Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Four

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

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

Vaughan’s grotesque little party had already started.

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

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

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

“Well, my, my… What have we here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the bastard smiled at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing. Not in his world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaughan did smile, and it was not pleasant.

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

I snorted. “No deal.”

The ugly, vicious smile dropped and became a scowl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than that, it is dangerous.

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

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

Soris spoke first.

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

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

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

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

“Shianni?”

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

“Shianni, it’s me….”

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

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

“I won’t. I promise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. Good….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Er… we should go. Soon. As in now.”

“Good thought,” I agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The hahren.”

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

“You have returned,” the hahren observed.

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

“Has Shianni been hurt?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They killed her,” Arith finished bitterly.

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

“And Nelaros?” he asked.

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

He squealed like a stuck pig when he died.

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

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

Maybe I’d drop dead on the spot.

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

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

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

“It’s all right. Take care of her.”

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

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

“Child….”

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

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

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

“What of the arl’s son?”

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

“Vaughan’s dead,” I whispered.

“Maker preserve us all!”

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

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

“Um….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elder! Elder, the guards are here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was my doing,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain? A word, if you please.”

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

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

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

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

Eventually, the captain relented.

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

“Agreed,” Duncan said simply.

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

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

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

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

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

“I….” I began weakly.

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

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

I bowed my head respectfully.

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

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

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

“I… I’ll get my things.”

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

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

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

I don’t want to leave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What will you do now?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She kissed my cheek. I sniffed.

“Be good to Soris, won’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

Well, she was family now, vows or not.

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

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

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

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

“How are you holding up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right. I have to leave soon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maker watch over you.”

“And you,” I managed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were brave, weren’t you?”

Tears filled my eyes. “I….”

“Shh. Your mother would have been pleased.”

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

“You’re not pleased?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. “Yes.”

“Then we must go.”

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

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

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

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

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

To be honest, I don’t know.

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

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Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Two

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

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

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

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

“Let go of me! Stop, please!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps it was not the most sensible thing to say.

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

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

“Silence, worm!”

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

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

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

“Shianni will get herself killed!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swallowed, fighting the bile rising in my throat.

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

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

“Maybe you should invite it over for dinner!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pig!” she yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s out cold, Braden.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold sweat prickled along the length of my spine, and I blinked, trying to make myself believe what had just happened. Shianni let out a long breath.

“Oh, I really messed up this time,” she moaned.

“It’ll be all right,” Soris said, though he didn’t sound at all convinced. “He won’t tell anyone an elven woman took him down.”

“I hope so.” Shianni looked down at herself. Dregs of ale and bits of jug speckled the front of her dress, and she wiped ineffectually at them, apparently not realising she’d cut her hand. “I-I should get cleaned up,” she muttered, and lurched off in the direction of the privies.

I supposed it had been a bit of a shock for all of us.

“Is everybody else all right?” Soris asked, glancing around at the pale, worried faces.

“I think we’re just shaken,” said a girl I hadn’t seen before. “What was that about?”

She wore a long, green dress, demure and well-cut, and she had the prettiest ears I’d ever seen, although the pale brown hair and narrow, pointed face left me in no doubt at all: this had to be Soris’ dying mouse!

Soris laughed nervously. “Oh, it… uh… looks like the arl’s son started drinking too early. Um, well, let’s not let this ruin the day.” He cleared his throat and held out his hand, presenting me to the girl, who smiled delicately. “Uh, Merien, this is Valora, my betrothed.”

I inclined my head, determined not to give in to the sudden urge to laugh. I could see why he was worried. She seemed sweet enough, but that voice…! It was like a little girl’s, all soft and breathless, as if she’d faint at the first winter frost.

“A pleasure to meet you,” I said dutifully. “And welcome to your new home. I wish you happiness here.”

Valora smiled. “Thank you. And, um….”

