So…how to explain my absence? My University thesis was one major stumbling black after another, but I finally got it finished on the 25th of May! And my first order of business with my newfound freedom was to resume this epic journey, as I don't want to leave all of you hanging forever.

Well, it seems my last chapter caught pretty much everyone unawares, as I hoped :) As ever, my love goes out to those who reviewed: Melysande, Eve Hawke, WhitewaterWolves, Pint-sized She-Bear and Anastasia Lazerbeam.

Disclaimer: I do not own DA:O or any of its characters. I do however own all of my own characters and my own little nation of Nileesa.

Chapter 43: Hanging By A Thread

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. Please let this end for both of us; I can't keep this up for much longer. Maker, forgive me, I never meant for this to happen. Spare her the pain I know awaits, don't let him win. Take her away from it all and give her peace. Please, Maker. I beg of you, spare her."

Arria's eyes snapped open at the pleading words which continued to ring through her head, even when the dream itself ceased. A dream? No, they were spoken to me in reality, I just know it. The images teased at the edge of her mind, flashes coming to her in waves as the begging intensified in volume. She shook her head slightly and shut her eyes, trying to hang onto the remains of the dream before it slipped away. It struck her how strange it was to try and cling onto such painful times but she wanted to remember. Despite it having led to such a devastating result, she wanted to know the truth: she had learned all too well that the truth may cut a deep wound, but then there was no doubt as to the sequence of events. No ifs, no buts. That was how it was, and she could move on knowing that was how fate played out.

Arria turned her head slightly to see that Alistair was still asleep, his deep and steady breathing undisturbed by her sharp awakening. She managed to turn slowly in his hold, choosing instead to bury herself in his strong arms and listen to his heartbeat. The sound caused her ragged breathing to ease and her own racing heart to slow, giving her the comfort that only he could. His arms instinctively tightened around her and she couldn't help but smile at the security the gesture gave her: even in his sleep he knew she needed reassurance and protection. For more minutes than she dared to count she lay there in his embrace, listening to the proof that he was still there with her. She managed to bring one of her hands up between them and lay it over his chest, feeling the strong beat beneath it and her smile faded slightly. Morrigan's words of earlier reminded her of the stark reality: it might as well have been an illusion for Alistair was technically dead, and it wouldn't be long before he was gone forever. Unless she could find some form of magic which would give him his own life-energy again, he was going to waste away in front of her very eyes.

The thoughts of Alistair's upcoming demise combined with the images combined with her dream were too much for Arria and she felt the need to get away. As much comfort as Alistair brought her there was only one other person who could empathise with her at the moment: the man who she had shared her living nightmare with. She slipped out from the tent without disturbing Alistair and searched the camp, knowing he should be on the second watch with Leliana. As her eyes continued to scan the camp her thoughts kept tossing furiously. Why? Why, why, why, why? How much more must I endure before I finally break? As if the knowledge I possessed before was not enough…Now I must deal with this as well. A hand moved to her abdomen absentmindedly, bringing with it a dark hole of pain as a few silent tears slipped down her cheeks. The one thing I wished for, the gift stolen from me because of my new fate…All this time I had never known I once carried a child. A little girl- A sob caught in her throat as she thought of the moment she had shared with Ciéra: of a baby in her arms and the tear in her heart widened as the thought of her lost daughter. Cassana…

The great crevice of grief within began to grow deeper and take root, causing her search to become desperate. After what seemed like an age, though it was not more than half a minute in reality, her eyes eventually fell upon a figure sheltered in the trees. He was looking straight at her and though she couldn't see into his eyes, she knew the pain which would be haunting them. Without giving it a second thought she raced towards him and into his outstretched arms, sobbing her heart out.

Lyle encircled her in his hold, understanding at least some of her pain. He was surprised that she was seeking a physical source of comfort, from him least of all; though deep in his heart he knew he needed just as much reassurance from her as she did from him. They were virtual strangers to each other yet they were united by her captivity, and the devastating results. It was only now that Lyle realised just how little they knew about each other personally: he had been one of her guards and had he not taken such an interest in her when Howe first ensnared her, she would have been one the many others he had seen perish in his dungeons. There had been six girls before Arria that Lyle had seen suffer, none of them lasted more than two weeks before they either found a way to kill themselves or Howe grew bored and slew them himself. What Lyle had found amazing was Arria offering herself in place of another and somehow, in the beginning, it seemed Howe's usual treatment barely troubled her, such was the immense grief in her soul. That strength and suffering was what had driven him to earn her trust and show her there was some kindness in the world. His mind turned back to the day she had finally opened her heart the smallest amount, and he first caught a glimpse of the amazing woman before him.

Lyle's eyes strayed past the other guard standing opposite and fell upon the limp and bloodied form in the cell across from him. Her body was bruised black and what remained of her clothes were shredded beyond all recognition. The floor was slick from blood which had escaped from her many wounds and the paleness of her skin stood out starkly from the streams of red as well as the dark blotches. From all outward signs it appeared she was already dead, though from the slight rise and fall of her torso he could see it was not so. Her screams continued to echo in his head from her torture and it still chilled his blood to think of what she had survived: it almost seemed cruel that she had lived through it to feel the after-effects. The worst thing was that it was just going to start all over again tomorrow.

