“Death to the lowlanders!”
At the call of a horn, the Hakkonites charged—down the crumbling hallway of the ruined prison to where Cassandra and her companions stood ready. These barbarians were painted for battle and screaming for her blood, but grossly unequipped to handle the might of her blade, Bull’s axe or the hail of fire Inquisitor Adaar and Varric were volleying ahead.
The fight was short but bloody—while the Stone-Bear warriors could match her in a spar, even with live steel, the manic zealotry that drove the Hakkonites into the fray was their strength and weakness both. They were immensely strong, but drove too far, swung too wildly, floundering gracelessly when their blows were deflected or evaded.
Cassandra had met practice dummies more challenging.
It was near drudgery to eliminate them. She and her companions had come across numerous other raiding parties on their journey to this abandoned prison in the middle of a swamp—such a lovely place—and those skirmishes had brought perhaps even less satisfaction than the one in which she was currently engaged.
There was nothing for it but to make as quick and efficient work of them as possible—a painless death, if the situation allowed. While Cassandra had had quite her fill of the insanity that usually followed zealots around like a foul smell, she was never one to intentionally draw out a fight for the purpose of allowing her enemy to suffer. And she’d been vocal in her disapproval of Leliana’s brutal interrogation tactics until the spymaster’s recent change of heart.
They weren’t here to cause pain, and they were certainly not here to relish doing so. They were here to do a job—however bizarre it was—so she could return to Skyhold to prepare for her upcoming coronation. The future Divine had several dozen more important things to do than rescuing a bear.
A Hakkonite’s crude axe glanced off her shield, flinging his arm back, and exposing his unprotected torso, armored only in what appeared to be painted mud, of all things. She would never understand these barbarians. A sharp thrust up under the ribs, and with a brief rattle, he went limp, sliding easily off her sword.
He crumpled to the prison floor as a guttural scream echoed through the crumbling corridor.
“Hah!” Bull laughed as he watched the final Hakkonite fall to their knees in front of him, their free hand clutching at the stump of their sword arm, severed at the elbow.
With a flourish that was nearly graceful, Iron Bull wrenched his axe up and out, then down and through the warrior’s shoulder, slicing the Hakkonite in two.
“Aah,” he sighed, shouldering his weapon with a satisfied grin as the silent hall ate up the final death rattles of the fallen. “That’s, ah… four for me? What am I at now, Varric?”
“By my count, you’ve killed seventeen since we left the Hold,” Varric replied, sauntering carelessly to the center of the corridor and thumbing through a small notebook that was somehow clean of blood and viscera, unlike Cassandra’s shield and sword arm. She couldn’t help but envy the way he and the Inquisitor stayed out of the heat of battle much of the time—there were only so many times her gloves could be scrubbed clean before there was hardly any leather left.
It also apparently gave him the time to keep score, which the three men had been doing for the last day and a half, much to her frustration. They were supposed to be professionals, for Maker’s sake, not children playing a game.
“And what’s my score?” Adaar carefully stepped around a body to look over Varric’s shoulder, crouching with his hands on his knees. “Aw, only seven?”
Varric chuckled. “Short Stack, if you spent more time actually throwing fireballs instead of barrier-ing everything you saw, that number could be a lot higher.”
“Yes, how silly of me to save your asses every single fight,” he deadpanned, straightening up and towering over Varric in a way that could have been intimidating if he knew how to be so. As it was, the Inquisitor very much resembled a wolf that had been raised by sheep. “Shouldn’t I get points for altruism?”
“Altruism doesn’t get you far, Kadan,” Iron Bull remarked. “You know what they say about omelets and eggs.”
“What, that sometimes the ends justify the means?”
“No, that breaking eggs is fun.”
“Gentlemen,” Cassandra cut in with an exasperated sigh before any more nonsense could be spewed. The journey had been long, and she was short on patience. The quicker this business could be dealt with, the better for all of them. “If we could return to the matter at hand?”
Iron Bull only chuckled. “Didn’t peg you for a sore loser, Cass.”
“Actually, Tiny…” Varric held up his notebook for him to see.
“Twenty-one?” Bull gaped as Adaar’s eyebrows rose nearly off his head. “No way, how’d you manage that?”
Efficiency? Professionalism? Maturity? A looming ceremony for which she was wildly unprepared?
“Easily,” she answered, venting a bit of her irritation so as to not boil over before they were finished here. “Unlike the rest of you, I do not engage in pointless theatrics and childish competitions when there’s work to be done.”
“Aw, no more room for fun now that you’re Divine?”
The words Bull spoke hit harder than she cared to admit—in truth, it absolutely did feel like there was no room left in her brain for things not relating to the coronation, or what came after it. There was a specific order to the ceremony she needed to learn, positions of honor she was to assign…. To say nothing of the multitude of sermons she would have to write and give.
