The Keening Blade
Life is a comedy to those who think: a tragedy to those who feel.-Horace Walpole
-And to a thinking, feeling person, it can be both.-Arsinoe de Blassenville
Chapter 1: The Warden and Her Peace Offerings
Fortune had bound Loghain to her Wheel and then departed, leaving the Wheel— with Loghain still attached-in the hands an unpredictable girl. Unpredictable at the very least. Sometimes—odd. Occasionally he wondered if she might be mad.
To some extent, he acknowledged, she was his creation. And he had certainly been—not mad, no—that wasn't possible. But he had certainly done things in the past year that now baffled him completely.
As to her companions: well, they were a peculiar lot, to say the least. And it was ironic that the most accepting of them was the one with the Orlesian accent. Pretty. Red-haired. And determined to act as if they were friends. It chilled his blood. Nonetheless, he must endure her presence and be grateful for the useful information she gave him: nuggets dredged from the mighty slag heap of her endless prattle.
Some things he could see for himself, of course. It had not taken more than two days in the girl's company to notice that she never missed a chance at loot.
It had shocked him somewhat, that first time, seeing her and the Orlesian leaving the road to examine a pair of swollen corpses. At first he thought those two rather sweet young girls were going over to say a prayer. They fell to their knees on the ground besides the bodies, indeed, but only to rifle the pockets of the dead.
Since then, wherever they went, if there was an abandoned wagon, or a dead body, or a deserted cottage (or even sometimes not so deserted a cottage), he saw that the girl would take anything not absolutely nailed down. And finding nice things always pleased her. She did not hoard them selfishly away, however, for the Orlesian told Loghain that the girl liked to give presents.
"Maude is so dear," she babbled on, imagining that he wanted her company as they traveled. "So generous. It is her noble upbringing, of course, but it is in her nature to be kind. I saw that in her from the day we met."
He grunted. Somehow the Orlesian took that as encouragement.
"It was in Lothering. I had been in the Chantry there for the past two years—"
"Really?" He asked, somewhat surprised. "Your work as a spy bored you?"
"A—spy? she faltered.
"Don't play games with me, young woman," he snorted. "You've been on our lists for years as a known Orlesian spy. Why do you suppose I believed the Warden to be an agent of the Orlesians?"
"It was—because of me?" she whispered, distressed. "Oh, Maker! That is terrible. No—no! You must believe me, I have put that all behind me, and I only wished to help. When she came to Lothering, I could see that she was the one who would fight the Blight. I had a vision of darkness…"
Loghain rolled his eyes, letting the nonsense wash over him. He really had completely mistaken the situation. The former spy had gone round the bend, and was completely wrapped up in her religious mania. She had had visions, Maker help us all.
"—But I was telling you how nice Maude is, yes? So generous. She always remembers the things one says to her, no matter how silly. Once I told her how I missed the beautiful shoes in Orlais, and that I had had my eye on a pair before I left—pale blue silk, with amber beads…"
Her voice grew dreamy then, sounding much the same as when she went on about her visions. Loghain wondered if this was some divine punishment, to be forced into the company of a demented Orlesian bard and made to listen to her rhapsodizing about bloody shoes.
"—And you know, not a week later, we met a dwarf trader, and Maude gave me the shoes she bought from him for me—and they were blue satin and perfectly lovely. I take them from my pack sometimes and look at them, and think about the dress I shall wear with them when the Blight is over. It is very comforting."
Loghain grunted again. Maker kill me now.
"—And I told her once how my mother always smelled like Andraste's Grace—the flower—you know? And that it was rare in Orlais and that I missed it. And now, when she sees one, she picks it and gives it to me. Isn't she the dearest thing?"
"—and it isn't just me, of course. She is thoughtful like that to everyone. She found an amulet that had belonged to Alistair's mother when we were in Redcliffe, and he was so grateful—"
She paused, and hurried on, obviously aware that Alistair was apparently not all that grateful, or he would sodding well be here.
"She found out that Wynne adores old books, and that Sten appreciates paintings, that Oghren loves fine liquors…"
"Hard to miss that," Loghain muttered.
"—and Morrigan can't have enough jewelry—and of course Maude found her mother's grimoire for her—and that was quite an adventure, I can tell you—"
"I'm sure you will."
"—because Morrigan wanted Maude to fetch this book of her mother's, but didn't want to go herself, so Maude took some of us and we went down into the Wilds to ask for the book, and it sounds simple enough, but Morrigan did not tell us that her mother would turn into an enormous dragon and try to eat us—"
Loghain stopped and stared.
"Because Morrigan's mother was Flemeth—yes—really—that Flemeth—isn't it amazing? The old stories never end, you know, and we found ourselves in hers. So Maude killed her, though Morrigan thinks she will come back someday. But my point is to show you what Maude will do for her friends."
"Killing a dragon for a friend is indeed impressive," Loghain granted sourly. "though I'm not sure a true friend has the right to ask such a thing."
"Oh—well—but you see how Morrigan is," Leliana confided in a breathless whisper. "The woman is vile fiend!"
"So it would seem."
"—But Maude is perfectly lovely to her, too. It is her nature, certainly. Morrigan scoffs, and says that Maude simply has a thing for saving people, but I think that is why she is so special. If she did not care about saving people, Arl Eamon would be dead, and either Arl Eamon's son or wife would be dead, and all the people of Redcliffe, and perhaps the whole Circle of Magi, and perhaps all the Dalish elves in the Brecilian Forest, and—and—and—"
"Me," Loghain supplied tersely. "That is what you meant to say, is it not?"
