Note: Having gotten slightly stuck on Catastrophe, I thought I'd write a little one-shot to help. Be warned, there is mention of suicidal ideation.
The glow of the campfire was harsh to my eyes, yet I continued to stare at the flickering flames. The fire danced wild and untamed, and I let out a breath. Duke was curled up beside me, fast asleep. I stroked his back, his fur warming my fingertips. It had been just over a fortnight since we had abandoned Lothering, and already it had fallen to the darkspawn. I didn't have a particular attachment to the town, yet its loss still cast a bleak shadow. Another casualty to this damned Blight, which had already taken so much away. And with the long journey ahead of us, there would be no respite. Of that I was certain.
I sighed, allowing my eyes to close. It didn't take long for nightmares to stir, and I swiftly opened them again. If it wasn't the terrifying visage of the Archdemon, it was the memories of the fall of my home. The embers burning my nose and mouth, the arrows that skimmed my flesh, the cries of the slain night guard, the coppery scent of blood as Father…
A shiver ran down my spine, and I shook my head. The images were so vivid, so alive, as if I were still amidst the chaos. My pulse racing, the sweat dripping down my back, a single thought standing out above all else; to take up my sword and seek vengeance. Alas, even that was beyond me. Rendon Howe was long gone, smirking behind the skirts of Teyrn Loghain as they conspired against the kingdom. I myself had become more Grey Warden than Cousland, my title burned away with the rest of my family. So long as the Blight remained a threat, I would be allowed no other purpose than to rally Ferelden against it.
My desires meant nothing.
Footsteps approached, but I didn't look up.
"A fine night, isn't it?" Leliana said, coming to sit on my left. Her reddish hair mirrored the flames, defiant against the darkness. Duke's ears twitched, and she petted his head. I said nothing, drawing my knees to my chest. I was not in the mood to converse.
"Not too bad, considering," Alistair piped up. He was sitting opposite, stirring a pot. "If this keeps up, we should reach the Circle Tower in good time."
"So you still plan to appeal to the mages first?" Leliana asked.
Alistair looked at me, and I tensed. He was perfectly capable of answering on my behalf.
"Yes." I kept my answer curt.
From the corner of my eye, I caught Leliana frown. It swiftly disappeared, however, and she rested back on her hands. Duke rumbled, twisting so his snout touched her knee. She looked very different without her Chantry robes. Now she sported light leather armour, which showed off her toned arms.
"Well, Elissa thought they would be best to approach first, since they were there at Ostagar," Alistair said, deciding to elaborate. "They would've seen what happened, and would be more willing to believe our side of the story."
"I still cannot believe what you told me," Leliana said, shaking her head. "How could a general so respected turn on his own king like that?"
"I don't know, but I won't let it go unanswered," Alistair said, his voice hardening. "But we're not going to get anywhere until we have more forces on our side." He twirled his spoon in the pot, before letting it drop in satisfaction. "Anyway, dinner's ready. Who wants the first helping?"
Leliana took one look and pulled a face. She glanced to me, an expectant look in her eyes. My brows narrowed.
"Not hungry," I muttered, standing up. I didn't bother to make an excuse as I walked off towards the nearby stream. My skin turned cold, losing the comfort of the fireside warmth, and I clenched my teeth. Nothing held interest anymore; not food, not sleep, and especially not talking. The blackness gnawed inside, leaving a hollow ache in my chest. Even now I couldn't be rid of the stench of death, and it brought bile to my throat. I was floating through a void, where even despair and sadness had lost their edge. These scars would just not heal, and perhaps never would.
I stood beside the flowing water, the gush soothing to my ears. The droplets captured the moonlight, trickling to a destination unknown, and I let out a breath. Like me, they had no choice, compelled to obey an unseen force.
"What is wrong with our Warden?" Leliana spoke in a quieter tone, but I could still pick out every word. "She did not seem so melancholy when we first met."
Alistair rubbed the back of his neck. "Ah, Elissa gets like this sometimes. You can't blame her. She's been through a lot, even before Ostagar."
Alistair hesitated. I felt his eyes upon me, but I did not acknowledge him.
"She was betrayed by someone close to her father," he said at last. "Her entire family were murdered, and her home razed to dust. If it wasn't for Duncan being there at the time…" He trailed off.
