Disclaimer: I don't own Dragon Age or any of its related characters. This is just for my own enjoyment and the potential enjoyment of other fans like me, and no monetary gain was expected or received.
Spoilers: Takes place immediately after the events of Dragon Age: Origins.
A/N: Sorry this took so long. The muse would not be rushed. I'm afraid the next chapter is likely to be dragged out of me with a chain fall, too. I'll do my best.
Chapter Five: Confession
They left the village after they finished their shopping, and traveled to the nearby river, where a copse of trees patterned the twisting trail in its hollow. They stayed near the river, a far more reliable guide to the next village, as they'd been told, than the rutted track that passed for a road, which sometimes disappeared in the vegetation. They hoped in that way, too, to avoid any bandits that might patrol the road between the villages, though Loghain wasn't particularly afraid for their chances in a fight after he saw what his companions could do with the kobolds. Still, until he had a longsword, he felt better about avoiding trouble if at all possible. Arrows were a finite resource. He needed the reliability of a sword as a backup weapon at least.
As they walked, when they were only a few miles outside the village, Elilia broke a dead twig off a tree branch and swished it in the air before her. "Is it hard to learn how to fight with a sword?" she asked.
"Depends on who's teaching you," Loghain said.
"What about if you were teaching me?" she said.
"It wouldn't be hard at all," Loghain said. "You know how to fight with a short blade already. It's a different stance, but it's really just a matter of adjusting to the weight in your hand and accustoming yourself to the length."
"Yeah? That's what she said," she said. It took him a few seconds to get it.
"I knew a dwarf who made 'that's what she said' jokes," he said. "It's interesting to note that it isn't any funnier when a woman does it."
"I still don't get it," Chick said.
"You're a nice boy, Chick. Don't ever change," Loghain said.
Elilia leaned in towards him and whispered. "Although he could bring a whole new meaning to a 'reach around.'"
"Hush, harpy," Loghain said.
She laughed and danced away from him. "I might get a sword. You'd teach me how to use it, wouldn't you?"
"If you're serious about wanting to learn," he said. "I think you've got the warrior's spirit, and I know you've got its mouth. It would be good for you to have a solid backup weapon, just in case. That little knife of yours isn't much."
They walked in near-silence for a long while, which is to say Loghain and Elilia were silent while Chick chattered away. In the late afternoon they shot a couple of rabbits for their dinner, and stopped to make camp beyond the trees at the riverside. Instead of building a campfire and cooking straight away, Loghain took his new razor and shaving mirror down to the bank for a quick shave. Elilia came along, and watched him scrape off the heavy bristles with the interest of one who had never seen such a thing before.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Shaving," Loghain said.
"For what purpose?"
"To rid myself of unwanted hair."
Loghain put down his razor. "It seems to me I've had this conversation with another blonde, only she was four years old."
"I'm simply curious why anyone would want to take a sharp knife and scrape it against their skin," she said.
"Facial hair is itchy," Loghain said.
"And knives are sharp. Seems to me the itch wouldn't be so bad. Are you going to shave your whole head?"
"No, just my face," he said.
"Why? Doesn't all that hair on top itch, too?"
"Not much. Facial hair is different. It's thicker, stiffer. Itchy."
"Other humans don't seem to mind it," she said. "That Okeer had a beard, and so did the tavernmaster. Most of the people you beat up had facial hair of some degree."
"Well, there is another reason why I shave," he said.
"Oh yeah? What's that?"
"Vanity," he said. "I don't care for the look myself."
"Well, be careful," she said. "That thing looks perfect for slicing throats."
She watched him finish up the job. "I'm not sure yet whether you look better or worse without it," she said. "Maybe once the swelling goes down I'll be able to tell. Right now I'm kinda leaning towards worse. Your face is so thin, there's nothing to balance out that big honking nose."
"Thank you," he said, and chose not to make mention of the fact that her own face was somewhat ill-balanced with thin cheeks and a large nose. They returned to the camp, where Chick fed on grass and leaves, and Loghain cooked the two rabbits. Their meat did little to sate his hunger, even with the cheese and bread from their provisions, and he went to bed hungry again. They broke camp in the early morning after a cold breakfast and continued on their long walk.
Loghain woke up that morning with an unfamiliar feeling of tightness in his chest. Not a potent feeling, little more than a whisper of tight breath. He didn't pay much attention to it. He walked, with an eye toward his footing, his ears tuned to Chick's running commentary on the world. He felt better towards afternoon, and by the time they made camp he'd fairly forgotten it. In the morning, however, there was no question about it: he was sick. He couldn't quite remember the last time he was sick, but he was fairly certain he was less than three feet tall at the time. He'd long since come to think of illness in general as a childhood thing, something he was long past. Any adult who took sick was either dying or a tremendous weakling. He didn't think he was dying, which left the other possibility. Frankly he would rather die.
He kept quiet about his illness, and shouldered his share of the camp burden as they set out on the trail again. He was glad that nobody expected him to hold up a conversation, because he was fairly sure he couldn't do it. Not without a great deal of coughing, at least. It was best to save what breath he had for walking.
He did all right that first day. That night was harder: lying down seemed to increase the discomfort of the congestion in his chest. Chick disappeared into the trees and returned in about a half an hour with some herbs he boiled into a tea. He gave this to Loghain to drink and either the heat of it or the herbs, or both, eased him enough to sleep. In the morning, Chick asked him if he felt well enough to continue on.
"I'm all right," Loghain said. "I don't…usually get sick."
