Rob and Raven struggle with the reality of the Blight.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 15: All Who Wander)
Wednesday, 22 Justinian, 9:30 Dragon
After the rush of putting down the few darkspawn in the area, Rob stood silent, unable to make sense of what his eyes were seeing. Less than two months earlier, this had been the bustling center of Lothering. But now… now it was nothing but corpses and ruin.
“I knew the darkspawn would spread out from Ostagar eventually,” Alistair said, his voice choked, “but I… I hoped there’d be more time…”
Darkspawn had ravaged the town, and then moved on once there was nothing more to destroy; with the few stragglers dead, the scene of carnage was eerily silent. Bodies littered the ground in endless variations of horror. An elven mother and her child had hidden under a wagon and been trapped beneath it when it burned. A robed Chantry brother was pinned to a wall with a rusty pike. A cluster of templars had made their last stand at the Chantry doors and lay dead, bits of armor stolen by the darkspawn as a final indignity.
Buildings were charred and collapsing. Plants and trees had withered and died; the Blight left not so much as a blade of grass to break the desolation. Even the earth was blackened and broken, jutting up randomly in angry spikes. Nothing stirred. And above it all, over the acrid smoke from burned structures and the nauseating reek of charred flesh and death, was the unmistakable rotting stench of darkspawn.
Leliana, who’d spent the most time in Lothering and knew some of the victims, wept openly. Aedan stood behind her with his arms around her shoulders in support, but his own face was white with shock, and Hohaku was pressed against his leg, whining softly. Morrigan and Sten were impassive as usual, but Wynne radiated quiet sorrow, and even Zevran had lost his normal cheer. And Raven…
Raven stood slightly apart, with silent tears running down her face, and Rob realized… she wasn’t surprised. She had known.
After Kinloch, they’d set out for Denerim to track down a cure for Eamon. Aedan had chosen to head south to pick up the Imperial Highway at Lothering; that way, he said, they could check for any rumors of Dalish clans in the nearby Brecilian Forest when they passed through South Reach. Raven had been unusually quiet all week after that. Rob had thought she was just struggling with their inability to go home, but no… she’d been anticipating this desolation. She’d walked away from Lothering knowing full well those people would suffer horrible deaths… and she’d done nothing.
He couldn’t stand to look at the carnage, wondering if it could have been prevented. “I need to go make sure some friends made it out. I’ll be back in a while.”
“I’ll come with you,” Raven said. He didn’t respond.
Alistair and Aedan got the searching look that meant they were trying to sense darkspawn, but must have found none; they relaxed and Aedan nodded.
“We must do what we can for the dead,” said Leliana, her voice hollow. “I know we do not have time to build pyres for them all, and we must take care not to come into contact with the Blight ourselves… but if we can at least burn the bodies so they cannot rise again or… or be carried off by animals… ” Her voice broke.
Aedan held her closer. “We’ll do what we can, Lel. Rob, let us know what you find. Maybe the corruption won’t be as bad outside the village. We can’t camp here, obviously; keep an eye out for somewhere we can set up for the night.”
He nodded, and the siblings headed out of town toward the Hawkes’ house. Long minutes passed in silence. Finally, Rob could take it no longer. His voice heavy with accusation, his eyes glued to the road ahead, he ground out, “You knew.”
“Yes. The game doesn’t let you go back there to see… all that… but it tells you the town has been destroyed. So yes, I knew.”
He whirled on her. “Then how?!? How could you just leave like that? Jesus Christ, Rae, there were little kids who burned alive while everything they knew was destroyed by monsters!” His voice grew louder as his horrified rage gained momentum. “How the fuck did you just stroll on out, making jokes and getting laid, knowing you left a whole village of people to die?! What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Raven stood facing him, trembling, tears streaming unchecked down her face. “And what exactly was I supposed to do?” she yelled back, voice thick with anguish. It startled him; Rae didn’t yell. “Do you think I didn’t give a shit about those people?! That I just thought, ‘Oh well, they’ll get murdered; bummer’ and went on with my day? If you’re so fucking smart, you tell me what I should have done!”
