Disclaimer: Dragon Age still does not belong to me. Nor is it likely to anytime soon. I am simply borrowing their characters, though I can't promise I'll give them back in the same health I took them in.
A/N: This is the game story of the events that took place before Here Without You. Therefore, it contains loads of game dialogue, full plot, and lots and lots of stuff you already know about. You have been warned.
Also, I'm just going to save time and state right here that this entire story is beta'd by the awesome Mackillian, editor extraordinaire. Her writing is definitely worth checking out, as well.
All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small.
Her life was bound by a name. Elissa Cousland, only daughter to Teyrn Bryce Cousland. Her elder brother Fergus would inherit the vast teyrnir of Highever one day, carrying on the name that was scattering throughout the history books, painted with honor and dignity and second only to Theirin, the name of the kings.
She was less important than Fergus.
That was what the nobility of Ferelden had hinted at since the day of her birth, their polite smiles disguising the calculated inquiries regarding her current suitor. She had the gall to be born a girl when a man as powerful as Bryce really needed another son—an heir and a spare, as the saying went—and if she had any decency at all she would spend all her energy thinking of nothing but marriages and alliances and proper ways to run a household.
They were confounded that she did not.
Even at the tender age of fourteen, Elissa was sure that had she been anyone else, those were the thoughts that would fill her mind, those troublesome details that were considered women's matters. Sometimes she wondered if she would have been content with such an existence, or if the soul that burned within her would have always demanded more freedom, eventually turning bitter and resentful at the feel of being young and muzzled, discussed like a treaty by old men to whom she was nothing more than a commodity.
She was grateful she never had to find out.
She led a charmed life, one full of comfort and love. Unlike the circumstances that befell so many of her friends as the years passed, her father never viewed her as an unwanted burden to be married off, instead doting on his only daughter until she was in real danger of being spoiled.
That never did occur, however, for in his indulgence, he allowed her to train in swordplay. Such a thing was not common, but was far more accepted in Ferelden than in the nearby nations of Orlais and Antiva. Strong women bred strong sons, in the Ferelden mind, and a history sprinkled with female heroes and warrior queens began a transition that earned them the reputation of habitual barbarism from their more "civilized" neighbors. Elissa's own mother had been a warrior in her younger years, and although their status insisted that she chide Elissa regarding manners and appearance, she was secretly happy to allow her daughter to learn the craft.
Not wanting his little girl to spend her time loitering in the training yard, Teyrn Bryce assigned one of the younger men, newly sworn to knighthood, to oversee her lessons. Ser Gilmore was only a handful of years older than Elissa, but he didn't take the task lightly, and some much-needed discipline was instilled in the youngest Cousland. Hands that were unaccustomed to work of any kind cracked and bled after their practice sessions, wringing tears from her bright blue eyes. It was only her stubbornness that allowed her to continue, spending day after day in the broiling sun lunging at hay bales while the knight criticized her stance or grip until she wanted to scream. Yet she did it again the next day, and the next, ignoring the lamenting sighs from her mother when her hands finally hardened against the exertion and her nails broke and split.
During the evening, Ser Gilmore cleaned and bandaged her wounds himself, speaking in a gentle voice about the rapid progress she was making, giving her the strength to continue.
The determination served her well, in the end. Elissa learned quickly to use her own talents to her advantage, rather than relying on brute strength she would never develop. She was uncommonly quick, and had a keen mind and a sharp eye. She was also known to use less honorable tactics if the situation warranted, having no qualms about throwing a fistful of dirt in the eyes of a larger attacker to gain the upper hand. Ser Gilmore, who knew the world that lay beyond the protective walls of Highever Castle, was in full support of this behavior. He was not training her for knighthood, and so did not bother with lectures of honor and accountability. Never in her life would she face an opponent in an honor duel or mock combat, and if the harshness of the world demanded that she lift her blades in real conflict one day, he promised she would do so prepared.
He trained her to win.
Between the devotion of her family and the hard care given by her friend, Elissa grew into a likable young woman with a lust for life and a ready laugh. She was tall for a woman, and slender from her years of training, yet utterly feminine with her long black hair and bright blue eyes. Completely unaware of her own charms, she was often seen running through the halls of the great estate with her hound Aiden at her side, her throaty laughter echoing off the walls while her guardians looked on fondly.
