The one who repents, who has faith
Unshaken by the darkness of the world,
She shall know true peace.
~ Transfigurations 10:1
Satinalia, 9:17 Dragon
"What are you playing?"
The girl who spoke was small for her age, with hair so dark it was nearly black, hanging to the middle of her back. Her dress of sky blue silk was really too fine a garment for playing outdoors, but her mother had forced her to wear it because of the holiday. The group of similarly well-dressed children playing on the grass all turned at the sound of her voice, and she waited expectantly for one of them to answer.
"Knights and Chevaliers . . ." said a blonde-haired boy, but before he could say anything more, he was interrupted by a tall girl with straight, brown hair.
She looked down her long, thin nose at the smaller girl. "And you can't play, Rhianna. Unless . . ." She paused, a crooked smile bleeding across her face but stopping short of her eyes. "Unless you want to play one of the Chevaliers."
The younger girl's smile melted away. "I won't play a Chevalier, Habren. I hate the Orlesians. I want to be one of the Knights. I could be Rowan. I'm good at sword fighting."
Habren Bryland gave a harsh laugh. "Rowan? You've got to be joking. You're not nearly pretty enough to play Rowan. Besides, I always play Rowan. No, you have to be an Orlesian, or you can't play." She glanced at a chubby boy with reddish hair, and the two of them snickered nastily.
The red-haired boy added, "Nah, she can't play, not even as an Orlesian. She's just a baby."
"I am not a baby," the dark-haired girl insisted. "I'm older than you are by three months, Thomas. I've been five nearly half a year, and you've only just had your birthday."
At this, the other children all laughed. The red-haired boy was at least three inches taller and weighed easily twice as much as the girl, but he couldn't deny she was, indeed, older than he was.
"That doesn't matter." He sounded less sure of himself now; it hadn't been clear if the other children were laughing at Rhianna, or at him.
"Of course it matters," Rhianna countered. "If I'm a baby, you're an even bigger baby."
Again, the children burst into laughter, and Thomas' face grew red. This time there was no doubt they were laughing at him.
"No, I am NOT!" he shouted, looking around as if trying to gauge whether or not any of the nearby adults were paying attention. Apparently satisfied no one important was likely to see, he turned back to Rhianna."And we don't want to play with you, Rhianna Cousland. Not ever!"
He ran at her, and before she had time to react, Thomas thrust both hands out, pushing her hard in the chest, and sending her tumbling backwards.
Rhianna cried out, then scrambled to her feet, never taking her eyes off the boy. She strode up to him and, without hesitation, punched him smoothly with a balled-up fist. Rhianna's knuckles connected with his nose, sending blood spurting down his face and onto the front of his shirt.
Thomas moaned, covering his face with his hands, and then began wailing loudly.
After a moment of stunned silence, the other children began shouting and laughing. Habren hurried to Thomas' side and pulled his hands away from his face to reveal blood and snot streaming out of his nose. Habren's eyes narrowed and she glared for a moment at Rhianna, then tugged on the boy's arm. She led him away, toward of a knot of adults sitting along the edge of the lawn across the courtyard.
Rhianna watched them leave, her mouth set in a tight frown.
A good-looking older boy walked over, drawn by the noise. He was tall and thin, with golden blonde hair.
"What happened here?" he asked one of the boys who was laughing. "I saw Thomas Howe push the Cousland girl, and a moment later he was crying."
"Rhianna bloodied Thomas' nose!" the boy replied mirthfully.
"He deserved it, Prince Cailan," a red-haired girl added. "Thomas started it. He was saying mean things to Rhianna, and then he pushed her down."
Cailan looked at Rhianna, frowning when he noticed a trickle of blood running down her left arm. Kneeling beside her, he lifted her arm to reveal a shard of glass embedded in the skin just below her elbow.
"Maker's breath," he swore. "That must hurt."
Rhianna merely shrugged her shoulders.
"Well, let's see about getting you some help for it," he suggested.
As the other children began to wander off now the excitement had ended, Cailan picked up the girl and hefted her onto one of his hips. She put her arms around his shoulders, and he looked around the large courtyard, which was surprisingly quiet considering it was a feast day. Spotting his quarry, he carried Rhianna to where two men sat on a bench, deep in conversation. They stopped talking when they noticed the children's approach.
Cailan walked up to a man who shared his light blonde hair, pleasant features and friendly blue eyes.
"Father, have you seen Teyrn Bryce? His daughter's fallen on a piece of glass and hurt her arm." Cailan set Rhianna down, then ran his hand carelessly through his loose, shoulder-length hair.
King Maric Theirin frowned, gently grasping Rhianna's arm and turning it to see her injury. His eyes narrowed at the sight of nearly an inch of glass protruding from the wound.
"Bryce stepped away for a few minutes, but he should be back soon. That looks nasty, though." After examining it more closely, he added, "It definitely needs to come out." With a hopeful look, Maric turned to his companion: a broad-chested man with a prominent nose and long, dark hair with wind braids at his temples. "Loghain, I don't suppose you'd be willing to . . . do the honors?"
In response, the Teyrn of Gwaren raised an eyebrow at the man who had been his best friend for the past twenty years.
Maric merely grinned back at him, a charming, hopeful sort of grin.
