Nelaros ventures in search of his bride. It is not a good day to be a hero.
The elf who had promised to sneak them into the palace met them at the north gate of the alienage. He said his name was Talwyn, and he had all the good looks and graceful manners that Nelaros had associated with castle servants back in Highever.
Several years ago, when he was a very young boy, his mother had tried to get him a lowly place in the teyrn’s service. He’d been considered presentable enough: he was personable, had good posture, spoke well, and could be taught the etiquette expected of an elven servant to the gentry. He hadn’t wanted to do it, however, and his father had quashed the notion, declaring it was better that a young boy learn a trade.
Better learn how to supply shems with the basic things they needed, he’d said, rather than rely on their goodwill and how pretty they thought you were.
Nelaros supposed maybe he’d learned his prejudices from his father, but he shared the revulsion he remembered hearing in the old man’s voice, even if he’d not identified it as that at the time. It was true, wasn’t it? Elves as servants were little better than animals performing tricks: applauded for their grace and charm, but given no respect. When they aged, like Cyrion they were cast out, no longer wanted by their masters. The injustice of it made Nelaros dizzy if he thought about… and he thought about it more, in the short walk to the north gate, than he ever had before.
Thought upon thought piled up in his head, beating like a hundred drums inside his skull. He and Soris hid the borrowed blades as best they could inside their clothes—pulling on baggy tunics Talwyn supplied to hide their wedding finery—and they followed him across the back streets of Denerim, cutting across the narrow lanes and cobbled side roads to reach the pretty part of town.
The nobles’ estates sat close enough to the market to allow access to the finest and freshest goods, but far enough away to avoid the smells and noises. Beyond the chantry’s tower, their tiled roofs stretched out to fill the sky, and their fine gardens and courtyards made tranquil oases in the midst of the city.
The arl’s palace lay at the top of the city, the jewel among jewels, though they didn’t see the fine approach to the main gates, full of trees and neat pathways. Talwyn took them in through a side gate, passing along the same runs at the foot of the walls where gardeners’ boys and servants hurried on their errands.
Nelaros glanced up at the sky, and it still seemed so blue, so beautiful. The flowers were blowsy with the just-past glories of midsummer, and the air smelled sweet. His pulse was racing, his palms damp with sweat, and his head hummed with the madness of what they were doing. The borrowed dagger tucked into his waistband was warming against his skin, and when Nelaros looked at Soris, he saw every fear of his own mirrored and magnified in the boy’s face.
“Are you ready to do this?” he asked gently. “Cousin?”
Soris turned those wide, pale eyes on him, managing a small, loose nod. “I guess. This is… overwhelming.”
He reached out, clutching briefly at the fabric of Nelaros’ borrowed tunic, acknowledging the gesture he’d made in calling him kin, despite the fact it wasn’t yet official, and Nelaros saw his own thoughts echoed back at him. If they were exceptionally lucky, they would make it back to the alienage, and enough of this day that should have been so joyous would be preserved that the weddings would go ahead, and they would be cousins. Heroes, too, Nelaros told himself. Saviours.
He swallowed hard and looked at Talwyn as the elf drew them to a halt by a rank of bushes not far from a side door. A gravel path led around the massive bulk of the building, the high walls fringed with pipeworks, carvings, and—further up the edifice—glass windows that sparkled in the sunlight. Nelaros had never seen Castle Highever up close, but there seemed to him no difference between that great cragged shape that had dominated his hometown, and the arl’s equally imposing estate.
It reeked of shemlen, and the anger that had fed every word he’d shouted in the alienage congealed in him, souring his mouth.
“Do we get in through there?” he asked, pointing to the heavy wooden door.
Talwyn nodded. “That’s right. It won’t be locked at this time, though there’ll be a guard posted inside. Don’t worry about him—he’s usually either drunk or sleeping. If he wakes, just tell him you’re on your way to the kitchens… they’re that way, to the east of here.”
Nelaros looked where he pointed, trying to see anything beyond the wide shapes of the walls. This architecture was foreign to him, too big and too complex. Soris had his arms wrapped around his middle, trying to hide the shaking of his hands.
“W-where will we find the women?”
Talwyn shrugged. “Don’t know. The family’s chambers are to the north, so if they’ve been taken to his quarters they’ll be there. Stick to the service corridors and you should have no trouble getting by unseen. After that… I don’t know.”
