The wagon creaked rhythmically, swaying a little with every slow plod the oxen took along the muddy road. The caravan was not large: just three carts loaded with goods, and one bow-topped wagon that held supplies, and sleeping arrangements for the merchant, his son, and the two other ox drivers, who were apparently part of his extended family. Nelaros, like the merchant's two elven servants, was supposed to take his chances sleeping on the cart… as was the girl travelling with them.
He thought it was appalling. Among his people, a young woman would have been accorded far more respect—not to mention somewhere warm and dry to sleep. Then again, the merchant's son had made that offer not long after they left Highever and, although the boy's father had given him a clip around the ear and told him not to harass their paying passengers, even if they were knife-ears, Nelaros had ensured he hadn't left the girl alone near any of the humans since.
Her name was Valora, and she said they were going to be cousins, of a kind, once they were both wedded to their respective betrotheds. Nelaros wasn't sure he was thrilled with that notion, but he supposed their travelling together made the business of heading into marriage in a strange city very slightly less terrifying. It should have done, anyway. As it was, he had spent the past several days—which, frankly, had felt more like an age—acting the role of the girl's protector; something that, really, she should have had a male relative, or at least a marriage broker to do.
He hadn't known her back home—back in Highever, he corrected, for though he'd lived there all his life, it wasn't his home any longer—but she seemed pleasant enough. She wore a very modest brown dress, and had a heavy fall of pale brown hair a little at odds with her tanned skin. He supposed there might be some Antivan blood in her somewhere, judging by the colouring, though if so it was an amusing coincidence, because there was absolutely nothing of a fiery northern temperament about her. She was small, and quiet, and not very pretty, with worried brown eyes and a tragic overbite.
Still, he felt sorry for her. They were both a long way from everything they'd ever known, with nothing but a pit of uncertainty yawning before them. Of course, such was the very nature of anyone's marriage, but the long, bone-rattling miles of roadway had put the matter into sharp perspective.
They had talked quite a bit on the journey; Nelaros had learned that Valora's father had been a labourer and her mother a seamstress, though both had been dead for a number of years, and she had little family in the Highever alienage, except a cousin who worked in the kitchens of a local tavern. With no parent to represent her, she had been obliged to take the best match Hahren Sarethia had been able to secure and—Valora had confided in a soft, breathy whisper—she was very grateful for the hahren's arrangement, because she'd never thought to see the capital, and it was surely a wonderful place.
"And what about your groom?" Nelaros had asked, mildly amused by the mantras the girl seemed to cling to. "Does he sound wonderful as well?"
She'd blushed a little, and tucked her small, delicate hands up in her sleeves.
"I… I really don't know anything about him, except that the hahren says he's an orphan, like me, and he's a second cousin of the girl you'll be marrying. Hahren Sarethia says her father is paying for Soris' and my wedding also… doesn't that sound generous?"
"Oh, yes. Definitely."
Well, it did. There was no denying that. The matchmaker had told Nelaros' parents many enticing tales of Cyrion Tabris and his welcome generosity. The family was supposed to be quite well-connected… or so the broker said. Tabris had been in service in the palace district for many years, and they rented a cottage at the best end of the alienage, close to the market-side gate. Apparently, that was a big thing, although Nelaros lacked enough familiarity with the city's layout to fully appreciate it.
His father had told him to be grateful. After all, it could have been a lot worse. Sure, Denerim was a long journey, but it was the capital! He was going to a great city—birthplace of Andraste, no less—where he would be at the centre of everything. There would be more opportunities for work, better housing, better living… who knew what good fortune it could bring, especially to one who was not an only child, and whose family were very grateful indeed for the sizeable dowry payment the girl's father had offered.
Nelaros sat grimly in the swaying cart, and stole another look at Valora. She seemed to grow even more nervous the closer they got to Denerim, her gaze ever flitting to the trees and fields beyond the roadside, or the rooftops of villages, or even the wildflowers that sagged in the hedgerows, blowsy with the just-past echoes of late summer. She looked terrified of everything.
They should arrive within the day now, the merchant said. Nelaros took deep breaths of the cool, clean air—his last lungfuls of freedom—and, like his travelling companion, watched the scenery roll by. It was more of the outside world than he'd ever seen before. He'd left the alienage only once or twice, and even then not gone far beyond city bounds: just a few errands for his master at the forge, run between the river and the outskirts of the forest, where the coppicers kept a charcoal kiln.
He missed that. Missed the smell of smoke and the searing, thick heat of the furnace… the anvil's song, the blinding whites and oranges of hot metal, and the hissing, spitting alchemy of quenching new iron.
