She watched dubiously as the pensive frustration on his face dissolved into a mischievous grin. “I am sorry, love, but I’m afraid I’m far too happy right where I am.” He turned and walked away, knowing it would ignite her temper. Just as he expected, she charged him, and he pivoted to brace himself. Her shoulder connected with his chest in an attempt to knock him down, but it had little effect as he caught her in his arms. He wrested the sword from her hand, knocking it to the ground, and he got a hold of her wrists as she struggled against him, eyes wide in anger and astonishment that he was so agile in his condition. “Now, where were we? You were saying something about your heart frosting over…I think I can fix that.” He took her wrists in one hand, pressing them to his chest, and with the other, he moved her by the small of her back to press her hips to his. Without hesitation or inhibition, he kissed her mouth firmly, giving her no room to maneuver away. She fought momentarily, but the nostalgia took hold, and she gave in, just as he knew she would. Damn him, damn him to abomination, she thought as he delved deeper, his hands remembering, lips tasting, all bringing back forgotten yearnings.
Through their embrace, Elissa managed to whisper, “I…hate…you.” A chuckle rumbled in his throat. After giving in a little more, she pushed him forcefully away, to look at him through familiar vapors of undiluted want. “You reek,” she uttered, trying to dispel the urge to pull him back.
“I missed you too.”
“Are you coming or what?”
“Are you still going to insist on being an ice queen?”
“Then yes. Besides, there’s not much for me here, besides a few people who I owe money to…what can I say? Gambling was never my strong suit.” Elissa rolled her eyes again, and sheathed her blade. She turned on her heels to head towards the town stables, feeling unnerved and aggravated. Alistair followed close behind beaming in pride. No amount of alcohol had made him lose his touch.
Aiodh was stamping impatiently in his stall, whinnying for his mistress. Alistair offered a hand to the beast, which nibbled at his fingertips. Alistair had always been the charmer when it came to beasts.
“You remember me, old friend…” He glanced over at Elissa. She was scowling in frustration as she tightened the cinch straps, filling him with a boyish glee. He hadn’t forgotten how to rile her up: after all this time, he could still put her out of sorts.
Her knights came along with their own mounts. “Hey, where’s mine?” Alistair inquired, feeling very neglected. Elissa smirked.
“You aren’t leaving my sight, Your Royal Highness,” she mockingly replied. “You are riding with me.” Alistair looked back at the roan, eyes wide and fearful. He remembered Elissa telling him of how Aiodh let no one ride him but Elissa and her late father. He’d seen Zevran try to prove her wrong and get tossed into a bush. And he’d even seen Aiodh on a bad day, when Elissa herself had to wrestle him down to get up. The stallion would scare the fire out of Andraste.
“He’s not going to like me being up there…” Elissa shook her head.
“Nonsense. It’ll be fine. He hasn’t thrown me since I was seventeen. He’ll behave as long as I’m riding.” Somehow, that didn’t make him feel any better.
– – –
Alistair survived the horse ride down to the port town. They took a ship across the Amaranthine from Kirkwall to Highever. Elissa kept to herself most of the journey over the water, staying near the bow. Fergus was to greet them in Highever, and they would be given a place to stay for the night. She looked at a long silvery scar on her palm and traced it with her forefinger. Alistair had sworn he would see her become hero to the Fereldans, made a blood oath. He broke his promise. So now she was holding up her end of the bargain. She was dragging him through all a manner of terrors before she allowed him any part of what she wanted to give him so very badly. She had bruised him fairly well from jumping him and knocking him one across the face. He had nearly soiled himself in fear of Aiodh, which made her laugh more than she had in a long time, a year, in fact. Still, she could only just start to admit to a silent, reproachable fact: she had missed him.
Leaning on the railing, she put her lips to the back of her hand, remembering other warm feelings he had inspired. His kiss still lingered there, hot, enticing, and he still smelt of honey and cloves, beneath the stench of ale and wenches. His fingers had tangled themselves up in her hair and slipped down her spine to her waist, and hadn’t stopped there even, stupid amorous drunk that he was. For a moment, she had felt like she had returned home from a long journey. How was it that he wanted anything to do with her after all this time?
Her blood rushed to her face from her spine, warm and instinctual, and she turned. Alistair had changed out of his dirty clothes and into a shining ensemble of splintmail. A long sword was strapped at his waist, and the shield of the Vigil was slung over his shoulder. Old memories surged back. He’d even shaved a little. His face possessed a very sick pallor, much to her amusement, and there was an impressive black eye coming in from her thrown fist.
