He named the dog Warden.
It was a predictable choice for a Fereldan; he liked to say it was either that or Grey, but he didn’t want to confuse the runt, brown and brindled as he was, or give him anything close to a complex—more than what he had already. ‘Difficult enough to be the smallest,’ he said, palm between two ears soft as stained velvet, and as the mabari grew so did he.
One might even say they grew together, side by side; wherever one went always found him with the other.
There were some places a mabari couldn’t follow—like the depths and twists of the Fade, all the way past waking into private sleep. Connor Guerrin wasn’t alone there, either, but the voices were quieter than they’d been throughout his complicated childhood, a music he ignored the secret rhythms of and so denied their promises.
Desire was so much more at that impressionable age, before one knew what it meant—something more physical than ideal, a pale shoulder with a few freckles or a day all to himself, cool Redcliffe breezes filling his chest, wind that stirred the leaves and the furs and his hair by equal measure.
After he grew the beard, there was less to fuss about, or less compulsion to fuss. He still felt, deeply, and some nights there were cold sweats—but it was nothing a few mabari crunches tucked into his pocket and a long walk through the narrow foothills couldn’t cure. There was so much stone, so much earth, so much—with all apologizes to Orzammar for borrowing and no doubt abusing the phrase—sodding mud, little green things growing that whispered different songs, bluebell blossoms easily trampled or growing close to the rock. Seeking solace, no doubt, or comfort. Or strength.
But it wasn’t Connor’s place to pick them.
That would’ve looked all kinds of wrong, big Fereldan hands against slim green stems, bruising the shoots and spilling the sap.
He crouched beside them instead, mindful of his mud-streaked boots, knees bent and armored elbows resting light against his thighs. Warden was wary of the flowers too, delicate as they were, large as his paws had grown, and he waited by Connor’s other side—a short and happy tail beating at the dirt.
Every arl had at least one major eccentricity. Connor’d been forced to grin through them all at various parties; they were always so particular and not necessarily well-suited for each other, either, especially not in close confines with everyone’s wives and husbands milling about. Sometimes ale was thrown, cheese knives brandished indiscriminately—and those were the good days, the fun parties everyone always talked fondly about in the following months.
Connor’s eccentricities involved ruddy cheeks and Orlesian books in a private study and too many mabari warhounds in the courtyard—mabari, whose mouths gripped and never relinquished; mabari, who bit but didn’t gossip. They spread no rumors, their big tongues flapping not as idle as they might, and when they drooled a man always found reason to forgive them.
There were some men who chewed on leather or pissed on people just as freely—but for some reason Connor found the habits less charming on them.
There were other things to hide, secret things, not even mentioned as a passing thought; when Connor met Warden’s eyes he shrugged instead of letting the word take form, like a sleek body from the mist made of shadow and wet heat.
There were the eccentricities nobles wore like a pair of gloves imported from Antiva or a brand new jerkin, a fine leather belt or a favorite furred cloak—because they were safe and obvious and expected, customary, easy despite seeming difficult—and there was what lived beneath and between, a beauty mark or a scar, the cards a man never played. They lurked under the flesh, deeper than skin, tighter than muscle and harder than bone.
Connor sighed. The sky threatened rain. He could feel it in the twitch of his nose and the matching twitch of Warden’s short whiskers, all chewed-down bristle. He had a few of those bristles himself, rubbed between thumb and forefinger from time to time, though there was no one to do it for him.
‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘Pets do feel good. Sometimes I think you have the only right way of it.’
Warden panted without reservation.
It was time to head home.
Spring was a season unto itself, all the growth restless, all the local nobility even more so. Connor visited his mother and watched her needlework and felt small as always because of the ritual of it, as though he should have been perched at her knee again—and no higher than that—which he practically was already. He sat on the floor with one leg drawn up and one arm to rest on it; that allowed him to look somewhere else, away from the hair that grayed where she swept it up and back, the few stray wisps at the brow he suffered too.
It wasn’t that he minded the way they looked but that he minded the way they tickled.
And maybe he minded the way they looked just a little—a better match not for an arl but for an arlessa.
Warden waited outside the door and Connor within, there to stoke the fire when it grew low and quiet. The memory of winter lasted longer and longer each year even as the days also lengthened—because the chill crept beneath stone walls and stayed there.
That was the trouble with big houses.
All the secrets of the room pierced the fabric at the point of a needle. Connor coughed with the intention of excusing himself and Mother glanced at him, sharp as ever, like the little weapon she held between her fingers.
‘But you must be careful, Connor,’ she said, glancing to the window to gauge the clouds gathering in the sky. ‘And if you are late for supper…’
‘I couldn’t live with myself if I made a proper Orlesian eat cold bread,’ Connor promised her.
He kissed her brow before he left.
There were times he needed the comfort of the forest, compelled by all the crowded branches, the rustle of dry bark beneath a beast’s feet.
That was the plan, in any case. Sometimes there was little more than a few mushrooms or a clutch of deathroot, injured birds, a hawk with a broken wing Connor’d taken in as a fledgling; she brought news all the way from Denerim and no one ever knew whose touch had healed her.
It was an accident. A good one, but the principle of the matter wasn’t.
The forest in spring was a collection of fresh surprises, of trees waking from the slumber of winter, of strong boughs sloughing off the brittle frost they’d gathered since Wintermarch. Connor avoided the eastern path that would have brought him too close to the walking woods—where the trees lifted their roots from the ground and took lumbering steps over the fresh clutches of grass. They never bothered to look where they were going; that was the main trouble. Also, they spooked Warden, whose baying scattered the season’s first birds.
Even now, Warden slunk along the muddied paths with his hackles raised, fur stiff around his throat and broadened by that extra layer of fat—something the two of them shared before the hunts began in Bloomingtide—as though scenting something Connor couldn’t hope to detect. Not with his inferior nose, much too dry to be of any real use, bridge hooked in the family fashion.
A lucky nose, he’d heard his mother call it once. There might have been question of parentage, the usual scattering of foul rumors, but there was never a question of bloodline.
And—at the very least—he wasn’t one of the Howes. It was impossible to imagine they couldn’t smell everything, so was it any wonder they looked so sour all the time?
‘Easy there,’ Connor said, thumb grooving into the wrinkles at Warden’s brow. ‘Your namesake fought werewolves—but that was in a different forest. Besides, the curse has moved on since then.’
That was the thing to do after any curse was broken, or so the stories said. Those same stories were less clear on what happened next—what life a man led after he was no longer a wolf, or after the demons had relinquished their tender hold. Perhaps no one cared.
Perhaps it simply wasn’t interesting enough to waste the vellum on.
Or perhaps some of them had mabari, too, to guard the long nights when the moon rose full and silver and the wind seemed to whisper with the call of the pack. Connor would have slept on the floor, chin on his wrists, in a tangle of furs that should have been more natural to him than the bare skin they covered.
But it was ever the dash of Orlesian in him that led to such daydreams—or so Father used to say. He was careful enough never to say it where Mother could hear him, a diplomacy in action that had taught Connor subtlety, even if he didn’t always live by it.
He didn’t have to in the forest.
The air had gone still—not quiet but to a place beyond sound and which no birdcalls could pierce, no lumbering branches blown through the silence—and that should have been his first clue. But the moss was so thick and springy beneath his boots and Connor’s head was somewhere else, drifting distant between long-lost wolves and their long-lost warden. He didn’t see the halla in the clearing—which should have been his second clue—until it was too late, its eyes glazed and its antlers curved to wicked points, bone-white in the shadow of the trees.
Connor had some experience with horns. For a moment it almost seemed there was a mane or perhaps a fall of jeweled hair; he recalled the arch of a slim back and the curve of a full breast, first shown to him when he hadn’t even known the shape of his own mother’s. Somehow it always knew—what he craved, what he couldn’t have—but the magic of the moment pulled at his blood without intuition. He held back, and the magic abandoned him.
The halla was still there. It was no demon at all, as real as pelt and power.
It stamped one hoof against the damp grass and the hard earth. Warden’s hackles pulled in the familiar rictus of instinct, half grin and half growl, and Connor held onto him for no reason other than instinct, hands at his rope-wound collar, bootheels gouging furrows in the earth.
Only the finest collars for his pups; Connor spoiled them the same way his mother had always spoiled him, though he let them roam free together from tree trunk to tree trunk, picking their paths across gorges and over old bridges and up rotting staircases. In the summer they dove into cold streams together regardless of the shouting and barking and splashing that followed, red skin and glittering water, everything so damn cold and the potential for sniffling and sneezing after.
It was important to live.
It was also important not to die—and this didn’t always require the same application.
Warden pulled free, all snarls and defenses, the best way he knew how to love not a master but a friend. He couldn’t fight demons but he could fight a mad halla on equal terms, even if he was bound to lose—which was why Connor fought him, the best way he knew how to love anyone in return. What his mother taught him, he supposed. Not subtlety but practicality, restraint.
His entire life was fighting, holding whatever he could back, not giving impulse free reign.
But in the end there was little choice to make other than to place himself between Warden and charging danger. Connor had heard of halla driven mad by the Blight, by tainted land, and those wounds still festered in some pockets of the Fereldan countryside. Elvhen creatures were especially sensitive. They had a connection to it, the old and the poisoned.
These weren’t the predictable thoughts he imagined he’d muster before grave injury, possibly death, the pain Mother had always tried to prevent. He saw the halla’s eyes and became—apparently—a philosophical man.
At least it wasn’t demons.
He’d assumed it would’ve been demons.
He covered Warden’s body with his, though there’d been a time he couldn’t have understood being bigger than a full-grown mabari. Now he was twice that and comfortable for it, grateful for it, arms wrapped around the dog and braced for impact.
The horns were solid, sharp as polished blades. They pierced his skin but he felt it as more than a whisper, the bloom of pain loud and unsubtle and honestly a relief. Unfortunately, he was no hawk for his helpless hands to heal. He fell to the sound of barking—and shouting, but only in the distance.
He was sore as a dwarven anvil when he woke, a tender ache in his side that throbbed as he tried to roll over. Mother, he thought, but didn’t say it—some resilient shred of dignity saving him that final embarrassment.
Warden barked. It was the familiar sound that made Connor open his eyes at last, coming face to face with the stitched skins of a tent wall. He winced, then tried to sit up, only to find there was something holding him down.
‘Now look what you’ve done,’ said a soft voice, more chiding than gentle. ‘I told you to be quiet, didn’t I?’
Connor blinked to clear his eyes and reclaim his focus; when he turned his head it was with the intent to see something more than faint and unhelpful shadow. His companion bore neither the shield nor the colors of Redcliffe; he was clad instead in soft green leathers, pale as spring’s first elfroot, tall boots with a bit of Antivan spirit to them and a split skirt that would have looked ridiculous on someone of high Fereldan stock—on Connor, for example, it would’ve revealed an expanse of thick, hairy thigh better left to the imagination, or rather to nightmares. The stranger’s face Connor found last of all—and that was strange too, maybe stranger than the rest, its features unfamiliar because they were indefinable. He had eyes the dark blue of evening wildflowers but that was about where the comparisons ended, an elvhen nose in a human face and nothing else more obvious than that. There were no vallaslin inked on his skin to frame his expression, but there was something Dalish about the picture he painted nonetheless.
‘I’ve been reading too many stories before bed,’ Connor muttered.
