She has, to the best of her knowledge, fifteen visible scars on her body.
(Alistair once counted them.)
One for that dog bite nan would tell her about, stroking Elissa's hair as she crept into bed and dreamt wishful dreams of her own Mabari that father had promised her. It's a little slice of hard skin on her shoulder, fading with every year.
One for climbing a too-high tree; one for tripping and falling and driving the tip of a blade into her left leg; two on her arms for learning, gradually, the many uses of parrying in duelling and battle. These are all line-shaped, simple constructions.
One for Ostagar, a small wound that Flemeth could heal but not eradicate; one for the immense poisonous spiders in Lothering that pierced her gauntlets with their stings and made her left hand swell to twice its size before Morrigan got the venom out; one along her spine for a nasty genlock attack while she was entirely unprepared.
One from Bann Teagan in Redcliffe, another from an arcane horror in the Circle Tower; two – burn wounds, healed badly in a hurry – from fighting the high dragon thought to be Andraste reborn.
Two that Alistair never saw, recent ones inflicted on her since he left.
The fifteenth, that he won't see either, is a large, shapeless mass firmly placed on the right side of her body. It spreads from under her arm, down along her waist and up towards her chest. It is, she knows because the healers have promptly carried mirrors to her room on her orders, shaped like a large, deformed hand with fingers reaching around her ribcage and down below her navel.
It's not even a scar yet, not fully mended underneath the careful healing. She can feel her body rise in protest when she disturbs it.
She wonders, in between dream and waking hours, if someone will ever touch it the same way as the other scars were touched, gentle fingers mapping boundaries and pressing gently, pushing against the texture of history. She wonders if she will be granted this or if battle has hardened her beyond it.
She's the hero now.
She's the hero now and heroes are untouchable in the most heart-breaking sense of the word.
The rooms in the former Teyrn of Gwaren's estate are dusty.
When they arrived, she is told, they had to dig their way to an entrance, wade through charcoaled wood and melted metal, lift darkspawn corpses and burn them. Her companions, when they come to see her in this room that has begun to feel a part of her, bring tales of the days they spent making Loghain's former home inhabitable.
It has been a lot of work for a battered group, especially with their unhelpful leader tucked into bed.
"The Chantry was full and Eamon has more than enough wounded in his estate," Leliana explains, hands caressing Elissa's arms with soothing motions that smell of those oils the mages insist on using. "Sten and Oghren have been busy putting things in order."
"They were not badly hurt at the city gates, then, I take it?"
"Not badly, no."
"She was summoned a few nights ago; the Circle healers needed her. They have been very busy, indeed."
"How is Loghain?"
This is the question with no answer, Elissa knows. Nobody will tell her but she can hear between the silence and the stray lies that he is not dead. And the idea that he is somehow worse than that sprouts in her mind, becomes a possibility as the companions shift and nobody has anything to tell her.
Running between all the chambers, she has come to understand, are Circle mages sent there by the Queen to tend to the wounded. Elissa has her own pair with sweet, well-meaning faces and names she never remembers.
"You are built like great bears, both of you," the younger of the mages says. They are two, side by side in all they do and beaming down at her as though she's a child they are putting to bed, a child who needs smiles and kindness and possibly bedtime stories.
Elissa grimaces. Today is the first day she can feel her head clear and sharp, not wrapped in sedative potions. It's not only a blessing.
"A fine compliment for any lady," she manages weakly.
"We could see your bones," the other mage, old and tiny, not much larger than a dwarf, shakes her head. "You were ripped apart, Warden. The teyrn was... How you even.... no, I simply cannot understand what you are made of."
Wincing at the ill-boding nature of that comment, Elissa presses the palms of her hands into the mattress and heaves herself up to a sitting position.
"Stubbornness and darkspawn blood, I should wager. How is he?"
The mages look at each other.
"He is upstairs."
"Alone?" Elissa asks, leaning her head against the wood behind her neck. An odd echo in her blood, a forlorn sound of longing and pain that she has not heard before. The darkspawn song twisted into grief, into a wail for the lost god and a rage over being too late, yet again. She closes her eyes, her mother's voice in her head: grief is a form of madness, dear.
"Well, yes." The young mage looks like Elissa has just asked her the most ridiculous thing in the world.
It's a sense of responsibility there, Elissa realises, for him as well as for the others. Against her will, their lives have been her tools, laid out at her disposal and in her heart they still are. She feels the corners and edges of them, the many purposes and consequences.
Her companions who are no longer her companions.
They come and go, easily slipping in and out of her chamber like shadows or ghosts, talking to her in their familiar but strange words. All these months have tied them tightly together but the mission that required such intimacy is done, over.
