She was called Lady Poelon by the staff that worked under her, a title that was meant as derisively as it was reverently. Poelon had been working in the fiery, sweaty, cavernous kitchens of great households since she was old enough to toddle after her father, carrying baskets of peelings to be dumped in the garden. It was said that any kitchen she overtook would start to function not simply like a room of people stepping on each other’s toes, not even like a machine which was oh so liable to breakdown, but like a living, breathing organism. With ease and plenty of shouting, she directed her people with an efficiency that even the Inquisition’s forces would have to admire. She was used to staff that was inclined to do the dumbest possible thing at the dumbest possible moment, and it was her job to mitigate that before it became a disaster. The ideal kitchen was one that the top-floorers never thought much about, because food came when it was needed, with the colds kept cold and the hots kept piping.
So she didn’t panic when she saw… well, she wasn’t sure entirely who it was, which was odd in and of itself. She knew every single one of her underlings because it made it much easier to shriek their name from the other side of a deafening kitchen when they were about to dump cinnamon in a pot where no cinnamon should ever tread. Still, it was a big organization, with new people arriving daily, and she was still trying to unearth her kitchen from centuries old cobwebs and debris, so a few lapses could be forgiven. Regardless, he was clearly one of the hold’s servants: his clothes were a worn patchwork of someone without any clothing to spare and he had the sort of hungry-dog look that you got from people who lived hand to mouth – exactly the sort of boy that might overoptimistically drift towards an entity like the Inquisition, hoping for glory or at least a warm bed and reliable meals.
She had plenty of boys and girls and folks like this. Normally, though, she didn’t expect to turn the corner and see one standing directly in front of Commander Cullen, distracting him from the vigil he was holding over the training recruits.
Poelon liked things that ran smoothly. It was important in a kitchen and important in a household and she could only assume it was important in a holy cause. She was certain Andraste was a woman who understood the importance of efficiency. So no, Poelon didn’t panic when she saw one of her serving boys chatting with the Commander of the entire Inquisition’s army, but she did calmly resolve to tan his hide once she got him out of there.
It was a special tone Poelon had developed. It was specially crafted to cut right down through a person’s soul and take the exact shape and tone of one’s most feared schoolmistress or familial matriarch. Even Commander Cullen gave a jolt, back going ramrod straight… though the boy didn’t seem so much startled or scared as mildly intrigued. He turned to face the fearsome Lady Poelon and blinked pleasantly up at her.
Evidently this was a boy that either knew no fear or had no brains.
“Isn’t there something you should be doing?” she demanded, with a pointed inflection that seemed to suggest she knew exactly what he should be doing, and Maker help him he’d better know as well.
The boy blinked and considered this. “Yes,” he agreed.
“Perhaps you should be doing that, rather than distracting folks with bigger jobs,” she suggested pointedly.
“I was doing that,” said the boy. “The recruits are new to horses and the horses are new to them, they’re being ridden hard, wrong, it hurts and strains and tires.”
The Commander, now somewhat recovered from his own shock, was giving Poelon a confused look. “Yes, Cole had just been down with Master Dennet and was coming to let me know how the recruits have been doing with their saddle work.”
Lady Poelon felt rather flustered at that – she hadn’t considered that the boy might be a stable-hand with a job to do. Regardless though, he needed to learn to get to the point and not chat aimlessly.
“If you’re finished then, there’s more work for you yet, fellow-me-lad,” she said sternly.
“Y-es, I think so,” said the boy, Cole – she would remember that name – thoughtfully. “If you need help, then I’ll come with you.”
“Off to the kitchens with you then,” she said, and Cole trotted across the grounds towards the kitchen entrance. She turned the Commander. She didn’t much like talking to nobility when she could help it. She vaguely figured that they too probably had important jobs to do, but part of that job was ensuring that she did hers. And her job was making sure her people did theirs. Any misstep on this boy’s part reflected on her, and she felt shamed by it. “I hope he wasn’t too distracting…”
The Commander shrugged mildly. “No more so than usual.”
