A tree. A single tree. Crudely decorated, painted, cheap baubles and shinies hanging from its lower branches. It was big, strong , quite old with a thick trunk, and although its lower half was scratched and chipped and stained with Creators-knew-what, it was large and shady and… possibly festive, if one were feeling kind. Interestingly, it also showed no signs of shedding its summer weight and dying for the winter – the real winter, now. Granted, it was not so cold in Denerim as it would’ve been farther south, but it was a resilient tree.
But it was one damn tree.
Gheris stared at it, half in disgust, half in pity. What bothered her the most about Denerim was not the discrimination or the lack of legitimate work or the so-called elves in the alienage. Rather, it was the absence of nature. There were so very few trees throughout Denerim, and this was the only one in the alienage. The nobles’ gardens hardly counted – they were too tame, unnatural.
She as good as fit the stereotype of treehugger that humans gave elves, but that had been how she spent her life. And more than that, it reminded her of her clan. Poor treatment or not, she had no one in Denerim.
Now not only was she vhenedin, ‘not one of the clan,’ but the clan had assimilated with Naessa’s. As she was now, she could not be a part of that clan, for all of the young Keeper’s offers. It was likely she would never be able to return unless she gained a sense of what her place was. She owed Naessa more than that, owed both clans more than that.
But that did not stop her from missing the halla and the aravels and the hunts and the stories and lessons. For all the Shyth’iar’megdalain’s lack of resources, it was never so dirty, ugly, and hopeless as the alienage. This place was stifling, disgusting, and to Gheris, the sense of community was forced, the last defense against the pressure of the humans. If her city cousins did nothing, that defense, too, would fall, and they’d bend to shem whims just as with everything else.
Not that she could bring herself to hate either the humans or the alienage residents. Gheris had learned her lesson. Easy as it was to blame only humans –to blame Segonal – it would be lying to herself, a habit she needed to break. She had no solutions in mind, but she had learned, slowly and with difficulty, that blame was not a solution.
As for her alienage cousins…
To leave was dangerous, to fight was impossible, and they did what they could. They tried hard to keep the alienage peaceable. Many turned to crime and lazy hopelessness anyway, but they tried. They welcomed her, though she was still unsure what that was worth. But surely it meant something.
It was by the Vhenadahl that Hahren Valendrian found her. He stood by her silently for some time, watching the tree with her. He had been supporting, despite how busy he was, and was patient with her in a way that reminded her of Uncle Falenath. The difference was that Valendrian fumbled at times. He was wise beyond his years – certainly wiser than she – but still not aged enough for it to be true wisdom. Nor did he know much about the Dalish. He never said outright that she was one, but it was easy to tell, and because of it, he never acted with the certainty he had towards the other alienage elves.
Finally, he cleared his throat. “Gheris.”
“Hahren,” she said quietly.
“You seem pensive.”
She almost smiled. Never would anyone have called her ‘pensive’ four or five months ago. She answered with a slow, one-shouldered shrug.
“I take it you have not yet found work…”
“No,” she said curtly.
That was the other drawback of Hahren Valendrian: he always saw it fit to remind her or ask her about work when he knew full well that there was none for elves, and less than none for an elf whose accent was not entirely Denerim. He meant well, but that didn’t make him less tedious at times.
“I’m sorry. Have you tried the d-”
“Yes. I have tried everywhere. No one will take me on, Hahren.” She folded her arms and stared determinedly at the tree.
“Do not blame the humans, Gheris – ”
“I do not.”
She could feel the anxiety drip from him. These people were too soft, took too much comfort from simple words. When she did not take to them, they recoiled from her. They would learn from her example, or forever find her difficult.
“There would be people ready to welcome you for a week or so, I’m sure, until you could find steady work,” he suggested, regaining composure.