"You're new to this world," Chick said. "You may have a natural immunity to the illnesses of your world, but there are illnesses here you've never encountered before. It's only natural you should come down with something. It's as if you were just born."
Chick made him up another dose of herbal tea. "Have you been getting enough to eat?" he asked as he handed over the tin cup. "You're starting to look a little underweight. If you're not getting proper nutrition that could affect your health."
"I'm eating as much as a man my size should eat," Loghain said. "Don't waste too much time worrying about me, all right? I'll be just fine."
But he wasn't just fine. The congestion in his chest was worse than before, and it was difficult to keep up with his healthy companions. Eventually he stopped listening to Chick's cheerful chatter and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other: left foot, right foot, left foot, right. He focused so hard that when the others stopped for the night he kept walking; left foot, right foot, left foot, right, for several steps before Elilia grabbed his shoulder and stopped him.
"You look like shit, Big Man," she said. "More so than usual. Chick, let's get his bedroll and tent set up so he can lay down while we fix up camp."
"I can do my share," Loghain tried to say, but he coughed so hard between words that his sentence was nearly unintelligible.
"Sure you can," Chick said. "But you don't have to. Rest. Elilia and I are more than capable of taking care of the few things that need to be done."
They bustled around and set things up. Loghain stood still and tried to stop his cough. In moments they had his tent up and his bedroll laid out. They pushed him in that direction quite firmly, and he allowed himself to be pushed. "Tomorrow, we stay put," Chick said. "I'll hunt down some herbs I know that will make good medicine. I hope they grow around here. And I'm going hunting. I think you haven't been eating enough. You really look like you've lost quite a bit of weight in not very much time, weight you weren't carrying in surplus."
"I…underwent some changes, recently," Loghain said. His voice was raspy with his breath. "I've been feeling hungrier than usual, since then, but I didn't think I actually needed more food. I thought it was just some type of inherent gluttony of the Wardens. Perhaps I was wrong about that. I thought my face looked a bit thinner than usual when I shaved, but I just thought it was leftover from the beating I took killing the Archdemon."
"If that were the case I would have expected it to get better by now," Chick said. "You lay down and rest. I'll make sure there's plenty of food."
If Loghain weren't so sick he would have put up a fight. It was a testament to how ill he felt that he simply entered his tent and lay down. He was stubborn but he was not stupid. He knew well enough that what was merely a bad chest cold now could easily deepen into the Wet Lung disease later if he did not take care of himself. And taking care of himself meant letting his companions take care of certain things on their own, even when those things impacted him directly. It galled him to display weakness, but there was little choice. For the moment, he was weak.
He heard them bustling about the camp. He turned over onto his side and tried to rest. Hard to do, while others were working. In half an hour or so Elilia scooted inside his tent and handed him a mug of tea. "Drink up," she said. "Food's coming."
Loghain propped himself up on his elbow and drank the hot tea. The taste wasn't much, but the heat and herbs loosened the constriction in his chest.
"I don't usually get sick," he said as he handed back the empty mug.
"I know, you've said that already," Elilia said. "I hope you're not one of those big, tough guys that turns into a little baby when you're sick. Chick knows the herbs but I'm the one that fits into your tent, so you're going to be my responsibility. Lay back down. I'll bring you an extra blanket we can wad up under your head so you can rest while you eat. You probably should have an extra blanket anyway. I can kip under my cloak tonight. I'd better go check on dinner. Chick's out hunting for those herbs he mentioned."
She scooted back out. Loghain lay back down, on his back, waited, and tried not to feel useless. In a few minutes she returned with a blanket she rolled up and stuck behind his head, and then she left and came back with a tin plate of food: meat from the rabbits she shot that afternoon (Loghain hadn't even realized she slipped away to hunt, he was too busy focusing on his feet), cheese, bread, and some dried apple slices.
"Eat up. If you're still hungry when you're finished I'll get you some more. There's no shortage of rabbits in the area, though there isn't much else for game."
"That's fairly typical in human-settled areas," Loghain said. "And the farmers do their best to run the rabbits off, also, at least the farmers that grow vegetables. How do you keep your vegetable garden safe from rabbits?"
"We train giant owls that nest in the trees around our village," Elilia said. "I suppose every bit as brutal as anything humans do to rabbits, but we consider it fair since owls need to eat just as much as rabbits do, and the rabbits are smart enough most of the time to avoid owl nesting areas. The owls also run off intruders and warn us of attacks."
"Sylvan elves domesticate owls?" Loghain said.
"Not domesticate," Elilia said. "Just train. We think of it as a kind of partnership. We give the owls meat from our hunting and they protect our village. They're not tame. We keep our children well away from them."
"These owls pose a threat to your children?"
"I said they were giant owls, didn't I?"
"I guess that I underestimated their giantism."
He waited for her to leave him, but she didn't. She sat at the foot of his bedroll and watched him with her arms folded over her drawn-up knees. "Are you going to eat or what?" she said.
"Are you going to watch me eat?" he asked.
"What's the matter, you shy?" she said.
"I'm uncomfortable being the center of attention, particularly when doing something that could prove…embarrassing. I'm not by nature a messy eater, but accidents happen, especially when one is laying down."
She scrambled out of position to a kind of crabwalk stance. "Point taken. I'll go have my dinner outside."
She departed, and Loghain turned his attention to his meal. Despite his illness he ate with good appetite, and laid his plate aside empty in only a few minutes. A few minutes later Elilia ducked back in and took the plate.
"You need more?" she asked.
"No, thank you," he said.
She looked at him. "Let me phrase that another way. Are you still hungry?"
