Victory at Ostagar
Chapter 67: Unbound
She was absolutely starving, and focused on the midday meal at first, glaring a little at her universally happy Wardens. Everyone had bought something, even Cathair, the Dalish archer. He held up a crystal prism to the light, dangling it by a bit of copper wire, enjoying the colored light refracting through it.
"I shall hang it in the window that catches the morning sun, and see a rainbow every day," he solemnly informed Toliver.
"Rainbows are good," agreed his brother Warden. "There's nothing like a rainbow over the meadow after a thundershower."
Then the dwarves, Hakan and Soren, began demanding to know how it was possible to see a 'spectral display' by any means other than a crystallized mineral. A long description of sunshowers and ensuing rainbows ensued. The dwarves did not appear convinced that this was anything other than fantasy.
Even Morrigan was a bit flushed, admiring some bizarre magical gadget that Anders had found for her. The mages were whispering together, entirely too pleased with themselves.
"Jowan," Bronwyn said, "after you're done eating, I want to see you in the study. Alone."
He looked up at her, and gulped; and then choked on an unchewed bit of mutton. Anders thumped him on the back, smirking. Bronwyn gave Jowan a cool stare and strode off to the study, shutting the door behind her. Once there, she began pacing, hoping Jowan had the sense to come soon and not let her grow any more annoyed.
In fact, he knocked at the door directly, and at her "Enter," poked his head in cautiously. She beckoned him before her with a peremptory gesture.
"Jowan, tell me why you disobeyed my orders. The Ashes were to be secret. You've caused me quite a bit of trouble, and there's likely more to come."
"I'm sorry…" Jowan looked at the floor, fidgeting. "I was wrong, but I was just so angry... When the Teyrn carried the Queen out of the Chantry she was in such a bad way. I had to do something right away. I had to use my own initiative. And now I know it was even worse that I thought." He burst out, "They killed Wynne, Bronwyn! They killed her for being a mage. They killed her for being in their way. And they would have killed the Queen, too, with their plots and their schemes. There's no end to their arrogance, and they're nothing! Nothing! They think they should run everything, and right now the only people who are really out there trying to save the world are Wardens and mages!"
"Jowan!" Bronwyn brought him up sharply. "Wardens and mages are not the only people fighting against the darkspawn. There are plenty of good soldiers and honest dwarves and brave Dalish who are doing their part. We must not dismiss them. I grant you that the Chantry has been more than a hindrance than a help, but don't paint everyone with such broad strokes. You'll make enemies of friends. Now… all right, the Queen needed healing right away, you say. I can believe that. I'm really not happy that you had to mention the Ashes. Why did you?"
He looked away, his jaw working with tension. "First of all, everybody saw them. Your brother the Teyrn and Arl Bryland and everyone were looking over my shoulder, and they saw everything I was doing. And then, too, I wanted everybody to see how empty the Chantry's claims were. They talk as if only they have importance to the Maker, but it was you who got the Ashes! I didn't want them saying it was some priest's stupid prayers. It was you who should get the credit! That's why I took that gold bowl and put them in water. It was such a dramatic moment. I suppose I got swept up in it. Besides, I didn't think I should stick my finger in the Queen's mouth."
"Wait…" Bronwyn cocked her head. "Are you saying you used my wedding gift to my cousin Habren to administer the Ashes? That would have attracted attention! I hope you washed it thoroughly before you gave it to her!"
"Actually…" Jowan cowered, and looked about to flee. "We didn't. I mean, we didn't give it to her. By the time the Queen was healed and we showed up at the Arl's estate, he was dead, you see, and I thought maybe it would be...tactless...to give the Arlessa a wedding present… And it's like a holy vessel now, so I didn't think it was something that you'd want given away. I still have it!" he told her quickly, beseechingly, seeing Bronwyn's stunned expression. "I was going to give it back to you as soon as I could do it quietly."
Bronwyn rubbed her face, hardly knowing how to feel. "Where is it?"
"I took it back from Leliana and put it in my saddlebag. It's in my room."
"Fetch it now, and give it to me. It certainly is entirely too late to give it to Habren now. I'm glad I know that I should not be expecting her thanks!"
Jowan cringed away. He was sorry she was angry, but she would not kill her or make him Tranquil. Her sharp voice stopped him in his tracks.
"Don't ever disobey me again, Jowan, or I'll stop your pay for a year and thrash you besides!"
An incoherent apology, and he was out the door, running.
"I hope you did not scold Jowan too harshly, Bronwyn," said Leliana, as they made their way to the dressmaker's in Silk Alley. "It was a terrible time, and he only wanted to save the Queen. If you had seen how she looked—yellow with sickness—I thought she was dying—and there was your brother holding her in his arms—well, if you had been there, you would understand. And he wished to show proper respect for the Prophet by using the finest vessel we had. I think it was meant to be. Yes. I think it was destined by Andraste herself!"
Bronwyn was not going to shout in the street. "And then today you told the Grand Cleric that we had more! I really wish you had said nothing about that, Leliana," she said. "I told you I wanted them to be secret."
"So they shall be," Leliana insisted with sweet and provoking reasonableness. "Only the Grand Cleric and her closest advisors will know. What could be more secret?"
"Leliana…" Bronwyn caught hold of her temper. "The Grand Cleric was drugged by her closest advisors only days ago. We can only hope that her new closest advisors are more reliable. Personally, I wish she had never known about it. It's all becoming too complicated." She caught Leliana by the arm, and said slowly, "Do not mention the Ashes to anybody else. That's an order!"
"Oh, of course I won't," Leliana assured her earnestly.
At the dressmaker's they could not continue their conversation, which relieved Bronwyn in a way, since it was impossible to make Leliana understand her. She had made a mistake in taking her along with her to see Her Grace, and now she must live with it.
No one was perfect, certainly. The gowns that Leliana had ordered for her were quite satisfactory in every way, with an emphasis on bold, warm colors. Her friend had ordered linen of the very finest, and even some very nice boots and slippers. It was the sort of thing she did well. And Bronwyn had another task in mind for her.
"There is something I would like you to do, sometime in the next few days," she said. Leliana looked up at her from her perusal of a pile of silks, so sweet and willing that Bronwyn sighed to herself for trying to make her friend be other than she was.
"That child in the Alienage…the child Amethyne… I was discussing her future with the headman who is looking after her. I would like you to visit the child and evaluate her aptitude for music. If she has any potential, I'd like you to recommend a teacher for her. I'll also get her something musical for Satinalia, but I'll need your advice."