With a sigh, Loghain gestured for the girl to approach. As Maric had done, Loghain grasped her arm and examined the injury. It was a large shard, and must have been causing her no small amount of pain. There was no sign of it on her face, however, and her eyes were dry.
"You're Bryce Cousland's daughter?" His voice was deep and resonant. "Rhianna. Right?"
"Yes, ser," she replied. "And you're Loghain Mac Tir. Father's told me so many stories about what you did during the Rebellion." She gave him a genuine, friendly smile, looking directly into the icy blue gaze most people rarely held even a moment longer than necessary.
"Would you like me to remove this piece of glass for you?" he offered. "It's going to hurt, but only for a moment. Then, I promise it will feel better."
Loghain held her elbow gently, and grasped the glass shard between the finger and thumb of his other hand. "Let's count to five together, shall we?"
Together, they began counting.
Before she'd taken another breath in preparation to count "three," he swiftly pulled out the shard. She flinched only slightly.
"You said we would count to five!" she exclaimed, her green eyes growing impossibly large in her small, pale face. She sounded more alarmed about the counting than she had been about the shard.
"All right then, so we will," he said in his gravely voice. "Three . . ."
When she didn't say anything, he repeated himself, somewhat more loudly. "Three . . ."
She giggled. "Three."
Together they counted, "Four."
In unison, they finished on "Five!" Glancing down at her arm, Rhianna saw a trickle of blood. The smile slid from her face as she pulled her arm away.
"Oh! I'm sorry, ser. I've gotten blood on your trousers!"
There were a few dark drops soaking into the black fabric above his knee. He caught the girl's chin in one hand and looked directly into her eyes. "It's all right, Rhianna. It will wash out. Let's see to your wound, shall we? That's more important than my trousers."
After a moment of hesitation, she nodded, and allowed him to turn her arm over once again. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he dabbed gently at the wound, wiping away blood.
He turned to Maric, gesturing impatiently with one hand. "Give me your flask." The king looked surprised for a moment, but complied with the request, pulling a silver flask from his pocket and handing it to the teyrn.
Loghain removed the stopper, then held it above the wound on Rhianna's arm. "This is going to sting, but I want to make sure the cut is clean before we bandage it." The girl nodded, and Loghain aimed a trickle of amber liquid over the gash on her arm. She didn't react at all; perhaps the whiskey wasn't getting into the wound. He rubbed at the cut with one finger until he was satisfied he had flushed any dirt in the wound, then wiped away the traces of whiskey and blood that remained. He pulled a dagger from his boot, its steel blade gleaming faintly red, and cut a strip from the handkerchief. After folding it into a bandage, he wrapped it around Rhianna's thin arm and tied it into place.
"There," he said, turning her arm to inspect his handiwork. "That ought to hold. Just leave the bandage in place until tomorrow, and the wound should heal up nicely."
"What's going on here?" A voice rang out from the courtyard, as an auburn-haired man with a mustache and closely-trimmed beard hurried to the girl's side. "Rhianna, what happened to your arm?" He knelt beside her, examining the bandage.
"It's nothing, Father," she replied. "I got a piece of glass in my arm, that's all. But Teyrn Loghain pulled it out for me. And put on a bandage."
Teyrn Bryce Cousland's normally cheerful face grew dark, and his blue eyes narrowed. He looked up at Loghain and Maric.
"What's this about glass? Do either of you know what happened?"
Before either of the men, or Cailan, could answer, another man approached, taking large steps, his fists clenched at his sides. His grey hair was short, and he glared down at Rhianna over a large, hooked nose. Turning to her father, he said, "Bryce, did you know your daughter just bloodied Thomas' nose?" Arl Rendon Howe was unable to contain the anger in his voice.
Bryce's frown deepened. "Is this true, Pup? You hit Thomas?"
"Yes, Father, I hit him," she admitted. "He said I was a baby, and couldn't play Knights and Chevaliers unless I agreed to be one of the Chevaliers. You know I would never play an Orlesian."
Loghain had to stop himself from chuckling at this statement, and he glanced over at Maric, who was also clearly amused by her refusal to "play an Orlesian."
"Rhianna!" Bryce replied. "That is no reason to hit someone!"
The girl stood perfectly still, looking up at her father with a slight frown on her face, and then she nodded, looking contrite.
Before she could respond, Cailan broke in. "Thomas Howe started it, Teyrn Bryce. I didn't hear the part about having to be Orlesian, but I did see Thomas push Rhianna to the ground. That's how she got the glass in her arm. Rhianna was only defending herself."
Bryce's face softened, as he turned to face the elder Howe. "I suppose Thomas neglected to mention that part of the story?"
The Arl of Amaranthine's face split into a smile which stopped short of his eyes. "No, he didn't tell me he'd pushed Rhianna. Surely, though, there's more to the story than this. Even Cailan admits he didn't witness the whole encounter."
Bryce turned to his daughter. "Well, Pup? Tell me what happened."
"All right. The other children were playing Knights and Chevaliers, and I asked if I could play, too. Habren and Thomas said I couldn't play with them unless I played an Orlesian, and then Thomas called me a baby. I said that Thomas was the baby. After all he is three months younger than me. How can I be a baby if he's not? But he didn't like that, and he pushed me down and hurt my arm. So I hit him."
