Eternal love and gratitude to twist_shimmy, darkrose and scarylady for feedback and beta work.
Duncan nodded to the guard in Highever colors at the steel-bound oaken door to the family quarters of Castle Cousland, and the guard saluted as he passed from the exterior corridor into what he had come to consider the inner sanctum of the Cousland clan.
Windowless stone walls covered in finely woven and embroidered tapestries surrounded him. Here the interior was lit only by torches and candles giving off a warm, inviting glow that evoked the feeling of night even at midday. Located in the center of the castle, the family quarters had been designed long ago to be protective against invading enemies. Only the single guarded door provided entry and exit to the rest of the wing. Even the bedchambers had no windows, save for narrow slits high on the walls that could be shuttered or opened to allow air to circulate if the weather was right. If the castle was breached and overrun, the guard could fall back to the family quarters to defend their lord and make their final stand.
At least, that was the intended purpose of the design. Teyrn Bryce Cousland had put the arrangements to far more creative use. With the guard stationed outside the entire wing, one could go from one bedchamber to another within the privacy of the family wing itself with no gossiping eyes to see who was sleeping in whose chamber. Only the most intimately trusted friends of the Cousland family stayed in the family wing. All other guests were quartered within the separate guest wing.
"The teyrn and teyrna should be with you shortly, Warden-Commander," William, the chamberlain who had escorted him to his room, informed him with perfect courtesy. The chamberlain set down his packs near the wardrobe and asked, "Shall I order a bath prepared for you, ser?"
"Yes, thank you," Duncan said, and William gave him a smile and a nod, bowing slightly as he excused himself.
The Warden-Commander of Ferelden had just begun unbuckling his baldric when a maid rapped on the door and entered bearing buckets of hot water. A squire accompanied her to help Duncan with the removal of his armor and Duncan was happy to leave the lad to his task. Though he was perfectly proficient at doing it himself and had been for years, it was pleasant to spare himself the awkward bending and twisting and working of ties and buckles with one hand. He had a squire at the Grey Warden compound in Denerim who normally helped him don and doff his armor, but when he traveled to Castle Cousland, he traveled alone, knowing his all his needs would be met by the Couslands and their capable staff of servants and retainers.
By now, he imagined his squire was somewhere on the northern edge of the Bannorn, traveling south with the new Grey Warden recruits. He had brought Daveth with him from Denerim to the tournament in the northern port city of Highever, where he had found and recruited the Redcliffe-born knight, Ser Jory. His intention had originally been to travel directly south to Ostagar with them to join the king's army, but when the invitation to stay at Castle Cousland for a few days in order to test another knight had reached him, he had decided to send Daveth and Jory on to Ostagar to wait with the royal army and the rest of the Wardens while Duncan took the opportunity to find another recruit. The Grey Wardens desperately needed to increase their numbers before the archdemon made his appearance, and any opportunity to find qualified candidates had to be taken.
If he was honest with himself, however, he would admit there were other inducements for visiting Castle Cousland. It had been far too long since his last visit, and with the looming Blight, Duncan felt his mortality all too well. He knew in his heart this would be his last trip to Highever, his last time in the company of his friends. He wanted to say goodbye, and find comfort in them while he still could.
When, he wondered, had Castle Cousland started to feel like home to him, despite the infrequency of his visits?
Once Duncan was stripped down to his linen under-shirt and breeches, the squire bowed out of the chamber. The chambermaid completed preparing his bath and left as well. Finally alone, Duncan stripped to his skin and sank into the steaming water, relaxing. He was on the verge of drifting off to sleep, weary with long days of travel, when another rap on his chamber door startled him to alertness. Placing his hand upon the hilt of the dagger he had laid upon the side of the basin, he called out permission to enter.
"Duncan!" Bryce Cousland's voice filled the chamber. "Welcome back, old friend!"
Duncan laid aside his dagger and clasped the teyrn's hand, receiving a pat on his damp shoulder before his host made himself comfortable, sitting on the foot of the bed. Bryce's lovely and gracious wife, Eleanor, followed him in and shut the door behind her.
