Highever was burning. The night air was filled with the sound of battle, steel clashing against steel, and the screams of dying men and women. Only a few hours earlier, everything had been peaceful, the castle quiet as its residents had slept soundly in their beds and the camps outside had been full of soldiers preparing for a long march south. Then Howe had struck leaving only blood, fire and chaos in his soldiers’ wake.
Still, with the battle raging, no one had noticed a figure escaping into the woods.
Serra Cousland tore through the thickets blindly, her breath coming in sharp, desperate pants as the smoke burned her lungs. Her only thoughts were on running, where didn’t matter but she needed to run to put as much distance between herself and the castle she had come from. No doubt once the fighting finally died her absence from the piles of the dead would be noted. Mother had given her life so that she would have this chance to escape the slaughter.
Tears burned her eyes and blurred her vision but still she continued to run. Branches whipped at her face, opening cuts along her cheeks but on she continued, pushing past the pain and the ache in her legs as she urged herself faster and faster. Her legs were already burning but she couldn’t stop, she’d surely be caught if she did. She could rest when Highever was firmly out of sight and she was a few miles away at least.
Which way was she even running? North? South? Serra knew these woods well, she had hunted in them with her father and brother for years but in the night with her blood pounding her ears and the horrors she had just seen, her mind was blank. If she made it to the morning, she could find her bearings, perhaps, but for now all that mattered was how far she could put between herself and Howe’s soldiers.
Without warning, her foot caught on the root of a tree. She was flung forward, her stomach lurching and unintentionally a yell of surprise ripped from her throat. Serra hit the ground painfully on her front but her momentum send her rolling down a steep incline she hadn’t even realised she was at, the fires from Highever only dimly illuminating her path to freedom. More roots came up to meet her, causing her to jolt and bump as she rolled and kicking up the layer of dirt and fallen leaves that the autumn brought. Finally, she came to her painful stop, her side slamming into the trunk of a fallen tree.
Her vision swam even more and she felt like she was going to throw up but the sudden sound of voices made her breath catch in her throat.
“Over here! It sounded like it came from over here!”
Serra forced herself to move, scrambling over the trunk and pressing herself down into the dirt. With luck, Howe’s men wouldn’t search too closely and she could be back on her feet again and running. The clearing she had fallen into was illuminated by the sudden light of a torch and Serra held her breath, praying to the Maker and Andraste that she wouldn’t be spotted. If she was found then she would be killed, not even the servants in the castle had been spared so it was likely that Howe’s men had orders to kill anyone they found to ensure that the Cousland line ended that night.
The sound of foot falls crunching dried leaves told Serra there was at least two men. Two. All she had was her family sword strapped to her side by her mother before she had been shoved down the small hatch in the pantry. There was no way she could possibly take on all two…if only she had her bow then maybe she could. She had dropped it when she had found her father lying in a pool of his own blood and there hadn’t been the time to grab it before the soldiers were trying to break down the door to finish the job.
“Told you, fool, there’s nothing here. It was a fox or a deer, I said!” One voice spoke up, gruff and clearly irritated.
“I tolds you, I heard something and it w’nt no deer.” Another argued in response “Since when’da deer yell?”
More footsteps and the light grew brighter, causing the shadow of the tree trunk to grow large. They were almost right on top of her now, if they decided to walk around and check the other side of the tree then they’d find her instantly. Still, Serra held her breath and waited, one clearly seemed to think there was nothing but the second was the more perceptive.
“By the Maker, Danwell, you’re always jumping at shadows! Look! Clearly there’s nothing here!”
They stood there arguing with each other for a few more minutes, Serra listening and waiting. Her fingers curled around the hilt of her sword but she hoped that maybe if she ran she could lose them in the woods. In the darkness and the thick undergrowth, it would probably not be that difficult and if all else failed then perhaps she could climb a tree and wait until they moved on. Unless they had bows or crossbows…she hoped they didn’t.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, she heard footsteps again and slowly the light receded. They were leaving. Good. Still, Serra let a few more moments slip by before she gingerly pushed herself up and onto her feet again. Her limbs were stiff now from lying in the dirt and no doubt she was probably filthy. Without another moment to lose, she turned on her heel and started running once more into the darkness.
The gentle falling of rain was what woke her. She had run so far in the night that eventually her legs had simply given out beneath her and that was where Serra had lay. The first rays of dawn had just been starting to fill the sky but she was so tired that she had simply fallen asleep as soon as she had laid down. Her exhaustion had won out over her fear of being found out in the woods whilst sleeping.
By the Maker, it was cold. The autumn air had a fierce chill in it and she wished that she had a simple cloak to keep her body from shivering. Of course, all she had was her simple, thin cotton night shift with her armour strapped hastily over the top. There had been no time to grab anything more before her mother had found her.
By what she assumed was mid-morning, the drizzle had turned into a full downpour. How fitting, Serra thought, that the weather was as perfectly miserable as she was. Still, she had to shove her feelings down and keep moving. She judged that the escape route through the pantry had come out some distance away from castle’s south wall and therefore she had been heading south in her escape as she had just run blindly forwards.
South, it was. South was where Ostagar was. South was where Fergus and his army had gone.
Her older brother had left a few days beforehand and Father had planned to meet him in the south where King Cailan had called for reinforcement. If she just kept going, then she could find her way to Fergus and to safety with him. Howe wouldn’t dare show his face there especially when the news inevitably reached about what had happened at Highever. Maybe she could even convince Cailan that once the threat of darkspawn had been dealt with to turn his armies north and retake Highever in Fergus’ name.
Serra just had to get there first.
Highever was on the opposite side of Ferelden and it would take days, perhaps even a week, to reach Ostagar on foot using the main roads. Was it safe for her to even use the main roads? She doubted it. Howe would likely have sent his men out to watch for anything if he knew already of her survival and if not then she would likely make some spectacle of herself, walking out of the woods covered in dirt and ash like a barbarian with an expensive sword and well-made leather armour. That would get people talking and that would end up in Howe’s ears sooner or later.
Who knew how long it would take her to get to Ostagar if she had to wander through the wilds by herself. A part of her wished for her mabari, for Beric, but she doubted her faithful companion had made it out of the castle, she almost hadn’t. He was just another name in the list of casualties caused by Howe and his treachery and she would make sure he paid tenfold for what he had done.
The fire was slowly dying.
Serra shivered despite herself and stared forlornly at the pitiful campfire she had made for herself. Even if it hadn't been raining and the wood damp, she doubted that would have made her efforts any more impressive. She had very little experience of camping in the wilds, even when she had been hunting, and usually it had been the job of the squires or what few servants they had brought to deal with setting up camp and cooking food.
The thought of food made her stomach growl. She hadn't eaten since she had escaped Highever. That was three days ago. Not for the lack of trying, she had picked whatever berries she knew not to be poisonous and had tried to trap a rabbit or two but the small creatures had eluded her and her makeshift traps. She wished for the half-hundredth time that she had her bow and perhaps then she could have shot a rabbit or maybe even a small deer to eat.
But no, all she had was her family's sword and she was clumsy at best wielding it.
Worse still, the further she travelled the more lost she believed she was. She knew eventually she would enter territory she didn't know but without a map or even a compass she wondered if she had gotten herself turned around without realising. Serra swore that she had been wandering around the same patch of forest for the past day, the trees all looked similar to each other and she swore she had past the same rock formations and small streams more than once. Her plans to continue heading south until eventually she reached Ostagar had turned out harder than she had suspected, and she hadn't expected it to be easy in the first place. She had made her way into the Frostback mountains, she knew that much at least. The terrain had become steeper and rockier as she went and the trees were beginning to thin to be replaced with scrub and grass.
Serra also swore that she was being watched. She hadn't seen any sign of people besides herself but she could almost feel the gaze of...someone watching her as she went. Perhaps it was some Dalish elves, she tried to reassure herself, they may not be fond of humans but she doubted they would trouble her unless she wandered too close to their camp. A paranoid voice in her mind told her that it could have been Howe's men following her trail, they must have realised her survival by now.
Desperation had led her to heading further and further into the mountains. As winter loomed, very few people would risk travelling the Frostbacks unless it was necessary and they were large enough that her trail could be easily lost. Howe would probably still try to follow her regardless, assuming he picked up her trail at all, a living Cousland was too big a threat for him to safely ignore for long. That thought made her want to reach Ostagar all the more. Had Howe slipped some of his own men in with Fergus’ then her brother’s life could be in danger and he would never know.
Against her will, her eyelids began to droop closed. Sleep had been intermittent at best, Serra feared if she slept too long in one place then she'd surely be found. She had taken shelter in a small cave, barely a rocky outcrop to keep off the worst of the wind and rain. She huddled as close to the fire as she could but even still the winds buffeted her and made her shiver. It was better than sleeping under the stars as she had been whenever she had judged it safe enough to stop for a while. She felt exhausted, even if she hadn't already felt weakened from the lack of proper food in her belly as well as the lack of sleep.
Just an hour or two, she told herself, then I can move on again. Maybe I'll be able to catch something to eat...
She was asleep in an instant.
The sound of voices quietly talking drew Serra back to reality once more. Her side ached from sleeping in the hard dirt but after her days in the wilderness it was almost expected. However, her stomach lurched when she realised she was not alone.
"...all the way out here. What would a lowlander be doing wandering alone?"
She dared not breathe, her eyes still shut in hopes that whoever had found her would think she was still asleep. Her sword lay just out of reach, lying beside her leather armour she'd stripped off earlier to make herself more comfortable. Serra now wished she had kept it all and slept with her blade beside her head.
"She's awake." Another voice spoke up and she felt herself cringe despite herself.
Maker damn them.
There was no point in continuing to feign sleep so she sat up to look at her new captors. When she did open her eyes Shen found herself shocked by what she did see.
The man directly in front of her was tanned and from her judging perhaps in his middle-age. His black hair, streaked with grey at the sides, was pulled back in a tight knot. The other man was younger, fair where his companion was dark with shorter dark gold hair. Both of them were well-built, their skin taut over muscle and both of them were carrying weapons. The older man had daggers strapped to the side of his fur belt and the younger had a sword in hand.
