Meryell knew something was different as soon as they entered the little area within the Frostbacks that Haven was nestled into. There was more smoke down below them than there had been when they’d ridden out, which meant more fires in the soldiers outer camp. More fires meant more men. More men meant…
“Fangs!” she exclaimed and, without thinking of her two companions, gave her horse a swift nudge with her heels. The sturdy Ferelden Forder that Master Dennett had gifted her sprang forward like a shot into a greedy lope that ate up the road and she ignored Cassandra and Varric’s exclamations of surprise from behind her. Those fires were her company.
Her family was here.
Folke was here!
A wide grin spread across her face as she thundered around the curve in the road, drawing attention from the men and women that were being drilled by Rylen in the main training area. Meryell rode right past them and down into the camp that was marked with the company banners as she shouted, “Rise up, dusty war dogs!”
“Climb the Vimmarks high!” came back an echoing shout from a group that was gathered around the largest central fire in the camp and then the Captain’s voice sang out from somewhere nearby, “There was a company, they rode for the sea!”
Laughing merrily, she flung herself out of the saddle as she belted out the next part of the chant alongside the rest.
“O ho, fangs all out!”
“There was a company came home again,” sang out Arnald again, though this time he was closer. Meryell turned to look for him as she sang the next line.
“Captain’s brought us back around!”
The Captain was abruptly in front of her, a wide grin splitting his face. “And what do you think they brought back now?”
Meryell just grinned back at him and let her voice ring out the loudest with the O ho, fangs all out line. He winked at her before he continued, “There was diamonds, there was gold,” right before he dragged her into a warm bear hug. She readily accepted the affection since the Captain didn’t give it all too often and hummed happily into his shoulder where her face had settled.
“Captain’s brought us back around!” sang the rest once more and the song was as abruptly done as it had started. The rest of the company started to press in around them then and Arnald released her to hold up both of his hands.
“Fangs!” he belted out in a parade ground voice. “Our Meryell’s returned to us! Where’s the company welcome?”
The shouts around her rattled her bones and Meryell loved it. She closed her eyes as the vibrations of their voices sang through her, feeling the close camaraderie that she’d been trying so hard to find amongst the Inquisition instantly back again with them around her. It was almost enough to make her feel well and truly soppy without one drop of alcohol in her.
Chuckling, Arnald continued, “You lot could do better but I suppose we’ll take it. Now, you all know the gist and you know how to run yourselves. Make your greetings and make sure your shit gets done or else I’ll sic Tooth on the lot of ya!”
“So quickly to turn to me, Captain!” rang out Zarru’s amused voice from somewhere in the ranks. “Are you certain you don’t want to retire?”
“I’ll retire when I’m dead. Ain’t that right, war dogs?!”
“AYE!” shouted the lot of them and Meryell made certain that she raised her voice with them. The crowd immediately began to disperse after that, various members of the company coming up to her to give her a simple slap on the shoulder or the warm mutter of Welcome back and Glad you’re not dead. She took it all in stride for a moment before she turned a serious eye to Arnald, who just smiled and jerked his chin towards Haven’s main gate.
“He’s up in the tavern, which is where he’s been when I haven’t sent Gil up to drag him down for drills.” The Captain’s face then went starkly serious as his voice dropped in volume. “Man was near lost when he thought you were dead, girl. Try not to actually get yourself there?”
Smiling despite the sudden clench of her heart at what her supposed death had put Folke through, Meryell smiled up at him. “That’s what you lot are going to be around for now, yeah?” she asked and laughed as she earned a sharp snort from him.
“Still a smart ass whelp, I see.”
“As if I’d change, Captain. You’d piss yourself if I was suddenly different after a decade of bullshit.”
Arnald barked out a laugh and she turned to leave at that, only to have his hand catch her arm. His dark eyes shifted behind his mask to somewhere behind her – where she was vaguely aware that Rylen had picked his shouting of orders back up – before he said, “The Commander is a good sort. Honorable man.”
Wondering where this was going, she cautiously nodded. “He is. Best I’ve met here.”
“Mmm. And he’s smitten with you…but I think you already knew that, didn’t you, girl?”