I continued to watch the stream, my fist clenched. I should have been affronted he would share my pain so openly, but now I no longer cared. It mattered little how many times the tale was told, nor by whom. I could not change the past, and could not change my future, either. I was trapped in a fate not of my own creation, and there was no escape.
"How awful." There seemed genuine concern in Leliana's voice. Concern, or pity, a nasty voice taunted in my head. "Well then, if Elissa must shoulder such a burden, we should do our part to help. There must be something that can still make her smile."
"Oh, good luck with that," Alistair snorted. "Believe me, I've tried."
"Various inferior methods, I'm sure," Leliana teased.
Alistair waved his spoon. "Hey, everyone else who's heard the drunken Templar story has had stomach ache from laughing so much!"
"You cannot rely on the same trick for every person," Leliana pointed out.
"Right, and you're such a comedian, huh?" Alistair huffed. "No offence, but a lay sister of the Chantry is hardly what I'd call the humorous type."
"I wouldn't underestimate my ability in this area," Leliana said.
"Well, you've certainly proven to be more than you seem," Alistair conceded, "but I think in this department I have you outmatched."
"Is that so, my lord?" Leliana raised a brow. "In that case, since you are so confident, how about a wager?"
"Ha, your faith in the Maker must be strong if you think you can take me on…"
Their exchange made me scoff, and I began to walk upstream. Theirs voices fell away, drowned by the pebbles beneath my feet, and I bit my lip. What was it to them that I didn't smile when they desired? I would not feign false happiness where none existed, just so they could feel better. Everything I had known and loved had been crushed to nothing, and I'd been forced upon a path that would only hold more anguish and sacrifice. And now tragedy was a joke to them, some sort of amusement...
"Do not wander too far, Warden."
I looked up, met by a pair of amber eyes. Morrigan was returning from the forest, more firewood clutched against her chest. A peculiar habit of hers, to always camp by herself, but I was starting to wish I could enjoy similar independence. Maybe then I would be spared such unfair judgement.
Morrigan seemed to pick up on my thoughts, and she raised a brow.
"Something troubling you?" she asked. "Apart from the obvious, of course."
I sighed, glancing back to my whispering conspirators. Morrigan followed my gaze, and gave a discerning snort.
"Hmph, pay them no heed," she said. "If t'is their wish to gossip like gormless washerwomen, then let them be. At least our other new addition knows how to hold his tongue."
She walked back to her tent, setting her collection of branches beside her own fire. I watched her for a moment, then turned back to camp. In the distant shadows I caught the tall figure of Sten, our other recruit from Lothering. He did not meet my gaze, his eyes intent on the horizon.
Sighing, I returned to the stream. My foot caught a loose rock, and it sent ripples through the water, scattering the moonlight. The sight stirred a memory, and I had to swallow the lump in my throat. Oren and I used to visit a similar stream close to home, and make little parchment boats. It had been one of his favourite pastimes, and he often proclaimed he would be a famous a captain someday. A dream now forever trapped in time, never to be realised.
Something prickled behind my eyes. I gritted my teeth, forcing back tears and wishing I could scream so loud the Maker himself would turn his head. I could not understand it. One minute my heart felt so detached and empty, and the next my chest would swell so tight I could barely breathe. Every past reflection was a knife between my shoulder-blades, and every heartbeat drove it deeper.
I just wanted to have peace again…
Duke suddenly barked, and I spun round. He was sniffing his way towards me, and someone had tucked a parchment into his collar. He brushed against my leg, his tail wagging. Even the sight of his excitement stirred nothing, and I sighed. I might as well get this over with.
I bent down and removed the scroll from his neck. Hastily penned words stood out, the ink smudged from where it had not quite dried. The moonlight was bright enough, so I began to read.
There once was a woman from Orlais,
Who had a little fetish for pancakes,
She was dribbled in syrup
But got caught in her stirrups
And was dragged half-naked through a funeral wake.
I blinked, wondering if I had misread the words. A glance back to camp revealed Leliana holding a quill between her fingers, more parchment on her lap. I rolled my eyes. Maker, had she written this? It was awful.
Scrunching the parchment up, I headed back to the fireside. It seemed my wish to be left alone would be unfulfilled this night. I could only hope they would tire of this pointless game soon.
