What if the youngest Cousland never met Duncan? What sequence of events would her life have taken rather than becoming the Hero of Ferelden? Were some things simply meant to be?
"My lady!" someone shouted across the courtyard.
Emma glanced up, halting in her swing for a brief moment before delivering the killing blow, striking down across the throat and splitting it open. With a smirk, she jumped back and away from the hay that practically exploded everywhere.
She tucked her sword away before turning, grinning broadly at the man crossing the field. His eyes were bright and full of life. They always had been.
"Dairren," she beamed. Two more large strides and he was standing before her, her hand sliding into his. A furious blush deeply colored her cheeks the moment his lips brushed against the back of her hand.
"It is so good to see you again," he said.
"And you! When did you arrive?"
"Just now, my mother is off with yours somewhere, discussing the usual."
Emma couldn't help but laugh. She knew exactly what that meant, having been privy to their reunions before.
"And how have you been?" she glanced up at him and couldn't help but inquire. It had been far too long since they had met last, at his mother's last spring salon. She had all but insisted the two marry, a joining of the two families. What she didn't know was Dairren and Emma had already been discussing it. They simply didn't wish for their parents to know yet. They enjoyed keeping it between the two of them. Both of their mothers would simply ruin everything.
"I've been well," he told her, his eyes roaming over the field behind her.
She watched as a satisfied grin curved his lips before he flicked a different look down on her. One that wasn't so casual. There was a heat to his eyes that singed her down to her toes.
"I've missed you," he said in a low voice. "These past few months without you have just been horrible."
She simpered at him, lowered her gaze shyly. In the art of war, she was a battle maiden, proficient in almost all weapons and tactics. She was unmatched by any within Highever. But when it came to love, she was quite young and inexperienced.
"My lady," yet another voice came.
Her hand slipped quickly from his and she snapped to attention, glancing over her shoulder.
"Yes?" she asked the guard.
"Your father asked to speak with you."
She fed Dairren an apologetic look.
"I'll be in the study," he told her. "Come see me when you're finished. Perhaps tonight is a good night to share the news with both families. Maker knows they could use it."
Butterflies suddenly fluttered in her stomach at the thought. But he was right. With Dairren, Fergus, and her father all leaving in the morning, some good news would be appreciated. She quelled the fear nagging at the pit of her stomach that some of them might not return.
His fingers grazed her cheek lightly before he turned and left. She dared a single moment to watch him as he strolled away before turning and chasing after the guard. She'd heard the talk, knew Arl Howe was expected with his troops to head to Ostagar in the morning. Curiosity burned through her as she wondered just what he wanted. Typically it was Fergus who attended the political talks as she had no interest in that whatsoever. Give her a blade and something to hit with it and she was a happy Cousland.
A few new guards stood outside the hall. The Arl must have arrived soon after Lady Landra and Dairren.
"There you are, my lady," someone suddenly panted next to her.
"Oh, Ser Gilmore."
"Your mother has ordered me to track you down. I'm afraid your mabari has been causing a bit of a ruckus in the larder and Nan is threatening to leave. Your mother insists that you gain control of 'the beast' as she called it."
Emma glanced back to the hall doors, the guards hand upon it as they prepared to open it for her.
"Can it wait?" she questioned. "I've also been summoned by my father."
If anything, Gilmore seemed to pale to a green color. "Normally I would never interfere with your father's orders but your mother was rather incessant that this be dealt with immediately. I am even to accompany you to ensure the task is completed."
Sighing, Emma nodded and altered her course, now following after Gilmore. "I suppose this shouldn't take more than a few minutes. I'm sure my father will still be there, discussing politics when we're through."
"Thank you," he breathed.
She understood his position. No one wanted her mother after them. While always polite and calm, she had a way of ripping one's soul into shreds.
The sound of Nan's yelling was heard even from down the way. She had just barely turned the corner when she picked up on her high pitched shrieks. Groaning, Emma rushed forwards, barging into the room before the woman said something she'd regret.
