The witch still hadn't said a word.
Her eyes—that eerie shade of gold that scratched at the edges of his memory—had met his for the briefest moment before she had opened the thick wooden door, just wide enough to permit him to step inside. The feeling of finality as she closed it again behind him, of something inevitable dancing ever closer to fruition, unnerved him more than it should have.
Perhaps it was the tumultuous ending to the Landsmeet. Perhaps, it was how close he had come to dying, though the thought of death no longer frightened him; the young Cousland's blade biting into his throat.
He hadn't expected to be spared; hadn't wanted to be spared.
The witch folded her thin arms across her chest and leaned against the door. Like a cat, she gave the illusion of stillness, but he had no doubt that, beneath the surface, she was coiled and poised for an attack he had no means of countering. Unconsciously, he straightened, feigning an indifference of his own as he moved past her and into the center of the room; past the point where he could have turned and left the way he'd come, Cousland be damned for talking him into this.
Her gaze bored into his back as he took in the simply furnished room, his own gaze lingering on the bed for longer than was necessary. Could he truly do this? He hadn't exactly been celibate since Celia had died, but he'd had no familiar or constant lovers; just nameless women, eager to share his bed in one of his rare moments of weakness.
"Well, witch," Loghain said, without turning to look at her, "I am here, as promised."
She didn't elaborate, falling silent once more, until he pivoted to glare at her, his irritation rising. "I have no wish to play your games."
Morrigan raised an eyebrow at the ire in his voice, the hint of a smirk playing at the corners of her mouth. "Very well. You may remove your clothing while I make the final preparations for the ritual." She arched away from the door with a feline like grace, ignoring him completely as she went over to the tall armoire. The doors flared with a dull orange light when she touched them, the aura fading as she muttered a few words that were too soft for him to make out.
From the armoire's depths, she removed a book, an ornate pewter chalice, and a box filled with thin sticks of wood, which she lingered over before choosing the ones she wanted. The room was warm, the fire in the grate banked higher than he normally liked, but this warmth seemed to temper his unease; simultaneously soothing his wariness and feeding it. He should not allow himself to be lulled by her. He was not Maric, not given to such foolishness—
"Do you require me to undress you?"
He was startled by her nearness, and he wasn't entirely sure how she had managed to get so close without him being aware of it. Distraction, there was danger in distraction… His thoughts already felt far too muddled from the fatigue of the past months, and he knew, with an innate understanding, that he was at the disadvantage here. She was young, her mind fresh… she had magic. He couldn't stop the shudder that rippled through him. She was the hunter, and he already lay helpless in her jaws. It was merely a question of when she was going to bite down with her full strength.
Morrigan laughed, clearly amused by his discomfort. "You need not look as though this is going to be unpleasant."
"Somehow, I have a hard time believing that to be true." He made himself hold her gaze as he began unbuttoning his shirt, pleased that his hands remained steady.
"What one takes away from an experience it whatever one elects to, nothing more. I would have thought you, of all people, would have learned that lesson well." She made no move towards him, no further comment as his shirt dropped to the floor and he began loosening the ties on his trousers.
When his trousers had joined his shirt, leaving him clad only in his smallclothes, Loghain shrugged. "I choose to take nothing from this, except for an intense desire for it to be over. Proceed with whatever must be done." He fought the urge to touch his throat, to feel the just-sealed edges of the cut there that burned when he talked. This was not a place for weakness or vulnerability.
"Sit." It was a command, as she gestured at the edge of the bed, and she waited for him to obey before fetching the one of the items from the armoire. From her robes, she drew out a vial filled with a liquid that looked like ink, although much more viscous, as it took a long while for its contents to fully drain into the pewter chalice.
He was unsurprised when she pressed the chalice into his hands.
"Drink." It was a quiet murmur, and he found himself studying the quirk of her mouth as she guided the cup up to his lips, her cool fingers resting against his. Was it possible she had drugged him already? Shouldn't he be putting up more of a fight than this? It had to be magic; it was always blasted, Maker-forsaken magic…
The potion was bone-numbingly cold, and he couldn't help the shuddered gasp that escaped him. There was no taste to it, only cold that nipped and bit at his tongue and the insides of his cheeks. He didn't want to swallow it, he shook his head—no—
Her fingers, oddly warm now, were stroking his neck, playing along the edges of his wound. "Drink."
