When Vera woke, she knew something was terribly wrong.
It was well past midnight. The acrid smell of smoke filled her nostrils, burning her throat and wrenching violent coughs from her chest. From behind her bedroom door, she could hear muffled shouting. Alarmed, she shot out of bed and began to dress. Her hands trembled as she laced up her leather greaves.
Just as she was yanking on her boots, the door flew open and slammed against the stone wall. Smoke poured into the bedroom, and the sound of fearful screaming intensified. Through the haze, she could barely make out the two figures advancing on her.
"That's her—that's the teyrn's daughter!" One of the men cried. "Get her!"
Vera lunged for the weapon rack and filled her hands with two hatchets. The men were approaching, blades glimmering in the lamplight. Her heart pounded as she poised her arms, ready to engage in a bloody dance. She had spent years of her life preparing for encounters such as this.
One of the soldiers stepped forward, grinning wickedly. "He did say you were a little spitfire. Pity we have to kill you."
The corner of her mouth lifted ever so slightly. "Oh, are those your orders? Such a shame you won't be able to report your failure."
"Shut up, bitch," the man spat, striking her across the face. Vera recoiled, tasting coppery blood. The man lifted his sword, but before he could land a blow, his grip loosened and the blade clattered to the ground. He clutched at his neck and began to gag. An arrow protruded from between his fingers, rivers of red interlacing down the skin of his throat. His companion could only stare in surprise as he fell, revealing a woman standing in the doorway. Her bow was drawn and trained on the second soldier, lips pulled back in a feral snarl.
Eleanor Cousland nodded. "Hello, dear." She loosed the arrow, striking the second man square between the eyes. He crumpled to the ground, dark blood pooling around his head.
Vera exhaled, her body quivering with shock. "Mother, what's...what's happening?"
Eleanor coaxed her arrow from the first man's throat and wiped it on his tunic—a tunic bearing the crest of Amaranthine. "We've been lied to, darling."
"You mean—ouch, damn it." She touched her lip and found it split open.
"They did hurt you," Eleanor murmured, reaching out to cup her daughter's cheek.
"It's nothing," Vera insisted, swatting her mother's hand away. "Really. Please, just tell me what's going on. Aside from your impeccable timing, of course."
Eleanor gestured to the dead soldiers. "Howe's men have seized the castle."
"What?" Vera's cheeks reddened with anger. "But—how—father said—" The words died in her mouth. She had known Howe her entire life, she had thought him a respectable man—never had she been given any reason not to trust the Arl of Amaranthine. And now, out of nowhere, he sought to end the Cousland line and take Highever for himself?
"Why would he do this to us?" she whispered, shaking her head in disbelief.
"I don't know, darling." Eleanor frowned, worry coloring her features. "But we can't stand around trying to figure it out. We have to get out of here."
"I...but..." Vera took a deep breath, trying to calm the slew of questions forming in her mind. "...Yes. You're right."
"First things first," her mother said, "I can't find your father anywhere. He was up late talking to the Grey Warden, and I fear the worst. We have to find him. Before Howe does."
Vera hefted her blades. "He can burn this castle to the ground if he wants, but he won't kill us. I'll find him, mother."
Eleanor looked affronted. "I'm not waiting around while you play the hero."
Vera smiled. "You never could stay out of a fight.
"I'm no Orlesian wallflower," her mother mused, drawing an arrow. "Are you ready?"
Vera nodded. "Let's give these bastards a taste of what it means to be a Cousland."
"That's my girl."
Vera gasped and stumbled into the main hall. Blood splattered her leathers, and she shuddered wondering how much of it was hers. Her eyes burned; smoke filled the air, and every breath she took was like swallowing fire. None of this felt real. Howe's betrayal, her home under siege—hadn't she just been peacefully sleeping hours before? And now she had killed dozens of men, leaving a river of blood running through the castle. She'd witnessed the deaths of her servants, many of whom were her friends. She'd seen the lifeless bodies of her sister-in-law, of her nephew...tears welled in her eyes as she thought of Oren's pale face, so innocent, so pure. How could anyone commit such an act?
How grateful she was to have her mother at her side. Eleanor fought with a stoic ferocity, one that was sorely needed now. They still hadn't found her father, and Vera began to wonder if she would ever see him again.
A shout sounded from the corridor. "My lady!"
It was a voice Vera knew all too well. A smile lit up her face as Ser Gilmore rounded the corner, naked sword in hand. His flaming red hair was matted with ash. The look on his face was one of pure relief, and Vera knew her expression couldn't have been much different.
"Thank the Maker," he breathed, gathering her into a bone-crushing hug. "I thought they had taken you. I thought...I didn't dare hope—"
Vera's mouth burned with everything she wanted to say, and everything she knew she couldn't. "Gilmore," she begged. "You have to come with us."
"I can't. You know I can't."
"Please." Even as the word left her mouth, she knew it was a lost cause.
"Vera...don't do this to me." He let her go. "You need to get to the larder. The Grey Warden is escorting your father there now. He's hurt—badly. I have to stay here and try to hold these men back. It's the only way you'll have a chance to escape."
Tears blurred her vision. "Gilmore, I—"
"I know." He kissed her forehead and bowed to Eleanor. "Go, both of you, and quickly."
"Thank you, Ser." Eleanor tugged at her daughter's arm. "Come on, dear."
The teyrna started for the door, and Vera shot once last pleading glance at her longtime companion.