The war is over.
She is not holding any authority over anyone any longer. They are still her friends, possibly her future comrades in arms, but never again hers to command. This she knows. And there is a little stitch of sadness in this knowledge, in the dissolving borders around her country, but they shall be glad to be on their separate ways, she knows.
Loghain is a different thing altogether.
Healing quicker than she is, he walks restlessly around the estate; she can hear him snap at the mages and bark orders and it happens, too, that he pops his head into her chamber to inform her of something. But for the most part, he stays out of their way, almost shying away from their gazes and questions as though the unguarded postures they have adopted lately are wearing his own defence down.
"He went back for the Archdemon," Leliana tells her on one of the days when Elissa still breathes fire-breaths and aches just thinking about anything outside the bedchamber. "Once you were brought here, he went back."
"He took Sten and the dog. Wynne wouldn't have any animals near you; she said Dog was filthy." Leliana smiles a little. "I think it broke his heart, the poor little thing. But your dog likes Loghain, no?"
"He does," Elissa admits, folding her hands on the bedspread, stretching her fingers. "Granted, he likes anyone who gives his food and rubs his belly."
"The mabari has proven himself an honorary Warden this week," one of the mages points out. "He has waited patiently outside your door every day. And in the evenings he has waited outside the teyrn's chambers."
Feeling a pang of guilt at the idea of Dog being lonely and heartbroken, Elissa winces and shifts position as much as the constricting limits of the bed allow her to.
"Well, with the nobles returning to the city, he could use protection," Leliana says, smiling faintly, as though she is uncertain of her remark being funny.
What anyone would do in these ruins right now is nearly beyond even someone as used to politics as Elissa. But it is the way these future days seem to unfold: nobles returning, counting on the utter demise of darkspawn and eager to grab at any political thread of the torn nation, weaving it into their own agenda. Alfstanna is greeting the wounded personally in front of the cathedral, and those who let their homes to strangers are certain to make sure it will be heard in the days to come.
The Blight is a game: cruel and dark and devastating, but a game nonetheless. This is one lesson she has learned since the Archdemon fell.
This is another lesson:
There are two forms of torture: pain and the absence of pain.
Pain, Elissa learns, is simple. It is an all-consuming, straight-forward ache that overthrows thinking, because it drains you in one breath, sucks you in and batters you until you care about nothing else in the world.
There's a great comfort in that.
When the physical hurt subsides, she is left with the matter of the mind.
That veil, the thick fog cramping around her every thought disappears, and she finds that she misses it. Reaches back for it, through near-dreams and illusions, deception and distortions and when she finds nothing, it's a heavy sadness that fills her in its place.
When she cannot push the memories further back, she is forced to release them. That day arrives and it is one drawn-out evoking of memories and feels like dragging something harsh and thorny across the tender lines of her body, chasing fragments as though they are wild animals refusing to stop because being still hurts.
The mages are there, tutting and fretting and oh dear, what an awful thing to have seen, reducing the horror of the many months behind her to something that can be held out and observed and mended by a banal phrase of simple consolation.
"Oh, Elissa, I have wonderful news," Leliana bursts into her room, carrying a letter in her hands and wearing a wide smile.
Fergus is alive. Fergus is on his way to Denerim for the coronation.
And Elissa cries.
Like someone has stormed the walls that separates one emotion from another in her mind and body, or crushed the defences around her heart, she cries. She cries like a child, like a madwoman, her fingers digging so deep into Leliana's shoulders that she gently pries them away and when she looks at her she sees that Leliana is crying, too. Elissa cries for Highever, still a raw wound in his chest; she cries for being left without any choice, for being a killer and a warlord; she cries for Alistair, and for forcing the throne upon him when he begged her not to; she cries because he is no longer a Warden and no longer her friend, she cries for Loghain who would rather have died but lives because she has twisted his fate around her own; she cries for the destruction of Ferelden and the people who has lived and died based on her decisions and she cries, wholeheartedly and desperately against Leliana's chest, for being gut-wrenchingly alone in making them.
And she misses being in pain, because pain is simple.
Elissa stands in borrowed clothes and ill-fitting boots outside the chamber they tell her belongs to him. He used to live here, she knows, and that thought is odd because the estate looks barren of all life; not merely unused but bare. As though whoever once possessed these halls only borrowed it for a brief moment of time, before giving it back. She walks through the rooms looking for traces leading to some sort of understanding, but there is none to be had. Perhaps, she thinks, he moved all of his things to the Palace once they returned from Ostagar without King Cailan.
There's a surge of cold in that thought to match the draught from the open windows in the corridor. She wraps the cloak tighter around her shoulders.
