Skyhold: Dragon 9:48, four years after the events at the Exalted Council and the disbanding of the Inquisition
Lieutenant Isene, leader of the Agents of Fen'Harel at Tarasy’lan Te’las, stormed down from her post at the Rookery. Her heavy chain mail clinked with each step on the stone floors, and the many elves under her command scattered like mice at the sight of the powerful furrow of her brow.
Isene had arrived back at Skyhold a handful of hours ago from a meet in Tevinter, only to find out now that she had a dozen new prisoners in her dungeons. Behind her, Isene’s personal attendant, Mirwen, glued his eyes to the ground and kept pace.
“Linna!” Isene barked, and like a shadow, another, smaller elf appeared at her side. In her arms were stacks of reports, wrinkling under Linna’s vice-like grip.
“Hah’ren,” Linna mumbled with a dip of her head. Isene rolled her eyes and thundered down the first flight of the spiral staircases, beginning her journey down into Skyhold’s innermost chambers. The wooden steps creaked beneath their combined weight, left unattended by repairmen since the Inquisition had abandoned the place years ago. “Welcome back.”
“Mirwen’s tardy report informs me that we have prisoners. How did that happen, bookkeeper?”
Mirwen stepped forward. “Lieutenant, my deepest apologies, I—”
Isene held up a hand, and the boy bit his tongue. “Linna?”
“Yes, Hah’ren!” Linna’s bare feet skittered along the uneven stone tiles, trying to keep pace with Isene’s long stride as she handed Isene a missive with the prisoner’s details. The girl had once been Dalish before joining the ranks of Fen Harel, though she no longer bore Vallasiln. Isene had never inquired about her origins – it was rude to do so in Fen'Harel’s service, with everyone’s background differing and some coping still with the shame of slavery or worse – but she could tell from the girl’s lilting accent and her green tunic, so customarily worn by the Dalish. “They’ve been down there almost a fortnight,” Isene repeated, glancing over the report. “They’ve been fed, have plenty of blankets. But why the dungeons?”
“We had nowhere else to put them,” Mirwen explained. “But in those icy dungeons at this time of year, anyone should be willing to speak up, at least about their purpose here.”
“Yes,” Isene snapped, “but it appears as though these trespassers are a little hardier than expected.”
“Lieutenant--” Mirwen tried again.
“Enough, boy!” Isene halted, rounding on him. “This report says that a dozen potentially hostile elves were captured and held in the prisons for a fortnight and I, Steward of Tarasy’lan Te’las, had no knowledge of it! That’s a fundamental neglect of your duties, Mirwen, and I’ll deal with you later. Report to the guardhouse and get ready for a dressing down when I get there. Dismissed.”
Mirwen bowed his head and didn’t raise his eyes as he slunk from Isene’s sight. Isene shook her head and resumed her walk. “Linna, with me,” she ordered the girl.
Linna dipped her head. “Lieutenant, the trespassers refused to speak but by the word of their leader. And their leader won’t talk either. Not unless it’s to the one in charge of Tarasy’lan Te’las.”
“What’s the leader’s name?”
“She won’t give it."
Isene grunted. “Figures.”
It wasn’t the first time some roguish band and their bloated frontrunner had turned up at Skyhold’s doors, demanding an audience with Fen'Harel to stroke their own ego before offering aid. Linna herself had seen her share of those, yet Isene could tell from the girl’s face and manner that something was different about this particular group. Only a dozen, and refugees by the sound of them, and they refuse to offer information about themselves? If Isene had been ten years younger, she would have cut their throats for the insubordination.
“If they want our leader, that’d be Fen'Harel,” she growled. She waved off another two messengers who stopped in the doorway of the stairwell to let her pass, heads bowed. “And whatever hellspawn that draws him back to this place had better beware. He certainly wouldn’t return to greet any fool who demanded it.”
