"I heard it happened in Orlais," Lyna Mahariel shrugged as they walked across the farmlands of Amaranthine, "And that he was extremely religious, and laughably valiant."
"It's just one of those tavern myths. It's not true." Nathaniel Howe shook his head.
They passed beneath a grove of apple trees, and he reached up to grab a low-hanging fruit. The land around them was slowly turning golden and red with autumn, and the air was crisper and cleaner than at any other time of year. In the distance, the sun was just beginning to set, and the sky above them was as pink as a rose.
"Just because I heard it in a tavern doesn't make it a tavern myth." Mahariel replied, taking the apple he handed to her and holding it between her hands.
A great sadness was hanging between the two of them, but they would not speak of it. And they would not speak of the emptiness that it had brought it to them, or the friends that they had lost. So they meandered along the land, distracting one another from the things they did not wish to dwell on.
"I'm reasonably sure that it does, actually."
The story they were talking about was a tale of supernatural adventure that had been making the rounds in Fereldan, and it went like this:
A young man was travelling to the seat of the Chantry of Andraste in Val Royeaux, as part of his pilgrimage to become invested as a brother. He was the third son of the Vaels, the monarchs of Starkhaven, and had been foisted upon the Chantry to prevent him from bringing shame to the family. Nobody in any of the taverns was clear on what kind of shame his cloistering was supposed to avoid, but it seemed to work - the young man had become very devout, and nobody outside of the Free Marches knew who the Vaels were.
He rode across Orlais on an old grey country horse, wearing smooth white armour that shone as pure as his faith in the sunlight. His face was handsome, open and honest, and his eyes were bluer than the sky. They said that Andraste smiled at him on the day he was born, and watched over him still. Perhaps it was She who saw to it that he had skill with a bow, so that he might better ease wicked men of their lives.
There was a small settlement on the coast, near to Val Chevin, where he stopped to water his horse and find a bed to sleep upon. The place was made up of log houses and dirt paths, and the people who lived there were simple and modest. A man with iron grey hair and a deep scar over one eye, the mayor of the place, came forward to meet the Free Marcher as he made his way into the town.
"Good sir," He said, according to the most popular version, "I see by your armour that you are a man of the Maker, and we heard you sing the Chant as you came upon us. And the bow you keep tells me that you are a skilled hunter, or perhaps an archer of some note. We are a humble people, in desperate need of aid - every night, we are attacked by raiders and marauders who would steal what we have and kill us all."
"But why?" The Free Marcher asked, "This seems like a place of little significance to thieves."
"I swear I do not know why this has befallen us, only that we cannot go on."
"Very well. I shall set an ambush for these raiders as twilight falls, and by the Maker I will save ye." (This declaration was the cause of much debate among the tellers of the tale, for it was often agreed that the Free Marcher was a bit of a ponce, but it was unknown if he was the kind of a ponce who said ye.)
So that he might rest during the day, they arranged a room for him in the home of a widow. She was neither young nor old, with eyes like warm tea and hair like spun gold. She brought the Free Marcher meals, asked him about the place he came from, and told him about the settlement and their ways. And then, as the hero prepared himself for the battle to come, she placed a hand upon the back of his neck and whispered in his ear with soft cherry lips.
"How might I thank you for all you would do for us?"
"You shame your Maker with such suggestions, Woman," The Free Marcher answered her, "Guard your virtue - and leave me to guard the town."
Allegedly, the widow spent the rest of the day weeping.
A handful of local men had formed a militia to help the Free Marcher protect their homes. They were ragged men, armed only with farm implements and their convictions, who spoke little and feared the worst. The Free Marcher had ordered his men to wait upon the hill that looked down onto the road the raiders came by. On his signal, they would attack and take the villains by surprise.
Beneath the cloak of darkness he waited, upon his horse with his bow at the ready. The air about him chilled to freezing, and it was near the witching hour when the flickers of torchlight fell upon the road. He could not make out their numbers, but there did not seem to be many. The Free Marcher pulled back on his bowstring, but before he could fall into action, two arrows pierced the air and struck his horse. The animal whinnied its death cry, its legs buckled beneath it and it threw the archer from his saddle.