She laughed. “Where are your sea legs, Alistair?” He sighed in his exasperation, and he rolled his eyes, bloodshot from his hangover.
“I wasn’t fortunate enough to be brought up amongst pirates and brigands. My land legs have to suffice for now.” She smirked. No matter how slighted he felt, for some reason, he’d always made her laugh when he was at a disadvantage. Mistress Woolsey had always referred to it as schadenfreude, one of those Anderfelsian words that she’d use when scolding Anders and Oghren back at the Vigil.
“Ha. You disappoint me…I thought you’d be more adventurous than this.” Her smile was made to tease him, but it did not deter him from saying what he had to. His drunken stupor had dissipated, and the old bitterness of the Landsmeet returned in all due haste.
“Elissa, you are a ridiculous, hot-headed, cruel husk of a woman, and there are days I can’t stand the thought of you.” Scoffing, she looked out on the water, disdain in her eyes. She knew what was coming, and she hated being lectured. She leaned back onto the railing, facing away from him. “I followed you halfway across Thedas for a year to defeat the darkspawn, and in the most crucial moment, you nearly lost it all to your blasted compassion. Loghain should have died that day, and would have, and I would have been there for you.” Her eyes widened in fury. Where did he get the gall?
She wheeled on him. “Well you could have been there anyways, had you not been such an ass!” Her eyes were blazing as her brows pulled forward to challenge him. “Justice and vengeance are two different edges on the same blade, so I can understand how they can be confused. And while vengeance would have been swifter, justice dictated that Loghain understand the nature of his actions, for he was not beyond reason like Rendon Howe.” She moved away from the railing to face him fully. “I found it to be very fitting that he joined the Wardens, to suffer as we suffered. And I felt no pain when he died killing the arch-demon. If that had been you…” She turned away again, silencing herself with a whispered gasp. She forced herself to hold back sobs that had kept their peace for a year.
Alistair took a step forward. “What, Elissa? What would you have done had that been me? You don’t honestly expect that I would have fallen to the demon that easily, do you?” Elissa laughed, making a sound that was harsh and bitter. How did he still not know?
She finally whispered, “The Warden who kills the arch-demon must also be destroyed, to ensure that it cannot manifest in another darkspawn. It is attracted to the taint of the Grey Warden who kills it, but since the Warden has a soul, since the Warden is not a hollow vessel like the darkspawn, they both die as the spirits collide.” Alistair suddenly understood. She had saved his life. “I would have rather died a thousand slow, gruesome deaths than live in a world where you do not.” Her eyes and voice betrayed her pride, as tears flooded them both. Alistair tried to comfort her, but she threw out her hand to dismiss him, the other covering her face, and fled to her cabin to hide for the remainder of the voyage.
As the ship docked in the teyrnir of Highever, Elissa’s leafy eyes were red and puffed up. She refused to look at Alistair, who still couldn’t believe what he had heard. So that was why Grey Wardens were so crucial. The taint in their blood and the strength of their souls were why Blights came to an end: to attract the essence of the arch-demon and kill it with their own.
As they proceeded through the forest to Castle Cousland, Alistair rode behind Elissa, his hands on her waist to keep him steady, listening to her hum her favorite incantation. Her own hands gathered at the horn of the saddle, and he noticed her right thumb kept stroking the center of her left palm. He looked at his own palm, where he had cut into it at the beginning of their campaign against the darkspawn, making a pledge to her that he would take care of her. He had taken her to Denerim. He had helped her exact revenge on Howe. However, he had not been there to see her receive the people of Ferelden, to receive her title and her glory as their heroine. He had broken his vow, and realizing this made his heart fall into the pit of his stomach. He’d failed her as much as she’d failed him. He reached forward with that hand to grasp the hand that matched it, goaded on by his humility. Someone had to give.
She flinched as she noticed him leaning in, but as she did, he grabbed the hand she’d been rubbing, the scar she’d been fingering. He put his chin on her shoulder and brought the palm up to his lips, kissing her scar. He then put his head to hers and whispered. She pulled her hand away, feeling the sting of fresh saline in her eyes as his words delivered the comfort she had wanted so badly once, the comfort she could not afford to ask for now.
