Chapter 1: The Night Before
Tomyris Cousland was nothing like the rest of her family. Even for a lady of Ferelden, she mostly abhorred dressing up in fancy silks and brocades for the salons that her parents insisted upon every now and then. She would have much preferred to be in the training grounds with the knights, striking at a straw training dummy with her patented twin-bladed style.
Even now, despite wearing a fine dress in Cousland blue, she felt very uncomfortable. But Mother had insisted, and when Eleanor Cousland wanted something, she would get it, and damn anyone who tried to stop her. “You’re not going with Fergus, dear girl,” she had said, “there’s no need for you to be in armor. After all, you’re going to be running the house while your father is away. What teyrn would run their estate in armor?”
Still, Tomyris had won herself a small victory. While Mother had wanted her to let her long, red-brown hair flow freely, she insisted upon wearing it tied back, and rather shockingly, the elder Cousland had acquiesced.
And yet it made her feel no better upon seeing her father’s guests. After Bryce had called her to the main hall, she was met by two men: Arl Rendon Howe of Amaranthine, and Ferelden’s Grey Warden-Commander, Duncan. The Warden was a pleasure to meet. He seemed a fine man, one of honor and duty. Howe, however, was someone she never liked. Even from a young age, she knew that Howe essentially saw her as a way to lay claim to the teyrnir, a finger for his son Thomas to place a gold ring upon. To her eyes, Rendon Howe was a slimy, ambitious toad, regardless of the history of friendship between Father and he.
Bryce had given her one final request prior to his leaving her in charge: find Fergus and inform him that the men of Amaranthine were delayed in their march to Highever. The men of Castle Cousland would march ahead of schedule, and meet King Cailan’s men in the ruins of Ostagar before Howe’s troops joined them there. Before that, however, she was stopped again by an intrusion of sorts: Ser Roderick Gilmore.
Tomyris had known Gilmore for years, since they were children. His father was a minor bann associated with the teyrnir, and hoped that his son serving as a knight would build his station amongst Highever’s lords. She often thought that the poor boy was sweet on her, much to her chagrin. Still, she was fond of him, as one would be an old friend, and when the (admittedly rather dashing) young knight told her that her prized hound was in the castle larder...again, and that Nan was furious, and threatening to leave...again, she had to do something about it.
Sure enough, Ned was in the larder, but not raiding it as Nan had assumed. Instead, he’d managed to track a small herd of Korcari giant rats inside, and was trying to chase them off. With a little help from Gilmore - who commented on how close such things were to old fairy tales - they managed to drive them back, and successfully avoided a lecture from Nan in the process.
Gilmore returned to his duties, and Tomyris moved on, along with Ned this time. Eventually, she came across a group of three ladies and two men, most of whom she recognized.
The older woman in pinks and purples was her mother, Eleanor. In surprisingly drab-looking yellow, brown and grey was Lady Landra, the wife of Bann Loren. Close by was an elven woman with braided blonde hair that covered her ears, and beside them both was a man in orange and purple brocade; Landra’s son, Dairren.
Standing in the center of the group, however, was a man with dark, messy hair and a closely-trimmed beard, clad in a brocade of primarily blacks and greys. This man was Endrew, a somewhat curious man who Bryce had apparently met and befriended during one brief visit to Orlais. He claimed to be a minstrel, but Tomyris had never seen him with a lute, and the one song she had heard him sing was addled by drink...and was not very good. Still, she liked him well enough, even if it was solely because, like her, he didn’t seem to care much for courtly behavior.
“Ah, there you are, my daughter,” Eleanor was saying. “I told you the dress was a good idea.”
“I’m still not sure I agree, Mother.” Tomyris sighed, crossing her arms and cocking one hip. “It seemed to catch the arl’s eye a bit too much.”
That got a scowl from her mother, a wry smile from Landra, and a titter of laughter from Endrew, Dairren and the elf.
“Oh, come now. Thomas is a fine man, and an honorable knight. I understand he is already in Ostagar.”
“Yes, and if the rumors are true, he’s trying desperately to place his head firmly within King Cailan’s--”
Eleanor let out a noise, and Tomyris cut herself off, giving Endrew a sly grin as she did so.
“Perhaps we should let you all continue?” Dairren said in a diplomatic tone, clearly more interested in moving things away from this awkward moment...and likely knowing full well that his mother was likely going to try and bring up the possibility of his marrying Tomyris again.
“Oh, of course,” Landra replied, giving the elven maid a smile and nodding to Endrew before saying her farewells to them all, the maid and her son following behind.