"Welcome, Duncan," she said with an affectionate smile, and leaned over the basin to bestow a kiss upon his lips. Duncan's wet hand came up from the water to cup the back of her head and he returned the kiss with the passion of one who had been without companionship for far too long.
"Thank you, Bryce, Eleanor," Duncan replied when the teyrna pulled away with a final caress down the line of his jaw. She went to sit beside her husband, who with an eager smile began unlacing the vest-like bodice she wore. Duncan smiled and leaned back in the basin.
There were, indeed, other inducements to visit Castle Cousland.
No one outside the Cousland family knew that Duncan and Bryce had met as boys in the Free Marches and had spent their days in youthful experimentation, discovering pleasure together. Nor did anyone know that the teyrn had taken to wife a woman who once had worked as a whore in an Antivan brothel. To Duncan alone had his old friend and one-time lover confided that particular fact.
Years after he first met Bryce Cousland, Duncan's new position as a Grey Warden had brought him back to Ferelden and into contact with his friend once more, and it was then that Bryce had made Duncan his confidante, with Eleanor's approval. The teyrn was always discreet; any connection to his wife's past he had been carefully concealed and any knowledgeable parties paid well for their silence. Voluptuaries, both—Bryce by nature, and Eleanor by training—they found themselves frustrated by the fact that there were certain pleasures that were not deemed discreet enough to be shared even with their closest friends. It was to fulfill that role that they had chosen Duncan.
Why they had decided they could trust him, Duncan did not know. Perhaps they correctly surmised that his position as the new Warden-Commander of Ferelden had made him pragmatic and unwilling to form judgments. Regardless of their reasons, when it was made clear that his hosts desired that he should lie with Eleanor while Bryce watched, Duncan could find no reason to object. The teyrna was a lovely and passionate woman, and Duncan had pleasant memories of his time with Bryce in meadows and haylofts all those years ago. And if Bryce and Eleanor found in Duncan the one person in all of Ferelden in whom they could confide their truths, Duncan found in them the one sanctuary in all of Ferelden where he did not have to toe a very tight diplomatic line and could be himself.
However, even Duncan found himself surprised by the scheme they had concocted, once it was revealed to him. In the wake of the rebellion against the Orlesian occupation, the Couslands' preeminence had been under threat, most notably from the new Teyrn of Gwaren, the one-time freeholder Loghain Mac Tir. Neither Bryce nor Duncan was certain what had transpired to give Loghain such an enmity toward the Couslands. Still, as the only other teyrn in Ferelden—and also as a war hero and confidante of the late King Maric, not to mention father-in-law to the current king, Cailan—Loghain was a powerful voice in the Landsmeet. And he had determinedly set himself against anything Cousland proposed.
To combat this, Bryce and Eleanor had conceived a plan together to build an empire for their family based on Bryce's political acumen and Eleanor's charm and sensuality. What they could not achieve by shrewd negotiation, they would win by seduction, allowing Eleanor to form discreet relationships and liaisons with carefully selected individuals and thus engendering goodwill that would pave the way for valuable votes within the Landsmeet, profitable trade contracts, land concessions, and much more.
It had proven a wildly successful endeavor, and by the time Duncan had come to Highever, the Cousland name was flying higher than ever before.
"It's been too long since you've been to visit us," Eleanor chided, bringing Duncan back to the present. She batted Bryce's hands away after he'd parted the satin kirtle she wore beneath her outer bodice far enough to display a generous hint of cleavage.
"I apologize, Lady Eleanor," Duncan said, forcing himself to continue to bathe casually, as though he were not as eager as Bryce himself for the welcome the teyrn and his lady had in store for him. "These last three years have been busy. With the Blight looming, I've been traveling a good deal more than I used to, seeking recruits; from Dragon's Peak, the West Hills, Redcliffe... I'd even travel to Gwaren if I thought I would be welcome by Teyrn Loghain's people. A little over a year ago I was even in Orlais for a conference of the Warden-Commanders of Thedas. I'm rarely in Denerim for long these days, or anywhere else for that matter."