"What a lovely idea!" cried Leliana. "I should love to do that! Zevran says the little girl is adorable. Oh, I hope she has a good ear! And if she is graceful, she should also learn dancing. I shall go as soon as I can."
Dress fittings and dressings-down of disobedient Wardens were only irritating: lengthy meetings doling out the vacant lordships of Ferelden were excruciating.
Interesting, too, of course. Nothing would be official until the Landsmeet voted on the appointments, but with the number of votes they already controlled, it seemed likely that they would largely have their way—if they could decide amongst themselves what that way was.
Some of the titles were fairly straightforward. Bann Ceorlic's sons were in the Free Marches. The eldest had been designated the heir, though he would have to appear at the Landsmeet if he expected to be confirmed. Bann Reginalda's eldest married daughter was her heir, and everyone knew her and thought well of her. As for Bann Grainne, her husband was dead some years, and her son and heir a minor. His father's brother could serve as guardian and steward. No one wanted to do the child out of his inheritance.
Most of vacant lordships were in the North, of course. They were the result of Rendon Howe's power grab and its unpleasant consequences. As Teyrn of Highever and overlord of Amaranthine, Fergus was the default possessor of all the Landsmeet votes of the unoccupied titles, giving him immense power. He intended to use it.
They met together: Loghain, Bronwyn, Fergus, Anora, with the Arls of South Reach and West Hills. When Teagan Guerrin deigned to come to Denerim, they would have to admit him into their councils, but they had not heard from him yet. Wulffe had written to him, advising him to come and be heard. Nathaniel Howe, still on probation of sorts, had not been included. At some point they would have to discuss their plans with him, since they would involve him. Five of the lordships were in the Arling of Amaranthine. Fergus would fill them with his own men. That was not negotiable.
There were three vacant lordships within the boundaries of Highever, and no one questioned Fergus' right to assign those as he pleased. The first and greatest was the bannorn of Highever City. That Fergus intended to keep for himself and ultimately for his heir.
Bann Loren's desmesne, Darkencombe, had no heir. The only son was dead in the Highever Massacre, and due to the Orlesians, there was no kin within five degrees.
"I want Ser Naois Gilmore to hold the bannorn," Fergus said. "He's a loyal and sensible man, and distantly related. It's the least I can do to reward his service. As to Greenleaf Forest, where Howe's men killed the bann, my knight Paley Renwick is the nephew. I don't think anyone can reasonably object to him."
Loghain nodded. This was all well and good. Fergus had a right to do as he liked with Highever, and the men proposed were sound. With Amaranthine, however, there was the possibility of a generation of dispute. It was important not to create a pig's breakfast of hostility there.
Bronwyn agreed with him. "I think it's important to appoint men who can get on with Nathaniel," she said. "Men loyal to you, yes, of course: but also tactful men who won't always be at daggers drawn with their Arl."
"I've been thinking about that, too," said Fergus. "That's why I'm giving Naois Loren's desmesne. Better to keep him in Highever, and as far from Amaranthine as possible. He'd never forgive Nathaniel for his father's crimes...for Rory's death. Dan Seyton, though…I think he'll do for Knotwood Hills. The Packtons are dead or fled, and good riddance. Time for new blood there. He's no fool, but he's a bit of a diplomat, and he was with me when we found Tom and poor Delilah. He saw how ugly blind vengeance can be."
That left Hafterhold, Black Marsh, Drake's Fall, and the prime plum amongst them, Amaranthine City. Various names were considered. There was a shortage of noble blood, given the losses of the last year. There was a shortage anyway, never quite made up in the thirty years since the Orlesians were driven out.
"Who will have the city of Amaranthine?" Anora asked. "Such a rich and important place. I take it you do not mean to let it revert to the arling, Fergus?"
"No," Fergus instantly replied. "I want my own man in Amaranthine. Someone I can trust. Furthermore, I think it would be best for the kingdom to have some new blood there, too: someone beholden to no one but us—with no family ties to complicate things. I've been thinking about Adam Hawke."
A silence. Loghain scowled. That opportunistic pretty-boy! A fine warrior, unquestionably, but Loghain was not sure what loyalty Hawke had, save to himself and his family.
"I hardly know him," said Anora. "He is very…charming, of course. He has noble Marcher blood on his mother's side. Lady Amell is a very pleasant woman, and very devoted to her children. The sister, Bethany, is a mage…"
"Splendid girl!" Bryland exclaimed at once. "Saved my Lothar's life, and Alfstanna's, too! A lot of people owe her a great deal."
"That's as may be," said Loghain, "but we were considering her brother's suitability, not hers."
"Adam is very capable," Bronwyn said, partly agreeing with Fergus. She liked the Hawke family, and had no trouble with the idea of doing something for them. Giving them the port city of Amaranthine, however, was a mighty undertaking. "I don't know how much he understands about administration, of course, but perhaps with an experienced seneschal…"
Fergus nodded vigorously. "Adam's a quick study. He's always handled any task given him with dispatch and resourcefulness. And his family links to Kirkwall might help him deal with the Viscount."
"Possibly," Anora said, thinking it over. "He does seem to have a gift for getting on with people."
"Well I think it's a wonderful idea," Bryland declared. "I'll never forget how the late king knighted him on his deathbed. And he stood by Fergus, when we stormed the Cathedral. He's all right. He'll fit in."
Wulffe shrugged. "Can't say I know him well. Seems a decent sort."
Loghain drummed his fingers on the table of the War Room. "Perhaps… " He went on, more decisively. "We don't have to decide the matter today. Why don't we give the fellow a chance to prove himself? Send him up to Amaranthine town and see how he does as a castellan. If he does well settling the place, then he can be rewarded with the title and all."
Fergus liked the idea. "But I'll let him know that the ladies can remain at Highever House. There's no reason to expose them to the troubles up north until things are calmer."
"Better for young Mistress Bethany's patients," Bryland agreed. "Now… what about Denerim?"
Everyone was too mature to simply groan. "Who's the next in blood?' Wulffe asked.
