Disclaimer: Not mine. Bioware/EA owns the DA:O universe and all non-original characters and settings, not me. I promise not to break anything, and to tidy up when I've finished. Honest.
Author's note: Hello. This is a straight-up novelisation of a City Elf's story. Pretty close to gameplay in many areas and, in others… not so much. Currently in progress and, be warned, likely to be a long one. Never written any fanfic before, so nervous about sharing. *gulp* Writing this purely for my own enjoyment; hope it makes at least one other person smile. Rated M for violence, blood 'n' gore, disturbing/adult themes, language, and, in forthcoming later chapters, mild sexual content.
Thanks for reading!
Merien Tabris never thought much about life outside Denerim's elven alienage. But, with the Fifth Blight blackening the horizon, her world is changing and – if she is to have any hope of survival – Meri must learn fast.
FEASTING ON DREAMS
VOL. I: THE BIRD THAT FEARS THE CAGE
"I know how men in exile feed on dreams of hope."
~ Aeschylus, Agamemnon
It was supposed to be my wedding day, not that I knew that when I awoke.
Someone was shaking my shoulder, but I resisted, clutching the scratchy woollen blanket tightly in my fists, my head still wreathed in dreams.
"Wake up, cousin!"
I groaned and reluctantly cranked open one eye. Shianni's thin, sharp features swam blearily into view, her face alight with excitement. She leaned over me, pulling the blanket from my grip, and I caught the whiff of sweet ale on her breath.
"Come on," she chirped. "Time to get up. It's your big day!"
That caught my attention. I sat up, rubbed my eyes with the heel of my palm, and frowned at my suspiciously over-eager cousin.
"Huh? What?" The narrow room was flooded with as much light as it ever got, suggesting it must be at least nine o'clock. "Did I oversleep?"
"Yes, it's a little late. But your father and I figured you deserved it." Shianni rocked back on her heels and folded her arms across her skinny chest, fixing me with a sly grin. "You do know what today is, don't you?"
"Uh… Summerday?" I said facetiously, glancing around the room.
An autumnal chill lingered in the air, but the fire was lit—how had I slept through that?—and someone had drawn water for a bath, the caulked wooden tub already warming in front of the flames. Shianni had to be responsible. She must have been up for ages, and snuck in here to do all my chores for Father, in addition to her own. But that could only mean one thing….
"No, you idiot!" She laughed, and the firelight painted lively, dancing shapes over her pale, freckled skin. "You're getting married today—and Soris, too. That's what I came to tell you. Your groom, Nelaros: he's here early."
At those words, I couldn't have been more awake if she'd poured a bucket of cold water over my head. Already? No, it couldn't be. We'd been told not to expect the wedding party's arrival until at least next week. They had a long journey to make, and the matchmaker had been definite that— Well, I'd thought I had at least a little longer to prepare. Panic gripped me, and I swung my legs out of bed, the worn floorboards smooth but cool beneath my bare feet.
"So that means we do it now? But I'm not ready!"
Shianni took the blanket and started to fold it as I pulled off my smallclothes and dived for the tub. I wished she'd woken me earlier.
"Well, it's going to happen anyway," she said, as I climbed into the tepid water and reached for the washcloth and the thin, hard sliver of soap. "So why not just hold your breath and jump in?"
I snorted and slid down to dunk my head. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Not so rushed and hurried. Today? Why had nobody told me? Blinking the water from my eyes, I rubbed furiously at my hair with the soap. There would be so much to do, so many people to see… not to mention getting the house cleaned up. It was sweet of Shianni to have started to help, but it was supposed to be my duty. By the end of today, this old place—the only home I'd known my entire life—would have to welcome my new husband, and I needed to see it was done right. And what about the decorations, and the food? The drink? It wasn't a wedding without enough ale to get the whole alienage legless.
"Hey." Shianni leaned over the side of the tub, took the cloth and soap from me, and began to wash my back. "Don't panic. It's going to be all right. Shall I do your hair for you? I brought the dress, too."
I exhaled, willing my heart to stop pounding like some desperate rabbit. She rubbed circles across my shoulders with the rough cloth, and I nodded.
"It's going to be beautiful," Shianni said, and I closed my eyes, wishing I truly could believe her.
Arranged matches had been traditional in the alienages for as long as anyone remembered. It was not a perfect system, but it had its good points, or so I told myself. With few opportunities for most elves to travel freely, if it hadn't been for the matchmakers, we would all have been marrying our first cousins inside a generation or two.
It wasn't just about bringing in new blood, of course. There were issues of duty, honour, and responsibility to one's family. The husband I took would provide for me, as well as for Father, when the time came that he couldn't work any longer.
Weighed against that kind of security, who needed a love match?
Besides, as I had been constantly reminded in the months since Father's matchmaker struck the contract with my betrothed's family, plenty of bad marriages were made by choice. At least, this way, the decisions were based on reason and practicality, not childish impulse.
Those were the thoughts I clung to, anyway. Realistically, I knew money also played its part… not that Father had spoken of it. Not to me. Just another of the things he wouldn't talk about, hiding his secrets behind that sad, quiet smile.
I was lucky I had him to arrange things for me, nevertheless. Much better than relying on the hahren, or some other relative who barely knew me, or didn't care so deeply about finding me a good husband. Father definitely did care, which was one of the reasons that, at almost twenty-one, I was rather old to be a bride.
He had been talking for years about finding me a good match, and he'd been saving for the dowry ever since I was born. I'd said my piece a long time ago; that provided I didn't have to leave Denerim, I would take whoever he found for me, and be grateful. I still remember the tears in his eyes when I told him, but I'm sure he must have known how I felt. It had been just the two of us since Mother's death—despite the throngs of cousins and other relatives who were always in and out of the house—and I had no intention of leaving him.
I would rather never marry, than go to some other city and leave you here.
He'd laughed at that, because marriage was inevitable. It was a rite of passage that couldn't be ignored, marking both the end of childhood and the start of a full, true life.
After all, nobody could be expected to go through our world alone.