The stranger frowned.
‘I should think that would be the least of your worries,’ he said, exerting unflinching pressure with the hand on Connor’s shoulder. ‘Lie back, unless you’re looking to make those wounds open up again—in which case, by all means, feel free to move around as much as possible.’
Connor grunted, scanning the tent until he spied Warden sitting in one corner, short tail wiggling back and forth in frenzied enthusiasm. There was a splash of dried, dark blood across his belly, but it didn’t appear to be causing him any distress.
My blood, Connor thought. His hand lifted to probe against his side.
It was promptly slapped away.
‘They’re always right about shemlen being impatient,’ the stranger added. ‘Don’t you know what’s good for you?’
‘I’m an impatient shemlen,’ Connor replied.
Warden whined and that caused the stranger some distress, distraction Connor took pleasure in if only because of the shape of his profile, the idea that his eyes were finally boring twin holes into someone else. Warden was strong; Warden could withstand that level of scrutiny and maintain more dignity than most arls, present company included.
Connor—whose knuckles still stung from the slap—knew he was accustomed to the gentler mother’s milk of finer healing, honeyed drinks and stinking poultices and cool hands soothing the hair back from his brow. Redcliffe saw only the best healers and Connor saw only the best of those best.
These days he didn’t even wriggle during inspection. Not more than anyone expected him to.
He took the diversion as his chance to try a second time, Warden huffing in a friendly way and the stranger scowling because of it. Connor’s fingers felt around the corners of a stiff bandage taped over not inconsiderable bruises, the ache returning and making him wince.
‘More like a stupid one,’ the stranger said, no longer staring down Connor’s mabari.
Connor grinned; he knew the expression was crooked. It usually worked at dinner parties after his company was all drunk on good ale or full of good meats. They had so much more reason to be charmed by it, though he’d hoped it was something to do with raw, natural charisma and not a combination of timing and backdrop and family influence.
‘So,’ Connor began, ‘the halla that tried to kill me…’
‘Still alive.’ The stranger’s mouth twisted and he bent low after that, hair falling over his face as he lifted the torn fall of Connor’s jerkin. ‘In no condition to be set loose like that, either.’
‘Yes—just think of all the helpless locals it could injure,’ Connor said.
‘He,’ the stranger replied, then tugged the bandage loose.
The action tore at a few hairs and wrenched the bruises and Connor’s body reacted accordingly, drawn taut as a bowstring as he twisted off the slim pallet. The stranger’s hand forced him down once more and Connor felt more like an injured mabari pup—one who didn’t know what was good for him, who panicked at the first thought of pain—than a full-grown man with broad shoulders and dirty boots and everything.
‘You trained that halla,’ Connor said. ‘You’re…trying to kill me.’
‘If I was,’ the stranger told him, ‘you’d certainly be dead already.’
He left Connor with that friendly information, pulling open a pack at his side to retrieve a few leaves of dried elfroot. Connor could smell them, taste them, feel them, dead and brown and brittle and weathered to last, to carry their owner through the winter—but they were sad that way, sadder than almost anything else, dry and dusty, crushed to powder between the stranger’s fingertips. They felt gritty against Connor’s injured flesh and he clenched his jaw to keep from doing something about it—not that he knew what.
Because magic made so little damn sense that it tried to tend to other things before it turned inward. As far as Connor knew, it only ever devoured itself—then mended broken wing-bones or breathed fresh life into old elfroot. Connor had never managed to use it to heal his own ruined skin.
The stranger’s eyes narrowed. Connor chuckled.
‘It tickles,’ he explained. ‘And also, it hurts. Quite badly. …Who are you?’
Warden barked again and the stranger didn’t flinch, though his jaw hardened, lips white. ‘That isn’t your business.’
‘You saved me,’ Connor began.
‘And I know Fereldan rewards a little too well,’ the stranger said. ‘No. I’d rather not have your gratitude. I was trying to save the halla.’
‘I was trying to save my dog,’ Connor replied. ‘You know—the animal who wasn’t on a mad skewering rampage. A far better pet, all things considered.’
The stranger fixed Connor with a thoughtful gaze, deep as it was long, brows knit in a furrow of pale gold. Soft linen dragged against the leaf-grit plastered over Connor’s side—his savior was a multi-tasker, capable of bandaging someone while glaring them down at the same time.
‘Mabari hounds do their fair share of damage in these parts.’ The stranger’s hands never stilled, as though his work was never done. ‘And so do their masters.’
Connor hesitated not because of the pain but because some half-thoughtful pause seemed prudent, a gesture at contemplation. His mouth was dry, his tongue heavy and his palate sour, and there was a tickle in his throat for which simple water would have been a cure, though simple ale might’ve been better. He wanted to lift his head; he wanted to find Warden and chuff his fingers against a familiar, friendly scalp—but neither of those cures was within his reach, either. There was only the stranger before him: wary as the Dalish but with no vallaslin of his own, who’d offered Connor his life but not a name or the opportunity to appreciate it.
Now that was an intriguing set of contradictions. They plagued Connor less than the wound at his side—but they throbbed in the same unforgettable way, a reminder that drew his attention every time his thoughts threatened to drift.
‘Have I done something to offend you?’ Connor asked. It seemed unlikely—but Mother had always taught him that the surest way to disarm an enemy was to pretend you were their friend. Make their concerns your business, Connor, and you will find yourself with unexpected allies.
It was an Orlesian thing.
He could hear her voice even now, smoky vowels followed by the gentle scrape of her polished nails against his scalp. The good arlessa would have been able to charm even the chariest of Dalish, vallaslin or no, but Connor’s skills were more roughly-hewn.
‘I mean,’ he continued when the stranger offered no sharp reply, ‘I’ve been unconscious for most of our time together, but that’s not to say I couldn’t have made some fantastic error of etiquette while I was fainting and bleeding. A rude gesture by accident, perhaps, or…did I insult your ancestors while I slept?’
‘Is that a habit of yours?’ the stranger asked. ‘Does it happen often?’
‘I’m Fereldan,’ Connor said by way of explanation.
The stranger’s lips, thin as they were, twitched. ‘I’d noticed.’
The application of fresh bandages was finished and without much finesse, certainly without much tenderness. They were efficient but the skin stung before it was numbed by the elfroot. Connor didn’t test them—not under close watch and not while his fingers were still shivering with unseen promise.
These things happened. Not to everyone, but to some. It wasn’t easy to ignore them always, although once a man learned the way of it he fell into those old routines easily enough, just as wagon-wheels found the same time-honored grooves on an open road.
Besides, he didn’t want to be slapped again.
He allowed himself to be proud of how much he’d learned even in so short a time—and maybe to expect something resembling a crunchy treat for his efforts—but when the thought crossed his mind, the stranger’s lips turned closer to a frown. He turned away, long braid falling over his shoulder, hair so fine most of it had already come loose. Connor almost expected to see a few leaves caught there, perhaps a daisy chain or two, before the stranger flicked it back.
His fingers had green stains on them, fresh as the new shoots of grass beneath the old frost.
‘Stay where you are,’ the stranger said.
‘Or you’ll have your halla attack me again?’ Connor asked.
‘…Or you can do whatever you wish,’ the stranger added, already ducking out of the tent. ‘But if you want water and pampering, which I suspect you do, you’d be wise not to move an inch.’
Connor stayed put for a time—but it didn’t last. The winds were up and Warden restless, and together—one of Connor’s arms thrown around the Mabari’s strong shoulders—they managed to sit him up, though he couldn’t lean against the side of the tent without fear of bringing the whole thing down around them. It wasn’t the sturdy camping stock he knew from summers with Teagan—after the fever, despite his sudden recovery, Father’s camping days had all but ended—and it smelled of the same venerated yet depressingly ancient dead things that filled the rest of the tent, bedroll and bandages and packs of gathered roots.
The stranger definitely had something to do with the Dalish.
‘Don’t tell anyone,’ Connor said, cheek against Warden’s. Dogs didn’t mind propping a man up—and Warden was feeling guilty about everything; Connor could sense it.
Warden licked his face in reply, then nosed the wound carefully, a whine caught in the back of his throat.
It could have been worse. There could have been demons—lots of them. Connor tested what his muscles were capable of and what they weren’t, rolling his torn jerkin up over his chest. Beneath the shadows of fabric he saw the shadows of bruises and winced more at what Mother would say than any significant pain—or any significant pain he couldn’t handle.
‘Oh good,’ the stranger said in the entrance. ‘You’re doing exactly what I told you not to. And your dog’s licking the wound. That’s…healthy.’
‘Mabari spit has restorative properties,’ Connor told him. ‘Why do you think we’re always letting them lick us? Because we’re lonely, or because we’re depraved?’
‘I always assumed it was because you were filthy.’ The stranger released the strap of a skein slung over his shoulder and kneeled; the slit in his skirt fell open just so and Connor was struck again by the Antivan cut of his boots, high kid leather laced up all the way past his knees.
Warden whimpered, command implicit, need explicit, both of them connected in the same sense that old married couples were connected—only with Warden, Connor understood, there was more slobbering involved. Mabari were smart enough to know when they were being chided, which wasn’t always a quality they shared with their masters. Connor felt a flush of pride in his dog followed by the more immediate flush of panic when Warden retreated, no longer offering the wall of support Connor needed.
The not-so-Dalish stranger had done that on purpose. He’d used an elvhen trick to bewitch Connor’s dog like in the stories—and the possibility of possession, charms and traps and spells, made itself known like a burr in the boot. Just more insidious and less easily shaken loose.
Connor even opened his mouth to accuse him of it—of something—but all that came to hand was a miserable groan, cut short as he swayed sideways. A moment later he found himself more horizontal than vertical; his furs were soft beneath his head and about his shoulders, but that was the only comfort he found down below.
‘Do you sleep on this?’ Connor asked, shifting as little as he could—just enough to be comfortable, yet not so much that he finally reopened his wounds. ‘Or do you just use it for torturing prisoners?’
‘A little of both.’ The stranger cast a watchful glance toward Warden in the corner of the tent before popping the skein’s cap with a green-tinged thumb, a single, red blister sitting against the pad of his finger. They weren’t a healer’s hands, but he’d done what he could. They weren’t Dalish hands, either, or a noblewoman’s, though the fingers were long, more length than grace in every gesture. ‘When it’s not being occupied by mad Fereldans doing their best to meet the Maker ahead of schedule.’
‘Don’t you mean Creator?’ Connor asked. ‘That’s Dalish…isn’t it?’
The stranger’s mouth shifted most of its gravity to one side, lips pursed the very same way Teagan’s did when he caught an unpleasant scrap of gossip at supper.
‘Drink,’ the stranger said. He lifted one of Connor’s hands by the wrist, pressing the soft flask against his palm.
Connor drank. Anything else would’ve been poor manners, a pox on hospitality, no matter how uncomfortable the bed was. The water was cold and bitter, flavored with something beyond simple lemon rind. More elfroot, Connor thought, and did his best not to spit it out. He wouldn’t give the stranger that satisfaction of a choking face—even if his own satisfaction was still his primary concern.
‘So you’re not Dalish,’ Connor said after he choked it all down, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
The stranger’s mouth executed another trick, even sourer than his water. He took the skein and drank, a furrow in his brow closer to vallaslin than to shadow.
‘So you are Dalish,’ Connor tried again.
