I don’t know how it happened…I got lost in the story, and I was having so much fun that Chapter II is now complete at about 20,000 words. I wrote my first bit of, well, let’s call it what it is, smut and I don’t regret a moment. Because of the mature nature of the content, I have added the links you will need to follow in order to read that section on the fanfic site, Archive of Our Own (AO3). This is purely for my own entertainment, but I hope you enjoy it too!
Chapter Two: Redcliffe & The Circle
The village of Redcliffe was famous for its hilltop windmill, and after hearing about it for years from the Templars who traveled Ferelden in search of what they considered uncontrolled magic; I was excited to finally see the twirling sails for myself. What I was not excited about was the eerie silence of the village that followed. As a Circle mage, my life was limited to the walls of the tower; silence was my old friend. Approaching a place that should be bustling with life, only to find it quiet, was to put it mildly, unsettling – as was the conversation with Alistair before we moved any further.
He asked to speak to me alone for which I received some knowing looks from the rest of the party who continued forward, allowing us some privacy. I was immediately tense. I found it easy to continue to maintain my distance from Alistair while on our journey, and although done purposefully, I hadn’t thought he had noticed. The events in the cave, the magnitude of what lay ahead of us, in addition to my irrational thoughts about a nonexistent relationship weighed heavily upon me, and I felt it best to recapture my level-headedness, through distance.
The Circle, although full of people, allowed each of us a great amount of time to find solitude, especially as we grew older. As children, there were always elders to watch over us, but even as a child I remember keeping my distance from the others; the bitter taste of betrayal from my family lingered for some time. Being sent to a strange place, to be treated like a dangerous object, to never be free…I didn’t know that was what lay in store for me when the Templars came for me, but my parents had.
But I digress. I know I had grown quiet since leaving the Brecilian Forest, but it was a habit, a coping mechanism, or whatever you want to call it, because retreating to the safety of my own mind was where I found comfort. I had not intended it to be alienating, especially to my companions, and I said as much when Alistair asked if I was all right.
I was also troubled by how the world suffered. Being locked away, sheltered, I only had the smallest of insights into what everyone else had to deal with on a regular basis. So far, each time we traveled somewhere new there was a new threat. The darkspawn were a recent development, but villagers had to deal with civil war and in-fighting, dragon attacks, bad crops, bandits, and so much more while trying to raise a family and just live their lives. The Dalish had been dealing with werewolves and were continually on the move due to a variety of fears and threats.
The mages only had the Templars to worry about, and the constant fear of possession, and the threat of tranquility – our world was contained, limited. So much more could happen on the outside, and I found it oddly thrilling. When Duncan recruited me, I had no idea what he was truly offering me…I’m not sure if he knew either, but what he had done was open the world to me…and then there was Alistair.
Not only did he want to talk about me and my well being since the cave, he bombarded me with news so surprising I was left literally speechless. As if our challenges weren’t already great, he shared with me that he was the bastard half-brother of the late king, making him the last in the Theirin bloodline.
I can only imagine the look I had upon my face, because he had to stifle a laugh. He shifted uncomfortably under my scrutiny as I tried to make sense of what this meant. Not only did this completely change him in my eyes, it affected our entire mission. Maker’s Breath! He could be the next king and he was wandering the countryside, killing darkspawn…I wondered if Loghain knew, which of course he did. As Maric’s former friend and advisor, I was sure he was privy to any number of the old king’s secrets.
Alistair assured me that this changed nothing, that he was devoted to our cause and the Grey Wardens, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the beginning of something so much bigger. The Arl of Redcliffe would know what to do. Our only hope was that he had recovered from whatever strange illness he had contracted.
I joked with Alistair about being a prince and the look of horror that dawned was one of the funniest things I had ever witnessed.
And then it happened– closure, or what I hoped it would become. His confession was what I needed to regain that perspective I was so in need of, and I got it (although I soon discovered it was to be short lived). The decision had been made for me, and for a moment my heart ached at the loss. I swallowed hard, and with it, the intention of burying my growing feelings. I suppose Morrigan’s suggestion offered us at least a chance at something, a connection, but it rang hollow now. It always had.
There would be many who would want to utilize this information to their own benefit, even if he chose to remain a Warden, his name would always hold sway, and should he become king, I was a mage. He could also be considered a threat to those political factions vying for the throne for their own purposes, and a target for anyone wishing to exploit such a connection. We would have to do what we could to conceal this knowledge.
I stared at him for a moment, longer than I intended, as I tried to wrap my head around the idea of him becoming king. He was a strong and brave warrior, but there was a vulnerability about him, something Morrigan disliked in him, which of course I found endearing. He would need to be protected, and although I disliked the idea of telling all our companions, we had to watch over him. He could not be allowed to charge into the fray, or take unnecessary risk, although I would never tell him that.
We had speculated that we were probably the last two Grey Wardens in Ferelden, but now knowing that he was also the last in a royal line…and I thought we had problems before.
My gaze fell from his questioning eyes to his lips, and without warning a compliment about his attractiveness spilled out. It wasn’t even remotely related to the topic at hand. Internally I winced, and externally I made a face as I chastised myself.
But then that foolish man offered me a rose.
He asked me if I knew what it was. I raised an eyebrow and retorted with, “Your new weapon of choice?” I had to switch the brevity of the situation, and humor and sarcasm were always the safe way to play.
We shared a laugh as he continued to remark that he would fell the darkspawn with his rosy scent. Every once in a while I would see him thumb this rose he had plucked outside Lothering when he thought no one was looking. He always had this far away look upon his face. I wondered what he was thinking about each time, and now I knew. It was symbolic…of me?! It reminded him of me?!
There was the belly flip again. I thought it was just a fascination, something almost forbidden that I wanted to explore, but maybe it was more than that. I needed to make up my mind.
I looked at the flower and gently stroked its petals as I had seen Alistair do on occasion. It had aged, having been plucked from the earth over a month ago. The edges were nearly black and wilted, but at the center, its color was still vibrant. I held it to my nose, the light floral scent still lingering in its flesh. I let my eyes close, wanting to remember this moment, but I was inundated with images of Alistair touching the flower and looking sweet, which struck me harder now knowing what he had actually been thinking.
My heart beat erratically as I leaned forward to kiss his cheek. I let my free hand linger upon his arm, to use in part as leverage, but also to allow a little more intimacy. I heard his breath catch as my lips gently brushed his skin. I lingered briefly to take in the moment and Alistair as well.
His skin was warm from our recent travels. I could smell the sun on him, the saltiness of his sweat, and the faint traces of metal and leather from his armor. There was also this earthy scent from the cleansing soaps we had acquired from the Dalish. The combined scent was heady, and somehow pleasant, and arousing. I pressed my lips harder upon his cheek and felt him tense underneath me, and heard him grip the hilt of his sword tighter. As I pulled back slowly I whispered, “Thank you.”
Hoping to avoid any comments about the blush upon my own cheeks, I turned quickly from him, but smiled wide when I heard him cough and adjust his armor. I bit my lip as I contemplated my previous thoughts. This had just negated all thoughts of closure, as my heart and mind were not on the same page…I was going to need to talk to him more directly, and soon.
I received a variety of smiles from our friends as I rejoined them, but gave them a reprimanding look that I hoped would stifle further inquiry or comments, at least for the time being because Alistair was still in earshot, and also because the pleasure of the moment was to be short lived by the appearance of a young man with bad news.
The village had been under siege for days from a horde of undead from the castle, and the lad had been on lookout duty awaiting reinforcements, as they were ill prepared to survive another attack. The people had taken refuge in the Chantry, hence the silence. We followed the path that twisted down the hillside past the windmill, as the boy tried to catch his breath amidst prayers and thanks.
The heart of the village had been built on stilts and it rose slightly above Lake Calenhad. I do not know why I found this odd. Perhaps because I could not understand how it was defensible? I found that having that idea was odd as well. The silence had been deceiving. From a distance the village seemed almost abandoned, but there was a great amount of noise coming from the Chantry, and we were informed that the leaders of the town could be found within.
Villagers and soldiers moved quietly about, looking beleaguered and downtrodden after many days of turmoil. The few knights present seemed to be gathering supplies and organizing what they could in preparation for yet another onslaught. A small training area was filled with young, inept men, and it was clear that if they were going to survive the night, they would need help.
