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Salem Cousland

Denerim.

The city gates screamed as they opened, allowing us entrance. The last time I had walked these streets, I had nearly lost my life to Marjolaine's knife. I could not restrain the slight shudder that rippled down my spine.

I knew I would return here. When Leliana told me of her vision, she said it would all end here. I wonder...will this be the last time I stand in this city?

A reassuring hand slipped inside mine.

"Are you all right, love?" my bard's beautiful accent tickled my ear.

"I was merely thinking." I assured her.

While she did not speak of it often, I knew she still struggled with her incessant worry over me. That worry and my frustration with it had been the catalyst of many disagreements between us. In fact, it had nearly torn us apart.

"Thinking of what?" she pried, an impish smile on her lips.

"This city. What you said would happen here."

Her eyes filled with shadows. "You always ponder such dark thoughts, my warden. It troubles me to see you so fatalistic."

"Far from it." I lied, smiling for her comfort.

There would be bleak enough times ahead. I could not bring myself to dampen the light in her eyes. It had grown brighter and brighter since leaving Haven, journeying to Redcliffe, and from thence to Denerim. It lit my path in dark times, through shadowed thoughts such as those I now slogged through.

"Good." she rubbed my back and patted my shoulder. "We have at last returned to...well...I suppose this city would be Ferelden's sad excuse for civilization."

I laughed at her jest, knowing it was not meant in earnest. Leliana was Ferelden by blood and birth. She would not disown the country of her origin, not after it had given her safe harbor.

Arl Eamon walked back, from the front of the caravan, to us, concern furrowing his brow.

"Songstress," he nodded to Leliana and turned to me. "Warden. Our arrival will have caused quite a stir. I am certain that Loghain already knows of our being here. In the interest of safety, we should go directly to my estate. You have acquired some...colorful...companions, Teyrna Cousland. However unintentional, they draw attention."

"Please, Arl Eamon, call me Salem." I told him. "It would do precious little for your reputation if you were overheard calling a deposed noble whose rights and title have been stripped from them by the aforementioned title."

Eamon shook his head and his beard shifted in the breeze. "That was a matter of treachery I shall lay bare in the Landsmeet." he promised. "Cousland has been one of Ferelden's noble houses long before we rebelled against Orlais. Your loyalty to king and country has never wavered."

"Not to hear Loghain tell it." I scoffed. "And who will the people believe, Eamon? The controversial Grey Warden child of a dead house, or the hero of the war with Orlais?"

Eamon frowned behind his moustache. "There are weak points in every armor, teyrna. We must simply find Loghain's weaknesses and exploit them. Preferably before the Landsmeet is called. However, we must thoroughly ensconce ourselves in the city before either of those goals may be accomplished."

"As you say." I agreed, watching him return to his wagons and his wife.

We had sped to Redcliffe from the village of Haven, pushing the limits of our endurance to get Andraste's Ashes to the arl in time. For the first time in what seemed an eternity, luck traveled with us. The Ashes had worked immediately, leading to Arl Eamon returning to us hearty and whole, and a grateful arlessa who had collapsed in my arms, weeping with joy and exhaustion. The woman had even kissed Alistair on the cheek.

I smiled at the memory. Alistair had confided to me that Isolde hated him. She was the reason he had been forced from Arl Eamon's guardianship and into the life of a templar. A life he had never wanted, and left for the wardens.

I am grateful, I smiled at him, but he did not return the gesture. Alistair wanted to be here less than I did. He knew that, if we were successful in the Landsmeet, he would soon wear the crown of an unstable country. It is perhaps a greater burden than facing the archdemon. Forgive me, Alistair. This is not what either of us had anticipated, or desired...it is simply the path Fate has thrust upon us.

"You are thinking in dark places again." Leliana chided as we fell in step behind Eamon's caravan.

I shook my head, almost ill-at-ease with how well the bard could sense my thoughts. She was becoming as adept as Burrow in sensing my emotions, states of mind, and well-being. I felt the lack of the mabari beside me, but I had chosen to cage him in one of Eamon's wagons, much to his unhappiness and my own. In spite of our feelings on the matter, precautions did need to be taken. Loghain had many spies, supporters, and sympathizers, eyes and ears everywhere. Mabari were rare and easily recognized.

"I am simply pitying Alistair." I told her, watching her nod in commiseration.

"Neither of you will walk an easy path." she acknowledged. "It is good that he has you to lean on."

"At the end of this road, I am certain he will hate me." I shared my fears with her. "If he does not already."

"The possibility of that happening is the same chance we have of seeing Andraste walk among us again." Leliana said, cheeky. She sobered and, in a rare moment, met my eyes. "He loves you, Salem."

What knowledge do you possess that I do not? I wondered. Did you not hear him last night, cursing my name, blaming me for drawing the truth of his lineage from him? We nearly came to blows...and things between us are still in disrepair.

I knew in my heart that Alistair would be a good king. While I would not choose him as a leader of soldiers, I would choose him as a leader of men. However, for a man who had always been in the company of warriors, and failed in leading them...he could not see to the same end as I. I pinched the bridge of my nose, thoughts racing through my head in a painful threnody.

"No more of that, my warden." Leliana elbowed me in the side, gentle.

I looked at her, incredulous. "And what has you in such fine spirits, dear heart?"

"Civilization!" her smile broadened, unquenchable in its brightness. "The sounds of the city, the thrill of intrigue...the promise of a hot bath and soap!"

I laughed yet again, giving into her infectious mirth.

"A hot bath you say?" I asked. "Would you be wishing to partake of such luxuries alone or..."

She rasied an eyebrow. "I would not be averse to company, my warden, if you should happen to know of those who would provide it."

"I hear The Pearl..."

"Wench!" she shoved at me, playful, laughing like a young woman with no cares on her mind...who did not love a warden doomed to death.

Maker you are lovely, I watched her laughing, glorying in its music. And we are in your element. Who better to fell a pretender to the throne than a woman who has toppled kings and made countries run amuck? Do you know, dear heart, that I wake every morning with a prayer of thanks on my lips? Will I ever be able to convey...with my weak words and beyond the burdens on my soul...how much I love you?

Arl Eamon's servants opened the portcullis leading to the estate. The caravan moved inside the grounds. I followed, quickly making it to the front of the procession. Leliana followed, concerned.

"Is everything all right?" she asked, resting a hand on my shoulder.

The doors of the estate opened and my eyes flared.

"No." I answered. "It most certainly is not."