On the road, out of the Brecilian Forest.
The Grey Wardens stood arrayed with the King’s elite beneath the bridge of Ostagar. They fought a pitched battle to prevent the Darkspawn forces from overrunning them and breaking into the campground beyond. They must hold the line here, draw the enemy to them, and then await the General’s charge to crush the horde between them. The fight seemed to go on for hours. Duncan panted, each breath searing his lungs like fire. And yet another hurlock warrior lunged for him, and again he spit it on his longsword, then moved aside, freeing the weapon. He got turned around in the chaos of battle. Roars and screams came from all sides. He cut down another pair of genlocks, then turned to look for the King. He mustn’t get pulled too far away. After a panicked moment, he spied the King’s gleaming gold armor. Cailen was a true warrior. He laid about, felling those Darkspawn nearest to him. Duncan began to move towards him, then suddenly both men froze and turned in the same direction.
A hulking ogre, crowned with twisted horns, stomped towards them, each footfall shaking the ground. It lowered its bull-like head and charged, knocking the smaller Darkspawn out of its path. Cailen ran to meet it. Duncan had no breath to spare to shout for him to fall back; he ran after his King. Cailen’s sword bounced off the ogre’s horns, and the King was thrown to the ground. The brute picked him up as if he were a child’s doll. With a triumphant roar, it crushed Cailen’s chest; the metal of his armor buckled, his ribs cracked loudly. Blood gouted from his mouth. The ogre threw the limp body aside.
Now Duncan found his voice. He screamed in wordless fear and anger. Rage set fire to his limbs, and he found new speed. He hurled himself at the ogre, stabbing at its broad slab of a chest with both blades. He rode the beast to the ground as it pitched and screamed, stabbing it over and over, til it lay dead. Duncan slid from the corpse and staggered to the King. He fell to his knees and cradled the limp body. It was too late, he knew. There was not even a breath of hope. Around them, soldiers were dying, even the Grey Wardens were being overwhelmed. Where was their relief?
“Alistair!” Duncan wailed into the darkness. “You failed us! I put my faith in you….”
“I haven’t!” Alistair cried. He was there somehow, suddenly. He tried to move to Duncan, but his feet would not obey him. “We lit the beacon! I didn’t fail you, Duncan! Can’t you see?”
He didn’t think his friend and mentor could hear him, but Duncan turned at that moment to look over his shoulder. Alistair’s eyes followed his gaze to the tower of Ishal. The top blazed with fire that illuminated the whole battlefield.
“You see?” Alistair called. “I haven’t failed you, Duncan!”
And then Duncan looked past him, the despair on his face growing into horror. Alistair turned. There were Darkspawn closing in, but those were not what had caught Duncan’s eyes. Beyond them, beyond the trees, Alistair could see it now, too. The glint of torchlight on armor, the borne torches themselves, the thousand sparks that revealed the Ferelden army. And they were leaving. Leaving everyone to die. Alistair turned back, his body so sluggish it barely moved. Duncan’s spirit broke. Hanging his head, he didn’t even try to fight the Darkspawn that closed in on him.
Alistair opened his mouth and took a breath to scream out his denial, his rage — a hand closed over his mouth, stifling him. He struggled momentarily, disoriented. Then froze at Valorien’s hushed whisper. “Alistair!” The elf slowly released him. “You were dreaming.”
Alistair sat up, blinking in the dim light of the fire’s embers, realizing he was in his bedroll at camp. Everyone else was still snug in their tents; he hadn’t woken anyone this time. Except Valorien, but he’d probably been awake already. Alistair levered to his feet and moved out of the camp. His steps were still shaky. Valorien followed him, with his dog at his heels.
Alistair found a patch of moonlight by the pond’s edge, and sat. Valorien sat beside him, and Tarroth flopped down between them both. Alistair rested his hand on the dog’s shoulder, taking some comfort in stroking the animal. “I dreamt about Duncan,” he said after a minute. “He… he thought I’d failed him. I told him we hadn’t. We did what we were supposed to do! We lit the signal fire.” He scrubbed his face with both hands. “Do you think he knew? Before he died? You don’t think… he believed we failed him?”
Valorien said quietly, “The light was seen everywhere.”
“I know. But then he knew….” Alistair gulped. “Not disappointment in my failure, but betrayal.” He drew a shuddering breath; his shoulders hunched, his fists clenched. “I hate Loghain,” he said with venom. “I want to kill him. I’ve never wanted to kill anyone before in my life!” He seized Valorien roughly by the arm. “Don’t you dare ally with him! No agreements! No treaties!”
Tarroth growled low. Valorien calmed him. “Down, Tarroth.” He made no move to free himself from Alistair’s grasp.
“And don’t tell me he may have done what was right!” Alistair insisted. “That I don’t know what happened. I know! He’s a traitor, and he left everyone there to die!”
“I understand,” Valorien said levelly.
Alistair released his grip. “And promise me one thing: that you won’t kill him. He’s mine.”
Valorien was silent a moment. “I cannot promise that,” he said.
“Why the hell not?” Alistair yelled.
“What if you are dead?” the elf asked with maddening logic.
Alistair waved that off. “Promises are absolved on death.”
Valorien shook his head. “I cannot promise this, Alistair. If circumstances present an opportunity, and he needs to die, I cannot be bound by an oath to stay my hand.”
“I suppose that is best,” Alistair agreed grudgingly.
“I will not interfere with you killing him, of course.”
“Very kind of you,” Alistair said drolly. His voice was still edged in hatred.
Tarroth shifted and put his head down again as Valorien patted him. After a few minutes, the elf said, “It must be nice to be able to kill your betrayer. I cannot avenge Tamlen’s death. Not unless I take my own life.”
Alistair looked at him sharply. “That wasn’t your fault.”
“Then whose fault is it?” the elf asked darkly.
“No one’s fault,” the human insisted. “It just happened.”
“Why did I leave? Why didn’t I find him? Why couldn’t I save him?” Valorien put his face in his hands. “I can’t ever know.”
“You never would harm him — he must know that.”
“What if I hadn’t agreed to explore those ruins? What if I had stopped him from touching that mirror?”
“You can’t second-guess every decision, every what-might-have-been,” said Alistair.
Valorien lifted his head and said dryly, “This from an expert?”
“You told me, there are no bad decisions, only different outcomes.”
“And you told me,” the elf retorted, “some outcomes are bad.”
Alistair sighed in exasperation. “But we have to believe we’re doing the best that we can. I know you wish you’d died instead of Tamlen; I wish I had died instead of Duncan. But if we could have those wishes come true, they’d just be here now wishing they had died instead of us.” He rubbed his face again, and swept one hand back through his hair. “Fate didn’t turn out that way, so here we are. You and I, we have a job to do, and I can’t do it without you. I need you.”
Valorien nodded slowly. “You are correct. Ferelden needs Grey Wardens, and there is no one else to do this. All our peoples are depending upon us.”
“When you put it like that, it sounds easy,” Alistair grumped. “Do you really think we can do it?”
“We have, so far. And we shall continue, until we succeed, or until we die.”