The doors to the Chantry were heavy, probably reinforced, which was good, and took a little effort to open. The stench of fear was palpable. The villagers were like refugees in their own town, huddled together, praying for mercy. I overheard conversations of plans to leave the area, traveling to destinations outside Ferelden in the hopes they might outrun the evils here and the Blight. I heard mention of Kirkwall, a city across the Waking Sea that was taking in refugees, and it reiterated to me that no matter what, we had to succeed.
The moment that thought settled in my mind, I shivered. “No matter what” was a broad phrase with many meanings, but how many dire circumstances could one country survive? An undead army was on the march in Redcliffe, the Brecilian Forest had had werewolves, darkspawn were scorching the earth in droves with an archdemon at their backs, and civil war was tearing us apart at the seams. Then there were the other facts, such as the king was dead, the Wardens betrayed, and there were only five people (and a trusty mabari) trying to unite all the inhabitants of Ferelden against the Blight.
A man stood in the center of a small group of soldiers and Templars, clearly the one in charge. When the men disbanded, I saw him rub his face in exhaustion and frustration – the burden of responsibility. We could sympathize.
His name was Teagan, the brother of the Arl, and he remembered Alistair as a boy. His appearance softened, and he greeted us warmly, even referring to me as “my lady”. I was relieved that he bore mages no ill will, despite the magical nature of the attacks. He even made a remark about my beauty to which I could not help but blush. He was sly in his flirtation, and I was compelled to return the compliment. I was unsure how Alistair might respond, but it was all so new and unfamiliar, and honestly, it was harmless. I was starting to feel more like a woman, and less like a thing…it was nice to discover there was a distinction.
We learned from Bann Teagan that the castle had been inaccessible for days, and no one had been heard from, including the Arl and his family. He had been duty bound to protect the village and its people, but with many of the castle’s soldiers scattered in search of a cure for the Arl’s strange illness, they were unprepared and incapable of doing more than riding out the storm behind the Chantry’s walls.
We took it upon ourselves to do what we could to help the situation by recruiting those in the village who had abilities to lend. In our efforts we discovered an elven spy, who, after some persuading, offered us Loghain’s name as his contractor. That man had his claws dug deeply into every region; playing a game we knew nothing about.
I knew very little of the politics outside the Circle, we had our own, but from what I understood the Arl was a powerful man with a swaying voice in the political circles. This was one of the reasons Alistair suggested we seek him out. He would be a strong ally against Loghain, and that was something we desperately needed. Obviously, this is why he had been singled out with hostile intent, so he couldn’t offer us his help or stand against Loghain. Rescuing him now seemed a priority, and in order to reach him we would have to defeat this current threat.
Night fell, and what came with it was something I could barely believe.
My time in the Circle was a time of study. We were taught about demons and spirits and the dangers of blood magic, but for the most part, it was clinical, with the exception of the Harrowing. The Fade was an elusive entity, almost beyond study. The ever-present threat of possession and the possibility of becoming an abomination were always at the back of a mage’s mind, but within the Circle walls, for the most part, these things were just ideas. We, as mages, had little experience with fighting, let alone actually defending ourselves against a legitimate threat.
I’ll never forget that moment I saw my first darkspawn in the Kocari Wilds. My stomach sank, and with it my heart, that something so truly horrific could exist. They were beings of anger and hatred, with no other sense then to fight and kill. They had no language beyond the garbled noises they made, and yet they could unite and strike in formation, leaving death and devastation in their wake. They scorched the very earth and left twisted remnants of themselves behind as reminders to those lucky enough to survive, that true evil existed and was living among them. Or below them, as it were.
I learned quickly that they were almost as frail as any mortal, as they were made of flesh and bone just as we were, so when I got my first glimpse of the creatures that now stormed towards us from the castle, I almost felt a sense of relief. They were half skeleton beings with fleshy remains that hung like ribbons from various body parts. Some wore bits of armor and carried weapons and shields, but they appeared fragile in their bony state.
They descended upon us in a cloud of bright green magic, and as I struck them, I realized their frail state was merely an illusion. The magic that bound them was powerful, and it took more effort than I could have imagined to defeat them. Wave upon wave of the undead came from multiple directions, and for some time, I feared it may be never ending, but in the end we were victorious, but not without a few close calls.
Alistair, Sten, and Keiko had run into the thick of battle, and there were a couple of times when I saw them nearly surrounded and a panic and fear I had never felt before crept in. I would yell out commands to both Morrigan and Leliana and somehow we were able to hold back the impending doom that seemed inevitable. This would be one of those arguments for why it was best to avoid personal connections within ranks – impaired judgment – something I would deliberate over when I was alone.
I sent out healing magic when I saw each of them wane in strength or stamina, and I was overcome with relief when the last of the corpses were struck down with no others on the horizon.
The Circle had definitely not prepared me for this.
We reunited in the main square and I looked everyone over in case they needed additional healing, but other than being exhausted from battle, everyone was miraculously unharmed save a few minor cuts and bruises. I made a mental note to remember to ask the First Enchanter for more training in spells that would be useful in protecting my companions amidst battle when we traveled to the Circle for aid. Maybe even Morrigan could teach me a few new tricks. I would ask her when we were next in camp. For now, we had to plan our next move.
I had now seen my share of battles, each different from the last. When I had first gone with Duncan to Ostagar, I had no idea what to expect. I don’t think anyone expected treason and abandonment, but that came later. Because I was just out of my Harrowing, I was naïve and untested, but I had come a long way since then in a short amount of time. I was learning a great deal about my abilities and myself.
Now that the dust had settled, a moment’s peace could be sought out. With the gray haze of morning lighting the sky, and no further movement from the castle, at least for the moment, we could take the opportunity to rest. Removing bodies, accounting for the dead, rebuilding, all that would come soon enough.
I was too restless for sleep. No matter how tired I was after a fight, I had discovered that I needed some downtime to organize my thoughts, and just be still. I meandered through the village until I found myself on the docks of the lake.
I took off my boots, and dangled my feet in the cool, refreshing water, and took a moment for myself. Since beginning this journey, I realized the small amounts of time I had been given solitude, something easily found within the Tower. All one had to do was find a nook or cranny within any of the hundreds of rooms the Tower held to find peace and quiet. I looked off into the distance, imagining being able to see the lights of the tower in the distance. It had seemed a lifetime already since I had been there. I was not the same girl, nor mage, I had been there. The stories I would have when I returned.
I didn’t want to think too far ahead into the future, because of the uncertainty of it all, but what would I do if we survived? Would I go back to the Circle? Save the world and return to the shackles? Join the revolution of freeing the mages? What did I want to do? That was a good question, and one I had never had the opportunity to ponder before…but officially, I was a Grey Warden, and it wasn’t the sort of position one could leave. There must be some sort of protocol. And then there was the new fact that Alistair could be king. Would I remain by his side? Goodness, the questions.
There were too many opportunities to be left alone with my thoughts. The open road, the days traveled; only so much conversation could be had, especially when we were under constant threat. Silence was maintained the majority of the time. And so my mind was allowed to wander, and it eventually wandered to one place, Alistair. I had never felt like such a foolish woman before I met him.
My friends in the Circle had had their fair share of crushes, on both Templars and mages alike, but I was not like them. I had focused on my studies, finding the emotions involved in liking someone unpredictable, erratic, and draining. For some of the girls I knew, their emotions gave way to bursts of joy and then subsequent tears all within moments of each other. It was something I never understood, and to be honest, never wished to take part in. Besides, having not found anyone in the Circle to be that interesting, except maybe Cullen, it was easy for me to avoid the pitfalls. Besides, there were more important things to worry about – possession, tranquility…
That may be why, in part, I was so unhappy with myself for my current state. I had become just like those girls I had promised myself I would never become. And, as much as I’d like to deny it, I sort of had that feeling about him the moment we met. I do not know what it was in particular, but thinking back, it was there right from the beginning.
I had become accustomed to trusting my instincts, my Circle training had taught me that, and I had to continue to believe and trust them, which is why I find it odd that I would deny them now, in this instance, but in regards to all our other companions, I knew that same thing about each of them, albeit without the emotional component.
I remember the fear that struck me when I first became conscious again in Flemeth’s hut. My body ached like nothing I had felt before. The points where the arrows had made impact in particular were still tender, but the smell of stew on the fire, the warmth of the home, the feeling of security, were all inviting but soon waylaid when I realized I was alone.
