Warden: You tell me: What do you want?
Loghain: What I want? What an odd question...
I want to ride back to Denerim and sit in the war room and find no empty chairs at the table.
I want to lose nothing else. I want a line, clearly drawn, that I can defend.
I want an end to this war. All of this can rightly be called my fault.
Whether or not you can do better remains to be seen.
But if you can make this end, Warden, I will follow you. I swear it.
(Dragon Age: Origins)
They call it kings and rebels.
Elissa can't remember who first started it or how it begun, this well-rehearsed ritual that has coloured her childhood memories, fleshed out the meat on her bones and drawn invisible lines and hierarchies between the children in Highever. I dub thee a soldier, a Knight, a King. She no longer knows if it was her best friend Hestia, tiny and loud, who shouted orders to her imaginary armies or if that is simply something she thinks Hestia would do. She can't remember if Fergus beat her every time or if she occasionally climbed on top of him, too.
She only knows that when she looks back, she comes to this: sun-dried stones freckled with dirt, rare wild flower-treasures in the bushes behind the stables, wooden swords that she hides from her mother, bruised knees and bleeding knuckles – I am King Maric, you are dead! Her father will never speak to her of the war unless he is softened by brandy or late hours in the library, so Elissa sits in his lap, creating tales in her mind that nan later tries to rectify with soft sighs and war is nothing like that, my dear.
But they are kings and rebels, knights and heroes and nobody ever dies.
"Join us in the shadows where we stand, vigilant."
Elissa barely recalls the words. Someone else in her body speaks them, someone else in her head remembering every phrasing, every tone. The drums of before.
"Join us, as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten-"
Their hurriedly prepared chamber in the palace is warm and quiet, its air soft against her skin that prickles as she looks up and into the outstretched goblet in Riordan's hand. It will be a matter of seconds. Seconds before she is either all alone or in the company of the man who has hunted her across Ferelden for many months now, and both prospects are so strange she could not have predicted them this morning, or even three hours ago; a parched sensation in her throat as Loghain's fingers curls around the cup and-
He falls to the floor without a sound, much like she once must have done. Duncan and Alistair had lifted her then, made it as comfortable as possible for her body that waged a terrible war with itself, tearing her apart. Not that she remembers that either, but she understands it was what happened. If she drags memories out from the corners of her mind she can recall an imagined scent of fire, of being burned, being turned into scales and dust and hearing that slow hissing sound, whispering things she never were able to discern and haven't heard since. Her body revealed secrets to her then, she is certain of it, but those are secrets meant for someone else and tucked away, out of her reach.
Loghain falls alone. His armour makes a terrible noise against the floor; Elissa winces when she watches, her hands sweaty and cold and interlaced with each other as though she is trying to comfort herself. There is suddenly a shape of another observer in the doorway, too close to the ritual but Riordan's expression allows her to take another step, until she is standing in front of them. There is a hint of tears in her eyes.
"May I...?" Anora's voice is not a queen's but today Elissa's doesn't belong to a commander of men either, so she merely nods, allowing the moment of weakness.
And the woman who just turned a whole Landsmeet in her favour and earned herself a throne sinks to her knees in front of her father's body, gently turning him around so he rests his head in her lap. Soft, careful hands around his face and she sits there, without looking up or speaking to anyone. Under different circumstances it would have been a moving scene.
"He should wake up soon if the joining was successful." Riordan rests one hand on Elissa's arm.
"I...it's the first time I see it." She looks up at him. "This is a normal reaction, I take it?"
"Yes, indeed. Not as dramatic or worthy of tall tales as one might think, consuming the blood of the damned," he says, a touch of grim humour in his voice. "A joining may even seem harmless to the casual observer."
"We might consider public Joinings then, to increase our numbers. And charge an entrance fee."
Riordan smiles at her, very briefly, and it feels less horrible - all of it - because he is standing there with her and she can rely on him to make the unpleasant decisions and to joke about them once they are set in stone. The comfort in that simple thing. Comfort and a strange sensation of home, of finally belonging to this heartless, heroic order of hers.
Then Loghain screams in his unconscious sleep and Anora looks up, distressed but composed again, because she, too, understands that screaming is better than silence. And so he opens his eyes and Riordan and Elissa both kneel beside him, nodding at each other and at him. The expression in his eyes is nothing short of disdain. At least they can find common ground in that.
There is nothing more to be said.
There is much more to be said in the chamber upstairs, but so few words that can possibly say it.
She steps into the room and the entire world seems to shrink down around her, enclose her in a cage of grey walls and dark desperation and all those things she wishes she could make him see. He has thrown the shield – Duncan's shield, the one she found – on the floor and stands with his arms folded and his heart shut, facing the bookshelves. For a second she lets herself pretend this is another scene in a another time and that Alistair is merely looking for something to read, selecting a volume and holding it up for closer inspection. He has never done such a thing, not for as long as she has known him – she isn't even certain he reads - but the scene seems real even so.
