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A Castle in the Clouds [Closed]

Nicolette O'Hara

Prominent member
DAO/DA2 Timeline
[Early autumn, Skyhold, 9:41] Celeste Monroe

Nicolette had not actually expected to get to visit Skyhold. Apart from the fact that the seat of the Inquisition was lodged in the mountains and took days to get to from the sea, it would be heaving with refugees, merchants and soldiers, and therefore would not need a minstrel indulging her idle curiosity adding to the swell of the crowds. Besides, for much of the last few months she had been far more focused on moving between the places she was most likely to stay alive than following her whims. And as Skyhold was far from the ocean, and therefore not somewhere Celeste was likely to be, Nicolette had quickly abandoned any thought of going there.

So when she had expressed a desire to see it one day, curled in Celeste’s arms after another long evening of making up for lost time, she had not expected her captain to say that it was actually possible. The Wicked Grace had run several errands for the Inquisition, and was actually carrying a few crates for them now; instead of simply passing them on to Inquisition agents at Jader, they could join a caravan and accompany the crates to Skyhold. It would mean several days away from the ship - likely the longest period of separation that Celeste had ever undergone - and travelling by horse and cart, of which her captain was not fond. However, her delight at the idea had been enough for Celeste to set the wheels in motion.

Nicolette felt a little guilty over such pains being taken on her behalf, but it did not last long out of Jader. More than a few of the merchants in the caravan had a lot of interesting stories to share, and between Celeste’s presence, the numbers of the group and the presence of some guards, she felt a lot safer than she had been expecting. During the day she roamed along the column, switching between horseback and foot and returning to the wagon whenever she needed a rest, and in the evening she provided some music for the camp - she had been quick to dissuade anybody from asking for her and Celeste’s assistance with cooking. At night, she curled up in the wagon with Celeste, missing the rocking of the Wicked Grace but soothed by the captain’s presence.

The Inquisition had done well with protecting the roads that led to Skyhold, and although on a couple of occasions Nicolette had spotted some distinctly unfriendly-looking people eyeing them from a distance, none came close enough to cause a disruption. With minimal hassle, after a few days of travelling, they breached the top of a mountain road and on the other side of the valley was perched Skyhold, majestic against the cold blue sky. Great towers arched upwards, red and gold pennants embroidered with the flaming eye fluttered in the breeze, and even though Nicolette knew very little about architecture she knew it must have been quite the task to build such a building in this remote location. It was a sight to take the breath away, even though looking down into the valley itself was sobering - miles of rudimentary shelters and tents told of how many people had already fled here seeking safety. Nonetheless, she quickly turned on top of the mare she had claimed early on, calling to her captain, beaming. “Celeste! We are here!”

Celeste Monroe

Shenaniginstigator In Chief
Post DAI Timeline
DAO/DA2 Timeline
Ostensibly, this trip was being made so that Celeste could explain to the Inquisition why they would need someone else to make the cargo runs to Cumberland for the foreseeable future. Nevarran steel was always in high demand, but there were other goods she could transport that wouldn’t require docking in a city where the captain of the guard was holding a completely unreasonable grudge.

That could have been accomplished by a letter easily enough, but she had seen the wonder shining in Nicolette’s eyes as they listened to the rumors of the Inquisition’s new headquarters: a mysterious castle tucked away in the Frostback mountains. Once they had reached Jader and the rumors had been confirmed, well …

She could have lived quite comfortably with her own curiosity unsatisfied (and make no mistake, she was curious), but while Nicolette’s ordeal had temporarily dampened her spirit of adventure, Celeste knew that keeping her chained to the Wicked Grace, no matter how often the ship sailed to new ports, would be very nearly as smothering as being locked up in Luis’ opulent mansion had been to a girl named Naishe. Her minstrel needed to roam free sometimes, and Celeste had made a promise that she intended to keep, that she would not roam alone unless she wanted to.

So arrangements had been made for them to travel with a caravan bound for Skyhold, and the Wicked Grace left under Gideon’s command, with the crew quite happy to take shore leave in Jader. The caravan master had been less than enthused - evidently, there were a number of would-be sightseers looking to tag along since word of the mountain redoubt had spread - but promise of a minstrel to liven the evenings had softened him up, and a bit of extra coin from Celeste had secured their passage, along with a horse for Nicolette.

Not for Celeste, though. While sitting on a wagon bench was a far more sedentary pastime than the sailor preferred, it was definitely preferable to being stuck in a saddle. By the end of the second day out, the driver of the wagon that Celeste and Nico had been assigned to was passing off the reins to Celeste so that he could catch a nap sitting up. By the end of the third, he was leaving her alone while he stretched out atop the cargo in the back to snooze. Celeste didn’t mind; he was a pleasant enough bloke, but his favored snack of raw onion made close quarters less than amenable. The two oxen that pulled the wagon were kept at a respectable distance by the harness arrangement and were docile, plodding amiably a few yards to the rear of the next wagon in line, showing no inclination to any unpredictable changes in course and responding promptly to any guidance that Celeste gave from her perch.

This freed Celeste up to take in the scenery, which, she had to admit, had become increasingly impressive, as well as being the farthest from the ocean she had ever ventured. The mountains fascinated her, seeming like enormous, stationary waves … until they had watched their first avalanche from a distance and her seatmate had informed her that the trees that were engulfed by the onrushing wall of snow and ice had likely been fifty feet tall or more. She kept a wary eye craned upward after that, but the first serious snow hadn’t started appearing on their route until the day before.

