Highever, Summer of 9:30 Dragon

The Fall of House Cousland

It took one swift kick below the belt for Elissa Cousland to knock Ser Gilmore to the floor and corner him with her trusty dagger.

"Oof." He grunted, both his body and pride a little sore. "You aren't a lady, you're a monster."

She grinned coyly before offering him a hand up. "As my father would say, there are no rules in a battlefield."

"Too true, Pup." Elissa turned and saw her father and brother clapping lightly at her success. Elissa curtsied with her cheap leather skirt, a mockery of a proper lady, causing her father and brother to laugh louder.

"That's my sister, alright." Fergus grinned. "Beating up all the boys, and it's not even supper time yet! No wonder Mother hasn't been able to marry you off, you wild thing you."

Elissa grinned rather cheekily. "Ah, then my nefarious plan is working! Muhahaha!"

Fergus only laughed harder. "Oh, how I will miss you, little sister! It's going to be hell out there in the Wilds without your sense of humor."

"It must be, seeing as no one is going to be able to save you from all those darkspawn."

Fergus glowed as he hit her lightly in the shoulder. "My little sister, so cocky, even when she knows her big brother could beat her up any day of the week."

Elissa raised an eyebrow, her grin growing feral as she twirled a dagger naturally. "Want to test that theory, brother dearest?"

"I think I shall. Someone has got to keep your ego from growing to astronomical proportions. Ser Gilmore obviously isn't doing the job."

The redhead moved to speak, but Elissa beat him to it. "Hey, leave Ser Gilmore out of this. He's a fine soldier. I'm just better."

"Better be ready to prove it, sister dear." Fergus chuckled. "Ser Gilmore, may I borrow your blade for a moment?"

"Of course, milord." Ser Gilmore answered immediately, and offered the sword at his side without hesitation. "But, are you sure the two of you should be—"

He didn't get a chance to finish. As soon as the blade was in Fergus's hands he struck at his sister, knocking her to her feet.

"Cheap shot." She snarled, jumping up and readying her daggers.

"No rules in the battlefield, dear sister." He justified, and shielded himself from her oncoming blow.

Teryn Cousland and Ser Gilmore watched Elissa and Fergus traded blow for blow, remaining fairly equal in combat, Elissa's speed making up for Fergus's strength. They were becoming increasingly more violent as time passed.

"Uh, pardon me, milord," Ser Gilmore whispered, a little nervous. "But should they really be fighting like this? Shouldn't we, ah, stop them?"

"Stop them?" Bryce barked, amused. "Why would I ever do that? This is how they show affection."

"GET BACK HERE YOU NUG-BRAIN AND LET ME STAB YOU!"

"NEVER!"

"Right." Gilmore whispered as Elissa moved to stab her brother in the back. "Affection."

Suddenly, they stopped. Elissa gasped; Fergus's mouth dropped into a small 'o'.

He had lobbed off her ponytail.

"Uh, oops?" He whispered as his sister glared in righteous fury. "Please don't hurt me, I bruise easily!"

"Oh, you are going to be more than bruised when I'm done with you!" Elissa snarled, her hair curling around her face.

Fergus jumped, blocking her infuriated attacks. Neither of them realized that their audience had grown to almost half of the castle's occupants. "This has gone on far enough, don't you think?"

"No! I haven't beaten you properly for cutting my hair!"

"First person to fall to the ground loses, alright?" Fergus compromised.

Elissa reached in for a quick stab, and nodded. "Agreed."

Instantly, she kicked some dirt from the ground beneath her into her brother's face, and knocked him flat on his ass.

The crowd surrounding the courtyard cheered; Elissa bowed in a grand, fluid motion until her brother kicked her legs from underneath her.

Lying side by side, panting in the dirt, Fergus leaned to her and whispered. "I think that evens the score a bit."

She punched him and grinned. "What am I going to do without you, Fergus?"

"Be a lady," he whispered, his face caked with dirt and sweat. "You will get so bored without me and Father around you'll start wearing dresses just for fun. Maybe even get married. Who knows, maybe I'll come home and find myself with a niece or nephew."

"Or I'll go stir-crazy and join the army." Elissa countered. "One of the two."

"Yeah," Fergus agreed, panting. "One of the two."

The Teryn walked over and offered a hand to each of his child, pulling them up at the same time. He was beaming with pride. "My children, warriors, the both of you! I am so proud! I raised you both right." They smiled in return as their father squeezed each of their shoulders, happiness radiating from his face. "What a show! You are both so talented, I couldn't be happier."

Fergus grinned. "We try, Dad, we try."

"Oh, I know you do. Fergus, you should go see your wife, spend some time with your family before you go."

Fergus nodded, bowed, and made his leave, leaving only Elissa and her father.

"Pup, there are some people I need to introduce you to." He said.

"Are they suitors?" She questioned, her expression serious. "If they are suitors, then I am hiding, now."

"Heavens no! If it were up to me, you would never marry." He stated, fully serious. "Though, now that I think about it, your mother may have invited a suitor over. And his mother, if my memory serves me right."

Elissa groaned loudly. "Of course she has."

"Still, you need to be presentable, at least for the guests I intend to introduce you to. If you want to make your mother really happy, you'll wear a dress even."

She groaned again. "But Father—"

"A dress, Pup, it's not the end of the world, and it would make your mother so happy." He ran his hand through his daughter's shortened curls. "And, uh, maybe do something about your hair? Maker knows I don't know anything about it—maybe one of the servants could help you?"

She sighed. "Very well, Father, I'll go make myself presentable. Shall I meet you in the Great Hall when I'm finished?"

