The two men came to my camp a few weeks after the Ansburg Circle had fallen, the spring Keeper Alrhen had left the clan to retrieve the Markham flat ears. You remember, the ones from the city alienage, who got stranded in the riots?
Alrhen had left me in charge of the halla then, told me to graze them along the Lower Minanter, and to be honest, I was as grateful to be doing something useful during those turbulent times as I was anxious to prove myself worthy of the responsibility.
The river, I remember, was high and pregnant from the spring rains, its grassy banks lush, green and dusted with fine purple wildflowers—the ones that look like an infant’s eyes, I can never remember their name. Oh, yes. Those are the ones. You’re so sharp, da'mi. Yes, they were everywhere that spring, in full bloom while the halla roamed in and by the babbling river, feasting, content.
I’d just sat down for an early supper with Fen and Harel – say what you will about Fereldens, but they were right about using dogs to tend their flocks; those boys had really taken to the task – when the mabari leapt to their feet, barking and circling and causing such a terrible commotion that I feared the Sylvans might wake from their slumbers.
Harel dashed away first, up the east bank, with Fen on his heels. I presumed he’d scented a nug – you know how Harel hates nugs – or perhaps, I dared hope, a messenger from the clan, returning with news of Alrhen’s return.
But then, I heard the yelp of another hound, one I did not recognize.
I jumped to my feet and drew my knives just as Fen and Harel careened back down the riverbank, chasing another mabari – a bigger, sturdier one, clearly of Ferelden stock and not imported and cross-bred like mine.
Behind them stumbled two bedraggled men, leaning heavily on each other. As they approached I realized that they were falling down the hillock more than walking it, and the interlock of their arms was likely the only thing keeping the two upright.
I lowered my weapons. I saw no wounds upon them, but these men were weak, possibly starving; they posed no obvious threat. A good thing, too, as you know these knives are mostly for show anyway. I’m a shepherd, not a – Elgar’nan forbid – warrior.
Emma lath, you cannot blame me for my lack of suspicion: For even in the gloaming I could see they had the hunted look, the look one saw all too often back in those days, on the faces of refugees and apostates and runaway slaves. And while, yes, it was unusual to see humans roaming so far into the Green Dales, it had unfortunately become all that more common in the Days of the Broken Circles.
Indeed, at first I actually thought them Circle Mages, since we saw many such renegades those days. But they did not wear robes like any I’d ever seen Enchanters wear before. One, a lanky blond fellow with grimy hair falling from its top knot, sported a coat whose feathered pauldrons might once have been black, but now seemed a sort of dingy grey, no doubt from road dust and grime. The other, a darker man with a bushy, bearish beard, wore a robe that, when it had been freshly tailored, was probably the richest and finest set I’d have ever seen; but now the fox-hair trim had turned black, his jerkin slashed open, and his spiked shoulder guard – well, it apparently was missing more than a few spikes.
Both were indescribably filthy, and had the hollow look of men who’d been running for months. Maybe even years.
I whistled to Harel and Fen, who were currently engaged nose-deep in the other mabari’s haunches. At the sound, the blonde man stumbled and pitched to the ground. The bearded man bent to help him regain his footing, and –
I’ve often thought about I saw next, turned it over in my head like a prayer. I wondered if it was real or just a trick of the dusk. But—well, I know this may sound ridiculous, but I think – I think I saw the blonde man’s eyes flash blue, and cracks appear in his skin, burning as bright and terrible as lyrium.
But I can’t be sure. And before I could see more, it was gone.
The bearded man mumbled something soothing to his companion, while alternately looking at me, and gradually, the blonde man’s face relaxed. He righted himself.
“Please,” the bearded man called out to me in broken Dalish. His accent was atrocious, and his dialect was foreign, perhaps Marcher? Still, I was impressed that he’d apparently spent at least some time among the People before. “Please friend? Water. No hurt.”
“I speak trade tongue,” I offered.
The bearded man nodded, however, I noticed he did not smile. That wild beard and the gray streaks in his hair made me idly wonder if perhaps he’d forgotten how, or if he ever knew in the first place. You never can tell with humans.
“Friend,” he said in a gravelly voice that matched his hair. “May we share some of your water?”
I handed him my flask. The bearded man’s hands were grimy and covered in blood.
“You’re right by a river, you know,” I pointed out, watching as the man carefully brought the flask to his companion’s chapped lips first, coaxing him to drink – which, after a moment, he did. Noisily. Greedily.
