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Hold My Heart

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On the day of her second wedding, Elissa Cousland woke to a pink dawn sky and Arlessa Isolde clucking over her like a hen, puffed up on her own self-importance. Isolde spoke rapidly to the servants, her ridiculous accent making Elissa long to cover her ears with a pillow and go back to sleep. Instead, she was roughly pulled from the warmth of her blankets and forced to undress and take a bath in the company of strangers.

The bath itself was fine enough—one maid rubbed sweet-smelling oil into her hair, while another tended to her nails. It was disconcerting to have so many people touching her and watching her, but Elissa had spent many days mentally preparing herself for the process of getting ready and getting married. As long as no unfamiliar men touched her, she’d be alright. Soon enough, she was clean enough to meet even Isolde’s standards, and it was time to be dressed.

First a thin shift of snowy linen, then her hair was combed out and dried, twisted atop her head with golden pins. Next, kohl was applied to her eyes, rouge to her lips and cheeks, all to enhance her “lovely Ferelden looks.” And then, finally, the dress. Even the Arlessa had to admit that it was beautiful. The low, scooping neckline was meant to show off the clean lines of shoulder, neck, and collarbone; the bodice meant to enhance Elissa’s sweetly curving body. The silk itself was a pure silvery-white, embroidered with shimmering gold thread in swirling designs of flowers and laurel leaves. To finish the look, a laurel crown, painstakingly crafted from gold and set with diamonds and pearls was placed upon Elissa’s dark head. And though Elissa did not feel much like a queen, she looked the part quite well indeed.

Once she was ready, Elissa was brought to a side room, just off the great hall. Isolde ordered her to wait there and not move; Fergus was to come soon to escort her down the aisle and give her to her new husband.

Elissa did not spend her time in that room, waiting for her brother, waiting to be married, crying and raging at the injustice of being married to a man who was already in love with someone else—a dead hero to whom Elissa could never compare. She did not think of her first husband, who had been three times her age, who had only ever shown her cruelty and pain. She did not think of the expectations of the people waiting in the great hall of the royal palace, or the crowd waiting in the streets to see their new queen. Instead, Elissa thought of Neria Surana, the Hero of Ferelden, with her dark eyes and her silver hair and sparking fingers. The woman Alistair Therin truly loved, who had been brave and kind. Who had saved Elissa from Rendon Howe and let her slit the bastard’s throat herself.

“I’m Elissa Cousland, rightful Teryna of Highever. Howe killed my family, raped me, and then married me so he could claim Highever for himself. If you help me kill him, I’ll support you in the Landsmeet and give you all the information I know about what he and Logain have been doing.”

Neria, small beside the armored bulk of a man that could only be Alistair Theirin, tilted her head and examined Elissa, almost birdlike in her movements and her bearing. Her other companions, a blond elf and a hornless Qunari both looked dubious.

“This could be another trick,” Alistair said softly. “Or a trap.”

But it was the elf Zevran who convinced Neria. “This woman bears signs of abuse, my friends. Look at her, how she cringes from us, the bruises on her face and her arms, the deep fear in her eyes. I do not think she is lying, and a firsthand witness to Howe’s crimes would be very useful indeed.”

The Qunari said nothing.

Finally, Neria nodded. “Zev, give her one of your daggers. Lady Cousland, come with us. We’re going to go make you a widow.”

Neria had saved her, had saved all of Ferelden. But she was dead and gone, her final act one of immeasurable sacrifice. And now Elissa was to marry Neria’s lover and become a queen.

Fergus came to escort his sister to her new husband before she could get too antsy. He didn’t tell her she made a beautiful bride; he didn’t say anything at all. He merely held out his arm. Obligingly, Elissa tucked her hand into the curve of his armored elbow, chainmail cold against her palm. Fergus always wore armor these days.

As they stood before the great double doors, Elissa’s stomach erupted into butterflies. She didn’t want to embarrass herself in front of all the noble families of Ferelden. She was barely nineteen and already a widow—having dispatched her previous husband herself—and yet the idea of making a mistake in front of so many people, people who she would rule as their queen, was suddenly terrifying. And Elissa knew she couldn’t turn to her brother for help. So, she took a deep steadying breath, rolled her shoulders back, and raised her head high. She was her mother’s daughter, after all.

The doors opened, and together Elissa and Fergus began the long walk forward. At the end of the aisle stood Alistair, clad in white and gold to match his bride, a golden crown resting on his golden hair. His hazel eyes were steady and serious, and his shoulders were tight with tension. Elissa knew he wished someone else was walking toward him to become his wife. Someone of slighter frame, with silver hair and delicately pointed ears. Instead it was Elissa, dark-haired, wide-hipped and human.

After what seemed an eternity, they reached the end, and Fergus handed Elissa off to Alistair. The Revered Mother, resplendent in her robes, smiled and began the service. She spoke for a while of the love between the Maker and Andraste, and how marriage was beautiful and precious. As she spoke, Alistair held Elissa’s hands loosely in his own, looking sad and pensive. And then came the time for the vows.

“I swear unto the Maker and the Holy Andraste to love and honor this woman the rest of my days,” Alistair intoned.

“I swear unto the Maker and the Holy Andraste to love and honor this man the rest of my days,” Elissa repeated.

The Revered Mother smiled fondly and held out her arms. “The Maker and Holy Andraste have heard your vows; may you never be foresworn. Let Ferelden greet it’s King and his new Queen!”

Still holding hands, Alistair and Elissa turned to face the witnesses of their joining; the crowd cheered and clapped—though when Elissa’s eyes found Fergus he looked terribly sad. She almost hated him, in that moment, her brother who had made this decision for her, without stopping to think of what she wanted. And she was maliciously glad that he was unhappy; it was spiteful, she knew, but she wanted him to be as miserable as her. One was supposed to be happy on their wedding day, but Elissa felt nothing but rage and pain and trepidation—the same as she had felt on her last wedding day. Once again, she was wed to a man she did not love, who did not love her either.

If he tries to rape me tonight, Elissa thought, I’ll kill him, damn the consequences. I will never submit to a man again.

