Disclaimer: I don't own Dragon Age or any of its characters - more's the pity, though I will take some credit for Rhiann.
A/N: This is more or less a look at the story between game moments, and just to warn you, I am an Alistair girl. I'm currently rewriting the entire story to clean up and edit some of the parts that annoyed me, so if you've read this before and it seems different, well - it is. Also, credit to the brilliant man behind Buffy, as I've snuck a few Whedonisms in here and there.
Update: So, apparently all the pov breaks disappeared from these boards at one time, so I'm in the process of replacing them when I get a few spare moments. Until I can get all the way through, I apologize for the rough reading.
Her life was bound up by a name. Rhiann Cousland, only daughter of the teryn. Her elder brother Fergus would inherit the vast rhan of Highever one day, carrying on the title that held their family second only to the king's. Her place in the family was far less important than then his, or at least it was as far as Ferelden nobility was concerned. She could not force bitterness from this knowledge, however. She led a charmed life, one full of comfort and love. Unlike the circumstances that befell so many of her friends, her father did not see her as an unwanted burden to be married off, instead doting on his only daughter until she was in real danger of being spoiled.
That never did occur, however, for in his indulgence, he allowed her to train in swordplay at her request. Such a thing was not common, but is was far more accepted in Ferelden than in the surrounding nations of Orlais and Antiva. Strong women bred strong sons, in the Ferelden mind, and a history sprinkled with female heroes and warrior queens had begun a transition that earned them a reputation of habitual barbarism by their more "civilized" neighbors.
Not wanting his daughter to spend her time loitering in the training yard with the other men, Teryn Bryce assigned one of the younger men, newly sworn to knighthood, to oversee her lessons. Ser Gilmore was only a handful of years older than Rhiann but did not take the task lightly, and some much needed discipline was instilled in the youngest Cousland. Hands that were unaccustomed to work of any kind would crack and bleed after their practice sessions, wringing tears from her bright blue eyes. It was only her wretched stubbornness that allowed her to continue, spending day after day in the broiling sun lunging at hay bales while the knight criticized her stance or grip until she wanted to scream. Yet she would do it again the next day, and the next, ignoring the protests of her mother that she looked more like one of the lads then a proper young lady anymore.
During the evening, however, Gilmore would clean and bandage her wounds himself, speaking softly to her on the rapid progress she made, giving her the strength to continue.
The determination served her well, in the end. Rhiann learned quickly to use her own talents to her advantage rather than relying on brute strength she would never develop. She was uncommonly quick and had a keen mind and a sharp eye. She was also known to use less honorable tactics if the situation warranted, having no qualms about throwing a fistful of dirt in the eyes of a much larger attacker to gain the upper hand. Ser Gilmore, who knew the world that lay beyond the protective wall of Highever castle, was in full encouragement of this behavior. He was not training her for knighthood, did not bother with lectures of honor and accountability. Never in her life would she face an opponent in an honor duel or mock combat, and if the harshness of the world demanded that she lift her blades in real combat one day, he promised that she would do so prepared. He trained her to win.
Between the devotion of her family and the hard care given by her friend, Rhiann grew into a likable young woman with a lust for life and a ready laugh. She was tall for a woman and lean from her years of training, yet utterly feminine with her long black hair and bright blue eyes. Completely unaware of her own charms, she could often be seen running through the halls of the great estate with her hound Aiden at her side, her throaty laughter echoing off of the walls and her guardians looking on fondly.
She was fifteen when her parents began pressing the issue of marriage. She knew it was her one real duty to her family, to make a good match and provide her father with a strong alliance, but she could not seem to bring herself to do it. She enjoyed the company of boys her age, but tended to look on them more as playmates than suitors. Once in a while she liked one enough to allow him a few stolen kisses in a dark corner, but never did she feel the desire to make one of them her own, or to want him enough to even consider forever. The more she resisted, the more noble sons were paraded before her, and the less subtle became her mother's hints.
"What about Ser Gilmore?"
Rhiann rolled her eyes. "No, Mother."
"He's far beneath your station, granted, but he is loyal to Highever. And he's managed to keep your attention for longer than a fortnight. That shows promise."
She chose to ignore the exasperation that had crept into her mother's voice. "He's a friend."
"You've said that of all your suitors."
True enough, she supposed, but it was particularly true in this case. "It would be too strange. He's like an older brother to me. And before you press the issue, Fergus is a definite no as well."
Her mother's mouth hung open only for a second before she caught herself and snapped it shut. "I swear – the things you say sometimes!"