“Are we?” said the blonde man, once he’d had his fill. He wiped his mouth and passed the flask to his friend. A ghost of a smile touched his lips and was gone. “Oh Garrett, why do I always let you lead?”
“Because you like the way I waggle my ass when I walk,” answered the bearded man. Oh, don’t blush, emma sa'lath. You know how direct humans can be.
“My fire is down the way. You’re welcome to join me.” Yes, I admit, I did hesitate for a moment before I offered, but I did the right thing in the end, and let it never be said that we Dalish are inhospitable to those in need. “No man should be alone on a night like tonight, what with all the creatures roaming the Green Dales.”
The blonde man huffed a little, like a malcontent dog.
“Let them come,” he said, in a voice he thought too low for me to hear.
“Thank you for your kindness, friend,” the one named Garrett said, giving his companion a warning glance. “We’d be honored to share your fire.”
I motioned for them to follow me, and together we trundled down to my makeshift camp, our dogs making lazy, wide circles around us, as if we were halla in need of herding.
After some urging, I convinced the men to take some fruit and dried meat– the blonde man initially refused, but Garrett rolled his eyes at him and said something about how “spirits can’t live on freedom alone” -- I’m not sure, I didn’t quite understand. Besides, his refusal was short-lived, and soon enough the blonde man had wolfed down his portion as well as most of his companion’s. I handed them each an apple I’d planned to eat for tomorrow’s breakfast, as our dogs curled up by the fire in a pile.
“So where are you running to?” I asked, as the blonde man crunched into the apple with abandon.
“Who says we’re running?” he said between bites.
“Love, it’s obvious. Look at us,” said Garrett wearily. “There are chamberpots in the Hanged Man that probably look -- and smell -- better than us right now.”
The blonde man shrugged but did not stop eating. “Better than you, maybe,” he said. “I always smell this good. At this point, the Eau du Darktown is in my skin.”
“We’re headed to Wycome,” Garrett said, turning to me and rolling his eyes again.
“You’re a long ways off,” I replied. “Twenty days walk, at least.”
“That’s -- closer than I expected,” he said.
“Especially given your sense of direction,” his friend muttered.
I coughed uncomfortably.
“I know better than to ask where you’ve come from, or why you’re running,” I said stiffly, hoping I sounded confident, and not terrified of these two strange men and their facial hair. “But…”
“But if we’d like to tell you, you’d like to listen,” finished the blonde man with a smirk.
“We’re from Kirkwall,” said Garrett. His friend glared at him, as if he’d betrayed an important secret. “Well, Fereldan, I suppose, if we’re keeping score about these things.”
“Of a sort,” said the blonde man, which Garrett, for some reason, found very humorous. I don’t know, emma vhenan. Must be human humor.
“I’m sorry to hear about what happened to your homeland,” I said uncomfortably.
“No matter.” Garrett stopped laughing. His eyes took on a faraway look, and he idly fingered a small square of chainmail at his belt. It was too delicate to be part of his armor; it looked as if it had once been part of a woman’s costume, a trim perhaps. “It’s done now.”
“No, it isn’t.”
He frowned, fingers stilling. “What do you mean?”
“The Blight,” I said, poking the fire with a stick. “They say there’s another one brewing in Weisshaupt now.”
Garrett went very, very still. “Are you sure?” he said, his voice catching.
“No.” I watch them closely. “But a party of Grey Wardens camped with us last winter. Stern folks, all of them. Tried to recruit my—my friend. But she wouldn’t go.” She was too smart for that, wasn’t she, emma sa'lath? “They said they were headed to Weisshaupt, that there was something stirring in the North. But they couldn’t tell us what.”
“Maker have mercy,” exhaled the blonde man, suddenly ashen.
He and Garrett shared a glance. From my angle I could see the firelight dance in their eyes, at once flickering all colors and none.
“That’s the last thing we need,” muttered Garrett under his breath.
“I’ll keep you safe,” said the blonde man softly, putting a hand on his companion’s back. He tapped his own forehead with a long, dirty finger. “You know I can.”
This seemed to finally make Garrett smile, albeit sadly. It was the kind of smile that makes you wish the other person hadn’t smiled in the first place.
“You watch out for Darkspawn,” he said heavily, “and I’ll watch out for Templars. Deal?”
The blonde man smiled. “Deal.”