She was seventeen when her parents began pressing the issue of marriage. Elissa knew it was her one real duty to her family, to make a good match and provide her father with a strong alliance, but still she could not help the tingle of dread that crawled along her spine whenever the matter was broached. She enjoyed the company of boys her own age, and every so often she liked one enough to allow him a few stolen kisses in a dark corner, but never did she feel the desire to make one her own, to even consider the possibility of forever. The more she resisted, the more noble sons were paraded in front of her, until she began to despise the sound of approaching carriages that signaled her mother had invited more eligible guests to Highever.
"What about Ser Gilmore?" her mother asked one day in the early autumn of her eighteenth year. They had retired to the women's hall to continue their sewing after the noon meal. Highever owed each servitor one shirt or dress each year as part of their maintenance, as well as being a self-sustaining household that produced most of the clothing for the family. It fell to the womenfolk to provide this small mountain of clothes. Elissa never balked at what she saw as duty to her clan, and there was a certain honor amongst the women in regards to the fineness of their stitching. Recently, though, she had done all in her power to avoid that particular chore.
It was no longer anything more than an opportunity for her mother to ambush her.
She scowled down at the shirt she was embroidering for her brother to wear to the Landsmeet in Denerim, letting her ire focus on the tiny stitches in the knotted design rather than on her mother. "No, Mother."
The marriage talks had grown more intense since good King Maric had suddenly died at sea over the summer. Cailan inherited his father's crown and soon after married Anora Mac Tir—a union that Eleanor had coveted for Elissa one day.
"He's far beneath your station, granted, but he is loyal to Highever. And he's managed to keep your attention for longer than a fortnight. That ought to count for something."
She chose to ignore the exasperation that had crept into her mother's tone. "He's a friend."
"You've said that of all your suitors."
Which was true enough, she supposed, but was particularly true in this case.
Eleanor sighed loudly, and Elissa knew her mind was also on the failed prospect of a throne to seal the Cousland legacy. "If only you were a little older. Cailan would have chosen you over Anora without hesitation, I know it. You're far prettier than she is."
Elissa wasn't as confident as her mother. "Loghain and Maric were best friends. Anora and Cailan have known each other since they were children. And she's a splendid queen."
"As you would have been, my sweet." She shook her head and returned to her stitching. "Oh, well—what's done is done. I suppose Ser Gilmore must seem terribly dull to you after all this talk of being given to a king."
In truth, Elissa had been terrified at the idea of being married off to Cailan and only relieved with the brief talks were halted, but she wasn't going to tell her mother that. "Being married to Ser Gilmore would be too strange. He's like an older brother to me. And before you press the issue, Fergus is a definite no as well."
Her mother's mouth hung open for the barest of seconds before she caught herself and snapped it shut, her expression caught somewhere between annoyance and affection. "I swear, the things you say sometimes!"
Elissa only grinned in reply, sensing she had won this round and now would be permitted to work in peace. "I'll settle down eventually, Mum. I promise."
Teyrna Eleanor shook her head, but Elissa could see the smile trying to escape around the corners of her mouth. "I know you mean it, my love, but truly,
I have my doubts sometimes."
For as long as she could remember, Elissa had loved stories. She was familiar with the tales of the previous Blights and the Grey Wardens—warriors who dedicated their very existence to keeping the surface world safe from the darkspawn threat that reportedly never stopped churning in the dark of the underground. When she was a child, she would often pester her elderly tutor for tales of ancient heroes and warrior queens of old, listening with rapturous attention never given to her other studies as he spoke of sacrifice and knights who stemmed the tide of evil that threatened the land.
Somehow, she never remembered being terrified by the truth behind the tales. Like most people, the past had become something of a fairytale to Elissa, distant and easily forgotten. Over the years, the monsters had become the whispers of legend, stuffed away between the pages of history books and forgotten by those out of the path of immediate danger. Even when rumors began floating up from the south of a darkspawn horde walking in the light of the sun, they were passed off as a matter of curiosity and little more, mentioned in passing at the supper table and just as easily written off as a problem for the Wardens.
