Paivel was a very good story teller. Merrill knew all the stories before he told them. Most of the time, she knew them better than he did. Early on in her training, she would become frustrated with his departures from the established lore. On more than one occasion, she interrupted the story out-of-turn to correct him on some detail or other. Eventually, Marethari had to explain why that was rude. Merrill was so embarrassed she refused to listen to the evening tale for a month.
She spent her time in the Keeper's aravel, alone with her studies. It was a privilege, to only have to share the aravel with one other. Most others had to navigate living with a half-dozen others. The extra space was a luxury.
And very, very lonely.
Eventually, on a day when the evening seemed even longer than normal, the aravel colder and more cavernous, her studies drier and more ponderous than ever, she excused herself to Marethari and crept back to the fire, keeping further back than the others. And her mouth firmly shut.
She was soon glad she had decided to end her self-imposed exile, as Paivel was just beginning one of her favorite stories: Andruil and Sylaise Outsmart Fen'Harel. She listened closely as Paivel wove the tale in his masterful way, actively trying not to think too much about the details and just allow his words to carry her imagination. But then Paivel described Andruil wielding a longbow, a thousand years or more before such a thing was even imagined. She bit her lip very hard and did not argue.
Marethari always told her that when she was having trouble determining how to behave, she should look to the faces of her clan, and follow their example. So she swallowed her words of protest and began studying the faces of the others. One and all bore expressions of rapt attention.
Her gaze was drawn to one in particular, Lyna Mahariel.
Lyna wasn't like the others in the clan. There were the superficial differences, of course. Her family was from so far north, from the shem'len and qunari land of Rivain. Her skin was darker than the others, her eyes larger and such a lovely, soft brown, soft like the velvet on a young halla's horns. And keenly aware of all that was going on, as if she could see further, hear more clearly, know all that was going on around her at all times.
Merrill supposed that most hunters had that look of preternatural awareness, but Lyna wasn't just aware. She also understood with a wisdom beyond her short years.
Or so Merrill supposed.
She realized that Lyna had met her gaze, and was looking back at her, calm curiosity and the firelight reflected in her lovely eyes. Merrill shook herself, flushing in embarrassment as she turned her eyes elsewhere.
She had never really spoken to Lyna beyond a few polite pleasantries. Partly because of her focus on her studies, and partly because she could never think of anything to talk about with Lyna that could possibly interest her. So she sat and watched. And found herself feeling very jealous of Tamlen, who had the enviable position of being her hunting partner. And, as rumor would have it, soon to be Lyna's mate.
Too soon, Paivel finished his tale and it was time to sleep. The other elves said their quiet goodnights and parted ways. Merrill lingered in the glow of the fire as long as she could before making the long trek back to the Keeper's aravel.
Which, as Merrill remembered when she arrived at the empty clearing, had been moved during the day, due to rain softening the earth so much that it had started to sink into the ground. She could tell it was the right clearing, as the aravel had left indentations in the soft soil where the wheels had sunk, halfway to their axles. But the aravel was gone. In the moonlight, she could spy a faint trail leading... somewhere. It quickly disappeared in the shadows, and she knew she'd have no hope of ever finding it.
She stood in the clearing, shivering in the damp air and wondering if the rustling in the ferns was due to a mouse or something more sinister, and was just about to cry out for help when none other than Lyna herself stepped into the moonlight, revealing herself as the source of the sound.
"Oh!" Merrill exclaimed, laughing at herself in embarrassment and jumping a little as Lyna touched her arm in an attempt to calm her. "I was worried you were a squirrel." Merrill rubbed at her arm where Lyna had touched her, the feeling of her fingers lingering on her skin.
Lyna gazed back at her, a glimmer of confusion in her impassive eyes. Her lovely, large and dark eyes. Merrill blushed under her scrutiny and looked at a rather interesting cluster of glowing fungus instead.
"I have a question," Lyna said in her low, calm voice.
Merrill thrilled at the possibility of helping Lyna with something, but quickly changed her mind. "You shouldn't ask me. You should ask Marethari," she said, keeping her eyes on the fungus. "I am only her student, after all. I wouldn't want to give you the wrong answer."
