The journey to Vigil's Keep had indeed been long and arduous. What strength Aeryn Cousland had left was spent on clearing out the last pockets of Darkspawn resistance in the fortress proper and then tending to the Joining of her fellow companions-at-arms. Anders, a quick-witted escaped Circle Mage, had seemed a strong enough candidate for the Grey Wardens, as had her old friend Oghren—but when the petite Mhairi lifted the giant chalice to her lips, Aeryn had a brief yet telling premonition that the woman would not survive the test.
As the young woman's lifeless body crumpled to the ground, she knew what she had foreseen was no coincidence. The Darkspawn blood that now coursed through her veins had given her access to certain uncanny abilities to predict the future… though she had shared this knowledge with no one.
Not even Zevran.
After the coronation of King Alistair, the elf had left without so much as a simple goodbye—probably to spare her a painful departure, she surmised—or even a hastily scribbled note to explain his intentions. Though he had no need to declare them; Aeryn already knew. The Antivan Crows had deployed more of their number to procure his death for defecting from their faction. They had fought about the matter many times, though never to any reasonable conclusion.
So he had just left… unannounced.
In the months afterward, she had thrown herself headily into her work, seeking to fill the void left in his absence. She had gathered much support from all corners of Ferelden. And still it had not been enough to erase the memory of him.
This thought weighed heavily on her mind as she climbed into bed the next night in the royal chamber of Vigil's Keep, the mighty fortress that had once fallen under the rule of Arl Rendon Howe, last of the lords of Amaranthine. The room had been remodeled to cater more to the tastes of Seneschal Varel, the interim leader appointed to see to the fortress' day-to-day affairs. As such, it was excessively beige—Varel's favorite color, apparently—and both bright and hot, with fire from the hearth saturating each of the four walls. Cluttered with antiques from a bygone age, the room would have been welcoming were it not for the overlarge portrait of Rendon Howe mounted adjacent to the four-poster bed—apparently a minor oversight in the post-Blight renovations.
She found herself staring up at his beady black eyes and pinched nose with the covers pulled up to her neck, withering under his appraising stare. Although it was only a painting, the resemblance was uncanny. It made her uncomfortable to look into the eyes of the man she had so haplessly dispatched almost six months ago. His dying words called to her still…
"Maker spit on you. I deserved… more!"
She wrinkled her nose in disgust as the face scowled down upon her from its elevated position. She had almost made the mistake of taking pity on Howe during his last moments, but the memory of Bryce and Eleanor's faces had crept, unbidden, into her thoughts with nary a minute to spare. Her grip on her weapon, which had faltered, tightened. It was then she found the strength to do what she should have done a long time ago.
What she would do again, a thousand times over, were she ever again to be given the chance.
Howe's eyes penetrated her thoughts that night as her eyes fluttered closed, lured by the promise of sleep. The last thing she saw before the world around her turned to darkness was the light from the hearth dancing shadows upon the walls.
She was roughly jarred awake by the weight of another's body on her own, suffocating her. Two meaty hands tightened around her throat, momentarily cutting off her air supply. As the hands continued to choke the life out of her, strengthening in force, she gazed into the pale blue-grey eyes of the man who was about to kill her. He had a look of murderous rage etched onto his steely features and an aura of familiarity about him. In some strange, half-defined way, it seemed to her that she had seen a face similar to his before. It was a strong face, despite looking too thin. The lips were firm and tightly drawn together, the nose hooked and a trifle thick. The expressive eyes that stormed with an angry fire seemed to be seeking something, hunting for a sign of unsettlement from her. She gave none, nor moved at all, save to lace her hands around his iron grip. At last she was able to choke out a word, gurgling for breath.
"You'll die first," the voice whispered in a tone that was equal parts honey and venom. The softly accented drawl seemed to indicate the attacker was a Fereldan, though in this state it was difficult to tell.
