A Father’s Regret: 4. Bitter Truths

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Cyrion was in the marketplace when he heard the first of the news. There was still ill-feeling—you had to be careful to keep quiet and stick to the margins, not attracting anyone’s attention—though so far the alienage had remained untouched. The guard had been doubled, and Valendrian had warned them to take no risks, raise no hackles… everyone knew the shems were just waiting for an excuse.

It was a pleasant enough day, though the city’s general miasma of dust and busy crowds took the edge off the sky’s sharp blue. Tradesmen’s flags flapped in the square, the covered stalls blazoned with bright colours, and the smells of half a dozen different food hawkers’ wares mixing with the distinctive odour of ox dung.

Shianni’s healing was progressing well, and she and Valora were taking in needlework and linens, earning sorely needed coppers… which almost made up for the trouble Soris was having with work. Seemed like, with Merien gone, people were of the opinion he should have either hanged or caught the draft too. Not two nights ago, he’d come home with a black eye and a split lip, and Cyrion had been able to get no names or details out of the boy.

Still, it didn’t matter. They would get by. They always did. He’d bought bread and potatoes, and they would eat, and sit before the fire as they did every evening, and he would not think of his daughter, so far from home and surrounded by strangers.

There was something different, though. Some dark crackle of dissent in the air. Gossip was running rife in the city, and Cyrion stopped in the lee of one of the stores that fronted the stalls, and pretended he wasn’t listening.

The men were large, bleary of eye and fat of face, the smell of ale and tavern floors ingrained in their clothing. They spoke in hushed tones, but he caught enough to understand the importance of the words.

“What? I don’t believe that.”

“It’s true. My wife’s brother’s been in the King’s Fifth for years. She had a letter from him last week, saying how they was all holed up on the edge of the Korcari Wilds.”

“Well, did he say it was…?” the second chimed, and Cyrion wondered what it should be that he was so unwilling to voice.

“Nah. Not as such, anyway. Said they weren’t allowed to talk about details, nor put ’em in letters home. S’got to be somethin’ ’orrible, we knew that, but—”

“Darkspawn, though.” The second man shook his head. “It don’t seem real.”

“They say they’re pushin’ ’em back. That it’ll be over any day soon. S’what Finnal’s letter said, anyway. They’ve got mages and Maker knows what else down there. Grey Wardens, too.”

Cyrion almost dropped his bag, fingers clutching earnestly into the hemp.

“Are there even any of them left? I thought—”

“Nah, King Maric—Maker rest his soul—he let ’em back in, din’t ’e? They’ll sort ’em out. S’posed to be wossname, aren’t they? Warriors of great legend.”

The second man grunted. “Hm. Sound like a shifty load of buggers to me. Anyway, why’d they need a whole army down there? That’s what bothers me. I didn’t think darkspawn were s’posed to break above ground, except in a Blight. ’Ere, you don’t think…?”

“What?” The first human snorted. “Oh, come off it. Don’t talk rubbish, Geraint.”

“Well, it could be, couldn’t it?”

“Nah… s’probably not— well, it wouldn’t be.”

But the damage had already been done, the thought set free and the possibilities beating against the sky with wide, black wings.

Cyrion was no longer guarding his posture, keeping himself set back against the wall. His mind filled with the imagined carnage of war, the heat of blood and battle… and the small figure at the centre of it who he knew could not possibly stand against such odds. She wasn’t a soldier. She was a child. She was too young, too inexperienced, and not ready for the chaos and terror into which she would be flung. He’d thought somehow it would be service, that these Grey Wardens would have her bound to brewing tea and shining boots, and all the other liberties men heavy with the tension of arms might take with a barracks wench—and Maker knew that was bad enough—but this….

He should have minded himself, he supposed. Yet he flinched when the first human glared at him, fat mouth crinkled in offended displeasure.

“What you lookin’ at, knife-ears?” the man demanded, stepping around his companion to loom threateningly at this insolent interloper.

Cyrion dropped his gaze to the ground and let his shoulders slump forwards, hands hanging loosely at his sides, the hemp bag dangling from his fingers.

“Forgive me, ser. Nothing. I merely—”

“Bloody elves!”

He knew the blow was coming, but he didn’t flinch. It was a slack, half-effort of a slap, back-handed and careless. Cyrion rolled with it, took care to make it seem as if the human had more strength in him than he really did. Pain bloomed through his cheek as the man’s knuckles jarred the bone, and his head snapped to the side, his eyes shut against the sudden, nauseating flashes of blue and purple that spotted his vision.

“Spying, were you?” barked the second human. “Or jus’ waitin’ for the opportunity to stick a blade in our ribs?”

Cyrion swayed, catching his balance before his knees bobbed beneath him.

“N-No, ser. I was—”

Stupid. He should have stayed quiet, or run when he had the chance. The second blow—a proper punch this time—caught him in the side of the head and sent him sprawling. The bag fell from his grasp, bread scudding into the dust and potatoes rolling across the ground.

Cyrion folded up on the cobbles. Best thing to do. Let them have their fun. A boot connected with his jaw. He spat, his mouth full of bloody saliva, and thin streaks of it dribbled down his lips and chin. As the darkness closed over him, his heart thudding and his head ringing, he was dimly aware of how ironic it would be to die like this… almost exactly the same way as Adaia.

“All right, boys, enough! Break it up.”

He stayed down, though the blows stopped coming. Another foot met his ribs—a last parting shot, he thought—but then there was gruff muttering, and the sounds of the two men being shoved away by a third.

A large hand grabbed hold of the back of Cyrion’s jerkin, and unceremoniously dragged him to his feet. The man was tall, well-built and clean-shaven, with a weary expression in his blue eyes. His leather armour marked him out as a guardsman, but he wore no helmet, and Cyrion couldn’t help but notice that he hadn’t yet drawn his sword. The man looked him over briskly, apparently satisfied there was no lasting damage, and shook his head.

“Honestly. Sometimes I think you lot are your own worst enemies. Not hurt? Good. I suggest you get yourself back to the alienage, old man. I’ve trouble enough to deal with without this.”

He bowed his head, mumbled a thankful apology, and was aware of a second guardsman drawing up beside the first.

“Sergeant Kylon, ser… Bodric says to come right away, ser. Fight in the Gnawed Noble, sarge—there’s teeth all over the place, and someone said Lord Elren’s youngest son’s been stabbed.”

“Oh, Maker’s cock… all right, I’m coming.” The sergeant sighed wearily, and shot Cyrion a brief glance. “You still here? Go on… I’d move along if I were you.”

He nodded shakily. They strode off in a jangle of harness and roughshod footfalls, leaving Cyrion to kneel, dizzy and light-headed, and try to gather the food he’d bought. Someone laughed and kicked a potato away from his grasp, just before his fingers closed on it.

He let it go and, straightening up, began the slow, unsteady walk home to a house that smelled of laundry soap and dirty water.

~o~O~o~

If the awkward, unpleasant tautness in the city had been difficult, it was nothing compared to what followed.

A little after a week later, news started to filter into Denerim. It came on swift hooves, via mud-speckled guild messengers and breathless, wild-eyed travellers who scarcely seemed to believe it themselves, but the rumours took hold firm and fast.

The king was dead, the army routed at Ostagar… all was devastation and disaster.

Once the news broke, it seemed to crack the city in two. People wept in the streets, an air of aching loss and violent grief slowing the foot traffic, and grinding the whole pace of life to a standstill. He’d been so young, that seemed to be the crux of it. Not yet thirty, and so much the mirror of his father at that age…. Those who were old enough to remember the rebellion, River Dane and Maric the Saviour looked at Cailan though squinted eyes, and glossed him with the remnants of legends. To the rest, he’d been a Theirin, and a Fereldan, and that was good enough. He’d also, by all accounts, been popular with his men, and that counted for a lot. A ready smile, a ready wit… the people liked that in a king.

The mood that seized the city was one of betrayal, of angry hurt and sharp, reflexive violence. As if things in the alienage had not been bad enough already, it lapped up against the walls in furious waves, and Valendrian gave the word that no one was to pass the inner gates, unless it was absolutely necessary.

Outside, one word seared the streets, like a black-tongued flame that ripped from mouth to mouth.

Darkspawn.

The tale changed with every telling. First, it was an ambush—a burst of fury flying out of those barbaric wildlands—and then a full horde, an army, raised by devilry and set against Good King Cailan’s brave men by some impossible, horrific power. A new Blight, people began to whisper. The stuff of legends, the stories used to frighten children… could it be true? Was it even possible? Surely the foul creatures had been beaten back for the last time long ago. Such things didn’t happen anymore, not in this new, united Ferelden. This was a modern age, with no time for myths and superstition.

Rumour had it the queen was beside herself with grief—or that she was calling a Landsmeet to assess the danger from the south. One of the two.

For Cyrion, every new whisper fomented fresh agony. The alienage’s self-imposed isolation was hot-housing a violent pressure of resentment and anger. Food had become scarce, as virtually no one was working. The whole district seemed to exist under a greasy cloud of tension, and every day it hung heavier, darker, until it felt as if something must happen… some explosive, brutal conclusion.

He no longer cared.

He should, he knew. He had other responsibilities, other concerns… yet his mind was fixed only on her. His little girl, dying in a place so far from home, surrounded by strangers and monsters; thrown into a life for which she was not fitted. A fate from which he had failed to protect her.

He’d tried to avoid thinking of it, ever since she left. Oh, he knew what everyone was saying. The talk of the Grey Wardens—if that’s what the human had truly been—and their role in what had happened did nothing to lend her memory the sheen of respect. Within these walls she’d always be the Tabris girl, who left in shame and ruin, and on whom her people could blame everything. If the order was truly responsible for the defeat in the south… well, that only proved the point, didn’t it?

That night, they sat before the fire—same as every evening, every damn day a repetitive, shapeless thing, drifting past Cyrion as if he had no control over even these few threads of a life that were left to him—and the room was draped in wet laundry. The warm, muggy damp of it made the air hang thick on his skin, and his fingers were curled, knuckles standing proud of his hands like jagged, snow-capped peaks.

“P-perhaps it’s not as bad as it sounds,” Valora suggested timidly, peering up from her needlework. “Perhaps—”

“The king is dead,” Soris said bluntly, from his slumped position closest to the fire, shoulders bowed and hands dangling loosely between his knees. “Everyone’s dead. A whole army, gone. They wouldn’t be saying it if it wasn’t true.”

Her mouth thinned, those big doe-eyes darting nervously to her husband, and then back down to the darning. Everyone was aware Soris had not left the house today. The smell of wet laundry was on his rumpled clothes—same ones as yesterday—and he had done little but sit in that chair and stare at the hearth. His lip was marked by a thick, black-edged cut, though the bruising on his face had worn down to a tight, shiny bloom, and the wound he had taken to his arm on that day had healed well enough to be less noticeable.

If only, Cyrion thought, all hurts were so easily mended.

Shianni sighed. “Poor Meri.”

There was a collective moment of held breath, as if no one could actually believe she’d really said it. The sound of the name reached into Cyrion’s chest like a knife, and twisted there, gouging at the places that should still have been flesh and blood. He’d thought he’d been beyond hurting, but it wasn’t so.

Soris frowned at his sister. “They’re saying it was the Wardens’ fault.”

“Oh, as if anyone believes that!” she retorted and, just for a few seconds, they were almost children again, arguing and teasing in braids and short trousers.

“Just because our cousin, the all-conquering hero, is with them doesn’t mean—”

“Don’t you talk about her like that!” Shianni snapped. “Not in that tone. You watch your damn mouth!”

“—they could still be traitors!” Soris countered, raising his voice over hers, more tired strain than real shouting.

He was like his father, Cyrion thought, remembering with a grimace the way Merenir had turned to the comforts of drink. He did not relish the prospect of doing everything for his nephew that he’d done for his brother… though he would do it, he knew, if it was needed.

Valora set her sewing aside and cleared her throat. “Um… would anyone like tea? I-I could brew some more. I think the pot’s still warm.”

The hard, dark tension in the room slumped to mere discomfort, and Soris flopped back against the wooden chair, glaring at his sister.

“I don’t want any tea,” he muttered.

She met his gaze, chin tilted up, her tone sweet and crisp. “I’d love one, Valora. Thank you.”

Cyrion nodded, mumbled his agreement, and Valora set to brewing and pouring three cups. Soris scoffed, folded his arms, and glowered into the fire, which popped and crackled quietly to itself.

This was his mess to resolve. He knew that. It was his role as elder here, as head of this house. He should take them both in hand, ensure they made peace and that—most of all—they did not break beneath this. They had to endure it, as they had to all things.

And yet, he stayed silent. He sat, waiting in this grim, prickly quiet as Valora made tea, and he thought of his girl, and the day she had left, and the ache of watching her walk away.

Cyrion hadn’t seen much of the Grey Warden on that day. Just a figure: dark skin and bright plate, a white surcoat and black hair. Oppositions and contrasts, somewhere in the blur of things after the women had been taken, and uproar broke out in the square.

He frowned, and looked at his nephew. Soris seemed to feel his gaze, for he raised his head, pale brows lifted in enquiry.

Valora pressed a warm stoneware cup into his hands, and Cyrion felt a little guilty for the smile he gave her, brief as an afterthought. She wafted away again, curling quietly into her chair, needlework once more in hand.

“What was he like?” Cyrion heard himself say, unsure exactly where the question came from. “The… the human?”

“The Grey Warden?” Soris shrugged. “What are they supposed to be like? He was… just a shem. Armoured. With weapons… a lot of weapons.”

Cyrion nodded slowly. He hadn’t expected much different. Outside of stories, who knew what the order was. Giants bristling with armaments, or shrivelled old priests dwindled to rags and bones while they sifted through the ancient remnants of their relevance. Maybe both, maybe neither. There had been no griffons, and no darkspawn, for centuries. Whatever fallacies of fallen glory the Grey Wardens wanted to chase, Cyrion would have assumed they could draw a better calibre for their ranks than trawling beneath the gallows, dragging the condemned and the desperate to them as last resorts.

Soris shifted uncomfortably, like a child forced to admit an untruth.

“He was very respectful,” he said reluctantly. “I didn’t expect that. He… actually bowed to us. I guess he… seemed all right.”

Shianni let out a short, rather shrill laugh, and Valora looked up from her sewing, eyes wide and lips softly parted.

Soris shrugged again, evidently aware of the attention, and not appreciating it. “Don’t look at me like that. Anyway, the hahren’s the one to ask about him.”

“What?”

He looked at Cyrion with unusually acerbic disbelief. “You didn’t know, Uncle? They’re old friends, Valendrian and the Warden. We heard it from the hahren himself. Known each other for twenty years.”

Cyrion stared. That… couldn’t be true. Valendrian would have said something, surely. Some word or explanation. Twenty years. No. Surely not. He would have—

“Uncle?”

He blinked, and realised how far out of himself he had travelled, how steep the silence had been, and how little he had done to fill it. Shianni was watching him, her head tipped to the side in something that might have been a genuine gesture of enquiry, or might just have been her trying to see out of her bad eye.

It was starting to clear now the swelling had gone down, but the white of it was still a bright pool of red, and he couldn’t look at it without feeling his own eyes start to water.

He shook his head. “I… was unaware of that.”

Soris let out another scoff, a soft, bitter breath of mirthless laughter, and turned his face to the fire.

“Weren’t we all, Uncle? Weren’t we all?”

A spark leapt from the flames, and burned itself out on the stone hearth. The smell of tallow candles painted the air with grease, and Cyrion stared down at the rag rug on the floor between them, the one spot of colour and warmth in the room.

~o~O~o~

He waited until the following evening to visit Valendrian, thinking somehow that the anger he was almost too numb to feel might have abated, instead of hardening into an unyielding, thickened thing, like a callus across his heart.

The hahren was standing in the middle of his parlour when Cyrion arrived, almost as if he’d been expecting him. A fire burned low in the hearth, and the warm glow of candles lit the long, low room. Towards the back of the house, Nera was kneading bread, and the thud of dough made for a comforting, familiar rhythm.

“My friend.” Valendrian inclined his head.

Cyrion couldn’t contain the cynical twist of his mouth.

“You knew,” he said flatly.

If the hahren understood his meaning, he didn’t show it. His expression barely altered at all.

“Did I? Let us sit, and you can tell me what—”

“I did not come for platitudes!” Cyrion snapped. “This… Grey Warden. You knew. You knew what they would be facing, what was happening in the south. You called the human ‘friend’.”

“Ah.”

Valendrian gestured to one of the wooden chairs, and folded slowly into its twin. He was older of the two, yet he moved with less pain, less stiffness… just one more mark of life’s unfairness, Cyrion decided. He shook his head, pride and anger keeping him on his feet, impolite as it was.

“Yes.” The hahren sighed wearily. “If it pleases you to hear it. Duncan wrote to me a little more than a month ago, expressing his concerns over the sightings of darkspawn in the south. I don’t know whether he was aware of how rapidly things would— well, I don’t imagine anyone could have foreseen what we hear of happening. I… am sorry, you know.”

Cyrion winced. ‘Sorry’ hardly helped.

Valendrian gestured again to the other chair. “Please… sit.”

From the back of the house, the repetitive thud of bread dough to board thumped like a heartbeat. Cyrion drew himself up, standing as tall as his joints allowed.

“You knew he would be recruiting. This… friend of yours. What order of warriors recruits from an alienage?”

“An order that does not judge by prejudice,” Valendrian replied, meeting his gaze steadily. “Duncan is—was—a good man. He will have treated her kindly, and with respect.”

His words knocked against Cyrion with all the force of a half-curled blow, and the marks they left were no less livid for being invisible. He sat, humbled by necessity and the weakness in his legs. The edge of the hard wooden seat knocked against the backs of his knees as he folded down, and the breath seemed to leach from him like water from a split skin.

“But why… why her?”

He could hear the plaintive note in his voice: an old man’s child-like whine. He hated it, but it was as impossible to curb as the breeze. It choked him, choked him with the vehemence of all the tears and rage and humiliation—none of which would bring her back.

Valendrian tapped his fingers thoughtfully against the arm of the chair.

“Would you rather they’d let her hang?”

“Of course not! But—”

“I did what I could, my friend. That much I swear. And we were fortunate, in a way; Duncan intended to be in Denerim earlier than he in fact arrived. Business called him to Redcliffe, and to the Circle of Magi, and—”

“And you did everything you could to push the wedding ceremony forwards,” Cyrion supplemented, understanding sluicing through him like a sunrise.

He felt small, and guilty, and stupid. Why had he not seen any of this? Why had he not understood? Why, above all things, had he not even asked?

“I did.” Valendrian nodded. “I hoped, if he could see her settled, it might be enough, Blight or no Blight. As it was….”

Cyrion winced, unwilling to let the memories of that day creep up on him afresh. His fingers flexed uselessly against the edge of the chair. He still wanted to hit something… someone; still wanted to let all the rage and pain course out, let it flow until he was a dried, empty husk, unable to feel or think anymore.

“What they’re saying,” he murmured, and the words spun like cinders in the air, settling between the two men but not dying. “This talk of treachery—”

“For what it’s worth, I don’t believe it,” the hahren said flatly. “The Grey Wardens have one interest and one interest only: the darkspawn. They stand apart from the politics of nations. To betray King Cailan would bring them no gain.”

“Then you think it was chaos, not design?”

Cyrion watched the other elf’s face carefully, but if there was any flicker of change in Valendrian’s expression, the shadows hid it from him.

“That is one explanation, yes.”

Cyrion sighed and leaned back against the chair. Occasionally, he’d used to think how frustrating it must be for Valendrian—a man of keen intelligence and ability—to be stuck here among their kind. Had he been born human, he might have gone anywhere, done anything… even if he’d been cursed with magic, he’d have had the education that mages received. Few others who ever left the alienages could claim that, when all that awaited even the elves who made a success of life beyond the walls was an existence reliant on brigandry or servitude in some other form. You saw them, from time to time, in the taverns: travellers arrogant in their comparative finery, with fingers too quick to move to their weapons, their stars always hitched to some thug, smuggler or crime lord.

Looking at him now, it was possible to think Valendrian could have followed such a path. His face had acquired that closed-in, mask-like quality he employed when dealing with the garrison, and Cyrion did not care to be on the receiving end of it. Yet neither did he wish to argue further. Whatever else he was, the hahren was their elder. Their leader, their pillar of strength. His word was, Cyrion supposed, what law would be if there was actually any sense of justice in the world.

He closed his eyes, tension drawing a deep furrow across his forehead. At the rear of the house, Nera had set the bread to prove, and slipped quietly from the back door, leaving the parlour empty and silent, a hollow cocoon of a place where nothing stood between Cyrion and his grief.