“Well…” Endrew let out a sigh to break a tense moment of silence. “I think that went rather well.”
Eleanor’s sigh was one of slight frustration. “I have no idea what Bryce sees in you, boy.”
“Something he likely craves, your Ladyship. A break from the monotony of Ferelden’s vastly political world.”
The older woman rolled her eyes. “At any rate, darling…” She turned to Tomyris now, placing a hand on her arm. “Shouldn’t you be speaking to Fergus right now?”
“I was planning to, but Ned got into the larder, there were giant rats, and now I’m here.”
Ned barked and wagged his tail, clearly happy with his escapades.
“Giant rats?” Endrew looked incredulous. “Are you sure you weren’t just imagining things?”
“No, they were definitely rats that were giant.”
“Hmm...ah, well. Perhaps my years of telling tales in the courts of Orlais and the Free Marches have poisoned my views on reality. After all, literally every story in the Knights of Neverbrumal chronicles begins with giant rats. I’d have thought that Guyeks would have had more originality.”
Tomyris smiled, while Eleanor rolled her eyes once again. “Darling, Fergus is in his room upstairs,” the teyrna explained, returning the conversation to business. “Saying goodbye to Oriana and Oren, no doubt. Go tell him what’s happening.”
“Of course, Mother,” she sighed.
Eleanor suddenly grabbed her daughter tight and hugged her. “You know I love you, darling, yes?”
“O-of course I do. What brought this on?”
The grip was loosened and Eleanor pulled back slightly. “Nothing, nothing at all. I just...something about all this feels...off.”
“Mother, we’ll be fine. Father and Fergus will be beside the King and the Grey Wardens when they defeat the darkspawn.”
“A tale the bards will speak of for generations to come, my lady,” Endrew chimed in, a smile on his face and sincerity in his eyes.
She smiled. “Perhaps it’s nothing. Perhaps I’m fretting more in my old age. Go on, then, darling.”
Tomyris smiled, hugged her mother once more, and went off to find her brother.
That night, Tomyris had a visitor in her quarters. The elven girl who had been with Lady Landra. Alone. In nothing but a robe, which she quickly dropped.
The conversation was brief, but informative. She said her name was Iona, and that she had heard of Tomyris’...proclivities from a certain handsome minstrel.
She wasn’t sure if she wanted to kill Endrew for this or to kiss him.
Hours later, both women were awoken by noise, both outside the room and within. Thumping noises beyond the stout wooden door, and a dull growl coming from Ned nearby.
When Iona, still nude from their tryst, went to open the door...it blasted open, and an arrow sailed inside, catching itself in the girl’s throat and sending her to the cobblestone floor...dead.
Instantly, Tomyris’ mind clicked into action. An armored man entered the room holding a dagger, moving to strike at her...and she grabbed his arm, slammed her knee into the elbow and forced him to drop the blade. In a swift motion, she bent down to grab the weapon even as the man tried to recover from the pain in his arm...but it was too late for him. The Cousland woman had his dagger, and was ramming it through his neck and out the other side.
Outside the room, there was the sound of another stabbing, a gurgling and a collapse of a formerly living body on the floor, followed by a bow clattering against stone. Footsteps followed…
...and they belonged to a familiar man with black hair. Endrew.
For a moment, she didn’t recognize him. Gone was the fine but weathered doublet, replaced instead by worn, black-colored leather armor, a dagger at his back and another in his hand. Both the armor and the dagger in hand were stained red with fresh blood.
His gaze went to Iona first, naked and dead, before moving to the former assailant, and then to Tomyris, bloodied and disheveled, her naked frame having spots of blood on it. He winced and looked away politely.
Tomyris rolled her eyes. “Oh, you’ve seen worse than this.”
“Just get dressed, will you?” the man muttered, at which point she noticed something. His jovial nature was gone, replaced by one of surprising seriousness.
“What’s gotten into you?”
“Well, I tend to not be very happy when someone decides they’re going to try and kill me in my bed.”
“...you as well?”
Endrew put his dagger on his back and tossed something he’d leaned against the door into the room, something she hadn’t seen when he came in.
It was a shield. A shield marked by the symbol of a bear. The emblem of Amaranthine.
“Like I said, dress, grab your armor, weapons, whatever you need.” Endrew’s tone was dripping with a sudden gravitas. “Howe means to kill us all.”
Chapter 2: Bloodied Bear
Warning: This chapter contains traces of Google Translated French and Spanish (standing in for Orlesian and Antivan respectively).