"Loghain, are you there?"
She knocks. One time, then another, and a third.
When he finally opens, she has already begun to walk away.
"Did you want something?" he says it as a sigh, his voice as blank as the expression in his eyes, when they reluctantly meet hers.
Elissa swallows a hundred questions that will anger him and a hundred more that will make the door shut before her. Without asking anything at all, she can see that he is very tired. Possibly still unhealed in some ways. Refusing to rest. The lines in his face are sharp and angry, his mouth is a taut grimace.
"I wanted to see how you are." She leans against the wall, still not well enough to make a lot of physical effort. Three days from now she is assumed to be craving the attention of the banquet held in her honour, she realises, looking up into Loghain's face. At present it feels like the people of Ferelden will be greeted by a chair-bound weakling. "They wouldn't tell me much about you, you know."
"I wasn't aware that the state of my mind nor my body was of any concern for these mages," he says. By the way he holds his arms and slumps his shoulders she can see he has not recovered.
"It's a concern of mine."
Loghain says nothing in response to that. He is slightly altered since the battle, she notices, but cannot say in which way. He is so many fragments, all those little cracks between his roles and shapes and she wonders about the light that pours out of them at time and ghosts in them, travelling between who he is and who he used to be. Who he will yet become. She will need a new way of interpreting him, the old language stormed by the new.
"Is that all?" he interrupts her trail of thought, his hand on the door trembling slightly.
"I beg your pardon?"
Loghain looks like he wants to tell her to sod off, his eyes heavy with exhaustion and his face gaunt, the way it has been since the fighting ended it, the way her face has been and with the same look of confusion and bewilderment she can spot in some of the others, as well. Those who had not expected, or wished, to be alive to see an end.
But he opens his door.
"I'm not going anywhere." Elissa tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, looking at him where he stands, showing no sign of wanting to let her in. "The mages sent me up here with your painkillers and I thought we needed to talk."
"We have spoken at length, Warden."
"About Orlesian Wardens, yes," she admits. "And about Archdemon blood. We have discussed the battles in Denerim quite a lot; I'll give you that, Loghain."
"And you want to talk about chess next? The history of the Tevinter Imperium?" He scoffs; the rough edges to his speech returning a little more each day. It's oddly reassuring. "Very well, come in then."
He steps aside and Elissa brushes past him, the scent of his soap and her own unfamiliar body oils clashing in the air. At least nobody goes many days without a hot bath in this place. It's a compensation for a year of cold, dirty ground as well as a soothing cure for aching muscles.
"I am aware of how pointless it is to ask if you're feeling okay. I'm... far from it, myself." She doesn't look back at him, proceeds to the window he has opened. In the other end of the room a fire is burning. "I'm not feeling well and I don't think you are, either."
"No, not particularly." Loghain closes the door behind her.
If the rest of the estate is sparsely decorated at best, this bedchamber is no exception. The thick tapestries seem somewhat out of place in the stark naked surroundings and she isn't sure what she expected but this is not it. A few piles of books and parchments around the settee in front of the fireplace are the sole details in the scenery that makes the room look inhabited at all. Elissa digs into the pockets of her clothing and finds the small vials the healers – she still doesn't know their names, which would have been awkward, surely, in a time where she still cared about such things as manners – insisted she take with her. Two birds with one stone, dear, the older one grins in Elissa's memory.
He is being a most frustrating patient, she gathered.
"Here's something for the pain." She holds the vials in her palm, showing them to him. Loghain still stands on the other side of the room. "It tastes better with tea."
Sighing, he walks up to her. When he reaches for the potions, the cool skin of his hands meets her own that still appears to be burning, sending a little shiver through her.
"Maker knows I've had a lot of those," Elissa says, attempting a smile. "They tell me I would talk in my sleep at first, begging for painkillers. It was the only thing I said."
Loghain looks at the draughts, his face caught in a grimace.
"I know," he mutters, uncorking one of them and swallowing it without hesitation. "They told me."
"You saved my life." And there is something in her that goes quiet as that sentence slips out, a soft sigh of being done, of having put the most monumental thing on her mind into words.
"I did no such thing, Warden." His face has regained some of its life but his voice sounds strained, coming out of him in reluctant sighs. Elissa tries to wrap her gaze around his own, make him look at her. "The mage healed you-"
"Thank you all the same," she cuts him off.
He doesn't protest again. Elissa feels her back ache as she lets go of the windowsill she has been clutching; instead of waiting in vain for an invitation to sit down, she moves towards the settee, slumping down ungracefully on it. She closes her eyes and listens for a while of unbroken silence to Loghain, still walking around in the room. Pacing. Eventually the footsteps cease and she can hear the clinking sounds of glass. She takes a deep breath.