"We were thrilled to find you were in Highever for the tournament," Bryce remarked. "I'm glad we could induce you come stay with us. I only wish I could be here for longer, but unfortunately I'm due to leave tonight for Ostagar myself, as soon as Rendon Howe gets here. The king has ordered us to gather our forces here and march directly south. I don't know how he's managed to take so long to muster his troops and get them from Amaranthine to Highever, but he's done it. Among his many other shortcomings, Howe leaves a great deal to be desired in the administration of his arling."
As always, Eleanor grimaced at the mention of Howe's name. Aware as he was of some of the events which had transpired to make the teyrna loathe the man so, Duncan was not surprised it took nothing short of the king mobilizing the northern armies for war to force Eleanor to permit the man in her castle again.
He nodded. "The king had mentioned he intended to summon you to bring Highever's troops to Ostagar."
Eleanor gave a fretful frown. "Well, hopefully with the both of you there you'll manage to look after one another."
Duncan tried not to let himself frown as well. It disturbed him more than he liked to know that Bryce and Fergus Cousland would both be there at Ostagar. The king was being negligent in refusing to summon more troops and it was far too likely Highever's men would pay the price. The size of the darkspawn horde was immense, and if the archdemon should appear...
Duncan shook himself, dispelling the thought. He would not think about that here, in the refuge that Castle Cousland had become for him over the decades. In this, his final visit, he would have peace.
"How fares the rest of your family?" he asked instead.
"Fergus and Oriana are well and will be eager to see you, I'm certain," Bryce answered. "Their son Oren is growing into a fine young lad. As for Rìona, well... You'll have to see my pup to believe it, Duncan. She's not the gangly girl she was last time you visited."
The warmth in Bryce's voice made Duncan look away awkwardly. If there was one aspect of his friendship with the Couslands that left him feeling ambivalent, it was the fact that they had decided to bring their children up with the same approach to diplomacy they themselves had employed to such great success. Upon reaching puberty, Fergus and Rìona had begun their tutelage in the same courtesan's training their mother had once received in Antiva.
In Antiva, however, such training was usually only overseen by the parents and conducted by retired courtesans and hired surrogates for the practice of more hands-on skills. The Couslands, unable to trust anyone to act as tutors and surrogates without actually sending to Antiva to hire them—which would have been foolish and indiscreet, given how assiduously they had worked to erase any connection Eleanor had to her past—had elected to train their children themselves.
Duncan had been stunned to discover this. Bryce had had the grace to look somewhat sheepish, but had shrugged and explained, "We cannot trust the discretion of anyone we might hire here. Fereldan sensibilities are too modest and the gossip would be ruinous. It is not necessarily a course either Eleanor or I would desire, and we've made it clear to our children that if they do not wish to learn, they are not required to do so and may stop at any time. However, there are dangerous and destabilizing forces at work within the Landsmeet, and if they have their way with Ferelden's future, it will be a disaster. It's important that our children to have every weapon at their disposal when their time comes to carry on the Cousland name, and so we teach them this just as we teach them diplomacy or skills at arms."
His duty as a Grey Warden called upon him to be far too pragmatic at times, and he had long since given over any pretensions of morality or idealism, and so Duncan resisted any impulse to judge his friend. Bryce Cousland liked to say that once enough taboos had been broken, the rest seemed ridiculously arbitrary, and Duncan couldn't find any reason to disagree. Perhaps he had seen too much, or perhaps his old friend's decadent sensibilities were beginning to rub off on him.
"Will she be wed soon?" Duncan asked politely, not willing to give Bryce an opportunity to wax rhapsodic with details about his daughter that Duncan would prefer not to be aware the father knew.
Bryce's laughter at the question was far too eager and made Duncan look at him curiously as he rose from the tub and reached for a linen drying cloth. "We're all hoping she will," Bryce answered.
Eleanor was far more forthcoming. "Rìona has her eye set on the throne," she explained.
Duncan lowered the cloth to peer askance at her. "What about Queen Anora?"
