Nightmares and Soft Touches
The clamour of battle was deafening. The vicious scrape of steel on steel that cut through to the bone made Aedan's stomach churn in anguish. From every corner, the cries and moans of the dead and dying swelled into a chilling chorus. The city was in ruins. Buildings that had stood hundreds of years were falling over as if they were made of paper. Fire ate its way through shops and homes like a starving man. By dawn it would all be reduced to rubble, maybe little more than ash.
An explosion behind him whipped Aedan's head around, the blood and sweat drenched sword in his hand shook with the effort it took to maintain his grip. The great outer wall of Denerim had been breached. It had stood for generations, ages even, but now no longer. The defenders of the city turned and ran from their foe, shouting, screaming and crying all at once. Their terrified faces turned to Aedan, their image seared into his mind as the last thing he would ever see.
Yet Aedan did nothing.
Through the breach they came. The horde of grotesque darkspawn poured into the town square like water breaking through a dam. The snarling, screeching, chittering mass of deformed monsters surged upon the poor people. Aedan saw it all. The soldiers being cut down brutally while they screamed for help. Nobles, merchants and peasants alike were set upon and ripped to shreds or pulled apart. Women who survived the initial assault were hooked and clawed and dragged back through the horde kicking and screaming, never to see the light of day again. Death and misery reigned.
A roar bellowed over all sound that nearly burst his ear drums. Aedan cowered beneath his hands as he turned. The Archdemon was there in the soot stained sky, poised and ready to fall upon the city. Without warning, it lurched into action and shot towards the city. In one strike, the monster had swept dozens into death's cold embrace. The next strike came just as quick. Dozens died in mere seconds. Their bodies were flung through the air and fell across the streets and rooftops in a sickening crunch.
Still, Aedan did nothing. He stood there numbly, hands shaking.
The great dragon flapped its wings with a vicious beat that threw a strong gale through the streets. It halted its path of destruction through the sky and landed roughly on a roof overlooking the town square. Brick and tile crunched to dust in its spear-like talons. The Archdemon loosed a blast of demonic fire on the streets below, the blaze crackling with unholy power. Screams were cut horrifically short as people were immolated to dust in moments. Light exploded in Aedan's face and he was blinded. The sounds of terror carried on, amplified, haunting every second with shrill wails and gurgled screams.
Then, the blindness cleared. Aedan stood before the mighty dragon at last. The final confrontation, high above Denerim's blood soaked streets. The great dragon of the Blight snarled and thrashed and roared in anticipation. The son of house Cousland gripped his sword tight in shaking hands. His shield and what meagre protection it offered had been lost somewhere in the melee below. This was where it would all end, it had to. All those deaths had to be answered. They couldn't have been for nothing. The monster before him had to die.
So why did he do nothing?
A scream tore his focus from the Archdemon. Leliana was there, a jagged blade through her stomach, drenched red with her own blood. Her face turned to his, one last song, hollow and haunting, cursing his name.
Another cry, Aedan's gaze swept around. Alistair was being overwhelmed. He was knocked back towards the edge of the tower by an ogre. He locked eyes with Aedan, resigned and hopeless. Then, he fell. Above all of the uproar around him, Aedan heard the sickly crunch of the bastard prince's fall to his final rest. Only one grey warden stood now.
Aedan tuned back towards the dragon, his panicked panting erratic and threatening to get away from him. A figure beyond the evil beast captured his attention. Morrigan. She looked at him almost sadly, a resigned expression on her face. She shook her head once. Then, she turned and stepped off the edge of the tower. Magic coalesced around her form as she fell from view, and she rose again as a raven. The raven fled the battle, leaving the defeated defenders to their grim fate.
Aedan looked up at the Archdemon with dread. His sword felt heavy and cumbersome in his grip. What was the point? His armies were crushed. His companions were dead or gone. There was no one left. He could not defeat such a monster alone. No one could. He couldn't even stop his own damn hands from shaking. He lowered his weapon. He fell to his knees. He could do nothing else. This wasn't how it was supposed to be.
The Archdemon drew its head back, readying one final attack, one to seal his fate and the fate of Ferelden and all of Thedas. Tendrils of dark energy arced around the Archdemon's mouth. Then, it blew forth a blast of unholy fire. Pain erupted in Aedan's world. His entire existence was agony. His flesh was stripped from his bones as he stood there frozen. His screams drowned out by the raging inferno.