Rhiann only grinned in reply and wrapped her arms around her much shorter mother. "I'll settle down eventually, mam, I promise."
"I know you mean it, my love, but truly, I have my doubts sometimes."
News of the arrival of the Grey Warden spread long before her father summoned her. Rhiann, a grown woman now, was busy with preparations for the departure of her father and brother when the servant informed her she was to meet their guest in the great hall.
She was overjoyed to learn the Warden was there to test Ser Gilmore. Must as she would miss him, should he be asked to join, it was high time someone acknowledged the worth of her friend. She was much more surprised, and slightly shaken, at the Warden's interest in her. She had never even seen a real battle, after all.
Suddenly this seemed a rather crucial hole in her training.
As she made her way to the family quarters to locate her brother, she allowed her mind to fill with fancies of following the Warden. She could live her life as a warrior, a guardian of Ferelden. Rhiann chuckled to herself at the thought and stored the idea at the back of her mind. Best to stick with reality, even the mundane existence that seemed determined to find and trap her.
Her mother's hints had long since ceased to be subtle.
She had been woken from a sound sleep by the cries. Even now her mind rebelled against the thought that this was real, that she was really running through the ruins of what had been her home and that she the nightmare would not end to find her safe in her own bed.
As she raced down the corridors they seemed alien to her, filled with smoke and soot and the stench of burning. She stopped to catch her breath, the tightness in her lungs causing her head to swim. As she gasped, she held up her blades, dark with blood in the pale moonlight. All her life they had remained shiny and clean. She fought back the urge to retch and leaned her head wearily against the wall.
Her mother caught up to her, doubled over and holding her side. "The great hall – he may be there."
Rhiann nodded and closed her eyes, briefly offering a prayer to any god who would deign to listen. Just let him be in the hall, she pleaded silently. Andraste's blood, I don't care about anything else. Just let Father be in the hall.
The pounding at the gates threatened to sap her remaining strength.
"Where's my father?" she demanded of Ser Gilmore, and swallowed hard, trying to rid her voice of the high note of hysteria.
"He went to the larder, in search of you," he answered, then grasped her by the elbow. "The servant's exit hasn't been discovered yet. Take your mother and make straight for it. I'll hold the hall as long as I can."
Rhiann began to argue, to scream that all those years of training were worthless if she couldn't even defend her own home. The look in his eyes lodged the words in her throat.
He's going to die.
The realization was the blow that would break her at last, she was sure, horror pounding at her will just as relentlessly as the ram pounded at the gates. Rhiann felt like a bit of thread on a loom, pulled tighter and tighter until she was as fine as a single strand of hair.
He's going to die to let us escape.
"My lady," he prompted urgently, giving her a little shake. "My lady, we don't have much time."
The thread snapped, and she could only nod dumbly, her voice abandoning her as Ser Gilmore looked down at her with pleading eyes. "Run, Rhiann. Don't look back."
The small cellar closed in around her, making it difficult to breathe, and for a few moments she was honestly afraid she would faint. The Grey Warden dragged her on mercilessly. "We dare not stop."
Her breaths were coming in short, jagged gasps, making her vision swim and blur before her. It was not until the cellar door swung open and she stepped out into the cool night that she realized she was sobbing uncontrollably, shaking with the force of her rage and grief. Roughly Duncan grabbed her and covered her mouth, his dark eyes boring into hers.
"You must be strong, my lady," he said in his strong, calm voice. "Do not dishonor their sacrifice."
Slowly the sobbing ebbed, and she regained control of herself, but it was a dark control, devoid of strength or hope.
She could still smell the blood.
Blood that had pooled on the floor beneath his body, burning its sickly sweet stench into her hair, her clothes, her mind. Blood that had dripped from her blades and ran down her arms as she cut down those who stood in the way of their escape. Blood that soaked Aiden's muzzle as he ripped and tore and dismembered.
Her life – her world of love and laughter – was gone, swallowed by shadows of violence and betrayal.
"We reach Ostagar on the morrow, my lady."
Rhiann did not look up or acknowledge his presence in any way, except to whisper softly, "Please don't call me that."
From across the campfire, his dark eyes met hers in sympathy, though nothing of pity was expressed on the impassive face. "As you wish."
Beside her, Aiden whined and nudged her knee with his nose. She patted his head with numb fingers, and the concern in the too-intelligent canine eyes increased. Rhiann had undergone the length of the journey in a daze, still lost in her waking nightmare. She had left some vital part of herself behind in that cellar, she knew. Left it there to die with her parents, to lie in darkness that would never lift.