Another fic from me, that's two in two days, definitely a personal best. I wasn't planning on writing this fic, but tonight when I looked through the screenshots I'd taken while playing, it just hit me and I had to get it down.
Reviews are always appreciated, and I hope you enjoy! :)
She used to think she was beautiful.
But that was ages ago now, and it was getting hard for her to even remember a time when she was Lady Irien Cousland instead of Irien the Grey Warden. She used to be the younger child, the lovely daughter, the silly little spitfire girl who wanted to follow her father to war when everyone but her knew that was impossible. It was like she was living a stranger's life and not her own anymore.
She was feeling melancholy. She'd spoken with each of her companions that evening to ensure that they were as happy as they could be, under the circumstances, and now she was taking a little time to herself – time she usually tried to avoid. These thoughts were never happy ones, and thinking about them just made everything she'd lost and what she'd become even more difficult to bear, but she was forgetting what her life used to be like so quickly now that she was scared she'd lose the memories forever.
Once, she remembered, she had worn beautiful dresses and let her hair grow long, and even allowed servants to braid and pin it up for special occasions. She had been introduced to the sons of noble houses, handsome and spoiled and far too formal for her tastes, and she'd curtsied like the lady she was and tried to ignore their stilted flirting as they looked for a nobly-born bride. She'd been bored out of her mind in sitting rooms with her mother and other ladies, staring out the window and wishing it was appropriate for her to challenge the visiting lordlings to spar. She had patiently listened to her parents' requests for her to marry, though she had no interest in doing so, and she knew they only wanted her to be happy and not lonely.
She'd wondered if her brother would ever return from the Wilds as she watched him lead their army to the south. She'd fended off attacking soldiers who brandished swords at her in the middle of the night. She'd seen her brother's wife and young son, killed by those same soldiers, lying in a pool of blood on the floor of their room. She'd watched her parents' final, tearful expressions of love in their last moments, her father bleeding out and her mother ready to take down as many of Arl Howe's soldiers as she could before they were both killed.
Now Irien Cousland was gone, and only the Grey Warden remained, she thought, sitting near the campfire and staring into the slowly burning embers. Now she felt like the only memories she had were the feel of swords in her hands, the weight of the armor she only removed to sleep, the smell of darkspawn blood.
One night, she realized that her hair had gotten too long and kept catching in her helmet. She'd chopped it off to a manageable length in a fit of irritation with a dagger she'd used to kill demons earlier that day.
She used to take pleasure rides around her lands, exercising with her spoiled warhound Cito. She would urge the horse into a gallop and loved the feel of the wind in her hair, and Cito would bark happily and try to keep up.
Now she knew the easiest ways to kill a horse out from under a man, and Cito's strong legs propelled him not through forests and meadows, but around fireballs hurled by enemy mages.
When had she changed into this different person? she wondered. Was it a gradual change? Did her time in the Wilds and Loghain's betrayal start the process? Or did her old self die with her parents and everyone else in Highever?
She had been wounded and was scarred. Everything that had once been soft and lovely about her, everything that made her a lady, had been burned away. She was molded into something useful, a tool, an instrument of vengeance for her mentor Duncan, and overeager King Cailan, and all the Grey Wardens she would never get to meet or know, and sweet Ser Gilmore who she'd had a crush on as a teenager, and her brother's innocent wife and child, and her parents, especially for her parents.
Her hands tightened into fists and she curled further in on herself.
She'd learned from her parents about forgiveness, and she thought it was the most important lesson they taught her. Everyone makes mistakes and hurts others sometimes, they told her. No one is perfect. Offering forgiveness is as close as we can get to being so.
She tried to remember this as she journeyed all over Ferelden. Everyone was in such pain, and everyone was hurt or had hurt someone else and so many of them wanted their mistakes made right. She thought that, if they wanted forgiveness, she would do what she could to help them find it.
Once, as a young girl, she'd gone out with her mother to pick flowers from a beautiful garden she'd always kept. Irien had been so excited that she didn't notice the thorny stem on a rose when she plucked it. She'd cried and held her injured hand out to her mother and threw the offending flower on the ground. She told her mother how much she hated roses.
Her mother had shaken her head and picked up the flower.
"It didn't mean to hurt you, Irien. We just need to learn to be gentle," her mother said. She handed the rose to her delicately, and Irien hesitantly took the flower back. "When things hurt us, they don't always mean it. Sometimes it's an accident, and we just have to understand. Sometimes it's just part of what they are." She smelled the rose and looked at its beautiful petals, and she forgave it immediately.
Her father had forgiven his old enemies, men who came to call at Highever and who were always a little uncomfortable when they first arrived, every time they visited. But her parents' kind welcomes and feasts and ale and good conversation always relaxed them, and by the end of their stays, they always swore not to take so long between visits next time.
She knew these men had attacked her father at one time, or maybe more times than that, either in battle or in politics, but her father had forgiven them for whatever they'd done and now they were allies and friends. She saw that people could change, that they could repent for mistakes and earn forgiveness.
She thought of Arl Howe and wondered if pain and cruelty were what he was, or if he'd lost any sleep over murdering her family. She wondered if he felt guilt. If he did, would she be able to forgive him?
