Chapter 1: In Which I Try and Fail to Give a Damn
The only experience more excruciating than resigning oneself to an ill-fated end is watching someone else admit complete and utter defeat. And for her, surrender was not a gentle bow; it was a collapse.
The first thing I remember about her is that she did not lose gracefully.
The fires raged early that morning, waves of heat swirling against the blood-red sky. Naturally, I had worn an extra set of long johns under an already insufferable amount of gold-plated armor. Brilliant move there, Alistair. Of course, it made perfect sense to trust the weather predictions of a dwarf! Maker's breath, if it wasn't an ogre's crushing grip that would have done me in, surely I would have drowned in my own sweat.
Guttural roars bellowed in the near distance, the unsheathing of weapons ringing in unison. Pointy objects were one hell of a good reminder that I couldn't afford to dwell on trivialities. I raised my blade to rally the others towards the next onslaught of Hurlocks, but with one look over the shoulder, I realized we were one short.
She wasn't there.
"Aeryn?" My throat constricted. No answer. "Aeryn!"
I scrambled to retrace our steps, but the heavily-armed darkspawn wasted no time in making their charge. Forced to fend off the oncoming swarm with a round of skull-cracking shield bashes, I gutted anything that moved. Truth be told, I don't know how I managed to break through with my head still intact; some of Eamon's men hadn't fared the same fortune. I'd say I was too pretty to die, but somehow, I have a hunch that a Hurlock has more of a sense for intestinal delicacies than a dapper-looking man.
Maybe it was providence. Or maybe it was just sodding luck. I suppose it doesn't matter much now. All I knew was that I had to find her. She had to be alive. I needed her to be alive. "Aeryn! Where are–"
A jolt of pain shot through my knees as I immediately halted at the edge of a small clearing. Not but five paces away, there she stooped over a corpse, clutching an item in her hand. Lovely. We had a war to win, and the woman wanted to pilfer personal effects. I called after her. "Don't mind the rest of us dying around you; looting cadavers is clearly more important than, oh, I don't know…ending the Blight?" When I didn't get so much as a backwards glance, I marched up behind her, contemplating dragging her back towards Fort Drakon by the ear if she tested my patience further. "Oghren and Wynne have already gone on ahead. Why is it so difficult to get your damn act together and keep up with the–"
"Riordan's dead, Alistair!"
That shut my bloody mouth.
Aeryn's fist tightened as she stood, throwing down Riordan's longsword with a clang! at my feet as if to spite me with proof. When her eyes eventually strained to make contact, I saw her for the little girl she was. Pale, shaken, her staggering gaze maddened with fear–she had convinced herself there was no other way but for her to die.
And she despised me for it.
I swallowed. Hard. It's a peculiar sensation when you can almost hear the dagger scraping against your insides, but you can no longer feel its razor sting. I should have reached out to her, placed a firm grip on her shoulder. Instead, I found I hadn't the energy to care anymore. What little strength I possessed was used to clench my jaw. "Hold it together, mage. We can't back out now."
I started once more towards the fortress, but she drove past with a hard shove into my right arm. Subtle. And let's not forget to add in a verbal barb for good measure: "I don't back out of commitments, templar."
Now she was just pissing me off. "Aeryn, this is hardly the time for–"
Her nostrils flared as she spun around. "Let's try to save the one thing we still can, shall we?"
And that was us: the last of the Fereldan Grey Wardens. Noble. Valiant. Selfless. The stuff made of legend. Sweet Andraste, pathetic excuses for heroes, we were. We'd reduced ourselves to nothing more than petty remarks in some sadistic game of seeing who could cut the other down first.
But it hadn't always been that way.
I had loved her once.
Chapter 2: In Which I Proceed to Make an Ass out of Myself
It hadn't been love at first sight.
Perhaps if you had asked me several months ago, I would've gazed off into space and sighed that wistful sort of sigh–the one that makes everyone around you groan and secretly want to gag–while making some claim that she and I were soul mates simply because we shared an interest in collectible figures. Sadly, I think I actually did believe that at one point in time, despite knowing little more than her hair color (in my defense, I have a considerable 60% weakness to redheads).
No, quite shockingly, our meeting did not go nearly as breathtaking as cheap romance novels would like you to think. Ah…ha, ha…not that I've ever read them or anything (and certainly none that were of the dwarven erotica variety, just to quell any, ahem, rumors). It didn't help matters that the Revered Mother had already forced me into a bit of an awkward position: delivering a note to a mage who looked like he had no qualms about firing a handful of lightning bolts at my feet and demanding a delightful little jig. Or maybe he just needed more fiber in his diet. Either way, the day was not shaping up to be one of my better ones, and it only got worse when I mistakenly assumed the woman ambling towards me might appreciate a dose of sardonic humor.
"You know, one good thing about the Blight is how it brings people together."
I've been told I have a "unique" sense of optimism. In fact, it's probably the sole reason I was able endure that entire bloody war. At that moment, however, it seemed that my best attempts to plaster on a smile only served to baffle her rather than make her feel welcome. Her eyes had shifted to the side, glancing over her shoulder before turning back. "Are you…talking to me?"
