I've been debating whether to post this for a long time - I wrote it almost three years ago, in the first flush of Dragon Age obsession, and then it fell to the back burner as other stories began crowding forward. This is mostly older work, therefore, but I like how it came out, and, more to the point, I've realized that if I never post it, I'll never finish it, and I would very much like to finish it. This is a Cousland/Alistair romance playthrough, so if that's not your cup of tea, feel free to hit the back button. :) Also, most of the time I am happy to accept constructive criticism (and please, do feel free to note any typos!), but since I've written 90,000+ words of this story already, I'm unlikely to make any substantive changes, so please keep that in mind. Many thanks to the Cheeky Monkeys for encouragement and to Oleander's One for her support!
Una Cousland looked around at the Tevinter ruins she was walking through. Once upon a time these must have been grand halls, filled with beauty. Now chunks of stone lay all around; the Wilds were in the process of taking back their space.
"So this is Ostagar," Una said. Duncan nodded briefly, but said nothing. He had grown increasingly less conversational as they'd approached the camp.
She was staring up at the Tower that reached into the sky over all of it when Duncan grabbed her wrist. Una stopped walking and looked up, realizing that in her distraction she had almost run right into the King of Ferelden. She blushed furiously, and Cailan laughed. Una remembered meeting him a few times before, when she'd gone to Denerim with her father. Memories of the destruction at Highever Castle washed over her. She blinked as her eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry, what did you say, Your Majesty?"
"You seem distracted, my lady. I … hope your family is well?"
"Well?" Una looked up disbelievingly at the King. He looked quite serious. "Do you mean you don't know?"
Cailan frowned. "Know what? We've been expecting the Teyrn any day now. Fergus has been most anxious."
"My father … my father isn't coming," she said, trying to hold back the tears. "He and my mother are dead. As are Fergus's wife and child, and the rest of our people. Duncan and I are the only ones who made it out of the castle." The King looked shocked and bewildered. "Arl Howe attacked us!" she said.
"Rendon Howe? My dear lady," Cailan said, looking at Duncan doubtfully. "Surely you must be mistaken."
But Duncan shook his head. "It is true, Your Majesty. Howe waited until the young man had taken all the troops with him, and then he attacked the castle, slaughtering everyone he found there. The Teyrn and his wife …" He looked at Una sympathetically.
Cailan's jaw dropped. "I can't believe Arl Howe could be so … This is stunning. My deepest sympathies, my lady," he said to Una, his face softening as he turned toward her. "You have my word that this will be looked into as soon as the battle is over. The Teyrn and Teyrna will be avenged, I swear it." He crossed his arm to his shoulder, bowing to her.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Una said, trying to hold back the tears. It had never occurred to her that Cailan wouldn't already know what had happened. "Do you— Do you know where my brother is? I have to tell him." Her voice quivered, and she couldn't get the images of her nephew and sister-in-law out of her mind.
"I'm afraid Fergus and his men are on patrol in the Korcari Wilds and won't be back until after the battle," Cailan said. "I'll do my best to see to it that he finds you as soon as he's back."
Una was torn. She had so looked forward to throwing herself into her big brother's arms and sharing her grief with him. But she hadn't relished having to tell him about his wife and child, much less their parents, and didn't entirely mind the reprieve. She felt Grenli press his big body against her knee and rubbed the dog's head with her knuckles. Thank Andraste for Grenli. She didn't know what she'd have done without him.
The King's voice broke into her thoughts. "The Grey Wardens and the King of Ferelden, side by side! It will be glorious," he was saying to Duncan. "Just like the old legends."
"Your Majesty, I wish you would wait for the reinforcements—either from Redcliffe or the rest of the Grey Wardens from Orlais." Duncan sounded weary. "It is unwise to be hasty when there is a Blight to defeat."
"I don't even think this is a true Blight," Cailan complained. "I wanted to see the dragon at the head of the horde and take it down." His eyes took on a faraway look. Then he glanced back at Una. "But you must be tired after your long journey and everything you've been through, and I must get back to Teyrn Loghain before he sends a search party out for me. Until the battle!" he called, his armor clanking as he walked away.
Una had yet to participate in a real battle, but she remembered—all too vividly—the attack on Highever Castle. There had been nothing of glory in that. Only blood and ugly death. Perhaps real battle was different? She knew her father and Fergus both looked strangely exhilarated when talking of their battles. Maybe it was a man thing. She didn't know, but something in Cailan's bluff overconfidence was concerning to her.
She said as much to Duncan as they walked toward camp. He said little, really only grunted, but he seemed to agree with her, and her worry grew.
As they reached the entrance to the main camp, Duncan paused, looking at Una not unkindly. The girl had been through a lot, he thought, and yet she was handling it well. The brain was busy behind the young face, and over time she was talking less and observing more. Her parents would be proud.
He gave Una orders to stay in the camp, and to seek out Alistair when she had finished her explorations. As he watched her move away in an awkward lope, he wondered what they would make of each other. Alistair was a strong and talented young man, but not used to women. This girl would bowl him right over.
