A/N: So after listening to some feedback from some of my readers, I decided to take their suggestion and continue this story instead of starting a sequel. I hope no one minds.
War of the Laurels
"Two days, my lady," Cordero answered, him and his sister, Calida had been tasked to scout the enemy's movement. Their return brought with them sobering news.
"Thank you," she dismissed the Rivaini siblings who bowed before stepping off to the side.
"We expected this," Walter said in his usual gruff tone. The general of the Horns of Highever didn't sound or look bothered at the news of Howe's army fast approaching.
When news had been brought to Alfstanna of her scouts returning she invited her advisers to gather to help plan their next move. She chose Lady Esmerelle's old study. All relics and belongings of the old bann and her family had been removed from the room, leaving it looking bare. Imprints of where old family portraits and banners use to hang now hung bare along the walls, and the mantle above the fireplace where once a handful of old remnants from Esmerelle's family history were once displayed proudly were now empty with only dust lingering along the stone.
"Ill news is still ill news," Alfstanna observed, "even if we predicted it." She tapped her fingers along the table's surface, looking around at her advisers who sat before her. To her immediate right was Ser Walter, dressed in armor with his Black sheep sigil proudly emblazoned on the chest plate. Her immediate left sat Lord Eddlebrek, one of the more influential Banns in the area and a key ally who helped to secure Amaranthine for their cause.
"This puts the people right between the hammer and the anvil," It was Eddlebrek who spoke, as expected his loyalty was to the well being of his subjects and this news was a clear threat to them.
"By now Howe will know my part in this," Eddlebrek said calmly.
"You are under our protection, Lord Eddlebrek," she reminded him.
"And of my people?" He pressed.
"You may send riders to bring them here," she promised him.
"Thank you," his words were sincere, but his expression remained troubled.
"The Chantry of our Lady Redeemer will welcome all who need shelter in these troubling times," spoke the soft voice of Sister Dorothy, from her seat further down the table.
"Thank you, Sister Dorothy," Alfstanna considered the old sister a generous boon. She had come on behalf of the Chantry after Alfstanna had taken the city, offering to serve as an envoy.
She was an elderly woman, hunched over in her chair, garbed in the plain cloth of her order including the ceremonial hood that veiled her gray hair. Her eyes were milky white with visible scarring lurking just beneath. Despite her feeble appearance, she was a sharp and formable woman who proved invaluable to Alfstanna and her people since they took the city from Lady Esmerelle.
"Of course, child," Sister Dorothy's lips formed a gentle smile. Her milky eyes finding Alfstanna's location despite her blindness, "It is the Chantry's duty to offer succor to those in need."
"I have a feeling you may run out of succor," quipped the last member of Alfstanna's assembled advisers, the brazen elf, Captain Dirk of the Crimson Sword. An unsavory man, but one who had helped smuggle Alfstanna and her men into the city with the promise to look the other way as they continued their illegal practices.
An agreement that still rankled her, so she invited him to join her inner-circle in hopes of being able to keep an eye on him. A trial onto itself as his presence and smugness grated on the rest of them including Ser Walter.
"You will have more refugees flocking into this city in the coming hours," Dirk leaned back in his seat, using his dagger to pick at the dirt beneath his nails. "Hungry mouths and useless bodies piling up right before a battle." He looked up from his filing, his large cat-like eyes dancing in the light, "A poor combination before a siege."
"What would you have us do?" Lord Eddlebrek challenged him, his calloused hands gripping the arms of his seat tightly. "Do nothing?"
"No," Dirk played off the Master of Fareval Plains outraged, "You close the doors and bar entrance," he corrected, "Then do nothing."
"Abandon them?" He sputtered, face reddening in anger at the implication of condemning those people, his people to Howe.
"You want to win this battle do you not?" he asked unphased by the Lord's angry glare which was being leveled on him.
Eddlebrek responded with a scoff, and looked ready to curse the smuggler.
"Enough," Alfstanna raised her voice to be heard, silencing Eddlebrek's retort and gaining the attention of Dirk, who lounged in his seat, a posture of indifference at her scolding and Eddlebrek's anger.
"My lady," Eddlebrek spoke calmly, his face returning to its normal shade, "You are not considering his advice."
"Tough decisions must be made," She reminded them, noticing the Bann's eyes widen at her consent, "However, we will not refuse those who seek shelter." Ignoring Dirk who rolled his eyes, instead settling her attention at the pleased look of Sister Dorothy who bobbed her head in agreement, and Eddlebrek's relieved smile.
