|A Warden's Duty
Author: BrennaCeDria PM
What do you do when your dreams and nightmares collide? A tale following the FHN origin. Rating is for eventual language, especially once Oghren joins up. Elissa/Alistair pairing. Random Easter Eggs here and there, mostly in the first half. Image by RorysEvilTwinRated: Fiction M - English - Adventure/Romance - Cousland & Alistair - Chapters: 64 - Words: 151,123 - Reviews: 127 - Favs: 39 - Follows: 41 - Updated: 04-15-12 - Published: 11-04-11 - Status: Complete - id: 7521796
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: I'm writing this story for this year's NaNoWriMo, using my canon save from the game as my outline. The M rating is for eventual language. As always, Bioware owns everything; I'm merely playing in their sandbox.
And So is the Golden City blackened
With each step you take in my Hall.
Marvel at perfection, for it is fleeting.
You have brought Sin to Heaven
And doom upon all the world.
Elissa woke with a start from her dream, not frightened but slightly bemused by it. She had dreamed of darkspawn and the defiling of the Golden City and while she considered herself an Andrastian, she wasn't exactly religious and couldn't place the reason for dreaming such a thing. She may have overheard the Chant coming from previous day's service while passing by the keep's chantry; much more likely her subconscious was drawing from her younger days, when her elder brother Fergus would tell her the same story, forming a prologue to an adventure story about the Grey Wardens.
The Wardens… As a child Elissa devoured tales of the Wardens riding their griffons into battle against the Archdemon. To her father's amusement and her mother's mild horror, she showed up on the training field in a piecemeal of Fergus's old, discarded armor one day not long after her eighth birthday. When asked why she was there, Elissa matter-of-factly explained that if she was going to kill the Archdemon she needed to begin training. To her delight (and admittedly, her surprise) her mother allowed her to train, provided she had the proper equipment to stay safe in the process and she didn't allow any of her other studies to suffer as a result.
At the time Elissa couldn't hold a sword properly, so she learned to fight with daggers instead, both single-handed and with two blades together. Now grown, Elissa was more than capable with daggers, a sword, or a combination of the two. She'd picked up other skills from the boys in the training yard that her mother would be less than pleased with—nothing like that! she thought briefly to herself, remembering with a sleepy laugh—that allowed her access to areas in the keep she strictly speaking shouldn't always be roaming.
Glancing at the window, she could see the barest touches of color peeking between the heavy drapes. Curling into a tight ball briefly before stretching long and accidentally nudging her dog, Moira, awake, Elissa allowed her thoughts to focus on the day ahead. Her father, Fergus, and some of the more seasoned knights would be supervising the Highever troops as they prepared to march south to join the king's army at Ostagar. Once Rendon Howe arrived with his forces, they would leave; the arl was expected to arrive either tonight or in the morning, so Highever's men would need to be ready to leave with an hour's notice. She was certain that many, if not most, of her father's troops would be saying their goodbyes over breakfast this morning, just in case the call came before supper.
Realizing that her father and older brother would likewise have only this one chance to say goodbye before leaving, Elissa began to rise so that she could speak with them before seeing to duties of her own for the day. On the one hand, she was the teryn's daughter—noble, refined, and poised; but on the other, she was a trained fighter, even if she wasn't as strong as the majority of the men. Her mother would be staying behind and seeing to the business of the keep, the city, and their people. Elissa would be staying behind to supervise and command the token troops remaining in Highever as a defense force should the darkspawn overrun the king's armies and the impending Blight begin to overtake the kingdom.
The Blight… Elissa didn't know what to think of the news when Cailan's messenger delivered the notice calling up the armies. Today, with her father, brother, and most of her friends leaving, she still didn't know how she felt. She knew that she should be terrified for her family and friends, but she couldn't help a nagging sense of intrigue at the thought. A Blight meant that there would be an Archdemon leading the darkspawn. A Blight meant the Wardens would come, riding their griffons and ultimately slaying the dragon, saving the world.
