They began leaving Skyhold at the first signs of snowfall.
It had just begun to settle over the roofs and towers like a dusting of sugar icing as Nesterin stood in the courtyard, struggling to do up the buckles of her hart's saddle one-handed. Snow landed on her hair and face and she thought, briefly, of her dream of Haven.
Pure white flakes had danced all through the air that day, she remembered- too perfect to have ever been real.
But she hadn’t guessed that when she’d kissed him.
Cassandra strode along the path towards the stables. With her sword at her hip and the Seekers' eye gazing out at Nesterin from the front of her breastplate, it felt as if they were preparing to ride out to some godsforsaken corner of the Hinterlands together. It might be to close a gaping hole in the sky, or to return a sour-faced widow’s missing locket, ripped from the stomach of a rift-addled bear.
“I’m not actually called 'Inquisitor', Cassandra,” Nesterin reminded her. “Trust me, it’s not some ancient elvish word for blessed child. Not nearly enough L’s for that.”
Mother Mine pulls a cloud down from the sky and pours it into my mouth. It tastes sweet and warm, like milk and she sings to me, her Blessed Child, her Blessed Child, one of Mythal's servants chittered away nonsensically in the background.
Nesterin tried to ignore the sing-song voice, half little boy, half wizened old man, as it tickled deep, deep down inside of her ear.
Most of the time, fortunately, Mythal's servants only answered when bidden. But she was always aware of them, sitting like guests in a banquet hall, waiting to be spoken to, growing ever more impatient when they went ignored.
Sometimes they liked to chime in with their quiet, long lost memories. Most of the time, they enjoyed correcting her grammar.
“My apologies, I am still getting used to all of this," Cassandra continued, quite unaware of the interruption. "Would you prefer Nesterin? Lavellan feels too formal.”
“As opposed to 'Inquisitor'?” Nesterin asked. But she understood.
Over the years, Cassandra’s particular intonation of the word had changed. When she said it now, it sounded exactly like ‘my dear friend’.
“Are you going today as well?” Nesterin continued.
“Yes. Like you, my intention is to leave before the snow on the mountain becomes too heavy to travel through." Cassandra sighed and looked around. “It is a shame. Otherwise, I might have liked to have...” she seemed to struggle to find the words, “lingered...perhaps for another night or so.”
“We were always going have to leave at some point. Skyhold was a castle fit for an Inquisition, but that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Nesterin. “Plus, Solas knows more about this place than anyone…”
“We do not want to give him the home advantage,” Cassandra nodded. She touched the hilt of her sword in a way that made Nesterin nervous. But then she simply looked around the yard and asked, “Will you miss it?”
Nesterin had been with the party that found the quarry where the stone had been taken for the new tower. She knew the lumber for the beams propping up the great hall had been felled from a post in the Hinterlands. She had watched the banners go up, had seen the stained-glass windows put in, and walking through her green and practical little herb garden in the courtyard was always a great source of joy.
And that was without even mentioning all of the people who had lived here.
She thought then - as she always did these days - whether choosing to dissolve everything they’d built here had really been the right choice.
“Only home I ever had that wasn’t on wheels,” said Nesterin. “It’ll be so strange to go back. I imagine my clan will think I’ve put on all sorts of airs. Bathing in tubs and dinners with dignitaries and my own china pot to piss in? They’ll have never heard anything like it.”
“And this is where you intend to go next? Back to your clan?”
“That's the idea.”
Nesterin touched the corner of the left side of her jaw involuntarily.
Her face and her body had been so different when she’d left the Dalish. She'd been fuller then, Nesterin thought. Fuller in the cheeks, perhaps, a bit bloated from Halla milk and the last traces of her childhood. Fuller in herself, snarling and spitting like a wildcat because she was Dalish and she was a First and that had always counted for something before. Fuller when people looked at her because she drew the eye immediately- with her wild tangle of russet coloured curls and her face swallowed up by the elaborate darkness of Elgar’nan’s vallaslin.
The vallaslin had been, she realised, as good as an Orlesian mask for hiding behind. Even now- some two years later- her bare face took a lot of getting used to.
“And then to the Arlathvhen- if the Dalish will still have me,” Nesterin continued. “We made mistakes in our history, but...,” she breathed out heavily. “It’s not nothing- no matter what Solas or the voices from the well or anyone else might say. I am sure the Dalish will help us.”
Nesterin finished saddling Falon and walked closer towards his head. She patted his muzzle and he pushed roughly into her hand, snorting. The velvet touch of his coat made her very glad that she would have at least one friend with her on her journey.
“I suppose you’ll go straight to your Seekers?” she asked Cassandra.
“For now. There is much work to be done; training and repairing what has been broken. Divine Victoria’s chantry desperately needs the Seeker's gaze.”
With the sharp sniff that followed her words, Nesterin couldn’t work out if Cassandra meant the Seekers were required for Vivienne’s protection or they were for everyone else’s protection from Vivienne.
“But I will also await your instructions,” Cassandra added solemnly. “I want you to know- in this respect- I will not leave your side.”
This, the leaving, was all so much harder than Nesterin had anticipated.
She could still remember a time when she couldn’t sleep, for fear Cassandra would pull her out of bed and onto a platform to slice her head off. A time when she used to bite her fist to stop from shaking or screaming or crying when she thought about what it meant to be called “Herald of Andraste” by the woman.
Now, she would miss her friend very much.
“Thank you, Cassandra."
The first time Solas left, Nesterin asked for her writing desk to be moved into the rotunda.
It was easier to sleep- she lied -when she could separate Inquisition work from the inner sanctum of her bedroom. And the rotunda was just sitting there empty; free and available and going to waste. She tried to be practical about it, she tried not to give into sentiment. She hardened her heart to a cutting edge.
