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Hold My Heart

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On the day of her second wedding, Elissa Cousland woke to a pink dawn sky and Arlessa Isolde clucking over her like a hen, puffed up on her own self-importance. Isolde spoke rapidly to the servants, her ridiculous accent making Elissa long to cover her ears with a pillow and go back to sleep. Instead, she was roughly pulled from the warmth of her blankets and forced to undress and take a bath in the company of strangers.

The bath itself was fine enough—one maid rubbed sweet-smelling oil into her hair, while another tended to her nails. It was disconcerting to have so many people touching her and watching her, but Elissa had spent many days mentally preparing herself for the process of getting ready and getting married. As long as no unfamiliar men touched her, she’d be alright. Soon enough, she was clean enough to meet even Isolde’s standards, and it was time to be dressed.

First a thin shift of snowy linen, then her hair was combed out and dried, twisted atop her head with golden pins. Next, kohl was applied to her eyes, rouge to her lips and cheeks, all to enhance her “lovely Ferelden looks.” And then, finally, the dress. Even the Arlessa had to admit that it was beautiful. The low, scooping neckline was meant to show off the clean lines of shoulder, neck, and collarbone; the bodice meant to enhance Elissa’s sweetly curving body. The silk itself was a pure silvery-white, embroidered with shimmering gold thread in swirling designs of flowers and laurel leaves. To finish the look, a laurel crown, painstakingly crafted from gold and set with diamonds and pearls was placed upon Elissa’s dark head. And though Elissa did not feel much like a queen, she looked the part quite well indeed.

Once she was ready, Elissa was brought to a side room, just off the great hall. Isolde ordered her to wait there and not move; Fergus was to come soon to escort her down the aisle and give her to her new husband.

Elissa did not spend her time in that room, waiting for her brother, waiting to be married, crying and raging at the injustice of being married to a man who was already in love with someone else—a dead hero to whom Elissa could never compare. She did not think of her first husband, who had been three times her age, who had only ever shown her cruelty and pain. She did not think of the expectations of the people waiting in the great hall of the royal palace, or the crowd waiting in the streets to see their new queen. Instead, Elissa thought of Neria Surana, the Hero of Ferelden, with her dark eyes and her silver hair and sparking fingers. The woman Alistair Therin truly loved, who had been brave and kind. Who had saved Elissa from Rendon Howe and let her slit the bastard’s throat herself.

“I’m Elissa Cousland, rightful Teryna of Highever. Howe killed my family, raped me, and then married me so he could claim Highever for himself. If you help me kill him, I’ll support you in the Landsmeet and give you all the information I know about what he and Logain have been doing.”

Neria, small beside the armored bulk of a man that could only be Alistair Theirin, tilted her head and examined Elissa, almost birdlike in her movements and her bearing. Her other companions, a blond elf and a hornless Qunari both looked dubious.

“This could be another trick,” Alistair said softly. “Or a trap.”

But it was the elf Zevran who convinced Neria. “This woman bears signs of abuse, my friends. Look at her, how she cringes from us, the bruises on her face and her arms, the deep fear in her eyes. I do not think she is lying, and a firsthand witness to Howe’s crimes would be very useful indeed.”

The Qunari said nothing.

Finally, Neria nodded. “Zev, give her one of your daggers. Lady Cousland, come with us. We’re going to go make you a widow.”

Neria had saved her, had saved all of Ferelden. But she was dead and gone, her final act one of immeasurable sacrifice. And now Elissa was to marry Neria’s lover and become a queen.

Fergus came to escort his sister to her new husband before she could get too antsy. He didn’t tell her she made a beautiful bride; he didn’t say anything at all. He merely held out his arm. Obligingly, Elissa tucked her hand into the curve of his armored elbow, chainmail cold against her palm. Fergus always wore armor these days.

As they stood before the great double doors, Elissa’s stomach erupted into butterflies. She didn’t want to embarrass herself in front of all the noble families of Ferelden. She was barely nineteen and already a widow—having dispatched her previous husband herself—and yet the idea of making a mistake in front of so many people, people who she would rule as their queen, was suddenly terrifying. And Elissa knew she couldn’t turn to her brother for help. So, she took a deep steadying breath, rolled her shoulders back, and raised her head high. She was her mother’s daughter, after all.

