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Unshaken by the Darkness - Book One: The Teyrn's Lovely Daughter

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  The one who repents, who has faith
Unshaken by the darkness of the world,
She shall know true peace.

 ~ Transfigurations 10:1


Satinalia, 9:17 Dragon



"What are you playing?"

The girl who spoke was small for her age, with hair so dark it was nearly black, hanging to the middle of her back. Her dress of sky blue silk was really too fine a garment for playing outdoors, but her mother had forced her to wear it because of the holiday. The group of similarly well-dressed children playing on the grass all turned at the sound of her voice, and she waited expectantly for one of them to answer.

"Knights and Chevaliers . . ." said a blonde-haired boy, but before he could say anything more, he was interrupted by a tall girl with straight, brown hair.

She looked down her long, thin nose at the smaller girl. "And you can't play, Rhianna. Unless . . ." She paused, a crooked smile bleeding across her face but stopping short of her eyes. "Unless you want to play one of the Chevaliers."

The younger girl's smile melted away. "I won't play a Chevalier, Habren. I hate the Orlesians. I want to be one of the Knights. I could be Rowan. I'm good at sword fighting."

Habren Bryland gave a harsh laugh. "Rowan? You've got to be joking. You're not nearly pretty enough to play Rowan. Besides, I always play Rowan. No, you have to be an Orlesian, or you can't play." She glanced at a chubby boy with reddish hair, and the two of them snickered nastily.

The red-haired boy added, "Nah, she can't play, not even as an Orlesian. She's just a baby."

"I am not a baby," the dark-haired girl insisted. "I'm older than you are by three months, Thomas. I've been five nearly half a year, and you've only just had your birthday."

At this, the other children all laughed. The red-haired boy was at least three inches taller and weighed easily twice as much as the girl, but he couldn't deny she was, indeed, older than he was.

"That doesn't matter." He sounded less sure of himself now; it hadn't been clear if the other children were laughing at Rhianna, or at him.

"Of course it matters," Rhianna countered. "If I'm a baby, you're an even bigger baby."

Again, the children burst into laughter, and Thomas' face grew red. This time there was no doubt they were laughing at him.

"No, I am NOT!" he shouted, looking around as if trying to gauge whether or not any of the nearby adults were paying attention. Apparently satisfied no one important was likely to see, he turned back to Rhianna."And we don't want to play with you, Rhianna Cousland. Not ever!"

He ran at her, and before she had time to react, Thomas thrust both hands out, pushing her hard in the chest, and sending her tumbling backwards.

Rhianna cried out, then scrambled to her feet, never taking her eyes off the boy. She strode up to him and, without hesitation, punched him smoothly with a balled-up fist. Rhianna's knuckles connected with his nose, sending blood spurting down his face and onto the front of his shirt.

Thomas moaned, covering his face with his hands, and then began wailing loudly.

After a moment of stunned silence, the other children began shouting and laughing. Habren hurried to Thomas' side and pulled his hands away from his face to reveal blood and snot streaming out of his nose. Habren's eyes narrowed and she glared for a moment at Rhianna, then tugged on the boy's arm. She led him away, toward of a knot of adults sitting along the edge of the lawn across the courtyard.

Rhianna watched them leave, her mouth set in a tight frown.

A good-looking older boy walked over, drawn by the noise. He was tall and thin, with golden blonde hair.

"What happened here?" he asked one of the boys who was laughing. "I saw Thomas Howe push the Cousland girl, and a moment later he was crying."

"Rhianna bloodied Thomas' nose!" the boy replied mirthfully.

"He deserved it, Prince Cailan," a red-haired girl added. "Thomas started it. He was saying mean things to Rhianna, and then he pushed her down."

Cailan looked at Rhianna, frowning when he noticed a trickle of blood running down her left arm. Kneeling beside her, he lifted her arm to reveal a shard of glass embedded in the skin just below her elbow.

"Maker's breath," he swore. "That must hurt."

Rhianna merely shrugged her shoulders.

"Well, let's see about getting you some help for it," he suggested.

As the other children began to wander off now the excitement had ended, Cailan picked up the girl and hefted her onto one of his hips. She put her arms around his shoulders, and he looked around the large courtyard, which was surprisingly quiet considering it was a feast day. Spotting his quarry, he carried Rhianna to where two men sat on a bench, deep in conversation. They stopped talking when they noticed the children's approach.





Cailan walked up to a man who shared his light blonde hair, pleasant features and friendly blue eyes.

"Father, have you seen Teyrn Bryce? His daughter's fallen on a piece of glass and hurt her arm." Cailan set Rhianna down, then ran his hand carelessly through his loose, shoulder-length hair.

King Maric Theirin frowned, gently grasping Rhianna's arm and turning it to see her injury. His eyes narrowed at the sight of nearly an inch of glass protruding from the wound.

"Bryce stepped away for a few minutes, but he should be back soon. That looks nasty, though." After examining it more closely, he added, "It definitely needs to come out." With a hopeful look, Maric turned to his companion: a broad-chested man with a prominent nose and long, dark hair with wind braids at his temples. "Loghain, I don't suppose you'd be willing to . . . do the honors?"

In response, the Teyrn of Gwaren raised an eyebrow at the man who had been his best friend for the past twenty years.

Maric merely grinned back at him, a charming, hopeful sort of grin.

With a sigh, Loghain gestured for the girl to approach. As Maric had done, Loghain grasped her arm and examined the injury. It was a large shard, and must have been causing her no small amount of pain. There was no sign of it on her face, however, and her eyes were dry.

"You're Bryce Cousland's daughter?" His voice was deep and resonant. "Rhianna. Right?"

"Yes, ser," she replied. "And you're Loghain Mac Tir. Father's told me so many stories about what you did during the Rebellion." She gave him a genuine, friendly smile, looking directly into the icy blue gaze most people rarely held even a moment longer than necessary.

"Would you like me to remove this piece of glass for you?" he offered. "It's going to hurt, but only for a moment. Then, I promise it will feel better."

"Yes, please."

Loghain held her elbow gently, and grasped the glass shard between the finger and thumb of his other hand. "Let's count to five together, shall we?"

"All right."

Together, they began counting.



Before she'd taken another breath in preparation to count "three," he swiftly pulled out the shard. She flinched only slightly.

"You said we would count to five!" she exclaimed, her green eyes growing impossibly large in her small, pale face. She sounded more alarmed about the counting than she had been about the shard.

"All right then, so we will," he said in his gravely voice. "Three . . ."

When she didn't say anything, he repeated himself, somewhat more loudly. "Three . . ."

She giggled. "Three."

Together they counted, "Four."

In unison, they finished on "Five!" Glancing down at her arm, Rhianna saw a trickle of blood. The smile slid from her face as she pulled her arm away.

"Oh! I'm sorry, ser. I've gotten blood on your trousers!"

There were a few dark drops soaking into the black fabric above his knee. He caught the girl's chin in one hand and looked directly into her eyes. "It's all right, Rhianna. It will wash out. Let's see to your wound, shall we? That's more important than my trousers."

After a moment of hesitation, she nodded, and allowed him to turn her arm over once again. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he dabbed gently at the wound, wiping away blood.

He turned to Maric, gesturing impatiently with one hand. "Give me your flask." The king looked surprised for a moment, but complied with the request, pulling a silver flask from his pocket and handing it to the teyrn.

Loghain removed the stopper, then held it above the wound on Rhianna's arm. "This is going to sting, but I want to make sure the cut is clean before we bandage it." The girl nodded, and Loghain aimed a trickle of amber liquid over the gash on her arm. She didn't react at all; perhaps the whiskey wasn't getting into the wound. He rubbed at the cut with one finger until he was satisfied he had flushed any dirt in the wound, then wiped away the traces of whiskey and blood that remained. He pulled a dagger from his boot, its steel blade gleaming faintly red, and cut a strip from the handkerchief. After folding it into a bandage, he wrapped it around Rhianna's thin arm and tied it into place.

"There," he said, turning her arm to inspect his handiwork. "That ought to hold. Just leave the bandage in place until tomorrow, and the wound should heal up nicely."

"What's going on here?" A voice rang out from the courtyard, as an auburn-haired man with a mustache and closely-trimmed beard hurried to the girl's side. "Rhianna, what happened to your arm?" He knelt beside her, examining the bandage.

"It's nothing, Father," she replied. "I got a piece of glass in my arm, that's all. But Teyrn Loghain pulled it out for me. And put on a bandage."

Teyrn Bryce Cousland's normally cheerful face grew dark, and his blue eyes narrowed. He looked up at Loghain and Maric.

"What's this about glass? Do either of you know what happened?"

Before either of the men, or Cailan, could answer, another man approached, taking large steps, his fists clenched at his sides. His grey hair was short, and he glared down at Rhianna over a large, hooked nose. Turning to her father, he said, "Bryce, did you know your daughter just bloodied Thomas' nose?" Arl Rendon Howe was unable to contain the anger in his voice.

Bryce's frown deepened. "Is this true, Pup? You hit Thomas?"

"Yes, Father, I hit him," she admitted. "He said I was a baby, and couldn't play Knights and Chevaliers unless I agreed to be one of the Chevaliers. You know I would never play an Orlesian."

Loghain had to stop himself from chuckling at this statement, and he glanced over at Maric, who was also clearly amused by her refusal to "play an Orlesian."

"Rhianna!" Bryce replied. "That is no reason to hit someone!"

The girl stood perfectly still, looking up at her father with a slight frown on her face, and then she nodded, looking contrite.

Before she could respond, Cailan broke in. "Thomas Howe started it, Teyrn Bryce. I didn't hear the part about having to be Orlesian, but I did see Thomas push Rhianna to the ground. That's how she got the glass in her arm. Rhianna was only defending herself."

Bryce's face softened, as he turned to face the elder Howe. "I suppose Thomas neglected to mention that part of the story?"

The Arl of Amaranthine's face split into a smile which stopped short of his eyes. "No, he didn't tell me he'd pushed Rhianna. Surely, though, there's more to the story than this. Even Cailan admits he didn't witness the whole encounter."

Bryce turned to his daughter. "Well, Pup? Tell me what happened."

"All right. The other children were playing Knights and Chevaliers, and I asked if I could play, too. Habren and Thomas said I couldn't play with them unless I played an Orlesian, and then Thomas called me a baby. I said that Thomas was the baby. After all he is three months younger than me. How can I be a baby if he's not? But he didn't like that, and he pushed me down and hurt my arm. So I hit him."

Loghain watched as she glanced at the faces of the men who looked down at her: her father, slightly concerned; Rendon Howe, stiff and thin-lipped; Cailan, smiling encouragingly; and Maric looking like he was trying hard not to smile. When her eyes met Loghain's, he gave her a brief wink, and he saw the barest hint of a smile cross her face, as though she had just decided she wasn't likely to be in too much trouble after all.

Turning to her father, she said, "I'll apologize for hitting him if you want me to, Father."

Bryce chuckled softly. "No, Pup. That won't be necessary. Not unless Thomas apologizes for pushing you down." He looked over at Loghain, and put his hand out. Loghain handed him the glass shard. Bryce turned it slowly, and the pointed end caught the light, glowing faintly red with blood. "That must have hurt," he said, glancing at Rendon Howe before looking back at his daughter.

Rhianna shrugged. "I suppose so. But Teyrn Loghain fixed it for me. He's good at bandaging." She glanced at Loghain, and couldn't keep a small grin from sliding across her face. "Even if he's not very good at counting to five." Loghain arched one of his brows at her, and she burst into a giggle, infecting everyone with her mirth except the persistently dour Rendon Howe.

"You do realize, Bryce," Howe said, "that at some point the girl will need to learn she can't always get her way. And if she goes around hitting people, it's no wonder the other children don't want to play with her."

All eyes turned to Howe, including Rhianna's, as her laughter faded away.

"Now, Rendon," Bryce said with a slightly forced smile on his face, "Surely you're not suggesting Rhianna should allow boys to treat her however they want. She does need to be able to defend herself, if necessary. It was your son who struck the first blow, and he's quite a bit bigger than she is."

Howe smiled stiffly. "Yes, well I suppose you're right, Bryce." He glanced at Rhianna. "Besides, children will be children, won't they? Well, I'd better see to Thomas. I've sent one of the servants to find a healer. I suspect his nose is broken."

As Howe turned and strode away, Bryce Cousland sighed, and settled himself on a bench across from Maric and Loghain. Cailan followed suit, sliding himself onto the bench next to Bryce. Rhianna remained standing near Loghain, looking at each of the men, and Cailan, in turn, as if waiting to see what would be said next.

"Just how bad was the cut, Loghain?" Bryce asked. "Perhaps I should see about getting the healer, as well. Do you think it will leave a scar?"

"It was a reasonably large piece of glass," Loghain shrugged. "I expect it will leave a scar, probably half an inch long on the back of her arm. Not a particularly noticeable spot."

Bryce frowned, but Rhianna spoke first. "I don't mind having a scar. All real warriors have scars. You have scars from when you fought in the Rebellion, don't you Father?" Turning to Loghain and the king, "And so do both of you."

"Yes." Bryce hesitated. "Some warriors have scars. But don't you think you're a bit young to want to be a warrior just yet?"

"You just said I need to know how to defend myself. And I did a good job of it. Doesn't that make me a warrior?"

Bryce let out a breath that was half sigh, half resigned laughter. "All right, Pup. If you want a scar, you can have a scar. But I intend to let you explain it to your mother."

Silence fell again over the small group, as the three men and the boy looked down at the small, strong-willed girl standing in front of them.

"Well done, by the way, Rhianna. Breaking his nose, I mean," Cailan whispered, grinning. Her eyes lit up as she smiled back at him.

"Cailan . . ." Maric's tone held a note of rebuke.

"Oh, come on, Father. If you're going to hit someone, it might as well be done properly, don't you agree? And she broke his nose! That's quite an accomplishment. Especially for someone her size, against someone his size." He turned to Rhianna. "Just how old are you, anyway?"

"I turned five on the first of Solace. How old are you?"

"Me?" Cailan seemed surprised by the question, as though he assumed everyone already knew how old he was. "I'm twelve."

"I wish I were twelve. Then maybe people wouldn't call me a baby."

Cailan laughed. "There's nothing so special about being twelve. I think you're on the right track already. Just keep hitting people in the nose, and they'll soon learn not to call you a baby."

"Cailan!" Maric repeated, more forcefully.

"He's right, Maric," Loghain said, feeling vaguely amused. "It worked for us during the Occupation. Well, not hitting people in the nose, perhaps, but you can't deny the banns voiced fewer complaints after the evening you held court in Gwaren. What was the man's name? Donall?"

"Don't remind me, Loghain," Marc murmured. "Some things are better left in the past."

Rhianna looked at Loghain. "You're talking about the Rebellion, aren't you?"

Loghain nodded. She placed her small hands on one of his knees. He could feel their warmth seeping through the fabric of his trousers.

"Will you tell me a story?" she asked. "About the Rebellion?"

Maric chuckled, and muttered, "Just not that one, old friend."

Loghain studied the small girl who stood before him, a hopeful look in her eyes. He couldn't remember the last time anyone had asked him to tell a story. It's possible no one ever had. His own daughter, Anora, was a serious child who seemed to prefer learning her history directly from books, and Loghain wasn't exactly the sort of person to whom small children were usually drawn. The girl looked so earnest, though, and he'd been impressed by how calm she had been regarding the shard of glass in her arm. He found himself unwilling to deny her this request that was, after all, easy enough to deliver.

"All right. What sort of story would you like to hear?"

Rhianna's eyes lit up as she extended her arms to Loghain. He picked her up, pulling her onto his lap.

As she settled herself on one of his knees, she replied, "Something exciting, with sword fighting and monsters."

(Artwork by Helila). 

"Lady Cousland," King Maric said in an imperious voice, "All stories about the Rebellion are exciting, with sword fights and monsters. And a very handsome prince. That's how I remember it, anyway." When Rhianna glanced at him, he winked, causing her to giggle.

"Well," Loghain began, clearing his throat and giving Maric a slightly exasperated look, "let's see what I can do about sword fighting and monsters."

He took a deep breath, and released it slowly, looking down at Rhianna while considering what he would say. She turned her face toward his, an expectant smile stealing across her face.

"Once upon a time, there was a prince." He glanced at Maric. "A very handsome prince," Loghain added, in a slightly mocking tone of voice.

"That's King Maric, right?" Rhianna asked.

"Yes, that was Maric, although he wasn't the king yet. He was supposed to be the king, but someone else had stolen the throne."

"Meghren, the Usurper," Rhianna added. "He was from Orlais. That's why I never want to be an Orlesian when we play Knights and Chevaliers. The Orlesians are mean and cowardly and ugly. And horrible. Isn't that right?"

Loghain's mouth turned up at one corner. Apparently, Bryce and Eleanor had made certain the girl knew her history, at least the Fereldan version of it.

"I would agree with that assessment," he replied. "And yes, it was Meghren the Usurper who sat on the throne, the throne that rightfully belonged to Prince Maric.

"In order to take back his throne, Maric needed an army, and he already had the start of one. One of his companions was the daughter of the Arl of Redcliffe."

"That's Queen Rowan, before she was the queen," Rhianna piped in. "She's my favorite."

A wistful smile formed on Maric's lips at the mention of his wife, who had passed away nine years ago.

"Exactly," Loghain confirmed. "Lady Rowan was one of the best sword fighters in all of Ferelden, and was very beautiful. Also traveling with them was a young man, the son of the leader of a group of outlaws who had been loyal to Maric's mother, Queen Moira. This man hadn't wanted to join the Rebellion, but somehow he and Maric became friends. And by the time of our story, he was as loyal to the cause as anyone."

"You're talking about yourself, aren't you?" Rhianna whispered.


"You forgot to say that you were also very handsome," Rhianna said earnestly. Maric made a strangled sort of noise that sounded like stifled laughter, and Rhianna turned to look at him. "That's the way the story is when Father tells it. Teyrn Loghain is always the handsomest."

Maric's brow furrowed as he laughed. "Really?" He turned to the Teyrn of Highever. "Just what sort of stories are you telling the girl, Bryce?" the king asked with a grin.

All eyes turned to Bryce, who looked baffled. "I . . . erm, I don't know, Maric. What's this, Pup? I don't think I've ever said anyone was the handsome . . . est." He glanced sheepishly from Loghain to Maric and back to Loghain again, while Cailan snickered.

"Well of course Father didn't have to actually say it," Rhianna explained, looking at Maric. "I figured it out for myself." She held up one of her small hands, counting out on her fingers as she continued, "Lady Rowan was the best," she said confidently, holding one finger in the air. "Because she was a girl, like me, and because she could fight with swords and beat just about anyone." She put up another finger. "Prince Maric was the bravest, because every time he got on a horse, he fell off, but he kept getting back up time after time."

Bryce and Maric both burst into laughter at this comment, Cailan gasped aloud, and even Loghain had difficulty keeping his expression under control. Rhianna's small features crumpled in confusion.

"But it's true!" she exclaimed, looking at her father. "Don't you think it's very brave to keep trying something you can't do very well?"

"I do, indeed, Pup," Bryce affirmed, his mouth tight with the laughter he was trying to hold back.

Rhianna nodded, and continued, now holding three fingers aloft. "And Teyrn Loghain was handsomest, because he was the best at killing things."

She nodded with finality after this statement, and once again, a round of laughter burst forth. Maric in particular began to howl with merriment, tears forming at the corners of his eyes. The glare Loghain gave him would have cowed anyone else, but Maric merely waved a hand dismissively, and continued rocking back and forth with glee.

"What's so funny?" Rhianna asked, sounding a bit offended.

"Nothing, Rhianna," Maric managed, forcing himself to stop laughing. "Nothing at all. I think you're quite right in your assessments of all three of us. In any case, I heartily agree that Rowan was, indeed, the best. And Loghain is undeniably very handsome." Once again, he suppressed his laughter, turning to Bryce Cousland. "What I want to know, Bryce, is how your daughter got this idea about me and falling off horses. I'm certain that only happened once. Or maybe twice."

Loghain snorted audibly. "I'm not sure I can think of a single story Bryce might have told which doesn't feature you falling off your horse."

"Oh no you don't, Loghain," Maric laughed. "I'm not going to allow you to slander me in this way." To Rhianna, "Just which horse-falling-off stories have you heard? You tell me what you were told, and I'll tell you what really happened."

"Well . . ." Rhianna began, thoughtfully. "There was the time when you were trying to escape from the chevaliers, after the battle of West Hill, and . . ."

"Oh," Maric interrupted. "Yes, well. That one did really happen. In my defense, I did have an arrow stuck in my leg at the time."

"And there was the time when you fell off into a snowbank, and had to wait for Teyrn Loghain to pull you out again." Rhianna looked at the king expectantly.

Maric's face fell, just a bit. "Well, erm, yes. Okay, so that one, too."

"And there was the time . . ."

"Maker's breath, Rhianna," Bryce interrupted. "Perhaps you'd better stop talking about the stories I've told about the Rebellion, or we might find ourselves exiled to the Free Marches!" More laughter from Maric and Bryce, while Rhianna frowned.

"I don't understand what's so funny!" she complained. "I thought being brave was a very good thing to be."

Maric smiled warmly at the girl. "It is a very good thing to be, my dear. On the other hand, being famous for falling off of horses isn't a particularly good thing to be. If that makes any sense."

Rhianna considered this for a moment, and then nodded, slowly. "I suppose I understand." She looked up at Loghain. "You're not going to complain about being the handsomest, are you?" she asked, sitting up tall and crossing her arms in front of her chest as if daring him to challenge her. Once again, Maric burst out into laughter and Loghain shot a glare at him.

When Loghain answered Rhianna's question, however, his voice was gentle.

"No, I won't complain," he replied.

As she released her arms and settled back down into his lap, he was surprisingly touched by the smile this brought to her small face.

"Now, shall I continue with the story?" he asked.

"Yes, please."

Loghain gazed out into the courtyard for a moment, gathering his thoughts and trying to remember where he was going with the narrative.

"After the Battle of West Hill, most of the soldiers who had joined the Rebellion had been killed, and Maric and his friends needed to get to Gwaren, where they hoped they would be safe and be able to start recruiting a new army. But traveling overland was not easy. The Usurper's soldiers marched across the land in great numbers, and his spies could turn up just about anywhere."

Rhianna nodded solemnly at this, as though she had great experience with the difficulty of evading spies.

"They learned of a way they could get to Gwaren, not above ground, but below it: by traveling the Deep Roads that had been built many centuries before by the dwarves. So, the three friends entered the Deep Roads through a great stone door in the mountains, and began their descent into the bowels of the earth."

"Aren't you forgetting someone?" Maric asked in a voice so quiet that Loghain was not certain, at first, what he had said.

Loghain shifted his gaze to the king. For a moment, the two men stared at one another. Finally, Loghain shrugged, and looked out over the courtyard. When he continued, he couldn't quite keep the hard edge from his voice.

"Accompanying them was a young woman, an elf named Katriel. She was the one who knew where to find the entrance to the Deep Roads, and she promised to guide them through the tunnels below." Loghain glanced at Maric, who nodded as if satisfied with this adjustment to the story.

"The four of us traveled for several days, going downward, deeper and deeper into the earth. Underground, we had no way of judging the time, no daylight or nighttime to tell us when to sleep. We traveled until we were so tired we could barely put one foot in front of the other, and had to stop for a rest. When we awoke, we walked until we were tired again.

"Finally, we arrived in what had once been a magnificent dwarven city, what the dwarves call a 'thaig.' It was Ortan Thaig, named after one of the great noble houses of the dwarves, and it was truly one of the most amazing places I have ever seen. Beautiful stonework buildings, and bridges that crossed over the underground river, and gigantic statues that were so tall we could barely see the tops of them in the darkness above."

Loghain dropped the pitch and the volume of his voice, causing both Rhianna and Cailan to lean just a bit closer as he continued. "But hiding up in that darkness lurked something horrible, something beyond imagining." He bent his head toward Rhianna, and her eyes grew wide in anticipation. "It began with a whispering sound. Faint at first, but then growing louder and louder. A clicking, scritching, chittering sound that echoed in the hall all around us until suddenly . . .

"Giant spiders!" he bellowed, grabbing Rhianna by the shoulders. "They fell out of the darkness above, and attacked us!"

The girl shrieked and hid her face in her hands, her entire body trembling.

Maker's balls. Had he gone too far and truly scared the child?

When he leaned down to get a glimpse at her face and she uncovered her eyes, they were bright, peeking out at him with merriment. She shivered with laughter, rubbing her hands together excitedly.

"Spiders!" she exclaimed, drawing out the word over one long breath. "How big were they?"

"Enormous. Bigger than anything I could have imagined."

"Bigger than my hand?"

"Much bigger."

"Bigger than a mabari hound?"

"Bigger even than a full-grown horse!"

Rhianna shuddered again, with obvious pleasure at the thought of something so horrible as horse-sized giant spiders living underground, secure in the knowledge that, however horrible they may have been, the man in whose lap she was sitting had defeated them, and lived to tell the tale.

"What happened next? Did they try to eat you? Or carry you off to their Spider Queen?"

At this, Loghain laughed aloud. Real laughter, for the first time that afternoon. "They did indeed try to eat us, Rhianna, and there may well have been a Spider Queen, but, thank the Maker, we didn't see any sign of her."

"What did you do?"

"What do you think we did? We pulled out our swords, and we fought them! They tried to bite us, with venom dripping from their fangs. Rowan cut the head off one, then whirled around to put her sword straight through another that had come up from behind. Maric gave a mighty war cry, and severed the legs of another. Katriel wasn't quick enough to get out of the way, and one of them bit her, and we had to cut open the wound and suck out the poison so she wouldn't die. Finally, I took a torch and set fire to the webs that swung in the air over our heads, setting several of the spiders ablaze. One by one, they dropped to the stone at our feet, until every last one had been killed!"

"Maker's breath, Loghain," Maric said. "You'll give the girl nightmares." He snorted. "I was there, and I'm afraid you'll give me nightmares."

"Oh, no!" Rhianna exclaimed, as if afraid the king was going to make Loghain stop. "He's telling it perfectly! This is exactly the kind of story I like best!"

"Yes, Father," Cailan added quickly. "Let him finish. I've never heard this one before, and it sounds like a glorious adventure!"

Maric's eyebrows shot skyward, and he glanced at Bryce.

"It's all right, Maric," the teyrn assured him. "Rhianna will sleep just fine tonight, no matter how many venomous spiders you fought in the Deep Roads. My Pup likes an exciting story."

Apparently satisfied with these responses, Maric sat back against the bench, gesturing for Loghain to continue.

The dark-haired man cleared his throat. "After killing the spiders, we left the thaig, needing to get to Gwaren as quickly as possible. Remember, there was no daylight at all, nothing to light our way as we traveled other than the torches we carried, and sometimes the glow of hot lava running in pits alongside of the roads.

"Every so often we came to a crossroads. Katriel knew the way some of the time, but there were other times when we had to guess which path to take. We traveled like this for many days, hoping we would make it back to the surface before running out of food. Still, there was no going back. We could have never retraced our steps and gone out the way we had come. We had to continue forward, or die.

"After several days we found ourselves in a tunnel, narrower than others we had traveled before. As we pressed forward, we heard noises up ahead. The sound of feet approaching – a great many feet – and grunting noises, like those made by animals. A foul stench wafted toward us through the air, a stench of death and decay, of something tainted and unholy.

"The sounds drew closer and closer, and still we did not know what sort of enemy we were about to face. Finally, in the darkness, we could see their forms in the shadows, and a moment later we laid eyes for the first time on creatures I had only heard of in legend. Creatures the rest of Thedas thought had been destroyed utterly four hundred years ago." Here he paused, and Rhianna leaned closer, hanging on his every word.

"Creatures," he whispered, bending his head toward her rapt face, "known as darkspawn."

As he spoke the final word, her jaw dropped and her eyes grew almost impossibly wide.

"Dark . . . spawn," she repeated, as though she couldn't quite believe that she'd heard him correctly. "Were they . . . were they really darkspawn, Teyrn Loghain?"

He nodded, solemnly. "They were really darkspawn, Rhianna. And there were a lot of them. At least four dozen of them, and when they saw us in the hall, they charged, bellowing and gibbering in no language known to human, elf nor dwarf."

Rhianna let out the breath she had been holding, and reached up with one small hand to grasp the sleeve of Loghain's shirt.

Glancing at her face, he decided she was still enjoying the story, and continued.

"Drawing our weapons, we prepared to fight; Rowan and I in front, and Maric at the side, trying to shield Katriel. Our blades cut through the darkness, slashing into the darkspawn, but for every one that fell, another seemed to appear from behind. It was clear we would not be able to defeat them – their numbers were just too great – so I called out for a retreat. We tried to move back down the tunnel, but as we fought desperately to hold off the darkspawn pressing at us from the front, we realized they were approaching us from behind, as well. We were trapped, surrounded by darkspawn with no way out."

Rhianna's small frame went stiff, and her hand clutched more tightly at his sleeve. He paused, glancing at the others. Maric and Bryce were both watching him closely, with slight, nearly identical frowns on their faces, but attentive to the story. Cailan was sitting at the very edge of the bench, leaning so far forward he was in danger of unseating himself. His face was pale but smiling, and his wide eyes were sparkling. Loghain looked down again at Rhianna, whose breathing had quickened through her small, parted lips. She looked worried, her face even more pale than when he pulled the shard out of her arm.

"Did you think you were going to die?" she murmured, her green eyes locked on his icy blue ones.

He nodded, once. "Yes. I was certain we were going to die."

"But you didn't."

"No, we didn't."

"Tell me what happened," she demanded in a whisper.

"We fought, as hard as we could. I at the front, Maric at the rear, and Rowan trying to protect Katriel from darkspawn coming at us from the side. But we were being worn down. With every swing of my sword, my arm felt heavier and heavier, and I'd been cut by darkspawn blades, and could feel myself growing light-headed from loss of blood."

Rhianna took a breath, swallowed once, and shifted slightly on Loghain's knee.

"Then, just when I thought all was lost, there was a sound in the darkness, behind the larger force in front of us. The sound of a horn." Both of the children gasped aloud. "When they heard it, the darkspawn paused, and started to lose their focus. Some of them seemed to forget about us, and they turned toward the sound. We heard marching feet, and suddenly, out of the darkness appeared a group of dwarves, clad in shining metal armor, armed with swords and axes and hammers."

"Dwarves?" Rhianna practically squealed in delight, bouncing up and down on Loghain's knee in excitement. "You were saved by dwarves?"

Loghain chuckled. "Yes, the dwarves marched in, then came to a halt, and for a long moment they just stared at the darkspawn, and the darkspawn stared back. And then, one of them let out a piercing battle cry, and both sides rushed at one another. As they fought, the four of us did our part to help, and within a few minutes, all of the monsters were dead, and we were introducing ourselves to our saviors: members of the Legion of the Dead."

"The Legion of the Dead?" Cailan asked. "What's the Legion of the Dead?"

"They're soldiers," Loghain explained, "dwarves who decide, usually as a matter of family honor, to enter the Deep Roads permanently, spending the rest of their lives battling the darkspawn. They're called the Legion of the Dead because their families know they will never return, and even hold funerals for them before they go. This particular group saved all our lives."

"And the rest of Ferelden," Rhianna added, in a remarkably calm voice, considering how tense she had been only moments before. "Because if you and Lady Rowan and Prince Maric had died, we would have never been freed from the Orlesians."

He held her gaze as an understanding passed between them. Maker's breath. Somehow, as unlikely as it may have seemed, Rhianna Cousland honestly did see just how important all of it had been: the Rebellion, driving the Orlesians out of Ferelden, putting Maric on the throne no matter how much it had cost. Of course she didn't know the particulars or have any inkling of what it had truly cost. But at some fundamental level, she understood.

"I don't know what sort of stories you've been telling your daughter, Bryce," Loghain commented wryly, glancing at Ferelden's only other teyrn, "but you've done an admirable job teaching her what it means to be Fereldan."

Bryce coughed, as if embarrassed by the other man's statement. "The Couslands always do our duty, Loghain. You know that," he muttered. The two men regarded one another for a long moment, before Cailan broke the silence.

"What happened next?" he asked, eagerly.

"Well . . ." Loghain hesitated, needing a moment to pick up the thread again, feeling off-balance, somehow, by the telling of the story and the small girl sitting on his knee. "The Legion of the Dead took us to the place where they were living, and fed us, and helped us tend to our wounds. The next day, a few of them led us to the tunnel that would take us up to Gwaren, which we were able to reach safely. In Gwaren, we found a great many people who were loyal to our cause, and eager to support Maric in taking back the throne."

As he exhaled one last time at the end of the story, Rhianna finally let go of his shirt, and her small body slumped slightly, as she released the tension she'd been holding throughout the telling of the story.

"Thank you, Teyrn Loghain," she said quietly. She glanced quickly at her father, biting her lip, and then grasped the collar of Loghain's shirt, pulling him gently toward her as she leaned up to whisper in his ear.

"That was the best story I have ever heard. But please don't tell my father I said so. I don't want to hurt his feelings, since he's the one who usually tells me stories." She leaned back, sitting down again on his knee, looking up at him for confirmation that he would, indeed, keep her secret.

He nodded solemnly, and she smiled.

"Well, I highly approve of that particular story," Maric said. "There wasn't a single horse for me to fall off of." This brought on a round of laughter from everyone, after which the small group became quiet for a moment, as the sounds from the courtyard – sounds which no one had noticed while Loghain had been speaking – gradually came back into focus.

Again, Cailan broke the silence. "Yes, thank you, Teyrn Loghain. That was really a wonderfully good story. Giant spiders and darkspawn?"

"And dwarves!" Rhianna interjected.

"Yes, we mustn't forget the dwarves," Cailan agreed. The two children looked at one another and nodded in perfect understanding of just how marvelous the story had been. Cailan cocked his head to one side as he looked at Rhianna, almost as if seeing her for the first time.

"You know, Rhianna," Cailan began. "You mustn't let what Habren and that Howe boy say bother you. They're really both dreadfully dull. And not very nice."

"I know," Rhianna replied. "But Mother and Father say I need to try and get along with everyone, because I'm the daughter of a teyrn. I'm not supposed to argue with people. Surely, it's the same with you, right? Being the son of the king? Or do you get to argue with whomever you like?"

She sounded like someone far older than her five years should allow, and the three men witnessing this exchange shared amused glances at one another.

"Well," Cailan began, thoughtfully, "I'm not really supposed to argue with people either. I'm supposed to be nice to everyone. Since, you know, I'll be king someday and I'll need all of the arls and the banns . . . and the teyrns," he said, almost as an afterthought, glancing sheepishly at Bryce and then at Loghain, before turning back to Rhianna, "to agree to support me. You know."

The girl nodded. "I'm not sure I'm supposed to be nice to absolutely everyone, but I think I am definitely supposed to be nice to Thomas Howe. His father wants the two of us to get married someday."

"Pup!" her father exclaimed. "Where on earth did you hear that?"

"From Habren. She didn't say it to me. She was teasing Thomas about it. Trying to make him cry, because he'll have to marry me someday, and I'm so horrible. And stupid. And ugly," she shrugged. "According to Habren."

"Well, that's ridiculous," Cailan said earnestly. "Habren is the one who's stupid. And I can't imagine anyone in their right mind saying you're ugly, Rhianna. You're one of the prettiest girls I know." He paused. "For someone who is five years old, I mean."

"Nicely said, Cailan," Bryce added. "And you needn't worry about having to marry Thomas Howe, Pup. Your mother and I agreed long ago we would never force you to marry someone you didn't like."

At this, Loghain glanced at Maric, who seemed to share his surprise, and then back at Bryce, eyebrows raised.

"Well, it's true," Bryce responded to their unspoken question. "She's the daughter of a teyrn, after all, and you both know as well as I do she'll be marrying beneath her station. Since you," he directed his comment at Loghain, with a lilt to his voice meant to show that he was joking, "never bothered to have a son for her to marry."

"Oh, but I already know who I want to marry," Rhianna announced brightly. Instantly, all eyes were upon her.

"And who might that be?" Bryce's expression made it clear that, even knowing his daughter as well as he did, he had absolutely no idea what she was about to say.

"Well," she began, "I'm the daughter of a teyrn, but since I have an older brother I won't be able to inherit the teyrnir myself. Which is too bad, really, as I think it would be good fun to be a teyrna, and I would do my best to be nice to the people of Highever. But, that's not going to happen, so I have to marry someone 'special.' That's what Mother says, anyway." She paused. Loghain was somewhat startled when she turned her face to his. "And I don't know anyone special-er than you, Teyrn Loghain. So, when I'm all grown up, will you marry me? I'd be a very nice wife for you, regardless of what Habren says about me."

Loghain tried to keep any emotion from showing on his face, but he felt his eyes grow wider as his brows knit almost imperceptibly together. He could see without a doubt that the girl was utterly sincere, and Bryce was seized with another fit of coughing, apparently nonplussed by his daughter's pronouncement. Cailan looked delighted, and Maric . . . well, Maric was sitting as still as possible in his seat, pressing his lips together in a desperate attempt to keep from bursting into laughter.

Rhianna seemed oblivious to everyone else around her, as she sat patiently on the teyrn's knee, waiting for his answer.

Was this mirth he was feeling, or extreme discomfort? He really wasn't sure.

Inhaling deeply, he struggled for something to say. "Rhianna." He took another breath. "I am sure you would, indeed, have made a very nice wife for me. But I'm afraid I can't agree to marry you. I already have a wife, you see. Anora's mother, Celia."

Rhianna's expression didn't change – the set of her mouth didn't shift, her cheekbones didn't fall, her eyes continued to regard Loghain steadily – but it was as if something internal collapsed, taking all of the air out of her.

"Oh," she said softly. "I'm sorry, ser. I didn't realize." Then she smiled, "That's all right. I'm sure there will be someone else special who will come along eventually. And you and I can always be friends, right?"

"Pup," Bryce said gently, "why don't you run off and find Fergus? Perhaps he can take you on some sort of adventure. What was it you were talking about earlier? Something you wanted to do?"

Her face brightened. "I wanted to go to the top of Fort Drakon."

"Fort Drakon?" Maric asked, having calmed himself from the fit of laughter which, judging by his voice even now threatened to overtake him again. "Why on earth would you want to climb the fort?"

"It's the highest point in the city," she said slowly, as if speaking to someone very young, or perhaps a bit slow in the head. "Nowhere else for miles and miles has a better view of Ferelden and the sea."

Maric considered this for a moment. "That is true."

"Fort Drakon is too far to go right now, Pup," Bryce replied.

"We could climb the clock tower," Cailan suggested. "I'll go with you, if you like, Rhianna."

Maric and Loghain both looked at Cailan with surprise. The boy wasn't usually quite so willing to cooperate with ideas that originated with other children.

"May I go with Prince Cailan, Father? Please?"

Bryce smiled indulgently. "Of course, Rhianna. Just be back before dark. You need to get to bed early tonight, as we're starting back for Highever in the morning."

"Yes, ser." Rhianna turned once again to Loghain, smiling up at him gratefully. She leaned up and kissed him briefly on the cheek, then slid out of his lap onto the cobblestones. "Thank you, Teyrn Loghain, for the story. It really was wonderful. And for bandaging my wound."

She turned to Cailan, who had stood and was waiting for her to join him. She slipped her fingers around his, and, hand in hand, they walked out into the courtyard, Rhianna skipping on every other step to keep up with the older boy's longer stride.

"Just what was it she whispered to you, Loghain?" Bryce asked, eyes on his daughter as she made her way across the courtyard.

Loghain hesitated before answering. "She asked me . . . not to tell." When Bryce glanced at the other man, frowning, Loghain was quick to add, "She was just thanking me for the story, and she . . . well . . . it wasn't anything important."

Bryce looked vaguely dissatisfied, but Loghain wasn't sure what else to say without breaking the promise he had made.

"Probably," Maric said, laughter in his voice, "she was just telling him how she thinks he's the 'handsomest.'" All the laughter Maric had tried to hold back earlier came bursting forth, while Loghain glared at him and Bryce chuckled, shaking his head.

Bryce turned to Loghain. "You're not soon going to live that one down, are you?"

Maric laughed merrily. "Oh, I don't think he's ever going to live that one down. Not if I have anything to say about it. Handsomest. Handsomest! I think that might be the best word ever! And, to be fair, Loghain is the best at killing things. Oh, Bryce, your daughter is possibly the most delightful creature I have ever known."

Loghain scowled at his best friend, knowing this particular incident would haunt him for some time to come. Even so, he chuckled under his breath, almost in spite of himself. He couldn't remember the last time he had enjoyed a conversation quite this much, or laughed, genuinely laughed, as hard as he had laughed when she asked about the Spider Queen.

Maric was right, the Cousland girl was a delightful creature.





















Chapter Text

15 Bloomingtide, 9.20 Dragon
Highever Castle




Rhianna stared at the food on her plate. It smelled delicious, but she had little appetite for the meal set in front of her. She was bored, and the heat from the lantern hanging nearby was making her drowsy, and she was overwhelmed by the noise in the dining room. Her mother had hosted a banquet for King Maric and Prince Cailan, inviting all the nobles sworn to Highever, and Rhianna had hardly ever seen the dining room this full before. And everyone seemed to be talking at once, which was making her head ache.

Not that she was doing any talking herself, from her seat at the far end of the head table. King Maric sat to her right, which would usually have made her happy. The king had always taken the time to talk with her, saying funny things to make her laugh, and seeming interested in what she had to say, even though she was only eight years old. Tonight however, he was deep in conversation with her parents, which was a bit puzzling. Rhianna's father and the king, along with Prince Cailan, had just returned from a three-week trip to the Orlesian capital, Val Royeaux, where they attended the coronation of the new Empress of Orlais. Surely, they'd had plenty of time to talk about all sorts of things. How did they still have so much to say to one another? Nonetheless, her father and the King sat with their heads close together, while Rhianna's mother listened in and commented occasionally.

A slight frown marred her father's expression. Whatever the king was saying, Father wasn't entirely happy about it. Something to do with Orlais, no doubt. Maybe even something to do with the "very big news" her father had hinted King Maric would announce after dinner.

What sort of news would it be? It couldn't be bad news, since King Maric had seemed quite cheerful when he had stepped onto the dock in Highever earlier in the day. If Orlais was preparing to invade Ferelden again, or something else really bad like that, the king would have been upset. So the news had to be good. Except Rhianna couldn't think of a single good thing that could have come out of a trip to Orlais.

Mostly, she wasn't very interested in what the Orlesians got up to in Orlais. So what if they had a new empress? Celene was the same age as Fergus, which meant she was probably far too young to be ruling a country as large as Orlais, but that was their problem, wasn't it? But what if this new empress had plans that extended outside her own country's borders? What if she wanted to be Queen of Ferelden, as well as being Empress of Orlais? The Orlesians hadn't done anything really mean in nearly twenty years, but surely it was smart to keep an eye on them. Just in case.

Be that as it may, Rhianna hoped her father would never again be asked to travel to Orlais. She hadn't admitted this to anyone, but she'd never been more relieved about anything in her life than when he'd returned safely this afternoon. The entire three weeks he was gone, she'd been scared she would never see him again. The Orlesians couldn't be trusted, especially this new empress of theirs, and what would have stopped them from forcing her father - and King Maric - to stay in Orlais? Imprisoned in a dungeon somewhere, or maybe even killed, and their heads stuck up on spikes at the city gates. That was what the Usurper had done to the Fereldans he'd captured during the Occupation. Put their heads on spikes right outside the walls of Denerim.

Every night while her father was away, Rhianna said a prayer to Andraste, begging the beloved Prophet to keep her father safe. Even so, she had gone to bed feeling frightened. Some of those nights she'd had horrible dreams. Dreams of blood and monsters and pitch-black tunnels under the earth, and one time a sinking ship, its top deck and masts ablaze against a darkened sky. She'd woken even more frightened than she had been the night before, convinced something horrible was going to happen, and she would never see her father again.

This afternoon, however, the Demelza had sailed into Highever, with her father and the king both safely on board. She'd felt so happy to see them, but now? As much as she tried not to listen to the conversation beside her - it was rude to eavesdrop, especially on grown-ups, and extra especially on the king – Rhianna couldn't help but hear the odd word here and there. "Orlais," and "Empress," and "Occupation," and "chevaliers." None of these words made her feel happy. And even though her father had stopped frowning, she knew him well enough to see he was still worried about something.

No one else seemed to notice. At the table nearest Rhianna, Fergus and Cailan were talking with Nathaniel Howe, the eldest of Arl Howe's three children. Just beyond them sat Arl Howe and the arlessa, a dark haired, severe-looking woman who had never spoken even one word to Rhianna, as far as she could remember. Beside Evanna Howe sat Bann Loren and his wife, Lady Landra. Landra was speaking in an especially loud voice. Probably, she was having too much to drink. Again.

Bann Franderel sat at the other table, beside Bann Ranulf and his two children, Alfstanna and Irminric. Ranulf was telling a story, a good one, judging by the way the bann was waving his arms around, and the way his audience was laughing. Bann Esmerelle was here, as well, looking dour as usual, having traveled from Amaranthine with the Howes. And of course Arl Howe's younger children, Delilah and Thomas, had come. Delilah was only two years older than Rhianna, and very nice, and the two girls had a good time playing together earlier in the day. Rhianna had taken Delilah up on top of the battlements so they could watch the ships coming in and out of the harbor, and they'd played a game with dice, and visited the pigeons in the dovecote.

Too bad Rhianna hadn't been able to sit next to Delilah at dinner. They could have whispered together about all sorts of things, which would have been nice since King Maric was too busy to talk to Rhianna at all.

"And they wear their gowns cut down to here! I swear it!" Cailan's voice rang out loudly, and Rhianna glanced over to see Fergus' eyes wide as he listened to the prince talk about his adventures in Orlais. A moment later, her eyes met Nathaniel's, and he gave her a crooked smile, and a quick wink. Rhianna grinned before looking away, her face feeling warm. Nathaniel was nice, although she didn't see him very often. She got the feeling he and his father didn't get along well, because Nathaniel hardly ever came along when the arl visited Highever. Which was a shame, since he was about the same age as Fergus, and it seemed like the two of them could have been good friends if they saw one another more often.

Then she noticed Thomas staring at her. Well, glaring, really, which was typical. He had never forgiven her for the bloody nose three years ago.

Thomas sneered and stuck his tongue out at her. After rolling her eyes dramatically, so Thomas would be certain to see even from across the room, she turned her attention back to her dinner plate. At least Habren wasn't here. Thomas was even more annoying when Habren was around.

Stifling a yawn, she poked her fork at the spiced meat on her plate, pushing it around and making designs in her peas. She glanced at her father, and then over at her mother. It was obvious they were both very distracted. Any other time, they would have frowned and scolded her about playing with her food. But she wasn't hungry any more, and she was bored, so she tried to construct a replica of Highever Castle out of her peas. It didn't work very well; she couldn't get the peas to stay stacked up without rolling all over the plate. So, instead, she arranged them in the shape of a frog. To be honest, it didn't look much like a frog. It looked like a sort of lumpy green rock, but it was still more fun than watching Thomas stick his tongue out at her.

After what seemed an eternity, the others had finally finished eating, and the dinner dishes had been cleared away.

Her father stood, and tapped a knife against his wine goblet, to get everyone's attention.

"As all of you know, King Maric and I have just returned from Orlais, where we witnessed the coronation of Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Celene of Orlais. While in Val Royeaux, we also held a series of negotiations with the new empress, and those of you here tonight will be among the first to hear some excellent news."

Bryce returned to his seat, nodding at King Maric, who stood, leaning forward to rest his hands on the table as he addressed the people gathered in the room. "The Empress intends to visit Ferelden in four months' time, the first time in nearly twenty years an Orlesian leader has paid our country such a visit. And during her visit, she and I will negotiate an agreement of peace between our two nations."

King Maric smiled widely, clearly expecting this news to be well received. Beside him, Bryce smiled just as brightly, but her father's smile looked forced. Not enough that everyone else would notice, but it was obvious to Rhianna that her father wasn't as happy about this news as the king was. Or perhaps her father just worried about what everyone else would think.

Apparently, that was a reasonable concern. The king's announcement was met with an uneasy silence.

After an uncomfortably long time, nearly half a minute, Eleanor clapped her hands once and spoke loudly, her voice carrying across the dining room. "Well done, Your Majesty! It is high time Ferelden and Orlais put behind us the arguments of the past. I have no doubt this treaty will be the start of an era of peace and prosperity for both nations."

As Maric lowered himself back into his seat, a few of the guests echoed the teyrna's sentiments, but there was another chorus of voices that sounded displeased. Whispers, quiet and urgent. The shaking of heads and shrugging of shoulders. The room seemed smaller and warmer, and even the air itself felt heavier, somehow.

A peace treaty with Orlais? That didn't sound like such a good idea. In fact, it sounded awful and dangerous.

She glanced up at the king. His confident smile had slipped away. He looked worried and more than a bit tired, and disappointed that people weren't happy about this news.

But how could he have thought we would be happy? King Maric knew better than anyone how untrustworthy the Orlesians were. He'd fought them for many years, after they'd killed his own mother.

Even so . . . he must believe this peace treaty was a good idea, or he wouldn't have invited the empress to come to Ferelden. And Rhianna's father clearly supported the king in this endeavor. Rhianna believed King Maric was trustworthy, and she knew without a doubt her father could be trusted. If they thought this would be good for Ferelden, then it must be the truth. So maybe it would be all right after all?

Around the room, people had started talking again, but neither Bryce nor the king were speaking. Rhianna reached over and put her hand on top of one of Maric's, and squeezed his fingers gently. He seemed startled at first, looking down at her hand as if wondering how it had gotten there. Then he turned to her and smiled, tiny creases forming at the corners of his eyes. He shifted his hand underneath hers so their palms were touching, and his fingers wrapped around her own.

"This treaty with Orlais?" Rhianna asked. "Is it really a good thing, Your Majesty?"

Maric placed his other hand on top of hers, sandwiching her hand between his own. "I believe it is, Rhianna. I truly do believe it is."

She leaned close and whispered, "But are you sure we can trust them?"

He smiled again, this time not deeply enough to form creases. "Honestly? No. I'm not sure." He leaned down so his face was only inches from hers. "What do you think Loghain would say if you asked him that question?"

Rhianna couldn't stop herself from chuckling. "You know as well as I do what Teyrn Loghain would say. He would never trust the Orlesians." Her smile faded. "What if he's right? They have done a lot of very bad things in the past."

Maric nodded solemnly. "That's true, my lady. But what if I promise we'll be careful about not trusting them too much? Not until they've earned it, anyway. How does that sound to you?"

Rhianna studied Maric's face. His eyes were bright, and he looked uncertain, but sincere. She saw he believed that what he was doing was good and right. That he was well aware of the risks, but still thought this was the best thing for Ferelden. And King Maric loved Ferelden. He would never let anything bad happen to this land or to her people. If he believed this treaty was for the best, then it must be.

"I suppose that sounds all right," she said with a shy smile.

"Good." He paused. "Because . . . I think you're going to have the chance to meet her when she comes to Denerim. Would you like that? To meet the empress?"

What? The king wanted her to meet Empress Celene? That sounded . . . terrifying, but also a little bit exciting.

Before she could answer, he added, "I'd really appreciate it if you would agree to meet with her, Rhianna. Then, afterward, you can give me your opinion. Whether or not you liked her, and if you think she seems trustworthy. I would find that extremely helpful."

Rhianna looked down into her lap, feeling her cheeks grow warm. Was it possible the King of Ferelden wanted her opinion about something as important as this? She glanced at him, and he was still smiling. Maybe it was possible.

"Of course, Your Majesty," she agreed. "I'll be happy to meet the empress, if you want me to."

King Maric turned to her father. "Good news, Bryce." He had raised his voice enough so that others around the room could hear, and it had the desired effect. Within moments, all other conversation in the room had ceased. Maric continued, "Your daughter has just agreed to meet with Empress Celene and, afterward, share her opinions. I'll be especially interested to hear whether or not Lady Cousland feels the empress can be trusted." All eyes were on Maric now, or on Rhianna, and the king glanced down at her as he continued, "I hope you don't mind me sharing this, my lady?" Rhianna shook her head to indicate that, no, she didn't mind.

Looking around at the guests again, Maric continued, "Lady Cousland admitted to me she is a bit worried about this treaty business. She is . . . skeptical that we should place our trust in the Orlesians, after all that's happened in the past. I think all of us will agree her doubts are not unreasonable. Certainly, many of you sitting in this room share them, do you not?" A quiet murmur washed across the room. Yes. Clearly, others shared her doubts.

The king looked around the room, his eyes still shining with the knowledge he was doing what was right. And Rhianna knew when the others saw him, when King Maric looked at them with those same bright eyes, they would understand this too, and trust him as she did. He was the king. A good king, and a good man. A man who deserved their trust.

"Please know," he continued, looking around at each person in the room in turn, "you are not alone in this, in having your doubts. I assure you this peace treaty between our two nations does not represent a lessening of our vigilance, or the giving of any concession to Orlais that will threaten the safety or the freedom of Ferelden into the future. This much, I promise."

When he had finished speaking, he glanced at Rhianna, and winked. There was a smattering of applause, and after only a few moments of silence, the people around the tables started speaking to one another again. Rhianna could tell a difference, though, between the conversations just a few minutes ago, and the conversations now. Voices that had been hushed and complaining, were now confident, louder, more optimistic. The room seemed brighter, no longer weighed down by worries and fears. Yes, the people of Ferelden had doubts about entering into any sort of agreement with Orlais, but giving voice to those doubts had helped put them to rest. For the time being, at least.

Certainly, Rhianna felt better about everything. Partly because of the smile and wink the king had given her, and partly because of the trust he placed in her opinions.

But mostly because he was still holding one of her hands in his large, warm one.



Chapter Text

21 August, 9:20 Dragon
Denerim Palace




Sit still.
Don't fidget.
Sit still. Don't fidget.
Don't fidget and sit still.
This will be over soon.
Just keep sitting still.

Repeating those words in her head was helping Rhianna avoid squirming around while the elven servant finished styling her hair. At least it seemed to be helping. The woman hadn't clucked her tongue and asked Rhianna to "please, my lady, sit still" in several minutes.

Getting her hair done didn't hurt, exactly, although sometimes the woman did pull it too tightly. Mostly it was just boring, and Rhianna wanted to get up off the stool (which wasn't very comfortable) and run around out in the garden. Which, of course, she absolutely could not do. If Rhianna so much as set foot outside in the stupid Orlesian dress she was wearing, her mother would have a fit.

It was a horrible dress, its turquoise-colored fabric so thin and slippery it felt like she was wearing nothing more than a nightgown. Even worse, it's bodice was cut lower on the chest than anything she'd ever worn before, which made her feel uncomfortable. But she was stuck with it; her mother had insisted she wear it.

"The empress will appreciate seeing an Orlesian style," her mother had said when Rhianna complained. "It will make her feel more at home here, and will help you make a good impression. You want to make a good impression, don't you?"

Rhianna did want to make a good impression, and she knew it was quite an honor to be invited to the ceremony. Only a few children were being presented to Empress Celene, and Rhianna was by far the youngest. Fergus and Anora hardly counted as children, now they were both seventeen years old. And Cailan, at fifteen, was almost a grown-up himself. So she was truly glad to be invited; she just didn't understand why she couldn't make a good impression without dressing like an Orlesian. Didn't the empress see enough Orlesian dresses and hairstyles in Orlais? And surely, it wasn't a good idea to give the woman the impression Fereldans aren't happy with the way we are, with our own clothes and hairstyles. That was the whole point of the Rebellion, after all: we wanted to be Fereldan, and not have Orlesian nobles bossing us around and stealing our land, or Orlesian chevaliers hitting people in the streets.

Her mother, however, had not agreed with any of these arguments, and eventually Rhianna had given up fighting about it.

She hadn't stopped hating the dress, though, and would have rebelled against all of it, no matter what her mother said, if not for the promise she'd made to King Maric back in Highever. He was counting on her to meet Empress Celene and help him decide if the woman was trustworthy. And Mother had made it clear that Rhianna would not be presented to the empress in anything but this horrible dress, with her hair done up in braids and little curls all over her head.

So, here she sat, stuck on this stool in a dress she hated, while the servant yanked and tugged at her hair, curling bits of it with a hot iron.

Rhianna took a deep breath, her nose wrinkling at the smell of burnt hair.

Don't fidget. Sit still.

Finally, the ordeal with her hair was finished, and Rhianna's mother came to collect her from the dressing room. Together, they walked through the palace to the antechamber outside of the Great Hall. Her father was already inside, along with the king, Teyrn Loghain, and Ferelden's six arls; they had been in conference with the empress all morning. A few minutes earlier, the galleries had been opened, so the citizens of Denerim – the important ones, anyway - could witness a number of special audiences, including the presentation of the children.

As she waited outside the large hall, Rhianna watched Cailan, Fergus, and Anora Mac Tir standing together across the hallway, whispering to one another. Anora wasn't wearing stupid Orlesian clothing. She was wearing a regular Fereldan gown in soft colors, lavender and rose, and she looked very pretty, with her blonde hair coiled into the braids she always wore. Her eyes were blue, just like her father's, and sometimes Rhianna wondered if she, herself, would be even half so pretty when she was grown.

Eleanor moved in front of Rhianna, putting her hands on the girl's shoulders. "Remember to be polite," she urged, a completely unnecessary instruction, considering how much coaching Rhianna had been subjected to over the past several days. "And speak Orlesian unless the empress herself requests otherwise. You've worked so hard with your tutor, it will make a good impression to show the empress how well you speak her language."

"Oui, Maman," Rhianna replied. "Je serai poli, et parler seulement l'Orlesian."

Her mother frowned, as though Rhianna had said something cheeky, but then reached up and adjusted one of the curls at Rhianna's temple. "You look lovely, darling," Eleanor said with a sigh. "Quite . . . grown up." There was something in her mother's eyes that looked . . . sad. Perhaps something wasn't right about the way Rhianna was dressed, or the way she was standing, or her accent when she spoke Orlesian, or . . . well, she really had no idea why her mother was looking at her this way, but it made her uneasy.

"Don't worry, Mother. I promise I'll do a good job and make the empress like me. I promise."

"I know you will, darling." Eleanor leaned down and placed a kiss on Rhianna's forehead, and when she stood up straight again, the sad look was gone, replaced with a bright, encouraging smile. Before they had time for any more conversation, the wide doors swung open, and they were ushered into the great hall of the Denerim palace.

It was an enormous room, bigger than any Rhianna had ever entered before. At her mother's side, she tried to appear calm and dignified as she walked along the blue and gold carpet that lined the center of the room. The large cobblestones that paved the floor reflected the torchlight, and on either side, the wooden galleries were packed with Fereldan nobles and those merchants wealthy enough to warrant a seat in the hall.

Rhianna forced herself to look straight ahead, rather than scanning the crowd for familiar faces. She really did want to do her best to make this woman from Orlais like her, and make her parents and King Maric proud. So, she held her head high, in spite of the uncomfortable gown and ridiculous hair.

At the far end of the room, stairs led up to a stage upon which Maric and Empress Celene were seated, in thrones covered with dark blue velvet. The two huge hearths in the corners of the room were lit, filling the room with warm, flickering light, and tapestries hung upon the walls. Most featured the mabari rampant that was Maric's device. There were some, however, embroidered with a golden half-sun: the symbol of the Orlesian Empire.

The empress looked much older than Rhianna had expected. Celene was only seventeen – the same age as Anora – but looked at least ten years older than Loghain's daughter. The woman's blonde hair was pulled up in a far more elaborate style than Rhianna's, and she had colored paint on her face: red on her cheeks and lips, and green above her eyes. Actually, it seemed as though the empress' entire face was covered in paint the same color as her skin. Rhianna had never seen anything like it before. It looked horrible, and made the empress more than a little bit scary, like a mummer at the faire. And the neckline of Rhianna's gown was quite modest compared with Celene's.

As Rhianna reached the foot of the steps, her mother touched her on the shoulder briefly, then bowed, stepping back and leaving Rhianna alone in front of the empress and the king.

Her father, who had been sitting nearby, got to his feet. "Your Imperial Majesty, I would like to present my daughter: Lady Rhianna Elizabeth Cousland, of Highever."

Rhianna bent slowly into a low curtsey, as she had been taught, and when she raised her head again, the woman's painted lips were pressed into a thin line. It appeared as though this woman didn't like her. Which hardly seemed fair, as they hadn't even spoken to one another yet. What if the empress never even gave Rhianna a chance? Or was as horrid as stupid old Habren?

As instructed by her mother, Rhianna spoke first. "Bonjour, votre Majesté. Bienvenue à Ferelden."

The empress tilted her head to one side, then drew her lips back in a smile that didn't look entirely genuine.

Without changing her expression, or making any gesture with her hands, she said, "M'approache, ma jeune dame."

Rhianna came closer as requested, climbing the stairs without taking her eyes off of the empress except for a quick glance at King Maric. He winked at her, and smiled. Rhianna worked hard not to let it show on her face, but she was grateful for his smile. He didn't look unhappy, and he'd been with the empress all day. Perhaps this audience wouldn't be so bad, after all.

"Vouz parlez Orlesian?" the empress asked. One corner of her mouth twisted upward before she continued, speaking very rapidly, "Ou, t'ont-ils enseigné juste quelques expressions pour m'impressionner?" What an odd question. Why would the empress think someone had taught Rhianna just a few phrases in Orlesian?

"I know how to speak Orlesian, Your Majesty," Rhianna answered in Orlesian. "Not just a few phrases. I have had a tutor since I was three years old."

The empress's eyes widened slightly at this, and a slow smile crossed her lips. "Is that so? And why is this? Why have you learned to speak my language?"

"My father wanted me to learn. Because we are neighbors, Your Majesty. He said it is important to be able to speak with one's neighbors, if you want to remain friends."

At this, the empress' face broke out into what appeared, for the first time, to be a genuine smile. Turning to King Maric, she said, in heavily accented Fereldan, "This child tells me her father taught her to speak Orlesian. Because it is important to be friends with one's neighbors. I had . . . réservations about this peace treaty, given the . . . histoire between your country and mine. But hearing this has given me much hope for our future."

To Rhianna, once again speaking Orlesian, "Have you ever visited Orlais?"

"No, your grace. My father says he will take me when I'm older. Perhaps when I'm eleven or twelve years old." Not that Rhianna was in any particular hurry to visit Orlais. The idea frightened her.

"Ah! That is excellent!" Celene replied. "Then you are past due for a visit, judging by how grown up you look. Surely, you are at least thirteen years old now, yes? So I shall expect a visit from you very soon."

Rhianna giggled at the empress' comment, but then stopped herself. Probably she wasn't supposed to giggle in front of the empress, especially if the comment hadn't been a joke. Maybe the woman really thought Rhianna was that old. It was difficult to tell from her face, with all of the paint. "Begging your pardon, Your Majesty . . . but I'm not thirteen. I'm only eight years old."

Celene tossed her head back and laughed, a cascading, musical sound that must have carried to every corner of the large hall. "I think you are teasing me, Lady Cousland. How is it possible you are so young? You speak Orlesian much better than an eight year old in your country should be able to speak it. However . . ." she continued, relaxing back into her chair, while she narrowed her eyes and ran her gaze over Rhianna from head to toe, "it is true that you are a bit short for thirteen. So perhaps I will believe that you are only twelve." The empress winked, and Rhianna couldn't keep the surprise from showing on her face. That seemed . . . extraordinary. Was the empress joking with her? Yes, it seemed she was. And this must mean she'd been joking about Rhianna being thirteen, and had never thought Rhianna was so much older than she actually was.

With a crooked grin, Celene continued, "Regardless of your age, my dear, you are absolutely lovely, and I intend to convince your father to bring you to visit me sometime very soon. I think you would enjoy seeing Val Royeaux, and I would enjoy showing it to you, and having you meet some of the wonderful people who live there."

Feeling her cheeks grow warm, and a slow smile spread across her face, she replied, "Thank you, Your Majesty. I would like to see Val Royeaux someday," she said, even though it wasn't entirely true.

The empress held up a finger to her face, tapping it gently against her cheekbone, as if considering something. Then she reached into a satin-covered bag which she held in her lap, and dug around inside. She retrieved a small object, made of gold.

"Come closer, my dear, and give me your hand. I would like to give you a gift."

Rhianna did as the empress requested, and Celene placed a golden charm directly in the center of Rhianna's palm. Rhianna picked up the charm in her fingers, and turned it around to get a closer look. It was about an inch long, a perfectly cast half-sun, set with three tiny gemstones which sparkled in the firelight.

"Thank you, Your Majesty. It is very pretty." Rhianna bit her lip, suddenly nervous. Should she have brought something for the empress? "I'm sorry I do not have anything to give you in return."

Celene smiled again, this time with nothing but warmth, and laughed aloud before addressing her in Fereldan. "Do not be silly, ma cherie. Your agréable conversation is gift enough. It was a pleasure to meet you, Lady Rhianna Cousland."

"I'm very pleased to meet you, as well, Your Majesty," Rhianna replied in Fereldan. When the empress turned her body slightly towards King Maric, Rhianna understood this to mean she was being dismissed. She glanced at her father, who gestured for her to join him. After curtseying again to the empress, Rhianna turned to walk back down the stairs, daring one more glance at the king. Maric nodded at her, just once. Judging by his grin, he was pleased with her.

When she reached her father, he pulled her up to sit in his lap so she could watch as the other young people were presented to Celene.

"Well done, Pup," he whispered. She snuggled up against him, grateful this ordeal was at an end, and that she hadn't made a complete fool of herself, or made anybody angry. At least she didn't think she'd done either of those things.



Chapter Text

22 August, Dragon Age, 9:20
Royal Palace, Denerim


All morning, King Maric and both of Ferelden's teyrns had been sequestered in an audience room with the empress, negotiating the terms of the peace treaty. Elsewhere in the Denerim palace, in the hallways and the library and spilling out into the palace gardens, nearly all the other nobles in Denerim waited impatiently to hear what progress was being made.

In one of the palace's sitting rooms, Eleanor Cousland was at the center of a knot of people. They hovered like hounds hoping for scraps from the table, since the teyrna was likely to be the first to hear any interesting bit of news that found its way out of the audience room. Nearby, Rhianna sat quietly in the corner, trying to read a book of Antivan fairy tales. Nearby, Habren Bryland, along with Tanith Curwen, the daughter of the Bann of Drakon River, sat near the window. The two girls had their heads together, whispering to one another. Every so often, they looked over at Rhianna and laughed, loudly enough Rhianna knew they wanted her to notice.

Very annoying.

She had tried hard for the past half an hour to ignore them, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate on her book with them snickering at her. So, when her mother was deep in conversation with Lady Landra, whom Rhianna liked well enough, and Bann Esmerelle, whom Rhianna did not like whatsoever, she took the opportunity to sneak out one of the doors that led into the ornamental gardens.

There were a few people outside, but none of them had wandered very far from the palace. Rhianna wasted no time in moving deeper into the garden, where she soon found what she had been looking for: blissful quiet. No people, no talking, no harsh laughter. Nothing but birdsong, and a trickle of water flowing from a nearby fountain.

Taking a deep, satisfied breath, she threw up her arms and spun around in a little dance of happiness. She should have snuck away hours ago, to enjoy being outside with no one around to bother her or tell her what to do. Lovely. If she poked around in the bushes enough, she could probably make friends with some of the animals who lived in the garden. A hedgehog, or a fox, maybe even a badger in one of the more remote sections of the garden. That would be a wonderful way to pass the time. Her father had mentioned a duck pond; maybe she'd try and find it.

Before she'd gone more than a hundred yards from the palace, however, she rounded a curve in the path and saw a man walking in her direction. Just a moment before, the thought of spending the afternoon all by herself seemed so wonderful. Now, all thoughts of an afternoon alone vanished, and she hoped she could, instead, spend it with this particular companion.

"Teyrn Loghain!" she called out, not even trying to contain the smile that burst across her face.

Rhianna adored the teyrn. He'd been one of her heroes as long as she could remember: the main character in most of the stories she'd learned at her father's knee. The man who freed Ferelden from the Orlesian occupation. Of course, a great many people had fought in the Rebellion, but somehow it was Loghain Mac Tir whom Rhianna credited with winning the Rebellion, driving out the Orlesians, and keeping Prince Maric alive long enough to become king. He'd made the best battle plans, and organized the Night Elves, and defeated two legions of chevaliers at the Battle of River Dane. Ferelden had never had a greater hero.

Then, three years ago, after that Satinalia in Denerim when she'd met him for the first time, what started out as hero-worship had grown into something else entirely. He was even more magnificent in person than he had been in the stories. Tall and solid and handsome and strong, and he'd been so gentle when he'd bandaged her arm, and then he'd told her such a wonderful story. She'd been so impressed by meeting him she'd talked about little else for weeks afterward. And then, much to her surprise and delight, Loghain had arrived in Highever, accompanying King Maric on a hunting expedition. Rhianna had been allowed to ride out with them, mounted on a twelve-year-old palfrey originally belonging to her mother, and Rhianna had rarely been as happy in all her life.

Since then, Loghain and King Maric had become regular visitors in Highever. Two or three times a year, they would arrive together, sometimes on their own, and sometimes with others - Cailan and Anora, or Cailan's uncle, Teagan Guerrin. They came to hunt or to sail or to attend one of the local festivals. Last year, they had come for the Festival of Wolves, and Loghain allowed Rhianna to sit in his lap while they watched the reenactment of Haelia Cousland's victory over the werewolves that had terrorized the Coastlands hundreds of years ago.

Regardless of the reason for the visit, Loghain always made time for Rhianna, allowing her to drag him up the battlements to see the view from the top, or out to the stables to see a new foal, or down to the mill pond to visit a family of ducklings. And they would talk together about all sorts of things. Not the boring sorts of things the other nobles wanted to talk about - salons and fashions and who was going to marry whom - but interesting things, like when the snows were expected, or how long it took puppies to wean, or where the birds went when the weather turned cold, or which mushrooms were safe to eat. Sometimes he told her stories - stories about the Rebellion, or stories he'd been told as a child. And sometimes they just walked together without saying much of anything. This was what Rhianna loved best, perhaps: being able to be quiet with someone, and not having to talk at all.

So, even though he was her hero, the real reason she adored Loghain was that he was kind to her. Well, perhaps kindness wasn't the reason; lots of people were kind to Rhianna. The people in Highever - merchants and tradespeople and villagers - always had a cheerful greeting for "the teyrn's lovely daughter," but Rhianna guessed some of them only acted that way in order to stay on her father's good side. And when it came to other nobles, she didn't trust them at all. They were all unfailingly pleasant, but she never could tell if they really liked her, or if they were just pretending to be nice because someday they hoped to convince her to marry one of their sons.

She never worried about that with Loghain. Partly because he didn't have any sons, but mostly because he was nicer to her than he was to just about everyone else, including her parents. Including, even, King Maric. Which led her to believe he genuinely liked her, and enjoyed her company. As a result, she adored not only the hero but also the man, and finding him in the garden just now was the best thing that could have happened.

She wanted to hear what he thought of Empress Celene, and ask him when he would be coming to Highever again, and tell him about the dolphins she'd seen last time she and Fergus had gone sailing. And . . . there was something else she needed to tell him. Something important she had wanted to say. But what was it, exactly? She searched her mind, but couldn't remember. Hopefully it would come to her while they were talking.

When she called out to him, he smiled, but not quite as broadly as usual. Perhaps something was bothering him.

So, she ran to greet him, and when she got close enough, she reached out her arms and leapt at him. He caught her in midair, swinging her into an embrace. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her cheek against the skin just above his shirt collar, breathing in deeply the scent she had come to love. A scent that reminded her of rich, newly-turned earth, and horses, and leather, and soap, and grass, and old parchment.

Perhaps if she hugged him very, very tightly, she could chase away the gloom he'd been wearing on his face.


Loghain picked the girl up and held her close, enjoying her softness, her weight in his arms, the way her hair tickled his neck. Enjoying the pleasure of simple human contact, something that was in short supply in his life. She hugged him longer than usual, and he wondered if she was upset about something, even though she'd been all smiles when she'd greeted him. Finally, she released her hold, and he set her gently back down on her feet.

"It's good to see you, Teyrn Loghain!" she said brightly. "Although I'm surprised to find you here in the garden. Aren't you supposed to be meeting with the king, and with Father? And the empress, of course."

"I was," he replied, "but I decided I needed a breath of fresh air."

There was no reason to worry the girl by telling her he wasn't happy with the treaty being negotiated. Oh, there was much talk of "peace and amity" between the two nations, and Celene had been quick to promise that Orlais would make no move to invade Ferelden again. She had, however, been unwilling to even consider the possibility of allowing Ferelden's Grand Cleric to operate independently from the Orlesian Chantry. The Divine in Orlais had far too much influence, as far as Loghain was concerned, but it seemed that wasn't going to change anytime soon. Loghain was pleased that all lands east of the Frostback Mountains were now mutually agreed to belong to Ferelden, including Gherlen's Pass, and the small village near the entrance to the dwarven city of Orzammar. His pleasure about this was dulled, however, by the far-too-generous trade concessions Maric was offering.

But Maric made it clear he didn't want Loghain and his bad opinion of Orlais causing trouble. So, rather than continually bite his tongue when it was clear Maric wasn't going to heed his advice anyway, Loghain had decided to step out for a few minutes. Perhaps more than a few. Just being in the same room with the empress set Loghain's teeth on edge. He needed to clear his head of that woman's hideous Orlesian accent and the smell of her dreadful perfume. He planned to go back in plenty of time to make sure Maric didn't promise anything totally idiotic, but in the meantime, he would enjoy the gardens.

The sight of Rhianna should have cheered him; he was fond of the little Cousland girl. Whenever Maric dragged Loghain to Highever, on some hunting trip or another, she was always happy to see him, and had things she wanted to tell him, things she wanted to show him. He didn't mind; the girl was clever and cheerful and had an interesting way of viewing the world, all of which made her a pleasant companion. And the little adventures she initiated invariably took them out of doors, a welcome change after spending so much time in Denerim, surrounded by people.

Life at court was not ideal for a man like Loghain Mac Tir. It had been twenty years since Maric had granted Loghain the teyrnir of Gwaren for his efforts during the Rebellion, and Loghain still didn't feel entirely comfortable with this lifestyle. It certainly was no life he had ever envisioned for himself as a child. He was the son of farmers, raised to understand the turning of the seasons and the gentle demands of the earth, not the drama and machinations of politics. Even so, after the Orlesians had been ousted from Ferelden, Maric had insisted on granting Loghain the teyrnir and putting him in charge of Ferelden's armies. It was the first time in recent memory a commoner had been elevated to the nobility, and it was a somewhat bold move on Maric's part. Then again, they'd just won a war. Who was going to tell the new king he couldn't give a teyrnir to the man who'd been so instrumental in the winning of that war?

So Loghain had reluctantly agreed. He was a good advisor and general, and he knew Maric needed someone at his side who wouldn't shy away from making difficult decisions. But even though he told himself he accepted the teyrnir more for Maric's sake than for his own, it wasn't as though Loghain had some other life to go back to once the fighting had ended. His family's land had been taken by the Orlesians, and he'd stopped thinking of himself as a farmer long before he had ever laid eyes on Maric.

But even after so many years, Loghain often felt he was on the outside looking in. He didn't have patience for the petty squabbles that made up so much of what went on at the Landsmeet each year, and didn't always restrain himself from voicing his displeasure. He also had a well-deserved reputation as the king's "enforcer," which didn't do anything to improve his popularity. And of course, even if he'd been a cheerful, personable man, there was a small but vocal minority at court who would never accept him. Teyrn or not, to some of the Fereldan nobility, Loghain Mac Tir would never be more than the jumped-up son of commoners, a man who had no business ruling a teyrnir and even less being an advisor to the king. A hero? Yes. But a member of the nobility? Never. Conservatives, like the late queen's brother, Arl Eamon Guerrin, made no secret they barely tolerated his presence out of respect for King Maric.

Not that this bothered Loghain, particularly. He wasn't the sort of person who cared much for the opinions of others. But it did mean he had always been a bit wary of most of the other nobles, and had never had a surplus of friends at court.

He guessed little Rhianna Cousland was a kindred spirit in that way, although for exactly the opposite reason. Rather than being too common, she was too well-bred. Not only had she inherited an impeccable bloodline from her father, but on her mother's side she was descended from Calenhad the Great, the man who had united the Alamarri tribes four hundred years ago, becoming the first King of Ferelden. The founder of the royal Theirin line they'd all fought so hard during the Rebellion to keep alive. Truth be told, Rhianna Cousland had as much royal blood as Prince Cailan, and there were probably a fair few people, especially in the younger generation, who resented her for it.

So perhaps she was as glad as he was to get away from the constant obnoxious chatter of the nobility when they descended upon Highever, or when she was visiting Denerim with her family. Regardless of her reasons, she certainly seemed to enjoy spending time with him, and he was more than happy to let her lead him around on whatever adventures captured her fancy.

But today, for some reason, he felt vaguely unhappy with her. Annoyed, even. Perhaps it had something to do with the way in which her name had come up that morning during the negotiations with Empress Celene.

"Teyrn Bryce," the woman had purred, "I must say your daughter is an extremely charming young woman. Quite lovely to look at, and well spoken, and her command of Orlesian is most impressive. You must be very proud of her."

"I am proud of her," Bryce had replied, his eyes slightly wary. "She does her best to be a credit to Highever, and to Ferelden."

"I wonder if you have yet made an arrangement for her future. For her marriage?"

"No. I have not," the teyrn had said slowly.

"That is excellent!" Celene clapped her hands together once, in a gesture that made her seem very young. Which, of course, she was, although most of the time she seemed far older than her seventeen years. "Then, I have a proposal to make. I have a cousin, my first cousin, who lives in Val Chevin. He is a very charming, very handsome man, and next in line for the throne if something, Maker forbid, were to happen to me before I have children of my own. A marriage between my cousin and your daughter would greatly benefit both of our countries. And it would show dedication on both sides to this peace we all want so very much. It would please me greatly to include such an arrangement in this treaty we are negotiating."

Just the fact the empress had any cousins left had come as a surprise. She hadn't been first in line to inherit from her uncle Florian - far from it - and it was widely speculated she only ascended the Orlesian throne after eliminating all other family members who stood in her way. After spending the morning with her, Loghain believed her quite capable of such treachery. There was something hard and steely about the woman. Underneath all of her smiles and silks and curls, she was ruthless and tenacious. Good qualities in a ruler, but not so attractive in an enemy. And there was no doubt this woman, peace treaty or not, was still an enemy to Ferelden.

And she had set her sights on Rhianna Cousland.

Fortunately, Bryce had been quick to refuse. "I am truly honored, Your Majesty, that you hold my daughter in such high esteem. And I have no doubt your cousin would make an excellent husband for her. However, my daughter is too young for me to consider any such arrangement. And even were she older," he had added, "my wife and I have always preferred the idea of a domestic marriage for her."

For a moment, Loghain thought Celene was going to argue; after all, the first part of Bryce's refusal wasn't even remotely true. Rhianna was more than old enough to be betrothed. Too young to be sent off to Orlais to be married right away, perhaps, but certainly old enough for an arrangement to be put into place.

Rather than trying to convince him, though, Celene had smiled, and inclined her head in submission. The look in her eyes, however, suggested she had no intention of giving up on the idea so easily.

Loghain looked down at Rhianna now, as she regarded him with her green eyes and her ready smile. She had no idea she was already being thought of as a political pawn, but perhaps she wouldn't be surprised. She was the daughter of a teyrn; such was her lot in life.

"I hope the empress isn't being horrible to you," she said. "I don't expect you're her favorite person, after all, seeing as you're the one who threw the Orlesians out all those years ago."

Before he could respond, she drew in a quick breath. "Oh!" she said, her eyes darkening beneath her furrowed brows. "Teyrn Loghain," she began, her voice low and intense, "I've just remembered something I wanted to say to you."

Whatever it was, it seemed to have unsettled the girl. "What is it?"

"Well . . . um . . ." she began, hesitantly, as if unsure how to continue. She took in a deep breath, and let it out again. "My mother told me what happened . . . to . . . to your wife. That she was ill last winter, and died just after the first of Haring."

Loghain blinked, feeling almost lightheaded. Maker's blood. This was the last thing he would have expected, for the girl to bring up Celia's death. He took a deep breath. Then another. And another.

"I'm so sorry for your loss," Rhianna continued, her eyes staring unflinchingly into his own. "For you, and for Anora." She glanced away. "I need to remember to say this to her as well," she added, almost more to herself than to Loghain. Then, she held his gaze again. "I can't imagine what it must be like for you, how I would feel if someone I loved - one of my parents, or my brother - were to die. All I know is I would be so, so sad." She took a breath. "Even though I never met your wife, I'm sorry she's gone. And I wanted to you to know I said a prayer for her, to Andraste. Mother Mallol - she's our Chantry sister in Highever - says Andraste always listens to those sorts of prayers." Then, the girl fell silent, chewing at her bottom lip.

Loghain felt an ache, an almost physical pain in his chest. Of loss, of regret. Of guilt so fresh and hot that for a moment his vision clouded with the intensity of it.

Celia's passing had been unexpected. Except it hadn't been. When he reread things she had sent him over the past year, he realized she'd been ill on and off for months, even though she tried to downplay it in her letters. This variety of illnesses had weakened her enough that, when a ship sailed into Gwaren carrying goods tainted by the plague, she fell ill and was gone in only a few, brief days. So quickly that the messenger with Anora's letter saying her mother was ill had arrived in Denerim just hours before the one carrying word that Celia was dead.

His wife had been ill for months, and he should have realized. He would have realized if he'd paid more attention. But he hadn't paid attention, and he hadn't left Denerim to make the trip to Gwaren to see her. To be there for her, to see her one last time and say goodbye. It had been two years, nearly three, since he had seen his wife. The way that must have made her feel, especially near the end, when she'd known she was dying . . . his gut clenched at the thought of it, and he closed his eyes for a moment, again willing himself to breathe slowly, deeply, one breath at a time.

Damn! Why were these feelings plaguing him now? The girl was not the first to offer her condolences. He had received a great many, from just about every noble in Ferelden, and more than a few of his soldiers as well. Some of them even sounded genuine. But none of the others managed to penetrate the way Rhianna's had. Perhaps because just about everyone else had surely guessed that Loghain Mac Tir hadn't had anything resembling a happy marriage. How could he, when he lived in Denerim, and his wife lived in Gwaren, the distance between them far greater than the mere miles between the two cities?

But whatever tragedy he had made of his marriage, he didn't want to think about that now. He'd been avoiding these thoughts, these feelings, for months, and didn't intend for that to change. Not yet. Certainly not right now. Not with this Maker-damned treaty in the works, and Maric seeming happy to agree to whatever that wretched Orlesian woman asked of him.

When he opened his eyes, Rhianna was looking up at him, still frowning slightly. She knew nothing of the shambles his marriage had become; her words had been meant to comfort him, spoken for no reason other than kindness. He needed to say something in return.

"Yes, I'm sure you're right," he said, with a surprisingly harsh edge to his words. "Andraste would have been happy to receive prayers for Celia." Another breath. "And thank you for saying one," he added, willing his voice to be gentle.

"You're welcome." She looked down at the ground for a moment, kicking at the gravel on the path with the toe of one of her shoes. Finally, she spoke again. "I wondered when I was going to see you." She glanced up at him before looking away again. "I was afraid we might to return to Highever before I got the chance."

"Well, we couldn't let that happen, could we?" There was a bit of a sneer in his voice.

What in the Maker's name was wrong with him? Why was he speaking to this child in such an unkind manner? Something was bothering him, not just about Celia, but something about the girl as well.

"I know we didn't talk," he continued, "but I did see you yesterday. When you were presented to Empress Celene."

She didn't seem to notice his discomfort. "Yes, I saw you there as well. When you introduced Anora to the empress. And of course, you would have been there anyway. There's hardly anyone in Ferelden more important than you." She paused, chewing at her lip again. "So what did you think of her? Of the empress, I mean?"

"What do I think? I think she is very young and . . ." he trailed off, not sure what else he could say without making it obvious he disliked the woman. Then again, it's not as though anyone would be surprised to hear it, so he finished the thought. "I think she is very young, and probably wants to rule Ferelden, as her cousin Meghran did." The girl's lips tightened, and her eyes narrowed. "To be perfectly honest, I don't really trust her."

"I don't think anyone expected you to trust her," she said, the hint of a grin playing across her lips. "But I agree with you. I don't trust her either. That's what I told King Maric when he asked me about it yesterday evening." Well, the girl had good instincts, at any rate, even without knowing Celene wanted to marry her off to some wretched Orlesian cousin. And Maric had asked Rhianna for her opinion? That was . . . interesting.

Loghain raised a brow as he considered the girl. "You seemed to get along with her quite well, though," he said, a touch of resentment bubbling up inside of him. "She clearly enjoyed talking with you. And I saw she gave you a gift." A golden charm of some sort, according to Maric, although Rhianna didn't appear to be wearing it now. "I had no idea you spoke Orlesian so remarkably well," he drawled. "I didn't understand more than a few words of what was being said."

She laughed. "Oh, that. I've had a tutor since I was three. Father insisted. You didn't miss much, though, I promise. We didn't talk about anything interesting. She asked me if I'd been to Orlais, and I told her I hadn't, and she thought I was thirteen, and I had to tell her I was only eight, and then she invited me to visit her in Val Royeaux, and she gave me a golden charm in the shape of a half-sun. It's very pretty, with gemstones in it, but I can't imagine when I'll ever want to wear it." She looked up at him, her eyes wide. "The half-sun is the symbol of Orlais, you know."

"Yes. I know."

Before he could say anything else, she continued, "Like I said, I think you're right about her. I mean honestly, why would she think a girl from Ferelden would want to wear the symbol of Orlais? Doesn't that seem strange? The Rebellion wasn't so long ago that everyone has forgotten. I wasn't even born yet, and I know all about it. But even if she had given me something more useful, I don't think I would have liked her any better. She had so much paint on her face I couldn't even tell what she looks like. She seemed pretty, in a way, but also kind of scary. How can you trust someone when you can't see her face?"

Rhianna's expression was earnest, her eyes wide, and her lips slightly parted. Loghain gave her a strained smile, feeling a bit battered by the speed of the girl's narrative, and only half aware that she'd ended it by asking a question.

It was a good question, however. How could you trust someone when you couldn't see her face. Especially when that someone was venomous and foreign, dressed up in finery the likes of which had not been seen in Ferelden in a generation . . .

Oh, Maker's balls. That was it! The reason he'd been so uncomfortable. It wasn't anything to do with the empress and the marriage she was trying to arrange. It was Rhianna herself. The way she'd been dressed the previous day, her hair pulled up into a ridiculous style, wearing an Orlesian gown that barely covered her shoulders. She'd looked like a child prostitute on some wharf in Antiva, not a proper Fereldan girl. And she'd spoken such perfect Orlesian. That's why Loghain had been angry.

Which, of course, was completely ludicrous. Being angry? With Rhianna? An eight-year-old girl who had surely not chosen either the clothes or the hair for herself. If she spoke Orlesian, it's because her father had insisted she learn, and she was a clever person who liked doing things to the best of her ability. And it certainly wasn't her fault Celene had taken notice.

No, Rhianna wasn't responsible for any of this, and having ill feelings toward her was utterly uncalled for. Loghain took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, feeling better, calmer, having identified the source of his discomfort.

"I think you're quite right," he replied, any hint of unkindness gone. "It is difficult to trust someone who covers her face in paint. Perhaps that's part of the reason I didn't like her much, either." He paused, remembering something the girl had said. "The empress wants you to visit Val Royeaux?"

"Yes. She said she wanted me to see things there, and to meet people." Of course the empress wanted Rhianna to meet people. One person in particular, anyway. "She thinks I would like Orlais," Rhianna continued, "but she's wrong about that." She leaned forward, and continued in a whisper. "If you want to know the truth, I'm scared at the thought of going."

"Scared? Why?"

Rhianna looked up at him, wrinkling her nose. "What do you mean, why? You know better than anyone why. Because what if they won't let me come home? What if they throw me in a dungeon, or chop off my head? I was afraid that's what was going to happen to Father and King Maric when they went earlier this year. I don't want to go to Orlais. Not ever. It's not safe, not for Fereldans!"

Maker's blood. Her eyes were wide and bright, and there was tension at the corners of her mouth. She really was afraid. Not that he could blame her; he certainly had no intention of going to Orlais. Not ever. And he supposed it was possible that if she traveled to Orlais, Rhianna might be coerced into staying, and forced into a marriage she clearly would not welcome. But it was also quite obvious the girl had taken some of the stories of the Rebellion a bit too much to heart. As much as he disliked the woman, Loghain was sure Celene had no intention of murdering Rhianna Cousland if she visited Val Royeaux.

Which probably would happen eventually. Bryce, while no fan of Orlais, wasn't quiet about his desire for relations to be better between the two nations. This wasn't unreasonable; not only was Highever close to Orlais, but the city's position on the coast made her vulnerable. Highever would likely be the first place to be attacked if things got out of hand again with Orlais. Perhaps that is why he had insisted that his daughter learn to speak Orlesian. Not Fergus, though. Loghain had noticed the lad spoke only Fereldan when he was presented to the empress. So, why should the child who would likely inherit the teyrnir not learn Orlesian as well? Perhaps Bryce hadn't been entirely honest earlier in the day, and he did intend a foreign marriage for the girl. Or wanted to leave the door open for one, in any case.

The truth was that finding a good marriage for Rhianna Cousland wasn't going to be easy. With her impressive bloodline, there was no one in Ferelden she could marry as an equal. But surely, even if a foreign match was what Bryce wanted for the girl, there were other places to go besides Orlais. Loghain's breath caught in his chest at the thought of Rhianna being sent off to marry this Orlesian cousin, who was certain to be foppish, with powdered hair and fancy clothes. A husband who might well forbid her from speaking her own language, who might never allow her to return home. The girl was proud to be Fereldan; being exiled from her homeland would crush her. And being wed to a relation of Empress Celene might prove dangerous, in the long run, if the woman really was as ruthless as Loghain believed her to be.

Thank the Maker Anora's future was secured. Sometime after Cailan came of age, Anora and the prince would be married, an arrangement that had been made years ago, when both of them were children. Fortunately, now they were grown they genuinely liked one another; Loghain honestly wasn't sure how he would have responded if his daughter had begged him not to force her to marry Maric's son.

Of course, his own daughter's security came, to a certain degree, at Rhianna Cousland's expense. If Rhianna had been born a few years earlier, before Maric and Loghain had made the arrangement between their children, it is almost certain she would be the one betrothed to Cailan. A match many Ferelden nobles would have found preferable. Anora, after all, was the granddaughter of farmers and carpenters. A match Rhianna would almost certainly have found preferable to being married off to some royal cousin in Orlais.

He shook his head, which was starting to hurt. Or perhaps it was still sore from the smell of Celene's perfume. Regardless of the girl's fluency in Orlesian, Bryce had said he wasn't interested in the arrangement Celene had suggested. For Rhianna's sake, Loghain hoped the girl's father stuck to that decision. But regardless of what the Couslands decided, it was hardly any of Loghain's concern.

Rhianna was staring at him, waiting for a response. He really needed to pull himself together. There were too many thoughts in his head at the moment, uncomfortable thoughts, but he wanted to put them all aside, and say something to ease her fears. And then, perhaps, he would change the subject. Talk about something pleasant. Just what had she been doing out in the garden, anyway? Surely, it wouldn't take much to convince her to go on some sort of little adventure with him. Something to take his mind off of . . . everything else. For a little while, at least.


Rhianna felt a bit . . . hollow as she looked up at Loghain. He was staring at her strangely, and it had been at least a minute since he'd last spoken. Maybe he thought she was stupid for worrying about having her head chopped off?

As if he'd read her mind, he said, "I'm sure the empress's invitation to visit was genuine, and she intends you no . . . harm. After all, both your father and the king were treated quite well on their visit, weren't they?"

"Yes," she admitted. "Father said they stayed in the palace, and were taken to see all sorts of lovely things, and invited to parties, and the coronation was one of the most amazing things he'd ever seen."

"There, you see?" He rested his hand on one of her shoulders. "I don't trust her, nor should you, but I don't think you need to be frightened of her, either. Just . . . cautious. Does that make sense?"

"Yes. I suppose you're right." It did make sense, but if anyone else had said it, she wouldn't have believed them. Hearing it from Loghain meant something, though. She knew he took Orlais, and whatever threat the empress might pose, very seriously. So if he said she was safe, then she was.

A hint of a smile crossed his face, as he looked at her through narrowed eyes, "But enough about Orlais, and the empress. Let's talk about something else, shall we?" He cocked his head to one side. "Why had you come out to the garden in the first place? Were you looking for someone?"

"No, not really. Mother's been busy all morning, and Habren and Tanith were whispering things to one another about me and laughing, so I came out here hoping to find someone friendly to play with. Maybe some kittens, or a badger. There are often kittens to be found in the garden at Highever. I thought I might have the same luck here."

He raised an eyebrow. "Kittens?"


"Well, had you found any?"

"No, ser," she replied. "I'd only just come outside when I found you."

"Well then," he said, his voice especially deep and gravelly, "it appears you and I have found ourselves a quest for the afternoon. To find some kittens. Or die trying. I trust you are up to the challenge?"

Rhianna giggled. He was so silly sometimes. Loghain Mac Tir - the Teyrn of Gwaren, the Hero of River Dane, the most celebrated warrior in all of Ferelden in a hundred years - intended to go looking for kittens? Well, silly though it may be, she certainly wasn't going to turn down the opportunity to go on a quest with Teryn Loghain. (That had a nice sound to it: a quest with Teyrn Loghain).

"Yes, ser," she affirmed. "Of course I will accept this challenge. But I think perhaps we needn't limit ourselves to just kittens. Especially if you meant that bit about 'die trying.'"

"Do you doubt my word?" One of his eyebrows curved upward as he stared at her through narrowed eyes. "Of course I meant it." He leaned toward her, a severe frown on his face. "I thought you were an intrepid adventurer, Lady Cousland, not one to shy away from things just because it meant putting your life on the line." He tried to keep the frown plastered on his face, but she could see the corners of his mouth twitching in an effort not to smile.

"Oh, I'm not shying away from putting our lives on the line," she explained, forcing her own expression to remain serious as well. "It's just I'm not sure it's the right season for kittens, and it would be silly to go to our deaths for not finding any if there simply weren't any to be found. Besides, a fox, or a badger, or a nest of quail would also be lovely. I know we'll find someone interesting if we search long enough."

He stood straight again, towering over her. "Fair enough," he said. "I suppose there's no harm in making this a more generalized quest, if you think it wise." He winked at her, and finally allowed the smile to creep across his face. "In any case, I definitely think you should lead the charge. I expect you are much better at this sort of thing than I am."

"I expect I am," she agreed, quite certain it was true. Rhianna had a way with animals.

Very pleased with this new plan, she slipped her hand into his, and led him down the path away from the palace.

They talked about nothing in particular as they wandered through the huge garden. Every so often, they would stop to check behind a tree, or peek into a shrubbery that looked particularly promising, searching for things with fur or feathers hiding within. Sooner or later, they'd find an animal of some sort; Rhianna could sense a variety of creatures going about their business all around them.

But truthfully, even though she would have never admitted this to Loghain, she didn't care whether or not their quest was successful. What did it matter if they found kittens? Or a fox, or even a badger? Animals were lovely, but she was perfectly content roaming around the garden with one of her favorite people in all the world. Especially now that he no longer seemed troubled by whatever had been bothering him when she first came upon him in the garden.

Maybe that hug she had given him had cheered him enough, after all.


Chapter Text

26 August, Dragon Age, 9:20


Rhianna sat at the desk in her bedroom, a map of southern Thedas spread out in front of her.

Yesterday, the Orlesian empress departed on a ship headed for Val Royeaux; today, both of Rhianna's parents were at the center of a flurry of activity, as the other nobles in Denerim eagerly sought out gossip and news and speculations about Celene's visit. As a result, no one was paying any attention at all to Rhianna, who decided to make herself scarce, just in case someone decided she ought to be on hand to entertain guests. So, first thing in the morning, she borrowed a few maps from her father's study, and hurried up to her room.

Rhianna loved maps, and found them endlessly fascinating. There was something very satisfying about seeing the distances between landmarks, and reading the names of places from stories and history books. She loved the beautiful colors, and the intricate, lovingly-painted designs along the margins and in the legends. Most of all, she loved running her fingers over the thick parchment, touching the places she had visited, and tracing the lines of roads and coastlines and mountain ranges to places she hoped to visit in the future.

Placing her finger at Denerim, she traced the path she guessed the empress's ship would travel. Where was the ship now? How far would a ship like that travel in twenty-four hours? Had it gone past Amaranthine yet? Maybe even all the way past Highever? Probably not as far as Highever, although she really had no idea how long such things took. She'd never sailed from Denerim to Highever; they'd always ridden in a carriage. She did know how long it took her and Fergus to sail their small boat to each of the islands off the coast of Highever, but those distances were small compared to how far the empress's ship would travel. Perhaps she could find a sea captain to ask, if her father took her along to the Gnawed Noble, where he often went for lunch or dinner while in Denerim. Or to the Drunken Wolf in Highever. Yes. She would talk to a sea captain about this, sometime in the future. That was a solid plan. Maybe even tonight; her father had mentioned something about going to the tavern later in the day.


A sound at her bedroom window, caught her attention. Glancing at the window, she didn't see anything at first. Then . . . movement. Something small and dark, accompanied by another sharp clink as an object hitting the glass. She stood and peered out of the window onto the garden below. What was it that hit the window? Not a bird - the object had been far too small. Maybe a pebble, but who could have thrown it? No one was in view.

There was something new in the garden, however. Something light-colored on the ground next to one of the rose bushes. It looked like a piece of parchment, rippling in the slight breeze.