Feelingly, Leliana declared, "I was never prouder to call her friend than I was that day. Others might be angry, but if they had troubled themselves to understand her, or simply to think about all her deeds, they would have understood that everything else she had done was in preparation for that noble act. Maude has never struck down an enemy who surrendered. Everyone deserves a second chance."
"Leliana," Loghain said coldly, "It's hardly the first time I'd been given a 'second chance.'"
"It was the first time Maude gave you one," the bard countered triumphantly. "Besides, she is such an admirer of yours, I am sure it would have hurt her very much to have killed you."
Not all the Warden's companions were as affable as the Orlesian bard. The big Qunari eyed him thoughtfully, without fear and without disguise, but said very little. The dwarf glared blearily, when not muttering to himself. The older mage—Wynne was her name—shot him little hostile glances, sharp as flensing knives.
Her words were no less sharp. After one particularly acrimonious exchange, the mage stormed on ahead, leaving him astonished at the depth of her personal anger toward him.
"Do not concern yourself with that old woman's barbs," drawled Morrigan, who had come up beside him. "She is perhaps the only one of our party who genuinely misses Alistair. She adores Alistair. 'Tis sickening how she dotes. She treats him like her—grandson, or some such nonsense. I heard her warn Maude very sternly at one point against breaking his pure and innocent heart."
Loghain gave the beautiful young woman a raised brow. Half-naked as she was, she was certainly worth a look. He wondered how her skin—all of that skin-could be so smooth and fair after months of trekking through the wilderness and endless fighting. Morrigan noticed him looking and preened slightly.
She continued, "Maude is entirely too tolerant of the old woman's sermons, but in this case she did have the spirit to ask Wynne if she cared nothing for Maude's own heart. The answer was—no."
"Is it broken?" Loghain found himself asking.
Morrigan gave a throaty chuckle. "Wounded, perhaps, but hardly broken. She is not such a fool, though she is vexingly tenderhearted in general. Once I feared she might come to find that village idiot charming—if only because of the alarmingly small size of our social circle—but while I heard many vile rumors about her and Alistair during our travels she gave Loghain a faint, superior sneer—I am happy to say that our Warden remains pure, virginal, and unspoiled, despite that assassin of yours teaching her to recite filthy verses in Antivan."
"Hardly my assassin."
"No, indeed!" replied Morrigan with great satisfaction. "He is the Warden's assassin, and happy to be so!"
"So I am!" purred the elf, coming up beside Loghain on the other side. "After all," he smirked at his former employer, "I told her at the time that there were worse things than serving the whims of a gorgeous, deadly sex goddess. Wouldn't you agree?"
Loghain gave him a level look that sent the assassin away hastily.
"Good riddance," said Morrigan glancing at the retreating Zevran.'Tis a wonderment to me that Maude can put up with his impertinence—and even reward him for it—giving him boots of Antivan leather because he waxed maudlin one night…"
"I understand that she is a very generous leader."
"Yes," Morrigan answered, her brow knit in a frown. "She is. Far more than any of us deserve. I believe it is something that gives her great pleasure, so she does get something from it, I suppose. "
It was a sensible practice, after all, Loghain thought to himself. A successful mercenary captain—which the girl was, essentially—understood that mere booty and coin were not enough to bind a company to together, nor to insure loyalty. Personal gifts to a valued subordinate-gifts which acknowledged the individual's worth—well, people never forgot such things.
He had done it himself, of course. The girl simply seemed to have a special knack for divining the things that would be meaningful to her followers. That was very clever of her, though he had never thought her a fool.
But she was so painfully young. It was difficult to reconcile the accomplished warrior who had bested him at the Landsmeet- or the silver-tongued intriguer who had crowned a king in Orzammar and won unhoped-for allies for Ferelden- with Bryce Cousland's wild girl of years before.
True, she was already so changed by the time he had seen her at Ostagar that he had hardly known her again.
Two years younger than Anora. The girls had been friendly enough, and he had certainly not objected to Anora associating with the one girl in Ferelden who was technically her equal.
But they had been very different, and Anora had been bemused and faintly horrified by Maude's antics. He had been rather bemused by them, himself. He had seen her now and then as she grew up, but the first time he had ever taken notice of her was during Maric's last Landsmeet, when the girl had been running a race through the palace with a pack of noble boys, and had burst into the council room, vaulted the table, and leaped from the window, while the boys hung back, panic-stricken at the august presences.
The men had crowded to the window, wondering if the girl had managed to kill herself this time, but she had landed safely on a ledge, and gave her father a cheerful wave and a brilliant smile as she ran away lightly over the roof tops. Loghain smiled faintly to himself, thinking of the day and the reckless, coltish girl, and that smile that flashed out like a sunbeam.
Maric had laughed and clapped Bryce on the back.
"She's her mother's daughter!"
"That she is," Bryce agreed, with rueful tenderness. "and I thank the Maker for it."
At the time, Loghain had thought to himself that he would have warmed her bottom for her, were he her father. Lively and charming though she was, that wild streak could well get her killed in some horrible and ridiculous way. She needed a firm hand, he decided, and Bryce was foolishly indulgent.
However, she was not, after all, his daughter, so he had merely glowered and held his peace. Howe had caught his eye and murmured. "Quite the little spitfire, isn't she? Only a child now, of course, but in a few years she's likely to turn any number of heads…" He had shrugged expressively.