The doors opened, and together Elissa and Fergus began the long walk forward. At the end of the aisle stood Alistair, clad in white and gold to match his bride, a golden crown resting on his golden hair. His hazel eyes were steady and serious, and his shoulders were tight with tension. Elissa knew he wished someone else was walking toward him to become his wife. Someone of slighter frame, with silver hair and delicately pointed ears. Instead it was Elissa, dark-haired, wide-hipped and human.

After what seemed an eternity, they reached the end, and Fergus handed Elissa off to Alistair. The Revered Mother, resplendent in her robes, smiled and began the service. She spoke for a while of the love between the Maker and Andraste, and how marriage was beautiful and precious. As she spoke, Alistair held Elissa’s hands loosely in his own, looking sad and pensive. And then came the time for the vows.

“I swear unto the Maker and the Holy Andraste to love and honor this woman the rest of my days,” Alistair intoned.

“I swear unto the Maker and the Holy Andraste to love and honor this man the rest of my days,” Elissa repeated.

The Revered Mother smiled fondly and held out her arms. “The Maker and Holy Andraste have heard your vows; may you never be foresworn. Let Ferelden greet it’s King and his new Queen!”

Still holding hands, Alistair and Elissa turned to face the witnesses of their joining; the crowd cheered and clapped—though when Elissa’s eyes found Fergus he looked terribly sad. She almost hated him, in that moment, her brother who had made this decision for her, without stopping to think of what she wanted. And she was maliciously glad that he was unhappy; it was spiteful, she knew, but she wanted him to be as miserable as her. One was supposed to be happy on their wedding day, but Elissa felt nothing but rage and pain and trepidation—the same as she had felt on her last wedding day. Once again, she was wed to a man she did not love, who did not love her either.

If he tries to rape me tonight, Elissa thought, I’ll kill him, damn the consequences. I will never submit to a man again.

*

The wedding feast took forever, course upon course of rich food that made Elissa queasy just looking at. Her head ached, and she was exhausted, the day a trial in playacting the dutiful bride. She picked at some of the simpler dishes served but didn’t eat much. She was rather the opposite of hungry. She didn’t drink much wine either, sipping instead at the sweet, non-alcoholic cider that she had favored since childhood. She could tell that it was made from apples from the Highever orchards and was absurdly grateful to whoever had thought of such a thing.

Once the feasting was over, the tables were pushed toward the walls of the great hall to make room for dancing. Minstrels took up their instruments and began to play. Alistair led her out onto the dance floor for their first dance as man and wife, as King and Queen of Ferelden. He held her carefully in the strong circle of his arms, keeping his grip on her loose but steady as he waltzed her around the room. He was a decent dancer, though Elissa figured he could use more practice. She was thankful he didn’t try to grope her.

They danced a bit more before Fergus cut in, and she and her brother did not speak for the entirety of their dance. She was then subjected to a dance with Eamon, and then Teagan before Bann Alfstanna offered her a hand. Alfstanna was a few years older than Elissa and a very fine dancer indeed. She led better than most men could dream of.

And when the dancing was done, Elissa and Alistair were led to the King’s chambers and left there with much laughter. The doors closed behind the raucous crowd with a low thump of finality and, for the first time, Alistair and Elissa were alone.

The room itself was quite nice, decorated with warm hues of red and gold and stone carvings of dogs and warriors and horses. The bed was a four-poster monstrosity, piled high with pillows and blankets. Before the wide fireplace was a bearskin rug. At the foot of the bed was a large wooden chest, and in the far-left corner, behind a screen decorated with images of the sea, was a copper tub big enough for at least two people. The room was bathed in the light of a roaring fire.

“I’m sorry,” Alistair said softly, once the noise in the hallway had faded.

Elissa raised her eyebrows, masking her surprise as best as she could. “Whatever for?”

