W/N - Thank you so much to Roxfox, Josie, Ygrain and EE! I really appreciate your support and input. :D
I got a little long on this one. You ever have those chapters where it's all been thought out and outlined and then it just took off in another direction? Worse than a Mabari. Lots of action before we transition back to the intrigue of the Landsmeet. A terrible decision awaits the Warden. Thanks to Padawan Mage, I just read Stolen Throne and have some wild Loghain ideas. Keep your axes sharp. Heads will likely roll.
Near Arl Howe's Office
The Warden's heart thumped within her chest as she crouched behind her shield. It felt heavy on her left arm like a giant lead weight in her hand. Her muscles were tensed with the anticipation of vengeance and justice and she took in a deep breath to fuel the fire in her blood. The air in the dungeon of the Arl of Denerim hung like filthy, matted hair, sticking in her lungs. She wouldn't have been at all surprised if the horror and death that had happened here had sundered the Veil – there was a palpable evil and despair that gripped this place. Slimy water dripped down dark stones and pooled on broken tiles like rivers of gore. Even after all she had seen and been through, the images of the tortured bodies in Rendon Howe's dungeons went beyond all description and chilled her soul. They were nearing the end now though and blood would be paid for with blood.
Just behind her, she could feel Sten, Oghren, and the others chomping at the bit to get into another battle with Howe's men. Only Shale was absent here as she would have been difficult to have snuck into the Arl's manor. The stone golem was given leave to hunt pigeons on the roof of Arl Eamon's manor as compensation for missing out on the crushing of squishy human bodies. Plus, she made an excellent lookout for listening into Eamon's conversations around the manor.
"What are we waiting for, warden?" Oghren said with a growl, his breath heavy with smell of hops and barley. "Are we going to show Howe his innards some time today or not?" His forked red beard poked out from under his black helmet like a gaudy knight's banner, but with bits of pork and fish stuck on it, probably to be saved for later.
No one wanted blood now more than Warden, Lady Alice Cousland, but she had learned patience in the long months since Howe had betrayed and slaughtered her parents and sacked their castle at Highever. No one could taste that vengeance more than she right now – every time she closed her eyes she could hear the clash of steel back at Highever along with the screams of the wounded mixed with howling Mabari. She could smell guts and shit and piss and see…her father dying on the cold floor. To this day, it choked her up and she would have to look away from anyone she was speaking with about it. There was a rage in her soul that she only recently managed to bring to heel. And so, she had learned through painful trial and error that the hasty often ended up dead. She lifted the visor on her sallet helm and turned back. "Steady boys, revenge is a dish best served cold."
Still, there was a struggle in her heart for justice almost to the point where it overcame the mission to free Queen Anora from the mad ambitions of Howe and the Queen's own father, Regent Loghain Mac Tir. Politics…. Politics would destroy Ferelden while the Blight consumed the kingdom. The Warden remembered how her dear father would tell her that only a fool fights over a burning house. She gritted her teeth and clutched at the amulet that the spirit of Teyrn Bryce Cousland gave her in the Temple of Andraste's ashes. He would be remembered. He would be avenged.
Looking over the top of her shield, she began to worry. It had been a while since Zevran went ahead to scout the hallway. She felt that hard earned patience withering on the vine when two people came into view down the hall. Her blood ran cold – They were Howe's men, likely probing their position. She could not let the fiend escape, not this time. She had to fight the urge to charge headlong at the enemy to get to the Arl.
"Maker's breath," she swore quietly. In a moment, they would be discovered and lose the advantage of cover. Could this be a trap? Then, they'd have to fight every inch of the way to Howe. She signaled for Morrigan to move forward. "Can you disable the guards quietly?" she asked the mage.
"I knew that elven fool t'would fail even this simple task," Morrigan whispered into the Warden's ear, her voice dripping with disgust. The mage was about to begin a spell when something shimmered behind the guard.
"Wait," the Warden said as she held her sword arm across Morrigan's chest. One of the guards stopped dead in his tracks as a flash of steel slid across his throat and he slumped into the waiting arms of a blond elf. The other guard turned to see the former Crow smiling, his teeth gleaming in the torchlight. A poisoned dagger plunged into the man's eye.
"It's about damn time," the Warden muttered. Zevran loved to display his talent, something that both annoyed and endeared him to her.
