For Cullen, the nights are the worst. During the day, he can hide. He hides behind his work. He hides by the fighting arena, yelling at the recruits. He hides behind the paperwork, checking requisitions, overseeing every little aspect of the troops movement. He hides himself in the war room, even though they all know the truth of who he is. He still jokes about the bunny shaped Lake Calenhad, just to draw attention away from himself.
It’s been six months and fourteen days since his last drought of lyrium. He’s been counting. His veins are silent, devoid of the song. There is no freedom in its absence, not tonight. The only thing standing between him and the philter is his duty.
He made a promise. He made a promise to Cassandra; he made a promise to the Inquisitor; he made the promise to the soldiers, even if they don’t know it.
He is their Commander. He cannot falter.
He can’t sleep. On the night like this, the nightmares are most harrowing. The demon hisses into his ear, offering all the delights, everything Cullen wants.
“You’re my Commander,” the demon pleads and begs, wearing her face and spreading her thighs before him. “Please.”
He says ‘no’ every single time until he wakes up and vomits. The pounding headache is unbearable, the cold sweat covers his body.
His hands shake as he puts on the armor. He can barely tie it together, but he manages. The office seems like prison, and Cullen has known prisons in his life. The hole in the roof is not enough. Nothing is enough.
His legs tremble when he walks the barricades. For about ten minutes, the air is cold and refreshing. Then it turns to be just freezing and punishing.
He should stand there and let it punish him, Cullen thinks, but he is walking again, until he reaches the main part of the castle. None of the soldiers question him. No one would dare, and Cullen bitterly wonders how by the Maker did he convince everyone of his strength and competence.
His mouth is dry. He needs a drink, something to warm up. He pushes the door to the kitchens, he knows where they are. He would not come here during the day, but at night, when no one is there—
“Can I help you?”, the woman asks, eyeing him.
The kitchenmaid. She’s wearing a bonnet, hiding her hair and a large apron. Her face is dirtied with flour and so are her hands.
“Uhm”, Cullen rubs his neck, stepping closer into the light.
She must have recognized who he is because her eyes widen and she takes a tiny step back. He shouldn’t have come, the servants don’t like to be bothered, it is hardly appropriate.
She looks at him in silence.
“Minor headache”, Cullen points to his head, awkward. “I thought perhaps tea…”
“Give me a moment, Commander”, the woman mumbles, confirming his suspicion. “I will make you some.”
He sits on one of the two chairs available in the kitchen, by the giant prep table. He was raised in the village, as a commoner. His mother baked bread. He recognizes the sourdough starter sitting in the corner and the dough on the counter, and he sees the proofing baskets set on the side. How stupid of him. Skyhold has several kitchens, and they all probably have someone working at night, making bread or prepping everything for tomorrow.
He is intruding, he knows that, but the fire burning in the stove is too warm and pleasant and he doesn’t want to go back into the cold, not now.
“Peppermint and elfroot”, the kitchenmaid informs, placing the blazing hot mug in front of him while he tries to thank her.
She doesn’t hide her sigh, but then turns to work, kneading the dough. He doesn’t mean to stare, but the process brings back so many childhood memories that it chokes him. He hasn’t thought about his mother in months, but he remembers that. There is something soothing about watching the motions. Something good for the soul.
The tea is hot, and he burns his tongue while taking the first sip. It warms him up, and the headache subsides, just slightly.
He thinks of Evelyn, how foolish he has been to want her, to want more. How deluded. She is beautiful, and smart, and kind. His feelings have been developing since Haven, and when he almost lost her, he became certain he was in love. They spent some time together, played chess and maybe even flirted, but when he tried to kiss her, she turned away.
“Cullen”, she gave him a faint smile, a little embarrassed. “I… I don’t think of you that way.”
He respected that, of course, and has never asked why.
Why, why, isn't it obvious? He is a broken man. Maybe not everyone notices, but Evelyn knows just enough to be aware of that. What she doesn’t know is only further proof of his brokenness. What could he offer to her, to anyone? What Kinloch brought? The atrocities committed at Kirkwall? Maker preserve him, she is a mage. It is surprising she stands his presence at all, and she gracefully offered him her friendship.
The demons know. They know how he feels and what he dreams of, and they hunt him in his sleep. In those dreams, Evelyn whispers to him all the things he yearns to hear. How much she loves him, how much she wants him, how strong and good he is, how he is the only one to protect her, how much she needs him. How his touch makes her feel alive, how he is the only one for her.