He smiled and kissed her forehead. "There's a good Pup. I'll see you shortly, alright?"


That was how life worked in Highever. The Teryn basically allowed Elissa to do as she pleased, she and Fergus would spar, cuss, and fight like boys, and then her mother would get angry and Elissa would wear a pretty dress and flirt with a nobleman's son to make it up to her. Life in Highever was routine, but never boring.

Elissa smiled as she examined the outfit. Blue silk. Orlesian, low-cut. A silver necklace to draw attention to her bosom. Red lipstick. Silver heels.

Mother would be pleased indeed.

No one in the Teryn's house ever had to say that the Teryn had a beautiful daughter. Everyone in the next three provinces knew Elissa Cousland was beautiful. It was her yellow hair, her blue eyes, her high cheekbones. When she walked, she did so like a woman who knew she was gorgeous, shoulders back and proud. When she talked, she did so in such way that was impossible to ignore. If she wanted your attention, then the Maker knew she would get it.

If you called her vain, well, you would be right. If you called her spoiled? Also right. Her dress alone had cost about six sovereigns, but Elissa didn't care. She would have thrown it away if she could, never minding that there were servants in her very household who could have eaten for a week with the money used to pay for her dress. She was probably the most beautiful woman in Ferelden, but her beauty was only important when she wanted something, her big blue eyes the most persuasive thing in Thedas.

No, Elissa cared about one thing: strength. From the time of her birth, she had always been the younger child, the baby, her father's little princess. And a part of her had enjoyed being the princess of the family, but in a home like her own, where strength, honor, and duty were at the core of who they were, being the princess hadn't lasted long. But Elissa was tiny, lithe like an elf, and would never have the sheer physical strength of her brother or father. So she trained. Every day, she trained, in swords, in bows, in stealth. She used her small frame to her advantage, overwhelming her opponents with speed rather than force. And she learned every dirty trick in the books, every cheap shot, every sneaky attack, to gain a slight advantage over her peers. Now, she was nigh unstoppable.

(If you said she was arrogant, you would also be right.)

In blue Orlesian silk, Elissa studied her appearance and smiled. She would never admit it, especially not to Fergus, but she rather liked her hair short—she ran to Nan shortly after leaving her father, and Nan had fixed it quite nicely, and also threatened to beat Fergus to death the next time she saw him. The short curls were more practical, more like a warrior's hairstyle and less like a lady's. Mother would be furious.

Strapping her daggers on her back, Elissa left the sanctuary of her room to meet with her father.


It was Arl Howe.

Elissa had never cared much for the man, and she couldn't fathom why her father wanted her to meet with him, but he was there, and so was Elissa and her father.

"You are ever so lovely, my dear," Arl Howe complimented: Elissa resisted the urge to shiver in disgust. "Just like your mother was at your age. In fact, my son Tomas has been asking after you. Do you remember Tomas?"

She did indeed, unfortunately. The idiot had barely stopped himself from drooling at her the entire evening at last summer's ball. "Isn't he a few years younger than I am?" She asked diplomatically, hoping to avoid insulting her father's old friend.

"Ah, but age has little to do with such matters, especially the older you get—"

"Father, did you want to speak to me about something?" Elissa interrupted briskly, her tone businesslike and confident. Her father knew she disliked such talks about marriage, surely he did not expect her to marry Howe's son!

"As a matter of fact, I did." The Teryn responded, ignoring his youngest's behavior. "You know Fergus and I will be off to fight the darkspawn invasion to the South, right?"

She had thought of little else for the past few weeks, truth be told. Despite her father's confidence, she worried dearly for the safety of her father and her brother. The past few weeks had involved her locking herself up in her grandfather's study, reading everything she could about the darkspawn and their attacks. Unfortunately, there was little literature out there concerning the hordes that could come.

She nodded, and allowed her father to continue.

"Well, while we are away, I'm entrusting the castle to you." The Teryn spoke proudly. "I expect you to keep the place up and running while I'm away—preferably still standing, of course."

"Don't stretch my abilities or anything, Dad." Elissa rolled her eyes.

Bryce pinched her cheek. "Such cheekiness. I'd punish you for that, but I think you got it from me, honestly."

She grinned. "What can I say, I learned from the best."

He smiled at her proudly. "That you did, that you did. Oh! I have another guest I wanted you to meet, darling." He motioned to his guards. "Please, send Duncan in at once."

She raised her eyebrow at him. "This isn't a suitor, is it?"

"No, definitely not."

She instantly noticed this Duncan when he walked into the room because he didn't fit. He wasn't noble-born, like most of the guests in the castle, and it showed in his uneasiness with the servants and the guards. He was a warrior though, she could tell that much, in how he walked, with strong, strategic steps, always planning and always aware of everything around him.

How very curious.

"Teryn Cousland," the man bowed regally. "Thank you for inviting me into your home."

"It is always a pleasure to have Ferelden's heroes amongst us." Her father acknowledged. "Pup, do you remember what your tutors taught you about the Grey Wardens?"

How could she forget? "They are heroes, brave men and women who defend us against the Blight centuries ago."

Her father beamed with obvious pride. "That's right. Duncan here is a Grey Warden, looking for recruits. I've invited him here to take a look at Ser Gilmore."

Duncan shifted uneasily. "Er, if I may be so bold, Teryn Cousland…your daughter is also an excellent candidate for recruitment."

Elissa's jaw dropped.

"I saw you training in the courtyard with your brother," Duncan offered by way of an explanation. "Your skill with a blade is quite impressive. I've seen few who can wield daggers with as much speed and prowess as you."

