Nelaros and Valora arrive in Denerim.
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The city was more overwhelming than Nelaros could possibly have expected. Outside the gates, hordes of traders, travellers, carts and horses jostled, and a dozen different smells battled on the air, mostly surpassed by the scents of dung and grime, horses and oxen, along with the sharp, overpowering odour of human sweat. So many humans… people, everywhere.
Denerim was so much bigger than he’d expected. It was hard to even take in the entirety of the city’s silhouette, rising up against the sky, encircled by bulging, ancient walls from which life spilled like the runnels of wine from an overflowing cup.
Nelaros stared at everything, trying to drink it all in. Crowds of people, other carts, other traders, all pressed close as they made their way through the gates, and the irritable guards began to call for orderly lines and waited turns.
The merchant in whose wagon they sat hissed a breath through his teeth and muttered in annoyance. Nelaros glanced at Valora, who looked predictably terrified. Highever had its busy times, but even market day wasn’t as crowded as this, and the alienage very rarely saw such bustle at all. She caught his eye, and he gave her a small, comforting smile. The sunlight glinted on her pale brown hair, and she looked so small… so vulnerable.
He felt oddly angry in that moment. It didn’t seem fair that she should be here like this, sent away with so little. Both of them, in fact, had been given a raw deal; this half-weight wedding party, with no broker, no relatives to accompany them. They had merely been tossed on the cart like feed sacks, packed and sent away, their dowries pocketed and their lives signed over with no second thought.
That was nervousness talking, of course. Nelaros knew better than to question the way things were done—the way they had always been done—and he was aware that this sudden surge of resentment stemmed from fear and nothing more. And yet, as he stared up at the bulk of the capital, squatting against the sky, it seemed as if he and the girl really had been abandoned… shunted off to this new place with no foothold of familiarity, no care for their fears or worries. She had no one: no father or brother to speak for her, not even a cousin to stand by her, and no broker of her own. There was little to no dowry at all, as Nelaros understood it, but whatever had been paid had gone straight to Hahren Sarethia. He knew his groom-price had been gratefully received by his parents—and he’d never expected anything different, because they had other children to settle besides him—and, in truth, he was glad to be doing something that helped them. He couldn’t stay in Highever indefinitely, expecting them to support him. Much better to face his new life boldly and become a man, secure in the knowledge that these first steps into his future would bring comfort and peace to his family.
He missed them, of course. The weight of that had sat heavily on his heart since he left… since the first day the marriage was brokered, in fact, but it only felt real now. For the first time, Nelaros was truly aware of how it felt to know he would most likely never see his parents again. Never see anyone he’d known, nor set foot in any familiar street or building.
Knowing it as a fact—as he had known it would be since he was a boy, unless a girl was found to come to Highever—should have prepared him, he supposed, and for a long while he’d believed it had. He’d believed he was ready for it, adjusted to it… but now the whole cold weight of that truth seemed to open up around him, baring him to its undeniable existence, and it hit him harder than he’d ever expected it would.
Of course, it was impossible to say anything. It would have been wrong to try and discuss it with Valora—cruel, when she had no family of her own to miss—and, in any case, he had no desire to show his weakness in front of her. He had preferred to think instead of the new life ahead of him, and all the possibilities and potential pit-falls it contained. But now… now, as the cart eased through the crowds and brought them through the immense, towering gates of the city, fear took hold of his heart and squeezed.
The city walls were thicker than Nelaros had believed stone could be. Feet of it, solid and ancient, broken only by the gates, which were made of wood so old and grey it seemed like stone itself, studded with iron braces and nails each the size of a fist. He couldn’t imagine the kinds of horrors such barriers were intended to keep out although—with the silhouette of Dragon’s Peak casting its weighty shadow over everything—it was hard to keep pictures of fire-breathing monsters out of his mind. They said dragons were back, didn’t they? Seen over the Frostbacks, like a terrible memory from a dark time.