And all of that paled against the pressure of being the sole shepherd of a terrified flock scattered across a war-torn land that still looked upon the Sunburst Throne with fear and suspicion instead of hope. And even with Josephine’s tutelage, she was dreading the grey space and mincing words that came with dealing with politicians and bureaucrats as was inevitable for a world leader. She knew she was strong and singularly driven towards her goals, but she was just one woman and there was just so much she wanted to do.
Since the election, the only clarity or peace she found was in battle. There was no grey in the field, no words to string together or laws to rewrite. There was only the fight and survival—black and white, the strong and the weak, and it was a simplicity in which she reveled. Her apparently impressive body count over the past day and a half stood testament to that.
“In a word, no,” she replied, turning to cast her eyes about the prison and effectively closing the subject. “Now, where is this bear?"
She gave a signal—a reflex from her time as a Seeker, a pointed finger painting a circle above her head—and they spread out through the prison with arms at the ready, unsure of what they were going to find. Perhaps she should feel some kind of discomfort at commanding the Herald of Andraste, the Inquisitor himself, but over the months—almost a year, now—of working together, they had settled into an advisory kind of relationship. He looked to her for leadership guidance and was more than happy to pass the burden of command to her for less-vital tasks such as this.
She sighed. She knew that fostering an alliance with the Stone-Bears was important for many reasons, the least of which was they knew the land and culture of the enemy, but she’d balked at the idea of this quest—of rescuing a bear— from the first hearing, however important the beast might be. Surely there were other matters more deserving of the Divine-elect’s time? Couldn’t the Inquisitor have chosen Ranier? He would be more than willing to participate in their games.
She rounded a corner, and at the padding of her boots on the mossy floor of the prison, she heard a stirring a few cells ahead, followed by a rumble as could only come from a large animal.
Her pulse leapt in spite of the relief she felt at finding the target. This was a bear, after all—her guard should remain up while she was in such a confined space. She kept her shield raised until she saw a dark snout push through the bars of an iron portcullis, dropping it just as a light breeze blew in through the open ceiling—
She pressed the back of her hand to her nose to stifle the smell—rotting meat and manure left to fester. Cassandra was certainly not the best judge of this sort of thing, but if she were to guess, the bear had been held captive for some time. Perhaps to keep it complacent and agreeable, the Hakkonites had offered the bear some game—several fish, a haunch of goat, even part of what appeared to be a bogfisher, but it was all uneaten and left to decay just inside the portcullis, creating a miasma that stung her nose, her mouth... even her eyes. She couldn’t imagine a fouler smell, but that wasn’t what gave Cassandra pause—it was the look on Storvacker’s face when it met her gaze.
Cassandra had met many bears since forming the Inquisition—arguably far too many—and perhaps it was because the rest of them were preoccupied with ripping her throat out, but what Cassandra saw in Storvacker’s eyes felt so very… uncomfortably human .
She looked back at the creature in befuddlement. This was unheard of—how could an animal display this depth of emotion? And surely it was starving—why didn’t it eat the food it was given before it spoiled?
Suddenly, its ears flattened just as she heard a low whistle echo from back the way she came—Varric’s warning signal. She jogged to the corner of the cellblock to peek around the bend to see her companions on either side of the prison entrance, using the bordering pilasters as cover for something coming up through the tunnel.
She paused, closed her eyes to listen—and she heard them. A much larger party than the one still bleeding out on the ground, advancing through the cave to their location with the loud, careless steps that came with comfort in numbers. With a sinking heart, she realized that damned horn had been a signal of their own and that they were now trapped with their backs to the wall. The only way out was through the mass of zealots now clogging up the narrow tunnel—they’d need a miracle to get out alive.
A completely mad idea clicked into place as she realized that the Maker probably had better things to do as well, and began to look around for a chain, a release mechanism, something…
A lever was revealed as she ripped down a suspiciously placed vine on the far side of the cell, and she gripped it with the knowledge that she was gambling her companions’ lives as well as her own on the chance Storvacker understood the concept of a rescue.
She met the bear’s eyes again. “We are here to help,” she strained through her teeth. “Now, help us.”
And somehow, against all laws of Maker and man—Storvacker understood. It grunted, sank its mighty claws into the muck under its feet in preparation.
The footfalls were louder—the Hakkonites were upon them. There was no time to ponder the limits of its intelligence. She braced a boot against the prison wall and yelled over her shoulder— Incoming! —before pulling down with all her strength.
Storvacker’s roar shook the foundations of the prison and could have probably been heard in Val Royeaux. It tore down the hallway as soon as the portcullis was clear, scattering earth and bits of rubble in its haste.
Cassandra followed close behind as soon as it became clear that the bear was not interested in her, sprinting around the corner and back into the main corridor, where Adaar and Varric were already engaging the enemy, shooting fire and bolts down the mouth of the tunnel where she couldn’t see.
Her companions froze in alarm at the sight of a great, frothing beast barreling straight for them, but Storvacker ignored them, sliding around the pilaster and disappearing from view into the cave, from where the sounds of battle echoed.
