It was only when I was through the door that I could relax. There was no question that this was Zaren’s room.
She’d obviously specifically requested it; it was small compared to the sweeping halls that made up the rest of the winter palace and walls were panelled in rich mahogany wood, the skirting a dark green, mimicking the colours of the forests we used to roam. The windows were wide open, the white curtains blowing in the breeze. It was calm. Tranquil, almost.
There was a four-poster bed in the corner of the room. The green curtains almost obscured her from my view, but I could just about see her, sitting on the edge of the bed. Zaren.
For a moment I felt an intense weight lift from my shoulders—she was alive! She could sit up, she was going to be alright… But as I approached her, and I began to see her face more clearly, my heart sank.
She was incredibly pale, and even her vallaslin seemed grey and washed out with exhaustion. Her large purple eyes, normally so bright and sharp, were now bloodshot and glazed, and as she glanced over at me, it was with a look of barely concealed pain. She was hunched over the edge of the bed, the white nightclothes they’d given her were clearly several sizes too large, nearly drowning her in the mass of fabric. They were so baggy it took me a moment to realise that she was not as well as I thought she was.
There, where her left forearm ought to have been, the sleeve lay flat.
I could feel my throat tightening as the situation began to sink in. She would still be able to do magic, of course, but the cost of losing a limb—it would take time to adjust.
Zaren was not good at adjusting.
I could feel my eyes stinging again. I tried to blink the tears away—she had enough to worry about without having to add me to that list.
I realised then she still hadn’t said anything. As I looked closer I saw an odd, glassy look in her eyes—as though she wasn’t quite there. It was an expression I was familiar with, and I felt a great heaviness in my chest as it became obvious she wasn’t really seeing me at all.
I’d never quite gotten used to seeing her like that in our time together, and now, seeing that distant expression again...I felt so utterly helpless it was almost unbearable. But I couldn’t give in. I wouldn’t. So I forced a smile on my face and sat down next to her.
The bed creaked beneath my weight as I sat, and as it did the noise seemed to startle her, for the distant look fell away from her eyes and she stared at me like she was seeing me for the first time. I felt my heart lift again. The fog was gone. We were together at last.
She looked at me with confusion in her eyes, and slowly, tentatively reached out and touched my shoulder. I instinctively put my hand over hers, careful not to startle her. Her hands were cold and clammy under mine, even though the room was pleasantly warm. I tried to push down the bubble of worry in my chest, but it lingered, hovering.
“You’re...actually here,” she said, her voice quiet and hoarse, disbelief ringing in every syllable.
The incredulity in her face was painful to see.
“Yes,” I said, running my thumb over her fingers absentmindedly, hoping it would ground her again.
“I thought I was dreaming…”
The moment came rushing back to me. Zaren appearing out of the mirror, looking more dead than alive, collapsing in my arms whispering about Fen’harel. Her being dragged away from me while I sat motionless, unable to move, unable to pursue them, too startled to even know what was going on. It had felt more like a nightmare to me, but I didn’t say so.
“I’m real,” I said, brushing her hair out of her eyes as I had so many times before. “I promise.”
A small smile spread over her face then, and the next moment I was enveloped in a powerful hug. Even with only one arm, she was still very strong. I gently hugged her back, half afraid I might break something if I held her too tightly, so frail she had looked when I came in.
For a moment, everything was peaceful. It almost felt normal, holding her close, being able to smell the subtle scent of pine-needles that seemed to hover around her at all times. The light breeze at our backs was like the wind whistling through the aravels, and the warm sun illuminating the colours of the room was like the forest in summer.
But then I noticed her shuddering slightly in my arms, and a wetness on my shoulder, and I realised she was crying silently. The moment shattered. We were in a strange room in a human palace, Zaren was hurt, and nothing would ever be the same. That time was gone now. I was lost and confused, and, worst of all, I didn’t know how to help her.
