“I told you so.”
Elissa lay bare next to Alistair, who was curled up in pain, his face pressed into his pillow. He clutched at his side, moaning. He had done well ignoring the pain as he pleased his wife, but when the adrenaline and euphoria wore off, he was left with his side feeling like it was about to rip open.
Well…don’t feel bad or anything…eh! It wasn’t like you had…ow…anything to do with this.” She smiled wide with a snicker, got up, and fetched some wine and a cloth from the table near the window. She rolled him to his side and cleaned the wound, causing him to yelp. “Ah! Andraste’s flaming sword, can’t you leave it alone, woman?!” She glared at him, her eyes narrow, and she pinned him down as he tried to push her hand away. She hated being called ‘woman’.
“You will not be so impertinent to your wife, or I’ll pour the whole bottle on you!” He whipped around on the bed, and in doing so, hurt his side more. He glared back.
“I am the king and I shall do what I please!” Elissa glowered, and her eyes shone defiant.
“And I am a former Warden-Commander and your queen-consort, and you shall give me due respect!”
“I made you queen!”
“And I made you king!” Alistair felt his mind fumbling for another comeback.
“You know, just because you killed the arch-demon, that doesn’t allow you to try intimidating me! It won’t work for one, and for two, I can have you flogged for…for insubordination!” He sank back, glowering for himself. He knew he’d lost. Elissa grinned triumphantly.
“Hah! That’s a cute thought. Is that what you tell Teagan when he warns you not to upset me?” But her hands were gentler now, and the pain had ebbed. He watched her and recognized the regret in her eyes for her temper, though her pride prevented a proper apology. He gradually relaxed under her touch, and he placed his hand over hers and brought it over his heart.
“Teagan’s usually the wiser of us…and I wouldn’t have you flogged. Though I might take you over my knee and give you a good spanking…” They both smiled, and Elissa put away the cloth and wine. She knelt beside him, and admired him, bearing a testing smirk.
“You just try and see where that gets you.” He lay on his back and took her arms, pulling her closer. Her hands slid up his chest and over his shoulders, digging her fingers into the pillow under his head. He brought his hands to her temples and pressed his forehead to hers, gazing in her eyes.
“What is a king to do with a queen he cannot tame?” She grinned and kissed him deep and slow.
“Make her fall madly in love with him.” She kissed him again, feeling the surge of adrenaline as they simultaneously drew breath, heady and exhilarating. She withdrew, and laid her head on his chest, being careful of his stab wound. Alistair held her close.
“How’s my little one? She’s not being too much of a little monster, exerting her poor mother?” Elissa glanced at her expanding stomach, and chuckled.
“No, but I have her uncle to thank for that. He feeds me endlessly, though he won’t let me anywhere near the cellar. He gives me the steadiest horse to take to the village, and he refuses to leave me unattended for more than a few hours at a time.” She stopped, thinking. Alistair knew that look, when she was being pensive about something serious.
“And Fergus? Is he doing better?” She propped herself up.
“He’s happier when he has something to care for, something to occupy his time. I do not think he will be remarrying, or having any other children. Oriana was his true love, and he would never dare besmirch her memory with a second marriage. I am and will be the sole heir to Highever and the Cousland name. I don’t think it bothers him though.” She sat up and gathered her knees to her chest. “But I know he misses being a father. He treats me like a child, and while it irritates me, I know it is because of what he’s lost. He is always making sure I’m all right, that nothing here is too much of a reminder of that night. To be honest, I think it’s harder on him than it is on me. I had months of recovering, learning to be close to others again. It also possibly was helpful that I had my revenge on Howe. Fergus never had that closure.” Alistair traced the scars on her back as she sat deep in thought.
“That wasn’t much of a closure as it was anyways. The man was cold-hearted to the bitter end.” Howe had not been kind to her, accusing her family of being traitors to the throne. He had cursed her as he rattled his last. The only thing he had acknowledged was her striking resemblance to her father: her fiery eyes had burned with Bryce’s determination as she had sworn vengeance. As she watched him perish from the deep, violent stabs she had thrown, she had shed silent tears, angrily shaking as her fingers curled tighter around the hilt of her sword. She had spat on his bloodless face, and whispered some foul oath under her breath before she had quietly scolded the others for lingering. Elissa’s eyes were now full of silent resentment. Alistair kissed her shoulder blade, and winced as he moved. “I think as long as your brother has something to care for, he’ll get by. It was a good idea for you to spend some time here. He’ll need to learn to depend on someone too, after all that time.”