Loghain watched as she glanced at the faces of the men who looked down at her: her father, slightly concerned; Rendon Howe, stiff and thin-lipped; Cailan, smiling encouragingly; and Maric looking like he was trying hard not to smile. When her eyes met Loghain's, he gave her a brief wink, and he saw the barest hint of a smile cross her face, as though she had just decided she wasn't likely to be in too much trouble after all.
Turning to her father, she said, "I'll apologize for hitting him if you want me to, Father."
Bryce chuckled softly. "No, Pup. That won't be necessary. Not unless Thomas apologizes for pushing you down." He looked over at Loghain, and put his hand out. Loghain handed him the glass shard. Bryce turned it slowly, and the pointed end caught the light, glowing faintly red with blood. "That must have hurt," he said, glancing at Rendon Howe before looking back at his daughter.
Rhianna shrugged. "I suppose so. But Teyrn Loghain fixed it for me. He's good at bandaging." She glanced at Loghain, and couldn't keep a small grin from sliding across her face. "Even if he's not very good at counting to five." Loghain arched one of his brows at her, and she burst into a giggle, infecting everyone with her mirth except the persistently dour Rendon Howe.
"You do realize, Bryce," Howe said, "that at some point the girl will need to learn she can't always get her way. And if she goes around hitting people, it's no wonder the other children don't want to play with her."
All eyes turned to Howe, including Rhianna's, as her laughter faded away.
"Now, Rendon," Bryce said with a slightly forced smile on his face, "Surely you're not suggesting Rhianna should allow boys to treat her however they want. She does need to be able to defend herself, if necessary. It was your son who struck the first blow, and he's quite a bit bigger than she is."
Howe smiled stiffly. "Yes, well I suppose you're right, Bryce." He glanced at Rhianna. "Besides, children will be children, won't they? Well, I'd better see to Thomas. I've sent one of the servants to find a healer. I suspect his nose is broken."
As Howe turned and strode away, Bryce Cousland sighed, and settled himself on a bench across from Maric and Loghain. Cailan followed suit, sliding himself onto the bench next to Bryce. Rhianna remained standing near Loghain, looking at each of the men, and Cailan, in turn, as if waiting to see what would be said next.
"Just how bad was the cut, Loghain?" Bryce asked. "Perhaps I should see about getting the healer, as well. Do you think it will leave a scar?"
"It was a reasonably large piece of glass," Loghain shrugged. "I expect it will leave a scar, probably half an inch long on the back of her arm. Not a particularly noticeable spot."
Bryce frowned, but Rhianna spoke first. "I don't mind having a scar. All real warriors have scars. You have scars from when you fought in the Rebellion, don't you Father?" Turning to Loghain and the king, "And so do both of you."
"Yes." Bryce hesitated. "Some warriors have scars. But don't you think you're a bit young to want to be a warrior just yet?"
"You just said I need to know how to defend myself. And I did a good job of it. Doesn't that make me a warrior?"
Bryce let out a breath that was half sigh, half resigned laughter. "All right, Pup. If you want a scar, you can have a scar. But I intend to let you explain it to your mother."
Silence fell again over the small group, as the three men and the boy looked down at the small, strong-willed girl standing in front of them.
"Well done, by the way, Rhianna. Breaking his nose, I mean," Cailan whispered, grinning. Her eyes lit up as she smiled back at him.
"Cailan . . ." Maric's tone held a note of rebuke.
"Oh, come on, Father. If you're going to hit someone, it might as well be done properly, don't you agree? And she broke his nose! That's quite an accomplishment. Especially for someone her size, against someone his size." He turned to Rhianna. "Just how old are you, anyway?"
"I turned five on the first of Solace. How old are you?"
"Me?" Cailan seemed surprised by the question, as though he assumed everyone already knew how old he was. "I'm twelve."
"I wish I were twelve. Then maybe people wouldn't call me a baby."
Cailan laughed. "There's nothing so special about being twelve. I think you're on the right track already. Just keep hitting people in the nose, and they'll soon learn not to call you a baby."
"Cailan!" Maric repeated, more forcefully.
"He's right, Maric," Loghain said, feeling vaguely amused. "It worked for us during the Occupation. Well, not hitting people in the nose, perhaps, but you can't deny the banns voiced fewer complaints after the evening you held court in Gwaren. What was the man's name? Donall?"
"Don't remind me, Loghain," Marc murmured. "Some things are better left in the past."
Rhianna looked at Loghain. "You're talking about the Rebellion, aren't you?"
Loghain nodded. She placed her small hands on one of his knees. He could feel their warmth seeping through the fabric of his trousers.
"Will you tell me a story?" she asked. "About the Rebellion?"
Maric chuckled, and muttered, "Just not that one, old friend."
Loghain studied the small girl who stood before him, a hopeful look in her eyes. He couldn't remember the last time anyone had asked him to tell a story. It's possible no one ever had. His own daughter, Anora, was a serious child who seemed to prefer learning her history directly from books, and Loghain wasn't exactly the sort of person to whom small children were usually drawn. The girl looked so earnest, though, and he'd been impressed by how calm she had been regarding the shard of glass in her arm. He found himself unwilling to deny her this request that was, after all, easy enough to deliver.
"All right. What sort of story would you like to hear?"
