Cullen tries to lock down his emotions after the trauma he suffered in the uprising at Kinloch Hold. A woman, a girl, and a dog do their best not to let him.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 11: In a Strange Land)
“I don’t know why you’re being so stubborn,” Alistair said. “You obviously can’t keep your eyes off her. Andraste’s ass, Cullen, she may be a mage, but she’s still a person…you could at least go talk to her.”
He dared to look, and couldn’t stop; Solona Amell was as beautiful as she was forbidden. He went to her, to explain it was his commitment to duty and not a lack of admiration that kept him away…but then, shockingly, she kissed him. Time blurred, and she was bare beneath his hands, her mouth was everywhere…she was astride his hips…the blood sang in his veins, and he was so close to spilling over with pleasure…
And her flesh bubbled and twisted, swelling into a hideous mockery of her former self. The abomination, for that is what she’d become, laughed cruelly as she writhed atop him. “What’s wrong, Cullen? Don’t you want me now?” And she’d brought him so close to the edge that it was too late to stop it, even as he retched and burned with revulsion and shame.
And then, just like so many times before, it all faded, and he was locked in his glowing prison with the desire demon. She gave him an obscene smile while she stroked the mangled flesh of his dead comrades. “It doesn’t have to be like this, you know,” she said, her purple skin glistening in the rosy light of his cage. “Just say the word, templar, and I will give you all you desire. You are so beautiful, so fierce in your lust…please, my darling, let me make you happy.”
His face was wet with despair, but he clung doggedly to the bloody shreds of his strength. “Never, demon,” he growled through clenched teeth. “I will die first.”
The demon sighed sadly, her impressive chest flexing with the gesture. “Very well; if you insist…”
Alistair sat beside him. “I don’t know why you’re being so stubborn,” he said.
Before his nightmare could begin again, a huge, furry shape landed on him, licking his face and crushing the breath from his chest. Cullen erupted from sleep with a strangled cry, to see an extreme close-up of a wet black nose, a large pink tongue, and a pair of intelligent eyes full of canine concern.
“Hohaku, what are you doing?!” a woman’s voice cried in dismay. Clearly unapologetic, the dog gave Cullen’s face another friendly lick before hopping off the bed. A woman hovered beside him, her heart-shaped face full of anxiety, her blue eyes wide with concern, and, oddly, her nose smudged liberally with ink. “I’m so sorry; I don’t know what got into him,” she fussed, and then glared at the dog. “He knows you need rest.”
Cullen was utterly nonplussed. He was in an unfamiliar bed, he had no idea how he’d gotten there, and a strange woman and a dog had apparently been watching him sleep. He frowned, trying to remember…
The mage uprising. The slaughter. The demon. Abruptly it all came back to him, and the blood drained from his face. His heart sped up, and the walls of the room were too close, he was trapped again, trapped…
“Cullen,” the woman said in her soft voice. “Stay with me, okay? There’s a painting on the wall. Can you take a deep breath and tell me what’s in the picture?”
The nonsensical question brought him up short, his brows knitting in confusion. “I…I can’t…” He gripped the bedclothes to keep his hands from shaking and tried to focus. The painting was a lake – a small, quiet pond, with a couple of ducks floating on it. The sun was setting, the light reflected in the water. It reminded him a bit of the pond near Honnleath where he’d spent time as a boy. He described the scene, and found himself matching her slow, even breaths.
‘Maker, what a fool I must look,’ he thought, waiting for the strange woman to mock his fear along with all his other failures. But, for the moment at least, her voice held only concern.
“Er, yes, I’m…I’m fine.” And then, because he was all wrong-footed, he blurted, “Who are you?”
Embarrassed, she laid her hand over her face for a moment, unwittingly adding to her collection of ink smudges. “Right, sorry; I’m an idiot. Nothing puts you at ease like waking up without your clothes and finding some creeper watching you sleep, right?”