“None of the Landsmeet thought to ask what you wanted. As Eamon explained to me, you were obviously the best choice to become my wife, the daughter of a Teryn as the previous Queen was, young but not too young, and known to be a dutiful daughter. When your name was suggested, your brother agreed right away, and nobody even bothered to wonder if the woman so recently widowed—by choice—would want to marry again,” the King explained, obviously having practiced this speech as some point.

“I…thank you for the acknowledgement, my lord. I didn’t think anyone would care. To be honest, I’m furious with my brother. He was able to marry for love, just as my parents were. My father swore that I would choose who I would marry, if I wanted to marry at all, but it seems that was not to be. I am not the first woman to be denied a choice in my marriage, but Fergus has denied me the right our parents gave him simply because I survived when his wife and son did not.” Elissa’s voice was filled with bitterness and edged with ice.

“I’m sorry,” Alistair said again, not knowing what else he could do.

For a long, tense moment, neither of them spoke, simply standing before the fire in their wedding finery. Alistair was gilded in the firelight, golden hair and golden skin and golden crown all seeming to declare that this man was born to be a king. Elissa could admit to herself that he was handsome—far more handsome than most of the men she’d known. And yet there was something unsettled in him, something she couldn’t quite place. An insecurity, a desperation; something deep inside him was broken. She wondered if he had always been that way, or if it was the loss of Neria that had hurt him so. Or perhaps some mixture of the two.

Alistair took a deep breath then let it out on a long exhale. “I’m not…I’m not going to hurt you, in case you thought I might. I don’t even know you, really, but I don’t want to hurt you. Zevran—the assassin who traveled with Neira and I—he said that you’d probably been hurt very badly and that you wouldn’t want to be touched or anything like that. He grew up in a whorehouse, so he considers himself an expert on women. Not that I’d ever compare you to a prostitute; you’re a lady—”

Elissa held up a hand to stop the rush of words. “My lord, it’s alright. I know you didn’t mean to insult me.” She felt mildly amused by his awkwardness, and it put her at ease. She was glad she wouldn’t have to slit his throat as she had her previous husband’s. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t touch me though. Your friend was right about that at least.”

He nodded. “You don’t have to call me by any titles—you’re Queen of Ferelden, my equal. Just call me by my name, and I’ll call you by yours. I’d…I’d like to be friends, if that’s at all possible.”

“Friends?”

Alistair nodded again.

“I think I’d like that…Alistair.”

“Then as your friend, I promise not to hurt you. And as your husband, I swear to protect you from those who would do you harm, and to destroy your enemies without mercy,” he said, his face uncharacteristically solemn.  

Then her husband grinned at her, and her heart fluttered at the kindness in his hazel eyes. Ruthlessly, she squashed the sentiment. Love is not for you, Elissa reminded herself. You stopped being capable of it when Howe destroyed Highever.

“There is one slight problem though,” Alistair said with a sigh.

“And what would that be?”

“The people eagerly waiting behind that door with their ears pressed to the keyhole are going to want something to prove that we consummated our marriage.”

Elissa paled, fear making her go cold, but then Alistair waggled his eyebrows at her, smile never wavering. He wasn’t going to hurt her.

“How loudly and dramatically do you think we can moan before they go away?”  

*

The soldier dragged her into the great hall, her mother behind her. They were probably going to die, Elissa knew, like Oren and Oriana. Both she and her mother were in their nightgowns, having been roused from their beds by the fighting. Elissa’s cheek ached from where a man had backhanded her with a mail-clad fist, and she was furious and mournful and plotting all the ways she might kill the traitorous Howe. Cutting open his belly and using his own entrails to hang him seemed like a good place to start.

“Ah, Eleanor and Elissa, how good of you to join us,” Howe said, a smile on his face. On the ground at his feet lay Elissa’s father, bleeding and near death. “I’m glad to see that my men followed my orders so well.”

“The Antivan whore and her whelp are dead, my lord,” the man gripping her arm reports.

“Wonderful. And all the servants and visitors too?”

“Indeed, my lord.”

“Good man! Now, Bryce, as I was saying, your life is forfeit, on account of you being a traitor to the crown. Highever is mine!”

