Title: A Midwinter's Thaw, Chapter One
AND the inestimable pagerunner_j
Rating: G for now, but eventually working upward.
Characters: Alistair, Elinora Cousland
Pairing: ... um, Cousland/Alistair? Just a guess.
Summary: It's eight years after the Archdemon's defeat, eight years after Loghain's heroic death on the top of Fort Drakon, and eight years after Alistair stormed out of the Landsmeet, never to be seen again. It's five years since Elinora took up the mantle of teyrna of Highever after Fergus remarried and became King in the process. And now the worst blizzard in memory is bearing down on Highever, and Elinora is prepared for it. But the Maker has a sense of humor, after all, even in the face of such a storm, and so He sends her something else that she's much less prepared for.
Notes: Other canon characters will be showing up in later parts, and they'll be listed when we get to those parts. (Amethyne is the name of Iona's daughter, for anyone unfamiliar with the Cousland origin story.) For now, anyone you don't recognize came from us. :)
It was, quite possibly, one of the worst winter storms Elinora had ever seen pass through Highever. Brutal winds whipped through the trees, swirling snow against the window. The snowfall had started that morning, and here it was barely afternoon with drifts as high as her knees in some places. Inside, a fire crackled invitingly in the hearth, but Elinora kept her back to the flames, watching the world of white outside. Highever was susceptible to storms, of course, its placement so close to the coastline, but this one had her suitably concerned.
She’d weathered a number of storms in the past eight years, metaphorical and literal. But weather knows nothing of metaphor; it is constant and constantly unpredictable – if the weather is at all symbolic, it is entirely by accident. But such trains of thought were distracting, and she shook off the memories.
“My lady?” the scout she had summoned now stood in the doorway of her father’s study – her study, now.
“Ser Amethyne,” she addressed the scout with a nod. “I have an errand for you.”
Ser Amethyne was elven, petite and blond, with alarmingly blue-green eyes: her mother's eyes. But she was made of stronger stuff than most, having grown up in the Denerim alienage during a particularly bleak time, after losing her mother to the massacre in Highever. She had caught Elinora’s attention on a trip to Denerim many years before, and Elinora, feeling in some disjointed way responsible for Iona's death, developed an interest in the child's welfare. Once Fergus was teyrn, Elinora had spoken to him at length about it. She later returned to the Denerim alienage, amidst efforts to rebuild and recover, and sought out an audience with Valendrian.
Amethyne was brought to Highever soon thereafter, to squire for the Cousland family. It was unheard of at the time, an elven squire – and female to boot – and the transition hadn't been smooth, least of all for Amethyne. But she persevered and flourished, and was now one of the more accomplished scouts in Cousland employ.
“Yes, my lady?”
“I require you to ride to Denerim, before the storm completely overtakes us, and deliver this to Fergus.” She held a sealed letter between her fingers. “I fear once this has passed, Highever will require some assistance digging itself out.”
Amethyne took the letter then glanced at the storm beyond the window. “I will get underway immediately.”
“I beg you, stay in Denerim if that is the safest course. It is more important that Fergus get this than it is that I hear back from him.”
“Understood, my lady.”
“Be safe, and may the Maker watch over you.”
Ser Amethyne bowed slightly, then hurried from the study. Elinora wasn’t worried about her – she was by far the best rider in the north, and she trusted Amethyne would not attempt a return trip if the snows were too thick. Blowing out a breath, Elinora turned back to the window. Some days she still had difficulty believing her brother was King. It certainly had been the last thing she’d expected, but in the days after the Archdemon’s defeat, the siblings traveled frequently between Denerim and Highever – restoring the teyrnir after Howe’s attack had required some applying to Queen Anora for assistance, usually in the form of troops, as Howe and his men had slaughtered every last knight in Highever Castle.
Gradually, Elinora noticed that Fergus began making the trip without her; eventually he began traveling to Denerim for particular reason at all, and she saw something in her brother she had not seen since Oriana and Oren’s deaths. The sorrow that seemed to have seeped into his bones slowly began to lift. Elinora knew not what Anora had said or done, but her own personal, complicated feelings about the Queen aside, she could not help but be grateful to see her brother smile again. They would be married five years this spring, and Elinora had been made an aunt twice, soon to be three times over.
On his wedding day, Fergus passed the teyrnir to Elinora. At first she’d had some difficulty balancing her responsibilities as teyrna with those as a Grey Warden, but in time -- and with a great deal of patience and very little sleep -- the Grey Wardens in Ferelden had been rebuilt; its presence was a strong one, allowing her to step back and attend to her duties as teyrna. She remained, as always, a Grey Warden – it was in her blood, in more ways than one. But after all that had transpired in such a relatively short period, Elinora found herself wanting a bit more distance from the organization. Being a Grey Warden had brought her some of the best – and worst – periods of her life, but some memories still stung after so many years. She could never walk away completely, and didn’t want to, but she often felt as if she’d lived ten lifetimes crammed into one, and Highever offered a relative peace that quieted her soul.
The soft sound of a throat clearing came from behind her. Elinora turned to see Ser Markham standing in the doorway. He was one of the younger knights, one of only two that had squired under her father's rule. But Markham wasn't a squire any longer, not by a long shot. He was now one of the most trustworthy, capable knights in her employ -- a most accomplished warrior.
“Brother Elias sent me to let you know the supplies are ready to be transported to the Chantry, your ladyship.”
