Of Bards

To runcible_spoom for the DA:O Ficathon. High society, intrigue, shoes and Leliana backstory… hope this has everything you wished for.

A/N: Yes, this one –like all the rest of my DA fics—takes place in the Giovanna Cousland/Alistair FitzTheirin ficverse.

The poem Leliana recites is an English translation, by Watson Kirkconnel, of one of the greatest and best loved Hungarian poems: The Bards of Wales, written by Janos Arany. I altered the names and place names to fit it into Thedas, but it is just such a perfect analogy to the Orlesian occupation of Ferelden that I had to include it. I shortened the length, though, for which, and the alterations I humbly ask for forgiveness.

And finally: if anyone is curious about the costumes the King and the Queen are wearing, here is my earlier work that partially inspired the entire story: .com/art/Happy-New-Year-148877522

Zevran never liked complicated things, Leliana mused, and touched her delicate feathered mask, making sure it hasn't slipped. The elf always preferred straight orders, like 'go and kill the Wardens, the details are up to you, make sure no one survives'. Leliana's delicate mouth pulled into a sneer behind the silk of her disguise: now that one turned out a bit differently than either Zev or his patrons hoped for! She was sure that the Antivan didn't anticipate he'd spend the following year saving Ferelden from a Blight and then being stuck as the new royal couple's pet assassin and assistant spy master.

Even she had to admit he was doing a pretty good job at it. His expertise certainly served them well on more than one occasion during the past year already, although they all had fits about Giovanna traipsing off to Amaranthine to see to 'a matter of national security' a mere six months after they defeated the Archdemon. She didn't take any of her old companions, but Leliana, in a fit of inspiration, managed to convince Oghren, newly-minted army general and Family Man Oghren, to go after her… apparently, just in time, too.

Now though…now they both were stuck in this masquerade ball, thrown by the King and Queen of Ferelden to celebrate the new year… and what with the first really grand ball since the coronation of Alistair Theirin (no one but his wife called him FitzTheirin these days any more) there was plenty to do for them. They ultimately worked for Bann Teagan Guerrin, the new person responsible for the King's security and network of spies, poetically called the Master of the Secret Chancery. Tonight, they had to make sure the brand new Ambassador of Orlais, who attended the ball, didn't cause any trouble. And Leliana, despite the fact that she grew up in Orlais and acquired her skills that served her so well in the past and now in her new life, considered herself wholeheartedly a subject of Their Majesties.

She tried to blend in inconspicuously, standing just to the side next to Giovanna and Alistair, who, despite the masks, were pretty obvious. They were tall, athletic even by Ferelden standards (a year and more of constant traveling and campaigning in armor does that to people), and had that air about them that made most people give them a wide berth or stare at them openly: the air of large predators surveying their domain lazily, but ready to spring into action at any second. They did this entirely unselfconsciously, but constantly, after so many months of ceaseless fighting and being on alert.

Leliana knew the Grey Warden motto: In war, victory. In peace, vigilance. In death, sacrifice, and had to admit that the royal couple of Ferelden had that vigilance part down pat. It amused her to watch the nobility getting used to them, circling them varily at every court function. She suspected Alistair's easy manners and humor lulled a lot of people, originally intent on ridicule, scorn or even harm, into a false sense of security, (kind of like with great predatory cats pretending to be half-asleep: 'Aww, he's harmless! Look at how cute he is…can I rub his belly?') until he closed on them and finished them off while they were distracted, leaving bare bones. Leliana watched him work these tactics several times during Council meetings or at royal functions such as this, and it was always impressive, especially combined with his wife's gloved iron fist always being there to back him up and to lend a well-timed additional punch. She shook her head, imagining what Giovanna might have accomplished in Amaranthine had that little Darkspawn problem not manifested, cutting her time there tending to the Arling's business as Warden-Commander unfortunately short.

"Well, yes, of course." Leliana heard Alistair saying, amusement evident in his voice. "I am aware that you are murdering your poor feet standing there in those shoes, love. Just don't expect me to be sympathetic. Do you know how much those shoes cost to the royal treasury?" He twisted slightly, deftly dodging a sharp elbow. "Ow. Stop that, woman, or I spank you, I swear."

"Promises, promises." Giovana smiled at a masked couple staring at them openly, and Leliana stifled a giggle. "You forget I took some lessons from Leliana how to wield these shoes as a weapon."

"Judging by the height of those heels…" Alistair shuddered. "What is it made of anyway, veridium? Dragonbone? Volcanic aurum? The price was absolutely exorbitant."

'It's the design, dear." Giovanna explained patiently. "Height of Orlesian fashion and all." She lifted her chin and said from the corner of her mouth. "Speaking about…smile, darling. The Orlesian ambassador has just arrived."