“They knew the darkspawn were coming. Loghain’s men told them. Tons of refugees told them. Aedan and Alistair – Grey Wardens – told them. We fucking told them. And they made the choice to stay. Should I have stood in the square and screamed that everyone was going to die, like that crazy guy they chased away from the Chantry? They obviously didn’t listen to him. Or hey, maybe I should’ve said I knew for a fact that Lothering would be destroyed, because I can see the future. I bet that would’ve really turned some heads, huh? I bet they’d all have packed up and rushed out of town, stopping only to thank me for my prophecies which they didn’t find weird or demonic at all.” Her anger ran out, and she fell to her knees in the dirt. In a small, broken voice, she asked, “What was I supposed to do?” And she dissolved into great, wracking sobs.
He stood over his sister for a long moment, his face wet and his shaking hands balled into fists in impotent fury. Surely there was something she could have done. If they’d stayed longer… if they’d told Leliana, and gotten her and the Hawkes to help… but Raven was right; the people had been warned, many times over. They either couldn’t or wouldn’t leave, and another voice of doom probably wouldn’t have changed that.
But oh, it was a bitter truth to accept… and he couldn’t help but feel they should at least have tried.
Raven still shuddered with the force of her weeping. Slowly, he knelt beside her. He tried to sound calm, but a storm of anger, hurt, and confusion still raged when he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
The weak sunlight on Raven’s swollen eyelids and red face showed the evidence of her misery when she looked up at him, confused. “I… I never thought of it, I guess. You were already dealing with the weirdness of being here; you didn’t need more stress. Plus I didn’t want to make you more worried for Marian. It didn’t make sense for us to both be miserable when we couldn’t do anything about Lothering anyway.”
Of course. Of course that’s why she hadn’t told him. Because she saw the problem, calculated the totals, and chose the lowest amount of suffering, as if life could be reduced to a mathematical equation. And as usual, she failed to include her own pain in the sum, never considering that her feelings should matter. He shook his head. He was a grown man, a trained Marine, and in a literal suit of armor… and his big sister was still trying to protect him. With a sigh, he hugged her, and they both knelt silently in the road, shedding tears for the lives lost.
When they were both calmer, he took her by the shoulders. “Listen. Promise me you won’t do that again.” She opened her mouth to protest, and he shushed her with a glare. “I’m serious, Rae. You’re probably right that we couldn’t have changed this. But what if we’d talked about it, you and me, maybe even Marian and Bethy and their mom, and we’d thought of something to help at least a little? Even if it only saved one person, it would’ve been something. But you were so busy protecting everybody from the bad scary thing that you didn’t even give us the chance to try.”
She clenched her jaw and her lip quivered, and he felt like a jerk, but he knew he wasn’t wrong. “You aren’t the lone superhero responsible for saving the whole world. Don’t try to do this alone. Let me be here for you. We’re in this together. Okay?”
Unable to speak, she just nodded. They rose and continued toward Marian’s house, trailing tears behind them in the dust.
It was good the Hawkes weren’t coming back home to Lothering, because the templars would’ve come for Bethany in a heartbeat. She and her mage father had clearly maintained protective wards for years, because the darkspawn taint ended in a neat circle a hundred yards from the house in every direction.
“The circle will fade eventually, but we should be safe for tonight,” Wynne said with approval. “These wards were well done. It’s a pity this friend of yours never came to the Circle; she’s obviously quite skilled.”
Morrigan opened her mouth for a snarky response, but Aedan cut her off with a sharp look. “Don’t, Morrigan. Just don’t.” The witch fell silent with a disdainful sniff.
Dusk had finally fallen, and the party was gathered in the Hawkes’ home. They’d all taken turns using the bathing tub in the workroom, desperate to be clean after burning corpses all day in the oppressive summer heat, choked with smoke and ash. They’d made dinner, but of course no one had an appetite.
Conversation was subdued, and before long Raven and Rob found their familiar beds. Morrigan considered bunking with Raven, but when Alistair spread his bedroll on the floor, she grumbled, shapeshifted into a cat, and wandered off. Zevran eyed the empty space hopefully, but Alistair gave him such an intense glare that he sighed and went off to sleep elsewhere.
Rob lay awake in the quiet room, wishing for a breeze and trying not to think. The dim moonlight through the window reminded him of all that happened since he’d slept there last… which led to wondering if Marian was safe. He was glad Morrigan left. Though he defensively reminded himself he and Marian never even dated, having the mage literally take her place felt wrong.
“Lady Raven?” Alistair called softly. “Are you awake?”
