Anora Mac Tir sat on a bench in the palace gardens. Next to her was Faline, daughter of Bann Sighard, prattling on as usual about how beautiful Prince Cailan was and how lucky Anora was to be promised to him. Anora paid her little attention. The marriage contract between herself and Cailan was an accepted fact, and she liked Cailan, although she found him a bit childish at times. But his attentions, practiced though they were, didn't cause her heart to pound in her breast or her secret bits to throb the way they did when a certain other noble's son was around. Today she waited in the garden for just a glimpse, knowing that he and his family would be leaving later that day to return to their home in Highever.
Faline's voice fell on her ears like the hum of a mosquito, and it was as much as Anora could do not to snap at the girl, "If you like him so much, you go and bed him! I'm sure he'd be willing!" It was no secret to Anora that Cailan was preparing himself for their eventual wedding night by lavishly spreading his affections around. She might well be the only noble's daughter he wouldn't have had by the time of their wedding. And that was just fine with her, because she'd have given all of Cailan's expert but mechanical groping for just one masterful kiss from Fergus Cousland.
No sooner had Anora thought his name than he appeared, his arm around his coltish little sister. How Anora envied their family closeness! Her father had barely put up with her mother, and he treated Anora herself with rough courtesy. That Loghain was proud of her, Anora had no doubt. That he loved her? She couldn't have said for sure. But the Couslands flaunted their happiness with each other, with all their little jokes and casual affection.
As Anora had hoped, the moment the Couslands appeared Faline rushed toward Fergus's sister Elissa. What the girls saw in each other Anora didn't know—Faline was all swoony and boy-crazy and Elissa had eyes only for the boys' armor and weaponry—but their friendship suited her purposes right now. She stood up, wiping her suddenly sweaty palms on her skirt when she saw Fergus's warm smile turned directly on her.
"My lady," he said. "It's a fine day to be sunning yourself in the garden."
"It is," she said, and could have kicked herself. It is? What a thing to say. Truly scintillating. He'd never forget her. "I understand you'll be leaving soon."
"Yes. Later today." His eyes rested on hers with warmth that she hoped she wasn't imagining. "I'm sorry to go. It's … lovely here."
"Yes, but I expect it will be cloudy after you've left," she said,falling into step beside him. Her heart fluttered in her chest. Had he understood what she meant?
"A very kind thing to say," he said stiffly. "I'm sure Prince Cailan would be happy to manufacture some sunshine for you."
"Artificial, at best, my lord," she whispered. "No substitute for true warmth."
He swallowed visibly. "My lady," he said, "I had no idea. I … "
"No. You couldn't have," she said. Her blue eyes welled with tears. "There would be no point. My … heart is not mine to give."
"Nor is mine," he said. At her swift intake of breath, he nodded. "Yes, when I return to Highever, my bride will be waiting for me. She is from Antiva, a lovely lady. But, as you say … no substitute for true warmth."
Their eyes met. Screened by the rosebushes, Fergus's hands gripped her waist, pulling her close to him, and his mouth came down on hers, hot and forceful. It was just the way she had always imagined it, passionate and strong and causing her body to ache for him to touch her intimately. None of Cailan's elegant teasing. Fergus was all man, and he made Anora want to rip her dress off and have him right here in the garden.
Just as Fergus's hands began to move, Anora heard his father's booming voice in the garden, calling for him. They broke apart, breathing heavily, staring at each other. "My lady," Fergus said in a tone of great regret.
"My lord," Anora said sadly. He left the corner by the rosebushes, and Anora waited a few minutes until she was sure he was gone before she left, too.
She heard of his wedding not long after that, and then he and his wife came to hers. She'd heard they had a child together, and she envied them that happiness. In a different world, that little boy could have been her child. Instead, she had Cailan's constant demonstrations of his prowess and nothing to show for it but the whispers and rumors. It had been a year—why had she not conceived yet? Of course, she was fairly certain none of Cailan's other lovers had conceived, either, and she suspected if one of them did find herself quick with the King's bastard, Anora would be the first to hear of it. She'd already had one of the elven servants approach her about buying the human child of one of the chits in the Alienage and passing it off as her own.
Cailan was away right now, visiting Orlais. Anora suspected she knew exactly what was happening there—she'd heard about the Empress's appetite for fine things, and there was no question that Cailan was a fine thing, skilled in all the right ways. The Empress must be savoring him. While Anora sat around in damp, cold Denerim, clinging pathetically to the memory of one kiss.
