"You know, I never liked Anora as a child," Alistair said softly to Alim as they crept through the Arl of Denerim's estate. "She was born snooty."
"Hey, it was your foster father who wanted us to rescue her," Alim replied. "We could always leave her here to rot. Then you can take your chances with the landsmeet. Maybe they'll make you king any way."
"You had to remind me of that, didn't you?" Alistair said, growling a little.
"I hate to interrupt your little heart to heart, wardens," Zevran said from behind them. "But the idea of stealth is not to be heard and you're both noisier than an Antivan whorehouse at the moment."
"Sorry, Zev," Alim said, grinning at his fellow elf.
"And don't think turning a charming smile on me will make any difference, keep your mouth shut and let us get on with this."
They were in the dungeons. Already they'd managed to free Riordan - it had been a great relief to both Alim and Alistair to discover they weren't in fact the only two wardens left in Ferelden. But the Arl's dungeons held many more secrets.
They freed the elven man, the...crazy man who seemed less inclined to leave than Alim would have thought, given his state, and finally Vaughn, a lord who's support in the landsmeet would be valuable, even if he did make Alim's flesh crawl a little. The lyrium addicted Templar refused to leave his cell, however, and Alim could tell from the sympathy in Alistair's eyes that it was unlikely freedom would do him any good in any case.
The final cell held a surprise.
She was dressed in a simple linen shift, torn in places, but relatively clean. Her dark hair hung in tangles around her face, framing her high cheekbones and grey eyes. The face would have been beautiful if it wasn't so haunted. Black shadows lurked under her eyes and her cheeks were hollow with despair. She looked up from her corner as they approached the bars, skittering backward in sudden fear, hugging her knees with thin arms.
"Maker's breath," Alim heard Alistair say. "Who is she?"
"Who are you?" she asked - her voice rough, but soft. Her eyes reminded Alim of the werewolves they had fought in the Brecilian forest - wild, desperate, but also powerful. "Are you from the Arl?"
"We're here to help," Alistair said.
She laughed - a desperate, horrible sound. "What help could you possibly be?" she said.
Alim motioned to Zevran who came forward to pick the lock on the door. She startled at the new face and tried to press herself even further into the corner.
"Keep away," she said.
"It is all right," Zevran said softly as he worked at the lock. "We are not here to hurt you, dear lady." There was a click, and the door swung inwards. She eyed them warily and made no move to leave the cell.
"Are you hurt?" Alim said, moving forwards.
She threw up her hands. "I said keep away!" she cried.
"Wynne?" he said. "Maybe you can help her?"
The white haired mage nodded and stepped forward. The girl tensed, but did not cry out again as Wynne approached. "It's all right, child," Wynne said. "I'm not going to hurt you. None of us are."
"Who are you?"
"My name is Wynne. I'm a healer. Are you hurt? I can help if you are."
She shook her head. "I'm not hurt. Who are they?" she motioned towards Alim and the others.
"They are grey wardens," Wynne said. "They're here to help the Queen."
"The Queen is here?" the grey eyes seemed to light up in recognition. "Why would Anora be here? Isn't she at the palace with Cailan?"
"She knows the queen?" Alistair said. "She must be a noble."
The girl shuddered and backed up again at the sound of Alistair's voice. Wynne shot a look at Alistair that plainly said shut up.
"It's all right, child. I'm afraid Cailan is dead. How long have you been here?"
She shook her head. "Forever. A long time. I don't know. How long since Highever fell?"
"Highever was destroyed by bandits nearly a year ago," Alim said softly.
"Bandits!" the girl snorted. "A whole year. Is my brother alive? Did they find him?"
"Fergus. Howe said he was dead, but I didn't believe him. Not even when he...when he...." She drew in a breath that was almost a gasp, "...no. Fergus was going to Ostagar...."
"Dear Maker, it's Miranda Cousland!" Alistair burst out. "We were told all the Couslands were dead!"
The girl had shuddered again at Alistair's voice, but she seemed to take interest in his words. "Not dead," she said, finally. "As good as, perhaps. Do you know what happened to my brother?"
"Fergus reached Ostagar but he was on patrol when the main horde attacked," Alistair answered. "No one knows what became of him."
"Lying bastard," she hissed through her teeth.
"Hey!" Alistair said.
Alim put his hand on his friend's arm. "I don't think she means you, Alistair," he said.
Miranda Cousland, if that was who she was, got to her feet with surprising agility. She fixed Alim with a hard gaze, lifting her chin. Alim could see the clear marks of fingers on her neck and along her jaw - bruises on top of bruises. Her arms were also covered with them, but she showed no sign they were bothering her. "An elf mage?" she said. "And a warden you say?" Alim nodded. "Why are you here?"
"We need to find Howe," Alim said. "One of the other prisoners said he would be in the dungeons. Have you seen him?"
"He passed here an hour ago," she said. "I will come with you."
"Um.. I don't think that's the best idea," Alistair said. Her head spun round and her grey gaze bored into Alim's fellow warden. Alim could feel Alistair's nervousness from where he stood. The woman was frightening in her intensity.
"You don't," she said, her voice dripping with scorn.
