Fergus came up to the study to bring up his sister lunch. He had noticed she had taken to sitting there often, gazing out the window as she attempted reading. He knew the pain of being without one’s spouse: he never would have left for Ostagar had he known Howe would kill off his family. His wife and son were among the murder victims, and he had come very close to killing himself when he received the news that they were dead, along with his parents. He had suspected Elissa to be dead as well, despite the tales of the noble from the Coastlands rallying an army to defeat the Blight. Life without his beloved Oriana, his curious Oren…there were times he felt like throwing himself off a cliff. But when he had found his sister, barely clinging to life in the arms of the king after the Battle of Denerim, he found something to live for. He had welcomed Alistair warmly, walked Elissa down the aisle at her wedding, and had accepted the terynir to restore Highever and to have something to care for, something to keep him going.
He heard his sister allow him entrance, responding to his rapping knuckles on the wooden door.
“You hungry?” He brought in a bowl of lamb and pea stew. When she saw the dish, she was again reminded of Alistair. He had made it all the time when they had been on the road, much to the disgust of an Orlesian-raised Leliana, whose palette was more delicate than Fereldan food allowed. Elissa felt sick.
“No, not really.” Fergus knew the look on her face all too well, and he realized her pride was getting in her way.
“You need to feed that little babe of yours. Don’t let your mood spoil your appetite. Eat, Elissa.” She shot him a glance and snorted. She hated it when he told her what to do. She accepted the bowl anyways. It was warm in her stomach, and the texture of the meat was enough to satiate any wild beast. She hummed her appreciation for the food. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was. Fergus smiled as he looked through the book she’d been reading. He knew her better than anyone, and he knew she couldn’t turn down a good meal. He saw the gratitude in her eyes, even though she didn’t verbalize it. Her pride be damned, he thought. He kissed her on the crown of her head and set the book down.
“Good day, Your Highness,” he added, wryly. Before he left, he turned to look at her. “Try to get some fresh air before you brood a hole in the floor…” She rolled her eyes.
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Her voice held more sarcasm than appreciation, though wasn’t half a bad idea to get some exercise. She loved exploring the apple orchards and she hadn’t visited her stallion since Alistair left.
She walked down through the great hall, and out the door. The air smelled of fragrant blossoms. It was the first spring she had seen in Highever since the Blight had begun, and it brought back many happy memories of her and her father and brother, playing war in the small orchard, climbing the trees to get the sweetest apples at the top, and chasing her brother with the rotting fruit out into the vineyards. When she had grown older, Dairren, the son of Bann Loren, had courted her among the apple blossoms, trying to catch her hand in his or trying to plant a kiss on her blushing cheek after sparring with her, and losing more often than not. He had written poetry about her, praising her exquisite beauty, her fierce demeanor, and her quick wit. One night, he had thrown pebbles at her window, singing love ballads, and coaxed her to join him in the orchard, where she enjoyed her first kiss. All the while, she had giggled and pleaded him to not dote on her so, lest he, a lesser noble’s son, waste his heart on her, daughter of a teyrn. As far as she knew, he died with the rest of the Cousland inhabitants the night of the siege. He had suggested that they should consummate what love he thought they shared, but she had refused him. She might have saved him, for Howe’s men had come for her soon after her father. But, then again, she may have condemned him.
Highever was not the same. Though the initial eerie feeling she had experienced upon her return had worn off, it was still cold. Spring had yet to brush away the frosts of a dark, lonely winter. Elissa stepped over the thick roots of the trees, gnarled in the dark soil. When she looked up, the flowers were few, for it was early in the season, but their fragrance drifted through the grove, enticing her through. She laid her hand on one of the tree trunks, as if to offer a blessing. Grow strong, she thought to the tree.
Soon, she found her way to the stable, where a number of beasts were waiting to greet her. Aiodh was stamping, impatient to see his friend. She brought down his temper with a sweep of her hand over his red mane, whispering soft lullabies in his ear. Perhaps a short ride. She got one of the stable boys to saddle him as she stroked his hide, and she saw to it herself that he was properly bridled. An odd quivering nagged at the back of her mind. Could it be? It passed, too quickly to know if it had been Alistair, and so she shook it off.