“I am sorry,” Valendrian repeated, his voice low and calm. “Your daughter was a fine girl.”

“We don’t know she’s dead,” Cyrion blurted, squeezing his eyes ever tighter shut. “She could have… she could….”

He didn’t believe it, unable to cling to hope when all it did was cut like a string pulled too tight, biting into unguarded flesh.

“We’ll see about a service for her,” Valendrian said quietly. “Perhaps. Once things are—”

“Yes.” The word slipped from him, a resigned murmur.

Cyrion’s forehead stung with the weight of blood rushing to his head. Another funeral, just like Adaia’s, for another woman he had failed to protect.

It would have been so different, had she been there. He knew it. She would have incited a riot in the street, risen up in her magnificent anger and struck them all down. It would have been a disaster, but a completely different kind of disaster. His wild Marcher rascal, with her knives and her bright, black eyes, and that way she had of curving her mouth, teeth bared, like a challenge to the whole damn world.

A merchant’s servant, the matchmaker had said, all those years ago. When Adaia confessed the rest—yes, the merchant had been rich, but also dishonest, and yes, she had been his servant, but also his mistress, his bodyguard, his watchdog—Cyrion had already been too in love with her to care. He’d kept her secrets, her shame and her dishonour, and he kept them still. Maker knew he had little enough left of her.

At least, with Merien’s body abandoned on the battlefield at Ostagar, he would not have to face carrying her to the paupers’ field, the way they’d had to do for her mother.

He glanced up, aware of Valendrian’s gaze on him. There was compassion in the hahren’s face; no empty gesture, either, but the true sympathy of one who had shared this loss. His son, dead from fever twelve years ago, his wife lost to a wasting sickness three years later. Was there a reason they should all suffer so? If there was, Cyrion couldn’t fathom it. He inclined his head, and accepted the hand Valendrian placed on his arm.

“The… the Grey Warden,” he said softly, searching the hahren’s face for the glimmer of a reaction. “How did you know him?”

Valendrian pulled back then, though the movement was calm and controlled, like everything he did… as if he was neither surprised nor shamed by the question.

“I think,” he said, after a moment, “you already have an idea.”

Cyrion’s jaw tightened. “Twenty years,” he murmured. “It… was a long time ago.”

Another world, maybe. Another wedding, and the threshold of something bright and wonderful.

“Yes.” Valendrian smiled mirthlessly. “You’re right. Duncan was a younger man then, in Denerim with his mentor. Maric had just rescinded the decree that banned their order from these shores, and they were desperate to swell their numbers. They wanted Adaia.”

A tired kind of regret washed over Cyrion, and he nodded slowly. So much that made sense, and so many things he could have understood, if only he’d bothered to look. She smiled at him from the recesses of distant memory, with their baby daughter on her hip and her hair spilling down her back and, Maker guide him, he felt so very old.

“I see.”

“The offer was never made,” Valendrian said quietly. “They came to me. Duncan and I spoke at great length, and I asked him to consider you, and the family that she would have here. You were both so young… so well-matched.” A small, grim smile curled the edge of his wide mouth. “I thought I was saving her.”

Cyrion winced. “Did she know?”

“No.” Valendrian shook his head. “Duncan always asked after Adaia in his letters. I suppose there may have been a hope that, one day, she would want to join them… but I never told her.”

“Why not?”

The hahren shrugged. “I was worried she might just do it.”

After a beat of silence, Cyrion lifted his head and looked the elder full in the face. Slowly, a smile spread across his lips: an awkward, stiff thing at first, as if he’d forgotten how. Valendrian echoed the expression, and then they were laughing—actually laughing—and it tumbled from Cyrion as a wild, desperate catharsis.

It stopped just as suddenly, and he was heaving for breath, eyes damp and chest sore. She would have. Oh, yes. Like a shot, instead of with all that reticence and fear of Merien’s. The smile died on Cyrion’s face as he recalled the way his little girl had clung to him for the last time, the moment they’d said their final farewell.

You were brave, weren’t you?

Her face, already blooming with bruises, and the glassy terror in her eyes… things he wanted to forget, but couldn’t bear to let go. He’d wanted to protect her from so much—had tried to keep her safe, her whole life—and yet, in his failure, she had shown just how much stronger she was than he’d ever allowed himself to believe.

The truth was a bitter thing, Cyrion supposed, but he couldn’t begrudge it. If she truly was gone, then he must remember her as the woman she had been. Not just his little girl, but someone who’d lent her aid without being asked, who had given everything to defend those she loved, and accepted the price for it, even when Fate had towed her in a different direction.

He would remember that. He would remember her.

Eventually, he bade Valendrian goodnight. There was more to discuss, of course: a funeral to plan, of sorts, and the question hanging over them all of what would happen now that Arl Urien was gone. Their king and their arl, both dead. The alienage would mourn, Cyrion imagined, only once they were sure of who their new lord would be. No sense spilling tears in grief when they might need them for hardship.

After all, tomorrow was always another day.

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A Father’s Regret: 3. Little Shadows

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The day of the wedding was bright, with a sharp chill in the air, but calm. There had been no undue drama, no uprisings in the street. Valendrian had been working hard, Cyrion supposed. There was talk—a very great deal of talk—but it only seemed to happen in the dark. With the morning it dissipated like fog, leaving the cobbles bare; no groups of women gossiping on the corners, no old men sitting by their doors, offering their opinions on the shortcomings of the young.

Few gathered beneath the vhenadahl. He wasn’t sure if it was a calculated insult, or just the fact that, this time, he hadn’t laid on half as much ale.

Valora and Soris wore ordinary clothes. It stung Cyrion badly to realise how much of her trousseau she’d given to Merien—a good dress, almost-new boots, and a pouch of hard-scrimped silvers—and how little it had left her with. Likewise, his nephew hardly cut a dash in a broadcloth shirt that didn’t fit, and breeches with an inexpertly sewn patch across one knee.

It shouldn’t have been this way. It was not, he told himself, fair. He’d been planning it for so long. Everything, down to the last detail; it was all supposed to be perfect. It all would have been, should have been…. Cyrion knew he shouldn’t let those thoughts rule him, and he tried to break from them, craning his head back and staring up into the dappled green canopy of the vhenadahl. They were lost things now, pale maybes and feathered hopes, scattered on the wind.

There were no flowers, like the garlands of dried blossoms he’d bought for his daughter. No singing, no dancing. Valendrian’s speech—those well-worn words about the importance of tradition, and community, and the ties that bound them throughout life—stirred faint recollections in him, and he almost glanced to his side, as if he might somehow catch the ghost of Adaia standing there.

Mother Boann had come flanked by an extremely well-built Chanting Brother, and two young templars, their armour flashing in the early sunlight, and their gazes perpetually darting into every corner and doorway, as if they feared they were about to be mobbed.

When she mounted the platform, Cyrion caught a faint distaste in himself, a new resentment of the priest and all she stood for. He tried to quash it, to listen to her graceful, profound words, and to enjoy the verses the Brother—a melodious, agile tenor—sang, but he found it hard to focus, and difficult to stop the joy slipping beneath a dark weight of uncomfortable, terse displeasure.

He had never been particularly religious. Not as far as the chantry was concerned, with all its emphasis on attending services, paying dues, and living by rules that, ultimately, were of human invention. Oh, he believed well enough… just not so desperately that he needed to cling to the words of the Chant, or have the benediction of priests to convince him of life’s worth. And the templars… no. They were nothing but guards in different garb today, more muscle to stand between the human and the palpable distrust in the air.

It was a brief service. The sun slunk out from behind the clouds as Soris slipped the narrow gold band onto Valora’s finger, and pale, watery light suffused the cobbles, sluicing over them all like it was something fresh, some new beginning. She smiled that tremulous, delicate smile of hers, and he kissed her. They all applauded; Cyrion, the hahren, the priest and her pack, and the few other assembled faces. Taeodor was there, along with two of his brothers, newly returned to the alienage. The third was still out there somewhere, they said; allegedly last seen careening off down the West Road on a short, fat little horse he’d liberated from a dwarven merchant. If he was caught, he’d hang for it, but apparently he’d thought the promise of freedom worth the risk. Cyrion wondered at that. Was it freedom, to always be running, afraid to look over your shoulder? To be alone?

He pushed the thoughts aside, unwilling to dwell on them and determined to keep the smile on his face, and have it appear as genuine as he could make it. Eventually, the effort gave way to real pleasure, real pride, and the old tugs of affection and familial attachment swept through him, bearing him up on the tide of this day’s union, and the hope for a future that might yet be reclaimed. Even Shianni was smiling. She’d been leaning on his arm for part of the time, her bruised face and frail gait testament to everything that hung so undeniably over the day, but she’d coped well.

Afterwards, before the ragged, rather pathetic little procession began to make its way back to his house—his wedding gift, Cyrion had said, and the least he could do for the couple, despite how crowded things were going to be with four of them under the same roof—the priest caught his arm and drew him aside, compassionate enquiry lighting her soft blue eyes.

“You must be very proud,” she said, with a glance to where Soris was being warmly back-slapped by a gaggle of laughing young men. “I am… so glad that we were able to do this, at last.”

He gazed solemnly into the woman’s round, pleasant face. She was lacquered with make-up, her hair finely coiffed. Powder had settled into the subtle lines around her eyes, nose and mouth and, when she smiled earnestly at him, they crinkled like folds in fine lawn. Her prayers had not ignored the dead. In the midst of all these new beginnings, these hopes for a brighter future, she’d offered up words for Nelaros, and Nola… but she had not once mentioned his girl. It was, Cyrion mused, as if Merien was a canker to be cut from the community’s heart and cast away, scapegoat and pariah in one. For a moment, he burned with indignation on her behalf, before recalling that her disgrace was, at the end of it, his.

He inclined his head. “Indeed, Mother. Thank you.”

“Not at all. It’s my pleasure.” She was still looking at him, and her hand remained on his arm in a solicitous gesture that he found distinctly uncomfortable. “And how are you?”

Cyrion swallowed. He was old-fashioned, he knew, but at some level it bothered him for this woman to be standing here, touching him, as if she had the right to do so. Her differences—the fact she was slightly taller than him, well-fed, well-dressed, her figure firm and rounded—were starkly apparent, the floral scent she wore thick and cloying, and he wanted rid of her, even while being annoyed at his own ingratitude.

“Well enough, Mother,” he said, more brusquely than he meant to.

She patted his arm. “If you need to talk….”

He nodded. “Thank you.”

Another warm, kindly smile, and she drifted away. The templars were waiting for her, eager to escape the alienage, Cyrion assumed. He wondered whether they were truly nervous or just embarrassed, keen to put the filth behind them. They all left soon after, when the young men’s laughter grew more ribald, and Mother Boann’s face fixed itself into a polite rictus.

He was angered by that, he realised; angered by the way she nodded and smiled indulgently, as if theirs were quaint customs to be observed and later mocked, or dismissed as backward and crude. There was crudity, of course, but… that wasn’t the point. Stupid thoughts, he told himself. He was becoming an irrational, irascible, foolish old man, spooked by shadows and goaded by nothings. He’d been worn too thin by these long, faceless days, that’s what it was. He needed to rest.

Just for a little while, perhaps.

~o~O~o~

There should have been a great fuss over the procession back to the house. There should have been music, rowdy singing, and a jostle of people cat-calling and whistling. Instead, it was all rather sedate and subdued. Cyrion brought up the rear, Shianni on his arm, and fervently wished—not for the first time in recent days—that Adaia could have been here.

It was a woman’s role to make this part easier, and Valora shouldn’t have had to be completely on her own. He’d done what he could, of course, when they were planning this the first time around… and, Maker knew, that had been hard enough. Cyrion doubted he would ever forget the uncomfortable awkwardness of outlining a husband’s responsibility to Soris, and fielding the red-faced, stumble-tongued questions about how a man actually went about… that… without causing pain or fear. Almost ironic, in the sickest, darkest possible sense, he supposed, given the way things had turned out.

Still, it jarred him into the recollection of the look on Merien’s face when he’d tried to be a good father and broach ‘that talk’ with her. Wide, startled brown eyes, mouth twisted in abject, strangled horror, and then he hadn’t been sure which one of them had been blushing and stammering the worst.

I… know what to expect, Father. It’ll be fine.

The women again, of course. The steel-eyed, iron-jawed leagues of complex and indefinable female alliance; always there, always smoothing things out and making sure the world ran on track, and that the front step had been scrubbed clean.

Sometimes, he suspected the women only let the men think they were in charge. It probably suited some dark, nefarious purpose they had, some plan to be revealed when the world least expected it.

In any case, it was a time-honoured ritual, the procession. First, the bride and groom were accompanied to their door, and if they weren’t both blushing furiously and sweating like a pair of humans by the time they got there, the job hadn’t been done right. Soris and Valora certainly had the blushing down pat, so that was something in their favour.

After that, when the door closed and the wreath of honeyblossom—and usually the obligatory pair of someone’s underpants—had been hung upon it, it was allowable for those who didn’t wish to stand beneath the happy couple’s window singing all twenty-four verses of Antivan Nights are Hotter until they got too drunk to continue (or were paid to go away) to retire to a safe, and sane, distance.

As he and Shianni headed for the quiet of the hahren’s parlour, Cyrion remembered being on the receiving end of that traditional rowdy humour. He and Adaia, leaning against the wooden door, both convulsed with laughter… more bonded by the ridiculousness of the experience than put off.

Maker’s breath, he remembered it so well. That first day… the first night. His father had gone through that talk with him well in advance, drummed into him the importance of being gentle, kind, respectful; of course, he’d done his best. It was clumsy and embarrassing, but wonderful, in a strange and awkward way. She was wonderful. It brought them close in more than the obvious sense, gave them a fragile, breathless intimacy that didn’t seem as if it could possibly ever have been felt by anyone else before them.

Naturally, it wasn’t love, though it paved the way for it. That came later: a frail, tenuous thing that unfolded slowly, like the silken petals of some delicate flower. Over time, it grew stronger. Life bound them together with a thousand threads, light as air and strong as steel, and by the time the baby came, Cyrion had hardly remembered a time she hadn’t been there, part of every breath he took.

He’d still felt the same when she died… he still felt it now. Felt her presence, somehow, the echoes of her still cleaving to the life she’d left behind. Their life. Their place… their family.

He guided his niece into the low, dim room, and Shianni must have spotted the wistful nostalgia wreathing his face. She laughed.

“Why, Uncle… I think you’re going soft!”

He smiled, glad she was able to make a joke, but unwilling to share the memory. Seemed like those were all he had left, now. Memories and dreams. After all, no joy on this day could erode what lingered over it. No snatched moment of levity or pleasant recollection stopped him from looking for faces in the crowd that he knew he would not find.

They would be on the Imperial Highway by now, he suspected. His little girl, and the man whom he could not help but feel had bought her.

It was in the face of that thought that Cyrion allowed himself his dreams. They were sanity, in a way. Picking up the threads of a broken, unravelled life, and sewing them back together the way they should have been. He should let them go, he knew. Let her go… but he couldn’t.

He sat in the smooth-worn wooden chair he’d occupied on that first night, with Shianni opposite him, and they played endless rounds of Nine Men’s Morris on the makeshift board scratched into the windowsill. It passed the time. Over the years, countless others had sat and played, he supposed, leavening dark nights or wiling away long waits. When Shianni won, she giggled like a little girl… the little girl he could still see through the bruises and the tired, sore eyes.

She was going to be a bigger problem to him than Merien ever had, and that was saying something. Oh, he loved her, but it didn’t mean Cyrion was blind to his daughter’s faults. She hadn’t been the easiest girl in the world to find a match for, not by a long chalk. She was a good worker, of course. Cooked well enough, kept a clean house, and Maker knew she was bright, resourceful, resilient… and too damn independent by far. Stubborn, too, like her mother, and cunning with it. Never one for an outright fight when she thought she could get away with manipulation—even if the results weren’t as elegant as she believed they were. She wasn’t all that subtle. And she had a temper. Oh, it was slow to rouse, but it blazed when it got going, and then it would burn itself out fast, and leave behind ashes and guilt.

She’d been too good at that, he’d always thought, for one so young. He supposed it was losing her mother early that did it; too ready to take blame into herself and stew on it, until it curdled into another burst of anger and frustration. She fought against it, though. Always wanting to be the good daughter she feared she wasn’t, and trying to be the girl she believed he wanted her to be. In time, Cyrion had always hoped she’d learn not to be so hard on herself, and maybe to listen to other people more instead of trying to second-guess what she thought they wanted from her. He could have helped, he supposed. He should have told her— ah, but what? That he would always love her, no matter what she did, that he was proud of her, and that she didn’t need to try so damned hard? Perhaps.

Perhaps he hadn’t even known all those things himself until it was too late.

~o~O~o~

They left it until well into the night before they walked back. The young couple would have more time alone than they knew what to do with, and Cyrion hoped they’d enjoyed it. As he recalled, it was the last opportunity they could expect to be uninterrupted for a while. Life had a way of bearing in on one, honey-month or no.

It had rained again. Shianni held his arm, and he let her think it was so she could stop him from falling.

“The stars are bright,” she observed, peering up at the patterned blackness above.

The towers and parapets that criss-crossed their sky—the parts of the old city that abutted and overlooked the alienage, and were rendered less valuable by so doing—were less obvious at night. They were shadows within shadows, different shapes against the darkness and, between them, chinks of blank sky were peppered with clear, hard specks of light.

There were a hundred stories about stars. What they were, how they came to be… tales and poems strewn with the names of ancient lovers whose hearts glittered up there in eternal stillness, preserved for all time as testament to their affairs, and their tragedies. Perhaps no great love ever ended happily. Cyrion mused on that thought, but not for long.

Rats scampered in the dark, and they had to pick their way both past the slops and rubbish spilling from the open gutters, and around the huddles of furry bodies. Alienage rats grew strangely fat and fearless on the lean pickings here, and black eyes glared from the darkness, thin yellow teeth bared at those who dared to disturb a meal.

“Ugh.” Shianni shuddered and pressed closer to him, and Cyrion relished the brief moment in which he could squeeze her shoulders, be her protector.

Taeodor and his brothers had brought Soris’ things round, not that there was much. A box of odds and ends, a few clothes, and a rag rug his mother had made a couple of winters before she died.

It wasn’t a lot, but there wasn’t all that much room in the house. They’d find another pallet, of course, budge up a little tighter and make that extra bit of space. Cyrion had been insistent. The least he could do, he’d said, and Maker knew it felt as if he’d been skating by on the very least of everything this past week.

“We’re back,” Shianni called out, the false sing-song of a strangled alert as her fingers closed on the door handle.

Cyrion almost wanted to chuckle, as if the past twenty years were nothing but a whisper, and he was once more a young man, caught on the twin prongs of excitement and terror that had marked his wedding night. He could hear Adaia’s helpless laughter as he blushed furiously at the raucous crowd below the window, and recall every burn of the shocked admiration that had swallowed him when she leaned out and threatened to empty the pisspot over them if they didn’t, as she’d put it, bugger off.

Valora met them at the door, rose-cheeked and softly smiling, Cyrion was pleased to see, though he doubted the house could have had a much more different mistress. She promised tea and soup if they wanted it, and ushered them in, as if she was eager to shut out the night.

Inside, everything seemed very quiet. The fire crackled low, lending that familiar room a diaphanous, shifting warmth that, to Cyrion, seemed at once both tempting and deceitful. Years of memories tugged at him, and he wanted to fall into them with the eagerness of youth, to relive every comfortable, cosy moment he’d spent in this place. Yet it had changed… was changing. Different, now. Still a home—still his home—but bending around a new family, and he supposed this awkward transition would have to be endured; a time of no one quite knowing what to be, or how to feel.

Shianni closed the door behind them, and the quiet clunk of the latch made him blink, rousing resentful proddings at the back of his mind. It was supposed to be a joyful day. He was supposed to be proud, pleased… could he not even do that anymore?

“Uncle.”

Soris was sitting by the fire, stripped down to shirtsleeves and a slight glow of triumphant relief. Cyrion joined him, aware that he had a certain role to fulfil here, but keeping one eye on the girls. It wasn’t fair on Valora, he thought, though naturally it was always hard for girls who came from other alienages. They had no sisters, no mothers, no friends already among the womenfolk, and no one they could… discuss things with, or whatever it was that women did which so clearly went above simple talking.

Still, she was a good girl. She’d make friends soon enough, if the drama of her arrival—and her husband’s role in everything that had followed—wasn’t held against her too much. And she would be good for Shianni, he supposed, not that things were meant to work that way. In… other circumstances, Shianni would have become the surrogate sister, the confidante to everything she needed to talk about—and he assumed there would be things—but that would hardly be the case now. Just something else for Valora to shoulder, along with the hard graft of forging a life here. He hoped she wouldn’t resent it… or them.

