Curled on the couch, Fenris gazed at the book in his hands. A small fire crackled in the hearth. On the library wall above the dusty mantle late afternoon sun painted interlaced shadows from the bare vines that criss-crossed the window behind him.
The title, inlaid in gilt on the fine leather cover read - A Slave's Life. He knew that because Danal had told him. The elf's fingers traced the letters, but he didn't know where one word began and another left off. When had Shartan learned to read and write? Had it been an act of subversion before he'd joined his cause to Andraste's? Or had he learned after the slaves were freed? In the end, did it really matter? Either way, between these covers his words lived, telling of his life, and his journey from slavery to freedom.
The elf started at the sound of the front door bell. After Danal had dropped off the book, he'd hurried back outside, saying he'd return in a little while after Fenris had explained, feeling awkward and embarrassed, that slaves weren't allowed to read. Why his lover insisted on ringing the bell was a mystery. Danal spent more time here then in his mansion. And it wasn't as if he waited for Fenris to answer the door. He just let himself in, or on rare occasions when he forgot his key, picked the lock. Sometimes Fenris suspected he did that on purpose, to 'keep in practice' as Varric often claimed when he let himself in. So the elf just leaned back in the couch, caressing the book in his lap while he waited for his lover.
Danal glided into the room, several wrapped bundles cradled in one arm. Grinning, he gently laid them on the one table in the room, then pulled off his cloak, draping it over a chair before he settled next to the elf on the plush couch.
"What's that?" Fenris asked, nodding at the packages, and taking a deeper breath. Danal smelled like pine wood smoke and crisp autumn wind.
"Well, for one thing, more books."
That earned the human an arched brow, and a glance at the shelves lining the walls from floor to ceiling.
Danal laughed. "I know, but they're a little…dense. At least, the ones in Fereldan are. The others are in Arcanum. I recognize the script, but I can't read it. I think there may even be a few Antivan and Rivaini volumes mixed in there." He paused in picking up a package, giving Fenris a thoughtful look. "Outside of Arcanum and Common, do you know any other languages?"
"Qunari. Some Antivan, and a bit of Rivaini, enough to get by."
"Get by, huh? Like you 'get by' in Common?"
Danal pulled a package onto his lap, then started untying the twine. "You realize that makes you illiterate in five languages. Not many people can claim that." He chuckled. "I barely get by in one."
He did far better than 'get by.' The man loved to turn an elegant phrase as much as Varric. As for the rest of his lover's comment, Fenris wasn't sure if he should be annoyed or pleased. Many free-born couldn't read, but they weren't whipped for trying to learn.
"Damn," the human muttered as he tugged on a stubborn knot. A quick slice with his dagger took care of the problem, and the coarse, brown paper fell away revealing a stack of small, thin books, perhaps half-a-dozen.
He smiled as he picked up the topmost one, his fingers brushing over a plain, brown leather cover, not even a title on it.
"When Carver returned from that debacle at Ostagar, we'd assumed we'd have a bit of time to flee the Darkspawn since they didn't pursue the survivors as they fled the battlefield." Danal grimaced. "We were wrong…obviously. We had to leave most of what we packed behind, limit it to what we could carry. That meant food, weapons, Mother's few pieces of jewelry that survived the hard times, a change of clothes…and these." He laid his hand on the stack of books.
"Most precious thing in the world. And if you ever tell my mother I said that, I'll deny it with my dying breath."
Fenris cocked his head. It seemed an odd thing for his lover to say. "Really?"
Danal nodded. "When I was a child I was always looking for ways to sneak off when it came time for lessons." He chuckled. "I enjoyed learning –still do - but I hated the primers my mother used. All full of quotes from the Chant, prayers to the Maker, lessons from the life of Andraste. But they were the books she had learned to read from, so I guess it made sense to her to use them. My father hated them, too. So he made up his own."
He flipped open the book in his hand, then pointed to a symbol set off in a box in the upper left corner of the page. "First letter in the alphabet," Danal said, then pointed to the objects drawn below it, naming them. "Ax, apple, acorn, archer, arrow…well, you get the idea." Under each line drawing, what Fenris assumed was the word of the object was neatly penned.
"They all start with the same letter…this one," the elf said, tapping the symbol.
"Yes, and once you learn what sounds go with what letters- and combinations of letters - you can read any book written. Well, at least any book written in Common. Arcanum has a different alphabet…a different set of symbols."
Fenris glanced back at the open book cradled in his lover's hand, at the elegant little drawings spaced across the page. None highly detailed, but the clean simplicity of them told him something about Danal's father. A man in the habit of smiling, it seemed. For the archer smiled as he aimed his bow at the apple perched on top of a fence post. A squirrel hugged an oversized acorn to its chest, its eyes closed in happiness.