Did he regularly come to bother the commander? Oh, she would be talking with this boy, and then setting him to peel every potato needed for the evening meal on his own, that she would.
Remen had been attempting to talk with Cole. He was a strange person to try to talk to. He had a habit of drifting from one’s thoughts, and Remen often felt like he was meeting him over and over again. It didn’t help that it could go weeks between sightings – sightings, as if Cole were some sort of forest spirit rather than a peaky human boy that worked in… that did…
Well, he was a human, and presumably worked somewhere around Skyhold. It must be doing odd-jobs because he never seemed to stick around any one place. Maybe he even did work out on the hills, collecting herbs or travelling down the mountain as labour, that might explain why he often wasn’t around.
Over all Remen wasn’t sure how he felt about Cole. The boy spoke in an odd way and saw things in an odd way and went silent at odd times, but he had also somehow known the exact moment Remen had really needed someone to come by and offer to play a game of cards with him. Cole hadn’t really known how to play at all, but Remen hadn’t minded at the time – he had just gotten notice from his mother that his grandmother had passed. His old grandmother, she had taught him all the card games Remen knew; the family story was that she’d once been a fiendish card sharp and had swindled her way through port towns and into local legend. Being able to spend an evening trying to teach Cole, a complete stranger at the time who had no business carrying about him, how game after game worked had softened the pain. After that small act of kindness, Remen had made space in his heart for the strange boy.
Right now they were strolling together, hiking up the steps from the lower courtyard where Cole had been picking thistle flowers for some unknown purpose, and they were now making their way through the upper courtyard towards the castle.
“She goes by the window everyday to miss her heart who lives where its sunny and hot. The thistle tea was what she was drinking when they met and it makes the distance not feel as far,” Cole had told him, and Remen had accepted that with mild but contained confusion.
Suddenly, a shadow cut across their path, blocking out the sun.
“Oh, the Iron Bull, hello.”
Remen felt his heart fall to his feet and it was all Remen could do not to fall of his.
The Qunari stood not three feet from them. He hadn’t been paying attention to them until the exact moment Cole had spoken up. Remen watched his massive bulk turn to face them, his scarred, grey face peering down from high, high above.
“Oh, hey kid.”
The Qunari, the Qunari, the Qunari was right there. Remen had accepted him as a sort of necessary evil – the Inquisitor trusted him within the walls, and Remen could accept that it was a decision made by someone wiser (or at least more powerful) than he, but he still made a point to avoid contact. He didn’t approach the corner of the tavern the Qunari and his mercenary thugs had taken over, and avoided the training grounds when they were out there working. Keep your head down, keep out the way, try not to think about the stories he had heard, about the North, about Kirkwall in the South, about the horns that must be as big as he was, or the axe that was bigger…
“Dorian’s been looking for you, the Iron Bull. Looking but without looking. He didn’t want to ask for you, but wanted it asked. It’s a secret invitation, so I’m not sure how you were supposed to know about it otherwise.”
Oh Maker, oh Andraste, oh elvish Creators, oh… whatever it was dwarves worshiped. Cole was just standing there and talking to the Qunari. The massive, powerful Qunari that hung around with the Inquisitor, personally. Sweet Maker.
“Cole,” he hissed. “Cole.”
The Qunari’s one eye flickered over him. And then he laughed, a massive, rumbling laugh that sounded like mountains knocking together. Or maybe that was Remen’s knees.
“Good to know, kid. Dorian’s going to kill you when he finds out you let that one slip. Better run off, your friend looks like he’s about to make a mess of his britches.”
Remen would like to sink in the floor rather than be acknowledged any further by the Qunari, but clearly the Maker loved him after all because the Qunari kept on his way after that and Cole turned back to him.
“You don’t need to be afraid of the Iron Bull. He likes to know he can hurt people, but he wouldn’t because you wouldn’t hurt anyone else here. He’s a good man to good men, even when he thinks he’s not,” said Cole.
Remen didn’t even try to imagine what that meant. He just grabbed Cole by the elbow and started dragging him off.
