The ship rocked gently as it sailed over the Waking Sea, fair skies and brisk winds easing its passage. The crew went about their tasks as if this were a typical voyage, doing their best to ignore the passengers who had come up on the deck: passengers who happened to be the King of Ferelden and the Hero of Ferelden. They stood together at the rail and watched the horizon in silence until the cliffs of Highever finally appeared in the distance.
Moira Cousland leaned forward and stared hard at her home city, the place of her birth and too many deaths, then blinked as if to confirm it was really there. She had not seen Highever since Howe's invasion, over a year ago now. A part of her had wished she might never have to see it again, but that was foolish -- Alistair was king of this teyrnir, just as much as the rest of Ferelden, and soon she would be its queen. They were on the last of several visits to all the important nobles of Ferelden, and none were more influential than her brother. Not, she thought, that Fergus would offer anything other than loyalty, even if the king were not his future brother-in-law. But still, this visit mattered, if only for symbolic reasons. And Alistair had reasons of his own to want to come here.
Besides, she would always be a Cousland, Warden traditions or no Warden traditions. And Highever would always be her home, even if a seed of ice formed in her stomach every time she thought about it.
Alistair shifted close enough to put an arm around her shoulder. "Your home sweet home." He looked down at her as a wrinkle of concern appeared between his brows. "Or, maybe not so sweet."
Moira shrugged. "I won't pretend not to have mixed feelings. But it's still home. And it will be good to see Fergus."
"Mm." Alistair dropped a quick kiss on her temple. "I look forward to getting to know him." He turned to face the shore. "And to finding a place for this monument. Do you think the people of Highever will approve of a memorial to Duncan and the Grey Wardens?"
"If we convince Fergus, the people will follow." Moira leaned out over the water. She had been dreading this visit, but now that the city was this close, she found herself eager to get there. If only to get it over with.
As soon as the ship arrived, Moira disembarked and walked Fergus's waiting arms. Even from some distance out, Moira had seen her brother on the docks, pacing back and forth, shading his eyes with a hand and peering over the water. She'd waved, he'd waved back, and now she hugged him, heedless of appearances. It was the first time she had seen him since Alistair's coronation, in that moment of stunned joy upon discovering he had survived Ostagar. A little of that glow carried over now, and she tightened her arms around him.
"Welcome home, little sister," Fergus murmured, laying a hand on her hair before letting her go to turn his attention to Alistair, now descending the gangway. "Your majesty." He dropped to one knee and bowed his head, a fist over his heart.
"Rise, Teyrn Cousland," Alistair replied, holding out a hand. Fergus took it and stood up. "No need for the formalities, not when we're going to be brothers."
"Brothers," Fergus repeated with a soft chuckle, shaking his head. "You have no idea how much it tickles me to think about that. I gave up on having a brother-in-law of any station years ago. And then Moira brought home a king!" He bumped Moira at the shoulder; she crossed her arms and scowled at him.
"What, you mean Castle Cousland wasn't crawling with suitors?" Alistair asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Not in the least," Fergus chortled. "In fact, she--"
Moira turned a fierce glare on her brother. "Enough, Fergus," she grumbled. "We don't have time to get caught up in this foolishness."
Fergus held up open hands in surrender. "Whatever you say, little sister." He looked over her head to grin at Alistair, and Moira bit her tongue. Fine, they could have their fun. She'd find a way to get back at them later.
They walked through the streets slowly, Moira taking in all the buildings she'd known since childhood, standing side by side with the occasional recent addition. The city was remarkably whole in comparison to the smoking ruins of Denerim after the Blight. She commented on this, and Fergus nodded. "Thanks to your efforts, the darkspawn never made it here in full force. And Howe's men left the city alone, for the most part -- he wanted to control Highever, not destroy it. The castle, on the other hand..." His face twisted, and the smile he'd been wearing slipped for the first time. "It... wasn't pretty. The worst of the damage is under repair, but I fear it will never be quite the same."
Moira took a deep breath. "Maybe we should go there straight off, then. Get it over with."
"All right." Fergus stopped at the crossroads, the foot of the path that would take them up to the castle. Moira glanced up and over his shoulder -- from here it looked much the same, but for the scorch marks on one of the towers. "What else do you want to do while you're here? I've called some of the banns, for a welcoming ceremony and banquet tonight. I'll also need to put things in order so I can return to Denerim with you."
"And I appreciate that," Moira said, resting a hand on his sleeve again. "You coming to Denerim for the wedding, I mean."
"Of course," Fergus said, covering her fingers with his, smiling, though his eyes were sad. "Wouldn't miss it."
