What some might call music constantly filled Leona's head. Some might call it music; others would deem it "insufferable nonsense."
What it was indeed was colorful little rhymes and songs and chants collected from Ferelden to Antiva to the Free Marches, some bawdy, some macabre, some in good taste, some in poor, and some completely idiotic. She hummed as she worked.
Leona's staff was a bladed thing, needing as much upkeep as her court sword, reserved for duels and emergencies. She found a chair by the armory window each week and set to work cleaning the blades, oiling the wood, and setting a whetstone to the edge, humming, her mind anywhere but the movements of troops, the loss of life, the plight outside the Keep. She never looked out the window, only focused on the breeze across her cheeks.
The blade was fashioned after a gracefully curved axe—in Ferelden, they might have called it a modified billhook, in the Anderfells, a bardiche, but Leona simply called her staff Cordelia-Magefriend. Simply was perhaps the wrong word. Most of its life, the staff was called Cordelia publicly, Magefriend beyond the ear of the Templars. For now, the Inquisitor could call the staff whatsoever she pleased, and there was not a one who could say otherwise.
Leona caressed the blade with her whetstone, a ringing accompaniment to the tune currently caught up in her mind.
My fair lady, she said maybe,
merrily stringing me along!
Cheery little Sadie
always tells 'em maybe:
never, never a sweet song.
Sadie, my Sadie,
don't tell me maybe—
Make me happy my life long!
"You never run short, do you?"
Leona glanced up, a smile upon lips that had unknowingly sung. "Of songs?" she asked. Cullen looked smaller without his armor and furs—his penchant for the latter giving him away as a natural-born Fereldan when she first saw him as surely as Leliana's love of shoes told of her Orlesian descent without even a single spoken word. He looked as ordinary as any of them could in a Templar-maroon tunic (a color he couldn't seem to let go of), and simple breeches. Unarmed, save for a dagger.
None of them could afford to go without, even in the Keep.
"As long as I keep learning them—no, I don't think I shall." She winked and returned her attention to the heavy blade. It stayed well-balanced on her lap (soft cotton breeches, because she was nothing if not vain about her gleaming blades, as free from nicks and scratches as she could manage, and always meticulously clean) with the help of the counterweight on the opposite end, rather dangerously close to Cullen's knees.
"Do you mind if I join you?"
She darted her eyes up to see that he had fetched his sword from the rack. "Do you know any songs?"
"Well… one or two, but I'm not much of a singer."
Leona chuckled. "And I am? Have a seat, and you can trade your songs for company." She laid the whetstone aside and tugged a vial of oil from her belt.
Cullen dragged a chair just in her line of sight.
"I'm not going to accidentally break your shins."
He wrung a cleaning-cloth between his hands. "Well—I don't want to be in your way or distract—"
Leona met his eyes, a grin playing on her lips. "Cullen, I've been doing this almost as long as you have."
"You sitting next to me isn't going to distract me enough to slice my hand open."
"Unless, of course, it would distract you?"
He straightened against the back of the chair. "I can maintain my weaponry in my sleep."
"Then move in so I don't have to shout. Not that I mind shouting, but if you're really self¬-conscious about your voice…"
Cullen shifted his chair until he sat directly across from her, scraping the legs across the flagstones like a child, sheathed sword across his knees. "Better, Inquisitor?"
"Better, Knight-Captain." She ignored the creases that appeared around his mouth. Leona was no more The Inquisitor than he was Knight-Captain of the Gallows. She uncorked the vial and tipped it into her rag; it smelled of lemon and olives and honey—a touch of bitter deathroot beneath.
Cullen unsheathed his blade, gleaming silver, cared for with highest discipline, where Leona's was shined and sharpened with passion. Grey eyes never left the blade as he caressed its edge with the cloth, his broad, long-fingered hands, calloused and precise. Leona returned her attention to the wooden shaft across her lap and she shifted the blade away, bringing the oil to the grain, turning the cloth with a strong snap of the wrist, practiced, letting the oil reach into every worn notch and crevice.
"I don't abide silent company well, either—your song, Cullen? If you're still shy, I can teach you one first." She gave him a wink.
His head snapped up and he caught her eyes. "Tell me one thing first." Leona's heart leapt—a delight and a challenge of his own will! She thought his initiative for the day was quite worn down with choosing to speak in the first place.
"Anything you like, within reason." The reply came naturally to her lips.
Cullen faltered a moment, and Leona tried to quell her disappointment in a question that might never come. But he tightened his grip on the hilt of his blade. He looked up again, as strong as before. "Why would you invite a Templar to sit beside you—alone."
It was… not the question she had anticipated.
Leona shrugged. "Why would you accept the invitation of a mage to come and sit?"
His gaze returned to his blade. "It's not the same thing."
"You do not know what I have done."
