Chapter One – Pumpkins
Chapter Two – Apples
Chapter Three – Casseroles
Chapter Four – Haunting
Children’s laughter threaded through the fall air, wrapping itself around the barn as a trio of Cullen’s nieces chased after his only nephew who carried a stick covered in ribbons. Orange and black tendrils trailed in his wake as he kept slowing down for the girls to get near but not enough for them to catch him. Lana chuckled at the antics as they passed by for a third time, none of them showing any sign of slowing. She leaned back from the bowl in her lap and scooted across the tarps tossed upon the wood floor. Despite the creeping chill of autumn, a warm sun beamed down upon them, the rays powerful enough she dressed only in a light dress that blended her in with the other farming families filling the land. Her cane rested a few feet away within easy reach, but for the moment she only had need of the knife clutched in her husband’s fingers.
With his tongue pinned between teeth, Cullen drove the blade deep into the flesh of a green and yellow star shaped gourd. Sawing with the same deadly focus he’d spend upon the march of armies, he augured a hand sized hole into the top of the gourd and then pried it off. Strings of elongated squash fibers stretched from the top, back inside the vegetable. Without any care, Cullen sliced the innards off the top with his knife, then scooped a massive handful out with his hand.
“We’re supposed to save the seeds,” Lana spoke, her eyes upon her own pile of gourds she was supposed to be preparing. It was not going as well.
The tongue slid back into his mouth, and those honey eyes lifted from his prize to try and find hers. With exaggerated movements, he plopped his fistful of guts into the pail. “I know,” Cullen insisted, as if he hadn’t intended to toss another pile to the mabari resting a few feet away, her tail thumping in anticipation.
“Mia was insistent about planting another crop. And she said something about roasting the remainder?” Lana cast an eye over at him, uncertain of the proposal.
He chuckled at her unease and placed a hand on her knee, the fingers still coated in gourd guts. “Don’t worry, they’re rather tasty once seasoning’s added.” His eyes darted down to her leg now slimy with the squash’s strings. “Oh, sorry, I…uh…”
Carefully, Lana plucked up a pile of the guts from her own barely carved squash, leaned over, and dropped it onto Cullen’s hair. Orange streaked through his sandy locks, dripping down his cheeks as he laughed. “I suppose I deserved that.”
Lana wiped her fingers off on the tarp below her, “Not really.”
Smiling wide at her response, Cullen scooted forward and, with his gut covered fingers scooped along her jaw, pulled her in for a kiss soft as a sunflower’s petals. He was so achingly handsome by the hazy autumn light, dressed nonchalant in mended and patched breeches as well as a simple checked shirt she didn’t care about the squash juice sticking to her skin.
“I love you,” he sighed, tugging his hand around her waist and trying to scoot her closer for a hug. She wanted to give into his machinations but she had business to accomplish, even if it wasn’t going very well. Cullen paused in his attempts to snuggle her tight to him and gestured at the gourd in between her legs.
While he had the good sense to carve a gaping hole in his, allowing easy access to scrape away the innards, Lana began with one so small her hand barely fit inside. Sighing, she admitted, “I’m afraid I’m not very good at this.”
“Nonsense,” he stuck up for her despite the evidence, “you’ve got the top off, and already scooped out most of the…” Cullen pulled up her pumpkin and placed it in his lap to inspect. “Okay, more of this needs to come out before the carving can begin.”
“There’s more carving?” Lana tried to glance around at the other gourds lined up around the barn in anticipation of something but Cullen caught her chin again.
“Here,” he plopped his own cleaned off gourd into her lap, “you take mine while I finish yours off.” After passing her a paring knife, he gestured to a turnip resting on the lip of the windowsill. “See that? You carve a little hole so you can slip a candle inside.”
“Why?” she asked while rotating the knife around and attempting to stab deep into the green squash’s skin.
“To create a lantern,” he smiled, already having cleared out the guts Lana missed. Pulling a dagger off the sheathe around his waist, Cullen began to expertly slice into the pumpkin’s skin.
“I don’t understand, are there not already lanterns around?” she struggled. A few memories of celebrating something for the fall solstice rattled in her memory as a child, but nothing this elaborate. And the tower would never have let so many mages hold knives at once.
“It’s tradition,” he didn’t explain. With the back of his hand, Cullen wiped sweat off his brow, leaving more orange guts in its wake. “Normally the children do this, but…” he whipped his head around trying to follow the fifth lap of the barn, “they seem preoccupied.”
“You like this,” Lana smiled. Every Satinalia he grumbled through the high traditions adopted from Orlais, Wintersend got a begrudging omelette or two, and he all but holed himself away for First Day, but something in this autumn celebration brought out the ecstatic Ferelden boy hidden beneath layers of duty. They’d only arrived a day ago, having been swamped at their abbey, leaving Cullen sniping at nearly everything in sight. But at the first apple bite, his forehead furrows lifted, he smiled serenely to himself, and a twinkle Lana once thought only she saw sparkled in his eyes.
“It’s…” Cullen gestured at the piles of dead squash, “it reminds me of days on the farm. Not the bad ones, but…you finish harvest. You’ve got everything picked, jarred, put up for winter, so it’s time to relax. Celebrate.”
“Maker,” Lana gasped, touching her chest in feigned shock, “I thought you were allergic to that word.”
A sliver of a scowling eye shifted over her, but he shook most of it off, her light jabbing doing nothing to shift away his joy. In truth, she could understand. Nearly everyone in the Rutherford family was all smiles as the hint of winter sundered the unbearable embrace of summer. With the changing of the colors across the forests of the Hinterlands, it looked as if the Maker himself pulled out a paintbrush and washed thedas is a cozy autumn watercolor. All she needed was a cup of cider, an overstuffed chair, and a quilt to fall fully into autumn’s song.
Too bad there was still this squash to deal with. Rolling the knife in her fingers, Lana tried to eye up the gourd. Her husband was gone into his own world, his eyes drilling through the pumpkin’s skin as he pricked small sections of the flesh free and scattered them behind. Sensing an opportunity, Honor scooted closer, her pink and black tongue lapping up each pumpkin piece before her master thought to stop her.
A good dozen turnips sat along the windowsill, each of them baring not just a hole to let the light out, but another two slots above as if giving a face to the vegetable. “Cullen,” she began before getting no response. Flicking a solitary squash seed at him, he finally broke and focused his honey eyes upon her. “Why are there faces?”
“Do not say tradition,” she warned, waving her tiny knife in the air in a vague threat.
“Very well.” He rolled back the word perched on his tongue and tried again, “You can carve whatever you like. Some do faces, it’s easiest for the children. Or, perhaps a symbol.”
Lana paused in her surveying the piles of finished turnips and other various squash to side eye her husband. “Let me guess, you’d carve the templar emblem as a child.”
“On one or two occasions, perhaps…” Cullen admitted, a blush rising up his cheeks.
“Don’t let his modesty fool you,” Mia stepped into the barn through the side door leading towards the house. Cullen and Lana had been staring out the open barn doors themselves, watching the few chickens dig out insects to fatten up on. Lana tried to turn to face Mia while Cullen began to stand up to assist his sister. She waved both back to their jobs, and hefted a small straw bale up off the ground. “He used to cover the entire farm in turnips baring the flaming sword before they finally accepted him.”
“I did nothing of the sort,” Cullen huffed.
“As you say, brother,” Mia rolled her eyes at him, and behind his back whispered to Lana, “everywhere.” A red and gold sweater covered her chest, as it did the rest of her immediate family, while Branson’s were in a green and tan one. Lana wondered if there wasn’t some color coding system they were supposed to undertake for this gathering, but Cullen waved it away as ‘Mia learned knitting and took it to extremes.’ Even still, it churned her stomach to be so drawn out from the family.
“How are you two getting on?” Mia cast a curious eye over their piles of seeded guts and the few disemboweled squash. She shared the exact same furrowed brow of her brother, both of them in fact. It seemed to be a Rutherford trait. Where Cullen had sandy hair, hers dipped deeper into an almost dirty blonde, which she always had tied up under a flour sack dotted with hand prints. Never to be caught unawares, Mia wore a belt of her own design that seemed to have attached to it anything necessary at that moment in time. Lana wondered to herself if it was magic that gave Mia such premonition to know what would be required. Taking a pair of scissors off her belt, Mia slit apart a string tying together a pile of wires.
“We’re going to be setting up the bobbing tank soon,” she said while gathering the metal wire in her hand.
“The what?” Lana glanced an eye at Cullen and she’d swear an ornery smile knotted up his lips, but no. That was impossible, not the man she married. He was always serious.
Smiling to himself, Cullen suddenly sat up and shouted over his shoulder, “Mi, what was your plan with all of these?”
“To make lanterns. Maker, you grow thicker every year.”
“Hilarious as always,” he deadpanned, now flipping around. “Turnips of course, but by the Maker, how shall I slip a wire through a pumpkin of all things to make a handle? It will slide clean off.”
With a well practiced hand, Mia passed him the wires and shrugged, “I’m certain the fabled Commander of the Inquisition will find a solution. After you wash up here, we’re all behind the house.” Still wearing her smirk, she stepped back out of the barn with her straw bales slung across her shoulders.
Cullen grumbled as he flexed apart the wires, “This will never work.” A strong hand and careful eye impaled a pointy stick through the head of a turnip, boring it fully through before he ran a wire across it and twisted the top to form a handle. Proud of his accomplishment, he swung it at Lana as if it explained anything about why it was common to cut up vegetables and then light them on fire. Placing the turnip alongside the others he’d already managed to dice faces into, Cullen picked up his blade then glanced over at her. “What are you carving into yours?”
“I have no idea…” she said, still rolling the green squash back and forth in her hands. The face felt strange, and…in the back of her mind she couldn’t escape the idea of it being blood magic. The use of an effigy which could stand in place of a victim certainly counted. No, Lana shook her head, feeling her expanding curls whip against her ear. Absently, she moved to stuff them back from her face, but Cullen beat her to it. The intoxicating warmth of his skin enveloped her cheek, and she cupped his hand tighter to her before releasing him.
“I hate this stage of regrowth,” Lana complained.
“You could always cut it back…” he began, continuously offering that suggestion every time she whined about her hair.
“That would defeat the purpose of growing it back. I don’t want, I’d like to have it healthy and full again.”
Jabbing his knife into the lid of his pumpkin, Cullen turned to wrap both of his hands around her cheeks. That amber gaze burned but a snippet of shame kept her from looking fully into it. “Lana, long hair, short, curly, bald…” he snickered at the familiar sentiment she once repeated to him, “you’re lovely, no matter what.”
She couldn’t fight the smile lifting her lips even as she dove for his in a kiss. Not expecting it, Cullen failed to turn his head to the side, their noses bumping and his easily winning that challenge. In apology, he pressed his lips to the tip of hers, and then kissed her once more, properly this time. “And you are too sweet for words, you know that?” Lana struggled to explain her heart. It’d been nearly the whole summer and she’d still start upon the realization that he was her husband. That any of it ever happened seemed beyond the realm of belief.
“We should, um,” Cullen coughed in his throat, his eyes darting down at the pithed gourds, “return to our duties before Mia gives us another cross look.” Despite his proclamation, his hands remained around Lana’s cheeks, and she caught his eyes darting down her neck towards her birthmark and then lower still.
“As you say, Commander,” Lana smiled and he finally released his hold on her. While Cullen yanked up his knife and began another delicate section of whatever he was doing, Lana twisted her gourd around and an idea struck her. Before she put blade to its flesh, she smiled, “We could always maul each other later in the hayloft.”
Starting from her lackadaisical tone, Cullen’s blade skidded across the pumpkin’s skin and flew through the air before bouncing into the seed bucket. Too sweet for words, by miles, Lana snickered as she finally decided on what to carve into her pumpkin. It wasn’t an easy choice, and maybe she should have put a few triangles in it and called it good. When her legs began to cramp up, and her husband finished stringing wires through the rest of the turnips, she finally put down her blade in retreat.
“Are you done?” Cullen asked, glancing over. He’d kept an eye on the shadows slipping further down the dirt path as the sun swung towards afternoon. Lana nodded, her fingers wiping away the excess gourd flesh to try and reveal her carved design. “Can I see it?” he continued.
“Only if you show me yours first,” Lana insisted, holding her little bit of art close to her chest.
