Throughout the night the army had continued on its march towards Denerim. With each hour, even surrounded as she was by mages and Templars, Wynne caught more snatches of the rumours which rippled throughout the troops. Small details varied but the message remained consistent; Elissa lay in Denerim, wounded but alive.
As dawn began to bleed into the sky, Wynne was able to make out the sight of Riordan sitting above the sea of heads next to the unmistakeable figure of Sten. From her current eyeline, she was unable to see Alistair or Morrigan but she imagined that they continued to ride a little further in front. Wynne did not agree with the treatment Morrigan had received at the hands of the Templars but Alistair's reaction had come as an unwelcome surprise. His casual dismissal of the fragile politics which existed between Crown and Chantry was part of the reason she had remained with the other mages; a conciliatory prize in place of the Witch of the Wilds. And the fact that Alistair and Morrigan now rode together unsupervised caused her no end of concern.
Unable to contain herself any longer, Wynne disentangled herself from the company of younger mages and lengthened her stride so that she fell into step with the Knight-Captain. The man eyed her with a barely concealed disdain.
"It's alright dear," she patted his arm, recognising that to be anything other than the little old woman would result in an unfortunate confrontation. "Would you send word that I wish to speak with the Senior Grey Warden?"
The Templar sneered. "And what would you have to say to a Grey Warden?"
Wynne forced herself to smile. It seemed that the respect she had earned within the Tower did not transfer away from it. She patted his arm again. "I am not as young as I once was, dear. I was hoping he would allow me to ride with him."
The Knight-Captain looked her up and down and she made a point of throwing in a limp. Muttering under his breath, he signalled one of the guards from behind. With a growl, he issued the instruction and the young Templar moved off towards the front ranks.
"You are very kind."
There was a poorly disguised snarl in response. Wynne took it as a signal that their interaction was now at an end. She watched for a sign that the message had been passed to Riordan. Finally the Grey Warden's head turned and she could make out his ever serious expression as he inclined his head downwards so that he could hear the young Templar more clearly. He straightened and twisted round, his gaze flickering across the mass behind him as he searched out the small contingent of mages. Spying their position, he encouraged his horse out to the fringes of the army and trotted down its length until he was level with the Knight-Captain. Wynne raised an eyebrow at the Templar as means of question.
"Do not think you are unsupervised, mage."
"I could never feel safe if otherwise, dear," Wynne murmured as she took her leave.
Riordan noticed her pushing her way towards him and dismounted, holding his horse by its bridle. As she emerged from the ranks, he offered a hand to help her mount. She accepted the gesture, making a point of completing the manoeuvre in as clumsy a fashion as possible. Riordan snorted at what he could recognise as a performance.
"Hush," Wynne murmured, sneaking a look in the Knight-Captain's direction. "Start walking."
Obediently, Riordan began to lead the horse at a suitable pace. Not quite the double march of the army, it was sufficient to allay any fears the Knight-Captain may have had that he was about to lose yet another mage from his possession.
After a few minutes, the Senior Warden glanced back at Wynne. "May I assume this is to do with the ... unexpected... news about Elissa?"
"So the rumour is true. I had feared as much," Wynne sighed, understanding the significance of his phrasing. She doubted that the Senior Warden was aware of everything but clearly it had no longer been possible for Alistair to continue to hide the fact of Elissa's departure. "Riordan, we must talk about Alistair."
A frown settled onto the man's expression, offsetting the guarded one he habitually wore. "What is it you wish to discuss?"
"His relationship with Elissa."
"It is not our place to discuss such matters," he gave a dismissive shake of his head.
Wynne chose to ignore the protest. "He is naive. His love for her eclipses all else and he cannot see past her if she is near. With this news, he cannot be trusted to fulfil his duty either as King or Grey Warden."
"He is not the first Grey Warden to have a heart."
Wynne shook her head as her growing annoyance caused the inflection of her voice to change. "But it is the first time he has given his heart. And he has given it unconditionally."
"You judge him too harshly."
"It is not judgement to understand what motivates another person." Wynne looked out towards the front of the army. From her new vantage point, she was able to glimpse Alistair as he rode beside Morrigan. Despite riding side by side, they did not appear to be speaking with one another. That was some comfort at least. "I once spoke to Elissa about it. I asked her what she would do if she was forced to make a choice between saving her love and saving everyone else..."