Meryell ducked her head, trying to hide her eyes by the fringe of her hair that fell over them, and began, “Arnald…”
“No,” he hissed sharply as he stepped forward to grasp her other arm and gave her a little shake. “Don’t you Arnald me, my girl. I can see it as easy as anyone else here, though a lot of them seem to already think you and the Commander have fallen into bed.”
“I know you well enough to know that. So I’m going to go ahead and ask before Folke gets a chance: are you giving it serious thought? You deserve happiness as much as anyone, girl.”
Arnald didn’t know her as well as Folke did and he certainly didn’t know all of her issues but he knew enough. He’d always made sure he knew something about everyone that served in the Fangs since he’d taken over the captaincy so he knew enough about her to know she had a difficulty with relationships. That and her joining at fifteen had left her as the proverbial company baby for years, so he and the older lot had always looked after her in their own ways.
Meryell sighed before replying, “I want to try.”
Arnald nodded sharply at that and released his grip on her, saying, “That’s all you need do. Now, go give both of your men a hug and have a drink with at least one or both of them tonight. From what I’ve seen, I think they both need it.”
Frowning with concern at his words, she demanded, “What’s been going on while I was gone?”
“Ask your Commander, girl. Now aller, aller.”
“Fine, fine. I’m fucking going!”
Meryell turned away with Arnald’s chuckles ringing behind her and retrieved her horse, which was still standing patiently where she’d leapt off of it. Clucking softly to the beast, she led it towards the stable and found Varric leaning against one of the fence posts with an amused smile on his face. “That was an interesting tune, Swears,” he commented as she moved past him into the small stable where they stored their tack. “Specific to your company?”
Nodding, she replied, “From the first days of the company. One of the founding members was a former pirate and he adapted some of the chants from his sailing days to the company to make our first marching songs.” As she looped the horse’s reins around a high hook and then bent to unbuckle the saddle, she continued, “That one has always been one of my favorites. Which is probably why Arnald chose it.”
“Didn’t feel like that was all of it.”
“It wasn’t.” Meryell glanced at him and laughed as she saw the curious look he was giving her. “I’m not going to sing it for you now if that’s what you’re fucking thinking!”
“Oh, come on, Swears,” wheedled Varric.
“Nope,” she replied with a sharp pop of her lips. As she hefted the saddle and pad from her horse’s back, she added, “Given that the company is with us now, you’ll hear it at some point. And I only sing for two reasons anyway.”
The dwarf arched his eyebrows at that and she smiled mysteriously, letting her comment settle for a moment because the way she said it usually gave the impression of something more than innocent. She settled the saddle on its rack and tossed the sweat-stained pad aside onto the pile that was to be washed before being used again, waiting for the inevitable response. It didn’t take long at all before he sputtered wordlessly.
Varric asked, “That’s it? You’re seriously just going to leave me hanging?”
“Hanging?” repeated Meryell as she turned to drape her arm across her saddle. Looking at his face, she smirked, saying, “Why, Varric, are you under the impression that my ‘singing’ is a euphemism?”
He opened his mouth, gaping at her for a moment, then his eyes narrowed as he lifted a hand to waggle a finger at her. “That was just mean, Swears.”
“You’re the one who went somewhere dirty.”
“Sweetheart, it’s not my fault when you say something like that that way.”
Meryell tipped her head back to laugh and decided to take a little bit of pity on the dwarf. Moving back to her horse, she picked up one of the halters and fitted it on underneath the bridle before she began to remove the latter. As she freed the bit from the horse’s mouth, she explained, “I sing with the company and when I’m alone.”
Varric huffed at that, saying, “Well, that wasn’t half as interesting as what I was thinking.”
“What were you thinking?”
“Well,” he drawled, “Rivaini always made the comment that she could play a man like a fiddle. Thought that your singing might be a similar euphemism.”
“Oh no,” Meryell said with a shake her head as she hooked a lead onto the halter of her horse and moved to hang up the bridle. She then turned her head to look at him and smiled slyly. “When I have a man underneath me, neither of us has enough energy to do something as distracting as singing.”
He blinked at her for a moment before he laughed, saying, “You are going to break Curly.”
