[The Five Stages of Grief: Denial/Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance]
Alistair watches as Elinora walks away, Denerim in blazes around them, and he knows – knows it in his gut – that he has just said goodbye for the last time. He wishes he’d kissed her before she left; he knows he’ll never get another chance, and she’s still walking away, too far to call back, to attempt to speak some sense into her. Her name claws at his throat, his lungs bursting with the words to call her back, even if it is just to feel her lips on his one final time. She is beautiful, capable, resourceful, and tough, and in his heart she will always be his queen.
He’s not a fool – he knows precisely why she’s left him behind, and he knows because if he were in her place, he’d have done the same thing. She was right – he would have attempted something foolish (her words, not his), had he gone with her. He’d planned it all out last night as he lay awake, staring at the ceiling while the rest of the castle slept. And there she was: one step ahead of him yet again.
He knows the reason why he’s standing here; he can hear her words playing over and over again in his memory: “No, I can’t make you do this.” And as he watches Elinora, Alistair realizes the extent of that decision. She knew what it meant, even if he didn’t have quite as full an understanding at the time, and she prepared for it. And he had been relieved that he wouldn’t have to sleep with Morrigan. A part of him feels sick now at that relief. He had laughed, thanked her for reconsidering, and this is where that has brought him. Would it really have been such a dear price to pay not to be left behind like this – kept out of battle like Duncan had done to him so many times, all because of this damned birthright – if it had meant going with her, if it had meant the possibility of both of them living? He wouldn’t have done it to save his own life, and perhaps, at the time, that’s what he’d been thinking of: sacrificing himself. Sleeping with Morrigan wasn’t worth saving his own skin, but Elinora's? Regret kicks hard up hard in his stomach, but he stands tall.
Alistair watches her grow smaller with every step she puts between them, and something deep and primal is screaming, howling away inside of him. His place is beside her, fighting with her. Over these many months, they have found a rhythm in each other’s movements; they have fought together, trained together, and made love together for months, developing a sort of sixth sense, knowing how and when the other will move. They work together like two hands; the metaphor is appropriate, because as Alistair stands rooted to the spot, he cannot help but feel like a limb is missing.
She is nearly at the gates when the men start cheering; he smiles, not because he thinks she craves the praise, but because finally she’s getting some to speak of. He knows her well enough to know that she’s probably embarrassed by the attention, ducking her head bashfully, tucking that lock of hair behind her ear. He knows this because he’d be teasing her mercilessly if he were by her side. Despite the ruined city burning around them, despite the darkspawn lying in wait for them, he would tease her until she smiled (or hit him), and from that smile he would draw strength.
Alistair is still watching when Elinora reaches the gates. She turns, and though she is surrounded by cheering soldiers, he can still see her quite clearly. The fires make Wade’s specially-crafted dragonbone armor gleam, the red metal giving her face a rosy flush. It’s one last glimpse before she squares her shoulders and vanishes into the thick, black shadows. Once she’s gone, Alistair steels himself; he must separate mind and heart, forcing the former to concentrate on the task at hand and locking the other away until the dust settles. She has not left him behind only to fall in a smaller battle. She has left him behind to lead, and though part of him dreads it and expects to fail, a larger part of him is ready. He will lead. He will be king. Her sacrifice will not be in vain, and he makes this silent promise to her.
The light is bright and, surprisingly, beautiful. He looks up, mid-battle, as most everyone does. A beam, pure and white, is shooting upward from the highest tower in Fort Drakon and for one wildly ecstatic moment, Alistair thinks he has been given his miracle. Perhaps the Fade spirit existing in Wynne had one final trick up its sleeve. Alistair’s mind scrambles for possibilities as the light continues to build and build, finally bursting outward in a shockwave of sound and light. Every cloud in the sky is illuminated and he can feel it, the voice, that presence that had been so loud in his own head is suddenly silent: the Archdemon is no more. He knows it a split second before crowds of darkspawn begin their retreat, and though it is madness, Alistair runs as well, but in the opposite direction, toward Fort Drakon. His armor is heavy and hot, his body is sore, his will is spent, but still he runs.
The doors to massive prison hang open, allowing Alistair free passage. He passes rooms upon rooms of dead bodies, until, gradually, darkspawn corpses outnumber the human ones, providing him with a rush of pride. That’s my girl, he thinks. But still he runs, fire and exertion making his lungs burn, until he bursts through the rooftop doors, still hoping, still praying to the Maker and Andraste, promising them anything of himself as long as she’s all right.
