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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?”

Celeste Monroe

Shenaniginstigator In Chief
Post DAI Timeline
DAO/DA2 Timeline
The saddle definitely wasn’t built for two, but the warmth at Celeste’s front as she wrapped her arms around her minstrel’s waist was quite enough to make the discomfort in her backside seem negligible for the short distance they had to cover. She briefly considered trying a thing or two she’d read in the trashy romance novels of her youth, but dismissed the notion quickly. The horses in those tales were always impeccably trained and seemingly unconcerned with what amorous activities their riders were up to on their backs. She wasn’t at all certain how this beast would react, and while the steepest drops were a good distance away, falling on her ass held only slightly more appeal than falling off the mountain.

She did nip lightly at an earlobe before resting her chin on Nico’s shoulder, studying the panorama before them with interest. The settlement that sprawled outward around the castle was considerably larger than any of the refugee camps that she had seen since the Breach had sent what seemed like half of Thedas fleeing their homes, but it seemed far better organized. No beggars waited beside the road, and most of the folk were busy at one task or another, glancing at the incoming caravan with interest, not desperation. Supply lines were getting reestablished, then. A few guards patrolled the rows, vigilant but relaxed, suggesting that the population didn’t tend to get too unruly.

“I suspect even once the Inquisition has completed its task, this will become a permanent settlement,” Nicolette remarked, looking about in fascination.

“Most likely,” Celeste agreed. The towering castle made for a very eye-catching landmark; it might have been forgotten once, but now that it had been rediscovered, it would not soon be abandoned again. By this time next year, the tents and lean-to’s would have been replaced by the buildings of a proper town. “This far off the beaten path, they’ll likely welcome a traveling minstrel,” she added casually. It was further inland than Nico generally ventured on her forays away from the ship, but if her lover wanted to make the trip every now and then, Celeste would be happy to tag along (truth be told, she was looking forward to seeing the evolution of the settlement).

Two guards posted near the road moved to meet them as they drew near. “Greetings to you,” offered one who looked to be the older by an hour or two, and who bore a fuzzy growth on his chin not unlike the one that Bailey had taken such pride in when he’d been sixteen. “Here to find shelter or to trade?”

“We’re with the caravan,” Celeste told him, gesturing behind them with her thumb. “Need to speak with Quartermaster Threnn.” That had been the name on all their previous contracts.

The other guard, a baby-faced ginger, shook his head. “Threnn retired as quartermaster. Morris is the new quartermaster.” His companion gave a derisive snort that got him an elbow in the ribs and a quick reproving glance. “You’ll find him inside the walls, m’lady,” he went on. “Lower courtyard, tower in the northeast corner, first floor.”

Celeste murmured her thanks and let Nicolette guide their mount toward the fortress. The guards on the walls watched them, but no one challenged them further as they rode across a bridge over a chasm that Celeste chose not to look into - the vast gulfs of nothingness that loomed on the edges of the mountain paths affected her very differently than the view from city rooftops - and beneath a massive oak and iron portcullis, through a short tunnel of carved granite blocks and into a massive courtyard surrounded on all sides by walls topped with broad walkways, soaring towers and, straight ahead, a main hall that rose even higher and looked capable of holding hundreds.

Impressive at first glance, but a closer look told a slightly different tale: crumbling walls and collapsed roofs in several spots, shattered panes in many of the windows, but repairs were underway everywhere, with workers hauling stone away here, replacing damaged timbers there. Celeste glanced up at the sun, getting her bearings, then at the towers that rose at each corner of the walls. “Think it’s over -”

“You found her!” She turned to see Varric descending the steps from the main hall, Bianca in a sling across his back. Celeste sent him a wave, then attempted a dismount that turned into a slithering descent down one side of their mount’s rump. The horse snorted and shifted sideways a step, but thankfully refrained from kicking.

“Sorry,” Celeste told the beast, giving her a careful pat. “I’ll stick with the wagons on the return trip. Nice place you’ve got here,” she added to Varric as the dwarf reached them.

