Forming a natural border between Ferelden and Imperial Orlais are the Frostback Mountains, a harsh and dynamic landscape in which only the strong survive. The inhabitants here are collectively known as the Avvars; thought of as mere barbarians by 'lowlanders', but in truth a very old and resilient culture that share common ancestry with their Ferelden neighbors.
It is said that Avvars "laugh easily, love freely, and kill swiftly." They believe life should be uncomplicated, accepting the blessings and chastisements of their animistic deities with equal aplomb. As a promising young warrior of your tribe, the time has come to embark on a vision quest, to determine what path you will set upon at this crossroads in your life.
Bradán Ar Siobhan sat stone-faced and stripped to the waist before a roaring bonfire, as he had since the setting of the Sun, hours ago. This was as much a test of his mettle as any battle he might face. Bands of black tattoos around his biceps commemorated deeds of cunning and valor that were the envy of his peers. When his clan's shaman announced that the gods were calling for Bradán to embark on a spirit walk, all knew that more honors would lie ahead for him.
The shaman had been circling Bradán for the better part of the evening, her arthritic hands rubbing a foul-smelling paste of roots and berries into the young warrior's taught muscles. He was already feeling the effects of this secret concoction, a heightened awareness that was supposed to make him receptive to messages from the spirit realm. His vision swam with color and motion, cataloging the minute detail of his surroundings with strange acuity.
The ritual was being held in a ring of stone totems, erected here by some forgotten tribe whom thought to please the gods with these graven images. The piercing eyes of an eagle, ever-watchful behind its ax-like beak, represented The Lady of the Skies. The wavering light of the bonfire cast dancing shadows between the bared fangs of Hakkon Wintersbreath; the wolf his symbol. The blunt face of a bear represented Korth the Mountain-Father; patient yet stern, and not to be trifled with.
Bradán and the shaman were isolated in this ring from those in observance, save for a few costumed dancers. Dressed in elaborate masks and little else, young men and women beat a blistering rhythm to appease the spirits. Outside the ring were others of the clan; craftsmen with their instruments, matrons corralling rambunctious children, and warriors standing-at-arms to ward off enemies in the night, as per tradition.
The atmosphere outside the ring was more relaxed and festive, but two figures sat in sober discussion across from Bradán, barely visible to him through the curtain of flames.
Mathghamhain was the thane of their hold. Broad, weathered, and snow-capped like the mountain was he, tangled tattoos on his torso and arms telling the tale of his long life. He was stroking his blond, silver-streaked beard, head tilted to hear the words of his guest.
Duncan was known to the clans of Morhold, although Bradán had been given only the briefest of introductions. He was a Commander of the Grey Wardens; thane of an order united by purpose rather than blood, as Mathghamhain had explained it. This swarthy-skinned outsider was seeking recruits for some war in the lowlands. Dressed in travel-stained robes and intricately wrought silverite armor, he made a strong impression on both the staid elders and excitable youth of Bradán's clan.
At last, the shaman straightened as much as her bowed spine would allow, looking up at the position of the heavens. The Moon was at its zenith, shining with a hazy corona in the Autumn sky. She raised a wavering hand, signaling the end of the ritual. The dancers stopped and knelt. A hush descended over the clan.
Mathghamhain rose from his seat and circled the bonfire to stand before Bradán. In his large, calloused hands, he held a broad-bladed short spear. His gaze was locked with Bradán's, but the thane's sonorous voice addressed the entire assemblage:
"As decreed by the spirits, this son of our blood will leave behind the earthly world and take his first steps toward destiny. Rise, young warrior! Take up this symbol of our prayers for you."
Bradán rose to standing slowly, trying to remain steady despite the objections of his stiffened legs. He took the spear with appropriate reverence, marveling at the acute sensations of this ages-old symbol in his hands. The iron blade was nicked, but polished and still sharp, slightly warm from being held in the thane's lap. The leather-bound handle stuck to his sweaty palms. Glossy ebon feathers tickled his knuckles.
"May it guide you down the paths of the spirits," Mathghamhain rumbled.
Saying nothing, Bradán bowed in thanks, then turned and walked out of the firelight. The clan parted for him, providing a path to the edge of the clearing where the dense underbrush of the mountain forest took over. While he pressed into a region where only animals and spirits dwelt, Bradán's clan would return to their home of Morhold in the foothills, taking with them all warmth and song.