"I've found out," Bryland said, with a certain veiled eagerness. He had a scheme in mind. "Urien had no surviving brothers or sisters, as you know, and his son and daughter predeceased him without issue. Most of the family were killed in the Occupation. The closest relation is hardly that: only a third cousin once removed, with a small freehold out White River way. Urien held himself too high to have anything to do with the family, but they're Kendalls, right enough. The freeholder's a fairly young fellow: Aron Kendalls. Considered a good farmer. There's a younger brother and two little sisters. The parents are both dead, so the oldest brother looks after them all."
"Can he," Anora asked delicately, "read?"
Loghain glowered, and looked up at the ceiling, summoning all his patience. It was unbecoming in a freeholder's granddaughter to be a such a snob.
Bryland blinked. "I really don't know."
Wulffe shrugged. "No law says that's a requirement to hold a title!"
Another silence. Bronwyn's conscience troubled her.
"For the record," she said, "and between these walls, I have reason to believe that Bann Vaughan did indeed have 'issue,' though illegitimate and unacknowledged. He was relentless in his abuse of the elven women in the Alienage, and a number of women bore children that could well be attributed to him, though he scorned to support them in any way."
Wulffe grasped the situation. "That little Warden of yours that Vaughan was so exercised about. Was she one of them?"
"Not Adaia," Bronwyn said hastily, protecting the girl's deepest secret. "Though Vaughan did abduct her from her own wedding, along with all her bridesmaids. Her young husband was killed trying to protect her. Adaia escaped, but the other girls were not so lucky, and some of them died after horrid cruelties. However, Adaia did tell me of Vaughan's frequent depredations, which started when he was quite young. The children, human in appearance as they were, were given to the Chantry."
"You know," Bryland said after a moment, "also between these walls, I thank the Maker every day that Habren's marriage with Vaughan never came off. Ferelden is better off without him. He never would have stopped that kind of indecent goings-on, and he would have ended up with his throat slit by some elf woman's father or brother."
Wulffe snorted. "Or by the little elf girl herself! And serve him right!"
Anora grimaced daintily, refraining from mentioning how repulsive she had always found the man.
"I would hope," Bronwyn said, indignation stirring again, "that whoever takes hold in Denerim will have the decency to do something about the Alienage. It's a disgrace and an embarrassment. We don't have to treat our elves as the Orlesians do. I've met the headman there, and he's a very good sort. Considering what they suffered from a high noble of Ferelden, and considering what we're arranging for the Dalish, I think a few improvements and some kinder treatment of the remaining city elves would not go amiss."
Fergus thought of his ill-gotten gold, and winced. "I can hardly talk, as all my elves are gone."
Bronwyn gave him an odd look. "Actually, you can talk, as you are something of a hero in the Alienage here. They cannot stop talking about the goat you gave them."
"A…goat?" Anora ventured.
"A goat?" Fergus asked, puzzled. Then his brow cleared. "Oh, yes, I remember. That miserable handful of elves not taken by the Tevinters included an infant. I told someone to buy a goat to keep the poor little creature alive on the way back to Denerim."
Anora smiled slightly, thinking what a fine person he was.
"Well," continued Bronwyn, in a slightly teasing way. "It was one of the greatest events in Alienage history. Apparently, Urien's men always confiscated any animals in the Alienage, but the guards were afraid of offending you, and so left the goat alone. Likewise, they've made a habit of destroying any gardens they find. It seems petty to us, but it's a very great misery to the elves."
"Wouldn't want anybody interfering with my gardens," Wulffe muttered.
Loghain frowned thoughtfully. "The Alienage in Gwaren has no such restrictions. Of course the elves need gardens and chickens like everyone else. I can't believe there's anything so ridiculous in the Denerim Alienage edicts."
"I'll have my secretary read them," said Anora lightly. "It is possible that it was simply one of Urien's crochets. Now, let us hear more about this Aron Kendalls…"
There was not much more to tell. Bryland said that he had sent a messenger to the man, telling him to come to Denerim and present himself if he wished to claim his birthright. He had a personal reason in this, which he did not mention to the others. Aron Kendalls was unmarried, and would need an Arlessa. If he was at all presentable, Bryland would take him under his wing and back his claim to the Arling, on the condition that Habren achieve her dearest wish.
She was so miserable, poor girl. She was disappointed and bewildered and lonely without Werberga. He had had to put his foot down and make her understand that she could not come to tonight's feast. It was simply too soon. In a week or two, dressed in mourning, it might be possible for her to attend public gatherings, but not tonight. She had screamed and stormed and thrown things, but the time had come—almost too late, Bryland admitted to himself—to set some limits, for Habren's own good. And if the Kendalls fellow was hopeless... Bryland shrank from the idea of Nathaniel Howe, but he would do as a back-up plan.
They adjourned to change for the feast to follow. They stood, and moved toward the door, still chatting, the conversation changing from matters of state to mere social gossip. It had occurred to Bronwyn that the people here might be interested in what was going on in Redcliffe, and that Teagan might be married by the time he made an appearance. She mentioned that the people of Redcliffe thought it likely that Teagan would soon marry young Kaitlyn Merton, and gave them some of the particulars.
"Merton…Merton…" muttered Arl Wulffe. "You say the girl's related to Babcock of Whitewood Hills? Not much coin there."
"A poor relation, at that. It was my understanding that the girl has nothing of her own. As a distant cousin of the Guerrins, Arl Teagan granted her a small pension and the use of a house for herself and her little brother. She's very young, and very pretty and good-natured."
"Teagan couldn't put it off anymore," Bryland remarked. "High time he did his duty to his family." He had once had hopes of Teagan for Habren, but the man had made his lack of interest all too clear. "It sounds like he chose someone as unlike Arlessa Isolde as possible!"
Loghain nodded, seeing Leonas' point. A sweet and biddable young girl would not test Teagan's temper or flout his decisions. At least she was not a foreigner. And even if Teagan gained an alliance with the elderly Bann of Whitewood Hills by this marriage, it was not of great political value. It appeared to him that Teagan would be coming to the Landsmeet with no power to challenge his own…or that of the Couslands.
With the teyrns and two of the arls united, with another arl under their control, and the added prestige of the Dowager Queen, it seemed unlikely that there would be any significant challenge to the decisions they made behind closed doors in advance of the Landsmeet.
