tagCelebrities & Fan FictionThere and Back Again Ch. 169

There and Back Again Ch. 169

byElyssaCousland©

Chapter One Hundred Sixty-Nine: Wintersend

"No."

"Be reasonable, Love. We have to go."

I hated that Alistair was being so...so...reasonable. "No!" I pouted, knowing it was ridiculous and immature, but I couldn't help it.

The cheeky bastard smiled, trying and failing to cover his twitching lips with one hand. "Sierra...your brother—"

"He doesn't see me as his sister - he sends people to spy on me and endangers my husband! - so why should I have to jump when he commands?"

He wrapped one, muscular arm around me and pulled me, stiff and resisting, against him. "Okay. Forget that. You're right. He doesn't have the right to be called family. So instead...your liege lord, Teyrn Fergus Cousland, demands our presence. We don't really have the option to refuse."

"Alistair..." My whiny tone had modulated to true fear, and Alistair held me closer as I trembled. "I understand why he's like that. I get it. He lost everything and he doesn't believe me, and I can't even blame him. But that doesn't make me want to put myself in his way and let him flatten me!" I looked up and nuzzled his chin as he kissed my forehead. "I don't want to go to Highever at all. I wasn't there, but I've seen what happened. I remember those people, even though they never met me. I saw the blood and the bodies. It would be like inviting Kallian to a party at the Arl of Denerim's estate!"

There was nothing he could say to that, and we both knew it. Nothing was going to make this trip less awful - not even my husband.

"What's involved in a Wintersend celebration anyway?"

I'd received an invitation - or summons, really - by courier from Highever. Fergus was holding a Wintersend event of some sort - a few weeks late, due to the awful weather Ferelden had endured, not that we noticed the difference at the Peak, where it was always cold and snowy - and Alistair and I were expected to attend.

"I'm not sure what Highever does," Alistair replied thoughtfully. "In Redcliffe it was little more than an extra market day. There'd be a few entertainers, a few traveling merchants...nothing all that remarkable."

I groaned. "I'm going to call Aedan. If I have to go, he better bloody well be there too!"

He would be there, as it turned out; I used the sending stone and confirmed that, purely by chance, my twin would be near enough Highever to meet us there for the event.

"It will just be a feast, and maybe a small faire," he assured me. "You'll only have to stay a few days - maybe a week. And I imagine it won't be just you - I'd bet Fergus invited all his Vassals. Nate will be there, I'm sure of it."

"Are they all staying at the castle?" I asked. "It says we're expected to stay with him."

"Sis...you're a princess. Whether you like to admit it or not! You may be his vassal, same as everyone else, but you were always going to be extended more courtesy than the average because of who you married, even if you weren't our sister."

"I don't think brotherly love is what's behind this," I grumbled, and Aedan laughed. "How can you even stand to go back there? I only saw it on a screen and I'm worried it will trigger nightmares. You lived through it."

He sighed. "I'm not exactly thrilled, I admit. You'll notice it's been quite a while and I never made any effort to go visit. But...he's our brother. Honestly, he needs us. Both of us, though he can't see that yet... And I probably need to face it anyway. I can't stay away forever, much as I might like to."

"Aedan...I'm scared. I may understand him, but it still hurts."

"He won't be anything but polite, I promise. And you'll have me, Zev, and Alistair there with you."

I sighed. "Fine...fine. I have to go pack; we need to leave the day after tomorrow if we're to make it in time!"

*****

Packing an entire noblewoman's wardrobe takes a ridiculously long time, it turned out; poor Maeve enlisted the help of four other maids, shooing me out of the room so they could get things done without me in the way. Arranging food and travel for Alistair and I, with our ten bodyguards and a contingent of soldiers, was surprisingly easy by comparison. Levi and Edric assured me they'd be fine in my absence, and Mhairi would keep an eye on the templar visitors as well as the rest of our soldiers while I was gone.

No one felt happy about leaving Loghain in charge of the Wardens, however. But with Aedan and Alistair both away, Faren having his problems, Conrad in Denerim, and none of the other Wardens having anything resembling command experience, we didn't have many other choices. It highlighted an aspect of Warden training we'd been lax on, and Alistair swore to start working on it as soon as we returned. We needed leaders, if we were to be splitting the Wardens between multiple locations - Ostagar, Orzammar, and Denerim, at the least.