Elissa bared her teeth at the older man and snarled, “Highever belongs to the Couslands! And my father is not a traitor! You’re a liar, and when King Cailan finds out what you’ve done here he’ll put your head on a spike, you treasonous bastard.”

Howe sighed in a very put-upon manner and walked slowly towards her. “Poor little Elissa. How sad I feel for you, that you have been so terribly deceived by your family.” He took her chin in his hand, fingers cold, and made her meet his icy eyes. “Fear not, my dear, you’ll survive this night.”

“Don’t touch her,” Bryce gritted out, a hand pressed to his stomach in a failed attempt to staunch the bleeding.

Howe laughed. “She’s mine to do with as I wish. And she’s partially right; I do need a more legitimate claim to Highever. Which is why, bright and early tomorrow morning, I am taking pity on my former friend’s disgraced daughter and giving her my own name to cover her family’s ignominy.”

Eleanor struggled against her own captor. “If you touch my daughter, snake, I’ll slit your throat myself,” the Teryna hissed.

The Arl made a derisive sound and released Elissa. He moved over to Eleanor, and in a single move, whipped a dagger from his belt and drew it across her white throat. Elissa screamed as her mother fell, screamed and screamed and didn’t stop until the soldier holding her knocked her into blessed unconsciousness.

Elissa woke with a muffled sob, terror clawing at her as she sat straight up in bed, legs tangled in the blankets. For a moment she couldn’t place herself, only knew that she was in an unfamiliar bedroom, an unfamiliar bed, and was not alone. She turned, ready to rip Howe’s throat open with her teeth to find that her bedmate was someone else entirely. It’s only Alistair, my husband, the King of Ferelden, she reminded herself. We were married yesterday, and he promised he wouldn’t hurt me.

She breathed a slow sigh of relief and sank back into the pillows. She was safe. Her heartbeat slowed from the pounding, panicked pace it had assumed during her nightmare and her fear receded. She was safe and Alistair wouldn’t hurt her. The room lightened at a snail’s pace, the dawn sun filtering through the curtains and bathing the room in a red-pink glow. After a long time, Alistair began to stir.

“Sleep well?” he asked, a gentle invitation to tell him about her nightmares.

“Well enough. And you?”

He sat up and shrugged. “I’m more used to bedrolls on the hard ground than featherbeds, but I suppose I’ll have to live with it.” He stood and stretched, muscles rippling with the movement—he’d slept shirtless, as was his habit, after asking Elissa if it was alright. Once again, she was struck by how handsome her husband was. He was much younger than Howe, and his shoulders were broader, his muscles more defined from carrying a longsword and a shield and wearing heavy plate armor. Alistair was more than just a king, he was a warrior through and through. And yet he also had a gentleness than many men lacked.

Elissa sat up and shook the thoughts from her head. Handsome as he was, the thought of those muscled arms holding her close was repugnant. Not because she hated him or thought him repulsive; it was simply the thought of any man touching her so intimately that bothered her. She wondered if she would ever feel any differently. She’d certainly like men before, and had flirted incessantly with Ser Gilmore, but now…now the very idea a sex made her want to vomit.

Alistair’s voice snapped her from her thoughts. “Elissa?”

She looked up. “Yes?”

“I was wondering if you wanted to come to the Council with me. You don’t have to, but I thought I should ask, just in case.”

Elissa shook her head. “I’d prefer not to; perhaps another time? But if you ever want my opinion on something important, all you need to do is ask. My mother advised my father quite often, as they were partners in everything. And they never disagreed in public—they always had their debates in private to create a unified front. Father never made a big decision without speaking to my mother first.”  

Alistair seemed to consider her words for a moment. “Is that what you want? To be my partner?”

 Elissa stood and wrapped her arms around herself. “I don’t know. It’s just…I spent the last year the unwilling wife of a monster. Now I’m married once more—not by choice—and I’ve barely had a moment to breathe. My whole life has just changed. I need some time before I can be the Queen Ferelden deserves. Does that make any sense at all?”