“Nonsense. I want Cullen in one piece.” She immediately felt a hot flush run over her at that and stopped so quickly her horse nudged against her with a snort. Lifting her free hand to lightly touch her lips, Meryell breathed, “I…”
“Swears?” asked Varric. “You alright?”
“I just…” She swallowed hard and looked down at him, saying quietly, “I don’t admit I want something a lot, Varric. Especially not a man. At least not in the way I want him.” Normally she felt uncomfortable talking to someone else who wasn’t Folke so openly about this sort of thing but Varric had – like Cullen – been friendly to her since everything had started. And he’d been the one there when she’d had that little panic attack involving Cullen after she’d woken up.
The dwarf just smiled up at her and gave her a pat on the arm that she almost dared call fatherly. “Don’t worry so much, sweetheart,” he commented warmly. “It’ll all work out.”
Arching an eyebrow, Meryell started moving again down the hill to the hastily built fenced in area at the edge of the frozen lake. As she opened the gate and nudged her horse inside after releasing it from the lead, she stepped back to stand next to him in silence for a moment. Then she folded her arms and growled, “You have fucking money running on us getting together, don’t you?”
“Only amongst the inner circle.”
“You want to know the odds?”
Meryell worked her jaw for a moment, trying to find anger at him but only discovered amusement. Mostly because betting on inane things like folk getting together was a constant amongst the company. Just another bit of familiarity amongst the members of the Inquisition…though, she guessed that she was doubly that now with the Fangs taking coin from the Inquisition now.
“Are they in our favor?” she asked.
Varric just grinned and replied, “Three-to-one odds of it happening. Even Chuckles put in a coin towards you two getting together.”
Flinging up her hands, she said, “Alright, that’s enough for the day. I’m going to go find Folke and have a fucking drink. Oh, and try not to get murdered as he’s no doubt wanting to strangle me by now.” She turned immediately after finishing and walked off, hearing Varric chuckling behind her as she headed towards Haven’s gates. Several heads nodded to her as she went alongside murmurs of Welcome back, Herald and she remembered to give them all at least an acknowledging nod in return.
As she pushed open the main door of The Singing Maiden, several of the off-duty soldiers inside immediately took up a cheer of Herald! as they lifted their mugs. There were also a few faces from the company amongst them and they each smiled before pointing her towards one of the corner tables that was back towards the tavern’s second door. Nodding her thanks, Meryell glanced towards the dejected looking figure who was slumping across the table’s surface with one hand curled around a battered wooden cup with the other around an empty bottle then headed towards Flissa. Jerking her head in his direction as she leaned across the bar, she asked, “What’s the fucker in the corner drinking? Whiskey, wine, rum?”
The tavern’s owner smiled at the sight of her and exclaimed, “Herald! Welcome home!” before she sobered and shook her head. “That man’s been a sorry sight since those mercenaries arrived, Herald. The Commander told me you knew him!”
“He’s my father. Essentially.”
Flissa took that comment in easy stride, unlike some who immediately looked at her ears before commenting that Folke couldn’t be her father. She then reached underneath the counter and pulled out a twin to the empty bottle at the man’s table, saying, “It’s some sort of wheat whiskey that’s popular in the Marches.” A cup quickly joined the bottle and as Meryell reached for her coin purse, the other woman held up a hand. “No charge for you tonight, Herald. We’ll call it even if you can get him in good spirits. A man that down generally brings down the whole of a tavern.”
“Whatever the Inquisition is paying you,” commented Meryell as she picked up bottle and cup, “they should raise it.”
“Pff, I just know how to keep folks in drink. Now shoo!”
Taking the exit, she turned and walked across the bar in several sure strides before slamming bottle and cup down on the table with enough force that it rattled the two closest tables. Folke bolted upright, his eyes narrowed furiously and a flicker of fire gathered around his fingers as the hand around the bottle came up. As Meryell dropped into the chair across from him and deftly poured whiskey into her glass before grabbing his to do the same, his hazy eyes cleared just enough to bring his hand down.