Two men, that didn't shock her, she could tell just from listening that they had been men. Where she had expected chainmail instead the men were dressed entirely in leather and furs with their chests bare to the world despite what Serra felt was a chill in the air. These were clearly not Howe's men. No, she knew just from looking at them that these men where no soldiers at all.
Nan had told her and Fergus stories of the wild men of the mountains when they were children. They were barbarians. They raided wagons along the roads, stealing whatever they could carry and sometimes that didn't even stop at just property. No, they stole women as well, carrying them off into the mountains never to be seen again and likely so they could rape them.
Before they could say or do anything more, Serra surged to her feet. With what strength she had remaining she shoved past the first man directly in front of her and made a break for the sparse treeline. Her sword and armour could be retrieved later, she thought, assuming the Avvar didn't just take them if she managed to lose them.
Arms immediately wound around her middle, yanking her backwards with a jolt. Without thinking, Serra jammed her elbow backwards and was satisfied when she felt flesh give way under and the man let out a gasp of air. His grip on her slackened and she was running once more but she could hear heavy footsteps behind her and one of the men cursing. She focused on the path ahead, the trees were close now and if she could wind her way through the woods she might lose them both yet.
Then she was tackled from the side.
They hit the ground hard in a tangle of limbs, a scream ripping from Serra's throat more from shock than pain. It had been the fair man who had grabbed her and he was rolling through the foliage with her. She struggled against him as they rolled, kicking and striking wherever she could in hopes his grip on her would loosen but instead he held firm against her assault. With a buck of his hips, he rolled himself on top of her, pinning her arms above her head and clamping a hand over her mouth to silence her.
Serra wasted no time in sinking her teeth into the soft flesh of his hand.
He swore in pain, whipping his hand back from her face. He examined the bite she had given him "You bit me!" His voice was filled with disbelief.
"Fuck you." She growled back at him. Did he honestly expect her to go with him quietly?
His companion wasn’t long in catching up to them and Serra knew that there was no real chance of escape now. She had wasted her opportunity and it was likely she had traded one dire fate for another. Still, she struggled against the fair one’s hold trying to prove that she would be more trouble than she was worth, however unlikely that was to change their minds about possibly abducting her.
“A valiant effort.” The dark one remark with a small amount of amusement making Serra bristle in anger. Did they find the capture of all unwilling women so funny? It amused them when they tried to run or fight back? Truly these men were barbarians.
“She bit me!” the fair one spoke up again, showing his injured hand to his companion “Korth’s teeth, Duncan, I think we’ve found a she-wolf rather than a woman.”
The dark one, Duncan his companion had named him, flicked his gaze to the other man and then to her once more seeming to deliberate on what to do next. Serra glared at him with all the venom she could muster, if he laid a finger on her then she’d make him regret it…somehow.
“Come, Alistair, we’ll need to get back to the hold soon. Take our new friend here and bind her hands. I don’t trust she won’t try and run again given the chance. Looks like hunting will have to wait for the moment.”
With that, Duncan turned on his heel and walked back to the small cave she had been previously sheltering in. With that, her fate was decided: she would be these mens’ prisoner and carted off to Maker-knew-where. No doubt they had some foul deeds in mind whenever they got her to wherever they would be taking her, Serra didn’t doubt that, they were Avvar after all. Everyone knew that the Avvar were nothing but barbarians.
The fair man, Alistair, lifted her off the ground as if she weighed next to nothing and in one swift motion had her over his shoulder. She pounded against the bare skin of his back knowing it would probably result in nothing but at least it gave her some catharsis. She was jostled instantly as if as a warning to stop but she gave the man a solid thump on the back as a retort. Serra was determined that she would make it as hard for these men as she possibly could, perhaps they might release her if she proved too much of a nuisance to keep around for long.
Serra hadn’t realised the men had brought horses with them until she found herself dumped unceremoniously at the base of a tree. She had wished she had noticed them sooner. Two horses had their reins tied to a lower branch and Alistair fiddled in the saddle bag of one, producing a small length of leather. With not much gentleness, likely because of the injury she had given him, he took her hands and tied them together in front of her, jerking the knot closed so that she herself was jolted forwards. When Serra glared at him he replied with a smirk of his own and she decided then that she hated him much more than his companion.
Duncan arrived back with the leather armour she had been wearing and her family sword dangling from his belt alongside his daggers.
“That is mine!” she yelled, struggling against her binds although Alistair seemed to have tied them tightly. That Avvar was not going to keep her family’s sword! She had promised her mother before she had escaped that she would enact her revenge on Howe with it. “Give it to me, it belongs to my family! You can’t have it!”
Duncan barked a laugh at her, swinging himself up onto his saddle, which only made her rage grow “I think I’ll be keeping this for the moment, lass.”
Serra felt herself being lifted and sat in the saddle before Alistair swung himself up behind her. One had wrapped itself securely around her hips and if her hands weren’t tied in front of her she would have slapped him. With a swift kick to his horse’s side, they were off, following Duncan’s lead deeper into the Frostbacks.
They rode for hours along the winding mountain paths, climbing higher and higher into the mountains. Soon all trees had fallen away and made a carpet of autumn golds and reds in the pass beneath them as they went. The ground was uneven at best and Serra found herself being jolted and jostled in the saddle more than she would have liked because it was up to Alistair to ensure that she didn’t completely tumble from the saddle and thus fall down the sheer cliff to one side of them. The higher they climbed, the colder it became as well and the winds were fiercer here than they had been further down where her captors had found her.
Finally, Duncan pulled to a sudden stop, his eyes examining the skies for a moment before he spoke.
“There’s going to be a storm tonight.” He declared, his mouth twisting into a deep frown “I don’t like the look of those clouds rolling there.”
Serra followed his gaze skywards and sure enough there were dark grey storm clouds rolling in to the east of them. Even looking at them Serra could tell that they held more than just rain, perhaps the first snowfall to signal winter’s ever increasing approach. That thought didn’t make her feel well at all. Stuck in the mountains during a snowfall would not be pleasant at the best of times, certainly less so now that she would have to rely on the men to provide shelter and more importantly warmth.
The only good thing Serra could think of was that a snowfall may cover whatever tracks she had left completely. With any luck, anyone searching for her would have no clue where she went and, like it or not, her captors were taking her further than she could have reached on foot. Her mind was still whirring with thoughts of escape, however, she simply needed the men to lower their guard just enough that she could elude them…and steal back her family’s sword from Duncan’s belt.
On they went, the mountain pass soon began to wind down again instead of climbing yet higher into the mountains. All Serra could see was barren rock so she had no idea where her captors could possibly be taking her. Their talk of a “hold” sounded like they were heading for a settlement but she couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to live high in the mountains besides perhaps some dwarves. Besides, a mountain couldn’t possibly be a decent place to raise any kind of buildings, could it? A castle could be built into a mountain but she had never heard of any Avvar living in castles.
Finally, the pass opened and once again they were heading into forest. The trees were a welcome shelter from the high cold winds which made her face feel like it was being pricked by hundreds of tiny needles. The horses picked up their pace as they moved through the flatter land, yet still they seemed to be heading up and down various small hills, and Serra assumed that their destination must have been close at hand. The men said nothing, their eyes focused ahead of them, Duncan still leading them all forwards and deeper into the trees.
The trees parted and Serra saw what she assumed was their destination for the first time.
A high wall of tree trunks twice the size of a man spread out in front of them, their tops sharpened into spikes likely to keep any intruders hoping to scale them out, with furs of bears draped strategically along them painted with the symbol of a griffin spreading its wings. If Serra squinted, she believed she could see the tops of heads and the glint of arrowheads in the small gaps between the trunks, likely guards to further discourage any unwanted guests. In the centre a large wooden gate barred their entrance and it was in front of this that Duncan and Alistair stopped their horses and peered upwards.
“Who goes there?” A voice called down at them.
“It is Duncan and Alistair. Please, send a message to the Thane that we request an audience with him."
The response was silence and Serra peered up but could see no one there. After a moment, the gate swung wide to allow them entrance. The horses walked forward and as they passed through Serra could feel the weight of stares on her as they passed and the murmurings of the men. Alistair seemed to tighten his grip around her hips and she wouldn’t admit it aloud but it brought her some comfort. She doubted that her captors had brought her all this way, alive and bound, only to be killed here.
Beyond the wooden wall, a village spread out before them. Houses of various sizes, wooden cottages with thatched roofs, hugged the walls with the largest, a great wooden longhouse, in the centre. In front of that, at the true centre of the village where everything else radiated outwards, stood a great fire pit piled high with wood and ready to be lit. Women were walking around the village, talking to each other and doing chores, some she could see weaving in great wooden looms in front of their houses, some watching over penned goats and sheep with a few their men. whilst others skinned animals and cut vegetables for dinner. Children’s laughs and shouts were everywhere as they wound their way through the buildings, playing with each other. Most of the men she saw had weapons strapped to their belts and seemed to be watching them as they made their way towards where she assumed the stables were. Serra could feel the distrust and wariness in their looks and she found she couldn’t blame them for that.
Serra hadn’t known quite what she would have expected from an Avvar settlement but this seemed more civilised than she had anticipated. She had half expected the Avvar to live in tents out in the wilderness or ramshackle huts at best, but what she saw was a proper village not too unlike some of the more secluded farming villages on her father’s lands. Yet somehow, it still felt alien and different to her.
“I see you both found more in the woods than deer.” A voice called out. An older woman approached them, a smile on her face. Her hair was so grey as to be nearly white, her face lined with wrinkles yet her eyes had a kindness to them. The thing that drew Serra's eyes most was the blue tattoos which curled up the woman's neck and along her jawline before climbing up along her left cheek.
“You could say that.” Alistair replied, swinging himself off his saddle. His hands wrapped around her waist and he lifted her off the saddle to set her gently on the ground “I’d still be careful though, she bites.”
Serra scowled at Alistair, he had deserved that one, no matter how he tried to save face now. She'd have done it again, if given half the chance. Strangely though, the woman laughed at his comments which only confused her more. It was Alistair's turn to scowl now, muttering under his breath as he and Duncan tied their horses up.
"I suppose there are to be introductions." The woman smiled at her "I am Wynne, augur of Griffins Hold."