Shianni sluiced water over my hair and splashed me playfully, giggling again. I wondered just how early she'd started drinking—sweet ale laid on for the wedding breakfast might be traditional, though there were limits—but splashed her back anyway. She let out a shrill peal of laughter and darted over to the fireplace, where she'd had a blanket warming for me to dry myself. She held it out, and I stepped from the tub and started to dry off while she fetched the dress. I hadn't seen it yet, and I was curious.
Fabrics were hard to come by for us, which made them valuable. The women used to hoard scraps like gold, and sew them together to make patches and inserts for bodices, aprons, skirts… just about anything, in fact. They used to get pretty competitive, too; I can still see the envious looks a girl would get if she was seen sporting a piece of good chintz or embroidery, and lace or silk were always snapped up like diamonds, and locked up tight in footlockers to wait for some lucky bride's wedding day.
It's funny how, when you have nothing, everything has such value.
Shianni's friend Lyriel had made all the dresses. Her brother worked as servant to a merchant down by the docks, and he'd promised to get something special for us, especially as this was to be no ordinary wedding.
My cousin Soris, Shianni's brother, was also due to marry and, as their parents were both dead, responsibility for his match had fallen to Valendrian, our community's hahren.
Speculation was rife about the girl—and about my betrothed, too—and, as they were both coming all the way from Highever, my father had offered to extend the celebrations he was paying for, and make it a double wedding. It was a kind gesture, though there were some in the alienage who considered it boastful. Oh, they would still be out there, I knew, eating the lakha cakes and drinking the sweet ale, but muttering disapprovingly of Father's narcissism behind their hands.
Still, I refused to let it bother me. I sat in front of the fire and Shianni combed my wet hair, coaxing it into some semblance of style before it could dry out into its customary frizziness. It would never be as striking as her bright, bold auburn locks—instead remaining a rather dull shade of brown, no matter how much vinegar and beer I washed it in—but I'd resigned myself years ago to not being a pretty girl.
I remembered Mother as beautiful, because I'd barely been more than a young child when we lost her. She was elegant and graceful and—though I'd learned to be light on my feet—I was not all that feminine. My eyes were dark and rather heavy-lidded, though not otherwise all that bad, and I had a reasonable figure, but my nose was very much my father's, and my chin and jaw were heavy for a girl. In short, I had the kind of face usually called 'determined' by those who are seeking to be kind.
The fact that, growing up, I had been more interested in games of Guards & Robbers with the boys than playing house with the girls only added to my feminine deficiencies, and then there were the quiet little lessons Mother used to teach me… ones I had not put into practice for years.
Shianni held the dress up for me to inspect, and it was indeed beautiful. Lyriel had done wonders. It was in two parts; a long, simple skirt in shades of dark green, with panels of real, actual silk, and a white linen blouse, cut to sit off the shoulders and decorated with a soft leather stomacher and edgings, all beaded with glass gems and jewel-like embroideries in vivid colours. There was a matching collar, goatskin boots and wristlets, too, and I had never had anything so intricately worked. The whole ensemble must have taken weeks to sew.
"Oh, it's… wonderful," I breathed.
"I know!" Shianni thrust the clothes at me. "C'mon. Put it on."
She helped me dress and, once I was ready, stood back to admire her handiwork.
"You look amazing. Feeling all right?"
I swallowed heavily and nodded. "Butterflies."
That was an understatement. Eagles with steel wings seemed to be circling in my gut, but I couldn't back down now. Besides, at least half of today was about welcoming the two new members of our community. I supposed, if it hadn't been for Father being so attentive to my wishes, it could easily have been me shipping off to another city, leaving behind everything and everyone I'd ever known, with no idea what kind of life lay before me.
"You'll be fine," Shianni said, giving me a quick, warm hug. "Oh, there's going to be music, decorations, feasting… weddings are so much fun. You're so lucky!"
She pulled back, her eyes shining and, for one ignoble moment, I wondered if she'd be so damn cheerful on her own wedding day.
"And how does Soris feel?"
Shianni giggled again. "I think he's just glad he's not going through this alone. He's sweating so much he looks like a human."
"Shianni! You shouldn't—"
"Say things like that, I know. I know. All right. Look, I should go talk to the other bridesmaids and find my dress. Oh, and Soris said that he'll be waiting for you outside. You better move it!"
She gave me a kiss on the cheek then darted out of the door, almost colliding with my father on her way. He stepped back to let Shianni pass and, the sunlight framing him in the narrow doorway, shook his head.
He was carrying an armful of packages. Decorations, I supposed, for the house. Tonight, after all the celebrations were over, there would be three of us for dinner, and Father would no longer be sitting at the head of the table. I searched his face for some clue to how he felt about that, though I knew I wouldn't find one.
Father had always been a man of few words. It wasn't that he couldn't be light-hearted, or didn't harbour deep thoughts—far from it, in fact—but he was cautious, and seldom spoke his mind. Before Mother's death, he had been more given to speaking freely, but those days were long past. He was still, as he had always been, a kind and gentle man, as mindful of tradition as of the realities of life, and ever seeking to balance them. I loved him more than words can possibly say.
"Ah, my little girl." He smiled sadly as he set the parcels down on the table. "It's the last day I'll be able to call you that, isn't it? You look… beautiful."
I doubted that, but I twirled anyway, showing him Lyriel's wonderful dress. His smile broadened.
"So, you don't mind that things are, uh, moving a little faster than expected?"
I let my arms fall to my sides, my attempt at gracefulness forgotten. "Not really, I suppose. But I wish you'd told me."
He shrugged. Two braids restrained his shoulder-length grey hair, knotted at the back of his head, and he wore his best shirt, waistcoat and breeches. I watched him begin to unfasten the packages, taking out carefully wrapped sprigs of dried flowers that would form garlands to hang from the ceiling. He must have been into the market square. They were shabby blooms next to the great sprays of roses and orchids available fresh on the stalls, but they would have to have cost at least half a silver, nonetheless. His fingers traced the delicate, papery petals, and I wondered just when my father had started to grow so old.
