Denerim was a distant memory for Elissa. Seven years old, wearing a blue velvet dress her mother had given her as a Wintersend gift. Smoothing it out nervously with her hands, eyes wide and bright, drinking in the sights and sounds and tastes of the capital. The sound of the Chant, filtering out from what had seemed at the time the grandest Chantry in all the world. The throngs of people rushing to and fro across the great market square, so abuzz with activity. The arls and banns in their finery, coming and going from meetings with her father. How she had stared at the guards' shiny silverite swords and the ladies' silk dresses, longing for both in equal measure.
She remembered glimpsing the king and his young prince from across the great hall in the Couslands' Denerim estate. Loghain had been with them, his daughter at his side. Her red dress had seemed so much grander than Elissa's, her posture so much more regal. Their eyes had met, once. Anora had smiled politely, as Eleanor had again and again tried to teach Elissa to do. Elissa couldn't remember her own reaction. Had she attempted to smile back, wobbly and awkward? Had she scowled and looked away? It was so long ago, now. There were so many years and so much blood between that moment and this one.
Anora stood now in front of Elissa in Arl Eamon's estate. Her dress was, as it had been then, so much more elegant than Elissa's tarnished, scratched, and weathered blue-and-silver Warden armor. She still carried herself with so much more grace than Elissa had ever learned on a battlefield.
As Anora smiled her polite smile and kept her carefully guarded expression, it felt for a moment as though nothing had changed. And yet everything had; Elissa was no longer the girl who had gaped at the sight of the city, and Anora was no longer merely the daughter of a famed general. They had both been thrust into roles never meant for them. Time would tell whether either of them had borne the weight of it better than the other.
"Have you spoken to Alistair, about our... arrangement?" asked Anora.
"Yes. Unfortunately, he has declined my, ah, proposal." A poor choice of words, given the context. Elissa winced.
"That is surprising to hear. I had thought he held you in high esteem. Will you be supporting his bid for the throne, then, in place of mine?" The question was shockingly mild. Not a hint of anger or reprobation. Mere curiosity, although Elissa was not so foolish to think that Anora would ever show her hand before it was time to play it.
"I thought you wanted to be queen?" she said.
"I also want to understand my ally's position. A natural inclination, don't you think?"
"Yes, I suppose so." Elissa studied her for a moment before she replied. "No, he doesn't want to be king, and no, I won't be trying to force him to make that choice."
"I see. That leaves us at somewhat of a disadvantage, does it not? As much as it pains me to admit it, my claim is weakened without the Theirin name. Is there no way to convince him?"
"Even if I could, he's a good friend, and a good Warden. I want to respect his wishes."
"Very well. We shall have to rethink our strategy, then, if we are to emerge victorious."
"What do you propose?"
Anora went silent. She turned to face the fireplace, studying the crackling flames. The reflection flickered in her eyes, but she showed no outward emotion. Elissa had seen similar looks before on other faces. They had never boded well. She winced and braced herself for what was to come.
"You will need to convince as many of the nobles as you can," said Anora finally. "My father will not surrender unless we give him no choice in the matter. In addition, we should consider... other options."
Anora had fallen silent again. Though she gave nothing away through her expression or her stance, Elissa could see now that she was troubled.
"Anora?" she said softly, when nothing seemed forthcoming. How familiar, to address her by only her name, but Elissa was tired and long past standing on formality with anyone. Even the queen of Ferelden.
"I apologize. I was lost in thought," Anora said. She paused before continuing, her hand gripping the back of the chair she was standing beside. "I have an idea, although I suspect you may not find it a particularly attractive one."
"I'll try anything at this point." A joke, but a weak one. Elissa tried to smile. It flickered and died a quick death.
"Very well. Here it is, then: the Cousland name is not without power, even now." There was a thoughtful note to Anora's voice, and to the way she eyed Elissa. But also something else, perhaps. The tension Elissa had already sensed. Nervousness, though Anora scarcely seemed capable of it.
"Anora, I'm a disgraced Warden without an order," she said. "My entire family has been-" She swallowed, and tried again. "I am the last of the Couslands. Even before, I was a second child. My name carries even less weight now. I will add my voice to yours, but I fail to see what the Cousland name can do for you now."
"Yes. Ah. I had thought of more of a... permanent and official alliance, of sorts."
Elissa blinked. And blinked again, and a third time, as if it was her eyes and not her ears that were deceiving her and clearing her vision would return her to reality. Yet even afterward, Anora remained before her. She stood there perfectly still and tall, hands now folded neatly in front of her. The fire crackled nearby. The sun shone through the window behind her.
"I'm sorry. Could you say that again?" Elissa said, as politely as she could manage.
"If I cannot marry Alistair and gain the legitimacy of the Theirin name, then the next best alternative is surely the name of the second most prominent family in the nation, is it not?"