“It lacks the Hanged Man’s ambiance,” he replied with a diffident shrug, “but it’s home for now. Good to see you alive and well, Dancer,” he said, peering up at Nico with a smile. “I’m guessing you’ll have some new stories to trade? I know I do.”

Nicolette O'Hara

Prominent member
DAO/DA2 Timeline
Celeste handled the initial introductions, as she was in charge of the shipment they were guiding from the Wicked Grace; Nicolette took the opportunity to look around a little more. She doubted she would be the only performer who had made their way here by this point, but she should have no problems finding a space to perform in a settlement of this size. Besides, she usually enjoyed collaborating with other minstrels, as long as they were not too territorial. They quickly hit their first snag, however; Celeste’s contact was no longer the quartermaster at Skyhold.

“Morris is the new quartermaster.” One of the guards snorted in a way that suggested either that Threnn’s departure had been ignonmous, or that Morris was lacking somewhat for his position. Still, they were here with goods, for which the Inquisition would be grateful. Unless this Morris attempted to sell them false on the value, it did not really matter who was accepting the order. Nicolette could not quite hide a little thrill of delight when they were directed to go inside the fortress itself, however. She had half-expected that they would be stopped at the gates.

They were allowed to proceed with no further checks, which seemed a little lax, although Nicolette had no doubt they were being watched the whole way, and not just by the people who watched them curiously as they passed through the camp. Even with the variety of people who had come here, it was possibly a little unusual to see two brightly-garbed women sharing one horse.

Nicolette’s sense of magnificence did not dull as they drew closer. Even though the stone was crumbling in parts, and she could see a broken window here and there, it did not mask the fact that building Skyhold here must have taken miracles, and restoring it would take both time and money. As they reached the gate, Nicolette turned in the saddle, gazing out at the backdrop of the mountains and sky, with the campfires twinkling below in the valley. It was almost unbearably beautiful, and she folded a hand over Celeste’s, hoping she was enjoying it even a fraction as much as Nicolette was.

The courtyard itself was almost as busy as the camp, groaning soldiers being ferried one way and clashes and cheers from a training ring a level above their heads almost drowning out Nicolette’s ability to think. Celeste was craning her head around to look for the quartermaster, and then a warm, familiar voice called out from the steps to the main hall. “You found her!”

Nicolette had heard that Varric had become part of the Inquisition, which had both surprised her a little and not at all - from his tales in Kirkwall, he was used to finding himself accidentally in the middle of his own stories, but this was a world away from holding court in his favourite tavern, relating his latest escapades with Hawke. She slid off the horse after Celeste, with only a little more grace, her face lighting up as Varric reached them and Celeste greeted him.

“Nice place you’ve got here.”

“It lacks the Hanged Man’s ambiance, but it’s home for now. Good to see you alive and well, Dancer,” he smiled. “I’m guessing you’ll have some new stories to trade? I know I do.”

When Nicolette had first met him, she had been hard put to forget she was speaking with the Varric Tethras - one of Thedas’ most prominent authors and as it turned out, a brave, loyal friend into the bargain. They had long since dropped formality after a few tipsy evenings at the Hanged Man and Nicolette was glad enough to see him alive that she bent to envelop him in a hug, kissing both of his cheeks afterwards and beaming at him.

“The same to you, Varric. Apparently my luck continues to hold out.” She straightened up and squeezed Celeste’s hand. “Yes, I have quite a few tales - not all of them nice, I will admit, but they do all involve a dramatic escape and the subjects living at the end. My favourite type of story, at the moment! Will you join us later, once we can have a few drinks? I can regale you with our reunion, which naturally involved Celeste doing acrobatics across several ships and a bar fight.”

Varric Tethras

Bullshitter Emeritus
Canon Character
Post DAI Timeline
DAO/DA2 Timeline
Happy endings in fiction were all too often trite and contrived, and Varric tried to avoid them as much as possible in favor of gritty realism. Reality itself had been much too gritty of late, however, and he’d actually been considering sucking it up and adding some new installments to Swords And Shields, as crappy as it was. Or maybe just starting something new altogether. Anything to break up the doom and gloom.

