The Golden Ring: Chapter Five

The wedding has gatecrashers, and Nelaros can’t back down.


 

Finally, the ceremony itself began to get underway. Given how much the crowd had been enjoying themselves, it wasn’t surprising that it had to open with the hahren mounting the wooden dais and clearing his throat several times before stomping a foot on the platform and calling for quiet.

Nelaros joined Valora and the assembled bridesmaids on the dais, where his new father-in-law also stood, his hands clasped behind his back and his face a tight mask of contained apprehension. Nelaros wanted to feel sympathy for the old man, but his own nervousness was already getting the better of him. His palms were sweating, and he rubbed them against the hem of his blouson, trying not to draw attention to the movement.

Valora looked up briefly, enough to give him a small smile before returning her gaze to the boards in front of her. It was hard to tell whether meeting her betrothed had helped soothe her nerves any, but she seemed resigned to her fate. They all had to be, he supposed, peering across the crowd for any sign of Soris and Merien.

Another human had entered the alienage—a dark-skinned man in pale armour. He stood apart from the bustle of the wedding, though he was watching the proceedings with interest. Fear immediately clutched Nelaros’ heart, reflexive and ruthless. More shems? He would have thought that the height of the walls and the gates might have given them a hint and encouraged them to stay out. Still, this didn’t look like another drunken rabble-rouser; he was older than the arl’s son and his friends, and his manner seemed oddly respectful. It wasn’t something Nelaros was used to seeing in his kind, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it.

“For the Maker’s sake, children!” Valendrian hissed, beckoning Merien and Soris to the dais as they jogged awkwardly up the steps. “Take your places!”

The hahren rolled his eyes, and Nelaros saw his bride shoot a guilty, apologetic smile towards her father.

He couldn’t exactly say she was pretty when she smiled—there was no power in the world, save perhaps for that wielded by mages, that could give her the looks traditionally prized among elven women—but it certainly lit up her face. In that fleeting moment, as he looked across the platform at her, she seemed bright and alive, full of mischief and kindness. Nelaros wanted to believe, wanted to hope, that she’d look at him like that one day.

He wouldn’t mind it in the least.

There was a ripple of applause as the two cousins ascended the steps—and not a little bit of drunken cheering. Nelaros tried to smile as his bride took her place beside him, though he was afraid it came off as a grimace.

Valora glanced up timidly, simpering at her betrothed… who looked pale and waxy, and not a little nauseous.

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

She smiled shyly. Soris swallowed, his throat bobbing as he exchanged looks with his cousin.

“No,” he assured the little mouse. “I’m here, and with Nelaros’ blushing bride in tow.”

Merien glared at him, then glanced uncertainly at Nelaros, as if she was worried what he thought of her. It was a bit late for that, though he found it rather sweet that she still seemed to be concerned with making a good impression. There was real anxiety in those dark eyes of hers… hesitancy and lingering worry.

He smiled gently at her. “You look… radiant,” he murmured, because it was the nicest thing he could think of to say that wasn’t entirely a falsehood.

She gave him a crumpled, embarrassed sort of smile, and averted her eyes quickly, looking down at the wooden boards.

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

Merien glanced up at him, raising her dark brows. “Good luck.”

He gave her a sickly grin. “You too, cousin. Who knows? Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

He had the grace to look embarrassed as the words left his mouth, and he shot a guilty grin at Valora, who just shook her head wearily. Nelaros tried not to laugh, sure that it was hysteria more than humour prompting him to it.

Valendrian had mounted the platform, and now he stepped forward, his hands raised as he called for quiet from the gathered sea of onlookers. Nelaros saw Merien look over to where her father was standing, and the affection in Cyrion’s face humbled him. He’d been missing his family ever since he left Highever, but in that moment he saw the gulf between the tenderness he’d shared with his own parents, and the love his new wife had for her father.

He supposed it was what came from a widower having but one child to raise, Soris and his sister notwithstanding. She stood with the other bridesmaids, and Nelaros was mildly alarmed to learn that, not only was Shianni the girl from earlier—the one who’d been involved in the altercation with the arl’s son—but that she had a strong smell of ale on her.