Linna followed at her heels as they entered the Rotunda. Isene had been here when the air had still smelt of the Dread Wolf’s paints, could remember the sound of laughter echoing over the stones and the hundreds of discarded candles, burned down to the wick from many late nights of research and paint and teaching. Now a dozen elves stood around a great, wooden table. The raised their heads in curiosity though decided against commenting, sensing Isene’s agitation even as she stormed past. Strategians and mages, smarter elves than Isene, plotted the course of Fen'Harel’s forces in Thedas, though they knew who ruled Tarasy’lan Te’las by the leave of the Dread Wolf. Their organization was barely that. They possessed no lands, no banners, and no army, and yet they had managed to re-take the Emerald Graves and the Arbor Wilds and bring Val Royeaux nearly to its knees in the resulting conflicts, all done without a single direct confrontation. But that was nearly a year ago now, and the Dread Wolf’s forces, while thriving, had abandoned direct conflict and instead moved from place to place, using the Eluvians of old.
“Right,” Linna whispered, drawing Isene from her thoughts. “The likelihood of Fen'Harel ever coming here… I did say that to them, of course, but for some reason they didn’t seem to want to speak with him. Hah’ren, forgive me, but I think they were waiting for you— for your return.”
Isene halted. “What makes you say that?” Neither her name nor her face were well marked in Thedas. It was her anonymity to all but those who served the Dread Wolf that made her especially useful.
“When I mentioned Fen'Harel would not come to meet her, the leader, she said— well it was rather cryptic. She said she wanted to meet the Midha anyway.”
“She said what?” Isene hissed, gripping Linna to her. “The what?!”
“The—The Midha, Lieutenant. I don’t know what that is either.”
Isene’s heart sank. Suddenly she was weighing whether or not to cut their new guests’ throats anyway. “And you shouldn’t. Very few know that name.”
They were at the mouth of the Main Hall, sunlight peering through the wide open doors, the only source of light within. When Isene had arrived a year ago at the behest of Fen Harel, the long tables that had once blocked the place she now stood had been turned over and pushed against the walls to make way for emptying the keep.
After the Inquisition vanquished Corypheus years ago, the place downsized as merely the home of the Inquisitor and the staff was halved to accommodate her rare needs and the general upkeep of the castle. Inquisition forces were instead spread abroad in Ferelden and Orlais in their many camps. During her time as an Inquisition Scout, Isene had seen that very hall bathed in golden light of the torches, filled with song and laughter of soldiers and the nobles who visited on occasion. When the Inquisitor died, Tarasy’lan Te’las was abandoned altogether for two long years. They’d only begun moving back a few months ago as Fen'Harel’s forces were expanding. Now the Main Hall lay bare of all furnishings— no torches were lit and the dark made it difficult to tread at times— yet elves dashed to and fro, with orders, with birds, or with more news. Skyhold’s position between Orlais and Ferelden made it the perfect conduit for information, and the castle remained both Isene’s great reward for many years of service and her great burden.
“You said they were found in a blizzard?” she asked.
“Yes…” Linna hesitated. “Lieutenant, I did not embellish my report. The leader of their company is... Well she’s clearly powerful, but young – younger than you even. And Lieutenant, she has only one arm. The left is severed at the elbow. Just like—”
“I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong, Linna. She was a Rogue anyway – her weapon was the bow, not the staff.”
“Yes, but there was proof otherwise with what happened at Wycome, and…”
“Enough!” Isene snarled. “No matter what you may believe, people do not come back from the dead!” The Main Hall quieted at her sudden outburst, and before Linna could protest, Isene dragged her by her arm down an adjacent stairwell, down, down to the dungeons. “Not even the Inquisitor.”
Linna quieted down, and as they descended the stone staircases in the dark, the air grew colder. One torch was lit at another doorway at the bottom of the winding tunnel, its orange glow casting onto the iron and wood door.