A parchment in the garden? That was . . . odd. Probably, it would be a good idea to go out and investigate.

She didn't encounter anyone on the trip downstairs; even the servants seemed to be off gossiping. And outside, sure enough, there was a note held in place by a rock:

"Go to the basement under the old guard tower behind the Chantry. There you'll find a litter of kittens who have lost their mother and need your help."

A note about kittens? This, too, was odd. Who could have put it here?

And was it meant for her? Probably. Just about everyone who knew Rhianna also knew how much she liked animals. But why wouldn't the person who had written the note just knock on the door and tell her about the kittens in person? The whole thing seemed very strange.

Still . . . kittens. Without their mother, they would almost certainly die. She should try to find them.

She folded the note carefully, and tucked it into a pocket in her gown. Then she went inside to find her mother.

Eleanor was in the study, surrounded by half a dozen people, one of whom was speaking in a rather loud, rather whiny sort of voice. It was Lady Landra, and Eleanor was patting her on the shoulder, apparently trying to convince her of something. Rhianna stood in the doorway, and waited until her mother had seen her. But when she caught Eleanor's eye and began to move forward, her mother frowned, and shook her head at Rhianna, waving a hand to make it clear she did not want the girl to enter the room. Rhianna stopped, biting her bottom lip and bouncing on her heels a few times, willing her mother to understand Rhianna had something really important to tell her. But Eleanor just gave her daughter a stern look, shook her head again, and pointed to the door.

With a sigh, Rhianna left the study. What should she do? Her parents had told her plenty of times she wasn't to leave the estate by herself. In Highever, she was allowed to go wherever she liked, as long as she was home before dark. But in Denerim, things were much more strict. There were bandits in Denerim, and thieves and vagrants (whatever that meant) and people carrying horrible diseases, and possibly even kidnappers. Or so Mother and Father said. Surely, her parents were exaggerating the dangers. No one had ever been mean to her before when she'd been out in the city. She knew how to get to the Denerim marketplace, and the Chantry was just beyond that. Most important, this seemed like an emergency. Certainly, her parents would understand that the kittens needed her. They might be so small they were already starving without their mother! She had to try and find them, as soon as possible.

She left the estate through the front door and walked out into the city. There were only a few people on the streets, and they mostly walked quickly, with their heads down, except for one woman who was coughing violently into the sleeve of her dress. Rhianna started toward her, thinking perhaps she needed help, but the woman stopped coughing and pushed past before Rhianna could speak to her.

Twenty minutes later, she reached the bridge that spanned the Drakon River. Clouds darkened the sky, and she shivered in her short-sleeved gown. It was much cooler than it had seemed in the garden. Why hadn't she remembered to wear a shawl? Or to bring a basket for carrying the kittens? Maybe she should go home and get some supplies . . . but it was a long way to walk back.

No, there had to be some other way to get the kittens home once she had found them. Perhaps someone in the market would loan her a basket, if she asked very nicely.

Halfway across the bridge, she stopped to peer over the side into the water. It was murky and brown, and didn't appear to be flowing very quickly. How deep was it to the bottom? She looked around for a stone; it would be fun to throw one just to hear it splash, but none were lying nearby. Holding onto to the stone railing, she leaned even farther out over the water, looking for fish. There weren't any. It wasn't really a very nice river. It looked much prettier outside the city, where the water was clear and there were fish and ducks and swans and turtles.

She continued on into the marketplace. Hardly anyone was in the market. In fact, she'd never seen it this deserted before. It appeared as though all of Denerim was indoors today, discussing the empress's visit and the peace treaty and what it might mean for Ferelden. Something cold and wet landed on her arm; it was starting to rain. Within moments, she was being pelted with large raindrops that dampened her hair and her gown. She hurried through the market place and past the Chantry, wanting to get inside the guard tower. No wonder the market was so deserted. Probably everyone else was indoors, just to stay warm and dry.

She made it to the guard tower with no trouble, proud of herself for finding it so easily. When she pulled on the door handle, it opened with a soft creak. Inside, the light was dim, but the air felt slightly warmer. With a quick glance at the street behind her, she stepped through the door, leaving it open in her wake.

In front of her was a hallway leading to a closed door at the end. To the right, a staircase wound up, while to the left, another spiraled downward. The one going down was lit by torches that cast a warm, flickering light. She had expected guards, but she saw no one, nor were there any voices or footsteps or noises of any kind at all, either above or below. Maybe this tower was not being used anymore? That didn't seem right, though, considering all the torches. Someone must have been here today to light them.

Her stomach felt hollow, and not just from skipping lunch. She was starting to have second thoughts. No one knew she had come here, and she probably wasn't supposed to be in here without permission. Still, she'd come all this way. Surely it wouldn't take more than a few minutes to find the kittens; the tower didn't look very big from the outside. It would be silly not to continue.

Besides, she was brave. At least she wanted to be brave, and finding the building deserted hardly seemed a reason to be afraid. If she'd found monsters or bandits, that would be different, but just think how everyone would laugh at her if they knew she'd been scared because it was so quiet!

The note said the kittens were in the basement, so Rhianna made her way down the left-hand set of stairs. Good thing there were torches here, every few feet, lighting her way. It would have been really scary without them. She wasn't terribly fond of the dark, although she never admitted that to anyone.

At the bottom of the stairs, she found herself in a hallway. Two rooms opened off it to either side, and another door stood at the far end. The inside dimensions here seemed larger than the tower above. She must be underground.

"Hello?" Her voice bounced off the stone walls and returned, sounding small and scared. She didn't like that, so she spoke again, a little louder this time, "Hello? Is there anyone here?"

After the echo of her own voice died away, her question was met with nothing but silence.

Moving slowly, she peeked into each of the dark rooms off of the hallway, but didn't see any sign of the kittens, or of any other people, for that matter. There was a thick layer of dust on the sparse furnishings, as if the tower had been abandoned some time ago. At the far end of the hallway, the door was partially open. Unlike the rooms off the main hallway, this room was lit with a single torch, right next to the door. She pushed the door open wide enough to step through.

She was in a square room with several doors set into the far walls. Small cells, probably, like those she'd seen in the dungeon below Highever Castle. Cells where prisoners could be locked up, not that she'd ever seen anyone actually locked up in one of them. There was a table in the center of the room, and a couple of wooden chairs, all covered in dust like everything else in this place.

She heard something behind her, back the way she had just come: a soft thud, and a sibilant whisper. She couldn't tell if it was a voice, or perhaps something being dragged across the stone. She whirled around and looked back down the hallway, but saw nothing that hadn't been there a moment ago.

"Hello?" she called out again. "Is someone there?" Her heart thumped in her chest, her breath quickened, and the strange feeling in her stomach was stronger than before. Perhaps this hadn't been such a good idea, after all. She was about to leave, to run back up the stairs and out into the market square, or maybe even into the Chantry, when she heard another sound. This one, she recognized. A faint, thin mewling, probably in response to Rhianna's own voice.

The kittens! She'd found them.

Sighing with relief, she crossed the room toward the sound. She saw nothing in the first cell, nor in the second, but in the third one she checked, there it was. Not a litter, but just one kitten: a small grey tabby, laying awkwardly in the far corner of the cell. Rhianna rushed inside, kneeling on the ground beside the kitten.

Something was wrong; its leg was bent at an unusual angle. When she slid her fingers under the tiny, warm body, a vision exploded in her mind: a flash of movement, a booted foot, and then pain. She was accustomed to these visions; she'd had them many times before. Whenever she touched an animal, she knew how it was feeling, or what it was thinking, or what it wanted from her: food, or a good scratch behind the ears. She didn't even have to touch them most of the time and she could tell. But she'd never experienced anything quite this vivid before.

In any case, she knew exactly what had happened to the kitten: someone had kicked him, hard.

As gently as possible, she cradled the kitten in her hands, and held him close to her chest. "It's all right, little one. We'll find someone to help you."

Before she was able to get back up to her feet, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye: the door to the cell slamming shut. She heard the scratch of metal against metal, as if a key were being turned in the lock. Then, heavy footsteps running away, and suddenly the room was plunged into darkness. There was a metallic slam and a few heartbeats later, she heard another, similar sound, but fainter. The outer door to the tower perhaps? The one she'd left open behind her.

"Wait!" she cried out, scrambling to her feet, the kitten still cradled in her arm. "I'm in here! Please, come back!" Once on her feet, she wanted to run toward the door, but it was so dark in the room she couldn't see anything at all. She swayed forward, but her feet remained planted on the floor. Out of some instinct, her limbs had refused to propel her through the darkness, and she found herself frozen in place. She put her arm out in front of her and felt nothing but air. Bringing her hand directly in front of her face, she wiggled her fingers, but still couldn't see anything – no fingers, no movement, nothing at all. It was absolutely pitch black in the room.

For several breaths, she stood completely still, disoriented, and afraid to move, afraid to make any sound at all. But if she didn't make any noise, no one would know she was down here.

"Please!" she cried at the top of her lungs. "Please don't go! I'm in here! Please, come back and let me out!"

She remembered a small opening in the door at about the height of her shoulders, covered with metal bars, but in the complete darkness she could see neither inside nor outside of the cell. Hugging the kitten to her chest, she reached out with her other hand, feeling the air and shuffling her feet forward without lifting them off of the floor. She moved forward inch by inch until her hand found the cool, smooth wood of the door. When she leaned against it gently with her shoulder it didn't budge at all. She leaned against it harder, pushing and pushing repeatedly, but still it didn't give.

Her breath caught in her chest, and fear washed over her. She was trapped, locked away in the dark. No one knew where she was, and she didn't know how she would ever get out.

She slammed her shoulder against the door, this time with the force of all her weight.

A flash of pain exploded in her shoulder, and shot down her arm and across her back. She cried out, collapsing against the door, whimpering and waiting for the pain to subside. That had been a bad idea, and stupid of her to try. This was a prison of some sort, built to keep criminals inside. How was an eight-year-old girl supposed to break down the door?

When the pain in her shoulder had dulled, she ran her hand against the door. It was smooth - the wood felt old and well-worn - except for occasional rough patches which she tried to avoid, so she wouldn't get splinters in her fingers. She felt around where she thought a door handle might be, but there was nothing but a small hole, ringed with metal – the backside of the lock that kept her trapped inside. Sliding her hands toward the center of the door, her fingers felt the rim of the rectangular opening and its solid metal bars. She grasped each of them in turn, pulling and twisting, to see if they would budge. Tiny flakes of dirt or rust rained down on her arms, but the bars held tight.

She gasped out loud, her breath coming fast and heavy as she tried not to panic again. Her shoulder still ached from the last time. With one balled-up fist, she pounded on the door as hard as she could.

"Please! Please, someone help me! I'm locked in! Please!" She kept pounding until a whimper from the kitten got her attention. She turned and leaned back against the door of the cell, and focused on the tiny, warm creature in her arms.

"Poor little love," Rhianna whispered, her fingers gently exploring the kitten's small body. "You've been in here even longer than I have." She felt around the kitten's head, and behind his tufted ears, scratching him softly and being rewarded with what might have been a faint purr. Her fingers gently prodded his back legs, but when they reached his belly, he kicked at her, and whined softly. She thought of the booted foot she had seen in her vision. He'd been injured. Maybe some of his ribs were broken, and probably his front leg. It had looked wrong, when there had still been light to see by.

A sob escaped her throat, and hot tears formed in her eyes. Someone had done this deliberately, wounded this helpless animal on purpose. Maybe even the same person who had left the note in her garden. And now she and the kitten were trapped in here in the dark.

Rhianna fought back the urge to vomit, feeling more alone, and smaller, and more helpless than she had ever felt before. She began crying in earnest. Her legs refused to hold her weight, and she slid down the cell door until she was sitting on the dirt floor, and then instantly regretted it. Her mother would be furious with her for getting her dress so filthy.

Unless she never saw her mother ever again.

What if no one ever found her, and she was locked down here in the dark forever?

Tears streamed down her face, dropping onto the kitten's grey fur.

When she stopped crying, she blinked a few times and opened her eyes. Perhaps they would have adjusted to the dark by now . . . but no, they hadn't. She still could see absolutely nothing. In some places, she thought the darkness looked particularly dark, but she wasn't able to distinguish any shapes whatsoever. In her arms, the kitten was mostly still, stirring only occasionally and mewling in pain. If only she had something to feed him; he'd been away from his mother so long. She was hungry, too. It had been stupid to leave the house without first having any lunch.

Rhianna cradled the kitten in her arms, stroking his fur as gently as she could, wanting to soothe without causing additional pain. Occasionally, she would see a thought in her mind, of a dimly-lit place, with furry companions and the warm smell of milk. The kitten's memories of his litter mates and his mother. How had he gotten separated from them? Cruel hands pulling him away and stuffing him into something small and dark. Then, the booted foot kicking him, and leaving him lying in the corner of this miserable cell. Poor thing. This was as horrible for him as it was for her, even more so, as he was in pain from his injuries.

She shivered. Her dress felt cold and clammy, and it was so dark in here, so unrelentingly dark. It was disorienting to blink her eyes and see no difference when she opened them again, and to see no difference when she turned her head from side to side.

Suddenly, she felt the need to urinate, quite strongly. How was she supposed to do that? Here, in the dark? There was no privy, no chamber pot. Nothing. Rhianna began to whimper softly with each exhalation, short sounds that lengthened into prolonged moaning, and soon she was sobbing again, crying tears that felt hot against her cool skin. The feeling of pressure, and slightly of pain, became stronger. She couldn't possibly keep holding it. Who knew how long it would be before someone found here in here? So she would just have to . . . do it. Right here, in the cell.

She got to her feet, and felt her way around to the back of the cell. She struggled to pull up her skirt and tug her smallclothes down around her ankles, all the while holding the kitten with one arm. Squatting near the floor, she relieved herself, wrinkling her nose at the sharp smell of her own urine. She felt better though, afterward, and hurried to tug her smalls back into place; the cool air felt unpleasant on her bare bottom.

Moving back to the door, she felt every inch of it with her fingers, looking for any way she might be able to free herself. When she found the backside of the lock again, she poked her index finger into the hole. The key was there, close enough she could just barely feel the edge of it, where it sat perched inside the lock. Mocking her, almost, so close that she could touch it, but not use it to open the door. She tried her pinkie finger, and found it fit much better into the hole. Slowly, she pushed at the key until it fell away from her, out of the lock, and hit the floor outside her cell with a sharp thunk.

She dropped to her knees, feeling frantically at the bottom edge of the door. If she could just reach underneath somehow . . . but no, the space between the door and the floor wasn't wide enough for even one of her fingers, let alone her entire arm. The same was true at the edges of the door.

Sobbing in disappointment, she collapsed back onto the floor. Why was this happening? Why did someone want to lock her away in here? Could it have happened accidentally? That seemed . . . unlikely. First the note, and then the injured kitten. And someone had deliberately turned the key in the lock. But why? And who would do such a thing? She held the kitten a little bit tighter, rubbing her cheek against his soft fur, while she let herself cry again.

Finally, she managed to take a breath without it catching in her throat. She needed to do something. Anything. There must be some way out of this horrible darkness. With her right hand, she started feeling her way all around the room, cradling the kitten in her left arm. Slowly, methodically, she felt along the floor and the walls as high as she could reach. Once, she knelt down hard on something that dug into her knee, and she cried out in pain. Feeling around in the dirt, she found it, something round and cold, made of metal with a post sticking out of one side. A button, perhaps? A trickle of warm blood ran down her leg where the post had pierced her skin.

Maybe she could use the button to unlock the door, through the hole on this side. She crossed the cell as quickly as she dared in the dark, and found the keyhole. She tried to insert the button into the hole from every possible angle, but the button itself was too big to fit, and the post was too short to reach the mechanism inside. After several minutes of trying, she gave up, and pushed the button into her pocket, beside the note she'd found in the garden.

She continued searching the cell. When she reached the far corner, she put her hand into a puddle of something cold and wet. Ugh! The spot where she'd relieved herself. She wiped her hand on the dirt floor, and then scrubbed it dry on the bottom edge of her gown. Must remember to avoid that spot in the future.

Soon, she'd made it back around to the door. She had found nothing but dirt and rocks, and that useless button. Nothing that offered any hope of escape.

She sat with her back against the door. The kitten was so quiet. Worryingly quiet. Just how long had it gone without eating? Why, oh why hadn't she thought to bring any food? And it was so cold in here. She shivered, her dress damp against her skin and her hair cold against her scalp. Trying her best to keep the kitten warm in her arms, she laid down on the floor, making herself as small as possible to conserve warmth.

Knock . . . knock . . . knock . . .

Her eyes opened wide. What was that sound? She could still see nothing at all, but she climbed quickly to her feet, hoping it was real, hoping whoever it was wouldn't go away.

Yes, she could still hear it. A soft, rhythmic knocking . . . maybe someone coming down the stairs?

"Help me!" she shouted, pounding with one fist on the metal door. "I'm down here. Please! Help me!"

When she stopped pounding and listened, she could still hear the sound. Knock . . . knock . . . knock . . . knock . . . knock. It just continued, on and on, not getting any louder or softer, always at the same pace.

A whimper escaped her throat as she realized what it was, a sound she'd heard many, many times before. It wasn't someone knocking, or footsteps on the stair.

It wasn't someone coming to let her out.

It was water, dripping. Maybe onto a metallic surface, somewhere up above. It must still be raining outside.

No one was coming.

She collapsed back to the floor of the cell, feeling worse than before.


Rhianna had no idea how long she'd been down here. Hours, at least, but right now it seemed as though she'd been locked away for days, or maybe forever. It was hard to remember what it was like being able to see things, and she didn't really want to try. Thinking about the world outside was . . . bad. What if she never saw any of it again?

And staring out and not seeing anything was horrible and terrifying. Maybe the worst feeling she'd ever felt in her entire life. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and took a deep breath.

Yes, that was better. She relaxed her eyelids, closing them gently like she did when she was trying to go to sleep. This felt . . . safer. Calmer. Less panicky. With her eyes closed, it didn't seem so horrible she couldn't see, and for a few minutes, anyway, she could pretend that when she opened them the world would be there again with all its light and colors. She still couldn't stop shivering; she'd been shivering for . . . a while now. But she no longer felt like she was about to throw up.

Something tickled the skin on her arm. Then another something, and a third. Then pain, a sharp pinch as if she'd been bitten. By an insect, a flea perhaps, which had jumped onto her from the kitten. She brushed the back of her hand against her skin where she felt them crawling. There was one more tiny stabbing pain before she was able to brush them away. Her arm began to itch in the two places she had been bitten, and it took all her self-control not to scratch at her arm. That only makes the bites itch more, or so she'd been told. She couldn't remember ever being bitten by anything before.

Wait. What was that?

A new sound, in addition to the dripping water. A very faint sound, from just beyond the outer door to the room. So faint she had no idea what it could be, or if it was even real. She clambered to her feet, almost losing her balance, and felt for the opening in the cell door. When she turned her face to peek out of the hole, she could see something, or imagined that she could. A line of light, bright along the bottom edge of the door and fading as it extended into the room. It was so bright it hurt her eyes.

She blinked, rubbing at her eyes. What if it was her imagination, just wishful thinking?

When she opened her eyes again, the light was still there. That could mean only one thing: someone had brought a torch into the hallway!

With her fist, she pounded on the cell door as hard as she could. "Please!" she shouted, "please help me! I'm trapped in here and I can't get out! Please, please help me!"

The light grew increasingly brighter. Yes! Someone was there, and moving closer!

"Help me! Let me out of here, please! Oh, please! I'm locked up in here! Please help me!"

The light was now steady, and she heard a sound. A soft "clink," like metal falling onto stone, but still the door did not open. Perhaps it was locked, as well? Or maybe whoever was there couldn't hear her.

"Help, me!" she cried as loudly as she could, pounding with all her might. "Please! If the door is locked, knock to let me know you can hear me! Please tell my father where I am. His name is Bryce Cousland, and he lives at the Highever Estate! Please!"

There was no response. But . . . someone had to be on the other side of the door. Otherwise how did the light get there?

Unless . . . maybe the person on the other side could hear her, but just didn't want to answer.

She stopped pounding and fell silent.

Who would do a thing like that? Who could just stand there and listen to her cry out in panic? Maybe even enjoy hearing her cry out in panic.

Someone who had no intention of helping her, no matter how loud she shouted.

She backed away from the door, far enough to see the light through the barred cell window, but just barely. She wanted to be far, far away from whomever was standing there, listening. She held her breath, becoming as quiet as possible. That was silly, she knew. She'd just been screaming for help. Whoever was out there surely knew she was inside, so what good would it do being quiet? Even so, she pressed her back up against the wall, and tried not to make any noise at all. Her legs trembled; she wanted to sink to the floor, but she was afraid to take her eyes off of the door. What if whoever was out there opened the door? What if he wanted to hurt her? Maybe even kill her? She shivered, her breath coming in short gasps she tried to swallow for fear of being heard.

Finally the light began to retreat, growing gradually dimmer until it faded away entirely. She heard a muffled sound up above, then all was silent. And utterly dark once again. Her bottom lip began to quiver, and her teeth chattered against one another in her jaw.

She didn't know who had been on the other side of the door. Maybe the person who locked her away in here. Maybe a kidnapper who intended to make her family pay a lot of money to get her back again. Maybe a robber or a bandit or a demon or a ghost, although demons and ghosts probably didn't need torches.

Whoever it was, one thing was certain: that person hated her enough to not care that she was all alone in the dark. Maybe even hated her enough to leave her in here to die.

She allowed her legs to buckle underneath her, and sank to the floor, more miserable than she had ever felt in her entire life. She hugged the kitten tightly, grateful for his presence as tears once again began to pool at the corners of her eyes.

The kitten. He hadn't made any sound in several minutes. With a sick feeling in her stomach, she let her fingers roam over the small body once again. Feeling the kitten's tiny chest, she held her own breath, to see if there was movement.

There wasn't. The kitten was completely still. She realized the impressions she had been seeing in her head - the mental connection she shared with her small companion – had ceased some time ago.

The kitten was dead.

And probably, she would be dead too, long before anyone else came looking for her down in this dark, cold, horrible place.



Chapter Text

26 August, Dragon Age, 9:20


"Is it my imagination," Rendon Howe asked, "or is there really no provision in this 'peace' treaty for the removal of the chevaliers which are stationed along the western border?"

"It's not your imagination, Rendon," Bryce Cousland replied. "But I hardly think it negates the spirit of the treaty. Empress Celene was adamant that the chevaliers are there to protect, not to threaten."

A small group had gathered at the Gnawed Noble tavern to discuss, of course, this wretched peace treaty of Maric's. And while Loghain was more than ready to be done talking about the empress' visit, it never hurt to keep abreast of what the rest of the nobility was thinking. So, here he was, taking his evening meal at the tavern. Fortunately, Bryce seemed happy to narrate what had taken place in the audience chamber while the agreement was being hammered out, and Loghain was able to sit back quietly and listen.

"Protect? Protect whom?" Bann Nicola Baranti's voice was calm, but Loghain detected a hint of discontent in her tone. This was surprising; the Bann of Denerim City generally gave her wholehearted and vocal support to anything backed by the king, and this treaty was Maric's current pride and joy. Then again, her family had not faired well - to put it mildly - under Orlesian rule, so Bann Nicola had as much cause as anyone to be concerned about any potential weaknesses in the agreement with Orlais.

"The chevaliers are there to protect Orlais, primarily," Bryce answered. "The Avvarian tribes in the Frostback Mountains are as much of a threat now as ever. Raiding parties still attack both Orlais and Ferelden, often enough that I don't see how we can fault the empress for wanting chevaliers on hand to deal with them. This potentially benefits Ferelden, as well. Empress Celene offered their services on this side of the border, should we be plagued with raiders we are not equipped to handle."

Oh yes. Celene had been positively beaming when she suggested this during the negotiations. "Our chevaliers are at your disposal," she had said, smiling wide-eyed at Maric. "They are, after all, the most well-trained fighters in Thedas. If we can help, even in a small way, to protect your western lands from the barbarians, it would be the least we could do. 'To remain friends,' as Teyrn Cousland's charming daughter might say." After an exceedingly pointed look from Maric, Loghain had bitten back his reply. "To remain friends," indeed. Well, no matter what Maric or anyone else said, there was no way chevaliers would be allowed to enter Ferelden, on the pretense of fighting Avvarian raiders or anything else. Not so long as Loghain Mac Tir drew breath.

"We've never before needed chevaliers to drive back the raiders," Gallagher Wulff said with a frown, echoing Loghain's own thoughts on the matter. "And considering it's my own arling that has been attacked by the Avvar more often than any other part of Ferelden, I say let's leave the chevaliers to their business in Orlais, and continue on without their 'friendly' assistance."

Before anyone could respond, there was a flurry of activity in the doorway. Eleanor Cousland hurried into the room, with Fergus and the Highever footman in tow. A shawl was thrown haphazardly over her shoulders, and her hair was damp from the rain that had fallen steadily since midday. It was unlike Eleanor to appear so disheveled. And the look in her eyes . . .

Loghain sat up straighter in his chair. Something had happened.

Eleanor?" Bryce had smiled when his wife entered the room, but that smile quickly faded. "What's wrong?" he asked, rising to his feet.

She glanced around the table, then pulled Bryce aside.

Fragments of their whispered conversation swept across the otherwise silent room.

"Have you seen . . . "

"No . . . with you . . . at the estate."

"She's not . . . searched everywhere."

"What do you mean? . . . Where else . . ."

Eleanor looked frantic, and Bryce shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other.

"What is it, Bryce?" Rendon Howe asked from across the room. "Is something the matter?"

Bryce ran a hand through his hair. "Rhianna appears to be . . . missing," the teyrn replied.

"Missing?" Loghain asked. He got to his feet, as did Gallagher Wulff and Leonas Bryland. "What do you mean? What happened?"

"I don't know," Eleanor said, breathless. "But we've searched everywhere on the estate for her, in the house and the garden. She's not there. She's just not . . . anywhere."

Bryce placed a hand on her shoulder. "Eleanor, I'm sure Rhianna's fine. She's probably just hiding somewhere in the garden. She's found a nest of baby birds or something, and lost track of the time."

The teryna did not look convinced.

"When, and where, was the last time you saw her?" Loghain asked.

Eleanor turned to him, taking a deep breath. "Just before noon. She came into the study, and tried to get my attention, but . . . " Eleanor ran a hand across her face, "Landra was having one of her . . . moments, so I sent Rhianna away without hearing whatever it was she wanted to tell me." Heads nodded around the room. Landra was notorious for her fondness for drink, and for becoming emotional when she overindulged.

"I shouldn't have sent her away." The teyrna's voice cracked on those last words. "Perhaps . . . well, I don't know what could have happened. All I know is she didn't come down for dinner, and when we tried to find her, she just wasn't there." Turning to Bryce, "She's not in the garden, she's not in the house. And no one at the estate has seen her all day, not since breakfast. She never went to the kitchen asking Cook for lunch. Wherever she is, she's got to be starving, and if she's somewhere in the city, I don't even know where to start looking. What if she . . . I don't know, what if she fell in the river?" The teyrna's voice shook, and her eyes were bright with unshed tears.

"She didn't fall in the river, dear," Bryce assured her, although his voice sounded strained. "And even if she did, she's a good swimmer."

"But what if she hit her head . . . and if no one saw her fall in?" Eleanor argued. "Or what if someone . . . took her?"

A murmur swept through the room. Certainly, it was possible the girl had been kidnapped. The Couslands were a wealthy family. If Rhianna had been taken for ransom, all they could do was wait for a note to be delivered, and hope the kidnappers were treating her kindly. And if she'd been taken by someone who didn't intend to ask for a ransom . . . well, that possibility was not worth thinking about.

"Wherever she is, we'll find her," Loghain said firmly, grabbing his cloak. "Bryce, where would you suggest we start looking?"

Bryce closed his eyes briefly, as if searching his mind for some clue to the whereabouts of his daughter. "Well, if she wandered off on her own, she's likely to be out of doors somewhere, looking for badgers or chickens or whatever else she can find."

"In this weather?" Bann Nicola asked. "It's been raining for hours. Would she have really gone out looking for . . . badgers in weather like this?"

"Perhaps she left home before it started raining," Loghain said, "and she's sitting in a shed or under an arbor waiting out the storm, not realizing how late it is. So, let's start looking in the gardens."

After a lifetime of commanding armies, Loghain didn't hesitate in issuing orders to those assembled in the room. "Leonas, check the South Reach estate. Rhianna has been a frequent guest of yours." He turned to Rendon Howe. "And she's spent a good deal of time at the Amaranthine estate, as well. so you look there. Gallagher," he said to the Arl of West Hills, "why don't you go down to the river. And Nicola, perhaps you should go to the palace. Ask Maric to have the garden searched. Rhianna I walked there together just a few days ago, and found a family of squirrels in one of the trees. Perhaps she went back to visit them."

As the others prepared to venture out into the rain, Loghain turned to the girl's father. "Bryce, alert the guard that she's missing, and then check Fort Drakon. I remember her saying once she was interested in seeing the view from the top." Bryce nodded, seeming grateful that Loghain had a calm head and was willing to take charge of the situation.

"Fergus," Loghain suggested, "why don't you go to the waterfront? Rhianna has always been interested in boats and sailing. Perhaps she went to the docks, and couldn't find her way back. Those streets can be confusing if you're not familiar with the area." Fergus nodded his agreement, his eyes dark, and his expression grim.

"And Eleanor," Loghain said finally, "You have the most difficult task of all. I want you to return to the Highever estate and wait there, in case she comes home. Or," he added quietly, "in case someone arrives with a ransom note." Eleanor's eyes widened slightly, but she nodded. "I'm going to search the gardens at Gwaren House," Loghain continued, "and send all my servants out to look for her. Then, I'll head to the Market District. It's central, and if she went through there today, it's likely someone will have seen her."

Eleanor looked scared but no longer quite so panicked, and she and Bryce and Fergus left the room together. Loghain was now alone in the room with Rendon Howe, who had remained seated.

"What are you doing, just sitting there?" Loghain asked. "Go have a look in your estate gardens. Rhianna's knows them well, does she not?"

Slowly, Howe drew himself to his feet. "This is a lot of fuss for one small girl, don't you think?"

What? What on earth was wrong with the man? A child was missing! Of course there would be a "fuss" about it. But before Loghain come up with a response, Howe added, "But of course, your grace, I'll be more than happy to have the garden searched. You're right, Rhianna rather enjoys our labyrinth. I suppose it's possible she decided to play there today. Maybe she's gotten lost inside and can't find her way out again."

With a nod, Loghain hurried from the room. He felt ill at the thought something bad might have happened to the little Cousland girl.


Rhianna lay curled up on the dirt floor of the cell, exhausted from crying, and shivering from the cold. For a while, her stomach had hurt from having gone so long without eating anything, but then she'd stopped feeling hungry. Now, the thought of food seemed strange, like it was something she'd only ever had in a dream, and she wasn't sure she had the energy to eat something, even had it been available. Her limbs ached from laying in one position for so long, but whenever she moved, and her body shifted off of the warm place she'd made on the floor, she felt even colder, so she was trying to lay as still as possible.

The kitten was still tucked beneath her left arm. He was dead. Rhianna knew he was dead, and her stomach felt hollow and sick when she thought about that. But putting him down on the ground seemed much worse. It scared her, to think of him laying near her on the floor, where she couldn't see him in the darkness. At least if she kept holding him, she would know where he was all the time. And he'd been her friend, for a little while at least. Not that she'd been a very good friend to him, but she hadn't meant for him to die. She'd wanted to help, even if she'd been too stupid to remember to bring any food.

For a while, she forced herself to sit up every few minutes, and pound on the door and yell for help. But that made her throat hurt, and her arm felt sore where she'd slammed it against the door, and anyway she was certain no one could hear her. And now, it seemed like an awfully lot of effort to get up and yell. Too much effort. It was cold, so very cold, and her dress was damp and her nose was running and she couldn't stop shivering and it was so dark she still couldn't see anything at all. Worst of all, she was having trouble putting the thoughts in her mind together in a way that made sense. She wasn't even entirely certain where she was, or how she had ended up here. Only that it was cold, and dark, and the kitten was dead.

The water was still dripping somewhere up above. Water. It would be nice to have a drink of water; maybe that would help her throat stop hurting so much. Fergus had once told her people couldn't live without water for very long. Maybe that's how she would die - like starving to death, only whatever it's called when it's water you need instead of food. Water starvation? Of course, it was also possible she'd starve to death the regular way; there wasn't any food, either.

Maybe she should pray. It seemed that was what people did when they were scared or sad or lonely or when bad things were happening. And being locked in this darkness was definitely a bad thing. Probably the beloved wife of the Maker didn't really have time to listen to a small girl who had gotten herself into such a lot of trouble, but perhaps it didn't hurt to ask.

"Blessed Andraste," she whispered, "please help me. I'm so scared, and all alone since the kitten died, and . . ." Oh, what to say next? What were the right . . . words? Her mind felt sluggish, as though her thoughts were trapped in molasses. "I . . . I didn't want him to . . . die but I didn't bring any food, and now I'm all alone and I just want to go home and see my mother and father." And her brother. She had a brother as well, but what was his name? "Um . . . and Carrot - she's my horse, in case you didn't know. And . . . Fergus. That's his name. My brother. He's a good brother and I want to see him again, too. Please Andraste. I need your help."

No more words came to her, so she curled herself up just a bit tighter. It would be nice to feel warm again, and she wished it was . . . quieter. The water dripping made such a loud sound, and now she could hear - or maybe just feel - her heart pounding. Faster than usual, maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just that all the rest of her was slower.

Her stomach growled. Probably, that was the first symptom of starvation, and before much longer she would die, just like the kitten had died. In a way, that didn't seem so bad. Maybe she should try to sleep. Even if she never woke up again, at least she wouldn't feel so cold, and so scared, and so alone. Maybe the kitten would be there, and they could play together. She would have liked to have played with the kitten.

Water dripping, and the beat of her heart . . . and then her ears picked another sound out of the darkness: a tiny scratching noise, from somewhere up above.

"Is anyone th-there?" she whispered. Not that anyone would answer, and she was too sleepy to try and use a louder voice.

No response, but a moment later, the scratching seemed louder, and then louder still. Whatever was making the sound was moving closer.

Then it was very loud, maybe just a few feet away.

The soft but insistent touch of another mind pressed at her consciousness, followed by a soft skittering noise very close indeed, as if something had descended rapidly down the wooden door. Something both soft and prickly brushed against the skin of her bare calves, and she flinched away from it. Something . . . there was something with her in the cell.

She struggled to pull herself up into a sitting position. There was warmth - just the slightest amount of heat, but she was so cold she could feel it - next to her right hip. She reached out with her mind, and there it was. She saw images from its mind: a vantage point low to the ground, small pink clawed feet, then she saw its mate, and a litter of tiny hairless babies.

Her new companion was a rat. A female rat.

"Hello, there," she said, reaching out with her hand, slowly, feeling the air. She wanted to find the creature without startling or harming her. Her fingers met rough fur, and Rhianna clutched at the animal, gently. It was so good to no longer be completely alone in this terrifying darkness.

A cold nose sniffed at her skin, and the animal shifted underneath her hand, but stayed in place to allow Rhianna to stroke the short fur.

"Do you think you could help me get out of here, please?" That was a stupid question. How was a rat supposed to help unlock the cell door?

A moment later, the rat was no longer under her hand, and Rhianna heard the sound of its tiny clawed feet climbing back up the door. More scratching, and a soft thud, and then the rat climbed back into the cell (having gone back and forth through that little window with the bars in it, no doubt). Then, something cold nudged up against Rhianna's leg. She reached for it with her fingers, and felt hard metal.

The key.

Maker's breath! The rat had brought her the key!

"Oh, thank you, thank you!" Maybe she would be able to get out of this miserable place after all.

The fog in her mind lifted enough that she was able to stand and find the opening in the door. With the key in her right hand, she reached between the bars, which were just barely wide enough for her arm to fit through. Stretching up as high as she could on her toes, she was able to get her entire arm out of the window, and she reached as far as she could, trying to fit the key back in the lock.

She wasn't tall enough, though, and no matter how hard she stretched, she never felt anything but wood underneath her hand, not the metal plate that held the locking mechanism in place. Pulling her arm back through the window, she felt the inside of the door, and realized the lock was much too far from the window for her to reach, even if she were taller. Probably too far for even a grown-up to reach.

Maybe she could open the door from the inside. She tried pushing the key in the lock, as she'd done earlier with the button. The key slipped from her hand and fell to the floor several times as she twisted it every which way, and tried inserting it into the lock at different angles. Each time she dropped it, she bent down and felt around in the dirt, determined to try again. This would be so much easier if she could feel her fingers, but her hand had gone sort of numb. She did keep trying, but no matter what she did, it simply wouldn't fit. It was made to be opened only from the outside. If she had something much smaller - a hairpin, perhaps - she might have been able to pick the lock (not that she had any idea how to do a thing like that), but the key, huge and solid, was useless to her from this side of the door.

She leaned her forehead against the smooth, cool wood of the door, and let her arm fall to her side. As frustrated, disappointed tears began to stream down her face, the key fell from her fingers, clanging loudly against the dirty stone floor. In her left arm, she still cradled the kitten, and she stood like that for a long while, sobbing and shivering, too exhausted to do anything else.

Another brush of fur against her ankles. In her despair, she'd forgotten about the rat. She knelt down slowly, coming to sit with her back against the door which refused to be opened. Her hand felt in the darkness for the small, blessedly warm body beside her.

"Please," she begged. "Please go out and find someone to help me. My father. Or Teyrn Loghain. Please." She had no idea if the animal could understand her words, but if she could send a picture, that might work. That's how animals always told her what they were feeling. In her mind, she pictured as clearly as possible her father's face, and then did the same with Loghain's.

The rat sniffed at her hand, then scurried back up the wall. With a flurry of claws on stone, she was gone, leaving Rhianna alone again in the darkness.


Loghain was starting to panic that Rhianna Cousland had not yet been found. He'd searched the garden of the Gwaren estate, calling her name as he went, but there was no sign of her. Not under the arbors, or in any of the outbuildings. He'd even looked in the small grove of apple trees; they would give poor shelter from the rain, but better perhaps than no shelter at all. But she was nowhere to be found. Damn. Not that he'd really expected her to be here; she wasn't in the habit of coming to his garden unannounced. But he had hoped perhaps, this one time, that's exactly what she had done. She was fond of him, after all, and it wasn't unreasonable to think she might have come to the estate, hoping to visit with him, and gotten distracted before she had knocked on the door.

Now, back inside the manor house, he was in the process of sending every servant in his employ out to look for the girl.

His daughter hurried in, her mouth tight and her eyes glittering with concern.

"Father, what's this about Rhianna Cousland? Is it true she's gone missing?"

"Yes. She hasn't been seen since before noon today."

"Maker's breath," Anora swore. "That's not . . . that's . . . Well, it's not as though anything really bad could have happened to her, right?"

He met her eyes, which was probably a mistake. Anora's frown deepened, and he guessed she'd seen in his eyes the worry and uncertainty he couldn't manage to shake.

"I'm sure she's . . . fine," Loghain said firmly, willing himself to believe it as well.

It was true. It had to be true. Just a few days ago, he'd walked with Rhianna in the palace garden, her tiny, warm hand held firm in his own. It was unthinkable that something . . . bad could have happened to her, right here in the middle of Denerim.

Except bad things did happen in Denerim, with some regularity.

"What can I do to help, Father?" Anora asked, her voice trembling.

Damn it. Now she was afraid, as well. He should not have allowed her to see just how upset he was, how anxious.

"Go to Eleanor, at the Highever estate." Loghain suggested. "She's waiting there in case the girl turns up back at home. I'm sure the the teyrna will be glad of the company." As she turned to leave, he added, "And take Uthalas with you." If Rhianna hadn't wandered off on her own, if someone else was responsible for her disappearance, Loghain didn't want his own daughter out on the streets alone. Uthalas had been with Loghain since the Rebellion. Anora would be safe with him.

When everyone at Gwaren House had gone to their appointed tasks, Loghain headed for the marketplace. The rain seemed to be stopping, which was good, but the sun had set, which was not. Not only would it be more difficult to search in the dark, but the temperature – not warm to begin with – was dropping. Rhianna was so very small. It wouldn't take long for her to succumb to the cold . . .

No. He would not think like that. There was no point in dwelling on the various things that could have happened to her. He just needed to get to the marketplace as quickly as possible, and find her.

The market square was almost entirely deserted. The few merchants who had kept their stands open this long were clearly packing up for the night, and there were no customers lingering. Everyone must have gone inside to stay out of the cold. Loghain spoke briefly with the armorer and his business partner (or lover? Or perhaps they were brothers? Loghain was never entirely sure about their relationship), but they hadn't been out of the shop during the afternoon, and had not seen any sign of a small girl. It was the same with a woman who sold imported textiles and jewelry, and with a man in robes who appeared to have Tevinter antiquities for sale.

A merchant from Antiva gave him the first shred of news he'd had all day. "A little dark-haired girl, you say?" the man replied in a lilting voice. "Yes, I saw such a girl, right around the time it started raining. She was wearing a blue dress, yes? She went in the direction of the Chantry."

The Chantry? What would Rhianna have been doing at the Chantry?

Nothing, as it turned out. None of the sisters or lay brothers remembered seeing a small girl matching Rhianna's description at any time during the day. So apparently the Chantry hadn't been her destination. So just where in the world had she been going?

Back on the street, he turned left, into the older section of town. About half-way to the next corner, Loghain was stopped short by a very curious sight: a large brown rat, stopped directly in his path. It was far enough away that Loghain couldn't have kicked out at it, if he'd had such an urge, but close enough he couldn't continue straight ahead without having to walk around.

When he moved to go around it, the creature ran directly in front of him and stopped. It stood up on its hind legs, staring, as if willing him to pay attention.

What in the Maker's name?

Once again, he changed direction to avoid the blasted rodent. This time, it ran in front of him and stopped, then ran off to the side of the road, stood and looked at him. Then it ran back in his path, and then back again to the side of the road.

It sat on its haunches, staring at him with far more patience than a creature of that size should possess. He glanced at the Chantry, and then back at the rat. It was as if the creature wanted Loghain to . . . well, to follow it. Which was utterly mad. Rats did not behave like this, at least not in his experience.

Then again . . . Rhianna did have what seemed to be an unusual affinity for animals. The other day, in the palace garden, she'd been the one who'd found the squirrels. They were in a cavity in a tree, hidden completely out of sight, but she'd somehow known they were inside. She'd called to them, and they'd come out of the tree and sniffed around quite happily. One of them had even climbed up onto her shoulder. That, too, had seemed somewhat odd, but Loghain assumed someone who worked at the palace had tamed them.

But even that was nothing compared with the behavior of this rat, who was still staring directly at him.

Well, it wasn't as though he had any better idea of where to search next.

"Oh, fine then," he muttered, shaking his head. He could hardly believe he was actually going to do this. "Lead on."

Immediately, the rat scurried off to the west, and Loghain went after it. They traveled only a few blocks, the creature stopping occasionally as if to make certain Loghain was still following. Finally, the rat led him into a narrow alley, stopping on the sill of a barred window and waiting for Loghain to catch up. Then it scurried between the bars, and disappeared into the dark.

Loghain peered inside. It was completely dark; no torches lit the interior. He put his ear close to the bars, but didn't hear any sound other than the dripping of water.

He cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted through the window.

"Hello! Is anyone there? Rhianna?"


Rhianna was trying to think of happy things, but it wasn't working very well.

First, she thought of her mother, which gave her a brief moment of comfort, except her mother's face had been sort of . . . blurry, no matter how hard she tried to see it clearly. And what if she never saw her mother ever again? That thought had made her want to cry.

So she tried thinking about her horse, Carrot. Carrot's breath would feel so lovely and warm on Rhianna's neck right now, and the horse's lips were so soft when she nuzzled the palm of Rhianna's hand for a treat. The kitten's fur was soft, too; Rhianna could feel it tickling underneath her chin. Only Rhianna hadn't been a good enough friend to the kitten, and now he was dead.

Fresh tears welled up in her eyes, but she didn't have the energy to shed them.

A gentle pressure at her mind, and then a faint sound in the darkness met her ears. Some sort of scratching. That was . . . interesting, a little bit anyway. Then the sound came closer, and then descended along the cell door. Oh. It was her newest friend, the rat. The animal pushed her whiskery nose into Rhianna's hand. Absently, Rhianna ran her fingers over the fur.

Then, another sound came from up above.

"Hello! Is anyone there? Rhianna?"

Oh, that was lovely. The voice sounded just like Teyrn Loghain.

"I'm here, Teyrn Loghain," she whispered. Except shouting would be better, wouldn't it? Surely, nobody outside of the cell could have heard that whisper. She should probably sit up and call out to let him know she was here . . . but she was really too tired to bother. Not that it was really him, anyway. For hours, she'd been calling and calling and calling and no one had heard her, and it was a waste of energy to keep trying. The voice was just her imagination. Maybe this was one of the things that happened when you were dying – strange visions, or voices out of the Fade.

Then she heard it again.

"Rhianna? Can you hear me?"

It really did sound just like him. Her imagination was doing much better with his voice than it had done with the picture she'd tried to see of her mother's face. Perhaps she should try and call out, just in case . . .

Her arms and legs felt so heavy, like they were made of wood. She only managed to get herself halfway to a sitting position before she gave up, and slumped back to the floor.

Fur brushed against her hand, then a sharp, shooting pain.

"Ouch!" Something had stabbed her finger!

"Rhianna?" Loghain called again. "Is that you? Are you hurt?"

As the pain in her finger receded, her mind seemed less cloudy, and she was able to pull herself all the way into a sitting position.

"Teyrn Loghain? Is that you?" she called out, her voice echoing off of the stone walls of the cell.

There was silence. Just as she'd thought; it was only her imagination.

But then he called back. "Yes, Rhianna! It's Loghain."

Oh, Blessed Andraste!

She sobbed loudly, partly out of relief, and partly out of panic that she was mistaken somehow, that it wasn't really him. She still wasn't completely sure she hadn't imagined the voice altogether. But if it was him . . .

"I'm here!," she shouted "Oh, Teyrn Loghain, I'm here! Please help me! Please!"


"Teyrn Loghain? Is that you?" The voice was high-pitched and thin, and sounded a bit distant. But there was no doubt it was Rhianna.

Thank the Maker. His legs threatened to go out from under him, and he leaned against the wall to steady himself.

He'd found her, and she was alive. Blessed Andraste, thank you. Thank you.

She was alive.

And she was somewhere in this building, probably down in the basement.

He called back to her, "Yes, Rhianna! It's Loghain."

"I'm here!," she shouted "Oh, Teyrn Loghain, I'm here! Please help me! Please!" She sounded terrified, and desperate. Perhaps she'd fallen, and injured herself.

"Are you hurt?"

"No, I'm not hurt. I'm just cold, and it's so dark in here. Please come let me out. Please."

"I will," he shouted. "I'm coming for you, Rhianna, I promise. But I need you to tell me exactly where you are."

"I'm in a room under the ground," she called back. "It's square, with cells, like a pr-prison. I'm locked in. Please, Teyrn Loghain, please come find me!"

"I'm on my way. I promise." He glanced up and down the alley. It was a dead end, without any doors leading inside.

"How did you get in?" he called down.

"Through the door to the guard tower. Only there weren't any guards. I went down the stairs, and through the hall. Please h-hurry!"

Her voice broke on the last word; Maker's breath, just what in the world had happened here? And had she really said she was locked in? In any case, he knew exactly where she was. The entrance to the tower was on the other side of this block of buildings, and he'd have to go around to the front.

"You're going to be fine, Rhianna," he called down. "You're safe now. I'm coming to get you, but it's going to take me a few minutes to reach you. You won't be able to hear my voice while I'm coming, but I will find you. I promise. Do you understand?"

"I understand. But please hurry!"

"I will. I swear it."

With surprising speed for a man of his height, he ran out of the alley and back toward the Chantry, then turned down one street, and then another to the entrance to the tower.

He pulled open the door, but it was too dark inside for him to see much of anything. He'd seen torches outside, so he hurried back out to grab one. Once inside, he saw stairs leading downward, and then a hallway, and the room at the end just as Rhianna had described.

"Teyrn Loghain!" Rhianna called out, her voice shaky and small. "Please, is that you?"

"It's me, Rhianna. You're safe now, I promise." He heard her sob, and, after shoving the torch into one of the holders on the wall, he moved to the one door which was closed, the door from behind which her voice had come. He grabbed one of the bars in the window and pulled, but the door wouldn't budge, and there was no key in sight.

"Rhianna, do you know what happened to the key?"

"Oh," she breathed. "I forgot. I . . . here, I have the key. I just couldn't reach far enough to get it into the lock." He peered in through the opening in the door, and saw her silhouette as she bent down and picked something up from the floor. She struggled to her feet, and when she reached up to hand him the key, it slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor. She whimpered, then awkwardly crouched to pick it up again. She lost her balance, and fell backwards onto her bottom. For a moment, she just sat there, her breath coming in short gasps, but finally she grasped the key and made it to her feet. Her small hand, the skin impossibly pale in the torchlight, poked through the bars, and Loghain took the key from her icy fingers.

He unlocked the door, and yanked it open. She squinted up at him in the dim light, one arm thrown in front of her eyes to shield against the light of the torch. In the flickering light, the cell looked dismal: bare inside, just a stone floor covered with dirt. And the room had no windows, which meant however long she had been in here, she had been in the dark. In complete and utter darkness.

She was holding something in one of her arms, but before he could see what it was, Rhianna sobbed once and stumbled toward him. Falling to his knees, he caught her as she wrapped one of her arms around his neck. She was shivering violently, and her skin was cold. Much too cold. He pulled off his cloak, and wrapped her up in its warmth.

He carried her out into the room, and sat in one of the chairs at the table, positioning himself so he could see her in the torchlight. She settled herself in his lap, slumping forward as if she didn't have the energy to sit up straight. He could feel the cold coming off of her. Maker's breath, she felt frozen.

He urged her to sit up just enough so he could get a good look at her. Her face was tearstained and covered in dirt, her hair was stringy, and her gown was filthy and damp. The thing she was holding appeared to be a kitten, furry and grey, and most assuredly not alive. One of her fingers was bleeding, and there was a trail of dried blood down one of her legs. His body tensed at the sight of the blood. Had someone had hurt her, or, Maker forbid, forced himself on her?

He looked for signs she had been beaten, or worse, but the blood on her leg seemed to have come from an injury just below her knee, which didn't look particularly serious. And she did not appear to have any bruises. Her eyes weren't quite able to focus on his, though, which was troubling, and she was still shivering violently. He'd spent enough years living in rough camps to know the signs of someone who'd been out in the cold for too long. He needed to get her warm again as soon as possible.

Resting his chin on the top of her head, he pulled her body close so she was tucked as tightly against him as possible. He rubbed her arms and her legs, trying to warm them under his hands. If only Maric were here; the man always had a flask of whiskey or brandy or something that would have been helpful right about now. As they sat, Rhianna's shoulders heaved just once, and she began to cry, softly at first, but soon her body was wracked with sobs. He held her even more tightly, now for comfort rather than warmth.

How in the world had she ended up in here? This particular tower hadn't been used in several years. There weren't enough guards to man it, and because of its proximity to the older section of town, it had been chosen for closure, rather than one near a wealthier part of the city. Perhaps she'd come here, hoping to climb it and see the view from the top. But if that were the case, how had she ended up in the basement? And she said she'd been locked in, which seemed to indicate someone else had been involved.

Well, there was no point speculating; as soon as she was calm, he'd ask her what happened. But he didn't want to rush her; she'd clearly been through something of an ordeal, and needed time to recover. And perhaps he needed a few minutes of calm himself.

Movement near the outer door to the room caught his eye. A large rat sat up on its haunches, presumably the same one who had led him here.

Maker's blood. Had that really happened? It hardly seemed possible, but it had happened. He'd followed the rat, and been guided here. To a building no longer in use. How long would it have taken Loghain to find the girl in this particular tower - one of hundreds of buildings in Denerim - without the rat's assistance? And given the state in which he'd found her, it seemed unlikely Rhianna would have survived even one night down here.

Bizarre as it seemed, that rat had saved the girl's life.

Never again would he kill one of the creatures.


He closed his eyes for a moment, feeling relief and exhaustion flood over him. No matter how it had happened, he'd found her. She was safe, and alive, and he'd have her back with her parents as soon as possible. When he opened his eyes again, the rat was gone.

He wasn't sure how long they sat together. He didn't speak; he just held her while she cried. Maker knows she had good reason for being upset. Finally her sobbing ceased, and her breathing returned to something close to normal.

"Rhianna," he said as gently as he knew how, "I need you to tell me what happened. What were you doing in here, and how did you get locked in that cell?"

She sat up and sniffed loudly, running the back of her hand across her eyes. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her.

"Thank you, ser," she said, wiping her nose. A single sob escaped her throat, and for a moment, he thought she was going to start crying again, but she just sniffled, and chewed at her lip, looking up at him. He had never seen a more miserable expression in all his life.

"I . . . I . . . " she stuttered, and her voice trailed off. He reached up and cupped one of her cheeks in his hand. Her lips twitched, as though she were trying to smile, and then she took a deep breath, her bottom lip still quivering, although Loghain couldn't tell if it was from crying or from the cold.

"I . . . was at home, when I found a n-note. Someone left a note in the garden saying there were kittens here in the tower who had lost their mother. I tried to tell my m-mother, but Lady Landra was upset and Mother sent me away, so I came on my own. I was afraid they would die if I didn't help them." Her breath caught, and she sniffled again. "The note said to go into the b-b-basement, so that's what I did."

"In the dark?" Loghain asked.

She shook her head. "It wasn't dark. There were t-torches, along the stairs and one in this room."

When Loghain had arrived, there were no torches, not even burnt-down remains. Which meant someone had taken them down, deliberately.

"When I called out," she continued, "to see if anyone was here, I heard the kitten." Her features collapsed into a mask of grief as she looked down at the small body in her arms. "He was still alive then." A fat tear ran down her cheek, making a fresh track in the dirt on her skin. "And he was the only one. The note said there was a l-litter of kittens, but he was the only one.

"He was inside the cell, and when I went to pick him up, the door closed behind me, and I heard someone turn the key in the lock, and then run away, and everything went d-d-dark. I yelled and yelled, but no one heard me. Well, not then anyway. Later, someone did c-come; I saw the torchlight in the hallway. But whoever it was didn't come in. I think . . . I think maybe it was the person who locked me up in here. Someone who must . . . hate me, a very, very lot." Her breath hitched again. "It was dark, and so cold, and then the kitten died and I couldn't do anything to help him. And I was so scared I was going to die, too. Just like the kitten."

As Rhianna began to cry again, Loghain held her just a little bit more tightly, and closed his eyes and forced himself to breathe slowly. To breathe through the rage building inside of him. Someone had lured her here to this abysmal place, set a trap for her and locked her away on purpose. Then taken the torches and left her alone in the dark. To scare her, maybe even to kill her. And then that someone had come back, and stood outside the door, knowing a terrified little girl was inside? She'd said whoever it was must hate her, but how could someone hate an eight-year-old girl enough to do a thing like this? He pulled her close against his chest, gently stroking her hair, until her sobbing subsided.

"How did your leg get hurt?" he asked. It sounded as though she'd had no direct contact with whatever monster had done this, thank the Maker, but Loghain needed to be sure. "And, how did you come to have the key inside the cell with you?"

"The key? Oh. The rat brought the k-key to me, but my arm was too short to reach through the window and unlock the door myself."

The rat? Before he could ask anything further about that, she continued, "And I hurt my leg when I was trying to f-find some way to get out. I was feeling my way around the cell, when I knelt on something hard. A b-button, I think." She fumbled at the front of her dress, and reached a hand into her pocket. She pulled out a folded piece of parchment first. "Oh. Here is the note," she said, offering the parchment to him. He took it from her, tucking it carefully into his trouser pocket. That note . . . when he found out who wrote it, there would be hell to pay.

She reached into her pocket again. The object she handed him was, indeed a button, from a cloak perhaps. It was made of brass, with an unusual design: two bars which crossed one another, one of which looked like a double-headed axe. They were joined with an "x" in the center, as if lashed together by rope. He'd never seen one like it before, which was good. It might be useful in identifying whomever had done this, assuming it had been dropped here recently. He put the button into the same pocket as the note.

There was something else he needed to know, even though he feared the girl's reaction.

"Rhianna, how did the kitten die?" It was young, but certainly not so small it would have starved to death in the time the two of them had been locked up together.

She moaned softly before answering. "I'm . . . I'm not sure. I thought maybe he starved because I didn't bring any food with me, but maybe not. One of his legs was broken, and m-maybe some of his ribs. He was kicked, by a person, but I don't know who. He was already hurt when I got here." Fresh tears streamed down her face, but she didn't begin sobbing again. Instead, she looked up at Loghain, her face stricken with grief.

"He died . . . a while ago. I knew I should set him down on the ground, but I . . . I c-couldn't. It was so d-d-dark, Teyrn Loghain. I couldn't see anything, not anything at all, and I didn't want to think of him just lying there, on the floor. As long as I was holding him, I could remember that he was my friend, for a few minutes at least, when he was alive. But if I put him down, in the dark . . . well, what if I f-forgot where I had set him, and stepped on him? Or what if . . . what if he came back alive in the darkness, and was angry with me for not saving his life?" Her breath hitched. "I . . . I was so . . . I was so s-scared."

Her bottom lip began to quiver, and he gathered her into his arms just as she began crying again.

Blessed Andraste, the girl had been trapped here, in the freezing cold, for Maker knows how long, clutching a dead cat. Loghain's stomach lurched, and once again the feeling of rage rose up inside of him, filling his chest, making his breath come faster. He wanted to hit something. Someone. He wanted to break every bone in the body of whomever had locked this precious child away in the dark.

She had said the kitten had been kicked, but clearly she hadn't seen it happen. So how did she know? And there was the rat, who'd apparently helped her in more ways than one, and the squirrels yesterday. She must have some sort of . . . connection with animals. But how, and why? Was it magic? Blessed Andraste, please don't let it be magic. There had to be some other explanation. Loghain had known an elf once, one of the Night Elves, who could call wild animals to fight at his side, wolves and bears, even spiders like the ones in the Deep Roads. It had been remarkable, but not any sort of magic. This thing with Rhianna wasn't, perhaps, so different. It had saved her life, that much was clear, but he hoped desperately it wasn't magic. If Rhianna were a mage, she'd be taken away to Kinloch Hold. Never to be seen again, mostly likely, and subjected to . . . whatever it was that templars did to the mages. Especially pretty ones. He'd heard stories, even about the Ferelden Circle of Magi, which was said to be one of the better ones in Thedas.

No, this thing with the animals wasn't magic. It couldn't be magic. It simply couldn't.

Rhianna had grown quiet in his arms, and he hugged her close once more and kissed the top of her head before urging her to sit up. She needed a warm bath and dry clothes to drive away the chill that had nearly overtaken her. And Bryce and Eleanor must be frantic with worry. It was time to take this child home, away from this dismal place and back out into the light.

"Rhianna, would it be all right if I take the cat from you now?"

Looking up at him through narrowed eyes, she clutched it tightly. "What will you do with him?"

That was a good question. He couldn't very well carry it in his hands; he'd be carrying Rhianna, as she was in no condition to walk back through the city. And the thought of her continuing to hold onto it, this animal which had been dead for hours . . . no, he could not stomach that. But she was clearly not going to agree to leave it here.

His cloak pocket. Yes, the thing was small enough to fit inside. That would have to do.

"We'll take him back with us, Rhianna, and have a pyre for him tomorrow morning. At the Highever estate, or at Gwaren, whichever you prefer. We can do it together. In the meantime, I'm going to put him in my pocket, where he'll be safe. And . . . warm."

Rhianna frowned for a moment, then nodded, uncurling her arm from the kitten. It had grown stiff since its death, which made Loghain vaguely nauseous, but for Rhianna's sake, he was as gentle with it as possible as he slid it into the pocket of his cloak.

"Let's get you home, shall we? Your parents will want to see you."

She nodded, but then wiped urgently at her face with the handkerchief. "Oh, not just yet, Teyrn Loghain, please. I don't want them to see me like this. I'm frightfully dirty, and Mother is going to be angry about my gown, isn't she?"

Maker. The girl was worried about being in trouble after what had been done to her? The rage swelled within him again.

"Rhianna. I promise you, your mother is not going to scold you about your gown, or about the dirt." Eleanor would be so elated to have her daughter back home, alive and unharmed, that there will be no scolding about anything. Certainly not tonight, and probably not ever.

Rhianna looked unconvinced, but after a moment she nodded. "Will you promise me something, Teyrn Loghain. Please?" She sounded so very young. She was so very young. What must it have been like for her, being locked in the dark for hours, completely alone?

"Anything," he said, without hesitation.

"Will you promise not to tell anyone I was crying?" The corners of her mouth quivered, but her eyes remained dry. "Everyone already thinks I'm such a baby, I don't want anyone to know that . . . well, you know . . . how upset I was. That I was crying. Please, can't we keep this our secret?"

"I won't tell anyone, if that's what you want. I promise." He took a breath. The girl had survived alone, in the dark. She'd even had the strength of will to try and find a way out, and convinced a wild animal to find help. And she was worried people would think badly of her? He needed to make her understand, somehow, that she had no reason to be ashamed of herself.

"Rhianna," he said, looking directly into her eyes. "What happened to you today was horrible. Horrible, and scary, and whether or not you cried about it, you are absolutely not a baby. On the contrary, I think you are incredibly brave."

She frowned, and her brow wrinkled, but she held his gaze. Her eyes were better able to focus now, which was good, but he sensed she didn't believe him, that she still believed she'd behaved shamefully.

Loghain wanted to kill whomever had done this to her.

"Rhianna Cousland, you are one of the bravest people I have ever known." Gently, he grasped her chin in one hand, willing her to believe him. Willing her to know this about herself, without any doubt. He leaned close to her, so close he could see tiny freckles scattered across the bridge of her nose, freckles he'd never noticed were there until now. "Never be ashamed of being afraid. Fear is not the enemy. Fear is your friend. It tells you when there is danger, and gives you the ability to face it. Only fools are never afraid."

Her mouth dropped open, and she stared at him, her eyes greener than he'd ever seen them before, her expression haunted. How long would it take her to recover from what had happened to her today? And please, oh please, don't let this child have been damaged beyond her ability to heal.

She inhaled, her breath catching slightly as she studied his face. It was as though she wanted to believe him, but wasn't sure he was telling the truth, that maybe there was something she was missing.

After a minute, she bit her lower lip and let out the breath she had been holding. "Is it really all right to be afraid?"

"Yes, Rhianna, it is. It truly is."

She nodded, and he felt her silent acceptance. Slowly, as if she only had the energy to make the most deliberate of movements, she cuddled herself tight against him, wrapping her arms around his neck.

"Will you please take me home now?" she whispered, resting her head on his shoulder.

"Yes, love. I'll take you home."

Cradling her in his arms, he got to his feet, making certain his cloak was covering her completely to protect her from the night air. After checking to see the kitten was not in danger of falling out of the pocket, he carried her up the stairs, and out into the night.



Chapter Text

26 August, Dragon Age, 9:20
Highever Estate, Denerim


The front of the Highever Estate was ablaze with light from every lantern in the courtyard, but the path leading up to the manor house was entirely deserted. With the sleeping girl in his arms, Loghain climbed the steps and let himself in the front door without bothering to knock. He followed the sound of voices into a sitting room to the left of the entry hall.

Inside, Eleanor sat on the sofa, between Anora and Lady Landra. Rendon Howe perched in a chair near the hearth, while Loghain's footman stood near the window, looking out into the garden. A small group keeping vigil while everyone else was still out in the city, searching for Rhianna.

Anora was the first to notice Loghain's arrival.

"Father! You're . . . Oh, thank the Maker, you found her!"

In an instant, all eyes were on Loghain and the girl asleep on his shoulder.

"Blessed Andraste! My little girl." Eleanor rushed to Loghain's side, an almost manic smile on her face. She pushed the back from Rhianna's forehead, and her smile faded when she saw the dirt and the tearstains, then looked down at the condition of Rhianna's dress, and the blood on her leg.

"But . . . she's bleeding! Oh, Loghain. Is she . . . is she all right? Did she fall? Did someone . . . hurt her?" The teyrna's voice shook as she studied Loghain's face, watching for his reaction.

"She's all right, Eleanor," he said. "It looks like a lot of blood, but it's all from a small cut on her knee. She's cold and exhausted, but she's going to be just fine." He turned to his footman. "Uthalas, will you please go out and find Teyrn Bryce, and let him know his daughter has been found. He's probably up at Fort Drakon. And perhaps you should alert the guard. Get the word out that people can stop searching."

Without a word, the elven man nodded, and hurried from the room.

"Where was she?" Rendon Howe asked, moving close to Eleanor's side. His eyes roamed up and down the girl's body. "It looks like she's had some sort of . . . adventure."

Loghain wasn't sure how much he should say, at least until he'd told the Couslands what happened. "She was in an abandoned building, not far from the Chantry."

"What's this?" Howe said. "An abandoned building?"

"Near the Chantry?" Eleanor's eyes were wide. "But that's all the way across town. What in the world was she doing there?"

"I'll be happy to tell you what she told me," Loghain said, holding the teyrna's gaze, "but she's been wearing a damp dress for hours, in a place that was very cold. She needs a warm bath and dry clothes, right away."

"Oh Maker, what's wrong with me? Of course," Eleanor agreed, shaking her head as if to clear it. "If you don't mind, will you carry her upstairs?"

"Would you like me to help with her bath?" Anora asked Eleanor. "That way you and Father can talk."

"Yes," Eleanor agreed. "That would be lovely, dear. As long as Rhianna doesn't mind. Rendon, Landra, will you please excuse us?"

The teyrna led the way up the stairs and into Rhianna's bedroom, getting the attention of one of the servants along the way, so hot water could be brought up for a bath.

Inside the bedroom, Loghain tucked Rhianna's hair behind her ear, and bounced her gently to wake her without startling her. "Rhianna," he whispered into her ear, "it's time wake up. You're home now."

She stirred, whimpering softly, and then wrapped her arms more tightly around his neck. Sniffling, she said in a sleepy voice, "Please, Teyrn Loghain, don't make go back in the dark."

Something tightened in his chest at her words. Maker damn whomever had done this.

He smoothed her hair with his hand. "No one is going to put you back in the dark, Rhianna. I promise. Look, your mother is here, and she wants to see you."

She rubbed at one of her eyes with the palm of her hand. Then she lifted her head, and her eyes alighted on Eleanor. "Mummy!" She stretched out one arm to her mother, who reached for the girl and eased her from Loghain's arms. Loghain ran one hand slowly over his face, then sank into a nearby chair to watch the reunion between mother and daughter. Loghain expected the girl to burst into tears again, but Rhianna clung tightly to her mother in complete silence.

"It's all right, darling," her mother crooned softly into Rhianna's ear. "You're safe now, you're home."

Yes. Rhianna was home. She was safe. Perhaps that was all that mattered at this particular moment. But there were questions to be answered. Well, one question in particular. And with any luck the note tucked into his pocket would provide that answer.

A trio of servants came in, carrying hot water for the girl's bath.

"Darling," Eleanor murmured to the girl in her arms, "would it be all right if Anora helped you with your bath? And then your father and I will come and tuck you into bed. I know you've had a long day, and you must be very tired."

"All right," Rhianna agreed, and when Anora came close and put her arms out, the girl went to her willingly. Loghain rose from the chair, hurrying to remove his cloak from Rhianna's shoulders. The last thing he wanted was that damned dead kitten to fall out on to the bedroom floor. He wrapped the cloak carefully, and tucked it under his arm.

"A warm bath, Anora," Loghain added. "Not too hot. She was cold for quite a while, and needs to be warmed up slowly."

Anora nodded her understanding, and spoke softly to the servants. After a long look at her daughter, Eleanor led the way out of the room, into the library across the hall.

The teyrna poured two very generous glasses of brandy, and settled herself on the sofa beside Loghain. She took a sip of her drink, and then another, before meeting his gaze.

"I'm desperate to know what happened," she said. "But perhaps we should wait until Bryce is here. So you don't have to explain it all twice."

"I don't mind repeating myself, Eleanor." He took a sip from his own glass. The brandy was smooth and warm and exceedingly welcome. "I found her in a guard tower, in an older part of town west of the Chantry."

"That doesn't make any sense. Why in the world would she have gone . . ."

"Eleanor!" Bryce Cousland rushed into the room, his chest heaving from exertion, with Fergus right behind. "She's here?" His gaze landed on Loghain. "Fergus and I were on our way back to the estate, to see if there was any word, when your manservant found us on the main road. He said you'd found her, and brought her home."

"Yes, Bryce. Rhianna is here," Eleanor said, standing, her eyes bright. "And she's fine. She will be, anyway, after a good night's sleep. She's in her room with Anora, having a bath. She . . . well, Loghain was just about to tell me what happened. Why don't you both come and sit down and we'll hear it together?"

Bryce looked over his shoulder, as though he wanted to go to his daughter's room and see for himself that she was really here, that she was really alive and unharmed, but he did as his wife suggested. Perhaps it was something of a blessing Bryce hadn't been here when Loghain had arrived with Rhianna, the girl covered in dirt and blood. This way, the man didn't have that particular image burned into his memory.

"So," Bryce said, sinking into a chair near the fire, "where was she?"

"In an abandoned guard tower in the western section of town," Loghain began. "Near the Chantry. A building that hasn't been in use for several years. She was down in the basement . . . locked up in one of the old holding cells."

"Locked up?" Fergus asked.

"Yes," Loghain replied, with a slow nod of his head.

"I need to know what happened, Loghain," Bryce said. "What in the Maker's name was my daughter doing in a guard house near the Chantry? Did she wander there on accident?" His eyes narrowed slightly. "Or was someone else involved?"

"It was no accident," Loghain replied, and then told them nearly everything Rhianna had described to him: the note in the garden, how she'd found the guard tower deserted but lit with torches. Her discovery of the injured kitten just before someone locked her in the cell.

"Someone ran up behind her? But she never saw who it was? Maker's balls." Bryce's nostrils flared with each breath, and his hands were clenched into fists. Bryce Cousland was one of the most genuinely easy-going and cheerful men Loghain had ever known. Even during the Rebellion, when they'd spent half their days fighting just to stay alive, Loghain couldn't remember a time when he'd seen the man truly angry. But right now, Bryce Cousland looked murderous.

Loghain didn't blame him.

He explained that one of the merchants had seen Rhianna earlier in the day heading in the direction of the Chantry, which had prompted Loghain to search that section of town. He didn't say he'd followed a rat to where the girl had been trapped. Nor did he mention the "booted foot" Rhianna had seen in her vision, the one that kicked the kitten. He wanted to speak with Rhianna about this . . . thing with animals, before he mentioned it to her parents. So, he merely said he had called for her while searching near the Chantry, and had the good fortune to hear her call back.

True to his word, he also didn't tell them Rhianna had cried after he rescued her. That much, however, he assumed her parents had guessed on their own.

Finally, he pulled the note from his pocket. Unfolding it himself for the first time, he glanced at the handwriting, read the short message, and handed it to Bryce to examine. The script was childish and plain, certainly no hand familiar to Loghain. Either written by a child, or by someone not wanting his or her handwriting to be identifiable. The parchment itself was unremarkable.

"No watermark," Bryce said, flinging the note down onto the table. "And no border or monogram. This won't be of any use."

"And you never received a ransom note?" Loghain asked.

"No. Nothing like that," Eleanor replied.

"But if this wasn't done for money," Fergus said slowly, "whoever did it must have intended her to die in there." The lad's eyes were wide, as though he couldn't quite believe any of this had happened. Loghain hadn't mentioned how very cold Rhianna had been, how clumsy, the difficulty she'd had focusing her eyes when he'd first arrived. She'd been far closer to freezing to death than he'd let on to her family. Even so, it wasn't difficult for them to guess she probably wouldn't have survived the night.

Bryce rubbed at one of his temples, his face pale. Eleanor had tears in her eyes, but her mouth was set in a firm line.

"Who in all of Thedas would do something like this, and to a child?" Eleanor asked.

"Especially to someone like Rhianna? She's never done anything cruel in the whole of her life," Fergus added.

"I honestly don't know," Loghain replied. "But I'll do everything in my power to help you find out."

There was a soft rap at the door; Anora stood in the doorway, the sleeves of her gown pushed up past her elbows. Loghain nodded at her, indicating she should enter.

To Eleanor and Bryce she said, "Rhianna's in bed. She's asking to see both of you, and you as well, Fergus. She asked me to leave her door open, and a candle burning in the room; I hope that's all right?"

"Of course, dear," Eleanor assured her, as all three Couslands got to their feet. "Thank you so much for helping. I'm still . . . well, I just can't understand how something like this could have happened. But thank you." She turned to Loghain. "And thank you. Thank you for finding her, and bringing her home." She took a breath, as though she intended to say something more, but then she closed her eyes for a brief moment before moving toward the door. "We'll just go tuck her in to bed, and say goodnight."

Bryce paused on his way out of the room. "If it's not too much to ask, Loghain, will you please stay a while longer? There is something I want to ask you."

"Of course," Loghain agreed.

While the Couslands went to be reunited with Rhianna, Anora sat beside her father, placing her hand on top of his own. Her palm was warm and slightly damp, and he felt a surge of pride at the lovely young woman his daughter had become.

"Thank you, Anora, for helping. Was she . . . I assume everything went smoothly with her bath?"

"Yes, she was perfect. It must have been wonderful for her to be warm again, and clean." She smiled, but her voice was dull with exhaustion; this had been a trying day for a great many people. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone quite so dirty. Not even Cailan or I, after killing ogres in the cellar."

Loghain chuckled. Oh yes. The army of ogres. At least that had been the children's explanation for all the broken wine bottles. He'd nearly forgotten about that, it had happened so many years ago.

He felt her fingers tighten around his hand, and when she spoke again, there was a note of urgency in her voice.

"Father?" she asked. "There's something . . . well, I'm not sure if it's really something at all, but I think I should tell you anyway." She bit her lip. "Rhianna said something to me about a kitten. Locked in the room with her, and it had been injured?"

"Yes," he replied. "She thinks someone . . . kicked it. It died while they were locked away together in the cell." He decided not to mention the creature was, in fact, in the room with them, wrapped up in his cloak. "I think . . ." he added, "someone injured the animal on purpose, and then left it there . . . for Rhianna to find."

"Yes, that's the way it sounded to me, as well. I . . ." she trailed off, wringing her hands together as she often did when she was nervous, a habit she'd picked up from her mother. "I, well . . . I don't know if I should say anything. I didn't want to say it to Bryce and Eleanor, but . . ."

"What is it, love?" he asked, reaching out and putting a hand on her knee.

"Well, it's just that . . . a kitten someone had harmed? Habren Bryland has a reputation for . . . well, let's just say I've heard rumors about Habren and small animals. Puppies, especially. Her father regularly buys mabari puppies for her, but she never seems to have full-grown dogs, if you know what I mean. I wouldn't be surprised, that's all, to learn Habren was the one who injured that kitten. Not that it seems likely she could have locked Rhianna down in some . . . dungeon. The girl is only ten years old, after all. But, wounding an animal? That does sound like something she would do."

The Bryland girl had a reputation for torturing animals? That was . . . disturbing.

"Thank you, Norrie, for telling me. I'll keep it in mind," he said, surprising himself with the use of the pet name he'd had for her when she was small. He hardly ever called her that anymore, but she smiled at him, as if she were pleased to have heard it.

"She . . . she is going to be all right, isn't she? When I gave her the bath, I didn't see any injuries, other than a cut on her knee and one on her finger, some bug bites, and a few bruises. But she seemed so . . . quiet. I mean, she told me a bit about what happened, but even while she was talking, her voice just sounded . . . empty. Not like Rhianna at all. She's always been such a bright, happy little thing. She will be all right, won't she?"

He remembered how Rhianna had looked when he pulled open the door to the cell. Squinting up at him, tearstains in the dirt on her face. How she had shivered in his arms, the desolate tears she had shed. What she'd been through must have been terrifying. But even right after he'd found her, she hadn't been panicked or incoherent, and after only a few minutes of tears she was able to calm herself and tell him what had happened. The girl truly was brave and resilient - he'd seen those qualities for the first time when she'd fallen on the glass shard that Satinalia three years ago, and again today. With luck, they would serve her well as she worked her way through whatever trauma she'd experienced.

He took one of his daughter's hands. "I believe she will be fine, Norrie. She's scared now, and tired, and suffering from the cold, but she has a strong spirit, and she's surrounded by people who love her. Rhianna's going to be just fine." For Rhianna's sake, he hoped what he'd just told his daughter was the truth.

"Loghain?" Eleanor hovered in the doorway, as if she didn't want to interrupt the conversation Loghain was having with his daughter. When he turned toward the teyrna, she continued, "Rhianna is asking to see you, if you don't mind." Loghain raised one eyebrow. Now she was home with her family, he assumed the girl would have forgotten all about him. Then again, his was the first face she saw when she came out of the darkness, so perhaps it wasn't so surprising after all.

"Of course I don't mind." He released Anora's hand as he stood.

Eleanor added, "Anora, let's you and I go downstairs, shall we? Fergus will join us in a few minutes. I think perhaps we could all use some sort of refreshment. Tea, or maybe something stronger. I think there might be strawberry tarts as well. And I need to tell Landra and Rendon that Rhianna is fine, and that they should go home."

From the doorway of the girl's room, Loghain could see Rhianna lying in bed, her head perfectly centered on her pillow, with her father on one side of the bed and Fergus on the other. She wore a white nightgown, with long, full sleeves and a ruffle at the neck. Such a beautiful child, her cheeks scrubbed pink, her damp hair combed back and spread out on the pillow. She would have been the perfect picture of childhood, except for the unhealthy color of her face, and the dark circles under her eyes. Even so, she looked much healthier now than when he had pulled her out of the cell.

All eyes turned to the doorway when Loghain entered.

"Ah, there he is now," Bryce said soothingly to his daughter. "I told you he was still here, Pup." To Loghain, "She's got something to ask you, apparently. Something that couldn't wait until tomorrow. She was quite adamant about it." He leaned down to kiss Rhianna on the cheek. "So I'll say goodnight, now. But you must promise not to keep Loghain talking all night long. He's had a long day, and I expect he needs his rest."

"All right. I promise," she said softly.

Fergus reached over and tweaked his sister gently on the chin. "Goodnight, Elsie. It's good to have you home." He kissed her on the top of her head.

"Goodnight, Fussy," she said with a weak smile. "I'm glad to be home."

Bryce and Fergus left the room, and Rhianna turned her attention to Loghain.

"Teryn Loghain," she said, giving him a smile that looked bright, but failed to reach all the way to her eyes. She looked a bit . . . hollow.

"May I come in?" he asked.

"Of course, silly. Didn't Mother tell you I asked you to come?" She patted a space beside her on the bed, indicating he should sit. He complied, and took up one of her hands, turning it over, and back again, not sure why he felt the need to study it. Anora had given her a proper bath; the girl's hand was meticulously clean, even under the fingernails. The small puncture wound on her finger was nearly invisible. He rested her hand back on the bed, but continued to hold it.

"She did, indeed." He smiled warmly at her, not wanting his own gloomy thoughts to upset her. Then he lifted one of his brows and looked down at her. "Fussy? You call your brother Fussy?"

Rhianna giggled, a sparse sound unlike her usual robust laughter, but it was a vast improvement on the wide-eyed empty smile. "It's been my nickname for him since I was small. When I was first learning how to talk, I couldn't properly say 'Fergus.' It came out as 'Fuss,' and eventually, that became 'Fussy.' I didn't know it was an actual word. You know, one that meant something else. Something not very nice. Later on, by the time I found out it was a word, I was so used to calling him 'Fussy' I couldn't manage to stop." She winkled her nose, a hint of a grin on her lips. "It's possible I didn't try very hard. To stop, I mean. And since I'm the little sister, he lets me get away with it."

"And he calls you Elsie?" Loghain smirked at her. "That hardly seems fair. It's just short for 'Elizabeth,' isn't it?"

"How did you know my middle name?" Rhianna asked, her eyes wide.

"I heard your father introduce you to Empress Celene."

"Oh." Her brow wrinkled for a moment as she took that in.

"It seems to me that 'Elsie' is a quite nice nickname," Loghain continued. "Especially compared with 'Fussy.'"

"It's not nearly as nice as you think," she said, looking up at him, her eyes looking more brilliantly green than usual against the pallor of her skin. "Even Mother and Father don't know the truth about it. They think it's short for Elizabeth, like you guessed." She dropped her voice to a whisper. "But it isn't. In Highever we used to have a milk cow called Elsie; that's where Fergus got the name. And it's not as though there was anything wrong with the original Elsie. She was a very nice cow - quite friendly, and she had lovely warm brown eyes. But no one really wants to be named after a milk cow, do they? Even I've got to admit cows aren't the cleverest animals in the world. So believe me, Fergus is getting me back for calling him Fussy."

She tried to smile, and it looked genuine this time, but her eyes were beginning to droop from exhaustion. Time for him to see what it was she wanted to say to him, and let her get to sleep.

"So, your mother said you wanted to speak with me. What can I do for you, my lady?"

"I . . . well, I was wondering. Can we really have a funeral for the kitten? Tomorrow. With a proper pyre, and everything?"

Loghain gently squeezed the hand he was holding. "Of course we can, Rhianna. Would you like to do it here?"

She shook her head. "Could we do it in your garden? Would that be all right?"

"Yes, that's fine. Do you want me to build the pyre?"

"Yes, please. And I'll say the words."

"And who would you like to invite to be there with us?"

Rhianna looked up at the ceiling for a moment. "Mother and Father. And Fergus. And Anora." She paused. "I think that's everyone. Besides you and me, I mean."

"That sounds fine. And perhaps afterwards, you and I can sit together for a few minutes and talk. There is something I would like to ask you." He wanted to speak with her about the rat and the kitten and the squirrels, but that conversation could wait until she'd had a good night's sleep.

"Why don't you just ask me right now?" One of her hands flew to her mouth as she tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a yawn.

Loghain chuckled. "Because, like your father said, I am exceedingly tired, and need to get home and into my bed. And what I have to ask you isn't urgent; it can wait for tomorrow. Until after the funeral. If that's all right with you?"

"Of course it's all right. I always like talking with you, Teyrn Loghain," she said earnestly.

"Good. And I always like talking with you, too. But right now, it is time for me to leave. I should get Anora home. I expect she could use a good night's sleep, as well." He squeezed her hand. "You're safe now. You know that, don't you?"

"I know."

"Good night, Rhianna." He leaned over, and placed a kiss on her forehead, and she smiled up at him, her lower lip quivering just the tiniest bit, her eyes filled not with tears, but with . . . well, he wasn't quite sure. Some emotion he couldn't identify. Something that made him feel somewhat . . . anxious. Unworthy, perhaps.

Pushing that aside, he smiled at her once again, then got up, and crossed to the door. "Shall I arrange things with your parents? And Fergus and Anora? About the time that we'll have the ceremony?"

"Yes, please."

"All right. Then I will see you tomorrow. Sleep well, Rhianna. And sweet dreams."

As he turned to go, she called out to him one last time. "Teyrn Loghain?"

He leaned through the doorway to look at her. "Yes?"

"I just . . . well . . . I . . ." She paused. "Thank you." Her bottom lip shook, and this time her eyes were bright with tears. "Thank you so much for coming to find me. I hated that place, and I never want to go back there."

He didn't know quite what to say, and had trouble taking his next breath. After a moment, he said the only thing that came to mind. "You're welcome, Rhianna. I am very grateful I was able to find you, and that you're safe and well."

One last smile, and she nestled her head into the pillow, closing her eyes as if preparing to go to sleep. He watched her for a moment, watched the way her chest rose and fell with her breath, her eyelashes dark against her pale face, her fingers clutching the blanket that covered her. If he hadn't found her . . .

There was no point in finishing that thought. She was safe now, and warm, and tucked away in bed. That's really all that mattered. She was here and not . . . anywhere else.

He crossed the hall back into the library where, as he had expected, Bryce was waiting for him. The teyrn sat on the sofa, face in his hands. At Loghain's approach, he looked up. His expression spoke volumes: he was out for blood, and didn't waste any time getting to the point.

"I need to know who is responsible for this, Loghain. I can't comprehend what sort of monster could have locked my daughter in . . . some sort of . . . dungeon. And left her there to die." He paused, "I need to see it. The place where she was trapped. Will you take me there?"


"Yes, tonight. Right now. I need to see if there is anything there that will tell us who did this to her. This note," he picked it up from the table where it had been discarded earlier, and crumpled it in his hand, "is useless. It could have been written by anyone."

"All right. I'll show you."

Half an hour later, torches in hand, the two men descended the steps into the guard tower.

They moved slowly, looking in the hallway for tracks in the dust that might be identifiable, but the only clear footprints appeared to be Rhianna's, or Loghain's from when he'd run through looking for the girl, and come out again carrying her in his arms. Anything else had been hopelessly obscured.

Inside the room that held the cells, Bryce lifted his torch, his gaze taking in the table and chairs, the empty cells. Then he looked at each wall in turn, rotating his body slowly to see the entire room.

"There aren't any windows in here," he said, his voice rough. "None at all." He glanced at Loghain. "Didn't you say there were no torches lit when you arrived?"

"Yes. All the torches that had been here when she arrived had been removed."

"But with no windows and the outer doors closed . . . it would have been pitch black in here, even before the sun set. Completely, utterly dark." His breath came faster as his brow furrowed, and his mouth hung open. "My daughter was locked away in here, in absolute darkness, for most of the day? She wouldn't have been able to see anything, not anything at all. Not even her own hand in front of her face!"

Bryce stood in the center of the room, breathing through his nose, looking like he was trying to keep himself from striking out, from hitting something. The stone wall, perhaps, or from kicking over the table or smashing one of the wooden chairs.

After a moment, he looked back at Loghain.

"Someone did this to her. Locked my daughter in the dark. In the cold. Deliberately?" Loghain nodded. Bryce's eyes were dark and fierce. "When I find out who it was, I'll kill him with my bare hands."

Not if I get there first.

Loghain decided to keep that thought to himself.

Back in the hallway, the light from Loghain's torch glinted off something that had fallen into a small depression in the floor, right near the door. He crouched down to pick it up. A bracelet. Small, probably made for a child. Several little birds cast in silver, connected by links of chain, and the workmanship was fine. This was no cheap trinket, but an expensive piece of jewelry.

"Bryce, look at this." He handed the bracelet to the other teyrn. "Does this belong to Rhianna?"

Bryce examined it in the torchlight. "No, I've never seen it before. It's not Rhianna's, not as far as I know. Do you suppose it was dropped here today? By whoever . . . did this? Or could it have been here before? Not that this looks like a likely place for children to play."

Loghain looked back at the spot where he had found it. It hadn't been covered by dirt, and the bracelet itself was clean and shiny. "I don't think it had been here for very long," he said carefully.

A child's bracelet. He remembered what Anora had told him.

"I think you might want to show that to Leonas Bryland," Loghain suggested. "See if it belongs to his daughter."

"Habren?" Bryce frowned. "Why would you think this might belong to Habren? You don't think she had something to do with locking Rhianna up down here? The girl's only ten years old."

Loghain shrugged. "It's just something Anora told me. Apparently the girl has a reputation for harming small animals. And considering what was done to the kitten . . ."

One of Bryce's brows lifted. "Is that so? I didn't know anything about that. I can't imagine Leonas would tolerate such behavior."

"I expect Leonas knows nothing about it. He does seem rather lenient with the girl. And perhaps a bit too trusting."

Bryce nodded thoughtfully. "True. Well, I assure you, I'll be paying Leonas a visit tomorrow. We'll get to the bottom of this, one way or another. I swear it."


Chapter Text

27 August, Dragon Age, 9:20
Gwaren Estate, Denerim


It was just after midnight when Loghain and Anora returned to the Gwaren estate. Wishing his daughter goodnight, Loghain went to his study, rather than up to bed. It was late, but his mind was restless. He wouldn't be able to sleep just yet, and the thought of laying sleepless in the dark was wholly unappealing.

After lighting a few candles to brighten the room, he laid his cloak down on the desk, and then stared at it.

The kitten. What should be done with the miserable thing? He certainly couldn't leave it in his cloak overnight, or the garment would reek of death.

He removed the kitten from the pocket, handling it gently for Rhianna's sake, even though she wasn't here to see. Setting the cloak aside, he lay the dead animal on his desk.

It was one of the most pitiful things he had ever seen, its striped grey fur streaked with dirt, its body frozen into a collection of strange angles. The stiffness had set in while the girl was holding it in her arms, and it stuck that way, with its head tilted back awkwardly, and both front legs sticking out in different directions, the midsection squashed from being held against Rhianna's body for so long. Hopefully, by morning, it will have gone soft again, and look less gruesome.

Damn. He could hardly leave it sitting there in the middle of his desk, but what else was he to do with it? After glancing around the room, he went to the sideboard and retrieved a tablecloth. Probably one of the estate's good tablecloths; his housekeeper would be unhappy when she discovered the use to which it had been put, but he didn't care. He wrapped the kitten inside, and set it on the stone hearth in front of the unlit fireplace. That was better. The damned thing could stay there until its funeral.

Why did he keep thinking of it as the "damned thing?" The kitten was also a victim, and perhaps it had been a comfort to the girl. Up until it died, anyway. Either way, the kitten wasn't to blame for what had happened.

Even so, the thought of Rhianna clutching the dead kitten while the heat seeped out of its bones, and the fleas fled its body?

Loghain felt sick to his stomach.

He sank into a nearby chair, and something poked at his leg, in the crease at the top of his thigh. Something in his pocket. He reached in, and fished it out.

The button. The button Rhianna had found. He'd forgotten all about it.

He turned it around in his fingers. What had she said? That she'd knelt on it while she was in the cell. But had it been dropped there today by the person who kicked the kitten, or had it been there for Maker knows how long before that? It was difficult to tell now. It was dirty, and there was blood on the post in the back. Considering the condition Rhianna was in when he found her, all of that could have happened this afternoon. Or, the thing could have been sitting there for months.

Either way, he'd give it to Bryce in the morning, so the man could take it with him when he spoke to Leonas. See if the Bryland girl owns anything with buttons that match. If she did, that, along with the bracelet – assuming it was hers - would provide ample evidence she was the one who had done this to Rhianna. If she was the one. Somehow, it didn't seem possible that Habren Bryland could have done this. The girl was only ten, and she'd never struck Loghain as being particularly clever. Mean-spirited? Yes, in droves, and clearly she disliked Rhianna. But clever enough to set such an elaborate trap, and do it all without being caught? That seemed highly unlikely.

He almost hoped it hadn't been her. His hands itched to break every bone in the body of the person who had done this, and he could hardly justify killing a ten-year-old child, no matter what she had done. Especially since this wasn't really his concern. Bryce was the girl's father; ultimately, it was for him to handle. Even so, Loghain couldn't imagine letting this go. Not until the culprit had been found, and sufficiently punished.

Back at his desk, he reached for a pencil and a piece of parchment, and sketched of the design on the button. If it turned out Habren was not to blame, he wanted to remember the exact pattern, and keep an eye out for it elsewhere.

When the sketch was complete, he stood, intending to pour himself a glass of whiskey, but something in the desk drawer caught his eye. A locket. He took it out and turned it around in his hands.

He hadn't opened this locket in quite some time; probably tonight was not the best time to break that habit. Even so, he kept it in his hand while he poured the whiskey and went to sit beside the hearth. The thought of a fire was tempting; he could still feel the chill in that basement. But it seemed a waste of effort and wood when, hopefully, he'd feel tired any minute now.

He closed his eyes, and studied the darkness behind his eyelids.

Darkness. Like the place Rhianna had been held. A room with no windows, where she'd been locked away for seven hours, at least. Alone, in the cold, her only companion dying in her arms. He remembered the darkness, the impenetrable darkness of parts of the Deep Roads, and how terrifying it was to be in darkness like that, even with companions, and torches nearby.

His breath came faster, and his hands clenched into fists. Yes, he wanted to kill whomever had done this. No child should have to suffer what Rhianna suffered today, being locked up alone in the dark. But that it had happened to Rhianna made it so much worse. She was . . . well, he had to admit she had become precious to him. And the thought of how scared she must have been, not knowing if anyone would ever find her down there . . . it was almost more than he could bear to think about.

But he couldn't stop thinking about it, partly because it was so horrible, but partly because it made no sense. Who could possibly want to hurt her? A sweet child, a child with so little malice inside of her? Mischief, yes, but not malice. He'd never heard her say or do anything unkind - not that hadn't been well-deserved, at any rate. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rhianna seemed to go out of her way to be considerate. Like the other day, when she'd offered her condolences about Celia's death. She had been so earnest, so concerned for his feelings, so worried about how Anora was coping with the loss of her mother . . .

Celia. Oh, Maker.


Nausea welled up inside him again, and he put his face in his hands. He breathed, slowly and deeply, willing himself not to be sick, as all the feelings he'd pushed back the other day, triggered by Rhianna's kind words, flooded over him in a wave that wouldn't stop. Feelings he'd been pushing back for months. Feelings he wasn't prepared to face even now, but apparently he was being given no choice.

Guilt. Regret. Sorrow. Horror. Self-loathing. Mostly guilt. Maker's blood, he hadn't even managed to make the trip to Gwaren to see her one last time. So many feelings, and somewhere in the back of his mind, a question was forming, one he did not want to ask. Not now, perhaps not ever.

Celia had deserved better, so much better. Loghain had not been even half the husband she deserved. And now she was dead, and any chance he might have had to fix things was gone.

He and Celia had met in Gwaren, in the final years of the Rebellion. Well, according to Celia, they'd actually met for the first time right after he'd emerged from the Deep Roads with Maric, Rowan, and the bard, although Loghain had no memory of it (something Celia had teased him about later). Of course, he'd been . . . distracted at the time, to say the least. Later, when the army had returned to Gwaren after the Battle of River Dane, they'd met again, and this time, he remembered.

The Rebels were using Gwaren as their headquarters, sometimes staying for extended periods of time. During those months, especially in the winter, when the army was holed up in the town with nothing much to do, Loghain kept himself busy by helping rebuild the town, which had been devastated more than once by Orlesian invaders. Most of the time he worked alongside townspeople, but some of the soldiers offered to help, and even Maric had joined in on occasion, in spite of being rubbish with a hammer. That had been amusing to watch.

The man who was unofficially in charge of the reconstruction was a freeholder named Saer, a carpenter by trade. Well, a cabinet maker really, and a good one, but at that point in time, Gwaren had greater need of houses than furnishings. Saer had organized the building efforts, deciding what needed to be done first, and where. And every day, the man's daughter would bring him his lunch.

One day, she had offered lunch to Loghain as well.

"No thank you," he'd said, uncomfortable that this woman apparently thought he needed charity. She'd shrugged, and walked away without comment, but the next day, she'd offered again. And the next day, and the next.

On the fifth day, he'd nearly lost his temper. "Why do you keep asking me if I want lunch? After as many times as I've said no, I would have thought you'd give up by now."

She had glanced at him and then shrugged, looking down at the basket in her hands. "I just never see you taking a break, ser. And it wouldn't do for you to work yourself to exhaustion. When was the last time you stopped for a meal?"

She'd peered up at him through her lashes. Even though he was annoyed with her, he had to admit she was beautiful, with shining golden hair and blue eyes and a delicate, straight nose and graceful hands. Her face, slightly flushed from the cold, had been impassive as she waited for him to answer her question.

"Why do you care?" he'd asked.

"Begging your pardon, ser," she began, "but aren't you the right hand of Prince Maric?"

"What has that got to do with anything?"

"He is the rightful king, and part of your duty as his general is to protect him, is it not?"

Loghain had glared at her, not sure where this was going. "I suppose so."

"It seems to me you can hardly do that properly on an empty stomach. Protect him, I mean."

"Protect him?" Loghain looked around. It was the dead of winter; no enemy force would make an attack at this time of year. "Protect him from what?"

"Well, the Orlesians, of course. They've been the greatest threat these past few years, in case you hadn't noticed." She'd blinked at him, with just the slightest hint of a smile on her lips. "But I'm sure there are other dangers, as well. Wild animals. Antivan pirates. Very large . . . squid from the depths of the oceans. I can't possibly keep track of all the things that might pose some threat to the king. Besides, isn't that your job, as well? Keeping track?"

When he didn't answer - he was still stuck on "very large squid" - she'd shrugged before continuing. "And even if there's no imminent threat, that doesn't mean something bad isn't lurking around the corner. Which rather necessitates being always prepared. I'm sure you wouldn't want to be . . . negligent in your duties. To the king." Her smile was more pronounced now. "So eat something. You need to keep up your strength, after all." She'd let her eyes run down his body and back up to his face. "Not that it's noticeably lacking."

Then her eyes had grown wide, and her cheeks flushed pink, and she'd bit her lip, and Loghain wasn't sure if she was embarrassed, or trying to keep herself from smiling.

Without a word, he'd taken the basket from her hands, turned his back and strode away, so she wouldn't see that he was embarrassed, as well as smiling. He'd sat under a tree and eaten the damned food (roast lamb that was quite good), and when he'd finished, and looked around for her, she was gone. When night fell, Loghain accompanied Saer back to the house he and his daughter shared, so Loghain could return the basket, and thank her properly. On Maric's behalf, of course.

When she'd invited him into their workshop, he'd been amazed by what he'd seen inside.

Toys. One entire wall of the shop was filled with toys, made in the evenings by Saer with leftover scraps of wood. Hobby horses and tops and tiny houses for dolls. Cradles and rocking horses and sleds. All of them beautifully crafted, and decorated with designs that Celia had painted. She had blushed fiercely when he'd picked up a cradle and admired the design - a rising sun on the headboard, and a crescent moon in the night sky at the foot. She'd seemed genuinely embarrassed to have someone notice and comment upon the quality of her work.