He wondered, as the swell of nervousness folded him in its tide, whether the coming years would see him graced with a sprawling pack of freckled children—the red hair probably ran strongly in the family, too—and he really hoped that the Tabris clan didn’t turn out to be as rowdy as this every day.

Nelaros looked to his bride and, seeing the look on her face as she tried to hide her anxiety and do right by her father, he felt moved to reach out his hand and fold her thin fingers into his.

Merien almost flinched. He smiled at her, and she looked a little flushed… but she squeezed his hand, and there was real warmth in her eyes as she did it. Nelaros’ smile deepened. 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.”

Valendrian was a good speaker, better than Hahren Sarethia. His voice had depth and emotion, and he used it to say positive things… or, at least, he was doing so right now. Nelaros let himself feel buoyed up by the words, and hoped that—if she was in fact watching over them in the Maker’s stead—Andraste would see fit to bless the day.

There was a general rumble of approval from the crowd, and Mother Boann, the Chantry priest whom Nelaros could still not get used to seeing in the alienage, came forward to join the hahren. He bowed to her, a gesture she received with grace and respect.

“Thank you, Valendrian. 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. Nelaros’ brow tightened; there was fear in the human woman’s face. He saw it as plain as daylight, and he immediately turned his head to find its source.

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

The arl’s son had returned, and this time he had more than just his sneering friends in tow. A pack of city guards in splintmail armour accompanied them, and the crowd of elven revellers parted before them like dry leaves blown ahead of the wind.

“Sorry to interrupt, Mother,” the nobleman said, his words dripping with scorn as he barged up to the foot of the platform, “but I’m having a party… and we’re dreadfully short of female guests.”

The priest’s outrage was palpable as the lordlings mounted the dais. Nelaros’ pulse pounded, his instincts screaming at him to either cringe or flee. Everything he’d known in Highever—everything he’d ever learned, ever lived with, ever understood as a fact of elven life—told him to get away, but there was nowhere he could go, and nothing he could do that would not attract attention.

The arl’s son prowled lazily towards the wedding party as his friends took up position beside Valendrian and Cyrion… two old, vulnerable men.

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

She was a brave woman, Nelaros thought, watching the shoulders of her red-and-gold Chantry robe shake ever so slightly as she faced down the supercilious noble. Before today, he would never have thought a human would defend elves this way… unless it was interference with her ritual that resented, more than the sanctity of a marriage.

He didn’t focus too deeply on the nuances of human behaviour, however. Not when the arl’s son was giving the priest such a look of potent, vile rage.

“Ha!” The young noble 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. The uneasiness among the elves hung in the air, a thick and ugly tension. To Nelaros’ mind, the only question was whether the fear of repercussion—and all those well-armed shems—would stop the drunks in the crowd doing anything stupid.

“Lord Vaughan…!”

The priest quivered with righteous indignation, but the arl’s son merely moved past her, as if he knew jut how untouchable he was.

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

“That’s right,” said one of the other shems, sneering unpleasantly at the bridesmaids. “Just a good time with the ladies, that’s all.”

Their nasty, greasy laughter pooled in the unnatural silence. Nelaros’ breathing grew shallow and rapid, and he took hold of Merien’s hand once more, squeezing firmly before he angled his body in front of hers, trying to shield her somehow from the men. Perhaps it was a foolish impulse, but this was not like the casual cruelty he knew from home. There was something ugly and calculated here… and he was no longer a child. He had a duty to his wife, and the thought of these shem bastards laying a finger on her—or on Valora, or any of these girls—made him feel sick.

Nelaros glanced at Soris. His face was drained of all colour, and beads of sweat stood out on his brow. None of them were making eye contact: not with each other, not with Nelaros, and certainly not with the humans. He was familiar enough with the reactions. If you couldn’t run, you stopped, stood still, and you took it in silence. Anything else just made it worse.

