For generations the Cousland house has stewarded the lands of Highever, earning the loyalty of our people with justice and temperance. When Ferelden was occupied by the Orlesian empire, two generations of Couslands rose up against the occupying forces. Today, Fergus, takes up House Cousland's banner in service to the Crown. Not against the men of Orlais, but against the bestial Darkspawn, rising in the south.
I'd like to tell you a story. This is where it begins.
Teyrn Bryce Cousland stood with his hands clasped behind his back, gazing thoughtfully into the fire that blazed merrily in the hearth. The main hall was empty of people, save it be for a few assorted guardsman watching vigilantly over their Lord. He nodded imperceptibly and then turned around, thoughtful gaze landing on his friend, Arl Rendon Howe. "I trust then that your troops will be here shortly," he stated. It wasn't really a question.
Rendon nodded easily. "I expect they will start arriving tonight, and we can march tomorrow. I apologize for the delay," he said, pulling a regretful face, "this is entirely my fault."
Bryce shook his head. "No, no." The appearance of Darkspawn in the south has us all scrambling, doesn't it?" He waved away the apology. "I only received the call from the king a few days ago myself. I'll send my eldest off with my men tonight, and then you and I will ride tomorrow, just like the old days."
At that, the Arl couldn't help but crack a smile. The briefest of other emotions flickered across his face, gone as soon as they had come, but Bryce wasn't sure what he'd seen on his friend's face and chose to chalk it up to nerves regarding the next day's march. It had been some time since either man had taken the field with their armies. "True," Howe said, pulling Bryce from his thoughts. "Though we both had less gray in our hair then-" he cracked a smile, "-and we fought Orlesians. Not monsters."
Bryce's answering grin was rueful. "At least the smell will be the same," he remarked. The Teyrn opened his mouth to say something more, but before he could speak, a door on the southern end of the reception hall opened, and a young, red-haired woman no older than twenty walked in, clad in her sparring leathers, a large, two-handed sword slung over her back. Her features were odd; she was pretty enough, but in an exotic, unusual way. Her eyes were set wide and almond-shaped, and were a very deep, emerald green color. She wore a touch of blue eye coloring, and around her right eye there was an intricate tattoo of graceful, abstract curves etched in pale blue ink. Her nose was long and straight, the bridge jutting out just enough to give her profile a sense of hawkishness, as though she were a bird of prey instead of a human woman. Her lips were evenly-shaped, tinted with a dark but unobtrusive reddish-brown. "There you are, Pup." She walked toward them and Bryce smiled. "Rendon, I believe you remember my daughter, Andraia."
Rendon smiled, inclining his head politely. "Ah yes, of course. It's good to see you again," he remarked pleasantly. "You're quite a lovely young woman," he complimented further. "I see your mother's eyes in your face, but your father's sword in your hand." His face bore a faint expression of disapproval.
Andraia nodded, bowing slightly in acknowledgment of the compliment, though she ignored the slight jibe. "My thanks. Is your family here?"
Howe shook his head. "No, they're well away from the fighting in the south. Amaranthine is where I'd prefer they be." He cocked an eyebrow at her. "My son, Thomas, inquired after you. Perhaps I shall bring him with me next time I visit."
It was all the young woman could do to hold back the urge to roll her eyes. Rendon Howe and his wife had been trying to 'nudge' her toward marrying his son for some time now. She still wasn't interested. As such, she arched an eyebrow right back at him and said, "To what end?" The Arl laughed easily; content to let himself be bested for the moment.
"You see what I have to contend with?" Bryce asked in a tone of good-natured exasperation. He put a hand on his daughter's shoulder. "I called you here for a reason, Pup. Fergus is taking the men south to Ostagar this evening. I'll be marching south with Rendon and his men in the morning. This is important, Andraia. I'll need you to take charge of things here while we're gone. That's going to mean keeping the peace on the lands, and taking care of the day-to-day management of our holdings. Not to mention looking out for your mother for me. Can you do that for me?" Bryce's eyes were solemn.
Andraia frowned. "I can, Father, but I'd much rather be going south with you."
Bryce smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "There's nothing in the world that would make me risk your mother's wrath if I let you go off to fight in a war, Pup. Besides, with Fergus and me both gone, I need someone I can trust holding the reins here. Please, tell me I can count on you."
"You know you can, Father," she acquiesced after a long, silent moment. "I still wish I was going with you," she said, her voice only a little petulant.
"I know. Perhaps I'll take you with me next time and leave Fergus here to run the castle, hm?" her father said, and she laughed, knowing she was being teased and accepting it even still. The young woman obviously adored her father, and the teasing was a ritual part of their relationship. The door on the northern end of the chamber opened, and a tall, striking man strode in. He was clad in armor, with a viciously-sharp sword slung over one shoulder, an equally-lethal dagger slung at his waist. His hair was dark and long, tied back in a simple tail at the base of his skull, and his beard was close-cropped and well-trimmed. His eyes glinted in the light of the fire, and his bearing was that of a seasoned fighter. This man, Andraia realized, had seen his time in battle. There was something else about him that seemed different, though she couldn't put her finger on it.