The other guard yawned loudly before addressing Lyle. "I'm heading for a bite to eat, there's no point in two of us watching her: she's half-dead anyway. I'll be back in an hour or so." The young knight nodded in acknowledgement as his colleague left, waiting until the footsteps died away before he made his way closer to the cell. It turned his stomach to see the damage wrought upon the young woman within and as he took a better look he saw the slightest tremor to her breathing. His heart ached in sympathy and anger, knowing she didn't deserve to be a victim of Howe's sadistic game. After giving one last sweep of the area to check he really was the last person there he retrieved the keys to her cell and opened it up. He knew there was no way he could manage to sneak her away but he was resolved to try and help her any way he could.

She curled in on herself slightly when the steel door creaked open, causing him to pause and walk slower. Lyle hadn't expected her to be awake and aware, though given the extreme pain she must have been in, it wasn't that surprising. He knelt down slowly and removed his gauntlet before pressing the back of his hand against her arm. A small shudder ripped through her and she whimpered quietly as Lyle tore his arm back, finding her ice cold to the touch. He dashed into a neighbouring cell to grab two extra blankets and found two healing poultices from the cabinet at the end of the room before returning. She flinched yet again when she felt something make contact with her skin but eased when she realised it was fabric being wrapped around her prone form. Another was soon placed on top of it as she saw a knight come to sit in front of her.

Lyle couldn't help but gasp when he saw her face: her left cheek was sunken in from repeated punches breaking the bone and her nose was out of alignment. It was her eyes which cut the deepest however – empty and soulless. It took him a few seconds to regain his senses and offer the healing poultices to her. "Here," he spoke softly, holding them just in front of her. Her eyes moved up to meet his and though they showed absolutely no emotion, her gaze felt like it was boring down to his very soul. "Please, take them. I mean you no harm."

She stared at him continuously for several seconds before she replied, though she never moved. "Why?"

"Why? Because you don't deserve to go through such pain, no human does. You aren't a 'toy' as the Arl so often likes to call you. Given that you are only here because you volunteered to take a young girl's place and probably saved her life, it seems so cruel for you to endure this."

It was the best part of half a minute before she timidly stretched out an arm to take the offered items and it didn't escape Lyle's attention that her arms were shaking from even that small amount of movement. Using what little of her strength remained she managed to tear the top off one using her teeth and swallowed the contents as best she could while keeping the other one back. Lyle noticed her hoarding of the second poultice and spoke gently again. "Do you know of place that you can hide that? We don't normally come in anyway but it can't hurt to be sure." She nodded and pointed him towards the left-hand wall. When he approached it he saw some of the bricks were held in place only by rags wedging them in and removed them one at a time, revealing they were in fact hollow. Inside were scraps of food and a waterskin which was all but empty; Lyle's gut clenched as he realised she had been saving what little water she was given in the vessel to consume when she needed it most, it was little wonder she was as grey as she was. Filling it up with the contents of his own waterskin he replaced the items and the bricks as carefully as he could, making sure they were just as he had found them. In the time it took for him to turn around again he found that she had managed to sit up and rest against the wall, bringing her legs within the warmth of the blankets provided.

Lyle returned to sit in front of her and was surprised at the soft acknowledgement she gave. "Thank you." His curious eyes met hers as she swallowed on her instinctive fear at having another so close for such a length of time. "No-one else has even given me a second glance, let alone helped me here. I don't recognise you."

"That will be because I have never been present during one of the Arl's…sessions. I am merely a guard."

"It hasn't stopped many of the others taking their turn before they hurl me back in here. Why don't you seize your chance? Especially given as I can't really fight back at the moment."

His face visibly paled, even in their dim surroundings, and she could see him fighting back against the bile sitting in his throat. "I could never do such a thing: I would never force that upon a woman. Such an act should only be consented to, never used as it has been against you."

Some of the deep distrust and suspicion melted from her gaze as the smallest flicker of life came back to settle in her eyes. "You aren't like the others."

"I would certainly hope not, they are all vile."

Unable to stop herself from opening up to the man who had shown her kindness, she couldn't help but pry. "So why are you here?"

"My father owns some lands in Arl Howe's territories but his true allegiance is to Teryn Cousland of Highever. In an attempt to stop the Arl from suspecting where his loyalties lay he offered me in service as a knight. I must admit, Amaranthine itself I quite like. The castle however…that is a horror no-one in the city can truly understand."

She smiled the faintest amount at his tale, enjoying the brief company. "Thank you…I-" She cut herself off, finding herself too uncertain to ask for the knight's name.

He saw her awkwardness and smiled, finding his curiosity grow as to her identity with every minute he spent in her presence. "Lyle, and what of you, my lady?"

Her eyes met his for the first time with a sense of identity. "Arria, I am Arria."

