There wasn’t much time to think about it in the first few days. His niece needed him… or, more precisely, the women needed him out of the house. He didn’t begrudge it. Truth be told, after Cyrion had seen the state Shianni was in, he hadn’t wanted to be there. Briefly, he had wondered if that was a failing, but decided that, if it was, it was one he had to accept.
So, he stood outside his own front door, exiled by the impenetrable aura of determined, implacable femininity within, and just waited.
The healer they brought in gave her something to make her sleep, and the women let him look in once, after she was out cold. She was as still as death, the blankets only moving very slightly to the rhythm of her breaths. One eye was badly swollen; the healer said there might be damage to her sight. Time would tell, apparently. Cuts, grazes, and fat, angry bruises marked her face and hands, vivid against the white, papery skin. The ones on her neck were the hardest to look at. Thick and finger-shaped, they crawled like blue-black snakes across her throat.
Cyrion found himself ushered out again soon after. It was all very polite, but firm, and there would have been no defying those steely-eyed, hard-set female faces in any case. He went to the hahren’s house, where there was always an open room and a place before the fire, and sat in quiet contemplation… or, at least, softly expectant silence. The contemplating would come, he supposed, when the numbness wore off.
It had subdued them all. The alienage was silent in the worst way possible: a dense, palpable tension riven with the echoes of disbelief, terror, and outrage. He hadn’t seen the place like this in years. It was the dark, greasy calm that foretold of storms. He should care about that, he knew. He should be worrying, as Valendrian was, that the local boys would do something stupid. Too many of them were already drunk, and there had been brawls and broken windows after… after the guard left. And the other human left. And….
The door opened. For one short, stupid moment, he thought it would be her. He looked up, his eyes already pulling the vision of her from the air. Small, like her mother—Maker rest her soul—but lean and wiry instead of gracefully petite, with that fall of warm brown hair hanging to her shoulders, parted on the side and tucked behind her ears. She’d had the habit of doing that when she was a child… a sure tell of mischief or fibs. Looking at her feet, face screwed up, fingers pushing the tousled tresses back as she swore she didn’t know anything about whatever transgression she was accused of.
But it wasn’t her. It wouldn’t be. He knew that, and the knowing pained him, made him see himself as a foolish, weak, broken old man, an empty husk, a wisp of a creature no use to anyone. And he hadn’t been, had he? He’d done nothing. Stood by, let it happen, and the guilt was too raw, too fresh for him to even feel its edges. It consumed him without him needing to acknowledge its existence, just as clouds need no permission to cover the sun.
His eyes ached. It wasn’t her, of course. Cyrion blinked, and the thought of the sight of her vanished, like a trick of the light, or the last echo of a dream, held hopelessly against waking.
Soris closed the door behind him. He was pale and drawn, but pink-scrubbed and wearing clean clothes. He’d found time to wash the blood from himself before the guard came, Cyrion reflected, not relishing the burn of anger that came with the thought. So clean, so silent. Had he thought, even for a moment, of speaking, owning up to the crime?
He tried to banish the resentment, to look at his late cousin’s son with the same affection and comfort he’d always shown the boy. No boundaries of extended family here: Soris and Shianni had always been nephew and niece to him, in name if not technicality. And, ever since Merenir and his wife died, the year the choking fever hit the alienage, Cyrion had felt a deeper responsibility to the children, above and beyond love.
They both had their father’s wild red hair and clear blue eyes. Today, Soris’ were clouded, glazed with a dull, cracked veneer of pain. Of course, he would be feeling the guilt as much, if not more, than the rest.
Merien wouldn’t have let him give himself up, even if he’d tried. Perhaps he had. No matter: Cyrion knew his daughter well enough to imagine the lead she would have taken… though he’d tried hard enough not to think of it. Since their youngling’s days, Soris had followed her like a puppy, loping after her into every scrape and mishap. Now, he held his wounded arm close to his body, the bloody bandage clearly visible beneath the loose sleeve of his shabby, patched shirt, and she… she was out there somewhere, lost to them in such a way that seemed impossible to accept.