The first thing he sees is the carnage. There is no more Archdemon, no more darkspawn, just parts and pieces and blood scattered gracelessly across the rooftop like so many broken, discarded toys. He wonders for a moment if anyone survived the explosion, but that thought slips from his mind when he spies the glow of magic from the northernmost platform.
His elation is almost too much to bear – Wynne has done something, he thinks, and he moves his legs anew, sprinting to where the small group is huddled. But then the mabari's howl pierces the night. It is a long, mournful sound, unlike any he’s heard from the hound before. It sends something icy and leaden plunging straight into his stomach.
As Alistair reaches them, he sees that the glow of magic is indeed Wynne. It is the blue-white light of her revival spell. He can tell by the way she’s hanging onto her staff that she has tried the spell a number of times already. Shale is sitting – it is odd, Alistair thinks, the random thought flitting through his mind like a leaf caught in an updraft, but he can’t remember ever seeing the golem sitting down before. He hadn’t thought she could, but there she is. And Elinora, the last of the Couslands, his betrothed and the once-future Queen of Ferelden, lay unmoving across Shale’s lap.
“Again, mage,” the golem says, above the hound’s howl. Her tone is uncompromising, but Alistair can see how weak Wynne is, and he cannot begin to imagine how many times she has attempted this particular spell.
The mage is gripping her staff for support, her shoulders sagging with fatigue. “I... I cannot, Shale. I am sorry.”
The hound sniffs his mistress’ hand, licking it tentatively before shoving his massive head under her palm, as if to coax her into waking up and petting him, but Elinora’s hand is pale and limp.
Again, his laughter from the night before comes back to him like a knife to his gut. He’d had the opportunity to prevent this, had held the moment in his hand.
“I said, again, Elder Mage.”
“Shale. Enough.” Alistair’s voice is rough and the words are like broken glass torn from his throat. Mage and golem look up; Shale’s face is as expressionless as ever, but Wynne looks at least ten years older, with deep shadows under her eyes. The dog doesn’t acknowledge him at all; he probably caught Alistair’s scent long before he made his presence known.
“Alistair,” Wynne says. The lines on her face look deeper, and the sorrow in her voice is unmistakable. “I am... so sorry,” she whispers, shaking her head. “I have done all I can.”
Alistair only nods, walking closer now. Shale is cradling her body so carefully, so gingerly, it is almost as if the golem is afraid of breaking it. The pallor of Elinora's complexion is such that every smudge of grime and soot, every streak of blood stands out in stark relief against her skin. He reaches out tentatively, stopping only when he realizes his hands are still encased in silverite gauntlets. Shucking them with hasty, careless movements and sending them to the ground with a clatter, he reaches out with shaking hands and runs gentle fingertips across her forehead and is struck by the realization that she is empty. There is nothing left in her, nothing of what had once made her so unique, having been ravaged and decimated by the Archdemon’s presence passing through her soul.
The hound howls again, and the force of the cry sends Alistair to his knees. There is nothing he can say, nothing he can do – someone is going to have to tell the rest of the party, and he knows it is up to him to deliver the news.
When next he finds himself alone with what remains of his love, it is in a quiet, secluded chamber at Castle Redcliffe. The body has been prepared by Chantry sisters, bathed and anointed with oils, and clad in Sophia’s armor. She is still, so still, and though his fingers itch to touch her hair, her skin, he dares not; she is cold and empty and it is better to remember the smooth, supple warmth of her flesh under his hands, the way she’d yelp and swat at him when he tugged playfully at her ponytail. Touching her now would shatter those memories, and Alistair cannot bring himself to do that.
He is expected to speak at the memorial ceremony in her honor, but he cannot form words right now, much less coherent sentences. The idea of stringing so many words and sentences together feels like it is a skill beyond him at the moment and Alistair does not want to think right now; it is too like wading through a shallow pool, the movements kicking up debris. He hates the way they all look at him – he feels their blame like a sharp blade; though, most unexpectedly, Sten seems the only one to understand the situation completely. The Qunari has barely spoken a word since they returned to the castle, spending most of his time in meditation. Oghren is possibly drunker than usual; Leliana is uncharacteristically quiet, her eyes red and her face blotchy; and Shale and Wynne have been withdrawn, but seem also to understand better than the others what Elinora’s motives had been. None of them know what might have been, though, and Alistair cannot bring himself to tell them.
He is still there, kneeling on the stone floor some hours later when there is a soft rap at the chamber door. It is Teagan, come to tell him that there is a problem with Elinora’s hound and that the kennel master has requested his presence. Alistair complies, though he suspects Teagan is also trying to coax him out of this room. They all think he’s spending too much time alone. All of Ferelden is celebrating the end of the Blight, and their new King refuses to see or speak to anyone. Alistair has a hard time caring.