Soris nodded miserably. “Right.”
Nelaros felt ashamed of all the uncharitable thoughts he’d had about the boy. He looked terrified, and yet he hadn’t run. There was a potent kind of bravery in that… though Nelaros hoped he’d be able to swing a blade without cutting off his own foot.
“Will we get any help in there?” he asked, jerking his head towards the door.
Talwyn didn’t look convinced. “Maybe, but don’t think every elf you see is a friend. Plenty of bootlicks would sound the alarm just for a pat on the head.”
Bitterness laced his voice. Nelaros nodded, wishing for a moment that he’d not been so judgemental of those who served the shems. He silently promised the Maker, if He was minded to be listening, that—if this madness could come out well, if they could just get the girls away before anything awful happened—then he’d never make an arrogant judgement again. For the rest of his life, Nelaros promised, he’d be kind to his father-in-law, faithful and gentle to his wife, he’d even donate a portion of his wage to Denerim’s damn orphanage… he’d do everything right, if only this attempt succeeded.
“All right,” he said, tapping Soris on the arm. “Let’s go.”
“Good luck.” Talwyn smiled weakly. “Keep your wits about you.”
Nelaros nodded. “You sure you won’t come with us?”
The elf paled, shaking his head quickly. “I’m… sorry, no. No, I… I’d do more harm than good. I— I can try to distract the next guard patrol that comes by, but… I can’t go in there. I’m sorry. Good luck,” he said again, already starting to step backwards, as if he couldn’t wait to run from this place.
Nelaros stared at him for a moment, wondering at the kind of bravery that let a man help them get this far, then disappeared like a fart in the wind the moment the danger became real.
He understood it. If it hadn’t been for the thought of what lay in there—for the memories of how he’d protected Valora on the journey from Highever—he’d have liked to turn back too… but he couldn’t do that.
He had no choice; not if he ever wanted to be able to face his own thoughts again.
It was easy to get past the guard; he was slumbering drunkenly, just as Talwyn had said.
Soris and Nelaros crept through the passageways, trying to look as if they belonged there. It was no easy task, when everything was polished stone and improbable opulence. Soris gawked at the carvings and tapestries on the walls, and Nelaros knew he was no better, staring at every little detail they passed. So many bright, rich colours. Outside, the estate had smelled of horse dung and flowers. In here, great painted vases held more blooms, and thick furs and carpets warmed the floors. Torches lined the walls, and great glass-paned windows lit the corridor from above, dusty shafts of light falling down in a way he’d only ever seen before in the big chantry building in Highever.
It should have been beautiful, but it was hard to see that amid the reality of the reason they were here.
Soris mumbled a little bit under his breath as they walked. Nelaros was fairly sure he heard part of the Canticle of Trials. He offered up another silent prayer to the Maker as they poked through endless hallways, hoping they were still following the route Talwyn had described.
Nelaros struggled to pick out recognisable functions for the rooms they passed: there were small chambers that seemed to be for the guards—perhaps the nobles liked to keep their watchdogs out of sight—and storerooms, and rooms that seemed to have no purpose at all except decoration.
“We’re lost,” Soris whispered, staring at a huge tapestry that depicted war hounds in battle.
“No we’re not,” Nelaros insisted, heading determinedly towards yet another hallway. “It’s this way. I’m sure of it.”
In truth, he was feeling less sure of everything by the second.
They ducked into a storeroom at the sound of a commotion at the end of the hallway, straining to make out what was happening. Nelaros’ heart lurched as he heard doors slam, female voices raised in fear and anger… and the brusque replies of male guards.
“Tie the last one,” a voice barked. “She’s the scrapper. Bloody knife-ears….”
Soris widened his eyes, his mouth slack. Nelaros nodded, mouthing a silent instruction and pointing to the end of the hall. The women were there… or at least some of them, but there was no sense in two untrained boys rushing the guards, even if they were occupied.
He started to wonder which of the girls was the “scrapper”, and quickly realised the shem must have meant Merien. Nelaros felt foolish for not thinking of that at once. Had she found a way of getting hold of a knife or something? He hoped she hadn’t given them cause to beat her too badly. At any rate, if she could fight, at least she’d be able to help them. Three against however many guards there were was a better set of odds than two, and it was surely promising that the women didn’t seem to have been taken to Vaughan yet… wasn’t it?
