A quick note: This fic is rated M for a reason. It deals with very heavy and very mature themes related to infertility and difficulties during pregnancy, among other things. While by no means a gauntlet meant to test your will and your ability to control your gag reflex, it will be intense and triggery for some. As such, I've opted to include warnings at the beginning of every chapter. It is not my intent to ruin anyone's day with the triggering content in this fic.

WARNINGS: gratuitous violence and a fairly graphic depiction of miscarriage.

"Your Majesty, a word?"

Since it was only Eamon in the receiving hall, well, Eamon and some guards, Alistair sank back into his throne, his very uncomfortable throne, with an audible groan and pressed his thumb and forefinger against his temples. "Yes, Eamon?"

It had been a long day. But, then again, all days were long days, and Alistair found himself missing the grueling treks across the length and breadth of all Ferelden. He missed the frigid nights and the hard ground and the terrible food because they came part and parcel with something he had none of anymore: time to himself.

When he fell into bed at night, he barely had the energy to make love to his wife. And he really liked making love to his wife.

Eamon cleared his throat, catching one wrist in his hand behind his back, and Alistair recognized that position. It was the way Eamon held himself every time he said something he thought was important. "A number of the banns have expressed concerns regarding the fact that your queen has yet to produce an heir."

Alistair bristled immediately, annoyed that the banns saw fit to drop the blame entirely on Elissa. But he kept that annoyance to himself. "It's hardly been a year, yet," he returned, rubbing his temples and withholding a sigh of aggravation.

"It would go well with you to assure the people of the… stability of the Theirin dynasty."

Dropping his hand, Alistair rose. He swept down the dais toward Eamon, a scowl on his face as he went. "The people love Elissa." They did. They adored her, their hero. "And we haven't even been married three months."

"Still, Alistair—" Eamon only called him by his name when he was wheedling. "—it would go a long way toward reassuring everyone if you and your lady wife were to… ah, conceive."

"I'll bring it up with her," Alistair grumbled, and he stepped around Eamon, heading toward the long corridor that would, eventually, lead him to his suite of rooms.

Inside, a fire roared cheerfully, spreading heat throughout the room, and Elissa lay before it. Curled on one side, eyes closed, and a book half open in her hand, she was wrapped in a thick blanket and looked utterly content. Alistair moved quietly across the floor to crouch by her side, and he pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead.

Her closed eyes opened as he drew back, and she gave him a brilliant smile. "Good evening," she said, her voice thick with dreams and sleep.

"Good evening. Did you enjoy your nap?" He settled on the floor beside her, working his boots off his feet while she sat and stretched. The blanket fell away from her body, and for a moment, the thin shift she wore under it arrested all his attention.

She laughed when she noticed his gaze, lightly swatting his arm, and then she leaned forward, helping him with the buttons of his fancy, stuffy, scratchy doublet.

"Trying to get me naked so quickly?" he asked, pressing a kiss to her cheek.

With a moue of irritation, she pulled away. "No." The irritation melted into upset, and she groaned, drifting further away to press her face into her hands and hunch into her blanket. "Sorry. I'm just…"

"Tired." Alistair brushed a lock of hair from her face. "It's alright, love. We're both tired."

But when they finally retired to bed after a private meal, Alistair reflected that his wife's fatigue seemed bone deep. Rolling over, he curled around her sleeping form, brushing his lips over her shoulder. He wanted to protect her from herself but knew better. Telling her not to do something only meant her efforts would redouble. Perhaps Leliana… or even Zevran…

He pushed thoughts of their old companions from his mind. They were not in Denerim. He could not go to them for help. Wynne, though. He could speak with Wynne.

Elissa woke well past the dawn bell. In fact, it was the peals of third bell that roused her, and she groaned. Midmorning's sunlight slipped through the glazed windows – a luxury, Elissa knew. But better the greenish glass than simple wooden shutters. The glass did a better job at keeping the frigid, late autumn winds out.

Her maid, little Amethyne, knelt before the fireplace opposite the bed, stoking the fire in an effort to keep the room warm.

