Highever was burning. The night air was filled with the sound of battle, steel clashing against steel, and the screams of dying men and women. Only a few hours earlier, everything had been peaceful, the castle quiet as its residents had slept soundly in their beds and the camps outside had been full of soldiers preparing for a long march south. Then Howe had struck leaving only blood, fire and chaos in his soldiers’ wake.
Still, with the battle raging, no one had noticed a figure escaping into the woods.
Serra Cousland tore through the thickets blindly, her breath coming in sharp, desperate pants as the smoke burned her lungs. Her only thoughts were on running, where didn’t matter but she needed to run to put as much distance between herself and the castle she had come from. No doubt once the fighting finally died her absence from the piles of the dead would be noted. Mother had given her life so that she would have this chance to escape the slaughter.
Tears burned her eyes and blurred her vision but still she continued to run. Branches whipped at her face, opening cuts along her cheeks but on she continued, pushing past the pain and the ache in her legs as she urged herself faster and faster. Her legs were already burning but she couldn’t stop, she’d surely be caught if she did. She could rest when Highever was firmly out of sight and she was a few miles away at least.
Which way was she even running? North? South? Serra knew these woods well, she had hunted in them with her father and brother for years but in the night with her blood pounding her ears and the horrors she had just seen, her mind was blank. If she made it to the morning, she could find her bearings, perhaps, but for now all that mattered was how far she could put between herself and Howe’s soldiers.
Without warning, her foot caught on the root of a tree. She was flung forward, her stomach lurching and unintentionally a yell of surprise ripped from her throat. Serra hit the ground painfully on her front but her momentum send her rolling down a steep incline she hadn’t even realised she was at, the fires from Highever only dimly illuminating her path to freedom. More roots came up to meet her, causing her to jolt and bump as she rolled and kicking up the layer of dirt and fallen leaves that the autumn brought. Finally, she came to her painful stop, her side slamming into the trunk of a fallen tree.
Her vision swam even more and she felt like she was going to throw up but the sudden sound of voices made her breath catch in her throat.
“Over here! It sounded like it came from over here!”
Serra forced herself to move, scrambling over the trunk and pressing herself down into the dirt. With luck, Howe’s men wouldn’t search too closely and she could be back on her feet again and running. The clearing she had fallen into was illuminated by the sudden light of a torch and Serra held her breath, praying to the Maker and Andraste that she wouldn’t be spotted. If she was found then she would be killed, not even the servants in the castle had been spared so it was likely that Howe’s men had orders to kill anyone they found to ensure that the Cousland line ended that night.
The sound of foot falls crunching dried leaves told Serra there was at least two men. Two. All she had was her family sword strapped to her side by her mother before she had been shoved down the small hatch in the pantry. There was no way she could possibly take on all two…if only she had her bow then maybe she could. She had dropped it when she had found her father lying in a pool of his own blood and there hadn’t been the time to grab it before the soldiers were trying to break down the door to finish the job.
“Told you, fool, there’s nothing here. It was a fox or a deer, I said!” One voice spoke up, gruff and clearly irritated.
“I tolds you, I heard something and it w’nt no deer.” Another argued in response “Since when’da deer yell?”
More footsteps and the light grew brighter, causing the shadow of the tree trunk to grow large. They were almost right on top of her now, if they decided to walk around and check the other side of the tree then they’d find her instantly. Still, Serra held her breath and waited, one clearly seemed to think there was nothing but the second was the more perceptive.
“By the Maker, Danwell, you’re always jumping at shadows! Look! Clearly there’s nothing here!”
They stood there arguing with each other for a few more minutes, Serra listening and waiting. Her fingers curled around the hilt of her sword but she hoped that maybe if she ran she could lose them in the woods. In the darkness and the thick undergrowth, it would probably not be that difficult and if all else failed then perhaps she could climb a tree and wait until they moved on. Unless they had bows or crossbows…she hoped they didn’t.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, she heard footsteps again and slowly the light receded. They were leaving. Good. Still, Serra let a few more moments slip by before she gingerly pushed herself up and onto her feet again. Her limbs were stiff now from lying in the dirt and no doubt she was probably filthy. Without another moment to lose, she turned on her heel and started running once more into the darkness.
The gentle falling of rain was what woke her. She had run so far in the night that eventually her legs had simply given out beneath her and that was where Serra had lay. The first rays of dawn had just been starting to fill the sky but she was so tired that she had simply fallen asleep as soon as she had laid down. Her exhaustion had won out over her fear of being found out in the woods whilst sleeping.
By the Maker, it was cold. The autumn air had a fierce chill in it and she wished that she had a simple cloak to keep her body from shivering. Of course, all she had was her simple, thin cotton night shift with her armour strapped hastily over the top. There had been no time to grab anything more before her mother had found her.
By what she assumed was mid-morning, the drizzle had turned into a full downpour. How fitting, Serra thought, that the weather was as perfectly miserable as she was. Still, she had to shove her feelings down and keep moving. She judged that the escape route through the pantry had come out some distance away from castle’s south wall and therefore she had been heading south in her escape as she had just run blindly forwards.
South, it was. South was where Ostagar was. South was where Fergus and his army had gone.
Her older brother had left a few days beforehand and Father had planned to meet him in the south where King Cailan had called for reinforcement. If she just kept going, then she could find her way to Fergus and to safety with him. Howe wouldn’t dare show his face there especially when the news inevitably reached about what had happened at Highever. Maybe she could even convince Cailan that once the threat of darkspawn had been dealt with to turn his armies north and retake Highever in Fergus’ name.
Serra just had to get there first.
Highever was on the opposite side of Ferelden and it would take days, perhaps even a week, to reach Ostagar on foot using the main roads. Was it safe for her to even use the main roads? She doubted it. Howe would likely have sent his men out to watch for anything if he knew already of her survival and if not then she would likely make some spectacle of herself, walking out of the woods covered in dirt and ash like a barbarian with an expensive sword and well-made leather armour. That would get people talking and that would end up in Howe’s ears sooner or later.
Who knew how long it would take her to get to Ostagar if she had to wander through the wilds by herself. A part of her wished for her mabari, for Beric, but she doubted her faithful companion had made it out of the castle, she almost hadn’t. He was just another name in the list of casualties caused by Howe and his treachery and she would make sure he paid tenfold for what he had done.