"You!" the old woman bellowed, pointing her finger directly at Emma. "Get that mongrel out of my larder!"
"Calm down woman," Gilmore appealed to her, stepping forward gently.
"That beast has been destroying the entire place! I don't know why, nor do I care. Just take care of it before I petition your father to deal with it!"
Emma tried her hardest not to laugh. Her father was the largest sucker in the estate for Spartacus. Mabari's were entirely too smart for their own good. It seemed a little odd that he would tear apart the larder for no good reason other than enjoyment.
"Easy Nan," Emma crooned. "I'll take care of it."
"You had better," she growled before spinning back to the two elven servants cowering in the corner and shouting more orders.
Deciding it was useless to argue further, she gently opened the door and poked her head inside. Sure enough, there he was, stalking low to the ground, his nose pressed right to the floor. All around him were crates of food smashed into little pieces, none of which eaten.
"Spartacus," she scowled as she threw open the door. "What have you done?"
The dog glanced up at the sound of his mistress's voice for a brief moment before turning with a deep growl. He barked deeply, quirking an ear back as though listening.
"It does seem he's trying to tell you something," Gilmore offered, sidling through the door after her.
She nodded, about to speak when she heard a light squeaking from the corner. Before she knew what was happening, the room was flooded with giant Kocari rats. Even Gilmore shouted out in alarm before reaching for his own blade. She mimicked him before lashing out, slicing the first one within reach in half. Warm blood sprayed across her face, dripping down onto her clothes.
"Oh lovely," she growled before striking out at the next.
Not long after they began, dozens of tiny corpses lay at their feet, blood covering practically every inch of the room. Nothing was spared, not even Nan, who stood at the door watching in horror.
"It's like the start of every horror story I've ever been told," Gilmore whispered in awe as he stared around the room.
Emma didn't even know what to say. She had never seen so many rats before in her life.
"It seems he followed them in here," she commented.
"Or brought them here," the old woman behind them scorned.
"Please Nan, enough with the theatrics," Emma growled, lightly patting Spartacus's head.
The woman huffed under her breath before turning and storming out of the larder, snapping a napkin off the table to wipe her face with.
"Well, the task is done," Gilmore continued. "I suppose I should be off. Pressing matters await my attention."
Emma nodded mutely before turning and shutting the larder door tightly. It was going to take a lot to get it utterly clean of the filth those rats carried in with them. For a brief moment she debated simply burning the room and everything within it.
"Thanks," she mumbled to him before turning back to Nan. She fed the woman a quick smile before leaving herself.
She was cleaning her blade, heading back to her father, when she heard talking just around the corner. The voices were familiar. Positive it was her mother and Dairren, she altered her direction once more and headed towards them.
"Ah, there you are love," her mother smiled, reaching towards her daughter. "You remember Lady Landra, I'm sure?"
Emma nodded. Of course she did.
"You're growing into quite the beautiful young woman," Landra complimented her.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"Have you seen your father?" her mother asked.
"No, I was on my way there when Ser Gilmore found me-"
"Right, I trust that situation has been taken care of?"
Emma couldn't help but smile. She flicked a playful glance to Dairren before responding. "Quite. Nan's head exploded and my hound ate the kitchen staff."
"Oh, how amusing," her mother laughed. "Well, at least someone had a decent meal. Hopefully he left something for the rest of us."
Emma glanced away, a guilty burn rising to her cheeks again. Sure, he did, but she hadn't.
"I think I shall retire for a little bit," Landra stated, hiding a yawn behind the back of her hand.
The Teryna was about to say something, when Dairren stepped forward, nodding gently to Emma.
"Before you do mother, Emma and I have something we would like to tell you."
Emma smiled weakly, knowing this moment had to come but hating it at the same time. She just knew her mother was going to go overboard. Another Cousland wedding. She had seen what she was capable of for Fergus's wedding and she dreaded it.
The Teryna and Lady Landra shared a common smile, staring down proudly at their two children.