Gheris had struggled at first. She did not want to resort to old habits, but thievery was her only option some days. Now it was the only answer she had. Not that she would tell Hahren Valendrian. He would look at her with those disapproving eyes and she would feel guilty for trying to survive. The alternative was imposing on families that could probably barely feed themselves, and she did not need that on her conscience. The nobility would not miss what they wasted.
He was hesitating. She looked at him, at last, and tried to keep from frowning severely at him.
“Is there something you needed?” she asked. She didn’t sound very polite, but it wasn’t screechy.
“Perhaps you would like to join my wife and I for dinner,” he offered, smiling slightly.
She raised a hand. “No.”
His smile fell. “I strongly urge you to stay with someone this night, Gheris.” He lowered his voice. “There are Templars in the area for a while.”
She looked at him, unmoved, thinking. There were decent Templars – Teresa and her father came to mind – but there were also awful Templars who made an effort to combat the Dalish presence. Encountering them was usually not a risk she wanted to make. There’d been a fuss earlier that day involving Templars. She’d thought they would be gone by now, but if they were not, keeping out of sight would be best. The chances of them looking for her were low – they would know there was little she could tell them about the clans, they moved as they willed. It seemed too great a risk, however.
When she had been silent too long, the older man added, “We were supposed to have Ellistine and her mother for dinner this evening, but the Templars came for her today.”
Gheris’ eyebrows raised, questioning. Ellistine was a quiet girl. Mute, though not for any medical reason. She always lagged in the back when the children ran underfoot. Gheris had spoken to her a few times, found her willing to listen to some of the Dalish stories. For all the girl’s silence, she was all smiles and a good listener. What could the Templars want with her?
“The girl… Have you heard about the robbery to their home a fortnight ago? Ellistine used magic against them. She’s being taken to the mage tower.”
Involuntarily, Gheris cringed. “A sad fate for her, damned to magic. Are the robbers dead, then?”
The hahren shook his head, looking bewildered. “No! She… made a shield. No violence at all. A good sign, I think.”
Gheris maintained her frown. “Magic is dangerous. Very few can use it properly. Better that she has been taken away. A shield now, a fire next week.”
The people she felt could use magic numbered only two: Naessa and Simon. Grandmother and Mother had proven that power meant little if there was no control, no one to watch.
Valendrian shook his head. “A child taken from her mother… It seems unjustified.”
Better taken than given up, Gheris thought. She suppressed the bitterness and looked again at the tree.
“But… yes. We have more food than we know what to do with, and it will not last long. We may as well share.”
Gheris inhaled slowly. “I accept,” she said at length.
The house was very clean. There was not a single speck of dust anywhere, like overcompensation for the lack of stuff to fill the space with. A slip of an elven woman flitted around Gheris, asking her to take off her boots, please, and would she like something to drink? Gheris glanced at Valendrian and walked past the woman. She paused in her chatter before determinedly resuming about dinner being almost ready.
Valendrian gave Gheris a small smile, trying to encourage her to smile in return. She merely paced around, inspecting their few belongings. Well-worn, well-cared-for. Scrubbed immaculately. How had Valendrian ended up with her?
“Marriages,” she said suddenly, tilting her head at Valendrian, “how… how are they – Does the Chantry…?” She struggled, trying to phrase the question without making it obvious she had no knowledge of alienage culture.
“They are arranged. The alienages need new blood at times, and so we communicate with alienages from other parts to send over youth or have some sent over,” he said, giving her a helpful nod. She wrung the edge of her shirt. “Some see it as loveless and demanding, but…” He shrugged. “It is only as loveless as you make it. Everything in this world is built by hands, it doesn’t just happen.”
Gheris could understand, a little. Clans had to meet and trade blood sometimes. But within the clan, it was rare to be forced into anything, unless Grandmother wanted another child. But she couldn’t outright say that. So she merely nodded and slowly sat on the edge of a chair.
Valendrian seemed content to sit in silence, watching the fireplace. She squirmed.