Tomyris dressed herself in a hurry, grabbing her nicked longsword and belting it onto her armor - the plating a dark iron, padding Cousland blue - before joining Endrew in the familiar hallway...though what she saw was far from familiar.
Scattered across the room were several bodies, some in the armor of the local guard, others who presumably were Howe's men. Blood adorned the cobblestones and carpets, a mess the likes of which she had never seen before.
Endrew stood rather passive, his bloodstained face a mask of an...oddly off-putting seriousness. He had his arms crossed over the black leather of his armor, looking at the bodies that he had presumably placed there.
“What did you mean, Howe means to kill us all?” Tomyris’ voice was almost plaintive, as if demanding an answer she could comprehend.
“I’ve read the stories before, and apparently so has Howe.” There was that dark tone again, a chill running down her spine as she heard it.
“Orlesian tragedies. La Duchesse et sa Garde comes to mind, actually.” After seeing the obvious confusion in her eyes, the minstrel sighed and uncrossed his arms. “It’s an old tale, one where a duchess falls in love with one of her guardsmen. A forbidden tryst, as is often the case in those horrible things.”
“I still don’t understand what that has to do--”
“The tale ends with an old ally of the duchess betraying her in the dead of night, sneaking his men into her chateau and slaughtering everyone in sight, laying claim to the duchy himself. The guard is killed trying to save her, and she...well, let’s just say Orlesian playwrights don’t want their female protagonists having noble deaths.”
It took a few moments for Tomyris to wade through the rhetoric to find Endrew’s point. “So...Howe deliberately delayed his men so Fergus would march and leave the castle unguarded?”
“Or at least have the bulk of the men gone, yes. As good as your knights are, my Lady, I rather doubt they could stand up to an entire army alone.”
Just then, they heard the slamming of a door, followed by the clinking of armor. Both of them instinctively reached for a blade, but then…
“Darling! You’re alright!” Lady Eleanor Cousland, clad in heavy armor, rushed into the room and caught her daughter in an awkward hug, made so by their mutual armored states.
“Good to see you’re alright, messere,” Endrew smiled slightly, bowing to her.
Eleanor regarded him for a moment and, to Tomyris’ surprise, she didn’t see the usual exasperation in her gaze. More...begrudging respect. “I assume you awoke my daughter, minstrel?”
“More that the attack and the murder of her lover did that, my Lady, but...yes, I can take some credit.”
“Then thank you. It is fortunate Bryce brought you here, after all.”
“Speaking of Father,” Tomyris interjected, “where is he?”
“He stayed up with Duncan and Howe last night,” the teyrna replied. After a moment, fear began to cross her face. “Wait...if Howe is attacking, then…!”
“There’s a chance the teyrn is in danger,” Endrew finished the thought grimly. “Though from what I know of Ferelden’s history, I doubt it takes something as petty as this to kill Bryce Cousland, my Lady. The man fought the Orlesian army and won, remember.”
“I know, but still--”
“Mother.” Tomyris cut off the thought before Eleanor could speak it aloud. “We’ll find him.”
Endrew nodded as he moved towards the door. “My Lady Eleanor, do you still have your treasury key?”
The teyrna blinked. “Yes, but...why do you--?”
“Your husband told me, though I never asked for nor did I ever intend to use said information. That’s where you keep the Cousland family blade, yes?”
“Wait...do you think that…?”
“If I’m right, Howe would love nothing more than to hold the Cousland family sword as proof of his right to rule Highever.”
Eleanor’s expression immediately hardened as she pulled her sword from its sheath, bulling past Endrew and heading out the door, not stopping her pace as she beheaded a Howe soldier as he made an attack.
“...Remind me to never annoy your mother that much,” Endrew sighed, drawing his daggers and following behind.
Despite the grim circumstances, Tomyris smiled as she drew her sword.
The castle was a mess. Burning rubble and bodies lay strewn everywhere, Howe’s men were killing soldiers and servants alike in their bloody coup...and worse, as they moved through the grounds, they found many bodies they recognized.
Fergus’ wife and his son, Oren. Lady Landra. Old Aldous the tutor. Dairren. Nan, Tomyris’ former maid turned castle cook. All dead at Howe’s hands.
Just as Endrew had predicted, Howe’s men were attempting to bash down the door to the treasury. The three of them - four, including Ned - wasted little time in attacking.
In a flash, Endrew opened the skirmish by drawing a knife from his belt, tossing it expertly towards a crossbow-wielding soldier, the blade lodging itself in his throat. Eleanor parried a sword swipe with her own blade, bashed her attacker in the face with her shield and buried her weapon in his stomach. Tomyris dodged the slow swings of a knight wielding a war-hammer, cutting at his legs before slicing off his arm with surprising ease, ending the attack with a swift kick to his jaw.