She ran between Adaar and Varric as they resumed firing.
“We are protecting Storvacker!” She commanded as she passed them. “No explosives!”
Varric groaned. “But—”
“—none!” She called behind as she advanced; Varric had a troublesome tendency to incorporate an unnecessary amount of mines and grenades in combat, and they couldn’t risk hurting or spooking the bear. As ridiculous an assignment as this was, she would see it completed properly.
She’d been perhaps fifteen seconds late to the melee, but Storvacker and Iron Bull had carved an impressive dent into the Hakkonite force. An enormous brute already lay dead in the ankle-deep water. However, because the rest of them were hesitant to harm Storvacker for fear of ruining the sacrifice, Iron Bull was taking by far the most heat, limping a bit with a couple of arrows sticking out of his shoulder.
Cassandra dove into battle as quick as she could and waited for the familiar push and pull of the fight to wash away her worries and fears, but Storvacker was an unknown—a mass of grey in her world of black and white. Sure, the bear seemed to know to attack the Hakkonites rather than Cassandra’s party, but would that always be the case? What happens when the wind shifts and it’s Bull’s blood on the air? What happens when there are no more Hakkonites standing—would it turn on them instead?
Her attention kept splitting between her foe and Storvacker, waiting for its inevitable betrayal, until it finally lunged for her, teeth and claws dripping red, and her blood froze as she cursed Thane Sun-Hair, Kaaras Adaar, and anyone else who had a hand in sending her on this mad journey. Yet another Divine struck down senselessly, though history would certainly be less kind to her than it had been to Justinia.
But Storvacker missed, landing in an avalanche of raw muscle on top of a rogue that had been attempting to flank her.
She stared in shock until Storvacker turned its massive head in her direction and gave a sharp huff—as if to remind her that while she was standing there, gawking like an amateur, she was a sitting duck for any bowman in the area. No time to wonder how she read that in its eyes, much less if it was a purposeful message, and she sprang into deadly motion once more.
Cassandra’s suspicion never wavered, but Storvacker continued to act as an ally to its rescuers, much to her bemusement, even through to the battle’s end. Despite her warning to Varric, he launched a spike grenade just behind the final Hakkonite left standing. The archer then took an overdrawn bolt to the chest. The resulting explosion sent rubble scurrying down the cliff face and burning chunks of flesh raining down from the sky.
Cassandra lowered her shield as the hail subsided, turning to glare at Varric, who had rested Bianca on his shoulder, grinning cockily at his handiwork.
The ensuing silence weighed heavily around her. “I told you—”
He cut her off with a chuckle. “What can I say? We dwarves are stubborn bastards.”
A supremely dissatisfying answer and the stubborn bastard knew it. Her frown deepened.
“I made sure she was clear before I primed it!” He prevaricated, gesturing to the crater behind her with his free hand. “And she didn’t run or—”
He paled minutely just as a peculiar squishing sound made itself known, but the novelty of witnessing Varric being rendered speechless was undercut by the sensation of her stomach turning over on itself as she witnessed Storvacker very clearly eating part of the Hakkonite archer’s burnt leg.
She turned back around quickly and was gratified that her companions seemed to echo her disgust. With one exception.
“Oh, that’s so badass.” Iron Bull sighed wistfully, though it came out more like a wheeze, with one arm slung over Adaar’s broad shoulders and the other holding his bloodied side. He looked like he’d just survived a mauling.
“Aaand here comes the jealousy,” Adaar groaned, rolling his eyes so dramatically, Cassandra doubted he was being serious. “I’m really, actually jealous of a bear.”
It was moments like these, when Adaar’s easy smile and natural charm came through when he reminded her so much of Galyan. Their hearts of gold, their ability to start a friendly conversation with anyone they met, not to mention their inclination towards healing before combat, were all infinitely endearing and traits she frequently wished she possessed. Their biggest difference, however, lay in their choice of romantic partners, much to Cassandra’s disappointment.
“Aw, Kadan!” Iron Bull’s speech was a bit slurred, and his good eye went comically wide. He likely had a concussion. “You're a badass, too, you know? Just in like a… really different way.”
“Well. Now I feel better,” Adaar couldn’t hide his grin as he tugged his dazed lover away from the smoking battlefield and towards a fallen log near where the current ran deeper. “Come on. You need some healing, you big idiot.”
Cassandra stared after the two Qunari, shaking her head. Concussed or not, she couldn’t fathom looking upon a monstrous animal gnawing upon a human limb with any kind of admiration. However, she knew Bull to be a man of utterly bizarre tastes. Their present company excluded.
She heard a shuffling behind them, a splash of shallow water—apparently, Storvacker had finished its meal.