My gaze slid to the elf who’d stepped forward to join her. He was tall, clad in dark pants and a green blouson, the ivory sleeves criss-crossed with intricate and beautiful embroidery—all far less garish than poor Soris’ clashing ensemble—and he was, indeed, very handsome. Blue eyes, blond hair worn daringly short…. I was embarrassed to find the heat of a blush beginning somewhere in the region of my neck.

“Er. This must be Nelaros,” I said, wishing I didn’t feel quite so awkward.

“A pleasure.” He smiled. “Soris has said much of you. Some of it was even positive.”

At least he didn’t have a dying mouse voice. I glared at my cousin.

“Well, you know….” Soris shrugged. “I just wanted to give him a sporting chance to run. Anyway, I, uh—” He cleared his throat, being extremely careful not to meet my eye. “—I’m sure the two of you have much to discuss. Valora, shall we…?”

The mouse blinked, giggled, and wafted off at his side, leaving Nelaros and I as alone as we were likely to be until this was all over. I found it excruciatingly embarrassing, and I suppose he felt the same, because we shared a smile that bubbled into uncomfortable, tongue-tied laughter.

“So, um… how was the trip from Highever?” I asked.

“Uneventful, thankfully. The trade caravan we accompanied had little of value; I think that kept the bandits away.”

“Ah.”

I racked my brain for something useful to say, but I knew virtually nothing of this man; just that he was the youngest son of a respectable family, and had worked as a smith in Highever, where his father leased a small forge. Desperately, I seized on that.

“Um. I hear you’re a talented smith. Do you, uh, think you’ll want to look for work at one of the forges in the city?”

Nelaros smiled, and I wondered if he was susceptible to flattery, or just pleased that I seemed interested.

“I don’t know. Perhaps. I’m… well, I’m happy to do whatever I need to make a good life here. With you.”

He reached into the pocket of his tunic and took out a small scrap of cloth. Unfolding it carefully, Nelaros revealed a narrow gold band, polished to a low sheen.

“I made this for you,” he said shyly. “I hope it fits.”

I smiled uneasily. It was a pretty shackle, I had to admit, but it brought into focus just how big today was.

“It’s… beautiful,” I said, trying to ignore the somersaults my stomach kept performing.

He pocketed the ring again, and that awful, unwieldy silence threatened to descend once more. I groped for some other gambit, hoping he wouldn’t think me too inquisitive. Nobody wanted a wife who didn’t know when to hold her tongue, after all.

“It, er, must be difficult… starting over in a new place. How have you found Denerim so far?”

Sadness tinged Nelaros’ face. He nearly succeeded in hiding it.

“It was hard to leave Highever, although Denerim itself seems friendlier. Perhaps because it’s so large that humans take less notice of us. I don’t know.”

I wondered just how much he’d seen of the little interlude with Lord Vaughan, but said nothing. Nelaros had made me curious about his home city, though. I wanted to ask more questions, but I was conscious of not wanting to start our marriage with an interrogation. There would be time to talk after the ceremony.

Time for that—and everything else. Oh, Maker’s mercy… I didn’t want to think about it.

“Nervous?” I blurted.

Nelaros looked at me with a curious expression in his eyes. They really were awfully blue.

“I thought I’d stay calm,” he said. “But finally seeing you has made me…. Well, let’s just say I’m not calm.”

He smiled tightly, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was I worse than a dying mouse? A clunky, big-nosed plough horse who antagonised the local nobility and hung around with bottle-wielding drunkards? I glanced away, fiddling with the embroidery on my wristlet. A small end of thread had started to come loose, and I knew I had to resist the temptation to pull it.

“How about you?” Nelaros asked. “Nervous?”

I looked up at him, into those intensely blue eyes, and tried to imagine that face—those high cheekbones, that strong, straight nose—being the first thing I saw every morning for the rest of my life. It could work, couldn’t it? We could be a good match. I trusted Father enough to think so… I was almost sure of it.

“I….” I should be honest with him, I supposed. Better that than to begin building a life on flattery and sycophancy. But what if who I was wasn’t good enough for him? I didn’t know what to do, so I swallowed my nerves and smiled. “I was until I saw you.”