He blushed. "Yes."
She shook her head as she backed out. "We're trying to get you healthy," she said. "If that means you need more food, then you need more food."
She brought him back another full plate. He wolfed it down as swiftly as the first plate, and didn't even notice that Elilia watched him the whole time. He looked up and saw her just as he finished, and his face blushed red again.
"Do you get something out of watching me eat?" he asked.
"No, it's just…Chick is out looking for herbs, so I'm…never mind. You need more?"
"Are you still hungry?" she asked.
He started slightly at her firmness of tone. "No, I'm fine now, thank you."
She took the plate. "There, that wasn't so hard, was it? I'll go wash up. Chick will hopefully be back soon."
She scooted out of the tent, and Loghain reached back and took the wadded blanket out from behind his head. He lay back and stared at the roof of the tent and tried to calm his breathing. It was nearly full dark by the time he heard Chick's voice outside. Some minutes later, Elilia came in with another mug of tea.
"Chick found those herbs and brewed some of them up for you," she said. "He says it will help break up the congestion in your chest a bit better than what he gave you before. He also says it will probably put you to sleep."
She handed him the mug. He propped himself up on his elbow and sniffed it. "What's in it?" he asked, and took a sip.
"Oleander," she said.
He spit it out. "What?"
"Relax, I'm kidding. I didn't even think you'd know what oleander was. I don't know what the herbs are called, you'd have to ask Chick. I'm reasonably certain they'll work the way he expects them to, though. I don't know much about humans, but we all function in pretty much the same ways, the same medicines work to cure the same illnesses."
Loghain sipped the tea, not without some misgivings. He didn't believe it was poisonous, but it was always difficult for him to trust. It was actually fairly tasty, much better than whatever it was Chick gave him before, which just tasted like hot water somebody dipped something bitter into. He began to feel sleepy almost immediately.
"That's good stuff," he said. "I'm already half-asleep."
"Drink the rest of it, you'll be wholly asleep. That's a good thing," she said.
Perhaps it was, but it was also easier said than done. His natural instinct was to fight any chemical change in his internal makeup, whether it arose from simple drunkenness or from medicinally-induced sleep. This instinct kept him from drinking more than he could handle, but made taking strong medicine an uncomfortable proposition. He finished off the tea and lay back, and the sensation of being compelled to sleep made him jumpy. He jerked bolt upright when Elilia snapped the extra blanket out over him.
"Take it easy," she said.
He lay back again. "This is your blanket," he said. "I can't take it from you."
"I'll be fine under my cloak," she said. "If I get too cold I'll come in and snuggle with you."
He didn't know how to react to that, so he ignored it. She asked him whether there was anything else she could do for him.
"No, thank you, I'm fine," he said.
"All right. You need anything tonight, just give a shout. Good night," she said, and backed out of his tent. He lay still, stared up at the tent roof, and tried his best to relax. He started to drift, compelled by the medicine, but awoke with a start when it suddenly felt as though he were falling. He kicked himself awake twice more before he finally fell asleep.
Loghain was no stranger to dreams, and some of his dreams were downright peculiar, in his own estimation at least. The fact that most of them were some degree of nightmare scarcely registered to him, he felt no greater terror than he felt every day of his life. Battle was a common theme, and memories in general. Often he found himself in the middle of familiar battlegrounds with the enemy pressing in on him, only to realize that he was bare ass. Psychology was unknown in Ferelden, and would have been regarded with deep suspicion if it were known, but he didn't require analysis to recognize that this dream likely symbolized his fear of being taken unprepared.
But there was no dream of battle tonight, naked or otherwise. Perhaps dreams were shaped by other forces in this world than the demons and spirits of the Fade, but the end results were familiar. His memories painted scenes in his mind, laced with the subtle thrill of fear that he would never see the places and people he dreamed of again.
He dreamed of Gwaren. He could imagine he smelled the smoke and dust from the charcoal burners, the heady perfume of the keep's rose garden, lovingly tended now by a small army of professional gardeners in the memory of the Teyrna who tended them in life, the fish brought in off the ocean at the docks. He could hear the saws of the timber jacks and the ringing hammer of the blacksmith, the pounding feet of a precision drill in the training yard. He imagined himself walking up the solitary road into the village, on the path he knew so well, past the houses, the tavern, the smithy, the woodmill, to the keep settled above the rocky shoreline. As the squat, unlovely building drew nearer, he felt more and more afraid, a terror he'd never felt when approaching the keep in his waking hours. The front doors opened and the source of his terror ran out to greet him; no monster, merely a small, blonde-haired child with pigtails streaming. Even as he reached down to scoop her up he realized that he'd always been afraid of her, more than any other thing in his life. Afraid of himself when he was around her, afraid of letting her down. He'd let her down, horribly, and he might never have a chance to make up for that, if it were even possible. As the little dream daughter snuggled into his shoulder he felt an overwhelming sense of regret.
Possibly triggered by this feeling, the dream changed. Instead of a child he suddenly held a woman, and that woman was not Anora. Even though he could not see her face he knew the woman was Celia, his deceased wife. He held her tight and hoped in some way to atone for all the times he left her alone because he had work to do elsewhere, to finally love her enough to be the man she deserved. She deserved a man who loved her with all of his heart, instead of a man who kept a portion in reserve for a love he'd lost. He'd settled for her, and she was so much better than that. It was never fair to her, yet she never once complained. She had seemed content to be second-best, and that was perhaps the worst of it. If she'd fought him, fought for him, things might have been better. Or worse. There was no telling.