"You cannot be serious." She'd blurted it out before she'd given any thought to it. She suspected her eyes had gone as wide as the ornamental plates her mother had liked to display in the dining hall on feast days. Hardly a queenly reaction, she thought, but then felt a strong urge to start giggling madly. Her journey became ever more mad with each passing day.
"Quite serious, I'm afraid."
"I... I see." If she felt faint, it was only because she'd gone many days without proper sleep on the road. She'd faced down abominations, high dragons, and a grotesque darkspawn broodmother without flinching; surely Anora Mac Tir could not unnerve her with a simple political proposition.
Anora cleared her throat, although that was the only concession she seemed willing to make to the awkwardness of the moment. "Please take your time to consider the matter. I would certainly not press the issue."
"Would the Landsmeet even accept two queens?" Elissa said, far too clumsily for the daughter of a nobleman. It seemed the easiest way out. Far easier than taking the matter seriously, although, with a sinking stomach, she realized that she would soon need to start taking it seriously. Their ever-growing need to gather their forces and strike decisively at the darkspawn was a deadly serious matter.
"There is precedent. Fereldan precedent, at that, although I doubt many people are particularly well-versed in the history of the reign of Kings Byron and Percival," said Anora.
"I can't say that my tutor covered that particular period of history, no."
"My tutors required me to recite the names of Ferelden kings and queens all the way back to Calenhad before breakfast. It is a strange thing, growing up knowing you will one day be queen. I always envied Cailan in that respect. He never cared much for lessons or expectations."
"My brother and I were often the same, to our father's great chagrin." Elissa's chest ached faintly at the memory. She'd thought it would sting to meet Anora's eyes, knowing whose hand had guided Howe's poisoned heart, but there was only sympathy reflected back. They had both lost something of great import to Loghain's treachery. She took a breath and released it as she considered any further reply to Anora's plan. "I will need some time, and to discuss this with my allies."
"Take all the time you need. As you are no doubt aware, I will be here whenever you wish to discuss the matter again. Going out in the city at this juncture would be unwise, don't you think?"
Elissa smiled at the note of wry humor in Anora's voice. Some – though not all – of her tension began to ease. She nodded respectfully as she turned to go.
She had intended to return to the others in the library to begin making preparations to head to the alienage, but she found herself in one of the empty bedchambers instead. She went to the open window and leaned out, sighing as she looked down at the road than ran alongside of the estate. A busy thoroughfare that led to the market. She watched the people and carts going by and pondered her predicament.
It was sound strategy. Anora was right. The Couslands were well-respected in Ferelden. Her parents had counted many close allies and friends among the nobility. Many might flock readily to their daughter's banner. If there was no Theirin heir to take the throne, then perhaps a Mac Tir and a Cousland were the best Ferelden could hope for.
Yet she hesitated still. Of all the things she had imagined for herself, being queen was hardly near the top of the list. She'd grown up picturing herself a knight, riding in gallantly to save the day from some force of evil or other. Leading men and women into battle beneath her father's banner. She could scarcely imagine what it would be like to rule Ferelden. The royal palace might as well have been on one of the moons, for all she truly knew of it.
But had she not sworn to do whatever it took to defend the land from the Blight? Even if it meant giving up everything she had ever known. Even if it meant giving her life.
She closed her eyes, letting the sunlight and light breeze fall onto her skin. She gripped the windowsill. It still felt real, though the rest of the world had decided not to.
When she pushed herself away from the window, she hadn't yet made up her mind.
"... Yes, I suppose that could work," Arl Eamon said. He sounded thoughtful, but Elissa had learned enough from her tutors and her mother to know that there was more to the relations among the nobles of Ferelden than what was outwardly apparent. Still, he was an ally, and a true one so far. She had precious few of those at her disposal.
They had returned from the alienage. They'd been back for hours, yet she still felt vaguely ill from the horrors she had seen there. The nightmares that had been wrought upon their own people in the name of victory. Parents torn from children, brothers from sisters. Treating people as property to be bought and traded.
If I were queen, she'd found herself thinking, more than once. There were lines that ought never to be crossed, even in war. Sacrifices that were too great, no matter what might be gained in return. However mad the idea, it had taken root and would no longer let go.
And so she had come now to Eamon in his chambers and laid Anora's plan before him.
"Are you certain this is wise?" he said. "The Landsmeet may accept your Cousland name, but you are also a Grey Warden. They may not be so eager to fall in line beneath a Grey Warden queen."
"Alistair is also a Grey Warden. You thought they would accept him."
"Alistair is Maric's son. I must ask you again: you truly cannot convince him?"
"Anora has ruled Ferelden well enough," she said firmly, rather than engaging once more in an argument they had already had, to little avail on either side.
"Yes, I suppose so." Eamon sighed. He was silent for a moment, evidently thinking it through. Finally he inclined his head. "Very well. If you believe supporting Anora is the best way to end this war and focus our attention on the darkspawn, I will do what I can to sway whom I can to our cause. In the meantime, I suggest you return to the task at hand. Gather what evidence and support you can muster, and let me know when you are ready for the Landsmeet. It will not be an easy road ahead of us."