“So is our work here done?” Varric asked, fiddling with some part of his crossbow as the bear began to lumber off. “Thane Svarah said that Storvacker tended to come and go as she—”
Storvacker collapsed into the water with a great splash and began to roll around… well, if Cassandra had any proficiency with words, she might have said that it was rather euphoric, the way the creature wriggled and stretched, gulping down the freshest water it had had in days.
“Big girl’s got the right idea!” Iron Bull leapt out from under Adaar’s healing spell, shedding his clothes with alarming efficiency, though he thankfully left his voluminous pants on. She didn’t think she’d survive the encounter otherwise—one accidental viewing was more than enough for several lifetimes.
“Come on in, Kadan!” Bull called from the water, gesturing to himself and the bear. “We don’t bite!”
“Bull, if you’re going to lie, at least make it halfway convincing,” Adaar sighed, shrugging off his jacket and unbuckling his boots before standing and pulling his shirt over his head, revealing a toned mage’s physique.
“Concussions don’t heal themselves, you know,” he called as he waded closer. “I’m not done with you yet!”
“That’s funny,” Iron Bull grinned toothily, lowering himself, bracing for something, “because neither am I!”
He launched himself forward, tackling Adaar into the knee-high water with a grunt. Their deep laughter rumbled through the valley and the sparse rays of the sun played across the lines of their muscles as they grappled and pulled.
“Are you blushing, Seeker—?”
“—No.” She averted her eyes and shook herself out of the reverie—being caught nearly leering like that was deeply mortifying.
Also, dropping her guard in any capacity could get them all killed, deep as they were in Hakkonite territory. Though it seemed that was merely a secondary concern.
Cassandra groaned to obscure her embarrassment with irritation as she gestured to the river. “Those two will take any opportunity to… wrestle.”
Varric gave a huff of laughter as he knelt in the water to wash the blasting powder from his hands. “And here I thought you were just enjoying the view. Probably a foreign concept to you, but it’s alright to find pleasure in the little things, you know. Or in that case… not so little.”
As if on cue, a thundering splash sent droplets flying in all directions, showering herself and Varric as well as Storvacker, who had been meticulously cleaning her claws a ways downstream. Cassandra looked on in confusion as she shook the water from her gloves. She was unaware bears were all that interested in hygiene.
But she was hit with another splash before she could ponder the matter further.
She made a frustrated noise. “If I wished to see a large grey beast flailing naked in the water,” she groused, “I would visit the Emerald Graves.”
“Hey!” Bull suddenly shouted, wresting himself from Adaar’s grip. Cassandra’s eyes went wide as she belatedly heard the insult in her words—calling an ex-Ben-Hassrath agent with extensive experience fighting savage Tal-Vashoth a “beast” was an ignorant slip at the least, and a purposeful slap in the face at worst. Her thoughts raced, vacillating between forming a proper apology and cursing her sharp tongue.
Bull took a step closer, his face unreadable.
“We aren’t completely naked,” he corrected her, flashing a smile. “Though that could be arranged?”
Oh, thank the Maker. The business with Bull’s acquaintance Gatt was painfully recent, and from what she gathered, Bull himself was still working through the implications and realities of living outside the Qun. And the Inquisitor had been instrumental in that process, being Vashoth himself. Though Cassandra had only secondary knowledge of what transpired and even less understanding of Qunari culture, Bull’s choice to save his company was admirable.
However, his lewd smirk in her direction was less so.
“No, thank you,” she said tersely.
“Alright, then,” he acquiesced, turning back to a crouched and ready Adaar. “Bare necessities it is.”
He froze mid-stride, and Adaar cocked his head questioningly.
“Ha!” He bellowed, pointing a meaty finger at Storvacker, still resting in the current. “Bear necessities!”
Cassandra groaned inwardly—of course, Bull would find amusement in childish wordplay. Despite his training as a ruthless spy and his shrewd tongue when business demanded it, he really did possess the most offbeat sense of humor.
She heard a dry, absent chuckle from beside her that pulled her out of her disapproval.
She looked down her nose with a brow raised at Varric, dripping oil into Bianca’s inner mechanism with an amused smile.
Bull ceased his advance, giving the dwarf a mirror of Adaar’s curious expression.
However, it was Cassandra to voice what was on everyone’s mind—she’d never been good at holding this kind of incredulity back.
“You can’t be serious,” she huffed.
“What?” Varric protested with a shrug. “Look, I’m an author and puns are like raw literary ingredients. Just because I occasionally brew prose fit for Seekers and pirate queens doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate wordplay. It just has to be…” he tapped his chin thoughtfully, “bearable.”
Oh, no. Cassandra hung her head in second-hand shame. She knew a challenge when she heard it, and this had to be the most asinine one she’d ever witnessed.
Iron Bull made a show of straightening up, rolling his shoulders, even cracking his knuckles like he was about to engage in a feat of strength. Cassandra had to make a herculean effort to suppress a groan. This was not what she planned on suffering through today.
“Well. You’d better fix Bianca up good, Varric,” he began, crossing his enormous arms with a defiant smirk. “She’s bear- ly functional at the moment.”
