Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 2

Aveline and the Dragon

Varric has told this story in so many ways with so many embellishments that I find even my own memory wavering. Since I alone was involved in every step and helped make every decision along the way I feel obliged to set the record straight. It may be that no one will read this but at least I can remind myself that, Champion though I may have become, my experience in Kirkwall was not all glory and easy power. Yet there were moments when things came together perfectly or when magic blocked my path in ways so unbelievable that even Varric cannot convince people of the truth.

Once upon a time I lived in a little village in Ferelden. My father was an apostate mage and my mother a noblewoman from far away who had defied her wealthy family and run away to marry him. They’d put half of Thedas between themselves and her parents, settling in Lothering and raising three healthy, powerful children. My sister Bethany took after my father, both in dark-haired good looks and in talent, while her twin, Carver, was the ugly duckling just coming into adulthood. Perhaps in a few more years he’d have grown into that chin but he never got the chance.

My father was killed before we even got clear of our small farmhold near Lothering when the darkspawn horde, the one that should have been turned aside at Ostagar had that bastard Loghain not betrayed poor King Cailan, overran the countryside. It was a brown and struggling place even before the taint poisoned the land. We farmers worked hard and many of us were trained in weapon skills, trap making, and—secretly—in magic because the predators and vermin fought back and often were bigger than we were. But we had been proud of our whitewashed cottages and even had our own Chantry, humble though it had been.

Loghain had taken the army’s remaining soldiers through Lothering but abandoned all of us to our fates, escaping the blight north to Denerim. He tried to lay blame for the king’s death on the Grey Wardens but most of us could see through his lies. He brought with him no wounded and all his men marched in clean, unblemished armor. They had not fought at all, had never even taken the field, and the only explanation for that was a refusal to join the battle in the first place. That he had been the king’s father-in-law helped his case not at all. Ferelden may not enjoy the backstabbing intrigue of Orlais but murderous bids for power were not unknown to us.

So when a pair of Wardens came through a few weeks later, with a raggedly-dressed apostate woman and a Mabari war hound of all things, the village welcomed them warmly. The group declined to stay, however. Their pressing business did not allow them to linger. It seemed we had no sooner seen the last glitter of their armor up the same road Loghain had followed than the trickle of refugees from the Kocari Wilds turned to a flood of creatures, predator and prey fleeing side by side from the horde as before a grass fire. No one had expected the darkspawn to advance so quickly. We found ourselves overwhelmed, my father fighting back drooling, hissing fiends at the front door while Bethany, Carver, my mother, and I fled out the back. I never saw him again.

Those first hours passed in a blur of terror and grief. We struggled through hidden ways east out of Lothering but found ourselves forced south to avoid the largest bands of the creatures. It wasn’t long before we were hopelessly lost in a landscape in which every plant had been withered and blasted by the taint of the darkspawn. We’d had time to bring nothing but our weapons—no food, no water, nothing to sustain our flight. It was along yet another rocky slope, just as we were realizing how much trouble we might be in, that we met Aveline Valen and her husband Wesley. We joined them in fighting back yet another group of single-minded beasts. Aveline was an inspiration to me, her orange hair bound at base of her neck to reveal a square and freckled face, her shield as much a weapon as her sword. Hers was a fierce beauty, one that shone that day when we most needed it.

Though Wesley was a Templar whose job was, in part, hunting apostate mages like my sister and bringing them to a Mage’s Circle for “safekeeping”, he sensibly agreed—at Aveline’s urging—not to concern himself with such petty differences in that moment. We needed Bethany’s skills to complement our defenses. It was not long thereafter that Wesley succumbed to the taint in the blood sprayed from the darkspawn he and Aveline had killed along the road from Ostagar.