She mounted the strawberry-roan stallion, and cantered him down the path to the entrance of the estate, taking deep breaths of the pine forest around her and appreciating the feel of the southern wind on her face from the great hills. Her contentment did not last long. Her spine shivered again, and she could swear something was out there. Her brows pulled forward as her eyes searched, and her hackles rose. She reared up on her horse and turned deftly. She rode back swiftly to the stables, demanded for Starfang and for three others to follow her. She knew that fearful dread: darkspawn were lurking in the shadows of the forest. The head stableman, a man named Lachlan, kept close to the queen. Everyone in the castle knew her condition, and though it was no use to tell her to stay back, it didn’t hurt to stick close to her side.
Elissa led them to a clearing. So it was darkspawn, headed for the Deep Roads in Amaranthine. Beastly-looking corpses were strewn everywhere, indicating a small band, weak and disoriented. She dismounted, taking her sword, and stepped closer. Their blood had not yet coagulated – these were fresh kills. Her eyes were frantically searching for the one who had dispatched them. She also saw a few men, seemingly familiar, but too soaked in blood to make out faces or any recognizable features. She closed her eyes and listened, to footfalls of her men around her, to the wind rushing through the trees. And then she heard the sounds of a sword against another sword. She opened her eyes and looked in the direction of the sound, intent. The sickly cold sensation was still there, along with something else, something warmer and sweeter. More dread coursed through her as an understanding began to form in her mind.
“Your Highness,” Lachlan called out. She approached him, eyes lingering in the direction of the noise. “Look.” He pointed to the ground, and her blood pulsed as she stifled a gasp. A silk flag, a crowned shield, yellow as a hornet, with great red cats as its guardians – the Theirin banner – was lying on the ground, tattered and smeared in blood, next to the mangled body of Alistair’s flag bearer.
“No.” She turned on her heels and ran towards the sounds of clanging metal, bolting, sprinting, as fast as her legs could carry; only gaining speed as the fabric ripped from the length of her strides. The noise grew louder and louder, but before she could find it, it stopped, and a howling hurlock cried out its death rattle. She followed where the creature’s shriek had come from. There were three more darkspawn corpses, and Alistair, crouched on the ground, holding a bleeding wound on his side. Elissa’s head raced in panic.
“Go get help!” she cried to Lachlan as she fell to aid her husband. She laid him on his back, batting away his hands which were preoccupied with poor attempts at applying pressure to his wound. She removed the surrounding armor, cut off the bottom of her skirts, and applied the cloth to the wound. Another hurlock appeared from the trees. Elissa positioned herself between the creature and her husband. It raised its sword above its head, and she took the opportunity to strike it with hers, right through the ribs. It stopped, and she spun, swinging Starfang over her head and she cut its throat, her ripped skirts fanning out as she came to a halt on one knee.
She returned to Alistair, astonished that she had killed the darkspawn so quickly. She tended to him, worried over him as the wound took its affect.
“Stay with me, my love. Alistair, look at me…” The blood loss was taking its toll on him, making him drowsy. She pressed a fist into the cloth.
“Elissa…you came…I had hoped you’d be here…sooner.” He grimaced, placing a hand over hers. “They…ambushed us…my men…” She brushed his hair back. It had grown longer since she had last seen him, long enough to brush his eyelids. Her hand rested on his unshaven cheek as her other pressed the cloth into the wound. He always seemed to neglect himself when she wasn’t there.
“Sweetheart, it’s all right. You hush now. Fergus is coming.” Just as she was done speaking, Fergus arrived with more men.
“Spread out. I want this place purged of any remaining darkspawn immediately.” His attention went to his brother-in-law. “Help me,” he directed Elissa. They carried the king back to Elissa’s horse. She set him up in the saddle and sat behind him, taking the reins. Carefully, she took him back to the castle. Fergus and Lachlan followed close behind.