- – -
Elissa had no use for lying about in bed all day. She took Alistair on a walk through the orchard, holding on tightly to him as they explored. He was still limping, but not so severely. Alistair had always been quick to heal. Perhaps that was the elf in him, or maybe the Warden. She heard him inhale deep, relishing the scent of pine and apple blossoms.
He was enraptured with the beauty of the Highever. He had always heard tales of its balmy, rolling hills and warm, beautiful people, how it dipped and sloped into the sea where the land met the water in passionate, undulating fervor, but he had never known that it could be so captivating. It made perfect sense that this was Elissa’s home, that she was raised in this entire splendor.
“I can’t imagine a more perfect place to raise a child than this,” he murmured. “I feel…comfortable here, safe, despite our little run-in the other day.” His hand touched his side. Elissa hummed. It was home, after all, but it was said to have breed the best of legends. She could believe it too: Calenhad himself had been the son of a merchant in Highever. Riordan and Duncan were born here, and her family too, those who conspired with Sophia Dryden, those who aided Maric in the final days of the Rebellion. Since the days of Teyrna Elethea, House Cousland was the most influential family in Ferelden, second only to House Theirin. Her thoughts started to form coherent ideas.
“If Fergus doesn’t remarry and bear an heir, our two houses will merge,” she reasoned. Alistair turned to her, listening. “If that happens, I want a new coat-of-arms. Or another child to inherit Highever.” Alistair chuckled.
“That’s likely.” She kissed his cheek with a grin.
“Pessimist,” she chided. He shot her a look.
“Minx,” he retorted, though he could not help but smile back.
Lachlan came through the orchard on a dappled mare. Elissa was smiling at her husband when she saw him trotting towards them.
“What news, my good man?” she greeted warmly. Lachlan smiled back.
“It is good to see our lord and king in good health. Your Majesty,” he greeted with a bow of his head. Alistair returned it in kind. Lachlan returned his gaze to Elissa. “You have a guest, who wishes an audience with Your Highness.” Elissa nodded, to have Alistair help her up. She hazarded a guess that it would either be Teagan or Eamon, coming to check on their nephew. Teagan also had always had a soft spot for Elissa, and so it would also be feasible that his nephew’s wife would be a point of concern for him.
Alistair and Elissa traipsed back through the groves, bantering all the way back on small matters, like the details of the hypothetical coat-of-arms and the name of their daughter. Alistair liked the sound of Vivienne, a name for lively girls. However, Elissa had her heart set on Rhona, a word meaning “mighty” in the old language of the ancient Alamarri tribe of Highever. She adored how it rolled off the tongue, how regal the name sounded. She definitely thought Vivienne was a frail and delicate Orlesian heiress’s name; it made her wrinkle her nose in disgust.
They had locked elbows as the doors to the great hall were pulled open. Lachlan stood before the main table, and at his side was not the man that Elissa had been expecting. Standing tall, slightly more haggard than the last time she had seen him, and with a guarded look in his eye, Dairren stood at the head of her table. Elissa came to a halt, her eyes wide and doubting.
“Dairren,” she whispered. “Can…is it truly you?” He smiled warmly, holding out his arms in invitation for embrace.
“Elissa.” His familiarity was unnerving. A wave of anger hit her. He had been alive all this time…where had he been when she had called on the nobility so many times to fight or to join in Landsmeet? He was the son of Bann Loren, lord of the Oswin Bannorn. Why was he not there, rallying the Coastland armies to war when there was a Blight to be fought? Fury surged through her. A deadly bolt glanced in the light of her eyes, and she gathered her skirts to storm away, leaving both Alistair and Dairren to watch her disappear, baffled.
Alistair looked at the man’s face. There was a kind of rapture in his eyes, old and worn, but bright, like the sharpened tip of a sword. Alistair felt a surge of distrust. Still, it would do no good to be territorial, not without evidence of Dairren’s coveting.
“You are Bann Loren’s son, are you?” Dairren looked back at Alistair and nodded. “We’ve met some of your men before…” He recalled the run-in with Cailan’s honor guard, not with any kind of fondness for that encounter, for their defense of the man had come too late. He never met Loren himself, but Elissa had always assured him that he was not one of reliable company.
Alistair continued. “My wife seems to recognize you…not that it looks like she’s reveling in your visit,” he observed. Dairren stiffened at the word ‘wife,’ giving Alistair some satisfaction. “Of course, she’s been quite moody in her condition, but even before then, she always had certain…standards of behavior. I wouldn’t take it personally.” Dairren spoke softly, as to not offend.