He felt a brief stab of pity, and an answering swell of sorrow at the grief in her voice. He missed Neria like someone else might miss a limb. When she’d died, it had felt like his world was gone, like he’d lost his right arm. Like his heart had been ripped out. Neria had been the first person to care about him aside from Duncan and losing her was the worst thing to ever happen to him. He’d never had a family, not really, but he’d lost the Grey Wardens at Ostagar, so he couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for Elissa to lose most of her family in one fell swoop, and then be raped and abused by their murderer for a year.

“Of course, it does,” Alistair said softly. “Take as much time as you need.”

Elissa granted him a small smile. “I know you’re new at this, though, so I’ll help you when you ask. Maybe when we have supper together you can give me a summary of what happened on the Council and if you need advice, I can give it to you.”

He answered her tentative smile with one of his own. “Thank you, Elissa.”

*

Elissa’s days fell into a routine: wake up, get dressed, eat, suffer the company of other noble women, try to run the castle only to have Isolde tell her she’s doing everything wrong, hide in the library, eat supper with Alistair, go to bed and have terrible nightmares. She spent the vast majority of her time either in the royal library or roaming the gardens. She knew that as the Queen, she should have been running the castle with the help of the Steward, but after two days of Isolde making very Orlesian, vaguely disapproving sounds at her, she’d given up and let the other woman have her way. Elissa was just too tired to deal with her bullshit—not that she would ever be able to say that to the woman’s face.

Alistair never failed to be kind to her, never failed to be understanding and gentle. He was still sad, still mourning the loss of his beloved Neria, but he was good to Elissa. He always asked for her opinions during their suppers together—they ate together privately most of the time, since big feasts were only for holidays and visiting dignitaries. She couldn’t say that she didn’t like him, as he was hard not to like. Sure, his sense of humor was a little juvenile and he didn’t know much about ruling, but he was a good man and she genuinely enjoyed their suppers together.

All this she pondered, two weeks after her wedding, sitting quietly in the library with a book open in her lap, when Alistair found her.

“Elissa?”

She looked up and found her husband standing in a puddle of sunlight. Her breath caught before she managed to stifle the swell of attraction beneath a wave of logic. “Good afternoon, my lord husband. Shouldn’t you be in Council with Arl Eamon?” she asked with a wry twist to her lips.

Alistair shrugged. “Maybe, lady wife,” he responded, grinning. “But I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Is everything alright?”

He sighed and his smile faded. “Well…there’s a bit of a situation. Anora is demanding to speak with you.” His hands clenched into fists, his frustration obvious. “She badgers her guards constantly, even though she has no right to anything. She’s a prisoner, damn it! And yet still she insists. Eamon said that I should just ignore her, but since it’s you she wants to talk to…it’s your decision, Elissa.”

She closed her book and folded her hands together on top of it. “Did she say why she wanted to speak with me?”

Alistair shook his head.

Elissa swallowed hard and decided. “I’ll go speak with her tomorrow, if only to make her stop bothering the guards. Anora’s a stubborn woman; she won’t stop until she gets what she wants.”

“Do you know her well?”

She shook her head. “Not well, no. I wasn’t at court as often as she was, and she’s older than me besides. We met a handful of times and didn’t spend much time in each other’s company; we were supposed to be rivals, you see.”

Alistair’s eyes widened. “Rivals?”

“That’s sort of how the cards fell. Both of us were the young, beautiful daughters of a Teryn. Before King Maric died, there was the question of who he might choose as a match for Cailan, me or her. But he died before any betrothal took place, and when Cailan was crowned, Anora was older and had been at court more often, so it was her he chose. I didn’t mind much, since I didn’t have any particular interest in ruling. I do wonder, though…”

“Wonder what?” Alistair queried.

“About six months before the Battle of Ostagar, my father was called to court by King Cailan. When he returned to Highever, he asked me if I had any interest in being married yet. And my mother hinted that after Ostagar everything would be different. It’s possible that Cailan was going to put Anora aside on the basis of her being barren, and was considering courting me,” Elissa explained, her voice soft.

