One Year Earlier.
Catherine Amell and Jowan watched as Arella shifted on her bunk. She was in a deep sleep, so deep in fact that she wasn't roused by the sound of her own whimpering as she normally would have been. It was a sad sight. Her dark hair clung to her face and throat, her tiny lips parted each time she drew a shaky breath, her brow wrinkled as she fought against whatever she saw in her dreams.
"Wake her up," the female mage said plainly, though she didn't look away from the elf. Dark eyes narrowing, her head drifted to the side. She hadn't had nightmares after the Harrowing, but she understood how someone might be gripped by them after going through that.
"Wh-what?" Jowan shook both his head and his hands, taking an involuntary step back. "The last time you told me to do that, she shocked me."
Cat huffed. "And you wonder why they won't put you through the Harrowing. Coward." Before he had time to protest, she was already moving away from him. Tossing her long hair over her shoulder, she bent down beside Arella's bunk, a hand reaching out to touch the elf on her arm. When she didn't stir, the elder mage gave her a bit of a shake.
In all of a moment, Cat was nearly thrust backwards as Arella was torn from her dream, her hands pushing desperately at the one resting on her arm. "Get off me!" The words left her mouth in a rush, and she clawed at the mattress in an attempt to pull herself away from both of them and into a seated position. She could only just feel the chill of her dream receding, though the man's face still shadowed the back of her mind as if she'd never woken up, his bright green eyes boring into her as she blinked and rubbed at her own.
"Maker's breath, Rell," Jowan murmured from behind Cat, who flapped an arm at him, a sure sign for him to shut up. He'd never seen her so scared before. Even though she was a little thing, nearly everyone in the Tower knew that looks were a lot more deceiving in her case than others. Enchanter Niall had gotten a shock himself for surprising her in class once, and she hadn't apologized, either.
"Not your average, run-of-the-mill nightmare, I take it?"
Rubbing at her eyes with her fist, Arella took a shuddering breath as she tried to soothe her racing heart. "No." Her voice was tiny and hollow, as if she'd said nothing at all, her mouth remaining parted in a tiny 'o.' She looked towards Jowan, her eyebrows knitting together. It did not take much to make the elder mage look perplexed, but the way she regarded him was certainly enough. "J-Jowan, I need to talk to Cat."
Catherine twisted just enough on her feet to cast a thin-lipped look at him. His eyes went from her to Arella and back again before he sighed heavily and rubbed at the back of his neck. "Fine. Fine. I'm going. Just... go see Irving whenever you're finished. He wants to see you."
When they were finally alone, Cat pulled herself up to sit on the edge of Arella's bunk. Jowan was always too nosy for his own good. His agreeing to leave so easily surprised her; he was usually set on sticking around until he knew more than he should have. "That old kook can wait." She reached out, setting her hand on her friend's arm, thumb absently stroking over the fabric of her robes. "Was this about the Harrowing?"
"Sort of." Biting down hard on her bottom lip, she slipped her arm away from Cat only to curl them both around her knees as she hugged her thighs to her chest. "S'about Mouse."
"Ah." Cat brought her hand up to pinch the bridge of her nose. "It all makes sense now. Did he give you that bull about being a Senior Enchanter one day? The most powerful mage the Circle has ever seen? I was having an off day, and he still gave me that speech. He's given it so many times before he could probably give it with his mouth closed."
Arella shook her head, her chin resting on her knee. "He... he said I was powerful, but he didn't say anything about being a Senior Enchanter." Swallowing thickly, she leaned her head down until her mouth was pressed against her leg, her blank stare settling on the mattress just beside Cat's thigh. Closing her eyes wasn't an option, especially not when it was in thought. Any of those thoughts of him would only bring back a stronger, more potent memory. "He said that I'm too soft-hearted, that it would end up meaning my end."
When she looked back up at Catherine, her wide, blue eyes were filled to the brim with tears. "He almost had me. H-He was so close, but something kept him from taking hold of me. I don't know what."
Cat let out a whoosh of air, eyebrows lifting high on her forehead. "I didn't think you'd let him in, Rell."
"I was so... so close. He kept telling me that he needed my help, that he thought I could s-save him. I wanted to. I wanted to save him, to right whatever wrongs the Templars had done." Her expression distorted as she bit back a sob. "If I'd let him in, they'd have killed me. I-I'm not ready for this. I'm not strong enough."