Watching Nicolette was far less stressful; the minstrel had quickly bonded with a small chestnut mare and spent a good part of each day astride her, ranging up and down the line of wagons, though careful not to go beyond the caravan guards. The size of the group and the number of guards made an open attack unlikely, but raiders might well pick off unwary stragglers or wanderers. Sometimes she walked, and then Celeste would rouse the driver and hop off to join her, and that was her preferred way to spend the daylight hours. Even when they’d had to wade through snow the previous day, she hadn’t really minded. It was temporary, and knowing it to be so, she could enjoy the novelty, laugh (after screeching) when her minstrel impishly slipped a handful of snow down the back of her tunic and chase her through the drifts hurling snowballs.

By far, though, her favorite time of day was the evenings after camp had been made: sitting around the fire sharing stories, listening to Nicolette play and sing, then curling up with her lover in the wagon, wrapped in blankets that trapped their shared warmth to keep the increasingly frigid night air at bay. She’d never seen so many stars, the familiar constellations all but lost in the crowd of newcomers that glittered like diamonds on a velvet cloth of deepest black.

They were getting close to their destination. The mountain peaks that had loomed ever closer in the first days of the journey surrounded them now, and the road ran through a narrow gorge that had been sloping steadily upward all morning at an increasingly steep angle. Watchers had been periodically visible on the ridges above, but none had lingered once they had evidently been identified and determined to be no threat. Small wonder; Celeste wondered uneasily what had happened to whoever had attacked Haven, and if they had learned of the new headquarters. It would be hard to access, but if a bunch of horse-drawn wagons could manage it, an army could, as well.

She was distracted from these less than pleasant musings by Nicolette’s jubilant cry from her position near the head of the caravan.

“Celeste! We are here!”

Even at this distance, the elation on that beautiful face was easy to see, and since the steepness of the grade had meant that the driver had foregone his nap today to mind the team, Celeste leaped from the wagon and made her way forward. It was far from easy going: between the thinness of the air and the slope, Celeste’s legs and chest were burning before she’d covered half the distance, but she was still moving faster than the wagons, as the drivers allowed the beasts a slow pace to conserve their energy.

Her first thought as they reached the top was that they surely must be at the roof of the world. The sky overhead was pale blue, the wispy white clouds that the surrounding mountain peaks parted like ships’ prows looked low enough to touch, and the sun beat down with a fierceness that was utterly at odds with the chilly air and the snow all around. Then she looked ahead into the valley they had emerged above and forgot about the rest of it, a low whistle escaping her.

How in blazes had anyone managed to haul the raw materials needed to build a castle like that up here? Why would they have done it? Who had done it? And how had the Inquisition managed to find it? As little interest as she had in land, she knew maps, and this place was a long slog over hard terrain from Haven. But find it they had; the city of tents and lean-to’s sprawling out on either side of the road in made that clear.

She glanced up at Nico, smiling at the delight in her lover’s expression. “Think she can carry us both?” she asked, patting the horse’s shoulder. Neither of them were anywhere close to Gideon in size, but like ships, horses had load limits. Conditions made the difference, though, and a few miles downhill on a clear road didn’t seem as though it would be too much of a strain.

Nicolette O'Hara

Prominent member
DAO/DA2 Timeline
After calling down to Celeste, Nicolette turned back to enjoy the view again. It had been quite some time since she had been at a mountainous vista, and there had been plenty of arresting sights on their way up - the beautiful spray of stars against the blue-black velvet of the sky at night being such a one - but this was all the more impressive. Nature had sculpted the mountains, the sky, the valley floor, and personal endeavour had created Skyhold and brought all the people below to seek sanctuary here. No doubt there would be storytellers weaving together these strands already, but Nicolette began to spin her own anyway - in amongst the refugees there would be a child, torn from home, but overcoming the difficulties of their situation to grow into a powerful warrior…

A soft wheeze alerted her to the fact that Celeste had caught up, and she immediately felt a slight sting of guilt - she should have ridden back down towards her, the air this high was not made for strenuous activity - but it was quickly doused by her captain’s reaction to the view. After her eyes had finished bugging a little, she let out a low, appreciative whistle, and Nicolette felt a fresh thrill of joy that they were getting to see this together. One thing that had always been a little hard to take about travelling alone was not getting to share wonders as she experienced them.

Celeste was smiling up at her now, and patted Tashi. “Think she can carry us both?”

Nicolette ruffled the horse’ mane a little, earning a soft whicker. Tashi was built for hauling loads up a mountain, and was remarkably amiable in disposition. Presumably the horsemaster had trained her for such; in this environment it was important a horse did not startle easily in case it carried its rider over a cliff edge. “I think she is good for it.” Nicolette held out her hand for Celeste to grip, and once her captain was firmly seated behind her, she nudged Tashi down towards the valley.

She had seen people living in close quarters out of necessity before - the slums of Kirkwall and various alienages before the sky had torn, and then many refugee camps since - but it was clear that the Inquisition was doing well in maintaining order over the vast array of tents and temporary shelters that had sprung up. There were little sections for markets, mostly just selling out of the back of carts but a few already having constructed basic wooden stands for themselves. There was even a bar in evidence, with a few soldiers and civilians alike grouped around barrels and playing poker or drinking together. A hot metal smell that took her back to her father’s smithy came from a row of forges that had been set up well away from anything flammable, and over all of it was the din of several hundred - if not thousand - people living together, chatting, shouting, bartering, singing. Thankfully, there was no overwhelming smell of latrine, so it appeared that the Inquisition had been diligent in attending to that part of their infrastructure as well. Nicolette gazed about with eyes shining. “I suspect even once the Inquisition has completed its task, this will become a permanent settlement.”

As they drew closer to the outskirts, Nicolette pulled back a little so they were not too far ahead of the caravan, and a pair of soldiers wearing the Inquisition livery approached them. Both looked quite young, although the older of the two - proudly sporting a little fluff about the chin - greeted them confidently enough. “Greetings to you. Here to find shelter or to trade?”