The following night, they hold a meeting at the Vigil.
If the gathering that same morning had been for all Wardens, old and new, this one is less official and held in the upstairs hall, which is a smaller room and not intended for any big gatherings. Nathaniel had mentioned that this had been his family's sitting room once upon a time, before darkspawn and bottomless greed had destroyed the Howe bloodline. Perhaps it's because there are notions of their past lives lined up like a little string of pearls, but Elissa can seethem in here. Whining little Thomas who never even dared to play with wooden swords; quiet, clever Delilah and Nathaniel, ever the sullen older brother who rarely, if ever, got along with Fergus.
She looks at him here, older and taller and broader of shoulder and not as insufferable, not now when duty and some scraps of trust have straightened his back. Varel tells her Nathaniel has been increasingly competent and enthusiastic in Elissa's absence. Maybe I'll go away for good, she had said, her pride slightly – absurdly- wounded at the suggestion that the Wardens are doing better without her. Even so it's a comfort to her in these awful times. When the war outruns her and the Taint catches up with Loghain, someone can shoulder the responsibilities without cracking open under the weight. Carry them all forward.
I sound like father again. She leans forward, elbows on the table, as she's reaching for the wine bottle to refill her cup. Then she takes a large mouthful and looks at the people around her. It's a small crowd, these people that she can trust. Apart from Loghain, there's Leonie, Nathaniel and Sigrun which seems like a depressingly tiny crowd compared to the one she surrounded herself with during the Blight. But those were scattered souls with a common goal - this, she tries to convince herself, is the Silver Order. She's heard Sigrun and Nathaniel make clever retorts about it, this name that has stuck since she ordered all Wardens and soldiers of the Keep to wear silverite armour.
Loghain had thought it a sensible investment, if she remembers correctly. Elissa gives him a quick glance and gathers herself once more.
"Let us begin then," she says.
"Yes." Nathaniel sits back, hands on his knees; his own wine is still untouched. Some people just don't take to drinking regardless of situation, she thinks grimly.
"If we may start at the beginning, Commander," Leonie half-asks, half-suggests.
"Please do." Sigrun chimes in, glancing quickly at Nathaniel. "I'm still confused and it's not because I've had too much ale."
Nathaniel doesn't respond to that but Elissa notices a shade of amusement in his face. Apparently miracles do happen and even Howes can find a sense of humour.
"As am I." Leonie offers a little smile, more natural and easy than anything Nathaniel could have managed. "When I came to Ferelden, all I knew was that my brothers and sisters had been attacked and killed and I was the only one who managed to get out alive."
Convenient, Loghain comments somewhere in a recent past, words swooped up in a torrent of sea-sickness, injuries and confusion. It must have been anything butconvenient for Leonie; she can't remember if she ever found the time to correct him.
He's silent now at least, merely observes the Orlesian Warden with a neutral expression.
"We had been aware of an increasing number of conflicts within the Orlesian order," Leonie continues. "One of our mages in Lydes – a fantastic arcane warrior – had left us recently. She said she was going to Val Royeaux to seek some answers, to study magic. From what I gather, she joined forces with the Wardens who later came for us."
"The mage betrayed her Order then?" Loghain asks.
Leonie shrugs. "No. And yes. Jeanna believed in her cause."
"Think what you will of her, brother." A hardness creeps into Leonie's voice and Elissa feels a surge of sympathy for her; if she closes her eyes she can still see Leonie kneeling beside Jeanna's body in an abandoned Tevinter ruin outside Lydes, a place soaked in history and magic. The Old Gods still whisper to us, the mage had said, as blunt and brave as only dying can make you. May the Maker forgive you, Leonie had answered, drawing her blade. May the Maker show mercy. It was only afterwards Elissa had understood that they had been lovers and she had felt sick then, the earth spinning horribly beneath her. "The group of Wardens she joined in Val Royeaux wanted to end the cycle of the Blights, this endless struggle of darkspawn and humans. They may hold different beliefs, but they're Wardens, too."
"We think we have identified two active fractions in the Orlesian Order," Elissa takes over, looking at Nathaniel and Sigrun, then at Loghain. "One of them being the Wardens sworn to the cause of collaborating with the darkspawn. They seem to have aimed for a world where there's no more taint or where everyone carries the taint. Which is what the Architect claimed that he wanted as well. End the conflict. Create a truce."
"We have studied those Orlesian Warden chronicles you mentioned before you left," Nathaniel says. "It seems the Architect we encountered once attempted to make his offer to the Orlesian Warden-Commander."
Loghain frowns. "I know of this."