With a smile, Elissa sat, intending to tell Amethyne not to worry. The room was warm enough, and, truthfully, she had taken Amethyne as her maid not to actually but her to work but to get her out of the alienage. She was a bit young yet to be a maid, but Amethyne didn't want charity. She managed simple skills well enough, so Elissa saw no harm in paying her for her work.

Unfortunately, as Elissa rose, she was swept with a wave of nausea. She groaned, taking long, deep breaths to steady her rebellious stomach.

"My lady?"

"I'm fine." Elissa waved Amethyne's reaching hands away. "I didn't eat enough last night, that's all."

"Would my lady like me to fetch breakfast? There are three courses of fish, if you'd—my lady!"

Elissa lurched out of bed, scrambling across the frigid flagstones to the chamber pot. It was empty until she vomited bile into it, the very thought of eating fish turning her stomach fiercely. She gasped, shaking as chills seized her body, and threw up again.

Poor Amethyne stood to the side with wide, uncertain eyes, waiting for Elissa to still. "M-my lady?"

"A robe," Elissa said, spitting into the chamber pot. Her skin prickled with gooseflesh, and she shook as she slid into the robe Amethyne provided for her. "Thank you. And, no, I don't think I'll be having fish." Her stomach groaned in woeful agreement. "But maybe bread. And some wine."

It took Amethyne some time to procure the food, and while she was gone, Elissa curled up with her woolen blanket before the fire, warming herself. Another serving girl came in to deal with the soiled chamber pot, and Elissa wondered at herself as she waited for Amethyne to bring the bread.

She couldn't afford to fall ill, but she supposed that must be the cause for her fatigue and nausea. With a disgusted sigh, she dragged her hand through her tangled hair. She hated being sick, hated feeling weak and useless. And Alistair didn't need a sickly queen. The last thing either of them needed was the nobility questioning her physical fitness. They were already reaching a boiling point because she wasn't pregnant.

"We have time," she told the flames. "At least another twenty years to try."

Then Amethyne was back, and Elissa ploughed through the bread and wine, suddenly famished, devouring more than enough for a woman of her size. She was grateful for the servants' acceptance of her and husband's tendency to consume enough food to feed a small army without question.

The remainder of her day passed uneventfully. She dressed for court and sat beside her husband to hear petitions from the people of Denerim. They met with Gallaghar Wulf, Arl of West Hills, over lunch and discussed how best to help him rebuild. In the end, he was placated by Elissa's promise to take a taskforce to his arling and remove the remaining darkspawn presence.

"I don't want you to go," Alistair said that night, curling his hands about her shoulders as he pulled her back to his chest. "I'll miss you."

She took his hands in hers, clasping them together over her heart. "I'll miss you, too. But you can't keep me locked up in this tower all to yourself."

"Says who?" His petulant tone made her smile, and she gasped when he swept her into his arms and spun them about. "Perhaps I will simply barricade the doors and windows." He tossed her onto the bed, and she laughed, opening her arms for him, reaching for him. He jumped onto the bed beside her, grabbing a pillow and pushing it against her chest. She tumbled back and snatched up a pillow of her own, batting him in turn. "You will be my prisoner!" he declared, rising on his knees to bring his pillow down against her shoulder.

"I say thee nay, foul knave!" Elissa shimmied back, slipping on the silk coverlet of their bed. He grabbed her ankle and pulled her to her back, and she battered him with her pillow. "I will fight you until the very end!"

"But I have ways of making you give in." He gave her a fiendish grin as he raised her ankle to his mouth and pressed a kiss against her skin.

Her playful mood fled, leaving behind searing desire. When she left, she'd be gone for weeks.

After a year traveling with him, she couldn't imagine being alone. A contingent of Denerim's soldiers wasn't the same. Sergeant Wilkes – who Alistair would insist go with her as, in his opinion, the only competent man on the king's guard – was not Sten for all his stoicism. And Ser Driscole's charm lacked the sparkling quality that drew Elissa so soundly to Alistair. Oghren might come, she thought, and that would make it a bit easier.

But only a bit.

