The bodies below the precipice are lying in grotesque postures.
Alistair looks over his shoulder at Ned's tent, then at the bodies one last time.
Postponing this won't do.
Morrigan has already left to prepare what herbal concoctions she can, and so, trying to look nonchalant, he strides across the camp, pretending to ignore Leliana's warning look, and raises the flap of Ned's tent.
In the crammed space, his fellow Warden is lying on his back with his eyes closed, on a bed of as many blankets as they could spare, to make him comfortable. His ribcage, tightly dressed in bandages, rises in shallow breath but he is not asleep; his breath is uneven and there are tightening wrinkles in the corners of his eyes. As he becomes aware of Alistair's presence, the eyes open.
"Hey," Alistair says, squatting next to the bed, for the lack of a better start of conversation. "How are you… feeling?"
"… sore." Ned's voice is barely a whisper.
Silence follows, as Alistair looks for words to say what he has been rehearsing: you were right.
Finally, it is Ned who speaks, then. "How did you… get to me in time?"
"A Templar trick. The one I used against the darkspawn emissaries, if you recall. It's called a holy smite. I never knew it would work on non-mages, but there was nothing else I could do at the moment, so I gave it a try. Frankly, I was as surprised as them – the bandits, I mean. Nothing spectacular, but it did throw them off balance, and well, the rest… I run fast." Oh, great. Now I'm babbling again.
"A good… venture." Ned closes his eyes for a moment: speaking is apparently exhausting him. "I guess… I owe you my life, then."
Alistair lowers his head, dropping his eyes to his hands. "First and foremost, I endangered your life by keeping off."
Ned stares at the tent canvas. "I wanted you to keep off. I knew I was too far ahead… I didn't care." He swallows hard several times. "I can't blame my own fault on you."
Alistair shakes his head. "I should have known better." All along.
Ned makes an impatient gesture but immediately winces in pain and his breath hitches. "I could have commanded you…. to hold the route order… I didn't. As simple as that… not your fault."
The leader's responsibility.
Alistair takes a deep breath. Now or never. "You were right," he spurts out before his courage fails him. "You were right, and I was wrong. I mean, in Redcliffe… with Isolde. I don't – I can't – I am still feeling bad about it, but…" He forces himself to look at Ned. "If you had let me go for help as I wanted, I'd be rotting down below that cliff and you'd never find out what happened to me."
The pain in Ned's expression is almost tangible but he says nothing.
Do it. Get it out. All of it. "I didn't want to see the truth, neither then nor later, and nearly got you killed. No matter how you put it, it's my fault, not yours."
Ned's breath becomes ragged. "Alistair…"
He waves his hands. "I know, I know. The idiot old me. Always too dumb to see through things."
"I failed you and I know that. You strive to get us through this instead of me, and all you ever asked in return was that I be there and guard your back, and I didn't. I – I am sorry, for everything, and –"
"Alistair! Will you finally listen?" The raised voice leaves Ned gasping and perspiring. He continues with difficulty, so softly that Alistair has to lean closer. "I… may have been right… in some things… but… the reason why I had Isolde killed…"
He pauses and Alistair feels the hair on his nape rise. He does not dare to move, almost does not breathe.
"…and why I insisted that we must hurry…"
Alistair can almost physically feel how Ned is mustering his strength to voice some unpleasant truth. I don't want to hear this, he realizes with horror. Don't tell me there was yet something worse, it was bad enough as it was.
Contrary to his thoughts, he takes his fellow Warden by the hand. "Don't strain yourself. It really doesn't matter now. It – it's alright."
The white lie costs him nothing, but apparently is not believed.
"I thought… you hated me…"
"Maker, no!" Alistair himself is surprised how easily the denial welled from within. "I was mad at you, I doubted you, but I never…"
I never hated you… because it would mean that I am left alone.
And I couldn't do this alone. No, never.