He smiled at the memory and she noticed his hold tighten the smallest amount. Pulling back to ask about the change he placed a single finger over her lips before brushing away the last of her tears, taking special note of how she didn't flinch at all. "Oh what a way you have come since that day you opened yourself to me," he mused, admiring the shy smile which came to her face. "As I watched you endure everything the Arl threw at you, I couldn't help but wonder what tragedy had given you such strength. Now knowing all that I do I cannot help but be enchanted by the change within you."

Arria blushed at his praise and brushed away a stray hair. "When I was eventually freed by the Wardens I was but a shell: hollow and fragile. It is the sense of belonging they gave me again, as well as this journey which has begun to rebuild me."

"It is more than that, Arria. You might have opened what was left of your heart to me back in Amaranthine but things are very different now. Not only have you begun to piece it back together again, but you have entrusted it to another; the woman I first met in the dungeons could not have managed that." He opened his mouth to continue but closed it again, struggling to find the words. Arria looked at him curiously and when his eyes met hers again, heavy with emotion, she wondered what could be on his mind. "What made you open up to him? What was it about Alistair that gave you the courage?"

She watched his body language closely, wondering if this was a some form of jealous reaction, but she detected nothing. There was no sign of anything like that, only curiosity. Letting loose a small smile she turned her mind back to the day they met, to the day both their lives changed forever. "I was terrified when I first arrived at Ostagar: I was thrust from the cells beneath the castle in Amaranthine into the heart of an army, most of whom were men. Given my experience of Ferelden until that point, I didn't know who to turn to. Duncan might have rescued me but I knew I couldn't use him as a shield; that would give away everything to those who surrounded me and I couldn't bear anyone to know my shame.

"Alistair…I don't know why but from the start I felt I could at least stand beside him without any reaction, and I somehow knew he wouldn't ever hurt me. I guess it was his openness, and maybe his naivety, that earned my trust. When we set out into the Korcari Wilds I was still wary, but he kept on finding ways for me to open up slowly. I even managed to accept his touch, something which had I never thought I could do and to my utter amazement I never even gave it a second thought at the time. His kindness won me over long before I consciously noticed it, and I think something began between us even then. We were two lonely souls which found comfort in another just as empty and desperate for a friend as the other. There was always an intimacy of sorts I guess you could say: it just seemed natural to allow him so close and I could not explain to you why." She paused as she came to a revelation. "Somewhere deep inside I must have felt for him from the very beginning, otherwise I don't know why I ever let him see all the way to my soul."

Lyle smiled gently as he watched her remember the early days of her freedom, seeing her turn through all the emotions as she recalled them. He laughed lightly at her sudden discovery and brushed his hand against hers briefly, breaking her musings. "I am glad, and I hope that the two of you find every happiness in the future. You will certainly have earned the right to a life of peace after all of this is over." Seeing her so relaxed in his presence warmed his heart and he hated to bring down her happy mood, but there was one question he needed to ask. "Arria, you now know the truth about what happened in Amaranthine…and the tragic consequences. My question is…will you ever tell him the truth?" Her eyes widened impossibly and a small squeak escaped her throat as she tried to suppress her feelings on revealing such a thing to Alistair. "Hear me out, please. Our daughter was a gift stolen away from us, even though we were never given a choice about her conception. The knowledge is crushing your spirit, I can see it, and no doubt Alistair will be able too. Do not shut this away, Arria. I learned to cope on my own as I had no choice, but you have someone you can share the burden with- No, who you need to share it with. What happened has huge ramifications for your relationship too, for when you reach the stage of a conceiving a child by choice this time."

Arria felt her heart tear even more and Lyle saw it on her face: he had unintentionally torn at the deepest wound to her soul and before he could stop it she turned and fled from the camp, not sparing another glance. She wasn't angry or resentful towards Lyle for what he had said – he didn't know that she had lost all chance of becoming a mother for real when she became a Grey Warden – but with all she had been forced to accept… It's too much. I need to get away, I need to stop feeling for a little while.

Lyle thought about calling out to her as she snatched her daggers and sprinted into the darkness but thought it best to leave her, knowing she would be unstable at best. His fears were eased slightly when he saw Carou take off after his mistress, Hallai following her mate into the night a few paces behind, but it did nothing to ease his guilt. "I'm sorry, Arria," he whispered to the space from which she had sped away, cursing the unfairness of it all before going back to his watch, unaware of the silent audience to the events.

With confusion, sadness and a twinge of jealousy settled in his heart, Alistair gathered his gear and set off to follow her trail. He didn't know what had just occurred between Lyle and Arria but he wasn't going to leave her out in the dark alone: he'd promised her to do everything he could to guide her through her suffering and he couldn't back down now. Nothing could make him change that pledge. Arria…what's just happened to you?

