title: "Blood and Rhetoric"
exegesis: An uncomfortable formal dinner at Castle Highever.
Justinian, 9:31 Dragon
An hour later, bathed and changed into the formal dress of the Wardens - soft Antivan leather boots in the courtly style, laced grey knee-breeches, and a blue velvet doublet embroidered with silver griffins over a shirt of plain white linen - Kallian belted on her swordhanger and rapped her knuckles against the door that connected her apartments to Nate's chamber. "Ready, Longshanks?"
She'd arranged for Reaver to eat with the hounds from Cousland's kennels. The mabari didn't do well at feasts - he always managed to beg something far too rich for him, with predictable and unpleasant results - but she missed the comforting nudge of his head against her hip.
"Not in the least." The open door revealed a fresh-bathed Nathaniel Howe, his long hair drawn back into a braid and fastened with a silver clasp, in identical garments - well, his doublet was linen, rather than velvet, and the embroidery white instead of silver. Varel had insisted that if the Commander of the Grey could not be persuaded into court gowns, her dress should at least be distinguished in some fashion from the rest of the Order. "You do realise half the people in this keep are plotting ways to kill me?"
"Lucky for you, you've studied poisons." She eyed his belt - suspiciously wide, considering he was only carrying one dagger and an eating knife - and thought she saw the bulge of concealed vials. "I take it you brought a wide selection of antidotes?"
"And none of them are leaving my person." Nathaniel grimaced. "You know I hate formal dinners? I thought that was the one good thing about joining the Wardens - I'd never have to sit through another formal dinner and make polite conversation with people who either resent me or want something from me. Or both."
"Surprise," Kallian said, dryly. "You'd hate what Alistair made me go through in Denerim." She sighed. Maker, she missed Leliana. The bard - her amusement, her unabashed enthusiasm for courtly gaiety, her clever eye and careful advice - had been the only thing that made Denerim's courtly round halfway bearable. "If it's any consolation, Longshanks, I don't like it either. Chin up. We have to show the banner. Try not to let anyone kill you, and if anyone makes the attempt, let me know."
"As my lady commands," he said, a flicker of irony in his eyes, and swept a courtly bow as she preceded him out the door.
Dinner took place in the great hall. The walls, hung with many lanterns, showed patches of fresh white plaster from repairs between mended and new tapestries. It was not yet quite the hour for serving, and Fergus Cousland broke off from a conversation with two of his armsmen to intercept Kallian and Nathaniel at the door. His doublet was russet silk, embroidered with gold thread. Pearls glittered on his collar, and gold armlets encircled his wrists.
And I will not think about how much they'd fetch if I fenced them. The Warden-Commander of Ferelden is not a thief. Well, not often, anyway. Not anymore.
"Kallian," he said, softly. "I should warn you about one thing before dinner. Ethelfred is Alfstanna's half-sister by a different mother. She's nearly twenty years younger than the bann, and while she's personable enough, and clever, or I wouldn't have offered for her, I suspect she may be a little... old-fashioned, in her opinions."
Old-fashioned. That could mean any number of things, but the way the teyrn's glance flicked to the tips of her ears - "You mean," Kallian said, dryly, "that's she's too well-bred to call me a knife-eared guttersnipe in public, but she'll think it very loudly?"
"Commander," Nathaniel hissed, dismayed. She ignored him. Despite the archdemon's death and Lissa Cousland's quiet unflinching support - Alistair's support being anything but quiet - she'd had to grit her teeth and smile through far too many careless insults in Denerim to be at all sanguine about Lady Ethelfred's reaction to being introduced to a knife-ear from the alienage. If the girl took against her, she'd survive it, but it would be awkward for Cousland. And for the prospect of good neighbourly relations between the Wardens and the teyrna.
Cousland winced. "I wouldn't have put it that way. But yes. I doubt she will be comfortable in your presence. Ferelden already owes you much, Kallian, and I owe you a personal debt for my sister's life and freedom. I hope you won't take it amiss if I ask you to be patient with Lady Ethelfred. She's still very young, and in time I expect she'll come to respect you as much as my sister and I do."