"I—really?" She asked, shocked with disbelief. "You want me to join the Grey Wardens? Really?"

"Absolutely not." The Teryn interrupted, his voice deeper and no longer welcoming. "Honor though that may be, this is my daughter you are talking about. Unless you intent to invoke the Right of Conscription—"

But Duncan backed off quickly. "Of course not, milord. While we need as many good recruits as possible, I see no reason to force the issue."

That seemed to appease her father, for he calmed down immensely after hearing Duncan's words. "Pup, why don't you go see your brother off, will you? He's leaving soon. Let him know the Arl's men are delayed for me, please?"

Elissa looked up at her father, curious. He wanted me here, and now he wants me to leave? That man… "Of course, Father. He's with Oriana and Oren, right?"

Her father nodded, and Elissa excused herself. "Ah, Ser Duncan, correct?"

The Grey Warden smiled at her wearily. "Yes?"

"I would like to speak with you, later."

He smiled at her. "I am staying in your castle, you know. We will speak at supper tomorrow, if you wish?"

She nodded. "That will do. Have a pleasant evening, Ser Duncan."

"You as well, my dear, you as well."

She barely made it outside of the Great Hall before walking straight into Ser Gilmore.

"My lady! There you are! I have been looking all over for you!" He rushed over to her, his face slightly flushed.

" 'Hello, Roderick, how are you today?' 'Why I am fine, Lady Elissa, just smashing, really!' " She mocked, and his face turned even redder.

"Er, terribly sorry, milady, it's just that I've just been looking all over for you. Your mother sent me--"

"That phrase never leads to anything good in my life."

"—to find you. Apparently, your hound is disrupting the kitchen."

"Sparks!" She huffed. "He doesn't mean by it, he's just playing."

Gilmore smirked at her. "Be that as it may, I'm not willing to lose an arm testing that theory. I am to escort you to the kitchens to get the dog."

"Escort me." She repeated, a little irritated. "Like I'm some sort of invalid incapable of walking to the damn kitchen myself."

Gilmore's face flushed. "Er, if you don't want me to join you, milady, I can—"

"Oh, it's nothing against you, Ser Gilmore." Elissa assured him. "I'm just a bit frustrated at my mother. Come on, we should get to the kitchens before Nan's head explodes."

He walked at her side and fumbled with his collar, eyeing her distractedly. "Er, you do look lovely, milady, if I may be so bold."

She hit him in the shoulder. "Don't think that just because I'm in heels doesn't mean I can't beat you up."

"Never, milady." Ser Gilmore grinned. "It does make me wonder how fast you are, though. Can't be easy to run in those."

"Be nice, or I won't tell you the news."

"What news?" He asked, now curious. "Are you hiding things from me?"

She clicked her tongue before opening the door to the kitchen. "Nuh-uh. You haven't been nice to me!"

They opened the kitchen to find Nan yelling at the elves. Elissa's heart always went out to them, the elvish servants in her castle, but she felt little need to actually do anything to help them. Her father was kind to them—that was enough, she figured.

Nan whirled around and stared straight at Elissa, glowering. "Elissa Estellise Marie Cousland, you get in there and get that hound out of the larder, right now!"

Ser Gilmore waved his hands in front of him. "Calm down good woman, we've come to help."

Nan wasn't impressed: she rarely was. "You can start by getting the mutt out of my larder."

"He's not a mutt!" Elissa argued, a little insulted. "He's a full-blooded Mabari hound!"

"He's a mutt when I say he's a mutt, and you best not sass me, Miss Lissa, I've got enough on my plate at the moment without your dog harassing me."

Elissa frowned. "He's just doing it 'cause he loves you, Nan."

"Well, I could do with a little less love from him. Get him out, now. Honestly, I swear every gray hair on my head comes from you, Lissa. You made me old before my time."

Elissa kissed her cheek. "I love you too, Nan. And I'll get Sparks, no worries."

They wandered into the larder to find Sparks covered in flour. No wonder Nan was furious. He got it everywhere.

"Nan's gonna skin him if you aren't careful," Ser Gilmore warned as Elissa kneeled to the ground and cooed at her faithful pet.

"Who's a good dog? Who's a good dog? You are! Yes you are!" Sparks barked happily in response, wagging his little tail as fast as he could.

"Good dog, she says. No wonder he's so mischievous." Gilmore sighed. "Well, now that we've got him, we better leave before Nan decides to—wait, what's that?"

Rats began pouring out of the flour bag Sparks had clawed at. Elissa screamed before Ser Gilmore and Sparks sprung into action, defending their lady. She wasn't defenseless for long, however, grabbing her daggers and joining into the bloodshed.

Nan rushed in behind them as the last of the rats perished. "Rats! Rats in my larder! Oh, look at this mess! That dog must have led them in here!"

Sparks whined.

"Actually, Nan, I think he was trying to defend your larder. Look, he was trying to get at them!" Elissa pointed to the flour bag spewed out on the floor.

"Oh Lissa, your dress!" Nan screeched suddenly. "There's blood and flour all over it! Orlesian silk, too!"

"Oh…" Elissa sighed, looking down at her dress. Nan was right, it was ruined.

Nan began fussing over Elissa ("First your hair, now your dress, your father is going to throw me to the streets because you look like a rag muffin, he will!") when Ser Gilmore made a motion to leave.

"If you have no further need of me, milady—"

"Oh!" Elissa pushed Nan off of her, turning her attention back to Ser Gilmore. "Before you go, I have got to tell you the news!"