He glanced over and saw Anora and Fergus talking together quietly, standing in front of the big window. He looked again. Anora was looking up at the Teyrn of Highever with softly sparkling eyes. Well… That was good, he supposed. Fergus Cousland was a decent man. Loghain had suggested such a match to Anora, and she, true politician that she was, had taken his advice to heart. She was playing her part extremely well. Had the man been anyone but Fergus Cousland, the most eligible noble in Ferelden, Loghain would have thought her interest in him sincere. A faint smile came to his lips. Then he looked at her again, his certainty shaken a little. Anora did seem sincere…
Bronwyn was looking at the pair in the front of the window, her brows contracted in puzzlement. Abruptly her face cleared, and she glanced at Loghain, a bit surprised.
"I see," she said softly. "Well… I shall join you at dinner later. It's going to be a great affair, it seems."
"Yes, unfortunately. You'll want to wear something other than Grey Warden garb."
"I shall." She gave him an almost mischievous look. "You'll see how much I can not look like a Grey Warden tonight!" She lowered her voice, "And thank you for my ring. It's beautiful."
He looked at her oddly, not quite smiling. "Then it suits you. I thought it would."
Leliana, already lovely in her blue and lavender gown, came in to Bronwyn's room to arrange her hair and help her dress. She had an entire box of hairpins with her. She then began to fuss over Bronwyn like a bride's mother.
"We'll do your hair up tonight," Leliana decreed. "Very elegant; very dignified. It will be necessary with the high collar of the capelet."
Bronwyn sat still while Leliana worked her own sort of magic. Morrigan came in and watched for awhile, smirking, but saying nothing. The braiding and the coiling and pinning and the curling seemed to take forever, but at last the bard was satisfied, and stepped back.
"And now for your gown."
Bronwyn dressed as if she were arming for battle, every piece just so. The silk stockings, the lacy garters, a slim and elegant dagger strapped in its sheath to her right calf, the shining new ankle boots of black Antiva leather, the silken gown, the gold belt studded with pearls. Leliana looked at her critically, smoothing the gown, and then the black velvet capelet was settled on her shoulders and pinned with the dragon brooch. The upstanding collar brushed the sides of her jaw, framing her face.
"And now for the best part. Look what the jeweler Pandelin made for you!"
A gleaming, fragile object was pushed into her hair, the front resting gently on her forehead. Leliana teased out some curling tendrils of hair very carefully, and then held up a mirror for her to see.
"Oh, that is nice!"
Bronwyn liked the elaborate headpiece very much. It was not a crown or a coronet, nor was it a tiara. It was, however, a very beautiful, very delicate ornament of gold and silver swirls, set with a glowing ruby that rested on her brow like a dragon's eye. It did not make a closed circle in the back, but nestled into her hair at the sides, She could braid her hair, or simply wear it down. Wearing this, she would always look quite grand. It was not improper or vainglorious to wear such a piece of jewelry, and Bronwyn thought it gave her a touch of gravity or...what? Mystery?
She turned her head, studying the effect in the mirror. It was not so heavy that it would give her a headache, but it looked very rich. She had given Leliana a brief description of her idea, Leliana had talked to the jeweler, and this had come out of it. It would go well with her ruby dragon brooch and her crimson gown. The effect would be striking.
She had never seen Anora wear red. Bright red was a very expensive Antivan dye, made from a shellfish that lived in Rialto Bay, and was difficult to obtain in Ferelden. Blue and greens—even yellows and purples were easier to come by. In fact, women rarely wore red at all. She might well be the only woman at the feast in a red gown. The thought made her feel...powerful.
She swept out, meeting her Wardens and her friends, who waited in the Hall. A rustle of astonishment greeted her, and impressed stares. The Junior Wardens whispered among themselves.
Zevran bowed gallantly.
"Noble one, you are in every way a queen tonight!"
Anders grinned at Morrigan, who rolled her eyes.
"Come on," he teased in a murmur, "She looks beautiful!"
"'Tis too good for the man in question, indeed!"
"Spoilsport! And you're looking seriously beautiful yourself!"
Morrigan preened, knowing it was true, and took Anders' arm with a scornful smile, following Bronwyn to the Palace.
A herald and attendant guards were stationed at the door, inspecting the guests carefully. There would be no repeat of the disaster at the Arl of Denerim's wedding. Bronwyn glanced into the Hall, impressed at the effort that had gone into making this a night to remember. Colorful banners, each painted with the arms of the Crown or one of the noble houses of Ferelden, hung silken from the vaulted ceiling. The tables were laid with white napery, silver goblets and plates, and wreaths of autumn flowers. Candles shone their golden light everywhere. Handsome bronze salt cellars, wrought in the form of fantastic beasts, had been taken from the royal treasury, and each table was adorned with one of them. It appeared that the one at the Queen's table was a dragon.
After her brief glimpse, the herald shunted the rest of the Wardens off to an usher, who would see them to their proper seats. Bronwyn was led to an antechamber, where Fergus, Bryland, and Wulffe were aready gathered, chuckling over their wine. They too, seemed impressed and pleased at her appearance.
"My dear Bronwyn!" Bryland exclaimed. "You look exactly as you should."
"Better than that," Wulffe said amiably.
"Out to make more conquests tonight?" Fergus teased. He leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Loghain told me he sent you a ring."
She raised her hand for his inspection. "He sent it to me this morning. You didn't notice it at the our council, and I didn't want to be like horrible Hab—a silly person, waving my hand about, shrieking, "Look what I got!"
"What did you get?" Bryland asked eagerly, overhearing her last words.
Fergus bit back his laughter. "Her betrothal ring."
Bronwyn felt herself grow red as her gown, and indeed lifted up her hand for their general approval, feeling ridiculous.
In a few moments, The Queen entered with Loghain. There was a pause as the two women took each other's measure.
Anora was rather taken aback. Having seen Bronwyn only in armor, Warden's tunic, or a rather dowdy grey gown, she had not quite grasped how splendid she could look when properly groomed and dressed. Red. Anora did not much like red, and had never thought of wearing it. A mistake, clearly. The color was absolutely riveting. The contrasting black velvet capelet made Bronwyn look very authoritative, and the ruby-set headdress, while not a crown, made her seem already a queen. She had not realized that Bronwyn was so striking a young woman. Of course, she was very tall, and that always drew the eye. With a flicker of vexation, she suspected that all eyes would be on her successor tonight. Very astute of her, of course. It was a good move, politically speaking. Most of the nobles collecting for the feast tonight had never seen Bronwyn at all, or last seen her when she was hardly more than a child. This first impression was vital. Anora glanced at her father, and was further vexed at the look on his face.
