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Return to Ostagar and its outcome, with some variation.
There is something in the air, an ash-like substance, which stings the throat and parches the mouth… like back there, in the Deep Roads. Now matter how much water they drank, no matter that the corruption-covered rocks oozed liquids and the air was humid with decay, their mouths felt dry all the time and the thirst could not be quenched.
Experiencing this again, under the lights of the sky, is unthinkable.
Though, since the sky is dimmed and the light tinged red even in the full daylight, it is not particularly surprising; or would not be, if Ned did not remember this very place in its glory of lush greenery and fresh air, scented with pine pitch.
The desolation stretches for miles: corrupted dead trees, piercing the sky like crooked fingers; black slime, covering the pools of thawing snow; the fleshy, mould-like layers covering the ground here and there and suffocating the last enduring remains of vegetation.
The Taint. Humming and singing to its tiny part in Ned's veins.
In the Deep Roads, the desolation never seemed so… entire.
They put shawls and kerchiefs over their mouths, rather as an encouragement than real protection, and brace their hearts, as they proceed towards the centre of the corruption.
What little life they encounter is blighted… or darkspawn themselves.
And then, the old Imperial Highway leads them into a valley, cutting deep into the once-forested hills… until the high walls of Ostagar appear in the ever-present fumes.
Involuntarily, Ned pauses and his throat tightens, as he recalls his arrival to this place not even a year ago: weary and aching, the hardly healed body demanding rest, while the wounds of his soul still bled, and the joy of the expected reunion with Fergus was overshadowed by the despair of the news to be told.
Back then, the walls were golden in the setting sun, and Duncan watched him with barely concealed concern in his dark eyes.
The others stop in his wake, except Alistair, who proceeds till they stand side by side, watching the place that changed their lives forever.
Briefly touching each other's shoulder, they set out again, side by side.
Their footsteps in the ruins of the barbican are the only sound in the still air but Ned is not lulled: the prickling under his skin grows ever stronger, indicating the presence of a more profound source of the taint than the slime. Without slowing down, he releases the sword in its sheath and motions to the others: get ready. He feels the familiar tinge of Wynne's energy, accumulating to burst in a spell, and his pulse quickens in an anticipation of fight. Concentrating on the sense of the Taint, he tries to asses the remaining distance to the encounter: still a little further ahead.
Nonetheless, the darkspawn are preceded by another encounter.
Ned hears Alistair groan in protest as he realizes what it is he sees in front of them. His own breath hitches in his throat as he stands, petrified, staring at the crude wooden structure erected at the entrance of the bridge, and the figure pinned to it with shafts of spears and arrows, its golden armour still recognizable despite the dirt and slime and the effect of elements.
Not so its wearer: the exposure to the sun and wind withered the remains; there little more left than bones covered with a dark thin crust of mummified muscles and skin. Some of the hair, bleached by the sun, still clings to the skull; the dark empty sockets stare into the sky as muscles shortened by drying arched the neck in an impossible angle and left the mouth wide open, baring the teeth in an eternal scream.
Oh, Maker. Cailan.
– having passed the sentries, they make their way through the damaged barbican, towards the great bridge that connects the two parts of the fortification, when Duncan suddenly stops, sighting a man, all golden-red in the setting sun, striding towards them: tall and well-built and self-confident, welcoming them with a broad warm smile –
Numbed with shock, Ned realizes that the prickling sensation has intensified, only a moment before it is too late. Purely out of instinct, he releases the templar powers, purging the wave of magic before it can harm anyone – and releasing with it also the anger welling from within, as he draws the sword and drives it with his full strength into the chest of the charging hurlock.
A flash of white light: the darkspawn emissary flies several feet away, smitten by Alistair, even as he swirls and blocks the blow of one opponent, while beheading another and casually gutting the third with a back swipe of his blade.
As the last darkspawn dies shrieking under his sword, Ned shakes off the black ichor from the glistening ancient blade and quickly checks the surroundings: no more enemies in the vicinity, but slowly closing in.
Straightening, he looks up at Cailan's pitiful remains again. "Just a little longer, my Lord," he says hoarsely, "until we do a little cleanup."
Then, for the first time, he looks more closely at the heap of bones and broken armour piled at the bottom of the structure, and blinks in disbelief. Making a few steps closer, his suspicion is confirmed: the remnant of a breastplate, cracked and rusting, still bears a recognizable griffon rampant.
Breastplates, skulls, limbs… crushed and broken.
The Wardens of Ferelden, without any doubt.
The men he never really knew, except for one.