Cyrion cleared his throat, satisfied that the whispered hum of feminine conversation over by the clean-scrubbed table was as it should be, and need not concern him. He glanced at Soris, aware of the uncomfortable tinge of embarrassment that hung between them.

“Um. All… all right?”

Soris’ cheeks coloured a little, which could easily have been down to the firelight.

“Mm-hm.” He nodded. “It’s, uh, fine, Uncle.”

“Good. You don’t need—?”

“No,” Soris said quickly. “Uh. No, no…. We’re… uh… ahem. It’s fine.”

“Good.”

And thank the Maker for that. Cyrion relaxed a little, settling back into the chair. Things were as they should be, then. So why did it all still feel so empty?

He knew why, of course. Knew it with every calm, soothing minute that slipped idly past. It was an evening like any other—and like every other would be from now on, he supposed.

Shianni spread the rag rug out in front of the fire, far back enough from the hearth to avoid sparks, and declared it looked good. They all agreed. Valora poured tea. They all drank it. She did a little of her tidy, concise needlework, head bent over the cloth, and the silence was thick and rich as incense.

It was almost as he’d imagined it, Cyrion supposed, and that made Fate an even crueller bitch than he’d thought possible.

He’d pictured it, just the way he pictured it now, holding every detail close enough that he could almost taste it, squeezing himself against the raw, jagged edges of the dream. All those months, writing to Highever and waiting for letters back, scraping up coin to pay the matchmaker and praying that everything they’d heard about the boy was true…. There were stories about corrupt brokers, although naturally everyone expected a slight degree of exaggeration. The theory was that the flush of youth should take the edge off any little imperfections, and it usually did.

Still, he’d wanted to hold out for the right one. Merien deserved that. She’d deserved a future. It wouldn’t have been perfect, but it should have been there. For her, and for Nelaros.

Those first few, blushing glances he’d seen pass between them—pale shadows of the looks that passed now between Soris and Valora—should have been given the time and space to grow into a bond of more than shared nerves and hope. It was awkward at first, of course it was, and no one expected anything different, but time mended that.

She should have been allowed the chance. It was… necessary. A part of the cycle. There should have been life and chaos in the house again. Children, if the young couple were blessed. Cyrion had hoped for it—dared to hope that she would carry better than her mother, if not just for the gift of life, than to spare her the pain of losing it. He and Adaia would dearly have loved more children, but it apparently hadn’t been meant to be. After she lost the third baby, they started to take precautions. He’d wanted it, though. Wanted a house filled with little ones, and family gatherings where there were never enough chairs to go around, and their laughter burned long into the night, brighter than any candles.

There should have been grandchildren. Adaia had talked about that, back when they were still young enough for the notion to be absurd. She’d laughed, her head thrown back, her neck still a creamy expanse of firm skin, her hair spilling down between her shoulder blades, the dark chestnut barely touched with grey. He’d smiled at the thought, laughed with her, but it hadn’t seemed all that strange to him. It was the way things should be, after all. The wheel turned, the cycle moved on. There should have been little ones again, with bright eyes and round cheeks, and his daughter would have been a wonderful mother.

It could still come, he supposed. Different, though no less of a blessing. But it wouldn’t be the same.

Cyrion looked around the room, watching the flicker of flamelight on the whitewashed walls. He could almost see them, if he tried hard enough. Nelaros, sitting where he should be in front of the fire, and Merien, fetching tea and doing her darning by candlelight, as the little shadows who had no names played at her feet.

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A Father’s Regret: 4. Bitter Truths
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A Father’s Regret: 1. Aftermath

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There wasn’t much time to think about it in the first few days. His niece needed him… or, more precisely, the women needed him out of the house. He didn’t begrudge it. Truth be told, after Cyrion had seen the state Shianni was in, he hadn’t wanted to be there. Briefly, he had wondered if that was a failing, but decided that, if it was, it was one he had to accept.

So, he stood outside his own front door, exiled by the impenetrable aura of determined, implacable femininity within, and just waited.

The healer they brought in gave her something to make her sleep, and the women let him look in once, after she was out cold. She was as still as death, the blankets only moving very slightly to the rhythm of her breaths. One eye was badly swollen; the healer said there might be damage to her sight. Time would tell, apparently. Cuts, grazes, and fat, angry bruises marked her face and hands, vivid against the white, papery skin. The ones on her neck were the hardest to look at. Thick and finger-shaped, they crawled like blue-black snakes across her throat.

Cyrion found himself ushered out again soon after. It was all very polite, but firm, and there would have been no defying those steely-eyed, hard-set female faces in any case. He went to the hahren’s house, where there was always an open room and a place before the fire, and sat in quiet contemplation… or, at least, softly expectant silence. The contemplating would come, he supposed, when the numbness wore off.

It had subdued them all. The alienage was silent in the worst way possible: a dense, palpable tension riven with the echoes of disbelief, terror, and outrage. He hadn’t seen the place like this in years. It was the dark, greasy calm that foretold of storms. He should care about that, he knew. He should be worrying, as Valendrian was, that the local boys would do something stupid. Too many of them were already drunk, and there had been brawls and broken windows after… after the guard left. And the other human left. And….

The door opened. For one short, stupid moment, he thought it would be her. He looked up, his eyes already pulling the vision of her from the air. Small, like her mother—Maker rest her soul—but lean and wiry instead of gracefully petite, with that fall of warm brown hair hanging to her shoulders, parted on the side and tucked behind her ears. She’d had the habit of doing that when she was a child… a sure tell of mischief or fibs. Looking at her feet, face screwed up, fingers pushing the tousled tresses back as she swore she didn’t know anything about whatever transgression she was accused of.

My girl….

But it wasn’t her. It wouldn’t be. He knew that, and the knowing pained him, made him see himself as a foolish, weak, broken old man, an empty husk, a wisp of a creature no use to anyone. And he hadn’t been, had he? He’d done nothing. Stood by, let it happen, and the guilt was too raw, too fresh for him to even feel its edges. It consumed him without him needing to acknowledge its existence, just as clouds need no permission to cover the sun.

His eyes ached. It wasn’t her, of course. Cyrion blinked, and the thought of the sight of her vanished, like a trick of the light, or the last echo of a dream, held hopelessly against waking.

Soris closed the door behind him. He was pale and drawn, but pink-scrubbed and wearing clean clothes. He’d found time to wash the blood from himself before the guard came, Cyrion reflected, not relishing the burn of anger that came with the thought. So clean, so silent. Had he thought, even for a moment, of speaking, owning up to the crime?

He tried to banish the resentment, to look at his late cousin’s son with the same affection and comfort he’d always shown the boy. No boundaries of extended family here: Soris and Shianni had always been nephew and niece to him, in name if not technicality. And, ever since Merenir and his wife died, the year the choking fever hit the alienage, Cyrion had felt a deeper responsibility to the children, above and beyond love.

They both had their father’s wild red hair and clear blue eyes. Today, Soris’ were clouded, glazed with a dull, cracked veneer of pain. Of course, he would be feeling the guilt as much, if not more, than the rest.

Merien wouldn’t have let him give himself up, even if he’d tried. Perhaps he had. No matter: Cyrion knew his daughter well enough to imagine the lead she would have taken… though he’d tried hard enough not to think of it. Since their youngling’s days, Soris had followed her like a puppy, loping after her into every scrape and mishap. Now, he held his wounded arm close to his body, the bloody bandage clearly visible beneath the loose sleeve of his shabby, patched shirt, and she… she was out there somewhere, lost to them in such a way that seemed impossible to accept.

Death was one thing. That was something around which adjustments could be made. Grief could be poured out like sour wine and, in time, the vessel might not run dry, but could at least hold its quantity without spilling over. That was a lesson he’d learned long ago, a kind of loss he had managed to accept, and to take deep within himself, as flesh knits around an old wound, scarred but sound. This wasn’t the same. This was a new, terrible pain, and it was without breadth or height or length. He could not measure it, could not quantify it, or know how to begin living with it.

“Uncle.”

Soris bowed his head and waited for Cyrion to acknowledge him before taking one of the other chairs by the fire. The hahren’s parlour was not crowded tonight. Nera, Valendrian’s sister, was kneading bread at the back of the house. They could hear her beating the dough out, humming quietly to herself. A couple of other women had passed in and out, silent and stone-faced.

“How—” Cyrion cleared his throat, finding his voice unexpectedly thick with cobwebs. “How is she?”

Soris looked up, settling himself on the hard wooden chair, but did not meet his uncle’s eye. “Oh. The, uh, the healer’s been with her again. They say that time will… help.”

“Mm.” Cyrion nodded slowly, watching the fire flicker. Help, but not heal, perhaps.

He looked at his nephew, aware there was something more. Soris was frowning at the floor, his open, boyish face sunken in somehow, haunted and disconsolate. A greasy tallow candle guttered on the table, its fatty, rancid smell tainting the air.

“She….” He stopped, glanced around the low, dim room, and dropped his gaze back to the worn floorboards, both his voice and his shoulders hunched against the uncomfortable words. “They tell me it’s likely she won’t bear children. Even if he was… clean, he did so much d— oh, Maker, I can’t….”

He broke off, shaking his head, lips pressed tightly together. Cyrion winced. It was not altogether unexpected news, but he had not anticipated the bitterness with which Soris tried to counter his own grief.

“Not that it matters, I guess. She’ll never marry now.”

Cyrion drew a slow, deep breath. Such anger beneath those words. Righteous anger, but not reserved solely for the crime. There were traditions among their people—things that were so deeply ingrained they went beyond even the need for written rules. No point writing down something bred into the bone.

Shianni was damaged goods, her honour torn to pieces. No match worth having would take her after this, whatever the dowry.

“She says she doesn’t want anyone to tell,” Soris said sullenly. “But they all know. Already. Everybody knows. They’re all talking, they’re all—”

“And it’s just talk,” Cyrion said, knowing it wouldn’t soothe him.

“They didn’t see it! What he did… that bastard would have killed her, Uncle!”

The fire cracked, sparks burning themselves out on the hearthstone.

“I don’t doubt it.”

Cyrion closed his eyes, trying not to relive the moment the humans had returned. He’d watched his daughter struck down in front of him, and not moved to help her. None of them had.

He tried telling himself there had been nothing they could do. Nothing anyone could do. The humans had brought guards with them; resistance would have meant a bloodbath. That was sane, rational thinking… those were sane, rational thoughts. They’d been there in his head as he stood and watched the humans cart the girls away—a cold, clear voice, reiterating calm and sensible things, while every nerve in his useless body thrummed with impatience, ready to rip the cobbles up from the streets for weapons.

Would it have made a difference? Perhaps, if they’d rioted then, the arl’s son would have been frightened away. His guards might have whisked him off, and whatever followed might not have been worse than what had happened. Deaths would have been unavoidable, but then there had been deaths anyway, hadn’t there? Yes. There it was. Rational, once again. Not that it helped.

Cyrion pinched the bridge of his nose. He was tired. Too tired for these tortures of what-ifs and maybes. Yet, in the darkness inside his head, there was only the vivid swirl of imagination, conjuring pictures he had no wish to see.

“How is Valora?” he asked, trying to anchor himself back to the present, back to this moment, and those who survived into it.

Soris nodded. “She seems well enough. Stronger than we gave her credit for, anyway. She’s still at your place, helping with… things. Keeping busy, I guess.”

“And they… they didn’t—?”

“No.” The word was final, abrupt. “Only Shianni. I… I keep thinking, if we’d been quicker, or if—”

Cyrion shook his head. “Don’t. You can’t change what is done, Soris, and wishing for it brings nothing but sorrow.”

“That’s easy for you to say, Uncle, but my sister—”

“Is not the only casualty,” he reprimanded sharply, then sighed at the sight of the boy’s wounded, angry look.

It was true, though. However personal it felt, what had happened today affected them all, and the community would be struggling out from under this one for some time. The healer had been forced to give old Tormey a heavy sleeping draught after he heard about Nola. The man had lost his wife in the spring, and now his only daughter…. The worm of guilt within Cyrion—the worm that twisted and squirmed and whispered better you than me—spun for him all too believable visions of that agony. Its jagged edges were there, waiting for him, he guessed, beyond the numb, icy reaches that still engulfed him. After all, it was unlikely he would ever see her again.

Outside, it began to rain. Cyrion glanced at the shuttered window, listening to the heavy fall beat against the cobbles. How far would they be from the city now? Would they be on foot, or could the human have arranged some kind of transport? Coaches ran to the south on reasonably regular routes. Merien had never been on one before. She’d never been outside the city at all, come to that… and barely outside the alienage.

Perhaps he had been too over-protective. Was that so wrong? He’d wanted to shield her, to lift from her the burdens of injustice and fear that lay beyond the gates. And yes, maybe even to keep her the way she had once been: his little girl, with the lop-sided smile and the scraped knees, who would hold out her arms to him when he came home and beam at him with such magnificent, unconditional affection.

The wind caught the rain and began to drive it at the shutters. A few drips started to seep through the cracks. Why should it be that even the sweetest memories grew so painful?

There had been dark nights then, wet and cold, and he had walked through them uncaring, back to the lamp-lit haven where his wife and child dwelled. Adaia would have cooked, and the house would be warm and clean. He would sink into his chair by the fire, she would brush the hair from his brow and kiss his forehead, tell the child to play quietly… and he would doze until dinner was ready, aware of his daughter at his feet. Sometimes, he’d haul her onto his lap, and she’d read to him in her halting, stuttering way, from whatever book of tales or legends her mother had found for her.

“Uncle?”

“Hm?” He blinked, sniffed… raised a hand to his eyes as if the smoke from the fire troubled him.

Soris shifted awkwardly on his chair. “The permits. What happens with those? I mean, Valora and I… we’re still unwed. Not that anyone’s ready to deal with anything just yet, but she can’t be expected to—”

“No, I see what you mean.”

Cyrion nodded thoughtfully. It was a practical point. Practicality was good. It was real, and tangible. The girl had to be settled; she hadn’t come all this way for a half-life, somewhere between child and woman. She needed the security and the respectability that her marriage would provide. He winced a little at the direction of his thoughts, and the path that they opened up in his mind.

Of course, on the matter of weddings, the Chantry and the law were two slightly separate entities. Legally, there was no mandate for elven marriages… no legislation beyond that which banned them from owning freeholds, inheriting property, or gaining sundry other rights and privileges which humans took for granted. The Chantry, too, had no standing obligation to officiate services, though the priests encouraged applications. They would, naturally, as each permit cost several silvers to obtain.

Cyrion hauled himself up in the chair, aware he had been slouching like an old man. He cleared his throat, propped his elbows on the smooth-worn wooden armrests, and looked wearily at Soris.

“She will board with me for now. It’s better for Shianni there, too. Quieter, yes?”

Soris nodded. Since their parents’ deaths, they’d shared a room in one of the tenements by the east gate, like many of the young people. It was rowdy, with shift workers in and out at all hours… and, Cyrion was sure, certain less salubrious trade going on behind some of the doors.

“Thank you, Uncle.”

He shook his head, keenly conscious that it was the least he could do. “The permit gives you thirty days. In the morning, I will go to Mother Boann. If she’s willing to come back and officiate, we’ll get you two dealt with as soon as your sister’s well enough to be witness. I’m afraid it won’t be as… generous a celebration as we’d planned.”

“No,” Soris agreed, staring at the floor, sandy brows drawn in a dark scowl. “It’s hard to see any joy in it.”

Cyrion’s mouth crumpled into a thin line of regret. One so young should not be so bitter, yet he could hardly argue. He sighed, and it was a harsh, dry sound, like the rustling of dead leaves.

“She’s a good woman, Soris.”

“I know. I… I want to make her happy, Uncle. It’s just… difficult to believe this will ever be behind us.” Soris looked up, and his face held a desolate, aching hope, tempered with that sour resentment. “It won’t, will it? Not ever. Not truly.”

Cyrion groped for the right words. There must be some, he supposed. Some hint of encouragement, some grain of comfort he could give, but he was damned if he could find them. Nothing felt right anymore, and there was no certainty in the expectation of a future.

Oh, the future never was certain, of course… but the fact that there would be one—that the sun would keep on rising, and the days keep flowing by—had always been enough for him.

He’d imagined such things. Dared to hope for such tender, ordinary dreams.

“Give it time,” Cyrion said, knowing how lame it sounded. “It’s all you can do, my boy.”

Soris’ lip wrinkled; the nearest he’d ever come to outright disrespect, Cyrion thought. He didn’t say anything, though. Just gave a tired, jaded nod, and stared at the floor again.

The rain was growing harder, teeming down outside. Somewhere, a cat yowled, and there was the faint sound of rats scuffling beneath the window. Cyrion peered at the dampened shutters.

“I suppose I should be getting back,” he said. “If they’ll let me in. You’ll… take care, won’t you?”

“Mm.” Soris grunted. “Yes, Uncle.”

“All right. I’ll see you in the morning, then?”

“Yes, Uncle.”

Cyrion winced. There was no conviction in his voice; he sounded as pale and worn out as he looked. His brave, terrified boy.

“All right, then. I’ll… well, I’ll see you in the morning.”

And there he went, repeating himself like an old fool. Slowly, Cyrion raised himself out of the chair. Maker, but he ached tonight. He felt his age, and a score of years more, but it wasn’t over yet.

He paused at the door, fingers reaching for the handle. Veins stood out on the back of his hand, dark blue on mottled skin, like rivers rising beneath the peaks of his knuckles.

“You know I….” He looked over his shoulder at Soris, wishing he had the right words—that the right words for this had been invented, somewhere, by someone more eloquent than he. “I’m grateful. If you hadn’t done what you did….”

Soris scoffed and continued to stare at the floor. “Good night, Uncle.”

Cyrion nodded sadly, and let himself out into the street.

Darkness had stolen over the alienage, though candlelight spilled from the chinks in shutters and doors, and the pale wedge of a moon occasionally peered from behind the racing clouds. Rain slicked the cobbles, and the cold drops stung his ears. A stray dog was picking through filth in the gutter, its ragged coat standing up in wet clumps. It looked up as he passed but, as he showed no interest in challenging it for its meal, it gave a half-hearted grumble and went back to its business.

Still so quiet. That took getting used to. Would it be different in the morning? Cyrion wondered. Perhaps it would. Perhaps he would wake, and find the flower sellers and the other gate traders walking down towards the market, and children playing in the street, and women gossiping on the corner… just like every morning. They survived like that. Whatever happened, they survived. Just as a tree might bend with the wind, they bent, but they did not break. They endured.

As if confirming his thoughts, speaking to him like a sign from heaven, a light breeze rustled the leaves of the vhenadahl, and Cyrion smiled bitterly to himself.

There would never be another normal morning. He would not wake to a kettle warming over a fire she had built, nor wash his face in water she had fetched. He would not listen to her hum tunelessly as she scrubbed the floor, or see her look up at him, her hair messy, her freckled face drawn into a tired grin… that smile she reserved only for those she was closest to. It was broad, candid, and displayed the chipped front tooth that embarrassed her so much that, most of the time, she tried to smile with her mouth closed. She’d succeed, too, unless something caught her out, made her laugh and then, oh, Maker, she was so like her mother. That big, wide grin, the throaty chuckle that spilled out into warm, precious laughter.

Cyrion brushed a hand across his face, wiping away the rain. Stupid. It would all have changed anyway.

He’d expected to spend his evening in the hahren’s parlour, though not for the reasons he had done. It was the proper thing to give the young couple privacy, and he’d had no wish to be there for… that. There would have been a gaggle of drunken revellers outside the door, anyway, singing dirty songs and calling out encouragement. There always was. His wedding night had been no different, and a small smile leapt to his lips, unbidden, as he remembered it.

He had been so choked with nerves that day. Ready to run off in search of the Dalish, and queasy with the cheap ale his cousins kept pouring down him. Adaia had been calm; so terribly, frighteningly calm. They’d met once before the ceremony, and he hadn’t known what to say to her. She’d been a beautiful, exotic creature; small and delicate, like a bird, with eyes so dark they were almost black, deep chestnut hair, and skin the colour of pale honey. He knew virtually nothing about her. The matchmaker had been a cousin of his mother’s: a thin-faced old man who chuckled a lot and just nodded and leered when Cyrion asked questions. No one would tell him much. Good family, a personable, attractive girl, they said; spent time in service with a rich merchant in the Marches. Of course, people did things a little differently across the sea, but she had a sensible head on her shoulders, would make a fine wife….

He’d found out the rest later, and finally realised why his father had seemed so cold towards her.

Well, it didn’t matter. She had been a fine wife. She’d been a fine wife, a fine woman, a fine mother… everything he could have asked for, whatever her faults. And had he begrudged her those? No. Her wildness, her smart mouth, her stubborn, proud nature… just parts of who she was, and the broken prism through which he sometimes saw her in their daughter.