A pretty speech. She thought he even meant it, though how much was because saving his sister and killing an archdemon had taken her out of the category of elf and into the category of something else entirely was hard to tell. "My lord," she said, noncommittal, and inclined her head.
He seemed to take it for agreement. "Come, sit. Ser Gabran you know already. This is Ser Tirien, my captain" - a spare, plain woman in a green gown, with a swordswoman's calluses on her hands - "and my chatelaine, Lady Gwendolen Gilmore." An older woman, gowned in widow's black, with keys hung from her belt.
"A pleasure." Kallian made her bow, Nathaniel an elegant shadow behind her. Ser Tirien gave a small, distant smile and murmured something polite. Lady Gilmore did not smile. The look she bestowed upon Nathaniel that of a woman who has seen a maggot in her meat. Lovely. Someone else who wants to exhume Rendon Howe and jump up and down on his corpse.
The high table was laid for nine. By Kallian's count, and considering the evidence of the teyrn's diminished household - the civil war and the Blight between them had taken their toll on noble lords, ladies and knights of status, to say nothing of Highever's own particular misfortunes - that left three guests of rank still to enter. Kallian found herself seated at Fergus's left hand - the place of honour being reserved for the still-absent Ethelfred - with an empty space at her left. If she grasped seating etiquette correctly, that place was left for a guest from the betrothal party. Lady Gilmore, the chatelaine, commanded the foot of the table, with Sir Gabran - engaging her in quiet, intense discussion - and Ser Tirien flanking her.
The rest of the household - armsmen and upper servants - began to assemble at the lower tables. A ginger-haired minstrel took up a position by the hearth and began to play a spritely version of an old ballad on a well-polished lap harp. Oh stay your hand, Lord Judge! Oh stay your hand a while! I think I see my own father, come travelling many a mile! Reminded of Leliana, Kallian bit her lip and turned her head aside. Nathaniel caught her eye and smiled crookedly in sympathy, before turning to address the lady knight beside him. "Ser Tirien. Tirien of Gloverforth, if I'm not mistaken? Your nephew Maric and I were squires together in the Free Marches. How does your brother Bann Geoffrey?"
"He does that well," Fergus murmured in her ear, as Tirien's stern, distant face came alive. "When we were younger, he was useless at small talk. I was, too, until Mother beat it into me."
"You were friends?"
A shadow crossed his face. "Were. Yes. We were of an age. When Rendon sent him to the Marches, he was sixteen. I was a year older. Until then, I'd thought we might squire together. But my father sent me to Denerim, to squire for Cailan, and then to Antiva... Do you know, I'd forgotten, but when I was - oh, fifteen, I must have been - Nate asked Father if he could be his squire? He was so disappointed when Rendon sent him away." He shook his head, as if shaking off a memory, and said, softly: "You were right, before, to remind me that Nate is not his father, and I thank you for it."
She would have said something in reply, but at that moment a servant opened the great doors and announced in a carrying voice, "Bann Alfstanna of Waking Sea! Her sister, Lady Ethelfred of Waking Sea! Her cousin, Lady Marjorie of Helmsford!"
The hall rose in a rustle of cloth and a shuffling of feet, and the high table rose with them. Afstanna wore her embroidered gown - russet and yellow, decorated with the emblem of her bannorn - with the same martial pride Kallian remembered from Denerim. The bann had led her men personally, and the wound she'd taken in the battle had left a hitch in her step, but she walked without a cane.
The two girls - and they were girls, for neither could be much older than sixteen - who entered in her wake had little of Alstanna's commanding presence. The one on the right - Ethelfred - had features stamped from the same mould as the bann, but her mouth was fuller, softer. She wore her brown hair in the coiled braids that Anora had made popular in Cailan's reign, held back by a silver chaplet. Her green and russet gown clung to her figure: where Alfstanna was medium-tall and spare, Ethelfred was short and plump. Her companion, tall and fair-haired and plain of face, wore simple russet, without very much embroidery, and looked ill-at-ease with the flowing skirts of her gown.