"On that, we agree," Elissa replied.
"Anora will be queen, and I will rule at her side!"
The Landsmeet had fallen silent. After the commotion and hubbub just moments before, it seemed nearly comical that the sound of a stray pin falling to the ground from a lady's hairpiece might have echoed throughout the chamber. Elissa felt keenly every single pair of eyes in the room fixing on her. She swallowed, and tried to hold her head high. Her parents had managed to impress that much of a noble stature upon her, at least.
"Pardon me, my lady Cousland," said one man, coming forward – Bann Lindsey, Elissa remembered faintly, from a time long before she'd known anything of darkspawn and treachery and kings and queens. He'd gone hunting with her father at a feast in Highever, she recalled. Now he was the first to dare to speak in the stunned silence. "Might I ask you to repeat yourself?"
"Certainly, my lord. Anora will be queen," said Elissa, more quietly now, but with all the confidence she could yet muster, "And I will rule at her side."
"My lady," said Lindsey, as though he meant to continue his protest, but no other words followed.
"The Warden has the right of it," Anora said, as she came to stand in the very center of the room. She maintained an even and measured tone, as though she were speaking of the most mundane of matters. "I shall continue to hold the throne in my late husband's name, and the Couslands shall join their name to ours. We shall rule Ferelden together and be strengthened for it."
A murmur went through the room, a ripple through the crowd. Elissa tensed, ready to reach once more for her sword. Anora's hand went to her arm. She shook her head as Elissa met her eyes.
"My lords and ladies," said Anora, "Please, listen to me. We face the greatest threat to our existence since the Orlesian occupation. We must come together to defeat this threat. I believe our greatest chance lies in this woman and the forces she has gathered. Is there any person more suited to defend Ferelden than a daughter of Highever? A woman who has spilled her own blood defending Fereldan soil? Is there any more suited to rule this nation as her queen?"
The murmuring among the crowd intensified. Elissa remained still and silent, trying to project the air of dignity that befitted a Grey Warden, if not a disgraced second child of a deposed nobleman. Her nervous fingers itched to wrap around the hilt of her blade, but she restrained herself at Anora's behest.
In the stories, this was the moment where one brave soul would come forward and kneel before them. A loyal lord or lady, who would bow their head and pledge undying fealty to the future queens. One by one the rest would follow.
No such person came forward. This was no story; there were no knights or heroes to sweep in and save them all, no great conclusion to the tale. There was only a lack of argument, an uncertain acquiescence, a lack of any better option presenting itself.
It would have to do.
"That could have gone better," said Elissa, when they were alone again in one of the palace's many meeting rooms. This one was on the smaller side, with a window overlooking a quiet garden courtyard – an intimate setting for the future queens of Ferelden to gather themselves for the trials to come. Elissa's head was still reeling.
"We could have fared much worse than we did," Anora replied. "Are you injured? My father fought with his usual ferocity in your duel."
"Nothing more than a few scrapes. My father trained me well," she said, a touch dryly.
"That is good to hear." Anora was fidgeting with her skirts, Elissa realized suddenly. She seemed hesitant to speak. Finally she looked up to meet Elissa's eyes. "May I ask you something?"
"I should hardly think we stand on formality now," Elissa said. She laughed nervously, awkwardly. "Given our upcoming, ah. Nuptials."
Anora smiled. Some of the tightness about her eyes seemed to fade. "Very well. I will speak freely, then. My father – is there anything you can tell me about the ritual he is to undergo? I gather from speaking with Riordan that not all who join the Grey Wardens survive, but he would tell me no more."
"Well," Elissa said, falling into humor as a familiar refuge from discomfort, "On the one hand, I'm probably not supposed to go about divulging my order's greatest secrets. On the other hand, you are my queen and future wife..."
"I would not ask you to betray the Wardens. But you – you undertook this ritual, yes? Was it painful? If he-" She took a moment to swallow, to compose herself. "May I at least ask this. If he does not survive, will it be quick?"
"Yes," Elissa said, without hesitation. "I cannot say it was painless, but yes, it would be over quickly. But your father has a strong will, Anora. I would not count him out so easily."
"Nor I," Anora said. She kept smiling slightly as she turned to the window and the courtyard below. "It is... strange, don't you think? How peaceful it can seem here, how distant from the fighting. Almost as though the war never came to Denerim."
"With any luck, it never will," said Elissa. Her voice turned hard, just for a moment, as she looked out to the people below them. She'd tried and failed to protect her parents. She'd tried and failed to protect her brother. She'd tried and failed to save Duncan, the Wardens, anyone at all. She would not fail to protect these people. They were hers now, or soon would be, as surely as her family had ever been.