He woke, and the dream faded from him, but left him the memories, bittersweet. He remembered how he met her. There was no warmth in the memory, only a species of shame. It was shortly after the battle of Denerim, in the last days that the main garrison was at Gwaren. Preparatory to moving the whole army to Denerim, Maric and his new bride Rowan declared a holiday, and their first royal ball. At this ball Loghain was to be honored for his service. Maric suggested strongly that he not attend alone. Compelled by pride, he marched straight out into the village and asked the first local girl he saw, a pretty blonde who was at the village well drawing water. The fact that she accepted him came as something of a surprise, particularly since she seemed inordinately shy, but there was no sense of pride in that acceptance. She was handy, and he used her, used her to prove that he'd overcome the pain of losing the woman he loved to the man he both loved and hated in almost equal measures. In that moment Celia wasn't a woman to him, she was a thumb of the nose at the heartache he lived with every day. He knew it, and it shamed him, but he couldn't imagine himself acting otherwise. He wasn't in full command of himself, little as he liked to confess it.
At some point memories bled into dreams, and once again he found himself reliving that confounded royal ball, held at the Gwaren keep of all places. It made no sense to hold a damned ball in Gwaren, not when they had a garrison ready and waiting in the capital, when the palace was, to all intents and purposes, theirs, but that was Maric. When he wanted to do something, no common sense in the world could stop him.
"I have nothing fit to wear to a royal ball," was Celia's sole concern, and he'd allayed that concern by saying it would not be a smashingly formal affair, that no one had access to the sort of finery one might expect to see at a ball. It wasn't an intentional lie, he'd had no idea of the ingenuity of the upper classes when it came to kitting themselves up in their best, and he had not a clue that Maric had a suit of fine military dress made up for him to wear. If he had known, he probably would not have cared. Her feelings meant little to him, and it was nothing to him if she showed up in a plain peasant's gown when all the other women wore silks and lace. He didn't even know her name, nor did he ask. It did not matter, not then. He promised to meet her at her home the night of the ball, made note of where it was when she pointed it out to him, and left her without so much as a second thought.
Even in his sleep, he shuddered to remember how cold he was towards her. How callous. Any woman would have deserved better. And Celia, who he quickly learned was sweet-natured and perfectly innocent, even after…what he did to her that night. What did it say that she accepted him? That she trusted him? He would've been prepared to swear she didn't know him from the Maker when he first asked her, to judge from her surprise when he came to her house on the night of the ball in full military regalia with general's stars on his gold epaulets. He had hated that uniform. Not what it stood for, just the gaudiness of it. Worse once Maric finished pinning medals to it.
The lower portion of her family's house was given over to workshop space and a sort of showroom of her father's cabinetry, with a small kitchen in a lean-to on the back. Celia, whose name was still unknown to him at the time, came down the stairs from the living quarters on the second floor. Her dress was a simple cream-colored poplin with turquoise trimming, clearly the best she had. She looked fresh and pretty and simple, and even in his unusually callous condition he saw and approved. But her eyes grew huge when she saw him in his fancy getup.
"I…I'm underdressed," she said, and her cheeks blushed roses. "I thought you said this would not be a formal affair."
"You look perfect," he said, and he meant it. She was not beautiful, which generally struck him as an artificial term reserved for those made up deliberately, but she was pretty. Very pretty, in the simple way that he liked best. She wasn't powerful, like Rowan, but there was something about her that drew him regardless. She was dainty, and looked a bit fragile. She appealed to his protective instincts.
And something about him seemed to make her father's protective instincts quiver. He stood by his workbench, still in his leather apron, and his hand twitched inches away from a particularly wicked-looking awl.
"What did you say your rank was, young man?" he asked, with his eyes full of all that gold braid.
"I didn't say, but last I knew I was a commander. It seems I may have been promoted without my knowledge," Loghain said.
"I don't mind telling you, I'm not too pleased with the idea of my daughter seeing a soldier, of any rank. It's a dangerous life."
"It's just a dance, ser."
"Ayah, that's how it starts."
"I promise you, ser, I'll take good care of her," he'd said, and what a joke that was. He'd taken terrific care of her, that night. If he were any more caring, he would have raped her.
Maybe he did.
She approached him, cautiously. Perhaps after all she sensed that he was dangerous. "I'm…going to stand out, I think," she said.
"Yes," he said. "There won't be a prettier girl in the keep."
Those roses bloomed in her cheeks again. He knew a strange feeling of power, knowing that he, of all people, could make her blush. He offered her his arm and she slipped hers through it. She felt right, there, under his arm. Rowan was tall, and powerfully built. Walking with her was much like walking with another man. This was different, in a good way. He liked it. Much of this and perhaps he could forget Rowan altogether.
They left the house, with her father projecting unspoken imprecations at him, and walked out into the twilight village. He had a notion that she'd never left the house as late as this before. She breathed in the crisp late evening air and cast avid eyes on the fading sunset.
"It's a beautiful night," she said. "I still can't believe that I'll be spending it at a royal ball."
"It won't be that impressive, I should think," he said. "Boring, to tell the truth. Just a lot of born-to-privilege people congratulating each other for winning a war that's far from won."
They would also be celebrating the wedding of Maric and Rowan, but he wasn't about to say anything about that. For that matter, they would be celebrating his accomplishments in the war, and he wasn't any more eager to disclose that information. She would find out, more's the pity, soon enough.
"Even so, to be in the same room with a king! I never thought I'd find myself in such a position," she said.
"He's just a man, same as any other," he said.
"Maybe so, but still."