Nelaros’ face softened. I didn’t know if I’d laid it on too thick, or if he even believed me, but he smiled back, and I supposed that augured well.

“I’ll spend every waking moment learning to make you happy,” he murmured.

No one had ever said anything quite like that to me before. Heat washed through my cheeks, and I looked down at my feet. Behind me, I heard Soris cough gently—perhaps in what he thought might be a subtle kind of way—and the awkwardness returned ten-fold.

Nelaros and I moved a little further apart, and Soris took my arm firmly.

“Come on, cousin,” he muttered. “We should let them get… ready.”

I glanced at him, and saw Valora standing close by his side. She smiled.

“We’ll see you two in a bit,” she said sweetly. “Don’t disappear on us!”

“Or we’ll come find you,” Nelaros added, a weak attempt at a joke.

We chuckled uncomfortably, each one of us probably feeling uneasier than the last, and I was only too glad to let Soris lead me away.

Once we were out of earshot, he exhaled sharply.

“Phew!” He slipped me a sly look. “So, is he everything you hoped for?”

“Soris,” I warned. “I don’t know. He seems nice enough, I guess. It’s just….”

“Well, there’s no turning back now, is there?” Soris smiled ruefully. His expression fell as he looked towards the northern gates of the alienage. “Oh, no. Don’t look now, but we have another problem.”

I followed his gaze, immediately concerned. “What is it?”

“Another human just walked in. Could be one of Vaughan’s, or just a random troublemaker.”

I saw the man my cousin meant, standing out like a flame among the cheerful revellers and shabby buildings. What was it about today, I wondered? Did the Maker have some particular grudge against our just having a simple, trouble-free ceremony?

The human didn’t dress like Vaughan’s cronies, but neither was there anything random about him. He was dark-skinned, his face solemn but not marked by the same arrogance we’d seen on the noblemen. His hair and neatly clipped beard were black, a contrast against his bright armour and surcoat, which shone almost white, and bore symbols I’d never seen before. The pommel of a longsword glinted on his back, and though he didn’t seem in a hurry to cause any trouble, the ill feeling towards his kind hung heavy in the air.

“We should go and talk to him,” I said.

“Really?” Soris looked uncertainly at me. “You don’t think we should…. Oh, forget it. Let’s just do this quickly.”

We crossed the cobbles towards the stranger.

He hadn’t glanced at us once, yet he turned to greet us as we reached him, without any sign of surprise at our approach.

“Good day,” he said, his voice low and clear, and his manners quite unlike those I was used to seeing in a human. He actually inclined his head to me, and looked me full in the face, not through me or to one side, like I was half-invisible. “I understand congratulations are in order for your impending wedding. Both of you, in fact?”

“I… well, yes.” He’d wrong-footed me, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. Before I knew it, I was making my own respectful bow, like a well-trained hound. “Thank you, stranger. But, please… you should go. We would rather avoid any unpleasantness.”

The human did not appear surprised, but he raised his brows.

“What manner of unpleasantness might you be referring to?”

His accent wasn’t local, but I couldn’t place it. I couldn’t identify anything about him enough for my liking. Even his armour didn’t remotely resemble the scuffed, serviceable leather and mail the city guard wore. Delicate patterns, like waves or clouds, chased the bright metal, and it had clearly been made to fit him. Unique, just like the small, burnished hoop he wore in his ear.

He carried more than just the one sword, too. Under his cloak, he was clearly well-armed, and that unsettled me even more than his manners.

“Look.” I tried again. “It’s just that the Alienage really isn’t a good place for humans to be right now. Please….”

“I’m sorry, but I have no intention of leaving,” he said firmly.

Beside me, I could feel Soris starting to get panicky, shifting from foot to foot like a child. The last thing any of us wanted was a repeat of what had happened with Vaughan. Word of Shianni’s antics with the bottle were already spreading in whispers, and it wouldn’t take much for somebody else to do something stupid, especially with all the drink flowing today.

