Prologue

Elissa tensed as she heard hoof beats outside, but relaxed again as a glance from behind the curtains revealed the rider to be Arl Bryland. She met him downstairs in the tiny parlour, realising with some surprise that he wore court finery instead of travelling clothes under his cloak.

"My darling girl," Bryland said, as usual, sweeping her into a tight hug. "How are you?" His smiling, youthful face was relaxed, but there was an odd shadow in his eyes.

"Keeping busy, my lord. My mother would have been proud of my needlework now," Elissa said lightly. It was true; months of forced "leisure" had given her nothing to do but read and practice her sewing and embroidery.

"Your mother was proud of you in any case," Bryland said roughly, and pulled her towards the couch. "Come, sit, and tell me about the last month."

"Would you like some refreshment, Your Grace?" Elissa asked automatically. "I will have the cook—"

"No," Bryland said. "I'm afraid I have very little time to spare, but I wanted to see how you were before I went to Denerim."

"Denerim?" Elissa asked, ruthlessly suppressing her disappointment in favour of good manners. Bryland did his best to see her as often as he could without putting her or himself in jeopardy; it would not do to hang onto him like a barnacle just because he was her only lifeline to the world outside the tiny house.

Bryland unclasped his cloak and almost fell onto the couch, leaning back with a sigh. "Ah, how I hate riding. And yes, Denerim. Arl Eamon has called a Landsmeet."

Elissa blinked in surprise and perched on a chair across from Bryland. "A Landsmeet during the Blight? At this time of the year? Whatever is going on, Your Grace? We have heard the strangest rumours here."

"As far as I could make out, Eamon had an ace up his sleeve, a bast—natural son of Maric's, raised by Eamon in secret. He is apparently one of those Grey Wardens who escaped from Ostagar. Eamon wants to use the boy to challenge Loghain's claim to the throne."

"Teyrn Loghain's claim?" Elissa asked. "What about Queen Anora?"

Bryland waved a hand tiredly. "A formality only, it seems. They say Loghain has her all but locked away." He paused, looking uncomfortable. "Howe has proclaimed himself Arl of Denerim and is said to be Loghain's lieutenant in all things – which was by far not the worst mistake of Loghain's. The whole country is in uproar. There will be a civil war as likely as not, whatever the outcome of the Landsmeet."

Elissa struggled to keep an even expression, despite the mention of Howe's name. "But the Blight… Leonas, we can't afford to fight each other when there's darkspawn all over the country now. Most of the South is taken, they say, and if we waste our resources on—"

"Yes, yes," Bryland said, and his expression was dark now. "You were always a smart girl, my dear. This is going to cost us the entire country, if we don't put a stop to it. I…" he broke off and looked away briefly. "Elissa, you know I loved Bryce like a brother, and you are as dear to me as a daughter."

"Yes, and I am very grateful to you for hiding me here, at such danger to yourself and your family," Elissa said woodenly. She knew what he was going to say now; it was obvious. "You are going to side with Loghain, aren't you?"

Bryland avoided her eyes. "If I must, yes. We need a united, strong Ferelden to defeat the Blight. You said it yourself: we cannot afford to waste our men on fighting each other when the country is in such danger." He sighed. "I will make arrangements for you, should I have to march under Loghain's banner, to move you to a safer place. I do not intend to let Howe know you've survived. You will be safe, whatever happens."

"Unless the darkspawn find me first," Elissa said darkly. She took a deep breath. "But you are right. It's war, and even if Loghain was stupid enough to take Howe as an ally, he is still probably our best hope to unite Ferelden. He was King Maric's best friend, after all, and the king trusted him." She looked down. "I just hope Loghain still has enough sense to never let Howe get close enough to stab him in the back."

"Maric loved him like a brother, and Loghain was always renown for his grasp of strategy," Bryland said with another sigh. "Such terrible times, my girl. It was so much easier when we just had to drive out the Orlesians."

"Fereldan politics," Elissa said with a forced smile. "Father said there was nothing better for giving you indigestion."

Bryland gave her a tired smile. "Ah, yes, that he did." He stood up and ran a hand over her hair, then reached down for her hand. "My darling girl, I will protect you, whatever happens. Howe will never get to you, that I swear on my life and my honour as a Bryland."

Elissa stood as well. "Please be careful, Leonas. Not for my sake; for yours. You risked enough for the Couslands, I think. Your family needs you."

Bryland grimaced. "And on that note, I am taking Habren with me to Denerim."

"Andraste's grace, why?" Elissa said involuntarily. "Hasn't she caused enough trou—I mean, oh." She felt herself blush.

To her relief, Bryland just laughed. "Precisely for that reason, my dear. I want her where I can watch her. Besides, maybe the shopping in Denerim will distract her from—well. I don't even want to know what she is doing, most of the time." He sighed again, wearily. "I don't remember you being that troublesome when you were her age."

"Oh, that's because you weren't at Highever often enough, Your Grace," Elissa said wryly. "Both Father and Mother claimed I was solely responsible for most of their grey hairs, especially at that age."

Unexpectedly, Bryland enveloped her in another tight hug. "I miss Bryce," he said roughly into her hair. "I cannot even imagine what you… oh, my girl, I am so sorry."

Elissa bit her lips until her eyes stopped stinging. "Be safe, Leonas," she said when she could trust her voice. "Survive the Landsmeet, survive the Blight, and return home to your family. And thank you for everything, whatever happens now."