Oh, he would never have his own smithy. He knew that. An elven blacksmith was a ridiculous notion—who'd get their horses shod at an elf's shop?—but he had worked at the craft for years, and he was good enough to be a reliable apprentice. Master Yehrel had said so and, besides, if the customers didn't know who did the hammering and who was there just to pump the bellows, what did they care that an elf had made their hinges, locks, shoes, and nails? What they didn't know wouldn't kill them.
His thoughts turned to the wedding ring, wrapped in cloth and securely tucked in his innermost pocket. Master Yehrel had helped him craft it: a thin brass band, gilded with what scraps of gold Nelaros had been able to lay hands upon. It wasn't a rich treasure, but it was the finest, most delicate piece of work he'd ever done.
He hoped his bride would like it. He hoped it fitted, too… but there was no sense in worrying about it now. Not when they were this close to the city.
He could already make out the shape of Denerim on the skyline. It was a dark, jagged silhouette, just past the heavy profile of Dragon's Peak, and with the patchwork of traffic pooling outside the gates like a heaving mass of ants. The roads had been getting busier as they started the approach, though at least that did lessen the probability of bandits. They'd been lucky on that front since Highever—one group of armed men who looked decidedly disreputable had ridden past, but the caravan was clearly carrying nothing more interesting than the most basic of trade supplies, so they hadn't been bothered.
That was a relief, if for no other reason than that Nelaros was fairly sure Valora wouldn't have coped. She seemed frightened by every raincloud, and she sat so tucked in on herself that she reminded him of some small bird, huddled in its own drab feathers to hide from the weather.
Ah, but he was being unfair. She was pleasant enough… although, privately, he had to admit that he couldn't help wondering if he was going to do any better when it came to his spouse. He'd asked the broker if his bride was pretty, and been worried by the man's fixed smile and slightly panicked eyes.
I've met her. She's charming. Everything you could hope for in a wife: obedient, clean, polite… a virgin, of course. Very morally upright family. She's kept the house since her mother died, and it's immaculate. And she cooks! Darns, sews—
—Yes, but what does she look like?
The broker had shifted uneasily. Brown hair, brown eyes… nice eyes, mind you. She has all her teeth, too, you know… and a good figure. Very good figure. A nice face. The kind of face a man could come home to, he'd said, evidently clutching at straws.
Nelaros had not been inspired by that statement. Still, as his mother had pointed out, what use was a beautiful wife? A girl who coasted through life on her looks usually knew nothing of hard work or duty, and her morality was often questionable. Much better a girl who was tolerably pretty, but sweet-natured, and they said Merien had that in spades.
He wasn't so sure. If she was so sweet and dutiful, how come she was still unmarried at twenty? Almost twenty-one, in fact, given how long it had taken to finalise the arrangements. He suspected her father was to blame. He seemed very… traditional. Over-protective, certainly. He hadn't allowed them to exchange letters, for example, despite the fact that the matchmaker had said Merien could both read and write a little. She was accomplished, apparently, although she had no trade. Accomplished at what, Nelaros wasn't entirely sure, and yet he had to admit that he liked the sound of a girl who could keep a home running, and knew enough figuring and letters to count coppers and budget for the price of bread.
He'd need that kind of support while he set himself up with work. His father had a cousin who'd been making enquiries at some of the forges in Denerim, and claimed to have the name of a smith who might consider taking an elven apprentice, which sounded promising. And yet… yet he still worried. He worried that his sweet and dutiful bride would end up being a doltish hag, and that his new father-in-law would be a martinet, ruling every aspect of their life for years to come, until they were blindly clinging on, waiting for the old man to die. It wasn't a pleasant prospect. And all this in an unfamiliar city… with no relatives, no friends, and no one to turn to when he needed to complain, because the Denerim alienage would be full of her relatives.
It was frightening, really, though he'd done his best to make a good impression in advance. Cyrion might not have allowed personal letters for fear of impropriety, but he had consented to size a piece of string to Merien's finger and send it along, so Nelaros could smith her ring. It was a nice gesture… and something that he'd enjoyed doing. It had been good of Master Yehrel to help him, too, and Nelaros reflected sadly on how much he would miss the smith. He was a good man, for a human, though he had seemed to find the whole matter of elven wedding customs quaint, which Nelaros disliked intensely. He wrinkled his lip at the memory of his old master's indulgent, red-cheeked smile… his chortling at the picturesque little ways the knife-ears had among themselves. Such human arrogance! As if their poverty, imposed upon them by shemlen law, took away their dignity and bled the honour from their lives.
Still, he supposed he had no need to think of that any longer. Denerim reared up on the horizon, and Nelaros had no doubt that life there would be very different. Maybe the shems would take less notice of elves than they did in Highever; maybe a bigger place meant bigger crowds, and crowds were always easy to get lost in.
Yes… a new city awaited. A new life. A new bride.
He only hoped it worked out well.