Bryce turned to the newcomer and held out an arm, which the other man clasped warmly. "There you are, Duncan. I don't believe I've introduced you to my daughter, Andraia."
The redhead bowed politely. "A pleasure, ser."
"Duncan is a Grey Warden, Pup," Bryce explained. "He's here seeking recruits to help deal with the Darkspawn threat in the south. You know who the Wardens are, of course."
She nodded briefly, suddenly afire with excitement. "They defeated the Darkspawn, the Blight centuries ago. I know the stories." Backward and forward, she didn't add. Reading about the Grey Wardens was a favorite hobby of Andraia's; one her father had encouraged, despite his wife's disapproval. He had bought or traded for every book on the Wardens he could find for his daughter, and she devoured them voraciously, most of the time more than once.
"Not completely, I am afraid," Duncan corrected. "They are still very much a danger to Ferelden, and their numbers are growing. I fear a Blight may already be upon us."
"You didn't tell me that there would be a Grey Warden in attendance, Bryce," Howe protested. "I have had no time to prepare for our noble guest."
"Duncan arrived recently and without notice," Bryce explained. "I understand he is interested in recruiting Ser Gilmore."
The Warden nodded, and turned to Andraia. "If I might be so bold, Teyrn Cousland, your daughter would also be a valuable addition to our ranks."
One of the redhead's eyebrows shot up, and she immediately nodded, her heart suddenly pounding in excitement. "I rather like that idea, Father," she said, gazing hopefully at Bryce. Her face fell slightly when she saw his expression.
"I'm already sending one child off to war, Duncan, I hope you will understand my unwillingness to give up my daughter as well," the Teyrn countered.
Duncan nodded amiably, though Andraia persisted. "I would consider it an honor to join their ranks, Father."
The Warden looked to Bryce for his response, and the Teyrn shook his head once more. "I'm not at all fond of losing both my children in one night," he remarked, "unless, of course, you insist on invoking the Rite of Conscription." His expression said more clearly than his words what the result of that course would be.
His daughter looked down at the floor, deeply disappointed by her father's reaction.
"I don't think that will be necessary, Teyrn Cousland," Duncan responded easily. "Ser Gilmore is a promising young man and will represent your holdings well."
Bryce nodded, his concerns on the subject now resolved. "I will send Fergus ahead with our men," he declared. "Pup, can you find your brother and pass on his orders for me?"
She pulled a face. "You're just trying to get rid of me, and you know I know it," she quipped.
He smiled, but remained firm. "We must discuss our plans in the south, and I need Fergus to be on the road as soon as possible. Please do this for me, Pup."
Andraia relented and nodded. "I'll take care of it." And with that she bowed first to Duncan and then to Arl Howe and departed the room. Lost in thought, she wandered along the halls of the castle without really noticing where she was going.
As such, she almost ran into the knight Gilmore before she saw him.
"There you are," he said, causing her to blink at his perfunctory greeting. "Your mother sent me to find you. Your hound is causing quite the ruckus in the kitchens."
Not really upset at his lack of formality - Andraia never was much for proper etiquette - she raised an eyebrow at the carrot-haired knight and grinned a little. "Why thank you, Ser Gilmore. I am doing well, and yourself?"
He flushed slightly, embarrassed, and shrugged. "Oh. Heh, my apologies, your Ladyship. I was told the matter is quite urgent. The servants are in an uproar and Nan's threatening to quit."
Andraia's lips twisted in a wry smile. "Nan was my nursemaid before she was head cook. She isn't going to quit," she declared.
"Your mother isn't so convinced. She sent me to inform you that you are to go 'get that beast out of the larder before he starts a rebellion'," Gilmore said, and he mimicked the Teyrna so accurately that Andraia couldn't help but laugh.
"All right, all right, I guess I'd better go get him."
"Very good, my Lady. Your mother has asked me to accompany you until you've got him," he informed her, and fell into step beside her as she walked.
When they arrived, it was easy to hear the hound's barking even through the kitchen's heavy hardwood door and the yelps of the servants as they tried to wrangle the large creature. Andraia pushed the door open, only to see that the entire place was a scene of most excellent havoc. Sacks of vegetables and fruit were overturned, and a bag of sugar had spilled in one corner. There were flour-spotted paw prints that made a path from an overturned jar of flour to the larder door, where there were smears on the door and the door frame as well. A few gouges marred the wooden door where an animal had obviously pawed it enough to nudge open. The loud barking was coming from the other side of the slightly open door, and in front of it was a silver-haired woman who looked almost overcome with exasperation. "There you are, finally!" she snapped. "You can get that Maker-blasted beast out of my pantry!"
Andraia's eyebrow went up once again, but she grinned. "He's just a dog," she defended.
"I don't need you defending that idiot mutt," Nan grumbled. "Just get him out of my kitchens before he ruins anything else. No doubt he's already been in the roast."
"All right, all right, let me handle this," Andraia soothed. "It'll only take a couple minutes." She moved to the pantry door, and stepped through, with Gilmore right behind her. He was fighting the urge to laugh. Once they were inside, the hound, one of the great, huge Mabari war dogs, was bouncing around in circles, barking enthusiastically for all he was worth. When he noticed his mistress, the great brown creature leapt close and bounded in a circle, barking sharply all the while. He bounded toward a corner of the room, and then back over to his owner. And then he did it again.