"Alistair," she breathed, sitting and pressing a hand to his cheek. He leaned into her touch, his eyes closing briefly before opening again.

Gently, he set her foot on the bed, and he drew her into his lap, her legs wrapped around his waist. Their foreheads touched, their noses brushing, and she studied him, watching his expressive eyes. He watched her in turn as their breath mingled in the scant space between their lips.

They held each other until her toes began to tingle with numbness, and then he stretched her across their bed, stripped her of her shift, and loved her with his mouth and hands and body.

Rain poured down on them, a continuous deluge that started a day out of Denerim and persisted for the duration of their journey. It was a week from Denerim to West Hills, and they spent it wet and miserable.

"With the rain, there is no chance of birds," Shale observed, tilting her head back to observe the steady downpour.

Elissa hunched her shoulders, dragging her cloak more tightly about her body as she suppressed the urge to shiver. For three days, she'd been cold. Now, on the fourth day, her body shook and trembled whenever she relaxed, and though she feared a fever, she said nothing, suffering in silence. No one could afford her weakness.

"For that, it should be grateful."

"I'd take birds over rain," Elissa replied, trying to sound cheerful in spite of her misery. It could be worse, she figured. When Oghren announced his intent to travel with her, Shale, recently returned from Tevinter with Wynne, refused to be left behind. Their party was small, numbering only six, but between her old friends, Wilkes, Driscole, and Cauthrien, there was no need to worry. They were more than prepared, come bird or darkspawn.

Grunting, Oghren swung his mace from one shoulder to the other, keeping an easy pace with her on her left. "Still wish we'd brought that beast of yours." Between him and Shale, Elissa could almost pretend they were still hunting the Archdemon. And while she was glad it was dead and gone, she missed her friends.

It was easy to imagine Alistair followed them, keeping an eye out for bandits or darkspawn coming upon them from behind.

"Rabbit is not a beast."

"We'd move faster if you'd just let me—"

"It's for your own protection I say no, you know."

"But he'd be a—"


"The drunkard is surprisingly persistent."

Elissa hunkered further into her cloak and resisted the urge to rub at her forehead. It wouldn't relieve the burgeoning pressure, wouldn't ease the headache. It would only bring questions. Even though he walked behind them, Wilkes was observant enough – and attuned enough to her moods – that he'd know something was wrong. He'd call a stop at best, turn them back at worst. She needed to press on. "Oghren is convinced that if we trained our Mabari to pull chariots, our armies would be unstoppable."

"I am pleased the mongrel is not here. It is only a step above pigeons."

"And I'm just saying you should let me try."

From behind, Wilkes said, "Rabbit would bite off your manhood and bury it in the palace gardens if you tried," and that was the end of that.

The party lapsed into a silence that lasted much of the afternoon. Even when they shifted positions around Elissa, protecting her, to her irritation, they said nothing. They moved fluidly, unconsciously, though Shale remained a steady constant on her right. She supposed it was practical. Shale, to Elissa's immense relief, saw no reason to treat her differently because she was Queen-Consort to the king of Ferelden.

They'd had a brief conversation before leaving, Shale admitting she wasn't sure how to address Elissa because it was no longer the Grey Warden. Elissa smiled and said it was good enough for her.

The night before they were to arrive at West Hills, Cauthrien approached Elissa as she dressed a rabbit for their stew. "My l—my queen. May I join you?"

Elissa gave her a fleeting glance before returning to her work. "Of course, Ser Cauthrien. And you know you can just call me Elissa."

Though she did not watch Cauthrien, she was very aware of how tentative the knight was as she sat beside Elissa on the cold, hard ground. She felt Cauthrien's eyes on her hands as she went about skinning the rabbit, and it made her stomach flutter just a bit. She hadn't dressed dinner in nearly nine months, and though her hands were sure, she couldn't help but feel Cauthrien might be judging her skill.

"I simply wanted to thank you, your hi—Elissa. I wanted to thank you. For this opportunity."

"Should we lock you in a dungeon for the rest of your life just because you followed Loghain's orders?" Elissa asked, turning the rabbit over. "That's foolish. You're a skilled knight."