The treasury was, luckily, untouched. From it, Tomyris retrieved the Cousland family sword and belted it beside her own weapon, on her back as she often did. Endrew, meanwhile, after briefly conferring with Eleanor about whether she would allow it, replaced his old and scarred iron daggers with a pair of fine-looking Orlesian blades, steel engraved with what appeared to be - though probably wasn’t - gold filigree. When Tomyris asked what the filigree said, Endrew replied, “ Que l'ambition ne vainc jamais son humanité . May ambition never overcome one’s humanity. Ironic, in times such as these.”
Armed as they were, the group burst into the main hall of Cousland Castle, only to find knights led by Ser Gilmore struggling against more Howe troops. Timely intervention from Tomyris and her band managed to keep losses at a minimum, however.
Once the last soldier fell, Gilmore immediately began barking orders like a seasoned general. “Go, now! Man that gate! Make sure no more of those bastards make it inside the castle!” He then turned to them. “Your Ladyship, my Lady, Master Endrew! Thank the Maker you’re alright! I thought Howe’s men were going to get through!”
“They did get through, Gilmore,” Tomyris responded, panting slightly from the recent exertion.
“Though I doubt they expected the ladies of House Cousland to be so formidable,” Endrew smiled slightly, his words briefly lightening the mood in the room.
“Ser Gilmore, have you seen my husband?” Eleanor pleaded.
“When I last saw the teyrn, he was with the Grey Warden, and they were headed for the servant’s entrance in the kitchen.”
“The Warden?” Endrew looked surprised. Apparently he didn’t know everything going on in the castle after all.
Tomyris turned and tilted her head. “Yes, Duncan. Warden-Commander of Ferelden. He was here to scout Ser Gilmore, though…”
“...yes, I imagine that’s the last thing on his mind at this point.”
“We must hurry and find Bryce!” Eleanor fretted. “Ser Gilmore...Maker watch over you.”
Gilmore looked down. “Maker watch over us all.”
As Eleanor, Tomyris and the ever-obedient Ned filed out of the room, Endrew stayed behind and clasped a hand on the knight’s arm. “Roderick. You get out of this. Alive. Understood?”
He blinked. “Y-yes, Master Endrew.”
The minstrel smiled. “Good. Because though Tomyris is rather...choice about the company she keeps, I doubt she’d enjoy knowing you died a hero. She’d much rather you live a friend.” With those words, he drew his blades once again and ran back into the fray.
Sadly, they were too late. When they finally reached the servant’s entrance, Bryce was waiting for them...sat on the cold, stone floor, blood seeping through his fingers as he clutched a wound in his side, wincing with every breath. “There...you all are. I was...wondering when you’d get here.” His tone would have been almost joyous were it not for the obvious pain.
All three humans rushed to his side and took turns in asking what had happened. Bryce couldn’t tell them that Howe had attacked himself, but he knew that the man was behind it, even if solely by his rather squirrely behaviour over their strategy meeting.
There was, perhaps, news that was even more grim. Bryce’s wound was fatal, and he knew it. He told his wife and daughter to flee as soon as they could, leave him be. They wouldn’t hear of it, even as the teyrn told them he would slow them down.
“I’m afraid the teyrn is right.” The voice was familiar to Tomyris. She turned and, in something of a shock, saw Duncan, his resplendent armor caked in blood, a sword in one hand as he walked into the room. “I was too late to save him from his injury, but I did all I could to bring him here.”
Endrew stood up and gave Duncan a brief, quizzical look. As the Grey Warden met his eyes, the minstrel began to speak in a low tone. “ El Rey necesita saber sobre esto .” (The King needs to hear about this.)
For Duncan’s part, he was shocked to hear the language which, though more common in Antiva than his native Rivain, he still knew and recognized. “ Si. Aunque todavía está en Ostagar mientras hablamos .” (Yes. Though he is still at Ostagar as we speak.)
Endrew just gave a wry smile. “ Entonces quizás deberíamos ir allí nosotros mismos, ¿no? ” (Then perhaps we should go there ourselves, no?)
Duncan simply nodded before looking at the sight of the Cousland family, such as they were. Bryce, a bleeding mess. Eleanor, her minimal makeup running down her cheeks from tears. Tomyris, desperately trying to convince her parents to get up and flee.
The Warden-Commander knew what he had to do.