W/N - Thanks so much for checking out Tea, Incense, and the Sea. I wanted to do something nostalgic with Sten. I'd like to take a look now at Arl Rendon Howe, one of the big villains of DA:O. I'd like to see if I could give him a little more human touch and set up the pattern of vengeance that runs deep in the DA story. I'm trying to draw a bit on my knowledge of the Wars of the Roses, which seems to have political parallels with DA. I've got a couple of sword fights brewing in future chapters.

Other malarkey - I wrote another page of the ME1 ending that I let languish. Admiral Margot Kimmel's treason will bear fruit for the Collectors soon, but Shepard and Kaidan get to enjoy Christmas first.

My nephews and nieces wore me out at Thanksgiving dinner. I burned more calories than I took in for sure. I battled my sensei to a draw, 4-4, in our last Kendo bout. I have also been teaching the beginners' Iaido (drawing and cutting with the katana) class. I guess that makes me Alice Sensei. :P


Highever Castle – Before the Battle of Ostagar

At first, it was extremely difficult to keep his cool…to control his expressions…to lie to his lord, the man with whom he had fought side by side to drive out the Orlesians from their land long ago. A major slipup would give it all away and until the deed was done, he would surely hang should he fail. But, the head of such a noble house could never die like a common criminal. Once it was all over, the victors would write history.

At three bells past noon, Arl Rendon Howe arrived at Highever with the vanguard of his army to pay homage to and to support Teryn Bryce Cousland in the coming battle with the Darkspawn. In the face of a growing chill, Rendon pulled off his doeskin gloves with a snort and slapped them on the pommel of his saddle, knocking the dry dust out of the soft material. He swung his right leg over the saddle's cantle and hopped down to the cobblestone courtyard, his boots clicking on the ground as his spurs jingled. He took a long look up at the stone and mortar walls of the Highever Castle and they were indeed formidable, flanked with angled turrets and gatehouses that sported arrow slits and holes for boiling oil. It would be nearly suicidal to assault during a stand up siege. Fortunately, that wasn't going to happen. He looked up and saw that dark clouds were gathering. It might actually rain after all. He tucked his gloves into his sword belt and tasted the clear, Highever air. Its scent would be even sweeter when it was his. Once the grooms had taken the horses of the cavalry to the stables and the infantry were shown to the barracks, the Arl met the Teryn in the throne room.

It had become an increasingly bitter pill to swallow to bow to his liege lord. Rendon Howe was a powerful lord in his own right, owning the vast and wealthy fief of Amaranthine. The deepwater ports along the coast of his lands made for rich trade with Rivain, Antiva, the Free Marches, the Tevinter Imperium, and even hated Orlais. With such fortune in gold and arms, why should the Arl bow to any man save the King, fool that King Cailan Theirin was?

In the stately throne room of Highever Castle, Howe cast his eyes across the many banners that hung from the stone walls. He recognized a score of the tapestries as having been seized from Orlesian chevaliers during the war of liberation for Ferelden. Those should have been his banners. He had earned them just as much as the Teryn had. Just because his father sided with Orlais, the Howes have had to bend the knee to the Couslands. Rendon snorted and curled his lip. Things would change.

His valet took his riding coat, which now smelled of horse sweat, and helped him don an elaborate blue doublet, leather vest, and cape. The Arl would look his best for this event. After all, what was soon to pass would become history and the artists and scribes would need good subject matter. He stroked the little gray soul patch on his chin and strode forward to greet the Teryn of Highever.

With a grand flourish and bow, Rendon swept his cape back with his right hand. "My lord, it is good to see you again," he said in his dry, aristocratic manner.

In contrast, Bryce Cousland was all smiles as if he were genuinely glad for the meeting. The Teryn bowed in return, sweeping a hand past his gold and crimson satin doublet, lined in fur. "None of the 'lord' nonsense, Rendon, we have known each other for too long for such formalities. Thank you for answering the call. From what the messengers have said, King Cailan will need all the troops he can muster to defeat the Darkspawn. Initial indications are that this is indeed a Blight."