A dangerous chuckle rumbled in Cullen’s throat and he whispered to her ear, “I believe that was what led to us being caught in the belfry at the Val Royeaux chapel.” Screwing her eyes up tight from both the shameful burn of the memory as well as the lustful one, Lana could only snicker with him. “Very well,” Cullen spun his pumpkin around to show her. “I admit for as terrible a lantern as it will make it was far easier to carve than a turnip.”
“Cullen, it’s…” Far more intricate than anything she’d thought possible, he’d chiseled a near perfect replica of an orange mabari standing at attention, the thicker pumpkin flesh providing shadows. He’d even gotten spots of kaddis across the back and a little collar. “Beautiful,” Lana gasped, her finger running across the squishy and tender flesh.
“It’s a mabari on point,” he needlessly explained, as if it wasn’t an exact likeness except in orange and made out of a squash. “All right, now yours.”
“No,” Lana shook her head back and forth beyond embarrassed now. Hurling her squash through the air so it’d splatter into pieces seemed preferable to him seeing it. To anyone seeing it.
“Come now, I’m certain it’s…” with a finger, he gripped to the squash’s flesh and rotated it in her hands. Lana let him, her face scrunched up in anticipation of the look he’d give her. “I, uh…” Cullen pulled it fully out of her hands now and tried to juggle it towards the sunlight, as if that would somehow improve it.
“It’s a griffin,” Lana interrupted him before he started guessing. “Two griffins. The grey warden griffins. I thought I could carve it freehand, but the wings sort of drooped down and made a big sploosh and then the beaks broke and I had to, uh…”
“It’s perfect,” he smiled at her and she growled.
“It’s a big messy blob. No, two messy blobs conjoined at the blobby hip,” Lana gestured at her poor attempt at her first carved squash.
Smoothing back her hair, he scooped his arm around the small of her back, pulling Lana’s head to his shoulder. She thought about resisting, feeling foolish as he comforted her like a child, but when her cheek graced his chest she cuddled into him. The familiar weight of his chin dug into the top of her head and Cullen whispered, “I will give you the blobby hip bit, but that doesn’t matter. You carved your first ever lantern, and the hole’s certainly generous enough to part light. It’s perfect for that. How I will get it on the wire however…”
His own failings brought a grin to Lana’s dour face. She wrapped her arms around him, straining to hug him as tight as he held her. As if he sensed her earlier plans to destroy the squash, Cullen lifted it higher but he was right. It was her first lantern and it would do whatever it was supposed to. Lana sighed as his lips pressed against her forehead, and Cullen whispered, “We should go find the others.”
“For this tank thing?”
“Trust me,” he placed her gourd beside his mabari pumpkin and then enveloped her in a full hug, “I think you’re going to like this next part.”
Three steel barrels overran with water, each of them large enough to bathe an obstinate child. Though, despite the rising chill in the shade of the house, the children seemed more than happy to wash each other. Lana watched in confusion as one of the toe headed tots smacked her face into the water, seeming to drown herself, while splashing the three other children huddled around beside. Lana was about to speak up her concerns, when the girl rose up triumphant with an apple of all things between her teeth.
“I am beyond confused,” Lana admitted, turning to the man who’d done a rather lousy job of explaining any of this. She shifted on her legs, trying to get footing in the soft dirt with her cane. Without her having to say a word, Cullen slipped an arm under her elbow and took some of the weight. It wasn’t necessary, it’d been a rather easy day on her, but judging by the warm smile gracing his cheeks, he enjoyed it.
As she leaned into him, momentarily distracted in the hint of his muscles hidden beneath that simple tunic, a woman slipped into their conversation. “It’s apple bobbing. You’re telling me you’ve never done apple bobbing?”
Lana knew Cullen’s immediate family, and they in turn knew about her, all about her, but for the sake of simplicity the other guests were told little about the mysterious new wife. She remembered mention of this woman being married to a cousin, and not much else. But with her ray of sunshine hair and strapping height she fit in far better as a Rutherford than the hidden mage.
“I, um…” Lana struggled to find an excuse to explain why she had no idea what this bobbing thing was.
“Don’t be a pillock, Angie,” Mia interrupted, stomping over to rescue them both. “Not like the city folks would have access to farms for this stuff.” Angela, that was her name. Married to…a son of an uncle? Maker, she’d never had to remember so much family before.
An off putting shrewdness glimmered in her eyes, and Angela turned towards Lana, “A city dweller, eh? Never thought Cullen here would go for that type.”
“Oh?” Lana tried to play the effervescent part, but she felt Cullen’s grip tighten around her waist as if he needed her to act as a shield.
Mia leapt forward first, “Angie, don’t you think we should be laying out the blankets before night comes?” Rather than allow Angela to complain, Mia strong armed her towards a pile of quilts resting on a bench. The cousin tried to whip her head back, but Mia was already overloading her with orders.
“You know,” Lana whispered to her husband, “I think your sister would put us both to shame if she were ever made a commander.”
Cullen rose up to his full height to see over her head and then dipped down, “I fear you may be correct. Mia can chastise a giant for treading upon a flower.”
He began to comment upon something else his sister could do, but Lana twisted around to slip her hands around him. A body as unbendable as iron bark, but a soul softer than goose down, she snuggled deep into her husband. Cullen followed suit, his hands locking behind her back so he could place a kiss to the top of her head. “Too much?” he whispered. Always concerned, always careful – that was him. And if she so much as winced he’d already have a plan in place to fix whatever bothered her.
“No,” Lana answered, her words muffled from her cheek warming his chest. A crisp wind wrapped the smell of dried hay and apples as well as their decimated gourds around them, and she couldn’t bite back the sigh of contentment. “Sometimes, I simply want to embrace my husband.”
“Oh…” Cullen replied, his voice stark with surprise, then it dipped down to his intoxicating whisper, “for which I am glad.”
“Mm hm.” His earthy musk and enveloping warmth drew dreams of an afternoon slumber to her brain. “Would you mind if I took a nap right here?”
“Standing? While I hold you?” he chuckled at the absurd request.
Lana only shrugged, “I have faith in you.”
Instead of shaking her awake, or insisting she get into the fun, Cullen continued to support her, his chin sliding through her hair. It was the cackle of children still in the throes of a joy only a belly full of sugar and a free afternoon could conjure that broke her awake. Two of the youngest girls toddled past, ribbons tied in their pigtails as well as across their wrists. The smaller, having only mastered walking a few months prior struggled through the waning fall grass. Her chubby fingers trailed across Lana’s skirt, using it to keep herself upright. Something drew her attention, her blue eyes as round as the apple in her fist, and she plowed head first into Cullen’s knee.
“Oh no…” he cried, releasing Lana and reaching towards the girl as she plummeted the short distance to the ground. “Emmy, are you okay?” For her part the girl seemed stunned and a bit confused, but she didn’t cry, only rubbed a rising bruise along her forehead where it met Cullen’s impenetrable kneecap. Emmy glanced up at her uncle making a big fuss over nothing, until she noticed that in her tumble her hard won apple scattered to the dirt and rolled through a patch of grass.
Wails erupted from the child’s throat as if she was being beset upon by demons. Lana was uncertain what to do. She’d never been around a child for more than a few minutes at most, and certainly never when one cracked into inconsolable tears. While she fumbled away from the screaming girl, Cullen dropped to a knee and held a hand out to her.
“Emmy, you’re okay,” he insisted so certainly, the girl stopped rubbing the sore spot on her forehead, but the cries didn’t cease. “Where’s your mum?” he whipped his head around trying to scrounge up his sister-in-law, but none seemed to appear, though her powerful wails were drawing the attention of Mia and Angie.
Emmy’s sister slipped over and in between bites of an apple, she informed them, “She’s such a baby.”
“Am…” sniffle, “not!” Emmy shouted back, her tears gaining momentum from her sister’s interference. “I’m a big girl now!” She stuck a hand on the waistband of her corduroy pants and jabbed her elbow out, no doubt to prove just how big she was. Disturbed by all the commotion, Honor stomped over to investigate herself. An intrusion from a big, slobbery dog instantly silenced the tears, and Emmy turned towards Honor whose tongue lapped across her cheeks. The girl giggled and the sister, jealous of the attention, patted Honor’s back to get some as well.
“You,” Cullen roughed up Honor’s fur, “are a silly girl.” Her tongue lagged out, the dog ecstatic from the children clawing into her fur when the winds shifted. The change happened instantly, Honor’s ears perking forward, the panting freezing. Before a word could be said, she darted towards the downed apple and chewed it up in two bites.
Maker, that was the worst thing to do. Reminded of her loss, Emmy began crying anew, her shaky finger jabbing at the betrayal from her canine friend while Honor swallowed it all down, core and all. “Andraste’s fiery…” Cullen reined back in his curse at the dog, and instead reached out to the girl. “Emmy?”
“That. Was. Mine!” Fearsome eyes winnowed on Cullen, blaming him for his dog’s actions against her.
“Okay.” He reached over and plucked his niece up off the ground, easily cradling her in his arms as he stood up. “What if I get you another one? There are bushels tucked away in…”
“No!” Emmy shook her head, “From the bucket. Has to be. It’s the rules, unkie ‘ullen.”
Done in by his own familial hubris, Cullen sighed, his head tipped back in resignation. Lana had no idea what this bucket meant, but her husband seemed to be dreading it. With his arms full of child, he trudged over to one of the metal troughs, Emmy’s sister hot on their trails. Adjusting her cane, Lana limped after with a curious quirk to her eyes. For a moment she glanced back to spot Mia watching as well as Angie. Both wore gigantic smiles, clearly something either hilarious or embarrassing was about to happen.
“Okay,” Cullen shifted the girl around and then gestured towards the water, “what if I dip you in?”
“Nu uh!” she grabbed tight to his shirt, burying her head into his chest. “Is scary and cold.”
“But you did it once before and…” he sighed and shook his head. “You conned someone else into doing it for you.” Juggling the child to his other arm, he caught the edge of Emmy’s ornery grin. “Are you certain you have no relation to the Pavus house?”
Emmy giggled anew, finding his words silly, but she had her little fingers wrapped around Cullen’s collar, not about to let him back out of his promise. Slipping closer, Lana noticed that floating in the barrel were, of all things, apples. Did southern Fereldens like to eat their fruit wet? She’d never seen the practice before.
Resigned to whatever fate he walked himself into, Cullen dropped to his knees while keeping Emmy in his arms. For a brief second he glanced over at Lana and a blush bloomed over his cheeks. She tipped her head, confused beyond measure, when her husband drove himself face first into the cold water. Instinctively, Lana reached forward to try and pull him out, but Mia’s hand grabbed onto her arm.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “he can swim.”
Water sloshed over the sides of the bucket as Cullen whipped his head back and forth through the barrel. On occasion he’d surface and pull a breath deep into his lungs, only to return to the fruity bath. By the Maker, what was he doing? Lana tried to rise up on her toes to see better, but her legs complained. He’d been under for what felt an age but was probably at most ten seconds, drawing worry right to her gut, when Cullen whipped his head out of the trough, water sluicing off his soggy hair. A bright red apple was clutched in his mouth.
“Will you take it?” he huffed, his lips struggling to form words around the fruit.
Giggling, Emmy yanked it free and held the hard won prize in her fingers. She bit into it to match where her uncle’s teeth pierced the skin while Cullen lowered her to the ground. With his hands freed, he wiped back his hair and cleared the water from his eyes. When he could finally see, he looked over at Lana and shrugged as if to say “It quieted the crying.” Pretend all he liked, grump and complain, but she saw the grin hiding under his scowl, the light rising in his eyes. He loved it.
Now the proud owner of a new apple, Emmy flounced to her older sister and stuck her tongue out. That was enough and the older girl chucked her half eaten apple in the dirt and reached over for Cullen.
“My turn!” she insisted, leaping onto his back.
“Ah…” he pinned her in place and then turned to plead for Mia to save him, but she parted her hands. “I suppose I brought this upon myself. All right…” Cullen slid the girl higher up his back so her head perched on his. “Hang on!” And then he dropped down into the water so low, the girl came with. She squealed in terror before it turned to bubbles in the water. Even more sloughed over the side drenching the grass, as uncle and niece hunted for an apple. Mia released her hold on Lana and began to move closer, worried about the girl left with a rather dangerous man.