That had not been a feeling I had cared for.
To think of Alistair dead, had panged my heart, even then. We had known each other but a short time, and to think of him no longer by my side, was sad.
When we had first set off across the bridge to reach the Tower of Ishal, Ostagar was in full chaos. Balls of fire flew through the air and hit the bridge, sending chunks of the wall flying and taking out soldiers on nearly every pass. Alistair and I had to run and duck and take cover, and each time I stumbled, he helped me up. He used his shield to protect us both, and I was thankful from the very beginning for him.
When I walked out of Flemeth’s hut and found him lost in thought looking out over the marsh, my first instinct was to hug him, so relieved, but I hadn’t, even though it was something I knew we both needed. When he saw me appear, fairly unscathed, the relief upon his face was my first inkling that there might be more between us, even if at the time, and even now still, we both denied it.
My feet swayed slightly across the surface of the water, causing a small ripple effect in the otherwise perfect stillness. I sighed deeply, trying to put all those thoughts to rest, when I heard the familiar footsteps of the one person I was trying to escape.
I would watch Alistair while he walked in front of me, keeping an eye out, as he would lead the way. I would think of my time in the Circle and wonder what our lives might have been like, had I not left, or if he had become a Templar. Would we have even been friends? Would we have even noticed one another? Yes, I believe we would have. Regardless of circumstance, and I had to believe it was more than that, we were drawn to each other. I just pushed it all from my mind believing it to be an impossibility, but we were both free of the confines of our stations, and to keep denying ourselves would only continue to be a hindrance.
What would it be like to be flirty? I didn’t even know what that meant. Should anyone read this in the future, you will think me a silly girl. And I would agree with you.
A moment later he was standing beside me.
“Would you care to join me?” I asked. I looked up, shielding my eyes from the glaring sun, and found Alistair without his armor.
A casual Alistair was quite the sight. After the battle, the weight of his armor must have felt even heavier, and he was quick to remove it. I wondered who had aided him? Surely not Sten? I laughed a little at the thought within myself. His tunic and wool pants hung just so and as my gaze moved upward, I noticed he looked a little tired.
“I do not wish to interrupt your solitude.” He countered.
Since Ostagar, one of us would seek out the other after any battle, I hadn’t even thought about it until now. I patted the spot beside me, and smiled as he came to sit with me. He removed his soft-soled shoes, rolled up his pant legs, and dipped his toes in the water. He shivered slightly at the cool relief.
He didn’t say anything. Neither did I. We just sat there, dangling our feet. I let my mind go blank and just reveled in the moment. We had survived yet another fight. We were still together. As I sat beside him, I realized I had never had a friend like him. Things were just different in the Circle. Alistair, regardless of circumstance, was my friend. One I knew I could count on like no other, which was a comforting thought – one that brought tears to my eye, and a smile. After some time, I laid back on the dock, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the silence. He soon followed suit.
“You were marvelous in the battle this night.” His voice sounded distant, as if he were drifting off to sleep.
I turned to look at him and let my gaze linger, knowing I was not to be discovered. He seemed at peace. “As were you.”
I felt his hand drift closer to mine, just enough to touch, and that small hint sent my pulse racing. And instead of fighting every impulse, I succumbed. I let my hand move to take his, and when I felt his fingers intertwine with mine, I finally exhaled. Out of the corner, I saw him glance my way, and after a very long moment, which equated with me building up the courage, I turned toward him, and was caught off guard by the innocent, bright smile that greeted me. He inched over and closed the distance and I could not but help to smile in return.
We randomly spoke of our childhoods, and the similarities at being what could only be described as abandoned to our fates. Being a mage was like being marked, but being born a royal bastard was no better. He shared with me a little of his history with the Arl, and I with him how I came to the Circle.
I had this faint impression of my family. What I could recall as the faces of my family were no more known to me now then the day I had been taken from them. I could faintly remember my mother crying while my stoic father held her back. She had been wearing a blue dress with her apron pulled up to weep into. I had siblings, two older brothers who had stood solemnly off to the side of our home as I was taken by the shoulder by one of the handful of Templars who had been sent to bring me in. I was maybe five.
Thinking back on that day, I had to wonder what my family had been thinking. Were they relieved to see me go? I had only set the house on fire once, and we were able to put it out before it did too much damage. I had frozen only a fraction of the crops the spring before my departure. Maybe that was why they didn’t seem that unhappy to see me go? I had been a detriment to their livelihood, at least until I learned to keep my powers in check. But that scene was a blurry memory. As I could barely recall their faces, let alone their names, even now I would most certainly walk past them in a crowd and never notice them, nor them me. I’m certain my remembering of that day is jaded as well. Blurry around the edges.
I remember a time when I felt anger and hatred at having been given up for a family that had been so willing to send away one of their own. They had sent word to the Circle that there was a mage in their midst, one that needed the Circle’s tight reign, and away I had gone. The Templars that had come for me had not been unkind. I had heard stories of the abuses and neglect some mages had been subject to at the hands of their Templar handlers, but that was frowned upon on both sides, so those stories were few and far between. I didn’t even remember crying, either when I was taken from my home or on the road.
My mother had told me stories, of which I could barely recall now, stories of the Circle and what I might be able to accomplish with training. Magic had always been in our family, and she had heard tales of the great things mages could do. They had always been at the forefront of battles, and although she had sounded fearful, she also sounded hopeful, that with teaching and discipline, I might do good things. Now thinking back, I can imagine she was preparing me for what was to come.
I remembered that we had only traveled a few days, and later, my teachers had referred to me as the “northerner” which I would later learn meant I was from around Amaranthine, the northern most coastal city. I had not been there since. I had always found it amusing, even then, that they had sent so many grown men to take in a young girl with magical ability. The fear that was a part of their everyday lives made the knowledge that a small child with unchecked power could be such a threat was almost amusing, had it not had such dire consequences. Some of my fellow mages had told stories of the destruction some of them, themselves, had caused. Lives lost, some by accident, others not. And now here I was, roaming Ferelden free as a Warden, called upon to do great things by ending a threat that could consume not only this land, but also those across the Waking Sea if it remained unchecked.
Alistair on the other hand had been sent to the Chantry to become a Templar. A chaste existence and a life of reflection was expected of those within the walls of the Chantry. Leliana was sure to have stories of her own from her time spent there. And we already knew that there was more to her than met the eye.
As a member of the Templar Order, his life would be quite different – hunting mages while addicted to lyrium. He squeezed my hand and scoffed at the idea.
He then told me of his faint memories of his time spent here in Redcliffe in his youth. Fear over who he was and what that represented had caused the Arl’s wife to encourage her husband to send Alistair away, and as a boy with no one to claim him, the church was his only refuge. Despite his lineage, he hadn’t even been allowed to live within the castle walls, but had been resigned to the stables. This upset me. He had been just a child, with no choice in his parentage, and he had been cast off.
The Arl had clearly cared about him, he took him in, but not enough to make him a part of his household, and despite Alistair’s past, he bore the Arl no ill will, nor the Arlessa, which surprised me. It was because he had been training to become a Templar that Duncan found him and brought him into the Wardens, something Alistair held dear. And somehow, he had come to terms with his past, and let it hold no sway over the man he had become. I was thankful for that. He began to share with me how the only reminder of his mother was an amulet he had broken out of frustration, but his voice grew ever more distant as he continued until he finally turned his gaze back to the sky, closed his eyes, and fell asleep. I was no more tired now than I had been when I first sat upon the dock. My body was experiencing a number of sensations, from my chilled feet to my warm hand to the nervous heart palpitations. How was it he looked so relaxed, so at peace?
Damn my overactive mind. I needed rest. I turned my gaze skyward as well and again tried to let my mind go blank, but I couldn’t stop the stupid smile that seemed to linger upon my lips.
That was the last thing I remembered, as I eventually must have drifted off to seep with my hand entwined with Alistair’s. That is, until we were abruptly awakened by Keiko, and the smug looks of the rest of our companions. Keiko’s happy bark and nuzzling nose quickly brought us back into the present. Evidently we had slept longer than we should have, as there were still pressing matters. Alistair and I smiled sheepishly at one another as we returned to our duties.
