“Before we go, Riordan, I have a question. Duncan told me that only a Grey Warden can defeat the Blight. Why is that?”
Riordan looked back at the two junior Grey Wardens, wincing when his side twinged in pain at the movement. Elissa Cousland, daughter of the deposed teyrn of Highever. She was the one who had asked the question he had been most dreading. Alistair—he supposed Theirin was the appropriate surname now—illegitimate son of the previous king and protégé of the late Commander of the Grey, Duncan.
Both had accomplished so much already, in spite of their relative youth. With their companions, they’d saved the Circle of Magi from blood mages and annulment, restored Arl Eamon to health using a pinch of ashes from the Sacred Urn of Andraste, and secured support from two notably unfriendly groups: the dwarves of Orzammar and the Dalish elves. They’d rescued Riordan himself, and the queen, from Arl Howe’s tender mercies—Elissa still looked shaken after her bloody confrontation with the man who had killed her family—and now they were planning to oust the usurper Loghain and become kingmakers.
If any other people had done any of these things at any other time, they would have been acclaimed great heroes. For these two, such nigh-impossible tasks were only stepping stones to their ultimate goal, and the most difficult task of them all: slaying the archdemon and ending the Blight.
He would be sad to see either of them die.
“As it happens, there is a reason for this…”
Elissa sat down on the bed heavily, then leaned back on her arms. “So. Ending the Blight means one of us dies.”
Alistair could feel his expression growing morose—what Elissa in less stressful times called his kicked-puppy face. “That’s the way it sounds. But don’t worry, Elissa, I won’t let—”
“—anything happen to me?” When he nodded, she continued, “That’s sweet, Alistair, but that’s not a promise you can keep. It’s not even a promise I want you to keep. At this point there are only three Grey Wardens in all of Ferelden: you, me, and Riordan. There will be at least one battle, maybe several, before we can even touch the archdemon. If something happens to one of us, the others have to be prepared to do this in their stead.”
Alistair knew he was not the smartest of men, but even he could read between those lines. “I know what you’re thinking, and I won’t let you sacrifice yourself this way, Elissa. I love you, dammit! I don’t—“
She raised a hand to silence Alistair. “I’m not looking forward to it either, Alistair. But we need to be practical. The fact remains, you may be our best hope for keeping Ferelden together. Riordan and I are comparatively expendable. From what Riordan says, it doesn’t seem like the Orlesian Wardens will come in time, so you may still have to slay the archdemon if something happens to either of us. Right now, though, we’re the logical choices.”
“Logical choices? I don’t even want to be king! Give it to Anora—she really wants it, and she’ll do fine. She’s been raised for this by her snake of a father, and it sounds like she essentially ruled while Cailan was king anyway. I’ll stay a Warden, and if need be I’ll slay the archdemon.”
“And that’s better how?” she pressed, mercilessly. “Believe it or not, I don’t want you dead either.”
Alistair smiled, but knew that the expression didn’t reach his eyes. “Thanks, but I don’t see any other way to get around this.”
“Maybe that’s why Riordan didn’t want to tell us. He’s already been saddled with this, and he wanted us to enjoy what might be our last days,” Elissa said grimly.
“Maker, woman, do you have to put it like that?”
“I don’t know any other way to put it.” Elissa’s expression was bleak. Alistair put his arm around her and the two embraced, silently. They shared the moment quietly, then Elissa stood up and began pacing, clearly trying to think of how to handle things.
Alistair broke the silence. “Should…should we tell the others? I know this is a Grey Warden secret, but perhaps we can just give them the bare bones without the reasons—tell them that one of us will have to slay the archdemon, and die doing so.”
Elissa considered this for a moment, then shook her head. “I’d rather not. Let’s keep this between you and me for now. If need be, we can tell them before the final battle.”
Alistair grimaced. “It just seems a little dishonest, keeping this from them…”
“Well, look on the bright side.” Elissa quirked an eyebrow. “Maybe the darkspawn or Loghain will take us out before then, and the issue will be moot.”
“Thanks…you always know what to say to make a man feel better about things,” Alistair said sarcastically.
“Well, we’re not dead yet. And if you’d give me a minute, I can show you the benefits of that, firsthand…”
She did indeed know a way to make a man feel better, about many things.