Morrigan merely sighed heavily. "If that fool gets me killed, I swear I shall return from the Fade to make him pay."
In the blink of an eye, Zevran had covered the bodies with a tarp that had been thrown in the hall and had pocketed a purse of coins. He winked at the Warden and beckoned the group to advance towards him. Still in a crouch, Alice moved ahead, Starfang at the ready with faithful Cyrano trotting with her.
As she neared the elf, he took on that practiced carefree stance and shrugged. "What can I say? I like to make a good showing."
The Warden couldn't deny that Zevran made life interesting. She gave him a smirk and a furrowed brow and lowered the visor of her helm. "Where's Leliana?"
"She's up ahead with the arl. Haha, boy does he trust her. She's disarming traps in Howe's room. I've laid some other ones just in front. Then, we create a commotion, Leliana raises a ruckus, the guards, they come out and boom! And, let me tell you, Leliana, she is certainly one who can make a boom…errr, or so I've been told."
The Warden's mood for jokes was thinning rapidly with every inch that she came closer to that odious viper, Rendon Howe. To think that, at one time, a union between the Couslands and the Howes was even possible…that she even considered marrying one of the Arl's sons, Thomas or Nathaniel. A taste of bile rose in her throat. She merely grunted at Zevran and gestured for him to ready his weapons.
It was up to Cyrano now. The Mabari mutt had been with her since he was a pup and he had never let her down. For years, they had upheld the Cousland honor. It would be his revenge too. She rubbed the powerful Kaddis on his coarse fur and tapped him on his beefy shoulders. "It's time, boy," she said and snapped her fingers. On cue, he raised his head and let out a howl that would have raised the walking corpses in Redcliffe once again.
In a few seconds, they could all hear Leliana shouting in that Orlesian accent of hers and the massive wood and iron door swung wide open. Armed guards rushed into the hallway. "Maker's breath, it's the Warden!"
With a tremendous clap of fire, several ceramic jars exploded, flinging jagged shards of metal and pottery into the men. Heat and pressure rippled down the hall and the group had to avert their eyes. In a flash of imagery, the Warden recalled how Zevran would paint 'point this side at the bad guys' on his traps so that he would never make a mistake. One guard was flung back into the wall, metal spikes protruding from his entire front side and another was thrown back into the room. A third fell to the floor, holding his legs and howling in pain. This brought a smile to the Warden's lips.
Several more guards stood, stunned and bleeding and the Warden pumped her fist forward. "Attack!"
Alistair pulled the trigger of his crossbow and a bolt leapt off of the rails, an armored piercing head snapping through the visor of a guard's helmet. There was a scream and the man pitched over backward and lay still. Morrigan leveled her staff and thick arcs of electricity leapt from the tip and sizzled into the staggering soldiers while a wave of green power rolled from Wynne and washed the survivors back.
The Warden raised Starfang and bellowed out a warcry - there was no holding back now. Let Rendon Howe, the self-proclaimed Arl of Denerim and Amaranthine and the Teyrn of Highever know she was coming. Let it be him trapped in a room this time as intruders sacked his castle, wondering if he would live out the hour.
Another guard had stepped into the hall and right into a claw that caught his leg. As he looked down in shock, the point of a thin dagger came up through his ribs from behind. Without a sound, the man slumped to the ground. Leliana was far less flamboyant than Zevran, but she was no less deadly with a dagger, trap, or bow. The bard shrugged at Alice. "I tried to be merciful." Then, she dodged out of the way as another man rushed by her, barely missing Leli with his sword. "I never liked this part!" she hollered as she spun and sliced his hamstrings with her dagger.
The Warden stopped right at the edge of the doorway and heard the panic and commotion in Howe's office. Men were scrambling to get into formation or into firing positions. Someone was trying to shout orders over the clamor and she knew just who that was. Dropping her shield to the side, she pulled out one of Zevran's little toys, a flask filled with some secret Antivan concoction, and flung it into the room. "For Highever!"
The flask burst into some foul green slime and painful shouts and howls followed from inside. Not very sporting the Warden thought, but neither was murdering her parents and nearly everyone she loved as they slept in their beds. If only the living son, Nathaniel were here, she could end the Howe line once and for all. That would be icing on the cake. On her hand signal, Morrigan and Alistair crossed in front of the door, firing another spell and bolt into the room. In the long, agonizing months of fighting the Darkspawn, the Warden had forged the group into a well-oiled machine. She was the first into the door, confident that Leliana had disarmed any nasties that might await them.