The mage's voice trailed off as she realised that just as she had tried to warn her, Elissa had finally been forced to confront the choice she had spent the last year evading. Although Alistair had refused to be drawn on any further details about the child, Wynne was able to piece together the real incentive behind the conception. There was only one who could have brought the Witch and Templar together in such a manner. It seemed Elissa had indeed made a choice. Her subsequent departure, as Riordan had phrased it, also suggested that she had quickly become aware it had been the wrong one.
Riordan looked back at her, sensing that her train of thought had been interrupted. "And?"
Wynne blinked, hastily recollecting herself. "She could not answer."
"What has that to do with Alistair?"
"Her inability to answer at least suggested a conflict. My fear is that Alistair would have no such hesitation."
"He knows his duty."
"It is not enough for him to know it. He must act on it without faltering. He must accept that he stands alone."
Riordan fixed a hard stare on her, allowing the horse to guide his steps for the moment. "Your expectations are unfair. Neither Elissa or Alistair were ever expected to bear this duty alone."
"How can you say that? All were massacred at Ostagar. It is a miracle either of them survived."
"And even more so that both did."
There was something about the way in which Riordan's stare softened for an instant that made Wynne swallow the retort which was on the tip of her tongue.
At her unexpected silence, he allowed a thin smile to emerge. "There is too much grey in my hair for me to believe that their joint survival was entirely ordained by the Maker. But either as the two new recruits they were to the two remaining Grey Wardens they now are, they were never intended to face this task alone. Until this point, they had one another. Now we must help to shoulder some of the burden. Alistair may be without Elissa but he is not alone."
Wynne again looked towards the front of the army. She had been so intent on ensuring that Alistair both recognised and achieved his full potential. A hasty response to Elissa leaving, it remained a necessary one. The decisive action with which Elissa tackled everything had meant it was all too easy for Alistair to fall into the customary follower role he was so comfortable in. Wynne did not regret her actions but now seeing the young man as the figurehead he was for both his country and Order, she realised she had done him a disservice. It was not that he rode in silence with Morrigan but rather that, unsure of himself and his role, he was unable to connect with any of those around him. By withholding her own support behind an insistence that he find his own way forward, she had only succeeded in presenting Morrigan as the one consistent point of reference amongst all else. It no longer seemed so surprising that Alistair had continued to seek out the company of the Witch and extend his protection around her despite their tempestuous past.
"Perhaps there is truth in what you say," she said at last.
"And perhaps there is also truth in what you fear," Riordan conceded, turning his attention back to where he was guiding the horse. "But for the moment, trust in him."
Wynne gave a small sigh. Her trust in Elissa had been poorly rewarded yet there seemed little alternative. "I will try."
As the hours had crept by, Leliana had been forced to endure the sound of Elissa's breathing. Once slow but steady, it was becoming ever more laboured as the air was dragged into the young woman's lungs. At the bottom of the bed, Leliana paced the length of the room as she rolled the handle of the dagger between her palms. The growing terror which permeated the city streets had seeped through the stone walls and was now mingling with the dread that was already present in the small room.
The Bard forced herself to fight for a sense of control. The lightness and quickness of her own breathing was too much of a marked contrast to the woman in the bed and Leliana was struggling to retain her sense of purpose. It was one thing to be the one to end the life of a friend; it was another to be forced to listen as the life slowly ebbed out of that friend. Her growing agitation was preventing her from staying alert. No one had sought her out since the initial alarms had been raised. When she had eventually crept out of the room in search of water and fresh poultices a few hours before, she had found the Chantry to be abandoned. Abandoned in favour of where, Leliana had little idea but she was certain that it was empty of people; of hope; of faith.
She flinched, shutting her eyes in an effort to ward off the thought. The sudden disorientation caused her to stumble and she staggered against one of the many bookcases which lined the walls of the Revered Mother's private room. There was a multitude of dull thuds as books and artefacts toppled to the floor. With a curse, Leliana dropped to her knees and allowed the dagger to clatter to the floor at her feet. Haphazardly, she gathered the most prominent objects and shoved them back onto the nearest shelves. In her distraction she prayed that the Revered Mother would not come scurrying in to see what had happened.