And at last, Aedan was nothing.
Anora woke with a sudden sigh. Confused, she rubbed at her eyes. Why had she woken? She wasn't one for restless nights. The Queen of Ferelden arched her head back to gaze out of the window above her bed. The moon and stars still hung in the night sky, shimmering through the steady patter of rain that clattered into the fine glass with a somehow soothing rhythm. Anora frowned with a light moan. It was still late at night, or very, very early. She never woke in the middle of the night like this, it just didn't happen. Now she would never get back to sleep, she just knew it. Anora thrived on routine and order, anything that disrupted her carefully planned life was to be eradicated.
The Queen turned and stretched in her bed, trying to find a more comfortable position in the hopes of drawing back into slumber. She belatedly realised the other side of the bed was empty. Anora frowned even deeper. She cast her eyes over the room. Where was her husband? Just as with the pattern of her life, she loathed things being out of place, even people. Her new husband had brought about an element of change and upheaval in her routines that she was still getting used to, but to vanish in the middle of night was too much.
Anora looked over towards the door. It was shut, but a thin sliver of light crept in from beyond.
Curious, and annoyed that her sleep had been disturbed, she climbed out of bed and donned her dressing down. She bristled slightly at the cold of untouched fabric and pulled her long blonde hair out from under her collar. The lovely warmth of the bed seemed ever more inviting now. Anora padded over towards the door and eased it open. The light was not coming from directly outside, but from the study to the side of the corridor. A small part of her mind told Anora that she should probably call for the guard, rather than investigate an unknown presence herself. She swatted the idea as quickly as it had formed. This was her palace in her kingdom and she was queen of both. She would not cower about like a nervous servant.
Anora strode over toward the study, keeping her gown close to her for warmth. The Queen opened the door and peeked her head around towards the light. She found her husband there, sat at the desk with his head in a hand, rubbing at his eyes wearily. He was clad only in his night wear, a simple shirt and pantaloons, seemingly not caring for the coldness of the palace at night. His whole appearance was dishevelled, that was normally unlike him, even if he didn't have the same sense of keeping oneself smart as she did.
Anora shook her head softly with a quiet tut, how unbecoming of a prince.
The Queen sighed and stepped into the room proper. "What are you doing?" She snapped irritably.
Aedan Cousland jolted at the sudden noise in the quiet silence of the night. His dark blue eyes shot up, wide, awake and somehow fearful for a moment. They were hooded with fatigue and slightly bloodshot. Yet Anora was taken aback at his expression, one of fear and pain.
"N- Nothing." Aedan quickly recovered and turned his head away, wiping at his eyes as if merely troubled by dust. "Sorry for waking you."
Anora stood there numbly for a long moment. She had never seen that look of distress on any man's face before. She knew instantly that she didn't want to see it ever again. For once in her life, she wasn't sure what to do. Should she broach the subject or simply return to bed, leaving the Prince-Consort to his troubles?
"Please, go back to bed." Aedan said with a vague smile that didn't strike Anora as remotely genuine, still keeping his face from her view.
Anora frowned in irritation. "I will not." She strode up to the desk and drew a seat for herself beside him. She glared at the side of his face for a long moment as Aedan continued to hide. She tapped her finger on the desk for a few moments impatiently. "Look at me." The Queen commanded, steel in her voice.
Slowly, reluctantly, Aedan lowered his hand and turned to face his queen and wife. Up close, the fatigue and weariness were so much more pronounced. He looked like he had just come out of a battle, a battle without any bloodshed or physical wounds.
"It's nothing you need concern yourself with." Aedan offered with a smile, patting her hand with his, as if that would placate her.
"I'll be the judge of that." Anora angled her face from side to side to get a complete look at him. She was determined to get to the bottom of this. "What's wrong with you? You weren't like this before nightfall."
"No, I …" Aedan began, then stopped with a sigh.
"Stop wasting for time." The Queen snapped irritably. "I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's wrong." Already her mind was running somersaults, trying to deduce the problem. Was he merely sick? Had he been poisoned? Was it something to do with the Grey Wardens that he'd been keeping from her? "Well?" She demanded.
"Alright. I … had a nightmare." Aedan said finally.