When they reached the castle steps, Elissa stepped down and took Alistair’s arm over her shoulder to guide him inside. Lachlan took the horses away and Fergus followed his frantic sister. As she walked Alistair to the nearest table in the great hall, Elissa felt a pinch in her womb. Please, Maker, be kind to the child. She laid him out and put his hand over the cloth to hold tight.
“Don’t let go,” she ordered him as she put a guarding hand over her lower abdomen. He scoffed weakly.
“I missed you too.” He was at least not allowing the severity of the situation to affect him, despite the fact that it was the umpteenth time she had saved him. His pride did not seem to have been bruised by the fact anyways.
- – -
It had been a beautiful chance that they found Alistair when they did, and that Lachlan knew so much about fixing up injuries, when he returned. It seemed Alistair had destroyed the majority of the darkspawn pack, for they did not have many left to fight off. Elissa went back to the study after she had put Alistair in her room to sleep. She felt ashamed. She had thought about going out for a ride earlier. Why had she allowed her fears to stop her? The child was fine now: she could feel the babe’s vitality within her. Had she appeared only a little sooner, perhaps Alistair would not be so damaged. Or if perhaps she had gone on her previous instinct that something was out there, she could have acted faster. But, then again, she heard Alistair’s voice in her head, telling her not to dwell on her past actions and just be glad for what she had. It was a miracle that he was alive, she had to admit. That night was spent at his side and all through the next day into the evening as he recovered. Finally, her restless spirit took its grip, and she went back to the study, leaving a kiss on Alistair’s hand.
She remembered earlier from her book reading the papers that had fallen out of the binding. She went to the desk, and took them in her hand. The ink was slightly faded, and the script was very much like that of her old tutors, long and spindly, with many flourishes. Curiosity spurred her to look at what was written. What she read astounded her completely, to the point of shock. It was a letter.
To Alistair Theirin, Grey Warden,
It has been an honor training you, though I must say it was short lived. I am leaving you with a farewell here, for I believe I shall not live past Ostagar. Your half-brother puts too much faith in our order, with how small it is, the horde is great and powerful, and I am getting on in years, drawing nearer to the Calling. If you have found this letter, that means the Cousland girl has survived the Joining, you both have survived the battle, and you have taken her back to Highever, signifying the end of the Blight and the rebuilding of the Wardens. I leave you with little but information about your own dark past, for it intertwines with my own, and I do not think I will have the opportunity to tell you in person.
Alistair, it is with deep regret that I must inform you of my hidden agenda in insisting Cailan send you to the Tower of Ishal. Yes, it is ironic, thinking now that I already know where I am going to send you in battle. Cailan always had his grandiose battle strategies…but I digress. My purpose was this: the safest place for you in the upcoming battle is in the rear. I know you will want to fight on the frontlines, but I fear Cailan’s death as well as my own. You must be the one to take his place, as reluctant as you are – no one else has the blood-right you have, nor do they possess the great strength of character.
There is the small matter of your parentage. No doubt, the resemblance between you and Maric is unmistakable. It is your mother that I must inform you is not truly who you believe her to be. She is no scullery maid, and certainly not of Redcliffe. No, your mother is someone who was very dear to your father and I. Fiona was a Grey Warden, like me, and she was a close friend of mine for many years. Our mentor recruited her from the Orlesian Circle of Magi, amazed at her magical abilities. Your father met us in an expedition through the Deep Roads, and they became romantically involved – he even wished her to go back to Denerim with him. Know this: your unsullied sense of duty does not come from your father, but from Fiona, who did not dare entertain the thought of leaving her duty as a Warden. She had you, and gave you to Maric, who then gave you to Eamon to rear until you were ready for whatever purpose your father had for you.
I do not assume to know what your father desired of you, but I know he wanted you to know the truth before he died, as do I, despite his promise to keep Fiona’s secret. I hope this can bring you peace of mind. Your father was not a loose man. He loved Fiona with all his heart, and he would have loved you too, had you been given the chance.