Cullen has never said ‘yes’ to a demon. He hates himself for how much he enjoys the brief moments when the demon lays the sweet seduction. It is a lie, it is manipulation, it is perverted and distorted and yet a part of him likes it.
He flinches out of disgust and spills the tea all over the table. It doesn’t burn him, luckily, but it snaps him out of his thoughts. He watches as the kitchenmaid rushes to clean the mess, wiping the table and then getting on her knees to clean up the floor while he stands there like a tool.
“Commander?”, the woman looks at him uncertainly. “Are you injured?”
Injured? He wants to laugh bitterly. That was just a spilled tea. Nothing.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he tries to apologize. “Not… not injured.”
“Would you like another tea, Commander?”
He would, but he has embarrassed himself enough.
“No, no, thank you,” he can feel himself wanting to disappear. “I… will go.”
He leaves just like that and rushes to his office. It will dawn in two hours, he can do some paperwork in the meantime.
When he reaches the barricades, he realizes that he has not even asked the kitchenmaid for her name, like an utter arsehole.
Orla enjoys working the nights. She is alone, surrounded by mere silence. She is warm because of the large furnace-stove. The servants bedrooms near the cellars are not heated enough during the night. She prefers to sleep during the day. No one yells at her when she takes few minutes to sit down or eats a meat-pie or a piece of bread.
Many girls are afraid to work so late. It is the fortress, after all, and even though Skyhold’s reputation is overall good, those within its walls are still soldiers. During the day they train, during the night they sleep, or drink, or wander.
No one wanders into her kitchen. It is the smallest one in Skyhold. No one until the Commander himself appears here with no warning, looking pale and distraught.
At first, Orla is scared. The girls have said nothing about the Commander being inappropriate, but Orla knows life well enough to know she can never be too sure. If he makes any demands, what could she do anyway?
He only wants tea, says he has a headache.
Orla is relieved, but her irritation rises when he sits down at the table. It is an unwritten rule that lords and ladies and the command do not go to the kitchens. When they need something, they send for the servants first.
Commander sits and drinks his tea that is surely too hot, and then flinches. She warned him it was hot, didn’t she? She did. He doesn’t complain.
He watches her kneading bread, and she cannot be certain what he is thinking about. He doesn’t seem a creep. He looks tired and sick, pale and a bit greenish in the face. His armor is scary, and he has a fur mantle all around his neck, but from up close, he looks just like a regular man, maybe more handsome.
She has seen him few times, yelling at the recruits. She knows that they call him the Lion of Ferelden, and he has Fereldan accent. She is from Ferelden as well. Not that he would ask. People like him don’t engage in conversations with kitchen maids, even if they make demands. He doesn’t ask her name. Why would he?
He spills the tea and Orla hopes that he is less clumsy with the sword than around here, because otherwise they are all doomed and demons will take over the world. Psh. Everyone is less mighty from up close.
He refuses another tea, thankfully, and leaves with a face of a dog being chased away from the kitchens. What an odd man.
At last, Orla is alone again. Her arms hurt from all the kneading, but the bread is already proving in the baskets. She washes up and cleans the surface until the wood on the table is immaculate. She likes the feel of it underneath her fingers. She takes the bonnet off, unbraids her hair and sits down the fire, taking time to drink her own tea.
Before Haven got sacked, she worked at the tavern there. It was much smaller, and she knew Flissa. Now, with Flissa dead, she prefers the kitchens. She could go to the Herald’s Rest. Maybe they would hire her. She has been always told her face is pleasant enough. She could get few coppers more, but this feels better. Safer. No one bothers her usually. Certainly not one of the high people, until tonight. The weird blond boy came in once or twice, the one with ragged clothes and a weird hat.
Orla is not the one to judge. She gets used to weirdness quickly. She made him a buttered sandwich cause he seemed hungry. He looked at her like he had never seen butter.
The guilt is always there because if she worked elsewhere, she could send more coin home. Orla doesn’t like noise and drunk men, and Skyhold is so much bigger than Haven. Maybe she could find something else to do on a side to get few coins more. Maker knows there is not enough coin, ever.
She has little news from home. She can’t read or write, except her own name. She sends coin through the merchant going in and out of Skyhold, the same one that helped her in Heaven. She can’t be sure her mother receives the money, but the merchant is a woman and seems kind, and few times she brought back her mother’s jam and the news that Orla’s baby sister had a wee one.
