A/N: So I started messing around with Blood and Rhetoric, and I realised it's a bit AU. So I guess I should write some of the backstory first. Which I am trying here, despite the fact I really shouldn't be starting anything right now.
Yes, I fail at finishing things, updating regularly, everything like that. I know, I suck, and "Time Cast Forth My Mortal Creature" has gone very long without an update. This is because I am still swamped by insane life things, and haven't had a chance to replay Redcliffe to remind myself of how very much I hate Isolde and Connor.
title: "Silence, Water, Struggle, Hope"
warnings: violence against women, brutality.
exegesis: Warden Kallian Tabris is on the road from the Circle Tower to Denerim, passing through Highever lands. Lissa Cousland survived the destruction of Castle Highever and has been leading a minor guerrilla struggle in the hills around Highever ever since.
And tell me everything, tell chain by chain,
and link by link, and step by step;
sharpen the knives you kept hidden away,
thrust them into my breast, into my hands,
like a torrent of sunbursts,
an Amazon of buried jaguars,
and leave me cry: hours, days and years,
blind ages, stellar centuries.
And give me silence, give me water, hope.
Give me the struggle, the iron, the volcanoes.
Let bodies cling like magnets to my body.
Come quickly to my veins and to my mouth.
Speak through my speech, and through my blood.
- Pablo Neruda, "Canto XII from the Heights of Machu Pichu."
Howe's men squelch through the mud of the Great North Road, wretched in the constant drizzle. Two walk at the heads of the oxen that dragged their single, rattling cart, goading the tired beasts when they stumble. Another five, their shields piled in the cartbed, struggle at the cart's tail, lending their weight to heave it free of miring ruts. The rest of the company - all eight of them - make a valiant attempt to maintain a defensive formation under the sharp tongue of their sergeant. The officer perched on the cart seat with his arm in a sling has an even sharper eye, but despite his occasional shouted imprecations, the mud's depth and viscosity are thwarting their efforts.
Leliana trails them from the cover of the trees, an unseen whisper in the dripping undergrowth. Three days of ceaseless rain have left her sodden to the skin, stiff and chill and more than a little unhappy with the knowledge that her bow will be useless within moments of being strung. The miserable weather helps no one's spirits, and the memory of what came to pass at the Circle Tower clings close. Even Morrigan has been subdued in the week since Kinloch Hold, barely rousing to it when the opportunity to needle Alistair or Wynne arises. Alistair's disillusionment and Wynne's grief counterpoint Kallian Tabris' quiet fury: the elf Warden has been cold and silent since they found the battered mage girl in a cellar prison, untouched by Uldred's abominations, but bruised and bloody nonetheless. The visibly pregnant battered mage girl.
The rumours of what templars do to apostates are apparently true even for Harrowed mages in solitary confinement, and Kallian's soft, cutting politeness with the Knight Commander made Leliana afraid.
It has almost been a relief to finally come across an enemy: a distraction from all the things they cannot fight and cannot change, and the bitter light in Kallian's eyes.
And speak of the demon... The Warden comes ghosting up through the underbrush, mabari at her heels. Kallian has grown more skilled in the woods since they left Lothering. Leliana would not let her track alone, but her woodscraft is passable, now: better than Alistair's, if not as good as Sten's. Rainwater straggles her short dark hair across her forehead under her mail coif, trickles in rivulets from the harsh wings of her cheekbones. A breath of warm air on Leliana's nape, words almost hidden in the patter of rain in the leaves: "Give me some good news."
"Seventeen of them," Leliana murmurs back, equally soft. "Three walking wounded, counting the officer. All swords. I've seen two crossbows, but I doubt very much they have kept the bowstrings dry." She licked her lips, tasting rain and salt. "They have at least one prisoner in the cart, Kallian. Only one, I think. I could not get close enough to tell for sure, but I heard them talking. We're bringing the bitch to the arl, the sergeant said." Among other things. Templars and Orlesian chevaliers are not the only brutes in the world. Maker, let me not fear the legion, though they set themselves against me.
Memory still has the power to wake her in cold sweat.
"So we could take them, but they might kill the prisoner - or prisoners - first." Kallian casts Leliana a grim, cold glance, slipping under a low-hanging branch. "Tell me why we shouldn't take that risk? We need information, if we're going to be passing through Howe's lands, and the fewer of his men we leave around to hunt us down the better."
