Gwendolyn Cousland was tired.
She had braved the Frostback Mountains before, over ten years ago during the Blight, but only as far as Orzammar. She wasn’t used to the steeper snow-covered slopes deep within the range. For what felt like the fiftieth time that morning, she squinted at the roughly sketched map Leliana had sent her. That line there—was it a valley she was supposed to walk down, or a ridge to follow? If only the blighted sun would stop glaring off the ice, maybe she could see. Then again, she supposed she was lucky it was sunny and not snowing.
The scenery, at least, was incredible: jagged peaks stood out against a sky bluer than any she had ever seen. Long parallel ridges of snow ran down the mountains, leaving them looking as though they were cupped by gigantic hands. There was a lake down in the valley below her, frozen and thawed and frozen again until it was almost opaque with fissures and bubbles.
Gwen was accustomed to traveling light, but crossing the Frostbacks alone made precautions necessary. She dragged a sledge loaded with furs and provisions in addition to the gear she carried on her back. Her Warden plate armor was wrapped in oiled skins on the sledge to protect it from the weather; instead, she was swaddled in layers of hide and thin chain which kept her warm but made movement difficult.
She stopped a moment to look back at the long tracks behind her. They trailed into the distance, eventually lost in the glare of the snow. Somewhere back along those tracks was the cave she had dug to shelter last night, and farther yet would be the one from the night before.
It was inconvenient that she was traveling alone—inconvenient, but necessary. Haste made it impossible for her to summon any of her trusted companions, and stealth prevented her from taking the main road on horseback. It would not do to have the Hero of Ferelden appear at the gates of the Inquisition, sword drawn and armor gleaming; no, she was here in an unofficial capacity, and if anyone inquired, she wasn’t here at all.
She tucked the map into her pocket and gave a mighty tug on the sledge. For the most part, it was easy to drag it across the surface of the snow, but more and more it had been sinking into the powder and getting lodged. Gwen longed for the days when, even on desperate treks across the entirety of Ferelden, she was accompanied by half a dozen trusted fighters and a supply wagon. There had been much less danger of breaking a leg and freezing to death, unnoticed by the stoic mountains. Besides, a helping pair of hands would have been nice.
The sledge sprang free and immediately lost its grip on the steep mountainside. It teetered, time frozen as Gwen tried to steady it, and then toppled down the long, smooth stretch of snow to her right.
Gwen was still wrapped in the ropes.
She fell, pulled by the loop around her shoulder, snow filling her nose and mouth in a spray of powder, trying to shield her head with her arms but finding that it was impossible to hold any one position as she alternately slid and bounced after the sledge. White and blue flashed in her vision as the sky and mountains wheeled about her until her face was greeted by the burning cold of a snowbank and she had to shut her eyes.
It took her a moment to realize that she had stopped falling; she felt both weightless and battered, pressed into the inescapable presence of the snow against her face and chest.
When her head had stopped spinning, Gwen hauled herself into a sitting position, gasping in an enormous breath. The pain that accompanied the motion suggested that her shoulder had been dislocated by the weight of the sledge pulling her down the mountainside. Her eyes burned, her lungs burned, her fingers—tinged concerningly with blue—burned. The sledge was upside down and half-buried a few feet away and provisions were scattered up the slope.
And down the valley stood Skyhold, its crenellations gleaming in the sun, only visible from the valley she had tumbled into. She would have gone right past it.
Standing up was its own feat, but one accomplished with some degree of success after a few tries. Gwen only waited long enough to pick out a few scraps of cloth from the wreckage of her sledge before she staggered towards the castle, binding her hands as she went. Her shoulder throbbed with every step and her arm tingled and ached.
It took her the rest of the afternoon, but finally she was limping across the long stone bridge approaching Skyhold. The mountains were bathed in lavender and soft rose. In the distance, she could see the dark spot of her sledge against the side of the valley.
“Approaching traveler!” bellowed a sentinel atop the wall. The call was echoed along the battlements, though there was no responding lull in the evening activity she could hear on the other side.
Gwen was numb with cold and fatigue, and the only thought she could hold onto was that she hoped Leliana was expecting her today. If not, she might be shuffled into the barracks or the refugee tents without being able to make her presence known to any of the Inquisition’s advisors. She clutched her arm to her chest and watched the gate grind upwards.