Death was one thing. That was something around which adjustments could be made. Grief could be poured out like sour wine and, in time, the vessel might not run dry, but could at least hold its quantity without spilling over. That was a lesson he’d learned long ago, a kind of loss he had managed to accept, and to take deep within himself, as flesh knits around an old wound, scarred but sound. This wasn’t the same. This was a new, terrible pain, and it was without breadth or height or length. He could not measure it, could not quantify it, or know how to begin living with it.
Soris bowed his head and waited for Cyrion to acknowledge him before taking one of the other chairs by the fire. The hahren’s parlour was not crowded tonight. Nera, Valendrian’s sister, was kneading bread at the back of the house. They could hear her beating the dough out, humming quietly to herself. A couple of other women had passed in and out, silent and stone-faced.
“How—” Cyrion cleared his throat, finding his voice unexpectedly thick with cobwebs. “How is she?”
Soris looked up, settling himself on the hard wooden chair, but did not meet his uncle’s eye. “Oh. The, uh, the healer’s been with her again. They say that time will… help.”
“Mm.” Cyrion nodded slowly, watching the fire flicker. Help, but not heal, perhaps.
He looked at his nephew, aware there was something more. Soris was frowning at the floor, his open, boyish face sunken in somehow, haunted and disconsolate. A greasy tallow candle guttered on the table, its fatty, rancid smell tainting the air.
“She….” He stopped, glanced around the low, dim room, and dropped his gaze back to the worn floorboards, both his voice and his shoulders hunched against the uncomfortable words. “They tell me it’s likely she won’t bear children. Even if he was… clean, he did so much d— oh, Maker, I can’t….”
He broke off, shaking his head, lips pressed tightly together. Cyrion winced. It was not altogether unexpected news, but he had not anticipated the bitterness with which Soris tried to counter his own grief.
“Not that it matters, I guess. She’ll never marry now.”
Cyrion drew a slow, deep breath. Such anger beneath those words. Righteous anger, but not reserved solely for the crime. There were traditions among their people—things that were so deeply ingrained they went beyond even the need for written rules. No point writing down something bred into the bone.
Shianni was damaged goods, her honour torn to pieces. No match worth having would take her after this, whatever the dowry.
“She says she doesn’t want anyone to tell,” Soris said sullenly. “But they all know. Already. Everybody knows. They’re all talking, they’re all—”
“And it’s just talk,” Cyrion said, knowing it wouldn’t soothe him.
“They didn’t see it! What he did… that bastard would have killed her, Uncle!”
The fire cracked, sparks burning themselves out on the hearthstone.
“I don’t doubt it.”
Cyrion closed his eyes, trying not to relive the moment the humans had returned. He’d watched his daughter struck down in front of him, and not moved to help her. None of them had.
He tried telling himself there had been nothing they could do. Nothing anyone could do. The humans had brought guards with them; resistance would have meant a bloodbath. That was sane, rational thinking… those were sane, rational thoughts. They’d been there in his head as he stood and watched the humans cart the girls away—a cold, clear voice, reiterating calm and sensible things, while every nerve in his useless body thrummed with impatience, ready to rip the cobbles up from the streets for weapons.
Would it have made a difference? Perhaps, if they’d rioted then, the arl’s son would have been frightened away. His guards might have whisked him off, and whatever followed might not have been worse than what had happened. Deaths would have been unavoidable, but then there had been deaths anyway, hadn’t there? Yes. There it was. Rational, once again. Not that it helped.
Cyrion pinched the bridge of his nose. He was tired. Too tired for these tortures of what-ifs and maybes. Yet, in the darkness inside his head, there was only the vivid swirl of imagination, conjuring pictures he had no wish to see.
“How is Valora?” he asked, trying to anchor himself back to the present, back to this moment, and those who survived into it.
Soris nodded. “She seems well enough. Stronger than we gave her credit for, anyway. She’s still at your place, helping with… things. Keeping busy, I guess.”
“And they… they didn’t—?”