I caught myself wishing the damn wedding could have waited, or that it had at least all happened the way it was supposed to. It wasn’t meant to be like this, was it? Rushed and chaotic, and torn through with mistakes and injustice… just like everything else here.

It wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t we even have one day where they left us alone?

I looked up at the human, sharply reminding myself that this was not his fault. Sure, he was a stranger here, but what else was he? A soldier? No. Not dressed like that. No simple guardsman or infantry, and no casual traveller. A knight, then? But why would he be here, now… and why would he refuse to leave?

“Fine,” I said. “Maybe we can compromise.”

The man looked past my shoulder, his seriousness giving way to an expression somewhere between satisfaction and amusement.

“She keeps her composure even when facing down an unknown and armed human. A true gift, wouldn’t you say, Valendrian?”

I turned, and saw our hahren bearing down upon us. His grey hair was braided and a broad smile wreathed his face. He passed between Soris and me and, going at once to the human, shook him warmly by the hand.

“I would say the world has far more use for those who know how to stay their blades. It is good to see you again, my old friend. It has been far too long.”

Confusion left me shy and unsure as to whether I had offended. I bowed to the hahren, and to this human he called friend.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I had no idea….”

“I was hardly forthcoming,” the man said. “And for that I apologise.”

I straightened up and stared. Apologise? To me? He had…?

Perhaps I was dreaming. I risked a glance at Soris, who’d turned pale as moonlight and just stood there, looking between the human and Valendrian as if both were ghosts.

The hahren placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, a gesture of such equality and affection as I’d never seen between elf and human.

“Children,” he said calmly. “May I present Duncan, head of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden.”

I had no wish to let myself be a slack-jawed fool, but I knew I was still staring. I didn’t know what a Grey Warden was, but a leader who commanded anything that stretched over the entire country… this was more than I had ever encountered. I inclined my head.

“Well met, Duncan.”

“And you, dear girl.”

I watched him, fascinated. Soris made a clumsy, perfunctory bow, and the human gave him the same graceful respect. I had never seen anything like it.

We both stood, awkward and uncertain, not sure what to do next. We had not been dismissed—and I, for one, wanted to know more of this stranger—but Valendrian’s next words were not addressed to us.

“But my question remains unanswered. Why are you here, Duncan?”

“The worst has happened.” The human’s expression darkened, and he lowered his voice a little. “A Blight has begun. King Cailan summons the Grey Wardens to Ostagar to fight the darkspawn horde alongside his armies.”

“Yes.” The hahren nodded. “I had heard the news. Still, this is an awkward time—there is to be a wedding. Two, in fact.”

He glanced at us, and I saw from the look in his eye that we were meant to have heard what the human had to say. I didn’t know why. I knew of the fighting at Ostagar, but everything else they spoke of…. It might as well have been Orlesian.

“So I see,” Duncan said. “By all means, attend to your ceremonies. My concerns can wait for now.”

“Very well.” Valendrian nodded, and turned to Soris and me. “Children, treat Duncan as my guest. And, for the Maker’s sake, take your places!”

I looked over towards the platform beneath the vhenadahl. Nelaros and Valora were already up there, along with my father, Shianni, and the other bridesmaids.

No turning back, indeed.

“But….” I began, looking curiously at Duncan. I had so many questions.

He smiled. “Please, do not let me interrupt further. We shall speak more later.”

“Come on, Meri!” Soris tugged at my arm. “We can’t keep them waiting.”

“All right.” I relented, but not without one last look at Duncan.

He inclined his head, and I followed Soris up to the platform. There was a ripple of applause as we ascended the steps—and not a little bit of drunken cheering.

“Ooh, Soris!” Valora simpered. “There you are. I was afraid you’d run off.”

My cousin and I exchanged brief glances.

“No,” Soris assured his mouse. “I’m here, and with Nelaros’ blushing bride in tow.”