With that, he abruptly realized he wore only his smallclothes. Horrified, he glared at the woman, clutching the sheet to his torso. “What have you done to me? Why are you keeping me here?” he accused, voice shaking, torn between the need to hide and the need to escape.
“Whoa, hold on a second. Ugh, this was not how I wanted this to go.” Before he could think on that odd remark, she continued. “Let’s start at the beginning. We’re in a room near the infirmary. After you made it down to speak to Knight-Commander Greagoir, you collapsed. You were brought here and stripped so Wynne could heal your injuries, of which there were many.” The woman gave him an oddly stern look. “She said it was amazing you’d been conscious at all, by the way, so don’t go criticizing yourself for passing out.”
“She healed some of the cuts and burns, and set all the broken bones, and they gave you lyrium to counteract the withdrawals you were having.” She frowned at that, for reasons he couldn’t guess. “Now you just need time, to heal and recover from starvation and sleep deprivation. So, that covers where you are and why you’re nak- um,” she blinked, glancing at the ceiling. “I mean, where your clothes, er…why you aren’t wearing your armor,” she finished in a rush.
“As for who I am…you remember who found you, right? The Grey Wardens, Aedan and Alistair?” He nodded, trying not to flinch at his friend’s name; he couldn’t blame Alistair for the demon using his image, but…it was difficult. The woman continued. “They were with a warrior…tall, short dark hair, eyes like mine?” Cullen nodded again; he certainly remembered the only person among them who had understood how badly he needed to see Uldred dead. “That guy is my brother Rob. I’m Raven. The rude Mabari is Hohaku.” The dog gave a soft woof of protest at her scowl.
“So, why I’m here…the rest of our group had to rush off to Redcliffe. I’m a scholar, and stayed to do some research. Alistair asked me to help with your recovery if I could, and Wynne told me to make sure you don’t overdo it. So, here I am. Everything make sense now?”
Cullen blinked and took a deep breath, forcing his muscles to relax, and finally said, “…I suppose so?”
A small voice full of giggles piped up from the foot of his bed. “’E ain’t ‘ardly awake an’ yer talkin’ ‘is poor ear off, Lady Raven.” Cullen jumped and swore at the sight of a pair of hazel, almond-shaped eyes peeking through the bedframe. “All ye gotta say is, ‘Oi templar, ye was ‘urt, ye got ‘ealed, but ye gotta rest, an’ I’m gonna make ya.’” A girl rose and perched on the foot of his bed, eating a pear. With her mouth half full, she added, “An’ ye should say, ‘Me ‘elpers is this girl Shanna an’ this ‘ere furball, an’ they’re very smart.’”
Raven rolled her eyes skyward. “Yes, well, would one of my very smart helpers please go to the kitchens and get some broth for Cullen? Preferably the helper with hands. No offense, Hohaku.” The dog’s tongue lolled out as if he were laughing. Shanna hopped off the bed and strolled out the door, the Mabari at her heel. “And don’t steal any more food when you’re up there,” the scholar called after her.
She turned back to Cullen with a smile and a shrug. They were now alone and his discomfort grew, though he reminded himself the woman was apparently only here to aid him. He cleared his throat. “So then, do you know where my, ah…my clothes are? I’d like to dress.”
“I’m not sure you should do that.”
‘What? Surely she can’t mean to keep me like this?’ His shoulders tensed again. “Wh…why won’t you let me have my clothes?”
“Oh! No, that’s not…it’s just that your skin will be sensitive where you were hurt; fabric might irritate it.”
Ah. He was not going to tell this woman he needed to get up to relieve himself. “I’ll risk it.” With a nod, she pulled a lightweight tunic and sleeping trousers from a chest, and gave him a measuring look. “What?”
Raven sighed. “I already know what your answer will be…but Wynne said you’d be weak at first. That you might need help getting up and…doing things.”
“What?” he gaped, bristling at the implication that he couldn’t manage the simplest of tasks. “No! That is…no thank you, that’s unnecessary. I’ll be fine.”
