The Grey Wardens reach Lothering. Aedan Cousland is annoyed, then puzzled, then annoyed again. In Redcliffe, the Maker demonstrates His lousy sense of humor.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 5: Such Sweet Sorrow)
Aedan Cousland was fed up. He’d avoided throttling his companions so far, but the day was still young.
He thought about the blinding speed with which his whole world had changed. Life as a professional second son had been good. His father was the Teyrn of Highever, a man only outranked by the King of Ferelden himself. Aedan, therefore, had learned all the typical skills of a nobleman from the best tutors in the land, but had few actual responsibilities. This left him plenty of time for winning duels and tournaments, and accepting pleasantly enthusiastic congratulations from lovely young ladies of flexible virtue.
Then, his parents, sister-in-law, and young nephew were all murdered. He hadn’t been able to save them, or find his missing older brother, or even hunt down the bastard who did it. Instead, without a moment to mourn, he’d been recruited by a Grey Warden named Duncan, in return for Duncan’s help in his escape. He’d been dragged the length of Ferelden to meet two other Warden recruits, who then both died during the Wardens’ Joining ceremony. He alone survived. Again.
It seemed he’d get a small respite when he and another Grey Warden, Alistair, were assigned to babysit a signal beacon during an upcoming battle. But, of course, it had all immediately gone to the Void. He’d lit the Maker-forsaken signal after fighting through a tower full of darkspawn, and instead of charging as planned, Loghain’s army retreated. The tower was overrun; he’d expected to die. By then, the idea had a certain appeal.
And then he’d awoken to discover a crazy old witch had saved him and Alistair from their presumed fates. In return, she demanded they take her daughter, an obnoxious young mage named Morrigan, with them. They trotted off to somehow save the world from the Blight, with the overwhelming power of…two junior Wardens and an apostate. Because sure, why not.
And instead of helping, or at the very least, keeping their bloody mouths shut for five minutes, Alistair and Morrigan alternated between sniping incessantly at each other and demanding Aedan make all the decisions. He liked Alistair well enough, but he had no patience for anyone else’s grief right now, especially while dealing with Morrigan’s constant and gleeful contempt. In short, it was all too fucking much.
He needed a drink.
At least he’d gotten his dog back. He looked fondly down at the giant Mabari warhound who might be all that was left of his family. Mabari were bred for intelligence, and at the moment it felt like Hohaku was the smartest companion he had.
Without bothering to check if the two nuisances were following, he went in search of a pub.
Not long after, Aedan sheathed his daggers and stretched his shoulders. Making embarrassingly short work of Loghain’s men in the tavern had been satisfying. It had been especially enjoyable to send the last one scampering off to tell his traitorous master not to get comfortable on the dead king’s throne.
He’d also met an appealing possibility for future stress relief: a pretty redhead who’d helped them thrash Loghain’s toadies. He found her combat skills rather incongruous with her Chantry robes, but Leliana claimed the Maker sent her a vision that led her to offer her aid against the Blight. She’d taken no vows and wished to join him, and she could obviously handle a fight. He decided that even if she was crazy, she’d still be more pleasant than that harpy Morrigan.
While poking around town to gather news and earn a bit of coin, they also met a human scholar and her bodyguard, a dwarven merchant and his son, and a huge Qunari accused of murder. He brought them all along. When you’re preparing for war and your army is three people and a dog, all extra hands are welcome.
Also he may have been a little drunk.
His various tagalongs started to settle down once they’d gotten underway. Morrigan stayed as far from the others as possible, which suited everyone. The woman was certainly attractive, and her scanty attire flaunted it, but her personality made her as appealing as a dagger dipped in deathroot.
Aedan spoke with the Qunari, Sten. It turned out he had indeed slaughtered a family, children and all, but only because he’d been disoriented after a battle and hadn’t been in his right mind. He clearly regretted it, and had turned himself in willingly, knowing his punishment would be death. None of that excused his actions, of course, but he clearly valued honor, and had pledged to fight the darkspawn. So, Aedan let him be, and he mostly kept to himself.
The scholar’s bodyguard, Rob, had involved Alistair in discussion about sword and shield techniques, which was a relief. It wasn’t that Aedan was unsympathetic to Alistair’s grief at losing a mentor and all the other Wardens. He understood, far better than he wished to. He just couldn’t deal with anyone else’s pain with his own losses still so raw.
As expected, the red-haired former Chantry sister was a thoroughly pleasant traveling companion. Leliana’s presence was somehow soothing to his raw nerves. If he ever moved beyond feeling numb and empty, he thought, perhaps he’d find out if she viewed him in a similarly favorable light.
The merchant dwarf, Bodahn Feddic, was affable enough. His son Sandal appeared a bit addled, but the boy had an impressive gift for enchanting. Aedan was satisfied with their addition to his band of misfits.
Of all those he’d gathered, the one who puzzled him most was the scholar.