Perhaps that had influenced him after Maric's death. He pushed ahead with the marriage that he and Maric had always planned, and somehow the Cousland girl had dropped out of sight for a few years.
There had been a rumor about an arranged marriage for her with her cousin, the heir of Arl Bryland, but that obviously had gone nowhere. She had remained in Highever—in the north mostly—rarely coming to Denerim and never to Court with her parents. There had been talk and speculation, but nothing solid. He had had more important issues before him, and he had forgotten her existence until the day they met again at Ostagar.
A report from Orzammar mentioned the new king referring to her "legendary charm." Loghain and Howe had puzzled over it. Such an odd phrase for a dwarf to use. Since when did dwarves find anyone or anything "charming?" Howe had sneered, but it had made them both rather uneasy. Though Maric's bastard was little more than a cipher, the Cousland girl clearly was not.
She was a mystery.
And that evening she descended on him, her wonderful smile unleashed, her arms full of bundles: one thin, one bulky, and one rather long. In a loose linen shirt and tight leather pants, she looked much smaller than she did in full armor, and—quite—well…
"May I speak to you?"
"I suppose I have a moment," he replied ungraciously, pretending to be intent on cleaning his greaves. Not wearing his armor in her presence made him uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons.
She took no notice of his tone, but arranged her long legs gracefully as she sat down by him on the fallen log he had claimed. As she spread out her burdens before her, Loghain began to feel a faint stir of apprehension. Was the girl actually going to give him presents?
She was indeed.
"These are for you," she told him, eyes shining. The mabari came up sniffing, and Loghain scratched his ears, feeling comforted by the dog's presence. A well-trained beast. For some reason, the dog had taken to Loghain from the first. In fact, the marsh witch had told Loghain that "the filthy mongrel" was not without some sense, as he preferred Loghain to Alistair.
Filthy Mongrel's—no—Ranger's mistress—was looking at him expectantly.
Loghain made no move, but looked at her with narrowed eyes. "Are you attempting to buy my allegiance?"
"I am attempting to give you lovely presents," she said composedly. "I love to give gifts. You should open that one," she said, pointing at the long wrapped object. "You're going to like it,"
She was using that voice of hers now. That voice that had made her cause and undone his own. That special voice she used to make people do things she wanted. Maker, but it was persuasive and seductive. It was the perfect voice to use with people who liked their thinking done for them. It irritated Loghain beyond words.
She was perfectly capable of speaking like a normal human being, and did, most of the time. Her real voice was pleasant and musical enough. But when she wished to persuade, it grew low and insistent, insinuating and vibrant. Others might melt under its power, but to Loghain it was fingernails scraping over a veridium shield.
He scowled at her. "Don't speak to me," he said crisply, "as you do to your puppets."
She was puzzled and hurt. "But it's wonderful she began, in a normal tone.
He sighed. "That's better." He pushed aside the dark green velvet and saw the sword. And stopped. Holy Maker.
At first he thought it was Maric's sword, but this was not the same. It was magnificent: a dragonbone longsword, glittering with enchantments.
The girl was studying his face, drinking in his expression like a thirsty child.
Stubbornly, he tried to say nothing, but it was impossible.
"You cannot possibly intend to give me this. Do you understand what it is worth?"
"I do give you this. It is yours. Isn't it gorgeous? Its name is The Keening Blade."
Hesitantly, he wrapped his hand around the hilt, and almost trembled at the sensation of rightness. This was passion: this was a coming together. He drew a breath over his teeth.
"You see?" the girl said, very pleased. "It knows you now. I've had it for awhile, and when you joined us, I knew it had to be yours."
"You did not give this to Alistair?"
Her pretty face grew stony. "No Keening Blade for Alistair. It's not for him. It's yours. It's yours already. I don't want to talk about Alistair. I'm very disappointed in him." She threw him a dark look under her brows. "You cost me Alistair, you know."
Loghain smirked, thinking of that fool's behavior at the Landsmeet. It was the one pleasant memory of the day—when Alistair threw away the friend who had done everything for him in a fit of pique.
"Yes—well—you can thank me later. But this sword-you do not want it for yourself?"
A quick, impatient gesture. "I already have a dragonbone sword that suits me perfectly and is better proportioned to my size. And when I put my hand on this monster's hilt," she said, with a wave at the sword, "I could tell it did not much like me. It seems to like you, though," she observed.
Loghain could sense something of the sort. This was an ancient weapon, surely, and very nearly alive.
"Where did you find this?"
She laughed with delight. "I know you might think I found it in the Deep Roads or in the Frostbacks or in some Elvish ruin, she said, "but that would not be the case. I got it off a demon who lived right in Denerim in a little house in Stealcopper Court."
He frowned. He prided himself on a detailed knowledge of the city of Denerim, and he had never heard of an ancient spirit in that shabby back street. "You made a bargain with a demon for this?"
She was briefly scandalized, and then very amused. "A deal with a demon?" she scoffed, with a smothered laugh. "No! I killed it, of course!"
"Of course," he agreed sardonically.
To his dismay, the girl stroked her fingertips delicately along the sword's shining blade. The gesture caused him an uncomfortable throb of desire. Gritting his teeth, he wondered if she was tormenting him deliberately.
Possibly not. She was telling him more about the sword, clearly pleased with herself.
"I had heard these rumors about something rather dangerous when I was in Orzammar. A very nervous dwarf dropped a hint, and I had some other information. Some spirit that would attract the curious and then hunt them relentlessly. When I was in Denerim, I thought I'd have a look myself. So I found the house, and there it was waiting!"