Anora took a deep breath and let it out, and then straightened her shoulders as she turned to face Elissa. She slid so easily from tiny glimpses of herself – the real Anora, the woman rather than the queen – into her royal mask that Elissa was only just learning to begin to tell the difference.
"To that end, we must depart for Redcliffe at once," said Anora. "Each second we waste is another life lost. I cannot bear to think of what the darkspawn are doing to the rest of Ferelden as we wait."
"You'll hear no complaint from me. My people are ready to go whenever you are."
"Those of our soldiers who will accompany us to Redcliffe can march in two days' time. Until then, I suggest you do what you can to prepare for battle. I will meet with Arl Eamon and the rest of my – our – advisors, and make what plans are necessary."
Elissa nearly left it at that, but a thought occurred to her as she pulled away from the window. She considered Anora once more, her brow tightening. A risky question, but she had to ask it. "What about the Grey Wardens of Orlais? Riordan says they cannot arrive in time, but if by some stroke of luck..."
"I am not my father, if that is your fear," said Anora, meeting Elissa's eyes without flinching. "I will not turn away help in our hour of need."
Relieved, Elissa nodded. "Thank you."
"I will see you on the road, then. If you have need of anything in the meantime, let the palace steward know. If it is in my power, I will see that you have it."
"Thank you," Elissa said again. She managed a weak smile. After a moment she added, more softly, "My queen."
Night had fallen over Redcliffe by the time Elissa passed by Anora's bedchamber. Her head was spinning with the revelations of the past hours, each more dire than the last. The darkspawn horde headed for Denerim. Riordan's truth. Morrigan's secrets. Loghain waiting for Elissa to rejoin him and regroup. The weight of the choice she had to make now, and not for herself.
"Elissa." Anora's voice came just as she passed the door.
She paused, though she hesitated to reply. She had no wish to speak to anyone now, least of all Anora. How could she look in Anora's eyes, knowing what she now knew? That one of them must die, or else she must betray her own principles.
"May I speak with you?" There was a strange lilt to Anora's voice. A sharpness that Elissa was unaccustomed to hearing, a contrast from Anora's usual composure.
She hesitated a moment longer. Finally she sighed, and relented, and came into the room.
"Yes, if you like," she replied. When she'd approached close to Anora, she stopped. They looked at each other. The fire was burning low next to Anora's chair, giving off a warmth that Elissa could barely feel. The world itself had gone cold, it seemed.
"Was there something you wished to ask me?" she said at last, when Anora said nothing.
Again, silence that seemed to stretch on for an eternity.
Finally, Anora broke it. "Is this, then, my first act as queen of Ferelden?" The despair in her voice was palpable. "To abandon my people to the darkspawn, having fled to the other end of the country?"
"No; my question was unfair." Anora closed her eyes and reached up to pinch the bridge of her nose before dropping her arm back to her lap. "Please do not feel the need to give an answer. It is unworthy of the queen, is it not, to fall to pieces like this before the commander of her armies?"
"Anora," Elissa said again.
When Anora looked up at her, there was a plaintive look about her, a tightness around her eyes. Some of her hair came loose from its careful arrangement and fell across her face. Unthinking, Elissa reached out to brush it away and tuck it behind her ear.
They stared at each other.
"What use are we, if we cannot save those who depend upon us?" said Anora> Her voice was hushed, as if she barely had the strength to speak the words.
The question seemed to hang in the air between them. At first, Elissa dared not reply. Anora had never shown weakness like this in Elissa's presence before. Not when she'd been imprisoned, not after the revelations from the alienage, not through any of their hurried preparations for the Landsmeet, not even when her father's life had hung by the narrowest of threads before her.
She knew not what drove her to it, but she lowered her hand and pressed it against Anora's shoulder. After holding it there for a moment, she looked right into Anora's eyes. They were remarkably beautiful, seemingly more green than blue in the low light of the fire, and clear as cut crystals. An absurd stray thought, given the hour and the circumstances. One Elissa couldn't help having nevertheless.
"We must save as many as we can," she said firmly. "There is nothing else we can do, but save as many as we can."
Anora said nothing in response, but she reached up to lay her hand over Elissa's where it rested on her shoulder. Much like the Landsmeet, it was no great gesture. Not the sort of moment that would be remembered in song. It felt, however, like the beginning of something. The moment when the sun broke through the dark clouds, if only to shine one single ray upon the earth before falling once more into shadow.
Elissa pulled away, but she paused on the threshold, her hand lingering on the door frame. There was no path forward without a cost. No good choices, no way to save everyone. But was it not true, what she'd told Anora? Save as many as they could. Give the darkspawn not one more life than was necessary.
Her decision made, she went to find Loghain.
Shortly before dawn on the night before they would reach Denerim, Elissa found Anora in her tent. She'd only meant to peek inside, to reassure herself as to the safety of the queen. When she nodded to the guard posted outside and pulled back the flap, however, she paused.
