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: 2. Subtle Voices

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The paper had stayed resolutely blank for hours. Cyrion kept staring at it, as if the thoughts might crystallise themselves and bleed out of his brow, dropping to the clear, unblemished surface in splashes of ink. It didn’t happen. He didn’t even know where to start.

It had been a long day. No one had managed much sleep the night before. Once whatever the healer had given her started to wear off, Shianni coasted up through the tangled layers of consciousness, and there had seemed to be no line between the nightmares and the terrors she saw when she was awake. She’d screamed so much people had come to the door, nervous faces and hunched figures in nightshirts and smallclothes, candles guarded carefully against the rain. He’d done his best to make them believe she was all right, but Valora couldn’t cope with her alone.

The steel-eyed, stern-jawed women had come back. They made possets and simple draughts, and dealt with… her injuries. She’d thrashed around so much she started bleeding again and when she realised it—rising from the pallet to find the blanket wet and her shift red—the crying and hollering only got worse.

She quieted, eventually. Cyrion had sat by the fire, aware he was useless and probably shouldn’t even be there. He hadn’t wanted to see it, anyway. It was… indecent. Bile marred the back of his tongue, and he’d struggled to turn a kindly smile on Valora when she came to join him. She was white and damp-eyed, and he held her hand and promised that it would pass. Shianni would be all right, given time. Yes. All things, in time, passed.

He kept saying it, and after a while it felt as if the girl believed him. He wished he did. Already, people were talking—and not just the things Soris was worried about, either. There could be a place for an unmarried girl who forewent a husband in order to care for her family… for a while, at least. She could claw back a reputation like that, though it would never be an untarnished one, and never enough to fix her with the match she deserved. But, if Shianni could not regain herself, there was little charity in the alienage for a crazed, fatherless lunatic. They had more than their share of beggars already, and Cyrion couldn’t bear to think of her joining those ranks.

Still, it was early days. She would recover. She would… be fine, as he kept saying. It didn’t quell the talk, of course, and that would only get worse. He saw it in the way people had looked at him last night, as he tried to hold onto the authority of his own doorstep. They would point and whisper when he passed by on the street; he would have it all to look forward to, all over again.

‘Ah, that’s Cyrion Tabris,’ they would say. ‘There he goes, the man whose wife got herself killed in the marketplace—d’you remember? Going on ten years ago now—all because she couldn’t keep her fool mouth shut, and thought she was clever enough to take on the guard. He should have learned to keep a closer watch on his womenfolk by now.’

Cyrion shook his head and tried to concentrate on the blank paper in front of him, but the imagined voices yapped on, invading his thoughts and spinning ugly, vicious narratives from the gossip he’d already overheard… and the gossip he knew would come.

‘Do you know, nearly twenty years he worked for old Bann Rodolf; bought himself a bunch of airs and graces he had no right to, didn’t he? Still a servant, at the end of the day. He paid fat coin for his daughter’s wedding, though, and look what it got him. Brought a groom in from Highever, laid on enough ale to wash the streets with, and made such a fuss it brought the nobles down here a-wenching.’

Because it had, hadn’t it? If it had been a less lavish ceremony, if he’d made less of an occasion of the thing, then maybe— No. No, that was foolish. What had happened had happened, and there was no sense tearing himself to pieces about it. Whatever they said. Whatever they would say.

He pinched the bridge of his nose, the cheap pen drooping in his fingers. All he’d wanted to do was give her something good, something to start her off right in life. Was that so bad?

‘Of course, the daughter was always a tomboy. Little hellion, as a brat. The mother’s influence, I imagine…. You’d think any father would step in and take a firmer hand. Small wonder she ended up like that. They say she murdered the arl’s son; slit him wide open like a hog. Should have hanged for it. Would have hanged for it, but some shiny officer showed up and slipped her the draft. The father probably dropped a great big bribe somewhere. Still, it’s a beggar’s choice, isn’t it? Executed for treason, or dragged off by the hair to be an army whore….’

