WARNINGS: Complications during childbirth, childbirth.
He worried at dawn, when Elissa rose and dressed. He worried when they broke their fast and when they heard grievances from their people. He worried when they ate supper and she danced with him. He worried while he reviewed letters and treaties and grants. He worried when they settled into bed at night with Rabbit at the foot of their bed, snoring loud enough to wake the dead.
For the first month, he could do little else. Eamon grew frustrated with him, and Wynne clucked after him. Even Elissa began to snap when he asked, for the fifth time, if she needed a pillow for her back.
And so he had an idea. Elissa could grumble at him; he was her husband. But she couldn't grumble at someone else, someone like Cauthrien.
Which was why the knight stood across from him, looking uncomfortable as he smiled and said, "It's the perfect solution and you know it. She won't grumble at you – you're her friend."
"With all due respect, Your Majesty, I don't think the queen will appreciate me hovering."
"Of course she won't." Alistair gave Cauthrien a stupid grin, the charming one, and she frowned. "But you're not going to hover." Her baffled expression turned to one of outright confusion. "You're her friend, aren't you?"
She bristled, the reaction he'd hoped for, and nodded once, a sharp gesture. "Yes." Her clipped tone belayed her annoyance.
"See? You're just looking out for your friend. She can't not appreciate that." Faultless logic. And, because it came as a request from her king, Cauthrien couldn't rightly say no.
"You're asking me to be her friend."
"I'm asking you to be her concerned friend. Me? She'll yell at me if I hover. She'll probably stick me with one of those wicked hairpins of hers. But she can't do that to you." He tapped the top of his desk once. "I'm not asking you to follow her around and make her practice her cross-stitch. Just make sure she doesn't overexert herself."
Saying those words made his chest ache. Wynne had said she couldn't be sure the reason for Elissa's first miscarriage, but fighting darkspawn certainly hadn't helped. Keeping Elissa off her feet was a chore at any time and was made worse when she was explicitly told to rest.
"I will do my best, Your Majesty."
"That's all I can ask," he said with a smile.
Cauthrien found the queen in the alienage, sitting under a massive tree with several ageing elves, the eldest seated immediately to her right. Driscole and two other guards stood to the side. He shifted uneasily, his brows drawn and expression furtive.
Approaching from the side to avoid the line of elves waiting to speak with the queen – and Maker were there a lot of them, a whole line that wound around the center square, and more in the crowds at the edges – she settled beside Driscole. "Is she holding court?" she asked, a pensive frown on her face.
"Her Majesty received a letter this morning saying the elves have grievances they don't want to voice before the court."
"So she decided to come here and address these issues personally." Cauthrien sighed. "Is she safe?" At the very least, only four months along, she wasn't showing under the clothes she wore to stay warm.
"Their elder, Valendrian, likes her. His good opinion seems to inform theirs." Driscole rocked on his heels. "One woman called her a worthless shem."
"How did that go?"
Cauthrien watched the queen tug her shawl tighter about her body and lean forward as she listened to a young elf explain the state of the orphanage.
"It's been better," she said, "but there are still too many leaky rooms, and we haven't been able to repair the roof as well as we'd like. This winter, several portions of it collapsed under the weight of the snow. Please, if you can help at all…"
The queen tapped her fingers against her lips. "What of your own carpenters?"
Ducking her head, the woman turned her face away. Cauthrien recognized the shame there and felt something almost like pity. "We have barely enough to feed the children, Majesty." The elf flinched when she spoke the title, as though acknowledging the queen's position caused her physical pain. "We… have no recourse but to ask for—for the crown's assistance."
"I'm unable to give something for nothing," the queen said, lowering her hand to her lap. The elf slumped just the slightest bit, and Cauthrien only noticed because she was giving her so much attention. "However." Hope drew the elven woman straighter. "If the alienage produces eight volunteer bowmen and women, the crown will—"
The reaction was nearly immediate. Several elves in the crowd shouted wordless, angry protests. Cauthrien saw several hands inch toward weapons, and she, with Driscole at her side, stepped forward to flank the queen. The queen raised her hand to stop them, her gaze even as she regarded the crowd.
"You won't enslave our people again!" a voice called from the crowd, and other voices rose in agreement.
The queen looked implacable as she rose. "I wasn't aware asking for volunteers and paying them for their time counted as slavery. Don't forget: when Loghain was regent and sold your people to Tevinter, I stopped the slavers. I stopped Loghain." The shawl she wore fell down about her shoulders, and Cauthrien couldn't help but read it as a dismissal, as if the queen said I do not fear you. Do your best to me.
Turning to Valendrian, the queen gave him a polite bow, according him more respect than most of the nobility would ever consider. "Thank you for sitting with me, Valendrian." She glanced toward the crowd. "Eight volunteers," she said again. "You have a month, no more."
She summoned her guard to her with a gesture, Cauthrien moving to her side as the others fell into place behind her. "My queen—"
"Not now." The queen's voice was firm and unyielding, brooking no arguments. She set a brisk pace through the city, Cauthrien at her heels, and only noticed her people waving when Cauthrien called her attention to them.
