Redcliffe Village needs defenders, and Raven needs a hug.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 6: Begin with a Single Step)
Raven had made a severe miscalculation.
They stood outside Redcliffe, while the two Wardens had a hushed conversation nearby. She knew Alistair was telling Aedan of his royal parentage. What kept her from looking away, though, was the brazen afternoon sun. It had turned an already excessive distraction into a monument to starry-eyed adulation, and was rudely inhibiting her ability to process oxygen.
In recent days, Raven had pondered the proper classification of certain colors. Gold wasn’t quite right, nor was red or light brown. At last, she’d decided the shade of Alistair’s hair was “molten copper dipped in sunlight.” Similarly, his precise eye color could only be described as “fireflies swimming in dark honey.” The mortifying amount of time she’d spent on the subject did not bear thinking about, especially when her highly amused brother was anywhere nearby.
For the eleventy-billionth time, Raven cursed her own short-sightedness. Traveling with the Wardens had been the logical choice to both monitor events and research getting home. But somehow, she’d failed to really think about the fact that she’d be face to face with Alistair, a game character who’d always filled her with dreamy sighs and butterflies. She had his image as desktop wallpaper on her computer, for pity’s sake. She had no doubt she was making a total idiot of herself at regular intervals. Scholar, indeed.
Leliana caught Rae’s frustrated sigh. Her eyes flicked in the direction of Raven’s gaze, and the corner of her mouth lifted in an impish smirk. “So that’s how it is, hmm?” she teased, in her purring Orlesian accent.
“How what is?” Raven’s feigned ignorance only made the redhead giggle.
“Which one is it? The tall, dark noble with the suave charm and troubled past? Or the golden-haired knight with the adorable shyness and playful wit?”
“It’s really more of a sunlit copper,” Raven corrected, and immediately regretted all her life choices.
Leliana’s blue eyes lit up and she clapped her hands with glee. “Well, I could never argue with the thesis of a dedicated scholar. And ‘sunlit copper’ will be more lyrical when you compose passionate love poetry.”
“You’re having way too much fun with this,” Raven glowered. “Trust me; there will be no poetry. The last time I wrote a poem, I was sixteen years old, and the genre as a whole may never recover from the abuse inflicted upon it by my flailing attempts. Also and more importantly, there is no love to write about.”
The bard was unconvinced. “Oh, but why not?” she pouted. “He seems quite sweet. And the other night when he and your guard were sparring without their tunics, even Morrigan stopped to watch.” She raised an eyebrow with a sassy grin. “If nothing else, our journey certainly has its scenic moments, no?”
Raven felt her cheeks warming, and finally relented, joining Leliana in a fit of giggles. “You know, for a Chantry sister, you’re a terrible influence.”
Leliana snorted. “I was not born in the Chantry…or blind, for that matter. And besides,” she added primly, “part of being a bard is recognizing beauty when you see it, no?” She arched a brow and nodded toward Aedan and Alistair. “And Maker preserve us, I see it!”
The two women struggled to muffle their laughter, but Raven’s tension eased. It surprised her that Leliana was becoming a friend, but she supposed it shouldn’t have. Leliana was the kind of person who made things easier for others, even social interaction for a hardcore introvert. Raven knew that in Orlais, being a bard meant more than performing music, and the redhead’s soothing attentiveness had probably been a useful tool when her role involved acting as an assassin or spy. But she still enjoyed their developing friendship.
Although, she thought wryly, she could do without the teasing about Alistair.
“Leliana, be reasonable; I could never…,” she began with a sigh, but then a nervous peasant from Redcliffe approached, and further conversation was postponed.
“So who’s this Ben guy?” Rob asked quietly, nodding at the exhausted nobleman speaking to the Wardens. They stood inside the disheveled Redcliffe Chantry, leaning against one of the few walls not hosting cots or barrels of provisions. One corner was piled with pews; she wondered irreverently if they’d been tossed aside in protest when the Maker’s favor fled. Empty-eyed elders and frightened children decorated the sanctuary like tattered ribbons on a moth-eaten wedding dress, and the atmosphere of fatalism was thick in the air. The people of Redcliffe expected to die.
