Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Two

by artrald

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*

Aveline

It is perhaps yet another sign of the Maker’s sense of humour, just how long it’s possible to take over selling your life. Morbid thought? Yes. No apologies for that; it was what it was. Would you prefer some entertaining lies? The sergeant and her husband and the family she’d accidentally taken up with – the Hawke family, indeed, though that name hadn’t the fame then that it did later – they’d decided nearly an hour ago that they were making this place a last stand. They’d killed a good thirty or so assorted darkspawn on this hilltop, mostly of the human-sized breed; they’d killed an ogre; they’d managed to – to – mostly avoid contamination; their casualties were stunningly light.

Put that way, it doesn’t sound so horrible. The sergeant had faced the darkspawn before; she’d fought ogres before, even. And a running battle with a good three-dozen darkspawn followed by a knock-down drag-out fight with an ogre, from which the force had emerged with one dead and two walking casualties, one light, would’ve been seen as spectacular for any light unit.

Much easier to say when the dead man’s mother wasn’t right there weeping over his body, when nobody knew his name was Carver Hawke, when his little sister – a mage, no less, a literal spitfire who’d turned the ogre into dust and ashes with a word – wasn’t standing there with a fist crammed into her mouth to still her own sobbing. Much easier to say when the ‘serious walking casualty’ wasn’t the sergeant’s own dear husband, propped against a rock now, fading in and out of consciousness and trying to pretend that the contamination running in his blood wasn’t wracking his every breath with agony. When the ‘light casualty’ wasn’t the sergeant herself, a broken wrist meaning that the use of a shield was denied her and fighting at all would prove complicated.

Night was falling. Except, of course, that the bloody girl was afraid of the dark. Apparently the word ‘conspicuous’ wasn’t one that she’d been taught, wherever it was that she’d learned to throw fireballs and turn night into day. Or alternatively, having made the decision to make a last stand, having seen her brother die, she was determined to make all of that true. Regardless, whatever the cause, as the twilight began to gather and the shadows lengthen elsewhere, there was a degree past which it did not get dark upon that hilltop.

It didn’t take long for things to come out of the gathering gloom. More darkspawn, of course, attracted by the light. Irrational it might be to decide that the creatures looked larger and more dangerous away from daylight hours, but one supposes that they could well have been bolder; nevertheless, whatever the reason, the circle of sourceless light around the hilltop was relatively quickly ringed with the creatures. With only three combatants left standing, and one of those a terrified and unpredictable magelet, there was no question of a sally to scatter them; without such a sally, eventually the darkspawn’s numbers would overwhelm in their minds their fear of the light and that would have been an end of it all.

Would have been, of course, were it not for the other thing which that light had attracted. For in the moment that the darkspawn chose to break the standoff, there was a sound that seemed to come from directly overhead, a sound like one might imagine the cry of some great eagle, and the one spawn that didn’t flinch back out of the light was suddenly gone in a blur of motion and a gust of wind.

A quickly stolen glance upward was little help: a dark shape, too large to be a bird, the sudden spread of great dark wings as it turned high in the air, discarding the thing it’d snatched up in its claws to fall flailing to its death – but only a glance could be afforded. Darkspawn are quick clever savage things, ever ready to take advantage of a moment’s distraction; their response to the sudden loss of one of their compatriots was much more one of confusion than terror, and the moment that confusion was spent they would be right back about their work.

Except that the creature, whatever it was, was not done with the darkspawn yet. Another sweeping blur of motion and one of the taller spawn was sent sprawling into the others, its body ruined by some colossal impact, just as a stooping hawk will sometimes kill its prey with a blow from a clenched fist rather than a raking claw. And now the darkspawn were becoming less interested in the little knot of humans; the flying thing was clearly a foe of theirs, and they raised weapons and closed ranks and Aveline narrowed her eyes – the warrior’s instinct to strike the instant her enemy’s back was turned would only get everybody killed.

The great dark creature wheeled again – great feathered wings and forked tail spreading against the twilit sky, the neck somehow too long, the body too thin for its massive wings – and then it descended, straight towards the massed darkspawn and their seeming forest of wickedly pointed weapons.

But the thing was no mere beast. It arched itself smoothly over the braced points as it came, flew low over them, its wings suddenly opening with a crack like thunder and a gust of wind as it turned directly over the humans’ heads. And it made noise – again the high eagle-like cry, but it was almost as if there were words in it – and the magelet screamed and grabbed her brother and the sergeant and pulled their heads down and there was an instant of blazing light and furnace heat.

And when the humans looked back again, there were not darkpawn there, and running feet could be heard splashing terrified down the hill, and no great dark beast hovered in the sky above them, and there was simply a black-haired shoeless old peasant woman in an ordinary-looking brown homespun tunic standing there at the edge of the circle of light.

Shocked into dumbness by the abrupt incongruity of it all, Aveline hesitated; the magelet was still letting out little quiet noises of fear with every breath; her brother stepped forward, his manner very much unconcerned, and he gave the best fake smile one could ever hope for.

