BioWare owns all but what I made up. : )
SPOILERS ALERT: For those who haven't played the human noble origin or read the books by the lovely Mr. Gaider, just an FYI for you. That having been said, this is the other story I was going to start with. Just a telling of my character's tale in game, with all the meat and emotional depth you can't always have or the game would never get made. I had intended to write this one first, for those of my fans following "Soulmates," but that tale got has a hold of me and demanded to go first. : ) So, this chapter has been sitting and languishing for a long time. The muse wants what it wants. I hope you enjoy this too. : )
Kaidana Cousland caught her reflection in the mirror-like side of the shield she was stacking in the armory ready to go with their soldiers leaving for Ostagar to fight with King Cailan. She gave the face in the shield a detailed inspection – black hair framed creamy skin, big blue eyes, high cheekbones, and full rosy lips. The face was, she supposed, that of a pretty noble woman.
Or it would have been just the pretty face of any spoiled noble woman, but for the delicate red brown tattoo on her forehead around her eyes and on her chin. The tattoo accentuated, rather than took away from her features she thought. Plus, it made her look less like a pampered pet and hopefully deterred some of those idiot noble spawn who looked at her as an object to bed or wed. It had also hurt like hell when she'd had it done.
Her mother was not pleased when she had seen it. Eleanor Cousland had been fit to be tied, as the saying went. Her mother was a battle maiden herself, yet she had objected strongly when she saw what Kai had done. However once done, the tattoo could not be undone, so her mother had gotten used to it. As had Kai; so much so, she often forgot it was there until she caught a glimpse of her reflection as she had done just a moment ago.
It wasn't that everything she did was motivated by making herself less appealing to the other nobility and their sons, but to her mind it didn't hurt. Being the daughter and youngest child of one of only two remaining teyrns in all of Ferelden put her in the unwanted position of being second in rank only to the throne. This position made her an ideal catch for power hungry sycophants such as Arl Rendon Howe who would love for his son Thomas to be a part of her family. Kai snorted, when the Fade froze over and the Black City turned into an ice castle maybe.
Of course she had gone blissfully unaware of the petty scrabbling of the nobles and their eying her as a match until her sixteenth year. It was at a party, some salon her mother had thrown where she had been discovered just how she was viewed by the other nobility. It was a rude awakening to say the least.
Kai had been forced to quit her weapons and martial arts training early to take a bath and get dressed. She had been shoved into toile and lace and told to mind her manners and try not to insult or intimidate the nobles' sons who asked her to dance. She had figured that the best way to fulfill her mother's wishes of politeness and avoid cowing the little gits was to employ a strategy worthy of her training. Her plan had been to hide so they couldn't ask her in the first place. She used her rogue skills, staying in the shadows and frequently changing her position. A moving target would be harder to catch by sweaty handed noble brats or her mother, whichever came first. It was in one of those darkened corners while she stood sweating and itching that she had overheard one of the bann's wives speaking with her mother.
"My dear Eleanor, that daughter of yours is quite the tomboy and a real spit fire," the woman's voice held a hidden core of scorn wrapped in a layer of silken smoothness.
"Yes, she does remind me of myself I must admit," Kai's mother replied. Although she couldn't see her, she heard the smile in it along with a small amount of exasperation and pride.
"So, have you picked out which nobles' sons you intend to present her to? You and Bryce could cement your own influence in any number of ways. With the right marriage of course." The gooey way the bann's wife said marriage made her skin crawl.
Kai remembered well her how loudly her heart had beaten in her chest and how she had broken out in a cold sweat. It had hit her then, like an arrow hitting the target, just how dangerous to her freedom this game the nobles played really was. She hadn't stayed to listen to her mother's response. From then on, she had vowed to be a warrior, not a wife. Especially not a wife to some ladder climbing noble and his feckless brat.