With a resigned look, she handed him the clothes and stepped out, shutting the door quietly behind her.
As soon as he moved, he understood her warning. His body ached everywhere, and there was scarcely an inch of skin free from the signs of his ordeal. His hands shook as he got his arms into the tunic, hissing in pain as the cloth slid down over his abraded flesh. By the time he slid his legs off the side of the bed and, after a few false starts, got his feet into the trousers, he was sweating with effort. But he managed it, and when he finally stood, it was with a smug sense of having proved the woman’s concerns baseless.
And then his legs gave out, and he crashed to the floor.
By the speed with which she reached him, she must have been right outside the door. ‘Waiting for me to fail,’ he thought bitterly. The rug he’d fallen on was blessedly thick, but his body still reeled from the impact. She rushed to his side, making as if to grab him to help him up. “Don’t touch me!” he spat, panicked.
Raven recoiled, her face registering hurt for only a brief moment, but he saw. ‘Yes, fine behavior, Rutherford. Yell at the woman who’s done nothing but help you, no matter how little you deserve it. Well done; very honorable.’
Somehow, she again chose not to rebuke him. “I’m so sorry; I wasn’t thinking. I should have asked before I reached out like that.” Cullen blinked, confused by her apology. “I would like to help you up,” she continued, in her soft, soothing voice. “Would that be okay?”
He tried to rise on his own, and could not. Burning with shame, he nodded, and she knelt beside him, pulling his arm over her shoulder and helping him stand. He stopped her as she tried to help him into bed. “I don’t want…I have to…” he colored, stammering to a halt.
Understanding dawned. “You need to use the, um…the water closet?” He nodded, looking away. “There’s a chamber pot here; you can use that or the water closet down the hall. You’ll need my help either way. The hall is further to walk, but you’ll have more privacy.”
“Water closet.” The idea of a woman ‘helping’ him use a chamber pot was too humiliating to contemplate.
Raven nodded, unsurprised; she settled the templar’s arm over her shoulders and guided him through the door. ‘At least she’s a convenient height for a crutch,’ he grumbled inwardly. ‘And sturdy, for a woman.’
That train of thought proved to be an immediate mistake; he noticed the softness of her body pressed to his side. With drowning suddenness, he was lost in the feelings from his nightmares; he wanted her, and wanted to run from her. The inexplicable urges were both bewildering, and so powerful he stumbled.
The scholar helped him to lean against the wall to rest a moment, her blue eyes searching. At least she looked nothing like the Solona of his nightmares. Blue eyes, not green. Solona was tall, thin, and delicate; her face and robes were always immaculate, and her golden hair was always braided into some intricate design. Raven was shorter; her head barely reached his chin. Her hair was a deep shade of brown, in a messy and slightly crooked ponytail, a good match for the ink staining her face and sleeves. And though she was not by any means grotesque, she was all soft rounded curves…laid over a frame of iron. Solona smelled like magic. Raven just smelled like ink and rain.
“Are you all right?” she asked softly.
Cullen snorted at the stupidity of her question; he was about as far from all right as he could possibly be. The shreds of his old self lectured him. ‘She’s trying to help you. Don’t be more of an ass than you have to be.’ To deflect, he griped. “Just weak. No doubt that mage didn’t want to waste precious mana on healing a wretched templar.” The sneer felt wrong on his face.
She took a step back from him, hands on her hips. After all the opportunities she’d had to berate him, he was surprised this was what triggered it. “No. Uh-uh. We’re nipping this in the bud right now. You listen to me, Cullen Stanton Rutherford. ‘That mage,’ as you so dismissively put it, was Wynne. She was trapped in the tower for just as many weeks as you were. She had very little food, since she gave most of the provisions she could find to the children she saved. She’s not young, but even after protecting those kids for weeks, she still fought her way up to you. She listened to you say every mage in the tower should be murdered ‘just in case.’ And after all that, when you collapsed in the foyer, she never hesitated to heal you.”