‘Does it matter?’ the stranger asked.
‘People make such a fuss over it, I always thought it did,’ Connor replied.
The stranger capped his water-skein with a pop and leaned back against his heels. Warden marked his every movement but his hackles didn’t rise the way they did on dark nights after darker dreams; the stranger was no demon, not even one of the more subtle ones, who didn’t show up with branching horns like halla and jeweled chains draped across their ample chests.
Not that he would have looked unpleasant in all that. Some people had the build for it; others didn’t.
Connor hid his smile behind his knuckles. His gloved hands smelled like leather and fur, something familiar despite everything, and it was better for his balance than Warden had been at his back. Even if he was lying down already, and didn’t have far to fall this time.
‘I haven’t got the ears for it,’ the stranger said at last.
‘Well.’ Connor supposed enough time had passed after drinking that he was allowed to cough and have it mean nothing about the burn of the elfroot in the back of his throat. He did. The stranger also wiped his mouth but with a corner of his sleeve. It was almost dainty—until it became all too practical. ‘That’s… You’re…’
‘Has the blood loss made you stupid?’ the stranger asked.
‘You’re as mean as a Dalish,’ Connor replied.
Sometimes that was enough, whatever predilections or tendencies each class of Ferelden’s well-patrolled social hierarchy shared. Assumption became prejudice became comfort—and so it was easy to tell a city elf from a circle mage, an arl from one of the People, with or without the proper ears.
Warden barked in agreement and the stranger outright glared, an expression that wasn’t cruel so much as it was wary. But wariness could become cruelty so easily—especially in Ferelden—that Connor wondered whether or not he’d be throwing himself between his dog and his make-do healer next.
‘I’ve just never known your kind to wear boots from Antiva,’ Connor added.
‘They make them better there than they do here,’ the stranger replied.
Awkwardness followed in that way it had, while the only sound to punctuate the silence was Warden’s happy breathing. He was happy to breathe, a general sense of gratitude that Connor had taken comfort in for years, better than any boring childhood lessons. But he was also messy about it and the stranger seemed the particular sort, one who wasn’t charmed by precious amounts of drool.
‘Another drink?’ Connor asked, just as the stranger said, ‘Why not heal yourself?’
More awkwardness followed. Connor wondered if he’d made it all up. The stranger watched him closely and carefully and Connor laughed, louder than Warden’s panting, probably louder than necessary. It turned into a chuckle, then wore itself too thin to last.
‘Pardon?’ Connor asked.
‘A general question,’ the stranger said.
‘You mean a metaphor.’ Connor licked his lips and tasted bitter elfroot. ‘A theoretical sort of…thing.’
‘Right,’ the stranger said.
‘I’m sure I’ll be walking out of here by nightfall,’ Connor added. ‘It’s not as though I’ve the luxury to stay. Wondrous what miracles come from necessity.’
The stranger shrugged, braid like unwoven silk, the very tip of it brushing the ground by his boots. ‘It’s not as though I’ve another bedroll,’ he replied. ‘Wondrous what ‘miracles’ come from that, too.’
The elfroot did its work, makeshift poultice finally turning sweet against Connor’s skin. In the meantime, the stranger busied himself with tasks menial and very Dalish as though Connor wasn’t there, stripping bark from branches while Warden watched—hopeful but denied at every turn, not even a few chips tossed his way.
What the stranger was doing here alone—whether it was part of some elvhen trial; whether he was one intrepid member of a clan just passing through; whether he was a hermit who lived alone in the forest with nothing more conversational than the acorns for company—made no difference. His hair got in his face and he blew it free or brushed it back with his shoulder, and meanwhile Connor’s body was mending itself, slowly but surely as he listened to the scrape of the stranger’s hunting knife against the grain.
Connor drifted but he didn’t sleep. He couldn’t trust himself to the Fade in this state, sapped of his strength with only a stranger and Warden to watch over him. There had been a question of healing, but metaphor and magic didn’t mix well. Acknowledging its potential would make it real—and his mother had taught him better than anyone the efficacy of a stubborn Orlesian countenance. Blush when you meant to smile, smile when you meant to blush, and don’t frown even in the mirror.
Fereldans could argue against nature—they did it often—but it took a different, subtler grit to deny potential completely.
It wasn’t about working with what you had. It was about maintaining what you didn’t.
Not that Connor had spent too many sleepless nights tangled in the question the same way his limbs tangled in the sheets. He was too old for that now and managed to kick those troublesome tangles clean off him.
Time passed and the pale daylight turned gray outside the tent. When there was too much darkness to see by, the stranger lit a white tallow, squat and round, and Connor knew he had to leave.
He’d run away once—when he was thirteen and life had seemed too much for one boy to bear alone, even in a big house, even with the promise of more dogs. Maybe all that had made it worse. And adolescent selfishness meant it was impossible for him to consider the consequences of his actions, the separate worries of his mother and father or the punishment that awaited his guardian for letting Connor give him the slip in the woods. All he cared about was the fresh air on his face, soft dirt beneath his boots and the promise of clean, green things calling to him, always calling, tender shoots outstretched like a child’s fingers to brush his hands.
When night fell, Redcliffe’s captain of the guard had sent search parties out into the forest. Sometimes Connor closed his eyes and found he could still picture the scene: the brisk air cold and the sharp sound of the mabari barking, trees warning him of steel-clad men roaming the paths, and how tightly he’d held to Warden’s collar so he wouldn’t bound free.
It hadn’t lasted. He’d known all along it wouldn’t. But for some reason that was the part he remembered best, darkness before him and darkness after, nothing to light his way but nothing to trip over, either.
From what he knew of his new friend—which admittedly wasn’t much—he wouldn’t take kindly to the destruction of his camp or accusations of kidnapping. No one did.
And the Arl of Redcliffe couldn’t just disappear on a whim.
Older and presumably wiser, Connor found himself with less freedom than when he’d been a boy, and not even the fine weave of a studded collar to hold onto for his efforts.
You traded in demons, you traded in something else. Connor had always known that; even when the darkness whispered his name—darkness before him and darkness after, nothing to light his way and everything to trip over.
The stranger didn’t lift his head when Connor sat up but his shoulders tensed beneath stained leather and soft cotton and Connor knew that he must’ve heard him moving. He was more careful now, checking the bandage himself, testing the pain—and his own body beyond the pain, what it was and wasn’t capable of.
There were so many limitations. He just didn’t know them all.
With Warden at his side, he’d make it through the woods without breaking much of a sweat. At the end of that path there’d be a hot supper awaiting him and a fine drink to wash it down, a fine chair to sit in with his boots on and his feet up, fine healers to take care of the mess others only knew how to make, not clean away after.
The only difference was where he was headed, back toward the big house instead of away.
Also, his jerkin was ruined, and there were blood stains on the inside of his cloak. It felt like a secret only Connor knew, one of many, no longer all that exciting to keep.
Mother’d turn full-on rage demon if she knew. The idea made him chuckle into a dearth of real humor, a shiver not of fear but not of anticipation.
He had some trouble with the fastenings on the cloak after that, though Warden helped to nose it up over his back every time it threatened to fall. The stranger offered no help whatsoever—and it was only the help he’d offered in the first place that made this seem rude rather than understandable.
He was under no obligation to help at all, just as Connor was under no obligation to offer any reward for it.
‘Perhaps you might like a reward,’ he said. He moved his arm the wrong way and it tugged the beleaguered muscles in his flank; he had to keep his movements small when that was all he knew how to make big. A large blossom with a delicate vine—the principle behind most Orlesian actions, certainly behind all Orlesian roses.
Connor wasn’t one of those. Mother maybe, but she had the thorns to prove it.
‘I already told you—’ the stranger began.
Mother wasn’t the only one with thorns.
‘Right. You have everything you could possibly need already. Dried elfroot, Antivan boots, and Thedas’s most uncomfortable bedroll.’ Connor glanced around the tent for more but there wasn’t anything, not beyond the tie at the bottom of the stranger’s braid and the hunting knife strapped to his side, his fingers resting on his thighs, the candle with a pool of molten wax at the center flickering unsteadily against the flame. Connor made a face at what he found and the stranger made one back.
It wasn’t the first time he’d felt like a lad again, before the start of a few much-needed growth spurts: aching in his shins and the backs of his thighs, physical pain to distract from other turmoil. If he was lying awake at night rubbing his legs then he wasn’t lost in the Fade Mists calling someone’s name—sometimes his own, without any answer—and soon enough there was blessed silence.
There was silence now, too, but ‘blessed’ wouldn’t have been the word Connor used to describe it.
‘Don’t forget the blood stains,’ the stranger said at last. ‘That’s reward enough. Thank you for ruining my bedroll.’
‘Normally I like to give sovereigns,’ Connor replied.
His blood was streaked on the pallet beneath him—yet he was certain it had to have seen worse in its time.
‘What use could I possibly have for those?’ the stranger asked, and Connor had to admit he had a point.
‘The fact that you even have to ask proves you need them more than anyone.’ Thorns, Connor had learned, made a man say one thing when he meant another. Sometimes they tangled around the tongue; sometimes they cut into the heart. ‘You could buy yourself a real bed, for starters. Or a proper coat—unless the Dalish don’t care about the cold. I’d ask if your vallaslin keep you warm, but then—you don’t have any.’
The stranger’s nose twitched, as though his scowl had shifted with surprise into something more pleasant despite its humble beginnings. Connor used the moment to study his face, elvhen brow and a sour little mouth, with a fall of loose hair tucked behind a pointed—but human—ear. He wasn’t Dalish, not real Dalish. Neither was he a city elf, nor did he seem to be full elf at all.
But further understanding required further inquiry, and they didn’t even know each other’s names.
‘I’m Connor,’ Connor said, which didn’t diminish the distance between them. His hand rested against Warden’s neck for balance, though he got the impression the stranger wouldn’t have shook it even if it’d been offered. Gestures made into empty space, hands not held—and in the end, fur fit against Connor’s palm better than anything else. ‘…Connor Guerrin, if you’re feeling fancy. Though by all rights it should be—’
‘…The Arl of Redcliffe.’ The stranger smoothed his fingers over the split edges of his leather skirt. Connor found his gaze wandering toward the glimpses of white thigh beneath.
Definitely an Antivan look, if not an Antivan thigh. His boots covered just enough to make what little was revealed seem even more intimate by comparison—and that wasn’t an Orlesian sensibility just as much as it wasn’t Fereldan.
Connor laughed with the same surprise that kept the stranger from glaring. The sound reverberated deep and friendly from his belly, stretching the wound at his side and making him ache even as it cheered him. It seemed foolish to feel awkward in front of someone who’d dragged your unconscious body back to a hut in the woods, doubly so when he’d gone and stained his bed with fresh Fereldan blood.
‘…At least let me give you enough for a new one of these,’ Connor said when he’d finished, the stranger refusing to find his humor infectious. ‘I wouldn’t even let my dog sleep on this.’
That hadn’t been the right thing to say.
‘Fortunately for everyone, I am not your pet,’ the stranger replied.
Connor couldn’t rub the hair at the back of his neck, his balance shifted and still precarious, Warden’s pelt sleek beneath his thumb instead. Connor gave him an idle scritch and scratch and at least someone in the tent was happy.
‘You’re right—you’re so much more like an Orlesian hound than a proper Fereldan war-dog,’ Connor admitted.