“Yes… and I keep saying, it’s just Raven.” Clearly no one else had been able to fall asleep either.
“Right. Raven. Sorry.” Rob hadn’t known voices could blush, but Alistair’s did. “I just… you seemed upset earlier. Understandably, I mean; it was awful, probably worse for someone not used to battle. Are you… I know this is a stupid question, but are you all right?”
Her sigh drifted through the darkness. “As much as anyone could be, I guess.”
“I know what you mean. I asked Leliana if we should have stayed, tried to help more people. She said we have to focus on stopping the Blight. That as terrible as it feels, we have to serve the greater good.” The Warden sounded troubled. “I… I’m not so sure about that. I felt bad leaving all those people there, all panicked and helpless. I can’t help feeling there should’ve been some way to save them.”
Knowing Alistair shared his own sentiments was gratifying, until Rae asked in a tiny voice, “Do… do you think we could have changed things?”
After a long pause, he sighed. “No, I suppose not, not really. We did warn them. And if we’d taken any longer to reach Redcliffe, everyone there would have died. I hate it… but I honestly don’t know how we could’ve done anything else.”
Rob was of two minds about that. He wanted to argue; he wasn’t ready to accept that so many deaths had been out of anyone’s control. But if Alistair had condemned their inaction, Rae probably would’ve shut herself inside her shell again. As frustrated as he was with her high-handedness, he didn’t want her hurt.
“I did try… ” Her voice was so soft that he barely heard it. “I told people to get out, go to Amaranthine, or Gwaren, or even just South Reach. I wrote some letters for that rude merchant near the Chantry, and used the money he paid me to buy travel rations for refugees. I made potions for the templars, and nagged them to make everyone leave.” Her voice grew strained. “I tried and it wasn’t good enough. I didn’t change anything; I didn’t save them. I couldn’t… I couldn’t fix it…”
Cloth rustled, and Alistair’s silhouette shadowed the side of Raven’s bed as he sat up on the floor. “Hey now,” the Warden said gently. “First of all, you’re only one person. You can’t save the world all by yourself.”
“That’s what everyone expects of you and Aedan.”
“Well that’s… different. And besides, we’re not alone either; we have you to help us. You and the others, I mean. Even Morrigan, as much as it pains me to admit.” Raven gave a shaky laugh in response, as he no doubt intended. “But also… how do you know you didn’t save anyone? People died, yes, but maybe fewer of them because of your help.”
“… maybe, I guess.”
“When we first sensed the coming Blight, I asked Duncan how the few Wardens we had could possibly prevail over something that in the past had taken decades or even centuries to defeat. He told me, ‘You don’t defeat the Blight, Alistair. You use all your heart and skill to defeat the darkspawn in front of you, and then the next one, and the next. As long as you keep doing that and don’t give up, you’ll have done your part, which is all any man can do.’”
It sounded like good advice, Rob thought, and heard Raven echo his opinion.
“He was a good man,” Alistair said softly. “But the point is, you did what you could. Even the prophet Andraste didn’t finish all she set out to do; how could we expect to do better?” He laughed. “When I was a boy, some disapproving sister would’ve slapped my hand with a stick for such blasphemy, but it’s true.”
“I won’t slap your hand,” Rae said, and reached out to wrap her fingers around his. After a long moment, he lay back on his blankets, but the moonlight silvered her arm where he’d gently drawn it down toward him over the edge of the bed.
“Goodnight, Raven,” he replied, and didn’t let go.
Friday, 1 Solace, 9:30 Dragon
The week or so since Lothering had thankfully been less eventful, though they did find the odd darkspawn straggler on the road to South Reach. Once they’d entered the Brecilian Forest, though, they’d encountered no enemies at all… no darkspawn, no bandits, not even many animals. Leliana said the forest was said to be home to old, old magic, and perhaps it gave the darkspawn pause like the wards around Marian’s house. And as for bandits… she said even most bandits weren’t stupid enough to enter the forest when Dalish elves were passing through.
After the bard’s tales, Rob had been expecting something vaguely like the elves from the Lord of the Rings movies. When the Dalish finally made themselves known (after everyone had been feeling watched for days), he adjusted his assessment. Less tall. Less blond. More artsy face tattoos. Similar levels of stealthy forest skills and arrogant hostility, though.