Though they didn't stop and the queen's pace did not slow, the news of the queen's decision reached the palace before they did. When they arrived, a boy barely old enough to shave, wearing the king's livery waited for them, fidgeting.
Giving the queen an awkward bow, he said, "The Arl of Redcliffe requests the queen's presence in His Majesty the King's receiving room."
The queen's hand went to her abdomen, where she wore a simple belt. Cauthrien recognized the apparent clip as the hilt of one of her smaller daggers. "Of course he does," the queen murmured. "Thank you. You may go." She glanced at the guardsmen behind her. "And you, too."
The men hesitated before Driscole grinned and said cheerfully, "If you want to be on the receiving end of Her Majesty's ire after her visit with the Arl, feel free to stay." He ushered them off with a wink at Cauthrien while the queen glared at his quickly retreating back.
"Extra guard duty," she muttered.
"Hardly a punishment," Cauthrien said, tone brusque. "He enjoys it. Would you like me to delay this meeting?"
"Right now, I'd like to run a dagger between Eamon's ribs. But that's not exactly good politics." Rubbing the small of her back, the queen sighed. "Do you think this is about the elves?"
"Without a doubt." Cauthrien watched the queen sigh and pull her hands away from her back.
Exhaling heavily, she began walking. "Let's not put this off then."
They were silent, the clang of Cauthrien's boots against the stone floors creating the only noise in the stone hallway, until the queen abruptly stopped, a distant look on her face.
"Do you think it was a poor idea?" Cauthrien hesitated, and the queen pulled a face. "Shae. As my friend. Do you think I shouldn't have done that?"
Truthfully, Cauthrien didn't know what to think. She suspected there was a correct answer to the qu—to Elissa's question, but she hadn't the slightest idea what it was. She didn't know if the queen wanted validation or correction, and the qu—Elissa's moods of late were swift to change.
"I'm not a politician," she finally said.
Elissa's lips twisted in a wry smile. "That's a very politic answer. Are you sure?" She sighed and pushed an errant curl out of her face. "The alienage needs help. But I can't… the crown can't simply give it to them."
The weariness on Elissa's face troubled Cauthrien. She was not a woman fond of physical displays of affection and never had been. While Elissa was often too physically affectionate with her friends, giving them casual touches that were inappropriate for a woman of her station, Cauthrien preferred to keep her distance and offer quiet support. She might polish and oil Driscole's armor and weaponry one night or save an extra ration for Wilkes another.
But she reached out and placed her fingers on Elissa's shoulder, keeping the touch light. "You're a compassionate woman, and a queen can't afford much compassion."
"A monarch without compassion is a tyrant," Elissa said, her voice stark and eyes bleak.
Cauthrien's throat tightened. "Too much compassion is weakness. Too much indifference is cruelty." She drew her fingers away.
"It's easy to be a soldier." Elissa swayed toward Cauthrien but pulled back at the last minute. Her small smile was pained. "At least, in the sense that you know your direction. You fight, you stay alive."
"Isn't being a queen similar?" Cauthrien asked in an attempt to lighten the mood.
It didn't work. The queen's smile – for it wasn't Elissa looking at her from behind those cool grey eyes – was frigid. "Very."
The queen strode forward, purpose in each step, and though Cauthrien kept pace with ease, she noted how decisive the queen's gait had become. Resolute. It was oddly terrifying.
When they reached the king's receiving room, Cauthrien pulled the door open for the queen, and she entered with regal grace, head held high and gaze uncompromising. The smile blossoming on the king's face died as soon as his eyes met hers. "Elissa," he said, tentative.
"Alistair." There was warmth in her voice that didn't reach her eyes, and it vanished when she turned her attention to Eamon. "Arl Eamon."
The Arl gave the queen a tiny bow. "Your Majesty."
Cauthrien found it interesting how they arranged themselves. As a guard, she wasn't much more than a prop. While the king certainly noticed her, Arl Eamon hardly gave her a passing glance, and the queen, well. The queen treated her like an old friend, trusting Cauthrien at her back. Regardless of where she stood, Cauthrien knew that the queen knew exactly where she was.
But that didn't stop any of them from moving around her like she wasn't there. The king sat comfortably on a settee, one of his feet resting on a knee. Arl Eamon, who had been standing, moved toward a chair across from him. In a single, telling gesture, the queen swept into that chair and settled on it, curling her fingers around the armrests. The Arl's expression didn't change, and a slight adjustment of his course had him standing beside the king.
It was bizarre how they jockeyed for position.
"You realize, of course," Eamon said, with no warning or preamble, "that your decision to create an elven corps of archers cannot stand."
From behind the queen, Cauthrien couldn't see her face, but she saw her shift. The queen leaned an elbow on the arm of her chair and dropped her chin onto it, crossing her legs at the ankle and tucking her feet behind the chair's leg. It was a familiar pose, one the queen adopted in casual conversation with friends. And it could be viewed as nothing less than a dismissal of Eamon's opinion.