He tumbled to the ground, clattering in his fine white armour, and pain raced through him from head to toe. And when he found his feet again, all of the men around him were dead. But their bodies were not stabbed, nor pierced with arrows, nor beheaded by axes. They were mutilated, gore-covered things that looked as though they had been torn open by the claws of some impossible creature. No story-teller had yet found the stomach to recount the true sight of them.
The Free Marcher ran into the village with all his haste, but he was met only by more corpses. It was impossible for murderers to move so quickly, to strike down so many in so short a time and with such unyielding violence, and he began to suspect that there was some power of evil lurking beneath his vision. They were all dead - lying in the crimson-streaked streets, crumpled like bags of old clothes behind their doors. He had failed every last one of them. He wondered what lesson the Maker wished to teach him.
Finally, he came to the widow's house. She was sprawled upon the table, her eyes staring blankly at the ceiling, blood trickling from the side of her mouth and a gaping cavity in her chest where her heart was supposed to be. He felt a little badly for rebuking her so harshly earlier in the day, and he gently closed her eyes and moved along.
It seemed somehow irreverent to him to sleep in one of the homes that held the dead, so he made his bed from the straw in one of the barns and let sleep find him there. He still ached from the fall from the horse, and the burden of his failure pulled him into an overwhelming melancholy. There was no energy in him to bury the bodies that night.
When he awoke, he was surprised to find that the man with the iron-grey hair and the scar over one eye stood at his feet. Standing behind him were some people from the village, whom the Free Marcher had seen mutilated and dead in the streets only hours ago.
"Good sir," The mayor said, "Please do not look so startled, we mean you no harm. Travels make a man weary, and none among us would begrudge you a bed so humble. I see by your armour that you are a man of the Maker, and the bow you keep tells me that you are a skilled hunter, or perhaps an archer of some note. We are a humble people, in desperate need of aid - every night, we are attacked by raiders and marauders who would steal all we have and… Why do you look at me with such terror? You do not have to fight them if there is so strong a streak of cowardice in you, stranger."
"It is not that I fear marauders, Messere," The Free Marcher shook his head, "It is that you are the heathen undead; and though I have heard tales of your kind, I have not spoken to one before."
"Why would you say such a horrible thing, foreigner?"
"Because it's true! Every night you die in a very disturbing fashion! And you will die again tonight, and tomorrow night most likely. I know not the nature of this curse, or why it should befall you. Perhaps you were a particularly sinful village?" He suggested, shooting a judgemental glance at the widow who stood among the crowd.
"What does he mean?" The villagers asked, shaking their head and looking very puzzled. They didn't feel like they were zombies, and they were pretty sure they would have noticed.
The Free Marcher explained the events of the night before, placing special emphasis on the fact that it was simply impossible for a man of no magical talent to move fast enough to save them. He explained that no one could release them from their self-imposed prison, and the nightly attacks would never stop until they atoned for whatever they had done. The Maker would probably forgive them, he mentioned enthusiastically.
"There can be no atonement," A voice said from the back of the crowd, and they parted to let a young man step forward. He was nothing impressive to look at, just a gangly youth with mouse brown hair and a face not worth remembering. But his voice was that of the other world, as though it came from the Black City itself. "This feast of souls is mine, and I will not relinquish it. I feed on them in death as I fed on their bodies in life, and their memories sustain me. They strengthen me. They quiet the hunger."
"Of what do you speak?" The Free Marcher asked, backing away from the lad uneasily, "What manner of unholy creature are you?"
"I am not unholy. I merely wish to feed, for I am hungry."
"A demon, then? And it is you who slew these villagers, not the marauders that they believe. Then I am obligated to destroy you, in the name of Andraste, and free these souls from whatever torment you hold them in."
All at once, it was extremely obvious that there was only one way in and out of the barn, and that it was quite a small barn, and that the figures of the villagers were changing somewhat. No longer did they have the pallor of the living, but instead the blue and shrivelled skin of the long-dead. Their eyes had become as white as milk, and stared out at the Free Marcher with empty minds. They were all around him. Waiting. Blocking his path and hindering his movement. He could not get back far enough to nock his bow and fire upon the fiend that approached him.
