1 – Elissa
Deep breath in…
Elissa aimed her bow at the wooden target in Cousland Castle’s Armoury. Nocking an arrow against the bow, she pulled the string back, the muscles in her arms tightening.
Now, breathe out and release…
She let the arrow fly from her bow towards the target. It thudded into the wood a few inches off the bullseye. Her lips pursed in frustration. Perhaps it’s this stupid dress. She wore an uncomfortable, lilac, high-born dress given to her by her mother—well, more like forced onto her. Elissa could not go around in her casual dresses that were loose and allowed easy manoeuvrability. No, the Couslands had important guests coming, and she needed to look the part of Bryce Cousland’s daughter when the Howes arrived, which included wearing a dress that felt as though she were trapped in a constant bear hug.
She bent over to pick up another arrow from a quiver propped up against an armour stand behind her, her hair falling into her eyes. Long and wavy, it fell over her shoulders and down her back. She ran a hand through her hair to keep it back from her face, and kicked the hem of her dress out of the way in annoyance as she almost tripped over it for the fourth time that day. She let slip a grunt and scooped up another arrow, taking aim again. The arrow flew across the room, again only inches away from the bullseye. Elissa threw her head back in frustration.
“Perhaps you should leave the archery to someone else,” said a deep, gruff voice from behind her.
Elissa whirled round to see a young man in the doorway, leaning against the frame. He had flat, shoulder-length brown hair that parted either side of his face like curtains. Stubble lined his sharp, pale jaw, and his eyes shone silver like the blades in the armoury. “Nate,” she said with a little gasp of surprise. “When did you get here?”
“A few minutes ago,” he said, stepping into the room. He wore a formal outfit: a nobleman’s shirt, trousers, and boots. By the looks of it, he did not seem that eager to be dressed in formal attire either, as he kept scratching at his arms and fixing his shirt uncomfortably. “Why they make us wear these clothes… I swear, it is just to see us suffer.”
Elissa smiled. She put down the bow and embraced him. He smelled like wood and steel as his arms wrapped around her, giving her a gentle squeeze. “Why aren’t you with your father?” she asked as she pulled away.
“I could ask you the same thing,” he said with a small smirk. “They are in the grand hall together at this moment…but I am sure they can wait a little longer for our presence.”
Elissa scooped up the bow again and took aim once more, determined to get a bullseye. She breathed in deeply, pointed the arrow at the target, and released. It landed only millimetres away from the bullseye this time. “Damn! I almost had it.”
Nathaniel shook his head at her. “You didn’t,” he said bluntly. “Here.” He moved to stand behind her, hands on her hips. “You are standing all wrong, and you’re aiming too far to the left.” He moved her into the correct position. Feet apart, body straight, parallel to the target. She took aim, and Nathaniel adjusted her grip so she aimed a little more to the right. “Now try.”
She released the arrow, and, to Nathaniel’s satisfaction, it landed dead on the bullseye. “See,” he said, smug.
She bit her lip to hide her smile. He hasn’t changed a bit, she thought. He had always been talented at archery, but he had also always been smug about it.
“You were always better with daggers,” he said, taking the bow from her. “You should leave the archery up to me.” In seconds he nocked an arrow to the bow, aimed, and fired. It hit the very centre of the bullseye.
“Perhaps you’re right,” she said, wandering over to a stand full of daggers. She picked one out from her favourites, engraved with the Cousland’s family sigil. She threw it past Nathaniel’s shoulder, causing him to lurch back in shock, and into the centre of the target’s bullseye, splitting his arrow in two. “Daggers are definitely more my thing.”
Nathaniel laughed, a rare smile appearing on his usually solemn face. Elissa felt honoured to see it. He was not a very sociable person, or very talkative when he could help it, but Elissa and Nathaniel had known each other since they were children. Their visits to one another’s homes became rarer every year, but around him, Elissa felt she could finally relax without the pressure of being Lady Cousland on her shoulders. With him, she could be the warrior she had always wanted to be. A dual-wielding rogue with two daggers at her fingertips.
