Atop Fort Drakon the roar of the battle washed over her like a tidal wave. Noise swirled over her skin like water. As it pressed in against her, she could almost believe she was drowning in noise. The Archdemon bellowed and shrieked, a mixture of rage and pain; the injured screamed and the dying moaned; the guttural grunts of the Darkspawn were interspersed with the concussive explosions of fireballs and mind blasts; arrows, swords and axes whistled and whooshed through the air.
The Warden shook her head, trying to shake off the dazed feeling and clear the buzzing in her ears. She took a deep breath and then gagged as a plume of foul, black smoke roiled over her. The taste of burning Darkspawn clogged her mouth and she struggled to control her rebelling stomach. As the smoke cleared, borne away by a Maker-sent gust of wind, she rubbed her face, smearing tears, sweat and soot from her eyes.
She barely missed a beat... nock, draw, release; nock, draw, release; nock, draw, release. The rhythm was almost soothing. Her vision narrowed as she focused on the Archdemon, harried by the armoured figure of her fellow Warden. She could see that the great dragon was slowing. Catherine Cousland had no intention of letting him take the killing blow. Soon. I will know peace. She allowed herself a small smile.
It had been a relief when Riordan had explained why the Grey Wardens were necessary. He had been dismissive of her immediate offer to make the killing blow. He reserved that right for himself, as the Senior Warden, seemingly believing that one as young as she should cling to life. Her smile turned bitter. As if I have anything left to live for. They were all gone. Her family and friends massacred in Highever by that traitorous vermin, Rendon Howe; Fergus, dead in the Wilds somewhere, lost at Ostagar. She inhaled deeply, blinking away tears, stuffing down the pain. Nock, draw, release.
The only thing that had made that loss even remotely bearable had been Alistair. Drawn together in mourning after the appalling events at Ostagar their tentative friendship had evolved into something deeper. Wynne had tried to warn her but she had been so heady with love she had ignored the mage's warning. Catherine had been so sure she could make it work. Naive fool. There was no room for love alongside duty.
They'd had it all planned out. For all Eamon's scheming to put Alistair on the throne, they had privately agreed between themselves not to let it happen. Anora was a competent ruler and Alistair had no desire to usurp her. When the blight was over they would disappear into the sunset and do whatever it is that Grey Wardens do when there's no Blight to fight.
Catherine reached for another arrow and realised that her quiver was empty. Glancing around her she spotted a dead Dalish nearby. She darted over to the body and removed the quiver that was almost full of arrows. Nock, draw, release. The Archdemon was definitely slowing. She looked round and her eyes found Zev manning a ballista with grim concentration. Nock, draw, release. The assassin looked up briefly and caught her gaze; he flashed her a grin.
It was strange how things turned out. Alistair had been furious when she had spared the Crow but, in the end, it was Zevran here with her at the final battle. She felt the grief rising again. Nock, draw, release; nock, draw, release; nock, draw, release. She had felt so relieved to find Riordan. At last, someone senior to her who would make the decisions. It was unfortunate, to say the least, that one of his first suggestions had been to recruit Loghain.
When she lay alone at night, unable to sleep, Catherine was able to admit to herself that if Riordan had suggested recruiting Rendon Howe her reaction would have been the same as Alistair's had been about Loghain. In the light of day she told herself that she was so relieved to have a Senior Warden to defer to after the long months of difficult decisions, that she would have gone along with anything he suggested; that the meaningful looks Riordan had flashed her intimated some hidden motive. Deep down though, she knew that if Riordan and Alistair had recruited Howe she would have left without a backward glance. She also knew that Alistair would never have countenanced it; he understood that there were some things that were just unforgivable.