“Poppet,” he growled, voice made dark by alcohol. His fingers then tightened around the cup before he lifted it to toss the whole glass back. She nodded and lifted her own, sipping slowly because while wheat whiskey was Folke’s preferred for getting shitfaced on the cheap, it wasn’t hers. The clear shit that was made in the Anderfels from wheat (which they called feuerwasser) was her preferred when she wanted to get drunk and drunk quick.
His fingers were around her wrist then, gripping tight enough to bruise even through the leather vambraces she wore and her half-gloves. Slowly, Meryell lowered her cup to the table and grabbed his wrist in her hand, leaning across the table to get in his face with her teeth bared.
“You wanna fight, old man?” she snarled and his eyes sparked. Folke’s other hand grasped her chin and that was when she heard one of the soldier’s murmur behind her something about stopping it. One of the company immediately told him to settle down because this was their way. She didn’t give them any more than a cursory listen, however, knowing the company members in the tavern would keep any of the Inquisition soldiers from doing something stupid. Her focus was Folke.
He stared at her for a moment, his grey eyes dark and hazy, then he growled and rose enough out of his chair to press a kiss against her forehead that was more teeth than lip. “You fucking whelp,” he growled into her skin. “I thought you were fucking dead. Charm didn’t work, couldn’t find it on your end from mine, and I…fuck. Demut had to take it away from me. If I had more power, I might’ve had a demon stalking my sleep with offers to find you.”
Meryell closed her eyes and shivered at the depth of emotion in his words. And the thought of him falling to a demon had her heart pounding in fear. Lifting her other hand, she cupped his scarred cheek, feeling the familiar wound that he’d earned because of her underneath her palm, and whispered, “Ir abelas, baba.”
Folke huffed out a breath in response and released her wrist, shifting the hand on her chin to cup her cheek as the other hand came around to frame her face. “Lanastathe, ara vherain,” he softly replied, his drunken tongue having trouble around the words despite his competence with Elven while sober. He then kissed her forehead again, this time more softly, before he muttered, “Evune helped me plant a tree for you. Said that even though you weren’t Dalish born and didn’t believe in her gods, that she thought it would help lead you home to us if we planted it with some of your things.”
The thought that he’d done the Dalish rite of death for her had Meryell all choked up with sudden emotion. Mostly because she’d always liked the idea and had done it (though it was with flowers and scraps of fabric) for her mother alongside her father and then later for her father alone. Clearing her throat past the sudden lump in it, she asked, “What’d you bury?”
“One of your old tunics and that knife you broke saving my life that first year.”
“I kept that knife for a reason.”
Folke just nodded. “And I buried it for one,” he replied starkly. Then he finally pulled away from her and stood, wobbling slightly. As Meryell rose hurriedly to brace him, his hands closed around her wrists again and pulled her close. “Let’s head elsewhere, Poppet. I think this lot have seen enough emotion for the day and I’m not going to let our own see me cry. Or you.”
Nodding, she tossed back the rest of her cup before picking them and the bottle up in one hand with some finagling. Then she tucked her shoulder under Folke’s arm, wrapped her arm about his waist, and said, “Come on, old man. Let’s go see my cabin.”
Several hours later, which were filled with her filling him in on the gaps since they’d seen each other last and what had happened with the Inquisition, Meryell sat at the table in her cabin with a bottle of whiskey – her own favored version that was barley based, not that shit Folke had been drinking. She’d finally had a chance to get out of her gear and get a bath after he’d passed out in her bed, now wearing close-fit breeches that left her legs bare from the knee down and a long, loose tunic that had a wide neck. Yet, she still hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Cullen since she’d arrived in Haven.
After Folke had passed out but before her bath, she’d gone down to the field but had found Rylen and one of Cullen’s lieutenants in charge of training. And the Knight-Captain hadn’t had an answer for where the Commander was except that he’d said he had business to see to earlier in the day. Cassandra hadn’t seen him either since they come back and she’d even went to ask Josephine if she’d seen the man. The Ambassador hadn’t had an answer either. She’d even poked her head in his tent to no avail.
Now it was dusk and she was starting to get worried.