She'd never heard that term before. Augur? What was an augur? Was it important? Serra knew very little of the Avvar in general and she guessed her confusion must have shown on her face because Wynne continued, explaining:
"I'm a mage. I communicate with the gods and spirits of the Hold to advise the Thane. I'm also a healer of some skill and I'm sure many of our warriors are glad for my attention after battle or hunts."
"We appreciate the needles less." Alistair spoke up.
A mage? The Avvar had them? Serra supposed she shouldn't have been too shocked at that, mages could come from places both high and low. What surprised her more was that the Templars hadn't come to take this woman away to the Circle of kill her for being an apostate. What she said of communicating with spirits and god's sounded like definite grounds for blood magic, in her mind. The Avvar must have little fear of abominations or maleficar.
Finally, Duncan approached, he had been mostly silent their whole journey. Serra felt like he was the person to be more wary of than Alistair. Still, he hadn't done anything to outright harm her even though he had taken her.
"The Thane is waiting for you in the hall." Wynne said to him and to that he simply nodded before taking Serra's arm, leading her back towards the centre of the village. Wynne and followed quickly after them leaving Alistair behind with the horses. As they moved through the village, once again, she could feel the gazes of the people they passed on her. Briefly, she wondered if they were as wary of her as she was of them.
They entered the great wooden longhouse at the centre of the village. The floor was covered in rushes with long tables running along the walls, clearly where the village would gather together. At the very end of the room, a wooden dais sat with a large chair covered in furs. A man sat there, watching them as their small group approached. His hair was a fiery red as was his neatly trimmed beard. Like, Duncan and Alistair, his chest was bare with more blue tattoos like Wynne's curling across his arms and chest. He wore what looked like the pelt of a bear around his shoulders and Serra could tell just from the look of him that he was the most important person in the whole village. He was their leader.
"Thane Teagan." Duncan said in greeting "I'm sorry for the abruptness of this meeting but as you can see, it was important."
The man's gaze was now on her, she lowered her own to the floor. As much fire and defiance she had in her, she didn't want to be killed outright and she felt like if she had behaved as she had towards Duncan and Alistair, that would be the result. She didn't work so hard to escape her familys' massacre just to die at the hands of the Avvar.
"A lowlander, is it?" The Thane finally spoke up "Not many of your kind would be brave or foolish enough to wander the Frostbacks alone. Why have you come to our lands?"
She didn't answer, not immediately, instead she weighed her options. Should she tell the truth? Serra doubted the Avvar would really know or care about what had happened to her family. Still, with Highever so vulnerable, she didn't want to risk them seeing her home as land that they could simply take now her father or her brother and their army was no longer around to protect it. Then again, it was Howe who held it now and an invasion of Avvar would definitely destabilise any base he thought he had.
Then again, if she lied to them and they found out, it was likely she would be killed. The Avvar were known as barbarians for a reason and Serra didn't doubt that it was a reputation well-deserved.
"Thane," It was Wynne who spoke up as her silence dragged "I believe that this woman is here because of the will of the gods. Did I not tell you of the signs I have been sent? I believe this woman's arrival was one of them."
Serra shot a perplexed look at Wynne. What in the Maker's name could she mean by that? What she was saying sounded like pure insanity to her but her gaze flicked to Thane Teagan and he seemed to be listening intently and, more bizarrely to her, taking Wynne's words entirely seriously.
"I do remember, Wynne, but I'd rather hear what this lowlander has to say for herself." He replied, his gaze focusing on her once more "Speak freely, you have nothing to fear from me unless you threaten my Hold or my people."
"I am Serra Cousland of Highever." She finally said, drawing herself up so she looked less like a prisoner and more like the noblewoman she was "My family was slaughtered and my home put to the torch by a man my father named as a friend. I alone escaped the flames. I was being pursued when your men found me. I was intending to head south to Ostagar where I know my brother may be. I didn't know these were your lands or that Avvar tribes were even in the area."
After that there was silence again. Serra felt a nervous sweat trickling down the back of her neck as Thane Teagan sat back on his throne and seemed to think. She had told him the truth so what he would do with it was out of her hands. With luck, he would release her and send her on her way and then perhaps she could find her way to Fergus.
Behind her, she could hear Wynne and Duncan murmuring under their breath but she wasn't sure what they were saying.
"I am sorry for what you have suffered." Thane Teagan finally spoke and from the look he gave her, Serra was half sure it was pity, his words seemed to be genuine "Rest assured that anyone who wishes to harm you will have to go through me and my warriors first. Your people may have a poor opinion of us but we are a people of our word."
That did make her breathe a bit easier. At least they weren't going to kill her. Still, she wasn't intending to stay here for any length of time so the Thane's reassurance of protection did ring a little hollow in her mind.
"You have my gratitude." Serra replied "Although I would like to be on my way to Ostagar as soon as possible. If there is a safe way for me to travel there I'd appreciate being shown."
"Ostagar? I'm afraid that is a much too dangerous journey for you to make."
A stone dropped in Serra's stomach at those words. Too dangerous? How was the journey too dangerous? She had made it this far on her own relatively unscathed despite some troubles of her own. She needed to reach the south as fast as she could. Fergus' life could depend on whether she reached Ostagar before the news from Highever, or worse, Howe arrived.
"Please, I beg you. I need to get to Ostagar. I don't care how dangerous the journey may be, I'm willing to make it. My brother's life may be in danger if I don't reach him there!"
Serra didn't care how desperate she sounded, pleading with an Avvar for help. At this point, she had little choice in the matter especially if she wanted to make sure that her last living family member was safe. Fergus was all she had left.
It was Duncan who spoke gently but seriously to her "The mountain passes will be filled with snow soon, lowlander. Once the snow comes then it will be near impossible to get anywhere until it melts again in the spring. It is better to stay here in the hold and wait out the worst of it before trying to head south again."
Duncan's comments as they travelled made some sense to her now. She, herself, had even worried about snow as they had been travelling. She knew that she was in no way equipped to travel if the weather turned any colder than it already was, she had been lucky it hadn't been worse already.
"You are welcome to stay in the Hold until it is safe to travel again. You are under our protection as a guest so have no fear." Thane Teagan spoke again "Welcome to Griffins Hold, Serra Cousland."
With that, Thane Teagan stood and walked off the dais through a curtain which separated the main hall from what Serra assumed must have been his own house. Clearly, to him, the matter had been settled. It seemed she would be going nowhere for the time being no matter her own opinions or wants.
"There's some room in my house if you wish to stay there." Wynne told her. Finally, the older woman undid the leather straps which bound her hands together and took her hand with a gentle smile "Come, you've been through a lot. I'll help you get cleaned up and settled."
It was with a sigh of relief that Serra sank into the hot water. She had never been more grateful of a warm bath in her life and It was with a sigh of relief that Serra sunk into the hot water. She had never been more grateful of a warm bath in her life and she was determined never to take such a luxury for granted again. The aches and pains of her escape seemed to melt away under the gentle heat of the water and it was a blessed relief, she hadn’t realised just how sore and drained she had been until that moment.
It had embarrassed her when she had seen a reflection of herself to find herself covered in a fine layer of mud and soil with black ash also smeared across her face, her hair was wild and she could see leaves and twigs caught in the dark brown strands. Truly, she looked like a wild woman and she wondered how Thane Teagan had even taken her in any way seriously. Perhaps that was why her threats and attempts at fighting had done her such little credit with Duncan and Alistair in the woods.
Wynne had been happy enough to help her, a fact she was more than grateful for. In fact, it was Wynne who had shown her to the large wooden bathhouse just outside of the hold’s walls where a natural hot spring had made its way to the surface. Now she sat with her, untangling the knots in her hair with a fine-toothed comb and making her wince with every stubborn tangle she found or piece of debris she had to pluck out. Earlier she had to take shears to her hair because the long strands had been burnt at the ends. Serra focused on scrubbing at her skin with the strange smelling soap Wynne had provided her until all the dirt had been thoroughly washed away leaving her skin pink and clean again. It even felt like the waters themselves were doing their bit to soothe and cleanse her of her ordeals, whether it was her imagination or not she wasn’t sure all she was sure of is that it was helping.
“Of course, the Thane will expect you to help around the hold. Pull your own weight, as it were.” Wynne was explaining to her how she would fit in now that she was an unofficial member of Griffin’s Hold “You are a guest and by rights you should have no responsibilities but the winter is coming and we need as many hands as we can to ensure we have enough to last us all.”
“I…” Serra frowned, she didn’t want to admit aloud that she would be no true help. She didn’t know how to cook, clean, weave or tend to animals. She knew how to sew and how to hunt and that was the extent of the truly practical skills she knew that the Avvar would have any real use for, after all, she was a noblewoman and that meant she had servants to tend to those tasks in her stead.
Wynne seemed to sense her discomfort as she twisted her hair up to braid it back “Don’t worry, dear, we will teach you what you need to know. I’m sure that you will fit in just fine.”
But she didn’t fit in. Serra didn’t voice that thought aloud for fear of insulting the woman who had shown her nothing but kindness and compassion so far. Could she ever really fit in with these people? She’d been taught her whole life that they were barbarians and demon worshippers to be feared not a people who would take her in and help her. Of course, now she was beginning to realise that the stories Nan had told her and Fergus were more than a little embellished but the Avvar were still a different people and they made it clear they thought her different too, calling her “lowlander” although she wasn’t quite sure if that was an insult or simply a descriptor.
"Earlier, you mentioned to the Thane you'd seen signs...what did you mean by that?" Wynne's words had been strange and Serra couldn't help her curiosity. She had never heard of anyone foreseeing the future.
Wynne was silent for a moment as her fingers worked in her hair but eventually she spoke: "It isn't often that our gods send me signs, usually it means that something major will happen for the hold. When I was tending to the spirits which live in the mountain, they sent me visions...images of what will come." She paused again, clearly uncomfortable with either what she was saying or because she was trying to explain it to an outsider "One of the things I saw was a woman, bathed in fire but unharmed by it. I thought that might have been you when you said that the man who betrayed your family also burned your home. It's a rare thing, to be protected from the flames. Rilla must have delivered you to us for a purpose, the fire is her sign and you were kissed by it."
Serra didn't reply to that, unsure of what she even could say. She almost didn't want to ask what other signs she had saw, if she had seen Fergus if Wynne believed she had seen her escape from Highever.