Bursting from the tank, Cullen and the girl both emerged with apples in their mouth, laughs echoing deep in their throats. She slid off him quickly, having to show Emmy her own apple, while Cullen rose off his knees and dropped his apple into his hand. Mia stepped near him to whisper, “It’s a lucky thing their mother wasn’t here or she’d have killed you.”
Cullen tipped his head back and forth, “What’s autumn without a little murder?” Then he took a crunching bite of his hard fought prize, the juice dribbling down his chin.
Carefully, Lana eased over, one eye upon the slick mud that could take her down, but most of her attention upon her husband. His hair was matted back from the water, which also seeped across his knees and down the front of his shirt, while more of the apple juice coated the scruff of his chin. Maker, he looked achingly adorable. Honey eyes darted from hers down to the trough. “Think you’re ready to give it a try.”
“I, uh…” she swallowed at the sight of a dozen apples bobbing through the water, each mocking her. “It looks challenging.”
“The trick is to try and pin one against the side or the bottom of the tank and…” he paused in explaining how simple it was to look fully upon the line of terror drawn across her face. Her ordeal in the fade dwindled as time marched on, but marks remained. The obvious ones were in her deadened legs and arms, and the less clear ones in her soul. She’d wake in a start sometimes not from a memory of fighting demons or having her own mind picked apart, but being trapped at the bottom of a lake with no way to surface. Any attempts to rise only ended in her back where she began, her lungs screaming for air until she woke gasping from a held breath she didn’t need to take.
Cullen’s wet hand glanced across her cheek, and Lana broke from her death stare at the tub. “Hey,” he spoke softly, “you don’t have to. It’s not for everyone. Branson hated it.”
“Did he make you get them for him as well?” she asked, trying to wall back the fear in her voice. Happy. This was a happy moment. Put the horrors back on the shelf.
Her husband ran his thumb across her cheek, following the fading scar, “No, he was nowhere near as clever as his children. He’d sit in the corner and scoff at how wet and foolish everyone else was. Said he hated apples too.” Cullen took a bite of his apple, then held it near Lana’s cheek. She smiled at the thought and took a gentle nip, barely scratching the surface of the flesh. She had to cup her chin to catch the juice spraying free, the apple riper than she anticipated.
“It’s so sweet,” she said, surprised. Most apples she came across were tart and eaten at summer because she tended to scrounge for them.
"Not as sweet as you," he grinned, then pecked a kiss against her burning cheek. Maker, it was so trite, but -- as her fingers drifted down to curl with his -- she didn't mind. He could be allowed a little mawkishness from time to time.
Lifting up on her exhausted toes, Lana aimed to kiss him properly on the lips when a kind groan broke from beyond them. “Newlyweds,” Mia sighed, shaking her head.
“Ah ha…” Lana slipped back down having forgotten there was an audience.
“Not up for soaking your head, Lady Rutherford?” Angie asked, the start of a smirk snaking up her cheeks. She emphasized the lady with a trill of her tongue, which drew a blush of shame to Lana’s cheeks. Aware that her clinging accent made her stick out among the vast Ferelden brood, she’d been trying to tone it down but it slipped back in when she grew excited.
“I’m afraid not. I…am not a good swimmer,” she lied to cover for the far more painful truth. Fingers gripped tight around hers, and she glanced over at her husband’s hand caressing hers. She forgot they were still holding each other.
“Never mind that,” Mia reached behind her and unearthed a four foot long stick. “We’ve got something better you can try.”
Cullen’s eyes narrowed as he eyed up the stick which had a piece of twine knotted at the end. “Are we going to beat the apples to death?” he asked, shifting on his toes.
“Brothers,” Mia rolled her eyes in confidence to Lana, and then she stood up. “No, oh great commander, it’s an Orlesian tradition.” That drew a proper sneer to Cullen’s face. Even after they spent a few months healing and growing in the luxury of Val Royeaux, the Ferelden would never become accustomed to Orlais.
“So we curtsy at the apple and then kill it with a thousand cuts against its heritage,” Cullen sniped back which got a full chuckle out of Lana. His sneer lifted from her laughter, and she couldn’t stop tracing her fingers across his scruff, more snow than straw as of late.
Mia yanked out one of the bobbing apples, earning her a glare from the rule abiding nieces. “Hold this,” she instructed Cullen who obliged by gripping onto the stick. Sliding her fingers along the twine, Mia gripped the end then began to draw it towards the apple, when she paused. “How in the blazing fires does this work? Eh, I’ve got an idea.” Digging into her belt, she unearthed a nail. After tying it off with the string, she drove it straight through the top of the apple where the stem once was with her bare hands. The strength of the farm life.
“There,” she smiled watching the apple slowly rotate at the end of the line.
“There what?” Cullen asked. He tried to hold his arm straight, but the apple continued to bob and weave through the air. Lana could already see the calculations in his mind about how hard he could whip it before the apple slid off the nail.
“Someone,” Mia gestured at Lana, “attempts to eat the apple.”
“What? Just that?” he snorted. “That’s easy.”
Folding her hands across her chest, Mia slid back on her heels to smirk up at her brother. “You’re so certain of that? Perhaps you should go first, then.”
“No, no,” Lana interrupted. She didn’t have the same confidence as her husband, but it couldn’t be that difficult. “I missed out on the tank and would like an opportunity to prove myself. So you don’t all think I’m some fussy layabout.”
“Who thinks that?” Cullen stormed, about to defend her, but she shook her head that it wasn’t important.
"Here..." Mia unearthed a kerchief and picked up Lana's hands. "Put them behind your back." She obliged and while Mia busied herself tying Lana's hands together, she heard a strangled cough from Cullen. Guilt radiated off him as he watched -- the last time they tried something like it during 'personal time' someone misplaced the key and she had to burn through the cuffs with her own fire. The new rule was that Lana always kept any necessary keys hanging off the chain around her neck.
“All tight?” Mia asked, getting a nod from Lana. Even with her magic it seemed unlikely she’d be weaseling out of those anytime soon. “Okay,” she picked up the apple and gave it a turn. Looping in a circle, it orbited around Lana’s head. “Try and eat it.”
She watched her prize circle past as she waited for the opportune moment to strike. Streaking past like a ruby ballistic, Lana kept her head away from it until the momentum began to slow. When the erratic turns evolved to a gentle pendulum swing, Lana lanced out, her teeth aiming for the apple. Instead of biting into it, the fruit bounced off her chin, scattering towards Cullen before reaching the end of its tether and returning for the woman chasing it.
Chuckling at her failure, Lana dodged out of the way, ducking from the vengeful apple. She nipped at its wake, but it kept managing to slide on past, always one step ahead of her. Mia began to cheer her on as did the girls fully invested in whatever this silly adult was up to. A blush rose on her cheeks with each failure, the apple bumping into her nose, across her cheek, and one beaning her in the back of the head when she lost it.
“Maker, this is tougher than it looks,” Lana said. She laughed at the end, but the strain was evident. More of Cullen’s family wandered over to see what all the clapping and laughing was. She turned away from the rotating apple to catch Branson and his wife, along with a few of the cousins who traveled from further south. [_Andraste, did I have to look so foolish with such an audience? _]Her blush charred from her neck, up her cheeks, and reached for her forehead as the apple continued to evade her. It was in no mood to free her from her own damning hubris.
The apple twisted haphazardly, but Lana didn’t look over to see what Cullen was doing with his end of the stick. She focused all her energy on the thing. How easily she could combust it, crack it to ice, or even squash it flat into applesauce, but that would be cheating and also reveal the fact she was a mage to people who didn’t need to know. Blinking away tears of strain, she dove forward, her teeth gently scrapping away at it sending the cursed thing flying. Lana screwed her eyes up tight, when the apple hung suspended in midair. Eyelids flying open, she caught Cullen on the other side, his forehead pressed against the wayward fruit so she could take a bite out of it. Slowly, he slid his face upward, holding the apple still until his eyes met hers and he smiled.
His perfect grin obliterated what she was meant to do, and Lana stared slack-jawed for a moment, her own smile matching his. A loud cry broke through the field and Lana woke. With the help of her husband acting as a wall, Lana was able to open her jaw wide and bite down onto the offending fruit. Silence descended from the crowd as the crisp crack of tooth slicing apart apple flesh ricocheted over harvested fields and warm, autumn trees. Tartness bit into her tongue, but Lana swallowed her generous bite down. All around her the family fell into raucous applause, each of them hooting as if she’d won a jousting match instead of besting a solitary apple.
Lana moved to stand up and unknot her hands, but Mia said, “No, wait. She’s supposed to eat it all.”
“Oh Maker,” Lana moaned, but she caught Cullen’s smirk and he shrugged causing the stationary apple to slide along his cheek and back to freedom. He raced to catch it, but Lana got there first, her own teeth able to secure it by where she bit down before. Her husband chewed a large chunk of apple away on his end, white juice spraying across her cheek from his vigor. Lana laughed at the enthusiasm, while watching to make certain he didn’t choke on it.
Together they worked down the apple bite by bite until it was mostly core and a few more inches of fruit. They didn’t need to steady it for each other any longer, the challenge broken after the first few bites. The remaining flesh they had to bite off flew haphazardly though the air. Both chased after the apple, Cullen’s teeth catching it first, but Lana was so close she felt the juicy core slide past her chin and cheek. Unable to stop her momentum, her lips landed beside Cullen’s, pecking him upon the side of the mouth.
Even with pieces of the vengeful apple caught between his teeth, Lana twisted her head to the left and dove in for a kiss. He swallowed quickly in order to return it, as sweet as summer wine. Her mouth opened, a soft sigh wanting to escape, and Cullen took advantage of the opportunity, his tongue darting over her lips. Maker, he smelled of sunlight and sweet hay, his lips tasting of the tender brightness of the apple mixed with Cullen’s earthy flavor. Lapping up his bottom lip with her tongue, she tried to draw him closer, wishing she could wrap her arms around his waist or pull back his curly locks. He seemed to be of the same mind, his chest knocking against hers, the muscles of his shoulders straining under the shirt as he struggled to keep his hands locked behind his back.
“Newlyweds…” Branson’s voice cut through them, and both their eyes rolled open. She could see her own guilt reflected in Cullen’s. “You forgot your game.”
“Ah, um, right,” Lana struggled to swallow down the shame, “sorry…”
Mia held up her hand, shaking the apple. She was the one Cullen passed the stick to before rushing in to help Lana. “We were all young and madly in love once. No need to be sorry.”
Nodding her head rapidly, as if that could chase the blush away, Lana felt Cullen’s cheek press into her forehead. She didn’t lift her head, but mouthed in a soft whisper, “I love you.”
He dipped down to place his lips upon her cheek and breathed back, “I love you too.”
“Hm…” Mia snatched up the mostly devoured apple and yanked it clean off the nail. “Not as easy as some people thought, I see.”
Cullen extended his hands, now free of the bonds of rules. “Forgive me for ever doubting your ruthlessness.” His sister smirked at him, a reflection of the one Cullen wore when he one upped anyone in chess. “Oh,” he turned to Lana, “let me unbind you.”
Before he could even reach for her, Lana lifted her hand, free of the bonds, and dangled the kerchief, “Who’s next?”
It was Branson’s eldest boy who snatched at it first, his eyes wide at the possibility of a new game. “‘Ere, someone tie it up!” he cried. While Mia jammed on another apple, Cullen obliged him.
Branson watched his son, but he spoke to Lana, “You have a real talent with knots, eh?”
“More like a talent with unknots,” she said staring at her feet.
A low chuckle rumbled in Branson’s throat and he jerked his chin at his younger brother, “This one’s a keeper.”
“I am well aware,” Cullen bit back with. After checking the boy’s knot, he stepped back, and a smile bloomed on his cheeks, “I’ve known since I was eighteen.”
Lana couldn’t hide her great grin as she slid back from the festivities beginning again. Her husband resumed the mantle of stick holder as the children each took turns pursuing the orbiting fruit, joy blanketing out any failures, and laughs covering over scrapped knees and falls. She couldn’t take her eyes off Cullen while he stood with both hands holding a simple stick as if it was the last flag of the Inquisition. Even a silly game he approached with the same devotion he gave to the templars, the Inquisition, and her.
