Nelaros is dumbstruck by the enormity of Denerim. Some information about his new bride also makes an impression.
Denerim’s alienage was just as vast, chaotic and unwieldy as the rest of the city, and it came as a jolt to Nelaros’ senses. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected: something bigger than Highever, certainly, but this?
The place spread out on all sides, streets leading from streets, huge and sprawling tenements bundled up against the walls, interspersed with what looked like warehouses mostly run to ruin, and shambolic wooden houses that each sprawled over two or three floors. There were smaller properties too, distinguished by smart wooden shutters beneath their wonky roofs, and front steps that were swept spotless.
Here and there, buildings that were either in mid-repair—or, more likely, had fallen down where they stood and been cannibalised for timber and any useful fitments—presented their innards like half-carved meat, joists poking like bone through splintered, dismantled walls. The same cobblestones that paved the marketplace had been used on the alienage’s central streets, but they appeared to have been in disrepair for years, the pitted and chipped stones petering away under layers of mud and rubbish. Boards had been laid over the most uneven ground in some places, allowing barrows to be pushed more easily, and making picking one’s way through the chaos slightly less difficult. Stray dogs wandered the narrow alleys between the buildings, sniffing out morsels of food or considering chasing the odd skinny cat that slunk along the uneven roofs and gables.
Nelaros glanced up, amazed by the jumbled silhouettes of the city that crowded against the alienage walls. Denerim’s towers and rooftops stood dark against the pale, dawn-tinged sky, though the puffy, pink-hued clouds were obscured by the criss-crossed mesh of elven washing lines, strung from the upper storeys of houses and laden down with more clothing than he’d ever seen in his life.
It was more than a district, Nelaros decided. It was the biggest, most impressively crowded knot of life and bustle he had ever seen, so full of intricacy and colour. This was a city within a city… far more than Highever’s alienage had been.
Back ho— back in Highever, he corrected himself, the alienage was for the most part a pit: windowless timber shacks lining narrow, filth-caked streets, everything clogged with disease-ridden beggars and an overwhelming stink of fear. There, elves lived quietly, hoping to avoid the anger of humans, and while frustration frequently did break through the veneer of acquiescence—never leading to anything good for anyone—it was a shadow of a place, defined by the kind of hopelessness cultivated over generations.
It had its nicer parts, he supposed; many families didn’t actually live entirely in abject squalor, and the community was tight-knit, but the very fact they were few in numbers made it an oppressive environment. There was nowhere to run if trouble flared, and feuds invariably erupted between families, which Hahren Sarethia could do little to arbitrate effectively.
Nelaros had never known any other hahren than her and, now he was away from the city, a sneaking part of him felt liberated at being allowed to air thoughts he would once have quashed. Sarethia was a bitter woman, thin and worn at the edges, with sallow cheeks and hollow eyes, and all her favourite stories were about the suffering of their people. The elves of Highever held her as their wisest and brightest leader, and her intelligence was obvious… but he had often suspected it was the very thing that made her so sour. She knew better than most how little was open to them, and she took no comfort in the old ways and superstitions to which so many of their kind clung.
He could only imagine how disdainful she would have been at stepping into a place like this. Yes, it was far from opulent—the very air still said ‘alienage’, heavy with the smell of dirt, decay, and poverty—but it was so full of life!
He watched a small pack of grubby children burst of out an alleyway, almost colliding with a woman who carried a bundle of laundry on her hip. She scowled at them and cuffed the nearest child on the back of the head.
“Gaa’rrrn!” she snapped, in what would prove to be Nelaros’ first direct experience of Denerim’s famously hard, flat vowels. “I know your mother, Nethis Sennon! You whelps watch what you’re about, now, or you’ll feel the flat of her hand when I tell her!”
There didn’t seem to be much genuine heat in the warning, and the children pelted away in a shower of grinning faces and dirty knees, while the washerwoman shook her head and carried on her way. A few men in rough tunics and leather jerkins were heading grimly in the opposite direction; they had the look of dockers, and one had a blurry tattoo on his arm… something Nelaros had always considered a rather human tradition.
He looked at Valora, expecting to find her cowering timidly, and was a little surprised to see the enthusiasm that shimmered in her eyes as she stared at everything around them.