Lyna was quiet for a time. "I'd prefer to know your thoughts on the matter."
Merrill stole a glance in her direction. "Well. Alright, then." She laughed a little, trying to cover her excitement and anxiety.
"Paivel was sharing a story of Andruil and Sylaise tonight," Lyna began, moving silently to sit on a stone. "And I have some questions about them."
"Oh, well, Andruil is the goddess of the hunt and Sylaise of the hearth, of course," Merrill said, trying to move with the same grace as she sat cross-legged on the ground near Lyna's stone. She picked up a stick and poked at a patch of red moss. "The stories say they were sisters, and got along rather well, all things considered. I used to be quite envious of them, you know," she continued. "I always wondered what it would be like to have brothers and sisters. They seemed to enjoy it very much."
Lyna was quiet again, watching Merrill poke at the moss. Merrill grew uneasy in the silence. Had she offended Lyna somehow? Would she leave now? She looked up at her, trying to determine what she had said to upset her. "I know you hadn't any brothers or sisters, either. Were you envious as well? I don't think there's anything wrong with it. So long as the envy didn't turn bitter and you don't begrudge others what they have."
"How do we know?" Lyna asked, voice soft.
Merrill blinked up at her. "Know what?"
"That they were sisters?" Lyna asked, evidently finding the moss as interesting as Merrill had found the fungus.
"Well, that's what the stories say. How does anybody know anything, really? Even things we see with our own eyes can sometimes deceive us. Or things we hear with our own ears. If you hadn't come out of the bushes I would have told Marethari that you were a squirrel and as far as I know that would have been true but now we both know for sure that it wasn't so."
Lyna nodded, her eyes very far away. Merrill very much wished that Lyna's eyes were looking at her, seeing her, but that was foolishness. Everybody knew she was in love with Tamlen. Besides, while such entanglements between women weren't forbidden they certainly weren't encouraged. The Dalish were few enough without wasting those who could conceive da'len'en on relationships that could never create them.
"The story doesn't make much sense to me," Lyna said, finally breaking the silence.
"Oh," Merrill laughed again. "That's understandable. Many of the stories take ages and ages before I'm able to understand their full meaning. There was one story about Dirthamen that took me an entire season to decipher. I was afraid that Marethari was going to give up on me entirely and seek out a new apprentice!" She stopped herself from continuing to babble. "Are there, um, any particular questions you have about it?"
Lyna shifted, pulling one leg up to her chest and wrapping her arms around it and resting her chin on her knee. "It... would make more sense to me if they weren't sisters."
Merrill tilted her head. "Really? What would make more sense, do you think? I was thinking maybe if Sylaise were Andruil's mamae, perhaps. But then they often treat each other as equals which would be surprising if she were significantly older..."
Lyna shifted her weight again. "Nae, not like that. It would make more sense to me if they were... Like mates."
Merrill was struck speechless. "Such relationships are, um, rare."
Finally, Lyna met her eye. "I know," she said simply, voice soft as goose down.
Merrill shivered in the chill of the night air. She looked at Lyna, who shone silver in the moonlight, her beautiful curly hair springing around her, framing her face and her lovely, wide dark eyes. She swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. "Sometimes," Merrill said in a whisper, afraid to put to voice those thoughts she had held inside for so long. "Sometimes I wish they weren't so rare."
"Me, too," Lyna said.
Merrill trembled as Lyna stood and closed the distance between them, sitting beside her on the moss. "I think," she said as she entwined her fingers with Merrill's and leaned closer so that they touched at the shoulder, the hip, the knee. "I think it would make more sense if they were... mates. And Andruil kept Sylaise safe from wolves and other creatures. And hunted for her. And Sylaise made a home for them. And knew many things about The People and their stories. And they lived together like that. In love and peace and plenty."
It was the longest speech Merrill had ever heard Lyna say. Lyna herself seemed surprised at how many words had just crossed her lips, and looked to Merrill with a touch of apprehension.
"That would make very much sense to me, too," Merrill said before leaning her face close enough to brush her lips against Lyna's.