Rhianna's eyes lit up as she extended her arms to Loghain. He picked her up, pulling her onto his lap.
As she settled herself on one of his knees, she replied, "Something exciting, with sword fighting and monsters."
"Lady Cousland," King Maric said in an imperious voice, "All stories about the Rebellion are exciting, with sword fights and monsters. And a very handsome prince. That's how I remember it, anyway." When Rhianna glanced at him, he winked, causing her to giggle.
"Well," Loghain began, clearing his throat and giving Maric a slightly exasperated look, "let's see what I can do about sword fighting and monsters."
He took a deep breath, and released it slowly, looking down at Rhianna while considering what he would say. She turned her face toward his, an expectant smile stealing across her face.
"Once upon a time, there was a prince." He glanced at Maric. "A very handsome prince," Loghain added, in a slightly mocking tone of voice.
"That's King Maric, right?" Rhianna asked.
"Yes, that was Maric, although he wasn't the king yet. He was supposed to be the king, but someone else had stolen the throne."
"Meghren, the Usurper," Rhianna added. "He was from Orlais. That's why I never want to be an Orlesian when we play Knights and Chevaliers. The Orlesians are mean and cowardly and ugly. And horrible. Isn't that right?"
Loghain's mouth turned up at one corner. Apparently, Bryce and Eleanor had made certain the girl knew her history, at least the Fereldan version of it.
"I would agree with that assessment," he replied. "And yes, it was Meghren the Usurper who sat on the throne, the throne that rightfully belonged to Prince Maric.
"In order to take back his throne, Maric needed an army, and he already had the start of one. One of his companions was the daughter of the Arl of Redcliffe."
"That's Queen Rowan, before she was the queen," Rhianna piped in. "She's my favorite."
A wistful smile formed on Maric's lips at the mention of his wife, who had passed away nine years ago.
"Exactly," Loghain confirmed. "Lady Rowan was one of the best sword fighters in all of Ferelden, and was very beautiful. Also traveling with them was a young man, the son of the leader of a group of outlaws who had been loyal to Maric's mother, Queen Moira. This man hadn't wanted to join the Rebellion, but somehow he and Maric became friends. And by the time of our story, he was as loyal to the cause as anyone."
"You're talking about yourself, aren't you?" Rhianna whispered.
"You forgot to say that you were also very handsome," Rhianna said earnestly. Maric made a strangled sort of noise that sounded like stifled laughter, and Rhianna turned to look at him. "That's the way the story is when Father tells it. Teyrn Loghain is always the handsomest."
Maric's brow furrowed as he laughed. "Really?" He turned to the Teyrn of Highever. "Just what sort of stories are you telling the girl, Bryce?" the king asked with a grin.
All eyes turned to Bryce, who looked baffled. "I . . . erm, I don't know, Maric. What's this, Pup? I don't think I've ever said anyone was the handsome . . . est." He glanced sheepishly from Loghain to Maric and back to Loghain again, while Cailan snickered.
"Well of course Father didn't have to actually say it," Rhianna explained, looking at Maric. "I figured it out for myself." She held up one of her small hands, counting out on her fingers as she continued, "Lady Rowan was the best," she said confidently, holding one finger in the air. "Because she was a girl, like me, and because she could fight with swords and beat just about anyone." She put up another finger. "Prince Maric was the bravest, because every time he got on a horse, he fell off, but he kept getting back up time after time."
Bryce and Maric both burst into laughter at this comment, Cailan gasped aloud, and even Loghain had difficulty keeping his expression under control. Rhianna's small features crumpled in confusion.
"But it's true!" she exclaimed, looking at her father. "Don't you think it's very brave to keep trying something you can't do very well?"
"I do, indeed, Pup," Bryce affirmed, his mouth tight with the laughter he was trying to hold back.
Rhianna nodded, and continued, now holding three fingers aloft. "And Teyrn Loghain was handsomest, because he was the best at killing things."
She nodded with finality after this statement, and once again, a round of laughter burst forth. Maric in particular began to howl with merriment, tears forming at the corners of his eyes. The glare Loghain gave him would have cowed anyone else, but Maric merely waved a hand dismissively, and continued rocking back and forth with glee.
"What's so funny?" Rhianna asked, sounding a bit offended.
"Nothing, Rhianna," Maric managed, forcing himself to stop laughing. "Nothing at all. I think you're quite right in your assessments of all three of us. In any case, I heartily agree that Rowan was, indeed, the best. And Loghain is undeniably very handsome." Once again, he suppressed his laughter, turning to Bryce Cousland. "What I want to know, Bryce, is how your daughter got this idea about me and falling off horses. I'm certain that only happened once. Or maybe twice."
Loghain snorted audibly. "I'm not sure I can think of a single story Bryce might have told which doesn't feature you falling off your horse."
"Oh no you don't, Loghain," Maric laughed. "I'm not going to allow you to slander me in this way." To Rhianna, "Just which horse-falling-off stories have you heard? You tell me what you were told, and I'll tell you what really happened."
"Well . . ." Rhianna began, thoughtfully. "There was the time when you were trying to escape from the chevaliers, after the battle of West Hill, and . . ."
"Oh," Maric interrupted. "Yes, well. That one did really happen. In my defense, I did have an arrow stuck in my leg at the time."