When he reaches the kennels, he can see her dog curled upon a bed of fresh hay in the corner, his back to the rest of the room.
“He ain’t eating, Highness--”
“You needn’t call me that,” he replies dully.
“Right. Well then. He ain’t eating, my lord,” the man says, rubbing the back of his neck. “Thought he might’ve got some of that blood in his belly, but the herbs ain’t makin’ a bit of difference.”
Alistair nods; he knows how the dog feels. Then he catches a snip of what else the kennel master is saying.
“...if he don’t start eating soon or if them herbs don’t start workin’, might be kinder to put him out of his miser—”
Alistair rounds on him suddenly. “Don’t. Touch. The dog,” he snarls, with vehemence that surprises even him. The man jumps, putting his hands out in a placating gesture.
“A-absolutely, my lord.”
He’s tired suddenly, his shoulders slumping. “I’ll see if I can do anything with him,” he says, half-heartedly. The kennel master nods and leaves, and Alistair is alone with this companion who has known her far longer than he has. He sits on a pile of fresh hay, the smell of it rousing a myriad of other memories from even farther back. He rests his hand on the dog’s huge head, fingers searching out the sensitive spots behind its ears. The canine musters a growl, but there is no fire behind it; Alistair doesn’t pull his hand away and instead pets the dog slowly. He doesn’t know that much about mabari, but he knows enough that bond between dog and master is not something to be taken lightly. He also knows that this dog is no pup; this has been Elinora’s hound from the start and he has known only her.
“I don’t know what I can tell you. But I think I know how you feel,” Alistair says quietly, rubbing the dog’s neck; it’s strangely soothing, and he can remember the way she used to pet the dog on nights she felt particularly troubled. He used to tease her, calling the dog a “giant, furry worry token.” The memory makes something prick and bleed inside and he turns his attention away from his memories and back to the animal. The dog moves slightly, and his heavy head is soon resting in Alistair’s lap, brown eyes fixed watchfully upon him. His gaze is not judgmental, only lost. Wardogs are meant to fall in battle alongside their owners, after all, and Alistair sees in the canine’s intelligent eyes that there is at least one who has lost more than he has.
From that point on, the animal remains by Alistair’s side. He isn’t sure whether the dog has chosen him as its new master, or if it simply views him as a fellow packmate. He doesn’t particularly care, either – she loved this dog, and that is enough for him to watch over it.
Right now, this is all the company he wants.
It is only a day later, only three days since Elinora fell, that Alistair gets the news: Fergus Cousland is alive.
The realization hits Alistair like a maul to the gut. The brother she wanted to badly to find, the last shred of family she had left, was alive the whole time.
He doesn’t want to meet Fergus, doesn’t want to speak to him, doesn’t want to tell the man his sister sacrificed herself for Ferelden. He wishes, fervently, that someone else could do it. But no, he is the king, or soon will be, and above that he was her fellow Warden – it is his duty to speak with his beloved’s brother. He will speak with her brother and he will speak to those at her memorial, and then, perhaps, he can retreat. He wants more time to process – the wounds are still too raw, too fresh, too painful. Too much has happened in too short a period: the Archdemon is gone. Elinora is dead. He will be King.
He agrees, finally, to meet with the last of the Cousland family line, and it strikes him how much they are alike in gestures and mannerisms. It is an unpleasant realization, but there is nothing about this meeting that is pleasant; he is stiff and formal, hiding behind this shield he has constructed for himself. When he gives his condolences, however, Fergus gives him a long, shrewd look.
“You knew her well,” he says, quietly.
“I did,” Alistair admits, after not a little hesitation. He clears his throat as if to say more, but holds his tongue for a moment. “How did you...?”
“How did I know?” Fergus asks, a wry, humorless smile at his lips. “Speaking as a man who’s lost everything dearest to him, it isn’t hard to recognize it in someone else.”
Alistair is King.
The people have embraced the celebration of Alistair's coronation; it is something good, finally, after so much tragedy and turmoil. He puts on a fair front, but those few who know him well enough, know that he is simply going through the motions. His heart isn't in any of it.
Elinora's memorial is only a day away. Alistair has had some time to think now, and has decided that the lands of Highever will be returned to the Cousland family, making her brother Fergus teyrn. It seems hardly enough, but he knows that was what she wanted most dearly. It is the last gift he will be able to give her.
He would have preferred for it to have been an engagement present.
By the time the full brigade reaches the Anderfels, Alistair is furious. His anger has been building slowly, gradually, and now it is as sharp and as hot as any blade fresh from the forge. He wants to yell at Elinora, to rail and shout at her for doing this, for dying. She knew what she was doing – she knew how it would end. He wants to hate her for leaving him like this, but then he remembers that he’d been planning on doing precisely what she had done. How would things be different if it was his body on the way to Weisshaupt?