“No.” The word was final, abrupt. “Only Shianni. I… I keep thinking, if we’d been quicker, or if—”
Cyrion shook his head. “Don’t. You can’t change what is done, Soris, and wishing for it brings nothing but sorrow.”
“That’s easy for you to say, Uncle, but my sister—”
“Is not the only casualty,” he reprimanded sharply, then sighed at the sight of the boy’s wounded, angry look.
It was true, though. However personal it felt, what had happened today affected them all, and the community would be struggling out from under this one for some time. The healer had been forced to give old Tormey a heavy sleeping draught after he heard about Nola. The man had lost his wife in the spring, and now his only daughter…. The worm of guilt within Cyrion—the worm that twisted and squirmed and whispered better you than me—spun for him all too believable visions of that agony. Its jagged edges were there, waiting for him, he guessed, beyond the numb, icy reaches that still engulfed him. After all, it was unlikely he would ever see her again.
Outside, it began to rain. Cyrion glanced at the shuttered window, listening to the heavy fall beat against the cobbles. How far would they be from the city now? Would they be on foot, or could the human have arranged some kind of transport? Coaches ran to the south on reasonably regular routes. Merien had never been on one before. She’d never been outside the city at all, come to that… and barely outside the alienage.
Perhaps he had been too over-protective. Was that so wrong? He’d wanted to shield her, to lift from her the burdens of injustice and fear that lay beyond the gates. And yes, maybe even to keep her the way she had once been: his little girl, with the lop-sided smile and the scraped knees, who would hold out her arms to him when he came home and beam at him with such magnificent, unconditional affection.
The wind caught the rain and began to drive it at the shutters. A few drips started to seep through the cracks. Why should it be that even the sweetest memories grew so painful?
There had been dark nights then, wet and cold, and he had walked through them uncaring, back to the lamp-lit haven where his wife and child dwelled. Adaia would have cooked, and the house would be warm and clean. He would sink into his chair by the fire, she would brush the hair from his brow and kiss his forehead, tell the child to play quietly… and he would doze until dinner was ready, aware of his daughter at his feet. Sometimes, he’d haul her onto his lap, and she’d read to him in her halting, stuttering way, from whatever book of tales or legends her mother had found for her.
“Hm?” He blinked, sniffed… raised a hand to his eyes as if the smoke from the fire troubled him.
Soris shifted awkwardly on his chair. “The permits. What happens with those? I mean, Valora and I… we’re still unwed. Not that anyone’s ready to deal with anything just yet, but she can’t be expected to—”
“No, I see what you mean.”
Cyrion nodded thoughtfully. It was a practical point. Practicality was good. It was real, and tangible. The girl had to be settled; she hadn’t come all this way for a half-life, somewhere between child and woman. She needed the security and the respectability that her marriage would provide. He winced a little at the direction of his thoughts, and the path that they opened up in his mind.
Of course, on the matter of weddings, the Chantry and the law were two slightly separate entities. Legally, there was no mandate for elven marriages… no legislation beyond that which banned them from owning freeholds, inheriting property, or gaining sundry other rights and privileges which humans took for granted. The Chantry, too, had no standing obligation to officiate services, though the priests encouraged applications. They would, naturally, as each permit cost several silvers to obtain.
Cyrion hauled himself up in the chair, aware he had been slouching like an old man. He cleared his throat, propped his elbows on the smooth-worn wooden armrests, and looked wearily at Soris.
“She will board with me for now. It’s better for Shianni there, too. Quieter, yes?”
Soris nodded. Since their parents’ deaths, they’d shared a room in one of the tenements by the east gate, like many of the young people. It was rowdy, with shift workers in and out at all hours… and, Cyrion was sure, certain less salubrious trade going on behind some of the doors.
“Thank you, Uncle.”
He shook his head, keenly conscious that it was the least he could do. “The permit gives you thirty days. In the morning, I will go to Mother Boann. If she’s willing to come back and officiate, we’ll get you two dealt with as soon as your sister’s well enough to be witness. I’m afraid it won’t be as… generous a celebration as we’d planned.”