Soris was already beginning to move, compelled by the knowledge his sister and cousin—not to mention the others—were close by. Nelaros caught his arm, holding him back against the wall until the sounds of struggle and rough male voices grew fainter. Soris glared at him: the first time he’d seen true heat in those soft blue eyes, Nelaros realised. He put a finger to his lips and, when he spoke, kept his voice to the barest whisper.
“Go get her. I’ll watch the hallway. We’ll go after the others together.”
Soris nodded, clutching Duncan’s longsword in his sweaty hands. The tip of the blade almost dragged on the flagstones.
Nelaros gave him a shove in the back, and they crept from their hiding place, moving around the corner into the hallway. Doors led off into other chambers—the Maker alone knew what was in them; as far as Nelaros was concerned, this damn place could keep its secrets—and flickering torches lit the whole stone corridor. Fewer tapestries lined the walls here… these were smaller rooms, meant for storage and the movements of servants. He assumed many of the storage chambers were for linens, and the corridor led to the quarters Talwyn had described, belonging to the arl and his family.
It was not uncommon for noble estates to have rabbit warrens like this inside them, Talwyn had said; the wealthy didn’t like to see their servants in action, and it always helped to have a quieter route to move whores and mistresses through.
It sickened Nelaros that those bastards should bring the women here, moving them like goods via the back stairs, though what human ever regarded an elf as more than an object, a piece of meat?
He drew the Grey Warden’s dagger out from under his borrowed tunic and shifted the thing in his grasp. The blade glimmered as he turned it, catching the torchlight in its surface, and showing him narrow slips of his own frightened face. He looked away, lowering the dagger and instead moving across the hallway, trying to see which way the guards had gone.
One door stood open, and Nelaros peered through the gap, seeing more storage spaces and shelves, some of the linens and boxes within knocked awry. Another door led off the room, and through it could be glimpsed a second, narrower and longer corridor. They must have gone that way, Nelaros thought, though exactly what lay beyond the small chamber he couldn’t guess. More labyrinthine corridors, he supposed, and more rooms en route to that bastard’s chamber. Who knew what was hiding there, or what they would find?
He turned on his heel, padding back towards the corner around which he feared more guards might wander. Surely Soris couldn’t take much longer. What was keeping him? Was Merien hurt? Had the guards—?
Nelaros pushed aside the horrible thoughts. He would have hoped that not being the prettiest girl in the wedding party might have kept her safe, but naturally it was no guarantee. The way that human had looked at her… the cruelty in his eyes had burned itself into Nelaros’ mind.
Soris had explained, vaguely, as they were making their way to the estate what had happened when the arl’s son tried to accost the women before—Shianni and her incident with the clay jug—and Nelaros supposed that explained the lengths Vaughan was prepared to go to for his retribution.
It was about saving face, exerting power… and power was the only thing that ever mattered for his kind.
Nelaros heard movement behind him. Finally! He turned, ready to greet Soris and Merien. This had hardly been an auspicious start to their life together, but maybe they could put it behind them. Maybe, just maybe, she might even think well of him for this madness… and he almost wanted to laugh at that. He would be her heroic husband, the man who stood up for her honour and her life. If they all got out of this alive, of course.
Nelaros had his mouth half-open to say they should hurry—if they could reach the others before the guards took them to Vaughan’s quarters, perhaps it would be possible to surprise the men, or strike some kind of deal, or… or something—but the words died on his lips.
Three armed shems stood in the hallway, and one of them was smiling at him.
“Well, well,” he said, his voice a low, menacing grate against the air. “Look at this, boys… we got ourselves a little rat. What’s the matter, knife-ears? You get lost on the way to the kitchen?”
Nelaros’ heart pounded too hard and fast for him to speak. He lifted the borrowed dagger, trying to strike an intimidating pose. The shem sneered, and the two behind him scoffed, their hands already on the hilts of their swords.
“Oh, come on. What you gonna do with that, elf?”
“Th-the women,” Nelaros managed, lifting the blade. “What have you done with the women?”