It wasn't far to the keep. A doorman registered them at the main doors. He didn't ask Loghain's name, but he asked hers.
"Celia," she said, shyly.
"The Lady Celia," the doorman said, and began to write it in his book.
"No, not Lady. Just…Celia," she said.
"I…see," the man said, and after a moment's hesitation jotted something down in his book. "Enjoy your evening."
Inside, the homely and half-destroyed keep was transformed with candles and decorations. Even the crumbling bits were dressed up with bunting and lights. Loghain wondered just how sound the structure was after the beating it had taken during the battles it had so recently seen, but if a few ladies got splinters or a beam fell on top of some noble lordling's head it was nothing much to him. As long as he was quick enough to dodge it himself, that was.
They were slightly early, so the line waiting to be presented to the King and Queen wasn't so very long yet. They queued up, though waiting to greet Maric struck Loghain as patently ridiculous. There was a time to stand on ceremony, and perhaps this was one such time. Anything to put off having to speak to…her.
Standing there, with a girl on his arm who stood not much higher than his elbow, made him feel distinctly…incongruous. This was not where he belonged. Maybe this whole thing was a bad idea.
"People are staring at me," Celia said, in a very quiet voice. Loghain looked around and saw that it was true. Some of the starers were men, but most were women, decked out in their silk and velvet finery. He could see a distinct lip curl on most of their faces.
"Ignore them," he said, and didn't bother to lower his voice. "They're stuck-up. They don't know the value of the common man. It's their loss."
"It's still…uncomfortable," she said.
"Even though you're not turned out in silk and velvet, you're still prettier than any of them," he said. "Just keep that in mind and you'll be fine."
She blushed again, and was silent as they slowly progressed forward in line. Loghain felt somewhat better: allaying her discomfort with a compliment seemed to make him more confident as well. Perhaps this whole night was ridiculous, with dancing and foolishness he wasn't accustomed to, but he could do it. He could do anything he put his mind to.
Then they reached the end of the line.
Maric clasped his hand instantly, but Loghain didn't look at him. His eyes were riveted on Rowan, who stood there radiant with a smile of pride on her lips and her eyes on her husband. He was so struck by that expression he nearly forgot to kneel. She looked so…happy.
Isn't that a good thing? Do you want her to suffer?
No, no. He didn't want that. Just…well…she'd gotten over him so…quickly. Of course, this - Maric - was what she'd always wanted. Perhaps it made it easy to forget what she'd had.
He finally followed protocol and dropped to one knee with his head lowered. It felt stranger than ever to kneel before this man. Right now, he'd rather strangle him. Love and hate were so tangled up inside him he could scarcely tell one feeling from the other. Right now, most likely it was hate that was dominant within him. That would change over time, and oddly enough, that hate would only serve to make his love stronger. But it would also breed resentment, that one day would spill over onto another king.
"Celia, is it? My, you are lovely," Maric said, and cast a lingering gaze down and up her body. Without even thinking about it, Loghain took one half step that put him pretty much in front of her. "I hope you enjoy your evening, my dear. You haven't come in the best company. I shall be interested to see whether you manage to get him to dance."
Celia's cheeks turned fiery red and she cast her already downcast eyes to her feet. She didn't even try to speak, merely tugged at Loghain's arm as if to pull him away. He took the hint, and they moved on. He didn't want to spend any great deal of time there, anyway.
He danced with her, mostly to prove that he could. He'd never done it before but the steps weren't difficult, not for someone in complete control of their body. His styling was perhaps more aggressive than graceful, but she didn't appear to mind being swept around the floor. When they didn't dance, he drank. He wasn't on the way to drunk, not yet, but he certainly drank more than he normally would. He kept thinking about Rowan's happy smile, and he did not say a word to Celia. His silence was hardly unnatural for him, and he radiated that, so she did not seem to take anything amiss.
Some time after the receiving line finally tapered off Maric called the hall to attention and began to spew about sacrifice and integrity and oh my bleeding piles blah blah blah. It all led up to Loghain being called forward in front of the entire crowd, addressed as "General" Loghain, which proved the promotion he didn't know he'd gotten, to receive a number of medals and a bloody knighthood. He might have protested, but what use? He was tired of fighting Maric's urge to reward. Some battles weren't worth winning.
Maric gave a speech that was more than long enough to make kneeling in front of him painful, both literally and figuratively, and when he was finally allowed to rise, Rowan squeezed both his hands in hers and said something he didn't hear. He saw her, though, saw her look at him with wide-open eyes, saw her prideful smile. Proud of him? For some reason, that made it worse, what he felt inside. Made it feel more than ever that she'd never really felt anything for him at all. He didn't know what a good actress she was, how she struggled against the tears she couldn't afford to show. He saw only her brave face.
After the presentation ceremony, they returned to dancing, and grazing at the banquet tables. Loghain towed Celia around the floor like a man possessed, and tried to replace Rowan's face with hers. And he drank. A great deal more than he was used to drinking. He drank well past the point where he felt uncomfortable, and tried to drink enough to drown his memories. He did a fairly good job of it, all told.
If he weren't quite thoroughly drunk he never would have done it. Even so, was he so drunk that he did not notice her hesitation when he made the offer of his room at the keep? No, he was not. But she accepted his offer, and he was more than drunk enough to overcome his scruples, if not to forget them. He took her back to his room, and then he took her, and even as drunk as he was it was obvious enough that it was her first time with a man. She deserved so much better than a drunken fool.
