They were but a day's walk from Lothering when they found them. Survivors from Ostagar – in the most horrific sense of the word. She saw them before Alistair, crouching low next to her new canine companion and signalling Morrigan to prepare herself. Alistair hoisted his shield onto his arm, but openly gaped at the state of the men. Helmets half shattered, their heads barely upright, some limped, others crawled, still others clung to bastardised warhounds that dragged them along the rough ground. Fingers blackened with blood and dirt, they cried out to the party – some with the barest hint of humanity screaming gutturally for some kind of release. They were barely human anymore, and yet still too much like men rather than the darkspawn they were inevitably becoming. Silently she offered a prayer to the Maker, glancing at Alistair. His face was resolute, jaw set and mouth in a grim line that almost marred his face somehow. But the grip on his sword was strong, and as she ran forward to relieve the agony of the ghouls in front of them she knew his steps were sure.
They were a straggling bunch, scattered across the fields next to the worn path, and so it was almost laborious to give each individual peace. The work was silent, save for the cries and deathly shrieks of the departing. And then came a noise that she had not yet heard – a moan, twisted by sheer horror and despair, emanating from her fellow Grey Warden. Looking up, she sliced through another darkspawn victim and advanced across the field to where he was falling to his knees. She pulled up short at the quarry, the strength draining from her at the familiar face of the man crawling towards them, rank braids matted and darkened with blood. His robes were shredded and his face was marred with a long gash down his cheek, but despite his haggard looks there was no mistaking him.
"No.." The whisper was through lips that could have told a thousand tragedies, hoarse and pained. "No.. no, that's not right.." Alistair trembled with fury at the injustice of it, and she hesitated before lightly placing a hand on his shoulder. He flinched back, doubling his grip on his sword, before slumping onto his haunches. "It's.. not.." The sentence hung in the air as the man threw his arm forward, hauling himself closer, purchasing more grip, more ground beneath him. Behind them, Morrigan leant on her staff, glaring at the monster of a human.
"I take it you know him," she asked sharply. Alistair could not even nod.
"Yes, we do." Her own voice sounded hollow. Morrigan sniffed.
"So? He is past saving now, kill him and let us move on swiftly. The horde themselves may still be around, and I do not have a care for Grey Wardens who linger only to die."
"Shut up," she growls. "Just.. give him a moment." And it was him, not her, who stood suddenly, wiping his face with the back of his hand and choking out an apology. He does not think he is strong enough, not for this. The monster edged forward, inching closer.
And then the head raised, and a single word croaked out of those not-quite-human lips into the still air, and she was sure that it was taking every ounce of effort just to keep the monster inside at bay.
"Alistair." The Warden shook, rage and terror and anguish coursing through him. The sword in his hand trembled, and his grip slipped, just a little. His shield arm was limp at his side, and his face was streaked with blood spatters and tears as he looked upon the abomination of humanity before him.
"Don't," he whispered. "Just.. don't." The voice was stronger now, a certain conviction that was formerly lacking now firmly in place. "Don't ask me to.. just don't." In front of him, dark brown eyes begged for release, the only weakness that he would ever see in them. And what weakness.. such a heart wrenching sight she would never see again in her lifetime – the man who once stood shoulder to shoulder with kings, fighting an eternal darkness and begging for oblivion. Alistair stood above him, pushed beyond what his soul could endure, and found himself unable to provide the being with peace.
"Alistair," she murmured, but her voice dissipated into nothing, and her gesture was left unheard. In front of him, a hand reached up to grasp the blade of the sword.
"You must.." the gasped voice insisted. "I will.. not.. turn.." And then the grip released as the body convulsed, all arching back and jerking limbs and a scream that came from the depths of hell itself, the sheer wretched agony piercing her very being til she thought that she herself was past endurance, would succumb to the call of the Taint itself -
He shot forward, just once. A clean slice that skewered the throat and pierced the heart, and it was done. The beast who was once man crumpled. She inhaled sharply, clutching at her chest, as Alistair wiped his sword on the grass, eyes as dead as the lifeless flesh before him. Behind them, Morrigan continued to watch impassively.
"What was his name?" she asked suddenly, and Alistair straightened up, gazing at the corpse silently.
"Duncan." The name slipped from her lips unexpectedly, and without warning she burst into tears. Dropping her weapons, she fell to her knees and wept into her hands for the man who had brought her into this life kicking and screaming, but ultimately for the greater good. Beside her, the devoted student pulled her into a tight embrace, his own sorrow echoing through his ribcage and surrounding her. She sunk into the crook of the splintmail, throwing her arms around him. His eyes were screwed shut as hot tears raced down his face and fell into her collar. The air around them was silent, save for the jagged sobs that escaped her throat.
"Are we quite done here?" The question bolted through the silence like a dagger, and Alistair treated it as such, jerking his head up sharply.
"Shut up." Despite the crack in his tone, it was not a suggestion. "You know nothing – NOTHING of what we have lost in the past few days. So keep your snide attitude to yourself and leave us for five minutes." His fists clenched around the loose fabric within his grasp, and his voice hardened as he continued. "You dare suggest that we do not have time for such foolishness, or.. or ANYTHING like that right now, and I swear I will cut out your harpy tongue and leave you for the darkspawn. Are we clear?" Morrigan did not move an inch, but nodded briefly and turned away to search for any signs of incoming attacks. Alistair's head slipped back down to rest on hers, and he sighed deeply. "Let us.. let us have this," he whispered, voice cracking just a little.
And in the harsh light of sunset, there was nothing but mourning for Duncan, the man who did not turn.