*

The wedding feast took forever, course upon course of rich food that made Elissa queasy just looking at. Her head ached, and she was exhausted, the day a trial in playacting the dutiful bride. She picked at some of the simpler dishes served but didn’t eat much. She was rather the opposite of hungry. She didn’t drink much wine either, sipping instead at the sweet, non-alcoholic cider that she had favored since childhood. She could tell that it was made from apples from the Highever orchards and was absurdly grateful to whoever had thought of such a thing.

Once the feasting was over, the tables were pushed toward the walls of the great hall to make room for dancing. Minstrels took up their instruments and began to play. Alistair led her out onto the dance floor for their first dance as man and wife, as King and Queen of Ferelden. He held her carefully in the strong circle of his arms, keeping his grip on her loose but steady as he waltzed her around the room. He was a decent dancer, though Elissa figured he could use more practice. She was thankful he didn’t try to grope her.

They danced a bit more before Fergus cut in, and she and her brother did not speak for the entirety of their dance. She was then subjected to a dance with Eamon, and then Teagan before Bann Alfstanna offered her a hand. Alfstanna was a few years older than Elissa and a very fine dancer indeed. She led better than most men could dream of.

And when the dancing was done, Elissa and Alistair were led to the King’s chambers and left there with much laughter. The doors closed behind the raucous crowd with a low thump of finality and, for the first time, Alistair and Elissa were alone.

The room itself was quite nice, decorated with warm hues of red and gold and stone carvings of dogs and warriors and horses. The bed was a four-poster monstrosity, piled high with pillows and blankets. Before the wide fireplace was a bearskin rug. At the foot of the bed was a large wooden chest, and in the far-left corner, behind a screen decorated with images of the sea, was a copper tub big enough for at least two people. The room was bathed in the light of a roaring fire.

“I’m sorry,” Alistair said softly, once the noise in the hallway had faded.

Elissa raised her eyebrows, masking her surprise as best as she could. “Whatever for?”

“None of the Landsmeet thought to ask what you wanted. As Eamon explained to me, you were obviously the best choice to become my wife, the daughter of a Teryn as the previous Queen was, young but not too young, and known to be a dutiful daughter. When your name was suggested, your brother agreed right away, and nobody even bothered to wonder if the woman so recently widowed—by choice—would want to marry again,” the King explained, obviously having practiced this speech as some point.

“I…thank you for the acknowledgement, my lord. I didn’t think anyone would care. To be honest, I’m furious with my brother. He was able to marry for love, just as my parents were. My father swore that I would choose who I would marry, if I wanted to marry at all, but it seems that was not to be. I am not the first woman to be denied a choice in my marriage, but Fergus has denied me the right our parents gave him simply because I survived when his wife and son did not.” Elissa’s voice was filled with bitterness and edged with ice.

“I’m sorry,” Alistair said again, not knowing what else he could do.

For a long, tense moment, neither of them spoke, simply standing before the fire in their wedding finery. Alistair was gilded in the firelight, golden hair and golden skin and golden crown all seeming to declare that this man was born to be a king. Elissa could admit to herself that he was handsome—far more handsome than most of the men she’d known. And yet there was something unsettled in him, something she couldn’t quite place. An insecurity, a desperation; something deep inside him was broken. She wondered if he had always been that way, or if it was the loss of Neria that had hurt him so. Or perhaps some mixture of the two.

Alistair took a deep breath then let it out on a long exhale. “I’m not…I’m not going to hurt you, in case you thought I might. I don’t even know you, really, but I don’t want to hurt you. Zevran—the assassin who traveled with Neira and I—he said that you’d probably been hurt very badly and that you wouldn’t want to be touched or anything like that. He grew up in a whorehouse, so he considers himself an expert on women. Not that I’d ever compare you to a prostitute; you’re a lady—”

Elissa held up a hand to stop the rush of words. “My lord, it’s alright. I know you didn’t mean to insult me.” She felt mildly amused by his awkwardness, and it put her at ease. She was glad she wouldn’t have to slit his throat as she had her previous husband’s. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t touch me though. Your friend was right about that at least.”

He nodded. “You don’t have to call me by any titles—you’re Queen of Ferelden, my equal. Just call me by my name, and I’ll call you by yours. I’d…I’d like to be friends, if that’s at all possible.”

“Friends?”

Alistair nodded again.

“I think I’d like that…Alistair.”

“Then as your friend, I promise not to hurt you. And as your husband, I swear to protect you from those who would do you harm, and to destroy your enemies without mercy,” he said, his face uncharacteristically solemn.  

Then her husband grinned at her, and her heart fluttered at the kindness in his hazel eyes. Ruthlessly, she squashed the sentiment. Love is not for you, Elissa reminded herself. You stopped being capable of it when Howe destroyed Highever.

“There is one slight problem though,” Alistair said with a sigh.

“And what would that be?”

“The people eagerly waiting behind that door with their ears pressed to the keyhole are going to want something to prove that we consummated our marriage.”

Elissa paled, fear making her go cold, but then Alistair waggled his eyebrows at her, smile never wavering. He wasn’t going to hurt her.

“How loudly and dramatically do you think we can moan before they go away?”  

*

The soldier dragged her into the great hall, her mother behind her. They were probably going to die, Elissa knew, like Oren and Oriana. Both she and her mother were in their nightgowns, having been roused from their beds by the fighting. Elissa’s cheek ached from where a man had backhanded her with a mail-clad fist, and she was furious and mournful and plotting all the ways she might kill the traitorous Howe. Cutting open his belly and using his own entrails to hang him seemed like a good place to start.

“Ah, Eleanor and Elissa, how good of you to join us,” Howe said, a smile on his face. On the ground at his feet lay Elissa’s father, bleeding and near death. “I’m glad to see that my men followed my orders so well.”

“The Antivan whore and her whelp are dead, my lord,” the man gripping her arm reports.

“Wonderful. And all the servants and visitors too?”

“Indeed, my lord.”

“Good man! Now, Bryce, as I was saying, your life is forfeit, on account of you being a traitor to the crown. Highever is mine!”

Elissa bared her teeth at the older man and snarled, “Highever belongs to the Couslands! And my father is not a traitor! You’re a liar, and when King Cailan finds out what you’ve done here he’ll put your head on a spike, you treasonous bastard.”