In her turn, Bronwyn considered the beautiful blonde woman with fresh eyes. Anora looked quite lovely tonight. Since that dose of Sacred Ashes, Anora seemed years younger: her complexion fresh as a young girl's, her sapphire eyes bright and unshadowed, her hair pure, fine gold. She was in a magnificent blue gown that became her wonderfully well. And Bronwyn had not missed the way that the Queen and her brother looked at each other. Everyone had described Fergus' rescue of the Queen as a most romantic exploit. Was Anora to be the next Teyrna of Highever?
Bronwyn had no right to stand in their way. Fergus had suffered so much, lost so much, that anything that would make good his heartache must be welcomed. And he would be a far better husband to Anora that King Cailan had been. That, of course, begged the question: would Anora be a good wife to Fergus? Of that, Bronwyn could not be certain. She would certainly not be the same kind of wife that Oriana had been.
After a curious, brief pang of memory, Loghain took a deep pleasure in looking at Bronwyn, He felt proud, approving, really and truly delighted that once again she had risen to a challenge and surpassed all expectations. Everyone in attendance tonight would look at her and see a Queen. And not just any Queen, but a strong and beautiful woman who worked tirelessly for the good of her country. How like Rowan she was!
Still, he had felt it; that moment of painful remembrance. He remembered the night after the victory in Gwaren when he had met Rowan listlessly wandering the streets, garbed in a fine gown of just that blood-red color, heartbroken at Maric's faithlessness. He had said all he could, given her all the validations that love and respect could offer, hoping to comfort her. She had resisted him then, but had come to him at last on that dark journey through the Deep Roads. That gown of crimson silk Bronwyn wore he took as a sign: this was the right woman at the right time; this was the woman he would not let get away; this was the woman who ought to be Ferelden's Queen.
The door opened again, and Nathaniel Howe stepped in, clothed in black. Of course he would sit with the queen and the high nobles. It would not do to isolate or foolishly antagonize him. Rather, it was best to start assimilating him into their ranks; making him one of them, making their decisions his decisions. Howe bowed to the Queen, silent and grave, his eyes briefly widening as he looked at Bronwyn.
Bronwyn felt the brief, unspoken compliment, and smiled mischievously at the clouds gathering in Loghain's face. He had not missed Howe's expression either. He gave her his arm with a certain possessiveness, and they followed Fergus and Anora into the Hall, excited voices rising at their entrance like a vast flock of ravens taking wing.
Scout was snoring again. Bronwyn slowly opened her eyes to the dim grey light seeping through the shutters. A thin shaft of light illuminated the golden bowl, set high on her half-empty bookshelf. The gleam must have awakened her. She tried to settle back to sleep again, but the vague memory of unpleasant dreams made that distasteful. Soon her mind was racing, thinking over the events of the night before. It had been a great success— of a sort—she supposed. They had been paraded out, they had dined, she had been recognized and honored, but it was all a blur. Too much had happened at once. She had been hungry, but had eaten moderately and carefully, hungry and half-empty, painfully aware that all eyes were on her, and loath to gain a reputation as a glutton. People did not understand about Grey Warden appetites, and the truth of it was a secret of the Order.
She sat between Loghain and Wulffe, which was fine. She could always find something to talk about to Wulffe, who in fact wanted to know all about the Hawke family. Hardly unreasonable, if they were destined for the Landsmeet. So she told him about the noble mother, the knightly son, the mage sister, the Warden brother—whom she knew best—and the girl she knew least, the cousin.
"Not a mage, is she?" Wulffe asked. "That's the one down there, with the curls? Pretty lass. Now let me see if I understand you: the mother's brother had the title, but he's exiled and dead, and now the mother has it? What about the daughter?"
"I don't claim to understand that myself. There were hints that the uncle was not the proper heir and that the mother should have had it all along. It hardly matters, I suppose, since they've lost their land and fortune in the Free Marches. The girl has no dowry, but she's quite brave and venturesome, to have spirited her ailing father away from the assassins and all the way to Lothering. She seems very nice."
"No dowry now, to be sure," Wulffe said thoughtfully, "but if her cousin becomes Bann, he'd no doubt do something for her."
Nobles and their eternal matchmaking. Bronwyn could giggle over it now, in the privacy of her bed. She wondered if Wulffe was considering Charade for one of his sons. Just as there was a shortage of noble heirs, there was always a shortage of attractive potential spouses for them.
Loghain had spoken to to her softly, now and then, careful not to say anything that enemies could seize on. Bronwyn understood why. Some agents were trained to read lips. One had to be careful. Once or twice, his hand had slipped into hers, or he had gently laid his hand on her thigh. Once he had murmured into her ear that she should always wear red. His attentions, like the dinner, were enough to whet her appetite, but not enough to satisfy. The difference was that she could beg some bread and cheese from Mistress Rannelly later.
Loghain had promised that they would be together in Denerim, but that so far had not come to pass. They had parted after the feast last night with disappointing propriety.
But Loghain had kissed her hand, and shot her a glance from under his black brows that had given her a pleasurable thrill. She had hoped he would do more, but practically every noble in Denerim was looking at them at the moment, and Loghain had made clear that he would have no scandal cloud her name. It was frustrating, but after some consideration, she did see his point. Most people were reasonable about such things, but some were not; and those people often had the power to be troublesome.
The Grand Cleric was of course such a person. No member of the Chantry had been present last night, but Bronwyn had no doubt that someone there would report every detail to her. Bann Alfstanna was a decent person and a fine ruler of her bannorn, but she was very, very devout and had a brother among the Templars. For that matter, Alfstanna herself had made her own views on the importance of chastity very well known. She was not alone in such expressed views, though Bronwyn tended to think the others were hypocrites. Alfstanna actually lived her principles.
All the same, Loghain seemed to be able to set her aside without visible signs of reluctance. That was worrying.
She turned her head toward her writing table, and saw the unanswered letters from her brother Wardens rebuking her for her sloth. She really must answer them in the next few days, and attempt to do so tactfully. That might not be entirely possible in the case of the First Warden.
Their general message was clear: no Wardens would be coming to help them. Bronwyn lay in bed, giving that a little more thought. There was good and bad in the situation, looked at objectively.
Loghain distrusted foreigners, and would not welcome foreign members of an independent military order. He would regard them as spies, or at best as meddlers. He would not be the only one. Father had often commented on how much Fereldans hated outsiders. Some parts of the country were worse than the others. Denerim and the Coastlands might have the flexibility to cope with foreign accents, but the Bannorn was notoriously insular, and as for West Hills or Gwaren! So there was that. If no foreigners came, Bronwyn would not have to constantly smooth the feathers of her countrymen.