"It is unexpected. Perhaps trouble was brewing at the Highever alienage, or your groom's family didn't want him travelling later in the season. In any case, we didn't know for certain when they would arrive. Today or tomorrow, even next week…. You know how these things are."
"I know, Father."
I knew how he was, at least. Perhaps he'd hoped somehow that, by not mentioning the possibility of my groom's early arrival, he could put off the changes that today would bring.
"Think of it not as an obligation, but a blessing," he said, and I smiled.
"I do, really. It'll all be fine, I'm sure."
Father nodded, but it was clear he wasn't suckered by my pretended calm. He left the dried flowers in their muted little piles, and gave me a long, solemn look.
"I'm proud of you, my girl. And I hope the match I've chosen brings you happiness. Nelaros is a fine man," he added. "An excellent family. And quite a master at the forge, I'm told."
I was sure he was. The last letter we'd had from Highever had asked for my finger measurement, so my betrothed could make sure the ring was the right size. He planned to cast it himself, apparently.
"I trust your judgement, Father," I assured him. "And… thank you."
He looked momentarily relieved, but it didn't last long, soon replaced with a sigh and a shake of his head.
"Maker, your mother would have been so much better at this than I. You, uh, you've had a chance to… talk about it, haven't you?" Concern shadowed his eyes as he tried to find a delicate way of putting something neither of us wanted to discuss. "Shianni said the women would…. I mean, it can't be easy, not having your mother here for you. But, if there's anything I can—"
Heat started to blossom in my cheeks. "No, it's… it honestly is all right, Father. I… know what to expect. It'll be fine."
He said it with a certain finality, and a relief that I definitely shared. However much I loved my father, I wasn't prepared to have the pre-wedding night talk with him… and nor, in all honesty, did I really want to think about it myself.
I knew what was supposed to happen—and, like many of the girls I knew, had even managed a few exploratory fumbles and squeezes with one or two of the alienage boys, as part of growing up in that sprawling, visceral world—but, when it came down to it, nice girls didn't do… that. We didn't do it, and we weren't supposed to talk about it, especially when our fathers and brothers were listening.
We did, of course, though gossip and giggles were a long way from actual, practical experience. When there's very little to call your own except your honour, you take care not to get it dirty.
I hoped that Nelaros, whatever he turned out to be like, would be respectful enough to be kind, and gentle. Our culture, despite its flaws, always took a firm view of women. We were expected to fulfil certain roles, to cook and clean, mend and nurture, but, in return, we were accorded respect. Among elves, I encountered very little trace of the taste for female subservience that some humans seemed to have.
Father smiled wistfully at me.
"Adaia would be so proud of you," he said, and it surprised me to hear him use Mother's name. "I wish she could have been here to see this."
For that brief moment, there was such emotion in his voice… I didn't know what to say. Any words I might have reached for died on my tongue, and I just bowed my head.
"Well." Father cleared his throat. "Time for you to go and find Soris. Make sure he hasn't tried to run off or anything. The sooner we get underway, the less chance either of you have to escape."
He chuckled, and I pretended exasperation.
"Father! I'd like to meet my betrothed, at least, before we start."
"You will, soon enough. Oh, one last thing before you go, my dear."
He reached out, catching my arm as I moved towards the door.
"Your, uh… you know. The swordplay, knives, and whatever else your mother taught you. Best not to mention it to your groom."
My brow furrowed, but I saw the discomfort in Father's face, and did not wish to upset him.
It was true that Mother had brought certain skills with her when she came to the alienage—skills not expected of an elven woman—but they were lessons I'd barely thought of in years.
When I was a child, it was always as part of a game, hidden under the guise of something innocent. Girls were expected to learn wifely skills; how to cook, sew, clean, mend, and administer as much doctoring as could be achieved with a few straggly elfroot plants and a little cholor root. We were all taught that, but Mother showed me other tricks. She taught me to be light on my feet, to feint and dodge and run. When she said it was important, I used to think she wanted me to be graceful and pretty, like her. And, I'll admit, when Summerday rolled around, I was rarely without a dancing partner… but it was more than that.
My cousin Andar was a something of a bully. One winter, he pushed me over on the ice and I fell, chipping my front tooth. He just laughed at me and, when I got to my feet, welling up with tears of childish fury, I punched him so hard I split both my knuckles and his lip wide open.
We both got into a great deal of trouble. Andar's father came to our house, and many cross words were had between the men about my 'unseemly' conduct. I buried my head in Mother's skirt and cried, and she took me away to bind my hand. She told me off, but not for hitting the little bastard.
If I could not hold my temper, she said, I must be sure to strike effectively; otherwise there was no point in striking at all. And so, by the time my knuckles were healed, I had learned how to both throw and dodge punches, to put my weight—such as it was—behind any blow I made, and to use the size of an opponent against him.
As my youngling's years gave way to adolescence, Mother began to put kitchen knives in my hands. She taught me how to be quick and nimble, how to use a blade to distract and disarm while applying a well-placed foot to tender places… and she told me of the three quickest ways to kill a man, if it ever came to that.
Father knew of her lessons, and disapproved, though he never asked her to stop. Looking back, I suppose he respected her reasons. I remember overhearing them once, and not fully understanding what Mother said.
Would you rather she be weak and helpless, Cyrion? Unable to defend her own honour? She's not a little girl anymore, and you've seen how the guards are. You know what the humans are like.…
I was used to hearing reprimands about minding my honour, or not damaging my reputation, but I had never thought of either of them as something that could be forcibly taken away.
Now, Father took my hand in both of his and squeezed it gently, drawing me from my thoughts with an imploring look in his eyes. I sighed. Mother had been gone for a long time, and I had been very careful to stay out of fights in those intervening years.
"I take it you didn't say anything, then?" I said.
Father seemed relieved. I wondered if he'd expected me to be angry.
"Well, it's not exactly something that would have made it easy to find a match for you." A small and rather hopeless smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "And we don't want to seem like troublemakers, after all, do we? Adaia made that mistake."
My throat tightened. We barely ever spoke of Mother, or what had happened to her, and there was a reason for that. I sniffed, and nodded.
