Cullen is difficult. Raven is exasperated, then disappointed, then hopeful.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 13: Louder Than Words)
Raven ground her teeth together as she read the same page for the fourth time. Despite her best efforts, maintaining a calm, pleasant expression was growing steadily more difficult. The reason for this was quite simple: Cullen Rutherford was, without a doubt, the most aggravating man in Thedas.
“You may as well quit ignoring me. I do not intend to drop this conversation until you give me a reasonable answer.” The biting anger in the templar’s voice was as unmistakable as his sneer at her previous responses.
In her head, she repeated what had become her litany over the past week. ‘He was the only surviving templar. He’s dealing with serious PTSD. You know he turns out decent eventually, and that he was decent before. He isn’t normally this much of an ass. Be calm. Be patient.’
“Void take you, woman, cease this childish silence and explain yourself!”
‘Also,’ she thought, ‘killing him would mess up history.’
She prided herself on her even tone when she finally looked up from her book. “I don’t know what else you expect me to say. The Knight-Commander said Irving told him I was in charge of your care. He asked how you were doing. I told him. That’s all.”
“You ‘told him.’ Told him what? That I am a pathetic wretch incapable of even the most basic duties?” He’d crossed the small room to stand by her chair, snatching the book from her hands. “I can only assume so, as he refused my request to begin attending drills again.”
When she’d played the game where Cullen was a major character, she’d dreamily likened the color of his eyes to warm caramel. Now she only saw the eyes of a predator, and felt like prey. “Cullen. It’s only been a week. Even if near-starvation was the only thing you suffered, you still wouldn’t be ready yet. With the lyrium withdrawals, all your physical injuries, and the mental and emotional trauma on top of that, it will take time. You can’t just pretend nothing happened.”
“My mind is perfectly fine,” he growled, staring a hole in the wall while a muscle ticked in his jaw.
“Right. That’s why you woke up strangling a ten-year-old.” She instantly regretted the flippant words.
“So you told the Knight-Commander I’m unstable and cannot be trusted?” he spat, pacing. “Even though it was the mage-child who disobeyed your instructions? Maybe that’s it; maybe you want me kept apart so the others don’t find out she’s unmanageable. It’s surprising she hasn’t attracted demons already, with her rebellious attitude. Perhaps she has.”
It was Raven’s turn to glare at the wall. Snapping angrily to Shanna’s defense wouldn’t help, no matter how much her instincts demanded it. “Listen to yourself. This isn’t about Shanna; it’s about you.”
He flung her book at the wall with a sudden ferocity that made her wince, her shoulders hunching anxiously. “Me? You don’t know anything about me!”
“You’d be surprised,” she muttered.
Cullen whirled, his anger giving him energy. He slammed one hand down on the table beside her, and leaned down to grip the arm of her chair with the other, trapping her. Inches from her face, he hissed, “Oh yes, I had forgotten. You’re the scholar; you know everything. Well, scholar, I have been training to be a templar since I was thirteen years old, up every day before dawn honing my skills to be fit to serve the Maker. That is who I am. And I don’t need some fat, patronizing, little bookworm who has clearly never known real work to sit back and judge me.”
Raven’s breath caught, and to her dismay, she could feel her eyes welling up. Near as he was, he couldn’t help but see when the first tear rolled down her cheek, or hear her gasping breaths as she fought the urge to cry. Sudden horror flowed over his face, and he staggered backward. “I didn’t…I…I’m sorry, I…” Unable to finish his sentence, he bolted from the room.
Alone in the silence, Raven knew he was right. What could a chubby gamer nerd possibly know about the combat readiness of a templar tortured by demons and healed by magic? How stupid, how arrogant, to think her opinion mattered.
Losing the battle against her emotions, she laid her head upon her arms and wept.
That afternoon found Raven in the library, determined anew to get back to a world she could handle. Putting Cullen’s words out of her mind, she focused on the books in front of her, looking for “Geographical Oddities of Ferelden,” on the off chance it would mention some weird Bermuda Triangle-esque place where people randomly vanished. It was a long shot, but she was grasping at straws.
A man’s voice rose nearby, sounding absolutely aghast. “What are you doing?! Some of those tomes are over a hundred years old; you can’t stack that many of them on top of each other! The bindings will loosen and we’ll have pages flying out everywhere!”
