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They spent many days' worth of sleepless nights trapped beneath the earth with the things that dwelt in shadow, and now that they are under open sky once more, all that they can dream of are the nightmares below their feet.

It's worse for her, Alistair knows; she hasn't yet had the time to learn to control the dreams, to shunt them away unconciously in favor of something less distressing. (Cheese, for example - lovely melty cheese, on thick slices of toasted bread makes a wondrous foil for night-terrors of archdemons, though he would never, ever admit it, even if he had been caught once or twice mumbling about it in his sleep.) But the leader of their little expedition is ever a sturdy woman, or so he believes, friendly and tough as nails and difficult to affect in negative ways, which is absolutely amazing for the morale of her miniature army.

She never shows fear, and she never cries, and he admires her much more than merely in the ways of a man who is head-over-heels for a woman.

This is why he is so put off-balance when he wanders too near her tent one night and hears her sobbing, soft as doves' weeping, Dog laying at her tent entrance, standing guard with half-mast ears.

Dog is easy enough to bribe - Alistair is not the only one in the camp with a weakness for cheese - and though Zevran whistles and Leliana catcalls as Alistair doffs his armor and disappears from view, he is not thinking of them at all. No, his concern is entirely for her, the youngest of them, the best of them, and as he is legging over Dog's bulk his mind is a confused flurry of inaction, wondering if he did something wrong, said something wrong, praying that it is not his fault that she is weeping -

She sits in her tent, head in her hands, and she shrinks away from him when he draws near, hunches herself further into her fingers, as if she does not want him to see her like this.

He does not ask what is wrong. For all her friendly charisma, for all she makes allies and susses out secrets as if she had known everyone in Ferelden from the cradle, she is a private person, and Alistair knows better than to ask. He can be a patient man, when the situation warrants. She'll tell him, when she is ready to tell him, and in the meantime he sits down at her back and draws her against his chest, resting his chin gently against the crown of her head. Her hair smells like wheat and sunshine, and she is trembling very faintly even within the shelter of his arms, her palms pressed to his wrists, hiccuping as she strives to pull herself back together.

"I know why," she says in a broken whisper, when speech finds its courage and returns to its abandoned post in her throat, "there are no female Wardens."

"And why would that be, love?" She is talking, bless the Maker, and he will say anything to keep her talking, the direst pronouncements and foulest curses of his heritage falling from her ruddy lips would be infinitely preferable to hearing her cry.

"Because of what we would become," and there is a ragged edge to her voice when she says that, and her muscles tremor all over in waves, shuddering and shivering, in fear and revulsion.

Oh. He knows what has her upset now. "The broodmother," he mumbles faintly, almost shocked, and though she does not nod or make noise, the quaking of her flesh gives confirmation to it, gives a name to her own personal darkness.

"I've been thinking about it," she gasps out, leaning hard up into his chest and kicking out with her heels, as if she is retreating from some unseen horror and would find sanctuary in his ribcage. "Wardens go into the darkness to die, don't they? To take out as many of the darkspawn as they can before they...." She cannot finish the sentence. She tries another tack, needing desperately to purge this poison from her veins, before it drives her mad. "But the darkspawn do worse things to women than kill them."

Her fingers are bone-crackingly strong against his wrists, but he does not move or think to complain; only he tightens his hold on her in response, a solid anchor for a mind still trapped down in the dark. Something wet and cool blossoms across his skin, and it takes him the span of an uneven heartbeat to realize that tears are once again streaming down her cheeks. Her voice belies it, steadier than the Frostbacks themselves. "We'll go into the Deep Roads together, you and I?"

"Not for some years yet," he manages, and Alistair does not want to think about that, about the pair of them descending hand in hand to Orton Thaig or Bownammar, his armor tarnished and her hair streaked with grey, a legion of uncomprehending friends and allies left desolate in their wake. "Besides," and he puts on a brave face and does his best to smile morbidly into her hair, "mayhap we'll get lucky and the archdemon will kill us all, and the question will never come up."

She laughs, hollow and hysterical, because there are times so bleak that you must laugh or you will break, and she is not ready to shatter, not just yet. He holds her tight while she threatens to fall apart; when her horrid mirth dies away, she turns sideways into him and burrows her face into the side of his neck. Her tears are hot as blood against the pulse in his throat, her fingers twisting and tangling in his linen shirt. "Promise me, Alistair," she whispers for his ears alone, "promise me that if it comes to it, you won't let them take me."

He sees her in his mind's eye now, not the wretched and vulnerable creature in his arms but as a warror-queen, beautiful and dangerous, cleaving over and through ranks of darkspawn like the tide swallows a beach, inexorable, unspeakably powerful. He doesn't think that the darkspawn could take her if she did not want to be taken - but if they managed it, somehow, he knows that the transformation that took the women of Branka's house would not be enough to kill her, not nearly enough.

It forms a chill and heavy knot in the pit of his stomach, the thought that a Grey Warden could become the thing they most hate and fear.

"I promise," he says softly, kissing her hair, his eyes haunted, but his heart staid. He loves her enough to die for her, to live for her, that is unquestioned - and now, he realizes, enough to grant her loving oblivion.

She cries big fat cathartic tears until the morning's light, clutching at his shirt as though he is the last lifeline she has in this world, and he does not even mind that he doesn't get a wink of sleep.