"Action still needs to be taken," Walter pointed out delicately, "To prepare ourselves for this battle."
"I agree," she felt the bitter lump form in her throat, at the next part she knew she had to say. "That is why riders will be sent to ask farmers to come to the city and then we must burn the fields." She finished over the outrage of Lord Eddlebrek.
"Burn the crops?" Eddlebrek's voice a mixture of dismay and anger. "These are our people. You'll destroy their livelihood."
"Howe and his forces cannot be given access to it," Walter agreed, nodding his head to her decision. "We can't have them getting fat off the land while we starve within the city."
"You surprise me, my lady," Dirk smiled up at her, "Here I thought you didn't have the stomach for this sort of battle."
"You'll be surprised what I can stomach," She replied.
He chuckled, raising his glass in her direction before drinking.
"You must rethink this," Eddlebrek insisted.
"You know this is the right course," Walter replied, "It's not the easy choice." He sent her a sympathetic look, but there was a hue of respect in those blue eyes directed at her, "But it's the only choice to make if we have a chance of winning."
"I never should have agreed to this," Eddlebrek stood abruptly from his seat, "I've damned my people to burnt crops and bloodshed." He ran a hand through his short white hair. "I cannot support this." He shook his head, looking ready to leave the room, but Cordero and Calida stood at the doorway and stepped forward to intercept his escape.
"Lord Eddlebrek," Alfstanna stood up, "Please, don't do this."
He looked over his shoulder at her, eyes hooded, stinging from this perceived betrayal. "I must return to my people." He looked back at the two Rivaini siblings, neither looked inclined to indulge him in his request. The two lieutenants were seeking permission to grant his request from either her or their direct superior Ser Walter.
"Your people are trickling into the city," Alfstanna reminded him, "They're here now. Worried about what the future will bring them and their families," She moved towards the upset Bann, "We cannot afford to add to those worries by looking divided just as an enemy force nears our doorstep." She reached out to place a hand on his shoulder, relieved when he didn't recoil from it.
"We can rebuild these farms, plant new crops," She continued, looking at his contemplative expression at a means to continue, "But the people?" she asked him, "Those cannot be so easily replaced."
"You're right," He sounded tired. He rubbed at his eyes, "Damn this war," he grumbled, "I will not leave," he promised, "Where is there to go now that Howe is on his way?" He let out a bitter laugh, "I joined this alliance in hopes of protecting my people and their livelihood," he shook his head, "While all I did was drag them into this bloody mess."
"You are protecting them," She squeezed his shoulder.
He looked down at her hand, as if just registering its presence on his shoulder for the first time. "I cannot undo the choices I've made," he sighed, "but that doesn't mean I can ignore my duties moving forward. If you excuse me I'm going to see to those of my people who have arrived and to make sure they are settling in."
"Thank you," She dropped her hand from his shoulder, nodding to Cordero and Calida, who stepped aside.
He responded with a distracted nod before leaving the room without another word. She watched him leave wondering how truthful were her words in the face of his accusations.
Were they truly protecting the people of Amaranthine?
She found herself wondering, thinking back on her actions and choices in this fight. The answer she found herself withbrought a sliver of guilt to worm its way into her chest.
Andraste, she closed her eyes, trying to shut out the answer that chilled her insides, Give me strength and guidance.
She stood alone on tallest tower of their family's castle, hands leaning on the merlons, as her eyes looked out at the beautiful Waking Sea that stretched as far as the eye could see. The rising sun splashing orange and red along the water, glittering with color and light. It was a breathtaking sight and one that Alfstanna never grew tired of.
The beauty of what was before her, the salt that wafted in the air, the caress of the wind that went through her hair like fingers, she breathed it all in. Hoping the beauty and comfort of it all would help to calm her nerves, the skittering of her heart against her chest, still trying to come to grips with her brother's stunning revelation.
This was to be all mine, she thought numbly, taking her eyes away from the sea and towards the other side of the castle, her family's castle, and the green and rocks that surrounded it. I will rule this land, apprehension clung to her tightly, and her people, the trepidation in her thoughts was quick to add.
"Alfie." The soothing voice of her brother broke her from her thoughts and fears to see him smiling at her, as he approached, already dressed in his novice templar armor which shimmered in the sunlight. A gift from mother and father, a blessing for him to follow his heart with the choice he came to.
"Ric," greeting her brother. The two falling into their respected childhood names for each other.
He chuckled, "You haven't called me that in years." He moved to stand beside her, "Maker, what a view."
