Disclaimer:The Dragon Age universe is the property of Bioware. Also, I do initially cover the beginning of the game to build the start of the story, but new readers it does not remain canon. I've noticed people tend to stray after the first few chapters and I apologize if they were boring for the loyal players of the game, but I have absolutely no intention of simply recounting canon. It will significantly deviate, I just took a few chapters to get rolling towards my own material, because I've never written fanfiction before. It was also important to establish a few things for my later chapters. Thank you.
"The time is out of joint. O cursed spite.
That ever I was born to set it right!"
Charlotte stood at her window, absorbing the mid-morning sunlight. Her breath was short, heart beating much too quickly as she tried with equal determination to absorb the unthinkable news which had just reached her.
She was betrothed.
Betrothed…. The paper crumpled in her hand, head bending forward as large eyes shut in pain and silent recrimination. It was an unusually temperate day, with rays of light the color of melted butter streaming through trees lush and green with the fresh life of a new season. Grass blew gently in the breeze and horses whinnied from the stables, the nutty scent of freshly lain straw and the horse's feed carrying into her window. Further in the distance, she could hear the distinctive clinks and chimes of weaponry as her father's men prepared for the journey to Ostagar. If she had it her way, Charlotte would be out beside them, tossing a dagger with expert marksmanship into the heart of a darkspawn made of cloth and straw. But she was here, enduring the worse punishment of her life.
An unwanted marriage.
Charlotte woke up with a gasp, her heart racing unimaginably fast. Realizing where she was, she groaned. She groped around on her bed roll, grasping at the edges of her consciousness, assaulted by the chafe of her thin blanket and the unsettling darkness of her tent. Her dreams were so vivid now; even her worst nightmares seemed real. Shaking, Charlotte wiped away the sweat from her face and struggled to sit up. Mastodon whined in protest as she dislodged him from her side to gain her equilibrium. Once up, Charlotte took a deeper breath, bending over her knees and willing her heart to slow. It was all there, right behind her eyes; the screams, the flashing light, the unforgiving darkness. She could smell the smoke from raging fires; hear Ser Gilmore's shouted orders as he struggled to block the main hall's doors. It was never-ending, a nightmare always plaguing the edges of her mind, only taking control when she could no longer fight it in her sleep. Breathing deeply once more, Charlotte pushed the sounds and images of her worst nightmare away.
Her past would not help her save the world from losing its tomorrow.
Bryce Cousland had not slept for several days.
He sighed, half-heartedly pushing away a map detailing the three-day journey to Ostagar as he cradled his aching head. This battle had become the center of his existence since the letter from King Cailan arrived, demanding Teyrn Cousland's presence on the field. His men were now almost ready, the travel plans mostly laid out, and his own affairs put to rest should the worst befall him. A fire crackled and burned in the hearth near his desk and Bryce gazed into it with dispassionate interest, too weary to consider further any matters at hand. As far as he was concerned, even if the worst should not happen, his life had been forfeit before Cailan effectively "recruited" him into service. He was not in charge of his life, a man dedicated to a particular service by birth, as unable to deny his king as he was to change the stars.
The study door burst open, exploding Bryce's silent reverie as a small figure stomped into the room, her delicate shoulders hunched for battle. Scrambling after her came a flushed and breathless Grieves, Bryce's guard. The center of the ruckus came to a resolute stop before him as Grieves panted in her wake, gasping some unintelligible lament to his master. Bryce raised a hand of dismissal, his expression displeased but understanding, as he faced the young woman in front of him. With narrowed eyes, he waited for Grieves' winded departure before speaking.
"Daughter," he greeted formally, not bothering to conceal the warning in his tone.
"Father," she sneered, and Bryce was momentarily taken aback.
"Charlotte, what is the matter?" Bryce rose from his desk, concerned to see his youngest child's pale complexion.
"This." She slammed a wrinkled parchment onto the surface of his oversized desk, eyes gleaming in the dim firelight. Regarding her with incomprehension, Bryce grasped the paper between his large fingers and scanned the text, before his own complexion drained and his eyes filled with horror.
Collecting himself, Bryce looked again into his daughter's face, partly apologetic, but most of all calmly grave. "I was going to announce it at the banquet. This was not how you were to learn of this news."
Charlotte was almost spitting with rage. After struggling internally for a few moments, she seemed to compose herself. Finally, she met his eyes. "Well," she murmured darkly, "I know."