I could feel that tightness in my throat that meant if I tried to speak I would only sob, so instead I just rubbed circles on her back, hoping desperately that it would be of some comfort to her. I tried to focus on my breathing, to get my feelings back under control, but it was a futile task as worry after worry went rushing through my head, leaving me hardly able to think at all.
“It’s okay,” I said, trying my best to sound calm, but unable to stop my voice from trembling. “You’re safe now, I’m here.”
“I know,” she whispered, barely able to speak between sobs, “I know. It’s just—it’s all such a mess!”
I didn’t ask what she was referring to. I had heard the words Fen’harel and Solas in conjunction so many times while waiting to find out what happened to her I could guess. Not to mention her arm, and the eluvians...it was really no wonder she was in such a state. How had it gotten like this? All so complicated and terrifying, the two of us torn apart over and over again? I couldn’t let them take her from me again. I wouldn’t.
Eventually her sobs became quieter, and further apart, until, finally, she could speak again.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice cracking as she spoke, and I felt a familiar twinge at my heart hearing her sound so broken. “I didn’t mean to explode on you like that. I was just...so overwhelmed…”
“It’s alright,” I said, and took her face in my hand, making sure she was looking at me. “I’m always here for you, Ren. Always. Never forget that.”
That sweet smile passed over her face again, and I instinctively smiled back at her. It was impossible not to smile when Zaren smiled at you. It was so rare and so precious, I felt as though a great weight had lifted from my shoulders every time she did. It didn’t last long though.
“I suppose, if you’re here...everyone knows now?”
I had been wondering when she would bring it up. We talked about the Inquisition and our marriage extensively, and I knew it had hurt her to keep our relationship a secret, but at the time it had been a necessity. But when I’d heard she might be dying...I couldn’t wait for her. I had to be at her side when it happened, no matter what. So the Inquisition knew. I hoped she wouldn’t take it too badly.
“I’m afraid so,” I said.
“Perhaps I was foolish for trying to hide it,” she said, pulling away from me and looking distantly over at the window. “In a way, I’m glad you’re here… That probably sounded cruel, didn’t it?”
“A little,” I said, though I had gotten used to such remarks by now.
“I’m sorry. Everything still feels off...I still can’t quite believe you’re here.”
She turned back to me and there was that odd look on her face again. Her eyes bored into mine with such intensity I felt almost as though she was looking through me, searching the depths of my soul for some unseen truth. She frowned again.
“I can’t get used to—” she began, but quickly cut herself off and looked down at her left arm in alarm.
Her upper arm was raised towards me, reaching out to me...but of course, there was no hand for me to touch. The missing limb seemed somehow more present in its absence, and there was a long silence as what had gone unsaid lay waiting in the air, stifling us. I wanted to reach out and comfort her, but I wasn’t sure if that wouldn’t only upset her more.
“Does it hurt?” I asked, and I felt like my voice was several times louder than it should be.
She frowned for a moment, letting go of me and massaging her left arm, almost as though checking it was really there—testing the sensation was real.
“...Yes,” she said, after a long pause. “It aches. But it’s nothing like it was before.”
She shuddered then, and I could see her eyes glistening in the sunlight.
I could still remember the pain on her face as she said goodbye before she left for the palace; the way she had had to cradle her arm to her chest at all times in an effort to stop the constant agony of the Anchor. I could remember the anguish I’d felt when I’d realised it might be the last time I ever saw her alive. I could remember trying to force myself to face the idea that I might have to go the rest of my life without her, of the agony of that thought; the nights spent crying silently into my pillow, trying not let her know of my pain.
But here we both were—alive, if not necessarily well. It was almost a miracle. I felt a smile creep onto my face in spite of the gravity of the situation. Zaren wasn’t dead—that was all that mattered. I put my hand to her cheek, causing her to look up at me in surprise.
“It’s going to be alright now,” I said, and though I had no reason to believe it was true, somewhere, deep in my heart, I knew it was so.