"And there was the time when you fell off into a snowbank, and had to wait for Teyrn Loghain to pull you out again." Rhianna looked at the king expectantly.
Maric's face fell, just a bit. "Well, erm, yes. Okay, so that one, too."
"And there was the time . . ."
"Maker's breath, Rhianna," Bryce interrupted. "Perhaps you'd better stop talking about the stories I've told about the Rebellion, or we might find ourselves exiled to the Free Marches!" More laughter from Maric and Bryce, while Rhianna frowned.
"I don't understand what's so funny!" she complained. "I thought being brave was a very good thing to be."
Maric smiled warmly at the girl. "It is a very good thing to be, my dear. On the other hand, being famous for falling off of horses isn't a particularly good thing to be. If that makes any sense."
Rhianna considered this for a moment, and then nodded, slowly. "I suppose I understand." She looked up at Loghain. "You're not going to complain about being the handsomest, are you?" she asked, sitting up tall and crossing her arms in front of her chest as if daring him to challenge her. Once again, Maric burst out into laughter and Loghain shot a glare at him.
When Loghain answered Rhianna's question, however, his voice was gentle.
"No, I won't complain," he replied.
As she released her arms and settled back down into his lap, he was surprisingly touched by the smile this brought to her small face.
"Now, shall I continue with the story?" he asked.
Loghain gazed out into the courtyard for a moment, gathering his thoughts and trying to remember where he was going with the narrative.
"After the Battle of West Hill, most of the soldiers who had joined the Rebellion had been killed, and Maric and his friends needed to get to Gwaren, where they hoped they would be safe and be able to start recruiting a new army. But traveling overland was not easy. The Usurper's soldiers marched across the land in great numbers, and his spies could turn up just about anywhere."
Rhianna nodded solemnly at this, as though she had great experience with the difficulty of evading spies.
"They learned of a way they could get to Gwaren, not above ground, but below it: by traveling the Deep Roads that had been built many centuries before by the dwarves. So, the three friends entered the Deep Roads through a great stone door in the mountains, and began their descent into the bowels of the earth."
"Aren't you forgetting someone?" Maric asked in a voice so quiet that Loghain was not certain, at first, what he had said.
Loghain shifted his gaze to the king. For a moment, the two men stared at one another. Finally, Loghain shrugged, and looked out over the courtyard. When he continued, he couldn't quite keep the hard edge from his voice.
"Accompanying them was a young woman, an elf named Katriel. She was the one who knew where to find the entrance to the Deep Roads, and she promised to guide them through the tunnels below." Loghain glanced at Maric, who nodded as if satisfied with this adjustment to the story.
"The four of us traveled for several days, going downward, deeper and deeper into the earth. Underground, we had no way of judging the time, no daylight or nighttime to tell us when to sleep. We traveled until we were so tired we could barely put one foot in front of the other, and had to stop for a rest. When we awoke, we walked until we were tired again.
"Finally, we arrived in what had once been a magnificent dwarven city, what the dwarves call a 'thaig.' It was Ortan Thaig, named after one of the great noble houses of the dwarves, and it was truly one of the most amazing places I have ever seen. Beautiful stonework buildings, and bridges that crossed over the underground river, and gigantic statues that were so tall we could barely see the tops of them in the darkness above."
Loghain dropped the pitch and the volume of his voice, causing both Rhianna and Cailan to lean just a bit closer as he continued. "But hiding up in that darkness lurked something horrible, something beyond imagining." He bent his head toward Rhianna, and her eyes grew wide in anticipation. "It began with a whispering sound. Faint at first, but then growing louder and louder. A clicking, scritching, chittering sound that echoed in the hall all around us until suddenly . . .
"Giant spiders!" he bellowed, grabbing Rhianna by the shoulders. "They fell out of the darkness above, and attacked us!"
The girl shrieked and hid her face in her hands, her entire body trembling.
Maker's balls. Had he gone too far and truly scared the child?
When he leaned down to get a glimpse at her face and she uncovered her eyes, they were bright, peeking out at him with merriment. She shivered with laughter, rubbing her hands together excitedly.
"Spiders!" she exclaimed, drawing out the word over one long breath. "How big were they?"
"Enormous. Bigger than anything I could have imagined."
"Bigger than my hand?"
"Bigger than a mabari hound?"
"Bigger even than a full-grown horse!"
Rhianna shuddered again, with obvious pleasure at the thought of something so horrible as horse-sized giant spiders living underground, secure in the knowledge that, however horrible they may have been, the man in whose lap she was sitting had defeated them, and lived to tell the tale.
"What happened next? Did they try to eat you? Or carry you off to their Spider Queen?"
At this, Loghain laughed aloud. Real laughter, for the first time that afternoon. "They did indeed try to eat us, Rhianna, and there may well have been a Spider Queen, but, thank the Maker, we didn't see any sign of her."
"What did you do?"
"What do you think we did? We pulled out our swords, and we fought them! They tried to bite us, with venom dripping from their fangs. Rowan cut the head off one, then whirled around to put her sword straight through another that had come up from behind. Maric gave a mighty war cry, and severed the legs of another. Katriel wasn't quick enough to get out of the way, and one of them bit her, and we had to cut open the wound and suck out the poison so she wouldn't die. Finally, I took a torch and set fire to the webs that swung in the air over our heads, setting several of the spiders ablaze. One by one, they dropped to the stone at our feet, until every last one had been killed!"