"Promise me you'll live," Gilmore implored. It wasn't a question; his voice verged on desperation.
"Only if you do the same."
A watery smile crossed his face. He touched her cheek, gauntleted fingers lingering on the soot-streaked skin. "I promise."
The words crumbled on his lips, a promise broken before it could be fulfilled. Gilmore always stayed true to his word, but both of them knew that this was a vow he wouldn't be able to keep. But she would forgive him. She always forgave him. And as he ran back the way he came, she filled her eyes with the sight of him, taking his image into her mind and burying it deep in her heart. Once he rounded the corner, she knew she would never look upon him again.
The sadness would come now. The anger would come later. Howe would pay, and pay dearly, for what he had done.
Vera burst into the kitchen larder. Her whole body sung with the urge to scream, to cry, to pray that this was all a nightmare. She fell, her quivering legs useless beneath her. Eleanor helped her up, grimacing at her daughter's appearance. A Howe soldier had slashed Vera's forehead, sending hot trails of blood dripping down her nose, under her jaw, and beneath the neck of her cuirass. In addition to the wound, her face was filthy with sweat, tears, and ash—altogether, indiscernible.
Eleanor quickly closed the door and barred it. "Howe will know of this escape route. We don't have much time."
A weary voice sounded from the corner of the cellar. "El—Eleanor? Pup?"
Vera whipped her head around to find her father crouched on the floor. His hand clenched a wound in his side, and his tunic was soaked red. Above him stood the Grey Warden Vera had met earlier that day, armed, poised, and ready to defend.
"Bryce!" Eleanor exclaimed, rushing to her husband's side. "Thank the Maker we found you."
"Eleanor—Vera," Bryce grunted. "I was wondering...when you would...get here."
"Father," Vera breathed. His skin was a ghostly pallor, and blood gathered at the corners of his mouth. "We have to get out of here."
"I can't...go with you. Not...like this." He hissed as more blood gushed from the wound.
"Nonsense," Eleanor snapped. "I won't leave you here. We'll go together. We'll find a healer—"
Bryce sighed. "Eleanor, dear...I can't even stand." He touched his wife's cheek with a shaking hand. "Go with Duncan. He will make sure you both get to safety."
Vera glanced at the Grey Warden, who nodded.
"I won't leave you," Eleanor contended. Her eyes met Vera's with sorrow and remorse. "Darling, you must go with Duncan. I will stay here with your father."
"But you'll die!" Vera argued, shaking her head stubbornly. She knelt beside her parents, refusing to believe that any of this was happening.
"Everyone dies, pup," Bryce remarked. "But you don't have to, not today."
"Your father and I have lived full lives," Eleanor added. "You haven't. Go with Duncan."
"And...become a Grey Warden?" Vera glanced up at the Warden-Commander. "But you said—"
"My lady," Duncan interrupted. "The darkspawn horde looms in the south. I came to your castle seeking a recruit. The threat demands that I leave with one."
Tears burned in Vera's eyes as she glanced from her parents to Duncan and back again. Two different paths. One lead to adventure and life; the other, certain death. She knew what choice she had to make, and her parents would want nothing less.
Vera looked at her father. "Are you sure?"
"Better there...than here."
"But what of Howe?" Vera wanted to know. "I won't see him live, not with Cousland blood on his hands."
Duncan touched her shoulder. "We will inform the king, and Howe will face justice. But for now, we must go, and quickly."
Vera nodded, satisfied with his answer. She knelt and embraced her family one last time. "I love both of you."
"And we love you, pup," her father replied, smiling weakly. "Go now, for your sake and for Ferelden's."
A crash sounded at the door; Howe's men had found their location. It would be moments before they broke through and overwhelmed them.
"Go!" Eleanor shouted, readying an arrow. "The servant's passage! Now!"
The look on her face left no room for argument. A cry broke from Vera's lips as Duncan urged her into the underground tunnel, desperate to get out before Howe's men could see where they were going. The last thing Vera saw before descending into darkness was her mother's face, fierce and determined, the face of a woman who would never give up, not until her dying breath.
And neither will I, Vera decided, and set after Duncan.
Vera had never run so much in all her life. Her legs were fatigued and threatened to fail, but Duncan helped her along. They had barely escaped the castle grounds, but Vera was certain that Howe's men were still in pursuit. There would be no stopping tonight. Not for food, not for sleep, not for the Maker himself. They would collapse before they stopped running.
Duncan was shouting, but Vera was too incoherent to understand him. Suddenly, her foot struck something hard, and she fell to the ground in a heap. Duncan skidded to a halt, bending over to help her up, but Vera's body had begun to convulse.
She heaved. A black tar-like substance spewed from her mouth, tasting of ash and burning her throat. She was barely aware of the hand on her back, pulling her filthy hair away from her face. All she knew was pain. Her stomach heaved again, the foul matter dribbling down her chin. She wiped at it with the back of her hand. Duncan helped her stand, slowly, his large hands holding her steady.
"We've covered a lot of ground," the Warden-Commander observed, gesturing behind them. "We can take it easy for now."
Vera looked back, and immediately wished she hadn't. Castle Cousland was a smoking wreck in the distance. Orange flames licked at the exterior, blackening the once-white stone. Her parents were there, Oren was there, Gilmore was there, lying dead in the midst of the chaos, Howe's men trampling their lifeless bodies—
The sight was too much. Vera's head fell against Duncan's chest, and she slipped out of consciousness.