"Even more so… you must know…" Ned presses his fingers hard, then lets go. "I took the quickest solution because… all that time, I feared… I feared it would come down to killing the boy…"
Horrified, Alistair listens to the tone which is not only pained but… broken.
"That night in Highever… there was my nephew, Oren. He was only six… they slit his throat, after…" He squeezes his eyes shut but to no avail: the tears that have formed escape and run down his temples, into his hair. "All along… I saw Oren's face before me… and knew I might have to kill Connor… and that I would have to deal the blow myself…" He pauses as his voice breaks, then opens his eyes again, unfocused, and lets the tears flow freely. "I couldn't. I couldn't bear that. So I let Jowan… "
Somewhere deep within, Alistair is sure that he should feel indignant that all those pragmatic reasons were untrue.
To his surprise, he doesn't.
It's as if a piece of a puzzle finally fit into its place. The cold look, the barely contained emotions… he was afraid. As afraid as I was. Unsure which path to take, because disaster loomed behind every turn…
And by the looks of him, now he apparently expects me to truly hate him.
No, it's not like that, he is about to say, painfully aware that no words he can hastily arrange will possibly sound convincing. He will never forget the way Isolde's body arched when her life-force was being drained… nor that small smile with which she had knelt down: Connor will live.
I hated her. How many times did I wish her dead when I was a kid?
And how many times did I wish her to love me?
Instead, he pulls up the blanket and tucks it around Ned because he is beginning to shiver again, the tears still flowing. Alistair remains seated by, remarkably less uncomfortable with the situation than he would have thought possible. "I hated Isolde with a passion," he says after a while. "That's what makes me feel so bad about it, I guess. Yet, when she offered to sacrifice herself… I couldn't help but admire her for that."
"Mothers tend to do such things," Ned mutters, still looking at no-one and nothing. "Mine stayed behind to buy me time…"
Oh, Maker. All that time that I was prating to no end about Duncan, he was bearing this inside…
Really, Alistair, try biting off your tongue for once.
He sits a while in silence. He still feels guilt and horror over Isolde's death. He still feels soiled by the use of blood magic. The idea of facing Eamon after all those events still makes him cringe… only he realizes that he is not angry any more.
Or rather, that he is not angry with Ned.
What good can be expected when the only choice is between the bad and worse?
That is what he hates.
"I am sorry," he says at last. "For your family… and that I let you go through this all alone. Maybe… you could tell me what happened there? – Not now; later, when you feel better. There is nothing I can do about it, but I can listen, the way you did for me… if you want."
It takes some time before Ned answers. "I do. Later." He shifts a little, as if about to take out his hand from under the blanket to wipe his face, and the movement makes him wince.
"Don't move." Alistair takes a cloth Morrigan has left there with spare bandages and wipes Ned's face, avoiding the big bruise on the cheek. The activity feels rather awkward: though his Templar training did include treating the wounded, most of the time he was afraid that he would do something wrong.
Most of the time, he did, earning the overseeing healer's disapproving glance.
"Would you like some water?" he recalls the inevitable part of treatment. "I'll fetch it."
"Morrigan said… she would bring some drink to help me fall asleep… but before she does… yes, please."
"Sure." As he is about to rise, Alistair hesitates. I did learn a thing or two at the Chantry, didn't I?
Time to share it all, maybe?
"Concerning that Templar trick… it might be good if you knew it too, in case we were overpowered again. So, given that we have agreed to trade secrets… I have something to offer, as well."
"You would… break your vows?"
Rather that than see you dead. Lesser evil of sorts, as well.
"Yes, I would. I never got round to actually swearing them, did I?"
He receives a faint smile and smiles back, and then Morrigan arrives with a freshly brewed concoction and sends him off to fetch the water and what not.
As he leaves the tent, he takes a deep breath of the fresh air, still humid after the last shower. Nodding to Leliana's raised brows, he looks south, towards Redcliffe, then north, to their destination.
Somewhere in between these points, he has become a somewhat different man.
For the god or for the bad, Maker knows.