Howe sighed in a very put-upon manner and walked slowly towards her. “Poor little Elissa. How sad I feel for you, that you have been so terribly deceived by your family.” He took her chin in his hand, fingers cold, and made her meet his icy eyes. “Fear not, my dear, you’ll survive this night.”

“Don’t touch her,” Bryce gritted out, a hand pressed to his stomach in a failed attempt to staunch the bleeding.

Howe laughed. “She’s mine to do with as I wish. And she’s partially right; I do need a more legitimate claim to Highever. Which is why, bright and early tomorrow morning, I am taking pity on my former friend’s disgraced daughter and giving her my own name to cover her family’s ignominy.”

Eleanor struggled against her own captor. “If you touch my daughter, snake, I’ll slit your throat myself,” the Teryna hissed.

The Arl made a derisive sound and released Elissa. He moved over to Eleanor, and in a single move, whipped a dagger from his belt and drew it across her white throat. Elissa screamed as her mother fell, screamed and screamed and didn’t stop until the soldier holding her knocked her into blessed unconsciousness.

Elissa woke with a muffled sob, terror clawing at her as she sat straight up in bed, legs tangled in the blankets. For a moment she couldn’t place herself, only knew that she was in an unfamiliar bedroom, an unfamiliar bed, and was not alone. She turned, ready to rip Howe’s throat open with her teeth to find that her bedmate was someone else entirely. It’s only Alistair, my husband, the King of Ferelden, she reminded herself. We were married yesterday, and he promised he wouldn’t hurt me.

She breathed a slow sigh of relief and sank back into the pillows. She was safe. Her heartbeat slowed from the pounding, panicked pace it had assumed during her nightmare and her fear receded. She was safe and Alistair wouldn’t hurt her. The room lightened at a snail’s pace, the dawn sun filtering through the curtains and bathing the room in a red-pink glow. After a long time, Alistair began to stir.

“Sleep well?” he asked, a gentle invitation to tell him about her nightmares.

“Well enough. And you?”

He sat up and shrugged. “I’m more used to bedrolls on the hard ground than featherbeds, but I suppose I’ll have to live with it.” He stood and stretched, muscles rippling with the movement—he’d slept shirtless, as was his habit, after asking Elissa if it was alright. Once again, she was struck by how handsome her husband was. He was much younger than Howe, and his shoulders were broader, his muscles more defined from carrying a longsword and a shield and wearing heavy plate armor. Alistair was more than just a king, he was a warrior through and through. And yet he also had a gentleness than many men lacked.

Elissa sat up and shook the thoughts from her head. Handsome as he was, the thought of those muscled arms holding her close was repugnant. Not because she hated him or thought him repulsive; it was simply the thought of any man touching her so intimately that bothered her. She wondered if she would ever feel any differently. She’d certainly like men before, and had flirted incessantly with Ser Gilmore, but now…now the very idea a sex made her want to vomit.

Alistair’s voice snapped her from her thoughts. “Elissa?”

She looked up. “Yes?”

“I was wondering if you wanted to come to the Council with me. You don’t have to, but I thought I should ask, just in case.”

Elissa shook her head. “I’d prefer not to; perhaps another time? But if you ever want my opinion on something important, all you need to do is ask. My mother advised my father quite often, as they were partners in everything. And they never disagreed in public—they always had their debates in private to create a unified front. Father never made a big decision without speaking to my mother first.”  

Alistair seemed to consider her words for a moment. “Is that what you want? To be my partner?”

 Elissa stood and wrapped her arms around herself. “I don’t know. It’s just…I spent the last year the unwilling wife of a monster. Now I’m married once more—not by choice—and I’ve barely had a moment to breathe. My whole life has just changed. I need some time before I can be the Queen Ferelden deserves. Does that make any sense at all?”

He felt a brief stab of pity, and an answering swell of sorrow at the grief in her voice. He missed Neria like someone else might miss a limb. When she’d died, it had felt like his world was gone, like he’d lost his right arm. Like his heart had been ripped out. Neria had been the first person to care about him aside from Duncan and losing her was the worst thing to ever happen to him. He’d never had a family, not really, but he’d lost the Grey Wardens at Ostagar, so he couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for Elissa to lose most of her family in one fell swoop, and then be raped and abused by their murderer for a year.

“Of course, it does,” Alistair said softly. “Take as much time as you need.”

Elissa granted him a small smile. “I know you’re new at this, though, so I’ll help you when you ask. Maybe when we have supper together you can give me a summary of what happened on the Council and if you need advice, I can give it to you.”

He answered her tentative smile with one of his own. “Thank you, Elissa.”

*

Elissa’s days fell into a routine: wake up, get dressed, eat, suffer the company of other noble women, try to run the castle only to have Isolde tell her she’s doing everything wrong, hide in the library, eat supper with Alistair, go to bed and have terrible nightmares. She spent the vast majority of her time either in the royal library or roaming the gardens. She knew that as the Queen, she should have been running the castle with the help of the Steward, but after two days of Isolde making very Orlesian, vaguely disapproving sounds at her, she’d given up and let the other woman have her way. Elissa was just too tired to deal with her bullshit—not that she would ever be able to say that to the woman’s face.

Alistair never failed to be kind to her, never failed to be understanding and gentle. He was still sad, still mourning the loss of his beloved Neria, but he was good to Elissa. He always asked for her opinions during their suppers together—they ate together privately most of the time, since big feasts were only for holidays and visiting dignitaries. She couldn’t say that she didn’t like him, as he was hard not to like. Sure, his sense of humor was a little juvenile and he didn’t know much about ruling, but he was a good man and she genuinely enjoyed their suppers together.

All this she pondered, two weeks after her wedding, sitting quietly in the library with a book open in her lap, when Alistair found her.

“Elissa?”

She looked up and found her husband standing in a puddle of sunlight. Her breath caught before she managed to stifle the swell of attraction beneath a wave of logic. “Good afternoon, my lord husband. Shouldn’t you be in Council with Arl Eamon?” she asked with a wry twist to her lips.

Alistair shrugged. “Maybe, lady wife,” he responded, grinning. “But I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Is everything alright?”