"We've decided to wed," he finally stated, linking his fingers with hers.
Emma waited for the outburst, the excitement, any reaction worthy of her mother. Instead the two merely smiled happily and nodded.
"That's wonderful news darling," the Teryna stated, taking her daughter's other hand into her own.
"Wonderful indeed," Landra exclaimed.
"Calm now, Landra," she laughed. "It's a long time before anything can come of this, with the men all leaving in the morning for battle. But it's good to know our children have a future together."
The two women shared yet another look. A low groan seeped out of Emma's lips. She could see the wheels a-turning already.
"Come, Dairren," Landra suggested. "Let's head to the study. We can discuss details."
"Ah, the details," he laughed. He gave another soft glance to Emma before following after his mother.
"Your father passed by a few moments before you," the Teryna commented. "I told him you were assigned to deal with Spartacus. He only asked for you to come wish Fergus well. He'll be leaving tonight now."
"Tonight?" Emma gasped. "Why so soon?"
"Apparently the Arl's men are delayed. Your father feels it'd be best for Fergus to head to Ostagar immediately with our army. Your father and Arl Howe will leave when his troops arrive."
"We should go see him off then."
The two walked in silence, Emma striving with difficulty to ignore the pointed glances her mother kept feeding her.
Finally, she could hear the sound of her brother and father speaking in low tones in his room. As she entered, they both glanced up, smiling bravely.
"Ah pup," her father started. "I've been waiting for you to come see me. I'll be leaving you in charge of the estate while your brother and I are gone. It's not a light task, but I have faith you'll do well."
"So you should be off to bed. It'll certainly be an early start in the morning. Fergus will be leaving immediately, the Arl and I within the next day. And Ser Gilmore will be taking leave as well. So I trust you to do your best. You know what they say about mice when the cats are away."
She smiled at her father's statement. It was something he said often.
Reaching for her brother, she let him draw her in for a tight hug.
"Be good sister. And take care of mother."
She nodded into his chest. "Be safe Fergus."
He placed a light kiss on the top of her head before sending her on her way. She took the time to glance back at her family once more, the last chance she'd have to see them all together and happy for a while, before continuing on into her bedroom.
She awoke abruptly to Spartacus growling softly under his breath, a few barks lashing out in between. Emma pushed herself up, wiping the sleep away from her eyes. What was with all the ruckus? Even in the distance, she could hear… was that yelling? Suddenly alert, she pushed off the bed and threw on her chainmail set. As she was strapping her blades to her back, she heard pounding on the door. Spartacus pushed another step forward, his lips reared angrily over his teeth, showing his fangs. This couldn't be good.
Before she could take another step, her door flung open, a sobbing man staggering into her room, blood streaking from his face.
"My lady!" he shouted, reaching out to her. "Help us! The castle is under attack!"
She swept over to him just as he collapsed, a wooden shaft protruding from his back. His glossed over eyes rolled sickly to the back of his head, his skin void of any color. She caught the unmistakable of someone plucking a bow with an arrow. Gasping, she tucked her body down next to the fallen man and rolled across the floor. Spartacus leapt through the air, his teeth gnashing just as she rose to her feet. The archer fell, his voice gurgling as he choked on his own blood.
"Get her!" someone shouted from the hall. Immediately she drew her blades and lunged out into the hall, stabbing the first man through the neck. His warm blood splashed across her face, scalding as it dripped. Undeterred, she pushed harder, spinning in time to lay open another, dodging to the side before he fell on her. She remained on the move, refusing to remain in one spot too long. Spinning on her knees, her hands tightened on each hilt as she swung out, the blades biting into the back of their thighs. With deafening cries of pain, both stumbled to the ground. Without another breath, she drove both home, each blade slicing through the men's chests. Their armor was weak, which was a benefit to her.
Finally, the hall fell silent, five men sprawled across the ground, staring blankly at the ceiling. She had thought she'd feel sick the first time she actually killed a man, but oddly she found she felt nothing. These men had broken through her families gates and murdered the men they had promised to protect. Hell itself would not stop her from slaughtering each and every last one of them.