“You shouldn’t talk to people like that,” he told Cole desperately. “That’s Inquisitor work right there. That’s the Inquisitor’s people. He could grind a squeak like you into the dirt, he could, and then where would either of us be?”
“In the dirt?” said Cole. “But he wouldn’t.”
Remen said nothing to that, but resolved to keep a better eye on this boy, if he had such a death-wish.
Varia hugged the duty roster close to her chest. It was okay, she was supposed to be here. She was supposed to be here. Everything was o-kay.
She kept repeating that to herself. The thing was, she was used to meeting with Commander Cullen. He oversaw their training, for one, and she’d been on the receiving end of both his words and sword more than once when he’d seen a weakness in her stance. Besides, it was up to the recruits to organize internal duties, such as cleaning supplies, leveling the training ground, tending to training dummies, and any number of other little chores people didn’t tend to think about when they thought about the glory of army life. Once those duties had been distributed and finalized, a roster was taken to the Commander as a formality. Normally it was a simple thing – walk into his office at the end of every week with next week’s schedule, maybe give a polite salute, and then pass off the paper and leave. It was routine, she was used to it, she could do it, no matter how intimidating it had been when she’d first been elected to carry out the task. He was a great man and a great leader and she was proud to be working under him, but she was also, broadly speaking, at least somewhat used to him. She would probably still have a heart attack if he were to ever, say, come up and chat while she was drinking in the tavern, but she could work around him without losing her head.
Lady Cassandra was different. The Commander, she knew, while a great man, came from humble origins. Lady Cassandra was a lady. And not just a lady, not just a noble, but a member of the Nevarran royal family. She was practically a queen, as far as Varia could figure. Some nobles you could hate or at least ignore; they moved in a different sphere, a different world, than normal people. They were soften and sat in castles and didn’t do much of anything except collect taxes. Not Lady Pentaghast. She was on the field, the same as the Commander, except somehow that made things even worse. Varia would do anything to have even a fraction of her skill with a sword, and she would find herself getting distracted during morning training just watching her, only to pay for her distraction by getting a sword butt to the face or a shield to the shins.
And now today of all days, the Commander was out of his office. Apparently he was in a war meeting with the Inquisitor herself. There had been a man, a secretary of some sort, in the Commander’s office when she’d entered with the roster but he’d just looked down his nose at her and told her to deliver to Lady Cassandra instead.
So here she was. Apparently the armoury was the last place people had seen Lady Pentaghast go, and Varia was now creeping in to find her. What would the lady even be doing on her free time? What did people like that do when they weren’t training or fighting or commanding? Varia couldn’t imagine it. Surely nothing that normal people did.
She could hear Lady Cassandra’s distinct voice with her distinguished Nevarran accent and she climbed the stairs, but couldn’t quite make sense of the words. It didn’t sound like the cadence of a conversation, more like something was being recited. Perhaps she was reading from the Chant?
Varia poked her head above the stairs and nearly dropped her papers.
Lady Cassandra was in shirtsleeves, and sitting crossed legged on a chair, hunched over a book that she was reading from.
And she was reading to a man. Or perhaps a boy. He was that scraggly, bony sort of person that could be anywhere in between, and clearly one of the servants. His blond hair was lank and his clothes were tatty and he was sitting sprawled out at her feet like he was perfectly comfortable to be there. She – she was reading to him.
Varia gaped. How could he – why would – where did someone like him get the nerve to just interrupt someone as important as Lady Pentaghast, to take time and take up space and –
Lady Cassandra must have heard the wood of the stairs creak though, because she looked up. Her face went immediately red and she slammed the book shut, making the boy jump as she stood up sharply, facing going hard as a sword steel.
“Did you want something, soldier?” she barked.
Panicking, Varia fumbled with the papers, tried to reorganize them, make sure she hadn’t lost any, and stumbled up the rest of the stairs. She passed them off to Lady Cassandra shamefacedly.
