Winter closed on the Frostbacks like a pair of jaws. The roads that wreathed through the mountain passes to the doors of Skyhold had piled with insatiable snow, blowing in harsh, powdery winds that stuck and scoured wagons and trapped travellers to huddle in tents. The cold cracked stones, dropped thick blades of ice, withered trees—it was weather full of bitterness. Two weeks of work to clear the route: grit thrown, snow packed into paths, drifts pushed aside, and the inhabitants of the Inquisition who had learned to subsist on dry bread and cured fish now jumped at the hope of fresher food. And it came, by the cartful; plain things first—potatoes, leeks, onions, flour—but then bananas from Antiva, thick bunches of grapes from an Orlesian vineyard, even citrus from the orangeries in Montsimmard. Fruit that brought the hope of warmer weather with them, when everything would flower again.
Now the kitchens stirred to life and, with them, Skyhold. Steam and smoke stirred the sky above the castle, erupting from its depths, heaving, breathing. Only oven fire burned bright enough to keep out the cold that gripped greedily at the stomach and lungs.
“Keep the apples out here,” Fabien said, jabbing a finger at a pair of strong-armed men who hoisted up a box together. “Put them by the well.”
The wagons that had trundled their way from Val Royeaux to Skyhold’s lower courtyard now squatted, half-stuck in frozen mud, as servants pulled snow-crusted barrels from their backs and rolled them towards the kitchens. The men who carried the box of apples diverted, scowling, nearly knocking the casket of fruit into the elf as they passed. He cleared his throat noisily, watching as they jammed crowbars into the corners of the wooden lid and pried it up by inches. Lille was laying out low stools around a little brazier by the courtyard's well, whose coals gleamed and hissed as Bri poked them with a charred stick and kicked the snow around its base to clear it from their path.
The box lay open now; Lille smiled, delighted, while Bri, at her side, reached down and took one up—a bright red bauble against the snow.
“Finally,” Lille said, staring at the shining fruit. “Something to do besides scrub pots.”
“Pies after this,” Bri said, “lots of them.”
They smiled at one another, quick, conspiratorial, as though their work was their small secret—little pleasures shared privately.
"Get started," Fabien said, and sat on his stool, his long legs bending awkwardly. They each had knives in their aprons; they took them out and sat around the brazier.
“We’ve got the whole afternoon,” Lille said, slicing off the first slip of apple skin, “Bri’s already made all the pastry.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said, with a bob of her shoulders.
“You should sleep. You look tired,” Lille said, “I’m surprised you don’t nod off right in the kitchen. One minute kneading dough, next you’ve got your face planted right in it.” She mimed the movement, ducking her head into her lap for a moment before bolting back upright under Fabien’s eye.
"I'll be fine," Bri said.
“I heard a rumor the Divine herself might be coming to Skyhold in a few months, you'll need to—Oh." She stopped short, and jabbed her elbow into Bri’s side. "Heyup.”
“Wha—Ohh.” She turned to look where Lille was pointedly staring, a sly smile creasing the edges of her mouth.
The Grey Warden—or, not a Warden really, she thought, scraping up the gossip that had tittered across the servants’ halls a year ago—had emerged from the stables with an axe. He was wearing a simple tunic, his muscles plain to see beneath the thin fabric; he hoisted his woodsman's weapon and laid an upended log on a stump before the stables and drove his axe through it, a quick, heavy movement. The split halves fell aside; he picked them up and threw them into the pile with the others.
“Maker,” Lille said, and Bri shook her head.
"Blackwall, isn't it?" she asked in low tones. Lille nodded after a few moments, turning as if she hadn’t heard the question.
"I think so."
They watched as he chopped logs. Bri winced with every fall of the axe. Lille peeled a whorl of flesh from the apple in her hand before she realized what she was doing. Fabien scowled, hunched, puffs of breath clouding the air in front of his face. Soon, steam rose from the Warden's shoulders. He stopped to mop his brow with a lace-edged handkerchief—out of place, crumpled, its delicate curlicues stained with sweat.
“I wonder where he got that,” Lille asked idly, her eyes still fixed on him.
“Lady Montilyet,” Bri said, “from what I’ve heard. Alizée found it and tried to return it to her but was told to put it back.”
“Oh, how romantic,” Lille said, laughing to herself, “I can see why she’d be after him.”
“Quit staring and peel your apples, Lille,” Fabien said, digging his heels into the snow. Lille laughed again, lips pressed together in a barely-restrained smile.
“He can peel my apples,” she said, and winked at Bri—who laughed, covering her mouth with her hand.