He'd been intrigued by this woman, with her quiet grace and her perseverance. With her willingness to goad him into eating lunch. With her ability to make such beautiful things with her hands.

As he got to know her, he became more and more intrigued. In part, it was because she was different from the other women he'd known. Women who were physically robust, with personalities to match. His mother, who had farmed alongside his father, singing songs while she worked. Rowan, who was as good with a sword as anyone Loghain had ever known and not afraid to speak her mind. Eleanor Dryden, who was slight of build, but made up for it with a ferocity that scorched anything that got in her way. Women who were warriors, by inclination or necessity.

Celia was thin, and fragile, and so fair she never went outside without a hat to protect her skin from the sun. Where others had been bright and vivid, like the explosive color of a sunset, Celia was softer, faded, almost. Like the sunrise. And she had no interest in armies or armor or learning to fight. Perhaps it was wrong of him to cherish these things, perhaps it meant he wanted her for what she wasn't rather than what she was. Or perhaps he found her fascinating because she was so different, and that was what he had wanted most. Someone different, someone who didn't remind him of other women he had known. Especially the ones he had loved, and had lost.

And just like that, he found himself enamored of the carpenter's daughter. Never again did he refuse the food she brought while he was working. Nor did he refuse her company when she offered to join him while he ate. And later, months later, when she'd offered him something more, when she'd taken him by the hand and they'd found a quiet place to be together, he hadn't refused that, either.

They were married before the end of the Occupation, just a few short months before Maric defeated the Usurper and threw the Orlesians out of Ferelden for once and for all. Right around the time Eleanor Dryden married Bryce Cousland, and Rendon and Evanna Howe were wed, and Gallagher Wulff's first son was born. Ferelden was ready for the war to be over. Ready to have children, create families. To live the peaceful lives they'd been denied by seventy years of Orlesian occupation.

When Maric had thrust the teyrnir upon Loghain, it made sense to settle there. Celia loved Gwaren, and had no desire to leave, not even to travel for recreation. And Loghain had no desire to go anywhere else. Nothing remained of the life he'd lived as a child in Oswin, and he certainly didn't want to live in Denerim. Gwaren was as good a place as any to start again, away from everything he'd known for the past few years. Away from his memories, from the things that haunted him, away from Maric and Rowan.

It was a transition for both of them, being raised to the nobility with a wave of Maric's hand. In some ways, it was easier for Loghain, because he didn't particularly care what other people thought. But Celia was perhaps better suited to her new role, by virtue of her personality, her sensibilities. The first year had been a challenge, but Celia had helped him to settle, not just into Gwaren, but also into himself. After so many years in hiding, living in camps with the army, fighting for their lives, it had been uncomfortable to stay in one place. He'd felt restless, his mind and his body still on alert. The Occupation had forged him into an outlaw, a man who was quick to fight, whose mind went to strategy before anyone else had even perceived the threat. But being a teyrn required different skills. He had needed to remake himself into someone less volatile, less driven by rage. Into a man who talked to people first, rather than running them through with his sword. With Celia's help he did this; with her words, and by example. Just a look from her, a slight smile or the tilt of her head was often enough to divert him from his rage or ill humor. To remind him not to react as he would have done in the past.

Celia had been good for him, and he liked to believe that he'd been good for her as well. Back then. That he'd helped her come out of her shell, expand her horizons. Do things she had never had the courage to do before.

A short time after they'd settled into the castle in Gwaren, Anora was born. They had been happy then, in those bright days when their bedroom still had no roof, so they slept in one of the dining rooms downstairs. While Loghain went about restoring the castle, Celia, after recovering from Anora's rather difficult birth, rehabilitated the gardens. She worked outside for hours some days, a wide-brimmed hat on her head, Anora sleeping in a basket in the shade. Celia loved flowers, roses in particular, and had a remarkable knack for them.

This was fortunate for the gardens, considering that Loghain was useless with plants, in spite of having grown up on a farm. He'd once killed one of her rose bushes just by touching it; it had shed half its leaves like a dog with mange. Celia had assured him it had already been ailing, but he never quite believed her, a belief bolstered by the fact that she never again asked him to help in the garden. On his next trip to Denerim, though, he'd brought back a replacement, its branches overflowing the saddlebag. The damned thing had torn him bloody, but the smile on her face when he'd given it to her had made up for every drop of blood he'd lost.

In the evenings, she liked to paint, no longer just toys, but proper paintings as well, first on parchment, and later on canvases Loghain purchased from foreign merchants. Sometimes he would watch her grinding the pigments: red from madder root, yellow and green from buckthorn berries, blue from a stone she called azurite. She charred bones in the fire to make different shades of black; before meeting Celia, it had never occurred to Loghain there could be more than one shade of black.

Later, when there was money enough he could justify spending some of it on luxuries, he'd bought purple dye for her. Purple was the one color she'd not been able to make to her satisfaction, so he'd purchased a dye made from seashells collected in the warm waters along the coast of Antiva. Hundreds of seashells, to make just a small pot of the stuff. She'd been delighted, and the first thing she'd painted was a field full of lupines. Their color had been so rich and perfect that over the years Loghain had spent hours staring at them, especially in the dead of winter, when everything was covered by snow, and those painted flowers could almost make him feel spring had arrived.

Flowers were her first love, but she often painted landscapes as well. Only occasionally did she paint people. Anora, twice, and sometimes townspeople or traveling players who caught her fancy. But never Loghain, and never herself. She hadn't liked painting people. "They're such active creatures," she said. "It seems wrong to give them just a single expression frozen for all time."

He turned over the locket he'd pulled out of the desk drawer, rubbing his thumb along the contours of the design, over the brass that had become warm in his fingers. Inside was the only image he had of Celia, one he had commissioned not long after Anora was born. He'd brought the locket with him to Denerim years ago. At first, he'd looked at it often, but over time that had become more and more . . . uncomfortable. Finally, a few years ago, he'd put it away in the drawer and it had remained untouched ever since.

Sliding his thumbnail between the two halves of the locket, he popped it open with a soft "click."

Celia's image smiled up at him, faded and stained, a print on her neck from one of Anora's tiny fingers. Strange to think that from now on this would be the image of Celia he held in his mind. He still had a few mostly clear memories of the flesh-and-blood woman: Celia stopped on the staircase and looking up at him over her shoulder; reading a bedtime story to Anora; smiling and breathless as she looked out over the ocean after hiking along the edge of the cliffs. But these images were fading rapidly, in the years since he'd last seen his wife. And now, he'd never see her face again, and this painting would be the way she would be remembered.



But this wasn't Celia. This was nothing more than streaks of pigment on canvas, and it didn't do her justice. Not even close. She had been so much more beautiful, with a gentle grace and dignity no artist could have hoped to capture. Nor did her sense of humor show through, her wit, which crept up so slowly you didn't even realize she was joking until the joke had been sprung. Most of their Denerim acquaintances had found her dull, but only because they'd never taken the time to see just how subtly clever she was.

There was no life in these painted eyes, no shine in the hair. The curve of her shoulders, the reach of her neck, looked ordinary here, but in reality, had been perfect. So lovely that just the sight of her had made him ache to run his fingers there, to place gentle kisses on the soft skin behind her ear.

No, the painting was woefully inadequate. Perhaps Celia had been right; people should not be frozen in time this way.

He sighed, stretching his legs out in front of him as he snapped the locket closed again, holding it loosely in his hand. Again, something pressed at the edges of his mind. That question . . .

Again, he pushed the thought away, more violently this time.

Yes, those first few years had been good. The years when Maric and Rowan were far away in Denerim, and Loghain could almost pretend the Occupation had never happened. That his parents were still on their farm in Oswin, and would come to visit at Funalis and play with their granddaughter once the harvest had been brought in. The years when his wife's smiles and his daughter's laughter lit up his days. When he and Celia still shared a bed at night.

When Anora was three years old, Celia became pregnant again. Carrying Anora had been difficult near the end, but Celia - never strong to begin with - didn't cope well with this second pregnancy right from the start. She was nauseous and her body ached and she was tired all the time; just climbing the stairs was enough to exhaust her for hours. Several weeks before the baby was due, she became seriously ill: she had pain in her head, and her hands and feet swelled, and she couldn't keep food down at all.

Then the baby came early. Far too early, surviving for only a few short hours before she died. Another girl, whom Celia had intended to name after Loghain's mother, but decided to name Deirdre instead.

A name that meant "sorrow."

The midwife said it was a blessing the baby came early. If the child hadn't come when she did, Celia would surely have died, too. As it was, he'd nearly lost his wife along with the baby, from loss of blood, and from grief.

He still had images in his mind from those dark days, images that hadn't faded.

His daughter in his arms, impossibly small, her chest heaving with the struggle for breath. Her tiny, perfectly-shaped fingers, the purplish tint to her skin, the fine, downy hair on her arms and her shoulders.

Celia's face, her cheeks hollow and her eyes clouded with pain. Blood, staining her skin and soaking the bedclothes. Drops of it on the floor.

Smoke rising, from a pyre far smaller than any pyre should ever be. A pyre he'd built himself, and set ablaze with dry eyes while the autumn winds whipped through his hair, geese honking as they flew overhead on their way to someplace warmer.

Celia, out of bed for the first time since the birth, standing in front of the pyre weeping, her shoulders shaking, tears streaming down her face.

Anora, four years old, standing at her mother's side, terrified and confused. Her blonde hair pulled into two lop-sided braids, woven by Loghain's hands, hands that had not yet learned the art of braiding a child's hair.

Loghain's breath caught in his chest at this memory. When she was small, Anora had been full of laughter and mischief. She'd been, as Anora herself had described Rhianna earlier, "a bright, happy little thing." All smiles and giggles and pigtails and dirt-smudged cheeks. Deirdre's death had changed her. Not that Anora hadn't recovered from this tragedy. Like Rhianna, Loghain's daughter was brave and resilient. But it seemed as though Anora never quite recaptured the sheer joy of living she'd had before the baby's birth, and death, had torn her family apart.

Is this what the future held for Rhianna Cousland, after what had happened to her today? Would the loss of her innocence, replaced by the knowledge there is cruelty in this world, change her in some way? Dampen her spirit? Make her fearful or timid or prone to melancholy?

Please, Andraste, no. Blessed Andraste. Don't let that happen to yet another precious little girl.

At the funeral, Loghain had watched his wife cry, knowing he should go to her, take her into his arms. Hold her. Comfort her. She cried silently, staring into the pyre, not looking away, barely even blinking, and he didn't know what to do. He didn't know what she wanted, he didn't know how to reach out to her. All he could see was her grief and it was too much for him to bear. He didn't have words to save her. How could he, when he didn't know how to save himself? To save himself from grief so deep and thick he was drowning in it.

For the second time in his life, he felt completely, utterly helpless, and he hated it, he hated everything about it.

Even so, in spite of everything he was feeling, if he had known for certain it was what Celia wanted, what she needed, he would have gone to her. If she had looked over at him even once, if she had nodded her head, or whispered his name, or made some gesture of welcome, he would have taken her into his arms and tried desperately to give whatever small comfort he was capable of giving.

But she didn't look up, and he didn't know what she wanted. And being close to her, close to anyone in that moment, was not what he wanted for himself. So he stayed away.

He never found his way back again.

Certainly, there had been times when they might have fixed things. When he could have reached out for her. Times when he thought she might reach out to him, but somehow it never happened. They both just meandered around the castle like two rivers that never crossed, but kept flowing steadily to the sea alone. Two strangers, with nothing to say to one another, she in her grief, and he in his.

In the months that followed, Loghain began spending more time away from the castle, needing to feel the fresh air on his skin, needing to be somewhere the silence wasn't a constant reminder that something was desperately wrong. He rode out into the countryside, or hunted in the woods, sometimes for days at a time.

Then, they received word Queen Rowan had died, taken by some wasting illness. Maric believed it was blight sickness contracted in the Deep Roads.

Loghain, desperate to be away from his grief and his grieving family, a family he didn't know how to comfort, had fled to Denerim, on the pretense that Maric needed him. Which wasn't untrue. Maric was . . . a wreck. After Rowan died, probably even before she had died, Maric had started drinking, and had shut himself up in his room, refusing to see anyone at all. When Loghain arrived and demanded to be let in, he'd been appalled by what he had found. Maric was a shell of the man he had been the last time Loghain had seen him.

Maric needed him, that much was true. But Loghain needed to be in Denerim as much as Maric needed him there. In the capital, almost no one knew about the baby. Gwaren was isolated, and the Mac Tirs were certainly not fashionable enough to warrant many visitors. So, most of Ferelden had never even known the teryna was expecting another child. It was easy enough to simply not mention it, to pretend it had never happened. It broke his heart in new ways to act as though that tiny girl he'd held for such a short time had never existed at all, but he couldn't imagine explaining it to people. Especially to the people in Denerim, people who weren't really his friends. People who would have gossiped behind his back. Who would have said he was cursed by the Maker, as the punishment for having been elevated above his station, or that it was no more than he deserved for things he'd done during the Rebellion.

Maric knew the truth, but it was one of the things they simply never discussed. One of several.

So he stayed in Denerim, where he reforged a friendship with Maric, and quietly ruled the kingdom its king had chosen to neglect. After a while, Loghain no longer considered Gwaren his home. It was only a place he visited, occasionally, for short spans of time, when he could bring himself to do it. He brought Anora with him to the capital, as often as he could manage without feeling guilty for depriving Celia of the girl's presence. And he tried not to think about what he was doing. What he wasn't doing. The fact that he had abandoned his wife when she must have needed him the most, even though she had never been able to tell him what she needed from him, or how he could give it to her.

He knew she blamed herself, both for Deirdre's death, and for what happened afterwards. For Loghain's departure. The midwife had been clear that Celia had been too damaged by this pregnancy to ever bear another child. Even though they'd never spoken of it, Loghain felt certain Celia believed he was angry with her for not being able to bear him any more children, angry she couldn't give him a son.

But none of that was true. It was the farthest thing from the truth. He didn't blame Celia for the baby's death. He didn't blame Celia for anything, and he couldn't have cared less about whether or not they would have more children. He wasn't angry. Not at her, anyway.

Even so, however, the thought of going to her was . . . uncomfortable. Overwhelming. He didn't want to be close to her. He didn't want to be close to anyone who might leave him. Who might die. He was still haunted by the deaths of his parents, and losing his daughter had been . . . unimaginably worse. And when he thought of how close he had come to losing Celia . . . that had been the worst of all.

So he'd left. He'd run away. He knew it was ridiculous, to leave the woman he loved in order to avoid losing her. Of course, it wasn't the first time he'd walked away from someone he loved.

Again, the question pushed at his mind, demanding to be asked. The question he'd been avoiding, and wanted to continue avoiding forever. He pushed it away, but he knew it wouldn't be long before it would insist upon his full attention.

He'd always intended to go back, or that's the lie he told himself, anyway. Someday, when he knew what to say. When enough time had passed that he and Celia could start over again without their grief weighing so heavily. When he could think of her without worrying about the future. But that day never came, and as time passed, it became harder and harder to even consider going back.

Now it was too late. Celia, his gentle, loving, beautiful wife was gone, along with any hope he had for redemption.

Not that he deserved redemption.

Because he knew the truth. Even if he had it to do again, if he known for certain she was going to die when she did, he would have stayed in Denerim. He hadn't wanted to see her, not really. It would have been like seeing a ghost, the ghost of someone else's life. It would have brought him face to face with all the regrets he had for the life he had lived, and grief for the life that had escaped him. Would seeing him have given Celia any comfort? Possibly. He guessed she had never entirely given up on him, in spite of everything. But seeing her, at the end, might have brought him comfort as well, something he certainly did not deserve.

His head ached, and he rubbed at the back of his neck to relieve the pressure. As if his neck were the problem. There were simply too many thoughts and feelings rumbling around inside of him, and he couldn't separate them out from one another. His grief over Celia's death, and his guilt over what had happened between them. The lingering ache that remained at the memory of his tiny, dead daughter. His anger over what had been done to Rhianna Cousland. And underneath it all a desperate fear he couldn't seem to shake. Fear that something even more horrible had been only narrowly averted. Fear that this was merely the eye in the storm, and there was worse yet to come.

Then again, he always felt as though there was something worse yet to come. That was another habit, long engrained, he hadn't been able to shake.

His eyes landed on the small bundle on the hearth. The kitten. Well, at least after tomorrow his daughter's pyre would no longer be the smallest he'd ever built. The daughter who, if she had lived, would have been even older than Rhianna Cousland is now.


He would have done anything - anything - to take away the girl's suffering. To take away her terror, to have lived through so many hours in the cold in her stead, if only she could have been spared. Just as he would have done anything to take away his wife's suffering. To have lived through her grief and her sorrow and her guilt, to have freed her from those things so she could be happy. But he didn't have the ability. It simply wasn't possible. Not for Rhianna. Not for Celia. Not for anyone, ever.

And instead, he'd been cause of even more suffering. So much more suffering.

He took another deep breath, and then another, and another, until he no longer felt the need to vomit.

This brief moment of physical relief was followed almost immediately by the thought that had been stalking him. The question he didn't want to ask. The damnable question floating around at the edges of his mind. Now, it finally burst through, demanding to be noticed. Demanding an answer. Mocking him, because he knew what the answer would be.

Loghain laughed aloud, a harsh, humorless sound that echoed off the paneled walls and the stones of the hearth. Of course he'd known all along.

Had it worked?

That was the question.

Had it worked? His withdrawal from Gwaren, from his wife, from his life.

Had it worked? Had running away from everything helped in any way? Had it done what he had intended? Did this hurt less because of the distance he had forced between himself and Celia?

Or was he now faced not only with grief over her death, but with grief over the time he had lost? The wasted years he stayed away, drinking whiskey with Maric, telling himself Ferelden needed him more than his family needed him at home? Grief over losing the precious time he and Celia could have had together if he hadn't been so stubborn and thick-headed and stupid and scared?

Had it worked?

Sitting in front of the cold fireplace, he put his face in his hands, and he wept.



Chapter Text

27 August, Dragon Age, 9:20
Gwaren Estate, Denerim


A small, solemn group gathered around the tiny wooden pyre Loghain had built before the sun had risen. Atop the pyre, the kitten looked as though it was merely asleep. The stiffness had, indeed, been gone this morning, and after rearranging its limbs and brushing out its fur to the best of his ability, Loghain had been satisfied with the result. The creature looked surprisingly lifelike, no longer the twisted horror it had been the night before.

Watching Rhianna inspect the pyre, Loghain felt . . . calm. A bit hollow, perhaps, after confronting all the feelings bottled up inside him for months. It had been cathartic, though. This morning, he felt less tense, less unsettled. He no longer felt as though something dark and foul was creeping up the path to knock on his door in the dead of night. Probably, the feeling would return in a few days, but for now, he cherished its absence. A few hours more sleep would have been welcome; he hadn't intended to build the pyre before dawn, but when a dream had awoken him - a prickly thing, full of shadowy faces and steel and flickering lights - he saw no point in laying on his back chasing after sleep that would surely not return.

In front of the pyre, Rhianna now stood tall, her shoulders held back, as she prepared to deliver the eulogy. Beside her and a single step behind, her brother held the torch. Loghain and the others stood in an arc behind the Cousland children, watching in silence.

Abruptly, Rhianna turned to Loghain, her face flushed and her eyes bright. Hurrying to his side, she tugged at his arm, urging him close so she could whisper into his ear.

"I don't know his name!"

Loghain's brow wrinkled. His name? The person who had locked her in the dungeon? Did she have some reason to think it was a man?

"Whose name?" he asked.

"The kitten's name!" She was breathless. "What am I to call him? Will the Maker receive him without a name?"

Ah, so that's what was troubling her. This wasn't about a person at all.

"It's all right, Rhianna," he assured her. "The Maker knows the kitten's name, even if you don't. I've lit pyres for a great many people whose names I did not know." It was the truth; during the Rebellion, Loghain Mac Tir had commended more souls than he could count to the Maker, without giving a thought to what their mothers might have called them. Fereldan and Orlesian alike. He'd never been able to stomach mistreatment of one's enemies. Not after they were dead, that is. "You can just say he was your friend. I promise, that will be fine."

Her chest rose and fell rapidly with her breath, a touch of uncertainty remaining in her eyes, but after a moment she swallowed, and nodded, and returned to her place in front of the pyre. She coughed, and her shoulders hitched as she bent slightly at the waist, almost as though she were struggling to catch her breath. Then she stood straight again and began to speak, her voice steady as it rang through the cool morning air.

"O Maker, hear my cry.
Guide me through the blackest nights.
Steel my heart against the temptations of the wicked.
Make me to rest in the warmest places.

"Transfigurations, 12:1

"We come here today to honor the spirit of this dear friend, an innocent kitten who was taken from us far too soon. We ask Andraste to guide our friend to the side of the Maker, and that the Maker receive this spirit, and give our friend an eternal home at His side.

"Here lies the abyss, the well of all souls.
From these emerald waters doth life begin anew.
Come to me, child, and I shall embrace you.
In my arms, lies Eternity.

"Andraste, 14:11."

She turned and nodded once to Fergus. He stepped forward, bringing the torch down to the kindling Loghain had carefully placed so the fire would burn fast and hot. With a soft "whoosh" of air, the small furred body was engulfed in flames while the six members of this unusual funeral party stood and watched.

After lighting the pyre, Fergus retreated, moving beside Anora.

"Your sister is quite good at this," Anora whispered. "At the verses of the Chant. Has she really been to so many funerals?"

Fergus shook his head. "Not for people, no. But we have ceremonies regularly for animals who died at the castle. I built a pyre for a mouse, once."

Directly across from Loghain, Bryce looked into the flames, his mouth set in a deep frown, his blue eyes glittering. Eleanor's face was softer, one of her teeth pulling at her bottom lip. Fergus stood with his shoulders slightly stooped, as though the wind had been taken out of him. And after her smile at Fergus's response had faded, even Anora looked troubled, her nose wrinkled, with tiny lines creasing her normally smooth brow.

Certainly, no one assembled could be expected to smile. Somewhere in Denerim, there was a person - possibly someone they all knew - malicious enough to do something horrible to a child. To the child who had just recited a funeral prayer from the Chant of Light. A funeral for a kitten. A funeral that could so easily have been Rhianna's instead.

Just how close had she come to freezing to death? Hours? If Loghain hadn't found her when he did . . . a girl so small, and she'd been so cold when he'd pulled her out of that cell. And what if whomever did this had come back for her and . . . hurt her?

His hands had clenched into fists, and he forced himself to relax.

Rhianna was safe; she was alive, and nothing else mattered right now.

In a very few minutes, Loghain's well-constructed pyre had burned down completely. He'd had rather a lot of practice building them, after all.

After the flames had died and only glowing coals remained, Eleanor stepped forward, putting her hands on Rhianna's shoulders.

"Come along, darling. That was lovely, and I'm certain your small friend will have found a place at the side of the Maker. But perhaps we should leave now. After all the excitement yesterday, I think we should have a quiet day at home."

Rhianna's face was calm and her eyes were dry, but her cheeks were flushed pink, no doubt from standing so close to the pyre.

"Please Mother, there is something I want to talk about with Teyrn Loghain. Might I stay for just little while longer?"

Eleanor frowned, as if it were an odd request, but after a moment she let out a sigh. Probably she was in no mood to deny the child anything.

"I suppose it would be all right for you to stay a few minutes," she consented. "If it's all right with you, Loghain?"

"Of course," he agreed. "I'll bring her home myself, when we're done."

Eleanor and Bryce both knelt to hug their daughter, and Fergus kissed her on the top of her head. Then the three Couslands, escorted by Anora, left the garden.

Rhianna knelt by the pyre once again, this time inspecting it to make sure it had fully burned. Satisfied it had been properly done, she got back to her feet, and turned to the teyrn.

"What did you want to talk to me about?" she asked. "You said last night there was something in particular."

"Let's go sit near the rose bushes, shall we?" He offered her his hand, and she took it, wrapping her fingers around his. Her palm felt damp and warm.

Loghain led her to the edge of the garden, to sit on a bench overlooking the small reflecting pool.

"Something happened to me, last night, Rhianna," he began, "While I was looking for you. Something that had never happened to me before. I want to ask what you think about it."

She nodded agreeably. "All right."

"When I was near the Chantry yesterday evening, I saw a rat. That isn't unusual, but this rat behaved differently from any I'd seen before. It ran right in front me, and stopped, and looked straight at me. Then when I tried to walk away, it ran in front of me again. I got the idea it wanted me to follow." He paused, studying her expression. "And even though I'm not in the habit of following after animals like this, I decided to do it, just this once." She blinked while looking up at him, but her face showed no surprise at the description of the creature's behavior.

"Can you guess where it led me?" he asked.

"To me."

"Yes. To you. That's not the sort of thing that happens, generally. Perhaps with dogs. I had a mabari once, and she was very clever like that. But not other animals. Not rats. But this one certainly seemed to know where you were trapped, and wanted to help me find you. Do you know anything about this?"

"Yes," she admitted, looking down at her hands. "That rat - I don't know her name either," she added, shaking her head, "came into the . . . cell, after I'd been there a while. After the kitten had already died, I think.

"Anyway, she climbed in through the opening in the door. I was a bit scared at first, because I could hear her, but I couldn't see her, but then when she came near, I knew right away she was friendly. I asked her to help me get out, and she's the one who brought me the key. But my arm wasn't long enough to reach through the window and put it in the lock. So, instead, I asked her to go find someone to help me. I thought as hard as I could about my father's face, so she would know what he looked like. And then I thought as hard as I could about your face. I knew if she could just find either one of you, you'd come to save me."

Something in his chest tightened, in an almost painful way, at those words. At the innocent trust she had in him. Was that what he'd seen in her eyes the night before? The thing he couldn't identify, the thing that had made him feel unworthy?

Because he was nothing if not unworthy.

It simply was not possible he deserved the trust this child had placed him him. Not hardly. All his life, he'd done one thing after another to disappoint people, to let them down, occasionally to betray them, or abandon them. His wife, his mother . . . and how many others?

For Rhianna to believe in him that much, believe he would come for her . . .

That of all the people she knew, she had thought of him in her darkest moment . . .

He looked away, needing a moment to catch his breath. Maker's blood. He didn't deserve anyone's trust. Not anyone's, except perhaps Maric's. And probably not even Maric's. No, definitely not even Maric's. But somehow, unbelievably, this child had decided to trust him. This precious little girl gazing up at him now. No matter how unworthy he was, Rhianna Cousland believed in him. Trusted him.

And, Maker be praised, this one time, for the first time in years, perhaps the first time ever, he had lived up to someone's trust.

"That's why she got your attention," Rhianna added. "Because I asked her to try and find you. Is that what you wanted to know?"

He exhaled, feeling somewhat lightheaded. "Yes, that's exactly what I wanted to know." He took another breath. "I am also curious about what happened with you and the kitten. You said you saw it being kicked by someone wearing a boot. A . . . vision of that, anyway. And you knew where to find the squirrels when we walked in the palace garden the other day. Does this sort of thing . . . does it happen to you often?"

"Oh yes. Pretty much all the time. Animals like me, and I like them. So we talk to each other."

"And they . . . talk back?"

"Well, it's not like people talking. Not like we're talking right now. It's more like pictures in my mind. The kitten put a picture of being kicked into my mind, so I knew what happened to him. And I put a picture of you into the rat's mind, so she'd know what you looked like. I expect anyone could do it if they wanted, but most people just never try."

"I'm not sure I agree, Rhianna. I don't think just anyone can talk to animals. And expect them to answer back, I mean."

She shrugged. "It is true I've never met anyone else who gets along with animals quite as well as I do. I just like them, that's all. I always have. As far back as I can remember I've been talking to animals. They're usually nicer to me than people are. Most people, I mean. Not my parents and my brother, or you. But a lot of people aren't really very nice. Or if they are nice, it's probably just because I'm the daughter of a teyrn, so it doesn't really count. Animals don't care about things like that."

Maker's breath, did she really feel that way? Already, at her age, to believe people were only nice to her because she was the daughter of a teyrn? Not that she was wrong, necessarily. And he could hardly blame her for wanting to have friends who didn't care about her parentage. He understood that feeling well enough.

Something else she had said . . . this had been happening as far back as she could remember? That seemed like a good sign. Magic usually didn't appear until children were older. Sometimes even older than Rhianna is now. So if she'd been able to do this for years, it probably was something non-magical. Maybe she was right, and anyone could do it if they just bothered to try.

Even so . . .

"Is there anything else . . . unusual?" he questioned. "Anything unusual that happens to you, I mean. Not with animals. But other things. Fires burning brighter when you look at them, or things falling off shelves when you get angry?"

"Oh! You think this means I'm a mage." She shook her head. "No, I don't think it's magic at all, although I did wonder about that once. So I asked Geoffrey about it. He's our court mage in Highever. I didn't tell him my secret, exactly, but I asked him if he could talk to animals, and he said he couldn't. That he didn't know of any mages that could, not accidentally anyway. Not without casting spells and saying words and making hand gestures and things. And I'm certainly not doing any of that. It's just something that happens."

Loghain let out a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding.

"You said this was your 'secret?' Does that mean you haven't told anyone? Your parents, your brother. Do any of them know?"

"No, they don't know about it. I haven't told anyone. Not except you. Maybe they've guessed, but I don't think so. I think they would have said something about it. They just think I'm silly, talking to things that don't talk back. But I don't really want people to know. It makes me a bit . . . nervous, to think about other people knowing. I wouldn't want anyone thinking it was magic. They might send me away to Kinloch Hold by mistake, and that doesn't sound like a very nice place at all, from what I've heard."

No, it wasn't a very nice place. And he doubted she'd heard even a tenth of the stories Loghain had heard about it.

"Well, you don't have to worry about me telling anyone. I'll keep your secret, unless you want me to tell. Maybe it would be easier telling your parents if we did it together." It might not be a bad idea for them to know about this. They should be told at some point, certainly.

"No. I'd rather keep it a secret. For now, anyway."

"All right. No one will hear about it from me, then. I promise."

So it most likely wasn't magic, thank the Maker. It was remarkable nonetheless. And had possibly saved her life.

No, not possibly. She'd been so cold when he'd found her, shivering in that damp dress.

Certainly. It had certainly saved her life.

After a few minutes of companionable silence, she placed one of her hands on his knee. Her eyes were shining, and her cheeks were still flushed a bright shade of pink.

"May I ask a favor of you, Teyrn Loghain?"

"Of course. Anything."

"Will you teach me to fight with a sword? Fergus keeps promising he'll teach me, but he's always too busy, and I think he thinks I'm too little yet to learn. But I'm not too little. I'm not." She shook her head for emphasis. "Squires learn to use a sword, and practice with the quintain when they're eight. And that's how old I am. I might be small, but I know I can learn. And you're the best swordsman in all of Ferelden. Perhaps in all of Thedas. I know I could learn if you're willing to teach me. I'd practice very hard, I promise. Will you show me, please?"

Her eyes were wide, and her breath was coming rapidly, with a slight rasping sound from deep within her chest. Clearly, this meant a lot to her.

"Rhianna," he began, carefully. "You do realize, even if you'd known how to fight with a sword, it wouldn't have kept you from getting locked in that cell yesterday. Right?"

"I know that." She coughed into her hand. "But . . . when I was locked away, I felt so small, and I was so scared. Especially those few minutes when someone came downstairs into the hallway. I was so afraid whoever it was might come in and . . . and hurt me. Or maybe a monster might come in the darkness, and I wouldn't have been able to do anything. I don't ever want to feel like that, not ever again." She stopped to take a deep breath, and her eyes squeezed shut for a moment as she shuddered, slightly, with the effort of breathing. "If I learn how to fight, how to really fight, not just punch boys in the nose, I won't feel so scared, not ever again."

A reasonable request . . .

Except knowing how to fight didn't protect you from being scared. He should know. She was right: there were few people in Ferelden better than Loghain with a sword. But in spite of that, fear had been a near-constant companion during the Rebellion, and at various times afterward.

Last night, for example.

But he couldn't tell her that. Not now, at any rate. He couldn't take from her this simple thing that might help her feel safe again, help her feel she had some control over her life. Something that might allow her to feel less helpless. And if she did apply herself, she would be less helpless, which could only be a good thing.

"All right, Rhianna. I'll teach you to use a sword. When would you like your first lesson?"

"Oh, thank you, Teyrn Loghain!" Her face lit up as a thin giggle escaped her throat. "I knew you'd say yes. I just knew it. You're always so good to me. Can we have a lesson right now? Today? My parents didn't say when I needed to be home, after all. Can we, please?"

"All right," he chuckled. "But we're going to do this properly. Let's go to Fort Drakon, and see if we can't find you some armor that isn't too terribly large." He looked her up and down. She really was small, even for her age. "Something dwarven, perhaps, or made for an elf. Then I'll find a short sword for you, and I'll show you what to do with it."

Still smiling, she started to push herself up to her feet, but collapsed back onto the bench. Her chest was heaving, her eyes wide.

"Rhianna?" Loghain grasped one of her arms. "What is it? Are you all right?"

"I . . . I don't feel so good," she groaned. Her shoulders sagged, and she coughed again, having a hard time keeping herself upright. Her cheeks were bright red now, and her eyes looked glassy. He pressed the back of his hand against her forehead.

Maker's blood. She was burning up with fever. This wasn't from standing too close to the pyre; she must have caught some illness the previous day.

Another bout of coughing wracked her thin frame. "Teyrn Loghain," she whimpered, "my head hurts, and I . . . I don't think I can stand up by myself."

She began to lean forward, and Loghain hurried to catch her, gathering her into his arms before she fell to the ground.

Moving as fast as possible without jostling her too much, he headed toward the house.

As he entered the first floor hallway running through the center of the Gwaren estate, he bellowed, "Anora! Uthalas! I need you. Now!"

He carried Rhianna into his study, and as he laid her down on the sofa, Anora rushed into the room, followed a few moments later by Loghain's footman.

"Father?" He heard a sharp intake of breath when she saw Rhianna. "What happened?"

"I don't know; she's caught some illness, I think." He put a cushion behind Rhianna's head, and reached for a blanket. "We were talking in the garden, and she collapsed. She's been coughing, and she's running a fever. Anora. I need you to go to the palace, and ask Maric to send the healer. Then go to the Highever estate and tell Bryce and Eleanor their daughter is ill."

Anora didn't respond right away; she stood there, her mouth hanging open and her eyes wide, staring at Rhianna. "Is she going to be all right?" she asked, her voice shaking.

"I hope so. Please, Anora," he entreated, "just go. As quickly as you can. Rhianna needs the court mage. Uthalas, will you please go with her?"

Anora nodded, as did the footman, and they both hurried out of the room.

Loghain felt Rhianna's forehead again. It was hot, but not dangerously so. Sometimes fevers were good; they seemed to burn off the ill-humours that had overtaken the body. But too high of a fever could cause convulsions, which were anything but good. In spite of the fever, the girl was shivering, so Loghain tucked the blanket close around her body. Then he reached beneath one edge to take hold of one of her small hands. Her eyes were closed, and she seemed to be working hard just to breathe.

Blessed Andrasteplease don't let this be serious. Please don't let anything bad happen to this child. Not again, not after what happened to her yesterday. Not Rhianna. Please.

He wasn't sure how long he sat like that, holding her hand, when a knock sounded at the main entrance to the estate. A minute later, one of the servants ushered a tall woman in robes into the room. Jocelyn, Maric's court mage.

"Teyrn Loghain," she greeted him. "Your daughter said the Cousland girl is ill?"

"Yes." Loghain stood and stepped out of the way so the healer could take his place. Jocelyn felt Rhianna's forehead, and the girl moaned softly in response.

"What is her first name?" Jocelyn asked.


"Rhianna?" the woman murmured, as she knelt on the floor. Rhianna's eyes fluttered open, and she breathed through her open mouth as though it was a chore to do so. "I'm a healer, Rhianna. I came here at Teyrn Loghain's request. He said you're not well. Will you tell me how you feel? Are you in any pain?"

The girl turned her head and coughed into the cushion twice, weakly, as though she barely had the energy for it. "My head hurts . . . quite a lot . . . and my throat is sore. And . . . I'm sort of . . . achey in my legs, and in my back." She whimpered softly. Loghain's instinct was to move closer and comfort her, take her hand once again, but he didn't want to interrupt. "And my arm . . . hurts. Where I was bitten yesterday, by fleas, I think."

At the mention of fleas, the healer glanced at Loghain, a frown on her face. Then the woman pulled aside the blanket to examine Rhianna's arms. The two bite marks which had been barely noticeable yesterday were now bright red, and swelled up to the size of grapes.

Jocelyn tucked Rhianna's arm back under the blanket, and stood, turning to Loghain. "I think . . ." She paused, as though she did not want to finish the statement. "I think this girl . . . has the plague."

"Plague?" Loghain's legs felt weak beneath him, and for a moment his vision went cloudy. The plague? But the plague killed people. A lot of people. Most of the people who caught it. And Rhianna was so very small . . .

"Surely, that's not possible. There hasn't been an outbreak of plague in Denerim for years."

"Well, unfortunately we have seen a number of cases over the past few months. Mostly in the Alienage, but a few on the docks, and in the western part of town, beyond the Chantry. I've seen enough cases to know the symptoms. And those swellings on her arm are . . . quite distinctive."

He rested his hand on the back of the sofa to steady himself. "What do we do? Can you help her?"

"I can't cure her, if that's what you're asking. That requires healing magic I do not possess. The best I can do is make her more comfortable while we wait to see if she is strong enough to fight off the illness on her own. Mostly, the spells and potions I can give her will ease the pain." Pain? "I will stay as long as I am needed," she added. "Do you intend to remain here? It would be very helpful to have someone else with me, but I know it is a lot to ask."

She was asking if he intended to stay? How could he possibly leave? Not if Rhianna was really so ill.

"I'm not going anywhere. And I expect her parents will feel the same."

"Good. Thank you. I'll . . . well, if you'd be so kind as to bring me some heated water, I'll begin crafting potions."

There was noise in the hallway, and Anora hurried into the sitting room, along with Eleanor and Fergus Cousland. When Eleanor caught sight of her daughter lying on the couch, she stopped abruptly.

"Anora said Rhianna is ill? What is it? What's wrong with her?"

Loghain stepped forward, placing his hands on Eleanor's shoulders to keep her from coming any farther into the room. "Anora," he said with a glance at his daughter, "please stay by the door. You too, Fergus." When his eyes met Eleanor's, he had to force himself not to look away from the fear he saw there. "Eleanor." He took a breath, holding her gaze. "The mage believes it's . . . the plague."

The teyrna's body shuddered beneath his hands.

"No," she moaned, her hand flying to her mouth as her eyes grew bright. "No, Blessed Andraste, not the plague. Not my little girl. This isn't possible. There's no plague in Denerim, is there? We've heard it was only in the south this year."

"Maric's healer is here," he soothed, "and we are going to do everything possible for Rhianna." He paused. "Are you sure you want to stay? It would be safer for you to return to Highever House, and not risk being infected."

"Risk being infected? My daughter might die," Eleanor retorted, her eyes flashing. "I'm not leaving her side."

"I understand." That is what he'd expected her to say. "Where is Bryce?"

"He went to see Leonas Bryland after the funeral. He doesn't even know Rhianna is ill."

"Perhaps it would be best, then, if he stayed away," Loghain suggested. "Jocelyn, the king's healer, is going to stay with us. I think the three of us together can care for Rhianna, and it might be wise not to risk anyone else becoming ill."

"Yes, that's a good idea. If Bryce and I were to both . . ." She stopped mid-sentence, and turned to her son. "Fergus, I want you and Anora to go find your father, and tell him what happened. Then go back to Highever House and stay there. All of you. Tell your father I said he's not to come here. We can't risk him getting ill."

"Perhaps I should stay to help," Fergus argued.

"No." Eleanor's tone brooked no argument. "I expect you to do as I have said. I'll not take any unnecessary chance that any of you might catch this. Now go to your father." She shifted her gaze to Anora. "Both of you, please."

Anora's face was pale, and even from across the room, Loghain could see she was trembling, terrified. Plague had killed her mother only months before. He wanted to go to his daughter, to hold her and comfort her, but he couldn't risk it, not after being in direct contact with Rhianna.

"Anora," Loghain began, "I want you to do as Eleanor asked. Go with Fergus, and stay at Highever House for the duration of Rhianna's illness."

"But what about you, Father?" Her lower lip quivered. "You've never had the plague before, either. What if you . . .?"

He held her gaze, as if he could will her to not be afraid just by trying hard enough.

"I'll be fine, Norrie." That might or might not turn out to be the truth, but he'd held Rhianna in his arms; it was too late now for him to worry about being infected. "I need to help tend to Rhianna without worrying you might fall ill, as well. Do you understand? I don't want you coming back here until you hear from me it is safe."

She crossed her arms in front of her chest, clearly unhappy, but after a moment, she sighed. "All right, Father. I'll go with Fergus."

As the two young people left, Loghain turned to his footman, who was standing in the doorway. "Uthalas, I would like you to gather all the household staff, and go with them to the palace. Tell Maric I need everyone housed and fed for the next few days at least. I don't want to risk any of you getting ill."

"Yes, Your Grace," the elf agreed.

Loghain let out a breath, a wave of exhaustion washing over him. If only he'd had a few more hours of sleep last night.

"I'm going to the kitchen to see about some hot water." Loghain stepped close to the teyrna, and put a hand on her shoulder. "Please make yourself at home, Eleanor."

Her breath hitched, as though she were fighting back a sob, but she smiled at him gratefully. "Thank you, Loghain." Her eyes were green; he'd never noticed their color before. Just a shade lighter than her daughter's. One strand of hair had come out of its braid, and hung down into her face.

"She's going to be all right, Eleanor." He put a bit of pressure where his hand rested on her shoulder, a gesture of comfort. "You'll see. Rhianna will make it through this. I swear it."

It had to be the truth. It had to be.


Chapter Text

30 August, 9:20 Dragon
Gwaren Estate, Denerim


Sitting at the large kitchen table, Eleanor Cousland considered the plate of food in front of her, feeling vaguely nauseous. It was chicken, a chicken Loghain had roasted himself, and afterwards put the carcass in a pot over the fire for the beginnings of soup he intended to feed to Rhianna when she was strong enough to eat. It tasted quite good, seasoned with rosemary, basil and thyme, but Eleanor's stomach wanted nothing whatsoever to do with food. If she neglected to eat, however, if she failed to take proper care of herself, she would be of no use to her daughter. And possibly at higher risk of getting sick herself.

Eleanor had never been more exhausted in her entire life, nor had she ever felt more afraid. Seeing Rhianna like this, so desperately ill, was indescribably horrible. This was the first time Eleanor had seen the plague at such close range, or at any range, really, and it was a truly awful disease. Watching it progress, watching its corruption spread across her daughter's flesh, was worse than anything she had ever witnessed, even during the Occupation. And she had seen terrible things during the Occupation.

Then there was the pain. Such a lot of pain. At first, there had been aches in Rhianna's muscles and back, and the inflamed bites on her arm had become tender to the touch. Then more swellings appeared, on her neck and in her armpits. These were horrifying to see, dark red and swollen, some beginning to turn black as though the girl's flesh were rotting. Even a slight amount of pressure against any of them caused Rhianna to cry out in agony; wearing a nightgown had become impossible, because even the touch of the fabric had been more than she could bear. Instead, they had stoked up the fire in the bedroom Rhianna had been given, and covered her with just the lightest of sheets.

That, along with the potions from Jocelyn, seemed to ease the girl's suffering enough that she could spend most of her time asleep. But even that wasn't a perfect refuge; Rhianna often whimpered and moaned while she was sleeping. Hearing her daughter - her sweet, beautiful, beloved daughter - cry out from the pain, even in her sleep, was almost unbearable. Even now, Eleanor imagined she could hear the sound of Rhianna's cries.

She stabbed a piece of chicken onto her fork and forced it past her lips, then washed it down with a swallow of sweet honey mead. When it threatened to come back up again, she breathed slowly, deeply, through her nose, willing her stomach to be calm, to accept the food. Her breath caught in her chest, and she fought back the urge to cry, an urge that had been a familiar visitor these past few days.

If only she could give into the feeling and allow herself the luxury of crying, of really crying. To let out everything bottled up inside, all the fear and anger and guilt and dread. But if she started crying, if she let herself go, she might not be able to stop. She might not be able to put herself back together again.

Perhaps it would have been possible if Bryce were here, to hold her, to whisper in her ear the words she wanted to hear: that Rhianna would recover, that everything was going to be all right. So many times over the past two days, she had considered writing to him, begging him to come. But she hadn't. She couldn't. It wasn't worth the risk of him being infected. So far, none of the adults tending to Rhianna had shown any signs of illness, thank the Maker, but there was no point in taking chances, not with so deadly a disease. And perhaps it was better for Bryce he was not here to see this, to watch his daughter suffer. He was surely going through his own version of hell, worrying about her from afar, but that had to be better than seeing the girl in so much pain.

Thankfully, everything had been quiet for the past couple of hours. The mage's potions and spells did seem to ease Rhianna's suffering, for a time at least.

Eleanor lifted another mouthful of food to her lips, but simply couldn't bring herself to eat it. Her stomach was so tied up in knots, she feared she might throw up if she tried to force down another bite. She set down the fork, and pushed the plate away.

Closing her eyes for a moment, Eleanor took a few deep, calming breaths before getting up from the table. She walked up the stairs, taking them slowly, one at a time, and holding tight to the railing. Maker's breath, she was exhausted, and desperately needed to sleep. Since Rhianna had fallen ill, Eleanor, Loghain, and Jocelyn had taken turns caring for the girl during the day and sitting up with her through the dark hours of the night. With three of them on hand, there had been plenty of opportunities for Eleanor to rest, but she often found herself unable to sleep. She tossed and turned, and imagined Rhianna's voice calling out for her, and when she did manage to sleep, her dreams were dark and horrible.

But there was only so long she could go without proper rest; it seemed she had passed that point this evening. Perhaps Loghain would agree to sit up with Rhianna for just a few more hours, while Eleanor lay down and tried to sleep.

She hated to ask more of him, but she was certain if she did ask, he would agree. Loghain had been wonderful. On the first day of Rhianna's illness, while the mage had prepared potions, Loghain had carried Rhianna up the stairs into one of the guest bedrooms, and given Eleanor the room next door. When Rhianna cried out because the light hurt her eyes, he had hurried to close all the curtains, making sure not even a sliver of daylight peeked through. Then he had put up a screen in front of the hearth, to dim the light from the fire. He'd cooked food for them to eat, and had found clothes for Eleanor to borrow, things belonging to Anora, since the teyrna certainly hadn't come prepared for an extended stay.

Now, from the doorway of the bedroom, Eleanor watched as Loghain sat in a chair pulled close to the bed, holding one of Rhianna's hands in his own as the girl slept.

Maker bless him. The Couslands, and Rhianna in particular, were fortunate to have Loghain Mac Tir as a friend.

The pleasure this sight had given her faded when she took a closer look at her daughter. Rhianna's face was so pale her skin appeared almost transparent, and dark smudges circled her eyes. Her lips were dry and cracked, her hair was stringy, and her forehead shone with sweat from the fever that had yet to break. Even in her sleep, breathing was a chore. She pulled breath in through her opened mouth, and her chest rose and fell erratically with the effort. To keep the pressure off the swellings on her neck and her arms, her head was tilted back at an awkward angle, and her arms were splayed as though she were trying to make a snow angel. Some of those lesions had darkened, the skin becoming nearly black.

She looked so small, so helpless, her lips pinched together in a slight frown, even as she slept.

Yes, this was, without a doubt, the worst, the most frightening, the most difficult thing Eleanor had ever experienced.

"Blessed Andraste," she prayed silently, "please don't take my daughter from mePlease let her recover from this. Please."

As if he heard her prayer, Loghain looked up.

"Eleanor." His mouth stretched into a thin line, and turned up at one corner, an expression that was probably meant to be a smile, but rather failed the mark. She could hardly blame him; smiling was difficult at the moment.

"Did you eat?" he asked.

"I did. A few bites, anyway." Eleanor sat down on the bed near her daughter's feet. "Please don't be offended that I didn't eat much. It is not a reflection on the quality of your cooking; I just don't have much of an appetite at the moment."

At that, he did smile, briefly, a smile that looked genuine. "Fair enough." His eyes narrowed. "Why don't you go get some rest, Eleanor? I'll sit up with Rhianna a while longer."

"Oh, Loghain, are you sure you don't mind? To be honest, I had come in here thinking to ask if you wouldn't mind sitting up with her. But you've done so much already. And you look as exhausted as I feel." It was true. He had dark circles to rival Rhianna's, and sat slumped in the chair as though he didn't have the energy to hold himself upright.

"I look exhausted? So, is that the way things are done in Highever? Insulting one's host? It's a wonder your daughter ever learned any manners at all." One corner of his mouth turned up, and he winked at her, a wink that took rather longer than usual, but a wink, nonetheless.

"Yes, well fortunately," she joked, "Rhianna learned most of her manners from her father. He's far more civilized than I am." She gave him a smile, or attempted to, anyway.

"And good thing, too." He chuckled, deep in his throat. "In all honesty, though? I have long suspected my own daughter spent rather a lot of time studying your manners. Not that there was anything wrong with the way Celia comported herself, but I think Anora felt the need for a role model who had been raised in the nobility, someone she could watch, and mimic to make certain she never made any hideously improper mistakes. She chose well, in my opinion." Before Eleanor could respond to this unexpected and quite touching compliment, he continued, "And don't worry about me, Eleanor, I'm fine for a few more hours, if you'd like to sleep."

She let out a long, slow breath. "Thank you, Loghain. I know it's a lot to ask, but I would like to try and rest, just a bit. I'll be next door, so call if you need anything."

Moving to the side of the bed opposite where Loghain sat, Eleanor placed a kiss on her daughter's forehead. Rhianna moaned in her sleep, and Eleanor thought she was going to wake, but after a few ragged breaths, the girl fell silent again. After exchanging another set of tired smiles with Loghain, Eleanor went next door to the bedroom she was using, and laid down on the bed, not bothering to remove her clothes or climb under the sheets.



Eleanor turned at the sound of her daughter's voice. Rhianna stood in the middle of a meadow filled with flowers. Funny to see so many flowers at this time of year. It was obvious, however, Rhianna was pleased: her smile lit her entire face. She looked so lovely, in a white dress with a ribbon at the neck, her hair hanging down past her shoulders, her feet bare.

"I have something for you, Mummy." Rhianna's use of the word brought a smile to Eleanor's face. Rhianna had stopped calling her "Mummy" a few years ago, and only used the term occasionally now. Usually when she was very sleepy, or not feeling well.

Not feeling well? Oh, that was a worrisome thought.

"You're not feeling ill, darling, are you?" A finger of anxiety traced its way down Eleanor's spine. The sunlight was so bright, almost too bright, reflecting off Rhianna's hair in a way that seemed to sparkle.

"Of course not, Mummy," the girl replied. "I feel fine." Stepping closer, she held out her hand. "Look what I found for you." Clutched between her slightly chubby fingers was a flower: a daffodil, yellow with an orange center. "It's a flower. Isn't it pretty?"

It was, indeed, pretty, but where had she found a daffodil, at this time of the year? It was late autumn, nearly winter. Daffodils were spring flowers, and should have all been dead months ago.


Another tendril of fear wormed its way into Eleanor's consciousness.

Rhianna lifted her hand, offering the flower to Eleanor. "Take it. It's for you, Mummy." Rhianna's smile revealed her pearly white teeth. Her cheeks were round, and her green eyes shone in the sunlight. Her skin was kissed with a healthy glow, as though she'd spent the day out of doors.

Eleanor reached for the flower, but before her fingers could grasp it, it began to change. It turned black, first at the orange center, and then the darkness spread outward, engulfing the entire flower. In only a very few seconds, the daffodil was nothing but a blackened, shriveled thing, like the curled remains of leaves that had been burned in a fire.

Rhianna cried out in surprise and horror, and tried to throw the flower to the ground, but it wouldn't leave her hand. The corruption spread onto Rhianna's fingers, and then to her hand, and then began to creep up Rhianna's arm, turning the girl's skin black.

Eleanor screamed, and reached for her daughter, but Rhianna was too far away. The blackness crawled up her neck, and onto her face. Whimpering in fear and pain, Rhianna stumbled, and before Eleanor could reach her, the ground split open beneath the girl, the grass tearing apart with a sound like ripping fabric. Red earth was revealed beneath her. Red, like the gaping maw of some gigantic, ancient creature.

Rhianna fell backwards into the hole, and before Eleanor could grab her, stop her from falling, the ground closed up again, leaving nothing but a rough scar where the edges of the grass knit themselves back together again, leaving no trace that Rhianna had ever existed.

Falling to her knees, Eleanor clawed at the dirt and the grass, hot tears streaming down her face. But she could make no progress; for every clump of grass she torn away, a new one took its place, and the ground remained solid; she could find no trace of the hole into which Rhianna had disappeared.

With a sob rising in her chest, Eleanor knew it was far too late, and Rhianna was gone from her forever. She felt one of her fingernails tear away from its socket, but still she could not stop digging. How could she ever stop trying to find Rhianna, to rescue her, to bring her home where she would be safe and warm and loved? Eleanor's fingers, bloody now, dug into the soft earth again and again and again.

"ELEANOR!" It was a man's voice, but when she peered back over her shoulder, she saw no one.

She returned to her work, her fingers aching.

Again, the voice rang out loudly through the air.



She sat up in bed. The room was dark, although a dim light flickered in through the open door. She wiped at her cheek, and her fingers came away damp.

Where was she? Nothing looked familiar; this wasn't her bedroom in Highever, nor the one in the Denerim estate. Where in the world was she?

There had been a meadow. And Rhianna. Rhianna had fallen into a hole in the ground, her face dark with corruption. And there had been a flower . . .

That still didn't explain where she was now . . . and she needed to know, so she could look for her daughter . . .

In a rush, as her mind came fully awake, she remembered.

She was in the Gwaren estate. Teyrn Loghain's home in Denerim. And Rhianna was ill, but there were no flowers, and the girl hadn't been swallowed up by the ground.

A dream. It had been a dream. Eleanor nearly sobbed with relief. Thank the Maker. It had been nothing more than a dream.

"No! Please, no! It hurts . . . Teyrn Loghain, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts. Make it stop, please . . . please make it stop. Please."

Rhianna's voice, ringing through the dark house. This was no dream.

"Eleanor! I need you NOW!"

Blessed Andraste, it was Loghain she had heard, Loghain's voice that had roused her from her sleep.

Something was wrong.

Eleanor slid off the bed, and hurried into the adjacent room. Loghain was on the bed, with Rhianna cradled in his arms as she whimpered and clutched at him, her entire body shaking with the effort. Loghain's hands were covered in something dark, something that glistened in the flickering light, and there were dark stains on his shirt. Rhianna, too, was covered in it, in swathes down her chest.

Blood. Rhianna's blood.

"Oh, Maker," Eleanor moaned.

Loghain's head snapped in her direction. "Eleanor, go downstairs and get Jocelyn. Please."

"But . . .?" Eleanor's voice could barely be heard over the sounds of Rhianna's sobbing. "Oh, Maker, what happened?"

"The swellings have begun to burst. Please, Eleanor," he pleaded. "Get Jocelyn. Rhianna is in a great deal of pain."

As if to prove the point, the girl whimpered again, a pitiful sound. "Please . . . please, Teyrn Loghain, make it stop."

Eleanor turned and hurtled down the stairs.

Mere minutes later, Eleanor hovered at the foot of the bed while the healer examined Rhianna, who was still sobbing, her chest heaving as she panted for breath. Some of the lesions on Rhianna's neck had, indeed, burst open. The black skin at the edges was cracked and furled, and blood and yellow pus oozed from the wounds. An incredibly foul stench permeated the room, and a tear slid down Eleanor's face. She fought back the urge to vomit, not from the smell itself, but from the knowledge that this smell of death was coming from her daughter. Her precious little daughter.

Blessed Andraste. The dream. That horrible, horrifying dream. Rhianna standing on the grass clutching a daffodil, and then being eaten alive by some sort of corruption before she disappeared into the ground. Was it a premonition? Had some spirit from the Fade come to Eleanor in her sleep, warning that her daughter was going to die?

Jocelyn waved her hands in the air above Rhianna's head, and a ball of blue light formed between them. Slowly, the mage lowered her hands, causing the light to cascade down Rhianna's forehead. Immediately, the girl's whimpering lessened. The open sores on her neck looked no better, and her breathing was still labored, but she relaxed against Loghain. He shifted his position, supporting her body with his own while the mage did her work.

With a clean cloth and water, Jocelyn dabbed gently at the sores, cleaning away the worst of the pus and the blood, It was slow work, though, as Rhianna moaned with each touch of the cloth. After cleaning the wounds, Jocelyn wrapped bandages very loosely over the sores.

"Is there no poultice, or salve, you could use to heal those? Or a spell, perhaps?" Eleanor asked.

"I know they look awful," Jocelyn apologized, giving the teyrna a strained smile, "but they should be allowed to breathe for the time being. The illness is poisoning Rhianna's blood, and we want the poison to drain out. If I heal those sores, I fear it will all be trapped within her body."

When the mage had finished, she excused herself and returned downstairs. Rhianna seemed to be in less pain now. She was calm and quiet, clinging to one of Loghain's arms as he held her, rocking her slowly back and forth, his cheek resting on the top of her head, his eyes closed. He looked utterly exhausted.

"Loghain," Eleanor murmured, "you should go rest. I'll take over watching Rhianna."

He opened his eyes. "Yes. As soon as she falls back to sleep."

That appeared imminent; the girl's eyes were half closed and her mouth hung open, and her grip on Loghain's arm was starting to loosen. Eleanor sat on the bed to wait, focusing on her breath, trying to quench the fear raging inside of her. The dream. Again, she saw the flower turning black, watched her daughter fall backwards into a chasm in the ground. It wasn't real, none of it was real, nor was it a premonition. It was just a dream. That's all. Merely a dream.

Within a very few minutes, Rhianna's eyes had closed completely, and her breathing had settled into a fairly smooth rhythm. Loghain shifted himself off of the bed, supporting Rhianna's head carefully while he flipped over the pillow, turning the side covered in blood to the bottom, and then easing her down. The rest of the bedclothes were equally soiled, but changing them would have to wait until morning; there was no way Eleanor would consider disturbing Rhianna's rest. Not now. Not after . . . that.

Loghain quietly left the room, and Eleanor settled herself into the chair beside the bed. Rhianna looked calm now, a slight frown on her lips, but otherwise resting peacefully.

Eleanor glanced at the clock. It was only just past midnight. Maker's blood. There were still far too many dark hours stretching ahead until dawn. Hours of being haunted by images from her dream. Hours filled with dread of the moment her daughter would awaken, crying out in pain. Hours filled with terror that her daughter might never awaken at all.

She could think of just one thing that might help. Help her pass the time, and possibly help Rhianna, as well.


Although never particularly devout, Eleanor did believe in the Maker. She doubted, however, that He was watching now, or that He cared one way or the other about the small girl lying near death in this bed. The Maker had turned his back on the world more than once, and Eleanor had no patience for a god willing to do that. So she wouldn't pray to the Maker.

But there was someone else who might listen, someone who had loved Her people enough to sacrifice her own life to save them. Someone who had taken her first breath right here, in Denerim. Surely, the Maker's bride would spare a moment to hear a prayer for another small girl from Ferelden.

Eleanor closed her eyes, and bowed her head. Blessed Andraste . . .

Eleanor's eyes fluttered open. Maker's blood. She'd fallen asleep again, sitting up in the chair. In truth, she couldn't remember more than a few minutes of her prayer, and she had no idea how much time had passed.

She glanced at her daughter. It appeared as though Rhianna was still asleep . . . or was something wrong? The girl wasn't moving at all. Oh, Blessed Andraste . . . had something happened while Eleanor was sleeping? Had she stopped breathing? Eleanor leaned forward, meaning to grab one of Rhianna's hands, and feel for her pulse . . .

But then the girl's chest rose and fell again, with the rasping sound of breath.

Ah. It was fine. Everything was fine. Rhianna was still merely sleeping.

Eleanor sank back into the chair and turned her gaze to the clock on the wall. Three o'clock. Damn. Still a few hours to go before daylight. And her unintended nap hadn't even taken the edge off her exhaustion; if anything, she felt more tired than before. But she didn't dare nod off again. She couldn't take any chances . . .

A movement caught her eye, and she gasped with surprise. Someone else was in the room with her.

"I'm sorry, Eleanor," a deep voice murmured. "I didn't mean to startle you."

Loghain. Eleanor let out a relieved breath, and chuckled, chiding herself silently for being startled. Of course it was Loghain. Who else could it possibly be? He sat in a chair in the corner of the room, mostly hidden in shadow.

"Oh, Loghain. I'm sorry. I didn't know you were there. I think . . . well, I closed my eyes for just a moment, intending to pray, and I fell asleep. Which is what I thought you were going to do. Get some sleep."

"That's what I thought as well," he replied. "And I slept for a bit, two hours perhaps, before waking. I stared at the ceiling for some time, then decided to see if you wanted me to sit up with Rhianna. So when I found you asleep, I didn't bother to wake you. You looked comfortable enough."

"I haven't been this tired since . . . well, I can't remember when. Not since the Rebellion, most likely. Maybe not ever." Eleanor let out a long sigh. "At least just now I was able to sleep without dreaming. I had the worst dream earlier. Right before Rhianna woke up."

Loghain stood, and dragged his chair close beside Eleanor's. "That's hardly surprising. Bad dreams, I mean. Seeing Rhianna like this is horrible, and it must be far worse for you than it is for me."

"It is horrible. But I know you've been through your share of . . . troubles. You and Anora, both, this past year. It must have been dreadful for you when Celia died, and it wasn't all that long ago."

Loghain was silent for a moment, closing his eyes as he rubbed at the back of his neck. "No, it wasn't all that long ago." His voice was rough, and Eleanor regretted bringing up the subject. Surely, he didn't need to be reminded of his own heartache, especially not now.

She'd always wondered about Loghain's relationship with his wife, whom Eleanor had met two or three times at most. It seemed as though he spent almost all his time in Denerim, and Celia had remained always in Gwaren. Certainly, she had never accompanied him on any of his visits to Highever. Eleanor hated being apart from Bryce, even for a few weeks at a time, but it seemed as though the Mac Tirs had spent hardly any time together. But she'd never felt quite close enough to Loghain to ask about it, not about something so personal. He was a rather private, taciturn sort of man, after all. Not the sort to readily divulge intimate details of his life.

Now, however, she wished she had asked. She wished she'd made more of an effort to get to know this man who had shown himself such a good friend to Rhianna. If Eleanor understood more about him and his life, perhaps she could have said something comforting. Something more than the rote condolences she offered after she heard Celia Mac Tir had died.

But for the present, she would have to continue to wonder. This was hardly the time to ask such personal questions.

"It's a good thing, isn't it?" Eleanor asked. "That the swellings have started to burst? As Jocelyn said, it's better for the poison to drain out of her body, rather than remaining inside."

"Yes, I'm sure it's a good thing. I just wish . . ." He glanced at Eleanor, a slight frown on his lips. With a small sigh, he continued, "I just wish it wasn't so damned painful."

"Yes. Seeing her like this . . . it's killing me. I'd do anything to take away her pain, to bring it all on myself, but that's not possible, is it? If only . . ." Her voice trailed off. Oh, Maker. She didn't want to finish that thought.

Loghain cocked his head to one side. "If only what, Eleanor?"

She ran a hand across her face before answering. "If only I'd paid more attention. If only Landra hadn't been drunk again. If only I hadn't sent Rhianna away." Eleanor felt tears begin to form at the corners of her eyes, and she fought them back. "I knew she wanted to tell me something - I knew it - but I waved my hand at her and sent her away. If only I'd listened, she would have never gone to that terrible place on her own."

Loghain took one of her hands in his own. "This is not your fault, Eleanor."

"Isn't it? She's ill because she was locked away in that cell. In the cold. In the dark. With whatever had the fleas that bit her. The kitten, I suppose. That's how she caught the plague, isn't it?"

His fingers tightened slightly around hers. "Probably, yes. But you mustn't blame yourself. You could not have known this would happen. That someone would lure your daughter away from the house. No one could have foreseen this, Eleanor. It is not your fault."

"Then whose fault is it?" She forced herself to whisper, for fear the anger in her voice would wake her daughter. "Who did this to her, Loghain? Was it someone we know? Someone who knows Rhianna?" All the questions she'd asked herself while Rhianna was missing flooded back. "I don't understand how that could be possible. How could anyone who knows Rhianna want to harm her? Rhianna? I don't think I've ever known a sweeter child in all my life, and I'm not just saying that because I'm her mother." A flare of pain erupted in her head, and she rubbed at her temple.

"But," she continued, "it also makes no sense that a stranger would do such a thing. A kidnapper, holding her for ransom, yes. And of course there are people who take young girls for . . . other reasons. But to lock her away and leave her to die? That doesn't seem like a random act, something a stranger would do. Besides, how would someone who didn't know her have the idea to lure her away with the promise of kittens?" Eleanor let her fingers tighten around Loghain's, grateful for his warmth, for the human contact.

"It terrifies me, Loghain," she whispered. "It can't have been a stranger. It must be someone we know. But who? Who could do such a thing to her? And what if he comes after her again someday?"

"I've asked myself all those same questions, Eleanor, and I agree it must have been someone who knows her. This wasn't random." He hesitated for a moment. "You do know about the bracelet Bryce and I found in the tower?"

"Yes. Bryce intended to ask Leonas about it, see if it belongs to Habren. He told me Anora has heard rumors about Habren harming small animals?" Loghain nodded. "I'll admit I've never been particularly fond of the girl," Eleanor continued. "She's unpleasant and a bit . . . shallow. But it's difficult for me to imagine her doing something truly harmful. To animals, or to Rhianna." Eleanor rubbed at her forehead again. "Of course, children often have their own secrets they keep hidden from the adults, don't they? The fact Anora heard a rumor like this probably means there's some truth to it."

"My thought exactly."

"Even so, Habren is only ten years old. How could she have set such a deliberate trap, and how would she have even known about the guardhouse?" She sighed, knowing neither she nor Loghain had the answers to those questions. "At any rate, if it was Habren, I'm sure Bryce will get to the bottom of it. Perhaps he already has. He's spoken to Leonas; that's where he went right after the funeral we held for that kitten. And if it wasn't Habren, I know Bryce won't rest until he finds out who did do it."

"Yes," Loghain agreed. "Chances are the entire mystery has been solved, and we just haven't heard the outcome yet."

"Oh, I hope that's the case. It would be such a relief to know for certain who wrote that note. So I wouldn't have to keep worrying about it once this is . . . once Rhianna is well again."

Eleanor glanced at her daughter, verifying the girl's chest was still rising and falling with breath. Despair washed over her, and she found herself unable to push it completely aside.

"I have never felt more helpless," she confessed, unwilling to look into Loghain's face, not wanting him to see the look in her eyes. "Not ever, in my entire life. Watching her suffer like this. Not being able to do anything - anything - to help. Oh, Loghain, I hate it. She looks so . . . small. So fragile, as though at any moment she could just slip away from me." Again, tears welled up, and Eleanor blinked them away. "As though at any moment, she could . . . die."

Finally, she had said it out loud. The fear that haunted her since she arrived at Gwaren House and Loghain spoke the word, "plague." The disease that killed three out of four of its victims. Especially children. And Rhianna was so young, and small for her age.

Loghain squeezed Eleanor's hand again, more firmly this time. "It's going to be all right, Eleanor." He caught her gaze, and held it. "Rhianna is not going to die."

Suddenly, she could no longer hold back her tears. "How can you say that, Loghain? How do you know? Oh, Maker, I'm so afraid," she sobbed, as quietly as possible, not wanting to disturb her daughter's rest. "I can't stop being afraid." She sobbed again, her breath catching in her chest.

Loghain tugged on her hand, pulling her up out of the chair and then down to the floor. Side by side, they sat with their backs resting against Rhianna's bed. He released her hand, and put his arm around her, and Eleanor fell against him, clinging to his shoulder as she began to cry in earnest. She buried her face against his shirt, and felt his hand on the back of her head as he stroked her hair, which for once she hadn't bothered to braid. He whispered soothing words into her ear, and allowed her to cry.

Several minutes later, the front of Loghain's shirt was damp with her tears. She sat up, placing a hand on his chest to steady herself.

"Thank you." Her voice was ragged. "I think I've needed to do that for days." She brushed her fingers against his shirt. It wasn't the same one he'd been wearing earlier; he'd changed clothes. Well, of course he'd changed clothes. He'd been covered in Rhianna's blood. "I'm sorry about this." She touched the damp spot. "I've cried all over your clean shirt."

He raised an eyebrow. "Yes, well don't worry about that. I'll just send the cleaning bill to Highever House."

Eleanor laughed, a genuine laugh, the first one she'd had in days and days. For all people complained about Loghain being dour, he really wasn't. He was a lovely man, considerate and charming and funny. And he'd been so incredibly generous in helping care for Rhianna . . .

Rhianna. Her little girl, her baby, who was so horribly ill . . .

Eleanor began sobbing again. Again, Loghain pulled her close, and she rested her head on his shoulder.

"I'm so scared," she admitted. "Seeing her like this, all covered in blood and sweat, and crying from the pain. I'm so scared, Loghain. So scared she's going to die. My daughter. Oh, Maker, my beautiful daughter. I can't lose her. I can't. I don't know how I would be able to go on living without her."

Loghain sat up, grasping Eleanor by the shoulders. "You will go on living, Eleanor. No matter what happens." He stared into her eyes with an intensity that took her breath away. "But Rhianna is not going to die. Do you hear me, Eleanor?" His fingers pressed into her flesh almost enough to cause pain. "I swear this to you. Rhianna is going to recover, and be stronger than ever before."

Eleanor clutched at one of his arms, clinging to him as though she would drown if she let go. She wanted to believe him. She was desperate to believe him, and it was clear he truly did believe what he was saying. But she was still so very scared.

"How do you know? People die from the plague, Loghain, and Rhianna is so very sick." Her voice trembled, but she managed to stop crying. "How can you be so sure?"

He grasped her chin, forcing her to hold his gaze. She'd never noticed before just how blue his eyes were. How clear, how icy. "Because we are not going to let her die. You and I, Eleanor. We are going to hold on to Rhianna so tightly she won't be able to slip away. We'll go the gates of the Black City and back again, if that's what it takes to keep her here with us."

Eleanor's chest heaved as she struggled to breathe through her fears, though her anxiety. The intensity in his eyes was almost too much for her to bear, but she couldn't look away. She had known this man for years, more than twenty, but it was as if she had never really seen him before. Never seen the true strength of his will.

Of course he was strong-willed. This was the man who defeated the Orlesians at River Dane, the man who put King Maric on the throne. The man who ruled Ferelden in those years after Rowan died, when Maric was too grief-stricken to do it himself.

This was the man who pulled Rhianna out of the dungeon where someone had locked her away to die.

Eleanor had known him for years, but never before realized the reason he was able to do all these things, these amazing things, the reason he overcame all the odds, was because Loghain Mac Tir believed things would go as he willed them.

She could see it in his eyes. His determination, his refusal to believe any other outcome was possible. Right now, Loghain Mac Tir believed Rhianna was going to survive this illness.

And, looking into his eyes, unable to look away from those eyes, Eleanor believed it, too.



Chapter Text

3 Harvestmere, 9:20 Dragon
Gwaren Estate, Denerim


Loghain rubbed at his eyes, as if doing so might drive away his exhaustion. He needed to stay awake just a few more hours, just until morning when Eleanor or Jocelyn would take over sitting with Rhianna.

Tonight had been uneventful, thankfully. The first such night of the past three, since the hellish night when Rhianna had woken, screaming, after the first of the lesions on her neck burst open. Since then, the girl had suffered continually, only resting for a few hours at a time after one of Jocelyn's treatments. Of all the horrors he had seen in his life - of which there were a great many - witnessing Rhianna Cousland's agony as the plague ravaged her body was one of the worst. Knowing there was so little that could be done for her. Seeing the look in her eyes and knowing she was in so much pain, but rarely had the strength to do more than whimper softly. Every time he left her side, which he did only to rest or force himself to eat, he feared she would be gone before he returned.

Nighttime was the worst. Not only did Rhianna seem to wake more frequently during the hours between midnight and dawn, but for some reason, during those hours Loghain felt . . . unsettled. In the darkness, it was more difficult to believe she would recover, more difficult not to succumb to his fears. Perhaps it was just more difficult to stay awake while the girl rested at night, and more jarring when she had been roused from her sleep by the pain. Still, the shadows in the corners of the room were darker, the flickering firelight somehow sinister, and when all in the house was quiet, it sometimes seemed as though there was no one else left alive in all the world. Only Loghain and Rhianna, and if she slipped away, he would be entirely alone, and he didn't know if his will was strong enough to hold her here.

He knew all these musings were the product of his imagination running away with him, from a combination of worry and exhaustion. Even so, he'd come to dread the setting of the sun.

Like now. He felt . . . restless. Anxious. It was not quite two in the morning, and Rhianna looked peaceful, one of her small hands tucked inside his own. He'd taken to holding her hand almost all the time when he sat with her, even when she slept. If he sat across the room, she seemed to sleep more fitfully, to toss and turn, to wake more often. Or perhaps that, too, was merely his imagination, and holding her hand was more a comfort to him, allowing him to feel the thread of her pulse against his fingers, reassuring him her heart was still beating.

Rhianna had been ill for a week now, and through it all, the three of them - himself, Eleanor and Jocelyn - had worked tirelessly to give the girl the care she needed. Cleaning her wounds, keeping fresh clothes on the bed, calming her when she was frightened or in pain. Thankfully, she had spent much of the past few days asleep. When she did wake, it was almost always in response to the pain; she fell back to sleep as soon as a spell or potion could be administered. Rhianna had been lucid only occasionally, and for brief moments at a time.

One such lucid moment had happened the morning after the swellings started to burst.

Eleanor was sitting with Rhianna, and Jocelyn was preparing a healing salve, so Loghain had gone downstairs to try and rest. He and Eleanor had stayed awake together throughout the remainder of the previous night, after she had given in to the tears she must have been holding back for days. In truth, comforting Eleanor had given him comfort as well, but the lack of sleep had caught up with him, and that morning he'd felt bleary and worn, almost dizzy from exhaustion.

He had just settled himself on the sofa, intending to nap, when the door at the front entry opened, then closed again. Loghain sat up, confused. Who in the world would willingly enter this house? Some burglar thinking no one was at home? Well, if that was the case, the thief would get something far different than what he'd bargained for.

But it was no burglar.

Maric Theirin walked into the sitting room, hugging a stuffed toy bear to his chest. He glanced around, and a bright smile spread across his face at the sight of Loghain. When he opened his mouth to speak, however, Loghain didn't give him the chance.

"Maric? Maker's balls, man. What in the name of the Black City are you doing here?" Loghain clutched the back of the sofa as he pulled himself to his feet. "No, never mind that. I don't care why you're here. Just get out. Now!"

Maric held up a hand in a gesture of peace. "Ho, there, Loghain. 'Come in,' you say? Why yes, don't mind if I do. And by the way, it's good to see you, too, my friend. I like the beard. It's a good look. Perhaps you should keep it. The better to scare away women and small children."

Loghain rubbed at the dark stubble on his face; he hadn't taken the time to shave since the girl had fallen ill. "This is no time to make jokes. You shouldn't be here. Rhianna Cousland is suffering from the plague."

"Of course I know Rhianna is ill," Maric replied, as though Loghain had said something very stupid. "Why else do you think I've come bringing a toy bear? It's certainly not for you, so try not to be too disappointed. Satinalia is less than a month away, though, so if you're very, very good, I might get you one of your own. Although this lack of hospitality you're showing me, trying to throw me out of your home, is not helping your chances."

Loghain loved Maric like a brother, but their relationship was often neither easy nor comfortable. Mostly because Maric could be frustratingly stupid. Like now, for example.

"Damn it, Maric. You're the king. Of Ferelden. Hopefully you haven't forgotten this little detail. You are the last person who should be here, risking infection."

"And what about you? You're at least as important to Ferelden as I am, and you're here, risking infection."

"I'm here because I had already been in close contact with the girl before anyone knew she was ill, so leaving wouldn't have done me any good."

"You don't look like you've caught the plague."

"No, I don't believe I have. But that's not the point. Please, Maric. Just leave the gift on the table. I'll see Rhianna gets it the next time she wakes. But you really need to leave. Right now."

"Loghain!" Eleanor called from the top of the stairs, "Can you come up?" There didn't seem to be any panic or urgency in her voice, but he was so tired it was possible he was no longer able to tell the difference. At any rate, she wouldn't call unless he was needed; that was the unspoken agreement between the three adults in the house, what with sleep in such short supply.

"I'll be right there!" he called back, and then turned to Maric. "You. Out." He pointed toward the front door. "Now."

But when Loghain bounded up the stairs, Maric followed close behind.

"What is it?" Loghain asked Eleanor, who was sitting on the far side of the bed. "Has another of the swellings burst?"

"Thankfully, no. Rhianna is awake, though, and she asked to see you." Then her eyes alit on the king. "Maric? What on earth are you doing here? Rhianna's very ill. Please Your Majesty, you mustn't risk getting sick." Eleanor stood and began moving toward the king, but stopped before she rounded the foot of the bed.

Maric ignored her, as well as the angry look Loghain gave him, and strode into the room. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim light; the window was still covered completely by drapes, so no light could intrude and hurt Rhianna's eyes.

When the king finally got a good look at the girl, he lost his composure. His jaw dropped, his cheeks went slack, and his eyes opened wide with horror. It took only a moment before he caught himself, and with a shake of his head his expression returned to something more akin to normal. But it was obvious he had been shocked at the girl's appearance.

And no wonder. Rhianna looked awful. Her face was greyish and pale, except for the dark circles that ringed her eyes, and there were open sores and blackened lesions on her neck and her torso. The bedclothes were stained with her blood, and the smell in the room was far from pleasant.

"Maker's blood," the king whispered.

Pushing away his annoyance at the king, Loghain turned from Maric and sat on the bed, carefully taking Rhianna's hand. "Your mother said you wanted to see me?"

"Yes." Her voice was barely audible, through lips that were dry and cracked. It was hard to get liquids into her, and food was out of the question. "I . . . I just wanted to make sure you were all right. Mother said you hadn't gotten sick, but I had a bad dream. I dreamt you were . . . covered in blood" She paused, taking several heavy breaths through her mouth. "And there were these creatures . . . horrible creatures who had come from under the ground. Except we weren't underground. We were at the top of a tower. A very tall tower, and there was a dragon. A huge dragon." Another pause to catch her breath. "And we had swords, and you . . . you were all bloody, and it scared me so. I just wanted to see you for myself. See that you were really all right."

"I'm fine, Rhianna." Loghain rubbed her hand gently. "It was just a bad dream. I'm not sick, I promise, and there are no monsters here. Well, apart from this one from the palace who snuck in to see you." He turned to Maric. "Since you're already here," he grumbled, "you might as well say hello."

Maric took a single, small step forward, but didn't come too close. Good. Perhaps seeing Rhianna made him question his idiotic decision to walk right into the sickroom.

When he greeted her, though, his voice didn't falter. "Hello, Rhianna. It's good to see you, my dear."

"Your . . . Your Majesty?" she asked, before taking a breath which sounded painful. "You shouldn't be here. I'm really terribly sick."

"Yes, so I've heard." Maric glanced at Loghain, with an almost apologetic expression. Then he turned back to the girl. "But I wanted to stop by and say hello, and give you a little present. Something to help you feel better." Maric started to move forward, and then stopped, his brow wrinkled slightly. Eleanor came forward to take the bear from his hands.

"Allow me, Your Majesty." There was a hint of reproach in her voice. The teyrna crossed to the opposite side of the bed, and held out the toy to her daughter.

"It's a bear," Maric explained, rather unnecessarily.

"Yes." Rhianna's shoulders hitched once, and she turned her head to cough into the pillow. "I can see that." She didn't reach for the toy, though. She kept her hands and arms where they were, splayed out awkwardly on the bed, keeping pressure away from the lesions under her arms.

"Go ahead, Rhianna. Take it. It's for you," Maric urged. "I thought you might like to have something to cuddle while you're spending so much time in bed."

She shook her head. "He's lovely, Your Majesty. And I'm very grateful. But . . ." She closed her eyes and took two ragged breaths before continuing, "but sometimes these sores on my neck? Sometimes they bleed an awfully lot. And it smells very bad. I don't want the bear to get dirty. He's quite handsome, and he'll be ruined if I try and hold him."

"How about this?" Eleanor suggested, moving to the side of the room opposite the window, and setting the bear up on the vanity. "If I put him here, you can look at him whenever you like, darling. And then, once those sores have healed, you can have him to cuddle."

"Yes, Mummy," the girl whispered, smiling faintly. "That's a very good idea." Her eyes began to droop, but she forced them open. "Thank you again, King Maric. I really love the bear. I think I'll call him Ser . . . Ruffalo."

"Ser Ruffalo?" Maric asked. "Where did that name come from?"

Rhianna coughed again. "I don't know. But it's a good name, don't you think?"

"I think it's a very good name," the king agreed.

Loghain squeezed her hand gently. "And I think you ought to go back to sleep now, love."

She nodded, and her eyelids started to droop again, but then she struggled to open them once more. "Thank you for coming to see me, King Maric, and thank you for sending your healer to help me. Now please go back to the palace, so you don't get sick. I'm already so worried about my mother, and Teyrn Loghain, and the healer. I don't want to have to worry about you, as well."

Maric had the good grace to look embarrassed. "You're welcome, Rhianna. And I hope you know that everyone in the whole city - all of us at the palace, and your family, and all your friends - we're all thinking only the best thoughts for you to recover very, very soon. Once you're feeling better, will you promise to come and have supper with me at the palace? Will you do that?"

"All right. I promise." Then she shifted her gaze to Loghain. "And you must promise not to go near any monsters, all right? Or dragons."

"Well, that rather ruins my plans for the rest of the afternoon," he winked at her, "but if you insist, I promise."

Rhianna made a sound that was probably intended to be a giggle, and then let her eyes close as she fell back asleep. Loghain leaned over to kiss her forehead, and then turned to Maric.

"Now, can I convince you to leave? Please."

Maric nodded, and turned to go back downstairs, with Eleanor and Loghain following behind. Instead of going to the front door, however, Maric went into the sitting room, and sank down into a chair, putting his face in his hands for a moment before meeting the stares of the man and woman looking down at him.

"Maker. That was . . ." His voice trailed off as he let out a shuddering breath. "I had no idea how bad it would be. There are other cases now, you know? In the city. A Nevarran merchant, and there have been a number of deaths in the Alienage. One of the Chantry's lay brothers died just yesterday, and even one of Rendon Howe's servants fell ill. It doesn't look as though that lad will survive either. But I hadn't seen any of them, and I honestly had no idea . . . I've never seen anything like this. Rowan certainly never looked that sick, not even at the very end." Loghain felt Eleanor stiffen beside him, and he reached out and put a hand on her shoulder.

"It's true," Loghain began, looking not at Maric, but at Eleanor, "Rhianna does look very ill. But she's going to be fine." On the final word, he gave the teyrna's shoulder a gentle squeeze.

She looked back at him with gratitude in her eyes, putting her hand briefly on top of his own. Then she turned toward the king. "Thank you, Maric, for coming to visit my daughter. Although really, you should not have come."

"I know." Maric sounded rather defeated, staring down at the floor as he spoke. "I understand that now. But . . . well, I spoke with Bryce, and with Anora, and I just wanted . . . well, I wanted to see how she was doing. We hadn't had any word about her for days, you know." He looked up at Eleanor. "I meant what I said in there. About everyone wishing her the best. Rhianna is precious to a great many people. I'm not sure even I was aware just how fond I am of the girl, until I saw her . . . like that." He turned to Loghain. "She really is going to get better? Yes? Please tell me she's going to get better."

Loghain did not hesitate with his answer. "Yes. She really is going to get better."


Now, Rhianna's eyes were closed, and she appeared to be sleeping peacefully. Perhaps it was just his imagination or wishful thinking, but it seemed she was breathing more easily, in a steadier rhythm, no longer struggling for each breath. He leaned back in the chair he had pulled as close as possible to the bed, and closed his eyes, listening for any sign she might be stirring, aware of her pulse beating against his fingers.

At least today, for the first time since she'd collapsed in the garden, they had good reason to be optimistic. The last of the swellings had burst overnight, and no new ones had formed. With any luck, this meant the disease was running its course. Jocelyn had told them the mere fact Rhianna survived long enough for the lesions to begin bursting was a good sign; most people who died did so before the disease ever progressed that far. But he could see in the healer's eyes she was not yet ready to declare that all danger had passed. Rhianna was still running a fever, and her cough had, if anything, worsened over the past few days.

Even so, Loghain believed what he had told Eleanor: Rhianna would survive this illness. He wanted to believe it; he needed to believe it, as if believing it hard enough would make it so. No other outcome was possible. Not this time. Not this child. Not this precious child who was loved by so many.

Not that being loved gave her any real protection. He knew better than most the truth of that. He'd loved people, and that hadn't stopped any of them from being taken away. He'd loved his infant daughter desperately, and that hadn't saved her. And seeing Rhianna so ill . . .

The thought of any child dying so young was horrific, but over the past few days he'd come to realize that Rhianna Cousland was not just "any child" to him. He cared about the girl, truly cared about her. It was clear from the intensity of his panic when she'd gone missing, from the feeling of emptiness and dread inside of him at the thought he might never see her again. From his relief at finding her in that guard tower. And from the emptiness and dread that returned when she fell ill. Somehow, she had become precious to him in a way few children ever had. Only his own daughters, and Calian.

It wasn't difficult to understand why. Rhianna was funny and charming and sweet and smart, and somehow, without him noticing, she had wormed her way into his heart. And now he couldn't bear the thought that he might never again enjoy her conversation, or see the mischievous smile that crept across her face, or hear her laughter carry across a room. The thought that she might never drag him along on one of her little adventures, that she might never again tell him he was "silly," something no one else had ever dared to do.

When Deirdre died, a piece of his heart had been torn away, and even though the ache had eased over time, the hole was still there, empty and raw, as he knew it always would be. Even though his only memory of her was as a scrawny little bundle in his arms, he had loved her. While she was growing inside Celia, he had loved her, and after she had been born, for those few short hours of her life, he had loved her. And after she was gone, he had mourned not only the baby he held, but also his vision of the girl she would have been. A girl with her own funny smile and infectious laughter. A girl who might have liked animals, or books, or planting flowers, or horses, or wearing fancy dresses, or playing in the dirt. Or all of those things. A girl who might have had blue eyes and dark hair like her father. It still hurt so much to think of her, the little girl he'd never had the chance to get to know.

And the thought he might now lose Rhianna, a little girl whom he knew so very well . . . he didn't know if he could survive having another piece of his heart torn away, having another empty place that would never stop aching.

But of course, if the worst happened, he would survive. Just as he'd survived everything else that had ever happened to him. As would Eleanor, and Bryce, and everyone else who cared about the girl. Because the sad truth is that losing a loved one doesn't kill those left behind. It only damages us, no matter how much we wished we could die, too. Perhaps there was a point where it became too much. When the grief became too intense, and the loss of one more person became too much to bear. But if that was so, Loghain wasn't interested in experiencing it first-hand.

Three nights ago, when Eleanor had cried on his shoulder, it occurred to him she didn't know about Deirdre. Eleanor had mentioned Celia's death, but had no idea that Loghain had lost a daughter as well. He'd very nearly told her right then, confided in her this secret hardly anyone else knew.

Maker knows he'd wanted to tell her. He'd wanted to let it out, to talk about it. To be able to look into someone else's eyes and know she understood that this thing had happened, this terrible thing. To know he didn't have to bear the entirety of it alone, at least for a few minutes. It had been years since he'd done that, since the nights when he and Maric had gotten drunk and maudlin and cried to one another in the small hours about Rowan and about the baby. And he'd never really spoken of it to anyone else. He'd meant to talk to Anora, but the opportunity never came up. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say he'd never created the opportunity. Now, he wasn't sure how much Anora remembered of that dark time, of her tiny sister who'd been alive less than a day. If she'd been spared those memories, Loghain certainly didn't want to do anything that would bring them back into her mind.

Sometimes, it felt as though having this secret bottled up inside would strangle him. And of all the people he knew, Eleanor Cousland was one of the few he could imagine telling. One of the few he trusted to be kind. To give comfort, genuine comfort, without judgment or pity. Perhaps more importantly, he trusted her never to repeat it as gossip, never to use it against him. He expected she would tell Bryce, but he, too, could be trusted. With the secret Loghain hated having to keep.

But he'd had to keep it, for a while longer, at least. He could not have told Eleanor that night, not under those circumstances. How could he have spoken of his daughter who had died, when Eleanor's own daughter was barely clinging to her life? Instead, he had held Eleanor while she cried, while she let out her fear and her anxiety and her sorrow, and tried to let his own anguish drain away alongside hers. Instead of confiding in her as he wished he could do, he had prayed to Andraste that this brave, magnificent woman would never know the pain he, himself had known.

Please, Andrasteplease don't take this woman's daughter from her. Don't let Rhianna Cousland die. Please. I'll do anything, anything at all, if you'll just let this child live. Don't take her from her family. Don't take her from the people who love her.

Admittedly, his prayer had been as much for his own sake as for Eleanor's. But with any luck, Andraste wouldn't dismiss it on that score. His mother, his father, Rowan, Deirdre, Celia . . . an entire litany of people he had loved and lost. A litany of people whose lives he had not been able to save. Loghain did not want to add Rhianna's name to that list.

Please, Andraste. The thought of living in this world without her in it is unbearable. Let her stay with us. Please.

"Teyrn Loghain?" Rhianna's voice was the barest whisper. Loghain sat up, not sure at first if he had imagined it.

But the girl's eyes were open, halfway at least, and she appeared to be staring up at the ceiling.

"I'm here, Rhianna," he answered, wrapping his fingers just a bit more tightly around her hand. Her gaze drifted slowly until she found him with her eyes. The briefest of smiles played across her lips as her eyes opened wider, and her brow furrowed as she struggled to focus on his face.

"Teyrn Loghain," she breathed. "Where . . . where are we?" This was the first time in days she had awoken without crying from the pain.

"We're in the Gwaren estate, in Denerim."

"Oh." She sounded confused, but her eyes were focused on his, and her breathing was easier than it had been since she fell ill. "Why am I here?"

"You've been ill, love." He reached up to feel her forehead. It was blessedly cool; it appeared as though her fever had finally broken.

Thank the Maker.

"What is the last thing you remember?" he asked.

"I . . . I remember we were in the garden. After the funeral for the kitten." She shifted position, as though she wanted to lower her arms to her sides, but the movement made her wince, and she lay still again. "You asked me about animals, and said we could go to Fort Drakon, but I don't know what happened after that. Did we go to Fort Drakon?"

She sounded tired, but the effort of talking didn't seem to exhaust her as it had over the past few days, and she wasn't fighting for breath.

He took a deep breath, and released it, slowly. The worst was over. It had to be. The fact that she was awake, that the pain was bearable, that she was no longer burning up with fever, surely this meant the worst was over.

"No, we didn't go to Fort Drakon. Not yet, but we will, I promise. You've been here in my house all this time, since that day in the garden."

He picked up a goblet from the table, and held it to her lips. Gingerly, she took a few sips of water before asking, "All this time? How much time?"

"Seven days."

Her eyes widened slightly. "That's a lot of days. And you stayed with me all those days."

It was a statement, rather than a question, but he responded as if she'd been asking. "Yes. Your mother and I and the king's healer have been here all along."

"What was I sick from? Seven days is a long time to be sick."

"You've had . . . the plague, Rhianna. I think you caught it from the fleas that bit you."

"The plague? But doesn't that mean I'm going to die? The plague always kills people." Urgency crept into her voice. "And what if you catch it from me? Or if Mother does?"

He rubbed the top of her hand, making gentle circles with his thumb. "You're not going to die, Rhianna. Not from the plague," he reassured. "The plague does kill some people, but not everyone. And you're going to recover. No one else in this house is sick, either, so you don't have to worry about your mother or about me."

"But how do you know? How do you know we're not going to die?"

"Because your mother and I are both feeling just fine. A bit tired perhaps, but not sick at all. If we were going to fall ill, I expect it would have happened by now. And I'm sure you're going to get better because your fever has broken, and because of the way you're talking to me right now. I know you don't feel well, and that must be scary. But you were much, much sicker a few days ago. So don't be scared, love. You're going to be just fine. I promise."

She looked directly into his eyes. "I believe you. You always tell the truth, don't you? And I know I'll always be safe if I'm with you."

Once again, he was almost overwhelmed by the trust she placed in him, by the sincerity in her gaze. By the way it made him feel, like his heart would burst from it.

The truth? Did he always tell the truth? No more and no less than most other people, he supposed. But perhaps that wasn't good enough. Not now. She trusted him. And that, as much as anything, made him determined to be worthy of that trust. And maybe, just maybe, her trust wasn't completely misplaced. After all, he had found her when she was locked in the tower, and had done his best by her during this illness.

"I'll always tell you the truth, Rhianna," he promised. "And," he added, "I'll do whatever it takes to help keep you safe."

She smiled up at him. "I know you will." She yawned, but rather than covering her hand with her mouth, she merely turned her face to stifle the yawn in the pillow. She moaned slightly from the effort of turning her neck, and then returned her gaze to his face. "I'm so tired, Teyrn Loghain."

"I know. You still need to rest, probably for at least a few more days. But I think you're going to be feeling much better very soon. And in the meantime you can sleep as much as you like. Does anything hurt?"

"Not really. Not much, anyway. My head aches a bit, and it feels like I have sores under my arms and on my neck. They hurt when I tried to move. But it's not too bad."

"Do you want me to call for the healer? She has spells that will help with the pain."

"Isn't she sleeping? It's so dark in here, it must be the middle of the night."

"She's asleep, but she won't mind being woken."

"No, that's all right. I don't need the healer. It only hurts a little bit. Mostly, I'm just tired. So tired."

"Then why don't you go back to sleep. I'll stay nearby, and I'll be here when you wake up in the morning."

"I do want to sleep. But . . . my mother. She is here, isn't she? I thought . . . I remember hearing her voice."

"Of course your mother is here. She's in the room next door, sleeping. Do you want me to get her?"

"No, not yet. I . . . I don't want to wake her up either. If I've been sick, I expect she's been worried about me, and needs her sleep." Rhianna studied Loghain's face, her eyes narrowing slightly. "So do you. Need your sleep, I mean. You look tired, and your face is all stubbly." She reached one hand up slowly, and brushed at his cheek with her fingers. "I've never seen you with a beard before. I don't like it. It hides your face, and you have such a good face."

She yawned again, but instead of closing her eyes, she asked, "Will you . . . will you tell me a story?" She blinked up at him, her eyelids already beginning to droop; he doubted she would make it though more than three minutes of listening to his voice. Even so, he was more than happy to oblige.

"What sort of a story would you like? Monsters and sword fighting?"

"No, no monsters this time. There were too many of those in my dreams. Will you tell me a story about . . . " She bit her lower lip for a moment. "About the Dalish?"

"The Dalish? What put them into your head?"

"I don't know. I guess I was thinking about the plague. Can elves catch the plague, too?"

"Yes, elves can catch the plague. There's been an outbreak recently in the Alienage."

"What about the Dalish, who don't live in the city?"

"Well, I don't know for certain, but I assume they could."

"That's too bad. The plague isn't a very nice disease, is it?"

That was putting it mildly. "No, Rhianna, it isn't. Do you still want a story about the Dalish?"

"Yes, please."

"All right." He took a deep breath. "As you know, the Dalish are elves who don't live in cities, but live in nomadic clans, following the hunting and good weather wherever it takes them."

"Do you actually know any Dalish? I don't think I've ever met one before," she murmured, her eyes almost completely closed now.

"Yes, I've met Dalish elves. Not many, but a few. I remember the first time I met any of the Elvhen - for that's what they call themselves. It was during the Occupation, when Maric and I were in the Korcari Wilds."

"You've actually been inside the Wilds? Was it scary?"

"It was scary," he said truthfully. "This was long before Maric was the king. In fact, I'd only known him for a few days; he and I weren't even friends yet."

"I can't imagine that," she whispered. "The two of you not being friends. You're such good friends."

Loghain smiled. She had no idea just how sorely his friendship with Maric had been tested, time and time again. Even so, she wasn't wrong. It was difficult to imagine the two men being anything other than friends now.

"We were trying to escape the people who had killed Queen Moira, and the Wilds were the only place we could go where we felt certain they would not follow. But the Wilds themselves were hardly a safe place for us. We were in danger of becoming hopelessly lost due to the mist that hung in the air and clung to the ground, and touched everything with a dampness that made it difficult to keep a fire lit.

"There were venomous snakes and wolves that stalked us, and Maker knows what other sorts of dangerous creatures. Come to think of it, you would have been a great help on that journey Rhianna, if you could have convinced the wolves to leave us alone. But the Wilds are a dreadful place, and I honestly hope you never have cause to go there.

"We'd been in the Wilds for four days, when I realized we were being followed. By something other than the wolves, I mean. When we looked around, to try and see what - or who - it was, believe it or not, Maric was the first to see them. Eyes, looking out at us from between the trees. Elven eyes. A moment later, we were attacked, and Maric and I were both hit by arrows. We tried to run, but there were too many of them, and they knew the woods as Maric and I did not . . ."

Rhianna's eyes fluttered shut and her head lolled to one side. She was so calm and quiet . . . almost too calm . . . Maker, had she stopped breathing?

No. Her chest was rising and falling with each breath.

She was fine. She'd merely fallen asleep, just as he'd expected.