Lyna gasped softly as their lips touched, and Merrill wondered if she felt the same heat, the same tingle on hers. She tightened her fingers in Lyna's grasp and slipped her other hand to Lyna's shoulder, pulling her close. Lyna wound her arm around Merrill's waist and kissed her back, deeply, and Merrill could feel her heart thundering in her chest. Nothing had ever felt so perfect as Lyna's lips on hers. She sighed softly as she lifted her hand higher, threading her fingers into Lyna's glory of curls.
There was nothing she wanted more than to stay there in that embrace, Lyna's body wound around hers. Well, that wasn't entirely true. There were certainly things she wanted more, things she couldn't even name but had instincts for. To see more of Lyna's body in the moonlight. To hear more of her voice. To explore more of her skin with her fingers, her lips, her tongue. To see and hear and taste and touch and smell all of her until they were both satisfied.
But Marethari would wonder. And worry. And send hunters to find her. And that would be... embarrassing.
Merrill broke the kiss and bit her lip. "I have to go," she whispered, touching Lyna's cheek gently. "Marethari will wonder..."
Lyna nodded quickly. "Ae. I've... delayed you too long." She pushed a lock of hair behind Merrill's ear, fingers trailing over the tip, sending shivers down Merrill's spine. "Would you mind if I walked you there?"
Merrill smiled shyly. "Nae. I'm like to get lost if you don't, to be perfectly honest."
Lyna smiled, eyes warm. "That wouldn't do." She stood, holding Merrill's hand to draw her to her feet, and led her through the ferns to where the Keeper's aravel had been moved. As they got closer to the aravel, both women moved away from each other, out of instinct. And by the time they arrived at the clearing, they were no longer holding hands.
Marethari stood in front of the aravel, holding a lantern just above her eyes, features even more severe in the light. "Merrill! I was about to send the hunters."
"Keeper." Lyna stepped forward, bowing in respect. "I discovered Merrill along the path. She has not come to harm."
Marethari was silent a long time as she eyed both women, her face betraying no emotion. "So I see," she said simply. "Come, Merrill, it is time for bed. And you will see yourself back, Lyna."
"Ae, Keeper." Lyna bowed again. "Dareth shiral, Keeper. Emma falon," she said, a ghost of that same warmth in her tone as she bid Merrill goodnight before melting back into the shadows.
Marethari said nothing more to Merrill as they both prepared for sleep and went to bed in silence.
A week later, Marethari welcomed a shem'len man as if he were a friend. "This is Duncan, of the Grey Wardens," she said, introducing Merrill to the strange, tall, bearded man.
"Andaran atish'an," Merrill said, bowing politely.
"Thank you for allowing me into this place of peace," the shem'len said, bowing in return.
"Duncan is here to seek out possible recruits for his order," Marethari said, turning to lead Duncan in a tour of the camp. "Do you have any recommendations?"
Merrill felt anxious. She was being tested. But to what end? "One of our hunters, certainly. We have many who are quite skilled."
"Any in particular?" Duncan asked, genuinely interested.
Merrill glanced to Marethari, who did not meet her eye. And suddenly Merrill knew what she was expected to say. "Our most promising hunter is Lyna Mahariel," Merrill informed him, tone perfectly even, even as her heart sank.
"Ah," Duncan nodded as Marethari smiled. "Is that not the same suggestion you made, Keeper? I shall speak to her as soon as she returns from today's hunt." He smiled and nodded again as Marethari looked on Merrill in approval.
She tried to take comfort in that, even after Lyna was gone.
But she always found more comfort in the memory of the kiss in the moonlight than any of Marethari's praises.
Dareth shiral: "farewell" or "safe journey"
Adaran atish'an: "Enter this place in peace"
Emma falon: My friend
Andruil: Elven goddess of the hunt
Sylaise: Elven goddess of the hearth
Fen'Harel: The dread wolf, Elven trickster god
Dirthamen: Elven god of secrets
Special thank you to Tjadis, Solitae, and HAZuff for the betas!
And ps in my head Merrill goes on to hook up with Marian and Lyna with Leliana. Temporary heartbreak, but happy in the end!