Their companionship is in no way similar to anything else. It is, and has always been, a world unto itself. A separate entity where there are different laws and they seep into her blood whenever he is near, but disappear again when is not. When she thinks they have reached a common ground, or shared a thought, he withdraws again; when she begins to decipher his pattern of speech or elaborate way of avoiding to look at her sometimes, it changes altogether and she stands there without a clue.
And yet some threads of it remain. There is always a way back, even now when their comradeship is cracking under the weight of being liberated from the war that forced them together.
"I won't wrest anything from you." This is territory she feels she has touched upon before, but every time, it's new. "But I... I wanted to let you know that I am here. Not as your commander but as your... fellow Warden, I suppose. If you wanted to talk."
"I thought you said that was what you wanted," he retorts, but his tone isn't as harsh as the words would imply. He sounds mostly tired. As is she, she feels with renewed force.
"Well, contrary to what you appear to think, Loghain, talking is sometimes a mutual undertaking."
He snorts. Then she feels him approach, the air around her filling up with his presence and she is about to open her eyes when there's a glass in her hand and her fingers wrap around it, wordlessly. A familiar scent of brandy tickles her senses when she raises it, taking a small sip.
Loghain sits down beside her, placing a bottle between them on the settee. Elissa throws him a glance. He has poured himself a drink as well, but not touched it.
"So it's not drinking, then?" she asks, softly.
"Your way of enduring." Elissa takes another mouthful of the sweet but strong liquor, grateful for its taste and consequences.
He shrugs. "Drinking is a double-edged sword, Warden. At best."
"What do you do, then?"
"What do you do?" He rises momentarily to stir the gasping flames of the fireplace, before sitting down again. He moves with more ease now, she notices. The pain seems to have worn off.
She has no answer to his question that seems much more intrusive when thrown at her, so she merely sighs and leans back further in her seat, trying to relax her muscles.
"I did not expect to be alive to see this," she says, when they have been quiet for longer than what is appropriate for any two people sharing a sofa. "When I joined the Wardens, I was certain I would be dead within months. And then I kept surviving... so many things. I never really cared. I lost my family and my name; fighting was never... I never fought for myself. I fought because I was told to."
Loghain finally drinks. He says nothing, remaining so still beside her that Elissa has to repress the wish to reach out and touch his skin, making certain he has not turned to a statue.
"I made a horrible decision with Morrigan," she continues, her breath ghosting over the glass she brings to her lips, as if to take a sip before lowering it again. "I... should have let it happen the way it has always happened."
"You weren't alone in that decision."
"I'm responsible for it." She looks at him, catching his gaze. "Don't ever pretend otherwise. I'm not going to brood over it, but I made a mistake. I should have died with the Archdemon."
"I should have died at the Landsmeet," he says, and there's a flickering light falling on his face as he turns around, averting his eyes. The lines between mercy and punishment certainly blur, Elissa thinks, vaguely disturbed. "I should have died at the Joining. And the final blow to the Archdemon should have been mine, not yours."
"But I was not given that mercy." He doesn't look at her, but his voice chills her. "Your mercy is to leave me in the fire, Warden."
Elissa doesn't know what to say. She leans forward, balancing the drink in her hand.
"I didn't mean... I was granting you a chance to set things right."
"How?" His question is short and sharp, like a crack of a whip.
"What do you mean, how?"
Loghain looks at her now and his eyes are changing. Beneath the calm blue surface she spots a fire, something powerful and furious raging inside. He has spent these past few days alone, she realises, alone and disappointed in finding himself alive. If that is not grief, she doesn't know what is.
"How am I to make amends?"
"You can help me rebuild the Order." She looks at her hands. "You can restore what... what we lost. You can make amends by living, Loghain. Living is not a punishment."
He makes a resigned sound, stuck half-way between a groan and a scoff. "Yet you just wished for the release from it yourself, Warden?"
Elissa swallows a large gulp of brandy, regretting the decision to speak of this in the first place. Some wounds run too deep.
"I wanted to die because I lost everything I had," she says eventually. "You of all people do not have the right to blame me for that, not after what you... Why did you crave those last minute heroics so badly? Because you are convinced there is nothing you can do to redeem yourself alive? Because you are afraid to find out?"
Loghain is silent.
"If I left you in the bloody fire, you deserved it. And you know that." Elissa has the distinct impression he is waiting for her to continue. That he has been waiting for a while, not merely tonight. "You said it yourself – you have made so many mistakes. You tried to destroy our entire order based on nothing but your own prejudices against it. You sold your own people as slaves, Loghain! Even if your intentions were noble, you plunged us into civil war."