There, hooded and cloaked, one hand on her hip, stood Leliana. She looked remarkably similar as when Gwen had last seen her, just before Alistair’s coronation: short-chopped red hair with a single narrow braid down one side, a sharp expression and eyes that knew too much. Something was missing, though—Gwen realized that she had rarely seen Leliana out of her brightly-colored Chantry robes. Yet here she stood, clothed in grey and blue and purple, looking every inch the spy.
“Warden Cousland!” She greeted her old friend, stepping forward into the shadow of the walls. “I hope that your passage through the mountains was—Maker’s breath, what happened to you?”
Years. Gwen had spent years wishing to stand before any of her companions again, to catch up with them. Long nights spent camping alone in damp caves and windblown fields, wishing for the easy companionship she had shared around the campfire during the most frightening months of her life—and coming to terms with the idea of never seeing any of them again. Now Leliana stood before her, once a trusted ally, now nearly a stranger. Where to even begin?
“I need healing,” Gwen found herself blurting through clenched teeth. “And a fire. I lost control of my sledge there, on that ridge.” She started to gesture and hissed when her shoulder flashed with pain.
“Of course. You need to rest.” Leliana made a sharp gesture to several men behind her, who nodded and began a flurry of activity. She came to Gwen’s side to support her and they made their way into the courtyard together. “This is a rather inhospitable place, is it not?”
“Yes,” Gwen agreed. It was warmer within the walls, somehow, but otherwise she was in no state to be observing her surroundings. “Leliana, I feel—I’m not very—” Her vision narrowed as she turned to look at the Orlesian so that all she could see was the concerned turn of Leliana’s mouth. “I feel a bit faint,” she finally admitted.
Leliana said something that she could not hear or understand. She felt herself being pulled along, up a flight of stairs—grass under her feet—stone, more stairs, more stone—a carpet—a pause to open a door—and finally the soft surface of a bed, more welcome, Gwen thought, than it had ever been in her life. Even the persistent throb of her shoulder couldn’t prevent her from falling immediately into a deep sleep.
Gwen awoke to the soft glow of firelight and morning sun. She felt stiff, as though she was slowly thawing from an eternity spent in ice—but why? Where was she? Pain was radiating from her shoulder across her chest. Once her eyes adjusted, she could see the frayed edges of the blankets under which she rested.
“Hello?” she croaked.
“Ah, she is awake.” The lilting, strangely-formal voice made Gwen jolt upright, then double over as every muscle in her body protested. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“Morrigan?” Gwen gasped. No, this was wrong, that was years ago, and she was in Skyhold, or she had been—
“Yes, yes, it is I. Lie down before you do damage something more difficult to fix than a dislocated shoulder.”
Gwen obeyed and watched warily as Morrigan entered her field of view. The witch looked nearly identical as she had when she had disappeared into the night in Denerim a decade before. She carried a bubbling golden potion, which she held to Gwen’s lips. “Drink.”
Gwen drank. Warmth spread throughout her body, unknotting her muscles. Her fingers suddenly felt pinched and too warm; on closer inspection, the tips had turned black with frostbite, but the discoloration was receding as hot blood was forced back into the dead flesh. Without this kind of magical healing, she would have been dead a hundred times over throughout her life, but there was always something unsettling about her body knitting itself back together to hide the evidence of whatever hardships it had endured.
Eventually, she found that she could breathe without wincing, and she sighed with relief as Morrigan began to prod her shoulder. “What are you doing here?”
“I was asked to join the Inquisition.”
“The Inquisitor, of course. We met at Empress Celine’s ball.”
“Why were you at the Orlesian court?”
Morrigan gave her a stern expression, and Gwen felt a shadow of the unease the mage had instilled in her when they had traveled together. Still, many years had passed, and she found herself meeting Morrigan’s gaze without shuddering. She wasn’t a girl of twenty anymore. She could handle her companion’s attitude.
“I will not be interrogated by you. I have healed your shoulder and softened your rest, at Leliana’s request, and now you are free to conduct whatever business brought you here.” She started to leave, empty bottle in hand, but turned back just as she reached the door. “I would ask that you leave me to conduct mine.”
Before the door swung shut, Gwen caught a glimpse of a stone walkway, a pair of patrolling soldiers, and bright yellow sunlight gleaming on the tops of several trees. She stretched and looked around her own room. Aside from the bed, there was a small table with a basin and a chip of polished metal that would work well enough as a mirror. The contents of her sledge were piled against the wall, excepting the rations, which had no doubt been taken to the barracks so as not to waste them. Rubbing the lingering aches from her arms, looking at her sword leaning against the wall and with Morrigan’s voice still echoing in her head, Gwen was almost reminded of waking up after the battle of Ostagar.