“It’s not Ben; it’s Bann,” Raven corrected. “It’s a title. Leandra explained it; remember? Fereldan nobility goes: king and queen, then teyrns and teyrnas, then arls and arlessas, then banns. Ish. Anyway. Bann Teagan is the younger brother of the Arl we came to see. He’s trying to protect the village. And oh, he’s about to ask us to fight the zombie apocalypse.”
Rob blinked. “You’re joking,” he said flatly.
“Nope, not so much. Aedan needs the Arl, who’s in the Keep, which is sealed until the undead are…re-dead.”
“Actual, literal zombies. Like, slimy, half-rotted, all they wanna do is eat your brains, zombies.”
“I don’t remember this variety having specific menu preferences, but otherwise yeah, pretty much.”
“Nothing can ever be simple in this place, can it?”
Raven laughed. “Oh, you have no idea; we’re just getting started. I love role-playing games, but they do sometimes have a high run-around factor. ‘Hero! You must save the world! As your first step, please kill ten rats, and fetch me this thing I could easily have gotten myself if I bothered to get off my ass.’”
He grumbled his low opinion of demanding quest-givers. “So, zombies. Right. What happens next?”
Raven shrugged. “There are a few possibilities, but since Aedan is a noble and made a beeline here to see Arl Eamon, he’ll probably agree to defend the village. Teagan will tell him which locals can help prepare for nightfall. And Morrigan will bitch about being forced to expend an iota of energy on serving anyone besides herself, but that’s a given.”
Her brother snickered. “You really don’t like her, do you? Is it because she’s hot and dresses like she’s for sale, or because she’s mean to your honey bear?”
Raven’s eyes narrowed, unamused. “No, it’s because she’s a terrible person. I definitely don’t want to know your opinion on her hotness. And I have no honey bear, as you know quite well. Jackass.”
Of course, of course, that would be the moment when Leliana wandered into earshot.
“Oh, the faithful guard has noticed it too, I see,” she smirked. “And it seems I was correct in assuming the closeness you two share is not due to romance.”
Rob recoiled. “What? No! Gross.”
“Oh, thank you very much,” Raven said scathingly, secretly glad she’d planned for this eventual question. “I suppose there’s no harm now in admitting that Rob is my little brother.”
“Admitting it. Like I’m an embarrassing rash.”
“More or less,” Raven agreed.
Leliana laughed. “But why keep it a secret?”
“We thought it would be safer. A shabby scholar with a guard seemed less tempting to bandits than a pair of wandering foreigners. And I wasn’t sure the Warden would let me come otherwise. He needs fighters, but I didn’t think he’d want a useless bookworm trying to tag along. With Rob as my hireling, though, he had to bring me if he wanted Rob. So, yeah. I’ve tried really hard not to complain, and to help any way I can.”
The bard’s head tilted in thought. “Yes, I suppose that makes sense. But I do not think you are useless, and I am sure Aedan does not. You give yourself too little credit, my friend.” The scholar only shrugged awkwardly, twisting the end of her dark ponytail.
“Thank you!” said Rob. “I’ve been telling her that for years, but in addition to being brilliant and amazing, she’s a ridiculously stubborn pain in the ass.”
“Is this why she is stubbornly refusing to admit her admiration for your new sparring partner?” Leliana’s face was calm, but her eyes danced with humor.
“Oh for the love of…seriously, both of you stop it.” Raven had run out of patience. “I’m ever so glad you’ve both enjoyed teasing the shit out of me, but there is no breathless love story here. It would never happen, not in a million years. So stop.”
The bard’s expression cooled slightly. “I have wondered…are you nobility back in Markham? Is this why you cannot show favor to a Fereldan commoner?”
The brunette, incredulous, was startled into a mirthless laugh. “You can’t be serious. You really think that’s why I…” She shook her head tiredly, eyes shadowed with layers of old pain. “Listen. Even if we weren’t just tagalongs here, and even if we weren’t in the middle of a Blight, and even if I actually belonged here…have you seen him? Have you seen me? The idea of us together is laughable. Anyone who noticed us would assume that either he was blind, or he was escorting a friend’s dumpy sister somewhere as a favor. People like him don’t happen to people like me.”
She drew a shuddering breath, and brushed her hand across her eyes, angrily dashing away any hint of moisture before it could fall. “This is stupid and I’m done talking about it. We should find out what Aedan needs us to do instead of wasting time.”
