Once upon a time I finished a massive Elissa Cousland/Loghain Mac Tir story called Cartography and promptly started a sequel thought to be set during the timeline of DA2. Then I actually played DA2 and that story – Our endless numbered days - got lost in a sadly abandoned old thaig down in the Deep Roads and ever since, I've thought about how I would finish the tale of my beloved, grumpy warlords. I hate leaving things unfinished as I, like Loghain, prefer to do things with all my heart.
And as always I should probably say that this story will make a bit more sense if you've read the previous instalments in the series since this is an immediate sequel to In All These Wasteful Hours and Cartography – both stories can be found here on ffnet.
Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.
Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?-
Advice to a Prophet – Richard Wilbur
There is magic in the stones around them.
Elissa observes it in Anders' face as he seems to drag power from the walls and wield it like a massive blade around them, above them, flashes of it streaming inside her when she forces herself forward, burying her swords in the broodmother one last time.
She feels it under her own skin as well, as a tickling presence here deep down in the belly of Drake's Fall. A quiet song in her blood, mingling with the screams of darkspawn and the burning exhaustion in her throat; a rhythm keeping her company as she falls, her arms and legs too tired to hold her upright.
She can feel it radiating from the very ground as she finally gives herself over to the boundless exhaustion and the release in sinking back into this downward swirl of emptiness and silence.
The world that lately has lost its contours now seems to fade entirely in a blaze. Elissa lets it go. For a moment she lets it go and there is no more war, no more duty and all her choices have ceased to matter, have raised themselves far beyond her reach. For a moment, there is peace. She no longer hears Nathaniel in her head, disagreeing about the offer made by the darkspawn that called himself the Architect and she no longer hears herself as a dark echo of someone else: "As long as I am the Commander of the Grey, I will brook no threat to Ferelden by choosing my allies so unwisely". She no longer wonders, even briefly, if she made the wrong decision.
For a moment, brief and illusive as it is, she is free.
Get up, Dog insists then, his nose cold and wet against the back of Elissa's hand. She wonders when she lost her gauntlet and stretches out her fingers experimentally, aiming for her weapons but finding only wet dirt. Glancing sideways, she spots the new sword still half-way inside the broodmother's neck and her other sword right by her side. Grimacing, Elissa sits up abruptly.
The new sword. Her new sword.
Her new sword that she had been handed by Herren a few days ago, unceremoniously, but with a remark that shot like a jolt of pain through her. From General Loghain. It took a while to perfect it.
There's a whole world of emotions connected to that sword, she thinks, still having to bite back the flurry of them. So much she cannot allow to pass through the tight rein she keeps on her own impulses lately, so much that shiver inside her as she walks up to the defeated creature, pulling her sword out of the stinking darkspawn corpse.
It's not yet familiar to her eyes, but seems to be perfectly adjusted to her grip, the hilt is resting softly in her hand. Even the runes and enchantments are weighed and balanced after her moves and it should not have come as such a surprise to her that Loghain had memorized her fighting style – she has defeated him twice now – but it had, and to some extent it still does. He is in that blade, ridiculous as it sounds.
It's quite possibly the finest gift she has ever received and it's so much more, so much else. Elissa draws a sharp breath, still hearing Loghain's voice in her head - slightly patronising since she is being so sentimental – and feeling the course of his blood run in her veins.
"Commander?" Sigrun asks. "Are you alright?"
Elissa turns, realising she has been staring into the darkness ahead of her, fingers curled around polished, perfect metal and her thoughts wrapped hard and firm around that one path that lies ahead.
"Let us get back to the Vigil," she says.
And count the dead, nobody adds but the words hang unspoken in the air above them all the same.
Vigil's Keep is a place of measurable things these days.
A collection of pieces, of numbers; structures that can be seen and counted and understood. And because Elissa doesn't understand much else at the moment, she counts: twenty guards dead; three knights still missing in the chaos of crumbling stone and caved-in walls; dozens upon dozens of bodies being burned in the courtyard; ten crates of supplies distributed to the survivors outside of Amaranthine, another ten expected shortly.
She counts her own banal existence as well, counts the steps between the kitchen and the bedchamber, the numbers of letters she writes and the days that pass.
Numbers make sense – a chilling, rough sort of sense.
In the ruins of the fortress there are empty spaces behind every word and deed, as though everything is merely ghosts now. They have lost so much and the immensity of it, of what has disappeared and slipped out of her hands, feels like a hard knot in her chest, a lump of weariness in her belly.