I sat beside Leliana once more, tossing back her message. She caught it, and her lips drew into an irked pout. I ignored her, staring into the firelight. She was wasting her time. Duke left my side, his nose in the dinner pot.
"Ah, I thought you'd come crawling back," Alistair said, yanking the mabari back by his collar. He had already helped himself to a bowl, and he brandished his spoon like a dagger. "No-one can resist my speciality dish, lamb stew!"
I sighed, daring to look into the pot. The smell that emanated was not something I would associate with that kind of meat.
"Lamb, you say?" Leliana eyed her own serving, as if it were filled with spiders. "It has such an…interesting texture."
"Proper salt-of-the-earth Ferelden cuisine," Alistair boasted. "Not that frilly fruity nonsense you have in Orlais."
His words seemed to stir something, and I caught a glimpse of sadness in Leliana's eyes. It was soon dispelled, and she shook her head.
"Some days I wonder if it would be a blessing to starve," she said, letting the thick slop roll around her bowl. "Surely this is not the finest Ferelden has to offer, Elissa?"
I clenched my fists in my lap. What was with her need for constant conversation? Did she fear the silence that much?
"Beggars can't be choosers," I said quietly.
"Aw, you wound me, Elissa," Alistair said, holding a hand to his chest. "This is a recipe handed down for generations, a sacred tradition! You should be honoured you even get to taste such a delicacy. Now come on, no more excuses."
He stood up, bowl in hand, and made to march towards me. Duke however chose the same moment to lunge, wanting a taste himself. Alistair swore, trying to sidestep, but he tripped on the log and fell. Yelping, he landed on his backside, and the stew spilled over his lap. He howled, hot gravy burning his thighs. He furiously wiped it away, while Duke barked, licking his stained breeches.
"Hey, stop that!" Alistair shoved him away. The mabari whined, still nuzzling for meat chunks, when he suddenly opened his mouth and brought it all back up. Alistair shrieked, and Leliana burst out laughing. "Ugh, disgusting mutt!"
"Well, at least Duke appreciates your cooking skills," Leliana snickered. "Wouldn't you agree, Elissa?"
I sighed, the hollowness within growing stronger. All I could think about was how Duke had done this to my brother a few months ago. Oren and I had barely been able to breathe through our laughter, and Oriana had been furious, demanding I never bring the mabari to the dinner table ever again. Fergus had ended up throwing out his favourite shirt, and had forced me to sew him a new one. A project that remained unfinished in my room, and would have been burnt to cinders in the attack.
The lump in my throat returned, and I held my hand to my forehead. How I longed to return to that decorated hall, warm and safe, instead of sitting here in this empty wasteland with these unfamiliar faces…
"Elissa, are you alright?" Leliana raised a hand, meaning to touch my shoulder. I shrank back. I did not need this.
"Tired," I mumbled.
Before Leliana could respond, I stood up and strode towards my tent. Perhaps there she would no longer bother me. Duke followed, and came to sit in front of the canvas. I tried to push him aside, but he let out a whine, nipping at my fingers. He was still hungry.
I reached for my pack, fumbling for the dried meat strips I'd bought from Lothering. The fire crackled and spat, and I caught Alistair's sigh as he went to find a change of clothing. His steps came dangerously close, but he didn't call out, even as he slipped into his tent. I sat on the ground, letting Duke nibble from my hand, watching from the corner of my eye.
Soon Alistair emerged, clear of spilled stew and dog vomit, and he returned to the fire. He stole a glance at me, shaking his head.
"You know, I'm surprised that didn't work," he admitted to Leliana. "She didn't even crack a smile. Do you think she's doing it to spite us?"
"Perhaps," Leliana shrugged, "but I wonder…"
Suddenly she slid closer to Alistair. He half-flinched, half-shuffled back, his eyes wide.
"Whoa, what are you doing?"
"Oh come now, Alistair," Leliana's voice became a purr. "You must have realised by now?"
Leliana giggled. "My, playing hard to get, are we?"
I wanted to shut my ears, but I couldn't help myself. The temptation became too much, and I turned towards them. Leliana had twisted herself so she was lying sideways, her hand cocked against her hip. Alistair was backed against a log, trying to shield himself with his knees. Leliana raised a brow, gently biting her lower lip.