He observed her as he walked; it kept his thoughts from the grief he wasn’t ready to face. Morrigan was raw seduction covered in spikes, and Leliana was a beacon of optimism in a toned body that was far too skilled and agile for the history she claimed, but Raven was perhaps the oddest contradiction of all.
Everything about the woman’s appearance screamed “pampered noble,” from her pale skin unblemished by sun or toil, to the plump, rounded curves that could never belong to a starving commoner. Her strange spectacles were clearly custom-made by a master craftsman, and the mere fact she was a scholar with her own bodyguard bespoke a life of wealth and ease.
She behaved like no noblewoman he’d ever met. She and her guard had turned up in simple clothing with basic weapons. When Aedan immediately arranged better gear for them (he didn’t care to be slowed by someone taking a preventable injury), she protested against him spending coin on her behalf, which no noblewoman had ever done in the history of time. She struggled to keep up with the group, clearly not fit enough to walk all day…and yet she did keep up. If she complained, he never heard it. Whenever they paused, she asked endless questions to anyone near, rarely seeming surprised by the answers but always taking delight in them. And if a task arose, she pitched in to help, even though she usually had no idea what to do and her guard had to explain it all.
Raven’s interactions with others in the group were also odd. Not all of them, by any means; some of her responses were perfectly sensible, such as speaking to Leliana with cheerful merriment and Morrigan with annoyed distrust. She met the dwarf with the polite affability appropriate for a new acquaintance, and she smiled sweetly at his son to set the boy at ease. To Aedan, she was diffident but kind, having obviously recognized him as the leader of the party.
She treated her bodyguard with fond familiarity, not at all characteristic of a master and hireling. They spent a fair amount of time huddled together, and nearly all of that involved her murmuring earnestly to the man, and him nodding in reply. Aedan wondered if the pair were romantically involved, but that didn’t seem to fit either; he wasn’t sure what to make of it.
With the Qunari, she used a calm and respectful tone, asking about his culture and occasionally even getting him to string together several words in a row. They’d both been in Lothering; she had to be aware of Sten’s crimes, but if she felt fear or fury, she hid it well.
Around Alistair, her behavior was especially bewildering. It was as if she had two simultaneous and opposite reactions to the man. One moment, she’d drift closer to the other Warden, giggling at his silly jokes and his sarcastic digs at Morrigan. But the next, she’d seem out of sorts, falling back to walk alone…until her bodyguard appeared beside her to tease away her sulk. Aedan promised himself to unravel it in time.
Finally, there was the way she treated Hohaku. Aedan had expected the usual jibes about Ferelden smelling of wet dog, which all foreigners found so amusing. So he was rather startled to see her solemnly hold out a hand to Hohaku, wait for him to sniff it, and then ask the Mabari for permission to pet him.
His jaw snapped closed once he realized it had been hanging open. “You’re…you’re speaking…to my dog?” he asked, eyebrows up to his hairline.
“Oh, I’m sorry…should I not be? I didn’t mean to overstep…”
“No, no, it’s not that, not at all. It’s just…the last time Hohaku was with me and a Marcher was present, the man asked me how much I’d had to beat him to train him for fighting, and whether I’d consider cross-breeding him with his prize bulldog.”
Raven snorted, eyes wide in disbelief. “What an idiot. He’s lucky Hohaku didn’t decide he was too stupid to live and eat him.” Hohaku yipped in agreement, and Raven looked down at him, sharing the joke. “He must’ve been from Ansburg; they’re a bit backward.”
Aedan laughed, his green eyes bright with an amusement he’d rarely felt in the last few weeks. “Starkhaven, actually. When I politely refused cross-breeding, he offered to buy Hohaku from me, ‘price being no object,’ he said. As if one would, or even could, tell a Mabari who to imprint on.”
“Oh good grief,” she giggled, looking at Hohaku. “I most sincerely apologize, good Ser Hohaku, for the ignorance of the fool from my neighboring city-state. I promise never to insult you like that.” Hohaku barked happily, and Raven turned back to Aedan. “To be honest, I’m really more of a…C-A-T person.” He chuckled when she spelled it out as if Hohaku were a curious toddler. “But most dogs are small and yappy, or large and stupid. A Mabari is neither.”
“That’s remarkably Fereldan of you,” Aedan grinned.
When they finally made camp that evening, he sat beside the campfire. Raven joined him. “I wanted to thank you, Warden Cousland, for allowing me to accompany you on your travels.” Her voice was soft, he thought, like everything else about her.
He smiled wearily. “It’s Aedan, and you’re quite welcome, my lady. But I’ve no doubt I’ll have cause to thank you before long. Having your guard as another sword arm is appreciated. And, as it seems I’m to traipse all over Ferelden enlisting the aid of wildly varied people I know little to nothing about, your insights will surely be useful.”
The woman smiled up at him in sympathy, azure eyes large behind her spectacles. “It seems like everything has been dumped in your lap all at once. It must be hard to deal with.”
She said nothing else for a time, and after roughly running a hand through his dark hair, he was surprised to hear himself speaking into the silence. “You could say that. A few weeks ago my biggest concern was remembering which of my mother’s maids I bedded.” He ducked his head in chagrin, realizing what he’d said. “Er, I beg your pardon, my lady.”