It was worse than he could have imagined.
Crystals of ice, like shards of glass, were cutting into the top of his mouth, sliding down his throat to settle in his gut as though he had lightning writhing through his insides. He would have stood up, unable to stay seated, except for the pressure of her hands that was now firm on the tops of his bare thighs. "'Twill pass in a moment. Be still."
She stayed with him until he was able to nod weakly at her, the worst of the pain ebbing away. In the back of his mind, he could feel the rage and fear smouldering, but it felt too distant, too far away for it to matter now.
He grappled with the electric sparks within while the witch spoke words that weren't for him, snatches of half-formed melodies, as she circled the room once, then again. The light from the sconces on the walls grew paler, struggling weakly against the weight of the darkness that gathered, thick and heavy in the air. Before long, only the candle on the table right beside the bed remained lit, its watery light casting unnatural shadows that he was sure were moving whenever his gaze wandered. There had been pinpricks of light from the small sticks as Morrigan had ignited them, one by one, with her fingers. But, tendrils of smoke had curled forth from them as they'd smoked and sputtered, and the lights had faded like the stars in the hour before dawn.
The witch had retreated beyond his island of light—where, he no longer knew—but he could still hear her, could see the patterns in the smoke that twisted and shifted as she passed near to where he sat; anchored to the bed for fear of where he might find himself should he stand up and abandon the safety it provided. He was reasonably confident that it was his own head that was making him feel as if the room were pitching back and forth, but his fingers tightened in the coverlet all the same.
He hadn't realized that his eyes had closed until the sudden force of the witch's presence seemed to blossom and burst in his chest. His eyes shot open—he could sense her now. She was close, though still not visible through his eyes. He could feel her though, standing—hesitant—beyond the borders of swirling smoke.
It was a gamble, a crazy one, but she had to risk it all, she had to…
Someone, something, wanted this god child, but her only hope of survival was to keep it for herself...
"Too far." The point of her fingernail in his chest brought him back. He was panting, his lips pulled back in a half snarl as he struggled to find himself again.
Morrigan was naked now, her body decorated with smudges of ash in patterns that swept around her breasts and trailed down the smooth plane of her abdomen. Physically, there was no denying her beauty, although he felt no answering stir in his groin, no rush of lust, as she helped him to stand and stripped the last of his garments from him. She didn't move to touch him, and he wasn't sure if he was grateful or disappointed.
"I can offer you an illusion, if you wish."
He must have acquiesced because, suddenly, it was Celia pushing him back on to the bed, the scent of her favourite perfume lingering in her hair as it fell across his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, drawing her close enough to bury his head in the crook of her neck. This was wrong. She wasn't here, this wasn't her.
The woman that was and wasn't Celia urged him further back, straddling him as he leaned against the headboard for balance. His head was spinning, as full of smoke as the room. She was moving against him in a gentle motion, soft kisses feathering his neck, but his body seemed torn between wanting to respond and wanting to wrest himself free.
The woman that wasn't Celia paused. "No, 'tis not her that you want, is it? There was someone else, once, but you have buried her deeply."
"Please." He wasn't sure which outcome he was asking for, his thoughts already straying into the dark places he had refused to let them go. But, she was already changing… growing taller, leaner and more muscled. The straight hair that fell down her back began to twist into loose curls, deepening in colour.
It wasn't her, his mind screamed, but, this time, he couldn't bring himself to care.
"Rowan." He felt as raw as if it had been days rather than years, his voice the rough and broken sound of stone sliding on stone. He said her name again, just to taste it. "Rowan."
"Loghain." It was her voice—impossible, the thought crept through before he smothered it—and reached up to smooth her lips with the pad of his thumb.
