A/N: This was a plot bunny that came to me during my recent play through of Origins as a human noble and it was just too tempting to ignore. Obviously this is AU so liberties will be made.
War of the Laurels
It was gone.
He had lost everything; His home, his friends, and most of his family.
Edmund Cousland snuck a glance at his nephew who thankfully found sleep with the help of Edmund's mabari, Sarim, who was curled up beside the young boy. Oren let out a whimper before restlessly stirring beneath the makeshift blanket of his uncle's cloak. After a moment or two he settled back down and slipped back into a peaceful slumber.
They had come in the night. They were welcomed guests. They were friends and allies.
It was all a lie.
They had struck when the castle slept. With surprise and strength of numbers they overwhelmed the few guards on duty. Unmolested, Howe's men poured into the castle corridors resembling a ravenous horde attacking anything that moved.
They raped the faithful priests and sisters of Andraste. They butchered the loyal servants and guards, culminating in the betrayal of their liege lord when they sacked the castle and put those they swore to honor and obey to the sword-the Cousland family.
Howe, he growled at the name. He was responsible. He was the master behind this treachery and bloodshed. Howe had preyed on Bryce Cousland's trust, and took advantage of his kind heart before stabbing Edmund's father in the back.
Edmund tightened his grip on the Cousland family sword that had been resting on his lap. The sword was a precious family heirloom that dated back to the time of King Calenhad who united Ferelden nearly four Ages ago. It was one of the few items from his ancestral home that had escaped Howe's attack.
His eyes returned to the glowing embers of the dying fire. Oren and Sarim nestled together close to the heat of the flames to combat the chill in the air. They had made camp here less than three hours ago. Getting off of the road and finding a secluded place in the surrounding woods. It had been risky to stop so soon after escaping the castle, but it was necessary.
Oren was not built for these trials and tribulations that were now besieging him. Exhausted, frightened, and unable to stay on his feet, they had been forced to make camp. The boy wouldn't even turn nine till the spring, and already he had witnessed a dozen lifetimes worth of bloodshed, chaos, and devastation.
When they did make camp, Oren had whimpered and sobbed in Edmund's arms until exhaustion finally consumed him; drifting off into sleep Edmund hoped his nephew could find some peace in his dreams.
Poor Oren, he thought softly. Remembering his nephew's innocence before the attack, he lived in the fabled stories of Black Fox and the other heralded heroes of Ages past. How he wielded his imaginary blade fighting off a dire bunny with his sword of truthiness.
It was almost enough to bring a small smile to Edmund's cracked lips.
Before the attack he remembered Oren's earnestness to train with real steel, his mother's apprehension, and his father's encouraging support. Oren had begged Edmund to start training him while his papa and grandpa were down south. So that he could live out his dreams of becoming a knight worthy of bard's songs, who fought dragons and slayed all sorts of monsters.
Now Oren understood which monster had the darkest of hearts-men. His innocence snuffed out. It was replaced with enough fear and grief to drown an ordinary man. It would not be the images of his picture books Oren would remember, but the images from the sacking of Cousland Castle.
His mother's bloodied corpse.
Oren had seen the horrors of battle unfold before his eyes: men sliced and cleaved, limbs hacked off, heads removed. Men and women screams filled with anguish before being silenced by the flash of steel. He watched his grandmother die before his eyes. Her body peppered with arrows. He saw his grandfather crawling on all fours like a wounded beast. Bloodied, and dying, crying and grieving at all he had lost before he too died.
He worried for his nephew after having witnessed such horrendous acts at his tender and impressionable age.
Edmund faced a difficult dilemma. He knew they had to continue to travel with haste to stay ahead of Howe, but he also couldn't overexert his nephew. Oren couldn't endure the same hardships and grueling conditions that men could. It couldn't go as long without food, or water, or rest. Oren was already in a weakened state, emotionally and physically.
Mulling over how to best move forward with his nephew, Edmund grabbed a sausage from his bag. He had packed his and Oren's bags to the brim with food, supplies, and water before they left the castle. His shuffling of the food hadn't gone unnoticed by Sarim. The large dark furred mabari raised his head up, his intelligent black eyes transfixed on the sausage.
Edmund held up his hand to keep his mabari from moving.
Sarim let out a low groan to signal his discontent but nonetheless obeyed the command. Returning his head to rest on Oren's back.
Satisfied, Edmund put the sausage over the embers after adding some more kindling. The flames were rejuvenated and he was able to cook it quickly. Even in his hunger, the food didn't go down smoothly. His stomach rumbled and protested but thankfully he was able to keep it down.
They'd be setting out soon. He was determined to leave at first light. And looking up at the sky, Edmund was sure that would be within the hour. He wanted to continue to put as much distance as he could between them and Howe's forces in Highever.
An escape that was only hours old, where they left behind their family's ancestral seat using a secret passage hidden in the larder that led out past the walls of the castle turning into a causeway that ran off nearly a mile away from the castle, and out beyond the walls of Highever. Once he existed the causeway, he looked back needing one last glimpse of Cousland Castle, but instead all he saw was a bright orange glow.
Their escape did not come without a price.
His mother, the Teyrna of Highever, Eleanor Cousland was killed before they reached the larder. It took four arrows to bring down the battle maiden whose bravery on the battlefield during the Rebellion was legendary. She had just enough strength to say a few parting words before death took her.
From there, determined to protect his nephew and rightful heir of Highever, Edmund led his small array of forces of servant and guards to Cousland Hall. He wanted to regroup with any other survivors as well as find his father. But before he could reach the Hall, remembering his mother's words he sought out the family treasury to recapture some of the family's most precious heirlooms..