The king looked distinctly uncomfortable, his hands laced in his lap, his thumb brushing back and forth over his fingers.
"The men and women of Denerim will perceive it as a slight, of course. You do yourself and the crown a disservice my claiming you need the help of elves." Eamon glance at the king as if expecting support. The king, in turn, seemed to find his hands captivating. "Are you suggesting Ser Cauthrien isn't a skilled enough warrior to protect you?"
Cauthrien's face remained impassive, but her stomach clenched. She didn't want to be dragged into the argument as a prop, but dared not say anything otherwise.
There was dry amusement in the queen's voice when she spoke. "I'm suggesting that Ser Cauthrien can't split an apple with an arrow at two hundred feet with a longbow." Her head tipped to the side. "Are you forgetting the turmoil the unrest in the alienage caused for Loghain?"
"I assure you, Your Majesty, that I forget nothing. But this path is ill-advised. If you want archers, look to the best of our own men, not to the elves." And, to Cauthrien's immense surprise, Arl Eamon gave the queen a sharp, shallow bow, and strode from the room.
The king lifted both brows and glanced at the queen with his head still ducked. "That could have gone worse."
She deflated, slouching over the arm of the chair. "It could have gone better. Eamon's right, of course. There's a fair number among the nobility who won't approve."
Pushing forward, the king went to his knees at the queen's feet. Cauthrien slowly, quietly, backed away, turning her back to them so they could have a moment's privacy. She let her thoughts wander toward nothing, affording the couple as much space as she could, and she flexed her aching left hand.
"Everyone's talking about the elves."
Cauthrien lifted her head, turning her face toward Driscole. He stood easily in the doorway to her room, leaning against the stone frame with a jaunty smile on his face. She rolled her eyes at the idiotic grin and unbuckled her baldric, carefully easing her greatsword from her back and setting it on her bed.
He uncrossed his arms and strode into her small room. Of all the rooms given to the kingsguard, hers was the smallest, the most bare. She had few personal possessions, only one small trunk of clothes. The writing desk saw next to no use, and she had, on more than one occasion, considered chopping it into kindling or replacing it with another rack for her armor.
"How are the men reacting to it?" she asked, carefully setting her paulron beside her gauntlets on the bed.
Moving behind her, Driscole set himself to the stays of the mail yoke. "Surprisingly, not as badly as the nobility. Most of the men fought in the Battle of Denerim." He leaned against her as he reached around her neck to pull the yoke off.
She kept her silence but was incredibly grateful for the help. Her left hand shook and the muscles twitched and spasmed. The idea of getting out of her armor by herself, while easier than getting into it without help, didn't appeal to her.
"They remember the help the Dalish archers were. And they saw the alienage elves defend their homes."
"Until the Archdemon destroyed the bridge."
"Unfortunate, that." His hands moved to the leather straps holding her cuirass to her chest. "I heard Smithson say something about how all the damnable knife-ears are good for is stringing bows and shooting arrows." She felt the armor shift with his shrug.
Taking the weight of the front piece of plate in one hand, she plucked at the ties on her side with her trembling hand. "And you?"
"What about me?" He laughed. "I'm the dumb young one. No one cares about my opinion. I'm only here so you have someone to shove on a knife if an assassin gets close enough." He helped her slip out of the chest piece and carried it to the armor rack, carefully fixing it onto the wireframe man.
"It doesn't bother you?"
"That the queen insists I stand shoulder to shoulder with elves? Not in the least." He leaned against the wall as Cauthrien stripped off the war skirt and tassets. "We all come into the world naked, bloody, and screaming, and that's how all warriors go out." He shrugged again.
She chuckled softly, picking up the armor still on her bed and moving it to the rack. He took a few of the pieces from her, and once everything was hung, produced a rag and vial of oil from the pouch at his side.
"I didn't know you were a philosopher," she said as they began to rub the oil into the joints of the armor. Some people found it easier to oil armor sitting. Cauthrien preferred it hanging.
"Had a lot of time to think."
Five years, she recalled. No one in the general ranks wanted to serve with him, but once the new king had been crowned, Wilkes had demanded a pardon for Driscole. It had been granted.
"And if having a team of elven archers at her back makes Her Royal Majesty feel safer, that's fine with me. Another wave of protection for us." He looked at her as he said it, and Cauthrien felt distinctly uncomfortable under the weight of his gaze.
They continued in silence, oiling the points of articulation in the armor and then the leather straps. When they were done, her left hand ached. She could barely close it, and no matter how she held it, she felt like Driscole knew, that he could see her weakness.
"Wilkes wants to talk to everyone over dinner. Our dinner. Not the court's," he said, the comment off-hand at best.
Nodding, Driscole capped and pocketed the oil. "Regarding how we're going to change our rotations now that the queen is pregnant."
Cauthrien's brows drew together slightly. "He thinks someone might take advantage?"
"He thinks there are people stupid enough to think she's not always armed and capable."
At that, Cauthrien laughed. "People who haven't seen her throw one of her daggers. I feel bad for them."