"He'll hear you," she said, hushed. Lille laughed again and opened her mouth to speak but glanced at Fabien and instead sullenly gritted her jaw.
They worked in silence for a time, but for the rhythmic fall of the axe. The lower courtyard milled with people as the day wore on; two servants argued with a merchant over the price of salt, a masked noble arrived with his retinue disheveled from the snow-stuck paths, and the ostlers paced horses past them, the beasts' heavy breaths hanging in the air as they snorted, jittery, blankets on their backs. The Warden finished his task, stacked the newly-hewn firewood neatly in the byre, and left.
Bri turned each apple in her hands, the skins coming off in unbroken curls. Her fingers were numb and red-tipped from the cold.
“I’ll get the tea when I’ve finished this one," she offered.
“Lemons came in today, didn’t they?” Lille asked excitedly, “from Montsimmard? Can you put a slice in mine?”
“I’ll try,” Bri said, tossing the peeled fruit with the others.
“Do,” Lille said, her voice laced with exaggerated pleading. “It's been so long since we got any.”
“Yeah,” Bri said, “and we’ve got two nobles in who need lemon cakes every morning.”
Lille winked, and laughed. “Mais trop de citron, yeah? They won’t miss just one slice.”
"They notice everything!" Bri said, sighing as she turned to climb the icy stairs to the castle. "But I'll try."
Up the steps by twos and then, pushing past the door, a cloud of shouts and sweat; sauciers stirred, sweating over their simmering pans, while the cook and her commis poured fat over a stuck twist of meat on a spit over the fire. Piles of potatoes were stacked in one corner, a single kitchen maid peeling them one by one with quick hands and dropping the rounds into a bucket of water. The centre worktable was covered over with chopped herbs and cracked, empty eggshells, while above them hung links of dried meat and bulbous cudgels of aging cheese, rinds stained with grease. Others, kitchenhands with wide, frightened eyes, sliced the bread she and Fabien had made that morning, careful of fingertips, more careful of the head cook's eyes as he watched from the centre of the room. The fire hissed as the cook ladled more fat down the joint, which spat and crackled happily. Below, in the embers, a cast-iron pot sat squat and black among the hearth's hot ashes, belly boiling.
The midday meal unfolded. Bri scurried between the press of bodies to heave the heavy kettle from the shelf, its floral pattern long faded, dented from use. She grabbed the neck of the little pot beside it—bitter leaves for brewing, sent from the Free Marches, too rough for the delicate tastes upstairs.
She knew, from years of service, not to be startled by a shouted name. She turned, holding the kettle against her hip.
"Master Donatien?" she asked; his eyes were on her, arms crossed, looking down the length of his nose.
"Being peeled, Messere," she answered dutifully. "Should be done with them in an hour."
He nodded; the only sign he ever gave of his contentment.
"Bring this upstairs," he said shortly, and gestured to a bowl of raw meat that sat unassumingly by the door that lead to the cellars. "The rookery."
"I'm not—" she began, but stopped short.
"Lowri is busy," he said, sharp, nose wrinkled, frowning. The girl peeling potatoes, an elf a few years younger than she, looked up from her task and smiled meekly—her knife's sharp sheen had been dulled by starch, her fingers red and raw; she turned back to her task and dug her blade into another potato from the pile.
"If you can stop for tea you can stop to feed the ravens," he said.
"Yes, Master Donatien." Her mouth a flat line, she turned and placed the kettle and pot of tea leaves back on the shelf and grabbed the bowl with both hands, opening the door to the cellars with her shoulder.
A steep climb to the where the ravens made nests of all of Thedas' secrets. The bowl was heavy and reeked like an open wound—raw flesh usually smelled fresher—something they couldn't put in the soldiers' pies. She climbed the stairs with it, head ducked, passing other servants with the same sense to not be seen. The study with its faded frescoes, then the library where two mages argued in whispers and a woman, Tranquil, stood by the railing. A Templar guarded the steps, and Bri avoided his eyes as he peered at her through the slit in his helmet.
"Food for the ravens," she said quietly, and he nodded for her to go up.
The topmost tier of the round tower stank of smoke and rotten meat, and the few thready fumes of incense fluttering at the feet of the shrine to Andraste did little to curb the smell. Bri stopped in front of the alcove, looking up at the blank eyes that stared with the serenity reserved for unfeeling things, with the patience reserved for things that had all the time in the world. The fire she held aloft made the air around her stone face shimmer.