The Warden saw a flash and a shaft flew at her and she angled her body slightly. Something thudded against the pauldron on her shoulder and deflected into the wall. She braced down and powered into the archer, slamming him flat on his back. In a well practiced move, Alice uncoiled Starfang's tip like a cobra and bit it right into the archer's solar plexus. But, where was Rendon Howe?
A wild melee broke out in the office as Sten lay about with monstrous overhead cuts and Oghren hacked the legs out from scrambling guards. In another part of the room, a blizzard of frost sprayed from Morrigan's hand into the faces of three guards attempting for form a line of defense. Alistair then jumped in, now wielding King Maric's rune-covered sword, and swung down at one man's head, shattering it into pieces of ice. "Is that death you're wearing? It really suits you!"
Alistair batted an axe down and swung his glowing sword up again, cutting through one knight's gorget. Blood ran down the front of the man's surcoat, staining the pattern of silver and gold behind the bear, passant. But then, a dark shape shimmered behind the prince and a gleaming shortsword shot under Alistair's arm, deep into the armpit. The prince staggered to the side and tried to raise his guard, but another blow fell on his helmet, breaking the visor. Cyrano lunged at the attacker, but another shortsword found his chest. There was a yelp and the hound fell, whimpering.
Alice's blood froze in her heart. She knew who was behind the attack and she could not lose two more loved ones to that man. She ran and put herself between Rendon Howe, her hound and man that she loved. "Alistair! Are you...?"
The prince struggled to stand, but slipped in his own blood, coughing and cradling his left arm. "Injured? As in me? Owwww," he said, trying to make light of it. His face was already pale.
"Wynne, get in here! We need your help."
Howe chuckled, swishing his two shortswords as his remaining guards and the last mage surrounded him. "Oh, Maker…this is touching. Gosh, it feels like we're back in Highever, making merry once more. Sorry about the puppy. And so sorry about the dog too. Things have a way of dying around me. Poison and all that rot."
"No!" Morrigan and Wynne helped Alistair back while Sten hefted Cyrano up in one arm. Alice made a move on Howe, but he held up his hand.
"Tsk tsk, don't want to break the antidote, do you? You know, I've got a wedding to attend…my own. How about you let me get to that and I give you the vial? Come on now, girl, time's a wasting. Tick tock tick tock," he said in imitation of the great pendulum clocks that were imported from Orlais and the Imperium.
Alice looked back at her wounded friends and Alistair was beginning to convulse. This was not the way she envisioned this ending. How could such a choice be laid upon her shoulders? The arl gave her that I'm waiting look and let out a sigh.
"Is this still about your family? You're out of options, girl. The Couslands are done. You'll be lucky to go mad and die, surrounded by Darkspawn…maybe even become one of them. That would be precious to see you all warped and slobbering on the floor. Perhaps you could even become a broodmother. I've heard about those, all bloated and disgusting, just a hole for the beasts to breed in. Now, get out of my way. I won't say it again."
Her breathing was shallow and rapid now and her skin clammy. Cold sweat stained the palms of her leather gloves beneath her dragonbone gauntlets. Her armor weighed down on her like the Archdemon himself rode on her back. She closed her eyes and sighed, her hands shaking with impotent rage.
Starfang's tip sliced across the mage's throat and the man grasped his neck with both hands, blood spurting from between his fingers. The momentum of the sword continued back and overhead and then down, splitting a knight's helmet and the head beneath, in two. Alice then rocked back on her rear leg, taking a high guard, tip low and aimed at Howe's belly.
Howe's eyes widened as two of his men hit the floor, one right after the other. "Fine, if you want your friends to die, then so be it. It's on your head."
Oghren and Sten made a move, but the Warden waved them back. "No one touches this man but me while he yet lives." She pushed fearful imaginings of Alistair and Cyrano's corpses out of her mind. She would sacrifice all right now.
Howe stepped forward ahead of his last two men. His leather armor had been hastily strapped on over his white wedding doublet, now stained with Alistair and Cyrano's blood. He shuffled cautiously forward, the tips of his two swords bouncing up and down, probing for weaknesses. "Good, a dance for only the two of us. Just like your mother, I'll have you lick my boots too."