“I’m sorry,” was all that he had said, but the knowing way he had said it made her sink back into him as the horse walked slowly down the trail. Tears traced down her face as she tucked her head into the crook of his neck. She hated crying. She hadn’t cried since he’d been dragged out all those months ago. Why was her resolve so hard to keep with him? Wasn’t she supposed to be mad at him?
– – –
Fergus greeted his sister with a banquet that night, with lots of wine and roasting game and laughter among the knights and Elissa’s ladies-in-waiting. Fergus had visited his sister often over the course of the last year, and tonight, a light in her eyes – their mother’s eyes – shone that had not been there to his knowledge since he departed for Ostagar. She sat at a window, solemnly looking out at the stars, except for the few blushing glances she cast towards Alistair, glances which were painfully obvious to her brother. He sidled up next to her, and she smiled up at him.
“Fergus, shouldn’t you be taking care of your guests?” He pursed his lips, and Elissa could see him trying to think of an excuse.
“You are a guest.” She scoffed.
“A guest in my own home…I think not. Try again.” Fergus positioned himself in front of her, squaring himself with her to maintain her attention. He watched as she glanced towards Alistair again, and he could not help but ask.
“Fine. Call it ‘looking out for my little sister’.” She locked eyes with him, her brow furrowed as she tried to understand his meaning.
“Whatever are you talking about? I’m fine. Look at me. I’m fine.” She held her arms out wide to gesture she was physically all right, but Fergus knew better.
“Elissa,” he began, “who is this man Anora sent you after? Is he very important?” She scanned his face, and looked him up and down suspiciously.
“You are awfully inquisitive, Fergus. He’s the heir to the throne. Of course he’s important.” Her brother sighed.
“You know that’s not what I mean.” She rolled her eyes.
“Oh? And what do you mean?” She saw that damned motherly look he liked to give her. He had always taken more after Eleanor than Bryce. “Oh, I hate that expression! You mean to me? Fergus…” and she couldn’t help but sigh. Brothers were a bloody nuisance. “…look, he was the only other surviving Warden of Ostagar, and he helped me acquire the troops we needed for the Battle of Denerim…he was exiled for his claim to the throne, and now I’ve reunited with him. All right? That’s all…” She made a final sweeping gesture with her hand, but Fergus pressed the issue.
“Reunited? Elissa…” He looked at her as she looked back over at the prince. The slight flush in her cheeks was enough to give her away. “You…you’re in love with him. Aren’t you?” How direct, she thought. He really did take after their mother. She glanced over at Alistair, who was sitting with Lachlan, one of Fergus’s horse masters. His eyes burned bright with laughter, and his smile warmed her down to the soles of her feet.
“I…I don’t know,” she stammered, defensive. “I was, once. Perhaps I never stopped. I’m not sure…”
Alistair moved by the fire with a few of Elissa’s men. One of them, an older one with a streak of gray in his beard, turned to him.
“Is it true about you and the Commander? You used to…” The corner of Alistair’s mouth lifted suggestively.
“Fraternize? Yes.” The soldier’s face took on concern.
“Well, ser, it really isn’t my place, but I want you to know that I’ve worked for her Ladyship for the last year, and I can’t really say I’ve seen her laugh like that in all that time. Much less smile at all. It would seem to me that she requires something more from you, though, the way she tries to put up her guard against you. See, we knights love Lady Elissa. She is a kind, strong leader, and we’d do anything to protect her.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Alistair dryly stated, indifferent. Get to the point, he thought as he watched the man drone on. The knight swirled the ale in his tankard.
“Word got around that she was planning on staging a coup d’état against Her Royal Highness, but we knights stood by her, told the queen it simply wasn’t true. Truth is we were almost sure the Commander was going to actually do it, to go through with the rumored plans. But she assured us such a thing was impossible without the rights pieces on the board. Truth is we’re almost sure she was talking about you.” Alistair smiled softly. Elissa had never given up on him.
After a swig of ale, the knight continued. “She went flat broke a couple times. She said she’d developed a gambling problem, but we never saw her at the salon or at the grand melees. Once we followed her down to the Pearl to see if she was playing cards with the prostitutes, but we only saw her talking to a woman…some duelist.” Isabela, it must have been. The woman always did relish her contacts. “She left without a word, without a single coin flashing or a deck of cards shuffled. Rumor is she was paying off mercenaries to look for you.” So that’s what she meant when she spoke of pathetic failures. “All I’m saying, ser, is that it seems she would do anything for you, even commit treason. Don’t disregard her.” The knight set his ale down and walked towards his comrades. It seemed everyone wanted to shame Alistair for being so hot-headed.