He closed his eyes for a moment, allowing relief to wash over him. Well, she'd have to hear the tale of how Loghain and Maric met the Dalish on another day. How the elves had taken the men to the Witch of the Wilds. Just as well. Why he chose that particular story was a bit of a mystery. True, there had been very little sword fighting, but the old hag had been reasonably monstrous. Perhaps the sad fact is that Loghain didn't know any stories that didn't feature monsters.

What exactly would he have told Rhianna, anyway? That the Witch of the Wilds was exactly as mad and horrible as you would expect? That Loghain had been hauled into the air and nearly strangled to death by a tree that had been animated by magic? That the woman had extracted some promise from Maric, the details of which Loghain had never been able to learn? And that most of the time, Asha'bellanar, as she was known to the Dalish, appeared nothing more than a harmless old woman?

"Keep him close and he will betray you, each time worse than the last."

Bah. That damned so-called prophecy. Just words. Nothing more. Empty words with no truth in them at all. Like Rhianna said, Loghain and Maric were friends now, and had been for more than half their lives. And if things had happened in the past, well, that was all behind them.

Blasted old woman with her apples and her magical trees and her decrepit hut and her cackling laughter.

No. That was a night not worth dwelling upon in his memory. And Rhianna was asleep, so he was saved from having to finish the story. With any luck the girl would forget all about having asked, and he'd never be required to tell her the rest of it.

Loghain looked down at the sleeping child. Yes, her chest still rose and fell with her breath, and her expression was more peaceful than it had appeared in days. Maker be praised, this illness was finally running its course.

He leaned over and kissed her forehead. Her fingers tightened around his for a moment, and when he sat up straight again, she was smiling, although her eyes remained closed.

"Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you for staying with me."

"You're welcome, Rhianna. And I'll be here as long as you need me to be."

"It hurt. I do remember that. It hurt an awfully lot."

He felt a tightness in his chest. With any luck those memories would soon fade. "I know it did, love." He brushed a strand of hair away from her forehead. "But you're going to feel better very soon. I promise."

"I believe you." Her breathing evened out into the slow rhythm of sleep.

After watching for a moment to make certain she wouldn't awaken again, he slipped his hand out of her grasp. Regardless of what Rhianna had said, he intended to wake her mother. Eleanor needed to know the worst was over, and her daughter was going to recover.

Thank you, AndrasteThank you.

Thank you.


Chapter Text

24 Harvestmere, 9:20 Dragon
Highever Estate, Denerim


"Good afternoon, Teyrn Loghain," the Couslands' footman said with a bow, and a generous sweep of his arm. "Please come in. I know the family will be happy to see you, as always." Loghain had received an equally warm reception on all his recent visits; he suspected Eleanor had been rather effusive in her praise of the teyrn's assistance while Rhianna was ill.

"Thank you, Hobbes." Loghain stepped across the threshold, carrying a rather large package in his hands, a sealed letter tucked into his pocket.

"I expect it's Lady Rhianna you wish to see?" Hobbes asked. "Or perhaps the teyrn or the teyrna?"

"Lady Rhianna, if she's up to having a visitor."

"Of course, ser. Earlier in the day, she made a point of telling me she was expecting a visit from you." Hobbes gestured for Loghain to follow him up the stairs, even though Loghain knew the way; he'd climbed these stairs every day for the past three weeks. "I believe Teyrna Eleanor is with her, at the moment," Hobbes added.

After the night Rhianna's fever had broken, the girl's recovery had progressed smoothly. No new lesions had formed, and a day later, Jocelyn had been willing to heal all the sores that remained on the girl's body. Remarkably, Rhianna had only a few very faint scars as a reminder of this ordeal. A few days after that, the healer deemed Rhianna well enough to be moved back to the Highever estate.

As good as it was to have Anora back at home, it had taken Loghain a few days to adjust to Rhianna and Eleanor being gone. He found himself continually peering into the room Rhianna had used, expecting to see her there. And, even though he knew that Rhianna was going to be fine, that the worst of the illness had passed, he sometimes woke in the night, gripped by a fear that something had happened to her. Once or twice, he'd even climbed out of bed and made it halfway down the hall before remembering she was no longer here, but tucked away in her own bed across town.

So, to ease his own anxiety, he'd visited Rhianna every day since she had returned home. He was fairly certain she enjoyed these visits at least as much as he did. And he hadn't forgotten the promise he made to her the day she fell ill, a promise he had yet to fulfill. With any luck, he'd make good on that promise this very day.

It had required a bit of planning on his part; on his first visit to Highever House, he had asked Eleanor for a small favor. "I know this might sound strange, but I wonder if it would be possible for me to borrow one of Rhianna's gowns. Something that fits her well, or is perhaps just a bit big on her now."

"One of her gowns?" Eleanor had lifted a brow at him. "May I ask why?"

"Of course. And I'll be happy to tell you, so long as you promise to keep it a secret . . . "

Now, at the top of the stairs, Hobbes bowed once again, and allowed Loghain to make his own way to Rhianna's room. After setting the package down in the hallway, hidden from view, Loghain stepped into the doorway, blinking for a moment at the bright sunlight that streamed in through the open windows. Such a change from the dimly-lit sickroom just a few weeks before. Eleanor was at Rhianna's bedside, reading to the girl from a book.

When Rhianna noticed him standing there, she greeted him with an exuberant smile. "Teyrn Loghain! Hello!" Her skin was still pale, but the dark circles under her eyes were almost entirely gone. She looked only a bit tired, not ill in any way. Certainly not like a girl who'd been close to death a few weeks before. "Mother's just been reading me a story about the Rebellion."

"Indeed?" He peered at the girl with a raised brow. "That's a bit . . . disappointing. That you still need the book, I mean. I would have expected you to have all those stories by heart."

She giggled. "Well, of course I know the story by heart, silly. But sometimes it's nice to hear someone else tell it. Besides, it gives Mother something to do, since she insists I stay in bed, and she also insists on keeping me company." After a glance at her mother, her eyes met Loghain's, and she grinned. A broad, mischievous, cheeky grin. The grin Loghain feared he might never see again.

"Fair enough," he replied. "I suppose it is pleasant to hear stories sometimes, even when you know what's going to happen. Which story is it?"

"The Battle of West Hill," the girl replied.

"Yes," Eleanor added, her tone light. "A charming tale of betrayal and bloodshed for my little girl. I tried to read her a story about fairies who live happily in the woods, or unicorns, or merfolk. But she insisted on this one instead."

"Happy fairy stories are boring," the girl complained. "And I don't believe in merfolk. How could there be people who are half fish and live under the water? That doesn't make any sense at all. And besides, this isn't just a story, it's historical. I thought you'd appreciate that, Mother, since I've missed out on so much time with my tutor because of being sick. I thought perhaps if I learn all the stories, you and Father will decide I don't need a tutor at all anymore."

"Ah yes," Eleanor began, "and if that happened, you'd spend your days doing what? Playing outdoors in the woods, and stealing food from the kitchens to feed all your animal friends? Even more than you do already? That is not likely to happen anytime soon, darling," Eleanor replied placidly. "Historical stories or not. Especially since you seem to focus on a rather small period in history. You know, things happened in Ferelden, and the rest of Thedas, before the Rebellion."

"Perhaps," Rhianna began. "But not anything interesting." She giggled again.

"The girl has got a point," Loghain ventured. "It's difficult for me to believe anything could have been quite as interesting as the Rebellion."

"I'll thank you to keep that opinion to yourself, ser, before my daughter decides to give up on history entirely." Eleanor gave Loghain a stern look, but couldn't quite keep the amusement from playing across her lips.

Loghain raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Of course, Your Grace. The last thing I would want is to discourage Rhianna from getting a proper education." To Rhianna he added, "I'm sure a great many interesting things happened before the Rebellion. King Calenhad, for example. That's an exciting story, and he's an ancestor of yours. I would have thought you'd enjoy learning about him."

"Oh, I know all about King Calenhad. And Sarim Cousland. And the founding of the Chantry. And everything else."

"Everything?" Eleanor asked, wide-eyed. "That's an impressive claim for an eight-year-old to make. All right, then. Answer this: in what year did Hafter found the city of Alamar? And where, and why?"

Rhianna wrinkled her nose. "Um . . . Hafter? Well, he was the son of Dane. Or . . . maybe he was Dane's father? I'm not too sure . . . but I do know Alamar is on that island . . . the one south of Brandel's Reach. I don't know exactly when it was founded, but it had to be before Calenhad united the Almarri tribes, which means it was more than four hundred years ago. And I suppose he founded the city because he needed a place to sleep. Isn't that always why people make cities?" Rhianna smiled at her mother, a toothy, hopeful smile, as though she knew she'd not answered correctly, but thought there was a chance if she smiled charmingly enough, her mother would fail to notice.

Charming though the smile may have been, Eleanor was not fooled. "Yes, well, that's what I thought." The woman leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms in front of her chest. "Your knowledge of history leaves something to be desired, my darling girl. Hafter is one of the most important figures in the history of Ferelden. 'He was the son of Dane, or maybe Dane's father?' You're not even clear on that point?"

"Well, at least she knew the city is on an island," Loghain offered.

Eleanor turned her gaze upon Loghain "Oh yes, that was the crucial bit, wasn't it?" she quipped. Perhaps he should have remained quiet. "I don't suppose you'd care to tell us the year the city was founded?"

Loghain felt his brow furrow. The year the city was founded? He had no idea when Alamar had been founded. Maker's balls.

Clearly, his expression revealed this lack of knowledge. "No?" Eleanor gave an exaggerated sigh. "Well, for future reference, Hafter was neither the son nor the father of Dane. Dane was Hafter's foster father; it is said that Hafter's true father was a werewolf. And Hafter founded Alamar in 1:37 Divine, as a place where he and the people who followed him could be safe from darkspawn that had come to the surface in the rest of Ferelden." Eleanor smiled at Rhianna. "So, I trust there will be no more talk of sending away your tutor?"

"No, Mother." She sounded contrite, but Loghain guessed she wasn't genuinely embarrassed by her inability to place the founding of Alamar in its historical context.


Rhianna's eyes met Loghain's, and he shrugged as if to say, "Sorry, I tried!"

She rolled her eyes and pressed her lips together in an effort not to laugh. No, she definitely wasn't embarrassed. She was in good spirits today, as she had been on each of the visits Loghain had made.

As strange as it sounded, perhaps the plague had been something of a blessing. Loghain had worried about the long-term effect being locked in the guard tower might have on the girl. That it might have traumatized her, damaged her in some way, made her timid or fearful. But then she'd fallen ill, and it seemed as though everyone was so focused on how fortunate she had been to survive the plague, what happened in the guard tower had been pushed aside, and received little attention.

Of course the ordeal in the tower had not been forgotten - not by Rhianna, nor by anyone else - but if its importance had been eclipsed by the plague, and this helped the girl to recover, helped her to minimize the effect of that particular horrible day, it could only be a good thing. Far better to focus on the illness - something random that happened on its own - rather than an act willfully done to her by another person intent on causing her harm.

Especially since the identity of her attacker was still a mystery. On Loghain's first visit to the Highever estate after Rhianna had returned home, he had learned the outcome of Bryce's investigation. The other teyrn had asked to speak with him, "about the discussion I had with Leonas Bryland."

Once they were settled on the sofa in the upstairs library, each with a glass of whiskey in hand, Loghain asked. "So what was the outcome of that conversation?"

"Well, as you suspected, the bracelet does indeed belong to Habren Bryland." Bryce's frown made it clear this was not the end of the matter.

"But . . ." Loghain prompted.

Bryce let out a long breath. "But the girl claims it was stolen. That the last time she'd worn it was on one of the days we were in negotiations with the empress, and it disappeared. She thought it had just fallen off and she'd lost it somewhere in the palace. But when she was told what happened in the guard tower, Habren accused Rhianna of stealing it, and then dropping it in the tower for the sole purpose of getting Habren into trouble. It was quite a scene, really. Habren yelling and crying, Leonas clearly at a loss as to how to calm the girl. And all the while, I was trying to get to the bottom of what happened, and find out how the girl's bracelet had ended up in that damned tower.

"When Leonas asked her if she knew anything about an injured kitten, she denied it immediately, quite vehemently. Nor had she ever been to any guard tower, nor written any note. She started screaming again, saying Rhianna was trying to blame this on her out of spite, even when we told her Rhianna hadn't even known about the bracelet, and had never mentioned Habren's name at all. The girl didn't listen, though, and went on at length about how Rhianna had always been jealous, because Habren is prettier and has friends, which Rhianna doesn't."

Loghain's jaw dropped. "She said those things?"

"Oh yes. That and more. It was quite dramatic. Habren Bryland is not a girl to hold in her feelings." Bryce ran a hand across his face. "And I fear a fair bit of her anger will be directed at Rhianna in the future. Habren seemed quite offended about the accusation being made in the first place. Although she was extremely happy to have her bracelet back again. To be honest, I lost what little respect I had for the girl that day. She's quite . . . unpleasant."

Loghain snorted. "And delusional. Those are the most ridiculous things I've ever heard. Rhianna jealous of Habren?" Habren wasn't a bad-looking child, and might even be pretty if it weren't for her personality, but in any comparison with Rhianna Cousland, Habren would always be found wanting. "And we're supposed to believe Rhianna is the one who stole the bracelet, and then dropped it in the tower? When, exactly? Before or after she locked herself in the cell?"

"I know." Bryce took a sip from his glass. "It's utterly ridiculous. There are, however, other reasons to believe Habren is not the guilty party. The parchment on the girl's desk - and on her father's, as well - doesn't match the note. But the thing that decided it for me is that Leonas' sister, Harriet, swears Habren was with her all day. The day Rhianna disappeared. And while Harriet dotes on her niece to a somewhat unhealthy degree, I don't think she would lie about this. Harriet was overwrought about what happened to Rhianna. The woman has her faults, but she has a good heart, and I do believe she's telling the truth."

"Perhaps Lady Harriet believes it's the truth, and didn't realize Habren snuck away unnoticed at some point during the day?" Loghain suggested.

Bryce shrugged. "Possible, but unlikely. No, as 'horrid' at Habren Bryland is - to use Rhianna's word for the girl - I am convinced she had nothing to do with locking Rhianna in that tower."

"But if Habren wasn't responsible, then who was? Someone put that bracelet in the guard tower. Someone who was at the palace the day Habren lost it, and planted it to deflect blame from himself, no doubt." Loghain leaned forward. "You know what's been bothering me? How could the person who did this have known Rhianna wouldn't enlist someone else's help? It's not as though the girl is in the habit of wandering Denerim unaccompanied. And she did try to tell Eleanor about the kittens. If Landra hadn't been drunk, Rhianna would never have gone to the tower alone, and rather a lot of effort to trap the girl would have been for naught."

"I suppose he took a gamble there would be enough activity after the empress departed, that Rhianna would be left on her own most of the day. And it's not as though Landra being drunk is an unusual situation."

"Which means," Loghain concluded, "this must have been done by someone we know. Someone who has spent enough time around these children to know they aren't good friends, and knows Rhianna would do whatever was necessary to save a litter of motherless kittens. Someone who knows all of us well enough to guess what would have been happening at Highever House that morning, and chose his - or her - time wisely."

"Yes. But who?" Bryce stood, and walked over to the fireplace, staring into the flames. "I can't think of anyone who would do something like this. I might have believed it was a stranger if it were just a matter of Rhianna being followed and locked away, but with someone trying to frame Habren Bryland by dropping her bracelet? That is definitely not random.

"But I can't for the life of me imagine a motive for someone - for anyone - to do something like this. If they'd asked for ransom, even if someone had taken her and . . . done things to her," Bryce's eyes met Loghain's for a brief moment. "Even that, while the thought of it turns my stomach, would have been a motive. But to lock her up in the dark and leave her to die? Who could possibly benefit, or receive any satisfaction at all, from such an act? To be honest, I suppose I wanted it to be Habren. The thought this was merely a childish prank gone too far is much less . . . unsettling than acknowledging it was a calculated effort on the part of an adult. Someone we know."

"And what about the button?" Loghain asked. "I suppose that went nowhere, as well?"

"Nothing. Nothing belonging to Habren matched the pattern. Leonas even went so far as to check his own clothes, and Harriet's as well. And after eliminating Habren as a suspect, I went to every shop in the Market Square that sells clothing, and no one there could remember seeing - or selling - anything like it. For now, it appears to be a dead end.

"I'm starting to fear we may never find out who did this. Which is rather difficult. Eleanor is afraid he might try again, and I can't say I don't have the same worry myself. But for now, all we can do is make certain Rhianna is kept safe, and close to home. At least while we're here in the city. This shouldn't be too difficult to manage; I get the feeling she has no desire to go anywhere by herself, and probably won't for some time to come."

So, for now, the mystery remained unsolved. Fortunately, Rhianna seemed not to be dwelling on what had happened. During Loghain's visits, she'd asked him for stories, and they'd talked about a variety of things, but never what happened that day at the guard tower, and only rarely about the illness from which she was recovering.

Now, he stood near the foot of the bed, looking down at her. She really did look much better. "So, how are you feeling today?"

It wasn't an idle question; he had an activity in mind to suggest, and hoped she would be feeling up to it.

"Nearly as good as new. Father took me for a walk around the garden this morning, and I didn't feel tired at all afterwards. Even so, Mother says I'm to stay in bed the rest of the day."

"Is that so? The rest of the day?" He glanced at Eleanor. The teyrna gave him a faint smile and a shake of her head as if to indicate this particular rule could be broken.

Even so, Loghain sighed loudly. "That's a pity. I had thought perhaps we could . . . well, never mind. If you can't get out of bed, there's no point in even mentioning it, is there? And I certainly don't want my visit to tire you out. So perhaps I should leave for today, and come back some other time." He turned and moved toward the door.

"What? No!" Rhianna protested. "You can't leave, Teyrn Loghain. You've only just gotten here! And what was it you wanted to do? You've got to tell me, now I know you were thinking of something!"

He turned back to her, and winked, so she'd know he had no intention of leaving. "All right. I suppose I can stay a while longer. But it's just that I brought something for you, and I had thought you might want to try it out, which would involve getting out of bed. But only if you're not too tired, and only if your mother says it's all right." Again, Eleanor nodded. She could probably guess what he had in mind.

"You brought something? Do you mean a present?" Rhianna blinked in surprise. "For me?"

"You do like presents, I hope."

"Oh yes. I'm quite fond of presents. And I treat them nicely. Look, here's Ser Ruffalo. He sleeps with me every night." Sure enough, the bear she had been given by Maric was propped up next to her on the pillow.

"Well, all right. Let's see what you think of this." He stepped outside the room to retrieve the package he'd left in the hallway, and set it down on the bed beside Rhianna. "Ah, and before I forget," he added, reaching into his pocket, "I have one other thing to give you. King Maric asked me to deliver this."

Loghain handed her an envelope that contained a single folded sheet of parchment. Rhianna pulled it out, and read it aloud:

His Royal Majesty, King Maric Theirin, requests the pleasure of Lady Rhianna Cousland's company at dinner on 2 Firstfall, 9:20 Dragon, at seven o'clock in the evening at the Royal Palace, Denerim.

The favor of a reply is requested.

With a slightly confused look on her face Rhianna handed the parchment to her mother.

"Darling, that's wonderful," Eleanor beamed. "Being invited to dine with the king is quite an honor."

"But why? Why does the king want to have dinner with me?"

"Do you remember when he came to visit when you were sick?" Loghain asked.

"No. Not really," she admitted. "I only know he came because Mother said he's the one who gave me Ser Ruffalo."

"Indeed," Loghain replied. "Well, while he was visiting, he asked if you would like to come dine with him once you were well. And I'm fairly certain that you promised you would. Of course, you were quite ill at the time, and I doubt the king would hold you to your promise if you really don't want to go. But Maric can be a bit of good fun at times; I'm sure you'd enjoy yourself. So, what shall I tell him? Do you intend to accept his invitation?"

Rhianna giggled. "He's the king! Of course I'll accept his invitation. Especially when it was written out so nicely." She paused. "Will you be there, too?" she asked Loghain.

"As far as I know, I've not been invited."

"Well you can tell the king from me I don't mind if he invites you, too. I'm a bit nervous about having dinner with him. Don't tell him that part, of course. But what if we run out of things to say to one another?"

"I doubt that would happen," Loghain assured her, "but I will pass along your message. And I'll see if I can't manage to get an invitation of my own, as well." He stared at her a moment, shifted his gaze to the package which lay beside her on the bed, and then back to Rhianna. "Well," he urged. "What are you waiting for? Open it."

With a grin, Rhianna tugged at one of the loose ends of the string that held the package together, and then pulled apart the wrapping. When she saw what was inside, she gasped out loud.

"Oh, Teyrn Loghain!" Carefully, almost reverently, she picked up the small leather cuirass that lay at the top of the bundle. There were also vambraces and pauldrons, cuisses, greaves and tassets, all the appropriate size for a smallish eight-year-old girl, as well as a wooden waster small enough for Rhianna to wield comfortably.

This was the reason he had asked to borrow some of her clothing: he needed her measurements for the armorer in the marketplace, so Rhianna could have leathers that would fit her properly, with just a bit of room for her to grow. The armorer, a man called Wade, had done excellent work, both with the design and construction, as well as the little details, like the knotwork pattern he had tooled into the pauldrons. The man was young, but promised to be a master armorer some day in the not-too-distant future.

Rhianna held the cuirass in her lap, running her fingers over the leather. "Oh, Teyrn Loghain," she repeated. "It's so beautiful." She looked up at him. "Is this really all for me?"

"Yes, it's for you. I doubt it would fit anyone else." He glanced at Eleanor, who gave him an encouraging smile, and then back to Rhianna. "Don't you remember what I promised you in the garden, right before you fell ill?"

"I'd asked if you would train me to fight with a sword," she replied. "And you said you would."

"Exactly. Well, now you have the proper kit for it. And . . . I had thought you might want to try it all on, to make certain it fits as it should. And perhaps we could even have our first lesson. Not at Fort Drakon, not just yet, but we'll go there someday soon to train. I thought today we'd just train out in the garden. If you think you're feeling up to getting out of bed again. And if your mother agrees, of course."

Rhianna turned to her mother. "Oh, please!" she begged. "I'm feeling so much better. Please let me put on my new armor, and have a lesson with Teyrn Loghain. Please?"

Eleanor laughed. "All right, darling. I don't see any reason why not. As long as you don't overexert yourself." She turned to Loghain. "I'll trust you to make certain that doesn't happen."

Loghain inclined his head toward the teyrna, giving her one of his rare smiles. "No worries, Eleanor. Your daughter will come to no harm in my care."


Chapter Text

28 Draconis, 9:25 Dragon
Highever Castle


Rhianna, unarmed, ducked as the sword flew at her head. She tried to roll out of the way, but before she could get back to her feet, Loghain whirled around and swung at her a second time.

"Too slow!" he shouted, swinging the wooden waster in an arc that missed hitting her, but just barely. "Try it again!"

Before she'd barely had time to take a breath, Loghain came at her, his sword lifted above his head. Rhianna darted to the side, tucking in one knee and rolling out of the way of the wooden sword, but when she popped back up onto her feet, Loghain was there, swinging the waster at her, slicing the air merely an inch above her head.

"You're too slow!" he bellowed. "Andraste's arse, girl, do it again!"

They'd been doing this for a solid twenty minutes, after at least an hour of other drills, while Bryce and Maric watched from the edge of the practice field. Rhianna was breathing hard, and Bryce guessed his daughter must be reaching her limit. But at Loghain's command, she immediately assumed a ready stance.

Once again, she dropped and rolled; once again, Loghain seemed unsatisfied with her distance. This time, instead of swinging above her head, he brought the flat edge of the practice sword against her thigh. The slap of wood against leather carried across the practice yard.

Rhianna grunted, stumbling briefly before regaining her balance. She was panting loudly now, her chest heaving, rivulets of sweat running down her face and onto her neck.

"Damn it, Rhianna! You've got to be faster!" Loghain shouted. "Back into position. Now!"

Favoring the leg that had been hit, she complied, crouching, ready to respond to his attack. When he barked at her to "Move!" she pushed down with the ball of her right foot, and sprang, tucked, and rolled in one fluid motion to the left. She was back on her feet before Loghain had recovered from his first swing, and she was able to leap back, well out of the reach of his second attack. She was breathing so heavily now Bryce feared she would collapse, but she managed to stay on her feet.

Loghain stared at her, his brow creased and eyes narrowed. He allowed his sword arm to relax, pointing the tip of the blade toward the ground. "Go get a drink of water."

Rhianna bent over at the waist to catch her breath, elbows resting on her knees, face in her hands. After a moment, she rubbed at the spot on her leg where Loghain had hit her with his sword, then trotted to the water barrel at the edge of the training ground, taking a drink from the ladle.

Bryce remembered the first time Loghain put a weapon in the girl's hand. A half-sized wooden waster, right after Rhianna nearly died from the plague. That day, she'd worn the first set of leather armor Loghain had commissioned for her, armor she'd long since outgrown. The leathers she wore today were the third - or perhaps the fourth - set Rhianna had owned. All of them gifted to her by the Teyrn of Gwaren.

On that first day, nearly four years ago, their training session had lasted barely ten minutes. Loghain had shown her how to grip the practice sword, adjusted her stance, and then allowed her to swing at him only three or four times before it was clear the girl had worn herself out. Rhianna had been thrilled about the experience, though, and could talk of nothing else the rest of the day. "Did you see, Daddy? Did you see me swing the sword? And isn't my new armor pretty? Isn't it the prettiest armor ever?"

Every day for the next month, until the Couslands returned to Highever once Rhianna was well enough to travel, Loghain gave the girl a lesson. At first, they stayed in the garden at the Highever estate; later they moved to the practice grounds at Fort Drakon. By the middle of Firstfall, not only could Rhianna properly swing a sword and parry a variety of blows, but she'd also regained all the strength lost during her illness. Surely that was Loghain's true goal in offering to train her, and for that Bryce would always be grateful.

It hadn't ended there, however. Throughout the past four years, every time Loghain had visited Highever - visits that seemed to come with increasing frequency - he would make the time to train the girl. And when the Couslands were in Denerim, Loghain would take Rhianna up to Fort Drakon nearly every day to spar in the same practice grounds used by Maric's Shield and the rest of the royal armies.

Bryce wasn't entirely sure why Loghain had continued to foster this interest in weapons training, but Rhianna was certainly determined to do her best at it. This had always seemed like a good thing. Unnecessary, perhaps, for a young noblewoman, but good exercise and a worthwhile pursuit so long as Rhianna enjoyed it.

It had been quite a while, however, since Bryce had watched them train together. And today, after witnessing how hard Loghain was driving the girl, Bryce wasn't sure he approved.

Loghain, not winded in the least, strode over to where Maric and Bryce stood, and rested one of his arms against the fence that ringed the practice yard. Maric chuckled, and gave his friend a wry smile, as if to say, "You're in for it, now."

Loghain didn't have a chance to inquire what Maric might have meant before Bryce spoke. "Don't you think you're being too hard on Rhianna? She's working very hard, doing her best, and you're working her into the ground, and shouting at her. And cursing."

"She asked me to train her." Loghain's expression did not change; he merely looked out across the practice field and watched Rhianna take another drink from the barrel. "That's what I'm doing. Training her, just like I would any other of my soldiers. There would be no benefit in going easy on her; she'll learn nothing that way."

"Rhianna isn't one of your soldiers," Bryce insisted. "She's only twelve years old, and she looks like she's about to pass out from exhaustion. You expect too much of her."

Loghain lifted an eyebrow. "I don't expect anything of her she isn't willing to give. Perhaps you expect too little."

Bryce felt his cheeks flush with anger. "I resent that, Loghain. I have nothing but respect for my daughter's abilities, and I'll not have you say otherwise."

"Then let her train. Properly. She doesn't appear to be suffering any harm from it."

Bryce glanced at Rhianna. She was next to the water barrel, bending at the waist to stretch the muscles in her back and her legs. Then she stood up, arching her back and stretching her arms toward the sky.

Looking at her now, you would never know this was a girl who had been small for her age and nearly died of the plague just a few short years ago. She'd shot up in height over the past two years, and was mostly bone and muscle, partly because she trained several days a week, even when Loghain wasn't there to prod her. Her hair shone in the sunlight, and her skin had a healthy glow, especially when flushed from exertion. There was no denying his daughter was the picture of health.

Before Bryce could respond, Loghain continued, "Rhianna has as much raw talent as anyone I've ever seen. But it won't get her anywhere unless she learns how to use it. She's not physically strong, and never will be, judging by her build, but she's got superb balance and timing, and lightning fast reflexes. She's already as good with a bow as most of the archers in the Denerim Regulars, and has the potential to be an excellent swordswoman, but only if someone pushes her, or gives her reason to push herself."

"There's a difference, Loghain," Bruce replied, "between pushing and abuse. I can't see how it was necessary for you to hit her."

"You can't see how it was necessary? Look at her!" Loghain demanded. "She can't take a blow, not now and probably not ever. I barely hit her, and she started favoring the leg. I could kill her with the waster, let alone a real sword. I want her – you want her - to never forget her first priority when fighting, always, is to get the hell out of the way."

"You say that as if you expect her to do this for real one day." Bryce was still angry, but starting to lose his momentum. "The Occupation is over. We drove the Orlesians out of Ferelden, remember? Surely you haven't forgotten that business at the River Dane. I, for one, sincerely hope our children will never have cause to take up arms to defend themselves or anyone else, certainly not the way we did."

"That's not the point," Loghain argued. "This isn't just about sword fighting, Bryce. It's about giving Rhianna the chance to do something well, to trust in herself. To help her feel safe, and confident she could defend herself if necessary." He caught Bryce's gaze and held it. "What happened four years ago in Denerim is proof the world isn't always a safe place, even in times of peace."

As if Bryce needed to be reminded of the incident in the guard tower. A mystery that had never been solved.

"Besides," Loghain added, "the Occupation may be over, but it would be foolish to ignore the continuing threat posed by our Orlesian 'neighbors.'"

"Now, I resent that, Loghain," Maric laughed, but his expression made it clear his protest was at least partially sincere. "Tell me one thing Orlais has done since the peace treaty was signed - just one - that poses any sort of threat to Ferelden."

Loghain turned to the king. "Besides the excessive trade concessions they're exploiting? And the fact there are no fewer chevaliers on our borders now than there were five years ago? And let's not even talk about the Chantry. Maric, you, of all people, know where I stand on the subject of Orlais." He shook his head, then turned back to Bryce. "Of course I hate the thought of any of our children – or ourselves, for that matter – having to take up arms again against those foreign bastards, but to let ourselves get fat and lazy and unprepared would be a mistake.

"But you're both still missing the point." Loghain ran a hand through his hair. "This has nothing to do with Orlais. This is about Rhianna. She wants this for herself, and if she has the discipline to do it, and do it well, she'll have the confidence to do other things, and do them well. And if knowing she can defend herself gives her peace of mind, how could that be anything other than good? I should think it would give you some peace of mind, as well, Bryce."

Rhianna crossed the practice field to join them, still out of breath and limping slightly, but looking cheerful. "Hello Father, King Maric." She turned to Loghain. "All right, I'm ready whenever you are."

Before Loghain could respond, Bryce interjected, "Are you sure about this, Pup? Perhaps it's time for you to take a break."

"A break? Why would I take a break?"

"Well, you look exhausted, for one thing. You've been at this for quite a while now."

"I'm all right," she scoffed. "I'm only a little bit tired. Besides, I don't get the chance to train with Teyrn Loghain all the time; I want to make the most of it while he's here."

"But Rhianna," Bryce argued, "there are plenty of people here in Highever who will train with you whenever you want. It's not as though this is your only opportunity to practice."

"It's not the same," she laughed. "Everyone here is too nice to me, they never try to really hit me. I think they're afraid that if they hurt the teyrn's daughter, they'll end up in the dungeon!" She rubbed at the spot on her leg where she'd been hit with the waster, then gave Loghain a sly glance. "Clearly, Teyrn Loghain isn't worried about that," she grinned.

She reached up on tiptoe to kiss her father on the cheek. "I'm all right, really." Then, she turned to Loghain, "Can we keep going?"

"Of course," he agreed. He bent down to pick up a wooden short sword. "Here." He tossed it to her, and she caught it deftly by the pommel. "I think it's time for you to try that maneuver with this in your hand." She nodded, and jogged out to the middle of the practice field, with Loghain at her heels.

Bryce watched Loghain prepare to attack his daughter, a sword aimed at her head. "I'm still not sure about this, Maric."

"I know you're not," the king chuckled. "But don't take it personally. He's a bastard like that to everyone, not just your daughter. And, if it makes a difference . . ." He nodded in the direction of the practice field. The two men watched as Loghain charged at Rhianna, and she rolled perfectly out of the way, leapt to her feet, and danced backwards out of reach, the practice sword held firmly in her hand. A grin spread across her face, and even Loghain looked pleased.

"She wasn't able to do that at the beginning of the day," Maric said with a crooked smile.

Bryce sighed. He had to admit, however much he disapproved of Loghain's methods, they were effective.


Chapter Text

29 Drakonis, 9:25 Dragon
The Coastlands


Highever Castle had hummed with activity ever since King Maric and Prince Cailan arrived earlier in the week, along with the Mac Tirs and most of the nobles in the northern half of Ferelden. They were all here to attend this year's Festival of Wolves, which took place during the week of the first full moon in Drakonis.

Every town in the Coastlands celebrated Haelia Cousland's defeat over the werewolves who terrorized the area during the Black Age, but the celebrations were most extensive in Highever itself, culminating in a reenactment of Haelia's historic victory, an elaborate, choreographed production that would take place on the morrow.

This year, the crowds were larger than at any time in recent memory. Every room in every inn in the city was rented, and Eleanor struggled to find beds for all the nobles who arrived at the castle. The reason for all the excitement: this year, for the first time in more than an age, a Cousland would perform the role of Haelia, a show that promised to be even more spectacular than usual.

Up in her bedroom, Rhianna sat as still as she could manage while her sister-in-law, Oriana, finished putting braids in Rhianna's hair, a single braid at each of her temples, which would be pulled back and twisted together behind her head. Rhianna usually did them herself, but she sometimes had difficulty getting them even on both sides, and she wanted to look nice today. So she'd asked for Oriana's help, and was pleasantly surprised when her brother's wife agreed.

"I hope you remember that Fergus is planning to take all the young people out on the boat today." Oriana finished one of Rhianna's braids, planting a quick kiss on the end before tying it off with a small piece of leather. "You'll want to go sailing with us, won't you?"

"That depends, I suppose," Rhianna began, "on who else is going. If Habren will be there, I'll skip it. The idea of spending so many hours that close to her makes me feel ill."

Habren had not become less annoying over time; if anything, she was meaner now than ever before, and had been ever since the autumn when the empress had come to visit, when Rhianna had been so sick. Just a few months afterward, Habren cornered Rhianna during the First Day celebration hosted in Amaranthine by the Howes.

"You wretched little bitch," Habren had snarled, flecks of spittle flying from her lips as she backed Rhianna up against a wall in one of the dimly-lit hallways of Vigil's Keep. "I'll get back at you, Rhianna Cousland, if it's the last thing I do."

"Get back at me? Get back at me for what?"

"For stealing my bracelet, and then saying I was the one who locked you away in that stupid tower."

"What? But I never even saw your stupid bracelet, and I never said . . ."

"Don't lie," Habren hissed. "I know it was you. I only wish Teyrn Loghain had never found you. Then you'd be dead, and the world would be a much nicer place." The older girl had turned and stalked off, leaving Rhianna utterly confused, and feeling empty inside.

The world would be a nicer place if she were dead? Surely, that wasn't true. Rhianna had spent the rest of that day avoiding other people, and worrying about what Habren had said. Finally, after climbing to the top of the battlements and visiting with a falcon who made her home there, Rhianna decided Habren was just being mean, but the memory of that day still made Rhianna feel hollow, and just a bit scared.

As the years passed, Habren and her friends - Alysanne Valdric, Tanith Curwen, and of course Thomas Howe - took every opportunity to call Rhianna names, or laugh at her, or tell her how stupid and ugly she was.

So, no. Rhianna had no intention of spending an entire day on a small boat with Habren Bryland. Even if it weren't for Habren, Rhianna wasn't sure she wanted to go. If Teryn Loghain and King Maric weren't interested in sailing, Rhianna might be able to convince them to go on an adventure with her. A day with Teryn Loghain sounded much nicer than a day out on the water.

"Rhianna, you can't let her bother you, especially here," Oriana scolded in her faint Antivan accent. "It is your duty to be a gracious hostess to all our guests." Oriana and Fergus were married nearly three years ago, and their son, Oren, had been born just a few months ago. Rhianna often had the feeling Oriana didn't entirely approve of her, that the older woman thought Rhianna was too headstrong, and spent too much time in the practice yard or riding out in the woods, and not enough time perfecting her needlework. Still, the two were fond of one another.

"I know that, Oriana, but skipping the boat trip is my way of being a gracious hostess," Rhianna insisted. "If I don't have to talk to Habren, there's no chance I'll say something rude. Or accidentally punch her in the nose." Catching Oriana's eye in the mirror, Rhianna grinned, a grin which nearly always worked on both of her parents, and to which Oriana was only some of the time immune.

This time, it worked, and Oriana chuckled, shaking her head. "Well, Fergus will be disappointed if you don't come along. As well as some of the others, I'm sure. Nathaniel Howe, for example."

"Fergus and I can go sailing together any old time. And Nathaniel Howe? Why should he care whether or not I come?"

"I seem to remember you and he had a nice conversation last time we visited Amaranthine. And he is handsome, don't you think?"

"Handsome?" Rhianna wrinkled her nose. "He's all right, I suppose." She certainly wasn't going to admit that yes, she did think Nathaniel was handsome, but mostly because looked rather like Teyrn Loghain, only younger and far less interesting.

"Just all right? I've always thought he would make a good husband for you someday."

Husband? Maker's breath, but Rhianna didn't want to think about husbands. Especially not after the announcement Bann Valdric had made the previous evening at dinner. Rhianna glanced at Oriana's reflection, and noticed the smirk on the older woman's face. "You're teasing me about Nathaniel, aren't you?"

Oriana shrugged, as she tied the end of the second braid. "Perhaps I am. But I'm sure Nathaniel would have been happy to spend the day with you. And," Oriana looked up, catching Rhianna's gaze again, "whether or not you go sailing, you mustn't forget to offer your congratulations to Alysanne Valdric."

Alysanne and her father had arrived in Highever three nights ago. Gerald Valdric was the Bann of Oswin, and last night he announced Alysanne's betrothal to Valudur Krole, the Bann of the Ruswold. Rhianna had never been to that part of Ferelden; it was south of the Bannorn, on the edges of the Brecilian Forest, and seemed very, very far away.

"I'll remember," Rhianna promised. "Even though I'm not sure Alysanne will want to be congratulated. She didn't seem all that happy about it." Actually, judging by the expression on the girl's face after her father made the announcement, Alysanne was dreadfully unhappy about the arrangement.

That was understandable; Rhianna had never exchanged words with Bann Krole, but she'd seen him a few times in Denerim, and he looked a bit scary. He was a great many years older than Alysanne, older even than Rhianna's father, and was missing one of his legs below the knee, so he had to walk with a crutch. He wasn't at all handsome, either, with thinning grey hair he wore pulled back in an untidy queue, and a scruffy beard that only partially hid the deep pock marks on his face, from some illness suffered in the past. Even though her mother had told her time and time again not to judge people by the way they looked, it was difficult not to be a little bit afraid of Bann Krole.

Rhianna almost felt bad for Alysanne. Almost. Alysanne was one of Habren's best friends, after all, and had taunted Rhianna often enough she couldn't bring herself to feel too sorry for the girl.

Even so, Rhianna got a funny feeling in her stomach every time she thought about this marriage. Alysanne was thirteen, only a few months older than Rhianna was now, although Bann Valdric said the wedding wouldn't take place until after his daughter's fourteenth birthday. And this wasn't particularly unusual; Krole was quite a bit older than Alysanne, but these sorts of arrangements happened frequently enough. But Alysanne was the first girl Rhianna knew, other than Anora, to become betrothed. Up until now, it had been easy for Rhianna to think of herself as too young to get promised in marriage. But if Alysanne was old enough, than surely Rhianna was, too.

She didn't need to worry. Not really. Rhianna's parents had promised they would never force her to marry someone she didn't like. Someone scary, or horrible, or mean. But the thought of it still scared her. What if they changed their minds? Or what if someone really important, like a prince from some far-away country, wanted to marry her, and her parents decided to say yes? Rhianna already knew who she wanted to marry when she was old enough, if only he would agree. There was a reason, after all, she sometimes practiced writing her name with "Mac Tir" behind it instead of "Cousland." But if she ended up promised to someone else first, that plan would be ruined.

"No," Rhianna muttered. "I don't think Alysanne is happy about it at all."

"Well, perhaps she isn't." Oriana pulled the braids back and wound them together behind Rhianna's head. "But that's all the more reason for you to be kind to her about her father's decision." Oriana placed her hands on Rhianna's hair, smoothing over the braids she'd just completed. Then, she planted a kiss on the top of the younger girl's head. "In any case, it is nothing to trouble yourself over, little sister. And you look lovely. So let's go downstairs and join the others."

In the castle's great hall, Oriana and Rhianna found everyone else, family and guests, already assembled. In addition to the Couslands, the entire Howe family was present, along with Bann Esmerelle, who had ridden into town with the Howes. Leonas Bryland had been accompanied by not only his daughter, but also by his sister, Lady Harriet. The Eremons - Bann Ranulf and his children Alfstanna and Irminric - had come from Waking Sea, and Bann Franderel made the short journey from the fortress of West Hill. The Valdrics were here, as were Bann Loren and Lady Landra of the River Dane bannric, along with their son, Dairren, who was only a few years older than Rhianna. Rounding out the company were Maric, Cailan, Loghain and Anora.

"Ah, there you are." Fergus' voice carried across the hall. Probably, the remark had been directly at Oriana; Fergus didn't have a lot of time these days for his little sister, but Rhianna tried not to take it personally. Having a baby seemed like quite a lot of work. "We're just about ready to head to the dock." Oriana moved close to Fergus, and he passed the baby to her before putting his arm around her waist. "You are planning to come with us, aren't you my love?"

"Yes, I believe I will, since your mother has kindly agreed to watch the little man for us today."

Fergus turned to Rhianna. "And what about you, Elsie? It's not really a proper day of sailing without my little sister along, and the weather couldn't be better for it."

So he hadn't forgotten about her, after all. A smile spread across her face; what a wonderful man she had for a brother. And it was a lovely day to be out on the water, sunny and cloudless, the wind strong enough, but not too strong. Absolutely perfect for sailing.

As Rhianna had feared, however, there was Habren, already wearing a wide-brimmed hat in anticipation of going out on the boat. When Rhianna glanced at the older girl, Habren sneered and rolled her eyes, and then turned and whispered something to Alysanne that caused both girls to giggle behind their hands.

"I'm going to stay ashore today," she told Fergus, smiling brightly. "You've got plenty of people to help you crew, and I have some things I want to do around town. I should probably practice my lines for the performance tomorrow, as well." Both of those things were untrue. Rhianna had no errands to run, and she knew her lines so well she could have recited them in her sleep. Still, she was determined Habren not get the satisfaction of knowing she was the reason Rhianna had chosen not to come.

Fergus seemed to guess something wasn't quite right with her story, judging by the wrinkle that formed across his brow, but he didn't challenge her. "All right, Pet. Well, we're going to walk through town, so you could always hurry and catch up with us if you change your mind."

As the boat-goers gathered their things and prepared to leave, Rhianna busied herself with a flower arrangement, pulling out flowers one at a time, and putting them back in slightly different places. This was totally unnecessary, as the flowers already looked lovely, but for some reason she felt nervous, and wanted something to do with her hands until Habren and the others were gone.

In the flurry of activity, a tall, dark-haired young man walked over to greet her. His relation to Rendon Howe showed plainly in his features, although the nose that looked severe on the father was rather handsome on the son.

"Hello, Rhianna. It's been a while since we've seen one another. I think you've gotten taller."

She looked up at Nathaniel Howe, and her cheeks grew warm, although she certainly didn't understand why. Thinking he was a bit handsome was different than liking him, so there was no reason for her to be blushing. "Hello Nathaniel. It's good to see you. You've gotten tall, as well, haven't you?"

"Yes, I suppose I have. How old are you now?"


"Yes, that sounds about right. It also explains the getting taller."

Rhianna giggled. "Yes, I suppose it does."

"So, you're not going sailing with us today, then? That's a shame. I was looking forward to talking with you again. I remember what you told me about the hawk migration, and I spent some time last month watching the birds fly by, and you were absolutely right. I always thought the hawks stayed all year, but now it seems the ones who live near Amaranthine in the winter leave and go further south in the spring, and the ones we see in the summer are ones who wintered across the sea. And I had a question to ask you about whales. I've been seeing a lot of them lately, even from shore."

"Oh." This was . . . surprising. So, Oriana had been right after all. He was disappointed Rhianna wasn't going sailing with them. "No, I'm not going out on the boat today. But . . . um . . . maybe we can talk about your whales later?"

"I'd like that," Nathaniel replied, with a crooked smile that lit up his grey eyes. "Perhaps this evening, or maybe the day after tomorrow. I'm sure you'll be busy tomorrow, preparing for your performance. I'm looking forward to it, by the way. I'm sure you'll be wonderful. Vanquishing the werewolves."

"I hope you won't be disappointed." Rhianna felt her cheeks grow warm again as a shy smile crept across her face. "And yes, we can talk later."

But her smile slipped away when Habren sauntered up, sliding her arm through the crook of Nathaniel's arm. "Come on, Nathaniel. Fergus says it's time for us to go." To Rhianna, "So sorry you're not able to join us, Rhianna. We're going to have so much fun." She shrugged her shoulders and gave a simpering smile, and then pulled Nathaniel toward the door.

With a sheepish grin over his shoulder, he allowed himself to be led away. "I'll talk to you later, Rhianna."

When Nathaniel had turned away, Rhianna rolled her eyes at Habren's back before abandoning the flowers. She crossed the room to stand near her parents and the others who had opted out of sailing. When Maric noticed her, he patted the cushion next to him, indicating she should sit between him and Loghain, who sat at the other end of the bench. She sat, and Maric reached his arm around her shoulders. Rhianna curled up against him, resting her head on his chest for a moment before sitting up straight again.

"Are you quite sure, Maric," her father said, "you don't want to join them out on the boat? It really is excellent weather."

"Oh no. Let the young people have their fun, I say. They don't want to be stuck on a boat all day with their stodgy old king." He looked to the girl at his side. "Isn't that right, Rhianna?"

"You're ridiculous," she laughed. "I can hardly think of anyone less stodgy than you."

"Pup," her father chided, "I don't think it's entirely polite to call the ruler of Ferelden 'ridiculous.'"

"Well," Loghain began, "that's one of the qualities I like best about your daughter, Bryce. She's truthful. And, apparently, a good judge of the ridiculous."

"Oh ho!" Maric exclaimed, leaning away and removing his arm from Rhianna's shoulders to cross his arms in front of his chest. "So, that's how it's going to be? You're both going to gang up on me? I might not have anything to hold over Rhianna's head - yet - but you, Loghain? You might want to reconsider your attitude. Or I might have to tell everyone the real reason I didn't go boating today."

"The real reason?" Rhianna asked. "There's a reason beyond you being stodgy?"

Loghain grunted, as if holding back laughter, and Maric pretended to glare at his friend, and then he looked down at Rhianna through narrowed eyes. "Yes, there is most certainly a reason." He leaned forward and held Rhianna's gaze. "I chose not to go boating because Loghain Mac Tir doesn't like being out on the water. I think he's afraid of it, to tell you the truth. So, dear friend that I am, I stayed behind, instead of abandoning him. Leaving him sitting here, all by himself." Maric leaned even closer before whispering the final word. "Alone."

Holding back a giggle, Rhianna turned to see Loghain's response. He said nothing; he merely raised one of his eyebrows impossibly high, and stared down at the king with a look that might have caused a lesser man to run in terror. But Maric just stared back, squinting his eyes and curling his lip in what Rhianna assumed was meant to be a fearsome glare, but mostly just looked silly. Sitting between them, looking at Loghain, then Maric, and then back to Loghain again, Rhianna burst into laughter.

"Maker's Breath, you're both ridiculous, aren't you?" she giggled. "Well, not you, so much, Teyrn Loghain. After all, you did say a nice thing about me just now. But King Maric? I think perhaps telling everyone Loghain's secret makes you not quite as dear a friend as you would like us to think. And between you and me," she whispered, "your glare could use some improvement. It's not really all that scary."

This elicited a hearty laugh from Maric, as well as Leonas Bryland who was sitting nearby. But not everyone was equally amused.

"Ha ha ha, ah yes. Very droll," Arl Howe drawled. "The girl does like to speak her mind, doesn't she, Bryce? Even past the point of being . . . appropriate." As the laughter of the others faded, the arl gave her a tight smile that might have been meant to lessen the sting of his comment, but didn't really manage.

"So," Bryce asked, raising his voice as if wanting to change the subject, "What are the rest of you planning to do today? It's far too lovely to sit inside the castle." To Maric, he added, "I'm sure Rhianna would be happy to take you around, show you some of the local sights."

"I wouldn't mind going for a ride today," Maric admitted, looking hopefully at Rhianna.

"All right," Rhianna replied. "Let's think of somewhere interesting to go."

Maric rubbed his hands together and smiled. "What do you suggest? What was the name of that beach you took us last time we were in town?"

"Sarim's Point," Rhianna answered. "Do you want to go there again?"

"Oh, I don't know," Maric said. "It was a lovely beach, and the weather is good for swimming. Although I wouldn't mind seeing somewhere new."

"Well there are lots of places," Rhianna said enthusiastically. "There are some Alamarri ruins not far from here, or we could ride up into the hills where there are lovely views of the ocean and the Bannorn. Or we could hunt, if you like. I've taken you to Sothwood, but I don't remember us ever hunting the Bockland together; it's not that far south from here. We might find boar, if we're lucky."

"Alamarri ruins? That sounds interesting. I should like to see some ruins, I think." Maric turned to Loghain. "What do you think, Mac Tir. Ruins? Or hunting? Or the beach again?"

"I'm not in the mood for a hunt, but other than that, it's all the same to me." He looked down at Rhianna. "I didn't realize there were Alamarri ruins nearby. Where, exactly?"

"I'll show you." Rhianna popped up off the bench and crossed to the cabinets lining the far wall. She retrieved a rolled up parchment, and when she returned, she sat closer to Loghain. He helped her unroll a map of the Coastlands, holding one edge while she held the other, and she pointed to a small triangle just to the left of Highever Castle.

"They're west of Highever, just here, along the coast. As you can see, they're actually very close to the castle as the crow flies, on the other side of the highlands. If we could go straight through, it would only take a few minutes to ride there. But because of the hills, it will take about an hour to go all the way around. Really, there are two different sets of ruins – one on the mainland, and the other on an island to the northwest, here." She pointed to another spot on the map. "But we'd need to take a boat to get to the island. And," she grinned, "since someone is apparently not fond of boating, I suggest we go to the ones on the mainland."

Catching Loghain's eye, Rhianna pressed her lips together, trying not to laugh, and Loghain raised one of his formidable eyebrows at her just as he had at the king. It failed to have the desired effect (or perhaps, it did), because she let out a merry peal of laughter. When she turned to look at Maric, he winked at her before he, too, burst out in laughter.

"Now, darling," her mother scolded, although her tone was light, "don't be cheeky. You're supposed be gracious to our visitors, not mock them."

"Yes, Mother," Rhianna replied, making an effort to keep a straight face. When Maric nudged her leg with his knee, however, and she glanced over at him, they both broke out laughing again.

"Maker's breath," Loghain swore, "I don't know if I can take an entire day with the two of you."

Rhianna forced herself to stop laughing, and gave Loghain an apologetic smile. "Don't worry, Teyrn Loghain. We won't tease you all day long." She turned to Maric, "Will we?"

"No, of course not. Rhianna and I will be nice to you at least . . . half of the day. Does that sound reasonable?" Again, Rhianna and Maric burst into laughter, and this time, even though Loghain shook his head as if dismayed by this display of mirth, he chuckled softly.

"All right," Rhianna said once she'd caught her breath, rolling up the map. "We'll go to the ruins, then. How many are we? Uncle Leonas? Lady Harriet? Lady Landra? Will you be joining us?"

Arl Bryland smiled warmly at the girl. "Oh no, my dear. I'm on holiday, which means I will enjoy nothing as much as sitting right here in this lovely hall, enjoying a glass of port and a conversation with my dear friend, your father. Who is, I hope," he turned to Bryce, "not intending to go along on this expedition?"

Bryce chuckled, "No, not me. I've seen the ruins, and I should be here in case anything comes up regarding the festivities tomorrow."

"Well, I certainly won't go be going to any ruins," Lady Harriet said in a breathy voice. She was a plump woman with small blonde curls that stuck out in all directions from underneath the linen cap she always wore. "I don't see the point in visiting something run down and broken. I don't imagine there are any shops there?"

"No, Lady Harriet," Rhianna replied. "There aren't any shops. No one has lived there for centuries."

"Hmph," she exhaled loudly. "Well, I'll stay here with Leonas. And the port."

"I think I'll stay here, as well," Lady Landra agreed. "It's a bit warm outside for my liking."

Rhianna turned to the Howes, "And what about you, Arl Howe, Arlessa? You'll join us, won't you?" She smiled, while wishing fervently for them to decline the invitation.

"My dear girl," Howe said silkily. "We've just ridden all the way from Amaranthine last night. How could you imagine we would have any desire to get back on our horses today?" The arlessa merely gazed down her nose at Rhianna, as if the question itself had been too ridiculous to warrant a response.

Bann Ranulf had accompanied his children and the others on the boat trip, and the remaining visitors - Banns Loren, Esmerelle, Valdric and Franderel - had already located a pack of cards, and were at a table across the room dealing out the first hand of a game of Ruff and Honours.

Which left only Eleanor. "Mother? Would you like to come with us?"

Eleanor gave her daughter a warm smile. "As much as I would love to go for a ride out into the country, I've got my hands full with Oren. Besides I'm not sure your father can be trusted to take proper care of our guests without some . . . guidance." She grinned, glancing at her husband, who rolled his eyes in response, but joined in the laughter that followed.

"Well, then," Maric said, clapping his hands on his knees before propelling himself up off of the bench. "It looks like it's just the three of us. As usual." Offering a hand to Rhianna, he helped her up as Loghain got to his feet.

"I'll go ask Nan to pack a lunch for us." Rhianna looked down at the dress she was wearing. "And I think I'd better change into trousers. Let's meet at the stables in fifteen minutes."


"So, Rhianna," Maric asked as they rode at a leisurely pace along the road that would take them to the ruins, "are you excited about being in the play this year?"

"Yes, and no," she answered. "I suppose I am excited . . . but . . . well . . . it wouldn't be so bad, except practically everyone I know will be there, watching. What if I make a mistake? Say the wrong words, or do something stupid, like fall off the platform and land on my head? I'll be so embarrassed; I might never be able to show my face again."

She didn't add that the person she was most afraid of embarrassing herself in front of was riding beside them at that very moment.

"You're not going to fall off the platform, Rhianna." Maric urged his horse right beside hers, and leaned close before whispering loudly, "Just between you and me? No one watching is going to know exactly what you're supposed to be doing or saying. So, if you make a mistake, just act as though it was what you were supposed to do, and keep on going. No one will know the difference. Trust me, I do that all the time."

Loghain snorted with the effort of suppressing a laugh. "That's the truth."

Rhianna giggled, "All right. I'll try to remember." She paused. "I do know it's a great honor, and it's the first time in quite a while a Cousland will be performing in the play. Most of all, though, I'm happy I was able to convince Father we don't need to make a sacrifice this year." It was tradition to sacrifice a live animal, usually a wolf, as part of the festival, but Rhianna wanted nothing to do with any such unnecessary bloodshed, and in the end, Bryce had agreed no sacrifice was needed.

"No sacrifice?" Maric's voice was stern. "Yes, I heard something about that from your father. I'm not sure it's a good idea. There is something to be said for tradition, after all. And not angering the Maker."

"Tradition? I don't see the point of a tradition that involves killing an innocent animal," Rhianna replied. "And it doesn't seem possible the Maker would appreciate the death of one His beautiful creatures."

"Innocent animal, indeed," Loghain commented dryly. "Have you never seen a sheep after wolves have gotten into the pasture?"

"So very true!" the king agreed. "They're bloodthirsty beasts!"

"Well, they need to eat, just as we do," Rhianna said sensibly. "I don't remember either of you turning your noses up at the mutton Nan served last night."

"Rhianna Cousland," Maric admonished. "You have a duty to the people of the Coastlands. You can't go around not killing things just because you think they're cute and fluffy."

Cute and fluffy? Rhianna glanced at Maric, who was smiling, and then at Loghain, who was not, but there was something mischievous about his expression nonetheless.

"Oh, Maker's Breath!" the girl swore with a laugh. "You're both just having me on, aren't you?"

She ought to have expected this; it wasn't the first time the two men had teased her, and she'd done her share of teasing as well, over the years. Starting that night, four years ago, when Rhianna had dined at the palace at Maric's invitation. Since then, Loghain, Rhianna and Maric had forged a pleasant, comfortable friendship.

That first night, Loghain had managed to invite himself along, and the three of them had a lovely evening. Maric had been kind, and said things to make Rhianna laugh, and not once had they run out of things to say to one another. Then they had walked in the palace garden, and Rhianna had shown Maric the family of squirrels, and confided in him about her ability to communicate with animals (after Loghain assured her the king could be trusted with her "secret"). Later, Rhianna convinced Loghain to tell a story, and she'd sat in the king's lap while the teyrn described the first time the Rebels defended Gwaren from the Orlesian invaders.

Since that night, the three of them sought out one another's company as often as they could manage, riding out together near Highever when Maric and Loghain came to visit, or dining together at the palace or the Gwaren estate whenever Rhianna was in Denerim.

Rhianna loved the time they spent together. Their personalities complemented one another perfectly: Maric, and his constant, amiable chatter; Rhianna, and her curiosity and mischief; and Loghain, who spoke less often, but always made his words count. They had wonderful conversations, and laughed and joked with one another. Rhianna had never felt as comfortable with anyone else outside of her family; it was just so . . . easy to be with the two of them, and they both seemed to like her, as well.

She was hit with a wave of happiness as she realized what a treasure it was to have an entire day to spend with two of her favorite people in all the world.

"Wolves not bloodthirsty beasts. They're gorgeous," she scolded, trying to sound offended. "Unlike the two of you . . . you're both horrible, aren't you?"

"Yes, we are," Maric agreed. "But you adore us just the same. Don't try and pretend otherwise." Maric winked at her, and she giggled again.

Oh yes. This was shaping up to be a very entertaining day, indeed.

Half an hour later, they arrived at the ruins: a square five-story keep flanked by the two remaining sides of the inner wall that once enclosed a central courtyard. Not far from the keep stood the remains of a guard tower. An ancient dovecote crumbled at the opposite end of the courtyard.

"This is Barr na Driseig," Rhianna explained. "At least that's what the Alamarri called in the old tongue. We call it Thornhill in Fereldan. It was built more than a thousand years ago, back before the ages were named, or Andraste was born. At least five hundred years before Highever Castle was built in the Divine Age."

The trio dismounted, and Loghain and Maric tied their mounts loosely to an iron post near one of the walls. Rhianna nuzzled Carrot's nose gently. "You'll stay right here and wait for us, won't you Carrot?" The mare whinnied in response, flicking her ears.

"I've been meaning to ask . . . " Maric began. "Carrot? Is her name really Carrot? Not that there's anything wrong the name, but it's . . . well, it's just not very dignified, if you know what I mean."

"Carrot isn't her real name," Rhianna replied. "She's called 'The Antivan Fascination,' but when Mother gave her to me, I had a hard time pronouncing that. So I started calling her Carrot, after her favorite snack." She turned her face up to Carrot, and was rewarded by the horse's broad nose pressed against her forehead. "And Carrot still loves carrots, doesn't she?" Rhianna crooned as she pulled a carrot from her pocket and offered it to the mare. The horse blew a puff of air across Rhianna's face before picking the carrot up carefully with her teeth and munching contentedly.

With Rhianna leading the way, the trio passed through an archway in one of the remaining walls, and climbed the stone steps to the first floor of the tower. "Father told me originally, there weren't permanent steps leading up to this door," she began. "There were just stairs made of wood, which could be pulled inside if the keep were under attack, so enemies couldn't just walk into the tower."

Inside, they explored the upper floors, each of which had been divided into varying numbers of rooms. On the first floor, there was a kitchen, with a round, vented oven built into one wall, and a pantry lined with stone shelves. Up a spiraling staircase, the second level was a single large, open space, which had probably been used as a banquet hall. "Ooh, look!" Rhianna exclaimed when she saw a hole cut through the floor, and covered by an iron grate. "It's a murder hole, isn't it? For pouring hot oil on enemies who invaded the keep?" She turned to Loghain. "Do you think the people who lived here ever lit any invaders on fire?"

"From what I know about the Alamarri, I would guess yes, they probably did," Loghain replied. "Relations between the various peoples living here were unstable for centuries, before Calanhad united the tribes. It's possible Andraste herself might have stayed here, while she and Maferath conquered the south."

The third floor was divided into bedchambers, and as Rhianna, Loghain and Maric explored, they took turns at inventing stories about the people who had once lived inside.

"This," Rhianna intoned, in one of the smaller upstairs chambers, "is the room where a very naughty boy named Elton was locked away by his parents, after he lit his hands on fire and threw his supper at his mother. Eventually, he was shipped off to the Circle Tower, but not before he'd burned up all his furniture, and wasted several days' worth of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners."

"I heard a story once," Maric began in one of the other rooms, "about a not-so-beautiful princess who tried to kill herself by leaping out this very window. All because her parents refused to allow her to spend all their money at the shops, buying shoes, which she loved very, very much. Unfortunately for her parents, she survived the fall, but her shoes did not, so they were forced to take her shopping, after all."

"Let me guess," Rhianna laughed. "Her name was Habren."

When it was Loghain's turn, he glanced inside a small, dark chamber in one of the corners of the tower. "Dogs. This is where they kept the dogs." Maric and Rhianna shared a confused glance, and then burst into laughter at Loghain's pathetic attempt at the game. But when Loghain caught Rhianna's eye and winked, she realized he'd given a deliberately bad story as a joke.

The top floor was separated into only two rooms, the living quarters for the lord and lady of the keep. In places, the roof had crumbled leaving the room open to the elements. The tower was near enough to the sea that a constant hum of waves crashing on the shore, and the sharp cries of birds circling on air currents above, drifted in through the open roof.

A final set of stairs, partially collapsed, led up to the roof. Rhianna climbed them, avoiding the places that were broken, and hopped up on what remained of the original walkway from which guards would have kept watch.

Maric climbed only the first three or four stairs before stopping. "Rhianna? It looks rather . . . precarious up there. Perhaps you should come down?"

"I'm all right," she called back, enjoying the way the breeze caught in her hair. "It's lovely up here! I have the best view of the countryside; I can see all the way to the castle. And there's a boat out on the bay that just might be Fergus and the others." She jumped across a gap in the walkway, and went further out along what remained of the roof.

"At least come away from the edge?" Maric turned to Loghain. "Shouldn't we make her come down from there? If she were to fall . . ."

Loghain didn't even look up from the carving he was examining on one of the columns holding up what remained of the roof. "Don't fuss at her. She won't fall."

Maric wasn't satisfied with this, however, and continued to make unhappy noises until Rhianna took pity on him and came down from the roof.

Back on the first floor, Maric pointed out a staircase going down. "There's still one more floor below us," he said, taking the lead as they descended to a floor that was partially underground.

Rhianna hesitated at the top of the stairs; she didn't like basements. At least this one was only partially underground; there were still windows letting in enough daylight so only the corners of the room were in shadow. She followed after the king, with Loghain close behind her.

This level had been used for storing food and weapons, and for keeping livestock warm during the winter. Jutting out from one of the walls, a small chamber was separated from the rest of the room by a locking iron door.

"This must have been the dungeon." Maric stepped inside, pulling the door closed behind him, and peering through the barred window. "I don't suppose either of you have the key. This could be your chance to lock me away and be rid of me forever, you know," he laughed.

"Why would we want to do that?" Rhianna asked.

"So the two of you could run off together with the lunch basket, and have all the food to yourselves."

"Oh." Rhianna glanced at Loghain. "That's not a bad plan, really. Teyrn Loghain, you haven't seen a key around here, have you?"

"I haven't. But I'll look over here, and you search that half of the room. If it's here, we'll find it. Do you think Nan sent tarts? If so, I claim Maric's share."

"Wait a minute!" Maric protested. "I was joking! What sort of friends are you, anyway? Plotting to steal my tarts?" He laughed, and pulled open the door, but as he tried to step out of the chamber, he stumbled. "Damn. My foot caught on something." He put a hand out against one of the walls to steady himself, and bent down for a closer look. Rhianna knelt beside him as he brushed dirt out of the way to reveal a wooden panel set into the floor. It had been designed to lie flush with the surrounding floor, but hadn't been closed completely, and one corner was slightly raised.

"What in the world?" Maric used his fingers to pry up the end of the board. When it came free, and he pulled it away, his eyes grew wide at what was revealed underneath: a set of stairs spiraling down. Daylight only reached as far as the fifth step; beyond that, it was completely dark as the stairs stretched away under the tower.

"Maker's Breath," Maric exclaimed. "Where does this go, I wonder?" Loghain came up behind them to peer down into the darkness as well.

"I don't have any idea what's down there," Rhianna muttered. "I never knew there was a trapdoor here, or anything under the ground, until now."

"Oh ho!" Maric clapped his hands together. "Somewhere new to explore!"

Explore? Oh, Maker. King Maric wanted to go . . . down there? Down those steps, into that darkness?

"Do you have torches in your pack, Rhianna?" Maric asked.

"Of course, Your Majesty," Rhianna replied.

"Very good!" Maric got to his feet. "You two wait here while I get one."

As Maric hurried away to retrieve a torch from Rhianna's saddlebag, she stared down into the blackness, a hollow feeling in her stomach. They were going down into some part of the ruins she had never even known existed? Underground? Anything could be down there. Anything at all.

And it was so dark . . .

"You don't have to go down there, Rhianna," Loghain murmured, putting a warm hand on her shoulder. "I'll accompany Maric, make sure he doesn't get into any trouble, while you wait outside in the daylight. No one will think worse of you for it."

Rhianna blinked up at him, feeling embarrassed. How had he guessed she was scared of the dark? She'd tried to keep it a secret from everyone. She didn't want people to think she was a baby.

She especially didn't want Teyrn Loghain to think she was a baby. He'd said he wouldn't think worse of her, but what if that wasn't true? Not that he would lie to her, but what if she really was being a baby and he couldn't help but be disappointed?

Then again, Loghain had been the one who pulled her out of that dungeon. He was possibly the only person who genuinely understood what it had been like for her that day. He had been there, seen what that room was like. How cold and dark and horrible it had been.

Most of the time, she tried not to think about what happened that day. She just avoided places that scared her: caves, tunnels, the underground parts of Highever Castle. All places she had roamed with abandon when she was small, but made her skin crawl now. Anywhere the light couldn't penetrate. Anywhere a person could be locked away and left to die. So far, no one had noticed. Nor had they noticed that sometimes she cried out in her sleep from nightmares of darkness and dripping water.

She looked up at Loghain. He didn't smile, but there was something in the set of his mouth, the look in his eyes, something friendly and warm and strong, and she realized he was telling the truth. He wouldn't think any less of her. He really wouldn't.

She hated being scared, she hated there were things she was afraid to do, places she was afraid to go. She hated being haunted by those memories. It had been four long years. Maybe it was time to face this fear, put it behind her.

Closing her eyes, she remembered how she had felt that day: so small, so cold, so terrified and so utterly alone. And then she had heard his voice, and seen the light of his torch, and known she was safe. Because Loghain had come for her.

One thing was certain: there would never be a better time to face this fear than right now, with Loghain Mac Tir at her side.

She opened her eyes, and held his gaze. "It's all right. I can manage. I want to stop being afraid of the dark. Perhaps I can do it right now. With you beside me."


As Maric hurried away to retrieve a torch from Rhianna's saddlebag, Loghain watched the girl's reaction. She stared down into the blackness, her brow creased and a frown marring the cheerful lines of her face. She seemed embarrassed he'd guessed she didn't want to go underground, and then she had closed her eyes and taken slow, deliberate breaths, as though trying to force herself to be calm. He hadn't realized until now she was still afraid of the dark, but it was hardly surprising.

They had never learned who was responsible for locking her in the guard tower that day. After Habren had been eliminated as a suspect, Loghain carried the sketch of the button around with him, stopping in shops in the Marketplace, and on the docks, and anywhere else he went in the city. He began looking at all of the people he knew, and people he saw in town, in the marketplace or in the tavern, as potential suspects, examining the buttons on their clothing. But no button that matched had ever surfaced. It was as if that Maker-damned button was the only one of its kind in all of Thedas.

For at least a year after the incident, Loghain found himself drawn to that basement room time and time again, where he inspected every inch of the building, upstairs and down, outside in the street, and in the alley where he'd followed the rat. Once, he'd forced himself to enter the room without a torch, and closed himself up in the cell where Rhianna had been kept prisoner (although he didn't pull the door completely shut). As he sat in that profound, unrelenting darkness, he had been nervous and disoriented and slightly panicked after just a few minutes. The same darkness Rhianna suffered for hours, the darkness where she'd caught the plague that nearly killed her.

No wonder she was afraid of the dark.

Eventually, he forced himself to stop dwelling on it, resigned to the fact they would probably never solve this mystery. Instead he invented excuses to visit Highever. He rode into town on his way "somewhere else," in spite of the fact Highever wasn't on the way to anywhere else. He convinced Maric to organize visits and hunting expeditions; never a difficult task, as Maric was nearly as fond of the girl as Loghain was. On every visit, Loghain took Rhianna out to the practice field as often as possible. If he couldn't discover who had done this to her, he could at least teach her to defend herself should someone try to harm her again.

The previous day, when Bryce chastised him for training her "too hard," Loghain felt not one shred of remorse. And today, knowing she still harbored a fear of the dark, and perhaps other things as well, he was even more determined to help her become the best warrior she could possibly be, to purge herself of the helplessness she had admitted to him after her ordeal.

He meant what he said; he wouldn't think less of her if she didn't want to go down there. He didn't particularly want to go down there himself, but Maric had that excited look in his eye, and there would be no dissuading him from this little adventure. But there was no reason the girl needed to put herself through it, as well.

But then she opened her eyes, and looked directly into his. "It's all right. I can manage. I want to stop being afraid of the dark. Perhaps I can do it right now." She blinked once, and bit her bottom lip before adding, "With you beside me."

Maker's breath. A swell of pride went through him, at her courage. If she was willing to face the darkness again, she damned well wouldn't have to do it alone.

There was another feeling, as well: a small, tentative surge of pleasure.

Pleasure that she still placed so much trust in him. That she still believed he could keep her safe.

"All right," he replied. "Just stay close. We'll do this together."

When Maric returned, carrying a lit torch and leading the way down the stairs, Loghain took Rhianna's hand before they followed Maric into the darkness.

At the bottom of the stairs, an unpaved tunnel sloped gently downward. "It's heading east, I think," Rhianna whispered. They could no longer hear the waves crashing against the shore, nor the cries of gulls and ravens. It would have been completely silent if not for Maric's cheerful banter as they walked.

"I wonder who built this," he mused. "Has this been here all along, built at the same time as the keep, or did someone come along and excavate it later? Or maybe it was here first, and the keep was built above on purpose!"

Rhianna, who had earlier been so conscientious about answering the king's questions, said nothing. Maric didn't seem to notice, or care.

"It's dry down here, that's something," Maric continued. "Sometimes underground places get so uncomfortably damp. Not the Deep Roads though, eh, Loghain? Of course, I wouldn't have minded a bit of damp down there, if it would have meant fewer spiders. Or darkspawn. Especially darkspawn."

Loghain also didn't bother to respond; Maric had always been capable of chatting incessantly without much participation from his companions, and Loghain wanted to listen for sounds other than Maric's voice, to make certain they weren't walking into some unexpected danger.

"I do wonder what Nan put in that basket we brought with us." Maric sounded like a child at the holidays. "I know it's early, but I'm starting to feel a bit peckish." He chuckled. "After this, I vote we stop and have some lunch. And I also vote that all the tarts should be mine, to make up for both of you being so horrible a few minutes ago. Planning to lock me up and steal all the food. Absolutely shameless, the both of you."

For once, Rhianna failed to giggle at one of the king's jokes.

For several minutes they followed the tunnel down into the earth. All the while, Maric filled the silence with his comments, seemingly unaware of Rhianna's unease and Loghain's vigilance.

Finally, they arrived at a stone wall that appeared to be a dead end.

"Well, that's disappointing," Maric complained, lifting the torch higher to inspect the wall. "Why on earth would this tunnel be here, leading to nothing?"

This seemed to be a genuine question, rather than just idle chatter. Maric glanced at Rhianna with a curious expression on his face before continuing to examine the wall.

"Perhaps it was used for storage?" Rhianna suggested. "The temperature down here would be more constant – and cooler - than up above. Better for keeping food and wine."

"Or . . . " Maric reached up and pushed gently on a single stone sticking slightly further out than the ones surrounding it, "maybe there is something behind here after all!"

There was a "click," and then stone grated against stone as a section of the wall swung away from them, revealing another section of tunnel. Maric gave Loghain and Rhianna a triumphant smile and walked through the opening in the wall. This new section of tunnel was short, only a few feet to the other end, where a stone archway stood, encasing a wooden door. With his free hand, Maric pushed at the door, which swung open easily.

He glanced back at Rhianna and Loghain, who were still standing on the other side of the wall. "Well, what are you two waiting for? Come on!"

Rhianna's fingers tightened around Loghain's. Her face was pale in the flickering torchlight, and her breath was coming faster than usual. She stared at the opening in the wall. "If pushing on one stone opened it," she whispered, "what do you think makes it shut? And if it closes when we're on the other side, will we be able to open it again?" There was a slight tremor in her voice.

Loghain frowned. "Perhaps this isn't such a good idea, Maric."

"What? Why not? Oh, come on; there's a room just beyond here. I think there are paintings on the walls. It looks remarkably interesting!"

Just as Loghain was about to repeat his protest, he heard Rhianna's intake of breath. "We're coming," she announced, and then stepped through the opening, pulling Loghain along with her.

Beyond the wooden door, the chamber was round, about thirty feet wide and fifteen feet tall, with four columns supporting the wooden ceiling up above. A large stone fire pit dominated the center of the room, and there did not appear to be any entrance or exit other than the secret passage they'd come through. A strange odor permeated the room: charred wood and damp earth, but with another scent underneath. An animal smell, musky and acrid, like damp fur, but unlike anything Loghain had smelled before. It was unpleasant and . . . disquieting. The earthen floor was bare of carpets or tiles, and there were footprints in the dirt: shoeprints made by humans, as well as animal tracks of some kind.

Rhianna slipped her hand out of Loghain's and knelt close to the floor. "King Maric," she murmured, "will you bring the torch closer? Shine it right here?" The king complied, and she pointed to the tracks in the dirt. "These look sort of like wolf tracks." And indeed they did; the prints had four toe pads, tipped with claws, surrounding a larger, central pad. "But the shape of the big pad is wrong. It should be more triangular, with rounded edges. Not square like this. These don't look like any tracks I've ever seen before."

Rhianna blinked up at Loghain, her eyes wide and her face pale. Even Maric, who had been so cheerful just moments before, was frowning. Loghain offered her a hand to assist her in getting back to her feet, and after she stood, she kept hold of his hand as they looked around at the rest of the room.

One of the walls was decorated with drawings, stylized, but not really crude, painted in a dark substance that looked disturbingly like dried blood. It was a series of pictures appearing to tell a story. In the first scene, a man played with a puppy. The next scene showed a human and a large dog – or perhaps it was supposed to be a wolf - doing something together . . . dancing, perhaps? The wolf was standing on its hind legs, its paws held in the hands of the human. The final picture showed just a single figure standing on two legs like a human, but with the head and claws of a wolf.

"Blessed Andraste," Maric breathed. "That's a werewolf, isn't it?"

"I think so." Rhianna's voice was barely above a whisper. "This part of Ferelden is where werewolves are said to have first appeared. Maybe that's even supposed to be Hafter, or Hafter's real father." She glanced at Loghain. "Remember what Mother told us about him, when she scolded me for not knowing when Alamar had been founded?"

"That Hafter's true father was a werewolf," he answered.

"I've heard that story," Maric began. "Maybe this place – this exact place – is where the werewolves came from, originally." He sounded both nervous and excited in equal parts as he glanced around the room. "Perhaps this is some sort of shrine, or holy place dedicated to werewolves. Except I thought the werewolves were all killed. Isn't that what your ancestress did, back in the Black Age?"

"I don't know. I mean, yes. Haelia Cousland defeated them, but there have always been rumors in the Coastlands of werewolf sightings. I always assumed they were just stories to scare children into not being naughty and not going out at night. Fergus I spent a great many nights camping out in the woods, and we certainly never saw or heard any werewolves. As far as I know. But this . . . " Her voice trailed off, as she glanced at the tracks on the floor. Then, she looked back the way they had come. It wasn't difficult to guess that she was thinking of that secret opening in the wall, which looked like it could so easily swing shut again.

"Perhaps we should go." Her voice was higher-pitched than usual; she sounded younger, and scared. "There's a funny smell, and those tracks are just . . . wrong. I don't . . . I don't feel safe here."

She looked up at Loghain, a silent plea in her eyes, as if she feared Maric would balk at the suggestion and need to be convinced.

Maric, however, had apparently had enough of this place, as well. "Yes, it does smell odd in here." He held the torch aloft to light their way. "Follow me."

A few minutes later, having left the secret door open, but putting the wooden floor panel back in place, they emerged into the sunshine. Rhianna let out a breath she probably hadn't realized she'd been holding. With a final, reassuring squeeze, Loghain released her hand, and was rewarded with a grateful smile. The temperature outside was warm, pleasantly so, especially after the chill of the chamber below the tower.

"Well, that was certainly an adventure!" Maric grinned as he ground the lit end of torch against a rock, and stamped out the remaining sparks with his boot. Any unease he might have felt about their underground discovery seemed to have evaporated in the sunshine. "Werewolves. Who would have thought? I'm more interested than ever in seeing your performance tomorrow, Rhianna. I wonder if your parents know about this place. We'll have to tell them about it." As they walked back to the horses, he suggested, "Perhaps we should eat our lunch now? It's a bit early, but it's nice out in the sunlight."

Rhianna shot Loghain a panicked look. Clearly, she wanted to be away from here, and frankly, he felt the same. The animal scent in that room had been unnerving, as well as the drawings and the footprints. Almost certainly, there was no real danger, but just in case, even though Loghain and Maric both had weapons handy, there was no point in courting trouble. Better to put some distance between themselves and this place before they stopped for lunch.

"Why don't we wait a bit before eating. I still haven't worked off the generous breakfast Nan fed us," Loghain said casually. "And, as you pointed out, it is still early. It would be unpleasant to run out of food and be hungry later in the day." He'd seen the contents of the lunch basket Nan had prepared; running out of food was one thing that would almost certainly not happen, but that hardly seemed worth mentioning. "Unless you're ready to head back into Highever?"

"Return to the castle? Oh no," Maric exclaimed. "Not that there's anything wrong with the castle," he amended, with a glance at Rhianna. "But it's been a while since the three of us have had a day together; I would love to stay out and explore the countryside. If you don't mind leading a couple of idiots around for the rest of the day," he said, winking at Rhianna.

"Well . . . " She bit her lower lip and looked apologetically at Maric. "I do have rather a lot to do back at home."

"Oh, of course." Maric's smile began to fade. "You did say you had errands to run in town. And I suppose you need to prepare for tomorrow."

"Well, really, I was more interested in making progress on my needlework." Just the previous night Eleanor had complained about Rhianna's lack of interest - and skill - at needlework, and Maric's smile returned as he realized the girl was joking. Rhianna grinned. "But if you insist, I suppose we can ride a bit farther."

"Oh, that's a relief! For a moment there, I thought you were serious. Where shall we go?"

"Somewhere interesting, and perhaps not quite so . . . dark." She glanced at Loghain. "Oh, I know. There is a lovely circle of standing stones we could visit, inland from here. But first, we'll ride along the coast, to see the sea lions."

"Sea lions?" Maric asked. "I'm not sure I've ever seen a sea lion. What do you think, Loghain?"

"It doesn't matter to me where we go." An uncertain look darkened Rhianna's face, as if she worried he wasn't pleased with her suggestion. That wasn't what he'd meant when it said it didn't matter. He genuinely didn't care. He was happy with the company, and would have been glad to go anywhere she suggested. But he didn't want to risk hurting her feelings.

"We have sea lions near Gwaren," he said. "I would enjoy seeing if yours are different."

Rhianna's smile lit up her eyes. "To the sea lions, then."




Chapter Text

29 Drakonis, 9:25 Dragon
The Coastlands




Maric couldn't help but smile as he rode beside Rhianna on the road that paralleled the sea. The sun was warm on his head, and the wind ruffled his hair, keeping him from feeling uncomfortably hot. The scenery was beautiful, the ruins had been fascinating, and now they were off on yet another adventure. Best of all, he was with two of his favorite people in all the world. Today was absolutely perfect; he couldn't have pictured a more pleasant day if he had planned it himself.

He glanced at the girl riding beside him. His initial assessment of her had been correct, on that Satinalia so many years ago: Rhianna Cousland was delightful. She was funny and charming and kind, and seemed to view the world with a light heart. But what Maric loved best about her was how comfortable she was around him, not overly impressed that Maric was the King of Ferelden. She didn't fawn on him, or become shy and withdrawn. She just talked to him like she would anyone else, and had no qualms about teasing him, even laughing at him. Considering how much time he spent around people who refused to treat him with anything but formality, this was extremely refreshing.

After they'd ridden about half an hour from the ruins, Rhianna indicated they should stop and dismount. They were at the top of a cliff, and stretching out below was a cove whose sliver of sandy beach was littered with rocks. To the west, a promontory extended several hundred feet out into the water, creating a crescent-shaped bay.

"We have to hike a little way," Rhianna explained as she led them to a rough dirt path that switched back and forth down the side of the cliff. She looked back over her shoulder to make certain Loghain and Maric were following. "It will be worth it, though. I promise."

The path was narrow and rocky, forcing Maric to pay close attention to his footing, but he did stop occasionally to look at the scenery. The view from up here was gorgeous; the sea was turquoise close to the shore, and the color of sapphires farther out. Sunlight sparkled on the water, and the sky was a clear, rich blue, with huge, puffy white clouds floating serenely by. The white sand of the beach seemed to glitter as the waves kissed the shore.

As lovely as it was, something seemed to be missing. "I'm not entirely sure what they look like," he called out to Rhianna, "but I don't think I see any sea lions down on the beach. Or in the water." If they were meant to be here, why hadn't he spotted one yet?

"That's because they're on the other side of the bluff," Rhianna called back.

"Then how are we going to see them from this side?" Maric asked.

"We can't see them from this side."

"Oh. Then what are we doing on this side?"

"That's why we're walking, King Maric. To get to where we can see them," Rhianna giggled. "You're like a small child, wondering when we're going to get there. It's not far, I promise."

About halfway down the hill, Rhianna led them off the main path, onto something little more than a rocky seam jutting out from the cliff face. Placing her feet carefully, Rhianna led them to an outcropping of huge boulders, and proceeded to scale a particularly large one. There didn't seem to be anywhere else for her to go, however. The path they'd been on - if you could even call it a path - had ended, and the cliff face further along was far too steep to climb.

Maric stopped, forcing Loghain to stop behind him. When the girl realized they weren't following, she looked down at them.

"What are you waiting for? Come on!"

"Where, exactly, are we going, Rhianna?" Maric asked.

"You'll see! Just . . . trust me. We're very nearly there."

Maric glanced at Loghain.

"You heard what she said." Loghain gestured for Maric to keep moving. "We're very nearly there."

With a sigh, Maric pulled himself up onto the top of the boulder, with Loghain close behind. He still didn't see anywhere to go.

Then, without a word of warning, Rhianna lowered herself through a crevice between some rocks, and disappeared from view.

What? Where had she gone?

When Maric hesitated, Loghain made an impatient noise, then moved around to follow Rhianna through the opening in the rocks, leaving Maric standing all alone atop the boulder, feeling a bit foolish. He peered through the crevice into which his two friends had disappeared; it wasn't entirely dark inside, and he could hear noises. The soft whisper of surf against rocks, and something that sounded like dogs barking. So, he eased himself over the edge, and hopped down into the hole.

As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, and he took in the view from where he stood, he was delighted by what he saw.

Rhianna had led them inside a vast sea cave whose walls, tinged green from algae, stretched up more than a hundred feet. From where they stood, about forty feet up from the bottom, the cave was open to the Waking Sea on the north side, letting in both light and water to create a small lagoon inside. The air smelt of kelp and salt water, and frothy green waves lapped against the huge rocks that ringed the water, dark black rocks streaked white with bird guano. Guillemots flitted back and forth, comical black birds with white patches on their wings and bright red legs and feet. Their high-pitched cries echoed in the cavernous space, along with the barking Maric had heard from up above.

He soon discovered the source of the barking: reddish brown animals lounging on the rocks, or playing in the shallow water near the mouth of the cave. Rhianna's sea lions, several dozen of them. They looked quite like seals, with flippers and cigar-shaped bodies, only they had longer snouts and small ear flaps on the sides of their heads. And they were bigger, much bigger than any seal Maric had ever seen, some much bigger, even, than a grown man. Maric laughed to see one of the creatures haul itself up onto a rock, then push another back into the water.

"This is magnificent!" Maric exclaimed. "I've never seen anything like it before. So these are sea lions? I had no idea they would be so big. Do we have sea lions near Denerim?"

"I don't know," Rhianna admitted. "I've never been to the coast near the city. Just to the docks, and I've never seen any there."

She turned to Loghain. "What do you think about the cave, Teyrn Loghain? And the sea lions? Do you like them?" Rhianna's tone was hopeful, and Maric got the feeling she was rather more interested in Loghain's opinion of this adventure than she had been in his own.

Loghain turned to the girl, unsmiling. Rhianna's own smile began to falter until Loghain reached up and put a hand on her shoulder. "It's beautiful here." He turned from her, moving close to the edge of the rocks so he could look out over the lagoon. "I think these are different than the sea lions in Gwaren. Ours are a bit smaller, and darker brown with longer fur. He clasped his hands behind his back. "I expect not many people know this is here. Thank you for bringing us, Rhianna. It was well worth the hike down the cliff."

Loghain had his back to the girl, and couldn't see the way Rhianna's cheeks turned faintly pink, how her smile grew brighter and her face seemed to glow at his praise.

Those two really did get on well together. Loghain had nothing but good things to say about the girl, and he'd put a lot of effort into helping her train at arms. Of course, it was hardly surprising Loghain would enjoy Rhianna's company. She was bright and charming. It was difficult to believe she would have trouble getting along with anyone.

The surprising part was Rhianna seemed equally fond of Loghain. Loghain. Maric nearly chuckled aloud at the thought of Loghain Mac Tir and the ever-cheerful Rhianna Cousland being friends. Not that Loghain was nearly as gruff as most people thought him to be. Maric wouldn't have been best friends with the man for more than half his life if Loghain lived up to that part of his reputation. It's just Loghain didn't always have a lot to say, and didn't tolerate stupidity, or groveling, or anything in the least bit Orlesian. And he harbored far too much misplaced guilt for things that happened during the Rebellion, and later, with his wife. But he was a good man, the best man Maric had ever known. Insightful and witty, loyal, and compassionate. A true friend. Possibly the only person in all the world Maric genuinely trusted.

There had been a time when Maric feared the friendship they'd forged during the Rebellion had been destroyed beyond repair. For a few dreadful years, right after the Occupation ended, Loghain had made himself scarce, only visiting Denerim when absolutely necessary. Maric understood the reasons for it, good reasons perhaps, but that hadn't kept Maric from missing him terribly. So after Rowan's death, and the death of Loghain's infant daughter, Maric had encouraged Loghain to stay in Denerim. Maybe that had been selfish. Well, certainly it had been selfish, but Maric had needed Loghain, had needed his presence and his friendship. Had even needed his anger and his sarcasm. Had needed him to handle the responsibilities Maric couldn't quite bring himself to handle. And Loghain hadn't argued; he'd seemed content to stay.

Maric tried to be a good friend; he was a good friend, surely, but he suspected Loghain was lonely in Denerim, even with such an enthusiastic best friend as Maric. No surprise. Maric was often lonely in Denerim, himself, and would have been miserably alone if not for Loghain Mac Tir.

And then Rhianna Cousland had swept into their lives, like the warm touch of the sun in spring after a dark, cold winter. With laughter and smiles and jokes and a sense of adventure. Maric considered her his friend, and it made him happy to think Loghain had found a friend in her, as well.

Now, with a grin and a wave, she scampered down the rocks down to the waterline, greeted by enthusiastic barking from several of the sea lions. A small sea lion - perhaps little more than a pup - pulled itself awkwardly onto the ledge where the girl sat, and rolled over to have its belly rubbed. Maric found a rock where he could sit comfortably, and Loghain did the same, and for the next several minutes they sat together, watching Rhianna play with the sea lions.

"I never knew there were caves like this, right next to the water. Do you think there's anything like this near Denerim?"

"Not that I'm aware of," Loghain replied. "But I've not done a lot of exploring near the city."

"I think we should plan an excursion to do just that. Go looking for caves, and sea lions, near Denerim, next time Rhianna is in town. We can do that, can't we?"

"You're the king, Maric. In theory that means you get to do whatever you want. I have no doubt an excursion to find sea lions is within the realm of possibility."

"Good point." Maric leaned back and stretched his legs out in front of him. "I think I'll try and convince Bryce to bring the family to Denerim for Summerday. That's just a month and a half away. And then the three of us - you, and I, and Rhianna - can look for sea lions along the coast." Yes, that was a very good idea.

Maric's stomach growled. Hmnh. He was still hungry. Quite a bit hungrier than before, probably because they still hadn't eaten lunch. He'd asked about it earlier, but somehow it had been forgotten in the excitement of finding that cavern underneath the ruins. Time to bring up the subject again.

"Rhianna," he called down to her. "I wonder if it's getting late enough we could justify opening up the basket and having something to eat?"

"Of course!" Rhianna laughed, and climbed back up to where Loghain and Maric were sitting. "If you're done looking at the sea lions, we can go back and have lunch now."

When they'd made their way back to the top of the cliff, Rhianna laid down a blanket near the edge, and spread out the food Nan had prepared - a feast that was, literally, fit for a king. The salty air was brisk and refreshing, and kept them from feeling too hot in the sun. Chatting amiably, they enjoyed the food, and looked out over the Waking Sea, and watched the gulls and fulmar and kittiwakes play in the winds that battered the cliffs.

After lunch, they rode due south, away from the coast to the standing stones Rhianna had mentioned. It was a relatively small henge, just thirteen stones, in a ring of about forty feet in diameter. The largest of the stones was not quite twice as tall as Loghain, and a few of them had toppled over, lying on the ground like fallen giants. Jackdaws hopped on the grass, and sheep grazed in the fields nearby. Maric searched around on the ground near each of the stones, but failed to locate another secret passage of any sort.

It was a pretty spot, but after walking around the henge for a few minutes, there really wasn't anything else to do. And here inland, away from the breeze coming off of the sea, it was uncomfortably warm in the sun.

"Perhaps we should try and find somewhere a bit cooler to spend the rest of the afternoon?" Maric suggested.

"I know somewhere we could go, about a hour's ride from here," Rhianna replied. "It's one of my favorite places in all the world, up in the hills. You did mention swimming earlier, King Maric, and it's a really lovely place to swim, if you're still in the mood. It is in the opposite direction from the castle, though, which means we're not likely to get home until dark."

In the heat of the sun, Maric felt damp and sweaty. "Swimming sounds wonderful. And we're in no hurry, are we, Loghain?"

"Not at all."

"Fabulous! Lead on, then, Rhianna. You haven't led us astray yet, so I trust wherever you take us will be as lovely as everything else we've seen today."

They rode southwest, and further inland toward the foothills. Soon, they were climbing in elevation as they left the open plains of the Coastlands and started up a road into the mountains that would have eventually taken them to West Hill, if they stayed on it long enough.

They'd only ridden a short way up the mountain, though, when Rhianna pulled into a shaded clearing, and slid off of her mount. "We'll need to go on foot from here, but don't worry. It's not a terribly long hike."

Maric and Loghain followed her on what was at first a narrow path, and then a maze rocks and trees and the occasional grassy meadow. Eventually, she led them up a steep hill that had to be climbed, rather than hiked. Loghain struggled a bit, carrying the food basket, but they soon reached the top, and found themselves in one of the most beautiful places Maric had ever seen.

They stood in a grassy meadow dotted with wildflowers and surrounded by tall trees: stately oaks, graceful willows, brushy hemlock, and an occasional pine that stretched above all the rest, casting it's long shadow on everything below. Nearby, a tumble of rocks formed a natural dam, creating a dark pool of water about a hundred feet wide, and twice again as long. A family of wood ducks swam amidst the reeds that grew tall along one side, and flowering lilies - pink and white and yellow - floated in the shallows. At the far end, a twenty-foot foot waterfall plunged into the pool from the rocks above.

As they walked though grass dappled by sunlight that filtered through the trees, Rhianna looked back at her companions. "Well? What do you think?"

"This is amazing, Rhianna," Maric said sincerely. "It's absolutely beautiful. And you said something about swimming?"

"Oh yes. Fergus and I have swum here dozens of times. The water will be cold, especially this time of year, but if you don't mind that, it's perfect."

"I'm not afraid of a little cold water. How about you, Loghain? Do you fancy a swim?" Maric expected Loghain to say no; the man often declined to participate in activities designed purely for pleasure.

But to Maric's surprise, Loghain nodded. "I'll swim."

After abandoning the lunch basket on the grass, the three of them began pulling off their boots and unnecessary clothing. Before the two men had barely started undressing, Rhianna had climbed out of everything but her smalls and her linen shirt. "Watch this!" she cried, running along the edge of the pool, and then out of sight behind a large boulder. A few moments later, she reappeared at the top of the waterfall. "Teyrn Loghain! King Maric!" she called out, waving with one arm. "Look at me! Here I come!"

She leapt off the top of the waterfall, making a large splash into the deep water below. When she surfaced, she swam back across the pond and climbed out of the water near where the two men stood. "Maker's Breath," she exclaimed, "but the water is cold! You'll have to jump in. If you try and get in slowly, you'll never manage!"

With that, she turned and ran to jump off the waterfall again. Maric glanced at Loghain. "Here goes nothing," he shrugged, before taking a running start and leaping into the pond.

The chill of the water forced the breath from his lungs, but after the initial shock, it felt wonderful. Maric surfaced, sputtering from the cold, and tread water while Loghain walked to the edge and peered into the lake. Apparently satisfied it was deep enough, the dark-haired man dove into the pond.

Rhianna tried to convince them to jump off the waterfall with her, but both men declined. Maric thought it seemed a bad idea, considering he was only wearing his smallclothes. If they were to come off during some sort of waterfall jump, Loghain would tease him about it for the rest of their lives.

Instead, Maric and Rhianna amused themselves by diving down and looking at the plants and fish near the bottom of the pond, and at least once, startling a turtle into diving for cover. Loghain swam laps up and down the length of the pool.

Every so often Rhianna would run up the side of the hill to jump or dive off the waterfall. Once when she was at the top, Maric noticed a dark shadow on her leg. Curious, he looked more closely the next time she left the water. It was a bruise, and a rather ugly-looking one. Black and purple, vaguely rectangular, about the width of the wooden practice sword.

Maker's breath. Loghain had hit the girl hard when they'd sparred the previous day. She hadn't complained nor seemed angry about it though, not even a little bit resentful.

Maric's own reaction at that age would have been far different. He frowned at the memory of what he had been like when he was twelve. By that time, the Orlesians had occupied Ferelden for more than sixty years, forcing Maric and his mother, Moira, the Rebel Queen, to move continually in order to stay one step ahead of the chevaliers. Maric had a duty to learn all the things that would help him be king someday, assuming they could retake the throne from the Usurper. So he trained with a sword from the time he could lift one, and learned to read and write in Fereldan and Orlesian, and studied history and diplomacy. His mother even taught him to dance, which seemed silly, considering they lived in make-shift camps and rarely had reason to celebrate.

As a child, he really had wanted to do things well, wanted to do his best, but most of the time his best seemed not to be very good. Especially when it came to fighting. So he shirked at his training, and focused on playing pranks instead. It was easier not to try too hard, not to care too much, when no matter what he did he'd only end up failing at the things other people cared about the most. It was easier to brush away their disappointment if he could tell himself he wasn't really as useless as everyone thought; it was just that he hadn't made his best effort.

Besides, it hadn't seemed to matter. His mother was the important one, the one who would rule. The one whose presence inspired such loyalty that people pledged their lives to her. Maric believed he would never be anything like her, even though his mother promised someday he would grow into the sort of man who could be a good king.

"I believe in you," she had told him, over and over again. And he knew she meant it. He just never believed he was worthy of the faith she had in him.

And then, not long after his eighteenth birthday, his mother had been murdered in front of him, betrayed by Fereldan nobles who decided to throw in their lot with Orlais. He'd watched her die, helpless in spite of all those years' worth of lessons, and been thrust into a new life he hadn't known how to face.