For the first time that day, Raven felt a stirring of hope. She recognized that outrage, and it belonged to someone she should have thought of already. It was like running into a coworker at the mall, she supposed, disorienting to find someone outside their usual context. She had a thorough memory for the game’s characters, but kept forgetting that people who weren’t featured until later still existed now.
Rounding the corner, she watched as a nervous apprentice mumbled apologies, going white when one of the books slipped from his stack and thunked to the floor. Raven stepped in to divert the mage before he delivered another tongue-lashing to the hapless boy.
“Excuse me; I’m sorry to interrupt…but are you Finn?”
The redheaded man turned to give her a surprised look, and the apprentice seized his chance at a getaway. “Yes, that’s right. And you are…?”
“My name is Raven; I’m a scholar. I came with the Grey Wardens, but I stayed to do some research. I was hoping you might be able to help me, actually.”
Finn frowned. “What are you researching? And…may I ask why you want my help, specifically?”
She thought quickly. “I heard someone say you’re an expert on this library’s collection, and quite a scholar yourself.” She hid a smirk when he preened at that. “I won’t be here long, and having the aid of someone knowledgeable would really be helpful.”
“I see. Well, I’m very busy with the library restoration, but I may be able to spare some time. Though you still haven’t said what you’re studying.”
“That…gets a bit complicated.”
Ultimately, she knew Finn would be more interested in the mechanics of world-hopping than in asking about his future, and since his digital self only featured in one bonus mission, there wasn’t much to tell him anyway. So, she’d explained her dilemma. As she’d hoped, the bookish mage’s curiosity had kicked in, and before she could blink, she had a stack of a half-dozen books to look through. His own stack was twice as high, and he eagerly promised to meet again the following day.
They were just wrapping up when Shanna silently appeared at her elbow, startling the life out of her as usual. Finn hurried off to scold another apprentice, and Raven added two more books to her stack: a tale called “The Last Griffon” for Shanna and “Legendary Blades of Thedas” for Cullen…if they started speaking again.
She sighed, and Shanna eyed her critically. Like most children who grew up in unstable environments, the little elf had an uncanny knack for gauging the moods of others. “You all right? Ye seem outta sorts.”
“I’m fine,” she lied. “I just have a lot of work to do. I should be asking you that; I think this is the first time I’ve seen you without food in your hand.”
“Uh-huh. An’ has yer templar got a lotta work too? Cos’ ‘e ain’t been near the infirmary all afternoon, and that grumpy ‘ead templar ain’t seen ‘im neither. Dog went off to look for ‘im an’ I come to tell you.”
Raven’s discomfort shifted to concern. “He was…angry with me this morning, because he wanted to start training again and I said he shouldn’t.”
The elf scoffed. “If ‘e thought ‘e was ready to go swing swords with the rest of them metal-plated gits, ‘e’s been ‘it upside the ‘ead more than we thought.” At Raven’s chiding glance, she said, “Wot?”
“You need to be more respectful when speaking about the templars. They aren’t all as honorable as Cullen.”
“Oh? An’ wot’ll they do, pray tell? Try to choke me?”
“Maybe. But they might do it on purpose.”
Chastened, the little girl picked up some of the books and followed the scholar back to the infirmary.
“I thought I might find you here.”
Cullen looked up sharply at Raven’s approach. “I don’t know why you’d want to,” he murmured. She sat beside him and Hohaku on the small dock, and for a while they silently watched the late afternoon sun reflecting on the gentle waters of Lake Calenhad.
Finally, in a soft voice, she said, “I’m sorry I spoke to Greagoir without consulting you. You’re right; I don’t know anything about your training, and it was wrong to make that decision without asking you.”
The look he gave her was incredulous. “Surely you are not apologizing to me?! After the way I raged about like a wild beast? And the… things I said, that hurt you? I didn’t…I don’t know what came over me. No matter how it seems, I do know you have helped me, and I am grateful. Especially since you have no reason to do so.” He added bitterly, “I certainly don’t deserve it.”
“Cullen, you absolutely do deserve it. You are a good person, and you are worthy of help.”
“How can you say that?! You’ve known me for a week, and in that time I attacked a child and nearly attacked you! I lack Simon’s steadiness, or even Osmund’s years of experience…but I watched them die, and I still live.” In a voice thick with the threat of tears, he rasped, “It should have been me. Maker, why wasn’t it me?”