Anora stared at him blankly for several seconds before replying. "A nightmare?" Her voice was dripping with disbelief and a measure of scorn.
"Yes, what you might call a 'Warden nightmare'." Aedan licked his cracked lips in discomfort. "I suppose I should explain."
"You had better." Anora leaned back slightly, folding her arms and hooking one leg over the other with an arched brow that screamed 'I'm waiting'.
Aedan's lips quirked a little at the corner. "You see, when we become Grey Wardens, we gain the ability to sense the darkspawn. Even when we're thousands of miles apart, there is always the chance for something stronger to … connect us, if you will. Sometimes it serves as a warning. Sometimes it's just a random series of images that make no sense. But this … this was more like a memory." The look on his face was dark and haunted.
Anora considered for a moment. She was far from being an expert on matters concerning the Grey Wardens, but she'd made a point to ensure that she was as well informed as possible of their capabilities once her father had declared the order enemies of the state. It was only sensible to ensure that you knew your enemy after all. Tales of such dreams had never come up in her research. "This memory, this nightmare, what was it?" She asked quietly.
"Denerim, the final battle. Except, everything went wrong. Everyone died- The whole city died … And I did nothing to stop it."
Anora regarded her husband before her cautiously. She could not imagine a single nightmare that could have this kind of dramatic effect on someone so quickly, especially on such a celebrated warrior as her husband was. Then again, she hadn't imagined the horrors of the Blight were real until she saw the proof with her own eyes. Her eyes, and her gut, were telling her that the poor man in front of her was telling the truth, and that he needed her.
Anora took his hand in hers and squeezed.
"That didn't happen." Anora murmured, sheathing the steely edge in her voice, if only a little. "You defeated the Archdemon, remember?"
"I do. I do remember." Aedan nodded, his gaze drifted off to see something she couldn't even imagine. "But it was so real, this dream. So real."
Anora opened her mouth to say … what? What could she possibly say to snap the Warden-Commander out of this morbid reverie? They sat there for a while, the Prince-Consort staring off after his invisible demons and the Queen holding his hand. Was this what happened to rulers behind closed doors, when the eyes and expectations of their subjects weren't upon them? When the ever growing weight of their country's ills and pains grew just too much for their shoulders to carry? Did they quietly break in the dark solitude of night, when they couldn't break in the light of day?
Anora refused. She would not break, and neither would her Prince.
After a long few moments of heavy silence, broken only by the trickle of rain on the windows, Anora stood.
"Come." The Queen commanded, offering her hand. For a moment, she thought that Aedan would disobey and stay rooted in his chair. His gaze still transfixed on that point of nothingness that seemed to both haunt and entrance him. Then, he finally tore his eyes away and onto her slender fingers. A rough breath left his lips as he slowly took the hand that was offered. His grip was strong on hers and rough with callouses. A warrior's grip, one that had seen far too much battle and far too little kindness. He seemed to cling to her for fear of getting lost or being cast adrift.
The Queen led her Prince back to the bedchamber they shared. Still shrouded in nightly gloom, the royal couple moved over to the bed wordlessly.
"Lie down." Anora directed her husband almost softly. She still wore a frown, irritated at the whole exercise.
"Anora? What are-"
"Don't speak." She snapped then reined herself in with a deep breath through her senses. "Just lie down, at the end of the bed please."
Aedan obeyed with only a moment's pause, laying himself down across the foot of the bed. He swallowed heavily when he finally lay down, Anora could see the heavy rise in his throat even through the gloom of night. His strong features only illuminated by the rain spattered moonlight.
Anora sat on the bed beside him and lifted his head to rest on her lap. She took a deep breath and moved her fingers to his temples. Aedan's eyes darted between hers and those fingers for a second with confusion. When the tips of her fingers touched his head, he seemed to finally relax a little. His eyes closed with a long drag of air through his nose.
Anora swallowed silently as she focussed on her fingers, silently thankful that he wasn't watching her as she performed this task. She wasn't sure that she could continue with it otherwise. The Queen of Ferelden rubbed at her Prince's temples softly, in a slow rhythm. The only sound was the patter of rain on the windows that masked both of their slow breathing.
