It had been a long day, both physically and emotionally draining. Despite the pouch of ashes marking their success, Elinora was considerably eager to leave the temple ruins and endless caverns behind and return to Redcliffe. They had much to do and precious little time in which to do it. Unfortunately, as they left the temple, not only had dusk already begun to settle in, but leaden clouds were spreading out over them, further darkening the sky.
"We're not going to make it back to Redcliffe before nightfall," the Warden muttered, map in hand as she glared at the sky.
Alistair peered over her shoulder to look at the map; the warmth radiating off of him pulled Elinora back into the moment and she stilled, torn between leaning back against him and taking a step forward to increase the distance between them.
"Hrmm, that's not good..." he said, blowing out a frustrated breath. "I'd hoped we'd be able to make it back sooner than that."
"It would take at the very least a day, given the terrain we have to cover. It's already late – and look," she added, pointing east. "I think we'll be getting fresh snow soon."
"And Brother Genitivi is out there, trying to travel in it?" Leliana asked, alarmed.
"Because Brother Genitivi is an idiot," Elinora grumbled under her breath, too softly for the sister to hear. She was sore, exhausted, and cold. "I say we stay here for the night and start out for Redcliffe at first light."
"Wait." Alistair turned and looked at her fully. "You want to stay here? With all the dead cultists?"
"They're dead, Alistair," Elinora explained patiently. "I sincerely doubt they'll bother you."
"Of course," she went on, smiling brightly at him, "if you'd prefer to set up camp in the elements, you are perfectly welcome to do that. However, we have shelter and fire here already, and I wasn't under the impression your tent was waterproof."
Alistair considered the prospect of setting up camp in the middle of snowfall. "You know, on second thought, if you move out the corpses and throw up a few drapes, this place is positively homey."
"I had a feeling you'd see it that way," Elinora replied, chuckling.
As evening wore on into night, Elinora's companions settled into their own routines. Zevran and Leliana played cards (though Elinora suspected it was more an exercise to discover which of the two had the quickest, nimblest hands); Wynne was reading a book by the fire, while Morrigan had perched on an upper-level landing where another fire was blazing, and she pored over Flemeth's grimoire, as entranced as a child with a favorite book of tales. Sten had set up a perimeter and was patrolling while Alistair dozed lightly by the fire; Elinora let him sleep – she suspected that between the nightmares and the events they'd stumbled upon in Redcliffe, Alistair hadn't been getting a great deal of rest. Shale stood silent watch over them all.
Satisfied that they were settled in for the night, Elinora made her way up one of the enormous stairways. On her way up, she passed Sten descending the stairs and the Qunari inclined his head in at her in tacit inquiry.
"I'm not going far," she assured him.
"It is unwise to leave the site at all," he replied.
"I need to devote some time to training tonight, and I'd rather a private spot in which to do that." Alistair's lessons in the Templar arts had been illuminating – in more ways than one – but using those skills left her feeling drained and Elinora was only too aware she needed more practice.
Sten nodded once, which was as much approval as Elinora might have hoped for, and she continued up the stairs, taking one of the western passageways and following it until the last vestiges of warmth from the fires died away and she felt sharp gusts of mountain wind. This particular tunnel emptied out onto the mountaintop, and the Warden's steps stopped when her boots crunched lightly against dead grass. She could see no signs of the High Dragon that had made its appearance earlier, so she ventured further out, smiling as snowflakes drifted across her nose and cheeks, trudging uphill until she could see the Gauntlet's shadowy silhouette in the distance.
She sat, the intent to practice Templar skills fading, and pulled the Remembrance amulet out from where it rested under her clothes, against her skin. She cradled it in her hands, her thumb rubbing a path over it like a worry token.
Elinora had no idea how long she'd been sitting there when:
"So this is where you're hiding."
She looked up at Alistair, silhouetted in moonlight, and smiled. "It's a nice spot. Quiet. A good place to think."
He snorted and shook his head at her. "A good place to get snatched up for a dragon snack, you mean."
"I don't think she's here anymore – I can't see her, at least."
"You can actually see anything out here?"
Elinora looked out at the terrain; passing clouds cast shadows, making the moonlight ripple across the mountaintop. "Not much," she confessed. "But she didn't bother us on our way to or from the ruins, either. Even if she is out there, I'm not about to go poke her with a sharp stick, if that's what you're worried about."
"I do love your practical streak." He sat. "Want some company?"
She couldn't help but laugh a little. "You're asking me now?"