“Oh, I know Elissa well enough to know that… If I may, Your Majesty: of what condition do you speak?” Alistair looked down the hall, his mind off where Elissa had disappeared, and he softly smiled for his inamorata.
“She is bearing my daughter.” Without another word, Alistair walked away, eager to follow his belligerent wife.
- – -
Alistair found Elissa sitting by her window, biting her lip. Her brow was tense, and her eyes blazed in irritation. He snickered.
“All right, I give up: what has the terrible man done to slight you?” She glanced at him, wary. All these years, and he’d never asked if she’d ever been courted, ever entertained suitors, or ever desired another man. And she had silently thanked him for it, for the past was something she had learned to avoid, graves that she refused to exhume.
“Dairren was once…interested…in making me love him. Perhaps in marrying me. So his mother once indicated.” She paused, hoping Alistair would have some sarcastic remark, but for once, he did not. “He came to me the night of the attack with hope of seducing me. I turned him away, because he was the son of a bann, and I had no interest in giving up my love of swords and adventures to become a farmer’s complacent wife, nor harming him more than was necessary, and neither of us wanted my reputation ruined. I always assumed that he had died with the rest of the castle’s inhabitants. I had no idea that he had succeeded his father, no idea that…of course, that’s all because he never answered our calls when we assembled the Landsmeet so many times these last few years. I never thought to ask Fergus, and I assume he never spoke of Dairren because he probably assumed it would be something else to worry about.”
She paused again, to gather her thoughts. “I was not kind to him. I allowed him to love me, and then I turned him away, to allow him to think me dead when morning came. He must think me an abomination…” She, of course, had never been kind to any of her suitors. Her coldness towards the men lined up to barter and trade for her and her dowry had earned her the nickname, Lady Hoarfrost. Oh, she knew how it came about. The courtiers’ jealous daughters had coined it sometime after her debut – the petty ones who did not understand the importance of learning practical things like sword-fighting and survival tactics. Much to their dismay, she learned quickly of her moniker, but was powerless to eradicate it. Dairren had been the first and only suitor to penetrate her guards before Alistair, and only due to their childhood familiarity.
Alistair leaned against the post of her bed. Damn, what a riddle she was. She broke the hearts of men, and mourned them, yet turned at a moment’s notice on her heels in fury when they reemerged into her life.
“Any other pining past lovers I should know about? Perhaps a baron from Orlais? Or an arl from the south?” His voice was light, but his face was grim. He’d never had reason to be overly protective of Elissa, gifted warrior that she was, but now there was a new side to their relationship. This bann had stared at her with all want and desire of a lover possessed over the spans of time, and her only response had been to flee. Flight had won out over fight. It stirred a new anger within Alistair’s fervent heart.
He shook his head. “Look, here’s what I see. This man, broken by your abstinence from the spoils of passion, sees your death to be the only tragedy of your whirlwind romance, and then has years to consider his love for you, and all of a sudden, you return to Highever alive and well, and he is as infatuated with you as ever. He has only one purpose: to take your heart as you took his. And don’t think I don’t see it. I’m not an idiot.” His eyes glinted covetously. It did not escape Elissa’s notice. Her face’s hard lines softened, and she stood before him.
“What do you want me to say? I was foolish when I was younger. I was aloof, resistant, and cynical. You were the first person I ever thought was capable of truly loving me for what I am. But my curiosity always got the better of me. He was the one person who had the slightest chance of marrying me, and not because of the huge dowry my father allotted me, but because he knew me as well as Fergus and loved me in spite of it. I had to know. Damn it, I was only a girl!” She sighed as Alistair looked away, still upset. It would take more than that to put his heart at rest.
“We should go see what he wants,” he suggested coldly. He turned to leave, and when he got to the door, he gestured for Elissa to follow. “Come on then…” Elissa watched him as she followed. He was deflecting confusing feelings again. She had never spoken of Dairren ever. He had never asked of her romantic history. Yet, she still felt like she had lied to him, somewhere along the line. She doubted if she deserved his trust.
- – -
Bann Dairren of Oswin was looking at the portraits in the main hall, the ones that had been made of Bryce and Eleanor Cousland before their deaths. Eleanor had been like an aunt to him, and Bryce’s fierce demeanor and resolute morals made him a far more inspirational role model than that of his father, whose allegiance bent to the amount of coin and property offered to him. Dairren had tried as hard as he could to fashion his leadership like that of Bryce’s.