"Then I'll see you at dinner?"
The odd note in his voice—she didn't quite know how to place it. It made her uncomfortable, her stomach rolling and twisting, but at the same time eased the worst of the tension in her neck and back. She licked her lips to keep a baffled frown from her face. "Of course."
Three weeks later, Cauthrien stood beside the queen, surveying the group of elven archers who had volunteered. There were only five, and Cauthrien could see from the queen's expression that she didn't know quite how to deal with that.
"They're the ones with nothing to lose," she said softly, fingers sliding over her stomach absently. It had taken the better part of an hour, but the king had eventually convinced the queen to wear light leathers instead of her more constricting dragonbone armor. "You can see it in their eyes."
Cauthrien hadn't expected anything less, and though the queen sounded resigned, she seemed to feel similarly.
One of the elves, a young girl, drew her bowstring to her ear and let her arrow fly. It arched too high, missing the top of the target by a considerable distance, and she swore.
"At least they came."
The queen sighed and nodded. "At the very least." She laced her fingers loosely over her abdomen, watching one of the older men take aim. "And, if nothing else, they can use longbows better than I can." A wry smile lifted her lips. "I think Eamon fails to realize what this will do."
Cauthrien stayed silent, waiting. Prompting the queen never seemed polite, though she took it well enough. When it was just them, just Shae and Elissa, that was different.
"We can't apologize for what was done to the elves." She shifted her weight, leaning away from Cauthrien, watching the elven man hit the center of the target. Twice. Her lips turned up, and that set Cauthrien at ease. "Not now. That would… it would minimize what was done." Her lips pressed together. "Humans took their home, their identity. And we think words will make that better? My hope is that this… this will show people what the elven people can do. What they're capable of."
A pretty sentiment. The queen, Cauthrien knew, leaned heavily toward the idealistic. She liked to help, liked to fix. "At the risk of your own safety?"
The queen's eyes narrowed. "The hard thing about respect is that it has to start somewhere, Ser Cauthrien. We can stand about and say we will respect the elves when they deserve it, but we will never qualify what it means to deserve respect so we can withhold it indefinitely. If you want respect, you must give it, and you must trust – and hope – that the recipient is honorable enough to return it."
Striding forward, the queen picked up a bow from the weapons rack and approached one of the elves. The man was not the eldest among them, nor the most skilled. If Cauthrien had to judge him, she would say he was good but wouldn't ever be anything more than that.
The queen stood beside him, setting her arrow against the bow. He watched her, looking startled by her presence at his side, as she drew the arrow back and released it. It flew wide, glancing off a tree at least ten feet away from the target.
The elf looked horrified, and Cauthrien, choking on a laugh, had to turn away for just a moment.
It took three more abysmal shots before the elf said, tentatively, "It would help if you held the bow a bit lower."
"Would it? Like this?" The queen lowered the bow far too much, took another shot, and sent the arrow into the ground about fifteen feet from the target. When the elf opened his mouth and hesitated, Elissa laughed. That sound brought the other four elves' attention to her and the young man, and she drew back her arrow and stood still. "Clearly, I'm not doing this right," she said, gesturing the elf closed with a nod of her head. "Show me how I'm supposed to stand."
He looked a bit stricken. "Y—Your—I'm—"
"You're better than me." She looked down the length of her arrow, and Cauthrien had to stifle another laugh as Elissa shifted her hold on both the bow and the arrow so much that the man blanched.
"No, no, that's—you're close, but—"
"Zevran and Leliana always said if Ferelden depended on a shot made from a longbow, I would condemn everyone to death." She lifted both brows. "Are you going to show me how this works?"
He hesitated a moment longer before moving all at once, adjusting Elissa's hold on the bow with quick efficiency. The other elves watched, silent and a bit wary, but Elissa never snapped, never took offense to anything Eadan did. And when the king stepped into the training yard several hours later, they actually seemed at ease.
"This looks like it's going well." He watched the elves correcting Elissa's hold as he settled in place at Cauthrien's side.
He gave her a quick smile, his eyes on his wife as she released her arrow. She hit the center of the target, and the youngest of the two women – Saxa, wasn't it? – clapped her on the shoulder.
As the queen lowered her bow with a smile, she noticed her husband. Her face brightened immediately, and she called, "Did you see?"
"And where was that skill during the Blight? Could have saved both of us some scars."
Elissa's brows shot up, but the smile didn't leave her face. "Oh, would it have?"
Cauthrien found the elves' sudden uncertainty amusing, and she felt just a bit bad for them. The casual familiarity with which the king and queen conducted themselves in front of everyone but their formal court could be unnerving.
"If everything died by the time I got to it…" He gave a long suffering sigh and a weary shrug. "But what else did I exist for other than taking hits for you?"
A wicked grin appeared on Elissa's face. "I can think of a few things."
"Can you now?"
With a gleeful cry, Elissa ran at him. Cauthrien rolled her eyes as she stepped out of Elissa's way.