That also hadn’t been the right thing to say. The stranger’s stained fingers covered his mouth. The laughter faded from Connor’s muscles. Warden pawed at the ground and whined, the tension too much for him—and Connor didn’t blame him for the reaction, momentary pleasure replaced by discomfort, confusion, not understanding why everyone around him always had to be so difficult.
Dogs didn’t gossip. They couldn’t share embarrassments or reveal long-standing fears. But they felt the presence of those things all the same, sensitive to the shift in temperature that didn’t necessarily have to do with the weather, the change in people just as important to maintaining winter’s frost.
‘Icy,’ Connor said.
‘Yes,’ the stranger agreed. ‘It isn’t spring yet.’
He made no preparations, nor did he seem to care whether his patient survived the long way home or not.
‘I haven’t been a very good patient, have I?’ Connor asked.
‘That’s because you’re an impatient shemlen,’ the stranger replied, tart humor sharp as the edge of his knife against a length of ironbark, stripping grain from grain.
Warden was careful by Connor’s side but he was walking easily, head hitting the top flap of the tent because he hadn’t bothered with ducking. Already he was preparing himself to hide his hip, to explain it was just a scratch and hope Mother wanted to believe the lie enough that she fooled herself—because Connor wouldn’t be fooling anyone. The healers would keep their mouths shut and Warden wouldn’t, but all he’d share would amount to no more than a few heavy pants and a few splatters of drool before Mother chased him from the room.
What his eyes shared would be what Mother ignored. The Arlessa, her son the Arl, and his best friend the dog.
It was dark out but the moon was full, the same as it was in all the best stories—about werewolves and wardens, for the most part—and there were bright stars along the way. Usually there was less than that. Connor glanced over his shoulder, which was a mistake he always made—even in dreams.
The stranger crossed his arms over his chest. Candlelight flickered from within the tent, only abandoned for a short time.
‘What about boots?’ Connor asked. ‘I could send you a fine pair.’
‘I already have a fine pair,’ the stranger told him, and shooed him on his way.
These things were always happening in Ferelden, chance meetings followed by accidental lessons followed by sudden departures. Connor’s life was marked like a walking staff by each—wardens and tutors who came and left, who never had the answers he sought anyway.
In the end it was only one man alone in the dark. When the stars were hidden by rolling clouds he closed his eyes and the trees led the way, shifting leaves to branches to leaves, shivering above him but below the call of a distant hawk.
‘You know how it is,’ Connor told Teagan the next morning.
‘All too well, I’m afraid,’ Teagan replied.
He was there because Mother always called for him when she was worried; he was eating breakfast because it was the right time of day for eating breakfast. Connor touched the scar beneath his new jerkin and reached for breakfast of his own—and just like that, things were well again between them.
He’d promise later not to do it again—whatever ‘it’ was; it wasn’t as though he’d found the halla on purpose, even if he could still sense its wounded, poisoned heart, somewhere beyond the customary bounds of Redcliffe proper.
But that might as well have been a daydream. With tainted halla came desperate demons, and Connor took a cold bath before he took a hot one.
He thought about the stranger, curiosity spilling over like the water in his tub when he sank in too quickly, eager to temper the chill in his flesh with some other, deeper warmth. The damp back of his head settled against the cool porcelain rim of his soaking bath, imported in secret from Orlais through one of Mother’s contacts in Denerim.
In the end, though she’d shared in Father’s life, his Fereldan sensibilities had never rubbed off on her. Not when it came to the finer things, pleasures for herself and comforts for her son.
Connor imagined what the stranger would have to say about Redcliffe castle’s bathroom and knew he was grinning. The single room was larger than a tent pitched in the woods, what Connor had believed at first to be just one in the wide ring of a Dalish settling—as much as the Dalish ever did settle. But the woods weren’t filled with the whisper of archers, their whitewood arrows whistling silent through the trees, and there’d been no creaking voices of the camp elders making their homes beneath stilled caravans. Only a single tent stood sentinel in the forest, occupied by someone without even a trace of vallaslin, with a pair of Antivan leather boots that crept up to hug his thighs.
Connor could still picture those with more clarity than the rest.
There’d been a forest-dwelling hermit in the Grey Warden’s tales—once a Tevinter magister, so the rumors went, missing a staff and displaying an unhealthy obsession with acorns—yet Connor’s savior hadn’t exhibited any of the telltale signs of madness, aside from the obvious.
Living alone without clan or kin was madness enough in these parts of Ferelden.
No one ever spoke of that—the silent sort, far less entertaining than loud fits of speechifying. Not being a natural storyteller himself, Connor couldn’t say. But he could still close his eyes easily enough, head tipped back against the rim of the imported bathtub, damp cheeks and brow and the tips of his hair trailing the surface of the cooling water.
The stories he told himself in the bath might’ve been imported from Orlais just as easily. But if Mother ever found those secret books lying around…
Connor laughed, shaking his head, droplets flying everywhere like a mabari after a swim. Warden huffed when he was splattered, fond patience and amusement both, and brought Connor a clean towel from the basket in his teeth.
‘You’re still feeling guilty about everything,’ Connor said, skin chill and dripping, all the hairs standing on end as he scrubbed himself down. ‘Aren’t you?’
Warden wasn’t a more subtle animal—or a more subtle friend. He tipped his head to the left and whined in the back of his throat and Connor did his best to hide the scar at his side with a tuck of terrycloth, what dried elfroot had tried to heal and what Mother’s healers had done a better job of in the end.
They both knew it was there, but that didn’t mean Connor had to rub Warden’s nose in it. He wasn’t a pup any longer.
‘It was an adventure,’ Connor added. There were soaps and oils and other shaving splashes, scents that made him wrinkle his nose and Warden do the same. ‘A good one. We met a halla and a madman. I don’t know about you, but I had a fine time.’
It was still possible the stranger had saved Connor’s life for the express purpose of being rude to him for hours on end afterward—but that seemed like more of a personal quirk than true madness.
Everyone enjoyed a captive audience. It was all about possibility and perspective. Connor shrugged into a new shirt, one without a strip torn from the flank and no impressive blood stains spattered across the front, not white as the driven snow but something softer for the season. He tucked it into his trousers and did up the laces and thought less of madness and more of leather, the snug stitching all the way up the inside of a thigh.
If Warden hadn’t been there waiting for a walk, things might have gone differently.
The desire was real enough, not a shadow but a slant of sunlight coming in through the high window. Antivan leather was only dangerous when it was worn by one of the Antivan Crows—and they employed daggers and poisons rather than sharp nails and choking Fade mists.
Connor would have been lying if he’d said there wasn’t a spring in his step after that, the same flush felt after every brush with death.
‘You’re looking hale today,’ Teagan said when they dined together again that afternoon.
‘Must be the weather,’ Connor replied.
He was pleased all the way through supper and the drinks after. He supposed he still harbored that sense of companionship from boyhood, when Teagan still seemed so much taller. Having someone to look up to—literally—helped in those days more than laughter at the dining table, Mother smiling into her glass, Connor outstripping Teagan’s second helpings.
They were past the point of commenting on it, Teagan leading Mother back to her room and Connor left to find his own way. He didn’t follow Teagan’s side-shadow the way Warden dogged his steps; his room was private, quiet, not necessarily cold, though there was only so much a fire in the hearth could manage when the moon was full.
After all those prior thoughts of werewolves, it was a fine detail.
Connor tossed his cloak on the chair by the bed and kicked off his boots. He undid the buckle of his belt and the laces of his trousers beneath that but those laces were as far as he went.
Old habits; old cautions. It’d been a full day and his muscles were tired along with the rest of him, and he was asleep the same time his head hit the pillow.
The Fade wasn’t a welcome respite from the remains of the day but it was always there whether he sought it or denied it, despite weariness or vigilance or a combination of both. He was never alone and he was always alone; he’d never studied the Fade dreams of mabari—if they even had them—and whatever secrets Warden knew he kept them to himself, eyes shut and paws twitching in the dark.
Chasing rabbits, Connor imagined. Just as they all were. He wondered if his hands twitched, too.
Yet his dreams were never that simple, paths tangled with brambles that wouldn’t budge whether or not he tried to tear them free. Tall statues cluttered the scant clearings between the trees, like the crude carvings of Maferath found in the Wending Woods outside Amaranthine, and the ground beneath him pitched gently, as though he’d stowed away on a galleon crossing the Waking Sea.
He listened, but there was no telltale clink and clatter of charms, no slither of a barbed tail to announce a demon’s arrival.
They came less often now that he was older but an apostate was ever wary. Almost like an Orlesian living in Ferelden, Mother once said to fend off a nightmare, though Connor thought it was an understatement for the longest of years, her fingers stroking the hair off his feverish brow.
All he had now were his own fingers. He adjusted the thick cuff of his falconry gloves and began to pull at the briars, tearing the green vines apart at their roots. He didn’t mourn their passing because they’d never lived to begin with; he didn’t feel their deaths because nothing grew here, not really.
Tsk, someone said, just over his shoulder. Connor ignored the sound. The brambles had sharp thorns but they didn’t pierce the tough hide of his gloves.
‘Typical,’ the voice continued, louder this time, still subtle but decidedly more intrusive. ‘Why bother looking for a way around when you can go through a thing with so much raw violence? Not to mention the exciting difficulty of it all. Your kind just loves a good challenge.’
Connor knew that voice—or at least he recognized the intent it bore, a familiar splash of amusement bright amidst a grayer background of disapproval.
‘I’d greet you by name,’ Connor said, turning to work a thorn loose from the inseam stitched between his thumb and forefinger, ‘but I’m afraid you’ve yet to give me yours.’
He’d dreamed before about strangers he’d met days ago or years ago, about strangers he’d never met and never would meet, their bodies worn by beasts like puppet shows, and thought it fun to watch them dance. He’d laughed at the restless motion of their limbs and wept when it was taken from him; after that, he’d always known better than to trust a dream was his own.
He held the thorn like a weapon in the palm of his hand. When he faced the stranger, the stranger was more than just a face.
His hair was still in its braid. No chains danced glinting and glistering around his shoulders or draped across his bare chest. His nose looked more Dalish than ever and his ears less so, full mouth and high cheekbones and the beginnings of a frown.
Demons never scowled—not until after you turned them down. Connor felt the sharp cut of the thorn in his palm at last, a weapon he’d meant to use turned against him because he didn’t understand it.
Wasn’t that always the way.
‘You’re really here,’ he said.
‘As much as anyone ever is,’ the stranger replied.
There were too many questions after that, all of them unfurling at Connor’s back like so many little green leaves in the sudden bloom of spring. Connor saw the stranger watching the briar batch and despite his better judgment, everything he’d thought he’d learned—the lessons Jowan taught him in private by the fire, face pale and shadowed and speaking to caution as naturally as he spoke to ambition—Connor looked over his shoulder where the vines were blossoming.
‘Before you ask,’ the stranger said, ‘I didn’t do it.’
Connor cupped his fingers around the flowers. There were still thorns, and plenty of them, but that wasn’t all there was. ‘That isn’t what I was going to ask.’
‘Feynriel,’ the stranger said.
‘How Dalish of you,’ Connor told him.