IV – The Circle
As I stood on the hill that led down to the dock of Lake Calenhad, I had this strange tug at my heartstrings. Across the water Kinloch Hold stood proudly; my home, at least the only one I had ever known. It looked smaller somehow, not as imposing. I suppose it was my time on the outside – it was my first time, after all.
But something was wrong. It was oddly dark. Only a faint glow emanated from the lower levels. The sun had barely set, but the tower seemed dimmer somehow. As the tower was located on its own spit of land, the mages were sometimes permitted to walk the small grounds, but there were no exterior lanterns lit either. Perhaps some tragedy had befallen a mage, a failed Harrowing, or perhaps the civil unrest had incurred restrictions on movement outside.
One look upon the guard’s face attending the dock told me it was as I feared. Although he knew none of the specifics, passage to the tower was currently forbidden. A few choice words helped us attain the result we were seeking; words like Warden and “will turn you into a toad”.
Drifting silently across the water, I was reminded of my first journey here, all those years ago. I was nervous then too, and as I did now, I tried my best not to show it. My arrival to the tower as a child was like so many others, but this time I was returning a mage who had betrayed her friend, a mage turned Grey Warden, a mage who was living free on the outside with friends she would never have made otherwise, and also a mage who needed the assistance of the Circle to not only stop the Blight, but also save the life of a young boy who had summoned a demon to help his father, the Arl.
I looked at my companions, the faint light of the rising moon adding a mysterious glow – casting shadows – making the mood even more somber, and they looked just as worried as I felt. I received uneven smiles, meant to be reassuring, but their unease at what lay ahead of us, clearly evident. In the silence that grew ever more stifling, I let my hand drift gently over the surface of the water, leaving a small trail as my fingertips barely broke the surface, and that’s when I felt it.
The magic was wrong here. Being a member of the School of Power, my magic was mainly focused in the primal realm, and that gave me insight as to when something has gone amiss in the natural order. The longer I remained on the outside, the more perceptive I became. It was the exposure, I suppose; exposure to a variety of new locations and elements, and it was helping me to grow. I was also learning to be more adventurous in my magic because I knew what it meant to be effective against a true enemy.
I liked the feeling. I felt strong – stronger than I ever had before, even after surviving my Harrowing, and it was this newfound empowerment that allowed me to feel the change in the atmosphere here.
We approached the tower entrance with trepidation, staying alert to any unusual sound or movement, but the surroundings were eerily quiet. After Redcliffe, the absence of sound was almost more unsettling than the sounds of battle, and when we tried to open the heavy wooden doors, only to find them barred, I knew it was worse than I had imagined. I couldn’t recall a time the doors had ever been locked.
A lengthy conversation that wasted more time than the mages in the tower had apparently allowed me to persuade the Knight-Commander to permit my entrance along with three companions. We were given only as much time as it would take the Chantry to approve the call for the Right of Annulment. The Right was a desperate measure, and a last resort, and an action that gave us little time to save my friends. The look of utter disbelief, and the pained sound that escaped my lips at such a drastic measure, caused Alistair to place a calming hand upon my shoulder.
Demons were running free, abominations were present, there had been no word from the First Enchanter, and it was feared that the entire tower was lost. I stared at the impressive doors that separated the entrance from the rest of the tower and felt like a small child again, overwhelmed at what lay ahead of me beyond them.
My eyes drifted over the pattern that had been intricately carved into the doors, an old, familiar sight, one I remember looking at for long periods of time, when I was wishing for an escape. It took four Templars, two on either side, to open them enough to allow our passage, and the look of trepidation upon all of their faces was enough to let me know that they believed they would never see me or my friends again. The Templars believed the Circle a lost cause, but I couldn’t let that be its fate.
Swallowing hard, I took my first uneasy step through the doors, and then another, until my steps grew more assured. I was able to catch a final glance of Sten and Keiko as they disappeared behind the slamming of the doors, their faces both stoic, although their bodies were both wound tightly with nervous-powerful energy. When I heard the sliding of the heavy wooden beam into place to dissuade the doors’ reopening, my whole body tensed. We were on our own.
It wasn’t long before we encountered a group of young children with their elder, a Senior Enchanter named Wynne, who I had encountered at Ostagar. I knew of her, but because my school of magic differed from hers, we had not spent very much time together. She had been protecting the children, but implored us to allow her to join our mission. This was her home too, after all, and so, together, we set off.
We had to eradicate every demon and abomination from the tower, which meant opening every door and checking every dark corner for their presence. It should have come as no surprise that demons of every variety would have found their way here, given the circumstances, but a sloth demon?! Really?! Within moments of encountering it, we were all under its spell, literally. I watched as, one by one, we each succumbed to its power and crumpled to the floor in slumber.
Writing this now, even after surviving such an ordeal, is still difficult. The whole world had been altered by the Fade. There were demons and darkspawn, everything was on fire, and I was alone. My first thoughts were of how to find my friends because I did not care to think about what they would have to endure, but also, I did not care for the feeling of being left on my own. Since meeting Duncan, I had had someone by my side – Alistair in particular. Being left alone in such a place was frightening, and the rules of magic didn’t quite apply. I felt…lost.
My next thoughts were of what might happen to our bodies if we remained here too long, and if something should decide that we looked…enjoyable. We had to wake up and quickly.
As I searched for a way to escape the nightmare, one of the first faces I encountered was Duncan’s. Upon seeing his half smile, my heart ached for him. I hadn’t known him long, but we had been alone on our journey to Ostagar, and we had been given some time to get to know one another. We spoke at length about many things, and it was easy to see why the Wardens were so admired, if he represented them. I understood why Alistair missed him. He had a rich timbre to his voice, he was wise, he had traveled extensively and thus knew a great many things, and he had a calming demeanor that was so reassuring, but that was not the Duncan I met in the Fade. He spoke of placation and surrender, and for all my hope that it was really he, I knew the Fade had twisted my memories of him, and I had to do something I never expected – I had to fight Duncan.
From that point on, I realized this was going to be a trial that brought some of my worst fears to life. My Harrowing included just one demon, and in retrospect, it had been a much simpler task, because now I was trapped in this warped version of The Circle, and I had to find my friends, and perhaps fight them to secure our release.
Eventually, after a series of trials, I found each of them trapped in some altered version of what they must have considered an ideal environment. After helping them understand the truth of the situation, they vanished, only to reappear when I had to fight the demon for a final time. We worked together and secured our release with the help of a mage who had not been so lucky, Niall. I found his body when I finally awoke with the spell he had assured me would help us with the trial that still awaited us.
There was no way of knowing how long we had been in the Fade, and as much as I desired rest; a moment to catch my breath after such an ordeal, the knowledge that the Right of Annulment was on its way compelled me to continue on.
After escaping the labyrinth of the sloth demon, we continued to move upward, fighting off demons and blood mages at nearly every turn. We found so few survivors that I had to wonder what sort of state The Circle would be in after, should we succeed once we succeeded. We made our way through the mages’ quarters, and I saw my old room, then finally the Templars’ quarters where another surprise awaited me. Surrounded by a magical barrier upon his knees was Cullen.
Judging by the state of him, he had been there for some time, and his distress led me to believe that he had been tortured, maybe not physically, but mentally because his reaction to seeing me made me realize that it was I he feared most. The words spilled from his lips; a confession of his longing for something he could not have, or did not want to believe he could. The demons had been tempting him with visions of me – the object of his desire. No matter how he tried to fight against it, and despite my absence, he still cared for me. Once again I felt my heart sink. I wanted to reach out to him, to comfort him, but the sounds from the chamber above had been traumatizing him for days, and he was currently beyond reach.
He was adamant that every mage and every Templar that remained would need to be eliminated, and in turn I tried to reassure him that I would save any innocent that had survived, but that offered him no comfort.
Begrudgingly we left him behind to discover what horrors awaited us in the chamber above. The stench of death and the metallic smell of blood wafted down the stairwell, and I had to grimace knowing there must be a great many bodies to deliver such a scent. I feared what we may find. As quietly as we could, we pushed the heavy doors to the Harrowing Chamber slightly ajar to move inside unseen.
Eavesdropping on the madness left little room for debate – we were going to have to fight – and if possible save the First Enchanter who was still alive, thankfully. Only the ogre we had encountered in the forest could have prepared us for this fight with a pride demon; a monstrous beast with pointed skin that reeked of sulfur and ash.