Sometimes, late at night, Lana would push aside the curls dampened to his forehead and whisper that she didn’t deserve him. She always tried to do it when he was asleep, but once he was still on the edge. His eyes rolled open, and he cupped her hand in his to bring to his lips. Kissing each finger with a soft touch, he told her that she deserved the best and he was going to do his damnedest to be it. Maker, he was beautiful. She’d hear the snickers behind hands, the assumptions of the once Commander’s prowess in all things bedroom related, and comments on how if he just did this, or did that he’d challenge some Duke for the title of most handsome.
None of that mattered to her. Cullen would glower if he heard any of it, especially the assumptions on the rather plainness of his wife, but Lana didn’t care. They knew the shell, the man who grew into his handsome and imposing face. The others assumed he was a dark man, someone that would bludgeon his way to whatever he wanted. If they wished to be conquered they were glancing the wrong direction. He wasn’t a man who’d throw a woman over his shoulder, he’d hold her tight in his arms while pressing kisses to her forehead. He was the kind of man who’d shake off the ridicule of his family to rescue her from embarrassment in a silly game. That’s why he was so beautiful to Lana.
“That didn’t quite go as you planned,” Angela slid next to Lana, her eyes shifting over the gathered group chasing after an apple that scattered off the nail.
“I’m afraid I’m not well versed in Orlesian customs,” Lana said, “but I had someone to rescue me.”
“Yes.” She smiled serenely at the obvious, then held her hands around her mouth to call to a small boy prodding his fingers near the table laden in pies. “Son! Come here a moment.”
The boy froze like a deer sighting the hunter, but he slowly pulled his exploring hand back and began the laborious challenge of walking to his mother. Angela smiled wide as if it was the funniest thing ever to have her son sulk away from potential treats. “Children,” she sighed, wrapping a hand around his back and guiding him to her. Offering no resistance, the boy clutched a sticky palm against his mother’s legs, his head buried into her skirt.
After ruffling his Rutherford required blonde hair, Angie glanced up at Cullen trying to work a fresh apple onto the nail. “You two seem to be in the throes of early love,” she shot a look at Lana from the side of her eyes.
“Ah,” Lana shifted on her feet, uncertain how to answer without sounding sarcastic. ‘How could you tell?’ died on her lips. Instead she smiled brightly, watching her husband get berated by a three year old girl because he wasn’t holding a stick properly. “Yes, I suppose so,” she had no intention to elaborate on how long it took the two of them to reach this point.
Angela smirked, “Marriage is one thing…” Her fingers sifted through the boy’s hair as she gave a pregnant pause to draw Lana’s curiosity out. “But you can’t really know true love until you have a child of your own.”
“Oh…” Lana swallowed. Her eyes danced around to try and find anyone to break her free, but they were all occupied and Angela wasn’t finished.
“I didn’t realize how accurate that was until my precious boy came along. He’s my everything.”
“That’s, um, good,” she bit down on the gurgle in her throat, her eyes trying to pull Cullen over.
“What about you and Cullen?” She stopped rifling through her boy’s hair, who reached a pudgy hand up to fix his mother’s mess, and turned her full stare upon Lana. “When are you going to start a family?”
“Start a family…?” Lana felt herself inching further and further away from Angie, her feet trying to save her while her eyes darted over to her husband playing with the children, an ease she rarely saw softening his face.
“The way you two carry on, I’d think you’ve already got a seed planted. Men may grumble about nappies and early morning feedings, but they love nothing more than having a miniature version of themselves to play with.”
Her fingers gripped tight to her midsection: empty, dead. Nothing would ever fill it, could ever fill it. That was her sentence. More of the children’s laughter broke above the din of small talk, but she didn’t look up at it, the joy rubbing salt in a wound she didn’t notice. Spinning on her heels, Lana scurried away from the happy Rutherford gathering. Did she even want children? It was a decision stolen from her so long ago, she never stopped to question it. Unable to alter the past, or the taint flowing through her, she found it easy to embrace the childless life. As a warden, it was unwise. As a mage, foolish. But now…
And what about Cullen? Did she doom him to the same childless life? A family-less future?
“There you are…”
Lana froze at the voice behind her. She threw on a false smile and turned back to find Cullen ruffling up his own matted hair. “I saw you take off for air. We’re thinking of…Lana,” he slipped closer to her, his hand reaching for hers. “What’s wrong?” He tried to curl his hand around her fingers, but they hung limp at her side.
“Nothing,” she forced the smile higher, but it didn’t reach her eyes.
“No, it’s not nothing. What is it? Are you tired? A flare up?” he drove right to solving the problem, as if a quick jolt of healing magic could fix it. “Something from the fade?” She shook her head with each guess, her teeth biting down on her lip to keep it all from bursting free. Happy times, it was supposed to be happy. He so rarely got to spend this carefree time, much less with his siblings. How could she rain all over it?
“Please,” Cullen slid his hands around her waist and he bent his knees so they’d see eye to eye. “Talk to me.”
“I…” her lips puckered and she felt the first slide of a tear. Sucking in her nose, she spat out quickly, “I can’t give you a family.” Breaking from glaring at the ground, Lana stared into his confused eyes.
“What? What are you talking about?”
“You know, because of…” she waved her hands back and forth, trying to gesture to her poisoned womb, “because I’m a…can’t have any children.”
His eyes narrowed and he twisted his chin, “I’m well aware, I’ve known for years. I don’t understand…”
“I didn’t know,” she sputtered out, warmth burning behind her eyes bringing more tears, “about marriage, the rules and what’s expected…from being in the tower, I mean. Mages don’t have children, to have babies is not an option, and then with the wardens, I never heard… I didn’t think before we got. I’m sorry.”
At a loss, Cullen wrapped his arms fully around her, his chin skimming the top of her head. As he began to rock her back and forth, Lana reached across his waist, trying to tug herself into him. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. I…I still don’t understand why you’re upset, but…”
“You looked so happy with your nieces and nephews. Playing with them, and I can’t ever…”
“Maker,” he swallowed hard, a hand cradling the back of her head. Gently he rubbed his fingers across her hair, shifting the finer hairs away from her neck. “Lana, I love you.”
“I know, but…”
“No buts, never any buts,” he said, pulling her away from his chest so he could look her in the eye. “It is fun to play with the kids for a time, and then send them back to their parents when they start fussing.” That got a quick laugh from Lana, but it didn’t stop the tears. His fingers ran across her cheek, trying to sop them up. “Is this about…you know who and the fact he, um, ended things because of it?”
She snickered at his avoiding Alistair’s name, and shook her head. “No, I don’t think…well, maybe a little. I, I never thought of what all marriage entailed. In the tower it was a quick promise, if that. And I, I can’t fulfill it. I can’t give you a family.”
“Lana,” his fingers curled over her ear, and he tugged her tighter to him, “you are my family. The two of us, together, and Honor who is…?” He turned backwards to spy his dog two legs into the dunk tank, her stubby tail wagging in ecstasy.
“Get out of there!” Cullen shouted at her. Obeying her master’s commands, Honor first leapt all four legs into the tank, scattering apples to the grass, before she fully hopped out of it. “That dog,” he scolded the air, shaking his head in a sigh, before turning back to his exhausted wife. “I don’t need children. I never anticipated them in my life, either. The templars were it, until I found you. You’re my wife, you’re not keeping some…future family from me. I’m nothing without you.”
She clung tighter to him and whispered, “Me neither.” While his fingers circled over her back, pausing to dig into her old knots, Lana felt foolish. They’d talked about it before, when it went from being a non-issue to a big question and he never once gave her pause. There was no reason to think for a moment Cullen was lying or waiting to spring a change of heart upon her. How many old ghosts lingered in her soul no matter how hard she tried to air it out?
“I’m sorry for…” she began, her arms folded around the back of his neck as she reached up to speak to his shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it,” he waved it away, and she leaned away to catch his eye.
“You’re telling me to not worry.”
Cullen shrugged, “I can suggest it for others, not myself.” Dipping down, he placed a gentle kiss upon her lips, his nose bumping against her cheek. Cullen began to rise away, when Lana grabbed onto the back of his head and brought him back for another. So much of her life was lost toeing the line, folding herself into the commander the world needed. Now, she had him and a dog. It was more than she could have asked for.
As Cullen broke for air, massaging up and down her arms, he asked, “What brought on this sudden concern?”
With pursed lips, Lana shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.” She’d rather forget it happened at all. “I…” perhaps it was the apple game, or maybe it was the sudden well of emotions, but exhaustion surged through Lana’s legs. “I could use a sit, though.”
“Here.” He didn’t lift her in his arms, though at that moment she wouldn’t have minded it, probably would have welcomed being nestled next to him. Instead, Cullen slid a hand around her waist, tugging her weight to him as she gripped to his shoulder. “I think I know the perfect solution.” Together, they walked back towards the crowd dispersing for the temptation of more treats left upon the table. Meringue ensconced two of the children’s chins giving them the look of a pair of ancient dwarfs fresh to the surface.
Mia licked off her serving spoon, then waved to her brother and sister-in-law. “Come and join us, we’ve got pie, more pie, cake, and Branson brought some kind of peach tart thing?”
“It’s a peach tarte tatin, made with heavy cream and fresh…”
Waving away his haughty dessert defense, Mia unearthed a plate in their limping direction. “Yes, yes, you cook something fancy when given half a chance. We’re all impressed. So, what sounds good?”
Lana glanced over the goods on display, and while her always gaping stomach adored the idea of sampling each, exhaustion won with every step. “I wish I could, but…”
“We’re still both tired from the trip. Been a long day, and us city folks aren’t used to all this fresh air,” Cullen spoke up, not needing to cover for her. “Mi, can I borrow one of your quilts?”
“Of course,” she smiled and pulled a red and blue one off the stack, “what else are they for?” After draping it over her brother’s shoulders, she whispered to Lana, “Don’t worry, I’ll save a few slices back for you.”
“Thank you,” she nodded.
Together, Cullen and Lana limped further across the farm grounds away from the families gathered around sitting logs giggling and carousing over their shared treats. He caught Honor gnawing her way through all the apples she knocked out of the bucket and called for her to follow, but at a distance as she kept shaking to dry herself. After a time, Cullen paused at a place where the grass, stripped to a golden yellow by the autumn sun, lay flat as if the land attempted to combover its bald patch. Down the hill she spotted a stand of sheep chewing through the pasture behind a shallow fence.
After making certain she was okay to stand on her own, Cullen pulled off the quilt and lay it across the ground. “Do you need help down?” he asked, glancing over at her and no doubt catching Lana’s eyes wandering over his bent backside. She didn’t blush, only smirked to herself.
“No, I believe I have it.” With the assistance of her cane, she lowered herself onto the quilt, folding her legs up under. Cullen plopped down beside, his own legs crossed while he scratched Honor’s head. Perhaps it was the dusty haze of the farm, or the golden halo to the weary sun on its downward arc, but the entire air took on an ethereal quality, as if the land itself were a painting inside a fairytale book. Warmth radiated not just from the sun, but the grass, the trees, and most of all the man beside her. All of it called out to her in an enticing urge to sleep.
“You look as if you’re about to pass out,” Cullen interrupted her thoughts.
She nodded, “I fear you’re right.”
“Here,” he scooped up her shoulders and pulled her over the blanket to him until her head rested in his lap. While Lana stared out across the pastoral horizon, her husband caressed her side and twirled her own knotted curls upon her forehead. His muscular thighs made for a firm pillow, but Cullen’s earthy musk lured her deeper into sleep. The constant reminder that he was there, he was always there for her when she woke, calmed her.
“What are the quilts for, exactly?” Lana asked, fighting against her body’s natural urges. She gripped onto his knee adjusting herself as if to get more comfortable, but it was to keep awake.
“This,” Cullen whispered above her, his fingers circling her ear in a gentle massage, “after a long day of carving, and bobbing, we eat dessert first and then enjoy one of the last beautiful afternoons before winter.”
“Mmmm,” Lana drifted further into sleep, “sounds wonderful.”
“It…” he paused in circling her waist, both hands drifting away. She almost rose up to see what had changed, when Cullen’s lips pressed against the edge of her forehead, the only section he could reach bent over. His warm breath tickled her skin as he whispered, “It is.”
“Please, you have to try this,” Mia attempted to goad Cullen into eating some more of a yam dish that’d passed him by twice now.
“No, I am far beyond stuffed. Sometimes I think you’re trying to fatten me up,” Cullen complained. To elucidate his decision, he scooted his plate across the table and folded his arms across his stomach.