Feynriel shrugged. His face shifted toward something he might have imagined more than something he was, a ripple of want cast over the surface of the water. There were vallaslin in that conception, Connor realized, a design across his brow that wasn’t there but might as well have been. It was bright at intervals, blindingly so, and it changed the shape of Feynriel’s face just thinking about it.
‘You did it,’ Feynriel added, nodding toward the unexpected garden.
Connor’s hands twitched, just like a dog chasing rabbits in its sleep. ‘No I didn’t,’ he said, and then, ‘not…on purpose, anyway.’
‘Because magic is never accidental.’ Feynriel took a step closer. Again Connor expected chains, little links echoing the clanking of larger ones. If it wasn’t vines snarling around his wrists then it was Fade-forged metal, hot and cold as lyrium, burning with raw energy.
But there wasn’t any of that. Feynriel’s bootfalls made no sound even though he was burning in the shadows, more than just a shadow himself. He moved carefully, as anyone would while dealing with a startled animal—dangerous and violent as a spooked halla.
‘I never said that either.’ Connor felt the push of the leaves behind him, tendrils unfurling and poking at his back. They were urging him forward; just because they couldn’t uproot themselves didn’t mean Connor wasn’t capable of taking greater strides. They were bossy little things, that much was certain.
‘No,’ Feynriel said. ‘You didn’t have to.’
‘Actually,’ Connor said, finally stepping forward, the branches keening after him with curious amusement, ‘I’m a bit disturbed by all this. The...you being here part especially.’
‘It’s not that difficult.’ Feynriel held up his hands. They weren’t stained by dried elfroot or stripping bark.
‘You’re in my dreams,’ Connor said.
‘Practically,’ Feynriel replied. ‘But I’m only saying that because I know Fereldans enjoy oversimplifications.’
‘Can’t you be nicer?’ Connor asked. He didn’t think it was an unreasonable request. ‘It’s my dream, after all. …Isn’t it?’
‘Yes.’ Feynriel pressed two fingers to his brow to smooth out a crease Connor remembered, one he could no longer see. ‘But I’m not a part of it—not in the way you’re thinking.’
‘And how do you know what I’m thinking, for that matter?’ Connor replied, feeling the beginnings of the same smile he’d had in the bath, lips twitching crooked as Teagan’s when he was trying not to laugh just over Mother’s shoulder.
Despite the implications of everything, the discomfort he should have felt, there was still something uncomplicated about the whole affair—the same way his conversations with Warden generally were, though those were so much more one-sided.
‘I don’t, actually.’ Feynriel took a step forward, soft boots soundless against the dusty Fade-earth, closing the final stretch of distance between them. ‘I’m not a blood mage—but I suppose you already know that.’
‘Because I’m such an expert?’ Connor asked. His voice sounded high, half-strangled in the mists, like he was a boy of eight all over again and lost to talons and scarlet scales, the soft sigh of all his desires whispered close and warm against the shell of his ear. The flick of a tongue, the trick of a touch, the nestle of nails and a heat—always heat, tucked close against his back.
There were no demons in his dreams tonight, though Connor didn’t flatter himself that it had anything to do with his provisions.
Even the cleverest of spirits couldn’t tempt him with what he already had. Could they?
‘Because you’re a mage,’ Feynriel said.
The word landed between them like an arrow fired from a Dalish bow to pierce the cloudy dirt. Connor felt the vines behind him shiver, no heat at all, sinuous lengths twisting backward as if they feared his touch. Trust a plant to be a fair-weather friend, he thought, searching for sunlight and shying from shadows, then felt guilty for the betrayal. It wasn’t their fault. It was his own dark thoughts that shamed him.
Plants couldn’t help their constitution. They needed that sunlight to grow and they couldn’t always be kept in the shade, hidden from the open sky.
‘So are you,’ Connor said. When he lifted his head, Feynriel was there, bare fingers wrapping around the thick gauntlet covering Connor’s left wrist.
‘I’m aware,’ Feynriel replied. ‘I didn’t hide it.’
‘You didn’t share it, either,’ Connor said. ‘Or your name, for that matter. And now you’re sneaking into my dreams and trying to take my gloves.’
‘They aren’t real.’ Feynriel gripped him against the bone, whatever concept of bone there was in the Fade, bone and hair and flesh. They had to mean something, maybe something more than a concept, the truest expression not of the body but of what made it tick—like a dwarven water-clock. Fereldans spent a great deal of time and energy on the principle of being bluff, of being honest, of bodies themselves and what they offered, but even mud was never simple. Even mud was capable of growing a few sweet flowers—and it never tried to keep them secret, soft loam and tender blossoms, one needing the other and both of them drawing life from it.
Life and pleasure.
But pleasure was a dangerous word this deep in the Fade. Feynriel’s fingers tightened and Connor tried to imagine he could feel it even if he couldn’t, his pulse speeding and slowing as Feynriel pulled off the first of his gloves.
‘They’re my favorite pair,’ Connor said. ‘I lost one during a hunt—the damn Bronto involved nearly took my hand clean off.’
The scar beneath made itself known, though it hadn’t been there a moment before. It ran from beneath his thumb all the way to his littlest finger, where he wore one of Father’s rings. Something glittered against the curve of his pinky when he thought of it, almost gold. Feynriel held the limp leather in his hands and made for the next; the second came off more readily, with no scars and no rings beneath.
All Connor had were his palms. There were no lines on them because he hadn’t spent much time studying them lately and had no idea where one branched into the next, wrinkles folding one onto the other in a finer concept of self.
Demons usually tried to divest him of other clothing, hands beneath jerkins, nails scraping past laces or under vests, untucking and tearing and tugging and touching.
Feynriel folded the gloves under one arm. He didn’t stand back.
‘Bossy,’ Connor said. ‘Then again… I suppose it must be so boring for you out there in the woods all alone. Are you lonely, Feynriel?’
Feynriel snorted. ‘Frustrated, more like.’
‘And meddlesome.’ Connor rubbed the scar on his palm with his thumb. ‘Don’t forget that.’
The vines at Connor’s back all laughed at the joke. They were comfortable, too, less hesitant now and blooming toward him again. He felt a few tickle the nape of his neck and the shell of his ear, his shoulders and his thighs; when they giggled they rustled all over, sloughing uncertainty off with good humor to replace it. He’d never thought of them as friendly—not in the same way Warden was friendly—and because they were so thick and tangled it was always possible something else was hidden in their shadows, waiting to strike.
Feynriel gestured toward them. Connor looked between his hand and the brambles and back to Feynriel’s hand again.
That made Feynriel sigh, a deep sound that wound with the wind and gusted against Connor’s throat. He gripped Connor’s wrist again, bare this time, his knuckles brushing the scar—but it was nothing more than dead flesh and wouldn’t have felt anything even if they weren’t in the Fade.
‘Don’t be stubborn,’ Feynriel said.
‘But it’s all right for you to be crazy?’ Connor asked.
The bush shied from him, timid and bashful despite their curiosity, the instant Feynriel brought Connor’s hand forward. And he supposed he felt the same way, muscles tensing, resisting the gesture, especially since he wasn’t the one actually making it.
It should have come more naturally or not at all. He’d lived his life by that same motto and he’d turned out all right. A few scars here and there, a few extra secrets. But he wasn’t unhappy.
His hands were empty, though. At last they were also bare.
‘I’m not sure what you’re trying to do,’ Connor said, talking to distract himself the same way he did whenever he was subject to a healer’s spells. ‘I touch bushes all the time—I was touching them when you came in, in fact. I don’t think it’s going to make any real difference.’
‘You were fighting it then.’ Feynriel’s grip didn’t relax, nor did it slip unsubtly down Connor’s arm from wrist to elbow, drawing his sleeve back along a life-vein. Connor’s pulse throbbed but he suspected that was for other reasons. ‘That’s…a very real difference.’
There was an implication in his tone that Connor didn’t necessarily appreciate: that if he didn’t grasp the distinction by himself then he was probably an incurable idiot, or something even less polite than that—and even more Dalish.
There was also a difference, Connor wanted to say, between having an imagination and being forced to fill in all the blanks.
One was fun.
The other was atrocious.
Feynriel made an inelegant noise, halfway between a sigh of displeasure and a quarrelsome grunt of frustration. It reminded Connor of the nugs the dwarven stonemasons had brought up from Orzammar one winter while they repaired the castle walls. Teagan had warned him not to grow too attached to the funny little things, their stubbly snouts and questing snuffles, and sure enough they’d disappeared one by one over the course of the season while the dwarves belched fondly every night after supper.
Connor’s fingers curled outward at the memory and a slim, green tendril came forward to meet it, tickling the very tip. He didn’t slap it away and it crept lower, from joint to joint, all the way to the base and beyond, straight to the center of his palm. Something flared in his cupped hand after a few held breaths; a bright flower unfurled its petals against his skin, red as the banners they flew over the castle turrets when the arl was in residence.
‘It could be worse,’ Feynriel said. His hold loosened at last, callused fingers almost caressing the thick bones of Connor’s wrist.
Or it could have been a pat, the same kind Connor offered the soft fur between Warden’s ears, saying good boy after Warden had chewed up a noblewoman’s favorite pair of gilded slippers.
‘That’s not what my mother would say.’ Connor cringed as the words left his mouth. The flower twined around his thumb like another ring, nearly a comfort, its pulse beating like blood where the sap should have run through the hollows.
‘Mothers,’ Feynriel said, with a sour turn to his mouth, ‘have their own ideas about things.’
The new blossom brushed a sensitive spot. Connor wondered if he was more delighted by that than he was by the other thing—the possibility that Dalish mothers were the same as Orlesian mothers, especially when they had to deal with apostate sons.
Connor tucked his thumb against a glossy petal. It seemed green—but colors had so little meaning in the Fade, slipping in and out of the mist that hampered everything, that enhanced everything. It was possible to think something was alive only to discover it was somewhere beyond living’s opposite, the stink of rot lurking below sweet breath.
The flower began to wilt. Feynriel stepped closer. His arm covered Connor’s and held it in place, firm but not unkind.
It was simply that his touch knew efficiency better than it knew gentleness. And in the Fade that efficiency amplified, a strength that reached past and through. Unflinching—though that quality tended to make others flinch.
That, and there were still thorns. There’d always been thorns. They hid behind the buds but that didn’t mean they’d disappeared or that they were any less sharp because the pretty parts were suddenly so much more obvious.
‘Careful,’ Feynriel said.
‘I could say the same to you,’ Connor replied.
Then, they stood together while the budding shoots spread outward from Connor’s steadied hand, down along the length of each slender vine, where one became thicker than the one before, where the thorns were a knotted mess of beauty and pain and promise, where beauty was pain and pain was promise. Connor’s hands might have been bare but he didn’t have to plunge them into the thicket in order to make each little thing grow, light and color swift and more certain than anything he’d ever known.
Even if it didn’t last, he still knew it was there. Or had been, or could be—the distinctions were complicated and Jowan’s old lessons were more distant than Connor’s old nightmares.
The very real difference. Feynriel had called it that and that was most immediate.
Connor found himself sighing this time. The wall of gnarled roots was a garden now and it hadn’t even been hard—it’d only taken somewhere close to fifteen years, but that was a matter of time rather than difficulty.
‘No jokes about blooming late,’ Connor said.
‘It hadn’t crossed my mind until you said it,’ Feynriel admitted.