Hmm. Her expression wasn't one of horror, so I must have remembered to put pants on that morning. There were only two reasons people looked at me that way: either they were stunned by my exceptional display of wit, or they were pondering what type of incident could have possibly resulted in such an unfortunate haircut. It's rather alarming how many people have jumped to the conclusion that I infuriated some groundskeeper who then came after me with a pair of gardening shears. I like to pretend that they're simply jealous. My methods are much more sophisticated, I assure you.
"No, I thought I'd just stand around talking to myself to see how long it would take for someone to notice and toss me in the loony bin." I winked at her. "Record's three minutes so far."
The second thing I remember about her is that she did not easily amuse.
All righty, then. That silent staring act she had going on wasn't creepy at all. "Ah, yes, where are my manners? You must be the new recruit Duncan mentioned. You'll have to forgive me; I didn't catch your name…"
Still staring. "Aerynahel."
I hummed to myself in deep thought. A bit of a mouthful, but I figured it wouldn't be terribly difficult to recall; I'd just have to use my handy memory trick. Asiago also started with an "A." Come to think of it, it had to be nearly lunchtime. Whatever happened to that leftover chunk of cheese? Maker knew I couldn't suffer through yet another bowl of soul-sucking gruel–
"You must be Alistair."
Oh, were we in the middle of an actual conversation? My bad.
She had crossed her arms, her eyes glued to me as they scoured every inch from head to toe. I suppose I should've been thrilled that an attractive woman was ogling me so, but I think the Maker may have been a little loose with the liquor when weaving her together in her mother's womb or some other such grotesque metaphor I cannot understand for the life of me. He seemed to have forgotten a few things…like her personality.
"What were you arguing about with that man?"
The corner of my lips curled. Nosy thing, wasn't she? "With the mage who walks with his staff clinched between his buttocks? It's a delicate situation, really." I went on to explain the politics between the Circle and the Chantry–she was absolutely riveted, I'm sure–when she gave me this look as if I had just told her I took pleasure in setting mabari pups on fire.
"So you're a mage-hunter."
The third thing I remember about her is that she did not. Like. Templars.
"Well, that's…" I cleared my throat, desperately fumbling for a tug at my collar, "…that's not all templars do. You're…not a mage, are you?"
Her eyes proceeded to narrow into slits, and suddenly, I found myself preferring the creepy wide-eyed stare…as one would prefer a chopped-off finger or two over total disembowelment. "Would that make your day worse?"
It was then that I recognized the stave looming over her head. Is that what the large stick strapped to her back was for? Goody.
"Hardly," I said. "I just like to know my chances of being turned into a toad at any given moment." Which no doubt had exponentially increased since the start of our charming exchange. "For the record, I never became a real templar. Duncan pulled me out before I gave my official vows."
Alas, my half-assed efforts to alleviate any misgivings she had formed towards me had fallen on deaf ears, as her mind had wandered elsewhere. I was about to mutter a thanks to the Maker for also blessing her with the attention span of a five-year-old when–ooh, look, an adorable little bunny rabbit!
Er, ahem, what I meant to say was…it was then that I realized she was no longer pulsating those giant waves of disgust in my direction (and just when I had gotten used to it, too–provides wonderful stimulation for the hair follicles). I wasn't sure how to interpret her silence, to be honest. There was something…off about her stance. Guarded, maybe, but that wasn't quite it, either. Common sense told me I should leave well enough alone, but perhaps I had developed a subconscious gluttony for punishment. Only second to fine cheeses, of course. Ah, the joys of organized religion.
No, really–Brother Flynn back at the Redcliffe chantry knows how to make a mean brie and crackers platter.
As I stepped towards her, I half-expected at any moment for the Revered Mother to pop out and wag her finger while chiding, Curiosity killed the cat, Alistair! Now before you go thinking I'm certifiable, I don't normally have the voices of old biddies running around in my head–hers was only memorable because of the sheer number of times she had drilled it into me as a child. The especially shrill tone didn't lend to forgetfulness, either. How she always managed to just know when I was up to something scared the living daylights out of me. Oh, ho, there was this one time…
Oh, right. The girl. Sorry.
I tapped my index fingers together. "Is…something wrong? Other than the…you know. Obvious."
Startled, she angled her head back, her brow then knitting together as she cast her eyes to the ground. "No. Just…" She expelled a huff of air. "No."
Huh. Peculiar response. I followed her gaze as it gravitated towards the commotion brewing at the bottom of the hill. From the looks of it, the quartermaster was on one of his usual power trips, berating one of the elven servants. "You dare question me, boy?"
"N-n-no, sir, I-I meant no disrespect! I was only trying to help my sister–"
The quartermaster grabbed a fistful of the boy's shirt, knocking him up against the wall. Someone should have lauded him for his originality–bullying someone half your size and a third of your age is a brilliant way to compensate for a balding head and a limp noodle. "Get back to work, you lazy son of a worthless whore! Or I'll cut off those knife-ears of yours–you and yer sister both–and make stew out of 'em! Then you elves might actually be good for something!"
"Y-yes, sir. Right away, sir."