On the other hand, their supply of Archdemon blood, provided by Riordan and Fiona, was nearly gone. She could prepare Joinings for ten more recruits at most, and that was stretching the supply. Eight was more realistic, and of those, how many would survive? Four? Five?
The Warden's Compound was decently supplied, but not for fifty Wardens. Her funds were not unlimited, either. She must sit down with the account books and see if the tithes were paid up. If not, that would be a depressing and vexing task to add to her duties at the upcoming Landsmeet. It also would do nothing to inspire support for her claim. Where else could she find help for her Wardens? Where might there be more supplies? She had seen all the little cache in the Market District had to offer. She had inventoried the supplies here at the Compound. The Warden Post at Ostagar was a ruin. What else was there?
Quite out of nowhere, she remembered a conversation some months ago with that annoying trader...Dryden...Dryden. What was the first name?
Levi. Levi Dryden. He wanted her to go to Soldier's Peak, the ancient Warden fortress on the Coast. It had been abandoned for two hundred years, and thus was not likely to be full of foodstuffs, but there might be something there. How long did those preservation spells the mages used last? At the very least, some books or records might have survived to help her. She had put the Dryden fellow off, what with Howe's rebellion, but if the rebellion raged no longer...
She must have a look at her maps. How long would it take to get there? It was not nearly so far as Highever. Dryden had implied that he could guide her there. She could not remember his address in Denerim, but she had written it down somewhere. Perhaps it would not be a bad idea to speak again with this scion of the formerly noble Drydens.
She sat up, stretching, rather excited to have a new plan. If she was not very careful, she would be trapped in an endless treadmill of insipid and meaningless court functions. She would write the man a note, and tell him to present himself as soon as possible—today if he could!
What else? She slid off the bed, opened the shutters, and dug through her papers, looking for the notes on the "Unbound." She would take a walk to Stealcopper Court, just as soon as she and some of her friends had breakfasted, and speak to this Vilhm Madon. A bit of exercise was just what she needed.
"'...And when his kingdom fell, so disappeared the stolen riches of an age. The beast, the Unbound, lies dormant until one of true spirit claims his throne. So must hunt the hero of his people, the principled one who would search for ancient evil. This is how they can make a real difference...'"
The Wardens at the breakfast table listened, entranced.
Bronwyn looked up from the crumbling journal, pleased at their interest. "There's more. Whoever last owned this had collected clues from all sorts of places. Here's a later parchment he slipped inside:
'...The riders follow after every town, ever since my lucky break deciphering the story. I see it now, how they take the locals closest to me, preventing rest or kinship. I thought this a road to glory, but I am dogged at every step by his talons. Gaxkang: curse his name and the day I heard it...'"
"Gaxxkang!" Carver repeated. "What a name!"
A ripple of amusement. The dwarf Soren looked up from his fascinating surface bread and honey, and muttered, "I swear I've heard it somewhere."
Bronwyn smiled, and said, "This was scribbled at the bottom of the page a little way on:
'Three pages, three ages. Same story, updated.
Same as the tavern song, but older!
Signature torn on purpose, but compare and get "Vilhm Madon".
All from him! How?"
"Vilhm Madon?" snorted Anders. "It sounds like an anagram!"
"Of what?" queried Morrigan, very scornful. "Man Hold Vim? Is that any better?"
Leliana burst out laughing.
"What is an anagram?" Cathair whispered to Toliver.
"No idea," the human mumbled around his porridge.
Zevran considered, and his face brightened, "How about 'Lad Hmm Vino?'"
"Or 'Divan Hmm Lo,'" suggested Jowan, wanting to join in the fun.
"This is silly," muttered Aveline, disapproving of the nonsense.
"All right, all right," Bronwyn raised her voice, calling them to order. "Anything can be a name. I have no idea where this Vilhm Madon Divan Vino is from. At some point he lived in Stealcopper Court here in Denerim, according to this person's notes. He might be dead or long gone, so I thought I would go there and find out. If he no longer lives in the house, the current tenant may know something. Oh...by the way, another piece of parchment is inserted in the journal. Listen to this:
'...You asked, so I'm telling you. Don't go. The stories talk of the riches, but never the names, never where they supposedly spent their wealth. I heard the same tales as a lad in Denerim, felt the same pull, but it's a lie, son. They may paint a trail, but once you're on it, does it lead to the beast or back to you?'"
"I'm in," said Anders, thumping down his cup. "Let's go call on Anagram Man. Ask him about..." he sniggered, "Gaxxkang."
Morrigan raised her brows, looking skeptical, but Anders patted her arm. "It's be fun! Stealcopper Court is on this side of the river, so it's not a long walk. Then we can take the Dock Bridge across and go to the Market."
"Very well," Morrigan generously consented. "I wish to visit The Wonders of Thedas again. I have not yet finished browsing through their selection of books."
Zevran got up to find his armor. "I shall go, naturally."
"We can't all go," Bronwyn declared. "Leliana, I'm leaving you in command of the Compound. I sent a message to a fellow named Levi Dryden to pay us a visit. He approached me a few months ago about the old Warden fortress up on the coast. Wanted me to go there and see what's left. Now that Rendon Howe is gone and my brother controls the Coastlands, I'm inclined to take him up on his idea. Most traders are settling in for the winter now, so there's a good chance he's at home. If he shows up, keep him here until I return. I shouldn't be gone long."
"Wear your armor," Zevran urged, his voice low. "Just in case the trail has led 'back to you.'"
"Yes," Leliana agreed for different reasons. "You should wear your armor and be seen by the people."
Stealcopper Court was nearly as disgusting as the Alienage. It was a back alley of ramshackle buildings, stinking of dead cats and rotten vegetables, of piss and fermented shit. It had rained during the night, and puddles of water— or some sort of water-like substance— reflected the tentative sunshine.
"Ugh!" Morrigan groaned. "I have stepped in something!"
"When you lived in the Wilds," Anders pointed out mildly, "you stepped in 'something' all the time."
Her face grew stony. "'Tis hardly the same thing. Who would live in such a place as this? Bronwyn, have you mistaken the house?"
"No..." Bronwyn replied, amused. "This is the one. Look! It's even conveniently marked with the initials 'VM.' I hope Master Vino Divan is at home."