Her nails dug into his flesh, drawing enough blood to cause him to yelp and release her. Freed from his grip, she flung herself out of bed at breakneck speed, grabbing a dagger from the jeweled scabbard that lay on a side table. Only a thin chemise covered her, leaving very little to the imagination. There was no doubt in her mind that he could see every curve of her body through the sheer material, though that was not her concern at the moment. Right now, staying alive was all that mattered. And from the look on her perpetrator's face, he was determined to do all within his power to kill her.
From his position across the room, he advanced on her, his tousled black hair falling into his eyes even as he struggled to sweep it back off his face. Aeryn backed up until the edge of an ill-placed couch hit her behind the knees, and then she could move no further. She concealed the dagger in her hand, waiting for the right moment.
It came a second later when he lunged for her, grasping her waist and holding her still. One fist knotted in her hair, and he used it to yank her head back, pushing her against the wall. This close, she could smell his faint masculine aura, a pleasant mix of musk, leather gear, and a subtle, earthy scent.
Aeryn wasted no time; the tiny blade found purchase in the area between his shoulder and pectoral muscle and sliced diagonally upward. He howled in pain, momentarily dazed by the blow. As his grip relaxed, she sidled out from under him and ran for the door.
In the nick of time, the door burst open, revealing a very harried-looking Anders, his flaxen hair in complete disarray as though he had just awakened from a restless sleep. He grasped his intricate staff tightly in one hand and was using it to aim a volley of spells in the man's direction. He was thrown off his feet almost instantly and landed nearby with his head against the back of the couch.
"And here I thought I was going to play hero," Anders declared, sounding semi-disappointed at the sight of the bleeding man. "From the looks of things, I'd say you had it handled."
"Nearly," Aeryn said with a gasp, rubbing her neck. "A minute later and I'd have been a goner for sure. I suppose thanks are in order."
"Oh, you know. Anytime. And when someone's trying to stab me in the back, I'd expect you to do the same. One hand washes the other… know what I mean?"
Aeryn rolled her eyes and sheathed the tiny dagger in the bedside scabbard before turning around to face the mage. He was wearing a set of gold and blue robes adorned with feathers and had even managed to pull on gauntlets and boots in his haste to rescue her from her attacker.
"So… just what were you doing, sneaking around my room so fortuitously?"
"Sneaking? No, not me! I don't sneak. Stroll, perhaps… meander about, even… but not sneak. Honestly, I'm hurt."
"Oh, cut the crap and tell me what you were doing."
"Well, you see…" He wrung his hands and kept his eyes focused on the ground. "Ser Pounce-a-lot wanted a spot of warm milk to drink before bedtime…"
Aeryn rolled her eyes. Ever since gifting the apostate mage with the little kitten earlier that night, he had developed an almost unhealthy attachment to it, showering it with love, affection, and treats. Although she had only recently become acquainted with Anders, if she had to guess, she would have said he was not much of a soft touch. In the conniving hands—paws—of the kitten, however, he was putty.
"I should have guessed it had something to do with that mangy, flea-bitten animal."
"He's not mangy!" the apostate trilled, sounding extremely offended. "Don't you listen to her, Ser Pounce-a-lot!"
The orange tabby cat mewled plaintively in response, having crept up from behind the door to circle through Anders' legs and back again, its back in a high arch and its striped fur fluffed.
"Enough of that. What do we do about our friend here?" Aeryn said, drawing attention to the unconscious body that lay propped up against the couch. Firelight flickered over his face and body, outlining surprisingly strong muscles and firm, clear-cut features hidden behind unbound chin-length hair.
"I suppose we'll have to alert Seneschal Varel. He'll want to know."
She raised a slim, arched brow in his direction.
"Since when have you ever kept on the right side of the law?"
"A-an attempt was made on your life," Anders stuttered. "Now don't you think I'd want you to do the same for me were I in your position?"
"Point taken. Go alert the seneschal and I'll watch him."
Anders shuffled out of the room, Ser Pounce-a-lot following in his stead. Aeryn dropped to one knee, studying the features of the man who had tried to kill her. He was in no condition to talk just yet, but soon… she would have answers.