A/N: Dragon Age Inquisition has taken up most of my free time lately, but I'm disappointed in the lack of reference to the Hero of Ferelden. So, I remedied that.
Comments, as always, are appreciated. So let me know what you think! And Merry Christmas, Inquisitors.
She'd thought it over for days.
The long, snowy trudge up the mountain from the ruins of Haven to Skyhold was good for little more than heavy breathing and quiet contemplation, especially for a woman making the journey alone. And she wanted everything to be perfect. She knew that the woman waiting for her would care little, in the end, for the method of her unveiling, but also that it was never unwise to bring an offering of peace to a troubled bard.
She had been away long enough for such an offering to be warranted.
It was good fortune – or perhaps the Maker playing a joke as He seemed wont to recently – that she arrived at the fortress after nightfall. She noted the sentries on the ramparts, high above the craggy cliff faces that served as the castle's first line of defense. High and numerous enough to spot any army that dared approach on the steep, narrow mountain trails that led to its gates; their patrol patterns told her that someone with half a marshal brain commanded them. Whether this meant the Inquisitor was as worthy of being followed as had been indicated by Orlesian gossip, or simply that they had apt people at their disposal, the woman could not be sure. Though, it would be difficult for any guard force to keep the Hero of Ferelden from surprising the Left Hand of the Divine, if she had a mind to.
Tonight, she did.
Snow fell in thick, wafting sheets, and Mahariel took full advantage. After settling prone on a rocky outcropping with a good view of the walls, she had only to lay still and let the flakes slowly bury her in natural camouflage. Before half an hour went by, the sky gave her the perfect cover to spy on its own hold. She chuckled in her frosty bunker at the joke in her head.
The guard on the ramparts changed regularly, and most regularly of all the lone posting atop a section of crumbling wall on the eastern side of the castle. She watched the post manned by a different guard four times in as many hours, the shifts changing with speed and efficiency. If she had to hazard one, she's make the guess that each soldier who took the spot was fresh from his round of sleep and leisure. It's what she'd have done: place her most alert to watch the most likely avenue of attack. New Warden-Recruits, for example, were never allowed to man the outermost battlements of Vigil's Keep. She had heard of a colleague now working for the Inquisition. Perhaps Blackwall was giving away her defensive secrets to the Herald.
She waited another hour to be sure that no tricks of the guard would spoil her surprise – or get her thrown from the battlements. The cold seeped up from the rock beneath her and down from her snowy cover. It permeated her bones and left her fingers and toes numb and turning purple. She squished the latter against the tops of her boots, trying to get the blood back into them. It wouldn't do to lose a foothold and fall to her death for the sake of a dramatic entrance.
The path to the base of the ramparts was slippery with slush and precariously rocky. Mahariel took her time. The sun would not be peeking out from behind the eastern range of the Frostbacks for hours yet, and her feet still ached with cold and disuse from her stakeout. The tips of her rocky footholds dug into her soles with every calculated leap toward the fortress, but she kept a watchful gaze on the top of the ramparts, to be sure she remained undetected by the lone guard atop them. There was a close call, once, when poor planning and impatience meant she had to leap farther between boulders than she could manage while keeping said watch on the guard, but a quick puff of stealth smoke, colored blue and white like the snow, and she was back on track.
The wall itself provided another challenge. It was crumbling, but the bit that would allow her access to the courtyard was some twenty feet above the ground. The old bricks had been worn smooth by years of snow and rain, their surface barely distinguishable from the grout that held them fast to one another. It was too dark to survey the top of the V-shaped breach. Her vision reached only about halfway up the wall if she was looking for any discernable detailing. She needed to scale the stretch, but doubted her daggers' ability to find purchase on the slick surface.
The smart thing at this point would have been to enter through the front gate, announced, and give up her grand reunion plans. Of course, the smart thing ten years ago might have been to flee to Orlais for more Grey Warden reinforcements, and she hadn't done that either. A small stretch of wall would not succeed in hindering her progress when an Archdemon had failed to do the same.
She stretched her bow to store it slung over her chest and back, and then took two arrows from their quiver. She snapped both of them in half, the wind racing through the mountain pass obscuring the sound, and discarded their flighted ends. A spare length of cord in her right hip's pouch soon had them lashed to her palms, where they would function as stakes to aid her climb. Mahariel tested one first, slamming its point into the stone with all the strength in her left arm. It chipped deep into the stone, but came free with a forceful-enough tug as well. She hoped the entire ascent could count on its hold, flung a quick prayer to the ancestors for good measure, and leapt as high as she could to sink the arrow once again into the wall.
It took nigh on twenty minutes to make the climb, her forearms burning with the strain and her shoulders aching to have her weight lifted from them. Without a pulley system and lacking any real footholds to leverage herself from, Mahariel was forced to perform what amounted to several dozen pull-ups in order to reach the lowest point of the V. With her bodyweight compounded with her bow and arrows, and her pack of supplies, the rest offered by the end of her ascent was welcome indeed. She forced her breath through her nose despite her exhaustion, to stop it curling up into the frosty air and possibly giving her away, and waited for her labored breathing to return to normal while surveying the courtyard below her.