Elissa counts to ten and crosses the courtyard, squaring her shoulders and bracing herself, her own steps heavy against the ground, as though she's trying in vain to anchor herself in this place. Her thoughts are everywhere but here, however, like stubborn fragments they keep defying her logic and reason. They are in Highever, in Denerim, in the scattered places across the map where she has travelled and where she knows people live and darkspawn will threaten them because she doesn't possess enough Wardens to protect them all against whatever it is that endangers them now.
Her thoughts, dark and beckoning and sharp as needles, are in Orlais and whenever she realises that, it becomes a little harder to breathe.
At least the keep is becoming livable again.
They have cleared out a few rooms downstairs – rooms for eating, for sleeping, for the healers and maids to tend to the wounded – and as the order is restored in bits and pieces, they start forming new routines for their lives as well.
Elissa works hard all day, an ache in her body reminding her in the evenings of exactly how hard; she works so intently that she forgets to eat and doesn't remember until Varel places a hand on her elbow, steering her towards the kitchen.
She sleeps badly some nights, others she all but falls asleep standing up. In the early mornings she wakes, breathless, but air is dry and heavy here, drapes itself over her like mourning garb. She always gets up then and looks for something to occupy her thoughts. It's during those hours she most appreciates walking and measuring: sixty-nine lengths of her feet across the floor or a room; toes and heels and walls and windows. All palpable things that will come together around her.
She's the centre, she tells herself this in the crisp chill of her bedchamber when sleep is denied her. She is the leader, the steady hand, the one who cannot escape like she couldn't escape the fate of her family, or the course of her own blood.
So she recites the familiar words of the canticles she pretends she can still believe in. Other times she lights a candle and kneels before it, bargaining with the Maker and Andraste both, trading lives and deaths. It's what a commander always does, it shouldn't make her feel so hollow.
A fortnight after Amaranthine almost burns and the Vigil crumbles, the visitors start to arrive.
Fergus is the first one.
He rides in through the inner gates one afternoon, followed by a group of knights and Cauthrien who is a few steps behind but somehow feels closer, Elissa observes dimly through the overwhelming sense of relief at seeing her brother. He looks well, he is unharmed and he is here. Her stomach flips at the realisation.
"Elissa, thank the-" Fergus says, the rest of his sentence muffled by the intensity of their embrace, his face buried in her hair.
"Fergus." Elissa's voice is calm, but she shivers as her arms tighten around his body.
"You must stop doing this," he mutters, and she can feel how he shakes his head.
"What? Refusing to die decently?"
It's not until she's said it she realises what she has said, and where the words come from, and she winces as the images of Loghain flood her mind. She refuses to let them most of the time, refuses to be dragged down into the slump of useless thoughts that lead nowhere.
Fergus lets her go, his gaze now scrutinizing her as though he's searching for signs of damage on her face. Elissa smiles, thinking she has spent a lifetime in the months that have passed since they last saw each other. She has travelled with Loghain and built yet another life in Gwaren, then one here and then -
"We tried to send reinforcements once we heard the darkspawn were headed towards Amaranthine," Fergus says, frowning.
"We?" Elissa asks.
"I," Fergus corrects himself, but it seems half-hearted and he quickly shrugs. A flicker of something slightly unsettled crosses his features. "Cauthrien has been advising me, of course."
Elissa throws Cauthrien a glance; she is talking to a stable boy, still holding the reins of her horse while she shoulders a saddlebag. If she has heard what they are talking about, she shows no signs of it. It's strange, thinking about her in a different way – such a different way, if Elissa's premonitions from back in Denerim are in fact true – and in different circumstances. For all her brother's generous taste in women, Elissa has never thought he would ever appreciate someone like Cauthrien. There's a hardness to her that reminds Elissa of herself and not at all of the soft-spoken, plump barmaids and servants her brother had spent his youth drooling over - nor the woman he had eventually married.
Perhaps, she thinks, stifling the urge to stroke his arm, it's easier with someone who doesn't remind him of the past.
Perhaps she's reading too much into everything.
"The Mother's forces would have outnumbered us no matter how many men you sent," she says instead, leading them across the courtyard and up towards the keep. She notices how her brother looks at the ruined parts – they are difficult to miss, the glaring holes in the silhouette – but he doesn't mention them and Elissa doesn't, either.
"Darkspawn," she says, wondering how you explain a broodmother to someone who isn't a Warden. "She was their leader."
"Huh." Fergus nods, thoughtful.
They wait for Cauthrien to catch up. When she does, Elissa presses her hand in a greeting that seems to fall in between both roles and habits but it has been a while since they last saw each other; Cauthrien's hand is dry and calloused and her expression somewhat grim.