An irritated squawk brought Bri back to her task; the birds had turned to look at her, their tiny black eyes staring half-lidded, feathers puffed around their necks, fully succumbed to the lethargy of the season. But when they spied the bowl of raw and bleeding meat she carried and, even better, placed out for them, they clacked their beaks delightedly and sprung to life again. Trilling, cackling like old women, they descended on the meal with a flutter of black and red feathers. Their claws grazed her tied-tight hair and their wings brushed past her shoulders as they crowded to dig into the offered carrion. Bri suppressed a shriek and hurried away from the ravenous clustering of beaks and talons—they pulled pieces of meat apart between them, fighting over the tender cuts, choking down the carcass of what she now realized to be a long-dead nug. Bad hunting in the mountains in wintertime, the pink things lean as a rasher of bacon and streaking across the snow—all the meat scraped from its bones for the ravens' mean meal.
One bird raised its head from the scrabble of feathers, a single round eye caught between a beak slicked with blood and fat. The firelight flashed across it. She felt the gall rise in her throat, and turned away from the sight.
The window by the table was the only truly bright point in the room—she went to it. Skyhold housed dozens of servants; they kept the keep clothed and fed and stocked with everything from water to weapons. They clustered in the courtyard below, skittered across the battlements, their tasks unending, their work undiminished since the breach in the sky had closed more than a year before. If anything it had increased, with nobles from every country in Thedas clamoring to meet with the woman who had saved them all, who had saved the Chantry. Bri watched as a band of pilgrims picked their way up icy steps; perhaps they had taken the path from Haven that had become so holy. Merchants had begun to sell little trinkets to these reverent travellers, coins embossed with the eye of the Inquisition, totems to prove they had visited the site where the Herald conducted her business in Andraste's name. Skyhold shrewdly prospered.
Far beneath her, in the bowels of the castle, the kitchens heaved. Here, cold, cloud-streaked, the light glancing off the mountaintops was blindingly white; it seemed, at the top of the keep, as though the sky were only a few inches above her. The wind rushed past the window, a wild, low sound; it could not touch her through the diamond-patterned glass. When she had arrived she'd asked Fabien to tell her the Elven name for the place—grudgingly, bitterly, he’d told her. The words never stuck in her mind but what they meant did; the place where the sky is kept. Here, they held up the heavens. She felt, for a moment, the lonely luxury of those above—the severe serenity of those apart, like when she sleeplessly mounted the steps to the kitchens in the middle of the night to make pastry for the day ahead.
Something shifted at the edge of her vision; she turned away from the window. The clots of black in the shadows clucked on their perches, content after their squabbling feast, but then she spied an enormous hat, and beneath that a whey-faced boy who crouched under the birds' perches—they barely seemed to register his presence. In the shadows and scant torchlight she could not make out his face, but she stayed, and watched him cautiously; he moved like one of those tin toys from Orzammar—the kind that stuttered to life when pushed along a length of string, balancing on a pedaled wheel as mechanical knees and elbows jutted out with every turn. He was gathering the birds' shed feathers, she realized, with the single-mindedness of a sacred task. He appraised each one under the brim of his hat, discarding some according to a standard she could not fathom, while others he kept closed in his other hand. The birds preened above him, either unaware or unconcerned.
Suddenly, when he had apparently collected enough, he stood and moved to the railing and leaned to look down on the floors below. Bri moved closer, half-hid by the wooden beam, curious. One by one he let them fall over the side, fluttering down past the tiered landings. Directly beneath him stood the Tranquil, who, like the birds, did nothing.
Determined, he continued, and at last the Tranquil took notice; those impassive eyes, black as though they absorbed all light, were caught by the twirling fall of a feather—the boy stopped, and watched in silence as the Tranquil reached out and the feather danced in the air around her fingers, arcing on invisible strings until it finally settled softly in her palm. She held it, staring—it was one of the birds' long pinfeathers, knife-shaped and as sharp, a gash of black in the woman's hand.
Bri expected her to simply let it fall but she watched, perplexed, as the Tranquil raised the feather up and with a short, sharp breath blew it back out into the air. The woman kept her eyes on it as it whirled and wound its way to the floor below, but even as the feather fell, joyously free in the still air, her face was still as stone. When it slipped out of sight, the Tranquil turned away.
Bri had met a Tranquil only once, as a child in Val Chevin; a hired enchanter for her mother's employer. The other servants avoided him and whispered prayers to Andraste, a guard against the existential terror he inspired—for all the fears of the Fade and what dwelled there, there was a deeper horror at the thought of its loss. Once, her sympathy bred more of confusion than any other feeling, Bri had brought a pastry to him—a simple thing of fruit folded in a sweet shortcrust. She had never seen anyone eat so joylessly, chewing and swallowing with the same expression with which he performed every task to which he was assigned, a passivity that laid everything before the eye, no secrets, no feeling hid away at which one must guess—like a hollow-eyed skull, utterly denuded of flesh.