The towers to her right cast enough shadow that she remained hidden from the few guards patrolling the grounds at this hour. Most of the army was camped outside the fortress itself, their number having grown too large to house even in the great barracks beneath the keep. As far as she could tell, there were two pairs of soldiers walking the courtyard in concentric figure-eights. They passed each other every fifteen minutes or so, a countermeasure against a missing patrol going unnoticed that impressed her. Blackwall certainly didn't teach them that.
The patrols would be a problem if she had planned to use the main entrance to the keep, which stood at the top of an angled staircase. The stairs were uncovered, so anyone walking atop them would be visible not only to the guard patrolling below, but to the sentries on the walls as well. She had another plan in mind.
Great banners hung from the towers, including those attached to the keep. She had expected the inquisition's great Sunburst Eye to adorn them, but instead, the Circle of Magi's circular heraldry was displayed. She knew the Inquisition had conscripted the rebellious mages at Redcliffe – something to do with a Tevinter magister and closing the breach – but had not expected their banner to fly on Inquisition tapestry. Perhaps it was a nod to the mages' role in closing that hole in the sky, or perhaps the Inquisitor was more sympathetic to the Circle's grievances than had been rumored.
Those banners would provide easy climbing to the upper tower windows, provided she could stay out of sight during the ascent. Her goal was the top window of the easternmost tower, where she knew most of the Inquisition's inner circle took their rest. If her sources were correct, that would also be where Leliana kept her aviary and base of operations. Her bed would not be far away; she never slept too far from her work.
Mahariel chose the longest tapestry she could see. It was slightly more vulnerable to multiple lines of sight, but its length covered most of the tower from a window about halfway up, to the ground. She decided to trade a greater chance of being discovered for a quicker climb, her arms still tight from climbing the outer wall. Slinking down to the squishy ground below her, Mahariel took cover behind a stack of crates. She counted to fifteen, and then peeked from her cover to make sure the guard duo had passed far enough for her to move. Seeing the coast clear, she bent at the waist and aimed a sneaking sprint towards the banner's end and slipped behind it, her back to the wall.
She unlashed the two half arrows from her hands, and drove them through the base of the banner, sinking them into the muddy ground until the jagged ends of them disappeared into the dirt. Then, turning and pressing her back to the banner, she grabbed two firm handfuls of the heavy cloth. She braced her back against the banner, and lifted her feet one at a time so her soles pressed against the surface of the wall in front of her. She climbed the wall this way, scuffing her feet up the stone face and grabbing handful after straining handful of tapestry to push herself upward.
When she reached the banner's rod, she gripped it with her palms facing away from the wall, and shimmied along its length until she could swing around to the outer face of the cloth. From there, one last pull-up vaulted her into the open window and behind a stack of boxes marked with the Inquisition's crest.
She paused again here, closing her eyes to listen. From below came the scuff of boots, the scrape of a chair, and finally the tiny, almost imperceptible scrawl of a pen on paper. A stray laugh drafted up from the lower floors as well, shaded soft – a lover's utterance, that. From above, voices as well. She listened harder, eager for the one she wanted to hear.
"If you start to faint from lack of food, I won't be covering for you again," a woman's voice – Antivan with a slight Orlesian lilt. "Work through the night if you must, but eat something while you do."
"You're such a mother hen, Josie," that voice sent a jolt through her stomach. She hadn't heard it in so long. "If you keep sneaking up to my aviary by night, people may start to talk."
"Threaten all you wish with your rumors, Leliana. But clear your plate while you do it."
"Yes, yes, ambassador," her laugh, high and sweet, made Mahariel's ears burn with the memory of all the times she had heard it before. "I appreciate your concern, and I will do as you ask."
The Antivan, satisfied with this response, did not say anything further. The heavy click of heeled boots on the stairs filled the renewed silence. Mahariel counted the steps until she could be sure that the ambassador had retreated to the levels below her before hazarding a look at the floor she was on. It was deserted. The coos of sleeping birds reigned as the only sound save for the slow, regular thump of Leliana's pacing above her.
Mahariel sidled from behind her boxy cover, ghosted to the stairwell, and slipped up the steps. A winter breeze could not have been quieter, or more invisible. But when she reached the landing, and looked about for a hooded figure in shining chainmail, her eyes were met with only the wooden furniture and its paper decoration. On a plate atop the messy table, an apple sat with two chunks of thick Ferelden bread, several bites missing from its flesh. The space was warm with recent habitation, but Leliana was nowhere in sight.
"Did you think my skills so rusty that I would not hear you enter?"
Mahariel smiled at that. She probably should have known better. She turned to meet the tip of an arrow, mere centimeters from her nose. Her eyes widened in shock, and then Liliana's did the same to match them.
Mahariel stepped around the arrow, past its bow and between the arms that held it taught when they began to slacken. She notched her forehead in the crook of that familiar neck, the movement lowering the cowl that covered it. The bow clattered to the floor. She cinched her arms around Leliana's waist, noting its new thinness and pulling their hips together. The chink of chainmail moving quickly accompanied the arms that wound around her in return, holding her impossibly closer. Mahariel breathed into the skin beneath her lips, her words breaking the exuberant sobs of Leliana's joyful tears.
"Aneth ara, emma vhenan."