At Rhianna's age, he had complained about the lessons. If someone had hit him with a practice sword hard enough to leave a bruise, he would have whined about it for days. He had believed his mother invincible, strong enough to defeat anything that threatened them. So when the time had come to use the skills he was supposed to have learned, he'd been too surprised and scared to do anything. He had not understood how important it was for him to be able to defend himself, or someone he loved.

By the time he learned that lesson, it was too late for his mother. Very nearly too late, period.

Loghain, too, had watched his own mother murdered in front of him, violently, unable to stop it from happening. No doubt, the memory of that day contributed to the man's persistence in teaching Rhianna to wield a sword.

Shivering, and not just from the cold, Maric watched Rhianna fling herself gleefully off of the rocks, plunging into the water below.

Maker forbid Rhianna Cousland would suffer something similar, that she would be forced to watch someone she loved die, or be required to defend herself from harm. As Bryce had said, the Occupation was over. But Loghain was right. This world was not always a safe place, and teaching the girl to fight properly could only be a good thing.

A few minutes later, Rhianna swam over, and not long after that, Loghain joined them in the shallow part of the pond, where they could stand and talk without treading water, and Maric forced himself to push aside all uncomfortable thoughts, and focus on enjoying the rest of this lovely day.

Maric submerged his head, and when he came back up and shook his hair, water sprayed across Loghain and Rhianna.

"Was that really necessary?" Loghain raised a brow.

"Oh, I am sorry," Maric drawled. "I didn't mean to dampen you."

Rhianna giggled, and Maric turned to her. "I don't think Loghain likes being splashed," he whispered loudly. "So, whatever you do, don't splash him!"

"Oh, King Maric," she whispered back, equally loud, "you should never have told me that. Don't you know I'm unable to stop myself when someone tells me I'm not to do something? Just ask my Nan! I'm very naughty like that. I might have to splash the teyrn, now you've told me not to."

Loghain pursed his lips, as if considering how to respond, but before he could speak, Maric replied melodramatically, "I beg of you, dear lady. Reconsider this course of action! If you splash him, he is liable to get extremely grumpy and I fear you might suffer dread consequences. As might I. It could get very nasty."

Rhianna giggled. "It's too late! I don't think I can stop myself!" Pushing one hand across the surface of the water, she sent a wave of droplets directly at Loghain.

Loghain stared at Rhianna as tiny rivulets of water ran down his face.

"Oh, Maker's breath, Rhianna!" Maric cried. "What have you done? Don't you know who he is? The infamous Teyrn of Gwaren, the dread Hero of River Dane. The man whose icy stare has killed dozens of grown men! Whatever you do, you mustn't splash him again!" Then, he winked at her.

With an impish grin, she sent another wave of water cascading towards Loghain.

This time, after wiping one of his hands across his face, he spoke. "You do realize, my girl, you will suffer the consequences for this?" He glared at her, and Rhianna's jaw went slack, her mouth falling open as she stared back at Loghain.

He continued to glower, as her eyes grew progressively wider. Probably wondering if she had made him genuinely angry.

Had she made him angry? Loghain's stare was . . . formidable.

Finally, Loghain broke the silence. "What are you staring at, girl? If I were you, I'd start swimming away. Fast."

With that, he leapt into action, making a lunge for her she only barely managed to dodge. Flailing in the water, she swam toward the waterfall. About halfway across the pond, she turned to see if Loghain was following, but he had disappeared beneath the surface. Rhianna tread water, looking frantically to see where he had gone. Suddenly, she disappeared, pulled below the surface by Loghain, no doubt.

For a moment, all was quiet and still. It was almost as if Maric were the only person left in all the world.

Then, Rhianna's head broke the surface, and she gasped for breath. Loghain emerged with a splash directly in front of her. She shrieked in surprise, and swam for the edge of the pool, but before she could get all the way out of the water, Loghain grabbed her by the waist, and tossed her backwards – as if she were no more than a rag doll – to splash down in the pool.

When she resurfaced, Rhianna laughed merrily. "That was fantastic, Teyrn Loghain!" She swam toward him, back into shallow water. "Do it again!"

Loghain laughed, and complied with the girl's request.

Maker's breath. Was Loghain . . . playing? Actually playing with Rhianna? Maric couldn't remember seeing Loghain quite like this ever before. Not . . . ever. The two of them chased one another for several minutes, then Rhianna swam near Maric and quite deliberately splashed him in the face, necessitating a swift and brutal retaliation of his own . . .

A while later, exhausted and waterlogged but laughing, the three companions climbed out of the water. Maric and Loghain both got back into their trousers as Rhianna fell backwards onto the grass. She stretched her long, coltish legs, reaching her arms up over her head, and then sat up, running to fetch the lunch basket from where it had been abandoned near the edge of the trees. Loghain slipped on his shirt, not bothering to do up the laces, while Maric decided to remain shirtless. The sun felt delicious on his skin.

"I'm hungry after all that swimming," Rhianna announced. "Is anyone else in the mood for a snack?" She laid out the blanket, and pulled the leftovers from their lunch. Before grabbing anything to eat, however, Rhianna turned her back to the two men and pulled off the linen shirt she'd worn in the water. She wrung out as much water as possible, then slipped it back over her head. Only then did she pick up a pasty, taking a huge bite.

by Epsifawnshawn

After settling himself on the blanket, Maric took a swig from the flask of wine. "I have a question, Rhianna. When are you going to tell us the truth about earlier today?"

Rhianna's brow wrinkled. "The truth, Your Majesty? I'm not sure what you mean."

"Well, you said you had 'things to do around town,' and yet somehow you were free to spend the entire day showing Loghain and I around the countryside." He gave her a penetrating look. "Why did you really decide not to go out on the boat? I know you like boating."

"Oh," she replied, looking sheepish. "That." She chuckled, nervously. "Yes, I love boating. But . . . um . . . I didn't want to spend that many hours with Habren Bryland. She's horrid. You might not have noticed if you haven't spent a lot of time with her, but she is. Horrid, I mean."

Maric laughed. "I see. And that's the only reason you decided not to go out on the boat? It had nothing to do with the fact you wanted to spend the day with me? And Loghain, of course. But mostly me."

Rhianna giggled, but her nose wrinkled a bit as if she were embarrassed. "You know I like going on adventures with you, King Maric. And with Teyrn Loghain," she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "And if it weren't for Habren, I would have tried to convince you both to come sailing, so we would have spent the day together regardless."

"Good answer," Maric replied. "Still, even without the two of us, I would have thought spending the day in the company of other members of that party . . . Nathaniel Howe, for instance . . . might have made it worthwhile."

"Nathaniel Howe? Why does everyone keep talking to me about Nathaniel Howe?"

"Everyone? Who else was talking to you about Nathaniel?" Maric asked.

"Oriana. This morning. She said Nathaniel would be disappointed if I didn't go on the boat trip. So why are you asking me about him?"

"I'm just being nosy. I saw the two of you talking this morning, and it looked as though you were enjoying the conversation, that's all."

She crossed her arms in front of her chest. "You probably think I should marry him, don't you? That's what Oriana seems to think, and I know Arl Howe wants me to marry one of his sons. There's no way I would ever marry Thomas. He's almost as horrid as Habren. I suppose Nathaniel's all right, but even so I don't want to marry him."

"I don't necessarily think you should marry Nathaniel Howe," Maric said carefully.

"Good." Rhianna replied, allowing her arms to relax.

"I suppose," Maric mused, "Bann Valdric's announcement last night is what put the idea of marriages into people's heads."

"I suppose. I don't really like thinking about it, though," Rhianna admitted.

"Why not? You want to get married some day, don't you?"

"Well, yes . . ." Her voice was somewhat more subdued than usual, and her eyes flitted across Loghain's face again before she continued. "But the idea scares me, too. I don't think Alysanne is happy about having to marry Bann Krole. I wouldn't be." She shrugged. "I know my parents wish I was the one betrothed to Cailan, so I could be queen someday. Not that I want to be queen. And I can't imagine being married to Cailan, either. He's nice enough, but sometimes he says things that aren't very smart . . ."

Her eyes grew wide, and she looked at Maric with a horrified expression. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty. I didn't mean anything bad. He is your son, after all, and he's always been very sweet to me."

"It's all right Rhianna," Maric reassured. "I know you didn't mean anything bad. To be honest, Cailan does have a habit of saying things that aren't very smart. Takes after his father that way." Rhianna smiled gratefully, and Maric continued, "So, if you don't want to be queen, what do you want?"

She chewed on her bottom lip, and glanced at Loghain. "Well, I'd like to be a . . . teyrna, actually. I'd be a quite good teyrna, I think. I had hoped I might inherit Highever someday, but now Fergus and Oriana have a baby, that probably won't happen."

"You thought you might inherit the teyrnir?" Loghain asked.

"Oh yes. I love Highever, and for a while Fergus didn't want to be teyrn. He wanted to travel, be a merchant or something. Go to the Free Marches and make his own way in the world, instead of being important just for being born a Cousland. But I think he changed his mind when he got married. And he'll be a good teyrn, it's just . . ." She sighed, but didn't finish her sentence.

"It's just what?" Maric urged.

"It's just . . . if I'd inherited the teyrnir, it wouldn't have mattered who I married. But now . . ." she wrinkled her nose, "I'm afraid my parents will choose someone for me. A 'good match.' Politically, I mean. Mother and Father always promised I wouldn't have to marry someone I don't like, but that's not the same as being able to marry the person I want to marry, is it? And what if they choose someone from somewhere else? Somewhere outside Ferelden? Like what happened to Oriana. She's from Antiva, originally, except I think she was happy to come here and marry Fergus. But it scares me to think I might have to leave Ferelden."

Again, she glanced at Loghain, and she inhaled as though she intended to say something else. But instead of speaking, she pressed her lips together and sat back on her heels, looking rather uncomfortable.

Something was going on in her head. Something that was making Maric very curious. "What are you thinking about, Rhianna?"


"I don't believe you. You are thinking about something." He paused. "Come on, you can tell us. It's just Loghain and I. You can tell us anything, you know that."

"I was . . . I just . . . well, I was just thinking there is one person in Ferelden who would be a good match for me." She caught Loghain's gaze, looking up at him uncertainly. "I mean you, Teyrn Loghain. It would be a good match for both of us." She looked down at her hands. "If we were to get married, neither of us would be marrying beneath our station. And an alliance between the two teyrnirs would be good for Ferelden, wouldn't it?"

Maric's eyebrows shot up. Maker's breath. This conversation had just taken an unexpected – and decidedly interesting – turn.

Rhianna and Loghain?

It was obvious they genuinely enjoyed one another's company, but the idea of a union between the two of them was something Maric had never before considered. She was young, much younger than Loghain, but a few years from now that would hardly matter.

Maric glanced at Loghain. The man's brow was furrowed, and his expression looked frozen in place, almost as though he'd stopped breathing. But what was he thinking? Was it discomfort? Or embarrassment? Perhaps just surprise? Perhaps he even liked the idea.

Rhianna and Loghain. This might well be an avenue worth pursuing.

"I suppose an alliance between Highever and Gwaren would make Ferelden stronger," Maric replied. Then, he pretended to glower. "But I want to know what you're talking about, 'the only person in Ferelden.' What about me? I'd be a good match for you. I'm the king. I'd be a good match for anyone!"

Rhianna blinked up at him, looking shocked. "Your Majesty! What are you on about? I can't possibly marry you!"

"Why not?" Maric chuckled, but a moment later felt an unexpected stab of jealousy. Why wouldn't Rhianna want to marry him? Everyone else seemed to like him. Rhianna had always seemed to like him. Certainly, he was far more likeable than Loghain, with his scowls and his cold stare and the way he hardly ever smiled. And Maric was the king. Why would she protest so strongly against the idea?

"I told you, I don't want to be queen. I don't know anything about being a queen. But I know all about being a teyrna. My mother's a quite good teyrna, and I would be, too. I know I would."

Ah, perhaps this wasn't about Loghain after all. Perhaps Rhianna was just being pragmatic.

Well, there was one way he could find out . . .

"You know," Maric said with a calculatedly casual tone, "If you're serious about this, you could always ask Loghain to marry you. Again, I mean."

"Maric." Loghain's voice was dark, accompanied by a threatening glare Maric hadn't seen in a great many years.

"What?" Rhianna asked, a crease forming across her forehead. "W-what do you mean, 'again?'"

Maric glanced again at Loghain, whose scowl had deepened. Well, Maker damn the man and his threatening looks. This was far too interesting a topic to be dropped. "Don't you remember, Rhianna? When you were five, you asked Loghain to marry you."

"No I didn't!" Her breathing sped up. "Did I?" she added in a small voice.

"Oh ho," Maric laughed heartily, "you most certainly did. Loghain bandaged your arm and told you a story, and you said that in all the tales you knew about the Rebellion, Loghain was the 'handsomest' of all the companions. And someday you'd have to marry someone 'very special' and you didn't know anyone 'specialler' than Loghain. Sadly," Maric frowned, "he had to decline your offer. Celia was still alive then. But perhaps if you were to ask him again now, he might have a different answer!" With a wink at the girl, Maric sat back, feeling quite pleased with himself.

Rhianna's face grew pale, and she swallowed once, glancing at Loghain, and then back to Maric, looking horrified. Then a fierce blush burst across her cheeks, and she buried her face in her hands. Sitting beside her, Loghain looked like he wanted to strangle someone. The someone being Maric, no doubt.

Rhianna sprang to her feet. "I need to . . . go . . . o-over there," she said vaguely, pointing to the other side of the meadow. Before Maric or Loghain could respond, she sprinted across the meadow toward the waterfall.

When she was out of earshot, Loghain sat forward so quickly Maric flinched, fearing the other man intended to strike him. "Why on earth would you say that to the girl?" he raged. "Embarrassing her that way was nothing short of cruel!"

Maric held his ground. "What? It's true, isn't it? She asked you to marry her. And I thought perhaps, if she did it again, this time you would say yes. Apparently she's feeling a bit shy this afternoon. But I think you should."

"Should? Should what?"

"Are you a complete idiot?" Maric blinked at Loghain. "Speak to Bryce, of course. Make an arrangement with him to marry Rhianna when she comes of age."

"Marry Rhianna? Have you gone mad?" Loghain hissed. "You can't possibly suggest I marry Rhianna Cousland."

"I course I haven't gone mad. And yes, I do think you should marry her. Don't tell me you haven't considered it."

"No, I haven't considered it! Maric, what is wrong with you? She's only twelve years old. I can't . . . think about her like that."

"Why not? I know she's only twelve, but she won't be that age forever. I'm not suggesting you marry her tomorrow, and it's hardly unusual for these things to be decided well in advance. Like Bann Krole and the Valdric girl. You're younger than he is. And just look at her. Rhianna is utterly charming, determined, very smart. She knows how to manage things, how to talk to people. Like she said, she'll be an excellent teyrna. And she's going be a beauty. Don't pretend you haven't noticed that, either. So you ought to speak to Bryce now, before he makes an arrangement with someone else."

"I'm not interested in marrying her," Loghain insisted. "Or in marrying anyone else. My first attempt wasn't particularly . . . successful. So just let it drop, all right?"

"No, Loghain, I'm not going to let it drop. Just because you and Celia . . . just because your marriage wasn't all it could have been, doesn't mean you have to spend the rest of your life alone." Maric reached over and put his hand on Loghain's arm. "You don't deserve this life of isolation you've forced upon yourself, Mac Tir."

"Isolation?" Loghain snorted, pulling his arm away from Maric's hand. "I'm hardly isolated. When am I ever alone? Between nobles and soldiers and . . . well, I see you every day, don't I?"

"That's not what I mean, and you know it."

"Just what makes you think she would have any interest in marrying me?" Loghain growled. "In case you didn't notice, when you brought up the 'proposal' she made when she was five, she looked horrified and ran away."

"How thick are you, Mac Tir? She didn't run away out of horror. It was her idea in the first place, remember? 'There is one person in Ferelden who would be a really good match for me,'" he mimicked. "She ran away because she was blushing. She's embarrassed at the thought of you knowing she likes you."

Loghain let out a long breath. "I'll grant she might have developed some sort of . . . attachment. But there's a difference between what a girl feels when she's twelve, and how she'll feel in a few years, when she starts noticing boys her own age. It's obvious to me what this is about. She's afraid she'll have to marry someone foreign and leave Ferelden," Loghain insisted. "There are other reasonable prospects here, but unless her parents are willing for her to marry beneath her station, I really am the only option."

"No, you're not," Maric argued. "I am the king, after all. But clearly, she doesn't want to marry me, which tells me her interest must have little to do with politics, and everything to do with you. She likes you, Loghain!" He snorted. "Far better than she likes me, apparently."

"Of course she likes me better," Loghain replied. "Who wouldn't? You are an arse."

"That's more like it!" Maric laughed. "Although I hardly deserve your name calling, just for stating the obvious."

"There is nothing obvious about any of this." Loghain ran a hand across his face. "Maric, look. I realize this must seem like a grand idea to you, in that way you have of latching on to 'grand ideas' that usually aren't, but I am not going to marry Rhianna Cousland."

"Why not? Why are you so adamantly against this? Can't you see it would be good for both of you?"

"I've said I'm not interested, Maric. I don't want to discuss it any further."

"Maker's balls. If you're truly not interested in marrying her . . . well, you're a damned fool." Maric sat back, crossing his arms in front of him. "Something I am not. Maybe I'll speak to Bryce."

"Don't you dare!" Loghain's eyes flashed. "Don't you dare speak to him on my behalf."

"What makes you think it would be on your behalf? Maybe I'll marry her myself. I've been a bachelor longer than you have, and I'm far less disagreeable and bad-tempered."

It was a bluff, of course. Maric was in no position to marry again, not when he might be called away at any time. Called away to fulfill a promise he'd made years ago. Not that Loghain knew anything about it. That was part of the promise: that Maric never speak of it to anyone, not another living soul. Which he hadn't, no matter how many times it had burned inside of him. No matter how many times he'd wanted nothing more than to confess it to Loghain, to confess how much it horrified him. How much it scared him. How much he dreaded it. So, no. Maric would not marry Rhianna, nor anyone else.

Loghain, however, must have believed the bluff. The look in his eyes caused a flutter of fear in Maric's stomach.

"Yes, Maric," Loghain snarled. "If you think she's so lovely, by all means, marry her yourself."

"Damn it, Loghain!" Maric slammed a fist on the ground. "I'm not going to marry the girl myself, you idiot. I should. She's going to be an absolutely lovely woman. She reminds me more than a bit of Rowan, come to think of it. But I'm not the one Rhianna wants to marry. Besides," he added with a crooked smile. "I recently received a marriage proposal from someone else."

"A proposal?" Loghain frowned. "From whom?"

"From Empress Celene. Well," he amended, "it wasn't an actual proposal, not yet, but she wanted to open up a dialogue along those lines." Loghain glowered, obviously preparing to launch into a tirade, but Maric cut him off. "Before that vein in your forehead pops, don't worry. I am well aware any union between Celene and myself would effectively give Ferelden back to Orlais, without all the pesky bloodshed. I've already written back, making it clear I am not interested."

"Well, that's good to hear. I would have hated having to kill you to prevent you from destroying Ferelden," the teyrn said wryly.

Maric chuckled, well aware that his friend was only mostly joking. "No worries, Loghain. I have no intention of marrying the Orlesian empress. Nor," he added, unwilling to let the previous subject drop, "do I have any intention of talking to Bryce Cousland. I want Rhianna to be happy, and I'm not the one who could give her that."

Loghain rubbed at one of his temples. "If you think I have a chance of making her – of making anyone – happy, you're being . . . ridiculous."

"You're wrong about that." Maric caught Loghain's eye. "It's not as though you've never made a woman happy before. And I'm not talking just about Celia."

"Don't." Loghain put one hand up in protest. "Don't bring her into this. I mean it, Maric." Something in Loghain's voice, a dark, dangerous note, told Maric this time he really had pushed too far.

Maric held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "All right. But I am serious about the girl. You and Rhianna genuinely like one another. And other than myself, she's the best friend you have. Judging by how often you make excuses to come see her," Maric added wryly.

Loghain's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps. But I'm nearly as old as her father, and, as you've so helpfully pointed out, I'm disagreeable and bad-tempered. What sort of husband would I be for a cheerful young woman like Rhianna?"

Maric leaned close, grasping Loghain's arm so tightly the other man couldn't pull away. "The sort of husband who would care for her, Mac Tir. Who would laugh with her. Who would spend long days riding in the country with her. The sort of husband who would be there when she needed you, who would be strong for her when she was scared. You care about her, Loghain," Maric insisted. "Don't try and pretend you don't. I remember how you tended her when she had the plague. And I saw you holding her hand earlier today."

"I never said I didn't care about her." Loghain sounded harried. "Of course I care, and I enjoy her company. But that's not the same as wanting to marry her. For her sake, damn it, as well as my own. Besides, the reason I held her hand is because you led us on a merry chase into that underground lair. You do recall a few years ago she was locked in a dungeon for an entire day? She's afraid of the dark, Maric, with good reason. Of course I held her hand."

"I remember. And that's exactly what I'm talking about. You're good to her, kind to her. You always have been. But there's more to it than that. You're different when she's around. You smile. You laugh. Far more often than you laugh when you're with me. Perhaps I'm just an unpleasant companion; well I'm certain I'm an unpleasant companion; I'm a complete idiot and a right bastard." This got a snort of laughter from Loghain. "But nevertheless it's clear to me you and Rhianna have . . . a connection. She understands you in ways I don't, even after all these years. And you understand her.

"Besides," he added, playing his last trump, "do you really want to think of her married to someone else? One of the Howe boys, or Timothy Wulff? Vaughan Kendalls, perhaps? Or someone from Antiva?" He paused. "Or Orlais?" Loghain flinched, and Maric paused to give the man time to fully consider that possibility.

Finally, Maric continued, "Because that's what's going to happen if you don't pull your head out of your arse and speak with Bryce. You should marry her."

"And you should mind your own damned business," Loghain replied, looking out across the meadow, not meeting Maric's gaze.

"You're my best friend, Loghain, and have been for nearly thirty years," Maric murmured. "I think that makes it my business."

Maric closed his eyes and ran a hand across his face, feeling suddenly tired.

"You know," he mused. "I think all three of us would have been happier if we'd done things . . . differently, all those years ago."

Loghain didn't ask what Maric had meant by that comment, nor did he make a reply.

Sighing, Maric took a long pull from the wine flask, and a silence stretched out between the two men until, finally, it was broken by Rhianna's voice ringing out across the clearing.

"Teyrn Loghain! You've got to come see this! You, too, King Maric! Hurry!"




Loghain's heart beat faster when he heard Rhianna shout, and he was on his feet in an instant. Then, he recognized excitement in her voice, rather than fear or panic or pain, and forced himself not to run to the other end of the meadow, but to walk alongside Maric.

Maric smirked, appearing highly amused by Loghain's quick response.

Damn the man, anyway. Maric was in the habit of saying stupid things - much like his son - but what he'd said this afternoon was beyond the pale. Reminding Rhianna of something she'd said when she was five years old, embarrassing her so much she'd gotten up and run away. And then having the gall to suggest Loghain should marry the girl. Maker's breath.

As if she'd meant anything by the proposal she'd made all those years ago. As if she'd meant what she'd said today about wanting to marry him. Of course she wanted to be a teyrna; that was the life she'd always known. And of course she wanted to stay in Ferelden. But she was twelve years old. Far too young to have any idea what marriage really entailed.

How could Maric possibly think it a good idea to speak with Bryce, to lock the girl into a marriage she would later come to dread? And how could Loghain even consider inflicting himself on her permanently? Rhianna deserved so much better.

Maric continued smiling his obnoxious smile all the way across the meadow. Loghain glared at him, but the king merely winked and hurried his pace, reaching Rhianna a few steps ahead of Loghain.

Rhianna stood on some rocks at the edge of the pond near the bottom of the waterfall. It was mostly dry where she stood, except for some spray from the cascading water. When Loghain and Maric got close enough, she pointed underneath the falls.

"I've found something!" She motioned for the two men to follow her, then stepped carefully along a narrow ledge of rock, slippery with water, but not directly in the stream of the waterfall. She entered a small cave not visible from the pond. There was barely enough room for all three of them, but Loghain and Maric squeezed in behind the girl to see what she found. Rhianna crouched near the ground, and used her hands to wipe a layer of mud off of something buried in the dirt.

"I think it's a chest of some sort," she explained. "Fergus and I have explored this cave dozens of times but we never found anything before."

Before Loghain could respond, Maric knelt in the mud, dirtying his trousers in the process, and helped her uncover the object. After digging around it with his fingers so the top few inches were exposed, Maric was able to free it from the hole.

It was indeed a chest, the size of a small loaf of bread, rectangular with an arched lid.

Maric turned it around in his hands. "This looks to me like it has been here for a very long time. Perhaps an animal was digging in this spot and pushed away enough dirt you were able to find it today?"

"But who buried it here? I didn't think anyone else knew about this place!" Rhianna exclaimed. "I've never seen anyone else here, other than Fergus. And the two of you are the first people I've ever brought here."

"Well," Loghain replied, "perhaps it's been here since before you and Fergus were even born."

"Then this might have been here a very long time," she murmured. "Do you think whoever buried it is dead?"

"Possibly." Loghain took the box from Maric and examined it. "It looks quite old."

"Does that mean we get to keep it? Because we're the ones who found it?" Rhianna voice sparkled with barely concealed hope.

"I should think so," Maric replied. "Finders, keepers, and all that. I say the box, and whatever is inside of it, belongs to you now, Rhianna."

Loghain attempted to pry open the lid with his fingers, but it was locked and wouldn't budge. He reached for the dagger he kept in his boot. "Shall I see if I can get it open?"

"With that?" she asked. "Won't the latch get broken?"


"Can't we just bring it back with us to the horses? I have lock picks in my saddlebag, and I might be able to get it open without breaking it."

"Lock picks?" Maric asked. "What on earth are you doing with lock picks? Don't tell me the daughter of the Teyrn of Highever intends to pursue a life of crime!"

"Of course not." She bit her lip. "Well, it's sort of a secret, really. Not many people know. Including my parents. I'm not sure they would approve."

"Well, I promise not to tell," Maric said amiably. Rhianna nodded without glancing at Loghain. Apparently, she didn't require an oath from him.

"About two years ago," Rhianna explained, "I managed to convince one of the blacksmiths in town to make me a set of lock picks and show me how to use them. I've been practicing ever since, and I can open most of the locks in the castle. The door to the vault is the only one I haven't been able to open. Well, and the door to my parents' room. But I've never tried to open that one." She paused. "It's not because I want to get into places I'm not supposed to go. I just like knowing how to get things open." She glanced at Loghain.

He completed her sentence in his head. . . . in case I get locked in somewhere and need to get out.

Loghain put away the dagger. "Very well. Let's take it with us, then."

By the time they'd packed up the remains of the picnic and hiked back to the horses, the shadows cast by the surrounding trees had grown long, and the sky was pink in the west.

"Perhaps we should start back for the castle," Rhianna suggested.

"Don't you want to open the box?" Maric asked.

"Yes . . . but even if we leave now, I don't think we'll make it back before dark. And I don't want my parents to be cross with us for coming back so late. We can always open the box at the castle."

"With everyone else around?" Maric asked. "Won't it be more fun if we do it now, just the three of us? Go on," he urged. "If we miss dinner, you can blame it on me, and I'll be the one to beg Nan to take pity on us. Besides having supper in the kitchen sounds rather good. We'd be able to avoid hearing Lady Harriet talk about all her cats." He winked at Rhianna, who giggled. Lady Harriet's cats were a rather infamous, and dreaded, topic of conversation at all the Denerim salons.

"Oh, all right." Grinning, Rhianna reached into her saddlebag and pulled out a small leather case containing several thin metal spikes, each shaped differently at the tip. She selected two of them, then lay on her stomach in front of the chest, so the lock was nearly at eye level. Inserting the tip of one pick into the hole of the lock, she wiggled it around before shifting it to one side. With a slow, deliberate movement, she slid the second pick in next to the first. She pulled up, and with a soft "click," the lid popped open.

She looked up at Loghain, a broad grin on her face. "I've done it!"

Maric gave Loghain a surprised glance, and crouched beside Rhianna as she sat up and opened the box.

It was dry inside and appeared to hold a trio of items. "There's a ring, some sort of an amulet, and a rolled up piece of parchment." Rhianna looked up into Maric's face. "Three things! And there are three of us. Which means we each get to choose one!"

"Don't you want to keep all of it?" Maric asked. "You found it, after all, and got the box open all by yourself."

She shook her head. "No, it's more fun if everyone gets something, don't you think?"

"Well, yes. That is what I think, as a matter of fact," Maric admitted. "You should at least be the first one to choose, yes?"

"All right." She reached into the chest. Loghain expected her to pull out the ring, but her hand went instead for the rolled-up parchment.

"I wonder what this is." She untied the leather thong holding it closed, and unrolled it gently. When it had been stretched out to full length, she gave a small gasp of pleasure. "Oh look! It's a map. At least I think it's a map." She lowered it, holding it parallel with the ground so everyone could see. "It's not like any map I've ever seen before. There are no mountains or coastlines, or roads between places. And it doesn't look like a city, either, with streets and districts. These parallel lines," she pointed," look a bit like roads, but they wind around so strangely. And there aren't any words at all, just tiny pictures where the names should be. I don't know what to think about it."

"A map," Maric exclaimed. "Well, hand it to Loghain, then. He has the biggest collection of maps I've ever seen."

Rhianna blinked up at the king, and then at Loghain. "You collect maps? I love maps. Sometimes Father lets me look at his, but I only have two of my very own. One of Ferelden and one of just the Coastlands. But I think they're fascinating, and so beautiful."

"I do collect maps," he confirmed. "I've loved maps as long as I can remember."

Maric made a noise, a sort of a snickering sound, and Loghain glanced at the other man.

"You both love maps? Isn't that interesting?" Maric gave Loghain a very self-satisfied smile.

Maker's breath. Of course the fact Loghain and Rhianna share an interest in maps would be taken by Maric as evidence Loghain should complicate his life, and ruin the rest of hers, by convincing Bryce to allow the two of them marry.

Loghain rolled his eyes at Maric, then took the parchment gently from the girl's hands. "This appears to be a map of the Deep Roads. Well, some section of them anyway. Perhaps one of the dwarven thaigs."

"Oh, so this shows things underground? That explains why it looks so strange, like tunnels. What's this?" Rhianna pointed at a mark, which didn't appear to be scribed in the same ink as the rest of the map.

"That, I don't know," Loghain admitted, handing the parchment back to the girl. "It looks like something drawn in after the original was completed."

"Perhaps it's a treasure map," Maric suggested, giving Rhianna a wink. "And that's the location where the treasure is buried!"

Rhianna laughed. "That would be exciting! But how will we find it, if we don't even know where underground to start looking? It would be so much nicer if there were words."

"Well," Maric replied, "you'll just have to hang onto it until you can find out. Maybe you'll recognize it on a larger map someday, and that will give you an idea where to look."

"Oh, but perhaps Teyrn Loghain should keep this." She rolled the parchment and retied the leather thong before offering it to him. "For your collection."

Loghain reached for the parchment, but didn't take it from her hand. "Only if you would rather have one of the other things. If you really want the map, you should keep it. I already have a collection, after all. Yours is just getting started. Besides I don't have any plans to visit the Deep Roads any time soon."

She looked at him for a long moment. "Are you sure, Teyrn Loghain? Because, you know, I don't have any plans to visit the Deep Roads anytime soon, either."

He laughed at that. "Yes, I'm sure."

She pulled her hand back, and set the parchment carefully in her lap. "Thank you," she smiled. Then she reached into the chest again, pulling out the other two items.

She examined them both, then held them up for inspection by Maric and Loghain. "There's an amulet, and a ring. The amulet is rather ugly, but the ring is nice."

"An ugly amulet, you say? Let's have a look at that." Maric held out his hand, and Rhianna gave him the pendant. "If I had to guess," Maric speculated, "this looks Avvarian. Don't they have a god who is a trickster?"

"Imhar the Clever." Loghain took the amulet from Maric and studied it, turning it over in his hands.

On the amulet's face was a figure carved in bas-relief, its design slightly raised above the background: a grotesque little man with a large head and an exaggerated smile. He appeared to be doing some sort of dance – one leg bent at the knee, and the other kicking up in the air.

"Well, if you don't mind old friend, I think I'll claim this one." Grinning, Maric plucked the amulet from Loghain's hands. "It might be ugly, but there is something about it I find compelling. Certainly, any help I can get from a deity called 'the Clever' will be much appreciated."

"That much goes without saying." Loghain didn't even pretend to smile, still angry about Maric's earlier behavior. He turned to Rhianna, softening his expression for her benefit. "So, what does that leave for me?"

'This." She held out her hand, with the ring in the center of her palm. "It's really lovely," she said. "And isn't that a dragon? Just like your device, right?"

He took the ring, examining it in the fading daylight. It was beautifully crafted, its silver band worked into the shape of a dragon, with a circular red stone set between the dragon's claws, as if the creature were clutching the gem. It was a gorgeous piece of jewelry.

"Yes. The symbol of Gwaren is a wyvern." He turned the ring around in his hands. Rhianna really should have it; it was lovely, but he had no use for it. She should have the map, too, if she wanted them both.

"Let me have a look, Loghain," Maric asked, gesturing for Loghain to hand him the ring. Loghain complied, and the king turned it around in his fingers. "What kind of stone is that? A garnet, I think. Are you sure," he asked Rhianna, "you wouldn't rather have this, instead of that musty old bit of parchment? It looks a lot more valuable, and it's much prettier."

Loghain scowled at his friend, not really annoyed by what Maric had said - he agreed with him about the ring - but still annoyed with him in general, and his seeming belief he could just decide things for people, without asking them what they wanted.

"Am I to have no say in this at all?" Loghain muttered.

"Rhianna found the chest," Maric argued. "She gets to choose first, remember? If she wants the ring, she should have it." He grinned. "But don't think that means I'd be willing to give up the amulet. Just so we're clear."

"I like the map," Rhianna replied. "And Teyrn Loghain should keep the ring." She turned to Loghain. "Unless you really don't like it and would rather have the map? That would be all right with me, too."

She smiled up at him, an open, generous smile. Putting his happiness ahead of her own, as she so often did. Maker's breath, but she really was a lovely girl.

Far too lovely to end up married to a jaded, bitter old wretch like himself.

One thing was clear: she really did want the map. It certainly made no difference to him. He'd be happy for her to have all of it, if she'd wanted, but he suspected if he tried to get her to take both items, she would argue. So he slid the ring onto the pinky of his left hand. "Look at that," he said, holding out his hand. "Believe it or not, it fits perfectly. I'll keep the ring, and you have the map for your collection. Of course, it's still not too late for you to decide that you'd like to keep everything we found in the chest. It was your discovery, after all."

"What are you saying, Loghain? It is far too late for that." Maric slipped the amulet's leather cord over his head. "I'm not giving this back. Sorry, my dear," he said to Rhianna. "It suits me far too well, don't you think?" It really was hideous, and Rhianna laughed as the king posed flamboyantly with the amulet around his neck, and then kicked one leg up in imitation of the dance the figure was performing. "If Loghain wants to give you the ring, though, I suppose I wouldn't have a problem with that."

Rhianna giggled. "I don't want to keep everything. As it is, I'm getting something extra, because I get to keep the chest. I think it will be quite pretty after I clean it."

The sun had just set below the hills to the west, and the light was fading quickly. After securing the lunch basket and the chest to Rhianna's saddle, the trio mounted their horses and headed back down the foothills. By the time they'd reached the plains, the moon – one day shy of being full – had risen, and lit the way more than adequately for them to travel without torches.

As they rode, Maric and Rhianna chatted amiably while Loghain remained mostly silent, still harboring some anger at Maric. Thankfully, it seemed the girl had forgotten her embarrassment at Maric's ridiculous behavior.

Even so, Maric hadn't heard the end of this. When they had a few moments in private, Loghain intended to give the king a piece of his mind.





Chapter Text

29 Drakonis, 9:25 Dragon
Highever Castle


Rhianna, Loghain and Maric were about half an hour away from the castle when a figure on horseback galloped toward them from the direction of Highever. When the rider came close enough to pull up his mount in front of them, Rhianna saw it was one of the Highever knights, Ser Gilmore, a rather handsome red-headed lad, who had only recently come into her father's service.

"There you are, my lady." He sounded rather more relieved than the situation seemed to warrant. "Your father sent several of us out to look for you. He was worried when you hadn't arrived home by dark."

"We're fine, Ser Gilmore," Rhianna replied. "But thank you, for coming to find us." It seemed strange her parents had sent knights out after her; it wasn't unusual for her to return home after dark. Maybe her mother just wanted to make sure she got a good night's sleep before the performance tomorrow. Or maybe it was because King Maric was with her?

"It was my pleasure, my lady," he assured her. "Perhaps you would allow me to accompany you back to the castle?" Turning to the king and Loghain, he added, "So long as it meets with your approval, Your Majesty, Your Grace?"

"Of course," King Maric replied. "We would be glad of your company, Ser Gilmore."

"I don't recall seeing you here before," Loghain said conversationally as they continued toward the castle. "Are you new to Highever?"

"That I am," the young man affirmed. "I've only recently received my accolade, and was fortunate to be accepted into the service of Teyrn Cousland. I'm originally from Starkhaven, and arrived in Highever at Wintersend."

The trio, now a quartet, soon arrived back at the castle. For once Loghain and Rhianna, who were both in the habit of tending to their own horses, allowed their mounts to be led away by stable hands, due to the late hour.

"What will you wager," Maric whispered loudly as they approached the castle's main hall, "we've missed supper?"

"Nothing. I don't want to lose any money," Rhianna giggled. Her smile faded, though, when they entered the hall to see her father pacing the floor, her mother sitting by the fire while Lady Landra held one of her hands, and Arl Howe and most of the other guests looking on with somber faces.

"Pup! There you are!" Her father hurried up to her, with Eleanor close behind, and grasped Rhianna firmly by the shoulders. He glanced at her muddy clothing, then searched her face as if looking for injuries.

"I'm sorry we're late, Father. After the ruins, we went swimming in the foothills, and then I found a sort of treasure chest, and lost track of the time."

"It's . . . it's all right, of course. I'm just . . . glad that you're home." He gave her a tight smile that didn't reach all the way to his eyes. It was almost as though he wasn't convinced she was really all right. "You're sure nothing . . . unusual happened?"

"No, nothing at all," she reassured. "It was a lovely day. One of the best days ever. Besides, you had no reason to worry. I was with Teyrn Loghain and King Maric," she grinned. "They drove the Orlesians out of Ferelden. Surely they can be trusted to keep one small girl safe."

Rendon Howe strode up and stood beside Bryce. "Did you ever stop to consider perhaps it wasn't your safety that was of concern?" The smile slipped from Rhianna's face as she looked up at the Arl of Amaranthine. "You do realize," he continued, "one of the people you kept out so ridiculously late happens to be the King of Ferelden. Who also happens to be rather more important than you are."

Rhianna's breath caught in her chest, and the heat behind her eyes that meant tears were threatening. Holding her breath, she willed herself not to cry. She would not allow Arl Howe to see her cry. No matter how mean he was, she would not allow him to see her cry. Not ever.

Someone nearby snickered, almost certainly Habren, and Loghain came up behind Rhianna and put a hand on her shoulder, while King Maric stepped close beside her.

"There's no call for speaking to the girl like that, Rendon." Maric's tone was sharp. "I take full responsibility for the lateness of our arrival. Rhianna tried to get us to head for home sooner, but I was enjoying myself, and wasn't ready to return to the castle. She could hardly argue with me; I am, after all, the King of Ferelden." Maric raised an eyebrow, as if daring Howe to challenge him on this point. "And certainly her logic is still sound, even if I was the focus of your concern. I was with Loghain Mac Tir, widely acknowledged as the best swordsman Ferelden has seen in recent years. I should hope even you will admit Loghain has proven many times over his ability to keep me in one piece. And we were in no danger of becoming lost. Lady Cousland is an experienced guide who knows the countryside around Highever as well as anyone has ever known it."

"Of course, Your Majesty." Howe said smoothly. "I didn't mean to suggest you were unprotected. Even so," he glanced at Eleanor, "if she were my daughter, she'd be going to bed without supper."

"That won't be necessary," Eleanor said tightly. "Although, speaking of supper," the teyrna turned to address King Maric, "I'm afraid the rest of us have already had our evening meal."

"Please don't apologize, Eleanor," Maric assured her. "We will be more than happy with any scraps that can be thrown together in the kitchen. I even promised Rhianna I would throw myself on Nan's mercy, since it is my fault that we were late." He turned to Rhianna, making a show of offering her his arm. "If you'll lead the way to the kitchen, my lady?"

"Of course, Your Majesty." Feeling her cheeks grow warm, but this time from pleasure, she slid her arm through the king's. With Loghain at her other side, the three companions left the great hall, and Rhianna led them up the corridor to the kitchen.

They arrived in the kitchen to find Nan flustered and grumbling under her breath, but within minutes she had produced an amazing spread. She claimed it was nothing more than scraps she had "laying around:" half a ham, roasted potatoes, mushroom and onion pasties, a beef pudding, braised greens, and an apple and pear pie for dessert. Rhianna suspected the cook had been preparing for their arrival for some time. Rhianna and Loghain, and Maric in particular were effusive in their praise, both of the evening meal and of the generous basket Nan had prepared earlier in the day, and when she left the kitchen, she was blushing, muttering she was, "more than happy to have done a good turn for the king."

Rhianna ate as well as she'd ever eaten in her life, and King Maric and Loghain both seemed in good spirits. She quickly pushed Howe's horrible comments from her mind, and enjoyed the conversation, which centered on all the adventures they had that day, how fortunate Rhianna was to have survived Loghain's wrath after splashing him in the pond, and how very happy they all were to have avoided hearing Lady Harriet talk about her feline companions. Thankfully, the king didn't bring up the subject of marriage again; she'd seen how unhappy Loghain had seemed when Maric had mentioned it.


The sound of laughter greeted Eleanor when she approached the kitchen in search of her daughter. At the large wooden table in the center of the room, Rhianna sat beside Loghain, and both of them were laughing at something Maric had said from across the table. It appeared they had finished their meal, and were just talking together amiably.

"Hello, Mother!" Rhianna beamed, as Eleanor entered the room and put a hand on her daughter's shoulder.

"Hello, darling. I trust the three of you had a good day?" Eleanor asked.

"Oh yes!" Rhianna exclaimed. "We went to the ruins, and found a strange room beneath the ground, and then we went to see the sea lions, and the standing stones, and then I took King Maric and Teyrn Loghain swimming, and I found a chest in the cave behind the waterfall, and it was filled with actual buried treasure!" Rhianna took a much-needed breath. "It was the best day ever!"

Maric laughed. "That was a very concise telling of events, Rhianna. And I think you're right; it was the best day ever, wasn't it?"

"Yes," Loghain agreed. "I believe it was, at that."

"What's this about buried treasure?" Eleanor asked. "And an underground room at the ruins?"

"I'm not making it up," Rhianna assured her. "We found a little chest buried in the cave behind the waterfall. Fergus and I have looked there dozens of times, but never found anything before. And there were wonderful things inside. I decided to keep the map, which Teyrn Loghain said shows part of the Deep Roads." Then she reached over and grabbed Loghain's wrist, holding his hand up for her mother's inspection. "And look at this. Isn't it a beautiful ring? This was in the chest as well. It's even got a dragon on it, just like the Gwaren device. King Maric and Teyrn Loghain tried to convince me to keep it for myself, but I liked the map best. For my collection."

As she lowered Loghain's arm to rest on the table again, rather than releasing her grip, she just shifted her fingers so she could hold his hand; judging by the man's expression, he seemed not to be bothered by any of this. Rhianna pointed across the table at Maric. "And King Maric is wearing his horrible amulet. It's the most hideous thing ever, but he seems to like it. Which makes me wonder about him, a bit," she added slyly.

"Rhianna!" her mother chided, although not with much force. The girl was quite familiar, sometimes even cheeky, with Loghain and Maric, and both men seemed to enjoy it. Ever since Rhianna had been so sick with the plague, they had paid special attention to her; Rhianna had spent a good deal of time with the king, and even more with Teyrn Loghain, who visited rather more often. What seemed to have started as . . . well, Eleanor wasn't sure how it had started. Pity? An attempt to cheer the girl after her illness? Regardless of how it had started, now it seemed the three simply enjoyed one another's company, enjoyed going on adventures together. If neither man minded Rhianna's familiarity, Eleanor could see no reason for concern. Surely, a good relationship with two of the most powerful men in Ferelden could only benefit her daughter, now and in the future.

Maric threw up his hands dramatically. "Oh believe me, Eleanor, that's hardly the worst thing said to me today. The two of them," he pointed at Loghain and Rhianna, "ganged up on me more times than I can count. But it's all right. It's all right. You don't get far being the king without developing a thick skin. And besides, it's obvious to me there is something wrong with your daughter's eyesight. Not only does she seem to like Loghain more than she likes me, but just look at this. It's not horrible at all. I think it's one of the most charming things I've ever seen."

Maric lifted the amulet and held it up for Eleanor to see. The teyrna's brow wrinkled as she looked at the carving, an ugly little man cavorting about in some strange dance.

Rhianna giggled. "You see, Mother. There's nothing wrong with my eyesight. It really is the ugliest thing ever."

"I am sorry, Your Majesty," Eleanor apologized, "but I'm afraid I have to agree with my daughter. It's . . . well, it's definitely unusual. I'll grant you that much."

"Oh. Fine," Maric replied. "I see now you're ganging up on me as well." He sat back, crossing his arms in front of his chest. Then he glanced over at Rhianna, and winked.

"Don't get your feelings hurt, Your Majesty," Rhianna said with a giggle. "We still love you, even if you have bad taste in amulets." She covered her mouth with one of her hands, trying to stifle a yawn.

"Yes," Eleanor said, putting her hand on Rhianna's shoulder once again. "Well, I'm afraid to say it's time for someone here to get to bed. You have a very big day tomorrow, darling."

"All right, Mother." She sounded only a little bit disappointed as she got to her feet. Clearly, the day's adventures had been tiring. To Maric and Loghain she added, "Thank you again, both of you, for such a wonderful day." She leaned in and kissed Loghain on the cheek and then, after a moment's hesitation, walked to the other side of the table and did the same to Maric.

"No, Rhianna, thank you." Maric smiled broadly. "You always take us on the very best adventures."

"Good night, Rhianna," Loghain said. "We'll see you tomorrow."

As soon as they were away from the kitchen, Rhianna turned to her mother, with a slightly sheepish expression. "Am I in trouble?" she asked. "For getting the king and the teyrn home so late?"

Eleanor looked at her through narrowed eyes. "Should you be in trouble? King Maric said it was his fault. Surely he wasn't lying?"

"No, he wasn't lying," Rhianna replied. "It was his idea to stay out later even when I said we should go. But," she admitted, "I didn't try very hard to convince him, because I really did want to stay out, too. We were having such a good time, and I wanted to see what was inside the treasure chest. So, we opened it up before we started riding back."

Eleanor smiled at her daughter's honesty. She really was a good girl. "No, you're not in any trouble. If it happens again, though, I might have to make certain King Maric is sent to bed without supper."

This made Rhianna giggle, and as they walked through the castle toward the family's quarters, Rhianna chattered cheerfully about the day's events. Thank the Maker; it seemed Rhianna hadn't taken Howe's mean-spirited comments to heart. Damn the man, anyway, for jumping on her the way he did.

In truth, Eleanor had been prepared to punish her daughter. Not that it was unusual for Rhianna to come home after dark; she often got so caught up in what she was doing she didn't remember to turn back for home before nightfall. After what had happened in Denerim four years ago, this was rather nerve-wracking for Eleanor and Bryce, worrying something had happened to their daughter. But they both agreed Rhianna should have as much freedom as possible, rather than keeping her on so tight a leash she would grow up fearful, and believe her parents didn't trust her to take care of herself. This was Highever, after all, not Denerim; they had always believed Rhianna was unlikely to encounter anything dangerous here, especially out in the woods where she preferred to play. So, Eleanor and Bryce had insisted Rhianna always carry torches in her pack, and then looked the other way when she returned to the castle after sunset.

Even so, the girl should have known better than to keep King Maric out so late, especially during Festival Week, when the castle was filled with guests and activity, and people were bound to worry.

And tonight, especially, there had been good reasons for being worried.

Not long after Rhianna left the castle with Maric and Loghain, Bryce had a visit from Ser Torvik, the captain of the Highever guard. A man had been murdered at a local tavern the night before, and the circumstances were unusual enough the guard captain felt Bryce should be aware of what had happened.

As if that weren't bad enough, just a few hours ago Eleanor discovered something in the family's private quarters. Something . . . terrifying. Something that brought back horrible memories of the day Rhianna had disappeared. So when the girl hadn't returned by nightfall, it had been impossible for Eleanor to avoid thinking the worst. No matter how many times she reminded herself it really wasn't all that late, and Rhianna was in the habit of coming home after dark, Eleanor had been on the verge of panic. The only thing that reassured her at all was the fact Rhianna was with Loghain Mac Tir, the one man in all the world, other than Bryce, Eleanor trusted completely with her daughter's safety. Loghain would never allow any harm to come to Rhianna.

And of course, Rhianna had no way of knowing her parents had reason to fear for her safety. So when the three companions arrived back at the castle, and the king had claimed full responsibility for being late, Eleanor - so relieved she nearly burst into tears - could see no possible reason for punishing her daughter.

Then Howe made his hateful comment. Even if Eleanor had been inclined to punish Rhianna, she would have changed her mind after the way Howe spoke to the girl. Perhaps it was self-centered for Rhianna to assume people had only been worried about her, even if it was true in this case. Even so, there was no call to be nasty about it.

Eleanor had long wondered why Rendon Howe seemed to dislike Rhianna so intensely. Rendon and Bryce were good friends, but when it came to Rhianna, Howe never had anything good to say, and was often critical of her. In little ways, perhaps, but quite persistently critical. She supposed it all stemmed from that Satinalia years ago when Rhianna had broken Thomas' nose. With good cause, but Howe seemed to ignore that point. The truly baffling thing was the amount of energy the man put into trying to convince Bryce Rhianna should marry one of his sons. Why would he want a girl he seemed to dislike so much as his daughter-in-law?

Eleanor glanced at her daughter, who was speaking with such animation it was almost hard to keep up. "I splashed him again, and for a moment he glared at me so hard I thought he was really angry. But then he told me to swim away, and he chased me, and before I could get out of the water he grabbed me and threw me back into the pond, and it was so much fun! They wouldn't jump off the waterfall with me, though, which is a shame. But I jumped off anyway, at least a dozen times."

Judging by Rhianna's good mood, it seemed Howe's nasty comments had been forgotten.

Suddenly, Rhianna stopped walking and grasped her mother's arm. "Mother, it is true I once asked Teyrn Loghain to marry me?"

"What?" Eleanor asked. "Where did this come from?"

"King Maric said when I was five years old, I asked Teyrn Loghain if he would marry me when I grew up. I don't remember anything about it, though. Was he telling the truth, or is that just a story he made up?"

"Well, I wasn't there to hear the actual conversation, darling. But according to your father, yes. You did say something to Teyrn Loghain about getting married when you were older."

"Oh." Rhianna's brow knit together, as a troubled look crossed her face. "I was hoping it was just a story. It seems such a stupid thing for me to have said, doesn't it?"

"I wouldn't say it was stupid. You were very young, and small children often say things that might sound strange coming from someone a bit older. I'm sure no one thought badly of you because of it."

"Not even Teyrn Loghain? You don't think he thinks badly of me, do you?"

"Rhianna, did something happen today? Some reason you think the teyrn is upset with you?" He hadn't seemed upset. If anything, he'd seemed quite content to hold Rhianna's hand at the table, and had agreed they'd had a lovely day together.

"Oh no!" she replied. "Nothing like that. Teyrn Loghain was wonderful today. We had so much fun! I was just worried, when King Maric told me what I'd said all those years ago, that the teyrn might have thought I was incredibly stupid."

Eleanor smoothed a hand over her daughter's hair. "I wouldn't worry about it if I were you, love. It's obvious to me Maric and Loghain are both very fond of you, and don't think badly of you for anything you've said, ever."

"Do you really think so?"

"Yes, I really think so."


When they arrived at Rhianna's room, they found Delilah Howe already dressed for bed. Delilah was sleeping with Rhianna due to the overcrowding in the castle, but Rhianna didn't mind. Delilah had always been one of the few people Rhianna's age who had been consistently kind. Not like her little brother Thomas, or stupid Habren.

After helping Rhianna into her nightgown, Eleanor tucked the girls into bed, giving them both a quick kiss on the forehead.

"Now, I want the two of you to go right to sleep." she admonished. "No staying up all hours talking. Tomorrow will be a big day, especially for you, Rhianna."

"Yes, Mother."

"Yes, Teyrna Eleanor."

Once Eleanor had left the room, and her footsteps faded away in the hall, Rhianna and Delilah looked at one another in the light of the dying fire in the hearth, and started to giggle. Of course they weren't going to sleep right away, not when there were such interesting things to talk about.

"Did you have a good day today?" Delilah whispered. "Riding with King Maric and Teyrn Loghain?"

"Yes, it was wonderful! We went riding, and swimming, and hiking, and found some buried treasure, and a horrible scary old room under the ruins. It was a lot of fun. What about you? Did you have a good time sailing?"

"Oh yes, it was good," Delilah replied. "The weather was lovely, and we saw dolphins. A lot of dolphins and even a whale! And we stopped at an island out in the bay, and had a lovely picnic. Your brother even let me steer the boat for a while."

"And what about Habren?" Rhianna asked.

"Well, of course, she was awful, as usual," Delilah said with a shrug. "She kept flirting with my brother."

"With Thomas?"

"No, of course not with Thomas. With Nathaniel."

"Oh. Did he flirt back?"

"No. Nathaniel knows Habren isn't at all nice. I mean, he's polite to her. He's polite to everyone, most of the time. But she could tell he didn't like her, and I think it made her quite grumpy."

"I wouldn't have minded seeing that," Rhianna giggled. "Then again, she's even meaner than usual when she's grumpy, so I suppose I'm glad I wasn't there to see it. She probably would have tried to push me off the boat, or something."

"Probably," Delilah agreed. "Anyway, aren't you glad you didn't come with us? I mean, you're so incredibly lucky. Getting to spend the entire day with the king. Isn't he so handsome?"

Rhianna wrinkled her nose. "He's all right, I guess. Not anywhere near as handsome as Teyrn Loghain, though."

"Teyrn Loghain? You think he's handsome?"

"Of course! Don't you?" Rhianna asked, astonished there might be someone who didn't think Loghain was the handsomest man that had ever lived.

"No," Delilah laughed, "Not really. He looks rather too much like Nathaniel."

"Oh, please don't talk about Nathaniel. You'd be the third person today to mention him to me! I think everyone in the world wants me to marry him."

"Really? People have been talking to you about Nathaniel? Well, honestly, I think it would be lovely if you married Nathaniel. Then you and I would be sisters, and wouldn't that be fun? And you could come live in Amaranthine, which isn't so very far away from Highever after all."

"Can you keep a secret?" Rhianna whispered, sitting up on one elbow so she could look into Delilah's face.

"Of course I can!"

"I'd much rather marry Teyrn Loghain. And not because he's a teyrn, but because I think he's the handsomest, kindest, bravest, most wonderful man in the whole entire world." Rhianna flopped down onto her back, smiling, remembering how he had held her hand when they went down into the tunnel underneath the ruins.

"I wouldn't mind marrying King Maric, if you want to know the truth," Delilah admitted. "Partly because he's the king, of course. Can you imagine how happy my father would be if I were to marry the king?" Rhianna nodded agreeably. She guessed that would make Arl Howe very happy indeed. "But mostly because he is very, very handsome."

"I think King Maric would be good husband," Rhianna replied. "He's very nice, and funny. He made me laugh at least a hundred times today. And he is handsome. Even handsomer than Cailan, I think. And, being married to the king, probably no one would ever be mean to you. Did you see how he stood up for me tonight when Arl . . . um, when your father . . . well . . ." She didn't know how to finish that sentence. He was Delilah's father, after all.

"Father was horrible to you, wasn't he?" Delilah said comfortingly. "I'm sorry about that. But you're right, King Maric was lovely, coming to your rescue. I know. Let's make a plan. I'll marry King Maric, and you'll marry Teyrn Loghain, and our children can be best friends, just like Cailan and Anora are now!"

Rhianna nodded her head enthusiastically. "Yes. That sounds like a very good plan."

If only she could get Teyrn Loghain to agree.

Of course, she was much too young to be interesting to Teyrn Loghain right now. She knew that. But someday, when she was bigger, she hoped she would be smart enough and brave enough and pretty enough and fight well enough that he would like her. Maybe even like her well enough to want to marry her.

It didn't seem like such a far-fetched idea. He was a teyrn, and she was the daughter of a teyrn, after all. But she certainly didn't want to do or say anything that would make Teyrn Loghain think she was stupid, or ridiculous, or silly. So when Maric had reminded them about Rhianna's marriage proposal all those years ago, she had wanted the ground to open up and swallow her. It was bad enough she'd said something so stupid when she was small, but it was far worse that King Maric would mention it now, when Loghain might already have forgotten.

She'd been so incredibly embarrassed, and she'd felt her face turn hot. Even now, thinking about it made her stomach feel strange. She did the only thing she could think of to do, and ran to the opposite end of the meadow, hoping by the time she came back, Teyrn Loghain would have forgotten all about it again. And then she'd found the treasure chest, and everything was all right after that. King Maric hadn't mentioned it again, thankfully, and Teyrn Loghain hadn't seemed angry, or treated her any differently than usual. He'd been as kind to her as ever, even if he had seemed a bit cross with King Maric all the way home.

Still, what if Teyrn Loghain really did think she was ridiculous and incredibly stupid, but was just too kind to tell her so? Usually, Teyrn Loghain didn't hesitate in telling people they were ridiculous and stupid, though, so maybe he didn't feel that way after all? And her mother had promised Teyrn Loghain was fond of her, and Delilah seemed to think marrying him was a good idea. So maybe, just maybe, there really was a chance it could happen.

Rhianna Mac Tir.

Oh, she hoped so much someday it could happen.

She said goodnight to Delilah, then closed her eyes and snuggled herself against the pillow, feeling happy. Because, embarrassment aside, it had been a lovely, lovely day, and the next few days would be lovely as well.

Because Teyrn Loghain was here, and she'd get to see him every single one of those days.


After most of the company turned in for the night, a small group gathered near the waning fire in the great hall to discuss the incident that had all of Highever talking. The heat from the fire was making Bryce uncomfortably warm, but he was too exhausted to move further from the hearth. It had been a trying day, ever since Torvik arrived with news of the murder in town. But the evening had been far worse, from the time Eleanor made her discovery until Rhianna, Maric and Loghain returned to the castle. Bryce had tried to appear calm, more for Eleanor's sake than his own, but he spent every minute of those few hours worrying something had happened to his daughter. That she'd been kidnapped, perhaps by the same person who locked her away in that tower four years ago. Worrying that this time, she would not be found in time. Maybe not found at all.

He had always believed his family was safe here in Highever. After today, however, it no longer seemed a certainty. And he hadn't even shared with the others the discovery that set him on edge. All they knew about was the murder.

"When did this happen again?" Maric asked, fine lines wrinkling his brow.

"Sometime last night, most likely," Bryce explained. "A group of travelers found the body in the basement of the Drunken Wolf Inn this morning. They claim to have had some business with the man - something about a package they were delivering, or picking up, for a traveling merchant. They were a bit cagey, something that will need to be investigated. Anyway, the dead man had been . . . mutilated, apparently. I haven't seen the body, but from what I've heard, he appears to have been ravaged by some sort of wild animal."

"In the basement of a tavern?" Leonas Bryland asked. "How did he manage to get attacked by wild animals in the basement of a tavern?"

"Well, that's the mystery isn't it?" Eleanor sounded even more tired than Bryce felt. "Farr - that was the man's name - was the owner of the tavern, which explains why he was there. But wild animals?" She sighed. "Rhianna's going to be heartbroken when she hears about this. She knew him quite well, I think."

"Your daughter was acquainted with the tavern keeper who was murdered?" Bann Esmerelle asked, a sneer crossing her pinched face. "A tavern keeper? Just what sort of company do you allow the girl to keep?"

"Rhianna knows just about everyone in town." Bryce was proud of the way Rhianna was accepted by the people from the village, and resented the implication it was anything other than good. "Eleanor and I have always encouraged it. The local people like her, and trust her to listen to their concerns, even to intervene with the teyrn if necessary when they have problems. So, they come to her instead of starting trouble; it's been a great asset to the teyrnir."

Esmerelle shrugged, clearly not convinced, but at least the woman remained quiet.

"What sort of 'wild animals' are suspected," Maric asked.

"Something large, with sharp claws and teeth," Bryce replied. "The man was literally torn limb from limb, so it had to be something powerful. A bear. A pack of wolves, perhaps."

"Wolves." Maric glanced at Loghain, before turning back to Bryce. "That reminds me of something we saw today. Did you know there's a hidden trapdoor under the ground floor of those Alamarri ruins Rhianna showed us today?"

"Hidden trapdoor? No, I don't know anything about that."

"Well, there is," Maric affirmed. "Underneath what looked like a gaol cell is a flight of stairs and an underground passage that dead ends at a stone wall. Only it isn't really a dead end. There's a trigger in one of the stones, which opens up a section of the wall leading to a hidden chamber."

"Are you joking?" Bryce asked. "I've lived most of my life in Highever. I've been to those ruins a dozen times, and I had no idea about some sort of hidden chamber."

"No joke," the king confirmed. "It was quite a surprise; Rhianna hadn't known about it either. Of course, we explored around inside, and found a fire pit, and a set of drawings on the walls. If I had to guess, I'd say the drawings told a story about humans turning into . . . well . . . into werewolves."

"Werewolves?" Leonas laughed. "This sounds like a bedtime story, Maric. Not anything that will help us solve a murder."

"There's more to it than that." Loghain, who'd been silent until now, immediately commanded everyone's attention. "There were footprints. Human, as well as animal tracks, on the dirt floor of the room. Very unusual, similar to wolf tracks, but not like any wolf tracks I've ever seen. Rhianna told us there are still rumors of werewolves in the Coastlands?"

"Rumors of werewolves?" Howe laughed. "More like the imagination of a very spirited child. There haven't been werewolves in the Coastlands since the Blessed Age. None I've seen, anyway. That girl will say just about anything for attention."

"There are rumors, Rendon. You know that as well as I do, and Rhianna is certainly not the one who started them." Bryce was beginning to tire of these verbal attacks on his daughter. Especially tonight. "There are at least a few people who believe werewolves still exist in the area." He raised his eyebrows at his friend. "You know what I'm talking about."

"Yes, yes," Howe sighed impatiently. "The 'Custodians of the Wolves.' And you know as well as I do, Bryce, all of them were killed before the start of the Occupation. Along with the werewolves."

"Custodians of the Wolves?" Maric asked. "Who are they? Some sort of organization?"

"Yes," Bryce explained. "The Custodians were formed centuries ago, before Haelia convinced the Coastlands to join together in the fight against the werewolves. Most of the original members were family or friends of those who had been infected. Even as the werewolves were being hunted, the Custodians were working to protect them from what they considered 'persecution.' After all, most of the werewolves had been innocent villagers themselves, before being infected."

Bryce leaned back in his seat. "I do sympathize with what the Custodians were trying to do. But the werewolves were wreaking havoc on the people of the Coastlands, and had to be stopped. Even after Haelia vanquished most of the creatures, the Custodians didn't disband. Instead, they helped shelter the remaining werewolves, and continued to work against those they considered responsible for the torment of their loved ones. Including the Cousland family.

"According to family legend, the Custodians have existed all along, working in secret for years and years, and then every so often coming out of hiding to exact revenge on behalf of their ancestors. Even though by now it seems horribly pointless. All the people involved in persecuting werewolves are long dead. And it's true they haven't acted publicly in a great many years, since just before the start of the Occupation." He turned to Howe. "But that doesn't convince me they're all gone."

"I got the feeling the room we found was some sort of . . . shrine, or perhaps a meeting place. Maybe that's connected to these Custodians, as well," Maric added.

"And a man was torn apart by wild animals," Loghain mused. "Or perhaps it was the Custodians attempting to make it look like werewolves?"

"It's possible," Bryce admitted. "In the past, the Custodians were accused of committing murders designed to look like werewolf attacks. Or maybe they were actual werewolf attacks, assuming some of the creatures survived in hiding."

"Which," Loghain added, "would also make it possible the tavern keeper was killed by an actual werewolf."

Maric leaned forward, his brow furrowed. "Based on those tracks we saw today, I'm willing to entertain the possibility there are indeed real werewolves running around out there. And by 'out there,' I mean uncomfortably close to here. This tavern keeper, do you think he had any connection with the Custodians? Is there anything - other than the manner of his death - to connect him with any of this?"

Eleanor shook her head. "No. Not as far as we know. Of course, the murder only happened last night, and since most everyone believes the Custodians and the werewolves are ancient history, it probably hasn't been the focus of the investigation. I suppose a tavern keeper knows just about everyone in town, which makes it possible he stumbled across some information that put him in danger. I wish we knew more. After all," Eleanor caught Bryce's gaze, "if it is the Custodians, and they intend to make some sort of . . . stand, doing it during the Festival of Wolves would be appropriate. The festival where our daughter will perform tomorrow night."

"Nothing is going to happen at the festival tomorrow, Eleanor." Bryce tried to sound reassuring, but even to his own ears, failed miserably. "Hundreds of people are going to be in the village square. It will be far too crowded for any werewolf supporters to try and make a stand. Even so, I'm going to request a full company of Highever Regulars be on hand. For our peace of mind, if nothing else."

"An entire company? Surely, that won't be necessary," Howe scoffed. "I find it hard to believe, even if these Custodians still exist, they have anything approaching numbers adequate to make an attack during the festival. Are you sure this isn't just you being overprotective of your daughter? Again?"

"Surely," Loghain interjected, before Bryce could respond, "you can't blame the man for wanting to ensure his daughter's safety. Especially after what happened in Denerim a few years ago."

"Something happened in Denerim?" Howe wrinkled his nose in confusion. "Oh!" he exclaimed. "You mean that business in the tower. Of course. Well, yes, that must have been unpleasant for her at the time, but I haven't seen any sign she even remembers that day, let alone suffers any ill effects from it."

"She remembers." Loghain's eyes narrowed as he stared at Howe. "Believe me, she remembers. And if there is anything that can be done to ensure her safety tomorrow - and the safety of everyone else at the festival - it would be negligent not to take the necessary precautions. One man is dead already."

"There's even more to it than that." Something in Eleanor's tone caught the attention of everyone in the room. Her face was pale, her eyes bright. Clearly, she was nowhere near confident that Rhianna would be safe tomorrow night. "Show them, Bryce. Show them what I found earlier this evening."

This was a surprise. When they had discussed it earlier, Eleanor had agreed it might be best not to share this with the rest of the group. Not to worry people unnecessarily. Apparently, she had changed her mind. Perhaps she was right, and the others deserved to know that someone in Highever - someone who was perhaps still in the castle - could not be trusted.

He pulled a piece of parchment from his pocket. It was folded in half, and he didn't bother to unfold it before handing it to Loghain. He would prefer his eyes to never land upon those words again. Not ever again. "Eleanor found this a few hours ago, here in the castle."

Loghain unfolded the paper, and Maric leaned in to read it over the teyrn's shoulder.

Of course, even without looking, Bryce remembered what it said. Words scrawled on parchment in a dark substance that looked like blood. The message was brief, but to the point:

"Death to the Cousland Whore"

As Loghain's eyes took in the words, one of his hands clenched into a fist. Maric took the note, reading it again with a look of confusion on his face, as if perhaps he'd misunderstood it the first time through.

"Maker's Breath," Maric breathed, passing the note to Bann Esmerelle, who glanced at it before handing it to Arl Bryland. "That's . . . disturbing."

"Where did you find this?" Loghain asked darkly.

"On Rhianna's bedroom door," Eleanor replied. "Stuck to the door with a dagger."

"You should cancel the performance tomorrow," Leonas urged. "Exposing the girl to that many people, when someone has made a threat like this against her? That doesn't sound like a good idea."

"No, I'm not going to cancel the performance," Bryce replied. "That was my first thought, as well. But she's worked too hard for this, and I'm not sure it's even a genuine threat. It's possible someone is just trying to frighten her. Any other day, she would have been the one to find it. It's only because the three of you," he glanced at Maric and Loghain, "were out so late this evening, that Eleanor discovered it when she went up to make sure the room was ready for Delilah. Besides, what's the point in keeping her away from the festival, when we can't even assume she's safe here in the castle? The note was left on her bedroom door. Whoever put it there had access to the family's private quarters."

At the mention of his daughter, Rendon Howe looked up from the note, which was now in his hands. "I . . . I apologize, Bryce. For suggesting you were being overprotective." He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "If someone had left a note like this regarding my daughter . . . I wouldn't let her out of my sight."

"I don't intend to," Bryce said firmly. "But Rhianna will perform tomorrow. With a full company of Highever Regulars close at hand."


Chapter Text

30 Drakonis, 9:25 Dragon
Highever Castle


Rhianna was bored.

Alone in her room, Rhianna lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. She'd already practiced her lines several times, and gone over in her head all the things she was supposed to do during the performance, and was as prepared as she could possibly be. Now she was at a loss for something interesting to do.

What she really wanted was to go into town, and enjoy all the wonderful things that were happening because of the festival. But first thing this morning, her mother said she couldn't leave the castle today, not until the performance this evening. Rhianna wasn't even supposed to leave her bedroom, not without someone accompanying her. She wasn't sure why, but when Rhianna started to complain, her mother had given her the "I am serious about this," look, and Rhianna knew better than to argue.

After breakfast, she'd wandered around the castle with Ser Gilmore following behind, which had become dull very quickly. So, she returned to her room, and here she sat.


She got up off the bed, and went to examine the silvery grey gown hanging on the wooden mannequin by the door. The dress, styled after clothing worn in the Black Age some five hundred years ago, had a rounded neckline and long sleeves with tippets hanging down from the elbows, and exquisite designs embroidered in black thread. It was a beautiful gown, and she traced one finger lightly over the embroidery, looking forward to the moment she would put it on. When her mother would come to help Rhianna dress, and curl her hair, and apply just enough face paint so even the people at the back of the market square could see Rhianna's face clearly when she was on stage.

But that wouldn't happen for hours, not until the sun set over the Waking Sea, and the full moon began to climb in the sky. In the meantime it seemed everyone had forgotten about her.

Even without being able to see it, Rhianna knew Highever had been transformed for the festival. The streets in town were lined with with kiosks and stalls: local vendors selling their wares side by side with traveling merchants bringing the promise of exotic wonders from across the sea. Rhianna could have stopped at the shops of the townspeople who knew her and been assured of receiving small gifts: a new ribbon for her hair, or a sweet pastry or skewer of roasted meat or splash of cider in her mug. People were always happy to give the teyrn's daughter a treat during the festival.

And of course, there was entertainment. Puppet shows and minstrels. Acrobats and theatre troupes. Some of the entertainers would present their acts on the large stage erected in the market square; others would wander around the city and perform wherever they could convince a crowd to gather. One woman didn't even have an act; she merely carried an enormous snake around her neck, and people would gawk and point, either enthralled or horrified in equal numbers. It was a beautiful snake, longer than a man is tall and wider around than one of Rhianna's arms, its scales patterned in cream and brown and black. Nothing at all like the small adders and grass snakes that lived under fallen logs in Ferelden.

In past years, there had also been a caravan with other animals - creatures so strange Rhianna never would have believed they were real if she hadn't seen them for herself. An ibex, which looked sort of like a deer, but with two extremely long, thin, sickle-shaped horns growing out of its forehead, and a huge cat called a leopard, which resembled the mountain lions that prowled in the foothills, except it was yellow with black spots and nearly twice as big. There were huge, colorful birds, and monkeys that sprang about endlessly in their cages, able to hang equally well from their tails as they could from their feet.

But her favorite was an animal she barely had words to describe. It was massive and strange, with a long winding snout coming out of its face, and legs like the trunks of trees. Its ears were bigger than dinner plates, and white tusks grew from under its upper lip. The woman who kept the animals called it an "oliphant," and Rhianna wondered how they managed to get the creature across the Waking Sea without causing the ship to sink. Even though the oliphant looked strange, when Rhianna went over to say hello, she was a friendly creature, and had a gentle spirit. She didn't really like living in the caravan, and she missed her family even though she'd only known them a short time before she'd been taken away as a baby. She did like having food whenever she wanted it, though, and the woman who cared for her was kind.

Yes, the festival would be filled with marvelous things. Marvelous things Rhianna was apparently not going to be able to see. She sighed dramatically, before remembering no one was around to hear or take pity on her.

From her bookshelf, she selected a volume she'd read before: a history book about the beginning of the Orlesian occupation. She settled into a chair to read, but after running her eyes over the same sentence three times, she still didn't know what it had said.

This wasn't going to work. The thought of all the things she was missing in the city below was just too distracting. Maybe she should go find Ser Gilmore again. He was a bit boring, mostly because he was always unfailingly polite, but it would probably be more interesting than sitting here by herself.

A knock on the door brought her to her feet, eager for whatever entertainment her visitor would provide, even if it was only one of the servants bringing her lunch.

When she opened the door, and saw the identity of her visitor - definitely not a servant with tea - her face nearly hurt from the smile that spread across it.


Loghain had risen early and left the castle before most everyone else was awake. That was by design. In particular, he wanted to avoid having to spend the entire day with Maric. Loghain was still annoyed about things said yesterday to Rhianna, and didn't want to deal with any more of the king's foolishness. It had also given Loghain the urge to spend some time alone. For a little while, at least.

So, he went into town. Because where better to be alone than the city during a festival? But at least here he was surrounded by people he didn't know, and no one talked to him much, except to try and sell him things, so the strategy had worked well enough. More important, it gave him the opportunity to inspect the square where Rhianna would perform that evening.

When he first arrived, it was early enough no performers were using the stage, so he climbed the stairs and stood in the middle of the platform, looking out over the square for any obvious places where an archer could hide, or where a group of people could wait, undetected, to attack at a predetermined time. He looked underneath the stage as well, and inspected the wooden stands from which the nobles and wealthier merchants would watch. He noticed nothing that looked particularly dangerous, so after identifying those places he would recommend guards be posted, he spent some time wandering around town, again looking for anything suspicious or out of place.

After satisfying himself that the city seemed secure - as secure as was possible during a festival - he returned to the castle. He might have stayed longer; there was something exciting about the festival atmosphere, but he was struck by a quite surprising feeling of . . . loneliness. Even though he'd wanted time to himself, it seemed difficult to enjoy the festival without someone for company. And not just anyone; he had a particular someone in mind.

He found Eleanor in the great hall, speaking with some of the castle's servants. When she was finished giving instructions, she came over to greet him.

"Good morning, Loghain. Or is it afternoon yet?" Eleanor's smile looked forced. He didn't blame her; trying to pretend everything was all right must be a challenge today. He agreed with Bryce there was no point in canceling the performance, but that didn't make it any less troubling when considering all of the possible ways things could go wrong. And the note . . . he was furious every time he remembered the words it contained.

"It's still morning, I believe, for a short time anyway. The sun is not directly above us quite yet. I trust everything is under control? Preparations for Rhianna's performance tonight, I mean."

"Yes, everything I can think of to do, to make certain things will . . . run smoothly tonight is being done. Bryce keeps assuring me everything will be fine."

"I'm sure he's right, Eleanor. And a great many people will be on hand to ensure Rhianna's safety, and everyone else's as well."

"I know. It's just . . . well, you don't want to listen to me complain, surely. You've already been into town this morning?"

"Yes, Everything there seems in order. I was wondering . . . has Rhianna gone into town?"

"Rhianna? No. I told her she needed to stay in the castle today. Bryce and I are both so busy with preparations, and I couldn't . . . well, I couldn't stomach the thought of her going into town by herself. Not today. I think she's up in her room. Either that, or she's wandering about with Ser Gilmore."

Up in her room? It was the biggest day of the festival, and Rhianna was confined to the castle? That hardly seemed fair. "Perhaps you'd agree for me to escort her into town?"

"That's kind of you to offer, Loghain, but it's really not necessary. I'm sure she's a bit disappointed, but it's not like she's never been to a festival before."

"Please, Eleanor. As a favor to me, let me take her into town. I promise, I won't let her out of my sight. Not for an instant."

"Oh, Loghain." The teyrna's brittle expression softened, and for the first time her smile reached all the way to her eyes. "Yes. Of course you can take her into town. I know she'll be safe with you."

When he knocked at her door, having been granted entrance by the two guards stationed outside the family's quarters, Rhianna's smile made him glad he'd managed to convince Eleanor to approve this excursion.

"Teyrn Loghain! Please come in! I'm surprised you're not in town, enjoying the festival." She ushered him into her room and offered him a seat.

He waved away her offer of a chair, and continued to stand. "I was in town. And then I realized something was missing. Or rather, I should say someone."


"You, of course. I don't think I can properly enjoy the festival on my own. It would be so much better if you'd agree to show me around. I expect you know all the festival's secrets: who sells the best tarts, and which performers are the most entertaining."

Her smile evaporated. "Oh. I wish I could show you around. But Mother says I'm not to leave the castle. Not until this evening."

"Oh." He frowned. "That's funny. Because when I spoke with her just a few minutes ago, she gave me permission to take you into town. So long as you promise not to abandon me and go running off on your own."

"Do you . . . do you mean that?" Her eyes grew bright and he thought he'd never seen her look quite this happy before. "Did she really say I can go into town with you? And of course I would never abandon you! You know that, don't you?"

"She really did say it," he laughed. "And yes. I know."

"Oh, Teyrn Loghain!" She made a high-pitched sort of noise, and then flung her arms around his neck, almost knocking him backwards in her exuberance. When she released him, she glanced around the room. "Let's see. Is it warm outside? Or should I bring a shawl?"

"I think you'll be fine without one. It's warm out."

"Then, I'm ready to go! We can go right now, can't we? Please?"

"We can indeed."

Fifteen minutes later, they entered the market square, which was busier than Loghain had ever seen it before. A crowed had gathered to watch a performer on the stage: a man balancing atop a donkey while swallowing a sword he'd first set on fire.

As they moved into the square, having to weave back and forth to avoid being jostled, Rhianna reached for Loghain's hand. He was glad for it; just one more assurance they wouldn't become separated in the crush of people.

They made their way through to the high street where merchants hollered boisterously, trying to garner more attention than their neighbors.

"Pasties! Meat Pasties!"

"Ale. Fresh strawberries, and ale!"

"Spices and herbs all the way from Seheron!"

"Rivaini silks! None finer in all the world!"

Rhianna stopped every so often to greet someone she knew: a merchant or local farmer or blacksmith. Bryce was right: Rhianna had made an effort to get to know the people in Highever, and was clearly well-liked by a great many of them. These were not people fawning over the daughter of the teyrn hoping to curry favor. Their smiles were genuine; these people were truly glad to see her.

"Oh! I hope Garrick hasn't sold out of pasties," she said excitedly, tugging on Loghain's hand, urging him to walk faster. "He makes the best pasties in all the world, and I'm terribly hungry!" Loghain obliged her by walking faster, and a minute later, they were stepping under the awning in front of a small wooden bakery shop.

"Lady Rhianna!" The white-haired man smiled, deep crevices forming at the corners of his eyes, joining the network of wrinkles that spread out across the fair skin of his face. "I was beginning to wonder if you were going to pay me a visit today."

"Hello Garrick! I very nearly couldn't. Mother wanted me to stay in the castle, but Teyrn Loghain was able to convince her to let me come out. How are you today?"

"I'm well, my lady. Very well. Business is good, and the weather couldn't be better. I trust you're prepared for your performance tonight?"

"I hope so. I've practiced my lines a thousand times, but I'm still nervous about it."

"You've nothing to worry about, my lady. I know you'll be wonderful."

"You'll be there?"

"Of course. I wouldn't miss it for the world." The baker looked up at Loghain, still smiling. "And a good day to you, as well, Your Grace. I trust you're enjoying our festival?"

"Very much," Loghain replied. "Thank you."

"So, is it to be beef and mushrooms? Or would you fancy something different, for a change?" Garrick addressed this question to Rhianna.

"Beef and mushrooms." Rhianna giggled. "I'm sure the others are lovely, but beef and mushrooms are so delicious I can't bear to even try anything else."

"One for you as well, ser?" Garrick asked Loghain.

"No thank you."

With a nod, the baker turned and, limping slightly, crossed over to a row of ovens along the wall, and returned with a pastry wrapped in parchment.

"And don't even think of trying to give me your coin, my lady. Not today. I'll not accept money from Haelia Cousland herself." The man winked.

"All right. But just today. Thank you, Garrick. I hope you won't be disappointed this evening! I'll have the guards save seats for you and your wife in the stands. Right in front, so you'll be able to see everything."

"That would be lovely, my lady. Maude will appreciate it. As will I. Especially with this bad leg of mine."

After they stepped back into the sunshine, Rhianna turned toward the waterfront. "Last year, there was a lady with wild animals from Seheron. Can we see if she's come back this year?" Loghain nodded agreeably, and Rhianna unwrapped the pasty, and took a bite. "Ummmm. This is so delicious. Here." She stopped, and held the pasty up close to Loghain's face, her other hand cupped underneath as if to catch any crumbs that fell. "You've got to try a bite. Garrick makes the best pasties in all of Thedas. Only don't tell Nan I said so."

She smiled up at him, her face glowing with pleasure, and he found himself unable to deny her request, even though he was hardly in the habit of sharing food, especially with young girls.

He took a bite. The pastry was flaky on the outside and slightly chewy in the center, the beef was tender, and the gravy was laced with the delicate flavor of mushrooms. "That is delicious. It may truly be the best pasty I've ever tasted," he said sincerely.

As they continued toward the docks, there were more treats from other vendors: artichoke hearts in sherry, an apple baked for hours in butter and spices, and which smelled divine, a hunk of very sharp cheese. Rhianna insisted that Loghain try at least a bite of everything, and by the time they reached the waterfront, he was feeling comfortably full, and in good spirits. It was difficult not to be in good spirits with Rhianna, whose joy was infectious.

"Oh look! That caravan over there, I think that's the woman from Seheron." When she took him by the hand and dragged him in the direction of a very large wagon not far from the docks, he was happy to follow.

The caravan did, indeed, belong to the woman from Seheron who traveled with a variety of wild animals. Some were in cages, but others were merely tied loosely to wooden posts with lengths of rope. The woman had, however, set up barrels with rope strung between them, to keep onlookers from getting too close, especially to anything that might bite.

When the owner of the caravan saw Rhianna she smiled broadly. When she spoke, there was a musical lilt to her voice that spoke of warm nights and air filled with spices on the island of Seheron, hundreds of miles to the north.

"Ah, if it isn't the teyrn's daughter." She was a tall, elegant woman, with skin the color of burnished mahogany. Her black hair was done up in a multitude of braids, all pulled into a queue at the back of her head. "Mistress Jumbo will be happy to see you again. As am I."

"Hello, again! I'm so glad you came back this year. Do you really think Mistress Jumbo will remember me?"

"She has a very good memory. Oliphants are like that. But if you are wondering, why not go ask her yourself?"

For the next several minutes, Rhianna led Loghain around so they could greet all of the animals, including the oliphant, who did seem happy to see Rhianna. They visited the birds: strange pink things on long legs whose heads looked like they were attached upside down, and one that was taller than Loghain, with a black body and a long neck. There was something that looked exactly like a horse, except it was striped black and white. All this, along with the monkeys, and the leopard, and a host of others.

When there was a lull in the crowd, the woman stepped up and spoke softly to Rhianna. "Would you like to see someone special?" she asked. "She's not big enough yet for me to put her on display all the time, but I think it would be all right for you and your friend to meet her."

"Oh, yes, please!"

Rhianna and Loghain followed the woman inside of a tented wagon. Inside, it appeared this was where the woman made her home. There were cushions and pans and books and all the myriad things a traveler would require. There was also a large basket sitting in the far corner. The menagerie keeper crossed to the basket, and reached inside.

When she pulled back her hands, she was holding . . . well, a kitten. At least that's the only thing Loghain could think of to call it. But this was no ordinary kitten. Although apparently quite young, it was larger than any full-grown house cat he'd ever seen, and proportioned differently as well, with a very large head compared to its body, and paws that looked enormous, with claws to match.

"Oh . . ." Rhianna breathed. "She is so beautiful! I think she might be the most adorable thing I've ever seen in my life! What kind of cat is she? And what is she called?"

The woman laughed, and put the cat into Rhianna's open arms. "She is a lion cub, and her name is Sarabi. And someday, she'll be even bigger than the leopard out there who you have already met."

Sarabi was beautiful, with tawny yellow fur covering her entire body, except for a small white tuft under her chin, and darker spots on her legs. Her eyes were large and brown, and she had long whiskers, and wide, rounded ears. A little pink tongue peeked out between black lips, and her nose was triangular and shining black.

Rhianna sat on the floor of the wagon, and pulled a ribbon out of her hair, dangling it in front of the kitten. Sarabi immediately began batting it and chasing it across the floor.

"I need to go back outside, to see to the other animals," the woman said, "but you and Sarabi can play as long as you like."

"Thank you. Thank you so much." When the woman left, Loghain settled himself on the floor, as well.

Happy to play with the hair ribbon, the cub leapt and pounced, and once landed in Loghain's lap, looking surprised at first, but then purring loudly when the teyrn used his broad fingers to rub the back of its head and neck.

"It's amazing to think she'll be bigger than the leopard when she's grown," Loghain mused.

"It is amazing. But I believe it. She is bigger than a mountain lion cub already."

"You've seen mountain lion cubs?"

"Of course. They don't come down onto the plains too often, but they're everywhere up in the hills. I've even seen them near where we swam yesterday." She looked thoughtful for a moment while the lion cub gnawed gently on her hand. "Perhaps I should try and find one that needs a mother," she mused. "A mountain lion cub, I mean. Wouldn't that be fun? Having a mountain lion live in the castle with me?"

Loghain laughed out loud. "Only you, Rhianna, could possibly charm a mountain lion into being your pet." Rhianna's nose wrinkled for a moment, but then she burst into laughter as well.

There was merit, however, in the idea of getting the girl some sort of animal companion. Not a mountain lion; he doubted Rhianna's parents would allow that. But a mabari hound, perhaps. Not only would that give her some companionship, but a hound would offer protection as well. He'd have to remember to mention it to Bryce and Eleanor.

Probably not a good idea to take Rhianna to the breeding kennels, though. Mabaris chose their owners, not the other way around and in Rhianna's case, she was likely to bond with every puppy on the premises. And if she insisted on bringing all of them home (as she seemed likely to do, knowing Rhianna) Highever Castle would be overrun with slobbering furballs, all vying noisily for the girl's attention. Loghain chuckled softly at the image of that in his mind.

Rhianna gave him a curious look, cocking her head to one side. "What's so funny?"

"I was just thinking there aren't nearly enough dogs in Highever."

Loghain relaxed against the back of a crate, and for the next hour or so, he chatted with Rhianna and watched her play with the cub. And while no one spoke of it, all three felt it was a most agreeable way to pass the afternoon.



Chapter Text

30 Drakonis, 9:25 Dragon


Rhianna stood in front of the looking glass, staring at her own reflection. It was difficult to believe the girl gazing back was actually her. With her hair pulled up, and the paint on her face, wearing a fancy, old-fashioned dress, she looked older. Almost like a grown up. It was strange to see herself like this. Strange, but not in a bad way.

Her mother rested her hands on Rhianna's shoulders. "You look lovely, darling. And if you're ready, it's time for us to go downstairs and lead the procession to the market square."

Together, Rhianna and Eleanor made their way to the lower level of the castle and out the wide main gates. Walking beside her mother, Rhianna carried the only prop she would use for the performance: a longsword, the actual sword wielded by Haelia Cousland when she confronted the werewolves all those years ago. Less than an hour ago, her father had removed it from the family vault and brought it upstairs for Rhianna to bring with her. Made of silverite, it was huge and heavy and plain, with no ornamentation other than a rounded ball at the end of the handle. Rhianna couldn't possibly have wielded it - she wasn't strong enough yet - but, using both hands, she would be able to raise it above her head, at least for a few minutes, during the performance.

As they proceeded along the road into Highever, people who lived and worked in the castle fell into step behind them all along the way, joined by townspeople as they entered the city itself. By the time they'd reached the edge of the market square, there was a huge, boisterous crowd following behind, along with some of the extra guards Bryce had ordered to be present. Up above, the full moon had reached its highest point in the night sky.

At the edge of the square, Rhianna stopped and waited as she had been instructed to do, a throng of excited spectators between her and the platform. Most of the nobles were already seated in the stands; Rhianna could see King Maric and Prince Cailan, the Howe family, and Anora. Fergus and Oriana sat together, although baby Oren had been left at the castle with a nanny. Garrick and his wife were there, too, in the seats they'd been given as near as possible to the stage, just as Rhianna had requested. Two people, however, were noticeably absent. Earlier, Teyrn Loghain had told her he intended to watch from the floor of the square, so he could be closer to the stage. Nor was her father in the stands; he was waiting behind the curtains on the stage for the moment he would announce the start of the performance.

At a signal from Eleanor, a quartet of horn-blowers sounded the call to attention, their instruments fashioned out of the hollowed-out horns of oxen. Voices hushed, and all eyes turned to the stage as Bryce Cousland stepped from behind the curtains to address the crowd.


"Good evening." Bryce's voice carried easily over the square. "People of Highever, of the Coastlands, and honored guests, we welcome you to the Festival of Wolves: the celebration of our victory over the werewolves who terrorized these lands for so many years. Haelia Cousland - my ancestress, and the first Teyrna of Highever - united the Coastlands as never before, and led our people into victorious battle. Tonight, for the first time in a great many years, one of Haelia's own descendants will perform for you: my daughter, Lady Rhianna Cousland."

An excited murmur went through the crowd.

"This battle, this pivotal event in the history of Ferelden, has shaped us into the people we are today, as proud citizens of the Coastlands. But never let it be forgotten that the werewolves were also citizens of the Coastlands, and we honor them as well.

"Now, witness the reenactment of Haelia's historic victory!" He swept his arms wide, moving backwards to the side of the stage as musicians began to play a cheerful tune. Performers dressed as peasants streamed out from behind the curtains, and Bryce stepped out of view as the players took their places on stage.

From where he stood, Loghain had a good view not only of the stage, but also of the crowd. So far, he'd seen no indication anyone was here for anything other than entertainment. No one lurking suspiciously, or appearing armed under their clothing. All seemed calm.

With movements timed to flow with the music, the players acted out daily life in the Coastlands. The milkmaid carried her buckets, the blacksmith beat at his forge in time with the drums. The farmer tilled her fields while a merchant pushed the cart with his wares across the stage, each of them singing a song about the peaceful lives they led.

As the song reached its crescendo, with all the villagers singing in harmony, the curtains at the back of the stage parted, and a young boy raced onstage. "They're coming! They're coming! Run for your lives!"

Before the villagers could react, three black wolves - real wolves, huge and snarling - rushed through the curtains and began to attack the peasants, barking and growling and pulling on their clothing. Amidst chaos and screaming, the peasants crumpled to the ground.

A deafening "CRACK!" split the night air, bringing cries of alarm from the spectators. All eyes looked up as lightning flashed through the air above the stage. For nearly a minute, streaks of light danced and crashed together over their heads, an impressive display which was both beautiful and terrifying; surely the work of the Couslands' court mage.

When the last of the chain lightning had crackled away, the wolves were gone and only dark figures remained, lying motionless on the stage. The musicians again began to play, music that was no longer cheerful, but slow and plodding and ominous.

The crowd fell silent as the figures started to move, writhing on the ground at first, then pulling themselves to their feet. One by one, they staggered toward the front of the stage. As they moved into the glow cast by the flickering torches that lit the front of the stage, Loghain could see each of the figures was tall, and covered in dark fur, with long snouts, sharp, shiny pointed fangs, and long claws on their hands and their feet.


The werewolves spread themselves out along the edges of the stage, snarling and growling at the crowd. One of them threw back its head and howled. Someone in the crowd shrieked, causing others nearby to laugh nervously.

The tempo of the music sped up as more villagers emerged onto the stage, seemingly unaware of the threat that awaited them. The werewolves turned and attacked. Some of the villagers fought back with hoes or pitchforks, while others tried to run. In a few short minutes, though, all of them had fallen to the ground, moaning in agony or laying entirely still.

More lightning danced across the sky, and more of the fallen were "transformed" into murderous beasts. The werewolves returned to the front of the stage, in greater numbers than before, and began eyeing members of the audience, sniffing and huffing and clawing at the air with their front paws.

People at the front of the crowd began to whisper amongst themselves, shifting and glancing around nervously. One of the werewolves snarled at a young lady standing right in front of the stage, and she screamed in terror, cowering and pushing herself backward a few steps. The werewolf leapt into the space cleared in front of her, and grabbed her by the shoulders. She screamed as the beast sank its fangs into her throat, a scream cut off abruptly as she collapsed to the ground.

Now, other werewolves were eying members of the crowd, and the spectators began backing away from the stage. One by one, the werewolves jumped to the ground, forcing the crowd back and to the sides of the square, occasionally taking a victim. In just a few minutes, they had forced open a path in the crowd all the way from the stage to the back of the market square. For the first time, Loghain saw Rhianna, waiting, her face serene and determined.

One of the werewolves approached her, a creature nearly twice as tall as the girl. It growled and snarled before swiping at her with one of its claws. Chin held high, she stood her ground, not flinching as the claw swept mere inches from her face. Another beast loped through the square and came to stand in front of her, both creatures looking hungry for her blood. One of them howled, as the other snapped its jaws, crouching slightly as though it intended to pounce.

"ENOUGH!" Holding the sword in both hands, Rhianna lifted it high above her head. "I am Haelia Cousland, ruler of these lands, and I command you to STOP!"

Through narrowed eyes, she stared at the werewolves until they cowered before her. Staggering backward, they tried to get away from her, and her sword, as quickly as possible. When they had retreated about half the distance to the stage, Rhianna lowered the sword and strode through the crowd, down the path the werewolves and their "victims" who had been planted throughout the crowd, had cleared for her. The werewolves scurried away at her approach, and she mounted the wooden steps to the platform, moving to the front of the stage.

As Rhianna took her place at the center of the stage, the crowd, remembering this had been staged for their entertainment - the performance was the same every year, after all - cheered loudly, and moved to once again fill in the empty space in the square.

Onstage, the werewolves gathered in one dark corner, while more villagers came through the curtains. With the sword in her right hand, Rhianna brought it down quickly, stabbing the tip into the wooden stage. Resting one hand on the pommel, she raised her other hand high in the air, requesting silence from the audience.

"Good people of the Coastlands. You have suffered long enough under the teeth and the claws of these werewolves. You have lost your loved ones - either to death, or by seeing them transformed into creatures the Maker surely never intended." Her eyes sparkled, and her voice caught in all the right places, her pitch ebbing and swelling to create exactly the right mood. "The time has come for us to stand together and end for once and for all this terror that has plagued the Coastlands these many years."

These exact lines had been delivered at every Festival of Wolves for nearly five hundred years; Loghain had heard them himself, on more than one occasion. But he doubted anyone, ever, had spoken them with this much intensity or sincerity. Not since Haelia Cousland herself.

"Tonight, the Coastlands stand, for the first time, united. Together, we can accomplish what none of us could ever accomplish on our own!"

"Huzzah!" someone shouted from the back of the square, and a murmur of approval went through the crowd. Up on the stage, Rhianna looked older than her years. Not only that. She looked . . . regal. Like a queen out of one of the tales. Or a general preparing to lead her people into battle.

She paused, waiting for the crowd to become quiet again, and allowed her gaze to wander over the faces of the spectators. People responded to her, their eyes lighting up as if they hungered to hear her next words.

"Join me, people of the Coastlands. Join me and fight. Fight for your homes, for your loved ones, for the right to live free of fear. We shall retake the night, retake the full of the moon, and retake our beloved homeland!"

She shifted her body to grasp the sword with both hands. With a smooth, confident movement, she pulled it free from the wood, then swept it up above her head.

"We will fight," she shouted, "and we will be victorious!


The crowd burst into an uproar of noise: of shouting and stomping feet, cries of "Yes, Milady!" and "We stand with you, Milady!" and "We will fight, Milady!"

A chill ran down Loghain's spine. Yes, this reenactment was performed every year, and these shouts from the crowd are expected, a way of giving everyone a chance to be part of the event, to cheer and swear loyalty to whatever young woman had been chosen to play Haelia Cousland. Loghain had stood in this very market square on many previous years and enjoyed the show.

But tonight, something was different.

Above him on the stage, a young woman stood tall and proud, her arms bent slightly at the elbows under the weight of the huge sword, a slight frown on her face. Her lips were parted and her chest heaved slowly, as if from the effort of bending these people to her will. Yes, it was Rhianna on the stage, but not as he had ever seen her before. This . . . this was a glimpse of the woman she would someday become.

And she was magnificent.

He had given countless speeches in his life, to people whose lives rested on the decisions he would make, to soldiers he was sending into battle. Needing to inspire them and comfort them, knowing some of them would not live to see the next sunrise. Just now, what he heard in Rhianna's voice was what he had tried to convey in every one of those speeches.

This had become real to her. She had united the Coastlands and would lead these people into battle.

The spectators were caught up in it, too, in the drama of the moment. If she had asked it of them, asked them to fight for her, lay down their lives for her, they would have done it. Gladly. Taken up arms and followed her into battle.