Maybe it was a sign that the world was going mad… or just that it was ripe for change. He couldn’t tell which.
The city guards—a handful of rough-looking shems in splinted leather armour, with iron helmets unfaced on their heads, each wearing either a bored or resentful scowl—gave the cart a cursory inspection. Valora was practically shaking to start with, overwhelmed by their entrance into the city, and she almost yelped aloud at the incursion of the men, their broad, gloved hands rooting through the sacks and crates amid which she sat. Nelaros caught her eye with a hard stare, warning her silently to remain still and quiet. She must have understood, for she tilted her chin down, turning her pointed little face toward her lap and lowering her gaze. She held her hands tightly folded in her sleeves, but he could still see them tremble.
The guards let them pass without trouble, though the merchant still seemed irritable at some perceived delay. He deposited Nelaros and Valora not far inside the gates, at one of the busy thoroughfares clogged with carts and pedestrians trying to make their way between the market and the road.
“Well?” the shem demanded, glaring at them. “Go on! Get going. I don’t have all day to babysit a pair o’ damn knife-ears. You’ve had your ride, now go.”
Valora was clutching the two leather bags she’d brought from Highever—her trousseau and every worldly possession she owned, which was apparently even less than Nelaros—and she stood with her lip wobbling and her fingers digging into the bags as he unloaded his trunk from the back of the cart.
“Which way to the alienage?” Nelaros asked the man, only to be rewarded with a sneer and a vague wave towards the north side of the thoroughfare.
“Eh, follow the stink,” the merchant grumbled. “Go through the market, you’ll find the gate.”
Nelaros would have thanked him, but he wasn’t sure he could trust himself to be polite, so he hauled the last of their baggage—his baggage, he supposed—down from the cart and ushered Valora away. She held her bags to her as if they were a cross between precious children and a protective shield, her eyes wide and her narrow lips slightly parted as she stared at the seething mass of life that flowed around them.
Denerim was larger than either of them had anticipated. Dustier, too. Dirtier, smellier… the aromas of several street food stalls collided on the air as they made their way towards the market, and it was soon met by the smells of smoked meats and cheeses on traders’ barrows, not to mention the exotic perfumes and strange goods that merchants had displayed on their stands.
The market square spread out much further than Highever’s. There, the traders were licensed by the castle, and most of the livelier shopping was associated with the fairs that were held every couple of annums. Here, it seemed as if every market day was Midsummer, and the traders’ stalls all appeared to be in competition with each other to put on the brightest, most impressive show. Valora squeaked, drawing close to Nelaros at the sight of one stand—set up in the lee of a great multicoloured awning from which hung strings of bright flags—manned by a large, bearded human standing guard over a cage that contained a live bear.
Nelaros was torn between disorientation and awe. It was different than he’d expected; impressive, certainly, but it all seemed so wild and disorganised. He began to worry what kind of people the Denerim alienage might be home to, and his concerns were compounded when a woman called out to them from the end of a cheesemonger’s stall.
“New in town, handsome?”
Nelaros winced, aware of Valora’s wide-eyed presence at his elbow, and turned to the source of the voice. She was pretty: a tall elven girl with long, wavy, reddish-brown hair that hung down her back, skin the colour of honey, and pale lavender eyes. Her smile was altogether too wide and too free, however, and she wore a sky blue dress cut like a human’s, puffed and ruched at the sleeves, bust, and hips. She made a fine figure in it, true, but not a respectable one, and there was nothing remotely respectable about the appraising glance and flirtatious smile she threw Nelaros’ way.
“We’re looking for the alienage,” he said, eyeing what looked like dabs of rouge on her cheeks. “I have our travel papers—”
And that was a stupid thing to say. She wasn’t interested in those. He felt his cheeks begin to pinken and, predictably, the girl laughed. She was missing one of her upper teeth, and the rest of them weren’t too good, though he doubted it detracted much from her charms… especially for the shemlen she probably entertained.