"Good girl. Go on, then. I still have some things to do, and Soris will no doubt be waiting for you. I'll be out in a little while."
I leaned forward, kissed his cheek and breathed in the smell of orris root soap and dusty leather that, somehow, was my father. Then I slipped out of the door, with the thought that I was leaving my home as a child for the very last time.
Outside, it was a bright morning.
The stray dogs and cats that always found their way into the alienage—usually after the rats—scampered about at the feet of the poky wooden houses. Above, washing lines ran from window to window at the back of the tenements, and wet clothes flapped like heavy flags.
The walls that encircled the alienage were grey stone, as was most of the rest of Denerim. Our buildings were mainly wood and daub, one- or two-storey structures thrown up on narrow footprints and added to with rickety gantries and galleries, wherever a landlord thought he could get away with it. Nothing much was in a decent state of repair. Almost everywhere you looked, there was the broken wreck of a place, gutted or cannibalised for timber and nails. Everything was human-owned, and we were reliant on the goodwill of shems who preferred the silent monthly income of elven tenants too desperate to complain to the hassle of selling their property on or using it for warehousing.
Generally, families like mine rented a single room that could contain living, cooking, sleeping and washing facilities, with the rest of the business of life going on out of doors. It didn't allow for much privacy but, since everyone in the alienage always knew everyone else's business anyway, that didn't really matter. We were a tight-knit community, and that was how we liked it.
Or, perhaps, that was all we knew.
Even now I hesitate to let my pen confess it, but when I look back on the way things were, a part of me is shamed by the attitudes we held. I wonder how we could be like that, how we could think those things… and then I remind myself of what it was truly like.
Coming from the alienage, in so many ways, was like being a bird bred in a cage. We knew there were clear skies above us—we could see them, pricked by the city's high towers and, far beyond, the ghostly shape of Dragon's Peak, standing guard over all of Denerim—but we did not imagine for a moment that we could take to them.
A bird of the wild fears the cage, but one born to bars does not. We accepted our lot, not because we believed it was all we deserved, but because we had grown dependent on the walls that encircled us. The deprivations, the squalor… we might have hated those, but they were evils we knew.
Just as the bird both hates the cage and yet is afraid of being free, we would tell ourselves that there were worse things outside the alienage than the filth and poverty within. Everyone heard stories. Old Danarin, the crippled beggar who used to sit up by the north gate and call for alms, would tell of how, when his legs were crushed in an accident at the docks, the human foreman had him dumped in an alleyway and left for dead.
We all knew the truth: out there was dangerous. Out there, we didn't matter. We were nothing. In here, we were among friends and family, and we belonged. And, for so many, belonging was the only thing that had meaning.
There was a hard kind of pride in it, and we are an intrinsically proud people, even when we have nothing that merits it.
Certainly, I don't recall ever seeing a home in the alienage with a front step that went unwashed, or a floor that was left unswept. Even in our own house, I can remember Mother scrubbing the table until the wood was pale with cleaning. Some days we had barely any food to put on it, but if we'd wanted to, we could have eaten straight off that spotless surface.
Stupid, isn't it?
Of course, we struck back at the humans, but only in the most puerile, pointless ways. We muttered about them behind their backs, called them lazy, stupid shems, mocked the differences between them and ourselves and, that way, we could gloss over the fact that, if one of us should find herself standing in front of one of them—be it a guard, merchant, or simple citizen—it would always be the elf who cast down her eyes, bowed her head, and showed every outward sign of respect and humility.
I digress, however.
It was to be my wedding day, and it was indeed a beautiful morning. The vhenadahl was in full leaf, standing proudly in the centre of the alienage, its gnarled roots a reminder of the roots of our past, and its boughs providing shade and protection to all our people… or so the hahren's stories said. Valendrian was keen on hammering home his messages of inclusiveness, tolerance and—most of all—peace. I think he knew it was the only way he could keep order, and keep us as safe as he did.
To be honest, for most of us, it was just a big tree.
Nobody ever seemed entirely sure of its symbolism—though we knew it was important, and that every alienage possessed one—but, on a late night when a man's bladder was full of ale, and the communal privies were too disgusting to even contemplate, the most potent thing the vhenadahl symbolised was quick relief.
Still, that morning, everybody was outdoors, many dressed in their best clothes, and many already… merry, shall we say, with the occasion. We were, as I said, a proud people, and given to feasting and drinking to demonstrate our pride. And, as friends of mine have always been quick to remind me, it does not take much to get an elf drunk.
It felt strange to think that all this celebration was on account of me.
All the same, I had my duty to do. I would have to smile and greet everyone, thank them for being there and accept their good wishes. And—as a bride's touch on her wedding day was considered lucky—I would have to shake so many hands that my wrists would be sore.
Down by the southern wall that fronted onto the market square, a group of young elves had definitely been getting into the spirit of the day, and I smiled as I heard the strains of The Woman in the Sea—a charming ditty I'd once got into trouble for reciting part of in my father's hearing:
There once was a woman, who lived in the sea,
I didn't love her, but I think she loved me.
I brought her diamonds, silver, rubies, and gold
But all she wanted was to be saved from the cold.
She begged me to catch her, convinced me I should.
I promised her a house, all grey stone and wood.
We made love in the sea; we made love on the shore;
I was just there for playing, but she wanted more.
Well, there's one small problem, you see.
I can't grant her wish:
My wife gets suspicious when I come home
Smelling like fish!
"Well, hello!" slurred the eldest, as I passed by. I recognised him as Faelven, a friend of my cousin Andar's. "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes?"
"Glad to see you're celebrating," I said dryly.
"It's a wedding, isn't it?" he cried, lifting his clay mug and succeeding in pouring ale all down his shirt.
The three of them erupted into cheers and, shaking my head and chuckling, I left before they decided they wanted a lucky kiss from the bride.
A little way past the vhenadahl, the platform at which we usually gathered for Chantry services, or to hear the hahren's addresses, had already been decorated, hung with strings of slightly ragged flowers. It was empty now, just waiting for the ceremony to begin.