"Please…Please don't do that." Alistair's whine was more pathetic than Duke's.
"But Alistair," Leliana protested, giving an exaggerated stretch, "you've really impressed me tonight."
"Er, really?" Alistair's face matched the colour of the fire.
"Yes, really." Leliana rested her hand on his knee. Alistair's lip quivered. "How you were able to orchestrate such a comedic act, and make it seem like a complete accident. I had no idea you were so capable."
"W-What are you talking about?" Alistair's eyes kept drifting to Leliana's exposed neck, his hands clutching the ground.
"This was never about the wager, you know," Leliana murmured, edging ever closer. Her hand slithered up his thigh. "I merely wanted to see you in action. And you went so far above and beyond what I expected."
"W-Well, t-that's…flattering, b-but…" Alistair abruptly caught his breath; Leliana had roamed too far. He flung himself back, but he was not quick enough. Leliana pinned him down, her elbows across his chest. She raised a sultry brow.
"Come now, don't be shy." She traced her fingers down his side, unclasping the buckle on his chest plate. "Show me what such a strong, tough, handsome Grey Warden can do…"
That proved the last straw, as Alistair suddenly fell limp. He'd fainted.
Leliana chuckled, shuffling back.
"Hmm, I thought he would last longer than that," she murmured. Brushing back her hair, she looked towards me. I glanced aside, holding a hand to my chest. The whole affair had sparked nothing. Even indignation was beyond me, and only emptiness echoed inside.
A bitter taste filled my mouth, and I crawled inside my tent. My hands shook as I unfurled my bedroll, and I sank onto it. Nothing would contain the spreading ache between my ribs, and I wrapped my arms around myself. I felt so trapped. To acknowledge my loss was forbidden, a distraction from the duty thrust upon me. But warmth and joy were snatched away as well, tainted by smothering guilt.
How could I dare to smile again, when those who should have been here were gone forever…and it was all my fault.
I buried my head in my hands, ignoring the moisture on my cheek that was not sweat.
The camp fell into quiet, but my mind could not. No matter how I tossed and turned, I could not settle. My thoughts would not stop, tumbling over themselves like leaves in a storm. All the 'what ifs' that still haunted, all the failures that rested on my shoulders, echoing through my head. If I had been more alert, I could have sensed Howe's betrayal sooner. If I had not slept so soundly, I would have heard Oren's screams and protected him in time. If I had tried harder, I could have convinced Mother to escape to safety. I could have—no, should have saved her and Father both.
If only, if only…
I held my temples, the pressure unbearable. Every muscle was coiled and tense, and I wanted to scream. Anything to release the madness that was going to drown me. The shackles tightened, morphing into dark voices that would not be silenced.
You should have died with them.
I wanted to save them…
You should not have left them.
But I had no choice…
You should not be here.
I have a duty!
You are nothing without them.
No, no, no!
I bolted upright, drenched in sweat. The tent was suddenly suffocating, and I scrambled to get out. The cold hit me, turning my skin clammy, and I caught my breath, shivering. My shoulders slumped, and I clawed at the ground. I could not win. If it wasn't this raging maelstrom keeping me awake, it would be the terrifying nightmares. Sleeping or waking, I was hounded all the same. I would never have the peace I so desperately craved.
The glow of the campfire caught my eye, and I glanced towards it. Alistair was warming his hands, his back facing me. Sten was also keeping watch, a silent sentry in the darkness. Neither of them had noticed me, and I wiped my forehead with my sleeve. There was little point trying to sleep again. Not when such restlessness coursed through every vein.
I closed my eyes. This was not unfamiliar to me. There had been nights at home where I had lain awake for hours, too burdened to let sleep claim me. Back then, I used to take Duke for a run. It always drove the night watch insane, startling them in the dead hours, but it was the only time I ever felt free. When I ran, all I knew was the rumble of my pulse, the breaths snatched from my lungs, and the pounding of my feet. Like a flame tearing through parchment, it burned my weighted thoughts, and always left my heart lighter.
The idea lingered, and I licked my lips. What was to stop me doing the same now? There was plenty of open space to choose from, and I needed something to break this prison of endless regret. Granted, there was still the threat of darkspawn, or bandits, or wolves, or Maker knew what else, but I was not a careless fool. As a Grey Warden, I would be able to sense the worst danger, and I would not go unarmed, either.
