Chapter 1

Our Own Seneschal and Everything

Elissa's fist clenched.

Nathaniel had watched her closely the past few weeks. She'd seen any number of atrocities, had her patience tried many times, but the tightening around her eyes was new. He didn't think until that moment he had actually seen her angry. She took most things with wry good humour, no matter how shocking. He might have seen her true mettle when a great spirit dragon had erupted from a long dead skeleton and she had simply gazed up in wonder and noted that she hadn't really expected that.

But now she stood stock still, in a dingy Amaranthine inn, facing a totally innocuous woman, and her fingers curled around a pewter ring with such force that it might bend or break. Maybe that was her intention, to destroy the tainted symbol she'd seen a man die for while his wife was busy cheating on him from the safety of her home. A home Elissa herself fortified.

For one terrible moment Nathaniel thought she might strike the woman down.

The room froze for a beat, then Elissa dropped the ring into the woman's waiting palm and turned away. She walked from the room without another word, and no one questioned her. Even Anders had the good sense not to crack a joke. Nathaniel exchanged a questioning look with the mage, who obviously had no more light to shed on the situation. Oghren kept his eyes straight ahead, uncharacteristically sombre. Maybe he could offer some explanation on what had just happened, but he remained tight lipped.

This was very interesting. The Arlessa was a puzzle, a mess of contradictions. Her every word told of humour, sweetness and a little naïvety, but her actions betrayed a conflicting pragmatism that might have been cynicism. She had no family, when she had conscripted him there had been no sign of friends, but she was sociable and friendly. She seemed to bear him no ill will, for his fathers' actions or his own. A kind woman, and a mighty warrior, but no paladin. This tranquil fury was something new, another piece of the puzzle.

Elissa tried to keep her anger in check. Nida was a fool. A fool with a point. She couldn't begrudge a person that. She'd kept her personal issues out of it for this long, and that had been a wise decision. If she'd given in during the early days to her intense anger she might have executed everyone that Varel put before her for judgement. She didn't need the blood of an innocent idiot on her hands, but if she didn't get out of this inn very quickly that logic was going to become flimsy.

Oghren gave her a nod, approving of her decision. She might have been incensed if it had been anyone else, but the dwarf understood, knew that it had tested her will to walk away, and she appreciated, for the first time, having someone around who had been with her before she was an Arlessa. Grey Wardens traditionally didn't marry for a reason, and she wished she could have given that man in the mines a chance at that dignity.

Elissa frowned. For all her anger, she couldn't remember his name. They'd met him barely a week ago.

Of course the grand irony of all this was that she needed a stiff drink and was walking as nonchalantly as possible away from the only place to get one. Maybe a day or two at the keep would be worthwhile. She had things to do, but not if she couldn't straighten herself out. The last thing the arling needed was a leader looking for blood.

This was stupidity, she decided. The fire that coursed through her veins should be long gone, should have been quelled months ago, and she really thought it had been. She'd never been prone to a short temper. Fergus used to tell her that she had the patience of Andraste herself, Varel seemed to feel that same way, though he was somewhat less enthusiastic about the point than her brother had been. She had been reasonable and eloquent and hardly murdered anyone since leaving Denerim. But one look at that insipid cow's face had her desperate to kill something.

It was the excuses, that was what did it. She wanted to cheat on her husband? That was her business. But she looked so damn earnest telling Elissa how her husband forgot her needs in face of his duty. As if that made it alright, as if she was somehow morally exempt from fidelity.

Nathaniel watched her fume. She looked calmer now, less like a danger to the general populace, but there was still an angle to her eyes that he didn't like, and occasionally she would let out a huff of breath. Definitely a mental debate raging, there.

"Back to the Keep, everyone, we're going to take a day or two."

"Fine by me," said Anders. "I'm pretty sure the blisters on my feet are gaining sentience."

She had a pretty face, Nathaniel decided, and it was a shame to ruin it with such a severe expression.

He'd heard very little of her during his time in Ferelden, and he had been keeping an ear open for news, she had been the object of his ire long enough that he had wanted to know his adversary. Everyone had something to say, but his father's old allies had never met her in person and the rumours varied from the somewhat believable to the utterly absurd. She made company with paragons, kings and maleficarum. She walked the fade like the real world. She travelled with a golem, a Qunari, a prince, an Antivan Crow, a prophet. She carried a sword made from a shooting star, she wore armour brutally stripped from Darkspawn generals who had stolen it from King Cailan.

The one thing he had heard from actual witnesses, the one thing he had seen first hand, was that she had a smile that could melt a golem's heart. A smile easily given, but currently masked by a foul mood brought on by some inconsequential hussy. A mystery.