“You’re nothing but bones,” Mia continued, waving at the in no way skinny figure sitting beside Lana. “I can understand not gaining any weight on Orlesian food, but you’re home now. Fill up.”
Shaking his head, Cullen turned to his brother sitting beside him. “Does she harp on you as well?”
“Every moment she gets,” Branson responded, reaching across the table to snatch up a roll.
“It’s not my fault neither of you know how to eat,” Mia huffed, about to put the yams down, when Lana spoke up.
“I’d like to try some, if that’s all right.”
“See,” Mia beamed, passing over the plate. Her smile grew wider as Lana scooped three clumps off and dug in. “Maker, I don’t know where you put it all on that tiny frame.”
Lana shrugged, having already eaten through some of the roast pork, a sage and squash dressing, parts of a cold bean salad, and the pie Mia promised to save. As she scooped the yams into her mouth, she caught Cullen out of the corner of her eye. He wasn’t smirking at her bottomless appetite, and certainly not squicked out at it. Instead, he was smiling in relief, always grateful every time she’d go for seconds or thirds. If she’d ever frown at a slight bulge rising in her stomach, he’d slide his hands around her and thank the Maker that she was back in his arms and healthy. It was hard to feel self conscious when that was the man who held her naked.
“That’s nothing,” Cullen spoke up, “she’s gone toe to toe with qunari before.”
“You mean in an eating contest?” Angie asked. She had her boy bouncing on her lap while the other children had quickly finished up their dinners and raced upstairs to do something. They spoke so ecstatically about it Lana couldn’t understand a single word.
“Ah,” Lana glanced over at Cullen, “Yes, in an eating contest.” The siblings in on who she was politely coughed behind their hands.
“I don’t remember you eating so readily during the wedding,” Branson spoke up. “Nerves throw you off?”
“Among other things,” Lana said diplomatically.
“Like say a Sister suffering continual panic attacks, Leliana arriving just before dusk and insisting we herd everyone together to get it over with, Varric…being Varric.”
She reached over to grab her grumbling husband’s hand, and he smiled in spite of all that went wrong. In the end, they were married and they never told a soul that they’d tied the knot the night before. Absently, Lana dropped her spoon and tugged at the chain around her neck bearing Cullen’s coin.
“It was a lovely wedding,” Mia said, nodding her head.
“Must have been very small. Did you even use a chantry?” Angie asked.
“Ah, no, we had it at the abbey,” Cullen answered when Lana stayed silent.
Angie sniffed, “Humph, my parents would have had a fit if I didn’t wed in a chantry. What about the proper blessing of Andraste?”
Sharing a look, Lana clung tighter to Cullen, neither of them certain what to say. It was Branson who waded right in, unaware of the force of his words, “Who needs a chantry when you have the Divine herself there?”
“What?” Angie whipped her head back and forth. “The Divine? The Divine was at your wedding?”
“She served in the Inquisition with Cullen,” Lana interrupted. “They are friends.”
“Of the sort where she’ll draw and quarter me if I ever break your heart,” Cullen whispered to Lana. She knocked into his shoulder playfully, fairly certain Leliana wouldn’t.
“By the void,” Branson continued, “on top of the Divine, there was our Arl and the King himself, with the princess no less.”
“Who bears no resemblance to him at all,” Mia interrupted Branson, the pair of them sharing a curious look.
“For which she should thank the Maker,” Lana laughed, “being blessed with her mother’s looks.”
Angie scooted tighter to the table, her fingernails drumming against it. “King Alistair he…he attended your wedding?”
“Yep, I had a rather charming chat with him about dogs,” Mia said. “He’s more approachable than one would expect.”
“Very simple,” Branson agreed, getting a snort from Cullen. At everyone’s curious stare, he wiped at his nose to pass it off as a broken sneeze, but Lana prodded him in the side with her elbow.
She mouthed, “Be nice,” and her husband only shrugged.
“How do you know the King, Cullen?” Mia’s husband turned to him, speaking up for the first time since they sat down to eat. “It was never said.”
“We, uh, the Inquisition had dealings with Ferelden often and…I’d, Redcliffe in ending the mage rebellion,” his eyes widened as he raced to find any excuse better than ‘He was the old lover of my wife who recruited me to travel across thedas and save her.’
“Oh, was that why Arl Teagan was there as well?” Mia smiled, trying to cover Cullen’s obvious flop sweat.
“Huh, seems a strange reason to show up to a wedding,” the man continued, getting a glare from his wife. At that he was happy to lapse back into silence.
“And I spoke with the Champion herself,” Mia continued. “She’s a rather, um…”
“We call her imposing,” Lana interceded, well aware of Hawke’s boisterous qualities.
“When she hauled that cask over her shoulder and brought it down upon her head, I thought I’d split my sides in laugher,” Branson spoke up, guffawing at the memory and wiping a tear from his eye. Lana and Cullen shared a look, both rather suspecting Hawke hadn’t meant to do that, but she bounced back from it quickly. Somedays she wondered if even a mountain falling on her cousin’s head would only receive an “I’m good, I’ve got this. No problem!”
“The Champion of Kirkwall? Who started the mage rebellions?” Angela tried to pry into the reminiscing she missed out on. “Another friend of the groom’s through the Inquisition?”
“Ah, no,” Lana spoke up, her first time addressing the woman since the child question. “She’s my cousin.”
“Which I shall never understand,” Branson continued. “That’s a woman who could shatter mountains if she had half a mind. Taller than me, and nearly as broad too. It’s no surprise Kirkwall adopted her as their own, though perhaps came to regret it in time.”
“So there’s some greatness in your family after all,” Angela lifted a glass towards Lana as if to toast her.
“Excuse me?” she shook her head, certain to have imagined the poison drowned in the sweet tone.
After taking a drink, Angela returned her mug to the table, situated her son in her lap, and smiled. “It seemed rather strange that after having such success with the Inquisition, Cullen would settle down with a random scullery maid. The family connections make some sense.”
“Hey!” Branson thundered first.
Mia followed quick with a, “You don’t know what you’re speaking of.”
Lana felt Cullen’s grip tighten around hers, as if he wanted to leap forward, grab his cousin-in-law, and toss her out the door. Shaking her head, Lana smiled wanly at him. It didn’t matter, it never did. She became the warden because someone had to, had to rise up to end the blight. In truth, before that she was no one special unnoticed beyond a few teachers and the man clinging to her hand. That was all she needed.
Smiling at Angela’s vain attempts to wound her, Lana spoke, “We all do what we can. I believe I’ve finished eating.”
“Here,” Mia reached over, snatching up the picked clean plates. The ones speckled with food got shoved to the side and an eyebrow raise at Cullen. As he shook his head in confusion, she sighed, “Scrape it off into the bucket for the pigs. Maker, did you fully forget how to be proper?”
“I…” Chastised, he rose to his feet, the fork digging against metal as his untouched bean salad slid with a plop into the bucket hanging off the end of the table.
Lana took up the plates as Cullen scraped them, gathering each into her arms before rising out of the chair with the haul. Already out towards the wash basin, Mia paused and shook her head, “Oh, you don’t need to do that.”
“It’s all right, I’m…” her eyes glanced over at Angie who was busying herself with trying to straighten her son’s hair and couldn’t be bothered to look over. “I’m good at cleaning things up.”
Mia led Lana to the washing room a few doors past the eating area. Mia insisted it not be called a dining room because the real one was under a never ending pile of tarps and sawdust as someone kept failing to finish what he started. That drew a laugh from Lana as she remembered back to their own trials and tribulations with the abbey. While Mia shot a threatening finger at her brother for behaving the same, Lana stuck up for him. If Cullen made a promise it would happen, it might take him some time to achieve it, but he’d move the veil itself to accomplish his task. No, Lana had a habit of beginning things and then growing distracted as another more exciting project popped up. Rather than sigh in consternation at his wife’s lack of focus, Cullen would pick up the slack and try to steer her back towards something necessary.
“I’ve already got the suds up in the first, but it’ll need more hot water off the fire. Hold a moment,” Mia placed her armful of dishes on a counter already heaped from the day’s cooking. Wrapping her hands in a towel, she pulled a steaming pot from the stone hearth and dumped half into one deep basin sitting at waist height, then filled the other beside it. “Think we’ll need more water?” she asked Lana who shrugged, but turned a worried gaze at the tipping tower of bowls.
Nodding, Mia placed the pot in the doorframe and called out, “Love, fill this pot and put it on the fire.” With laborious movements he appeared in the frame, one hand gripping onto the towel. After he yanked it up, the stoic farmer risked a daring kiss upon Mia’s cheek. She rolled her eyes at the display but took the time to reposition the wrap in her hair while watching her husband’s backside.
“Shall I wash or…?” Lana asked, her fingers reaching for the stacks of metal and some porcelain. So many people stopped by for this holiday the good stuff had to be broken out.
“Ah, certainly if you’d like.” Mia ran her hands down her apron, then pointed at it, “Would you like one?”
“It’s only water,” Lana smiled, dropping the biggest pot she could find in the sudsy basin first. With a vigor, she drug the scrubbing brush across the bottom, coating it in every bubble available to her. Mia settled beside her, ready to rinse the pot and dry it once Lana finished.
“How are you finding the farm?” Mia asked, rolling the pot under the water before lifting a towel off the stack.
“It’s hardly the first time I’ve been here,” Lana said, having hit the ground running to catch up with the goings on everyone else knew by heart.
“True, but you weren’t a married woman then.”
“Oh,” Lana couldn’t stop the blush as she dumped a tray of spoons into the water. Going at them with all her power, she tried to distract herself from the embarrassment rising in the room. “We, uh, we’re not being too…um, I hope.”
“No, no,” she chuckled, wiping off each spoon as they rose from her clean water. “It’s to be expected. Though, it is surprising to see such ardor coming from my baby brother.”
Secreting a smile away, Lana dove both hands into the water. “He has his moments,” she sighed, her mind racing back through the examples of the day.
Mia didn’t ask for an elaboration, but she felt a sly glance upon her cheek from the older woman. People laughed at the newlyweds being so stars in their eyes in love, few of them aware of what lengths they both took to find each other again. Even less knew that their time remaining was ephemera, as uncertain as a wisp of smoke.
“What was he like in the tower?”
The honest question caused a plate to slip from Lana’s fingers, the porcelain plummeting to the bottom of the basin where it landed with a pronounced thud. “I, uh,” she raced to check on the state of the plate, which didn’t seem to have any cracks from her blunder. “He, uh, what do you mean?”
After swiping back the sweat building upon her brow, Mia responded, “Cullen was thirteen when he left, uncertain about everything except being a templar. Next time I see him again he’s thirty and making decisions that shape thedas. I…I was wondering what, if any of that existed before, or…”
Lana smiled, “He was as dedicated a templar as he could be in the tower, but…” She rolled her head upon her neck, the grin increasing, “the uncertainty was there as well. He had this adorable stutter any time I spoke to him. And he was always rubbing the back of his neck or worrying his fingers as if I was the most terrifying thing he’d have to face.”
“Sweet Andraste,” Mia laughed, “that sounds exactly like what I remember. Once, we were at a fair and he was, I want to say nine or ten. Cullen spots this girl who easily had a few years on him showing off her prized lamb. He gets it in his head to give her a flower. The whole day he’s telling me, Branson, Delilah, everyone that he’s going to do it, he’ll walk right over there and give it to her. We’ve finished up selling for the day, everyone’s locking up their stalls and there’s little Cullen still clutching his flower. Tired of his constant certainty I dared him to get it over with and talk to her.
“I still laugh at the sheer panic in his face when I called him on it. But he screwed up his courage, glowered a ‘Fine’ and marched over to her.”
“What happened?” Lana was on the edge of her seat, picturing her husband as a boy with hands shaking attempting to woo a girl.
Mia rubbed her chin and shrugged, “He chucked the flower at her, shouted something incoherent, and ran.”
“Oh no,” Lana couldn’t stop laughing at the image.
“We didn’t find him for a good mile. He kept his march up, scowling down the road and planning on heading home all by himself. Took him quite a few years to live that one down,” Mia chuckled.