The king caught his wife in his arms, spinning her once before slipping an arm under her legs and cradling her against his chest. He gave her nose a kiss. "You smell terrible."
She stuck out her tongue, and Cauthrien wondered how thoroughly crushed the elves' conceptions of the king and queen were. "You smell like perfumed courtiers."
"Someone has to entertain them while you have all the fun, shooting pointy sticks."
"Well, and maybe you should take me for a bath."
The king's eyes sparkled. "My lady, I would be honored to see you to your bath."
As they vanished into the palace, the queen laughing in her husband's arms, the elves turned to Cauthrien with wide, stunned eyes.
"Yes," she said, watching Wilkes' shadow peel away from the wall and follow the couple. "They're always like that. No, they don't care who they're around. Now, if you'll follow me, I'll see you back to your rooms."
Alistair slid his hand over his wife's slightly rounded belly as they lay in bed, curled behind her. His thumb brushed over a puckered scar, the result of a genlock's arrow, and he lifted his head to kiss the back of her neck.
She sighed in the dark, scooting closer to him.
"Have you thought about names?" he asked, nuzzling her hair. Damp from their bath, it smelled of their soap, sharp and bitter.
"Oh. No. Not really," she replied, shifting onto her back. She stretched her arms over her head, and he tugged her closer. One of her arms came down behind his head, resting lightly on his shoulder, and he rolled onto his back, pulling her onto him. "Should we?"
She sounded small and afraid, and he pressed his lips to her forehead in the dark. "You're five months along now, aren't you?" He felt her nod, her curly hair shifting against his chest. "Then, yes."
He silenced her with a kiss, unable to bear the thought. He didn't want to think about what would happen if they lost this baby. It would hurt him, but not nearly as much as it would crush her. She hated failure, and he hated seeing her crushed by it. Memories of their experiences in Orzammar tightened his jaw.
"What about Bryce?" he asked.
"Alistair…" She sighed before relaxing against him. Her fingers followed the line of his arm, dancing over his palm before curling around his hand.
She didn't want to get attached, and he understood that. But she didn't seem to realize she already was attached. He saw her in the bath, standing, silent, with her hands on her abdomen, gently touching, a small smile on her face.
"Eleanor for a girl?"
With a quiet laugh, she pushed at his shoulder, the lightest pressure. "Why are we naming him after my family?"
"Him?" Alistair peered in her direction, unable to make out her features in the darkness. "Incorrect, my lady wife." His hands slipped down the curve of her back and settled on her waist. "We will have a daughter." His lips found her cheek, peppering her skin with tiny kisses. "With your beautiful blue eyes and your nose."
She smothered a sound of annoyance. "My nose. Of all things, my nose."
"It's a lovely nose," he murmured against her. His lips found the tip of her nose and he kissed it before turning his head to touch his mouth to hers.
With a grumble, she pulled away from his mouth, and he let her go, knowing better than to chase her when she made that particular sound. "No, I think we'll have a son, my lord husband." Humor suffused her voice once again, and she settled her head on his shoulder.
"With your golden eyes and honey blonde hair."
Alistair laughed. "Hopefully not. I wouldn't wish my looks on anyone."
Her fingers walked over his chest. "Then we'll have to have both."
"A boy who looks like you and a girl who looks like me."
He was grateful for the darkness that hid his face, knowing he wouldn't be able to keep his expression blank. Closing his eyes, he swallowed his pain. He knew they'd never have a second child, and he wasn't sure what made her say it – that she was so sleepy, that it was something she truly wanted, that she was simply attempting to placate him.
"You never gave me any ideas for names." His tone was light, teasing, and he pinched her gently on the hip.
Swatting at his hand with a tired, heavy arm, she grumbled against him. "I'll know when he comes."
He chuckled. "He?"
"Mmm. A boy. I know."
Sliding his hands up her back, he slipped one into her hair. "And how do you know?"
"Just do." And then she was asleep, breathing softly against him as he stared into the darkness above his head and contemplated what it might be like to have a little boy.
A letter arrived for her in Haven with the first snows, and Leliana read it with greedy eyes. Elissa's tight, compact script detailed the woes of court life, the trials of being Warden-Commander and queen, and a very interesting story of five elves serving as a corps of archers, a personal guard retinue. They'd added two more to their number, Elissa wrote, and Arl Eamon had finally stopped dogging her about the decision after the youngest among them put an arrow through an assassin's eye.
The letter ended with an invitation to the palace, one Leliana read as more of a plea. So she made her excuses to the Chantry – not that they would deny her the right to visit her friend, the Queen and Hero of Ferelden – and left. The journey from Haven to Denerim wasn't particularly long, but the snow made it tedious and added two days.
At the palace, she was escorted to one of the queen's private sitting rooms by congenial young man. He held the door for her, and she stepped in.
"Elissa!" Her surprise couldn't be contained. She had expected to wait several hours for her friend's attention. Instead, they met in the middle of the room in a tight embrace.
Or, rather, as tight an embrace as Elissa's very pregnant body would allow.