For starters, Elinora would be alive.
But there is a nagging truth behind that as well. When he thinks about inflicting all of this on her, this constant ache, the keenly-felt absence, the endless ruminations on how he might have done something different, he finds that he cannot. He knows what he is feeling and he cannot for a moment imagine inflicting it on her. But she does not have to live with this aftermath, she is free from the ramifications of her decision, and Alistair cannot help but feel for what is not the first time in his life, that he has been abandoned. Once again he is ten years old, shipped off to the Chantry – he is bitter, but above all he is furious with his beloved for making this decision for him.
But for all of Alistair’s helpless anger, he has no outlet for it. She is beyond hearing him. So it grows, hot and relentless inside him. He convinces himself this will all hurt less if he can learn to hate her. He does not foresee this happening, so he settles for hating himself for being selfish, Riordan for not telling them about this little caveat sooner – and then dying, and the Maker for letting any of it happen at all.
Not long after she has been interred next to Garahel, Alistair finds Sten kneeling quietly before her tomb. He has not said much in the days since that final battle, and while the Qunari is generally taciturn, Alistair cannot help but feel this silence is somehow deeper, more resonant; he almost envies it, compared to his own tumultuous emotions.
Sten turns his head slightly, acknowledging Alistair's presence without looking at him. "What is it you wish, Warden?" he asks, his deep baritone voice echoing through the empty hall.
"I... didn't mean to intrude."
"You do not. I have finished my meditations."
He stands and turns, facing Alistair fully now. His face is as impassive as it's ever been, but Alistair knows better than to think for a moment that Sten isn't grieving. He knows how fond Elinora was of the Qunari. He remembers catching wisps of spirited debates – well, her side of the debate was spirited; Sten's side was... characteristically Sten-like.
"I see. I'd... I'd wondered what you were doing."
"Meditating. As I said."
"Yes, I know that now," Alistair replies, a trifle impatiently.
Sten arches an eyebrow at him. "Was there anything else?"
Here Alistair hesitates. There is something else, but he isn't sure how to ask the Qunari this particular question. "I... I was wondering something."
There is only the barest hesitation before Sten replies. "Speak, then."
"That... that name you used to call her."
"Yes. That's the one." Alistair pauses, swallowing hard. He's always wondered this, but never quite had the courage to ask. It's clear the Qunari will be leaving soon, and Alistair knows he may never get another chance to ask. "What... what does it mean, exactly?"
There is a flash of emotion – pain, Alistair is certain – in Sten's eyes, and then it is gone. "There is no singular word for it in your language," he replies quietly. "But in the Qunari tongue, it means, 'where the heart lies.'"
He hates leaving Weishapt, hates leaving her behind. Intellectually, Alistair knows there is nothing left of Elinora but a shell, but he clings to its presence, and he knows that when he returns to Denerim, it will be done. He will be expected to undertake his duties then, and he's fairly certain there will be little tolerance for his grief. He's had more time to adjust than most, and yet he still wants more.
This would have been so much easier if she'd let him take the final blow. Even better, it would have been so much easier if he'd not been mind-numbingly selfish about not wanting to sleep with Morrigan. The memory taunts him, and Alistair wishes with as much fervency as any man can wish, that he could have one more chance to change that outcome – one chance to change his mind. To set things right.
But because wishing seldom brings any outcomes, Alistair prays instead. He is still angry with the Maker, but he prays all the same. He promises to be a good king and a better person, to be all that she believed he was, if only that he might be granted one more chance to make things right. And though Maker does not make a habit of answering such prayers – and, indeed, Alistair finds his pleas fall on omniscient, but very deaf ears – he continues to pray and promise more and more of himself. But to no avail. He prays to Andraste, showing her his heart, baring all he's kept locked within it. But the Maker's bride shows as much inclination to listen as the Maker Himself.
In time, his prayers stop. The Maker and Andraste care not about his foolish choices; they have no interest in these silly little mortals, no matter the faith those mortals put in them. He is ashamed at the amount of fervor he'd put behind those pleas, and not a small part of him wonders if Elinora – wherever she is – scorns him for such a foolish effort.
Alistair is taking Eamon's advice, though half-heartedly, and has started studying the art of governance and diplomacy. He cares very little for the subject, and though he'd always been an excellent pupil at the Chantry, he finds it difficult to concentrate – and even more difficult to care. He is stubborn in his studies, though – Elinora didn't die simply so he could turn around and make a mess of the country (it is a tempting thought, though, to consider that such a sin might make her return to him in a blaze of righteous fire to scold him soundly for being such an utter moron). He applies himself and, little by little, he starts to understand the finer points of leadership.