Harder, faster. Harder, faster. Harder, faster. Arria's chant continued in her head as she continued to push herself to her limits, launching wave after wave of her Spirit magic before attacking the trees as if they were her mortal enemies. Her Song was at full power and the heightened senses were acting very much as a double-edged sword: she could push herself that much further, but she was feeling that searing pain within her soul all the more. She had barely a second's warning before two Mabari launched themselves at her, forcing her into a last minute dodge as she counterattacked. Hallai ducked away while Carou met Arria halfway, teeth bared and just catching his mistress' arm as she landed a crippling blow to his ribs. The brown Mabari crumpled in a heap as Arria recoiled hissing, the gash along her arm not bleeding too heavily, but it was a severe tear to the skin and would no doubt scar. Not content with just that she returned to kicking the trees while practising her Spirit magic, determined to hone her skills. I have to do something, I have to make this stop.

The agonising burn at the back of her neck gave her a moment's pause but she soon ignored it and continued her rampage against the surroundings, paying little heed of the warning. She knew she was reaching dangerous territory but she didn't care, she would give anything to stop the pain in her heart. Images of her captivity melded with her journey as a Grey Warden to clash and sent her mind into even deeper spiral; humiliation and achievement, despair and happiness, agony and joy…I'm going to break and I can't stop it- her thoughts were cut off as the energy in her body was suddenly sapped away, a strangled cry escaping her as she collapsed to her hands and knees. She dragged in air desperately as the inferno at the back of her neck finally eased, allowing her to think slightly clearer. It took the best part of a minute for her breathing to even out and as it did the tingling sensation of her Mark finally took over her full attention.

Never break the seal, Arria. If you do, you might be lost forever.

Garros' foreboding words came to her and she buried the pain as much as she could, knowing that she was treading a very fine line. A hand found its way to her Mark and she felt the energy radiate out from it, thanking the Maker for her body's natural defence mechanism. Had it not given out momentarily she would have lost complete control, and she could not afford for that to happen. There's no-one who could stop me, and I won't let the last memory of my people be me becoming a monster. I can't let that happen…

As Arria tried to calm her thoughts Carou was still trying to get back to his feet unsuccessfully, Hallai making her way over to help her mate. A gentle rustling of leaves alerted the black Mabari to a spectator and spun to protect both Carou and Arria, but upon seeing the intruder she relaxed and went back to assisting the other hound. Alistair petted both of the Mabari before taking a brief look at Carou, unable to stop himself from wincing when he got a pained howl in response to his gentle probing. "That must really be hurting before you'd admit it, boy," said the Warden softly, fetching some bandages out of his pack to wrap around the offending area. He only went around a few times, but Carou's whimpering lessened slightly as a result. "Take your time in getting back up, I know just how painful Arria's blows can be too."

Now that the Mabari were taken care of he turned his attention to his fragile companion. She was kneeling down with her arms wrapped around herself, trying very hard to avoid his scrutinizing gaze. Alistair had been witness to much of the events, watching her slowly lose control more and more in an effort to escape the pain but it was not her actions which held his concern: it was her Mark of the Tamer. It had steadily been growing brighter, going from a dull pink shine to a vibrant beacon of light and seemed to be getting more intense as she pushed herself further. He had seen it glow before, but not to any level such as this and he knew the timing was no co-incidence; somehow that mark tied into her actions, but he didn't couldn't even begin to fathom as to why.

Arria stood soon after, continuing to stare away from him as she fetched her daggers, embedded deep within a single tree which looked as if it had been mauled at by a wild animal. Alistair waited patiently as she regained what little of her composure remained, knowing that to push when she was so unstable could have drastic consequences. Once her blades were sheathed she finally faced him, allowing him to see into her eyes for the first time, but it wasn't necessary. The look in his own gave everything away: he'd felt everything through the projection of her Song and he now realised just what it was she was fighting through. Not knowing he was there allowed him to see everything lain bare, and the darkness in his eyes told all the tale they needed to. It scared her slightly to know he had felt it all, but before she could retreat he stepped closer and held her gaze intently. Under his steady gaze she let go of her fear and instead sought the shelter only he could provide, throwing herself into his arms.

Alistair caught her and held her gently as she gripped him desperately, feeling the shudders rip through her, though he could not tell whether it was from the emotional outpouring or the memories being so close. Arria breathed him in as deep as she could, the familiarity and comfort giving her the anchor she needed to rein herself back in. The tenderness of his hold and the softness with which he whispered affectionate words into her ear spoke volumes and she realised it probably wasn't such a bad thing for him to know the emotions swirling in her head; he might know what she was feeling, but he didn't know why she was going through such a whirlwind. The immense grief and sadness she felt due to Cassana she could blame on any multitude of things, it wasn't as if she was short of reasons. He could not know. Not yet…

He pushed her away slowly, allowing her to regain her confidence slightly before looking at her again. "I don't know what has triggered this Arri, and I know you aren't ready to share: I can see it written all over your face," he started, watching as guilt flickered through her gaze briefly. "I ask only one thing. Don't shut me out forever, sweetheart. I'm more than willing to bear the burden with you, but I know it has to be your choice to let me in. That's what you have now, the freedom of choice. I'll wait however long it takes, I'll do whatever you want me to do, but I'm here. You aren't alone anymore and I'm right here waiting."