Cyrion drew in an aching, tight breath as he neared his door. No warm, clean haven of light this evening. No chair by the fire, no wife at the stove, no child to greet him with faltering steps and shining eyes.

Would it have been any different if Adaia were still here? Maybe if the wedding hadn’t been so rushed. If Valendrian hadn’t been so keen that it be done the moment the party arrived from Highever… but that was still maybes and what-ifs, and they did no one any good.

He let himself in, careful to keep his tread light, and almost unaware he was holding his breath.

The house had emptied rather; it was quiet inside, the fire banked down to a dull glow, and the decorations stripped from the windows. The stern, iron-jawed women seemed to have gone, and Valora was sitting in one of the wooden chairs, her head on her hand, dozing. He didn’t mean to wake her, but she jolted at the sound of the door, her face pinched into a brief but cuttingly fearful look. She exhaled as she saw it was him, and smiled apologetically.

“Oh… I’m sorry. I—”

Cyrion raised a hand, shushing her. “It’s all right, child. You should be resting. Is… is she asleep?”

Valora nodded, rising stiffly from the chair. She looked exhausted.

“Yes, elder. There’s some tea, if you want it.”

“Oh, sit down. I’m not so old I can’t do anything.” He waved the girl back into the chair and gave her a playful smile. “And for the Maker’s sake, call me Uncle.”

Her big, watery, doe-eyes crinkled as she smiled damply back at him.

“Th-thank you,” she breathed, voice soft and choked with tired, broken gratitude. “I mean, thank you… Uncle.”

Cyrion took the cloth from beside the fire, and drew the kettle off the heat. It was still hot enough to freshen the pot, and he poured two cups, glad of the opportunity to fuss over her a little.

They were familiar actions, and if he didn’t look at the girl, he could almost pretend she was— well, almost.

There wasn’t much to talk about. Oh, there was plenty he could think of to say, endless questions he might have tried to ask her, but now was not the time. The silence between them was fragile… it had hard, brittle planes, and soft, swelling shadows, and it hid things inside it that no one was ready to confront.

“I’ll sleep out here,” he said, when they were finished. “You take the other pallet. There are blankets, and you can— You know. If she needs you.”

Valora nodded gratefully. “Yes… Uncle.”

Cyrion smiled, and took the empty stoneware cup from her small, delicate hands.

Behind the wooden screen, Shianni was still sleeping, propped up in a nest of pillows and blankets. It was a deep, unnatural, induced sleep, and looking at her unsettled him. He wanted to reach out, brush the hair from her forehead, but he didn’t dare touch her. Not even for the proof that she was still warm, still breathing.

He took one of the two spare blankets, left Valora to settle herself on what he supposed was now his daughter’s old bed, and retreated back to the fire. He’d passed less comfortable nights and, in any case, he was hardly likely to see much rest. He pulled the blanket up to his chin, and stared at the patchily whitewashed wall, bare except for a single wooden shelf that had held a few books and other odds and ends.

Cyrion listened to the sounds of shoes being dropped quietly to the floor, and the pallet creaking under a new, unfamiliar frame. After a few minutes, Valora blew the candle out, and there was nothing in the room but the dim play of the firelight, and the shadows, and the steady beat of the rain.

He didn’t want his thoughts to turn to Merien, but he didn’t fight it. Inevitable, he supposed. Missing her, fearing for her… they were things that would be there on every breath he took now, like the sharp, metallic taste of frost in the first weeks of winter, when the body is not yet used to the chill, and yearns for the warmth of summer.

He hoped she had everything she needed. His girl… and what had he been able to give her? Every gift, every plan he’d made for her future had been wrapped up in the wedding, in the months and years of planning for this day—this day that should have been so special, so perfect.

As the gentle glow of embers coloured the shadows that danced on the walls, and the rain thrummed outside, Cyrion found himself too weary to feel anything. The numbness had kept the anger at bay, he supposed, along with everything else. It would come, in time. He was afraid to sleep, frightened of confronting it all when he awoke, as if daylight would make it real.

He could hear the family who had the upper floor, the Suranas, moving about. It was late, but he doubted anyone was resting well tonight. The guard had not been back… not yet, but tomorrow was another day. Another life, he thought glumly.

It would have been anyway. It would all have changed—but it shouldn’t have been like this. He closed his eyes, silent words that were not quite prayers offering themselves up to whatever lay beyond this world.

Keep her safe. Let no harm come to her. Let her be brave, and wise enough to know when to save her own skin. Let her… let her live. Please, just let her live.

He couldn’t help it. Too easy to see her face again, as she stood there outside the door, saying her last farewell. His little girl, with the swelling bloom of bruises on her face, and so much fear and apology in her eyes. After everything she’d done—and, Maker knew, it was stupid and reckless—and she’d wanted his blessing.

He’d tried to give it. He’d done his best. How did you do that? How did you pretend you could watch your child hand over her life, and not have your heart ripped from your body in a single breath?

She should never have done it. They should never have….

After it happened, after Vaughan and his guards left, there had been stunned, terrified silence. There was no precedent for such a thing. Not like that, not in front of the entire alienage, and in front of the human priest. The scale of it, the audacity… so much more than just the usual level of abuse, and on such a day as today. It was a spark to a powder keg, and the flames started leaping barely minutes after the bastards had gone.

In the still, quiet darkness, Cyrion examined his actions. Was he ashamed? The hahren had appealed for calm, tried to keep control of the crowd. Mother Boann had not helped, and the only thing worse than her loud, outraged indignation was her insane suggestion that they send for the guard. Someone had yelled something foul at her, offended by her very human idiocy—that she could be so stupid as to think the law existed to help them, especially when it was the nobility who were doing the breaking of it—and she’d ended up being spirited away in an increasingly ugly crush.

He’d said nothing. Done nothing. Just stood, watched, listened… and what damn good was that?

Nelaros was the one who stirred things up, and Cyrion’s throat tightened at the memory. He’d been truly furious, refused either to sit back and ‘hope for the best’, the way poor old Tormey said, or to simply get angry and shake his fist.

And then there had been the other human. The Grey Warden. Dark and mysterious, with bright armour and obvious weapons, and a voice that was clear and authoritative, and seemed to make everything sound so rational.

Cyrion had spent a great deal of his life around humans. Years of service, and plenty of exposure to their kind, good and bad, had saved him from the jaundiced prejudice his people could be prone towards—yet he’d hated the man on sight. Suspicion jockeyed with fear, but there hadn’t been time to think about it. He’d not even known of the Warden’s presence until it was too late. Oh, and then hadn’t he been gracious? Hadn’t he been dignity personified? Stepping into the fray as Nelaros rallied for action, offering assistance, advice… handing over his own weapons, and giving those boys everything they needed to get themselves killed.

Yes. Honourable indeed. Striding into their midst, and tearing them down.

Cyrion opened his eyes and stared at the far wall, with its dancing patina of shadows. And what, precisely, would he rather have had happen? Was there a way he would have preferred it to end? The girls spirited away and never heard from again, perhaps, except in the whispers of suspicion and rumour, until the story became a thing muttered of behind hands, not mentioned in the daylight hours. He’d lived through that before. The last purge had been years ago, true… more his parents’ time than his own, but the spectre of it lingered. People disappearing, and the very walls whispering calumnies, setting brother at brother and father at son. The price of bread went up as fast as wages went down, because all of a sudden no one wanted elves for service, in case they started snapping at their masters like rabid dogs. Violence increased; hunger and desperation saw to it. Then, with the spikes in crime and disorder, granite-eyed men from the garrison marched in, flanking some obsequious civil servant with a stack of papers and wax seals, and they’d been told ‘measures’ were going to be taken.

It started small. There were opportunities offered; passage to other alienages, dangled in front of them like gifts from the government. Relocation arrangements, they said. The possibility for a set number of families—first come, first served—to start a new life in South Reach, or Highever, or West Hill, or some such far-off dream. He remembered it happening. Remembered the smiling faces and the people waving farewell, and then never hearing from any of them again.

Then there were the arrests. Trumped-up charges, or strong-arm overreactions… bad things happened to those who resisted. Fires started, unexplained and vicious, late in the nights when people were in bed—but things had already changed by then. Cyrion had only been young; he hadn’t understood it fully. He didn’t see why everyone just sucked their teeth and made banal comments about how dangerous these old wooden houses could be.

He’d learned, later. There was more to be afraid of, back then, than running into the Hard Line boys in the marketplace. In a place where the only thing they had in abundance was nothing, too many fought over the control of the swill pail, and the alienage had been left torn between handfuls of warring criminal factions, and caught against the corruption of human governance.

It was better after the occupation ended, though change did not come overnight. As a matter of fact, it took such a long damn time coming, most of his people had already decided there was little difference between a Fereldan king and an Orlesian emperor and—in real, practical terms—they were right. For a long while, anyway.

Still, all that… a good twenty years ago, Cyrion thought, gazing sadly at the far wall. The shadow-stains were beating slower now, as the fire died down. He could hear Valora’s breathing lengthening out and, eventually, sleep claimed her.

Valendrian had been in his mid-thirties then, and he’d taken the helm after the old hahren died, proving his worth by the way he handled the guard. Things had already begun to change. New laws, new ways of doing things… elves were allowed to take casual labour, and work in some forms of trade for the first time in almost a century. Cyrion remembered how like freedom it had felt—how fresh, how exciting—and, of course, it had all coincided with his marriage. He’d been young enough, and foolish enough, to really feel as if he and his bride were on the threshold of a wonderful new world.

Well. This all just went to show how life panned out, didn’t it? Like a mountain range, the years were little more than endless upward slogs and terrifying, unstoppable descents, punctuated by very brief moments of respite, where you could stand of the roof of the world, and see for a thousand miles.

Cyrion sighed softly. Sleep was definitely evading him tonight, and all that left him with was the jagged, pitted fields of regret and angry, humiliated pain. He didn’t want to think about it. Too many memories, and too much pressing in on him from the now; the things that were not yet memories, and would hurt no less until they were.

He closed his eyes again, a pointless nod towards the attempt at rest. The darkness was full of faces, full of cold, blinding aches. He wished he could dream—have blissful, islanded dreams where they were all there, all home again, and where there were smiles, and warmth, and they were safe. His girls. He’d happily lose himself in dreams like that, let everything fade away and give himself to the changeless, timeless fantasy, allowing the real world—in all its betrayals, and inadequacies, and treacheries—to recede, until it stopped mattering completely.

A little while later, once the fire had grown cold, and the thin trails of tears had dried on Cyrion’s cheeks, Shianni woke screaming. It took the best part of an hour to calm her down.

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A Father’s Regret: 2. Subtle Voices
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Four

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Neither of us knew what to expect when we entered that room. How could we?

Soris kicked open the door and we burst in, very melodramatically, with our weapons raised. We couldn’t have prepared, couldn’t have imagined… not that preparation would have made it easier.

Vaughan’s grotesque little party had already started.

I didn’t see Arith or Valora, but then in all honesty I didn’t see much. My eyes were full of Shianni, held down on the rumpled bed by the two men Vaughan had brought with him before. Her face was screwed up into a ball of tears and pain, her skirts pushed up to her waist and her bodice ripped, baring her breasts. Blood streaked her thighs. I think she’d given up struggling.

They were laughing at her. Every scream, every sob… like it proved they were real men. The air reeked of sweat and violence, the three of them unbreeched and stripped to their shirtsleeves, tearing at her like dogs.

Vaughan’s face was still red and creased with that monstrous glee when he turned to us… so damn nonchalant, as if he’d expected to see us there, the very arrogance of which curdled my stomach. He reached down casually to tuck himself away—why should he care what we saw? We weren’t important, were we?—and the traces of sadistic laughter trailed across his words.

“Well, my, my… What have we here?”

I cannot pretend I did not want him dead. Hatred welled in me, black and thick as oil. The hilt of my sword seemed to pulse in my sweat-slicked palm.

Long, red scratches weltered on his cheek, neck, and chest. Shianni had fought hard at some point, I could see. Until he beat it out of her. Beside me, Soris was breathing tight and hard, and I was amazed he didn’t rush them there and then. I didn’t dare look at him, didn’t dare move or speak.

The moment stretched out like molten glass, burning a trail before us, the only sound in the room that of Shianni’s sobbing. The two lordlings let her go, rising to flank their master, and she just balled up where she was, shivering and crying. She didn’t even try to run. I could feel Soris tense beside me, ready to go to her, but I put out my hand, stilling him.

“Don’t worry,” said the second lord. “We’ll make short work of these two.”

“Quiet, Jonaley, you idiot!” Vaughan snapped. “They’re covered with enough blood to fill a tub. What do you think that means?”

Jonaley and Braden rested uneasily behind him, both lost without an order, I supposed. None of the three wore their sword belts, having been… otherwise occupied, yet I saw they had been left within easy reach. Definitely not worth chancing a strike before they had the opportunity to arm themselves. And—whatever else happened—I was not about to spill noble blood lightly.

“Why don’t you tell me, my lord?” I said, my voice cold.

“All right, all right….” Vaughan held up his hands in an absurd and ugly pretence at innocence. “Let’s not be too hasty here. Surely we can talk this over….”

“You really think you can talk your way out of this?” I demanded, unable to see anything else but my cousin, a sobbing wreck, scrabbling to cover herself with her torn and filthy dress.

Shianni raised her head and looked hopelessly at me from swollen eyes that would soon be black with bruises.

“Please,” she begged. “Please… just get me out of here! I want to go home….”

I think my heart broke in that moment, because I felt such pain for her that it roared over me like a wave—pain, love, tenderness, together with guilt and shame—all tempered with a raging anger… and then nothing. I felt nothing else, as if there was nothing else to feel, or perhaps as if I just had no ability left, like a cup that can hold no more water.

I wrenched my gaze from Shianni, and stared at Vaughan.

And the bastard smiled at me.

“Think for a minute,” he said, and I couldn’t believe how calm he sounded. “Kill me, and you ruin more lives than just your own. By dawn, the city will run red with elven blood. Think about it. You know how this ends. Or we could talk this through… now that you have my undivided attention.”

“You want to talk?” Soris blurted. “We’ll talk! We’ll tell the whole city what you’ve done!”

Vaughan actually looked surprised at that. He loosed a short, spiteful laugh.

“Oh, please. You think people care about elven whores? You think my father would ignore my death simply because I… used some animals as they were meant to be used?”

Well. It seemed the cup could hold a little more anger.

“We are not animals!” I snarled, stepping forward.

The sword seemed to sing to me, begging for the chance to cut him.

“A poor word choice, perhaps, but you understand,” Vaughan oozed, as if it had been a perfectly reasonable statement. “You’d risk everything you know on petty revenge?”

I glanced at Shianni, hugged in on herself and shaking. The bastard had a point. Just like when he’d crashed the wedding, he still believed we couldn’t touch him, that whatever he did, the threat of his father’s retribution was so much greater than our desire for justice. After all, what were we?

Nothing. Not in his world.

“Talk, then,” I said, through gritted teeth. “If you have something to say.”

That horrible, knife-like smile was back. It made my flesh creep. As he spoke, Vaughan’s gaze roved me, and I knew he was doing it on purpose; as near as he would ever get to touching me. He wanted to see me squirm, and I refused to give him the pleasure.

“Here’s our situation,” he said, as smoothly as if he was offering us Antivan brandy and sweetmeats. “You are skilled, obviously. We fight here… who knows, you might even manage to kill us. My father won’t let that go. Your pigsty of an alienage will be burned to the ground. Or… you turn and walk away. With forty sovereigns added to your purses.”

I heard Soris’ intake of breath. I couldn’t believe it either. Did he truly believe we were that stupid? My hands itched. Before today, I had never killed, but now I experienced bloodlust for the first time.

Vaughan fixed me with that icy glare of his, and I imagined he meant to intimidate me. It didn’t work. I felt nothing.

“You take that money,” he said levelly, “and leave Denerim tonight. No repercussions, and you can go wherever you like.”

“What about the women?” Soris demanded. “Will you let them go?”

I almost wanted to smile. My dear, dear daydreamer of a cousin.

Vaughan did smile, and it was not pleasant.

“The women stay,” he said, smug and suave. “They’ll go home tomorrow… perhaps slightly the worse for wear, but you’ll be long gone.”

I snorted. “No deal.”

The ugly, vicious smile dropped and became a scowl.

“Bah!” Vaughan spat. “I always regret talking to knife-ears! Now I’ll just gut your ignorant carcasses, instead.”

Jonaley and Braden had not been entirely useless while he spoke. They had fetched the swords, and now we had three armed humans to deal with. Vaughan drew his blade, and lunged.

Soris lurched blindly into the fray, fuelled by rage and rank with terror. He was the truly brave one that day, I believe, for courage is borne out of fear, and he was afraid, yet he gave everything.

As for myself, I remember the visceral, bone-shaking blows. We pitched in, the five of us, and there were flurries of metal and leather and there was so much blood….

I think it was Soris who killed Lord Jonaley, though it was hard to be sure. I took down Braden, the bastard who’d knocked me out before, and discovered that it was indeed possible for a woman my size to strike halfway through a man’s neck with a blade. I had a little trouble getting it out again, and that was how Vaughan managed to land the blow that almost knocked me unconscious for the second time that day.

Soris charged him. I rolled away, and brought myself up behind Vaughan, taking advantage of his being distracted to bring my sword around in a wide, hard arc. He was quick, though, and I overextended, leaving myself vulnerable to the elbow he landed in my stomach.

My blade glanced off his arm, barely nicking the flesh through his shirt, while he sent me spinning and choking. I shouldn’t have been so surprised to learn that he didn’t fight fair.

It was too easy for him to deflect Soris; a strike here, a punch there… my cousin fell to the floor, and Vaughan rounded on me with a cold, ugly sneer, his sword glinting like a sliver of bloody moonlight.

“You don’t really expect to walk out of here alive, do you?” he asked dryly.

I said nothing. Perhaps I didn’t expect to. Maybe I couldn’t beat him… but neither could I back down.

With a wordless, curdled yell of rage, I rushed him. Stupid. He dodged, and his fist crashed into my cheek. I sprawled to the ground again, the sword almost knocked from my grip. Vaughan raised his weapon and—my eyes stinging and blurred with blood and sweat—I braced myself for a blow I didn’t believe I could escape.

Soris was labouring to his feet. Bleeding and woozy, he struck Vaughan from behind, bearing him to the floor in a tangle of arms, legs and steel. The human swore and fought back… it was not a dignified fight, nor he a dignified opponent.

I’m not sure, even now, how it happened. Soris went flying again, spitting blood and crying out, and I had my borrowed sword in my hand, but my legs were like water, the whole room spinning around me. Vaughan was yelling, his shirt torn and bloody, the reek of cruelty on him like cheap perfume. He was due a mistake, and it came.

He took his eyes from me and turned away, ready to deliver Soris a killing blow, and I ran my blade into his back.

The choked grunt of breath he gave echoed against the sound of his sword dropping to the floor. He sagged, swore… my foot connected with his most intimate parts, and then I had him sprawled out before me, bleeding and whimpering on the ground.

If he hadn’t begged for his life, I might have spared him.

I am not proud of what I did. Vaughan’s blood spurted, and I twisted my blade. He died in pain, and I watched every flicker of it.

Few deaths since have been anything like as personal, of which I am glad. Killing in the way I killed Vaughan Kendells destroys a part of one’s soul that can never be redeemed, or fully washed clean.

More than that, it is dangerous.

To put it another way: there is a fine line between justice and vengeance, and both come at a heavy price.

But, at last, it was over. Three noblemen lay dead at our feet, among them the arl of Denerim’s son, who—whatever his personal sins—was probably considered a hundred-fold worthier than our entire alienage, much less ourselves. We were treasonous, seditious murderers. And yet I still felt numb.

Soris spoke first.

“He… he’s dead. Oh, Maker! Tell me we did the right thing, cousin.”

I blinked owlishly at him. “It’s a little late for regrets, isn’t it?”

“I-I’m not regretting it.” Soris glanced over at his sister, still hunched up on the bed. “It’s just… oh, never mind. I… I’ll check the back room for the others. Shianni needs you.”

He moved abruptly away, and set to finding Valora and Arith. I dropped my borrowed sword and went as gently as I could to Shianni. She had her arms wrapped around her head, her body racked with convulsive sobs.

“Shianni?”

I knelt beside her, not knowing what I should do, how much she’d seen or… experienced. I touched her arm and she flinched, the tears coming thicker and faster.

“Shianni, it’s me….”

She raised her head a little, and I stroked her hair. Eventually, recognition seemed to spark in her face.

“D-don’t leave me alone,” she whispered.

