And when you find that you are losing height,

when the earth calls you down to its own slogging,

when it's been decided that you've travelled long enough

as ghosts, silent and apart, you know

some disaster of hunger and cold awaits

—your bones' location to be a mystery for thirty years—

you know your limbs may no longer have the knack

of pulling, of recovery, of resistance, and you're glad anyway

to be mortal again, and stumbling.

From Polar Explorer Salomon August Andrée (1897)

Elizabeth Bradfield


x.

Growing up, he is her hero.

He is a painting of bravery made with the colours blood-red and victory-purple and his face in those images she has of him, his face as she is sculpting him out of clay to be by her side on the fields, in the dirt, knowing that he, too, rose from her ignoble roots. Sometimes she will speak to him and he will answer. The sun is scorching today, he will say. (She does not know what heroes speak of.) Or something silly and stupid about the beets that make her hands callous and insensitive. Cauthrien might explain the difference between sugar beets and spinach beets and he'll look at her, amused, saying I know, my father was a farmer.

It is much easier to love King Maric who is handsome and good, with a posture of humble pride in the seat of his throne but Cauthrien loves Loghain. He came from the dirt of the fields. 

"That was impressive," he says as he dismounts his horse that first time they meet; those are the first words he ever truly speaks to her.

"T-thank you, ser."

She stands up, as tall as she can be and he looks at her with icy blue eyes and she keeps thinking it is a dream because the colours are wrong but for once it's not. The man before her is the Hero of River Dane. Through a fog of rushed panic and realisations, she hears him ask for her name.

"I... it's Brianna, ser. But I-I... everyone calls me Cauthrien."

"Cauthrien," he says, nodding. As if he is coming to a conclusion there on the spot, on the dirty road leading away from her home.

And then he creates her, like the Maker.

x.

"You will have to become hard", he tells her in the beginning, when he is still her everything and has given her a horse and a sword. "Impenetrable. They spot every flaw in your armour, do not doubt that."

Cauthriel grows scales on her arms, ironbark on her back and a shield of bronze around her heart; she gets up early in the mornings and washes her face in ice cold water and never grimaces or flinches. She learns to duel, to parry and evade and roll away and strike again, harder. Two weeks into their journey she has already defeated fifteen of Loghain's footsoldiers and two of his knights. Eventually she duels Loghain himself outside the Brecilian forest, her heart beating so fast she falls without effort, but he doesn't scold her.

"You will be trained by Ser Erlina in Gwaren." Loghain hands her a piece of cloth to clean her face. "What she cannot teach you is not worth learning."

When they first ride into Denerim, Loghain places his hand on her back as he leads her through the gates, silently directing her away from the bustling marketplace with its noise and turmoil and towards the path meant for her. They slide into it with such ease, her new master seems cut out to fit perfectly in this mould. Like a hand in a glove, tailor made. Ashamed, Cauthriel stares – mouth open like a bloody chasind – and there is something close to gentleness in Loghain's gaze as it falls upon her.

"Don't be impressed by the fops and dabblers, girl. Never let them look down on you." 

So she holds her head high and her voice becomes cool, like ice.  

x. 

Even in flesh and blood, he is her hero.

She is taught, over the years, how to fight and lead, how to draw maps of victory in ink as dark as earth and cut the losses when defeat is approaching. Long days of practice and endless nights of shoulder-by-shoulder exploration of lands and borders, his hands gesturing the battles while her eyes follow.

She is taught how to carry herself around nobility, how to smother emotions and participate in their games, on their terms which are vulgar and tiresome but clad in softest silk. You must never say what you truly mean. And you must never lose your composure. Sophistications you will learn in time or die trying, Loghain calls it once. She never forgets the dark notes in his voice.

He is her hero on the battlefield, with a sword in his hand and a shield that upsets her balance even now.

"You need to be faster," he mutters, offering a hand to drag her up, back on her feet.

"I am the best bloody soldier in all of Gwaren!"

"Gwaren is a town of inbred idiots. Surely your ambitions are grander than that." He looks straight at her, his expression both disdainful and challenging all at once and something clicks inside her, something cracks open.

This is the day Cauthrien fells Loghain in a duel and nobody is around to see it.

Shoving her knee into his side she triumphantly holds her sword in front of him, pressing down softy against his throat. He makes no sound, barely breathes, but she catches the ghost of a smile somewhere and as she relents, he looks proud.

"Good girl," he says, very low and almost under his breath, his hand pressing down on her shoulder.

Cauthrien only manages a curt nod in response to that.