Adaar pressed his knuckles to his lips, suppressing a giggle—Varric, however, seemed to echo Cassandra’s displeasure.
“Oh, don’t worry,” he lovingly ran a hand down to the crossbow’s stock. “She’ll be pelting those Hakkonites again in no time.”
Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose, feeling uncomfortable in her own skin—this was an entirely unprofessional and unhelpful means of passing the time, even if she knew Varric to be far more clever and inventive with words than Bull. Her well-thumbed copies of Swords & Shields stood testament to the quality of his work.
“Hey, you know what can’t randomly fall apart into hundreds of gears and springs after every shot?” Bull asked, dripping with sarcasm. “A fucking com- paws -ite bow.”
“Tiny, I wouldn’t go there.” Cassandra knew Varric well enough now to know when he was being deadly serious. Adaar’s eyes flew wide.
“Oh, I’m going there. In the right hands—um, Qunari hands—a longbow would pack a way bigger punch.”
“Buddy, I’ll have you know that sweet little Bianca here could outshoot all of Fur- elden and still have the legs to take out your other eye at over a hundred paces.” His tone turned nearly acidic as he protectively cradled the complex instrument of war as though it were a child. “My baby could go all day long—find me a Qunari with that kind of stamina.”
Adaar weakly gestured with his free hand, barely holding back laughter. “Um—”
“No,” Cassandra cut him off immediately with tired resignation. She did not need that mental image.
“What is it, Cassandra?” Bull aimed his toothy smirk directly at her as he waded to shore. “Care to paws- it a pun?”
“Oof, two ‘paws’ in a row?” Varric interrupted before she could retort, snapping Bianca’s arms closed decisively. Cassandra was very nearly grateful—she had neither the patience nor wit for such things, and they all needed to refocus on returning to the Hold now that their task was done. “Negative points for Tiny.”
“Oh, oh!” Adaar held up a hand, bouncing on his heels in the water as Bull protested Varric’s ruling. “Dibs on keeping score!”
Seconds later, the damned little notebook was flying through the air. “Knock yourself out, Short Stack.”
Cassandra felt the beginnings of a stomach ache coming on. It seemed she would be subjected to another juvenile competition, this time focused on who could aggravate her more, preventing her from making the necessary mental preparations for by far the biggest event of her existence. She could practically feel a physical weight from the stress. It was too much—she had to say something.
To absolutely no ones (least of all Cassandra’s) surprise, after several hours of wading through the swamp, Varric was leading in this inane contest that tried every fiber of her composure. While his deft writer’s hand softened the blow of pun after joke after pun, there were truly only so many permutations of ‘bear’ or ‘claws’ or other related subjects. Eventually, they lapsed into comfortable— merciful, blessed— silence.
It was also not surprising that no sooner had they crested the winding path leading up to the basin plains than they were set upon by another Hakkonite raiding party. Due to the level field with little to no cover and the relatively small number of enemies, the whole thing played out rather predictably, and therefore, unsatisfactorily. The only bit of fulfillment came when she moved to cover Bull’s blind side, or when the Inquisitor’s barrier spell smoothed over her shoulders. The four of them moved together like partners in a dance, or cogs in a well-oiled—
A bolt whizzed past both her own ear and that of the rogue she’d been engaging, and she gave a startled cry. Retrospectively, that wasn’t surprising, either. But while Varric seemed to delight in keeping her on her toes, that bolt flew far too close for her liking. She’d have to have words with him later.
What was surprising, however, perhaps especially to the Hakkonites, was the thundering howl that echoed across the plains a heartbeat later that felt like it could have torn the ground asunder.
Every player on the field paused in their attacks, looked to the perimeter for the source, but Cassandra’s deep suspicion was all but confirmed by the Hakkonite rogue’s terrified look past her shoulder as a set of four enormous paws beat a savage rhythm into the earth.
Cassandra twisted out of the way but lost her footing as Storvacker’s shoulder clipped the edge of her shield and pushed her to the ground. The bear tore into the rogue, and within seconds, his screams were silenced.
For a brief moment, there was no thrum of battle coursing through her veins, and color seeped into the world once more—the Inquisition and the Jaws of Hakkon were brought together in awe and fear of the eponymous Stone-Bear. The subtext was not lost on any one of them.
Cassandra felt frozen to the ground by shock, and only managed to look out to the rest of the field when a bit of movement caught her eye—another rogue was sneaking up on a statuesque Adaar, hardly twenty paces away from the brutal scene.
She called his name, and as he turned, the battle flew into motion once more—steel flashed, magic flared, and Storvacker became both an unstoppable force and an immovable object. It was a shield and bludgeon both, preventing any enemy from getting too close to Cassandra’s unshielded side.
She thought she was imagining it at first, but Storvacker was most definitely showing a preference for warriors who turned their focus upon Cassandra herself, felling them before she even had a chance to strike. Her blade didn’t touch flesh again before the end of the battle.