Cauthrien shifted slightly. "You had no way of knowing I would be loyal to you."

Elissa turned to her, a puzzled expression on her face. "Why did I need to know that? You were always loyal to Ferelden." With a fleeting smile, she returned to her work. But her body leaned toward Cauthrien, turned just the slightest bit to face her. "And Alistair insisted I take the best of the king's guard with me." She pulled a face. "As if I can't take care of myself."

Examining the skinned body of the rabbit, she turned it over in her hands to gut it. "And it presents a good political face," she continued. "It would be… bad, I suppose, if the Bannorn or any of the arls thought we lacked unity."

Cauthrien murmured her agreement, and they lapsed into a silence that surprised Elissa. It wasn't tense or awkward, merely companionable, and she thought she might have been Cauthrien's friend had the situation in Ferelden been different. As it was, she saw no reason for them to be anything less than polite.

"Can you still sense the darkspawn?"

The question wasn't unexpected – Oghren had asked much the same the first night out – and Elissa was a bit surprised it hadn't come sooner. Nodding, she began to strip the rabbit's meat from its bones, adding the hunks to the simmering vat of stew over the fire. "I can." She tapped the side of her head with her knife. "There aren't any close, though, if that's what you meant."

She felt more than she saw Cauthrien withdraw, and she scrambled to correct herself, wondering if there had been something unpleasant in her tone. "I'll let you know if there are, of course. Elissa Cou—Theirin, nothing more than a glorified darkspawn locator." She smiled, hoping that would diffuse whatever tension she'd accidentally created.

Shale approached from behind and dropped to the ground, hard, beside her and Cauthrien. "It is also very hard to feed," she said, disdain dripping from her voice.

Elissa clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, tossing the last bits of rabbit into the stew. "A full Grey Warden is a happy Grey Warden. Oh, and I found what I think is an augmentation crystal earlier." She tilted her head to her pack. "Would you like to see after dinner?"

"Is it an ice crystal?"

"I think so."

"Most excellent. The white will bring out my eyes, doesn't it think?"

Elissa laughed. "Without a doubt." She glanced at Cauthrien, who looked simply stunned, and offered her a pat on the shoulder. "Shale and I enjoy dressing up."

"Its idea of dressing up is woefully lacking in style." Shale flicked a small rock and sent it flying into Oghren's back, ricocheting off his armor with a loud clang.

He spun about, Elissa and Cauthrien looking anywhere but at him while Shale pulled an expression that approximated a self-satisfied grin. His expression soured and he returned to his conversation with Wilkes and Driscole.

She ate with Shale and Cauthrien, slowly prodding the reticent woman into conversation in the same way she doggedly pursued Morrigan and Sten once, picking at Cauthrien's walls to learn more about her. When they turned in for the night, Shale taking watch for no need of sleep, Elissa was glad Cauthrien was with them.

Asleep in minutes, her dreams chased away any lingering feelings of contentment as she fled deeper and deeper into the Deep Roads, Alistair seconds behind her. "Faster, faster!" he urged, his words coming in desperate pants.

Gore on her cheeks, on her chest and arms and legs, slipped into her armor, squished between padding and skin. Her legs burned. Her arms ached. Her daggers weighed as much as a two-handed axe, dragging her down, slowing her down.

Run run run run

Darkspawn fell on them from above, leathery wings beating against her face – darkspawn don't have wings – sharp talons ripping at her face. Alistair bellowed incomprehensible words of rage, and she tried to strike against the darkspawn, but her sword passed through them. Mist and mocking laughter constituted their bodies, icy hatred their grasp, and she shook and shivered as the hurlocks grabbed her and pushed her to the ground.

Flesh against her mouth, in her mouth, hands making her chew as they ripped and tore at her armor. Naked skin against sharp rocks and nothing but pain and agony, never ending, always present, her insides twisting and changing, her skin mottled and rotted. They bled her joy from her body, ripped her happiness from her flesh, and choked her on sorrow and despair.

Vile darkness blanketed her mind, thick and heavy sludge blanketing her thoughts and pulling her down into bleak despair.