All too soon she was being shooed out of the hot spring bath and a new set of clothes was given to her. A linen dress with a woollen shawl, woollen stockings and practical leather boots. Serra suspected that they had all been hastily gathered from anyone who had them to spare rather than being new. Still, she was more than grateful, it was warmer than the thin cotton of her nightgown had been in the cold mountain air.
Surprisingly, Alistair was waiting for them when they returned to the hold. He looked uncomfortable as he approached them and spoke to Wynne.
"Wynne, another hunting party just came back. It's Daveth...he was gored by a boar. They brought him to your house and Duncan sent me to --"
Alistair didn't get to finish his sentence before Wynne was running, faster than Serra would have expected for a woman her age. Alistair followed her in a sprint leaving Serra to run behind them both, afraid she'd lose them both and be left alone in a place she didn't know. The group of them wound their way through the houses, past the great longhouse to a smaller wooden house just next to it. Once past the longhouse, the sharp smell of blood hit her nose and made her stomach roil. A small crowd had gathered outside the house, nervously murmuring to themselves but as soon as they saw Wynne rushing towards them they quickly dispersed.
Once the door to the house was opened, the smell of blood washed over them like a wave. Inside a man lay moaning in pain on a small pallet bed, his abdomen and legs bearing large wounds which glistened wetly in the firelight. Serra could feel the bile rising in her throats and she had to grip the doorframe to keep herself grounded and not immediately vomit from the combination of sight and smell. She had seen the handiwork of a boar before on one of her father's hunting dogs, the poor creature had died from its injuries, but it seemed much worse on a man.
"Maker's breath." She murmured and beside her Alistair murmured in agreement, looking just as sickened as she was.
Wynne was already crouching beside Daveth, examining his wounds closely. In the corner, Duncan stood with his arms crossed and a look of worry on his face. Then she turned to look at her and Alistair
"I need water from the well, get it and then boil it. Serra, Alistair will show you what needs done." Then her gaze turned to Duncan "We need to act quickly if Daveth is to live. I'll need your help to strip him down."
She looked to Alistair and he took her hand to lead her away from the gory sight. She didn't argue with him because what she had seen was truly gruesome and she was glad that they would at least get a moment to collect themselves as they fetched what was needed. Besides, Wynne's words had been less of a request and more of an order and Serra didn't want to stand between the woman and her job.
It was Alistair who led her back through the hold towards the great wooden walls where a small well stood. They walked at a brisk pace and Serra could tell that Alistair was clearly worried about the man back in Wynne's house. Perhaps he was his friend, Serra assumed so. After all, Griffin's Hold did not seem like a huge settlement so it was likely that everyone at least knew each other. It was Alistair who lowered the rope and bucket into the well, working at drawing up the water and after a moment of awkward silence he spoke:
"Um...listen. We may have gotten off to a bit of a bad start." Alistair said to her, rubbing his neck nervously. An understatement if Serra ever heard one "So, I guess I want to apologise. If you're going to be staying with us, then I don't want you to think I'm going to steal you away or hurt you or anything."
So, the Avvar did know how her people viewed them. Did Alistair perhaps think she was afraid of him? She wasn't, her active defiance when she was found proved that enough. Still, she at least appreciated that he was willing to make amends with her. She supposed she could use more trustworthy people than simply Wynne alone.
"I'm sorry I bit you. It wasn't very kind of ladylike." She replied.
That made Alistair laugh "Well, if it weren't for your clothes, I'd have wondered if we hadn't found a true Avvar woman."
Serra wasn't sure if that was meant to be an attempt at a compliment but she smiled nonetheless. Clearly the Avvar seemed to think their women more than just dainty wallflowers, like most nobles would see their women, and she could appreciate that. She was sure her mother would have been almost horrified to hear about how she had wrestled and bit an Avvar man whilst her father would have laughed and congratulated her on a battle won. Her mother had always been less than enthused that she had never been very ladylike and now she wished she could have made amends for that.
Alistair drew three full buckets of water and Serra found it embarrassing how much she felt like she had to strain to carry one whilst Alistair seemed to carry two with ease. Clearly she would have a lot of learning to do if she wanted to contribute to the hold the way Wynne said she would need to. Alistair seemed almost amused as she struggled to match his long, sure strides whilst also trying to spill as little water as possible.
The smell of blood was still strong in the house. Daveth’s cries had been silenced and for moment Serra believed that he may have died in the brief time they’d been away until she saw the slow but steady rise and fall of his chest. Wynne was crouched over his still body, murmuring as her hands moved along the wounds glowing with magic, the wounds shrunk in size under her care but did not close. Duncan's hands and arms were smeared with blood, Daveth’s blood-soaked leathers and furs piled at his feet, and still he looked worried as he watched the augur work. He was quick to take her bucket of water off her when she and Alistair pushed their way through the door, clicking his tongue when he saw that despite her efforts she had spilled quite a bit of it. Still, Alistair's buckets were full to make up for her error. Whilst they had been away, Duncan had set up a large pot over the fire ready to boil the water Wynne needed to clean the wounds.
"Serra, do you know how to stitch?" Wynne asked, her eyes never moving from her work "I'll not be able to close these wounds with magic alone. It would be good to have a second pair of hands."
"Yes!" She exclaimed, happy to be able to assist with an actual skilled task. Granted, she had never been the best at sewing with the thick embroidering threads, like her mother had been, but she had stitched up a pair of trousers or even her brother or father's cuts more than once so her mother wouldn't need to fret over them.
She took the thread and needle from Wynne as the augur ordered the men around, tasking them with holding down Daveth as Serra worked. She took a place astride Daveth’s chest where most of his more serious wounds were. She tried to keep her eyes from drifting downwards towards Daveth’s nakedness, feeling heat rising in her cheeks and colouring them pink, it was no time for that and every second would be precious as blood was already starting to pool again even as Wynne washed it away with the boiled water and a cloth. Instead, she tried to focused on her work. Alistair had grabbed Daveth’s legs and Duncan had secured his arms. She was glad of it because as soon as she plunged the needle into his flesh, Daveth woke from his stupor screaming and thrashing madly even as she tried to help him.
Work was slow, her stitches clumsy, and Daveth continued to thrash and yell in pain. Alistair and Duncan had to almost lay in top of him to prevent him from throwing either them or Serra, herself, off completely. Wynne’s voice gently murmuring incantations under her breath kept Serra focused and grounded as she worked the needle and thread to close whatever wounds Wynne’s magic could not close alone. Ever so slowly, raw red wounds were replaced with stitched white flesh as she lost track of time completely so focused on her work and ensuring that, with her aid, Daveth would live another day yet.
When, finally, the last stitch had been put in place, Serra was certain it must have been late into the night. She felt drained, her hands covered in Daveth’s dried blood and she could feel her eyelids beginning to droop against her will. When a hand was placed on her shoulder, she jolted violently only to find it was Alistair looking just as weary as she felt. Despite knowing he meant her no harm and that she was safe within the walls of the hold, under their leader’s word no less, she still couldn’t help the brief flutter of panic in her gut. Too many of Nan’s stories when she had been a child had ensured that her mind immediately went to thoughts of barbarians, blood and kidnapped women. Alistair didn’t remove his hand though and that grounded her enough for her to force down her instinctive reaction and calm herself. Gently, which surprised her, he helped her off the pallet as Daveth slumbered beneath her but when she expected him to release her, instead he kept guiding her out of Wynne’s house and into the darkness.
“Where are we going?” Serra couldn’t help herself as the glow from Wynne’s fire began to recede and the night swooped in to replace it. Whilst she knew she was supposed to be safe, she still didn’t want to wander around an Avvar stronghold at night.
“To my house, where else?” Alistair responded as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
That made Serra stop dead in her tracks “Your house? Wynne said I was staying with her! Why would I need to go to your house?” Panic was setting in again and her brain automatically brought up Nan’s stories again. Was Alistair attempting to claim her? She knew, according to the stories, Avvar often raped women that they had captured to claim them as their own. Was that why Alistair had wanted to make amends earlier, to ensure that she would not struggle as much if he tried to claim her. She ripped his hand off her arm, contemplating retreating towards the relative safety of Wynne’s house. She could make the sprint, she reckoned, they hadn’t walked that far away and she was willing to trust Wynne not to let anything happen to her. Duncan was still there, however, and he was still an unknown quantity but she trusted the old mage.
“Daveth won’t be going anywhere tonight…that pallet was the only spare bed in Wynne’s house. So, I was going to let you stay with me instead.” He said, his voice drifting back to her in the still night air.
Well that made guilt well up in her breast. She tried to recall seeing any other places in the house that she would even believe were for sleeping and came up short. Serra had to admit that Alistair had a point and that just made her feel ashamed of her hasty and judgemental reaction. She expected that if he had wanted to do anything unpleasant towards her then he would have had plenty of opportunity before they even reached the hold. Instead, he had taken her to the hold and she was under their protection…for now, at least.
She finally looked back at Alistair, his expression was one of confusion and perhaps even slightly wounded at her rejection. It was amazing, she mused, how he could manage the same look her mabari could, a wounded puppy, despite his muscles and Avvar leather armour. Perhaps, as Avvar went, he wasn’t the worst one she could be stuck with although she still hoped that Daveth wouldn’t be kept in Wynne’s house for too long and that she would be able to reclaim that pallet bed.
“Sorry.” She murmured, shifting her feet so she didn’t have to keep looking at him and his hurt feelings “Let’s just go. I’m tired.”
She walked closely behind Alistair as he led her through the hold, she wasn’t lying when she had said she was tired, the sooner she could sleep then the happier she would be for it. Vaguely she acknowledged the longhouse where she had met Thane Teagan and he led her to a smaller house just beside it. Compared to the large longhouse, she supposed, all the houses seemed small but the Avvar seemed to not take up any more space than they needed.
The house was dark and cold, completely opposite to how Wynne’s had been and Serra shivered despite herself. The house had the same general layout as well, a large fire pit with cold ashes in the centre of the house and around it was a table, odd pots and pans and other things for cooking, a low table with chairs, and in the very back of the house was a curtain wall beyond which she assumed was Alistair’s bedroom. He stepped through the threshold, unbuckling his belt on which his sword hung and deposited it gently beside a worn wooden shield with a hide bolted to the front. Serra shuffled in behind him, closing the door gently behind her and internally being both glad and worried that the door did not have a bolt on it.