"Emma!" her mother's voice rang out through the halls. "Are you alright?"
She snapped her attention to the far door, noting that her mother seemed otherwise unharmed. Not even a drop of blood staining her armor she was clad in.
"I'm fine, mother."
"I heard screams and there were men in the halls. So I barred the door. Have you seen the shields, these are Howe's men! What's going on?"
"I don't know," Emma answered with a shake of her head, "but we need to get out of here."
"Have you seen your father? He never came to bed."
The words struck a chord of fear through her heart. No, she had to be realistic. If these were Howe's men, he would have gone for her father first. Rid himself of the largest threat. "Mother, we have to face the fact that he might be dead already."
"No," her mother shouted shrilly. "I won't believe that. We must find him!"
It was the door in front of her that she was most terrified of opening. Her father was a seasoned soldier. He would know how to take care of themselves. But with Fergus gone, that left his beautiful wife and son alone.
Taking a deep breath, she whispered, "We should check on Oriana and Oren, as well."
"Andraste's mercy!" her mother cried, apparently making the connection herself, "What if the soldier's went into your brother's room first! Hurry, we must check on them. Then we'll find your father."
Emma crept towards the door, noticing how her hand shook as she reached for the handle. She clenched her fingers into a fist. She must be strong. This was the evil side of war. She had to learn to deal with it. Push the emotions out of the way and do what needs to be done.
With that last thought, she pushed open the door, staring at the mass of bodies that lay before them. Howe had certainly gone after the largest threats first, Fergus and Bryce. And when they hadn't found Fergus…
"No!" her mother shouted. "My little Oren! What manner of fiend slaughters innocence?"
In a calm and cold voice, Emma said, "I'll make them pay, Mother. I promise you that."
"Howe is not even taking hostages, he means to kill all of us! Poor Fergus. Let's go, I don't want to see this."
Emma bent low and placed a gentle kiss against Oren's sweet little face and touched Oriana's hand before rising, a grim look set upon her face. They left the room and Emma shut the door behind them, hoping no one would see them until they returned to take care of the bodies.
They crossed into the next hall and Emma's eyes went immediately to the guest rooms. Bile crept into her throat at the sight of the popped door. And even in the dark, she saw the rivulet of blood streaming out towards the hall.
Needing to know completely, she nudged the door open with the hilt of her blade, grimacing at the creak of the door. There, on the floor lay both Lady Landra and Dairren, both savagely pinned by large blades.
"Oh my dear Landra," the Teryna whispered, "I am so sorry. If she hadn't come to me, if she hadn't been here…"
Emma seemed unable to pull her eyes away from Dairren's lifeless form. Only hours ago they had been together, announcing their news to their mothers. Now, nothing. Fresh tears sprung to her eyes but she forced them back, reminding herself once more that she must be strong. Men would not stand around weeping on a battlefield and neither would she.
"Emma," her mother whispered from the hall. "We must press forwards. I know it hurts to see, but we can't fall to pieces now."
Once again she lowered down to one knee and touched his soft red hair, brushing it back from his eyes. Leaving it at that, she rose and left for her mother. The two bolted down to the lower levels, shocked by the sudden deteriorating state of the castle.
"Can you hear the fighting?" her mother questioned. "Howe's men must be everywhere."
Emma nodded, her hand tightening on her hilt, only wishing to visit vengeance on them. "Then we should take the fight to them."
"Don't be foolish, you would throw your life away? The front gates, that's where your father must be."
"Mother, we can't just let Howe win."
"Listen darling, we haven't much time. If we can't find your father, you must get out of here alive. Without you and Fergus the entire Cousland line ends here. If Howe is inside, they must already control the castle. We must use the servant's entry in the larder to escape. Do you hear me?"
"No. I can't do that. I want Howe dead. He must pay for everything he's done here tonight," her voice remained calm but she could feel the last vestiges of it slipping from her. "Oren, Oriana," her voice broke at the next name, "Dairren."