"It is," She agreed, not knowing what else to say, as he looked out on the horizon, she looked towards her brother, not knowing the next time she'd see him. His hair was short and dark, his face cleanshaven, he had inherited mother's blue eyes, and father's large nose.
"I'm going to miss this," he admitted, turning his attention away from the sea and towards her. "Suppose I'll miss you too," he added with a cheeky grin.
She rolled her eyes, "Ass." She swatted his arm.
He chuckled, wrapping his arm around her before pulling her into an embrace, "Why are you fretting, sister?" He whispered to her ear.
"Fretting?" It was her pride that made her repeat his word, ignoring the feeling in her gut of the fraying nerves at the task set before her.
"Yes," he confirmed, looking down at her, standing only a few inches taller, but as her older brother he might as well be towering over her. "You have nothing to fret about, Alfie."
"That's easy for you to say," she replied. "You're the one leaving it all on me."
"Only because I know you," he assured her. "You will make a fine Bann."
"Why do you have to leave?" She found herself asking. A decision she wrestled with since it meant he'd gave up his rights as heir to join the Templar Order.
"I go to serve a higher purpose," he answered without hesitation. His armor glinting in the sunlight, as if the rays of Andraste pierced the heavens to shine down upon him to prove his point. "Fighting demons, helping mages, protecting the people," he listed off his reasons, "Those are duties I can do." He reached to grab her hands, "Ruling this land, leading the people. You have the gifts to do this, Alfie." He squeezed her hands, "Never forget, and never doubt." He bent down and kissed her forehead.
"Thank you, brother," She said quietly, thankful for his encouraging words. He always had that way of quelling her fears. "I-I had something made for you," She went into her pouch to get the gift. "It isn't much," She didn't want to get his hopes up, grabbing the item and presenting it to him.
"Oh Alfie," he smiled, looking down at the ring she had commissioned for him by their smith. It was a large golden signet ring which bore the seal of the Waking Sea Bannorn. He carefully picked it up to inspect it, "There's an inscription inside," he held it up to the light to read it.
"It says: For Irminric, so you never forget to write." She recited it before him, smiling in satisfaction at the words she chose to have engraved.
"Never," he promised her, sliding the ring onto his index finger, and flexing his fingers to see how it fit and looked. "That goes for you too."
"Don't worry, brother," she told him, "I don't need a fancy ring to get me to write."
He laughed, "Oh Alfie," pulling her into another embrace, "I shall miss you terribly."
"I'll miss you too," she felt the tears swimming in her eyes, clinging to her brother tightly.
Her family's castle blurred out of existence, allowing her to blink back into reality to see Ser Walter Smith standing before her.
"I came for some fresh air," she said softly, choosing a spot on the ramparts of the walls of the city that allowed her to look out onto the Sea. Giving her time and a chance to reflect upon their earlier meeting and the decision she had come to in regards to the farms surrounding this city.
Do I still have your trust, brother? Do I still have your blessing?
Thinking glumly how her brother would react to the choices she found herself making in her time during this war.
"We have a visitor who seeks an audience with you."
She frowned, "There was no one scheduled."
"No, there wasn't," Ser Walter agreed, "But you'll want to see him."
"Very well," she said, curious to who this unexpected guest was, "I'll see him in Lady Esmerelle's study."
"Very good," The general bowed and left to carry out her orders.
"Alfie," there standing in front of the fireplace was a man she hadn't seen in years-Nathaniel Howe.
"Nate," she replied in dismay.
He dipped his head, "You look lovely."
She found herself suddenly self-conscious of her appearance. Her short, curly hair wasn't in its usual braids, but wind swept from her time outside. Her face equally flushed while she was wearing dirtied trousers and a conservative wooly tunic in a plain brown color. "What are you doing here?" Her hands going through her hair to try to smooth it down.
"How's the second best archer in Ferelden?" He grinned, his dark eyes taking in her form in a way that brought memories flooding back to her.
"Second best?" She scoffed, her competitiveness easily trumping her vanity of her appearance. "I think you're mistaken."
He chuckled, a rich, soothing sound, "Hardly," he tapped one of his long fingers against his chest, "Now that I'm back its only fitting you drop a spot."
She found the corner of her lips tugging upwards, not realizing how much she had missed the sound of his voice, his confidence, his presence until she found herself back with him. "That's a challenge I can arrange shortly." She promised him, moving across the table so as to make sure there was nothing standing between them.
"What brings you back to Ferelden?" She had wondered if and when he'd return home. She knew the answer, but she wanted him to say it. She wanted to see his reaction, read his face when it came to discussing the bloody war that has arisen between his family and the Couslands.