After putting that book aside, and picking up the next one in the stack, Danal showed him another letter. Beneath the symbol was the crude picture of a horse, an oval with sticks for the legs, a longish neck, and another wobbly oval for the head. The word – Fenris assumed it was 'horse' – sprawled beneath it. Even to the elf's untutored eye, the letters were barely recognizable as such.
"Father even left spaces for us to add our own pictures and words. Mother called it 'unconventional,'" Danal said with a grin. For a moment, just a moment, jealousy flitted through the elf's heart. He had a father, obviously. But like everything else in his past before these cursed markings, Fenris had no memory of him. He frowned at the other packages lying on the table.
A warm hand slipped over his thigh. "Fenris?"
The elf shook his head. "It's…" nothing. No, that's not true. "I…don't remember my father."
That warm hand slid around his hips, and Danal's lips brushed his cheek. "He's part of what you are…always. Every time you look in a mirror, you get a glimpse of him. Every time you swing that blasted sword of yours, his blood sings in your veins. Every breath you take, every beat of your heart is because he lived…and loved someone."
"Love isn't required for…breeding." Venhedis, that was the wrong thing to say.
His lover sighed very softly. "Maybe not. But are you honestly going to claim that no slave ever loved another?"
"No, but such bonds are often ignored." He pulled back, his fingertips lingering on Danal's face, just beneath the curving lines of his tattoos. "It's dangerous for a slave to love."
"Dangerous for mages, too."
Fenris felt the retort rising up from that black pit in his soul, the words scrabbling over one another for a place on his tongue. His jaw tightened against them as he glanced back at the picture book, at the crude drawing of the horse, and tried to imagine the small boy Danal once had been bent over the book. Had his father smiled as he watched his son at work? Fenris thought of that silly squirrel clutching the acorn. A man who drew something like that to teach his son about reading didn't seem the type that would take a switch to him for failing to master a lesson after one or two attempts the way Danarius often had with his apprentices.
Unbidden, the thought welled up, so strong it was almost a physical sensation. Danal was the kind of man he was not in spite of his father being a mage, but because of it. Everything Danal was, the qualities the elf most admired in him - his tenacity, his strength and courage, his kindness, that man –that mage – had helped to foster. If Fenris hadn't been sitting, he would have folded to the couch. The thought was a torment, and a revelation blending into another, the sudden understanding of why Danarius had forbidden him from even touching a book.
Gently, he laid his hand over his lover's lying on the open pages. "Of everything you could have taken, why these?" He suspected the answer, but he wanted to hear it in Danal's words.
"I couldn't leave him behind." His hand, beneath Fenris', flattened against the book. "Father's been gone almost six years, but through these, he still lives. Still has a place in this world. And always will."
And there it was…words on a page…collected together…page after page in book after book, a power that transcended death and time. Gone for centuries, Shartan could still speak to anyone who cared to listen. As Danal's father did to him.
Fenris' hand slipped up to his lover's cheek.
You are a man unlike any other I have known. With you…it might be different he'd once told Danal…so long ago, it seemed, though it had been only little more then a year.
"What?" Danal said, smiling, his head tilted to one side.
"You…are an extraordinary man." His fingers brushed soft lips to forestall the protest he saw in his lover's eyes. "Your father's son."
Danal kissed his fingers, then slipped his hand around them and grinned.
"Did I hear that right? Did you just say something nice about a mage?"
Fenris growled softly in the back of his throat, amused and irritated by his lover's flippancy.
"Tell anyone, and I'll deny it with my dying breath." Danal laughed and kissed him, then opened the rest of the packages revealing writing implements, stacks of cheap paper, and several books whose pages were blank.
"So you can write your own book someday," Danal said to his questioning look.
"And what would I write about?"
Danal waved his hand. "Anything you want to." He shook his head. "Just…don't write about me and my…'adventures.'" He glanced at the fire and his eyes went hooded and distant. "Killing people, even if they're bandits and murderers isn't an…adventure. Sometimes, it's just necessary."
Curiosity tugged at the elf. "Have you ever thought of writing a book?"
Those dark eyes cleared, humor creeping back into them as Danal's gaze met his. "To borrow a phrase, what would I write about?"
"Your father." The words slipped out, surprising both men. Fenris cleared his throat. "You speak of him often. When you're…dead, your words will also be gone." He picked up one of the blank books and held it out. "Write them down, so he will be remembered. So others can know him."
It seemed obvious, didn't it? So, why was Danal looking at him as if Fenris had just given him an unexpected gift?
The human slipped the book out of his fingers, gently laid it on the floor, then not so gently pulled the elf down on top of him in a passionate embrace. Then again, Danal always seemed to be looking for an excuse to peel him out of his clothes…like he was doing now. Not that one was needed.
In the back of his mind, beneath the heat blossoming between them, Fenris thought of the blank books lying on the floor. Someday, he would fill those pages with words, including words about Danal Hawke. Some people shouldn't be forgotten. Some voices should never be silenced.