Life has always been hard, but it is just the way it is for people like her. Orla tries not to think about it. Too many mouths to feed, not enough coin. Sometimes she imagines she was born a lady or a princess or a daughter of a trader, but that is just foolish. Sometimes she wishes she had magic and power, sometimes she hopes she was sent to the Order. All foolishness. Orla is just herself and that is all she will ever be.
She is from Lothering, originally. She was fourteen when the Blight started and took away her father and her two brothers. Her brothers… Niall and Cian were the pride of the family. They went to the Templars early, got educated. Died at Ostagar, too soon. Orla was just thirteen. Their father died in Lothering when they were evacuating. Her mother cried for a week and then steeled herself. There were three babes in the house, and she was the oldest. She started working at fourteen and left the house at fifteen. There was never time to learn to read, and the coin was always just barely enough.
Orla has always been a servant. She has cleaned and laundered, but she likes cooking and baking the most. It felt nice to make something good, and she knew how to make food last. She moved a lot, never finding a place to settle until the small inn at the Hinterlands, but then the war erupted and everything changed. The inn got destroyed, but Orla survived.
The Revered Mother found her and had Orla help the refugees. She cooked meals from what little they had. She washed and cooked the bandages and dressings. She cleaned the tents. When the Reverend Mother left for Haven, Orla went there too. What else could she do?
Haven ended too. Orla survived again. Maybe that is her talent. Surviving.
Now she is here, at Skyhold. She has her own room. It is small, and cold, and dark, without windows, but it is hers alone and the walls are thick. She has the job that pays enough to eat. After everything that happened, this seems almost enough. Whatever longings are there in her heart, Orla has learned to get by.
It is time to put the bread into the oven. It will be a good batch.
Orla has long forgotten about the Commander.
Cullen wakes up again the next night. He doesn’t vomit this time, but the headache appears again. He goes down the ladder, dresses up and stares at the lyrium philter again. The philter taunts him, provokes him. If he simply took it, everything would be better.
Except it wouldn’t. Cullen might be an idiot about a lot of things, but not this. He thinks of Meredith and Kirkwall, and tonight that is enough to say “no”.
Before he realizes, he walks to the kitchens again. The fire is burning, but they are empty. He wanders around trying to figure out where the water kettle is when the kitchenmaid enters the room, carrying the baskets of vegetables. His presence startles her before she collects herself.
“Tea?” she takes initiative.
He rushes to help her with what she carries, but she shoves the baskets on the table before he reaches her. She places her hands on her waist.
“Tea,” he answers and she nods. He sits at the table again, not knowing what to say or why he even came here.
“No bread making?” he tries.
“I bake it every three days,” she looks at him and flushes. “It is a lot of work.”
“Of course,” he mumbles to himself.
He could walk around the barricades, but there are soldiers patrolling them. He could go to the library but there is always someone there. He would not go the tavern, because even at this hour there were people inside. This is safer. No one would bother him here. He can be alone… well, not entirely alone.
Cullen looks at the woman. She washes the vegetables in the sink and is facing away from him. This time, she is not wearing a bonnet or an apron, just a simple linen shirt and a long skirt. He can see a thick, messy braid down her back. Her hair is dark, brown and reddish. He believes they call the color ‘auburn’. He doesn’t see her hands, but he knows she is quick.
She ignores him entirely. Why wouldn’t she? He is invading her space yet again, in the middle of the night.
She sits by the table, on the other corner, as far away from him as possible and starts peeling and chopping the vegetables. He guesses this is the preparation for all the cooking done during the day. The little knife moves fast. He notices she is young and quite pretty.
“What is your name?” he asks, and the kitchenmaid looks at him surprised.
The Commander is here again and Orla doesn’t know what to think, so she makes him tea and chooses to ignore his presence, focusing on the task at hand. Was she wrong, and he truly is a perverted man seeking something from her? He still looks sickly and unwell. Maybe all he wants is tea.
“What is your name?” he asks.
Maybe he wants more than tea. Orla looks at him and finds nothing behind the question. He looks shy. Why does he look shy? He is a very handsome man, and she has heard enough servants giggling how they wouldn’t mind him taking them to bed. Perhaps he should try with them, she thinks.
“Orla,” she says.
“I’m Cullen,”, he replies quietly. “Thank you for the tea, Orla.”
“You’re welcome, Commander.”