The boy looked up at her, and spoke: “You don’t need to be embarrassed. You startled her. Waiting for the next story, excited, giddy, sneaking away to read, words practically jumping form the page, not expecting to be caught–”
“Cole!” Lady Cassandra snapped.
Varia bobbed her head in the most frantically awkward excuse for a bow and scurried back. “I- I didn’t mean to interrupt, ser. J-just the duty rosters. For Commander Cullen. Sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll… I’ll go.”
“At ease, soldier,” said Lady Cassandra with a grimace. She looked apologetic, but Varia was scrambling back as quickly as she could, heart pounding, and didn’t realize. She spent the rest of the day thinking about that, sourly wondering what gave that little serving boy the nerve to approach someone as great and dignified as Lady Cassandra, looking as bedraggled and dirty as he did. Surely that wasn’t allowed! Some people got all the luck.
Lady Poelon grabbed at the scruff of Cole’s neck, strong hand locking around the neck of his shirt and hauling him back suddenly enough that his feet nearly left the ground. He clung to the sack in his hand as he stumbled around, startled.
“Hello,” he said, once he was face to face with Lady Poelon.
He liked her. Most people, when it came down to it, were likeable. Though he found he held more preference now, than he used to. Before people were people and he ached to help each and every one of them by their simply virtue of being people. But like with food and drink and so many other things, Cole found preferences budding. It was confusing, but interesting. Poelon yelled a lot. She scared the other people in the kitchen. But she wanted things to go well. She believed and believed and believed so hard in working hard and doing your best and making sure everything was good, and she yelled to make things better. Stop someone from making a mistake before the mistake happened and someone got in trouble. Keep things running smoothly. She didn’t really understand how people worked very well, sometimes Cole tried to whisper in her ear, to make her understand better ways, but she tried and Cole liked that. But he didn’t have time right now, he needed to go!
“Where do you think you’re scampering off to?” she demanded. She didn’t know what to make of him, he confused her. Sometimes he was around. Often he wasn’t. Sometimes he helped the kitchen staff, but he wasn’t kitchen staff. She did the best she could with him. “If you’ve idle time, grab a scrub.”
“I’m going to see the Inquisitor,” said Cole truthfully.
Poelon’s eyes boggled. (She didn’t like being called Lady, though she pretended to herself thatshe did. It made her proud, a little, but she wasn’t a lady. It was a complicated feeling.)
“Are you out of your mind?” she demanded. “You can’t just – you don’t – the Inquisitor is a busy woman! And she’s preparing for a trip! Why do you think we’ve had meat drying and bread baking over this past week, fellow me-lad?”
“Yes,” said Cole, squirming in her grip, “I know. Thank you, you’ve worked hard.”
She gave him a shake. “She’s not to be bothered!”
“I don’t bother!” insisted Cole. Then he considered that statement. “Much. Sometimes, but I’m getting better at not answer the questions in their heads; it’s harder to hear now, anyway.”
“I want you elbow deep in a wash water until she’s gone! By our Lady’s grace, first the Commander himself likes you’re a soldier now the our Lady’s very own Herald! You’ve got the nerve of a goat, you have.”
She let go of him, but if she expected him to obey she was about to be sorely mistaken. Immediately, Cole disappeared – well, not so much disappeared, that was becoming much harder, but he moved with the speed and agility befitting a rogue, and he was at the kitchen door before she could blink.
“Hey!” she bellowed after him, but Cole was gone, apologies on his breath as he did so.
He hadn’t taken more than a few steps across the grounds though when Remen spotted him and gave him a wave.
Being so easily and frequently recognized was still a strange feeling. To have people be happy just because he was hear, not because he actually did anything, was even more strange. It was nice though, it made his chest feel warm.
“Hullo,” he said, as Remen trotted up to walk along side him.
“Good morning, where are you off to so early?” asked Remen cheerfully. “Collecting more weeds?”
“No,” said Cole, “I’m going to talk to the Inquisitor.”
Remen tripped and barely caught himself.
“You’re what? You can’t just talk to the Inquisitor!”
