Moment of Grief
In reaching for a map tack, my arm scattered a pile of letters to the ground. I watched their fall as did the advisors, some fluttering away in the snow tinged breeze. Josephine tried to catch a few, then dropped down to gather them. "Apologies Inquisitor. These were supposed to be delivered to my desk. We're still training some of the volunteers that only arrived in Skyhold."
"How hard is it to understand don't put things on the big map?" Cullen asked. He grumbled at Josie taking the time to reorganize and file each letter but a smile danced upon his lips when he looked away.
Leliana picked up each letter as Josephine laid them back upon the table. "Instrumentally difficult for those who cannot read. This should have arrived to my attention days ago...and that one as well."
I peered over the spymaster's reach and read the inscription upon the envelope. To Her Lady Lavellan. "What's in all of these?" I asked, bending over to assist Josephine.
"Most are threats disguised as congratulations," she answered flipping through the stack, yanking one out, and slotting it in a new place.
"Threats? Is Skyhold in danger?" I asked.
"We don't have the manpower to support an attack," Cullen added, duty blowing away his moment of levity.
"It is politics," Josephine said, waving a hand. "Every noble house needs to present itself as cautious but open to the Inquisition that moved its location to a fortified hold. Just be thankful they didn't all decide to send the traditional warning of a bloodied dagger."
"Yes," Leliana said, turning away and most likely staring at the recesses where she hid all the visceral weapons.
"Should I be answering these?" I asked, dread thudding into my stomach as I flipped through the massive stack. Learning their tongue to handle the wandering tradesman at a young age was simple, but writing never came up. I only knew a few written words of Free Marcher when my keeper sent me to the conclave. Varric considered it his job to get me as literate as possible so I could read all the dirty graffiti, but in between stopping a rebellion, losing Haven, and discovering Skyhold, time slipped away.
Josephine seemed to sense my discomfort as she gathered the letters and smiled, "No, I can handle the correspondence. A writ of 'The Inquisition thanks your for your generosity, but we are more than capable to stand on our own' will suffice."
I nodded my head, grateful for the freedom. She paused and flipped through the stack again, "Oh, but this one you might wish to answer yourself. I believe it comes via your clan."
Unearthing a letter more yellow and stained than the others, she handed it over, "The instructions were not written in elvish but it has your first name instead of Lavellan."
It took some adjusting to everyone calling me by only the clan name, when they bothered. Inquisitor seemed to be enough for people to get by. I asked Varric once why it was only Herald this and Herald that. He claimed that elven names were too hard on the tongue and it'd be better if I went by something easier like Itchy. That was probably another reason why my reading lessons came to a standstill.
Fishing a dagger out of my back pocket, I slit the seal and opened the letter. The smell of raw earth burst free from the paper and homesickness tugged on me. They'd be under a proper late summer back home, a few leaves turning early while the orange of the sun warmed the forest until it glowed. As opposed to sitting on a mountaintop accepting that I may very well never be warm ever again.
I unfolded the letter fully and twisted it towards the light from the windows. "Da'len, it is with a heavy heart I write this."
My chest constricted, terror clawing up my throat. My eyes zipped around the letter, taking in only a few words and not full sentences. "He was lost" "found the body" "The templars" "din'an."
Tucked at the bottom, below my keeper's signature was the song I could not sing with my clan.
"hahren na melana sahlin
emma ir abelas
souver'inan isala hamin
vhenan him dor'felas
in uthenera na revas
vir samahl la numin
vir lath sa'vunin"
Breath shuddered in my chest, the letter shaking as I fought to find composure. I felt three shemlan staring at me and looked up.
"Inquisitor?" Josephine asked, "Are you all right? You've gone quite pale." She turned back to Leliana, always watching the spymaster for the best move.