Anora was scowling down at her leg as she tried to fit her armor around her shin. Even her frowns were regal. Elissa wanted to laugh when she saw it, but she soon smoothed away the smile on her face. Anora's frustration was evidently real. She had no desire to embarrass her.
"Allow me?" she said softly, as she came further into the tent. She knelt before Anora, her hands going out to take over before Anora gave her assent. Their fingers bumped clumsily together.
"The infernal thing won't clasp together," said Anora, with that same endearing irritation that Elissa had read in her expression. "I should have had it sent to the royal armorer for repair months ago. The price of distraction, I suppose."
"Here," said Elissa. With practiced ease, she straightened out the buckles and clipped them into place. "It seems a good fit."
"Thank you. But should you not be preparing with your comrades? We will reach Denerim today."
Elissa considered it as she continued to work on arranging another piece of Anora's armor. It was true; she could have spent these final hours around the campfire with the allies and friends she'd gathered in her journey. But she'd found herself wandering the camp, restless, unable to sleep or face anyone who knew her so well. They would have read her like a book, and they deserved better from their leader than uncertainty.
"If I am to be your wife, I would know the woman I will be marrying," she said finally. Not quite the truth, but it was not a lie, either.
"Very well," Anora said, after studying her briefly. "What would you like to know?"
"Hm..." Elissa cast about for a topic, for any common ground. "Your father," she said at last. "He isn't what I expected."
"Oh? What did you expect?"
"I don't know. The Hero of River Dane always seemed larger than life, I suppose. A hero fit for the tales. I never imagined him to be so... well, taciturn, might be the right word."
Anora was smiling when Elissa looked up from buckling the final piece of her armor into place. "That is putting it quite mildly. Yes, my father can be difficult, in some respects. He led a hard life. I am led to believe that can shape a person's ideals."
"Led to believe?"
"Of late, I wonder..."
"If I may speak boldly of matters that you may perhaps find to be quite personal."
Elissa laughed and shook her head. She had lowered herself to sit on the ground, though it was cold and hard, resting her arms across her knees.
"You may," she said.
"You seem in remarkably good humor, considering the trials you must have been put through, these many months since you became a Warden."
"Well, it's not all bleak and hopeless. I try to see the good in things, even when there seems to be very little of it left in the world."
"A refreshing outlook. One that Ferelden may come to appreciate in the years to come. It will not be an easy task, rebuilding what we have lost. Had we fought the Blight united from the start, perhaps..." Anora trailed off, her eyes seeming to go distant.
"Anora?" Elissa said. She was prodding, but she was trying to do so gently. If she still remembered how, after her hands had known nothing but a blade and her tongue nothing but battle cries for more than a year.
"Oh, never mind. As they say in Gwaren, that ship has long sailed. Our eyes must look now to the horizon."
"I think maybe we need to steer through the storm first," Elissa said. The metaphor might not be an apt one. She'd never been on a ship. It seemed fitting, though, and when Anora looked up at her with a small smile, she thought it had achieved its ends well enough. She stood up, dusting off her hands, and offered one to Anora. "Shall we?"
Anora took it, pulling herself to her feet. She was surprisingly strong, despite her graceful and delicate appearance. A relic of being the daughter of Loghain Mac Tir, Elissa supposed.
"Let us go, then, and reclaim our city," said Anora.
Elissa nodded for her to lead the way.
Denerim was no longer a distant memory for Elissa. It was her immediate and pressing reality. The city was burning. The acrid twin smells of rising smoke and death had settled low over the buildings, had permeated their way into Elissa's armor and hair until she thought she would never be clean again. Even the Deep Roads had not borne so foul a stench.
With considerable effort, they had cleared the darkspawn from the area around the city gates. For the time being, at least. Nowhere was safe while the darkspawn spilled unchecked from beneath the earth, spreading their poison and death through the city and surrounding countryside, while the Archdemon whirled overhead and breathed down terrible fire on all who strayed into its path.
They were regrouping before forging further into the city. Elissa's little group of friends and allies had gathered together near a crumbling portion of the city wall. Zevran was checking the sharpness of his blades while Oghren took a drink from his flask. Shale was deep in discussion with Wynne. Morrigan was standing apart from the others, leaning against her staff, with a distant look in her eyes. Elissa smiled as she watched them all, her chest aching at the thought of what still lay ahead. Of what she had left to lose, even now.
Loghain had gone to bid farewell to his daughter. It was spoken in brief, hurried words, and out of Elissa's earshot. When Loghain returned to take up his spot beside Elissa, his face was as stony as ever, his frown just as stern.
"She wants to speak to you," he said gruffly.
Surprised, Elissa glanced at Anora. She hesitated before she closed the distance between them. Time was running out, but she had a few moments before her companions finished checking their gear and saying what might well be their last words to each other. Enough time for a farewell of her own.
"Warden," said Anora, nodding to her when she came to stand in front of her.
"I have a name, you know," she said. She even managed a smile, albeit a small and tired one.