Moira squeezed his arm and let herself think about Oriana for the first time in months. Oriana, and little Orin... awful enough for her to live with their deaths; how devastated must Fergus be? "So, we have one other purpose while we're here: Alistair and I would like to create a monument to the Grey Wardens. The last Warden Commander, Duncan, was born here, and he was important to us both." Her mouth tightened at more memories of loss, of loneliness. "We let Ferelden forget the Wardens once before: who they are, what they do, the sacrifices they make to keep the rest of Thedas safe. It should never happen again."
"I think that could be arranged," said Fergus. "Duncan... is he the Warden who came to the castle? The one who got you away from Howe?" Moira nodded, and Fergus exhaled. "Then he saved your life, and I'd be happy to honor him for that alone."
"Thank you." The three of them continued on, walking close together, Moira drawing strength from her brother on the right and her lover on the left, bracing herself against the memories that flooded her at every turn. Nowhere was safe: here was the tea shop where she had sat long hours with Oriana; there the marketplace where Mother had brought her, unwilling, to select fabric for a gown; here the plaza where Father would meet with the townsfolk, dispensing informal justice and mercy. Justice... another memory sprang forth, unbidden: Rendon Howe, sprawling on the floor of his vile dungeon, spitting blood and cursing her name. That was followed by the inescapable image of her father's life spilling onto the kitchen floor, her mother by his side, her feet turning to stone as Duncan led her away...
"Moira?" Alistair's voice cut through the fog of visions, and only then did she realize that she had stopped in the middle of the street, her hands clenched into tight, hard fists. She shook her head sharply and looked up at him. He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, and she leaned as close as she dared in public; she wanted to fall into his arms, let his embrace wash it all away, but the memories would still be there, waiting for her.
"Sorry," she murmured. "This is-- harder than I thought it would be." She caught a sob in her throat and swallowed it down before continuing. "And I haven't even gotten into the castle yet."
He moved his arm around her shoulder for a quick hug into his side. "Take as much time as you need."
She shook her head again. "Better to get it done," she said, looking at Fergus for support, and he responded with a nod. He had done this, too -- and he'd been forced to do it alone. If he could stand this pain, so could she. With a deep breath, drawing strength from Alistair and the ground where they stood, she stepped free of Alistair's arm, putting one foot in front of the next, neither fighting the memories nor examining them too closely. Better to let them wash through her than to be paralyzed again.
In this way they reached the entry to the castle, where guards wearing Highever colors stood at either side of the archway. They saluted her as the portcullis was raised, and they walked inside. Soldiers in assorted livery milled about the courtyard. Moira checked their sigils, curious to see who had answered the summons. She wondered if Amaranthine had sent a representative, but she saw neither the bear of the arling nor the silver griffon of the Wardens. Probably they had other things to worry about than propriety. Too bad she couldn't get away with that excuse.
She stepped onto the grounds and let the memories follow her in. Alistair brushed the back of her hand with his fingers, then stepped forward to become the king, accepting the bows and good wishes of the soldiers. Already, he wore the mantle of kingship well, and Moira's heart swelled with pride to watch him. Focus on that, she told herself: Alistair, his rule, their future. With a silent nod to herself, she stepped forward, made herself smile and held out her hand to the nearest envoy. "Thank you for coming," she said. "Be welcome here, in the name of Teyrn Cousland and the king."
As she walked away from the central hall that night, Moira finally allowed the leaden smile to slip from her face. Hours and hours of talking, eating, drinking, and gossip weighed on her almost as heavily as the ghosts that confronted her at every turn. This was the last place she had seen Nan. Here was the ruin of the library, where old Aldous had gently lectured her so many times. The kitchen, and Ser Gilmore's mighty battle with the rats... All night, she had allowed the memories to pass through without letting them affect her, but now she would have to face them down.
And then she jumped out of her skin as a hand closed around on her elbow. "Easy, my dear, it's only me." Her breathing settled as she registered Alistair's touch, and he moved his hand to her back, gently tracing a circle with his palm. "Which way to my lady's chamber?"
"That way," Moira replied, with a reluctant jut of her chin to the left. "But-- I don't know if I want to sleep there."
"Ah." Alistair's nod was knowing, sympathetic. "Well, this place is huge. Almost as big as the palace. Could we find another room that's less fraught?"
Moira let out a heavy sigh. "I doubt such a place exists in Castle Cousland. My parents' rooms would be even worse, and all the guest bedrooms are likely taken up by other visitors. No, I have to face this. Just like everything else. Come." She took his hand, clinging to his fingers, and pulled him down the hall, putting one foot in front of the other until she reached the door to her room.