Linna’s soft voice split the chilly air. “None of us knew what she looked like, Lieutenant. We could never say from just seeing her.” Linna’s green eyes were wide and full of hope that only the zealous knew. “You saw her, when you worked for the Inquisition. If she has returned…”
“You’re wearing on my patience.” Isene snatched a torch from its peg on the wall and nearly cracked the door as she kicked it wide open. The two guards in the corridor jumped, blades suddenly drawn at the commotion. Good. Isene would not be the only one uncomfortable today. “I’ll not have rumors spreading through Tarasy’lan Te’las under my command. If the Dread Wolf ever caught wind of it…” She waved a hand, and the guards relaxed and nodded their heads. When she stepped further into the chamber, they turned to flank her.
One of them cleared his throat, and Isene turned to listen. The male elven guardsman was slight, his hood pulled up over his ears, and he kept his face hidden under a loosely draped mask. An atypical choice for a guardsman, but Isene let it slide, given the circumstances. Agents of Fen'Harel were often particular about their identities even in relative safety. “Glad you’re here, Lieutenant.”
“Yes. I’ve been told about these new… visitors we have,” Isene said, looking them both over warily. By the size of their eyes, she suspected that Linna’s big mouth had infected them as well. She sighed. “Have they said nothing to you about their identities?”
“No, Lieutenant. Not a word spoken amongst them, other than their leader. They were found by a patrol scouting the northern woods. We thought they might be from near Orzammar or perhaps further north. When we first brought them in, they were treated like any other – given food, a place to wash. But once we saw what their leader looked like. Lieutenant, her arm—”
“—Yes, as if no one else in the world is capable of having a severed arm,” Isene cut him off. “Show me to the cell. I’ll not waste a second more on these nonsensical rumors.”
Isene glanced on either side of her, noting the other prisoners in their cells, one short from a dozen as the report had said both men and women. From her brief perusal as she passed, Isene could see no uniform in their dress nor obvious fashions to declare if they were Orlesian, Ferelden, or of some other origin. They looked roguish and untidy, dirt smearing their faces, as if recovering from a long journey, but that was typical of the Elves who came to Skyhold. What was unusual was the steel in each of their eyes, how they glanced toward Isene and then away, but not down as a slave or prisoner would – it was the diverted gaze of those used to being imprisoned and showing disinterest toward their guards. Well.
Isene followed the two sentries to the last door at the end of the hallway, where the walls sloped slightly downward. Even before her escort opened the door, she could feel the chill of the chamber beyond. Skyhold sat at the edge of the mountaintop, a corner of its foundation carved away by a massive waterfall that spilled from its guts. When standing in the Undercroft, the chill from the rushing water was not so bad, taken off by the constant, north-driving wind, but in the dungeons the air froze instantly in the dead of winter. Isene stifled a shiver, but at her side, Linna brought her arms around herself and her teeth chattered. Two pathways of rickety boardwalk extended on either side, shuddering under the powerful gusts of wind. The waterfall swallowed the center of the chamber and opened to the Frostback mountains beyond, so loud that Isene could no longer hear the clink of her armor as she followed the guards down the left pathway.
She avoided looking down, where the mists of the waterfall obscured the bottom of the chasm below, fearing the sensation of vertigo. Empty cells, some caked with evidence from the Inquisitor’s old prisoners and some left hollow from lack of use, lay with their doors open, while only one at the end remained shut.
“Is there a reason you chose to place their leader in this cell, so far away from the others and in this icy place?” Isene asked the guards.
“Well, she is a Mage, Lieutenant,” the guard protested. “I heard when the scouts happened upon her and her men in the woods, the two groups surprised one another. She cast a Force spell on them. Most of them fainted from the shock of it. Took Manehn two days to wake. We didn’t want to take any chances.”
“You mean if she ends up being the Inquisitor, raised from the dead?”
He dipped his head, eyes lowering to the ground and unable to offer further explanation. Both guards stopped walking just short of the final door.
