The Golden Ring: Chapter Four

Nelaros meets his bride-to-be. She isn’t entirely what he expected… and he’s a little worried about the knife-wielding.


Cyrion Tabris seemed a pleasant enough man. Rather old, very traditional, and somewhat hidebound, in Nelaros’ opinion, but amiable enough. He greeted them cordially, his manner with Soris that of a quietly kind but mildly exasperated father… a better guardian than the boy could have reasonably expected to have, Nelaros thought.

With Nelaros himself, Cyrion was the soul of politeness. He shook his hand, inclined in a slight bow, and told him he was welcome to his new life.

“This is our little home,” he said, gesturing with one arm to the small but neat room behind him.

There wasn’t much of it. The place was smaller than the house Nelaros’ family had rented in Highever, though of course there had been more bodies to house there, and his brothers’ wages had enabled them to have the luxury of three rooms.

Here, a large stone hearth dominated the space, with a large table and a few wooden chairs in front of it. The table was pitted and clearly well used, though—like the front step and the door into the cottage—it had been scrubbed clean enough over enough years to bleach it. Cooking pots, dishes, and a few bits of cheap crockery stood neatly stacked on another small table, ladles hung overhead beside a few bunches of dry, twiggy looking herbs. Even the woodpile was neatly stacked, and the walls—while uneven and obviously faintly damp—looked as if they were whitewashed religiously every year. He was surprised to note a couple of shelves on the walls, ostentatiously displaying a handful of small wooden carvings and a few books, but recalled the pride with which Cyrion’s letters had stated his daughter could both read and figure tallies a little.

So… an educated bride. Nelaros looked around the room for traces of her, but found only neatness, the clutter of life tidied carefully away; presumably by someone who worked very hard at keeping it this clean. He supposed it could be worse. At least she’d always know where his boots were.

Towards the far end of the room, a small screen hung with cloth indicated the sleeping arrangements, and Nelaros did his best not to think about tonight, and the inevitable embarrassment of having the entire alienage process him and his bride back here for the… deed.

The slightly sad stiffness in Cyrion’s expression suggested he wasn’t entirely comfortable with circumstances either, though of course it was what would happen. It was a part of life. Of course, Nelaros supposed it didn’t make it any easier when that particular part of life was happening to one’s own child.

The man tried to make gentle conversation, though neither of them really had much to say to the other, and Nelaros was fairly convinced that the purpose of the entire exercise was for Cyrion to size him up. He could feel those grey-green eyes skimming carefully over every aspect of his appearance, and was sure Cyrion was forming opinions about him… particularly about his hair, which he imagined the older man would, judging by the elders back in Highever, find a cause for either derision or shock and pursed lips.

Boys were supposed to keep their hair short until they married. After their transition to adulthood, the cultivation of a braid—or something like the shoulder-length fall of grey hair Cyrion wore, with a small braid at each temple—was considered respectable. Why or how this custom originated, Nelaros had no idea but, like many of the other young men in Highever, rather than choose to be subservient to it, he’d made the tradition his own. He took pride in just how short his hair was cut, shaven close to his nape and feathered in carefully around his ears. Back in Highever, it had been quite the smart thing to do, and the girls certainly liked it, however much the old people tutted and mumbled about vanity.

He supposed it would be different now. Everything would change, and he wondered how well his new life would be suiting him by the time a pale golden braid hung down his back.

He didn’t bring up what Soris had said about his betrothed’s knife-wielding. If they were going to be family, it seemed foolish to begin by breaking confidences, and it wasn’t as if it mattered now, anyway. There was no getting out of this.

Nelaros fixed a polite smile to his face as Cyrion went through the list of things that would have to be done, fussing over Soris’ arrangements for wedding clothes, and lists of people with whom he would have to speak.

The old man appeared to take it all in his stride… evidently the plans were all ready established, and their early arrival had caused neither problems nor offence, of which Nelaros was glad. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help feeling slightly concerned. There was something in how neatly the preparations had been made that felt redolent of the well-washed kitchen table, bleached to paleness over the years.

He hoped his new life was not going to be so vigorously and relentlessly scrubbed clean, his own self wrung out and stretched across it like a washday shirt.