"Yes. The journal we've read mentioned Ferelden. King Maric, even."
"Start from the beginning," Elissa says, reaching for a plate of pastries in front of her. She grabs two of them before passing it on to Sigrun. "Tell me everything you've learned about this Architect and those who met him before."
They talk until the candles have burned down to mere whispers of light and Elissa is acutely aware of the weight of her own eyelids.
"I can understand it, though." Sigrun looks contemplative, spinning an empty wine bottle between her hands. "It's just a circle, going on and on. Can't blame them for wanting it to end."
Battle-worn, Elissa thinks. She could see it in the Wardens they fought in Orlais too. The desperation, the stubborn conviction in their eyes and swords. The hopeless way in which they had, ultimately, wanted things to be different.
There's no honour in this, a man had gasped, on his knees on the ground as she was driving her sword though him, and she had done it with her eyes open, thinking I know, brother, but the world is a little short of honour.
She doesn't want to think like that. At times, especially recently, her own mind scares her. The dark edges to it, the sharp angles around each thought, the way she can feel the massive presence of those before her in every move she makes; sacrifice the few to protect the many, Riordan says in her memory but there's so much death and so little hope.
"This darkspawn general is dead now, however," Loghain cuts into her thoughts like a streak of cold clarity. She gives him a grateful look. "As are the Wardens in Orlais who were fighting for the same thing."
"Those we know about at least." Leonie nods.
She speaks the truth. The truth they have been offered at the moment, however. Like so many things, Elissa knows, it may as well be a mere string of misunderstandings and complications but they will have to solve the problems as they appear. Plan for the worst and hope for the best she thinks and her mind leaps to Loghain again.
"What is the other fraction, Commander?" Nathaniel takes a mouthful of wine, then folds his arms across his chest. Elissa has to blink, remind herself that they are not yet done with the conversation. She had already abandoned it in her head, snatched the remaining wine and found an unobserved spot for her and Loghain. Later. Definitely later.
The sigh Leonie lets out seems like a mirror of Elissa's own mood.
"It's more of a... scattered group," she says.
"That's the way they appear, at least," Elissa adds. "But they seem to have a connection to the Tevinter magisters."
"Mages," Nathaniel purses his mouth, looking uncannily like his father for half a heartbeat. Elissa looks away.
"Not just mages." She empties her cup of wine, looks up again. "It's more complicated than that. We think."
"Jeanna had ties to this sort of magic," Leonie says. "She often spoke of the origin of the darkspawn, said there are mages in Tevinter who have studied the subject for centuries."
"Of course there are." Loghain raises an eyebrow, sighing harsh in his throat.
"What do we know of the Order in Tevinter?" Nathaniel looks at Leonie who casts a glance at Elissa. They should know something at least, but since secrecy is one of the rare virtues among their brothers and sisters in arms, perhaps it's only to be expected to have empty hands and no leads.
"Not much," she has to concede, and catches Loghain's gaze. She knows he's irritated with the trackless, dubious ruin of their Order the same way he's always frustrated with incompetence and lack of organisation and somehow she finds it almost endearingnow, sharing his thoughts on the matter. "Quite frankly, we do not know a lot about the Wardens in the Free Marches either."
"Join us in the darkness." Sigrun makes the trite old joke sound both tired and hopeless, but she braves a smile all the same.
"Yes. We need less mythology and more structure." Elissa stretches her legs, nodding gravely. "Leonie and I sent a large troop of Senior Wardens to Weisshaupt before we returned to Ferelden."
"Is that wise?" Sigrun looks surprised.
"It's no more foolish than anything else we could have done," Leonie replies; for a moment Elissa looks at her and they lock their gazes over the table where maps and journals frame their wine and bread, reminding Elissa of simpler times. Campfires and aching feet and the sole concern of how to slay an Archdemon occupying most of her thoughts and nightmares. Perhaps that would not count as simpler times for ordinary people, but Elissa has long given up on all chances of being counted among ordinary people. For her, that time has gradually come to represent simplicity.
"We've agreed on certain coded messages they will send us once they reach the fortress in Weisshaupt," Leonie explains.
"Different messages for all of them." Elissa glances sideways at Loghain who gives a small nod, a quiet approval she hadn't known she wanted until just now. There's a warmth settling at the pit of her stomach.
"You did well there," he says. "Save first-hand information, this is the best we can hope for at present."
"Tell me we're not headed for the Anderfels." Nathaniel gives Elissa a sceptical glare as though he secretly suspects her to have mapped out a route already, ordering them all on the endless journey to the heart of their Order.