"What news?" Ser Gilmore asked. Even Nan stopped her fussing momentarily, staring at Elissa, awaiting to hear what she had to say.

"There's a Grey Warden in the castle!" She squealed. "An actual Grey Warden!"

"Are you sure?" Ser Gilmore's jaw dropped. "I mean, really?"

"Yes, I spoke with him and everything! He's here to recruit you, Ser Gilmore."

Ser Gilmore's jaw dropped, and Elissa took pleasure in the shock written on his face. "M-me? Really? Wow, a Grey Warden…"

"I'd join the Wardens, if I could." Elissa confessed. "But Father wouldn't let me."

"No, he wouldn't, girl. And it's better this way. If they let you into the Wardens, your poor Mum might never get you married." Nan interrupted. "Now you, young ser, get out while I try to make this lady look presentable."

"It's a tough job," Elissa deadpanned as Gilmore left in a slight daze. "Good thing Nan's so good at it."

"You would think it would be easier now that you are twenty instead of five, but I swear I can't tell the difference." Nan muttered, humor in her old voice. "Now, hold still, I think I remember vinegar is the secret to getting stains out of silk, yes—"


Mother was a genius.

An evil genius, but a genius nonetheless.

She's blocking the way to my room with guests. Elissa smiled at her mother's latest tactics. She's getting more and more desperate, I think.

"--And my dear Bryce brought me this back from Orlais. The marquis was drunk, I wager, and mistook Bryce for the King. Oh look, there's my daughter. In a dress and everything! I take it by the presence of that troublesome hound that the issue with the larder has been resolved?" Sparks whined at the sharpness of the Teryna's voice. Elissa rubbed his head gently.

"Nan's head exploded and Spark had to eat it." Elissa smirked, not giving a damn that there were three strangers around her.

Her mother did not rise to the bait, however, and merely smiled at her daughter's humor. "Well, at least one of us will get a good meal tonight."

The Teryna then turned her attention back to her guests. "Dear, this is Lady Landra."

The lady in question smiled. "Hello my dear. I believe we met at the salon last spring, did we not?"

Weren't you drunk the entire time? Elissa thought but didn't say. "Yes, I remember. Pleased to meet you again, milady."

Her mother beamed as Elissa curtsied. Correctly.

Lady Landra laughed. "I think I spent the entire time trying to convince you to marry my son, if I do recall."

"Unsuccessfully, I might add." The boy in question looked rather uncomfortable, surrounded by women on all sides. Poor sod.

"This is my son, Dairren." Lady Landra introduced. "He's not married, either."

Obviously, or she wouldn't have brought him. Mother must be scraping the bottom of the barrel. This one's not even that wealthy.

"Don't listen to her, my lady." The poor sod, Dairren, spoke directly to her. "It's good to see you again. You are looking as beautiful as ever."

"Flatterer."

"And this is my lady in waiting, Iona. Say something, dear girl." Lady Landra introduced.

The little elvish woman beside her smiled at Elissa. "It's a pleasure to meet you, my lady. You are as pretty as your mother describes."

"You would think that would make it easier to find a match for her, but it doesn't." the Teryna sighed dramatically.

"Perhaps your daughter simply has a mind of her own?" Dairren commented. He's been warned already. Oh, good show, Mother, good show. "You should be proud."

"Proud doesn't get me any more grandchildren." Her mother looked at her in absolute disappointment. Elissa could not help but roll her eyes.

"I can handle my own affairs, Mother."

"Evidentially not, or you would be married by now." The Teryna snapped back accordingly. The mother and daughter stared down at one another briefly before Lady Landra interrupted.

"Perhaps I shall retire to my room. I will see you later, Eleanor."

Lady Cousland smiled, ever the polite lady of the house. "Of course. Good evening Landra, and to you as well, Dairren."

The three guests took their leave, leaving only Elissa with the company of her hound and her mother.

"My dear, dear girl, what am I going to do with you?" Eleanor sighed, putting a hand on her daughter's shoulder. "And what have you done to your hair? It's boy-short."

"Fergus cut it while sparing. And good evening to you as well, Mother."

"Listen to her, all polite as could be. As if she doesn't purposely make my life as miserable as possible!"

Elissa frowned. "I don't try to make you miserable, Mother."

"So you say. What did you think of Dairren?"

"I'd rather sleep with the elf." Actually, not really, but it always bothered Mother when she made comments like that.

"Elissa, really now, what am I going to do with you?" The Teryna huffed, exasperated.

Elissa bit her lip. "Mother…I would like to join Fergus and Father on the battlefield tomorrow."

Eleanor turned around quickly and stared at her daughter. "I knew there had to be an ulterior motive for the dress. Had to be. My daughter doesn't dress like a girl, no-ser, not when she doesn't want something."

"Mother, they could die without me." Elissa argued.

"Have some faith in them, darling, but you are needed here. It will do you no good to take up arms and follow them into battle."

Elissa sighed. "But Mother, I've got a terrible feeling about this!"

Eleanor looked at her daughter's pretty blue eyes, serious as she could be. "As do I. This whole darkspawn business, it leaves a chill in my bones. But your place is here, not on the battlefield."

"I am strong, Mother." Elissa argued, walking up the ramp with her mother. "I can fight."

"I know you are. I was too, when I was your age. But you are needed here, and that's final."

"The Grey Warden thought I was talented." Elissa scowled, her arms folded into her dress.

"The Grey—Elissa, you aren't seriously hoping to be recruited, are you?" Her mother asked, shocked.

"It doesn't matter. Father wouldn't let him."