He looked over at Elissa, who stood with her brother far from the ongoing merriment, a goblet of burgundy in her hand. After marveling at how similar the two looked, he studied her facial expressions for clues as to what they were talking about. Her brows were furrowed, and Fergus looked concerned as well as he spoke to her. Most likely, they were talking about her feelings. Somehow, that didn’t make him feel any better.
Elissa felt the alcohol seeping into her thoughts, and she decided it was time to sleep. She recalled a few weeks ago, when she had felt a similar lull in her thoughts at an inn in Waking Sea, and had woken up accosted by a foul mouthed bartender for starting a bar fight. She smiled at the memory as she walked through the corridors of her childhood home. It had been quite the fight. Elissa had always wanted to smash a stool over someone’s head, and that night she did it twice. If she could remember correctly, it was because a rude man had grabbed her bottom most unbecomingly. She laughed as she remembered how she had snarled at him, how she’d thrown him against the bar, hoping to dent in his skull in her drunken anger, igniting the furies of his friends, who had descended upon her and her own companions post haste. It was astonishing how quickly rages could fly up.
She found a chemise in her old room, simple white muslin, and slipped out of her armor behind a sylvan-wood screen. It was always such a welcome relief to be free of those metal plates. She looked at herself in the full-length mirror near her bookshelf, where her lore of legends and heroes sat. Since the last time she’d been to the castle, before the Blight, she had grown weary, and her green eyes were slightly aged, full of old mossy thoughts. She might be one of those heroes someday, if she wasn’t already. And why rush the process? She was still young and ambitious. Her limbs were still slender and lean, and her hair was still shiny dark auburn, like her brother’s.
Her hair: why had she cut it? She missed her long locks, how they cascaded down her back. She had been a fool to think she would look better without them. She ran her fingers through her curls, reminiscent. Perhaps it was time to grow her hair back out.
There was a knock at her door. She threw on a dark shawl, and opened the door. Alistair stood there, eyes cast down, his shirt loose and untucked. He’d seen her leave and had given chase. Fool of a man. She resisted the urge to slam the door in his face, to give him another black eye. The first one had faded considerably since Kirkwall, having left only a slight yellow tinge near his cheekbone.
“I’m still upset with you,” she resigned as she leaned against the door frame. He heaved a sigh.
“Yeah, well I’m not exactly happy with you either.” He calmly stepped forward, closing the gap between them, and his voice took a kinder turn. “You got your revenge on Howe. I wanted mine on Loghain. That is why I was angry. That is why I didn’t come back. I was tired of being passed over and treated like a child, as my pleas fell on deaf ears. And when I got there, I figured I’d wait it out a while, until a while became too long, and I thought it might be too late to come back.” She dared not argue this time, unable to conjure any more anger as she watched his contemplation. She simply glanced away, averting his gaze as her glance swept the hall outside. No one could be seen. No one to rush to her defense. No one to rush to his. They were alone.
He took another step towards her, and touched her hair, a sad gaze on his face. “Why did you cut it?” She closed her eyes briefly as a shiver passed through her, an electric reaction to his fingers, and his voice was softer, sweeter. “Remember when Leliana taught me how to arrange it?” How could she not? She craved his attention as it had been, but once he’d discovered he could get her to sit still with just a sweep of his hands through her hair…she’d beg him some nights just to play with it, just to feel his hands buried in it. “Why, Elissa? Why did you do it?”
She opened her eyes and her lips formed a grim line. Couldn’t he just keep stroking her hair and forget his curiosities? She looked away.
“I felt too much. Too much love, too much pain. It was all just…too much. It was either my hair or my mind.” She turned on her heels, but left the door open. Alistair stepped inside and closed the door behind him. Typical of a woman…if he hadn’t already deducted the reason for her shorn hair, he wouldn’t have understood the things she was saying.