The night wore on and blackness enfolded him, the only illumination now coming from the stars and the Moon's silver face. Under the influence of the shaman's drugs, Bradán could almost feel himself melting into the forest, becoming one with the green world.
Shadows intruded upon his awareness. Low-slinking shapes with unblinking golden eyes. Wolves; they were all around, but did not seem to be on the hunt. They regarded the human with polite interest, content to follow and observe.
Bradán was now well-beyond the range that his clan held from other Avvar. The mountain often defeated those whom dared climb so high. Luminous shapes drifted through his vision, like reflections in water. They were Men, or so it looked to Bradán. Some were dressed in traditional pleated kilt as was he, while others wore the heavy armor of lowland warriors, or flowing robes of a style that he did not recognize. And the wolves followed still.
Trees and soil gave way to columns of stone and roughly cobbled paths. Bradán had strayed into some ancient palisade, ivy and moss growing between the cracks and reclaiming what Man had once built here. The spirits were thick in this place, as if unaware that they had been bereft of life. Bradán's nose wrinkled at some rancid odor that assaulted him. Is this how spirits smelled, he wondered? He pressed on, waiting for a sign.
He came at last to a yawning chasm in the mountainside; not quite a cave and not quite a pit. Whatever had been built here was long-since torn down and scattered, then built up again with brush and refuse into something resembling a nest.
Only now did the wolves stop. A sharp baying went up among them. It was the only warning Bradán would get. The young warrior dove to the side.
A sinuous reptilian form slammed into the earth not far from where he had stood. The beat of leathery wings sent whorls of air through the palisade, scattering the luminous spirits like mist. Although the dragon was not yet fully grown, the head on her serpentine neck was already at the same height as a man's. Glaring eyes and snorting nostrils searched for the prey that had foolishly entered her den.
Bradán's blood sang. It was the same sensation as when he found himself facing a worthy foe in battle. The initial fear gave way to calm self-assurance. Bradán was not arrogant; he knew himself. He was keen-eyed, sure-footed, and as strong as tempered steel. This was as good a sign as he was likely to find and he would face the challenge head-on.
Stepping boldly out of cover, the Avvar warrior slowly circled the dragon, meeting her baleful gaze. She snarled and lunged, snapping her toothy jaws in warning. Bradán did not back down, meeting her with jabs of his spear.
The dragon reared, her gullet swelling with breath, then spat a tongue of blistering flame at the brazen intruder. Bradán took three long, loping steps to get clear of the fire.
At the dragon's side now, he swung his spear and cut bloody strips out of her wing. The flames were choked off as she shrieked in frustration. She swung her head around to bite back and Bradán danced away, but not far enough. Her long muscular neck thrust forward, driving her horned crown into his chest and pushing him down. The young warrior landed hard, a protruding stone driving pitilessly into his back, but he didn't have time to fret over it, for the dragon was upon him.
Bradán pushed against her slathering maw, razor-sharp needles tearing at his palms. He kicked her soundly in the throat, buying himself a few seconds more. Bradán groped for his fallen spear and the dragon reared for the killing blow.
A warbling cry of pain erupted from the dragon's mouth. Bradán took the opportunity to roll away, seeing out of the corner of his eye that the wolves had returned, now tearing at the winged reptile's flanks. She wheeled about, swinging her tail and flapping her wings in protest. The wolves were tenacious, however, nimbly avoiding the dragon's tantrum.
Having regained his footing, Bradán ran and shouldered hard into the dragon's barrel, putting all his weight into the thrust of his spear. It did little to pierce her armored hide, but the surprise attack succeeded in throwing the dragon off balance. Landing hard on her already injured wing, the dragon clawed at the air, finding no purchase.
As one, Bradán and the wolves descended on the fallen dragon. The young warrior drove his spear into her neck just behind the jaw and hit bone. The beast could only give a wet, strangling sob as her bright red blood gushed out. Bradán sawed mercilessly, severing the vertebrae. Bloody and bruised, he came away with his trophy, the dragon's varicolored eyes glassy in death, powerful jaw hanging limply.
Bradán surveyed his unforeseen allies. The wolves regarded him expectantly, ignoring the thrashing death throes of the dragon's decapitated body. The Avvar placed the spear over his chest and bowed.