"My ladies." Fergus made a courtly leg as the servant escorted the newcomers to the high table. Ethelfred received the place of honour at Fergus's right, with Alfstanna at her right, while the plain girl - Lady Marjorie - took the seat down from Kallian with a small, uncertain smile. "My household you know, and Bann Alfstanna, you know our guests already, I'm sure - but Lady Ethelfred, may I present to you Kallian Tabris, Commander of the Grey Wardens and Hero of Ferelden, and the Warden Nathaniel. Kallian, Lady Ethelfred and her cousin, Marjorie of Helmsford."
"Bann Alfstanna," Kallian said, mildly. "My ladies. An honour."
Ethelfred's lips tightened in distaste as she nodded across the table to Kallian. "It's an honour to meet the Hero of Ferelden, I'm sure," she said, as stiffly as though she were performing the lines in a very bad play. "Lady Kallian."
"It's just Warden Kallian." Kallian made her smile wide and friendly despite the other woman's evident discomfort. Oh, well, Fergus, at least she's not Habren Bryland. Maybe she'll grow out of it. "Or Commander, these days, I suppose: Grey Wardens hold no titles outside the order."
Alfstanna raised an eyebrow, leaning forward on her elbows. "But didn't His Majesty give you Amaranthine?"
"Technically." Kallian's mouth quirked. "Alistair gave the arling to the order, and the arl's seat in the Landsmeet to the Warden-Commander of Ferelden. You have no idea how long he and the teyrn's lady sister and Eamon went round arguing about the arl's title. Eventually, we compromised. I have an arl's precedence for life as the Hero of Ferelden - though I could strangle him for that ridiculous title - and whoever commands the Grey in Ferelden will have the arling and an arl's precedence, but not the title itself." A complicated game of semantics, but it avoided the awkwardness of officially subordinating the order in Ferelden to the Crown, which an arl's oath of fealty would do. Alistair had recognised the implications, when she'd pointed them out: the Commander of the Grey could not fulfil the military obligations that a great noble had to the Crown, not without jeopardising the neutrality the order needed to survive. And not without jeopardising the Wardens' first responsibility as the first line of defence against the darkspawn.
"My sister wrote me about that." Cousland's glance was wry as the servers began bringing in the platters from the kitchen. "I understand Arl Eamon was not best pleased at giving one of the country's richest arlings to a military order who owes - what was the phrase? Allegiance to no king?"
The templars also owe allegiance to no king. But it would be impolitic to say so. The Chantry, as had become all too apparent since Kallian had taken command in Amaranthine, had its fingers in far too many pies for anyone to offend. But she needed to rebut Eamon's too-easily flung accusation -
"We owe allegiance to Thedas, your grace." Nathaniel spoke before she could, soft but very sure. Kallian shot him a sidelong look. The smile he offered her didn't reach his eyes. "You've seen the darkspawn, but you haven't seen the Deep Roads. Apart from the dwarves and the Wardens, few ever do so and live. The king has. Your sister has. They know why it must be so." He shook his head. "I did not understand, before. But now I do. We do what we do because we must. Because someone must, lest the world we know be lost forever. There's a reason the Wardens' motto is In war, victory, your grace, and it's not a boast. It's because we cannot afford to lose."
In war, victory. In peace, vigilance. In death, sacrifice. "Well said, brother," Kallian said, quietly. "But we're here to wish the teyrn joy of his betrothal. This is hardly an occasion to dwell on our harsh necessities."
"But darkspawn are such a fun topic of conversation." Fergus's grin reminded her briefly of Alistair. Ser Tirien chuckled. Lady Gilmore sniffed and directed a quelling look up the table at her liegelord; Alfstanna merely exchanged resigned glances with Ser Gabran, shaking her head with tolerant amusement.