Leona shook her head, and returned her attention to the staff. "What any Templar has done—as I'm sure you assume I've done what 'any mage' has."
Cullen's grip tightened again around the sword's hilt, his other hand curling and tightening around the rag on his knee. "You've never lived in the Circle, have you?"
"No. But I do know of its troubles." Leona twisted her wrist, the cloth gliding along with a little more force than necessary.
"Then you do not know."
Leona tossed the cloth aside and straightened to full height—while not great, she was nearly his size, both seated. "So we've seen it all when a Templar's head, in guilt, should fall!" She held up a hand when he moved to rise. "You owe me a song, and you'll stay until that debt is repaid, won't you?" His shoulders were rigid, tension rolling off his body in waves and lapping at Leona's feet; she let them roll around her, for she could not afford their erosion, keeping steady control of invisible tides. "Have you ever asked Varric about Bianca?"
Cullen frowned, confusion in the arch of his brow. "I cannot say that I have."
She nodded. "It is a story he will not tell. But I will tell mine: it is worth the telling."
He did not reply, and Leona cared not as long as he stayed.
"In Antiva, we lived too close to the Circle for my mother's comfort, but I was plenty old enough to hide my power well, and there was no better place at the time for my father to trade: the hills near the city were rich with history and undiscovered artefacts, for many of which the Circle and Chantry would pay a good deal of money. As I made deliveries for my parents, I became more adept in the practice of stifling and disguising my energies.
I met a young woman there—my age—not a mage, but felt for the mages' plight; she was called Cordelia. She knew what I was immediately, and if only the Templars had known—she could have made the greatest mage hunter in all of Thedas with her big, kind eyes and childish curls." Leona's mouth quirked into a smile. "Her frown could kill you, though. One frown and any apostate would march right back to the Circle, I can tell you that. We went everywhere together, and because the Templars were familiar with me for bringing artefacts, we'd smuggle books and sweets to the mages there in the Circle. It wasn't the state of Kirkwall's Gallows, of course, but the Knight-Commander was very strict, trying to prevent mages from escaping and joining the Crows, of all things. Mages had to train ten years after their Harrowing before being allowed to depart on study. Tranquility was common—families often bribed Templars in hopes of keeping mage members away from their line, asking for inheritance or escaping and putting them at risk. We'd smuggle those set for Tranquility away in the night—sigils can be harder to detect than anything, as I'm sure you're aware."
Cullen gave only a slight nod, his face impassive, lips pressed tightly enough to highlight the scar that bisected them.
Leona continued. "My family and I were set to move again when the Templars finally became aware of what Cordelia and I were doing. They sniffed out my sigils, and it led them to us.
There was no moon that night." Leona paused, shoulders suddenly heavy beneath her blouse. "A warehouse with a faulty lock was our waypoint; the owners never knew we used it. The Templars got the key and Cordelia told me to run, hide. I concealed myself in the rafters, thinking she was close behind.
She was not.
Cordelia met them at the door—the Knight-Commander himself at the head—and she claimed she was the sole head of the operation. 'You did not draw the sigils woman,' he sneered. He'd pulled his visor up over his head, and he had such a face… you'd think you were looking into the eyes of a demon. High cheeks, youthful lips—contorted into the snarl of a wolf, dark eyes that drank up all the joy in a room until all that was left was fear. 'Tell us where to find the mage, and you shall be spared her punishment.'
I didn't move. I was afraid of what they might do to my parents—fine them, hunt them, imprison them? He was attempting a deal with Cordelia, but promised nothing for them.
The commander grabbed her wrist and pressed his palm against hers. She gritted her teeth. 'There's not a drop of magic in you, woman.' The Templar tossed her back against one of the crates with a flick of his wrist. Cordelia straightened. She brushed off her skirts. 'One last time: where is the mage?"
Cordelia raised her eyes to his onyx gaze. 'I am she.'" Leona paused. There were lines around her mouth Cullen had never seen before, and he knew how the tale would end.
"They didn't simply kill her on the spot. The Knight-Commander put a dagger through her belly and the blood soaked her tunic faster than new wool plunged into a dyer's vat—into the cotton, down her skirts. She looked surprised for a moment before pain crumpled her features. No trial, no interrogation, just a collapse into her own blood on the floor of the warehouse, the timbers drinking it up like water, stained cherry where once pale and dry. Her voice was thin, lips bloody:
'So this is the justice of the Chantry.' She swallowed, rather than spitting, as she suppressed a cough. 'You'll never find the mages.'
He beheaded her. The indignant snarl remained on her features as her head rolled across the planks, and I swallowed bile and lay still and seethed and there were no tears: my cowardice kept me still, greater than the knowledge that if I gave myself up, she would have died for nothing. The thought of her anger and disappointment was last on my mind, and there was only a corpse and a head and the blood and I could call none of it Cordelia any more.