"Maker's breath, Loghain," Maric said. "You'll give the girl nightmares." He snorted. "I was there, and I'm afraid you'll give me nightmares."
"Oh, no!" Rhianna exclaimed, as if afraid the king was going to make Loghain stop. "He's telling it perfectly! This is exactly the kind of story I like best!"
"Yes, Father," Cailan added quickly. "Let him finish. I've never heard this one before, and it sounds like a glorious adventure!"
Maric's eyebrows shot skyward, and he glanced at Bryce.
"It's all right, Maric," the teyrn assured him. "Rhianna will sleep just fine tonight, no matter how many venomous spiders you fought in the Deep Roads. My Pup likes an exciting story."
Apparently satisfied with these responses, Maric sat back against the bench, gesturing for Loghain to continue.
The dark-haired man cleared his throat. "After killing the spiders, we left the thaig, needing to get to Gwaren as quickly as possible. Remember, there was no daylight at all, nothing to light our way as we traveled other than the torches we carried, and sometimes the glow of hot lava running in pits alongside of the roads.
"Every so often we came to a crossroads. Katriel knew the way some of the time, but there were other times when we had to guess which path to take. We traveled like this for many days, hoping we would make it back to the surface before running out of food. Still, there was no going back. We could have never retraced our steps and gone out the way we had come. We had to continue forward, or die.
"After several days we found ourselves in a tunnel, narrower than others we had traveled before. As we pressed forward, we heard noises up ahead. The sound of feet approaching – a great many feet – and grunting noises, like those made by animals. A foul stench wafted toward us through the air, a stench of death and decay, of something tainted and unholy.
"The sounds drew closer and closer, and still we did not know what sort of enemy we were about to face. Finally, in the darkness, we could see their forms in the shadows, and a moment later we laid eyes for the first time on creatures I had only heard of in legend. Creatures the rest of Thedas thought had been destroyed utterly four hundred years ago." Here he paused, and Rhianna leaned closer, hanging on his every word.
"Creatures," he whispered, bending his head toward her rapt face, "known as darkspawn."
As he spoke the final word, her jaw dropped and her eyes grew almost impossibly wide.
"Dark . . . spawn," she repeated, as though she couldn't quite believe that she'd heard him correctly. "Were they . . . were they really darkspawn, Teyrn Loghain?"
He nodded, solemnly. "They were really darkspawn, Rhianna. And there were a lot of them. At least four dozen of them, and when they saw us in the hall, they charged, bellowing and gibbering in no language known to human, elf nor dwarf."
Rhianna let out the breath she had been holding, and reached up with one small hand to grasp the sleeve of Loghain's shirt.
Glancing at her face, he decided she was still enjoying the story, and continued.
"Drawing our weapons, we prepared to fight; Rowan and I in front, and Maric at the side, trying to shield Katriel. Our blades cut through the darkness, slashing into the darkspawn, but for every one that fell, another seemed to appear from behind. It was clear we would not be able to defeat them – their numbers were just too great – so I called out for a retreat. We tried to move back down the tunnel, but as we fought desperately to hold off the darkspawn pressing at us from the front, we realized they were approaching us from behind, as well. We were trapped, surrounded by darkspawn with no way out."
Rhianna's small frame went stiff, and her hand clutched more tightly at his sleeve. He paused, glancing at the others. Maric and Bryce were both watching him closely, with slight, nearly identical frowns on their faces, but attentive to the story. Cailan was sitting at the very edge of the bench, leaning so far forward he was in danger of unseating himself. His face was pale but smiling, and his wide eyes were sparkling. Loghain looked down again at Rhianna, whose breathing had quickened through her small, parted lips. She looked worried, her face even more pale than when he pulled the shard out of her arm.
"Did you think you were going to die?" she murmured, her green eyes locked on his icy blue ones.
He nodded, once. "Yes. I was certain we were going to die."
"But you didn't."
"No, we didn't."
"Tell me what happened," she demanded in a whisper.
"We fought, as hard as we could. I at the front, Maric at the rear, and Rowan trying to protect Katriel from darkspawn coming at us from the side. But we were being worn down. With every swing of my sword, my arm felt heavier and heavier, and I'd been cut by darkspawn blades, and could feel myself growing light-headed from loss of blood."
Rhianna took a breath, swallowed once, and shifted slightly on Loghain's knee.
"Then, just when I thought all was lost, there was a sound in the darkness, behind the larger force in front of us. The sound of a horn." Both of the children gasped aloud. "When they heard it, the darkspawn paused, and started to lose their focus. Some of them seemed to forget about us, and they turned toward the sound. We heard marching feet, and suddenly, out of the darkness appeared a group of dwarves, clad in shining metal armor, armed with swords and axes and hammers."
"Dwarves?" Rhianna practically squealed in delight, bouncing up and down on Loghain's knee in excitement. "You were saved by dwarves?"
Loghain chuckled. "Yes, the dwarves marched in, then came to a halt, and for a long moment they just stared at the darkspawn, and the darkspawn stared back. And then, one of them let out a piercing battle cry, and both sides rushed at one another. As they fought, the four of us did our part to help, and within a few minutes, all of the monsters were dead, and we were introducing ourselves to our saviors: members of the Legion of the Dead."
