The wind raced across the back of the mountains, scattering snow dust into the air around the frigid peaks, whirling around her and pulling strands out of her ponytail, dragging the hair across her face. She blinked as the tresses ghosted across her eyes, threading in between her lashes until she was forced to lift her hand and irritably swipe them away. She felt little pinpricks of ice scatter onto her cheeks and she shivered, despite the thick coat wrapped around her body. She halted her progress for a moment, squinting up at the sky to give a baleful look at the sun. It shouldn't be allowed to shine so brightly and yet provide her no heat whatsoever. She longed for a warm fire in a hearth somewhere, a glass of wine and a good book. The arms of her husband.
Xander sneezed as he padded next to her, shaking his head at whatever invisible irritant was bothering him. She glanced down at him, smiling slightly when he upturned his head, tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth comically. At least his spirits remained indomitable.
“You never get tired, do you boy?” She asked him. He wagged his stumpy little tail and barked in agreement. She glanced up, looking around the snow covered pathway wondering where his love had gotten to. “Where's Indra?” she asked the mutt, not really expecting an answer. Xander bounded off around one of the boulders and she heard the pair of mabari yapping excitedly at each other for a moment. She followed the sound, laughing softly as the pair rolled in the snow, covering themselves in white powder that melted against their coats, glittering against the sunlight. “Idiots.” she muttered, although she couldn't imagine traveling without them. They managed to keep her heart light, even after all this time away from home.
She walked past them, knowing they would follow in their own time, and headed up the next rise. Her legs ached, a steady burn that had started hours ago and refused to let up no matter how many times she stopped to rest. Something about these Maker forsaken mountains just made traveling that much harder. Probably the constantly upward sloping paths, or the long detours around boulders she was forced to take in order to avoid the main road, which had become rather more populated than she was comfortable with. Underneath the ache she could feel the steady, crawling sensation of the taint below her skin, little claws digging away at her until she wanted to scratch away her flesh and scream. Sometimes, when everything was still and quiet, she could almost hear it singing in her veins, some soft song that was as beautiful as it was unnerving, making her shudder even as she strained to hear it. It was in those moments she missed Alistair the most. She had always been able to turn to him when the reality of her world grew too much to bear, to look at him and see that goofy grin and know that things couldn't possibly be that bad with a man like him in the world. If the taint was darkness, Alistair was light, and it was hard for her being away from him over the past couple of years.
She stumbled slightly near the top of the ridge, her foot catching on a stone she hadn't seen beneath the snow. She cursed under her breath, the air from her lips misting as it collided with the frigid temperatures around her. She was so consumed in her breathless tirade at the ground beneath her it took her several moments before she realized the sight that lay before her, nestled in the middle of the Frostbacks like a stout beacon of victory.
Skyhold stood, tall and proud, just a mere mile in the distance, its towers practically gleaming as the sun glinted off the stone, flags and banners flapping cheerily in the wind. Her lips parted as she looked on in awe, taking in the veritable castle before her. She hadn't known it would be so big. Then again she shouldn't be surprised, the fortress that could house something as impressive as the Inquisition should be nothing less than intimidating. As she forced her legs to start moving again, bringing her towards her destination, that was finally in sight, she found herself wondering idly if it was bigger than the castle in Denerim.
It took her another twenty minutes or so to make it to the imposing bridge that led to the entrance of the hold. She had picked up her pace, which had caused an uncomfortable sweat to form along her spine, making the thick wool lining of her coat stick to her skin, and now that she reached the causeway her thighs were ready to give out in revolt against her unfair punishment over the past couple of days. She decided she wasn't overly fond of trekking through the mountains on foot, and that next time she would make sure she kept the Maker cursed horse, even if it did make her more conspicuous. She hefted her pack on her back, adjusting it so it rested more comfortably, as well as reassuring herself it was still there, and strode forward onto the blessedly even stonework. Xander and Indra bounded around her in a circle before settling themselves, keeping pace just a foot or so behind her.
She reached the gate, glancing up in awe at just how large it was before a pair of guards approached her. Their expressions were not unfriendly, but they seemed to be confused about her presence. She would wager they didn't often get unannounced visitors all the way out here, even if the Inquisition was the most talked about group in Thedas. Their postures were relaxed and nonthreatening, but she caught the subtle movement as they placed their hands surreptitiously near their weapons.
