My hearing was the first to come back. A breeze whistled past my ears, followed by the crackle of a hearth. Next came touch; I was lying on soft leather, my right shoulder pressed against a cushion, and my left arm was dangling, my fingertips grazing the floor. Something tight had been wrapped around my torso, and my feet were elevated, resting on what must have been the arm of a couch. It wasn't the most comfortable position, but everything felt terribly heavy and sore, so I didn't try to move. Smell and sight came last, revealing woodsmoke and a bronze glow on the rafters. None of these things were remotely familiar, though they did let me orient myself.
I let my eyes close again. At least I was alive, though I dreaded to think in what condition. So far, pain seemed a distant memory, and I hoped it would stay that way. As I lay in the twilight between sleeping and waking, debating which way to fall, anxious voices reached me. They were far enough to tell they were in another room, but close enough to pick out their words.
"…all your fault!" Alistair's voice was accusing. "You should've stood up to Ser Cauthrien at the estate!"
"And have her imprison me instead?" Anora shot back. "I couldn't let her realise I sided with the Wardens. If I'm locked away, I won't be able to support you at the Landsmeet, and you'll lose!"
"And in return, we nearly lost our only hope of defeating the darkspawn," Wynne stated coldly. "I may be well versed in healing, but I cannot perform miracles. Elissa will barely be in a fit state to attend the Landsmeet, let alone make her case."
"Do you think I wished for this?" Anora snarled. "If you must blame someone, blame Ser Cauthrien! She wounded the Warden, not I!
"Stop this senseless arguing, all of you!" Arl Eamon boomed. A long paused followed, and he sighed. "What's happened has happened, and no amount of bickering is going to set it right. Let us be thankful the Warden is still with us, and do what we can to speed her recovery." He cleared his throat. "I can speak to the nobles and delay the Landsmeet for another day or so. It is not ideal, but it is the best I can offer."
"You are correct, my lord," Wynne said. "I apologise for my words. We would be better placed to work in a more positive manner. I will try to find some potions to help Elissa regain her strength."
"And I will pray for her," Anora said.
The conversation ended there, and I let out a breath. That was enough to stir the pain, and I bit my lip. I'd better check the damage. Gently I felt around my injured side. My shirt and the bandage beneath were saturated with dried blood, and even the whisper of my fingertips was like piercing needles. Grimacing, I let my arm drop. It must've been worse than I realised, if it was still like this after Wynne's ministrations. If only I hadn't been so careless against Howe.
Abruptly a whine rang out, and something wet licked my dangling fingers. I curled my hand up, and Duke brushed his head against my palm. He barked happily, and I had to smile. He must've been sitting here, waiting for me to awaken. Eager footsteps soon followed, along with a voice I'd so longed to hear.
"What's wrong, boy?"
Duke whined again. His furry muzzle was soon replaced with a warm hand. A light touch brushed the matted hair from my forehead, and I found the strength to open my eyes. Leliana's grey-blue gaze stared back, filled with relief.
Her shout promptly alerted the others, who flooded into the room. Wynne pushed forward, kneeling beside me.
"How do you feel, Elissa?" she asked.
I tried to speak, but my mouth was too parched. Instead I could only shake my head, and grasp at my throat.
"Leliana, fetch the poor girl some water," Wynne said.
Leliana nodded. Reluctantly she released my hand, before leaving for the kitchens. Alistair and Anora took her place. I glanced aside, a little overwhelmed. I didn't like appearing so vulnerable, especially in front of the Queen.
"Thank the Maker!" Alistair breathed. His face bore a new scar, and there were bags under his eyes, but he otherwise appeared no worse for wear. "You really need to stop pulling stunts like this, Elissa. You can't keep showing off."
His words made me smile, as I thought back to my near-miss with the black locust poison. That had been close enough. It was not wise to keep banking on luck to bail me out.
"It is good to see you on the mend, Warden." Anora said, managing a bow. "I can only apologise what you've had to suffer for my sake."
Alistair bristled, and I was glad I was unable to speak my mind. Still, my choice words could wait. No doubt Anora was impatient to push her own agenda, but I would deal with that once I was not in such a compromised position.
Thankfully Leliana choose that moment to return, and she helped me sit. I clenched my teeth, holding my side as the bandage pulled at the dried scab. The room swam, and I gripped the couch, waiting for the dizzy spell to pass. Then Leliana put the glass to my lips, and I took several careful sips. The water was beautifully cold and crisp, and banished most of the pain in my throat.
"How much is it hurting?" Leliana asked.
"Nothing a month of sleep won't fix," I croaked. Maker, I hadn't realised how drained I still felt.
"You lost a good deal of blood, Elissa," Wynne explained. "We couldn't even risk taking you upstairs. But while I managed to heal the worst damage, you'll be feeling quite poorly for the next few days until your body recovers."
My heart sank. Few days? That was time we did not have. After all we'd done to allow the Landsmeet to go ahead, and now I'd become the limiting step. The irony wasn't lost on me.
"I am fairly certain I can find some things that may speed the process," Wynne went on, "but it will not replace a proper rest." She turned to Alistair. "Could you take Elissa to her room? I'm sure she'll appreciate a bed more than this couch."