"He's acting awfully odd," Gilmore observed.
Andraia nodded and crouched down in front of the huge beast, taking hold of his collar to get his attention. "What is it, Aranon?"
The hound barked once and wagged his stumpy little tail, his eyes darting back and forth around the room.
"I know you're trying to tell me something," she said further, and let his collar go. He bounded over to one corner and stood there, barking for all he was worth. What the redhead found in that corner was totally unexpected: A hole in the ground, with the building stones pushed aside to reveal a small tunnel leading down and under the wall. "Rat hole!" she warned.
The Mabari stuck his face in the hole, only to jump back barking furiously as one of the massive rats of the region lunged from the hole to protect its home. It screeched its warning call, vicious teeth chattering as it did, and suddenly where there had been one rat, there were now five or six, each the size of a large house cat. Andraia reached down to the cuffs of her boots and pulled a long, thin knife from each cuff, dropping into a defensive stance to protect herself. Ferelden rats were territorial, vicious, and utterly without hesitation when it came to defending their nests - they were frequently known to attack everything from dogs to men, and she was taking no chances with the vermin. Gilmore yanked his sword from its sheath and the trio in the larder - man, woman, and dog - set about dispatching the filthy little beasts, and it wasn't long before the floor was smeared with the blood of twenty rats. Blades glinted and teeth flashed, each rat departing the world with a spine-chilling screech of pain.
When it became clear that there would be no more rats emerging from the burrows, Andraia and Gilmore set about kicking the dirt and stone back into the mouths of the tunnels, and moving planks of wood over them, upon which were set barrels of ale, bushels of fruit, or sacks of flour or beans to weight them down and prevent their future use. "Good boy," Andraia said, scratching the top of the Mabari's head.
Gilmore cracked a grin. "I guess what they say about Mabari hounds is true," he observed. "They'll take orders from their master or mistress, but anyone else..." he trailed off. It wasn't really a sentence that needed finishing. "Let's get him out of here before Nan has a conniption."
Andraia flashed him a wicked grin and stood, beckoning her hound to follow her out.
"There you are, and about time, too. He's been into the chops and finished our roast no doubt," she groused.
"Actually," the redhead retorted, her face absolutely deadpan, "he unearthed a burrow of rats that were getting into the larder."
Nan's face paled, and the two kitchen servants looked suddenly ill. "Those big ones? They go for your throat, they do!" the woman squeaked.
The head cook rolled her eyes. "Just get back to work, both of you, I swear by the Maker you're nearly useless," she muttered. She then turned her scrutinizing gaze back on the war hound, who was standing very tall, clearly waiting for praise for a good fight. "And I bet you led them right in," she said.
Aranon whined. That was definitely not praise.
"Oh, don't you try those sad eyes on me, I'm immune to your pitiful stares," the cook said, shaking a finger at the dog. At one more insistently pitiful whine from the war hound, Nan rolled her eyes, smiled briefly, and crouched down, setting a few pieces of pork down in front of him. Aranon let out a happy bark and immediately set to devouring his reward. "Oh, fine, you mangy thing," Nan relented, not without affection. "Good boy for taking care of those rats." She turned back to Andraia and threw a scowl at her that suddenly didn't seem as fierce as it had been before. "Now go on, child, and get him out of here so I can see to dinner."
Andraia smiled. "Yes, ma'am," came the meek reply, and she turned to walk out. "Well, Gilmore, your task is complete, and you have my permission to return to your regular duties. Have you seen Fergus?"
"Last I saw he was headed for his rooms, Ladyship," Gilmore replied. "He'd wanted to say goodbye to his wife and son before he leaves."
"Thank you, Gilmore."
"You're welcome, Ladyship."
Andraia rounded a corner in the castle and briefly contemplated turning around again. A small, brightly lit atrium was ahead of her, and standing within the cheerful space was her mother, the Teyrna Eleanor Cousland, and three guests. She didn't turn quickly enough, and Eleanor caught her gaze, beckoning her over. Fighting the urge to grimace, a gesture Andraia knew her mother would not appreciate, she made her way over, and pasting what she hoped was a pleasant expression onto her face as she did. She had never really been a fan of these formal – or informal - audiences. Especially when one of the guests was a woman whose determined attempts to make a match for her son were unwanted by either her son or Eleanor's daughter. "Bryce brought this back all the way from Orlais," she stated, and the woman she was speaking to nodded. Andraia thought she looked familiar, but could not place her. "Ah, there you are," Eleanor said, holding an arm out in greeting. "Darling, you remember Lady Landra, Bann Loren's wife?"
Andraia inclined her head politely. "Of course, it's a pleasure to see you again." It wasn't, really. She was more pleased to see the lanky youth who was with Landra. The two of them were good friends, a fact that Andraia was certain, absolutely certain, rankled Landra more than she would ever let on.
"This is my lady in waiting, Iona." The timid woman smiled, and waved vaguely. "Oh, for the Maker's sake, Iona, say something," Landra said in exasperation.