The two girls only looked baffled; Ethelfred, a little horrified. Bad Teyrn Cousland. You shouldn't terrify your bride before you're even formally betrothed.
He definitely had his sister's sense of humour. At least his losses hadn't turned him grim and brooding and prone to fits of bleak rage, as rumour said of Arl Wulf.
Dinner proceeded apace. It transpired that Lady Ethelfred's mother had died last year, of a sickness; that Alfstanna's brother Ser Irminric was recovering in the care of Waking Sea's town chantry, and that Ser Tirien's nephews were in the process of making advantageous marriages in the Marches. Kallian found herself called upon to carve the roast - half a full-grown boar - and silently blessed Varel for his instruction in etiquette. Neither the alienage nor the Blight had prepared her for taking meals at a table where she cared about offending the lord.
Making conversation was, as always, excruciating. During the Blight, Leliana and Alistair had had her back, and since they were already wanted outcasts... Well, she could kill or intimidate her way out of awkward encounters. Or fall back on the threat of it, at least. In Denerim, she'd relied on her fearsome status as the Psychotic Homicidal Warden Elf, the queen's support, and the bard's political savvy to avoid the worst pitfalls of polite conversation. But Leliana had vanished to Orlais in answer to the Divine's insistent letter, and both the Crown and the Wardens needed Fergus Cousland and the good will of the bannorn. For the most part she could address herself to her food, counting on the famous appetite of Grey Wardens to excuse her inattention, but Ethelfred's stiff politeness, Lady Gilmore's disapproving sniffs, and Fergus's palpable - if suppressed - discomfort with addressing Nathaniel directly grated on her nerves.
And Lady Marjorie's constant shy sidelong glances tried her patience.
Finally, impatience got the better of her. She speared a carrot on her eating knife and meet the next sideways glance directly. "If you have something to say, Lady Marjorie," she said, mild and quiet, "then say it. I don't bite."
"Please, it's just Jorie." The girl flushed to her freckled temples. "Lady Marjorie's my mother's name. And I'm sorry, Commander. It's just, I've never met a Grey Warden before. My Nan used to tell me stories of Garahel and the Fourth Blight - and about the griffons. Is it true that Grey Wardens used to ride them in battle?"
"So I'm told." Kallian gentled her tone. Be nice, Tabris. She's just a kid. "As far as I know, they all died out. Alistair - King Alistair, I mean - has a theory that it might be like with the dragons, that they might come back. I can't imagine it, myself." She grinned as a thought occurred to her. "Pray they don't. Or at least, that they don't until His Majesty has an heir. If I know Alistair, there'd be no keeping His Majesty away from the Wardens if it meant the chance to ride a griffon - and I suspect Her Majesty would be tempted to join him."
Cousland eyed her sidelong. "You really do know my sister."
"Do you really," Lady Ethelfred said, coldly, a challenging jut to her chin, "believe the king would abandon his duties?"
Remember Habren Bryland. It could be worse. "His duties?" Kallian raised her eyebrows. "Never that." He might fail, or die, but he won't run. Lissa would never let him. "But if the Wardens rode griffons still, Eamon and I would've had a far harder job persuading him to let his name be put forward as king."
"I imagine you'd have an easier time finding recruits as well." Alfstanna lifted her winecup, eyes bright. "Many would venture a great deal for the chance to fly."
"Who'd give up their family and position for anything?" Ethelfred sniffed, disdainful. "Much less a life of fighting?" A calculated pause, in which her glance took in Kallian's ears and Nathaniel's face. "Well, if they have family and position, that is."
"You'd be surprised." Kallian made her voice stay mild, though it was an effort. "According to the records at Soldier's Peak, the Grey has been home to arls' sons and kings' daughters before. To say nothing of dwarven deshyrs." Her mouth quirked, humourless. "I suppose mages and knife-ears like myself don't count, to your way of thinking. But the Wardens have never had so many volunteers that we could afford to limit our recruiting to respectable sorts. "
Alfstanna directed a quelling look at her half-sister. "The King himself says it is an honour to be asked to join the Wardens, Ethelfred. Although I am curious as to whether you mean to recruit while you're in Highever, Commander?"