He woke in the early morning with a pounding head and an armful of warm woman and wondered just what the hell he had done. She had accepted him, but why? Was she simply too afraid to refuse? The thought that he might have taken an unwilling woman turned his stomach. Or maybe that was the hangover.
But no, not all of the deep-rooted anxiety he now felt could be explained by too much alcohol. Since he didn't know what else to do about it, the moment she woke up he proposed marriage. She accepted. Her father wasn't happy about it, or about what he doubtless knew they got up to on the way toward morning, but he accepted the inevitable. They were married within the week, and in only a few days more he left her to follow the army to Denerim. He didn't see her again for nearly four years, when the war was finally over. In that time, the child they created that night was born and died. He never met his son.
He woke, covered in sweat, his fever gone. The lingering emotions of his dream made certain he still felt sick, though.
"You okay, Chief? You look rattled."
He raised his head. Elilia squatted at his feet. "Have you been watching me sleep?" he asked. He found this more than a little creepy.
"Just for a few minutes, since I got up this morning. You had a bit of a lie-in. You look like you're not so sick anymore, but you still look…freaked."
"I had a…bad dream."
"What business is it of yours?"
"I'm just curious about how humans dream."
"I dreamt of things I can't change," he said. "Leave it at that."
"All right, fine. You ready for breakfast?"
"I will be. After…"
"Oh, I see. You need to 'do the necessary.' Latrine was dug just past the treeline."
"You're not going to follow me, are you?" he asked.
"You don't think I have better things to do than watch you take a shit?" she asked.
"Hard to say. You seem to like watching…things."
"You're sick, you need watching over. But not that much. Go do your business. I'll have Chick brew you up another dose of tea. And thank you, by the way, for doing your business properly instead of messing yourself like sick people sometimes do."
"I'm not that sick," he said, and climbed out from under the blankets.
"You're human. For all I know, you mess yourself on general principles."
"Have you known me to mess myself heretofore?" he demanded.
"No, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
"I will assure you, I do not mess myself unless I have absolutely no control over it whatsoever, and that hasn't happened since my mother trained me out of nappies when I was small."
She held up her hands even as she got to her knees and scrambled backwards towards the entrance of the tent. "Hey, I didn't say you must mess yourself, just that I didn't know whether you did or didn't. I'm going. If I keep you any longer, you won't be able to help but mess yourself, and I'm not cleaning you up."
"It's not that urgent, but I appreciate it."
How strange it was, discussing bodily functions with a female elf. With anyone, really. What kind of woman spoke of such things? Celia would have been humiliated into a fainting spell if she so much as passed audible wind in his presence, even after fifteen years of marriage. Rowan probably wouldn't have been so uptight, but she had too much class to speak in such an uncouth manner. This one? Class was an open question, but there could be little doubt she enjoyed getting a rise out of people. It was better not to take the bait.
He took care of his business, wished mightily for a bath, and returned to the campfire after washing up as best as he could in the river. As he approached the fireside Chick handed him a cup of tea. Elilia stirred a pot of gruel.
"This will be ready in a minute," she said. "We need to go hunting. I'm hoping to find something a little better than rabbit next time we go out. Deer would be nice, but that's a lot of meat for two people. Of course, one of those people is human, and seems to require a lot more than the other…"
"It may be that I require more than the typical human," Loghain said. "I suppose that's a question I ought to have asked my superior officer. I didn't expect to live long enough for it to become a problem."
"The Elder said you were something called a Grey Warden," Elilia said. "What is that, some kind of super-soldier?"
"In my world, yes, I suppose it is," he said. "In a world without darkspawn, we have no relevance."
"What are darkspawn?" Chick asked.
And so he explained all over again, about the darkspawn, and the taint, the Blights, the Archdemons, the Wardens. They both listened to him, egged him on when he tried to stop to eat, wheedled greater detail from him every time he took a breath. He supposed it made for quite the story, even in his terse rendition.
"I don't think I quite understand," Chick said. "These darkspawn, well, they sound dreadful, but not so much different from some of the evil creatures that live here in our world, if more…virulent. Why do you need special soldiers to kill them?"
"You don't, although Wardens are the only ones who can do so without the risk of dying of the Taint. What the Wardens are really for is to kill the Archdemons. If someone who isn't Corrupted kills them, their soul travels to the nearest tainted creature and is reborn. When a Warden kills them, the soul attacks the Warden instead, and both supposedly die. Apparently that isn't altogether accurate, since I survived. I think."
"You doubt your survival?" Chick asked.
"Jumping planes, finding myself in another world…it's all rather…hard to conceive. I know it happened, because here I am, but…well…they say you go someplace else when you die. Maybe this is it. Although that doesn't explain you, I suppose."
"You think you can catch cold in the afterlife?" Elilia asked.
He snorted. "Fair point. Maybe I am still alive."
"So when you became a Grey Warden, you made an oath to forswear all former obligations and titles, correct?" Chick said. "But you told that fellow Okeer that you were a General, and a Lord as well. Why would you make such an oath? It sounds like you gave up a great deal."
Loghain stared down at the dregs of his gruel and stirred at it with his spoon. "You have a right to know. I was sentenced to take the Oath. For embroiling my nation in a civil war that nearly destroyed it."
"But…why would you do such a thing?" Chick asked.