I must go now. There is a commotion out in the hall that I must attend to. I do not ask for forgiveness for myself, but do forgive your father. He was a broken man who saw Cailan as evidence of his own paternal failings, and could not bear to do the same to you. May the Maker watch over you, Alistair Theirin, in the coming battle, and the Lady Cousland, for she will be the one to lead you to this letter.
Elissa had to sit down. Alistair was…the child of a Grey Warden, conceived after the Joining. He was half-elf. And Duncan knew this whole time… Her head was spinning. How could it be so? An expedition in the Deep Roads took weeks, but still not long enough for such a chance thing to occur…though Theirins seemed to be strong of mind and body, and the strength it took someone to make it through the Joining…was it so impossible? At least this meant he wasn’t related to that horrid Goldanna…and now there was some explanation as to why conceiving a child had been easier than they had thought it would have. She felt faint just thinking of all of it. What will Alistair say…? Fergus came through the door.
“Your husband summons you. He’s feeling a little cranky. You haven’t paid much attention to him since he woke up,” he accused, smiling. He got a closer look at Elissa and his face fell. “Elissa, you are white as a sheet. Have you seen a ghost?” She nodded slowly, and got up, clutching the papers in her hands. She felt dazed, and her hands were definitely trembling. She passed Fergus, walking slowly out the door. His eyes watched hers, and they were wide open, blank. Either she’d been visited by a spirit of the Fade, or someone had struck her.
She slid through the door to Alistair’s room, eyes full of preoccupied thoughts. He saw her, thoroughly confused as to what was going on. But he was too set on ribbing her.
“Where have you been? I spent two weeks never leaving your side after you defeat the arch-demon, and the moment I find a comfortable place to recover my own injuries, you go back to whatever it was that was occupying you before. I think we can safely say that I am the better half at this point.” When she did not offer any argument or excuse for where she had been, his teasing smile dissolved. “What’s wrong? Is the baby all right?” Her eyes never left the papers in her hand. “Elissa, what is in your hand?”
She looked up, her forest eyes distracted and bewildered. “I was reading a few days ago…a journal of my father’s and his accounts of King Maric and the Rebellion. These,” she gestured to the papers “were left in the book the day I was recruited to the Wardens. They fell out before I left to find you.” She handed them to Alistair, whose frown was sharpening with each word. “They are in Duncan’s hand.” He looked up at her, skeptical, as he took the parchment from her hands. They were shaking.
She watched his eyes as he read, dreading, fearing. His eyes engorged as he read what she assumed to be the part about his mother, and his breathing increased its tempo. When he was done, he put the letter at his side and gripped the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. He sighed heavily, his jaw tightly clenched as his hand dropped to his side.
“So my mother…was an elf. And a Warden. And Duncan knew all those years…without telling me?” He set his head back against the headboard, looking somewhere through the ceiling. Elissa sat down next to him, to take his hand between hers. He looked at her hands, which had grown soft and gentle since she had returned to Highever. Her olive skin had been pallid as she had entered, but now it was glowing. Her pregnancy gave her a temperate radiance, in stark contrast to her usual fierce presence.
“At least we now know for sure why we were sent to Ishal that night. Duncan’s knowledge saved our lives and Ferelden. He knew Cailan wouldn’t survive…somehow.” Her eyes were full of sympathy. Alistair felt betrayed. His side hurt from his stab wound, and he was full of ambivalence. He looked out the window. On the one hand, this knowledge could have been of great use to him…somewhere along the road; he wasn’t sure where. But would Alistair have agreed to go to the Tower if he had known it would ensure his succession?
He had once loathed the idea of ruling, of being amidst people of ambition and politics. No, he would have fought Duncan on the subject and would have insisted he try to save Cailan, who would have died anyways, and Alistair would have died with him, and then Elissa might have died as well, if not at Ostagar, then at the hands of bounty hunters. She certainly wouldn’t have been able to rally her forces from Redcliffe, or known how to find the Circle of Magi, and no one would have been there to plead her to take Leliana, who was another source of moral support. And even if she had lasted to the Landsmeet, if there ever had been one, Elissa was compassionate, and he wouldn’t have been there to persuade her to execute Loghain. In fact, it was possible the nation would have fallen to the Blight and Loghain would have pulled them all into darkness, even those of Elissa’s vital strength. And all this time, he’d been convinced that she had been his saving grace.