“That one, is it?” Isene asked, affecting more nonchalance than she felt. The word Midha echoed in her head and the feeling of dread accompanied it. What was it about this prisoner that already felt off? She’d never seen so many elves under her command – under the ancient Elvhen Fen'Harel’s command – so spooked. She approached the door, holding in a breath.
Skyhold’s prison cells were enchanted, preventing any Mage from casting while within and any warrior from breaking them with their bare hands. The smooth, amber-colored walls remained unmolested; a strange stillness lay inside. The single occupant, a thin elven woman, sat on the narrow bench against the far wall, in naught but a simple set of brown hunting gear with a red hood popping out of the back of a long, dark cloak. Face obscured by dark shadows, she did not turn nor stir at Isene’s approach, though she must have known she was there. Peering closer, Isene could see the woman’s left arm, or lack thereof, peeking from the folds of the cloak– it was nothing but a stub, the fabric of her shirt bunched in a knot where her forearm and hand should have been. So that detail at least was true.
“Well,” Isene barked, hardening her voice. “You’ve requested an audience of the leader of Tarasy’lan Te’las. I am Lieutenant Isene, originally of Kirkwall in the Free Marches.”
The woman in the cell snickered, though she did not stir. “That’s quite an introduction for a spy. A bit honest, isn’t it?”
Isene bristled at the lack of respect in the woman’s voice. She noted warily that despite being left in these freezing conditions for the better part of a fortnight, the woman didn’t appear to be any worse for wear. Even Isene’s arms pricked with goose pimples at the frigid air. “Skyhold is my station now, and if I wished to conceal my identity from you, I wouldn’t have offered my name. Who do you serve, woman?”
Another laugh echoed over the ancient stones. “Why must I serve someone? Hasn’t the plight of the elves always been centered on service? Slavery, serfdom…”
“Those who come here either wish to serve Fen'Harel or will not be allowed admittance,” Isene cut off.
“Really? But I’ve already been invited in. The room you’ve prepared for me is lovely.”
Isene kept her temper in check. She’d never played the Orlesian Game but could certainly tell when it was being played with her. The prisoner knew how to twist her words, to mock and incite a hasty response to get Isene to reveal more in her anger. She took a calming breath, keeping it as silent as possible. Without turning from the prisoner, she barked, “Guards, and Linna – that’s enough for now. I’d like to speak with her alone.”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” the guards said instantly. The two stepped away but remained within eyesight. Linna hesitated a moment, fighting against her curiosity no doubt. A cold look from Isene prompted her to dip her head and follow the guards to their posts.
“There,” Isene said quietly, when they were alone. “Now will you be a little more cooperative?”
The figure did not respond right away, so tranquil that she could have been one with the walls. Isene found her breath stilling, waiting. She felt wrong almost, in the presence of this strange woman, a cold dread creeping up her spine along with a tinge of dreadful familiarity. No wonder Linna was convinced she was a ghost.
“Yes,” the woman said in a low voice.
“Then tell me who you are.”
“How about I tell you who you are?” the woman offered. Her teeth gleamed in the faint light, rimmed by wine-colored lips. Isene stared transfixed. “In Fen'Harel’s service, there are many of the old Inquisition, though none so imbedded as you. You were a Scout of the Nightingale, discovered during the first month of the Inquisition and instantly trusted after you blazed a trail with Scout Harding through the Hinterlands. Back then you went by Ariana, a simple escapee of the violence at Kirkwall and your alias was Cobbler under the Nightingale. When Corypheus attacked, you escaped the destruction of Haven, migrated north here to Skyhold, where at some point you fell into a secret collaboration with Fen'Harel, then known as Solas, the elven apostate who was deep in the Inquisitor’s circle. Not long after, he revealed himself as the Dread Wolf of Old to you, in which you became one of the very first Agents of Fen'Harel.”