My companions and I fought hard, using everything in our arsenal and the teamwork we had come to rely on, to barely come out victorious – in the end we were able to save a handful of mages and Templars who had not been turned. It took a few minutes for the waves of magical energy rolling through my body to finally dissipate after such an exertion. I continued to crackle with power, and felt as if I could take on a dozen or so more enemies, so I closed my eyes while steadying my breathing to recover.
I was finally able to offer my arm to my old mentor, First Enchanter Irving, and together we went to inform Knight-Commander Greagoir of our success, in the hopes that he would ignore the Right or cancel its request. The magical barrier that had imprisoned Cullen had fallen, and as I moved to help him, he turned angry eyes my way. I winced at what I saw in them, and let him slough off my help to stalk out of the room.
Alistair noted that Cullen would need time to come to terms with what he had heard, seen, and endured. Regardless of Templar training, seeing the horror, the possibility of true evil running free was not something Templars ever really believed they would encounter. There was the training but it very often did not truly prepare one, mentally, for actual combat – just as my training in magic had not really prepared me to fight.
Keiko bounded into my arms when we stepped back through those intricately carved doors, and I hugged him as if I had not seen him in weeks. I whispered that he would have enjoyed his time in the Fade killing things, but that I was thankful he had remained safely with Sten and Morrigan, to protect them. Sten even offered me a comforting pat on the back with a few words that he was pleased to see I had not perished. I could not but smile, because as a man of so few words, I knew there was more meaning to be found in each of them. Morrigan gave me a sly smile that let me know she was happy to see me again as well.
After meeting with Greagoir and reestablishing the safety of the tower, I left my companions to seek out Cullen. We would have to leave the following day, after we recuperated, and I did not want his last memory of me to be filled with fear and anger. Before I left, I spoke with Alistair. I felt it only right, given everything.
“You heard what Cullen said, “ I began awkwardly. I could barely look Alistair in the eyes. “When I lived here, I knew of his affection for me, but we rarely even spoke to one another. He was the Templar chosen to oversee my Harrowing.”
“Really? He would have struck you down, given his feelings?” Alistair was surprised.
“I asked him that very thing, and he quietly responded that he would have done his duty, although he would have been remorse in doing so. I, I need to look in on him. Offer him some sort of support, and let him know…let him know…” I was a bit at a loss because I had no idea what Cullen needed.
“I understand.” Alistair gave me this look. It was hard to describe, but it was a knowing of some sort. Maybe he should have gone to speak with Cullen. “You may not have been the closest of friends, because of circumstance, but that does nothing to diminish what each of you meant to the other, and he needs you. You are the only one who will be able to help him right now. You are the only one he will listen to, I think.”
I reached out and squeezed Alistair’s hand, stuttering out a thank you as he nodded. Keiko approached us and gave me a quizzical head turn. “Keep an eye on everyone for me until I return.” I received a happy bark in response. Alistair patted him fondly on the head and the two of them rejoined the others.
I slowly made my way back up to the fourth floor where the Templars resided. As I did, my mind turned to thoughts of fate and destiny. I had never really considered it before. I was born a mage and destined to live out my existence within the Circle, but clearly that was not all fate had in store for me. Had I not left when I did, I could be counted among the dead, or worse. If I had not left and learned more about myself and my powers, maybe the Circle would have been eradicated, purged, but I had been able to save a number of souls by defeating powerful demons. Maybe I needed to think more fully on the whole destiny thing – we did have a great many trials ahead of us…maybe that’s why I had been chosen?
What an odd line of thought. It made me think of Duncan again. Did he know more about me than I did?
I walked in reverent silence as I saw the now ashen faces of those once familiar to me. I passed my old room on the first floor, when I had been apprentice, and then found myself in the doorway of my newer room; the room I had moved to upon the successful completion of my Harrowing on the second floor. I lingered in the doorway for a moment thinking about the mage I had been when I lived here. The chair where I spent many an hour reading was still positioned near the fireplace. My bed still had my sheets upon it; from the doorway I could still see the little mage symbol I had stitched onto my pillowcase. I had taken all my other belongings, of which there weren’t many. I would come back for the pillowcase.
Out of habit, I let my hand trace a path along the brick wall, finding familiar grooves and patterns in the stones. I stumbled occasionally, lost in thought, over the debris that remained haphazard from the chaos that had ensued, until I found myself at Cullen’s door.
It was barely open, like when one wants to close a door, but fails to add enough force behind the push. I could see the warm glow of a fire from within, and as I knocked gently and simultaneously opened the door, I found Cullen, stripped of his armor, sitting deep in thought in his own chair by the fireplace.
I had never been to his room before. Clearly some fighting had occurred here as well, as his bed had been pushed aside along with the bookshelf near the door. Things were just sort of scattered, but then again, he could have done that himself in his frustration and anger. I was suddenly nervous. I was unable to predict what sort of reception I would receive, and a vengeful Templar against a threatened mage could prove…messy. I was also no closer to having any sort of idea of what to say. My mind had been surprisingly blank during my walk back upstairs.
He was slumped over, just staring into the glowing embers, and barely acknowledged my appearance until I was standing before him. Cullen looked exhausted, haunted. There were traces of blood and dirt on his hands, and some of that same grime had made its way into his hair and around his neck as well. Although the fire had not fully warmed his room, the chill in the air did nothing to remove the fine sheen of sweat that covered him from head to toe. I reached out to touch his cheek, but he flinched.
I withdrew my hand quickly and looked around his room nervously. There had to be something I could do for him. That’s when I noticed his bathing tub. I moved toward it and dipped my fingers into the water to test the temperature and shivered; it was ice cold. Using my magic, I warmed the water and then led him to it. He was still distracted and barely registered my help until he was finally submerged in the comforting warmth. He offered no resistance as I removed his clothes. This was hardly the time for modesty, but I found my eyes lingering on the expanse of his chest and his long legs, averting my eyes when other parts of his body were revealed.
He sat rigidly in the tub, and remained as such for some time. I found a washcloth and starting on one side, gently washed his hand and then moved up to his arm and around. I washed his hair and massaged his scalp, and that’s when I finally heard him exhale his pent up stress. The rigid muscles finally relaxed and after washing his back, he finally sank down and rested his head on the edge of the tub. When I moved down to his legs and feet, he finally looked at me, but said nothing. His eyes were pensive, as if he were deliberating which words would be best to use – those that would do the least amount of damage, given my current state of caring for him. He took a deep breath but remained silent.
We did not know each other well, at all, but this intimate interaction made me reflect on what it might have been like, had we been bold enough to make something happen. His admission of his feelings had stirred in me my own admission, one of feelings I always denied. He had been at the tower for nearly two years now, arriving shortly after his pledge to the Order, and we were still basically strangers.
I told myself that I did not want to be like the others in the tower, dewy-eyed with longing, but the truth was, I was scared. I had been lying to myself for a while now. It was not as if we could have had a relationship of any type beyond flirtation and cavorting behind closed doors. Cavorting? Did I really just use that word?! What I told myself was that I did not want my attention diverted from my studies, which I took seriously, with something that would not last or that could have serious consequences, but I had often wondered what it would be like, to be with Cullen.
His lack of straightforwardness had made it easy to avoid, but seeing him so vulnerable now, knowing his heart’s desire, my mind wandered. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted him to know I cared. This had nothing to do with Alistair, or anyone else for that matter. It was about me helping Cullen. I could not, well, did not want to imagine how different things could have been had events not transpired as they had, or if I had not arrived when I did – with barely any time to spare.
I could not hold back the tears any longer, and they fell, in quick procession. Since my leaving the tower, life had been hard. I did not deny that the freedom, adventure, and my newfound abilities were enjoyable, but I had not expected to be thrust into a war, or to lose people I cared for, or to have to scavenge for goods to be sold or pickpocket the dead in the hopes we could gather enough coin to eat that day. I was just out of my Harrowing and I was the leader of the Grey Wardens of Ferelden, given there were only two of us at the moment. I sat heavily on the floor, dropping the wet cloth into my lap, and tried to stifle my ragged breaths. Seeing the Circle in such a state was the last thing I could bear, and reality came crushing down on me.
I heard the water slosh as Cullen changed position, but I presumed he was leaving the tub. I did not expect to feel his hand upon my cheek to turn my face towards his. We both looked lost, and his eyes were swimming with unshed tears, so it came as no surprise that we would find solace in one another’s arms. The Circle was our home, and we had both witnessed its return from the brink of destruction, but just barely. There were only so many people who could share our feelings.