Iron Bull pried his axe from the skull of the final enemy to fall, and she was immediately assaulted—by a bloody snout and rough tongue poking and sniffing and—ugh, licking.
“Storvacker!” She protested, futilely attempting to push the bear away. “Storvacker, stop!”
Just as she was about to ask one of her companions for help, she heard it—laughter. Horrible, throaty laughter that echoed for miles from each of the men watching this debacle.
Not for the first time today, she contemplated throwing her sword at them. She settled with leveling a withering look in their direction that she knew could be just as sharp. Or it would have if her face hadn’t been covered in slobber.
“Stop laughing and help me!”
“Sorry, Cass,” Iron Bull wiped a tear from his good eye, “But everyone knows not to get between a mother bear and her cub!”
Adaar had to steady himself on his staff as his full-bodied laughter broke free, Cassandra thought she might die of both embarrassment and fury, and Storvacker still hadn’t stopped sniffing her all over—poking its nose into Cassandra’s hair, her sword arm, her side.
Finally, Storvacker seemed satisfied with Cassandra’s uninjured state and backed away, but remained within measure resolutely—if that set of its furred brow could be interpreted as resolution. Cassandra had no idea how the beast could convey such emotion.
“So, I guess you’re... coming along with us now?” Varric asked, slightly out of breath.
Maker take them all, Storvacker grunted in response. This could not be happening.
“Oh, I’ve got one—I’ve got one!” Adaar straightened suddenly, waved his hand to get their attention. Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Oh, hit me, Kadan!” Maker's mercy...
“Okay, okay,” Adaar breathed, attempting to steady himself. “Where do bears keep their children?”
Even Storvacker ceased her snuffling following Adaar’s question, ears flapping a bit as she cocked her head to the side. The stillness of the moment fueled his amusement as much as Cassandra’s dread.
Void…. Where was wine when she needed it?
The shadows lengthened until they engulfed the land, and soon there was only the moonlight to guide their way. The darker it got, the more vocal the men had become in their exhaustion, but they were still a long way off yet.
For perhaps the dozenth time since the skirmish at the mouth of the swamp, Storvacker’s mighty shoulder bumped into Cassandra’s thigh. She held in a groan—she would have walked through the night back to the Hold if it meant the beast could leave her be.
But the long day was taking its toll on her as well, and her footing no longer as sure as it should have been. At every stumble, Storvacker was there to push her back to her feet. At every grunt or groan she made, Storvacker turned in alarm. It insisted on staying within arm’s reach and no amount of protest or shoving would convince it otherwise.
It was infuriating.
She was a Seeker of Truth. The Divine-Elect. Cassandra Pentaghast was and had been a great many things, but for Andraste’s sake, she was not a bear cub and refused to be treated as such, even by a creature three times her size.
She shut down the attempts to tease or laugh at her predicament, eventually rounding on the three men and shouting them into submission until she was sure her voice could have been heard by Thane Sun-Hair herself. Her outburst shocked them, and a little glimmer of satisfaction awoke in her chest. Despite the pettiness of the affair, it still felt like a victory, until she realized they weren’t even looking at her—Storvacker had sunk into an aggressive posture, staring them down seemingly in support of Cassandra’s tirade.
Perhaps it was the stress finally getting to her, but she couldn’t tell if Storvacker was actually eliciting these human traits, or if Cassandra was simply projecting her own feelings onto a non-sapient creature, and for the life of her, she couldn’t tell which was more insane. So she did what any professional would do in that given moment—turned on her heel and stormed away without saying a word. And by some miracle, Storvacker allowed her to go alone. Byron would have been so proud. At least she didn’t throw anything, though the impulse had been there.
She expected a solitary trek to be a relief, a quiet retreat from the nonsense she’d been mired in since they left the Hold. Instead, she felt a growing unease rise in her gut, and the landscape had begun to feel cold and hostile. Thankfully, it was only perhaps twenty minutes of walking before she heard the Inquisitor call her name, and as she turned, glimpsing the flickering beginnings of a campfire inside a small grove she’d passed.
She broke through the ring of trees and brush into the glow of the fire, where Varric was smoothing out his bedroll and Bull was unpacking provisions while Adaar had been pacing. The camp was backed against a boulder that seemed to be streaked with granite or some other mineral that threw the orange light around the area quite welcomingly—it was enough to make her nearly forget the low temperature.
The Inquisitor greeted her in a similar fashion, all soft eyes and easy smiles, but the first words out of his mouth set her teeth on edge again.
“Storvacker not with you?”
She held in a grimace but kept her tone even as she answered in the negative.
“Stop worrying about the big girl, Kadan,” Bull scolded with a mouth full of jerky from his perch on a smaller rock. He swallowed after a moment, lips curling in her direction. “Now that Cassandra’s back, she’s the scariest thing out there!”
