A/N: Since RL has been a bit busy lately, this is just a mini-chapter. However, I aten't dead, and I am still writing as much as time permits. Many thanks to Lilith Morgana for plotting and hand-holding.
Getting ready to march in the morning was unpleasant, and not only because barely anyone had gotten enough rest. Elissa kept out of Morrigan's way, somehow feeling as if she was invading Loghain's privacy by merely being in her presence, which was utterly irrational but had been making her uneasy ever since she had set eyes on Morrigan at breakfast.
Loghain himself kept rather efficiently busy, somehow always on the other side of the castle yard from Elissa and Morrigan both, whenever Elissa looked. Once, catching his eyes inadvertently, she was treated to a dark glower; apparently he was less than pleased by her visit from the night before. As she would have felt the same way, she couldn't blame him for it, and so, sighing, she respected the distance he put between them.
Elissa politely declined Arl Eamon's offer of a horse. A horse would have meant riding with Anora, Eamon and the other nobles at the head of the army, and she wanted to spend what were probably the last days of her life with her companions instead.
A year ago her place would have been unquestionably with the other nobles. The now was more complicated.
When the army finally set out, it had an odd kind of order to it. Elven archers were marching beside dwarves and human footmen, flanked by knights of every arling and bannorn, their banners snapping in the breeze. The atmosphere should have been glum and tense; nobody had any illusions about their chances of survival. And yet, there was a strange air of determination about them, a grim resolve. Like a Mabari, Elissa thought, absently reaching down to stroke Cal's head. All of Ferelden growling like a big, angry dog, ready to defend itself and its home to the last breath.
"'tis most impractical," Morrigan said testily from her other side, and Elissa jumped, caught unawares.
"There are mages here – castrated, bound, watched over by templars like a herd of cattle. They could help you scout for the enemies, and yet—"
"Morrigan," Elissa said warily. "Some of the people here are farmers, whose only idea of mages are watered-down tales of your mother. If they saw spells being cast, they'd panic. The templars are here as much to protect the mages from the people as the people from the mages, you know."
A thin smile curved Morrigan's lips at the mention of her mother. "Perhaps. I, however, have other means at my disposal."
Sighing, Elissa looked over her shoulder. They were walking in an empty space, behind Eamon and the knights but ahead of the main body of the army. A distance created as much out of respect as out of fear, she supposed, looking up at the mountain of Shale's back in front of her. "Very well. But please make sure you won't be see—"
Morrigan gave an indignant huff. "'tis a pity your memory is short-lived, for I distinctly remember telling you about the magic that is known to me. Or is it that you doubt my skills?"
Elissa forced her fists to unclench. "I shall await your report, Morrigan."
With a last indignant glance over her shoulder, Morrigan slowed and stepped behind a tree by the roadside. A moment later, a large black-winged kite rose into the air with a sharp cry and veered off to the south.
Elissa looked around carefully, but there was no indication that anyone had noticed any women turning into birds. At any rate, there was no outcry. She breathed out in relief and no small amount of anger, before realising that she had acquired another companion where Morrigan had been walking.
"What is she doing?" Loghain asked sharply, without any preamble. So much for nobody noticing.
"Scouting. She is faster and less conspicuous this way," Elissa replied simply.
They walked a full minute in silence. Elissa found herself vaguely surprised both that Loghain wasn't leaving her side and, even more surprised, that she didn't really wish him gone. He was restful company, in an absurd way, demanding neither her attention nor conversation.
So of course it was her who finally broke the silence. "It feels odd not to see you up there," she said, nodding at the group of riders at the head of army.
"If I remember the last weeks correctly, it was your doing that removed me from there," he replied, strangely without too much heat.