But the griffons had been extinct for centuries now, and Elissa had more important things to worry about. She considered her wardrobe options; her mother would prefer she dress to her station while Lady Landra and her party stayed in Highever, but Elissa would be organizing her soldiers—issuing assignments and the like—and a dress simply wasn't practical. She tugged on a pair of trousers, a large blouse, and her sword belt and glanced at her reflection. Satisfied that she looked enough the warrior to lead her men while still keeping in her mother's good graces by not donning her armor so early in the day, Elissa pulled on a pair of boots and left her rooms to go looking for her family.
Moira followed her mistress from her rooms, but instead of coming with her across to Fergus's chambers the hound sat at the door that led from the family's apartments to the rest of the keep, whining quietly. Elissa changed her course long enough to let the dog out; either a guard or one of the servants would let Moira out into the yard if that's what she was after, and one of Nan's cooks would feed the mabari if she headed to the kitchens to beg.
Heading back in the direction of her brother's rooms, Elissa knocked lightly to no response. Even though she half-expected Fergus to be out for the morning, she wanted to check on Oriana, her sister in law, to see if there was anything she or Oren needed before heading down to the kitchens herself. Trying the handle briefly and finding the door locked, the possibility of letting herself in occurred to her, but aside from snooping through Fergus's things when they were children she'd always had a personal rule of not picking locks to her family's spaces and belongings, especially since Fergus had a family of his own now. Shrugging mentally, Elissa checked the lock on her own door before leaving the family apartments herself.
After breaking her fast Elissa made a tour of the keep, making mental notes of areas that would need additional reinforcements either structurally or in the form of increased patrols. Under normal circumstances this would be one of Fergus's duties, but as she was taking command of the local garrison after today, it was her duty to familiarize herself with these issues.
A Cousland never leaves his duty undone. How many times had she heard her father recite those words, or ones like them? Nonetheless, the words had nestled themselves deep in her being as she matured. Though she wasn't the eldest, her parents saw to it that she received the same education as Fergus "in case the worst should happen". And now the very real possibility of that worst scenario coming to be was staring Elissa in the face just as the Blight stared north to Ferelden with hungry eyes. Her duty was to defend her family's ancestral home in the absence of her father and brother, and if necessary to assist her mother with the governing of their lands, eventually to succeed her to the title of Teyrna. Her duty was to support the king if called to action, even at the expense of Highever if necessary.
Above all her duty was to the people, of Highever specifically and of Ferelden in general. King Cailan was betrothed as a child to Teyrn Loghain's daughter Anora, but Elissa had always considered herself above the Lady Anora; a truer daughter of Ferelden. Not only was Anora's father previously a commoner and an outlaw, Loghain only begrudgingly joined the late King Maric's campaign to liberate the nation from Orlesian occupation—something the songs celebrating his exploits at the Battle of River Dane always failed to mention.
While Elissa had not felt slighted personally that another was chosen as the king's bride, she felt that the people of Ferelden deserved more than an outlaw's scion. Ferelden deserved a true queen, able and willing to fight for her subjects wielding diplomacy and blades with equal skill. The Rebel Queen Moira, Maric's mother, was a worthy daughter of Ferelden. Anora was little more than a cunning shrew of a woman; capable of playing the political games of court but without the training to defend herself in a battle, much less the nation. As a teyrn's daughter herself, and trained in both politics and swordplay, Elissa felt she would have made a much more capable queen, even if she had no interest in Cailan the man.
Stepping into the training yard, Elissa took a moment to enjoy the sun on her face. Her time outside earlier in her walk had been met with clouded skies and the warmth was welcome after the morning chill. The men of her garrison were already gathering for the briefing, and once they were fully assembled she called their attention and delivered her orders for the coming days, primarily a combination of training exercises and completing necessary work on Highever's defenses. Satisfied that her men understood their duties and after addressing the concerns raised by a few of them, she dismissed them so that they could get underway.