“M'lady, may we help you?” the female soldier on the left asked her.
Melody gave her the best estimation of a pleasant smile she could bring her wind chapped face to make. “Yes, I'm here to see Sister Leliana.”
The guards looked at one another questioningly, their demeanor changing to one of suspicious concern. “Wait here, don't move.” the male snapped, his expression doing a complete one eighty, straight from passive to alarmed, before turning on his heel and walking briskly through a door leading into the tower beside the gate. Melody cocked her head to the side, looking at the remaining soldier curiously. She had known Leliana had grown cautious over the years, but surely just asking for her was not enough to arouse so much suspicion? Then again she had been off the grid for so long any number of things could have happened to put them all on high alert. She cursed the necessity of her secrecy, hoping that her inability to give them forewarning of her arrival was not going to earn her a sword in her gut. Or, as was far more likely, earn them a number of senselessly killed men.
“Er, is everything alright?” Melody asked the guard, feigning a naive curiosity. She flexed her shoulders discreetly, shifting her hips so that her daggers bumped against her, letting her measure exactly how long it would take to grab them if she needed to.
“Um...what business do you have with uh...Sister Leliana?” she stammered in return. She was hiding something, that much was apparent, and she was terrible at being coy about it.
Melody took a breath, going over her options in her head. Could she trust the lower members of the Inquisition the same way she could trust Leliana? Certainly the leaders would appreciate her need to retain her anonymity, but would the general rank and file have the same discretion? If the Inquisition WASN'T able to help her, she'd have to leave and go back into hiding, and she couldn't exactly risk having a bunch of nameless soldiers knowing the details of her visit. No, it was definitely better they didn't know who she was or why she was here. She didn't need word getting out the Queen of Ferelden was in Skyhold.
She gave the guard a forcibly cheery smile. “I'm afraid I can't say to anyone but her.”
That was not the answer the guard wanted, and she drew her blade, leveling it at Melody evenly. For a moment Melody just blinked at her, but when Xander and Indra started growling, hackles raising at the threat to their master, Melody took a nimble hop back, drawing her daggers and dropping into a smooth half crouch.
“I'm not here to fight anybody.” Melody said evenly as the guard eyed her with terror, pupils dilating as she took in the two dogs snapping their teeth irritably.
“Then put away your weapons.” the guard rejoined. An interesting reaction, to say the least. Even though the tip of the guard's sword swayed gently with the shaking hand that held it, she was still willing to stand her ground to protect her people. Admirable. Stupid, considering the odds of her taking down an armed rogue and a pair of trained war hounds weren't exactly in her favor, but admirable all the same.
“You drew first.” Melody reminded her, stalling for time, trying to figure out what to do to either diffuse the situation or run inside until she could locate someone she could talk to.
“State your name and I'll think about standing down.” the guard was gaining courage, it seemed, and she squared her shoulders after she spoke. Indra let out a warning bark that echoed loudly in the cold air.
“I won't talk to anyone but -”
She snapped her head towards the incredulous voice, her gaze falling to the open door the guard had disappeared through earlier. Standing in the threshold with a rather surprised look on his face was a figure right out of her past. At least she was pretty sure it was him. He looked different...gone was the curly haired, angry templar she remembered from the circle tower, no more than a scared boy who had been traumatized without mercy before she had arrived. Before her now stood a man that was proud, capable, strong. And really great hair, interestingly enough.
She stood, depositing her daggers back in place underneath her cloak before giving him a big grin. So much for keeping her identity hidden. “You know, I had hoped to get in before people figured out who I was.” She snapped her fingers and the dogs behind her calmed, sitting obediently. “Nice to see you, Cullen.”
For half a second Cullen felt like he was back in the circle tower, staring at the strangely fascinating woman before him, just as he had all those years ago. He had to blink several times before he noticed the changes time had wrought on the rogue who became queen. She looked older, although not in a physical way as much as she just looked weary, like the world had weighed too heavily for her to keep all that exuberant youth she had possessed when she was younger. Her rich auburn hair was longer, although she still kept it in that same ponytail that never seemed to stay contained, strands falling out to loosely frame her face. She gave him an impish smile, her light green eyes sparkling with mischief, lifting cheekbones that were no longer dusted with freckles. There was a small scar across her right cheek that hadn't been there before, but she still looked as regal as she used to, her long face and defined jaw held up high. It was a wonder she was able to sneak around the world at all without people recognizing her.
