If there's no one beside you
When your soul embarks
I'll follow you into the dark
The silver threaded through her hair shone brightly in the firelight of the tavern, startling him; in his mind and heart, she remained ever the radiant girl, and though his own mirrors showed his advancing years, he never expected to see it in her. It was the third thing he noticed.
The lines on her face told the story of a life he didn't know: lines from laughter, lines from smiles, lines from frowns, lines from blades his shield had not been there to block. They were the second thing he noticed.
Her eyes... her eyes were just as he remembered, full of shrouded mysteries and luminous beauty. They were the first things he noticed.
The king had made no announcement prior to his departure from Denerim, nor given any indication that this trip was any different from any before it. He had honored the secrets and traditions of his Order for half his life. Why then, in death, should he reveal them?
Alistair's scribe had been in his service for many years, and if he wondered why the king felt it necessary to draft succession papers in the prime of his years, and under such secrecy, he did not speak it. "If the need should arise for these," Alistair had told him as he affixed his seal to the parchment, "See that they find themselves in the right hands." The Guerreins' hands, was the unspoken command, for it was Teagan's line that would now carry his crown.
After the queen's third miscarriage, Alistair was forced to concede that the taint was too strong in his blood to produce a healthy child. His smiles and jokes, long since waning, faded away completely for a time and he spent more and more time in solitude, staring from the tower balcony as though the horizon itself might script him an answer. When the queen suggested he seek the expertise of the Circle of Magi in the hopes that someone amongst their healers might offer some remedy or aid, his rejection was so adamant and fierce that she was almost frightened.
And if the queen knew that his despondency was not a byproduct of his sterility, nor a result of his disappointment that his line would be unable to continue, or if she suspected the quiet goodbye he bid her before departing would be the last, she did not speak it either.
"I should have expected to find you here," he said quietly, the noises of the boisterous tavern around them seeming to fade as he dropped into the chair beside her.
She turned her head slowly and met his gaze levelly, no hint of surprise in her expression. She nudged a large mug in his direction. "Yes," she said with a small smile, "Perhaps you should have."
"Clearly..." he paused, inspecting the deep amber liquid within, "Clearly you were expecting me. Or expecting someone... not me. Or perhaps simply feeling especially thirsty?" Not likely, he thought, as the woman he had known drank in moderation, and only on the rare occasion. He recalled seeing her partake only during in times of great celebration or great pain.
And at the last thought, Alistair shoved aside an errant memory of that unthinkable evening following the Landsmeet, of the scent of alcohol and traces of tears that clung to her when she came to his room with the witch's plan, desperate until the end to see his life spared.
She didn't smile at his feeble attempt at humor, nor seem to notice the melancholy that fell directly after. "It is time," she said, her voice a hint lower than he remembered. "I knew you would come."
"Did you?" he asked, unable to meet her eyes now. "Then you had more faith in me than I did."
"Haven't I always?" she asked.
There was no malice in her voice, but the words twisted in Alistair's gut like a blade. Almost thirty years had passed since he stood before the noble houses of Ferelden and rejected her earnest proposal, but his memory of her face in that moment, when hope and faith both shattered, would never fade.
"Yes," he said hollowly after a moment. "Yes, you have."
The head of her gnarled scepter flamed orange in the darkness of the tunnels, the fire licking and crackling greedily, but never consuming.
Her eyes searched the distant halls beyond the cavern, lit by fires that still flickered strangely in the stillness. When they reached yet another crossing, she took a decisive left, and Alistair followed.
"Strange, he mused, "To be following you again after all these years."
She did not look at him or respond.
The ghosts of long-forgotten words seemed to linger and echo in the chambers, and Alistair found his thoughts drifting back, back. The caverns were a hopeless maze to him, but this stretch, it looked so familiar. He was certain this was where he and Oghren had spoken of...
"Do you remember..." he began, but she cut him off.
"Please," she begged, "Please, no more memories. It is a little late for that, Alistair."
He paused, rebuffed. "But they're all we have," he mumbled gruffly, in a voice so low he hoped she didn't hear.
But she did. She always did. "Nonsense," she said, turning to him at last. "You are here, are you not? You are here with me now, at the end, and that has to mean something."
"It would mean more if I had been with you all along," he said, knowing he sounded petulant, foolish, too little too late, and unable to care.
Something flickered across her face, some emotion he could not quite identify. "Perhaps," she said slowly. "But perhaps your absence makes me treasure what little time we have had all the more."
He shook his head, incredulous. "No one can be that selfless. Not even you."
"Alistair!" On her lips his name was a blessing, a curse; an invocation, a plea. "This is all we have," she whispered. "Please don't begrudge me this now."
Of their own volition his hands cupped her face and she pressed herself against him without hesitation, their lips seeking and finding, questioning and answering, giving and taking. His hands roved her back, buried themselves in her hair, and pulled her impossibly closer as they kissed. They were feverish and desperate with decades of unspoken longing and regret, but his heart and body flared at her touch as though it had been only yesterday. This was the deepest pain and the most intense pleasure he had ever experienced. This was an apology, this was forgiveness; this was the original sin and the most profound atonement. This was their love. This was goodbye.
"My heart," he said against her mouth, his voice breaking.
"My love," she replied, with gentle fingers brushing the tears from his cheeks.
They slowly parted moments later, eyes searching and memorizing, hands clutching and lingering, until they broke apart and simply stared. Finally, she nodded towards the forgotten pathway.
"Come then," she said quietly. "Follow me."
When they reached the bridge, she nodded to the force of Legionnaires gathered in wait. As one, they saluted, but made no move to advance. For the Wardens go forward alone.
Alistair could feel the unrest in the hive mind across the great chasm, as the hundreds upon hundreds of monsters skulked about their duties, milled around their fellows, and yearned for a distant, unifying voice.
As yet, they were unnoticed. He had but a moment to wonder what her tactics would involve when she slammed the blunt end of her staff against the solid stone, and a preternatural sound thundered through the cavern before them. An answering rumble came from across the bridge: the darkspawn heard and the darkspawn hungered.
"So we go," she said, watching as the creatures began to trickle from within corridors and behind boulders. "As they come."
He knew. He could feel them as clearly as he felt his own essence, yet Alistair could not look away from her as she gazed upon the gathering horde.
She looked like Andraste betrayed before the flames, resolute and unregretful. She looked like the matriarch he never gave her the chance to be, wise and far-seeing. She looked like a Grey Warden, fierce and ever-constant, a flaming sword against the darkness. She had never been more beautiful.
When she turned to him, her eyes alight with flames, he pressed his sword arm to his chest in a silent final salute. And when she stepped onto the bridge, he followed.