"It's a masked ball; you're not supposed to know that." Alistair chided, then glanced towards the entrance, eyes narrowing behind his feathered mask. "Despite the fact that he's the only one in the entire ballroom with that funny pointed and waved moustache, a little chin-beard and long, curly chestnut hair reeking of perfume so much even I can smell it here." His nose twitched. "In fact, I think I might sneeze."

"The Marquis de Montfort." Giovanna turned slightly towards Leliana, who stood a bit to the side and behind her, as a good companion or lady-in-waiting would. "What do we know about him?"

"Young, but skilled in courtly arts." Leliana said quickly. She watched the Orlesian make his way across the marble floor, clearly aware of the ripple in the crowd in his wake. She felt a familiar squeeze in her chest and struggled to quench it firmly. Absolutely no use of that, now; after all, you knew he was coming, you saw his name on those reports from Teagan. "Vain, too, apparently; that might be useful." she said, trying to sound nonchalant, and hoping she succeeded.

"Montfort is a rather important city in Orlais, down the South, is it not?" Giovanna asked, forehead wrinkled slightly in thought, glancing at her. "Something about perfume making and horticulture, if I recall my tutor's words correctly?"

"Orange flower and jasmine, mostly, large groves of it." Leliana nodded. She couldn't help but remember, and her tone took up a wistful note. Blast it; I didn't think it would be this difficult. "The night is fragrant with their scent in Montfort, and in the summer every second house in the city is a perfumerie."

"Eww." Alistair made a face. "And how's that a good thing?"

"Well, it's certainly better than wet dog smell…" The ex-bard wrinkled her nose. Snap out of it, Leliana, she chided herself. This is neither the time nor the place to be…nostalgic. "With all due respect, of course."

"Riight." Alistair grinned behind his mask. "As if you'd ever stood on ceremony…anyway, what's next?"

"Next, we enjoy the ball." Giovanna took her husband's arm with the force of a significant natural phenomenon. She nodded to Leliana, who suddenly had a suspicion that her friend definitely noticed her distraction there. Usually very few things escaped Giovanna Cousland's notice: that's, after all, how she stayed alive since the night her entire family got massacred in Highever. Leliana still hoped that one day she'd talk about it, especially what with her brother back alive and busy restoring the castle with his new wife. "And let the professionals work, dearest. Dance?"

"Who, me?" Alistair tugged at the hem of his black brocade doublet, examining his shoes, suddenly shy. "Erm, I have a sore foot." he muttered, barely audible.

"And I am on high heels." Giovanna pressed her lips into a thin line: a sure sign that she was getting annoyed. "Come on, for the good of Ferelden; we must…"

"…keep up appearances, sure." Alistair sighed. "Don't blame me if your poor toes suffer, though. And I reserve the right to count the beat loud. They don't teach court dances in the Chantry, you know."

"This is the Remigold, darling." Leliana watched the masked royal couple slowly take to the marble floor. "I thought you could do this in a dress. At least that's what you led me to believe."

"Foul! I declare foul!"

By the Maker, those two could be exhausting sometimes…Leliana curtsied, shook her head and snapped back to full alert. She scanned the room, made sure Zevran, also masked and liveried as a palace servant carrying drinks, was in place close enough to the marquis, then slowly let herself washed away by the crowd, listening to their conversations, to anything that would give her the opening she sought.

According to the carefully sewn rumors they themselves planted, both her and Zevran has left Ferelden shortly after the Archdemon's defeat: she was supposed to be in Haven with Brother Genitivi, while the elf reportedly went back to Antiva to settle some scores with the Crows. The original companions dispersed, the King and Queen were supposed to be easy pickings for those who wished to see the new monarchy fail. After all, this was an entirely different battlefield than the one the two of them were used to…

Except they forgot that Giovanna was raised as a teyrn's daughter…or, as it were, more like a teyrn's son. More diplomacy, swordplay and history, less satin, ribbons and shoes. She was more than capable of holding her own in governing and the circles of nobility, even though she needed lessons from her friend on how to dance in high-heeled Orlesian shoes and long, trailing skirts. Leliana followed the couple for a bit with her eyes while idly wondering around the ballroom: they did make a handsome couple, and their outfits supplemented each other beautifully. She saw Alistair's mouth moving, and her training helped her to read his lips even from this distance. She grinned to herself: the King of Ferelden was, indeed, counting his steps.

"I wonder, though…" Her attention snapped back to her immediate surroundings hearing that voice. There it was…a cue she was wishing for. "You know… they say there are hundreds, even thousands of bards in Orlais, all over the place. But there are none in Ferelden? I always wondered about that…"

Two richly dressed masked young men were standing by a column, the one speaking leaning against it nonchalantly. It looked entirely natural, even fashionable, but Leliana knew that he did it to spare his right leg that was injured rather grievously at the siege of Vigil's Keep and still didn't heal up fully. She still wasn't entirely sure about those two, but since Giovanna trusted them with her life back in Amaranthine, and since they both were Grey Wardens, she had to, albeit grudgingly, acknowledge their worth.