She sighed, realising that if Nathaniel was here already, it meant she was due to appear in the grand hall. “We should probably see our fathers,” she said, quickly tidying away the practise arrows and hanging the dagger back on the rack. “It’s not a good idea to keep them waiting.”
Nathaniel nodded, his smile dropping at the thought of going back to his father. “I hope we will have time to catch up some more later, before I go.”
“Go?” she asked, her brows furrowing. “Aren’t you staying with your father?”
“You know I’m a squire for Ser Rodolphe now,” he said. “I only managed to get a few days away to come here on family business before I must return to him in the Free Marches. I’ll be leaving with your brother later tonight.”
“Oh,” was all she could say in reply. Her heart sunk a little at the thought of only seeing him for a day. “Well, I suppose we’ll have to make the most of our time together then.” He offered her his arm and she took it, allowing him to lead her through Cousland Castle towards the grand hall.
As they neared, they heared voices inside. “I trust, then, that your troops will be here shortly?”
“I expect they will start arriving tonight, and we can march tomorrow. I apologise for the delay, my lord. This is entirely my fault.”
“No, No. The appearance of the darkspawn in the south has us all scrambling, doesn’t it? I only received the call from the king a few days ago, myself. I’ll send my eldest off with my men. You and I will ride tomorrow, just like the old days.”
“True. Though we both had less grey in our hair then. And we fought Orlesians, not…monsters.”
“Ha! At least the smell will be the same.”
Elissa politely knocked on the door before leading the way inside, where her father, Teryn Bryce Cousland, was speaking with Nathaniel’s father, Arl Rendon Howe, by the grand fireplace at the other end of the long room lined with Cousland banners.
“I’m sorry, pup, I didn’t see you there,” said Bryce, before his eyes looked to who had escorted her inside. “Nathaniel, good to see you again, my boy! You look older every time I see you. How are you finding the life of a squire?”
Nathaniel walked ahead of Elissa to shake Bryce’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to see you too, my lord. Squiring is hard work, but I enjoy it all the same.”
Bryce gripped him on the shoulder. “Good! I am glad to hear that.” He turned to his friend. “Howe, you remember my daughter, Elissa?”
Rendon Howe looked her up and down with the same silver eyes as his son, who took up position beside him, hands clenched behind his back. “I see she’s become a lovely young woman,” said Rendon. “Pleased to see you again, my dear.”
Elissa plastered a false smile on her face. There was something about Arl Howe that made her feel uneasy. He had treated Nathaniel pretty poorly when he had told his father as a boy that he wanted to be a warrior, not head of the family. Elissa had always held a grudge against him for that, though it made her thankful that her own father was not as angry when she had told him the same thing. In fact, Bryce had encouraged her rather than put her down. He had even gifted her a set of armour and daggers to practise with. “And you, Arl Howe,” she replied.
“My son Thomas asked after you. Perhaps I should bring him with me next time.”
Nathaniel flinched beside him, his eyes darting away from the conversation, suddenly becoming very interested in a family shield hung on the wall.
Elissa remembered Thomas quite well. Nathaniel’s younger brother, no doubt soon to be named heir to Rendon Howe over Nathaniel. He was very well versed in strategies and politics, the perfect heir one could say, but he was also a complete bore. The last time they had spoken, Elissa had internally prayed with all her might for The Maker to strike her where she stood so she did not have to listen to yet another lecture about Ferelden politics.
“To what end?” Elissa asked.
Rendon burst out laughing. “‘To what end’ she says! So glib, too. She’s just like her mother when she talks like that.”
Bryce shook his head at her, though there was a proud smile on his old face. “See what I contend with, Howe? There is no telling my fierce girl anything these days. Maker, bless her heart.”
“Quite talented, I’m sure,” Rendon agreed, his eyes narrowing. “One to watch.”
Bryce turned to his daughter. “At any rate, pup, I summoned you for a reason. While your brother and I are both away, I’m leaving you in charge of the castle.”