Elissa frowned, trying to remember the time after Ostagar, the jumble of emotions and decisions that had only slowly evolved into a strategy. "It was you painting us as outlaws," she finally said. "Blaming us for Cailan's death. And later finding out that Howe had become your right-hand man, and then the slave trade. I couldn't—"
"I gathered it was my—betrayal," Loghain's lips curled unpleasantly around the word. "Abandoning the king's forces, causing the other Grey Wardens deaths—"
"No," Elissa interrupted. "It was Alistair who couldn't forget Duncan's death at Ostagar. I didn't like Duncan enough to care about him more than about any other dead soldier. His death at the hands of darkspawn was his destiny, after all, from the day he Joined." She looked away, towards the grey horizon. "It was being called responsible for the king's death that hit me strongest. I knew him, after all, and my father fought with King Maric..."
She trailed off, not sure what else to say. She had barely known Cailan, and not liked him very much, at that. But Loghain had been his father-in-law and his father's best friend. She didn't know how to phrase the question without making it sounding offensive, and, strangely, she did not wish to give offense.
Loghain was silent for so long that she almost took it as a dismissal, before he did speak, not looking at her. "You know of the battle of West Hill."
The non-sequitur hadn't been a question, but she nodded anyway. "Yes. One of our knights was a West Hill survivor."
Even though Loghain's head was half turned away, she could make out his lips twisting in an ugly grimace. "One of the very few, then." He paused, studying his hands as he walked. "We were betrayed and the battle was lost before it could even start. The usurper's army ambushed us before we were ready; none of the strategy was of use, in the end."
Elissa nodded cautiously, unsure of what he was saying. "Arl Eamon's father was the commander, wasn't he?"
Unexpectedly, Loghain chuckled, grating and entirely devoid of humour. "No. He was the leader of the entire rebel army at the time, but the commander was me. I was Arl Rendorn's second, and most of the strategy was mine." Again he gave the unsettling not-smile. "We were fighting to put Maric on his grandfather's throne. The entire rebel army fought in his name, under his banner, against the usurper."
This was such an obvious historical fact that Elissa simply nodded.
"Maric was separated from us," Loghain continued, looking at Shale's back but probably seeing something else entirely. "He was alone, surrounded and overwhelmed, and would have been killed on the spot."
When nothing more was forthcoming, Elissa frowned. "So how did he survive?"
Loghain was silent for a long time. "I gave the order," he said finally, his voice hoarse. "I told Rowan that we should ride to Maric's aid. We abandoned our men and rushed to save the last Theirin heir."
"And most of the men were slaughtered," Elissa said, finally understanding. "At the cost of Maric's life."
Loghain gave a curt nod. "He was furious. I'd never seen him so angry before. He said," and his voice lost all expression, "he said that it was not about royal blood. He said Ferelden needed a good ruler, and it mattered little who sat on the throne, as long it was a good king. He said that had Rowan and I stayed with the army we might have been able to get more men out alive." His voice dropped, becoming almost inaudible. "He said his Theirin blood was not worth the loss of so many people."
Elissa pondered that in silence. "And at Ostagar… Ferelden already had a good ruler. Safely away, in Denerim." She sighed. "Did Maric ever tell Cailan about… West Hill?"
Loghain shrugged. "He might have tried. He was… they were very different. Cailan grew up in a palace, surrounded by books of legends, and deep in his father's shadow that he wanted to finally escape in a burst of glory. He didn't understand…" his voice drifted off.
Elissa rather thought that she did. "But why us?" she asked eventually. "I understand why you didn't waste the men at Ostagar; enough had died there as it was. I even understand about Cailan. My father used to say he was as stubborn as a mule – I suppose he charged into the thick of the battle without giving much thought to the consequences. I know he didn't listen to you, when you asked him to stay behind. But why make the Grey Wardens responsible for his death?" She turned to him, frowning. "You know no Grey Warden could ever conspire—"
"All I knew," he said harshly, "was his desire to bring the Orlesian chevaliers into Ferelden. There was no indication this was a Blight, at the time. And Cailan always had ridiculous notions about making peace with Orlais. Peace! When most Fereldans still remember the humiliation and the blood that was spilled to drive those bastards out. That boy—" He fell silent abruptly.