I quickly folded up the letter to hide it from the nightingale. "I am fine, I need to attend to things," I said, turning away from them before they could react. The Inquisitor couldn't be seen running, that would cause a panic, but a quick walk was fine. My step stumbled as I remembered it wasn't Josephine, Leliana, or even Cullen who told me that. Grabbing onto the wall, my lungs screamed for air, unnaturally speeding up my breaths. All around me were the trappings of them; tables, walls, shields, and banners that declared this the shemlan Inquisition.
They may have placed an elf at the head, but it was all humans behind. Humans who made it, humans who ruled it. I was little more than a puppet dragged into this first by chains, then the...I flexed my fingers, green from the anchor bursting off my palm. If it weren't for this curse I could have returned home to my clan, left this Inquisition in the hands of the shemlan who wanted it.
A statue of Andraste peered down at me. She was only partially carved, the sculptor pulling her face from the stone unable to find the time to move on to the rest of her. Before I thought nothing of it; their messiah sitting in the throne room had little reflection upon me. It seemed to give them hope, a reason to keep fighting against a man who would be a god. But now I recognized it for what it truly was. Her eyes bore into me, telling me the truth I was once too belligerent to see.
Clutching the letter tighter to my chest, I shoved open the door and ran up the steps to my quarters. Pieces of armor hung in the wardrobe, each labelled and oiled in preparation for the Inquisitor's next ride. I pulled out a coat and slipped an arm in when the glinting button drew my attention. The eye of the Inquisition gazed off of me through the mirror. It taunted the same as Andraste did. What do you think gives you the right to belong here? Throwing the shemlan symbol off, I prodded through the piles of armor I gathered from across southern Thedas. Every one was emblazoned with the same eye daring me to challenge its power.
I was about to give up when my fingers pushed aside a helmet revealing a glint of chainmail below forest green fabric. Yanking it out from the bottom of the wardrobe, I unfurled the armor I set out for the conclave in. Leliana returned it to me after I'd proven myself. Pain stung my eyes. I wiped up my cheek to find a stream of tears falling. Through the mist, I slipped on my old hunting outfit. The exposed arms and legs weren't designed for the cold of the mountains, but I didn't dare grab a coat or fur marked with the Inquisition.
Gathering up my bag, I slotted my daggers into place, picked up an old bow, and walked away from everything. No one questioned me. Dennet even saddled the horse for me, chatting about his wife. Placing the bag upon my horse, I turned her towards the door and drove her deeper into the mountains as far from the shems as I could get.
Three days I slogged through the snow, avoiding roads and any of the banners dotting the landscape; marking the mountain as the Inquisition's. After the first day, I sent the horse back, certain she was smart enough to find her way. I'd avoided travelers and scouts by hiding further up the hills and moving at night, but someone was tracking me. Too many ravens flew in the skies.
Dousing the fire, I snatched up my few provisions and dashed higher up the crags of rock poking through the ground like broken bones. Blinding white stretched endlessly in almost all directions. Only the black cliffs where even snow couldn't cling broke it up. I slipped behind an outcropping of rock hiding myself from my meager campsite. Peering over the edge, I watched a pair of helmets glinting in the afternoon sun. They circled around a point when I doubled back to leave thicker footprints overtop my old ones.
One seemed to fall for the trick, but another head pointed towards my direction and the trickle of smoke from the dying fire. Two of the shems turned off, following my false trail down the mountain but the helmlet-less one stepped towards my hiding spot. Escape meant exposing myself or taking a short fall off the cliff.
This shouldn't be so hard! I'm dalish, for creator's sake! Hiding from shemlen is something we learn while cutting our teeth. But I grew up in the woods of the Marches. I have no idea how to hide my footprints in the snow. My heart pounded in my ears as I dipped lower and slid the bow off my shoulders. Holding my breath, I heard the struggles of someone huffing through the snow. He wasn't used to it reaching up to his calves, but handled it better than I did in making the camp.