He gently used his thumb to wipe away another falling tear, and then my eyes went wide as his lips brushed mine. His kiss was at first soft and tentative, but I quickly understood this was the comfort we both needed. The kiss became more insistent, and I found myself kneeling to be closer to him. His hands roamed up my back and he twirled my braid around his hand to hold me tight, and instinctively my hands did the same. My fingers twirled the small curls at the back of his neck much to both our delight. I found the whole thing most pleasurable. Kissing Cullen was better than I could have imagined, although a lack of experience left a large void in my imaginings. I could not control the moan of delight that rumbled in my chest and that seemed to be his undoing.
Rather gracefully, he picked me up enough to bring me into the tub with him. I tried to hold back the giggle that squeaked past my lips as the water soaked through my robe and splashed over the edge of the tub. It seemed to lighten the mood, as I saw a twinkle of deviousness light Cullen’s eyes. He pulled me onto his lap so that I straddled his thighs and with sure hands, he slid my heavy, waterlogged robe over my head and off to the side of the tub. It was good I had removed my armor earlier.
My chest binding was all that remained between us, and rather surprisingly, I found I wanted to be rid of it. Sure, I was confident now, with nothing but a small piece of cloth between my most intimate parts and Cullen. I practically rolled my eyes. I could feel the series of thoughts starting to stack behind one another and I did not want to think about any of them, so I took one end of my binding and slowly unraveled it from my chest.
“I’m sorry.” He stopped my hand with his own. “You did not deserve my words…my words…” He closed his eyes and looked away from me as he tried to erase the memory. It was my turn to console him. Mimicking his earlier movements, I turned his face back toward mine, although he kept his eyes averted.
“Cullen, look at me.” I bent my head slightly to encourage him, and after a moment, he acquiesced. “You have nothing to apologize for.”
His eyes were again filled with tears. “But had you listened to me…”
“The things I have seen, the things I have done since leaving here…“ the tears in my own eyes began to make their presence known. If only he knew what I had been through. This was not the time for that conversation. “I will do whatever I can to save innocent lives.”
He kissed each cheek as the tears fell and then kissed me again, this time hard as if it were a promise he was helping me keep.
To continuing reading the more mature material, please click here.
The beginning of this chapter has more of that mature material, so to read that bit first, click here.
I was startled awake by Cullen’s twitching and incoherent mumbles. He was amidst a nightmare; he was sweating and there was a pained look upon his face. I leaned up on one elbow as I ran my free hand over his face and chest while I offered soothing words. Without warning, he gasped and his eyes opened wide while his hands dug into my flesh. His eyes looked around unseeing.
“Cullen, it’s all right. You’re safe.” I continued to try to soothe him with gentle hands.
His eyes finally met mine, and he looked confused for a moment, as if he hadn’t expected to see me.
“It was so real. Forgive me.” He untangled himself from me and sat up to stare once again into the fire. He raked a shaky hand through his hair and took a deep breath to calm his nerves.
Soft light was starting to make its way through his window, and I knew we did not have much time left. I sat up and entwined myself around him. “You are a good man, Cullen. Please do not allow the events that happened here change you.”
“Are you not afraid that with all you have seen and done, with all you still have left to accomplish that you, yourself, will not be left unaltered?”
“Of course I am, but after each event, I have to sort it away. It does no good to linger on the past; the things I could have done differently, the things I cannot change. I would go mad otherwise. Seeing you, like you were, thinking that had I not arrived when I did…the Grey Warden who recruited me, Duncan said that at any given opportunity I would have to commit to an action. Knowing what is at stake, that lesson is what propels me forward, and that is why I did what I did here, and I do not regret it.”
“Why you did what you did here or against Uldred?” He reached an arm around and gave my buttock a playful squeeze.
“Like I said, he told me to commit, you cheeky Templar.”
He placed a hand over mine that were splayed across his chest. “You have been chosen for something great, and you will change the world.” I lightly scoffed, but he continued. “I am grateful that you returned, despite my words when I was imprisoned. I was happy to see you, but I was also terrified that you might be lost, and I could do nothing to help you.”
“I am thankful I returned when I did. And…I am thankful we had this time to get better acquainted.” I playfully bit his shoulder blade.
“I will miss you, even more so now.”
“And I you.”
He turned to face me and his eyes devoured me from head to wherever his eyes could reach. He lightly touched the scars the arrows had left in my chest, and looked into my eyes with deep concern. “Please, take better care of yourself. The next time I see this body, there better not be another scratch on it.”
I scoffed. “Next time?”
“Indeed, my little Spitfire.” He kissed me deeply and we clung to each other tightly; legs and arms intertwined again. “There is a tavern in Denerim, the Gnawed Noble. The bartender does special favors; I will send you word through him.”
“I look forward to hearing from you.” I chuckled as I thought what might happen should Loghain or someone else intercept a letter that perhaps spoke of what had happened here. “We should use fake names, something nondescript that may deter prying eyes.”
“Good idea. Any thoughts?”
He half smiled as he watched my face make a number of expressions while I thought on the subject. “Maybe something like…we could use initials, or…did you call me Spitfire?”
I bit back a bright smile, but I could not contain the blush that warmed my cheeks. There wasn’t much space between us, but I held my hand up and sparked a small flame in my palm. He watched it flicker for a moment, swirling a finger around it, before placing his own hand over it, extinguishing it. It was sobering.
We just stared at one another for a short time. There was nothing else to be said. I brushed my fingers over his face lazily, surprised at how drawn to him I had found myself. His passion was great, and when he put this tragedy behind him, he could do great things for the Templars and the mages, if he chose to, or anything else he put his mind to.
Outside his door, the sounds of life stirring within the tower were drawing closer. The remaining Templars and mages had a great deal of clean up and restoration ahead of them, and I had to get back on the road to Redcliffe to save the Arl and his son. This had been a very pleasant distraction, but neither of us could hide from our responsibilities any longer.
He sat on the edge of his bed, bare chested, and watched as I cleaned myself up, dressed, and retied my hair. His face held this awe, or maybe it was some sort of satisfaction, but whenever I would glance his way as I moved about his room, he would smile this particular smile that just made me smile in return.
We had been given just a glimpse at what our lives could have been like, although such fraternization would have been frowned upon. It was why Cullen had kept his distance in the first place. Such intimacy was intriguing though. My mind wandered to how our days, and nights, may have been spent here had I not been called to the Warden Order, and had Uldred not polluted the tower with his venom.
I made a side comment that some of his belongings would need a thorough cleaning, such as the desk, to which I earned a sly smile.
“How do you do that?” He mused.
“Make things better?”
I gave him a sideways smile, and then came to kneel before him. I ran my hands up and down his arms, hoping to avoid the farewell that had now arrived for just a few minutes longer.
“I know. You have to go. You have done what you could for me, but the world needs you.” His facial expression turned bittersweet.
“Not just me…”
“You. You will be the one to make the decisions that must be made. The armies will follow your command. Your enemies will bow before you. You were made for greatness.”
“Sweet talker.” He scoffed in response.
I assisted him with his armor, as there were a number of belts and fasteners to be navigated, and when he was fully dressed, he stood as quite the imposing figure. The mage and the Templar; the forbidden romance – it made me laugh a little. Alistair was nearly a Templar – did I have a thing for unavailable pious Chantry boys? Stop that line of thought.
We had planned on walking down to the first floor together, but I did not think I could handle the knowing looks of my friends, especially with Cullen standing right beside me. I still wanted to stop by my room and asked him to accompany me there. Hand in hand we walked together, our fingers entwined. To the Void with anyone who might give us a sideways glance. We would occasionally glance at one another and we each had this silly smile upon our faces. What had happened? I had only meant to comfort him during his time of despair…
Once I retrieved my pillowcase, I offered it to Cullen, as a reminder. He held it gently in his hand and rubbed a thumb over the mage symbol stitching. He noted that by making it into a handkerchief, he would be able to carry a piece of me with him always. I can imagine the look of doe-eyed sweetness that overtook my face because he blushed in response and began to stutter.
I had to bite back the giggle that was desperate to escape. He was adorable when he was awkward.