“I won’t. I promise.”

She fell into my arms then, and held on as if she were drowning. I hugged her, tentatively at first, then tighter, rocking her like a child, murmuring over and over that it was all right… though I honestly wasn’t sure she was ever going to be all right again. She kept asking me to take her home, but she wouldn’t move, and I couldn’t carry her.

Eventually, I prised her arms from around my neck and tried to wipe her eyes.

“Shianni, listen to me. Listen. Can you walk?”

“I think so.” She sniffed, peering over my shoulder. “You killed them, didn’t you?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. There was something terrible in her face, and in her voice. Like she wanted blood.

“Didn’t you?” she said again, an urgent, hopeful whisper. “You killed them all?”

The enormity of it hadn’t yet sunk in for me, although it was beginning to. I’d done what had to be done, I thought, but that wasn’t what she wanted to hear. I brushed the hair from Shianni’s forehead and tried to smile.

“Like dogs,” I said. “All the ones who hurt you.”

She smiled, an expression of dreamy relief so incongruous against the blood, snot and bruises.

“Good. Good….”

Shianni closed her eyes, and I knew we couldn’t let her drift off. Not here, and not now. She needed a healer, and… well, perhaps just a healer, to start with. I looked up, and saw Soris emerging from one of the antechambers, with Arith and Valora in tow. They looked terrified, and Arith sported a cut lip, but they seemed otherwise unharmed.

Valora put her hand to her mouth as she looked at Shianni.

“Oh, Maker…. Is she going to be all right?”

“She’ll live,” I said, a little more brusquely than I meant to. “How are you?”

“Rattled. They said they were… saving us for later. I-I can’t believe you came for us,” she breathed, looking from me to Soris. “Thank you.”

“Thank Soris,” I said, noticing that he was holding onto her hand tightly. “He’s the reason we got in here.”

Valora turned her damp, red-rimmed gaze to her betrothed, and Soris cleared his throat.

“Er… we should go. Soon. As in now.”

“Good thought,” I agreed.

“I’ll take the rear guard,” he said, glancing at the door. “I can’t wait to leave this place.”

Arith helped me get Shianni to her feet and, with her slung between us, we left the bloody chamber, shutting the door on the mess. No chance to hide in plain sight this time, passing for servants. We couldn’t go back the way we’d come, and every moment yielded a greater threat of discovery.

From Vaughan’s rooms, the corridor led on past other suites, down a narrow staircase that was probably for servants’ use, and out to a small, neatly manicured courtyard. Full of roses, honeysuckle, and jasmine, it was… pretty, which at that moment sickened me beyond all measure.

The scented air tasted strange, like pudding on an empty stomach. Shianni wobbled a bit, and I tightened my grip on her waist. If we could just find our way out, then—

Our bloodied little band came to a sudden halt at the sight of an elven servant crossing the yard, carrying a pail and a mop. I didn’t recognise her: a thin, wiry woman, grey-haired and sallow-cheeked. She stopped mid-stride and stared at us. I held my breath… I think we all did. All it would take was one scream.

The servant set down her pail, not taking her eyes off us. She lifted her hand and pointed to a small gate set into the far wall.

“Through the jardin,” she said. “Quickly.”

Her accent was thick, and unmistakeably Orlesian. I nodded, no time to speculate or question. She stood there and watched us, but didn’t speak or move again. Soris wrenched the gate open and rushed us through, out into what seemed to be the rear end of the estate’s vegetable gardens. I was still staring back at the woman when the gate swung closed behind me, and my last glimpse was of her bending to pick up her pail, and walking on across the courtyard.

We followed the line of the estate’s exterior wall, all high grey stone and knapped flint, skirting the shadows and sticking to the paths meant for wheelbarrows and nightsoilmen. We didn’t talk. There weren’t words for what had happened.

At any moment, I expected Vaughan’s body to be discovered, and packs of guards to come streaming from unseen doors to hack us all to pieces, but it didn’t happen.

I kept thinking of Nelaros, and Nola. Both of them, left behind in that place…. Neither would get the proper burial they deserved.

Not far from the well-tended beds of pumpkins, marrows and squashes, Soris found a side gate we could sneak through, minimising our chances of being spotted. Obviously a shortcut used by the servants, it led into a dirty alley where they dumped slops—judging by the stench—and, from there, we could make it along to the river and, crossing beneath the White Bridge, back towards the alienage. It was a difficult journey to make without being seen. I didn’t even know if we should be heading back… I couldn’t begin to imagine the trouble that was going to unfold once Vaughan’s body was found. Was it wise to bring all that down on our home?

I doubted it, and I tried so hard to think of another way, but we had nowhere else to go. There was only one place we’d ever been safe and, like rats scurrying back to their holes, we were fleeing there now.

In any case, I knew we had to get Shianni home. It was all she kept saying, and she sounded so lost, so frightened. She wouldn’t let go of me, and I couldn’t have refused.

We didn’t make straight for the market-side gate, aiming instead for a weak spot in the wall. Everyone knew about those—they were how the boys got out for late-night tavern binges, which were almost as much a rite of passage as marriage—but the elders discouraged us from using them. All the same, better that now than try to walk past the guard on the gate.

Soris heaved up the planks that shielded the hole, well hidden behind a cluster of elfroot plants. Arith and Valora squeezed through first, then helped me guide Shianni. She started to panic halfway, but Valora calmed her, and kept talking in that soft voice of hers which, I had to admit, sounded a lot less like a dying mouse than it had that morning.

I followed, and Soris brought up the rear. People stared from the moment we set foot back on the cobbles, but that wasn’t the worst thing. The air had changed in the alienage. I could feel it.

The wedding decorations were still up, the streets strewn with empty bottles and jugs. People milled about, dressed in their good clothes and, somewhere, somebody was still playing that stupid fiddle. But it had changed.

Earlier today, I’d sensed the place get greasy and charged with static, like a storm was brewing. Now it just felt… empty. The ground wasn’t familiar beneath my feet, and the houses all seemed to be watching me. I shivered, and Soris nodded towards the main square.

“The hahren.”

I looked where he gestured. Valendrian was coming towards us, his stride as long and even as that of a much younger man, but his face tightly drawn. Shame burned inside me. The human, Duncan, was with him, and so was my father, along with a group of the older men and women.

“You have returned,” the hahren observed.

I bowed my head. I didn’t know what to say, how to even begin confessing what I had done. He glanced at us and, I am sure, learned everything he needed to know, though he still asked the questions.

“Has Shianni been hurt?”

I looked imploringly at the hahren, silently begging him not to make us voice it. Not in front of everyone. I still had my arm around my cousin, and I hugged her protectively to me.

“She needs rest, elder. And a healer. A… a woman.”

There was barely a flicker of change in Valendrian’s face, but I understood the hardness I saw in his eyes. A few hours ago, I would not have done, but now….

“I see.” He inclined his head, his mouth a tight line.  “And where is Tormey’s daughter, Nola?”

I opened my mouth, but it was Valora who answered.

“Nola didn’t make it,” she said. “She resisted, and—”

“They killed her,” Arith finished bitterly.

Valendrian loosed a short, terse sigh. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at my father, though he stood but a few feet away from me. Everything seemed woolly, as if my head was stuffed with clouds, and hahren’s voice sounded as if it was coming through a tunnel.

“And Nelaros?” he asked.

“Him too,” Soris said. “The guards killed him.”

He squealed like a stuck pig when he died.

I caught my breath, suddenly sure I was back in that room, the guards lunging at me, and the borrowed sword held tight in my hand. My hand…. I looked down, and realised I did, indeed, still have the sword. Duncan’s sword, wasn’t it? Soris had said so.

I should give it back, I supposed, but there was one problem. If I still had the sword, it meant that everything had been real. Would it still be real if I gave it up? Would anything?

Maybe I’d drop dead on the spot.

A strange thought, perhaps. Looking back, I suspect it was mainly the concussion.

“I see,” the hahren said gravely. He turned to the women accompanying him, and raised his voice a little. “Would you ladies please take care of Shianni? And… you girls, too,” he added, looking at Valora and Arith. “Go on.”

It took me a few moments to let go of my cousin, and it felt strange without her, like I was dislocated somehow from the rest of the world. Valora hesitated as well, but Soris touched her arm.

“It’s all right. Take care of her.”

She nodded, and I was aware of a general bustling and stirring, with Shianni and the others being drawn into the centre of the group of women and whisked away. It was almost like a conjuring trick and, while that intricate ballet was underway, the hahren took hold of my arm and drew me aside.

I was still looking to see where Shianni was going, and I caught sight of my father, following close behind the women. He glanced back at me, and bowed his head. I wanted to go to him, but Valendrian held onto me.

“Child….”

I faced him, expecting to see anger in his eyes, perhaps disappointment, but there was only a terrible sadness.

“Now tell me,” he said, his voice firm but calm. “What happened?”

“I….” I shook my head. “I’m sorry, elder. I—”

“What of the arl’s son?”

I shut my eyes, but the darkness inside my head was no consolation. I could see nothing but blood, and hear nothing but Shianni screaming.

“Vaughan’s dead,” I whispered.

“Maker preserve us all!”

The hahren still held my arm, but his grip was not unkind. The gentle clink of plate mail heralded Duncan’s approach, and he came to stand beside Valendrian, his presence somehow soothing. I couldn’t understand why that should be—had I not had enough of humans today to last me a lifetime?

Yet, this man was the hahren’s guest—his friend, I’d been told—and I owed him my freedom. I looked at the sword I still held, its blade smeared with blood, and then at Duncan.

“Um….”

“The garrison could already be on their way,” Duncan said. I wasn’t sure if he was addressing me, or the hahren. “You have little time.”

Valendrian sighed and shook his head. “Very well. I suppose there is no other way.”

“Elder?” I was confused. “I…I don’t know what….”

The hahren patted my arm. “It’s all right, child.”

He turned back to the wider street, where knots of people were still gathered, craning to see what was going on. I saw Soris coming back towards us, Duncan’s crossbow in his hand. He’d washed the blood off himself, his wounded arm bound up better than I had managed to do, but he still looked ashy and terrified.

I wanted to ask him about Shianni, but there was no time. Thandon came running around the corner from the gate, cheeks flushed and hair flying.

“Elder! Elder, the guards are here!”

I didn’t know what he’d heard, but he stared at me as if I was a demon. I was still covered in blood, I supposed… mine and other people’s. My head hurt. Thandon stood there, panting, waiting for a response from the hahren.

Valendrian looked at Duncan, then at Soris, and lastly at me.

“Don’t panic,” he said. “Let us see what comes of this.”

I stood meekly beside the hahren and waited. Soris came to stand by me, and we exchanged nervous glances. Duncan was still there, which I found odd; somehow, I expected him to have made himself scarce, but he had not left us.

We heard the footsteps of the guards, thudding against the cobbles in quick-fire unison. So much of me just wanted to lie down and sleep, and it seemed strange that I wasn’t afraid, though at that point I felt so little that I almost mistook it for calmness.

Valendrian stood ready to meet the guards, unflinching as ever. They were led by their captain; a stocky man with a grey beard. I’d seen him around before—not a bad peacekeeper, as the shemlens went, and not above reprimanding his men if he caught them starting fights with the local lads, or shaking people down for coppers.

The squad halted before us, and the captain stepped forward.

“I seek Valendrian, elder and administrator of the Alienage.”

“Here, Captain,” the hahren said, and I marvelled at how solid and unshakeable he seemed. “I, uh, take it you have come in response to today’s disruption?”

It was hardly what I would have called it, and I wasn’t surprised to hear frustration and anger in the captain’s voice.

“Don’t play ignorant with me, elder. You will not prevent justice from being done. The arl’s son lies dead in a river of blood that runs through the entire palace. I need names, and I need them now!”

Vaughan’s words echoed back at me. Your pigsty of an alienage will be burned to the ground. They’d do it, wouldn’t they? A purge. It hadn’t happened in more than a generation, but it would come now… and it would all be my fault.

The whole city would be against us, once the news got out. There would have to be retribution. Now, or when Arl Urien returned from the fighting; it didn’t matter. Someone would have to pay. Blood for blood, and a good old-fashioned public hanging.

I stepped forward, forcing myself into the captain’s view.

“It was my doing,” I said.

Every pair of eyes in the street seemed to fix upon me. I heard Soris catch his breath, and I prayed he wouldn’t do anything stupid. The guards shifted restlessly, and their captain stared, incredulous.

“You expect me to believe one woman did all of that?”

I looked down at myself; my bloody clothes, the sword in my hand…. If this wasn’t good enough proof, what more did he want? I raised my head and met the captain’s gaze.

“Yes, ser,” I said, quietly and without much emphasis.

“Perhaps we are not all so helpless, Captain,” the hahren said, with a trace of something almost resembling a challenge.

I glanced at the elder, but his face remained impassive.

“All right.” The guard captain shook his head as he looked at me. “You save many by coming forward. I don’t envy your fate, but I applaud your courage.”

He genuinely seemed to mean it, and that surprised me, unused as I was to respect from humans. I remember wondering—in that hazy, clouded way—if it mattered. They would hang me all the same, unless my crime merited a more creative death. Did we still disembowel traitors? And was Vaughan’s death technically treason?

The captain nodded and held out his hand to me; a very cordial invitation for a gaoler to afford his new prisoner. I stepped towards him, and he took careful hold of my arm before turning to address the gathered mass of pale, worried faces.

“Hear this, all of you! This elf will wait in the dungeons until the arl returns. The rest of you, go back to your houses. Now!”

I could feel them watching me. The stares, the disbelief… the accusations. I didn’t dare lift my head. I didn’t want to look at anyone. I just wanted to lie down and sleep.

“Captain? A word, if you please.”

I blinked. It was Duncan who had spoken, and I had not expected that. The captain looked irritable, but he maintained his patience.

“What is it, Grey Warden? The situation is well under control, as you can see.”

“Be that as it may, I hereby invoke the Grey Warden’s Right of Conscription. I remove this woman into my custody.”

Confused, I frowned, and opened my mouth to ask what was going on, but the hot, difficult silence that had fallen hushed me. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I could see the struggle for dominance between the two men. It was a silent battle, fought only with stares and a slight jaw-clenching on the captain’s part, and it seemed to last an age.

Eventually, the captain relented.

“Son of a tied-down— Very well, Grey Warden. I cannot challenge your rights, but I will ask one thing. Get this elf out of the city. Today.”

“Agreed,” Duncan said simply.

The captain glanced down at me and, shaking his head, released my arm.

“Go on,” he said, not altogether unkindly. “And I suppose you should count yourself lucky. Now, I need to get my men on the streets before this news hits. Move out!”

The guards marched out, but the tension in the air remained. For a while, no one spoke. I still wasn’t sure what had just happened, and I looked to Valendrian for explanation. The sadness in the hahren’s face filled me with apprehension, and I was afraid to ask the questions I wanted to.

Duncan touched my shoulder gently. I flinched, and then felt foolish for having done so, shamed by his kindness.

“You’re with me now,” he said. “Say your goodbyes. We must leave immediately. Do you understand?”

“I….” I began weakly.

So many questions filled my mouth I nearly choked, and couldn’t ask any of them. I didn’t even know where to begin. I understood that this human had saved my life, and that I now owed it to him and whatever service he saw fit to place me in, but what that was—and what these Grey Wardens were—I did not know.

So much, like Duncan’s very presence there that day, remained unclear to me. And so I just nodded. Whatever else, I knew we had to leave. There would be time enough to sort through whatever pieces were left of my life once Denerim was behind us.

I bowed my head respectfully.

“I understand, but… what’s going to happen here?”

“For the moment, they are fine,” Duncan said. “You can’t help them by staying, and you must learn that there are far more important matters arising that endanger more than just your people. I shall explain when we leave. I imagine you have questions.”

That was an understatement. Still, I knew when it was not my place to argue.

“I… I’ll get my things.”

The hahren stood a little way from us. He must have overheard. I went to him first, weighed down with my shame and sorrow, and it was hard to look him in the face. Valendrian reached out and touched my arm gently. I raised my head, and saw so much in his eyes… and a great deal of it, then, I did not understand.

“Well, I suppose Duncan got his recruit after all,” the hahren said. “That was what he came here for, you know.”

I hadn’t known. I shook my head. “Not by my choice, elder. I….”

I don’t want to leave.

I couldn’t say it. I was afraid to say anything.

“No?” The hahren smiled sadly. “Either way, child, it’s out of my hands now. I am sorry. Goodbye, young one, and may the Maker keep you.”

He bowed his head to me. The bridge of my nose stung, weighted with tears, but I returned the gesture, and stood there, watching him walk away. When I looked up again, I saw Soris coming cautiously towards me, his face full of awe and fear and a dozen other things.

“You’re leaving,” he said, and I didn’t know whether he too had overheard, or whether the gossip was already searing through the alienage like flames.

The streets had emptied considerably since the guards had gone, though there were still people drifting about, either too curious, too riled up, or too drunk to go back to their houses. I couldn’t see any of their faces; they blurred together for me, unknown and no longer familiar.

“You… you really saved my hide back there,” Soris said. “Thank you.”

I shook my head. I couldn’t have let him admit his part in what had happened. He needed to be there for Valora—and for his sister. Now more than ever. I took Soris’ hand and turned it over in mine, idly examining the lines. They said you could read a person’s fate that way. I didn’t know how to do it, but it was easier than looking at his face.

“What will you do now?” I asked.

Soris squeezed my fingers. “No more daydreaming. I’m settling down. Valora’s a good woman, and she has ideas on making life better here for everyone.”

“Good.” I glanced up at him, surprised by the determination in his voice.

“And you?” he asked, his gaze slipping for a second to Duncan, who was waiting for me near the gate. “What…?”

“I don’t know,” I said, which was the truth. “I-I suppose… I’ll come back, if I can. Sometime.”

Soris didn’t believe me, I could tell. I wasn’t sure if I believed it, either. He cleared his throat.

“Uh, your father had the women take Shianni back to your place. Will you see her before you go?”

I nodded. “Of course. I— You’ll look after Father, won’t you?”

“We all will,” Soris said quietly, and those words nearly broke me. He hugged me then, a brief explosion of affection that I hadn’t expected, and wasn’t sure I could deal with. “Good luck, cousin. You’ve been my hero since we were kids, you know? It’s just official now.”

I hugged him back, tight, my face buried in his neck and, when we broke, we were both wiping tears from our cheeks. I turned and walked back to my father’s house, willing the air to dry those traitorous salt-tracks. I can’t explain how strange the place felt. The whole alienage, balanced on a knife-edge… and it was all my doing.

The door was open. I crept in and found Valora standing by the fire. I could see she’d been burning something and—from the look on her face and the scrap of chintz that fell from the hearth—I realised it was the remains of Shianni’s bridesmaid’s dress.

She glanced up at me and smiled. A rush of warmth towards the mouse engulfed me then, and I saw how much I could have grown to like her. All that strength and practicality she kept locked within her, tempered with such sweetness.

“There you are,” she said, crossing the floor to take my hands. “Thank you. For me, for Soris… for everything.”

She kissed my cheek. I sniffed.

“Be good to Soris, won’t you?”

“I will.” Valora nodded fervently. “I swear it. And if there’s anything I can ever do to repay you, I…. Well.” She cleared her throat. “There’s some hot water, and I found you clean clothes. You should… y’know. Before you leave. And, um….”

She reached into a pail that stood by the fire, and drew out a washcloth, which she handed to me, gesturing loosely to her face. I realised what she meant, and wiped the cloth across my brow, my cheeks… and my neck, arms, hands….

Until I began to wash, I hadn’t known there was so much blood. I stared at the reddened cloth, sickened. Valora took it from my hands and passed me a clean one for drying. Had I been properly aware of what she was doing, I would have admired her then.

“Shianni’s resting, but she seems to have regained herself. I’ll, uh, leave you to….” She nodded at the corner of the room, behind the wooden screen where our pallets for sleeping usually lay. “Good luck.”

“Thank you,” I said, giving her a small smile. “Cousin.”

Well, she was family now, vows or not.

She bowed her head and, with a great deal of grace, managed to make herself almost invisible as I went to speak with Shianni. I could see, in a very short time, that girl becoming completely indispensable around here.

Shianni was sitting up in bed, wearing one of my old shifts, pillows and blankets banked up around her. The swelling was starting to come out on her face, and I could see great mottled, finger-shaped bruises appearing on the upper part of her chest, arms and shoulders. Maker knew what else. She wasn’t shivering anymore, though, and she smiled a little when she saw me.

“You! Meri, I heard…. You took all the responsibility for what happened, didn’t you?” She reached for my hand. I let her take it—lucky handshakes on a bride’s special day—and sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. “You’re amazing, you know that?”