“Maker's breath, what are you doing here?” he finally said, striding down the small steps to greet her. He was surprised when she jumped into his arms, crushing him in a big hug as the metal plate on the front of her armor clanked against his own.
“What, I can't visit old friends?” she said, releasing him and shrugging, as if popping up out of the blue were the most natural thing for the missing queen of Ferelden to do.
He gave her a dubious look. “Uh, not after disappearing for years.”
He saw her glance hesitantly at the guards still standing beside them, biting her lower lip. “Is there someplace else we could have this conversation?”
“Of course.” he gave her a curt bow before offering her his arm. She took it gratefully, walking easily with him into the hold. Her two mabari padded quietly behind them. Cullen spared a meaningful glance to the guards, warning them silently that they shouldn't speak of this. Two curt nods let him know his message had been received.
“So, any particular reason why asking for Leliana almost got me shanked?”
He chuckled, recalling the guard's hectic message. “They thought you were an assassin.”
“What in the name of all that is holy gave them that idea?” her brows furrowed as she puzzled over the notion.
“One, you asked for Leliana directly. Two, she isn't here, and they thought it incredibly odd you didn't know that.”
“Not here? Where is she?”
“I take it you never heard?” he raised a brow at her.
She shook her head. “Has something happened? I've been out of the loop for a bit.”
“She's Divine Victoria now, presiding over the chantry from her new home in Val Royeaux.”
Melody stopped short, giving him a look somewhere between joy and horror. “Andraste's frosted snickerdoodles, what else have I missed?”
He started moving them forward again, chuckling as they crossed the courtyard towards the main keep. “Well, that could be an incredibly long story depending on what you heard last.”
“Well, last I heard your Inquisitor was fighting one of the original evil magisters. I know you guys took care of it, but beyond that I have no clue. I was a bit...far away.” she said vaguely.
“Ah. Well, yes, we did defeat Corypheus. After that Leliana was elected as the new Divine. She took over and has since abolished the circles, cut direct ties with the templar order, and decreed that people of all races can serve the chantry now.”
Melody let out a low whistle. “She really didn't do it halfway, did she?”
“You do remember her, right? Leliana never does anything halfway.”
Melody laughed, a bright, musical sound not unlike Leliana's had been, on the rare occasions he had heard it, usually when it was directed at himself. “You make a valid point, ser. Although it is a pity, I was looking forward to seeing her again.”
“I'm sure she'll be furious when she finds out she missed you.” he smirked.
“I suppose that means I'll need to speak with your Inquisitor then. I'm afraid my visit wasn't purely for pleasure.”
“That can certainly be arranged. She's been promising Alistair to go looking for you anyhow, this certainly saves her the trouble of finding you.”
At the mention of her husband Melody clenched her hand around his arm, a pained expression passing over her face. She blinked quickly several times, taking a deep breath that had a slight tremor to it. “How is he?”
“Good, I believe. He's had his hands full after Varric sent a few friends to him for safe harbor while the world was falling apart. They've been driving him crazy, from what I hear. Although he misses you.” Cullen gave her arm a reassuring squeeze as they finally entered the great hall.
“Hey Curly, you replacing Hummingbird already?” Varric drawled from his seat, as though the mere mention of him had summoned him, a smug grin on his face as he looked over the red head on Cullen's arm.
Cullen scowled at him. “Are you going to ask me that every time I'm so much as talking to a woman, Varric?”
“Nah, just pretty red heads. I wager you have a thing for them by now.” Varric winked conspiratorially at Melody, who laughed at the display.
“Wait a moment, you're not the Varric Tethras, are you?” she asked him, letting go of Cullen's arm to stroll over to the table.
“The one and only, at your service.” Varric gave her an awkward bow while he remained seated.
“A pleasure to finally meet you. My husband talks about you endlessly.”
“Oh-ho! Chasing after married women now, are we Commander?” Cullen shot Varric a death glare, which in no way deterred him. “I see you have me at a disadvantage. May I ask your name, my fair lady?” He was tilting back in his chair, eyeing her languidly.