~o~O~o~

The morning passed with a degree of awkwardness, as Nelaros and Valora found themselves shuttled between the hahren’s house and parts of the square, alternately being kept out of the way while preparations commenced, and introduced to members of the community. The wedding was evidently going to be talked about for some time; every family in the place seemed to have turned out for it, and most of them wanted to shake his hand. Quite a few of the alienage’s women looked Nelaros up and down and then suggested more than a handshake, but the impropriety was accompanied with a lot of laughter… the ribaldry the day demanded, he supposed. Still, he did enjoy the attention.

For part of the time, Valora had been whisked away into the centre of a large pack of women, headed by the hahren’s sister. When he met up with her again, Nelaros suspected she might have been crying, or at least stifling her tears. She looked flushed, as if the attention had been too much, and she seemed pleased to see him; glad of the familiar face, he guessed.

She had been dressed and made ready for the ceremony, her hair combed and fancifully braided—though still not really flattering her face—and she wore a long, demure dress in a light shade of green, with a high neck and full sleeves to show off the drape of the fabric. It looked well on her, he had to admit, lending her a little more shape to complement her quiet but natural grace. If only she could get past the mousy shyness, she’d be well on her way to becoming a woman.

“So?” he asked, in one brief moment of quiet in the hahren’s parlour. “Your groom. What do you think of him?”

“Oh!” Valora turned her head away, her eyes downcast, though there was a slight smile on her lips. “He seems… nice. Don’t you think?”

She glanced up quickly, and Nelaros saw how eager she was for approval, for validation of the possibility that Soris might be the thing she hoped for more than anything: a kind man. All thoughts of teasing her about her clumsy, inept, gawky betrothed withered away, the words turning to sand on his tongue, and Nelaros merely nodded.

“I’ve had the chance to speak with him a little. He seems a good sort. I think he’s impressed with you,” he added, hoping the lie might smooth the little mouse’s first hours of married life. “And the family look to be pretty close. I’m sure it’ll be just fine.”

Her cheeks were already turning pink at his fibs, and she looked shyly at him, even when decency already had her covering her mouth with her hand.

“Is he? Did he say—? Oh! No, I don’t want to know….”

Nelaros chuckled gently to himself and shook his head, wondering if his bride would be so easily flustered.

It wasn’t long before the day took on an air of intense festivity, helped in no small part by the ale barrels that were cracked open. Someone gave him a flagon of cheap ale that smelled faintly of honey, clapped him on the back, and wished him luck, and Nelaros—as he had begun to feel was his permanent expression—smiled weakly in thanks.

Whatever else was true of Denerim and its alienage, the community seemed solid. They did indeed have an orphanage; something Valora hadn’t yet stopped talking about, her pink-rimmed eyes wide as she told him what she’d learned. Children taken in, given bed, board, and any instruction the visiting Chantry sisters were able to provide… and the sisters did visit the alienage, what of that? There were motions towards charity here, and kindness, and all manner of things that had never happened in Highever, and yet Nelaros was sure his old home had never seemed a mean or unfeeling place.

He wondered if that was because it had been all he’d ever known. Maybe Valora felt differently. After all, her life would surely have been better if she’d been born here. He could see the thoughts of that written on her face: a city where an orphaned child could find care and acceptance, more than the begrudged specks of kindness from extended family. Did she resent the fact she’d missed out? He had no idea. Part of him wondered if the little mouse was capable of being truly angry about anything.

Outside, the sky was a brilliant blue, still glimmering with all the happy memories of Midsummer, and the celebrations that he’d known would be his last with his family. They had made the time special, and Nelaros treasured it. As he looked up at Denerim’s crowded skyline, pierced by towers and crenellations, he tried to tell himself there would be other Midsummers, and other good memories. Everything he’d experienced here so far should prove that, right?

It wasn’t long until Soris returned, bearing a bundle of clothes and with a gaggle of drunken boys in his wake, and Nelaros had to let himself be joshed and busied through the rigmarole of dressing for his wedding, along with the other prospective groom.