His words threatened to make her heart burst with love and she couldn't help but draw him into an emotion fuelled kiss, pouring all she could into it. He sensed the pain in her response and this time held her tighter, willing her to let it all out in an effort to help her heal. This was the most shattered he had seen her since they had met and it broke his heart to know he couldn't do more; only Arria knew how to bring herself back from the edge, and he had to believe in her to find a way. When she finally broke their embrace she allowed him to see her conflicting emotions and struggled to find her voice again. "Thank you," she choked out, the emotion thick in her words.

He pressed another kiss to her forehead as he smiled warmly, earning a shy version from her in reply. His hand drifted to the back of her neck and she knew before the words even left him what was coming. "I hope this won't be too prying, but can I ask you about what's happened to your Mark?"

"I take it you mean the glow?"

"Yeah, I've never seen it do that before."

"The Mark of the Tamer takes on a colourful hue when a Nileesan is in a highly emotional state. I don't mean something like upset or angry or anything like that. It has to be something extreme, feelings so powerful that the person's sanity is hanging on by a thread. The Mark glows in response as a warning mechanism to not only its owner, but also those around them."

"A warning of what?"

"Nileesans are dangerous, Alistair. You've never seen just how powerful we are, and how deadly we become when we lose control." And I pray you never do.

"I'm still not understanding."

"I will explain further another day, I don't think I can go on without my emotions cracking again right now. This is not me shutting you out, I just don't trust myself not to lose it. When I have regained at least some control, I will tell you everything, I promise." He nodded in response, knowing she was telling the truth. "Will you take me back to the camp?"

"Of course, my lady." As he bowed before her Arria giggled and smacked his shoulder lightly, earning a chuckle back. Her gaze then turned to the pair of Mabari approaching them and she knelt before Carou, hugging him. "I'm sorry, Carou. I didn't mean to hurt you."

Carou barked once and nuzzled Arria, indicating she was forgiven. Alistair smiled and petted both the hounds, earning contented growls from the pair. "Why were they lunging at you?"

"I asked them to, knowing that Mabari are very tough and can take great pain. The trees could only give me so much, I needed a living aggressor to push myself as hard as I could."

"And you couldn't have asked me?"

"Not this time, I couldn't risk you being hurt as a result. I lost pretty much all perception of the outside world and I couldn't distinguish between everything I was seeing." Her eyes drifted to the tree behind her as she continued. "And I think you can see the evidence of what might have happened had you been here."

He picked up on her not-so-subtle hint and bit back on the words on the tip of his tongue. Deep down inside he knew that he couldn't yet face up to Arria when she was absorbed within her Song: she was just too powerful. It was strange to see the power she could wield, never having known a single being to be capable of all that. What was worse though, was that he knew it was a mere fraction of what she could do. If her mind was clear of distractions, she could cause a great deal of damage. If it were anyone but Arria with that power, I'd be seriously concerned. At least I know she would never hurt another person out of choice, but she is too caring for that. How she can hold such light after all that son of a bitch put her through I will never know…

A single hand caressed her cheek and she leant into his touch, surrendering willingly when he pulled her in for another kiss. Arria knew what Alistair wanted to do and she yearned to feel their connection physically. It was very much a double-edged sword but with her soul already lain bare it barely bothered her to now bare her body. There would be no pushing of the boundaries but she needed to feel the joy of their slowly approaching union. As Alistair led her away from the clearing she tried to push away all the despairing thoughts and concentrate on the man before her. He had pulled her out of every darkness so far, and she prayed he would somehow inspire her again. This time more than ever, she needed his help. One more step backwards and the thread she was clinging onto would snap, sending her on a dangerous spiral downwards. It wasn't just herself she feared for then: it was all those around her too.

The next morning brought the group to the market town of Silverfalls, a community of traders that was continually changing hands. While the people kept switching, the one constant was the spectacular backdrop of Ferelden's largest natural waterfall. At the water's base stood the central trading area, where people bustled around as space became free in front of each stall, while the stalls continued all the way up the hill to where the many inns stood. It was Ferelden's hidden gem: sheltered from all the devastation of war, it was the one place still safe from harm. Soldiers of all the lords of the Bannorn went about their business paying no heed to others, knowing the law of the town very well. Any troublemakers were chased out or killed by the mercenaries hired by all the traders. Drawing weapons was forbidden without special permission and most were asked to leave them behind in their lodgings, not even taking them out into the open. It made for one of the safest communities currently in Ferelden, but with the Blight looming the Wardens knew they would have to change the situation. The people of Silverfalls needed to know what was coming, and to know it would be upon them soon.

Their arrival in the town was barely noticed but as they began to move through into its heart, the mixed nature of the group began to catch more than one set of eyes. Alistair and Arria shared a quick gaze, knowing they would soon be approached and nodded at the rest of their companions, warning them of the company they would soon be having. Sure enough, not even two more minutes had gone by when they were stopped by a band of twelve mercenaries. No weapons were drawn but from the way they surrounded the Wardens' group, their intent was clear. Both Arria and Elissa had to keep a close eye on their Mabari to make sure they didn't act impulsively: if they couldn't convince the peacekeepers of their intentions, then they would have no choice but to leave.