"Your father said you wanted to speak with me."
"Yes." Anora visibly took a breath and released it, her shoulders rising and falling beneath her golden armor. "We have come far together, have we not? It seems longer than mere weeks since you rescued me from my predicament."
"That wasn't our first meeting, was it? I saw you once when we were children."
"Yes, I remember. You were with your mother."
"And you your father."
There was a weariness to Anora's smile, even as she glanced over to where Loghain was readying himself for the final battle. "How things have changed."
Leliana raised her hand to wave Elissa back over. It was time. She set her jaw and squared her shoulders.
"I have to go, Anora," she said.
Some unreadable emotion flashed in Anora's eyes. It was brief, but so very intriguing. Elissa sorely wished for the time to stay and puzzle it out, to understand this woman who had swept into her life in the manner of a storm blowing in from the northern sea.
"I have to go," Elissa repeated.
"I know," was all Anora said, at first.
They stood there, staring at one another, neither willing to say whatever words needed to be spoken or be the first to walk away. What a strange few weeks these had been.
Abruptly, Anora took Elissa's hand and drew it to her chest. She held it there against her heart, just for a moment. Her grip was not gentle, though Elissa had not expected it would be. Anora was no wilting flower. When she spoke, there was more fire and fervency in her voice and in her eyes than Elissa had yet seen, even when she had roused the armies to battle. "Consider this an order from your queen: return to me when this is done."
There had been a moment, when Anora had held her sword high over her head, her golden armor glinting in the eerie red light of dawn, speaking her words of inspiration to rally the men and women under their command, that Elissa had felt something kindle within her. She felt it again now, for the second time. Even in the face of the darkness that surrounded them, it lit a flame within her.
Something else lurked behind Anora's conviction; a note of fear? Some other emotion, barely concealed behind the mask she had worn all her life? But it mattered little. There was no more time.
"I so swear, my queen," Elissa vowed, for what else could she do but obey the woman she had sworn to follow into battle? However hopeless, however empty her promise might prove to be.
Her fingers slipped from Anora's grasp as she pulled away to rejoin the others.
As she pulled her blade from the Archdemon's skull, Elissa took what felt like her first breath of air since the day Duncan had dragged her from her parents' side. She fell to her knees, weariness overtaking her at long last. Her sword slipped from her fingers and clattered to the stone beneath her. The sound of footsteps and shouting came from all around her. Friends and allies rushing in. There were hands on her shoulder. She paid them no mind.
She turned her face to the sky and laughed.
There was a fresh scar across her cheek. A gift from one of the final darkspawn standing in her path before the Archdemon. She reached up to trace her fingertips across the raised line of it, following the reflected movement with her eyes. It seemed too small to mark the changes that had been wrought upon her these many months she'd been gone from her parents' home.
Her wedding day. On the rare occasions when she'd ever given thought to the matter, she'd imagined it to be a joyous event, though perhaps not quite so momentous. Her ambitions had never extended to the throne, nor the hand of the king or queen. Nor even to being the savior of the country, and yet it was here her path had led her. She wished the butterflies fluttering in the depths of her belly would calm themselves. She hadn't been this nervous while facing down Urthemiel.
"Admiring yourself?" came a familiar voice from behind her.
All nervousness instantly forgotten, she grinned as she turned around. Her brother was standing in the doorway that led into the small antechamber where she'd been waiting. Her brother, alive and well. It seemed the Maker had miracles yet for the world.
"If only mother and father could see you now," he said. "I know they would be proud. Baffled, perhaps, but proud."
"I wish they could all be here," she said, rather than giving in to his rather bald attempt to deflect from his own grief.
Fergus offered her his arm and a sad smile. She took his arm and returned the smile, until his lips quirked further upward into what seemed a genuine grin. How he still could was beyond her. How any of them still could was beyond her.
"My sister, the queen of Ferelden," he said, teasing even as he led her from the antechamber and into the Chantry proper. "Who would have imagined that the little girl who used to play at swords with twigs she found in the garden would ever rule the country?"
"Quiet," she replied. She fought to flatten her smile back into an expression that was calm, perhaps even befitting a queen, but she doubted her success.
Half of Denerim had gathered in the Chantry, it seemed. Elissa recognized many of the faces she passed from her childhood, growing up beneath her father's banner, but there were so many more she would now need to remember. And there were delegates from other countries, from Orzammar and Orlais and the Free Marches and elsewhere. Above all others, there were her friends – those who had joined her, followed her, carried her through the worst of it. She smiled as she met Leliana's eyes.
There was one notable absence among the crowd. Loghain had already returned to his Warden duties, months before his daughter's wedding. He was on a mission of recruitment among the Bannorn. His parting words had been curt, but Elissa had sensed true relief in them. For his daughter, for his country, perhaps even for his own life. He'd kept his own counsel, as always.