So, she had gotten the tattoo from a Dalish elf, a man who left the Brecilian Forest and married a city elf in Highever. He practiced the art of the vallaslin or "blood writing." She redoubled her efforts and worked twice as hard to prove herself in the arts of war and combat. She trained harder as a rogue than she ever had before. She had thought to try a shield like her brother, a fancy that passed quickly after she broke her arm in two places. She had finished that fight with fast footwork and one good arm and continued to train to use her quickness and agility rather than brute strength after that. Archery along with her two daggers became a part of her routine, with sometimes a sword and dagger just for variety. The archery appeased Eleanor to some degree, as her mother was a master archer herself.
Kai'd had the good fortune to add an open handed martial arts form taught by a priest of the Qun all the way from Par Vollen to her already growing talents. The priest had been stuck at Highever during nasty Spring storms and had found her willingness to learn a great relief from the boredom of rainy Ferelden days. She was proud of her skills and what she had accomplished. There weren't many men who could best her on the field of combat, not even Fergus. She had worked hard to make it so.
Under Aldous, the tutor of the Cousland children, she studied strategy. The battle planning tactics of the Rebel Queen Moira, Arl Rendorn Guerrin and especially the best strategist in Ferelden history, Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir, the Hero of River Dane, became as much a mainstay of her reading for fun as for knowledge.
Unfortunately, even with all of that training and hard work she was going to be stuck at the castle while her older brother Fergus and Father went off to Ostagar to fight darkspawn. She tried not to think about it as she finished stacking the shields and armor and made her way to the Great Hall of Highever, her home. Her home, which she loved with all her heart. Right now it felt like a cage. She sighed and gave herself a mental head slap for going where she told herself not to go only a moment before.
It was in the Great Hall that she found her father talking with Arl Howe about riding out together like old times. She caught the tail end their friendly banter, something about having less gray in their hair then. Her father and Howe had fought together in the rebellion against The Usurper and Orlais alongside good King Maric. As with most members of the younger generation, she often thought of how exciting it must have been to ride into battle.
Howe, however, gave her the fidgets. She supposed the heat of battle and being one of fifty survivors of what had been a massacre of a large part of the rebellion at White River must have created a bond she would never understand. That experience was the only reason which Kai could imagine for her father's befriending Arl Rendon Howe. Howe's abrasive personality and his ambition had earned the man the dislike of his peers, including Maric and his son Cailan. Truth be told, Kai had always wondered why Howe pretended to like her father. The other nobles may have thought Bryce Cousland a fool for his fair treatment of the elves at Highever and for the way he treated those "beneath his station" with respect, but the nobles loved her father. So much so that when Maric had drowned at sea, Bryce Cousland had come very close to being placed on the throne of Ferelden. Only her father's honor, honesty, and sense of fair play had him insisting Cailan be King. She knew Howe would have done no such thing. To Kai, Howe was as cold and slimy as a sea slug she and Fergus had found washed up on a rocky beach as children. He was the opposite of her father in every way. Howe sought power and recognition from the crown, and if the man had been better liked, the crown itself. Kai's father sought nothing more than to do his duty by his king and his countrymen. Many nobles called her father a fool for turning down the crown in whispers behind his back, but Howe especially thought her father a cretin.
As she drew closer, the conversation turned from gray hair to an apology for the tardiness of soldiers due to be at Highever from Amaranthine, something to do with flooded levies. Kai had a moment to muse that even when Howe was supposedly seeking pardon, he hardly sounded apologetic at all. Kai listened as her father accepted Howe's excuse with his usual patient manner and set about adapting the original plan. Fergus and the soldiers of Highever would march to Ostagar without Howe's men. Her father would ride with Howe and his soldiers when they arrived on the morrow.
Kai felt a scowl forming on her face and quickly mastered it before Howe or her father had a chance to turn and see it. Her father was far more patient with Howe than she would have been. Flooded levies my arse. More likely Howe hadn't equipped them properly. The man was notorious for treating his men at arms badly, underpaying and under equipping them. The city of Amaranthine had potholes in its streets and Vigil's Keep, the Howe home, was supposedly in a constant state of disrepair. Kai had no idea what Howe did with the money he received in taxes from his people, but one thing was certain, he didn't spend on running his arlship or improving the lives of his people.