She laughed to herself. "Very full of itself, it was! An ancient spirit with the name Barfang or Garshang or Kaxxbang. I forget. Anyway, It told me it would not be simply a footnote to the history of the Grey Wardens, and then did the standard 'You die here,' sort of thing. People are always telling me how they're going to kill me," she added. "If they just got on with it instead of talking about it, they might have a better chance."
He said nothing. There was nothing to say.
She went on cheerfully, "So I killed it and took its stuff. It didn't want to be a footnote, but since I didn't quite catch the name, it won't even be that. And that is the story of the The Keening Blade. And now it is yours."
"Why is it called that?"
"I don't know!" the girl laughed. "We'll find out!" She looked at him as expectantly as her grinning mabari. "But you do like it, don't you?"
"Yes." He made the effort. "Thank you."
He had not meant to encourage her. His response, however, caused her eyes to light like candles. She pushed over a bulky mass, which when unwrapped proved to be a Griffon helmet—a winged miracle of silverite.
"You want me to wear this, I take it?" he ventured. He hated helmets, and always had. It was a trade-off, certainly, but he preferred being able to actually hear what was going on around him to a helmet's limited protection.
"Yes, yes, yes," she urged. "It's like mine, only nicer, really. It goes with your armor. Isn't it gorgeous? I'm sure it will fit."
"No doubt." Inwardly he groaned. "Are you ordering me to wear this infernal object?"
Her face fell. Loghain felt he had gained a minor victory, and at the same time as if he had kicked a puppy.
"Yes—I thought you'd like it," she said, looking disappointed. "I love wearing mine. Everybody knows who and what I am. It speeds things along, not having to always explain."
She made a sweeping gesture to an unseen audience. "'I am a Grey Warden, she proclaimed. "'Do you need my help?' I've told Leliana that she should set it to music. "
"And then," cut in Morrigan, who walked by, hips swaying, "the fools cry out, 'Oh, Grey Warden! Lift the curse! Slay the dragon! Find my cat!' Really! You are such a goody-good!" Her drawling voice trailed away, as she disappeared into her own tent.
"Yes-well—"the girl said, embarrassed. "Sometimes, I suppose…" She scowled at Loghain's amusement. "The cat thing is a complete fabrication. Anyway-the helmet makes me more imposing, though being imposing is not a problem for you, I daresay."
"Not in some time. You don't mind not being able to hear?"
"Oh!" she said, looking relieved. "That's why you have reservations! No problem! These are very cleverly designed—probably enchanted, too. Try it! You'll find you can hear perfectly well!"
So much for that excuse, then. Loghain sighed to himself. The third item was of heavy linen paper, carefully folded.
"I found this at Redcliffe, and I looked at it again the other night. I was feeling so self-righteous after Ostagar. It never occurred to me that I could ever be wrong about anything. I know now that you made the right tactical decision at the time. I was late with the beacon…" her voice faltered, and she looked away.
"Yes—I was late. The Tower of Ishal was crawling with darkspawn, and I was green as grass and couldn't cut through them fast enough. And at the top an ogre was waiting."
She blew out a breath. "If I had known then what I know now, I would never have stopped to clear out the side rooms! I would have run through the corridors and up the stairs, and not stopped to engage the bloody bastards! I would have barred the door behind me at the top, and I would have tossed a burning stick to get the beacon going, and then fought the ogre. As it was, I made a complete hash of that fight. I know how to kill ogres pretty fast now, of course…" she told him, her voice darkening.
"It's the one conversation I never dared have with Alistair, and I suppose it's why he hates you so much. He has to blame you for Duncan, so he doesn't have to blame himself. But I know what happened, and so do you." She cocked her head. "We're the only people left alive who were at that council the night before the battle. The Revered Mother didn't make it out, I heard. Uldred went bonkers and was possessed by a pride demon—that's a whole other story—and there was Duncan and there was the King. And you and me. I heard you warn the King, and I heard him dismiss you. I know you didn't have some sort of sinister plot going to murder him."
"That totally means the world to me."
"Don't be like that. Anyway, it just made me so furious that you called me a traitor. I couldn't understand how you could imagine I—or the Wardens—had anything to do with Orlais. But you must remember that when I was born, Ferelden was already free." She gestured again to the gift.
Loghain unfolded an old map of Orlais. On it, Ferelden appeared simply as a province of the Empire. He managed a grim smile. This had been the shape of his world in childhood, and he had done the impossible to change it.
It was clearly a peace offering. And besides…
"Thank you," he managed. "I find maps very interesting."
"Do you?" she said, catching fire with the knowledge. "So do I! Father had a whole codex of them bound together at home, and I loved it so much. We would play "the map game," and I would shut my eyes and open the book at random and put my finger down and pretend I was going to travel to that spot." She laughed disarmingly. "Mostly I ended up drowning in the Amaranthine Ocean!"
He winced, remembering Maric. What a stupid, wretched way to die. And completely unnecessary.
"You must be tired," she apologized, seeing his face close down. "I should let you rest, instead of hounding you." She made to leave, but his hand caught at her wrist.
"Why are you doing this? Are you trying to resolve things between us? What is it that you want of me?"
"I want," she said, her face growing grave, "to defeat the Blight. I want to do my duty. I cannot do it alone. I felt you could help me, and I still feel so, even though Alistair did not. I want you to—well—no—let's not do it this way. Let me ask you this: what do you want?"
