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And Now for Something Completely Different

Title: And Now for Something Completely Different
Rating: G
Summary: The new Arlessa was nothing like the one before her.
Note: I should be working on finishing up another story, but Varel has decided to speak up. Seeing that he is the Seneschal of Awesomeness ♥, I couldn't ignore him. This can be Chapter 4.5 in A Rush to the Start.

There will more than likely be more Varel + Moira moments written in the future. *grin*


During the two years before Warden-Commander Cousland took up her post as Arlessa of Amaranthine, Varel had made a habit of making rounds in the hallways before heading to bed. While he never held any illusions that he was lord of the Vigil, it did feel strange to have someone to report to after holding the arling up practically by himself for so long.

It was even stranger to have a woman to answer to. He could clearly remember the last Arlessa as a lady who kept to herself, content to allow Arl Howe run the lands as he saw fit. Varel could already tell that this Cousland was not going to be like her predecessor. Her first day on the job was interesting, to say the least, what with being greeted by a darkspawn attack, attending two Joining ceremonies, and clearing out the cellars. He could tell that she was exhausted after coming back from the last task, both physically and mentally, but she made a point to see him and inquire as to where her office was.

There was a bright line of light coming from under the door now, Varel noticed. He stopped in front of it, watching as a shadow broke the line every now and again. She paces, he thought, raising his hand to knock on the door. The Teyrn often did that. I wonder if she purposely imitates her father or if it's something she does without thinking. His thoughts were interrupted when the door opened. She looked even more tired than she had when he had seen her last, her hair in disarray as if she had run her fingers through it multiple times. She’d shed her armor and weapons and seeing her without them for the first time made her appear much smaller, less formidable than she had previously looked. He was vaguely surprised that she had decided against a dress, choosing to wear a dark blue tunic and light brown breeches instead. Her pants were tucked into her boots and Varel could see that she was not unarmed; the faintest bulge close to the side of her right calf told of a hidden dagger and in his experience, if someone had one blade on their person, they normally carried others that were even better concealed.

“Oh,” she said, opening the door wider. “Seneschal Varel. Good evening.”

“Good evening, Commander,” he answered. “I was heading to my quarters; I didn’t expect anyone to be awake at this hour.”

She ducked her head and he had the briefest glimpse of Moira Cousland, not the Commander of the Grey, but of the young lady who had yet to see thirty summers pass. If memory served him correctly, she was but twenty-six years of age. Too young to be wearing her cares on her face as she does, he thought. And far too young to have had so much responsibility thrust upon her. “I find that I can’t sleep properly after encountering darkspawn,” she explained. “Please, come inside.”

The Commander’s temporary office was actually Arelssa Regina’s former sitting room. The delicate writing desk the former Arlessa used to pen her letters at was littered with crumpled wads of paper and pen nib shavings. “I know it’s late, so I won’t keep you very long,” she said, gesturing towards the two high backed chairs flanking the fireplace.

“I am at your service, Commander,” he replied, waiting to see which chair she would take. His eyebrow slightly rose when she sat in the one that had its back pointed towards the stone wall instead of the one that would have put her back to the large bank of windows. He also saw how she had angled the chair so that she kept the door in plain sight as well. “What do you need?”

She took a deep breath and perched her elbows on her knees. “What do you know about Nathaniel?”

Ah. I was wondering how long it would be before she broached that topic. Varel remembered his days as Captain of the Guard and how Nathaniel and Moira would make eyes at the other. Rumor amongst the servants was that they were doing much more than sharing longing glances, but he wasn’t a man to listen to idle gossip. He did remember escorting Moira to Amaranthine’s docks when the young Howe was set to depart to the Free Marches and he recalled the way that the two of them embraced before Nathaniel’s ship departed. “I know that he has been trained since practically birth to take over the arling,” he ventured. “He excelled in archery as well as close quarter combat with daggers. If memory serves correctly, he is also adept at stealth and dabbled a bit with poisons.” Considering the recent history between their families, Varel figured that his Commander wanted his opinion on how much of a potential threat Nathaniel might pose to her.

“Yes, I’m aware of all of that,” she told him, rising from her chair. She stopped in front of the fireplace and stared at the flames. “And I’m prepared to defend myself if I need to, but I think that if Nathaniel wanted to kill me, he had plenty of chances already.”

“But you’ve only been together for a few hours.”

“And I already counted about fifty ways that I could have done the deed, had I been in his shoes. He has his shadow skills and some assassin training on his side; I’m certain he was as aware of his opportunities as I was.” She sighed and turned back to him. “I was hoping that you could shed some light, or at least confirm some of my thoughts on what sort of man he is. I would appreciate your honest opinion.”