“No,” Soris agreed, staring at the floor, sandy brows drawn in a dark scowl. “It’s hard to see any joy in it.”
Cyrion’s mouth crumpled into a thin line of regret. One so young should not be so bitter, yet he could hardly argue. He sighed, and it was a harsh, dry sound, like the rustling of dead leaves.
“She’s a good woman, Soris.”
“I know. I… I want to make her happy, Uncle. It’s just… difficult to believe this will ever be behind us.” Soris looked up, and his face held a desolate, aching hope, tempered with that sour resentment. “It won’t, will it? Not ever. Not truly.”
Cyrion groped for the right words. There must be some, he supposed. Some hint of encouragement, some grain of comfort he could give, but he was damned if he could find them. Nothing felt right anymore, and there was no certainty in the expectation of a future.
Oh, the future never was certain, of course… but the fact that there would be one—that the sun would keep on rising, and the days keep flowing by—had always been enough for him.
He’d imagined such things. Dared to hope for such tender, ordinary dreams.
“Give it time,” Cyrion said, knowing how lame it sounded. “It’s all you can do, my boy.”
Soris’ lip wrinkled; the nearest he’d ever come to outright disrespect, Cyrion thought. He didn’t say anything, though. Just gave a tired, jaded nod, and stared at the floor again.
The rain was growing harder, teeming down outside. Somewhere, a cat yowled, and there was the faint sound of rats scuffling beneath the window. Cyrion peered at the dampened shutters.
“I suppose I should be getting back,” he said. “If they’ll let me in. You’ll… take care, won’t you?”
“Mm.” Soris grunted. “Yes, Uncle.”
“All right. I’ll see you in the morning, then?”
Cyrion winced. There was no conviction in his voice; he sounded as pale and worn out as he looked. His brave, terrified boy.
“All right, then. I’ll… well, I’ll see you in the morning.”
And there he went, repeating himself like an old fool. Slowly, Cyrion raised himself out of the chair. Maker, but he ached tonight. He felt his age, and a score of years more, but it wasn’t over yet.
He paused at the door, fingers reaching for the handle. Veins stood out on the back of his hand, dark blue on mottled skin, like rivers rising beneath the peaks of his knuckles.
“You know I….” He looked over his shoulder at Soris, wishing he had the right words—that the right words for this had been invented, somewhere, by someone more eloquent than he. “I’m grateful. If you hadn’t done what you did….”
Soris scoffed and continued to stare at the floor. “Good night, Uncle.”
Cyrion nodded sadly, and let himself out into the street.
Darkness had stolen over the alienage, though candlelight spilled from the chinks in shutters and doors, and the pale wedge of a moon occasionally peered from behind the racing clouds. Rain slicked the cobbles, and the cold drops stung his ears. A stray dog was picking through filth in the gutter, its ragged coat standing up in wet clumps. It looked up as he passed but, as he showed no interest in challenging it for its meal, it gave a half-hearted grumble and went back to its business.
Still so quiet. That took getting used to. Would it be different in the morning? Cyrion wondered. Perhaps it would. Perhaps he would wake, and find the flower sellers and the other gate traders walking down towards the market, and children playing in the street, and women gossiping on the corner… just like every morning. They survived like that. Whatever happened, they survived. Just as a tree might bend with the wind, they bent, but they did not break. They endured.
As if confirming his thoughts, speaking to him like a sign from heaven, a light breeze rustled the leaves of the vhenadahl, and Cyrion smiled bitterly to himself.
There would never be another normal morning. He would not wake to a kettle warming over a fire she had built, nor wash his face in water she had fetched. He would not listen to her hum tunelessly as she scrubbed the floor, or see her look up at him, her hair messy, her freckled face drawn into a tired grin… that smile she reserved only for those she was closest to. It was broad, candid, and displayed the chipped front tooth that embarrassed her so much that, most of the time, she tried to smile with her mouth closed. She’d succeed, too, unless something caught her out, made her laugh and then, oh, Maker, she was so like her mother. That big, wide grin, the throaty chuckle that spilled out into warm, precious laughter.