Some part of her expected to see dead soldiers scattered across the floor, tapestries and carpets still smoldering from the flames, bloodstains on the walls. It was, of course, ridiculous -- the new servants had scrubbed the castle top to bottom months ago, and replaced most of the furnishings. But the portrait that hung across the hall from her room was scorched, forever stained by smoke. What other signs of the tragedy remained?
With a shake of her head, she let her hand fall on the doorknob that separated her from her room. The last time she stood here had also been with a lover in tow, and the castle had been filled with soldiers sworn to another man; a shiver raced down her spine and froze her in place. "I can't," she whispered.
Alistair's hand fell on her shoulder, and she leaned back against him, strong and tall. "You can," he said gently. He covered her hand with his, and together they turned the knob and pushed the door open.
The room was dimly lit by the fireplace, already banked for the night. Moira let go of Alistair and took a few steps into the center of the room, turning around in a slow circle in the middle. Eerie, how little had changed: the same bed against the wall, same furniture, same books on the shelves, same wardrobe with most of the same clothes inside -- she had run with only the armor on her back, and once settled in Denerim it had seemed easier to have all new clothes made, in styles more befitting of a queen. Looking closer, she could see smoke damage on some of the book spines, and the rug had been changed -- it was too new, threads bright against the stone floors and the dingy wall hangings. Probably too hard to get all the bloodstains out.
"So," Alistair said. "This is where you grew up?"
Moira nodded, not trusting her voice. Alistair walked over to the window overlooking the courtyard; it was closed, and he pushed it open, letting a flood of fresh air in. She took a deep breath, cleansing her lungs of the stuffy great room of tonight, the remembered acrid burn of a year ago. "I moved to this room from the nursery when I was too young to remember," she said. "Into that same bed. I would come here after dinner, and the servants would bank the fire, and then my father-- my father--" She stopped, let her head swim for a moment, leaning her hand on the bedpost for support. "If Father was home, he would come in and read to me, or tell me stories. I always liked the stories about battles the best." She sat down on the edge of the bed. "That was before I knew what war was really like."
Alistair sat down next to her and rested a hand on her knee. "Someday, if we're lucky, our children will ask you for war stories, and you'll give them expectations just as unrealistic."
"If we're lucky," Moira echoed, softly. Very lucky. Not a subject she really wanted to open tonight. She leaned her head on his shoulder. "I wish you could have known my father. He'd have liked you, I think." She swallowed down the hitch in her throat.
"I'd say the same, but you probably knew King Maric about as well as I did," Alistair replied, with a hard chuckle. "Weren't he and your father friends?"
"They were, and I met him a few times, but I was too young to ever speak with him, really. And even then, Father knew that diplomacy wasn't my strong point."
"You don't say," Alistair drawled. She punched his thigh; he laughed, then kissed her forehead. "It's all right, love; you make up for it with your other talents."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "Such as?"
He cupped her cheek in his strong hand. "Shall I start listing them?" He kissed her forehead again, then the bridge of her nose, then her brow as her eyes fluttered closed. "It might take all night."
Moira wound her hands around the back of his neck. "I have no problem with that."
"Mmm." He brought his lips to hers for a long, tender kiss. "Then we'd best get started." He leaned her back against the bed, kissing her all the way, rolling on top of her; she freed his bound hair and buried her fingers in it, tangling arms and legs and bodies, letting Alistair's bright warmth banish the cold dark memories that lurked in the night air.
"Good morning, sister." Fergus slid into the chair across the table from Moira, who looked over her cup of tea with a nod. "Sleep well?"
"Surprisingly so." Moira took another drink of her tea, then set the cup down. "I wasn't sure I was going to, with everything going on."
Fergus lifted his own tea and grinned at her. "So that king of yours is good for something, then."
Moira grabbed a roll from the nearby basket and tossed it at his nose; he caught it instead and split it in half to butter it, still grinning. "Don't start with me," she said.
"All right, all right." Fergus held up his hands in surrender. "But can you blame me? I'm just glad to see you happy."
"I know, and I appreciate it, especially since you..." Moira’s eyes were drawn to the empty chairs across the table, and she shifted awkwardly in her seat.
Fergus reached out to cover her wrist with his hand. "It's okay, you can say it. I won't break."
Moira lifted her eyes to him; his face was sad, but calm. "But I might. You know I-- found them. Mother and I. Before Father, before he--" She stopped, not trusting her voice to continue, and Fergus squeezed her wrist harder. "I'm sorry, Fergus."
