She didn’t know how long they lay beneath the canopy of trees, the forest still and silent with respect, the pale sky growing darker and the chill of the air nipping at their naked skin. The warmth they shared was enough to deter them from disentangling too quickly and making the trek back to camp, but they knew they could not stay that way forever. There were things to do. Just days until the Landsmeet, and inevitably, the archdemon…
The sun was setting in the west, dusk falling over camp which glowed golden and warm and comfortable as they approached from afar. He told her jokes he’d heard from Oghren as they walked, asking if she understood why the dwarf found them so funny because he did not understand them and maybe that was because there was a language barrier or something equally sensible.
“Oghren’s sense of humor…” she shook her head. “I don’t even understand what he’s saying most of the time, to be honest. Whether he’s joking or just trying to tell me he’s glad to be with us. Or maybe he hates my guts. I just don’t know.”
“Ah, good,” he chuckled and reached for her hand, tangling their fingers together and swinging them ever-so-slightly as they walked. “Then it is not just me. I do not know why, but I was worried about that.”
“No, it isn’t just you. Alistair told me this morning Oghren grunted at him for ten straight minutes, then laughed and asked him if he knew what he meant. He said he just smiled and nodded, then said thank you, just to be safe.”
They were still laughing as they approached camp, his hand still loosely clutching hers. Wynne was stirring a pot of stew over the fire, Leliana sitting next to Alistair, who sat enraptured by the thread of the tale she spun for him, his hand absently stroking through the thin, soft hair of the Mabari curled up beside him on the ground. Even Shale seemed to have come in closer, as if she, too listened to the sweet sound of the bard’s voice. Sten stood, as always, with his arms crossed, his determined stare focused on the edge of camp. Morrigan sat hunched over a book in her camp away from camp, glancing up with distant longing, some silent, hidden part of her longing desperately to partake, to fit in, to be a greater part of what they were.
“Ah,” Wynne noticed them approach. “You’re just in time. The stew is almost ready.”
“Elf!” Oghren called.
“Oghren.” He tipped left and kissed her affectionately on the cheek before disentangling his fingers from hers and heading in the dwarf’s direction to continue a playful provocation that would likely endure through much of the evening.
“I have something to say to you!”
“I am all ears, as we elves like to say.”
“I… Well, now I forgot!”
“Alas,” Zevran laughed.
“Just know, I had something.”
“You’ve had several somethings, I suspect. It’s part of your charm.”
Shaking her head, she knelt down near the fire and watched the flames lap at the side of the pot for several minutes, listened the swish of the spoon through the thick, vegetable-laden broth Wynne stirred almost absently. Leliana continued with her story, the dulcet sound of her voice enrapturing Alistair while Ser Barks snoozed contentedly, producing low, rumbling snores.
It was a long time before the old woman observed, “You’re still angry with me.”
“No,” Illuviel shook her head. “I’m not, actually. Life is too short to be angry with people you care about.”
A lesson she’d learned in the hardest way over the last day. It was even harder that she’d been the one on the other end of what she presumed to be anger, dangling helplessly, wondering if there was any hope left to be had at all. It didn’t change anything to learn he hadn’t been angry, but confuse. She’d felt the brunt of that cold shoulder so deeply, that she knew she never wanted to feel that way again.
“A very wise assessment,” Wynne agreed with a profound nod of her head. Illuviel glanced up at her, the firelight catching in the pale, white strands of loose hair the whispered against her weathered face. “Sometimes I forget how young you are when we are speaking. Not for the first time, I must confess you are wise beyond your years, child. Nevertheless, I feel I should say something.”
“Have you changed your mind about Zevran and me?”
Glancing over at him, he turned and caught her stare, the corner of his mouth rising devilishly upward just seconds before he winked and returned his attention to the dwarf.
“I have watched you for a time,” she began, “and perhaps… I was wrong. There seems to be something special between the two of you. His demeanor changes when he is with you. There is a tenderness in his gaze I’d never seen until now.”
“But I’ve seen it from the start,” she insisted.
“Perhaps he just allowed you to see it.”
And maybe he had, who was she to say. He had certainly grown on their companions over the last several months, but she’d seen something in him from the start. It was why she’d spared his life, when he was all but helpless and at her mercy the day he tried to kill her.
“I think I was too harsh in my judgment before, and I… I am sorry.”
It was a relief to forgive her, she realized, to know she’d somehow won the old woman’s approval. She didn’t know why it offended her so much, except the more she thought about it, it wasn’t offense, so much as it was hurt. She respected Wynne’s sage advice, admired her opinions. Looked up to her. Sometimes she liked to think that if her mother had lived, she might have been a little bit like Wynne—stern and opinionated in all the ways that made her endearing.
Drawing her lower lip between her teeth for a moment, she nodded and said, “Apology accepted.”
“What you have may not last forever, death and duty may part you, but love’s worthiness is not diminished because of that. I should have seen this before. Instead you learn to cherish every precious moment you spend together, knowing it may be the last.”
Those words terrified her, but the impact they had was powerful enough to give her chills. She really hoped their last moment together was far, far from that day, but there was no way to be certain save to endure them as they happened.
“And for those of us watching…” she went on after a thoughtful pause, “well, it brings warmth to these old bones to know that something so beautiful can be found in the midst of chaos and strife.”
“Thank you, Wynne,” she murmured, lifting her head to meet the other woman’s gaze. “That means more to me than you will ever know.”
“Yes, well…” There were unshed tears in the old crone’s eyes, a gentle, but sad smile Illuviel would remember for years to come. “The stew is ready. Who’s hungry?”
“Ooh, me!” Alistair jumped up, startling the dog at his feet with the suddenness of his movement. “I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry, Alistair,” Wynne chuckled.
“What can I say? I’m a growing boy!” He sauntered in to stand behind her as she rose, casting an inquisitive look down at her that asked all the right questions without a single word.
Illuviel nodded once, and her friend offered her a knowing grin. He didn’t even have to say the words, “I told you so.”