When the call came from King Cailan himself for the nobility of Ferelden to rally their men and ready to secure the southern border, the old stories became far too real.
News of the Grey Warden's arrival spread long before her father summoned her. Elissa had seen twenty-two summers by then, and was down in the yard helping with the last minute preparations before her father and brother rode out at the head of the army when the servant came with the message that the teyrn wished her presence in the great hall. She hurried to obey, eager to see this legendary guest of theirs, even if his arrival only confirmed a secret fear that had been growing in her mind since the call from King Cailan. The Grey Wardens were recruiting again.
That meant the problem was much, much more serious than a surface raid.
When she found her father, she was disappointed to see that his only comp-any was Arl Howe, a vassal of Highever and her father's oldest friend.
The arl's head was lowered in embarrassment as he explained his tardiness in joining the muster. "I am sorry, my lord. It took a great deal longer to gather my forces than I had anticipated. We will be ready to march on the morrow. I offer my deepest apologies."
Bryce sighed and dragged a hand over his face. "No, old friend, I can't blame you. This summons from His Majesty has caught us all with our pants down, as it were. Fergus can lead my own troops to Ostagar, and tomorrow you and I will ride together, just like the old days."
Howe forced out what was apparently meant to be a smile, but it looked more like a grimace. "Except then we were fighting Orlesians, not… monsters."
"It's about bloody time, if you ask me. The dwarves have been left alone with this menace for too long. If the darkspawn have dared to again venture to the surface, we should have joined the fighting long ago." He began to pace, but stopped short at the sight of Elissa and offered her a warm smile. "There you are, my sweet. Howe, you remember my daughter?"
Elissa offered him as reasonable a curtsey as she could manage wearing loose trousers. The arl bowed deeply, and something in his eyes told her she was not going to like what he said next.
She wasn't disappointed.
"I see she's become a lovely young woman. I'm very pleased to see you again, my dear. My son Thomas asked after you. Perhaps I should bring him with me next time. He saw you at a Denerim fair and has talked of you ever since."
She briefly struggled with an intense desire to sigh aloud and forced out a smile instead. "I would like that, my lord."
"Good! He'll be pleased you remember him."
Her father came to her rescue, then, rapidly changing what he knew had become a very unwelcome subject. "At any rate, Elissa, I summoned you here for a reason. The king has requested that we strip our fortguard for this march. No more than a token force will remain here."
For a moment, it was a little hard to breathe. "Are things as dire as all that?"
Bryce looked away, gazing out the window as if he could see the battlefield from where he stood, grim and grey despite the warmth of the afternoon sun pouring through the windows and pooling on the highly polished floors. "I won't lie to you," he said at last. "The darkspawn numbers are greater than any of us could have anticipated. But Arl Howe and I bring a large number of men with us to the muster, and the Grey Wardens are there, as well. Which brings me to the second reason I brought you here." He gestured to one of the servants standing in attendance near the door. "Please, show Duncan in."
The Grey Warden was a striking figure. His pitch black hair was tied back in a short ponytail, pulled away from a swarthy, unreadable face that was darkened further by a neatly trimmed beard. A glint of gold hanging from his ear caught in the light. A long, curved nose jutted out from an overhanging brow, casting his dark eyes in shadow. The glint in those eyes stubbornly refused to be extinguished, and as his gaze found hers, Elissa felt like he could see right through her. The depth of experience looking back at her made her feel abruptly foolish, like all her training until now had been nothing more than a silly childhood game she should have abandoned years before. This man was a true warrior, born and bred to walk in the company of the night, and one who had seen more of battle and supposed glory than she ever wished to.
"It is an honor to be a guest in your hall, Teyrn Cousland," he said in a voice as dark as his eyes, bowing with unexpected grace.
Howe looked as unnerved as she felt in the presence of the strange man. "Your lordship, you did not mention that a Grey Warden would be present."
Bryce gave a careless shrug. "Duncan arrived just today, unannounced." He raised an eyebrow at his friend's increasing discomfort. "Is there a problem?"
Realizing his breach of etiquette, the arl hurried to smooth the situation over. "Of course not, but a guest of this stature demands certain… protocol. I am at a disadvantage."
