A letter, from Lace Harding, to her sister, Danica Harding, 9:42
I trust this missive finds you well, and I apologise that it has taken me so long to respond to your most recent communication. Mother and Father, are well, I hope? And how are the twins? By now you should have heard about the events in the Fallow Mire, and our victory, though at great cost to the Inquisition's forces. I cannot even tell you how grateful I am to have returned to Skyhold for the debriefing; weeks in the ceaseless rain have rather – dare I say it – dampened my enthusiasm for certain regions.
The less said about our encounters with the unquiet dead, the better. They were everywhere, sister, but we soon discovered that their appearance was tied in with our proximity to the water. By the time our Inquisitor arrived, we were well established, but her presence was a true comfort. Between her, The Iron Bull, the rather dashing Tevinter mage Dorian (yes, yes, I know you think I'm crazy for even saying that), and of course that Solas guy.
Well… Let me tell you a bit of gossip. You know the Commander's been sweet on our illustrious leader, right? It would seem that while she's away from Skyhold, she and … I don't even know how to phrase this delicately… Horrors upon horrors, the rain actually stopped one evening, and the party had returned from their geological survey. I had my break, and had felt the need to go for a walk – not far, mind you, because it's really not that safe.
So there I was, near an outcropping of stone, when I heard a murmur of voices. Curious as to who would be out there, I went to investigate – you can never be too careful – and who should I find but our glorious leader and, well, that apostate elf. Who would have imagined it, right? He's so bloody aloof half the time. Barely has two words to say to anyone unless it's a lecture about stuff that breaks your mind. He had her backed up against the rock and I'd never have imagined that he would care to kiss someone so passionately. Like a starved wolf!
Needless to say, I returned to camp immediately. Couldn't look either of them quite in the eye when they came back – separately I might add, and five minutes apart – but I caught them stealing glances at each other for the rest of the night. You know what they say – once a thing is seen, it can never be unseen. I don't have the heart to tell the Commander even though I've had plenty of opportunities (and he keeps on about my own lack of love life). I thought he and the Inquisitor were an item, but evidently there's quite a turbulent storm brewing beneath our Inquisitor's calm exterior. You won't breathe a word of this to anyone, right? Can you imagine the scandal? If he found out, it would break him, and he's been through so much already.
Other than that, I don't have much to report. Nothing new with regard to the continued liaison between Cook and Captain Trask. But there is an added complication. Did I tell you he got Felicity in the family way? Cook doesn't know yet, and there's going to be pitched battles in the kitchens once that comes to light. Not much longer now, and I'm not even sure Josie will be able to smooth that one over the way she honeys words for some of those Orlesian nobles. I hope I'm here to catch the juicy bits.
I promise I'll start writing more regularly now that I don't have to be in that damp place. Maker's breath, I'm glad that mission is over. I've lost two perfectly good pairs of boots to mildew.
All my love
"But I don't wanna be the Darkspawn again," Seith wailed.
Gerda, bigger than him, and with far longer arms, slapped his butt and ran away shrieking laughter with her sister Shey hard on her heels.
Giggles from atop the hay bales betrayed where Grayden had been hiding this entire time, and Seith spun to face his friend. "It's not fair! I always end up being the Darkspawn and you guys are always the Wardens!"
"Maybe if you ran faster you could also be a Warden," Grayden called down.
"There's supposed to be more than one Darkspawn in this game," Seith muttered, his chest tight with disappointment. It wasn't his fault he was the littlest of their group, and that he couldn't always keep up with his friends.
He'd have to start hunting Shey and Gerda in the meantime. Grayden would come down from the hay bales as soon as Seith was out of sight, and then Seith would have to keep looking over his shoulder, because Grayden loved sneaking up behind him to give him a fright.
Apart from the garden, where all the herbs grew in wonderful tangles, the Skyhold stables were Seith's favourite place, and when he was lucky, Stablemaster Gedling sometimes allowed him to sit astride some of the quieter mounts. He wasn't quite old enough to help grooming just yet. Another year, Stablemaster Gedling said. And if Seith ate all his vegetables like a good boy. Poo to the vegetables.
So long as they all kept away from the dracolisks and didn't get underfoot, Seith and his friends were welcome to run around and play to their hearts' content.
Seith sneaked into a passage where the tack and storage rooms were. It was his least favourite part of the stables, mainly because it was so very dark. The air here was dry, and heady with the scent of leather and alfalfa, and he didn't like going beyond the point where the passage turned a sharp left. However this was often where Shey and Gerda hid because they knew he hated that spot.