Another woman's face appeared in his mind. Rowan. Right now, Rhianna reminded him of the queen. Not the way Rhianna looked, nor the sound of her voice. Not even the way she held herself, with her chin raised high in defiance of anything that would dare challenge her. It was her eyes. The way they glowed from within with a fire that inspired people to listen, to follow, to serve.

These people would have done anything Rhianna asked of them.

And at this moment, Loghain, too, would have followed her anywhere. Into battle. Into the darkspawn-infested depths of the Deep Roads. Into Orlais. Into the Black City itself. He would have done anything she commanded, and the knowledge left him feeling both exhilarated and . . . frightened.

Onstage, one by one, the "townspeople" moved to stand closer to her. Three or four members of the audience even climbed up on stage in their excitement, becoming part of her army. Rhianna turned her gaze to the corner where the werewolves stood, their furred bodies hunched, and shifting with nervous energy.

One of them snarled and ran at her, and in a smooth, sweeping movement, she brought the sword to the creature's throat. He dropped to his knees. Rhianna turned to the townspeople surrounding her and nodded once, slowly.

Battle cries filled the air: "For Haelia and the Coastlands!" and "For Ferelden and the Maker!" and in a rush, the townspeople ran at the werewolves, attacking and easily overwhelming them. One by one, the werewolves fell to the ground and lay motionless, and within minutes the townspeople were celebrating their victory, dancing or hugging one another. Some knelt in prayer over a fallen comrade, or even one of the werewolves.

Rhianna turned back to the audience, holding the sword down at her side and again raising one arm, briefly, requesting the crowd's silence.

"Tonight, on this, the full moon in the month of Drakonis, remember the victory of Haelia Cousland, the woman who united the Coastlands. Remember what she taught us: the importance of fighting side by side, rather than separately. We are far stronger when we join together than when we attempt to suffer through hardships alone.

"And never forget," she continued, her voice pitched slightly lower, but with greater volume, "that these creatures, these werewolves are not evil. They were once like you and me, but suffered from a curse beyond their control, and we must show them compassion. Tonight, we honor them as well, and honor the sacrifice of their lives, and acknowledge what they, too, suffered.

"And now, my friends, my fellow citizens of the Coastlands, my fellow FERELDANS!" she shouted, leaning forward, her eyes burning as her words were met with exuberant cheers. She waited a moment for the crowd to grow quiet again before she continued. "I give you the night of full moon. I give you the Festival of Wolves!"

As cheering began to erupt, she held up her hands, as if to stifle the shouting for one final moment. She grinned, the girlish grin of a twelve-year-old, and the spell was broken. She was no longer the teyrna who had united the Coastlands, no longer a general leading her soldiers to war, but once again the girl Loghain knew so well. When the crowd was quiet again, she shouted, "And my father told me to say he is providing the ale for the rest of your evening's pleasure! So enjoy yourselves, and enjoy the rest of the festival!"

The crowd burst into a cheer, no longer an army ready to be led into battle, but once again merely a crowd of merry-makers who had enjoyed the performance and were eager to get drunk at the good teyrn's expense.

As the crowd began to disburse, Rhianna relaxed, her shoulders slumping as she released the posture she'd held while performing. She didn't attempt to leave the stage; instead, she looked out into the crowd. She scanned the wooden stands, and then the crowd on the floor of the market place, as if she was looking for someone or something.

Her eyes found his face, and she stopped searching. Then, she smiled. A smile that outshined all the torches that lit up the city, that outshined the full moon, even the lightning cast earlier by the court mage. Loghain's breath caught in his chest when he realized that her smile - that beautiful smile - was intended for him.

Had the sight of his face ever before given someone so much pleasure?

Maker's breath. Maybe Maric was right. Rhianna was fond of Loghain, that much was clear. What if she still felt that way, what if those feelings grew into something more, when she was grown? Tonight, it was easy to believe such a thing possible. Perhaps he should speak to Bryce.


No. Maric was wrong. Good intentioned, perhaps, but wrong. Even if Rhianna did care, Loghain could not even consider marrying her. Yes, he'd been swept away along with everyone else during the performance. Mesmerized by the clothes and the hair and the way she spoke to the crowd. So confident. So strong. Such fire in her eyes. But all the arguments he had made to Maric the previous day were still valid.

If there was some chance he could make her happy, some chance he could remember what it was like to be loved and love someone in return, then perhaps. But he wasn't capable of that. Not any more. Too many years had passed, he'd done too many things for which he couldn't forgive himself. And he couldn't risk ruining Rhianna's life the way he'd ruined so many others. Not even if he was what she wanted. Perhaps especially if he was what she wanted.

Maric would call him stubborn. Tell him if he wanted something badly enough, he could make it happen. But Loghain wasn't Maric, and these things didn't come easily to him. Not that they came easily to Maric, frankly, no matter how much the man liked to think otherwise. Yes, Maric had allowed himself to fall in love any number of times . . . and look what had come of it. Every single time. No matter how cheerful the king appeared to most everyone else, Loghain had helped Maric to bed, senseless with drink, far too many nights to believe his friend was happy with the choices he had made.

No. Loghain could not be something other than what he was. Even if he wanted to change, he didn't know how. And he couldn't do that to Rhianna. Not to her. She deserved someone who could genuinely love her. She deserved a man far better than he was.

Something of his inner turmoil must have shown on his face, for her smile began to falter, and a small crease formed above her brow. Then she snapped her head to the left and peered out over the crowd, as if she were hearing something he could not hear, and looking for its source.

Then Loghain heard it too: screams, from the direction of the wharf, but seeming to move closer with every breath. When he looked back at the stage, Rhianna's eyes had sought him out again, and he saw her lips form his name - "Teyrn Loghain!" - but couldn't hear her voice over the noise of the crowd. Clearing a path for himself through the people who milled in the square, he reached the base of the stage just as Bryce joined Rhianna on the platform above. Loghain reached for her, and Rhianna stepped off of the stage into his arms. He set her on her feet, then offered Bryce a hand as the man leapt down to the ground. Loghain reached for the dagger tucked into his boot, and held it at the ready.

"Something's happening. I don't know what, but we've got to get out of here," Bryce insisted, his hands on Rhianna's shoulders. The market square was filled with people, most of whom had started to panic, pushing at one another with no thought of where they were going. Loghain's eyes flew to the wooden stands; it took only a moment to locate his daughter. She was with Maric and Cailan and several of the other nobles, and they were surrounded by armed guards. Her face was pale, but she looked fine otherwise. Her eyes met his across the distance, and she smiled, as if with relief to see that he was unharmed.

"Go!" she mouthed, with a sweep of her hand. He looked again at the guards, and decided that she and the others were more than adequately defended. And he needed to get Rhianna to safety. Now.

A guttural snarl erupted close by, and Loghain turned to see the man beside him bent over, as if in pain. Loghain stepped closer; perhaps the man had been injured and needed help. But as the figure stood straight, Loghain saw it was not a man at all, but something that appeared to be a cross between a human and a wolf. One that, unlike the costumed performers who prowled the square a few minutes ago, was real, with a long snout filled with long, pointed teeth. Its head was covered with shaggy fur, but the rest of the creature's body was naked, except for patches of fur on the arms and legs and covering the groin. Scraps of torn clothing hung from its limbs, slipping to the ground as Loghain watched.

Maker's blood. A werewolf. A living, breathing, actual werewolf.

The werewolf turned toward Loghain, but when its eyes alit on Rhianna, it moved in her direction. From behind her, Bryce pushed the girl out of the way, toward Loghain, and then darted forward between his daughter and the creature that had taken such an interest in her.

Raising an inhumanly long arm, the werewolf batted Bryce aside, sending him flying backwards against the stage, where he crumpled to the ground. Before the werewolf could ready itself for another attack, Loghain took a guess at where the creature's vital organs would be, and plunged his dagger into its back. Apparently, his aim was true, for the creature howled in agony, then collapsed and was still.

Rhianna and Loghain both hurried to Bryce's side as he struggled to sit up. "My leg," he moaned. "I think it's broken." Nearby, a woman screamed, high-pitched and piercing, and Loghain thought he heard another snarl. More of the creatures were attacking the crowd.

Bryce grabbed Loghain's arm. "Get her out of here. Get my daughter back to the castle. Please." The castle. Yes. The castle that had guards, and weapons, and gates that could be barred.

Loghain nodded, and began to stand, taking Rhianna's arm and urging her to her feet as well.

"Father, no!" Rhianna argued. "We can't just leave you here!"

"Go with Loghain, Pup," Bryce insisted. "I'll be fine, you'll see. I'm not the one they want." A howl echoed through the market square, much too close for comfort. "Now go with Loghain!" Bryce shouted. "Not another word!"

"Yes, Father." Rhianna allowed Loghain to help her to her feet. She still held the huge Cousland sword in one of her hands, even though she had no chance of wielding it properly.

"Trade with me?" he asked, holding the bloody dagger out in front of her. She looked confused for a moment, but then glanced down at the longsword she was holding.

"Yes, let's," she agreed. Offering him the pommel of the sword, she took the dagger in her left hand, bouncing it lightly to get a feel for its weight.

Loghain grasped Rhianna's free hand, and led her away from the stage. The market square was in chaos, people running in all directions, and a few lying on the ground, as well.

A huge furred beast ran in front of them. When it saw Rhianna, it seemed to recognize her, and turned in her direction. With one smooth motion, Loghain ran the longsword through its gut and yanked upward. He pulled out his sword and pushed the creature aside with one shoulder, leading Rhianna away before the thing had even hit the ground.

The entire city was in an uproar. Loghain and Rhianna were surrounded by a sea of panicked faces as they left the market square and turned up the main street leading to Highever Castle. These werewolves - if that is, indeed, what they were - didn't hesitate to attack. The night air was filled with the screams of townspeople who had been clawed and bitten and ripped at by the beasts.

Whenever one of the creatures approached, its shaggy head sticking up above the rest of the crowd, Loghain cut it down, but he made no attempt to go after them otherwise. Every scream that split the air made him cringe; it felt wrong run away from the battle when he could have helped these people, saved some of them. He could count on one hand the number of times in his life he had run away from a fight. But he had to protect Rhianna; that was the only thing that mattered. So he ignored the screaming, and focused on getting her through the chaos to the safety of the castle.

Before they'd gone far from the square, the street ahead was bathed in a flickering orange glow, where several vendors' stalls had been knocked over and set ablaze. An acrid smell of smoke stung his nostrils.

Damn it. There was no way they could get through the barricade, which cut off their route to the castle. "Is there another way to the castle?" Loghain shouted into Rhianna's ear.

"Yes. Follow me!"

Still hand in hand, with Rhianna leading the way, they doubled back for about half a block, then turned left into an alley. At first it appeared to be a dead end, but at the far end there was a narrow space between two buildings, barely wide enough for a horse to pass through. Rhianna darted into the passage, and they soon emerged on the other side. This alley was deserted, the sounds of screaming fainter now. Here, no torches were lit, and piles of refuse created a stink that permeated the air. A dead cat lay on the street alongside a filthy cobblestone wall. How was it Rhianna knew her way around what seemed to be one of the rougher districts in the town? Before he could dwell too long on the thought, though, they'd turned right into yet another alley, this one even less well lit.

Rhianna kept running, turning so many times, and so quickly, Loghain lost his sense of direction. Finally, they emerged onto a street wider than the back alleys they had just traversed. Rhianna turned right, and suddenly the castle loomed in front of them, not more than a few streets away at most. They were closer than he'd imagined. Thank the Maker. Or, rather, thank Rhianna's good knowledge of Highever town.

He squeezed her hand, and they exchanged smiles at the prospect of reaching the safety of the castle. But as they came within a few yards of the end of the street, three dark, impossibly tall figures came into view, blocking their exit. Rhianna and Loghain both slid to a halt simultaneously.

Maker's balls.

Even in shadow, there was no question that they were werewolves. And as they advanced, slowly, shifting side to side in a way that was disturbingly inhuman, there was no question they were anything but friendly.

Loghain began walking backwards, urging Rhianna along with him, slowly, never taking his eyes off of the creatures. If they could just get back to the alley, surely Rhianna knew her way through Highever better than these creatures did. Perhaps they could lose them in the maze of alleys.

But before they'd gone more than a few feet, the sounds of scraping and snarling could be heard behind them. Loghain turned to see two more of the creatures coming up behind, blocking their escape. Loghain angled his body so he and Rhianna could back up into a small alcove jutting off the street they were on. It didn't offer any route for escape, but at least their backs were protected, and he wouldn't be faced with opponents in front and behind.

As the werewolves moved into the center of the street, they were no longer hidden by the shadows of the building. In the light of the full moon, each of the creatures stood about seven feet tall, broad-chested, on legs which looked like the hind legs of a wolf. Probably with footprints that matched the tracks they'd found in the chamber beneath the ruins. Deep set eyes glowed maliciously in the moonlight as the werewolves snarled and snapped and growled.

"What luck." The beast that spoke was smaller than the rest, its dark fur speckled with grey. "It's the Cousland girl." There was an odor in the air now, musky and feral - the same scent that lingered in the underground room they'd found beneath the ruins. Only now it was stronger, sharper. Fresh. The scent of the werewolves.

The werewolf took a step closer, and Loghain stepped protectively in front of Rhianna.

Another of the creatures laughed, a deep rasping sound with no humor in it. "Do you think you'll be able to stop us from doing whatever we want to the child?"

"Besides," the first one drawled, "We don't intend to hurt her." He paused, laughing. If the howling, barking sound that erupted from his snout could be called a "laugh." "Well, perhaps I should say we don't intend to kill her. The transformation itself does hurt, just a bit, though."

"You will not touch even one hair on this girl's head." Loghain kept his face neutral, not wanting them to see any worry or doubt. "I don't know what you want with her, but I suggest you turn around now and leave. Leave Highever and never return. Because I assure you, as of tomorrow morning, there will be nowhere in the whole of the Coastlands that will provide you with safe shelter."

All of the wolves howled, literally, with laughter, and then moved forward, slowly. One of them stopped, dropping down on four feet while it sniffed in Loghain's direction. "Mmmmnh." The voice sounded vaguely female. "I like the smell of this one. Perhaps we should take both of them. It would be a waste to kill him." She stood straight again, and her tongue snaked out to slide over her teeth, a trail of saliva dripping from her jaws.

"I have no problem with that," said the first one. "Let's just get this over with. Either way, it's the girl who is important. It's the girl we want."

"Why?" Rhianna stepped forward, next to Loghain. Reflexively, he put his arm out to shield her from the wolves, but she appeared not to notice. She looked straight ahead, her jaw set determinedly. "What do you want with me? I've never done anything to hurt you. Nor any other wild creature."

"Because," a werewolf who had not yet spoken hissed softly, "you spawned from one who drove us into hiding. The Cousland, so many years ago. I was there, and I saw her with her flashing sword and her flashing eyes and her bloody hands as she murdered our kin."

"I had nothing to do with that." Rhianna's voice was calm. From where Loghain stood, he could see she was trembling, but not so much anyone farther away could notice. Frightened, but standing her ground. Good girl. "Besides," she continued, "how can you blame them for defending themselves? Or are the stories all lies, and werewolves never attacked and killed people? You can't expect people to sit back and allow themselves to be slaughtered."

Unfortunately, the werewolves were not in the mood for sensible debate. "Enough talk!" the short grey one snarled. "What happened in the past is past. I care only about tonight. And tonight, I want to taste her blood!"

As the werewolves began to advance, Loghain gently laid the flat edge of the sword against Rhianna's chest, urging her backwards until she was completely behind him again, out of the reach of any of the werewolves. "Stay away from them," he murmured over his shoulder, turning his head to the side without taking his eyes off the werewolves. "Roll out of the way, and don't let them touch you. And if you get the opportunity, leave me behind and run as fast as you can."

He circled the longsword in the air with a flourish, then bent at the knees, dropping into a crouch.


For one exquisitely long moment, the creatures stood motionless, stunned by the war cry that boomed off the stone walls of the alley. Loghain swung the sword at the closest one, making a wide arc that cut the creature's head cleanly from its body. As the others recovered from their shock, Loghain whirled around, slashing at another of the wolves as it prepared to attack. The werewolf dodged, but not quickly enough to avoid the blow, which landed against its lower back, sending the creature crashing to its knees. Loghain drove the heel of his boot into its spine, and it collapsed against the ground.

The other three werewolves paced back and forth, waiting for an opening to attack. The tight space, combined with the reach of Loghain's long arms and the sword, prevented them from attacking him all at once; they would have to do it in turns.

One of the wolves charged. Loghain feinted, then stepped to one side, put a foot out to trip the wolf, sending it sprawling. As it rolled and got back onto its feet for another attack, Loghain drove the tip of the longsword through the belly of another as it tried to dart past.

Now, only two remained standing, and they both ran at him at once. Loghain swung at the one on his left side, and prepared to sweep around and hit the other werewolf with a recovery swing, but it was out of range. Too late, he saw he'd made a mistake. The werewolf on the right had feinted instead of committing to an attack, and now rushed past Loghain in the wake of his failed swing, and headed straight for Rhianna.

She saw the creature coming, and attempted to roll to one side, as she'd done hundreds of times on the practice field, but her foot caught on the long hem of her gown, sending her crashing down on one knee. The werewolf reached for her, its claws gleaming white in the moonlight, and Rhianna slashed at it with Loghain's dagger. Her blow struck true, and the dagger glowed brightly for an instant, making a crackling sound. A gash appeared in the creature's arm, and the smell of burnt fur drifted through the air.

As the werewolf howled in pain, Rhianna tried to crawl away and Loghain rushed at the creature, but before he could get close enough to attack, the werewolf pounced, landing almost on top of the girl. She turned to face it, striking out again with the dagger, but it grabbed at her with a clawed hand, then leaned forward and bit down on her arm, its fangs tearing through the sleeve of her gown, and sinking into her flesh. Rhianna screamed, and stabbed it in the chest with the dagger, but the creature ignored her attack, throwing back its head and howling, as if in triumph.

Loghain skewered the creature, pushing his sword all the way through its furred body. Before he had time to recover from the attack, he heard a snarl behind him. The last werewolf still standing charged at him, slamming into him, knocking him forward onto his knees. He used the momentum of his fall to yank his sword out of the werewolf that had bitten Rhianna, and spun around. Putting one foot on the ground to steady himself, he held the sword up as if it were a pike, with its pommel supported by the ground. When the werewolf charged at him again, it impaled itself. Loghain turned his head to avoid the blood and saliva spraying from the creature's open jaws. As the werewolf crumpled to the ground, Loghain rolled out of the way.

All five of the werewolves now lay motionless. Loghain kicked at each of them in turn to assure himself they were really dead. Only the one he had stomped with his boot made any sound, a weak groan. Loghain pointed the longsword at the base of its skull, thrusting downward in a motion that silenced the beast forever.

He crouched beside Rhianna to examine the wound on her arm. He couldn't see the actual bite; there was too much blood soaking the sleeve of her gown, but she seemed to still have the use of her arm, which meant no bones had likely been broken. But one of the creatures had . . . bitten her. Maker's Breath. Even if the bite wasn't serious, she needed a healer. Now.

If a healer would even be able to help her. The bite of a werewolf . . .

Loghain took her face between his hands. "Rhianna." He looked directly into her eyes. They were filled with tears, and her lower lip was trembling. "You're going to be all right, do you hear me? We're going to find a healer for you."

"Am I . . ." she began, her voice small and scared; her tears weren't caused by the pain from the bite. "Will I turn into . . . one of them now?" A single tear crawled through the paint on her face left over from the evening's performance.

"No!" He didn't look away from her eyes, didn't even blink. "You will not turn into a werewolf, Rhianna. We will find some way to heal you."

The words "I promise" were on his tongue, but he stopped himself before speaking them. No matter how desperately he wanted her to be all right, he honestly didn't know if there was any cure, any way to help her. So, he left the promise unspoken, instead cutting a strip of fabric off of the bottom of his shirt so he could tie a tourniquet on her arm above the wound.

Please, Andraste. Let the mage who sent up the lightning have spirit magic, as well. And please let there be a cure. Please.

"We need to get to the castle," he said, helping Rhianna to her feet, taking care not to put any stress on her injured arm. There could be any number of those creatures still looking for Rhianna, and no way of knowing whether or not the guard had managed to get control of the village. Carrying the longsword at the ready, he took her by the hand.

As they passed by the dead werewolves, Rhianna gasped. "Look!" Four of the figures laying in the street were no longer beasts. Alongside a single fur-covered werewolf lay three men and a woman, naked and covered in their own blood. Rhianna looked down at the one who had bitten her.

"I know him." Rhianna's voice caught. "His name is Billy. He works with one of the fishmongers down at the wharf. I've known him for years, and he's always been nice to me. I just saw him last week. How could he possibly be a werewolf? I thought they all lived hidden away somewhere."

It was a good question.

"I don't know, Rhianna. Maybe he was just recently transformed. Or maybe . . ." He sighed. "I really don't know. But we need to get you to safety, in case more of those things are looking for you."

Hand in hand, they hurried toward the lights of the castle.


Chapter Text

30 Drakonis, 9:25 Dragon
Highever, Underground


The great hall of Highever Castle was crowded with people who had sought shelter from the carnage in town.


That was Loghain's first thought when he and Rhianna entered the hall. He needed to find his daughter, make certain she had made it out of the city safely.

As he began to scan the faces in the crowd, she appeared beside him.

"Father! Oh, Blessed Andraste. You're safe." She threw her arms around him, and he returned the embrace awkwardly, pulling her as close as he could while still holding the longsword in one hand, and Rhianna's hand in the other.

When Anora pulled away, she glanced down at Rhianna. "And you, Rhianna. Thank the Maker you're all right . . ." The smile slipped away when she noticed the blood staining Rhianna's sleeve.

Her eyes flew to his face. "Father?"

He shook his head to indicate he couldn't answer her question. Not now. "What of Maric?" he asked. "And Cailan, and the others?"

"Everyone is fine. The guards acted quickly, surrounding us before the attack had barely begun. It took them only a few minutes to kill . . . whatever those things were." She took in a deep breath. "Then, they escorted us back here as quickly as possible."

"And Bryce? Did he make it back to the castle?" Loghain asked. "We saw him the square. His leg had been broken."

"He's not back yet. But I overheard someone say he was all right. He's being carried back by some of the guards." Anora's face was pale as she glanced down at Rhianna, who stood silently, still clutching Loghain's hand.

Loghain had the urge to reach out to his daughter, to touch her face, run his hand down her arm, to reassure himself she was safe. But neither of his hands were free, so he merely asked, "Are you certain you're all right, Norrie?"

"Yes, I'm fine. Don't worry about me. It looks as though she needs the healer."

"She does. Have you seen Eleanor?"

Anora pointed to the opposite end of the hall. "Over there."

Loghain nodded his thanks. "Here," he said, handing her the Cousland sword. "Will you keep an eye on this?"

She took the sword. "Of course."

"Thank you." On impulse, he leaned close and kissed his daughter on the cheek, then hefted Rhianna up onto his hip, not wanting her to get jostled by the crowd.

Rhianna was bigger than the last time he'd carried her like this, but not much heavier. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and rested her head on his shoulder, still clutching his dagger in one of her fists, a trickle of blood - the werewolf's blood - running off of the blade and down onto her wrist.

Eleanor was applying a bandage to a wounded guard, and when she saw Loghain approach with Rhianna in his arms, relief flooded her face. She finished with the guard, then turned to Loghain.

"Blessed Andraste!" she exclaimed, putting her hand on Rhianna's shoulder. She hadn't yet noticed the wound on Rhianna's arm.

"Eleanor," he murmured, regretting the effect his next words would have. "We a need the healer. Now."

She looked more closely at her daughter, noticing the tourniquet and the blood staining the sleeve of her gown. One of the teyrna's hands flew to her mouth, and the color drained from her face.

"All right. I'll find Geoffrey, and we'll meet you in the library." With a worried glance at her daughter, Eleanor hurried off to find the mage.

Loghain eased his way out of the crowded hall, and made his way to the library. Setting Rhianna down on a cushioned bench, he knelt in front of her.

"How are you feeling?"

"I'm all right. My arm hurts a bit." Her voice was small and hollow. "But I don't feel . . . strange at all. Or different, in any way."

Loghain took the girl's face between his hands again. There was fear in her eyes. Fear he knew was reflected in his own. So he closed his eyes and leaned forward and rested his forehead against hers. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and they sat together without talking. All the things he could think of to say could wait until later. Right now, the silence was comforting.

The quiet was broken when Eleanor arrived, rushing into the room with a thin blonde man in robes beside her, and a woman in templar armor close behind.

"What happened? It's not . . . she's not badly injured, is she?" Eleanor sat on the bench beside her daughter, as Loghain pulled himself up from the floor and sat on Rhianna's other side, making room for the mage to kneel in front of the girl. The templar, a dark-skinned woman with an expression like stone, took up a position near the door and watched in silence.

"We were right beside the stage when the attack happened. Bryce was with us, but one of the creatures knocked him back and broke his leg, so he asked me to get her back to the castle. The main road was blocked. Rhianna got us through another way, but before we could reach the main gates, we were ambushed by five of those . . . creatures."

"I saw one of them." Eleanor's voice was brittle. "Are they really werewolves?"


"They said they were looking for me," Rhianna murmured. "But they didn't want to kill me. They wanted to turn me into . . . one of them. They wanted to turn me into a werewolf." Her lower lip quivered, but her eyes remained dry. "Teyrn Loghain killed them all, but one of them grabbed me first. Grabbed me and bit my arm."

"Bit your arm . . . Oh, Maker, no." Eleanor put a hand over her mouth, her eyes bright with unshed tears.

Seeing her mother's reaction, Rhianna sobbed once, and tears began to stream down her face. "I'm sorry, Mother. I'm sorry! I didn't mean for it to happen."

"Oh, darling." She pulled her daughter into her arms. "Of course you didn't. This isn't your fault. You're going to be fine. Do you understand? You're going to be just fine."

"Eleanor," Loghain urged. "The healer needs to look at her wound."

"Of course. I'm sorry, Geoffrey." She released her daughter, and the mage reached up to untie the tourniquet. Loghain eased the dagger from Rhianna's fingers, then used it to cut away the sleeve, exposing the bite on her arm.

Geoffrey examined the wounds, turning Rhianna's arm to and fro, using the discarded sleeve to wipe away the blood so he could better see the bite marks.

"The wounds themselves are not serious. They're clean puncture marks, no tearing. I can heal them, probably with no scarring at all." The mage looked into Eleanor's eyes. "But I don't know what to do about any . . . infection the bite might have conveyed. As far as I know . . . there is no cure."

Rhianna whimpered once, and began to inhale and exhale quickly through her mouth.

Loghain nearly swore aloud, as anger exploded inside of him. If only he could go back in time to the moment of his mistake, the moment he had turned to the left, instead of the right. If only he had a second chance, he would kill them all before they could get close enough to touch her. Damn it. Damn it all. He'd failed her. Rhianna trusted him, and he had failed her. He hadn't been strong enough, fast enough, smart enough to protect her from this.

Heaving himself to his feet, he crossed the room and began to pace, too furious with himself to sit still. He wanted to punch something hard enough to break the bones in his hand and make his knuckles bleed. He wanted to bash in the skulls of every one of those Maker-damned creatures. He wanted to strangle the life out of them with his bare hands and mutilate their dead bodies. If even a single werewolf remained in Highever, he would find it and he would kill it.

"Teyrn Loghain," Rhianna called to him from across the room. "Please, Teyrn Loghain." She sounded scared. More scared than he'd ever heard her before. "Please come sit with me."

He stopped pacing, trying to control his breath, trying to slow the racing of his heart. Rhianna's face was pale, her eyes the same shade of green they'd been when he'd pulled her out of the dungeon. Lighter, translucent, more brilliant than usual. It was a beautiful color, but he hated it; he'd only ever seen her eyes that color when she was unhappy, when she'd been crying.

She reached out to him, and he rushed to her side. Taking her hand in his own, he put an arm around her waist. He could feel her body trembling as she rested her head against him.

"Perhaps it would be best not to heal it, then?" Eleanor asked. "If there's some chance that might seal the infection inside. Perhaps we can try to clean it first, purge the wound of any . . . taint?"

"That might be possible," Geoffrey admitted. "I honestly don't know. I will write to the First Enchanter and see if has any information that can help her, knows of anything that can be done. Certainly, there's no harm in leaving the wounds as they are for now, cleaned and bandaged of course. If the message goes by horse, we could have a response in just a few days. In the meantime, giving her a hot bath and soaking the arm in mineral salts couldn't hurt."

"Yes," Eleanor agreed. "I'll do that."

Geoffrey got to his feet, and crossed over to the desk, where he began penning a letter.

Loghain nearly offered to take the message himself . . . but no. He had business in Highever tonight. As soon as Rhianna was settled, he would gather a party of guardsmen and scour the city for any of those creatures that might remain. When he discovered where they had been hiding, he would make certain none of them would ever see another cycle of the full moon. Along with those Maker-damned "Custodians," if they shared any responsibility for this attack.

"I'm going to find someone to deliver a letter to the Circle." Eleanor's voice shook as she rose from the bench. She laid a hand briefly on her daughter's head. "Then I'll take you upstairs for a bath, and bed. All right, darling?"

"Yes, Mother."

A moment later, Rhianna and Loghain were alone again, or might as well have been, with the mage scribbling away at the desk, and the unsmiling templar standing silently by the door.

Rhianna's fingers tightened around Loghain's hand. "Don't be angry at yourself. Please. It's not your fault. You were magnificent. There were just too many of them, and I wasn't fast enough to get away. The stupid dress tripped me. Please don't blame yourself."

How had she known what he'd been thinking? And how could she offer him absolution for this? Of course it was his fault, and he would never forgive himself if . . . well, there would be time to think about that later. Now, he needed to come up with some way to respond to her words, to her generous and wholly undeserved words.

He took a deep breath to calm himself as he stared into her eyes.

"You did well tonight, fighting against them." It was the truth. She'd been brave, had stood her ground and fought back when they attacked. Rhianna Cousland was a true warrior. "And no matter what happens," he leaned closer to catch her gaze, "you will never be alone. Do you understand me? Never."

She stared back at him, then nodded. She understood what he was telling her. Even if she turned into a werewolf, Loghain would never abandon her.

"I'm so scared," she whispered. "I don't want to turn into one of those . . . things." Loghain pulled her closer, releasing her hand to stroke her hair as she sobbed quietly into his shoulder.

They remained like this until Eleanor returned. A young girl in leathers was with her: the messenger, who was out the door again in less than a minute on her way to Kinloch Hold, with the letter from Geoffrey.

"Let's get you into bed, darling." The teyrna's voice was calm, but trembled as though she struggled with the effort. She offered Rhianna a hand, and the girl took it.

Somewhat reluctantly, Loghain released his hold on Rhianna. What if . . . something happened to her. What if this was the last time he ever saw her . . . like this? He forced those thoughts away, not wanting risk any of them showing on his face.

She hugged him tightly and pressed her lips to his cheek before following her mother out of the library. Before turning the corner into the hallway, she glanced back at him over her shoulder. The fear in her eyes, the way her bottom lip trembled, the way she tried to smile at him in spite of it all . . . these things, he would not soon forget.

"The little Cousland girl? Is she going to be all right?" For the first time, the templar spoke. Her expression was softer, worried. "She's . . . well, I don't really know her, but it seems she's a sweet girl, isn't she? I hope she's going to be all right."

Geoffrey, who had been sitting at the desk, staring at his hands, looked up. "We'll do everything we can for her, Lara. I swear it."

"Good," she replied, before falling silent again.

"Are there maps around here somewhere?" Loghain asked, addressing the mage. "Maps of the castle, and Highever town?"

"Yes, of course." Loghain followed the mage to a corner of the library, and together the men pulled down several rolled up parchments, as Loghain searched for the information he needed. The werewolves had not been present during the performance, and then had shown up very quickly. They had to have come from somewhere. Somewhere in the city . . . perhaps tunnels underground.

Before he'd found what he was looking for, a clatter of footsteps on stone announced the arrival of more people: Bryce Cousland, his leg in a splint, supported by a pair of guards. They were accompanied by Ser Gilmore, and an armored man Loghain recognized as the captain of the Highever city guard. The guards eased Bryce down onto the bench where Rhianna had been sitting just minutes before, and Ser Gilmore motioned for the healer to tend to the teyrn.

"Loghain." Bryce gave him an exhausted smile. "Thank the Maker you made it back. I trust Rhianna is all right?"

Loghain hesitated. "Rhianna is here in the castle. Eleanor just took her up to bed."

Something in Loghain's tone caught Bryce's attention. "Did something happen? Was she injured?"

Loghain held Bryce's gaze, taking a deep breath before answering. "She was bitten, Bryce. By one of those . . . creatures."

"Bitten?" Bryce's eyes grew wide with horror.

"Yes. On her arm. The bite itself wasn't serious."

"But those were werewolves . . ."

"Your healer has sent a message to First Enchanter Irving. Hopefully there will be some way to counteract an infection, if she did contract one."

"Maker's blood. It really was her they were after, wasn't it?" Bryce rubbed a hand across his face, looking as though he had aged ten years in the past few minutes. "Thank you, Loghain." He closed his eyes for a moment before continuing, "Thank you for bringing her back . . . alive."

Again, Loghain cursed himself for his mistake. If only he'd been able to keep Rhianna from being bitten in the first place. How had he been so stupid, failing to see that the damned creature was making a feint? His instincts should have been better than that, used to be better than that. But he would make this right. By all that was holy, if there was anything he could do to make this right, no force on earth would stop him.

"Pardon me, Your Grace," Geoffrey interrupted. "But I'm going to heal your leg now, if that's all right?"

"Yes, please." Bryce sat quietly while the mage spoke soft words. A sphere of blue light emerged from his palms and drifted like smoke over the place where the bone had broken. The light disappeared gradually, flowing into Bryce's leg as if sucked from the air by the wound. Bryce shifted, stretching his leg once, then again, then sat up to test whether or not he could put weight on it.

"Yes. That's good. Thank you, Geoffrey."

The mage bowed and backed away, and he and the templar left the room.

Bryce leaned forward and put his head in his hands for a long moment. Finally, he looked up.

"What are we going to do?" His voice was ragged. "If Rhianna's really been . . . infected? In spite of their long history here, I don't know anything useful about werewolves. That is what we're dealing with, isn't it? Werewolves? Real ones, not something out of a story."

"Yes,." Loghain replied. "It looked that way to me." Loghain turned to address the armored man. "Ser, you are the captain of the Highever guard?"

The man stepped forward, but before he could reply, Bryce spoke. "Yes, I apologize for not making an introduction. Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir, this is Ser Torvik. He is indeed captain of the city guard."

Loghain nodded a greeting, then asked, "Do you know how the attackers got into the city?"

"Yes, Your Grace. Well, sort of." Torvik was of average height and compact build, with ruddy skin, short blonde hair and a closely-trimmed mustache. "We believe some of them came up from underneath the city. There is an extensive network of tunnels, and a few of the creatures were seen coming up through storm drain grates, or other entrances leading underground. But," he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, then back again, "it was clear that a great many of them did not come up that way. That they were already in the city." He ran a hand across his short-cropped hair. "I know how this will sound, Your Grace . . . but most of them seemed to just . . . appear in the midst of the crowds. As if they transformed right there, on the spot, as soon as the performance ended."

"Yes, I saw something like that myself." Loghain turned to Bryce. "The one that attacked you. I looked around and suddenly there was a werewolf where there had not been one before." He paused. "Are there maps of these tunnels? I want to go down there, tonight, right now. Make certain there are no more of these creatures anywhere in, or near, Highever. Assuming this meets with your approval, Bryce?"

"Yes," Bryce agreed. "It most certainly meets with my approval. Let's start aboveground, then search the tunnels. And once we've cleansed Highever, we'll move on to the rest of the Coastlands."

"Your Grace?" Ser Gilmore's voice was tentative. "Are you certain you're leg is healed well enough for that?"

"My leg is fine." Bryce turned to Torvik. "Will you start organizing your men, guards, as well as some of the Regulars? Into four groups, I think. One to cover the area underneath the castle, one for the docks, one underneath Old Town in the east, and one for the western half of the city proper." To Loghain, "Does that sound reasonable?"


"Well, then," Bryce got to his feet. "Let's do this."


"This looks like the place."

Loghain stopped in front of a storm drain and glanced at the map in his hands. Yes, this was the entrance Ser Torvik had suggested they use to enter Highever's underground.

It hadn't taken long to organize an effort to hunt down the remaining werewolves; after the shock and horror of the initial attack wore off, there had been no shortage of volunteers. Leonas Bryland and Nathaniel Howe, Alfstanna and Irminric Eremon, Loren and Dairren Blaydon, along with Fergus Cousland, of course. Anora wanted to join them, but Loghain managed to convince her that her calming presence would be put to better use at the castle assisting Eleanor, especially in light of Rhianna's injury.

Of course, Maric and Cailan had insisted on being included, and even though Loghain wasn't pleased with them exposing themselves to danger, he had no luck convincing them to stay behind. He did insist they split up; Maric would stay with Loghain, while Cailan accompanied Ser Torvik, exploring what Loghain hoped would be the relatively safe area directly beneath Highever Castle. Everyone else was divided among the remaining groups of city guards and regular soldiers, and they all headed into the city, heavily armed and equipped with torches and maps.

Loghain and his party had already searched above ground in the western section of town, finding nothing but corpses. It was time to venture into the tunnels underneath the city.

The storm drain's iron grate was pushed to one side, and a ladder hung into the damp blackness below. On closer inspection, there were tufts of animal fur caught between some of the bars; apparently, at least one werewolf had entered the city this way.

"Keep your eyes open," Loghain warned. "These things die relatively easily, but they are large, and fast, and can cover more distance than you might imagine. Don't let them get too close, and avoid being bitten. And you," he muttered to Maric, "Don't leave my sight."

"Yes, Ser!" the king responded, with an exaggerated crossed-arm salute.

Down below, the tunnels were chilly and damp. The only light came from the torches they carried, and flickering shadows that danced and bobbed created the illusion of things moving in the darkness. There was an odor of stagnant water and musty earth and decay. Loghain had no idea when or why the tunnels had been built, but it appeared as though they had been in disuse for a very long time.

Loghain consulted the map. He intended to head west and south, as he had a theory he wanted to test. The mapped tunnels did not continue beyond the city limits, but Loghain suspected it was merely the map, and not the tunnel system itself, that ended at the edge of town.

As they moved through the passage, the sound of water was constant; sometimes a slow drip, sometimes an incessant trickle from somewhere above. It wasn't loud enough to cover the sound of an enemy's approach, however, so it was fairly easy to ignore. As was the occasional rat that darted across the path.

"It's been a while since we've been on a real adventure like this, hasn't it?" Maric whispered, his voice sounding entirely too excited. "You and I. Looking for werewolves. This seems more important than any of the things we do sitting around the throne room in Denerim, doesn't it? And maybe we'll find a way to help Rhianna. I really hope we can." He paused. "We will be able to help her, won't we?"

Maker's balls. Loghain had forgotten about Maric's inability to keep himself from chattering endlessly. Well, of course Loghain hadn't forgotten. He experienced it most days, first hand. But this was the first time in recent memory it had been inappropriate, rather than just vaguely annoying.

"Maric, please. We need to listen for anyone lurking in the shadows. But yes, I hope we will find a way to help her."

They came to a crossroads. After glancing at the map, Loghain pointed down the tunnel to the right. "That way, the tunnel should dead end soon, underneath the old granary. Ser Jana," he addressed a tall, solid woman who was a member of the Highever Regulars, and whom Loghain had assessed as having a good head on her shoulders, "I'd like you to take half of our group down the tunnel and verify this is the case." He showed her their location on the map. "It doesn't look as though there is any place where a cluster of werewolves could be hiding, but keep alert, nonetheless. When you've made sure there is nothing in that direction, meet us back here."

Ser Jana nodded, and started down the tunnel, with three others in tow. "The rest of us," Loghain continued, "will turn left here. This appears to be another dead end, assuming the maps are accurate."

"Do you really think the werewolves have been living under the city all this time?" Maric asked in a whisper that echoed off the walls as they made their way through the tunnel. "Certainly, there is plenty of room down here, but doesn't it seem strange in all these years, no one would have seen them?"

"Just because no one reported seeing werewolves here," one of the Regulars murmured, "doesn't mean no one saw any. Maybe everyone who's seen one was killed. To keep the secret." The man stopped talking, then added, "Your Majesty," as though he'd only just remembered he had addressed the King of Ferelden.

"Good point. But still. That many werewolves - how many were there, anyway? I must have seen nearly a dozen myself, and I know there were others all over the city. How can that many werewolves just hide?"

"Maric. Be quiet." The king's question was reasonable, but Loghain needed to listen for movement around them.

"Oh," Maric breathed. "Of course. Sorry."

Around a bend in the passage, they found their way blocked by heaps of rubble: a cave-in that happened some time ago, judging by the look of things. Here, for the first time, they saw signs of inhabitation. Filthy wadded up blankets and discarded clothing lay in piles along the walls, along with cups and cutlery, and the remains of a fire in the center of the space.

According to the map, the tunnel should have extended a short way further, but there was apparently no way to access it; there was a small opening in at the top of the piled up rocks, but it was not large enough for even a child, let alone a werewolf to pass through.

"What do you think about this?" Maric asked. "Perhaps this is where the werewolves have been living?"

With the tip of his sword, Loghain poked at one of the sodden bundles of clothing, then examined the floor for footprints. All the tracks appeared to be human. No, this place stank of poverty, not the strange scent of werewolves, the odor Rhianna had noticed in the hidden chamber at Thornhill, and that Loghain smelled on the creatures that attacked them tonight.

"These things were left here by people, not werewolves."

A few minutes later, they rejoined Ser Jana and continued down the main tunnel, which led nearly due west. Soon, the main passage ended, with tunnels leading off to the right and to the left. According to the map, the right-hand passage would likely dead end very soon, while the tunnel to the left continued farther. Again, he sent Ser Jana and her group off on their own down the dead end, while he led the others in the direction he assumed would go through.

At a fork in the tunnel, Loghain turned left, toward the city proper and the castle. Again, the passage was deserted, with no evidence anyone had passed this way in some time. It was, perhaps, a sign of Highever's prosperity that its underground was so empty of people with nowhere else to shelter themselves.

Glancing at the map, he saw they were past the point where this tunnel should have ended. That was curious. It certainly didn't look as though this section was any newer than the part they'd just traveled through, so why wasn't it drawn in? He heard a noise up ahead: a sharp clattering sound that echoed through the passage, and then something that might have been muffled voices.

Everyone in the party moved forward with even more caution until flickering lights appeared ahead. Damn. That meant their own torches were probably visible to whoever was approaching.

Loghain motioned to one of the archers, a petite red-haired woman. "Will you scout up ahead, and let us know the source of those lights? If they're hostile, don't engage them; just report back."

She nodded, and hurried off, completely silent. Loghain gestured that they should retreat down the path, just enough so the torchlight was no longer visible.

A few minutes later, she returned, no longer making the effort to hide the sound of her footsteps. The torchlight behind her was growing steadily brighter.

"It's the prince, ser," she reported. "Prince Cailan, and Ser Torvik." Another of the scouting parties? Then these tunnels connected in a way not shown on the map.

Loghain led his group up the tunnel, and soon the two parties approached one another, nodding their greetings. In addition to Cailan, Nathaniel Howe was with them.

"Well met, Your Majesty, Your Grace," Ser Torvik said.

"I thought you were searching underneath the castle?" Loghain asked.

"We were. And found a tunnel not on the map, and decided to explore. And ended up here."

"Yes, this section isn't on our map, either."

"Have you seen any of the creatures?" Maric asked.

"No," Cailan said, sounding disappointed. "Nor any people, either. Nothing of interest at all, really. It's been rather dull."

Loghain took a moment to study the map, memorizing the location of this tunnel so he could pencil it in back at the castle. Then, they bid Ser Torvik and the others farewell, and each group returned the way they had come. At the place where this tunnel joined with the main passage, they waited for Ser Jana.

She appeared a few minutes later. "We saw two of the creatures, Your Grace," she reported. "As you said, they die easily under a blade. They were in a locked room, but I don't think they were living there. Just taking shelter when they heard us approach. That's how it looked to me, anyway."

Together, they continued to the west, along the final stretch of tunnel drawn on Loghain's map. They had gone only a short distance, when Loghain felt resistance against one of his boots, accompanied by a soft "click." Without thinking, he leapt backwards, pulling Maric along with him. A moment later, a deafening flurry of rubble and rocks came crashing down from above: a trap, its tripwire triggered by Loghain's boot.

"Is everyone all right?" A chorus of responses indicated no one had been injured. They were fortunate in that, but even so, Loghain cursed himself for being careless. Assassination attempts aside, it had been quite some time since he'd found himself in a genuine life-or-death situation. Clearly, he needed to increase his level of awareness.

There was not enough rubble to fully block the path, and it was short work to make the tunnel passable again. They had, however, made enough noise to alert everyone in a rather large radius of their presence. Unfortunate, but there was nothing to be done about it now.

They continued west, and just as shown on the map, the tunnel terminated in a dead end. But something about the stone wall looked odd. It wasn't quite the same color as the walls of the tunnels through which they had just passed. And an inspection of the dirt floor revealed a number of unusual footprints, including some that were padded and clawed.

Maric grabbed the torch from Loghain's hand, and looked more closely at the wall. "Is it my imagination, or does this look a bit . . . wrong?" he asked. Maric examined the wall, running his hands over the stone, probing with his fingers into crevices. He pushed gently in a slight depression, about seven feet above the floor. As had happened at Thornhill, a section of wall slid open with a grating sound.

Maker's balls. The man had a knack for finding hidden entrances.

Maric turned to Loghain, a triumphant grin on his face. "I'm getting good at this, aren't I? Here," he handed Loghain the torch. "After you."

They entered the unmapped section, which seemed to be heading generally west, although it bent and curved occasionally. After about ten minutes, Loghain stopped and consulted the map. They were far beyond the point where the map of the tunnels had ended, but in his mind, Loghain overlaid this map of the Highever underground with the map Rhianna had showed him the previous day when she was explaining where the Alamarri ruins were located. If memory served, they were now directly underneath the hills that separated the ruins from Highever Castle. What had Rhianna said? They're actually very close to the castle as the crow flies, on the other side of the highlands. If we could go straight through, it would only take a few minutes to ride there.

"Maker's blood," he swore softly. "We are going to end up back at those damned ruins."

A sound rang out in the tunnel ahead of them, the sound of wood on stone, perhaps the slamming of a door. Weapons drawn, they continued to a place where two tunnels branched off the main passage, one to either side. Loghain had tucked the map into his pack; it was useless now. But judging by the number of turns the tunnel had made, Loghain wagered the path continuing straight would lead to their ultimate destination.

He sent Ser Jana off to the right, and led his own group to the left. The tunnel soon ended, widening into a round alcove into which three wooden doors were set, all of them closed.

"Which one should we try first, Maric?"

"Hmm." Maric rubbed at his chin. "The one in the middle." Loghain stepped forward and tried the handle, but the door was locked. As he didn't share Rhianna's skill at lockpicking, and didn't have the patience to see if one of the others did, he stepped back and kicked at the door handle. With a sharp "crack," the door splintered, and swung open into a room lit by torches.

The room had three occupants: a woman holding a bastard sword, a man in long robes who began gesturing with his hands, and a werewolf who lunged toward the door.

"MAGE!" Loghain warned, stepping back and out of the doorway. "Take him down first!"

Making sure Maric was behind him, Loghain waited for the werewolf to emerge into the hallway. As soon as the beast cleared the doorway, Loghain attacked before it had a chance to leap at any of his party. With so many of them in such a tight space, Loghain was unable to bring his arms up to fully swing the sword. Instead, he stabbed forward, trying to impale the creature. The werewolf leapt to one side, dodging the attack. Loghain stepped sideways, wanting to keep himself between the creature and Maric without blocking the archer's view of the mage.

Loghain dodged a swipe of one of the creature's long arms, as two of the Highever guards rushed past to engage the humans still inside the room. A blinding flash of light lit up the hallway. Trying to avoid being hit with the spell, the archer threw herself to one side. Loghain stabbed again at the werewolf, this time managing to pierce one of its furred haunches. The creature snarled, and lunged forward, snapping its jaws, but Loghain ducked out of the way. Stumbling, the creature struggled to recover from its unsuccessful attack.

Maric darted into the space Loghain had vacated, slashing his sword at the creature and opening up a gash along its side.

"Maric!" Loghain bellowed. "Get back!" The werewolf, angered by Maric's attack, turned away from Loghain. It snarled and pawed at the floor with one foot, then charged. Maric's eyes grew wide as he brought his sword up to shield himself from the attack. The werewolf batted the sword aside as though it were made of wood. With a sweep of its other arm, it sent Maric backwards against the wall. He crumpled to the ground and laid still.

Saliva dripping from its jaws, the werewolf took a step toward the king.

"Come and get me if you dare!" Loghain shouted, banging the pommel of his sword against his shield. The werewolf swiveled its head in the direction of the sound. Loghain rushed forward, smashing his shield into the side of the creature's face, following quickly with a downward slash of his sword. The blow tore through the flesh above the creature's shoulders, and it howled, lashing out with its claws. Dancing backward, Loghain avoided being hit.

The werewolf lunged forward, jaws snapping. Planting his feet on the ground and bending at the knees, Loghain let the creature's own momentum slam it up against the shield. The werewolf was knocked back a half step, losing its footing in a slick puddle of blood on the floor.

Giving the beast no time to recover, Loghain charged, swinging his sword at the werewolf's neck. A loud "crack" sounded through the hallway as the creature's neck snapped, though the blow failed to sever its head. The werewolf fell to its knees, howling and clawing at the air, then slumped to the ground. It twitched a few times before laying motionless.

"Maric!" Loghain dropped his sword and hurried to his friend's side.

Still slumped against the wall, Maric opened his eyes and blinked up at Loghain. "I'm all right. Just had the wind knocked out of me. Go help the others."

Loghain stood, and helped Maric to his feet. Judging by the quiet in the room nearby, the guards had dealt with the two humans.

"Does it seem strange to anyone else," the red-haired archer asked, "the werewolf hadn't attacked those two people? As if they were . . . working together. Is that possible?"

"The Custodians of the Wolves," Maric replied. "Those people, they must have been Custodians." When he saw the frown on the young woman's face, he explained, "The Custodians are a secret organization that formed in the Black Age to protect and avenge the werewolves. I expect they were involved in the attack earlier this evening."

Yes, Bryce had been right after all; it certainly appeared as though the Custodians were still active in the Coastlands.

Not for long, though. Not after tonight.

After making certain no one had sustained any serious injuries, Loghain searched the room. A locked drawer in the desk - opened easily with his sword - revealed a sheath of papers that looked like they might be of interest. He shoved them into his pack, to study later. There were also a few small glass vials containing a shimmering dark blue liquid; they went into the pack as well. Otherwise, there was the expected assortment of clothing and weapons, but nothing else that seemed of particular interest.

There was nothing of use in the other two rooms either, and as they prepared to return down the tunnel, he glanced at the werewolf on the floor, laying in a pool of its own blood, gleaming teeth peeking out from its opened jaws. A werewolf . . .

That seemed important, somehow.

"It didn't turn back into a human," Maric said, echoing Loghain's own thoughts exactly. The two men looked at one another, and glanced at the other members of their party, but no one had anything else to add. None of them had any idea what significance this might have.

Loghain led the way back to the main tunnel, where Ser Jana and her team were waiting.

"We found no one, Your Grace," she reported. "Just some rooms that looked like they were being lived in, and I found this book," she handed Loghain a leather-bound tome with mold stains on its binding, "but there didn't appear to be anything else useful."

All together once again, they continued down the main tunnel, trying to move as silently as possible. Every so often, they came upon a door that opened off of the tunnel. Each was inspected; most were empty, but two of them contained werewolves who were readily dispatched.

Judging by the distance they had traveled, it seemed they must have crossed under the hills above, assuming his guess this would lead them back to the ruins was correct.

They came to yet another door, this one locked. When Loghain kicked it in, they discovered a lone woman lying on the bed, as though she had been sleeping. One of her arms was bandaged; most likely she had been wounded in the chaos earlier in the city. Shaking her head as if to clear it, she leapt from the bed. A longsword lay on the table, and she began to reach for it, but then seemed to change her mind, and ran instead to the desk in the far corner of the room. She pulled a small vial out of a drawer, identical to those Loghain had found earlier, and pulled out the stopper. Putting it to her lips, she drained the entire vial in one swallow.

Her head twitched to the side, once, twice, a third time. Then, as Loghain and the others watched, her body began to shudder violently. She cried out, her eyes squeezing closed and her mouth twisting as though she were in great pain. Panting heavily through her open mouth, she shuddered again as her skin began to darken in color. She moaned, and her eyes flew open; they had changed color, the irises now yellow and seeming to glow from within.

A moment later, the rest of her face began to change. Her nose pushed forward into a dog-like snout, her jaws lengthened, her teeth elongated and formed sharp points at the tips. Shaggy fur sprouted from her face and head, as the muscles in her arms bulged outward and her fingers merged to become paws. Sharp claws broke through the skin, and her clothes began to tear at the seams as she grew taller and broader. By the time the shredded scraps of fabric fell to the floor, the figure standing before them was a woman no longer, but a werewolf.

Snarling, it leapt up on the table, sweeping its gaze across the intruders. Loghain motioned for everyone to move back into the hallway, forcing the creature to come out where they would have the advantage of space and numbers. It howled, then hopped down from the table and stalked through the door. Both archers aimed and fired, one of the shots going wide, and the other hitting the creature's arm, but not lodging itself deeply enough to do real damage. The beast tossed its head, snarling, and brushed away the arrow with one of its paws. Crouching low, it glared at the woman whose arrow had struck home, and growled, a rumbling sound deep in its throat.

Again, Loghain made certain he was positioned between the creature and Maric. The red-headed archer fired again, the arrow piercing the flesh just below the creature's collar bone. The werewolf shuddered from the impact. Loghain took the opportunity to lunge forward and hit it across the face with his shield. Simultaneously, Ser Jana stabbed the creature in the shoulder. The werewolf whirled around to face Ser Jana, but its movements were clumsy, as if it were still disoriented from the transformation.

Sensing the creature's hesitation, Ser Jana stabbed at the center of its chest. The werewolf swung one of its arms, but Ser Jana leapt back to dodge the blow. Another of the Regulars rushed forward, sweeping his sword across the back of the werewolf's legs. The beast crashed to the ground, whimpering in pain. Using its forelimbs, it tried to crawl away, but again Ser Jana was there. One final blow to the back of the creature's skill, and it fell limp onto the ground.

Almost as soon as life had fled the creature's body, the reverse transformation began. Shaggy fur retreated back into the skin. The snout flattened, revealing the woman's face. Limbs twisted and shrank until they appeared human once again. In less than a minute, a woman lay on the ground, naked, blood still oozing from the wounds that had killed her.

"What in the name of the Black City just happened?" Maric stared at the dead woman, looking vaguely nauseous. "A potion? Some magic that allows the werewolves to control their transformations?" He turned to Loghain. "Did you know such a thing was possible?"


"But if there's a potion," Maric continued, "if it's possible for them to change at will, why in the world would they remain in hiding? They could live among the rest of us, and just . . . not transform."

"Perhaps," the red-headed archer suggested, "they can only remain in human form for short periods without taking more of the potion. Or perhaps it's difficult to make, or requires rare ingredients? They might not be able to use it all the time."

"True," Maric replied, but he glanced up at Loghain with an expression that was easy to read. If there was a way of controlling the transformation, it might be of use to Rhianna.

Yes. If such a potion existed, Rhianna would have it. Bryce Cousland was a wealthy man with the resources to procure it no matter how difficult or expensive. Anything, for the well-being of his daughter. And if it were a matter of seeking out hard-to-find ingredients, Loghain himself would sail around the world if necessary, to find them and bring them back.

Loghain stepped around the body, and entered the room. The vial lay on the floor where she had dropped it. Lifting it to his nose, he sniffed the opened end. It smelled like lyrium and blood and flowers; not an unpleasant odor, but somehow disquieting. In the desk, he found three identical vials, all of which went into the pack with those he had discovered earlier.

"You know what else is curious?" Maric mused. "That some of them stay in wolf form after they die, while others transform back."

"The same thing happened with the werewolves Rhianna and I fought in the city," Loghain confirmed. "Four of them reverted to human shape; only one did not."

"Perhaps it has something to do with the potion," Ser Jana suggested. "We know this one used it, and she turned back into human form. Perhaps the ones who remain wolves aren't using the potion for some reason."

"Possibly," Loghain agreed. "With any luck, we'll be able to get more answers after having a mage look at those vials we've found."

Again, they continued down the passage. Unless his sense of direction had failed him entirely, they should be nearly underneath the ruins by now. Sure enough, as they continued around a bend in the tunnel, they came to its end. A large wooden door, much like the one Maric found the previous day, was set into a stone archway.

"Ser Jana," Loghain whispered, "I want you up front with me, and the others right behind. Archers at the ready. Maric, you just stay out of sight."

Loghain tried the handle; surprisingly, it was unlocked. No sounds from the other side gave any indication of what lay beyond. He turned the handle and pulled open the door, standing behind it to shield himself from any attack.

When no attack came, he eased his way around to peer into the room. He had expected a round chamber, but this room was square, about thirty feet in length. A large wooden table dominated the center of the room, and behind it stood a thin, balding man wearing elaborately embroidered robes. An apostate mage. Two other humans - a man in leathers and a woman in chainmail - sat on either side of the mage. Behind them, five werewolves shifted restlessly on their feet, as though only barely restraining themselves from making an attack. The room appeared to be both a meeting room and living space; in addition to the table, bookshelves and a large desk stood against one wall, with a row of beds along the other.

Loghain adjusted his grip on the pommel of his sword, but the mage did not appear to be preparing to cast, nor did any of the others make any threatening movements.

"Please come in," the balding man said in a rich baritone voice. "We have no wish to fight you, if such violence can be avoided."

Loghain motioned for Maric to remain out of sight; no point in advertising the fact that the King of Ferelden was one of the members of their party. He indicated that two of the guards should stay behind with the king, while Ser Jana and the others accompanied him into the room.

"Good." A thin smile crossed the man's face as he gestured that they should come closer. "And welcome. If I'm not mistaken, you are the Teyrn of Gwaren, are you not? Loghain Mac Tir. It is an honor to meet you, ser. A bona fide hero."

"You have me at a disadvantage, then," Loghain replied. "As I have no idea who you are."

"Ah, of course. My apologies. An introduction is in order. My name is Everen Kochin, and I am the leader of the Custodians of the Wolves. I trust you have heard of our organization?"

"I was recently made aware of the Custodians, yes. Although many believe your order died out long ago."

"Oh no," Kochin chuckled, a sound that was not reassuring. "We are still here, as ever. And here we will remain until our mission is complete."

"Your mission?"

"To avenge our ancestors and friends. The werewolves who were persecuted for deeds over which they had no control. For the innocent who were banished from their homes, torn from their families. Killed, in cold blood, by the townspeople who once claimed to be their friends, their kin. For the werewolves who still survive to this day, banished from society, forced to live in hiding and constant fear."

"Fear?" Loghain's eyes narrowed. "Don't you have that the wrong way around? This evening, it was your 'friends' who terrorized the people of Highever."

"Of course the werewolves are capable of destruction. But only out of self-defense. They have been persecuted, mercilessly. Surely, you can see that?"

Five werewolves and three humans, one of them a mage. Not the best possible odds in a fight. Not yet. Probably best not to argue until Loghain could figure out a way to improve those odds.

"I don't deny the werewolves have suffered," Loghain replied. "That still doesn't explain what you hoped to gain by attacking the city. By attacking innocent people who have never seen a werewolf in their lives." The image of Rhianna, blood soaking into her sleeve, came into his mind. "By targeting the Cousland girl." He worked to keep his expression neutral. "So much time has passed, perhaps you could have convinced people to allow the werewolves back into society. But after last night? That's not going to happen anytime soon."

"It wouldn't have happened at all," the woman at the table retorted. "Humans, they think of the werewolves as beasts, but they are the ones with no compassion, with no forgiveness."

She glanced at Kochin, and he gave her a warm smile before turning his attention back to Loghain. "This is true. Humans would never just allow werewolves to rejoin their society. Not without some incentive." He smirked. "That's why we went after the Cousland girl. We never had any intention of killing her. But if she were to be transformed into a werewolf? That would force her father to deal with us in a more equitable manner."

"Clearly, you know little about Rhianna Cousland," Loghain replied. "The girl has a great affinity for animals, and could have been a powerful ally if you'd wanted to make some sort of peace. But now? Judging by her father's mood last time I spoke with him, all you accomplished tonight was enraging him enough to ensure every werewolf in the Coastlands - and all of the Custodians as well - die swift but painful deaths."

"Ah . . . then she was bitten?" Pleasure was barely concealed in his voice. "I had hoped as much, but sadly no one who returned this evening could be certain of what happened to the girl."

"Yes, she was bitten. And if she was infected, I can assure you no good will come of it for you or your friends. Even if there is a cure that allows the werewolves to control their transformations."

"A cure? What are you talking about? There is no cure, nor is there any way for the werewolves to control their transformations . . ." His brows lifted. "Oh! You mean the Elixir of the Wolf. A dark blue potion?"


"Ah, well, sadly, that has no effect on true werewolves. It is something that we, the Custodians, use to give ourselves the power of the werewolves for a short time."

"The potion . . . transforms you into werewolves?"

"Not really, no. We don't become actual werewolves; we only take on their characteristics for a few hours. Even so, it's quite . . . exhilarating. Running as fast as the wind, with the strength of ten men. The freedom, the power. Truly exhilarating." The man chuckled. "You should try it sometime. You could try it right now, if you like." He pulled a small vial from a pocket in his robes. He extended his arm, offering it to Loghain.

Loghain sheathed his sword, and unstrapped his shield and slung it on his back, then stepped forward to claim the vial. Unstoppering the lid, he sniffed at the liquid inside. Yes, this was the same mixture the woman had imbibed.

Replacing the stopper, Loghain handed it back to the mage. "No thank you. I've seen enough bloodshed tonight. That is what your potion encourages, is it not?"

The mage shrugged. "It is true, it enhances the bestial nature of the person who transforms. We are all just animals, when it comes down to it. The elixir merely allows us to . . . express these qualities without inhibition. Really," he urged. "I am a good judge of people. I'm certain you would enjoy this. A great deal." A crooked smile spread across the man's face.

Loghain ignored the remark. "Is this, then, why some of the creatures who attacked Highever returned to human form after they were killed? And others remained in beast form?"

"'Creatures' is such an unfriendly word, don't you agree?"

"Is that why some of the werewolves returned to human form?" Loghain amended, keeping his voice calm.

"Yes. True werewolves do not revert back."

The creature that had attacked Rhianna had gone back to human form. Which meant he was a Custodian.

"Do those under the influence of this elixir have the ability to infect those who are bitten?"

"No, the elixir does not confer the full powers of the werewolf. Only the form, the speed, and the fury. Unfortunately, we are not able to pass along the werewolves' blessing."

Thank the Maker. Rhianna was in no danger of being infected. Loghain exhaled and closed his eyes briefly, as relief flooded him.

Kochin cocked his head to one side. "You know this Cousland girl personally, don't you?"

Damn. He should have worked harder to keep his expression neutral.

"What about them?" Loghain nodded toward the werewolves prowling the back of the room. "Are they . . . genuine? Or transformed Custodians?"

"All Custodians, I'm afraid. The number of genuine werewolves has diminished dramatically. And so many were lost in tonight's battle. Of course, they do have ways of recruiting new members."

Good. There was no danger of any of his people being infected. That improved the odds, although he was still concerned about the fact this Kochin was obviously a mage, and the strength of even the false werewolves was formidable.

"So, what is it you want?" He hoped his tone conveyed a willingness to negotiate. "Do you intend to continue your attacks on the people of Highever, or did you accomplish your goal during the festival? I hope the fact you've invited us to parlay means there is a chance we can reach some kind of accord?"

"What do we want?" Kochin scoffed. "Haven't I already explained that? We want freedom for the werewolves. We want revenge on the Cousland family for the persecution they have wrought over the years. I invited you to parlay because it is clear you are capable fighters, and the Custodians are few enough in number - and werewolves far fewer - that I would prefer there be no more blood shed." He shrugged. "I suppose the only thing I want from you right now is for you to turn around and walk out of here. I could offer good coin if I thought it would entice you to leave without revealing our location to the Highever guards, but I suspect you, in particular, would not be swayed by such an offer. Although," he glanced at the other soldiers alongside Loghain, all of whom wore regulation armor, and were clearly not knights or elite guards, "I suspect some of your companions wouldn't say no to some easy gold."

Ser Jana stood a bit straighter, and glared at the apostate, but two of the city guards shifted uncomfortably. Yes, they probably could have been bought under different circumstances, but it was unlikely they would be stupid enough to switch sides now.

"In any case," the apostate continued, "what I am asking is for you to turn around and leave. By the time you make your way back to the castle, we'll be long gone. You will never have to set eyes on us again."

"And what about the Couslands?"

"What about the Couslands?"

"Do you still intend to target them? To try and infect the girl?"

Kochin snorted. "This week? Not likely. I can't promise we will never make another attempt, though." The man's eyes narrowed, and he chuckled. "Oh, you do know the girl, don't you? I wonder . . . just how well do you know the little Cousland girl?" The man winked.

Loghain chose to ignore the man's comment, in favor of a question that had just occurred to him.

"The inn keeper. A man called Farr. Did you have something to do with his death?"

"Breyton Farr?" The apostate blinked in surprise, not expecting the sudden change of subject. "Yes. That was . . . regrettable. We . . . we require lyrium, in small amounts, for the elixir. Farr was supposed to procure some for us, but the transaction was . . . interrupted. And sometimes my friends become agitated, and it's difficult to reason with them. If you know what I mean."

Well, at least that was the answer to one mystery. Well, more than one, really. And probably, this conversation had run its course. It was time to end this.

"All right. We'll leave," Loghain said simply. He heard a sharp intake of breath from Ser Jana; he'd chastise her later for that. Assuming any of them made it out of here. "But I want the details about that elixir, and how to make it. And I want a promise from you. A promise you will not harm the Cousland girl at any time in the future." He caught the other man's gaze. "As it so happens, I have other plans for her." He raised an eyebrow to make his meaning clear.

Kochin laughed, throaty, rich laughter. Yes, of course the man readily believed Loghain had lecherous designs on Rhianna. The corrupt are always so willing to believe the worst in others. "Fair enough. You can have the girl. I can't say I blame you. I saw her performance. She is a pretty little thing. Rather spirited, too. Perhaps we'll target her brother instead. Or his young son. At any rate, I suppose there's no harm in showing you the formula for the elixir. Here. Come."

The mage crossed to the desk, indicating Loghain should follow. Loghain turned his head just enough to signal Ser Jana with a wink so she would be ready. Keeping his hand hidden from view, he drew his dagger and held it down at his side.

Please Andraste, let us get out of here alive.

Kochin opened the wooden cover on the desk, and shuffled through a pile of parchments. Pulling one out of the stack, he turned to Loghain, smiling.

"Here. The formula for the Elixir of the Wolf. I am quite serious, my friend. You really should give it a try."

"And I am quite serious, my friend," Loghain said calmly, reaching out with his left hand toward the parchment. "You should never have threatened Rhianna Cousland."

Instead of taking the parchment, he grasped the front of the man's robes, pulling the apostate close and sinking his dagger into the man's belly. He yanked upward, making a wound that would be fatal in a very short time. Kochin's eyes grew wide, and before he could even begin the words of a spell, he slumped over onto the desk. Stupid man. The Custodians harmed Rhianna; none of them would be allowed to live.

Loghain released his dagger, reaching for his weapon as chaos erupted across the room. With the sword raised above his head, he lunged at the woman who had been seated at the table. She managed to unsheathe her blade in time to parry his blow, and he moved around behind the table for a better angle of attack. Ser Jana had already engaged with the man in leathers who had drawn a pair of daggers as he'd risen from the table. Simultaneously, the werewolves leapt forward and the rest of the soldiers drew their weapons. The three who had remained in the hallway, including Maric, damn him, rushed into the room. All around was noise: shouting, snarling, the scratch of claws on stone, and the wet thunk of weapons against flesh and bone.

The woman swung at Loghain, but he blocked the strike with his sword. Before she'd recovered from her swing, he lunged forward to slam his shoulder against her body, and she fell backwards against the table. He slashed at her again, but she rolled out of the way, avoiding the blow. Pushing herself away from the table, she stabbed at him. Loghain tried to dodge the blow, but the point of her blade slipped in past his armor at the elbow joint. Grunting from the pain, he pulled back a step. Bringing his sword arm up, he sliced down at her neck. The sound of her collarbone snapping echoed through the room. Moaning, she whirled around, trying once more to deal some damage, but she was unable to lift her arm enough to swing. He kicked her legs out from under her, then finished her off with the point of his sword to her throat.

He looked around for Maric. The king was near the door, sword drawn but not actually engaged with any of the beasts. Good. Loghain began to work his way in that direction.

Across the room, one of the werewolves sprinted toward the red-haired archer. She fired a shot at the creature, knocking it back for a moment, but then it continued toward her. Loghain charged in that direction, but before he could get close, the beast pounced on her, ripping into woman's throat, then howling in triumph, spraying blood into Loghain's face. She crumpled to the ground, clutching at her throat as if she could press the flesh back together to save herself.

"Die, blast you!" he shouted, as his sword sliced through the werewolf's neck, silencing it forever. The creature slumped down, falling on top of the archer. With an airy, gasping sound, she tried to push the furred body away with her hands, and with her legs. Loghain grabbed it by the shoulder, and pulled it off of her, dropping it roughly to the ground. The archer - he'd never even known her name - smiled up at him for one brief moment, before her head fell backward, and the life dimmed from her eyes.

Cursing, Loghain turned and headed toward Maric, who had just stabbed one of the creatures and had a rather elated smile on his face. Loghain swung at the werewolf Maric had been fighting, and the creature growled, swiping a paw at him. Loghain leapt back, and Maric swung, his blade cutting into one of the creature's arms. The werewolf snapped its head to one side, then back again, and snarled, clearly unhappy to be facing two foes. Loghain took the opportunity to stab into one of its flanks.

Maric leapt forward, skewering the creature again, then glanced over at Loghain, grinning. Loghain couldn't help but return the smile. It had been a long time - many, many years - since they'd fought like this. It felt good to be fighting alongside Maric again. He also had to admit that fighting - actual fighting, tearing through enemies rather than sparring on the practice field - was exhilarating in way few other things could match.

In a few very minutes, the werewolves - or, rather, Custodians - were outnumbered and outmatched, lying dead on the floor. Except for the archer, the rest of his party was intact. A few of them – himself included - were bleeding from various injuries, but none immediately life-threatening.

They searched the bodies of Kochin and the two armored humans. There was no point in searching the Custodians; they had all reverted back to human form, and were naked, with no clothing to search. In the desk, they did find some valuables: a fair amount of coin, some jewelry, and more papers to review back in the comfort of the castle. Loghain also retrieved the formula for the elixir from Kochin's dead grasp.

Maric came up to Loghain, clutching at his arm. "This means Rhianna . . . she's going to be all right, yes? She was bitten by one of the Custodians, and not an actual werewolf?"

"She was bitten by one of the Custodians, yes. There is no chance she was infected."

"Oh, Blessed Andraste!" Maric's face broke out into a joyous smile. "That is the best news we could possibly have found!"

Yes. It was. Loghain would never have said it in such an exuberant manner, but was absolutely the best news they could have found.

A door set in the wall opposite where they entered caught Loghain's attention, and he went to investigate with Maric and two of the guardsmen close behind. It was unlocked, and lead to a short section of tunnel. At the other end, a wooden panel was set into the wall. Loghain stepped aside to allow Maric to examine it; sure enough, the king found a trigger. He pushed it, and the panel slid to one side, revealing an entrance to the round chamber they had found the previous day.

It was a good thing Rhianna had been nervous enough to suggest they leave right away. If they'd discovered the hidden door, and found their way into the headquarters of the Custodians, just the three of them? That could have been bad.

Very bad.

Loghain wished they could leave this way, go up through the short section of tunnel and out into the moonlit night, rather than making their way back through the dreary underground tunnels. Walking around the hills, however, would take hours, and Loghain wanted to return to the castle as soon as possible.

He had excellent news to deliver to Bryce and Eleanor. And, of course, to Rhianna.


Chapter Text

1 Cloudreach, 9:25 Dragon
Highever Castle


Someone screamed. A woman, perhaps, or maybe an animal, but whatever it was, the sound was high-pitched and ear-splitting and Rhianna wanted to be away from it. She ran and she ran, smoke in her nostrils and a sword in her hand. She was fighting, always fighting, monsters, that just kept coming. As soon as she'd killed one, another one appeared. A never-ending stream of monsters, horrible things, their grinning mouths filled with pointed teeth. And there was so much blood, and the city was burning and ashes floated in the air like unholy snow and then the shadow of something huge and terrifying blocked out the sunlight all around her, and she knew what it was, but she didn't want to look. Maybe if she didn't look at it, she could pretend it wasn't real, except she knew she had to fight it. If she didn't fight it, she would die. Everyone would die. Then something rushed at her, and grabbed her arm, and she cried out from the pain . . .


She opened her eyes. She was in her bedroom.

It was dark in the room except for a candle on the bedside table. Loghain was sitting beside her, his face in shadow, until he turned slightly, and she could see his vague frown, his furrowed brow.

She'd been asleep, and it had all been a dream. There were no monsters, nothing was burning. Except . . .

Last night, something had been burning. In town. And the pain in her arm hadn't faded when she woke up, so it must not be part of the dream . . .

The memory of the previous evening came flooding back: the performance, the screams, running through the city, being bitten by the werewolf, Loghain pacing in the library looking like he wanted to murder someone. She sat up in her bed, rubbing at her eyes. Or had all that been a dream, as well?

"Are you all right?" Loghain asked. "It sounded as though you were having a bad dream."

She reached out and put her hand on Loghain's arm, wanting to make sure he was real and this wasn't just some new dream. His arm was solid and warm beneath her hand, and she let out a breath.

"A bad dream . . . yes. There were monsters . . . but what about last night? Did I dream all that as well, or were there really werewolves?"

"That wasn't a dream. There were werewolves."

"Oh." She had hoped so much that had been part of the dream. Because one of them had bitten her, she remembered that very clearly now. And Geoffrey said there wasn't any cure. Her stomach lurched, and she clapped a hand over her mouth, feeling as though she needed to vomit.

A werewolf. She was going to turn into a werewolf.

What would happen to her now? How long would it take until she . . . changed? And where would she go? She couldn't imagine staying here, in the castle. No one would be safe from her; she might attack and kill everyone if they didn't protect themselves. Perhaps they would lock her up down in the dungeon. Locked away, for the rest of her life, in a tiny, dark cell, just like the one in the guard tower . . .

She whimpered, breathing quickly, terrified.

Loghain reached up, and tugged her hand away from her face, taking her other hand as well. He held them both gently, urging her to look at him. "It's all right, Rhianna. I know what happened last night was frightening, but that's why I'm here. I have something to tell you about the werewolves. Your mother said it would be all right for me to wake you."

"Something to tell me?"

"Yes." He smiled at her, just the hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth, but it looked genuine. He looked calm, and content. The crease in his forehead, the sadness and fear she'd seen in his eyes last night when they sat together in the library, were gone. But how could he be happy right now? Didn't he care about what was going to happen? Maybe he was just pretending not to be upset, for her sake.

"What is it?" she asked. "Do you . . . do you know how long it will take before I turn into one of them?"

"You're not going to turn into a werewolf, love. Not ever. That's what I came here to tell you."

"But one of them bit me. I know that wasn't part of the dream; my arm still hurts from it."

"You were bitten, yes, but not by a real werewolf." He squeezed her hands again. "Listen. After you went to bed last night, several of us - me and Maric, your Father and your brother, and a great many others - went into the tunnels underneath the city to make sure there were no more werewolves lurking. Maric and I found their leader, who told us that hardly any of the creatures who attacked last night were truly werewolves. Most of them were people who'd taken a potion to make themselves look like werewolves. It was one of those people who bit you. He wasn't a genuine werewolf, so he couldn't infect you. You're fine, Rhianna. Just fine."

She stared into his face, afraid to blink. Afraid that if she looked away, something would change, and she'd find out she'd misheard him, or misunderstood somehow. He looked sincere, and his voice had been warm and gentle. It sounded as though he was telling the truth, and she wanted to believe him.

But how could she possibly believe? Not that Teyrn Loghain would lie to her; she knew he would never do that. But what if he was wrong? What if he just wanted it to be true so much he believed something impossible?

"But why would anyone take a potion like that?"

"That's a good question. And I'll explain all the details later, but there is a group of people called the Custodians of the Wolves, and they've been trying to help the werewolves all these years, ever since your ancestress defeated them. They're the ones who decided to take this potion. I know it might sound strange, but it's true. And the most important thing for you to understand right now is that you are not in any danger, not anymore. They won't come after you again. And you're not going to turn into a werewolf."

She kept looking into his eyes. He meant what he was saying, she could see that. And if they'd really found some sort of potion, then maybe it was true. Somewhere inside of her, a spark ignited. A tiny spark of hope that maybe this horrible thing wasn't going to happen.

"I'm really not going to change? Do you promise?"

"I promise."

With those words, she knew. The spark inside of her ignited, and she felt . . . free. As though she had been choking, but could now breathe again. As though a load too heavy to carry had been lifted off her shoulders.

She wouldn't become a werewolf. He was telling the truth. Loghain would never promise if it weren't the truth.

She laughed, even as tears formed in her eyes, and she threw her arms around Loghain's neck, hugging him tightly. After a moment's hesitation, he returned the embrace, pulling her close, then reaching up to stroke her hair.

"Thank you," she whispered into his ear, "thank you." She clung to him for more than a minute, tears crawling down her cheeks. Then she hugged him even more tightly before pulling away.

She looked up at him, at this man who had always been there for her, every time she had needed him. She studied his face: the line of his jaw, the slight bump at the bridge of his nose. His eyes, deep set and shadowy, but shining from within, a blue so light in color it seemed almost impossibly bright. He was as important to her as anyone had ever been, and she was overcome by gratitude, deep gratitude for his presence in her life. She didn't know why Andraste or the Maker had sent him to her, what she could ever have done to deserve him, but she was so glad he was here.

Loghain reached up and wiped away one of her tears with his thumb. Then, he reached down into his boot and pulled out his dagger. The same dagger he had handed her the night before when they'd been in the market square. He turned it over, inspecting it from both sides. Then, holding it by the blade, he offered the handle to her.

"Here. I want you to have this."

"What? What do you mean?"

He snorted. "Was I unclear? I'm giving you this dagger. To carry with you all the time. You can wear it in your boot, and I'll have a sheath made that will strap to your leg, so you can wear it under a gown, as well."

"But . . . but that's your dagger, the one you always carry. You've had it as long as I can remember. It's the one you used to cut the bandage for my arm when I fell on the glass all those years ago."

"I can get a new dagger. But you shouldn't be out on your own without some way to defend yourself. This is a well-crafted weapon, and will serve you for many years. Besides, you fought well with it last night. I think it belongs with you now."

Maker's breath. He really intended for her to have it. Biting her lip, she reached out and took the dagger. She turned it over, looking at it as he had, then she bounced it gently, testing the weight. It felt wonderful in her hand; perfectly balanced, and heavy enough to do damage, but not so heavy it would be uncomfortable to hold. And it was beautiful. The blade gleamed red, and the wooden handle was black, shining deeply with a patina created by years of use. Set at the bottom of the blade, right next to the handle, was a small square of metal with a design carved into it, like flames and lightning flashing underneath a full moon.

"Thank you, Teyrn Loghain," she murmured. "It's really beautiful. I'll carry it with me always."

"Good." He paused. "And you're right. I have had it for a long time. It's . . . special to me. Which is, perhaps, the reason I want you to have it now. The man who gave it to me was a good friend. One of the Night Elves. I trust you've heard of the Night Elves?"

"Of course." She knew all about the Night Elves. They fought with the Rebels during the Occupation, planning surprise attacks, and running away again before the Orlesians could respond. But she stopped herself before saying any of those things. Instead, she smiled shyly, "I mean, I've heard of them. But I don't know so much that I wouldn't mind hearing a story."

"You want a story? Right now?"

"Well, I suppose I don't mind listening, if you're in the mood to tell one."

She bit her lip, putting on the most innocent face she could manage, looking up at him through her lashes, but she couldn't sustain it for long. When she grinned, Loghain burst into laughter.

"If I'm in the mood? Oh, very well. Let's see . . . the Night Elves. I think I'll tell you about Fort Gherlen. Have you heard this before?"

"No." Rhianna adjusted her position, crossing her legs beneath her so she could sit comfortably while he told the story.

"All right." He took a deep breath. "At the beginning of the Rebellion, not many elves had joined with Prince Maric. There were a few camp followers and messengers, but since elves living in an Alienage were not allowed to own weapons, most of them lacked the sort of fighting skills that would have been useful against the Orlesians. Hand-to-hand fighting is all well and good, but not against chevaliers. So, many of them chose to remain in the cities. To be honest, life in the Alienage was not much worse under Orlesian rule than it had been before. Elves have never been treated well by humans, regardless of politics."

"I've never been inside the Alienage in Highever. Father says it's not safe."

Loghain raised a brow at her. "I've not been in your Alienage, either. But I doubt you'd be in much danger. Generally speaking, elves have suffered at the hands of humans far more than the other way around. Not that I'm suggesting you go out of your way to pay a visit, not if your father has forbidden it. But . . ." He looked as though he was going to say something more, but then shook his head.

"Anyway, early in the Rebellion, most of the elves chose to remain in the cities. But the few who decided to leave began to trickle into the Rebel camp. They kept to themselves, mostly, making camp at the very edges of wherever we were hiding at the moment.

"One day, not even a year after I'd first met Maric, I was in the woods looking for game, when I heard someone coming up behind me. I very nearly fired an arrow into him, but fortunately realized in time he was not Orlesian, but an elf. As a matter of fact, it was someone you've met before."

"Someone I've met? But I don't know any elves other than the ones who work here in the castle."

"What about Uthalas?"

"Your footman?"

"Yes, my footman. But also my friend. He had a favor to ask of me that day. He asked if I would be willing to train him, and the others, how to shoot a bow. So they could be of some use in fighting the Orlesians."

"So of course, you agreed to train them."

"Yes. We started that very day. Only six elves had joined the Rebellion by then, and they all wanted to learn. They were a dedicated bunch, and after training every day for a couple of months, they were shooting as well as most of the human archers. I soon realized they had an advantage over the humans. Elves can see very well in the dark. Much, much better than we can. They can hunt and track on a moonless night, or sneak through the darkest dungeons without need of torches. So, when they were ready to try their skills against the Orlesians, I thought we'd try something new. Instead of putting them with the rest of the archers, we formed our own company, designed to carry out attacks in the dark of night."

"That's why they were called the Night Elves?"

"Exactly. At first we raided supply caravans and ambushed scouting parties. It was easy enough for us to hide up in the hills, or in the forests, and rush in to do as much damage as possible before retreating back to safety. Sometimes we snuck near their camps and targeted their night watch. We didn't win battles this way, but we were able to wear away at them, and every little bit helped. As word of their success spread, more elves joined the Rebellion. The ranks of the Night Elves began to increase, until there were about three dozen, men and women both.

"Less than a year after they started calling themselves the Night Elves, we decided it was time to try something more daring. Something . . . significant. We looked to Fort Gherlen. You know of it?"

"It's in the Frostback Mountains, near the border between Ferelden and Orlais. I've never been there, though."

"Fort Gherlen was built in the Black Age, to ensure Gherlen's Pass would be kept safe for travelers. At the start of the Occupation, it was one of the first places that fell to Orlais; they wanted to have free access through the pass.

"But over time, they became overconfident, believing their stranglehold on Ferelden was so tight they could neglect their defenses. We received some intelligence the fort was no longer properly manned with soldiers. It was capable of supporting hundreds, but only seventy or so were in residence. Even under-staffed, it had ample supplies for several times as many soldiers. Arms and armor mostly, but stockpiled foodstuffs, as well. And, most important, the chevaliers had horses, which we needed desperately. So, we formulated a plan to take back the fort."

"What, all by yourselves? Just the Night Elves? Not the whole of the army?"

"Just the Night Elves. From the army's camp near the Southron Hills, we took the King's Road to the far side of Lake Calenhad. From there, we knew we couldn't travel straight up Gherlen's Pass. Orlesian patrols were frequent, and we would never have made it anywhere near the fortress without being seen. So, instead we climbed Sulcher's Pass, then cut through the Frostbacks themselves, picking our way through the mountains so we could approach the fort undetected.

"The terrain was dangerous, to say the least, especially off the main road. It was early in the spring, and the ground was covered in snow and ice, so we had to be careful not to step somewhere the ground wasn't solid. If one of us were to slip? A fall down the mountain would most likely have been fatal. Wild animals roamed freely. Mountain lions and packs of wolves. Bears who had recently come out of hibernation. All of whom were hungry because most of the game had gone to lower elevations.

"After about a week, we came to a place where the cliff face was completely vertical. I thought this was the end of our gambit. If we couldn't find another way through, we'd have no choice but to turn around and go back, or spend Maker-knows how long searching for an alternate route.

"Then one of the elves, a woman called Alenil, suggested we climb the cliff. From the bottom looking up, it seemed impossible. But she swore she would find a way up. Alienage elves may not know how to use weapons, but they often learn many other valuable skills: moving silently, getting away quickly. And how to climb just about anything. All Alenil needed was someone to agree to be her "anchor:" to follow her up, and hold tight to the wall in case she slipped and fell. Since I was by far the biggest of the bunch, I agreed.

"We tethered ourselves together with rope, with enough slack between us so she could climb ahead, finding the best hand- and footholds. Then, up we went. Every step, every foot of progress we made up the cliff, was a small victory, as she felt with her fingers for a crevice deep enough to grasp, and tested each foothold to see if it would carry her weight before committing to it. I came up behind, using the route she had forged, constantly reminding myself not to look down for fear of getting dizzy and losing my balance.

"Though she was doing the bulk of the work, I was exhausted. I wasn't accustomed to this much climbing, and the thin mountain air made it difficult to get a breath. Before we'd made it halfway up, my shoulders ached, my fingers were sore, and my shirt was soaked with sweat in spite of the chill mountain air. But she showed no signs of tiring, so I kept going as well.

"She was nearly to the top when she stopped, then looked back down at me. 'I have to come down a ways,' she called out. 'I can't find anywhere to go from here.' I steadied myself, and watched as she backtracked down the face of the cliff, feeling with her feet.

"Then, I heard it: the soft crack of rock splitting apart. Alenil cried out in panic as the thin shelf of rock she was standing on crumbled beneath her. For the space of two breaths, she clung on with her hands, scraping desperately with her feet to find another foothold. There was nothing, though, nowhere for her toes to cling.

"And she fell."

"No!" Rhianna gasped. Her hands clenched into fists, as she gripped the blanket that covered her legs.

"Yes. I watched her fall, her arms stretched above her head, her feet still flailing. She screamed, the sound growing then fading as she fell past me, a mere three feet from where I clung to the cliff. Almost as an afterthought, I pressed myself as tightly to the mountain as I could, bracing myself for the impact.

"When she reached the end of the tether, her body slammed against the cliff face, silencing her scream. One of my hands was ripped from its hold, and Alenil's weight seemed to be sucking me downward. We were so high above the ground that we would both have been killed if I'd lost my grip. I thrust my body forward to bring my arm in front of me again, and I managed to regain my hold of the cliff. Clinging tightly with my aching fingers, I prayed to Andraste for the strength to hang on.

"And somehow, I managed to hold tight. Alenil swung gently at the end of the tether, and for a few minutes, I did nothing more than cling to the cliff side, not knowing if she was alive or dead.

"Finally I felt a tug on the rope as she began to move. After struggling a moment to regain her footing, she looked up at me, her breath coming fast, and she nodded. Just once, but I knew. She meant to finish this. I nodded in return, letting her know I was with her all the way.

"She began to climb again. This time, she made it to the top, and I followed. She'd injured herself in the fall; there was a gash on her arm, a lump on her head, and a large bruise on one of her legs, but nothing that wouldn't heal with time. We secured ropes for the others to climb. It was nearly nightfall before everyone had scaled the cliff, but we made it. Thanks to Alenil's bravery."

"Thank the Maker you all made it." Rhianna relaxed her hands, unclenching her fingers and letting loose her hold on the blanket. "That was close. Too close."

"It was terrifying," he admitted. "I had nightmares about it for months afterward." His brow furrowed, then he chuckled. "To be honest, climbing the cliff is the most exciting part of this story. The taking of the fort was dull by comparison. Perhaps I should stop here, and let you get some rest? Especially after all that happened yesterday."

"Oh no, don't stop! I want to hear how you took the fort."

"Oh, all right. If you insist. Well . . . we continued through the mountains, finally coming up on a ridge right behind the fort. It's worth noting that Fort Gherlen is one place where the Orlesians undoubtedly felt safe. The fortress consists of two huge square towers surrounded by a walled courtyard, with battlements atop all the walls. It's not large, as fortresses go, but it is solid, and very easily defended. In addition to the building's own defenses, it was built at the very top of a mountain, surrounded on all sides by a steep drop off, except for the bridge that crosses the ravine to the mountain pass. The only way in or out - or so it seemed - was through the portcullis that was heavily guarded during the day and closed securely at night."

"You climbed up the sides, didn't you? You and Alenil? Just like the cliff?"

"Hmnh. Since you seem so certain of the ending, perhaps I really should say goodnight, so you can get back to sleep?" He pursed his lips at her, a slight frown on his face, but this time he was teasing. Even though he didn't smile, not even a little, she could tell.

"You know I haven't heard it before. It's not my fault I'm good at guessing." She giggled. "Go, on. Tell the rest of it. I'll try to be quiet."

He stared for a moment, unsmiling, even though he was always amused by her guessing. "All right." Then he winked. "As it so happens, your guess was close, but not exactly right. We decided that in the middle of the night, six of the elves would climb the sides of the fort. Not Alenil, since she'd been injured. And not me, since I couldn't see in the dark as well as the elves. But some of the others would scale the fort, then sneak down to open the gates and let the rest of us in. With any luck, we'd have the advantage of surprise; most of the soldiers would be asleep so we could get in and take control of the fort before they had time to arm themselves.

"We sat high up on that nearby ridge, hiding just out of site, for an entire day and night, watching to see how many guards were on duty. As it turned out, there were only four: two above the main gate, and one each at the parapets atop the towers.

"On a night when the moon was waning, barely a sliver in the sky, the half-dozen elves who had volunteered to infiltrate the fort began their ascent. The rest of us waited at the far side of the bridge for the signal that they'd made it safely inside. Those minutes were some of the longest of my entire life. Waiting, not hearing anything and not being able to see much of anything in the dark. Straining my ears for any sound that might indicate success, or failure. Dreading that instead of our signal, an alarm would sound, and we'd have to scramble to get away with our lives.

"After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably less than an hour, we finally heard something.

"The howl of a wolf. Or rather, Uthalas, howling like a wolf to let us know they'd made it inside. We crossed the bridge, and a few minutes later, the portcullis opened. It made what seemed like enough racket to wake the dead, but the elves inside had already taken care of the duty guards, and we were inside without any alarm being sounded.

"From there, it was over almost before it had begun. We went room by room, as quickly and quietly as possible, disarming the soldiers who were asleep in their beds, then locking them in where they wouldn't be able to cause trouble. Once we'd dealt with the lower floors, Uthalas himself led the way up the stairs, to the top of the tallest of the two towers, to where the chevalier commander in charge of the fort was sleeping.

"Uthalas pounded on the door, shouting, 'Awake and surrender!'

"'Who dares disturb my rest?' the commander shouted back, his voice thick with sleep and his atrocious Orlesian accent.

"Uthalas called back, 'The Night Elves dare! In the name of Andraste and Maric Theirin, the rightful King of Ferelden!"

"Did he surrender?" Rhianna asked.

"He didn't have much choice, did he? All of his soldiers had been captured, and he was wearing naught but his nightclothes."

Rhianna clapped her hands, as a grin spread across her face. "Well done! Take that, Orlais!"

"My sentiments, exactly," Loghain chuckled. "It was a satisfying victory. Even so, we knew we wouldn't be able to hold the fort. Not permanently. Not with only a few dozen archers. So, we did the next best thing. Before the Orlesians could gather a force to attack us, we transported supplies to nearby Orzammar, using horses we had liberated from the chevaliers. While the Orzammar dwarves weren't willing to take an official stand and fight alongside us, they were happy for us to stow our supplies underground, for a modest share.

"We took all the weapons and armor, and as much food as possible. And, of course, all the horses. Half a dozen horses, which might not sound like many, but nearly doubled the number the Rebels had at that point. What we couldn't take with us, we burned, in a huge bonfire in the middle of the courtyard. We burned the siege weapons. We burned the clothes and furniture and those supplies we couldn't take with us. We burned everything that wasn't bolted down, without damaging the structure itself. The fort was nothing but an empty shell by the time the Orlesians returned to claim it."

"What about the soldiers? The Orlesian soldiers, I mean. Did you execute them?"

"No. We left them locked up in the fort when we retreated, knowing they'd be freed soon enough."

"Even the commander? But wasn't he a chevalier? They did horrible, horrible things."

Loghain was quiet for a moment, looking away as if he were remembering something from a long time ago. Then he shook his head. "No. We let them live. Even the commander. He surrendered and asked for mercy. If we could have taken him back with us to the camp, put him on trial for his crimes, that would have been one thing. But it wasn't feasible. And killing an enemy who has asked for mercy is not the honorable thing to do. So we left him there with the others.

"Although, it is possible he ended up wishing we'd given him a swift death. Meghren was anything but merciful. Not to Fereldans, nor to his own people, if he deemed them as having failed. And I suspect the loss of the fort, especially to a band of elven archers, would be deemed a rather spectacular failure.

"In any case, that's how the Night Elves liberated Fort Gherlen. If only for a few days."

Rhianna uncrossed her legs, and leaned back against the headboard. She stretched her arms up over her head, and sighed contentedly. "That was a good story. I especially liked hearing about Uthalas. I never knew he was one of the Night Elves. What happened to them, anyway? Why did the company disband?"

"They didn't disband, exactly. It's just that at the end of the Occupation, most people went back to the lives they had before joining the Rebellion, or at least tried to salvage what was left of those lives. So most of the Night Elves returned to the cities, although a few of them moved on to other things. Uthalas, for instance, who's been with me all these years."

"It was really heroic, what they did," she mused. "Joining the Rebellion. I think so, anyway. I mean King Maric, well Prince Maric then, he didn't have any choice. He was the heir of Calenhad. It was his duty to fight. But the elves? They could have just stayed quietly in their Alienages. But they chose to fight anyway. That seems very brave to me. Making that choice."

"We always have a choice, Rhianna. Even Maric had a choice, although you're right, his duty did weigh more heavily than anyone else's. Even so, I agree the elves showed bravery above and beyond that of many others. Not that Maric isn't brave as well." He chuckled. "You should have seen him last night. I kept trying to keep him out of danger, but he ignored me and jumped into battle anyway."

"Jumped into battle? Do you mean when you went down into the tunnels? You had to fight more werewolves?"

"More werewolves, yes, and some of the people who were helping them."

"Did anyone get hurt?"

He hesitated. "One person, yes. An archer, one of your father's regular soldiers."

"Who was it?"

"I don't know her name. But she was rather short, and had red hair."

"Oh. You must mean Glenna. I train with her sometimes. But she's all right, isn't she? I mean, Geoffrey can heal just about anything."

"No, Rhianna, I'm . . . I'm sorry. She died during our last fight. It happened very quickly; there was nothing we could do to save her."

"Glenna's . . . dead?" Rhianna felt as though she'd been punched in the stomach. Trying to catch her breath, she turned her head away, closing her eyes to force back the tears that formed. "It's because of me, isn't it? That's why you went down there. Because the werewolves went after me."

Loghain grasped her shoulder, urging her to look into his face again. "Your friend is dead because one of those creatures killed her." Loghain caught Rhianna's gaze and held it. "She was a soldier; she knew it was possible she might be injured when she agreed to come. In no way is her death your fault. Do you understand me?"

Still fighting back the tears, Rhianna nodded. "I suppose so. But . . ."

"No. No buts. She fought bravely, and died well. Don't sully her memory by blaming yourself for what happened. We went into those tunnels because we needed to know the truth about what happened in the city. Yes, we went because you had been injured, but not just because of that. The werewolves, and their Custodians, were a threat to everyone in the Coastlands. And now, they won't be a threat to anyone. Not for a good long while, at least."

"This leader of theirs . . . did he they say why they wanted me?"

"They thought if you became a werewolf, your father would be forced to concede to their demands: 'freedom' for the werewolves, and reentry into human society."

"Well, that was a stupid plan. It would have made more sense to kidnap me and threaten to turn me if Father didn't agree to their demands. After I was already infected . . . well, it seems a bit late to try and bargain at that point."

"Indeed," Loghain agreed. "As far as I'm concerned, it was a horrible plan all along. But you needn't worry about it now. Their leader was killed last night, so even if a few of them remain, it will be a very long time before they'd be in a position to bother you or your family again."

"I hope so. And thank you. Thank you for going down there and finding out the truth. I am happier than I can say, knowing I'm not going to turn into one of those things. And thank you for the story. I always love your stories."

"You're welcome, Rhianna. I'd . . . well, I'd do just about anything for you. I hope you know that."

"I do." It was the truth. She'd known it for a long time, really, but after tonight, she would never doubt it again. "I suppose," she mused, "someday what happened last night will make an excellent story, won't it? I'll tell my children about the werewolves, how you and I fought them together. How I thought I was going to turn into one myself. And how you and the king ventured into the underground to find out the truth. And they'll sit on the edge of their seats, and gasp in all the right places, all the while knowing everything will turn out all right in the end, because that's what happens in stories.

