"I have often claimed that any sacrifice is worth the price when the cause is just."
Isobel's knuckles were raw from where they rubbed against the inside of her gauntlets. Everything felt so small. Her breastplate seemed to be shrinking every time she took a breath. The ornamental armor felt heavier than anything she'd ever carried, as if there was some invisible weight weighing her down. If her pride would allow her, she would've fallen to her knees to sate whatever force strove to drive her downward.
Her throat was tight, a harsh burning spreading up her neck and across her chest. With every moment that passed, her breaths grew more shallow, her shoulders heavier. None of this compared to the pain hiding behind her eyes, holding back tears that wanted nothing more than to be shed. She could not. Every time she looked up from the ground before her feet, Cailan was looking at her. If she cried...
"From childhood I have heard tales of the Grey Wardens. Their sacrifices were legend to me, to everyone who heard of each Blight quelled."
His normally light voice had taken on a husky undertone. Each time his eyes scanned those gathered, his vision grew a little blurrier, his words a little more difficult to understand. But not once did he look to the slab before him. Why should he look there when he knew what he would find? Alistair would be lying there with Maric's blade in his hands, his armor shinier than it'd ever been, his face lacking the smile that was necessary to make it his.
Swallowing thickly, Cailan glanced towards the sky instead. He was sure that he'd never seen such beautiful weather. There was not a cloud in sight to obscure the stretch of brilliant azure. The wind was cool, shifting the branches in the trees and smelling of the upcoming fall.
"I never took the time to contemplate what was lost with each final blow," he continued, the lump in his throat forcing him to choke out the last words. He gave a quiet cough over his shoulder. "I never thought of the brother of the Warden, the man who grieved in the wake of his brother's glory, the man who cried out of joy for the Blight's end, but out of loss."
Isobel's shoulders shook, but only for a moment. They were stilled just after when an arm curled around them. She looked to her left to see Godfrey staring back at her, his dark eyes filled with sympathy. Without saying a word, he leaned closer to her, his forehead touching hers in a wordless gift of strength. When he pulled back, he placed a kiss onto her temple.
His arm remained until she felt her gauntlet moving, lifted and held in a tiny, elven hand. She looked to Arryn who gave her a small smile.
She took a slow breath that shook upon exhalation. Now was not the time for tears. After the Archdemon had been killed, she thought she'd wept herself dry. The sudden euphoria of success had crashed into the feeling of loss. After so many months of sensing Alistair near, to have that feeling torn away was jarring; painfully so. One moment he was there, and the next the was gone, like a flame snuffed out in a single rush of air.
"I was too young to consider the lover of that Warden, the mother and the father of that Warden. To those they loved, that Warden was a hero long before they gave themselves to end the Blight." It was then that his eyes went once again to Isobel. "With Alistair, it was no diff—"
This time, his voice did catch in his throat. The words stopped, unable to pass the ever-growing swell that was hindering his breathing. In the moment that he found he couldn't continue, Isobel looked up at him, and he saw that her cheeks were streaked and mottled with red. He cleared his throat. "It was no different. He was taken from us too early, before he'd reached his full potential. Possibilities were taken away from him. A chance at a life full of happiness was snatched away without even so much as an apology."
Isobel's eyes ran over the curve of Cailan's cheek, and she wished she could be up there, standing beside him. She wanted to give him strength as Godfrey and Arryn had given her. She couldn't imagine making a speech now, not in the middle of his grief and not with his half-brother resting on the marble slab in front of him.
"We must never forget what this man – this Grey Warden – gave up to save the lands that we call home."
At that, Cailan lowered his eyes to Alistair's body. Taking a shaky breath, he reached out to rest his hand upon his half-brother's gauntlet. Having him entombed in Weisshaupt with their father's sword just seemed right. So often recently, he'd made decisions that cost him much, but this would cost him nothing. The loss of Maric's sword was little in comparison to the hollowed feeling that came with knowing that his brother was dead.
Even if he had only just recently discovered this, their friendship over the months of travel only made more sense. They were so alike. Speaking to him had felt like he was simultaneously talking to his reflection and the ghost of their father.
Slowly, the crowd began to disperse. Complete strangers were the first to leave. Anora soon disappeared into the palace among many others. There was to be a celebratory feast at Alistair's behest. The night before they left Redcliffe, when they'd sat out to watch the stars, he'd mentioned that. Should he be the one who died, he didn't want a long, drawn-out service. He wanted a buffet."With a thousand different sorts of cheese," she remembered him saying.
Soon enough, Isobel was surrounded with no more than a handful of others. Arryn kept fidgeting with something in her robes, while Godfrey continued stroking her shoulder. Fergus stood not far off, his face stony-featured for many reasons besides Alistair's death. Eamon stood beside Teagan, who looked ill with grief. And Cailan stood in front of them all, his hand still curled around the golden gauntlet beneath his palm.
