Moment of Competition
Metal clanged against metal, echoing through the deserted yard beside the stables. A rare warm afternoon beat down upon Skyhold, scattering people throughout the grounds to lay back and enjoy the day. It was wise to take a break every now and then to enjoy that world you're supposed to be saving.
Another sound of sword smashing against shield piqued my curiosity. Trailing past the closed stalls, a Seeker jumped backwards into view. Cassandra wiped at her forehead with the back of her hand while still holding her sword. She nodded at her opponent. I stepped further into view to spot the commander inspecting his shield for damage. In the warmness of the sun, he'd forgone his armor for a tan shift and breeches. Surprising. I assumed he had no idea how to take all that armor off and slept in it.
"Nice try, Commander," Cassandra said, slicking her bangs out of her eyes.
"I nearly had you that time," Cullen said.
Cassandra snorted, "So you keep thinking."
He raised his sword up in preparation for another round then spotted my interloping. "Inquisitor!" Cullen called, giving away my position.
Cassandra turned and gave a curt nod. She spun back to resume battle when her stance slackened. "Do you have a moment?" she shouted to me.
"Assuming no dragons fall from the sky," I said, crossing towards them.
She looked up to make certain my flippant words didn't become truth, then shook her head, "There is a matter that you might be the only one to solve."
"Don't tell me, Chaisned threw a pig at the walls."
"That would be useful," Cullen said. "Fresh pork for dinner instead of the remaining tack?"
"Oh, a rasher of bacon in the morning," I said, my stomach grumbling at the optimism.
"That would be preferable to whatever eggs the cook's scrounged up," he said, glancing back to the kitchen door propped open. Servants wandered in and out, trying to scoot past the qunari filling the door. I'd ask what Bull was doing in the kitchen but I doubt I really wanted the answer. "What kind of bird do they come from?"
I flicked my eyes from the kitchen to the commander and half whispered, "I hear they're actually wyvern eggs." His head snapped back and with a straight face I nodded, "Oh yes, cook's an old master at arms. Took down two dragons with just her perry knife." Cullen chuckled at my absurdity but nodded his head as if he partially believed it.
Cassandra sighed at the two of us and continued her march to business. She sheathed her sword and waved me towards a mass of crates beside the wall. A few soldiers sat beside them, picking at the grass and bathing in the sun. Corypheus, godhood, and a giant rift in the sky seemed an entire world away today. But, at the Seekers approach, both jumped up and saluted. Cassandra ignored them as she spoke to me, "Courtesy of your inroads at the Exalted Plains."
"Oh?" I asked, leaning closer.
She cracked open the crate and reached inside, "A dozen or so Dalish bows." Cassandra passed to me the first bow she unearthed polished white with small halla antlers weaved onto the ends in the event prey drew too close. More than a few bandits who wandered foolishly into Dalish territory lost an eye or worse upon them.
My fingers traced the markings for Ghilan'nain etched along the wood. "They're well made, from ironbark no less. A good gift," I said. It was years before I got my first ironbark bow, the master craftsman tired of mending broken sights. I had to prove my worth and that I could maintain my weapons.
"Yes," Cassandra said, picking up another. "The problem is no one here knows how to string one." She gestured to the embarrassed soldier holding out a bow, a string of linen dangling limply from the antler and not the limb. I couldn't wipe a smile off my face as I picked both away from the poor man. Sliding the loop over the proper top limb, I bent the bow under my arm and pulled the string down to attach it at the bottom. Releasing the bend, the bow snapped back to normal, pulling the taut string with it.
I twisted to the side and tested the bowstring, aiming a phantom arrow at the unimpressed hart in our stable. Pleased, I handed it to the soldier and said, "There, that's how you do it."
"Uh, thank you," he said, turning the bow over in his hand as if it were about to bite him.
Cassandra grunted, grateful that the matter was settled and returned to Cullen. "Commander, another round?"
He smiled and rose up from his seat on the well, shaking off any weariness. He moved to unsheathe his blade, but paused to glare at the sun. "Give me a moment," he said. Without any concern for people watching who could become easily distracted, he yanked the shift over his head. Sweat glistened across his alabaster skin, getting perhaps its first dose of sunlight in years. Tossing the shift out of the way, he lifted his sword towards Cassandra, flexing a bicep chiseled from its own ironbark.
I watched transfixed at the lines of his body as muscle rose to meet against each of Cassandra's blows. She; however, seemed unaffected by the display, carrying on a polite conversation while attacking him. Blessed creators, even his pants twisted with each move, exposing hidden thigh muscles normally eclipsed by his armor.
The fighters met in combat, shield against shield. Cullen spun around exposing back muscles I wanted to bight into.
"Wha?" The crying plea broke me from the spell and I turned to find the soldiers literally tied up. A bow dangled off the line running from one soldier's ear to the other's foot of all things. "How did you..." I stuttered trying to find sense.
"Could you show us how to string these again?"
"Slower, please," the second soldier added.
Unknotting both of them I nodded, "Sure. Here, we take this loop and..."
They watched enraptured as I paused in each step and explained them. Then, for good measure, I repeated the whole procedure two more times. When the soldiers finally felt prepared enough to strike out on their own, I turned back to find the show ended. Cassandra shook Cullen's hand, "Not bad, Commander. Though you're still leaving your left flank open."