“You won’t need those unless the guard stops you,” she assured him, shaking her head and leaning on the wooden ledge of the trader’s stall, exposing an ample cleavage and shapely shoulders as she nodded towards the far side of the market. “Gate’s over there. Past the tulip sellers. Can’t miss it. Don’t worry… it’s open until sundown. Valendrian’s house is just around the corner—you’ll spot it from the open door.”
“Uh… thank you.” Nelaros nodded gratefully, feeling just a little guilty for the way his judgements of the girl seemed to echo inside his head with the sound of his mother’s voice. “Thank you, uh…?”
“Selira,” the girl supplied, grinning. “Selira Naris. I live over in the third ward, by the north gate. You here for that big wedding? Cyrion Tabris’ girl?”
“Ye-es….” Nelaros shot a look at Valora. Selira hadn’t even acknowledged her presence, but the little mouse didn’t seem offended. If anything, she looked terrified by the girl.
Selira nodded, rolling her eyes. “I thought so! Everybody’s talking about it. Quite the show. Still, it’s a free party, right? Finally, that family does something for the rest of us…!”
She might have said more, but the cheesemonger returned from whatever errand he had been running, and greeted her with a scowl and a shake of one meaty hand.
“Selira! I don’t pay you to stand around gabbin’! Back to work. And you! Clear off! Bloody knife-ears….”
Nelaros half-expected a thrown stone or a threat to call the guard, but the shem seemed content with a muted grumble, so he relaxed a little, easing his grip on the luggage he carried, his heartbeat slowing just a fraction. Selira winked at him as he began to shepherd Valora in the direction she’d pointed.
“Maybe I’ll see you around, handsome!”
Nelaros grimaced. He rather hoped not although—if his bride turned out to be as hideous as he feared from the broker’s ominous silence—perhaps he’d wish for a wife who looked like that, even if she was of dubious reputation.
He pushed the thought from his mind as soon as it settled there. Ridiculous, of course. No man would want to marry a girl who dressed like Selira, no matter how pretty she was. Highever had plenty of girls willing to show a man a good time, and he’d learned early the distinction between that and a potential wife. No, better a respectable girl he could trust, if their marriage was to be worth any kind of vow at all.
Nelaros glanced at Valora. Her eyes were like saucers beneath her heavy fringe, her mouth still set into that half-open look of stunned surprise.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
He did genuinely feel sorry for her and, Maker take it, he had rather come to like her in the time they’d spent together… but he was still looking forward immensely to the point at which he would no longer feel responsible for her. Nelaros was tired, and eager for nothing more than an end to the journey, and maybe a little rest before the preparations for the wedding began.
Valora nodded timorously. “Oh, I’m fine. Thank you. We should find the hahren, shouldn’t we?”
Nelaros hefted his trunk and bags, and squinted across the cobbled square to the alienage gate: a tall slice cut into the walls of the buildings that overlooked the square—the garrison, maybe?—and across which a heavy portcullis had been raised. The curfew ran from sundown to dawn, then… that was reasonably lenient. He’d heard of much worse. A ragged collection of stalls fringed the gate, and he recognised their kind. They weren’t the same as the merchants’ stands, which were each set to leased plots. These were rickety, temporary attempts at trade: elven women, either young and unmarried or old and widowed, all selling gloves, flowers, embroidery… the safe and acceptable forms of employ for those without trade or family.
There was something familiar about the sight, though it wasn’t entirely comforting. Everything in Denerim was different—even the streets were laid out wrong, set purely to confuse him—and Nelaros was surprised by how much the sight of the gate trade tables made him ache for home.
He wasn’t going to show as much in front of Valora, of course, so he straightened his back and nodded towards the gate.
“Come on. Let’s find our way, and then we can get settled.”
She nodded fervently, scurrying along at his side and still clutching her bags like they would protect her from the world, while Nelaros scanned the faces of the women setting up their wares.
For all he knew, any one of them might be his bride… and that thought terrified him far more than he’d imagined it could.