He heard the footsteps of the king and queen behind him. Elissa had grown into quite the regal beauty. Her shoulders were held back, and her strides were long and confident. She held her chin level, and her father’s fierce eyes gleamed decidedly from behind her dark lashes. But more than anything, Dairren noticed how she kept close to the king, how her gaze would stray his direction and soften with adoration. He did the same for her, despite an apparent irritation with the situation he had found her in. Dairren felt the thorn of jealousy plant in his heart like a weed. After all these years, she had been alive. He had heard from her mother the day of the siege that she was considering becoming a Warden, and he had heard the bards’ tales of the lost Theirin prince and his Warden consort near the end of the Blight, but he had not thought to make the connection. All this made everything he was about to do that much harder…
Alistair saw the stung look of a spurned admirer in Dairren’s eyes and swelled with ego. The man had no doubt seen the bond between him and Elissa. Many had remarked on how plain it was that they loved each other, but Alistair never thought it would come in handy. Elissa approached him, to hold out her hand. Dairren took it and bowed.
“Your Majesty,” he murmured.
“You requested an audience, Dairren. You shall have it.” The man looked up at her slowly. She withdrew her hand and looked behind her. “Alistair…” she murmured softly. The king threw up his hands softly.
“I’m as good as gone.” Before he turned to leave, he shot a look at Dairren. “Try not to excite my wife. For your sake as much as hers.” Elissa turned to watch him leave, trying to force a glare where a proud smile wanted to gleam. She loved that man, but he was such an ass, Maker bless his heart. She looked back at Dairren, a cynical glint in her eyes.
“So,” she remarked sardonically, “after all these years, you decided to respond to the calls of the royal family. What do you wish of me?” Dairren smiled faintly.
“I heard your name thrown about quite a bit when I met with Fergus a few weeks ago. I simply wanted to see how you were.” Elissa took a seat in her father’s old chair at the head of the hall as Dairren stood before her. “It’s been far too long.” Elissa’s eyes pierced him. She had always depended on her instinct, and it told her to be wary.
He looked at her, studied her as she observed him. “A queen now…it’s only right that we’ve both found our places in the world…I’m Bann of Oswin now. Father’s gone…” Elissa’s gaze threw him off, her interest never seeming to wax or wane. “I…I’m sorry if I’m rambling. It’s been so long since last we talked.” Elissa felt a pang of guilt and her sympathies surfaced for her old friend.
She smiled to placate him. “I suppose it has.” She chewed the corner of her lip, looking for something to say, her gaze still trained on him. “Well, do you have any questions? Anything about where I’ve been? Because I could ask the same of you.” Dairren paced momentarily, smirking and watching her out of the corner of his eye.
“From all that I gathered, you became a Warden, fought and survived the tragedy of Ostagar, gathered massive armies of men, elves, and dwarves, and you ended the fifth Blight, only to join the royal court and head Ferelden’s Grey Wardens. I didn’t truly know the extent of your involvement at the royal palace – most of what Fergus told me was that you had returned home for some time away. I hadn’t realized that the troubadours’ tales of Cailan’s Warden brother and his companion were about your adventures.” Elissa’s gaze only sharpened as she listened.
“So they were. I hope they reflect well on my time away from home.” Dairren smiled.
“My favorite was the one about you proclaiming yourself the king’s champion and defeating Loghain. No man deserves that much power when all he does is abuse it.” His face fell. “I heard about the Alienage as well. A terrible thing to do to those poor people…and to align himself with the Tevinter slavers – it’s insulting to the nation’s pride.”
“Loghain’s betrayal at Ostagar didn’t sit well with either Alistair or me. Because of his arrogance, we lost our mentor. Duncan…he was like a father to Alistair.” Her eyes glanced to the side as she placed an elbow on the arm rest, putting her lips to her knuckles.
She considered her thoughts momentarily. “Why have you not been to court? You are a bann – required to attend the Landsmeet when it is called.” Dairren showed little emotion, though his copper eyes shone steely with a weakening resolve.
“My father has only recently died, and he has been sick with pestilence. We could not risk spreading the infection until it was contained. We were also dealing with our own civil unrest. Many people heard of the honor guard that Father’s men killed. Many wanted him to see justice. It was with good timing that my father died.” His jaw clenched, and he averted his gaze. Elissa had always been so deserving…he felt like a dirty sinner keeping secrets from her. “Our village is poor. The disease took its toll on our economy. I’m…I’m sorry…” Elissa, who had been mindlessly fingering her amulet, narrowed her gaze as she took notice of the ill-placed apology.
