I wanted to do a small something for Memorial Day. Being true to form, I missed the date. Though this time I was struggling with the fact that I had intended for this to be a bit longer, include a scene with their daughter, but there was just something about how that last sentence hit that kept me thinking “no, that’s perfect.” This piece was inspired by both Memorial Day, as well as the video game Dragon Age: Origins. There will likely be more from this game featured, perhaps it’s own category one day, as Dragon Age: Origins holds a special place in my heart. Not only was it the game that really got me into the proper RPG gaming mode (previously I had stuck to Lego based video games and Mario Kart), but it also got me back into creative writing again, a hobby I had let slide in my college years.
The fires blazed bright in the distance; the sky stained a hideous, sickly orange. The smoke from the fires added an otherworldly haze to the night sky. Elissa felt as though she were in a dream, her sword hanging limply from her hand. The dagger in her other hand slipped from her grip, clattering to the stone floor of the balcony, as the stench rode across the valley on the wind.
Metal scraped against stone as Alistair bent beside her to retrieve Elissa’s dropped blade. She did not respond when he attempted to press the hilt into her hand, so Alistair slid it into the sheath at her hip.
“Is that…” Elissa began, her voice scarcely more than a whisper.
“The smell of human flesh…” Alistair murmured, straightening beside her.
“We have to help them.”
“We have to get out of here,” Alistair corrected, his gaze already flitting around the stone chamber of the Tower of Ishal as he searched for a means of escape.
“But… the other Wardens…” Elissa trailed off, her voice cracking in dismay.
“They’re already gone,” said Alistair, moving to the top of the stone steps and looking down into the expanse of darkness below. He swore under his breath. “We need to move, Elissa. The darkspawn are coming.”
Elissa followed Alistair’s gaze down into the stone stairwell that descended into the depths of the tower. She could see the faint amber glow of firelight reflecting up the stairs, could hear the guttural roar of the beasts ascending, could feel the vibration tingling along her skin to alert at the coming of darkspawn.
Her gaze returned to the balcony, her eyes feeling as though they blinked in slow motion, as the massive head of a dragon appeared over the stone railing. Its head was crowned with gigantic horns that curled back into menacing points. Its scales were black as night with no reflections of the world around it. Its teeth that lined its colossal jaws were stained red with blood.
Though gripped with fear at the sight of the Archdemon, Elissa stood rooted to the spot, unable to flee. Just as its sharp talons slashed out towards her, Alistair’s hand was on Elissa’s shoulder, jerking her back. They fell. And fell and fell.
Elissa jerked awake with the familiar falling sensation. Sitting up, she cradled her head in her hands. All this time later, and she could still taste the acrid flavor of the smoke in the back of her throat. Could still hear the screams of the dying Wardens in the valley of Ostagar.
Her husband’s hand squeezed her shoulder as he sat up beside her. The steady rhythm of his heart and his breathing settled Elissa back into the present. It had been fifteen years since the Battle of Ostagar and the near literal extinction of Ferelden’s Grey Wardens; but there were days that Elissa felt as though she were still in it, still standing on that balcony of the Tower of Ishal. Her skin crawled with that familiar sensation of sensing the Darkspawn. She brushed her bare shoulders, like she would if she had discovered a bug crawling there.
Unintentionally, she brushed Alistair’s hand away. Elissa squeezed her eyes closed in anticipation of her husband’s dramatic, irritated sigh, but it did not come. Instead, his hand simply returned to her shoulder.
“It’s not them,” he said quietly, after a moment. “It’s just the residual tingle of their meager existence. It feels… different… when they have found a new Fallen God. You’ll know.”
“If we live to see it,” Elissa whispered.
“Maker’s mercy, we don’t,” Alistair agreed. “And neither will the children.”
Elissa could feel the blood drain from her face, she had not even considered her children and what they might face as they grew up. The three royal children were a grey area, an unknown. No serving Grey Warden had ever produced a child before, let alone two Grey Wardens together. So far, every scholar they had consulted on Brienne, Eleanor, and Maric could tell them nothing on whether the Taint was present in the blood of their children and what, if any, side effects may manifest. What if they spent their entire grown lives riddled with the same fear that coursed through Elissa’s veins?