"Halt, strangers," spoke one of the men. Arria gave him a quick glance and figured from his embellished armour that he was the leader. "What brings you to this place?"

Both the Wardens stepped forward from their group and approached him. "We mean you no harm, good ser," started Arria. "We seek safe lodgings for two days and to help you."

That earned a raised eyebrow from the leader. "And what possible aid could you provide us?"

"We are Grey Wardens," answered Alistair, earning a few mutterings from the other men. He shared a quick look with Arria who nodded back at him: no weapons had been set upon them yet, that was a good start. "I'm sure by now you've heard about our journey across Ferelden. The Blight is coming and we need to fortify ourselves against it. While your force here is great, there is much more that can be done to protect those dwelling here against the darkspawn. I don't suppose you have heard anything as to the whereabouts of the Blight, have you?"

Several of the mercenary group looked between each other before the leader waved them off. The band suddenly dispersed with the men returning to their usual duties. Once they were alone, the leader spoke to them once more. "So, even the mighty Grey Wardens don't know?"

"Know what?" asked Arria. She had the feeling that this news wasn't going to be good.

"There has been a steady stream of darkspawn attacking for the past week. The groups haven't been large, but they have done some damage to the south side of the town and killed a few people. Our numbers are enough to protect the town within the walls, but out in the open we are vulnerable. All we have been to do is fend them off, we haven't really had the chance to strike back. Worry is starting to take root in those who dwell here; we know we can't defeat these beasts should they mount a full-on assault. It has been the same in many of the villages that surround this area, and the lords have finally begun to stop squabbling between themselves and fight back, but I fear it may be too little too late."

"We can put your mind at ease somewhat. The vast majority of the darkspawn have retreated to Lothering and there are only a few pockets around this area, with the largest group being about fifty large. I'm sure with our help we could fortify the town against a force that large. How many of your men had prior experience with fighting the darkspawn?" inquired Alistair.

"None. It has been a very steep learning curve."

"Then we can help with that too. We can dedicate part of our group to the town's defences while we teach your men the best tactics for the darkspawn. That is…if you wish for out help?"

He finally cracked a smile and offered his hand to the male Warden. "Your group coming here is the best news I've had in over a month. Anything you can do to help will be greatly appreciated."

With the shaking of hands the promise was made and the Wardens' group dispersed. Elissa and Rod took Mellia with them and went to escort Bodahn into town, enlisting the help a couple of the town's guards to look after the merchant before they began co-ordinating the fortification of the town. Leliana and Zevran went to central plaza, informing the traders of the situation and finding volunteers to help with the construction work before they too went to the city walls. Wynne, Morrigan and Anders set up one training camp to help the mercenaries deal with any Emissaries that may attack with Lyle and Sten started another, specialising in how to deal with multiple attackers at once. Alistair and Arria pulled aside several of the leaders, teaching them all they could about darkspawn tactics and what kinds of enemy they might be facing before challenging them to a fight.

While the number of mercenaries was far greater, outnumbering the Wardens six-to-one, Alistair and Arria's teamwork proved to be the difference. What surprised them was how the men attacked much as the darkspawn did: trying to use their sheer strength of numbers to overwhelm them but it soon became a massacre. Arria used her Spirit magic to beat back some the men while Alistair tackled several others, using his shield to knock a few of them out while dodging their blows. In barely a couple of minutes the mercenaries realised just how outmatched they would be against the darkspawn and poured themselves headfirst into the Wardens' instruction.

It didn't take too long for word of the Wardens' presence to spread through the town and before they knew it the numbers of pupils began to grow exponentially. While both Alistair and Arria were shocked they shared a smile, seeing that the village elder's words had proved true: the people of Ferelden were being inspired to fight by their actions. It wasn't long before they brought together the three training groups, and begun to include Hallai and Carou. The lack of experience of a few of those who had just joined begun to show, but it wasn't long before they got the hang of it.

By the time evening began to take hold everyone was exhausted, but they had the beginnings of true fighting force. The town's guards were now well versed in how to tackle large numbers of darkspawn and were beginning to get to grips with tackling magic, but that was going to be a very slow learning curve. Almost everyone present had never seen a mage before, let alone done battle with one and there was only so much that the Wardens' group could teach them in the short time they would be present. There was one discovery which Anders had made, however, which might solve that problem: a small group of apostate mages were hiding in the town, the only reason he had found them being when one of the youngest had approached him for help. Given time he hoped to convince them to join the town's defences, especially as there were no Templars or Chantry in the town. If he was successful, it would give Silverfalls all it needed to defend herself.

Just as they began to wind down for the night the leader of the guards approached Alistair and Arria with a request. "Everyone here has been impressed by your skills, Wardens, but we know you have been holding back on us. We would like to see your true fighting prowess, if possible." The two of them shared a look, never having fought each other in public before but soon broke out into matching grins. It wasn't long before a crowd had gathered to see the battle between the Grey Wardens, and even their own companions gathered eagerly to witness the clash. It made Arria slightly apprehensive and she was reluctant to go all out with this many people watching, especially as she did want to expose too many of her abilities. She turned her gaze first to her companions, and she received encouraging looks from most of them before she switched to Alistair, who simply nodded. He could see she was afraid of using most of her skills but he was sure that going all out wouldn't make them fearful of her. After all they had achieved today it would surely have the opposite effect and give the people here more confidence of their chances against the darkspawn. If there was any time to give it everything they had and show what power they both contained, then this was it.