His heart felt like it was bouncing in his throat. If Gerda and Shey hid here, they were being rather quiet. The stone floor was cool beneath his bare feet, and wisps of loose straw slid across the gritty surface. Just a quick glimpse, and then he'd run back to where they stabled the Dalish all-breds, because there was one stall that was currently empty, which would make a perfect camp...
The shadows grew thicker, and Seith swallowed back the choking fear. Three more steps...
A weird ringing began in his ears, that grew deeper and slower with each breath, like the beating of great wings.
Father had always told him it wasn't the darkness that could get him, that Skyhold was the safest place in all of Thedas. There were no demons here. His mother had closed all the big rifts... Nothing to be scared of.
He jerked to a halt with a gasp. Had he heard someone actually call his name? It wasn't a voice he recognised.
"Gerda?" he all but whimpered. "Sh-sh-shey?"
The shadows pulsed before his eyes, coiling and bubbling like smoke. Just pretend-pretend, like all the times he'd told Father about the way the shadows on the ceiling seemed to bulge just as he tried to go to sleep.
"Your eyes are playing tricks on you," his father would say. "There are no demons or spirits in Skyhold. Go to sleep. You are safe."
But it was easier to believe he was safe when he was tucked into a warm bed, with his father downstairs in the chamber poring over his maps, papers and things.
It was not so easy when Seith was creeping down a dark, spooky passage just to prove to his friends that he was not afraid.
He was sure someone had called his name from within the deeper dark, the sound drawn out and raw, like thread pulled through the eye of a needle, more felt than heard. Seith's nerve failed him, and on trembling legs he dashed back toward the warmth of daylight. He didn't dare look back for fear of what he might see... Long, scaly arms perhaps, questing for him with razor-tipped nightmare fingers. Anything. Or nothing. But he didn't want to be there to find out.
Yet once he hit the first patch of sunlight streaming through the windows by the stalls where the harts were kept, he halted and looked back.
Nothing, of course. Just the gloomy passage that seemed heavier in its presence than any other. The shadow there seemed thicker, like mud, that if he breathed in enough of it he'd start choking.
Besides, there must be better places for the girls to hide, where he could see whether he could tag someone else to play the Darkspawn for a while.
"Gotcha!" Grayden shrieked as he tackled Seith.
The two boys went down in a tangle of limbs. It was pointless trying to win at wrestling against Grayden, who was two years older than Seith, and far stronger than him, but that didn't stop him from giving his best. Sometimes being smaller helped. He could wriggle out of trouble.
Only Grayden had him hopelessly pinned, and was digging cruel fingers into his ribs.
"Let's see if we can tickle the filthy Darkspawn to death!" Grayden crowed.
All Seith could do was cry and scream with laughter. He could barely breathe.
"You better give him a break," Gerda said. "Just now he pees himself an' the Commander will give us a wallopin'"
Grayden stopped his torture and Seith could draw a full breath. His sides hurt, and the older boy was heavy enough to be uncomfortable.
"You okay?" Grayden asked.
Seith nodded. "Gerroff me."
Grayden pinched Seith's side but he did get off him, and Seith sat up, hugging himself.
"You're still the Darkspawn," Gerda said and Shey snickered.
"Can't we play another game? Please?" Seith asked.
An object clipped the side of Seith's head. Grayden still twisted around to see where the thing had been flung from when more nug droppings smacked him full in the face.
"We're under attack!" Shey yelled. "To the loft! To the loft!"
That was all instruction Seith needed, and he scrambled to his feet. If Shey was freaking out, it could mean only one thing: Delon and his gang were paying a visit.
"Get the knife-ear!" someone shouted. Mostly likely Aiden, who, like Delon, was always looking for ways to be nasty to Seith.
The boys were on Grayden and Seith before they had a chance to get far, and Shey and Gerda knew better than to try intervene because the odds against a gang of five were not good.
Biting and kicking didn't help when their enemy had them outnumbered and overpowered. They grabbed Seith and held him fast while his assailants smeared dung all over his face, into his hair and jammed even more into his clothes.
Seith kept his mouth and eyes shut this time.
Grayden was still yelling like a stuck nug, but Seith went limp. It was no use fighting.
"Stinking knife-ear, you're not so special now, are you?" Delon spat at him. "Think you can run to your father again?"
"Toss him in the trough," Will said.
"They shoulda drowned the rat when he was born," Aiden added, and the grip on Seith loosened somewhat as the boys shifted to get a better grasp on him.
Seith took that moment to jerk himself free. Fingers snatched, fabric ripped. He might be scrawny and small, but he was also quick, and the past two years' torment at the hands of Delon and his friends had taught Seith to make use of any advantage he could wrest from their wicked hands.
Grayden dashed in the direction of the tack room, which left the main entrance to Seith. Best to scatter. He ran, and the bullies were right on his heels.