But she was not at Ostagar. She was in Skyhold. The walls were not the spongy wood of the wilds; they were stone, solid if worn, hung with fraying tapestries to keep in the meager warmth of the fireplace against the opposite wall. Someone had changed her out of her grimy hide armor and into a plain white night slip.
Still, there was something bittersweet in the memory of that morning. What wouldn’t she give to wake up again, her adventures barely begun, her parents’ faces still fresh in her mind and Alistair waiting for her outside?
As the thought crossed her mind, she thought for a moment that she heard his voice—was sure enough to dart to the door, to open it a crack and peer out, only to be disappointed when it was only the laughter of some unknown man down in the courtyard below. She breathed a shaky laugh and stepped out of the door, nightdress fluttering in the chill wind, to rest her hands on the edge of the walkway. It was her exhaustion playing tricks on her after all.
Her embarrassment was swept away as she took in the castle courtyard. It was lined with several trees, all bold in their autumn finery. Walkways wound between the trunks. Elfroot grew in several large pots directly below her room. Several women in Chantry robes milled about, tending to the plants or conversing with each other on stone benches. Gwen thought she could see a second, larger courtyard beyond, with several stately towers lining the battlements. For what had been described as a rather haphazard military base, Skyhold was beautiful, exposed scaffolding and all.
She had had her doubts about coming. Surely it was her duty to her fellow Wardens to continue her search for a cure for the Calling? But the Inquisition had more resources than the Wardens, and Gwen had received a long letter detailing Darkspawn attacks in regions she didn’t even have scouts. Leliana had encouraged her to come, promising resources to seek the cure and parties of trained men to wipe out Darkspawn, and asked in exchange that Gwen offer her knowledge and experience to the soldiers. Besides, the Inquisitor had added in a short postscript, they had a Grey Warden among them—Blackwall—who was apparently immune to the Calling, though he disliked the topic of conversation. Perhaps he had some information to offer.
Now, looking out over Skyhold, breathing the sharp, woodsmoke-scented air, Gwen had to admit that she was glad to be here. Even Morrigan brought a welcome familiarity to the place. She had people to contact and informants to probe, and where better to do that than from the greatest independent stronghold of resources still standing through the civil war?
With renewed strength came a renewal of the itching sensation at the back of her mind. That eternal song, heard faintly since her Joining and growing ever stronger in the past months, still tugged her down towards the Deep Roads and the Old Gods, sickly sweet in its allure. Gwen took another deep breath of mountain air to clear her head. Yes, perhaps this was the best place to be, surrounded by those unaffected by the Calling, the better to ignore it.
She looked down at the sound of her name and saw Leliana standing in the courtyard. “Leliana! Thank you for the welcome last night. I fear I was short with you in my exhaustion.”
“No apology necessary. I am pleased you have come! When you are ready, Lady Trevelyan would like to see you in the War Room with her other advisors.”
Gwen looked down at her shift, modest enough but hardly appropriate to meet with the Herald of Andraste. “Thank you! I’ll get ready and meet you there.”
The longer she was awake, the more quickly Gwen’s heaviness fell away from her. It was quick work to splash away the grime of her journey with water from the basin. She plaited her hair down over one shoulder, but after strapping on the lighter components of her Grey Warden armor, she examined her reflection and undid the braid. How was it she had worn her hair during the Blight? Pulled straight back from her face, she thought, and yes, the soft, short hairs at her forehead came loose at once to frame her face. If she ignored the soft creases age and battle had pressed into her skin, she almost thought she might be looking back through the mirror to the Gwendolyn who had strapped on her new ill-fitting armor and strode out to meet the Witch of the Wilds, propped up on nothing more than righteousness, tenacity, and a week of ill sleep. That girl had been halfway between the untried warrior anxious to prove herself at Highever and the seasoned Warden who stood in her place now. In retrospect, Gwen thought with some amusement, it was a miracle that she had survived the Blight intact.
More or less.
No, it was better to be the Gwen she was now. This Gwen wouldn’t be intimidated by Morrigan’s glare, wouldn’t cry herself to sleep in her first solitary camp after the coronation, wouldn’t be so hasty to tangle herself in the running of a country because she thought it was her duty to fix everything wrong in Thedas. This Gwen was prepared to do only her duty to the Grey Wardens and to Ferelden.
And this Gwen was late enough already without standing in front of the mirror daydreaming.