Nerves flittered in my stomach at the thought that, in a little while, I would be standing up there with my betrothed, and with Soris and his bride, and all four of us would have to make the unbreakable vows that would bind us for the rest of our lives.
Mother Boann of the Chantry was coming in to do the official part of the service. I supposed a messenger would already have been sent to tell her the wedding party had arrived early and, for a fleeting moment, I almost hoped she would be busy or, somehow, there would be a problem with the permits or something, and she would be unable to conduct the offices.
That was silly, I told myself. If Nelaros and Soris' bride were both here, we had to go ahead. They needed to be welcomed, and Father and I certainly couldn't board my betrothed under our roof before the wedding. It was… unthinkable.
But, still, I was nervous at the thought of standing up there in front of everyone, under the shade of the vhenadahl, and in the sight of the Maker, taking the first step on a whole new life. I shook the thoughts away. It would be fine, and it wasn't as if I was going through it alone. Besides, it must be worse for Nelaros and the girl, having already had to leave all they knew behind them.
I pressed on, knowing I ought to find Soris, though it was hard to see my way through the crowd. People had already started gathering at the foot of the platform, and I spotted an old couple over by the steps who, judging by their handcart and the dust on their clothes, must be new arrivals. I headed over towards them, brushing past knot after knot of people, smiling and making polite, pretty thank yous as I went.
As I got closer, I heard the old woman speak, and I realised they were both looking at me, though trying not to be heard.
"It's around the eyes," she said, leaning close to the man I took to be her husband.
"Well, I don't see it," he replied. "Whenever I look, I just see the mother."
A blonde girl I didn't really know grasped my hand and shook it warmly.
"Congratulations!" she said, meaning I had to stop and thank her when I would rather have strained my ears for what these new strangers were saying. Did they mean me? My mother? Could they have known her?
"The mother was far more delicate!" the woman snapped and, chastened, I supposed they must mean me.
Her husband looked across at me again through the crowd, and pursed his lips.
"It's the same sort of nose, you must admit that," I heard him say. "The breeding shows."
I pitched through another group of well-wishers, desperate to see for myself who these people were.
"Good luck with the ball and chain!" someone called, elbowing me cheerfully in the ribs.
"Thank you!" I winced and smiled, trying to ignore the unpleasant sensation of spilled ale splashing down my back.
"Ugh, there you go again with breeding!" the woman chided. Seeing me coming, she turned to face me, but not without giving the old man one parting shot. "We're not horses, y'know."
"Of course not," he said, squaring his shoulders. "But bloodlines are important, that's all I'm saying."
"I think the whole notion is ridiculous!"
"Well, you've got the freedom to think so," he said nonchalantly. "You come from good stock."
I had to stifle a laugh at their bickering, despite my curiosity, and I made a small, respectful bow of greeting.
"Hello, friends. You are welcome, and thank you for being here today."
It felt formulaic, and I was already getting tired of having to say it, but the old couple smiled. Traditions have their values.
"Well, it's the lucky bride herself," the woman said. "Hello Merien, dear."
"Now, love." The husband touched his wife's arm. "She probably doesn't remember us."
"Oh, of course." She smiled awkwardly and reached out as if she wanted to take my hand, but she seemed to think better of it, and left her fingers to curl in the air. "I'm Dilwyn, and this is Gethon. We were friends of your mother's. We haven't seen much of you since she… well…."
My heart leapt. They must have come in on the trade caravan that the wedding party had travelled with, and I was immediately full of questions, but not so full I couldn't remember my manners.
"Any friend of my mother's is a friend of mine," I said, touching Dilwyn's hand.
She clasped my fingers tightly, and her gaze seemed to search my face. I wondered if she saw my mother there, but a slight hint of disappointment clouded her eyes, and I was afraid to ask.
"I am honoured that you've come," I said instead.
I noticed the brief glance they exchanged, and Dilwyn patted my hand.
"Seems like we were lucky to make it in time. I see things have been brought forward." She looked thoughtfully at me, and smiled. "You are rather like her, you know. Adaia was…. Well, I'm sure you know. Beautiful and full of life, if a little bit wild."
The affection in her face humbled me.
"Your father still doesn't speak of her, then?" Gethon asked.
I shook my head. "Not much. He loved her a great deal. We—"
"We all did," the old man said, echoing the words I'd been about to say. He nodded slowly, his expression the same strange mix of sorrow and fondness as his wife's. "She wanted you more than anything. It's sad she never got to see you all grown up."
I inclined my head and said nothing. I didn't want to cry.
"We just wanted to see you today and express our good wishes," Dilwyn said, finally relinquishing my hand. "It means the world to us to see you happy."
She nudged Gethon in the ribs again, and he cleared his throat and reached into the scrip at his belt.
"Oh, yes. We, uh, we've saved a bit of money for this day. We'd… well, we'd like you to have it. To help start your new life."
I stared at the pouch he held out, and at the looks of hopeful encouragement on both their faces. Judging by their patched and mended clothes, they clearly did not have much.
"Oh… I can't—"
"Please," Dilwyn urged. "We want you to have it."
I took the purse, my fingers closing around its unexpected weight. It was a substantial gift, and I barely knew what to say.
"Fifteen silvers," Dilwyn said. "Enough to start you and your betrothed off right."
It was more than enough. More money than I'd ever held in my hands at once.
"I-I'm honoured," I stammered. "Thank you. Thank you so much…."
Gethon smiled. "Maker bless you, child."
I had so many more questions I wanted to ask them. I wanted to know how they'd known Mother; were they friends of hers from her life before she came to Denerim? Relatives, even? How far had they travelled, and what else could they tell me? I opened my mouth, eager to find answers, but Dilwyn chuckled.
"Go on, now, dear. We really mustn't keep you any longer. You do have a wedding to attend!"
"You'll stay, though?" I asked. "Please? After the ceremony, I'd like to talk to you both, to—"
"Of course, of course. Later," Gethon promised. "Go on. And good luck!"
I nodded and, on impulse, kissed them both on the cheek before I turned and, the unfamiliar weight of a heavy coin purse at my hip, set off to find my errant cousin. In doing so, I almost fell over Taeodor, one of Soris' friends.