Not that she hadn't had offers, mind you. Tempting ones, even. But there was definitely a double standard: Cailan could play around as much as he wanted, and no one would say him nay, but let there be the smallest rumor that Anora had smiled over-enthusiastically at someone and in would come Cailan, stumbling over his tongue to suggest she be more discreet, and then her father, with that sharp, disappointed look. She'd never met anyone who seemed to be worth the bother.
The afternoon was growing late. Anora sighed, supposing she should think about calling down to let the kitchen know she was ready for her meal. It was no fun eating alone. It was the mealtimes she truly missed Cailan—he could be very funny, and she enjoyed his company when it was just the two of them, no need for him to show off for anyone. It wasn't his fault that she found him more like a brother than a lover.
She turned restlessly away from the window as a knock sounded on the door. "Come in," she called.
One of the maids poked her head in. "Your Majesty, one of the nobles is here to see you."
"Oh? Which one?" She was sure it must be Wulff, depressing old man that he was.
Anora's heart leaped into her throat. For a moment she wasn't sure she had heard correctly. Then, eagerly, "Show him in, please."
She heard his boots echoing on the stones of the corridor before she saw him in the doorway, a warm smile on his face. "Your Majesty."
The door closed behind him, the servant's footfalls dying away down the hallway.
"What brings you to Denerim, my lord?"
"I do wish you would call me Fergus, Your Majesty."
"And I wish you would call me Anora."
"And there we are," he said, his voice drawing the smile out of her. She must look like a fool, she thought, standing here grinning at him.
"Won't you come in? I was … just going to ring for dinner. Will you join me?" She held her breath, hoping for the answer.
"I don't mind if I do."
Anora ordered the food, hoping the flush she felt wasn't obvious to the servant. "What brings you to Denerim?" she asked while they were waiting for the meal to be brought in.
"Picking up some new armor for our men," he said. "Father decided quite a few sets needed upgrading, and Master Wade is the best."
"So I've heard. C-Cailan gets all his armor there."
"He does have … very good taste." Fergus's eyes darkened, and she wondered if they were still talking about armor.
At that moment, the dinner was brought in, and the two of them sat down to eat. They ate quietly for some time. Finally, swallowing her last bite of chicken, Anora said, "So, wh-what brings you to the Palace?"
Fergus drained his wine glass. "I heard Cailan was in Orlais. Officially, Father is concerned about Cailan's interest in the Empress."
"I don't believe he's made any kind of agreement there," Anora said, feeling somewhat let down. What had possessed her to think he might be here to see her? "There have been rumors of darkspawn to the south. Cailan is hoping there will be a reason to bring some more Grey Wardens into Ferelden. You know how he is about them."
"Yes." Fergus nodded. "I'm afraid if he does have the chance to fight darkspawn the experience won't be everything his imagination has painted it."
"What is?" She flushed, looking away. Her imagination had painted scenes like this one many times. Would there be any chance to experience the reality? Certainly not if she didn't say anything. "You said you were here officially for your father's concern about Orlais. What about unofficially?" She held her breath.
"I— I wanted to see you." Their eyes met, his voice grown husky.
"There have been … rumors. That Cailan is meeting with the Empress over more than just state business. Rumors that Eamon Guerrin is pushing to have your marriage annulled because you haven't produced an heir."
Anora looked away, flushing, but with embarrassment or disappointment she didn't know. She should have known Fergus was too honorable to come here with anything less straightforward on his mind. "I have heard those rumors as well," she said coolly, standing up. "I am not concerned. My father has a great deal of influence over Cailan. He would not allow it."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you. I just wanted to make sure you knew. And that you were okay."
"I am, thank you. Is that really all you came for?"
Fergus stood up, as well. "To tell you the truth, Anora, I don't really know why I came. It's just … I was here, you were here. And I've never forgotten you. Seems strange, doesn't it, how one kiss can stay with you?"
"It does," Anora said. She swallowed, taking a step toward him. "Do you ever wonder if we imagined … how good it was?"
"Yes," he said. With that one word, he closed the distance between them. He took her face in his hands and their mouths met hungrily. Anora slid her arms around his waist, her body aching to get closer to his. Fergus's hands moved down over her back. Where Cailan's touch was pleasantly warm, like sunshine, Fergus's was fire. Her hands tangled in his black hair, relishing his moan. Cailan hated to have her touch his hair or have his hair mussed in any way. It was his pride. Fergus's slightly overlong locks were just right to weave her fingers through, pulling herself as close to him as she could get with all the layers of clothes between them.