Cheering erupted from the crowd and both Wardens smiled at each other before drawing their weapons. Arria was the first to charge in, swinging with both her blades as Alistair ducked and thrust out with his shield. She took the force of the blow and used the momentum to generate a powerful backflip, striking Alistair straight in the chin. He recoiled from the blow and tried to shake it off as he caught her next attack at the edge of his sight. As Arria spun into another kick Alistair bent back just out of range, waiting until her momentum forced her the wrong way before he elbowed her in the back. She tumbled out from the force of the blow and waited to regain her strength, the strike having winded her. Alistair couldn't take full advantage of the lull as he was still dazed from her first kick and was struggling to see straight. It didn't take either of them too long to realise that this fight wasn't going to go very far, both their bodies exhausted from all the activities of the day. It was Arria who recovered first, striking with her blades against Alistair's shield before launching with a flurry of kicks. Alistair barely fended her off with his shield but it was slowly draining what strength he had, and his leg was beginning to give in under the constant strain against his defences.

Arria stopped her assault and saw that Alistair's stamina was giving out. Deciding to go for the killer blow she ran in again, baiting him into attacking. Thinking he had nothing to lose, Alistair poured all his strength into a single blow which missed her by barely an inch, but it left him completely vulnerable. With a new opening Arria drove her knee hard into his stomach and as he doubled over she spun into another fierce kick. The blow hit so well that it threw him off his feet and crashing to the ground. She was about to dive in again when she saw what had happened: Alistair's strength wasn't failing because he was tired, it was because his leg had failed him. "Anders!" she shouted, sheathing her blades and rushing to Alistair's side. Anders saw what her worry was and leapt to their sides, arriving just as Arria got Alistair back to a sitting position. The male Warden was breathing hard and gripped his leg tightly, trying to relieve some of the intense pain within. Arria placed her hand over the offending area and couldn't believe the heat being generated. "Does it always do that?" she whispered.

Alistair shook his head and managed to get an answer out between gritted teeth. "I've only felt this when Anders first healed it. I don't think this is good." The mage set his healing magic to work but the scowl on his face spoke volumes. "What's wrong?"

"You've overtaxed it. My magic can only do so much, unfortunately rest is going to be the best thing for it now. You're going to be out of action for at least the next day and hopefully it won't be in such rough shape," informed Anders.

Alistair growled in annoyance and threw his head back. "You're kidding me! I've taken much worse before!"

"Yes, but not after a full day's worth of fighting before that. It thinks is has all had a compounding effect, and this is the result. Did you feel any strain on it earlier?"

"No, it just happened all of a sudden during that fight."

Anders' face scrunched up in concentration again, which made Arria nervous. "Anders…?"

"This is a new development, and I don't know if it's a good thing or not," explained the mage. "We'd better look at it in more detail once this recovers. You'll be taking it easy tomorrow I'm afraid, Alistair."

"Fantastic…" He shook his head and aimed an apologetic grin at Arria. "This wasn't on purpose, I swear. I really wanted to give you a good fight."

She laughed and kissed his cheek. "We'll make a point of finishing this once you are recovered, okay? I don't think we should let down our adoring crowd either."

He chuckled and needed both the help of Anders and Arria to get back to his feet, at which point Rod came over to take Arria's place as they helped Alistair hobble away. The leader of the guards approached Arria and looked on in worry as the other Warden limped away. "Is he going to be all right?"

Arria nodded. "He will be fine. We've had some close calls along the way here, and Alistair has been left crippled as a result. His leg will give out under too much strain, though this is the worst he's damaged it since he first…got the injury."

"You never would have known from how he fights. Is it painful?"

"He is in constant pain, but it's normally manageable. It's been a while since I've seen it hit him that hard." Mellia ran up to Arria with concern written all over her face. Arria hugged the girl and tried to reassure her as best she could. "Alistair is going to be all right, Mellia."

"Are you sure, Arria?" she asked.

"I'm sure. It'll take more than a stubborn leg to keep Alistair down. Are you okay?"

Mellia nodded and cast a glance back to Elissa, who waved with the hand which wasn't holding onto Ciéra. "Lissa and Rod have taken care of my sister and I all day. It's been good getting to know them a little more. Hearing Lissa's ranting about you and Alistair was quite funny."

That got Arria's attention. "Oh? What was she ranting about?"

"She's just wondering when you two are 'going to make things permanent'. That's her wondering if you two are going to get married right? I didn't know that was possible for…us."

Arria knew what Mellia was getting at and ruffled her hair lightly. "Only those we choose to tell need ever know, Mellia. Alistair knows and that's all that matters."

"But are you two going to get married?"