With a laugh and one last look at her reflection, she strapped her sword at her waist and stepped out into the courtyard once more. It was even more pleasant now that she wore more than a thin nightgown. Unfortunately, she remembered that Leliana had not actually told her where the War Room was, so she struck out to the left.
Eventually, after asking directions twice and getting more than a few odd looks, Gwen found herself in a crumbling hallway leading to an enormous oaken door. She could hear the sound of murmuring voices just beyond. The War Room, then.
With a deep breath, she stepped forward and pushed the doors open.
The occupants of the room fell silent and turned towards her. There was Leliana, still wearing her hood despite the warmth of the room, and a pretty, brown-skinned woman in a gold dress of the Antivan fashion, quill at the ready, who must have been Josephine Montilyet. Beside them was a pale, stubbled man Gwen barely recognized as Cullen, one of the Templars she had encountered at the Circle. He nodded in acknowledgement when he saw her—she suspected that neither of them wished to dwell on the terror of their first meeting.
Before them all was the Inquisitor herself: Lady Rena Trevelyan, a young woman in her mid-20s who had been hastily described by Leliana in one of her letters. Her figure was slight, almost sickly, and her face was blanched with lack of sleep. She wore her dark hair chopped short—it looked as though she had cut it herself, possibly with her own blade, and it hung about her face at a startlingly sharp angle. Her left hand sparked with bright green energy. Her eyes glowed unsettlingly with the same color, but they were clear, and she held herself with authority. So this was the woman who likely held the reins of all of Thedas.
“Lady Inquisitor,” Gwen greeted her, bowing slightly in acknowledgement. Trevelyan mirrored the gesture and allowed herself a weary smile. The expression put a new light over her face, somehow, and Gwen fancied she caught a glimpse of a kind heart behind the tired exterior.
“Lady Cousland. It’s a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. I look forward to your insight going forward, and I hope that we will be able to offer you some assistance as well.”
“I hope so too.” Gwen looked past the Inquisitor and her advisors to a War Table littered with blocks, markers, two daggers, an apple core, and a pile of bread crumbs that might have held some significance or might have been incidental. “Shall we begin?”
“Just as soon as our other guest arrives.” Leliana spoke as though the words held some significance beyond their obvious meaning; Gwen cocked her head.
Leliana actually laughed to herself. “Yes and no. They arrived later than you last night, so you did not have the chance to meet, but they are expected any moment.”
As though on cue, footsteps sounded in the corridor outside.
Another Warden? Yes and no. Gwen’s heart leapt at the possibility—no, not a possibility, an impossibility, a daydream—but who else—?
“Sorry I’m late,” a familiar voice said from the doorway, and Gwen had to shut her eyes before she saw him. It was too much. “I had, er, kingly business.”
“I heard you arguing with Morrigan in the gardens,” Leliana responded a little accusingly. “I hardly call that ‘kingly business’.”
“Ah, yes, well. Some things don’t change, I suppose. Anyway, I’m here now, and—Gwen?”
She could pretend no longer. Gwen opened her eyes to see Alistair standing before her, and Maker, he had changed so much and not at all. The slight roundness to his face was gone, replaced with a gentle hollowness of his cheeks and a pointed chin. But that nose, still, and his jaw slack with that ridiculous expression of surprise he had always made, replaced quickly with a single raised eyebrow—he was thinking the same of her, she was sure, as his eyes swept over her matured face and the scarring on her ear that belligerently refused to be healed by any potion.
“Alistair. I had no idea you would be here. I haven’t seen you since the coronation.”
He grunted. “That hardly counts, considering that you left before I could get the chance to speak with you.”
How could she think long enough to respond to anything he said? He had done something to his hair, succeeded somehow in combing it down where before it had always stood up in the front, and he wore an expensive leather jerkin with clasps only a king could afford, and it settled on his shoulders so much better than that crown had when it had been lowered onto his boyish head. It was impressive, yes, but also sad, and for a moment Gwen lost sight of him in the ache for the younger man she had traveled with years ago.
The man she had loved.
But then he was there again, in that grin coming through to hide his discomfort with the conversation. “Well, I don’t suppose it matters. We’re both here for the same reason.”
“Indeed,” Leliana interjected, breaking the spell. Gwen caught the ends of everyone’s stares as they looked quickly away. “Let us discuss strategy.”
Gwen nodded and stepped towards the War Table, trying not to be aware of the man—the king—standing at her shoulder.