"Look at you!" Leliana exclaimed, leaning back to give Elissa a thorough once over. "How far along are you?"
Elissa's eyes crinkled, her smile brightening her very pale, very drawn face. Leliana knew little of childbearing, but she could see how tired her friend was. "Seven months now." She placed one hand on the small of her back and gestured for Leliana to take a seat on one of the settees. "And ready to be done." She sighed and settled herself on another chair.
Her two shadows shifted with the queen, the pretty human with the expressionless face taking up his station behind the queen's seat. The elven woman glided around the room until she stood near the door.
"It is that bad?" Leliana asked.
Elissa laughed dryly. "It's exhausting. I eat even more now, if you can believe it."
"Not really. You already ate enough to feed a small army." Leliana reached across the space between them to take Elissa's hand. "But it is not enough?"
Elissa touched her face. "I look that awful?"
"You look very tired."
"I am." She sighed again, shaking her head with a soft laugh. "But I don't want to talk about myself."
Leliana clucked. Elissa never wanted to talk about herself, and she would have none of it. "I want to hear all about your baby. Have you decided on a name?" She released Elissa's hand but didn't straighten. It felt odd to talk to her old friend from the comfort of overstuffed chairs instead of on the ground across a campfire. "Has Alistair built a cradle?"
Elissa choked. "He tried. Once. The craftsman's guild won't have him back. They said he can chop the wood for the cradle and they'll fashion it into something workable. He nearly put a nail through his foot."
"His foot?" Leliana wasn't surprised, though, not really.
"At least twice." Pressing her fingers to the bridge of her nose, Elissa chuckled. "How's Haven? Are you able to deal with the influx of pilgrims?"
The change in subject was abrupt, but not unexpected. "It is not so hard as we thought. The Chantry has cleared a path up the mountain now, and is restoring the chapel at the base. And many of the pilgrims who come are willing to help. It was a good thing you did, to let people know of the Urn."
"At least I did one thing right." Leliana watched Elissa lean back on the small couch, rubbing her hands over her stomach, a frown on her face. When Elissa noticed her staring, she wrinkled her nose. "Kicking."
"Oh, she kicks?"
"He." Elissa gestured her over. "Would you like to feel?"
"You don't mind?"
"Of course not."
Leliana shifted to the couch beside Elissa and, while watching her guard with a wary eye, placed one hand on her belly. She waited a few seconds before glancing at Elissa and saying, "I don't feel anything."
Elissa rubbed the side of her stomach. "Just wait a second. He's usually very acti—ah." She pressed her lips into a thin line and Leliana gasped with delight.
"I felt him!"
"He's stepping on my bladder."
Leliana laughed, shifting her hand to follow the strange feeling of tiny feet on the other side of Elissa's skin. "That must not be comfortable."
"No. It's not." She let out a heavy sigh. "But I'm used to it."
Another kick connected with the side of Elissa's stomach, harder than the first, and Leliana drew her hand back. "Does it hurt?"
Elissa made a face and rubbed small circles where the baby kicked. "It… sometimes? It's hard to explain. It's strange, that's all." She smiled, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. "I'm glad you're here. How long do you think you can stay?"
With that question, Leliana knew all was lost. From any other person, the question wouldn't have had any deeper meaning. From Elissa, it was a plea to stay framed as politely and innocuously as possible. "Through winter," Leliana said. "It would be foolish to travel the roads when they are so impassable, yes?"
"We did it once."
"With Morrigan to melt the snow drifts—"
"Oh, remember how much she hated that?"
"—and the boys to carry all our things. Yes! Her face would screw up like this." Leliana wrinkled her nose and narrowed her eyes, pinching her lips together, and Elissa burst out laughing, a genuine laugh to replace the strained smile. "And she would say things like… oh! Tis not a responsible use of my magic to melt paths through snow."
"And Wynne would give her that look."
"Yes, the one that could freeze a fire in a scorching desert! And then they would spend the rest of the day glaring at each other, Morrigan going on at length about how Wynne was just a dog for the Chantry."
Elissa, laughing still, pulled a pillow into her lap and held it to her chest as she wiped a tear from her eye. "And Sten would just glower. Do you remember—"
"The time you asked—"
They couldn't stop laughing. Leliana could barely breathe, and Elissa looked like she might fall off the couch. When she glanced at the guard behind Elissa's shoulder, he had a mildly amused expression on his face. The elf shifted from foot to foot, looking anywhere in the room but at them.
When they finally sobered, Elissa shook her head. "Sometimes, I miss those days. They were easier in some ways."
"Do you think so?" Leliana didn't. The uncertainty of their futures, the constant danger—she hadn't liked it at all. But Elissa, Leliana had learned quickly, loved a challenge, and that was how she had viewed the Blight: an adversary to be beaten.
"It was simple. Raise an army from among the elves, the humans, the dwarves, and kill the Archdemon." She released yet another heavy sigh. "Now, I dance around the nobility, trying to keep them happy, which is impossible."
"You can't please everyone," Leliana agreed, but she knew Elissa would try.
"They're still mad at me for my archers."