Meandering through the camp, Una felt only a slight interest in the goings-on about her. Knowing she wouldn't be able to find Fergus until after the battle, everything up to the fighting seemed like filler, although she was curious about the ritual Duncan had mentioned. She chatted with a mage named Wynne, did some trading with the quartermaster, then went in search of the other Grey Warden Duncan had told her to look for, assuming he would be some kind of older fighter like Duncan himself.
She followed the pointing finger of a camp guard and came upon a young man—only a few years older than she was, by the looks of him—chatting with a mage. Could this be Alistair? She had a moment to watch him as the two concluded their conversation. The mage was clearly hostile, while the Warden managed to keep his temper and get in a few good-humored digs. He was a good-looking man, blond and tanned. His nose was strong and prominent, and his light brown eyes twinkled. As she listened, Una was struck by his sense of humor, which seemed much like those of her family. Una thought with relief that at least she'd be able to talk to him, maybe joke a bit. It might feel more like being home. Duncan was nice enough, but so solemn that she always felt like a chastened child around him.
The mage eventually stormed off in a huff, brushing past Una with an undeservedly rude word. Alistair turned his gaze on Una, and she felt a jolt of lightning as their eyes met. She hadn't been expecting that, not at all, and it was all she could do to remember to breathe.
"You know, one good thing about the Blight is how it brings people together," Alistair said, grinning a bit, but there was sadness behind the smile.
"Does it?" she asked, collecting her thoughts with an effort. "I think someone forgot to tell your mage friend."
"Every party has to have a few sour faces disapproving of everyone else's fun," he said. "I'm Alistair."
"Duncan's new recruit, right?" He held out his hand.
She shook it, feeling a wave of heat sweep through her at his touch, her heart pounding. Oh, this is bad timing, she thought, trying to pull herself together, floundering for something, anything, to say. "How did you know? That I'm Duncan's new recruit?"
"There aren't a lot of women in the Grey Wardens."
"And I take it you would like there to be?"
"Would that be a bad thing? … Not that I'm some drooling letcher, or anything." He groaned, covering his face with his hand. "Please, stop looking at me like that."
They both laughed. The situation definitely had promise, Una thought. At least working with him would not be boring. As her eyes flickered over his handsome face, she thought distracting would probably be a better word.
"Have you fought any darkspawn?" he asked, looking at her seriously.
"No, never," she said. "Have you?"
He nodded. "Just once. And I'm not in any rush to do it again. They're disturbing."
"They look like men … but they're corrupted. Blotchy and covered with nasty growths and things."
"Sounds unpleasant," she said.
"To say the least."
"Have you been a Grey Warden long?"
"Only about six months," he said. "Before that, I was in the Chantry, training to become a Templar. Duncan thought my skills might be useful and conscripted me. The Revered Mother was fit to be tied," he added, chuckling.
"I'll bet. The Templars seem pretty possessive."
"You can say that again. But I never wanted to be a Templar, anyway—didn't have much choice in the matter—so I was happy to leave." Alistair started to say something else, then seemed to think better of it. "We should get back to Duncan," he said. Was it her imagination, or did he sound somewhat reluctant? She hoped he wanted to keep talking to her instead, and chided herself for being a romantic fool.
"I look forward to traveling with you," she said, meaning it. He reminded her of Fergus. If Fergus was incredibly handsome and definitely not her brother.
Alistair blinked. "You do? That's a switch." With which cryptic comment, he turned and led the way toward Duncan's fire.
As they walked, Alistair studied the girl. He couldn't quite believe this was Duncan's recruit. She looked young. Too young to be fighting darkspawn. But in all the time he'd known Duncan, Alistair had never known him to misjudge a person. There must be something there under those wide eyes. They were a curious color, Alistair thought, hazel, but so light they might have been gold. Tilted, like a cat's. And huge in her face. All her features were large—the wide, generous mouth, the strong nose—but they fit, and formed a striking combination. And she was tall. Taller than Alistair himself, he had to admit, although just barely. He was taller than most men, and had never met a woman as tall as he. Certainly not one who was also as slender and trim as this one. She walked awkwardly; he expected her to trip on her own feet at any moment. But she was clearly confident, and it was nice to meet someone who shared his sense of humor. Duncan mostly shook his head and sighed at Alistair's jokes, but Una had caught his comments and thrown them right back. He'd be interested to see how she fought, Alistair thought as they reached Duncan.
They were joined at Duncan's fire by the other recruits, Daveth and Jory. Daveth's face lit up at the sight of the young woman, and he sidled close to her, not seeming concerned that he only came to her shoulder. Jory, on the other hand, appeared quite discomfited by her presence, and especially by her height. He clearly didn't like looking up at a woman.
Una, lapsing into the silent watchfulness her mother had always encouraged her to do more of, noticed Duncan's eyes flicker quickly from herself to Alistair and back again. A speculative frown crossed his face. Una had hoped her intense reaction to Alistair would escape Duncan's observation, but she had a sinking feeling Duncan could tell exactly what was going on in her mind.
The Cheeky Monkeys suggested that, since this is old writing (for me, anyway), it might be interesting to see what I would do differently if I were writing it over today. The biggest change I'd have made to this chapter is not having the instant spark, which has become so overused in these tales, and I'd have given Duncan and Cailan more personality.