Later, as he lay in bed and listened to Elissa’s soft breathing next to him, Alistair wondered how he’d ever gotten lucky enough to be with her. Highborn and raised accordingly, one might expect her to be cut from the same cloth as Anora. And indeed, both had the fine-boned features of Fereldan nobility, but that was where the resemblance ended. Anora’s hair was an icy blonde, styled into exaggerated braids and loops. Elissa’s hair was a warmer honey-gold, and generally kept in a simple bun. Her eyes were bright and sparkling, and her skin—Maker, her skin was the softest he’d ever touched.
He’d never seen a fiercer warrior either. Though she was smaller than him, she swung around a two-handed blade with the force of a storm, cutting down or sweeping away all in her path. He’d seen those eyes gleaming grimly, that golden hair straggling out of its bun, and that soft skin coated in darkspawn blood, and had thought to himself that he’d never seen her look more beautiful. Not for her, the hothouse flower lifestyle of so many noble ladies. A year ago, she had been practicing swordplay and enjoying life in the Cousland seat. Since then, she’d united much of Ferelden, human and nonhuman, to aid the Wardens, and he marvelled at how far she’d come. She truly was amazing.
And tomorrow, she would risk her life—they all would risk their lives—to stop Loghain and his mad schemes. And if they survived, risk their futures as well; Alistair knew that Elissa had discussed the idea of making him king with Eamon. Much as he didn’t want or deserve the position, Alistair had a feeling that he might end up with it anyway. And what would that mean for his future with Elissa? Two Grey Wardens had a nigh-impossible chance of having children, so he would never have an heir, potentially driving the kingdom right back into civil war—and that was the best-case scenario. Worst-case, he’d end up having to marry some battleaxe of a harridan, or worse yet, Anora. Elissa would be mostly gone from his life, serving as Commander of the Grey for the country or pushing parchments back in Weisshaupt. Was that really the kind of life he wanted, for either of them?
Tired of running over these thoughts repeatedly in his head, Alistair turned over and tried to get to sleep. He knew he needed to be fresh and alert in the morning. He had no illusions that Loghain would quietly submit to the harsh justice he deserved, and knew that it would be up to them to bring him down. I won’t let him, or anything or anyone else, harm you, no matter what it takes. I would die to keep you safe…and given what Riordan said, I very well might, and count it worth every agony.
Elissa panted for breath, blood from a cut over her left eye blurring her vision. Nevertheless, she kept her gaze fixed on the figure in armor across from her, limping slightly as he kept up a defensive guard.
Agreeing to a one-on-one duel had perhaps not been her finest decision ever.
Still, as ill-advised as it had been, Elissa felt that she held the upper hand. Loghain was older and spent far too much time in castles and keeps, living soft, while she was young and coming off a year of near-constant battle. As long as she didn’t panic, didn’t let him out-think her, she could do this.
Loghain feinted, a stratagem that Elissa saw through and didn’t respond to. He immediately followed it up with an actual strike, one she quickly parried before smacking his gauntlet with the flat of her greatsword. The force would have been enough to break every finger in the hand if he hadn’t worn the gauntlet, and she was fairly certain from his face that at least one of them had broken even with the protection of armor. Loghain’s sword fell from limp hands, and as he dropped and rolled to pick it back up, attempting to evade Elissa’s blade, she changed direction so that she smashed her sword into his side as he rolled into it. Though the cutting edge of the sword couldn’t penetrate the armor, the fact that pounds of metal had been swung with incredible force into his side did not go unrewarded. He cried out and went limp, and Elissa saw a deep dent where her blow had landed. Bruises at least, likely a cracked rib as well. Good.
Elissa stood, her arms trembling in exhaustion but her sword raised high, ready to come down on Loghain’s neck.
Loghain had raised himself to his knees, panting, sword forgotten at his side. “I…underestimated you, Warden. I thought you were like Cailan, a child wanting to play at war. I was…wrong.” He looked up at Elissa. “There’s a strength in you I have not seen anywhere…since Maric died.”
Elissa narrowed her eyes at him, but did not lower her guard. With a swipe of his hand over his eyes, Loghain said, “I yield.”
She looked at the teyrn for a moment, expression opaque, then sheathed her sword. “I accept your surrender.”