Silence fell between us. I picked up my lute and idly began to strum. I’m no Alrhen, but I can eke out a tune or two, and with most of our conversation passed, and the stars stretched out high above us, I figured a song would cheer my guests up and put their souls at ease.
“Love will not betray you,” I sang softly after a time, plucking the strings as gently as I could, “dismay or enslave you—“
“It will set you free,” answered the blonde man.
I met his gaze, and we sang the next line together: “Be more like the man you were made to be.”
My fingers stilled once the stanza was complete. “I didn’t know that song had reached outside the Dalish,” I admitted.
“We had a friend—“ he said, nudging his shoulder against Garrett, who’d become quiet and withdrawn, and who stared at his boots as if they were a looking glass. “She was Dalish. She would sing it sometimes when we—went camping. She had a lovely voice.”
I nodded. “Our First taught it to me when I was a child. I bet hers did too.”
“Hmm,” was all he said, as he leaned his head on Garrett’s shoulder. The larger man sagged against him.
I plunked out a few more chords before I said, at last, to the blonde man, “You didn’t tell me your name.”
“That’s right,” he replied. “I didn’t.”
“It’s Rivaini,” said Garrett, stirring at last, his voice thick and rough.
I laughed, although now I’m not sure it was a joke – or at least, not one I was meant to get.
“You can’t be named Rivaini,” I said. “That’s like calling someone Dalish, or Anders.”
The blonde man shrugged. “I’ll be sure to tell my mother that.”
“Well, Garrett -- Rivaini,” I said. “I need to sleep. The halla will be up early tomorrow morning, and so then should I. But feel free to stay as long as you like. There’s a spare bedroll by the food, but I--I’m afraid I only have the one.”
“That’ll do,” said Garrett. “Thank you again.”
I nodded and spread out my bedroll, Fen and Harel curling up in their customary positions at my feet. Despite my guests, sleep found me rather easily that night: The fire was warm, the crickets soothing, and even the company reassuring, in a way.
Yet still I woke sometime in the middle of the night, as the fire grew low and cold.
Garrett and Rivaini were still awake, although their dog snored softly against Fen’s flank. Rivaini was leaning against a nearby tree, staring out into the dark, while Garrett, who had taken my lute, plunked out a simple Ferelden melody on the strings.
“We’ll run until the city lights dissolve into a country sky,” he sang earnestly but tunelessly. “Just me and you.”
The blonde man sighed a little, his shoulders deflating.
“Then we’ll lay under the harvest moon,” Garrett’s voice caught, and I could see him smirk in the low firelight, “do all the things that lovers do.”
“Just me and you,” answered Rivaini in his rich, achingly beautiful tenor. “Oh Garrett. I’m so sorry.”
Garrett gingerly put down my lute and stood. In his hands, he took his companion’s cheeks, slowly swiping under the darkened, hollowed eyes with his thumbs.
“Don’t be,” he whispered. “You’re free. We’re free. Free as we’ll ever be.”
Then Garrett leaned in for a kiss, and in my pallet, I closed my eyes, measured out my breathing so that it was deep and even. If I was not yet asleep, at least I could pretend to be. That, I thought, was the kindest hospitality that I could offer.
When I woke in the morning, they were gone, along with one of my blankets and a few days’ worth of food. And my lute. But I can’t begrudge them too much. I think I would have given them everything I’d carried with me, if only they’d asked.
They did, however, leave my bedroll, on top of which was this small pillow—yes, this one, right here. Look, see how worn it is? It is old, very old. I did my best to clean it since then, but it always already so stained and dirty when they'd left it. But look here, at the stitching. Isn’t this embroidery fine? No, I’m not sure what the words say. Probably something dirty in Rivaini. That’s why they call it “pillow talk”, right? Still, whoever stitched this had a steady hand, you can tell, and an artist's dedication to the craft
I’m not really sure why I’ve kept it. Maybe because it seemed such a small thing to give, and yet, it seemed to mean so much to the one who gave it.
I wonder what those two are doing now. If they ever made it to Wycome, if – if they’re still free. The Templars probably caught up to them in the end, or the Darkspawn, or something else.
But—well, I can’t help but think that if anybody could make it, it ought to be them.
Go now, emma sa'lath; Harel is waiting for you down by the halla. No, don’t wait for me. I want to ask our First something.
Don't worry. I’ll be there soon.
Just me and you.