“Nice trick,” he said, in much the same way you’d talk to a conjurer at a fair. “I must say, I liked the wings particularly. Fire, yes, very serviceable, and the fear of the unknown and the terrifyingly clawed – but just speaking for myself, here? I think it was the wings that set it off.”

“Flatterer.”  The woman’s voice was rich and warm, well-supported and motherly, the kind of voice that one might wish to grow into, the kind of voice that said that here was one whom age had empowered and not wearied. “That makes it twice in a week that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a nice young thing. Try and make it three-for-three, young man -” she nods to the still-smouldering remains of the dead ogre not twenty feet distant – “and tell me. Whose trick was that?”

The young fellow gave a little half-bow. “Call it one of those two-person jobs, a bait and a switch. Where we’d define ‘bait’ as ‘a traditional Fereldan dance, with knives’. And ‘switch’?” Involuntary glance at his sister. “We’d probably talk about that in terms much the same as the nice bit of fire just demonstrated for us by your ladyship.”

She let out a snort. “I’m no kind of ship, boy. And your answer, it leads mostly to another question, although I do suppose I ought to be asking the one who knows.” Turning to the young mage, who responded by freezing completely like a startled rabbit – “What is a creature like you doing in a place like this?”

And Bethany swallowed hard to unstick a dry throat and tried to ape her brother’s flippant tone, though what actually came out of her mouth was far too thin and high to be believable. “Believe you me, sera, I’ve been w-wondering that myself for at least the past hour or two. I wouldn’t like to, to give you the idea that I made a habit of it?”

The thing that looked like an old woman chuckled. “I imagine you wouldn’t, at that. But I’m no knight either, girl – still you’re using words for me that don’t fit. You fled from Lothering, yes? Going north, away from the horde?” Her expression remaining kind, pleasant and quite at odds with the situation. “Would it interest you to know that you have become turned around – that Lothering is almost due east of here, and there is nearly as much horde to your north as there was when you ran?”

“We know.” Aveline found her voice from somewhere. “Or – at least – I did.” The look that the others shot her might well have been deserved. “I could hardly have led us against impossible odds if another path was available.”

“Indeed?” A raised eyebrow. “And where were you going on this path, hmm?” She gestures towards the setting sun. “The nearest outpost of what you call civilisation in that direction is in Orlais, maybe a month and a half of travel for a well-supplied expedition that doesn’t mind mountains over much. To the south – while there aren’t really that many of the darkspawn – there isn’t anything else until long after you walk off most civilised people’s maps. And to the north, well, as I have said: there is somewhat of a surplus of danger just now. What was your way out?”

Aveline scowled, stung. “Possibly the world is different if you can fly, grandmother. But from down here, living another hour was a little higher-up in our minds than planning a damned route. Does that satisfy your curiosity?”

“Perhaps.” A sniff, a look down the woman’s long pointed nose. “My only living daughter is a maiden – or, at least, she’s doing very well for herself if she isn’t still. Anyway, as you say, my curiosity is salved for another evening. I thank you for your honesty, gentles, and for what passes for hospitality among people whose only worthwhile possession in the world is a pool of light.” She began to turn away. “And I suppose I should be on about my-”

“Hey!” Tobias was the one to interrupt her, crossing the space between them and grabbing her by the shoulder. “You can’t just leave them here.”

“Perhaps not.” The old lady looked down at his hand with a meaningful air that he just as blithely ignored. “Come into my house, would you, trailing all and sundry behind you on a string, light a fire in the hearth and leave open the door without so much as a by-your-leave, and then complain when the leaves blow in and there’s no more wood? I’ve burned entire villages for less, boy.”

Tobias narrowed his eyes. “What if I offered a thing? In trade for their lives?”

She turned to face him, and in what looked a little like a swirl of smoke it turned out that he wasn’t holding onto her at all any more. “Go on, clever-tongue. What d’you think you know? I’m positively agog.”

“Gog, are you?” A quick and ready smile, and he turned the hand he’d had on her shoulder into a courtly bow. “Then you’re short for a giant, and prettier than the stories say.  But I think that that isn’t your name at all.”

“You’re not half so funny as you think you are.” The words came back like sparks off a blade. “But go on, then, ser flatterer. Speak your piece.”

“Very well, O Flemeth, Witch of the Wilds, Flemeth the great and mighty, Flemeth the wronged, Flemeth the layer-low of castle and knight and monster alike, Flemeth who steals not babes from their cradles but strong, young, beautiful men.” He smiled, then, ragged, mud-smeared, bedraggled, and his teeth were very white. “For the lives of my mother, my sister, my friends, I offer you mine. Do with me as you will.” His eyes met hers levelly. “Only see them safe.”

For a moment there was silence on the hilltop. Not even the rain dared to make a sound. Tobias didn’t move, didn’t blink, hardly breathing. The witch’s eyes, glittering coal-black in the twilight, fixed on his. Then, slowly, she smiled. Not cruelly, not like the evil creature of the stories, but entertained, amused, approving, and the merriment that bubbled under her words was warm and genuine. “I think I like you, boy. Back to a wall, surrounded on three sides, confused, alone, threatened and lost, and your first instinct is to double your stake? Yes, I think I like you more than a little. And you did guess my name.” The smile broadened. “I’ve no use for what you offer, and I’ve no reason to put myself out for you in the slightest: and yet, and yet, indeed.” She extended her hand to him, her fingernails starling-wing black as if lacquered, the ring on her finger a simple silver band. “I’ll take your bargain.”