Because happy endings had been in woefully short supply lately. Even finding this place stuck off in the middle of the last place a castle should be had him waiting for another shoe to drop, and the fact that no ghosts had been found drifting through the corridors or undead shit crawling up from the overgrown garden in the central courtyard only made him more suspicious, because if anyplace was gonna be haunted, it should have been Skyhold. So what was bad enough to scare even ghosts and ghouls off?

He hoped he never found out.

After they’d hitched a ride on the Wicked Grace in Jader, he’d not been holding out any real hope for a happy ending there, though he had followed through with his promise to have Inquisition agents on the lookout for Nicolette (Nightingale was fond of the minstrel, too, and had readily acceded to his request). One woman on her own in the hell that southern Thedas had become, particularly one as gentle-natured as Dancer? The odds hadn’t been good, and he’d honestly let it slip from his active thoughts because the same imagination that had him writing stories from the time he could scrawl words onto parchment had been too willing to suggest scenario after scenario of what could have happened to her, with demons being just one of the possibilities.

So, walking out the door and seeing her riding in with Trouble in tow was both a welcome sight and a surprise. He’d never thought to see Celeste this far from the ocean and her ship, hadn’t even known that she could ride a horse (though her dismount suggested that he hadn’t been wrong on that score). Dancer showed considerably more grace, then surprised (and pleased) him with a hug and a kiss pressed to each cheek.

“The same to you, Varric,” she greeted him with a warm smile as she reached out to take Celeste’s hand. “Apparently my luck continues to hold out.”

“Trouble’s, as well,” he observed. ‘Needle in a haystack’ didn’t come close to describing the feat that had been achieved.

“Not gonna argue about that,” Celeste agreed, regarding the minstrel with an affectionate smile that turned mischievous as she added, “Getting her back was fun, too.”

“Yes, I have quite a few tales,” Dancer confirmed, “not all of them nice, I will admit, but they do all involve a dramatic escape and the subjects living at the end. My favourite type of story, at the moment! Will you join us later, once we can have a few drinks? I can regale you with our reunion, which naturally involved Celeste doing acrobatics across several ships and a bar fight.”

“Sounds like a typical Tuesday for her,” Varric quipped, getting a wicked grin from Trouble in response. “What brings you all the way to our little slice of paradise?”

“Need to talk to your quartermaster,” Celeste replied with a telltale smirk. “Our reunion also involved us getting banned from Cumberland, so we’ll need to see if we can find a cargo besides Nevarran steel to ship for you. The guards out front said that Threnn was out?” she added curiously, her eyes asking the question that she would not voice.

“Threnn’s fine,” Varric assured her, “but I promise that whatever you heard about what happened at Haven doesn’t come close to the truth, and she’s not the only one who decided to step back from active duty. Morris is … enthusiastic,” and that was all he was going to say on the subject, “but the person you should probably be talking to is our ambassador, Josephine Montilyet.” Ruffles was slowly but determinedly rebuilding the lines of communication and supply that had been torn asunder when the Inquisition had fled Haven, and would have a far better idea where someone of Trouble’s skill set and resources could be utilized than Puddles, who as his nickname suggested, had a habit of bounding about and making messes like a boisterous pup who wasn’t quite fully housebroken.

“I could introduce you to her, give you a bit of a tour on the way,” he suggested. “We can start with dropping your horse off at the stables.” He wasn’t sure how Trouble would react to some of the more exotic mounts that had been received from around Thedas, but he was fairly sure that Dancer would be enthralled, and her smile was definitely something he could use more of.

Nicolette O'Hara

Prominent member
DAO/DA2 Timeline
It was so good to see Varric again. Nicolette wasn’t surprised he would survive - he had an uncanny ability to end up in the middle of things without actually dying - but she had still been unsure, had hardly dared hope. Her experience of trying to track the Wicked Grace down had made her nervous of having too much hope. It was exhausting having it dashed over and over again.