When she turned, Alistair had stripped off and was standing in nothing but a loincloth in front of her. The sound she made sounded like a choked squeak and heat rose to her cheeks. She had never seen any man in such little clothing and she expected not to until the night of her own wedding. Alistair seemed to have few qualms about her seeing him almost nude, in fact he was reaching around to untie it too before she blurt out:
“Um…where will I be sleeping?” Serra had swept the small house again, desperate to look anywhere but at Alistair, and saw no sign of a pallet like Wynne had. She had been half curious and half worried what Alistair was planning but she had allowed herself to trust him enough that he wouldn’t outright harm her.
“I only have one bed so you’ll be sleeping with me.” Immediately he seemed to realise what he had said, and likely her own thoughts considering his state of undress, and his cheeks coloured pink, his hands flying up to try and explain himself before she could intervene “I mean, not “sleeping” sleeping…sleeping…as in asleep in the same bed…Oh Korth’s balls.”
At least that put any argument of Alistair attempting anything towards her out of the question, if anything he now seemed just as embarrassed and flustered as she was. That at least made her feel somewhat better even if she felt like running back to Wynne’s house in hopes she would have a spare bed and Alistair was mistaken.
“You…um…you’ll want to sleep…you know…it gets really hot under the furs even without a fire.” Alistair mumbled, amusingly the redness in his cheeks had reached all the way down his neck as well.
“No way.” She told him, folding her arms across her chest in a hope that would make him not want to argue with her on that point “I am not sleeping in the nude with a man I haven’t even known for a day.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you…” Alistair mumbled and before she could stop him he had untied his loincloth. She tried to make herself look anywhere but at the naked man in front of her but despite herself her eyes kept drifting back. He…wasn’t unremarkable, she noted, and immediately wanted to smack herself for that thought. He was an Avvar and she a noblewoman of Ferelden, she would not be swayed to do anything that would soil her reputation no matter what the man looked like.
Only when she had told Alistair to leave and draw the curtain behind him did Serra finally begin to undress herself. She wondered how strange he found that since he seemed not to mind her seeing him naked. The Avvar were strange, she told herself, as she pulled her dress over her head and hung it on the back of one of the nearby chairs followed by the rest of her clothes besides the loose cotton underdress. She had to steel her nerves before she was ready to join Alistair in his bed and she prayed that no one ever found out about this when she returned to society, she would be branded a loose woman and likely unmarriable if anyone did. However, the draw of a warm and relatively safe place to sleep was too much for her.
Alistair seemed to be already asleep when she pulled the curtain aside, curled on his side with the furs of his bed pulled around him and thankfully making him more decent. Tentatively, she slid onto the edge of the bed, hoping to not disturb her host, and despite a murmur in his sleep Alistair didn’t wake. His body was warm and solid at her back as she pulled the furs around herself and it was somewhat comforting. Her mind went back to the times when she would sneak into Fergus’ room as a child, scared because of a nightmare, and they would curl around each other to fall asleep. Those were some of her fondest memories of her brother and her heart ached to think of him now.
“Just for the winter…” she murmured to herself before sleep overtook her.
Sorry for the wait for the next chapter but real life got in the way in the form of dissertation (or thesis as the Americans call it) and then final exams of my university career. Hopefully now that summer has rolled around I'll be able to update more often although I don't have a specific schedule.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who left a comment, bookmarked, left kudos, or just took time out of their day to read this. You are amazing and I'm grateful to you all.
The snows were starting to fall in the Frostbacks, blanketing the ground in thick sheets and turning the dull shades of brown and grey of the mountains into blinding white. It was only several inches deep now but more would be on its way and soon. The sight of snow falling already did nothing to try and lift Serra’s spirits any, the opposite in fact.
The Avvar had not been wrong when they had told her that the snows would grind any hope of travel out of the hold to an abrupt halt. Even with only a few inches on the ground, the hunters of Griffin Hold dared not stray too far from the outer walls and bringing what meats they could to be salted and stored away for leaner days to come. Leather tanning and weaving had been put into overdrive to produce enough warm clothes for the winter months to come, what vegetables could be grown in the thin mountain soil were hurriedly being harvested and what could not be stored would be eaten in a celebration to usher in the new season. A last bit of good cheer before the leaner times begun.
With the snows came something else which also made Serra’s gut twist.
Late the previous night, a man on horseback arrived at the hold’s gates shouting to be let inside as he had a message for the Thane. She had only seen him briefly as he and his horse were led inside and he was allowed into Thane Teagan’s longhouse, but she knew just by looking at him that he was not Avvar. He was a lowlander, just like herself. It didn’t take long for the word to spread throughout the hold that he had a message from King Cailan, himself, calling for aid from the Avvar clans who called the Frostbacks home. Serra knew that it could only mean he was looking for aid in fighting the darkspawn in Ostagar. It was the only reason anyone would attempt to try and contact the remote clans that many considered barbarians. Frustratingly, she had not seen him since his abrupt arrival as he’d been squirreled away in the longhouse since. She burned to ask after Highever’s forces, after Fergus and the men who had followed him but she was being denied for now at least.
Instead, she found herself put to work mending clothes for the hold. She would have to earn her keep and thus far it was the only job they had found her suitable for, as weaving and harvesting were beyond her realm of expertise. This was despite her insistence that she was an excellent marksman but Duncan refused to put a bow in her hand no matter how instant she was that she knew what she was doing. She was often left in Wynne’s care in her house, watching over Daveth as he continued to slumber after they had worked to save his life. Her nights were spent with Alistair in his house, trying not to think about him sleeping naked just beside her and often waking with him clinging to her with his face buried in her hair. She wouldn’t admit it, but she liked the feeling of waking up safe and secure in someone’s arms more than she probably should considering the circumstances.
Her thoughts were brought back to reality by the sharp stab of pain in her thumb where she had pricked herself with the needle whilst sewing. She swore, under her breath, sticking it in her mouth to try and soothe the pain away some.
“That’s the fifth time you’ve done that today. Got something in that pretty head of yours, lowlander?” Daveth commented from his pallet. He’d woken for the first time without screaming the house down with pain so Wynne had let him lie and left her to watch over him. To her dismay he was talkative and rather flirtatious with her, only seeming to revel in bringing a blush to her cheeks or a sharp glare directed his way.
“Sod off.” She snapped back only earning a laugh which turned into a groan of pain as he pulled at the stitches she’d put in him. To her dismay, Daveth seemed to be the talkative, flirtatious, and teasing type unable to “let the lowlander be” as it was. Still, Serra was somewhat happy for his company nonetheless as at least it was someone to talk to as most of the Avvar seemed to regard her with some caution as if she would bring them some trouble.
Her eyes once again drifted out of the door of Wynne’s house and towards the longhouse. She wanted to know what was going on in there but it was made quite clear that Thane Teagan only wanted Wynne and some of the key members of the clan as party to whatever the messenger had to say. Her gut twisted at what could have might be being said and what news that messenger had from the front. Serra needed to know what was happening and whether the battles were going well or poorly, it may tell her what she wanted to know about her brother if the messenger knew of the forces her brother had led. She wondered if perhaps Alistair could be persuaded to divulge what was said since she was still staying at his house.
The day stretched on and on until the sun had set behind the distant peaks in the west painting the sky in vibrant oranges and reds. Daveth had fallen back asleep and her work for the day had long since been finished leaving Serra feeling even more restless. Only then did anyone emerge from the longhouse, Serra immediately sat to attention as Wynne and Alistair approached the house, talking amongst themselves and she knew now was her chance. Before Wynne and Alistair were through the door, she was on her feet and ready.
“So?” she questioned them, uncaring of how desperate she sounded “What is happening? What was said?”
There was a pregnant pause as the two looked at each other, clearly weighing the option of telling her to staying silent and how much to tell. She was an outsider as if that much hadn’t been abundantly clear and this was clearly a private clan matter but Serra wanted to know regardless. She had only agreed to stay with the Avvar on the idea that once it was safe to travel they would show her the way south to her brother and now an opportunity had wandered up the mountain to them. She wondered if she even factored into what was discussed at all. She wasn’t sure but she was going to find out should she have to interrogate Alistair and Wynne for the rest of the night. Stubbornness was a trait of hers that they would come to know quite well.
“It’s…uh…” Alistair searched for the words, rubbing the back of his neck nervously and Wynne simply pushed past her to see to Daveth.
“What?” She insisted “What did the messenger say? Are the Avvar heading south?”
They had to be, Serra thought, the darkspawn threat must be truly grave if King Cailan was willing to send his riders out to the dangerous mountain passes with an uncertain reception at the journeys end. The Avvar were known for being formidable warriors, brutal and barbaric as the tales went, but no one doubted their prowess and against the darkspawn they would likely prove invaluable assets. That is, of course, if they were heading south. The Avvar didn’t see King Cailan as their king, that much she had gathered. The Avvar had no king. Whether Cailan's request would be honoured or not was up in the air. Still, darkspawn couldn’t be ignored, Serra assured herself, Thane Teagan seemed the reasonable sort and no doubt he would recognise this. Mountains could only protect Griffins Hold for so long before the Blight would spread if not cut off before it could grow momentum.
“Look, Serra, I really can’t say.” Alistair explained, his discomfort written plainly all over his face as he explained, he clearly did not like her pressing him and knew she would be pestering him for details “Thane Teagan said he’s going to explain everything to the clan at the harvest feast tomorrow night. I swore him that I’d not say anything until then and Wynne too.”
Serra was not satisfied with that but she couldn’t do much about it and she didn’t want to make Alistair any more uncomfortable. He was loyal to his thane and so was Wynne so she knew questioning them further would get her nowhere. She would simply have to wait.
Avvar feasts were large and raucous affairs, Serra was quick to learn.