Alistair squeezed her shoulder. “Stop, Elissa,” he said firmly. “You’re going to drive us both mad.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You do not have to, my love.” He smiled as he kissed her shoulder. “That’s the one benefit to our shared Darkspawn Taint, I actually know what you’re thinking when the emotion is strong enough.”
Elissa swatted him gently away. “You’ve always been far more intuitive with it than I have,” she said with a sigh.
“Well… I am your senior Warden,” Alistair said roguishly.
“I still out-rank you,” Elissa pointed out, turning to face her husband.
Alistair shrugged, hefting his hands with imaginary weights. “Commander of the Grey Wardens… King of Ferelden… Commander of the Grey Wardens… King of Ferelden…” He bit his lip before offering a sly grin, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, darling, but I think I out-rank you overall.”
Elissa rolled her eyes at Alistair, placing her forehead to her knees. Even with the weight of a crown, her husband had never lost his roguish sense of humor. So where had hers gone?
Long before he had become Alistair Theirin, King of Ferelden, he had simply been Alistair the Grey Warden, a young, lowly, green Warden. In their early days with Duncan, before the near complete extinction of Ferelden’s Grey Wardens, Alistair had been known for frustrating their commanding officer with his inability to take anything seriously. But he had made those early days of training fun, exciting. He had eased her fears and prepared her for the horrors of the Joining. Elissa had often wondered if Daveth and Jory had met Alistair sooner, would they have been able to survive the Joining as well?
When they had been on the road all those months with her beloved Mabari hound, Raja – Maker’s Breath she missed that damned dog – and Morrigan and the others, it had always been Alistair that made their camp lighthearted. That had distracted them all from the near daily horrors they faced as they endlessly battled the Darkspawn and begged local lords to give them men to help with the Archdemon. Time and time again, he had stepped aside to allow Elissa to take charge, make decisions, all because he had not felt capable of leading. And he had endlessly supported her in every decision she had made, while quietly offering his advice and opinion when it had been just the two of them.
Elissa never had trouble seeing how and why she had fallen in love with Alistair. That charming disposition, his sunny demeanor, his handsome looks certainly had not hurt, either. A thing Elissa did often struggle with, however, was why on Thedas he had ever returned her feelings. She was always in a mood, always brooding over something. Anxiety wracked her, crippled her at times.
An arm was tightening around her shoulders, pulling Elissa back to the present. “You keep me grounded,” Alistair was saying, “so my head doesn’t go floating off into the clouds on wild, impractical dreams.” He smiled when his wife finally turned to look at him. “Now, what’s really eating at you?”
“What if we unknowingly passed this burden on to our children?” Elissa finally said after a long silence. “We never stopped to consider that they could be born with the Taint already inside of them.” She swallowed apprehensively. “What if they begin to show signs of being afflicted?”
Alistair laughed a little uncomfortably. “I think it is a little late to be worried about that, Lis,” he said slowly.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I mean, Brienne is twelve-years-old, we can’t really… change our mind on her existence now, can we?”
“That’s not how I meant it, and you know it,” Elissa growled.
“Fine, fine,” said Alistair hastily, holding up his hands in surrender. “It’s just we cannot really view potential problems with our twelve-year-old daughter as ‘what if’s. They are ‘when’s, Elissa.”
Elissa’s eyes narrowed at Alistair in the dark. “Why do I get the distinct feeling that you know something that I do not?”
Alistair sighed in exasperation as he turned to look away from Elissa, attempting to gather himself. He had not meant to say that… Chewing his lip, staring into the still smoldering fireplace, Alistair’s mind raced.
“She may have mentioned something a while ago,” he began, speaking slowly, trying to be certain he did not betray his daughter’s trust more than he already had. Brienne had not wanted her father to say anything to her mother on the matter, it had not been why she had spoken to him in the first place. “Brienne did not want to worry you further,” Alistair finally continued. “But-”
“What am I currently worried about?” Elissa demanded, cutting Alistair off.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. This was not going to go well.
“First, you have to promise not to get angry,” he began slowly. “You’re going to get angry, but you have to promise to try not to. And it has to stay here.”
