The new recruit was...quiet.
When Duncan left to scout Highever, Alistair had not expected him to enlist the teyrn's daughter. Not that he minded the idea of a female Grey Warden—in fact, it was a welcome change—but why her, and why now? The other Grey Wardens were men, and none of them had come from noble families, save for himself...sort of.
Duncan had returned to Ostagar just days ago, the woman his small and silent shadow. She and the Warden-Commander were in a venerable state; armor blackened and stained with blood, worn expressions, and fatigued bodies. Neither of them looked as if they'd had a real bath in weeks. Which, Alistair thought, they probably hadn't.
Their introduction had been brief. Duncan addressed her as Vera Cousland, a name unadorned with fancy honorifics. It was appropriate for a would-be Grey Warden—those who joined their ranks were forced to leave their former lives behind, titles and all. Still, the Cousland name was just as well known in Ferelden as the king's. Alistair hoped she wasn't expecting to live in the lap of luxury. Noble or not, all Grey Wardens were equal, and their lives were anything but extravagant.
Vera herself was short in stature, with dark brown hair that fell past her shoulders in soft curls. Her blue-grey eyes were bright, deep-set, and ripe with exhaustion. It was remarkable how much she resembled her brother, Fergus—the elder Cousland, a soldier whom Alistair had met just days before.
"It's good to meet you. I'm Alistair, the junior Warden." He reached out to shake her hand.
She accepted his gesture, her small hand completely enveloped in his. She had no words to offer, but her mouth curved into the tiniest of smiles.
Duncan put a hand on her shoulder. "I expect you and Vera will have plenty of time to get acquainted. For now, I need to see that she gets a hot meal, and a tent."
As they walked away, Alistair noticed twin hatchets crossed at the woman's back and wondered how someone so little could even lift an axe, let alone use one in combat.
Later that night, Alistair voiced his concerns to Duncan.
"Oh, she knows what she's doing," Duncan reassured him.
"How do you know?"
A grim expression settled over Duncan's face. "I witnessed her in action. We had to fight our way out of the castle."
Alistair was puzzled. "What—why?"
"Her family was betrayed by Arl Howe," Duncan explained, lips drawn in a tight line. "His men attacked in the dead of night. They killed her parents, her servants, her brother's wife and son...and they would've killed her, too, if I hadn't dragged her out."
Alistair shook his head in astonishment. "Duncan, the king needs to hear of this."
"I know. But now is not the time."
Alistair rubbed the bridge of his nose, still not quite believing his ears. "Arl Howe..." he murmured thoughtfully. "Who would've expected him to do something so...vile?"
"No one saw it coming, even I." Duncan smiled sadly. "But Vera will make a fine Warden. She even expressed interest in joining when I first arrived, but her father wouldn't hear it."
"I can imagine."
Their conversation fed Alistair's growing interest in the new recruit. He soon found himself wanting to see the younger Cousland in battle, wondering if she was indeed the seasoned warrior Duncan claimed her to be.
Unfortunately, his curiosity remained unsated, for Vera rarely left her tent. She would emerge in the morning, fulfill her meager duties, and retire to her dwelling once more. She never dined with the other soldiers, and Alistair was convinced that if he hadn't prompted the elven servants to bring her food, she would not have eaten at all.
After several days of this, Alistair approached Duncan once more.
"It's a rather strange way to grieve, don't you think?"
Duncan sighed. "Alistair, have you ever lost someone important to you?"
The junior Warden thought for a moment. He had never known his mother or father, but that wasn't the same as death. And though his friends were few, he had yet to endure the loss of a brother-in-arms. "No, I suppose not."
"Vera has lost both of her parents, and must now face telling her brother that his wife and son are dead," said Duncan. "So, as one who never grieved, why do you find her sadness so strange?"
"I...don't know," Alistair admitted.
"You should try talking to her," Duncan suggested. "It would be nice for her to have a friend. She's probably mourning the loss of many."
Great. If there was one thing Alistair was renowned for, it was his ability to unwittingly offend nearly everyone he spoke to. The words would trip and fall off his tongue, landing in a catastrophic heap. No, he would keep his distance—at least for now.
"It wasn't a request," said Duncan, eying Alistair's reproachful expression. "After all, you'll be shedding blood together."
Though he was wary of her (and still avoided speaking with her, despite Duncan's constant probing), Alistair felt badly for the new recruit. Often he would pass by her tent during one of his nightly patrols, and from within he swore he could hear the sound of muffled crying. Part of him wanted to try and talk to her, but he knew that if he did, she would offer him the same stoic silence that she offered every other person in this camp. Duncan excluded, of course, but even he only received the occasional "hello" in passing.
So, Alistair decided to leave her alone and focus his attention on the other two recruits. Both were young men: Jory, a knight from Redcliffe, and Daveth, a rogue from Denerim. They were capable soldiers, but Alistair saw much room for improvement. Daveth was lazy with his movements, and Jory was hesitant. For days Alistair worked with them in the training yard, trying to emulate what the other Wardens had once taught him.
It was after one of these sessions that Alistair felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning around, he was startled to see Vera standing behind him.
"Er—yes?" he asked, trying not to look too surprised.
She shifted uncomfortably. "Have you heard anything of my brother?"