I shot him a dirty look, but took my place beside my betrothed. Nelaros smiled awkwardly at me.

“You look… radiant,” he murmured, and I gave him an uncertain smile.

“It looks like everyone’s ready,” Soris observed.

“Good luck,” I said.

He gave me a sickly grin. “You too, cousin.”

Valendrian had mounted the platform, and now he stepped forward, his hands raised as he called for quiet from the gathered sea of onlookers. I glanced across at my father, calmed and heartened by the look of quiet affection and approval on his face. I felt a light pressure on the fingertips of my right hand and, as I looked down, I realised it was Nelaros. The corner of his mouth curled a little as I squeezed back.

Maybe it would be all right after all.

“Friends and family,” the hahren began, “today we celebrate not only this joining, but also our bonds of kin and kind. We are a free people, but that was not always so. Andraste, the Maker’s prophet, freed us from the bonds of slavery. As our community grows, remember that our strength lies in commitment to tradition and to each other.”

There was a general rumble of approval from the crowd, and Mother Boann came forward to join the hahren. He bowed to her, and we understood that the vows were to begin. Shianni caught my eye, and grinned.

“Thank you, Valendrian,” the priest said. “Now, let us begin. In the name of the Maker, who brought us this world, and in whose name we say the Chant of Light, I—”

She stopped abruptly, her gaze fixed on some disruption in the crowd, and my gut tightened. This wasn’t the time for someone to pass out drunk, throw up, or start a fight… but that didn’t seem to be the kind of commotion the revered mother was facing.

“My lord?” Mother Boann’s voice was clear, but she couldn’t hide the concern in her tone. “This is… an unexpected surprise.”

I didn’t want to look, too afraid of what I knew I would see.

The arl’s son was back, and very much conscious.

He’d brought friends with him, too—a whole pack of guards, the city badge on their shields. Vaughan and his two compatriots strode through the gathered press of people, bodies parting in front of them like stalks of grass bowing before a wheel, and they barged their way up onto the platform.

“Sorry to interrupt, Mother,” Vaughan said, his words dripping with scorn, “but I’m having a party… and we’re dreadfully short of female guests.”

The priest stood between him and the four of us, her outrage palpable. The two other lordlings moved behind him, crossing to take up positions, one at the back of our little group, and the other beside Valendrian and my father… two old, vulnerable men.

“My lord,” Mother Boann protested. “This is a wedding!”

I watched her stand there, facing down the supercilious noble, the shoulders of her red-and-gold Chantry robe shaking ever so slightly. From where I stood, I had a horribly clear view of Vaughan’s face as he looked coldly at the woman. There was no mistaking the determination in his expression—or the butterfly stitches patching the cut on his brow.

He was here to settle a score.

“Ha!” He loosed a burst of obnoxious laughter. “If you want to dress up your pets and play tea parties, that’s your business. But don’t pretend this is a proper wedding.”

The silence that spilled out around those words was taut and sharp, stretched thin enough to shatter with the slightest blow. I could barely breathe. I was so furious, my whole body clenching with hatred of this human and—what was worse—hatred for the fear I felt.

That was the crux of it. No matter how contemptible his behaviour now, Vaughan was untouchable.

We all knew that, and the awareness of it permeated the air like a foul stench. He was a lord, a nobleman… the arl’s son. He strutted across our scruffy little platform like a peacock, and he knew we could do nothing.

“Now,” he said, his rich, lazy drawl oozing around us, echoing off the stonework and making my skin crawl, “we’re here for a good time, aren’t we, boys?”

The one I knew as Lord Braden, standing behind Nola and Arith, peeled his fat lips back into a rubbery smile.

“That’s right,” he said. “Just a good time with the ladies, that’s all.”

Their nasty, greasy laughter pooled in the unnatural silence. Beside me, Nelaros’ breathing was shallow and rapid, and his fingers folded more firmly around my hand, though his face stayed blank. I recognised the signs; he was not unused to abuse from humans, and it touched me that he shifted his weight a little, angling his body in front of mine. It was a gesture of protection I had not expected from him.

