Many thanks to Clariana for allowing me once again to borrow her character Chantal. It will be well worth your time to go read Clariana's newly finished story, The Dark Ritual, and her other fine work. –A.


10 Harvestmere, 9:32 Dragon Age. Imperial Highway, the Orlesian Heartlands.

Chantal swiveled around to look at the riders behind the carriage. Ellie glanced over at the petite blonde woman, then turned to follow her gaze. The carriage was surrounded by a small entourage of Fereldan bodyguards and a larger Orlesian force. Gareth was among them, riding a horse too big for him, having flatly refused to ride with the women in the carriage. Chantal waved at the boy, then turned to look at Josath ap Feil, trying to get his attention. These two had had a small conversation before the party started out, consisting of the princess talking and Jo-jo staring. Now, as he rode, the Fereldan man's eyes remained trained ahead and his expression serious, but his cheeks reddened visibly. That was enough for Chantal.

She turned back, laughing. "I do love Fereldans. When we heard that your queen was sending an ambassador to us, we were so delighted that it should be you, Teyrna Elissa. Grandmère most of all."

"The Empress is very kind." Ellie doubted very much that the Orlesian court was happy to have her in its midst rather than someone more pliable. Perhaps they would enjoy the challenge. For the trip south Chantal had said something about getting out to see the countryside and giving her safe escort, but Ellie suspected that the empress also wanted someone to keep an eye on her and on Loghain. She guessed that the Orlesians saw both promise and risk in having such prominent Fereldans in their midst.

"It is an advantage for your son, too, no?" Chantal asked. "He will receive the finest education."

"Yet grow up hardly seeing the teyrnir he's meant to rule someday. But yes, I expect he'll end up quite the unusual young man."

"This would be true in any case," Chantal replied wisely. It was certainly true. Even after only a few weeks in Val Royeux, Gareth Mac Tir, son of the Hero of River Dane, was quickly learning the Orlesian language. He was quiet, but when in the right mood spoke with worldly authority about his travels in the Free Marches and Ferelden to courtier and servant alike.

The princess' tone turned eager. "Tell me about this new king of yours, Teyrna Elissa. A commoner and completely unknown, can that be true? They say he is handsome."

"I will not argue with that," Ellie said, smiling. She remained silent a while, thinking over how to answer. Most of her impressions of Maric's son were made from afar, watching him first at the Landsmeet and with Fergus, then at the wedding and coronation. She did have a brief audience with him before leaving Denerim. Alistair had been tense, barely concealing his bitterness toward her. He still resented Loghain's survival, all the more because the smallfolk did not. A Mac Tir would also continue to hold a teyrnir. At the celebration of the Blight's defeat, the new king had grandly offered the Hero of Ferelden a boon, and regretted it when Fergus requested that Gwaren remain Gareth's birthright. The note of petulance in his voice reminded her uncomfortably of Cailan.

Nevertheless Alistair had grudgingly admitted to Ellie that Fergus and Loghain saved his life during the siege of Denerim. Fighting against impossible odds after the surprise attack on the capital, the new king and his honor guard had been forced to hole up in a room in Fort Drakon until the Wardens rescued them. Alistair had then joined the fighting in the palace district and acquitted himself well, rallying the defenders.

"He is a warrior above all, our king," Ellie replied finally. "I believe he would have liked to remain one rather than rule a country. That is a something my husband can understand. Such men, they are always soldiers at heart."

"And you are, as well, or not? I still remember your performance at our tournament."

Smiling a little, Ellie shook her head. "No. First a mother, I think. I would not have expected that in my youth, but Gareth changed my mind."

"And your husband, he is content to be a simple Grey Warden, after holding such power in Ferelden?"

"He is content to be alive. I would say that Loghain finds the Warden life agreeable enough. He likes training the young recruits. That is my impression from his letters, at any rate. I have not seen my husband in nearly a year."

"I am eager to meet him, the great man himself." Her enthusiasm seemed sincere. The Orlesians also loved contradictions, and they could romanticize anything. Naturally, there was a limit.

"Not all of your countrymen agree," Ellie replied, giving the princess a pointed glance. "Thank you for your information about the plot on his life."