Rocketing upward, her fingers searching out the daggers under her pillow, she sucked in harsh gasps of air. And she felt them, their presence digging sharp and broken teeth into her brain.

She nearly knocked her tent down as she burst out the front, casting her gaze about for the monsters. They slipped and slid over her consciousness, slick like oil. She smelled their rot, but couldn't discern whether the scent was in her head or real.

Shale stirred. "It is—"

With a scream of rage – they would not take him from her, they would not have him, they would not have her, she would hunt them and their Archdemon until she was free of them, would cut and hack and slice and maim and ruin – she flung herself at the first hurlock, just outside the light of the fire.

She heard Shale shout something, but distantly, and she couldn't afford the distraction of looking back. Lashing out, she struck a hurlock across the throat, dipping under its arm as another ran at her. Ripping her weapon from its pestilent flesh with a wet, bubbling sound, she spun and drove the daggers into the next hurlock's chest, forcing them through its weak armor.

An arrow went through the throat of the next hurlock she turned on. It staggered and a spiked mace took it in the stomach, shattering its feeble armor and bringing it to the ground. Hopping over it, she spun, striking out with her blades to cut a genlock across the throat.

Oghren fell in beside her, moving ahead of her to shatter armor and knock the darkspawn down. Elissa danced after, her blades flashing, the firelight glinting off the cold metal. Bits of rock rained down on her before a boulder crashed into a pair of genlocks attacking from the side, crushing them.

Darkspawn flooded the campsite. Their existence buzzed against her skull, a steady drone, like bees, fit to drive her mad. Each one that died brought a measure of relief, and so she applied herself to their destruction, refusing to relent. Her arms screamed as drove her blades into another one, tore up a second, ripped into a third. Her lips moved. She could feel the stretch and pull, sensed the rumble of words in her throat, but felt entirely removed from the sensation of speaking. It was like her mind and her body were two separate and disparate things, joined only by a thin spark of life, some semblance of a soul.

"Not him, not him, not me, not ever."

The words slipped past her lips, sounding foreign. Alien. Her voice stuck in her ears, wrong and uncomfortable. Words didn't belong there. Gasped breaths did. Angry shouts. Screams of defiance and rage.

A hurlock slammed into her from behind, knocking the air out of her lungs. Hitting the ground hard, her knuckles tearing on dirt and rock, she flipped to her back in time to see Shale's fist connect solidly with the hurlock's head. Bone shattered and brain exploded over her face, coating her in blood and gore. Swatting the body aside, she rolled to her feet.

Someone called her name.

Had someone called her name?

Did it even matter?

She decided it did not.

More darkspawn died under her blades. Their blood coated her hands, her arms, her face and chest. It matted her hair against her head, stuck stray strands to the side of her face. But she did not slow and she did not stop until she felled the last hurlock, spun about, and threw her offhand dagger into the throat of the last genlock.

"Sodding creepy when you do that," Oghren grumbled beside her.

The buzzing in her head died, the stupid little insects crushed and dead. Blissful silence.

But in that silence, she could hear everything else. Oghren's breathing. Shale's body grinding on itself when she moved. Driscole's breathing. Wilkes' breathing. Cauthrien's bre—

She whirled, lifting her dagger to strike. Cauthrien caught the blade on her greatsword, a look of surprise on her face.

"Battle's over, so you can calm your tits, woman."

Oghren's brash comment froze her, and for a moment, Elissa couldn't remember why she should stay her blade even though she knew she must. Then, with great and deliberate care, she drew away from Cauthrien.

One step.


A third and she dropped to the ground, body aching, and she pressed the heel of her hands into her eyes. "Sorry," she said to the ground. And then, "Thank you."

"You got that look in your eyes, is all," he said, and she knew which look he meant.

Lifting her head and lowering her eyes, she looked at the group. Shale and Oghren were nonplussed; they'd seen her that violently enraged before. In the Deep Roads, when they faced the Broodmother. Wilkes had seen hints of it. Sometimes, when she practiced with the castle guards, one would push her too far and she wouldn't be able to pull back from the urge to kill to protect herself. But Cauthrien and Driscole? They'd never seen her like that.