Howe's men were waiting for them including a few knights. However, Edmund was no novice when it came to sword and shield. He had won countless melee tourneys in his youth all throughout Ferelden, and his time in Orlais had helped to transform him from a tourney champion into a battle hardened warrior. He was able to cut his way through Howe's forces to retrieve the items his mother had wanted to be saved from looting.
Those next who paid the price for defending Edmund and Oren were the remaining servants, soldiers, and handful of knights in Cousland hall led by the valiant and loyal Ser Roderick Gilmore. They perished in Cousland Hall to protect Oren and Edmund's retreat. They barricaded the gates, and were determined to fight to their dying breath for the Cousland family. They were heroes, fighting with courage and loyalty that could not be shaken. Edmund was sure that one day bards would sing of their legendary feat of bravery and sacrifice.
It was not until they reached the entrance to the secret passageway did Edmund finally find his father. Lying in a pool of his own blood, was Bryce Cousland, the Teyrn of Highever. His hand pressed to his side, slick with blood from an ugly wound. His father had died in his arms within minutes of their arrival.
And with that last sight, Edmund grabbed his nephew whose eyes were red and puffy, tears stained cheeks, the blood of his mother freshly stained on his clothes. He led Oren and Sarim through the passageway and out of the castle.
Edmund felt tears trickle down his cheeks, tasting the saltiness as some brushed down against his lips. His hands were trembling in his lap. He tried to steady them by holding the Cousland family sword, but still they shook. His body was shaking while he silently sobbed. He bit his lip to stop himself from being too loud not wanting to wake Oren. The torment had nestled itself deep within him, radiating an ache that he could not put to words. Strums of grief went through him, while a void seemed to expand within his chest.
I cannot break, he reminded himself, recovering only after seconds of allowing his grief to seep through his demeanor. Oren is depending on me. I need to be his rock. I must bear this burden without cracking. I cannot show my despair, my own pain in front of him. I cannot allow myself to be overcome with this grief. Oren will look to me, and I must give him all of my strength so that he can move forward. If he even whiffs my doubts, my fears then all is lost for both of us.
He looked over and was relieved to see his nephew was still fast asleep. He wiped away the tears with the back of his arm not wanting any evidence to remain of his breakdown. Edmund shifted his position and brought his still trembling hands to the glowing embers of the fire. The warmth was most welcome for his aching fingers and cold shaky hands.
Lost in his thoughts of the attack, he looked up. Though the sky was still dark, and the stars were still glowing over the horizon a faint reddish light was beginning to seep into the skies. The sun would be up soon.
It was time for them to go. He was sure Howe would soon notice the absence of their bodies and when he did he would send out riders and search parties in all directions to find them.
Howe's treachery left Edmund in a very vulnerable position. There were many Banns, freeholders, knights and even wealthy families who swore loyalty and service to the Cousland family and the Teyrnir of Highever. Yet with Howe's betrayal he wasn't sure who to go to, or who to trust. He wasn't sure how far this treachery went and how many others colluded with Howe. If he chose poorly he and Oren would be walking right into the arms of traitors.
He believed his best bet was south. He needed to leave the Coastlands at once now that Howe held Highever and Amaranthine. By journeying south he could make for the Bannorn or even head east towards Denerim or South Reach.
With a general direction decided on, Edmund began to pack up their makeshift camp. He wanted to leave quickly and leave behind little to no trace of their presence. Once he finished the brief packing of their small camp, he turned his attention to the embers, prodding them with a stick in trying to coax the flames to return. They did, so he rummaged through his bag to get two sausages to cook.
He moved towards Oren and Sarim. The latter already alertly awake since the sausages had come out. Sarim's earlier obedience was rewarded when Edmund presented his war hound with a sliver of a sausage which Sarim gently took from his hand with his powerful jaws devouring it quickly before licking Edmund's hand of the greasy residue that had been left behind.
Oren looked peaceful in his sleep, his expression content, his lips slightly curved. No doubt, he was having pleasant dreams. It seemed almost cruel of Edmund to have to wake him up pulling him out his dreams and back into the horrible reality the two were currently in.
"Oren," Edmund whispered.
"Papa?" Oren stirred under Edmund's cloak. His voice thick with sleep. His eyes remained closed.
"No," Edmund answered after a brief pause. "It's only me."
The words coaxed Oren. His eyelashes fluttered before blinking to reveal his brown eyes. Edmund could see his eyes taking in the situation while his mind was sorting out what was real and what were illusions from his dream. In seconds the full weight of reality came crashing down onto the shoulders of his eight year old nephew.
"Oh," Oren said, eyes swimming with unshed tears, his bottom lip trembled.
Edmund was quick to put a comforting hand on his shoulder, running his other hand through his nephew's unruly brown hair. "Come let's eat, you'll feel better once you do."
Oren sniffed, clamoring out of the cloak. "A-alright," his voice cracked. Sarim attended the young boy with a few sloppy kisses on his cheek which caused Oren to muster a small smile before he hugged the hound's meaty neck, burying his face in Sarim's dark fur.
He offered his nephew a cooked sausage which Oren took. He delicately nibbled at the piece of meat while Sarim sat beside him on his haunches. The hound's eyes never leaving the sausage.
"We need to hurry," Edmund had eaten his sausage in two bites. He was smothering the flames from their fire.
"So that Howe's men can't kill us too?"
Edmund stiffened. He didn't know what was worse the words Oren used or the casual tone the eight year old had used to address their dire situation. He felt his throat tighten as he turned away from the fire, feeling his smile falter, but he forced it to remain on his lips.
"They're not going to kill us," He reassured his nephew. "I won't let that happen."
Thankfully, Oren took solace in that. After a few more bites of his sausage he gave the rest of it to a patient Sarim who devoured the offering in one bite.
"Where are we going, Uncle?"
Edmund slung his shield onto his back and sheathed his sword before turning toward his nephew.