They walked in silence. Anders was examining the forests around and practically radiating boredom, but the others kept their eyes ahead and their mouths shut. It wasn't exactly relaxed most of the time, but this was borderline ridiculous. And a little frustrating. With no one talking or making eye contact or breathing too loudly, the only thing he really had to focus on were the long strides of the Commander. Long strides with long legs. Long, sleek legs that made her hips dip and sway as she walked.

He cursed himself internally. Just because he hadn't been in any position to be with a woman since he was captured didn't mean he had to give in to baser instincts. Elissa was his commanding officer. Even if he was interested, even if she was interested, it would be the epitome of inappropriate on many different levels. Had to keep his mind out of the gutter. As soon as this talking Darkspawn crisis was resolved there would be plenty of recruits who hadn't killed his father. Now there was an idea.

Elissa almost cheered when Vigil Keep came into view. Her mood had improved for walking, but she wasn't going to kid herself that she was alright to head out on any missions just yet. She'd get piss drunk and then in the morning she'd let Wade pamper her with his finest armour and weaponry, that would make things better again. Actually, she smiled, that sounded like a fine way to spend the next 24 hours.

"Oghren, get the drink ready, it's time you and I did a little celebrating."

"Now there's an order I'm happy to follow."

Elissa watching the dwarf run ahead, closely followed by Anders, but she pressed her palm into the door frame in front of Nathaniel's face, preventing his escape. The rogue raised his eyebrow.


She grinned. "You know, the last time someone made a practise of watching my rump while I walked, it ended in some fairly public humiliation. It was pretty funny, but I don't think you'd appreciate it happening again."

He turned the most delightful shade of red. "I wasn't... I... how did you...?"

"Now, Nathaniel, you're not the type to be stuck for words," she teased.

"I'm sorry, Commander. It won't happen again."

A smile that would melt a golem's heart, Nathaniel noted. The fact that she was more amused than angry did very little to negate his embarrassment. She bit her lip, trying not to grin too widely at his flustered state.

"At least be more subtle. I thought you rogues were supposed to be stealthy or something."

She took her hand away and started to make her way upstairs.

"Legs." Nathaniel's voice made her turn around to see her wore a slightly mischievous grin. "Can't see anything under that tasset, but you've got very nice legs."

Elissa clamped down hard on the laughter that welled up in her chest. Not funny, that was not funny at all. This was serious. The last thing she needed was recruits thinking she was available for amorous advances, even surprisingly adorable vigilantes like Nathaniel Howe. After Zevran she'd had enough dashing rogues to last her a lifetime, and she certainly didn't need a full regiment of Grey Wardens hitting on her. She was somehow glad, though, that the youngest Howe had decided to strike at her heart in those first days at the Keep. It seemed a little fitting, to see what she might have become if not for the Maker's grace. To greet that alternate self with mercy and a chance at redemption. The youngest Howe and the youngest Cousland, two sides of the same coin, in a way.

Oghren was already waiting in the throne room, filling two cups from the massive cask that she had Rendon Howe to thank for. His spirits seemed a little low, and she supposed she may have given him a bit of a scare back in Amaranthine.

"Tonight, Oghren," Elissa declared, "is going to be the night I drink you under the table."

"Think so, girl?" He laughed. "What makes you think you can do that?"

"You're already halfway there, little man."

"Oh, short jokes, I've never heard any of them before. Less talk, more drink, woman."

Elissa sat down against the wall, Oghren's drinking spot, and chugged her first cup. It tasted absolutely foul, with the kind of paint-stripping qualities of truly potent alcohol. She gasped at the unexpected tang.

"Maker, Oghren, what have you spiked this stuff with?"

"You probably don't want to know." He swilled a mouthful around inside his mouth before swallowing it, like he was trying to wash a bad taste away.

"So how was that dragon takedown?" Elissa asked. This was a newly formed tradition in the new Ferelden Grey Wardens, the rating of killing blows.

"Six," Oghren grunted. "Tops."

"Six? Oh, come on! It threw me at least thirty feet in the air, that's gotta be worth an eight."

"Yeah, but I saw that hit you took to the knee, that knocked it down a couple points."

"Noticed that, huh?"

"Yeah, that had to hurt."

"Yeah, it did. I should go see a healer, get it looked at. Need more healers. And more Wardens. More everything really, need every recruit we can get."

"Saw you keeping the Howe kid after school. He getting handsy?"

Elissa snorted. It was kind of sweet of him to be concerned. "Not everyone goes straight for the grope, Oghren, that's just you."