The realisation of the absurdity of the worry made her stop mid movement and she allowed the objects in her hand to drop to the floor. There was a clatter as the wooden decorations rolled about on the stone floor. Leliana rocked back onto her heels and covered her face with her hands. A brief moment to collect herself, that was all she could spare. But in that short moment, an unbidden sob pushed its way up from the pit of her stomach and her shoulders shuddered. In her past life she had spent many an hour watching and waiting for the perfect moment. She had always hoped that both moment and act were completed quickly. But now she did not know what she hoped for.
As she rocked on her heels, the brief moment she had allowed herself stretching on, the whole building seemed to judder. Leliana jerked her head from her hands, body tensed as she held her breath and willed herself to hear. Another shudder travelled through the walls of the building and she heard some commotion from outside. Distorted and muffled, she could still sense the fear that accompanied the noise.
Her hand snaked down to her feet and her fingers curled around the handle of the dagger which still lay on the floor. She drew it up to her chest, cradling it as she slinked across to the bedside. The Bard glanced down at Elissa. Her free hand reached out and stroked the Warden's cheek, fingers tracing down the woman's jaw line. The cool sensation of Elissa's skin against Leliana's warm fingertips brought home the reality of what she had to do and the Bard's grip on the dagger loosened. Fighting to keep her composure, Leliana fumbled the dagger and it fell to the floor. The metal blade causing an almost musical tinkle as it bounced of the stone and skidded under the bed. The sound seemed amplified as it echoed off the walls and Leliaan froze, willing that her fraught nerves were exaggerating the volume. There was a moment of total silence as even Elissa seemed to hold her breath. Then a bang of a wooden door being flung against a wall echoed through the corridors beyond the little room.
Leliana swore and crouched down to rescue the dagger from where it had fallen. True, she did not have Zevran's dexterity with knives but to drop it... Scrabbling beneath the bed, the tips of her fingers brushed against wood grain. She snatched at it and drew it back out. A small figure of Andraste was clutched in her hand. Another object from the bookshelf. With an impatient hiss, Leliana tossed it onto the bed and fumbled about again. This time her fingers found the cold edge of the blade.
A heavy thud from outside reverberated through the stone floor.
Ignoring the sting of the blade as it pressed into her flesh, she wrapped her hand around it and pulled the dagger out. The darkspawn would do worse. Leliana scrambled to her feet. She had intended to slip the blade between Elissa's ribs. A dignified death. But the sounds seemed too near. Her fumble had cost her precious time and only a slit throat would ensure without doubt that Elissa was saved. She bit her lip. Such a brutal act should never be made against a friend.
Leliana glanced down at the dagger in her hand. Her own blood had dulled the reflection of the blade and she forced her grip to close around the handle, she felt the nip as the exposed flesh was pressed hard against it. The sensation of pain grounded her and helped to refocus her sense of purpose. She would not fail Elissa.
She loomed over the body in the bed, her hand leaning on the bedding as she steadied herself. The dip in the blankets caused the wooden statue to roll against her hand. Leliana gave a start before realising what had touched her. With a burst of anger, she snatched it up and threw it against the far wall. The thud of solid wood against stone seemed to echo the pounding of the blood in her head.
She turned back to Elissa and angled the blade below the woman's far ear. One decisive flick of the blade. It was not the first time she had done this but never to one so dear to her heart. She saw the sluggish rhythm of Elissa's pulse in her throat even as she felt the rapid pulsating of her own pulse beating against the handle of the dagger and the inside of her head.
The pounding was causing her to hear her name. But she knew it was only wishful thinking betraying her. It could not be him. Not after all that had happened. Not now.
The sun had climbed from the horizon but was yet to gain height when a muffled groan escaped from Alistair as he absorbed the sight in front of him, drawing his horse to a halt. The city of Denerim finally lay only an hour or so from them. But as they had neared, the seething mass of darkspawn ebbing and flowing against the walls became more prominent as those within attempted to repel the attack of the Horde.
"Courage," Riordan murmured, barely audible over the thud of the horse's hooves and the clatter of the marching army behind them.
The younger Warden reluctantly drew himself up so that he imitated the posture of someone who sat proud on his horse. A hint of a smile pulled at Riordan's mouth as he copied the movement. Morrigan muttered something under her breath before making an exaggerated point of following suit. Alistair raised an eyebrow at her and she scowled, daring him to say anything.