I brushed the compliment aside. I didn’t feel amazing, especially when I looked at her injuries.

“How are you holding up?”

“I’m… all right,” she said carefully. “But I don’t want anyone to tell. You, Soris, Arith and Valora know, and the hahren, but… as far as the others are concerned, Vaughan just roughed me up a bit. That’s— Well, that’s all, all right?”

I pressed my lips tight together and frowned. “Shianni….”

“No.” She sighed, and squeezed my hand. “I just… I don’t want them treating me like some fragile doll.”

My throat tightened, and I could barely breathe past the lump in it. Her eyes started to close, and I wondered if she’d been given something to help her sleep, maybe even put the nightmare to rest for a little while. I hoped so. I cleared my throat, searching for words to put to the impossible.

“I, um… Shianni, I’m going away for a while.”

“I know,” she murmured, looking sleepily at me. “With the human, right?”

“That’s right. I have to leave soon.”

“Wait.” Shianni struggled to pull herself up against the pillows. “There’s something I need to say first.”

I opened my mouth to tell her it was all right, but she shook her head.

“Listen. You’ve always been there for me, but what happened today… it was beyond what anyone could ever expect from another person.”

She reached out and touched my cheek, her eyes wet and bloodshot, and I could feel the tremble in her fingers.

“When the world was at its worst,” she whispered, “there you came—fire in your eyes, like something out of a storybook. I will never forget that.”

I took hold of Shianni’s hand and kissed it, finding no words that would come to me. Her gratitude was almost more than I could bear, when I’d still been too late to stop that bastard doing what he had.

“I love you, cousin,” Shianni said. “Make us proud of you out there.”

“I love you too, Shianni,” I whispered.

Fat, hot tears dripped onto my cheeks. Shianni smiled sadly and squeezed my hand one last time.

“Maker watch over you.”

“And you,” I managed.

I kissed her forehead and told her to rest and, as I rose and turned away, I wiped the back of my hand across my eyes. My face hurt, but it was nothing next to the ache in my chest.

Valora had laid out clean clothes for me—a good white smock, a hard-wearing brown broadcloth dress, a dark woollen cloak, and a pair of good leather boots, all of which I knew for certain weren’t mine. I didn’t know what to say. She’d ransacked her own trousseau for me. A bundle sat on the table, tied up in oiled leather, and she waved a hand in its direction.

“I wasn’t sure what you’d need. Some food, some water… a little money. I don’t know if there’s anything special you want to take with you, but…. Well, at least you’ll be clean and dry.”

My hand went unthinkingly to my pocket, and closed on the ring I’d taken from Nelaros’ body. I looked around the room, trying to see it clearly, without the sad little wedding decorations hung at the windows, and without the layers of memories that clung to every tiny thing.

I swallowed heavily. Perhaps Valora’s influence was good to have at that moment. Biting back a sniff, I made a quick circuit of the room, rummaging through the few personal belongings Father and I had acquired over the years. A book or two, extra pouches and scrips, a tinderbox and a writing set for when, or if, I could actually get hold of some paper… two small, old knives, their blades worn and curved with years of sharpening. Spare smallclothes, rags, a comb, some wax polish for leather, tooth powder and a half-bar of soap….

Once my flurry of activity was over, it still didn’t amount to much. One fat bindle for an entire life.

I changed my clothes, overwhelmed with guilt and sadness at the wholesale destruction of my poor wedding dress. It had been so beautiful—the product of so much hard work—and now the clothes were nothing but shredded, bloody bits of cloth.

Valora hugged me farewell, and I left the house, thinking briefly how strange it was that, despite everything, I was still a child. We should have been feasting and drinking by now, welcoming Nelaros as my husband, and welcoming my adulthood. Instead, I stepped out onto the cobbles an exile, robbed of everything by my own hand.

My father was waiting for me. I guessed that, with Shianni in the state she’d been in, the house had to become a female domain for a while, and he’d been effectively banished from his own home.

He looked at me, and I cannot describe how awful it was. Sadness, betrayal, pain, anger… all of those things, and such a deep, terrible sense of loss. I wanted to drop to the ground at his feet and beg his forgiveness, try to make him see I hadn’t planned this, hadn’t wanted it… but what use would that have been?

“Father,” I said, my voice barely more than a whisper.

“I know.” He nodded slowly. “I… understand. And, I suppose, if this is what the Maker has planned for you, then it is for the best.”

That stung. My father was not, habitually, a particularly religious man. He took comfort in it only when he had no other way of dealing with the injustices around him, and I could not bear to cause him that pain. He raised a hand and, so very gently, touched the bruises that were beginning to rise on my face.

“You were brave, weren’t you?”

Tears filled my eyes. “I….”

“Shh. Your mother would have been pleased.”

I blinked and sniffed, surprised by his words. Even so, they could not hide his sorrow.

“You’re not pleased?” I asked.

Afraid and childlike, I wanted his blessing. I wanted to hear I was doing the right thing, and that it was all going to be fine. My father’s brow creased as he tried to hold back his tears.

“I…. Oh, I just wish there was another way. I dreamed of grandchildren, family gatherings, and—” He broke off with a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry. This isn’t helping. Take care, my girl. Be safe, and wise. And… you know. We’ll all miss you.”

I threw myself into his arms, and hugged him so hard I thought I’d never breathe again. Maybe I didn’t want to. His arms encircled me the way they’d done so many times before, curing every hurt, every heartache… everything but this.

Father pushed me gently from him, and stroked my hair.

“Get going,” he said, the tears on his cheeks belying the gruffness of his voice. “Go on, before I embarrass us both.”

I nodded, but I couldn’t speak. I paced backwards a few steps, not wanting to turn from him, but the moment had to come. I turned, and let the cold air take my tears.

Duncan was still waiting by the south gate. He had a striking presence, I remember thinking. Just this strange, shining human, standing there like a statue, so still and calm. I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. He turned to me as I approached, and asked if I was ready.

I nodded. “Yes.”

“Then we must go.”

I didn’t look back as we left the alienage. Nobody came to wave me goodbye. If they looked out from their houses, I cannot say. We didn’t do things that way. Besides, I was leaving. That meant I didn’t belong anymore. I was less than human, and now I was no longer elven, not really. Stuck somewhere between the two, and unwanted by either side. Or so tradition had it.

Of course, a great many traditions had already been broken today.

I followed Duncan out of the alienage gates, and the full force of the mood in the city struck me. It was boiling out there, a cauldron of gossip, rumour, anger and fear. The market district was never exactly genteel, but it was unbelievable that day, crackling with an unpleasant, violent energy. The sight of the heavily armed guard patrols made my back tense and my stomach tight, and despite their presence, there were still fights breaking out among the stalls.

It was horrible, and the man I trailed after was hardly inconspicuous. I did what seemed the most sensible thing; hunched myself up and scurried after Duncan, hoping for the Maker’s sake I could pass for his servant.

At the time, I was amazed we got out of the gates without incident. Now, I realise how Duncan’s reputation preceded him, and I am aware of how truly lucky I was. I still have regrets—for who doesn’t?—and I still struggle with the question of whether, if I could, I would have altered what happened that day.

To be honest, I don’t know.

I doubt it, though it pains me to say so. Whatever changes the years have wrought, and whatever lessons I have learned, I know this: it was meant to be, that day, and it was the day that I began, at last, to live.

 ———————————-
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Feasting Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Three

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Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
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I don’t know how long I was out for. When I opened my eyes, everything was still a little bleary and smeared together, and I could smell damp. I heard Nola’s voice, whispering a constant chant of prayer, so I supposed at least two of us must still be together.

“Maker keep us, Maker protect us. Maker keep us, Maker protect us—”

“Ugh! Will you stop that? It’s driving me insane!”

Shianni. I wanted to smile, but my face hurt too much. Instead, I sat up, clutching my throbbing head. Blood appeared to be crusted at the side of my mouth, and my tongue tasted foul. I squeezed my eyes tight shut—willing everything to stop spinning and my stomach to stop flipping over—and tried to work out what was going on.

Certainly, one thing was clear. I’d had no idea how damn lucky we’d been, up until today, that Arl Urien’s son had spent so little time in Denerim. I wondered if he’d behaved like this in Val Royeaux, or whatever fancy city he’d been billeted to for his education. Probably. Just like he doubtless knew enough of our culture to understand that what he’d done—what he intended to do—on this, of all days, was the most unforgivable, shameful insult. He took pleasure in that, I suspected.

Still, I needed to open my eyes and assess our situation. I attempted it, and did not make a particularly useful contribution to anything.

“Oww…!”

“Oh, thank the Maker you’ve come to.” Shianni took hold of my arm and helped me sit up. Her fingers brushed against my painful jaw, and both of us winced. “We were so worried. You usually dodge better than that. I’m afraid this one’s going to hurt for a while.”

“Urgh….” I tried opening my eyes again, and this time managed to get my cousin’s face to hold still long enough for me to see she wasn’t bleeding. My tongue felt thick and flabby, and it made talking difficult. “Is… is everyone all right?”

It was, quite possibly, a stupid question. I blinked, peering at the drawn, worried faces around me. Shianni, Valora and Arith were all there, with Nola hunched over in prayer. The room was small and windowless—perhaps some kind of store, or side-chamber. The grey stone walls were not lime-washed, and there was one heavy, squat wooden door.

Beyond that, everything was flashing blue lights and dented shadows.

“We’re scared,” Valora said, “but unharmed. So far. They locked us in here until that… that bastard is ‘ready for us’.”

Her chin dimpled and trembled and, uncharitably, I hoped she wasn’t about to burst into tears. I rubbed my forehead, puzzled at being completely unable to remember how we’d got here.

“Uh. Wh-where is ‘here’, exactly?”

Shianni snorted. “The arl’s estate, though I doubt we’re getting the tour. After that human knocked you out, one of the guards put you over his shoulder, and they marched us all up here. We left through the north gate, I know that, and then it was Short Street, Rope Walk, Marketgate… and then I lost count. We came into the estate from the west, I think. This has got to be an undercroft or something, but I don’t know. There were so many corridors….”

Her voice began to shake, and I squeezed her hand. “It’s all right.”

“And just how is that, Meri?” Arith asked sharply. “Just how is it all right?”

I saw the fear in her face—in all their faces—and realised they were looking to me for some kind of answer. I didn’t know why, or what I was supposed to do. I turned to Shianni and lowered my voice.

“Is Nola… okay?”

She glanced at our friend, still doubled over and rocking in prayer. We’d known her since childhood, and I suppose she’d looked up to us. Nola was one of those girls who always seemed to need protecting, as if she wasn’t totally at home in the real world, so to speak. She always listened hardest when the Chantry sisters came in to visit, and would probably have joined them if she’d been given the opportunity. She was sweet, pious, and occasionally very irritating… but she was ours.

“I don’t know,” Shianni confessed. “You know how she gets nervous. I—”

I nodded. “All right.”

My cousin’s face crumpled, and she tried to hold back a sob.

“This is all my fault,” Shianni whimpered.

Silent tears were already running down Valora’s cheeks. I fumbled for something to say, some kind of false comfort that we could at least hang on to.

“M-maybe he’ll listen to reason once he’s sobered…?” I tried.

Arith scoffed. “More like once he’s had his way with us. We’re going to be beaten, raped, and probably killed up here, let’s face it.”

She was giving in to the panic. I could see it. Valora let out a small, damp cry, and I knew I couldn’t let them fall apart. Not now.

“Then we need to get out of here,” I said, though I was aware of how stupid it sounded.

“Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath,” Arith said coldly. “That door is locked and solid, and we’re unarmed, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Nola chose that moment to redouble her prayers.

“Maker keep us, Maker protect us. Maker keep us, Maker protect us….”

Shianni rolled her eyes. “Oh, not this again!”

“Look, we’ll… we’ll just do whatever they want,” Arith said, twisting her mouth awkwardly around the words. “We’ll have to. Then we’ll… go home, and try to forget this ever happened.”

“She’s right,” Valora agreed. “It’ll be worse if we resist.”

“It’ll be worse if we don’t!” Shianni protested, and all three of them looked imploringly at me—like I had an answer.

I didn’t know what to say. What choice did we have?

Arith glanced towards the door. “Someone’s coming!”

She was right. Heavy footfalls echoed in the corridor. Several men. My heart thudded against my ribs as we rose, pressing ourselves against the cold, clammy stonework.

“Stay calm,” I said. “Do whatever they say.”

Keys jangled in the lock, and the door swung open to reveal five burly, smirking guards, each well-armed and wearing the standard city armour—padded jacks and leg guards, overlaid with toughened, studded leather plates and helms. The numbers might have been even, but we were hopelessly outmatched.

Their sergeant grinned unpleasantly at us.

“Hello, wenches. We’re your escort to Lord Vaughan’s little party.”

My mind gnawed desperately at the options before us. Could we break away from them, try to run? No. Even if we managed it, they carried crossbows as well as swords, and we’d be felled inside a corridor’s length. We just had to stay calm and pray that, somehow, we—

Suddenly, Nola pushed away from the wall, positioning herself between us and the guards. Her face was a strange mix of utter terror and a kind of blind, terrible fury… a depth of anger I’d never dreamed she had in her.

“Stay away from us!” she shrieked, raising her arms, her pale, moon-like face twisted and two spots of colour burning in her cheeks.

I moved, tried to grab her and pull her back, but I wasn’t fast enough. The guard drew his sword and, in one simple, easy motion, the blade arced through the air. The movement was over so fast it barely seemed to have happened at all, but then there was all that blood…. Nola fell backwards, crumpling to the stone floor, her scream lost to a horrible, gurgling sound.

Blood sprayed from her throat, great jets of it at first, and then it just kept coming, pouring from that wide, jagged slash and pooling all around her. I think Valora squealed.

Nola’s mouth turned slack, and her pale eyes grew blank as stones. Arith cradled her friend’s head on her lap, and the blood oozed against her skin, each desperate touch leaving another finger-shaped stain on Nola’s cheeks.

And then it was over. She was gone, and we understood just how easily any of us could be next.

Arith looked up at the guards, pain and anger etched into her face.

“You killed her…!”

The man had already wiped and sheathed his weapon, as if nothing had happened.

“I suppose that’s what happens when you try teaching whores some respect,” he said, his voice all the more menacing for its calmness. He nodded to his men. “Now, you grab the little flower cowering in the corner. Horace and I will take the homely bride and the drunk. You two, bind the last one. She’s the scrapper.”

They meant me. I baulked, but there was nothing I could do. With Nola’s body just splayed like that, sightless eyes still staring at the ceiling, the guardsmen took hold of Arith, Valora and Shianni, and dragged them from the room. I caught one last look at Shianni before they hauled her out of the door. She mouthed something to me, but I didn’t understand what it was, and then my eye line was filled with the two remaining guards, both of them focusing their full attention on me in a way I was not used to deflecting.

“Don’t worry,” one said, kicking the door shut behind him. “We’ll be perfect gentlemen.”

I was backed as far against the wall as I could get, though it didn’t stop my shoulder blades from trying to dig through the stone. Everything Mother had ever taught me seemed to ripple right there beneath my skin—how to duck, dodge, feint and fight—but there were two of them, and they were not only bigger than me, but much better armed.

“Yeah,” the second guard added, reaching down to loosen the laces beneath his padded jack. “So long as you behave yourself, girlie.”

“Now, then,” the other man said, with a wheezy laugh. “You heard the sergeant. Be a good little wench, or you’ll end up like your friend there.”

He nodded to Nola, but I didn’t want to look at her. Whatever they did now, they couldn’t hurt her anymore.

“Try it,” I said, through gritted teeth. “See which bits you lose first.”

It was anger and bravado, nothing more. I knew I had no chance against them. Nothing I could do, except shut my eyes and pretend I was somebody else, a long way away from here.

They laughed at me. The shem with his laces undone gave a rough, dirty chuckle.

“Ha! Horace was right. She’s the scrapper.”

“We’ll have to see about knocking that out of you, girlie,” the first guard said, twisting a length of rope in his hands.

They moved towards me, and I held my breath. When the door began to open, I thought another one had come to join in, but it was no human.

“Uh… hello?”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Soris stood there with a crossbow slung over his back and a sword in his hand, still wearing that dreadful wedding garb. He looked terrified.

The guards turned, and the one with the half-laced hose chuckled.

“Oh, look at this! A little elfling with a stolen sword.”

Soris swallowed heavily, hunched over… and bent to the ground, shooting the sword along the stones to me. I dived, grabbed it, and straightened up, the point level with the first guard’s stomach.

It was a fine weapon, though bigger than I’d ever been used to—no sharpened kitchen knife, this—yet it floated it my hand, so light and easy to wield, like it was an extension of my arm.

The guard looked down at the well-polished blade, then up at my face.

“Oh, sod,” he said.

His companion obviously wasn’t so bright. Struggling with his state of undress, he drew his sword and I ducked, slipping between the two men. Mother might have taught me how to dodge blows, throw punches, and parry with strips of wood, but I’d never actually struck anyone with a weapon before. Even so, her words echoed back at me from all those years ago, warmed with the cosy heat of the fire and the smell of her famous dumplings on the stove.

Only a fool thinks his blade is just for slashing. A sword is made to thrust, pierce, guard and ward, as well as cut. It is both edge and point, for to fight is always to know both sides of a truth; to be bold but prudent, quick but precise, and strong, but able to bend.

I’d learned a great deal from her, if I had but known it. Not the art of war as it was taught to noble-born sons—all chivalric pretences and fancy postures—but the balance and grace of fighting, and of judging my opponent’s weakness against my own skills.

Of course, knowing the theory didn’t make the practice easier to master.

It took both hands, but I brought the blade up, and it bit into the guard’s belly, a surprisingly soft stretch of flesh protected only by his aketon and the toughened leather strips that bound his breastplate on. The quilted fabric ripped, and though the sword didn’t pierce him, the weight of the blow must have caught him off-balance. I followed it up with a foot in the groin, and he fell to the floor just as the second man swung at me.

A twang and a dull thud sounded, combined with Soris swearing, and I turned to see the second guard clawing at his neck, from which protruded a few inches of crossbow bolt. Blood bubbled around the shaft, and the human collapsed, dead.

Soris stared, ashen-faced, but then pointed behind me.

“Look out, cousin!”

My target had risen from his prone position, winded but unbowed, and he was coming for me again. As Soris struggled to reload the crossbow, I held my ground, waited until the guard lunged and, ducking beneath his outstretched arm, brought myself around to strike at the backs of his knees, unprotected by the armour. He cried out as my blade sunk into flesh and sinew, and folded to the ground in obvious agony. Panicked and clumsy, I swung again, not thinking. My sword met the back of his neck, and that thin stretch of grubby pink skin bloomed red, mangled like a crushed rose.

The force of the blow echoed all the way through my arms, jarring everything right up to my shoulders and my throbbing jaw. I cursed and stumbled backwards, barely managing to free the blade, and then nearly falling over it. Some fighter I was.

In any case, the guards were both down. Soris panted raggedly, blood running down his hand where he’d caught the side of his palm in the crossbow’s mechanism. I saw him staring at Nola’s bloodied form.

“They killed her,” I said, hearing the tremor in my voice, however brave I wanted to be. “The others… I—”

Soris took hold of my shoulder and made me look at him.

“Are you all right? They didn’t… hurt you, did they?”

I shook my head. It all seemed like a dream, as if we’d wake any minute and find none of it had been real.

“I’m fine.” I frowned, looking down at the sword in my hand as if it was nothing to do with me. “Where’d you get the weapons?”

“That human… Duncan. He gave us his sword and crossbow, but that’s all we have.”

My frown deepened, and my gaze met Soris’ wide, frightened eyes. He was so pale the freckles across the bridge of his nose stood out like cinder burns. I took a deep breath, knowing I must be calm and rational. So many questions, and no time to ask them all. We must think logically if we were to survive, dream or not.

First: we were somewhere within the arl’s estate. Did anyone know of Soris’ presence? If not, how long did we have until someone worked it out? Second: the women would have been taken to Vaughan. Where would we find him, and how would we— Hold on a minute.

“What d’you mean, ‘we’?”

“Me and Nelaros,” Soris said.

“Nelaros is here?”

“Yes.” Soris nodded. “He’s the reason we came. He lost it on those who wanted to just ‘hope for the best’. I-I didn’t know what to do….”

He looked so apologetic I wanted to hug him. I settled for a grim smile.

“You’re here now. That’s what matters. Did you have to fight your way in?”

“No. We snuck in, though Nelaros took down a guard. He’s a savage fighter,” Soris added, sounding impressed. “He’s guarding the end of the hall. We should probably figure this out with him.”

“Right.”

I looked down at the prone bodies on the floor, then set to wrenching off their leather helmets, and as much of the one undamaged jack as I could safely unbuckle.