“What could you possibly be so sorry for…?” The guilt on Dairren’s face was plain as her eyes penetrated his mental guards. He had never been able to lie to her. He held out a hand, flattened with the fingers spread adjacent to the floor, as if it was supposed to calm her.
“Elissa, you must understand…our village is starving and in need of safety…I had no choice…I didn’t expect you to be here…” Elissa wouldn’t have it. She especially was not going to respond well to the condescending tone in his voice. She was not to be placated like the obedient wife he’d always imagined her to be.
“Dairren…what have you done?” She felt her hackles rise as she stared him down, but there was no sickly presence that came with darkspawn. She stood up, and looked where Alistair had disappeared. “Alistair?” There was no answer. She had expected him to be listening in. “My love?” Silence remained the only response. She glared at Dairren and unsheathed a knife from her leather boot, pointing it at his throat. “Where is my husband?” she growled. Dairren kept his mouth shut. She reached for his shirt collar and pulled him close, pressing the blade to his jugular. “I should have you killed for treason. What has happened to the king?” When he stayed quiet, she threw him on the floor and directed her guards to take him to the dungeons, unable to bring herself to injure him. She then called for Lachlan. No answer came from her brother’s head of stables.
She cantered through the hall leading to the armory, and she found men with Dairren’s personal insignia looting the room. Blades were clanging somewhere down the hall. Elissa grabbed a long sword off a rack. The first of the men to notice her laughed at her, not recognizing her at all, but another man raised his head to look at what the first had snickered at, and his eyes grew wide in terror.
“Your Majesty…” She stuck the first one through the shoulder, and with the second man, she hit him over the head with the flat of the blade and threw him into the first one. A third rushed her, and she tripped him, to kick his head, knocking him unconscious. Why did everyone find it so amusing to betray the Couslands?
She ran out, listening for more commotion. The majority of Dairren’s guard had been occupied trying to subdue her brother and Alistair, who were being aided by Lachlan and the rest of the Cousland guard as they protected the treasury. She entered the fray.
“At least Howe was smart enough to make sure we didn’t have any men on hand. This is just stupidity…” she remarked to Fergus, as they danced between their foes. Alistair threw in his own comment as he fought.
“Well, you know, he probably thought if he was nice enough, he could get you to just let it happen…isn’t that how these things work?” He gasped in pain as his injury hindered his fighting. Fergus came down on one of his opponents.
“Usually…though I would have done this with more finesse had it been me…seducing the queen-consort would not have been my route.” Elissa’s face flushed as they both smiled teasingly.
“You both can stuff it.” She channeled her embarrassment at one of the archers from down the hall as his arrow skimmed her hip, ripping her gown. She should have known Dairren would have ulterior motives, judging from his unexpected visit. Of course, raiding her castle under her nose was not exactly what she would have expected, nor what she deemed as intelligent, but it was an ulterior motive to draw her away from everyone else. As her blade struck the archer, her shame only mounted. What had she hoped to gain by confronting him? Establishing her position of power over him? That was somewhat petty. Or was it putting old ghosts to rest, to ensure she had no lingering endearment towards him. It was certain now that she had no benevolent feelings for him. That was most definitely for sure.
Elissa’s mouth filled with the metal taste of blood as an armored hand blew across her jaw. She fell to the floor, and looked up just as the soldier above her was readying himself to skewer her heart. She raised her arm over her head, feeling a surge of fear in the back of her mind, and she wondered if this was the last moment she would ever know in her lifetime. Suddenly, Alistair flung himself in front of her assailant. He knocked the man down angrily, and Elissa felt a surge of pride. After all those times, rescuing him, defending him, and coming to his aid, he was paying her back in full, and she was all the more in love with him for it. It was always her shielding him, but, suddenly, the tables had turned.
It later struck her conscience that perhaps she had not been very wise in joining the fight in her condition, but it was too late to think on it then. All she could do was watch Alistair with adoring eyes as he slew his foe and saw that she was escorted back to their chambers to be examined and cared for, all the while guarding her vigilantly.