"Hello there!" he said, smiling genially at me. "Congratulations on the big day. Have you seen Soris?"
"No." I shook my head. "I'm looking for him myself."
"Well, if you see him, ask him to come by and say hello, will you?"
"I will," I promised, bumping off again through the crowd.
It was getting very busy, and my cheeks were hot with the amount of attention I was getting, countless voices bidding me greetings, best wishes and—in an increasing number of cases—teasing me in the way that only women can.
"Don't worry," crowed Saeltha, the wife of Cullanu the dockhand. "It only hurts for the first dozen years or so!"
She raised a mug of ale and laughed, showing her yellowed teeth. The girl I knew as her daughter shushed her and, looking at me, rolled her eyes in embarrassment.
"Sorry," she said. "Congratulations!"
I smiled my thanks and hurried on, deciding we'd better get this wedding over with while at least some of the guests were still sober enough to applaud in the right places.
Besides, I was determined not to think about… that.
I thought I saw Soris standing back a little from the throng, leaning against the wooden strut that supported the second floor of old man Nechir's house. I'd seen him around somewhere, too, drunk as a lord. It hadn't been more than a month or so since his daughter left for another alienage, down south, I thought, though I wasn't sure where.
I had just begun to cross the street when an unfortunately familiar voice snapped at me from the crowd.
"So, I see you got yourself a big, handsome hunk of a husband."
I turned to see Elva, a woman only four years or so older than me, though we had never been friends. She swayed gently and her breath as she leaned forward, stabbing an accusing finger in the general direction of my chest, could probably have set dry grass alight.
"Excuse me if I don't congratulate you."
I sighed. "Is something wrong, Elva?"
"Don't act like you care! Your father has the money to get you a great match. Meanwhile, what do I get? A fat old man who smells like the docks and wouldn't know what to do with a woman even if he were sober."
Well, that was the pot calling the kettle black. Yet I knew from experience that there was nothing I could say to her that wouldn't result in another bitter tirade, so I didn't reply which, as it turned out, didn't help either.
"What, you ignore me now?"
"No, Elva. I—"
"Strutting around like you're the queen of Ferelden! You think you're better than me? Well, you're not! I may have got a poor match, but at least I have some dignity. Wench!"
She knocked back the rest of her ale and stifled a belch, though without much success. Behind his mother's skirts her son, Calenon, capered and stuck out his tongue.
"You're going to be late for own wedding!" he taunted. "That wouldn't do. The bride is supposed to be caring… and pretty. Not late."
My fingers itched to give the little toad the slap he deserved, but I resisted.
"I'm sure they won't start without me."
The child widened his eyes and, for a moment, looked just like his mother—furious at an uncaring, unjust world.
"Oh, but what if you're wrong? How disrespectful! Only humans don't care about respect."
Despite Calenon being an odious little toerag, I was surprised to hear those words, and surprised that Elva let him speak that way.
"Where did you hear that?" I asked.
"Father said it this morning when my brothers didn't want to get out of bed." Calenon narrowed his small, black eyes, which I found sadly reminiscent of a rat—and full of the same unpleasant, vicious cunning. "He said they were acting like lazy humans. They were late, too."
"It's dangerous to say such things," I said, ignoring the barb.
"Well, there aren't any humans here, so I'll say what I want!"
He stuck his tongue out again, blew a raspberry and ran off, probably to torture cats or terrorise the younger children. I looked at Elva, but she stared blankly at me and, rather than risk another tongue-lashing, I slipped past her and crossed to where Soris was standing.
He looked… well, ridiculous to my eyes, but then we'd known each other all our lives, and I supposed his bride would think differently. Maybe.
Soris and Shianni were both the children of my father's late cousin Merenir, so technically second cousins of mine, though no one ever made the distinction. Like his sister, Soris was pale-skinned, freckle-cheeked and red-haired, verging on scrawny, with the same clear, innocent blue eyes.
Given his colouring, it was unfortunate that his wedding clothes consisted predominantly of a red-and-green jerkin, with ruched shoulders and gold-coloured buttons, striped yellow breeches and poorly dyed red knee boots. The fabrics were sumptuous—good brushed cotton, with snippets of silk and brocade—but the overall effect was rather like an explosion in a paint works.
Soris straightened up when he saw me, ever the guilty-looking child, as if he'd been caught daydreaming… which, usually, he had.
"Well, if it isn't my lucky cousin," he said dryly. "Care to celebrate the end of our independence together?"
I smiled. "Getting cold feet, Soris?"
"Are you surprised?" He raised his eyebrows. "One minute, it's a simple ceremony. The next, it's a double wedding spectacle. The whole alienage is out there!"
"And half of them are already drunk," I observed. "It won't be so bad."
"Easy for you to say. Apparently, your groom's a dream come true. My bride sounds like a dying mouse."
I laughed. I didn't mean to, but I did.
"Oh, come on. Looks aren't everything, and I'm sure she's quite nice."
"She's not ugly… exactly." Soris shook his head. "I just don't know if I'm ready to spend the next fifty years with a 'nice' girl who hides grain away for the winter."
I nudged him playfully with my elbow. "Maybe you'll get a cage for a wedding present."
Now it was Soris' turn to splutter with cruel, guilty laughter.
"Merien, that's terrible! I…. No. Come on, let's go introduce you to your dreamy betrothed before you say 'I do'."
He kicked off from the wooden post and I followed, unable to resist asking the question.
"I keep hearing this. You've seen Nelaros? And he's, um… handsome?"
Soris glanced over his shoulder at me. "Let's put it this way. At this point, I'd trade for him."
I laughed so hard I didn't see the two kids playing in amongst the struts and support posts of the old tenement. A boy darted out from behind one, and almost bounced off us. He stopped mid-way through his shout of 'Blam!', and his playmate—a girl I vaguely recognised as the daughter of a seamstress called Silenis—took the opportunity to run across the street, hit him on the back and cry out:
"I'm King Maric, and wham! You're dead! Dead! Dead! Dead!"