"What do I want?" he asked, surprised. "What an odd question. I want to ride back to Denerim and sit in the war room and find no empty seats 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—"
"But don't you see?" she burst out. "Those are the things I want, too!" Her voice had risen, and the others were looking over, frowning at him for upsetting their leader.
She saw them looking, and gave them a wave. She lowered her voice again for Loghain's ears only.
"But what I wish most of all" she said, bitterly earnest "is that none of this had happened. I wish I could awaken in my chamber in Highever Castle to the sound of my mother's voice. I wish this burden had not fallen to me. But it has. I must carry it, for no one else has come forward, I can tell you! If I had died at Highever, Alistair would still be wandering the Wilds, looking for a clue!"
He gave her a look. "You did not join the Wardens by choice, then?"
She shook her head, with a sour half-smile. "Duncan extorted my Father's consent as he lay dying in our larder. It was the price of saving me from the massacre. He dragged me away, while my mother was still alive and fighting to cover our escape. She must have lasted quite a while, defending that wretched door, and Maker knows what they did to her at the end. If it had been left to me, I would have stayed, or I would have insisted that she come, even if it lessened out chances. But Duncan dragged me away, and she was left to die alone."
"Did you hate Duncan?" he asked, surprised.
She shook her head. "He was a hard man to hate. He was very kind to me on our journey south to Ostagar. And after I accepted that my parents were dead, I wanted desperately to see my brother Fergus. I learned a great deal from Duncan, though not about the Wardens themselves, of course. Grey Wardens are so ridiculously secretive—even about things that don't need to be. I still don't know why we're needed to end the blight. Maybe Riordan will break down and spill all his secrets once we make it to Redcliffe."
"Possibly. That presumes he'll survive his journey and is there to meet us."
"You are just a ray of sunshine, aren't you?"
At that, a short, rusty laugh was forced from him. "I do try." He stared into the darkness. "I survived your test, after all. I'm sure you weren't expecting that. You must think I'm some kind of monster: you keep striking at me, and I just keep refusing to die."
She looked very sad, and turned her head away. "If you're a monster, then so am I. A pair of monsters at a campfire, bound by the taint."
They were silent together for a few heartbeats, before the girl declared brightly, "And we're not alone, after all!" She reached out to scratch Ranger's ears. "He's one of us, you know, poor beast. A hound can't chew off a hurlock's face without exposing itself to the taint. He was sick at first, and I wondered if I was going to lose him, but then he was all right. My brave and faithful mabari Grey Warden!"
Ranger barked happily at them both.
"Of course," the girl whispered, with more than a touch of sarcasm. "that is a terribly important Grey Warden secret, too; and we are bound by oath never to reveal the existence of Grey Warden mabaris to the unsuspecting world. People can live their happy little lives in peace because they do not know about them!"
The dog put its head in her lap, and Loghain reached over to smooth back the silky fur from the top of its head. The dog shut his eyes in bliss.
"Do you know," she asked drolly, "that there is a rumor going round that the Grey Wardens are evil, and that we worship the Archdemon? And that there aren't really any darkspawn in the south? 'It's all Grey Warden work!'"
He snorted. "Worship the Archdemon? Like the Tevinters of old and their dragons?"
"Well," she said, "I did come across this bizarre dragon cult in the Frostbacks. They worshipped a High Dragon as Andraste reborn."
"You use the past tense in speaking of them."
"Yes," she agreed. "Well—yes. I killed them and took their stuff. And I killed the dragon, too."
His brows knit. "You've probably killed more dragons than anyone in Thedas! I was told about another one in the Wilds—"
"Morrigan's mother!" The girl rolled her eyes. "I suppose I have. I think, counting drakes and young, I've killed about thirty dragonkind in the past year. Only two high dragons, though. They're awful buggers to put down."
He was impressed. Really and truly impressed. "There's nothing like practice before facing the Archdemon."
"That's what I say!" she agreed, slapping her thigh. "We may not have griffons and masses of Grey Wardens, but there is no reason we can't deal with the Archdemon in dragon form. I've a pretty good system figured out now…"
And she was off, describing practical dragonslaying tactics in detail. Loghain listened, fascinated and entertained. This was no foolish legend, no useless ancient lore, but a realistic solution to the Blight: workmanlike, sensible, and detailed.
"-And that's why mages are so valuable." she said, near the end of her lesson. "I'm afraid you are most likely to be chosen to do the dangerous part—which is distracting the dragon by looking menacing and knightly and stupidly heroic-while I do the sneaky bit of climbing up and slipping my sword just behind the back of the skull into its brain. Mostly though, it's not very romantic: we're just chipping away at the dragon like woodsmen at an old oak."
"It sounds very well thought-out," Loghain approved. "You certainly have not been idle. I'm not sure I can look as stupidly heroic as Alistair, but I daresay with practice—"
"And the helmet," she pointed out.
"Ah yes. The helmet should do much for my stupidly heroic image. I hope to prove worthy of your trust."
She smiled at him oddly, and leaned in. For a moment, he thought she was going to kiss his cheek, like a dutiful, affectionate daughter.
Instead she said, "You already have."
She smiled to herself, and petted the mabari in long, deep strokes that caused Loghain yet more distress. He wondered if this is what those prisoners felt, who when in their captors' power too long, sometimes grew attached—docile—even imagining themselves in love.
The elder mage—Wynne—was glaring at him, eyes full of suspicion. It occurred to him that sitting here with the girl and her dog might look improperly intimate. He considered moving away, but he was damned if he would let any dried-up she-mage bully him. Better to be teased and frustrated by the girl and her presents.