They, of course, defeated the raiders, and Elissa gave Alistair consent to rough up Dairren how he pleased, and he made sure Dairren got quite the throttling, more for trying to take Elissa on a nostalgia trip than for trying to seize the castle. The man confessed that he had heard about the darkspawn raid, and knowing the castle so well, he thought he could take advantage of the wounded king and steal Highever’s riches and raid the massive armory, and along with the reputation of having penetrated the fantastic new defenses of Castle Cousland, take the treasures home and make a name for his people. Elissa then spat in his face in response to his pleas for mercy, completely disappointed. This was what once was the noble young knight whose heart she’d stolen, who almost stole hers? She was ashamed of what he’d become: a petty thief, taking advantage of others in desperate times. He had always been proud and stupid, like most men. However, the Blight had done him a terrible disservice, and instead of asking for aid like a sensible person, he had tried to make it on his own. Idiot.
Dairren was sent to the capital along with his men to be put on trial for his crimes. Elissa was angry, but she would not be solely responsible for his fate. Though new funds were elected to be delivered to his people out of pity for their plight, he was tried and found guilty of high treason and defilement of his binding vassalage to Highever, and along with his conspirators, was hung. Elissa visited the palace for that week, and despite her anger and frustration with Dairren, her eyes were glistening in tears when the announcement came that he was dead. Alistair was there to comfort her, as he always had been. With the exception of Fergus, the last witness to her childhood was gone. Alistair had her sent back to Highever to see out the rest of her pregnancy, and he stayed there as well as long as he could, whenever he could. Elissa did not grieve long, and soon she resumed her daily routine of pining for him at the window of her father’s study and poring over Bryce’s journals and notes, all the while worrying over the health of her baby and fending off her brother’s insufferable smothering.
Over the course of the months, she grew larger and larger with child, and Alistair’s stays became longer and more frequent. However, it was no longer due to her insistence that she needed to protect Alistair. It was the need to be protected, something that initially did not sit well with her pride. She did recognize that something about Alistair had changed in the days after reading Duncan’s last letter. Something had shifted. Elissa wondered if it was a newfound faith in the strength of parenthood, or even in the bonds of love itself. Maybe it was his defiance of the loveless childhood he’d been given that he had not been able to bring himself to muster until seeing the truth. Whatever it was, Elissa was all the more glad for it with each passing day.
- – -
It was a late summer’s morning, and Alistair had been in Highever for two weeks. Elissa was huge with child, and she had been experiencing excruciating cramping as her time came closer and closer. Alistair barely left her side. He was acting more frantically, jumpy as a cat. Being around his very pregnant wife had put him on edge – there was going to be a baby in the castle any day now. Denerim was calm, so he had little to worry about at the capital, but Eamon was constantly writing him about how antsy they were without him there. Elissa was having trouble standing up and sitting down, and when she lay in the bed, Alistair had to imagine her ripping his head off to keep from laughing at the bulge she made under the covers.
They were in bed one morning, and her head was on his shoulder as she was reading letters from her father to her mother during the Final Rebellion, gushing from how sweet they had been to one another in those days. Alistair was stroking her long hair, going through letters and papers from Teagan on improvements being made in Kirkwall as he tried to listen. They both were smiling, content, when Elissa grimaced abruptly. She grabbed her abdomen and gasped in pain. Alistair dropped the papers as she sat up to curl around the hot iron fist of searing hurt.
She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling warm liquid flood out from her womb. She grabbed his wrist firmly while clutching her swollen stomach as the first of the contractions began, and she whispered, “It’s time.”
“What?” Alistair’s heart was throbbing in his chest, panicked and frenzied and he suddenly felt light-headed.
“Sweetheart, go fetch the midwife…my water’s broke.”Without a word, he shot out of the room like a bolt of lightning.
After what seemed to be hours and hours later, through Elissa’s angry cries of labor, Alistair paced outside her room. The midwife had ushered him out in a hurry, ready to get the process of birthing begun. Between contractions, Elissa had been arguing with her heatedly about something. Fergus leaned against the opposite wall, remembering when Oren had been born, and how he must have looked exactly like Alistair: pale, shaking, afraid, nervous, sweating – all those emotions fathers go through before the birth of their children were playing like a dance on his face. Fergus was tempted to give the poor man some advice, but fate would not have it.
From within her chamber, a voice incensed and agonized called out. “Alistair! Get…your sorry…arse in this room…now!” He whipped open the door and closed it behind him in a fraction of a second. Fergus chuckled to himself. Elissa’s temper was the whip behind the horse, and poor Alistair, how he had the misfortune to be the horse on this day.