“Hey,” she said gently, reaching out and waiting for his acknowledgment before taking his hand. “It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t a game where only one person could win the grand prize of survival. Those templars didn’t die in your place; they just died. But other people, like you and Wynne and Greagoir and Shanna, lived. Would you say that Greagoir didn’t deserve to live, that it should have been him that died?”
“No, of course not!” he replied, shocked. “He is the Knight-Commander!”
“And yet, I bet he’s thinking some of the same things you are. That he should have prevented it, he should have known. That the men under his command shouldn’t have died while he still lived.”
The templar had no response for that, so he shifted topics. “Even so…the Knight-Commander isn’t the one who lashed out like an animal and…and made a lady cry…” He looked away, his shoulders hunched.
“I’m fine now. Something you said just hit a sensitive spot for me. You couldn’t have known.” He looked up at her, curious, and she groaned inwardly; explaining her hang-ups to Cullen Rutherford was the last thing she wanted to do, but she couldn’t very well expect him to open up while refusing to do so herself.
“Where I’m from, everyone is expected to be thin. The women considered most attractive are waifs whose ribs can be counted at a glance.” Heartened by his confused look, she continued, “So, when someone isn’t like that, if they are—“ She struggled with the taboo word. “If they’re called fat, it’s the same as calling them ugly. And since beauty seems the most important thing about a woman…if she’s ugly, she’s worthless, too. A…friend explained to me that it’s not like that here, but it’s still difficult to hear, and it just…caught me by surprise, is all.”
If possible, he looked even more stricken than before. “No, no, that is not…I never meant…” Halting in frustration, he rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand, before turning to look her in the eye. She was suddenly conscious of the feel of his callused fingers gripping hers. “Maker, I’m not good with words. But you must understand, no matter how much of an arse I’ve been, I never meant that. You are lovely in both form and spirit, and I beg your forgiveness for the cruel things I said.” He sighed. “And probably will say again, since I’m such a Maker-forsaken mess.”
She smiled. “Oh, I’m a mess too. All the best people are, really. Normal is boring. Shall we go get the kitchens to send us messy people some normal food?”
Cullen’s handsome visage registered surprise, and then…very briefly…a smile. “Yes, let’s,” he said simply.
She shouldn’t have tried to wake him, she knew. But his thrashing cries had been loud enough to be heard through the stone wall between their rooms, so she’d gone to check on him, and he was so miserable she couldn’t just leave him locked in his nightmare. So, when he hadn’t woken to repeated shouts, or even when she’d shaken his foot from a safe distance, she’d braced herself and shaken his arm.
She’d expected him to lash out with a fist, or grab her throat like he’d done with Shanna. She had not expected him to yank her down to him and crush his mouth to hers. Pure shock…and perhaps, if she were being brutally honest, her awareness that he was shirtless and extremely attractive…kept her motionless for a moment, until she snapped to her senses. Any potential thrill evaporated when she realized he still wasn’t awake, and she couldn’t escape his iron grip.
So, she bit him.
His eyes flew open, clouded with sleep and confusion, and when he saw her there, he scuttled back toward the headboard in a way that would’ve been comical if he hadn’t been so terrified. “What are you doing here? Why are you in my…my bed?” he gasped.
She tried not to bristle at the implication she was there of her own volition as she sat up and collected herself. “Because I didn’t take my own advice,” she sighed. “You were having a nightmare, and I tried to wake you without touching you, but it didn’t work, so…”
Shame mingled with fear in his expression, or what little she could see of it in the weak moonlight coming through his window. His throat hoarse from crying out, he asked, “So I…I did that? I…forced you to…?”
“Whoa, stop that line of thought right there. It was just a kiss, and I’m fine. You didn’t hurt me. And if I didn’t draw blood when I bit you, we’re both okay. Right?”
Doubtfully, he nodded. “Yes. Right.” He rubbed his bottom lip, and then, judging by the flush that covered him from chest to ears, it occurred to him he wore only thin sleeping pants, she wore a simple undertunic and knickers, and they were both in his bed. Before she could decide whether to be amused, he went from red to white and his chest started heaving with panic.