She has defeated her hero if only in bits and parts, unable as she is to drive him out of her, or her into him.

(And he is ever her hero in the agonising moments alone – or with men who are not him - in the dark when she rubs sweaty palms and fingertips over her body and comes hot-flushed and boneless, biting down on her lower lip as the faint scent of earth and milk and metals on her hands sends her to sleep.)

x.

"He is a presence, for certain," one of the older female knights says a long time ago, grinning. Cauthrien is still very young then and blushes fiercely when all the eyes are upon her. "You are not the first and will not be the last to think so."

"Should you have delusions about his affection for his soldiers, you will be in for a disappointment, however," another woman - a soldier with short blonde hair and a scar across her forehead - says and pours ale into Cauthrien's stoup. Already the world is spinning but she doesn't protest. "The Teyrn does not indulge."

"A great pity, indeed," the knight says, knowingly, and they both laugh.

x. 

"He's mad," one of the lieutenants seethes through his teeth as they approach Ostagar. "Hasn't slept in days, keeps walking around at night like a ghoul. Barking orders-"

"Quiet!" Cauthrien orders, too weary to balance on the right side of the lines.

"Brann is right, Commander."

"This is a lost battle," Serena - the newest knight in Maric's Shield - has a young voice that is brittle but confident. "What I do not understand is why the Teyrn would send us to our deaths now, in this place. What can be gained through this?"

"I told you to be quiet! You have work to do, all of you! Get out of my sight, stop whining!"

"Yes, ser."

And yet. She closes her eyes. Yet they are not wrong; Cauthrien is neither blind nor stupid and this is the worst of all, her open eyes in front of his undisguised transformation. Here stands his soldiers, good men and women who are willing to follow Loghain Mac Tir even in death, even now. He owes them respect and offers nothing. She owes them speeches of morale and comfort but cannot speak.

She has no words, her mouth is dry and barren and where the appropriate words should be she finds only the darkest of sounds, rising like howls in the nights when she grants herself doubts and fears. 

He's not himself but she can't say this, say it as though there is an imposter inside him. His will is her command and her duty to carry out. She cannot say it.

In retrospect there are things she should have seen, of course. Things she should have spoken of:

His eyes as she offers to ride beside the king and Duncan, the way his fingers curl around her wrist, painfully hard and brutal, and his voice like a broken chord in her head. Don't be a bloody fool. How he pushes away from the men, averts his gaze as though he tries to forget his own oaths, those he has admitted to her in the dark. Remain close enough to know what you lose. How she sees a cruel streak in his eyes and hears it in his voice and knows, because he is her hero and her dark mirror, that certain losses are too monstrous to shoulder and in order to make them, you have to sacrifice yourself.

In Ostagar, Cauthrien counts the losses for him.

(Two hundred soldiers. Thirty-five widows, fifteen widowers. Three lieutenants. One king.)

x.

He is her hero and she is his delusion, his lie.

This is a memory:

It takes place during a time of hoarfrost and mountains of snow and they are staying in Gwaren because his wife is very ill and only the Maker and the priests can reach her now. The estate fills up with people, with grief, with closed doors and whispered prayers. Cauthrien stands in the outskirts, too heavily clad in her armour and not nearly as soft as is required in these chambers, not trained in ways of comfort.

And the roses all around the bed. They are doing what they can to keep the stench away but it is not enough, death is stronger.

And Anora, red-eyed and stoic like her father. Her hands tremble in the Great Hall at supper, her face thinner each day but she carries her emotions deep beneath her skin and pulls through everything.

And Loghain in his chambers, stone-faced, trying to battle the inevitable by drawing maps. She wonders what he would like to invade in order to bring her back, what losses will be appropriate to pay for her death. Or if he already paid.

"Can I be of service, your grace?" she asks, grateful for a role of submission in this place where formality is what reins her in. "Is there something you need? A meal? Wine?"

"You look so much like her," he says, oblivious to her questions, a faint trace of disappointment around the edges of his words. This is, Cauthrien thinks later, the first time he looks at her and sees her. "Very much like her."

The Teyrn's wife is fair and blonde, Cauthrien dark as sin and built like a boy and she thinks of pointing this out, but can't bring herself to it.

And the way he allows himself to remain in her company, ask her to stay, even if she is a lie.

x.

He creates her.

There are moments, quick and seamless, almost escaping the pattern of time, when she thinks she creates him too.

He is a painting of blood-red and victory-purple and sometimes, as they come to rest in an unlikely place or make their way through his maps, Cauthrien covers the flaked lines and faded colours under her sprawled fingers.

