High and Solitary and Most Stern
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern.
-Yeats, from "No Second Troy"
Her name was Galena; she was a by-blow of one of the banns sworn to Dragon's Peak. She was not precisely a beauty, but she had a quick wit and an easy smile, and a bosom that turned many a head.
Another one of Cailan's women.
Anora scowled down at the accounts she was supposedly going over; the ink smeared together before her eyes and reformed into an imagined portrait of this Galena. She refused to dignify any of them with the term rival. That would have been admitting that any of them were competition.
Yet whose bed does your esteemed husband occupy this fortnight? whispered the traitorous little voice at the back of Anora's mind. He enjoys all of the hospitality that Dragon's Peak has to offer.
The message had arrived this morning, with the expected news that Cailan had, yes, fallen into some welcoming bed more or less immediately upon arrival. In a way, it was a blessing; Cailan's distraction left Anora able to administrate Ferelden as she saw fit. When he tried to help, well…
She put it out of her mind. "I will deal with the accounts later, Erlina," she said. "It's a beautiful day, we might as well enjoy it. Tell the guard to have our horses saddled. We'll go for a ride."
"Are you all right, my lady?" Erlina asked, her small face folding into a frown. Her cultured Orlesian accent lent her an air of sophistication. "Bad news in that message, yes?"
"The usual." She did not need to elaborate. Erlina bowed her head in understanding. "The horses. Please."
The elf sketched a curtsey and hurried away.
She would forgive him, of course. The moment he walked in, golden as the sun and taller even than her father, she would forgive him. Anora set her heels to her horse's side, and the creature surged forward with a snort. Erlina, riding next to her, followed suit. The trees they rode among were turning to flame and gold, studded with the dull green of unchanging firs.
Anora had never asked where her maid had learned to ride. She had also very carefully never asked where Erlina had learned the art of spycraft. All she knew was that the elf had arrived on her doorstep one dew-drenched morning in Gwaren. The household was in an uproar-Cailan had been crowned king half a month before, and Anora was about to travel to Denerim, where they would be married.
Erlina had brought with her a small parchment packet, inside of which was nothing but a lock of honey-blonde hair, the same color of Anora's. When she had lifted it to her nose, she breathed in her mother's scent.
Father said that Mother was dead, but Anora was no longer a child, and she knew better.
She trusted Erlina as she did no other in this world beside her husband. In some ways, she trusted her maid far more than she did Cailan.
"Dark thoughts, my lady," Erlina said. "Your brow is furrowed so." She rode easily; her chestnut gelding was a solid and unimaginative creature, unlike Anora's flighty mare. The guards were behind them, out of earshot.
"The King is up to his usual antics," Anora said. "I keep his accounts, play his politics, and keep this country in one piece. And yet—" She shook her head. "I cannot be a wife to him in the only way he truly cares about. I know he's thinking about putting me aside." The admission was bitter on her tongue.
"It is not your fault," Erlina said. "Eamon speaks to him, keeps his mind focused on your supposed inability to have an heir. If you would even consider my plan…"
Anora drew a breath, the chill of autumn stinging the back of her throat. "We've spoken of this. I will not make Cailan a cuckold."
"I simply think it is unfair." Erlina's expression was unruffled, calm as a winter river. "Cailan goes from bed to bed like the colibri, sipping from each flower. You refuse even one such comfort, one that might result in an heir being born with no one the wiser."
Her hands tightened painfully on the reins. Her mount curveted beneath her, and she sat back in the saddle, consciously relaxing her body and legs. "I don't doubt your discretion, Erlina, but I doubt that a secret of this magnitude might be successfully kept. I am no Empress Celene, to keep a stable of comely young men to come to me when I crook my finger."
"It is too bad," Erlina said with a smile. "Truly, if it took that to bring a smile to your face, I would search far to find the most beautiful, and most silent, boys in Thedas. I would install them as guards to your chamber, and search of them most thoroughly before they were allowed inside."
"Wicked, my dear. Very wicked." But Anora was smiling. Cailan was attentive when he was present, but he had been gone for over a fortnight and the chill of her empty bed was wearying. "We should discuss the latest request from Gwaren. I think it's a good idea, but Eamon is going to hate it. I need to think of a way to sweeten his temper towards the idea of relaxing some of the trade standards."
"And the other message, about the darkspawn in the south." Erlina shuddered dramatically, her small shoulders shaking. "I hate the thought of those things!"
