Note: Hi there! And sorry for the hiatus! Work's been hellish. I'm trying to add some meat to the story after reading through the sparse paragraphs of the previous chapters. Tell me how you think it went?
I will be replying to reviews shortly after this - if you reviewed and didn't get a reply, I'm sorry. I'll be rectifying that immediately!
The Danger of Touch
The rain fell far sooner than Hawke had predicted, of course. I hovered at the window, watching the water hurtle from the sky as though chased from the heavens, and mumbled curses to the Maker for the luck he bestowed upon me under my breath.
"Fenris," Hawke called from where she was kneading sweet smelling dough into round loaves, "Do you have something to share with the rest of the class?"
I turned and cocked my head. "Pardon me?"
She glanced up, her hands continuing their work unsupervised. "It's all well and good for you to speak gibberish when we're fighting bandits, but I'm afraid Mother and I only speak common."
"Oh… nothing." I turned back to the window. The streets outside were dark despite the early hour. What I could make out from the square of light that was throw on the landing by the window was nothing but mud and grit, pounded together with furious raindrops until the world had become a morass of slick slime that seemed unique to Lowtown. I'd never seen it anywhere else before. The few times I had the misfortune to travel through it, I was lucky to keep my feet at all. Some quality about the thick sludge denied the idea of friction. "I thought the rain was supposed to wait."
Leandra sighed. She was setting out wooden plates a bit prematurely. I got the impression that she didn't quite know what to do with herself when she had a guest. Or perhaps it was just that her guest was one such as me. I didn't really know what to do with myself either. Still, she put a game smile on her face and turned to me. "Come, now, young man. Perhaps a bit of wine will do you some good while we wait for the bread." Before I could decline, she was before me, thrusting a cup in my direction. A bouquet that smelled half sour assaulted my nose and I had to fight to keep my lip from curling. Under her expectant stare, I found myself raising the cup to take a small sip. After the acrid tang assaulted the sides of my tongue, I nodded in what I hoped was a grateful fashion. It must have worked, because she retreated back to the table.
Hawke had put the bread over the fire. A pleasant herbal aroma wafted forth and my mouth began to water. Fresh baked bread. When had I ever had that before?
She immediately went after the venison, where I'd stacked the pieces into a pile as they were cut apart. Her fingers seemed impossibly nimble as she brandished a knife, small and sharp, and began to slice the meat into a more uniform size. Leandra settled into a chair at the table and suddenly, I felt a bit exposed. I was slouched against the wall, almost across the room from the other two. A few stray drops of rain managed to go against the general drive of the storm and they hit me with stinging force. I reached outside the window aperture where the shutters were banging against the exterior walls in time with the gusts. They were slippery under my fingers. I had to try a few times before I managed a decent grip on the rickety wood, bracing my opposite arm on the sill and breathing through my mouth because of the rain that threatened to go up my nose. Fighting the wind, I yanked the shutter towards me and tied it to a hook on the wall. Then I turned and repeated the process with the opposite shutter. It only took a few moments but by the time I finished, my hair was plastered to my forehead and my shoulders were soggy.
"Thank you, Fenris," Leandra said around her cup.
I nodded diffidently. I was still lurking in my corner of the room. While the warmth of the fire began to fill the room, with it came a smell that reminded me why they had left the window open in the first place. Something between the scent of stale urine and musky body odor rose with the heat. Cheap wine. Old sweat, and possibly blood. I could detect the musk of Hawke's mabari, and it was actually a good thing. The honest smell of a dog, while heavy, was better than the reek that seemed to come from the back room. Through it all, the bread meandered. It was a war, and the side of good seemed to be losing.
And so I stood there, not necessarily put off by the reek, but unsure of what to do next. I wasn't used to someone cooking a meal in front of me. Given the choice, I would be tucked into my makeshift home. Hungry, perhaps, but at least I would have my solitude to enjoy.
While I dithered, Hawke had moved on to the vegetables, before dumping the whole lot of prepared ingredients into the water, which was already boiling merrily. A handful of unidentifiable herbs followed. "Fenris," she said, her back to me, "Do you plan on just standing there the whole time? Come take a seat."
Refusing would be rude, I told myself. Complying is not admission of inferiority.
My eyes flicked between mother and daughter. There was silence at the table, Leandra toying with her mug and Hawke steepling her fingers on the tabletop. A tension existed here, one that wasn't there before Hawke had come home. It was evident in the way that neither woman would look at the other. They even seemed to avoid addressing each other, instead speaking in my direction with strained tones, or making statements into the air that were worded so ambiguously that it could be directed at anyone. Each time a conversation was ventured, it was followed by a flat, oppressive lull.
It made me feel awkward on a new level that I was not used to experiencing.
The shutters banged against the sill.
A strange urge filled me. It made me cast about my mind for something to say. Anything. The silence needed to be broken, and for some reason I felt compelled to do so. I'd never bothered with this before – people and their conversations were never something I had to worry about as a slave and afterward, I had spent most of my time either alone or in the company of people with less-than-honorable tongues. My hands flexed in my lap and I shifted in my chair. It took a conscious effort to straighten my spine. When I felt my internal preparations were complete, I found a neutral point to stare at – an out-of-place tuft of hair that stuck out over her ear – to look at. "How was the Wounded Coast?"
"Grey and wet." Came her clipped reply. She looked a bit relieved, though, and continued. "We went there on a request from the Viscount. Well, it was via his seneschal, but same difference."
I nodded. "Confidential?"