Raven walked over toward the group near Bann Teagan, her spine stiff with tension. She pretended not to see Leliana’s look of surprised confusion or Rob’s sad sigh. It infuriated her that her feelings had escaped her control. It was bad enough when that happened under normal circumstances, but infinitely worse in a world that wasn’t even real.
‘Stop being so stupid. That is enough,’ she berated herself coldly. After her wayward feelings were safely resealed in her mental lockbox, she donned her armor of calm, ready to focus on the defense of Redcliffe.
The rest of the day passed quickly, as Aedan delegated aspects of their preparation. He and Alistair strode up the hill toward the Keep’s entrance, their armor gleaming in the sun. Ostensibly, their goal was to speak with the few knights Redcliffe had on hand, but it also served to cheer the villagers, knowing the fabled Grey Wardens had come to their aid.
Leliana went off to charm the blacksmith into repairing the militia’s armor. Hohaku chose to accompany her, as if he knew the presence of a Fereldan Mabari would reassure people about dealing with an Orlesian. Later, the hound’s keen senses made short work of locating a missing boy, to the relief of his older sister.
Sten set off to persuade a local dwarf and his two hirelings to join the defense. The huge Qunari needed no assistance to be thoroughly motivating.
Rob went with Morrigan to track down some missing militiamen; unsurprisingly, they were in the tavern. They also found a man who’d been watching Redcliffe for the traitor, Loghain. The spy agreed to help the militia in exchange for keeping his organs intact. Morrigan, for reasons unknown, convinced the barkeep to provide the militia with free ale, goaded him into joining the defense, and finally threatened the unpleasant little man to cede ownership of the tavern to the Warden. She seemed to find it amusing.
Raven, left at loose ends, took a moment to speak with the villagers, providing encouragement. Soon, though, she had to escape the smothering fear in the Chantry, and slipped out to explore the village.
Situated on the shore of vast Lake Calenhad, Redcliffe reminded her a bit of home – not its maze of wooden huts or the hulking keep perched atop the eponymous red cliffs, but the lake itself. The gently rippling waters spread into the distance as far as she could see, past shores dotted with tall evergreens. She inhaled deeply. The air held a damp, mossy scent with a hint of fish; the combination seemed like it should be unpleasant but somehow it was just peaceful and wild.
Raven grew up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town in the Midwest, near a vast lake much like this. She watched the beginning of sunset reflecting on the lapping waves, and wondered if she’d ever see home again.
On her way back to the Chantry, Raven ducked into the abandoned general store, and saw several barrels of lantern oil near the wall. She knew the knights could use the oil to create a fiery blockade. Luckily, there was still a little time; she hurried off to climb the hill.
Aedan and Alistair looked concerned at her approach, so she smiled to reassure them while she regained her breath. “I found some barrels of oil in town,” she said finally. “Might they be useful on your barriers…?”
The leader of Redcliffe’s knights nodded gratefully. “Oh! They will indeed. Many thanks, my lady.” Raven noticed the sun-shaped amulet the knight wore. Someone must’ve convinced the cranky old Chantry mother to give the knights a few blessed tokens to bolster their courage. ‘Whatever works,’ she thought.
Aedan sent the knights off to fetch the oil. “It’s convenient that you’ve come, Lady Raven,” he said. “When you return, could you tell Rob and Morrigan they’re needed here?” He smirked at Alistair’s audible groan. “Sten, Leliana, and Hohaku should remain outside the Chantry with the militia.”
“And where should I be?”
“I’d like you inside the Chantry with the Bann,” Aedan said, his green eyes sliding away from her face.
Raven’s brows knit with irritation. “That’s unnecessary. I’m a good shot; I can stay in the back and still help.”
“No, Raven.” The Warden’s voice was stern. “We have enough untested militia as it is. I want you inside.”
“Aedan, no. Please don’t do this. I know I’m not much use, but I can’t just sit there while people die outside!”
Alistair caught Aedan’s eye before he could continue the argument, and a small nod passed between them. Aedan went to check the barricades. Raven, busy being upset, belatedly realized Alistair was reaching toward her. Her eyes grew wide, and she froze.