There was no compulsion to continue breathing in the Fade. Breath meant something else because in truth you were always breathing somewhere else. Connor took a deep breath anyway, enough to pretend he was filling his lungs, his chest swelling. With that motion the petals all opened further, toward the light Feynriel presented and the strength of Connor’s convictions beside that light.
‘So you came because you’re a lover of gardens?’ Connor asked.
‘And bossy,’ Feynriel said. ‘Frustrated, meddlesome…’
‘Impatient,’ Connor suggested.
‘Something we both share, then,’ Feynriel agreed.
Connor could feel it all beginning to slip away. Sleep and time and possibility swept under the rug; the sound of Warden barking and the curtains being drawn back to face the day. ‘Awful personality and an unhealthy love of nature?’ Connor turned just before there was no one left to turn to. ‘You’re definitely Dalish, and you won’t convince me otherwise.’
‘It isn’t about what you think,’ Feynriel said, a parting volley into the rush and swoop and plunge.
Connor’s stomach bottomed out, like being dunked into a freezing bath.
It’d been a while since he’d wanted to stay in the Fade longer than he had to—and the reasons were more disturbing despite being less sinister. He woke tangled in his sheets, Warden licking his knuckles, heat trapped in the center of his palm against a scar that should have felt nothing at all.
Mother was convinced he’d caught a fever. Connor weathered the indignity of more healers in order to settle her nerves but the trouble was they didn’t settle—and he couldn’t look her in the eye and tell her where the flush came from.
She knew when he was lying.
Mothers always did.
The best course of action was to avoid her as much as possible. Maybe he needed to be injured again, gored by another stray halla.
That was when the idea came to him.
‘Catching a halla?’ Teagan took a moment. Connor knew how it must’ve sounded and gave it to him, then a few extra moments for good measure. ‘Connor, this is…’
‘Profoundly stupid?’ Connor suggested. ‘Uncharacteristically absurd?’
‘Not necessarily uncharacteristically,’ Teagan said. ‘But unexpected, at the very least.’
‘Well, I’m not planning on hunting it down and eating it for dinner, if that’s what you’re worried about.’ Connor smoothed the fur at his shoulder, brushing out a stiff patch of dirt. ‘It’s more like…practice, really. Everyone was always talking about Father’s tracking abilities.’
‘Eamon?’ A look of bare amusement passed across Teagan’s face, followed by the same old hurt, distant and tinged with nostalgia. Memory, brotherhood, loss and affection. That was all they ever had, when they didn’t have demons behind each. ‘No, Connor—your father couldn’t track a falcon on a clear day.’
‘And why else do you think I’m so eager to prove myself?’ Connor asked, already tugging on his gloves.
Someone had to do something to make the Guerrin line stand out. Otherwise all anyone would talk about was Mother, rumors from the past surging into the present and—of course—doing their best to poison it.
Connor didn’t bring Warden into the woods with him because one close call had been enough, nearly too much, and he didn’t trust his body to hold up for another so soon after the first. The poor mabari’d only just recovered from the guilt of their first excursion, following Connor around with dark, wet eyes and his head bowed low, as if he’d done nothing but dwell on his master’s intervention in the forest since their return. He felt things more despite his thick pelt—like the confusion and the uncertainty of a master protecting his guard dog when they both suspected it should’ve been the other way around.
‘It’s all right, old man,’ Connor had tried to tell him, but the words hadn’t stuck. Mabari loyalty ran deep and mabari intelligence was sometimes more of a curse than a blessing.
Any common hound would have forgotten the incident by now, a limited scope of past and future with the focus on present, and also presents. But Connor’s taste in companions had ever run toward the uncommon, which—he supposed—might’ve also explained his current position: tramping through the birch groves south of Redcliffe where there was shelter from the winds that blew in off Lake Calenhad.
On a clear day he could see Kinloch Hold from the window of his study, a single dark spike against the sky as narrow and sharp as one of Mother’s sewing needles.
Connor’s fingers felt chill beneath the thick leather and fur of his gloves. He rubbed his hands together more briskly for warmth, until all the chafing worked their magic—which was really no magic at all.
The weather was unseasonably cold, enough to make tracking more difficult. When it was warm, narrow hooves left imprints in the soft soil and a halla shed its thick winter coat, leaving a trail even the most inexperienced of hunters might follow. But the ground was still too hard beneath Connor’s boots for hoofprints and there were no telltale glimmers of white brushed against the nearby bushes, no silver threaded in the green.
A gentle breeze rustled the leaves in the trees above him, like thousands of hands lifted in greeting. They could have told Connor exactly where the halla had gone—if only he knew how to ask.
Find the halla, find Feynriel. If they were both tracking the same creature they were bound to meet up somewhere sooner or later—unless one or both of them did it wrong, in which case they were bound not to meet up at all. There was always the possibility Connor could spend the entire day tramping through the trees and tripping over roots and return home long past sundown so hungry he could eat the elusive halla horns and all, with nothing more than cracked nails and his fingertips a fine shade of robin’s egg blue to show for it.
After that, he’d be bone-tired, muscles aching, searching for sleep beyond the pleasure of sleeping. If Feynriel didn’t come to him then—if he’d proven his point or served his purpose and moved on, the way Dalish always moved on—there’d be no seeing him again.
It shouldn’t have mattered. The wild chase was reminiscent of boyhood in none of the pleasantly nostalgic ways memories of boyhood should have been. Connor didn’t look back on the laughter as carefree; he heard giggles with the same hard and musical edge as bells echoing between his ribs, the hollow bones trembling with each foreign feeling.
And some of them were all too native.
The forest was the opposite of that tangle, the real rather than the metaphorical. Each rough slide of bark, each brittle branch, each nest tucked against the leaves—all those elements had their connection to a greater network of roots. That was something Connor didn’t have at the age between too young and finally older, or in the place between homes, with just enough Fereldan his Mother looked away some nights and just enough Orlesian everyone else did the same in the morning.
Connor leaned against the nearest oak. It was a sturdy thing, not at all delicate, without any twist of vine or flutter of new blossoms. It was old, no flush of something freshly blooming, but it was a part of spring like all the rest. Above Connor’s head the leaves rustled again; an acorn fell free and crowned him, falling from high enough to sting.
‘Good,’ Connor said. ‘Exactly how I’d planned it. Thank you for reminding me why this is all such a terrible idea.’
Another acorn fell. This time, it missed him. It rolled across the uneven earth around his toes until it finally came to rest between two gnarled roots, the very tip pointing in one obvious direction.
All the other trees leaned forward after it. Connor thought he could feel a tainted bruise on the clean air like mud dumped into sparkling water. Something dirty lingered in the forest and all the underbrush felt it—so Connor felt it, too.
It didn’t sting the same way a knock in the head from an acorn did. It found roots under muscle instead of underground and Connor rubbed at his chest beneath his jerkin, cold buckles pressed against his skin through cotton, which wasn’t enough to keep him warm.
The help he’d been given may have had something to do with Connor’s other hand still pressed against a knot in the oak bark. His thumb followed the whorl to the center, remembering how important it was to take his gloves off the night before, to touch things palm to bloom and learn one to the other, without any obstructing force between them.
But everyone had to start somewhere. No matter how strange this place was—buried in the forest, dappled light bare from above—it was Connor’s.
‘I’d thank you, but you’d be no more receptive to gratitude than Feynriel, I suspect,’ Connor said. ‘What does an oak tree want with a few gold coins?’
His words held wisdom. He supposed for something natural, all thanks were unnecessary—and possibly offensive. He brushed a leaf from his hair and stepped forward instead, mindful of the roots beneath, while the air whispered that way, that way upon a distant wind.
After a pause, he doubled back, picking the acorn up and pocketing it. He felt the sharper end pressing against his hip, tucked away snug in a belt-pouch.
‘So I take it you want me to go that way?’ Connor pointed. He was met with silence, but it was silence that built toward the same direction; his palms were sweaty and not with fever. It didn’t have to be a spell in order to be magic.
Mother was likely going to kill him, he thought, and in the same breath realized he couldn’t pay it any mind. All living things had to grow eventually—and in that growing they had to change. It was simple nature, the most inarguable of all laws, and even Mother with all her will and fire couldn’t hope to deny it.
It would be wrong to try.
If Connor had never been gored by the halla then he’d never have met Feynriel; if he’d never met Feynriel then his dreams might have gone on forever the way they always had, the only spots of color within from the demons themselves. They knew him well. They’d already been introduced. Their eyes were bright against the faded grays of the faded Fade, but they weren’t as powerful as a single flower-bud.
Or something like that, anyway. The thread from one point to the next was always bound to be tenuous but it did exist.
Fighting the natural order of things—however unnaturally it had all fallen into place—was what led to deals with demons to begin with.
Connor liked to think he’d learned from at least one mistake, even if Feynriel’s understanding of his accomplishments was less complimentary.
The path he followed took a slow decline, leading him down from Redcliffe’s hills into a narrow valley. Rockflowers bloomed in the crags, their petals shuddering in the wind. It was impossible to tell whether they were guiding him further along or cautioning him away, their fragile green stems being buffeted to and fro without any discernible pattern. Something huffed in the distance, a low wheeze that had nothing to do with the gusting wind. Connor paused, then pressed forward, squeezing himself between a pair of sharp-faced boulders. The rough edges of stone caught at the worn leather of his vest, scraping against his breeches where they tugged tight over the straining muscle of his thighs. The acorn’s tip poked him hard in the leg and he winced, but he didn’t remove it from his pocket.
One of the few fortunes involved in being the arl was that Connor no longer had to explain to anyone how he’d damaged his clothes. A wave of the hand like a flutter of leaves in the breeze, a vague grunt or an idle You know how it is kept his tailors’ tongues from wagging, at least where he could still hear them going at it.
Pale sunlight filled the clearing, glinting off a fall of hair too burnished to be halla-white. Feynriel crouched between two uneven crops of stone with his back to Connor, barely visibly in the tall grass but for that familiar braid and the tell-tale tension in his shoulders, braced as if to ward off an unseen attack.
There’d be no sneaking up on him.
Knowing that didn’t stop Connor from wanting to try it.
That was the Fereldan impulse, the one Connor always recognized—and for that reason alone had never been comfortable with. If he couldn’t turn off his recognition then what was natural couldn’t coexist with what was acknowledged, and so he chased himself and his sense of self like a restless mabari pup chased its own tail, round and round in circles before an empty hearth.
The wound at Connor’s side gave a meaningful twinge. For a moment he thought it was the acorn again until he realized it was too high and too sharp, that there was comfort in the old pain he had to ease with his hand pressed against besieged muscle.
Too much was between himself and himself, glove and belt and cotton and brocade. Even more was between him and the other figure in the clearing, the grass shifting and swaying, Feynriel’s braid coming loose at the bottom and a few leather laces wound in his hair as the wind whipped it free.
No—free wasn’t the right word for it. The openness of the clearing was more oppressive than a little cell, the rocky walls closing in on them, the bitter taste on the air enough to choke them both.
Feynriel still didn’t turn around. He had to know Connor was there, the sharp rise of his shoulders hunched forward and defensive. If they were children—and there was the nostalgia for boyhood at last, though it came not from experience but from imagination—Connor might’ve tackled him easily, pinning him down against the broken blades of wildgrass, both of them breathless and laughing, until all the bitterness was blown away like beaten smoke.