Why would he even mention his name? It is inconceivable for her to call him that. Orla is uncomfortable and a little unsure. She is far from innocent. She has been with men, and some of it was good, some of it wasn’t. She prefers to stay away from it. The servants always warn each other about those things; who is safe to be around, who isn’t. She has heard nothing bad being told about the Commander.
“Are you Fereldan?” he tries.
Maybe he just wants to talk. He looks very miserable.
“Lothering, initially,” she answers.
“Oh,” he mutters.
Oh indeed, she thinks bitterly. “Yes,” she confirms.
“I am sorry,” he rubs his temple. “I… my family is from Honnleath. My parents died during the Blight.”
“Oh,” Orla remarks stupidly herself, caught by surprise. “I am sorry to hear that.”
“How old were you?”
“I was twenty. But I was at the Circle at the time.”
She nods, because what else could she say? She knows little of those things, except the memories of her brothers.
“My older brothers were Templars,” she shares. “They died at Ostagar.”
“Oh,” he repeats and some part of Orla wants to laugh, because the whole talk is just utterly ridiculous. “I am sorry.”
She knows he is a Templar. Was a Templar. Of that she isn’t sure, now that the Inquisition happened. There are some Templars who still wear the armor of the Order. The Commander doesn’t. She remembers Niall saying that one was a Templar until death, but those are strange times they live in now. Until recently she thought demons would not be randomly dropping from the sky and that Blight was the worst that could ever happen.
She continues chopping, looking at her fingers. One portion down, julienned. The rest to cube.
“I am really sorry,” he starts again, “for intruding. I… I am a bit unwell and the tea helps.”
He is sorry a lot, Orla thinks to herself. Not typical for a man in power. That she is sure of.
“Peppermint and elfroot is good for headaches,” she announces.
He doesn’t actually want to have a conversation, does he? He sits in silence and drinks his tea, and Orla relaxes a little. Maybe he will go again soon.
“Do you like it here in Skyhold?” he asks instead and Orla feels something inside her bending and bending and she knows sooner or later it will snap and the pain will burst.
“Yes,” she whispers and recoils.
There is one reason a man of his station goes to the kitchens and stays. He could have asked for tea and took it wherever his bedroom is. He could request a maid or a soldier to bring whatever he wants to him. He sits here fully armored, likely carrying weapons. He is weird, his behavior odd, and she just prays he doesn’t want too much and leaves her alone soon. It would be better if he just said it, because that forced interaction makes everything worse.
Cullen never has the opportunity to converse with people who know nothing about him. Not ever, actually. Orla knows who he is, but nothing else. She has an obvious Fereldan accent and he would love to talk about something, anything that would distract from Corypheus, lyrium or Evelyn Trevelyan.
She does not call him by his name and he feels foolish for even introducing himself like that. He is the Commander. He is a former Templar. He is also just Cullen, the son of a farmer from Honnleath. A commoner through and through. Maker’s breath; he has no patience for nobility. His childhood probably resembled Orla’s.
“Honnleath is not that far from Lothering,” not from his perspective, anyway. “Do you remember the candy for Summerday? I don’t know if Lothering had it, it was… jaw-breaking and sweet. They called it Andraste’s Sweetness, that I remember.”
“Yes,” she says. “It is just a two-colored taffy.”
“I loved it as a child. I also remember pinwheels. More than the Chantry procession itself. Pinwheels and candy.”
“Children tend to prefer that to Chantry’s sermons,” she mumbles, continuing the chopping process.
“I don’t know if that happened in Lothering, but I also remember the girls wearing floral crows and boys chasing them to sprinkle them with water—“
“What do you want?” the woman snaps and looks straight at him. “I still have some work to do so if you must, I’d prefer for you to rush with it.”
He is a foolish man. He had no right to impose himself on her.
“In that case…” he coughs and stands up, finishing his tea in few gulps, preparing to take his leave.
He turns to thank her for the tea and to apologize, and he sees Orla red-faced, sitting on the counter and looking down as she unlaces the blouse.
“What—what—what are you doing?” he stutters panicked, the dread filling his body.
She faces away from him and her hands shiver. “I won’t fight you,” she whispers, “just… be gentle.”
The absolute terror floods Cullen, all his nightmares and memories mixing into one and he takes a second to breathe.
“I don’t—why—why would you think—? I would never ever force or hurt—ever. I—“
“You came here in the middle of the night, twice and started talking with me. And when I said for you to rush with it—“
Cullen runs towards the sink and vomits. It helps, a bit, but he can’t look at the woman.