Alistair nodded. He made to scoop me in his arms again, but I shook my head.
"I think I can walk, with help."
Wynne frowned. "I would not advise that, Warden."
"I know, but I want to try." I answered. "Please?"
Wynne sighed. "A trial is all I'm going to allow."
I gave a grateful smile. Alistair moved, taking my left arm, and Leliana took my right. Together they helped me stand. My legs wobbled a little, but I was able to put weight through them. With the two of them taking most of the pressure off, we made a slow amble to the hall. Each step made my wound throb, but I didn't stop until we were at the main staircase, in case Wynne changed her mind. When my arms started to shake, Alistair raised a brow.
"I could just carry you again, you know," he offered. "I don't bite."
"I'm not a baby," I mumbled. "Besides, I have to save some face in front of Anora."
"It seems someone's developed a stubborn streak," Leliana teased.
I pulled a face, before attempting the steps. It was a painful process, and the others knew it, yet I hid it as best I could. It was stupid—perhaps a mark of the amount of blood I'd lost—but the physical pain was little compared to my mental frustration. Call me mad, but so much of my autonomy had been stripped away recently, and I was sick of it. Even a small act of defiance to keep my spirits up meant a lot.
Eventually we reached my room. Alistair let Leliana take over, and pushed the door open. He didn't follow as we walked inside, but promised to help Wynne. He closed the door, and Leliana led me to the bed. The final steps proved the hardest, and I all but collapsed onto the mattress, breathless. Leliana held me against her, and I closed my eyes, unmoving. I didn't want to leave her warmth.
We sat in silence for a long moment, until my breathing calmed. Leliana cast her gaze over me, fretful.
"Maker, you're a mess," she murmured. "Let me clean you up a bit."
Gently she pushed me back, and I rested on the pillows. She stood up, walking over to the bronze basin in the corner. She picked it up and brought it over, along with a piece of fine cloth. Replacing the basin on the bedside table, she sat beside me again and started to unfasten my shirt. I clenched my eyes shut, bracing for the pain. Leliana took her time, taking great care to remove my arms from the sleeves, before peeling away the fabric. I flinched as it came away from the bandage, and she held my shoulder.
"Easy," she said softly. "Just keep still. I won't hurt you."
I could only nod, trying to control my trembling. It wasn't just for the pain, either. I watched as she dipped the cloth into the water, and then started to clean my face. Her touch was feather-light, the water warm, and it sent pleasant tingles across my skin. She worked slowly, wiping the grime from my jaw and neck. I couldn't tear my eyes away, entranced by her movements. When she came to my collarbone, the cloth slipped, and her fingers brushed my bare skin. I caught my breath sharply.
"Oh, I didn't mean…" Leliana withdrew, thinking she'd caused pain, but I shook my head. I reached up and brought her hand back, resting her palm against my cheek.
"I know you'd never hurt me," I breathed. "I'm sorry I couldn't do the same for you."
Leliana blinked, bemused. Before she could answer, I brushed back a strand of her hair, and she shivered. Such a perfect golden-red, matching the flames in the hearth. I couldn't help myself, and started to lean forward. My heart ached, finally realising what had been before me all this time, and how close I'd come to losing it forever.
I'd deny us no longer.
I leant against her chest, and Leliana let out a soft gasp. Her heart pulsed beneath my fingers, and her breathing quickened. I ran my thumb along her jaw, marvelling at the softness of her skin. Leliana's eyes closed, tilting her head, and our lips touched. This time I didn't freeze, letting out a contented sigh. I should've done this the first time. My arm snaked around her waist, and she pushed herself closer, taking care to avoid my side. She teased me with sweet touches, entangling her hand in my hair, snatching my breath away.
Finally I had to break away, starved for air. Leliana nuzzled my cheek, and I breathed in her beautiful scent. Something I suddenly couldn't bear to be without.
"I was so scared," Leliana murmured. She locked her fingers with mine. "It was like the black locust poison all over again." Her eyes glistened. "Just the thought of losing you forever, when I'd already had to go through that…"
"It's okay," I whispered, bringing her hand to my chest. "I'm still here. And I want nothing more than to be beside you from now on." I softly kissed the corner of her mouth. "Leliana, I…I love you."
Leliana's tears fell freely, and she drew me into another kiss. She parted my lips, and I gasped, her tongue gliding over mine. I felt like I'd been wandering a desert and had just come across a fresh mountain spring. Her taste, her warmth, her heart beating beside mine; I hadn't realised how much I needed it all.
My hands roamed, slipping beneath her shirt and tracing circles on her back. Leliana responded by pulling off the garment entirely. Her face flushed, and for a moment she glanced aside. I studied the old scars on her torso and arms, usually always concealed. I sighed, wondering how many had been made thanks to Marjolaine's betrayal, and how hard this must be for her.
"Sorry," I whispered, stroking her shoulder. "I'm…not very good at this."
My words caught Leliana off guard, and she started to chuckle.
"You seem to be doing fine so far," she said. "It's been a while for me, as well. Besides…" Her lips found mine again, and we lay back on the bed. Much too soon she pulled away, grinning. "I know you're a fast learner."