"You have my thanks, brothers and sisters," Bradán said. "The forest is yours again. Enjoy the meal."
He withdrew and the wolves did not follow, instead turning ravenously upon their feast.
It was past noon the following day when the weary warrior caught sight of Morhold. Crumbling walls and a single broken tower occupied largely by crows were all that remained of a once stout fortress, but the hold was of more interest to Avvar as a status symbol than a defensible position. Inside, it was all brightly dyed tents and thatched roof longhouses. Children chased each other with sticks, play-fighting and otherwise being ignored by lazy-eyed goats and wallowing swine.
A small cadre of women approached from Bradán's right, carrying bundles of freshly-laundered linen from the river. He caught the eye of one lass, whom he recognized as having danced at the ritual, and a look of delight spread over her face like sunshine.
"Bradán is back!" she exclaimed to her fellows, loud enough for the young warrior to hear. As they met him unhurriedly at Morhold's rear gate, he straightened, though it pained him. Unlike the womenfolk of lowlanders, it was not the way of Avvar women to fuss over men who returned from battle victorious.
"Have you a sign from the spirits, Bradán?" the young brunette asked in familiar tones, eying his virile-if-battered form appreciatively. "Or did the Mountain-Father chew you up and spit you out?"
"How's this for a sign, woman?" Bradán countered, raising his gore-soaked trophy. The dragon's head gaped at them, eliciting appropriate shrieks of alarm. The brunette lowered her eyes demurely, one slender hand clutching at the hem of her skirts. Tempting, but Bradán had other matters on his mind. "Where are the men?" he asked. "Is it not the way of our elders to sit and speak of past deeds while the young do the work?"
"There was some commotion yonder," the brunette replied, clearly reluctant to change topic. "More lowlanders, or so I've heard. Thane took the warriors to hear their words and drive them off, if needs be. They only ever bring trouble to our mountain."
Bradán excused himself and trudged through to the other side of the hold. Clansmen hailed him gladly and a Dwarven merchant whom frequented the Avvar holds tried to hawk some arcane bauble.
Word of Bradán's arrival spread quickly and the children were soon flocking around the young warrior like twittering birds. The boys dared each other to touch the bloody dragon's head, ranking themselves by how close they got before recoiling nervously. Amused, Bradán spun, holding it in front of his face with a hoarse roar, and scared them off, if only temporarily. But the noisy pack thinned as they came within view of the settlement's Western gate.
All the warriors were gathered here, most with weapons or tools in hand. So too were the dogs, great shaggy beasts that were equally useful pulling sledges as they were tearing out throats. They formed a semi-circle as if to bar entrance to a small troop of foreigners.
Girded for war in the manner of lowlanders were they, in mail, with swords or crossbows. Outnumbered as well, glancing nervously around the grim company. Despite their lowland custom, Bradán was certain he recognized a few as hailing from neighboring Avvar holds.
"You barbarians are intent on stumbling through the darkness, heedless of the light!" their leader raved, gesticulating wildly. A pointed beard and dark circles under his bulging eyes gave him the mien of a rabid goat. Though unarmed, the broad-shouldered frame beneath his tabard was fitted with a red steel hauberk. "Your kin have already seen the wisdom in forsaking these heathen spirits. What will it take for you to embrace the message of our Holy Prophetess?"
Thane Mathghamhain glowered down at the unhinged missionary. "Do not speak to me of your absent Maker and his dead bride. Ours gods are all around us. The weak-kneed fools who so easily swallow your lies will be dealt with in their own time."
"Lies? LIES? We are the true believers, favored by Holy Andraste with her blood, her strength," the missionary insisted, spittle flecking his beard. "It runs in our veins like fire! Fire that will smite you from the mountain! We are held up while you lay low, scrapping in the dirt like animals. What have your gods done for you, barbarian?"
Bradán stepped in at this point, holding aloft his trophy for all to see. "Our gods have delivered a sign!" he bellowed. Awe rippled through the Avvar and some even cheered. "We have their favor and none may stand against us, not even a mighty dragon!"
The missionary's teeth clenched and he began to foam at the mouth, clutching at his neck in rage. "Heresy!" he choked out. "Blasted barbarian mongrels!"