"Childless," Bryce said casually, "even after more than five years of marriage. It's common knowledge about court that Cailan is a lusty husband and has done his best to beget an heir, but so far with no success. Just over two years ago, right before Rìona turned sixteen, talk began to circulate that Cailan would soon find it necessary to have his marriage to Anora annulled and seek out another bride. Though she was approaching the age when we would have allowed her take a lover if she had chosen, Rìona instead elected to preserve her virginity and await the right time to make a play for the king. Now that Anora is approaching thirty, the moment seemed ripe. We were in the process of making plans to take Rìona to court and present her when news of the Blight arrived and we were commanded to marshal Highever's forces and march to Ostagar."
Bryce drew a deep breath and said, as though bewildered, "Personally, I thought this business was all behind me when I turned down the crown in favor of Maric, but this is Rìona's wish and it's a sound plan, all told. I continue to hold true to my loyalty to the Theirin dynasty, but King Cailan has not the broad support and popularity his father had. Uniting the Cousland and Theirin lines can only strengthen the monarchy. Certainly it could help offset Loghain's influence in the Landsmeet. I swear the man gets more insular and paranoid with each passing year. Safeguarding against invasion is all well and good—I am no more eager to be a vassal of the Orlesians than he is—but his preferences would leave us without allies should we need them."
Eleanor rose and began toweling Duncan's hair dry; after so many years of playing out variations of this same scene in the company of his friends, Duncan made no effort to hide the effect her nearness was having. "Naturally it would be a feat to have a Cousland on the throne, though I wonder if it will truly make our daughter happy. She's a creature of passion, and this self-imposed chastity is wearying for her. The poor girl is so frustrated it's nearly impossible to be around her these days, and I do not think she will enjoy the degree of discretion with which she will need to conduct herself should she become queen."
"You worry too much, Eleanor," Bryce scolded. "Our pup knows her own mind."
"Does she?" Eleanor asked, arching an eyebrow at him. "The only reasons the courtesans of Antiva don't actually run the country is because they realize that the moment they do more than subtly manipulate those in power, they become perceived as a threat and their own power will be lessened. I wonder if our daughter hasn't taken this notion of using the sensual arts to advance the Cousland name and influence to a far too ambitious extreme."
Conversation was quickly dismissed, however, as Eleanor lowered her cloth and stroked her fingers lightly down the line of Duncan's spine, trailing them over the curve of his backside. She began pressing kisses across his scarred shoulder blades, her hand circling around the front of his hip as Bryce watched, blue eyes avid.
Duncan turned and took up the job the teyrn had left off, deftly unlacing his hostess's bodice and letting his hands cup her breasts through the finely-woven shift she wore beneath. She kissed him again, this time with far more passionate intent than her earlier kiss of greeting had contained. Sighing, Duncan forced himself to dismiss the thought that this would be his final time with her, in this place that had come to feel like a home to him, and guided Eleanor back to the bed.
It was quite some time later that he lay with Eleanor resting on his chest and Bryce sprawled out beside them. At some point the teyrn had opened his doublet and unlaced his breeches, but he hadn't participated as he sometimes did, and he didn't seem particularly interested in seeking his own pleasure. Such was often the case, and Bryce had explained long ago that the appeal was in watching Eleanor have her pleasure without any distractions. Now he lightly ran his fingers up and down his wife's back as she rested against Duncan, drawing a contented hum from the teyrna.
"How are matters with your Grey Wardens?" the teyrn asked when the rush of passion had cooled enough to allow for conversation.
Duncan frowned. "Tithes have been meager and our numbers are not nearly what I would prefer they be to face a Blight," he said. "I've been recruiting as actively as I can, even invoking the Right of Conscription more often than would be my wont under less dire circumstances, but qualified fighters are scarce and the welcome I receive in other parts of the realm is not nearly so warm as the one given me here in Highever."
"According to Lady Landra and some of my other correspondents, the gossip in Denerim is that this can't possibly be a real Blight," Eleanor remarked, lifting her head. "After four hundred years, no one seems to believe it can happen. The nobles aren't willing to invest all the time, effort and gold it takes to train up skilled men-at-arms only to have the best of them poached by the Grey Wardens to fight a threat no one really believes to be possible."