Alistair sighed and locked eyes with Elissa. There was a look of deep thought, something connecting in Alistair’s head. Elissa could feel her brow knit as she studied his face. But, as soon as it had appeared, the look of pensiveness dissipated. His expression calmed and he squeezed Elissa’s hand. She kissed his forehead.
“Are you all right?” He found it admirable how much she worried about him. This affected her just as much as it affected him. She was learning something new about him every day, and this was news to her. She’d married a half-elf. Not that it changed anything, but it definitely was a new facet to her life. He knew she was concerned. She was always concerned. He could not help but love her for how diligently she looked after him.
“I’m all right. A little shaken. My mother is a much more…colorful character than I had been told. Nobler, possibly. But colorful nonetheless.” He smirked. “And Maker help me, if you ever call me pointy ears, I’ll toss you out a window.” Elissa laughed with caprice in her eyes.
“I wouldn’t think of it…especially since I’m the one who’s carrying your pointy eared daughter.” Her laughter rang out like bells, and he laughed too. She kissed him, glad he was feeling well. She stood up. “Get some rest, love.”
She left him to heal. She sent a messenger to Denerim, detailing the king’s run in with darkspawn. She considered telling Eamon of the new revelations about Alistair’s inheritance, but decided against it. If word got out he was not fully human – there were still those with prejudice against the elves – there would be allegations against his right to the throne. She sent a courier with the message and the best cider from her brother’s cellars. If she wasn’t allowed to drink it, someone should enjoy it.
As the sun rose the next morning, Elissa looked out on the fields from her father’s study, which burnt gold and green under the bright dawn. She took down her copper brown hair from where it was pinned at her nape, loosely gathered to make a bun. It cascaded down her back, in waves and curls that mimicked the tides of the Amaranthine Ocean, and it set her heart free to feel it flicker against her shoulders down to her waist. She felt a warm sensation in her spine, and she smiled as she peered out the window.
Alistair limped in, and he gazed upon her beauty. He hadn’t really looked at her since he’d arrived, and she was strikingly exquisite. She wore a silk lavender gown, with a lace-trimmed chemise to fit over her arms and breasts, light colors, something he had not ever seen her wear. She had always worn dark colors, pine greens and midnight blues, indigos and burgundies, but never these pastels. The pale violet set off her skin color, and her hair was draped over her shoulder, pulled away to bear the curve of her long neck. She glanced over her shoulder out of the corner of her eye, her irises gleaming like dewy leaves under her dark eyelashes, giving Alistair invitation. He approached, his face caught up in a smile, and he wrapped his arms around her waist from behind. He kissed her neck where she had exposed it, where he knew she would feel it to the very depth of her core.
She placed a hand on the back of his head, feeling the short soft locks of hair slip between her fingers. The soft smell of cloves and honey surrounded her.
“Don’t start something that you won’t be able to endure, love,” she whispered. “Your injury hasn’t gotten better yet.” His hand slipped to hers, twining his fingers with hers, and his lips brushed her ear.
As if he hadn’t heard her, he murmured in an almost velvet tone, “Come to bed with me.” There was a molten sensation that rippled through her torso, a grippingly sweet response to his soft voice. Her heart was in two. Sleep with her beguiling husband and risk further injuring him, or deny herself her own beautiful right as his wife and keep him unharmed. It seemed he didn’t care if he hurt himself – was it her responsibility to make sure he didn’t, or should she oblige to her king? She didn’t have much time to think: Alistair’s hands were not behaving, stroking her belly, running through her hair, and his lips were two sumptuous accomplices, tasting the skin of her neck. It was getting harder and harder not succumb to her desires…