Her body was burning for his touch, everywhere, anywhere, on her bare skin, but from somewhere she dredged up the willpower to step back. "Fergus," she said, panting. "This …"
"Is not right. I know," he said, his voice hoarse. "If things were different, Anora—"
She nodded, afraid to trust her voice, afraid that if she opened her mouth it would be to ask him to stay anyway, honor be damned.
He left without saying anything more, and Anora went back to waiting for Cailan to come home, wishing for things she couldn't have.
Anora was at breakfast when the messenger came. She heard him coming down the hall, heard her seneschal half-running with him, and she was standing when they burst into her chamber, waiting with her heart in her throat for the news. It would be bad. If it wasn't, there would have been no need for the messenger.
He was filthy, his clothes covered in blood and mud and who knew what else, and nearly asleep on his feet, swaying as he stood.
"Please, sit down," she said. "You've come very far. Your news can wait a moment while you get your breath."
"Your Majesty," he said. "Your Majesty, you can't imagine—the battle, it was … The darkspawn … " His eyes, wild and haunted, met hers. But he sat, taking the place on the satin-covered settee that she pointed out to him, slumping back against the cushions. At any other time, she would have been concerned about the stains on the delicate and costly material, but not now. Not when it was clear something had gone horribly awry with Cailan's grand battle, and the only question was how devastating the news would be.
The messenger looked up at her, some of the hysteria clearing from his gaze. "Now," she said, gripping the back of a chair to steady herself. "Tell me."
"The battle … King Cailan is dead," the messenger blurted. Anora closed her eyes, stiffening, the words hitting her like a blow. Neither of them had thought Cailan could die. Not Cailan the vibrant, always bigger than life, always thinking he was in control. "The Grey Wardens are dead with him."
"All of them?"
"So it would seem. There may be a few survivors on the battlefield, but not many. And the darkspawn … I pity any survivors. We dared not get close enough …"
"The King's body? Did you retrieve it so he can be sent to the Maker properly?"
The messenger looked away. No, then. They had been that afraid of the darkspawn?
"What of my father?" Anora asked urgently. A world without Cailan was hard enough to imagine. A world where Loghain allowed himself to lose a battle to darkspawn? Inconceivable.
"Your father lives, Your Majesty. He and his troops were not in the battle."
Not in the battle? Surely that couldn't be right. Why would the Hero of River Dane miss out on the greatest battle since the rebellion?
The messenger went on, "I believe the Teyrn intends to return to Denerim, but it was thought necessary you should be informed of the King's death immediately."
"Thank you," she said automatically, her mind trying to picture Cailan dead on a battlefield somewhere. "What of the other troops?" she asked. "Redcliffe, Highever, Amaranthine? Did they not arrive in time?"
The messenger looked uncomfortable. "Redcliffe's troops never came. There are rumors Arl Eamon is deathly ill. Amaranthine's troops never arrived, either." He fidgeted slightly. "Highever's troops were there, under the Teyrn's son, Fergus Cousland. They were on the battlefield—there is little hope that any of them survived. And there are further rumors that Highever Castle was attacked. I'm told the family was … killed. All of them."
Anora didn't speak for a long moment, stiffening her knees, which wanted to buckle beneath her. As hard as it was to picture Cailan dead, it was impossible to imagine the fire that was Fergus quenched forever.
She swayed, clutching the chair back. Cailan and Fergus, both gone. Her father somehow inexplicably not in the battle, all the Couslands killed? If she didn't know better, she'd have thought it a nightmare. Only a few days ago Cailan had kissed her good-bye for the last time, with his bright smile and easy laugh walking out the door toward the glory he'd always dreamed of. At least he died in battle, she thought. He'd have liked that, dying next to his beloved Grey Wardens.
What did this mean for her, she wondered. Was she Queen now? The throne hers? What to do about the darkspawn? The future lay ahead of her, empty without the boyish charm of the man she'd called husband, without the clever dark face of the man she'd longed for. The kingdom would have to be what she lived for now.
She'd had a lot of time to brood, sitting there in that tiny little room in Arl Howe's estate. Brood over the mess left behind by the battle of Ostagar, over the future she couldn't seem to take charge of.