“What are you doing?” Soris hissed.

I threw a helmet at him, and pulled the pitted sword from the dead guard’s fingers.

“What? You’d rather go out there in nothing but your wedding clothes?”

He swallowed heavily and pulled the helmet on, his fingers struggling with the chinstrap.

“Ow, my ears….”

“Hurry up,” I snapped, and helped Soris into the padded jack, which at least afforded a little protection, though most of the leather armour was, obviously, not made to fit elves.

We took the weapons we’d managed to scavenge and, though I did not want to leave Nola there, we had no choice. I took one last look at her body before we shut the door behind us, and crept out into the corridor.

Everything here appeared to be storerooms and, judging by the sounds we heard echoing along those old walls, the barracks and off-duty rooms for the guard must be close by. Laughter and voices traced the stones, and every moment seemed to bring a new threat of discovery.

“This way,” Soris whispered, guiding me towards the door at the end.

I wondered what we’d do when we caught up with Nelaros. What hope did the three of us genuinely have against the arl’s entire guard? Besides, the estate was massive. I’d never been up here before, but I knew how these places worked.

Father had been in Bann Rodolf’s employ for years and—though the bann’s estate was not as grand as this—it ran along the same lines. The nobs had their posh rooms at the top of the pile, and everything beneath that was a seething mass of servants, guards, gardeners, maids, skivvies and other staff, all keeping things running for no thanks and little pay.

We might as well have run into a rats’ nest.

A small voice at the back of my mind began to suggest we should just try and get out, but I couldn’t do that. I could still see Shianni’s face as they dragged her and the other women from the room, and the memory of Lord Vaughan’s cold green eyes came back to me. The scent of his breath, his… touch.

No. We would find them. After that, well, I didn’t know. It seemed an impossible task, yet the feeling of finally having absolutely nothing left to lose was somehow liberating.

We reached the door, and Soris stretched out his hand to grasp the handle, already hissing Nelaros’ name, but something felt wrong. I tensed and, as the door opened, I saw the heel of a fine-tooled leather boot bent unnaturally against the floor.

Three guardsmen were waiting for us, their weapons drawn.

Nelaros already lay dead at their feet, the back of his head cleaved open, splintered edges of bone framing the wound. Blood spattered his fine wedding tunic, and matted his blond hair.

“See?” the first of the guardsmen said. “I told you there’d be more. Elves run in packs. Like rodents.”

I recognised him. The sergeant who’d called us whores and wenches.

My grip tightened on the hilt of my borrowed sword. The guard on the right-hand side watched me uneasily. Good. That could be exploited. My chest heaved, the coppery tang of blood filling my nose and mouth, and the breath sore in my lungs.

“You killed Nelaros,” I said, surprised by how calm I sounded.

“Ha!” The human wrinkled his nose. “He squealed like a stuck pig when he died.”

I gritted my teeth, the anger black and foul as pitch within me.

“Where are the other women?” I demanded—as if we were in a position to ask questions.

The guardsman gave me a deeply unpleasant smile.

“Oh, don’t you worry, sweet thing. They’re being taken care of.  And when Lord Vaughan’s had his fun… well, we get our turn.”

Beside me, Soris bristled. Fury burned low in my throat, but I saw this vile game for what it was, and I wouldn’t be thrown off-balance by it. There was only one way this could end.

I shifted my grip on the borrowed sword, and the second guard eyed me nervously.

“Should we keep the knife-eared bitch alive, then?” he asked.

The sergeant shook his head. “They killed our boys. She dies.”

The moment broke into a hundred pieces as, like one man, the three of them lunged.

Soris thought so quickly. His hand still on the door handle, he pushed me out of the way and jerked it to, then shoved it open again, using the heavy, ancient wood as the most effective weapon we could have had. The guards staggered, momentarily blinded, two of them with bloody noses, and we took our advantage. Back to back, we fought like creatures possessed, giving no quarter and yielding nothing.

The first guard was panicked and clumsy, and he went down fast. My blade bit his with the rasping clang of metal, every joint in my body juddering with the force of the blow, and my foot found his groin. As he sagged and swore, the sword took its second bite, steel sinking clean through his side, and he didn’t rise again.

Soris felled the second shem with a lucky blow that caught him at the edge of the ribs, but took a wound to his arm in the effort. The sergeant—the bastard who’d done for Nola—disarmed me, but I ducked and rolled, able to work my way behind him and fling myself on his back, getting my arm around his neck and squeezing with everything I was worth.

I had never done anything like it, never felt anything like it before.

The human could have been a decent, honourable man, though I doubted it. He could have had a wife and children, been a good son to elderly parents… any of those things. I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. In that moment, he was nothing. He was less than nothing, and the desperate thrashing as he clawed at me, the gargles and gasps he made as I choked the life from him, did not seem real, or important.

I did not stop until he folded beneath me, dead, and I pitched to the floor.

Soris sat hunched against the wall, trying to stem the bleeding in his arm. The room was small—little better than an alcove, probably used for storage—but it was chaos. Our fight had knocked crates and boxes flying, and who knew how many people had heard us…. I ripped a strip from the bottom of my skirt—the skirt that, so many hundreds of years ago, Shianni had helped me into, while I marvelled at the feel of silk beneath my hands—and bound my cousin’s wound.

“Better?” I asked.

Soris nodded, and looked at me with a mixture of fear and awe. “You….”

His gaze slipped to the dead guard, and I put my hand to his cheek, not wanting him to look. I was not proud of what I had done, or the thrill of triumph that still pounded in my veins.

“Are you with me?”

“Y-Yes.” His eyes seemed to clear a little. “Yes. Let’s… let’s hurry.”

I helped him stand, and we paused for a moment by Nelaros. He was still warm, and I turned him over, hating to look at the mess the guards had made of his head. His face was slack, expressionless, and I remember wishing he seemed more peaceful. He’d died trying to save me. A brave man indeed.

Soris touched my arm. “Come on.”

I nodded but, before we left, I slipped my fingers into the pocket of Nelaros’ tunic and found the ring that, now, he would never give to me.

It seemed right to take it.

I rose, and we pressed on, darting from door to door, scurrying in shadows and confusion. We didn’t know where we were going. Any semblance of a plan Nelaros and Soris might have had was in disarray, and somehow we ended up in one of the kitchens.

I suppose it must have been a night kitchen, or perhaps just for the guard, because there was only one human cook and his elven assistant in there. A fire heaved in the grate, and both men were occupied. I motioned silently to Soris, pointing to the door on the other side of the room. It was the only exit, and there was no way we could sneak past unseen.

He looked wildly at me and shook his head, but time was running out. I grabbed his wrist and we just darted in. I had some ridiculous idea about blustering our way through, threatening either one or both of the staff with the bloody end of my blade, but I hadn’t thought it out properly. The cook turned at the sound our entrance, and scowled.

“What’s this?” Indignation quivered on his sweaty jowls. “I don’t recognise you, elf. Wait—is that blood? You’re rebels! Bandits! Outlaws! The guards will make quick work of—unghhh….”

His eyes rolled back in his head, and he crumpled to the flagstones. Soris and I stared at the elven assistant, who held the two-pound weight from a set of kitchen scales in his hands. He looked at us breathlessly, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d done either, and then gave a grim smile.

“You have no idea how long that shem’s had it coming.”

Soris gave a disbelieving cough of laughter. A little bit of gallows humour, I suppose.

The elf dropped the weight to the counter and dusted his palms together.

“He’ll live, anyway. Just a little rap on the head.” He stepped over his prone master, giving the man a not-too-gentle kick on the way. “I’m Adwen. You’re one of the girls they brought in, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “Yes. Did you see where—?”

“They took the others to Lord Vaughan’s rooms.” Adwen winced as he looked from me to Soris. “If you want to help them, you should hurry. He’s not… gentle… with women.”

It didn’t surprise me to learn the bastard had a reputation.

“How do we get there?”

Adwen shook his head. “I can tell you where to go, but to get to the domestic quarters, you’ll have to go through the ward room. In there.” He pointed to the door. “It’s full of off-duty guards. You’ll never fight your way through all of them.”

Soris looked nervously at me. “What—?”

“Wait.” Adwen ducked down behind the counter. “I might have an idea.”

He brought out two bottles of brandy, mugs, and a clean apron, and pushed them towards me.

“They’ve been in there drinking and playing cards since the end of shift. If you can pass for servants, they’ll never notice you.”

“But….”

It couldn’t possibly work, could it? I looked down at myself. My wedding dress was torn and spattered with blood, and Soris wasn’t much better. And what about the weapons?

“You’re sure there’s no other way through?”

“Not from here, unless you go back the way you came and cross the lower courtyard.”

“Let’s do it,” Soris said. “We don’t have time to waste.”

I looked at my cousin, torn between surprise and pride. He was right, of course… and we hardly had much choice.

“All right.”

I set to pulling off the delicately embroidered wristlets, stomacher, and collar that I had so admired this morning, and swathed myself in the white apron. Soris was more difficult to disguise, but Adwen helped him strip the unconscious cook of his tunic, and that at least obscured the most garish bits of his clothing. They deposited the half-naked shem in one of the back pantries, and Adwen locked the door.

Once we were duly wiped down and covered up, we hid our borrowed weapons in a sack, topped off with some firewood, and looked to Adwen for approval. He nodded.

“You’ll do. Remember, head straight on. Go quietly past the side rooms, and take the right corridor up to the domestic suites. Good luck.”

“Come with us,” I said. “We could use another hand.”

“Thanks, but no thanks.” He jerked a thumb towards the pantry that held the unconscious cook. “They’ll blame that one on you, and I’m not pressing my luck with the guards. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting out of here before the storm hits.”

With that, Adwen darted away through the door by which we’d entered, and I couldn’t blame him. I glanced at Soris.

“Ready, cousin?”

He twisted the top of our fake firewood sack in his hands and looked fit to vomit at any second, but he nodded.

“I guess so.”

“All right. I’ll go first.”

Carrying the tray of mugs and brandy, I slipped into the ward room, and was immediately hit by the fug of stale sweat and spirits, and the mingled smells of leather and boot polish. Long wooden tables ran the length of the room, and several off-duty guards sat around them on low benches, drinking and gaming just as Adwen had said.

Closest to me, a group of three of them—a man with a heavy red moustache, another with a thick black braid, and a third with dark skin and hair bound into tight cornrows—were sitting amid a nest of empty mugs and cards, coins piled in the middle of the table. I fixed my gaze on the door the other side of the room. If we edged through quickly and quietly, perhaps Soris and I could make it…. The odds weren’t great, but they weren’t completely impossible, either.

“I call,” said the first guard.

“Call,” the second added, grinning.

The third shook his head. “Too rich for me.”

He tossed his hand down, glanced up at me, and snapped his fingers.

“You! Elf! Over here. I need another drink. Anyone else?”

The first man laughed wheezily. “Sure, to celebrate taking all your money.”

“Ah, stop counting and start shuffling!” The guard glared at me. “What are you waiting for, eh? Get us those bloody drinks! I’ll blacken your eye if you don’t move yer arse!”

“Right away, sers,” I said, my heart thudding at my ribs.

The tray wobbled in my damp, trembling fingers. I was convinced we’d be caught out, but I went to the guards and uncorked the bottle of cheap brandy. Soris scurried by in my wake, carrying the sack straight through to the far door. None of them gave him a second glance, especially when I started setting out the booze.

“It’s about time!” snapped the guard with the cornrows. “Stupid dog. Come on… pour and get out, knife-ears.”

I worked my way up and down the tables, ensuring each man had a full mug, my stomach clenching at the feel of unexpected, unwelcome hands on my backside. I remember thinking how strange it was that they could show such derision and hatred for us, and yet be so ready to grab and fondle.

Shemlens, the elven word for them. Not one we were encouraged to use. It means ‘quick children’, and was apt, I thought, for that combination of spite and greed we so often encountered in their kind.

One of the guards—a big man with dirty blond hair—pinched me, hard, and laughed when I flinched. I splashed brandy onto the table, and the man seated to his left raised a hand and grabbed my wrist, twisting it viciously.

“Clumsy rat! Mop that up.”

“Sorry, ser,” I mumbled, wiping up the spillage with my apron, praying they wouldn’t see what I wore beneath it.

“Go on,” the guard sneered. “Out of my sight, or I’ll beat you for fun.”

He raised his hand again, threatening me with a loosely clenched backhander. I played my part, hunched myself up and—to a chorus of laughter and jeers—Soris and I scuttled from the room, drawing the heavy oak door shut behind us.

Soris leaned against the wall and let out a long breath.

“Maker’s breath… I can’t believe we got out of there!”

I hushed him, already glancing down the length of the corridor.

“We may have to face them again yet. Which way do we go?”

“Straight on, then to the right, I think.”

He rubbed at his wounded arm; blood was already seeping through his borrowed tunic. Both of us must have been struggling with screaming muscles and aching joints. I know I was, and my head still throbbed from the blow I’d taken earlier. All the same, we couldn’t stop now.

We ditched what had passed for our disguises, reshouldered our weapons, and headed along the faceless corridors for what felt like hours. Listening at doors and hiding in shadows, I began to fear we’d never find Vaughan’s quarters. Adwen’s directions were… loose, to say the least. Yet, at last, we found our goal. The utilitarian décor of the guardrooms, storage and servants’ quarters gave way to more opulent surroundings.

Even the stonework was better finished, and the walls were hung with lavish tapestries depicting scenes from myths and legends; I made out dragons, hunting dogs, magnificent knights and beautiful maidens… and it all seemed very foreign indeed. White knights and great warriors. Hm. I wondered if noblemen had ever been like that, or if the glory had always been a lie.

We pushed on, heading through the maze of doors and chambers until we reached the accommodation suites. Once we got there, it was easy to tell which was Vaughan’s room.

It was the one the screaming was coming from.

 ———————————-
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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Two

 
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Soris and I stopped where we were, watching the three human nobles stride into the midst of what should have been a happy gathering.

“Here we are, boys,” said the first. “Time for a little fun.”

He was a big man, even by human standards, broad and red-cheeked, with tawny hair and a narrow moustache and beard. The girls, unaware of their approach, had not moved out of the way, and he reached out, grabbing hold of Nola by the shoulders.

She shrieked, which seemed to make the human laugh. He held her by the scruff of the neck, like a kitten, and slid his large, meaty hand down over her buttocks.

“Let go of me! Stop, please!”

I stiffened. All of a sudden, even the air felt wrong, the way it gets thick and greasy before a storm. I heard Soris’ intake of breath, and then the big human smiled. It was a thoroughly unpleasant, cruel expression, slicing across his face like a knife. Nola had started to cry.

“It’s a party, isn’t it?” he said, raising his voice to his companions, although the hubbub of celebration was already dying down, silence spreading out around this ghastly tableau like water. “Grab a whore and have a good time!”

The three of them laughed, and the man pushed Nola towards one of his cronies, a black-haired human in a blood-red doublet, his features thick and ugly. Her hands up in front of her face, she whimpered even before he grabbed hold of her, his hands all over her hips and waist like she was a tuppenny tavern harlot.

“Savour the hunt, boys,” the first man said, bearing down upon Shianni. “Take this little elven wench here. So young and vulnerable….”

He reached out, ready to grab her the same way he’d abused Nola, but Shianni ducked away.

“Touch me and I’ll gut you, you pig!” she spat.

Perhaps it was not the most sensible thing to say.

Thandon, one of the men whom the hahren had put in charge of helping to organise the festivities—and who I think had harboured a soft spot for Shianni for some time—stepped forward, trying to distract the men.

“My lord,” he began, hands outstretched. “Please, my lord. We’re celebrating weddings here….”

“Silence, worm!”

The human didn’t even break stride. He just reached out and struck Thandon full in the face, dropping him to the ground as if he was nothing more than an insect, a fly to be flicked away.

Shianni let out a curse as the man took hold of her wrist, twisting it sadistically. I began to step forward before I really knew what I was doing, but Soris grabbed my arm.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he whispered urgently. “But maybe we shouldn’t get involved with—”

“Shianni will get herself killed!”

He sighed. “Fine. But let’s try to be diplomatic, shall we?”

“My lord!” I called out, crossing to the centre of the gathering.

I intended to sound firm, unyielding… though I suspect I squeaked like a frightened child. Still, it distracted the human enough for Shianni to break free. He levelled his gaze at me, and it turned my stomach. I had never seen such a spiteful, malicious face.

He was not exactly an ugly creature, but he looked at me as if I was less than nothing, and the expression in his hard, pale green eyes frightened me. Such naked cruelty—and worse. A thin smile curled his lips.

“What’s this? Another lovely one come to keep me company?”

He moved towards me, and every nerve and instinct I possessed urged me to run, but I held my ground. The human drew close—too close, his presence an oppressive, unwanted invasion—and I smelled his scent, all crushed velvet, sweat, and the sticky, unpleasant aroma of foreign oils and perfumes.

I swallowed, fighting the bile rising in my throat.

“L-Let’s just talk this over, shall we?”

That smile became an even less pleasant sneer of contempt. Behind the man, his companions both laughed, and one called out:

“Maybe you should invite it over for dinner!”

I glanced at the one that had spoken and, beyond him, saw Shianni. I’d thought she’d have had the sense to run, to take the girls with her and let this stupid business burn itself out, the way we always did when humans came in here, looking for trouble.

All right, I didn’t recall ever seeing nobles in the alienage before, but there was a first time for everything. They were probably younger sons, I reasoned; the useless whelps of lower gentry, turned out to run loose while their fathers were away, fighting at Ostagar. We’d heard rumours of some kind of conflict down there, though we’d paid them little mind. There were always skirmishes somewhere, after all. Humans didn’t seem designed to live in peace.

No, right there and then, our problems were far more immediate.

The human curled his lip, but my eyes were fixed on Shianni, snatching up a discarded clay bottle… no, surely she wouldn’t be so stupid! I wanted to shout, to tell her not to do it, but everything seemed to happen both so quickly, and in long threads of drawn-out seconds, all at once.

The shem leaned over me, his breath thick with scent and grease.

“Do you have any idea who I am?” he demanded arrogantly.

I opened my mouth, but it was Shianni’s voice that cut through the air.

“Pig!” she yelled.

The human turned, his sneer melting into surprise as she brought the bottle through a wide, graceful arc… and smacked it into the side of his head. It shattered, the noise bright and clean in the abrupt, ominous silence.

For an instant, the human looked startled. He swayed slightly and then, as if he was a puppet whose strings had been cut, he pitched backwards and folded to the ground. Blood welled on his temple, and the sunlight glinted on the shards of glazed pottery.

I’d never heard the alienage so quiet. We all stood there, staring down at the unconscious human, and my heart seemed to pound so hard I was afraid my ribs would break.

This was it. We’d killed one of them—and a nobleman, at that.

We would all hang. We would all… well, I didn’t know what would happen. Someone coughed, and it broke whatever spell had been on us. The dark-haired shem pushed roughly forward.

“Are you insane?” He glared at me. “This is Vaughan Kendells, the arl of Denerim’s son!”

“W-what?” Shianni clasped her hands to her mouth, her eyes wide with terror. “Oh, Maker….”

The other man knelt by his lord’s side. He glanced up and shook his head.

“He’s out cold, Braden.”

I looked from my cousin to the prone body of the arl’s son, and his two furious companions. My mind worked fast, buzzing on the tension and the panic of the moment.

The arl’s son…. This was not good. This was, in fact, so far removed from good that there possibly wasn’t a word for how bad it was.

Still, I reasoned, these two humans hadn’t drawn their blades against us—at least not yet. Like childish bullies, they were afraid and useless without their leader, and Arl Urien himself was out of the city…. Perhaps there was a chance for us here.

I squared my jaw, lifted my head, and met Lord Braden’s cold, dark eyes.

“Take him home,” I said firmly. “If you don’t mention this, we won’t.”

I heard a few intakes of breath from the onlookers, and felt the surge of tension in the air around us. They were outnumbered, the humans knew that, but we were unarmed and afraid. There was no question of our rushing them, no possibility of anything else happening here except them leaving, with whatever attempts at dignity—or perhaps retaliation—that they could muster.

Braden raised his hand, and I flinched, expecting to be hit. He just pointed at me, vague yet still threatening.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve, knife-ears! This’ll go badly for you.”

I said nothing, but I didn’t move. I just stood and watched as the two nobles shouldered the unconscious lordling between them and carried him away, his head and one leg dangling in a way that—in any other setting, any other time—would have been comical.

It took a good few moments before anyone started to breathe again. The crowd seeped back around the departed humans like a wave and, somewhere, somebody started playing that damn fiddle again.

Cold sweat prickled along the length of my spine, and I blinked, trying to make myself believe what had just happened. Shianni let out a long breath.