She shakes her head. "I intend to remain in Ferelden for as long as I can. Now that we have sorted out the most pressing matters in Orlais."
"We hardly know what the future will bring," Leonie says. "But we found the Wardens who caused this so for the time being, we should be making every effort to fortify our own position."
It's the truth, Elissa thinks, once more. And at the same time there are hollows of lies in what they say. They had found the Wardens who turned on their brothers and sisters but not all of them; they have not followed the leads to every group of Wardens in all the nations of Thedas, have not found the roots of the issue and pulled them out, cut them off from whatever darkness that has spawned them. What she had felt in Orlais she still feels, the mistrust and fury spreading through her veins faster than any darkspawn blood.
The edge of Thedas seeps and bleeds. It's a sentence that flutters through her as she twirls the empty cup between her hands, letting the smooth surface cool her palms.
There's always unrest after a Blight. Elissa had read Riordan's journals when they found them in Arl Eamon's estate once everything was over and Denerim smelled of lyrium and fire. They spoke of old beliefs, of blood rains and omens in the sky, of a kind of blind desperation outlining conflicts, wars, futile uproars. When there is nothing reasonable about life, people look to the Maker, to causes, to magic. A Blight wages a war on reason. It is one thing to accept that men kill other men for lands or thrones, another thing entirely to accept that ancient dragons rise from beneath the earth, wanting nothing more than wasteful destruction.
She had hoped in vain that this Order she had been forced into, would stand above such things but it doesn't and instead it's rotting from the inside.
You are being too drastic, sister, Leonie comforts in Elissa's memory; it's a grey memory, the two of them huddled up against the rain outside Montsimmard, against the futile hopes that it's over now, that they can rest. Elissa had not answered that the only form of rest that she could ever hope for was missing, possibly dead and that she could not stop until she knew that for certain. She had sat there with Leonie's firm body against her own and her own heart closed to everything else.
The wind outside the keep suddenly makes the windows clatter and something chilly passes through the room as though there's an opening in the stones somewhere. Elissa stifles a grimace, trying not to think of the many ways in which the restoration may have been unsuccessful.
"So what are our current orders, Commander?" Nathaniel's eyes are calm and searching, and he reminds her abruptly of her duties.
"We continue to hold the enemies at bay here in Ferelden," Elissa says, the word enemynearly too wide and vast for her mouth. "I will send a few of our Orlesian Wardens to the south to oversee the recruiting there."
She had feared that this would be Loghain's own order for himself once they got back to Amaranthine. To return to Gwaren or to the recruitment effort elsewhere and she had already prepared an annoyed retort to his way of slipping through the chain of command with his supposed proposals. Splitting up the utterly tiny group of people she can trust seems a bad idea at present and she is not inclined to let anyone in this room out of her sight for too long. Loyalty is expensive in times like these.
Loghain had not suggested that, however. He has, as a matter of fact, not suggested anything thus far, merely awaited her orders like any other Warden and Elissa cannot tell whether she's relieved or suspicious as his current leniency. It merely seems to suit him badly.
"Are you going to remain at the Vigil, Commander?" Sigrun looks tired behind her oversized mug of ale.
Elissa nods. "For the time being. Loghain and I are travelling to Denerim as soon as the weather allows but I intend to return."
She makes a mental note to open Alistair's letter that had slipped straight out of her mind and into a large heap of work that she never got around to finish last night. With a little inward wince she remembers the thick cloud of exhaustion she had battled and how disoriented she had been even this morning as the servants came to fetch her. Her fingers travel almost subconsciously to the little bump on her skin that is the sole remain of her wound; in all her nightmares lately she succumbs to it.
"Good," Sigrun smiles. "It's more interesting with you around."
"We should also expect some Warden visitors shortly," Leonie adds. "Our brother Stroud has written and told us he wishes to discuss an expedition to the Deep Roads in the Free Marches."
As their long evening ebbs out into a rather companionable atmosphere and most questions have been answered, Leonie is the first to excuse herself.
"I need to fall asleep before Juliana and Dorthe return to the barracks," she says as she's pushing herself to her feet. The recent scars on her hands and in her face are glittering in the dusk. "They snore terribly, I'm afraid."
"Better than sleeping in the Deep Roads," Sigrun says brightly.
Her comment makes Leonie smile. "You have a point, sister."
They leave together; Nathaniel nods curtly towards Elissa and Loghain before he follows suit.
A slow, deep sigh leaves her body as she sits back in her chair and breathes for a few moments; smoothing out the flurry of thoughts and sentiments that the long meeting has brought.
Vigilance, she tells herself. Duty, vigilance, war. It's the nations on her map, the pieces of land stitched together to form a world, and it's her only choice. She is well aware of that.