Notching an arrow, I ran my fingers up and down the bow. Countless battles facing down every horror the fade could throw at me and this was the first time doubt rose. What if they wouldn't let me go? Could I kill one and flee? Or would that only encourage them to come after my clan, to drag me back?
I heard a boot kick into the few fireplace stones I rounded up, jangling armor across the man's shoulders. Why couldn't they leave well enough alone? If the shems did, maybe he'd still be alive.
Gripping tightly to the bow, I rose up from my cover and drew the string back. My thumb burrowed into my cheek as I lined up the shot at the man prodding around my campsite.
Cullen drew his sword from the threat, then blinked. "Inquisitor?" he asked uncertain, as if unable to tell elves apart.
"That is not my name," I hissed.
He held his sword out and slowly lowered it to the snow. I tracked his movements with the arrow vibrating in rage. "When your horse returned without you we grew concerned."
"You should have let me go," I said, aiming for his midsection. There was armor beneathe. It was unlikely to be a fatal blow but enough to distract him and give me time.
Cullen held up his hands making no moves to attack, "Please, tell me what's wrong."
"What's wrong? What's wrong?" I cried, my aim slipping, "He's dead, that's what's wrong. My brother. Shemlan killed him." Survival kept my grief at bay, forcing me to focus only on the second I breathed and not to think back to the past when my brother yet lived or the looming future without him.
"I'm so sorry," Cullen said, unease folding his brow.
I shook my head, trying to clear the tears. I didn't want remorse, I wanted...I wanted things back the way they were. But that was impossible. I didn't see companions in a fight against Corypheus, only murders of my people. "It does not matter. Sorry or no, I cannot remain."
"I'm an elf, and a barbarian dalish at that, pretending I have some power in this world of humans. What change can I possibly make? How do I stop this ?! There is nothing I can do but sit on high paraded about as the pet knife ear as my people, my clan, get slaughtered by shems scared of their own shadows."
He softened at my rant, his face falling. Cullen dipped his head to whisper, "We need you."
"Because of the anchor?" I spat back. My muscles screamed for me to release the arrow, but I held firm.
Cullen shook his head, "You've done so much, more than we could have hoped for. Even not knowing what enemy we faced, you charged in and put your life on the line."
"I did what had to be done."
He stared at me in disbelief, "You did so much more than that. Stopping an ancient magister wasn't a duty you signed on for."
"If this is your way of convincing me to stay, you're doing a lousy job," I said.
"I could tell you that no matter where you go, Corypheus will be a threat. That he could come, not just for you, but your clan as well." Cullen stepped forward, only one foot, but it was enough to snap my waning arm back up. He held up a hand and continued, "But I trust that you'll do the right thing."
I barked a laugh at his earnestness, "Trust? You barely know me. It's been, what, a few months since Cassandra chained me up and threatened to have me executed? For all you know, I'm the homicidal elf all good little andrastians fear."
"I don't believe that," he said, putting his neck on the line.
"You could have run at anytime, but you didn't. With each step, you've shown mercy across Ferelden. All those people you stopped to save during Haven's attack prove it."
My arms dropped, the arrow slackening until it slipped off falling to the ground. I fell to my knees with it, the cold of the snow chewing through my legs. My brother used to believe in humans. He thought that if we just talked we could find some common ground and finally come to an understanding. Most people thought he was too idealistic if they were being kind, demented if not.
"Cariad was our keeper's first," I spoke to myself, as if trying to draw an outline of my brother before me. "He was so studious, always locked up in the aravel with the keeper while I was falling into mud and picking off wolves. Not that he didn't get into some messes. One time, Cariad hid a bag of spiders in our Heren's bedclothes. The screams echoed through the forest for a week.
"The Keeper almost sent him along to the conclave, but he thought it unwise to leave. A clan needs its first. I keep thinking if he'd gone and I'd stayed back maybe he'd have this cursed thing," I glared at my hand, the green light flaring with my grief, "and you'd have a proper Inquisitor."