He sighed and his smile faded. “Well…there’s a bit of a situation. Anora is demanding to speak with you.” His hands clenched into fists, his frustration obvious. “She badgers her guards constantly, even though she has no right to anything. She’s a prisoner, damn it! And yet still she insists. Eamon said that I should just ignore her, but since it’s you she wants to talk to…it’s your decision, Elissa.”

She closed her book and folded her hands together on top of it. “Did she say why she wanted to speak with me?”

Alistair shook his head.

Elissa swallowed hard and decided. “I’ll go speak with her tomorrow, if only to make her stop bothering the guards. Anora’s a stubborn woman; she won’t stop until she gets what she wants.”

“Do you know her well?”

She shook her head. “Not well, no. I wasn’t at court as often as she was, and she’s older than me besides. We met a handful of times and didn’t spend much time in each other’s company; we were supposed to be rivals, you see.”

Alistair’s eyes widened. “Rivals?”

“That’s sort of how the cards fell. Both of us were the young, beautiful daughters of a Teryn. Before King Maric died, there was the question of who he might choose as a match for Cailan, me or her. But he died before any betrothal took place, and when Cailan was crowned, Anora was older and had been at court more often, so it was her he chose. I didn’t mind much, since I didn’t have any particular interest in ruling. I do wonder, though…”

“Wonder what?” Alistair queried.

“About six months before the Battle of Ostagar, my father was called to court by King Cailan. When he returned to Highever, he asked me if I had any interest in being married yet. And my mother hinted that after Ostagar everything would be different. It’s possible that Cailan was going to put Anora aside on the basis of her being barren, and was considering courting me,” Elissa explained, her voice soft.

“I had no idea,” Alistair murmured, sinking down onto his knees before her and taking her hands in his. “You don’t have to talk to her, Elissa. You don’t owe that woman anything.”

Gently, she squeezed his hands, noticing the rough callouses from years of wielding a sword. “I’ll be alright. And I am curious to hear what she has to say.”

*

There was a strange sort of irony in Alistair’s choice of where to keep the disgraced former-queen. She was incarcerated in Fort Drakon, given a room with iron bars on the windows and a heavy door that was barred and locked from the outside. She was allowed to walk around the battlements once a day, surrounded by guards, but otherwise was kept to her room. Elissa couldn’t help but be a little amused by the fact that the woman whose father had almost destroyed Ferelden had to live at the very site of Neria Surana’s greatest victory.

The two men guarding Anora’s door bowed low to Elissa when she arrived, their deference strangely comforting in the cool, shadowed halls of the fort. She was the Queen of Ferelden and she was in control. She nodded, and the door was unbarred, unlocked, and opened.

Inside, Anora Mac Tir was sitting gracefully on her bed, wearing a simple dress of rough, undyed wool. The two women could not have been more different. Anora was taller, with small breasts and slimmer hips, her yellow hair smoothly pulled back from her face. Her eyes were cold as ice. Elissa, meanwhile, was a little shorter, with a generous bust, wide hips, and hair the deep, rich brown of the fertile Ferelden soil.

Elissa squared her shoulders and gave Anora a look she’d learned from her mother, a sort of polite but simultaneously mocking smile that seemed to infer that the recipient was being foolish—Eleanor had used it all the time in Elissa’s younger days. “Lady Mac Tir, how lovely to see you again. I trust your accommodations are sufficient for a woman of your position. I was told you wanted to speak with me, but I haven’t any idea what we could possibly have to discuss.”

Anora’s pale blue eyes narrowed and her lips thinned in displeasure. “Lady Cousland, it is a pleasure to see you again as well. I had hoped we could have a heart to heart, a little chat between a benevolent queen and one of her subjects.”

“You should address me as ‘Your Majesty,’ and as a queen standing before one of her subjects, I can’t imagine any conversation we have being particularly productive. I have come to insist that you stop badgering the faithful men and women guarding you until you are ready to agree to His Majesty’s demands that you give up any entitlement to the throne. Your incessant whining exhausts the guards.”

A flush rose high on Anora’s pale cheeks and for a moment Elissa wondered if the older woman might leap up and try to throttle her. “How dare you—”

“I am the Queen of Ferelden,” Elissa said, soft and dangerous, remembering suddenly the person she had been before Arl Howe had broken her. She was the Seawolf’s daughter, for the Maker’s sake! “And you are nothing more than the daughter of a traitor.”

 “Alistair’s a usurper, and so are you!” Anora cried shrilly, finally standing.

Elissa ground her teeth together; she had been tempestuous once, and it seemed she would be again. “The only person this room who tried to usurp the throne of Ferelden is you. Your father committed regicide, and almost destroyed this kingdom. And you, Lady Mac Tir, let him! You have no right to the crown. It would have been another matter entirely if you had managed to give your husband a child—then you could have argued to be Queen-Regent—but you did not. Alistair Theirin is the rightful King, and no matter what you say or do your claim will always be illegitimate!”

For several moments, neither woman spoke. Then Elissa turned away toward the door, taking a deep breath. “I can only pray that you will come to your senses and give up your unlawful claims,” she tossed over her shoulder, making to leave.

“Your father must be so pleased,” Anora hissed, low and venomous. “He finally got what he wanted, a Cousland whore to rule beside a Theirin King. How sad that he didn’t live to see such a momentous occasion.”

Elissa pivoted sharply to face the older woman, rage overflowing like lava from a volcano. “My father wanted me to be happy,” she snarled. “He loved me, and I was more to him that just a means to fulfill his ambition.”

Anora took a step back like she’d been slapped and was finally, blessedly silent.

Elissa swallowed hard and turned once more to go. This time the former queen said nothing else to stop her, and she left the other woman in her cell-like-room. She did not look back, not once.

Chapter Text

Neria’s long hair was a puddle of silver around her head, even brighter against the deep red fabric of Alistair’s sheets, and her dark eyes were tight shut. “Alistair,” she gasped out, pink lips open enticingly. She was so very beautiful, his Neria, especially spread beneath him. Lithe and lovely and the most desirable woman in all of Thedas, he was certain. Her skin glowed in the light of the fire, and he wanted to lick the sweat pooling between her breasts and taste the salt of their exertions on his tongue.