The boy pulled a face. "No fair! She stopped me."
"I'm sorry. What are you two playing?" I asked.
"Heroes and Humans," the boy said. "She made it up."
"We each choose a hero from one of the elder's stories, and do furious battle," the girl said proudly. "And I always win."
"That's because she cheats!" the boy protested.
His friend drew an indignant breath, and I saw Soris smiling at me, as if to remind me of how familiar this sounded. I grinned at him, but then a thought struck me, and I turned back to the boy.
"D'you always play as humans?" I asked. "Why not play as elves?"
They exchanged glances, and then looked at me as if I'd suddenly sprouted an extra head.
"Well…." the boy began, sounding doubtful.
"Do you know any stories about elven heroes?" the girl asked archly.
She had a point, and I was not usually a liar, but perhaps it was the day's air of gaiety and celebration. Or perhaps I was simply feeling mischievous.
"Sure," I said. "I know a story."
"You do?" Soris asked, surprised.
"You do?" chorused the kids.
"Yes. It's about… Tathas, the sneaky elven bandit," I said, hunkering down to muddy ground. "She lived right here in Denerim, a very long time ago."
"Did Tathas steal from the humans?" the girl asked.
"Sometimes." I smiled. "She stole from the rich and gave to the poor."
The kids' faces brightened.
"Did Tathas get caught?" asked the boy.
"Y—no." I thought quickly. "Not exactly. When, uh… when the people were in need, she turned herself in, and saved them. And they were very grateful," I added, because every morality tale needs a message.
"Yay! I'm going to be Tathas!" the girl cried.
"I'm going to be Tathas, and I'm going to steal all your gold for my family!"
"You can't! I'm a giant dragon, and I ate my gold…."
They ran off, still arguing, and Soris laughed.
"You're incorrigible, you know that?"
I straightened up, smoothing down my skirt and—just for a moment—enjoying the feel of silk beneath my fingers.
Maybe today could be a wonderful day, after all.
I shrugged. "What? You don't think we can learn to take just a little bit of pride in who we are?"
Soris shook his head, still chuckling.
We met Taeodor again, down by Alarith's little general store which, I was touched to see, he had closed for the day in our honour.
"There's the man of the hour! How are you, Soris?"
Soris smiled. "I'm well, Taeodor. This is my cousin, Merien, the bride. Uh, I mean, the other bride… not my bride!"
Taeodor grinned at me. "We've met on occasion. Blessings on the day, both of you."
"Poor Soris isn't feeling very blessed," I said slyly.
"True enough," Soris admitted, looking rueful. "Still, better to be married and have a real life than to remain a child forever."
"Indeed." Taeodor nodded. "But there is something you should know, Soris. My brothers won't be coming. I'm sorry. They, uh, left. To find the Dalish."
He looked embarrassed when he said it, which wasn't surprising.
Everybody knew the stories. The Dalish were supposed to be wild elves, living free, the way our people had done in the time of Arlathan, and before the Dales had been lost.
The hahren had told those tales since we were all children, and we'd grown up wondering at the fractured pieces of history we had; how once, long ago, the prophet Andraste's rebellion gave the elves the chance to rise from slavery, and how we made the Long Walk to Halamshiral, the first of our new cities.
Of course, Valendrian tended to skim slightly over the part of the story where an elven raiding party attacked the human village of Red Crossing, leading the Chantry to crush us and our new homeland and, eventually, bring us back to live under the humans, only little better than the slaves we had once been.
The way he told it, it was the pride and arrogance of elves that saw Halamshiral fall, and it was all a lesson about living in respectful harmony with humans… the way most things were, when Valendrian told them.
Still, rumours of wild elves refused to die. Everybody knew some impetuous son or younger brother who would not concede that life in the alienage was all there was and—even if he could not overthrow the injustice of living beneath humans—he would make some great stand, and escape the city to find his true people… or some equal rubbish. Nobody had ever heard of such an endeavour being successful. Some thought the Dalish didn't exist at all, and were nothing more than wisps of legend that we clung to out of our own stupid pride.
I wasn't so sure. When I was younger, Mother had given me a dog-eared book, entitled In Pursuit of Knowledge: the Travels of a Chantry Scholar, written by a man called Brother Genitivi. I hadn't long learned to read, but I devoured it eagerly. The book painted bright, vivid pictures of a world I had never imagined—a world not just outside the gates of the alienage, but outside Denerim itself.
Before encountering that book, I had never thought that Ferelden could be such a big country—a laughable notion now, I know, having seen the size of other lands!—or even that there could be more beyond it. In the alienage, we did not tend to discuss politics much, or hear many tales of foreign countries. Sometimes, travellers from other alienages brought stories with them, but very little mattered in our community that was not immediate or tangible. Fantasies and daydreams tended to be both mocked and discouraged.
But Brother Genitivi's book—despite a certain tendency to hyperbole and rather colourful prose—enthralled me, and it spoke of the Dalish. I'd read the passage dozens of times. Wild elves, dressed in animal hides, their faces and bodies marked with tattoos…. They were said to be savages, bandits, ruthlessly looting trade caravans and passing travellers, then disappearing back into the forest, silent as ghosts.
The thought both frightened and intrigued me.
In general conversation, though, they were nothing more than a euphemism. For us, to say someone had 'gone to find the Dalish' was to say he was a fool, running after impossibilities and neglecting what was real and important. You sometimes heard wives say it on payday, when they didn't expect their husbands back from the tavern until the morning: 'He'll be off to find the Dalish, I imagine, and what'll be left for supper?'
"Well, I wouldn't worry about it," Soris said haughtily, covering over his friend's awkwardness. "They were probably just taken in by another old story. Anyway, Taeodor, it was great seeing you. I'm sure your brothers will show up in a few days, embarrassed and hungry."
"I hope so. I should go. Best wishes to you both!"
I thanked him, and we took our leave of Taeodor, with Soris promising to meet him after the ceremony for a jar of ale.
We were about to turn the corner, unable to put off meeting up with our respective soon-to-be spouses any longer, when I noticed my friend Nessa and her parents, packing up a handcart outside their house. I asked Soris to wait a moment, and darted under the rickety wooden portico, curious and alarmed.