“Isn’t it amazing?” she breathed, actually smiling at him for once. “I never thought it would be so… so big! Oh…! Oh, Maker! Look over there!”
The delight in her voice seemed powerful enough to physically carry her forward, and she took several steps past him, still hugging her luggage to herself as she cooed in wonder at the sight of the alienage’s main square.
It was, Nelaros had to admit, impressive. The square lay just along the street from the market gate, the old cobbled road less broadening than spilling out into an expanse of packed dirt, gravel, and whatever cobblestones remained beneath the muck. A large dais stood to one side—plain wood, like the one they had in Highever, though much bigger—from which the hahren no doubt addressed his people. Ramshackle wooden buildings fringed each side of the square, though what had drawn Valora’s attention was the jewel that stood at its centre: the vhenadahl.
The great tree stretched up well beyond the height of the walls, its boughs twisted with age but its leaves thick and green, still in the height of their summer gloss. In the early morning air its colours were muted, but its size and presence remained undeniable… just as undeniable as the effect it had on him.
Nelaros stared at the tree. Back in Highever, their vhenadahl had withered. It had happened a long while ago. Hahren Sarethia was not a sentimentalist, and she had disparaged the stories and metaphors that were supposed to twist through the roots of the great tree. She called them foolish, called the vhenadahl itself little more than firewood, and so the tradition had never been replenished. He hadn’t thought much of it before and, in truth, Nelaros did not feel suddenly struck by the beauty of vhenadahl as a symbol of anything… although it was a beautiful tree. It reminded him of his errands to the coppicers for his old master, and of those sneaking moments when—just for a few seconds—he had wondered what it would be like to flee into the forest and leave his life behind him.
He wondered what Valora thought when she looked at it. Perhaps she imagined it an omen of fresh growth and wonderful possibilities. He hoped so; he wanted to believe in those things himself.
“Well,” he said, prompting her to collect herself and shoot him a look of slight embarrassment, her face still flushed with uncharacteristic glee, “shall we find the hahren’s house?”
Hahren Valendrian’s house was at least easy to find: a blessing, given the sheer size of the alienage. It stood to one side of the square, door open, just as Salira had said, and it was one of the most palatial elven dwellings Nelaros had ever seen. A wide house with low ceilings and a large stone hearth, it looked to have about three rooms, including a space at the back dominated by a selection of cooking pots and a tiny bread oven.
A woman with a loose bun of grey hair and heavy-lidded amber eyes introduced herself as Nera, the hahren’s sister, and told them he would return presently from his business at the orphanage. She seated them on wooden chairs at the front of the house, beside an unshuttered window that bore panes of waxed paper, and offered them food and drink.
The journey had been long, and they thanked her eagerly, though Nelaros couldn’t wait for her to bustle away and fetch them some breakfast so he could catch Valora’s attention.
“‘Orphanage’?” he whispered, raising his brows.
“I know!” Her golden eyes were wide as pennies again, her face full of excitement that almost seemed to outweigh the apprehension. “Do you think that’s really…? They have an orphanage here? For elves?”
Nelaros shook his head incredulously. If it was true, it was marvellous. In Highever, there were neither the resources nor organisation for the alienage to care for its most vulnerable, however nice the idea might have been. Children were precious—especially when families like his, with multiple offspring, were uncommon—but, if their parents died, they became the responsibility of whatever remaining relatives or friends were prepared to take them. In a place where feeding the mouths families already had was hard enough, there was no other provision for the desperate, even if beggary was their only alternative.
Nera brought them cups of weak tea, thick slices of brown bread with a little mousetrap cheese, and half an apple each, and they ate and drank gratefully. As he chewed, Nelaros
He wondered if the Chantry had helped at all in founding Denerim’s orphanage, or if the stories were true and there really were elven families in this alienage who had a small amount of wealth. His bride’s father had certainly been very generous with coin so far… maybe it boded well for his new life in this community.
Valora cleared her throat, sitting up straighter in her chair, and Nelaros glanced up to see the man he took to be the hahren arriving, wiping his boots carefully as he stepped through the door.
Nera went to greet him, and Nelaros heard her explaining in hushed tones that he and Valora were the entirety of the wedding party. She seemed concerned and disappointed that there were only the two of them, but Hahren Valendrian hushed her, patting her arm gently.
She didn’t look all that placated, but she bustled off back to the rear of the house nonetheless, and the hahren came to greet them, a smile on his face.