Valora blushed, giggled, and left them to it, casting a curious glance at Soris as she went.

Nelaros tried to keep a smile on his face as he donned his ivory shirt and dark green blouson, pretending that he couldn’t remember his mother and her cousins working on the thin rows of delicate stitching all spring. His calfskin boots had been a gift from his father, and the fine wool hose from his brothers. Every item of clothing had meaning to it, and he wished they could have seen him as he stood, wearing the full ensemble for the first time. It would have been considered bad luck to try it all on at home, but it felt odd to wear it here, among strangers, and to keep smiling politely through the boys’ catcalls and jeers over how handsome they said he looked.

There was much bantering over Nelaros’ blue eyes and blond hair, his height and his good legs, and how every man in the Denerim alienage was going to have to watch his wife… or, perhaps, how Nelaros would have to bar the door tonight, in case of drunken and frustrated wives clambering in to find him.

He laughed, brushing away the idiocy, and backing Soris up when a couple of the boys made play of the fact Merien Tabris had, all things considered, done better for herself than a girl like her had reason to expect.

“Hey!” Soris frowned. “That’s my cousin you’re talking about.”

“I d’n mean no disrespec’,” the chief offender—a thin young man with pale brown hair, whose name Nelaros thought might be Raonin—said, swaying very gently. “We all know her, but… she’s not exactly a looker, Soris.”

“She doesn’t look like your bride!” one of the other boys piped up, only to be quickly hushed. “What? I’m jus’ sayin’, she’s not got that overbite. Meri might look like a plough horse, but at leas’ she don’t look like a rat.”

Soris thumped the lad in the arm, playfully but none too gently. “All right! That’s enough out of everybody. A woman’s more than her beauty, and… they’re both… pretty,” he finished lamely, sounding deeply unconvinced.

Nelaros, perhaps because of the ale, or perhaps because of the occasion, had forgotten to rise gallantly to Valora’s defence, and felt momentarily bad about it, though he was still a little stuck on ‘plough horse’.

“Well, if you’re ready,” Soris said, straightening out the bottom of the truly awful parti-coloured doublet he was wearing, “I suppose I’d better go and find the bridesmaids. And the brides. I think Shianni was looking after them. I hope she didn’t get anybody drunk….”

And he scampered off ahead, looking pinch-faced and worried, as if he was perhaps aware how terribly his dreadful yellow-and-red wedding ensemble clashed with his hair.

Nelaros sighed, and stepped out slowly into the sunshine.

~o~O~o~

There was some sort of commotion in the square. He was too far away to see how it started; the place was getting crowded, presses of people filling up the cobbles, and the noise level was rising steadily as the crowds got drunker and more excited. Somewhere, someone was scratching out a cheerful tune on a fiddle, and a handful of dancers were clapping time.

Nelaros squinted against the light, trying to see where Soris had gone. On the far side of the square, past the vhenadahl, a crowd had gathered. He heard something that sounded like the smash of pottery, followed by raised voices, and a sudden silence from the fiddle player.

“That doesn’t sound good,” he remarked, looking to the other boys.

For all their brashness before, they were suddenly remarkable by their silence, each of them looking studiously at the sky, the cobblestones, or something incomparably fascinating on a distant wall.

Nelaros rolled his eyes and looked at Raonin, who was the tipsiest of the group and therefore the slowest to hide his gaze. The boy’s pale blue eyes bugged desperately, and he shook his head.

“Wh…what?”

“I said, that doesn’t sound good. Sounds like an argument brewing or something. Shouldn’t we—?”

The boy shook his head violently and pointed in the direction of the crowd. “No! Can’t you see ’em? They’re shems. We get no good from shems comin’ here. We should stay out of it.”

“But Soris is—”

“He’ll duck and he’ll run, like usual,” one of the others said, shaking his head—and still putting on a good show of being interested in the cobblestones. “Don’t worry about him.”

Nelaros frowned. So, Denerim did know how to be like Highever, after all… although, in his experience, humans never bothered to come into the alienage, not even on days of merriment like this. They scorned the elves, mocked and derided the alienage, and their casual cruelty was well known, but they never polluted themselves with actually setting foot in an elven place. To do would have been to openly admit its existence; that elves lived there, and existed as more than the servants of temporary shemlen whims.