He picked up the sword again, laying it across his knees, studying the runes. The Keening Blade had a bluish, frosty gleam. It was altogether splendid, and undoubtedly the finest weapon he had ever possessed. His fingertips touched the pommel lightly, reveling in the feeling of acceptance and complicity radiating from the weapon.
"It's certainly not what I expected," he admitted wryly. "I expected you to kill me for what I had done to you, but you did not."
"I wanted to kill Howe, of course," the girl told him. "I would never have been able to rest easy had I not, but I did. He was the deadest man who ever lived by the time I was through with him, and you know what? My parents have yet to make a reappearance." She raked a hand through her long and thick brown hair, a habit Loghain had now spotted as a mark of distress.
"I never wanted to kill you," she told Loghain. "Well—sometimes—but most of the time I didn't. I wanted to talk to you and work things out, but I couldn't find a way. And at the Landsmeet the only reasons really to kill you were to please Alistair and to make it easier for Arl Eamon to take your place—which counts as pleasing him, I suppose. And I see no reason to toady to Arl Eamon. He owes me, not I him."
"You don't like Eamon," he remarked, interested.
"He's a dick," she said flatly.
Astonished at such a vulgarism from her, he raised his brows.
The girl's eyes were blazing. "I saved him and everything he holds dear—and I went to the ends of the bloody earth and killed a dragon to do it! Then when I ask for one thing—to spare the life of one man—the pompous old bastard had the stones to refuse me! I wanted to save that poor sad mage you told to poison him—after all, the fellow went into the Fade and rescued Eamon's only child! I asked for that one single thing, and Eamon fobs me off with a stupid shield I'll never use! I wish now I'd just conscripted Jowan!"
She was up and pacing in front of the fire, furious as a thwarted hunting cat. "And Eamon's the one who's fanned the flames of civil war by blabbing about Alistair's ancestry. He was the only one in all Ferelden who wanted Alistair to be king. Alistair certainly didn't want it. Teagan doesn't really want it. I thought it a really bad idea at first. You don't know how often I wished I had led our party to South Reach and my cousin Arl Bryland, Or just bloody stuck to the magi, elves, and dwarves."
She rose and paced restlessly. The mabari watched her with loving eyes.
"Yes—Alistair has Theirin blood, but so have most of the nobles in Ferelden. I'm a descendent of King Calenhad half a dozen times over, myself. Alistair has not a shred of leadership in him—and that's almost entirely the fault of Eamon's treatment of him in childhood. Why didn't Maric just acknowledge him? He wouldn't have been the only royal bastard in Ferelden history!"
"He almost did," Loghain told her, wanting to defend his friend. "Maric was not one to shirk a duty." His voice grew tense. "but it would have ruined Rowan! She would have been reduced to the status of a concubine in the eyes of our neighbors, and Cailan's rights would have been called into question. At least with Eamon, Alistair had a childhood."
She whirled on him, her face contorted. Loghain blinked in astonishment. For a moment he thought she would hit him.
"A fine childhood indeed!" she snarled. "Shunted off to the stables to sleep on straw! He jokes about being raised by dogs, but there's many a true word spoken in jest! Given the boot at the age of ten when Eamon married that bitch Isolde. Told from his earliest years that he was nothing and nobody and must never, ever, do anything to call attention to himself.
"And you know what?" she said, almost spitting the words, "He learned those lessons so well that he could never function effectively for me even as a second-in-command. He's not a fool, really, but he's learned to play one to protect himself. If I sent him out as a two-man scouting patrol with Ranger, it would have been Ranger that led the way! Eamon could hardly done worse to him if he was deliberately avenging the slight to his sister! And perhaps he was."
Loghain was silent, thinking it over. The girl had not finished with the subject.
"But now Alistair is suddenly valuable! Eamon has latched on to him, I am convinced, almost entirely to keep his special place at the side of a king. And perhaps out of guilt at the shabby treatment Alistair received from him. I repeat," she said, very distinctly. "Eamon is a dick. He is a fucking dick. And one of the worst things you did to me was force me to be his ally!"
Loghain held his peace, feeling the girl was being completely unreasonable, but knowing enough of young women not to attempt to defend himself when she was in his state. Even Anora did not get this angry.
"And by the way," she snarked, sitting back down beside him on the log, "Eamon's annoyed with me because he wanted a Cousland queen. And I did not cooperate."
"It would hardly have been surprising had you put yourself forward as Alistair's consort," he ventured quietly. "Your father was nearly elected king after Maric's death, and thus you have a claim of your own to the crown. You would have undoubtedly have been accepted by the Landsmeet."
"Well, too bad! I didn't feel like deposing Anora, which Eamon was so eager to do. She's a very effective queen—when she's allowed to be she gave Loghain a fierce scowl—"and the Landsmeet should just shut their faces and give thanks for her. When I met with her—at Eamon's urging—I didn't feel like lying to her. I told her I would support her—with certain conditions. In return, she would support me—also with certain conditions."
"She had to marry Alistair, and I had to find a way not to kill you."
"If she has to spend the rest of her life telling Alistair which boot goes on which foot, she at least deserved to get something out of the bargain."
"You're an honorable woman," he said gravely.
She grimaced, her pretty features twisted in disgust. "Sometimes. There were other reasons not to kill you. I later pointed out to Alistair that killing his betrothed's father was perhaps not the best way to start their relationship."