Rendon sighed. "I am not so convinced, Bryce. However, I have answered the call dutifully. My councilors will be joining us shortly to discuss the battle plans."

"Well, the true status of the Blight remains to be seen, but we shall prove our fealty to the king regardless. I trust that you had no problems on the road to Highever?"

Rendon felt a flush of heat rush along his cheeks and he looked away momentarily. An icy pit formed in his stomach for just a heartbeat and then went away. He forced an awkward smile. "Hmmm, truth be told, the rains in Amaranthine have turned the roads into quite the quagmire. The main body of my army is still bogged down on the march just past the border." There was no turning back now. Bryce's scouts could easily counter that story and reveal that the roads to Amaranthine were clear…but that would take hours at the minimum. And, the Couslands didn't have that long. General Loghain Mac Tir needed to hold up his end of the bargain. Fate would now take its course.

Bryce looked disappointed and just a little annoyed. Rendon had received the summons to muster several days ago. Even at the worst of times, an army could march from Vigil's Keep to Highever in two day's time. Always a temperate and forgiving one though, the Teryn shrugged in the end, his face softening. "Well, no matter, I'll send my eldest boy, Fergus, ahead to Ostagar with my men. When your army arrives, we shall ride together again, just like the old days." There was a sense of pride in his manner, his chin back and his hands on his hips.

It was getting easier at this point to put up the front. Bryce appreciated humor and Rendon was glad to deliver. "True, only we didn't have as much gray in our hair back then. And, we fought Orlesians, not Darkspawn," he said, barely disguising his venom for Orlais. All it would take was a few more hours and the Howe fortunes would be restored.

Bryce chuckled. "At least the smell will be the same."

It looked like he was about to say something else when guards opened the doors to the throne room and came to attention. "Lady Alice Cousland, to see the Teryn!"

It had been a couple of years since the Arl had seen Bryce's younger child and she had grown quite a bit, filling out her once lanky frame into an obviously athletic woman. Her black hair was wild and unkempt from training, most likely, as she swaggered in, wearing a leather brigandine with a longsword strapped to her waist in a scabbard. She ran her fingers through her hair to comb out the tangles and she almost looked presentable. Even as a skinny girl, she still ran around like a boy.

Still, he had to admit that, under all of that sweat and grime, she was quite stunning. She might have made a fine wife for his eldest son, Thomas, at one time. But, things had changed. She could never live with what was to come…nor should she. The Couslands always had their honor. It would be a pity, really. If she could only be more like his daughter, Delilah, so gentle and so suggestible. After the reintroduction, Rendon gave the girl an approving nod. "I think she's become a lovely young woman," he told Bryce and he actually meant it. There was just a pang of guilt and regret, but he continued to smile and it went away.

Thomas met Lady Alice a few months ago when the possibility of a courtship and union was still strong. The young man told his father that he found the girl enchanting and alluring…that is once she cleaned herself up and put away her sword. Sorry Thomas, we will find you another fine bride. The Howes will endure. The Arl did truly love his children; Thomas, Delilah, and Nathaniel. They were the light of his life and he told himself, over and over, that he was doing it for them. He even tried to convince himself that he acted for the good of Ferelden. However, he knew in the very center of his soul that it was ambition that drove him, but he had to sleep with himself and lies of convenience were just part of being a noble.

They exchanged pleasantries for a time before Bryce announced that his daughter would command Highever in his absence. It was difficult to hide the grin that spread across Rendon's face. It would make things much easier to have an inexperienced child to oppose him.

"I will only leave a token force behind in Highever, Pup," Bryce told his daughter. "You will need to keep peace in the region while we are at war."

Rendon nodded his agreement. This just kept getting better and better. Bryce's heir, Fergus, would march out in a few hours with the bulk of the Cousland force – this would be child's play.