"The war," he answered, turning his head away from her and back towards the fire, one hand resting on the stone mantle place, "My father's madness," he added quietly.
"Nate," she found herself moving towards him. Alfstanna knew full well the animosity between father and son. It was in that understanding that she knew he never would've come as a messenger for his father.
When she found herself within arm's reach she hesitated on what to do. The desire was there to comfort him, but a voice in her head gave her pause, remembering the last time they were this close. His departure to the Free Marches, he had given her a tender goodbye, one that lingered within her heart even after all these years.
She pushed aside her trepidation and brought her hands towards him in an embrace that he didn't fight. Alfstanna felt her heartbeat quicken when his arms wrapped around hers, her mind's eye bringing with it the many memories they shared together. She took in his familiar scent, but ignored the temptation to get lost in the haziness of their past together.
"He's turned into a monster," he mumbled.
"Does he know you're here?"
"No," he answered quickly, breaking away from their embrace, looking at her and smiling, "I missed you."
She smiled, ignoring the flutter in her chest. "I missed you too," she reached out, surprised by her own boldness, her fingers gently ran along the stubble that grew on his chin, "Not so sure about this though," She added wryly.
Nathaniel laughed, reaching to clasp her hand into his own, his calloused hands were warm, but gentle in their grip. "Always one to speak your mind," he noted, the smile lingering on his lips, "One of your traits I always admired about you." He squeezed her hand before letting it go. He straightened up and took a step away as if to remember why he was here and to not let himself get distracted. "I come on behalf of Anora."
"Anora?" She couldn't hide her surprise at that reveal. "I thought you weren't with your father."
"I'm not," he replied quickly, sounding hurt at the mere implication. "Anora is our friend, Alfstanna."
"Anora is with Howe and Loghain," Alfstanna said bluntly, an observation that hurt to speak aloud. Having spent time together in their youths to a degree that she considered the woman a friend, but to see what she's done or more importantly hasn't done since the war began was painful to witness.
"She isn't," he insisted, "She was appalled and furious at what Howe did in Highever," His voice wrought with anguish with what his father had done. "She wanted him in chains."
"He doesn't look chained to me."
He frowned. "She had no army at the time." He moved to pour himself a glass of Orlesian wine that had been left with them. One of the many bottles of wine that they had confiscated from Lady Esmerelle's cellar.
"At the time," Alfstanna didn't miss the words he used.
"No," he smiled, but he settled for a sip before elaborating, "She has gathered a modest size force of loyal officers and soldiers who are equally disillusioned at what our fathers have done in the name of preserving Ferelden." He made a face at his last words, clearly conveying his thought on the matter.
"She seeks an alliance?"
"Yes, between her growing forces and those that Edmund has already assembled." He poured a second glass and offered it to her.
She took the glass, but didn't drink from it. "And what are the terms of this alliance?"
"The usual," Nathaniel waved his hand, "pledge of support against their enemies, a show of unity between the leaders, wanting to bring a quick end to our fathers rule and to undo the damage and to prepare for the danger ahead." He took a longer sip from his glass, "And a marriage to seal the terms."
"Marriage?" Alfstanna should've guessed as much and she had a strong inkling on who was intended for this betrothal.
"Yes, between herself and Edmund."
"My lady!" A new voice came from behind the closed doors, before they opened to show Ser Walter walk into the room, his faithful lieutenants, Cordero and Calida flanking him. "An envoy of Lord Howe has come to the city." He informed them, "He requests an audience."
Alfstanna had chosen the throne room of Amaranthine Keep to greet the envoy of Howe's forces. She sat and waited on the timber throne above the raised dais. A large banner of the Cousland laurels hung behind her, while banners of the Couslands, Highever, and the Waking Sea Bannorn were draped between the tall pillars flanking both sides so that any who enters and walks the distance to the throne could know who led this city.
"Bring him in," She ordered, guards lined along both sides, armed and silent, standing beneath the still banners.
Nathaniel was nowhere to be seen. He didn't want his father to know he was here. Or that he was giving terms on Anora's behalf. She quickly agreed and had him taken to one of the guest chambers. Knowing they needed to protect his presence by keeping it a secret.
"Lady Alfstanna," Drawled Ser Temmerly. He walked across the throne room resembling a conquering hero and not an envoy. Ser Walter walked behind him, but the old general didn't bother to mask his immediate dislike towards the arrogant knight, aiming a glare towards the back of his head.