Iona's face immediately turned scarlet, but she curtsied gracefully to Andraia. "It's a pleasure to meet you, my Lady. You are as pretty as your mother describes." There were no further comments, as Iona had once more retreated into herself. It was obvious that she was a wallflower, Andraia observed, and so she smiled and nodded, not wanting to put the poor girl under any more stress.
Landra sighed, shaking her head. "You remember my son, Dairren, of course," Landra said, gesturing to the tall, dark-haired young man, who smiled somewhat apologetically at his mother's as-yet unceasing attempts to throw them together, and tossed Andraia a conspiratorial wink.
"It would be hard for us to forget each other," Dairren said pleasantly, lightly grasping Andraia's hand in greeting. "We've spent a great deal of time together, after all - mostly by choice." His eyes sparkled with barely-repressed mirth as he gave his mother a bit of gentle ribbing.
"Ah yes, of course you remember Dairren," Landra said drolly, "and for some reason, my darling boy is still, as yet, unmarried. It's quite the mystery." Dairren simply laughed, tossing Andraia his best apology face.
"It's a shame," Eleanor said pointedly. "If only my daughter paid more attention to what is proper," was the next long-suffering comment. "The softer side of womanhood should not be ignored so lightly, my dear," she stated, giving her daughter another meaningful look. There was a twinkle of humor in her eyes, however, and Andraia knew she was not entirely serious.
"I can handle my own affairs, mother dearest," was Andraia's reply. She managed to avoid saying it too archly.
At this, the Teyrna arched an eyebrow, an expression that her daughter had inherited, and stated wryly, "Despite all evidence to the contrary." She placed an affectionate hand on her daughter's shoulder.
The Bann's wife seemed to view this as her opportunity to escape what she felt was an awkward situation. "I believe I shall return to my suite to rest. It has been a pleasure, young lady, to see you again. Come, Iona."
Iona curtsied once more and hurried out after her mistress.
"I suppose I should be going as well," Dairren said. He grinned once more at his friend, threw her another conspiratorial wink, and bowed respectfully to Eleanor before departing as well. The Teyrna turned to her daughter with a mildly reproachful look. "I trust you will be more civil at dinner, my dear?"
Andraia nodded. "Of course, Mother. Dairren and I are good friends, and he doesn't mind a little teasing now and then. I hope you noticed that he gives as good as he gets."
Eleanor waved that off. "Of course, of course. Now, my darling, you looked as if you had something to do. I assume you were on some errand for your father?"
"I am, actually." Andraia was surprised. "How did you know?"
The Teyrna smiled wryly. "You are so your father's child," she mused. "I saw the look on your face when you came round the corner back there, dear. You looked as though you would rather have been anywhere else. It was not hard to deduce that this was a distraction that was unwelcome."
"Fair enough, Mother. I apologize for underestimating you. May I be excused? Father asked me to find Fergus and pass on some orders."
Eleanor nodded. "Of course, dear."
And with that, the redhead turned and left.
"Is there really going to be a war, Papa? Will you bring me back a sward?" A small, high-pitched voice reached Andraia's ears before she even saw her brother. She smiled at Oren's voice. It was so very distinct. He was a delight of a nephew.
Fergus's deep voice laughed gently. "That's 'sword', my boy, and I'll bring you back the mightiest one I can find, I promise." Andraia paused at the doorframe, watching her brother with his young family, a faint smile on her face as she did so. "I'll be back before you know it." He ruffled the boy's hair, eliciting a laugh from his son.
His wife, Oriana, twisted her hands twisted nervously in her skirt, a frown furrowing her brow. "I wish victory was indeed so certain," she brooded. "My heart is...disquiet."
"Don't frighten the boy, love," he chided his wife gently. "I speak the truth -" he glanced over to see Andraia waiting at the side of the room. "And here's my little sister to see me off. Now, dry your eyes, my love, and wish me well."
The redhead arched an eyebrow. "If you want to just let me know when you two are done," she quipped, grinning at her older brother.
Fergus laughed and cuffed her lightly on the shoulder. "Just you wait until you have your own family, Andi," he retorted, using a family nickname for her. It sent a chill down the girl's back - he hadn't called her that since they were children. Fergus was more on edge than he was letting on.
Andraia ignored the jibe, her face growing serious. "I bring a message from Father - he says you are to leave without him and take our troops south. He will depart tomorrow morning with Arl Howe and his forces." She pulled a face. "I wish I were going with you."
Fergus smiled understandingly. "I know. I wish you were going as well, if I were to be honest. You always seemed to be one step ahead of me in our arms training growing up - if there's anyone I'd want watching my back, it'd be you and that wicked sword arm." He looked wistful for a moment. "It's going to be quite dull killing all those Darkspawn myself."
Oriana looked slightly surprised. "Certainly your father would not endanger both of his heirs in this campaign."
Fergus shrugged. "Mother and Father have been fighting about it for days. The missive from the King said that they need every able-bodied citizen to do their part, and we Couslands have always put our duty first before our own needs. By the same token, Mother is not willing to send her daughter to the frontlines of battle. Father was not happy, but he acquiesced to her wishes." A moment of sudden understanding came to Fergus's face, and he spoke again, changing the subject. "If I am to leave ahead of Father, that means the Arl's men are delayed." He looked somewhat disgusted. "You'd think they were all walking backwards." He muttered a curse under his breath. "Well, I'd better get on my way. So many Darkspawn to behead, so little time. Off we go, then. I'll see you soon, my love. I promise."