And when she finally came, with Alistair buried deep inside her, the fire in the hearth roared up from its embers. For a moment, the heat in the room, the heat clenching around Alistair, was almost unbearable. But then Neria regained control of herself, reeling her magic back in as her lover spilled himself inside her with a low groan. Alistair’s arms gave out and he collapsed on top of her, his face pillowed on her breasts.

They stayed like that for a while, basking in the afterglow, savoring each other’s closeness. Alistair knew their nights together like this were numbered. Once they left Redcliffe for Denerim, once the Landsmeet was convened, everything would be different. He would lose the woman he loved. Finally, the bastard prince forced himself to pull out and roll to the side; he didn’t want to crush his lover, who, as an elf, was rather daintier than him. He heaved a despondent sigh.

“What’s wrong?” she asked softly.

“How do you always know?”

Neria laughed. “You’re an open book, my love, especially to me. And besides, we’ve shared a bed for almost six months, Alistair. I can tell when you’re upset or when you’re thinking too hard. I know you better than I know even myself. So, darling, tell me what ails you and let’s see if this spirt healer can’t make it better.”

Alistair sat up and scrubbed a hand down his face. “We won’t be able to be together if the Landsmeet makes me King of Ferelden. I heard Eamon and Tegan talking about it, and about possible brides for me. Either they’ll choose some young daughter of a noble or they’ll make me marry Anora. But I…I love you and I don’t ever want to marry anyone but you.”

“Oh, Alistair,” Neria murmured, reaching out and pulling him back into her arms so that his head once more rested on her breast. He could hear the steady beat of her heart, feel the rise and fall of her chest with each breath.

“I mean…it was one thing to sleep with Isabella—you were there and all three of us were participating—but it would be different with another woman,” Alistair continued.

“Kings are not often faithful to their wives, Ali. Your brother certainly wasn’t; did you know that during that month before the battle in Ostagar he propositioned me?”

Alistair tried to rise, envy blazing hot in his chest, but Neria continued to hold him close. “WHAT!”

The mage giggled and stroked her fingers through his hair in an attempt to soothe his ire. “The point is: people don’t expect a king to be true to a queen. Most kings have a mistress or two over the course of their lives—I know because I studied history in the Circle. You yourself are the product of a king’s indiscretion, sweetheart, and there’s no shame in that. I could be your mistress.”

“Wouldn’t that be unfair to whoever I marry?”

Neria’s hand stilled. “Maybe. But the Landsmeet would never allow you to marry an elven mage—and even if they did, Grey Warden women are sterile. I asked one of the older Wardens in Ostagar, and he said he’d heard of a few men siring children after their Joining, but never a woman. I haven’t had my moon’s blood since before my own Joining. I could never give you children, but I could still love you and advise you and warm your bed. I don’t need to be your wife, or a queen—all I want is to stay by your side.”

“I want that too,” Alistair admitted. “I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anything. You’re the first person who’s ever loved me simply for myself, the first person who wanted me for my own sake, the first person who didn’t want to use me.” The bitterness in his voice broke Neria’s heart.

“That’s not true, and you know it. Duncan loved you—loved you like a son, or a little brother. And though I don’t have any proof, I know your mother loved you. Someone as wonderful as you couldn’t have been made by anyone with hate in her heart,” Neria said fiercely, ferocious in her desire to make him understand how loved he was.

“Neria—”

“I didn’t even think I was capable of love before I met you. The Circle had made me cold, as frigid as the depths of the Waking Sea. But then your friendship, and your love, melted my frozen heart. I was inevitably drawn to your warmth, your luminosity. You saved me from my own apathy, and I love you for it. I am yours, heart and body and soul, forever. And I will never stop loving you, Alistair Theirin, not even when I die.”

Overcome by emotion, the only thing Alistair could do was rise and press his mouth fervently to hers. “I love you,” he whispered between each eager kiss. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“Your Majesty?”

Alistair was startled from his reverie by his manservant Peter’s soft voice. The King sat up from where he’d been slouching over his desk in his private solar and rolled his shoulders back. “Yes, Peter?”

“The Queen has returned from Fort Drakon and wishes to speak with you. Should I admit her, or would you prefer to wait to see her until supper?”

“Send her in, please.”

Peter bowed. “Yes, Your Majesty. Right away.”

Elissa swept into the room with a grace and poise that Alistair could only dream of having. Her dark hair was loose around her shoulders, pulled back from her face by combs of silver and pearl. Her long skirts swished around her legs, the deep blue of the samite shimmering in the low light. It was hard to believe that the first time he’d seen her she’d been covered in bruises and begging Neria to help her.

“Husband,” Elissa said in greeting.

“Wife,” Alistair returned. “Can Peter get you anything?”

“A cup of tea would be lovely, and perhaps some cheese.”

“At once,” Peter said, slipping out of the room.

“How was Fort Drakon?”

Elissa heaved a heavy sigh and sank into a chair. “Fine. Dealing with Anora was exhausting; she’s so proud I think she could give a demon a run for its money. Honestly, Alistair, I don’t see her giving up her claim to the throne for anything. I don’t know what you can do with her aside from executing her for treason or keeping her locked up indefinitely. You obviously can’t set her free—she’d be sparking a civil war within the month.”

The King pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “What a mess!”

“I’m sorry,” she offered softly. “I’d hoped I could convince her to give up, but I think I may have just made it worse. We quarreled; she even called me a whore, if you can believe it. As angry as I am with her—both because of her actions and her father’s—I can’t help but pity her as well. If my own father had loved me any less, I could have been exactly the same: selfish, cold, and ambitious.”

Alistair shook his head sharply. “You could never be anything like her.”

Elissa shrugged. “I already told you I was almost Cailan’s wife. If I had been in her position…” She trailed off with a sigh.

“From what you told me, your father would have died before betraying his king. And though I don’t know you very well, Elissa, I know that you are better than Anora. You are kind and clever, not power-hungry and cruel; it’s what makes you a good queen.”