The trip was expected to take a week each way, and we hoped to only spend a week in Highever itself; we packed for a month in the city, just in case. Maeve was horrified that I wasn't taking every last dress I owned. I was horrified that my clothes would be solely responsible for us needing a cart.

Alistair was horrified that I insisted on bringing my armoured court clothes. "You're not going to be attacked in Highever!"

I just shot him the stink-eye and went back to my last-minute paperwork.

*****

We left early in the morning, after lending one of our sending stones to Levi - just in case. We rode horses, to my dismay, leaving the cart to follow us as fast as it could travel. The Peak didn't have enough horses for everyone, so our first stop once we left the mining tunnels was at a farm nearby that Levi had contracted to keep a large number of mounts for our exclusive use. I'd had no idea that was a thing, but was pleased that our escorts would be riding, instead of walking alongside my horse like the last time I'd left Soldier's Peak.

The cart had to travel through the night to catch up to us, but we were able to make good time despite stopping relatively early each night. The soldiers and bodyguards who accompanied us were dumbstruck that I knew how to set up a tent and cook over a fire, much to my amusement. Some of them had been with Alistair on his various missions, but they'd all assumed I was some sort of helpless, spoiled noblewoman and were nothing short of shocked that I was sleeping on a bedroll and wearing armour just like they were. In fact, my striking purple Archdemon armour was the fanciest of everyone we traveled with, and with its warmth runes, I was the only one of us who wasn't constantly freezing along the way.

We stopped early the night before we arrived in Highever; Alistair and I both wanted the opportunity to clean up before we saw Fergus. We set up our tent and then found a clearing a little ways away to have quick showers. It was awful - the water was warm, but the air was frigid and the ground covered in snow. We were both shivering by the time we crawled into our tent, curling up together under my cloak and every spare blanket we could find. In the morning, I donned a dress with special divided skirts for riding, and Alistair wore a doublet and trousers for the first time in a long while. We rode through the city at the head of our entourage, all the way to the castle we could see in the distance.

Highever wasn't as large as Denerim, and there were fewer large estates and multi-story buildings, so the view wasn't as obstructed. But what it lacked in size, it made up for in other ways - cleanliness being the most immediately obvious.

It didn't stink. The overpowering odour that permeated Denerim was much less noticeable when we rode into town, and the streets were not covered in filth that constantly had to be swept into the sewers. I wondered where people in Highever emptied their chamber pots, but knew I really couldn't ask anyone with causing offence. It made the ride much more enjoyable than I expected, however.

And clearly people had expected us, or at least, guessed who we were; we were waved at by children and people on the street as we passed, and they cheered when we waved back. Most of the people looked relatively healthy and happy, obviously more prosperous than in Denerim. I wondered if we just managed to avoid the poorer areas, or if Highever was just that much better off. We passed by the Alienage; I thought even Justice would be pretty impressed. There were no gates, no walls - just a neighbourhood of small, well-maintained homes with a few businesses scattered in between. There were no malnourished children playing in the dirt, and everyone had appropriate clothing for the icy weather.

I had to admit it was hard to dislike Fergus when he so obviously took care of his people.

The castle, blurry in the distance, slowly resolved as we approached. It was actually quite beautiful - the game never showed much of the outside except the main courtyard. It was huge, bigger than the Vigil though not as large as the Palace in Denerim, boasting multiple towers, columns, ramparts, and arches. The main building was multiple stories tall, and it was flanked by smaller buildings on either side that I guessed would be barracks and stables. And the whole thing was made out of a sort of bleached stone that looked almost white instead of the grey I had expected. It was something out of every fairy tale I'd read as a child, and I almost expected Cinderella to sweep down the steps at any moment. I wonder how many servants it takes to keep it this clean.

Instead of Cinderella, we were greeted by a company of soldiers standing at attention when we rode up to the gates, and we were ushered through without delay. Fergus was walking down the steps from the main door as Alistair plucked me off my horse - between the stupid skirts and stiff legs, I couldn't get down alone. And then we got to do the awkward dance of who greets who, how.