Her father, Prestolion, dropped a moth-eaten rug on top of the meagre pile of belongings that filled the cart, and nodded to me.
"Many blessings, young one. We hoped to stay for the celebration, but we must be off."
Prestolion was not a difficult man, precisely, but he was proud, and rather taciturn. I made a respectful bow.
"I thank you, elder, but… you're not staying for my wedding?"
"I wish we could," Nessa said before her father could reply. "But—"
"The human who owns our building has decided to sell it for storage space," Prestolion cut in, with a sharp glance at his daughter. "We can't afford to live anywhere else here, so we're leaving Denerim."
My heart sank. I'd known Nessa since childhood, like so many of the other girls here, and the thought of her leaving this way, without a word or a warning, was horrible. Besides, I could see how upset she was.
"Leaving? But… where are you going?"
"The Ostagar ruins," Nessa said. "The army camp there is calling for labourers."
"We wanted to look for work in Highever—" her mother began.
"But that's just not possible," the old man said abruptly.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Hah!" Prestolion scoffed. "Moving to a different alienage isn't easy. Travel costs money, and so do bribes. Humans are a suspicious lot, and I've heard the ones in Highever are worse than here."
I looked at Nessa, but she shook her head almost imperceptibly. I knew enough of her father—and how ready with his fists he could be if his womenfolk disobeyed him in public—not to push the issue, but I couldn't just stand there and watch them leave.
"Is there any way I can help?"
Prestolion eyed me coldly. "You're still a child. You can't do anything. Enjoy your special day and put us out of your mind."
His condescension burned, and I wished there was something I could say that wouldn't make it worse, but he turned back to lashing down the contents of the cart. Nessa's mother smiled thinly at me.
"What my husband means is," she said gently, "you're very generous, but we don't need charity to solve our problems."
I nodded, wishing that our culture of respect did not have to get in the way of telling people when they were being pig-headed and stubborn.
"I understand," I said. "Though I hope you'll at least drink to the wedding before you go. For Soris and me… and for luck on your journey."
Prestolion's face softened a little. "Many thanks, young one. Again, blessings on your day."
I inclined my head, smiled, and turned to go. I'd gone barely a few steps before Nessa darted after me and grabbed my arm.
"Wait… can I talk to you for a moment?"
"Of course." I drew her aside. "What is it?"
"I apologise for my parents. You know how they are. They're too proud to accept help, much less ask for it." Nessa bit her lip, the fingers of her right hand worrying at the hem of her left sleeve. "Father says he and Mother will labour in the army camp, and they'll expect me to do the same, but… I just don't like the idea of being surrounded by human soldiers who haven't seen a woman in months."
She lifted her head, and I could see the fear in her eyes. The City Guard gave us enough to contend with around here. It is a strange thing but, for some human men, the elven female form holds a particular appeal. They like us because we're small, light… delicate. Over the years, I have heard a great deal of tavern talk about how lithe and sinuous we're supposed to be, able to bend our bodies to incredible degrees, and how our appetites are ten times those of human women.
Apparently, every race likes to believe its own myths about others.
Still, Nessa, with her dark skin and glossy hair, her fine, dainty features and full lips, had to deal with more salacious comments than most. Usually, we could keep out of the guards' way, but it didn't make being groped by all those pairs of eyes any more comfortable. I understood her qualms and, aware of the moneybag Dilwyn and Gethon had given me, hanging heavy at my hip, I lowered my voice.
"Look… would some money help?"
"Of course," Nessa said, as if I'd just asked whether the sky was blue. "But I can't imagine anyone here has much to spare. We'd need another three silvers just to make it to Highever. If we got another ten silvers, we could rent a house here. Maybe one large enough to start a business. But that's just dream talk. Nobody here has that much money and, if they did, why would they give it to us?"
I'd like to say I didn't hesitate, that I had no slimy moment of indecision… but that would not be true. All the same, with my stomach clenched into a knot, I reached beneath the folds of my beautiful white wedding blouse, drew the bag off my belt and pushed it into her unresisting hands.
"There's ten silvers in there, and more. Take it. Don't argue, just take it. And stay here, where you belong."
Nessa's eyes widened, much as mine had, I suspect, as she felt the weight of the bag, her fingers digging into the leather. She clutched it close to her chest, opened it, peered inside and—from the look on her face—was unable to believe what she saw.
"W-where did you get this much money? I… Never mind. I'm not talking you out of this. Thank you! Thank you so much! You've saved my family—I love you!"
Nessa flung herself at me, hugged me tight, and it was all I could do not to fall over backwards and land us both in the mud. I patted her back.
"It's all right. Really."
And it was. Money comes, money goes, I told myself. All the same… ouch.
"Oh!" She let me go, breathless and bright-eyed. "Now I just have to handle the parents…."
I smiled and wished her luck before I went to rejoin Soris, who'd been snared back into that cycle of hand-shaking, shoulder-slapping and manic grinning. He looked pummelled to within an inch of his life, and appeared glad to duck out of the crowd and take my arm, playing the role of the protective male relative.
"What was all that about?" he asked, nodding to Nessa, who was already talking to her parents in hushed tones.
I shook my head. "Just a wedding present."
"Oh?" Soris quirked an eyebrow. "I thought we were supposed to get those, not give them."
"Shut up," I said affectionately, and shoved my shoulder against his as we walked.
We rounded the corner, heading back towards the dais and the party that had pretty much started in our absence. Someone was playing a sprightly fiddle jig, and the liquor was definitely flowing. I could see Shianni standing with the two other bridesmaids, Nola and Arith, all decked out in beautiful dresses.
Shianni caught sight of us and raised her hand to wave, but the smile died on my face as, behind her, I saw three human men striding towards the little gathering.
"Oh, Maker," Soris murmured.
These weren't just guards, poking their noses into our affairs in hopes of a little bit of protection money or the chance to ruffle a few shirtfronts. They were dressed far too well, resplendent in suits of red and gold silk… and all three carried swords.