She grinned at his discomfiture, her voice rich with sarcasm. “Oh my, yes, I’m terribly scandalized. However shall I go on?”
His huff of startled laughter faded as his mind drifted back to the original topic. “Yes, well. At any rate, then my father’s friend turned up and murdered my family. And in the next moment, I was suddenly responsible for saving all of Thedas. I’ll figure it out somehow; I have no choice. But Maker, I have all of that death churning in my mind, and I can’t be rid of it…” He paused, disconcerted. “I…I’m sorry; all the traveling I’ve done lately must’ve caught up with me. I assure you I don’t typically pour out my woes on near-strangers. Please accept my apologies, Lady Raven, and my word that I will find a way to defeat this Blight.”
Aedan wrapped himself back up in his customary rakish bravado, the defense of choice for scapegrace second sons. He kissed the back of her hand with a flourish and a confident wink.
She simply smiled. “I know you will, Warden. Of that, I have absolutely no doubt.”
They continued on their way toward Redcliffe, in hopes of petitioning the Arl for help. Eamon Guerrin was the uncle of the late King Cailan. Though the Arl was a slightly lower-ranking noble than Aedan’s father had been, Eamon’s positive reputation and the nearness of Redcliffe made it seem like the best place to start. The five days they traveled were largely uneventful, other than a minor bandit skirmish they handled easily.
Despite their urgency, he found himself looking forward to camp each evening, primarily due to Leliana and Raven. The redhead had been a minstrel once, and the brunette was avidly interested in her tales. Leliana taught her songs as they traveled, and the two of them would sing near the campfire until it was time to sleep. They shared melancholy songs of loss and beautiful melodies of redemption. The soft notes of the lute beneath the women’s lilting, ethereal voices loosened something in his soul.
As he listened in his tent, with Hohaku warm against his back, he finally had a chance to grieve. For his father and mother, brave and fierce, who’d fought to their last breaths so their son could escape to safety. For his young nephew Oren, so full of questions, who would never have the chance to grow into the answers, and for Oren’s doting mother. For his brother Fergus who, if he yet lived, would return only to face horrific loss. For his childhood tutor, his nanny, guards and servants he’d known since birth, all gone forever. He muttered broken curses at the murderer, the Maker, and his own wretched helplessness.
But as they neared their destination, the worst, most piercing shards of his grief had dissolved and leaked out of him. He wasn’t better, not even remotely, but at least this pain felt…survivable. A heavy rabid shadow didn’t lurk in the corners of his vision, biding its time until his guard slipped and it could come roaring out to choke the life from him. He could focus. He could honor his mother’s wishes, and live.
And if, each morning, he and Alistair ignored each other’s red-rimmed eyes, and the two songbirds shared a look of poignant accomplishment…no one spoke of it. Life went on, and that was enough.
Along the shores of Lake Calenhad, the rooftops of Redcliffe Village finally rose into view, and Aedan sighed in relief. They would stay at the keep, in real beds. There would be real food, instead of a mixture of trail rations and any animal incautious enough to approach the camp. They could bathe. Perhaps one of the Arlessa’s maids might want to offer her…personal sympathies…to a newly orphaned Grey Warden.
Beyond that, the Arl had decades of experience in handling Ferelden’s chaos. He had power, riches, and the respect of the other nobles. He’d supply them with troops, and if they were lucky, maybe some horses so they wouldn’t have to bloody walk everywhere. Arl Eamon would know what to do, and he’d help them do it. The fate of the world wouldn’t have to rest solely on the shoulders of one young black sheep who couldn’t even save his own family.
Except, following right along with the rest of his luck, none of his expectations came to pass.
Arl Eamon had fallen mysteriously ill, and the majority of his knights were scattered across the countryside looking for some mythical cure-all. Redcliffe Keep had been sealed without explanation, and no one had been allowed in or out for days. The village was being swarmed nightly by undead, for reasons unknown, and their defense was a handful of untrained peasants already lamenting their imminent doom.
Oh, and Alistair chose that moment to share the minor detail that he was the bastard son of old King Maric, Cailan’s father. He was, therefore, technically a prince, the last scion of the Theirin bloodline. He assured Aedan this was irrelevant; he had no desire to be anything other than a Grey Warden. It somehow failed to occur to him that Cailan’s death would have people scrambling to fit him with a crown regardless of his feelings on the matter. Aedan considered in that moment whether Morrigan’s constant slurs upon Alistair’s intelligence might have some merit after all.
So, Aedan would not, in fact, be resting in a lovely, comfortable manor, getting much-needed help and advice from a respected nobleman. Instead, he would be fighting a shambling horde of monsters, with forces largely comprised of frightened townsfolk, with a man who might become their next king despite lacking any skill or desire for the job.
Aedan growled in frustration. The Maker’s sense of humor was, as always, divine.
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 7: What You Can’t Have)