"It's rare we have the opportunity to shelter such an important guest. Duncan is here looking for recruits before joining us and his fellow Grey Wardens in the south. I believe he has his eye on Ser Gilmore."
At that, Elissa smiled brightly, for although she would miss him terribly if he was asked to join, it was high time someone realized the value of her friend. Duncan was watching her curiously, and once again she got the faint impression he could somehow see more than he should, could examine her heart and soul as though they laid open on display, and she stepped back warily.
"If I might be so bold, I would suggest that your daughter would also make an excellent candidate."
Elissa was completely taken aback, wondering if he knew that she had never so much as seen a real battle in her entire life.
Suddenly, that seemed a rather crucial hole in her training.
Her father was quick to step in front of her, his posture protective enough that she got the impression he would shield her from the Grey Warden's sight, if he could. "Honor though that may be, this is my daughter we're talking about."
Arl Howe laughed, and for some reason the sound annoyed her. "Aren't you the one always saying the Grey Wardens are heroes? I would have expected you to be excited by the prospect."
"I've not so many children that I'll gladly see them all off to battle," Bryce replied in a tone just short of a snarl. He raised an eyebrow at the Warden, and there was a challenge in his voice when he asked, "Unless you plan on invoking the Right of Conscription?"
Duncan shook his head and held up one hand in a gesture of peace. "Have no fear. While we need as many good recruits as possible, I've no intention of forcing the issue."
Her father visibly relaxed at that, and Elissa released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Elissa," Bryce said, carefully neutral, "go and fetch your brother."
He wanted her gone, she realized. He didn't want the Grey Warden to see any more of her than was necessary while he remained in Highever. With a nod, she did as she was told.
Ser Gilmore was waiting outside for her when she emerged, leaning casually against the wall and munching on an apple stolen from the kitchens. "There you are," he said after a quick swallow. "Your mother asked me to find you. Your hound has the kitchen staff in hysterics again. Nan is threatening to leave. Again."
Elissa heaved a sigh. "I swear, Aiden only does it to get Nan riled. She should stop obliging him."
"Your mother disagrees. She insists you collect the dog, and quickly. Anyone else risks having his arm bitten off."
"Rubbish. He'd listen to you."
"I'm not of a mind to test that theory. With all respect, milady."
They walked in silence for a while, easy company with no need for words, and Elissa allowed her mind to wander to the Grey Warden and the war he represented. "Have you ever heard of the Right of Conscription?" she asked.
Ser Gilmore looked startled by the abruptness of the question. "The what?"
"Something that Father mentioned to the Warden. He asked him if he intended to invoke the Right of Conscription."
"Oh, that. It goes back centuries—to the last Blight, I believe. The Grey Wardens hold the power to enlist anyone they deem fit into their order. Once they invoke the Right, you are obligated to undergo the Joining. Even the king is hesitant to intercede."
Elissa went suddenly cold, considering how close she had just come to being pulled away from her home. "How did they get that kind of power?"
"Saving the world, I would imagine. From what I understand, they are wise enough to use it sparingly, so no one rises up to try to get it overturned. Duncan is here looking for recruits, not slaves. They wield conscription mostly when the recruit is hard to get free."
Elissa's eyebrows drew together in confusion. "Hard to get free?"
He gave her an amused smile. "The Grey Wardens are famous for taking anyone who can swing a sword or draw a bow, my lady. They have little care for a man's past or morals, and pride themselves on doing whatever is necessary to fight the darkspawn. They've pulled one neck out the noose, if the criminal proves useful enough."
She could only stare at him, honestly shocked. Recruiting thieves and murderers was one of those things that never got mentioned in the tales.
As she made her way to the kitchens to rein in her troublesome dog, she allowed her mind to fill with fancies of following the Grey Warden. The idea of living her life as a warrior and guardian of Ferelden, vague and mysterious as a nearly forgotten order–it had its appeal. Elissa chuckled to herself and stored the fantasy in the back of her mind where it belonged. Better to stick with reality, even the mundane existence that seemed determined to find and trap her.
Her mother's hints had long since ceased to be subtle.