By contrast, learning he had survived exhilarated her. She beamed as he cracked a joke about Celeste’s antics in Cumberland not sounding that out of the ordinary for her, feeling another small fragment of weight lift from her shoulders. She carried one of those fragments for each person she cared about, and the burden of them had been quite heavy lately. True, Varric had a few more lines around his eyes than she remembered, but doubtless so did she. Rather than talk about the people lost or missing along the way, they focused on the present. “What brings you all the way to our little slice of paradise?”

“Need to talk to your quartermaster.” Celeste gave Varric the benefit of her mischievous grin. “Our reunion also involved us getting banned from Cumberland, so we’ll need to see if we can find a cargo besides Nervarran steel to ship for you. The guards out front said that Threnn was out?”

Not dead, fortunately, as it turned out, just replaced with somebody called Morris. Even without using words, Varric could tell a story, and Nicolette snorted softly at the clear signals his eyebrows were sending about the character of the man. “But the person you should probably be talking to is our ambassador, Josephine Montiliyet. I could introduce you to her, give you a bit of a tour on the way. We can start by dropping your horse off at the stables.”

“That sounds like a fine idea to me.” Nicolette hadn’t been sure how much they might get to see of Skyhold - it was after all technically a military base - and she was eager to get into as many corners as she could. Already she had caught sight of some amazingly coloured stained glass, cut into the shape of the Inquisition’s insignia. Unlike a military installation, apparently Skyhold had apparently had room for artisans to apply their work as well.

She was distracted from the architectural elements of Skyhold as they wandered past a few stalls, displaying items of better quality than had been available down at the refugee camp. Apparently the merchants here thought they might get access to customers willing to pay a little more, and were willing to make the trek up to do it. There was even a bookstall, which might have waylaid her, if an almighty bellow from the direction of the stables hadn’t made her jump a foot in the air.

Oh la vache! What was that?!”

They walked forward, towards a bald man with a rattling assortment of reins and bits over one arm, who was rubbing his face and grumbling. As Varric approached, the man turned towards him with the air of somebody who just needed someone to complain at for a moment. “Maker’s breath, remind me again who thought this would be a good gift for the Inquisitor? She’s got a perfectly good warhorse, why would she need this - this - thing?”

Before Nicolette could ask what the ‘thing’ was, there was an almighty scraping noise, as though something was dragging heavily along the wooden walls, and then a gigantic head pushed its way out from the wall, framed by a pair of antlers so large they bordered on impractical. The hart gazed out at its startled audience, then bellowed again. The man who appeared to be the horsemaster was right, this sort of creature would be utterly impractical as a mount for a soldier - but it was magnificent! Nicolette desperately wanted to touch it, but she was equally wary of those antlers. “Is it even tame?”

“Tame enough to be ridden, and smart enough to know that if he makes that noise often enough we’ll feed him more just to get him to shut up,” the horsemaster grumbled. “Still not as bad as that damn dracolisk though.”

Nicolette’s eyes widened.

Celeste Monroe

Shenaniginstigator In Chief
Post DAI Timeline
DAO/DA2 Timeline
One of the nice things about Varric was that he knew everybody. Whatever you needed or needed to be done, if he didn’t know someone, he knew someone who knew someone. And if he said that this Josephine was a better option than mystery man Morris, Celeste was quite willing to take his word on the matter.

Getting a grand tour of the fortress from someone well acquainted with it was a welcome prospect, and if the stables wouldn’t have been Celeste’s choice for a starting point, her lover’s eager response was more than enough to overcome her own indifference. How bad could a barn full of horses be, particularly since nobody was asking her to ride any of them.

As they walked, Celeste stole the occasional glance at their surroundings, but most of her time was spent watching Nicolette. The wide-eyed wonder and delight with which the minstrel took in everything from the stained glass windows to the row of merchants’ stalls were of far more interest to the sailor than any landbound structure, however mysterious.

A strident bugle shattered the air; Celeste tensed, and Nico started, but no one else around them even twitched in surprise.

“Oh la vache!” the minstrel exclaimed. “What was that?!”

“Just part of the ambiance,” Varric drawled as a burly bloke with a bald head and grizzled whiskers strode impatiently from the stables, arms laden with a mess of leather and metal that Celeste couldn’t identify.