"I cannot imagine the uproar."
Awkward silence fell between them; the gulf, Leliana supposed, formed by months apart. A glance from Elissa at her guard had him take several steps away from them, and Leliana suddenly found Elissa much closer, her expression stark and unguarded.
"I'm scared, Leli," she whispered, her hand sliding over the cushions until her fingers met Leliana's. Closing her eyes and tipping her face toward the floor, she trembled. "I can't lose this baby, but I'm so scared I will."
"He will not love you less."
"It's not Alistair I'm worried about. I—" She took a deep breath. "He needs an heir, and if I—I'm scared for him. For me. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking the baby is dead." Her voice hitched and her throat tightened, the tendons stretching her skin.
Not knowing what to say, Leliana gave Elissa's hand a squeeze. "I'll be here for you." She leaned forward and let her forehead rest against Elissa's. Elissa's eyes were closed, but little droplets of water collected on her lashes.
They were silent again, but it wasn't awkward this time. Like in a song where a rest was meant to reinforce the story, the silence was meant to let Elissa know she was there. Words could be empty, paltry things – who better knew that than one who shaped them to manipulate? – when presence was the only thing needed.
"Thank you," Elissa finally said, pulling back. The tears were gone, and her face was a mask of composure. "Now. What do you say to a visit to the market?"
Winter dropped blankets of snow across Denerim, impassable, thick and heavy. Leliana spent her days huddled with Elissa in the warmest rooms of the castle, wrapped in thick wools, spinning stories for her friend. Elissa grew increasingly restless, which only fueled Wynne's displeasure, and by midwinter, tensions ran high in spite of every attempt to keep the atmosphere in the palace relaxed. Wynne insisted it was necessary for Elissa and her pregnancy, and Elissa would snap back that she wasn't a delicate, wilting flower before storming off.
Alistair slinked after her one particularly cold evening, giving Wynne and Leliana apologetic smiles before he vanished around the doorframe.
"That baby," Wynne muttered, stabbing at the food on her plate, "cannot come quickly enough."
"It is a shame that Zevran will not be here," Leliana said, trying to keep the tone conversational. There was, she thought, something passing between Elissa and Wynne that no one else knew, and that was, more than anything, the reason for Wynne's displeasure. She was curious, but not enough to press. It would come out eventually. "Elissa said she sent a letter to him at the same time she did to me."
Wynne made a noncommittal noise.
"Perhaps he still runs from the Crows?" Again, Wynne offered only a quiet grunt as a response, pushing a piece of lamb across her plate. "And Oghren. I thought he would be here. But he is at Amaranthine, yes?" Clearly, Wynne wasn't interested in conversation. But the sense of foreboding hanging over Leliana's head compelled her to speak, to wash away the uncertainty with idle talk. "Have you—"
Startled by the intense shout, so full of terror and fear and hope, Leliana nearly dropped her goblet. One of the kingsguard – Ser Cauthrien, wasn't it? – burst into the room, her eyes wide, and Wynne was already on her feet, striding with purpose toward the door.
It was strange, Leliana thought, as she, too, rose quickly to her feet, how they all knew exactly what was going on from that single call.
They found Alistair and Elissa on a flight of stairs, Elissa bent at the waist, one hand on her stomach and one hand clutching Alistair's shirt.
Wynne went to her without hesitation while Ser Cauthrien hung back with Leliana, looking uncomfortable.
"It's hard, isn't it?" Leliana asked softly, pitching her voice under Wynne's urgent questions and Elissa's snapped replies. "Being a warrior in a situation like this?"
"I can't imagine how her husband feels."
"You care for her a great deal." Cauthrien looked at her with a startled expression. "We all do."
Cauthrien hesitated. "I never thought… she is my friend as well as my queen. It's my duty to protect her as a member of the kingsguard."
Leliana touched Cauthrien's shoulder. "Being here is enough, I think."
Elissa shrieked, and Leliana turned in time to see Alistair swing her into his arms. She looked aggrieved. "Put me down, Alistair, I can walk on my—" She broke off, wincing and gritting her teeth. "Bed. Now."
They moved with purpose, Leliana watching Cauthrien lead the way down the hall as Wynne, keeping pace with Alistair's strides, gave Elissa strict commands. Following behind, feeling out of place, Leliana flinched every time Elissa's voice faltered. When they reached the royal suite, Wynne sent Cauthrien to fetch a midwife.
She gave Leliana a severe look. "Allow no one entry." The door shut.
The two guards stationed outside the door, a human swordsman and an elven bowman, drew their weapons, and Leliana's brows arched. "Do you expect a battle?"
The human man laughed. "If I am sharpening my sword when the nobility begins to gather, I'm not threatening them, am I?"
"And I am only examining the fletching on this arrow and making sure my bowstring is taut."
A smile crinkled Leliana's eyes. "Clever."
Ser Cauthrien returned several minutes later, clattering down the hallway at a brisk pace, the midwife at her side. Leliana opened the door for both, but only the midwife entered. And she was thankful for that. Arl Eamon appeared at the end of the hall not a moment after the door shut.