Drawing her own blood, she re-paints him.

x. 

He creates her.

Be strong, he orders when they meet and she obeys. Cauthrien becomes ice, becomes the colour of his eyes and the sound of his voice when hard-pressed, his careless way of tossing orders about when his patience is stretched thin and worn-down. He is a dark reflection, a possibility and a fear in the same breath and there are times when he stares at her like she is an extension of himself, or merely a ghost of his past.

Don't bow your head to anyone, he says much gentler in a different time and place and she remembers. Cauthrien becomes his strength and pride, becomes his momentum and his determination.

He creates her, but she melts, her form slipping out of reach as the numbers grow and the burial fires become beacons. So at the end of things she drops to one knee in front of the two Wardens, staring at her own outstretched weapon as she begs for his life.

"Please... show mercy," she says, expecting nothing.

Maker forgive him, maker preserve him, maker have mercy.

x.

He lives.

The rumours reaches her outside the palace where she stands, head against the stone and hands limp and useless, much too late now for weapons and shields. A Blight is coming, rushing towards them, but Cauthrien feels like she is already battling one, her entire body bruised and breathless.

"The Teyrn is a Grey Warden!" a crier announces, storming out of the palace. "The Teyrn lives!"

And at first, before the thought has time to settle, she is uncertain if the feeling that overwhelms her at those words is relief or horror.

He stands in front of the window, arms folded and his head tilted. She wonders what he's watching outside, but doesn't ask. Light falls on him from the left, leaves a square of glittering suns across his armour and she knows it will blind her if she looks at it for too long. His fingers tap against the breastplate, searching for an occupation. Then he strips himself off it, looking around for something to polish it with, she assumes. He has a nervous habit of doing that. Tending to his armour and not-sleeping. Loghain is a man who knows very little of rest.

"Cauthrien," he says without looking at her.

"Oh, Loghain," she says, and it comes out as a prayer without her consent. Comes out as a needy guttural sound because she thought he was going to be dead but here he is, halfway out of his armour.

"The Wardens have an interesting sense of humour. Or at least some of them do. Maric's pup wanted me dead, but I rather think that is expected." He curls his lips in a half-smile. Remarkably, he seems grateful it is over. In his posture Cauthrien reads a hundred reasons for it, all of them soul-deep and surely as complex as himself, but easily summarized in the way he looks at her across the room. Let me go.

"I..." Cauthrien clears her throat. And drops to her knees for the second time. These blasted royal walls seem to drag her down. "I will follow you."

"You are no longer serving under me," he interrupts.

"Then let me join. Let me. Please."

"No." She feels hands on her arms, his strength rushing into her body and wonders for a second if he has joined her on the floor, but when she looks up she is standing and he is inches away, observing her. Under his gaze she is stripped bare. "You will not join."

"The army leaves come daybreak." It isn't a question because she already knows the answer.

"Yes," he confirms anyway.

"I told some of the banns to stand with the Warden," she says; her snake-tongue tastes foul in her mouth but her heart feels lighter. "I'm sorry."

Loghain still holds her upright, she realises, as the pressure of his palms against her shoulders increases. His face is curiously open tonight, as though burdens have been lifted. Perhaps this is true.

"I know." He says it simply, almost tenderly.

Cauthrien thinks of the heartbreaking difference between flesh and armour, thinks of melting ice and twisted, broken mirrors and then suddenly she kisses him, a low moan emerging from her throat as she forgets her place and her faint grasp of formality and slides up against him, all blood and heart. He is warm under her touch. Warm and worn, like something so familiar it tugs at the corners of her mind, whirling into her head. She can feel his chest, his broad shoulders and strong arms and the softness in them as he, too, gives in.

"Please," she says again but with different - darker - sounds mirroring his own.

Let me go. 

x.

In her arms, he is just a man.

Inside her, around and above her, erasing all lines and crumbling up the maps, he is a man with a man's heart and man's desires and Cauthrien clings to him until her body aches because she is suddenly uncertain where she begins and afraid to find out. Panting, flat on her back with him beside her, she lifts her arm and watches it in the dim light. She is visible veins and old scars, her skin like milk. She has risen from the dirt into the light. Like him, but not like him.

Almost-dawn.

This is their last memory and it is drawn in other colours, in stone-grey and a bright yellow in the shade of morning sun.


NOTES:

It shouldn't be easier to sexualize Loghain than it is to sexualize Alistair, right? But it is. Make of this what you will.

Also, everything is so ugly here at ffnet. I might cry. The formatting... *cries*