The nostalgia tangled with old desire and wicked curiosity. Connor’s fingers were stiff inside his gloves. He took a step forward because he had to do something; Feynriel held up one hand to ward him off, as though even so small a motion had made the very earth shake.
A moment later, Connor saw why. The halla was lying before him, great white belly and chest rising and falling, shallow gasps of breath and wild, roving eyes. They rolled in place, horns forcing its head at an angle, hooves kicking the air and narrowly missing Feynriel’s kneecaps every time.
Connor squeezed his side, not out of breath but recognizing the pulse as the same tight pinch, a reminder of a body—its possibilities alongside its limitations.
‘It’s hurt,’ Connor said.
‘He’s hurt,’ Feynriel replied.
Their voices were as quiet as they could be while still being heard, but the halla made a noise of frustration and fear anyway; they might as well have been shouting for the impact of their words, noise it couldn’t understand sending fresh panic through older suffering.
Connor was pulled closer the same way the grass began to bend toward him. Each was drawn against each for its own reasons, until Connor knelt in the dirt by Feynriel’s side, careful of the danger, the halla thrashing without care for who was trying to help—because no one actually was.
Connor knew how that felt, faces bowed over him, Jowan rubbing his chin and jaw, eyes alight with wretched brightness. Nervous murmurs that made no sense, gestures offered through the darkness, touches that made no difference—the knowledge that he was alone, that no one would find him, that maybe he didn’t want them to—that there were no promises he could feel, no hands he could hold, the loneliness that was fear and relief in one.
If there was no one else, there was no one else to suffer with him. That wasn’t always what he wanted.
He didn’t always prefer it.
But when it came to the alternative, those who did stand by his side, a scaled shoulder bumping his and not always in the night—it seemed better to have nothing at all, no companionship and no fear.
Feynriel bumped into Connor’s knee, reaching out to flip his braid back over his shoulder, then twisting a new tie around the base to keep it from unraveling further.
‘I don’t suppose we should put it out of its misery?’ Connor asked, not daring to flinch at the look on Feynriel’s face that followed.
One day he’d learn the valuable lesson that not all attention was desirable—just as soon as he learned how to befriend other nobles instead of their noble hounds.
Feynriel’s eyes were sharp but the set of his jaw softened, mouth accepting the jest for what it was—inappropriate and ill-timed and still not as cruel as it sounded. His hand strayed from his braid, reaching toward the halla but falling still before his fingers brushed the fur at its throat, stiff and bristle-white. Its eyes were ringed and blown wide with panic, moist and dark at the center, tipping to the sky in fear. There was nothing of Warden in its build or its expression—but Connor felt a similar tug at the base of his ribcage. When one animal suffered it called to another for comfort.
It was the same principle as Fade fear. Company was healing—and healing required company.
Feynriel’s fingers curled in pale toward his palm, a gesture that displayed uncharacteristic hesitation. Connor didn’t know those hands could hesitate—not when they’d been on him, steady touch tightening a clean bandage around a gritty poultice, or easing the pulse in Connor’s wrists, refusing to let him hold back.
‘What is it?’ Connor asked.
Silence wasn’t sanctified so much as it could be shattered.
There were few topics Connor could speak of without restraint—no politics, since the son of an Orlesian had to remain neutral; no talk of mages, since all an apostate had to keep were secrets.
‘I’m no healer,’ Feynriel said.
Connor’s eyes went to the leather pouch at his belt, the dried elfroot within that would cure little more than a flesh wound. The halla’s hurts ran deeper, gnarled as a tangle of brambled vines.
Connor could sense it even now, ash filtering through the bright pulse of its lifeblood, dark tendrils of madness stretching its fingerling roots all the way toward the beast’s heart. It was a far cry from a hawk with a broken wing, a sparrow with a shattered leg, the smaller injuries Connor had healed in fits of youthful imprudence. Doing this would take true skill, drawing on more than the simple tricks Jowan had taught him for discretion’s sake—just to keep him out of trouble.
He shifted his weight in the tall grass, dirt staining his trousers along the lengths of his shins and knees. Feynriel drew back when Connor’s furs brushed his shoulder—then gave him a look as if he were the halla and Connor a roving wolf, one who’d startled him mid-prowl amidst the trees.
‘What are you doing?’ Feynriel asked.
‘What do I think I’m doing,’ Connor corrected.
Feynriel huffed, without the halla’s fear but with all its impatience. ‘That, then. What do you think you’re doing?’
‘I think I’m going to heal it,’ Connor said, with more confidence than he felt. ‘…Him.’
The twist of Feynriel’s mouth as he bit his lower lip and arched one uneven brow said everything. Connor dealt with skepticism frequently; Fereldan nobles had fierce imaginations but only in limited purview about certain topics, and the rest was shut off to everyone, or smuggled in across borders from the libraries of other countries. Flights of fancy were reserved for those pages. Most rested dusty in the recesses of private studies, on shelves between cartography and common history, tales of the River Dane and the usual bold themes.
The halla breathed. Connor could feel that, each swell of air and each gust of release that followed, nothing approaching relief. When he looked down and saw his hands over its chest he realized his gloves were still on—something to stand between them, distance they couldn’t afford.
Taking his gloves off was easier said than done. It might’ve been a small thing—and they might not have been Connor’s favorite pair—but they stuck as he bit one empty finger, leather tasting sour as he wrenched his first hand free.
He turned to face Feynriel, dropping the glove from his teeth to grin. His fingers were cold in the air, cold despite the thick fabric they’d been wearing, fingertips pink and nails just as healthy as ever. He flexed them, then clenched them into a fist, then used them to tug off his second glove, both gauntlets forgotten in his lap.
Feynriel watched him more keenly now, without clever barbs or twisting mouth or skeptical brow to discourage—or interfere. He rested his own hand on Connor’s shoulder and Connor had to wonder if it was to steady himself or to steady the man beneath or to steady them both together.
No matter which it was, the halla kicked, lashing one sharp hoof between them. They avoided it without pulling away from one another. Feynriel tightened his grip, urgent fingers that hadn’t been gloved to begin with.
Connor shoved his hands out, stretched above the felled body, the beast’s shoulders prone and streaked with Ferelden’s famous mud. That was all impulse, quick and sudden but not at all prepared.
This time, it wasn’t the act of reaching out that mattered but what came after the act—and that was how dreams turned a man upside-down and inside-out. That was the trick: when the Fade taught you to expect one thing while life demanded another.
The halla didn’t whinny. It wasn’t an Orlesian warhorse, the sort no one ever rode on principle on this side of the Fereldan border. But it made its noises all the same, hot distress that only grew with each passing moment Connor kept up the pretense without delivering on his promises.
He was trying.
That didn’t matter as much as some said it did.
There was instinct and there was also success. The two existed on the same path, one a young sapling and the other a wise old tree, but which was which was another confounding matter of dreams and reflections and, ultimately, confusion.
Connor rubbed his hands together palm to palm. It should have happened naturally—because it was natural.
It was that thought more than anything that allowed him to drop his hands against the halla’s flank, ruffling his winter coat, petting him gentle and soothing and slow.
He might get a hoof to the shins for his efforts, a cracked kneecap or two. He might be gored again by those blighted antlers. No good deed went unpunished in Thedas—but that didn’t mean there weren’t rewards along the way, an unwavering touch settled against the furs at Connor’s shoulders and the moment the halla met his eyes.
The moment panic slipped away into peace would be as short-lived as one of the spring lilacs in Mother’s garden.
They’d always been Connor’s favorite.
He thought of them now, the delicate flowers that made up the greater blooms, cast in shades of evening purple, the same color as the sky before the sunset. The stiffness of the halla’s fur turned soft beneath his bare palms, fragile as dusky blossom-flesh against his skin. He imagined their petals opening, tight buds unfurling to accept the sun’s simple spring warmth.
The halla whickered softly and Feynriel shushed it from over Connor’s shoulder, his breath warm against the back of Connor’s neck.
Had he been that close before? Connor couldn’t recall, couldn’t spare the time to turn his head and check.
Healing a thing was tied to magic natural in origin; both were centered around the basic principle of coaxing something stalled or stopped back to life again. Both involved requests, invitations, beyond the waking world, spirits whispering to each other through and from the Fade. The halla wasn’t a flower—if he was, he was the biggest, furriest flower Connor’d ever seen—but Connor knew how to draw out the poison of a festering bite before it reached the animal’s vitals.
It was messy and it was quick. A trained healer would have done better and gentler with more obvious instructions but Connor knew that Feynriel would never have trusted a trained healer in these woods—his woods, though he had no clan behind him, no deeds for his claims.
The halla’s lungs swelled, fuller and fuller until they could expand no more. Connor tasted bile in the back of his throat, the exchange of one sickness for another, fear for life and comfort for death. Then it all unfurled like a ribbon from Mother’s bun, like Feynriel’s hair from its braid.
Connor leaned dizzy onto his heels as the halla rolled onto its back—then rolled onto its feet.
There’d been a spirit with them in the clearing, somewhere beneath the sunlight. Connor thought he saw it—though it may have been a result of pure hallucination. Either way, he was far too dizzy.
Feynriel gripped tight and pulled hard, dragging Connor away over the last few inches he hadn’t managed on his own. He’d been caught in that motionless place between wonder and excitement, watching strong muscle shift beneath its taut white pelt, the sweep of those proud antlers dangerous as ever.
They cast a broad shadow, but they were no demon’s horns.
The wound at Connor’s side reminded him of all that—but he ignored it. The halla stood tall as any warhorse before them, proud and white in the narrow clearing. The sun was already beginning to set against the valley cliffsides, casting lean shadows.
‘If this was a story,’ Connor whispered, feeling Feynriel’s leathers pressed to his back, ‘the halla would be a spirit of the forest and he’d offer me three wishes.’
Feynriel looped his arms under Connor’s, flanking him. ‘You read too much.’
‘That’s funny,’ Connor said. ‘Normally people say I talk too much.’
‘That too,’ Feynriel replied.
The halla stamped the ground—Connor was accustomed to that but only when the creature was angrier. He bowed his head—also familiar, if the action had been more offense than acknowledgement—until his antlers grazed the grass. One tip brushed against the top of Connor’s boot; Connor didn’t have the strength or the energy left to pull away, though every time the halla breathed his own lungs filled with fresh Redcliffe air.
It was green as a grove and dappled as dawn through the branches, damp with clear dew and soft as well-tilled dirt. He knew it all and lived it all from the shivering tips of the grass to the flicking tips of the halla’s ears, the solid tips of his horns. When his nostrils flared Connor closed his eyes; when he opened them again he already knew the halla was gone, bounding off toward the trees, perhaps to enjoy his first meal that didn’t taste like bitter char. If he returned it would be because he wished to. If he thanked anyone it would be because gratitude sometimes meant more than a contract in Ferelden, no matter what Feynriel had to say about it.
Connor licked his lips. They weren’t as dry as he expected—or as dry as the back of his throat.
Feynriel held the skein to his lips a moment later, still bracing Connor’s body with his bent knees, that bitter hint of elfroot just enough to cut through the rest.
He drank so deeply it spilled down his chin, wetting his beard, soaking his collar. He felt it stain the front of his jerkin but he couldn’t get enough and so he continued to drink until there was no more left than a few final drops. Only then did he stop, gasping for air, while Feynriel held solid as a dwarven wall behind him.