"I wouldn't let you, either! The Grey Wardens, that's a life-long commitment. I would never choose such a path for you, my darling."

"No." Elissa responded bitterly. "If it were up to you, I'd be married and pregnant, locked away in some lord's castle, never to see a sword or have an adventure ever again."

The Teryna sighed, then looked up at her daughter, her eyes glowing. "My darling girl, I love you, you know that, right?

Elissa looked at her mother, curious. "Mom? What brought this on?"

"I love you, and I want your happiness more than anything in this world. And, well, darling, I am getting old."

"Mother."

"It's true!" The Teryna laughed. "I won't be around forever, and neither will your father."

"Don't say such things!"

"Why not? It's the truth. I won't be around forever, darling, and I would rest so much easier in the Fade if I knew my daughter was taken care of."

"I can take care of myself, Mother." Elissa pouted.

"That you can." Her mother kissed her on the forehead. "I've never doubted that. But love, it doesn't hurt to have someone to watch your back."

"But none of the noblemen you introduce me to are warriors! All of them would expect me to stay at home, to never pick up a sword again." Elissa argued.

"And that's part of being a noble. I have to introduce you to all these men. If I really wanted to torture you, I would just betroth you to one of them." The Teryna grinned, pinching her daughter's cheek.

Elissa stared at her mother like she grew an extra head, her mouth gapped open in shock and horror. An arranged marriage? Mother wouldn't really do that to her, would she?

"Ha! No, I would never do that to you. You would never be happy."

"What are you saying, Mother?"

"I'm saying I'm going to be gone soon. To Lady Landra's, in fact. So you will have the castle to yourself for the summer. Which means all sorts of young men might come and ask for your hand without my interference."

Elissa rolled her eyes. "What's your point?"

"My point? Don't tell all of them no just to spite me. Talk to some of them. You might find yourself enjoying their company." Her mother smiled and patted her on the back. Elissa sighed, suddenly tired.

"Fergus cursed me, you know. He said the next time he sees me I'll be married."

"Well, you might want to listen to Fergus. He knows these things."

Elissa hugged her mother tightly. "I love you, Mom."

"And I love you, Elissa. Have fun, darling. I'm going to go find your father."

XXX

"Here to see me off, are you sister?" Fergus wrapped his arms around Elissa's lithe frame. "What's with the dress? You look like a girl."

Elissa rolled her eyes. "Mother has…guests."

"Ah. Young, handsome noblemen-who-just-so-happen-to-be-looking-for-a-bride-type guests, I wonder?"

She laughed. "And his mother."

"His mother?" Fergus laughed. "By the Maker, Mother is getting quite desperate, isn't she? How did you, ah, dissuade her this time?"

Elissa smiled wickedly. "I told her I was more likely to sleep with the elvish servant girl they brought with them than the nobleman."

Fergus squeezed her tightly. "That's my little sister! Absolutely no interest in boys—just how I like it!"

Elissa hit him lightly. "You are such a dork! I like boys, thank you!"

"You just don't want to get married."

"It's not that," she confessed seriously, staring out the window to the cliffs surrounding Highever. "It's just…I want a boy who can see me as more than just a pretty face, you know? I'm having a hell of a time trying to convince Mother than I'm a warrior, not a princess. And all these noblemen, they just want a wife. A pretty, docile bride they can show off, like an Orlesian wallflower. They don't want me, exactly as I am. I don't want to change, Fergus."

He hugged her softly. "I don't want you to change, either, little sister. I like you just the way you are, daggers and all."

"Daggers and—OH!" Elissa screeched. "I completely forgot—Fergus, wait right here!"

Fergus watched in amusement as his little sister tumbled out of the room and into the hallway. He heard her crash into to someone, screech out an apology, and the listened as Sparks barked in agony as she no doubt tripped over his ferocious body.

Finally, she stumbled back into his room, a rectangle box in hand.

He raised an eyebrow. "What in the Maker's name—"

"I got you a going-away present." She said hurriedly. She presented him the box, like a child presenting her best artwork. "Go on, open it! Tell me if you like it!"

He opened the box gently, and was awarded with a finely crafted black steel longsword. "Wow." He whispered breathlessly. "It's beautiful, I—thank you, little sister."

Her smile was all teeth. "Don't mention it! I wanted to get you something, and I figured why not get you something practical? This way at least I know you'll use it!"

"Yes, well, thanks—"

"WOW DAD IS THAT A SWORD?" Oren bounded into the room suddenly, with all the hyperactivity of a seven year old. "Oh, it's so cool! Can I touch it? Can I, Dad? Please please please?"

Oriana chased after him into the room. "Oren! Get! Back! Here! Do not run off without me young man!"

"Aw, but Mom, look! Dad's got a sword!"

"He's got a what?" The Antivan woman cawed. "Fergus, put that thing away!"

"I want to learn how to use a sword." Oren declared, quite seriously for a seven year old. He grabbed his aunt's hand and tugged. "Auntie, will you teach me how to use a sword?"

Elissa stared at her sister-in-law chewing her brother out, and smiled widely. "But of course! We'll start first thing in the morning!"

Oren cheered. "Hurray! I'm going to learn how to use a sword!" He pulled an imaginary one from behind him. "Get back, darkspawn! Fear my sword of truthiness!"

Oriana shot her a glare before turning her attention back to her husband. "Fergus! Your family, honestly! In Antiva, a woman would never fight. It would bring shame to her entire house!"

"Ah, but in Ferelden, women fight," Just then, the Teryn and his wife entered the room. "And they usually kick the boys' butts, don't they, Pup?"