Sure, now he wanted to play overprotective big brother. She already had a big brother to do that, and he would probably murder Howe on sight instead of ask unassuming questions about whether or not he's handsy. She'd have to remember to sing Nathaniel's praises in her next letter, see if she could do a little peace keeping.

"Sure, sure, you say that now. Next thing I know my sleep's getting disturbed by a bunch of noise that would be coming from my tent if there was any justice in the world."

"Not happening. He's an orphan, suspiciously unattached to anything but the Grey Wardens. He's sweet, a little awkward and has romantic dreams. Not to mention for at least a little while he was obsessed with revenge."

"What's your point?"

Elissa grinned as she refilled her mug. "I'm not falling for that one twice."

Oghren laughed uproariously and toasted her cup. "Smart kid."

The commander looked around the throne room, a pleasant warmth spreading down her chest. She noticed Nathaniel duck out the door and wondered how much of that he'd heard. She didn't really care, she was serious when she said that nothing would be happening there, and if he took that little joke seriously his morale was probably impossible to keep up anyway. She took her new cup more slowly, she didn't want to pass out before Oghren started singing.

She started stripping off her left cuisse and chausse, getting a better look at where the spectral horn had torn through the skin. It was pretty nasty, and Anders was no Wynne when it came to preventing scars, but at least it wasn't oozing or doing anything unexpected. This was all a little pathetic. She'd thought the last time was pathetic, picking up stragglers, anyone who could hold a sword or chant a spell, but then they were a ragtag group of rebels, trying to save an uncaring nation from the Blight. This time they had a fortress and a crest and a seneschal and everything, it was supposed to be a little more dignified, but they were more desperate for men than ever. At least desperate for someone who could make a wound look less... gaping.

"You know what this reminds me of?" She asked the dwarf. "That time with the elves, you remember that werewolf got me on the thigh?"

"Course I remember, you were walking around without pants for a week."

"It was two days."

"Not in my mind, Warden."

"You're disgusting."

Oghren belched and laughed, extending his hand to fill up her cup along with his. "Yeah, we had some good times. You, me, and a whole bunch of other jerks. Coulda done without them. That witch, she kept giving me the evil eye."

"Morrigan? I'm pretty sure that was just how she looked." Great, bringing up Morrigan, that's what she'd hoped for. Like it hadn't hurt enough to see her go, but right after rolling her oats with Alistair, that was a double hit. "Bloody Morrigan."

"Thought you two were friends. What happen, fight over your man?"

Elissa spat out the mouthful she'd just taken and choked on the last drops caught in her throat. A powerful hand thumped her back and her head spun. This alcohol was effecting her more than she thought. "You have such a way with words."

"That I do."

"You know how I got shaken half to death by an ogre yesterday?"

"Yep. That was an eight. Straight through the eye."

"Y'know what everyone else did? They fought the ogre. No questions asked, they just chipped away at his shins while he was using me like a tambourine."

"What'd you expect?"

"Nothing." She shrugged, wondering how the floor ended up at such an odd angle. "Actually pretty happy with it. S'just every time I used to get picked up by an ogre, there was always someone having a heart attack in the background. Cailan was killed by ogre-shake."

"I know whatcha mean. Every time I used to pick up a hammer it was 'careful with that, ya stupid sod!' Now I can pick up a hammer whenever I like. No one acting like I'll put my eye out on the claw."

"See!" Elissa was aware the her voice was rising with the drink. She tried to temper it a little. "You get it. Your wife was all 'duty first', too. Look where that got her. Loopy. An' the people she cared about? Broodmothers. Or drunk. Fat lotta good duty does."

"Yeah. Broodmothers or drunk, thasit." Oghren held up his cup and she happily clinked hers against it. "She thought she was gunna be some amazing smith, bring glory back to Orzammar. Idiot woman. She was always a little stupid. Your prince, though, he was always really stupid."

"Hah!" Elissa laughed genuinely. It was true. He really, really was. "All hail King Alistair. Gunna continue the Theirin line! Like he'd know what to do with a queen if he got his hands on one. I taught him all that. Taught him that thing with his tongue, too."

They laughed together, the sound echoing around the still occupied throne room. People were probably unimpressed with their commander and Arlessa, but they could go to hell, as many Darkspawn as she had killed, she deserved a drink. All Elissa could smell was whatever they were drinking. Whiskey, she thought. The world had taken a pleasant blurry quality, she didn't even mind sitting on the freezing stone. This was the life.

"Didn't take you for a wild child, bein' a Teyrn's daughter and all. Thought you'd be one of those stuck up prudes who had to unbuckle their chastity belt to take a piss."