He squared his shoulders, preparing to stride across the square and take on whatever band of ruffians had wandered this way from the docks, but—before he got halfway to the source of the commotion—Nelaros was almost knocked flying by a redheaded elven girl running past him. He took in little of her but a very pale, freckled face, a panicked expression, and a strong smell of ale.

There were other women present in the crowd; the bridesmaids, he gathered from their finely stitched dresses. Each of them seemed to have hoarded every scrap of silk, chintz, or fine lawn she could find, and they were a patchwork of colours and beautiful embroidery.

He saw Valora nearby, standing on the edge of the crowd with some of the womenfolk who’d attended her before, her hands clasped in the sleeves of her dress and her eyes wide with patent fear.

A couple of boys gathered in the direction of the market gate let out drunken shouts and, as Nelaros looked towards them, he saw the shems who’d caused the disturbance: one being carried away his fellows. It looked worryingly like he was unconscious.

“Is everybody else all right?”

Nelaros turned at the familiar voice, and saw Soris—pale as a full moon, and sounding rather shaky—glancing around the group, evidently trying to smooth over whatever in the Maker’s name had just happened. He looked terrified, though next to his unruly copper thatch and dreadfully gaudy wedding clothes, he could hardly help but seem clownish. His bright blue eyes sought Valora out, his gaze loaded with desperate questions, and Nelaros wondered if he wasn’t seeing the first stirrings of a love match between the unfortunate couple.

The demure little flower lowered her eyes, the perfect picture of feminine grace. “I think we’re just shaken,” she said, with surprising calm. “What was that about?”

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….”

Nelaros’ chest tightened. Arl’s son? That was both unexpected and unfortunate, to say the absolute least. All right, Denerim was the capital, but was it truly so loaded with nobles that they floated up in every gutter? Highever’s gentlefolk barely soiled themselves with anything outside the castle, or perhaps the hunting lodges and country houses that were said to lie beyond the city. An arl’s son in an alienage was unthinkable… and what in the Maker’s name had been done to him?

The thoughts ran riot in Nelaros’ head as the semi-distant fiddle player resumed his song, but he was forced to put those ponderings aside as Soris turned to the girl beside him, taking her arm and making an awkward little bow as he cleared his throat and presented her to his mouse.

“Uh, Merien, this is Valora, my betrothed.”

Nelaros stood quite still. Ah. So, this was his bride. Valora was smiling prettily at her as they exchanged greetings, and he had a moment’s opportunity to see the girl from a few feet’s distance, that initial impression searing itself into his memory. She didn’t look like a knife-wielding maniac, so that was probably positive.

She was fairly tall for an elven girl, of a height with the shorter kind of human, though he didn’t see all that much of the ‘plough horse’ in her build. She was reasonably shapely, if somewhat thin. She wore a skirt sewn with dark green silk panels, and a top piece cut low on her shoulders, the bodice and wristlets decorated with an intensely intricate embroidery that must have taken months. Her boots were square, practical things… a little muddy, though in general she was as neatly turned out as the house she kept.

Her hair was brown. Not deep chestnut or honeyed golden-brown, just… brown. It fell to just above her shoulders, and he was struggling to find anything else to observe about her appearance when she turned to him, her gaze meeting his for the first time.

She looked dumbstruck… and then nervous… and then embarrassed.

“Er. This must be Nelaros,” she said, then winced slightly, as if she’d just heard the obviousness of the statement.

One of the boys elbowed him in the back, shoving him forward. He could hear the sniggers behind him, but he didn’t care anymore. It was too late for that. Her voice was low and she seemed well spoken, which was, he supposed, something. He’d been desperate to avoid a shrieking fishwife. Even so, the girl who looked back at him was not all Nelaros had hoped for.