The Warden let out a feral yell, all of her patience unraveling in a second. She whipped her blade around her head, but Howe dodged out of the way and Starfang clove through part of the arl's desk, throwing up wooden splinters. She thrust at his throat, but he angled her sword up with one of his and swatted her on the arm with the other, the vambrace just stopping the blow from cutting skin. She shuffled back, resuming a defensive stance. Howe was getting inside of her head.
The arl chuckled again, swishing his swords and pacing like a tiger. "Tick tock tick tock, dear girl. The last of the Theirin's is not looking too healthy. Oh, well, maybe he planted a new one in you…or maybe it was the dog."
He was really getting in her head and there was nothing she could do to stop him. She shifted into an aggressive stance and lunged, flinging the blade towards his head. Howe met the attack and batted away everything she could throw at him, despite her fury. Her breathing now came in ragged gasps and she roasted inside her armor as the arl led her around the room like a circus pony. Waves of heat wafted up into her sallet helm as she swung again, cutting nothing but air.
"Whoa, that was close," Howe said mockingly with a laugh. "You almost got me. Bryce almost got me too…almost. You should have seen him, dragged down like a sack of potatoes at the end. But, you missed that part, didn't you? Fled the castle, right? Oh my, bet you regret that. Wish you could have that time back, huh? Now, it seems that I've got all the time in the world. Tick tock, girl."
Again she attacked and Howe deflected, throwing her into the desk, scattering papers and quills. Two blows rained down on her helmet in rapid succession. She barely raised her guard to parry a third. She jumped back and it seemed like her head would explode if she didn't get air immediately. Flicking off the straps of her helmet, she flung it away, letting the heat roll off of her face. Her chest heaved with exertion. This was not working. Her mind raced with worthless ideas, looking for some advantage, any advantage. Duncan…and Master Aedan, her sword instructor…. Why didn't she think of this before? Why did she throw away all of that training? For what? Because of a crazy sense of vengeance? She was about to sacrifice everything she now held dear. Howe was right, she was a fool.
She sheathed her sword and put her hands on her hips, taking a relaxed breath, letting her shoulders settle. For weeks before Ostagar, she had fenced Duncan, facing off against his two sword style. He would just block with one and cut with the other. But, there was a way around this.
Howe seemed perplexed and he probed for some reaction, but found none. Now, there was nothing to block or swat away. He snorted.
Alice unfocused her eyes, letting the arl's image blur slightly, but now, every movement and every angle came into clarity. It was time to counter. "Rendon, when I get my hands on that lovely son of yours, Nathaniel, I'll see that he rots in the deepest dungeon. Maybe I'll drag his body through the streets behind my horse. I can see Amaranthine burning already."
"Don't you touch my family!"
"Hit a nerve, have we?"
"My son is all I have left. You leave him out of this. He had nothing to do with any of it!"
The Warden felt vibration in the air and the distance between them changing. She saw two flashes of steel coming towards her and Starfang flew from the scabbard in an upward arc. One of Howe's swords clattered to the ground along with a hand. The momentum of the cut brought Starfang around and the razor edge found the arl's leather pauldron, slicing the cured rawhide like a rare steak. Alice dragged the tip through flesh and bone, turning the blade flat so it gouged a cruel trough down to Howe's hip on its way out.
It was done. She flicked the blade, sending blood spraying out from the tip as Howe collapsed to his knees. She pointed to the arl's last two knights and motioned to the wall. "Kiss the stone if you want to live." There was no resistance. In a flash, Starfang was back in its sheath.
Howe rolled over, cradling his stump and covering his ruined chest. He was gulping, gasping for air. Alice took his other sword and slid it to Sten. "It's over, Rendon. Give me the antidote. Take some kind of honor with you into the Fade."
He coughed and then convulsed violently, his eyes rolling back for a moment. "I…my family…promise me…you won't…."
Alice took his good hand. For months she went to sleep every night with the vision of her poignard in Howe's eye. Until Alistair, it was all she had lived for. She had been no better than the arl or Loghain, leaving a swath of bodies and lines of heads on pikes to announce her vengeance. The legend of "Bloody Cousland" cowed opposition as effectively as her enemies had. In the eyes of the Maker, she deserved damnation as much as they. When would it ever end? "I give you my promise, Rendon. I will treat your family fairly. I will show them mercy."