Bryland picked up his cloak and stroked a hand tenderly over Elissa's cheek. "Your parents would be so proud," he said. "You are a true Cousland and an admirable young woman in your own right. It was a privilege to be able to assist you, my lady."

Elissa watched from the parlour window as he mounted his horse, wincing. She raised a hand and saw him return the gesture, before he urged his horse on and disappeared around the bend in the lane.

~o0o~

Weeks passed slowly. Each day of unrelenting boredom – although her blackwork embroidery was indeed very good now – brought little news but more fear. Elissa never left the house herself, and neither did the cook and the maid now. The bodyguard posing as gardener, Mikhal, whose chores included weekly rides to the nearest village for supplies, brought back little but rumours to go with the increasingly meagre food.

Darkspawn had been sighted everywhere, that was one thing everybody agreed on. People were fleeing north or to Denerim, abandoning farms and houses, which were promptly looted and robbed by their less scrupulous neighbours. Of the Landsmeet the people knew little, and opinions were split while rumours grew increasingly bizarre: Teyrn Loghain had killed Queen Anora and assumed the throne. The Wardens had killed the Queen as they had killed the King. The Circle Tower had fallen and demons were swarming the countryside as far away as Redcliffe, set free by murderous mages. Dalish were raiding farms as far as Lothering or the Southron hills. Werewolves had been sighted, and some of them spoke and told tales. The Wardens had gone to Orzammar to kill the dwarven king. The Wardens had been killed in Orzammar. The Wardens were travelling with a golem, an army of witches and a tame werewolf. The Wardens were going to Denerim to kill the Queen and Teyrn Loghain…

"Enough, Mikhal," Elissa said wearily. "Let us worry about the darkspawn for now, or Howe's men, not the werewolves."

"A golem, really?" the maid asked in a hushed voice. She was equally young and easily distracted, and looked upon Mikhal as the fount of all worldly knowledge. Elissa quietly hoped Mikhal would stop at sharing knowledge of the carnal kind with the girl, as he didn't seem the kind to settle down.

"Golem or not," she said decisively, "we need to make sure the cellar door is secure, if we need to hide in a hurry. And we need to start stocking supplies, for when the village shop closes."

"Oh, will it?" the maid asked, her eyes huge. "Why?"

"Because half the farms lie abandoned, and nobody is brave enough to hunt when there is darkspawn about," Elissa said patiently.

"We have smoked meat and cheeses, my lady," the cook said thoughtfully. "Also some potatoes and grains, and apples. We will last a few weeks, even when the merchants close up, but longer than that…"

"Longer than that and we will have other worries," Elissa said grimly. "Or no worries at all. Mikhal, do you have enough boards to reinforce the cellar door?"

"Maker help us," the maid whispered, and for once, Elissa found herself in complete agreement.

Two weeks passed with little to show but a cellar door that would probably have withstood the often-mentioned golem, and yet another yard of intricate blackwork. Then, one day, Mikhal came back with his donkey cart almost empty but himself almost bursting with news.

"My lady, the Landsmeet; they say Teyrn Loghain is dead and one of the Wardens is the new king!"

Elissa stared, almost open-mouthed. "Oh, Maker. Please tell me this is another wild rumour."

"No, my lady. Everybody's saying it!" He pulled a sack of barley from his cart and shouldered it. "They say the Bannorn stands united behind the new king, and the army is gathering in Redcliffe to march against the darkspawn horde."

"What of the queen?" Elissa asked faintly. She hadn't known Anora very well, but if Loghain was dead and some Grey Warden crowned as king, she hated to think upon the fate of the poor woman. And if Loghain was dead, what had happened to Howe?

Mikhal shrugged. "They haven't said, my lady. I don't think anyone knows. But the army is marching, and the Grey Wardens are leading it. They say we might defeat the Blight yet!"

"Maker preserve us," Elissa whispered. There was not much more to be said.

The village was half-empty now, the merchants gone, and smoked meat their main source of food, when, another two weeks later, Mikhal ran into the house, unheeding of the dirt on his boots and now all over the rugs. "My lady! I just met old Calvin in the lane, and he said there was a huge battle in Denerim, with half the city laid waste, but they did it!"

"They did what?" Elissa asked, needlework clutched in her trembling hands.

"They killed a dragon, my lady, and they killed the darkspawn, most of it, and the Blight is over!"

Elissa swallowed. "Just like that? What about the army? How many casualties? Why in Denerim, what happened to Redcliffe?"

Mikhal shrugged. "I don't know, my lady. Oh. I'm sorry about the dirt."

Elissa closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Time would bring more news, she hoped.

They were still living off smoked meat, although people were slowly trickling back into the village, all bearing the same news as Calvin, when some days later Elissa was startled by hoof beats and voices yet again. With habitual caution she watched carefully from behind the curtains and was startled to see two men in armour approach the house. It was not a raiding party of Howe's, not with only two men, and a moment later she recognised Bryland's long brown hair, a delighted smile spreading across her face.

The other rider she couldn't immediately place, although there was something very familiar about him. He was tall and had shaggy, dark hair and…

"Maker," Elissa whispered. "Oh, Maker!"

She flew down the stairs and hurtled outside into the yard, tears streaming down her face. The world was blurry and she felt faint. "Fergus," she sobbed, "oh, Maker, Fergus, you're alive, you're alive!"

He caught her, laughing, and pressed her close in a hug unlike any they had shared, could have shared, in the past. "Elissa," he whispered hoarsely, and then they were both crying, heedless of their spectators and manners befitting the new teyrn of Highever and his sister.