“He never lobbed any flowers at me, but…it was rather evident he was nervous to talk to me,” Lana paused in scrubbing a serving bowl to let her mind travel back to the tower and what felt a hundred years ago. “We weren’t supposed to speak to the templars, but that never stopped us from trying. A lot would rebuff a mage, a few would play the games, some got into arguments, but Cullen he… He’d find any excuse he could to trade a few words with me. I don’t think he thought I noticed, but it was rather obvious when a quill of mine would wind up on the floor by some mysterious accident so he could point it out. I, uh, started dropping my own books and turning my back just to…um.” She sounded foolish, their little games barely even that, as they were two young people terrified to acknowledge each other.
But Mia only laughed, nodding her head in agreement. “I am not surprised, the way he wrote of you…”
“Wrote of me?” Cullen, in perhaps some need to protect her privacy, didn’t tell any of his family about their relationship, not during the Inquisition, certainly not in the deep roads. It wasn’t until he brought her into Ferelden that they all learned the truth.
“Yes, in his letters from the tower. Well, he never named you, always called you ‘The mage.’ ‘Today the mage walked past, and she did the funniest thing.’ Or said the smartest thing. Often performed the most graceful spell.”
Lana scoffed, “That had to be an exaggeration.” Even as she rolled her eyes she felt her cheeks lighting up. She had no idea he’d written of her back then, before it…before everyone’s life changed. “There were many mages, Circles are known for it. Could have been any one of us.”
“For being unable to write beyond a seven to eight word sentence with most matters, when it came to describing you he suddenly transformed into Brother Genitivi. There were practically footnotes on your birthmark alone.”
“Oh…” the blush took on a life of its own, blooming from her cheeks down her neck and enflaming that mark that also enflamed his passions. “I didn’t know that, um,” she moved to wipe at the sweat on her brow, which coated her forehead and hair in soap.
Mia chuckled at the embarrassing move, her eyes focused fully on her rinse tub while Lana tried to pull the biggest bubbles off. “You wouldn’t happen to have thrown any flowers at boys when you were a child as well?”
Her fingers froze, half the suds out, when a great laugh rose from her belly out through her throat. Mia joined in, her laugh much like her brothers: quick, brash, and sincere. “I suppose we are more alike than different,” Lana surmised. Before she reached into the bucket, her fingers tugged along the chain, digging the coin out from the safety below her dress. She was his other side.
“Do you ever miss it? Being all dressed up to rub elbows with kings, and arls, and great heroes?”
Lana rolled her eyes, “You’ve done the same.”
“Yes, and we still talk about it months later. I suspect the tale of when Auntie Mia and Uncle Branson passed the king of Ferelden a napkin will be spun around the fireplace for generations.”
Shifting on her feet, Lana tried to take the strain from her weary knees. They never lasted long when she washed up her glassware. Cullen suggested that he or one of their volunteers do it, but there were bottles blown to exact specifications and if a single crack appeared they’d ruin months of work. Instead, Lana draped a few pillows on the floor for her to stand on. It didn’t entirely solve the problem, but it gave her a few more minutes. On the stark wood floor, she knew she didn’t have much longer.
Dumping a greater load into the suds, she rolled the sleeves of her dress up higher and dug elbow deep in, “After a time the luster wears thin. I believe it took about three months of listening to nobility complain endlessly about where they last left the shoes they were standing in.”
Mia snorted, her head turning back to the rest of the family left in the dining room, “Too damn alike, you two are.”
“May I ask you something?”
“Maker’s breath, you don’t need to ask me before you ask me. We’re kin now. Just go on ahead.”
“Right,” Lana couldn’t hide the blush again. She’d reached the point in her life where she’d been out of the tower longer than she was in but some things still caught her unawares. It wasn’t until her seneschal begged her to stop asking for permission that she realized it was a nervous tic from answering to the templars her whole life. “Does…have I done something to offend Angela?”
“She seems to, I don’t know, pry at things perhaps unawares and…”
Mia groaned and threw her head back before unearthing a string of knives to quickly dry, “Oh, she’s plenty aware of what she’s doing. She’s just jealous because she can’t lord over the fact her great grandfather was once an advisor to an Arl. It was one who turned against the Rebel Queen, but that don’t matter as long as one’s got some claim to nobility.”
Hanging her towel off the rack to dry, Mia grabbed another to tackle the endless supply of dishes, “Course her little bragging bit means nothing when Cullen’s rubbing elbows with kings and the Divine herself. Could you imagine if we’d mentioned the Viscount of Kirkwall too? She’d have blown sky high with jealousy.”
“She needs to use me as a stepping stone for her own ego,” Lana groaned. She’d suspected it deep in the dark parts of her heart, but wanted to give the woman the benefit of the doubt. Which was rather funny, when if any Bann under her had so much as sniffed at her for being a mage, she’d have destroyed all their credibility in a moment. Lana shook her head at the assumption everyone wouldn’t play the game in some capacity. Mages were notorious about their pecking orders and factions, it made sense some families would as well.
Mia’s watery hand landed upon Lana’s unclothed forearm, drawing the mage’s attention to nearly identical amber eyes. But where Cullen’s had a soft umber rimming his pupils, Mia’s sparkled nearly yellow green. “I’m sorry she thinks you’re easy prey because…”
“I’m a scullery maid,” Lana answered. “I know. It’s all right. The lie is preferable to, I’d rather be a scullery maid here than a hero anywhere else.”
A bittersweet smile washed over Mia’s face and her eyes scoured Lana as if searching for a lie, but none was there. She meant it, even when she was up to her elbows in potions gone awry, or rising before dawn to tend to a templar taken a bad turn. Being a hero, a commander, a warden; none of them were what she wanted in life. Helping with her two hands dug deep into the minutiae, making small gains in finding an answer to lyrium addiction, that gave her a purpose. And having the most handsome man in thedas at her side certainly helped.
As if she could pluck Lana’s thoughts from her mind, Mia’s smile widened. She patted her arm once before returning to the darkening rinse bin. Groaning at the pile remaining, Mia cracked an eye at her, “I don’t suppose you know any spells to make dirty dishes disappear?”
Lana chuckled, “I’m afraid not. Though, by the Maker, did we try. One apprentice got close, right until the entire first floor flooded and the brooms came to life.”
“We’re not sure, took forever to destroy them and they made a horrifying noise while alive. Like nails across slate but with a sputtering cough underneath. No one dared try after that.”
Mia stuck a hand on her hip and turned to the once Arlessa with pruned fingers and filthy dishwater soaking into her dress. “I thought you mages were in the tower studying. You would do dishes and the like?”
“Oh yes, all apprentices had chores starting when we were ten. One of the perks of passing the Harrowing was you get the stick, the robes, and you don’t have to scrub down water closets anymore. The, uh, tranquil would handle some of the bigger day to day duties, but we all took shifts doing dishes, sweeping, everyone had to make their own beds. For awhile we did laundry too until an apprentice tried to escape out with the dumped buckets. It didn’t go too well for him…that time.”
“What about templars?”
Snickering, Lana dropped a stack of plates into the water. She could just see the end in sight beyond them, “That would have made every apprentice’s day.”
“What would?” Both women turned from their buckets to watch Cullen slide into the room. “Pigs are fed, table’s disassembled, and Branson’s up with the kids while they ‘get ready.’ Did you two need any help?” He offered it to both, but Lana caught his eyes lingering over her body no doubt noticing her waning stance and her fingers clinging to the bucket’s lip for support. Without waiting for her answer, he slipped in behind her, his hands wrapping against her stomach as she leaned into him.
Cullen rested his chin against the top of her head while he struggled to look into the basin where edges of plates lurked below the grey sludge of soap. She moved to pick up the brush, when he beat her to it. “Here, let me do that.” He was about to dive fist first in, when Lana grabbed onto his arm. With wet fingers, she rolled first one sleeve then the other up to the elbows. “Thanks,” he smiled, pressing his grin into her hair.
While he dove elbow deep into the bucket, Lana leaned against her always sturdy support, her fingers trailing up and down the light hair dusting his forearms. She could easily lose track of time watching his biceps work, or grabbing onto them as he flexed, but there was something to his forearms she couldn’t explain, especially with his sleeves rolled up to reveal them. Unable to help herself, her palms smoothed over the muscles undulating below as he scrubbed against the clinging food.
“What were you two talking about before I so rudely interrupted?” Cullen spoke up, wading through the silence as he passed a plate to his sister.
“I was asking if templars in the circle ever did their chores,” Mia said. “The courts remain uncertain about the one in the kitchen.”
“Me?” he scoffed. “I have plenty of work that always keeps me busy and…”
“Yet you leave your poor, newlywed wife all alone to do the washing,” Mia threw a hand over her heart in mock outrage.
Giggling, Lana interrupted their sibling mockery, “I’m quite capable of washing dishes.”
“It’s not as if she’ll let anyone at the abbey help,” Cullen pouted, but his arms wrapped closer against Lana’s chest as if he was hugging her while also scrubbing away.
“I’ve explained why, and it’s not as if we have enough coin to go throwing away on teaching new people through broken glassware.”
“Uh huh, so you say, but I think the once Warden Commander has trouble sharing power,” he bantered, sliding his chest even tighter against her. Perhaps it was her imagination, but she could have sworn she felt something else stirring into the small of her back.
“Oh,” Lana picked up a plate, yanked the brush out of Cullen’s hands, and brought the two together, “because the mythic, ex-Commander of the Inquisition is known to sit back and let everyone else handle crises when they erupt.”
Freed of the dishes, Cullen’s wet hands swept around her stomach and he dipped his knees lower to whisper in her ear, “You know no one else can handle it but us.”
“Andraste’s tears, even when you’re arguing it sounds like pillow talk,” Mia cried, her eyes rolling to the ceiling.
“Ah,” chastised, Cullen released his grip on Lana and rose up. But she could certainly feel his excitement prodding into her. Maybe he needed to try wearing some small clothes after all. Lana shook her head at the thought. No. She’d hate it the moment he tried.
Quietly, the three of them worked through the few stacks of dishes, but every time Cullen dipped deeper down to reach for a spoon he’d place a kiss on the top of Lana’s head. She struggled through the exhaustion climbing up her legs and heading right for her hips, all to enjoy a few more minutes of him wrapped up behind her. It sounded silly, it wasn’t as if they didn’t enjoy a whole day, have another week here, and countless more at home. Sometimes, she felt they were back at Skyhold clinging to what moments they had before it all fell apart.
“Mum!” A shrill voice managed to echo down the stairs, through the eating room and into the kitchen by the power of childhood need.
“What is it?” Mia shouted back, not bothering to turn around.
“I can’t find my teeth!”
“Her teeth?” Lana tried to turn her question back at Cullen, but he kept his hands buried in the suds, his biceps flexing against her waist.
“Did you look in the box?!” Mia responded to the inane question. Teeth in a box? Maker, what was going on?
“Ye-es!” echoed through the house.
Yanking her towel off her shoulders, Mia rubbed her red hands dry with the rage only a beleaguered parent could manage. “Very well, I will come find them, but if they are in the box as I said…” she threatened while slipping out of the room to find her daughter.
Carefully, Lana turned in Cullen’s arms so she could look at his eyes. “Teeth? What’s going on?”
He cracked a half smile, then dipped his head down, “I keep forgetting you’re not Ferelden.”
“What does that have to do with teeth in a box?” Even with his non-answers driving free the beginnings of a headache, she slid her arms along his waist.
Cullen released the last of the dishes into the rinse bin. Shaking his hands free of as much water as he could, he wrapped his arms around her, tugging her tight to his chest. “It’s a little, well, maybe it’s better if you see it first.”
“Don’t tell me,” Lana said, “‘I’ll like it. Trust me.’”
Her husband laughed, his warm chest shifting below her cheek and she felt the urge to sleep off the feast right there in his arms. “Are you getting tired?”
“Sitting would do me good,” she admitted, accepting her limitations.
“You’ll want to rest up before the next part.”
Lana lifted her head off her living pillow. “Next part? What next part?”
“You’ll like it,” he whispered, his damp fingers shifting some of her soapy hair behind her ear, “trust me.” She jabbed a finger towards him, but he gave her one of his most sincere smiles and Lana melted in his arms. Shrugging a shoulder, she prepared for whatever was to come next.
While Cullen guided her out towards the sitting room already stoked with a crackling fire, she caught sight of a few of the not carved gourds taking up space on the mantle. She began to ease into a chair when Mia poked her head around the staircase.