It was past midday now, and Elissa made her way toward the kitchens to find some lunch, thinking that she'd see if she could find Oriana and share some with her since she'd missed her that morning. Before she was half way to the kitchens she was stopped by a servant with a message from her father, asking her to meet him in the great hall at her earliest convenience. Hungry but not wanting to make her father wait, she found a store room between herself and the hall, fetching an apple to eat as she made her way.
Disposing of the core and entering the hall, she realized immediately that the teyrn was not alone. This normally wouldn't cause her to take notice, but the man speaking with her father was Arl Howe.
So it's time… She'd woken this morning knowing that everyone would likely be leaving today. But now that Howe was here it became real, and she'd yet to even find her brother to wish him well.
"I'm sorry Pup, I didn't see you there. Howe, you remember my daughter?"
Elissa cringed inwardly at the thought of speaking to Howe but refused to let it show on her face. The man was a good friend of her father's but he always made her uncomfortable—either suggesting an arrangement between the Lady Elissa and one of his sons, or more recently leering at her himself.
"I see she's become a lovely young woman. Pleased to see you again, my dear."
There it was, that look. She'd overheard enough as she entered though: Howe arrived ahead of his men, and no one was leaving until they arrived in the morning. "So you're not leaving until tomorrow?"
Her father nodded. "At any rate, pup, I summoned you for a reason. While you brother and I are both away, I'm leaving you in charge of the castle."
Elissa wondered idly if this statement was some sort of a show for Howe's sake, as they'd already discussed this the same day Cailan's messenger had arrived. If they were indeed giving Howe a show she could certainly play along.
"What? Why can't I go into battle with you and Fergus?" Concern tinted with enthusiasm, finished off with a slight pout. Elissa knew no one in Highever was fooled by her acts any longer, but Howe did not spend enough time here to know the difference. And if her father was surprised by her reply, he didn't show it.
"I'm certain you'd more than prove yourself, but I am not willing to deal with your mother if you join the war. She'd kill me if I let you go. She's already twisted into knots about Fergus and me going."
"Let me talk to her. I'll convince her," Elissa pleaded earnestly. And it wasn't entirely for show; if she didn't have her duty here to attend to, she'd insist on joining her family in Ostagar even if it meant running away from home to do so. She did have her duties, though, and a Cousland never leaves her duty undone.
"I doubt that. You know your mother, and she made it clear there is no debate. This is no needless task. I ask you to take a great responsibility. Only a token force is remaining here, and you must keep peace in the region. You know what they say about mice when the cat is away, yes? There's also someone you must meet. Please… show Duncan in."
A guard left the hall, and returned leading a Rivaini man with a grim face. "It is an honor to be a guest within your hall, Teyrn Cousland."
A Rivaini face, but a Ferelden accent. And odd combination; Highever may be near the northern coast of Ferelden, but Rivain was still a goodly distance, on the far side of the Free Marches and even Tevinter.
Howe's stuttering broke her reverie, "Your Lordship, you didn't mention that a Grey Warden would be present."
The Wardens… Her dream the previous night flooded back to her sharply.
"Duncan arrived just recently, unannounced." The teyrn gave Howe a curious look. "Is there a problem?"
"Of course not, but a guest of this stature demands certain protocol. I am… at a disadvantage." If Howe was at a disadvantage, Elissa had suddenly lost her voice.
"We rarely have the pleasure of seeing one in person, that's true," her father conceded. "Pup, Brother Aldous taught you who the Grey Wardens are, I hope?"
I've only dreamed of the glory of the Wardens since I was a girl; riding their griffons into battle against the Blight and saving the known world.
"They are an order of great warriors," she breathed almost reverently.
Her father nodded. "They are the heroes of legend, who ended the Blights and saved us all. Duncan is looking for recruits before joining us and his fellow Wardens in the south. I believe he's got his eye on Ser Gilmore."
"If I might be so bold, I would suggest that your daughter is also an excellent candidate."