She is also aware that in a choice between Loghain and her endless supply of responsibilities, her responsibilities must come first. There is no question. Though it seems absurd to not even be able to sit down alone with her general to plot a course for the near future. Or do other things that she barely dares to think about at all since they seem so far away, like events that unfolded themselves around the two of them and now have closed all borders, re-drawn the limits.
The last time she shared this old keep with him the walls had been unbroken and the rooms had not caved in around them. It had been a home then, shaped to comfort and resilience.
Now it's a fortress and she feels the difference in her bones.
"I left a bottle of Antivan brandy in here somewhere," she says to Loghain, finally letting her gaze linger on him for as long and as intently as she wants. It's been so long, she cannot look at him enough and the realisation that it seems entirely mutual nearly makes her breathless. "You want to finish it with me."
He raises an eyebrow; the corners of his mouth are twitching. "That was not a question."
"No." She rummages around in a cupboard near the bookshelf. Back in Highever, Fergus had taught her early on to always hide secret belongings – stolen food, bottles of wine and the illustrated copy of Thief of Virtue that Elissa had pilfered from her mother's personal library - in remote chambers of the castle, or in places no one would think to search. "Should it have been?"
"Good," she says triumphantly as she holds up the bottle and looks at him over her shoulder. There's more brandy left in it than she remembers.
"We ought to plan a better defence for the arling," Loghain says; there's a rustling noise outlining his words. When she looks over her shoulder she sees him clean up the stacks on the table and she smiles hastily to herself. He's tidy, which has always surprised her and still does. "I spoke to the seneschal, he tells me the southern border is still much too weak."
"We should definitely see to that." She returns to the table, bottle in one hand and two unused cups in the other. The dusk floods the room but her eyes have adjusted to it enough to notice the little things. His tucked-in smile, familiar and rare; the shape of his hands on the table, his hair that shifts in blue in this light, or lack thereof. When she hands him one cup and fills it up, her fingers brush over his own and she doesn't pull away; Loghain looks up, straight into her eyes and for a moment they remain like that, strangely intertwined.
Being near him is a comfort and an unrest all at once, a low fluttering motion in her body. Perhaps that is how it is, how it should be - she doesn't claim to know and her own memories are full of fragments of stolen moments: campfires, lakes, tender words and Alistair's heartbreaking honesty colliding with her own steely resolve.
This is not even remotely similar; it's a different world altogether, drawn on different maps.
"We should also do something about your location," she continues when Loghain doesn't press on with the subject of how to defend the southern border. "You're my second, there is no need for you to sleep in the barracks."
"Wardens don't have those kinds of ranks," he reminds her.
Elissa sighs and knocks back her brandy. "I do." With another sigh, she adds: "I want you closer."
His face softens at that, though he does not speak. He takes a mouthful of his drink and observes her in silence.
They both know that caution is a necessity, that his debts to Ferelden haven't been paid, that no matter how much blood they both shed for this country, it will always demand a bit more. The old ways and stone-carved traditions, generation after generation of people not budging an inch in the face of change. There are many out there who would still oppose her as arlessa, regardless of how many darkspawn hordes she keeps at bay, regardless of the sacrifices the Wardens have made for this nation's future. For the time being, with her heroic grace still somewhat intact and the new king's support shining bright like a beacon, she is untouchable.
But it's fragile, her armour. It will not take a great deal to wreck it: a misstep, a move in the wrong direction, a couple of years without the immediate threat of a Blight to keep the population grateful towards those who know how to fight it.
She has a feeling the years to come will etch several handfuls of dark stains on the silverite.
Just as Elissa reaches for the bottle again, inching closer to Loghain to refill his drink, there's footsteps outside the door. Instinctively, they both pull away their hands and straighten up in their seats, waiting for the knock.
"Yes?" Elissa says, her tone sharper than she intended. "Come in."
"I'm sorry to disturb you at this hour, Commander." Varel stands in the doorway, dark and stern like a bad omen. She feels something tighten in her chest, her body immediately snapping shut, becoming steel around her blood and heart.
"What's the matter?"
The seneschal looks at her, then at Loghain. "There's a situation not far from here."
"A situation?" Loghain stands up, falling so easily into the familiar patterns of duty and readiness that it seems everything else in his life is rare coincidence and extravagant luxury. It's almost disheartening to watch. Shrugging away the weight of that thought, Elissa stands too.
"Darkspawn?" she asks.
Varel nods, but there's no certainty in his face. "Five Wardens have been found dead, Commander. It's... they claim it looks like a massacre."