Maker’s breath. She should have kept on walking.
“She took off soon after you did,” Adaar explained, concern still lining his brow. “I figured she was following your scent or something.”
“I saw nothing,” she reiterated, plucking the sack of jerky from Bull’s lap before he ate more than his share. All she planned on doing tonight was eating enough to quiet her protesting stomach before falling asleep as quickly as she could. She’d had enough of consciousness for today—let someone else take the first watch.
Varric took a seat on the ground across the fire from her. “She could use a good roam. Being trapped in that cell probably made her a bit claws -trophobic.”
Cassandra glared at him through the flames for a moment before closing her eyes and narrowing her focus to the jerky’s chewy texture and bland flavor in an attempt to block out Bull’s hearty chuckle. She was not successful.
“Mm,” he rumbled with feigned solemnity. “Trauma like that is quite a burden to bear.”
Adaar had begun scribbling in the notebook again, and the jerky continued to be the most tasteless thing she’d ever eaten. She began to feel nauseated by it as much as the turn in the conversation.
“Good thing she has Cass, though,” Varric replied as Cassandra tossed the sack to Adaar with a grimace. “I hear pets can be good for that kind of thing.”
“Enough,” she snapped, throwing aside her resolve to ignore them. “Please stop. I cannot abide this… This nonsense a second longer!”
Varric at least had the humility to look remorseful, knowing it was his provocation that crossed the line, but the Inquisitor simply looked aghast and Bull seemed entirely unfazed by the tonal shift in the air.
“We are professionals,” she continued, that spark of satisfaction glimmering again. “For Andraste’s sake, you will stop acting like children, making everything a game, and take this job seriously, for once.”
There was a pregnant pause, and yet again she saw that their eyes had shifted to something behind her. She felt her lips screw into a sour line and she knew—she knew in her roiling gut it was Storvacker once more making an appearance and reducing whatever authority she possessed at the moment to shreds.
But what she was utterly unprepared for was the immense weight of a recently killed tusket dropping into her lap like an overfull sack of potatoes. Or the way Storvacker countered Cassandra’s incredulous glare with an expectant look like it was waiting for gratitude.
The tension mounted until it felt like the weight was pressing on her shoulders and chest instead of making her legs go numb until Iron Bull broke the silence like flatulence during a Sunday service.
“So, uh… Anyone know what bears drink at parties?”
Oh, for… She could practically feel something snap in her mind—her thoughts bled white, her fists clenched of their own accord.
“No!” she cried, shoving the tusket off her lap and nearly into the fire as she leapt to her feet. “No more of this! We saved you, now—” She fruitlessly attempted to shove Storvacker. “—leave us! Stop following me and coddling me and saving my life! I have far too much to concern myself with, and I don’t need some stupid beast hounding my every step! Begone!”
Storvacker had been shrinking incrementally through her whole tirade until the creature was nearly cowering before her in the ensuing silence. It stayed put for hardly a moment longer, fixing Cassandra with the most pathetic expression she’d ever seen on an animal before slowly turning and lumbering away into the darkness.
Cassandra struggled to control her breathing as sudden remorse took hold, cooling her blood like she’d slipped beneath the ice of a frozen pond, pulling the breath from her lungs. She had to fight her own body to stubbornly stand her ground, deliberately ignoring the fact that she’d just had a one-sided shouting match with a bear until Bull stood up as well, chilling her further.
“I, ah…” he began weakly with uncharacteristic sheepishness, his scarred, grey face a mask. Cassandra’s stomach dropped, belatedly realizing what she’d said and the effect it had—the bitter disappointment clouding his good eye. “I was going to say ‘mead,’ because… you know, it’s… fermented honey, but ah…” He didn’t finish his statement, waving it away as he turned through the trees with slow, deliberate steps.
Adaar reached for his lover’s retreating form as he stepped out of sight. “Bull—” and his sadness shifted to frustration as he rounded on Cassandra, blue eyes flashing almost green in the glow of the fire, though that may have been a trick of the light.
“Would it kill you to lighten up a bit?” he retorted, his usual charm stripped away to reveal a fierce protectiveness—so much like Galyan, a physical pang struck her chest that threatened to pull her off her feet as Adaar straightened up to follow Bull into the night.
Maker forgive her, what would he say to her in this moment? Alienating her colleagues, shouting at wild animals, and behaving like one herself. What kind of Divine would she become if this was how she treated those closest to her? If she were a less honest person, she’d blame the stress of her impending coronation for her behavior, but Cassandra was acutely aware of her barbed personality. She’d been like this since Antony’s death decades ago—she truly couldn’t remember how she was before.
Perhaps Galyan would tell her that even though she’d let go of her revenge long before this, she’d never learned to let go of the pain, holding onto it so tight and close, it became armor around her true self. And perhaps it was time to set it all aside, her pride included, and recognize that she could learn several things from these men accompanying her. As well as a giant, furry creature that has only ever tried to help her.