Wetting her lips, she took a tentative step forward, unsure if her knees would hold her weight. When they did, she continued, her sights set upon Cailan. Not until she stood directly in front of him did she see the dampness on his cheeks.
He looked up at her when he felt the weight of her hand atop his. His eyes were red and appeared to be made of glass; his jaw worked to keep from shedding another tear, ultimately failing the moment he saw her eyes fill again. "He wanted to do this," she whispered, though her voice shook so violently she was forced to repeat herself. "He did this for you."
"He didn't," Cailan said, tearing his eyes away from her face with a shake of his head. His hand slipped from beneath hers to remove the strand of blonde hair stuck between his lips. "He did it for you."
"For us, then."
"He didn't have a choice," he retorted as his brows knit together. Resting a hand onto the wide marble slab, he leaned towards her. "I took you with me. I forced him into it. I should have given him a choice." Cailan took a sharp breath, shaking his head again. "Maker's blood, I should have given him a choice."
Isobel's chin tilted downwards, her eyes settling upon Alistair's face. Anyone who hadn't known him would look into his face and see nothing, no expression whatsoever. But she could see the smallest of smiles in the corner of her mouth. "Your people need you, Cailan," she said, her voice soft. "You should speak to them, announce what you plan to do with Amaranthine. I will see that he is tended do."
She was right. Of course she was right. There were very few times in all of his months knowing of her when she hadn't been right.
Biting down on his bottom lip, Cailan nodded. He looked upon Alistair once more before sniffing back another onslaught of tears, turning away from them both, and beginning the long trek back to the palace. Some distance away, he glanced over his shoulder to see Isobel kneeling beside the stone slab, her hands cradling Alistair's gauntlet against her cheek.
He had been so oblivious. With Chella, with Isobel, with Alistair – there was so much that, given the choice, he would have done differently. As he watched Isobel stand again, replacing Alistair's hand onto the sword and met with Arryn and Godfrey, he felt the very distinct burning of disappointment in himself. He had not only stolen his half-brother's potential, but he'd stolen his opportunity to be loved, as well.
Just as he was about to turn away, he saw Arryn reach into her pocket and draw something out. She handed it to Isobel, so careful in her movements that it was obvious even from a distance. Only when Isobel lifted it to her eyes to examine it closer did he realize what it was. It was a rose.
Turning away, Cailan took a deep breath.
He loved Isobel. While it was true that he could not be with her in the way that he wished, with her at his side as his queen, it was still love, was it not? Circumstance often stood in the path of love in the tales. Or had he stolen the opportunity to be properly loved from her, as well?
No sooner had he posed the question to himself did he remember a conversation they'd had mere days prior, before the march, before the end of the Blight, while she was recovering and he was preparing.
Smoothing her hair away from her face, he'd pressed a kiss onto her forehead and called her his queen. She grasped onto his wrist and leaned back, looking into his eyes with a solemn expression. "Cailan," she said quietly, a hint of reproach in her words, "Don't call me that. You know it is not true."
"I believe it to be so."
The honesty in his voice made the line of her mouth curve into a slight smile. "I would make a terrible queen."
"You would be a wonderful queen. And a wonderful wife."
She could tell by his tone that he was saying this in some attempt to sate her. After meeting with Oswyn, the noble tortured in the bowels of Howe's dungeon, she'd been more introverted than she had been ever since Cailan arrived. Her fingers dug into his golden hair, blunt nails scratching at his scalp. "And funnily enough, while neither is possible, that doesn't discourage me."
He looked at her curiously then, a single brow arched in question. For most of his life, he'd been surrounded by women who would do anything to be a queen, to be his wife. "Why is that?"
"Because I already have everything I need," she murmured, her thumb roaming over his temple, "I have my hero."
Cailan curled his arms around her, lifting her off of the bed and pulling her close. He took a deep breath, savoring the scent of thyme in her hair, before pressing another kiss to her forehead. She rested her chin on his shoulder, her eyes falling shut as his fingers traced shapes onto her back. "And I have mine."
Pulling his shoulders back, he kept his eyes level in front of him despite the urge to glance back at her. He couldn't. Not right now. But later – later, he would find her and apologize and be that strength that she needed.
He had no reason to fear.
A/N: ... It's done! It's done! Ohmygod, it's actually done. I don't know whether to be excited or cry because I'm going to miss them so much. Argh, conflicted.
I'd like to send a very heartfelt thanks to anyone and everyone who has been reading. If you've been here from the beginning or picked it up much later into the story, it doesn't matter, your readership means the world to me. Thank you to every person who left a Story Alert, a Story Favorite, or a review. Thank you to those who messaged me, who supported me, and who kept up with me despite long periods of nada from my end. THANK YOU. SO MUCH!