Anora shook her head. "Cailan seems to almost relish the idea. Maric's influence. I think sometimes Cailan wants to live inside of one of the stories the minstrels tell."
And that was part of the problem, wasn't it? Because in those stories, the princess always waited in the tower for the hero to arrive, pretty and brainless and pure. Anora was flesh and blood, and like her mother before her she refused to fit into the mold those stories cast.
She rode and discussed politics with Erlina, and put it out of her mind.
"We're going to be married tomorrow," Cailan said to her. They were walking in the gardens, the heavy scent of roses shouting praises of midsummer. "Strange, isn't it?"
"A little." She tightened her hand in his, received a reassuring curl of his fingers in return. "But maybe not so strange at all. Your Majesty."
"Oh, don't call me that." His smile was the brightest thing in the garden. "I'll always be your Cailan, and you'll always be my Anora."
It was how the romances always ended, with the marriage of the lovely princess to her handsome prince, and she was young enough to let herself hope that this was how it would always be.
Cailan came home three days later, but he had two Grey Wardens with him.
He was not even in the palace a full day before he left again, going with his troops to Ostagar. He left her with a kiss, an undimmed smile, and a you'll take care of things here, I know I can trust this country to your hands.
That it was true did not blunt the edge of her anger one bit.
She raged in her bower, the light through the stained glass casting feverish colors on the walls. "Does he even know what he risks?" she all but shouted, forgetting queenly decorum. "We don't have an heir, he's the last of the bloodline—"
Erlina was kneeling on a cushion, perfectly composed, her hands resting still on her thighs. "I beg your pardon," she said in that quiet way of hers. "But he is not. Maric had two sons, Anora."
"Cailan's younger brother. Born, he thinks, to a scullery maid who happened to have caught the King's eye in the wake of Queen Rowan's death. His name is Alistair."
The breath exploded out of Anora, and there wasn't nearly enough air in the bower. "A bastard. Wonderful. Maric, if you weren't already dead, I would strangle you." She made herself breathe. You are a woman grown, not a child. Act like it. "So what does this mean?"
"Little enough." Erlina tilted her head. Her Orlesian accent always thickened when she was pleased, and nothing pleased the elf more than revealing knowledge when the time was right. "He was recently recruited into the Grey Wardens. Utterly unsuitable to be King, of course. He was raised in the stables at Redcliffe Castle."
"Eamon." Of course. Of course it was Eamon, Maric's closest advisor, the uncle that Cailan looked up to so completely. Of course Maric would have chosen the old wolf to raise his bastard. "This Alistair, if he's what you say, nobody would ever support a bid for the throne by him. Still. He will be worth keeping an eye on."
"As you say." A faint smile curved Erlina's lips. "I do not believe he wants the throne, but he seems…impressionable."
"It is not a bloodline that rules this country, Erlina. It is men and women of that bloodline. If the worst happens, the people will support my claim."
"Even so." Erlina rose, and came over to Anora. She caught Anora's hand between both of hers. Her fingers were warm, and her hands small. "You are their Queen, faithful and chaste, their ideal ruler."
"Their princess in the tower." She shook her head. "If a woman wields power, she is held to a higher standard than a man in the same place. So I am everything Ferelden needs of me."
"But what of the woman who holds that power?" Erlina asked. She was serious now, her eyes searching Anora's face. "Doesn't she want anything for herself?"
A long moment; an intake of breath.
How can I, under all of these eyes?
"I will be what I must," she said, her voice steel. "For my country."
It was a cold afternoon; winter was coming hard on the heels of autumn. The chill scent of snow was on the breeze.
Cailan is dead.
Cailan was dead, and the world had not stopped in its traces. Anora was curled in the middle of the big bed, the door barred, alone. It was a grief beyond tears, beyond sorrow; like losing half of her soul. She had loved him, and he was gone.
But she was Queen, and queens did not have hysterics before half of their court. So she had retreated, only to discover that in private, she could not cry. The grief was lodged in her throat, and she was choking on it.
There was a whisper of movement in the room, a breath of air. The bed bowed under some slight weight, and without opening her eyes Anora knew it was Erlina, who had ways of getting through the palace that no one else had discovered.
A hand on Anora's shoulder. "My lady," Erlina said, and there was sorrow in her voice. She did not ask are you all right? She had to know better. "My lady. Let me help."
There was a small body pressed against Anora's back, a pair of thin but strong arms around Anora's body, and the sobs broke loose from Anora's throat and rose upward, and out of her.