He watched as Aedan spoke to the head elf, Keeper Zathrian. “So,” he asked his sister quietly, “what are the chances that bald tattooed Elrond here is going to say, ‘Hey, no problem, Mr. Warden; my guys will show up for your war a week from Tuesday’?”
Raven laughed. “’Bald Elrond;’ nice. And remember what I said about NPCs giving you the run-around? Yeah, that. Bonus jackass points because this guy already knows the answer to the problem he’s going to send us to figure out. On the bright side, he’s still less of a pain in the ass than the dwarves we’ll have to deal with later, so there’s that.”
“…great. You know, it would be nice if anyone, ever, would consider that maybe the middle of a Blight would be a good time to handle their own shit so they could focus on the bigger picture.”
“Yeah, but it would make a really boring game.”
Aedan and Alistair approached, looking grim, and the siblings moved closer to the rest of the party. “Well,” the dark-haired Warden said, “in line with the rest of our luck, it would seem this clan of Dalish has been attacked by werewolves. The elves won’t help us until they’re safe, which will be when the elder wolf dies. And conveniently, here we are, armed and armored.”
“You’re shitting me,” Rob said. “First zombies, then demons, now werewolves? What’s next, vampires?”
The rest of the group looked confused, but Raven chuckled. “No vampires, sorry. There are blood mages though; does that count?”
“I dunno; it’s really gonna be tough to complete my classic monster bingo card without vampires.”
“Stick around long enough, and we’ll have to fight the Archdemon… an evil god/giant dragon two-for-one combo. Pretty sure that counts as bingo all by itself.”
“Okay,” Aedan cut in, “I won’t pretend that wasn’t fascinating, but we need to get moving. And this part, nobody’s going to like.” He looked resigned. “The Dalish request that we leave half our party here to help defend the village. Since I’m quite certain their scouts would’ve refused our help if we offered, I suspect this is a ploy to keep hostages to ensure we comply.”
The grumbles of anger and dismay started immediately, but he quieted them with a glare. “I don’t love this either. But frankly, my capacity for arguing about stupid shite is utterly gone. I want to get the elves’ support and get the fuck out of here… so we can cure Eamon and put all this on the shoulders of someone who knows what in the Void they’re doing. So if the elves say half of us stay, then half of us stay. Are we clear?” For a moment, the weight of years settled on the Warden’s young shoulders, and Rob was reminded that this man had spent the last several months watching violent death come to almost everyone he met. No wonder his give-a-damn was broken; they were lucky he was sane at all. Quietly, he nodded, and the others followed suit.
“Good. Sten, Morrigan, Zevran, Leliana, and Rob, you’re with the Dalish. Alistair, Wynne, Hohaku, and Raven are with me. Separate out your gear; we leave in the next hour.”
Tense, Rob followed Aedan as he walked away. He didn’t want to argue what had clearly been orders, but the idea of sending his sister into a forest of werewolves without him to protect her was terrifying. He forced himself to sound calm. “Hey… I don’t wanna be a dick about this, but can I just ask what the reasoning is for who’s staying and going?”
Aedan smiled tiredly. “You don’t want Raven to go without you, I know. But I need her to provide information on Dalish lore. And since I still haven’t had the chance to discuss your… homeland with her, the middle of an empty forest should be as good a place to talk as any.” He recited the members of their group as he checked his supplies. “Wynne has a former student who may be living in the forest, and she has healing spells, so she goes. Therefore, Morrigan stays. Hohaku can track scents, so he goes. I only need one large metal meat shield, and I’ve decided to bring Alistair.”
“Can I ask why?”
“Oh, reasons.” He grinned suddenly. “Similar to the reason I’m not bringing Zevran.” Rob glanced over and saw Raven and Alistair standing just slightly too close together, trying (and failing) to look casual about it.
He laughed. “Warden Cousland, are you trying to set up my sister?”
Aedan smiled, unrepentant. “With all this darkness… if they have a chance to be happy, they should take it.”
“Fair enough. Good luck managing Raven, then. She’s a pro at finding reasons not to let herself be happy.”
“Well, given that I’m leaving you and Leliana to make sure Sten, Zevran, and Morrigan don’t piss off the elves too much, I think I’ll have the easier task. Even with fighting werewolves.”
Rob groaned. “You know, you’re probably right.”
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 17: The Best Policy)