"Then survive, and visit vengeance upon him," her mother concluded, before storming forwards once more, her mace glinting in the light. Sighing, Emma followed behind her.
They had finally reached the main levels when another of their soldiers came running up to them, heaving for breath. "The castle has fallen! I'm getting out of here!"
Emma stood in his way just before he attempted to bolt. "Don't be a coward! Stand and fight!"
He looked sick, but finally nodded. "Yes my lady! Here… here they come!"
A group of Howe's soldiers suddenly stormed into the opening, their blades and bows raised. The Teryna bellowed out a war cry unlike any Emma had heard before and rushed forward, her mace smashing into them before they could even realize what was happening. Utilizing the training she had gained through her years, she sank into the shadows and approached the men from behind. While her mother whittled them down, Emma struck from behind, driving her blades deep into their backs.
Before long, another group of five men lay dead at their feet.
"I had heard of your prowess, my lady," the soldier admired. "But never had I seen anything like it."
Emma acknowledged the compliment with a quiet thanks before pointing the next door out to her mother.
"Good thinking," her mother whispered. "Take my key. The family blade cannot fall in Howe's hands. It should sever his treacherous head."
Her mother dropped the key into Emma's outstretched hand and she unlocked it, trying her hardest to ignore the bodies of the guards strewn across. Howe's men had already made it this far, apparently. But the treasury looked unopened. With luck, everything would still be there.
She crept into the room, her ears perked for any foreign sounds. But there was nothing. Just the eerie silence that fell after a battle. She unlocked the door, grateful to find the family sword still resting within its safeguard.
"Good," her mother said. "Take it dear. It will do you a greater service then me."
With a nod, she reached out and took the blade into her own hands, a surge of priding threading through her. This was her family's legacy. She would not let them down. Sliding it through her belt, she turned to her mother who also held out the Highever shield.
"And this darling. Make good use of it."
Feeling a little weighed down, she slipped it over her back, but made sure her blades were still accessible.
Her mother nodded and began to lead her from the room. They made it to the main hall without any consequence, but the moment they stepped within, they both saw a great battle already waging, Ser Gilmore wading through the center, hacking any that stepped in his way. Emma couldn't help but admire him.
Following after her mother, the two Cousland's dove into battle. More familiar with her daggers, Emma fought with them, beginning to enjoy the feel of spilling the traitor's blood. Every time they struck out at her, she was simply not where they last saw her. She moved through the shadows, hiding and striking at the most opportune moment. She struck with every talent she had ever learned and it served her well.
Finally when all the enemies lay still and broken, Ser Gilmore turned to the remaining guards and ordered them back to the gate. "Keep those bastards out as long as you can!"
He then turned to them with a grim look set upon his face, "Your ladyship, your lady, you're both alive. I was certain Howe's men had gotten through."
"Then did get through Gilmore," Emma informed him. "Everyone is dead."
"They killed Oriana and Oren," her mother continued. "I still can't believe it… Dairren and Lady Landra as well. Are you injured?"
"Maker's breath," he sighed with a shake of his head. "Don't worry about me, your ladyship. I simply thank the Maker you two are alive. When I found out what was happening I did all I could to keep them out. If you've another way out of the castle, use it quickly!"
"What of Bryce?" the Teryna gasped. "Have you seen him?"
"The last I saw the Teryn, he was badly injured. I tried to convince him to leave but he was determined to find you. I believe he went to the servants exit searching for you."
"Thank you," Emma managed to get out before her mother pulled her away, "Maker watch over you Gilmore."
"Maker, watch over us all," he said before running back to the gates to hold them.
They snuck out of the main hall, scouting each corridor before finally taking it. It wasn't long before the servant's passage lay before them. Emma had noticed a thick trail of blood leading in, but hadn't said anything for her mother's sanity. If her father had truly come through here, it was not in a healthy condition.
Emma once again ignored the bodies of their servants, her eyes trailing the door. She was pretty certain there was more blood wiped just against the wall.