"'Tis a hovel!" Morrigan sneered. Bronwyn kept her smile unseen. Morrigan's standards had certainly gone up since leaving the very hovelish hovel she had shared with Flemeth.
It was early, but heads poked out of neighboring windows and doors, curious and fearful about the presence of a band of well-dressed and well-armed people with a mabari.
Bronwyn put her hand to the rusted knocker and rapped smartly.
"Hello? I would speak with Vilhm Madon."
No response. The sound echoed in the courtyard, Bronwyn glanced about her, a little self-conscious about the interest she had aroused. If no one answered here, she would bear down on some of the gawkers and ask if they had ever heard of Vilhm Madon. Surely someone...
She slammed the knocker down again, annoyed.
"I am Warden-Commander Bronwyn Cousland! I've come to ask about Gaxxkang the Unbound! Be good enough to open!"
The lock clicked. Anders gingerly extended his staff, and pushed the door open. Bronwyn wrinkled her nose at the musty odor filtering out. Scout put down his head, and growled.
"I believe the dog," said Zevran instantly.
"As do I," Morrigan said, hefting her staff.
"Well, come on." Warily, Bronwyn stepped over the threshold.
Inside was a hovel indeed. The filthy room, its one window covered with thick oiled parchment, was nearly unfurnished save for the ruins of a priceless Antivan carpet. The light was dim, and provided mostly by the fire in the hearth. Needing a moment to let her eyes adjust to the gloom, Bronwyn had just enough time to catch her breath and consider the man standing before her.
Neither old nor young, but somehow ageless, he was waiting, hands behind his back, quite at his ease. He was not dressed poorly, but his garments were...unusual. He wore the cowl of a mage, but also a heavy bronze gorget protecting his throat, bronze bracers at his wrists, and a jerkin reinforced with metal strips. The style was an old-fashioned one, dating from long before the Orlesian invasion.
His face was perfectly ordinary. No one seeing him would remember him a moment later. Clean-shaven...almost too clean-shaven. His skin was sickly pale, and his eyebrows nearly invisible. His voice, however, was clear and resonant.
"Grey Warden, isn't it? Strange that you would force such a visit in a time of Blight. I suppose I'm used to inspiring a different kind of seeker."
"Bronwyn," Anders warned her, on a thread of breath. "That's not human."
Zevran smirked, his daggers already in his hands. "Not that it matters to me."
Scout crouched, ready to spring. With a curious, uneasy jolt, it occurred to Bronwyn that perhaps she had made something of an error. Vilhm Madon was not simply a storyteller. He was—
She licked her lips, and said quietly, "Your stories attract them. And then they disappear."
The...man?...chuckled, ominously smug. "I encourage fools to waste their lives in fantasy. The adequate ones find the gems I left as beacons, and then I find them. But you," he said, eyeing her with a certain admiration. "You are already brighter that the signal at Ishal. Eyes are on you from a very high vantage, Grey Warden. I cannot hide in your wake, but I will not be a footnote! Witness Gaxxkang!"
Could light be black? There was a shock, as if the air had somehow turned inside out, and Bronwyn experienced an instant of total blindness. She blinked, drawing her blades, and found her herself facing a demon.
Scout leaped, going for the attenuated legs. Morrigan screamed out a curse, staff sparking. Anders' arms were lifted, his head tilted back as he shouted his own incantation. A burst of frost from the demon, and Bronwyn choked, unable to breathe.
What kind of demon was this? The horrid skeletal teeth occupied half its face. Its grotesque, emaciated arms ended in ragged claws. It glowed redly from within, and cast powerful spells, draining her strength and will. Perhaps it was something like that dreadful emanation in the Elven Temple: hideous, ancient, and strong.
Scout leaped again, trying to come to grips with the monster. Bronwyn managed to suck in some frigid air, and shouted wordless defiance, waving her sword to fix the creature's attention. Somehow, Zevran had slipped behind it, and with a cry of delight, buried his daggers in its bony back.
The demon reared, flung out its arms, and they were all knocked back by a blast of raw power. Bronwyn slammed into the crumbling wattle-and-daub wall, and brushed away dust and debris, scrambling to her feet, wanting to find out who was hurt, and saw—
—that the demon had changed form. It was now a Revenant: an entity she had also seen in the Elven Temple. This was the mighty apparition of a warrior clad in ancient winged helmet and heavy plate. It wielded a frosty blue longsword that shrilled out a song of death as the blade swung down on Anders.
Bronwyn flung herself forward, and caught the blade on her own. The revenant's blade bit into hers deeply. locking the two swords together. Its weapon was clearly better than hers.
"Maker's Breath!" she shouted, and stabbed with her off-hand dagger, piercing into the unnatural flesh at the joining of the neck and the head.
Another violent shock, and she was once again knocked back. Scout squealed in agony, maddening her. The demon had changed back to its first form, that of a monstrous mage. Morrigan was hurt, her left arm hanging oddly, but her yellow eyes were aflame. She matched the demon, ice for ice, and the creature slowed, glittering with frost.
Zevran threw his arms around the thing, and his daggers crunched through the ribs. He twisted them, his handsome face distorted into a rictus of effort, and was hoisted off his feet. Another blast of magical power knocked him back and slammed him down. Bones snapped, and Brownyn heard a muffled cry of pain.
The demon was a warrior again, its dreadful sword lifted like a scythe, ready to mow them all down. It could not be stopped; could not be parried. The blow fell, the sword keening triumphantly. Bronwyn rolled aside, her armor protecting her from the splintered floor. Spells flashed behind her head, and she saw the too-white light in her peripheral vision.
"A-a-a-gh!" she screamed, stabbing upwards, her notched blade biting into the massive demonic sinews. The revenant stumbled, its knee giving way. Anders avoided the slash—almost. Flecks of scarlet from his torn upper arm painted the wall behind him. He shouted out another curse, paralyzing the weakened demon. Morrigan, hoarse with fury, drained the creature's mana, while a crippled, whining Scout seized the creature's sword arm in his jaws. Bronwyn scuttled out of the way of the demon's fall, and grabbed it by its bony jaw. Gritting her teeth, she drew her dagger across its throat, slicing deep through undead cartilage. The creature whistled and squealed, and then fell forward, dragging Bronwyn along with it. She slid over the armored back, head first, her helmet's wings taking the brunt of the impact.