Oriana bit her lip and put her arms around Fergus one more time. "I shall miss you. And I shall be very cross if you get yourself hurt."
"Not to worry," Fergus laughed. "I wouldn't risk your ire for anything in all of Ferelden."
"I would hope, dear boy, that you planned to wait for us to come and see you before your departure," Bryce said from the doorway. He and Eleanor came into the room, Eleanor stepping close to her eldest to press an affectionate kiss to his scruffy cheek.
"Be well, my son. I will pray for you every day until your return," Eleanor said. Her face mirrored her concern, an exact replica of the worry etched into her daughter-in-law's face.
"Fergus will be fine," Andraia reassured them. "There isn't the Darkspawn invented that can stop him."
"Andi's right. I keep telling you, no Darkspawn will ever best me," Fergus declared.
Oriana did not seem reassured. She bowed her head, uttering a brief prayer. "Maker sustain and preserve us all; watch over our sons, husbands, and fathers and bring them safely back to us."
"And bring us some ale and wenches, while you're at it," Fergus said with a smile. He glanced briefly at his wife. "For the men, of course," he amended, but not quickly enough.
Oriana raised an eyebrow. "Fergus, you would say this in front of your mother?"
"What's a wench, Papa?" came a small voice from somewhere in the vicinity of Fergus's knee. "Is that what you pull on to get the bucket out of the well?" Andraia looked down at her young nephew, unable to keep the amusement off her face.
Bryce hunched down in front of the small boy. "A wench," he explained with a twinkle in his eyes, "is the woman who pours the ale in a tavern." After a moment's thought, he continued, "or a woman who drinks a lot of ale."
Eleanor threw her hands up in exasperation. "Bryce! Maker's breath, I swear it's like living with a pack of small boys."
Fergus burst out laughing. "I will miss you, Mother dear." He turned to Andraia. "You will take care of her for me, won't you, little sister?"
Andraia nodded soberly. "You can count on me, Fergus."
Eleanor was still a little exasperated. "Oh good. How thrilling to know I'll be so well taken care of."
Bryce laughed. "Enough. Pup," he said, turning to his daughter, "you'll want to get an early night tonight. There's much to do in the morning."
Andraia sat straight up in the darkness, groping in the shadows for something she couldn't see. For a moment she was disoriented, unclear on her surroundings, so she took a deep breath, trying to settle her senses. Her bedroom, of course. Middle of the night, must have had a bad dream, she mused to herself.
A moment later it occurred to her that it was much noisier in the family quarters of the castle than it should be. A few seconds after that realization came the sudden awareness that there was a low, menacing growl coming from somewhere near the foot of her bed. She snapped out a low-spoken command, and Aranon ceased the low growl, though his lip was still curled and she could see the bristly hair on the dog's hackles standing up. She listened for a moment, eventually recognizing the sounds of combat outside her door. Putting aside her astonishment, she slipped silently from her bed, padded over to her large oaken wardrobe, and opened one of its doors. Pulling her leather armor from it, she quickly dressed and retrieved her large greatsword from inside the wardrobe. There was a sudden, jarring thump on the door; the pounding knock of someone trying to break it in. Slinging the sword's sheath quickly over her back, she instead reached for a pair of single-handed blades - a longsword and dagger - and turned to her bedroom door, knowing she would not have room for the combat style of a two-handed sword. She turned just in time for the door to burst inward. Two armed and armored soldiers lunged into the room, one drawing his bowstring back at her as his companion lurched forward.
The melee combatant was met by a snarl and lunge from the ferocious - and currently murderous - Mabari hound, who snapped at his wrists and arms to try and dislodge the man's weapons. He screamed and dropped a razor-sharp dagger as the dog clamped down on his right wrist, and blood spurted readily from the new wound. Andraia moved quickly forward and kicked it away from him, lashing out with her longsword. It caught the man in the midsection, slicing easily through his leather armor, and he howled in agony, clutching at his stomach as he fell. Once on the ground Aranon made short work of his jugular vein, ending the threat.
An arrow whistled past Andraia's cheek, close enough to stir the air, and she stifled a curse, diving to the ground to avoid the next projectile, which thudded hard into the back wall of her tall wardrobe. Aranon snarled viciously at seeing his mistress further threatened, and lunged upon the archer, knocking him to the ground. The soldier's head hit the stone floor with a sickening thud, and he let out a ragged screech of pain that was cut off abruptly as the dog tore his throat out.
"Aranon, heel!" she hissed, staring in horror at the grisly scene on her bedroom floor. Feeling slightly sick, she stepped closer to the bodies as Aranon padded obediently over beside her, his eyes still bright and wary as he watched for danger to his mistress. Andraia peered down at the dead men, her face paling a little as the adrenaline began to wear off and she saw how much damage the Mabari hound had done to the second man's throat. "Good boy," she said weakly, fighting back a churning in her stomach.