"If the teyrn permits." Kallian chased mouthful of succulent boar with a swallow of ale and glanced inquiringly at Fergus. "I'd like to make it known we're looking for volunteers. I know Highever has suffered great losses in the last year - but frankly, so has Amaranthine. We'd barely filled out the ranks of the keep garrison after the first darkspawn attack before the second attack left us with less than half a company's worth of survivors, to say nothing of what the attack on Amaranthine town did to the militia. Even if any of them had the aptitude to make a good Warden, I can spare none of them from their present duties if we hope to rebuild the arling in a timely fashion. Right now, there are four working Wardens left in the whole of Ferelden, and that's not nearly enough to deal with blight thaw." She grimaced. "We've been neglecting the south because there's no one left in the worst blighted areas, but there are still wandering bands of 'spawn in West Hill, as well as south of Lothering, in the Hinterlands. Eventually we'll have to deal with them."
"Just what does make a good Warden?" Ethelfred's voice had an edge to it. Her expression said, You? as clearly as words. Ser Tirien snorted softly, her sideways glance expressing a certain dislike that boded ill for her relationship with her future liege-lady. Kallian found herself feeling warmly disposed towards the captain.
I marched through war and terror to kill an archdemon, kid. Do you think I care what you see when you look at me? Quietly, Kallian said, "Ruthlessness and idealism in about equal measure. A strong stomach. Good reflexes. If Alistair - His Majesty, I mean - were here, he'd probably say that it helps to be at least a little crazy, and since he's the king these days, I'm not really allowed to argue with him anymore."
"As long as you don't poach all my knights and men-at-arms, of course I'll permit you to recruit." Fergus rested his chin on his palm and eyed her sideways. "You don't intend to take too many, I hope?"
"Hardly." A commotion at the door caught Kallian's eye. Habit made her check the hang of her sword at her hip: sweaty pale-faced servingmen - now hastening towards the high table - rarely meant good news. "But if any suitable volunteers make themselves known, I would appreciate your blessing -"
The servant stopped by Fergus's chair and bent to whisper in his ear. Too quiet to be overheard, but Cousland's features went from startlement to hard determination. He shoved back his chair. "Ladies, forgive me, but matters have arisen which require my attention. Ser Tirien, with me. Wardens, if you would join us?"
"What's come up?" Kallian said, softly, as they exited the great hall into a corridor of the keep.
Cousland's face was pale in the wavering lanternlight, mouth a thin pressed line. "Darkspawn. Overran a farmhold three hours east of here." He looked to Ser Tirien. "Tyman's boy ran the message in. He's a steady lad, and he says there are fifty at least. How many men can we have ready to march within the hour?"
Fifty. Kallian sucked in a breath and shared a worried glance with Nathaniel. That was too many for a party of surface stragglers: it meant an open entrance to the Deep Roads. Which means there could be more at any time. Joy.
Andraste's arse, it's always something.
Tirien shook her head, grim. "Not enough, my lord. Not if we're to leave the keep secure."
"Get me as many as you can. Quickly." As she saluted and strode off in a whirl of skirts, he raised his eyebrows at Kallian. "Can I interest you in a midnight stroll, Tabris?"
Nathaniel snorted before she could answer. "Of course you can, your grace." A sideways ironic look. "The Commander is always eager for darkspawn to kill."
Kallian elbowed him. "Just because I drag you down the Deep Roads every so often to keep in practice... We're Grey Wardens, Fergus. The darkspawn are our job." Fifty. That's not a promising number. She touched the bindings of her swordhilt, and made herself grin. "Though if you're offering to help, we won't turn it down."
AN: Darkspawn. Always such fun.
If anyone would like to beta for this story, I'd appreciate another pair of eyes.