Cyrion brushed a hand across his face, wiping away the rain. Stupid. It would all have changed anyway.
He’d expected to spend his evening in the hahren’s parlour, though not for the reasons he had done. It was the proper thing to give the young couple privacy, and he’d had no wish to be there for… that. There would have been a gaggle of drunken revellers outside the door, anyway, singing dirty songs and calling out encouragement. There always was. His wedding night had been no different, and a small smile leapt to his lips, unbidden, as he remembered it.
He had been so choked with nerves that day. Ready to run off in search of the Dalish, and queasy with the cheap ale his cousins kept pouring down him. Adaia had been calm; so terribly, frighteningly calm. They’d met once before the ceremony, and he hadn’t known what to say to her. She’d been a beautiful, exotic creature; small and delicate, like a bird, with eyes so dark they were almost black, deep chestnut hair, and skin the colour of pale honey. He knew virtually nothing about her. The matchmaker had been a cousin of his mother’s: a thin-faced old man who chuckled a lot and just nodded and leered when Cyrion asked questions. No one would tell him much. Good family, a personable, attractive girl, they said; spent time in service with a rich merchant in the Marches. Of course, people did things a little differently across the sea, but she had a sensible head on her shoulders, would make a fine wife….
He’d found out the rest later, and finally realised why his father had seemed so cold towards her.
Well, it didn’t matter. She had been a fine wife. She’d been a fine wife, a fine woman, a fine mother… everything he could have asked for, whatever her faults. And had he begrudged her those? No. Her wildness, her smart mouth, her stubborn, proud nature… just parts of who she was, and the broken prism through which he sometimes saw her in their daughter.
Cyrion drew in an aching, tight breath as he neared his door. No warm, clean haven of light this evening. No chair by the fire, no wife at the stove, no child to greet him with faltering steps and shining eyes.
Would it have been any different if Adaia were still here? Maybe if the wedding hadn’t been so rushed. If Valendrian hadn’t been so keen that it be done the moment the party arrived from Highever… but that was still maybes and what-ifs, and they did no one any good.
He let himself in, careful to keep his tread light, and almost unaware he was holding his breath.
The house had emptied rather; it was quiet inside, the fire banked down to a dull glow, and the decorations stripped from the windows. The stern, iron-jawed women seemed to have gone, and Valora was sitting in one of the wooden chairs, her head on her hand, dozing. He didn’t mean to wake her, but she jolted at the sound of the door, her face pinched into a brief but cuttingly fearful look. She exhaled as she saw it was him, and smiled apologetically.
“Oh… I’m sorry. I—”
Cyrion raised a hand, shushing her. “It’s all right, child. You should be resting. Is… is she asleep?”
Valora nodded, rising stiffly from the chair. She looked exhausted.
“Yes, elder. There’s some tea, if you want it.”
“Oh, sit down. I’m not so old I can’t do anything.” He waved the girl back into the chair and gave her a playful smile. “And for the Maker’s sake, call me Uncle.”
Her big, watery, doe-eyes crinkled as she smiled damply back at him.
“Th-thank you,” she breathed, voice soft and choked with tired, broken gratitude. “I mean, thank you… Uncle.”
Cyrion took the cloth from beside the fire, and drew the kettle off the heat. It was still hot enough to freshen the pot, and he poured two cups, glad of the opportunity to fuss over her a little.
They were familiar actions, and if he didn’t look at the girl, he could almost pretend she was— well, almost.
There wasn’t much to talk about. Oh, there was plenty he could think of to say, endless questions he might have tried to ask her, but now was not the time. The silence between them was fragile… it had hard, brittle planes, and soft, swelling shadows, and it hid things inside it that no one was ready to confront.
“I’ll sleep out here,” he said, when they were finished. “You take the other pallet. There are blankets, and you can— You know. If she needs you.”
Valora nodded gratefully. “Yes… Uncle.”
Cyrion smiled, and took the empty stoneware cup from her small, delicate hands.