The young king knelt at his queen’s side, absorbing the earth-shattering sight he saw. Elissa was drenched in sweat, her mouth twisted in a snarling grimace, her hands were clutching at the sheets beneath her, which were soaked. Her hair was rumpled and damp, and the fire in her eyes was especially bright, while her chemise clung to her skin. Mustering all his courage, he grabbed her hand with both of his, and she squeezed as hard as she could as she pushed against the headboard, and she let out a primal scream from the depths of her diaphragm. The midwife knelt at the foot of the bed, working her skills with a scowl on her face, lips pursed, and cheeks sucked in. She definitely wore the look of one who had lost an argument to Elissa. Alistair guessed he might not have been wanted where women were performing more intimate tasks.
Alistair was focusing on the pain in his hand where Elissa was constricting him, feeling the squeeze as her body tensed. All at once, her body went slack and her breathing was ragged, and then there was a new wailing, small and frail. The midwife came up from the sheet covering Elissa’s heaving body. In her arms, bloodied and slick with birthing, was a baby girl. Elissa glanced down from where her head rested in the pillows, and she smiled exhaustedly.
“Rhona,” she breathed, and she sank back again. Alistair was speechless. He was simply and profoundly dumbstruck. The midwife stood up and dipped her head to the king as she cleaned and wrapped the child.
“Your Majesty, meet your daughter.” She placed the small bundle in his arms, and he had no idea what to do with himself, but to look at her. She had brown fuzz on her head, like her mother’s color. Her eyes were shut, and her face was ruddy and squished. Alistair dug through the cloth that she was cozily wrapped in, and found her hands, marveling at how tiny they were as they balled up into fists at her face. He coughed out a laugh as he stifled tears that threatened to rupture his eyelids.
“This…this is…this is my daughter.” He gasped out another laugh. “Rhona.” The name rolled off his tongue like a creek singing down a hill. He was glad Elissa had insisted on the name. It was strong, vibrant. The fingers of the little stranger in his arms flexed and stretched, and he shifted her into one arm to offer her his finger. She clenched it – she was strong, his wife’s daughter through and through. She opened her eyes slightly. Hazel irises, gold ringed with blue flecks, studied his face, squinting. His eyes.
Elissa was watching him as he stared in awe at Rhona. Completely devoid of energy, she was unable to act on her desire to stand and take them both in her arms. However fatigued she felt, she was absolutely enamored with the scene before her as Alistair wondered over their baby. She was sure he was going to cry. She stretched out her arms wearily, smiling.
“Oh, my love…” Alistair cradled the baby and sat down on the bed to pass her to Elissa. Her maternal instincts took over as she ran a finger over Rhona’s cheek. “She’s so beautiful. We make a pretty baby.” She nestled the baby next to her and cuddled her. Alistair leaned over her, still enraptured with the new creature. Their precious daughter, their heir…was real. Alistair scooted closer to Elissa. Her skin was still glistening with sweat and her eyes were baggy and tired, but her entire being glowed with euphoria. His heart was equally as light, and his blood was frothy with a new type of happiness he could hardly find the words to describe. Nothing in life could have been more perfect than in that instant.
Alistair had had a long day. Meeting with Empress Celene always made him feel uneasy, and today, he’d finally put the issue with the Free Marches to rest. Ferelden had its colony once more and Orlais, finally recovered from civil war, had rescinded from its claim. However, Celene seemed to think he was like his half-brother, and was easily seduced by capable women, which wasn’t far from the truth, but Cailan was all about being the hero of fables, with daring rescues and witty charms, and Anora never played his silly games like Celene had promised to, which had made him more susceptible to her lures. Alistair, on the other hand, had a beautiful wife who after twenty years of marriage could still bring him to his knees with a single cock of her hip and flash of her capricious smile, which was usually prelude to lovemaking powerful enough to sunder the earth beneath them. And then there was his fourteen-year-old daughter, who was the spitting image of her mother in body and spirit, who he had to reprimand constantly for her haughty attitude, and who he had to rein in when the bannorn brought their young sons with them for the hunts and balls. Princess Rhona was a handful, and no amount of potential distractions would deter him from his fatherly duties. He might be Maric’s son, but he was determined to not fail as his father had.
He was in his study, when Elissa’s voice rang through the halls of the palace residence. She and their daughter had just returned from Vigil’s Keep, feeling lively and renewed. Nothing made her happier than visiting her Warden friends. Nothing held more importance to her. Except for Alistair, of course.
“Rhona!”She sounded irate about something, and Alistair was startled when Elissa appeared in the study dressed her chainmail. “Where is your blighted daughter?” Alistair looked up at his wife. Her face was knit in a frown, and she scowled at him, as if to accuse him of bringing up the child to be so headstrong.