Nelaros would have expected nothing else, but he feared that this was going to be something worse than the kind of abuse that could be silently endured. No shem lordling brought a detachment of guards with him just to throw around a few insults.

Now, Vaughan strutted across the dais, his cold green eyes running over the still, silent bodies of the women, his mouth set into an ugly smirk.

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

Nelaros’ chest tightened, the breath stilling in his throat. Take them? What in the Maker’s name was this?

The other human moved from standing guard over the hahren, and grabbed Shianni by the arm. “Over here, Lord Vaughan!”

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….”

Nelaros’ stomach knotted, and a flush of panic washed through him as he felt Merien begin to move. She started to push past him, moving instinctively towards her cousin, and he didn’t react quickly enough to pull her back.

Lord Vaughan raised his brows, turning that horrible expression onto her, and every fibre of Nelaros’ body revolted at it. He was surprised at how protective of her he felt… and surprised at how quick she was to move to the defence of the other girl.

The shem’s lip curled. “And see the pretty bride…!”

He began to head for Merien. Nelaros tightened his grip on her hand, moving closer to her.

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

He’d meant to protect her, to be brave for her… but she gave him a startled, wide-eyed look, as if she thought he was a fool.

“No,” she said firmly, pulling her hand from his grasp. “Just get out of here. Run!”

Nelaros bridled. He wasn’t used to girls his own age telling him what to do.

Their gazes locked and, for the first time, he saw the iron in her face. Ah, so there was the girl who’d learned how to use a blade. He wondered if she had one hidden away under her wedding dress. He hoped not; violence might be what these shemlen were angling for, but starting anything wouldn’t make matters any better. Still… it wasn’t as if there was any way it could end well. That much was already dangerously clear.

He shook his head. He wasn’t going to leave her.

The look in Merien’s eyes deepened slightly; was that respect he saw? Gratitude? Nelaros didn’t know, but he felt himself warm to her… this brave, stubborn girl, who didn’t flinch or cower when the arl’s son drew closer, looming over her, using his unwelcome closeness as a weapon.

She turned her head, meeting his gaze—glaring right back at him, the way no other elf on the dais had done—determination and revulsion etched into her face in equal measure.

Nelaros was too busy being afraid for her to let many other thoughts crowd his head, but in that moment he admired her more than any other girl he’d known.

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

Rage boiled in Nelaros’ veins.

“You villains!” he snapped, pressing forwards to keep the shem away, though everything he knew about their kind told him it was useless.

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?”

He leaned in close, his breath grazing Merien’s face and making her wince. He kept his voice low, but the alienage was quiet enough for the words to roll out over the crowd… and not one of them did anything to help. One of the bridesmaids had begun to cry, the sound of her shivering, fearful sobs filtering through the silence.

Nelaros hardly dared to breathe. He looked at the girls the shems were still holding, and he saw with trepidation the anger that burned in Merien’s face.

“You have no right!” she said, spitting the words at the arl’s son as if she wished she could cut him with them. “Let them go, you bastard!”

Nelaros’ heart seemed cased in ice, fear shrouding the warmth he suddenly felt for his brave, furious bride.

Vaughan 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 her. The dark-haired human who had been roughing up the bridesmaids stepped forward and, before either Merien or Nelaros had seen it coming, he’d struck her across the face with the back of his hand.

She fell, crumpling to the platform like a paper doll, and Nelaros lunged forwards, too late to protect her, cursing his uselessness.

“You bastards! You have no right to do this!”

The dark-haired shem grabbed his shirtfront, holding him back roughly as Vaughan smirked.

“You know, every time a knife-ear says that, it makes me smile.” His lips curled, baring his teeth. “Don’t worry. I’ll return whatever’s left in time for the honeymoon.”

Nelaros struggled in the shem’s grip—something he’d never thought he’d do, something that every lesson he’d ever learned had told him was futile and stupid. He couldn’t help it. He was blind to everything but the outrage and maddening fury roaring in his blood.