Elissa snorted in a very unladylike fashion. "Hah, I was basically the only girl in the teyrnir's army. I could have anyone I liked, and I liked more than one. Ser Harris was my first, he was so very, very pretty. We snuck away from one of father's state dinners when I was seventeen. He got transferred out to Gwarren, I guess he's probably dead now."

"No sappy talk, girl!" Oghren belted her on the back in what was probably supposed to be a comforting gesture but actually might have broken a rib or two. "We're celebrating being free of our loopy formers! And King Alistair's prosperous reign. What was that song the Orlesian girl wrote about him?"

Ballad of the Golden King, Elissa informed him, and together they launched into a rousing chorus, describing how the king single-handedly slew every Darkspawn in Ferelden, forged peace with all the races and made love to every young woman in his path, never getting a single hair out of place along the way. The ballad was interrupted by hiccups and snickering laughter, Elissa couldn't believe that Leliana had written this tripe. Of course she'd been consulted for permission beforehand, the Orlesian believed it would lend the new King some support if they played up and publicised his role in ending the Blight. Elissa had never imagined this, though.

"He put down the demon like a knight of old, that king they call Alistair the Gold..." They finished together and broke into hysterical laughter.

"You know, I don't remember him being declared a paragon," Oghren laughed.

"And I'm just sad I missed him rescuing all those poor orphans."

"And saving the princess in the fade."

"Oh, no, he totally did that."

"You're kidding me."

Elissa barely managed to get out words with the laughter bubbling from her lips. "He fell over my feet and the desire demon was so surprised that she didn't even block the sword he accidentally pitched straight through her chest."

Another cup was shoved into her hands, and she knew she should stop, but this was the first fun she'd had in months. There had to be some advantages to being at the head of this outfit. All she'd heard since the night Rendon Howe betrayed her was what she couldn't do. Couldn't leave the Blight to other people, couldn't wait for Orlesian help, couldn't walk away from this nightmare, couldn't sleep through a whole night without nightmares, couldn't go find her brother, couldn't return home, couldn't leave Loghain to the proper authorities, couldn't have children...

Elissa accepted another cup, then another.

Couldn't have anything even close to a normal life. Couldn't even stop the man she loved from walking straight out of her life like she'd never existed. It didn't matter how sharp her sword was, how full her purse, how enormous her reputation, she was utterly powerless, helpless against the machinations of something much larger than herself. The least they could give her was a night to get wasted with a comrade.

It was long after she'd lost the ability to see straight or hold herself upright that she felt arms wrap around her, lifting her off the ground. Nathaniel gave her a tolerant smile, offering no explanation for his actions, and she replied with a broad grin. The way he walked made her seasick, each step a rolling wave, especially when he took her upstairs but she wasn't about to try to walk it herself. She couldn't say what happened to Oghren, their conversation had died out a couple of drinks ago, she supposed he'd found his way back to bed as well.

"Do you need help with your armour?"

Elissa laughed. "Yeah, I guess I do. You won't mention this to the others, right? No one needs a drunk commander."

"Your secret is safe with me."

He went to work on her armour, taking each piece off carefully so as not to jolt her. The weight lifting off her was such a relief, she sometimes forgot how heavy full plate could be, especially on very drunk young women. She might have felt awkward about this if she was sober, or a few years younger, but it just seemed so routine now. She couldn't count how many times her modesty had been compromised due to a wound or poison, at least this time she was wearing full underclothes.

Nathaniel watched the hiccuping commander while he worked. He wondered if she knew how sad she looked. He hadn't heard much of the conversation between her and Oghren, but it didn't seem sad. There was plenty of laughter and a bit of truly awful singing that would have seen them hung in any other court, but nothing he could discern to account for the truly wretched frown on her face.

"Do you want to talk about it?" That wasn't really appropriate, but over such a short time with this woman he could easily see that this was not a normal or healthy mood for her.


"You've been out of sorts since returning that ring to Nida, would you like to talk about it?"

Elissa sunk down onto her bed, now fully relieved of her armour. She gave him a crooked smile. "It's nothing, I'll be fine."

"It doesn't look like nothing."

"I... once loved a man." She blushed, like that was something foolish. "He wanted a wife and all I could be was a Warden."

Ah, that explained a lot. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. Can't have been true love, right? Or we'd have made it work. S'just one of those things that happens."

She snuggled down into her bedding and Nathaniel frowned. In the few weeks he'd been travelling with her, for all her complaining and joking around he'd not once taken her for genuinely unhappy. He didn't believe for a second that this was just some fling that had ended badly, especially if there had been talk of marriage.

"I'll let you get some sleep. Goodnight, Commander."

"Night," she mumbled into her pillow.

He leaned down and pulled the blankets over her, tucking her in like he used to do his sister, then left the Arlessa to her sleep.