He was an old man—or he looked it, with grey hair and deep wrinkles—but he seemed spry and strong enough in his body and his movements that he could have been younger. Nelaros supposed a lifetime of responsibility for a place like this would have an aging effect on anyone. His smile seemed warm and genuine, but didn’t look like something he did often, judging by the deep troughs across his forehead, and around his nose and mouth.
“You are most welcome, children,” Valendrian said, “even if it is a little earlier than we expected.”
“Oh?” Nelaros cleared his throat. “My apologies, elder. We meant to cause no inconvenience, but—”
“No, no, not at all.” The hahren lifted a soothing hand, silencing him. “As a matter of fact, I think this will be most… fortuitous.”
Nelaros frowned, curious as to what the old man meant by that. Valora had defaulted to her scared mouse pose, her gaze lowered and her hands clasped tightly around the glazed cup still half-full of tea. He couldn’t tell whether she’d thought that choice of words was odd or not, but… ah, who knew?
“I don’t think it will take much to bring the ceremony forward,” Valendrian continued, his expression growing thoughtful, as he was calculating possibilities and numbers in his head. “No… not much at all. Of course, that would be preferable, I’m sure you both agree. It’s either that or finding somewhere to board you in the meantime, and I am afraid we are not overburdened with options that are, uh, suitable.”
Valora looked up quickly at that, apprehension in her wide amber eyes. “W-We didn’t mean to cause trouble, elder,” she said, in a voice softer and more tremulous than duck down blown on a strong wind.
Valendrian smiled again—perhaps it was something he did often, despite his first appearance—and shook his head.
“Not at all, child. Please, don’t worry. I merely want to make sure your welcome to our community is proper. If we can bring the ceremony forward—say, to this afternoon, if Mother Boann is willing—we can make sure you’re settled as quickly as possible. I think that’s best, don’t you?”
“We do it today?” Valora squeaked, apparently forgetting a little of her timidity.
She looked positively panicked. Nelaros was tempted to laugh, but quashed the impulse as best he could. Not to mention, what was this talk of a Mother? Did the Chantry really officiate elven services? Nelaros filed his surprise away for later, opting to acquiesce rather than question the hahren.
“Well, it happens sooner or later,” he said, giving Valora a small, encouraging smile. “Best jump in with both feet, no? And of course if the hahren says it’s wise….”
He nodded respectfully to Valendrian, who returned the gesture with an inclination of his head.
“I admit,” the hahren said, amusement playing in his tone, “the whole alienage is looking forward to the party. I believe a few of Adaia’s people—your bride’s late mother—have arrived to pay their respects, and the Tabrises are well known locally. You won’t want for guests. But… I’m sure you’ve had a long and difficult journey. You’ll want a rest before the excitement begins.”
Nelaros and Valora exchanged glances.
“Whatever you think best, elder,” she said demurely, returning her gaze to her tea.
Valendrian nodded, as if thinking something over to himself, and moved to the open door, peering across the square. “At least, if Cyrion agrees, you two won’t have to wait out the time in one of the bunkhouses. Yes, I think it’s preferable for everyone. Ah… there, you see? The Maker smiles on us with good fortune—I see your bridegroom now, my dear.”
Valora nearly choked on her sip of tea, turning wide-eyed and even more nervous than before. Nelaros couldn’t really blame her but, all the same, he found he was looking forward to all of this being over, and the possibility that matrimony might help the girl start to grow a backbone.
Valendrian leaned out of the door into the warm summer air, calling across the dirt-packed square. “Soris! Soris! Oh, for the Maker’s— Yes! You! Soris, come here, child.”
Nelaros waggled his eyebrows at Valora encouragingly. She winced, but he stood up, offering her his hand. “Come on. Let’s go meet your groom, shall we?”
She gave him a look that, if it had come from any of the girls he’d known in Highever, would have been scathing. On her, the same expression was a little like being hit gently with a soft, wet cloth.
As they moved to the door of the hahren’s house, Nelaros saw a young man with a shock of jaw-length red hair jogging across the square. He caught sight of them—of Valora, mostly—and stared awkwardly, the moment of realisation colliding with movement and, mid-stride, he then proceeded to nearly fall over his own feet.
“Oh!” he exclaimed, his arms outstretched for balance as he righted himself. “Oh… uh… um. H-hello.”