It occurred to her to try something… a conversation, perhaps. She’d never done something so simple without a definite purpose before. To speak only for the sake of a conversation? She clasped her hands together. How did Casidhe do it? Even Aidan had done it better, and he always put his foot in his mouth.
“Thank you for inviting me.” She tried hard to put enthusiasm into her voice.
He smiled at her. “What would we do with fish tomorrow? Far too late to have it then.”
“You could have invited anyone. But you invited me. I am expressing appreciation,” she added helpfully.
He raised his eyebrows at her and seemed to suppress a chuckle. Why was he laughing at her? She frowned and swallowed a slew of Dalish curses. Her stomach rumbled silently. She could at least sit through dinner silently.
“You make no secret of it, Gheris – you are… not from an alienage, are you?” he asked after a moment.
She looked at him wordlessly, tensing, ready to bolt. She no longer wore her daggers openly, but she had a knife in each boot and one on the inside of her tunic.
“I won’t pretend to know why you’d come here. But you’re here. You’re one of us now.”
The alienage leader smiled broadly, kindly, the way one did to a daughter. Gheris’ mouth opened and closed. One of them? He held his hand up, as if to forestall a comment. She shook her head rapidly.
“I am not one of you,” she said quietly, her chin pulling up again.
Not a Dalish – but not one of them, either.
Brows furrowed, the hand dropped. Just then, his wife entered and announced dinner. He frowned at Gheris, but could not turn her away now. He gestured to her and followed his wife to the table where she set out two large fish. Gheris slowly rose and followed.
The fish was well-cooked. Valendrian and his wife spoke quietly over dinner. They tried to involve her in the conversation, but after enough of her curt answers, they decided she did not wish to give her opinion on anything spoken at the table. Not the politics anyway.
“Do you think we’ll get snow?” the older elven woman asked. “I heard they had snow in the south – in the middle of the summer, no less.”
Gheris looked up.
“South was always a bit strange,” Valendrian laughed. “You came from there, after all.”
His wife’s smile faltered quickly. “It was probably those bloody mages in that tower of theirs. Strange people – no one ever sees them.”
“It’s not safe for them to leave…” He tried to keep his voice neutral.
Gheris bit the fish from her fork slowly.
“I heard the Templars were involved,” he said after a moment, shunning neutrality.
“Templars!” the woman repeated, waving a dismissive hand. “Nonsense. They were probably trying to stop the thing.”
“We know as little about their business as we do of the mages. It’s possible.”
“Not all the Templars were involved,” Gheris said suddenly. The two looked at her, silent, appraising. She chewed on her fish more thoroughly and swallowed. “I was in the south at the time. I got caught in a storm near the mountains.” She thought of Geoffrey and Uncle Falenath and the fight against the wolves. She forced more food into her mouth, though she suddenly had no appetite. The chewing helped. “Eventually, we… were told only a few of the Templars were involved. They have been dealt with.” Their eyes met with hers, each in turn. She shrugged. “So I’ve been told.”
“And what? Did the Templars whistle to the Maker and ask for a storm?” the woman persisted. “It’s silly.”
“I never said magic wasn’t involved,” Gheris snapped back irritably, “Just that it was them using it. They were not real Templars, though. I met real Templars down there. They were good people.”
Their expressions told her the venom in her voice did nothing to convince them. Getting along with a Templar hurt her sensibilities. But such ignorance could never be tolerated – one always had to learn where to put the blame. Not that she’d mention her grandmother. But mostly…admitting she had liked Teresa burned her tongue.
It was silly – Teresa predated Gheris in Casidhe’s life. And she was a good woman, fierce and charming in her own way. But sheer jealousy still clouded the elf’s vision. Gheris had never felt such a thing in this context before and so she indulged the feeling, let it sit and fester while she tried to understand it.
“Why were you in the south?” Valendrian asked cautiously, though with a note of curiosity.
Gheris inspected a fishbone carefully. “I spent some time with some… friends.” It was not a lie. They were friends.