Another thud against a solid surface sounded in the near distance, and the girl's head snapped up. She immediately stepped over the bodies and ran out into the small courtyard that connected the castle's residence apartments, only to see another pair of soldiers pounding on the heavy wooden door to her parents' quarters. "Aranon, go! Attack, boy!" The dog leaped, barking and snarling as he did so, snapping at the nearest man's feet, eliciting a startled cry from him. The redhead was soon in the fray, sword-to-sword against a soldier of no mean skill. She countered a hard swing with a parry that made her opponent stumble forward, which she rewarded with a closed fist to his solar plexus. As he went down, choking and coughing, she brought her longsword down sharply onto his neck, shearing the man's head clean off. The body dropped to the ground, twitching in its final, mindless death throes. She turned to the second man, who had already scored several deep cuts on Aranon's body with his dagger. He was bleeding from several places on his legs and arms from where the dog's teeth and heavy claws had found their marks. Andraia took advantage of the distraction provided by her pet's snapping jaws and shoved her dagger into the soldier's ribs. He shrieked in pain and folded to the ground, allowing Aranon's vicious jaws to clamp down on his throat and break the skin with little to no effort.
With all four of the soldiers who had invaded dead on the ground, she took a moment to bend over, her elbows on her knees, and gasp for breath. Her hands shook; she had often trained in swordsmanship with her brother, but this was her first experience with real combat. With real blood, she thought to herself. Her stomach churned, and it was all she could do not to vomit. The door opened in front of her. "Maker's breath!" She heard her mother utter the epithet in the most horrified voice, and looked up, her own face still pale. "Daughter, what in the world happened? Are you all right?" Eleanor's eyes widened when she took a closer look at the dress and armor of the dead soldiers. "Maker preserve us, those are Howe's men!"
Belatedly, Andraia realized that her mother was also clad in a set of leather armor. "Howe's men have betrayed us - I don't know why. Are you all right?"
Eleanor nodded swiftly. "I heard the fighting in the hallway and barred the door." A sudden worry came to her face. "Have you seen your father? He never came to bed."
"No." Andraia scowled in worry. "I heard the fighting and barely managed to get my armor on and find some weapons before soldiers burst into my bedroom. Aranon probably saved my life."
"Thank the Maker you're all right. We have to find your father."
"I want you to stay here, Mother. Stay in that room and bar the door. Don't open it for anyone."
Eleanor's eyes hardened. "I am no Orlesian wallflower, dear girl. Find me a sword, and I'll use it." She looked over her shoulder to a trunk in the couple's bedroom. "There's a trunk beside the bed. Your father keeps some spare things in there - see if there's anything we can use."
Andraia nodded, hurrying over to the chest. She threw the lid open and knelt in front of it, finding a round buckler shield and a longsword, among other things both sentimental and practical. "Here, Mother. Take these."
Eleanor nodded, arming herself and adjusting the shield's wrist straps for best fit. "Let's go."
Andraia turned, throwing open the door to her sister-in-law's suite. "Oriana? Oren - oh Maker, no," she breathed. It felt as though the air had been knocked out of her. Her sister-in-law and nephew lay on the floor of their suite, their bodies mangled and torn, in thick pools of their own blood.
"What?" Eleanor demanded, pushing past her daughter. "No! Oh, my sweet Oren...what sort of monsters murder innocents?!"
"No, Mother!" Andraia's voice was strangled and breaking. "Don't come in! Don't look!"
Eleanor turned back to her daughter, her eyes swimming with tears and filled with a mix of pain and deep rage. "I'll look! I'll tear them all apart for this!"
The guest rooms contained yet another grisly scene – Landra and Dairren, slaughtered in their nightclothes. Iona's pale body was stretched across her mistress's, as though she'd finally found her courage in the end, in an attempt to protect Landra. Eleanor mourned while Andraia's thoughts grew violent at seeing her childhood friend so cruelly murdered. She knelt by his side, gently closing eyes that had frozen in terror at his death, and sent a silent prayer to the Maker to take their souls to his side.
"These were good people," Eleanor said, her voice thick with new sorrow – as if losing her daughter-in-law and grandson were not enough, now she'd lost a treasured friend as well. "If Landra hadn't been here – if she hadn't come…" she trailed off, shaking herself out of a train of thought that would do neither of the Cousland women any good.
It was then that something seemed to occur to the younger Cousland. "Oh, Maker help us...they aren't even taking prisoners. They mean to kill all of us! We have to find Father and get out of here!" The pair of them stood, leaving the grisly scene before them. They hurried from the private apartments, and out into the halls of the castle where the bulk of the fighting was.
"The front gates! That's where your father must be," Eleanor said hastily. "Let's go there first. Once we find him we head for the servants' entrance in the larder. Do you understand me? You are to survive if all else fails!"
"Don't talk like that, Mother. I won't leave you and Father behind and nothing you can say will make me do it," Andraia retorted flatly.
"Couslands put their duty before their personal desires, Daughter," Eleanor reminded her sternly. "This is an order and you will obey it."