"It has been so long since I ate from the living. I grow bored of the carrion flesh that waits for burial, and these withered souls are a poor substitute for the warmth of new blood and the splendour of a beating heart." The young man stepped closer still to the Free Marcher, "I am hungry, mortal. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry."
It was said that the young man then transformed into a tremendous form unlike anything of the Fade or beyond. It was a bloated, purple thing with arms made to tear at meat and a mouth with three rows of teeth; though its waist was whittled and small, as though it were cursed with emptiness. The creature meant only to consume the Free Marcher, it lusted to devour him.
There was little choice available to the man, if he wanted to survive and keep all of his pieces. He drew an arrow from his quiver and stabbed it through the stomach of one of the undead villagers. The villager stumbled, and the Free Marcher pushed past towards the door. It was often said that he had moved so swiftly, the monsters swung at his shadow and did not see him escape.
Once outside, he readied his bow and took aim. He prayed that he might have the strength to vanquish the demon before him, and when the thing appeared - crashing through the wooden walls around the door of the barn - the Free Marcher fired. The first arrow struck the demon's neck, but only served to infuriated it. Still the Free Marcher held his ground and fired again, with more strength than before. The second arrow struck, and the third, and soon he noticed that his muscles did not grow tired with each shot. Quite the opposite was true. He was becoming invigorated, and each arrow tore through the air with increasing power. They were guided by the divine, a righteous chain that struck again and again at the monster's hideous form until it fell upon the ground and wailed its death cry. To any other warrior, it would have been a gruelling fight with all the advantages his foe's, but to the blessed son of Starkhaven it was the work of only a moment. With one final arrow - an arrow of the Maker's judgement itself - he finished the demon and all was silent.
Some say the Free Marcher cleansed the town with fire, and that it stands no more. Others say that he spent the day burying the skeletons of the villagers who were longer dead than any knew. But all agree that the souls were released from the dark clutches of the Hunger Demon, and some rose to walk beside the Maker and others were cast into Oblivion, as is usually the case.
At last the Free Marcher made his way to Val Royeaux without further incident, and later returned to the land he had come from, and was made a brother in the Chantry as he had hoped.
Mahariel and Nathaniel talked about the tale, comparing the versions that they'd heard to the adventures that they'd had. They sat on a hillside and watched the harvest moon fill the sky, and spoke in careful voices.
"Even if it is true, which I still greatly doubt, the man was a terrible archer," Nathaniel noted, "Who willingly takes aim on horseback? And what kind of idiot doesn't bring a second weapon for close quarters combat? Especially if he's travelling alone…"
"I don't know. Seems like the Maker did all of the dangerous parts. He probably didn't need to be all that good." Mahariel sighed, smiling at the twinkling stars that were beginning to peek through the darkness.
"And who wears glimmering white armour to an ambush by night? He might as well have stood at the road into the village and yelled all of his plans in the general direction of any marauders who happened to be waiting nearby."
"It didn't matter anyway, since his plan was doomed to failure," She replied, "The part that bothers me is when his horse is killed. Who fired those arrows? Was it the demon?"
"I imagine that since the demon had taken the form of one of the villagers, that the answer is yes. I've noticed that Hunger Demons tend to set very confusing, elaborate traps," Nathaniel mused, "They're perpetually starving, so they're probably quite unstable."
Mahariel nodded, but the answer didn't really satisfy her.
"Did you ever hear of a family called Vael, when you were living in the Free Marches?"
"Probably. But you could fill a very large book with the things I decided not to pay attention to during my time abroad. Though I did live in Starkhaven awhile, and they do have a royal family."
The two of them sat in a calm, contemplative silence for a long while until she spoke again:
"Still…" She hesitated for a moment, "I hope that it's true. Even if there's some exaggeration, or parts that were nothing but fiction. It feels good to think that somewhere out there is somebody else who can't walk five miles without finding a haunted village."
"Yes," Nathaniel laughed softly, "In a way it does."
They stood up, brushed the grass from themselves and walked down towards the winding path that led back to Vigil's Keep.
"But apart from all that," Mahariel said, "If he is real, I hope he never leaves the Chantry for the Grey Wardens. He sounds like he'd be nothing but a headache."
"You know…" Nathaniel said as they strolled home, "I think that they were called the Vaels."