His wife blushed prettily and looked down at her hands. She was truly a lovely woman, Alistair couldn’t help but notice. When she looked up again, Alistair was struck by the intensity of her gaze, the way her eyes, the blue-green of a calm sea, seemed to pierce him right to his very soul. How long had it been since someone complimented her? How long had it been since she felt safe? Maker’s hairy balls! I’ve always had a weakness for pretty girls, and Elissa’s prettier than most. But it’s only been a few months since Neria sacrificed herself to save me and my entire kingdom. How can I still love her but be attracted to the woman before me?

“I do want to be a good queen, someone worthy of the title. I…I love Ferelden, love our history and our culture and the deep strength of our people. Even though I wish I’d had a choice in our marriage, I’m honored to have the chance to serve my kingdom and make it a better place,” Elissa said.

“And how would you make it a better place? If you could do anything to change Ferelden, what would it be?” Alistair asked, curiosity peaked.

His wife thought for a moment and then her eyes lit up. “Didn’t you say that there’d been trouble in the Alienage a few days ago?”

“Yes. There have been clashes with the city guard. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to smooth things over, but Eamon keeps telling me to be cautious.” Alistair snorted. “As though the entire kingdom wasn’t saved by an elf only a few months ago!”

“You could appoint one of their elders Bann of the Alienage, and give them a place on your Council,” Elissa suggested. “That way they’d have more of a voice. And you shouldn’t play cautious with the rights of your people, Alistair, no matter what Eamon tells you. Everyone deserves fair treatment, whether they’re an elf, a human, a dwarf, or whatever.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “I didn’t know you felt that way.”

Elissa shrugged. “Most nobles don’t, especially the older ones. But elves are people, and they deserve respect as surely as humans do.”

“You’re right, of course you’re right. This is why Neria wanted me to be King of Ferelden—to change things for the better. I’ll speak to the Alienage elders and have them choose someone to be Bann and to sit on my Council. The nobles won’t be thrilled, but this is for the good of everyone.”

The Queen grinned at her husband, pleased that she’d been able to help. “Would you mind if I was with you to meet with the elders? I’d love to hear what they have to say, and their suggestions on how to make life in the Alienage better.”

“I know they’ll be thrilled to know their rulers want to help,” Alistair said. “Please come.”

*

The meeting was rather more strained than Alistair had hoped. It had started out well enough, Elissa claiming the seat to his right and sitting calmly beside him. Eamon glowered to his left, which was significantly less pleasant. And then the elves had filed in, the red-haired Shianni, the aged Valendrian, and a man who introduced himself as Cyrion Tabris. They had taken the three remaining seats at the table, Shianni glaring at Alistair as though he had personally spat in her breakfast. He couldn’t really blame her considering what had happened during the Blight.

Elissa inclined her head to the elves, a sign of respect they probably hadn’t ever gotten before. “Welcome, friends,” she said, every inch a queen. Alistair was so lucky he’d ended up with her as a partner instead of someone else.

“Forgive me, but I’m not exactly sure why we’re here. Is there a reason you’ve called us to your palace, Your Majesties?” Valendrian asked, voice like the creaking of a tree.

“Probably to tell us to stop complaining about the guards,” Shianni muttered.

Alistair swallowed hard, remembering what he wanted to say, what Elissa had helped him come up with. “I know that elves have never been treated very well in Ferelden, especially here in Denerim. Many of the Alienage residents were sold illegally into slavery by Logain Mac Tir—and we have been trying to negotiate their return with Tevinter, but it has been slow going. I would like to offer a place on my Council to one of you as a way to try and make up for past wrongs, and so that we might bridge the divide between our peoples.”

“It’s not much,” Elissa said softly, leaning forward towards the elves, her lovely face full of remorse. “But it’s a start. My husband and I also spoke of officially making the Alienage part of the Bannorn, and appointing one of your elders as Bann, so that you would have a voice in the Landsmeet. I also want to personally apologize for what all of you suffered during the Blight—what Teryn Logain and Arl Howe did was despicable. Please, if there’s more we can do help you, let us know.”

All three of the elves were speechless with surprise, especially Shianni. It was obvious to Alistair that no one had ever offered to help them, that no one had ever apologized for the horrible treatment elves were expected to endure. “Elves don’t expect apologies,” Neria had told him once. Guilt gnawed at his insides.

“I want Vaughan Kendells punished,” Shianni declared suddenly, rage burning in her eyes.

Eamon choked on his breath. “The Arl of Denerim?”

“Yes. Right before the Blight, he abducted myself, my cousin Kallian Tabris, and several other elven girls during my cousin’s wedding. One of them was murdered right away, but Kallian managed to get free and cut her way through the arl’s palace to me. But Vaughan Kendells disarmed her, raped her, and killed her. And then when he was done raping the rest of us girls, he let us go.”

Elissa had paled considerably during Shianni’s explanation, and Alistair wanted to reach out to her, but he knew his touch would probably be unwelcome. He turned to Cyrion Tabris. “This Kallian Tabris, was she your daughter?”

Cyrion bowed his head, a terrible sadness in his face. “Yes. It was her wedding day, and instead of a happy beginning, she was given death and pain.”

“That day wasn’t the first time the nobles of Denerim, especially young Kendells, have hurt the innocent women of our Alienage,” Valendrian added.  

Alistair turned toward Elissa and nearly flinched at the look in her eyes. “Elissa,” he said gently, “are you alright?”

She nodded slowly, her eyes still on the elven woman. “There will be justice for you, Shianni, this I swear as Queen of Ferelden. There will be justice for your brave cousin, and for all the women who have been hurt at his hands.”

Shianni held her gaze for a long time before speaking. “Thank you, my Queen.”

“We cannot simply arrest the Arl of Denerim!” Eamon spluttered.

“Why not?” Alistair asked, his own anger sparking. “There are laws against rape, Uncle, laws that are nearly as old as Ferelden itself. How the hell did this escape notice for so long?”

“We’re elves, Sire,” Cyrion said. “No one cares about elves.”

“We care.” Elissa’s eyes were hard as silverite. “And we will not make the mistakes of our predecessors.”

Alistair nodded. “Choose which one of you will be Bann of the Alienage and serve on my Council. Once you’ve made that decision, Vaughan will be put on trial for rape and murder. Thank all of you for your time today.”

Valendrian stood and bowed deeply. “Thank you, Your Majesties.”