Bryce then turned and gestured to a man who was standing along another wall, examining the tapestries. "But, there is someone you must meet." He waved to the guards on that side of the room. "Please, bring Duncan over."

A tall, powerfully-built man sauntered over. His hair was as dark as night and pulled back into a pony tail. The point of his beard was as sharp as any sword as were his piercing eyes. Rendon looked this Duncan up and down and he recognized the livery of…the Grey Wardens. His heart stopped mid beat.

Maker's breath, does Bryce suspect?

What could the Warden Commander of Ferelden possibly want in Highever? Whatever it was, it could not be good for the Arl. Rendon's mind raced with thoughts about how to deal with this twist of fate.

Duncan crossed his arms over his chest and bowed. "Teryn Cousland, it is an honor to be a guest in your halls." The Warden had an easy, confident manner, no doubt born of years of combating the Darkspawn in the most foul places in Thedas.

Rendon needed to press for intelligence without tipping his hand. He gulped hard, keeping a tight rein on the twitches in his face. "My lord, you made no mention of a Grey Warden being present."

"Duncan arrived only recently and unannounced. I am under the assumption that he needs recruits to battle the Darkspawn."

At the mention of recruits, Rendon relaxed visibly, nearly tuning out the rest of the conversation. Recruits for the Grey Wardens, he thought, let the Darkspawn take them all. So, Bryce did not suspect any foul play. Still, Duncan was a world renowned warrior. His mere presence would be problematic. "A man of Duncan's stature requires certain considerations, my lord. I am…at a disadvantage." The Arl wracked his brain for solutions. A single Grey Warden might be worth ten common soldiers on the battlefield, but the Warden Commander…. The entire scheme could fall apart because of a single unexpected individual. Howe took short, controlled breaths to keep the rise and fall of his chest even and unhurried. He turned back to glance at the captain of his personal guard and made an almost imperceptible nod. The man understood the gravity of the matter. Whether they could actually do something about Duncan was another matter.

As Rendon's mind returned to the conversation at hand, Bryce was still speaking to Duncan about recruits, particularly some knight named Ser Gimli or Ser Giblet or something. The man was a good fighter, but he certainly was no Duncan…or even Lady Cousland for that matter.

Duncan nodded, but then gestured towards young Alice. "If I might be so bold, Teryn Coulsand, your daughter would make an excellent candidate."

Bryce's expression changed immediately. As he crossed his arms and stepped in between Duncan and the lady, Rendon knew that the Warden was right. Howe's intelligence told him that Lady Cousland had learned from the finest sword masters that money could procure and she was held to the highest knightly standards of physical training. There was an unconfirmed rumor that she had defeated both Fergus and her father in a sparring match.

"Honor that it may be, she is still my daughter," Bryce said, his voice elevated now.

For a moment, Rendon actually hoped that this would come about. He was not overjoyed by the idea of what he would have to do to her and her departure to the Grey Wardens might avert that unpleasantness. Once gone to that mystic order, she would have to foreswear any vengeance while the Darkspawn were still a major threat. He never wanted it to be said that he lacked compassion or mercy. The issue came to a head and Duncan put his hands up to appease the Teryn and the matter faded away. Pity.

Lady Cousland was clearly unhappy about being relegated to such an ignoble role in history and her lips pursed and her brows furrowed. "But Father, can I not join you and Fergus in the battle?"

Bryce's hand came up instantly, freezing any further protest in her throat. The Teryn launched into a lecture on duty. Alice bowed her head, resuming her compliant posture. It was clear that she loved and respected her father. You'll get your war soon enough, Lady Cousland. No sense in rushing to your death.

Maker, she is so much like Nathaniel. The same devotion, the same sense of family honor. If only she were born a Howe.

Lady Cousland crossed her arms in front of her chest and bowed to the three old warriors. With a smart, disciplined turn, she marched from the room. Rendon glanced out of a nearby window and realized that it had to be close to five bells. He could smell the air changing and cooling with gathering moisture. Darkness would arrive soon.