"Well…" she glanced at her mother. Leandra stared hard at her cup. "A little."
"Pity." I said, "I find my curiosity piqued."
Hawke offered a smile. "Curiosity killed the cat, you know."
"You really want to know?" Hadriana said with a fiendish smile. The smile masked the cold, detached cruelty beneath.
"I-I'm sorry, Mistress. Please, mercy-" the shopkeeper groveled. Pathetic, perhaps, but the proper course of action.
Hadriana gestured. I didn't see what she did, but suddenly the shopkeeper's eyes rolled up in his head, blood dribbling down his chin. Ahead of her, Denarius didn't even blink.
"That's where curiosity gets you, worm," Hadriana hissed.
I blinked. "Ah. Um. Please. Do not let me…" I trailed off.
The silence, when it inevitably took over again, did not disturb me so much after that. Leandra and Hawke remained overtly uncomfortable, but I'd withdrawn. And presently, the aroma of stew and fresh bread muscled in and made my mouth water.
The ice seemed set to be broken. At least, until the back room door opened and the uncle stumbled out. Without missing a beat, Hawke turned and shoved a bowl and a hunk of cooling bread at the bleary-eyed man. "Here. Go back to bed."
Gamlen's mouth worked for a moment. His eyes roved the room and I could almost hear him counting the heads in the room. He started at Leandra, then Hawke, and then his eyes settled on me. His brows furrowed. "Andraste's flaming petticoats, girl, what the bleeding fade is a knife-ears doing in my home?"
Leandra stiffened. "Gamlen!"
Anger flashed behind Hawke's eyes. The lines of her back were rigid with offense. "Uncle," she began in a measured, careful tone. "Please just take your food and eat. This elf is a friend. I'll not hear you disparage him."
"'m still the master of my home," Gamlen muttered, shoving into a chair directly across from me. "Blasted thing'll probably steal us blind."
Hawke caught by eye and shook her head apologetically. "We have nothing to steal, Uncle."
Red eyes glared at me. He dipped his hand into the bowl and scooped the thick stew into his mouth, never wavering. I gazed back, impassively. "I am not interested in your home." I stated.
"Then why're you here? 'Jes wanna eat my food, huh?"
A bowl slid in front of me and I jumped in surprise. A generous hunk of bread soon joined it. "Thank you, Hawke," I said. Then, to the hungover man, "Your sister is simply allowing me a meal for my assistance this afternoon at the market. The generosity of your family does you credit."
He blinked as my words made the arduous journey from my lips to the receptors of his mind. Seconds passed, in which Hawke served her mother, and took a seat to my right. Wrinkles formed on the man's forehead as he squinted at me. "Yeah." He mumbled. "You better not take anything though. I'll be counting the valuables after you leave."
I glanced down at the bowl. It sat in front of me, no spoon or fork in which to spear the chunks of meat and vegetables. It had an appetizing aroma, though. Most times I had seen stews or soups, they were eaten by magisters with fine dining utensils. In the years I had been on the run, my diet had consisted of easily carried items like fruits and hard tack. Slaves and commoners at with much the same methods – their hands. "I'll make certain I leave your silver where it's hidden," I said dryly. Hawke snorted.
The meal progressed as expected. That is to say, tense and loaded with undirected anger on the parts of the Hawke/Amell family.
The storm raged beyond the door. Water seeped in through the cracks between the door and the jamb, dripped from the half-rotten thatch and daub that comprised the roof, and leaked through unchinked areas on the walls. The rumble of thunder was both distant and near, muffled as it was by clouds and walls.
The table had long been cleared away and it was only through a force of will that kept me from prowling the length of the main room like a caged animal. Gamlen had dropped a few more laughable warnings and an invitation to gamble in my direction before stumbling off to his bed with a bottle of cheap whiskey.
Leandra yawned shortly after Gamlen retired. "Goodness, it has gotten late, hasn't it?"
I nodded. I knew a queue when I heard one. "I'll be on my way, then." I said with some form of relief. As much as I did not want to slog through the dregs of the streets outside, getting away from the last few hours of discomfort was a chance I was going to jump at.
"Huh-uh." Hawke said. "You won't make it past the next street. It always washes out during these storms."
"We can't just let you try to walk home in this weather, dear," her mother said, concern lining her face. "I'm sure we have spare linens in here somewhere."
I adjusted the straps on one of my gauntlets to hide my disquiet. "I cannot impose. I have dealt with worse than just a little weather. A walk through the city is hardly going to spell my doom." I edged toward the door.
"Bullshit," Hawke said, making Leandra blanch. "If you leave, mother will make me come with you because she will feel guilty for keeping you. And if I do that, then I get to tag along for the two hour walk to hightown, then turn around and tramp all the way back here by myself. Mother will have a fit. Which means that either you will be staying here until the morning, or you'll be putting me up at your place until the morning after we both get soaked in freezing rain. And mother will not put up with my being unaccompanied with a man overnight."
"But," I began, the memories of her overtaking my favorite chair for several weeks floating to the top of my mind. She stared at me, hard, as though she was trying to impart something on me through sheer will. And suddenly, I understood. "But… I'm an…elf." I finished lamely.
"It doesn't matter, dear," Leandra said with careful gentleness. "I'm sure you understand why."
I didn't, not really. Hawke could handle herself, and it wasn't as though I was going to attack her in any way. Surely they could both understand that.
Leandra was already digging through a chest on the side of the room. Hawke shook her head. "It'll be fine, Fenris. Denarius isn't going to show up on your doorstep tonight."