulder, "Of course, I simply..." He sighed his explanation dying. "You'd probably prefer running in the woods behind the house."
"There's a forest back there?" I cried, whipping my head around to try to see through the walls.
"Yes, trees as tall as mountains - or so I remembered as a child. And a pond crystal clear on bright blue days." At the exuberance wafting off me, he smiled and said, "I'm certain we could find some time during this week to slip back there and explore."
"That'd be perfect," I said, sliding up and planting a soft kiss on his surprised lips.
"Yes," he said, his fingers rubbing my arm, "perfect..." The words faded away as he stared at me, calculations whirring behind those eyes - the kind that usually ended in sappers being deployed. "I wanted to ask you, I mean I've been thinking...when it comes to, have you given much thought regarding...the future?"
"Blessed creators!" I cried, rising off him and sitting up. "Of course she told you. I should have bloody known!"
"She?" Cullen scooted forward, toppling me off the mat to the floor below. "Who told me? What are you..."
"Leliana," I spat, "I knew she was reading the mail from my clan, even when I ordered her not to. But to go behind my back and tell you..."
Concern and something darker dropped over the confusion as Cullen sat bolt upright, "I have no idea what you're speaking of. Leliana told me no such thing.
"Oh buggers," I muttered, dropping my head into my hands.
"A letter from your clan?" he prompted, now far too interested in my words.
I sat up, trying to explain, "I only received it right before we left. There wasn't even time for me to compose a response. And you were so worked up about this visit I didn't want to spook you, I guess." My hand patted his thigh buried below our only blanket, "I'm sorry."
"What was in this letter?" Cullen asked curtly.
"Good and bad from my mother," I said, tipping my head. "It finally happened. Rhodri gathered enough support he pulled about a third of the clan with him back into wandering through the woods, even stole a few aravels. Took him long enough after the massive windup."
"I see," Cullen said, giving away nothing.
"Of course, the rest of the clan's arguing amongst itself about the turn of events, acting as if it's a sign of the end times because that's what they're best at; bickering."
"And what do you intend to do about it?"
I blinked in the thin light, twisting to catch his face. Pain crinkled his brow and, in the shadows of the dying firelight, the bags below his eyes lengthened down his cheeks. "Do? I don't intend to do anything. Why would I...Oh," I pinched the bridge of my nose, mentally berating myself for not thinking ahead, "Oh no, Cullen. This isn't a problem. Not a problem for me. I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to...this is why I was trying to save it for when we were back at Skyhold."
He folded his legs beneath him and laid his hands upon his thighs like he needed to steady himself for meditation. "So you won't be returning to your clan?"
Each word was spoken as if through a broken jaw, breath struggling to voice it, pain filling the question mark. I crawled across his lap and pulled his face to mine. His eyes tried to dart away, but I held him tight, "My place is with the Inquisition. We've done so much in the past year, and there's so much we can yet accomplish. As long as it remains, so do I."
His eyes slipped shut, but a smile climbed up his cheeks and he gripped tight onto my hand. "Of course."
"Besides, I didn't get to tell you the good news part. Another clan has moved into Wycome. Not as large as my own, but they're already acclimating to the city elves and the council atmosphere. The Keeper thinks she might get their First elected a new seat if she can sweet talk - her code for berate until they give up - the merchants into agreeing."
"That is good," Cullen said, sighing at the prospect of another clan jumping into the line of fire for my sake. "Was there anything else in the letter?"
"A few platitudes I should extend to some soldiers that assisted in that dam mess," I said trying to mentally scroll back through the hastily read note. "Oh, and my mother practically gleamed as she described the newest round of babies born across not only the clan but the city elves as well."
That drew a small chuckle from him and he looked over at me sitting on the frozen floor. Slipping back down, he slid over so I could join him again on the bed roll. I twisted to the side, laying my leg in between his and pawing the gaping neck of his far too large tunic. After a moment of silence I spoke, "My mother had to end on how much she adored having babies around and the most unbearable of hints that she would very much enjoy a grandchild or five. Save the world and suddenly I'm a walking womb to her," I snorted.
"That's, uh..." Cullen struggled under me, but I soothed him down.
"Don't worry, I drop a friendly reminder I'm with a shemlan and that'll kill her talk real quick."
It was a moment's breath before Cullen responded with an, "Oh. Good." I wanted to ask if he was okay, but he wrapped his arms around my body, clinging tight as if drawing strength from me. Silence fell save the crackle of the last log on the fire sputtering to its end.
"If it wasn't about the letter," I asked, "why were you asking me about the future?"
Cullen coughed, struggling to find words, "That, I was just-um..." his voice fell away as his head rose up and gazed around the room. "I was thinking that instead of losing this home, I might...take it."
"That's a brilliant idea," I said, lifting my head to his.
"We've been needing an Inquisition camp in this area, especially with all those reports of darkspawn and bandits you have. It'd provide a stopover between reconstruction in Haven and workers out of Redcliffe. A few of ours could keep watch over the place, use it to establish ourselves in the area with the locals..." Cullen nodded along with my planning, his eyes focusing downward. I paused in my Inquisitor machinations to touch his cheek, "And it'd be a perfect excuse for a certain Commander and Inquisitor to sneak off more. You have a family to catch up with, and there's a crystal clear pond for me to skinny dip in."
That drew a deep smile and a bright blush up his cheeks, both so achingly endearing it was a wonder I let that man outside with pants. He tipped down, his lips pressing into mine with an urgency I didn't expect. As I returned the kiss, his lips softened - accepting that I was here to stay. We both froze as a noise clomped above us, reminding us we were far from alone. Cullen shrugged, but pecked me once more on my lips before sliding back down to the bed roll. I followed him, curling up onto his chest, sleep tugging at me.
"Cullen," I said, my head bobbing with his breaths.
"There's something I've been wanting to ask you, needing to ask you for awhile now, but I was worried how you'd take it."
"Oh?" he squeezed me tighter, clasping me to him.
I steadied my own breath, preparing for the embarrassment of the question burning in my brain. "What is the name of your nephew? I know he said it, but..."
Cullen laughed, a deep one that rolled me up on his chest until I was chuckling with him. "Maker's breath, I love you," he whispered.
"I love you too," I said, "but give me an answer. I can't call him boy, or child, or 'hey, you' for an entire week."
With one arm guarding me against falling to the floor he told me, as well as the names of Mia's children, Branson's wife, and all about his other sister. Rather than drift off to sleep, I spent most of the night being inducted into his family while the scent of venison stew and the soft glow of firelight circled the room. It was perfect.