“He was a kind young man, I do remember that. He treated his younger siblings with care and held his parents in the highest respect. He was courteous to those lower in station than he; surely these character traits couldn’t have vanished in the time that he has been away.” She nodded and he continued. “I haven’t had much time, but I’ve watched him and how he interacts with your fellow Wardens. He makes certain to put them at arm’s length, but he is not cruel.”

“No, he saves all his cruelty for me.” Varel was certain that Moira hadn’t meant for him to hear that, but then she sat back down and faced him. “He despises me for killing his father, for taking over his home.” She said it quietly, her shoulders slumped. She looked vulnerable right then that Varel had to push aside the sudden urge to comfort her.

“Rendon Howe was a vile man. You were in the right for taking his life.”

She looked up at him, her eyes gone hard and all traces of weakness gone in an instant. “I know that. I make no excuses for my actions, especially when that lying, traitorous excuse of a man butchered my family and then proceeded to drag my father’s name through the mud.” She clenched her hands into fists in her lap before taking a shaky breath. “I just never expected to see Nathaniel again. After everything today, his anger feels like a knife I hadn’t anticipated.”

“It seems as if you’ve decided that he is not a threat.”

She gave a brief, humorless laugh. “Thinking that someone as talented as he isn’t a threat is like thinking that an injured bear is something one should snuggle up to. I’m not so blinded by the past that I can’t see what a deadly weapon he’s become in his time away, I just wish that I knew if the blade was pointed away from me or in my direction. I think Nathaniel knows that he’s safer around here with me alive; he’s content to inflict damage with his words alone.” She crossed her arms over her chest, her hands hugging herself. “Do you think that he’s still a good man?”

Varel weighed his words. He had only known his new Commander for a day, but he had already seen several conflicting views of her. She put out the image of being strong as steel in front of others, but here in the privacy of her study, she looked to be as fragile as glass. Since the first moment he had met her, she had an air of confidence, of surety about her that was suddenly absent now. “He was a good man when I knew him. As I said before, surely that couldn’t have changed in his absence.”

She nodded, her shoulders visibly relaxing. “Thank you. It’s a relief to know that someone else thinks that as well.” Getting up once more, she made her way to her desk. “I have something that I wish to entrust to you.” She came back with a sealed envelope.

“What is it?”

“My position as Arlessa as well as a Grey Warden puts me in an odd situation. Constant fighting during the Blight has made me more aware of my own mortality than I have ever been, and since the Orlesian Wardens entrusted you with our most private of secrets,” she gave him a look and it took everything in him to not duck his head. How she looks like her mother, he thought, thinking back to the one time that he had seen the Teyrna get after her own children while they were guests in the Keep. “You must know that should we survive darkspawn attacks, our lifespan is greatly abbreviated.”

“I was made aware of this, yes.”

“My father taught me that in order to run a teyrnir, or an arling in this case, that one has to plan for the future. If I happen to fall in battle, that letter you hold names the person I have entrusted the arling to.”

“And who would that be?”

She worried her bottom lip between her teeth. “That would be Nathaniel Howe.”

He tensed and sat up straighter in his chair. “But Commander!”

She held up a hand. “You said it yourself: he is a good man that has been trained since practically birth to take over the arling. Who else here would be better suited for the job?”

“And the manner that he came back doesn’t concern you?”

She shook her head. “Nathaniel said that he wanted to collect what few family keepsakes he could gather and then leave peacefully.”

Varel harrumphed. “His definition of peaceful meant that one of my guards suffered a broken nose and another had his eye blackened.” Even if he had been seneschal for several years now, he still considered the soldiers of the Keep to be his soldiers. Old habits die hard, don’t they?

“And they got in their fair share of punches; I don’t expect that the bruises on his ribs and shoulders appeared by themselves.” The firelight might have given the illusion, but Varel was certain that Moira’s cheeks reddened. “I saw the damage when he was changing into his armor,” she added, though as his superior, Varel knew that she didn’t need to explain her actions.

“If this is your decision, then I will stand by it,” he said slowly. “You are correct; he is the most suited for this position.”

She twisted her fingers in her lap. “You don’t think that I stole his lands from him, do you?”

“No, Commander, I do not. King Alistair gave them to you to rule, as is his right to do with the spoils of war. Legally, they were yours to begin with anyway; you demanded blood rights and won a duel with Arl Howe. By rule, the victor gains their opponent’s holdings.” He tilted his head. “Do you believe that you have stolen these lands from him?”