Alistair looked over at Elissa, face twisted in anger. “I didn’t just hear you say that. You’re going to let him live? After everything he’s done? Kill him already!”
“If he’s going to die, it will not be like this. He doesn’t deserve to die in battle. He’ll be executed, as any other traitor would be.” Elissa’s tones were measured as she pronounced his sentence.
Elissa saw a movement from the corner of her eye, and Riordan stepped forward from the crowd gathered around the edges of the hall. “Wait! There is another option. The teyrn is a warrior and general of renown. Let him be of use. Let him go through the Joining.”
She considered this for a moment, then asked, “Why would we take Loghain into the Wardens? He’s betrayed us once before.”
Riordan sighed. “There are too few of us. It’s not a matter of what we like, it’s a matter of what we must do. Our duty is to slay the archdemon. We aren’t judges. Kinslayers, blood mages, traitors, rebels, Carta thugs, common bandits, anyone with the skill and the mettle to take up the sword against the darkspawn is welcome among us. There are three of us in Ferelden, and as you know, there are…compelling reasons to have as many Wardens on hand as possible to deal with the archdemon.”
Anora chimed in. “The Joining itself is often fatal, is it not? If he survives, you gain a general, if not, you have your revenge.” Riordan looked taken aback at this, and Elissa wondered just who had disclosed, even partially, Warden secrets to such as her. Probably Cailan, with his fascination with the Wardens, had wrangled it out of Duncan, and then she had heard it from him. Still, this was knowledge she should not have, and Elissa noted this.
Alistair interjected, loudly. “Joining the Wardens is an honor, not a punishment. Name him a Warden and you cheapen us all! I will not stand next to him as a brother, I won’t!” He sounded less like an angry warrior than a petulant child, and was certainly doing very little for his cause.
Elissa turned to Alistair. “Look, we haven’t made a decision one way or the other yet, Alistair. Calm down.”
Alistair lowered his voice, but his anger continued unabated. “Loghain is a traitor. We need him like we need to be stabbed in the back. Or have you forgotten how his being a great general didn’t help the last time?”
“Of course not. But as Riordan has mentioned, there are definite reasons we may want to consider bringing him into the Wardens. We’ll discuss this later.” Elissa looked thoughtful for a moment, then turned back to the bannorn. “I would like some time to consider this. Give me the night, and tomorrow I will announce Loghain’s fate.”
Alistair looked at her incredulously. “Time? What? What is there to consider?” He continued, his voice rising in volume again. “Loghain left Cailan and Duncan to die! He poisoned Eamon! He hired assassins to kill us! I don’t see—“
“Quiet, Alistair,” Elissa hissed, taking him aback. “We’ll discuss this tonight.” More audibly, she said, “I formally request that the Landsmeet give the Grey Wardens one night to decide his fate, during which the traitor Loghain will be imprisoned and his wounds treated. We would then reconvene here tomorrow, to announce our decision.”
The bannorn conferred, then their spokesman turned back. “We agree to your request. Though all Ferelden has suffered under the traitor, the Grey Wardens have perhaps suffered most, and deserve to decide his punishment. We will resume the Landsmeet tomorrow.” He gestured, and Loghain was hauled off to be placed into chains. I hope he ends up in Fort Drakon, stripped to his smallclothes and enjoying the tender mercies of the resident torturer, Elissa thought with a small hint of vengeful satisfaction. Let him experience even a portion of what he inflicted on us. She bowed to the bannorn, then stalked away, her allies following behind.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Alistair raged as soon as the door shut behind them. “You can’t seriously be considering sparing Loghain!”
“I am. I mean to make him a Grey Warden.”
The look of abject betrayal Alistair turned toward Elissa felt like a punch in the gut, and almost undid her resolve. Leliana attempted to intercede, voice at its most soothing. “I know you need more Wardens, Elissa, but are you certain you want Loghain? This seems like a bad idea.”
“It’s a terrible idea!” Alistair expostulated. “You want to make him one of us? You want to pollute the Wardens’ brotherhood with this…filth? Need I remind you that the only reason the Wardens’ number is so low is because of Loghain himself?”
“No, I’m fully aware of that,” Elissa said coolly.