Elissa grinned. "Of course we do, Dad."

Her mother laughed. "Oh, Bryce, if you keep encouraging her I'll never marry her off!"

Her father shrugged. "I'd be okay with that."

"Me too," Fergus chimed.

"Me three." Elissa defended.

"Me four!" Oren cheered excitedly. "Er, what are we me-ing about?"

The Cousland clan laughed together, echoing throughout the halls. When their laughter finally calmed down to a dull roar, sobriety settled into the room.

"I will miss you, brother." Elissa finally broke the silence.

"As will we all." Eleanor kissed his cheeks. "I will miss you, my darling boy, and I will pray every day for your safe return."

"A good shield would be better, I think."

"That's why I brought one," Bryce responded. He pulled out a rather old shield from behind his back, and presented it to his son. "This is the Cousland shield, my son. It's been in our family for generations. May it serve you well in the coming battles against the darkspawn."

"I think what Dad is saying, Fergus, is don't lose it, alright?" Elissa said cheekily.

Fergus smiled. "Thank you, Mother, Father, 'Lissa. I love you, all."

Oriana leaned forward and kissed him on his cheek. "And we love you, Fergus."

Huddled together in each other's arms that final moment would be the last time the family Cousland would ever be together, alive and safe, again.


part two:

Sparks began barking just as Elissa fell asleep.

She threw her pillow at him.

He didn't stop.

"Damnit, Sparks, I'm trying to sleep here!"

He didn't stop. If anything, his barking became more urgent.

Before she could get out of bed, her bedroom door busted open. She screamed.

Three men, armed to the teeth, saw her almost-nude form, and grinned ferally. "Well boys," the ring leader snarled. "Looks like we might have fun with this woman before we kill her. Don't think the boss will mind, do you?"

She screamed again. She began digging in the drawer to her side, trying to find her knives, but one of the men grabbed her and forced her down, his body weight keeping her from fighting back.

"Going somewhere, precious?" The man licked her face as she squirmed beneath him. She watched out of the corner of her eye as Sparks, her ever-valiant defender, tried to save her and got knifed instead. The man moved to grope her breasts while the two men behind him laughed in amusement.

Not like this. Oh Maker, not like this.

"Not my daughter, you bitch!"* Eleanor Cousland roared from behind them suddenly, and Elissa found herself covered with the body of a dead man, the arrow still sticking out of the back of his skull.

"M-m-mother—" Elissa whispered, but her mother was too busy trying to fight off the other two men on her own.

Quickly, and still in her smallclothes, Elissa grabbed her dagger and stabbed one of the bastards in the back. He fell instantly, and Elissa would have felt a little sick (for all her bravado, she had never actually taken another's life) had it not been for what those men would have done to her had her mother not come. Eleanor and Sparks managed to take the other man down relatively easily.

"Elissa," The Teryna whispered, and walked over to her blood-covered daughter. "Oh, my Elissa, did they hurt you, my darling?"

"No," Elissa whispered back, sorrow choking in her throat. "No, you killed them before they—before they—"

The Teryna didn't say anything, she just wrapped her arms around her daughter, hugging her tightly.

"Get dressed, darling." The Teryna whispered. "And bring your daggers. I doubt that's the last of them."

"W-who are they, Mother? What do they want?"

The Teryna's eyes narrowed, lifting her bow and standing in front of her daughter's door. "I don't know. But I'm going to find out. Do hurry darling, I want to make sure Oriana and Oren are okay."

Elissa dug out the heaviest armor she could find (medium-tier ceremonial chainmail that she hardly ever used: still, after what just happened, she didn't quite feel like a leather skirt) and strapped her daggers behind her back. She softly pressed a cloth to Sparks' eye (her poor pup, forever scarred because of her) and walked to her mother.

Her eyes widened when she saw the discarded shields. "Mom, those are—"

"Howe's men, I know." Mother snarled. "What he's trying to do, I don't know, but I'm not about to let him get away with it, are you?"

"Of course not." Elissa snorted. "Let make sure Oriana and Oren are okay, then find Dad."

Her mother nodded, and together they opened the door across from the hall.

What awaited them was bloodshed. The same bastards who tried to rape Elissa had murdered her sister-in-law and nephew. Little Oren, his body so small, had been trying to protect his mother. Even at seven he had more honor than those…fiends.

Elissa held her mother as the Teryna cried, mourning the loss of her only grandchild and daughter-in-law. Elissa's own tears fell into her mother's gray hair.

"What matter of fiend slaughters innocents?" The Teryna whispered. "What sort of man allows his men to murder a child, to rape a woman? What sort of honor could he hope to attain by doing this?"

"Howe will pay, Mother." Elissa whispered. "But we need to find Father now. We can bury their bodies later."

The Teryna wiped her eyes. "You are right. Let's go."

They made it down the stairs (so much death, and her home was on fire. On fire!) before her mother stopped her.

"We need to find your father, Lissa."

"That's what we are doing, Mother." Elissa snapped. "Or would be, if you hadn't stopped."

"No, I mean, we need to find your father, yes, but more importantly, you need to get out of here."

"We are both going to get out of here, Mom. And we are going to make Howe pay."

"Elissa." Her mother started, her face very serious. "If something has happened to your brother, then you are the last of the Couslands."

If something happened to Fergus, then she was the Teryna.

Oh Maker, watch over him.

"You can't be—you are serious." Elissa whispered. "Maker's breath, Mother, I can't be the Teryn! That's Fergus's job! That's—"

Her mother pursued her lips, placing her hand on her daughter's shoulder. "I have faith in you. As does your father. If the worst shall come, it will be up to you to continue the Cousland line."