Merien certainly wasn’t exactly what he would have called pretty… in fact, she bordered on the unfortunately plain. Her neither-dark-nor-light-brown hair was straight, combed flat enough to look lank, and parted right down the middle with unflattering severity. A heavy fringe obscured most of her forehead, leaving thick dark brows visible over heavy-lidded, deep-set brown eyes. Her mouth was rather wide and her cheekbones were narrow and low, while her chin and jaw were both thick and square, leaving her whole face with a somewhat blunt, unfinished look, saved from mannishness only by the leanness of her cheeks.

And then there was the nose. It was… noticeable, there were no two ways about it. Thin at the bridge, descending in a tremendous cragged slope to a rounded tip, it dominated her face. It was clearly her father’s legacy: side-by-side, or, rather, nose-by-nose, Nelaros was certain those two organs would be indistinguishable. She didn’t have Cyrion’s colouring, though. As if the brown eyes and the brown hair were not brown enough, like Soris, her skin was heavily freckled, though not with his redhead’s delicate pigmentation. Her freckles were darker, liberally mottling her skin from face to hands, neck, and arms… Maker’s breath, they were probably everywhere! Nelaros’ thoughts skipped inadvertently to the wedding night to come, and he realised glumly that he would find out soon enough.

Still, she did have a passable figure… apart from being almost entirely flat-chested. He could have wished for a better bosom, he thought. Or any bosom at all, come to that. If it hadn’t been for the slenderness of her waist and the saving grace of some delicacy in her shoulders, her form would have been boyish. As it was, she was the skinny side of shapely—the kind of all-over thinness that a lot of alienage girls had: an elven sort of narrowness, born of hunger and hard work, instead of a naturally sylph-like grace. Her ears weren’t bad, he supposed. A little large and heavy, but they suited her face.

He remembered his manners, despite the feeling of disappointment that sent his stomach sinking, and forced himself to smile.

This was the woman with whom he would be spending his married life, Nelaros told himself. He might as well try damned hard to make a good impression; it would make things easier in the long run.

“A pleasure.” He let his smile broaden into his most charming grin. “Soris has said much of you. Some of it was even positive.”

Merien raised an eyebrow, then turned to glare at her cousin.

Soris shrugged guiltily. “What? Well, you know…. I just wanted to give him a sporting chance to run. Anyway, I, uh… I’m sure the two of you have much to discuss. Valora, shall we…?”

He held out an arm, ushering his betrothed away, and allowing Nelaros and his bride-to-be the arguable comfort of a few moments’ introduction. Such a thing was traditional, of course, though Nelaros wondered at the uselessness of it, especially when, once the wedding was over, they would have more than enough time to make uncomfortable small talk together. Maker, that wasn’t all the awkwardness they would have to share, either.

He smiled weakly, and tried not to dwell upon what would come later. Not that he was necessarily averse to sampling the delights of the marriage bed, but… well, Merien was hardly a devastating beauty, and he couldn’t quite shake the thought of her with a knife in her hand. Was that what the business with those humans had been about? Nelaros was still curious about that little interlude… Merien seemed curiously calm about it, and he wasn’t sure he trusted a girl who failed to be afraid of shems.

He realised he was still smiling fixedly at her, and that he couldn’t think of a Void-taken thing to say.

She smiled back at him. She had a very self-conscious kind of smile, he noted: lips pressed together, as if she was either trying too hard to seem demure, or stifling her real amusement… or maybe she was just hiding bad teeth.

After a moment, their shared smile bubbled into uncomfortable, tongue-tied laughter. It felt forced, and Nelaros’ heart beat quickly, as if urging him to find some escape.

Strangely, it was Merien who broke the silence.

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

She had a pleasant enough voice, though now he heard a few flat Denerim vowels in it. He groped for a reply, managing to make his mouth move and even marshalling words that didn’t sound too awkward.

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

“Ah.” She nodded thoughtfully. “Well, that’s… that was good. Um. I, uh, I hear you’re a talented smith. D’you think you’ll want to look for work at one of the forges in the city?”

He blinked. That… that was actually an intelligent question. He looked into her dark eyes, and thought about all the things that had been in those letters, and all the things the marriage broker had said.

It was probably true: a good wife, who could keep a home and be the helpmeet her husband needed, was worth more than any pretty girl. Nelaros wondered if the person he saw looking back at him in that moment was such a woman, or if he was being blinded by his own foolish hopes.