Unable to move, he watches as his only surviving brother falls to his knees next to the pile and, with his head tilted backwards, cries his pain at the indifferent hills and skies.
Then, as Alistair, cursing and crying, starts digging at the pile, Ned finally wakes from the stupor. "Alistair," he says, but in the end he has to take the other Warden by the shoulders to make him listen, "Alistair. Not now, not yet. We will find him, I promise, but not now. There is yet more work to do."
Through the haze of tears, Alistair's eyes focus again. "More darkspawn to kill, right? Good." Making an unsuccessful attempt to wipe his face with his gauntlet, he abruptly gets up from the pile. "We'll get them all a proper burial once we're done here," he says in a still shaky voice, and Ned is glad, the first time since they set out for this mission, that Morigan had to stay behind in Redcliffe.
Leliana, her eyes also suspiciously welling, silently offers Alistair a short hug and then wipes the smudge from his face.
"Let's move on," Ned commands, calling Wolf closer, and with a little hesitation, moves onto the bridge.
Even after all that time, the stones are still scorched and they pass the burned remains of the ballistae. There are only few bones around: as it seems, the crew tried to retreat and flee for their lives when the battle was lost.
In the middle of the bridge, Wynne stops and points to the walls on the right. "There. There I was stationed…" Her face seems drawn and haggard in the unnatural light, as she overlooks the battlefield below. Glancing at Cailan's body, she points again: "And it was there that I saw him fall." Her voice trembles as she says so.
Ned squints his eyes: even from the distance, the horned ogre skull protruding from the still frozen snow can easily be recognized, even amongst the other bones, thickly covering the ground in that area.
The Wardens. This is where they must have made the last stand, defending Cailan, until the never-ending onslaught of the darkspawn wore them down.
Did they know we had not failed them?
Turning, Ned raises his eyes to the Tower of Ishal.
Did they see the signal and died, knowing they were betrayed by the man everyone trusted?
"This is foolish, to stand in the middle of the bridge, exposed to an attack from both sides." Unburdened with memories, Sten's voice sounds annoyed, and Ned feels his cheeks flush with embarrassment at the justified reproach.
"I actually prefer enemies from two sides than from all sides," Alistair remarks, "but even so, I must assure you that this time it will be only one side, and that where we are going, anyway."
Somewhat sourly, Ned has to confirm Alistair's assessment: the darkspawn are amassing at the other side of the bridge, undoubtedly waiting to hail them with arrows. "Time for a little surprise. Will you, Wynne?"
The old mage cracks her fingers with a vicious smile. "Of course. Let us cleanse this place a little."
The flame of the torch in Alistair's hand leaps to the wood of the small funeral pyre they assembled for Cailan: withered and pitiable as they are, his remains freed of the armour will not resist the fire for long.
In silence, they watch the flames spreading and leaping high on the pitched wood, as Leliana recites that part of the Chant of Light usually reserved for such occasions, and then Ned nods to Alistair's questioning look.
The pyre they managed to gather for the unidentifiable remains of the Grey Wardens is somewhat bigger: in its desolation, Ostagar at least does not lack in dead wood.
Alistair stops short of lighting the pyre and turns to Ned again. At his unspoken appeal, Ned comes closer and they join their hands on the torch, sending the Wardens to their last journey together.
Seeing the streaks of tears running down Alistair's cheeks again, Ned feels a dull pain behind the breastbone: at least you have found the bones of those you loved. Maker knows what I will find if I ever reclaim my home again.
Most probably, I will find nothing, and will never learn in what dishonourable way Howe disposed of them.
The building blaze keeps his eyes dry; soon, he will have to retreat from the heat but he is loath to, even though the dancing flames and smoke revive the memory of the desperate flight through his burning home and into the woods, with the red-lit horizon behind.
Through the cracking of the burning wood he hears Alistair also start reciting something: not the Chant of Light but the words of the Joining. With a little hesitation, Ned adds his voice to his, repeating the words that etched in his mind on the first and only occasion he ever heard them: "… join us in the shadows where we stand vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten, and that one day, we shall join you."
Even after they finish, Alistair's lips keep moving, without a sound. It is not difficult to guess what he is saying and to whom, as his hand grips the weathered hilt of the sword he now carries.
Ned averts his eyes, back into the blaze. Both the long and the short blade were buried in the ogre's chest, stuck between the bones… marking the last kill their owner must have made.
The only two things left of Duncan they managed to recover with certainty: those two blades which Alistair freed with reverent hands.
The very blade that pierced Jory like a bag of straw.