Not trusting herself to speak, Elissa simply nodded.
“Brienne came to me a few months back,” Alistair began warily, “saying that she could…” As he paused to think of the proper word, Elissa could feel her blood freezing over. “Saying that she could… sense… your moods.”
Elissa sucked her breath in sharply. “And I suppose you mean in a manner more than simply an intuitive child?” she asked, equally sharply.
“Yes,” Alistair confirmed. He rubbed his chin which was covered in pale, ginger stubble. “She’s seen your nightmares,” he added after a moment, finally meeting Elissa’s gaze once again.
It was like a knife to Elissa’s heart. “My nightmares…?”
Alistair nodded gravely. “Not all of them, and not all the time, but she has seen the Archdemon.” He cleared his throat, becoming awkward with Elissa for the first time in a decade and a half. “And… how often… you see it,” he said finally, “how often you… hear it.”
“It’s not the Calling,” Elissa insisted briskly, waving her hand dismissively. “It’s not time. I’m not a danger,” she growled.
Alistair gripped her arm tightly, pinching her skin painfully. Elissa exhaled, releasing her rising anger.
“I know it isn’t,” Alistair said firmly. “It’s more,” he said gently, “it’s always been more. It’s not the Calling, it’s not even the Taint.” He steadied her with a gaze, “You were traumatized, Elissa, we both were. We saw things no human should ever have to see during the Blight.”
“And yet you’re perfectly fine,” Elissa spat, not intending for her words to come out so acidic.
“I’m not,” Alistair insisted, “but you know what the difference is? I talk, I have slowly worked through it over the years. I talk to you about everything, everything,” he continued, his voice catching slightly. “You don’t talk to me about any of it anymore.”
Elissa’s eyes drifted away from her husband’s face, guilt beginning to nibble at the edges of her heart. She knew he was right; he was always right about these things. During the Blight, even before they were together they had started sharing a tent, as it had been far easier to forget the nightmares when the person that shared them with you was right there. They had gone many nights without sleep, sitting beside the fire just talking about the things they had seen. The things they had done. The Blight had been long, and they had both gotten their hands more than a little dirty, and with more than just Darkspawn blood.
The pair of them had talked through everything. Every move their ragged band made, Alistair and Elissa had decided together. Down to the ritual with Morrigan and the slaying of the Archdemon.
And then, suddenly – no, not suddenly, Elissa had known it was coming, they both had – Alistair was made King of Ferelden. Elissa was made Commander of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden. And slowly, as time had crept by and Elissa continued to support Alistair in his new role as king, she became all too aware of everything he carried. Now not only did he carry the burden of being a Grey Warden, but the aftermath of a Blight, destroying the Archdemon and the ritual it had entailed – a matter that Alistair wrestled with on the daily – but now he was also a king, responsible for hundreds of thousands of people across their nation. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.
After all of that, who was Elissa to add further to his burdens? She knew his answer, the only answer: his wife. When had she started viewing him as a fragile being that may be broken under the weight of her troubles? Perhaps when she had started to feel cracked beneath the weight of both of theirs. But would he not argue that her cracks were from not distributing the weight, as Alistair had done?
Elissa exhaled slowly, rubbing her brow gingerly with her fingertips. “I did not wish to burden you further,” she said finally, unable to look away from the embroidery on their bedding. “You’re a king now, after all.”
“Aye,” he nodded. “But I am your husband, first. King, second.”
“I can’t be first.”
“Well, you are,” Alistair said, unexpectedly sharp. “So, you’d best start talking next time I ask.” Elissa eyed him warily. It was not in Alistair’s nature to be sharp. “King commands it,” he added slyly, a smirk playing at his lips.
There it was, that familiar twinkle.
“I’ll try. I will,” Elissa added firmly when Alistair rolled his eyes with a scoffing smile.
He held out his arms, folding Elissa into them as they lay back down to return to sleep. “You know what might help?” Alistair asked as she nestled her cheek against his shoulder. “Why don’t you talk through everything with Brienne tomorrow. She is old enough. She has already seen parts of it.”
“King commands it?” Elissa asked sleepily.
“No, husband suggests it,” he said gently, kissing her forehead.