Of course she would be wanting to see her brother; her parents were dead, and she was still hanging onto the hope that her only sibling was still alive. Unfortunately for her (and, consequently, himself), Fergus had left to scout the Korcari Wilds before Vera had arrived. His patrol group had not yet returned, and most assumed them to be dead. The Wilds were teeming with darkspawn, after all. And Alistair, not wanting to be the bearer of bad news, had to think of a mindful response.
He met her eyes guardedly. "His scouting party is due to return soon." The claim wasn't entirely a lie, but he couldn't help feeling guilty once the words left his lips. She'd probably been hearing the same thing from Duncan daily.
"Oh. Okay." She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, revealing a thin scar that stretched from temple to jaw. Briefly Alistair wondered where it came from. Then, without breathing a word of goodbye, she turned and vanished into the crowd.
"Is that the other recruit?" Daveth inquired, his eyes resting on Vera's retreating hindquarters.
Alistair glared at the rogue. "Yes, and from what I'm told, she single-handedly took out an entire host of Arl Howe's men."
It was a slight exaggeration, but at least Daveth was looking at him again. Alistair was afraid that this would happen. The army was full of men like this; vulgar, catcalling men that would not see Vera as a warrior to respect, but as a woman to ridicule. If Daveth was to become Grey Warden, Alistair would have to set him straight. As for the other soldiers—well, Vera sounded like a woman that could take care of herself.
And while that may have been true, Alistair still made a point of checking up on her more often. He said hello every morning and asked if she would like to join him and the others in the training yard. She declined each time, somewhat to his relief, but always offered a smile. Alistair doubted that even Duncan could have done much better, and progress was progress, however slight.
He thought that he was doing rather well, considering his history with communication, but that notion was quickly shattered when Duncan pointed out that he hadn't actually tried having a conversation with her.
"Even if I do, she'll just brush me off," Alistair argued.
"Give it a chance. She's getting better. Or have you not been paying attention, as you should be?"
Alistair huffed and left the Warden-Commander alone at his post. The camp was silent, other than the crackling of campfires and random bouts of laughter coming from the mess tent. As he walked, he pondered Duncan's words. The man was right, and Alistair knew it. Duncan wasn't pushing him to chat with her simply for the sake of it. He wanted them to start building a friendship, something all Wardens had to share if they hoped to work together in camaraderie.
Alistair paused outside Daveth and Jory's shared tent and poked his head inside. "Everything alright in here?"
Jory was fast asleep, snoring loudly on his cot. Daveth looked up from the blade he was whetting and nodded.
"Good," said Alistair. "When Jory wakes, tell him he's on latrine duty tomorrow, Duncan's orders."
Daveth grinned. "Oh, sure. He'll be thrilled."
Suppressing a laugh, Alistair took his leave and continued his rounds, checking up on the other Wardens and stopping to chat with several. With the darkspawn horde suppressed for now, everyone was in higher spirits than usual. With any luck, their army could stop the Blight before it even began.
Alistair soon found himself outside of Vera's tent. He sighed heavily and almost entered without warning, but stopped short.
You idiot, he mentally corrected himself. She's a lady.
He rapped sharply on one of the metal poles holding her tent up. At first, he heard nothing, but then a soft voice sounded from the thin opening.
Alistair pushed the tent flap aside. Vera sat sideways on her cot. She wore an overlarge tunic that fell to her knees, doubtlessly meant for a man. She didn't look at him, but invited him inside with a wave of her hand.
"I just wanted to check in," Alistair began awkwardly, still standing in the doorway. Sitting beside her would make him feel invasive, and he fancied himself a gentleman. "Er—how are you?"
She stared at her feet. "Are you here on Duncan's bidding?"
"No," said Alistair, too quickly. "I—uh—"
"It's alright," she said, her cheeks lifting in a smile. "I know I haven't been the...friendliest, of people, lately."
Alistair watched her carefully. A tallow candle burned on the small wooden crate that served as a bedside table, washing her skin with yellow light. Shadows dripped down her cheekbones, accentuating the dusting of freckles across her nose.
"It's not without reason," he said lamely.
"I suppose." She shifted her position, looking up at him for the first time. Her eyes were puffy and red-rimmed.
"Look..." Alistair ran a hand through his hair. He was unsure of what to say, so he decided to leave her with the same words Duncan had once spoken to him. "I'm not going to ask you to stop grieving; I can't even pretend to understand what you're feeling. But...if you're to be a Grey Warden, Vera, you have to be all here," he tapped his temple, "And all here." He placed a fist over his heart. Somehow the words sounded less eloquent coming from his mouth. "Just think on it."
She pressed her lips together, allowing the words to sink in. Her eyes were focused on something in her hands. She turned over the object in her fingers, and Alistair observed it to be an engraved silver necklace.
He decided that it was time to take his leave. "Well...good night," he fumbled. "You're welcome to join us in the training yard tomorrow, if you see fit."
Just as he lifted the flap of her tent, Vera stopped him. "Wait." He turned to look at her. "What you said about my brother—was that the truth?"
Alistair hesitated, not wanting to upset her further. "That's what I was told. I don't know anything beyond that."
She seemed satisfied with his answer. "Alright. Thank you, Alistair. It was Alistair, right?"
"That's me," he replied, smiling. "Try and get some sleep."
"I know you're the one who told the servants to bring me food," she continued, though his foot was already out the door.
"What—how?" He thought he told the elves to keep quiet.
She smiled and snuffed the candle. "Oh, It was just a guess."