I don't know when they left.
I could not bury her, for she was not there. There was flesh and there was blood and there was something I could not call a face pressed into the floor, pale and stained and unrecognizable with its dead eyes." Leona's did not leave his. They were cold, and they were present.
"Do not tell me I don't know of the Templars." She said it not unkindly. Firm, matter-of-fact. The past could stay where it was and stories were meant to be learned from, not carried around like mill-stones.
Cullen did not bow his head, and spoke only: "I am sorry."
Leona resumed polishing the haft, oil seeping into the dry grain. It would need beeswax later; she'd forgotten it in her chambers.
"The cuckoo, she's a funny bird,
she sings while she files.
She'll bring you glad tidings;
she'll tell you no lies."
Cullen's hands continued the practiced motion of polishing the blade while his eyes continued to watch her. And she watched him, avoiding his gaze at last.
"A-walkin' and a-talkin',
a-wandrin' go I,
a-waitin' for my true love:
he'll come by and by."
She saw him fetch his whet-stone and set it to the edge of the blade, long, rhythmic stroke's along the steel, ringing in the quiet of her verses.
"I'll meet him in the morning
for he's my dear light
I could walk with my true love
from morning till night."
Leona slipped the leather cover over her blade and laid the staff against the windowsill, where the breeze rustled the feathers and little shards of lyrium she had wound in leather around the haft. She retrieved her court-sword, and unsheathed the triangular blade as Cullen's ministrations rang in her ears.
"But if he will leave me, I'll not be forlorn.
And if he'll forswear me, I'll not be forsworn.
I'll get myself all in my best finery,
and I'll walk as proud by him
as he walks by me."
He set the whetstone aside and reached for another cloth. Leona set to polishing her thin blade with careful, practiced fingers, reaching every edge.
"I owe you a song."
Leona offered a silly, half-smile. "You do." She met his steady gaze.
"I picked one up in the tavern back home as a boy, not long before I entered the Chantry."
"Is it dirty?"
He shook his head. "Wouldn't want to give you any more ideas."
She chuckled. "Well, out with it then, so I don't have a chance to get too disappointed."
"I'm afraid you'll be disappointed anyway, though you'll probably enjoy the verse."
"Out with it!"
Cullen shook his head, a faint smile gracing his lips, and Leona nearly pricked herself on the end of her blade. He cleared his throat. "You know, I don't really sing—"
He sighed, and launched straight into the tune before Leona could complain further.
"There was a bann in Denerim,
he courted a lady gay,
and all that he courted this lady for,
was to take her sweet life away."
She should have expected that voice. She really should have.
"Come give to me of your father's gold,
likewise your father's feed,
and two of the best horses in your father's stable,
for there stands thirty and three."
Sweet and soft. Because, by all rights, it shouldn't have been.
"She mounted on her milk-white steed,
and he the fast-travelling grey.
They rode till they came to the seashore side
three hours before it was day.
'Aligh,t alight, my pretty Paulie
Alight, alight,' said he,
'For six pretty maids I have drownded here,
And you the seventh shall be.' "
Well, all right—sweet and soft and a Templar and that verse, yes, that she could live with. That made sense.
"Now take off your silken dress,
likewise your golden stay—"
"I thought you said it wasn't dirty—"
Cullen arched his brow. "Do you want to hear the rest or—"
He shook his head at the blade forgotten in her lap.
"For I think your clothing too rich and too gay
to rot in the south sea.
'Yes I'll take off my silken dress,
likewise m y golden stay,
but before I do so, you false young man,
you must turn your face away.'
Then he turned his back around,
and faced a willow tree.
She caught him around the middle so small,
and throwed him into the sea.
And as he rose and as he sank,
and as he rose said he:
'Oh give me your hand, my pretty Paulie!
My pride will never harm thee.'
'Lie there, lie there, you false young man,
Lie there instead of me!
For six pretty maids you have drownded here,
and the seventh has drownded thee.' "
His cheeks had a pink cast to them when he resumed his work on the quite polished blade in his lap.
Leona, on the other hand, was grinning shamelessly. "All the initiates wanted to hear you sing the Chant, didn't they?"
Cullen huffed and didn't notice the sliced fragment of his polishing-cloth flutter off his lap.
"But—" she said crisply, stretching against the back of the chair. "—your secret is safe with me, if you're willing to provide some company every week for this very activity." She winked.
"And if I'm not?" He sheathed the blade, feigning interest in the state of the pommel.
Leona shrugged. "Then you don't have to come."
He raised his eyes.
"And I won't say a word."
Cullen nodded, and straightened, a smile forming on his lips.
"I may have one more song I can teach you."
He held up a hand as soon as he heard her breath. Leona raised a questioning brow.
"No, it's not the Chant of Light."