The light was failing when Anora came back to herself, wiping streaming eyes and running nose on the crumpled blanket. Her breath was ragged in her aching throat. "Thank you, Erlina," she said, and coughed.
"You are welcome." The elf did not move, her whole length still pressed against Anora's body. She was warm, and the bedroom was cold. "I will stay as long as you need."
Anora nodded, and let silence rest between them.
It was not uncommon for a noblewoman and her maids to share a bed in the winter, everyone pressed together for warmth. Palaces were often more draft than wall, and Fereldan winters bitterly chill.
Perhaps a little unusual for a Queen to share her bed with only one, but there was no privacy in the palace, and had there been any hint of impropriety, people would have talked. Nobody talked. Anora carried the dual burden of grief and rule, and struggled to keep her country together even as her father seemed bent on tearing it apart.
He was a brilliant warrior, a general without peer, but Ferelden was a country, not an army, and he would not listen to her. The one will to match her own, unbending and stern; this was her father, and she despaired of him at times.
Time turned. Spring came. Anora held the reins of power as tightly as she could.
It was not enough.
The sound of a bolt slamming home in the door of her guest room in Fort Drakon was almost enough to send Anora to her knees. "At least let me have my maid," she called, raising her voice to carry through the closed door. "At least let me have Erlina."
"The Orlesian knife-ear? Hardly." Rendon Howe's voice was a low purr. Unfair, that he could always say such awful things in a voice that arched and preened like a great cat. "That cringing bitch will keep her nose out of this if she knows what's good for her." Then there was another voice, a hum of magic, and Anora felt the tingle of magic settling in nearby.
They had barred the door with magic. She had feared as much; Rendon had a pet apostate.
She'd hoped that Erlina might be able to get into the fort and unlock her door, but she was no mage. She was going to have to find help from somewhere.
The question was where she might find that help, and what it was going to cost them.
Day turned to night, night to day once more. The princess in the tower in truth, she thought with no small amount of dark humor. She turned over her options in her mind. Rendon Howe was a man of peculiar tastes; Anora had nothing that he would want. The guards on her door were prevented from opening it by the magelock, even if she could convince them.
There were no windows in this room. No secret entrances. She railed against unaccustomed helplessness, then gave up her tirades. Solitude wore away at her.
Have I ever been alone?
No. From her earliest days, the one thing she had never been was truly alone.
She tried to have patience. Tried to wait. As the days went past, her patience wore through and shredded, too-thin cloth against the aching grate of time. Her kingdom was slipping through her fingers with every heartbeat.
Then, at last—
She brought with her help. The Grey Wardens. She swallowed and tried not to hold her husband's death against them. Her voice was clipped and stilted as she told them about the magelock.
The Wardens departed to find Rendon. Erlina stayed.
Anora sank down by the door, pressed the side of her face against the wood, ignored the warning prickle of the magelock. "I'm so glad you came," she said, and her voice wobbled.
"I know, my lady," came the reply from the other side of the door. Erlina was crouched, from the sound of it. Anora wondered if she, too, was pressed against the door. "We will have you out soon. The Wardens are competent. I must warn you…one of them is Alistair."
Maric's bastard. "He survived."
She heard a long, muffled breath from the other side of the door. Acknowledgement enough.
Her heart was stuttering in her chest. "Did you ever meet my mother?" Anora asked.
"Once. A very long time ago." Erlina's accent was softened, blurred by her years of living in the Fereldan court. "She asked me to take care of you. And so I do. Word and deed, my lady." There was a long pause. "She was beautiful and determined, and there is much of her in you."
Anora closed her eyes, imagined Erlina on the other side of the door, her palm pressed against the wood. I will be what I must. For my country.
As Erlina, her only true friend, was what she must be.
Duty manacled them both.
But if things had been different—
"Cauthrien knows we are here," Erlina whispered. "She will intercept us as we leave. No matter what happens, we must get you out of here. Sacrifice the Wardens if you must; Cauthrien will not kill them." And she might kill you, was the unspoken phrase that ended that sentence.
"I know." She forced her spine to straighten. "Erlina—" Her voice failed.
So many nights spent with this woman's body pressed against hers, her small, solid body curled up in the bed that would have been unbearably lonely without her. Affection offered freely, without hope of return.