Leliana swallows. That Kallian is ruthless - and ruthlessly pragmatic - she has known since Redcliffe. The cost of the Warden's ruthless pragmatism, that she has seen in the deepening shadows under the elf's eyes, the bitter edge that turns her humour self-mocking, the terrible compassion that leavens the grim determination in her gaze.
Kallian, she thinks, wants to be convinced.
"They will hardly take an unimportant prisoner to Howe himself." The loam of last year's leaves is thick here. She adjusts her step, careful to move soft and light, three-quarters of her attention on the small cavalcade in the road downslope and ahead. "And someone who is important to Howe could be useful to us. Have you not said we need all the allies we can get? Aside from which..." She lifts an eyebrow, wry. "Wouldyou really let someone die, if you thought you could save them?"
"You've seen me do it," the Warden said, softly. "If necessarily, I'll do it again. But not happily. And you're right about the prisoner. Or prisoners." She exhales and lets her hand fall to the mabari's ruff, as she does when thinking. "Morrigan scouted ahead in crow form earlier. She says there's an abandoned farmstead a few miles up the road that they'll probably reach before dusk. The farmhouse burned, but the barn's still standing, and there's a well. A perfect place to camp. What do you think our chances are if we hit them after dark?"
"Better." Leliana considers it. An ordinary watch-standing rotation apportions the nightwatch in three changes, which means no more than a third of the soldiers will be awake at once. Men as weary as these sleep deeply, and between them, she and Morrigan and Sten and Kallian should be able to account for the watch sentries without raising an alarm, leaving no barrier but stealth and speed to a swift massacre. Working for Marjolaine, she had led similar more than once. It disturbs her, a little, how easily the old ways of thought come back, though she cannot bring herself to feel much remorse for planning the deaths of men who jest not only about the fate awaiting their prisoner in Arl Howe's hands, but also what they intend to do to the woman en route. "Much better, in fact. It should be much more straightforward to not only keep the prisoner alive, but to also capture someone. I would say the officer, since he is wounded."
"Good." Kallian's grin is feral, flashing. "I'll tell the others. We're hunting tonight."
Lissa Cousland will die soon.
She lies on her side in the bed of the cart, chill and sodden from the falling rain, and holds back tears of pain and despair through sheer force of will. One of her ankles is badly twisted, perhaps broken, and her bruised ribs make it hard to breathe. The gash on her upper arm she took when Howe's men caught up to her is crusted, red-hot and leaking pus: she can feel it, a throbbing feverish pain worse even than the jagged ache between her legs. Her hands are bound at the small of her back, hemp fibre chafing her wrists to weeping sores. One more indignity, and far from the worst.
It has been a night and a day since her capture, since the forester Arland betrayed her small warband of Cousland loyalists. They died where they stood, trusting him until the moment after the first arrow flew: Ser Brienne, a knight old for the rigours of a raiding war; Marjorie and Colm, fur trappers and farmers' children; the elf Rolan, whose loyalty to the lady knight was as matchless as his courage. Hafter, her mabari, last - save for her - survivor of the slaughter at Castle Highever. A night and a day since Howe's captain threw her down on the damp earth and knelt athwart her thighs, grinning. My lord wants you alive, girl, not untouched.
If her stomach were not already empty, she would vomit, remembering. As it is, the taste of bile is a constant acid burn in her throat, companion to the sick sense of shame and humiliation that's almost worse than the pain. She trusted Arland. But for Brienne, he was the first to follow her, vowing bloody vengeance upon Rendon Howe. Pledging not to rest until the Couslands were restored to their rightful place as lords of Highever.
At least, she thinks, with black and feverish humour, I won't have very long to dwell on how very badly I failed.
Howe's men are careful. She has not been able to force them to kill her, though she has earned more bruises trying. The arl - the bastard arl, may the Maker curse his name, may he wander the Black City for eternity - wants her alive so he can break her, so he can parade a confession in front of the Landsmeet to match his faked evidence. Look, lords and ladies of Ferelden! She admits the Couslands plotted with Orlais against the Crown!
She will have to try harder. She's not a fool. Even before Highever, rumour whispered that Howe kept a pet apostate, and paid the Amaranthine chantry to look the other way. If he truly does - if his pet mage is a maleficar - he will have his confession, one way or another.
Many more nights and days like this will break her anyway.
When the cart lurches to a stop, they come to drag her out, hard hands and crude jokes and the scent of iron and sweat. It's hopeless but she fights anyway, teeth and feet and a last mad desperate suicidal strength, and it's not enough. It is not enough -
The fist that smashes into her temple in a white explosion of pain and brings dark unconsciousness in its wake is, at least, a merciful oblivion.