Elissa had never seen her father's face darken so. "Honor though that might be, this is my daughter we're talking about," he frowned, stepping between Duncan and Elissa. The movement was almost casual, but still delivered a deliberate message: You would have to go through me before you take my daughter. The thought of having such an option taken from under her helped her to find her missing voice.
"I think I rather like that idea, Father," she ventured cautiously. "Is there a reason I shouldn't join them?"
The teyrn shook his head stubbornly and Elissa's heart sank. She hadn't expected to be allowed to join the Wardens, with her duties here in Highever, but she could still dream.
"Unless you intend to invoke the Right of Conscription?" he asked, an obvious edge in his voice.
The challenge hung in the air between her father and the Warden. A secret part of her hoped that Duncan would indeed invoke the Warden's oldest Right, to recruit any individual they wished: man or woman, slave or king, none were immune to the Right of Conscription. If Duncan were to invoke it here, her father would have no choice but to let her go. Fergus or Ser Gilmore could manage Highever's defenses. There would be no higher duty than to keep her people and the people of all Thedas safe from a Blight. Surely her father could understand this!
"Have no fear," she heard Duncan reply. "While we need as many good recruits as we can find, I've no intention of forcing the issue." Damn him, didn't he understand she wanted him to force the issue, to force her father's hand?
Her father nodded, satisfied with the Warden's response. "Pup, can you ensure that Duncan's requests are seen to while I'm gone?"
"Of course," she assured him with a small smile. "It would be an honor." Perhaps she could speak to Duncan once he was away from her father, convince him to take her anyway? If she were suddenly conscripted, her father would be forced to send someone back to take care of her duties while she stepped into a larger role.
"In the meantime, find Fergus and tell him to lead the troops to Ostagar ahead of me. He should be upstairs in his chambers, no doubt spending some last moments with his wife and my grandson." She could have felt the pointed look he gave her through a stone wall. "Be a good lass and do as I've asked. We'll talk soon."
Elissa curtsied to her father and their guests as well as she could wearing trousers rather than dress. "Master Warden, have someone fetch me if there is anything that you need. I'll see to it that chambers are prepared for you and have your supper arranged." She threw a brief glance at her father's friend. "Arl Howe."
Letting out an expansive breath, Elissa let herself collapse against the door as she closed it behind her. First her dream this morning, and now a Warden recruiter in her home. She generally believed the Chantry's teaching that the Maker did not watch over or guide humanity in any literal sense, but it seemed too much for coincidence. Surely her dream was an omen that she had a greater duty to fulfill than to babysit the local garrison while those closest to her risked their lives to hold back the darkspawn hordes. Sighing slightly, she straightened herself and headed to find her brother, both to deliver their father's message and to say goodbye to him herself.
Sleep would not come easily to Elissa that night. She'd spent much of what was left of her day with Fergus and his family, carrying Oren on her shoulders and telling him some of the adventure stories her brother used to tell her when they were children. The rest of it was spent cleaning up a mess Moira had caused in the kitchens and avoiding her mother and Lady Landra.
Landra was known to enjoy her wines, and at the teyrna's salon last spring was found quite drunk with a mortified Ser Gilmore cornered in a store room not far off the main dining hall. Aside from drinking too much and terrifying her father's knights, Landra's favorite activity when in Highever was to throw her son, Dairren, at Elissa at every turn. Elissa had no interest in Dairren and he had none in her. Lady Landra was perhaps tragically, perhaps blissfully unaware of certain arrangements between her son and her lady-in-waiting. Elissa knew this because servants gossip; how Landra did not see or hear of it was a mystery.
There was a loud clatter somewhere on the grounds, and Elissa swore to herself as she dragged herself out of bed to see if she could find the source of the noise from her window. The majority of the keep's troops had left that evening not long after supper so perhaps these were Howe's forces arriving? No, it couldn't be that; she could hear the clash of steel on steel from here. Irate that her sleep was further delayed, she hesitated barely a moment before strapping herself into her armor and snatching up one of her daggers. If the remaining men were going to start a fight, at least she'd get to vent her frustration by ending it.