Chantal frowned and made a soft clucking noise. "These ignorant brutes. These…" She shook her head and muttered an Orlesian curse that Ellie did not understand. "They have no sense of the future, of what can be. Of what must be."

"We have that sort, as well."

"A pity," Chantal replied, sighing. She reached for her flask. "Shall we have some wine?"

The party arrived in Montsimmard toward evening. The princess and her guards turned off toward the country estate of some noble who would house them, and Ellie rode with Gareth and the others on toward the Warden keep. Loghain was not there but would return soon, they were told. Gareth begged to watch the swordplay going on in the practice pit. Ellie left him under the watch of their guard and went out to stretch her legs.

Outside the walls of the keep, the road snaked on a down slope toward Lake Celestine. The waters of the lake were grey, a bank of dark cloud hiding any sunset. A few drops of rain slashed Ellie's face. She found a disused gazebo, weeds grown in around the steps, and took a seat on a stone bench facing out over the lake. For a time she watched the clouds roiling, then reached into her dress pocket and took out Loghain's last letter. There was barely enough light to read it, but she had all but memorized its words anyway.

Elissa,

Shall I start every letter with an apology for not writing more often? Let us call that a given and be done. All is well here, as well as can be. I'll say this for the place, we do get decent recruits. That is likely due to the fact that the Orlesians still do not allow commoners into the ranks of the chevaliers, with few exceptions. I am happy to profit from their stupidity.

I believe you that you could not find a more suitable tutor for Gareth in Highever than this Chantry brother, but the boy learned more useful skills in Kirkwall than are to be had from such a creature. At least Gareth could win some coin with his new mastery of Wicked Grace. I am only a fair hand at the game myself, but the lad will still never beat me in chess, not if there is any justice.

As to your plan to spend winters in Montsimmard. It is not a fitting place, Ellie, not for you or the boy. This is a soldier's den and despite its Orlesian airs, a mean one. I can feel your scowl from here. You are a warrior and used to such places. I also admit that your company would be very welcome. The winters are not as hard here as in Ferelden, but the bed is still cold. Nevertheless you would be more comfortable if you stayed in Val Royeux, and it would be better for Gareth's lessons. Think on it. I will not bother to insist. I am well aware, after many reminders, that I am not allowed to forbid you anything.

L.M.T.

Ellie had begun folding the letter to put it back again when she heard a footfall on the path behind her. She turned to see who approached, then stood, smiling.


* After defeating the Blight and being hailed as the Hero of Ferelden, Fergus Cousland left the Grey Wardens to assume leadership of his family's teyrnir at Highever. Letters from Weisshaupt inquiring about the unexplained survival of both Fereldan Wardens were returned unanswered.

* Six months after the Blight ended, Warden Commander Neria Surana led a defense at Amaranthine arling against remnants of the darkspawn horde. Though the darkspawn were once again defeated, the ancient port town burned to the ground in the fighting. Many blamed the mage Warden and whispered that it had all been a cover-up for terrible blood magic rituals. The incident and rumors drew templar attention to Vigil's Keep. Neria disappeared shortly thereafter.

* Cormac ap Feil took a mortal wound in the Battle of Denerim. His son Dunnet assumed his title at what was left of the shattered Stedburg. The younger ap Feil would remain a thorn in the crown's side. He did allow a portion of his lands which had once belonged to his mother's family to be portioned off so that it could be re-chartered, with his sister Roslyn as bann.

* Requests from Queen Anora for Anya Amell's release from templar custody in Kirkwall went unheeded. At Empress Celene's intercession, the Divine at Val Royeux agreed to look into the matter, but her many promises bore no fruit. At last Her Holiness agreed to provide Elissa with a written release order in exchange for returning with information on conditions in the troubled city. Ellie made the journey to Kirkwall, but when she arrived was told that Anya had died in the Gallows a few days earlier, under circumstances no one would explain.

* Alun Marwell had remained in Kirkwall, taking work with various mercenary companies, during Anya's imprisonment at the Gallows. After her death, he returned to Denerim and retired from military life. Queen Anora granted him a pension for his many years of service in the Fereldan royal guard.

* Three years after the end of the Blight, Regan Mac Tir was born in Val Royeux. She was eight years old when her father made his last journey into the Deep Roads.