Another scene and she is back in the Landsmeet chamber, in the middle of the bustling crowd with her hands still clutching the swords as they all urge her to make decisions of life and death.
Loghain in front of her, head bowed in surrender and his voice lower, more dignified than before. She has never been able to admit defeat and there is a part of her - wild and loud and so tired of death - that admires him for possessing the strength.
Over a year ago she fought her way out of her own home and ever since, everywhere she has walked, her hands have forged death. Filthy, shameful death that eats away at her mind, that ripples through her being until she is death and death is all she is. She guts Arl Howe with her sharpest blade, watches him die and the taste in her mouth is ashes and dust, hollow revenge mistaken for victory. After all the feverish dreams of how she would make him pay - dreams that enlarge him to a giant beast - he dies just like a pathetic, mortal man.
Now the Hero of River Dane kneels in front of her and she is holding Duncan's sword. So quick and simple to take two small steps and end it. But she knows, the moment she meets his gaze, that she will never do it. I am not death.
"I accept your surrender," she hears herself say.
The banns, staring in disbelief.
Alistair's voice that cuts through her, sharp as a dagger but much less kind.
And at long last Riordan, stepping forward, tipping all possible scales and transforming her decision into one of pure reason.
In this room as in the Landsmeet chamber, Alistair is the shade that covers the light, the twisted knot of pain in her stomach and the reason she curls her hands into fists as she looks at him, once more.
"I wanted to talk to you."
Alistair turns around, raising an eyebrow. "I don't think we have much to say to each other, actually."
"I – we, Riordan and I – did what Grey Wardens do. What Duncan would have done." She lets the word fall to the floor, harsh and painful, without taking her eyes off him. "And you know that."
"No, perhaps you don't." Elissa looks around for a chair to use, her legs are feeling thick and useless and she could imagine never moving again.
Alistair doesn't move at all, he stands still and stares at her.
The stories of legend and myth, of Griffons and Wardens riding bravely through the storms to keep the kingdoms safe. Heroes worthy of undying admiration and they are, at times. She has gathered as much. But Grey Wardens wait in the shadows outside Fort Drakon carrying darkness and a right to conscript anyone and Grey Wardens burn villages full of innocents rather than letting them slip under darkspawn control. Grey Wardens drag people out from the ruins of their lives if that is what it takes. They are not judges or priests, they are above the law and in between the shades of black and white and she wants to hit him over the head for not seeing this.
"Did you call him brother?" he asks, suddenly, and his voice breaks mid-air, too small to carry the weight of his grief and confusion.
Elissa looks through the window. The sun is up, still. It feels impossible, by all means it ought to be night now, or a different year altogether.
The day after tomorrow their small army will be leaving for Redcliffe, making brief stops along the way to ensure the army she has raised is there and not scattered like in her nightmares. It's her decision: split the targets over Ferelden, take the opportunity to get a clear view of the extended battlefield and ensure the support of the troops. In her head she thinks of it as a good solution. In her heart, there is a flutter of panic and not just because of the strategy.
The day after tomorrow she will have lost the man who has been her best friend since Ostagar, who has kissed her in the middle of the Dead Trenches and made it all seem worthwhile. Who wears his stupid heart on his sleeve at all times but makes her laugh, makes her head spin and her throat tighten with want simply because he looks at her like she is the only thing he has ever desired and probably means it, at that.
And she must drive him out of her. For all their sakes'.
"Did you call him brother?" Alistair repeats, louder now.
"I did," she says.
Brother. The door slams harsh and dull against her heart as she leaves.
Outside Loghain's chamber she waits for Riordan. He looks as tired as she feels, but satisfied in a grim sort of way, like he doesn't want to admit the reason for it. Then again, it is hardly difficult to venture a guess.
"Our newest brother is still in a considerable amount of pain," he remarks.
"Well, that's fair." Elissa leans against the wall, ducking for a painting that threatens to entangle her hair in its frame. There's an unrest in her body, a restless flicker of doubts and fears – she is ill suited to idleness, in particular if there are things to be done, and this wait is just cruel. She longs for battle and dreads it at the same time; the song of the darkspawn increases in her head every day, promising blood and pain. And death. More death. Such is the language of Blights.
"He is a Warden now. Remember this, lass." Riordan reminds her as much as he reminds himself, she spots it in his face when stands right next to her, his head against the same wall, his arms folded. "Even so, between the two of us, I rather enjoyed hurting him."
"Revenge is sweet, then?" It isn't, but she does not want to talk about that. Oh Maker, she does not know how to talk about that. Not today.
"For a few seconds, certainly." She can feel his gaze upon her and turns her head. There is something he wants from her, but she cannot tell what.