The elves left as quietly as they came, but their shoulders were significantly less bowed than before. Alistair felt a brief swell of relief and knew that Neria would be proud of him. In her name, in her honor, he would make Ferelden a beacon of hope and justice. And more than that, he would guarantee that elves would have the equality they deserved.

“Alistair,” Eamon said, voice edged with caution, “you cannot execute the Arl of Denerim. Even putting him on trial is ridiculous! I suppose it’s clever to put an elf on your Council, if only to keep them from rioting, but making one of them a Bann? It’s preposterous.”

Elissa stood, cast a scathing glare at Arl Eamon, and stalked out of the room, her long skirts trailing out behind her. Alistair’s heart sank. “It’s the right thing to do, Uncle. I know it is.”

Eamon snorted. “This is Neria Surana’s influence.”

“And if it is? Neria was right about the treatment of elves. About the treatment of mages. We must do better, must be better. You’re the one who wanted me to be king, Uncle. Well, this is me being the fucking king!” Alistair shouted before following his wife out of the room.

*

He found Elissa in their room, staring blankly out the window, her freckles standing out in stark relief against her creamy skin. She seemed unbearably weary as she pulled a comb slowly through her dark hair; her hands shook a little with every swipe of the ivory teeth through the already-smooth locks.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I killed Rendon Howe without an ounce of pity in my heart. I slit his throat as he did my mother’s, and as his blood slicked over my hands and turned my skin scarlet, it felt like an ablution. I felt cleansed by his death, but I’m not sure if what I exacted was justice or vengeance. I will never forget what he did to me, no matter how long I live or how happy I am. I will always remember, and the stain of it on my soul will never be truly gone. But his death helped; knowing that he will never hurt me or anyone else again comforts me. How can I not grant Shianni the same comfort?”

Alistair leaned against one of the bedposts, watching her. He wanted more than anything to comfort her, to make it all better somehow, but he didn’t know what to do. Elissa was so different from Neria—solemn and sad where his love had been bright and enchanting. Neria had covered up the old hurts she’d suffered with wit and humor and had usually gotten angry instead of melancholy. He had been good at soothing her fiery temper, but he was so clumsy when it came to trying to help his wife.

“I understand. Maybe not as deeply as I could since no one’s ever hurt me the way Howe hurt you, but even though I don’t know exactly how you feel, I understand the desire for justice. And no matter what, Vaughan Kendells will be put on trial and punished for his crimes. I want to make it clear to all of Ferelden that I’ll stand for what’s right, that I’m going to serve my people, not just the nobles.”

Elissa finally looked at him, something soft in her eyes, in her face; there was a warmth in her Alistair hadn’t seen before. “You’re a good king, Alistair. Doing what’s right isn’t always easy, but I’ll help you when you need me.”

“I know this marriage isn’t what you wanted—it’s not even what I wanted—but I’m glad that out of every noblewoman in Thedas, that the Landsmeet chose you. Ferelden is lucky to have you as it’s Queen.”

“Ferelden is lucky to have you, too. And I’m glad that if I have to suffer through a marriage, it’s to someone as kindhearted as you.”

*

Neria was fast asleep, her silver head resting easily on Alistair’s thigh, her breathing slow and steady. He ran his hand over her hair, over and over again, marveling at the silken softness of his lover’s locks. He loved her so much, this beautiful, wonderful woman. Fierce and fearless and entirely his. The fire before them crackled merrily, casting the trees surrounding the forest clearing into forbidding shadows. The camp was quiet, everyone resting after a long day of walking. The sun had only just set.

Wynne slipped out of her tent and took a seat before the fire, heaving a weary sigh. The endless travel was starting to weigh on her.

“Dinner should be ready soon,” Alistair said softly. “Neria just fell asleep waiting for the stew to bubble.”

“That girl has an uncanny ability to sleep anywhere, anytime. I would find her in the strangest places in the tower—once she somehow fell asleep on the top of a very tall bookshelf. I still haven’t the faintest idea how she got up there, tiny thing she is,” Wynne said with a wry chuckle.

He grinned down at his fellow Warden and felt another bloom of love in his chest. “The only time I haven’t seen her sleep well was in the deep roads. But we won’t be going back there anytime soon, I hope.”

“Alistair, do you think we could speak?” Wynne’s voice took on a strange tone.

“Of course. Is something wrong?”

“I am…concerned about you. Specifically, your relationship with Neria. I’ll admit she’s a charming young woman, full of fire. I understand why you’re drawn to her; there were many in Kinloch who pined after her. I simply want to advise caution.”

“Caution?” Alistair asked flatly.

“Despite her youth, Neria is far more experienced than you are. And she’s always been a flighty creature, running hot and then cold, flirting with everyone she met. I worry that she’ll hurt you.”

“She won’t.” There was steel in his voice.

“Perhaps not intentionally, but it’s inevitable,” Wynne said. “Neria Surana is a heartbreaker, Alistair, and she always has been. She’s a lovely woman, clever and determined, and I don’t doubt that together the two of you can stop this Blight. But she’s also reckless. I don’t wish to insult her, but I also don’t want you to be unprepared for—”

“For what? When she inevitably breaks my heart?”

“Yes.”

“I love her,” Alistair said, quiet but adamant. “She’s the love of my life. And if she breaks my heart, fine, but I will never stop loving her. For as long as I live, as long as I draw breath, I will love her. No one has ever chosen me for my own sake, Wynne. No one but her. I know you may not believe it, but Neria does love me. And she’s promised to stay with me forever.”

“I see.”

“I know that you’re trying to help. That you want to look out for me. But I don’t need you to. Neria won’t hurt me. She won’t break my heart, and she won’t leave me. I know it in my soul.”

Wynne nodded. “Then I wish you both as much happiness as can be had.”

Alistair woke to the sound of Elissa sobbing into her pillow, curled up into a ball on her side of the bed, dark hair tangled from nightmares. She looked so small, huddled beneath the blankets, hidden in the shadows cast by the dying fire in the hearth. If she were Neria, he would have swept her into his arms and covered her face with kisses and made her laugh until she forgot her fear. But she was Elissa, his wife who hated to be touched and who flinched when any man spoke too loudly.