She pushed open the final door and gasped. Upon hearing her, her mother stepped around her, her fingers flying to her lips.
"There you both are, I was…" the Teryn began.
"…wondering when you'd get here."
"Makers blood what's happening, you're bleeding!" her mother exclaimed rushing to his side.
"Howe's men, found me first… Almost did me in right there."
"We need to get you out of here. Somewhere safe," Emma announced, still struggling against the panic that was snaking its way through her body.
"I… I won't survive the standing, I think."
"No," she said with a shake of her head, pushing back the tears that threatened to spill over her porcelain cheeks. Her father's blood seeped into her leggings, pooling around her. There was so much! "You'll be fine," she smiled at him weakly, knowing the futility in what she was saying.
"Ah, my darling girl, if only will could make it so"
"Don't speak like that," she whispered to him, feeling once more like the little girl he had sat on his lap, once upon a time. She had believed once he was indestructible. And then, in the matter of one night, her whole world came crashing down around her.
"Once Howe's men break through the gate, they'll find us. We should go!" her mother insisted, reaching down to pull him to his feet. He weakly pushed her hands away.
"Someone… must reach Fergus… tell him what has happened."
"Father," Emma whispered. "You can tell him yourself, just let us help you."
"I… wish I could go…"
"Bryce, no, the servant's passage is right here. We can go, find you healing magic."
"The castle is surrounded, I won't make it," he grumbled to them, his hand clutching tighter at the wound laying open his side. "You two must go. Fergus must be found. The story of what… happened here tonight… must be told."
"Hush, Emma," he barked gently. "Listen to me. You must be brave. Get your mother safely from this place and find Fergus."
Gasping, he doubled over his wound, his eyes tightening with pain.
"Go," the Teryna said to Emma, taking her hands into her own.
"Go. My place is with your father. You two are the only ones that matter now. Fergus needs to know, your father is right."
"Mother!" Emma gasped. "I cannot just abandon you and father."
"You will do as you're told," her mother stated forcibly. "Do not look back, do not come back for us. Go. You will live. I would only slow you down."
"Eleanor!" her father gasped.
"Hush Bryce. I will kill every bastard that walks through the door. But I won't abandon you. This is where I'm supposed to be. Now, Emma, go!"
Emma rose slowly, a little confused as to which direction to take. She gasped, glancing back at the sudden pounding on the door.
"Go!" her father ordered, true fear lighting his eyes for his daughter's welfare. "Please pup. Go! You must!"
Knowing only death would come of her staying, she dove towards the servant's passage and slid the door shut behind her.
From a tiny sliver of space, she watched as Arl Howe sauntered into the room, a disgusting look twisting his face. She'd never seen him like that before, and she'd known him her entire life.
"Where is she?" she heard him demand.
"Somewhere you'll never get your hands on her," her mother stated proudly before drawing her weapon and rising to her feet, planting herself between Bryce and Howe.
"How little you know," the Arl sneered.
Her mother swung her arm around, her battle cry ringing through Emma's ears. She watched in horror as three of the Arl's guards lunged forward. Like a unit, one blocked her blow, the other yanking the Arl out of the way, the third driving his blade up through her belly.
Emma clamped a hand over her mouth, silencing her cries as she watched her mother's eyes fade and she slumped to the ground next to her husband. Sometime in their small period of banter, he had already passed.
"Find her!" Howe barked, ordering his men around. "This isn't finished until every last Cousland lays dead at my feet. She's here somewhere, do not disappoint me."
Before any spotted the passage, she turned and ran as fast as she could through the absolute abyss of darkness, her quiet sobs chasing her the entire way. She needed something familiar, somewhere safe. She needed Fergus. He was the only thought on her mind as she tripped over uneven ground, staggered against the wall, and slipped on rocks. But finally she was free, the night air refreshing. Praying not to be seen, she turned and bolted for the tree line nearby, hoping with all her might it would be enough to keep her hidden.