He nodded and looked away. "It was hard. Sometimes it still is. I keep expecting to see Oriana around every corner, Orin playing in the nursery, Mother and Father at the table each night. But I feel it a little bit less every day." He let go of her hand with a sigh. "I wonder if it's harder for you. I've had to accept that they're gone in order to carry on with my life. Otherwise I'd never get anything done. You've been so far away, and so busy, it's easier for you ignore it and pretend nothing ever happened."
"Maker knows I had more than enough distractions." Moira leaned back in her chair. "But I'm trying not to do that anymore. Being here makes it more real. More-- final. Much as I hate it, I think you're right: it's what I need."
"Along with a certain someone, who I'm certain serves as both support and distraction." Fergus winked, and Moira rolled her eyes. "Speaking of whom, where is His Majesty this morning?"
"Up and out," Moira replied. "He's the earliest riser I've ever met. Up with the dawn to eat his first breakfast, and then he hit the practice yard."
Fergus raised an eyebrow. "First breakfast?"
Moira nodded. "Didn't you get my message about laying in an extra food supply? Grey Wardens -- we eat. A lot."
"So I noticed," Fergus replied with a laugh and a nod at her own cleared breakfast plate. "You put away quite a bit at dinner, too." Moira flung another roll at him, and he caught it, then tossed it back. "I think you need that more than I do."
She glared at him, but she also took a bite out of the roll. "Wardening looks good on you," Fergus said. "Almost as good as being queen will."
Moira shuddered, and set down the rest of the roll, uneaten. "I'm not crossing that bridge yet. Anyway. Shall we meet at the gates in an hour? I want to start scouting for a place to put the monument today."
"Of course. See you there." Fergus sipped from her tea and smiled at the maid delivering his breakfast plate as she left the dining room to go find Alistair.
As it happened, the three of them were drawn into conferences with the visiting banns that lasted all of that day and much of the next. It wasn't until the morning of their planned departure that Moira and Alistair were free to walk the streets of the city, searching for the right spot to place a monument to Duncan and the Grey Wardens. Fergus had begged off, citing the need to prepare for the voyage back to Denerim, so it was just the two of them leaving the castle, already dressed in traveling clothes for their turn around the streets.
Although it had been only a few days, Moira was feeling more comfortable in Highever. Maybe next time it would be easier to come back. Still, it was a relief to get out of the castle and know she had no obligations until they were ready to leave -- after all, the king's ship would hardly depart without the king on board. She stood at the edge of the courtyard, looking out over the cobblestone street that led into town.
"I know this has been difficult for you," Alistair said, "but I find I'm really enjoying this trip. It's nice to get away from Denerim, get a change of scenery. And have some quality time with you."
"For me, too," Moira admitted. She twisted her head back around to watch the Cousland banner ripple in the breeze. "It still hurts to think about my family, but I feel closer to them, too. The good times come to mind more easily than they did." She laid her hand on the stone wall of the castle gate. "I hope that's still true when we get home."
Alistair raised an eyebrow at her. "Home?"
Moira half-smiled. "I suppose it is."
He smiled back at her, then took a deep breath of the morning air. "So. What's your favorite place in town?"
"The market square where Father would hold his informal court," Moira replied. "But Fergus has already claimed that space for a statue of him."
"Of course." Alistair held out his arm, and she settled a hand in his elbow. "The memory of your parents should take priority." The two of them started walking down the path. "Where else, then?"
Moira considered the question. She had not spent much time in the city as a girl, preferring either the castle or the back country. "Let's just walk around until something catches our eye."
"Lead on, my dear." Alistair gestured down the street, and she tugged at his arm to pull him around the corner, in the direction of the waterfront. After half an hour of wandering, they found themselves in a smaller market square, between an imports shop and a washing house. The central plaza was vacant, and Alistair walked into the center, making a slow circle around the empty spot.
"This spot." Alistair looked down the street that led straight from the plaza to the docks, the choppy waters of the sea visible beyond, the mountains of Orlais a shadow in the distance. Then he turned to Moira. "Yes. This is the place."
Moira stepped closer to Alistair and let him drape an arm around her shoulder. "I think so, too," she said. "Let everyone who docks in Highever see that Duncan and the Grey Wardens are remembered here."
He planted a kiss on the crown of her head. "Thank you for your help," he murmured. "I know how hard it is for you to be here."
"It's all right. I had to face it eventually." She shrugged, but didn't let him let her go, locking her hand tightly in his all the way back to the ship that would take them from this haunted place and back to Denerim. Home now, even if part of her heart would always be here. Whether she willed it or not.