She entertained the uncharitable thought that maybe he spent it at the brothels in Denerim. That thought led almost as quickly to Kai's pondering if there were enough money in all of Thedas that would have any prostitute willing to sleep with the likes of Rendon Howe. Kai almost blushed, and then felt nausea welling up at the thought of Howe naked. NOT GOING THERE! Kai gave herself the second mental head slap of the day. Not that Howe had any such problem imagining her or her mother naked, if the up and down leer the man bestowed upon them when they were in his presence was any indication.
UGH! Kai was about to chastise herself once more, but she was interrupted from going further down that twisted and unpleasant internal road by her father's warm voice, "Ah hello, pup. I didn't see you there. Howe, you remember my daughter?"
Howe, whose face always reminded Kai of a ferret with those beady, hungry eyes, broke into a feral smile. "Ah yes, she has grown into a lovely young women. My son Thomas asks about you." Howe's slick voice was pitched low, his accent pulling his words longer at the end as if everything had a hidden meaning.
Kai remembered Thomas as a shy, skinny boy who had the unfortunate happenstance to look like a younger version of his father, but without the smarmy confidence. In fact if anything, Thomas had a tendency to be seen as "simple," though Kai thought it might be due to the fact that Thomas seemed to be afraid of his own father. So afraid, in fact, that the lad would simply withdraw into himself and stare vacantly into space whenever Howe was around. The only one of the man's children who seemed to love the man at all was his son Nathaniel. And last she'd heard, Nate was in the Free Marches, training.
Kai shook herself from her contemplations as both Howe and her father were looking at her in expectation of an answer. Kai grabbed at the first thing to come to mind, "I thought he didn't like me." Actually, it was more like Thomas never noticed her one way or another. She could have been a dining room chair for all the attention Thomas had ever spared her in the times they had been forced to socialize together.
"Oh I am sure that was years ago and you were both younger. Things change. Though I will not hold out hope, I will admit I would not mind a match." Howe looked her up and down in a way that made her skin crawl.
She would rather drop dead first. Kai smiled and kept from rolling her eyes, barely. Despite the fact that both the man and his son revolted her, she managed what she thought was a tactful reply, "We'll see." Her father broke in, thank the Maker, before her true emotions could show on her face.
"I doubt she'll be receptive, Howe. I'm afraid my fierce girl has her own ideas, Maker bless her." Her father's face lit up with a proud smile.
There was an awkward silence that Kai sought to fill in. She asked the first question that popped into her head, "So you and father rode together with King Maric?"
"Your Father never told you about those days? Oh yes, heady times! King Maric, large as life and twice as tall. The man knew how to take care of his friends. Cailan is certainly no Maric."
"I take it you don't like Cailan?" Kai cocked an eyebrow at Howe, surprised at the man's audacity.
'I think of Cailan as much as he thinks at all. Cailan is a fool who thinks only of legends and becoming one. Maric knew the true value of loyal service."
"Enough, Howe," Bryce Cousland's voice had become dangerously cool. "You speak of our King!"
Howe scowled like a chastised but unrepentant little boy, folding his arms across his chest. His voice was still pitched low, but still loud enough to be heard, "I only answered the question she asked me. As per the latitude you give her."
Kai's father dismissed Howe's comment and changed the subject. "Howe, we have a special guest I wanted you to meet. Duncan, a Grey Warden."
Kai felt her heart beat faster. A Grey Warden, here! She had of course read all about them and begged her tutor to teach her about the famous sect of warriors and knights. Only the best were asked to join the Grey. They were a fighting force to be reckoned with, heroes without equal who had saved Thedas many times. Her father had the utmost respect for them. Kai wondered if she would even be considered worthy of joining. For a brief wild moment, she imagined she was a Grey Warden being cheered by her parents and many others for slaying the darkspawn. Childish, she knew, but a Grey Warden! Maker, wouldn't that be grand?