After a quick mental prayer for forgiveness and humility, she took a cleansing breath. “Varric,” she began neutrally, meeting his cautious gaze over the fire. “Would you… happen to know how to properly roast a tusket?”
His small, proud smile was answer enough.
It took the better part of an hour to dress the tusket and even longer to cook it, but Varric was patient, talking her through the process he’d witnessed “a certain broody elf” utilize during one of their exploits with the Champion just outside of Kirkwall. He went into detail of the affair as she turned the meat on an improvised spit, and Cassandra was again grateful that they’d buried the hatchet of Varric’s lie by omission months ago. It felt good to move past such hostility and hoped she could do the same with Adaar and Bull. And even Storvacker, given the chance. That stricken look on her shaggy face would haunt Cassandra for the rest of her days, otherwise.
She watched the fat drip into the fire, breathed in the smoky aroma filling the air, and felt a strange kind of anxiety as she checked its doneness as if the ratio of red meat to white could control the degree of forgiveness she’d earned.
To her surprise and elation, the scent of the roast was enough to draw Bull and Adaar back to camp, just as careful and cautious as Varric had been before. Their trepidation was quickly tempered by the massive slices of roast she carved off for them, glistening with fat and shockingly tender despite her inexperience with such a task or the makeshift apparatus she’d used.
The offerings were accepted gratefully, as were the murmured apologies she made, feeling like a child who just learned manners after having been raised by wolves, and their expressions spoke of forgiveness without either of them saying so. The easy smiles, the immediate shift into casual comfort as soon as a few words were said—these were indeed skills she had yet to learn. And she resolved to do so before any vows were spoken.
The fire burnt low and a good amount of roast was shared before Adaar retired for good and Bull passed out on his rock despite offering to take the first watch, but there was no sign of Storvacker even though Cassandra left a whole leg out for her before impaling the tusket on the spit.
She observed the raw flesh sitting on a flat, sheet-like rock beside her that had so far only attracted flies, and was struck with a realization about Storvacker’s dietary preferences. She snatched it up and buried it in the coals before they went out completely. It was enough to sear the skin and leave the inside bloody, hopefully approximating the doneness of a Hakkonite archer’s leg that had been blown from its owner’s torso by a landmine.
She felt ridiculous, standing at the edge of camp, holding a leg of tusket and calling out a bear’s name, but given her choice to step out of the realm of detachment, to learn to relate and bond with the people she would soon be shepherding, she supposed a little nonsense was inevitable and healthy for her to entertain.
Her efforts were again fruitful—this time by two shining eyes reflecting the warm campfire light, a light huff that sounded like a greeting, and a nudge of Storvacker’s muzzle that Cassandra didn’t discourage.
The Hold-Beast deftly plucked her seared leg from the stone in Cassandra’s hands and settled next to the firepit to eat, joined by Cassandra, who gently leaned back into the bear’s side and was rewarded with a pleased rumbling sound and an incredibly comfortable position in which to rest.
She had reached a previously unknown level of peace, content to watch the embers rise in the smoke against a large, furry cushion, listening to snuffling snores and the scratching of Varric’s quill as he wrote with quick, practiced strokes in his little notebook.
“Do I want to know what you’re writing?” She asked without lifting her head from Storvacker’s side.
He chuckled a bit but kept on writing through his response. “Oh, probably not.”
She turned her head just enough to give him a sidelong look, too emotionally and physically tired to give it any bite whatsoever.
“Did you honestly expect that we would go on an actual adventure with an actual bear and I wouldn’t write about it?”
“A fair point,” she conceded with a smirk. Attempting to prevent this story’s publication would be a fruitless endeavor—she’d only be able to pry this tale from his cold, dead hands. “Allow me a copy of the manuscript?”
“I’ll send you the first draft,” he corrected. “I’ll be needing some insight into the protagonist’s motivations.”
It was not lost on Cassandra that he failed to specify whether the character was human or ursine, but she only gave a low hum in response. She chose to take it as a compliment that he’d asked her for help with either.
“We ought to see if we can get Storvacker a knighthood or something; I don’t think I’ve seen you this at ease since before the election.”
Cassandra gave a sleepy smile at the thought of referring to this bear as ser Storvacker but was immediately struck with an idea that made her sit up completely, now fully awake.
“Forget something, Seeker?” Varric’s hand finally stilled with her sudden movement.
“No, I just…,” she had to fight to hold back a smile as she rested a hand on Storvacker’s sleeping head, feeling for the first time the lush softness of her fur, the thickness of one of her ears between gloved fingers as she gathered her words.
“What?” Varric’s authorial instincts knew she had something to say.
“I think,” she began with a smirk, “that if Storvacker were nobility, she’d be a bear- oness.”
That time, she was able to properly savor Varric’s speechlessness, though his laughter nearly woke up Bull, and when the time finally came, Divine Victoria was the first on record to invite a bear to her coronation.