She sat on her bed, faced away from him. “Anora didn’t dare approach me by herself for those first few months. She knew, somehow, that I hated her, that I was angry. Not that I was without my cause, and she knew that too. Yet for some reason, she never took any action against me. She let me be. And I was left to my own devices…I was so sure she’d find out…”
“That you’d been looking for me,” Alistair finished as he sat next to her. She looked up with lips parted, surprised that he knew. He ran a thumb over her cheek, looking longingly at her. All of a sudden, she looked wide-eyed, vulnerable, a feeling she did not likely take kindly to. He watched her emotions shift as she took in his full meaning, and knew he had to act before she hit him again.
She had only made up her mind to fight him on the subject when he pulled her to him again, deftly compared to their previous embrace. He kissed her fully, every fiber of his being directed at making her feel the love he had forgotten. He kept his hands in her hair, thinking it better to avoid making this something more than what was appropriate, but her response served to prove him wrong. Always the little Chantry boy, she thought to herself. She hadn’t even thought of another man that whole year, let alone been intimate. After what she had had with Alistair, it was only right that she hold out, but she had not enjoyed it. Loneliness was a bitter companion, and spending long cold nights unaccompanied certainly left an acid taste in her mouth.
She held no quarter as she pushed him onto the bed, wasting no precious time in ripping his shirt off, then her night gown as he fumbled with his pants. She was done playing games. She was done waiting for her happiness to fall in her lap. And she most certainly was done waiting for Alistair to ‘throw caution to the wind’, as he had put it so very long ago that first night.
She grabbed a stray book off her bed, tossing it somewhere that she could no longer see nor that she could care about, and she knew he felt her impatience with every throbbing cell in his body as he threaded his fingers into her hair, pulling every bit of her closer as they took up the empty space on the mattress. She bit his lower lip, a small reprimand for having made her wait so long. He closed her mouth off with one breathless kiss and she fought to press onward when he flipped her on her back.
He murmured. “Wait.” She looked back up, scowling in frustrated protest. What in the name of the Maker did he think he was doing?
“Don’t you dare put this off…” He covered her mouth with his hand, eyebrows raised at her in assurance that he was headed in the direction she wanted to go. His expression met the fire in her eyes, and he intended for it to be a balm to her hot-headed eagerness. His other hand trailed along the curve of her hip as he got a hold of her.
“Sh. I’m busy. Now lie still…” His eyes, an interlude of warm amber and pale azure, glistened with a precognitive understanding, until they left her face to study more intriguing places. She slowly relaxed into the bed, watching him like a hawk as he looked her over, reclaiming her by sight. His fingers followed his gaze, brushing over her skin to trace over the contours of her torso. He lowered himself, his gaze hovering over her body as he mapped out the familiar territory in his head. She almost didn’t believe he would do much else besides stare at her hungrily.
It started with a single kiss, placed in the dip beneath her left collarbone, next to the juncture of her arm and her shoulder. It was long and drawn out, a long drink from a cool fountain of water. She glanced at him from her desire-laden eyelids to see his eyes were shut, keeping everything else out to focus on her taste. That’s when she understood, and that’s when she let go of her inhibitions.
He meant to savor her.
He meant to make love to her. Really and truly make love.
As he continued on, she writhed beneath him as he wrung desire from her, pressing his lips against every scar and every plane that he knew. His hands foreshadowed the trail his lips made over her, teasing and touching and stroking, following the path his cartographic gaze had plotted beforehand. He came to a yellowing bruise of her own on her rib cage and outlined it with a forefinger.
“What’s this?” A bothered little moan escaped her throat as she peered down, propping up on her elbows.
“Oh. That. I got into a bit of a tiff with a drunkard a couple of weeks ago. It’s nothing.” He smirked as he kissed her there.
“I can only assume he deserved it…” She laughed softly.
“I got some useful information out of him – something about a whiny war veteran who frequented the taverns of Kirkwall, posing as a prince of Ferelden, and don’t you look at me that way either – and though I promised to pay him for his information, his idea of…payment was a slightly different than mine.” Alistair felt a draw of jealous protectiveness blink through the haze of his lust. The thought of her in bed with someone else was infuriating. He nuzzled her soft velveteen belly with the tip of his nose to quell his ire, to remind himself that she wasn’t with someone else. She ran her fingers through his hair, softly grazing his scalp with her nails.