I had to do this.
I retreated into my tent, buckling my sword and dagger to my belt. I fastened it across my chest, so they were snug against my back. My gauntlets and boots followed, and soon I was back outside. Sten grunted, looking to his left, but I was still out of his line of sight. I let out a silent breath, before creeping towards the stream.
I followed the moonlit water for several minutes, stepping lightly. It allowed my night vision to settle, no longer dazzled by the brilliance of the campfire. Then, when I was sure I would not cause a disturbance, I broke into a jog. Gently at first, and then my legs found their natural pace.
The shadowed trees loomed, and I ducked beneath their low-lying branches. Leaves skimmed my shoulders, and twigs snapped under my boots. The streamside pebbles rattled, and I lost myself in the rhythm. My troubled thoughts could no longer reach me. All that mattered was the crisp air filling my lungs, washing out the ache that left my heart so barren.
I kept alongside the stream. It would be easy to get lost otherwise. Gradually it began to widen into a river, and the cool water swept around my ankles. Still I continued, the backsplash soaking my calves, but all it did was spurn me onward. Each step was like a hammer to the chains around me, letting me finally breathe once more.
The bank grew steeper, and I left the confines of the river. Loose rocks tumbled beneath my boots, and I was forced to slow. The reeds fell behind, and the path continued to slope upwards, becoming a grassy verge. Eventually my chest and legs started to burn, and I gritted my teeth. I forced myself to keep going, pushing my muscles to their limit, but finally I had to stop.
Breathing hard, I wiped my sweaty brow and surveyed the landscape. I had come to a rocky outcrop that overlooked a small lake. Dead willows surrounded me, their branches drooping across the banks. The waters were still, reflecting the crescent moon and scattered stars. The waves lapped at the shore beneath, a natural lullaby that calmed my racing heartbeat. I let my eyes close, the rush of blood warming my ears. My breaths slowed, and I focused on the movement of air. Whatever it took to keep me grounded.
Alas, my respite was short-lived. Suddenly the breeze picked up. A memory stirred, sending ripples across my thoughts, and I gasped.
The salty wind blew my hair into my face, and I hissed, wishing I had not left my hair clip at home. My brother's fault; he had insisted we leave before dawn. But despite our early journey, it had been worth every bleary step. Fergus had brought me to the West Hill delta, and I could not tear my eyes away. Even though the day was overcast, there was still such colour where the river Dane met the Waking Sea. The land was made of hexagonal blocks, and they formed beautiful pillars that rose above the waves.
"Quite a sight, isn't it, sister?" Fergus stopped beside me, resting his hand on my shoulder. I nodded, watching the foam dash against the rocks. I had never seen anything so wondrous before. Truly I could not have asked for a better present for my thirteenth birthday.
"It's incredible," I breathed, taking in the rock formations and frothing sea. But seeing was not enough, so I shrugged off Fergus' hand and went to climb. The pillars were slippery with seaweed and brine, but I eventually reached the top and puffed out my chest. Fergus laughed, folding his arms.
"Legend says that a giant lived here, and he built these steps to get across the Waking Sea," he explained. "But he met another giant in Kirkwall, and they fought. They both fell into the sea, and their battle destroyed the bridge. This is all that remains."
"Wow!" I tip-toed across the pillars, the spray soaking my cheeks. From here, I could spy out ships on the horizon, making passage towards Highever. Closer to shore, caves brooded between the pillars, sheltered by bleached trunks. It was a paradise of secrets and lost treasures, and one that I itched to explore.
A large wave crashed into the pillar beneath me, soaking my legs. The tide was coming in. I backed away, when another followed, knocking me back. My foot caught, and I yelped, losing my balance. The rocks below came rushing towards me, and I snapped my eyes shut.
Warm arms wrapped around me, and the world stilled. Gasping, I dared to open my eyes. Fergus had caught me, just before I would hit my head against the stones. I swallowed, my heart pounding. Chuckling, Fergus set me down. My face flushed.
"Easy now," he chided, ruffling my hair. "Mother won't be happy if I have to bring you back in pieces!"
"Hmph, nothing will ever happen to me!" I pulled him into an embrace. "You're always here to watch out for me, right?"
Fergus smiled, returning the hug.