She watched the swarthy, handsome, broad-shouldered man walking into the Hall from the doorway on the far side. He was extremely handsome to Kai's mind. He must have been a lady killer in his youth and had only aged like a fine wine. His face was covered by a thick beard, his dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. And did the man sport an earring in one ear? Take him out of the beautiful ornate armor and robes he wore and put him in leather, and he would look like a Rivaini pirate. Mother would love him; he was like one of those characters out of that steamy romance novel, The Rose of Orlais.
If Kai had thought him handsome for his looks, it was his voice that made him tip past the edge of sexy to fall right in. It was deep and smooth, and it caressed Kai's ears with its cadence. This voice contrasted starkly with Howe's voice, which had always set her teeth on edge. Kai had half a moment to develop a bit of a crush on the man and add it to her infatuation with becoming a Grey Warden.
It was Howe's voice which once again had her grinding her molars until she thought her jaw would make noticeable popping noise. His smarmy tones interrupted her nice little lusty fantasy involving Duncan and becoming a Grey Warden in a private ceremony. Kai found herself sighing. "A Grey Warden? Here? Why?"
"Is there a problem, Howe?" Kai watched her father's eyebrows crease in irritation. Apparently, Howe was even wearing on his good nature.
"No, no, no! It is just that I am unprepared for a guest of such importance. There are certain protocols for meeting people of such stature. I have no wish to insult your illustrious guest inadvertently." Howe put on a simpering smile that turned Kai's stomach. Kai again refrained from rolling her eyes, barely. Duncan must have caught her desire to do so, as he winked and gave her a half smile through his beard. Kai felt a giggle waiting to bubble up. She coughed to cover it, which had Duncan winking at her again.
"Pup, Duncan is here to recruit Ser Gilmore for the Grey Wardens to aid them in the upcoming battle." Bryce smiled at Duncan.
"Actually, I am also very interested in recruiting your daughter." Duncan looked at Kai once again. She caught a slight look of appraisal, and hope?
"You are interested in Kai?" Kai felt her heart racing with excitement. She really could be a Grey Warden then!
"I think I would like that very much!" Kai felt a grin stretching her lips wide. She caught Duncan's hint of a smile, hidden mostly by his beard.
Then she felt the giddiness leave as quickly as it had started with her father's next statement, "I've not so many children that I'll gladly see them all off to battle. I am sorry, old friend. Not to mention that my lovely wife would have my head on a pike on the castle wall if I let you take Kai." Bryce grinned at Duncan. "You aren't planning on invoking The Right of Conscription?"
"Of course not, Bryce. We could use all the recruits we can get, but..." Duncan shrugged his shoulders. "I have no desire to cause diplomatic problems with a Teyrn, nor personal problems with an old friend." Duncan smiled at her father. But when he turned back to face her, Kai thought she saw different emotions warring with each other in the blink of an eye. What she saw chilled her more than a bucket of cold water from Highever Lake, for in that space no longer than a blink, Kai had seen disappointment, resignation and fear.
Things were that bad with the darkspawn after all? Maker! Kai's stomach felt as though it had glass in it. It took a moment for her to realize her father was speaking to her again, something about taking care of the castle and keeping peace in the region, would she do as he asked? She vaguely remembered nodding and telling him of course. She flashed a quick look at Duncan, whose face was immobile, but whose eyes seemed to be assessing her with a look of sharp discernment and a bit of awe, as if he had caught her reading him. She supposed it would be hard for most people to read him, being a Grey Warden and one of the best. He was no doubt required to wear that careful mask of neutrality quite often. She and Duncan stood looking at one another as if they were having an unspoken conversation. Kai swallowed and dipped her head ever so slightly to Duncan. When her father asked her to go and find Fergus to say goodbye, she simply nodded and turned to take her leave.