It did not help her sleep.
Her desperation to reach the fade and reach out to him in some way made her boil all over with anxiety. And that, in turn, made it harder to relax into dreams.
She took sleeping draughts of varying degrees of strength until she couldn’t sleep without them.
In a book of potions, she found a particularly potent recipe for a dreaming sleep that contained large dosages of lyrium. Thinking of Cullen at his very worst- clucking and twitching, filled with rage and regret- and of every twisted red templar who'd crossed their path and died screaming was the only thing that made her stop.
Nesterin stopped taking her draughts and stopped trying to find him in dreams.
She concentrated on the Inquisition above everything. She fixed bridges, signed papers and attended meetings. For a while, she was completely satisfied by the rotunda walls.
And then she saw Solas again.
At the crossroads. Stumbling and shaking and dying in front of him. Where every answer led to another question and every truth was twisted. Where he reshaped her waking world as easily as he'd once reshaped the worlds in her dreams.
And then he kissed her. And then he broke her. And then he left her all over again.
She stopped sleeping again soon after. And she had asked that they move her writing desk back into her room.
Now, the wolves in the fresco had started taunting her. Surrounding the image of the Inquisition’s sword, they threw back their heads and laughed and laughed until they started to howl.
Nesterin used to love watching him work. She’d lean a little on the balustrades of the library, unobtrusively as she possibly could, and look down. He’d roll up his sleeves to reveal the skin of his forearms, perhaps smearing plaster theatrically over the walls or delicately, intensely painting his figures.
It took him whole days, without eating or speaking to another soul. And he said she was the one with indomitable focus.
The images flashed through her mind. His bare arms flecked a little with colour, his intense stare, the smile to himself the first time he’d caught her looking.
And then she saw the coldness in his eyes when he'd killed those mages in the Exalted Plains. And again when he turned the Viddasala to stone without so much as a blink. She used to love watching him.
But she had never once seen.
"Why didn't you tell me?" she demanded of Mythal's servants.
The right questions are important, Da'len. Once, I meditated for thirty years upon the right words for a question. And the answer took eighty-nine.
Time? I remember a time when the cherry blossoms bloomed for decades. But the branches grow bare and the ground begins to snarl and gnash its teeth, said the dreams of old, dead elves. She stopped herself from listening to them.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Nesterin wanted to bash her brains in against the beautifully rendered dress of the murdered empress for ever being so stupid.
“Almost everyone has gone now. ”
At the sound of another voice, Nesterin drew her eyes away from the painted rotunda walls. Leliana stood in the doorway. She was fully dressed for travelling, shrouded up in shadows, and carrying a cage with two large ravens jostling in it.
“Cassandra, you and I look to be the last ones to leave,” she continued. “Josephine owes me four silver.”
“Who did she have?”
“The Iron Bull, propping up the tavern with the chargers and making love to the last of the serving girls.”
Nesterin smiled. She would have liked to have seen that. Would have liked to have left Skyhold with the sound of music and laughter in her ears as opposed to howling silences and the memory of the hollowed out, empty rotunda.
“It was always going to be us, though,” said Leliana.
“Could you guess just by looking at our shoes?”
“Not quite. Cassandra and I were once the left and right hand of the Divine. In her, I always knew I had found my mirror of devotion. You have that same devotion too, Nesterin.”
“No, I don’t. I’m sorry, Leliana, but I never even once believed-”
“-There are other kinds of devotion apart from the religious. Whose room are you standing in? Even now?”
Nesterin couldn’t answer that. Her face started to burn. It burned all along the lines of her lost Vallaslin.
Var lath vir suledin, she had promised him. But his back had already been turned, he’d already started walking away.
Now, in the weeks since, every day felt like a Harrowing.
She walked a lonely path, convinced that something was real, only to watch it turn upside down. She reached out for Solas and he twisted his shape. He tested. He tempted. He stayed so far away from her.
Our love will survive this?
What a damn stupid promise to make.
“I used to hear him working in here. I would open up all of the windows in the tower so the light would be able to get through. I never imagined...” Leliana looked displeased. She glared at the wolves in a way that Nesterin recognised. They were laughing at Leliana too.
“If your people find him, you mustn’t kill him,” said Nesterin.
Leliana blinked. She didn’t seem to know what to make of that.
“Is that a privilege you would like to have reserved for yourself?”
“No,” said Nesterin, too quickly and too sharply.
“I'm sorry, I was trying and failing to make a joke. It is very much the fashion in Orlais for the jilted lover to carry out the deed. They think it's all very romantic.”
“No, I’m the one who's sorry,” Nesterin sighed, rubbing her nose. “That isn’t really my idea of romance, Leliana.”
In her idea of romance he never would have lied. Never would have left. She had loved that quietly arrogant, quietly strange, fade-touched hedge mage so so deeply. They could have roamed Thedas together, learning about magic and little, lost pockets of history, never quite fitting anywhere but inside of each other's arms.
And, like a dream of Haven with perfectly white, perfectly formed flakes of snow, he hadn't even been real.
“But you flatter me, Nesterin, by thinking my spies will find Solas at all.”
“We have to. He’s going to destroy everything if we don’t.”
“I have people. All over Thedas. They are working very hard. But, Nesterin?"
"I can find a man’s body. It is often too easy to find a man’s heart. But a mind like Solas’? That, I think, will be difficult to locate. And even harder to change.”
“I know,” said Nesterin.
The weight of her task, the weight of her promise felt so heavy on her shoulders.
Leliana turned once again to the rotunda, and to the laughing wolves. She said:
“Let’s all hope he doesn't destroy quite as meticulously as he creates.”