She sighed, then rolled her shoulders. Nock, draw, release. There was no way she could justify that decision to herself, let alone Alistair. Nock, draw, release. Alistair was gone; he didn't just not love her, he hated her now. Nock, draw, release. She had betrayed him. Even if she followed him, what could she say? Nock, draw, release. Alistair, while reluctant to lead, had provided sound advice and saved her from making some truly awful decisions. Why had she refused to listen to him at the Landsmeet? Nock, draw, release. She remembered Anora's stricken face when Loghain yielded, saw the fear in her eyes. Catherine well knew the pain of seeing loved ones slaughtered before your eyes. Nock, draw, release. She swallowed a sob. I betrayed him.
The Archdemon screamed and lurched; Zevran had managed to land a ballista bolt in its eye. The noise was appalling, all in earshot visibly winced. Catherine threw down her bow and ran to a nearby corpse impaled by a greatsword. She wrenched the sword free, a rush of adrenaline gifting her the strength to wield it, and ran towards the Archdemon. She saw Loghain back away as the great beast thrashed about wildly. Intent on the Great Dragon, she barely noticed him until a gauntleted hand caught at her and pulled her back.
"There is no need for you to take the final blow. Isn't this why I'm here?" he demanded.
"You are here because Riordan wanted you here. Now that he's dead, I'm the Senior Warden. This is my duty," snarled Catherine, fury building in her.
Loghain frowned. "Perhaps, but why should you be the one to die? You're the reason this creature lies defeated, not I."
Why would I want to live?
"My Joining was a death sentence," continued Loghain. "If I survived the Joining, it seems only fitting that it can be because I was destined to perish here."
"So you want to die? I can't allow that." You should live with what you've done because, Maker knows, I can't any more.
Unexpectedly Loghain's face softened, revealing a glimpse of the man beneath the taciturn exterior. "I have much to atone for, and if my death can serve some purpose here, then I would greet it gladly."
Catherine had gone to great pains to avoid the former Teyrn since his joining, only speaking to him when absolutely necessary, and hadn't come to know him at all however there was no mistaking the yearning in his voice.
Loghain's pale eyes filled with confusion. "I would have expected you to kill me for what I did to you, and yet you did not."
Catherine snorted. I should have killed you.
"I thought all along that only I could save Ferelden, but it was you." Suddenly Loghain looked sad and tired. That the man realised how badly he'd been wrong was plain to see.
We all realise our mistakes too late.
"Please," he beseeched her softly, "I have done... so much wrong. Allow me to do one last thing right."
Catherine hesitated. She felt a grudging respect for his admission and, unexpectedly, pity. I should condemn you to live with what you've done. The image of her father flashed into her mind.
"When we fight evil, there is a danger we can become that which we rail against," he'd told her. Through all the horrors since the massacre at Highever she had tried to keep that in mind. She crossed he arms over her chest and bowed.
"As you wish. I salute you, Loghain, for what it's worth."
Loghain returned her salute and she handed him the greatsword.
Taking the sword Loghain walked past her. Without a backward glance, he approached the Archdemon. Its head lunged at him and he raced towards it, dropped to one knee and sliding along the ground hoisting the sword aloft. The Archdemon bellowed in pain as the sword opened its neck, showering Loghain in its blood. He rolled out of the way as it crashed to the ground, its limbs twitching weakly. Loghain found his feet quickly, then raised his sword above the Archdemon's head. With a roar, Loghain plunged the sword through the great head.
Time seemed to stand still as a plume of light erupted from the Archdemon and enveloped Loghain. Catherine saw him struggle to pull the sword back, his face contorted in agony. It seemed an eternity until he was able to wrestle the sword free. As he jerked the sword back, the world exploded.
Catherine groaned and opened her eyes. Her stomach heaved and lurched, but she fought it down and struggled to her feet. It was strangely quiet. She looked around her; everyone had been blown off their feet by the blast. She staggered towards the Archdemon's corpse. She'd half-expected Loghain to have been blown apart by the explosion but, thankfully, his body was intact. She knelt at his side and looked at him. There was something different about him. She stared down at him; he looked so different. Then it dawned on her. He looked at peace. She supposed that she should feel gratitude and relief.
It was over.
All she could feel was envy.
It should have been me.
My thanks to WellspringCD for another fine job as my beta reader :)