"Except everything didn't really turn out all right. Glenna is dead. And no matter how exciting it will sound in the future, it was scary. Not all of it. Parts of it were exciting: running through Highever with you, and watching you fight the werewolves. But mostly, it was terrifying."

"Perhaps that's exactly why it will make a good story," Loghain replied. "I do know one thing. You're right. Someday, your children are going to love hearing that story. Hearing just how brave and heroic their mother is."

"Brave?" she scoffed. "What are you talking about? I'm not brave. I just told you, I was terrified."

"It doesn't matter if you were scared. What matters is you didn't panic. You guided us through the city, and you fought back where you were attacked. You had the nerve to step up and try and reason with those creatures. That's bravery. You were magnificent last night, Rhianna. Truly."

Her cheeks grew warm, and she wanted to turn away, to turn away from his face, from his eyes, but they held her gaze and she found she couldn't look away. It was as if he was willing her to look, willing her to believe this about herself.

And she wanted to believe it, really she did. But she knew it wasn't true. What she'd done the previous night had little to do with bravery. Not hers, anyway.

She wrinkled her nose, and shrugged one of her shoulders. "Of course I didn't panic. But it wasn't because of being brave. I didn't have to be brave. I was with you."



Chapter Text

3 Solace, 9:25 Dragon
Highever Castle


"Oh, come on," Rhianna pleaded. "Hit me already!" She dropped down into a crouch, ready with her practice sword to parry an attack.

Rory Gilmore swung the waster in her direction, but at the last moment changed the angle of attack so the blade swished by Rhianna's arm without making contact.

"You call that hitting me?"

"My Lady," Ser Gilmore's voice was apologetic, but firm, "I don't think I can bring myself to hit you. It just doesn't seem right."

"But if you won't hit me, I can't train properly!"

"I don't want to risk you being injured."

"I won't be. At least not so badly it would be a problem. What do you think poultices are for? And there's always Geoffrey if I were to break a bone or something. I need you to try and hit me."

"I'm sorry, My Lady. But I just can't."

Rhianna let out a ragged, and very deliberate, sigh. It wasn't as though she never had the opportunity to spar. Several of the Highever Regulars were happy to train with her, and had enough respect for her abilities to give her a good workout. Today, however, when she tried to find someone to practice with, everyone else was busy with other things, and the only person she could convince to accompany her to the practice yard was the ever reticent and respectful Ser Gilmore.

In the far corner of the yard, her new puppy was barking and bouncing around trying to catch his little stub of a tail. Despite her annoyance with Ser Gilmore, Rhianna was cheered by the sight of the pure-bred mabari hound playing so exuberantly.

The puppy, who she had named Dane, had been a birthday gift from her parents just three days ago, and Rhianna was already madly in love with him. And no wonder: Dane was the most adorable creature in the whole world. He had short amber-colored fur and floppy little ears, and a fold of skin on his nose and another above his front legs. His muzzle was dark, and he had mournful blue eyes, although the breeder said they would probably turn dark before he was fully grown. He was small now, not much larger than a house cat, but when he reached adulthood, he would stand at least as high as Rhianna's waist.

Now, Dane was becoming extremely excited at the sight of his mistress playing with the ginger-haired knight, even though he could tell his mistress was not entirely happy with the situation.

A new thought occurred to her. "You haven't forgotten, have you, my father is your liege? I think that means you have to do what I tell you to do."

The knight shook his head. "Nice try, My Lady, but no. It means I have to do what he tells me to do."

"Hmm." She put a hand on one of her hips. "But that means if I tell my father to order you to hit me, then you will have to do it."

"Begging your pardon, but I doubt your father would actually order me to hit you."

"Don't be so sure," Rhianna insisted. "Because if he doesn't, I'll threaten to run away to Denerim and join Maric's Shield, so I can train with Teyrn Loghain every single day. And whenever I train with the teyrn, I end up covered in bruises. Really big, nasty, painful, ugly bruises."

That was an exaggeration, but only a slight one. Teyrn Loghain was rough on her, and she often had the bruises to prove it. Of course, that was the reason she would rather train with him than with anyone else in the world. Well, one of the reasons, anyway. No one else pushed her as hard, encouraged her to push herself as hard. No one else made her feel she could do things she would have never believed possible. And she knew the reason he was so rough with her, the reason he pushed so hard, was that he believed in her. If she had her way, she really would run off and join Maric's Shield. But since that wasn't possible, she tried to make the best of things here in Highever.

"It's true, Ser Gilmore," she continued. "You know how hard he hits. So you'd be saving me a lot of trouble - and a lot of pain - by agreeing to hit me. If you hit me just a little, I won't have to go to Teyrn Loghain and have him hit me a lot. Not to mention all the fuss it would cause if I were to run away from home. So just spar with me properly. Please?"

Ser Gilmore stared at her, his mouth pursed unhappily, but finally he glanced away and shrugged. "As you wish, My Lady. But if you end up lying on the ground bleeding, I'm going to tell your father it was your own fault."

"Fair enough," she laughed, and dropped into a ready stance, awaiting a blow from the young knight.

They began to circle one another, and Ser Gilmore charged, aiming for her head. Rhianna easily parried the blow, grunting in satisfaction as the vibration ran all the way down her arms. A proper blow. Finally.

She whirled around, preparing for his next strike, but the sound of hoof beats approaching very quickly up the road caught her attention. Turning her head to look, she was caught off guard when Ser Gilmore hit her with his shield. She flew backwards and landed on her rear end.

"Maker's blood!" Ser Gilmore hurried to help the girl back to her feet. "I'm sorry, My Lady! I didn't mean to hit you so hard!"

Rhianna laughed, once she caught her breath. "Don't apologize! It was my fault. I wasn't paying enough attention. Look." She pointed to the road. "A rider."

She crossed to the fence surrounding the practice field and hopped up on the bottom slat to get a better view. Reaching out with her mind, she touched the mind of the horse. He was focused on running as fast as possible, anxious because of the agitation his rider was feeling.

"It must be important." A ribbon of fear, cold and uncomfortable, slithered into her belly. "I hope it's not bad news."

The messenger rode through the main gates of the castle.

Glancing at Ser Gilmore, Rhianna jumped down from the fence and stowed the practice weapons in their crate. She scooped Dane up into her arms and left the practice field at a jog.

Halfway to the castle, she broke into a run.


Standing beside the fire, Bryce stared at the parchment in his hands, reading the words again. Perhaps he had misunderstood them the first time. Or the second. Perhaps his eyes had skipped over some vital part of the message. Perhaps it didn't really say what he thought it said.

But every time he read it, the words were the same. Terrible words. Words that changed everything. Words that were going to break his daughter's heart. Words that were already breaking his own heart.

He looked up as Rhianna raced into the great hall, sliding to a halt at the scene that greeted her. It must have looked dismal. Bryce, holding the parchment, a grim expression on his face. Eleanor, sobbing, with Fergus seated beside her, an arm draped around his mother's shoulder.

"Father?" Rhianna's voice was high-pitched and anxious. "I saw a messenger arrive."

"Yes. There's a letter. From Teyrn Loghain." He ran a hand across his face. "Rhianna . . ." he began, but his voice trailed off.

"What is it? What's happened?" She walked closer, cradling the puppy in her arms. "It's something bad, isn't it?"

"Perhaps you should sit down, Pup," Bryce urged.

"No, I don't want to sit. Just tell me what happened."

"The Demelza . . . the ship taking King Maric to Wycome . . . it never arrived." Maric had been on his way to the Free Marches, to mediate a peace accord between several of the Marcher lords. He was only supposed to have been gone a few weeks, a month at most.

"What do you mean, 'it never arrived?'" Rhianna asked. "Where is it?"

"It looks like . . . well, it looks as though the ship went down somewhere on route, but no one has any idea exactly where that might have happened."

Rhianna inhaled sharply. "The ship went . . . down? You . . . you mean it sank? Teyrn Loghain said it sank?"


"But . . . but what about the king? He's all right, isn't he?"

Bryce closed his eyes briefly before meeting her gaze. "Pup, we don't even know where the ship went down. And no survivors have turned up anywhere."

"Not yet, you mean." Her face had drained of color and her eyes were watery and bright, but her voice was firm. "No survivors have turned up yet. But that doesn't mean they won't. Even if the ship sank, King Maric knows how to swim. He's a good swimmer; he would just swim to shore. That's what must have happened. He swam to shore somewhere, and just hasn't made his way back to a city yet, to send word, or . . . or get another ship back to Ferelden. Maybe he's stuck on an island somewhere, waiting to be rescued."

Wycome was only a short journey across the Waking Sea and up the eastern coast of the Free Marches. But the currents in that part of the ocean were treacherous, and unless the ship went down ridiculously close to land, not even the strongest swimmer would be able to make it to shore. The thought that Maric had been this fortunate was appealing, but . . .

"That seems . . . unlikely," Bryce replied.

"But it's possible," she insisted. "You can't tell me it's not possible!"

"Possible, yes," he admitted. "But I think . . . Rhianna, I think it isn't wise to get your hopes up. Not this time."

His daughter's face crumpled. She clutched the puppy in her arms even tighter, pressing her cheek against his fur. Dane responded by licking her hand.

"No," she sobbed, fat tears escaping from her eyes. "He's not dead. He can't be dead. Not King Maric. I don't want him to be dead."

Bryce stepped close, pulling her into his arms, feeling her shoulders shake as she began to cry in earnest.

Abruptly, Rhianna pulled away from him, panting for breath. She scrubbed the tears away with the heel of her hand.

"No. He isn't dead." Her bottom lip quivered, but her voice was steady as she stared into her father's eyes. "I don't believe it. King Maric is out there, somewhere. Alive. We just have to find him, that's all. He isn't dead. I would know if he was dead. I would feel it . . . if he were gone, I would feel it. I know I would."

She stopped crying, but her breath was ragged, and Bryce felt his heart break at the look in her eyes. Never before had he seen her so grief-stricken and fragile. Not after she'd been attacked by the werewolf, not even after she had been locked up in that dungeon so long ago.

The puppy in her arms stretched up to lick her neck and her chin, as if desperate to offer whatever comfort he could to his mistress. She pushed his face away, gently, but then stroked his fur and rested her cheek on the top of his head.

"Pup," Bryce began.

She cut him off. "No. Don't tell me again not to have hope. He's not dead. We just have to find him, that's all. There are ships here at Highever. We'll charter one of them and go looking for him. I'll go with them myself. Find where the ship sank, and the place he swam to shore, and we'll bring him home again. That's what needs to happen."

Maker's blood. She wanted to go sailing off and look for Maric herself? Not that it should come as a surprise; she loved the king. They all did. Rhianna, especially, had been close with him these past few years. Still, there was no chance Bryce would allow his thirteen-year-old daughter to sail off on what would almost certainly be a wild goose chase.

"The royal navy is already out looking for the king," he assured her. "Teyrn Loghain organized an expedition as soon as he heard about the . . . disappearance, and he himself is on one of the ships. You know no one cares more for Maric's safety than Loghain does. If the king is still alive, Loghain will find him."

"I know. But . . ."

She let out a sigh, not bothering to finish her sentence. Her face was tearstained, her mouth pinched in sorrow. He could see she wasn't satisfied. To be honest, he wasn't really satisfied either. He'd felt sick to his stomach ever since the messenger rode into the courtyard at top speed. Not that Bryce believed there was any chance of finding the king. Maric was almost certainly dead. But if there was any chance . . .

"We'll send ships from Highever as well, if you think it would help," he suggested. "But you're not going with them." She opened her mouth to protest, but he added, "I'm leaving for Denerim tomorrow, and you're coming with me. I'll need your help in the city, while your mother and brother stay here to manage the teyrnir. A Landsmeet will be called to decide how things will proceed until . . . Maric is . . . found," he said, even though there was little hope of that happening. What they'd be doing is choosing a new king. But there was no point in saying that to his daughter, not right now.

"All right. I'll come with you to Denerim. But can we go to the waterfront right now? And see about hiring some ships of our own?"

"Of course, Pup."

No ship from Highever was likely to find anything the royal navy couldn't, but if it would ease his daughter's suffering, even a little, it would be a small price to pay.


It was late, almost midnight, when Fergus heard a knock at the door to the room he shared with Oriana and the baby. Cursing softly, he slipped out from under the covers. This had been a trying day. Apparently, it was not yet at an end.

He crossed to the door, the chill of the cobblestone unpleasant under his bare feet.

In the hallway, he found his sister, fully dressed.

"Elsie?" He couldn't keep the annoyance completely out of his voice. "What is it?"

"I need your help with something," she whispered. "Please, Fussy. Just come with me. Please?"

Fergus glanced at his wife's sleeping form, then back to his sister. Whatever she wanted, it must have something to do with King Maric. She'd been devastated earlier, and he didn't blame her. But what on earth did she hope to accomplish in the middle of the night?

"Whatever this is, can't it wait until morning?"

"No, it can't. Please, Fussy." Rhianna's face was pale, and her eyes looked swollen and red. She looked so forlorn, it was impossible for him to say no.

"All right. Give me a minute to get dressed."

"Bring a cloak."

Fergus sighed, but nodded in agreement.

Twenty minutes later, he and Rhianna were on the road leading into town, after sneaking out through the servant's entrance in the kitchen.

"Now will you tell me where we are going?" Fergus asked.

"To the docks."

Fergus grasped one of Rhianna's arms, pulling her to a stop. "The docks? Don't be ridiculous. We are not going out searching for King Maric. Certainly not just the two of us, on the sailboat. Father arranged for three ships to leave Highever in the morning. You know that. Look, Elsie . . . I know you are fond of the king. We all are. But this is going much too far."

"Maker's blood, Fergus! How stupid do you think I am? Of course we're not going out to look for the king. I just need to get to the waterfront and stand on one of the docks for a few minutes. But I was . . . I'm scared to be out here all by myself, in the middle of the night. After what happened at the festival. Please, Fussy. This won't take long at all, I promise."

"What do you need to do at the docks?"

"Talk to the seabirds," she replied. "Ask them to look for King Maric. If I tell them what he looks like, maybe they will be able to find him."

Birds? Did she really say she wants to talk to the birds, and tell them to go find the king?

Maker's balls. Had his sister gone mad? Grief did that to people, sometimes, and she was certainly grieving. But this was possibly the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard.

Except . . . Rhianna did have an uncanny way with animals. She always had. Over the years, Fergus had seen things almost too strange to be believed. Deer that came close enough to be petted. A fox that held still while Rhianna put a bandage on its injured leg. Birds that flew down and took food directly from her fingers.

At first, it had made him nervous. What if this was magic? The thought his beloved sister might be sent off to Kinloch Hold was unbearable. But she was thirteen years old now; if she were a mage, there would have been other signs by now. So there must be some other explanation for it.

That it was, for example, nothing but her overactive imagination. This seemed the most likely explanation by far. As if seabirds could be convinced to search for the missing king.

It was time to put a stop to this folly, to get Rhianna back to the castle. If their parents found out he'd taken her to the waterfront in the middle of the night, they'd both be in trouble.

He turned to her, ready to insist they go back. He wanted nothing more than to be in his bed, to be back with his wife, who had woken while he was dressing and had not been happy about this unexpected errand in the middle of the night.

But when he looked into Rhianna's face, he felt his resolve crumble. The crease in her forehead, the way her teeth pulled at her bottom lip. The earnest, pleading look in her eyes.

Even if it was her imagination, this meant a lot to her. If it would make her happy, what harm could there be in visiting the docks for a few minutes? And if there was any chance she was right about this, any chance these birds could help find the king . . . that could only be a good thing.

While he wouldn't have admitted it to anyone except perhaps Oriana, Fergus was devastated by the possibility King Maric was dead. In part because he genuinely liked the king. Maric was friendly, and funny, an all-around charming man, and a good king who cared about his people.

And of course, Rhianna cared a great deal for King Maric, and it was obvious Maric cared about her as well. The two of them, along with Teyrn Loghain, spent a lot of time together and always seemed to enjoy themselves. Maric had gone to visit her when she'd been ill with the plague, and had insisted on going into the underground tunnels to seek out the werewolves that had hurt her. Both times, putting his own life at risk. It didn't seem outlandish to think Maric might care about Rhianna enough to marry her once she came of age, and it was difficult to imagine a better future for his little sister. Marriage to a man who could be trusted to treat her with respect and affection, and who was, of course, the King of Ferelden. The thought Rhianna might someday be the queen was somewhat bizarre, but not at all unpleasant.

But neither of those things were the primary reason Fergus hoped King Maric would be found. Something else weighed much more heavily on his mind. Although Cailan was the obvious choice for the succession, not all the nobles in Ferelden would be happy about the prince taking the throne. Fergus had heard whispers: Cailan was not half the man his father was, and ill-prepared to rule Ferelden. Perhaps given time this would change, Cailan would mature into someone fit to rule, but if Maric were really dead, time had run out. This meant there was almost certainly enough support to put forth an alternate candidate. Cailan did, however, carry the Theirin bloodline, which guaranteed any alternate would not easily be confirmed. Put those two things together, and they spelled the potential for an ugly fight. Not likely a civil war, not in the current climate, but ugly nonetheless.

And the man with the next-best claim to the throne of Ferelden was Bryce Cousland.

If Rhianna's crazy plan could locate King Maric - if there was any chance the king was still alive - Fergus was willing to give it a try. Anything to keep his family out of the mess that was sure to break out in the Landsmeet if King Maric was really dead.

"All right. I'll go with you to the waterfront," he agreed.


When they arrived at the docks, Rhianna chose the one that stretched farthest out into the sea, and she and Fergus walked all the way to the end. The moon was nearly full, providing them with plenty of light, which was good. Not that she needed light for what she wanted to do, but she knew the birds didn't like taking wing in total darkness.

"All right my friends. Where are you?" she whispered. Then, she closed her eyes and sent her mind out over the waves. There they were: gulls floating on the water, pelicans roosting on the deck of an abandoned ship, fulmar asleep on the cliffs overlooking the sea.

She called to them. Please, come.

She needed this to happen, she needed their help. Since the moment her father had told her Maric's ship had gone missing, Rhianna had felt so terrified, so overwhelmed, so anxious she could hardly take a breath, and her stomach was so tied up in knots she felt faint and fragile, like she might shatter into a thousand tiny pieces at any moment.

King Maric. He was not only her king, but also her friend. She loved him in so many different ways, and couldn't bear the thought something bad had happened to him. That he might have been hurt. That he might be scared and cold and alone. Or worse. That she might never see him again, never hear his laughter, never watch his eyes light up with mischief as he teased her or told a stupid joke.

Then, it occurred to her even if she couldn't go searching herself, she could ask others to do it for her. Birds regularly traversed distances much greater than what she would require. And if the ship had sunk, perhaps they could find some evidence of it. If it was still afloat, so much the better.

Please, come.

For a few minutes, all was silent, except for the waves lapping at the wooden pilings that vanished into the dark water below.

Then, she heard it. The whisper of wings in flight. She felt a puff of air across her face as a large gull swept past, then glided to land on the dock near her feet. One by one they came, until Rhianna was surrounded by birds. Small gulls gleaming white, and large ones, the feathers on their backs almost black in the moonlight. Pelicans, with their broad chests and stern eyes. A cormorant, holding its wings out at an angle, and twisting its snake-like neck to get a better look at the girl who summoned them here. Guillemots standing awkwardly on feet so brightly colored, the red was apparent even in the moonlight.

Rhianna reached out a hand, holding it in the air above one of the pelicans. The bird lifted its head, pressing its beak against her hand in greeting. She glanced back at Fergus, who stood about ten feet away, at the perimeter of the feathery crowd gathered around her. Fergus' eyes were wide, his brow wrinkled, as though he really couldn't believe what he was seeing.

Turning her attention back to the birds, she spoke to them with her mind. The ship, a caravel that might have sunk in a recent storm. The man, one particular man, who had been aboard that ship, and who Rhianna desperately wished to see again. As she had done with the rat in the dungeon, she pictured King Maric's face in her mind as clearly as possible. One by one, she connected with the minds of the birds, passing the message to each in turn.

"Please," she beseeched them. "If he yet lives, find him and help bring him home safely to Ferelden. Come to me in Denerim, and let me know what you find."

When it was done, one by one they departed, flying off in various directions, alone, or in pairs or triplets or quartets. Rhianna waved to them, offering thanks as well as goodbyes.

When they had gone, Fergus walked up beside her. "Did that really just happen, or am I imagining things? Those birds . . . all those birds . . . they just came because you called them?"

"You're not imagining things, Fussy. Haven't you ever noticed how much I talk to animals?"

"Yes," Fergus began, still looking a bit stunned, "but I never realized they talk back!"

"Let's just hope they are able to do what I asked of them," she replied, gazing out over the water. "Let's hope they find King Maric."


Chapter Text

25 Kingsway, 9:25 Dragon
Denerim Waterfront


Sitting on the dock, Rhianna dangled her legs over the edge, peering into the cloudy green water ten feet below. Barnacles clung to the wooden pilings, and a translucent pink jellyfish floated just beneath the surface, a pattern on its bell like two figure eights crossing in the middle. In Rhianna's lap, Dane lay fast asleep, his head and front paws resting on her legs, and his hindquarters flopped onto the wooden dock.

In the distance, a ship lowered its sails, slowing its approach as it glided into port. The sight brought a smile to Rhianna's face.

She had been in Denerim for nearly three months. Three of the longest, saddest, most trying months of her life. The day after they received word about King Maric's ship, she and her father left in a coach for Denerim, and they'd been here ever since. During this time, Rhianna's father spent most of his days with the other members of the Landsmeet, discussing Ferelden's future in the event King Maric did not return. As Rhianna had not been invited to these meetings, she was obliged to find other ways to spend her time.

The best days were the ones she spent with Dane, just the two of them. They wandered the garden of the Highever estate, Rhianna picking late summer flowers while Dane attempted to get into as much mischief as possible. He was getting steadily bigger; he was nearly twice the size he had been when he'd come to live with her, and some days, she thought she could almost watch him growing right before her eyes.

He was a good puppy, mostly, except for being a bit too eager to investigate the larder when the cook's back was turned. He also enjoyed chasing small animals just for the fun of it, a habit Rhianna wanted to break. She'd train him to hunt when he was old enough, but for now, their walks gave him good practice at keeping himself under control around the rabbits and squirrels and chipmunks in the garden.

Other days, perhaps once a week, she was allowed to go to the market square, provided she could find someone - Hobbes, usually - to accompany her. Occasionally, Rhianna bought little trinkets: a new comb for her hair, or a toy to give Oren when he arrived with Fergus and Oriana for the king's coronation. But mostly she amused herself by watching the people. Dwarves from Orzammar, textile merchants from Rivain, a man from the Anderfels who claimed to have holy trinkets for sale, but who would quietly close up his stand whenever a Chantry sister walked past. Elves, who never came into the marketplace alone, but always in groups of three or four. Young children playing "kick the can" or "knights and chevaliers." Rhianna envied them their freedom.

It was frustrating her father still wouldn't allow her to wander the city on her own, even though she was thirteen years old now. Of course she had never forgotten being locked up in that guard tower, a tower she could see from some places in the market square, rising up to the north of the Chantry. And it did cross her mind from time to time that the person who locked her up could still be in the city. Maybe even watching as she wandered through the market. It could be anyone. Someone she knew, or someone she'd never seen before in her life. Those thoughts were frightening, but she wasn't a baby anymore, to be tricked into going somewhere dangerous. And there was the comforting weight of the dagger Loghain had given her, strapped to her leg underneath her gown.

But her father was adamant: she was not to leave the estate without an escort. Hobbes was nice enough though, so it wasn't unpleasant. He was content to follow wherever she wanted to go, assuming he could spare the time away from his own duties.

Those kinds of days – the ones with Dane, or in the market place - were the good days, the pleasant days. Unfortunately, all the other days – at least two or three times a week - involved attending afternoon salons in the homes of other nobles. Over the past few months, her life had become a never-ending stream of these gatherings, which Rhianna loathed.

Salons were an excuse for members of the nobility to get together to socialize, and talk about politics and current events and philosophy and fashion, and gossip about who was to marry whom, and who had gotten too drunk and behaved foolishly at the Gnawed Noble. Inevitably, someone - usually one of the young ladies - would be asked, and graciously agree, to perform on the harp or pianoforte or sing. Afterwards, everyone would eat sumptuous foods, and walk out in the garden of whichever noble had sponsored the event, and drink just enough wine to be charming without losing composure. It was all supposed to be great fun, except Rhianna rarely enjoyed herself at these gatherings.

Salons hadn't always been horrible. In the past, at her mother's side, Rhianna had been allowed to listen quietly to the conversations around her. She learned all sorts of things about politics and human relationships. If she were quiet enough, the adults would forget she was listening, and would neglect to censor themselves, saying some of the most outrageous things, especially after the wine began to flow.

But now, with her mother in Highever and her father busy discussing official business with the other nobles in the Landsmeet, Rhianna had been forced to attend salon after salon on her own.

This, by itself, might not have been so bad. Except that rather than being allowed to sit with the adults, she was inevitably shepherded into the room with the "young people," a domain ruled by Habren Bryland, who was no fonder of Rhianna now than she had ever been. Whenever adults were around, Habren pretended to be so sweet, telling all the women how lovely their hair looked, and volunteering to play the pianoforte and sing. Personally, Rhianna thought the girl sounded like a goose honking in the barnyard, but all the adults clapped politely when she was finished.

But the moment Habren knew she wouldn't be overhead, she was at Rhianna's side, ready with a rude comment. Habren rarely said things directly to Rhianna, instead speaking them to the daughter or son of one of the other nobles, in a whisper just loud enough to be certain that Rhianna would hear.

"Look at Princess CousCous. Does she really think that color looks good with her skin? She looks even worse than usual, like she hasn't been out in the sun in a year. It's a shame; her mother has such elegant taste. Clearly, it didn't rub off on the daughter."

"Well, of course, the Princess never sings. I heard they tried to give her lessons, but three tutors quit, one after the other, because her voice was so atrocious."

"Did you know her father won't allow her out in the city without a babysitter, even at her age? There must be something dreadfully wrong with her."

"I was so glad to hear her parents finally got her a dog. Now at least the little liar will have someone to talk to, since she doesn't have any actual friends."

Rhianna had begged her father to allow her to stay home from the salons, at least until her mother arrived in Denerim, and they could go together. But Bryce had refused.

"Pup, I need you to go to these gatherings. What happens at the Landsmeet is only part of the picture. Lots of things are discussed at salons that are never spoken of elsewhere. I need you to represent the Cousland family at these events, and be my eyes and ears, as your mother would have been were she here. That is, after all, the reason I brought you with me to the city."

"But, Father," Rhianna argued. "I never get to hear anything interesting. The adults talk in one room, and I end up stuck with Habren Bryland and her friends, and all they do is tell me how stupid and ugly I am. All day long."

"Don't exaggerate, Pup. I know you don't get on well with Habren, and you never have. But this is important. And the way you comport yourself at the salons will be noticed. I need you to be an asset to our family, and to the teyrnir. An asset to Ferelden. It is your duty. Do you understand?"

"Yes . . . I understand." Rhianna had promised her father - and herself - she would do her best to be a credit to the Cousland name. And she had attempted to do just that, but she didn't think her efforts were ever going to bear fruit.

The previous day, for example, as soon as none of the adults were within hearing, Habren began reciting a "poem" she had penned:

There once was a girl from Highever
Who would tell all the boys to stop never
On her back or her knees
She would do as they pleased
And she told them to finish "wherever."

Everyone else had laughed, while Rhianna sat very still, not looking at anyone and biting the inside of her lip to keep from crying. She had wished she could be anywhere else, but knew if she ran from the room, they'd only laugh harder and call her a crybaby. She didn't have any idea what it meant, except it must have been something dirty, judging by the way everyone was laughing, and because it talked about boys.

So Rhianna hated the salons, and wasn't happy with her father for making her attend, nor with herself for letting Habren's petty torments bother her so much. Thankfully, Rhianna's mother was due to arrive the day after tomorrow, so Rhianna would be spared having to attend on her own, for a while at least.

There had been one other thing she had done during these three months in the city: watched for birds returning from the sea. Every morning, she opened her bedroom window and looked to the sky, but none of her feathered friends had returned.

Until today. This morning when she woke, she looked out the window to see a kittiwake perched on the sill, standing on one leg, his head tucked under his wing. She pushed open the sash, to hear his news. It wasn't the thing she most wanted to hear, but what he had to report had made her very happy, nonetheless.

After her father had left for his meetings, she'd taken Dane and snuck out of the house, rules be damned. It wasn't as though anything bad could happen today. She knew exactly where she was going, and she knew she wouldn't have to walk back through the city alone.

Now, the ship drew closer to the dock, and she saw a familiar figure standing on deck, the wind playing through his dark hair. Raising one arm, she waved.


Standing on the bow of the ship, Loghain enjoyed the wind blowing through his hair. He allowed the physical sensation to consume his attention, hoping to drive away the thoughts that plagued him constantly otherwise. Thoughts of Maric and of Cailan and of Ferelden. Of the grief that threatened to overwhelm him every time he considered the possibility his friend, his best friend of thirty years, might truly be gone.

The captain ordered the sails lowered, slowing their approach as the Denerim waterfront grew steadily larger up ahead. Loghain hated being at sea, so the sight of the city should have brought a smile to his face, but it didn't. The way he felt now, he thought it possible nothing would ever make him smile again.

Loghain had been away from Denerim for nearly three months. Ferelden's Royal Navy consisted of a total of five ships, all of which he had sent into the Waking Sea. Loghain himself had sailed on a caravel, the Angharad, which had combed the islands to the south and east of Hercinia. There was still an entire ocean to be searched, but he had to return home, for a brief time at least, to deal with the chaos he knew would be brewing in the wake of Maric's disappearance.

As much as he hated to admit it, a new ruler must be crowned; it was time for Cailan, unprepared though he may be, to take the throne. Of course, this also meant Anora would soon be queen, the one thing that kept Loghain from despairing for Ferelden's future under Cailan's rule. He loved Cailan almost like a son, but that didn't blind him to the lad's shortcomings, of which there were many. Anora, on the other hand, had a shrewd mind and a keen understanding of politics, and had paid attention all these years when Loghain had brought her to the Landsmeet and sent her to salons. Cailan would smile and charm his subjects, while Anora ran the country. It would work. And even if it wasn't ideal, even if they were both too young to be thrust into ruling a kingdom, that hardly mattered now. Ferelden needed a king, and Maric was nowhere to be found.

Maric. An image of him sprang unbidden into Loghain's mind, along with a memory of the sound of Maric's voice, his exuberant laughter. No matter how much Loghain tried to push them away, these thoughts of Maric were persistent. As was the hollow feeling they spawned in the pit of Loghain's stomach.

Thirty years. That was a lot of history, a lot of triumphs and trials, a lot of . . . everything. Certainly, Loghain had never been closer to anyone in his life. And no matter how much Loghain had grumbled about Maric's constant chatter and stupid jokes, the capering and the laughter, the truth was those things were so much a part of Loghain's life, the thought of continuing on without them was almost unbearable. As were thoughts of returning to the palace, knowing Maric would not be there to greet him. Of having to look into Cailan's eyes, and tell the boy that Loghain had failed to find his father.

No, this return to Ferelden held no appeal, and Loghain already felt a restlessness gnawing away at him, a feeling he knew would not be relieved by anything short of sailing away from Ferelden again, to continue his search.

As the caravel glided toward the dock, Loghain's eyes narrowed. For a moment, he thought he'd seen . . .

But, no. It must be his imagination. What would she be doing here?

He blinked to clear his eyes, and discovered it wasn't his imagination. There was a girl sitting on the dock. A girl who looked remarkably like Rhianna Cousland.

She raised her arm and waved enthusiastically, and after only a moment of hesitation, he returned the greeting.

Maker's breath. It was Rhianna. But why was she here? How had she known the ship would arrive today?

Actually, he didn't care why or how. It was enough she was here. Maker knows he was glad to see her.


Fifteen minutes later, he disembarked and crossed the dock to where she waited, a gangly young mabari pup cradled in her arms.


"Hello, Teyrn Loghain." Her smile was warm, but there was something behind her eyes that looked broken. Something like grief. That was hardly surprising. She loved Maric, too.

Loghain wasn't quite ready to talk about that yet, so instead he nodded his head in the direction of the puppy. "And who is this?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. Let me introduce you. Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir, this is Dane Cousland. Dane, this is the teyrn. I've told you all about him, remember?"

Dane huffed. Of course Dane remembered the stories about the teyrn.

She kissed the puppy's forehead before continuing, "Mother and Father gave him to me for my birthday. He's named for the battle," she added sheepishly, "not the hero." It sounded as though she'd given that answer repeatedly; perhaps someone had teased her about the name she'd given her dog.

"May I?" He reached his hands out toward the furry little creature. Rhianna nodded, and Loghain grasped the puppy just under his front legs, holding Dane at eye level.

"Hello, Dane." He looked the pup directly in the eyes. "You're a handsome fellow, aren't you? And very fortunate in having this young woman as your mistress."

"Harupf," Dane said, in complete agreement with both statements. Then he lunged at Loghain in a desperate attempt to lick the man's face. Turning his head to one side, Loghain allowed the puppy to slobber on his cheek, then shifted his grip to cradle Dane against his chest.

"Just what are the two of you doing here, anyway? On the docks, I mean? You're not contemplating a life at sea, I trust," Loghain asked, addressing the question to Rhianna while rubbing Dane behind the ears.

Rhianna chuckled. "No, silly. I heard your ship would be coming in this afternoon. So we came to welcome you back to Ferelden. I hope it won't be too much trouble for you to walk me back to Highever House." She wrinkled her nose. "I'm not really supposed to leave the estate without a chaperone."

"Of course I'll walk you back. Thank you for coming. It . . . well, it was good to see you here."

She beamed at him for a moment, but then her smile faded. "You didn't find him." It wasn't a question.

"No. Not yet."

"But you're going to keep looking?"


"Good." She was quiet for the space of a breath, then added, "I don't think he's dead."

Hmm. Was there something more to this statement than her desire for Maric to be alive? Sensing she would explain if he were patient, Loghain remained silent. Even Dane became calm in Loghain's arms.

Rhianna continued, "I don't believe his ship sank between here and Wycome. Or, if it did . . ." she looked down at the dock beneath their feet for a moment, before looking up again, directly into Loghain's eyes. "They couldn't find it. The seabirds, I mean."

"Seabirds? You sent birds out to look for Maric? Like you sent the rat after me that day?"

"Yes. And most of them can't swim under the water, so maybe they missed something. And of course, there's no way to know if they looked every single place a ship could have gone down. But they've been looking as long as you have, and a wreck . . . well, there's always debris on the surface. There would have been some sign the ship went down. But none of them found any evidence of a recently wrecked ship. Nor did they find King Maric. I think . . . I think that means he's not dead."

On the dock, people moved past them, back and forth, attending to their daily business and paying no attention at all to the man and the girl who stood so close together. A man and a girl so intent on one another they were unaware of the activity surrounding them.

"How many birds did you send?"

"Oh, I don't know. Two dozen, perhaps?"

"I wonder what would happen if you were to ask dolphins. I saw a lot of them while I was at sea. And they have no trouble swimming down into deep water."

Her eyes grew wide. "That's an excellent idea. You want dolphins? I can ask dolphins. All I need is a small boat, to get out into open water and talk to them."

"Shall we do that tomorrow? I'll make all the arrangements."

"You'll come with me?"

"Of course. Unless you already have plans for tomorrow."

"Probably I do. Some stupid salon or another. But this is much more important."

"Then tomorrow it is. I'll come round Highever House for you first thing in the morning."

"Perfect. With dolphins looking under the water, and you and the birds up above, you'll find King Maric. I know you will."

"If he's not dead, we will find him."

They turned, and headed toward the city, Dane still held in Loghain's arms.

As they walked side by side, Rhianna spoke. "I . . . I'm glad you're back. I think Ferelden needs you here right now."

"I expect you're right. As much as I would rather be looking for Maric, there are things here that must be taken care of first."

She glanced at him, but then looked away again.

"What are you thinking?" he asked.

"Just that . . . well, just that I like Denerim so much better when you're here."

"Indeed?" He paused. "Yes, well, I think Denerim is better when you're here, as well."

She bit her lip, as though trying not to smile, but she couldn't hide the pleasure that lit up her eyes at his comment.

"Yes," he murmured, more to himself than to her, "Denerim is better when you're here."

And finally, Loghain smiled.


Chapter Text

2 Harvestmere, 9:25 Dragon
Amaranthine Estate, Denerim


"King Maric is dead."

Rendon Howe swept his gaze across the faces of the select group of nobles gathered in the hall of his Denerim estate. Most of Arl Howe's guests were from the north: Franderel of West Hill; Ranulf of Waking Sea, along with his daughter, Alfstanna; Loren of River Dane; Leonas Bryland of South Reach. Bann Esmerelle, of course; she and Howe were rarely seen apart when the two of them were in Denerim at the same time. The only representation from the south was Gallagher Wulff, Arl of the West Hills. And of course, Eamon himself, who wasn't entirely sure why he had been invited to this "gathering," or what its purpose would be.

Hopefully it wouldn't prove to be a waste of his time.

Howe continued, "Regardless of whether or not Loghain Mac Tir wishes to continue living some fantasy where the king is going to magically appear after three months lost at sea, I'm sure we can agree amongst ourselves that, tragically, King Maric is dead, and will not be returning. And we must put aside our grief long enough to ensure a new ruler is found for Ferelden. A ruler who will help Ferelden to prosper and thrive. Hence, the reason I've invited all of you here tonight."

"What are you getting at, Howe?" Eamon asked, his voice carrying easily across the room. "The Landsmeet is set to confirm Cailan tomorrow. A month from now he will wed Anora Mac Tir. Together, they'll rule Ferelden, as their parents have planned for two decades. What, exactly, do you suggest should happen instead?"

"Yes." Howe smiled, an unpleasant, cold thing that didn't come close to reaching his eyes. "I am aware this would be the . . . easiest path for Ferelden to follow. But do you truly believe Prince Cailan, at such a tender age, is prepared to take the throne?"

"He's not any younger than Maric was when he was leading the rebellion," Gallagher Wulff replied.

"True." Bann Ranulf pulled at his beard thoughtfully. "But Cailan isn't Maric. Surely we can all agree on that, as well. And even Maric wasn't particularly well-prepared at that age. Maric succeeded because he had the charisma to convince people to follow him. He also had Loghain Mac Tir, and," glancing at Eamon, "your father and sister helping him manage things."

"It will be no different for Cailan," Eamon replied. "He will have plenty of people to advise him." Myself included, he added silently. He intended to exert as much influence as possible on his young nephew.

"If he'll listen to good advice," Bann Esmerelle said dryly. "The boy tends to do whatever he wants in the moment, without thinking through the consequences. Besides, do you really want to see Anora Mac Tir - the daughter of a commoner - ascend to the throne at his side?"

She fixed Eamon with a stare. After a moment, he inclined his head, conceding the point. "Fair enough," Eamon replied, turning to Howe. "I suppose this means you intend to put forth another candidate?"

The Arl of Amaranthine was smiling again, a thoroughly repulsive thing. Maker's balls, hopefully Howe didn't intend to put himself forward. That would be ridiculous, and a monumental waste of time. Howe was not anywhere near popular enough to convince the Landsmeet to support him. If that turned out to be the point of this meeting, Eamon would get up and walk out without another word.

"I do intend to put forth another candidate," Howe affirmed. "There is one man in Ferelden who has nearly as good a claim to the throne, has the popularity to carry the Landsmeet, if we advocate for him, and has the experience and wisdom to rule Ferelden wisely." He paused, once again meeting the eyes of those gathered around the table.

"Bryce Cousland."

An interested murmur spread throughout the room.

"Bryce, you say," Leonas Bryland spoke up. "I agree he would be an excellent king. I'd happily support him, although he's not said anything to me about putting himself forward. Does this mean he's willing?"

Howe raised his hands, as if wanting to keep the discussion from getting ahead of itself. "Not exactly. I . . . wanted to see if there would be support for the idea before bringing it up to him."

"Bryce isn't a Theirin," Eamon pointed out.

"No," Howe replied, "but his children have royal blood, through their mother. Eleanor and Maric were cousins, distant cousins, perhaps, but she is a Dryden. A direct descendant of Calenhad. Which means her children have as much royal blood as Prince Cailan does.

"What I suggest is we put Teyrn Cousland on the throne now. He is more than capable of ruling Ferelden, and ruling it well. And during his reign, his daughter Rhianna can be groomed to become queen after her father's death. Once again, someone of Calanhad's bloodline sits on the throne, and Ferelden doesn't have to suffer through the growing pains of an unprepared and immature king."

"Why the girl?" Wulff asked. "Fergus is Bryce's first born. Wouldn't he stand to inherit ahead of the daughter?"

"Well," Howe said smoothly. "I assume that Fergus will take over his father's teyrnir once Bryce becomes king. Which leaves Rhianna as the heir to the throne." He paused. "I've known the girl her entire life. She has the qualities that would make her a good queen."

Eamon studied Howe's face. There was more to this. Something Howe had up his sleeve. But Eamon was not quite sure what it was.

"There is some merit to what you suggest," Eamon conceded.

Yes, Bryce Cousland would be a fine king, from a practical standpoint. Although the fact he wasn't of the Theirin bloodline rankled. Eamon didn't know the girl; he'd seen her in Denerim from time to time, but couldn't recall ever speaking to her. He had no way of judging for himself whether or not she would make a good queen, and he certainly wasn't willing to take Rendon Howe's word for it. If anything, the fact Howe had focused on her, rather than on the son, made Eamon even more suspicious.

So just what was the missing piece?

Looking at Howe, it hit him.

The man had two sons, both of whom were of marriageable age. A match between one of them and the girl would put a Howe on the throne of Ferelden. Yes, that was almost certainly what the man had in mind. Perhaps such a betrothal had already been arranged. Eamon considered asking, but Howe would surely deny it, whether or not it was true.

The thought of a Howe on the throne, a family that hardly had an unblemished history of loyalty to Ferelden, was unacceptable. Although you couldn't blame the man for trying. Eamon had a son of his own, after all, and wouldn't mind seeing Connor on the throne someday. The boy was only two years old, however, so there was no point in bringing up his name now. But that would be something to consider for the future if the Cousland girl were to remain unspoken for long enough.

Chances are Howe had already made an arrangement with Bryce, attempting to cut off any chance of marrying the girl into some other family. But a betrothal, especially one that hadn't been formally announced, wasn't impossible to break. And the Cousland girl did have an attractive pedigree.

"There is merit to it," Eamon repeated. "However," he continued, deciding to turn the tables on Howe and whatever machinations he was planning, "there is another option. Put Cailan on the throne, as planned. But he marries the Cousland girl, rather than Loghain's daughter. I have no doubt this will require a fair amount of babysitting on our part, to make sure Cailan receives appropriate guidance. But this would keep a Theirin on the throne. And, considering the boy is likely to turn to his bride's father for advice, I, for one, would much rather see Cailan turn to Bryce than to Loghain Mac Tir. This would be the best of both worlds." And keep Howe's spawn away from the throne.

Howe chuckled half-heartedly. "Yes, that would seem to be an excellent compromise. However," he continued, his voice dripping with feigned regret, "Cailan's marriage to Anora Mac Tir was settled years ago. I sincerely doubt either of them will agree to have their betrothal broken. And Loghain is sure to object, quite strenuously."

"Loghain is going to object strenuously to either of these suggestions," Bann Ranulf pointed out. "He wants to see his daughter on the throne, and I don't blame him for that. She's been groomed for this her entire life. Having Cailan marry someone else, or putting Bryce on the throne, either way it confounds Loghain's ambitions for his daughter and his family name. Not to mention Cailan is the son of Loghain's best friend."

"Family name," Eamon snorted. "The man had no family name until Maric bestowed it upon him. The man should have stayed a farmer."

"Now, that's hardly fair." Alfstanna's voice was soft, but carried easily across the room. "Loghain Mac Tir is a hero. Without him, we'd probably all be speaking Orlesian right now, assuming any of us were still alive. I don't see how it matters who his parents were, or how they made their living. Teyrn Loghain is a great man, and I think Anora will be a good queen. I have more concerns about Cailan than I do about Anora Mac Tir."

Several others at the table nodded in agreement.

"Yes, well since Loghain is going to be unhappy either way," Bann Wulff began, "We ought to consider the merits of each of these proposed outcomes without worrying about his reaction."

"Each proposed outcome?" Howe smiled, as always, but his tone suggested he was disconcerted by the appearance of multiple proposed outcomes. Eamon nearly chuckled aloud at the man's obvious discomfort. "Well, the Cousland girl is not yet old enough to marry, nor is she ready to take up the crown at Cailan's side. Much better to put Teyrn Bryce on the throne, and give his daughter time to mature - under our guidance, of course - and put her on the throne some years from now."

"How old is the girl?" Eamon asked. He honestly had no idea.

"She turned thirteen very recently."

Eamon snorted. "What are you talking about, Howe? She's plenty old enough to wed, especially considering Cailan's young age. If Bryce is squeamish about such things, then throw in a condition they wait a year or two to consummate the marriage. That will still give her plenty of time to conceive heirs. Heirs with the Theirin name, and Calenhad's bloodline on both sides. I rather like the thought of that."

"I don't know," Wulff interjected. "I am still nervous about the prospect of putting Cailan on the throne at all. The boy is too young, and has never shown any aptitude for leadership. None I've seen, anyway."

What he said was true, yes, but it was also true that Wulff has sons of his own. Several sons, come to think of it. All of whom could be considered potential partners for the Cousland girl.

"I'm with Gallagher," Ranulf replied. "I'd be willing to support Bryce Cousland. He's a good man, a hero. Well liked by the nobility and the people of the Coastlands. I can't think of anyone in the north who wouldn't be willing to support him, with the possible exception of Bann Nicola. Wouldn't you agree, Franderel?"

The Bann of West Hill nodded. "Yes, Ranulf speaks true. Bryce would be a fine king, and would easily carry the north. But what about the rest of the country?" He turned to Leonas Bryland, "What do you think are the chances of Dragon's Peak and Lothering supporting Bryce? And Oswin? And Denerim?"

Bryland looked up at the ceiling as he considered the question, then shrugged as he met Franderel's gaze. "Dragon's Peak, perhaps. Lothering? I doubt it. Ceorlic has sworn his allegiance to Gwaren, and I don't think he would do anything to jeopardize that relationship. Denerim? Eh, Urien's fond of the prince, although he might be swayed to our side if he thought there was some chance his son Vaughan might marry Rhianna when she comes of age." Bryland paused. "Not that I would support that option, ever. Vaughan Kendalls is less fit to be king than Cailan. And I don't have much hope for Oswin. Loghain was born there; Gerald will side with Gwaren." He turned to Eamon. "What about Rainesfere? Can you convince your brother to support Bryce? Assuming you're on board with us, that is."

"Rainesfere will stand with Redcliffe," Eamon replied, well aware he was answering only half of the question. No one else seemed to notice.

"And the rest of the south? Will they stand with Redcliffe?" Franderel asked.

"Yes. The rest of the south, as well," Eamon affirmed.

"Well," Howe stood, clapping his hands together in a gesture clearly meant to signal the end of this meeting. "I suggest we call it a night, and rest up for what promises to be an exciting day tomorrow."

"So," Arl Wulff addressed Howe, as those gathered around the table began to get to their feet. "Do you intend to put Bryce's name forward?"

A smile split Howe's face. "I plan to pay him a visit this evening. We'll see where that discussion leads. But I would say yes, we should all be prepared tomorrow to put Teyrn Cousland's name before the Landsmeet. And of course, I'm certain the teyrn will be most grateful for your support." Howe's eyes again traveled over the faces in the room. Finally, the man's gaze landed on Eamon, and rested there.

As it should. The south would support whichever candidate Eamon supported, after all. Which made him rather the most important man in the room.

At least this evening hadn't proved a waste of time. Rhianna Cousland. He'd never thought much about her before, but it was clear she had the potential to become important – very important - in Ferelden's future, something that certainly warranted Eamon's attention.

Thankfully, he had the entire evening to decide just where he thought the girl best fit in, and how he intended to vote on the morrow.


Chapter Text

3 Harvestmere, 9:25 Dragon
Royal Palace, Denerim


Loghain sat in the gallery, only half-listening as Bryce Cousland called the Landsmeet to order. Loghain was somewhat preoccupied this morning, after looking over the royal treasury documents last night, and trying to figure out how he was going to fund this expedition to search for Maric. There was money, but not so much it would be easy to justify spending it on a search many of Ferelden's nobles had already decided would be in vain.

Ah well. He still had a while to figure something out; he wouldn't set sail until after Cailan and Anora were wed, which would happen just over a month from now.

"As we all are aware," Bryce was saying, "Teyrn Loghain returned last week after searching the coast of the Free Marches for any sign of King Maric or his ship. Unfortunately, this search was unsuccessful. Which brings us to the purpose of our meeting today: this Landsmeet has been called to confirm a new king to rule in Maric's absence. I know this weighs heavily on all of us. Maric was not only a personal friend, but beloved to all of Ferelden. A hero. An inspiration. His leadership led us out of the bleak days of the Orlesian Occupation, gave all of us our freedom. But now, he is gone, and we must decide who will rule in his place. To that end, I open the floor for nominations."

Loghain stood, and waited to be recognized. Bryce nodded in his direction. "I nominate Prince Cailan Theirin, Maric's son and named heir."

Bryce nodded. "So noted. Are there any other nominations?"

Rendon Howe stood. A ripple of murmuring voices passed through the room, as thirty pairs of eyes fell upon the Arl of Amaranthine.

"I nominate Bryce Cousland, Teyrn of Highever."

The room was silent for the space a few heartbeats, and then erupted into a cacophony of voices, as everyone in the room tried to speak at the same time.

What in the Maker's name was this? Bryce Cousland was challenging Cailan for the throne? Loghain glanced at Bryce; the man's face was calm, neither smiling nor frowning. Clearly, this did not come as a surprise to him.

Maker's balls. Bryce Cousland was challenging Maric's own son.

This was . . . unthinkable.

When the furor in the room showed no sign of subsiding, Bryce's voice rang out above the others.


Almost instantly, the room was quiet again, except for a few sibilant whispers. Loghain glanced down at Cailan. His face had turned completely pale, and the lad's mouth hung open as if in shock.

Loghain, still on his feet, turned to Bryce. "Is this a genuine nomination? Are you prepared to challenge Prince Cailan's claim to the throne?"

Bryce met Loghain's gaze. "Yes. I am willing to put myself forward, if the Landsmeet will support me."

Maker's balls.

What in the world was Bryce thinking? It's not that Bryce wouldn't make an excellent king. He would, and he had as reasonable a claim as anyone. Anyone other than Cailan, that is. Maric's son.

Never in his wildest imagination had Loghain expected anyone to challenge Cailan's claim. Perhaps the boy wasn't prepared yet to be king, but he didn't have to be. He would have advisors, Loghain himself, just as Maric had. The majority of nobles in Ferelden were well aware Loghain had been behind many of the crucial decisions during Maric's reign. Together, they had been an excellent team: Maric with the charm to keep everyone happy, and Loghain to make sure things ran smoothly from behind the scenes, while never flinching from difficult decisions. There was no reason for this not to continue under Cailan. At first anyway, until the boy got a feel for ruling, with Anora at his side.

If Bryce were elected king, it was likely to throw the nation into chaos. And what of the effect on the government if - no, when - Maric returned from wherever that Maker-damned ship had taken him? With Cailan on the throne, it would be difficult enough if the Landsmeet decided Maric should be reinstated. If Bryce were king, things could only be more complicated.

And when Maric did return, Loghain did not want to have to explain how it came to pass that Maric's own son had not been confirmed as king.

Damn. Damn! How much support had Bryce garnered? A challenge like this would not be floated at the Landsmeet lightly, would not be floated at all unless Bryce knew he had some chance of success.

Eamon Guerrin stood to be recognized. "Teyrn Cousland, since you are now a participant in this election, it would be best for someone else to preside over the Landsmeet. I respectfully suggest Bann Teagan of Rainesfere." With little fanfare or discussion, it was agreed Teagan would replace Bryce. Looking rather pale and surprised, Eamon's brother moved to the front of the room.

Teagan coughed into his hand before speaking. "Two names have been put forward to succeed King Maric Theirin as the ruler of Ferelden. Are there any other nominations?"

Blessedly, the room was silent. "Very well," Teagan said, sounding relieved. "First, we shall hear in favor of Teyrn Bryce Cousland. Who will speak for him?"

All eyes turned to Rendon Howe, but instead Leonas Bryland pushed himself to his feet. That was wise. Howe may have been behind this nomination, but at least he was smart enough to have someone else speak on Bryce's behalf. Rendon Howe was far from the most popular member of the Landsmeet. Leonas, on the other hand, was jovial and well-liked.

"You all know me," Leonas began, in his usual conversational manner, "but more to the point, you all know Bryce, and have done for years. I've known him most of my life and can honestly say I have never known a better man than Bryce Cousland. I fought at his side during the Battle of White River, and you all know how that turned out. Only fifty of us made it through alive, and I tell you plainly I would not have been one of them if it weren't for the heroic actions of my friend here. Highever and the entire Coastlands have prospered under his leadership. He's brought amazing amounts of trade to the area, and is universally known as a fair and honest man. And Bryce has fostered good relations with many of our neighbors, especially with the Free Marches, Antiva, and Orlais.

"It is also worth mentioning he would bring with him a family eminently well suited for leading Ferelden into a prosperous future. Teyrna Eleanor would be a gracious, intelligent, compassionate queen. Also," he took a breath, "since leaving Highever would require his eldest child, Fergus, to step into the role of teyrn, the natural choice for the succession after Bryce would be his daughter, Lady Rhianna Cousland."

Blessed Andraste. So that's what this was about. Whether Bryce realized it or not, he was merely the means to an end. Oh, certainly, there were those who would genuinely prefer to see Cousland on the throne. If it were just a matter of Cailan versus Bryce, even Loghain had to admit Bryce was better suited to be king. But this was not about Bryce. This was about Rhianna. Did Bryce realize that by challenging Cailan, he was throwing his daughter to the wolves?

Bryland continued, "For those of you who are not acquainted with the girl, let me tell you that I have known her since she was born, and I can honestly assure you she has the potential, with appropriate guidance during her father's life, to be a magnificent queen. She has a way with people the likes of which I have rarely seen before. I'm sure you'll remember how impressed Empress Celene was with her, when the girl was presented a few years ago. And," he added carefully, as though he wanted to ensure no one missed this last point, "the girl is a direct descendant of King Calenhad himself, through her mother."

Yes. Rhianna and her royal blood had an extremely strong claim to the throne. And she would have to marry someone. If Bryce took the throne, every noble in Ferelden who had some ambition for ruling the country would be after the girl, hoping to gain the throne on her back. She was already the most eligible young woman in the kingdom, seen by many as a valuable prize to be won, but if Bryce were made king, competition for her hand would become even more intense.

No doubt Rendon Howe intended it to be one of his boys, but Urien Kendalls, Gallagher Wulff, Sighard Davies, even Eamon Guerrin all had sons to consider. There were even a few men in the room who might bid for Rhianna themselves. Teagan Guerrin had never been married. Urien Kendalls, Gerald Valdric and Leonas Bryland were all widowers. As was Loghain himself.

Not that Bryce was likely to choose someone of his own generation as Rhianna's husband; that would make little sense. If Bryce won the throne, Rhianna would marry whomever he and his allies decided would make the best king after Bryce's death.

Perhaps an arrangement for the girl's future had already been made. Then again, perhaps not; Bryce wasn't quite that scheming. If anything, Bryce Cousland had always seemed a touch too trusting. Like now, when it seemed likely the man hadn't considered all the ramifications for his daughter were he to be crowned king. Or perhaps he had considered them, and this was what he wanted for her: to be queen.

"I don't want to be queen," Rhianna had said. "I don't know anything about being a queen."

She might not be given a choice.

"In any case," Bryland finished, "I think I've made it clear I support Bryce Cousland as the next King of Ferelden. No one is better suited than Bryce to lead our nation into an era of peace and prosperity, and he has experience and, let's face it, propensity for ruling, that Cailan simply does not have." Bryland sat down to widespread murmuring throughout the chamber.

"Thank you, Arl Bryland," Bann Teagan said calmly. "And who will speak in favor of Prince Cailan?"

Damn it. If Loghain had known this challenge was coming, he could have groomed one of the others to speak. Eamon, perhaps. The man was obnoxious, but he was both a staunch royalist and the boy's uncle, certain to support Cailan's claim. And Eamon was influential in the south. He might have been a better advocate for Cailan than Loghain himself. Loghain glanced at the Arl of Redcliffe, hoping he would volunteer. But no, the bearded man sat back in his chair, crossing his arms in front of him. Nor did anyone else take the floor.

There was nothing to be done but speak for the boy himself.

Taking a deep breath, Loghain got to his feet.

"I have known Cailan Theirin since he was a boy. Most of us here have. From the moment he was born, it was always intended this day would eventually come. The day when Prince Cailan would take the throne in his father's place. No one regrets more than I do that this day has arrived far sooner than any of us anticipated, but it doesn't change the fact Maric intended for his son to succeed him as King of Ferelden.

"Yes, Cailan is young, but he stands here before you, ready to take his father's place, ready to dedicate himself to ruling this land. Nor will he be doing it alone. Though he wasn't tempered in the fires of war as his father was, he has the benefit of being surrounded by those who will guide him as he learns.

"Four hundred years ago, Calenhad the Great brought all of the banns together as never before. Since that time, except during the Occupation, Ferelden has been led by a monarch descended directly from Calenhad himself." Certainly, there was irony in Loghain Mac Tir, a man born of farmers and raised up to the nobility, making this argument. But he carried on anyway. "Cailan, of course, shares this esteemed bloodline.

"As all of you know, Maric was far more to me than merely my king. He was my best friend. He was like a brother to me for more than two decades. This means I am hardly unbiased in my desire to see his son rule Ferelden. But neither should you be. Maric was beloved of all of us, and for good reason. There was something special about him. Something regal, something that inspired people. It's what gave him the ability to drive the Orlesians from our lands, and made him so exceptionally successful as our king. And Prince Cailan is very much his father's son. Do not let his youth blind you to the fact he is Maric's heir, both in reality and in spirit. He had Maric's confidence. He has my confidence. And he should be given your confidence, as well.

"Bryce Cousland is a war hero. More importantly he is a good man. If Ferelden were in need of someone to step forward and succeed to the throne, I can think of no one better qualified than Teyrn Cousland. But Ferelden is not in need of someone to step forward. King Maric has an heir, his son, Cailan. Not just Maric's son, but Queen Rowan's, as well. To deny him his birthright would do a disservice to him, to this Landsmeet, and to the people of Ferelden. We owe Prince Cailan to chance to prove himself, to become the king he was born to be."

After a final glance at the faces around the room, he returned to his seat, and nodded at Teagan Guerrin.

Teagan stood once more. "Is there anyone else who would like to speak on behalf of either candidate?" When no one responded, he continued, "Then, would either candidate care to address the assembly?" Cailan and Bryce both shook their heads, declining the opportunity. Leonas had spoken well on Bryce's behalf; it was wise of the man not to say anything more. And Cailan? Cailan was likely too much in shock to be capable of coherent speech.

Teagan nodded to the Landsmeet scribe, indicating he should be prepared to record the vote. "Then let the voting begin," he said in a clear voice.

"Gwaren supports Prince Cailan," Loghain announced.

"Highever abstains."

"Amaranthine supports Bryce Cousland." Rendon Howe's voice carried throughout the hall.

"Amaranthine City supports Bryce Cousland," Bann Esmerelle added a moment later.

"Dragon's Peak supports Prince Cailan."

"South Reach supports Bryce Cousland."

"Drakon River stands with Prince Cailan."

"Blackburn supports Prince Cailan."

"Lowden stands with Teryn Cousland."

"Lothering supports Prince Cailan."

"West Hill stands with Cousland,"

"Waking Sea supports Teyrn Cousland."

"River Dane supports Teyrn Cousland."

"Denerim supports Bryce Cousland." That was unexpected. Urien Kendalls was a royalist, or had been until now.

"Northmuir supports Prince Cailan."

"Hafter River stands with Teyrn Cousland."

"Abervale stands with the teyrn."

"White River supports Teryn Cousland."

"Knotwood Hills supports Teyrn Cousland."

Most of the north had voted, but the south was strangely quiet. Apparently, most of the southern banns were waiting to see how Eamon Guerrin would vote.

"Rainesfere supports Prince Cailan," Bann Teagan announced. While it was hardly surprising he would support his nephew's bid, it was unusual for him to vote ahead of his brother; Teagan usually followed his brother's lead in most things.

"Ayre supports the teryn."

"West Hills supports Teyrn Cousland." Another somewhat surprising vote, considering Gallagher Wulff's arling was far to the south. Of course, he had sons who might well become king if one of them could capture Rhianna's hand.

Thus far, the vote was strongly in favor - fourteen to seven - of Bryce. There were twenty-nine voting members in the Landsmeet, after Highever's abstention; Bryce needed just one more vote to take the throne.

Finally, Eamon spoke. "Redcliffe . . . stands with Prince Cailan."

It was as if the air went out of the room. One by one, the southern banns spoke.

"Vintiver supports Prince Cailan."

"Winter's Breath stands with the Prince."

"Penfro supports the Prince."

"Southron Hills stands with Prince Cailan."

"The Ruswold stands with the Prince."

"Sothmere stands with Prince Cailan."

The vote was tied, fourteen votes for the prince, and fourteen for the teyrn.

"Oswin . . . supports Prince Cailan."

The room fell silent for just a moment, then erupted into a sea of voices. Cailan had won the support of the Landsmeet. Just barely. No doubt, this margin of just a single vote would be talked about for many years to come.

Loghain closed his eyes, and rubbed at his forehead with his hand. Thank the Maker. Cailan would rule, as Maric had intended. And Rhianna Cousland had been relieved of what would have been an extremely heavy burden.

When the room quieted, Teagan's voice rang out. "The Landsmeet has spoken! Prince Cailan Theirin will succeed his father as King of Ferelden. The coronation ceremony will take place here in the Palace at noon, tomorrow.


Chapter Text

3 Harvestmere, 9:25 Dragon
Highever Estate, Denerim


Dinner at the Highever estate was a somber affair.

When Bryce returned from the Landsmeet, he gathered the family together and, as gently as possible, told them the outcome of the vote. When Eleanor learned Bryce lost by a single vote, she'd nearly cried. If just one additional person had supported him instead of Cailan, her husband would be the one being crowned king tomorrow.

Instead, he was now in the precarious position of having challenged Cailan, and lost. Even so, Eleanor didn't know whether to be embarrassed her husband's gambit had not succeeded, or incredibly proud he had come one vote away from being named King of Ferelden. She decided to be proud. For a man with no Theirin blood, he had come awfully close to swaying the Landsmeet in his favor. Something that hadn't happened in four hundred years.

When Bryce explained what had happened, Eleanor, concerned as much for her children as for her husband, had watched their reactions closely. Fergus had looked nothing but relieved; Rhianna's expression had been more difficult to read.

That morning, when they'd told the children Bryce intended to put his name forward, both Rhianna and Fergus had seemed uncomfortable with the idea. Of course, they had smiled and wished their father luck, and said all the supportive things one could expect. But Rhianna in particular had seemed unsettled. Her smile looked forced, and her eyes were guarded and unhappy. Frankly, Eleanor had expected Rhianna to be elated by the news that Cailan had been confirmed, after all. But now, the girl looked no happier than she had that morning. If Eleanor had to put a name to it, she'd say her daughter looked scared.

Perhaps she was scared. Perhaps she had good reason to be. Bryce assured them everything would be all right, but having stood up against Cailan, and by extension Loghain, was definitely unsettling.

Damn Rendon Howe, anyway. From the first, Eleanor never liked the idea of Bryce being put forward, but Howe had assured them he had plenty of support. Cailan wasn't truly prepared to rule the country, after all, and if this was what the Landsmeet wanted, it seemed the best thing to do. But Howe's promise of support fell through, and now Bryce would be left to pick up the pieces if either the king or Loghain decided to hold a grudge. What in the Maker's name had Howe been thinking?

Bryce seemed genuinely calm, however. "It's all right, Eleanor," he assured. "The Landsmeet made its decision, and I am satisfied with that. It's not as though I really wanted to be king. I had concerns about Cailan, about whether or not he is ready. But clearly, the Landsmeet believes he is, so we'll do what we can to support the boy as he learns how to rule Ferelden. It's for the best, I'm sure."

He fell silent then, but when he glanced at Rhianna, Eleanor could almost hear his voice in her head. And it will certainly make our daughter's life less complicated.

That much was true. As Bryce's heir presumptive, Rhianna would have been dragged into the middle of Fereldan politics. That was going to happen soon enough, but the longer it could be avoided, the better. Bryce and Eleanor both intended to make good on the promise they'd made to their daughter: she would not be forced into a marriage she didn't want. If Bryce had won the throne, that might not have been possible. The daughter of a teyrn had rather more freedom than the daughter of a king.

Even so, clearly, Rhianna was not comforted by this turn of events. Eleanor wasn't sure what to say to reassure her daughter, to soothe away the unhappiness in her eyes. With any luck, this whole thing would blow over quickly, and be put behind them.

"Begging your pardon my lord, my lady?" Eleanor looked up to see Hobbes standing in the doorway. "You have a visitor."

"A visitor?" Bryce sounded exhausted, and more than a little annoyed. Eleanor didn't blame him. The last thing she wanted this evening was company. "Who is it?"

"The Arl of Redcliffe, Your Grace."

Eamon Guerrin? What in the world did Eamon want? Last night, Howe had hinted Eamon had agreed to support Bryce, yet according to Bryce, Eamon was the one who turned the tide in Cailan's favor during the voting. Still, it was probably worth hearing what the man had to say. At the moment, they were hardly in a position to turn anyone away.

"Show him in, please," Bryce replied.

"Rhianna." Eleanor turned to her daughter. "Why don't you go on up and get ready for bed. I'll come tuck you in, in a few minutes, after the arl has gone."

"Yes, Mother."

"Perhaps you can help me put Oren to bed first," Oriana suggested to Rhianna, pleasantly. "And then if you like, you and I can read a story together. Fergus, are you still planning to meet Oswyn Davies at the Gnawed Noble?"

"I had thought to," Fergus replied, "if you don't mind. I can wait until you're done with Oren's bedtime and the story, if you'd like to come along."

"No, you go ahead. I'm happy to stay in tonight," Oriana replied.

The younger members of the family left the room, leaving Bryce and Eleanor alone for less than a minute before Hobbes returned with Arl Eamon in tow.

"Good evening, Eamon." Bryce gestured at the sofa, inviting the arl to take a seat. "Can I offer you anything?"

"I wouldn't say no to a glass of port."

Although Eamon was younger than Bryce, he looked several years older, probably due to his prematurely grey hair and full beard. To be honest, Eleanor had never been particularly fond of Eamon Guerrin. He spent rather too much time fussing about things she found distasteful, and she didn't like the way he treated his servants.

But now, she smiled graciously, and settled herself at the other end of the sofa, while her husband poured three glasses of port.

"So, Eamon," Bryce began, after joining them near the fire. "Forgive me for being blunt, but I'm sure you can appreciate it's been a rather demanding day. How can I help you?"

Eamon's eyes narrowed slightly, as he regarded Bryce. "Of course. I understand you wanting to get directly to the point. First of all, I want to apologize for what happened at the Landsmeet. For not supporting your bid for the throne. It's not that I don't believe you would be a fine king. But, well, Cailan is a Theirin. And, he's also my nephew. Even so, I considered it." Eamon paused. "I mean that. I considered it. Cailan is too young, and not at all ready for this. But, in the end, Loghain was persuasive. This is what Maric wanted. What my sister wanted. The legacy they both fought so hard to preserve. The legacy we all fought to preserve."

"Understood," Bryce replied. "That doesn't explain why you're here, though. I can't imagine you would venture out in the middle of the night just to make a rather unnecessary apology."

Eamon chuckled. "No, I don't suppose I would. You want to know why I'm here?" He pursed his lips, as if considering how to proceed. "As I've said, I was able to overcome the reservations I had about Cailan taking the throne. I'm here, however, because there is another matter that bothers me. And I'm not sure I am willing to sit idly by while it happens." Bryce and Eleanor remained silent, waiting for him to explain. "This marriage between Cailan and Loghain's daughter. Not only would it give Mac Tir an unreasonable amount of influence over the crown, even more than he's had in the past, but it dilutes the Theirin bloodline with that of a commoner. Anora Mac Tir is the granddaughter of farmers and carpenters."

"Respectable professions, both," Eleanor said thinly. She didn't appreciate the arl's views on bloodlines.

"That's easy for you to say, Eleanor." Eamon sounded vaguely annoyed. "A woman like yourself, a descendant of Calenhad, can afford to be generous. But I'm talking about the future of our country. Do we really want the ruling line of Ferelden tainted by inferior blood?"

"Any child of Cailan's will carry Calenhad's legacy," Bryce pointed out. "I'm still not sure exactly where you're going with this."

"Yes, well. Let me speak plainly, then. I do not want Cailan to marry Anora Mac Tir. Bloodlines aside, it gives too much power to her father, and I fear that she, herself, will try and exert an . . . undue influence on Cailan."

"Undue influence?" Bryce asked, raising a brow. "Surely, the queen should have influence nearly equal to that of the king. Wouldn't you agree?"

"Under normal circumstances? Of course," Eamon agreed. "Rowan was Maric's partner in every sense of the word. But I'm just not sure Anora - both of the Mac Tirs - have the same . . . goals in mind for Ferelden as the rest of us have."

"Loghain had Maric's ear for twenty five years," Eleanor replied. "I take it you have complaints about the way he's handled things?"

"Complaints? Besides the fact that with Loghain Mac Tir as the decision-maker behind the crown, we will never make amends with our nearest neighbors? The treaty with Orlais could have been so much more than it was, if not for Loghain's influence. Maric's death, tragic though it might be, gives us an opportunity to purge ourselves - to purge Ferelden - of Mac Tir's prejudice and extreme views. I'm not saying get rid of him entirely. Send him back to Gwaren. He and his daughter can rule their teyrnir, far away from Denerim. Let the rest of us move Ferelden forward."

"Forward? Meaning a new relationship with Orlais, I presume?" Eleanor asked.

"Yes. Among other things," Eamon replied.

"Personally," Bryce said, "I'm more than satisfied with the way things have been since the treaty was signed five years ago. I certainly don't want to see Orlais have opportunity to increase its influence in Ferelden ever again."

"That's funny, coming from you," Eamon scoffed. "Surely, you've benefitted a great deal from trade with the Orlesians."

"Yes, by virtue of the fact Highever is so close in proximity," Bryce replied. "But enjoying a healthy trade relationship is far different than wanting them to invade our borders again. I know you weren't in Ferelden through the worst of the Rebellion, Eamon. But you lost your father to Orlesian treachery. Surely, you don't want to risk a situation like that ever again."

Eamon shrugged. "Of course not. But this isn't just about Orlais. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Loghain . . . he takes too much on himself. He always presumed too much in his relationship with the king . . . and the queen, while she lived. And now, if his daughter is allowed to ascend the throne, the situation will not improve. Cailan is young, malleable. He will allow himself to be manipulated by whomever he turns to for advice. If Cailan were to marry someone else, someone more amenable to being guided in the direction we want Ferelden to go, that would benefit just about everyone."

Instantly, the reason for Eamon's visit became clear to Eleanor. And, judging by his next words, it had become clear to Bryce as well.

"No." Bryce's voice was firm. "I will not try and convince the prince to break his betrothal in favor of an arrangement with my daughter."

Eamon frowned. "Why not? You were willing to put yourself forward as king, and have your daughter named heir presumptive. How is this any different, except she gains the throne now, rather than later?"

"How is this different?" Bryce sounded incredulous. "How can you ask that, Eamon? This is entirely different. Rhianna is still a child, and I don't want to drag her into this sort of political scheme. Not something done behind closed doors. And anyway, regardless of the effect this would have on my daughter, there are a variety of other reasons for not doing as you suggest."

"What reasons?"

Bryce took a deep breath. "Rendon Howe told me there was ample support in the Landsmeet for me to take the throne. I would not have allowed my name to be put forward otherwise. It was never my intention to cause any sort of dissension, or rift among the nobility. I truly believed a majority of the Landsmeet had doubts about Cailan's ability to rule. Yourself, included." Bryce shrugged. "Clearly, that wasn't the case.

"But the fact I attempted to claim the throne . . . well, I don't assume there will be no repercussions. I wouldn't blame Cailan for being resentful, at least for a time. If I were to go to him now, I doubt I could convince him of anything. Certainly not something as monumental as this. He and Anora grew up knowing they would someday wed, and by all accounts they are genuinely fond of one another. I doubt Cailan would agree to break that betrothal under any circumstances, but especially not at a suggestion from me. My failed gambit for the throne? I'm sure I can recover from that in time. But were I to try and convince Cailan to marry Rhianna, and fail at that as well, it would be disastrous. I can't afford to be out of favor with the king, or the queen. And Ferelden can't afford to have her nobles squabbling amongst themselves."

"What if I were able to convince Cailan?" Eamon suggested. "Convince him Rhianna would be a better queen, and you had agreed to the arrangement?"

"Absolutely not." Eamon opened his mouth to reply, but Bryce continued before the other man could speak. "Even if you were to convince Cailan to marry Rhianna, there would be severe consequences. Consequences I'm not sure are worth the risk. Do you think Loghain's ambitions for his daughter are so flexible he would allow Cailan to break off the betrothal without another word? Of course not. The man would fight for his daughter's position; I'd do the same in his shoes. Whether or not Rhianna were to become queen, it would create a rift between myself and Loghain that might never heal. No, the price for all of us would be insanely high. Too high. And I don't want to embroil Rhianna in such political intrigues. Especially in light of the warm relationship she has with Loghain."

"Your daughter has a . . . relationship? With the teyrn?" Eamon's inflection made it sound vaguely dirty.

"They are friends," Eleanor explained. "They have been ever since she was small. And he's been very good to her over the years. Good to our entire family. He's saved Rhianna's life, on more than one occasion. Frankly, it would take quite a lot before I would even consider anything that constituted a betrayal of either Loghain or his daughter."

"And yet you were both willing for Bryce to challenge Cailan's succession?"

"Which hardly qualified as a 'betrayal,'" Eleanor insisted. "You know as well as I do it's tradition, not law, that a Theirin should sit on the throne of Ferelden. If Bryce had been confirmed by the Landsmeet, a majority vote in the light of day, well . . . that's the way our system is supposed to work. But suggesting Bryce convince Cailan to break a betrothal that's been in place for years? That's different. If you had such a strong objection to the match, why didn't you say something before now?"

"What makes you think I didn't?" Eamon raised his hands in a gesture of frustration. "But Maric wouldn't listen. Maric has never been able to see things clearly when it comes to Loghain Mac Tir. And any comments I made to Cailan fell on deaf ears, as well. He likes to think he can do whatever he wants. That's the one good thing that might come of your attempt to take the throne, Bryce. I think it scared the boy, made him see he might have to work for things he wants, he might have to negotiate. I hope it will make him more amenable to listening to the good advice of his elders than he has been in the past."

Your advice, Eleanor thought dryly. Which is not necessarily the same thing as 'good' advice. But she didn't say that. Instead, she replied, "Well, Cailan is going to have a rocky time of things at first. I think that much is obvious. He wasn't prepared to take the throne this soon, and he's bound to be affected by the loss of his father. None of us were prepared for any of this. But I agree with Bryce. I am not willing to try and convince Cailan to break his betrothal with Anora. I don't think Ferelden would benefit whether or not we were able to succeed. And too many people would be affected, with too much bad blood all the way around."

Eamon frowned. "Loghain Mac Tir has held too much power in the past, and with Maric gone, and Loghain's own daughter on the throne, things will only get worse. It's difficult to believe you wouldn't rather see your own daughter be made queen, than a girl born of common stock."

"To be honest, I don't think our daughter has any desire to be queen," Bryce replied. "But even if she did, it's not her opinion, nor mine, that matters. It was put before the Landsmeet this morning, Eamon. And the Landsmeet - yourself included - supported Cailan. Knowing full well he intends to marry Anora Mac Tir. If they'd wanted Rhianna as their queen, they had their chance. You had your chance. I'm sorry, Eamon," Bryce said with finality. "But I'm afraid you've wasted your time in coming here tonight. We're not going to speak with Cailan in some hope he will marry our daughter instead of Anora."

"That's too bad, Bryce." Eamon shrugged, pushing himself to his feet. "But, of course I'll respect your decision. And pray I can maintain some sort of influence over the boy." He set his glass onto the table. "I'll bid you goodnight, then. Bryce. Eleanor." With a final incline of his head, the Arl of Redcliffe left the room.

Bryce leaned back into the chair, running a hand through his hair. "You don't think we should have considered what he was asking? Tried to convince Cailan that Rhianna would be a better match for him?"

Eleanor got up from the sofa, and came to sit in her husband's lap. He put his arm around her shoulder, and she leaned against him. "No. No part of what Eamon suggested was a good idea. Eamon's just grasping at straws, and it's very easy for him to make suggestions like this, when it's not his own neck on the line. Like you said, you'll be able to recover from what happened today. But that was done out in the open, above board. Trying to convince the boy to break a betrothal put in place years ago? That is dishonorable. You and I both know it. And Eamon knows it, as well. That's why he didn't fight harder. Clearly, he has something against Loghain, although I must say I'm a bit baffled as to why. I can't think of any way Ferelden has suffered during the years in which Loghain has had influence."

"Nor can I. Perhaps Eamon's main concern is Orlais. He does have an Orlesian wife, after all, and may have a different agenda."

"Perhaps . . . but I got the feeling this wasn't really about Orlais. Yes, that was the first reason he gave, but all his subsequent arguments were somewhat more . . . personal. Obviously, Eamon is bothered by the fact Loghain wasn't born into the nobility. I think this entire business has more to do with Eamon wanting to take Loghain down a peg. And perhaps Anora, as well. But if that's really what he wanted, he made a grave mistake this morning, in not giving you his support. If you have been named king, none of the rest of this would have mattered."

Bryce pulled Eleanor closer. "You're probably right. As always." He turned his head to kiss her on the lips. "In any case, I certainly can't afford to antagonize Cailan any further. Or Loghain. Although I will admit the idea of Rhianna and Cailan together is appealing. Our daughter would have made a magnificent queen." He kissed her again. "As would you have done, my love."

She smiled up at him. "Yes, well, be that as it may, it seems the Maker intends the Couslands to remain in Highever for the time being. Which is just fine by me, and I'm sure Rhianna feels the same. So, I say we put this all behind us as quickly as possible. Cailan and Anora will be fine. It's not as though they won't have people to help them. And, to be honest, I never liked the idea of putting Rhianna in the middle of so much controversy. This will make her life much easier."

This time, Eleanor initiated the kiss, taking her time, relaxing into her husband's embrace. When they pulled apart, she whispered, "I'm going to go tell Rhianna good night. And then, perhaps you'd care to join me upstairs?"

He chuckled, pulling her close again. "Yes. I would like that very much."


Chapter Text

4 Harvestmere, 9:25 Dragon
Denerim Palace


The great hall of the Denerim palace was filled with people for the coronation, the crowd overflowing into the courtyard outside. Fires blazed in the corners of the room, and the air smelt of Chantry incense and sweat and flowers. The heat and the odors were making Rhianna feel ill.

Or perhaps the bad feelings in her stomach were caused by the thoughts churning incessantly in her head.

Prince Cailan stood at the bottom of the wide stairs at the end of the hall, the same stairs Rhianna climbed when she was presented to Empress Celene years ago. Cailan's eyes were wide and nervous; he certainly didn't look like a king. Rhianna thought he looked more like a child playing dress-up in his shining new plate mail. It was beautiful armor, with elaborate designs etched into the metal and inlaid with gold, but it looked slightly too large for him, and he fidgeted as if it were uncomfortable. Slung across his shoulders, he wore a cloak of crimson velvet, trimmed in white fur that made his face look pale and younger than his twenty years.

Far too young to be a king.

She hated this. Why, oh why, wasn't King Maric here? Maric was the real king. Not Cailan, and not anyone else, either. But Maric wasn't here, and that thought made her want to cry.

Rhianna missed him so much. She kept expecting to turn around and see him walking up to greet her, winking over some joke they shared, putting his arm around her shoulder and hugging her close. But that wasn't going to happen. She missed him, and she was so worried for him. He was still alive; he had to be. But what if Teyrn Loghain wasn't able to find him?

And she was scared, for so many reasons.

Scared she would never see King Maric ever again, a thought that made her feel like there was a hole in her heart nothing would ever be able to heal.

Scared because Cailan, with his oversized armor and his bewildered eyes, was about to become the king of Ferelden, whether he was ready for it or not.

Scared of the way people kept glancing at Rhianna, and at her father, out of the corners of their eyes, then whispering to their neighbors.

Scared Prince Cailan - no, King Cailan - would be angry with her father, angry enough to retaliate against him.

So scared she felt like crying, and scared if she started to cry, she would never be able to stop.

And now Cailan was being crowned king, which seemed a very . . . final sort of thing to be happening.

Standing between her parents, Rhianna watched as Grand Cleric Elemena stepped forward to begin the ceremony. All voices hushed as the Grand Cleric raised her arms for the benediction.

"All men are the work of our Maker's hands,
From the lowest slaves to the highest kings.
Those who bring harm
Without provocation to the least of His children
Are hated and accursed by the Maker."

The Grand Cleric motioned for Cailan to come forward, then held out her hands and began to administer the oath.

"Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the people of Ferelden according to our laws and customs?"

"I solemnly promise so to do," Cailan replied.

"Will you solemnly promise to use your power in law and justice, tempered by mercy, in all your judgments?"

"I solemnly promise so to do."

"Will you, to the utmost of your power, maintain the Laws of the Maker and of the Chant of Light? Will you maintain and preserve the doctrine, worship and discipline of the Chantry? And will you preserve unto the Chantry all its lawful rights and privileges?"

"All this I promise so to do. In the Maker's name, I swear."

Revered Mother Perpetua stepped forward, turning to address those gathered in the hall. "I ask the people: Do you wish for such a ruler?"

As one, the people in the hall gave the traditional response: "We wish it and grant it."

At the Grand Cleric's urging, Cailan bent down on one knee. Elemena anointed his forehead with oil, its fragrance filling the air with the scent of pungent herbs. Then she set the crown upon his head, and bade him rise. He was given a sword, to represent his promise to protect his people and the Chantry, and the scepter that was the symbol of his powers as the king.

Then, Grand Cleric Elemena gave the final prayer.

"Those who oppose thee
Shall know the wrath of heaven.
Field and forest shall burn,
The seas shall rise and devour them,
The wind shall tear their nations
From the face of the earth,
Lightning shall rain down from the sky,
They shall cry out to their false gods
And find silence."

She opened her arms, in a gesture that took in the whole of the room, perhaps the whole of Ferelden. "I give you Cailan Theirin, King of Ferelden. Maker save the king!"

The crowd's response filled the room, echoing off the walls and the floors, almost deafening. "Maker save the king!"

Cailan looked around, blinking, as if he wasn't entirely sure what had just happened.

But then, he smiled. A smile that stretched across his face, parted his lips, filled his eyes with warmth. And for the first time, he looked like a king. With his crown and his sword and his armor, he looked like a king. Not as good a king as Maric; no one would ever be as good a king as Maric. But Cailan was a good man, who would do his best. And seeing him smile, Rhianna felt a glimmer of hope – the first she'd felt in days - that maybe everything would be all right, after all.

Now the coronation had ended, the nobles of Ferelden would swear fealty to their new king. The Grand Cleric excused herself, climbing the stairs to a seat reserved for her in one of the galleries. Cailan ascended the steps at the far end of the room, reaching to pull the cloak out of the way before he seated himself on the throne that awaited him.

A guard in ceremonial armor stepped forward, carrying a large staff and holding a scroll.

The guard struck the stone floor of the Great Hall three times, sharply. Then, he unrolled the scroll and read aloud:

"On this, the fourth day of Harvestmere in the twenty-fifth year of the Dragon Age, thou art welcomed to the court of King Cailan Therin, son to he who was King Maric Theirin and heir to the blood of Calenhad, First King of Ferelden. Bare not thy blade, and respect shall be shown to thee in turn."

In unison, the nobles made the appropriate response, Rhianna's voice among them: "Our blades are yours, my lord."

"Teyrn Bryce Cousland, approach the king," the guard intoned.

Rhianna's mother and father climbed the steps, with Fergus beside Eleanor and Rhianna next to Bryce. When they reached the top, Bryce stepped forward to bow on one knee in front of Cailan, taking his hand, while Eleanor and the children knelt behind Bryce. All four inclined their heads for a moment to the new king, and then looked up as Bryce spoke the words of the oath.

"I promise on the Chant of Light that I will be faithful to my King, never cause him harm, and observe my homage to him completely against all others. I give my oath in good faith and without deceit."

Cailan motioned for the Couslands to rise. The king stood, stepping forward to embrace the teyrn. Bryce seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then returned the embrace. When they pulled apart, Cailan grasped the teyrn's shoulders, and held him at arm's length.

"I should like for there to be no hard feelings," Cailan murmured. "About what happened yesterday?" Cailan's eyes were guarded, and for a moment Rhianna's stomach lurched. What if her father's response angered the king?

"I appreciate that, Your Majesty," her father replied. "More than I can say. Please know you have my support in all ways, at all times, whenever you should need it."

Cailan stared at her father for a moment, a slight frown on his face, but finally he smiled, and his eyes lit up with warmth. "I know that, Teyrn Cousland. And I thank you for it."

Rhianna let out the breath she had been holding. Was it possible the king really intended no grudge against her father for challenging the succession? Oh, that would be the most wonderful thing ever, if it were really true.

For a moment, all was quiet. Then, Cailan released Bryce's arms, and the Couslands descended the stairs, taking up a position along one side of the hall.

"Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir, approach the king."

Loghain and Anora climbed the steps as the Couslands had done before them.

Loghain's deep voice echoed throughout the hall. "I promise on the Chant of Light that I will be faithful to my King, never cause him harm, and observe my homage to him completely against all others. I give my oath in good faith and without deceit."

Cailan and Loghain embraced, then Loghain and Anora descended the stairs.

In order of rank, the other nobles were called up, one by one. In less than an hour, the ceremony was complete.

"I hope," Cailan announced, "you will all stay and join me for the banquet that will follow, about an hour from now. In the meantime, please enjoy the hospitality of the palace and the gardens."

Cailan - King Cailan, she reminded herself - walked down the steps to Anora's side, offering her his arm. They looked lovely together, a handsome king and beautiful queen, just like in a storybook. Cailan tossed his head, laughing in response to something Anora had whispered to him, and for a moment he looked so much like King Maric it brought tears to Rhianna's eyes. Tears she fought back, turning away quickly, hoping no one had seen her moment of grief.

The moment Cailan announced the end of the fealty ceremony, both of Rhianna's parents had been surrounded by people. Everyone was keen to speak with the man who had challenged Cailan for the throne. Even though Bryce's bid had been unsuccessful, the vote had been close enough that most people seemed to consider it an impressive accomplishment.

The events of the previous day's Landsmeet were definitely something Rhianna did not want to talk about, nor hear others discussing; her stomach felt even worse anytime she thought about all that had happened yesterday. So she wandered to the edge of the room and tucked herself against one of the large beams supporting the wooden gallery above. With any luck, no one would notice her standing here, and she could be alone with her thoughts, for a few minutes at least.

She glanced around the hall, where people were milling about, talking in small groups. Now Cailan and Anora were talking with Cailan's uncle, Teagan Guerrin. Bann Teagan put a hand on Cailan's arm, and for a moment, Cailan's smile slipped away, and he looked so dreadfully sad. It must be difficult for him, losing his father like this. Even if her own father decided someday Rhianna would inherit the teyrnir, she would never look forward to the day she became Teyrna of Highever, because that would mean her father was gone.

Not that Maric was gone. Not really. She refused to believe he was dead. But until they could find him, it was miserable waiting and worrying and missing him so much.

Leaning her head back against the wooden post, she closed her eyes.

A few minutes later, a shadow fell across her face, dimming the light through her eyelids, as someone came to stand beside her. She caught a familiar scent - like grass, and leather, and parchment - and she knew who it was before she'd even opened her eyes.

"Hello, Teyrn Loghain." She did her best to smile.

"Rhianna." His smile, too, looked forced, and he looked tired, dark circles ringing his eyes, and a deep furrow across his forehead. He leaned against the wooden post opposite her own.

"It's strange, isn't it," she mused, looking out once more at the people in the hall. "It's almost like a party, except the only reason we're all here is because King Maric isn't. Which doesn't make for a very good party, does it?"

"No, it doesn't." He looked down at her for a long moment. "Lady Cousland," he said, offering her his arm, "would you care to walk with me out in the garden?"

This time, her smile was genuine. "Why yes, Your Grace. I would like that very much." She tucked her arm into his, and together, they left the palace.

Outside, the sun warmed her skin, but just barely, and the wind was chill. Though the snows hadn't come yet, winter was on its way.

Arm in arm, Rhianna and Loghain walked in silence, up one path, then down another. Their wandering had seemed random, until they ended up in a part of the garden Rhianna had never seen before, and she guessed this had been Loghain's destination all along: a pool of dark water, surrounded by horsetails and reeds, with floating lilies and patches of duckweed. This must be the duck pond her father had told her about years ago.

It wasn't large - only about fifty feet to the far end - but it was lovely. As one might expect from a duck pond, mallards and widgeons and gadwall floated placidly, diving into the water every so often to dabble for food, their feathery rear ends pointing towards the sky.

But the nicest thing about the pond was that it was deserted; no other people could be seen or heard. Located in the very farthest corner of the garden, there was something about it - a solitude hanging in the air - that made Rhianna suspect it rarely saw a lot of visitors.

They settled themselves on a bench next to the water. Rhianna leaned forward with her elbows on her knees, and rested her chin in the palms of her hands. Beside her, Loghain stretched out his legs, leaning back against the bench with his hands clasped behind his neck. She peered down into the water to watch tiny fish swim by, and greeted a turtle who swam over and popped its head out of the water. Otherwise, the tranquility was undisturbed, except by the thoughts in her own head.

She missed King Maric. Perhaps it was stupid to keep worrying the subject in her mind, but she couldn't stop thinking about him. Where was he? What was he doing now? He could be injured, or sick. He could be stranded on an island, or perhaps he'd been captured by people who wished him harm. She knew wherever he was, he couldn't be happy about it. He wouldn't have chosen to leave Ferelden, not ever. So wherever the ship had sank, they just needed to find it, to find Maric and bring him home.

Unless he is already dead, a nasty voice whispered in her head.

No. King Maric wasn't dead. He just wasn't. She refused to believe something so terrible could happen.

And if Maric came home, maybe everyone would forget what had happened yesterday at the Landsmeet. Her father said not to worry, but Rhianna couldn't help it. Cailan seemed to forgive her father, judging by what he said during the fealty-swearing, but the whole thing was still so frightening. She'd paid enough attention to her tutor to know that history was filled with people who were killed for trying to take a throne, and failing. Probably that wasn't going to happen. Cailan didn't seem the sort of king to have people put to death. But there were other things a king could do to get back at someone who had crossed him.

And Cailan wasn't the only person whose opinion mattered.

She sat up to study Loghain's face. In profile, with his eyes closed, his mouth set in a faint frown, he looked older than ever before, and exhausted, and her heart ached for him. As much as she missed Maric, Loghain must miss him a great deal more.

With the back of her fingers, she reached up and stroked his cheek.


Loghain stretched his legs and leaned back against the bench. Sighing deeply, he closed his eyes, relaxing into the quiet he and Rhianna had found together. He enjoyed this part of the garden. It was peaceful, and he couldn't remember ever finding another soul out this far from the palace. Bringing Rhianna here, today of all days, seemed appropriate. It was obvious she hadn't been enjoying the gathering any more than he had. So he'd brought here her, where they could sit together without being surrounded by a palace full of chattering people.

He missed Maric. Of course, there were other things on his mind right now, urgent things, but it always came back to Maric. For most everyone else in Ferelden, it seemed three months was enough to take the edge off their grief, to go back to their lives as though nothing had happened. It was shocking, almost, to see people smiling and laughing and talking amongst themselves. Or perhaps it was just that it hadn't seemed like three months to Loghain, out at sea, searching in vain for his friend. Stranger still, it seemed as though everything had already shifted to accommodate Maric's absence. Almost as if he'd never been there in the first place.

Cailan's coronation, for example. The lad was now the King of Ferelden, in spite of having very little idea what that entailed. And the vote at yesterday's Landsmeet had been far too close. What in the world was Bryce thinking, challenging Maric's own son for the throne? It made little sense. Bryce was already one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, and to have risked so much for a claim that was bound to fail . . .

Except it might not have failed, had Eamon voted differently. Loghain sensed the Arl of Redcliffe was up to something, only he couldn't imagine what it could be. Cailan was his nephew, so why had he hesitated to cast his vote? Perhaps Eamon thought Rhianna might be a way for his young son to reach the throne, but had changed his mind at the last minute.

Either way, what had happened yesterday seemed foolhardy of Bryce. Foolhardy and stupid.

Ah well, none of that mattered now. Cailan had been crowned king, and soon Anora would be queen at his side. And the succession was, in some ways, the least of their worries.

The most pressing issue now was to predict how their neighbors would respond to the fact of a new and very inexperienced king. For once, Orlais was not Loghain's primary concern. Antiva and Nevarra, perhaps even Rivain seemed more likely to see this as an opportunity. If anything, Maric's disappearance might disrupt whatever machinations Celene already had in motion, assuming she had something in motion. An assumption Loghain always felt justified in having. Unless, of course, Celene was the one behind Maric's disappearance. That, too, was a possibility worth considering.

Regardless, it would be important to predict how this might play out, but that would need to fall to someone more clever than Loghain. Politics had never been his strong suit. Give him an enemy to face on the battlefield, and he'd tell you how to win. But politics? All the subterfuge and posturing, and smiling at people's faces while plotting against them behind their backs? No thank you. Fortunately, Anora seemed to have an innate sense of these things. Something, no doubt, that would serve Ferelden well in the coming years.

Strangely enough, Maric also had an innate sense of politics, although sometimes his naivety, his desire to believe the best in people, led him astray. Certainly he had been savvy enough to keep Orlais at bay for more than twenty years.

Damn him, anyway. Damn him for leaving, damn the Free Marches and their accord. Damn it all to the Black City.

Politics. Why was he even thinking about politics? Right now, none of that even mattered. Bryce, Cailan, Celene. None of it. All that mattered was Maric was gone, and Loghain had to find him. But where the hell was he? Loghain wasn't even sure where to start looking.

And what if he's already dead?

No. That, he refused to believe. It was just a matter of finding him, of finding the ship. And he had to find Maric. He had to. Because Loghain didn't know how he would go on without him, without his best friend. Even if the man was a fool, Maric's friendship meant . . . well, it meant everything. And of course, Maric wasn't really a fool. Foolish at times, yes. But never a fool.

And as much as Maric had relied on Loghain for companionship, Loghain had relied on Maric, as well. It hadn't mattered if Loghain even listened to Maric's chatter, so long as they were together. As long as they had one another, neither of them was alone in this world.

And now, Maric was gone.

But where? Maric wouldn't have sailed off for parts unknown intentionally, so where was that damned ship? No reports had been made of a wreck, and Rhianna's birds had found no sign of one. But if the ship was still afloat, where was it?

It didn't matter. Wherever it was, he would find it. Because without Maric, Loghain really was alone in this world.

Beside him, he sensed Rhianna sit up, and turn to face him. A moment later, he felt the touch of her fingers on his cheek, cool against his skin. Without opening his eyes, he reached up, covering her hand with one of his own. He turned her palm to rest on his face, then leaned into her hand, enjoying the warmth of her skin, grateful for her touch. Finally, he wrapped his fingers around hers, and pulled her hand away. Turning his face, he pressed his lips against her palm briefly before resting his arm on the bench between them, her hand still enclosed within his own.

It was a comfortable feeling, Rhianna's hand in his.

Perhaps he wasn't completely alone, after all.

He opened his eyes and turned to face her. She was studying his face, her eyes narrowed. She was probably thinking about Maric. The king's disappearance was clearly weighing heavily upon her.

When she spoke, however, it wasn't what he had been expecting.

"Are you angry with my father?" she asked. "For what happened yesterday at the Landsmeet?" Ah. Yes, it was no surprise this question would press on her, as well.

"Am I angry?" He considered the question.

Was he? During the Landsmeet, he'd been surprised, and shocked and disturbed, all in turn. It worried him the nobility, as a whole, thought so little of Cailan they seriously considered another king. And it was disconcerting Bryce Cousland had put himself forward, when the last thing Ferelden needed was conflict over the succession. But anger? Perhaps yesterday there had been anger, but today, he was too exhausted to feel more than deep disappointment.

"No, I'm not angry with your father. Not now. I'll admit, I was surprised. But I do believe he only wanted what was best for Ferelden. So, no. I'm not angry."

She visibly relaxed, as if a weight had gone from her shoulders. "Good. It seems as though Prince . . . I mean King Cailan isn't angry, either. I was worried he might be. That you both might be."

"Cailan isn't the sort to hold grudges. I don't think you have any reason to be concerned."

