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Salem Cousland

"You should eat something."

I glanced up, looking at the wary smile on my brother's face as he handed me a plate heaped full with food.

"Thank you." I said, almost absent as I turned back, looking down on the courtyard below.

Men and women scurried about, practicing at arms, loading supplies, rushing in a flurry of activity to prepare for what would happen next. Rhythmic clanging echoed from the smithies as swords were forged and repaired, as armor was fitted. Thick, choking smoke clung in the still air, melding with the heavy fog, reminding me of what I knew all too well.

Death is coming. On wings of fire and the cries of the innocent, our fate is fast approaching.

"You seem troubled, Salem." Fergus said, relaxing against the parapets, keeping his eyes on me, away from the bustle and clamor. "Since you regained consciousness, since our arrival, you have said less than two sentences joined together."

"I have a great deal weighing on my mind." I repeated the answer that had become rote.

The simple words had dissuaded the worried gazes and anxious inquiries. It had given me what scraps of peace were left. The world as we knew it was soon to shift, soon to be changed in a way none of us before could fathom. We prepared for war, for it was on the immediate horizon. What we could not prepare for was what might come after.

"You are not alone in that." Fergus glared at me until I began to eat. "I have questions for you as well, sister."

Questions I do not wish to answer, I thought, dreading this moment. I had prayed that time would be too scarce to...dredge up past wounds. But he is my brother. He has a right to know. He deserves to ask his questions and have them answered.

"Ask of me anything." I offered.

I give you that permission, brother...though the rest of this damned world seems to believe that it has the same rights. Ask of me anything, tax me in blood, shield them from darkness...I am not made of earth and steel. My heartbeat is not the steady cadence of war drums. I am as human as they...equally flawed, equally weary, equally frightened, and weak.

Fergus sighed, his brow creased, his lips thinned, and my shoulders knotted. I knew what he wished to ask. I had slain our greatest enemy. I had killed the man who had slaughtered Fergus' wife and child...and our parents.

Not this, dear Maker. Any questions but these...

"Salem," he kept his voice low, restrained, taut with emotions that were not permitted nobles and warriors, "my...my wife...my son...how?"

Bile rose in my throat as I remembered Howe's sick description of the manner in which he had mutilated my nephew and defiled my brother's wife. Cold anger and expended rage burned fierce and new inside my heart. Even so, I schooled my face into a mask and molded my voice into a lie.

Something he will believe. Something he will cling to.

"It was quick." I whispered, gazing into the setting sun, wishing it would pierce through my eyes and erase my memories. "Painless. Howe's orders were...were to execute, not to torture."

This...this is my gift to you, Fergus. Peace. Let me alleviate your guilt and your anger with this lie. It is the sole lie I shall ever tell you, I swear it. You cannot hammer recriminations into your spirit, for vengeance has already been taken. The road of our dark past has nothing for you. Look to your future, my brother...as I look to mine, grim though it may be.

"The bodies were burned." Fergus said, his tone cold and lifeless. "Father and Mother. Orianna and...Oren." my brother heaved a sigh. "My men and I were ambushed as we were leaving to join King Cailan at Ostagar. Howe's soldiers," he snorted, "cheap weapons, substandard armor...they quickly lost. One of them told me what had happened at Highever and I...I lost my mind, Salem."

"How so?" I finished the food my brother had brought to me, setting the plate aside on the ramparts.

I studied the walls of Redcliffe castle, building their like around my heart. I had locked the past away, where it belonged, until I might come to terms with it once again. Howe was dead. That was all that mattered.

"I did not join the armies at Ostagar. Forgive me, sister. Had I known you were there, had I known that you survived, I would have made all haste but...but I thought you dead. I thought all was lost. And in my rage, I abandoned my king."

"What did you do?" I asked, recalling the moment I heard the news, that Fergus Cousland had been attacked, his forces massacred by the darkspawn...the man himself dead.

More of Loghain's trickery.