He observed the warning as out of the corner of his eye, he saw the beneficial effect their shared movements had on the army. Man, elf and dwarf all drew their shoulders back and held their heads high; regiments looked to their respective commanders and those commanders all looked to Alistair. The visible sight of the threat they marched against eliminated the hostilities that had so recently fragmented them and they waited for orders.
Despite his apparently impressive stance, Alistair deferred to the Senior Warden. "So... what now?"
Riordan was prevented from answering as both he and Alistair suddenly lurched forward on their horses, clutching at their heads. The call of the Archdemon screeched through Alistair's head, tearing apart any defences he had tried to put in place. But the ease with which the creature had sliced through his mind did not bother him as much as the horrified realisation that amongst the different chatterings, he could make out one or two notes. Discordant and faint, it was still song.
The Senior Warden recovered himself first, forcing himself to sit straight once more and placing a reassuring hand on Alistair's shoulder. Alistair battled with himself to also sit up, struggling to maintain the control which came with Riordan's greater experience.
"It knows we are here," Riordan's gaze flickered across the skyline of the city.
Alistair turned his head and spat out the bile which had filled his throat. He did not want to have to ask the question but he was aware that he did not have the self-control to be able to sift through the different songs for the only one he truly wanted to hear. "What about Elissa?"
The Senior Warden was silent and at first Alistair thought Riordan had deliberately ignored his question. But the man's gaze was hovering in one place as he turned his attention inward to the taint, searching through the confusing mass of sound for a familiar one. Finally, he shifted his gaze onto Alistair. "I do not know. But in uncertainty lies hope."
The words rang empty even to Alistair's ears and he closed his eyes in an effort to suppress the pain which threatened to overwhelm him even more than the call of the Archdemon. In an attempt to distract himself, he waited for the habitual snort to come from the other side of him. When there was nothing but silence, he opened his eyes and frowned at the Witch in confusion. Morrigan was staring out at the city. A flicker of her eyelids revealed she knew Alistair was watching her but she refused to acknowledge him any further. Yet it was the Witch's refusal to dismiss what even he could recognise as a fool's hope which comforted him more than Riordan's well-intentioned words. Alistair turned to face Riordan again and gave a small nod of acknowledgement.
As the sense of purpose returned to Alistair's face, Riordan looked back towards the city. "There is much to be done but let us focus on the city gates. Once we are in the city then we will be in a better position to see how best to defeat the Archdemon."
"Alright." Alistair forced himself to take a steadying breath.
Aware of the eyes of the army focused on them, Riordan made a point of bowing to Alistair as he took his leave for his now assumed role as messenger between King and Qunari.
As Witch and Warden kicked their horses back into a trot, Alistair took another deep breath. He would search for Elissa until the last possible moment; that was not in question. But as much as he wanted to believe in the blind hope Riordan and even Morrigan advocated, the Senior Warden's inability to sense Elissa meant that Alistair had to address his other responsibilities. As unpleasant as the conversation surely would be.
The Witch gave a small grunt of acknowledgement.
He forced himself to simply say the words. If he just spoke them then maybe he would not have to acknowledge what he was saying. "If it becomes apparent that Elissa is ..." Despite himself, he hesitated to say the word. "If she is dead then you must leave."
Whatever the Witch had expected to hear, it was not that. She rounded on him, fixing one of her unblinking stares onto him. At one time, he would have swallowed and wished he had continued with his Templar training. Now he brushed her reaction aside in favour of pressing home his argument.
"We both know you don't care what happens to me. And if Riordan fails and I must face the Archdemon then Anora is still alive for this very purpose."
"You assume much," Morrigan retained her snarling tone but she seemed flustered.
Alistair shook his head. "No, I don't. If Elissa is no longer here then there is no sense in risking the child." He fixed his own hard stare on her. "As much as you hate the fact, it is my child and I want to protect it." There was a brief hesitation before he muttered the next words. "And it's mother."
Morrigan fidgeted at the reins and unable to settle on which emotion to demonstrate, she let slip the detail. "He."
Alistair frowned, thrown by the response.
She already regretted saying it even as she clarified her statement. "The child is a boy."