She bent low and kissed him, and it was all too easy to lose himself in this dream. Too many nights, trying to banish the memories; too many nights, devouring the bitterness of imagining her in Maric's arms, picturing Maric's hands stroking and touching…
With a roar of desire, he kissed her back, one of his hands coming up to tangle in her hair as he cupped the back of her head and pulled her closer. His other hand found one of her breasts, teasing the hardened nipple between his fingers. As much as he wanted to draw this out and make it last as long as he could, his traitorous body was clamouring too loudly to be ignored. He was hard to the point of aching in mere moments, and the dampness of her sex was sliding against his groin as they rocked against each other.
He broke the kiss, forcing his eyes to stay open so he could watch her as he grasped her hips; adjusting her position to allow him to sheathe himself completely inside her. She moaned, her lips parting as her eyes fell shut, and she began to move. Loghain gripped her hips tightly, driving upward with each downward push that Rowan gave. He was too close, it had been so long…
"Don't stop… Loghain…" She arched her back, bracing herself with one hand on his chest as she rode him.
There was no stopping. His orgasm was building like a storm gathering inside him, sparks of ice dancing through every nerve in his body. Every inch of his skin was on fire. "Not yet." He hoped that saying the words out loud would somehow be more effective, but there was no stopping it. "Not yet, Maker, not yet…" At one time, he might have been embarrassed by the desperation that marred his voice, but not now. All that mattered was delaying the inevitable. All that mattered was that Rowan was in his arms as he just had to—
He was coming. Not yet! He was screaming, but the sound was ripped from his throat and nothing came out but an anguished groan. He was coming and there was only a white hot searing sensation of pure pleasure as he drove himself into her as deeply as he could. He couldn't see, couldn't hear… Clutching Rowan to his chest, he murmured all the things he should have said, too many years ago; the words spilling out like unshed tears.
The last thing he remembered was the touch of her fingers on his brow, a whisper of, "Sleep," and the soft press of her lips against his own.
When he woke, sunlight was already piercing through the gaps in the curtains and his whole body ached as though he had just limped off the battlefield. The room looked ordinary, everything in its place, as though his memories of the previous night had been nothing more than a dream. The witch was gone, and he was alone.
He raised a hand to his throat, but his fingers found only unmarred skin; no scar, no trace of his unexpected reprieve. With a grimace, Loghain rose and found his discarded clothing folded in a neat pile at the foot of the bed. If he inhaled deeply, he could still pick out the faint scent of smoke in the air but, perhaps, it was just his imagination.
As he dressed, he stubbornly refused to dwell on the memories, open and raw and weeping once more, that threatened to overtake him. What was done was done; everything for the good of Ferelden, no matter the cost. Each time his thoughts threatened to stray, he shoved them back, locking them back where they belonged. He did not have time for frivolous sentiments like regret.
The slide of her hair through his fingers; the heat of her sweat-soaked body pressed against his; the taste of her mouth; the whispered sigh of his name as she'd—
No, she was dead. Last night had just been trickery and deception; a hallucination conjured by that witch. It hadn't been real. None of it. It was easy to harden his heart and pretend that he didn't—hadn't—loved her. He'd been doing it for so long now that the lie felt more familiar than the truth.
He didn't linger, slamming the door behind him with a loud curse for the witch, for Maric, for Rowan, for himself. Why couldn't Cousland have just let him die? Had he not served enough? Had he not given enough of himself, for Ferelden and his duty?
He supposed he would throw himself at the Archdemon next, along with its horde of darkspawn… perhaps, that would finally be enough. He didn't permit himself to hope that it would be, however. Hope was for fools. There would be no absolution for what he had willingly sacrificed.
Scowling, he stalked off down the corridor, pretending he couldn't hear the echoes of her footsteps in the empty hollows between his own.
A/N: This story is for the most wonderful beta and friend I could have ever wished for, the lovely Josie Lange. I don't know what I would do without you. Your advice and comments and support have been more helpful than you know, and I'm so very grateful for your friendship. Thank you. *glomp*
This story in un-betaed, so as to be a surprise (yay!), and all mistakes are my own. :)