Cyrion pushed back abruptly from the table, a tight breath stinging in his chest. Oh, yes… he could hear what they’d say before they even knew what the words would be themselves. He’d lived here all his life, seen the same faces and heard the same patterns of gossip and spiteful, malicious whispers turn around and around on the wheels of life: all grist to the rumour mill.

They were his fears too, of course, and they were worse than all the shame and humiliation he would bear on her behalf. Too easy to imagine what kind of life awaited his girl, out there. Travelling alone, except for the Grey Warden, which was no comfort in itself. Then Ostagar, and the army camp… throngs of human soldiers, starved of female company. It was just as well Merien wasn’t a pretty girl, he supposed, though it would probably matter little. She was elven, and would be fair game. The thoughts made him feel sick, but he couldn’t stop them pounding on and on in his head, however hard he tried.

Again, then, the paper. This damned letter. Cyrion took up the pen once more and blinked hard, dragging the blank sheet back into focus. He didn’t want to commit the words in ink until he knew they were right. Paper was too expensive to permit mistakes, and expense—with Merien no longer here to earn, Shianni still in need of the healer’s visits, and Valora to keep in bed and board until she and Soris were properly settled—had suddenly become a pressing issue once again.

He sighed.

Your son was a brave and valiant ma— no. That wasn’t right. It was true, but it didn’t help. We are grateful for all that Nelaros did to….

Perhaps not. Cyrion winced. There was, he supposed, little he could do but tell the truth. An awful thing had happened, and their son had been brave enough to try to do what he believed was right and… and perhaps that was, under the circumstances, the best any parent could hear. It didn’t make it easier to write.

There was no chance of getting the bodies back, naturally. He supposed that would be obvious to the family, and so there was no point in lying and pretending he could give their son a honourable funeral.

He took up the pen once more.

My dear friends,

A slightly pretentious greeting; even after month upon month of letters, he didn’t really know the family all that well. Truth be told, they’d been getting fed up with him writing. Few fathers fussed so much when they could delegate to the matchmaker, but he’d wanted it all to be perfect. His stupid vanity, he told himself, just as much as the desire to see his daughter settled right.

Your son arrived safe and well in Denerim. Nelaros spoke most highly of you and hahren Sarethia, and asked that I express his gratitude for all you had done, and pass to you and his brothers his love and affection.

I dearly wish I could tell you to expect a letter from him soon, or describe to you the happy day we had hoped to have. Unfortunately, it is my duty to bear bitter news.

He blew a long breath through tight lips, and it helped to dry the ink on the page. The words lost their shiny wetness, and turned dark and irrefutable. How did he say it? How to describe what… what no parent should have to read?

Movement at the far end of the room distracted Cyrion from his task. He looked to the source of the sound, and his face split into a broad, tender smile.

“U-Uncle?”

Shianni was up. Holding onto the wooden screen for support, bent and doddery like an old woman, and still pale as ash, but up nonetheless. He pushed away from the table, the chair barking on the worn wooden floor.

“My girl…! Here, let me help you….”

He went to her at once, offered an arm for her to lean on—and felt the slight tremble in her flesh at the touch of it. The bruises were fully out now, more or less: bloody flowers blooming across her face, neck, shoulders, chest and arms. One eye was still swollen and crusty, the lashes matted and the skin raw.

“Do you want to come and sit by the fire?”

She nodded, and he helped her, slow and easy, watching every wince and baulk along the way.

“Your brother’s coming by as soon as he finishes work,” Cyrion said, swinging the kettle over the flames on its squeaky metal hook and busying his hands with the comfortable, familiar ballet of cups and teapot. “And Valora should be back any minute. She went to see Silenis about work as a seamstress. She has a place for a capable girl, apparently, so….”

Ironic, he supposed. Valora popped out for half an hour, and missed everything. He hoped Shianni wouldn’t need him to… do anything while she was gone. He glanced at her, and saw she was casting her good eye over his unfinished letter.

“You’re writing to Nelaros’ parents,” she observed.

“Yes. Someone has to tell them… I supposed it ought to be me.”

Cyrion lowered himself into the other wooden chair, the corner of the table between them. Shianni’s long, slim, hard fingers traced the edge of the paper delicately, but she didn’t seem to really be looking at the words.