"You are strong enough." Scooting forward, Cat slipped her hand behind Arella's neck, pulling her close enough to plant an oddly sweet kiss on her forehead. "You're just too empathetic. We'll turn you into stone soon enough, I think."
Looking up at her, she nodded, her full lips sucked into her mouth as she silently mulled over her friend's words.
"Now, get out of that bunk. You've a bed waiting for you now."
Arella managed a small nod in Ser Cauthrien's direction before turning to head towards the Landsmeet chamber. She'd taken half a dozen steps before she found that she was holding her breath. The last time she'd been confronted by Loghain's second in command, she and Alistair found themselves trapped in Fort Drakon. Considering what had transpired the last time, her hesitance to turn her back on the woman was well-founded, even with Anora nowhere in sight.
She nearly launched herself out of her skin when she felt a heavily gauntleted hand come to rest upon her shoulder. Twisting around, she saw Alistair looking down at her, his brows pinched together in a look of genuine concern.
"You should relax," he murmured, his voice oddly tight, "From what Eamon's told me, they feed off of your nerves, and I'd like to get you out of there free of scratches. They're viscous, they are. And I just realized that I'm probably not helping you at all." He winced. "Sorry."
Staring up at him, a thin wrinkle ran over her forehead as her expression shifted from surprise to slight, albeit strained amusement. "You know, there's a phrase that comes to mind..."
"I know, I know." Chuckling, he nudged her in the direction of the heavy door. "Pot, kettle, black."
When they entered the Landsmeet chamber, Eamon was speaking. Ever since he'd recovered, the strength of his voice always surprised her. He was an eloquent speaker, and she found her confidence spiking as she watched those around him listen intently. He was on their side. Not only was he on their side, but his state of health was her party's doing.
But things were never as simple as that. Striding into the Landsmeet with such a controversial intent as removing Loghain as the regent would never be such. Anora's promises to back them, to announce that he father was no longer regent and that she would be their sovereign ruler, did not feel nearly as genuine as they would have if she had not betrayed them to Ser Cauthrien so easily. They would be forced to wait, to wait and see if she would keep her word and if they would be victorious.
Through all of this worry and apprehension, Arella knew where she stood. She knew what she was to say and precisely how to say it in order to surprise the nobles and Loghain, who seemed taken aback to hear such a little elf make such excellent points. She spoke of the Tevinter slavers, of finding the Alienage in shambles, and of the fall of the South, but none of this compared to the heat in her voice when she spoke of Howe and what she found in his dungeon.
Still that was not enough to take him down. He, as always, had a retort prepared, his tongue all but barbed, ready and waiting for her to lean heavily upon the late arl's personal vendettas.
"Whatever Howe may have done," Loghain continued, "he should have been brought before the seneschal." His chin tilted back as he took an unconscious step forward, his light eyes shifting from the clenched jaw of the Warden to skim along those gathered. He knew that these people would see sense. They would see that the Warden's actions were illegal; unjust. When next he spoke, his voice had taken on an altruistic tone, as if the truth was staring them all in the face and they need only open their eyes. "There is no justice in butchering a man in his home."
"You say that like he deserved anything more than what he got."
Everyone turned to look in the direction of the voice come from behind Arl Eamon. Both Arl Wulff and Bann Alfstanna jerked to attention, having recognized the woman by the sound of her alone, and the bann's eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets at the sight of the speaker. A ghost had chosen to visit the Landsmeet.
Elissa Cousland leaned heavily upon a thick, waist high walking stick as she moved forward, unable to keep her pace slow despite her limp. Her unwillingness to remain quiet was what pulled her forward so quickly, each stride hitting the wooden floor with a loud thunk that nearly echoed up to the high ceilings. When she reached the canopy looking down upon Loghain and the Warden's party, she stopped.
She commanded the attention of all present with little more than a string of words. Leaning heavily upon the banister, the knuckles of her right hand flashing white as she gripped it as tightly as she was able, her eyes narrowed in the regent's direction. Her other palm rested against the smooth wood, fingers barely able to lay flat against the surface.
Gasps echoed throughout the chamber. Word had been passed around that she'd been slain with her parents that night in Highever. The castle had been overwhelmed by men under the command of the Warden, many claimed, gone there to take over the city in an attempt to garner a seat of strength to rest and recover their numbers. But Arl Howe refused to back down, refused to see his dear friend's family killed for nothing. His men fought back these degenerates, and he was given the teyrnir as compensation.