I glanced at Soris. His face was drained of all colour, and beads of sweat stood out on his brow. He didn’t meet my eye. None of them would… but that was what we did when the shems picked a fight.

Fair enough, it wasn’t usually like this. Not nobles, and not on our own turf. It normally happened in the market, or down by the docks late on a Friday night. It always started in some casual, off-the-cuff kind of way: just an insult thrown, a shove here or there…. It was to be expected, and our reactions were well-trained, filtering down through the generations.

If you couldn’t run, you stopped, stood still, and you took it in silence. Anything else just made it worse.

But Vaughan didn’t seem content with just throwing his weight around. He paraded in front of us, his eyes everywhere, that cold green gaze running over our bodies as if he was assessing horseflesh. I felt sick.

“Let’s take those two.” He nodded at Nola and Arith, and waved one hand nonchalantly in Valora’s direction. “The one in the tight dress… and where’s the bitch that bottled me?”

I held my breath. Take us? Take us where? This would not end well. A little roughing up and groping in the street was one thing, but…. The other human moved from standing guard over the hahren, and grabbed Shianni by the arm.

“Over here, Lord Vaughan!”

I prayed she’d have the sense to keep her mouth shut, but my cousin’s nature was as fiery as her hair. She squirmed, kicking out at the man’s legs.

“Let me go, you stuffed-shirt son-of-a—”

All she earned for her trouble was a slap, and Vaughan chuckled.

“Oh, I’ll enjoy taming her….”

Instinctively, I started to move towards Shianni, which was stupid. At once, Vaughan turned and fixed me with that reptilian gaze. He raised his sandy brows.

“And see the pretty bride…!”

He began to head for me, and I could see how much the bastard was enjoying ratcheting up the tension on what should have been a day of celebration… just waiting for someone to throw the first stone, hurl the first catcall of abuse. It would be all the excuse he needed, and then it would be our blood on the cobbles.

Nelaros’ grip on my hand tightened, and he moved closer to me.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “I won’t let them take you.”

I looked at my betrothed, not sure whether he was brave or an idiot. Shianni was still writhing in the other shem’s grip.

I couldn’t let this happen. Not today.

“No.” I pulled my hand away, unwilling to let Nelaros make this any more dangerous. “Just get out of here. Run!”

He shook his head and, for a moment, our gazes locked. Brave, I decided. Not a fool.

There was no time for anyone to run, though. Vaughan drew closer, pulling the same trick on me that he had before—using his height and bulk to try and intimidate, the unwelcome closeness of his presence a threatening weapon. Gritting my teeth, I stood my ground. I met his gaze, and did not falter, hoping against futile hope that he believed I was not afraid of him.

“Ah, yes,” Vaughan sneered, reaching out a hand as if—in some horrible parody of affection—to touch my hair. “Such a well-formed little thing….”

“You villains!” Nelaros snapped.

Vaughan laughed softly. There was no mirth in it.

“Oh, that’s quite enough. I’m sure we all want to avoid any further, um, unpleasantness?”

His breath grazed my face, full of rich man’s wine, oils and spices. It still seemed so horribly quiet. The alienage was never this quiet. I could hear the bustle of the market square seeping in from beyond the walls, birds flapping in the high branches of the vhenadahl… and Nola, weeping again.

Anger blistered within me. Years of rage, bottled up and held back, because everyone knew we shouldn’t make trouble, shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves.

Memories of Mother filtered through my head, and I found my voice, when I should have stayed quiet.

“You have no right! Let them go, you bastard!”

The arl’s son gave a shallow, contemptuous laugh.

“Ha! Look, this one has spirit! Oh, but we’re going to have some fun….”

He rocked back on his heels, still smirking at me. The dark-haired human, Lord Braden, stepped forward and, before I saw it coming, struck me across the face with the back of his hand.

White-hot pain shot through my jaw, I fell, and the world turned black.

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