“Really? Then I don’t understand why you haven’t lopped his head off already. Because of him, Duncan and all the other Wardens are dead. Because of the blood mage assassin he hired, Eamon is still barely out of his sickbed and Connor no longer has a mother. Do you want me to go on?”
“Yes, yes, I know the litany of Loghain’s crimes as well as you do,” Elissa said, gesturing impatiently. “But our numbers are too low. With only three of us, the odds aren’t great that a Grey Warden will even make it to the archdemon, let alone kill it. The more of us there are, the more likely a Warden can slay the archdemon and end the Blight.”
Zevran raised his hand. “Perhaps I am missing something obvious, but why, exactly, does it sound like you need a Warden specifically to slay the Archdemon? Cannot anyone butcher the thing?”
Elissa sighed, fingers steepled against her forehead. “Unfortunately not. I was hoping you wouldn’t have to learn this, but as it’s bound to come out now, you may as well hear it. Only a Warden can slay the Archdemon, and only at the cost of his—or her—own life.”
“What? That’s horrible!” Leliana cried, while Wynne merely gave Elissa and Alistair a sympathetic gaze. Morrigan seemed unsurprised, but then she rarely showed any emotion at all aside from contempt (usually for Alistair).
“I can’t give you the details,” Elissa continued. “It’s an issue of Warden secrecy, not my own choice. But the end result is, the more Wardens there are, the higher the likelihood that we will be able to end the Blight, and perhaps even survive.”
“Yes, but why Loghain?” cried Alistair. “You can conscript everyone in Denerim for all I care—” (“So long as you leave me out of it,” Zevran interjected, raising his hands) “—but why bring that murderer into the fold? Why give him another chance to stab us in the backs?”
“Because no one will miss him,” Elissa replied. “Also, he’s a strategic genius when he’s not blinded by paranoia, and in his defense, I think he has finally realized how insane his actions were.” Elissa pointed out. “Nothing like being abandoned by the bannorn and nearly being slaughtered with a broadsword to bring you to your senses, it seems.”
“Well, what a miracle, the murderer’s had a change of heart! Let’s just roll out the cloth of gold and slaughter a fat pig to welcome him back!”
“This kind of snide sarcasm doesn’t suit you,” Elissa said, unperturbed.
Alistair immediately looked abashed. “I’m sorry, I…I just…it goes against everything in me to work with that man. He killed Duncan. I can’t—I won’t—ever forgive him for that.”
“And I’m not asking you to,” Elissa replied. “I think the man is lower than pond scum, too. He supported Howe’s attack on my family, and promised him Highever. I don’t like him any better than you do, and the idea of taking him on as anything resembling a comrade makes my skin want to crawl off my body and flee to Orlais, but we need him. Every Grey Warden we have is another chance to stop the Blight before it entirely swallows Ferelden. And every Grey Warden that isn’t either of us makes it more likely—or should I say, less unlikely—that we’ll both survive the Blight. Loghain has the added benefit of being someone I, and I imagine you as well, will not feel at all guilty at sacrificing to end the Blight. I don’t know about you, but I do like the part of this plan where we both have a chance to stay alive.”
Alistair looked mutinous for a moment, then sighed. “Fine, fine. You win. Make Loghain a Warden, so long as we can throw him at the archdemon. He ruined and ended so many lives at Ostagar, I guess he should get a chance to end his own by saving others from the Blight. Perhaps it’ll even go part of the way towards atoning for his crimes. Bring him along with us if you think you have to. Just…don’t expect me to talk to him, or even acknowledge his existence. And know that I’ll be watching him like a hawk, praying for him to slip up and betray us so that I can cut him down.”
“Sounds fair enough,” Elissa said. “And I can’t imagine any of us will be lining up to become bosom buddies with him.”
As she looked around the room the rest nodded or grimaced. Even Shale rumbled, “I have found that the traitor human has more in common with a large pigeon than one would have at first believed,” and her eyes gleamed with a predatory ferocity.
“See? I don’t think you need to worry.”
“Well, I will,” Alistair said fiercely. “And you tell him that the second he makes a wrong move, or tries to stab us in the back, I will lop off his head without a second thought, and do it with a smile on my face.”
Elissa smiled, and the expression was one that boded ill for Loghain. “Oh believe me, I will. It will be my pleasure.”