For a moment she lay stunned, draped over the revenant's back. Already as cold as a corpse, the creature's stink redoubled as it rapidly deliquesced. Centuries of decay, too long deferred, were made up in minutes. Even its armor crumbled away, no longer sustained by magic. Bronwyn slid away, gagging, and to her dazed confusion, she heard a smattering of applause.
Looking up, she saw a ring of shabby locals peering through the doorway. Evidently, they had enjoyed the spectacle. Some of them. Others were puking into the straggling weeds by the doorway. It did not much improve the smell.
"That's my neighbor!" shrilled a woman. "He's...all runny."
"Reckon he was a demon," mused her sister. "Can't say I'm surprised. That mean he was—wouldn't lend me so much as a needle or a cup of meal. Well done, Grey Wardens!"
"Those are mages," a man muttered. "You'd best mind yourselves."
The first woman shoved him aside, eager to see better. "If they're killing demons as was hiding themselves amongst decent folk, they're all right with me."
Staggering to her feet, Bronwyn managed a grimace at the spectators.
"Anders, are you all right? Can you do some healing? Everybody's hurt."
"I noticed. Me, too." Anders sat up and began casting. At the blue flash of light, there was a general withdrawal and some awed cries of "Ooooooo!"
Cuts and bruises, mostly, though Zevran had a broken collarbone and Morrigan a broken left arm. Scout whimpered until Anders healed his bleeding wounds, and now there were cries of "Awwwwww!" as the dog licked the Healer's hand.
Bronwyn shook her head, then stopped, since it hurt. On the floor lay the longsword wielded by the revenant. It was quite the weapon. A little way off lay the discarded shield. She picked it up and hefted it. It must be magical, for it seemed the perfect weight and balance for her. Apparently, they had been the only real things about Gaxxkang the Unbound.
"That's the Girl Warden," another neighbor whispered. "I seen her red armor when she rode into the city." There was more applause, conscientiously loyal. Bronwyn wondered if she was expected to bow and make a speech.
The first woman edged into the room. "I wonder if I could get this house, now that Master Madon's gone. It looks bigger than mine." She asked Bronwyn, "You mind if I take a look?"
Such infernal impudence could not be tolerated, even when suffering a headache like the one raging in Bronwyn's skull.
"Please step out for now," she managed. "Yes, out there. We need to check the house for more demons. Don't touch the remains until they're done decomposing. " With another false smile, she eased the woman over the threshold and shut the door.
"What in the Maker's name," wondered Anders, "was that creature? Two forms? Even if it was a possessed mage, how did manage two different forms? That was just...wrong!"
Morrigan frowned, intrigued by the puzzle. "Perhaps the mage was a shape-shifter in the beginning. Surely it could not be that he was possessed by two demons at once. It is likely we shall never know."
Zevran was sitting up, and now looked much better. He tilted his head at the sword on the floor. It still glowed blue. "Have a look at it, my Warden," he suggested. "It's a fine weapon. Dragonbone, I think."
"Be careful," rasped Morrigan, glaring at Zevran, still clutching at her rapidly healing arm.
Bronwyn laid her gloved fingers on the hilt, and even through the thick leather, she sensed a thrill of magic. Gripping it, she felt something trickle up her warm, like a spider web of connection. The blade seemed content with her, hoping for great deeds to come.
"There's writing on the blade," she murmured, catching the firelight along the length of it. Yes, it was dragonbone, and very, very old. "I can't make it out."
Anders craned his neck to look up at it. "It's Arcanum. The Keening Blade. That's the name. Let me check it out before you use it in a fight, all right?"
Zevran rose, testing his limbs to make sure everything worked. Satisfied, he began exploring the tiny house.
Behind the front room was a little alcove, containing a bed and an elaborate chest. Zevran played with the lock, while the rest of them looked over his shoulder.
The lid was pushed back, revealing the contents. Scout nosed under their arms for a sniff, and seem to find the loot neither menacing nor particularly interesting. The other companions were more impressed.
"He tempted them with jewels, he said," smirked Zevran, "And what jewels, indeed! There is gold, too!" He raised his hands in wonder. "Why do all these powerful beings live in such squalor? Had I such power and wealth I would prefer a palace. With beautiful women!"
"No doubt," Morrigan dismissed him, intent on the treasure.
"Those gloves..." said Anders, examining them. "I think they may be enchanted."
It was best to divide the loot on the spot. The gloves fit Anders, and thus fell to his share. Not wishing to be selfish, Bronwyn urged Zevran to see if The Keening Blade suited him. He touched it briefly, and withdrew his hand with a hiss.
"I think...not. The sword has chosen its owner, and has no use for me."
The fine shield, Anders told Bronwyn, was named "Fade Wall," and also appeared to have magical qualities. They agreed to take both sword and shield back to the Compound for evaluation. Bronwyn had not used a shield regularly, but this one was so excellent, so perfect for her, so suitable, in a word, that she began to consider changing her fighting style, or at least keeping the shield with her in case the situation merited it.
"If I keep these weapons," Bronwyn pointed out, "then it is only fair that the gold and jewels be yours."
Morrigan selected the most remarkable piece for her own: an emerald brooch of antique make, the grass-green stone carved with the face of a woman. After some good-natured chaffering, the loot was divided and hidden on their persons. Gaxxkang and his armor were now nothing but a roughly man-shaped pile of dust on the floor. It was time to face the community of Stealcopper Court.
They opened the door to more applause, more cries of "Maker bless you, Girl Warden!"
They nodded and smiled their way through the crowd. The local women had already fetched their cleaning gear. Bronwyn's last glimpse of Gaxxkang's little hovel was of one woman flicking dust out the doorway with her broom, while another washed it into the gutter with a pail of dirty water.
Thanks to my reviewers: Zute, Anime-StarWars-fan-zach, JackOfBladesX, Phygmalion, Rexiselic, Judy, KnightOfHolyLight, Nemrut, Blinded in a bolthole, Jenna53, Chandagnac, Mike 3207, almostinsane, Josie Lange, Hydroplatypus, Oleander's One, Girl-chama, darksky01, Shakespira, SageofAges729, Herebedragons66, lemonjay Psyche Sinclair, Rexiselic, Ms Barrows, and Tsu Doh Nimh.
Aron Kendalls and his family do not figure in my other story, The Keening Blade, as heirs of the arling of Denerim, because they were all killed when the horde marched up from the south.