As they made their way through the Chantry, she smoothed out the gown Anora's lady in waiting had delivered to her bedchamber the day before. It was carefully cut and tailored, but the truly breathtaking aspect was its color: vivid blue, with a griffon embroidered across the breast in shimmering silver thread. A dress made for a Warden; a dress fit for a queen.
Fergus smiled at her again when she looked at him. She nudged him gently with her hip as they began to ascend the stairs leading up to the raised dais at the far end of the Chantry. There stood the Revered Mother, and before her, the queen of Ferelden, in all her glory. Adorned from head to foot in brilliant golds and pinks and reds, her hair arranged in elaborate braids, her shoulders straight and her head held high.
As they reached the top step, Fergus released his hold on Elissa's arm. She closed the remaining distance alone, until she was standing before her queen. Her ally, her salvation, and her future. In a moment, her wife.
Elissa drew a breath as she came forward. She took her place beside Anora. They stood together, facing their audience, surveying the crowd, for what felt like an entire age of history. Finally they turned back to the Revered Mother, who stood waiting to crown Elissa as Anora's queen.
The Revered Mother held up her hand and began to speak. Elissa should have been listening attentively, but she didn't catch a single word. All of her senses were focused instead on the solid, steady presence at her side. They were standing close enough that she could feel the warmth of Anora's body. Hesitantly, she let her hand bump Anora's. She'd half-expected Anora to pull away, ever mindful of her people's perceptions of her strength – but instead Anora nudged her back. Gently, nearly imperceptibly, but undeniably. Some of the tension in Elissa's shoulders and stomach began to dissipate at last.
They were directed to kneel on two velvet cushions placed at their feet. She followed after Anora, though perhaps more clumsily. Certainly far less regally.
As the Revered Mother began to speak once more, Elissa tried to hold the words of the Chant in her heart as she should. "And so as Andraste said at Valarian Fields: for she who trusts in the Maker, fire is her water. As the moth sees light and goes toward flame, she should see fire and go towards light. The Veil holds no uncertainty for her, and she will know no fear of death, for the Maker shall be her beacon and her shield, her foundation and her sword."
She remembered pressing her hand over Anora's heart at the end, when all hope had nearly seemed lost. Her sword and her shield, her word and her oath. Her eyes burned fiercely, if only for a fleeting moment.
"I anoint and bless you in the name of the Maker and his bride, Andraste," said the Revered Mother. She lifted her hand and sprinkled a few droplets of scented oil over both of their heads. Elissa nearly laughed as one of them spilled down her face, but she managed to hold it in. She glanced as subtly as she could manage to her right. As ever, Anora's expression was serene. Yet Elissa thought she spied the slightest of smiles tugging at the corner of Anora's lips when their eyes briefly met.
The Revered Mother raised her voice and addressed all those who had gathered to witness the union of their new rulers: "Rise, Queen Anora of Ferelden, Queen Elissa of Ferelden, and face your people."
Anora turned to Elissa and gripped her hands tight. They rose to their feet as one.
I am settling in to life at Vigil's Keep these past weeks. I am glad you paid us a visit. It was good to see a familiar face after the battle. Or perhaps that is still too familiar to say? But you are my wife now, so you must forgive me.
The Seneschal tells me that we can regroup and rebuild after the damage that was done, but it will not be an easy task. The Wardens have lost much, and I am only one woman. I will do what I can to end this threat and keep Ferelden safe.
I fear my return may be greatly delayed by these complications. I had hoped that we would quickly find and eradicate these stray darkspawn now that their leader has fallen, but it seems nothing can ever be so easy. In any event, I look forward to the day when we can truly put the darkspawn behind us.
I continue to trust your judgment in my absence, though I do not think you need my permission to rule your own country. I will come home when I can. Until then, please keep looking after my mabari. He has taken a liking to you, I think.
The Architect was dead. The Mother was dead. Amaranthine had held, barely. The Keep had held, barely. The arling had been saved, barely.
Elissa was tired.
Her companions had all gone off to their own lives and tasks. Those who would remain with the Wardens would remain at the Keep, rebuilding it and strengthening the Wardens' forces in Ferelden. Those who had other business had parted and gone their separate ways. She hadn't tried to stop them.
The guards let her through as she approached the palace gates. They greeted her, and she supposed she must have said something in return. Yet the next thing she knew, she was standing in front of the royal bedchambers.
These were Anora's rooms. Elissa had been given her own, on the other side of the upper floor. A common thing among those who married for political convenience rather than for love. She could have gone to her rooms, shed her dusty, travel-worn clothing, and had water drawn and heated for a bath. She could have slept in her own bed and woken on her own time in the morning.
Instead, she raised her hand and rapped her knuckles against Anora's door. It opened a moment later. Anora was standing in the doorway wearing only a thin robe, her hair hanging loose around her shoulders.
They stared at each other.
"You came home," Anora said finally, simply, as if there were no other words that could possibly be sufficient.