In the week since they'd found her sitting, forgotten, in the bowels of Howe's dungeon, her appearance had changed drastically. With her thick, tangled mass of hair chopped nearly to the scalp, her features were no longer concealed in that curtain of blood and dirt. They could see the cold edge of hate in her eyes now, her wide mouth twisted in a grimace that deepened the scar that ran through it at the corner.
"You may not have started the rumor of what happened at Highever. In fact, I am sure that those words were Howe's. But you fortified it." Swallowing the bile that teased at the back of her throat, she glared down at him, her blunted nails digging into the underside of the balustrade. "You gave him the teyrnir. And then you made him the Arl of Denerim. You handed him everything he needed."
Loghain did not even shrink away. He did not wince or take a step back. The man hardly blinked in the face of the woman who could very well turn half of these people against him. The Couslands were much beloved in the Landsmeet. He'd known Bryce personally, had known him to be a lawful and kind man. And now they were faced with his daughter. No doubt many of them remember a little upstart of a girl, who despite her braids and chubby cheeks was the first to speak up when something wasn't right.
"I handed him what he deserved," the regent spoke up, his level gaze reaching up to Elissa's face once again. "I am no psychic. I possess no ability to tell whether something transpired or not when I was not there and no one lives who witnessed it first hand. How was I to know the truth of what happened on that night?"
A sharp crack filled the air as Elissa's palm smashed against the banister, splintering slightly beneath the blow. "You would have to be blind to not see the truth!"
Eamon's eyes flew in her direction, and he just barely bit back the urge to tell her to calm herself.
"Even I could tell that he was lying through his teeth," she went on. Her earlier roar quieted into something lower, the underlying film of grief grating against those who listened. "He was like family, but I was not so stupid as to not realize that something was wrong!"
Loghain's brows cinched inward. "He has given me no reason to distrust him."
"And you have given us no reason to trust you!" Grinding her teeth together, she let go of the banister and took a step down the length of the canopy, closer to where he was standing. Those standing in her way parted respectfully, stepping back until she was given enough room to pass. Bann Sighard gave her a knowing nod, his bottom lip bitten raw. This woman knew what his son had gone through; in fact, she'd probably been through worse. "Everything you've accomplished means nothing. You've betrayed the country you claim you saved, and my father remains in an unmarked grave because you hadn't the presence of mind to suspect the obvious."
"You go too far," Loghain replied in warning. "I have spilled enough blood to fill half the men and women in this room. I have done more for this country than you or anyone here could boast."
Elissa sneered. "Your arrogance is astounding."
Taking a shaky breath, she looked to the Warden. Arella Surana was small, but she'd seen her paralyze an entire room of soldiers. She'd seen her create a storm of snow and lightning that could clear a field of men. She'd seen her bleed. The man standing at her side, Alistair, was capable of the same, as was the red-headed woman who stood on the opposite side of the two.
When she looked away from them, she brought her shoulders back, a second wind of confidence lifting her higher on her feet. "Arl Bryland fought with my father in the battle of White River. Are you so bold as to belittle what he has done?" She looked to Leonas Bryland only to see him give her a nod. "And the Wardens – they single-handedly saved Redcliffe from a scourge, the fault of which lies upon you, ser. They fought through the Deep Roads and crowned a king. They saved Kinloch Hold from countless blood mages and abominations."
Lifting her hand from the banister once more, she pointed in Arella's direction. "She may not have cast the Orlesians out of Ferelden. She may have no title besides that of a Grey Warden. But you were not alone at the River Dane. You were not the only man there, and yet you survive on the glory it's given you while everyone else is expected to bow their heads to a distinct gentleman such as yourself."
"I expect nothing that I have not earned," Loghain shot back, this time taking a long stride closer to her. His voice was slowly being stripped of its cool edge, revealing pieces of him gone soft from festering hate and paranoia. "I have made sacrifices for this country and have asked for nothing in return. Everything I have today is because of what I have accomplished, in compensation for my sacrifices."
Elissa's lips parted in faint surprise, a sharp breath leaving her as she swayed on her feet. "You cannot believe that you are the only one here who has been forced to make such sacrifices."
"I never proposed such a notion. I have seen the things men and women were forced to give up long before you even drew breath. The harsh reality is softened quite a bit when told as a bedtime story for overly curious little girls."