Elissa’s jaw almost fell open. “M-Me?” She nodded gratefully. “I’ll do my best, Father.”
“Now, that’s what I like to hear,” he said, giving her a little pat on the arm. “Only a token force is remaining here, and you must keep peace in the region. You know what they say about the mice when the cat is away, yes?” He stepped back and gestured to the door behind him. “There is also someone you must meet. Please…show Duncan in,” he ordered a guard.
A tall man from Rivain with long, black hair pulled back into a ponytail strolled into the room, two daggers strapped onto his back. He wore blue and silver armour, with a griffon emblazed on his metal chest plate. “It is an honour to be a guest within your hall, Teryn Cousland,” he said, his voice low and as smooth as honey.
“Your Lordship,” Rendon Howe exclaimed, “you didn’t mention that a Grey Warden would be present.”
“Duncan arrived just recently,” Bryce replied, “unannounced. Is there a problem?”
Rendon awkwardly pulled down the hem of his shirt. “Of course not, but a guest of this stature demands certain protocol. I am…at a disadvantage.”
“We rarely have the pleasure of seeing one in person, that’s true,” said Bryce. “Pup, Brother Aldous taught you who the Grey Wardens are, I hope?”
Elissa looked to Nathaniel, and they both stared at Duncan in awe. He was the epitome of a warrior. Strong, brave, talented. A Grey Warden. Elissa had read about them in books, but had never seen a Grey Warden in person. They were fabled warriors, keeping the lands safe from darkspawn.
“He did,” she replied, “though I learned more through the texts he provides. I know that Grey Wardens make the sacrifices no one else can for us so we can be safe from the Blight. But he said they’re a small order now with little importance these days.”
Bryce coughed awkwardly. “I…apologise, Duncan, that Aldous has nerve, teaching my children such slanderous nonsense.”
“I take no offence,” Duncan assured him. “They Grey Wardens are not what they once were.”
“I will not have the Wardens spoken ill of in my household. Without them, the darkspawn would have killed us all in the first Blight. You are the only reason men still live in Thedas.” He turned back to his daughter. “Duncan is looking for recruits before joining us and his fellow Wardens in the south. I believe he’s got his eyes on Ser Gilmore.”
“If I might me so bold,” said Duncan, “I would suggest that your daughter is also an excellent candidate.”
Elissa’s eyes widened. “Me?”
Beside his father, Nathaniel smiled.
Elissa felt conflicted. Duncan thinks I’m good enough to become a Grey Warden? That was certainly an honour, as only the best warriors could become Wardens. Someone must have told him about her practice sessions, where she sparred with her father’s men with her daggers. Pride swelled in her chest, but the look of anger on her father’s face crushed any happiness she began to feel.
Bryce stepped in front of Elissa, like a lion protecting its cub. “Honour though that might be, this is my daughter we’re talking about,” he said sternly.
Elissa stepped forward, placing a hand on her father’s shoulder to ease him. “I’m flattered,” she told the Warden, “but I have no interest in joining your ranks.”
“Do you hear that, Duncan?” said Bryce, refusing to step away. “My daughter is not interested. So unless you intend to invoke the Right of Conscription…”
Duncan put his hands up in a peaceful gesture. “Have no fear. While we need as many good recruits as we can find, I’ve no intention of forcing the issue.”
Bryce nodded, satisfied that his daughter was not being taken away, and finally stepped out from between his daughter and the Warden. “Pup, can you ensure that Duncan’s requests are seen to while I’m gone?”
“In the meantime, find Fergus and tell him to lead the troops to Ostagar ahead of me. Now, if you will excuse us, we must discuss the battle plans in the south. Be a good lass and do as I’ve asked. We’ll talk soon.”
“I assume you don’t need me,” Nathaniel grunted to his father, who shook his head disinterestedly in reply. He looked over at Elissa to say, I’ll see you later, before he swiftly left the room through the door Duncan had come through.