Now I understand, Duncan, Ned speaks in his mind to the flames. Having seen myself… I finally understand. I might have been able to reason with Jory, or intimidate him, were I in your place… but if I could not, I'd have done the same.
I have done worse, after all. To end the Blight at any cost…
Clenching his hands, he keeps staring into the flames. Would you have been willing to pay those costs I considered too high?
Maker help us if my scruples doomed us all. I couldn't, couldn't bring myself to do that…
The burning wood glows like the lava which took Caridin's shell, and the flames dance high.
Fool! Morrigan's fire-coloured eyes stare back at him with scorn and fear alike. Fool!
Maker, don't let me ever be wrong, or we are lost.
Have you ever had to bear the burden of such far-reaching decisions, Duncan?
The clenched hands hurt, the heat consumes the air.
Loghain. It was your scheming that brought all this on me. It is because of you that I walk this thread above an abyss, and will bring us all down with me if I stagger. You and your pride and greed for power. I could never figure out what had compelled you to betray us so, until now. What was the prevailing reason, I wonder – the alliance with Orlais, or the loss of status, were your daughter truly deposed?
How could you have become so corrupt and twisted?
You, the Hero of Ferelden? The man everyone worshipped?
What would you have done with me and Alistair, if the darkspawn had not burst through those tunnels you didn't bother to secure?
He does not realize that Alistair has been speaking to him, until he feels the touch on his shoulder. "Ned? The fire will burn long still. We should go and secure the camp for the night."
Despite the dried tears, Alistair's eyes are clear and bright: the eyes of one who has embraced his grief and reached composure.
Ned's own eyes burn with the tears which the heat has devoured. Mistrustful of his voice, he only nods.
Being led away by a strong, comforting hand, he turns to look at the blazing pyre once more: it burns with bright flame, and the consumed wood glows in the dimming light like the precious stones from Orlais.
"Oh… but this… Bryce! You must have spent a fortune!"
Father, leaning against the fireplace with his doublet nonchalantly unbuttoned, deprecatorily waves with his cup of liquor. "You're more than worth it, my dear… unless you don't like my gift? I guess I should return it, then."
"Don't be a fool! It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." Eleanor runs her hand over the necklace, the stones set in gold glowing against her pale skin like living embers. "You know that it is the state of our treasury that worries me – I know that those Orlesians are used to spending excessive amounts to uphold their status in public but I don't think it is wise for us to adopt such vanity."
With a flash of smile, father puts down his cup and walks over to her, leaning and kissing her on the mouth. "You need not worry, my prudent love… the trinket cost me no more than a couple of hours spent at a boring feast… oh yes, and an ear totally droned off by the host's attempts at buttering me up."
"Oh… you mean…"
"Yes. It was a gift, my dear. The family wealth is as safe as before."
Mother runs her fingers over the jewel again, favouringly, before she looks up again. "And just what were you supposed to do in exchange for this 'gift'?" she asks with a seeming of ease.
"Why, to pour some more sweet words into Cailan's ears…"
"Bryce! I hope you didn't – "
"Why, of course I did – I promised that, after all. I relayed everything to Cailan precisely as I promised, together with my recommendation not to pay attention to anything dear Marquise DuKerraine ever said."
Ned, half lying in his armchair, bursts into laughter and exchanges an amused look with Fergus. Looking up from her needlework, Oriana glances at them with mild female superiority.
"All in all," Eleanor says with a glint in her eye, "you, in fact, have invested nothing in the wife you claim you hold so dear?"
Bryce presses his hand to his heart. "Ouch. Now you're asking oh-so-subtly if I forgot all about your deepest desire, my Lady? Worry not: those carpets you requested are expecting your caressing feet in your chambers tonight."
A new burst of laughter, and the wood peacefully cracks in the fireplace to keep the chill of the early spring night out.
Startled, Ned looks up from the embers of the camp fire, burning low. "What?"
With a grin, Alistair makes himself seated next to him. "No, rest assured, no darkspawn attacking. I was asking if you would like to exchange the watch, you look like you could use some sleep."
Yeah, I could. For the rest of my life, preferably. Ned rubs his eyes, burning from his efforts to read in the low, flickering light. He and Alistair decided to split the night and keep company to the regular watches, to use their Warden sense against any darkspawn that might attempt to crawl upon them under the cover of darkness. "No. That's alright, I'll stick with the first half."
"I doubt very much that anything around here is even distantly close to being alright, but as you wish. – Have you found anything else of importance in those letters?"