After locating her brother and sister-in-law, she jabbed a harried finger and shouted, “Hey, the moon’s gonna be up soon. You better get your faces on.”
Slamming back and forth like a flag caught in a hurricane, the front door barely had time to rest upon its hinges before another person tossed it open. Everyone raced from the front of the house to the back, dropping off things or shouting for people to come help. Lana watched it all from her chair, uncertain what strange things were about to happen. Safe in her fingers sat a mask carved from thin wood. With an elongated nose and pointed ears it reminded her a bit of a bat or other terrifying creature of the night. It would look as out of place at an Orlesian ball as denizens of Halamshiral would on the farm, though she’d pay good sovereigns to see the latter happen.
Cullen kept up with the cavalcade, chasing after children draped in furs that belonged with deepest winter not the autumn chill working across the tamed farmland. They wore their own bat/creature masks, each of a different design but with the same snout and sharp ears look. One of Mia’s girls kept pausing in front of a mirror to grin madly, showing off the ‘teeth in a box.’ Two real fangs, most likely from a wolf or bear, distended off wires she shaped against her own real teeth giving the eleven year old the jarring look of a blood thirty monster out of legend.
Every once in awhile, her husband would stop, make certain she was okay, and then be beset upon once again by ecstatic children. He’d shrug at their cries for help at tying off masks and fur cloaks, always insisting he double knotted them for safety. For a brief moment, Cullen ran his fingers over the back of Lana’s chair, his lips glancing near her ear so he could whisper, “Very grateful I can return them to their parents. Yes? I can help with that.”
The latter was shouted out the door before he slipped back to being the helpful uncle, but Lana ran her fingers down his before he got too far. She smiled at the erratic preparations, but was no closer to an explanation beyond something was about to take place. As time ticked by, silence swept across the indigo bathed land, but a bubbling excitement swarmed over the families. It was Mia who came for her first. She had her own mask strapped on, this one decorated with swatches of real white and tan fur. So, probably not a bat.
“It’s about to start. Are you good to go?” she asked, pausing before the resting woman.
Lana bent over to unearth her cane. For a brief moment, her fingers glanced over Cullen’s carving under the handle before she looked up at Mia. “I am, assuming I have any idea what’s about to occur.”
A noise scattered from the hall and Cullen prodded his head into the sitting room. “Love, it’s about to…what?” He caught Mia’s mile long stare eying him up.
“You didn’t tell her?” she folded her arms over her bosom that was amplified from stacks of furs tossed across her shoulders.
“I was going to, eventually, but then there were the issues with the kindling, and the rocks and…do not try that look upon me. Hundreds of soldiers and templars have failed at such an endeavor.”
“But those soldiers and templars didn’t know about the time you ripped off your nappy and ran stark naked through the—”
“All right, all right!” Cullen threw up his hands, a bright blush burning across his cheeks. “I am well chastised, please stop.” His wounded eyes turned from his sister to Lana, and she could only shrug. After rubbing the nape of his neck, he extended a hand to her. She shifted her cane to the other side and took it, caressing the back of his hand with her thumb.
Mia smirked at her win, then she eyed up Lana. “Maker’s breath, is that flimsy dress all you have to wear?”
“I, uh, there are other clothes left back in the…” she began to point in the direction of their belongings in a shared room, but Mia waved her hands.
“No, there’s not time. Wait a moment.” Mia vanished to another room in the house while Cullen only shrugged. He had no idea what his sister had planned. When she returned she held a cream and gold sweater in the same pattern as the one donning both her family and Branson’s. “Here,” she extended it to Lana.
The wool was soft and smelled of sweet hay. “Thank you,” Lana said, sliding into it. While the sleeves dangled past her hands, she rolled them up once. There was more give in the stomach area than she expected, but it fit snug against her bust. After inspecting the hemline, her eyes caught Cullen’s attempting to dart away from making the same realization about her chest in the sweater. Maker, he was too adorable for words sometimes.
Grateful for the extra warmth she seemed to be needing, Lana tipped her head to Mia, “I hope I don’t spill anything on it before returning it.”
“Oh, no. It’s yours. You’re family after all,” Mia threw it off the cuff as if it was a simple fact. Family. Something she lost at the age of six. Even with Hawke it never felt real, the pair of them forever traveling because no home wanted them. But here it felt different, settled, safe.
Unaware of the turmoil in Lana’s throat, Mia snickered, “I would have had it finished before the wedding, but someone kept forgetting to give me your dimensions.” She prodded Cullen in the arm and he groaned.
“Forgive me for having a lot on my mind at the time. Weddings are rather known for doing that.”
Blinking against a spray of happy tears, Lana gripped onto Mia’s hand, dragging her from her spat with Cullen. Her sneer at his incompetence faded immediately from the emotion bubbling over in Lana’s eyes. “Thank you, for this and…”
“Of course,” Mia reached over and patted her on the back, “don’t mention it. I even made one for Angie because she insisted,” she lowered her voice to whisper, “but it’s puce and olive green. Good way to use up a failed dye lot.” Lana snickered from their shared moment and released her hold on the woman to return it with her husband.
“Now, shouldn’t we be getting on outside? Midnight’s nearly here and the souls wait for no man,” Mia rubbed her hands together, stepping out to her front door.
Cullen’s hand slid around Lana’s shoulders, half hugging her against him, before he placed a kiss on the top of her head. Then he gestured at the mask resting back on the chair, “Don’t forget to put it on. It’s important.”
“Then where’s yours?” she asked before turning back to snatch it up.
He barely sneered at the idea as the mighty Commander of the Inquisition and once Knight-Captain of Kirkwall pulled a mask out from behind him and began to knot it on. Darker than the others she’d seen decorating the Rutherford clan, Cullen’s mask seemed to be stained by age and wear, the edges barely reaching to fill his face. It was flatter than the children’s, the nose only slightly longer than his and one of the fangs in it was broken off.
“It’s uh, been awhile since I’ve worn this,” he admitted, trying to tilt it to fit against his face, the jawline giving him the most trouble.
“I’m guessing since puberty hit,” Lana chuckled while putting on her own. She was given a snowy white one. Instead of lines carved into the wood someone took the time to do a few intricate designs chiseled where the fur would part. Judging by the bright smile upon Cullen’s face, she had a funny feeling she knew who made it. Now, if only she knew why.
He ran a finger up under the mask, trying to give his adult jaw room to breathe. “I didn’t think I’d grown so much since I was thirteen,” he confessed.
Smirking, Lana slid right next to him. She peered through two oval slits to slowly eye up her husband’s body. In a hoarse voice, she whispered, “I’m very grateful for the growing you’ve done.”
Cullen slipped a hand around her back tugging her tight to him. Those honey eyes dipped down from behind the mahogany wood to take in her own growing. Pressing his lips next to hers, he breathed, “Don’t I know it.” Twisting his head, Cullen moved to kiss her, when the nose of her mask jarred into his, causing both their heads to knock about. They began to laugh at the predicament, their lips unable to meet across an impenetrable void.
“If you two are finished,” Mia groaned, causing them to both break apart in as guilty a fashion as they could manage. “We have some demons to banish.”
“D…demons?” Lana’s eyes widened in shock. Cullen didn’t explain, only grabbed her hand in his and led her out the front door.
All of the gathered Rutherfords and a few other families who lived in the area stood outside dressed in the same various animal masks and furs. The adults stood around in a relaxed stance, speaking of the weather and the latest harvest crop as if they didn’t all look like a creature about to rip out someone’s jugular. The children were more aware of the ridiculousness and chased after each other while growling and yipping. It was when one of the girls tipped her head back and howled that it struck Lana.
“Oh, we’re wolves,” she sighed in an epiphany that was loud enough to draw everyone’s attention to her. A blush charred up her cheeks as two dozen sets of eyes sized up the stupid mage who didn’t understand why everyone gathered at midnight while dressed like creatures of the night. Angie in particular seemed to be enjoying her melting.
“I, uh…” Lana wanted to dig herself deeper into the ground and never stop until she hit deep roads, when Mia clapped her hands and stepped into the middle of the crowd.
“It’s All Soul’s Day Eve, and we know what that means.”
“Not all of us,” Lana mumbled under her breath, causing Cullen to turn away from his sister and curl a hand around the small of her back.
Dipping down closer to her, he whispered into her ear, “I promise I’ll explain.” She wanted to trust him, but he’d been rather tight lipped for this whole trip. It wasn’t like Cullen to spring surprises on her, not like this.
Clapping her hands again, Mia yanked a flint out of her apron and struck it. Fire burst across a candle her husband was holding, which she picked up from his silent fingers. Without anyone needing any instructions, every standing member snatched up one of the carved gourds and held it out. Mia would say a few words to each one as she lit it, sometimes having to steady the turnip’s candle with her fingers as the child fidgeted in anticipation. As she approached them, Lana began to hunt around for the abomination she carved, only to have Cullen push it into her hands.
He tucked his own pumpkin up in the crook of his arm, having given up on the idea of getting a wire inside it. After igniting Branson’s turnip, Mia turned to Lana and held out the candle. Uncertain what to do, she cupped her hands under the bottom of it. Mia smiled, pulled off the top while glaring at Cullen who shrugged, before tossing it in the back.
Dipping the flame to touch the candle inside she said, “So the Maker turned from his firstborn and took from the Fade…”
As fire trickled against the small wick, lighting up against the darkness, Mia moved to her brother while continuing the verse, “…A measure of its living flesh, and placed it apart from the Spirits.”
He bowed his head as solemnly to his sister as he would to any Revered Mother before hoisting the pumpkin back into his hands. Lana watched Mia move on to the rest of the group, her mind trying to remember where she’d heard that verse before. It was the Chant, of course, but what did that have to do with All Soul’s Day? As far as she remembered it was a somber day of honoring the dead, lighting a few candles, sure, but none of them were ever stashed inside of gourds. Nor was anyone in the tower ever dressed like a wolf or any other kind of animal, aside from Karlie but she liked to convince herself she was a squirrel and most everyone went along with it.
Blazing in a circle were a good twenty or so turnips and gourds, casting their haunting firelight through fiery eyes and lipless mouths, all of them giving an eerie glow to each wolf holding it. After returning to the center of the circle, Mia lifted the candle up to her lips, spoke the end of the verse, “By My Will alone is Balance sundered and the world given new life,” and blew out the flames.
The solemn silence evaporated with the fire, all of the children wrapping arms tight around their turnips and running full bore into the field. Their parents shouted orders that they be careful to not fall and mind the younger ones, as well as a few insisting they wait up, but all of that was ignored in favor of whatever fun there was to be had inside that cornfield. Lana stood dumbstruck watching the twinkling firelight fade deeper and deeper into the stalks as each child fanned out through their own path.
Branson wrapped a hand around his eldest daughter while Emmy teetered upon his back. Their son was already leagues ahead, chasing the older second cousins, but he’d dutifully slow whenever his mother called out. Not even bothering to tell her girls to wait, Mia wrapped a hand around her husband’s arm and together they disappeared into the stalks. Slowly, one by one, all of the Rutherfords succumb to the fields.
“Shall we?” Cullen asked, extending a hand to her. He had to jam that pumpkin under his arm to manage it. She swung her smaller gourd back and forth, watching the flames whip close to falling off in the breeze.
“I suppose so?” Lana said. Hanging the gourd around her cane’s handle, she took up her husband’s hand and the two of them staggered slowly into the field. The smell of fallen corn silk and reedy stalks chopped off at the head permeated the indigo air as they stepped into the field, boots crunching over leaves. Cullen kept it slow, trying to point out any obvious divots in the ground churned up and muddied from feet stampeding through them. It surprised Lana to find that there was a path carved through the corn, as if someone with a pair of scythes ran through it while fleeing capture. Behind them, Honor kept snatching up fallen stalks to see if anything was edible. To a mabari most things passed the test.
A silence more profound than she thought possible fell over them. Solemner than a funeral in the Grand Cathedral, more ominous than trying to slip through the deep roads, it was a silence that made itself known by not existing at all. A total absence that reverberated your heartbeat within the confines of your skull, creating fear itself. Lana found herself clinging tighter to Cullen as if she truly had something to be afraid of lurking in a Rutherford field.
Howling ripped through the dead air, causing Lana to jump up and spin around. Mana rippled across her hand as she raised it towards the pack of wolves coming for them, when a hand landed upon her shoulder.