Sighing, Meryell lifted one leg into the chair and propped her chin against it for a minute before she reached out to grasp the bottle. As she poured another generous portion into her cup, there was a knock at her door. She froze, nearly overfilling her cup, then remembered herself and righted the bottle as she rose from her chair.
Padding across the floor to the door, she opened it and found Cullen there. He was wearing only a tunic, trousers, and boots underneath his coat and looked utterly spent by the way he was heavily leaning against her door frame. The riot of curls that she’d only seen that one night were in full force except where they were clinging to his forehead, which was broken out with sweat despite the fact that it was so cold outside. He blinked slightly feverishly at her, obviously not having expected the door to open, and said very quietly, “Oh.”
“Andraste’s dripping cunt,” breathed Meryell in response as she reached out towards him. He tried to push himself away to stand up straight but she was quicker and grabbed a handful of his coat in one hand while the other rose to press against his forehead. “You are burning up! And shaking!” She could feel the minute shakes where her knuckles were pressed against his chest in the curl of her grip on his coat, an almost constant rattling that was caused by more than cold from the weather. He certainly didn’t look like he’d been out in the weather long enough to have caught even a chill.
“It’s nothing,” he said hurriedly. “I shouldn’t…you shouldn’t…I didn’t…” Cullen closed his eyes as he lifted a hand to press two fingers hard against his temple before he ground out, “You just got back?”
“A few hours ago,” she replied. Glancing over her shoulder at Folke’s unconscious form, she knew he wouldn’t be up for a good long while and little would disturb the alcohol soaked sleep he’d sunk into. So she tugged at Cullen’s coat and was more than a little surprised at how easy it was to drag him forward a step. He had more than a few good inches of height on her as the top of her head barely came up to his collarbones and likely more than twice her weight in muscle mass alone. In a down and dirty fight she knew how to use that mass against him or if she really needed to get out of a fight. To be able to move him when she’d barely used any force, however? That meant something was seriously wrong.
Cullen blanched and muttered, “I shouldn’t…”
Meryell narrowed her eyes and hissed, “Cullen, you either come inside my cabin and fucking sit down or anyone still awake in Haven is going to be witness to the rather embarrassing sight of me dragging you inside after I knock you out for arguing with me.” He blinked several times at that before he sighed and nodded wearily, which prompted her to tug at his coat again. This time he came when prompted and she closed the door behind him before pushing him gently back against the door with, “Stay there.”
Crossing the room to the hearth, she grabbed the iron poker leaning nearby and stirred the fire back towards life before tossing two new logs onto it. Meryell then carried the chairs from her table over to sit them in front of it before she returned to Cullen and grabbed his hands. She was surprised to feel calloused skin in her own instead of the leather of his gloves and instead of the heat that normally radiated from his palms, there was an almost oppressive cold. Grimacing, she said, “Come.”
“Folke?” he weakly asked as he followed her. He then dropped – not sat, dropped – into one of the chair’s when she pressed him into it and groaned as he leaned his head back against the back, his eyes falling closed.
“Drunk off his fucking ass,” she replied before dragging her chair forward, settling herself right in front of him. Her knees were tucked inside his own that were spread wide and she felt a blush rising into her cheeks at where her mind went because of that position. Shaking herself, Meryell leaned forward and started pushing his coat off of his shoulders, trying to tug him forward so she could free it. Cullen had turned into dead weight, however, and she didn’t have the strength to both pull him forward and keep him from completely falling to the floor. Grumbling wordlessly between her teeth, she got up and leaned over him with one hand braced against his chest and the other rising to cup his cheek. “Cullen? Are you still with me?”
“Tired,” he replied softly, the letters of the word sounding like they were tumbling against each other. He then lifted his head and smiled wearily, saying, “I missed you.”
Now she was blushing, she could feel the heat in her cheeks.
Meryell smiled, though, and cautiously stroked her thumb across the jut of his cheekbone. “I missed you too,” she breathed, feeling like it was almost too close to admitting her feelings. It wasn’t too close because friends missed each other when they were apart but that wasn’t how she meant it. She then cocked her head to the side and asked, “Are you falling asleep on me?”