None of the elves acted. Their hahren, their elders… everyone was still, silent, staring at the damn ground. Only Merien and her fiery-haired cousin had dared say a word against them, and this was what happened. Nelaros wanted to tear the very boards up from under his feet, to strike out, to gouge the eyes out of Lord Vaughan’s cold, predatory face.

“Back to the palace, boys!” the arl’s son said, as one of his friends’ fists connected with the side of Nelaros’ head, and the world smeared into a blur of colours.

The last thing he saw as he fell was his bride being lifted over a guard’s shoulder and taken away with the other girls… as the alienage watched in silence.

~o~O~o~

“Are you all right?” Soris asked, as Nelaros lay sprawled on the platform, tasting blood. “You took a pretty good headshot there.”

He took hold of Nelaros’ blouson and tried to help pull him up, but Nelaros pushed his hand away as the world pitched and dived around him. He squeezed his eyes shut until the dizziness passed.

“I’m fine,” he muttered, clutching his temple as he began to struggle to his feet. “What… what happened?”

“They took them,” Soris moaned. “The women… they took them to the palace. Shianni, and Valora, and Merien. The bridesmaids, too. The elder’s talking to Duncan, that Grey Warden. Everyone’s getting upset.”

Nelaros cracked one eye open. The boy was pale as linen, and he looked terrified. The alienage still had that horrible quiet to it, though now he could hear the discontented mutterings of the crowd. Everything seemed muffled, not just from the swimming of his head, but as if the people themselves had yet to fully react to what had happened. A few voices were being raised… he had no doubt more would follow. The atmosphere had turned bitter.

“Of course they’re upset!” he said, squinting muzzily at Soris. “I can’t believe this is happening! Nothing like this ever happened in— Wait… what Grey Warden?”

“Over there.” Soris pointed down into the crowd, where the human with the bright armour stood near the hahren, both men frowning and speaking quietly at the edge of the crowd. “Meri and I saw him earlier. He’s in town looking for recruits or something, and it seems he knows the elder.”

Nelaros’ brow tightened. Much good that would do them, never mind what it said about Denerim. Capital city? Capital of madness, more like. His heart clenched as he tried not to think about the girls; his bride and poor, terrified Valora… this would never have happened back home.

Of course there were humans who tried to take what they thought they were due, and assaults on women were not uncommon. Highever’s prevailing attitude was one of scorn towards elves, though that didn’t mean the shems didn’t still want to use them. It had never been like this, though. The audacity of that bastard! The guards’ complicity wasn’t surprising… they were city guards, and the arl’s family owned the city, but that Vaughan could just walk in here and believe he could treat them this way— Nelaros had never felt such a seething fire of anger and hate burn in him, and it was hate.

He’d been raised to avoid that word. To say you hated shems was to polarise yourself from your people. Yes, everyone hated what they did, the things they said… but those things were the things that had always been there. They were the markers of the way life was. To say you hated the shems themselves was to admit you were prepared to fight, and that was just begging for a knife in the belly.

However, after what had happened today, the word tasted sweeter than it ever had before. Nelaros was almost surprised at the anger in himself; the rage of so many pent-up, choked-back years.

He let Soris help him down off the platform—they both seemed so out of place there now, in their fine clothes, standing against the drab wisps of flower and coloured cloth, the trappings of celebration that had suddenly turned so dull.

Valendrian was holding up his hands as he addressed the uneasy crowd, pleading for calm and quiet. “Everyone, please…. Please, all of you, listen. I know you are upset, and with good reason… but there is nothing we can do right now.”

Cries of disbelief and derision from many of the elves were met with shouts of support from others. One woman—thin, with black hair and a wide brow, pale amber eyes narrowed—jabbed an accusatory finger at a man who’d called out against the hahren.

“No, he’s right! You hold your tongue! Running after them will just make matters worse.”

“So we do nothing?” the man demanded. “They took my sister!”

Nelaros moved forwards, trying to attract Valendrian’s attention. There was a look of intense weariness in the old man’s eyes.

“Elder, where are the women? What happened?”