The whole clan was eager to pile together into the thane’s longhouse bringing with them all manner of food they had prepared in their homes during the day including sweet breads, vegetables stewed and grilled, strange tasting soups made from the wild plants which grew on the mountain, and much more. In the centre of the longhouse, a spit with a large boar roasted over a large fire which the hunters had brought in only that morning. The long benches were filled to bursting with Avvar toasting with ale in wooden mugs, laughing, singing, and talking whilst some beat drums and played bone flutes for music. Even Daveth had been permitted by Wynne to join in the festivities provided he didn’t get too drunk or rowdy. Finally, a great table had been placed at the far end of the hall where Thane Teagan sat alongside the messenger and a woman Serra didn’t know.
Serra could feel the waves of nostalgia for the feasts her father would hold in Highever. Granted, they were a lot grander and not nearly as rowdy as the Avvar but it was a similar feeling all the same. Although she highly doubted that she would find any roasted swan or sweet Orlesian wines here.
Of course, a party of any kind meant that she would have to dress up in some way. Wynne had been only glad to help her and finally she had some clothing of her own made by some of the other women in the hold. Her dress was hemmed in colourful threads in comparison to the normal day wear and Wynne had given her a shawl with a griffin sewn onto the back to emulate the hold’s namesake. Finally, she had woven some of the autumn flowers into her hair as she braided it before they had walked arm-in-arm to the longhouse to join the fun. She wondered if she looked just like any other Avvar woman or did she still somewhat stick out amongst them, an outsider despite being made to feel like a welcome guest of the hold.
“Serra!” Alistair’s voice called to her as she entered. He sat near the high table on one of the benches with the rest of his clan members and Daveth sat beside him waving to attract her attention. It was then that Wynne left her then to go and take the final empty seat at the high table.
It seemed the men had already heaped their wooden plates high with meat, bread, and steaming vegetables as if this would be the last meal they would be having for months. Serra wasn’t proud enough to admit that the food looked delicious and her stomach was quick to rumble at the sight of it. Immediately, Alistair began grabbing bowls filled with mashed potato with spring onions mixed through it and spooned a good amount onto her plate with a warm smile. Daveth was quick to grab more wooden tankards with a strong-smelling liquid inside.
“Here, lowlander, drink some of that and put some hair on your chest!” Daveth said, shoving the tankard in her direction.
“You shouldn’t be drinking so much of that.” Alistair warned and now Serra noticed the pinkness in Daveth’s cheeks, apparently, Wynne’s warning against alcohol was being ignored. She gave the liquid a sniff before taking a cautious sip. The taste of the drink was utterly foul and it took a great deal of effort to swallow it down instead of spitting it back out again but unfortunately that was only followed up by a burning sensation in her mouth and throat.
“What in the Maker’s name was that?” she asked, staring at the rest of the contents and trying to deduce if this had been a possible poisoning attempt. Daveth, however, had watched her whole reaction laughed until he began to pull at his stitches again. Alistair, however, only rolled his eyes at Daveth and quietly took a swig from his own tankard.
Serra couldn’t help but watch the high table where Teagan was talking quite jovially with King Cailan’s messenger who looked just as out of his depth as she felt. She had spent the day wondering what Teagan would want to announce to the whole clan at a feast like this. Watching their faces didn’t give her much to go on as everyone seemed to be simply enjoying themselves for the moment with no hint of the nature of the news to come.
“Hey,” Alistair’s voice was soft as he lay a hand on her shoulder, her anxiety must have been plainly visible “It’ll be okay, Thane Teagan will do what he thinks is best for the hold. He’ll do the right thing.”
Serra wished she had the same confidence as Alistair had in Teagan but she didn’t know him as well as he did, she was an outsider and she had only spoken to the Thane briefly. She didn’t know what to expect or even hope for but Alistair’s words did ring true in her mind. What else could a leader do but ensure what was best for their people? That was what her father had always drilled into her and Fergus’s minds and what she had often seen him do himself. Still, her heart was with her brother and the men he had with him.
Finally, Thane Teagan stood and an immediate hush fell over the hall. Evidently, she was not the only one who was eager to hear what the Thane was going to announce to them all.
“Friends, as I’m sure many of you are aware we have been the hosts to lowlanders in the past few days.” With this he gestured to the messenger at his table but even so Serra could feel eyes upon her These lowlanders have come as friends of the hold but they have also come with dire news from the southern lands. At this moment in time they are facing a foe that we Avvar have not seen ourselves but have heard the stories of from our allies in other holds: darkspawn. I have been told that these creatures are fierce and foul beyond measure and that in their fight the lowlanders have come to us for aid.”
One lone voice spoke up from the crowd “Why would these lowlanders want our help? What aid have they given to us? They only remember we exist to chase us from our holds with swords and call us barbarians!”
To Serra’s dismay, there was murmurs of agreement.
“Aye, it is true. Many in the southern lands have no love for our people. There have been times when we have had to defend ourselves against them for crimes we were innocent of. They likely do not come to us willingly or because they consider us as worthy battle-brothers and sisters.” Teagan continued and again his words were greeted with murmurs of agreement. She didn’t want to admit it but the Thane was probably right on that front, no doubt the Avvar were a last resort effort on Cailan’s behalf to get more able-bodied people on the battlefield.
“Let the lowlanders face these darkspawn then! Let’s see how well their fancy knights fare! Maybe they’ll find more honourable battle against actual monsters than against our women and littl’uns!” Another voice added.
“We do not fight against women and children!” Serra found herself speaking up “We defend ourselves because you raid our roads, attack our farms, kidnap innocent women amongst other crimes!”
A roar of voices answered her objection and even Daveth did not look amused for once. Still, she wouldn’t let the Avvar accuse them of butchering innocents when the Avvar did much the same to them and more. True, she knew that some of the wilder tales she had been told as a child had turned out to be untrue now that she had seen the Avvar with her own eyes but surely there must have been some truth to what they had said? The Avvar couldn’t have been totally innocent when Banns had come to her father telling him of raids and destroyed merchant caravans along the mountain roads.
“So we are to blame for the actions of a few idiots, wanting glory and gold? Should all Avvar be treated as the guilty ones then?”
“Enough!” Teagan bellowed and instantly the shouting and dissent died again to quiet “Squabbling will not help things. We need to show these lowlanders that we are not the monsters they think that we are. We need to show them that the Avvar are a strong and honourable people and that we are better than what they think of us! Therefore I have come to a decision. Griffin’s Hold will aid the lowlanders in the south! May the Gods bless us as we march and bring us victory and honour!”
There was a long silence after that as everyone absorbed the announcement. Serra, herself, didn’t know whether she should be happy or not considering she now knew how low the opinion of lowlanders was amongst the Avvar. Still, after a moment, a few started cheering and banging their mugs against the table tops and that broke the spell and suddenly the merriment was in full swing as if nothing had happened at all. However, Serra didn’t miss the tense words that the woman at the high table was now exchanging with Teagan before she abruptly got up and stormed away.
“Who was that?” she asked Alistair quietly, motioning at the woman’s retreating figure. His face twisted for the briefest of moments before he answered her:
“That’s Lady Isolde. She was…. the wife to the Thane, the one before Teagan.” He said quietly, pausing as if to choose his words carefully.
“And a right bitch too!” Daveth added, his voice slurring from the drink.
She almost felt tempted to ask more, feeling like there was more to the story than Alistair had revealed but she thought better of it. Whatever it was, clearly, he did not want to talk about it and instead he quickly dug into his food as if to avoid having to talk at all.
The morning dawned misty and cold, it seemed ominous as the Avvar prepared their warriors to head south to help face the darkspawn alongside King Cailan’s forces. Wynne had locked herself away for the past day and night to “commune with the gods” as Alistair had explained it to her, to ask for their protection and blessings for the upcoming fight. Serra felt like arguing that it would be better to pray to the Maker than asking whatever spirits or demons the Avvar considered “gods” for help but she knew that opinion was unpopular to say the least. The Avvar were abundantly clear that they didn’t need the Maker and his southern bride when their gods had protected them for generations. Still, she prayed for them anyways and for Fergus too.
Alistair was one of the warriors who would be riding south that day, alongside most of the men and even some of the women. Serra had to admit, the Avvar looked like an intimidating sight. Most had only leathers and furs to serve them for armour but some had metal breastplates and helms like Teagan did in the shape of animals. Others still had painted what bare skin they had with war paint in various shades of red, blue, black, and white. They also carried an array of spears, shields, swords, and bows to make them a decent fighting force and she’d seen a few of them practising with obvious eagerness to test their weapons in an actual fight. Serra only hoped that they and whatever other Avvar decided to come would be enough.
She had come to see Alistair off, feeling like he was the closest thing to a friend she had in the hold. After all, what would she exactly call a man who had taken her off the mountainside, given her shelter beneath his room, and slept naked beside her every night? She wasn’t sure but she did know that she wanted to see him return with Teagan.
She found him donning his armour near the great fire pit in the centre of the hold. He seemed to be one of the few warriors with a metal breastplate which gave her some degree of comfort. His had images of what she thought could be mabari in an Avvar style engraved on it and a matching helm which sat by his foot.
“Come to wish me luck?” he asked when he saw her approaching “Wynne said that she saw no signs of ill omens for me which I suppose is good…although she wouldn’t say how the gods reacted to the news of battle.”
Serra tried not to let that piece of news unsettle her.
“Yes.” She replied, offering him a smile to try and hide what nerves she had “And I wanted to ask you something.”
That seemed to pique his interest as he hadn’t looked up from tying the straps on his armour to look at her until that moment. From behind her back she drew her family sword, sheathed in its scabbard and retrieved from the Thane only the night before.
“Isn’t that your sword? I have my own blade if that’s what you’re worried about.” Alistair said, gesturing to when his hide shield and sword sat on the ground.
“No. I want you to take this with you.” She explained, pressing it into his hands. Serra wondered if it was right to give away her family sword to Alistair but she needed him to take it “I want you to find my brother at Ostagar and give it to him. He’ll be in the tent with the same symbol on it as that one on the scabbard. Please….tell him that I’m safe. Tell him I’m alive.”
Alistair seemed to understand then. He peered closely at the scabbard where the Highever crest had been worked into the worn brown leather, two laurels crossing over each other, as if to memorise it. She hoped Alistair’s word would help Fergus, no doubt he thought her dead alongside their parents and everyone else left at Highever. The sword would be proof enough that she was alive and that Alistair was telling the truth. She doubted her brother would have accepted Alistair’s word alone. Their family’s blade was an old sword and unique with its almost beautiful blade with its rippling waves seemingly made into the metal itself. There would be no doubting once Fergus saw it that it was their family sword.