"Yes, well." Alistair's shoulders lifted in a shrug. Elinora couldn't see his expression clearly enough, but his tone told her he was slightly abashed. "I couldn't find you and started to worry a bit."
"I told Sten where I was headed."
"Funny thing about Sten," Alistair replied dryly. "He's not much for conversation."
"You didn't need to worry; I only wanted a bit of time to think." Her thumb rubbed the amulet the apparition of her father had given her, letting out a deep breath. "He used to call me 'pup,'" she murmured, looking down at the silver glint of metal in the moonlight. "I hated it so much – I thought I was too grown up, too mature for such silly, childish nicknames." She paused, swallowing. "I'd give anything to hear him call me that again."
Alistair didn't say anything for a moment. "I can't imagine what it must've been like, seeing him again."
Elinora's fingers closed around the amulet. "I'm still not sure if it was him. I cannot quite accept that it might have been, and yet, if it was not, I do not know what else he could have been. Perhaps the Veil is thin in that place? Beyond that, I have no idea."
"Maybe you're not meant to know," Alistair suggested.
"This is also a possibility."
A moment or two passed in companionable silence, broken only when Alistair spoke.
"Do you mind if I look at it?" he asked. "The amulet."
She passed it over to him, placing it carefully in his hand, ignoring the tingle that traveled up her arm when her fingers brushed his palm. He turned it over in his hands and then pulled out the painstakingly repaired amulet she had found at Castle Redcliffe, holding them next to each other.
"I hope you'll take better care of yours than I did mine," he finally said, passing the amulet back to her.
"You were a child, Alistair." He only made a face, but did not reply. She watched him out of the corner of her eye for a moment; he was lost in thought, staring at the mended symbol of Andraste. "...Alistair?" she ventured. "May I... ask a question?"
"You do realize that when you ask it like that, I'm almost afraid to say yes, don't you?" He tucked the amulet away. "And yet, I'm going to say yes anyway. Go ahead."
Elinora considered her question carefully. "Do you remember anything of your mother?"
He let out a deep sigh and tilted his head back, staring at the sky. "I wish I did. I try, you know. I mean, surely there's some kind of memory tucked back there, somewhere. I feel as if I should be able to remember something about her, but no matter how hard I try to reach back, there's just nothing there."
"It's hardly your fault now, is it?" He smiled and leaned a little closer. "Don't feel bad for me, all right? I think I turned out pretty well, all things considered."
Elinora found that if she shifted slightly, she could lean against him rather comfortably. She also found that when she did this, Alistair moved his arm just enough so that she was leaning more firmly against him. "I think I would have to agree."
Gingerly, she rested her head against his shoulder. It was... nice.
No, "nice" didn't quite cover it. She let out a long sigh and relaxed against him, tension draining from her body. They sat like that for a few minutes longer when Elinora spoke again. "Do you know, I was very nearly betrothed to King Cailan?"
There was a pause, and she could see him turn his head to look at her for a long moment. "I hadn't thought Cailan was ever betrothed to anyone. And wouldn't he have been a bit old for you anyway?"
Elinora chuckled softly. "It's a rather long story. Evidently my brother Fergus would have been promised to Cailan—"
"If Fergus had been born a girl," she added pointedly, giving him a gentle nudge with her elbow. "It was a casual agreement at best, and when Mother found out she was with child again, the matter came up once more. Despite the age difference, both my father and King Maric agreed it would have been an advantageous match. But not long after I was born, something had changed the King's mind; he told Father that it was ultimately unfair to saddle two children with destinies not their own."
"Your father wasn't upset?"
"As he told the story, he was remarkably sanguine about it." She shrugged. "He wanted me to take over the teyrnir, you see."
"The younger daughter? That's a surprise."
"I think he felt that, had I eventually married Cailan, my talents might have been... wasted. That I would have been reduced to a passive, pretty figurehead." Elinora shrugged. "Fergus had married well – his wife, Oriana, had been an only child and whenever her parents passed away, it was decided he'd..." she trailed off, her throat growing tight. "It doesn't matter now, I suppose."
"I think you would have been quite a formidable teyrna," said Alistair. "Just between you, me, and the dragon."
"Thank you," Elinora replied. She looked up at him, and her breath caught when she realized he was watching her intently.
"So..." he began, then cleared his throat. "What brought all this up?"