“It’s eerie how good the children are at that,” Cullen said.
“Right,” Lana forced a smile, shaking off her magic and trying to not feel foolish for falling for it. “Of course, part of the game.”
She tried to sound flippant but her words thudded into her chest and Cullen turned from smiling at the horizon in the direction of the howling children to look fully upon her. “It’s okay, Lana. It’s not real.”
“I know that,” she snapped back, feeling a sneer rise up to her lips.
Cullen blinked by the weak gourd light at her, before tipping his head up to the stars. “I’ve been a complete ass. Maker, I’m sorry. I didn’t think about…”
She stuffed her arms around her chest, hugging herself tight while trying to not glare the ground to death. “It’s not your fault I know nothing of Ferelden customs despite living here nearly my whole life,” Lana mumbled more to herself.
“No, it’s mine. I thought, forgot about…” Cullen dug into the back of his neck trying to worry away the knot always waiting there, before he glanced over at something ahead in the field. “Here, please,” he extended a hand trying to tug her onward. “There’s something you should see. I promise I’ll explain.”
She didn’t take his hand, but followed him further into the field. The pressing stalks were laid down leaving a small clearing in the corn. At the middle rested a pile of wood about two feet across and a handful of stones sat on top shaped almost like a body. Cullen tipped his head to it and said, “This is what the gourds are for, when not using them to decorate outside. They’re lanterns to help guide our lost loved ones across the veil. Everyone out there’s scurrying to find their pyre to light.”
Snatching one of the sticks off the pile, Cullen tipped it into the puny candle tucked inside his pumpkin. The wood caught instantly, no doubt doused in oil, which he then pressed against the pyre itself. Lana staggered back from it, right into a ring of water buckets lining the clearing in case the symbolism got a bit out of control. The flames flickered against the inky night, each one dancing as if with death itself while smoke clouded out the stars.
Cullen took a knee beside it and she watched him whisper a prayer to the Maker to keep those that’d been taken from their lives. As he went through the list, in alphabetical order of course, he paused upon reaching L and his eyes slid over to her. Pain hung through them, the kind that haunted both their steps no matter how much time passed. Her hand cupped his shoulder and Cullen reached his fingers up to tug them down tight, needing to feel her to keep going. Was that what he did in those two years she was gone, lost into the fade, dead? Sit around a small pyre and openly weep for her loss because it was the only time the Commander was allowed to break down without anyone wondering why?
As his list ended, Cullen released her fingers so he could join his palms together in one last prayer before staggering to his knees. Red circled his amber eyes, stained and ragged from a lifetime of loss. Forgetting she was mad at him, Lana curled into his chest, his arms rising to close off the embrace and pull her tighter to him. He didn’t speak for a minute, only held her while softly tugging at the curls spiraling down her back. Placing his lips against her forehead, Cullen whispered, “You’re here.”
“I am, and I’m sorry. I didn’t realize this was so…”
“It’s not as if I told you any of it. I wanted to…thought it might,” he sighed, bumping that wolf nose into the top of her head. “I wanted it to be a surprise so you’d find it delightful. A fun tradition, I suppose. It wasn’t right. I never should have…”
“Cullen,” her fingers skimmed over the wood pushing it tighter to his cheek, “it’s all right. I’ve been having fun…with some of your family.”
He sneered at that, “Angela is a curse upon us all.”
Smiling, Lana skirted up on her toes. Letting her cane rest against her side, she touched both his cheeks and whispered, “I like seeing you happy.” Turning her head to the right, she moved to kiss him, only to have the damn wolf nose snag again. “Okay, blighted tell me what’s up with the masks before I yank them off.”
After curling her hair back behind her ear, Cullen placed a kiss to his fingers and then tapped them against Lana’s lips when howls shattered the air. “We should move on,” he said, “the children will not wait long.”
“They’re rather known for it,” Lana snickered, accepting his offered hand. As they staggered down another path further towards the center of the field, Cullen left his pumpkin to blaze next to the pyre. The only light they had to navigate by was Lana’s puny one and, of course, the moon hanging behind a tuffet of clouds. She’d spent some time roaming through farms, in particular as a Warden during the blight, but never at night. A gentle autumn breeze knocked the stalks that by daylight would be almost hypnotizing to watch. In the darkest depths she felt her eyes darting to the edge, watching in fear for something to come shrieking through the stalks to devour them. Maker, a shriek would be just the icing on the cake.
“What did Mia mean about banishing demons?” she asked. Lana turned to realize she was wrapped up in her husband, his arm fully around her shoulder as if to protect her from either cold, the children prancing about as wolves, or whatever invisible horrors lurked in the field.
“Oh that,” he chuckled, “hyperbole on her part. I assure you we will not be fighting any demons.” Cullen paused and his own assuring eyes suddenly grew dark and slipped around their haunted patch of field. “Least I pray not. I’m woefully out of practice.”
“You are? Last time I threw a fireball, it was to burn off dead wood,” Lana scoffed. Nearly all of her spells were devoted to healing now, if not herself then the templars in bad enough shape to not notice the mage. Or, okay, there was the occasional tea cup she let fall cold that needed a helping hand, but that hardly counted.
“I am surprised how well you and Mia get along,” Cullen paused as another howl echoed through the night, flames lifting in the east as someone’s pyre must have lit. “Given your rather acrimonious first meeting.”
Lana snorted, “Which was all your fault, you know.”
“Believe me, my sister had made me well aware of how I ‘botched’ that one.”
As they turned a tight corner where a scythe only hit half the corn, Cullen tugged her into a second clearing. Much like the first there was a small pyre of sticks topped with stones. He released his hold on her and pointed at it. “This one’s yours.”
“I…” Lana staggered towards the pyre that he must have built for her while she sat inside. “In the tower, we would light little candles. Small ones that were mostly wick and had to be blown out immediately. I’ve never done a whole pyre before.” For much of her life she didn’t have anyone to light a candle for. If her grandparents crossed the veil, she never heard word of it, nor about anyone else in her family. And it wasn’t until she grew older that her friends began to fall to either the Harrowing or…worse.
Cullen reached a hand out for her dangling gourd. “May I?” She nodded and he fished it free to hold. “Grab a stick and light it with the candle you carried.”
“Was that walk supposed to symbolize something like me walking through this world or carrying life to pass onto the Maker’s side?” she asked with a smirk while extending the oil doused stick to her weeping gourd’s light.
Her husband shrugged, shifting the fire away from her, “Probably. I never paid too much attention to the symbolism part.”
Smiling, Lana tugged up her torch splitting apart the night’s sky with a fiery tongue, hobbled to her pyre, and dropped it with the rest. They burst alive, coating the stones that she was fairly certain were supposed to represent the souls who’d crossed the veil to the Maker’s side. Hypnotic, like a coin flickering at the bottom of a river, she watched the flames burst across the wood. In her mind she knew she should be saying a prayer, perhaps something from the Chant, but her brain was blank. Her little pyre cracked in half, sending the stones plummeting towards the earth.
That was the first person she ever lit a candle for on All Souls Day. The first person she ever felt as if she lost. Maker, there were so many after. Margie, taken when the tower fell along with nearly everyone else she grew up with. And her Wardens. She never learned if any survived both Corypheus’ greedy fingers or Adamant. In truth, Lana feared the answer was none. Even removed from battle and war, she still felt the sting of loss when a patient couldn’t withstand the fight and their body faded away.
Tears dripped down the inside of her white mask, pooling where the wood met against her cheek. So much of her life was death, not just giving it but facing it, accepting it, living with it. For years Lana felt as if she breathed death, her steps moved in time with it, the pyre’s flames obliterating all she touched. She should have died twice over now. A smile warmed her heart and out of the corner of her eye she caught her husband standing solemnly as he stared at the fire. Thank you Jowan, Nathaniel, Wynne. She didn’t mean the real people, but the spirits who stole their faces, who taunted, tormented, and in the end saved her. They weren’t dead, but perhaps they needed a guiding thought to survive the fade as much as the real ones.
A howl echoed through the night, snapping Lana from her vigil. Turning to find the child, or perhaps adult giving the power behind it, she watched another pyre’s flames dancing through the moonlight. “Are we…?” she tugged on Cullen’s hand, needing to feel his flesh beside hers, “Should we howl after lighting it?”
“Ah, traditionally, yes but I always…”
She tipped her head back and let loose a rather pathetic attempt compared to the practiced children. It sounded more like a startled goose, but Lana felt no embarrassment at it. Her heart lightened as if she slipped all her grief into that cry for solidarity and comfort against a hard but sometimes caring world. Cullen tried it himself, his much huskier and fading away as he coughed at the end.
“I’m afraid I was never great at that part and felt sort of…”
Lana tipped her mask up, locked both hands around the back of his neck, and caught him in a kiss. That broken wolf's tooth bit into her cheek, but she didn't care when his warm lips plied hers apart, those sturdy fingers cupping her back as she melded into her husband. They'd both chased death's skirts, clung terrified to what would happen if they let go, and -- over time -- felt brave enough to turn away.
Cullen ran both his callused palms over her cheeks, his fingers cupping behind her head. “I love you, Mrs. Rutherford.”
“And I you, Commander Amell,” she smiled, feeling an urge to sway with him in the dark cornfield. At her feet, she watched her mutilated gourd succumb to the fire’s heat, its front warping inward leaving behind a surprisingly tempting smell of baked squash. A few more howls broke the air, followed by children’s laughter.
Wrapped up in his embrace, watching the severity of death framed as light fought dark while the life of children echoed against the somber call of the pyre, she began to understand what made this holiday so magical. “What happens next?” Lana asked, her fingers tracing over Cullen’s scruff. Even worn to a nub from the day’s work, her body cried out to touch all of his.
“Well,” he was either unaware of her burning desire, or was trying to play coy, “the children run around for awhile howling to close up the veil.”
“I didn’t realize it was that simple,” the mage deadpanned.
He snickered, shaking his head, “Then, they all pick up the water buckets to douse the flames.”
“Children are happy to do that?”
“Tucked under each bucket is a few treats to encourage they do a good job. And usually an adult follows them to make certain. Don’t want to set the field on fire, after all.”
“It’s all right,” Lana smiled. Rolling her fist, she drew forth a cascade of snow across that very veil they were working hard to shore up, “I might know someone who could stop a fire or two.”
Cullen pulled his own wolf mask off revealing that handsome face she fell in love with. He glanced down at it for a moment, his fingers worrying the string, before amber eyes burned through hers. “Lana, thank you.”
“For what?” she gasped.
“For all of this, for dealing with my family, for…” his scar lifted up to match a smile, “for being you.”
Laughing at his serious turn, she rose up to whisper in his ear, “If everyone’s in the field, does that mean the house is empty?”
His eyes blinked in confusion before they shrewdly shot over to hers. “Why Lady Amell, you do have quite a devious mind.” She was about to respond when Cullen scooped a hand under her butt and lifted her into his arms. That caused a cascade of giggles as she nuzzled against his tempting and warm embrace.
“Do you really need to carry me?” Lana sighed, not wanting to be let down.
“I thought it best if you…conserve your strength,” he whispered next to her ear. With her legs kicking up and down in his arms, Cullen pulled her away from her pyre. That’s what it truly was, not a pyre for the dead, but for the person that she once was. The one that lived before loss plucked and pulled wringing pain from her, leaving an entirely new person behind. It took many to make this new Lana, and may they find peace wherever they are.
“Cullen?” she asked, her lips trailing his jawline. “Why wolves?”
Her husband chuckled, “In truth, I haven’t any idea. Traditions never make any sense.”
Cupping his jaw, Lana tugged his lips to hers for a kiss overflowing with the trademarks of fall: roasted squash, children’s laughter, crisp apples, soap bubbles, lit bonfires, and throughout it all, love. Howls echoed through the night, guiding the lost and strengthening the bonds that protected them from the demons of the Fade. Maker only knew what would come next in the world, what horrors would befall the already bruised land, but pain heals and hope clings to the autumn winds.
A little Halloween/Fall Solstice story with Cullen from my series to get everyone into the autumn mood. Six months after their wedding, Cullen and Lana Amell visit his sister's farm. Being a mage, Lana missed out on all the traditions that came with All Soul's Day and Cullen is ecstatic to teach them all to her. Lots of Fluff & Kissing.