Ned folds the vellums and shakes his head. "Some reports and personal stuff… nothing that would give any further clues to those three."
"Ah. I see." An expectant look, which Ned chooses to pretend to ignore, sitting without a move.
Alistair, as usually, is not deterred. "So, shall I go and borrow Sten's prying bar to make you more animated?"
Despite himself, Ned has to chuckle, though the thought of Morrigan brings about a little pang within. "That is an old one, Alistair."
"So is that sulking of yours."
"Hey, I don't – "
"Oh. You don't sulk. I get it, I totally get it. Our fearless leader never sulks, he only sits by the fire and stares at one and the same letter for like half an hour."
"I was trying to think," Ned says, somewhat irritated by the direction the banter took, "which you would have easily recognized, had you at least some personal experience with the activity – "
He realizes he has been raising his voice only as "Quiet, you banterers there!" comes snapping from the direction of Wynne's tent.
"Shh…" Alistair whispers exaggeratedly. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life as a toad, do you?"
"It would be a damned short life," Ned mutters, "there are no flies around here. – Not that we would last much longer as we are, anyway."
"So, are you going to waste those few moments we have left by being myysteeerious?"
Ned scowls. "I'm going to waste them trying to make you understand when to shut up. I told you I was trying to think."
"Would you care to share the pearl – "
"Maker, stop rhyming!" Ned rakes his hands through his hair and takes a few deep breaths. Alistair, you impossible man. I know what you're trying to do and why but… you couldn't have waited just a little longer, could you?
And I should have shut up instead of quipping in. If Maker himself was shedding tears over his bride, you would have him bantering in two minutes.
He shakes his head. "You're determined not to let me go, huh?"
A raised brow. "Will you let yourself go if I do?"
Ned briefly averts his head. "Can't," he admits. "It's probably just wild guesses, but…"
"…but most probably dead right, since you've been into it ever since we opened that stash of Cailan's. Come on, tell me. What is it that you see that the rest of us don't?"
The colour of your socks, Ned feels compelled to reply but checks his tongue: avoiding the topic would lead nowhere. He opens his mouth, but suddenly finds no words to voice his thoughts. He swallows hard, feeling that irritating dryness again.
"So bad?" Alistair asks softly.
Worse. He avoids Alistair's eyes again, looking into the darkness where the remnants of the two pyres still glow red.
Following his gaze, Alistair speaks slowly after a moment of silence. "We have found what we have come for. We recovered Cailan's body, we could even provide the rites for our brothers. We found the reason and the proof of Loghain's betrayal…"
Ned sighs. "Not sure if we can use it," he admits. "Planning an alliance with Orlais… Some might actually see Loghain as a hero who saved us a second time. Had it become known in Cailan's life, he might have had a rebellion on his hands."
Alistair curses and slams his fist into the ground. "Never mind," he says then stubbornly. "Loghain will pay for what he's done, one way or another. – And it's still good to have those letters… to know in its entirety what he did and why, to Cailan, to Eamon..."
"Yes." To understand the enemy is always useful… though bitter.
There is no sound in the dead valley, only the wind and the burning wood. No moon or stars, only the dying embers in the dark. The ever-present taste of ash.
For a while, they sit in silence.
Then, Alistair clears his throat. "But this is not what you're hurting over so much, right?"
"No." Reaching for the pile of vellums, Ned picks one and spreads it on the ground between them. "It's that crumpled letter," he explains.
Alistair frowns, pondering. "I thought we agreed that there was but one person who would get into such a fit of rage while reading it, and it was not Cailan himself. What else do you read from it?"
"I didn't exactly read anything out of it, I was just pondering… options. How did the letter get here? Such disastrous lines if they got into the wrong hands – Celene is surely too clever to leave this to an official courier, who can be easily bribed, or coerced, or simply disappear. Besides, how did they ever get on such friendly terms with Cailan if they never met? Considering an alliance, even closer ties? There must have been many more personal letters, going through a secure channel. Someone must have acted as Cailan's liaison, to get things so far. Perhaps even negotiating on Cailan's behalf in Orlais? Someone trustworthy, and in high standing, so that he could have both Celene and Cailan's ears, and not arouse Loghain's suspicion. Because once it happened…"
He does not have to look at Alistair to see his eyes open wide in dawning realisation. Pressing his hand on the crumpled vellum, Ned stares into the darkness, the glowing embers stinging his eyes even from afar. "Those three tale-telling letters… like three death warrants. Cailan's, Eamon's… and my father's."
The cracking wood is the only sound amid the desolation.