"Yes," was all Elissa could think to say in response. She felt as though she had been waiting an entire age of history for some seemingly unattainable thing to arrive at last and bring her peace. It had never come. Waiting for it had brought her nothing but ever heavier burdens to bear.
And so she waited no longer. She seized Anora by the waist and kissed her.
It was a foolish action, an impulsive action. The sort of thing that Elissa Cousland, daughter of Bryce and Eleanor, might have done. Not the sort of thing a queen of Ferelden ought to do. It no longer seemed to matter. She was so tired. Tired of war, and death, and fear for the lives of those she had sworn to protect. She wanted only a moment of respite.
It came as no surprise when Anora kissed her back with equal ferocity. She'd seen the look in Anora's eyes before, smoldering beneath the placid surface. She'd known what it meant.
Anora was the one who tugged Elissa forward, and Elissa went willingly. They shed their clothing without ever seeming to break their kiss for more than a second – until it came to Elissa's boots, and then she had to step back to tug them clumsily off. That broke any tension between them. She was laughing as she fell into Anora's bed. There was freedom in it, a lightness she hadn't known in so very long. Darkspawn cared nothing for laughter.
Then Anora's mouth was on hers again, and she could think no more of anything else.
Afterward, they lay facing each other in the near-darkness. Neither of them dared to break the silence, or perhaps neither of them wanted to. Anora was still a mystery to Elissa in so many ways. Maybe she always would be. There was still comfort in knowing she would not walk the road she had chosen alone.
She reached up and traced the curve of Anora's jaw.
"My queen," she said softly, fondly.
In response, Anora simply closed the remaining space between them and kissed her.
It was not yet fully dawn when Elissa made her way through the palace to the gate. For the first time in months, she was wearing her Warden armor. She was carrying nothing but a simple pack with provisions for a journey, her blade, and her shield. She had no need of any of the trappings of royal life. Wardens did without finery and luxury. And she would be a Warden, again, and nothing else, until her journey's end.
As she walked the silent halls, she reflected on the time she'd spent living within them. The years had been harsh and kind in equal measure. Ferelden had done more than rebuild since the war. It had prospered, even as the rest of the world seemed poised to fall to ruin at any moment. She liked to think she'd had some hand in it, though Anora was ever the more practiced ruler.
And yet she could not stay. Wardens bore the weight of something far heavier than crowns. She had taken a rest from her duty, so to speak, for a time. She could never escape from it. The book Morrigan had left her all those years before held secrets too precious to be left uncovered. A possibility too enticing to ignore. For her brothers and sisters, for all who had sworn the same oath, she had no choice.
She made her way through the empty palace halls to the smaller of the two gates along the west wall.
Anora was waiting for her there, as Elissa had expected. She hadn't made any secret of her intended departure.
They took each other's hands and looked into each other's eyes. For perhaps the first time, if only for the briefest of moments, Elissa doubted her own convictions. Then she steeled herself. There was no compromise in a Warden's life. No room for doubt.
"I have to go, Anora," she said.
There were many things Anora clearly wanted to say to her in reply. She saw it in Anora's eyes; a brief flash of indignant anger, the urge to argue her way out of every problem. Long familiarity had taught her every shade of each and every one of Anora's moods. She loved them all. She would miss them all.
Anora said nothing, at first. So Elissa reached for her. She brushed the backs of her fingertips against Anora's cheek, a weary smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
"I have to go," she said again.
"I know," was all Anora said, in the end. As before, so too now.
"I cannot leave my brothers and sisters at the mercy of the Calling. I cannot live at the mercy of the Calling. If there is any way to end this curse, I must find it."
"I know." Anora leaned forward until their foreheads were resting against each other. Her hand came up to Elissa's neck, and she cradled it. "Promise me you will return. I lost my husband once to those foul creatures. I will not lose my wife the same way. Our people need their queen."
Elissa had expected something else, something more. A demand for a sworn oath, as she had given all those years ago at the city gates. But all Anora asked for was a promise; simple words from her wife. Nothing more and nothing less.
"I would fight through armies to come home to Ferelden," she said, without hesitation, "And to you."
"Then I shall have to make do with that," said Anora.
They watched each other one moment longer before Elissa pulled away. As she did, she drew Anora's hand into her grasp and brought it to her lips, pressing a kiss to the back of it. Finally, she released her. They said no more words. None were needed. They had both known from the start that Elissa would always be beholden to her order, and Anora to her country.
Her farewells spoken, she let herself out through the gate and closed it behind her. She heard a click as Anora latched the lock into place from the other side.
In the early morning hours, no one was about in the city. Clouds had gathered in the pre-dawn sky. Rain was coming, and soon. She could taste it on the air, feel it in the growing tension within her skull.
The road was long and treacherous ahead. It would not be an easy journey. She didn't know where it would take her, or if it would ever lead her home, no matter her promise.
She drew her cloak and hood closer around herself and marched on.