An admission suddenly erupted from his lips before he could halt the words. “I missed you.” The words were almost muffled in her skin, but not quite. Her hands halted, still buried in the fine silk of his hair as his sentiment settled in her thoughts. And it was true. He had yearned for the day when he could be fighting at her side again, even if she didn’t forgive him, which it seemed she was in the process of doing. He had searched for something to take the place of the adrenaline, the excitement, the drive he had found in their quest to defeat the darkspawn. Nothing could compare to what they once had. What he hoped they might have again.
As he stilled under her touch, reacting to her sudden pensive manner, she solemnly conceded everything she’d kept from herself. She knew how misery had sunk in. She had festered and challenged and sneered at anything that looked too content with its lot in life. She’d kept her distance from the world in order to keep from feeling that same pain again. She understood how difficult it had been.
Her fingers resumed their combing through his flax-colored locks. “I missed you. Everything’s been so bleak…I wish you’d been here. Andraste’s blood, I would never have let Anora or her father live if I’d known…” Alistair got up on his hands and knees and crawled on top of her, brushing over her mouth with his. He knew she was sorry. He knew that if she wasn’t, she wouldn’t have bothered with this. She would have never relinquished any kind of affection to him until he’d admitted to being wrong completely and irrevocably. Such was her way. He knew all about the heritage of the stubborn Cousland women, how Elissa’s ancestor, Elethea, had been the last teyrn to stand against his own ancestor, Calenhad the Great, before she conceded to his rule, uniting the nation of Ferelden. Elissa was hardly exceptional in that regard. What was so exceptional was that she had the humility to attempt an apology without any kind of prodding. He’d have been content to let her stew, to mull over her grudges forever for how he’d acted. Yet, here she was, delivering her dignity to him on a silver platter. He wasn’t about to let her deliver herself to that level. He couldn’t. Not like that.
His body lowered to cover hers, and his callused hands cupped her face, holding his forehead against hers to peer into her chartreuse eyes, into her battered soul. “I told you, love. Just be still. Just let go…” With a small female growl, she lifted her chin and caught his mouth in a heady, captivating kiss. Her hands moved from his hair down to his narrow waist, her grip tight and ravenous. He felt her legs spread beneath him, her knees lifting on either side of his hips to guide him to her. Within moments, he was home.
Everything after that fell into place. Every ritual they’d had, every place they knew, and every passion they could muster – it was as if they had only a day from each other, for how familiar everything was. When they were both left breathless, she fell asleep on his chest smiling more sweetly and genuinely than she had thought would ever be possible again.
– – –
They rode immediately for Redcliffe the next day. Elissa gave Alistair a black gelding, Ronan, who had a sweet temper and stood very tall, but was a smoother ride than the fiery Aiodh. They rode close together, side by side. Fergus could not remember the last time he had seen Elissa so inseparable from someone, least of all a man. She had prided herself in being the aloof goddess to her suitors, too good for them and just out of reach. And here she was, keeping within arm’s length of this so-called prince` as they rode off to Redcliffe. Elissa had been warmer in her good-bye than she had in her greeting. It seemed as if she was glowing. Fergus was a little more than suspicious of Alistair as his brotherly instincts stuck like poisoned arrows in his mind. His wife, Oriana, used to radiate like that in the mornings after warm, splendid nights together. If that man harmed his sister, not even the Maker would stop him from exacting due punishment. It was the fact that dawned on Fergus, that Elissa could very well take care of herself, which kept him from saying anything in warning to her companion. Still, he worried as she exchanged flirtatious glances with the eager prince.
Elissa could feel her blood running hotter than it had dared in the last year. It bubbled and sang with the rewards of lovemaking, and she felt positively unashamed for her disposition. She felt like a yearling filled with the newness of spring. Her heart was a song bird in the sky with a new melody as they rode through the day.
It wasn’t long before she truly could hear a song on the wind, a larking soprano. Could it be? Leaving the others behind at their ample trot, Elissa rode ahead, earnestly galloping towards the sound, and she came to a cliff overlooking the Drakon River. Farther east down the ledge stood a slender redhead clad in black leather and blue satin ribbons. Elissa grinned and dismounted. Leliana had been gone doing work for the Chantry in Haven, with the promise that she would return to Denerim as soon as the expeditions had gotten started. Leliana heard the clink of heavy metal plating as Elissa ran to her. They embraced as sisters, laughing and greeting each other with wide grins.
“What on earth are you doing all the way out here?! We’ve missed you so!”