He has noticed she was pretty. How in the Void has he not realized how all of this seemed to her? He is aware what some Templars did to mages, so why—
She passes him the cloth to wipe his mouth.
“Please forgive me, Orla, I am begging you. I’m sick and I couldn’t sleep. Tea helps and I swear to you I was only trying to make a conversation to pass the time,”, he looks at her and sees that even her ears are red. He must look the same. “I was not trying to… do anything. I would never do that to anyone. Has anyone… done that to you?”
He asks as the Commander of Skyhold, the one who must keep everyone within those walls safe. He asks as a former Knight-Captain who failed to do so. Still, the second the question leaves his mouth he realizes he should not have asked at all. Her hands are still shaking as she laces her blouse back. She doesn’t answer.
“I am sorry”, his voice breaks, “I—As the commander, I can, I ought to punish anyone who—“
“It hasn’t happened here”, she murmurs, and he knows what hides behind it, and he nods.
“I will clean my—“
“I can do it”, she protests.
“I’m a soldier. I can clean my own vomit. I am so sorry. For everything.”
His armor clackers as he moves to grab the cloths and the sudden realization that he’s armed and armored hits him. Maker’s breath. What else was she supposed to think when he came here in the middle of the night? Not once, twice, the second time on purpose.
“I am sorry,” she whispers, not looking at him.
“Don’t,” he clenches his jaw. “It is entirely my fault. I cannot even find the words to apologize—“
“I can make some tea,” she interrupts him. “For your throat, I am sure—“
The pain clenches his heart so much and he feels both shame and anguish.
“No need, Orla, I won’t bother—“
“I am making one for myself anyway,” she breathes. “It’s no bother.”
“Fine”, he relents, watching the water washing out the contents of his stomach down the pipe.
Orla’s shirt is soaked in sweat. She feels her cheeks burning, she feels the burning in her throat, in her stomach. She got it wrong, and the relief is so great it overwhelms her, but she also feels shame and embarrassment. She knows her fear was not ridiculous. It was based in reality. This happened often. She knows the Commander knows it too. He’s pale as he’s drinking the tea standing, not even wanting to sit down.
She sits because she might otherwise faint. Her heart is beating so fast.
It is beyond awkward.
“I have nightmares,” his voice is low and raspy. “Demons. Something happened to me with demons a decade ago. They showed me things… and did things and touched me against my will.”
Oh, Orla blinks. She did not expect that. She sees his face getting redder and redder and she sees regret from sharing what he just did.
He is hurting.
“It is not your fault,” she utters the same words that the servant girls tell each other as needed. “It does not make you any worse.”
Apparently it happens to men, too. He looks broken. What else was there to say, really? This was not even compassion. She gave him the truth.
He takes a deep breath and composes himself. “Thank you, for your kindness. I will… take my leave. I- I- I will appreciate if you don’t tell anyone.”
“Commander,” she says and he flinches. She gives up. “Cullen.”
He glances at her, surprised.
“If you wish to stay, we can just sit in silence and chop vegetables. I presume you’re decent with blades.”
The tiniest smirk appears on his face as he rubs his forehead.
“So I’ve been told,” he mutters softly, “but I have never fought a potato.”
“I won’t tell anyone if you lose,” she smiles lightly.
“Well, then,” he takes a knife, and joins her in work.
He is slow and careful, meticulously cubing the potatoes. They won’t notice tomorrow it wasn’t her work. The silence is not tedious. It is not soothing in itself, but it is not causing more distress. Orla is fine with that. Her heart slows down, her breathing steadies.
She makes them another tea. Cullen brings more vegetables from the pantry and stays until they are all chopped. He looks calmer now, more composed. Working with hands can comfort, but not when one is using swords, Orla thinks to herself.
“I shall go,” he finally says. Her own work will end in an hour.
“The third night from now,” she hesitates, “I am to make Fereldan taffies. Come if you want.”
“I will,” he promises.
Orla doubts it.
Cullen feels tired. Tonight was dreadful - but then it was not dreadful as well. He removes his armor and brushes his teeth. The war meeting is later in the day; he could try sleeping more.
He lies on his bed and the realization hits him.
He told someone his deepest, most shameful secret and did not die in the process.
It is not your fault. It does not make you any worse.
He closes his eyes and chants the words as prayer.