Behind the wooden screen, Shianni was still sleeping, propped up in a nest of pillows and blankets. It was a deep, unnatural, induced sleep, and looking at her unsettled him. He wanted to reach out, brush the hair from her forehead, but he didn’t dare touch her. Not even for the proof that she was still warm, still breathing.
He took one of the two spare blankets, left Valora to settle herself on what he supposed was now his daughter’s old bed, and retreated back to the fire. He’d passed less comfortable nights and, in any case, he was hardly likely to see much rest. He pulled the blanket up to his chin, and stared at the patchily whitewashed wall, bare except for a single wooden shelf that had held a few books and other odds and ends.
Cyrion listened to the sounds of shoes being dropped quietly to the floor, and the pallet creaking under a new, unfamiliar frame. After a few minutes, Valora blew the candle out, and there was nothing in the room but the dim play of the firelight, and the shadows, and the steady beat of the rain.
He didn’t want his thoughts to turn to Merien, but he didn’t fight it. Inevitable, he supposed. Missing her, fearing for her… they were things that would be there on every breath he took now, like the sharp, metallic taste of frost in the first weeks of winter, when the body is not yet used to the chill, and yearns for the warmth of summer.
He hoped she had everything she needed. His girl… and what had he been able to give her? Every gift, every plan he’d made for her future had been wrapped up in the wedding, in the months and years of planning for this day—this day that should have been so special, so perfect.
As the gentle glow of embers coloured the shadows that danced on the walls, and the rain thrummed outside, Cyrion found himself too weary to feel anything. The numbness had kept the anger at bay, he supposed, along with everything else. It would come, in time. He was afraid to sleep, frightened of confronting it all when he awoke, as if daylight would make it real.
He could hear the family who had the upper floor, the Suranas, moving about. It was late, but he doubted anyone was resting well tonight. The guard had not been back… not yet, but tomorrow was another day. Another life, he thought glumly.
It would have been anyway. It would all have changed—but it shouldn’t have been like this. He closed his eyes, silent words that were not quite prayers offering themselves up to whatever lay beyond this world.
Keep her safe. Let no harm come to her. Let her be brave, and wise enough to know when to save her own skin. Let her… let her live. Please, just let her live.
He couldn’t help it. Too easy to see her face again, as she stood there outside the door, saying her last farewell. His little girl, with the swelling bloom of bruises on her face, and so much fear and apology in her eyes. After everything she’d done—and, Maker knew, it was stupid and reckless—and she’d wanted his blessing.
He’d tried to give it. He’d done his best. How did you do that? How did you pretend you could watch your child hand over her life, and not have your heart ripped from your body in a single breath?
She should never have done it. They should never have….
After it happened, after Vaughan and his guards left, there had been stunned, terrified silence. There was no precedent for such a thing. Not like that, not in front of the entire alienage, and in front of the human priest. The scale of it, the audacity… so much more than just the usual level of abuse, and on such a day as today. It was a spark to a powder keg, and the flames started leaping barely minutes after the bastards had gone.
In the still, quiet darkness, Cyrion examined his actions. Was he ashamed? The hahren had appealed for calm, tried to keep control of the crowd. Mother Boann had not helped, and the only thing worse than her loud, outraged indignation was her insane suggestion that they send for the guard. Someone had yelled something foul at her, offended by her very human idiocy—that she could be so stupid as to think the law existed to help them, especially when it was the nobility who were doing the breaking of it—and she’d ended up being spirited away in an increasingly ugly crush.
He’d said nothing. Done nothing. Just stood, watched, listened… and what damn good was that?
Nelaros was the one who stirred things up, and Cyrion’s throat tightened at the memory. He’d been truly furious, refused either to sit back and ‘hope for the best’, the way poor old Tormey said, or to simply get angry and shake his fist.
And then there had been the other human. The Grey Warden. Dark and mysterious, with bright armour and obvious weapons, and a voice that was clear and authoritative, and seemed to make everything sound so rational.