"It wasn't intentional. Far from it; my only goal was to protect my nation. But I…I went about it the wrong way, I suppose. I'm not much good for anything except warfare. When I become involved in politics, bad things happen. I perceived that the threat from our neighboring nation, Orlais, was greater than the threat from the darkspawn, and I opposed my king, who wished aid from the Orlesians against the darkspawn. I withdrew my army from the field of battle and left him to die, which divided the nation. In my attempts to draw it back together I was less than diplomatic. If a problem can't be solved with a sword, it's a fair bet I don't know how to solve it. I knew this about myself, and yet I persisted in thinking that only I knew the best way to protect my homeland. That only I had Ferelden's best interests in mind. I didn't trust the young folks who were supposed to be in charge, even though one of them was my own daughter. I didn't trust them to be able to deal with situations not too dissimilar to things I myself experienced when I was their age. I don't even know why. I knew my daughter was capable, but I…I never saw her as a real adult. I never saw any of them as adults. To my eyes, they were children playing with toys, but all the time it was I who was breaking the nation. I…I made a long series of horrible mistakes, and my people paid dearly for them. A young man, a young Warden, brought the worst of these mistakes to light at a Landsmeet, that is, a gathering of the titled of Ferelden. I call them mistakes but they were crimes, no worse than those committed by men in pursuit of similar goals, just maybe, but damning with so little positive to show for them. The nobility turned against me, but I refused to concede defeat. The Warden challenged me to single combat, and I lost. Instead of killing me, as he probably ought to have done, he conscripted me. It was merciful of him, since all I wanted was to serve my country. He gave me a second chance to do that. My death was meant to be my atonement. I suppose now I have to find it in another way."
He set aside the remainder of his breakfast, and looked up at his companions half-defiantly. "I'll understand if you no longer wish to travel in my company. I do not think that I would."
"Are you…sorry…for the crimes you committed?" Chick asked, cautiously.
"I am sorry that they were mistakes," Loghain said. "Had they been the means to succeed in my ends of protecting Ferelden, I would not have been sorry at all."
"What kind of crimes were they exactly?" Elilia demanded.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I sent an amateur assassin to poison a Lord I knew would make trouble for me. The only thing I regret is that the assassin failed to kill him. I told you already that I left my king to die, along with half my army. I regret the soldiers we lost, good men and women, but I would do it again. I may have been wrong about the verity of the darkspawn threat, but that doesn't mean I was wrong about the gravity of the Orlesian threat. And I was right about one thing, we didn't need their help to defend ourselves against the darkspawn. With the young Warden's work to bring in the aid of the Dwarves and the Dalish and the Circle, we had no need of the bloody Orlesians and their Chevaliers. He did what I could never have done, broker an alliance that saved us all. Still, I did not trust in foreign aid, and opposed him. That was not a crime, but it was a mistake, though if I had not have done I would likely not have learned how strong he truly was, how capable, and I would have been left wondering whether I was doing the right thing by supporting him. I had my doubts even so but at least it felt as though there were no other choices by then. But you want to know about my crimes, not my mistakes. The only other one of note was probably not much noticed by the other nobles, since most of them profited by such things directly or indirectly, but it was a big thing for me. Slaughtering recalcitrant nobles was expensive, and made the rest of the nobles a bit reluctant to relinquish their taxes. The treasury was being bled dry, and there was nothing to be done about it. Then some Tevinter slavers came with a proposition: they would take people from a plague-infested district of the city in exchange for a great deal of coin. I accepted, since they could cure the plague and it seemed preferable to the death that otherwise awaited them. But it shouldn't have been my decision. I wish now that I'd at least made the slavers work openly, give the people a choice about whether they wanted to give up their freedom in exchange for healing. I never would have thought myself capable of selling another soul into a life of slavery, but you find out all the dirty things you're willing and able to do when the chips are down. It is the only action I took that I truly regret. There had to have been another way. I was just not wise enough to find it."
"It seems like these people were looking at death," Elilia said. "Slavery seems a better option to me."
"Just barely, and only perhaps," Chick said. "There was no other way to get them healing?"
"The Chantry was the only institution in Ferelden with the power to dispense magical healing, and they and I were not on good terms. They didn't much care about the fate of the common man anyway, particularly when the common man was an elf, as these were."
"They were elves?" Elilia said.
"Yes. In my homeland, elves live very much as second-class citizens, if that. Most humans look down on elves. I did not believe myself to be one of them, but perhaps prejudice did color my ability to sign that blasted contract. I've always told myself I hate all men equally, except for the bloody Orlesians who have a special place in the deepest pits of my black heart. I don't like to think I've been lying to myself."
"You haven't seemed to have any particular problem with me," Elilia said.
"You're one elf. I can deal with one person at a time. Its large groups that I hate."
"If you don't mind elves one at a time then you aren't prejudiced," she said.
"Well, you're very forgiving," he said.
"I'm just glad to know you've got a dark side. I'll keep an eye on you, of course, but if there's anything I hate, it's an alabaster saint. Like Chick."
The bariaur visibly bridled. "I'm not a…I mean, I have a…oh, phooey."
"See? Only an alabaster saint would actually say the word 'phooey.'"
"Are you saying that you actually approve of the things he did?" Chick said. "I know you're a tiefling, but I thought you were basically a good-hearted person regardless."
It was Elilia's turn to bridle, and Loghain couldn't help but notice how her eyes flicked nervously at him at mention of the term "tiefling," which meant nothing to him. She spoke through clenched teeth.
"I am a good-hearted person, but it isn't always easy. I admire those who are able to act against the inclination to commit evil and I despise those for whom the choice is as simple as breathing. You don't understand the struggle, the…the wrongness. I'm just glad I'm not completely surrounded by people who don't understand how hard it is sometimes. He acts decent enough on most occasions, so if Loghain has to struggle against his darker nature, too, that's fine by me. Misery loves company."