What I remember most clearly of that time is the stench of corruption, rotting flesh and vegetation, and the foul breath of the snarling darkspawn as I fought them off. We had reached the top of a hill in hopes of spying a route to safer ground when the ground began to shake. An ogre, grey-skinned, vastly muscled, and nearly nude, thundered onto the rise before us. It towered over its fellows making them suddenly look more human. Horns stretched back on either side of its head and pointed teeth dripped slime from a mouth that looked too small to close over them.

It held no weapon and Carver flung himself at it, intending to cleave it in two. He always had been a rash boy, leaping headlong into fights and trying to kill vermin far too large for him on our farm. This was just another example, the final one. The ogre snatched him up, crushed him with one hand, and tossed aside the broken body before turning to the rest of us.

Mother fell to her knees at Carver’s side with a cry while Bethany, Aveline, and I tackled the enormous beast, slashing with blades and magic alike. We fought for what felt like hours. At times I doubted I could raise my blade again but I kept going, knowing that failure meant death or worse. Finally the thing lay dead, surrounded by the lesser darkspawn that had accompanied it, and we three stood panting as my mother pointed her finger and labeled me as responsible. I bit back my reply, knowing no good could come of this argument, one we’d had many times.

There had been no time to argue, at any rate. The sound of more darkspawn came from all around us and we ladies turned our backs on my mother and dead brother to protect them as best we could. I was all but sobbing with exhaustion. My sword and shield felt like boulders as I struggled to heft them into place. Only Aveline seemed fresh and strong, setting herself for the onslaught with a curse.

Before either side could strike a blow, however, the strangest thing happened. A high dragon appeared on the ridge behind us, wings as wide and purple as a twilight sky. I confess that I simply let my sword fall at that. I knew there was no way we could defeat it. We’d done amazing things that day but we were beaten. The dragon roared so loudly the ground trembled and even the darkspawn paused. All eyes turned to it. With improbable majesty and terrible grace it sprang from the rocks and swooped, blasting the horde with fire but leaving our little group untouched. I was shaking, awaiting death holding my sister’s hand, weapon forgotten by my feet.

The dragon landed, crushing burnt creatures beneath its claws, and turned its horned head to regard us. For a moment there was no sound but its heavy breathing and my mother’s sobbing. Then the dragon changed color, changed size, changed everything. In a few moments there stood in its place a woman, her white hair swept back and bound into horns like the dragon’s.

She looked of an age with my mother and she had clearly been a beauty in her youth. Studded leather of a maroon deep as the blood around us covered her torso and neck, trailing to the ground behind her, and enormous black feathers sprouted at her shoulders. Impressive mailed boots stretched above her knees. I cannot recall her exact words or ours; I know only that she agreed to get us clear of the horde in return for delivering a package near the city of Kirkwall. We were hardly in a position to refuse a woman who could apparently eat us for doing so.

When we’d given our word the woman pointed out one task that remained before we could set off. Wesley lay near Bethany’s still body, streaks of black climbing his neck to touch his cheeks. The Templar’s face was contorted in pain. He begged us to end his suffering before he could turn into a ghoul. None of us wanted to confront a shambling and vengeful corpse that would no longer know his wife, much less the family he had just met, as allies but it was not our place to comply.

Though she wept when her hands closed over his on the hilt of his knife, Aveline helped him to stop the corruption before it was too late. She kissed her fingers and pressed them against his lips for a moment, her eyes closed in pain. Then she let it go. Visibly steeling herself, she stood. “Let’s move,” she said, her voice as determined as her face.

And so four women fought their way through the oncoming blight and made it to the shore where they found passage to Kirkwall. Flemeth, for that had been name the woman offered, gave us the money to buy our way across the Amaranthine Ocean and bid us farewell far outside of the little port of Gwaren, striding back to the south as though she’d never flown in her life. But that same gravity she had shown as a dragon informed her movements. She was the hardest and most confusing woman I’d ever met, mocking and mysterious and encouraging but never kind or soft in any way. We’d all been terrified of her and were glad when we boarded that filthy ship, as hard as the crossing would be. A sea between her and us sounded like just the thing.

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