The guard ignored him, instead turning to his comrades. “See, boys? It thinks it can demand answers. They’re arrogant little buggers. They run in packs, too… I bet you there’s more of ’em scampering around, tryin’ to play the hero.”
“Should we take him to Lord Vaughan?” one of the others asked.
His captain snorted, hand on the pommel of his sword. “Don’t be stupid! You think his lordship wants to be bothered with this one when he’s got the company of them lovely ladies? Nah… we’ll deal with the little rat. Right before we get our turn at the party.”
The bright silver blade dipped and shimmered in Nelaros’ hand, catching the torchlight and the anger in his face. He had never felt so much hatred before—never truly known he was capable of such strong, violent hate—and yet he wanted these men dead, wanted their blood to run in rivers on the stones.
He heard himself shout, felt his body move as if it was something unconnected to him. There was no conscious decision, no moment at which he accepted what he would do. That seemed strange. His whole life had been so carefully considered—every choice weighed and balanced, brokered and discussed—and yet now he flew at the humans, propelled by the weight of fury and injustice.
The dagger glanced off the first shem’s splinted leather breastplate, but Nelaros kicked out at his knee, twisting and gouging as he came around for the next strike. He leapt back, away from the man’s first sword swing, and it angered him even more that the shem seemed to be playing gentle with him, teasing instead of tackling him properly. Even now, they couldn’t take him seriously.
Nelaros drove forwards, colliding with the man, shoulder-to-chest, and shoving the dagger deeply into the join between breastplate and hipguard. The shem yelled, and the atmosphere changed. Blood smeared the bright blade, and Nelaros believed he heard the cries of the women echo in his ears. His wife, his friends… they should have been his people. They were his people, and the bastards who dared defile them would pay in blood.
A fist connected with his head for the second time that day, and Nelaros spun, stars blurring his vision. He slashed at the first shem he saw, swayed away from the arc of a blade, and prayed Soris and Merien would join the fight soon.
It was not a prayer the Maker saw fit to answer.
Nelaros landed another few good blows, but it was three-to-one, swords to a single dagger, and he was unarmoured. The captain hit him in the back with the hilt of his sword—a hard, metallic punch that knocked the breath from him, sending a sheet of fiery pain shooting up his spine.
“Bloody knife-ear,” the shem muttered as Nelaros fell to his knees.
This was not how it was supposed to happen. This couldn’t happen. The others needed him… the women needed help.
Nelaros gasped as the sword pierced his back. It seemed strange that it felt more like an intense pressure than a sharp pain. Suddenly, everything was fire, ice, and agony. He saw the smeared blur of leather armour move in front of him, felt the smoothness of steel against his skin, and felt his throat flow red.
It seemed wrong. Not here, not this place. He didn’t want to die among the stones of a shem’s palace. It shouldn’t have happened this way.
The world drew in on itself, growing tight and muffled and, as the room began to swim and darken, Nelaros folded gently to the ground. His hand was pressed beneath him as he lay, face down against the flagstones, and he moved his fingers feebly, feeling for the outline of the ring in his pocket.
In that long moment, the golden ring seemed important. It mattered. His masterwork, the finest thing he’d ever made; made for her, that girl he’d never seen before today, and who he would now never see again. His bride, with the iron in her eyes and the close-lipped smile. He wished she could know he was sorry. And Valora… the little mouse. Was the mouse safe? Had she found a hiding place to scuttle into?
Nelaros closed his eyes, his cheek crushed roughly against the floor, his breath leaving him in one last, shallow rattle.
He felt the shape of the ring inside his pocket, and relief filled him at the knowledge it was still there… that narrow gilded band. Perhaps it shouldn’t have mattered so much. It was nothing important, just scraps of gold plastered over brass. A mirage, perhaps: a shiny trinket, but false all the same.
Not real, just a symbol of today. A thing that was meant to be taken for what it appeared to be—a golden ring, the promise of a life—and should never have any other meaning attached to it, never have that veneer scraped away, for beneath the gilding, there was no gold.
There had only ever been brass, covered with the pretence at something better. Given time, that wouldn’t have mattered, perhaps. There would have been a slow wear of years to imbue the metal with memories… the life that he and his bride would have shared, the children they might have had, the sweetness that could have been.
Perhaps it might have happened. But perhaps it had never been meant to be.
Perhaps, for his people, this was all there ever was.