She had not been surprised when, much later, the whispers reached her that the rebel mages had abandoned to fate these shadows of themselves.
When she looked back to the railing across the room, the boy had gone—disappeared into the landing's long shadows. He had done so with such complete absence of sound that she worried for a moment that he was directly behind her—he was not. She waited for a moment, then, creeping over to the birds' roosts, she snatched the bowl back and brought it down to the bustling kitchens. Quickly, quietly, she took up the kettle and tea leaves again before she could be made to do another task.
The cold pricked her skin when she stepped outside; what little warmth she had gathered in the keep now fled her.
“What took you?” Fabien said as she approached; she could see his fingers shaking as he gripped his half-peeled apple.
“Donatien sent me to the rookery,” she huffed, hoisting rope from the depths of the well. “Old nug for the ravens.” Fabien scowled.
"Isn't that Lowri's job?" he said, and Bri shrugged and ladled freezing water into the kettle, then placed it on the metal grille above the brazier. She squatted and poked the coals again, urging them to life.
"Lowri has a lot of jobs," Bri said when she stood. She sprinkled tea into each cup.
“Glad I don't do that anymore,” Lille said, and snatched up her cup. “Oh—you forgot the lemon.”
“I’m sorry,” Bri said, and bit her lip. “I—didn’t want to press my luck with Donatien.”
“Angry today?” she asked. “He’s just bitter the kitchen stalled for so long.”
“We had plenty to do,” Bri said, taking her seat again.
“Not the kind he likes. He’s not happy unless he’s wading in matelote and macarons—haute cuisine for the Orlesian court. Can’t stand all this Fereldan food we have to make. It’s too easy for us. He can’t hit anyone over it.”
“He wouldn’t have to hit anyone if you’d do your work,” Fabien said sharply. Lille had let the unpeeled apple sit idle in her lap for too long.
"Oui, chef," Lille said, her tongue rolling lazily over the words. For a moment, staring pointedly, she hacked at the fruit with her knife before turning back to the task, sighing, under Fabien's reproachful eyes.
Bri had peeled three more apples before she looked up again, glancing about the courtyard as the light shifted and the short day came to its close. The sun had slipped below the castle walls; she turned to look at it and saw, to her surprise, the same boy she had spied earlier. In the failing light she could see him more clearly—his patchwork, badly-sewn clothes too thin for the weather, lank, white-blonde hair peeking from beneath his hat. He sat with his head bowed, kicking the stonework with his heel, swaying where he sat on the edge of the battlements. She was almost afraid he'd fall.
“That strange boy’s there,” Bri said, eyes shifting away, “I saw him up in the rookery, too.”
Lille and Fabien both turned to look, short glances, curious, afraid. The boy didn’t seem to notice—the cadence of his rocking didn't falter under their stares.
“What's he doing up there?” Fabien asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, her voice trailing as she thought, again, of the Tranquil. It unsettled her—she turned the apple quickly in her hands.
“I’ve seen him around,” Lille said, “isn’t he the one Donatien told everyone to watch out for? Stealing things and such.”
“Maybe," Bri said, then added, "he’s odd."
"A little more than odd," Lille said.
“It’s ridiculous that he’s allowed to wander wherever he likes,” Fabien said, warming his fingers briefly by the coals. “What does he do, exactly, besides steal things? Sneak around?”
“I think he just—” Bri began, but stopped herself. The feather floated away. "I don't know."
Fabien shook his head, nose wrinkled in disapproval.
The kettle whistled; Bri wrapped a hand in her apron and poured boiling water into their cups— when she looked back to the battlements, tea in hand, the boy was gone again.
“Oh,” she said, “he’s disappeared.”
They all turned to look; the battlements were empty, nothing but the fading sky above them. The day's light had burnished into a bright gold, haunting, slipping away helplessly behind the mountaintops.
“Strange boy,” Lille said. Bri nodded idly. They drank their tea. Work continued. Lille hoisted the bucket twice to bring the scraps to the horses in the stables. Soon the box of apples ran out. Together, Bri and Fabien brought the peeled fruit to the kitchens, where the cooks rested between the mealtime rushes. Inside, stewing apples, folding fruit into endless pastry, Bri did not see or think of the boy again.