"The Legion of the Dead?" Cailan asked. "What's the Legion of the Dead?"
"They're soldiers," Loghain explained, "dwarves who decide, usually as a matter of family honor, to enter the Deep Roads permanently, spending the rest of their lives battling the darkspawn. They're called the Legion of the Dead because their families know they will never return, and even hold funerals for them before they go. This particular group saved all our lives."
"And the rest of Ferelden," Rhianna added, in a remarkably calm voice, considering how tense she had been only moments before. "Because if you and Lady Rowan and Prince Maric had died, we would have never been freed from the Orlesians."
He held her gaze as an understanding passed between them. Maker's breath. Somehow, as unlikely as it may have seemed, Rhianna Cousland honestly did see just how important all of it had been: the Rebellion, driving the Orlesians out of Ferelden, putting Maric on the throne no matter how much it had cost. Of course she didn't know the particulars or have any inkling of what it had truly cost. But at some fundamental level, she understood.
"I don't know what sort of stories you've been telling your daughter, Bryce," Loghain commented wryly, glancing at Ferelden's only other teyrn, "but you've done an admirable job teaching her what it means to be Fereldan."
Bryce coughed, as if embarrassed by the other man's statement. "The Couslands always do our duty, Loghain. You know that," he muttered. The two men regarded one another for a long moment, before Cailan broke the silence.
"What happened next?" he asked, eagerly.
"Well . . ." Loghain hesitated, needing a moment to pick up the thread again, feeling off-balance, somehow, by the telling of the story and the small girl sitting on his knee. "The Legion of the Dead took us to the place where they were living, and fed us, and helped us tend to our wounds. The next day, a few of them led us to the tunnel that would take us up to Gwaren, which we were able to reach safely. In Gwaren, we found a great many people who were loyal to our cause, and eager to support Maric in taking back the throne."
As he exhaled one last time at the end of the story, Rhianna finally let go of his shirt, and her small body slumped slightly, as she released the tension she'd been holding throughout the telling of the story.
"Thank you, Teyrn Loghain," she said quietly. She glanced quickly at her father, biting her lip, and then grasped the collar of Loghain's shirt, pulling him gently toward her as she leaned up to whisper in his ear.
"That was the best story I have ever heard. But please don't tell my father I said so. I don't want to hurt his feelings, since he's the one who usually tells me stories." She leaned back, sitting down again on his knee, looking up at him for confirmation that he would, indeed, keep her secret.
He nodded solemnly, and she smiled.
"Well, I highly approve of that particular story," Maric said. "There wasn't a single horse for me to fall off of." This brought on a round of laughter from everyone, after which the small group became quiet for a moment, as the sounds from the courtyard – sounds which no one had noticed while Loghain had been speaking – gradually came back into focus.
Again, Cailan broke the silence. "Yes, thank you, Teyrn Loghain. That was really a wonderfully good story. Giant spiders and darkspawn?"
"And dwarves!" Rhianna interjected.
"Yes, we mustn't forget the dwarves," Cailan agreed. The two children looked at one another and nodded in perfect understanding of just how marvelous the story had been. Cailan cocked his head to one side as he looked at Rhianna, almost as if seeing her for the first time.
"You know, Rhianna," Cailan began. "You mustn't let what Habren and that Howe boy say bother you. They're really both dreadfully dull. And not very nice."
"I know," Rhianna replied. "But Mother and Father say I need to try and get along with everyone, because I'm the daughter of a teyrn. I'm not supposed to argue with people. Surely, it's the same with you, right? Being the son of the king? Or do you get to argue with whomever you like?"
She sounded like someone far older than her five years should allow, and the three men witnessing this exchange shared amused glances at one another.
"Well," Cailan began, thoughtfully, "I'm not really supposed to argue with people either. I'm supposed to be nice to everyone. Since, you know, I'll be king someday and I'll need all of the arls and the banns . . . and the teyrns," he said, almost as an afterthought, glancing sheepishly at Bryce and then at Loghain, before turning back to Rhianna, "to agree to support me. You know."
The girl nodded. "I'm not sure I'm supposed to be nice to absolutely everyone, but I think I am definitely supposed to be nice to Thomas Howe. His father wants the two of us to get married someday."
"Pup!" her father exclaimed. "Where on earth did you hear that?"
"From Habren. She didn't say it to me. She was teasing Thomas about it. Trying to make him cry, because he'll have to marry me someday, and I'm so horrible. And stupid. And ugly," she shrugged. "According to Habren."
"Well, that's ridiculous," Cailan said earnestly. "Habren is the one who's stupid. And I can't imagine anyone in their right mind saying you're ugly, Rhianna. You're one of the prettiest girls I know." He paused. "For someone who is five years old, I mean."
"Nicely said, Cailan," Bryce added. "And you needn't worry about having to marry Thomas Howe, Pup. Your mother and I agreed long ago we would never force you to marry someone you didn't like."
At this, Loghain glanced at Maric, who seemed to share his surprise, and then back at Bryce, eyebrows raised.
"Well, it's true," Bryce responded to their unspoken question. "She's the daughter of a teyrn, after all, and you both know as well as I do she'll be marrying beneath her station. Since you," he directed his comment at Loghain, with a lilt to his voice meant to show that he was joking, "never bothered to have a son for her to marry."