“She worked on and off through the rest of that day and into the next morning, barely stopping to rest, eat, or drink anything besides lyrium potions. She was still working on you when I got here, because she said she’d never seen anyone have that many different injuries and still be alive. And after she set every broken bone, and healed every internal injury, and treated the worst burns and cuts, even after she was near to collapsing herself, the only reason she stopped was to save you.”
“You know why? I didn’t, so I asked. Turns out that healing uses the mage’s mana to instruct a body to repair itself, but it takes energy from the patient’s body to actually do the repairs. And because you were so weak from what that bastard did to you, if she’d have healed you any more, you’d have died from that.” Her eyes were flashing with anger and her cheeks held bright spots of color. “So you’d better thank your lucky stars ‘that mage’ was so skilled, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Because you’d be dead.”
He stared at her, mouth hanging open, through her whole tirade. And suddenly it all came crashing down on him, how close he’d been to death. To his horror, tears began to leak from his eyes as his back slid down the wall, leaving him sitting on the cold stone floor.
Raven was instantly stricken. “Oh god, Cullen, I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to yell; I just…I wanted you to know…ugh, never mind for now.” She sat facing the wall, her knees off to one side as she studied his face. “I want to hug you. Is that okay?” She bit her lip.
Upsetting her again didn’t seem worth the energy. He shrugged, trying to regain control of himself.
Carefully, she leaned forward and put her arms around his shoulders, bringing his face to rest in the curve of her neck as she rubbed gentle circles on his back. Cullen couldn’t remember the last time he’d been held like that; he’d left for templar training at thirteen, so it was what, over seven years since his mother hugged him goodbye? At that association, his reserve broke. He clutched her to him, sobbing silently into her shoulder. The only sound in the empty hallway was her soft voice humming a gentle, soothing melody.
Broth was disgusting, especially when he couldn’t even eat it by himself. The odd little scholar held the bowl steady while poring over a huge old book in her lap. At least he managed the spoon on his own.
It helped not at all that the cheeky little elf girl was perched on the end of his bed again, chewing on a piece of dried meat that smelled divine. She’d given half to the huge dog lying across Cullen’s feet. Grumbling at either of them had absolutely no effect.
Raven, noting his mumble of aggravation, looked up. “Shanna, did you speak to Petra earlier like I asked?”
The girl sighed. “Yeah. Weren’t ‘alf miser’ble findin’ ‘er in all that mess, but I did. An’ what does she do? Tells me Lady Leorah an’ a bunch of ‘er people made it; locked in ‘er storeroom if ye can believe it…an’ she’s gonna ‘ave a class in the mornin’.” She snorted. “An’ then Petra gives me a book to read fer it.” Her hazel eyes held mockery and another emotion Cullen couldn’t put his finger on.
“What’s wrong with that?” Raven asked. “Is the book boring? Or complicated? Too long, maybe?”
Shanna gave a short huff of laughter. “Could be but I’d ‘ave to be able to read it to say, yeah?”
The scholar’s eyes filled with distress. “Oh, Shanna-bug…no one ever taught you to read?”
“Lotta schools fer alienage brats in Den’rim, ye think?”
With an air of determination, Raven set her own book aside. She did the same with Cullen’s empty bowl (after giving him a glance of approval, presumably for the mighty achievement of feeding himself a bit of soup). “Well,” she said with a smile, “everyone should be able to read, so Cullen and I will have to teach you.”
The templar and the girl looked at each other skeptically. “Right,” said Shanna. “Right up top onna templar’s to-do list, innit?”
Cullen’s eyes narrowed. The conversation had made clear to him something he should have sensed earlier; the child was an apprentice mage, and could easily have been corrupted during the uprising. He had no intention of allowing her to stay…not to mention he was a templar, not a tutor. “I think not.”
Raven gave them both a look. He couldn’t understand how one simple glance could say ‘You are being foolish and should rethink your life choices immediately,’ but hers did. He glared at the wall. He would not be made to feel like a petulant child for trying to do his duty.