It was complicated: Fergus was a Teyrn and my liege lord, but my husband was a Prince, and yet theoretically we were all related. If my relationship with Fergus had been less fraught, we could have laughed it off, but as it was, I curtsied at Fergus, Fergus bowed at Alistair, Alistair held my hand to help me back up, and then gave Fergus a nod that was not quite a bow, but not quite not a bow either. And I nearly fell when my leg cramped.

Like I said, awkward.

And then all that was forgotten when Prince, followed closely by Aedan and Zevran, dashed down the steps and barreled into me. I nearly fell, instead being caught and steadied by Alistair, while Aedan yelled at his mabari, Zevran smirked at me, and Fergus stared at the dog in what looked like complete shock. I squatted down to pet the frantic dog, while he tried to lick my face and wagged his tail so hard his butt was shaking. When I stood, Aedan scooped me into a big hug, which Zevran joined when I held out an arm, and then Alistair, Aedan, and Zevran shared those weird, one-armed man hugs that seem to exist in both worlds.

The dog sniffed Alistair's hand and accepted a brief pat, then sat on my foot - his normal spot - to wait until the talking was done. And Fergus continued to stare at Prince like he'd just grown a second head.

Finally Aedan cleared his throat, and Fergus blinked and then refocused on us, his expression far more sour than his words would indicate. "Welcome, your Highnesses. Please consider Highever your home while you are here. Your escort will stay in the barracks there. I have rooms prepared for you; would you prefer to freshen up or begin with a tour?"

Aedan rolled his eyes and took my hand before I could answer, dragging me up the stairs behind him as I tripped over Prince. The mabari grumbled, but moved to my brother's side, Aedan's hand frequently resting on his broad head. "How fresh does anyone really need to be? Definitely the tour for these two, and then food. Right?"

I smiled at his enthusiasm and nodded agreeably; Zevran took my other arm, leaving Alistair and Fergus to follow in our wake. I noticed two of our guard peel off from the rest who were being directed to the barracks - Fergus' eyebrows rose, but he said nothing.

It never failed to be surreal when I first saw something I recognised from the game. Castle Cousland was no exception. We swept through a large foyer with closed doors on each side, but we continued forward into a huge, high-ceilinged room. The main hall was eerily familiar, and I saw Aedan wince when the massive double doors closed behind us - the doors that Ser Gilmore had died defending. It was bigger than I expected - like so many things - and had tables set and decorated gaily leaving only a narrow aisle for us to walk down. The head table sat on a raised dais, and I remembered standing there and making small talk with Rendon Howe at the beginning of the game.

Fergus was talking, but I felt unable to listen or respond, overwhelmed by little memories of the room around me. It was the tutorial - the place I'd first learned how to move around in the game, how to interact. I was pulled back into the present when I realised Fergus had stopped talking and was staring at me expectantly.

I cleared my throat roughly. "Sorry, your Grace. This is...um." Aedan squeezed my hand, and I felt Alistair embrace me from behind, his hands on my shoulders warmly. "I'm fine. Though I missed whatever you asked me. Please, continue."

Fergus' expression was hard to read, but it had settled a little from the overtly hostile frown, so I guessed it would have to do. "I just asked how your trip was," he commented mildly.

"Oh! Faster than I expected - but cold." I shivered theatrically. It seems to be what everyone expects - complaints about the weather.

He nodded, and then turned and gestured to the side doors. "Let's continue..."

In the end, we saw most of the main parts of the castle, lots of rooms that hadn't been in the game like a massive ballroom, a second dining room, and several large sitting areas, but we missed out on the areas that were generally not open to the public, like the kitchens and servants' quarters. Not that I'm sad to avoid the kitchen - and the pantry where Bryce's blood spread all over the floor. The castle was enormous - and we'd only seen the main floor. There were stairs leading up from a large central reception chamber, and I had no idea if there were just bedrooms up there or what.

"Why don't I show you where your rooms are, and then we can meet in half an hour for lunch? It will be only us, so we can use the family dining room. One of the servants can direct you - it's on the same floor as your room."

No one objected, and so Fergus swept up the steps in front of us. When he turned left at the top, Aedan hesitated. "'Gus..."

Fergus ignored him and kept walking. "These used to be our family quarters, but they've been converted into our guest rooms after the Blight." He turned again, through a door flanked by two guards standing at stiff attention, down a wide, carpeted hallway bright with sconces. "You are the first to arrive; you may choose any room you like."