“I was headed for Redcliffe, to see if you’d taken refuge there from the pestilence! How are you, my dear friend?” Leliana asked, grinning. “Your hair…and you are Warden-Commander now!” Elissa looked her over. There was a scar that lined her brow, and her light copper hair had been caught up in an Orlesian style plait that ran like a halo around her head. Her blue eyes sparkled wisely like weathered sapphires on an ancient crown.
“You’ve changed as well,” she noted. Leliana nodded.
“Yes, well…” Alistair cleared the woods on Ronan, and he locked eyes with Leliana, who then looked at Elissa in confusion as he dismounted. “And here I thought our little templar was off having adventures in exile, but here you are, my old friend,” she queried as she looked to smile at Alistair. He wrapped her in a warm embrace, planting a friendly kiss on the cheek, and moved back to stand next to Elissa.
Leliana looked between the two of the Wardens. They stood leaning close together, as they had often done before Alistair’s exile, an indicator of their comfort with each other, their dependence on each other. The exile had been a terrible strike against the group, but for none so much as it was for Elissa. Leliana had recalled how hard Elissa’s face had grown in the days following the Landsmeet, how cold her voice became as she watched the days before the battle disappear. She despised Loghain’s company, how he attempted to make up for his actions with his kind words and apologies. It had been all she could do not to kill him herself, and when Morrigan came to her asking for her to convince Loghain to sleep with her for their salvation, Elissa, broken-hearted and cruelly indifferent, had denied her, maybe so that Loghain might die, maybe so that she might be put out of her misery herself. The light in her eyes had been extinguished after Alistair was sent away, and only grew more lifeless when Leliana had announced her departure for the Frostback Mountains after the war was won.
Now here she stood, her eyes blazing with happiness and Alistair’s face reflecting that euphoria. Leliana was full of questions.
“So how long have you been back in Ferelden, Alistair? Surely, Her Majesty is not happy about your return…” Alistair smiled.
“It is, in fact, by Anora’s request that I am here. She’s dying and she needs an heir, and being that she’s unmarried, frigid and conniving fox that she is, she has none. So we’re headed for Redcliffe to see Teagan and reinstate my claim to the throne.”
Elissa continued. “The pestilence has laid waste to Denerim, Leliana. They’ve only just recovered from the Blight, and not a moment too soon is it overrun with another catastrophe…Anora was one of the first victims, and before the city was quarantined, she sent me to find Alistair…”
Leliana smirked “And so you have.” They both smiled and looked at each other as if they were sharing some naughty secret. Things seemed to back to the way they were before that fateful day in Denerim.
Leliana took Elissa’s invitation to accompany them to Redcliffe. They rode with all haste the next two days, and when Redcliffe was in view, Elissa sighed in relief. It had all gone so well…the thought of that stopped her in her tracks. Everything had gone too easily. She was suddenly very cautious. Alistair noticed her unease and as she peered down the hill at the village, he approached her.
“What is it? You are making me feel like you’ve discovered our dooms are down there. Hey.” He gently took her wrist to grab her attention when she wouldn’t look away. “What’s going on?” She shook her head as her hand slipped into his.
“A feeling I can’t shake. This has all gone exceedingly well – too well.” Her eyes were stern, focused. Had she missed something when she had spoken to Anora? The black pustules on her neck were real enough, and her face had been paler than a corpse’s as she had shivered under her blankets. Elissa had kept her distance, but she knew the smell of death when it entered her nose. Now, it was as if it was lurking in the bushes, waiting to ambush her.
They continued towards the castle, where Teagan stood out, waiting on the steps to greet the travelers. Teagan had inherited Redcliffe after Eamon’s untimely death: the disappointment of his nephew’s exile and Anora’s ascension, as well as Loghain’s clemency had broken his heart and his pride. Teagan, temperate and understanding, still stood by Elissa’s choices, but he secretly wished Anora to the deepest, darkest parts of the Deep Roads.
“Chancellor Cousland,” he hailed, arms outstretched.
She waggled her finger. “Ah ah ah…Teagan…” As if she needed another reminder that she was Anora’s crony. He laughed and put his hands up in apology.
“Sorry, sorry…Commander.” She dismounted and saluted the Regent, fist over her heart.
“Arl Teagan, it’s been too long.” They grasped each others’ wrists in salutations. “Your future king…” She gestured to Alistair, who was also dismounting. Teagan gave Alistair a familiar smile.