“I had no idea,” Alistair murmured, sinking down onto his knees before her and taking her hands in his. “You don’t have to talk to her, Elissa. You don’t owe that woman anything.”

Gently, she squeezed his hands, noticing the rough callouses from years of wielding a sword. “I’ll be alright. And I am curious to hear what she has to say.”

*

There was a strange sort of irony in Alistair’s choice of where to keep the disgraced former-queen. She was incarcerated in Fort Drakon, given a room with iron bars on the windows and a heavy door that was barred and locked from the outside. She was allowed to walk around the battlements once a day, surrounded by guards, but otherwise was kept to her room. Elissa couldn’t help but be a little amused by the fact that the woman whose father had almost destroyed Ferelden had to live at the very site of Neria Surana’s greatest victory.

The two men guarding Anora’s door bowed low to Elissa when she arrived, their deference strangely comforting in the cool, shadowed halls of the fort. She was the Queen of Ferelden and she was in control. She nodded, and the door was unbarred, unlocked, and opened.

Inside, Anora Mac Tir was sitting gracefully on her bed, wearing a simple dress of rough, undyed wool. The two women could not have been more different. Anora was taller, with small breasts and slimmer hips, her yellow hair smoothly pulled back from her face. Her eyes were cold as ice. Elissa, meanwhile, was a little shorter, with a generous bust, wide hips, and hair the deep, rich brown of the fertile Ferelden soil.

Elissa squared her shoulders and gave Anora a look she’d learned from her mother, a sort of polite but simultaneously mocking smile that seemed to infer that the recipient was being foolish—Eleanor had used it all the time in Elissa’s younger days. “Lady Mac Tir, how lovely to see you again. I trust your accommodations are sufficient for a woman of your position. I was told you wanted to speak with me, but I haven’t any idea what we could possibly have to discuss.”

Anora’s pale blue eyes narrowed and her lips thinned in displeasure. “Lady Cousland, it is a pleasure to see you again as well. I had hoped we could have a heart to heart, a little chat between a benevolent queen and one of her subjects.”

“You should address me as ‘Your Majesty,’ and as a queen standing before one of her subjects, I can’t imagine any conversation we have being particularly productive. I have come to insist that you stop badgering the faithful men and women guarding you until you are ready to agree to His Majesty’s demands that you give up any entitlement to the throne. Your incessant whining exhausts the guards.”

A flush rose high on Anora’s pale cheeks and for a moment Elissa wondered if the older woman might leap up and try to throttle her. “How dare you—”

“I am the Queen of Ferelden,” Elissa said, soft and dangerous, remembering suddenly the person she had been before Arl Howe had broken her. She was the Seawolf’s daughter, for the Maker’s sake! “And you are nothing more than the daughter of a traitor.”

 “Alistair’s a usurper, and so are you!” Anora cried shrilly, finally standing.

Elissa ground her teeth together; she had been tempestuous once, and it seemed she would be again. “The only person this room who tried to usurp the throne of Ferelden is you. Your father committed regicide, and almost destroyed this kingdom. And you, Lady Mac Tir, let him! You have no right to the crown. It would have been another matter entirely if you had managed to give your husband a child—then you could have argued to be Queen-Regent—but you did not. Alistair Theirin is the rightful King, and no matter what you say or do your claim will always be illegitimate!”

For several moments, neither woman spoke. Then Elissa turned away toward the door, taking a deep breath. “I can only pray that you will come to your senses and give up your unlawful claims,” she tossed over her shoulder, making to leave.

“Your father must be so pleased,” Anora hissed, low and venomous. “He finally got what he wanted, a Cousland whore to rule beside a Theirin King. How sad that he didn’t live to see such a momentous occasion.”

Elissa pivoted sharply to face the older woman, rage overflowing like lava from a volcano. “My father wanted me to be happy,” she snarled. “He loved me, and I was more to him that just a means to fulfill his ambition.”

Anora took a step back like she’d been slapped and was finally, blessedly silent.

Elissa swallowed hard and turned once more to go. This time the former queen said nothing else to stop her, and she left the other woman in her cell-like-room. She did not look back, not once.