Her father had come back from the battle a changed man—angry, paranoid, desperate to lock the country down in the little box he'd made for it, make it what he thought it should be. He blamed Cailan's death on the Grey Wardens, said that Duncan, the Grey Wardens' leader, had goaded Cailan into battle, and that Loghain kept his troops out of the battle because it was the only way to save them. But Anora didn't like his tone, or his eyes, which no longer met hers the way they used to. She certainly didn't like his toady, Arl Howe. Was that because Howe was so proud of having wiped out the Couslands? He claimed Bryce Cousland had been a traitor, making secret deals with Orlais. But Anora didn't believe that of Teyrn Cousland. She was secretly glad Fergus had been killed on the battlefield, just so he didn't have to know what had happened to his family.
Howe's words echoed sibilantly in her father's ears, making Loghain turn ever farther in Howe's direction. She didn't know what they were doing in the Alienage, what they were doing in the rest of the country, what their plan was against the darkspawn. Cailan, Anora reflected, had been a playboy and a bed-hopper, but he had respected her. They had both known who the real decision-making power behind the throne rested with, that Cailan was a flashy figurehead and little more. He hadn't wanted more, had been happy to bring his problems to Anora to solve. But Loghain—who claimed to hate politics and running a country as much as Cailan had—pushed her aside, patting her head, telling her that to him she was still 6 years old and in pigtails. He didn't seem to believe otherwise, and she found herself thrust aside, with no say over the decisions made on behalf of the country that called her Queen.
To add to it all, rumors flew that two of the Grey Wardens had survived the battle, and that one of them, however improbably, was a bastard son of Maric's. It was whispered that the Grey Wardens had been to the Temple of Andraste, that they had brought back the sacred ashes of the Maker's bride herself to heal Arl Eamon of his illness, and that now Eamon was pushing to have Maric's son take the throne. Anora supposed she could understand that—but what would happen to her? Without the crown, without the throne, she would be only Teyrn Loghain's daughter, exiled back to Gwaren with nothing to do but listen to her father brood. The thought was enough to make her wish she'd died on the battlefield with Cailan and Fergus.
Standing, she straightened her shoulders. Neither Cailan nor Fergus would have allowed themselves to be pushed aside this way. She would not allow this to occur any longer—she would be worthy of them. One way or another, she'd fight for her kingdom and her place in it.
Anora walked out of the Landsmeet on unsteady legs. There had been little surprise—the Grey Warden was a person of honor, and had kept her word. Anora would remain queen, but at the price of marrying Alistair, Maric's bastard son. She wondered what Cailan would have said about this heretofore unknown brother. They were similar in looks, similar in their inability to be serious when there was a joke to be made, but this Alistair seemed both more mature and more naïve than Cailan had been. Was that a result of not having been raised in the castle? Anora wasn't sure. She thought she could put up with Alistair, at least, and pretended she didn't see the desperately unhappy looks between him and his fellow Grey Warden. So their feelings had to take a backseat to the needs of the kingdom; this was nothing new. They'd get over it. Or they wouldn't. Either way, the country would go on.
She raised a hand to her face, and it came away sticky with blood. Her father's blood, which her future husband had spilled in front of her. Alistair blamed the deaths of the Grey Wardens at Ostagar on Loghain. That was fair. Possibly it was true. And the Grey Warden had warned Anora that Loghain's life was almost certainly forfeit for his crimes against the nation—not just Ostagar, but the sale of the elves as slaves to the Tevinters, the free rein he had given to Rendon Howe to murder and torture Fereldan citizens, the poisoning of Arl Eamon to neutralize him. And Anora didn't disagree, not entirely. Her father wasn't the man who had raised her, not anymore. But she hadn't expected Alistair to strike off his head in the midst of the Landsmeet! Cailan would never have done that. She couldn't decide if the decision showed Alistair to be a stronger man, or a heedless and impulsive boy. Either way, she had stared down at her father's dead face and for a moment it had been Cailan's, and then Fergus's, and she had very nearly thrown up right there in the middle of the Landsmeet.
Stumbling forward, Anora tried to put her past behind her. They would defeat these darkspawn; they would put the country back together; she would marry Alistair and try to bear him children. That would be her life, and she would try to pretend that neither of them had ever wanted anything more.