Cullen shook his head mildly initially then he sheepishly nodded. The skin between his eyebrows then wrinkled as he muttered, “Haven’t slept in…I dunno. Headache. Nightmares. Didn’t…” He paused to lick his lips and closed his eyes. “Didn’t want to you to see.”
“Didn’t want me to see you like this?”
“That doesn’t explain why you showed up at my door then,” she noted.
He shrugged his shoulders at that, saying, “You…you make it easier. Even when you were gone.”
Meryell wanted to ask what exactly she made easier but if he hadn’t really slept in days then getting the man horizontal was more important. She could ask questions later. “Okay then,” she said before shifting her hands to his shoulders and pulling as hard as she could. “Come on then, Commander,” she continued as he grunted at her efforts. “Unfortunately I can’t offer my bed but there’s a nice rug right here on my floor.”
“Leave?” she pressed. “As if I’m going to let you fucking leave on your own. And with the state you’re in, I couldn’t get you down to your tent on my own. Oh, and I’m certainly not going to go wake up Rylen or anyone else in order to get you there. So it looks like you’re stuck with me.”
Cullen blinked fuzzily at her for a moment before he sighed and sat forward with some effort. His movement allowed her the space to push his coat off fully and as she bent to free it from his arms, he leaned forward into her. Meryell froze as Cullen nuzzled into her throat and shakily said, “Cullen.”
“Mmm,” he mumbled in response.
“What are you doing?”
He froze and she could feel him intake and release a ragged breath against her neck. Then his lips moved, brushing feather-light across her skin, as he replied, “I don’t know.”
She moved her hands back to his shoulders and straightened to pull away from him. Then immediately blushed as she realized that him half-slumped in the chair with her standing in front of him had his face at the level of her breasts. Some little part of her noted that later for possible future reference while the rest fought between embarrassment and that old sentence that continued to follow her despite all efforts otherwise.
“Come on,” she said hurriedly, glad that he wasn’t in a state to notice her blushing. “To the floor.”
Cullen groaned but obediently scooted to the edge of the chair, doing little more than sliding off of it onto his knees. She stepped away to move the chairs back to the table and when she turned back, he’d managed to get himself flat on the rug in front of the hearth. Moving back towards him, Meryell knelt by his feet and carefully removed his boots to set them aside, which didn’t elicit any sort of response from him. She picked up his coat from where it had somehow landed on the floor and impulsively slung it around her shoulders, letting it hang free towards the floor as she went to crouch by his head. As she pressed her hands against his forehead and neck to try and judge how hot he was, Cullen opened his eyes.
“You’re still feverish,” she commented. “I should find something to cool you down.”
He just shook his head and replied, “Isn’t…it isn’t fever.”
“You want to explain what the fuck it is then?”
“Later?” he replied and it was more question than actual response. Sighing, Meryell nodded and settled herself onto the rug next to his head, tucking her bare feet underneath his coat and up against the heat of his arm. She leaned above him for a moment, chewing on her lip thoughtfully, before she reached out with the other hand to slowly run her fingers through his curls. They were slightly matted and sweaty but the contact drew a low groan out of Cullen that had her entire body tightening at the thought her drawing that sound out of him with more than a mere hand in his hair.
He shifted, his other hand coming across his body to touch her leg, and he breathed, “I’m sorry.”
“Telahna,” Meryell said as she continued to run her fingers through his hair. “Era, vhen’an’ara. Sleep, Cullen.” As his face relaxed into sleep she wasn’t certain what had prompted her to call him that in particular but…well, it was true, wasn’t it? Hopefully he wasn’t conscious enough to register the words she said and she could avoid him asking in the morning.
Looking down at him, she frowned before asking softly aloud, “What is it that you won’t tell me? What do you so fear me knowing?” He had said that he didn’t want her to see, which meant that there was something that he thought he had to hide from her. Something that gave him headaches and nightmares. And yet those were better when he was around her?
Sighing, Meryell closed her eyes as she continued her ministrations, muttering to the memory of her father, “You were right about one thing, babae. Shemlen are strange creatures indeed.” She was determined that she would solve the mystery of this one though. Even if nothing ever came of this still nameless thing between them, she could still help Cullen shoulder his burdens.
That was what a friend did, no?