"Commander," she says with a nod.
"Cauthrien." Elissa nods back. "It's good to see you."
Fergus smiles, his gaze wandering between them for a while before they make their way inside; Elissa walks in the middle of the two guests, a flurry of unfinished thoughts in her head and another beat in her chest, the change of company striking something deep inside.
"We have done our best to restore what could be restored," she explains, gesturing towards the massive building. "It's going quite well. We've had a lot of support from the lords and ladies."
"Indeed?" Fergus snorts.
"Actually, yes." Elissa has been sceptical and surprised for the past two weeks, but the nobility has been reasonably good to her, in ways she could not have foreseen – despite Loghain, despite Howe, despite the choices and decisions that affected their lives even when Elissa had not intended for that to happen.
"Have you heard from Loghain?" The expression on Cauthrien's face becomes visibly darker as she looks at Elissa, something trying to break through the composure.
Elissa is shuffling through her thoughts, as she has become used to doing as far as Loghain is concerned, thinking stupidly that she is transparent, that everybody can read her emotions on her skin. Of course they cannot. She has perfect mastery of herself and she is nothing if not sensible. Well, most of the time.
"I have, yes."
"I had a letter," Elissa says. "A while ago now."
"Where did they send him? Do you know?" Cauthrien's tone is still as dark as her expression.
"Is he staying there?" Fergus asks, opening the door to the throne room like he is a lord of the estate, rather than a guest. Elissa is about to mention it but rights herself, reminded once more that these times erases boundaries, if nothing else.
"I don't think so." She sighs. "I... don't know."
She doesn't know. In fact, she has absolutely no idea if Loghain is even alive or if he has been captured or deported somewhere or if the unknown darkspawn threat has had something else entirely in store for him. They know next to nothing thus far and recently, the messengers haven't been spotted anywhere within Ferelden's borders. All these tiny fragments are hardly more than guesses, scattered over various threads in her mind but offering no answers, only further questions; Elissa is so bloody tired of being forced to guess the course of action that every conversation bringing this up feels like a personal insult.
"So what are you planning?" Cauthrien asks.
"I'm still undecided," Elissa replies, which is some sort of half-truth, at least. She is still undecided about certain things.
Cauthrien raises an eyebrow, but she doesn't pick up the question again.
Elissa spots Leonie at the other end of the throne room, sitting at a table with Sigrun and Anders and Nathaniel who has risen to his feet and observes Fergus with what appears to be a peculiar blend of apprehension and interest. Looking over his shoulder at Elissa and Cauthrien, Fergus frowns.
"That's Nathaniel Howe?"
"I told you he was with the Wardens, did I not?" Elissa realises she might not have, and tries to scramble through her recollection of letters sent with no luck. Her correspondence over the past few months has been scant and mostly consisted of brief reports even Loghain would find sparse.
But Fergus has already moved out of earshot, curious as always, and Elissa is still standing in the doorway with Cauthrien.
The throne room isn't what it used to be. It was one of the last lines of defence, as the Vigil finally gave way to the attacking darkspawn after nearly a week of valiant fighting, one that Elissa and the others had made it back in time to help defend. Before they had driven off the last stragglers of the horde, one of the emissaries had launched an enormous glyph of fire and poison right into the remaining silverite-clad soldiers and the room, Elissa recalls with a grimace, had all but exploded. It had taken every bit of Anders' strength to counter that spell and for a few hours afterwards, Elissa was certain he was going to perish from the exhaustion. It had hit her surprisingly hard, the idea of losing him.
She had lost Velanna. She had lost countless knights and soldiers and freemen volunteering to fight under the Hero of Ferelden. She had lost almost everyone but a dozen of battered soldiers and Varel who had led the troop who fought and reclaimed the outer gates and Oghren, who crawled out of the ruins like a cat going on his ninth life.
Elissa is struck by an unexpected desire to talk to Cauthrien about it, about the loss of it all, because she figures Cauthrien would understand. But the words don't find their way out of her so they are quiet together instead, for quite some time. Quiet and motionless, like statues – roles desperately unsuited to their tempers, Elissa thinks and snorts to herself.
"You are going to Orlais." Cauthrien's voice is low, toneless; she doesn't ask. She already knows, Elissa realises, because Cauthrien is used to life and death and and the awful, impossible scales and probably knows, too, about the things that might upset them.