And never did his eyes leave hers, and never did that rogue’s smile leave his face, and he took her hand. “You’ll see them safe away from the darkspawn, and not in the hands of something worse.”

“I’ll see them safe, deliver them into the hands of nothing more or less than fate, and whether that’s worse than the creatures I scared off with a kind word and a smile tonight, that’s for them to say.” A little of the predator, there was, about that smile. “And you’ll place yourself at my disposal? Submit yourself to my will? Be my creature, till I release you or tire of you or break you?”

And he bowed his head over her hand and put his lips to the witch’s ring, and his sister made a little squeak of a noise and squeezed tight her mother’s hand, and as he raised his head he said, “Done.”

So the witch took a pace back from him in another swirl of smoke, and where he had been holding her hand, now he held only that ring. “My word is given,” she said. “Oh, to be young: off the precipice you go, not a care in the world, not a look back, and all on the say-so of a curious old lady of dubious moral fibre.”

“Right you are.” Still smiling, still unruffled. “But sometimes, O Witch, sometimes when you fall, you fly.”

She gave a snort. “I do. Do you?”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll think of something on the way down.” He closed his fingers about her ring. “May I have a minute to say farewell to my mother, mistress?”

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” she said. “You see, I can’t have you staying here.”

He blinked, taken aback. “Uh. Come again?”

“What would you eat?” And her smile was suddenly very much that of the cat with the mouse. “You’re going with them, dear.”

*

What happened next is somewhat personal, and difficult to relate; it is possibly understandable that the writer’s memory of events is more than a little uneven. Nevertheless, in the interests of an account that is not entirely disjointed, the sequence of events is roughly thus.

The witch turned to the man who’d unblinkingly sold her his life for his companions’, and she explained in terms so obtuse as to be mocking that all of them, him included, were to follow her closely and look neither to right nor left, and she would walk them to safety.

Of course, this was more than a little unacceptable. And when Tobias failed to see this, it fell to Aveline to point it out. “My husband,” she said, or words to that effect. “He can hardly stand, let alone-”

“No,” said the old woman, meaningfully. She did not even bother to spare the man a glance, propped up against his rock, his face grey in the half-light where it wasn’t smeared with black mud, with his blood, with the blood of the foe. “That is little of my concern,” she said, and her face was stone.

Aveline rolled her shoulders back, summoned up some backbone from somewhere and looked coolly into those coal-dark eyes. “We’re hardly going without him.”

“But, my dear, he is dying.” Flemeth’s face held less compassion in it than the stormclouds behind her. “You think to save him, by making him die somewhere else rather than here?”

The sergeant set her jaw. “I think that I’m not leaving him.” She didn’t reach for a weapon – there would have been little point. “I think your word of honour worth a little more, Flemeth of the Wilds. I think you ought to be shamed, to fall short of the tales by which we know you.”

“I am not forsworn.” The witch’s smile vanished like a shadow before the light. “The polite young man, his family and his friends, I said – and I tell you plain that no man with a Gifted sister has a templar for a friend.”

“And what if I say different?” Tobias spoke up loud and clear. “What if I say that Wesley and I are boon-companions indeed, if unlikely ones? If I say that we could not -” Flemeth’s gaze fell upon him and his voice faltered; he clenched his fists and very deliberately continued speaking – “That, as I say, we could not in good conscience leave him to die alone in the dark?”

Flemeth’s voice went very cold, very still, very deliberate. “Then I would not leave him to die, and his death would not be alone or in darkness. You are entertaining indeed, my boy, but uttering such words in your position would see you educated in what happens to those who set incautious snares with lying tongues.”

And he held the witch’s gaze for a long moment more, and then his eyes flicked to the sergeant’s, and then to his sister’s, and Aveline knew she’d lost. He bowed his head. “I understand. Wesley is not my friend. His wife is.”

Flemeth nodded shortly. “Aveline Vallenn, you’ve this choice for free. Know that I am an apostate; know that unlike yon fledgeling, I freely and happily offend against the law of a Chantry that brands me with all kinds of evil, and the aid I offer will not go where it isn’t wanted. You are not making this choice with eyes shut. Your husband will die if you come, and you both will die if you stay: if you do not wish to leave him in his final moments, I’ll grant you that time.”

A chill ran down Aveline’s spine that had nothing to do with the cold. “To… say goodbye,” she said, and the words tasted like bile. Like hatred.

“You take my meaning correctly.” The cold-hearted bitch inclined her head. “Come, Tobias, bring your family; we should give them what space we can.”

What could they do? They moved. Slowly, dazedly. The wan circle of light went with Tobias’ terrified mouse of a sister. In the mother’s eyes was pity, and Aveline would rather have spat on her than receive it.

She knelt down next to her husband and their faces were in shadow. It would have been easier if he were awake. It would – have been easier if he were dead.

Neither thing was true.

There were no excuses.

Aveline lived.

*

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