The hahren shook his head, reaching out to take Nelaros’ arm and draw him aside, away from the argument brewing in the crowd.

“They were taken to the arl’s palace, I believe. Normally, I would counsel patience—and I do believe we can only risk trouble by acting. Unfortunately,” Valendrian added, lowering his voice, “stories about the arl’s son and his appetites are… most disturbing.”

Nelaros frowned. “What kind of stories?”

Valendrian’s mouth twisted uneasily; he was clearly unwilling to speak, already fearing he’d said too much. He shook his head, but Nelaros grabbed his sleeve, bunching the fabric in his fist. It was a disrespectful action towards an elder—something he’d never ordinarily have dared to do.

In the crowd, the first punch was thrown. Shouts of anger and derision echoed across the square as a couple of men struggled with each other. Some women wept, others yelled, and one old man who sounded close to tears—the father of one of the bridesmaids—kept wringing his hands and moaning in a high, faint wail that nothing could be done and they should “hope for the best”. Shortly after that, he began to pray.

“Elder,” Nelaros prompted. “Please.”

Valendrian let out a terse sigh. The human—the Grey Warden—stood nearby, in the lee of one of the houses, clearly trying to listen in without making his presence any more obvious than it already was. Cyrion stood at the hahren’s shoulder, and the look on his face bore its way into Nelaros’ heart. There was anger there, and disbelief, mixed with a kind of hard blankness that, at first, he didn’t understand. It was as if this horror was almost familiar to the man, and Nelaros didn’t know how he could seem so calm.

“Last year,” Valendrian said quietly, “the blacksmith’s daughter worked as a chambermaid in the arl’s palace. Local children found her washed up under the docks. She’d been… well… Vaughan had had his way with her.”

“That’s right,” chipped in a grey-haired woman whom Nelaros had seen speaking with his bride earlier. He didn’t know if she was related, but anger burned in her face nonetheless; she certainly had none of the willingness he knew from Highever to leave others to their own problems. “The servants all said that Vaughan had his men bring her to his chambers—”

A man Nelaros assumed was the woman’s husband leaned in beside her, finishing the gruesome tale. “—and then when he was done with the girl, she was killed and disposed of. The garrison said she died later, but we all knew better.”

He spat on the cobblestones, scowling darkly. A few other elves who had moved into the conversation took up the cry, and the story of the blacksmith’s daughter seemed to be suddenly remembered. At once, the entire alienage started to ring with tales of outrage, the anger fuelled by drink, emotion, and gossip.

“Don’t be fools!” the black-haired woman shouted. “Be quiet, or you’re all going to bring another purge on us—you see if you don’t!”

Valendrian winced. The atmosphere was deteriorating quickly, and it was obvious that he wouldn’t be able to keep a lid on it for long. He shook his head again, seeming resigned this time.

“Vaughan has never been so bold before, but with Arl Urien away, who knows what he thinks he can get away with? I… don’t see we have much choice.”

“No!” Nelaros recoiled, appalled. “We can’t just leave them there! We must… we must do something, surely? Can’t we, I don’t know, go after them?”

Soris—still looking such a fool in his gaudy wedding clothes, so at odds with his pallid, terrified face—shook his head fervently. “I know how you feel, but what are we supposed to do? We’re talking about the arl’s palace. Even with Arl Urien and his knights gone, it’ll still be guarded. How would we even get in? And it’s not like that bastard will just let them go if we ask nicely….”

“Then we won’t ask,” Nelaros said, drawing himself up. He knew the words coming out of his mouth were madness, but all he could see was Valora’s frightened face, and his bride falling to the floor under a human’s fat fist. “Someone has to do something—or are you all such cowards?”

He raised his voice, much to Valendrian’s displeasure, and the words had their desired effect. The elves in the crowd stopped scuffling with each other, and a more violent argument broke out over whether any kind of rescue attempt should be considered.

“Is it worth it?” one young man asked, fear written broadly on his face. “If we do anything, the guards will come. They’ll take it out on us. Is it worth more of us suffering? He might not hurt them, and—”

“You wouldn’t say that if it was your sister!” shouted another boy, while an older woman weighed in, shaking her head.