"Oh, but I already know who I want to marry," Rhianna announced brightly. Instantly, all eyes were upon her.
"And who might that be?" Bryce's expression made it clear that, even knowing his daughter as well as he did, he had absolutely no idea what she was about to say.
"Well," she began, "I'm the daughter of a teyrn, but since I have an older brother I won't be able to inherit the teyrnir myself. Which is too bad, really, as I think it would be good fun to be a teyrna, and I would do my best to be nice to the people of Highever. But, that's not going to happen, so I have to marry someone 'special.' That's what Mother says, anyway." She paused. Loghain was somewhat startled when she turned her face to his. "And I don't know anyone special-er than you, Teyrn Loghain. So, when I'm all grown up, will you marry me? I'd be a very nice wife for you, regardless of what Habren says about me."
Loghain tried to keep any emotion from showing on his face, but he felt his eyes grow wider as his brows knit almost imperceptibly together. He could see without a doubt that the girl was utterly sincere, and Bryce was seized with another fit of coughing, apparently nonplussed by his daughter's pronouncement. Cailan looked delighted, and Maric . . . well, Maric was sitting as still as possible in his seat, pressing his lips together in a desperate attempt to keep from bursting into laughter.
Rhianna seemed oblivious to everyone else around her, as she sat patiently on the teyrn's knee, waiting for his answer.
Was this mirth he was feeling, or extreme discomfort? He really wasn't sure.
Inhaling deeply, he struggled for something to say. "Rhianna." He took another breath. "I am sure you would, indeed, have made a very nice wife for me. But I'm afraid I can't agree to marry you. I already have a wife, you see. Anora's mother, Celia."
Rhianna's expression didn't change – the set of her mouth didn't shift, her cheekbones didn't fall, her eyes continued to regard Loghain steadily – but it was as if something internal collapsed, taking all of the air out of her.
"Oh," she said softly. "I'm sorry, ser. I didn't realize." Then she smiled, "That's all right. I'm sure there will be someone else special who will come along eventually. And you and I can always be friends, right?"
"Pup," Bryce said gently, "why don't you run off and find Fergus? Perhaps he can take you on some sort of adventure. What was it you were talking about earlier? Something you wanted to do?"
Her face brightened. "I wanted to go to the top of Fort Drakon."
"Fort Drakon?" Maric asked, having calmed himself from the fit of laughter which, judging by his voice even now threatened to overtake him again. "Why on earth would you want to climb the fort?"
"It's the highest point in the city," she said slowly, as if speaking to someone very young, or perhaps a bit slow in the head. "Nowhere else for miles and miles has a better view of Ferelden and the sea."
Maric considered this for a moment. "That is true."
"Fort Drakon is too far to go right now, Pup," Bryce replied.
"We could climb the clock tower," Cailan suggested. "I'll go with you, if you like, Rhianna."
Maric and Loghain both looked at Cailan with surprise. The boy wasn't usually quite so willing to cooperate with ideas that originated with other children.
"May I go with Prince Cailan, Father? Please?"
Bryce smiled indulgently. "Of course, Rhianna. Just be back before dark. You need to get to bed early tonight, as we're starting back for Highever in the morning."
"Yes, ser." Rhianna turned once again to Loghain, smiling up at him gratefully. She leaned up and kissed him briefly on the cheek, then slid out of his lap onto the cobblestones. "Thank you, Teyrn Loghain, for the story. It really was wonderful. And for bandaging my wound."
She turned to Cailan, who had stood and was waiting for her to join him. She slipped her fingers around his, and, hand in hand, they walked out into the courtyard, Rhianna skipping on every other step to keep up with the older boy's longer stride.
"Just what was it she whispered to you, Loghain?" Bryce asked, eyes on his daughter as she made her way across the courtyard.
Loghain hesitated before answering. "She asked me . . . not to tell." When Bryce glanced at the other man, frowning, Loghain was quick to add, "She was just thanking me for the story, and she . . . well . . . it wasn't anything important."
Bryce looked vaguely dissatisfied, but Loghain wasn't sure what else to say without breaking the promise he had made.
"Probably," Maric said, laughter in his voice, "she was just telling him how she thinks he's the 'handsomest.'" All the laughter Maric had tried to hold back earlier came bursting forth, while Loghain glared at him and Bryce chuckled, shaking his head.
Bryce turned to Loghain. "You're not soon going to live that one down, are you?"
Maric laughed merrily. "Oh, I don't think he's ever going to live that one down. Not if I have anything to say about it. Handsomest. Handsomest! I think that might be the best word ever! And, to be fair, Loghain is the best at killing things. Oh, Bryce, your daughter is possibly the most delightful creature I have ever known."
Loghain scowled at his best friend, knowing this particular incident would haunt him for some time to come. Even so, he chuckled under his breath, almost in spite of himself. He couldn't remember the last time he had enjoyed a conversation quite this much, or laughed, genuinely laughed, as hard as he had laughed when she asked about the Spider Queen.
Maric was right, the Cousland girl was a delightful creature.
Note: See the "Extras" link on my profile to access a variety of artwork, maps, and other supplemental materials that accompany this story.