Nelaros fought hard against the urge to laugh. The boy must have been close in age to him, but he seemed much younger. He was an ungainly youth, no longer gawky or attenuated, but still less than graceful, and he had a face like a heavily freckled potato. His wide blue eyes—a very sharp, pure, elven blue—were framed by lashes and brows so pale as to be virtually invisible, and his expression morphed quickly from one of surprise to one of out-and-out fear as he evidently realised who they were.
“Oh, my! You’re the… you’re the wedding party, aren’t you? I— oh, Maker, I didn’t realise…!”
Nelaros bit his tongue, hard. Yes. The perfect match for poor, timid Valora.
“I am Nelaros,” he said, as evenly as he could manage. “This is Valora.”
He extended a hand, drawing the girl forward to present her to her new husband as graciously as possible… a tall order, when she was quaking like a mouse and staring at her feet, and he had turned pale as milk and was moving his mouth like a fish.
“Uh…. I’m Soris,” the prospective bridegroom said, finally finding his voice. “It’s, um, nice to, uh… nice to… see you. Meet you. Here. Uh….”
There was a note of panic in his voice that Nelaros supposed—if the roles were reversed and he had just been presented with a bride who looked like a wet duck—he would probably have shared. Soris gaped hopelessly at him, at least until Valendrian took pity on the three of them.
“Soris, I want you to go to your uncle and tell him that the wedding party has arrived early, and that it would be in their best interests to bring the ceremony forward. He can come to me if he wishes to discuss the arrangements,” the hahren added meaningfully, as Soris’ mouth fell open and he started to say something that would no doubt have been a protestation of surprise and panic.
The boy’s shoulders sagged, and he nodded respectfully. “Yes, elder.”
“Good lad. Nelaros, you may wish to accompany him… present yourself to your bride’s father. Valora will have her own preparations to attend to, I’m sure.”
She didn’t look like she relished that idea, though Nelaros was familiar with what it would entail. The weddings back in Highever had always involved a high degree of fussing around the women: trousseaus, combing of hair, and a great deal of ribaldry about men and the wedding night, as far as he was aware.
It pained him a little that she should be so alone for her wedding morn. He imagined the hahren’s sister would have a coterie of women to help her, and it was all too easy to picture Valora getting caught up in the midst of them, but… well, Nelaros couldn’t help feeling for her. He’d grown rather attached to the little mouse since they left their home.
He wished her good luck with a smile, and obediently followed Soris back outside, into the warm, chaotic, crowded jumble of the alienage’s square.
Soris wasn’t that much shorter than him, Nelaros realised, though he walked as if he was perpetually stooping, perpetually ready to duck… or possibly fall over. And he talked. Oh, the talking. Since leaving Highever, he’d been used to Valora’s softly spoken words and long silences, but this boy apparently had no notion of how to be quiet. It was nerves, he assumed, once again amused at how the new couple would complement each other; his jabbering, her near-muteness, his clumsiness and her timid grace.
It made him wonder all the more intently about his own bride.
“…were really expecting more than just the two of you, I suppose,” Soris was saying. “Not that it’s— I mean, I don’t mean to be rude, but… oh, Maker, this isn’t coming out very well. Still, I guess it must have been a long journey. You were probably lucky you didn’t have to share the cart with so many people.”
“It was quiet enough,” Nelaros said; something he didn’t imagine his new life in Denerim was going to be. “Listen, uh, Soris… I admit, I’m curious. You’re my betrothed’s cousin, right?”
Soris nodded, his eyes wide and guileless. “Yep. My sister and I grew up with Meri. Her father’s been very good to us since our parents… well… y’know.”
He looked curiously at Nelaros, apparently needing further prodding in the way of dispensing information. Nelaros sighed inwardly.
“So… what’s she like, this cousin of yours? Really, I mean? I’d like to know more about her.”
Perhaps it didn’t really matter. The wedding would go ahead no matter what, and maybe it was foolish to dig for answers he might not like. Still, Nelaros couldn’t contain his impatience, especially when Soris was staring at him like a weak-eyed child.
“What, Merien? Oh… well, she’s…. You’ll like her,” he assured, grinning weakly as they picked their way over the duckboards and broken cobbles. “She’s very… sensible.”