"I'm glad to hear that," Rhianna replied. "I don't think it was Father's idea, anyway. He never said anything about it to me, not until yesterday morning, right before the Landsmeet. Apparently, Arl Howe suggested it." She was quiet for a moment. "Father said if he were to be made king, Fergus would be Teyrn of Highever, and I'd have been named Father's heir. I think that's what Arl Howe wanted. For me to be the next queen. So he could have convinced Father he owed Howe something for helping him claim the throne. And that something would have been my marriage to Thomas or Nathaniel, so one of them would be king after Father's death."

Indeed. Apparently Rhianna Cousland also had an innate sense of politics.

Before he could think of a response, she continued, "And then last night, Arl Eamon came to the house to talk to my parents. I don't know what they talked about, though, since they sent me upstairs instead of letting me stay to listen."

Eamon? Eamon Guerrin spoke to Bryce after the Landsmeet? What could that have been about? Perhaps Loghain's instinct was correct: the man really was up to something. But what?

"Were you disappointed?" Loghain asked. "That your father didn't win the vote, I mean. Would you have wanted him to be king?"

"No," she said without hesitation. "I didn't want him to be king. I mean, the idea of it is all right, I suppose. Father would have been a very good king. Probably better than Cailan will be, at least at first. And I expect, if I were really his heir, I would have lived in Denerim most of the time, and I would have missed Highever. Although being able to see you more often might have made up for that. Unless," she frowned, "you decided to go back to Gwaren, because Anora wasn't going to be queen after all. When you're not here, Denerim is horrible." She turned her gaze out over the pond. "And the thought that I would have been queen someday . . . well, that part was just scary. I've never wanted to be queen."

Rhianna fell silent, and for a few minutes, they sat together, not speaking. Nearby, a flock of tiny grayish brown birds streamed through the trees along the edge of the pond, chirping to one another as they pulled berries and insects from branches. They went from one tree to another and then another, swooping in twos and threes and fours from each tree to the next. Little waves of birds, dozens of them altogether. It was several minutes before the entire flock finished foraging, and moved along out of sight.

"I miss him so much." Her voice was barely audible.

Loghain released her hand and put his arm around her shoulders. She scooted closer to him, resting against his chest. He inhaled deeply, and let the breath out again slowly.

"So do I."

"I decided something, though." She turned her head to look up into his face. "I'm not going to cry anymore. I did cry, when Father first told me the ship hadn't arrived in Wycome. But I haven't cried since that day. Not even once. I felt like it, of course, at least a hundred times, because I miss him, and I'm so worried about him." She paused. "But he isn't dead, so there's no reason to cry. And it seems like crying . . . well, it would be like giving up on him. And I'll never do that."

Loghain pulled her closer, and rested his cheek against the top of her head.

"No, I don't intend to give up on him, either."

Again, they sat in silence for several minutes. This time, he was the one to break it. "So, how long have you been in Denerim?"

Rhianna sat up, pulling away from him just enough to look into his face while she spoke. "Nearly as long as you were gone. We left Highever the day after we got the message about the ship."

"And what have you been doing with yourself all this time?"

"Playing with Dane, or wandering around the market place with Hobbes." She sighed; it wasn't a happy sound. "Well, and of course I had to go to a lot of salons."

"You're not fond of salons?"

"Blech. No. I didn't used to mind them so much, when Mother was there and I got to sit with her and listen to the grown-ups talk. But she stayed behind in Highever until just a few days ago, and Father was in meetings all day long, so most of the time I had to go to the salons all by myself."

"I never liked going to salons," he admitted. "Fortunately, I can usually avoid them, but when I have been required to attend, I didn't like them much, either. Everyone sitting around, trying too hard to be pleasant. It makes me uncomfortable."

"Exactly. It's one thing to spend time with people you like, but having to talk to everyone, just to be polite? And feeling like half the time they're trying to trap you into saying more than you should, or waiting for you to make a fool out of yourself? I hate it."

"Was it really so horrible? You're . . . well, you don't seem to have a problem getting along with people. In my experience."

"Well, if by 'people' you mean you and King Maric, and my family, and Uncle Bryland, then that's true. Everyone else?" She wrinkled her nose in dismay.

"What about Anora? Surely she was at most of the same salons, and you get along well with her, don't you?"

"Yes, Anora was there, and I get along with her just fine. But Anora is one of the grown-ups now. She doesn't get sent out to 'play' with the rest of us. And I get stuck with Habren Bryland and Thomas Howe and all of Habren's stupid friends, like Alysanne Valdric and Tanith Curwen. And when Habren is awful to me, everyone else just goes along with her. Except Delilah Howe. She's nice to me, but she's pretty much the only one."

"Habren Bryland treats you badly? In what way?" They never had discovered who locked Rhianna in that tower all those years ago; perhaps the Bryland girl did have something to do with it, after all. "She's never hurt you, has she? Physically, I mean."

"Unfortunately not." Rhianna chuckled. "I wish she would. If she hit me, I could hit her back, and she would be sorry. But she only says things. And not even directly to me most of the time. She says things about me to other people, when she knows I'm close enough to hear. Just the other day, she made up a poem about me, and I know it's meant to be mean, even though I don't completely understand it."

She sighed again. "I'm sorry for complaining. I know I shouldn't. Father says it's my duty to go the salons so I can hear all the things that get talked about away from the Landsmeet. And I used to feel like I learned interesting things, when I got to sit with Mother. I learned all about politics and who was allying themselves with whom and squabbles in the Bannorn and relations in the south. But now? All I ever hear about is Habren's new dress, or which of Tanith's father's knights is handsome, or how Thomas lost an entire sovereign playing dice with some boys in the marketplace, then accused them of cheating so he could get his money back, even though they had won fair and square. And, of course, I get to hear all about how ugly and stupid I am." She rolled her eyes. "Nothing that's going to help my father understand the political situation in Ferelden any better."

She sat up abruptly, and looked into Loghain's face. "What does it mean to 'finish wherever?'"

He didn't understand the question. "Finish what?"

Rhianna opened her mouth as if to speak then snapped it closed again. "Oh, never mind," she grumped.

Now he was curious. "No, what? You can talk to me about anything, Rhianna. You know that."

She frowned, but then she shrugged her head from side to side, as if conceding the point. "Well, it's from the poem Habren's been saying about me. I don't understand what it means, but I'm fairly certain it's dirty. Mostly because Habren wrote it, but also because everyone laughs rather a lot when she says it."


Rhianna took a deep breath.

"There once was a girl from Highever,
Who would tell all the boys to stop never.
On her back or her knees,
She would do as they pleased,
And she told them to finish wherever."

"It's the part about being on my back that makes me think it's dirty," she added. "That it's about . . . you know . . . about . . . sex. But I don't understand the rest. Finish what? And what would I be doing on my knees? Scrubbing the floor?"

Maker's balls.

She looked up at him, blinking, waiting for him to give her an answer.

Maker's balls!

There once was a girl from Highever? What sort of person makes up a limerick like this? About Rhianna? On her back or her knees?

Damn the Bryland girl, anyway.

And just what in the Maker's name was he supposed to say? Rhianna was staring up at him, a slight frown on her face. Waiting. He needed to say something. But what? What could he possible say about a poem like that?

Maker's balls!

When he said she could tell him anything, he hadn't anticipated something like this.

"Perhaps," he suggested, "you should talk about this with your mother."

"My mother?" Rhianna bit her lip. "I . . . I don't know. Mother and Father get angry with me when I complain about Habren. Besides, I don't want them know it bothers me. They'll think I'm a baby, and then I'll never get to do things on my own, ever."

"Oh." Of course she wouldn't want to tell her parents about this. "All right. Um . . . all right. The poem. Let me see . . ." What could he say that would explain this properly without being ridiculously inappropriate?

"You're right. The poem is about . . . sex." He frowned. "You do know about sex, right? How it happens?" Heat erupted across his cheeks, and he realized - infuriatingly - he was blushing. When was the last time that had happened? He honestly couldn't remember, but right now he was certain his cheeks were flaming red with embarrassment. Andraste's arse. How did he manage to stumble into a conversation like this? With Rhianna? He'd never had a conversation anything like this with Anora.

"I guess so," Rhianna answered. "I mean, I've seen animals do it before. Cows and sheep and horses. Dogs. A pair of badgers, once. The male puts his . . . thing into the female, right?"

Damn, damn, damn! He should have sent the girl to her mother.

"Yes," he said slowly, gazing out over the water instead of looking at her face. "That's the basic idea. And that is what the poem is about, really. About doing . . . it."

"I still don't understand. I mean, I suppose the part about being on my back makes sense. That's how people do it, right? Laying down, face to face?"

"That is one way. But sometimes people do . . . it . . ." His voice trailed off.

Andraste's arse. This was possibly the most awkward conversation he had ever had in the entirety of his life. But there was nothing else to do but forge ahead.

"Sometimes people do it other ways. Other than just lying down." He glanced at her. "You'll understand better when you're older. But in any case, you don't need to worry about it. Everyone will know it's just Habren being mean, and not anything that's true about you."

Damn the Bryland girl anyway.

"All right." Rhianna seemed satisfied with his answer, thank the Maker. "So, she's just saying I like to have sex with people? That's kind of a stupid thing to write a poem about isn't it? I just wish . . . well, I wish I could get her to stop."

Yes. This sounded like a way to shift the subject to something new. "Have you tried? Tried standing up to her?"

"No. I suppose not."

"You do know why she's so awful to you, right?"

"Not really, no. I've never done anything bad to her, not that I can remember."

"It's not about anything you've done, Rhianna. It's about who you are. She's jealous. You are everything Habren Bryland is not, but desperately wishes she was. You're the daughter of a teyrn, and she's the daughter of an arl. Which shouldn't make any difference, but in Denerim it does. On top of that, you're also pretty and smart and funny and people like you. All of which makes Habren jealous. So she's cruel in the hope it will make you feel bad about yourself. As if, by making you feel small, Habren somehow gets to feel bigger. But it doesn't work, not really. Because at the end of the day, you're still the very lovely Rhianna, smart and pretty and all the rest of it. And she's still Habren. I'd almost feel sorry for her, if she weren't making up dirty poems about you."

Rhianna studied Loghain's face. "So, I should just ignore her, then? That's what my parents seem to think."

"That's one way. Although, standing up for yourself might not be a bad idea. Telling her to stop. After all, when it comes right down to it, you do outrank her, and always will. Maybe if she were reminded of that, she would think twice about tormenting you. Or, you could just punch her in the face."

Rhianna giggled. "Don't tempt me. I can't tell you how many times I've dreamed of punching her in her stupid face."

"Well, if you do it, just don't say I gave you the idea." He winked at her.

"Of course I will. I'll say it was all Teyrn Loghain's idea. He's such a bad influence!" She started to laugh, but then the smile slipped away from her face. "Honestly, though, I would never say that. My parents might not want me to talk to you anymore, and I don't think I could bear for that to happen. I don't know what I would do if it weren't for you." Her eyes grew wide as she remembered something. "Oh, I almost forgot. Look at this!" she exclaimed, pulling up her skirt to expose the bottom half of her leg. Strapped to her ankle was the dagger he'd given her. "I wear it all the time. I never go out of the house without it."


And with that, he was certain the topic of Habren's damned poem was put behind them.

Thank the Maker.

He raised an eyebrow at her. "So, how many times have you had to use it? I assume you've fought off at least a dozen bandits by now, yes?"

She giggled. "No. I haven't had to use it at all. Well, once I cut through a piece of vine Dane had gotten tangled around his legs. But no bandits." Rhianna bit her lip, and gave him a side-long look.

Loghain narrowed his eyes at her. "What's that look for?"

"I was just wondering . . . When are you going to leave? To look for Maric, I mean?"

"About a month from now. After Anora and Cailan's wedding."

"Ah. That makes sense." She chewed again at her bottom lip.

"What are you thinking?" Clearly, there was something on her mind.

She stared at him for a moment, then she shrugged and shook her head. "Nothing. I expect the wedding will be beautiful, won't it?" she said, changing the subject.


When they returned to the great hall, Rhianna rejoined her parents, as the feast was just about to be served. The food was very fancy: course after course of superbly prepared delicacies, some of which Rhianna had never even imagined, let alone tasted before. So, this was what it was like to welcome a new king. Maybe they had so much lovely food to try and make everyone forget how sorry we are the old king isn't here anymore.

After dinner, once again, the guests formed into small knots, to say their goodnights and make plans for the rest of the week. Now that the succession had been decided and the coronation complete, there really wasn't much call for political meetings, but hardly anyone intended to leave Denerim. What was the point of returning home when the royal wedding would take place a month from now? So, an impromptu "season" had begun, and already the nobles were gearing up to see who could provide the best entertainment, whose salons would be "the" ones to attend.

As Rhianna rose from the table, preparing to follow her father, she was intercepted by Anora Mac Tir.

"Rhianna, could I possibly have a word with you?"

"Of course," Rhianna agreed. It was funny Anora had asked so formally. Then again, Anora had always been like that - acting like a proper grown up with impeccable manners - as long as Rhianna could remember.

"I was hoping," Anora began, "you and I could have lunch together one day soon. Perhaps the day after tomorrow, if you don't already have another engagement?"

"I don't have anything planned for the day after tomorrow," Rhianna replied. "I would love to have lunch with you."

"Lovely. It will be just the two of us, then. I'll send a carriage for you at mid-day, to bring you to the Gwaren Estate. Unless you would rather have lunch at the Gnawed Noble?"

Oh. That was a difficult choice. She'd only been to the Gnawed Noble a few times. That's where everyone went to drink ale and tell stories, and it always seemed so exciting. But if they had lunch at the Gwaren Estate, maybe Teyrn Loghain would join them.

"I'd rather have lunch at Gwaren House, if it's not too much trouble."

Anora smiled. "It's no trouble at all. I'll send a carriage for you just before noon, day after tomorrow."

"You don't have to send a carriage. I know the way, and it's not at all far from Highever House. I'm more than happy to walk."

"No, I insist." Ah. Anora was probably remembering when Rhianna had been locked away in the tower. Everyone seemed to remember it; that was the reason Rhianna wasn't allowed to go anywhere by herself. "I'll send a carriage."

"All right." She had a thought. "Would you like to meet my puppy? He's a mabari. I just got him for my birthday. If you don't like dogs I can leave him at home, but if you do like dogs, he is very cute. Would you like to meet him?"

"I would love to meet your mabari." Anora sounded sincere. "Please do bring him. I'll have cook fix something special just for him."

The daughters of Ferelden's two teyrns bid one another a good evening, and Anora walked away to speak with someone else, while Rhianna looked around for her father.

Oh, no. He was across the room, talking to Uncle Leonas, Lady Harriet, and - horror of horrors - Habren Bryland. Rhianna started to turn and walk in the other direction before her father noticed her, but he saw her and waved her over before she could make an escape.

As she crossed the room, trying not to drag her feet, she felt someone fall into step beside her. Teyrn Loghain.

He leaned over and whispered in her ear, "Let Habren do her worst. We'll take her down together." She looked up at him, and he winked.

"Ah, there you are, Pup," her father said genially when they joined the conversation. "We were just talking about you."

"You were?" she asked, feeling a flutter of something uncomfortable in her stomach.

"Oh yes" Lady Harriet gushed. "Your father claims not to have heard anything about the invitation to our salon for tomorrow. Habren's been planning it for weeks. It's to be her first time hosting her own salon, in the South Reach Estate. It's quite an achievement for her."

"Invitation?" Rhianna asked, genuinely confused. "I don't remember getting an invitation for anything tomorrow."

Habren smirked, while her aunt replied, "Don't be ridiculous, dear. Habren sent them out two weeks ago. I know you were on the list. We couldn't have a salon without Bryce's daughter, now, could we?" She gave Rhianna's father a rather exuberant grin.

"Oh," Habren simpered, "but if Rhianna's invitation got . . . lost, somehow, I'm sure she won't be able to come. I mean, we're getting to have a whole second season now, with the royal wedding approaching. And Rhianna has so many friends, I'm sure her social calendar has been filled up for ages. I mean, who wouldn't already have plans for the very next day?" She smiled nastily, and the uncomfortable feeling in Rhianna's stomach worsened, as she realized she was being set up.

Her father, however, failed to grasp the significance. "Oh, I'm sure Rhianna is available tomorrow, aren't you, Pup? And you'd love to attend Habren's salon."

Before she could think of what to say, Loghain interrupted. "Forgive me, Bryce, but tomorrow? That's . . . unfortunate timing. I had planned to take your daughter out riding tomorrow." He glanced at Rhianna. "To the coast. To look for sea lions."

Oh, Maker bless him. "Yes, that's right," Rhianna agreed. "We're going to look for sea lions."

"Sea lions?" Lady Harriet sounded confused. "What in the world is sea lion?"

"They're like seals," Rhianna explained, "only bigger and they have earflaps on the sides of their heads. They're quite interesting. We have them near Highever, and Teyrn Loghain says he's seen them at Gwaren as well, but neither one of us know if they live near Denerim."

"So," Loghain added, "Rhianna and I are going to go out and see for ourselves. It's the least I could do, after how gracious she's always been, escorting Maric and I around Highever whenever we come to visit. Of course . . ." he said, turning to Rhianna, "we could postpone our trip, Rhianna, if you'd really rather attend the salon."

What? What was he saying? Of course she didn't want to attend the salon! Why would he make up a story about plans, only to suggest she go to the salon anyway?

But Lady Harriet interrupted before Rhianna could think of anything to say. "Oh, no!" she insisted. "Rhianna, you can't possibly break the engagement you have with Teyrn Loghain." She frowned deeply at the girl, as if Rhianna had been the one to suggest something very impolite. "We'll just have to figure out some way to get along without you. I do hope your mother will be able to attend, at least."

Bryce glanced from Harriet, to Loghain, to Rhianna, a slight frown on his face, as though he suspected something wasn't quite right about this, but couldn't decide exactly what.

Rhianna glanced at Loghain out of the corner of her eye, giving him the quickest of conspiratorial grins. But Lady's Harriet's next words drove away some of her good cheer.

"You will have to come and have lunch with us one day this week, though, Rhianna. I won't take no for an answer. How about the day after tomorrow? Hopefully you don't yet have anything planned? Habren and I have the entire day free."

"The day after tomorrow?" Rhianna tried to contain her surprise, and her pleasure. "Oh, Lady Harriet, I'm so sorry, but I'm afraid I can't make it the day after tomorrow, either."

"You can't?" Her father was unable to keep the surprise from his voice. "What are you doing the day after tomorrow?"

"I'm having lunch with Lady Anora."

"Lady Anora is having a luncheon party?" Lady Harriet frowned. "This must be some sort of last-minute affair. Habren and I have not yet received our invitations."

"Oh, I don't believe it's going to be a party," Rhianna replied. "Lady Anora said it would be just the two of us." To her father, she added, "She's going to send a carriage for me, just before noon. I told her I'd be happy to walk, but she insisted. Dane's to come with me, as well."

Bryce laughed. "Well, Rhianna. I can see I have some catching up to do with you and your busy schedule. Are there any other outings planned of which I should be aware?"

"No." Then she had an idea, and decided to take a calculated risk. Although it didn't seem like too much of a risk. "Well, not really. Except Teyrn Loghain and I are going to spend some time training over the next few weeks. At Fort Drakon. Isn't that right?" She turned to Loghain and smiled brightly.

"Fort Drakon. Yes. Although I had thought we might also train outside the city. I want to see how you're coming along with your bow from the back of a horse. That's difficult to manage inside the fort."

Rhianna rewarded him with the most brilliant smile she could manage. Oh, this was wonderful. Not only had she managed to get out of the salon and lunch at the South Reach estate, but they would go riding tomorrow to the coast, and now they'd be able to train together as well. This was the best thing that could have happened. And all thanks to Habren trying to be so awful.

Eleanor and Fergus approached, coming to stand next to Rhianna. "Are you about ready to leave, dear?" Eleanor asked her husband.

"Certainly. We were just reviewing the details of our daughter's surprisingly busy social calendar for the next week."

'Indeed?" Eleanor, her brow furrowed, glanced at Rhianna.

"Yes, Mother. Teyrn Loghain and I plan to go riding tomorrow. So, unfortunately, I won't be able to attend Habren's salon."

"Oh, well riding sounds lovely." To Habren, "I didn't realize you were having a salon. But I don't have anything planned for tomorrow, so I'll make sure to come along."

Loghain turned to Rhianna. "Shall I call for you first thing in the morning? It's a good two hour ride to where I think we should start looking, so we should get a reasonably early start."

"I'll be up at day break, so anytime after that will be fine."

"All right. I'll be by right after breakfast, then." He gave her a rather formal bow, then nodded at the others. "And with that, I'll say my good nights." Loghain turned, and began walking through the hall to where Anora was standing with Cailan.

As she watched him walk away, Rhianna remembered something important.

"Oh, excuse me!" she said to her parents, "There's something I forgot to tell the teyrn." She hurried after Loghain, catching up with him before he'd made it to his daughter.


"Teyrn Loghain!" Rhianna rushed up to him, grasping him by the arm.

This was a surprise, although not an unpleasant one. "Be careful you say," he warned. "You don't want anyone to catch on to what we did back there." Although his voice was stern, he gave her a wink, which made her giggle.

"No, don't worry. I'm not going to say anything to give us away," she whispered. "Although you gave me quite a scare just now. What were you thinking, saying we could postpone our trip so I could attend the salon? What if Lady Harriet had insisted?"

"There was no chance of that, Rhianna. I've known Harriet Bryland for nearly thirty years, and appearances and social standing are everything to her. The woman is constitutionally incapable of allowing you to cancel your plans with a teyrn, even for her own niece's salon. I promise, you were never in any danger. And if by some strange twist of fate she had insisted, I would invited myself along, and made certain you weren't forced to spend the day being taunted by Habren and her friends."

"Oh. All right. Although for a minute there, I thought you had lost your mind," she giggled. Then, her expression grew serious. "But there is something I need to tell you. There's a problem with going riding tomorrow."

"Oh. You've decided you would rather attend Habren's salon, after all. For its historical significance, perhaps?"

She giggled again, loudly, and brought her hands to her mouth to stifle the noise. "No, silly." She swatted at his arm playfully, "I'm serious." She stopped laughing, and continued. "I want to go riding, only I don't have a horse to ride."

"What happened to Carrot? Nothing's wrong with her, I hope."

"Oh, she's fine. Sort of. She hurt her leg, not long after the festival. And it hadn't healed properly before Father and I came to the city. To be honest, I'm not sure it ever will. So, I can't ride her. She's back in Highever, living with the other horses, and she's happy enough. But it means I don't have a horse to ride here in Denerim."

"That's not a problem. We'll stop at the royal stables and find a mount for you."

"Really? That's not a problem?"

"Far from it. Most of the horses don't get ridden often enough, in my opinion. You'll be doing us a favor, giving one of them some exercise."

"Oh, that's wonderful." She smiled happily. "Thank you."

"Of course."

"All right, then. Good night. Again."

As she turned to go, a question occurred to him. He grasped her arm to stop her.

"Are you really having lunch with Anora? The day after tomorrow?"

"Of course I am. She invited me to lunch just before we started talking to Lady Harriet. Did you really think I might have been making that up?"

"I don't know. With you, anything's possible."

"No," she giggled. "I'm not nearly cheeky enough to do something like that."

"Oh, I see. You're only cheeky enough to make up something like us training together at Fort Drakon?"

She gasped. "You're one to talk. Taking me to see the sea lions, indeed."

"I didn't make that up!" he insisted. "I did promise to take you to the sea lions the next time we were in Denerim. Well, perhaps I didn't promise. Come to think of it, I might not have ever mentioned it. But I'd been planning to ask you. You certainly caught on quickly enough. You do want to try and find sea lions tomorrow, don't you?"

"Of course I do. You know better than to ask that. And don't worry. Your secret is safe with me, considering it's my secret, too." She giggled again, then smiled up at him gratefully. "Thank you, Teyrn Loghain. You really are the best." She reached up on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek, before hurrying off toward her parents.

He watched her go, enjoying the warmth on his cheek where she had pressed her lips to his skin. He was glad he'd managed to get her out of what promised to be the most dreadful salon yet, and with a minimum of subterfuge. And he couldn't think of anything he'd rather do on the morrow than ride with her to the coast. With any luck, they'd find sea lions; she'd enjoy that.

As he turned to look for his own daughter, he caught a glimpse of Eamon Guerrin. His eyes, too, had been tracking Rhianna's progress across the room. Just what was that all about? And why had the Arl of Redcliffe paid the Couslands a visit the night before? He felt certain it had something to do with Rhianna. But what?

The thought left him feeling vaguely uncomfortable.


Chapter Text

5 Harvestmere, 9:25 Dragon
Near Denerim


Rhianna loved the smell of the stables. The earthiness, the dark rich scents of hay and leather, of seasoned wood and sweat and manure. Other people complained, seemed to find the odors unpleasant, but everything smelt so raw and real to her, made her feel part of nature, and she loved it.

Loghain brought Rhianna to the royal stables, just outside of the city walls, to find a mount she could borrow for the day. These horses were kept for the use of Maric's Shield, Ferelden's elite military company. Maric's Shield had been established by Loghain himself after the end of the Rebellion, and he was still its commander.

Side by side, Rhianna and Loghain walked past each of the stalls. Dane was cradled in Rhianna's arms, too excited by all the sounds and smells to be trusted running free among the horses. They stopped in front of one of the stalls, and Loghain pointed to a grey mare.

"What about her?" Loghain suggested. "She's gentle, but fast for a palfrey. I suspect you'd get along well together."

Before Rhianna could answer, there was a sharp thud behind them as another of the horses pawed at door of his stall. Rhianna turned and found herself face to face with a young destrier, uniformly dark brown, so dark he was almost black. He was not particularly tall - fifteen hands, barely big enough to be considered a horse and not a pony - but he had powerful flanks, a straight profile, and a well-arched neck.

When he saw he had Rhianna's attention, he perked his ears forward, and flared his nostrils as if wanting to catch her scent on the air. Then he stepped back and pawed once again at the door, more gently this time.

"Oh, he's gorgeous!" Rhianna exclaimed. "May I ride him?"

The stable master hurried over. "Teyrn Loghain, don't let the girl near that one. He's got a bad temper and he's not yet properly trained. She'll not be able to handle him!"

"I'll be able to handle him," Rhianna assured the man before turning to Loghain. "Let me take him out and show you. Please. He wants me to ride him."

"All right," Loghain agreed.

"I beg of you, Your Grace," the stable master insisted, "don't allow her to get on that beast. He's thrown every single person as has tried to ride him. He's just plain nasty. I don't want the young lady to get hurt."

Loghain turned to the stable master. "It will be all right Tom," he reassured. "You'll see. Rhianna has a way with animals. I'll take full responsibility, but I promise you, she's not going to get hurt." To Rhianna, he said, "Go on. You can take him out into the yard."

"Thank you." Rhianna glanced at the stable master, who still looked unconvinced, but didn't complain when Rhianna put Dane into Loghain's arms and opened the stable door.

The horse inclined his head toward her, and pawed once at the ground with his front foot. Rhianna reached a hand out, slowly, and waited for him to calm. He took a single step forward, pressing his nose up to sniff at her palm. She began to stroke his face with smooth, firm strokes, up the broad expanse of his forehead, and down the length of his cheek. He nudged her hand again, a friendly gesture, and, moving her hand to his neck, she led him out of the stall and outdoors into the riding pen.

"Do you want me to tack him up for you, milady?" the stable master asked nervously.

"Not yet. He doesn't like the saddle. Let me try him without one first." She turned to Loghain. "Will you give me a boost?"

With Loghain's help, Rhianna swung herself up onto the horse's back. Even though he was small for a destrier, he was broader than any other horse she'd ever ridden, especially without a saddle. There was tightness in her thigh muscles as she settled onto his back. Her legs ached, but she eased into the stretch until she was comfortable. The horse stood calmly beneath her all the while, waiting for her to signal she was ready.

She wound her fingers into his mane, and clucked her tongue. With his head held high, he began to move forward, picking up each foot and placing it down very deliberately. She urged him on with her calves, and he increased his pace slightly, walking along the edge of the circular yard.

After they'd gone once around the yard, his body tensed with the desire to go faster, to burst into a run, but Rhianna held him back. She didn't want him to overexert himself before his muscles were properly warmed. Soon, my friend, she soothed. I promise, we can go fast as soon as I'm sure we're both ready.

When they'd walked around the yard a couple more times, she allowed him to speed up into a trot. At one side of the yard, Loghain stood with his arms crossed in front of his chest, a satisfied smile on his face. Nearby, the stable master watched with his mouth hanging open.

After a few more circuits, it was clear her mount was desperate to run, and that was exactly what Rhianna wanted, too. Beside Loghain, Rhianna urged the horse to a stop. "May I take him out onto the road? See how fast he can go?"

"I don't see why not," Loghain replied.

"Your Grace," the stable master muttered, "Are you sure that's a good idea? That horse . . . I just don't think he can be trusted."

"It will be all right, Tom. Rhianna wouldn't take him out if she didn't trust him. Just watch."

With a click of her tongue, Rhianna nudged the horse with her calves, and he wasted no time in moving forward. Beneath her, she could feel his enthusiasm, feel his heart beating and his muscles flexing in preparation for a run, and finally, she allowed him to do what he wanted, to speed up into a canter. Feeling the triple beats of his gait beneath her, she rode him around the practice yard once, then a second time, and before they completed their third circuit, Rhianna leaned forward and urged him up and over the yard's short wooden gate.

As soon as they were out of the yard, the horse broke into a gallop, and together they flew up the road away from Denerim.

Rhianna had never ridden so fast before. The destrier, though he had been bred for war and not for speed, was a marvel. His bulging muscles moved beneath her like waves, the motion punctuated by his feet drumming on the ground below. They were moving so fast, and he spent so little time with his feet touching the earth, she felt as though they were flying.

With the briefest of thoughts in her mind, and a slight lean to the left, Rhianna urged the horse off of the road and out onto a wide grassy plain. As they rode through the field dotted with wildflowers, Rhianna's hair came free of its braid. She leaned forward, wanting to move with the horse beneath her as he stretched and contracted through the gallop. She released her hold on his mane and laid her hands against either side of his neck, delighted by the speed and the sunshine and the feeling of the horse beneath her and the way her hair was whipping in the wind. Nothing had ever felt like this before, so free, so perfect, not just her own joy but the horse's joy as well, as he shared with her his strength and his thunder and his fire.

When her mount began to tire after this amazing burst of energy, Rhianna remembered Loghain was waiting for her, and turned back toward the stables. Approaching at a canter, she gripped the horse's mane and urged him back over the fence.

Bringing himself beside Loghain and the stable master, the horse powered himself to a stop with his haunches. Even without seeing the horse's thoughts, Rhianna could tell he was proud of himself. He'd done well, and he knew it, and he wanted Loghain and especially the stable master to know it.

Tom, the stable master, looked on in utter disbelief. "Maker's Breath. I've never seen such a thing. Where did you learn to ride like that?"

"In Highever," Rhianna replied. "I've been riding since I was small. But really, I didn't do much of anything. He's the one who did all the work. What's his name, by the way?"


"Faolan?" Rhianna rubbed the horse affectionately on the neck. "I think that means little wolf. That suits you, doesn't it, boy?" The horse whinnied softly in agreement. Rhianna turned to Loghain. "May I take him out today? Please? He's really lovely and he wants so very much to go."

Loghain chuckled. "Do you think there is any chance I would say no, after that display? Of course you may take him out."

Elated, Rhianna slipped down from Faolan's broad back. "Let's get you saddled up then, shall we?"


They arrived at the coast well ahead of schedule. Rhianna and Faolan were enjoying themselves so much, riding swiftly across the countryside with Dane tucked under one of Rhianna's arms, that it took far less than two hours. Now, Rhianna urged her mount next to Loghain's - a massive destrier called Aeran – while Loghain surveyed the coastline.

"Here," he said, pointing to a long stretch of craggy, rocky coastline which appeared to be inaccessible from above, "is where I thought we might find sea lions. These rocks seem closest in terrain to the cave where you took me and Maric."

For the next two hours, they rode along the cliffs, stopping every so often so Loghain could pull out his spyglass and have a closer look at anything that looked vaguely sea lion-ish from afar. Unfortunately, they were unable to locate any of the animals, although they did see a whale spout in the distance, and were visited by a great many seabirds, and a family of deer.

Just after mid-day, Rhianna suggested they stop for lunch, so they rode the horses down to a beach where they could look out over the water without being battered by the wind. Loghain laid out a blanket and the lunch his cook had packed for them, and they settled down to eat.

"Are you disappointed we didn't find any sea lions?" he asked.

"No, I'm not disappointed," Rhianna replied. "Perhaps there just aren't any here to find, and we saw plenty of other lovely things. Besides, I'm just happy to be spending the day . . ." She cut herself off before finishing the sentence: I'm just happy to be spending the day with you.

Maybe it would be best not to say something like that. Especially after those things King Maric had said that day at the waterfall. She didn't want Loghain to think she was some idiotic lovesick girl.

"Just happy to be what?" Loghain prompted.

"Um . . . happy to be spending the day out of the city," she amended. "An entire three months in Denerim without going outside the city walls was . . . tiresome, to say the least. Are you going to have lunch with us tomorrow?" she asked, changing the subject before she was tempted to say something else embarrassing. "With me and Anora, I mean."

"No. I wasn't invited."

"But it's your house," Rhianna giggled. "I can't imagine you need to be invited to lunch in your own house!"

"Well, it's Anora's house as well, for a few more weeks anyway. And she's allowed to have her own guests. Besides, I suspect Anora has something she wants to discuss with you. In private."

"Something she wants to discuss? Privately?" That was intriguing. "What sort of thing? Do you know what it is?"

Loghain's eyes narrowed and one brow raised as he looked over at her. "Perhaps." Then one corner of his lips curved up.

Clearly, he knew exactly what it was Anora wanted to discuss.

"Well?" she demanded.

"Well what?"

"Aren't you going to tell me?"

"No," he replied.

Rhianna's jaw dropped. "What do you mean, 'No?'"

"I should have thought that was one of the very first words you learned, right along with 'mummy' and 'sweets.'"

"That's not what I meant," she huffed. "Why aren't you going to tell me?"

"Because Anora asked me not to. She has something to ask you, and it's a very nice something, but she wants to ask you herself, without me spoiling the surprise."

Something to ask? Just what in the world might Anora want to ask? Anora was just old enough the two girls had never really been "friends," although Rhianna certainly liked Anora, and thought Anora liked her, too. But Rhianna honestly couldn't think of a single thing Anora might want to ask.

Glancing at Loghain, Rhianna could see he meant what he'd said about not saying anything more.

"You're horrid," Rhianna teased. "Knowing a secret and not telling me."

"Ah, but secrets can be fun, can't they?" Loghain asked. "When they're good secrets."

"Of course," Rhianna admitted, "but it's really only fun for people who know the secret!"

"I suppose that's true. And after tomorrow, you will know the secret. That will be fun, yes?"

"I suppose so," Rhianna said, giggling. Obviously, nothing she said would make him budge. And even though she might tease him, she wasn't disappointed. Not really. Not if he'd made a promise not to tell. It was one of the things she liked best about Loghain: he was solid and trustworthy like that.

Dane, who had gobbled down some chicken and half of a pasty, was amusing himself by running up to the surf line, and barking furiously at the waves continually trying - and occasionally succeeding - to grab at his paws. After a few minutes of this, the puppy came running back to the blanket, making mournful eyes at both of his people in the hopes someone would come and play with him.

Rhianna pulled off her boots and began to roll up the hem of her trousers.

"All right, Dane. I'll splash in the water with you for a few minutes." To Loghain, she added, "Do you want to come wading with us?"

"No, thank you. I think I'll just relax in the sun for a while."


When Rhianna ran off to play with the puppy, Loghain lay down on his back, his hands clasped behind his head. He closed his eyes, and enjoyed the feeling of the sun warming his skin. In the distance, Rhianna's voice carried above the sound of the waves, as did the happy barking of her puppy. The sounds brought a slow smile to his face.

This was a good day, and it had been an excellent idea to come out looking for sea lions, even if there were none to be found. Of course, he never failed to enjoy any of the days he had spent in Rhianna's company. What was it Maric had said that afternoon at the waterfall? Rhianna was one of Loghain's best friends. At the time, he had scoffed, along with everything else Maric had said during that ridiculous conversation, but Maric had been right about that much. Loghain and Rhianna were friends. Even if it might have seemed to others a highly unlikely friendship, there wasn't really any other word for the relationship they had forged together.

The time he spent with Rhianna was easy. Comfortable. Restful. Probably because she never asked anything difficult of him. No political favors, no pressure to back this or that scheme at the Landsmeet, no requests for funding, or for soldiers. Rhianna asked only for things he was happy to give: his company, and the occasional story.

And with Maric gone, Rhianna might be the only person in Ferelden who genuinely understood Loghain, who accepted him without judgment. And he tried to do the same for her. Especially now, with Maric gone Maker knows where, there was something about Rhianna's presence that made Loghain's anxiety subside, even if only for a few hours. Today, for the first time in months, Loghain felt perhaps things would someday be all right again.

Yes, there was no doubt Rhianna was, at this moment, the best friend he had in all of Ferelden.

After a while, he heard Rhianna and Dane return. Rhianna settled herself onto the blanket, while the puppy began digging in the sand.

"Trying to find a way through the earth, are we?" Rhianna asked, laughing softly. "You're making a mess, you know. And kicking far too much sand onto the blanket!"

Dane whimpered softly, then went back to digging.

"Is there a purpose to all of this?" she asked.

Dane huffed. Of course there was a purpose. He needed to see what was underneath! Maybe something wonderful was on the other side of all this sand.

"I suppose something wonderful might be on the other side," Rhianna replied. "But it's going to take some time, you know. You can't expect to dig all the way through in just one afternoon."

Once again, Dane whimpered, and once again the dog's little claws scrabbled through the sand.

"Oh, all right. If you insist. Good luck with that, then."

Loghain heard her shift her position, getting comfortable as she watched Dane tunnel to Par Vollen, or wherever it is one would end up after digging straight through the earth. After a few minutes, he heard her release her breath in a long sigh.

Loghain opened his eyes, and turned his head slightly to look at the girl. Her legs were stretched out in front of her as she sat propped up on her elbows, looking out to sea. The wind whipped through her hair, and he couldn't see enough of her face to gauge her mood. Probably, she was thinking about Maric. Certainly, anytime Loghain's mind started to wander, that's where it always ended up, and he suspected the same was true for Rhianna. She was fond of the king.

Then again, who wasn't? Maric was truly charming in every sense of the word, in an almost mystical sort of way. He'd charmed the banns of Ferelden into supporting him in spite of the reprisals they faced at the hands of the Usurper. He had charmed a bard into falling in love with him and betraying the Orlesians who had paid her to capture him. He had charmed Rowan into standing by his side in spite of everything else that had happened. He'd even charmed a surly, taciturn young man, a man who had never wanted anything to do with the Rebellion, into being his commander and his best friend.

No, it was no surprise Rhianna had loved him, and Loghain knew Maric felt the same about her.

Of course, it was possible she was thinking of other things. But something about the way she was looking out at the sea, searching, almost, made him suspect he had guessed correctly.

He let out a deep breath, and allowed his eyes to close again. There was only the sound of the waves and the puppy digging in the sand, and the occasional cry of a gull flying out over the water. After a few minutes, Dane gave up on his excavation, and flopped down onto the blanket. Almost immediately, the puppy was making soft snuffling sounds in his sleep.

Sleep. Now, that was tempting; it was possible even Loghain might be overtaken by the desire for a nap . . .

Then a new sound washed over him.

"Oh, bonny Alamar, I'm sorry to see
Such a woeful destruction of your ornament tree."

It was Rhianna. Singing, very softly. He'd never heard her sing before, and her voice was lovely. Clear and smooth, rising and falling like water cascading over rocks. He opened his eyes, and rolled himself over onto one elbow, to watch her in profile.

"For it stood on your shore for many's the long day,
'Till the longboats from Kirkwall came to float it . . ."

Rhianna's voice trailed off as she noticed him watching. "Oh, Teyrn Loghain, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't. I wasn't asleep." He paused. "Don't stop. Please."

Rhianna shook her head. "Oh." She wrinkled up her nose. "I don't know about that. I . . . I don't usually sing in front of people. I'm not sure why I even started singing just now. I'm horrible, I know." She gave a self-deprecating laugh.

"Horrible? Hardly. You have a lovely voice. And I would very much like to hear the rest of the song." He paused. "I know that song. My mother used to sing it."

"Your mother?"

"Yes. Where did you learn it?"

"From Nan. She used to sing to me sometimes when I was small. When she was still my nan. She's not anymore, she's the cook now, since I got too big for a nan."

Loghain chuckled. "And when did you get too big for a nan?"

"When I was eleven. Mother and Father decided I didn't need help anymore getting bathed and ready for bed, and I suppose they thought I didn't need someone watching over me every minute to make sure I wasn't going to do anything naughty."

He almost chuckled aloud. Did she really think that was the reason she had needed a nanny? Surely, it had been more to provide for Rhianna's safety, not to keep her from being "naughty."

"You've never told me anything about your mother," Rhianna continued. "Is she still alive?"

"No. She died during the Occupation."

"Oh. What happened to her?"

"She was killed. By chevaliers."

A frown marred the lines of her face. "How old were you?"

"About the same age you are now."

She caught and held his gaze, her eyes narrowing slightly. "You saw it happen, didn't you?"

Maker's breath. How did she guess that?


Her eyes grew bright, and she blinked once, slowly, as if trying to hold back tears.

"Will you tell me a story about her? A happy story?"

"A story?"

Rhianna wanted to hear a story about his mother?

It had been a very long time since Loghain had spoken to anyone about his mother. Surely, there were happy stories. He had loved his mother - both of his parents - so very much, and they loved him. But over the years, Loghain had rarely focused on the happy memories. Strangely, they seemed to hurt more. Or hurt differently, anyway. And since he knew he could never erase from his mind the image of how his mother died, he had never really tried. Instead, he used that memory to fuel his hatred of Orlais, to make certain he never stopped being vigilant, because he knew as well as anyone alive just how despicable and evil they truly were. And somehow the happy memories had receded. But they were there, surely.

Now Rhianna wanted a happy story. So he would have to find one.

"All right," he agreed. "On one condition."

"What's that?"

"That afterwards, you'll sing the whole song for me. All the way through."

She wrinkled her nose for a moment, then chuckled. "Fair enough." Shifting her position in the sand, she turned to face him, tucking her legs underneath her body. Beside her, the puppy was still snoring softly as she looked up at him expectantly.

My mother," he began, "was a farmer. She was the daughter of farmers, and she married a farmer, and throughout her entire life, farming was what she knew best. She loved the land. She used to say land wasn't something we owned, something that belonged to us, but rather that we belonged to the land. That we had an obligation to care for it, to tend it carefully and lovingly, and to treat it with respect. As long as we did, it would always provide for us."

Rhianna nodded her understanding.

His mother would have approved very much of Rhianna had Loghain brought her home as a companion. They would have sat together talking about livestock, or the length of the growing season, or the best way to encourage a swarm of honey bees into a new hive. Cup after cup of hot tea would have been drunk, and when it came time to go out and feed the animals, Rhianna would have offered to help, and Loghain's mother would have loved the girl. But his mother had already been dead for nearly twenty years before Rhianna was even a glimmer in the eyes of her parents. And that thought made his head start to swim, so he pushed it away, and searched for something more to say.

"I have to admit it's tricky to think of one particular story," he continued. "I have a great many happy memories. How she took me out into the woods and taught me to shoot a bow. The way she would make soup for me when I was ill, and sit at the edge of my bed and feed it to me, even when I was far too old for her to baby me like that. Sometimes I was tempted to pretend I was sick, just so she would sit with me. I never actually did, though; it made extra work for her, and she worked hard enough as it was.

"I also remember the trips we took together each year to visit her family. We lived in Oswin, but she had been born in Rainesfere, so after bringing in the harvest, but before the snows fell, she and I would ride together on one of the horses that worked on the farm, and make the trip to see my grandmother, and my aunt and uncles."

"You rode a horse? From Oswin to Rainesfere? It would have been much faster to go by boat."

"Yes," he chuckled. "And Mother suggested that every year. But even back then, I wasn't particularly fond of boats."

"That's right. I'd forgotten." She frowned again. "And now you're sailing off Maker knows how far to look for King Maric."

That was a sobering thought. "Yes."

"So she took you to Rainesfere every year? Did you like going?"

"I did like going, and yes, we went every year. At least until we had to sell all the horses."

"Why would you sell your horses?" Rhianna asked. "Didn't you need them for the farm?"

"Of course we needed them, but the Orlesian noble who had been given the bannric required us to pay usurious taxes. So, we didn't have a lot of money. Of course," he added, "this was during the Occupation. No honest Fereldan had a lot of money. One year, it came down to selling the horses or losing the farm." The farm that would be lost soon enough in spite of selling the horses, as it turned out, but he wasn't about to go into that. No part of that story qualified as "happy."

Rhianna sat silent, waiting for him to continue.

Something happy. Pushing thoughts of horses and taxes and Orlais aside, he reached back into his memory, waiting for something to appear, his gaze fixed on a point in the distance he wasn't actually seeing.

Suddenly, there it was. A smile crept across his face at the thought of it.

"There is one night I remember very clearly. I was about eight, and Father was away. Probably having taken the harvest to market, but I don't remember for certain. I was asleep and my mother climbed up into the loft to wake me. I was scared at first. Usually, being woken in the middle of night meant something was wrong. At best, one of the animals was ill, or perhaps a neighbor was having a baby and mother had been called to assist with the birth. At worst, we all lived in fear of the day we'd have to flee for our lives when the Orlesians came to take the farm.

"On this night, though, none of those things were happening. When I asked her what was wrong, she shushed me, and told me not to worry, but that I should put on my boots and my cloak and come down right away. She was wearing her cloak, as well, and when I came downstairs, she took my hand and led me outside. We walked out into the middle of the field, and she lay down on the grass and said I should lie next to her.

"I thought for a moment that she'd gone mad. It was nearly freezing outside, and my cloak wasn't so warm I wanted to be outside at night if I didn't need to be. Maybe she knew the Orlesians were coming and this was where she had decided we should hide. But she didn't seem nervous or frightened. Instead, she smiled at me and pulled me down and cuddled me up against her. Then, she told me to look up in the sky.

"For a minute, I didn't see anything but the stars. The night was perfectly clear, and there were a million stars, and they were beautiful. But I still couldn't figure out just what Mother had brought me out here to see. Then, I saw the first one. A streak of light across the night sky, bright yellowish white. It began at one side of the sky and flew all the way over our heads nearly to the other horizon. 'Shooting stars,' she whispered to me. 'Every time you see one, you're supposed to make a wish. And it will come true.'

"Then, I saw a second one, and a third and a fourth. There were so many I wasn't able to count them all. My mother and I lay out on the grass like that for at least an hour before I fell asleep, curled up in her arms. The next morning, I woke up downstairs. She'd carried me into the house, and put me to sleep in her bed, and lay down with me. I don't think I'd ever been happier than that moment, when I woke up to see her sleeping beside me, her hair down, floating around her face on the pillow. Then she woke up, and smiled at me. She was so beautiful," he murmured, seeing his mother's face in his mind more clearly than he had seen it in many years. "Her eyes were blue, and her hair was dark, like yours." He felt heat behind his eyes and his vision blurred slightly.

Closing his eyes for a moment, he breathed through the emotions triggered by the memory of his mother's smile. Surprisingly, for the first time in years, there was no anger behind these feelings. Grief, yes, but also something else . . . something joyful. His mother had been taken from him far too soon, but the time they did have, the lives they lived together, he and his mother and father, had been happy, filled with laughter and love in spite of the chaos happening around them. It was good to remember that, important to remember how happy they had been.

"She sounds lovely," Rhianna murmured. "I think I would have liked her very much."

"I expect you would. And she'd have liked you, as well."

"Did you make wishes that night? On the shooting stars?"

"Some of them."

"And did they come true?"

He let out a breath. "Some of them."

Rhianna cocked her head to one side. "The Orlesians did go away, eventually. That one came true. But not the one about your parents."

Loghain snapped his head to look at her. Maker's blood. Had she read his mind?

"Why do you say that?" he asked.

"Well, aren't those the things you wished for? For the Occupation to end, and for you and your parents to be happy together on your farm, without anyone to bother you? That's what I would have wished for, anyway. If I'd been you. Well, I might also have wished for other things, too. Like puppies or maybe a lot of chocolate. Especially when I was eight. I definitely would have wished for puppies."

She giggled, and he realized she hadn't read his mind. She just understood him, understood the way his mind worked, perhaps because her mind worked the same way. Maybe they did have some sort of . . . connection, like Maric had said.

Or, maybe the things he'd wished for that night were obvious, what any eight-year-old child living Loghain's life would have wanted.

Still, there was something comforting in the thought that perhaps he and Rhianna were remarkably alike in some way. It was unnerving, but also agreeable to think maybe there was another person on this earth who thought the way he did. Who understood the way he felt about things.

"I wish there was a shooting star right now for me to wish upon," she said, laying all the way down on her back and looking up into the sky. "Do you know what I would wish for?"

"For Maric to come home."


Of course he'd known what she would wish; it's what he would have wished as well.

"What happened to your grandmother?" she asked. "And your aunt and your uncles. Did you ever get to see any of them again?"

"No," Loghain replied. "After . . . my father and I left our farm, we went to Rainesfere, but my mother's family were all dead by then."

"Killed by the Orlesians?"

"No. Killed by the plague. It had swept through the village two years before we'd arrived."

"Oh," she said. "I'm sorry to hear that. It must be hard for you, not having your family. I can't imagine what it would be like if anything happened to my parents, or to Fergus, or Oren." She paused. "You have Anora, though. And pretty soon Cailan will be your family, won't he? And, if you ever get very lonely, you could always pretend I'm your family, too. If you like. And Dane, as well."

She sat up, pulling the sleeping puppy into her arms and rubbing her cheek against the top of his head, not seeming to require a response. Just as well, as Loghain could think of no response to the words she had just spoken.

Family. He hardly deserved any such thing, and considered himself lucky to have Anora, and Maric, of course, who was like a brother. And he had thought of Cailan as family the boy's entire life. He didn't dare hope for anyone else, although the thought of Rhianna being part of his family was appealing. Not that he had any notion of just how she would fit in. But the idea of continuing to have her company on into the future, of her conversation and her laughter . . . He liked that idea. Rather a lot, in fact.

After a minute, she set Dane back onto the blanket to resume his nap, then looked up at Loghain. "What was her name?" Loghain's confusion must have shown on his face, because she quickly added, "Your mother, I mean. What was her name?"

"Oh. Her name was Aoife."

"Eee-fah," Rhianna repeated. "That's a lovely name. What does it mean?"

"Radiant and beautiful."

"It must have suited her, then," Rhianna said in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

Loghain merely nodded. Yes, the name had suited his mother.

After a moment, Rhianna took a deep breath and made good on her end of the bargain.

Oh, bonny Alamar, I'm sorry to see
Such a woeful destruction of your ornament tree.
For it stood on your shore for many's the long day,
'Till the longboats from Kirkwall came to float it away.

Oh, bonny Alamar, you shine where you stand,
And the more I think on you, the more I think long.
If I had you now as I had once before,
All the lords in Ferelden would not purchase Alamar.

All the birds in the forest, they bitterly weep,
Saying where shall we shelter, where shall we sleep?
For the oak and the ash they are all cutten down.
And the walls built by Hafter are all down to the ground.

Oh, bonny Alamar, you shine where you stand,
And the more I think on you, the more I think long.
If I had you now as I had once before,
All the lords in Ferelden would not purchase Alamar*


*"Bonny Alamar" is a slight reworking of the traditional Irish folk song, "Bonny Portmore," which laments the destruction of Ireland's old oak forests. My favorite professionally recorded version is sung by Loreena McKennitt. However, if you would like to hear Rhianna (aka me) singing "Bonny Alamar," just follow this link


Chapter Text

6 Harvestmere, 9:25 Dragon
Gwaren Estate, Denerim


Anora stood near the hearth in one of the Gwaren estate's small sitting rooms, her eyes glancing over the titles of the books on the shelf nearby. This room was a favorite of hers, with its view of the gardens from both windows, and its smells of rich leather, and parchment, and smoke from the fire burning in the hearth. Her father used it as an office, and everywhere were signs of him: a cloak on the hook, maps on the walls and unfurled on the desk, a pair of boots in the corner. The room even smelled like him, a bit. Anora often sat in here to read, and as a result, the bookshelf held most of her favorite books. Books she supposed she would be taking with her to the palace almost exactly a month from now.

Moving to the palace. It was strange, and sad, and vaguely alarming, the idea that soon she would move into the palace. Gwaren House had been her home for so many years, since her mother died, and to some extent even before that, and she would miss it.

She ran her finger along the spines of the books, noticing one of them was out of place. She pulled out the single volume - "Tales of the Destruction of Thedas," by Brother Genitivi, Chantry scholar - and then slipped it back into its proper place beside "The Sermons of Divine Renata I."

There. That was better.

With a sigh, she glanced around. Yes, she would miss this room, with its somewhat threadbare rug her father could never be bothered to replace. Perhaps she would buy a new one herself, as a gift for him.

She would miss the gardens, with their flowerbeds and rose bushes. Bushes her mother had planted even before Anora was born.

She would miss the warm scents of the kitchen, and the sounds of Uthalas humming to himself when he thought no one could hear.

She would miss her own bedroom, the way the light filtered through the curtains in the afternoon, illuminating her things in such a familiar pattern. Even though she would take her possessions with her, never again would the light hit them in quite the same way. And the bed she would sleep in would no longer be hers alone, but one she shared with her husband (another thought that was somewhat alarming).

It occurred to her that most of all she would miss her father.

Well, no. That was ridiculous. She wasn't leaving her father, not really. The palace was just a few minutes' walk away, and surely she'd see him nearly as often as before. Well, once he returned from this trip to find Maric, anyway, however long that would take.

In truth, she didn't want him to go. It scared her, and seemed pointless, but she knew her father had not yet given up hope of finding Maric, of bringing him home. She, however, was almost afraid to believe such a thing possible. Wouldn't it hurt even more to hold onto that hope, only to have it dashed to pieces when Maric couldn't be found?

She pulled out another volume, hoping to distract herself from these thoughts. "Dane and the Werewolf." This one had been a favorite story when she was very young, before she realized there was truth in the tale, that werewolves were real. Strangely enough, it now seemed a ridiculous story: wolves and humans making a bargain to switch places? It seemed so unlikely, but werewolves were real, and she certainly didn't have any better explanation for how they might have come into being. She shuddered at the memory of the way the creatures had looked on that night in Highever. When Rhianna Cousland had been bitten, and for those few, horrible hours, everyone feared the girl would turn into a werewolf herself. That had been truly frightening.

Anora slipped the book back onto the shelf, annoyed. Why was she tormenting herself with so many gloomy thoughts?

"Lady Anora, your visitor is here," Uthalas said from the doorway. "Lady Rhianna Cousland. And Master Dane."

As if thinking about the girl had summoned her.

Glad for the distraction, Anora allowed thoughts of Maric and werewolves and moving to the palace to slip away as Rhianna and the puppy were shown in.

Anora had always liked the little Cousland girl. Although, as Rhianna came through the doorway, with a slightly nervous smile on her face, it was clear thinking of her as "the little Cousland girl" was no longer accurate. She wasn't little anymore; she was growing up to be a lovely young woman.

"Hello, Rhianna." Anora gestured to the sofa, indicating that they should sit. The two girls were far enough apart in age they had never spent much time together, and even though Anora had invited Rhianna here to ask something specific, she hoped they could use this opportunity to get to know one another a bit better. Father was fond of the girl, and Rhianna's friendliness and ready smiles had always seemed sincere, not forced just for politeness, so Anora hoped this would be a pleasant afternoon. "I'm so glad you agreed to come visit with me today."

"Thank you for the invitation. I'm glad to be here."

After offering Rhianna something to drink, and setting down a bowl of water for the puppy, whose name was, curiously enough, Dane, Anora sat beside the other girl on the sofa, while they waited for lunch to be served.

"Is your father at home?" Rhianna asked politely, as they played with the puppy, who happened to be quite adorable.

"Yes." Her father said Rhianna was likely to ask after him. "He's going to join us after lunch. I have a feeling he won't be able to stay away once dessert has been served."

Rhianna giggled. "That's hardly a surprise. He once tried to convince me we should lock King Maric away in a dungeon, just so your father could have the king's share of the tarts Nan packed for our lunch." Rhianna grinned, but then the smile left her face, and she looked a bit . . . lost.

"Rhianna? Is everything all right?"

"Yes, of course." A cheerful smile returned to the girl's face, but Anora could sense this time, it wasn't quite genuine. "I was just . . . well, sometimes it makes me a bit sad to think about the king. King Maric, I mean. I . . . miss him."

Of course. Rhianna and the king had been close. In truth, Anora had been trying to avoid thinking about Maric, because it hurt so much. He had been like a second father to her; she could not really remember a time when Maric had not been part of her life, and she missed him terribly. She missed his laughter, and the way the corners of his eyes crinkled when he laughed, and the way he had never failed to smile at her, not even once. She missed the way he had of making her believe that everything would be all right, no matter how dismal it seemed at the moment. And with Maric gone, the world did seem dismal. Darker. More frightening. And she worried about her father. He and Maric had been so close, for so many years, Anora was worried about Father's ability to cope now that Maric was gone.

"Yes," Anora agreed. "I miss him, too. Every day." This, however, hardly seemed a cheerful topic of conversation, so Anora asked, "So, how have you been enjoying your time in Denerim?"

"In Denerim?" The younger girl shrugged. "It's all right, mostly. I would rather be in Highever, and I don't much like going to salons. But it's all right. Especially now your father is back. I like riding with him, and he's promised we can train together sometimes."

"Train together? Oh, you mean training at arms?"

"Yes. I always learn new things from him, even if he does hit me harder than anyone else. Well, probably I learn more because he hits me harder. It gives me more incentive to learn faster, if you know what I mean."

Anora chuckled. She did, indeed, know what Rhianna meant. Not that her father had ever hit her, not even during weapons practice, as far as she could remember. But he was fond of drilling lessons in such a way they would stick. Anora always appreciated the way her father had never treated her like a child. Apparently, he was that way with Rhianna, as well.

"I understand you went looking for sea lions yesterday? Did you have any luck?"

"No, we didn't find any sea lions, but it was a lovely day, anyway. It had been so long since I'd been out of the city, and your father let me borrow the most wonderful horse. We rode all along the cliffs, and sat on the beach, and Teyrn Loghain told me a story about his mother. Your grandmother," Rhianna added, as though the connection had just popped into her head.

"A story about my grandmother? What sort of story?"

"About one evening when your father was small, and she'd gotten him up out of bed in the middle of the night to look at shooting stars."

"Shooting stars?" Anora frowned. She was certain she had never heard a story like that before.

"Yes," Rhianna confirmed. "Did you know that when you see one, you're supposed to make a wish? And then the wish is supposed to come true, although it sounds like that doesn't always happen. I can't recall ever seeing one myself, though. A shooting star, I mean. Even all the nights Fergus and I spent camping. I guess we didn't spend enough time looking up at the sky."

"I had heard that about wishes, but I can't recall ever seeing a shooting star, either," Anora admitted.

Nor could she recall her father telling a story about his mother. She knew her grandmother had been killed - murdered violently - by chevaliers during the Occupation, but that was as much as anyone had ever said. Once she'd learned it was not a happy subject, she'd never again asked any questions.

"How did it come up? The subject of my grandmother, I mean."

"We were on the beach after eating lunch, and I thought your father was asleep, and I sort of . . . well, I started singing a song." She rolled her eyes, as if it were obvious her singing was not anything worth hearing. "I don't usually sing in front of other people, but, like I said, I thought he was asleep. Only he wasn't, and it turns out the song was one he knew, too. One your grandmother used to sing. So, I asked him for a story about her, and he told me about the shooting stars."

Anora felt her stomach twist into knots. Why had she never thought to ask for stories? She'd always contented herself with books, because her father never seemed the type who would want to tell stories. Hadn't he wanted to forget the past, and not dwell on memories of his parents, or things that happened during the Occupation? So many things had been shrouded in darkness, subject her parents had skirted around, with a shake of the head or a meaningful glance. So Anora had never asked, thinking it better to respect his privacy. But if he'd been willing to open up to Rhianna, surely he'd want to share those things with his own daughter as well.

"I'll have to ask him about it sometime," she mused aloud. "Ask him about my grandmother and my grandfather, both."

Yes. She would do it that evening, in fact. Perhaps it wasn't too late to get to know her father better, after so many years of believing he didn't want to be known.

"You should definitely ask," Rhianna agreed. "Teyrn Loghain loves telling stories."

The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of their lunch, a hearty meal of pasties and roasted chicken.

"This is all so delicious," Rhianna commented halfway through the meal. "Not like some of the strange things served at the coronation yesterday." Rhianna bit her lip for a moment, as a crease formed in her forehead. "I'm not saying I didn't like that food. It was all very good, too, with its Orlesian sauces and exotic fruits. But I really do like this sort of food - everyday food - the best. Pasties, especially. They're my very favorite."

"This is my favorite sort of food, too," Anora admitted. The sort of admission, at one point in her life, she would never have made, knowing it would have earned mocking from the other children, and sneering, knowing looks between any adults present. Anora the commoner, with her common tastes. That was one difference between herself and Rhianna. Bryce and Eleanor Cousland's daughter would never be accused of being common.

"So," Anora began, "There is a reason I asked you here today. Not just so we could have lunch together, although I am very glad to have this chance to get to know you better."

"I know," Rhianna replied. "Your father told me you had a special reason for inviting me."

Her father had said what? He had told Rhianna, after Anora specifically asked him not to? She struggled to keep her smile from faltering, her breathing from coming faster. Struggled to hide the discomfort she felt at Rhianna's words.

"Don't worry, though," the younger girl continued, apparently oblivious to Anora's reaction. "He only told me you had something to ask. He refused to tell me what it was. Just that it was a secret. A good secret. One you wanted to tell me yourself."

Anora let out the breath she had been holding, forcing herself not to sigh audibly. He hadn't broken his promise, after all.

Good. That was good.

Although, really, would it had mattered if he had told Rhianna the purpose of this visit? What a stupid thing to get hurt feelings about.

Still, her father wasn't in the habit of breaking promises. It was a relief he hadn't started now.

"A good secret? That's what he said?"

"Yes," Rhianna replied. "It was a bit horrid of him to gloat about knowing it, but I suppose I can forgive him, since I only had to wait one day to find out. Assuming you're going to tell me now, that is."

"Yes," Anora chuckled. "I had thought to tell you right now, in fact. As you know, in just a few weeks, Cailan and I are going to be married."

"Are you very excited?" Rhianna asked.

"Yes. I suppose I am," she admitted. She had been in love with Cailan as long as she could remember, and knew he loved her as well. As much as she wished this wasn't happening now, for the reason it was happening - she had loved Maric nearly as much as she loved her own father - she was happy to be marrying the man with whom she would spend the rest of her life.

"And," Anora continued, "I have a favor to ask of you. I need someone to be my witness at the ceremony. I'm sure you know it's usually someone related by blood to either the bride or the groom. And I don't have any family left at all, other than my father. But you and Cailan are cousins, a bit distant, but cousins nonetheless. So, I was hoping you would be willing to stand up with me during the ceremony. To be my witness."

Rhianna's eyes grew wide. "Oh. That's . . . that's a great honor, especially since you're going to be the queen. But I've never been a witness before. I thought it was always grown-ups who did that, not thirteen-year-old girls. Aren't you afraid I might make a mistake? Do something stupid, and ruin everything?"

Anora laughed. "Of course I'm not worried you might make a mistake! Rhianna, I've known you for years, and I know you'll be perfect. And even if I weren't sure, my father spoke very highly of your ability to perform whatever duties are required. All you need to do is walk up the aisle with me, and stand beside me during the ceremony holding my flowers. Afterwards, you'll sign your name on the official parchment. That's all there is to it. So . . . will you do it?"

"Yes, of course. As long as you're sure you trust me, then yes. I'd be honored to be your witness at the wedding." The girl smiled shyly, as though she still couldn't quite believe she's been asked to do this.

"Thank you. I know you'll be perfect, and I'll be so happy to have you there with me. And I think it will be fun for you as well. You'll be escorted by Teagan Guerrin, as he'll be standing up with Cailan, and at the banquet afterwards, you'll sit at the King's table, with Cailan and I and Bann Teagan. And my father, of course."

Was it her imagination, or did Rhianna's eyes grow a bit wider, and brighter, at the mention of sitting with Anora's father?

"I'd like that." Rhianna smiled more broadly now, looking more sure of herself. "Thank you, My Lady. I really am honored to have been asked. And I'll do my best, I promise."

"I know you will. And I'm so glad you said yes."

They'd finished with their meal, so Anora crossed the room and rang the bell for one of the servants to clear away the dishes. "Before we sit down to dessert, I have some things to give you," Anora said, gesturing for Rhianna to come and sit on the sofa near the fire.

"Things to give me?" The girl sounded genuinely surprised.

"Of course! If you're to be in the wedding, you'll have to have a new dress." Anora handed the girl a package wrapped in parchment.

Rhianna unwrapped it carefully, finding inside a gown of sapphire-colored satin, the same color as Anora's own gown would be. The girl stood, holding up in front of her.

"Oh," she breathed, "It's beautiful!" The gown was simple but pretty, with a rounded neckline and long, flared sleeves slit to just above the elbows.

"You can try it on, if you like," Anora suggested, "but honestly, it looks as though it will be exactly the right size." Strangely enough, Anora's father had been the one to provide measurements for the tailor. Apparently, he kept track of such things in order to make sure Rhianna always had leather armor that fit her properly.

"I heard a rumor dessert would be served soon." A deep voice echoed through the room, and both young women turned to the doorway.

"Teyrn Loghain!" Rhianna's voice was bright and cheerful. "Anora said you wouldn't be able to stay away from dessert."

"Yes, well, you know how fond I am of sweets."

"In that case, I'm afraid," Anora teased, "you've come too early. Dessert hasn't been served yet. So, perhaps you should come back later."

Loghain crossed the room and sat in a chair near the window. Before he'd barely settled into the chair, Rhianna's puppy hurried over to greet him. Dane put his front paws on Loghain's leg, and the man rubbed his fingers into the loose skin at the back of the dog's neck.

"Come back later? No, that doesn't sound good at all."

"So, you're not really here for the sweets then, are you?" Rhianna's smile was mischievous.

"Of course I am. Why else would I have come?"

"To see me and Lady Anora, of course."

"Hardly." His voice was stern. "Perhaps I'm not entirely interested in sweets, but don't go getting ideas I'm here to spend the afternoon with my two favorite girls. Let's make one thing very clear: I'm only here on behalf of this handsome fellow." He nodded at the puppy.

"Oh, really?" Rhianna asked. "You're here because of Dane?"

"Yes. I can see you've been spoiling him atrociously, encouraging all manner of bad behavior. Probably giving him endless treats. So, I thought I would give him some guidance in how to be a properly behaved hound."

Before anyone else could speak, the puppy huffed at Loghain.

"What's this?" Loghain asked, looking down at the dog.

"Haruph!" Dane repeated, his little hindquarters shivering with excitement.

"Dane seems to think you have cheese in your pocket," Rhianna said.

"See what I mean? Already begging for treats. I don't know where he would have gotten any idea about cheese."

The dog huffed again, and then whimpered softly.

"Perhaps because you do have cheese in your pocket," Rhianna replied.

"Well, perhaps I do," Loghain confirmed. "But I hardly see how that matters. Can't a man carry a snack for later, without being harassed?"

Dane whined, a rather pitiful sound, and laid his head on the front paws that still clung to Loghain's leg.

"Indeed," Loghain said. Then, he gave the dog a rather fearsome look, with his eyes narrowed and one of his brows lifted high.

Immediately, the dog removed his paws from Loghain's leg, setting himself back on his haunches, very straight and perfectly still, except for the little stub of a tail that wagged enthusiastically.

Loghain winked - at the dog! Of all things! - then reached a hand into the pocket of his trousers. Sure enough, there was a small hunk of cheese.

"You'd really take this from me? At the risk I might go hungry myself, later?"

"Haruph!" Dane yipped.

Finally, a smile appeared at one corner of Loghain's mouth. "Oh, all right." Loghain tossed the bit of cheese into the air, and the puppy leapt up, catching it in his teeth. Dane began to walk away, but Rhianna stopped him.

"Dane! Manners," she said.

The dog turned, dropped the cheese on the floor, and gave another enthusiastic "Haruph!" at Loghain.

"You're welcome."

The puppy retrieved the cheese, and moved to a sunny spot beneath the window to enjoy his treat.

"Endless treats, indeed," Rhianna teased. "And when he starts begging from everyone else, I'm going to tell them it's your fault, Teyrn Loghain."

"My fault? You saw him. He was shameless."

Dane stopped chewing long enough to huff unhappily from his place by the window.

"Indeed," Rhianna said simply, in a rather spot-on imitation of the teyrn. Then, they both burst out laughing.

"You're so silly," Rhianna told him, but before he could respond, she stood, holding the blue dress up for him to see. "Look! What do you think of my new dress? It's the one I'll wear to the wedding. Which you probably already knew, since that was the secret Anora just told me. That she wants me to be her witness."

"I think it's lovely. And I have no doubt on that day, you will be the prettiest girl but one in all of Ferelden."

Anora heard a quick intake of breath as Rhianna's lips parted slightly, and her cheeks turned pink. An interesting response, but before Anora had time to ponder it further, Rhianna looked over at her, and the younger girl grinned. Then Father turned to look at Anora, as well.

With a start, it dawned on her if Rhianna was the prettiest girl "but one," then Father had meant Anora, herself, would be the prettiest. She felt her cheeks grow hot, as she, too, began to blush, furiously, at the unexpected compliment. One of her hands flew to cover her cheek in embarrassment.

"I would be happy to be even half so pretty as you are," Rhianna said, her voice earnest. "At the coronation, you and Prince Cailan looked so lovely together. Perfect. Like a king and queen out of a storybook. I think all of Ferelden will fall in love with you once you're the queen, if they haven't already."

Looking into Rhianna's face, Anora could see the girl was utterly sincere. And what a generous thing it was for her to say. Especially considering, just a few days earlier, Rhianna's own father might have taken the throne.

Maker's blood. That was a sobering thought: had just one member of the Landsmeet voted differently, Bryce would be king now, and Rhianna would have been destined to be queen someday, rather than Anora.

Anora was glad she hadn't attended the Landsmeet that day. It hadn't seemed necessary. She'd heard not even a whisper that anyone might challenge Cailan for the throne. Then, when she heard about it afterwards, she was horrified. Not so much that it happened, but that she'd never before considered the possibility.

Now, looking back, it seemed incredibly naive. Of course it was possible someone else might want the throne. Anora knew as well as anyone Cailan was ill-prepared to rule. Of course he loved Ferelden, and had the nation's best interests at heart, but there was something very . . . young about him. He would learn. Certainly. But in the meantime, he would need help. As would she.

Honestly, the idea of becoming queen, now, was overwhelming. It shouldn't be. Throughout the whole of her life, as far back as she could remember, this was what had been planned for her. And it was what she wanted, truly. She loved Cailan, and wanted to be his wife. And she loved Ferelden, and wanted to be her queen. She had just never expected it to happen so suddenly.

Had Bryce taken the throne, what on earth would Anora have done? Surely, she and Cailan would have still been wed. (Wouldn't they)? Her father had no other heir, so she supposed they could have returned to Gwaren, although that was something she had never seriously considered. Not that she didn't love her birthplace; she loved it dearly. But in her mind, it sat at a distance. The idea of returning, of staying there permanently, was unsettling. Denerim was her home, and for most of the years of her life, she'd never considered any future in which she wasn't Ferelden's queen.

But there was no point dwelling on these thoughts. The Landsmeet had confirmed Cailan, and Rhianna was clearly not resentful or bitter, but genuinely pleased about Anora becoming the queen.

"Thank you," Anora said, remembering Rhianna had paid her a lovely set of compliments. "It means a lot to hear that from you. And I suppose I could call for dessert to be brought in, but first, I do have one more thing to give you."

"Something else? But you gave me a whole dress already."

"Don't let her fool you, Anora," Loghain interrupted. "Rhianna loves getting presents. She's even more shameless than her hound."

That seemed rather a harsh thing to say, but Rhianna giggled, "Of course I love presents. Doesn't everyone love getting presents?"

"Perhaps, but I'm not sure anyone loves getting them as much as you do." His tone was stern, but there was a spark of merriment in his eyes. Their banter was reminiscent of the way Father had been with Maric. Gentle, good-natured teasing. She hadn't realized just how comfortable Rhianna and her father had become. It was . . . sweet, actually. And nice to see her father smiling so much. Especially now. He'd smiled hardly at all since they'd gotten word about Maric's ship.

"Perhaps," Rhianna said airily. Then she turned to Anora, "But honestly, even if I do like presents, I never expect them. Especially since you've already given me such a lovely dress."

Anora chuckled. "Well, I do have something else for you, but to be honest, it's not . . . well, I wouldn't get too excited about it, if I were you. Um . . . here." Anora handed Rhianna a small wooden box, about six inches wide in all directions.

Biting her lower lip, the younger girl carefully pried off the lid. Then, she pulled out the object inside, which was wrapped in layers of fabric. Rhianna unwrapped it, slowly, carefully, until she held the object in her hands. Cradling it in her palms, her brow wrinkled for a moment, but then she turned to Anora with a bright smile on her face.

"It's . . . well, it's . . . pretty. Whatever it is. I have to admit, though, I'm not really sure just . . . what it is. Although those figures inside look like you and Cailan." She chewed at her lower lip, as though uncertain what else to say. Anora glanced at her father, who was trying hard not to laugh.

The object in Rhianna's hands was a sphere made of clear glass mounted on a wooden stand, with figurines that were indeed meant to look like Cailan and Anora, along with a tiny replica of the Denerim palace. It was filled with water, and with tiny bits of white porcelain.

"It's called a snow globe," Anora explained. "If you shake it . . . well, just shake it and watch what happens."

Her brow still wrinkled, Rhianna nodded, and, holding the globe between her two hands, agitated it gently. The bits of porcelain at the bottom swished back and forth in the turbulence, causing bubbles to float to the surface, but nothing more.

"Try turning it all the way upside down, and then righting it again," Loghain suggested.

Rhianna did so, and finally a smile broke out across her face. "Oh, it looks like it's snowing inside. That's lovely. Is that . . . um . . . is that all it does?"

Anora chuckled. "Yes. I'm afraid so. It's not perhaps the most useful thing ever. It was Cailan's idea to have them made. He saw one that came from the Anderfels, with a griffon inside of it, and thought we should have our own made to commemorate the wedding. I . . . well, I hope you like it. Even if it doesn't do much but sit on the shelf."

"I do like it. And it's nice it has you and Cailan inside. Strange, but nice."

"Good. I'm glad to hear it," Anora said. "Especially since my father was very skeptical about the whole thing."

"Skeptical?" Loghain scoffed. "That's putting it mildly. They really aren't very practical."

"No," Rhianna said thoughtfully, "but perhaps it's nice sometimes for things to be impractical. For things to just be . . . decorative. Like jewelry. That's pretty and doesn't really have any other use, but we like it anyway. Does everything have to be useful?"

Anora watched her father's reaction. For a moment, he frowned, a deep furrow forming in his brow, and one of his eyebrows lifted in that inimitable way of his. But then, surprisingly, one corner of his mouth twitched. "Well, obviously not. Else what would be the explanation for you?"

Rhianna burst into laughter. "What are you on about? I'm incredibly useful and you know it. I can do lots of things."

"Is that so?" he asked. "Name one."

"One? I'll give you several. Let's see . . ." She cocked her head to one side, and looked up at the ceiling as though she were thinking hard. "Well, I can stand next to doors and hold them open, so you don't need a doorstop. I can look out the window and tell you what the weather is like. And I can definitely manage to eat your share of the sweets that might appear for dessert, and save you the trouble of eating them yourself. Since you claim to have come here on Dane's behalf, rather than for dessert. See? I'm amazingly useful. Far more useful than you are."

"More useful than I am?"

"Oh yes. I'm feeling quite certain of it." Rhianna turned to Anora. "So, what do you think? Which of us is more useful: me or your father?"

The girl could hardly contain the mischief in her grin, and again, Anora was reminded of the way Maric and her father had teased one another. There seemed to be little harm in playing along.

"Well, you put me in rather awkward predicament," Anora began. "I mean, you are going to be doing an important service for me, standing up at my wedding." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "But he is my father. I really ought to be nice to him. He might throw me out of his house otherwise."

"Oh, but you're going to be the queen," Rhianna insisted, also in a whisper. "Surely he wouldn't dare doing anything like that. Not when you'll soon be able to have him locked away in Fort Drakon if he misbehaves."

"What are the two of you whispering about?" Loghain asked, although their whispers had been plenty loud enough for him to hear. "I'm not sure I like where this conversation is headed."

"Then just admit it!" Rhianna urged. "I'm the most useful. You know it's true. I mean, really, what have you ever done anyway? Besides drive the Orlesians out of Ferelden. And try and spoil my puppy."

"Haruph!" The puppy's indignant bark echoed through the room, causing all the humans to turn and look.

"Well," Loghain rebutted, with a straight face. "It seems I have Dane's vote."

"True," Rhianna admitted. "He does think you are extraordinarily useful. Especially when you come bearing cheese."

At this, Rhianna and Loghain both burst into laughter, while Dane got up and bounced around excitedly. Anora smiled to herself at the sight of it. Yes, her father and Rhianna certainly did seem to get along very well together.

The next moment, however, any further discussion was interrupted by the servants, who came bearing dessert.

"Ah. Finally!" Loghain said, pushing himself up to his feet. "And don't think you're going to eat my share of the sweets, young lady," he glowered at Rhianna. "I might not have been telling the whole truth when I said I wasn't interested in dessert."


Chapter Text

7 Firstfall, 9:25 Dragon
Denerim Chantry


Teagan Guerrin, the Bann of Rainesfere, was rather handsome.

Rhianna decided this as they stood together near the door of the small house beside the Denerim Chantry, waiting for Anora to emerge from the back room, where her lady-in-waiting was helping her prepare for the wedding. Rhianna couldn't remember ever speaking to him before today, but something about him reminded her of her father, with his auburn hair and his closely trimmed beard and his ready smile.

Nearby, Cailan stood by the window, looking out at the crowd in the courtyard outside. He seemed not to be paying any attention to Rhianna and Teagan's conversation.

"So," Bann Teagan said, with a rather mischievous grin, "if I may be so bold, what of you, my lady? Are you married?"

"Me? Married? Of course not."

Bann Teagan raised a brow. "I find that hard to believe. Surely, that's a crime somewhere. I would have thought a girl as pretty as you would have a husband or two of your own by now. Maybe even three."

Rhianna snorted, giggling into one of her hands. "I'm not old enough to have even one husband," she exclaimed, "and I certainly don't know what I'd do with three of them."

Saying she wasn't old enough wasn't entirely accurate; Alysanne Valdric's marriage to Bann Krole was just two short months away, right after the girl's fourteenth birthday. Even so, Rhianna didn't expect she would be getting married anytime soon. And certainly not to two - or Maker forbid three - different men.

"What about you?" she asked. "Are you married?"

"Me? No, I've never had the pleasure. If I were to marry, however, I'd be lucky to find a woman as lovely as yourself."

What? Was he serious? "You wouldn't really want to marry me, would you?"

"Is that a proposal, milady? You'd better be careful. If you were to ask me to marry you just now, it's possible I might say yes. Perhaps we could persuade the Grand Cleric to perform the ceremony after Anora and Cailan's."

Rhianna felt her face grow hot. He couldn't possibly be serious.

"You're teasing me, aren't you?" she asked.

"Teasing? What makes you say that? You are lovely. Surely, I'm not the first person to say so."

She felt her jaw drop, slightly, and for a moment she really wasn't sure what to say. Then, Bann Teagan winked at her.

"You are teasing." She giggled, but before he could say anything in response, the door to the back room opened, and Anora walked out, her elven maid a few steps behind.

Anora was absolutely gorgeous. She wore a gown of deep, sapphire blue satin. Tiny pearls were sewn into the fabric in an elaborate design, and a long train trailed behind. Flowers had been braided into her hair, and she wore just the tiniest bit of paint on her lips and her cheeks. Her face seemed to glow, but Rhianna wasn't sure if it was from the paint, or if Anora looked so happy because she was about to marry the man she loved.

At her entrance, Cailan turned from the window.

"Maker's breath." His mouth hung open for a moment before he spoke again. "I have never seen anyone more beautiful than you, my love."

Anora smiled, and her cheeks turned slightly pink, as she stepped forward to take the arm Cailan was offering. The King looked beautiful, too, in his golden armor, his blond hair shining, the crown upon his head.

The maidservant rushed forward, bowing before she handed Anora a beautiful bouquet of flowers: white roses and lilies and baby's breath and irises and wisteria. "Can't forget these, My Lady," she murmured, before backing away.

Teagan moved to the door, opening it enough to signal Teyrn Loghain, who stood just outside, that they were ready to walk to the Chantry. A moment later, trumpets announced the ceremony was about to begin. Bann Teagan offered Rhianna his arm, and together they stepped out of the small house.

Rhianna wore the gown Anora had given her, the same shade of blue as Anora's own gown, and flowers had been woven into Rhianna's hair as well, in imitation of the bride. It was an ancient custom for the bride's witness to dress in this fashion, a custom designed to trick any demons who might be watching into thinking Rhianna was the bride, and thus performing their mischief on her, while guaranteeing a peaceful day for Anora herself.

As Rhianna and Bann Teagan started up the path toward the Chantry, she glanced at Teyrn Loghain, who was waiting outside. He nodded at her as she walked past, and she couldn't help but notice how handsome he looked. Handsomer, even, than Cailan. Handsomer than anyone she'd ever seen before. Loghain wore a crisp white shirt under a doublet of dark grey, with ruffles at the end of the sleeves, and jet black trousers. His boots had been polished so well they shone, and the expression on his face was almost a smile. He looked proud, perhaps even happy, to see his daughter wed to the king.

The courtyard in front of the Chantry was filled with people, as there were far too many to all fit inside of the building. A path had been made for the bridal procession, through the courtyard and into the Chantry doors which had been thrown wide open for the occasion. Inside, the pews were tightly packed, and musicians played a wedding march as Rhianna and Teagan entered the building and began to walk up the center aisle. A minute later, a ripple of whispered voices washed across the Chantry as Cailan and Anora entered, arm in arm.

When they reached the altar where Grand Cleric Elemena waited, Rhianna and Teagan separated, moving to opposite sides as the bride and groom approached and climbed the stairs. As Loghain moved to stand just beyond Teagan, Anora turned to Rhianna with a smile, and handed her the bouquet of flowers. Cradling them in her arms, Rhianna stepped back and stood perfectly still while the ceremony began.

The Grand Cleric raised her arms and began with a verse from the Chant of Light.

"The children of the Maker gathered
Before his golden throne
And sang hymns of praise unending.

"We gather here today in the eyes of the Maker to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony. If any person can show just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, speak now, or forever hold your peace."

Elemena allowed the silence to stretch out for half a minute, during which not so much as a whisper was heard in the Chantry.

Something tickled Rhianna's right arm. She twitched, once, trying to get it to stop, but it still felt as though something was crawling just inside her elbow, and upward onto her arm. An insect, probably, and she fought the urge to reach her hand under the flowers and brush it away. She didn't want the Grand Cleric to think she was making some sort of objection to the wedding.

Instead, she tried to reach out to it with her mind. Insects were never easy for her to read at the best of times, but this one was impossible; its mind was filled with confusion and pain and anger. A stab of pain exploded in the tender skin underneath her upper arm, and Rhianna fought back the gasp that came to her lips.

A bee. It was a bee, and it had stung her.

Blessed Andraste, that hurt. She'd never been stung by anything before, and it hurt. She forced herself to breathe slowly and to stay quiet and still as she tried to ignore the pain in her arm.

The Grand Cleric spoke once again.

"Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow.
In their blood the Maker's will is written.

The woman turned her gaze upon the bridal couple. "I require and charge you both that if either of you know any impediment why you may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, you confess it now."

Anora and Cailan looked at one another solemnly, then turned back to the Grand Cleric. Both of them shook their heads. Of course there was no reason why they should not be married.

Again, Rhianna felt something crawling just inside her elbow. Another bee? Why were there bees in these flowers? And why were they crawling on her, instead of just flying away? She felt another, and then another, and another. Sending her mind toward them, she realized there were at least a score of them inside the bouquet. They seemed frantic, their minds closed to her, as they were drawn toward the warmth of her skin, where they became even more active, more agitated. Another burst of pain in her arm, a few inches from the first. Then another. Oh, it hurt! Maker, why were they stinging her?

And there were so many of them. What if every single one of them stung her?

"Here, I decree
Opposition in all things:
For earth, sky
For winter, summer
For darkness, light.
By My Will alone is Balance sundered
And the world given new life.

"As decreed by the Maker, the bond between a man and a woman is a joining of opposites, and from this joining shall come new life."

A fourth sting; Rhianna exhaled loudly through her nose, she couldn't stop herself. Teyrn Loghain glanced at her, frowning, and she forced herself to breath quietly. But the bees didn't stop. They continued crawling out of the flowers, onto her arms, more and more of them. Yet another sting, in the tender flesh on the underside of her upper arm. She squeezed her eyes closed, willing herself to be calm and still and quiet. The bees were just the opposite: she could sense their anger and their confusion and their pain, although she still had no idea why they were so angry.

"Then the Voice of the Maker rang out,
The first Word,
And His Word became all that might be:
Dream and idea, hope and fear,
Endless possibilities.

"Cailan Rendorn Theirin," Elemena intoned, "wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as you both shall live?"

"I will," Cailan replied.

Another burst of pain exploded in Rhianna's arm.

"Anora Aoife Mac Tir, wilt thou have this man to be thy wedded husband? Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as you both shall live?"

"I will," Anora replied.

One of the bees had crawled almost to her hand, stinging into a vein on her wrist. Why? Why were they doing this? She tried to scream at them with her mind to stop, but that only seemed to agitate them more. And why were so many bees in the flowers in the first place?

Another stinger pierced her arm, and now she couldn't stop herself from breathing more quickly. Please. Please please please let the ceremony end now. Please let this end, so she could sign the paper, and Anora and Cailan could walk down the aisle, and she could run somewhere nobody would see her and get these bees off of her arm.

Another sting and her breath caught in her chest. She had to keep calm. She had to keep calm, and stay quiet. She mustn't do anything to ruin Cailan and Anora's wedding.

"Maker, bless these rings, that those who wear them, that give and receive them, may be ever faithful to one another, remain in Your peace, and live and grow old together in Your love, under their own vine and fig tree, and seeing their children's children prosper and thrive.

"Cailan, place this ring on Anora's finger, and speak your vows to her now."

Cailan took Anora's left hand, and slid a ring on her middle finger. Then, he looked into her eyes.

"I pledge my love to you, and everything that I own
I promise you the first bite of my meat and the first sip from my cup.
I pledge yours will be the name I cry aloud in the night,
And the eyes into which I smile each morning.
I shall be a shield for your back as you are for mine.
I pledge to you my living and my dying, each equally in your care.
I promise to honor you above all others.
Our love is never-ending and we will remain, forevermore, equals in our marriage.
Thereto I plight thee my troth."

Rhianna closed her eyes. It was difficult to follow what was happening in the ceremony. One of the bees had crawled all the way up her sleeve, and was making its way down her chest. When its stinger sank into the flesh below her collarbone, she clenched her teeth to keep from crying out. Another crawled up the back of her neck, and stung just beneath her ear.

Then, another of the insects plunged its stinger into a place where she had already been stung. She squeezed her eyes shut, seeing a flash of blinding white light. The pain was so intense she bit the inside of her mouth to stifle her cry. Tasting blood, she felt a single, hot tear course down her face. Her breath was coming fast, and she couldn't stop her body from trembling, but she tried to stay quiet. When she opened her eyes, Loghain was staring at her, a deep frown on his face. Maker. She must look ridiculous, crying for no apparent reason.

The Grand Cleric continued. "Anora, place this ring on Cailan's finger, and speak your vows to him now."

As Cailan had done, Anora took his left hand in hers, and slipped a ring onto his finger. Her voice was clear and strong, carrying easily throughout the Chantry.

"I pledge my love to you, and everything that I own
I promise you the first bite of my meat and the first sip from my cup.
I pledge yours will be the name I cry aloud in the night,
And the eyes into which I smile each morning.
I shall be a shield for your back as you are for mine.
I pledge to you my living and my dying, each equally in your care.
I promise to honor you above all others.
Our love is never-ending and we will remain, forevermore, equals in our marriage.
Thereto I plight thee my troth."

Finally, blessedly, the Grand Cleric bid the couple to kneel together on the altar. Twice more, Rhianna was stung.

"Cailan and Anora, here you kneel before me, in the sight of the Maker. From this day forward, your lives are intertwined. No longer shall you shall walk your paths alone, but you shall walk side by side, hand in hand.

"My hearth is yours, my bread is yours, my life is yours.
For all who walk in the sight of the Maker are one

"When you knelt before me, you were two separate people. Rise now, and greet the world as you shall live the rest of your lives, no longer separate, but joined as one." Cailan stood, and offered his hand to help Anora to her feet.

"Forasmuch as Cailan and Anora have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before the Maker and this company, and have pledged their troth to one another, I pronounce they are man and wife, in the name of the Maker."

The couple turned to face one another, and Cailan leaned down to kiss Anora on the lips for a brief moment. Then they turned to the back to the Chantry, and the people filling the hall began to cheer. Anora turned to Rhianna, frowning when she saw the girl's tearstained face. The new bride reached out her arms, for the flowers, but Rhianna could sense there were still bees in the arrangement. She couldn't give them to Anora, and risk her being stung. Not on her wedding day. Rhianna shook her head, just a little, and pulled back from Anora's outstretched hands. A look of confusion furrowed the woman's brow, and again she reached for the flowers, but Rhianna shook her head again, more vehemently this time, and turned her body slightly away so Anora could not reach the bouquet.

Cailan glanced over, his eyes widening at the sight of Rhianna's face, of the tear stain on her cheek. Gently grasping Anora's elbow, he urged her to walk with him. Anora's eyes flashed at Rhianna for a moment before turning to accompany her new husband through the crowd of cheering people.

Rhianna glanced at Loghain, and found him glaring at her with a look of pure anger she seen only a few times before, and certainly never directed at her. Her lower lip began to quiver, and another bee stung her, this time between her shoulder blades, but she forced herself to hold back more tears. In a haze, she walked toward the podium where the marriage certificate awaited her signature. Somehow, she managed to put the quill to the parchment and sign her name, and then she and Bann Teagan walked side by side down the aisle, with Loghain a few steps behind.

Finally, they reached the Chantry steps, where the King and his new bride stood at the edge and waved to the crowd of people who had not been able to fit into the Chantry. As soon as she crossed the threshold, Rhianna darted away to the left, not caring what anyone thought of her now, running past the well in the Chantry yard, and around to the alley which ran along the side of the building.

Thankfully, it was deserted.

She dropped the bouquet onto the ground, and frantically brushed the remaining insects off of her arm. She received another sting, finally allowing a sob to escape her throat from the pain. Her right arm was covered in large pink welts, some of them welts on top of welts.

She was dimly aware of a sound behind her, but before she could turn to see what had caused it, pain exploded through her arm, a pain so white and hot that it blinded her for a moment. Someone had grabbed her arm, the arm with the bee stings. She cried out as she was spun around to face whomever had hold of her.

When her vision cleared, she found Teyrn Loghain staring down at her, his eyes flashing. His hand tightened on her arm, pushing the stingers deeper in to her flesh, and once again, she screamed.


"Stop!" Rhianna screamed, tears streaming down her face. "Please, stop! It hurts!" she sobbed.

"What in the name of the Black City is wrong with you, girl?" he hissed. He grabbed her by both arms now, determined to get a straight answer out of her for her ridiculous behavior.

He shook her, and she cried out a third time, then began to moan, softly but continuously.

Maker's balls, what was this nonsense? He wasn't holding her tightly enough to cause pain. What on earth had gotten into the girl? She had been crying, during the ceremony, and refused to give Anora back the flowers. This is the last thing he ever would have expected from her, and he was deeply disappointed.

Crying. Was it possible she had some fantasy about marrying Cailan herself? She'd never said anything to indicate she had feelings for the boy, but Loghain could think of no other explanation for her bizarre behavior.

"Please, Teyrn Loghain," she sobbed through her tears. "Please let go of my arm. There were bees in the flowers and they stung me. They stung my arm." Another tear escaped one of her eyes, and ran slowly down her cheek. She looked down to the arm he was grasping in his hand. "P-please let go. It h-h-hurts." More tears began to fall, as her mouth twisted into a grimace.


He released her arm, pulling up the loose half-sleeve that covered her forearm. Her pale flesh was covered with nearly a dozen angry red welts. He'd never seen anything like this, not in the whole of his life.

"Blessed Andraste!" He dropped to his knees before the girl, and looked into her eyes. They were a more brilliant green than he had ever seen them before, fat tears clinging to her eyelashes. "Rhianna." He took her face gently between his hands. "Oh, Rhianna I am so sorry. I . . . Maker's blood, I had no idea."

He fought back a wave of nausea. Those welts, they looked awful, painful. And then he'd grabbed her, that must have . . . he could hardly imagine just how much pain he had caused her.

What had possessed him to grab her arm like that? And how could he have been angry with her in the first place? He'd known the girl her entire life; he should have known better than to assume she was behaving badly. Shame, thick and hot, washed over him, and again he had to struggle to keep himself from being sick.

He sat down on the grass, pulling her into his lap, cradling her, with her back against his chest. With the dagger he pulled from his boot, a new dagger to replace the one he'd given her after the Festival of Wolves, he prepared to remove the stingers. He pulled back the sleeve, tucking the fabric behind her shoulder so he could see the whole of her arm.

"This will hurt," he warned, "but they've got to come out. I'll do it as quickly as I can and then we'll find the healer."

"All right," she breathed.

One by one, he slid the edge of his blade underneath the ridge of the stingers, and with a flick of his wrist, popped them out of her skin. Rhianna moaned softly each time one was removed, but she sat still in his lap, allowing him to work quickly. When he had removed all of the ones he could see - a total of thirteen stingers - he asked if there were any he had missed, and she pointed to one between her shoulders, and another just below her collarbone. Loghain undid the top few buttons on her gown, pushing back the fabric just enough to remove those stings as he'd done the others.

When he had finished, she turned her body toward his, pressing her face against his chest. He held her, stroking her hair while she sobbed quietly. So many bee stings, some of them right on top of one another. That must have been incredibly painful, and he doubted the pain had yet subsided. Jocelyn would help, perhaps even just a poultice would be enough to heal the small wounds, but first he'd give Rhianna as long as she needed to get out her tears.

She sat up, and reached up her hand to touch a spot on her neck. "There's one more," she whispered.

Taking his dagger in hand again, Loghain turned her head to face away from him, exposing the bee sting on her neck. Just as he slipped the tip of the dagger under the stinger's head, a voice boomed from the entrance to the alley.

"Take your hands off my daughter!"

Loghain and Rhianna both turned to see Bryce Cousland running toward them, his face twisted in anger. Before either of them could respond, Bryce grabbed Rhianna's arm, causing her to scream in pain. He ignored her cries, pulling her to her feet, and angling his body so he stood between her and Loghain. The look in Bryce's eyes was furious, and Loghain climbed to his feet, the dagger still clutched in his hand.

Maker's balls! How must this have looked to the girl's father? Rhianna, sitting in Loghain's lap with her dress undone, and his dagger at her throat. No wonder the man looked murderous. Loghain raised his arms gently away from his sides, in a gesture of surrender, although he kept hold of the dagger.

"Father, please!" Rhianna cried out, in tears.

Ignoring her, Bryce addressed Loghain. "You," he snarled. "Explain yourself, now. Before I kill you with my bare hands."

"Father, no. Stop it, please!" Rhianna pleaded, grabbing her father's arm. "I was stung by bees during the ceremony. Teyrn Loghain was removing the stingers."

Bryce turned to look at his daughter, her face stained with tears as she clung to his arm, as if wanting to prevent him from attacking. "Please Father, just look at my arm. Please."

Bryce shot Loghain a single angry glance, and then turned back to his daughter, watching as she pulled up the sleeve of her gown. The girl's father gasped aloud when he saw the angry welts, puffed up and red against the pale skin of her arm.

"Maker's blood," Bryce swore. "What's this? How on earth did this happen?"

Rhianna released her hold on her father's arm, sobbing with relief. "There were bees in the flowers. In Lady Anora's flowers." She turned to Loghain, "The last stinger. It burns. Will you get it out for me, please?"

Loghain rushed to her side, placing the dagger beside the stinger, and pulling it out of her skin. A single drop of blood oozed from the hole left behind.

Bryce stared at the drop of blood for a long moment, a look of horror on his face. "When did this happen?" he asked, his voice ragged.

"During the ceremony, mostly," she replied. She was calmer now, no longer crying. With any luck, that meant the pain had begun to subside. She gestured to the bouquet she'd thrown onto the ground. "I don't know how they got there, but for some reason they crawled on me instead of flying away. They were really scared, and angry, but I couldn't figure out why."

Loghain knelt beside the discarded bouquet and poked at the flowers with his dagger. Bryce and Rhianna both came to kneel beside him. He found one of the bees crawling up the stem of a rose, and he picked it up gently with the tip of his blade. Holding it at eye level, all three of them looked at it closely.

"Its wings have been pulled off." Loghain said, meeting Bryce's gaze. This had not been some kind of an accident. "That's why it didn't fly away."

"Do you mean someone put them there on purpose?" Rhianna asked, her voice shaky. "Someone who wanted to hurt Lady Anora, or ruin her wedding?"