“No, he’s right! It’s like Elva said: if we do anything, it’ll be another purge. Who here didn’t lose family in the last one? We don’t want to risk that again!”

“That’s what I say!” the first elf agreed, to a chorus of jeers and derision. “What? I’m just saying, they’re not the first girls to catch a shem’s eye. I know it’s bad, but—”

Nelaros stared at the man in disgust, unable to believe there could be people so willing to embrace their blindness, so eager to clutch their cowardice close to them. And yet, for every elf that shouted him down in anger and outrage, there was another who took his side. Nelaros hated it, yet he knew the logic all too well. Why should these people risk their safety—risk the safety of their entire alienage—for the lives of a handful of women?

His stomach turned at the thought of what those girls might suffer. Not just indignity and violence, but the twisted pleasure of a shem who enjoyed their pain. He couldn’t bear to think of it, to think of Valora and the others at the mercy of that monster.

Just as the argument seemed locked in irreparable stalemate, one young man in a grey tunic bowed nervously before Valendrian, hopping anxiously in an attempt to catch his attention.

“Elder? Elder… may I offer a suggestion?”

Valendrian looked testily at the elf. “What is it?”

“I work inside the palace. I could sneak one, perhaps two others in through the servants’ entrance. Nobody would notice an extra couple of elves looking around.”

His words almost went unheard in the din. Nelaros couldn’t tell from Valendrian’s face whether the hahren thought the idea was worthwhile, or if he just wished the boy hadn’t spoken at all.

He took the opportunity to push forwards, locking gazes with the elder, demanding to be heard. He wasn’t from here, he wasn’t a son of Denerim… if they wanted to resent him because he wouldn’t let this outrage pass, then let them.

“I will go! Elder… elder, I will go. They took my bride—I want a chance to get her back.” A ragged chorus of voices shouted him down, called him foolhardy and rash, but Nelaros repeated himself. “Let me try! Let me at least try… don’t make me stand here like a coward! Come on! Who among you would rather stand up to these bastards than stay behind, wringing your hands and saying ‘nothing can be done’ while you let that fiend rape and murder your women? Is not one of you a man?”

“All right!” Valendrian glared at him. “You’ve said your piece, child. That’s enough!”

The air in the alienage positively boiled, though Nelaros was too angry to see more of the crowd than a smeared mix of faces, their expressions contorted by rage and fear. Some of the women called out in support, while others tried to hold back their men. The boys who’d been hitting the ale hard since the morning were full of bravado, shouting about shemlen getting what they deserved. Valendrian scowled at Nelaros.

“You’re not helping the situation,” he muttered.

“He’s right, Elder,” Soris piped up, much to Nelaros’ shock. “Someone has to do something and… and if Nelaros is going, I’m going too.”

That was an unexpected contribution. Nelaros looked at the boy in surprise, but opted for nodding gratefully rather than questioning how he’d come by this sudden burst of bravery.

Valendrian sighed. “Do you know what you’re saying? If the women are there, it’ll mean a fight.”

“Yes.” Cyrion nodded, his face solemn. “I hate to say it, but that’s true.”

He hadn’t spoken out in the argument. Nelaros looked quizzically at his almost-father-in-law. “Do you believe someone should go after them?”

The old man still had that strange blankness in his expression. Nelaros couldn’t tell if it was shock or some old, worn-in kind of fear. Cyrion shook his head, his eyes half-hooded, though his words were firm and even, pitched low as snake strikes.

“Of course. If I could take up a blade, do you think I’d still be standing here?” His jaw clenched, his lips twisting, and Nelaros saw how very, very like him his daughter was. Cyrion let out a breath. “Ah… I saw the purge, child. I saw women with babies at their breasts pushed back inside burning houses, while the humans laughed. My wife was cut down by a guard in the marketplace, for speaking out of turn. I know what it would bring, if we tried…. But….”