The female Warden couldn't help but laugh at the excitement in the girl's voice and turned her gaze to where Anders and Rod were helping Alistair up the hill, smiling as she spoke. "Well, if he asks me I certainly wouldn't say no. But that won't happen for a while yet, Mellia. We have a duty to the Blight first."

"That's silly. Can't you get married and fight the Blight at the same time? I mean it's not as if it'll change the worry the pair of you two feel every time you step into battle. And I would…I mean-" Mellia cut herself off, blushing as she finished her sentence. "I like the idea of you two being married. It makes me feel more like…"

"More like what, Mellia?" The girl looked torn as to whether to answer so Arria saved her the trouble. "Besides, neither Alistair nor I are ready for marriage yet…nor what it entails."

"What do you mean?"

Arria didn't want to go into details as to her emotional demons, so just smiled mysteriously. "You'll understand when you're older."

It turned out Alistair's leg wasn't as bad as feared after a solid night's rest and he could at least walk on it again without too much issue by mid-morning. His place was taken by Lyle for the training session with the guards and while he wouldn't admit it out loud, he was unnerved by how comfortable Arria was around him. The two of them were working together seamlessly and given what had transpired between them before, he couldn't help find it strange. Somewhere at the back of his mind the thought persisted that there were maybe some feelings between them but he shook them away, knowing that Arria couldn't feel that way: if she did, he'd have sensed it through the projection of her Song. Despite knowing that, it made for a very uncomfortable morning's watching. He instead turned his mind to the group of darkspawn that had gathered to the south, only a few miles from Silverfalls. The numbers had increased dramatically overnight with more than a hundred now assembled. That could mean nothing good and he made a point of informing everyone at the wall to speed up their efforts, as an attack could not be far away.

As midday rolled past the preparations to the town's walls were almost complete, with a double-lined barricade having been erected around the areas which were vulnerable to intrusion. In an effort to finish it everyone who was being trained was dedicated instead to the construction effort, which gave Alistair the chance to steal Arria away. She went with him willingly, confused at his actions as he seemed determined to spoil her with attention. They ate at a small stall and while Arria was admiring a few of the items on display at a weapons merchant she did not notice Alistair slip away. When he re-appeared a while later Arria found herself being handed a velvet pouch. She opened it and gasped to see a beautiful solid silver bracelet, adorned with three sapphires along its top. As her confused gaze met hers he leant in to kiss her softly. "Is it wrong to spoil you every so often? Think of this as a small thank you for all you've done for me."

"But…I haven't really done anything, Alistair."

"Oh you have, Arri. Once you are feeling more like yourself again you'll be able to see it too."

She stuttered for a few seconds before shyly taking the bracelet. "Thank you, Alistair, but you don't have to shower me with gifts."

"Don't worry, I always want things like this to be special, so I won't make a habit of it. But at least let me do it every so often." Arria laughed lightly, appreciating the attention he was showing her. They were on the way back to the training post when Alistair suddenly went rigid, his breath freezing in his chest. Before she even had the chance to ask what was wrong he managed to refocus on the present. "The darkspawn are on the move. They've grown to huge numbers and are on the way here."

"What?! How far away are they?"

"It won't be long, Arri. We've maybe got an hour at the speed they are moving."

"Maker….we've got to warn everyone!"

The warning sent Silverfalls into a panic, with everyone trying to prepare for the imminent attack. All the merchants and townsfolk were moved up the hill to a more defensible position with a small number of the town's mercenaries. Arria sent Zevran, Leliana, Wynne, Mellia, Carou and Hallai with them as the rest prepared to take a stand at the perimeter. When it came to the Wardens' roles however, an argument erupted. Arria refused to let Alistair anywhere near the fighting with his leg still in a bad way while Alistair was determined Arria shouldn't face the darkspawn alone, especially if the Taint threatened to overwhelm her again. "Arria, there is no way I'm letting you out there on your own!"

"Alistair, you can't fight. I'm not the only one who won't let you. If you fight you might damage your leg even worse, and if you push it took far you might lose the use of it. We can't afford for that to happen. All the mercenaries here know how to combat the darkspawn now, we'll manage. If things get too much we will pull back and let the reinforcements handle everything."


"Alistair, please. I will be okay, I promise."

He saw the determined look in her eye and realised this was a losing battle. When his shoulders slumped in defeat Arria knew she's won and went to hug him tightly. His arms wrapped around her with no hesitation and she felt the small tremor which passed through them: it was taking all his willpower to let her go without him there to cover her back. She kissed him lightly and smiled as best she could. "Look after everyone, I'll be back before you know it," she reassured him before running towards the wall.

Alistair looked after her apprehensively but just before he was dragged away by Zevran he was approached by Lyle, who gave him a meaningful nod. "Don't worry, I'll look after her. Trust me." As the male Warden took off up the hill, force to play spectator for once he watched as Lyle caught up to Arria and stayed by her side.

You'd better make sure she comes back unharmed, Lyle. And Arria…please be careful.

So, I'm back! And I've got a surprise for everyone…What is it? Well you'll just have to find out next time, sorry! Until then!

Negative Angel