“I promise I’ll find him.” Alistair swore solemnly.
As Serra watched him ride out of the gates, accompanied by all the other Avvar warriors, she prayed again to the Maker to watch over him.
Thank you all so much for your support and kind comments. I didn't think this little fic would get any attention and I'm so grateful to you all for reading, commenting, bookmarking, and leaving your kudos. I hope I can continue to live up to all your expectations and you continue to enjoy this work.
Days without half of the Avvar tribe in residence were nothing if not hard work. Half the people meant double the work load for those who had been left behind in the hold and with winter now on their doorsteps, long days with dwindling sunlight to ensure everything was done. Serra found that only doing sewing work was fine when there had been more than enough able hands to help in the work but now she needed to step up and help more. Of course, her noble upbringing was now her downfall as she had no clue how to harvest crops, or thatch straw roofs, or skin animals for hide to be made into leather. She might as well have been a lead weight to be dragged around by the rest of the tribe for as much use as she was. It was frustrating and made her feel useless, something Serra hated more than anything else save Arl Howe.
In Thane Teagan's absence, Lady Isolde stepped up to lead the tribe to Serra's surprise. She had assumed Wynne would have been the one that the Avvar would look to for leadership when their thane was absent, but she had apparently been mistaken. Serra could feel that the other woman was less than pleased to have her around and she had no idea why that was the case. Serra had never spoken to her, never seen her before the feast that had sent the warriors off to Ostagar and yet Isolde seemed to dislike her all the same. Serra tried not to let it bother her, she'd known nobles who acted like that before, but she couldn't help but feel more self-conscious.
She was thankful, however, that at least now she was able to do something she knew she was good at: hunting.
As nearly all of the hunters were also warriors for the tribe, they too had left with Thane Teagan for Ostagar. Of all of them, only Duncan remained as the Master of the Hunt, mostly to ensure that those who were left could be organized so the hold would still have food to sustain them until their warriors' return. As the snows crept ever higher up the mountain, his job seemingly was a harder one with each passing day as animals fled for warmer pastures. Serra had been persistent; Duncan hadn't wanted to let her leave the hold for any length of time, even if it meant she might return with fresh meat which could help feed the hungry bellies of the women, children, and what few men remained.
"You're a guest of the hold." He told her, arms folded and stern-faced, clearly unwilling to bend an inch no matter how much she tried “Guests do not need to hunt."
Serra suspected that it was a different reason that Duncan kept her in the hold. Likely, Thane Teagan had specified that she was not to be allowed out to wander around in the mountains lest something happen to her. A part of her was glad that he was committed to keeping her safe, hopefully not because he was planning to hand her over. No doubt if she came back from her time with the Avvar, injured or worse if she had died, then the tribe would face serious repercussions...or be rewarded if Howe found out. Although, she doubted that anything would happen to her if she was allowed to go, after all she'd been hunting with her father since she was eleven years old and knew what she was doing.
And besides, Serra felt herself going stir-crazy being cooped up inside the high wooden walls every day.
It was easier than she had expected to steal a bow from where the few weapons remaining were hidden away, granted it took her a few days of watching and snooping to even find that out. Still, once she had a bow then she could make use of it and a part of her had missed the familiar feeling of its weight in her hand. The only thing she saw that was unusual about it was that it seemed to be made from the horn of some animal rather than from wood like she was used to seeing and has strange designs carved into its limbs. A bow was a bow, she thought.
She snuck out at night to practice with it, uncomfortable at how rusty she felt. Her first few nights at secret practice, her arrows missed the target just as often as she hit it. However, muscle memory kicked in soon enough and she was able to hit her targets with ever increasing accuracy. It felt good. It made Serra feel powerful again after feeling like a damsel who needed saving and protecting by the Avvar.
This time she lined up to take the shot she imagined it was Howe she was firing at. She imagined that she had cornered him and was going to avenge her parents, Oren, Oriana, everyone at Highever. She could almost see the look of surprise on his face that he would see her and meet his fate at her hand. She wondered what words she might say to him when she finally had him cornered, the man who'd stolen everything she loved from her. All Serra knew was that when the time came she wouldn't hesitate to strike Howe down. However, when her arrow hit the target with a dull thwump, her illusion was shattered and she was back in the hold with her bow and the moonlight illuminating the small training area.
The sound of hands clapping made her nearly jump out of her skin.
Duncan was behind her, just barely obscured by the shadows of the night as he lent against the fence that enclosed the training area, clapping. Serra knew she was in trouble now, she wasn't supposed to be out this late and especially with any kind of weapon. That fact had been made abundantly clear to her on multiple occasions by Duncan, himself. Yet, he seemed somewhat impressed and not angry at her.
“You have a fine aim.” He said, moving forward into the moonlight and beside her into the training area.
“My father trained me to use a bow when I was eight years old. He said that a girl should know how to fight if she has to and the bow is a noble weapon.” She told him, her head lowered at the memory of her father’s smiling face, his gentle words of encouragement when she missed her mark and his proud words when she finally began to show her skill. Her heart ached with the loss of him.
“Aye,” he agreed “He’s right in that.”
Duncan seemed to look at her as if in a new light, motioning to take up her aim again at the target. She gave him a confused glance but did as he wanted and drew the string of the bow back, her arrow already knocked before she had realized his presence. His eyes on her made her nervous, wondering if she would miss now that she was aware of his scrutiny. He hummed as he examined her stance, how she had drawn, how she held her breath to keep her arrow steady before she released it to hit its mark beside her previous one.
“Too slow.” He told her
“What?” his words were confusing to her. She had been taught all her life how to shoot and only now apparently was she doing something wrong. Perhaps, she thought, she was rustier than she initially believed. Still, Duncan had found fault and she felt like a child again, ashamed to fail.
The older man retrieved another bow that was nearby from the earlier practice and took an arrow from her quiver. Faster than she could blink, he had knocked, drew and with another dull thump his arrow pierced the target between her own attempts. She blinked at him, astonished that he could do that without seemingly stopping to aim and draw breath. As if feeling her awestruck silence, he turned his head to her and explained:
“In the heat of the hunt, a deer won’t wait for you to draw. You need to be fast to bring it down before it escapes you. You were trained for power behind your shots, full draw and steady, but in the wilds, speed is the more important thing. Better to shoot a dozen arrows and catch your prey than one and lose it.”
She nodded at his words; he had years or perhaps decades of experience under his belt to back up his advice. Still, Serra wondered why he was telling her this if she was not needed or wanted in the hunts? Perhaps he had changed his mind? It was possible or maybe he just saw her as another young warrior in need of a guiding hand to perfect what she already knew. Either way, she was grateful that he wasn’t snatching the bow from her hands and giving her sharp words about respect and following orders.
In the mornings, Serra now woke to Duncan’s brutal regime used to turn the Avvar boys to be capable warriors. It was as if he saw her determination to do as she had been told not to and then decided that if that was the case she’d be put through the same gruelling treatment as the rest of the tribe received. They were drilled with sword, shield, spear and bow but not before they had been run around the hold several times and their muscles stretched out and prepared to accept training.
Serra felt almost stupid standing amongst the gaggle of teenage boys as Duncan taught them all how to thrust and parry with wooden practice swords in place of the steel that had been taken by the warriors for battle. Whilst she knew how to handle a bow and well, swordplay was beyond her. Her parents had never let her learn alongside Fergus and Rory when they were being taught as squires in her father’s household. Swords were not for young ladies, no matter how wilful and wild they were. The Avvar boys had at least a year or two of training ahead of her and thus all that really resulted where bruises where she had taken a hit from a wooden sword when her guard was wrong or she wasn’t fast enough to avoid the blow.
Then in the afternoons, before she had been able to rest her aching muscles and bruised body, Duncan had her out with the hunters. She stuck with him mostly as he taught her now how to hunt stealthily through the snowy forests which covered the mountain’s base. Whilst her father had taken her hunting before, she had been on horseback and with servants and other nobles. She had never been out on foot and hunting for her own dinners where failure meant not only hunger for herself but hunger for the people back at the hold who were counting on them to bring back at least enough meat for that night.
Then she would fall, sore and bone-tired, into the soft furs of the bed in Alistair’s empty house and would fall asleep nearly instantly. Almost as soon as she had closed her eyes and let herself fall into sweet oblivion than she heard the roosters crowing the dawn and she had to rise to do everything all over again.
As the days turned to weeks, Serra began to notice the softer parts of her body begin to melt away and turn into solid muscle. Her swings of the sword became faster, she was able to raise her shield higher and faster, and her spear thrusts began to have more power behind them. When Duncan took her out to hunt, she was able to follow the trails left behind in the snow by deer and rabbits, stay downwind, and when the moment was right she could strike and take her prey down. Slowly, she was improving and Duncan seemed to watch her with quiet approval she remembered seeing in her father’s eyes when she was a child.
Then, one day as they were returning from the hunt with the sky bathing everything in a warm orange light, a middling sized doe slung across Duncan’s shoulders, they found the great wooden doors to the hold flung open and a great crowd assembled.
“The warriors!” Serra cried out.
Serra felt her heart soar at this news. If they had returned then that meant that the battle had gone well, hadn’t it? If they returned, then the darkspawn had been beaten back into whatever dark crevasse they had crawled out of in the beginning. They returned which meant that they didn’t fall to the Blight and the taint that followed the cursed darkspawn wherever they went. She wanted to run to them immediately, to find Alistair amongst them and find out what had happened at Ostagar. Had he seen her brother? What news did he have of the Highever forces that had escaped Howe’s treachery?
Except, Duncan was not smiling to see them, instead his face was furrowed as if deep in thought and with his mouth turned down into a deep frown.
Now she looked at the assembled men again and saw what Duncan undoubtedly saw. These were not men who seemed triumphant at their safe return to their homes and families. No, they seemed weary, hunched over with exhaustion and relief that they had made it back to safety. These were not men who had seen victory. These were men who seemed happy to have survived at all.