"I have not forgotten my own crimes-"
"I know you haven't," she interrupts, merciless now. He has struck at something dark, deep inside her. "Nobody has. By all laws you should have hanged, but I thought your death would have been a waste. You are needed here; Ferelden has scant use for yet more dead. If it was a punishment it was a fair one, and don't you dare treat it differently simply because you are too scared to truly take the chance to be something other than the blasted Hero of River Dane, fallen or not. We don't need him – I certainly don't need him; I need you. And you are not a bloody coward. You admitted defeat in front of the entire Landsmeet and that was one of the bravest things I have ever witnessed, Loghain. Be that man. That man would not hide behind what he has done, he would find a way to make up for it instead of brooding over the mess."
She winces at the pompous magnitude of own words; he looks at her like she has slapped him. Perhaps she has; the lines blur tonight. They sit without speaking for a very long while. Elissa tugs at the sleeves of her tunic, Loghain leans forward, elbows on his knees, resting his head in his hands.
"Mercy is a strange creature." He rubs his forehead.
"It is, I suppose." Elissa puts down her glass on the floor but picks it up again almost immediately.
"I did not expect to find it at Landsmeet," he says. "And I certainly did not expect to find it in a Warden. Yet here it is."
"Here it is," she agrees.
There are voices outside the door. Hushed, hurried voices that quickly disappear again, like he is the kind of master whose wrath will have them lined up to run the gauntlet if he is even the slightest bit displeased. Her mother would tell her about that kind of masters, sometimes, indignant and loud-voiced. You should treat your lessers with respect or you deserve their rebellion, she had said, tutoring Elissa in household management.
She wonders what sort of master Loghain is.
"The war will not disappear overnight, as I'm sure you realise," he says, rather harshly and suddenly, throwing them back to matters of duty. "With the most pressing concerns gone, how do you propose we as Wardens work to rebuild what was lost?"
She finishes her drink. "My first suggestion would be to await the Wardens who are on their way."
"Yes." Elissa reaches for the brandy and helps herself to another serving, pouring more into Loghain's glass as well, not looking up. "Frankly, I have no idea what the best course of action is. I'm going to take counsel from my seniors in this and decide what we do after the coronation."
"But you're staying with the Wardens, even now that the Blight is over?"
"I... yes." She hasn't thought about this, to be honest. Hasn't seen it as a choice, nor a question she would be asked. Perhaps it is achoice. "I think so. I don't know what else I would do."
Another silence falls. This one is comfortable, but restless and flickering, resembling the light from the fire. Loghain takes a big swig of his drink before looking at her.
"What of me?" he asks. It must have been a lifetime ago, if ever, since he last asked such a question.
"You are a Warden, too, Loghain." She pauses, considering. "I... don't know what the others in the Order will think of your presence but as your Fereldan senior Warden I want you to stay. We have worked well together since the Landsmeet, don't you think? You have been a good companion and strangely enough, Loghain, I think you have proven yourself a friend, as well."
He is quiet for a long time, slowly drinking from the glass in his hand and watching, it appears, the logs in the fireplace spit and hiss as they burn. They are close enough for the bond they share to hum dully in their bodies, Elissa knows. Even with the Archdemon dead there's a path between his blood and hers, an undeniable connection of bones and flesh and minds.
"You have earned my respect," he says, suddenly. The slice of him that is still a commoner is visible through the overly formal tone, awkwardly adopted even after thirty years. "The Wardens could not have chosen finer."
"I never thought it possible, but I have been grateful over these past weeks," she says. "For your company. You are somebody beneath all those things you've done. I find that I rather like him."
Elissa glances sideways at him, observing the expression in his face change into something less angry than a few minutes ago, something almost kind.
"I will be your general then." The soft thud of his boots against the stone floor as he changes position is accompanied by a jingle when her glass bumps against the half-empty bottle between them. Elissa exhales through her teeth as the last remains of the second drink burns in her throat.
"Thank you." She smiles, hesitantly. "I'm glad to have you."
"Indeed?" Loghain frowns. "We'll see how long that lasts."
Updated A/N: Yes, this is indeed the end of In All These Wasteful Hours. The game events are done and the future awaits, and if you want to read about that, I the sequel is called Cartography and can now be found on my profile. I hope you continue to follow Elissa and Loghain in their uncertain lives after the Blight.
Thank you ever so much for your time and for your feedback on this. All of you who have taken the time to comment here or elsewhere, e-mail or PM me deserve an extra thumb up!
And extra special thanks to CJK who has beta-read, held my hand and been generally awesome.