We made our way back to the stairwell where we shared our final kiss under the grand stone archway. It was sweet and lingering, as was our final embrace. “You will write to me? To let me know where you are transferred?” I wondered.
“Of course.” His smile reflected a more calm attitude. “Remember, the Gnawed Noble.” He reiterated, and I nodded silently. He stroked my cheek with the back of his fingers one way, then with his fingertips the other. We just gazed into one another’s eyes, and my mind questioned if I would ever see him again. No. No. Do not do that.
“Take care of yourself.” My hands had come to rest on either side of his neck, just below his jawline.
He kissed my forehead and exhaled a heavy sigh. He then spun me around with a gentle nudge towards the stairs’ descent. I purposefully sauntered slowly down the stairs, swinging my hips with a little more emphasis.
“Maker give me strength!” I heard him lament. I laughed and gave him a final look. “Remember. Not another mark.”
“Yes, my lion.” I winked and then continued on.
As I made my way back down to the lower level, I was greeted by a number of familiar faces that offered me thanks and well wishes. It was a relief to see that despite what had occurred, mages and Templars worked together in unison to restore order. Maybe there was hope for their coexistence after all.
Thankfully, or perhaps unfortunately, there was enough going on around me to easily divert my attention from the impending thoughts that threatened to overwhelm me. I had no idea what I was going to say to my friends. I had been gone for some time, so their minds would surely have meandered through the possibilities. I had to cringe. I was worried, especially about Alistair.
The friends I had had within the tower had not talked about the particulars of intimacy, at least not when I had been around. I was unsure of what to expect from my companions in the way of reaction, whether acceptance or condemnation. I had done very little reading on the subject; there were a few volumes in the library that discussed the necessity of the act for procreation, but there was little information in regards to the activity for pleasure and the societal factors. Since I was still unaware of what my time with Cullen meant, how could I predetermine what I should expect from my friends?
My companions would have found rest within the apprentice quarters, which did not give me much time to come up with some sort of plan excuseexplanation. I only had the length of the hallway to formulate a coherent thought…and I had no such luck. Keiko had been waiting in the doorway of one of the rooms and sensed my approach before I even rounded the corner. He was in my arms in an instant, and with his happy bark, he had alerted everyone as to my return.
I did what I could to at least put my face in order, because I could still feel the lingering of besotted foolishness around the edges. Luckily, the next person to see me was Leliana, who smiled wide. She knew. Of course she knew. She was only half dressed and quickly pulled me inside the room where she and Morrigan had slept, informing me simultaneously that Alistair and Sten had slept next door.
The door closed quickly behind us and Keiko had to dart past with barely enough room to follow. I slumped against it, a muddle of emotion, while Leliana stood before me with arms crossed. Morrigan was mumbling to herself that she had no desire to hear about my escapades, but with a sly grin she joined Leliana in a similar stance. I smiled brightly in response, but stayed quiet.
I slid down the door to sit in a heap on the floor and groaned. I knew I needed to talk to someone about what had happened in order to gain some perspective, and I wanted to confide in my new friends, but at the same time, I wanted to hold onto what had happened a little while longer, just to myself. I’m certain Cullen would not have anyone to talk to, so it was nice knowing that it was our little secret.
Keiko sidled up beside me and nudged his nose in the crook of my neck, which always tickled me. I snickered in response and gave his head a scratch. He sniffed my clothes and gave me a head tilt. Leliana laughed, and then let me know they had a bath prepared for me. She offered me a clean robe and promised to wash the scent of Templar off the one I was wearing next time we were in camp long enough to allow a proper washing.
She and Morrigan shared a laugh, to which I rolled my eyes. “I understand you may need some time to reflect on your time spent with the Templar, but I hope you know you can always talk to me about anything.” Leliana helped me up and gave my hands a squeeze.
“Thank you.” I started. “I will talk to you, both of you, soon, because I really need to, and I really want to, I just need to sort it out for myself first.”
Morrigan came to stand behind me and helped me unfasten my hair. “Did you at least have fun?”
“I did indeed.” I tried to stifle the giggle as memories of Cullen’s golden eyes and full lips…I shook my head to block the thoughts.
“Then worry not. The path that lay ahead of you is one fraught with danger and peril. You should live your life without regret.”
I turned and met her intense gaze. She was right. I did not have to make any sort of decision, especially right now. I should enjoy the moment, because the pleasure could be short lived.
“Do you have regret?” She raised an eyebrow.
I thought about that question for a moment. I knew she was referring to the night before, but it made me think about my life as a whole. How things ended with Jowan before I left the Circle was something I had regretted because I thought he was my friend. Seeing him again in the Arl’s prison cells made me realize how far he had fallen, and for a brief moment, I thought I was responsible. I’m not certain we were ever truly friends. He was an opportunist, and he was weak. He had used the emotions associated with friendship and love to achieve his own ends, and Lily and I had each paid our own price for our involvement with him. I was a Grey Warden now because of those events – because of Jowan. I no longer regretted that time.
My mind then turned to Cullen, my lion. The Maker had a sense of humor that was for certain. The night had not been what I expected, but I did not regret a moment of it. I did not answer Morrigan verbally, but the smile that lit my face clearly was the response she was looking for.
“Then you have your answer.” She replied.
I motioned to speak, to delve deeper, but she cut me off.
“Your bath awaits, as does the Arl and his son. We should make haste if you are to gain the alliance you seek.” She smiled knowingly and left me.
The bath water was warm and rose scented, and ever so inviting. Leliana helped wash my hair and then she too left me, taking Keiko with her. I was alone. Finally. I fully submerged myself in the water and just laid there, for as long as I could hold my breath. I thought back to Cullen’s hands on my body, his lips, and then my mind turned to Alistair. I did not regret my actions with Cullen, but I may feel differently in the space of an hour when I came face to face with Alistair again.
Alone, it was easy to keep Cullen in a bubble, to keep him separate from everything else, but when confronted by the one person I did not want to hurt with my actions, Cullen’s imprint on my flesh would act like a brand. What would Alistair think of me? What did I think of me? How was I ever to attain that peace of mind I so enjoyed again?
Once we were back on the road, once our purpose was reestablished, I would be able to think on these events with more clarity. There were bigger concerns than my dalliance with a Templar. I laughed, despite myself, and exhaled the remaining air in my lungs. In one swift move, I reeled myself out of the water, my back arched and my head back while I took a large gulp of air, feeling the weight of my actions.
I did not have time to go through the motions of readying myself again, so I towel dried my hair as thoroughly as I could by the fire and left it loose. Feeling refreshed, although little collected, I knew it was time to rejoin my companions and get back on the road. My plan was to remain silent in regards to the night’s events with Cullen until I was more sure of my own feelings on the subject. My stomach was in knots as I made the short walk back to the entry, worried about the look upon Alistair’s face when we finally saw one another again.
The time spent with Cullen was like a dream, a moment in time separate from everything else going on. My hope was that with enough time, I would be able to categorize the events with better clarity and gain some perspective, but it was not just the night with Cullen that required perspective, but everything we had seen and done so far. My breakdown in Cullen’s room had been a culmination of emotion from those past events, but I was slowly becoming more at ease with the memories. I both hoped and feared that would be the same about my memory of Cullen.
I did not want to lock him away in some vault in my mind, to be just another part of this messy path that was becoming my history, but the few moments I had to think about such an idea were not enough to really help me at the moment. As I took my final uneasy steps down the corridor, I saw the backs of familiar heads huddled together. As expected, Keiko, my trusty mabari, made my presence known. Simultaneously everyone turned in my direction with expectant looks upon their faces. I smiled brightly.
Alistair caught my eye for the briefest of moments, a hint of a smile upon his lips, but then he averted his eyes just as quickly and continued speaking with one of the Templars. Nervously I chewed my bottom lip while my mind darted in a dozen directions. This was not the time for any of that. We still had a job to do.
It wasn’t long before we were on our way again with a new companion, Senior Enchanter Wynne. We were to meet the First Enchanter and a few senior mages at Redliffe Castle to help Connor, and we had also gained the mages assistance via the Grey Warden treaties for the battle ahead. I suppose, all in all, the journey here could be counted as a success, although the loss of life here would always haunt me. We said our farewells and took the boat back across the water.