"And you put all your weight on your right foot when back swinging."
I picked up one of the strung bows, and twanged it. "Is it my turn?" I asked, drawing their attention.
Cassandra held her hands up, "I know better than to challenge someone to an archery contest."
Cocking an eye, I turned to Cullen, "What about you? Or did you only learn knife play in the templars?"
He dropped his shield and wiped his hands along his pants, "I've done a bit of shooting in the past."
"That's a yes, then?" I smiled, throwing him a bow. I pointed to the few targets stationed beside the wall. Dummies stuffed with straw, but someone took the time to paint circles on the vital organs of face and middle of the chest. Both were about thirty feet away.
Sliding my boot across the ground, I drew a line in the dirt. "Won't we need arrows?" Cullen asked, stepping beside me and straddling the line. He pricked at the string like a lutist facing down her first performance.
I smiled at him and pushed aside some of the grass beside the wall. A full quiver sat beside it. While jamming each arrow into the ground, I said, "The good thing about living in a hold, it's easy to find arrows."
"Daggers too," Cassandra said. She slid back to the safety behind us and leaned against the well. "An entire barrel's worth."
"I talked to Cole about that," I said, notching an arrow. "I still don't get what he needs a wheel of cheese for."
"Demon cheese?" Cassandra asked. I didn't turn to look at her as I raised my arms up, pulling the string back to my mouth.
"Wait!" Cullen cried. He passed me his bow and jogged towards his dummy. Wrapping it into a massive hug, he picked the dummy up, scattering straw like a trail, and dropped it maybe ten feet away from the line.
After taking the bow back from me, he nodded and said, "That should make it fair."
I only cocked an eyebrow at him but didn't say anything. Stepping to the line, I drew the string back against my cheek and fired. The arrow sunk deep into the dummy's neck. Turning, I caught Cullen, his draw arm dipping low as he fired. His arrow drew near to the heart, hitting the red. He jumped a bit at his score, then sheepishly turned to me. "Not bad for being out of practice."
"No, it's decent," I said, notching my second arrow.
"Decent?" he joked. Pride shined in his eyes as he yanked his arrow out of the ground and slid it above his fingers. "That's a kill shot."
"Congratulations, Commander," I said, "you killed a straw man. You're certain to get a knighthood for it."
"If it comes with parading around in ruffles in court, I'll pass."
While he drew his string back, I said nonchalantly, "You know, this really isn't fair." He laughed at my half hearted complaint, still aiming. I loosed my arrow into the dummy's head and turned to watch him. His arm weaved a bit from the strain, and he bit into his lip to concentrate. Smiling, I said, "I should take off my shirt to even the odds."
Cullen started, his finger's losing their hold. His wayward arrow sprang wild to the left, flying up towards the staircase. It wobbled a bit before sticking an inch deep into Iron Bull's backside. The qunari barely flinched as he turned back to glare at whoever shot him. Cullen gulped, waving his bow as if that was an apology. Bull yanked the arrow free, blood trickling down from the wound. He sniffed the arrow and threw it the ground, then ambled on his way.
A blush burned up Cullen's chest and across his cheeks, as bright as if the sun did it to him. He stared straight ahead at the spot where Bull tossed his arrow.
"Commander," Cassandra said. "You need to work on your aim."
Her voice was flat, but I swore I caught a smile crinkling up her eyes. Cullen sighed, swallowing down the blow to his pride.
I patted him on the back, my fingers following along the crease of his shoulder muscles, "One for you and one for me. I believe we're tied up."
A smile broke through the embarrassment and he nodded his head while the blush faded. "Right, three more turns left to crown the winner."
"Try to not shoot anymore people," Cassandra said. "We might need them later."
"I'll take it under counsel, Seeker," he said. His hands shook as he reached for an arrow, but I ran my fingers over them. Smiling lopsidedly at me, he plucked up the arrow and aimed.
"It is a lucky thing the arrows are not barbed," Cullen said, mentally scoring his hit.
I sighed and said, "I doubt that would have slowed Bull down."
He laughed, "A fair point. It takes mountains to break qunari skin."
"We should do this more often," I said, then added, "though without the shooting people part."
Cullen nodded, "I'd like, that'd be good. Yes." His arrow drifted to the side but still stuck into straw and not flesh.
Firing off my last I turned to him and smiled, "Maybe you'll even get good enough to try fifteen whole feet."
He laughed at that and fired of his last as well, cementing myself as the winner of our little duel. "Well," he said, "That's why I carry a sword and not a bow. Keep me up front and I'll protect you," his eyes darted to the side, scared to watch his confession land. I nodded my head and he ran his fingers across the blush now confined to the back of his neck.
My fingers drifted along the markings of my people while I stared into Cullen's eyes, "I'll be certain to pick a few off before they get to you. You know, to even the odds." It was probably my imagination but I swore Cullen leaned closer, sliding his bow behind him to...
I whipped around to find one of the soldiers nursing his eye with the second held a bow with a snapped string dragging across the ground. He shrugged and said, "We still ain't got the hang of it. One more time?"
Sighing, I took Cullen's functioning bow from him and said, "Duty calls."