The silence between them began to stretch. Bryce was determined to remain calm. He had already anticipated this would be her reaction; it was only normal, considering her predilections and reserve with men. And considering who told her… he was surprised she had not arrived with her daggers in hand. Bryce had not wanted her to marry this way, but her encroaching status as an old maid was not something he could leave her to bear in the uncertainty of war. "Charlotte, you must understand why I had to do this." Bryce raised his hand as an order of silence when Charlotte opened her mouth to complain.
Bryce circled his desk to be closer to her, coming to rest his arm on the mantelpiece of the fireplace. The fire lit into the planes of her lovely face, now strained from feelings of betrayal and anger. "Should I die and Fergus with me, you will be left alone, with legal claim to a coveted Teyrner without guardianship or protection of any kind. I cannot allow that to happen."
Charlotte scowled, "So you would have me marry Arl Bryland's son and sacrifice my life to his?! Why not have Arl Bryland be my guardian? Why not entrust me to mother?"
His tone was firm, "Your mother cannot protect you. Women may be able to own property in Ferelden, but in the chaos of war and a possible Blight, you will not be safe on your own. And Arl Bryland will be in Ostagar – he is no more fit to guard you than I am."
If possible, Charlotte paled even further. "On my own? You trained me! Am I not the most capable warrior you know? I could put the young Bryland on his backside!" Imploring him, she moved closer: "Do not resign me to this, father."
Growling as guilt pierced his heart, Bryce stepped away from the mantel. "You assume much and know little!" He shook his head, trying to dispatch the unease she had stirred in him. He came to a stop with his back turned and took another tack: "I expected more from you."
Hurt but undeterred, Charlotte persisted. "You know I belong in Ostagar with you! I know nothing of being a wife – I'll fail miserably as a noblewoman." Pleading, she stretched out both hands, "I am not meant for this, Father."
"Is that what you fear?" He murmured, turning back to approach her. "That will you will fail me?"
Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Charlotte shook her head and whispered, "Yes. And no… I fear a life without love, Father." Determinedly, she looked him square in the eye, "A life even you would not consent to live."
Bryce winced; she referred, of course, to his marriage with Eleanor. She had been, like Charlotte, a prime choice for a marriage, but not his mother's preference. Bryce had truly loved her and refused to accept anyone else, eventually getting what he wanted. But Charlotte was not faced with the same luxury, and he had to think of what was best for her.
"I am sorry, Charlotte," he apologized tiredly. "But my decision is made. You will come to see its benefit, in time."
Charlotted blanched, "No, father, please– "
"It is done." He dismissed her, his face closed, posture tall with righteousness.
His words cut her, bereft and floating in a remorseless new world; her eyes glittered with tears. After a moment's pause, she drew herself up and nodded curtly before sweeping quickly from the room.
Bryce huffed out a breath of relief. Although it pained him as a father to see his daughter feel betrayed, his duties as a man and Teyrn had never been easy. As long as he took care of her and ensured her future, how she felt in this moment would not matter.
He just hoped he would be able to participate in a future where he could make it up to her.
The roadway was craggy with sharp rocks jutting from its dusty surface. Charlotte's feet ached from too much travel, and her head pounded from lack of sleep. She was almost there. Almost. Soon, the nightmares would stop and she could be at peace again. Everything had been too confusing, too overwhelming to bear. The others wouldn't miss her. They could get along fine on their own. She stumbled and cut her hand as she threw it out to protect herself, cursing and watching the blood well from the large gash. Well, no matter. Soon she would feel nothing. No pain, no creeping sickness in her heart. No exhaustion or fear.
Soon, she would find the stars.
Charlotte slammed into her chamber and leaned into the heavy wooden door behind her, finally allowing the tears to well over. Mastodon, having escaped a housekeeper's notice, lifted his massive head in askance of his distressed mistress. When she remained at the door, breathless and crying, Mastodon whined softly and went to her, bumping her hand with his nose.
"I know," she murmured, stroking him. "Thank you." He yipped and wagged his tail as somberly as he could manage, giving her small kiss.
Smiling a little, Charlotte went to perch on the bed and stroke his ears, attempting to divert herself from the fissure that had opened in her heart. She sniffed, rubbed her nose, and studied the room. Fleetingly, she felt comforted. Her bedchamber's walls felt like the familiar embrace of a trusted friend. She breathed deeply, willing herself into composure for even that barest of audience.