I looked around in dismay, my head spinning. I recognised that hallway, even though it was slightly different than in game. There was a shallow ramp up to a door at the far end, and two doors on either side of the hallway, all closed. The carpets were different, the tapestries unfamiliar, but based on Aedan's response - he had stayed at the far end, refusing to even walk down the hallway - and Fergus' commentary, I knew where we had to be.

I gulped, feeling lightheaded. I couldn't decide where to look - the door to Fergus' old room, the place I'd last seen Oriana and Oren bleeding on the floor; or the door to Lady Landra's room, where I'd found her body in a pool of blood; or the room at the end where I'd seen Eleanor Cousland emerge, bow in hand, too late to protect her family.

Alistair's expression was puzzled, but Fergus bore a grim smile, as though he'd predicted and enjoyed my discomfort. Zevran squeezed my hand, and Avanna stood looking around alertly as though wondering what threat had me so on edge. And Aedan was tiny, at the end of a long hallway that felt like it was closing in the longer I stood there.

Finally I pointed at the door to Aedan's old room. At least I won't be imagining blood stains. I opened my mouth to try to indicate my preference when I stumbled and swooned into Alistair's arms, suddenly realising I'd been holding my breath since I'd guessed where Fergus was leading us. I felt Alistair's lips on my forehead, and heard the pounding of feet and my brother calling out my name.

"Breathe, Sierra. Slowly. Just breathe." Eyes fluttering closed, I listened to my husband's voice, tuning out the rest of the sounds until the world stabilised and stopped lurching around me. Alistair pulled me up into a bridal carry, walked a little ways, and then lowered me down onto a surface that was soft and warm - a bed, I realised. Other footsteps retreated, and I heard a door close with a dull thud. I opened my eyes to see a beautful canopy over the four-poster, and my husband's worried visage leaning over me. His hands were on me, one on my forehead and one rested on my waist, and they anchored me back to my body. I wanted to kiss away the wrinkle in his brow, to bask in his care for me, but I didn't have time. I swooned like the Princess Fergus always calls me - how humiliating.

I took a deep breath and tried to sit up. "I'm okay." I could hear the hum of voiced from far away, the words too muffled to distinguish.

Alistair pushed me back down gently, frowning further despite the relief in his eyes. "You fainted. I don't think that counts as okay. What happened?"

"I didn't faint! I was just...lightheaded." He kept scowling, and I sighed. And then I glanced to the side, and realised I was in a room probably three times the size of Aedan's in the game, with a curtained doorway that led to even more space. There was a sitting area with a couch and a table near the hearth, and the bed I was on had to be larger than a normal king-sized mattress. I knew things weren't always proportioned in reality the way they had been in game, but I was pretty sure this couldn't have been Aedan's room. "Where are we?"

Alistair finally helped me sit up, shifting so that I could lean against his broad chest, his warm arms around my shoulders. "The room at the end of the hall. Fergus put us here, but Aedan said it's the nicest suite. Sierra, what happened?" His voice rose in pitch, though not in volume, clearly indicating his worry - he wanted to yell but was afraid to upset me further.

I looked around again, examining the lush room we found ourselves in. The tapestries were generic, not showing Cousland regalia, and the carpets thick and warm. The colour scheme was rich, with cream and chocolate brown bedding, and walls, carpets, and curtains shot with gold and the occasional hint of teal, but there was nothing that said that this room used to be the master suite where the Teyrn of Highever lived with his wife. There'd been no fighting here in game; there were no phantom bloodstains to imagine. I suppose I can live with that. Not that I have a choice - because I'll never give Fergus the satisfaction.

The voices outside rose in volume, until I could recognise them - Aedan and Fergus, and I guessed they must be screaming at each other if I could hear them through the thick wooden door. I sighed again, smoothing my hair down and straightening my clothes. "I'll tell you later. I'm really fine. But if we don't get out there, I'm going to be down one brother in a moment."

Alistair stood and studied my face before nodding and offering me his hand. "Okay."

I knew exactly how hard it was for him to take my word for my well-being; his trust was, as always, a gift. I took his hand and slid off the bed, going on my tiptoes to press a kiss to the corner of his mouth. "Thank you." I grinned as he pulled me closer for a second, firmer kiss. "I love you."

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