He smiled again; smaller this time, but more genuinely. “I don’t know. Perhaps. I’m… well, I’m happy to do whatever I need to make a good life here. With you.”

Merien’s freckled cheeks turned slightly pink, and she lowered her gaze, though even in that gesture she somehow didn’t seem as demure as Valora.

On impulse, Nelaros reached into the pocket of his tunic and took out the small scrap of cloth that held the gilded band he’d made: that small, simple, yet precious masterwork of his that had taken so much time and effort. Unfolding the cloth carefully, Nelaros revealed the narrow golden ring, polished to a low sheen. He held it out to show her.

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

She smiled, and he thought she looked truly pleased. “It’s… beautiful.”

She was probably overwhelmed. Nelaros pocketed the ring again, and wished he could think of something else to say. Merien cleared her throat.

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

Nelaros arched his brows. She asked a lot of questions, though he supposed that was probably preferable to a girl who stood in mute and awkward silence, waiting for him to do all the work.

“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.”

He hoped she might take the hint and tell him something of the altercation with those shems—the Void-taken arl’s son, of all people!—but she just looked a little consternated, her gaze sliding to the side as she chewed at the inside of her lip.

Then, she blinked and looked back at him again, evidently trying to steer the conversation away from that path… albeit with the subtlety of a brick wrapped in a wet cloth.

“Nervous?” Merien blurted.

Nelaros looked at her for a moment, this square-jawed, flat-chested, skinny girl who was to be his wife.

“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, trying hard to ignore his hammering pulse. Merien looked uncertain, and then she lowered her gaze, her thin fingers worrying at a loose thread of embroidery on her wristlet. He watched the way her lashes shaded her cheeks, and tried to imagine her smiling properly… laughing, even. She looked like the kind of person who did laugh and smile, and that made him feel strangely as if he was the one who was lacking.

Maker… did she not find him handsome? Was he so dreadful to behold?

Nelaros had not expected to be assailed by those worries, and yet he was. He found that he wanted her to like him. Perhaps not to fawn over him with flirtations the way some other girls did—after all, what a man wanted in a wife was different to what he sought in a good time—but he wanted them to be good together. He wanted them to be happy, and he wanted to do right by her, and by all the decisions that the elders had made on their behalves.

This was supposed to be a good match. It could be a good match, he felt sure. Couldn’t it?

Merien still had a strangely stiff kind of air about her, he thought; the standoffishness of a girl too polite to admit to discomfort. He found he wanted to see her full of warmth and happiness, instead of this awkward kind of obligation. Maybe he’d frightened her. He wasn’t sure. She didn’t seem like most of the girls he’d known in Highever, although that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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

She looked up at him, looked deeply into his eyes—and that was something few girls did, in his experience—and he thought for a moment that she looked awfully sad, though it wasn’t the sadness he’d seen in Cyrion. That was the regret of a father losing his child to maturity. This was something different, something full of worry and nervousness for the future, and Nelaros sensed she was truly afraid.

“I….” she began, faltering into silence. Then, she smiled, and it seemed warmer than before. “I was until I saw you,” she said quietly, and Nelaros’ heart swelled a little.

He smiled, proud to think that he’d helped her feel braver, and determined to follow through and forge the best foundation for their new life that he possibly could.

“I’ll spend every waking moment learning to make you happy,” he promised, his voice low and earnest.

She blushed then—a real, deep flood of colour in her cheeks—and looked at her feet. He smiled to himself. Maker, if this was a sign of things to come, she was going to be easy to please. A few sweet words and she’d be blown away… and why not? A girl like her had probably never had the time of day from a man before.

Nelaros supposed he rather liked the thought of it. He was the prince to her captive swan—or perhaps duckling, in this case—and he would make her happy. In turn, she would please him, and everyone would be settled.

They were well-matched after all, and they could certainly be happy. He felt more convinced of that now.

All that remained was to make the last preparations, and take their places upon the wooden dais, waiting for the ceremony to begin.

For the first time since leaving Highever, Nelaros actually felt more optimistic about that.

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Chapter Five
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