“Lady Raven,” he began, taking her fingers gently between his gauntleted hands. “I know this is a difficult thing to ask. I wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t been sent off on a supposedly ‘safe’ task at Ostagar…but I hated it at the time. Sometimes I still do. But I would thank you for aiding Teagan.” His honey-brown eyes were on her face, and she couldn’t seem to form a reply, but he continued. “I grew up here, and most people didn’t bother showing kindness to a dead maid’s bastard son. But Teagan always did. I believe our plan is solid and we’ll succeed, but if not…if the Chantry is breached…” He took a breath; Raven belatedly remembered that was a thing humans did, and tried to gasp without resembling a dying fish. “Well. There are few people left in this world who I’d consider family, and it would comfort me to know that one of them has someone like you to watch his back.”
What could she possibly do then, except agree? He gave her a grateful smile, and she walked away scolding the flutters in her stomach.
Night had fallen. The silence in the Chantry was broken only by the soft voice of Mother Hannah speaking the Chant of Light over the fearful non-combatants. “Canticle of Trials, verse one,” she began.
Maker, my enemies are abundant.
Many are those who rise up against me.
But my faith sustains me; I shall not fear the legion,
Should they set themselves against me.
In the long hours of the night
When hope has abandoned me,
I still see the stars and know
Your Light remains.
The soothing words merely reminded Raven that she couldn’t see the stars, or anything else. The high stained glass windows glowed faintly with moonlight, but obscured any glimpse of the world beyond.
“If you keep pacing, you’ll wear a hole in that carpet.”
Raven stopped short, startled by the bann’s approach. They’d spoken earlier, but then he’d gone to do a last-minute briefing. She hadn’t noticed his return.
“I…I’m sorry, my lord…” She halted her steps and wrapped her arms around herself in embarrassment.
Bann Teagan chuckled. “It’s quite all right, my lady; I was merely jesting…at a completely inappropriate time. A bad habit of mine, I fear. And please, call me Teagan. If we’re to be comrades-in-arms, we can dispense with formality, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I…yes, my lor-, er, Teagan,” she replied with a small chuckle. It felt odd to abandon the Thedan speech patterns she’d been careful to mimic thus far, but it was a bit of a relief. “You should call me Raven, then.”
“I’ve always liked ravens, with their intelligence and dark beauty. The name suits you.”
‘What?’ Her Raven’s mind screeched to a halt and floundered before fumbling into her default ‘weird name explanation’ spiel. “Oh, it’s nothing that profound; my mother just really likes birds, so she named her children Raven, Robin, and Lark. My sister and I didn’t mind so much, but my brother always complained that robins aren’t manly enough.”
The bann laughed, his reddish-brown hair held back with a tiny braid that she’d always found silly in the game. Now, seeing him standing tall and strong before her in his impressive armor, she met his sparkling blue eyes and decided he didn’t look silly after all. She couldn’t help herself; she spoke the dialogue that led to a bit of entertaining flirtation with his computer self. Just for research purposes, of course.
“What about you, Teagan? Do you have any family?”
He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Are you asking if I’m married, my lady? I’m afraid I’ve never had the pleasure, though if I’d met someone as lovely as you, perhaps my answer might’ve been different.”
Raven swallowed, trying to reconcile her memories with this living, breathing human. In the game, Teagan was part of a computer program, designed to respond in a set way to specific prompts. But this Teagan was real…or at least as real as anything else here. He could reply however he wished. She couldn’t see any reason he’d say that to her; she didn’t know how to react.
Teagan read her silence as offense. “Please forgive my boldness, my lady. My words have run off with me again. If I blame the strain of our situation, would you promise not to be angry with me?”
She smiled reflexively. ‘Ah, that explains it,’ she thought. ‘He was stressed out and not thinking. Obviously he didn’t mean any of that.’ She focused on her relief that the world was making a bit of sense again. With long practice, she ignored the small voice in the back of her mind, with its scrapbook of wounds from each time she’d been found not pretty enough, or not thin enough, or just…not enough.
“There was no cause for offense, Teagan. It did just occur to me, though, that maybe we could put a few of these pews to good use in our defense?”
With help from the townsfolk, they rearranged the room to Raven’s satisfaction. A woman shyly approached Teagan then, and offered him the use of her family’s heirloom sword. Raven smiled, thinking of the version of the future where the bann would find that young lady again, fall in love, and marry her.
And then, they heard the fighting start.
 This portion of the Chant of Light is from “The World of Thedas, Volume 2,” p. 65.
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 8: Leading a Horse to Water)