He stopped, the words suddenly growing thick as his emotions broke through the barrier of his normal reserve. The hahren put a hand on his arm, and Cyrion lowered his head.

“My little girl,” he murmured, staring down at the cobblestones. “My girls….”

Soris wrinkled his nose. “Well… I bet Merien’s not giving them an easy time. That is, if they haven’t— I mean—”

He stopped abruptly, and the old man’s face shifted between fear, sadness, and anger, a roiling of emotions passing across his normally staid features. Cyrion caught Nelaros’ eye and looked momentarily guilty, as if remembering his etiquette would keep him from weeping.

“She—”

“Knows how to handle a blade,” Nelaros finished dryly. “I heard.”

Cyrion gave him a weak, apologetic smile. “You understand? We, uh… we didn’t want to seem like… troublemakers.”

His voice grew thin as he spoke, the last word a ghost on his breath, and his grey-green eyes caught a look of utter, desolate heartbreak. The hahren patted his arm.

“All right. Fine. Then it is settled. You boys know what it is you seek to do?”

“Yes, Elder,” Nelaros said, straightening his back. In truth, he wasn’t at all sure this was a good idea… but it was better than leaving the fate of those poor girls in the lap of the Maker.

He looked at Soris, who was positively ashen-faced and staring at his feet. The boy nodded, not looking up.

“We know what we have to do,” Nelaros said, speaking for them both—because if he didn’t, who would?

The Grey Warden moved forward then, earning himself stares and spiteful whispers from the assembled elves, though not one of them actually dared to say anything outright. Nelaros wasn’t surprised; the human carried a sword and bow on his back, and a dagger at his hip, and he moved with a carefully controlled grace that said he knew just how to use them all.

“If this is what you intend,” he said, inclining his head respectfully towards the hahren—not a thing Nelaros had ever seen a shem do—before he turned to bridegrooms, “then you will need weapons. Allow me to offer you my own blades. A man should be able to defend his loved ones properly.”

Nelaros didn’t know what to say. Everything seemed to be moving so fast. The things he’d said in anger were now propelling him forward on their tide, and he was afraid of the places they would take him… but the faces of the women—of Valora, and of his own bride—pushed him on. He couldn’t back down now; it was too late.

Valendrian nodded, and the Grey Warden began to unfasten his weapons. Soris blinked owlishly at the human, wetting his lips with a nervous tongue.

“Couldn’t… Elder, couldn’t Duncan could go for help? They’d believe him, wouldn’t they? He’s a Grey Warden, a human. Someone would—”

Nelaros shot him a disparaging look. “Go where? The guard?

He wanted to say more, to tell the boy that, if he was that afraid, he should stay here… but he found himself unwilling to make that wound, and afraid that if he pushed too hard Soris wouldn’t come with him after all.

If he was going to do this insane, ridiculous thing, Nelaros wanted to do it with company.

The Grey Warden shook his head as he passed across the weapons. “I’m sorry. Trust me when I say my intervention would cause more problems than it would solve.”

Nelaros arched a brow as he took the long, elegant dagger from the man’s hand. A human would say that, of course. Still, the weapons would help. The dagger was a very bright, shiny metal, and it glimmered in the noon light, as if its surface was slicked with oil. He’d never really used one before. Carrying anything more than a dinner knife brought trouble in Highever.

He gave the Warden a nod of thanks, and looked at Soris trying to work out how to hold a sword that was almost as long as his own leg.

“Well, it seems your path is set,” Valendrian said, eyeing them doubtfully. “I pray the Maker looks upon it with favour.”

“You’re all insane!” the black-haired woman shouted from the crowd. “The guards will burn our homes down around us! They’ll kill us all!”

The hahren held up his hand. “Enough, Elva. You’ve had your say. They shall try, for their own honour and that of the women. We must trust in the Maker.”

Nelaros gritted his teeth. Perhaps Highever had just been a little light on religious instruction, but he didn’t remember there ever being a time in his life when trusting in the Maker had been enough.

On the other hand, what other choice did they have?


Chapter Six


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