"Ser Cauthrien," he said, ignoring Leliana entirely as he stepped toward them. Leliana twisted her hand, the motion releasing the dagger hidden in her sleeve. Its hilt fell into her palm, and she felt better almost immediately, its weight a reassurance.
"Arl Eamon." Ser Cauthrien stood like a wall in front of the massive door, flanked by a man sharpening his sword in steady, even strokes, and an elf testing the elasticity of his bowstring. "How are you this evening?"
His expression clouded. "The queen is in labor? I demand entry."
"Wynne has forbidden it," Leliana said, moving to Ser Cauthrien's side.
"It is required that a member of the court—"
Elissa's scream cut him off. It was a terrible sound, digging knives of fear into Leliana's spine. She had heard cries like that before. She could remember a woman who died, her child turned wrong in the womb, screaming just like that.
"If Enchanter Wynne has forbidden entry to the royal suite," Ser Cauthrien said softly in the silent wake of the scream, "perhaps she has her reasons. I'm sure the queen doesn't need the stress of an audience."
The Arl didn't argue with that. He took several steps back, but he didn't leave. Instead, he paced the length of the hall.
Other members of the court in residence trickled into the hallway, and Leliana watched them with mounting irritation. But there was no reason to turn them away; Elissa and Alistair were unaware of their presence, and if it mattered to Wynne, she would have said something. At the very least, as the hour grew later, many of them dispersed. Arl Eamon remained, along with a few others, but toward dawn, even they left.
As the sun climbed into the sky, only Arl Eamon remained, and Leliana had to wonder at Elissa's dislike for the man. She understood on one level: the Arl was a man with an agenda. He had a plan. But there was real concern written on his face, and he paled at each of Elissa's cries. His concern, surely, was genuine.
Ah, but was it concern for Elissa or concern for the Ferelden monarchy.
Perhaps Elissa's distaste was not so misplaced.
Sometime close to noon, they heard a newborn's shrill cry.
Leliana bolted upright from where she dozed against the wall, suddenly wide awake as expectant joy coursed through her.. A baby – a baby's cry sounded again, and a third time, and she turned toward Cauthrien and the guards, her heart full to bursting with happiness.
None of them spoke, none of them moved but to turn toward the door, waiting for Alistair or Wynne or someone to come out, to bring the news. Leliana felt a burning, desperate energy, wanting nothing more than to bound into the room and rush up to her friend, to hug her and congratulate her and tell her see, you did it!
The door opened, and Wynne stepped out.
Arl Eamon moved toward them as Ser Cauthrien straightened and stepped away from the wall. Haggard, with dark circles under her eyes, Wynne reached for Leliana, ignoring the three guards and the Arl.
Leliana's breath caught in her throat, and when Wynne met her eyes, she knew. She knew. And all that joy, all that furious, beautiful joy, died, too.
"Let me see him."
Alistair brushed his wife's sweat-slicked hair from her face as the midwife wrapped the now quiet child in thick blankets.
"Shh, love." He pressed a kiss to her pale skin, trying to soothe her, to calm her. She shook in his arms, but her skin was so cold. "It's fine." Lying to her hurt.
There was too much blood. Far, far too much blood. The look on Wynne's face when she'd given the child to the midwife, when she'd held her hands over Elissa's abdomen and her magic had filled the room. Wynne stood away from the bed, now, one arm wrapped around her waist and one over her mouth.
Silent, the midwife brought their son to their bedside, and Alistair helped Elissa sit up, moved her arms and cradled her in his own as the midwife gave the baby to her to hold.
He couldn't see her eyes, but he felt the change in her. All the tension left her, and she sighed. "He's beautiful," she whispered as the baby let out an indignant shriek. She freed one of her hands, grabbing at Alistair's arm.
Her grasp was weak, her fingers barely closing around his wrist.
"Alistair." Her voice shook.
"I'm here," he whispered against her hair, tears burning his eyes. Where was the joy? Where was the excitement? His heart pounded in his chest, equal parts bleak, black despair and boundless love, and he didn't know—couldn't understand—
She said something, her tremulous voice weak, something he didn't hear.
She exhaled the name against his cheek , her fingers brushing over their son's forehead as he made a quiet, gurgling sound. His feet kicked at the blanket wrapped around him as he twisted in his mother's arms.
And Alistair. Alistair didn't know what to do. What to say. How to feel.
So of course he said something stupid. "You hated Duncan." He tried to laugh, but the sound caught in his throat.
Maker have mercy. Why was he laughing?
Because, he realized as he held his wife and she died in his arms, as she held his son who was only just starting to live, there was nothing else to be done.
There were no words to make it right.
There was no feeling that could be justified.
As the world surged around them, as it moved and pulsed and lived, he was helpless.
He curled around her as she exhaled one last, final time. He held her arms around their son, around Duncan, rocking them both back and forth. And Duncan, as though realizing something was wrong, began to cry, and Alistair envied his son so much in that moment, because he couldn't even do that.