“Excellent.” Dry firewood, animal pelts, and extra provisions would no doubt ease the difficulties the storm was almost certainly pressing on the people of Highever. “Give my regards to Sister Violetta and Mother Marianne.”
Ser Markham gave a shallow bow. “Of course, my lady.” And he was gone.
It was tempting to go along with Brother Elias and make sure all was well at the Chantry, but her presence would have been superfluous. There was also a great stack of correspondence that required her attention sooner rather than later. And given that the storm made any travel from the castle seem unlikely, this was a prime opportunity to catch up on a bit of reading.
Nearly two hours later, Elinora was hunched over her father’s desk; her eyes burned and her back ached but she’d made a significant dent in her pile of papers and letters. She leaned back in her chair and stretched, arching her back until her spine let out a series of dull cracks. Elinora pushed herself out of the chair and walked to the window, rubbing the back of her neck; outside the snow was falling more heavily. It was the perfect type of day for a cup of Orlesian drinking chocolate, but since there was none of it on hand, Elinora decided a pot of tea would have to suffice.
She was only halfway to the kitchen when a loud clatter came from the main hall. She’d been expecting Elias and Markham back any moment now, but it was odd that they’d be raising such a commotion. Curiosity piqued, Elinora turned her steps toward the main hall just as the doors burst open and Brother Elias’ voice rang through the hall.
“Someone fetch the teyrna!” he was shouting as she walked in.
Apprehension prickled down Elinora’s spine as all senses went on alert. “Elias, what is it?”
“On the roads back from town, your ladyship, we found a—”
Ser Markham and two other men burst in then, cutting off the Brother, who then spun and helped them as they half-carried, half-dragged in an enormous mass of blankets.
“—A man,” he explained, guiding the men and their burden to a spot by the roaring fire, where they set down the swaddled figure. “Frozen half to death, I believe. Perhaps we ought to have brought him back to the Chantry, but--”
“You did well, Elias. The weather has been getting worse by the moment. It would have been foolish to attempt a return to the Chantry.” She crouched by the still form, her nose wrinkling at the rank stench that rose up from him, a combination of ale and rot, mildew and filth. “Molly,” she called to her maid, who was standing nearby.
“Yes, my lady?”
“Are there any rooms with a proper fire going?”
“There's a spare bed in the servants’ quarters, your ladyship. It isn't fancy, but it is warm.”
“Excellent,” she said, pulling back the filthy blanket and the filthier cloak. An unruly mass of dark blond hair greeted her; when Elinora pushed away the unkempt tangles, she stopped, going entirely still. The profile, hidden by the disheveled, matted hair, belonged to a face she had thought lost forever, but would not soon forget. Her stomach dropped as blood pounded and roared in her ears. Beard growth hid half of his face, but that did not keep Elinora from knowing him on sight. She was frozen, unable to move, unable to think, unable to do anything but stare as long-buried memories flickered rapidly through her mind.
You know, one good thing about a Blight is how it brings people together.
Have you ever licked a lamppost in winter?
I thought maybe I could say something. Tell you what a rare and wonderful thing you are to find amidst all this…darkness.
Name him a Warden and you cheapen us all!
I don’t want anything to do with this place or any of you people. Ever.
“...Your ladyship?” Elinora’s head snapped up. Brother Elias was watching her, his forehead creased in concern. “Are you unwell, my lady?”
“I'm fine, Elias,” was her automatic reply, though the reality was miles from the truth. Elinora Cousland had been a Grey Warden Commander and was now the teyrna of Highever – she had long since learned how look beyond distractions, locking away superfluous emotions and focusing instead on the task at hand. It was with great relief that she felt herself slide automatically into that role. She stood sharply and turned, not wanting to look too closely at the man on the floor, fearing this might all be some kind of grand hallucination, and focused instead on quelling the pounding in her ears, regaining some sense of equilibrium as she forced steel into her spine. “Molly, I’ve changed my mind,” she said crisply. “I want a fire started in the easternmost room in the southwestern suite.”
Elias blinked owlishly at her, as if he hadn’t heard correctly. “Your ladyship, those are your rooms.”
More to the point, the room had been hers as a child, but she didn’t expect any of the current staff to remember such a detail.
“And I hardly have use for all of them. As long as this man is under my roof, he is my responsibility.” She turned again to the maid, her tone brooking no argument. “I want a fire going in that room, Molly, and as many blankets as you can find. Understood?”
She dropped a brief curtsey. “Right away, my lady.”
“Enlist whatever help you require.” Her steps were already propelling her toward the door, an escape route out of the main hall and to the relative sanctity of her study. “Keep him here for the time being, until the room is prepared. I want to be kept apprised of the situation – is that quite clear?”
Molly nodded quickly, casting a glance at the prone man on the floor. “Shall I start someone heating water for a bath?”
“That might be a bit premature,” she replied, exerting every ounce of her will not to follow Molly’s gaze. “Wait until he wakes first. If there is nothing else, I will be in my study should you need me.”
“Of course, my lady.”
Without another word of explanation, Elinora executed a strategic retreat to her study. With trembling hands, she pulled open the heavy door and slipped inside, closing the door hard and sagging against it. A breath she hadn’t known she was holding came shuddering out and all desire for a hot pot of tea had fled.
In the wake of her past returning to her doorstep, Elinora was going to require something much, much stronger.