As she sat there, Anora wondered if this was something other queens did for their husbands. Perhaps it was, though hers and Aedan's marriage was outside the norm for a royal couple. She had not done this for Cailan, but then he never had need for it, it seemed. She wasn't even sure why she was doing this. All she knew was that it had always helped her.
Anora's eyes flitted off of her husband as she thought of a young girl many years ago. She used to get headaches, that little girl, and she would complain to her father about them. Even though he was always busy with important for the kingdom, even though he always had better things to do, he would take his little daughter to a quiet spot and massage her head softly. That little girl liked those quiet little moments. It was sometimes the only time she could get to be with her father. He was always so busy. She understood it, the king and the kingdom needed her father. There was no one else in the whole kingdom that could do all the things he could after all. Yet sometimes, one little girl needed him too.
The sudden noise startled the Queen and she instinctively pulled her hands away slightly, almost as if the Prince-Consort's skin had electrified her. Aedan was looking up at her. Those dark blue eyes of his were bloodshot still and hooded in fatigue, but they no longer had that harrowed look of mourning.
"Thank you." Aedan said quietly. His lips turned into a slightly crooked smile she could see even in the dark. He reached up and took one of her hands in his, giving it a small squeeze.
Anora swallowed a little thickly, quickly banishing old memories. "You're welcome." She murmured, frowning slightly in annoyance at how easily those memories had sprung up. She retrieved her hand swiftly from his grasp and made her gaze take interest in the dresser to the side of the room. The Queen straightened her night robe for good measure.
"Now, you'd better get some sleep. It'll be morning before you know it and I will not have you looking like death itself, not in front of anyone." Anora said briskly. She scowled in the dark, hugging her arms around her. The night had gotten colder, she was certain of it.
Aedan sat up on the bed and turned to her, his expression shrouded in darkness. "Of course." His head tilted a little to the side then back again, as if he was going to say something more, but no more words were said. Aedan duly withdrew to his side of the bed and got back beneath the covers. "Goodnight."
Anora did likewise. "Goodnight." She replied in kind as she stood from her perch on the end of the bed and moved around to her side. Getting back under the sheets, she shivered immediately as the uninviting cold hit her. She did not utter a sound though. Aedan had his back to her, but he could still hear surely.
Perhaps it was irrational, but she did not enjoy showing any form of weakness to anyone, no matter how trivial. Strength begets strength, after all. She had fought long and hard for her position as the true ruler of Ferelden. She was the best candidate by far, she was still sure of that fact, and she would not surrender her position now. Anora would not have her position compromised by anyone, especially her new husband. She knew it was something of a risk to wed him in the first place.
Warden Commander of Ferelden, Hero of Ferelden, Aedan Cousland held many titles and accolades, all gained through might and force of will. The people loved him perhaps more than they loved her. She'd be the first to admit she was not a 'people person', whereas Aedan had managed to convince all manner of people in a war and Blight torn country to fall under his one, unifying banner. She was better at ordering people to follow her directives than she was at inspiring people to follow her. He had even managed to sway the Bannorn in his favour against her father, the hero of the war against Orlais and one of the chief architects of modern Ferelden. Aedan Cousland would always be something of a threat to her, even though they shared a marriage bed.
Which was why she really wished she would stop shivering!
A shuffle from behind her caught her attention and she narrowed her eyes suspicious in the dark. She half expected Aedan to get up from the bed and go off to be alone with his demons once more. She resolved that she would not go in search of him again.
Instead, the bed shifted slightly beneath her as he turned her way and placed an arm around her, over the covers. Anora froze, expecting primal attentions. It was inevitable of course, they were wed and royal issue was fully expected, but their first time hadn't happened yet. Unlike Cailan, Aedan apparently hadn't been so eager to fulfil that most private of royal duties. Until now it seemed. Yet his hands did not search for her body beneath the fabrics.
Aedan's arm merely hugged her close to him gently. She wasn't sure if he was awake or not, for some reason she was unwilling to call out into the dark. Anora could feel the soft tickle of warm breath on the nape of her neck as he held her close. It came and went in a steady rhythm. It was strangely seductive. Anora couldn't for the life of her say why though. Her own breath started following the same pattern, and she soon found her eyes dropping off into sleep.
Anora frowned slightly when she realised that she was no longer shivering. Her expression soon relaxed when she finally fell into a peaceful slumber.
She would deny that slight smile on her face most fervently come morning.