"That boy is dead," Elissa said. "And I know you couldn't have done anything other than die with him, at Ostagar. But then you—"
"You needn't remind me of my mistakes of the past year, Warden," Loghain said, glaring at her. "Do you think I am not aware of every single one of them? I—"
There was the beat of strong wings nearby, and Morrigan emerged from the shrubs a moment later. "There are corpses on the road ahead, but I saw no darkspawn." She threw Loghain a look Elissa didn't like in the least and disappeared back into the bushes as a hare.
Sure enough, there was a commotion ahead, where Eamon and the others were, and Elissa and Loghain walked faster to look at what had made the horsemen so agitated.
There were corpses dangling from the branches of a nearby tree, and Elissa wondered, not for the first time, what made the darkspawn string up their victims in such a macabre way. She reached the corpses on the ground just in time to busy herself with those instead of contemplating possible darkspawn reasoning.
"Get those down," Loghain was saying sharply behind her. "It will not improve morale if they see them—oh, Maker's breath, it's just a dead body. Give me your knife—"
Elissa smiled grimly and toed the only human corpse in the pile over with her boot.
"Should we burn them?" Anora said from beside her. The queen was looking at the darkspawn bodies with calm, detached interest; very much her father's daughter.
"No time, I'm afraid, Your Majesty," Elissa answered and crouched down. There was a thick parchment packet tucked into the man's shirt, what was left of it. She took it and stood back up. "Loghain is right, though. The soldiers should not see this. We best move them into the bushes, I suppose."
"I will give orders for some strong men to help you," the queen said and stepped out of the way as Loghain, balancing easily in the tree above them, cut the first rope, dropping a woman's corpse into the road.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Elissa said. "If I may, please tell them that they need thick gloves that will be burned afterwards, and that—oh, Shale, could you help us here, please?"
As the corpses, human and darkspawn alike, were rolled off the road into the bushes below, Elissa felt a strange moment of dissociation. Lady Elissa Cousland should have been screaming at the sight of the corpses, or possibly vomiting off the side of the road, like the stocky, bearded bann just ahead of them. Elissa the Warden just felt faint admiration for the man who had managed to take so many darkspawn down before he died, and sadness, just as faint, for the lost lives. Most of all, however, she felt annoyance at the delay.
"Do you think it's possible to stop feeling?" she asked Loghain offhandedly as they stopped for a brief rest some hours later. "Those corpses earlier, the ones you cut down… I just don't care any more."
He gave her a grave stare that went on for just a little too long. "Yes. It is possible. But not for somebody like you. You will… feel enough, after the battle."
"If there is an after," Elissa said, and opened the packet she had taken from the dead man's body. "And what now? We just… endure?"
"Yes," he said again and came to crouch next to her as she sorted the papers from the packet. There was nothing personal that would have allowed for identification, unfortunately; merely drawings of various landscapes and tracings of Alamarri carvings, along with a large and detailed map of southern Ferelden.
A very detailed map indeed, Elissa realised and she bent down to look. Possibly dated pre-Occupation, as far as she could tell, it showed footpaths and tracks and all but the most insignificant hill and dip in the landscape.
She jumped as her finger, tracing their earlier way east from Denerim, bumped against Loghain's at what was most likely the hill next to the West Road where they had fought the two groups of darkspawn.
"Good workmanship," he said briefly, touching the ornate border of the map.
Elissa nodded and sighed. "And otherwise just drawings. Important enough to him that he wanted to save them, and yet we'll never find out who he was." She watched Loghain's fingers trace the stylised dogs chasing each other along the border and said, following a strange impulse, "take it."
He looked up, frowning. "I have no use for it. We need a detailed map of Denerim to plan the—"
"I have one in my pack; we can plan while we eat," Elissa said, wrapping up the drawings again. "Take the map. For later. After the battle."
"If there is an after," he echoed her, but did not resist further, folding the map carefully. "Thank you, Warden."
Thank the dead man, Elissa could have said. Or, let's hope you live long enough to get some use out of it. Instead she didn't look at him as she packed the drawings away. "You are welcome."