Bandits were preying on travellers even this close to Denerim now, with the Blight pressing on and so much of Ferelden thrown into disarray. They'd fended them off, of course; simply the sight of Sten and Oghren rushing forward with their weapons drawn was enough to send some of the men running, although entirely too many blows were exchanged anyway.
Elissa was, she would have been the first to admit, glad for the action. Since they'd left Denerim her thoughts had been in turmoil and the absence of Alistair was like an empty sucking hole at her side. She missed his silly jokes, his infectious grin, his solid, dependable presence at her side.
Well, apparently not dependable enough.
She'd tried to reason with him afterwards. It's what we do, Alistair. How is this different from Zevran? There are only three of us; why not him? And a last, final attempt, Please, Alistair, it's not like I chose him over you. It's simply expedient—
Sometimes she forgot how young he was, how blinded by his love for Duncan. He hadn't stayed long enough for Riordan to tell him how Duncan himself had been recruited, and when she'd heard that tale she had been torn between laughing hysterically and crying for Alistair, whose heroes had always been bigger than life.
Riordan had only shrugged. He is a Grey Warden, no matter what he does now. He will find the darkspawn, in the end. Or they will find him.
How very comforting, Alistair would have said, with an eye-roll and a wry smirk. Only Alistair was gone, and she had only looked away, hating Riordan and his pragmatism with a sudden fiery jolt. But apparently this is what being a Grey Warden entailed, too. She should have remembered Duncan's recruits, the thieves and the husbands torn from their families and then stuck like pigs in their helpless fear. Her own recruitment, when he'd all but dragged her away from her parents, her throat raw from her screams and her hands covered in her father's blood.
Alistair should have remembered. But he was gone, blind and young and stubborn.
And she was left with an Alistair-sized hole in her life and a silent former teyrn at her back, under her command.
It was Shale who first made her pay attention, when they were setting up camp for the night, still in the hills around Drakon River.
"Is it sure it has made a wise decision?"
Elissa looked up from hammering in the last tent peg. "Oh, not you, too. I'm sorry if I'm not in the mood for a lesson on golem ethics."
"I cannot offer you such, since I have spoken with no other golems that I can remember," Shale replied unperturbedly. "I was referring to the fact that it has always chosen its companions for strength and skill; although, of course, none would be able to match mine."
"Yes?" Elissa asked absently, tossing her pack inside her tent and belatedly wincing at the clatter. Maker, there were – had been? – potion vials in there; she should calm down before she caused yet more damage.
"The man it has made another Warden is old; he will die soon. Is it certain it made a good choice?"
Not at all. "He is an experienced fighter, Shale, and a famous general. You saw him fight off those bandits earlier."
"I have indeed. And he has been limping ever since. Humans are such squishy things—"
"What?" Elissa turned around and for the first time consciously made herself look at Loghain, who was setting up his own tent, rather slowly. And yes, he was limping. In the fading light of the day, she could also make out fresh blood running down the side of the face where he'd caught a blow in the fight.
Angrier than she had been all day, Elissa whirled back to Shale. "Thank you," she said tightly, and made her way around the fire, where Wynne was carefully sewing something in front of her own tidy tent.
The old mage looked up, smiling. "What is it, child? You look as if—"
"I am not a child, Wynne," Elissa said, just barely keeping a hold on her temper. "Please tell me: is there a reason why you didn't heal Loghain after the battle, when you healed the rest of us?"
Wynne's lips compressed into a tight line. "You are exhausted and upset, which is understandable—"
"Don't," Elissa cut her off. "This is unworthy of you. You, who taught me so much about compassion and kindness."
"That man is responsible—"
"For guarding your back and dispatching several bandits who would have killed you without hesitation. I said, at the Tower, that I would be honoured to have you join us, Wynne. Please don't make me think I was wrong. I," Elissa's voice broke, unexpectedly. "I couldn't bear it. Not from you."
The mage rose to her feet, leaning on her staff. She touched Elissa's shoulder and Elissa was horrified to see Wynne's eyes glisten wetly.
"I'm sorry," she began, but Wynne interrupted her gently.
"Hush. You have nothing to apologise for. It seems I was too hasty when I said that age had tempered my arrogance."
Swallowing, Elissa walked across the camp, matching her pace to Wynne's. Loghain was sitting on a folded blanket, slowly and methodically cleaning his sword. At their approach he glanced up, looking, as Shale had said, like an old man. He was older than her father had been, Elissa realised unexpectedly.
"I'm sorry for not tending to your wounds sooner, Loghain," Wynne said evenly. A cloud of white mist gathered in her free hand and enveloped him for a moment, before glowing briefly and disappearing. "I'll bring you a sleeping potion after supper."
Loghain looked after her as she returned to her tent, and then looked up at Elissa, a bitter smile tugging at his lips. "I suppose I should thank you for that kindness, Warden?" he said hoarsely.
"When Wynne came with me she became responsible for all our healing. She does not get to pick and choose," Elissa replied, and was surprised at how even her voice came out.
Loghain's hands were motionless on his blade. "Is that a warning?"
"An explanation." She paused. "Make sure to drink that potion. New Wardens have… bad dreams of the darkspawn. We can sense them, as they can apparently sense us. You'll need that sleep."
Loghain inclined his head at her and reached again for the polishing cloth.
A sudden thought came to her and Elissa smiled, grimly. "Can you cook? Zevran is cooking tonight, but we normally take turns."
He looked up again, startled. "Do you trust me not to poison you?"
She nodded at his sword. "I have to trust your other skills with my life, too."
Loghain simply nodded, and then frowned in contemplation. "I have not cooked for about thirty years, I think, but I suppose I should be able to manage something simple." He grimaced briefly. "As long as it does not involve any cheese. Maric always made me eat too much of the wretched stuff."
Elissa grimaced as well. "Oh Maker, yes. Alistair always says…" She trailed off as she heard herself speak, and swallowed. Without looking at Loghain she turned around and walked to her tent, pitched as usual away from the others', for privacy.
Privacy she didn't need any more.