She resisted the scowl that was imminent at seeing who it was Howe had chosen. Alfstanna didn't like or respect the man before him, known as the Ox. The rumors about his methods towards his people, and how he spent his land's wealth on his armor and friends instead of his people, made him a poor leader in her eyes.
He was a tall, vain man, dressed in his armor even as his men carried the white banner of peace behind him. He was without his weapon, but Alfstanna knew the man still posed a great danger. His towering, muscular physique made him a worthy adversary even if he was unequipped. When he reached the front of the dais, he offered her a brief bow that leaned more towards mockery then respect.
"Ser Temmerly," Alfstanna greeted him with as much respect as she could put into her tone, "This is a surprise."
"Yes, I know," He looked around the throne room, his blue eyes resting on the guards that lined the walls, "I'm more of a soldier than a negotiator," saying the word as if it was beneath his prowess. "However, when your liege lord gives you a command," He turned his attention back towards her, "It is wise to heed it."
"Is that your defense of the Highever massacre?" She asked, irritation churning in her gut from being in this man's presence.
He shrugged, looking bored and unaffected by her veiled accusation. "It was more pleasing then this task." He grinned, "Better to trade blows then words." He winked at her.
"Ser Temmerly," Walter's voice had a dangerous warning lurking beneath. The old general who stood to her side, loyal to the Couslands, and furious at the injustice did to them in the unwarranted and illegal butchery and seizure of their lands and titles.
"Is there a reason for your visit?" Alfstanna spoke up before Ser Walter could finish his threat.
"Yes, I bring terms on behalf of Lord Howe, Teyrn of Highever," He grinned as he spoke the unlawful title of his master, "You have two days to surrender this city to him. So by the time His Lordship arrives with his sizable force there can be a smooth and peaceful surrender."
"This city is equipped to handle sieges," Walter observed.
"Defenses I have no problem testing," Temmerly's eyes were on the general. He snapped his fingers, "But my lord has another means of making sure this surrender is given before bloodshed." One of his men came forward carrying something, but instead of giving it to Temmerly, the servant moved past him towards Alfstanna.
"What is this?" Walter stepped forward to intercept the servant.
"It's not poison," Temmerly scoffed, "Or a weapon." He crossed his arms over his burly chest, "Just part of the message."
"Walter," Alfstanna stood from her seat, the gruff general stepped aside, the servant didn't meet her eyes as he held out the item. She felt her heart drop at the signet ring in his hand. She snatched it up, despite the ill look it made of her position. Heart pounding painfully into her chest, as she looked to examine it, and to her horror, her fears were confirmed.
It was her brother's.
"What madness is this?" asked a confused Ser Walter.
Alfstanna's legs shook, she moved backwards, nearly tripping over her feet, her hands trembling as she clasped to her brother's ring. She found her seat, but her eyes remained on the ring.
"The Lady knows," Temmerly answered smugly.
Coldness churned in her stomach at the horrifying realization that her brother was a prisoner of Rendon Howe. "You had no right!" She shouted, "My brother is a Templar. He is immune to this conflict." One hand gripping the ring, the other pointing down at the envoy.
Temmerly looked more amused then alarmed at her words. "This is war, Lady Alfstanna," his eyes held a dark hue to them, "It is for the victors to decide what it is right and what isn't."
She shook her head, biting her lip, the turmoil of her brother's wellbeing threatening her composure.
"Could your master slink any lower?" Walter growled, "The gutter rat." He took a step towards Temmerly, while his men backed off, but the knight didn't move.
"If you harm or detain me, my men have their orders for your brother, my lady." He threatened, "It isn't a good fate one would want for a loved one." He turned to his men, "Come, the lady needs time to think over our generous terms." The men turned to leave.
"Two days, my lady," Temmerly reminded her. "Two days to surrender this city to Lord Howe. If you have the foolish idea of being noble and refusing," he clicked his tongue, "Then we shall send you a different body part of your brother until we run out."
"GET OUT!" Alfstanna shouted, anger lashing out, burning hot and uncontrollable. She stood from her seat, fists shaking as the burning rage of what Howe and his men did overwhelmed her senses. "Get out!" Jabbing an angry finger down towards the knight and his men.
Temmerly laughed, leading his men away, "I assure you, I will go to great lengths to make sure your brother is alive to the very end of the ordeal if you refuse." He delivered a mocking flourish. "I'll see you in two days."
A/N: Thanks so much for the overflow of support the last chapter got, it made for great inspiration. So please don't forget to review and leave me your thoughts.
Until next time,