"Anora's always been a very practical child—"
"And I—who saw my father bleed out, was not going to kill another woman's father in front of her. I wasn't going to do it. The idea was revolting."
The dog whined, sensing her overwrought state. She rubbed the hound's chin, and shrugged.
"And maybe I just wanted what this cousin of Mother's wanted. She and her husband fought all the time, and he was scandalously unfaithful to her. Mother asked why she didn't just kill the man, and Olwyn replied that she wanted him 'alive and suffering. The girl gave Loghain a sidelong glance and a half-smile.
He snorted. "Your idea of making me suffer appears to consist only in presenting me with magnificent gifts."
"I've already done the worst thing possible to you in making you a Grey Warden. I can't go on hating someone I've already killed. Now I can be nice to you because now you're just like me: you've lost your name and your title and your home, and the same awful ickiness flows through your veins—"
"Ickiness?" muttered Loghain. She really was not all there.
Leliana smiled at them from the far side of the fire, and rose, bringing over two steaming silver chalices.
"Something to keep out the cold," she told them sweetly, in her irritating Orlesian accent. Nonetheless, it smelled spicy and delicious, and Loghain granted her a nod of thanks and an inarticulate grunt.
The girl took a sip. "This is absolutely amazing, Leliana! What's in it?"
A mysterious smile and a shrug. "Oh, a few things I've found, mixed with quite a lot of Oghren's White Shear."
"He let you have some of that? The girl asked, surprised.
They glanced over at the dwarf, who was snoring, feet dangerously near the fire.
"Of course not," the Orlesian laughed. "I stole it."
"Oh, well done," the girl approved. "Marvelous, really."
Loghain could only agree. The Orlesian gave them an enigmatic smile, and retreated to her side of the campfire. She unwrapped her lute, and began to play softly, humming to herself. She really was very good, though of course an underhanded Orlesian bard had to be. The effeminate Antivan Crow was watching them, eyes wide, muttering to the Orlesian. Loghain could catch only a few words.
"Epic! It's like an ancient ballad!"
"Exactly," agreed the Orlesian.
"Rather grand for camp," Loghain remarked, examining the ornate silver chalice. "More trophies from battles in which you killed people and 'took their stuff?'"
"What else?" the girl nodded, taking a long swallow of the liquor. "I don't own much of anything that isn't loot."
Loghain thought he should warn her what knocking back the Orlesian's concoction that fast would do to a woman of her size and weight. But he was not her father, and it really was very good. He sipped his own drink more slowly, savoring it.
The girl examined her chalice. "This one came from an old chest in the Dead Trenches. Grave goods, of course. Yours she leaned over, and her fingers wrapped over Loghain's on the stem. "Oh! I remember! That was part of a dragon's hoard we found in this amazing Elvish ruin in the Brecilian forest. Pretty, isn't it?"
"Very," he agreed, looking down at the young face. He collected himself. "You said you did not like the idea of Alistair as king 'at first.' You have changed your mind? You believe him to be the stuff of kings, when you said he could not function even as a second-in-command?"
She scowled. "You make me sound like a complete idiot when you put it that way. Once I decided that the Alistair-Anora marriage would be the thing the settle the country down, I had to think of things I liked about it."
"Do share them."
"Well, Alistair might not be right as a King-Regnant, but as King-Consort he might be just the thing."
"Because he's accustomed to doing as a woman tells him?"
"There is that," she allowed, nodding over her drink. "You may not think it's the sort of thing worthy of a Fereldan king, but Alistair, if handled properly, can be very sweet and considerate, and he might well make Anora a very good husband and their children a very good father. Domestic virtues may not loom large in your eyes, but I think a king who's a good husband and father would be a refreshing change for this country."
It was too true for words, so Loghain said nothing.
"You see, if you look at it in a creative way, and pretend Anora is a man—and think of Alistair as a woman—I mean-then Alistair with his nice nature and his good looks and his Theirin blood is a good choice as consort. Anora has to marry somebody!" she told him, waving an arm recklessly. "And while she obviously adores you, I can't think she'd actually be happy being married to someone like you. She's already too much like you herself!"
He frowned into his cup. "You think Anora is like me?"
She rolled her eyes expressively. "Oh, please! Exactly like you except for hair color—and height—gender—age—hmmm—the armor thing. Well—she really is like you, other than not looking like you. Really." She narrowed her eyes. "And you have a better sense of humor. Anora apparently has none at all."
"That's true," he agreed. She never has. And I don't really have a sense of humor, myself. Just a finely-honed sense of irony."
Sten had been standing watch, and now came back to the site to turn in, with a brief nod, and a quiet 'Kadan."
The girl lifted her cup to him in salute.'Night, Sten."
After the Qunari was out of sight, the girl told Loghain, "Sten is all right. It was hard to figure him out at first. But he's all right. Worth knowing."
Wynne had finally grown too weary to glare at them any longer, and had turned in, much to Loghain's relief. It was Zevran's turn at watch, and he tore himself with visible reluctance from the spectacle unfolding on the other side of the campfire.
They sat, drinking in silence for some time, until the girl roused herself.
"What was I talking about, before Leliana came over? Wait—I know! I was telling you why I didn't kill you."
"Always a topic of interest to me," Loghain admitted.
"I didn't kill you," she pronounced, "because I didn't want to. And because of our duel and that whole thing at the Landsmeet."
"Why is that?"