That stung. The redhead held her mother's gaze for a moment, and finally turned away with a curt nod. They ran forward, skidding on the cobblestones as they turned a corner. What they found in a small courtyard was absolute chaos. Several servants were milling about in pure chaos, a few armed, but most without a method of protection. One man caught sight of the Teyrna and her daughter and ran over, letting his sword fall to the ground. "The castle is lost! Save yourselves! I'm getting out of here!"
Andraia's temper flared. Cowardice was not acceptable. One gloved hand came up and she slapped the hysterical man. "Stand your ground and fight! This is our home!"
His eyes flickered about nervously, and he rubbed at the sore spot on his face, but he nodded, stooping down to retrieve his sword. "I...y-yes, my Lady."
She nodded curtly. "Accompany us, we search for my father."
Andraia turned, moving swiftly down the corridor toward the main audience hall. She glanced in a door as they went, seeing the castle's chapel in ruins, with the pews overturned and statues knocked over, and the castle's vast library strewn all about the room. Parts of the chapel were on fire. A patrol of Howe's men rounded the corner and uttered a shout, charging the surprised group, and once more, Andraia waded reluctantly back into the fight, her stomach churning again. She fought down the nausea, visions of her nephew and sister-in-law – and Dairren – swimming in her mind's eye, and let that fuel her rage at the attack. Shortly Howe's men lay on the floor and the four of them continued on their way. When they reached the entrance hall, Andraia motioned for her mother to stay back, and then lifted one foot, kicking the door sharply inward. She leaped into the room, and saw several of her father's knights and guardsmen deep in combat with a squad of Howe's men. In the center of it all was Ser Gilmore.
She jumped into the fighting; assisting a guard whose sword arm was badly wounded, and reversed her sword in her hand, striking the invading soldier on the bridge of the nose with the heavy metal. He howled in pain and staggered backward, blood pouring from his face. She swung her right arm angrily, burying the blade of her dagger deep in his belly. He collapsed without further resistance, and she turned to see her mother advancing on another soldier - with no small amount of skill, the redhead noted in approval.
Aranon lunged at a nearby mage who was hurling bolts of ice at Eleanor, clamping his jaws around her slender ankle. She screamed in pain and collapsed to the floor, where the Mabari proved he was no respecter of genders by ripping out her throat as he had done to others several times that night. It wasn't long before the rest of the invading soldiers and mages had been neutralized, and Gilmore rushed over, nodding to Andraia and her mother. "Thank the Maker you're both all right. I saw Howe's men heading toward your apartments and feared the worst."
"We're fine, Gilmore. Where's Father, have you seen him?" Andraia demanded in concern. "And where's the Grey Warden?!"
"The last I saw your father he was heading for the servants' entrance in the larder. I think he hoped to find you both there. As for the Warden, I don't know. He went back to his rooms earlier this evening, and I saw him near the front gates not long ago. Since then we've been too busy trying to keep the gates closed and I've not seen him since."
This news was less than reassuring to Eleanor. "Oh, by the Maker, you don't think the Warden is part of this, do you?" Her eyes widened. "Was he sent here to kill Bryce?"
Andraia shook her head firmly. "No," she stated flatly. "That is not what the Grey Wardens do. I won't believe that unless I see it for myself. Thank you, Ser Gilmore. Come with us. Bring your men and escape this place."
Gilmore resolutely shook his head. "My duty is to ensure your escape. My men and I will hold the gates while you find your father and depart."
"Are you certain, Gilmore?" Andraia asked. She felt sick at the thought of leaving others to die for her.
He nodded. "The Cousland House puts duty first, as your father always says, Ladyship." He squared his shoulders and saluted to both of them. "My Lady. Ladyship," he said politely. "Be careful."
Eleanor nodded, her eyes shining. They all knew what he was proposing. "The Maker preserve you, Ser Gilmore."
The muscles in his face worked as he clenched his jaw. "The Maker preserve us all," he said, and, closing his eyes tightly, he turned and ran back the way he had come, heading to the front gate where he would eventually give his life in service of his Teyrn.
"Come now, Andraia, come on. We must find your father." Eleanor said, turning to go.
Andraia couldn't quite pull herself away. She'd always read the heroic stories of the brave knights that would give their lives for those they served - those who were perfectly loyal, to their dying breath, often literally. She'd never thought someone would do that for her. Andraia had sometimes had such romantic fantasies of such a knight nobly throwing himself to danger for her - what young woman didn't? - But suddenly the whole idea just seemed stupid. "But...he could escape with us!" she protested. "Why won't he come? It's suicide to stay here!"
Eleanor's eyes softened. "Because he is who he is - and we won't forget him for it. And we don't cheapen his sacrifice by dawdling here, Andraia. We must find your father. Come now." She took hold of Andraia's elbow and led the shocked and numb young woman from the room, not failing to notice the tears that were suddenly streaming down her daughter's face.
They fought six more patrols of Howe's men - those unlucky enough to miss out on the looting and pillaging of the Cousland estates, no doubt - on their way to the castle kitchen. Eleanor did not guide her daughter and the Mabari hound straight to the kitchen, however. She took a side detour to the castle treasury and placed a small key in her daughter's hand. "Inside the treasury is a chest," she explained, "and in that chest is the Cousland family blade. Take it. I won't have Howe's men responsible for plundering something that has been in our family for generations. It should be used," she said, her voice hard, "to sever Howe's treacherous, lying head."