"I tire of you, missionary," Mathghamhain dismissed, punctuating with a swipe of his meaty paw. "Go back to whence you came, lest you wish to test the favor of our gods for yourself."
The creak of bows drawn taught by Avvar hunters perched atop the old walls stifled whatever retort the missionary seemed to have in mind. He hissed to the pitiful band at his back and they withdrew without further complaint.
Mathghamhain signaled the hunters to follow, no doubt to ensure the missionaries departed this territory with sufficient haste. He then slapped Bradán on the back, sparing little force. “Come, son of my blood. It would seem the spirits are not done with you this day.”
The clansmen disbanded, returning to their daily occupations. Thane and warrior met with the Grey Warden Duncan, whom was just stepping out of the broken tower, dusting his pauldrons of feathers and guano, no doubt courtesy of the occupants he had disturbed.
“Is it the way of Grey Wardens to rummage among bones like scavengers?” Bradán asked. Speaking out of turn – and so cheekily – would surely have earned him a cuff behind the ear from Mathghamhain, if Duncan hadn't responded with a chuckle of good humor.
“We lay our honored dead to rest in that tower,” the thane rumbled instead, “So they have less distance to travel when the crows take them up to be with The Lady. What is your interest in the roost of Her messengers, Duncan?”
“In Orlais, they have a saying that 'Wardens and ravens alike pick the dead, just at different ends of a sword',” Duncan joked. “To answer your question, I sensed a trace of The Taint in your tower and found this.”
The swarthy-skinned Warden presented a small parcel and unwrapped the rags to reveal an ugly-looking knife, hewn from what seemed to be bone. Bradán felt a chill run down his spine.
“This is Darkspawn blade. Apparently, the crows wouldn't touch it. Do you see many of their kind in your lands, thane?”
“On occasion.” Mathghamhain crossed his tree trunk arms. A line of faded black skulls on his right bicep, counting no less than eight, marked the 'occasion' of his last encounter with Darkspawn. “They trespass and we scour their defilement from The Father's mountain. Nothing to get excited about.”
“And this blade was what, a trophy? Did its owner die of The Taint?”
“Disagreement with a bear. There is no sickness in Morhold.”
“That is reassuring.” Duncan smiled, tucking away the gruesome artifact. “And you, young spirit walker, do you know why I have come to your hold?”
“Recruiting to fight the Darkspawn,” Bradán answered. “I have heard the tales of their vile breed, as well as your order's valor. You mean to recruit myself, I expect, as I am the best warrior of my clan. If it is the will of the spirits, I would go in your company gladly.”
“I see Thane Mathghamhain was not exaggerating when he said you are as shrewd as you are courageous. I am wondering if the sign you bear is as much for me as for you,” Duncan posited cryptically, looking to the dragon's head still handing from Bradán's sash, offering no elaboration on that point. “But would you be so eager to win glory for my order if I told you the only assurance I could give was an impending doom?”
“Doom is the only assurance, Grey Warden, so I aim to live well until such time as The Lady's messengers come for me.”
Mathghamhain clapped his hands then and it sounded like thunder, ringing in Bradán's ears. “Such time is yet come,” he decreed. “For the nonce, tonight's feast must also suffice to be your farewell, son of my blood. You will join us, Duncan, before leaving to fight your lowland war.”
“How could I refuse such hospitality?” assented the Grey Warden.
The feast that evening was a raucous affair, like most Avvar celebrations. The mead flowed freely and even Duncan seemed to loosen up a bit, regaling the thane of such bawdy exploits that the mountain-shaped man actually cracked a smile. The severed dragon's head, token of the gods' favor, was put on display – for all of an hour, before mysteriously disappearing, likely to turn up at some later date in an unsuspecting clansman's bed roll as a prank.
Bradán drank much, ate little, fought some, and took a few too many women to his tend that night, including the winsome brunette.
The night wore on and the Sun rose, as it is wont to do. No special goodbyes were exchanged; that was not their way. Bradán took the only personal effects that mattered; a battleaxe of Dwarven make, which he had won in bloody contest from a rival clansman of the North, and a brand new dragon tooth necklace that he felt retained some mystical resonance from his spirit walk. Bradán mounted a shaggy borrowed pony beside Duncan and they rode South – to war, doom, and glory.