It is more than three months since he left the Anderfels. He is still a new king, still learning, and at times he feels more like a fawn wobbling around on unsteady legs than any sort of leader. He is sequestered in his library, reading a thick tome on Calanhad. The dog is asleep, his massive head resting atop Alistair's feet, and Alistair is struggling to keep his burning eyes open when a visitor is announced: Fergus Cousland, Teyrn of Highever. Alistair snaps the book shut and rubs at his eyes, wondering if he looks as if he hasn't been sleeping – he imagines he does, since it's already been pointed out to him a number of times by a number of people.
The dog snaps to attention, bounding happily around Fergus as the teyrn apologizes for showing up unannounced; he had been on the way home from Amaranthine, seeing to a memorial in his sister's honor. Her effects had been returned to him, and as Fergus is speaking Alistair wonders absently who had gathered all of Elinora's things –Leliana, he decides.
"With respect, Majesty—"
Uncomfortably, Alistair shifts his weight from foot to foot. "I'd really rather you not call me that."
"My apologies. Alistair. There is... I found something among her things – a letter – addressed to you." He struggles with his emotions for a moment. "It was tucked in her bedroll. Well hidden." He holds out a slightly lumpy envelope with Alistair's name across the front in what is undeniably Elinora's artfully messy scrawl.
Alistair takes the envelope, suddenly numb, and yet every nerve in his body is on alert. He stares at it in his hands, not sure what to say to Fergus beyond "Thank you."
He opens it the first moment he's alone, and a perfectly pressed rose slides out, landing with the softest crinkle onto his lap. He picks it up, feeling a deep, aching tear pull open that much wider.
My Dearest Love,
When I began on this journey, I cared only that Rendon Howe paid for what he did to my family, and that the Blight was defeated – though Duncan made quite clear that the latter was to take precedence over the former. Those were the only objectives I held in my heart – my duty to my family, and to Ferelden.
This was before I made the acquaintance of one certain Templar, whose presence in my life changed that life so dramatically. As you said, we stumbled into each other, finding solace in each other’s company during these most uncertain times. I don’t know precisely when I realized I loved you, but I do know it was long before I said the words. Wherever I may be now, know that is still true. I love you, Alistair – in death and across the Fade, I still love you.
As you hold this in your hand, you know too well what I have decided. You said once that you do not envy me the decisions I have to make – my choices affect more than just myself, after all. I must consider the effects of my decisions, and they are sometimes wide-reaching.
I cannot ask you to sleep with Morrigan. Granted, I did ask you, but I confess a part of me is relieved you did not say yes. It was a request born of fear – fear of dying as well as a fear of losing you – and I hate that I was so motivated by such an emotion. In all our travels, while I have certainly felt fear, I have prided myself on making choices based on what is right. It is something Father instilled in me – I must be temperate and just in my decisions. This is not to say that anger hasn’t motivated my actions – Rendon Howe could speak to that, if he could speak at all – or other emotions, but, by and large, I have tried to make intelligent choices.
Coercing you to sleep with Morrigan would not have been motivated solely by selfishness and fear. And as I sit here tonight, I know that is not my legacy.
I know you must be furious with me for doing this, but I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. Surely you understand I could not discuss this with you beforehand, and I hope you appreciate why that is. This is my duty, as a Cousland, as a Grey Warden – I must do what is honorable and right. I do this for my country as well as my King, who I love with my whole heart. I do this so you may show Ferelden what you have shown me – your strength, your dedication, your heart. You have more than just the blood of a King running through you – you have the soul of a King.
Live well and lead wisely, my love.
I am with you, always.
All my love,
He marries, eventually. She is a charming girl from the bannorn – she is no battle maiden with eyes like Orzammar emeralds, but she is kind and patient and finds his jokes to be... well, if not almost-charming, then definitely almost-not-tedious. He likes her well enough, and gradually becomes fond of her – comes even to love her, in his way.
When she becomes pregnant, Alistair lets out a relieved breath, feeling as if the most important objective of his reign has been met. But the day the child is born – a daughter – he demurs when it comes to choosing a name. Half the kingdom expects the girl to be named Moira, for the Rebel Queen; the other half expects her to be named Rowan, for Maric's beloved wife. Alistair is not fond of either name, and finally leaves it to his wife to decide.
In the end, she does not name the girl Moira, for the Rebel Queen, or Rowan, for Maric's wife.
She names the girl Elinora. For the hero.