His chest shuddered and he tried to reach down into his doublet. "It's…it's in my pocket. Heal…heal your hound and your prince."
She pulled the vial from his doublet and handed it to Wynne, who confirmed it was healing and then rushed back to Alistair and Cyrano. The urge to slit his throat was still nearly overpowering, but the Warden could not bring herself to do it. This was not how she envisioned this ending. She sighed. "Go to your rest, Rendon. I will bring no harm to your family."
Unexpected tears streamed down his face. "I…I always thought that I…I deserved more. I'm so…so sorry. I don't want to die."
Alice grasped his hand again and he spasmed, his breathing shallow and rapid, his skin white and clammy. He squeezed hard and she could feel her hated enemy's lifeblood staining her green tabard, coating the double-headed griffon and the raindrop of Highever in deep crimson and the feeling was hollow.
He wheezed pathetically once more as his eyes lost focus. "I don't want to die."
And then it was done.
The Warden let Howe sink to the floor and she rushed back to see Alistair and Cyrano. They had already drunk of the vial and she looked desperately into Wynne's eyes for any sign, any reassurance. The old mage smiled. "They'll be fine, dear. We got to them just in time," Wynne said and then her face filled with concern. She reached up to the Warden's forehead. "Oh dear, you're hurt. Howe got you a good one."
It was only then that Alice felt the sting of the slice above her eyebrow or even noticed the blood on her face. It had barely registered that she had been cut in the final exchange of blows. In spite of the pain, she grabbed Alistair's hands. He was still pale and his lips still blue. "I'm so sorry. I almost lost you both. I was willing to throw it all away. Oh, Maker…." Her upper lip quivered and she fought to keep breathing.
Alistair glanced around as if he were lost. "What? We won? Yay."
The Warden tried to laugh. A short chuckle came out before the flood of emotion washed over her. She grabbed onto the amulet that her ghostly father had given her in the Temple of Andraste and she buried her head on Alistair's chest. "Forgive me. I almost…." All she could do is rock back and forth, sobbing as she did that day she and Duncan arrived in Ostagar. There had been too much water behind the dam and the dam finally broke. She felt a gentle hand stroke her matted hair.
"Oh Alice, you're hurt…your head. Are you…?"
The cut now throbbed, mixing in with her emotional misery. She thought she would be elated, having played out a million death scenarios for Howe, but now there was nothing, only a concern for her love and her friends. She stroked Cyrano's fur and he weakly wagged his stubby tail. "Injured? What me? Ow."
"We need to get Wynne to heal that. It'll leave a nasty scar."
"Then leave it. It's what I need to remember this by. It's for my family."
"Oh, then it will make you look all the more fierce. Rarrwr," he said as he made a weak clawing gesture. "The Archdemon is sure to turn tail and run. I surely would."
"No…oh, no, I didn't mean me, per se. I meant like the Darkspawn, demons, abominations, those sorts of me's. You know…."
Alice wiped her cheeks and nose with the gloved palm of her hand. She looked into Alistair's eyes and giggled softly. "Oh Maker, you're so silly. If I could just rest here a while in your arms it will all be okay." She laid her head back down on his chest and sighed. Nearby, Leliana prodded the prisoners.
"Ugh, look at your shoes," the bard declared, tapping one of the knight's boots with her sword. "Were you drunk or do you just have bad taste?"
Alice looked up to see Morrigan staring down at them. Disgust was written on her face and she drummed her fingers on the wall. "Oh yes, why don't we all just take a nap now and, as the dwarf would say, play kissy face? I have an urgent news flash from the town crier…there are more guards coming and that odious Cauthrien is leading them."
The Warden struggled to her feet, still feeling dizzy. She guided Alistair to the rear. He was in no shape to fight right now and a few days of healing lay ahead for him. Cyrano hopped up, but limped on one forepaw. Nearly all of them were wounded. How would they ever rescue the Queen or even get out of this place for that matter? As she rallied the group together, she noticed that the dark-haired woman from the torture chamber was gone. Marjorie…Margo…. She looked so familiar through that sheen of blood and sweat.
"Oh, no…that was Marjolaine. Uhhh, Leliana, you're not going to like this."