She spun on her heel and stalked to the main door from her chambers to the rest of the family apartments she realized Moira was bristled at the door, a low growl in the hound's throat. Elissa slowed her step and listened briefly before unlocking the door to venture outside. The sounds of weapons clashing sounded as if they were just outside her door. Cracking the door slowly she peered into the foyer between the family's various chambers. No sooner than she saw the men, two arrows hit her door with a heavy thud. She slammed the door shut, running to retrieve her sword. She knew she'd have to move quickly if she was going to get close enough to the archer to at least disarm him, and the added reach of a sword in addition to her dagger could shave off the second that meant the difference between life and death.
Elissa cautiously pulled the door open again and assessed the scene. At least two of the keep's guards lay dead between her and the exit to the rest of the castle, and from the sound of it at least two men, possibly three, were trying to gain entry to her parents' quarters.
Maker, let there be only one archer. With only that brief prayer she sprinted from the room toward her parents' door. Two men were attempting to work the lock with their backs turned to her, and the third was the archer from before. He saw her immediately but before he could alert his companions her dagger had left her hand, flying toward the archer. She didn't have the best aim when throwing her daggers, but this one hit close enough to cause the damage she hoped for. As he crumpled she saw the emblem on the shield of the men behind him: the bear crest of Amaranthine.
Her body reacted instinctually, not even registering her actions as that image burned in her mind. The arl's troops weren't delayed at all, the bastard had planned this from the beginning. Just as she was about to face down the third intruder an arrow snapped past her head to strike the man in the throat. Turning she saw her mother, the Teyrna Eleanor Cousland, in full leathers and weilding a bow of her own.
The worry was plain on the teyrna's face as she ran forward. "Darling! I heard fighting outside and I feared the worst! Are you hurt?" Her mother fussed over her a moment, assuring herself that her daughter was unharmed. "Did you see their shields? Those are Howe's men! Why would they attack us?"
"I don't know, Mother, but we have to get you out of here. Where's Father?" Elissa was thinking as quickly as she could, trying to ensure that her family escaped this attack safely. But something was escaping her that she couldn't place.
"He never came to bed! We must find him!"
Glancing at the bodies in the room with them, Elissa felt as if her stomach had turned to lead. "Mother... We should check on Oriana and Oren as well."
Eleanor paled. "Andraste's mercy! What if the soldiers went into your brother's rooms first?" Wordlessly, the two Cousland women ran for the door to Fergus's chambers. The door was cracked, and before even entering Elissa could smell the tang of blood. Pressing into the room she suddenly turned and wretched. The inner foyer was bathed in crimson, the limp bodies of her sister-in-law and nephew tossed haphazardly to one side.
When Elissa came to she was in the countryside perhaps an hour's ride from Highever. Though she had no memory of leaving the keep, she felt as if she had never stopped moving, never stopped fighting. She felt a heavy weight at her back, and realized she was carrying an extra sword and a shield in addition to her own dagger and sword. Just a short way ahead she could see a dark skinned man who seemed to be leading her south, and when he turned to check on her she realized it was Duncan.
Howe's betrayal and her father's insistence that she join Duncan following this coup came back to her, and she realized that she and her mother had fought their way through the castle, retrieving the family blade and shield to protect them from Howe's whims and proceeding to find her father helping servants escape through a hidden passage in the kitchens. He had been pinned down by Howe's men, and while he had fought them off he was lying bleeding out onto the floor of the larder by the time they had found him. Mother had insisted on staying behind, and Elissa was forced to leave them to die.
Duncan had named one condition as his price for escorting her safely to Fergus at Ostagar. He had come to Highever seeking a recruit for the Wardens, and as he was denied the opportunity to assess Ser Gilmore's suitability for the position he would claim Elissa to fill that role instead. Her parents agreed, and with barely a moment to say goodbye Duncan took her sharply by the arm and dragged her down the passage out of the castle as her mother covered their escape.
Elissa had always wanted to become a Grey Warden. But this wasn't how her story was meant to begin.