"Oh, I don't know." The other shrugged, feigning boredom. He looked a little out of place in the noble velvets he wore. Leliana was sure he'd much rather be out in the palace herb gardens in his usual long robes with the Grey Warden griffon emblazoned on his chest, gathering things for some foul-smelling potion or two, chatting up the giggling palace maids. "I vaguely recall some legend about the bards of Ferelden being exterminated, but…" She shrugged. "It's been a long time since I had my history classes in the Tower…"

That was perfect. The Orlesian ambassador, making his slow round in the ballroom, was just getting within hearing distance. And, thanks to the fact that Leliana was wearing a very eye-catching outfit, Giovanna from the dancefloor was able to gently but firmly steer her husband towards the scene as well. While wearing those high heels, even. Leliana was impressed, even though it yet again amused her that the Queen of Ferelden attempted to lead even when dancing. She flicked a quick glance at Zevran hovering just within lunging distance with his tray (It is a great disguise, he explained to her earlier. Who pays attention to a liveried palace servant holding drinks? Especially if he's an elf?), and squared her shoulders.

The perfect opening to cause some stir: the perfect opening to greet the new Ambassador in a truly Fereldan way… and oh, a perfect way to let the Marquis de Montfort know that the past, indeed, was never entirely dead…

Just not in the way he perhaps hoped for.

"You don't know the legend of the Five Hundred?" Leliana stepped closer to the two men, tilted her head to the side. "How short is the memory of mankind…" Her eyes drifted to where Giovanna and Alistair stopped their dance, as the Queen tugged at the long flowing sleeves of her gown getting tangled in the King's belt. Giovanna laughed: a deep, heartfelt sound, very unladylike, and just as unmistakably hers—several of the surrounding guests recognized it too, and the curtsies started like a slowly spreading wave in a pond after someone throws a pebble in.

"Oh, piffle." Leliana stifled a laugh; that was yet another side of Giovanna she always found utterly endearing. She was way too straightlaced to swear outright. "Well, it seems that we're unmasked, love." The queen looked at Leliana, and inclined her head just a little bit. The ex-bard swallowed. Her friend assumed that commanding position she usually labeled as her The Cousland stance: one leg slightly forward, chin thrust up, one hand on her hip. It contrasted sharply with her splendid ball gown, all rich rust-brown, gold and black velvet, brocade and silks. "You mentioned the legend of the Five Hundred, milady?"

"Indeed I did, Majesty." Leliana curtsied and watched from the corner of her eyes how a circle formed swiftly around them. It was just like an elaborate play in a theater in Val Royaux—she knew, as she actually played in one of those, part of a complicated scheme, its purpose now faded from her memory. Yet again, she was the swift-thinking second lead, the quick-tongued companion of the tragic heroine, there to save the day and bring happiness…Even if her own heart suffered.

"We wish to hear it." Giovanna declared, her tone somber. "It is a beautiful ballad, if memory serves, and one never can remember enough those who gave their lives in sacrifice. Do you mind?"

Leliana curtsied again, noted how the Marquis de Montfort stopped his advance in the room and watched them, his green eyes behind the mask politely distant. He doesn't recognize me, not just yet…

"As you wish, Majesty." She looked around. "I shall not sing it, though… if it is to your liking, I will merely recite it in the style I've learned it." She barely waited for Giovanna's nod as she started, her expert voice soaring above the hushed nobles in the sudden dead silence on the ballroom, reciting the words she's learned in secret all those years ago.

The Emperor, Orlesian Eldren,
Bestrides his tawny steed,
"For I will see if Ferelden," said he,
"Accepts my rule indeed.

"Are stream and mountain fair to see?
Are meadow grasses good?
Do corn-lands bear a crop more rare
Since wash'd with rebel's blood?

"And are the wretched people there,
Whose insolence I broke
As happy as the oxen are
Beneath the driver's yoke?

" Ferelden, Sire, is a gem,
The fairest in your crown:
The stream and field rich harvest yield,
And fair and dale and down.

"And all the wretched people there
Are calm as man could crave;
Their hovels stand throughout the land
As silent as the grave."

The Emperor, Orlesian Eldren,
Bestrides his tawny steed;
A silence deep his subjects keep
Ferelden is mute indeed.

A slight murmur arose as she paused there; she knew that more in the crowd now recalled the event, dated from the beginning of the Orlesian occupation of the country, when King Darlan was slain, Alistair's great-grandfather, and entire families slaughtered who defied the occupying armies. Leliana watched as an empty space formed around the Orlesian ambassador and his small retinue, echoing the last words of the verse, almost.