She didn't like the person she'd become, that she could even question if she would forgive someone who asked it. She was so filled with rage and hate and this unending need for vengeance. Once, she never would have dreamt of holding a grudge. Now finding Howe was all she dreamed about, in between her visions of a dragon and a horde of darkspawn eager to destroy everything she had left.
She glanced across the fire at Alistair, who was going through his packs and didn't see her looking at him. She wondered if he snuck looks at her half as often as she did at him.
She wondered why she let herself care either way.
Grey Wardens protect against the Blight with their lives, she said to herself, not for the first time, trying not to let herself admire his messy golden hair, his bright eyes, his half-smiling lips. She told herself that either or both of them could die at any time – there had certainly been enough close calls to make that lesson hit home.
She didn't know how it was that she let herself put her faith in someone else again, someone who was in more danger every day than her parents ever were, her parents who died minutes after she fled her home in tears, limping from fresh wounds, her heart aching. She thought she would never recover – still thought so, but she couldn't deny that she already cared for him more than she thought she ever could, more than she'd ever cared for anyone who wasn't her family at friends at Highever.
She couldn't understand how she had gotten so attached to this knight when he was all the parts of her that she was still bitter that she'd lost – her beauty, her nobility, her honor.
But maybe, she thought, maybe that was exactly why.
As if her thoughts summoned him, he approached her, his hands behind his back, and sat down next to her by the fire. She looked at him curiously, and he brought his hands in front of him holding a flower.
"Here, look at this," he said eagerly. "Do you know what this is?"
All she could see was her mother holding it out to her and telling her to forgive people who hurt her, but she tried not to let him see how much the flower was affecting her.
But Alistair hadn't hurt her. Wouldn't hurt her. Not on purpose.
"Your new weapon of choice?" she guessed, covering up her emotion with jokes, like she suspected he did often as well.
"Yes, that's right!" he replied with a grin. "Watch as I thrash our enemies with the mighty power of floral arrangements! Feel my thorns, darkspawn! I will overpower you with my rosy scent!" Though his speech was big and he posed dramatically, she noticed how careful he was with the flower. "Or, you know, it could just be a rose," he finished with a shrug. "I know that's pretty dull in comparison."
Irien realized why he'd been going through his pack for the last ten minutes – he wasn't organizing it, he was holding the flower and working up the nerve to bring it over to her. "You've been thumbing that flower for a while, now."
He flushed slightly, but smiled – did he not think she'd noticed him? "I picked it in Lothering," he admitted. "I remember thinking, 'How could something so beautiful exist in a place with so much despair and ugliness?'" He shook his head, looking at the flower. "I probably should have left it alone, but I couldn't. The darkspawn would come and their taint would just destroy it. So I've had it ever since."
She hadn't expected such a confession out of him, so she was a bit surprised. "That's a nice sentiment," she offered lamely.
"I thought I might... give it to you, actually." Now he was definitely blushing. "In a lot of ways, I think the same thing when I look at you." He looked up to meet her eyes now.
She could remember when the young noblemen looking for wives had tried being poetic, and they had often compared her to flowers. While she didn't miss the young men, as she found most of them annoying, she looked down at her calloused hands and remembered when she used to think she deserved the comparison. She felt the pang of loss sharply in her chest.
"You think of me as a gentle flower?" she asked quietly, emotionlessly. She'd thought he was different. But he was just like the noble boys, only worse, because she wasn't a beautiful flower, she was a strong, scarred woman, and as proud as she was of her skill with a sword, she couldn't help but miss the old her, the Cousland who was gone forever.
"A gentle flower?" He sounded legitimately surprised at this suggestion. "No, I... don't know that I'd put it that way."
He looked at the rose again and half-smiled. "I guess it's a bit silly, isn't it? I just thought... here I am doing all this complaining, and you haven't exactly been having a good time of it yourself. You've had none of the good experience of being a Grey Warden since your Joining, not a word of thanks or congratulations. It's all been death and fighting and tragedy."
She was amazed, in shock that he'd been so thoughtful. She hadn't really told him about her parents or what happened to them, hadn't confessed all these dark thoughts she'd been having, hadn't given any sign of how physically and emotionally exhausted she was. Or so she'd thought. But he had noticed anyway.
Alistair reached out to gently take her hand. They stared into each other's eyes, and she wondered if he could hear her heart pounding. "I thought maybe I would say something," he continued. "Tell you what a rare and wonderful thing you are to find amidst all this... darkness."
She didn't know what to say. No man she'd met before had ever been so caring or so sweet to her, or so thoughtful of her feelings. She wished she knew how to tell him what the gift meant to her, but even more, she wished she was eloquent enough to say anything that would mean half as much to him as this did to her.
She finally found her voice. "I feel the same way about you," she said quietly. She knew now that he knew her well enough to understand what she wanted to say simply from the look in her eyes.
"I'm glad you like it," he replied simply.
Reaching out to accept the flower, she pricked her finger on a thorn. She barely flinched in surprise, but he took her hand and kissed her fingertips gently.
She was covered in dirt and grime, with swords on her back and scars crisscrossing her body, but when he looked at her in that moment, she felt like the most beautiful noble lady in Ferelden.