"First of all, I could see you were really sincere about believing me some sort of Orlesian agent, and that made me feel terrible—you saying that in front of the whole country and people who had known me all my life, and I wanted a chance to make you see you were wrong about me. I hated it that you thought badly of me. And when we were fighting, I kept thinking about how much I'd like to see you killing darkspawn, and what an awful waste it would be if you weren't around to do it. I really like killing darkspawn with you," she told him. "It's such fun. You do it so awfully well."
"Those seem excellent reasons to me," Loghain agreed. "Go on."
"And someone I respect asked me not to. Besides Riordan and Anora."
He frowned. "Who was that?"
"Er-maybe I'll tell you some other time." She was uncomfortable telling him about Ser Cauthrien. Seeing that proud woman kneeling at her feet begging mercy for Loghain had made her feel painful empathy. Except she didn't know anybody she would beg on her knees for, because none of her enemies were particularly merciful. It would mean bruising her knees for nothing.
But Ser Cauthrien! Maybe she loved Loghain! Maybe she harbored a secret, unrequited passion for him! And it would be a rotten thing to do—one woman to another—to blab about it to the man himself. Besides, the most important reason had yet to be touched on-
"Mostly she hesitated, and finished off her drink with a long, long, pull-I couldn't kill you knowing that—"
She paused. A long time. Loghain wondered if she was about to make some sort of embarrassing avowal.
Instead, the girl finally said, "I cheated, you know. At the Landsmeet. Our duel."
"At the Landsmeet?"
"How did you cheat?"
"Well, you see," she said, warming to the subject, "It's like this: I went into that chamber knowing that it was very likely that I would have to fight a duel with you. I'm good. I'm really good, but in that sort of formal duel… Well, so I was going to fight a duel. A duel I knew I could not possibly win, but that I must win."
"You could have named Alistair your champion."
She shook her head sagely. "No good. Alistair might have won She waggled a hand as if balancing Alistair and Loghain against one another.-but it was not a sure thing by any means, and I was not about to leave the survival of Ferelden up to the utter indifference of the Maker. Or Alistair. Besides, if he had won, he would have killed you out of hand, and that was not a desirable outcome. I promised Anora—"
"Yes, yes, you said that!"
"—and you winning and killing me was not a desirable outcome either. Sorry."
He glared at her.
"Anyway," she continued hurriedly, "none of my companions would do. If I had a mage fight you, a lot of people would not have accepted the outcome, people feeling about mages as they do, and having a foreigner—or someone perceived as a foreigner—wouldn't do at all. A Qunari? An Orlesian bard? A dwarf? An Antivan crow? None of those were politically acceptable choices, and besides none of them were good enough."
"Not even the Qunari?'
"No. I beat himself—pretty handily—when he challenged my leadership. And after having actually dueled you, I can say that none would have lasted long against you." She smiled slyly. "Of course, that leaves Ranger, a true Fereldan. We'll never know how that would have gone, but I doubt that anybody would have allowed that either. I wonder if there's a precedent for having a Mabari champion…"
"You're drifting away from the subject."
"Yes—cheating." She took a deep breath. "So all of this meant that I must fight the duel myself, so I could control the outcome, and offer you mercy and all that. And I couldn't win. So I poisoned my blades."
There was a heavy silence, which finally ended when Loghain said slowly, "You do realize that I am holding a naked sword at this very moment?"
"Uh—yes she said, a trifle uneasily. "but I absolutely had to do it. So you lost, not to me, but to Concentrated Deathroot Extract. It was supposed to slow you down, just enough that it wouldn't look apparent, but it would give me just the edge I needed to win."
He was still glaring like a furnace.
"And at that," she complained, "it was still a pretty close-run thing. There I was, flat on my back, just a few minutes into our duel, wondering if I'd made a fatal error, and if I had killed myself, and killed all my friends, and doomed Ferelden because the bloody poison wasn't working fast enough. It was one of the few times I've ever been genuinely terrified in battle. I really thought you had me—more than once."
"I thought I had you too," he growled. "but you kept slipping away."
"That was probably the deathroot—slowing you down a bit."
"You conniving little bitch!" he exploded. "You've got all of Ferelden thinking you're some sort of pure-hearted—do-gooding—virtuous He sputtered to a stop.
"Well she protested, "I am! Usually."
What she had done to him was beyond mere words. He clutched at the hilt of the Keening Blade, and it seemed quite agreeable to anything he might choose to do in the near future.
"Little cheating, lying, treacherous—"
"But I did it for the Greater Good! I did!" she shot back, eyes wide and soulful, her hand stroking up his arm to the shoulder. "I'm not doing this for any sort of personal gain! Did I ask to be Queen? No! You're alive, and I'm alive, and together we're going to save Ferelden! I think that's a brilliant outcome!"
The sword seemed to be speaking to him, urging him to avenge his honor. But her hand on his arm was speaking to him too, telling him something rather different. He held her eyes with his for a long, long time, while he thought it over.
"You realize," he said, finally, "that in honor I have the right to a forfeit. I could claim victory by default. I would be justified in killing you here and now."
Her eyes were very big. "I'd really rather you didn't."
"No doubt. And I grant that it would then be difficult to prove that you deserved it. So I shall simply have to rely on your rather shop-worn honor," he snarled, "and choose another forfeit."
"What kind of—forfeit?'
"I don't know." His smile was genuine. For him. Menacing, predatory, and triumphant. "We'll find out."
There may be more of Loghain and Maude. We shall see. Please review! It's better than chocolate or really fine cheese. Even Fleur de Val Royaux.