Alim took pity on his friend. "Not to be rude, my lady," he said. "But we're heading into fights and danger and you're not exactly armed."
"That won't be a problem," she said.
"You could get hurt," Alistair pointed out.
"No," she said. "No, I couldn't. Not any more."
"Look, we'll leave the cell door open, but I recommend you stay here until we get back," Alim said. "We'll deal with Howe."
"No," she said again. Before Alim could react, she had slipped past him and was gone. Her stealth and speed were astonishing - as good as Leliana or Zevran at their best. There was no way they'd be able to find her unless she wanted them to.
"Andraste's mercy," Alistair said. "Let's just hope she doesn't run straight to Howe and tell him we're here."
They made their way down - through the torture chamber. Alim didn't know how it could get any worse. He was so tense he was leaking magic - Wynne and Alistair had to keep nudging him to remind him to reign in his power.
When they finally reached Howe, all four of them were on a knife's edge of shock and anger. It had been too much to hope he would be alone save for the mage - two other powerful fighters stood next to him, their hands on their weapons, ready to defend their lord.
"Well, well, the grey warden," Howe said, crossing his arms and smiling a little - as though seeing Alim and the others there in the depths of his private dungeon was exactly what he'd expected. "I'm surprised Eamon would condone you invading my castle and murdering my men. Is he losing faith in the persuasive power of his landsmeet?"
"I'm here for Anora," Alim said.
Howe threw back his head and laughed. "The traitorous bitch has you under her thumb? Anora does love games. I'm surprised she'd play with the likes of you..."
Alim sensed her before he saw her. He tried very hard not to look in her direction, but Howe obviously had instincts trained by battle, and his head snapped towards the slight movement to his right.
Miranda Cousland had somehow scavanged some leather armour and a pair of daggers. Her hair was pulled back away from her face, which was pale and determined under its bruises, her daggers were drawn and she was crouched in a fighting stance that reminded Alim of Leliana. A rogue, he thought. Who would have thought Bryce and Eleanor Cousland would train their only daughter up for a fighter?
"Well, well..." Howe drawled. "So, you found my little Cousland pet, did you? She's a good bitch, if you ride her hard enough. I don't suppose you had time for a try though, did you?"
Miranda's mouth opened in a snarl, and Alim shuddered.
"I doubt the Landsmeet will be very sympathetic to the man who kidnapped the daughter of one of the most powerful families in Ferelden," Alistair said, and Alim heard the shake in his friend's voice.
"And you want to be king?" Howe said, turning his gaze on Alistair with a sneer. "Fine leadership material, if you wince at the thought of one girl's punishment, at the hands of her betters."
Alistair's hand flew to his sword.
"Enough talk, Howe," Alim said. "I know enough and we've enough evidence to kill you right here and not even Loghain would be able to convince the landsmeet that we were in the wrong."
Howe dropped into a fighting stance and drew his axe and dagger. "By all means," the older man said. "Try."
Miranda was moving before anyone else. She didn't hesitate, but leapt straight for Howe. Alim marveled at the energy and strength she displayed, considering how long she had been imprisoned, what had been done to her, but Howe couldn't fight her off. She wrapped herself around the man like a spider, too quickly for his guards to react. Alim took the opportunity to distract them, and started casting. Alistair needed no encouragement to wade into the fray.
While he cast, Alim watched as the Cousland girl clung to Howe's back, drawing back his head and whispering something into his ear, caressing him like a lover before drawing one dagger across his throat. The Arl fell forwards with Miranda still on his back and Alim turned his full attention back to the battle.
When Howe's companions lay dead - the mage among them that would ensure Anora's escape, Alim turned back to find Miranda still on the ground next to Howe's body.
Wynne dropped down beside her and placed a hand on her arm. She flinched away, then saw it was Wynne and relaxed a little.
"Gentlemen," Wynne said. "Why don't you leave us for a few moments."
Alim nodded and began to hustle Zevran and Alistair from the room. Alistair seemed reluctant to leave, he was looking at the two women with an unreadable expression on his face that nonetheless filled Alim with a sense of unease.
They waited in the coridoor. "What if she won't come with us?" Alistair said, nervously. Alim looked at him. "Well... we could use her support in the landsmeet," he said. "She's a Cousland - everyone thinks they're all dead, she would be able to sway at least as many people as Anora."
"Wynne will convince her to come. I doubt she would want to stay here."
"It is sometimes hard to throw off the shackles of imprisonment, my friends," Zevran said. "But she seems strong, I have hope."
A few minutes later Wynne emerged. "She's agreed to come with us back to Arl Eamon's estate," she said softly. "But she's very fragile, gentlemen. Please, don't touch her, try not to talk to her. She needs... space. And a lot of it, I'm afraid."
"Do you think she'll be able to speak for us in the landsmeet?"
Wynne shook her head. "I really don't know," she said. "If it weren't so soon I'd say yes, but we've only got a couple of days and I couldn't tell you how she'll react once she's in safety. Some women... get worse, once the threat is removed. Others spring back."
Alim suddenly noticed that Miranda had emerged from behind Wynne. She moved so silently - he could almost believe she was a spirit rather than a person. "I'll be able to speak in your landsmeet," she said softly. "I want to see Loghain fall."