"I'm…sorry. I personally find it tremendously admirable that you struggle against the darker part of your nature, but I think you are wrong in assuming that I don't know what it is like. We all struggle against the impulse to evil, no matter what our background. Occasional lapses are forgivable, and perhaps especially in a time of war, with so much stress abounding. And perhaps it is true, if these actions had worked for the greater good, there would be nothing more to discuss. Still, when you say that you are seeking atonement, Loghain, I hope you are in earnest. You have much to make up for," Chick said.
"I know, and I know that I can never make up for any of it. The best I can hope for is an honorable death. I will do everything I can with what remains of my life to atone for the things I've done."
"What's so honorable about dying?" Elilia asked.
"The manner of death, not the fact," Loghain said. "If you die in defense of the helpless or an ideal, then you can say you died honorably."
"You can't say anything. You're dead. Seems to me a better atonement is to live honorably, and leave the dying to the dishonorable," Elilia said.
"Every man owes a death," Loghain said. "Perhaps it is arrogant of me, but I only wish to die well. I am an old man."
"Bull. You couldn't be more than fifty."
"I am more than fifty, and a Fereldan peasant doesn't live much longer than that under ordinary circumstances. My father lived into his sixth decade, but I don't think I can expect that."
"You said you were a lord, not a peasant."
"I was born a peasant. I became a lord after I killed enough Orlesians."
"Who were these Orlesians that you gain a title from killing them?" Chick asked.
"They conquered my homeland roughly a century ago and occupied our nation for eighty years. The latter years of that occupation were…difficult, to say the least. Their culture makes a violent separation between the classes, and the wealthy and powerful can do whatever they want to lesser beings without consequence. I helped kick them out, and helped to put a king on the throne. I was rewarded for my service. I didn't want to be. We don't always get what we want, or what we deserve."
"What did you deserve?" Elilia asked.
"Not to be put in charge of half the bloody country, that's for certain. I did my best, or at least I hope I did, but I was never educated well enough to rule, and I didn't have the temperament. The king was my friend, and always had rather…grandiose ideas, not least about me. He seemed to think me capable of any good thing, though I think he was aware of most of the bad things of which I was capable. I suppose in the end I did things that would have surprised him, but if he'd still been alive, I'd never have done them. Maker…I wish he were still alive."
"My people have a saying," Elilia said. "Wish in one hand, shit in the other, see which one fills up first."
"I presume by 'your people' you are referring to tieflings," Chick said, with some asperity. "I've never known sylvan elves to speak so crudely."
Elilia bridled again, and this time Loghain decided to voice the question in his head.
"What's a tiefling, and why do you get upset every time he calls you one?" he asked.
Elilia stood and paced for a moment, while she ran her hands through her hair. "All right, if you must know, you…you heard Chick call me 'planetouched,' back when we first met him, right? Planetouched is a general term for someone whose ancestry includes someone from another plane, like you."
"I thought people crossing planes was uncommon," Loghain said.
"It is, for most types of people, but there are some…'people'…from some planes, that cross planes as easily as gods, and others that find ways through thin spots between connected planes. Some of these people are what we call 'celestials,' amazing, godlike beings of great power and inherent goodness. Most are little different from the average person, as likely to be brave and good as they are to be cowardly and cruel. Some…some are what we tend to call 'fiends.' Evil creatures that exist only to spread wickedness. A tiefling is a planetouched person whose ancestry traces back to one of the latter. Sometimes they're the offspring of rapes, other times the offspring of ordinary people with enough of an evil streak to match a fiend or half-fiend. Most tieflings are as wicked as their ancestors. I'm pulled in that direction, but I do my best to resist. I left the wood to get away from my mother's people, who all watched me like they were waiting for me to stick a knife in their backs, but it seems I can't run away from what I am. I'd like to know how Chick knew I was a tiefling. Unlike some of my tiefling ancestors, I don't have horns or cloven feet."
"You smell like brimstone," Chick said, with a note of apology in his voice. "It's very faint, but bariaur noses are keen."
"Great. Something else to be self-conscious about," she said, miffed. "Well, now you know. I suppose you'll run me off, now."
"Why would we do that?" Loghain asked.
"Because that's what people do to tieflings. Run them off," Elilia said.
"We're not going to run you off," Chick said. "We like you."
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," Loghain said. "We tolerate you. You're not an evil person, if such a creature exists, but you are a malignant harpy."
For whatever reason, that made her smile. She sat down again and folded her legs under her.
Loghain stood up. "Don't get too comfortable. The day's wasting, and we've got a long way to go."
"We're not going anywhere today," Chick said. "You are going to stay put and get over this cold."
"I am over this cold, and I'm not laying around here for a day."
"You're not completely well, and if you push yourself you'll get sick again. We'll stay here today and tomorrow, if you're feeling all right, we'll continue on. We're not on a schedule, and the only one of us with any destination in mind is you. I'll give you some more tea to put you to sleep, so you don't chafe under the inactivity. Another dose will help you anyway, I still hear a bit of congestion in your chest when you speak," Chick said.
"I am not staying here for a day," Loghain said.
"I will have Chick sit on you," Elilia said. "Quit fighting. Neither one of us is going to carry you when you keel over."
"I don't keel over," Loghain said, but that was as much fight as he had in him, and when Chick handed him a mug of steaming tea he drank it without further comment. Almost immediately, he became drowsy. Unwilling to fall asleep in the open by the campfire, he crawled back into his tent.
"One day. That's it," he said, a final parting sally for the sake of pride.