“He seemed so nice. It’s not fair.”

She spoke without much emphasis, as if talking of a lost glove.

“No,” Cyrion said carefully. “No, it is not.”

He watched her, and she tilted her head to the side thoughtfully. Her unruly red hair was bound back in two short pigtails that fell behind her ears, and a few strands were already breaking free, wisps that softly touched her forehead, and framed her beaten face.

“They would have been happy, wouldn’t they?” she asked, but her voice was dreamy and ethereal, and he doubted the question was really directed at him.

“I hoped so,” he said, in any case.

“Mm.” The beginnings of a smile touched the corners of Shianni’s mouth, but they soon faded away, like the mist of breath on glass. “And now Meri’s gone, too. Hm. I still don’t quite believe it. Did you see how fierce she looked, Uncle? With that human’s sword in her hand?”

Cyrion winced. He would rather not have contemplated it. Shianni sighed, and then gave something that sounded horribly like a small chuckle.

“You should have seen her. I never knew she could fight like that. It was… wild. Like something out of a storybook.”

An uncomfortable silence fell, broken only by the kettle starting to come to heat. He was grateful for the opportunity to go and deal with it, and to turn his attention from the child before he really started to think she’d gone mad.

It was enough to drive a woman insane, wasn’t it? The things Soris said they’d done… the things she’d seen…. But Shianni was strong. They were all strong. You had to be, otherwise you broke, and they did not break. They bowed, but never snapped. She would come back from it… she would come back to him.

She had to.

He poured hot tea, put one cup in front of her, and warmed his hands against the other. This damned cold, wet weather made his joints ache even worse than usual. If he didn’t keep them moving, they seized up altogether.

“Mother Boann’s coming back in a few days,” he said, because giving Shianni the tail of a future to hold onto seemed like a good idea. “For Soris and Valora. Will you be witness, do you think?”

A frown crinkled the pale, freckled brow, and she looked confused.

“I… I suppose so,” she murmured, but without enthusiasm.

He smiled, forcing the gesture from unwilling lips. “Good.”

Shianni stared at the cup for a while and then extended her hand and, grasping it as if it was an unfamiliar thing, raised it gingerly to her mouth. Cyrion watched, wincing in sympathy when the touch of hot tea to her cut lip made her flinch.

She drank, though, and that was surely a start.

~o~O~o~

He went to the hahren’s house again in the morning, and was fortunate to catch Valendrian at home. He seemed drawn and weary, his face bearing the same look of closed-in, proud circumspection as always, but his lips pressed into a terse, grim line, set tighter than before. Cyrion nodded to him in greeting.

“Elder.”

Valendrian’s wide mouth quirked slightly at the corners. The humour was not lost on Cyrion; there was less than twelve years between them. Still, the hahren inclined his head.

“My friend. How is your niece?”

“Better,” Cyrion said charily. “She’s up, eating, drinking. But—”

“Indeed.”

There was neither the need nor desire to discuss further details. Valendrian, like most of the alienage, had been out there under the vhenadahl when they came back. Soris and Merien, blood-spattered and bruised, with Shianni’s ragged, bleeding form slung between them, and the other two women tottering on behind. Everyone had seen. Everyone knew. Her shame, her disgrace… and the danger that spilled out in its black, poisonous wake, and now threatened to taint them all.

He cleared his throat, a small frown pinching his brow. The hahren’s boots still had a thin rime of mud on them, though they’d obviously been wiped clean. Cyrion took it to mean he’d been out already this morning, and wondered how hard Valendrian was working to keep the guard at bay.

It stood to reason, of course. While he was grateful that it wouldn’t be her who paid the price—such a small word for the complex, confused, nerve-shattering swell of relief that had engulfed him when he learned of the conscription—he was aware there would be repercussions. That much was unavoidable, as were the whispers that had already begun. He’d seen it on the faces of the few people he met on his way down here; as if it was his fault she wasn’t here to bear the punishment. As if, somehow, he’d planned it this way.

Funny, Cyrion thought, how a community so renowned for its tight-knit ties could turn so easily on its own, and unite in spite and anger.