Irritation gnawed at her – self-directed irritation that had no outlet.

"We should pack up."

Oghren grunted. "On it, boss."

The other dispersed, too, Cauthrien giving her a lingering glance as Driscole clapped her on the shoulder and pulled her away. Shale came up to Elissa from the side as she stood, picking her way through the bodies to retrieve her dagger from the genlock's throat.

"It is not well."

"I'm fine, Shale." The lie came easy. She'd repeated it so many times now she almost believed it was true. To Shale, to Cauthrien, to Wilkes, to Furgus and Teagan and Eamon. To, the Maker help her, Alistair.

Pulling her blade free of the genlock's body, she wiped it on her filthy trousers, trying her best to ignore Shale's lingering presence.

"It lies."

Prickling, Elissa sighed. "I'm just—I'm tired, that's all."

"It sleeps." Shale sounded genuine, curious and concerned. Worried. But the concern rankled, and Elissa had to bite back a sharp reply. And she detested herself for it. "Does it need more rest?"

Composing her face into a bright smile, Elissa finally turned to Shale and shook her head. "No. I'm fine. I'll be fine."

As she packed her supplies in her rucksack, she repeated those three words to herself. I'll be fine. When she hoisted the sack onto her back, feeling the muscles in her lower back and her thighs screen in protest, she thought them again. I'll be fine. A dip in the road made her stumble, and Driscole caught her. "I'll be fine," she told him, lying through her teeth, each word a physical weight in her belly.

The words twisted and turned, made her ill and malcontent. The more she whispered them in her mind, the more she spoke them aloud, the more uneasy she became.

I'll be fine, her mind said.

Her body creaked and groaned. Liar, it replied.

West Hills was Redcliffe revisited, set upon by darkspawn instead of the undead. Death hung heavy in the air, its stench clinging to every building and haggard person, but when Elissa and her party entered the village and came in sight of the Chantry – everyone always hid in the Chantries – people flooded the streets, cheering their names.

Routing the darkspawn took the better part of a week, culminating in the discovery of an entry to the Deep Roads. They promptly sent the town's fastest runner to Orzammar to request a seal for the gaping hole in the earth, and while they waited for him to return, the party ventured underground. Keeping the darkspawn at bay was not as tiring as it could have been, but it wore on her more than it should have. When the dwarves finally sealed the entrance, the townsfolk decided to celebrate.

Nauseas and uneasy, Elissa excused herself shortly after dusk fell. Her door shut, the world safely out, she stumbled to the bed and collapsed onto it.

Her body shook. Quaked. Every muscle throbbed, her bones ached. A vicious pounding in her head heralded the beginning of a headache with darkspawn teeth.

Dragging at the blanket, she pulled it over her body and fell into a restless, fitful sleep plagued by terrible dreams and fleeting visions of horror.

She woke in the dead of the night to cramps that felt like knives in her back. Groaning, she forced herself to her feet and to the small bowl of water in the corner of the room, beside the chamber pot. Her menses had never been regular, a product of her warrior training, the Highever healers said, so she knew to expect blood on her thighs when she stripped down.

But not so much.

Shivering – or was it shaking? She couldn't tell – she dropped to her knees. Bile rose in her throat along with the certainty that something was very, very wrong.

Pain rippled through her abdomen, and she gasped. Her fingers curled in her discarded shirt and she yanked it close, biting down on a bunch of fabric to keep from crying out.

When her menses came – sporadically, sometimes only twice in a year – it was often painful, as though her body felt the need to make up for missed time. But this was… not that.

A pathetic whine rose from her as she curled in on herself where she lay on the floor. Panic made her pulse pound, uncertainty made her breath come in sharp and uneven bursts. Fear turned her skin from fire to ice as her body tensed and spasmed.

"I'll be fine." She mouthed the words around the shirt as she squeezed her eyes shut. She whispered the words again, and then again, and the third time, when a clawed hand reached into her abdomen and squeezed, she realized she was being an idiot.