That actually did make Cole pause, long enough for Remen to catch back up and grab at Cole’s shoulder.
“Yes you can,” Cole said sincerely. “She talks all the time. She moves her mouth.”
“Yeah, but it’s the Inquisitor. She doesn’t talk to people like us!”
“She talks to lots of humans,” said Cole. “Though not many spirits.”
Remen wasn’t sure what that meant and wasn’t going to ask.
“Look, what I’m saying is you can’t just… barge up and interrupt important people, okay? They’re… they’re important! And busy! And dangerous!”
“Yes, that’s the point. Dangerous, deadly, but caring and kind. A storm, a complication, hard to hold, important to balance. Sweeping her up, dashing her away, no stop, no rest, she needs help. I need to help.”
And with that, Cole turned and started trotting towards gate again – or tried. Remen held tight. His friend might have lost his mind, but Remen wasn’t going to let him do something he’d regret.
“Listen, let’s go… go help somewhere else, yeah?”
Cole turned, and not unkindly took a hold of Remen’s hand and pulled it off his arm.
“This is where I am needed,” he said simply, and off he went.
He was almost at the gate by now. The Inquisitor was there already, leaning against the snorting dracolisk, packs and bags and sleeping rolls fastened securely to her mount. Next to her, chatting and laughing loudly with her and their third companion, the Iron Bull, was Dorian, who was twirling his staff idly in his hands. Leliana was standing next to Bull and he was leaning down so she could speak softly in his ear about something or another. From the party’s busy work, as they shifted bags and tightened straps and double checked armour, to the mounts restless shifting and pawing at the ground, the entire scene was filled with a tense energy, like a bow drawn and quivering as it waited to be released. Some people had come by to watch, gawk, to catch a sight of the Inquisitor and the inspiring figure she cut before she rode off to face the horrors beyond once more.
Several feet away from the party, a handful of soldiers were positioned. To keep the road clear and idlers from disrupting preparations.
One such soldier was Varia. And she saw Cole marking purposefully across the grounds, straight at the Inquisitor’s party.
“Hold!” she called warily.
Cole may as well have not even noticed her, he just kept strolling, with another man tugging on his, trying to draw him back. He looked just as desperate to not have Cole there as she was, and beyond that a woman, a cook by the look of her, was storming across the grounds with a steely look in her eye.
“Stop!” she said, with more authority, flinging her arm across Cole’s path. He paused, as it confused by her doing her duty and keeping civilians back. “If you have business beyond here, you will have to wait,” she told him. “The Inquisitor is conducting business. Once she and her party have departed, you can go about your business.”
“That will be too late,” said Cole. “…You think I act above my station, but I don’t think I have a station to act above or below. People are just people, but you see them as something different. Bigger. …Cassandra is shorter than she is in your mind, you know, even with the helmet.”
Varia blushed. “Who–? How- how dare you! Step down before I make you!”
Her voice was rising though and people were watching now – people were always ready to watch a show, and she’d just become a more interesting one. It also meant the Inquisitor’s eyes lifted, and Varia nearly quailed in her armour. Seeing people as bigger than they were – maybe, but the Inquisitor was big enough to have touched the hand of the Maker Himself, she was bigger than any one person and Varia had respect.
The Inquisitor’s eyes went past her and a smile spread across her face.
“Cole!” the Inquisitor bellowed. “There you are!”
“It’s about time, we’ve been freezing or toes off waiting for you!” Dorian groused.
“Get moving, kid, let’s go,” called Bull, finally saddling up on his broad shouldered mount.
Varia stared, arm still raised. Remen stared, hand still reaching for Cole. Poelon stared, mouth agape.
Cole gave them a sympathetic smile. “People aren’t as big as you see them in your head. People are just people, mostly. They like it when you’re people with them. Don’t be so scared, not of good people.”
No one had much to say to that, but it wasn’t necessary. Cole shouldered his sack, and trotted over to the mount that was waiting for him, and as unit, with the Inquisitor waving back to the on-lookers, the party left the gate and began the descent down the mountain.