“My daughter?” She scoffed.
“We’re not home for five minutes and she’s already nowhere to be found…she’s your daughter.” He threw up his hands.
“Hey, she’s not my daughter! You’re the one with a mind of your own! She gets that from you and you alone. I had no part in it!” Elissa rolled her eyes.
“Whatever. I’m trying to get that girl to learn how to swordplay, and what does she do? Disappear!”Alistair shrugged and attempted to return to his work. Elissa stopped him. “Oh, no you don’t! No daughter of mine is going to be naïve to the art of battle. Now help me find her!” Alistair begrudgingly got up from the desk to search as well.
Elissa had not found the girl in her room and her serving girl was unable to offer any real answers either. Elissa finally went to the armory. She felt like her own mother, Eleanor. No wonder the teyrna had always been so exasperated with her in her youth. There, she found Rhona, twirling her dark hair as she flirted with one of the palace guards, a young man powerless to her daughter’s batting eyelashes.
“Young woman…” Rhona snapped up. Her hazel eyes – Alistair’s eyes – looked back at her in surprise.
“Mother…” The guard looked at Elissa guiltily.
“Boy, if you want to keep your job here, you had better get back to your post…” He scampered away, fearing for his life. It helped that Elissa had once killed an archdemon…she turned to Rhona. “You and I had an arrangement. I took you to the Vigil. Now I’m teaching you how to fight with a blade.” When the girl began to protest, she held out her hand. “You are descended from a long line of shield maidens, and I’m not going to let you out of this palace without knowing you can defend yourself properly.” The girl was put in armor, and Elissa gave her a long sword and a shield. They went out to the court yard, and the lesson began.
Alistair watched from a window in one of the corridors that overlooked the courtyard. He smiled. His daughter was learning quickly, though Elissa was definitely taking it as easy as she could on the girl, and still she was tripping Rhona, smacking her with the flat of her blade, and occasionally disarming her. He could hear her coaching the young princess.
“Guard yourself! Leave no area outside your blade’s deflection. And keep your knees bent! You are not an oak, but a flexible sprout, springing and bending to the wind.” The song of colliding metal fell into a beat, clumsy and unsure, but steady. The girl was still rough, but she was gaining confidence with each lesson. It was with sheer luck that she passed the defenses of Elissa’s greatsword, and she landed a blow on her mother’s shoulder with her small shield. The queen grimaced and rolled her shoulder, shaking it off. “That was good, very good. But try not to swing so widely. Be more precise: use your wrist and elbow more, rather than your shoulder to swing. You’ll get more hits that way, and they will be quicker.” Alistair laughed to himself. Elissa’s years in the palace had tempered her rage. Twenty years ago, she would have launched a full attack on the girl, angered with the pain from the strike.
It was an hour later when the lesson was done, and hours after that before Elissa returned to their room. Rhona was getting better: there were many more bruises on her body than the last time they had sparred. She was so sore. She removed her clothes and slipped into a simple nightgown. She looked at her face in a mirror near the screen. Her hair was losing its luster as she aged. By this time, her mother had been gray, so she thanked the Maker for the beautiful color her hair still retained. Her eyes, milder with age, had some wrinkles in the corners, but for the most part, she was still the fiery beauty she had been in her youth, though a little worse for wear. The strength in her blood had done wonders for her vanity.
But, still, the dreams had begun. The dreams Duncan had foretold would return when every Warden comes to be claimed by the Calling. She hadn’t told Alistair yet. Perhaps she wouldn’t have to. He’d been restless in his sleep lately as well. When he wasn’t up at night, pacing the halls to forget the horrors of the Fade that visited him in the night, she was. It was only a matter of time before he put the pieces together. In the meantime, she would enjoy what time she had left with her legacy, and ensuring Rhona was ready to take on the crown and the Theirin lineage.
She laid face down in the bed, sinking into the warm comfort of the down pillows and linen quilts. She felt the familiar surge of warmth through her nerves. There you are… Behind her sounded footsteps, and then the creaking of the bed as Alistair sat next to her. His hands, sure and strong, crept up her back, massaging the ache from her muscles. His lips touched her hair, and a smile stole across her face.
“Hello, my love…” She stretched, temperate and comfortable, as he chuckled, and she turned to encircle her arms around his neck and kiss him. They twined together, remembering the familiar places and, after all these years, still discovering new ones.
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