“Cullen,” she called softly, going very still. “You’re safe. I promise I won’t touch you. Can you take a deep breath and tell me how many books are on the table? What do they look like?”
By now, he undoubtedly knew what she was trying to do, but he shakily focused on his description. Finally, he was calm, though still unable to look at her.
“If you want to talk about it, I’ll listen. If you want me to leave, I’ll leave. Okay?”
He nodded in the near-darkness. “I…you don’t…have to go yet. If you like.” She smiled encouragingly at him, but it must not have been convincing enough. “Are you sure I didn’t hurt you? You look…upset.”
She sighed. “No, it’s nothing you did. My research…it was important to my family, and I found out today that what I hoped for isn’t going to work.”
She’d met Finn again that afternoon, after a week of little progress, and he’d said there was someone he wished to consult…and then led her to the basement. She figured it out, then; she knew there was a statue down there with the spirit of a woman bound to it. Finn wanted to speak to her, as he did in the game, because she was knowledgeable about ancient magic.
But the woman owed her form to the fact that she was also a seer, one whose prophecies angered her ruler enough to receive a stone prison as punishment. When Raven greeted her, the spirit spoke sadly. “You will not find the answers you seek. Stories call to your blood, and this land will not release you with your tale untold. Your door requires a key only time will forge.” So, assuming the seer was correct, as she had been for a thousand years, Raven and Rob could not go home.
She was overwhelmed and lost, and hadn’t even begun to know how to feel. It was, in fact, why she’d still been awake to hear his nightmare. But she didn’t have the heart to explain all that, so she simply said, “My work has all been for nothing. I’m back to being a helpless burden in a world of war.”
“The Knight-Commander obviously did not think you helpless. Nor this Wynne you spoke of, or…or Alistair.”
Raven’s head tilted to one side, seizing the diversion. “Is something wrong between you and Alistair?” He flinched, and she hastily added, “You don’t have to tell me. You just seem upset when his name comes up, and he didn’t mention any reason why that would be.”
Cullen sighed. “He wouldn’t know any.” And then Raven nearly held her breath for fear of disturbing the moment as, in the quiet darkness, he began to speak.
“The blood mages, the demons…they picked through my mind, using whatever amused them. They found Alistair, my best friend. And…” he examined his fingernails. “And Solona Amell. A mage I…ah, admired. Nothing happened,” he rushed to clarify. “It wouldn’t have been proper, a mage and a templar. But they saw her in my mind and from then on, every terrible thing they did, they tried to wear Alistair or Solona’s face.”
“When I was awake, I could close my eyes and focus, and open them to see the truth. The murderers, the torturers, were just themselves. But,” Cullen’s voice broke, “when I slept, I couldn’t make them go away. They made me dream…things. And they’d let me wake to find them…touching me…” He choked, clenching his jaw to hold in a sob, as he shook so hard she felt the bed tremble beneath her. “I couldn’t stop it. I should have been strong enough to stop it, but I…” The broken templar buried his face in his hands and wept.
Her own face wet with tears, she said, “Hey…it’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong, and-“
“You don’t understand,” he snarled, his head snapping up. “I did. I…some of the things they did, I…it felt…good. What kind of twisted monster would take pleasure in that? I didn’t know how…that…was supposed to feel; I’ve never even…” All at once, he seemed to remember who he was talking to, and what he was saying, and he looked off into the darkness, trying to master his emotions as the shame and rage rolled off him in waves. Her heart broke all over again.
“Cullen. Look at me.” For a long moment she thought he’d refuse, but finally his burning amber gaze met hers, almost challenging in its fury. “It. Is. Not. Your. Fault,” she said, with every ounce of conviction she had. “They starved you, took your lyrium, beat you, burned you, broke your body…but they did not break you. And after all that, if they found ways to make your body react…there were desire demons, Cullen. That’s what they do. Some things are just physical reactions, no different than bleeding when you’re cut.”
“But where it counted, when you were aware and had a choice, you resisted. You denied them the power they wanted. Please believe me when I say that out of all the people I know in this world, I can think of no one stronger than you.”
He wouldn’t believe her, she knew. Not yet. Maybe not for years. But when, for the first time, he reached out with trembling, hesitant fingers to take her hand, she thought maybe someday he would.
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 15: All Who Wander)