"You are impossible." Elissa glowered. "Come on, we have more of these bastards to kill!"

Her mother didn't move. "We also need to get you a sword."

"I don't like swords. They throw me off balance."

"Still, it wouldn't hurt to drop down to the family treasury. Get you a sword. Maybe some money. Who knows when—if—you'll be back here again."

Elissa grabbed her mother's hand and dragged her. "Who knows when we'll be back, Mother. I'll not leave you."

But her mother merely shook her off. "The treasury is right down there, darling. I have my key."

They battled their way down the corridor, until Elissa found herself thrust into the family vault.

"Here," her mother said, throwing an old, dusty longsword into Elissa's arms. "The family sword. Use it well."

"Mom—"

"And about 200 hundred sovereigns." She dumped the leather pouch on top of the sword in Elissa's arms. "It should be enough to get you to Denerim. Enough to let you live comfortably, should the worst happen."

"Mother, you are scaring me!" Elissa cried. Why was her mother acting like this? They would make it! They both would. They would find Dad, and Fergus, and the four of them would kill Howe to avenge Oriana and Oren, and—and—

"I'm scared too, darling." Eleanor whispered, comfortingly. "But I would rather be safe than sorry. Your safety is more important than anything here, Elissa."

How had this happened? How had she lost everything so quickly? Yesterday, everything was fine and dandy, and today she found herself almost raped, mourning her nephew, and searching desperately for her father while her home burned.

Howe would pay. She would cut off his head herself. Perhaps she would lay siege to his home, murder his wife and children in their beds, let him feel the pain and anguish she was feeling right then.

She almost broke down when they final reached the flaming ruins of what had once been the Great Hall.

"My lady," Ser Gilmore yelled, running towards Elissa and her mother. Her father's former men were holding back the door with all that they had. "You're alive. Thank the Maker."

He grabbed Elissa tightly, hugging her close, ignoring the fact that her mother was right there.

"Roderick." Elissa dropped the title completely, addressing her friend by his first name. "Where is my father?"

He let her go. "I don't know. Last time I saw him, he had been badly injured, but he was determined to find you."

Her face must have gone pale, because Ser Gilmore continued before she could speak. "I think he went to the larder. He was going to plan to escape using the servant's entrance, I think."

Her mother placed her hands on Ser Gilmore's shoulder. "Thank you, Ser Gilmore. Maker bless you."

Elissa grabbed his hand and nodded. "Come with us. We need to leave, now."

"No."

Elissa whirled. "What do you mean no? The castle is falling apart! We need to leave, now."

He smiled at her sadly, his eyes beady and dark. "I love you, Elissa."

It was the first time she could ever recall him addressing her by her first name. She forced herself not to cry. "Then come with me, you fool."

"I can't."

"They'll kill you, once they break through the gate." She tried to appeal to his logical side. She couldn't leave him to die—Ser Roderick Gilmore was her oldest and dearest friend—and he—he loved her, and—

"If my death stops them from coming after you, then it's a worthy sacrifice."

She was crying now, tears strolling down her face uncontrollably. "You can't---y-you can't—I order you to, you can't—"

He kissed her forehead. "Go with your mother. Survive, Elissa. If you don't survive, then everything will have been for nothing. You--you can't let Howe win like that, Elissa."

She hugged him one last time, wiping her eyes on his chest metal. "I will never forget you, my dearest friend."

"Nor I you." He whispered into her hair. Behind them, she heard the gate door begin to crack. "Run Elissa. Run, and don't look back."

She ran.


She could feel her mother's hand on her shoulder outside the hall. "I'm so sorry, my darling. I—"

"Don't, Mother." Elissa stopped her, wiping her tear-stained eyes. "Let's—let's just find Father and get out of here."

Before she lost any more friends. Before she had to bury another relative. Before she lost everything.

Sparks licked her hand, and that was enough to force her to move.

They ran. They ran as fast as they could, down the long corridor into the larder. Every enemy they encountered died swiftly by her Cousland longblade or her mother's bow. She didn't even care anymore how many of them she killed. They deserved to die. They deserved more than death—they deserved hell, to feel the dull pain that numbed her heart and soul.

Howe would pay, and he would pay in blood.

She took a brief comfort in the fact that Nan's body wasn't spewed along the kitchen floor. Perhaps she still lived. Perhaps Father—

There he was, lying in a pile of his own blood. But he was breathing still, and that was enough.

She ran to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Father."

"Bryce," She heard her mother whisper beside her. "Thank the Maker."

Her father looked up and stared at them both. "You're alive. Both of you. I'm…I'm so grateful."

Her mother placed her hand on her father's wound. "Bryce, what happened?'

"Howe." Her father snarled, his voice full with all the hatred and anguish Elissa felt. Elissa remembered suddenly that Howe, this morning, had been her father's friend. "Howe betrayed me."

"What could he have hoped to obtain by this—this madness?"

Her father snorted, and Elissa noticed more blood spilling. Oh Maker. "Money. Power. Who knows? All that matters is that it happened."

He winced and grabbed his wound protectively. Her mother jumped.

"Bryce, we need to get out of here." She told him plainly. "We have to go, now."

He laughed at her grimly. "My love, I don't think I would survive the standing."

He turned to Elissa suddenly. "My darling daughter, you need to get out of here. You and your mother both. Get to Ostagar, find Fergus. T-tell the King what has happened here."