Cyrion had spent a great deal of his life around humans. Years of service, and plenty of exposure to their kind, good and bad, had saved him from the jaundiced prejudice his people could be prone towards—yet he’d hated the man on sight. Suspicion jockeyed with fear, but there hadn’t been time to think about it. He’d not even known of the Warden’s presence until it was too late. Oh, and then hadn’t he been gracious? Hadn’t he been dignity personified? Stepping into the fray as Nelaros rallied for action, offering assistance, advice… handing over his own weapons, and giving those boys everything they needed to get themselves killed.
Yes. Honourable indeed. Striding into their midst, and tearing them down.
Cyrion opened his eyes and stared at the far wall, with its dancing patina of shadows. And what, precisely, would he rather have had happen? Was there a way he would have preferred it to end? The girls spirited away and never heard from again, perhaps, except in the whispers of suspicion and rumour, until the story became a thing muttered of behind hands, not mentioned in the daylight hours. He’d lived through that before. The last purge had been years ago, true… more his parents’ time than his own, but the spectre of it lingered. People disappearing, and the very walls whispering calumnies, setting brother at brother and father at son. The price of bread went up as fast as wages went down, because all of a sudden no one wanted elves for service, in case they started snapping at their masters like rabid dogs. Violence increased; hunger and desperation saw to it. Then, with the spikes in crime and disorder, granite-eyed men from the garrison marched in, flanking some obsequious civil servant with a stack of papers and wax seals, and they’d been told ‘measures’ were going to be taken.
It started small. There were opportunities offered; passage to other alienages, dangled in front of them like gifts from the government. Relocation arrangements, they said. The possibility for a set number of families—first come, first served—to start a new life in South Reach, or Highever, or West Hill, or some such far-off dream. He remembered it happening. Remembered the smiling faces and the people waving farewell, and then never hearing from any of them again.
He’d learned, later. There was more to be afraid of, back then, than running into the Hard Line boys in the marketplace. In a place where the only thing they had in abundance was nothing, too many fought over the control of the swill pail, and the alienage had been left torn between handfuls of warring criminal factions, and caught against the corruption of human governance.
It was better after the occupation ended, though change did not come overnight. As a matter of fact, it took such a long damn time coming, most of his people had already decided there was little difference between a Fereldan king and an Orlesian emperor and—in real, practical terms—they were right. For a long while, anyway.
Still, all that… a good twenty years ago, Cyrion thought, gazing sadly at the far wall. The shadow-stains were beating slower now, as the fire died down. He could hear Valora’s breathing lengthening out and, eventually, sleep claimed her.
Valendrian had been in his mid-thirties then, and he’d taken the helm after the old hahren died, proving his worth by the way he handled the guard. Things had already begun to change. New laws, new ways of doing things… elves were allowed to take casual labour, and work in some forms of trade for the first time in almost a century. Cyrion remembered how like freedom it had felt—how fresh, how exciting—and, of course, it had all coincided with his marriage. He’d been young enough, and foolish enough, to really feel as if he and his bride were on the threshold of a wonderful new world.
Well. This all just went to show how life panned out, didn’t it? Like a mountain range, the years were little more than endless upward slogs and terrifying, unstoppable descents, punctuated by very brief moments of respite, where you could stand of the roof of the world, and see for a thousand miles.
Cyrion sighed softly. Sleep was definitely evading him tonight, and all that left him with was the jagged, pitted fields of regret and angry, humiliated pain. He didn’t want to think about it. Too many memories, and too much pressing in on him from the now; the things that were not yet memories, and would hurt no less until they were.
He closed his eyes again, a pointless nod towards the attempt at rest. The darkness was full of faces, full of cold, blinding aches. He wished he could dream—have blissful, islanded dreams where they were all there, all home again, and where there were smiles, and warmth, and they were safe. His girls. He’d happily lose himself in dreams like that, let everything fade away and give himself to the changeless, timeless fantasy, allowing the real world—in all its betrayals, and inadequacies, and treacheries—to recede, until it stopped mattering completely.
A little while later, once the fire had grown cold, and the thin trails of tears had dried on Cyrion’s cheeks, Shianni woke screaming. It took the best part of an hour to calm her down.