She tore forwards without even thinking, leaving Duncan and the deer they had killed together, desperate to see and know what had happened to bring them all back in such a state, kicking up flurries of snow in her wake. The mumbling of the people assembled grew louder, some were talking in frantic whispers and others were mourning for those who hadn’t come home, her mind seemed to only have one goal: she had to find Alistair. Surely, he had to have come back. He had to be with the warriors he had left with. He had to be!
Then she saw him, his blond hair bright in the glow of the sunset as he stood outside the Thane’s longhouse, worrying his lip between his teeth and looking unsure. But he was alive, that’s what Serra cared about, he was alive, and he could tell her what had happened in the south. What had caused the men to return looking as if they had to flee for their lives back to the mountains. He had to know! He was the Thane’s own nephew! If anyone would know what had happened in the fullest, it would be Alistair.
He looked up to see her flying at him and then looked away as if in shame to see her.
“Alistair!” she gasped in greeting, skidding to a halt just in front of him.
He doesn’t greet her in response, instead staring at his boots instead of looking her in the face. She turns her head left and right and although they are stood in front of the great longhouse in the very centre of the hold, she doesn’t see Thane Teagan amongst his men. She doesn’t see Lady Isolde either although she was sure that the woman would have been the first out to greet the returning forces and welcome their leader back with open arms. This fact makes her belly twist with even more unease than when she had first noticed the shabby state of the returned men.
“Where’s Teagan? What happened?” she questioned him as he remained silent and his frown just deepens in response.
She grabs his thick bicep and shakes him hard, as if to remind him that she is here and that she is asking him a question. This starts him out of his thoughts and he blinks down at her as if only just realising that she is standing in front of him with a look of worry and fear on her face. What had happened that would silence him like this? Sometimes Alistair would chatter for all the day like an excited child unless someone told him to be quiet, to seem him like this made her unease swell even more.
“It was a slaughter.” He mumbles “The darkspawn…I’d only ever heard stories but seeing them…Serra, I was terrified.”
She believes him. She too had never seen a darkspawn in the flesh before, but every story Nan had told her and Fergus to frighten them into good behaviour made them seem like the curse from the Maker that they must be. If even a grown man, a trained Avvar warrior, could admit to being terrified in the face of such a creature than Serra didn’t doubt that she probably would have fled too.
“Thane—Teagan he…he led us all into battle with your lowlander king. He was the first in the fray. They’d been beaten back even before we’d arrived there. There was going to be one final push to get the darkspawn back south where they’d come from but...” he trailed off, shuddering with the memories “A leader in your king’s army, he fled the battle and didn’t even bring his men in, I can’t remember his name. We were all overwhelmed. Teagan took a blow and I had to drag him from the corpses myself and he’s gotten sicker since. We all barely made it out. The lowlander king was killed on the field and the darkspawn have been chasing us north since we retreated.”
Serra found herself shaking at the horrific story. King Cailan was dead? Her mind was reeling at the thought. She had only met the king once before in her life, when she was around fourteen and he was newly crowned and married to Queen Anora and he had come to Highever to celebrate with her father and his Banns. He’d been fair, muscular and everything she had imagined that a prince and then a king would look like and she’d been in awe. To think of him dead on a corpse-strewn battlefield, betrayed and abandoned made bile rise in her throat. If he was dead, what would happen to Ferelden now?
Alistair pressed something into her hands and her fingers closed reflexively around it without even looking, too consumed in her own thoughts. When she looked down she saw the familiar worn leather scabbard with the crest of Highever stitched in. She looked at it for a moment in confusion, wondering why Alistair had given it back to her, then her stomach lurched again when she realised he had said nothing of Fergus.
“My brother!” Serra demanded, uncaring how frantic she sounded “Did you see him? Did you tell him I was safe? Why didn’t you give him our sword?”
Alistair hung his head again and in a small sorrowful voice he told her: “I found the tent with that symbol on it. When I arrived, they tried to chase me out but when I said your name they stopped. They told me…they told me your brother fell in battle before Teagan had gotten us all there. They’d not even been able to find his body.”
Serra felt her knees tremble and give out beneath her, sinking her down into the snow clutching their family sword like it was the only thing keeping her in this world. Alistair’s words were soft and quiet, but they rung in her ears like he had screamed them at her. Fergus, her Fergus, was dead. He’d probably fell as he led their father’s men into the thick of the battle, there was no chance he would have been anywhere else.
He had hugged her close that last night in Highever, his grip firm and warm like it always had been and told her that they would see each other again sooner than she would think. He’d kissed Oriana, patted Oren on his dark, little head as he talked about griffins and Grey Wardens. He had been so full of confidence that the day would be won, and they would all come home safely. He’d been so full of life.
The howl that came out of her throat was inhuman as it echoed around the hold and into the mountains.
She sits in the dark of Alistair’s house, furs pulled over her head and her face turned to the wall. Serra can’t bring herself to care much for anything and so she confined herself in the dark, alone with nothing to comfort her but her memories. It seems like a cruel joke. The one member of her family besides herself to escape the massacre only to die to the darkspawn. Her one ray of hope and it was gone along with everything else she had ever loved and cherished. She’s alone now, truly and utterly alone in the world. The last of the Couslands. Could the Maker really be so cruel? She had never been a particularly devout Andrastian, but did that really mean she deserved to suffer this? No one deserved this amount of pain.
She wonders if she is just dreaming and soon she’ll wake from this terrible nightmare, safe and home in Highever. Nan would wake her, probably to complain of something that Beric had done. Her parents, Fergus, Oriana and Oren would be waiting in the hall with breakfast and laughter. Maybe she would go riding along the coast or train at the archery butts in the stable yard. That was child’s dream, Serra knows that, there is no waking from this. Highever was gone. Her family were gone. Even her mabari was gone.
Alistair kept his distance and Serra was thankful for that. She had missed him when he had been absent but the news he had brought with him had killed any joy she might have felt at his safe return. He slept on the floor now next to the fire with a few spare furs and left the bed to her. She would have thanked him if she had the words, but she found she could only manage a nod or shake of her head whenever something was asked of her. She thinks that eventually he’ll get tired of a hard floor and the long silences and turn her out. It is his house and she was not the best of guests.
She doesn’t see him much during the day, she thinks he’s at the longhouse with his Thane and kin. The rumour is that he is deadly sick from a wound taken in battle. Some say that he’s corrupted by the darkspawn taint and it is slowly killing him.
Outside the door to the house, she can hear voices and she knows it’s Alistair and Wynne and perhaps Daveth too as he seemed fond of her. They had been fluttering around her ever since she decided on self-imposed isolation, attempting to coax her out, give her food, talk to her in soothing voices as she lay with her face to the wall. They were worried, she knew that, and in a better state of mind Serra would feel guilty for making them worry but right now she felt ambivalent to them as if they were no more than flies buzzing around her head.
“Is she eating yet?”
There is a sigh and she hears Wynne say “We’ll try again tonight. You go to the longhouse, Alistair, Teagan will want to see you I expect.”
“But--” began the argument but Wynne was faster.
“He is your uncle, his wound is beyond my skills now and is in the hands of the gods. You should cherish the time remaining before it is too late. If Isolde says anything, come to me and I will deal with her. Go.”
Serra closes her eyes as she hears the heavy tramp of footsteps, probably Alistair, moving away from the door before the gentle creak of it opening. Perhaps if she feigned sleep, Wynne would leave her be to her grief but so far the old woman was determined to try and get her to eat, to get up, to wash, to do anything other than let her grief consume her as she wanted. If she had the energy to feel anything, she would have snapped at her long ago but instead she just let Wynne be. It was her job to look after everyone in the Hold, even her, it wasn’t her fault that she was tending to someone who would rather just die.
Serra wakes in the night when she feels Alistair shift against her. Even in her grief, he has still spent every night beside her, holding her against his broad chest. It is some comfort, having the warmth of him beside her, but it isn’t enough to chase away the darkness that has lingered over her since his return. However, now he is alert and wary and she can’t help the small twinge of fear that runs up her spine. Perhaps she is not as numb as she had thought.
“There is something at the door. I heard scratching.” Alistair murmurs to her, reaching for his discarded trousers.
Sure enough, Serra looks and can see a shadow in the small gap under the door. Then she hears it, scratching, like claws against wood. Some sort of animal, perhaps? If it were a man then they would have simply opened the door instead of scratching and pacing in front of it like whatever was casting its shadow under the door. Duncan had told her that occasionally wolves and even bears would wander into the hold at night if the gate was left even slightly open. The thought of a bear outside their door was not a comforting one in the slightest.
Alistair is quick to grab his sword from where it rested near the smouldering embers of the fire. She watches with some trepidation as he approaches the door, sword raised to attack whatever might be on the other side should it prove to indeed be some wild animal which has wandered into their midst. It seemed like Serra was watching everything in slow motion as he reached for the door, raised the latch, and opened it. Before Alistair could even react, a large dark shape had barrelled past him through the door. He gave a shout as he was knocked off his feet to hit the earthen floor with a mighty thud, the sword clattering from his hand. It was an animal, that much Serra was sure, large and running at full speed right towards her.
Some self-preservation in her, caused her to raise her arms to protect her head as she buried her face into the furs of the bed, waiting for the inevitable blow or teeth rending into her flesh. She felt the weight of the bed shift as the creature jumped and landed, its four paws squarely on Alistair’s recently vacated spot. She hears Alistair shout and scramble to get back on his feet and grab his sword.
She waited and waited for the attack.
Her hair shifted with the animal’s breaths, it was sniffing at her hair and she felt the cold of a wet nose on her bare arm. Then, she felt the warmth of a tongue licking at her hands where it shielded her head. No teeth, no claws, not even a growl. Tentatively, she turned her head and peeked at whatever had stormed into the house and couldn’t help the sharp inhale of breath. Standing over her, tongue lolling out of his mouth in the closest thing to a grin he could make, was Beric. Her Beric. Her old mabari. His fur was wet from the snow, his ribs and hips were clearly visible against his side and one ear seemed to have been chewed off or severed in some manner but it was clearly her beloved hound. She would know him anywhere.
He barked happily, his stumpy tail wagging so hard it caused his entire rump to sway from side to side ecstatically. Serra threw her arms around the hounds neck and buried her head into the brown fur. As if a dam had been breached, the tears she had been holding back started to flow and she could feel the sob building at the back of her throat.
I’m not alone. I’m not alone.