I attempted to quell my hatred for the now-dead traitor. It did not seem right to loathe and harbor anger against a man who no longer existed in this world. He could cause no more dissention. He could stir no more strife. But I could not cease hating him. He had taken too much from me. My family, my health, and my sanity.

"I took what was left of my armies to the surrounding villages, conscripting local militia. When that was finished we...we took back Highever. I am not proud to say that I attacked my own countrymen, Salem. It goes against every value father tried to instill in us, but we had been wronged. And then...to return, to find father and mother gone, my wife and..." his composure cracked and he buried his head in his hands, weeping in the company of the setting sun, "...my boy..."

"I understand." I wrapped my arms around him, thankful for the lie I had told. "It is all right, Fergus. All is not as it should be, but it is well. We have one another, and I swear to you, I will end this Blight and give you the chance to start your life afresh. Keep faith."

"Keep faith?" Fergus muttered, drawing out of my embrace. "Can you tell me how, Salem? I look at you...your face, your hands...there are scars there where before none existed. Your companions told me fantastic stories of ogres and dragons, the terrors of the Deep Roads. How is it that you are standing in front of me, keeping faith?"

"I have those to lift me when I cannot drag myself from the ground." I smiled, missing the comfort of Leliana at my side.

The moment Wynne had announced me recovered from the injuries at the Landsmeet, my life had become a flurry of planning and conferences. Days were filled with training, nights with briefings, and I would stay awake into the bleak hours of the morning with Alistair, poring over maps. I had lived, eaten, drank, and breathed strategy...I had neglected my lover and my light.

This is something that must soon be remedied.

"Those who lift you?" he raised his brows. "My eyes may never have been as keen as yours, sister, but I did see the conspicuous absence of your signet ring." Fergus smiled, falling into old mannerisms and teasing me.

"And I am certain your ancient, age-clouded eyes managed to see the hand it now resides on?" I asked, quirking a single eyebrow, a skill of my mother's that Fergus had never perfected.

"I did." he inclined his head in affirmation. "Do you mean to tell me that I shall never be an uncle?"

I stared at him, stone-faced. Our eyes locked. As if on cue, we began laughing until we felt our sides would split.

Fergus placed his hand on his chest and strutted on the parapet, swaying his hips, striking the perfect image of our maternal grandmother.

"A noble marriage with noprogeny?" he squawked in a high falsetto and I collapsed to my knees, laughing so that I cried. "This is simply unconscionable!"

"Unfair!" I gasped. "How...how dare you!?"

My brother glared down at me with eyes full of mock-disapproval. "Do you not understand!?" he squawked again. "You are responsible for the continuation..."

"Fergus!" I begged, holding my ribs. "Stop! For the love of the Maker, stop!"

My brother chuckled and helped me to my feet. After a moment, our smiles weakened, then faded away completely. That was what mirth and joy had become. Something fleeting. Something precious and almost gone.

Fergus broke the silence. "I am happy for you, Salem." he said. "It takes immense hope and...and belief...to find love in times such as these. Cherish it while you may. I know all too well...how soon such blessings can depart."

I laid my arm about his shoulders and squeezed. "All of life will resolve itself, eventually. Surely existence cannot be crafted from pain alone. Speaking of pain, brother, if I may...I have a question to ask of you."

"Of course." he smiled and I watched the moon rising behind him.

It bathed the earth in a gentle glow and I lost my thoughts for the merest of moments, transfixed by something pure and beautiful. So much beauty had been stolen from the world in the wake of the Blight. I wondered if its full measure would ever return.

"Did...did father ever speak to you of his aversion to healing magic?" I inquired, asking the question that had weighed on me since I had spoken to Anora in Eamon's Denerim estate.

Fergus nodded. "Yes, he did. He spoke to me of it on the day Oren was born." his voice grew bitter. "It is our family's dark, very well-hidden secret."

"Do go on."

"Well," my brother cleared his throat, trying to remember happier times, "in ages past..."