Elinora worried her bottom lip between her teeth for a moment before speaking. "...If I had married Cailan, my father would be the Regent right now, instead of Loghain – and this is even assuming that under those circumstances Loghain still would have retreated. He might not have. Things could have turned out so differently, without so much death everywhere."
Alistair fell silent and remained so for many moments. "You don't know that."
Elinora looked down at the amulet, still rubbing the smooth surface. "My father had great respect for the Grey Wardens – he would have been their ally." She swallowed against the tightening in her throat.
"You can't possibly know that, Elinora," he said, twisting to look at her fully. "Loghain may well have still allied himself with Howe, who is as traitorous a snake as any. Given that, he could just have easily quit the field at Ostagar, leaving the Grey Wardens, the King, and, in your scenario, also the Queen's father to their deaths, returning to Denerim just in time to kill the queen, who was probably quite the thorn in his paw – and who, quite conveniently, would not have been his daughter – thus removing that pesky obstacle and naming himself Regent. This is, of course, provided Howe didn't do it in his stead. And after the massacre, I'd probably have wound up piss-drunk in some tavern somewhere along the way, because I'd have been stuck with only Morrigan for company – if Flemeth would have even bothered saving me from the Tower of Ishal, because, to tell you the truth, I think she liked you and your good manners better anyway."
Silence followed, but Alistair didn't pull away, even as the wind picked up, cutting through her cloak and whipping through her hair. Instead, she felt his hands on her, his arms around her and, unbidden, fire that seemed to manifest itself in the pit of her stomach at the very thought of him kicked alight. Her limbs buzzed and her pulse thrummed harder in her veins.
She shook her head slowly, trying to clear that lightheadedness. "I could have made a difference, Alistair."
"Perhaps the you who you are now could have, but do you really think this hypothetical you we're talking about would have the same strengths? And you are making a difference, Elinora. You have. We have."
"It isn't enough."
"Will it ever be enough?" he asked, bringing a hand up to brush away a lock of hair from her face. "People died in Lothering – lots of people, I imagine. We couldn't stop that, but I dare you to ask Sten if your presence there didn't make a difference for him. He is alive today because of you."
"He's alive because I paid a hefty tithe to the Revered Mother," she replied dryly.
Alistair gave a snort and shook his head. "You aren't listening to me. You're saying we haven't made enough of an impact, but with every small step, with every success we enjoy, Elinora, we're adding to the overall impact we're going to have. We're building an army. We are going to fight the Archdemon. And we are going to defeat this Blight. Tell me that isn't enough of an impact. We are making a difference," he said, his voice resonating with certainty, with purpose the like of which she'd never heard from him before.
And she believed him. Every word. The force with which he spoke struck a chord deep within her, and she stared at him a moment, hardly able to believe they'd come from him.
"You are here for a reason, Elinora. We all are," he added softly. Suddenly the moment tilted and changed and she nearly lost her breath all over again for a reason that had very little to do with the mountaintop's incredibly thin air.
"And what reason is that?" she managed, struggling to keep her voice steady, even as she tilted her face up to meet his.
"Maker only knows," Alistair replied, pulling her closer, "but I suspect it's a good one."
As his mouth covered hers, Elinora felt herself slide and tumble deeper into whatever this was that they were building for themselves, knowing the risks and taking them anyway. Her arms slid around him, one hand carding through his hair, the other one splaying on his back before tightening in his shirt. When his hand found the curve of her hip, she moaned into his mouth, deepening the kiss further even as she leaned into his touch. His teeth caught her lip and she gasped, fingers tightening as she held him, pulled him closer, tugged him down. Somehow the earth was suddenly against her back and Alistair was above, warm and solid and real, pressed flush against her, his mouth hard and hot against hers as they fought for dominance in the kiss.
Fire danced in her blood as she arched against him, a deep, keening whimper tearing through her throat. She had not known it was possible to feel like this, but she wanted more. She twisted beneath and moved against him, and when she felt his moan vibrate against her lips she shuddered, hard. Her heart pounded harder and harder, her blood beating a deafening tattoo in her ears.
... A deafening tattoo that seemed to be getting louder.
And as it got louder, it sounded less like a pulse out of control and more like the beating of large, leathery wings.
It didn't matter who broke the kiss – they both pulled away, staring up at the night sky, holding their breath. After a few seconds, a giant shadow swooped in front of the moon, soaring upward.
"Dragon," Elinora breathed, her blood running cold.
"Inside," Alistair said, already pushing himself to his feet and yanking Elinora to hers.
She grabbed his hand and was pulling him down the hill. "Now. "