Reaching out, she pressed her hands to the wall. Leaning against it, she climbed to unsteady feet. Her fingers curled around the edge of the little dresser beside her, and she clung to it when pain surged through her, knife sharp. But worse. This pain lingered. One thousand lacerations, slowly bleeding, all inside.

A hysterical laugh bubbled from her chest. Like being cut by a darkspawn from the inside out.

Maybe she was dying.

Twice, she tried to stumble across the room to the door. Twice, pain took her down and fear clogged her throat and darkened her vision. Panic made everything worse, tunneled her line of sight until all she could see was the hard wood floors immediately in front of her.

A quiet knock came at her door. "Your ma—Elissa?"

"Cauthrien?" Relief washed through her, and for a moment, nothing hurt. Safe. She was safe. Saved. "Cauthrien, plea—"

The pain came back, twice as biting, and she smothered a cry with her hand. For a moment, she didn't think Cauthrien would enter. Then the door was open, and Cauthrien was at her side.

"Maker's mercy."

Elissa didn't know what made Cauthrien's face white as snow. She didn't want to know. Reaching out, she grabbed Cauthrien's wrist, groaning. She pressed one fist to her abdomen, as though that would somehow help. It didn't. It made her hurt more.

"Something's wrong," she said.

"You need a healer." Cauthrien hesitated. "I need to get you to a healer. This—" Elissa couldn't comprehend the look of fear and uncertainty on Cauthrien's face. "Let me get a blanket."

"Don't go." Maker, when had she become something so pathetic? Pain clawed its way across her abdomen, a painful, spasmodic ripple, and she had her answer.

Cauthrien tentatively patted her shoulder. "I'm not. I—I won't. I can't take you to the healer naked."

"I'll be fine." The lie came too readily.

But Cauthrien had already pulled away, leaving Elissa on the floor. She finally chanced a glance in the direction she'd come, and saw a dark stain smeared across the floor. Blood, she thought idly. Her blood, most likely.

How odd. It wasn't so disturbing to see her blood on the floor when she was consumed by fiery agony.

A blanket, scratchy wool, settled around her shoulders, and when Cauthrien swept Elissa into her arms, Elissa gasped and shook. "I've got you, my lady. You'll be fine, I've got you." The panicked edge to Cauthrien's voice did nothing to soothe Elissa. It made her feel worse, made her heart lurch against the cage of her ribs.

Cauthrien carried her into the hall and hesitated for a moment. Then she kicked on the door across from Elissa's, pounding it twice with the flat of her foot. It was bare. Cauthrien wasn't wearing a shirt, either, Elissa reflected as the wrenching pain became a dull, insistent ache. It didn't sear through her, but it remained awful. She'd never felt anything like it, the indescribable twist of muscle.

The door opened, but no one stood there.

"The queen needs a healer," Cauthrien said to no one, and then they were moving. Cauthrien's gait was even. Steady. A gentle lope until she pounded down the stairs. Elissa wanted to tell her she'd wake people but took a moment to wonder at the absurdity of her own thoughts instead.

She wasn't quite sure when they arrived at the healer's, but there were suddenly more hands on her than Cauthrien's two, and the healer wore an expression she'd seen more than once. But she couldn't place it.

"It hurts," she told the healer.

"I know," the woman replied, running a hand over Elissa's sweaty forehead.

Cauthrien didn't leave the healing woman's hut. She didn't leave her queen's side. The Chantry's religion meant little to a woman whose god was her sword and whose prophet was her shield, but some niggling fear that this was a trial from the Maker to test her loyalty kept her rooted to the queen's bedside, holding her hand and offering what paltry comforts she could.

It was not an easy night.

Once the pain had passed and the healer changed the bed sheets, the queen slept and the healer explained to Cauthrien what had happened.

A miscarriage.

The whole castle – if not the whole of Denerim and Ferelden – knew how much the king and queen wanted a child. Needed a child.

Silent, Cauthrien accepted the news and said she would tell the queen when she woke.

The sun poured through the windows, bright and brilliant, before the queen stirred. She rolled over in the bed and winced. "I feel horrible," she croaked, pressing her fingers to her cheeks.