“Where have you been off to, my old friend? Maker knows we’ve missed you here at Redcliffe.” Alistair ruffled his hair.
“Oh, you know, fighting evil in all corners of Thedas, one tavern at a time.” Teagan laughed loudly.
“Then you will need some practice with a few of our knights.” He turned to Elissa, and his eyes took on a warning glint. He whispered gravely. “You both need to leave.”
“What?” Though her voice came in a laugh, Elissa could not believe what she was hearing. They had just arrived. “Why?” She glimpsed her men as they watched her conversation.
“We are not alone.” She looked back at the young arl, and abruptly felt alarm surge through her spine.
“Who’s here, Teagan?”
“Anora.” It was then that royal sentries emerged from every door way, crossbows trained on Elissa and Alistair. Teagan was grabbed from behind and bound. The Wardens drew their swords, and Elissa motioned to Leliana, indicating she should slip away as fast as she could. Queen Anora appeared from behind her guards, and her face was as bright and lively as it had been the day they had met.
“Welcome home, Alistair. Chancellor…” she addressed mockingly. She motioned for her men to bind them as well. “Thank you for bringing this traitor to me.” Elissa, flailing and kicking to escape her captors, was seething as she was wrangled into chains.
“How is this possible?! You were dying!” Anora laughed.
“The magical effects of painting one’s skin can produce any number of illusions.” She gestured again, for her men to bring the prisoners closer. “I knew of your dissent. Your knights defied me as well and so they shall meet the same fate as you, but there were those who could be swayed with promise of money, power, even life. I knew you were going to bring me down, and I knew once you found Alistair, nothing could stop you.” The two struggled against their captors as they were unarmed. Elissa managed to knock a man down before she was subdued by another. She looked back at the deceiving witch.
“But the pestilence…” Anora held up her hand to cut her off.
“My best healers have staved off the worst of it. Denerim can be saved. As for you and your lover, the disinherited prince…that is another matter entirely.” The sentries lined up the three, along with the knights, and they were kneeled at the foot of the stairway. “You three, Elissa Cousland, Alistair Theirin, and Teagan Guerrin, have all been found guilty of treason against the crown of Ferelden. It is,” she contemptuously smirked, “with deep regret that I must sentence you to death.”
As she gestured for her bowmen to fire, Leliana reappeared from behind the stone wall of the gate with her recurve bow, crying out in defiance and firing one deadly shot at the queen before being felled by another alert crossbowman. Elissa’s heart raced as she heard the zip of an arrow and the bracing pain in her chest as a bolt pierced her armor through her ribs. She looked around her as she gasped in obliterating agony. Alistair lay coughing up blood with a bolt in his shoulder and another in his stomach, and Teagan’s skull had been pierced, killing him instantly. The knights who had remained loyal to her also lay dead or dying, and the queen was crying out in pain from Leliana’s fatal arrow, most likely poisoned with Leliana’s favored Adder’s Kiss, while her guards raced after the bard in attempt to apprehend her. Elissa could feel a dizzying thirst and the taste and smell of blood filled her nose and mouth as the Maker lay his claim to her soul…
Elissa woke with a start, her dagger in her hand, gasping for breath. She found herself in Eamon’s estate, in her room, in a warm, comfortable bed. She was not dead, not even in immediate danger of dying. She looked to her right, and Alistair lay there, breathing deep and slow. He was alive too. He had not been exiled. She felt her hair. It still fell along her back in rivers of mahogany tresses. The Landsmeet had not happened. Anora was sleeping in the other room…the double crossing bitch. Loghain had yet to have been brought to justice. Everything had been so vivid…had she seen the future? Was that what would happen, if Elissa allowed herself to be compassionate the next day? Suddenly, Leliana’s claims of having visions were not as laughable.
She sheathed her dagger, lay back down, and curled up next to Alistair, who shifted, sleepily taking her in his arms. She swore to herself she would allow Alistair his vengeance, and that he would be ruler, not Anora, even if she had to prod him with a hot iron. She swore her dream would not come true.
Alistair stirred again, woken by her fidgeting, and through drowsy eyes, he examined her and asked, “You all right?” Elissa placed a hand on his cheek and grinned to reassure him.
“I’m just fine. Go back to sleep, sweetheart.” He smiled groggily and ran a hand through her long hair before resting his arm over her waist, pulling her close. She nuzzled in, content to let sleep claim her. All was well for now.