Alistair sat beside me, facing the opposite direction, looking ahead. I sat where I could stare at the tower, wondering if it would be my last sight of it, and let my fingertips drift atop the water. We were both so tense…it was palpable. That is when I saw him, a glint of sunlight shimmering off his armor. Cullen had come outside to see me off and he offered me a final wave. It took some effort to not wave back like a foolish girl, but when I returned a solid wave, he bowed once and smiled. He then shook his head, but because I could no longer see his face clearly, I didn’t know what it meant.
Alistair leaned back slightly but did not look at me. My non-waving hand had been gripping the bench of the boat until my knuckles were white, as I was a ball of emotion and stress, and then Alistair’s hand rested upon mine. I felt myself relax immediately, and let out a pent up breath I did not realize I had been holding.
“I will not ask you for more than you are willing to give. If you wish to share anything with me, I will listen, but I will not press you.”
I could feel that he was still tense. He was probably warring within himself whether he truly wanted to know what happened, or to just ignore the whole thing completely. In return, I gave him the best response I could, given our circumstances. We were hardly alone. “In time, I will. Thank you.” I leaned over and kissed his cheek. When he turned just slightly to make eye contact, I decided it was time to look forward, to the future. I turned around and sat forward with him, threading my fingers with his. I pulled his hand into my lap and held it tightly while we sailed away.
I did not notice it at the time, but Alistair gave me quite a bit of space for some time after the Circle. He walked far ahead of me on the way back to Redcliffe, and when we camped, he made himself scarce with busy work. When we sat around the fire all together, he and Sten, and most often Keiko, would sit huddled together in what appeared to be intense conversation. Their hushed voices left a great deal to the imagination, because none of us could make out anything beyond a few words at any time. It felt nonsensical to think he was punishing me in some way, but his avoidance of me for so long made me wonder. Maybe he was just giving me time to come to terms with everything, and I should have been thankful for that, but because his attitude had changed, I knew something was wrong.
We had also encountered roving packs of darkspawn and blighted wolves while on the road, so each night when we finally took our rest, we were on alert, and as I had still barely slept since our visit to the tower, I was exhausted. I presumed his perimeter checks and random attention to details were just part of his precautions to keep us safe.
The first night, when I was finally alone in my tent, I tried to remember everything that had happened in the Circle. I needed to write it all down. I found the smallest fragment of a candlestick in my pack and wrote like a woman possessed. When the light died out, I cast a fire spell in my palm and tried, awkwardly, to find a position in which I could write and still see. Eventually I gave up and laid in the darkness, remembering Cullen’s hands on my body. My hands roamed of their own free will, gliding across the same spots I was imagining him touching. I was still in awe of what had happened between us – the passion, the connection; all that blustering on my part, only to fall so willingly into his arms.
The second night, I borrowed a candle from Wynne and continued writing. That night, I thought of Alistair. He and I were forming something deeper than I could have hoped. I thought of us holding hands on the dock in Redcliffe, talking about our pasts. He made my stomach flip and my heart pound out of my chest. I did not want to make comparisons, so I refused to allow my mind to go in that direction. I pulled out a jar in which I placed the rose he had given me and stared at it until the candle gave up its glow.
When we were encamped on the third day that is when I had finally noticed the avoidance and decided to say something. I was too tired at night and was desperate for a good night’s sleep, so I had decided to take advantage of the daylight and was writing in my journal when it finally dawned on me. I began writing when I could during our downtime. As I reflected on the events at the Circle, Alistair crossed my path. He was carrying firewood while Keiko traipsed behind him with a rather large branch in his mouth. My mind quickly turned to the idea that I should have introduced Keiko to Cullen, just to see what would happen. I shook that thought off immediately.
“Do you have a moment?” I called out.
I noticed how Alistair bristled at my voice and then took a deep breath before dropping the wood. He turned toward me, but averted his eyes, looking everywhere but directly at me. After we had spoken in the boat, I foolishly believed that things between us would go back to normal, but he needed to hear from me, he needed to know.
The few days away from the Circle had given me only a glimpse at the perspective I desired. I needed to talk about it, all of it, and although I had planned on talking with Morrigan and Leliana first, Alistair was the one. “For you, always.” His smile was hesitant.
I bound my journal and placed it inside my tent, told Keiko to stay in camp to watch the others, and then Alistair and I walked a bit for privacy.
We walked together, side by side, meandering silently thru the woods surrounding the camp while my heart thumped so hard it was all I could hear. I would like to think that we were silent out of habit for security, but it was really because we had so much to say and didn’t know where to begin.
I was going to have to start, but where? Did I go into detail about Cullen? Did I begin with how I felt about him and how his friendship was one of the most important of my life?
We found ourselves near a small lake, the setting sun adding a warm glow around us. We stood on the bank and watched how the light breeze caused soft ripples to form in the surface of the water. It was the ideal setting for a declaration.
“You were right,” I began, not able to turn and look at him. “I was the one best suited to help Cullen through his trying time.” I did not go into great detail, just adding that as the Circle had been our home, we found solace within each other’s arms, which helped us deal with our emotions in the aftermath. I also told Alistair of Cullen’s desire for a transfer, somehow thinking Alistair would find comfort in the knowledge that Cullen would soon be out of the country. He nodded occasionally, but remained silent. It was then I changed the subject to us. I finally turned to him.
It was then I was finally open and honest; he was owed that. “From the moment we met in Ostagar, I have been drawn to you. I wanted to run into your arms when I walked out of that hut in the Kocari Wilds to find you safe and sound. Circle life did not prepare me for the possibility of love, and what happened with Cullen did nothing to diminish my feelings for you. I need you to know that, because I want to explore that possibility…with you.” I held my breath and searched his face for the glimmer of hope that he understood my meaning.
Again, he had remained in silent contemplation, his eyes serious until the moment the last words left my lips. Slowly the reality of my words hit him. The worry left his eyes and in the next instant I was in his arms in a passionate embrace. He placed his hands on either side of my face and held me in place while his lips moved over mine. The kiss was tender and insistent and I returned it with everything I felt for him, but I could feel he was holding back, perhaps fearful that this was happening too quickly after Cullen.
When we parted, breathless, he tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear and asked, “That wasn’t too soon, was it?”
There it was.
We both understood his meaning. A few days ago, it would have meant something else completely. I smiled and kissed him again, this time lightly, while I met his eyes. “I am sorry if I caused you pain. That was never my intention.”
He smiled sweetly in return. “I know. The events in the Circle were, rather unexpected, and you owe me no explanations. I never meant to make you feel guilty or otherwise with my actions. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to see your home in such a state, to have lost family and friends.” He paused and rested his hand just above my heart. “I, myself, have never felt like this and I thought I may have lost you…well, your heart.”
I hugged him fiercely. It was still too early to say anything with too much significance such as “Never” or “You’ll always have it” or even “I love you” so instead I said, “You are stuck with me, my prince.” To which I rightly earned a groan in response. I smiled slyly and ran my hands through his already disheveled hair. “Let us always be honest with one another.”
He nodded, his face serious again. “I know you will not tell me all that happened in the tower, perhaps out of fear, for a number of reasons, but know that you are entitled to your secrets. It is not something you have to exploit, for my sake, but in the spirit of honesty, let me say this. When I told you that you would be the only one to help Cullen, it was because I know how I have felt, like when we lost Duncan. We had only just met, but had we known one another for many years, as you and he had, I would have wanted you by my side, in my arms. I already do. Hearing Cullen’s confession…I won’t say I’d be pleased to know how you spent your time, but I would understand it. I care about you, so deeply.” I placed a hand upon his cheek. “I’d like to say I could be the better man, to hear the story and put on a brave face, but confirming my fears with your words of his hands upon you…and then to not hear anything from you these past days, I began to think that you might prefer to return to him…I could not bear it.”
I could feel the swell of tears forming. He had been worried and afraid and I had caused it all, and then had done nothing to assuage his fears.
He continued. “I know it has only been a short time, but…” I did not let him finish; instead I kissed him fiercely. This time he held nothing back, and that flip that occurred in my stomach whenever we touched was greater than ever. My whole body reacted, and I clung to him while our kiss deepened and we both moaned.
We walked back to camp, hand in hand, with silly smiles upon our faces. The entire mood had been affected by our declarations. I would find a way to compartmentalize my time with Cullen, but at least now I knew I had Alistair’s support, no matter what, and that helped, a great deal. It would be interesting to see how this would unfold, and I did not mean just our relationship. I was going to need another journal, and soon.