“Melody Theirin, good ser.” She gave him a curtsy as he fell out of his seat in shock.
“The Melody Theirin? Alistair's wife? Queen of Ferelden?” Varric asked her as he scrambled to his feet.
She laughed, and Cullen was hit again over how musical it sounded, like someone ringing a bell. “Yes, Varric. That Melody. Now keep it down, I don't need the entire world to know.”
“Andraste's ass, Curly, give a guy some warning before you start running around with royalty!” Varric glared at him.
“You're the one who decided to run at the mouth in front of a stranger. Serves you right.” Cullen smirked at him.
“What? What am I supposed to say when you're strutting around all cozy with some strange woman? I have to look out for Hummingbird's interests, you know.”
“Do you honestly think that I would ever do anything...” Cullen shook his head in disbelief.
“You did kiss the Duchess that one time.” Varric shot back.
“She kissed me! And if you recall what happened afterward you would know I'd have to be insane to go after another woman.”
Melody held up her hands, laughing and shaking her head. “Okay, okay, hang on. Who is Hummingbird? Cullen has a girlfriend? This is all going right over my head.”
“It's Varric's nickname for the Inquisitor.” Cullen told her, feeling the blush creep across his cheeks.
“Wait. Wait.” she seemed to bounce on the balls of her feet for a moment, a giddy expression overtaking her elegant features. “You have a girlfriend, and it's the Inquisitor? So someone finally melted all that angsty ice around your soft little templar heart?”
Cullen scowled, likely harder than he had ever scowled before. “I was never angsty, and I am no longer a templar.”
“Oh, but you don't deny your involvement with your leader?” she cried victoriously, pointing at him as though accusing him of some crime she'd been clever enough to discover.
“I think he lost any plausible deniability after he married her.” Varric added helpfully.
Melody let out a girlish squeal. “Oh Cullen, that's fantastic! I'm so happy for you!” she reigned in her excitement then, looking at him appraisingly, as though seeing him for the first time. “You really have changed since the last time I saw you.”
“I might have had some sense beaten into me by a couple of very well meaning, very stubborn women.” Cullen shrugged, grinning. He had to admit it was nice to see Melody looking at him without disappointment. She had never much cared for his reaction to what happened in the tower. Back then what she had told him had only puzzled him, but of course now it made perfect sense. It had taken over a decade, but Cullen could officially hold his head high over the knowledge that he no longer held any prejudices towards mages. He'd even been party to the organization in part responsible for freeing them from the shackles of circle life.
“I absolutely need to meet this woman.” Melody said resolutely.
“I absolutely need to be there for this.” Varric added, his grin large enough to nearly split his face in half. “If her majesty has no objections, that is.”
Melody looked at him, giving him a once over with her gaze. “Um...” she hesitated.
“If it helps, Varric is a part of the upper echelons of the Inquisition, and any information you shared he would likely be privy to anyhow by virtue of how closely he works with the Inquisitor.” Cullen told her.
Varric held up his hand, palm out as though swearing an oath. “I'm trustworthy, I swear on my honor as a rogue.”
Melody nodded. “Well, Alistair trusted you, so I suppose you can't be that terrible.”
Varric frowned just slightly. “No offense, but you may want to use another scale to weigh trustworthiness. Alistair also trusted Isabela, and while that turned out okay in the end I wouldn't trust Rivaini as far as I could throw her. And she's pretty top heavy, so that wouldn't be very far.”
“Awe, that's hardly fair, Varric. You can trust her as long as you aren't playing cards.” Cullen said, then he grimaced slightly. “Or trying to stop a Qunari uprising.”
Varric shrugged. “I guess she did come back. Eventually.”
“Well, in any case, if Alistair, Cullen, and the Inquisitor trust you, I will just have to go with it. You can't all be wrong, right?”
Varric laughed heartily. “The grisly death I would find at the hands of our lovely leader would more than make up for it if they were.”
“Come on,” Cullen said amiably, “let's take this to the war room so we can get you off your feet and finally find out why you've decided to honor us with your presence.”
Melody laughed brightly again as they walked on, heading towards the room at a brisker pace. “You won't feel so honored when you find out why I'm here.”