There's a moment of silence filling up the air between them, a trail of fragility and doubt, and Elissa looks out over the room. All things considered, it might even be more fruitful to throw herself on an outreached sword than going to Orlais to investigate the turmoil with little besides her handfuls of nothing to aid her. No. No doubts.Shaking her head she blows out her breath in a rough sort of sigh and fastens her gaze somewhere beyond all the people in front of her. Their faces are so familiar now, after these past two weeks when they have been each other's everything as the dreary events have shuffled them close together. Their fates are running in circles around her own.
"Yes." Elissa gives her a brief glance. "Of course I am."
There are ghosts in Orlais.
At least that is what they feel like, the quiet shadows in Loghain's mind, simmering and surfacing at the moments when he is alone in the crowds, estranged by language and choice. He is not the only one who doesn't speak the Orlesian tongue – the Order has converged Wardens from all over Thedas lately – and he is not usually left to his own devices either. They don't trust him enough for that.
But even so he has hardly spoken to anyone in weeks and his longest conversations take place in his mind, in his memories and imagination, where he finds his threads of thoughts slowly spinning around the absences of allies.
He speaks to Maric, as always. Speaks to him of the bloody awful nation that keeps him prisoner, the suspicions and doubts Loghain has accumulated since they crossed the border; speaks of the political implications of everything and the lack of answers to his own questions; he speaks of Ferelden and West Hill and Denerim – even of Anora and the royal heir, when he's had one mug of ale too many.
He speaks to Rowan, too, about war and strategy and choices. She would find the Order badly organised, he thinks with a smirk.
During the many hours spent travelling, walking or riding through the vast fields that are framing the Imperial Highway, he tells Celia about the ridiculous culture and absurd customs of the locals.
He doesn't speak to Elissa. The memory of her is too bright, too near; she is a silent mark at the back of his mind, a flutter in his breath and a slow, steady rhythm in his blood – their blood.
He doesn't speak to Elissa and he isn't going to because she is bloody well not a ghost.
Instead he writes to her from an inn right outside the city walls of Montsimmard. It's his second letter and in it he's telling her that some of the Wardens are going to Verchiel while he is remaining in Montsimmard with the Antivans and the aggressive dwarf, Dvalinn. He writes that the darkspawn are under control for the moment but that there have been alarming reports from Verchiel and Lydes; he writes that he still doesn't know why he has been summoned or by whom and that the First Warden is rumoured to be dead.
Perhaps she already knows and perhaps his letters are lost in the turmoil of the Thaw, but he writes anyway, to calm himself as much as anything else.
He has learned lately that news travel slowly and with great difficulty even with Wardens messengers. Stories of war are told at the inns along the roads, exchanged for mugs of ale and bowls of stew; as Loghain and the others come to rest in the evenings, along the highway between Val Firmin and Montsimmard, they listen to the travelling men and women who carry tales over the borders.
"They say the keep in Amaranthine fell to the darkspawn."
Someone occasionally takes the time to translate the stories – tonight it's the Antivan Warden-Commander, slumped down beside Loghain at the table.
"And the Wardens?" Loghain asks, his voice hard as stone. He should have stayed in Ferelden, he thinks for a fraction of a second, before he bans such pointless regret. From what he hears of the events occurring there it's not as though his presence would have made a difference either.
"I don't know yet." The Antivan shakes his head. "Some of them are said to have led the battle for the city itself, leaving the fortress undefended."
"Did the city fall too?"
"No." The Antivan reaches for his goblet of wine. "Don't ask me why they decided not to burn it. It was overrun. But from what they tell us, the Warden-Commander managed to save it."
"Yes." Loghain nods, feeling the relief rushing in over him, seeping into his words and softening them. "That sounds like her."
There's a long stretch of silence as they drink, any further comments on the situation in Ferelden efficiently being swallowed up by the noise of the crowd around their table, the crescendo of tired Wardens relaxing after a day's duty. It is rare to reach conclusions here, with information as scattered as the bandits along the road – they get rumours and stories and sometimes even reports but they cannot make much of them. Val Royeaux is far away, so is Ferelden. And so, Loghain has learned, is Antiva where the Order has been driven to the verge of extinction or forced to flee.
The plan, as he understands it, is to make their way to the capital to meet the others who have been coming to Orlais from all across Thedas. He tries not to think of this plan in terms of good or bad since he has no power to change it. They want him to learn humility. He tries to bow his head and silence his hatred, to right himself and merge into the ranks where he is nobody and yet somehow also the sum of everything he has ever done.
He tries to remind himself of this that night as he rests in his bed – he is in no hurry to sleep in the company of Orlesians – when his mind races, as though it expects battle.
The following morning, they are attacked.
A/N: As always, feel free to tell me what you think.