"They are coming back," Erlina said, and in her voice was a warning. Anora took it, and got to her feet, straightening her shoulders. A few moments later, the tingling of the magic on the door dissipated and the lock came open with a click. On the other side was a worried-looking Erlina, a small woman with a stubborn jaw, a tall woman with red hair and a preternatural grace, and a man who looked so much like Cailan that Anora's heart seized for a moment, as if it wanted desperately to believe that this was her wayward husband, back and ready to be forgiven once more.
The rest went just as Erlina said. The Wardens were captured, and Anora made good her escape. The Antivan elf went after the Wardens, and took the Mabari with him.
Anora paced in the room she had been given at Eamon's estate. Another cage, another exile, another trap.
"The Wardens will be fine," Erlina said. They were curled together, a shy spill of moonlight coming in through the window. "Don't worry about them."
"Then why are you stretched like a bowstring?"
Words failed Anora once more. She shook her head slightly. There is a man who looks remarkably like my husband out there and it disturbs me. While true, it wasn't what was stiffening her shoulders. I have been locked up and I now understand the difference between a cage made of duty and a true prison. Also true.
I have come to understand that you hold me in…some affection.
She reached for Erlina's hand, slid her long fingers between the elf's thin ones. "Merely thinking about things I cannot be, Erlina."
The elf's hand clenched on hers, and then released. Anora had to be the chaste queen, the exacting sovereign. The princess in the tower, even if her hero was a small elven woman from a foreign land.
Anora would need her, in the days to come.
"Is everything ready?"
"As much as it can be." Erlina inclined her head towards the window. "It is a terrible gamble, my lady. And I fear the odds are against you. The Warden plans to betray you, and put forth her own candidate."
Anora was dressed in her court finery, having dressed as carefully as any warrior donning her armor. The Landsmeet was less than an hour away. "I know. I cannot believe that Father would have been so stupid. He rails against Orlais, and yet he sells our own people into slavery? Win or lose, Erlina, I believe the Warden and I may be on the same side today. If the worst happens-"
The elf shook her head. "Do not say it. I will not return to Orlais. If I have a place in this world, it is at your side."
She said it with such conviction that Anora, who of late had doubted many things that she had never expected to question, believed her utterly in that moment.
"We both have chosen this path," Anora said, after a time. "Hard and narrow though it is."
"I knew when I came here that it would be." Erlina smiled, more with her eyes than with her lush mouth. "Your duty is stern. But there are compensations." She looked at the window again as a roar came from the direction of the Hall of the Landsmeet, and was abruptly silenced. "It has begun."
"It would not do to miss my cue." Anora brushed imaginary dust from her skirts, and swallowed hard. Two weeks ago, she'd expected to rise triumphant from the Landsmeet, Ferelden's acknowledged Queen. She was now not at all sure that this was how the day would end.
She must see it through.
Erlina was at her side, smoothing down a fold of cloth at Anora's waist. "I will be watching, from the shadows," she murmured, and then she was gone.
Then it was time.
People of Ferelden, you will never know what I sacrifice for you.
"You are faithful, still. Despite everything. I am…impressed."
"My oath is given, and my heart." The elf raised her dark eyes to meet the regarding gaze of the Nevarran trader who served as one of the hubs of intrigue in the Denerim market district. "Does it really surprise you so much?"
"I had simply expected something else of the courtesan who held Val Royeaux in such ardor for so long." The human smiled. "A thousand conquests to her name, and yet here she is, conquered at last."
"Oh, I am not conquered. Merely chaste." She held out her hand. "My token, Ruvine?"
"The jeu is set, the crew is in place." Ruvine dropped a thin coin into Erlina's hand. "You were correct. Pivione could not resist."
"I am rarely wrong about these things." She folded her hand around the token, feeling the prickle of lyrium within the metal. "I will stay long enough to see it through."
The trader acknowledged her words with a nod, and Erlina slipped away into the morning crowds. The games of intrigue played on.
She would thread a needle tonight, finish an embroidered message. I have improved upon the game, and it will play.
And in the corner of the design, a symbol not among those usually used. It was complicated, what was between her and the exiled Queen, and at the same time it was very simple. They understood one another.
Always, always, her heart had its lodestone.
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
-Yeats, from "No Second Troy"
This was written for the Seven Heavenly Virtues of Anora, on the queen_anora LJ community. My virtue was Chastity. It is an Old Roads side story that is a companion to "What Goeth Before". And, yes, there will be a third story in this particular little series, this one focusing on Celia Mac Tir, Anora's mother.