Slowly, he turned onto his side to look at her. “What can I do for you? How can I help you, Elissa?”

She blinked owlishly at him, tears still slipping from her eyes. “Would you just…talk? You’re good at talking and I think it would make me feel better to think about something else.”

He chuckled. “What about?”  

“Tell me about Neria.”

Alistair closed his eyes and called Neria’s face to the forefront of his mind. “She had the loveliest eyes,” he whispered. “They were the color of lazurite, that deep, deep indigo—I got lost in them sometimes. And she…she was quite clever; the wittiest woman I’ve ever met. I swear, I was always at least three steps behind her, but she never treated me like I was stupid. She teased me—well, alright, she teased everyone—but she didn’t ever make me feel like I was truly a fool. I loved that about her. I loved the gentle, compassionate woman obscured by the feisty, fearless mage. I loved the way she laughed, the way she moved, the way her healing magic washed over me in battle.”

“I’m sorry you lost her,” Elissa said softly.

“Me too.”

“When did you know that you were in love with her?”

“It was embarrassingly early,” he said, and even in the low light, Elissa could make out the flush on his cheeks signaling his mortification. “We were leaving the Circle of Magi after clearing it of demons, abominations, and blood mages, and we were sitting together on the boat crossing the lake. She leaned against me, even though I was wearing heavy plate, and put her head on my shoulder. ‘Alistair,’ she said, ‘Tell me I did the right thing in stopping the Rite of Annulment.’ So, I told her she’d done the right thing, and she slipped my gauntlet off my hand and twined our fingers together. It was the first time she’d ever actually touched me, and it felt like I’d been struck by lightning in the best way possible. That’s when I knew.”

“I’ve never been in love,” Elissa admitted. “There was a man I thought I might grow to care for, but he’s dead now. He died when Howe took Highever. And after Howe died…I didn’t think I would ever marry. I wanted to spend the rest of my life alone somewhere quiet; I was thinking I might join the Chantry, if only for the peace provided by a monastery.”

Alistair snorted. “They aren’t that peaceful. Trust me, I was practically raised in one.”

“I thought Arl Eamon raised you.”

“Oh. Yes, well, you see, he sent me to a monastery when I was ten for Templar training. It wasn’t what I wanted…but Isolde insisted I leave Redcliffe.”

Elissa’s blood boiled with rage at the thought of a young Alistair being sent away from his home because of some woman’s bitterness and jealousy. She’d never liked the Arlessa, but now she was contemplating murder. When did Alistair become so important to me? When did I start wanting to protect him? “I’ll banish that bloody woman from court,” she hissed.

“It’s alright. Really.”

“It isn’t,” she insisted, sitting up. “She’s a menace, and it seems she always has been. How dare she send you away from your home against your will! How dare she make you feel unwanted! She makes everyone around her miserable—the servants, the gardeners, our stewards. And every time I try to act like a queen, every time I try to make a decision, she tells me it’s wrong and that I should do it her way. No more!”

“Elissa,” Alistair said soothingly, “calm down. It’s alright to be angry, and you are more than welcome to give her a stern talking to about the proper way to treat one’s monarch, but you can’t banish my chancellor’s wife from court.”

Slowly, her anger cooled, and she lay back down again. “I’ve never had the patience for dealing with people like her: entitled nobles who think they are the only people who matter. And I’ve never met even a halfway decent Orlesian.”

“I’ve only met one that I liked, and her mother was from Ferelden,” Alistair confessed with a wry smile.

*

Alistair and Elissa painted an imposing picture together, sitting upon their twin thrones. The King’s throne was solid oak, inlaid with gold, the arms ending in snarling mabari. Elissa’s own throne was a little more delicate, carved from the pale limbs of rowan trees and inlaid with silver. They both wore their crowns—the golden leaves of the laurel wreath shimmering in their place upon Elissa’s dark head. Her face was stern and hard as though she’d been carved from marble.

Alistair spoke into the silence of the Landsmeet chamber, his voice firm and clear. “Vaughan Kendells, you have been brought before me to stand trial for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Kallian Tabris of the Denerim Alienage, among others. How do you plead?”

The young Arl of Denerim had a haughty air, even bound and shackled as he was. “I am not guilty, Your Majesty,” he said.

“So, it is not true that during the month of Cloudreach, 9:30 Dragon, you kidnapped Kallian Tabris from her own wedding, as well as her cousin Shianni and three other elven women, took them to your estate, and then proceeded to rape them?” Elissa asked, sharp as the edge of a sword. Her narrowed eyes were flinty as she glared at the man.

“We have the testimony of several witnesses of the incident, including a Chantry mother. You aren’t suggesting that someone who serves the Chantry would lie, are you?” Alistair prodded. “And, of course, the new Bann of the Alienage has given us a testimony that would break the heart of any sane person. Yet you deny your guilt.”  

Kendells paled slowly, realizing suddenly that his monarchs were very serious and very, very angry. It was obvious in the hard line of the King’s jaw, in the tension in the Queen’s shoulders. He was in exceedingly deep shit, and he wouldn’t be able to talk his way out of it.

“Your servants and retainers and guards have also been questioned,” Alistair continued. “They have given us in-depth evidence of your many, many trespasses. Rape is illegal, you know. Has been since my ancestor Calenhad Theirin united Ferelden. We have proof that you have raped many women, mostly elves. What do you have to say in your defense?”

“They…they were just knife-ears!” Kendells sputtered. “They aren’t important. And that slut Tabris killed over a dozen of my men!”

“After you kidnapped her and raped her cousin!” Elissa hissed, righteous anger alight in her eyes.

Alistair stood. “I, Alistair Theirin, King of Ferelden, sentence you to exile. You are hereby stripped of your nobility; your titles and lands are forfeit. Tomorrow, you will board a ship and you will never return to my kingdom—and warnings of the kind of man you are will be sent to every ruler in Thedas. No matter where you go, you will be known for exactly what you are.” He waved a hand at the guards. “Take him away.”

Elissa stood as well and took her place at her husband’s side. As they dragged the former Arl away she reached out and slipped her hand into Alistair’s. She squeezed his fingers gently, and he let himself begin to hope for a future filled with happiness.