Cauthrien pressed her lips together. She'd practiced, in her head, exactly how she would tell the queen what had happened. But with the queen awake, wincing, the words she'd rehearsed seemed inadequate.

You've had a miscarriage. I'm sorry.


"Shae." The queen frowned at her. "If I am to call you—" She stumbled slightly on the queen's name, still uncertain of the familiarity. "—Elissa, then you should call me Shae."

The frown melted into a warm smile. But the smile was strained around the edges and didn't reach the queen's eyes. All of the queen's smiles seemed to be like that. Half-formed. Forced. "Alright, then. Shae. I—thank you. For last night. I don't remember much of it after you came in."

Swallowing hard against the uncertainty, Cauthrien laced her fingers together. She looked everywhere but the queen's face, and she knew the queen noticed. "We're at the healer's. You—were bleeding when I found you." Or else you had smeared blood across the floor. I couldn't see how much there really was, how much was fresh and how much was old. "The healer did what she could." There's no easy way. Just speak the words. Just speak. "But she couldn't save the baby."

Her gaze fell on the queen's ashen face.

"I—I'm sorry. The baby?"

"You were pregnant. She believes no more than four months."

The queen, the Hero of Ferelden, had always seemed untouchable, existing on a tower and separated from the rest of humanity by a gulf filled by greatness. She'd seemed almost larger than life, beyond human things like fear or sadness. Or maybe that was just how the people saw her. How even Cauthrien saw her. She'd offered Cauthrien a chance to see the truth of Loghain's treachery, and few were so noble as to offer second chances. So maybe it was just Cauthrien's perception of her.

And that perception shattered, dashed to the ground. The tower crumbled, and the gulf became a crack.

Tears welled up in the queen's eyes, but her face reflected no sadness. Only horror and shock. Disbelief. "I—no. I would have known."

The shadows in the queen's eyes belied that lie.

Her hands fluttered to her face, dancing over her cheeks, her mouth, her eyes. The tears spilled from her eyes, but her expression remained frozen. Horrified. "I—I lost—the baby. We had a baby, and I—Maker, what did I do?"

Cauthrien watched the queen breakdown, watched the dismay overtake her. Her fingers dug into her hair, closed around her neck, pressed against her chest and then her belly. She flung the blanket off her body, staring at her bloodless thighs. The healer cleaned her. There were no outside signs of the miscarriage.

That, Cauthrien thought, must make it worse.

The queen let out a choked laugh. "I didn't want children, you know. Thought they'd just… just be a tool. For a husband to control me." Her hands slipped over her thighs, her eyes vacant. Detached. "But for Alistair, I thought maybe. Maybe it wouldn't be like that. I would imagine us together with a blond son with blue eyes. Or a golden-eyed girl. And I thought it would be alright. And then… then he told me… Grey Wardens have difficulty conceiving." The tears flowed freely, and the motions of her hands became mechanical.

"But we could try. We'd keep trying. The king needs an heir, and I—I wanted to give that to him. A part of myself. Something real." She laughed again as tears dropped from her face to her hands and the bed sheets.

Cauthrien remained still, unsure what to do.

"I didn't know. Maker help me, I didn't know." Elissa let out a gut-wrenching sob as she wrapped her arms around her midsection and tears marked wet trails down her cheeks. Her back shuddered as she gasped around her cries. White knuckled fingers dug into the skin of her back, but Cauthrien didn't move to stop her from damaging herself.

She knew what it was like to hurt so much you felt nothing at all. She knew that in those moments, it took something – anything – to remind you that you could feel something. Even if it was only more pain.

"I'm so sorry," Elissa whispered between her broken sobs, her words laced with anguish. "I'm so sorry, I should have—I should never have come here. I should—Alistair, Alistair, I'm so sorry." Her words stopped with a final, heart-wrenching cry, one that hurt Cauthrien to hear.

The Hero of Ferelden was strong, like stone. Unyielding. Unbreakable.

But the Hero of Ferelden wasn't on the bed at her side.

Moving very, very slowly, Cauthrien shifted onto the bed, wrapped one arm around Elissa's shoulder, and drew her close.