“Maker’s breath, remind me again who thought this would be a good gift for the Inquisitor?” he demanded as soon as he caught sight of Varric. “She’s got a perfectly good warhorse, why would she need this - this - thing?”

“One of the Dalish clans sent it,” the dwarf replied. “Dennet is the Inquisition’s horsemaster.”

“A horsemaster who is missing the days when all he had to deal with was horses,” Dennet put in.

“Halla?” Celeste inquired, but the beast that shoved its head out of one of the stalls bore little resemblance to the pale, graceful, and sedate animals that she had seen on occasion when a clan traveled near the shoreline. This beast could look Gideon in the eyes, and atop the imperiously lifted head sat a rack of horns that could have flown a respectable set of sails. The head turned, regarding them briefly with dark eyes before lifting and emitting another deafening bugle. Their own mount snorted and shied, ears pinned back, and Dennet set his load aside and approached, taking the reins from Nico and murmuring softly to the horse, who quieted immediately.

“Is it even tame?” Nicolette wondered, looking at it longingly.

“Tame enough to be ridden,” Dennet confirmed sourly, “and smart enough to know that if he makes that noise often enough we’ll feed him more just to get him to shut up. Still not as bad as that damn dracolisk though.”

Nico’s eyes nearly bugged from her head, but Celeste suspected they were being put on. “Dracolisk?” she challenged him skeptically.

His mouth twisted in sardonic amusement. “Aye, that’s what I said,” he confirmed, gesturing for them to follow him as he moved around the stables until they could see a stout pen set against the outer walls, well away from the other stalls. Inside the high walls of the pen, a monster with the head of a dragon, a horse’s body covered in mottled blue and yellow scales and dark spikes, and clawed feet basked in a patch of sun. It lifted its head, watching them with the lazy interest of a well-fed predator who was nonetheless considering a bit of sport hunting.

“I’m guessing it doesn’t eat hay?” Celeste ventured, keeping herself ever so slightly between Nicolette and the beast, and her hands close to her daggers. The gnawed bones scattered about the enclosure were enough of an answer.

“I should be so lucky,” Dennet grumbled. “I have a pair of hunters who do nothing but make sure he’s well enough fed that he’s not tempted to dine on his neighbors … or the stable hands. Even so, I wouldn’t advise getting any closer than this.”

“No worries on that score,”
Celeste assured him. “Can it even be ridden?”

“The Inquisitor will ride it if she’s looking to make a big entrance,” he replied, “but she’s got the sense not to take him on any extended trips. Keeping him fed would take all her time.” Another bugle punctuated his words, and the dracolisk stirred restlessly, scenting the air. “I’ll get your horse put up if you’ll do me the favor of taking an armful or two of hay from the right-hand rack in the barn to His Highness to shut him up. Just the grass hay, mind you; the alfalfa makes him squirt like a sodding goose. There’re some apples in a barrel by the door; he can have a couple. And he likes having the base of his antlers scratched.”

He led their horse off without waiting for a response. Celeste exchanged a glance with Varric, who gave her a what-can-you-do? shrug. “After you,” she invited Nicolette. She was willing to provide the labor, but her lover was the one who wanted to get close to the beast.

Nicolette O'Hara

Prominent member
DAO/DA2 Timeline
Varric did not seem particularly put out by the sudden burst of noise, but then he was rarely staggered by anything. In fact he looked vaguely amused as he introduced Dennet. Oscar and Thibault, who had been circling behind to explore the courtyard on their entry, bounded back close to Nicolette at the noise, both silent but teeth bared. Nicolette learned down to soothe them both, rubbing under their chins until they relaxed a little. She could not, however, take her eyes off the hart. It was the most magnificent animal she had ever seen. The dogs did not flinch back again when the hart bellowed once more, although their horse shied until Dennet took her reins and murmured softly in one pinned-back ear until it relaxed. It was easy to see how he had attained his post; he gained the horse’s confidence within seconds.