At that, Arl Bryland took a step forward on the canopy directly across from her. "Suffering is not reserved for history alone, Loghain." Looking towards Elissa, he felt his heart twist in his chest. He'd considered Bryce Cousland a brother, and the woman standing there was one he thought of as the daughter he'd hoped and prayed to have. To see her wounded in such a way only to have her pain cast aside as nothing was infuriating. "I – as have many of us here – have seen what the Blight is doing to our lands and our people. They suffer. And if we continue on this path you are set on laying before us, they will continue to suffer."
"Indeed!" Wulff called out. "We require the help of the Wardens to fight these creatures back to where they came from. We cannot do it alone! So far you haven't proven to be of much help, either."
"You see?" Elissa turned her gaze upon Loghain once more, though the man's face had not changed since the last. How someone could retain such a facade with his entire hold crumbling around him, she dare not venture to guess. "The hero of River Dane was enough when all you fought were chevaliers. This threat is far greater and far beyond what you deign to believe."
At that, Loghain's mask cracked, the corner of his mouth turning downward. "You have no idea what this country is facing, girl. You-"
He was silenced when her hand gave a decisive slice downward. "I have nothing to add," she said, "and as such, I am no longer needed here." Her throat rose and fell as she swallowed another harsh lump in her throat. She could not clench her fist any harder around her walking stick. If she tried, she feared it would snap in two. "I hope the blade is sharp. No one deserves to be hacked at for longer than is necessary."
With that, she turned, and she moved in the direction of the staircase leading out of the chamber, not even bothering to linger long enough to hear his shouted reply.
"I swear, I thought he was going to sprout wings and fly up to that balcony to force her to listen to him," Arella laughed, leaning her chin onto her folded arm.
Otto was sitting up now with his back leaning against the wall. With both her and Wynne's healing powers behind him, he was almost to full health. Just that morning, before the Landsmeet had begun, he'd even strapped on his armor. He'd have to gain a bit of weight back in order for it to fit as it had before, but he was content with that.
He chuckled now, his hands lacing in his lap. The Warden was surprisingly easy to excite, but he'd never heard her speak in such an animated way about anything. It was as if she'd been visited by the Maker that afternoon and not the teyrn of Highever's daughter. "She sounds like an extraordinary woman."
"Oh, she is," the Warden grinned. "I had no idea she was even going to be there, much less swing whatever nobles backing Loghain to our favor."
"I remember you mentioning her once or twice. What Howe did to her was unforgivable, and knowing that you helped bring him the... justice that he deserves should help her rest easier." Arella watched him curiously as he tilted his head backwards to rest against the wall, his slender fingers teasing the back of his hand in a circle as he thought. "I don't know of many who would be able to stand up to him in such a way after what happened."
Pursing her lips, the little elf tried to remember exactly how Elissa had phrased her explanation. Both she and Alistair had discovered their new friend standing outside the Landsmeet chamber. Despite the glassy look in her eyes, she'd held herself a little higher when she asked of the outcome, a slight tilt to her chin. "She said... She said that she was able to be there and say those things because her wounds were no longer fresh. She'd had her time to heal. Knowing that she could help was enough, I suppose, to convince her that it was a good idea."
Just then, there was a knock at his door. Rell's attention jerked in the direction of Alistair as he poked his head in, a smile lighting his face. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but Eamon's fit to be tied. Anora wants to speak to the Warden and evidently I'm no better than a hunk of moldy cheese."
"Oh! She told me that she wanted to talk to me, but I forgot." Laughing, she scrambled up from her seat beside Otto's bed. How she could forget that the Queen wanted to talk to her, she wasn't sure, but she was sure that she'd never gotten up so fast in all of her life. Hurrying over to Otto's side, she dug a knee into the bed and hugged him as she usually did, though she remained as careful as she had since the very first time. "You really don't have to listen to me ramble on and on all the time, you know."
Otto's laugh was quiet and warm; his palm was heavy on her back. "I like to listen. You tell some very interesting stories."
Rolling her eyes at him, she pulled away, rushing to the door only to stop cold in her tracks a moment later. Before he was able to ask her what was wrong, she'd whirled around and grabbed for the book on the bedside table, murmuring something about the volume and how absent-minded she was.
"And next time you visit," he told her as she went to leave behind Alistair, "you have to tell me where you came about that book."
She paused, her entire body gone rigid, only to look back at him with a bitten lip, her fingers clutching onto the book. "Okay. I'll... remember that." Nodding, mostly to herself, she turned back towards the door. "It was nice visiting with you. Wynne should be here later."
A small smile and another nod later, and she was gone.