"Of course," he said. "I'll always be here for you, Elissa. I promise."
I blinked, returned to my adult self, and this time the tears would not be held back. My chest heaved, and I sank to my knees, my face in my hands. The air turned colder, raking my skin, and I sobbed. Oh Fergus, you promised I would never be alone, yet now you've gone along with everyone else. There was nothing left; only more heartache and bloodshed in a war I did not want to fight. It was a duty too great, a burden I could not hope to carry. Even though I had no choice…
So let the darkness take me.
The thought came so abruptly, severing all else. Stunned, I remained on the ground, the wind teasing at my hair. My eyes drifted to the outcrop edge, where it dipped into a sheer drop over the lake. The water was only a few feet below, but its depth was impossible to judge. All it would take was a single step, and this agony would be silenced forever.
I jumped, my pulse bounding once more. My hand flew to my sword, but a flash of red hair stopped me drawing it. Leliana had appeared at the slope, hunched over her knees and panting. Her forehead glistened with sweat; it had taken her all just to keep up with me. She spent a moment recovering, running a hand through her matted hair. Eventually she looked up, and her eyes met mine.
I could not hold her gaze and looked away. A long quiet hung over us, the slosh of water against the shore the only noise. I stared at the lake, the promise of release still dancing at the edge of my thoughts. Part of me was disgusted for even letting it cross my mind, and yet the other coaxed it was the only way I could be free. Both sides whispered in my ears, begging me to choose, and I clenched my fists. Why would this pain not leave me…
Leliana sighed. She stood tall, and started to walk towards me. I refused to look at her, folding my arms around myself. Leather creaked, and she knelt beside me. I held perfectly still, not wanting to betray a single breath. I did not want her to see me like this.
"You left so suddenly. I was worried." She gazed across the lake, her jaw tense. "Not thinking of jumping, I hope?"
My cheeks burned with humiliation.
"And if I was?"
Leliana's face tightened.
"Then I would feel greatly saddened," she answered, "and want to understand what made you feel that way?"
I kept quiet. Even the admission itself stung. It was a temptation I should never have acknowledged. Mother and Father had sacrificed themselves so I could carry on the Cousland legacy and punish the one responsible for our downfall. And it was not just to them I held responsibility. All of Ferelden was in peril, and needed a leader to protect it. This show of weakness was unforgivable.
But why did it have to be me? Why was I the one forced to endure this lonely path?
Why had I been spared both that night and at Ostagar, with no-one else who could take my place…
"I don't want this." My voice was feeble, barely recognisable to my ears. "I don't want to drown in darkness anymore."
Leliana's gaze softened. She raised a tentative hand, but this time I did not flinch. Her palm came against my shoulder, filled with warmth.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It cannot be easy, facing what you have."
"Then why the games?" I withdrew, curling my head into my knees. "If all I've suffered is mere amusement, something you think can just disappear with a joke and a smile…"
"That is not what I think at all," Leliana broke in. She sat back, plucking at the grass. "It was never my intention to mock your pain, Elissa. Far from it. But…" She twirled the grass blade between her fingers, hesitant. "This path is not unfamiliar to me, and I had hoped to spare you from walking as far as I did."
Something in her tone changed, and I found myself looking at her. All trace of lightness had vanished, her brow furrowed. Her gaze was distant, remembering a past that still held power over her. She was not speaking of another's confession.
"The wounds never stop hurting," she murmured, absently rubbing her right side. "Even when you feel you have no more to give, they find other ways to bleed. They eat at you, until pain becomes all that you know. A choking darkness that denies everything, that isolates and leaves nothing but guilt and sorrow. And then one day, it becomes too much."
She swallowed, her voice quivering slightly. "You miss the light so badly, you would do anything to see it again. So you start to believe that the only way to escape is…"
She trailed off, and I closed my eyes. She spoke the truth. I had lost my light, and was not sure if it would ever return.
"But it's a lie." Leliana touched my wrist, banishing the cold. "Darkness cannot exist without light, and that light still shines inside you. A light that hurts when you see it, because you think it should have gone out."
My eyes widened. She…knew, but…
"Please Elissa," Leliana murmured. "Your pain is not all that you are." I let her fingers wrap around my palm. "And there is no shame in finding lightness in the world when your heart would tell you otherwise."