Apparently the hart gave him more trouble than horses, and then he had something even more exhausting to deal with. For a moment Nicolette assumed he was pulling their legs, but instead he smiled a bit at her obvious surprise. Dracolisks were one of those creatures where Nicolette was willing to accept they might exist, given what other things Thedas held, but had never thought to see one herself. They were famously dangerous. But in these circumstances, with the horsemaster offering, it could not hurt to take a look.

That was not to say she came within a clawed limb’s distance of the cage, however.

She had seen how even unexpected animals could be charmed. There were plenty of tales of usually dangerous creatures which nonetheless developed an affection for humans. Nicolette remembered Deux, Eda’s bear, although Eda had always made it clear that Deux would always be at least a little wild. She had met rangers with wolves, too. But looking at the dracolisk, while fascinating - she was taking down every detail she could see to furnish future stories - she could see nothing to indicate that such a creature would ever allow somebody to ride it. Besides, most animals that could be ridden were herbivores. Judging by the layer of bones covering the dracolisk’s cage, it was decidedly not.

Celeste was with her on not getting closer, as well as her skepticism that using it as a mount was even possible. But according to Dennet, it was. “The Inquisitor will ride it if she’s looking to make a big entrance.” That would certainly do it, although it might not foster much positive feeling with the people the Inquisitor was greeting. “But she’s got the sense not to take him on any extended trips. Keeping him fed would take all her time.”

The hart trumpeted again, more insistently this time, and Dennet took advantage of Nicolette’s desire to get a closer look by asking her to help feed him. Nicolette was only too happy to do so, already heading in the hart’s direction when she remembered her manners again. She turned back to Varric.

“I am sorry, I forgot to mention I acquired a new travelling companion a few months ago.” She gestured to Oscar, who sat at attention by her side, very clearly on guard duty. By contrast Thibault flopped on his haunches and gave his usual expression of amiability. “Oscar saved my and Thibault’s lives from a demon. I do not know what happened to his family, but afterwards he followed Thibault and me for a few days before actually joining us at our campfire. He has barely left my side since.” More details could follow over a few drinks - something that Varric might be able to spin into a dramatic story, rather than the gaping black horror in her memories that would probably still overwhelm her some nights for a long time to come - but in the meantime she had a different thing demanding her attention.

As she gathered up an itchy pile of hay, she spoke over her shoulder to Varric. “You have come a long way as well. How did you even end up involved with the Inquisition?” She would not have imagined a religious order to be particularly appealing to him.

Celeste Monroe

Shenaniginstigator In Chief
Post DAI Timeline
DAO/DA2 Timeline
Celeste had never had any great interest in animals as a rule, and animals, in general, had never had any great interest in her. The Thing had invited himself on board; she considered him a crewmate, not a pet, and their relationship could best be described as a wary truce that occasionally flared into open warfare. She felt genuine affection for Thibault - it was hard not to like the amiable mutt - and the sentiment seemed to be reciprocated. Oscar … well, the jury was still out there; the burly hound remained aloof and suspicious with anyone but Nico, but given his role in keeping the minstrel safe, Celeste was quite willing to allow him his space.

The menagerie that the Inquisition was assembling was … interesting. Not sure how smart it was to have a mount that would eat the rest of the collection, given the chance, but that was their business … as long as the pen kept it contained, but she didn’t blame Dennet for the exasperation that tinged his tone.

The two dogs had accompanied them unobtrusively, though Oscar had growled low in his throat at the dracolisk, hackles bristling as he positioned himself between Nicolette and the beast. Thibault hung back, tail low as he watched; Celeste had no doubt that he would defend his mistress if it attacked, but he clearly wasn’t interested in picking a fight, and he spun promptly to follow her when she turned to go. Oscar glowered at the dracolisk, giving a final rumble before turning to go.

Varric had eyed the new addition, but made no comment, though he was plainly curious, a fact that finally penetrated Nicolette’s fascination with the stronghold.

“I am sorry,” she exclaimed in chagrin, turning back and motioning toward Oscar, who had immediately settled on his haunches at her side, ears canted forward and deepset eyes alert, “I forgot to mention I acquired a new travelling companion a few months ago. Oscar saved my and Thibault’s lives from a demon. I do not know what happened to his family, but afterwards he followed Thibault and me for a few days before actually joining us at our campfire. He has barely left my side since.”