Ferelden is mute indeed… Leliana allowed herself a brief flash of pride. Her skills were still working, and this time for a noble cause indeed. She couldn't help but feel a surge of emotions as she thought about what came next: the verses following depicted a feast, where the remaining aristocracy, cowed into subservience by the brutal quickness of the occupation, paid homage to the Emperor and he paid them back with mockery.

"You rascal lords, Fereldan dogs,
Will none for Eldren cheer?
To serve my needs and chant my deeds
Then let a bard appear!"

The nobles gaze in fierce amaze,
Their cheeks grow deadly pale;
Not fear but rage their looks engage,
They blanch but do not quail.

All voices cease in soundless peace,
All breathe in silent pain;
Then at the door a harper hoar
Comes in with grave disdain:

"Lo, here I stand, at your command,
To chant your deeds, O king!"
And weapons clash and hauberks crash
Responsive to his string.

"Harsh weapons clash and hauberks crash,
And sunset sees us bleed,
The crow and wolf our dead engulf -
This, Eldren, is your deed!

"A thousand lie beneath the sky,
They rot beneath the sun,
And we who live shall not forgive
This deed your hand hath done!"

She even surprised herself at how harsh and hoarse her voice sounded there. She could see it in her mind, vivid as just a year ago…Vivid like all the dead I've seen, like all the thousands of young men and women and children who died at Lothering, at Redcliffe, at Denerim... She used her own memories of the countless deaths of innocent she'd witnessed to lend her strength and her voice hardened again as she continued with the exchange between the Emperor and the other bards in the ballad.

Take that, you who sat behind your fortified walls, secure behind the steel of chevaliers and the toil of your peasants. Take it, and remember: we bled, so the Blight cannot get to you. We bled for you as well, even though you did this to us scarce a century ago.

"Now let him perish! I must have"
(The monarch's voice is hard)
"Your softest songs, and not your wrongs!"
In steps a boyish bard:

"The breeze is soft at eve, that oft
From Milford Havens moans;
It whispers maidens' stifled cries,
It breathes of widows' groans.

"You maidens, bear no captive babes!
You mothers, rear them not!"
The fierce ruler nods. The lad is seiz'd
And hurried from the spot.

Unbidden then, among the men,
There comes a dauntless third
With speech of fire he tunes his lyre,
And bitter is his word:

"Our bravest died to slake your pride -
Proud Eldren, hear my lays!
No Fereldan live who e'er will give
Your name a song a praise.

"Our harps with dead men's memories weep.
Our bards to you will sing
One changeless verse - our blackest curse
To blast your soul, O king!"

The Emperor, Orlesian Eldren
Spurs on his tawny steed;
Across the skies red flames arise
Ferelden burns indeed.

In martyrship, with song on lip,
Five hundred bards had died;
Not one was mov'd to say he lov'd
The tyrant in his pride.

She looked up: the polite indifference on the marquis' face was gone now, and Leliana knew that he finally recognized her. She wasn't quite sure, then, if this was about Ferelden and Orlais any more or about her and him, about those long-ago nights, scented in orange-flower and jasmine, lit by moonlight and full of promises, kisses and sighs.

You were the first who broke my heart, milord… the first and the last. You broke it so well, it is still in pieces, and I am not sure if it can ever be mended.

I am not sure if I want it to be mended.

But by the Maker's breath, I think the end of this song is fitting.

" 'Is blood! What songs this night resound
Upon Val Royaux's streets?
The mayor shall feel my irate heel
If aught that sound repeats!

Each voice is hush'd; through silent lanes
To silent homes they creep.
"Now dies the hound that makes a sound;
His Majesty cannot sleep."

"Ha! Bring me fife and drum and horn,
And let the trumpet blare!
In ceaseless hum their curses come -
I see their dead eyes glare..."

But high above all drum and fife
and trumpets' shrill debate,
Five hundred martyr'd voices chant
Their hymn of deathless hate.

"So that they shall never be forgotten." She waited a few heartbeats before breathing that clearly into the absolute silence that reigned in the hall. "So that we always remember. From this bard to those five hundred… all of Ferelden's bards: one of whom was my ancestor. Their lives were taken by the Emperor so there's no one to teach the glories of the past to their children and their children's children; lest they incite Ferelden's youth to rebel against their new masters."

She lifted her head and gazed ahead. She herself wasn't sure what she saw—the past so full of blood and death, or the future that may blossom from all that death at last. "But we remember, regardless. We keep the tradition, even if we grew up on foreign soil, speaking a different language. We, the children of their children's children, never forget…"

She looked up then, and saw Giovanna and Alistair stand there, their hands clasped together, and she smiled through her tears, knowing that, after all, there was hope.

"… And, at the end, we all come home."