“I thought your accent wasn’t Denerim. Where are you from?” his wife pressed.
“The south,” Gheris answered, curt once more.
The woman pressed her lips together, but didn’t press the matter. Perhaps Valendrian had given her a warning glance.
“Well. The Templars in the alienage are not the only reason we asked you to come, Gheris,” the man said, pushing back from the table.
Gheris looked up slowly at him, waiting, tense again. He went to a bare cabinet and pulled open a drawer. He held up a thick, leaf-based parchment she knew many of the clans used. Under the table, her hands clenched, gripping the edge of her seat anxiously.
“A letter – a runner came to me the other day. His accent was not unlike yours, and he was dressed strangely. He asked if I was hahren and of course I said yes. He gave me this letter and told me to give it to Gheris if I saw her. And, well, I see you.”
He smiled and held it out. Slowly, Gheris reached out and took the thing, afraid her touch would tear it or burn it. A letter? She’d never received one of those before. Curiosity stirred in her, followed closely by anger. A letter! Someone completely insensitive would have sent such a thing.
The seal was an innocuous stem of leaves and a bow. This she knew as the symbol of the Dalish. She pried it apart and let her eyes fall on the page.
Heart sinking, she realized she could only recognize a handful of it. The pretty albeit haphazard script was clearly a letter to her – at the top, she recognize those symbols there as the name ‘Gheris.’ She recognize ‘Iar’, and then farther down on the next page, ‘Naessa.’ She blinked and realized that was the signature. This was from Naessa. To her surprise, there was a third page. The first line was familiar to her, but she couldn’t discern the meaning. In the middle of the page, however, she saw her name again. She wasn’t sure which markings indicated the end of a letter and the start of the next, or where words started and ended, or even how her name was spelled, but she knew that was what those symbols meant. The signature line was unfamiliar to her.
She pretended to read the thing properly. Shamefaced, she folded the papers back together and bent her head to the two elves, who were watching her intently.
”Ma serannas,” she mumbled, before realizing it was a stupid thing to say. It was Dalish. She was revealed. There was a hunted look in her eyes as she looked up.
“What did it say?” Valendrian pressed before his wife could express the surprise etched into her weathered face.
Gheris’ fingers pressed into the parchment. “Nothing. Th-thank you for holding it. I realize it was not necessary.”
“It’s a letter – it could have been from your family.” He watched her, clearly waiting for a response to the word ‘family.’
Gheris nodded once. “Family. Yes.”
They tried a few more times to press her into revealing details, but she obdurately said nothing. There was nothing to say. Finally, the woman made a frustrated noise to her husband and went to get the blankets.
Settled on the floor of their main room, Gheris peered at the flames, then at the letter, as if they would translate for her the message. Had something happened to Geoffrey? To Oraine? Simon? Unconsciously, she sought the necklace hanging from her neck, dangling into her tunic, and clutched it. A moment later, she pulled the covers more tightly around herself. The winter could be felt at night, if not during the day, and now there was no Casidhe to wrap around her shoulders.
There was little for her to do but theft. Valendrian would protest if she spoke, but the fact of the matter was that she’d been in Denerim for months and had even less work than she had when she’d been around with her brother and Uncle. People had a tendency to beat elven messengers, and she was not sure she would be able to sit still. She hadn’t then, and wouldn’t now, not when she knew these humans could be better people if they tried. Aidan and Teresa and Simon and Casidhe couldn’t be the only good people.
And Lothaire, she reminded herself. The hulking man who’d given up his life for a Dalish Keeper, and probably hadn’t a lick of shame for it. Now that she’d had time to think on it… well, she was still afraid of him (after all, if he weren’t dead, he’d be capable of crushing her with his bare hands if he could catch her), but the idea of such…nobility was both amusing and – awe-inspiring?
She shook her head. The dead were dead. Hopefully.
Eventually, the fire died out and she used her arm as a cushion for her head, twisting her mother’s ring around her finger over and over again.