"Precisely, my lady," Duncan agreed. "Without divulging Grey Warden secrets, I cannot convince them that there is no question this Blight is real. Resentment has grown apace with the pressure I've exerted for greater tithes and more recruits."
"Perhaps what you need is a goodwill ambassador," Bryce suggested. "If you cannot convince them by more direct means, seduce them instead. Recruit a young woman with the charm and political savvy to bring them around to your way of thinking without the heavy-handed application of the Right of Conscription. You've seen how well such methods have worked for us over the years."
Duncan allowed himself a laugh, though it quickly occurred to him that the idea was not as absurd as it initially seemed. It would require suppressing his scruples enough to play the panderer, but then, in these desperate times his scruples were not what they might once have been. "I can hardly imagine where I would find such a recruit. If her primary role was not combative, I suppose I could settle for moderate, rather than stellar, fighting ability. But she would still need to be a skilled fighter on top of being possessed of these other abilities. I could comb every brothel in Ferelden for years before finding a qualified candidate, and I'm afraid I do not have years to spend on the endeavor. Unless you'd like to offer your daughter for recruitment?" he asked with an arch expression.
At the suggestion, Bryce looked considerably less sanguine, and Duncan admitted to himself it was good to see his easy-going friend discomposed for once. "I don't have so many children that I would gladly see them all off to war," the teyrn said, bristling. "Unless you intend to invoke the Right of Conscription—?"
"Have no fear, my friend," Duncan said, his tone conciliatory. He did not want what was likely to be his final visit to Highever to be filled with strife and resentment. "At tempting as recruitment might be, I am content to wait and test this Ser Gilmore you mentioned. But you can see my dilemma. Your suggestion has possibilities, but under the circumstances—"
Eleanor sat up abruptly, rising from the bed and gathering her clothing in stiff, jerky movements. "I personally don't think it a horrible idea to consider Rìona," she told them. "I think her chances of finding a purpose amongst the Grey Wardens are at least as high as the path she's presently put herself upon. I think she's being foolishly ambitious with this business of being queen, and I think you're being foolish to encourage her!"
"I'm entrusting her to look after the teyrnir," Bryce argued. "If she's qualified to do that, there's no reason she won't make an outstanding queen."
"It's not a matter of competence!" Eleanor retorted, smoothing her shift down over her hips and reaching for her kirtle. "I don't question her ability, merely her temperament. I think she's making a trap for herself, and you're baiting it!"
"Eleanor!" Bryce sounded surprised by his lady's sudden vehemence. He rose from the bed to cross to her, taking her by the shoulders. "Why have you not mentioned these misgivings before?"
"I don't know." The teyrna's shoulders slumped and she shook her head. "Perhaps I'm the one being foolish. I should be thrilled, after all. My daughter, the daughter of a common whore, rising to the Fereldan throne? It's scarcely to be believed!"
"You have never been common, love," Bryce said warmly, lifting her hand to kiss it a strangely courtly gesture, considering they were only partially dressed and in Duncan's bedchamber. Not for the first time, Duncan envied their easy affection with one another.
The teyrna rewarded her husband's gallantry with a halfhearted smile, lacing up her bodice. "I apologize, my lord. I think it's these preparations for going to war. I'm... uneasy with everything today, it seems. Ignore me. Lady Landra should be just about done sleeping off her hangover now. I will go check upon her and see to preparations for supper. Again, welcome back, Duncan," she said, bowing her head and leaving the chamber. Bryce frowned after her.
"She fears for me and Fergus," the teyrn said, staring at the closed door a long moment, his own shoulders falling. He did not turn to look at Duncan as he righted his own clothing. "Make yourself at home, my friend. In my absence, Rìona shall see to whatever you need while you are here testing Ser Gilmore. I will go see if Howe has managed to arrive yet, and meet you in the Great Hall to discuss preparations for the march to Ostagar."
"As you say, my lord," Duncan acknowledged.
"Duncan—" The teyrn looked at him at last, then shook his head, dismissing whatever he had been about to say. "Never mind. It's good to have you back, my friend."