Andraia moved numbly through the treasury, as though not really taking part in her own actions. The whole thing suddenly seemed so faraway and distant - as though she were observing her own actions through someone else's eyes - and she pulled not only the sword from its resting place, but the Highever shield, with its crossed laurel bows - the Highever crest - emblazoned upon the steely grey surface. Andraia's ancestor, Teyrn Ardal Cousland, had carried that selfsame shield into battle to defend King Vanedrin against the Orlesians, and had died in the act. The shield still carried the scars of that battle; long cuts into the surface from Orlesian blades were a silent testament to that fight. She slung it and the Cousland family sword over her back and returned to her mother, nodding once. Eleanor returned the nod gravely and together they moved onward.
When Andraia opened the door to the castle kitchens, she was rewarded with the grisly sight of Nan and her servants, lying dead and ravaged upon the cold stone floor. The entire kitchen was overturned, and Andraia smiled, somewhat sadly, at the thought of the fight Nan must have put up. She rushed to the door to the larder, and upon pulling it open, felt her heart drop into her shoes. If she had thought she was breathless upon finding Oriana and Oren, now she felt as though someone had punched her in the stomach. In one corner of the large pantry, Bryce Cousland was curled onto the floor in an ever-spreading pool of blood, clutching at his midsection, his face wracked with pain. "Daddy!" Andraia shrieked. Her weapons slid out of suddenly numb fingers and she darted to his side, tears welling up in her eyes. "Daddy, are you all right?" She hadn't called him "Daddy" since she was eight years old.
"Bryce?" Eleanor gasped, her hands flying to her face as her eyes widened in horror. "Oh, Bryce!" she ran over and knelt on the floor, laying her husband's head gently in her lap.
"Thank the Maker," Bryce said weakly.
"We've got to get out of here," Andraia declared.
"I'm afraid I won't survive the standing, Pup," Bryce countered.
"You have to!" she demanded.
He smiled. "If only will could make it so." He seemed to curl inward for a moment, fighting off a fresh wave of pain. "Rendon…found me first. I barely got away. I knew you would come here to try to escape. They've surrounded the castle. We've lost, Pup. You and your mother need to escape."
"I'm afraid the Teyrn is right," said a voice from the doorway, and Andraia whirled, hand on the hilt of her greatsword, only to see the Grey Warden, Duncan, standing there. "Howe's treachery is complete, and your castle is surrounded. They have not yet discovered this passageway, but they will not be long in getting here. We must do what we can."
"Can I depend on you to get them to safety, Duncan?" Bryce asked weakly.
Duncan nodded solemnly. "You have my word."
"Pup, go with Duncan," Eleanor said suddenly. "You must escape and tell Fergus what has happened. Inform the King - warn him about Howe."
"What?!" Andraia blurted. "No, Mother, you can't stay behind!"
Eleanor's face was stern. "My place is at your father's side, through life and in death. I will kill every one of those traitorous bastards that comes through that door before I let them harm him, but I must know that you are safe, my darling girl."
"But -" Andraia turned to her father, who shook his head.
"You will go with Duncan," Bryce said sternly. "What have your mother and I always taught you about our house, Andraia?"
She couldn't argue. Andraia looked away, her eyes stinging with tears she didn't think she had left to shed. "Duty before self."
"I'm glad you listened." Bryce smiled weakly, then his face contorted once more with the pain, and his daughter was astonished to see tears in his eyes. For the first time in her twenty years of life, Andraia Cousland saw her father cry. And it nearly broke her heart. "Go, Pup."
Duncan seemed hesitant. "I came to your lands in search of a recruit. I know the timing is not optimal, but the Darkspawn threat in the south demands that I leave here with one."
Andraia's head whipped around. "You mean me."
He nodded, his eyes never leaving Bryce's face.
The dying Teyrn gazed silently at the Grey Warden's face and finally nodded. "I understand."
Duncan turned back to Andraia. "I offer you a place of safety within our order. Join us, drive back the Darkspawn. Help us keep Ferelden safe. I hope our order can become another family to you in time."
Andraia bit her lip, and after a lengthy pause, finally nodded. "All right."
"Now go," Eleanor ordered her. "They'll be here any moment. Find Fergus. Give him our love. And never forget that your family loves you," she said.
Bryce bit back a cry of pain and groped blindly for his wife's hand. "I'm s-so sorry, my love," he said, on the verge of tears once more.
"Shh, Bryce. Never." Eleanor cradled her husband close to her and looked up with shining eyes at her daughter. "Goodbye, my darling girl."
Duncan stood, pulling Andraia numbly to her feet. Aranon whimpered at Bryce and nudged the man's arm with his snout. Andraia patted her leg sharply and the Mabari obediently moved to her side. "It's time to go," Duncan informed her, pulling her unresistingly along behind him as he opened the door to the servants' exit.
The last thing Andraia saw was her mother pressing a kiss to her father's forehead. After a long, last look at her beloved parents, she closed the door, squared her shoulders, and turned to follow Duncan away from everything she had ever known.