No matter. It would pass, perhaps, and the important thing was that she was safe—or as safe as she was going to be, in that new life of hers. He didn’t want to think about it, wanted to pretend that he could ignore it, almost as if it had never happened.

He realised he was still staring at the hahren’s boots. Valendrian coughed gently.

“You intend to proceed with the… wedding, I hear?”

Cyrion smiled tightly. The last time they’d discussed this, a little more than a week ago, it had all been so different. The rush and the chaos of the thing being pushed forward, with all the scrabbling to get the arrangements made in time, preparing in a maelstrom of excitement and anticipation. The word then had been ‘festivities’—hardly appropriate now.

“Yes.” He nodded. “I think they should be settled as soon as possible. Mother Boann is prepared to officiate, so—”

Valendrian lofted an eyebrow. “Is that wise?”

His tone was measured and calm, but well-polished steel lurked behind it.

Cyrion held his resolve, and met the other man’s unblinking stare. “I believe so, elder. I… believe that it should be as close it can to what they were expecting. What everyone was expecting.”

A proper wedding, he might have said, once. For the briefest moment, the ugly snake of a remembered voice curled through his mind.

If you want to dress up your pets and play tea parties, that’s your business….

Silence had fallen around those words like the pieces of a broken mirror, sharp and jagged, and ready to cut. He’d known then it wouldn’t—couldn’t—end well. And he hadn’t moved a damn muscle.

“Really?” Only the word indicated surprise; nothing in Valendrian’s voice or face suggested the faintest hint of disbelief. He sniffed eloquently. “Well, I see your point. The strongest tree grows from the sturdiest roots, and all that. When do you have in mind?”

“Er, two days’ time, I hope.” Cyrion blinked, pushing the cobwebs of memory away. “The priest intends to come early. I thought, do it in the morning. Quick and simple… while the sun’s bright.”

The hahren nodded slowly, his gaze slipping to the knotted wood of the shutters, framing a window whose waxed paper panes were spotted with grease and dead flies.

“All right. And… the boy’s family? In Highever. You’ve written, I understand?”

“Yes.”

Another nod. Valendrian’s mouth became an even tighter line, a thin, dark scar running across his ravaged face. Age wore them hard, Cyrion supposed. The years, and the privations, were unkind, but it was poverty that quickened them, and nothing more. The pangs of the day’s dampness still pained his joints, and he clenched his hands as they hung loosely at his sides, the sharp throb in his fingers at least proof he could bend them.

“I know Sarethia a little,” the hahren confessed. “Second cousin on my mother’s side. I sent a note of condolence. She will, I am sure, be a comfort to the family and—as you know—they have other children.”

It seemed an unkind thing to say, as if speaking merely of spare socks or enough plates to host a big family meal. The reassurance of extra supplies. Cyrion knew that was not how it was meant, aware that Valendrian had, once, also lost an only child.

He inclined his head, wishing he could be artful enough to convey gratitude without clumsiness.

“True.”

The hahren let a long, low breath slide from his lips. “If… if it should help you to know,” he began, looking guardedly at Cyrion from beneath thick, grizzled brows, “I do not think there will be any official… retaliation, let us say… until the king’s forces return from Ostagar.”

He had been meeting with the guard, then. One brief, shifting glance at the elder’s face told Cyrion of the bribes and barters that must have been involved, and tongues of shame bound him to silence.

“The palace district is… distinctly vacant,” Valendrian said carefully. “There is little going on in the way of governance, and not likely to be—as far as we, and this matter, are concerned—until Arl Urien returns. That does not, of course, go for the rest of the city. I am advising extreme caution to those who leave the gates. You have heard what happened at the docks yesterday?”

“The docks?” Cyrion frowned, lamentably aware of how little he’d listened to any news from outside the alienage in the past few days.

“There is a, uh, strong current of distrust emerging,” Valendrian said delicately, fixing him with a very dark look.