Cullen fell to his knees, the snow impacting deeper from his weight, and he slid closer to me, "We have an amazing Inquisitor."
His eyes pleaded with me, and for a moment my breath paused. But I turned away, unable to tell him what he wanted to hear, "All I feel is anger. I want to find the shems that did it and punish them. Make their deaths painfully slow." My fingers curled tight around my bow, drawing it closer.
"I understand," Cullen said.
I reared back, "How? You're not dalish." I stated the obvious in case he forgot.
A shadow fell over his face, his mouth slackening as he whispered, "I lost myself for a long time to anger. Too long. I never took the time to grieve. And when I did, I..." He paused and looked upward at the rift still hovering above Haven, "I feared it was too late. That nothing I did could absolve my mistakes."
Curiosity broke through my cloud and I tried to catch his eyes, "What happened?"
"I," he shook his head, a mask falling in place, one I never realized he wore. "I am not ready to speak of it. Perhaps one day."
"Is this why you no longer take lyrium?"
Cullen nodded his head, then flinched, "Sorry, I've somehow made this all about myself."
I laughed at that while batting away tears with my left hand. The anchor burst off my palm and I pulled it away. Reaching over, I scooped up a bit of the snow and watched it melt from the power. "What should I do?" My plea was to the creator gods taken from us, no longer able to listen.
But Cullen could answer, "Take time for yourself. Grieve. If you can forgive, we would welcome your return. There are few in thedas like you."
I nodded softly, uncertain what he meant. He rose up and held a hand out to me. Glancing up his arm, I found a port in the storm behind his eyes. Cullen helped me rise; he even picked up my lost arrow and handed it back. I rolled it between my fingers and asked, "What about the others? I assume Leliana has already sent scouts to my clan."
Cullen smiled, "Don't worry, I can take care of it." He batted at the snow sinking into his greaves, mostly digging it deeper in, and picked up his discarded sword. He turned away, back towards the road leaving me alone with my thoughts. I ran my fingers along the fletching on my arrow and stared up at the rift in the sky.
A week passed before I returned through the gates of the Inquisition. My heart hurt and my eyes burned, but the world needed me. And I no longer felt the burning desire to kill every human I saw.
After nodding to a few guards who did a double take upon seeing the Inquisitor dressed so simply, Iron Bull approached. "Boss! You're back! Glad to see your dalish thing is done."
"My dalish thing?" I asked.
"Please tell me you have something that needs killing. It's so boring here without you."
I smiled at the massive qunari carrying two water pails off each of his horns, "Tavern girls not enough for you?"
"If a few of them tried to slit my throat in the night, maybe," Bull said. He spotted one of those tavern girls waving for him to get her water, and walked towards her. Behind him he called, "Give a shout when you want to go after a dragon."
People showed deference but no one shouted at me or questioned my absence. Most greeted me warmly, unaware of the battle I raged inside my own soul. In the war room, I found all three advisors standing around the table.
"Inquisitor!" Josephine called, her board bobbing in excitement, "you've returned!"
"So I have," I said, trying to hide the uncertainty in my voice.
"Wonderful. I trust all went well with your ritual?"
I turned away from Josie's almost puppy dog enthusiasm to catch a smirk across Cullen's lips. It was just enough to lift that little scar. Burying my own laugh I said, "Yes, it turned out well and was much needed."
"I understand that they're a private thing you cannot share with outsiders, but please, I ask that you inform us when another needs to take place," Josephine said, backpedaling to be as respectful as possible.
I smiled, "Of course. Though, I hope I will not need to attend to this dalish ritual for a long time."
"Good," Leliana said, folding her arms. She didn't buy Cullen's lie, but she wasn't about to call either of us on it. Though, she'd be a pretty poor spymaster if she did.
Dropping my bag to the floor, I leaned over the map and said, "Right, let's get to business. We have a war to win."