“Oh, I really messed up this time,” she moaned.

“It’ll be all right,” Soris said, though he didn’t sound at all convinced. “He won’t tell anyone an elven woman took him down.”

“I hope so.” Shianni looked down at herself. Dregs of ale and bits of jug speckled the front of her dress, and she wiped ineffectually at them, apparently not realising she’d cut her hand. “I-I should get cleaned up,” she muttered, and lurched off in the direction of the privies.

I supposed it had been a bit of a shock for all of us.

“Is everybody else all right?” Soris asked, glancing around at the pale, worried faces.

“I think we’re just shaken,” said a girl I hadn’t seen before. “What was that about?”

She wore a long, green dress, demure and well-cut, and she had the prettiest ears I’d ever seen, although the pale brown hair and narrow, pointed face left me in no doubt at all: this had to be Soris’ dying mouse!

Soris laughed nervously. “Oh, it… uh… looks like the arl’s son started drinking too early. Um, well, let’s not let this ruin the day.” He cleared his throat and held out his hand, presenting me to the girl, who smiled delicately. “Uh, Merien, this is Valora, my betrothed.”

I inclined my head, determined not to give in to the sudden urge to laugh. I could see why he was worried. She seemed sweet enough, but that voice…! It was like a little girl’s, all soft and breathless, as if she’d faint at the first winter frost.

“A pleasure to meet you,” I said dutifully. “And welcome to your new home. I wish you happiness here.”

Valora smiled. “Thank you. And, um….”

My gaze slid to the elf who’d stepped forward to join her. He was tall, clad in dark pants and a green blouson, the ivory sleeves criss-crossed with intricate and beautiful embroidery—all far less garish than poor Soris’ clashing ensemble—and he was, indeed, very handsome. Blue eyes, blond hair worn daringly short…. I was embarrassed to find the heat of a blush beginning somewhere in the region of my neck.

“Er. This must be Nelaros,” I said, wishing I didn’t feel quite so awkward.

“A pleasure.” He smiled. “Soris has said much of you. Some of it was even positive.”

At least he didn’t have a dying mouse voice. I glared at my cousin.

“Well, you know….” Soris shrugged. “I just wanted to give him a sporting chance to run. Anyway, I, uh—” He cleared his throat, being extremely careful not to meet my eye. “—I’m sure the two of you have much to discuss. Valora, shall we…?”

The mouse blinked, giggled, and wafted off at his side, leaving Nelaros and I as alone as we were likely to be until this was all over. I found it excruciatingly embarrassing, and I suppose he felt the same, because we shared a smile that bubbled into uncomfortable, tongue-tied laughter.

“So, um… how was the trip from Highever?” I asked.

“Uneventful, thankfully. The trade caravan we accompanied had little of value; I think that kept the bandits away.”

“Ah.”

I racked my brain for something useful to say, but I knew virtually nothing of this man; just that he was the youngest son of a respectable family, and had worked as a smith in Highever, where his father leased a small forge. Desperately, I seized on that.

“Um. I hear you’re a talented smith. Do you, uh, think you’ll want to look for work at one of the forges in the city?”

Nelaros smiled, and I wondered if he was susceptible to flattery, or just pleased that I seemed interested.

“I don’t know. Perhaps. I’m… well, I’m happy to do whatever I need to make a good life here. With you.”

He reached into the pocket of his tunic and took out a small scrap of cloth. Unfolding it carefully, Nelaros revealed a narrow gold band, polished to a low sheen.

“I made this for you,” he said shyly. “I hope it fits.”

I smiled uneasily. It was a pretty shackle, I had to admit, but it brought into focus just how big today was.

“It’s… beautiful,” I said, trying to ignore the somersaults my stomach kept performing.

He pocketed the ring again, and that awful, unwieldy silence threatened to descend once more. I groped for some other gambit, hoping he wouldn’t think me too inquisitive. Nobody wanted a wife who didn’t know when to hold her tongue, after all.

“It, er, must be difficult… starting over in a new place. How have you found Denerim so far?”

Sadness tinged Nelaros’ face. He nearly succeeded in hiding it.

“It was hard to leave Highever, although Denerim itself seems friendlier. Perhaps because it’s so large that humans take less notice of us. I don’t know.”

I wondered just how much he’d seen of the little interlude with Lord Vaughan, but said nothing. Nelaros had made me curious about his home city, though. I wanted to ask more questions, but I was conscious of not wanting to start our marriage with an interrogation. There would be time to talk after the ceremony.

Time for that—and everything else. Oh, Maker’s mercy… I didn’t want to think about it.

“Nervous?” I blurted.

Nelaros looked at me with a curious expression in his eyes. They really were awfully blue.

“I thought I’d stay calm,” he said. “But finally seeing you has made me…. Well, let’s just say I’m not calm.”

He smiled tightly, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was I worse than a dying mouse? A clunky, big-nosed plough horse who antagonised the local nobility and hung around with bottle-wielding drunkards? I glanced away, fiddling with the embroidery on my wristlet. A small end of thread had started to come loose, and I knew I had to resist the temptation to pull it.

“How about you?” Nelaros asked. “Nervous?”

I looked up at him, into those intensely blue eyes, and tried to imagine that face—those high cheekbones, that strong, straight nose—being the first thing I saw every morning for the rest of my life. It could work, couldn’t it? We could be a good match. I trusted Father enough to think so… I was almost sure of it.

“I….” I should be honest with him, I supposed. Better that than to begin building a life on flattery and sycophancy. But what if who I was wasn’t good enough for him? I didn’t know what to do, so I swallowed my nerves and smiled. “I was until I saw you.”

Nelaros’ face softened. I didn’t know if I’d laid it on too thick, or if he even believed me, but he smiled back, and I supposed that augured well.

“I’ll spend every waking moment learning to make you happy,” he murmured.

No one had ever said anything quite like that to me before. Heat washed through my cheeks, and I looked down at my feet. Behind me, I heard Soris cough gently—perhaps in what he thought might be a subtle kind of way—and the awkwardness returned ten-fold.

Nelaros and I moved a little further apart, and Soris took my arm firmly.

“Come on, cousin,” he muttered. “We should let them get… ready.”

I glanced at him, and saw Valora standing close by his side. She smiled.

“We’ll see you two in a bit,” she said sweetly. “Don’t disappear on us!”

“Or we’ll come find you,” Nelaros added, a weak attempt at a joke.

We chuckled uncomfortably, each one of us probably feeling uneasier than the last, and I was only too glad to let Soris lead me away.

Once we were out of earshot, he exhaled sharply.

“Phew!” He slipped me a sly look. “So, is he everything you hoped for?”

“Soris,” I warned. “I don’t know. He seems nice enough, I guess. It’s just….”

“Well, there’s no turning back now, is there?” Soris smiled ruefully. His expression fell as he looked towards the northern gates of the alienage. “Oh, no. Don’t look now, but we have another problem.”

I followed his gaze, immediately concerned. “What is it?”

“Another human just walked in. Could be one of Vaughan’s, or just a random troublemaker.”

I saw the man my cousin meant, standing out like a flame among the cheerful revellers and shabby buildings. What was it about today, I wondered? Did the Maker have some particular grudge against our just having a simple, trouble-free ceremony?

The human didn’t dress like Vaughan’s cronies, but neither was there anything random about him. He was dark-skinned, his face solemn but not marked by the same arrogance we’d seen on the noblemen. His hair and neatly clipped beard were black, a contrast against his bright armour and surcoat, which shone almost white, and bore symbols I’d never seen before. The pommel of a longsword glinted on his back, and though he didn’t seem in a hurry to cause any trouble, the ill feeling towards his kind hung heavy in the air.

“We should go and talk to him,” I said.

“Really?” Soris looked uncertainly at me. “You don’t think we should…. Oh, forget it. Let’s just do this quickly.”

We crossed the cobbles towards the stranger.

He hadn’t glanced at us once, yet he turned to greet us as we reached him, without any sign of surprise at our approach.

“Good day,” he said, his voice low and clear, and his manners quite unlike those I was used to seeing in a human. He actually inclined his head to me, and looked me full in the face, not through me or to one side, like I was half-invisible. “I understand congratulations are in order for your impending wedding. Both of you, in fact?”

“I… well, yes.” He’d wrong-footed me, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. Before I knew it, I was making my own respectful bow, like a well-trained hound. “Thank you, stranger. But, please… you should go. We would rather avoid any unpleasantness.”

The human did not appear surprised, but he raised his brows.

“What manner of unpleasantness might you be referring to?”

His accent wasn’t local, but I couldn’t place it. I couldn’t identify anything about him enough for my liking. Even his armour didn’t remotely resemble the scuffed, serviceable leather and mail the city guard wore. Delicate patterns, like waves or clouds, chased the bright metal, and it had clearly been made to fit him. Unique, just like the small, burnished hoop he wore in his ear.

He carried more than just the one sword, too. Under his cloak, he was clearly well-armed, and that unsettled me even more than his manners.

“Look.” I tried again. “It’s just that the Alienage really isn’t a good place for humans to be right now. Please….”

“I’m sorry, but I have no intention of leaving,” he said firmly.

Beside me, I could feel Soris starting to get panicky, shifting from foot to foot like a child. The last thing any of us wanted was a repeat of what had happened with Vaughan. Word of Shianni’s antics with the bottle were already spreading in whispers, and it wouldn’t take much for somebody else to do something stupid, especially with all the drink flowing today.

I caught myself wishing the damn wedding could have waited, or that it had at least all happened the way it was supposed to. It wasn’t meant to be like this, was it? Rushed and chaotic, and torn through with mistakes and injustice… just like everything else here.

It wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t we even have one day where they left us alone?

I looked up at the human, sharply reminding myself that this was not his fault. Sure, he was a stranger here, but what else was he? A soldier? No. Not dressed like that. No simple guardsman or infantry, and no casual traveller. A knight, then? But why would he be here, now… and why would he refuse to leave?

“Fine,” I said. “Maybe we can compromise.”

The man looked past my shoulder, his seriousness giving way to an expression somewhere between satisfaction and amusement.

“She keeps her composure even when facing down an unknown and armed human. A true gift, wouldn’t you say, Valendrian?”

I turned, and saw our hahren bearing down upon us. His grey hair was braided and a broad smile wreathed his face. He passed between Soris and me and, going at once to the human, shook him warmly by the hand.

“I would say the world has far more use for those who know how to stay their blades. It is good to see you again, my old friend. It has been far too long.”

Confusion left me shy and unsure as to whether I had offended. I bowed to the hahren, and to this human he called friend.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I had no idea….”

“I was hardly forthcoming,” the man said. “And for that I apologise.”

I straightened up and stared. Apologise? To me? He had…?

Perhaps I was dreaming. I risked a glance at Soris, who’d turned pale as moonlight and just stood there, looking between the human and Valendrian as if both were ghosts.

The hahren placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, a gesture of such equality and affection as I’d never seen between elf and human.

“Children,” he said calmly. “May I present Duncan, head of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden.”

I had no wish to let myself be a slack-jawed fool, but I knew I was still staring. I didn’t know what a Grey Warden was, but a leader who commanded anything that stretched over the entire country… this was more than I had ever encountered. I inclined my head.

“Well met, Duncan.”

“And you, dear girl.”

I watched him, fascinated. Soris made a clumsy, perfunctory bow, and the human gave him the same graceful respect. I had never seen anything like it.

We both stood, awkward and uncertain, not sure what to do next. We had not been dismissed—and I, for one, wanted to know more of this stranger—but Valendrian’s next words were not addressed to us.

“But my question remains unanswered. Why are you here, Duncan?”

“The worst has happened.” The human’s expression darkened, and he lowered his voice a little. “A Blight has begun. King Cailan summons the Grey Wardens to Ostagar to fight the darkspawn horde alongside his armies.”

“Yes.” The hahren nodded. “I had heard the news. Still, this is an awkward time—there is to be a wedding. Two, in fact.”

He glanced at us, and I saw from the look in his eye that we were meant to have heard what the human had to say. I didn’t know why. I knew of the fighting at Ostagar, but everything else they spoke of…. It might as well have been Orlesian.

“So I see,” Duncan said. “By all means, attend to your ceremonies. My concerns can wait for now.”

“Very well.” Valendrian nodded, and turned to Soris and me. “Children, treat Duncan as my guest. And, for the Maker’s sake, take your places!”

I looked over towards the platform beneath the vhenadahl. Nelaros and Valora were already up there, along with my father, Shianni, and the other bridesmaids.

No turning back, indeed.

“But….” I began, looking curiously at Duncan. I had so many questions.

He smiled. “Please, do not let me interrupt further. We shall speak more later.”

“Come on, Meri!” Soris tugged at my arm. “We can’t keep them waiting.”

“All right.” I relented, but not without one last look at Duncan.

He inclined his head, and I followed Soris up to the platform. There was a ripple of applause as we ascended the steps—and not a little bit of drunken cheering.

“Ooh, Soris!” Valora simpered. “There you are. I was afraid you’d run off.”

My cousin and I exchanged brief glances.

“No,” Soris assured his mouse. “I’m here, and with Nelaros’ blushing bride in tow.”

I shot him a dirty look, but took my place beside my betrothed. Nelaros smiled awkwardly at me.

“You look… radiant,” he murmured, and I gave him an uncertain smile.

“It looks like everyone’s ready,” Soris observed.

“Good luck,” I said.

He gave me a sickly grin. “You too, cousin.”

Valendrian had mounted the platform, and now he stepped forward, his hands raised as he called for quiet from the gathered sea of onlookers. I glanced across at my father, calmed and heartened by the look of quiet affection and approval on his face. I felt a light pressure on the fingertips of my right hand and, as I looked down, I realised it was Nelaros. The corner of his mouth curled a little as I squeezed back.

Maybe it would be all right after all.

“Friends and family,” the hahren began, “today we celebrate not only this joining, but also our bonds of kin and kind. We are a free people, but that was not always so. Andraste, the Maker’s prophet, freed us from the bonds of slavery. As our community grows, remember that our strength lies in commitment to tradition and to each other.”

There was a general rumble of approval from the crowd, and Mother Boann came forward to join the hahren. He bowed to her, and we understood that the vows were to begin. Shianni caught my eye, and grinned.

“Thank you, Valendrian,” the priest said. “Now, let us begin. In the name of the Maker, who brought us this world, and in whose name we say the Chant of Light, I—”

She stopped abruptly, her gaze fixed on some disruption in the crowd, and my gut tightened. This wasn’t the time for someone to pass out drunk, throw up, or start a fight… but that didn’t seem to be the kind of commotion the revered mother was facing.

“My lord?” Mother Boann’s voice was clear, but she couldn’t hide the concern in her tone. “This is… an unexpected surprise.”

I didn’t want to look, too afraid of what I knew I would see.

The arl’s son was back, and very much conscious.

He’d brought friends with him, too—a whole pack of guards, the city badge on their shields. Vaughan and his two compatriots strode through the gathered press of people, bodies parting in front of them like stalks of grass bowing before a wheel, and they barged their way up onto the platform.

“Sorry to interrupt, Mother,” Vaughan said, his words dripping with scorn, “but I’m having a party… and we’re dreadfully short of female guests.”

The priest stood between him and the four of us, her outrage palpable. The two other lordlings moved behind him, crossing to take up positions, one at the back of our little group, and the other beside Valendrian and my father… two old, vulnerable men.

“My lord,” Mother Boann protested. “This is a wedding!”

I watched her stand there, facing down the supercilious noble, the shoulders of her red-and-gold Chantry robe shaking ever so slightly. From where I stood, I had a horribly clear view of Vaughan’s face as he looked coldly at the woman. There was no mistaking the determination in his expression—or the butterfly stitches patching the cut on his brow.

He was here to settle a score.

“Ha!” He loosed a burst of obnoxious laughter. “If you want to dress up your pets and play tea parties, that’s your business. But don’t pretend this is a proper wedding.”

The silence that spilled out around those words was taut and sharp, stretched thin enough to shatter with the slightest blow. I could barely breathe. I was so furious, my whole body clenching with hatred of this human and—what was worse—hatred for the fear I felt.

That was the crux of it. No matter how contemptible his behaviour now, Vaughan was untouchable.

We all knew that, and the awareness of it permeated the air like a foul stench. He was a lord, a nobleman… the arl’s son. He strutted across our scruffy little platform like a peacock, and he knew we could do nothing.

“Now,” he said, his rich, lazy drawl oozing around us, echoing off the stonework and making my skin crawl, “we’re here for a good time, aren’t we, boys?”

The one I knew as Lord Braden, standing behind Nola and Arith, peeled his fat lips back into a rubbery smile.

“That’s right,” he said. “Just a good time with the ladies, that’s all.”

Their nasty, greasy laughter pooled in the unnatural silence. Beside me, Nelaros’ breathing was shallow and rapid, and his fingers folded more firmly around my hand, though his face stayed blank. I recognised the signs; he was not unused to abuse from humans, and it touched me that he shifted his weight a little, angling his body in front of mine. It was a gesture of protection I had not expected from him.

I glanced at Soris. His face was drained of all colour, and beads of sweat stood out on his brow. He didn’t meet my eye. None of them would… but that was what we did when the shems picked a fight.

Fair enough, it wasn’t usually like this. Not nobles, and not on our own turf. It normally happened in the market, or down by the docks late on a Friday night. It always started in some casual, off-the-cuff kind of way: just an insult thrown, a shove here or there…. It was to be expected, and our reactions were well-trained, filtering down through the generations.

If you couldn’t run, you stopped, stood still, and you took it in silence. Anything else just made it worse.

But Vaughan didn’t seem content with just throwing his weight around. He paraded in front of us, his eyes everywhere, that cold green gaze running over our bodies as if he was assessing horseflesh. I felt sick.

“Let’s take those two.” He nodded at Nola and Arith, and waved one hand nonchalantly in Valora’s direction. “The one in the tight dress… and where’s the bitch that bottled me?”

I held my breath. Take us? Take us where? This would not end well. A little roughing up and groping in the street was one thing, but…. The other human moved from standing guard over the hahren, and grabbed Shianni by the arm.

“Over here, Lord Vaughan!”

I prayed she’d have the sense to keep her mouth shut, but my cousin’s nature was as fiery as her hair. She squirmed, kicking out at the man’s legs.

“Let me go, you stuffed-shirt son-of-a—”

All she earned for her trouble was a slap, and Vaughan chuckled.

“Oh, I’ll enjoy taming her….”

Instinctively, I started to move towards Shianni, which was stupid. At once, Vaughan turned and fixed me with that reptilian gaze. He raised his sandy brows.

“And see the pretty bride…!”

He began to head for me, and I could see how much the bastard was enjoying ratcheting up the tension on what should have been a day of celebration… just waiting for someone to throw the first stone, hurl the first catcall of abuse. It would be all the excuse he needed, and then it would be our blood on the cobbles.

Nelaros’ grip on my hand tightened, and he moved closer to me.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “I won’t let them take you.”

I looked at my betrothed, not sure whether he was brave or an idiot. Shianni was still writhing in the other shem’s grip.

I couldn’t let this happen. Not today.

“No.” I pulled my hand away, unwilling to let Nelaros make this any more dangerous. “Just get out of here. Run!”

He shook his head and, for a moment, our gazes locked. Brave, I decided. Not a fool.

There was no time for anyone to run, though. Vaughan drew closer, pulling the same trick on me that he had before—using his height and bulk to try and intimidate, the unwelcome closeness of his presence a threatening weapon. Gritting my teeth, I stood my ground. I met his gaze, and did not falter, hoping against futile hope that he believed I was not afraid of him.

“Ah, yes,” Vaughan sneered, reaching out a hand as if—in some horrible parody of affection—to touch my hair. “Such a well-formed little thing….”

“You villains!” Nelaros snapped.

Vaughan laughed softly. There was no mirth in it.

“Oh, that’s quite enough. I’m sure we all want to avoid any further, um, unpleasantness?”

His breath grazed my face, full of rich man’s wine, oils and spices. It still seemed so horribly quiet. The alienage was never this quiet. I could hear the bustle of the market square seeping in from beyond the walls, birds flapping in the high branches of the vhenadahl… and Nola, weeping again.

Anger blistered within me. Years of rage, bottled up and held back, because everyone knew we shouldn’t make trouble, shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves.

Memories of Mother filtered through my head, and I found my voice, when I should have stayed quiet.

“You have no right! Let them go, you bastard!”

The arl’s son gave a shallow, contemptuous laugh.

“Ha! Look, this one has spirit! Oh, but we’re going to have some fun….”

He rocked back on his heels, still smirking at me. The dark-haired human, Lord Braden, stepped forward and, before I saw it coming, struck me across the face with the back of his hand.

White-hot pain shot through my jaw, I fell, and the world turned black.

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