Varric gave a low whistle. “Good dog,” he remarked, though he didn’t seem inclined to follow up with a head scratch. “I wouldn’t mind hearing the whole story … if you want to share.” He knew as well as Celeste that too many people had stories of this time that they didn’t want to relive, though the sailor rather thought that if her minstrel would tell anyone else, it would be Varric.

“You have come a long way as well,” Nico observed as she gathered up an armful of hay. “How did you even end up involved with the Inquisition?”

The dwarf cocked his head, looking quizzically at Celeste. “You didn’t tell her?”

“I knew I couldn’t do half as well as you,” Celeste replied, though, in all honesty, it had completely slipped her mind. Her waking moments were spent either focused on managing her ship or basking in the reality of her lover beside her, close enough to reach out and touch whenever she wanted. Compared to that, even the wonder of Skyhold was little more than background noise.

“Well, it’s a long story,” Varric began in the expansive manner that suggested that it would be told in just that manner as he collected his own load of hay. Celeste eyed the hayrack dubiously; she wasn’t sure what alfalfa was, but she did know that she had zero interest in mucking out the stall of a dysenteric hart if she guessed wrong. Apples were much more familiar, and she gathered up three, taking a bite of one, savoring the crisp sweetness of the flesh while cradling the other two to pass to Nico.

“After Kirkwall went tits up -” Varric began, then grimaced. “That’s depressingly nonspecific, isn’t it? After Anders blew up the Chantry.” His normally amiable countenance hardened, not that Celeste could fault him for the lingering animosity. Whatever the mage’s grievance against the Chantry, his actions had killed scores of innocents and initiated the conflict that had snowballed into the current clusterfuck. If Josc hadn’t killed the crazy bastard, Celeste would have willingly hunted him down after the hell of the last few months.

“Everyone pretty much scattered.” Varric deposited his hay in front of the stall and stepped away. “The Chantry was looking for someone to blame … or canonize, I never could figure out which, and they had fixed on Hawke.” He cocked his head and glanced around cautiously before adding in a lower tone, “Which, since she’d been in the middle of pretty much every shitshow there since she stepped off the boat, wasn’t an unreasonable assumption, but I wasn’t about to let them get their claws into her.”

“The Chantry sent the honorable Seeker Pentaghast - you met her in Jader, Trouble,” he added to Celeste, who nodded; she remembered the dour Nevarran quite well, “- to get the story of what happened, and I was only too willing to oblige. I told her what happened.” A sly grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. “My version, anyway.” His broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. “Not my fault that she made her own assumptions and went haring off where she thought she should go. By the time she made it back, Josc was well away. So, I was - ahem - invited to tell my tale to the Divine at the Conclave.” He sobered and shook his head slowly. “Never got the chance, and as much as I’d like to get back to Kirkwall, keeping the sodding world from ending is a little hard to turn down.”

“So, here I am,” he concluded, sweeping his arms grandly to encompass the fortress. “I can’t say it’s the best gig I’ve ever had, but Lucky’s a good sort, and it’s rarely boring.” He snorted. “I’ve got plenty of material for another book already, as long as I live long enough to write it.” He spoke with his usual insouciance, but the gravity in his brown eyes told another tale.

Celeste had been shifting her attention between Varric as he told his tale and the hart, who was greedily devouring the offering of hay at a pace that suggested a level of deprivation completely at odds with the well-fleshed body and sleek, shiny fur. She tensed as he extended his head toward Nicolette, nudging the minstrel’s chest insistently. The antlers were coated in velvet, but they still looked damned sharp and were too close to her lover’s face for her liking.

“Here.” She held out the two apples that she had kept back. The hay wasn’t completely gone, but maybe

“Think he’s asking for a scratch,” Varric opined. “Apparently the antlers start getting itchy when they’re getting ready to shed the velvet.”

“It comes off?” Celeste eyed the antlers dubiously; the velvet certainly looked securely attached.

“So I’m told,” Varric replied with a don’t-ask-me-more shrug.