“Shanna,” she said in a tone so sweet that it was clear they were in trouble, “are you saying you’d rather go to class and have a bunch of shems think they’re smarter than you?” The girl folded her arms over her chest and looked down sullenly. “And Cullen, I know templars are well-educated. Are you saying you can’t make time to help a child learn to enjoy books, due to your busy schedule of resting and broth-eating?”
‘Andraste’s sword, what a frustrating woman.’ He glowered, unrelenting. “She’s a mage,” he growled, making it clear this was a full summary of the issue.
“Yes, very astute of you,” she said mildly. “And you are a templar. How fortunate for an innocent civilian like me that you’re here to protect me from the terrifying illiteracy of this ten-year-old child.” Before either the man or the child could protest further, she moved to the room’s small table. “Let’s see the book, Shanna.”
Cullen jerked upright out of another nightmare, his heart racing. The Mabari give a soft growl of warning as the templar struggled to find reality, and he realized with shock that he was grasping Shanna’s small arm in one hand and her throat with the other. Her eyes were wide and scared, and he let go with a horrified gasp.
“Maker, I…are you all right?”
The girl coughed, rubbing her neck. Her hands were shaking. “Yeah…yeah, ‘m fine. It’s me own fault. Lady Raven, she said not to touch ye, but it seemed like ye was havin’ a bad dream, an’ I…” She shook her head, catching one of her dark braids and twisting it in her fingers. “I just wanted to ‘elp,” she said, her voice small.
Cullen was appalled. He’d thought he’d reached the depths of his failure as a templar, but now he’d attacked a child. He couldn’t look away from the faint red mark on her pale throat, and the knowledge of what he’d almost done.
The Mabari rose from his place on Cullen’s feet, and walked up the mattress along his side. When he reached the templar’s face, he gave him a long, assessing look…before giving his cheek a lick, then turning to do the same to Shanna. The child gave a shaky giggle, wiping her face and scratching the dog behind his ears. Hohaku gave a quiet contented woof and lay down, snuggled against Cullen’s torso.
The hound’s solid presence was calming, and Cullen was able to meet the little girl’s eyes over Hohaku’s head. “My apologies, Shanna,” he said quietly. “I’m so sorry; I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
The elf shrugged with the admirable resilience of youth. “Don’t fret, Ser. Ye din’t know.” She changed the subject. “Lady Raven, she went to the kitchens to ask ‘em to send our supper. An’ to the library,” she scowled, “to get a slate an’ chalk. An’ more books fer me…an’ ‘erself …an’ prob’ly you too, because why not? She’s keen enough on ‘em; prob’ly wants the ‘ole library passed out.”
“Once you can read, you’ll understand. A good book can hold an entire world, with dragons, heroes, griffons…anything you can imagine.” Her small face held an expression of such stubborn skepticism that Cullen nearly chuckled. “Here, let me see your book.” Reluctantly, she handed it over. “‘Martha’s Adventures in the Fade,’ hmm?” He flipped through the pages of the simple children’s book. Apart from the ridiculously sanitized drawings of demons, it wasn’t bad; it gave mage children an introduction to dangers they’d face without traumatizing them. Of course, this child had already seen demons firsthand…but still.
Cullen sat up, his back to the wall, and the Mabari shifted to lie at his hip. Patting the bed on the other side of the dog, he said, “Come, we’ll take a look at this while we wait for Lady Raven to return.”
Shanna gave him a doubtful look, reminding him forcefully of his baby sister Rosalie. She’d been the patsy for her older siblings’ mischief until she got old enough to start questioning their motives, with a suspicious frown just like that. Cullen’s laugh felt rusty and strange, but good. “Come on now, I’ll read it to you and you can follow along. Consider it my penance for nearly throttling you in my sleep.”
“Wasn’t yer fault, I said,” she muttered, but she climbed up beside the dog. Cullen laid the book across the animal’s broad back, and began to read.
When Raven returned a short while later, she smiled.
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 13: Louder Than Words)