"I rather thought the Joining would kill a man his age," she says instead.
Riordan nods. "It is assumed. We know very little of it, however. When I joined I was almost thirty and it was said to be shortening my lifespan in comparison to the younger recruits. I have, however, been given well over twenty years since then."
In the dim, sifted light of the corridors here he hardly looks his age and Elissa is reminded of an indistinct longing for other things than company, or at least other forms of it. She grimaces slightly. Not the time or place.
"What are we going to do with him then? Can we trust him not to have us killed as soon as he recovers?" The sound of her own voice brings her back on the proper path again.
"There is very little he would gain from attacking us."
"True." Elissa rubs her temples. Loghain is all about gain. He is also her new comrade-in-arms, her fellow Warden, her soldier. Her stomach churns a little a the thought.
"If you so wish, I could take him with me," Riordan offers. The idea of sending Loghain along with the Orlesian as a punishment is certainly humorous fodder for dark days but as a strategy it is poor. Grey Wardens should not travel alone, Duncan – considering himself an exception to the rule - reminds her in her head. They come in packs, like wolfs. Elissa may not have years of experience as a war strategist but a child could see that piling the targets on top of each other and throwing them in one carriage makes for a disastrous plan.
"No, he'll stay with me," she says, and sounds much more certain that she is. "I've defeated him once, I can do it again."
The muscles in her lower back object furiously – the former Teyrn knows how to use every inch of his imposing size and Holy Maker, the strength of his blade - but there is no reason for Riordan to be in the know. Only Wynne will ever find out what it cost to win that duel because Wynne can keep a secret.
"If you are certain?"
Elissa straightens up, nodding solemnly. "I am."
And so they open the door.
The two remaining Grey Wardens in Ferelden meet their companions side by side in Arl Eamon's Denerim estate that evening. Riordan walks two steps behind, allowing Elissa the position of the one in charge. They must be a pitiful sight, she thinks as they are led through the halls by a nervous guard and an equally panic-stricken servant.
Loghain is paler than she has ever seen him and Elissa is beginning to believe there is something inside her that bleeds worse than the ugly wound on her upper left arm. Ferelden's best hope, indeed.
All things considered, this has been a bloody awful excuse for a day and she she can't wait to make it a distant yesterday. Somehow she reckons the men in her company would agree.
They are shown into an atrium of sorts, lush with paintings and decorative flowers and ornate embroideries resembling those at the Great Halls in Highever – except, Elissa thinks, there are fewer dogs here. Her own Mabari is being kept upstairs, on Arl Eamon's orders, and most certainly not allowed to run wild. She rather wishes he was with her.
As they enter, the entire room seems to empty itself of all sound and all movements. Everything just stops. It's quiet but oddly enough not silent – more like a gap between two equally draining noises.
"Good. You are all here." Elissa thinks of her mother of all things, thinks of mustering up courage when there is no such thing to be found and put on the masks of duty. It helps. Her mother knew more of duty than most people.
Wynne immediately looks at her, eyes focused and bright. Zevran arches an eyebrow, clearly interested in this new development of their journey together and never one to pass up on changes. Nobody deserves death, Leliana has already told her, hurriedly and hushed with hot breaths against Elissa's neck outside the quarters where Loghain became a Warden. Maker bless you. What Ohgren thinks is impossible to discern behind the the barrel of ale he seems to have consumed in the idle hours since Landsmeet; Sten and Shale stand beside him, unperturbed as ever. From her corner, almost her own little separate entity, Morrigan measures them with her gaze. She doesn't seem displeased.
And Elissa stands with Riordan on one side and Loghain on the other and it hits her, again, that they are the only Wardens in this country, three tattered wrecks against a Blight.
"Loghain is travelling with us to Redcliffe," she says, closing her voice around the words in an attempt to make them sound more powerful. "Riordan will accompany the Queen's army. Get some rest today and tomorrow. You will need it."
Then she turns to Loghain, feeling his icy blue gaze upon her even before their eyes meet.
"We will speak tomorrow."
Loghain nods and with the faintest sneer playing on his lips, he jerks his head in what appears to be interpreted as a dutiful bow.
"As you say, Warden."
Darkness comes, at long last, even to days like this. Slow and lurking it pierces through the daylight until the stars are the only source of light around and above them. Elissa lays on her back on an unguarded balcony, counting the dots in the sky. One hand protectively over her side where Wynne's healing spells still hum and soar quietly, the other trailing patterns in the stone floor.
I dub thee a soldier, a knight, a King.
They still play the game, reinforce the hierarchies of childhood but with forged steel instead of wood and broken hearts instead of bruises.
And she is no longer a child, so both kings and rebels die.
Trust Dragon Age to make me, the queen of one-shots, write multi-chaptered stories. Tsk, tsk. This is a work in progress, for sure.