Ah. That. Yes, Cyrion realised. He’d felt it when he slipped out to see Mother Boann. The market district was a greasy cauldron of tension, roiling and bubbling, with anger breaking the surface in hot, explosive vents. Someone had thrown a stone at him. It had glanced off his arm and, as he hadn’t seen where it came from, he’d written it off as a cruel child or a rambling drunk.

“An elven man was beaten senseless by a group of human dockworkers when he arrived for his shift. Ladon Therulis. He and his wife rent a house in the area… though I believe they will return to the alienage soon. I have been asked to arrange matters for them.”

Dizziness tugged at Cyrion’s brow. He knew the family name, if not the man himself.

“That’s… terrible,” he murmured.

The hahren shrugged. “It is to be expected. Rumours spread faster than poxes, try as the guard might to keep things quiet. At the moment, people are willing to believe a group of elves broke into the arl’s estate, intent on robbery and murder. They say Urien’s… son,” he supplemented, as if unwilling to say the name, or credit that monstrous bastard with humanity, even in death, “died courageously in the defence of his father’s property, and of justice itself.”

The words were dry as sand, and grated a little as they scraped between Valendrian’s lips. Cyrion winced, and disgust coiled in his belly, but he was too weary to try to be shocked.

“I see.”

“Things will become… difficult,” Valendrian said, with elegant understatement.

Cyrion’s skin prickled. There was no change in the hahren’s voice or face, but the strength of the accusation was as vivid, as painful, as an open-palmed slap.

He nodded, unable to meet Valendrian’s eye. It was all there; not stated overtly, not directed at him, but it didn’t need to be. It was his responsibility, his burden… his shame. Ultimately, this whole damn mess was his fault, and in his daughter’s absence, it was him that the people would blame.

“Still.” The hahren brought his hands together, his hard, hollow palms clapping dully. “We have a wedding to arrange. Two days’ time, then? And Shianni will be well enough to stand witness?”

“I think so.”

“Excellent. It will do her good,” Valendrian said, looking levelly at Cyrion. “And, as for you, my friend… you will be strong. Yes?”

“Yes, elder,” Cyrion echoed meekly.

Valendrian smiled, though it didn’t seem to quite reach his eyes, and shook him by the hand. It was a warm gesture, filled with a traditional symbolism of respect. His left hand grasped Cyrion’s arm, their right hands clasped tightly together, wrist to wrist. A gesture of respect, and belonging… one he’d barely ever thought about before, used to seeing it, using it, on the completion of every business deal, the conclusion of family meetings or discussion between men. Yet, even now, it wasn’t quite enough to cling to.

Cyrion let himself out and walked home, his shoulders bowed with the weight they carried. When he got in, he found Valora sitting behind a pile of darning almost higher than her head, and the house smelled strongly of soap.

“Uncle!” She looked up brightly at him, her smile far less tentative than he’d seen it before. “I have some work! Silenis brought this round just after you left. I’m to do all these and return them by tomorrow morning. Oh, and watch where you tread. The floor’s a little slippy. Silenis brought us some wash to do, too.”

Nonplussed, Cyrion blinked into the dimness of the long, low room. Sure enough, the caulked wooden tub they used for bathing stood in front of the fire, and swathe after swathe of wet clothes were hung around the place. The muggy, damp warmth made the air taste stale and faintly metallic, and a brief look at the array of shirts, smallclothes and skirts confirmed one thing: they were all human-sized.

His throat tightened around an absurd twinge of outraged anger. Stupid, he told himself. He should be proud of the girl. Pleased she’d had enough sense and initiative to do this… even if it meant turning his home into an impromptu laundry.

Shianni was kneeling by the tub, taking the washboard to a twist of wet linen that he guessed must be some shem’s undershirt. Her movements were awkward and slow, but she seemed determined. She glanced up, smiling lop-sidedly at him.

“A copper a bundle, Uncle. Two on the darning, and much more for fancy work. When my eye’s better, I’ll be able to do some of that, too.”

Cyrion nodded wearily. “That’s… wonderful, girls.”

He dredged up a smile in return, and picked his way between the low-hanging, dripping garments, in search of a chair that didn’t have anything spread out over it to dry.

 _________________________
A Father’s Regret: 3. Little Shadows
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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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