"But it's not right." I found my voice again. "So many died because I was too weak. How can I let myself feel warmth again when my mistakes cost them that same chance…"
"You cannot take blame for something out of your control." Leliana squeezed my hand. "The Maker saved you for a reason. And so you are here right now, still breathing, still a part of something greater, as am I."
"But why me?" I whispered. "Why do I have to walk this path?" My hands trembled. "Everything falls upon my shoulders, yet this is a duty I cannot hope to fulfil…"
"You are not alone, Elissa," Leliana answered. "The Maker knows this, as well. That is why I believe He showed me that vision. And just as I saw that flower bloom upon the dead shrub, so I know you can get through this. You will find your faith again, if not in yourself, then in the Maker's plan."
I clenched my jaw, wanting to refute every word, but I could not. For better or worse, Leliana had set off a tiny spark within, one that refused to give in to the darkness. The light that hurt. It was still weak, threatening to be smothered at any moment, but it was there. So much had been lost to keep it burning, to keep its memory alive. Even if I did not feel it worth saving, could I let such efforts be in vain?
I looked to the sky, hoping the stars might hold the answer. They remained silent, offering no counsel, and I sighed.
"Is…Is it worth it?"
Was I worth it?
"That is something you will have to find out for yourself," Leliana said, "just as I did. But I can help, if you'll let me?"
She released me and stood, offering her hand again. I stared for a long moment, still uncertain. Still bound by the chains of guilt. But now there was something else. I had lost my family and all that I had been, the pieces of myself scattered and fragmented. I could not be who I was, but that did not mean I could not still be. I could not deny what had been given up to allow me to be here, in this very moment. I had to make a new light flourish.
And I could not rekindle it alone.
I reached out, hesitant, but then I gritted my teeth and slid my hand into Leliana's. Her eyes lit up, and I let her pull me to my feet. The ache pulsed beneath my ribs, and I swallowed. I would never be truly rid of it, but perhaps that had been my mistake in the first place. It would have to become a new part of me. A slow and painful process for sure, but one I was finally willing to endure.
"Thank you, Leliana," I said. "I…I can't promise anything, but…I will try."
"That is all you can ask of yourself," Leliana said, smiling. "Whatever you need, I will be here for you."
"Can you promise me something, though?"
My lips twitched, not quite making it into a smile.
"Don't ever try to write a limerick again."
Leliana's mouth hung slack. She stared, eyes agape, before she managed to find her voice again.
"I can't believe…so you did read it!" She poked my arm, as we began to walk back to the river. "It was not meant to be lyrical poetry, you know."
"It was not meant for anyone with literate eyes, you mean."
Leliana scowled. "Maker, you can be cruel!"
She made to nudge me in the ribs. I twisted out of reach, but I was too close to the edge of the slope. The rocks slid free beneath me, and I lost my footing. Eyes wide, I grabbed Leliana, trying to right myself, but I pulled too hard and she fell with me.
Yelping, we both plunged into the lake. Fortunately the drop was short, and the waters not as deep as I had feared. I gasped, the shock of cold snatching my breath, and I scrambled for the surface. We burst back into the air, coughing and spluttering.
"Why in the Maker's name did you do that?!" Leliana stood in the waist-deep water, shaking her arms and sending droplets flying.
"You started it!" I shot back.
Leliana growled. She slapped her hands against the water, showering me with spray. I cried out, before launching a wave of my own. Leliana squealed, shielding herself, then tackled me. We fell once more, and for the briefest of moments a sudden lightness filled me. I froze, and Leliana immediately let go. The lightness went with her, and I sighed.
"Maker, I'm sorry," Leliana said, rubbing the back of her neck. "Did I hurt you?"
I shook my head, pressing my hand to my chest. I wished I could have held onto the feeling a little longer. But perhaps it was something to have even felt it at all.
"It's alright," I said. "I…" Words failed me, and I let out a breath. "We should head back."
Leliana nodded, her eyes filled with understanding. She waded back to shore, and I followed. We walked alongside the river, and my gaze drifted back to the stars. Their light was so frail and distant, much like what lay within me. But still they endured in the ocean of darkness, carving their own path and believing in the dawn that would inevitably arrive. And even though night would always return, it could never fully extinguish their brilliance.
My light would endure, and one day be born anew.