“Sensible,” Nelaros echoed. “Ah. Right. Is she… looking forward to the wedding?”
Soris’ eyes widened fractionally at that word, like the panic of a man faced with a live snake. He wet his lips nervously. “Yes. Yes, I think so… I know she was very pleased to get it all settled, and, of course, she was happy not to be leaving the city. She always said she didn’t care what match she got, so long as she didn’t have to leave Denerim. Uh… I mean— I didn’t mean that the way it sounds,” he added hurriedly, wincing apologetically. “Uncle’s been telling her all kinds of good things about you, and I’m sure she’s very excited.”
A breeze picked at the air, bringing with it a selection of faint smells from the marketplace to add spice and depth to the alienage’s prevailing odour of mud and dirt.
“I’m… eager to meet her,” Nelaros said carefully. “From the letters, she sounds—”
Soris let slip a short, awkward laugh, then mugged frantically. “What? No! She’s…. Well, yeah, I bet you are. Heh.” He grinned again, looking embarrassed, and scuffed at the cobbles with the toe of his boot.
Nelaros arched an eyebrow. “Is she pretty?”
Soris snorted, laughter bursting out of him like spring thunder. “Meri? Uh… sure, yes. Fine, if you like a girl you can trust your friends around. Oh,” he added quickly, trying to catch the tail of the words, “I don’t mean— well, she’s not that bad. I mean, she’s my cousin, so I don’t think I’ve ever looked at her like that, but….” He cleared his throat, reaching up to run a sheepish hand through that tangled thatch of red hair. “Well, she’s no great beauty, but she’s not hideous.”
Not hideous. Right.
Nelaros sighed inwardly. This did not sound promising. He did his best to stay polite, and to not actually give in to the temptation to beat the truth out of the boy who would soon be his kin by marriage.
The summer breeze skittered along the uneven roofs of the squat houses with perfectly scrubbed doorsteps that lined the streets here, away from the square. It painted a very pretty picture of alienage life, to be sure; nicer than Highever, and the walls were tall and stout, standing between the community and the shems beyond.
It was probably going to be a nice place to live. People here seemed friendly, and they seemed to be a close-knit bunch, which boded well for making a life, but… in that moment, Nelaros felt profoundly homesick.
He missed his friends. He missed his old job, his family, and the fact he’d known the Highever alienage like the back of his hand. He thought of the coppices beyond the city walls that he’d never see again, the errands he would never run… and of his bride, who “wasn’t hideous”.
“She knows how to handle a blade, though,” Soris said thoughtfully. “So, you know, I guess that’s useful for something.”
Nelaros blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Oh… didn’t anyone tell you? Oh,” Soris said again, his mouth forming a circle of embarrassed realisation that opened and shut like a fish. “No… I suppose Uncle wouldn’t have. He probably didn’t want— oh. Oops. Uh…. Maybe you should forget I mentioned it.”
“Soris….” Nelaros glared at him, making the most of his greater height, greater confidence, and the fact he was an unknown quantity to the boy.
His soon-to-be-cousin flinched, as if he really did think he was going to have the information beaten out of him.
“I don’t know why he didn’t say anything! Her mother taught her, I think. Knives, daggers—that kind of thing. She can hold her own in a fight, anyway. One year, at Wintersend, when we were younger, I saw her hit a boy so hard she almost knocked his tooth out! Not that… that will probably have any bearing… on your marriage,” he added with a weak smile. “As long as you don’t annoy her. Which is hard to do, really… I mean, she has a temper when she gets going, sure, but she’s a good girl. Easy to get along with. Sweet-tempered, that’s the word. Mostly.”
“Mostly,” Nelaros repeated flatly.
Well, this was spectacular. His bride was a placid doormat, except when she was a knife-wielding maniac who brawled with men on feast days. He wondered if she was a heavy drinker, and if that was something else his new father-in-law had somehow forgotten to mention.
Marvellous. At this point, his future just couldn’t get any brighter.
Soris pointed shakily to a small house at the end of a row not far from the towering marketside gate, its front step scrubbed so clean it looked bleached.
“I’ll tell Uncle you’re here. He’ll be pleased. Um. Please don’t tell him I told you about the… y’know.”
He cleared his throat awkwardly and scampered off towards the house, leaving Nelaros to sigh wearily and raise his eyes to the heavens.