Standing on the balcony outside her rooms, Anora looked out over Denerim, the city loud with the knocking of hammers and the shouting of those trying to put the city back together. The darkspawn had reduced much of the city to rubble; Anora was lucky to still have a castle. But it had cost her another man. Cailan, Fergus, Loghain, and now Alistair, who had run across the roof of Fort Drakon to prevent the Grey Warden from killing the Archdemon and sacrificing herself. The Grey Warden, her face drawn and pale with grief, had been unable to speak of it, but the companions the two had gathered around them had been filled with the tales—the romantic last moment, the Wardens' last kiss, Alistair's face as he slew the great dragon. Anora tried to feel badly for them, but all she could think of was that she never got a last kiss. Or a chance to say good-bye. To any of them.
And when they had left her alone, she had allowed herself a certain amount of relief, that she was freed from the restraints and obligations of another marriage to a man she didn't love. She remembered Cailan with affection and warmth; she respected Alistair for what he had done for the country and his obvious devotion to what he'd seen as his duty.
But her heart still lay somewhere in the Korcari Wilds with Fergus Cousland, and despite her feelings of renewal as she stood in the sun looking out over her city, that wound was no closer to healing. Would it ever?
There was a knock at her door, and she left the balcony to open it herself. They were a bit short of servants these days, with Denerim in such a shambles.
She caught her breath, sure that she must be hallucinating. "F-Fergus?" He had a patch over one eye and looked much older than he had the last time she'd seen him, but he was there, standing in her doorway. "Fergus!" Tears spilled down her cheeks.
"Anora," he said simply. "I wasn't sure …"
"That I'd still be here?"
"Among other things."
"I am," she said, her fingers trembling to touch him. "I'm here, Fergus. And you—you're not dead."
"No. It was a near thing, but … the Chasind found me. I spent months in their hut, recovering." He put a hand up to his eye.
"Have you … heard?"
"Which part?" He gave a short, harsh laugh. Anora remembered herself at last, stepping aside to let him into the room. "I've heard that my family was slaughtered; that my parents were accused of being traitors to the crown; that Teyrn Loghain left us all to die at Ostagar because he had some crazed idea that the Grey Wardens were planning to let the Orlesians take over the country." He moved with a slight limp, she noticed. "I've also heard that King Maric had a bastard son who survived Ostagar as a Grey Warden; that this son was set to become King and marry the Queen," he looked directly at her, but she couldn't read anything in the look, "and that he died killing the Archdemon and saving us all."
"Did you hear that he killed my father?"
"Yes. I'm sorry about your father, Anora. And about Cailan."
"I'm sorry about your family. Have you … been back to Highever?"
"Yes. There was … nothing to build a pyre for. I have to hope they all found the Maker on their own," he said.
"I'm sure they have," Anora said. She raised a hand, wanting to touch him, to feel that he was really real, really alive, really there. But was he there for her? Would he shrink from the touch of Loghain's daughter? Her father was directly or indirectly responsible for all that Fergus had suffered. There was a silence. She wanted to ask so many things, but didn't know how.
He turned to her. "You must be wondering what I'm doing here."
"Not exactly the way I would have put it," she said breathlessly, taking a step toward him.
"When I woke up in that Chasind hut, I couldn't remember who I was. The only name I could recall … was yours. I tried to tell myself later that I had just mispronounced my wife's name. Oriana, Anora, they're not that different. And I cared for her. She was a good wife and a good mother. But the truth is that I—love you. I have ever since that day in the garden, so long ago."
"I love you, too," she said, not caring that the tears were falling again. She reached out, taking his hands in hers.
"Have you run out of Maric's sons to marry?'
"It seems so," she said, laughing through the tears.
"Then … will you have me, scarred and incomplete as I am?" His hands trembled in hers.
"Oh, yes, Fergus! Yes," she said. Gripping his hands more tightly, she tried to convince herself that this moment was really happening, that after all the time spent wishing and grieving and dreaming he was alive and he was hers.
Chuckling, Fergus touched the side of her face. "Trying to convince yourself you're not dreaming? Me, too."
"Then let's not waste any more time," she said softly. "We've let too many opportunities pass us by already. However long this one lasts, I don't want to miss a moment of it." She stretched up, touching her lips to his.
Fergus moaned deep in his throat, his arms pulling her to him as he deepened the kiss, his tongue finding hers. The heat swept through her, all the stronger because she no longer had to deny it or give it up. This fire was hers to keep.