Truthfully, she wanted to wail, throw herself across the bed – she wanted to lose all control, flailing her limbs and screaming with dismay. But that would only draw unwanted attention and anger her mother and father – not to mention grossly embarrass their noble houseguests, here for the banquet celebrating the men's departure for Ostagar. And if she did wail, who would provide her comfort? She was being given away into a prestigious marriage – probably not as prestigious as she could have acquired, had she been less picky and less quick to dismiss previous offers. But it was not love that brought them together and so her heart ached.
Mastodon yawned loudly, snapping her out of her reverie, his large maw issuing a warbling growl before he licked his chops and resumed guard by the door. No doubt he was awaiting the brisk footsteps of her mother, which could only mean his untimely eviction back into the kennels. Charlotte spared a moment's thought to why she even bothered that fight anymore; Mastodon had been staying with her in the castle since he was a puppy. Perhaps her mother was as bored as she.
Tonight, however, mother would be in her element, issuing commands to the wait staff while effortlessly entertaining her guests. She would command those around her no less effectively than Teyrn Loghain would command his armies in five days' time. Charlotte, on the other hand, would be stuffed into another unnecessary gown, made with silk from Orlais and causing her to feel even more decorous than the roasted birds on the table. They would announce the engagement and she would have to endure an even worse humiliation on top of the usual torture. Furiously she stood and began pacing; how is it that her brother Fergus was allowed to marry for love but not she?! Why was she expected to be whatever they demanded, instead of just herself?
Charlotte slowed as she faced the truth: she had never been what her parents wanted. They praised her swordsmanship and took pride in her skills with a bow at the beginning, but they became impediments when she flew in the face of duty. While her mother had been selecting hand-made gowns for balls and Landsmeets, Charlotte had been racing local stable boys down the street, sparring with her father's knights and losing herself in the crowded squares of Amaranthine. She picked locks and fought with thieves and mercenaries, stumbling into Landsmeets with torn skirts and a dirty face. Eleanor had always been livid; Bryce had been frustrated but secretly proud. It was after that last trip that he promised her never to hand her away in a loveless marriage, relenting in the face of her defiance and finally agreeing to let her live her life on her terms. Now that promise was broken.
Outside, a horse whinnied loudly, calling her to the window. One of father's squires was attempting to drag it away from the stables; it was Beowulf, their largest steed, who would only tolerate Charlotte or her father. He chuffed displeasure and rocked his proud head, resisting the squire's cajoling and tugging of his harness. Charlotte watched his coat glisten in the sun, the way his muscles contracted in enormous shoulders and round, high shanks that were being irritably flicked with a thick black tail. His hooves made deep, hollow sounds in the earth when he stomped and refused to budge.
Abruptly, the horse ceased his resistance and turned his head. His chuffs slowed as he focused his enormous brown eyes on her face; Charlotte's breathing slowed to almost nothing, completely caught in his gaze. Horse and woman stood hypnotized. Though the distance was far and high, Charlotte could see Beowulf's soulful brown eyes. She could feel the wetness around their irises; see the way his pupils dilated as he stared. She could feel the strong beat of his large heart and the silky heat of his coat in the sun. Suspended between them was an understanding - a mutual desire for something that was always just outside their grasp but that they were nonetheless determined to fight for.
The squire grabbed the horse's head and the spell was broken; Charlotte gasped. As Beowulf was tugged away, Charlotte fell back into the room and looked around.
She had to leave. She could not be a caged animal left to whatever use they found for her. There would be a window… a moment of inattention following the banquet… she could take advantage of it, she could run.
Mastodon seemed to follow her line of thought; he had gone very still, sitting up tall and watching her. His stature was alert, but his eyes were calm as he studied her. He didn't necessarily agree, but when he grumbled a little in the back of his throat and lay down, Charlotte knew he could not think of another way.
Alright. Charlotte nodded to herself; she was decided. She ignored her pounding heart and the way her stomach churned with anxiety. Anything was better than this unwanted marriage. She would do it – tonight. She nodded again, sinking onto the bed, trying to give herself confidence. Her father was wrong - and she would not pay for his error in judgment.
Tonight, she would run.
Thank you for reading! There is much more to come and Charlotte develops over time. Please send reviews. This is my first experience with the FanFiction community and I am very excited :)