Isene’s heart dropped; her breath caught. Her eyes drifted down, to the woman’s severed arm. Linna’s words echoed in her ears as if freshly spoken. It couldn’t be…
The woman continued in a cold voice. “You were his most trusted spy, and he guided you to rise within the Nightingale's ranks so you could remain with the Inquisitor, watching her, even after the Inquisition was disbanded. Fen'Harel, the Great Dread Wolf, the bogeyman of Dalish nightmares, declared you his Midha, the blade of the night, the assassin sent to cut away his adversaries. You could strike at the Inquisition in the night and then loyally serve them the following day, mourning with them while plans of your own make came to pass. When the Inquisitor died two years ago, your service under the Inquisition was, of course, no more. You fled Tevinter, where she had been slain, and joined with Fen'Harel’s forces in the recently claimed fortress at the Arbor Wilds.”
The stump moved, as did the woman, a mere twist of her torso and suddenly she was on her feet with all the grace and feral energy of a cat. But she remained infuriatingly in the shadows with the red hood pulled over her head, and Isene was unable to see her face.
“From there, Fen'Harel’s forces stirred like a whirlwind and then all at once, ancient places were reclaimed – the ruins at the Emerald Graves, Dirthamen's temple north of the Waking Sea, Halamshiral - that was quite a feat - and even here at Tarasy’lan Te’las, where soon you were made commander, an arm more than a blade now, don’t you think?”
Isene fought to keep from shaking in both shock and rage. It was all true. All spoken with such confidence as if this woman had lived it all herself. That meant there were rats amongst the agents of Fen'Harel, a breach in her security that her master could not afford.
“Who… who are you?” she growled, fighting for her anger not to merge with panic, to not throw herself against the bars and strangle the woman.
“I’m someone with a lot of friends. And despite what you may think, I came here to make some more.” The woman cocked her head to the side. “Amongst the elves here, amongst the Agents of Fen'Harel. I’ve also come with information.”
“More than what you already possess?” Isene spat.
“I told you what I knew about you to prove my credentials. To get your attention.”
“Well you have it, damn you! If you want to make friends, why attack my scouts in the woods? Why submit to imprisonment but refuse to identify yourself? Why wait for me?”
“Well, Isene, I thought you might recognize me.”
“How— how am I to know you?”
“Well I’m sure you know me, Isene. Many of my friends are yours now.”
The Inquisition… it was true that many of the Elves had returned to Skyhold once Inquisition forces had left and not long after word of the Inquisitor’s death had left the world in disarray. Almost no one had even noticed the old fortress come under new rule.
But Isene had had enough of guessing, enough of her mind spinning in circles and Linna’s words crowding in her ears. Isene could only look down at the missing left arm, the same one Fen'Harel had taken from the Inquisitor four years ago at the ruins of Arlathan. Every agent knew the story well. Isene had been installed as little more than a servant girl in the Inquisition, watching and reporting both about the movements of major players as well as the opposing Qunari forces.
Isene’s large hands shot to the bars, gripping them tightly. “Look, either state your name here and now, or I will toss you over the waterfall myself! Step into the light!”
An infuriating silence followed. Isene could not breathe for fear of the impossible coming true. If the Inquisitor were alive…
The woman stepped forward, at the same time raising her right hand above her head to throw her mantle aside. A wash of white hair fell over her shoulders, free of the bounds of the hood, and despite the color, the face of a young woman emerged. Her features were sharp, hawk-like, and her deep brown eyes sparkled with both mischief and intelligence. Thick kohl lined her eyes and her lips glimmered deep red. She grinned like a cat, sharp and feral.
No woman ever lived who looked so opposite of the Inquisitor. It knocked the breath from Isene, who nearly cried aloud with relief.
The white-haired stranger must have seen this. Her toothy grin faded to a mere smirk.
“Well, Lieutenant Isene. Fair’s fair. My name is Jenny. Red Jenny. And you must suspect by now that you’ve a rat in your castle.”