I felt myself breathe a little easier when the boy ducked his head and dashed off. Tensions in the Ostagar campground had been mounting while the troops made final preparations for the coming battle, and unfortunately, the elven servants made easy targets for the soldiers to vent off steam. Earlier that week, I had to pull a boy out of the privy because he'd been accused of stealing a family heirloom dagger. Two days later, said dagger was found on the training grounds; the owner had merely misplaced the damn thing.
The boy never even received a proper apology. Died from an infection, the poor lad.
There was a swish of fabric as her robes swept across cobblestone, pivoting back as she tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Her pointed ear.
"Life outside the Tower is…not what I had expected," she finally said.
Maker, if I had a bit for every time life didn't go as expected, I'd…well, I wouldn't be rich, but I'd have a very noisy coin purse.
"Not that I wasn't aware of such matters…I just…" She sighed. "I've barely completed my Harrowing, and now I'm a Grey Warden? I'm…I'm not even sure I know what it means to be a Grey Warden."
I watched as she wrung her hands and chewed at her bottom lip. Funny. I knew that feeling.
Maybe even unloved.
I won't bore you with the sordid details of my upbringing right now, but it was in that moment I wondered if perhaps we had more in common than I thought. Perhaps, if she endured tonight's ceremony, it might not hurt making the effort to find out. Or maybe it would and I'd wake up in an abandoned field with no pants and one short of a set of bollocks. But hey, you only live once.
I took a step towards her, reciting words that had often brought me comfort in dark times. "In war, victory. In peace, vigilance. In death, sacrifice. Duncan chose all of us for a reason. I hope someday I can do for others what he did for me." Her expression hadn't changed, and I tried to offer her a smile, albeit a rather rueful one. "Whatever it takes to end the Blight, right?"
She looked away. "I…suppose."
And here we went with the uncomfortable silence again. Was I supposed to console her? Put my arm around her? Bring her a litter of kittens? Women loved cute and cuddly things, right?
With men, all it took was a reassuring slap on the back or a joke to cheer them up. This woman, however, obviously didn't respond well to humor, and I feared a slap on the back would be interpreted as hostile. Then everyone's favorite bastard would have to defend all of Ferelden armed only with a mean hop and a penchant for eating flies. So I did the only thing I could think of, furrowing my brow, pursing my lips, and nodding in grave thought, hoping she'd take it as sincerity. I probably looked ridiculous, actually, but she hadn't made the effort to comment on it.
Eventually, I leaned forward, not-so-subtly jerking my head towards the Grey Warden camp. "I imagine Duncan's eager to get things started, so whenever you're ready, let's head back. Lucky for you, as the junior member of the order, I'll be accompanying you when you prepare for the Joining." I forced a chuckle. "Lead on!"
Me? Anxious to leave this awkward business behind? No…
"Haven't you been a Grey Warden longer than I have?" she asked.
"Well," I said, "by age alone, you have seniority–er, I mean…not to imply that you're old. You're, what, only…" Let's see–strong cheekbones, sharply-defined nose, hair tightly knit in a bun… "Five years older than me?"
"From what Duncan tells me, three."
Ooh, this was not going to end well. "But–but you didn't let me finish! I…" A mabari howled in the distance. "I was thinking in terms of five dog years, so that averages out to be about three, right?"
Magnificent save, Alistair! Please insert foot in mouth now.
"Do you want a shovel for that hole you're digging, Warden? Perhaps an abacus as well?"
Had she just made a jest? I might have congratulated her had I not been drowning in a pool of my own sweat.
"Only if you promise not to hit me with it first." I inwardly groaned, sheepishly running a hand through my hair. "I apologize; I must admit I'm not known for making spectacular first impressions."
"That's not much of a stretch to imagine."
"Really?" I cocked an eyebrow. "Well, that's good because I wasn't quite sure if you even had an imagination."
Yep. That was it. I'd be choking down foot soup for the rest of the month.
"Wait! No, no, no, that's not what I meant!" If only closing one's eyes and wishing it all away actually worked. This was all just a bad, bad dream, right? "I don't suppose there's any chance we could just start over?"
"Right, um…" I stuck out my hand. "I am Alistair, and you are?"
"Is this what you humans call a handshake?"
"Well, it's more like half of a handshake at the moment. The idea is for your hand to grab mine in a general up-and-down motion to make it complete. Though my hand is rather clammy right now, considering I've just made an utter buffoon out of myself in front of you."
Still no response.
"Ooookay…I guess I wouldn't want to touch my cold, sweaty hand, either."
Maker, why did I bother? Of all the–
"It's Aerynahel. But…you may call me Aeryn if you wish."
Oh? Well, that was more like it. "Of course." I smiled, bowing slightly. "A pleasure to meet you, my lady Asiaaa–" No, no, not the cheese, you idiot! "–Aeryn."
Her eyes narrowed again, but for the first time, there was a glint of curiosity before she turned to walk away. "You are…a very strange human."
"You know, you're not the only one to have said that."
She glanced back long enough for me to spot a faint upwards curve in her lips.
"Aha! Did I just see an inkling of a grin? I do believe I'm wearing you down!"
But you know what they say.
Curiosity killed the cat.