Why was everyone depending on her? She—she was no one without her family. She couldn't do jack shit. She couldn't—she couldn't—

"The Teryn is correct." A new voice announced. Elissa turned and saw the Grey Warden she had met earlier that day.

"You are—Duncan, correct?" Her mother asked. "Thank you for saving my husband."

Duncan sheaved his blood splattered blades and walked towards them. "I'm afraid your thanks may be in vain, my lady. I am no healer."

"Duncan," her father growled, his voice deep from pain. "Get my wife and daughter out of here. Please."

Her mother ran her hands through his hair, pulling him close to her.

Duncan knelt. "I will do as you ask, but I must ask for something in return." Elissa felt she could have slapped him then: how dare he ask for compensation at a time like this! She and Mother could escape on their own, they didn't need him.

"Anything." Her father grumbled.

"I came to your castle seeking a recruit." He whispered softly. "The darkspawn threat demands I leave with one. The horrors that have occurred within these walls pale in comparison to what the rest of the country will face if the Blight continues."

Her father looked at her suddenly, his blue eyes shining. "I—I understand."

Elissa gasped. "What? Me? You—you want me to be a Grey Warden?"

Duncan nodded. "You survived, Lady Elissa. You survived, despite impossible odds. I know you are talented from before—"

"I survived," She spat forcefully, "Thanks to my mother. Thanks to Roderick Gilmore. Thanks to the guards in the castle. I am nothing."

Her words had no effect on Duncan. "I believe the Maker ensured you survived, and for a purpose."

Fuck the Maker, she wanted to scream, but stopped herself.

"We are Couslands," her father added. "We always do what is expected of us. And there can be no higher honor than serving with the Grey Wardens."

"F-f-father!" She sobbed as the Teryn pulled her close, hugging her tightly. He kissed her hair gently.

"I know you'll make me proud, Pup." He told her gently as she sobbed in his arms. "You already have."

Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see her mother bite her lip. "Bryce, are you sure?"

"Our daughter will not die today, Eleanor. Not because of Howe's treachery." The Teryn proclaimed proudly. "She will live, and she will do many great and wonderful things."

"I l-love you both." Elissa sobbed, pulling herself from her father's arms. "I love you so much, I can't—I c-can't—"

Her mother pulled her closer, embracing her tightly. "Go with Duncan, sweetheart."

"M-m-mom—"

"You'll stand a better chance at escaping with just the two of you. I would only slow you down." She smiled sadly.

"Eleanor—"

"I'll not leave you, Bryce." She told her husband, pulling him and her daughter both into her arms. "I'll kill every bastard that comes through these doors, but I won't leave your side, Bryce." She kissed his forehead and held her daughter tightly.

"I can't leave you." Elissa whispered, scared and tired and horrified. "I—I can't, I love you both, I—"

"Then live, darling." Her mother smiled sadly. "Live."

Duncan grabbed her arm, and she felt the tremors of the castle surround her. "If we are leaving, then we need to do so, now."

"Go." Her father urged her. "Find Fergus. Kill Howe. B-become a Grey Warden. M-m-make me proud, Elissa."

"Go." Her mother repeated, holding her father tightly. "We love you, but go."

With those words, Duncan dragged the very last of the Cousland line outside of the castle, and carried her towards the future.


A few days later

"You asked me why I am here, your Majesty?" Elissa repeated, scathing bitterly at the man in front of her. "That is why I am here. Howe murdered my family. He took away everything that I love. And I intend to do the same to him, and any darkspawn I come across."

The King gazed at her in pity. "Of that I have no doubt, Lady Cousland. Still, you have my word: the second this darkspawn invasion is over, the second my armies march north and retake your family land. You have my promise, as a Theirin and as the King of Ferelden, that justice will come to Howe."

Unable to help herself, Elissa threw herself into King Calian's arms, forming an unexpected hug. The poor man seemed baffled, but returned the hug graciously.

"Thank you. That's all I could ever ask."


END CHAPTER

(*Guess where that line came from. Go on, guess.)

Next chapter: Alistair! A spy! The Joining and Ostagar! Morrigan! Fun times!

Here is the list of Wardens I plan on recruiting:

1. Mical Surana (male elf mage, shapeshifter)

2. Jowan (male human mage, blood mage)—not an origin but I want him in my party.

3. Iza Amell (female human mage, arcane warrior/spirit healer)

4. Baden Brosca (male dwarf commoner warrior, berserker)—may change his name if I think of something better/get suggestions

5. Vera Aeducan (female dwarf noble rogue, bard)

6. Saria Tabris (female city elf rogue, assassin)

7. ? Mahariel (haven't decided)

I'm screwing with the timeline/plot sequence a bit, but I think I've worked it out so all of them will meet Cousland (and henceforth be conscripted) within the actual storyline.

Yes, I realize most of my Wardens are women. Have a problem with it? Read someone else's fic. Better yet, write your own. I enjoy most of the storyline with female Wardens better, anyway.

Ships ultimately include: Alistair/Cousland, Surana/Morrigan. I am undecided on these three, would like feedback on what people ultimately prefer. I suspect there will be hints of each, but as for endgame, I'd like to know people's opinions: Jowan/Lily, Jowan/Amell, Amell/Cullen. Others include Brosca/Leliana, Aeducan/Gorim, Tabris/Zevran, and Mahariel/Tamlen (regardless of what gender I end up choosing).

I'm considering conscripting Ser Cauthrien. Thoughts?

I also have a file (10+ pages) full of party banter that I will either include in chapters, at the end of chapters, or as a separate document, depending upon what people want.

Next chapter should come soon considering I have most of it already written.

Thanks!

jak