“I…I don’t know any more.” She stared at the fire. “There was once a time when nothing would have made me happier than to become the Arlessa of Amaranthine. I just never dreamt that it would happen this way.”

He knew it was a breach of protocol, but he couldn’t help it. She looked so lost just then that it seemed natural to lean over and touch her shoulder. “You have allies here, Commander,” he told her. “You saved my life on that rooftop today; I am grateful to you in ways that can never be repaid. Please, don’t think that you’re alone here. If you need to borrow a friendly ear from time to time, you know where to find me.”

She looked up at him and gave him a grateful smile. “Thank you, I appreciate it.” She stretched. “I think I’m going to investigate the kitchens and see if I can find a mug of tea. There is much to be done tomorrow; I need to try to get some rest.”

“I can wake the kitchen staff, if you like.” That was something else he was going to have to deal with in the morning; the darkspawn attack had killed many of the Keep’s servants; he’d have to compile a list to present to Moira to see how she would want to go about filling empty positions. She spoke of her father teaching her how to run a teyrnir efficiently; from what contact he had with Bryce Cousland over the years, he could easily believe that his daughter would be familiar with how to run a castle. Vigil’s Keep wasn’t as expansive as Castle Cousland, so he didn’t see her having much difficulty.

“No, that isn’t necessary. There isn’t a need to wake anyone; I can manage boiling water on my own.” She stood and he mirrored her.

“Good night, Commander.”

“Moira.”

“Pardon?”

She looked up at him. Standing next to her, he realized that where he first thought of her as being diminished out of her armor was completely incorrect. She was tall in stature and he could see that she held herself with the usual grace that was expected from nobility, but underneath that was a lithe sort of strength, almost as if she were a spring ready to snap into action at a moment’s notice. “I’m going to come to depend on you a lot,” she told him. “I can already see that you are the reason that Amaranthine has run as smoothly as it has for the past two years; if we’re going to be working in such close quarters, I think we can move past titles.”

He had to smirk at that. “I’m sorry; it’s just that you reminded me of something someone told me once.”

“Oh?”

“If you don’t mind me saying, your father said the exact same thing to me when I took my office.”

She took a breath, her hand going to a chain around her neck. The pendant was hidden inside her shirt, but he could make out a ring that looked like a wedding band threaded through the chain. “That does sound like something my father would say.” He thought that he might have upset her, but then her eyes softened and her lips curled upwards into a fond smile. “Did you have many dealings with him?”

“Very few. He mostly dealt directly with the Arl, but he made certain to speak to me when he visited the Vigil. I had the honor of being his guest at Highever during a tournament once when I had still been a Captain.” Now that he thought about it, he recalled seeing a slip of a girl who was never introduced to him, probably because her father never knew that she was hiding in the shadows of the barracks, listening in on their conversation. She had been young, the clothes she had worn obviously belonged to someone else; the tunic had been baggy on her slim frame and the pants had been rolled up over her legs.

“I remember that.”

He chuckled. “Your own Captain had promised to show me a veritable terror in the training circle, but I never got to witness it.”

Moira’s fingers brushed against another ring on her necklace. “Mother forbade me to fight that day. I was stuck on the sidelines in a dress watching as Fergus and Nathaniel got to participate.”

“And yet it seems as if I was able to see you fight after all.” His lips quirked up. “Ian had been right; you are a terror on the battlefield.”

She grinned and for the first time that day, his Commander looked at ease. “I do believe that I’m going to enjoy working with you, Varel.”

“And I with you, Moira.” Calling her by her given name will not do in public, but perhaps here it will do. “Good night.” He walked with her until the hall forked, one way going towards the main part of the Keep where the kitchens were and the other going towards the servant’s quarters, where his own bedchamber lay. “If you still have trouble sleeping, I’d suggest a walk on the battlements. The view of the ocean from there is quite lovely.”

“Thank you, I think I’ll visit them.” He had been watching her as she walked away, but he still started when it seemed as if she disappeared into the darkness of the hall, her boots soundless on the stone. Hiding a yawn behind his hand, he stared at the letter in his other, the wax sealing the envelope devoid of any imprinted crest. It seemed heavier than the paper had a right to be and he wondered about its author; how could someone insist that her supposed enemy take her place should she fall in battle? She hadn’t instructed him to, but he decided to keep the letter a secret from Nathaniel, should he turn out to be poor in character and decide to take the Commander’s life as a way to regain the title and lands that had been lost.

“Different indeed,” he mused, shaking his head and walking to his rooms.

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