"Grab him, quick! Before he gets to the –"
The stable yard, of course. The stable hands might not interfere when Delon and his gang preyed on them, but Stablemaster Gedling would stop them. Which was half the reason why Seith tried to stay as close to the stables when they could help it.
This didn't stop Delon from trying, however. Seith ran and dodged, and gave a small whoop when he heard someone fall behind him. The archway leading into the stable yard loomed. He was going to make it... Would be able to get to where his father might be training some of the new recruits...
Only he collided heavily with a short, stocky person.
"Oooph!" All the breath left Seith in a rush as he sprawled on ground, dazed.
"Woah, there, Cricket," said the man, trying to calm his mount – a rather stocky mountain-bred pony.
Then a hand was held out to him, and Seith blinked up into the friendly face of a dwarf he'd not seen around Skyhold before.
"Upsy-daisy, little man," he said.
Seith took the dwarf's hand and allowed himself to be helped to his feet. Of Delon and the others there was no sign, but then Stablemaster Gedling was standing right next to the friendly dwarf and glaring at Seith something fierce.
"Are you up to your usual tricks again, young ser?" the stablemaster asked.
"N-n-no, Stablemaster," Seith stammered.
"No harm done." The dwarf waved a hand before his face but he was still smiling. "Stinky could use a bath, though."
Seith's cheeks flushed with his embarrassment, and he grew conscious of his smell and how dirty he was, down to the filth crusted under his feet. Nug dung. Yuck.
"Apologies, ser, just one of the Skyhold brats, ser," Stablemaster Gedling said. "I'll have words with his father. It won't happen again."
"That won't be necessary," the dwarf said then winked at Seith. "You should have seen some of the shenanigans me and my friends caught up to when we were this age. Come to think of it... Not much has changed. Who's your dad?"
"Commander Rutherford, ser," Seith answered smartly. He straightened his back a little and dared to make eye contact with the dwarf. His father was going to kill him when he heard how he was bothering important people.
For this dwarf was clearly someone important, judging by his fine clothing and the big crossbow he carried slung over his shoulder. Gold earrings glinted.
"Your father..." The dwarf narrowed his eyes at Seith, his expression turned to puzzlement. "You're Teniël's little one?" The dwarf frowned.
"Yes." Inwardly, Seith squirmed, and darted glances about to see whether he could escape. People always reacted strangely to him when he said who his mother was.
A tall, dark-haired man with a beard came out of one of the stalls. "Ah, Varric, thought I heard you."
"Hawke!" The dwarf's attention shifted to the bearded man, his momentary puzzlement replaced with warmth. "Thought I saw you up ahead. How've you been?"
That was Seith's chance to slip away and try do something about his dishevelled state.
His father unfortunately took a dim view on Seith's appearance and smell later that afternoon when he returned to their chambers. "That's the third tunic you've torn this week," the Commander grumbled. "We're you purposefully rolling in nug dung?"
"It was just an accident," Seith answered.
"Just like it was an accident that you were dumped in nug dung last week. If you are having problems with Captain Trask's boy again, tell me. I'll have words with him in any case."
Seith winced as his father scrubbed a little too hard with the washcloth. The water in the bath was getting cold already, but it was a big improvement on the initial rinse of cold water the Commander had used to get rid of the worst of the dirt.
"Don't you have anything to say for yourself, young man?"
Seith bit the inside of his cheeks and shook his head. He didn't like seeing his father so angry, the way his mouth pulled into a line and straightened the scar on his lip. It made him look ferocious.
"Gedling tells me they were calling you 'knife-ear'. Is that true? You know I won't have any of that here."
All Seith could do was look away. His throat felt thick. He didn't want his father to get involved. Again. Sure, the Commander would go talk to Captain Trask about Delon, and everything would be fine for a week or so, but then Delon would start all over again. First, snide little comments here and there. Then, throwing apple cores or crusts of old bread hard enough that they stung. A push here. A shove there.
He'd start going on about how Seith thought himself better because of who his mother had been, or what his father did, and then it would just get worse.
"We were playing Wardens and Darkspawn," was all Seith said. "Then we started throwing nug dung. It was nothing."
"It's not nothing," his father said, and he suddenly looked so sad, Seith felt all the more horrible for not telling all the truth.
"You stay out of trouble 'til dinner time now, you hear?"
Seith slunk up the ladder to the loft bedroom, careful to show his father that he was not careless like that time a week ago when he'd almost fallen because he had been in a hurry to get to his friends. He would play with his toy soldiers, and be mouse quiet. Yet he couldn't help but stare out the window for a long while to watch the light change on the snow-laden mountain peaks.
It was at times like these that he wondered what it was like having a mother.