‘And here I wanted to name him,’ Connor said.
‘Of course you would.’ Feynriel settled the cap back on the skin, each spin of his fingers and wrists jostling Connor from side to side. Some of Feynriel’s hair fell forward over his face and brushed Connor’s ear and he could still feel the press of their cheeks together, the complications of warm skin on warm skin.
Connor knew he was flushed like one of his nighttime fevers, the ones Jowan or Mother sat vigil beside—just in case it turned to something deeper. He also heard the quiet thud of his gloves as they fell to the ground and the echo of the hoofbeats in the distance, the cut of surprise and confusion as the halla bent his head to eat a patch of clover and found it was delicious.
‘I named my dog Warden,’ Connor said. ‘It was better than the alternatives, Teyrn or Arl or something like that—or worse, Chevalier or something even more Orlesian. That would’ve made the locals gossip. Not that this won’t. In that…this will. They’ll find out about it eventually; there’s probably some baker’s daughter watching us right now.’
‘No,’ Feynriel told him. ‘I made certain we’d be safe. There’s no one.’
‘So you…’ Connor wet his lips again, a swipe of his tongue still tart with elfroot. ‘You did this on purpose, didn’t you?’
‘I’m no healer,’ Feynriel repeated, as though that explained everything.
In a manner of speaking, it did.
Connor kept his eyes shut, the dying sunlight coloring the darkness at the backs of his eyelids. Feynriel held him and held still, fingertips brushing the expanse of Connor’s belt—his favorite, or second favorite, after the one that’d been torn to shreds by the halla.
How times changed.
‘You used me,’ Connor said.
‘As your kind has used mine for generations, shem,’ Feynriel replied.
The insult was pointed but Feynriel’s voice seemed intentionally soothing, cast low as it had been to calm the halla. Connor hadn’t received such careful treatment when he’d been the one injured; the lesson it taught wasn’t a useful one. Maybe next time he’d try rolling in the grass—or maybe Feynriel simply preferred a shaggy white coat to brindled brown fur, quick antlers to the soft crown of a human head.
One could never tell with the Dalish. Even the only sort of Dalish.
‘I always wanted a charming nickname,’ Connor said, eyes at the fingers on his belt. Feynriel’s arms were warm through his layers, heat seeping in past the leather and furs and the simple cotton shirt beneath. The first layer; something to build on. ‘That one’s not very friendly, though.’ He shifted to find Feynriel’s face, cheeks cooling in the evening air. This time, there was no dizzying swoop when he tilted his head, which must have meant he was recovering. All those long walks had finally done for him what birthright hadn’t—they’d given him a strong constitution. ‘Don’t you think you could do a little better?’
Feynriel’s mouth approximated a smile, if only for an instant. Connor barely caught it at the corner of his narrowed vision.
‘I’m sure if I put my mind to it I could come up with so many other things to call you,’ Feynriel said. Like the water he’d brought, there was a hint of something bitter in his words—but the flavor was still refreshing.
He wondered whether Feynriel’s lips were as sour as his words, an idle thought as quick as sunlight over a broken branch. He also wondered whether someone who was so intent on fighting every battle with a sharp tongue would ever lay down his arms. And yet Connor was lying in his arms—and the whole thing seemed like a contradiction, something that shouldn’t have been allowed. Mother wouldn’t approve, he thought deliriously—he could practically hear her demanding some explanation, Who is this elf, Connor—but then there were so many things about the day that Mother wouldn’t have approved of. Healing sick halla wasn’t on the list of duties an Arl of Redcliffe was meant to perform.
People would talk.
People would do worse than talking.
‘Well?’ Feynriel said, startling Connor from staring, too hard, at his face.
‘Well what?’ Connor struggled to sit up so he could feel like he was doing more than the most obvious of all Fereldan pastimes: sprawling out in the mud.
Some found that charming. Unfortunately, the spell didn’t work on everyone.
‘I’m not holding you in the middle of the woods because I always wanted to know what it felt like to be an arl’s sitting room chair,’ Feynriel said.
‘A brave profession, though,’ Connor replied. ‘No one ever thinks of the leather. But you’ve got enough of it—it might even work.’ He clapped Feynriel on the knee, then had to squeeze it to steady himself, both of them crouched in front of the other while the tall grasses whispered back and forth in the air. ‘Anyway, it’s not your place to complain.’
‘Isn’t it always a Dalish’s place to complain?’ Feynriel said, his tone more tart than the water.
‘I mean because you’re the one who tempted me all the way out here.’ Connor had found his balance but the grass, maybe the very earth, was still swaying. ‘Like I said—you used me. Not thoroughly; just enough that I didn’t know until it was all over.’
‘No one said that it was over.’ Feynriel retrieved Connor’s gloves from the ground. ‘You simply assumed that it was.’
‘Because I’m a smelly dog lord and a dirty shem?’ Connor asked.
Feynriel helped him back into his gloves. Connor’s fingers were shaking and they sparked a quiet light from tip to tip—Feynriel’s eyes brightened at that and Connor knew this was how he’d learned, that moment in the tent when he’d insisted Connor heal himself.
Connor still didn’t know how to do that. He didn’t even know how to heal halla, although technically he had done it. Some things were the sort a man could learn right away, could pick up or forget however he pleased. But other things—for all he’d come by them naturally—were far more difficult to the point of seeming impossible on a bad day, the more time passed and the less practice he had, the more set in his ways he became.
Fereldans were meant to be stubborn; Orlesians notably more so. Connor flexed his fingers inside the leather and finally let go, standing quickly enough that all of Thedas seemed to turn the colors of an old bruise.
When he blinked his eyes clear Feynriel was standing beside him, taller than he should have been, all sharp elbows and sharper shoulders. His hair was falling over one slightly pointed ear but—like a few Orlesian noblewomen Connor had known—he didn’t have the decency to look bedraggled about it. Some of his hair was also caught in his collar and Connor reached out to push it off, without the dangers of skin against skin to stop him.
Or maybe the possibility of it was what encouraged him.
Feynriel didn’t slap his hand away for his efforts; he seemed to reserve that behavior only for the injured and the helpless, and as helpless as Connor might have felt he also knew he wasn’t. Feynriel was capable of many things—dream-walking, for one; enticing innocents, for another; also being discerning, even if that last talent came with a hearty dose of disapproval.
‘Does that mean you still want to use me?’ Connor arched a hopeful brow.
‘Whenever I meet another injured halla I’ll be sure to think of you,’ Feynriel replied.
They made it back to Feynriel’s tent with no further incident. Neither one of them was gored and no more of Feynriel’s hair blew free of its braid; Connor only stumbled a reasonable number of times and when the trees bowed down or lifted their roots to help him he pretended it was the stamina drain causing him to hallucinate.
‘The trees like me, Feynriel,’ he said.
‘Contrary to popular belief,’ Feynriel replied, ‘elves aren’t like trees at all.’
‘You’d look funny with green hair,’ Connor agreed.
There was more water when they arrived and Connor drank again, catching his breath in a crouch beside the firepit and just outside the tent. He was hungry, stomach growling more fiercely than when he was fifteen and had his first real growth spurt.
Finally, Mother, he remembered saying as she marked his height against the fireplace mantle, a full inch above the previous notch.
Feynriel disappeared beneath the flap of his tent, returning before Connor had the chance to miss him. He carried a leather satchel, weathered at the edges and its lone buckle tarnished with age.
‘You should eat,’ he said, in a tone that Connor recognized too well by now. You will eat, it meant, the implications if he refused even more dire than when Mother imparted them. ‘I’m not going to catch you again if you faint dead away.’
‘Fair enough.’ Connor eyed Feynriel’s fingers as they edged over a fraying seam, twisting a torn length of more Antivan leather. ‘And duly noted. I’m free to fall flat on my face, if I choose to. …But I’m going to need a little salt, if you want me to eat your bag.’
Feynriel answered with a roll of his eyes, tossing something small and green toward Connor from the depths of his sack.
Connor’s reflexes were off, poorly timed from the day’s exertions; it struck him square in the chest before dropping into his lap. Pale crumbs littered his thighs and his stomach let out another rumble of longing, this one far more noticeable than the first.
‘Whatever’s in here, I’m guessing it’s not a delicious steak,’ Connor said, already picking at the wrappings.
Feynriel crossed bare arms, fingers settling comfortably in the crooks of each elbow. ‘Just because you have the manners of a werewolf doesn’t mean you have to eat like one.’
‘Aroo,’ Connor said halfheartedly.
If there were any halla nearby, he didn’t want them getting the idea they could interrupt his meal. Just because he’d been friendly with one didn’t mean it was all water under the bridge.
The gift turned out to be flatbread, wrapped in waxy green leaves with chopped nuts sprinkled through it and something sticky drizzled on top, which—upon further inspection, Connor licking his tongue—turned out to be honey. He ate both halves in nearly a single bite and didn’t think anything of it when Feynriel settled next to him by the fire, passing him another square with two fingers.
There was a chill in the air, spring’s warmth not yet steady enough to last past the sunset. Connor leaned sideways until his furs brushed Feynriel’s arm, sharing heat the way Feynriel had shared his supper. He had crumbs in his cloak and down his front and he brushed them off, onto the ground where they belonged, where birds would peck at them come morning. There was no dog to gobble them up right away and maybe that meant the worms would have them—the worms followed by the birds, all a part of that natural circle of everything neither Connor nor Feynriel quite fit into. Not properly. Not without some reservations. Not without the implications of their magic, one of them hidden in the forest and one of them hidden in his own home.
It was one and the same. Connor had no clan, just a mother and an uncle and a dog. Feynriel, it seemed, had even less, although he had fine bread—even if it wasn’t easy on the teeth.
Connor poked at a sore spot on the inside of his mouth. The flavor lingered, all the bitterness and sweetness combined. The log he sat on was long dead, no pulse of life aching through the bark, but there were bugs crawling about underneath where the dirt was soft, mindless of the winter’s cold. There was a pretty blue flower growing near Connor’s boot as well; he was careful not to crush it and it was grateful for his consideration, leaning close to the scuffed heal.
‘That’s good bread,’ Connor said. ‘And…I don’t feel as used as before. At least you had the decency to feed me after.’
‘My logic exactly,’ Feynriel replied.
After that, he cupped Connor’s face in his palms, long fingers covering his jaw: thumb against beard, forefinger against earlobe. Their noses brushed before they kissed, one of those woodsy moments Connor never knew people were capable of living—if only because all his trips into the forest had been with a mabari, whose kisses were closer to stinking licks.
Those were nice, too. Affectionate; not unwelcome. They had their place and so did everything else, kisses especially, Connor and Feynriel bumping knees and noses and teeth, not at all clever and impulsive from the very start.
Connor had been thinking about it.
But it didn’t cross his mind that Feynriel had known as much, that he’d pried the knowledge out of whatever shadows of lust and longing he’d found in the quiet corners of Connor’s dreams. It was possible—but it didn’t seem right.
Warden had done well for himself on instinct alone. Connor respected that ability and he’d mentioned, on more than one occasion, that they’d all do better if they were a little less like themselves and a little more like their dogs.
‘Although I promise not to piss on anything to mark it as mine,’ he’d added, a sparkle in his eyes that made mother cough and smile and scowl into her long Fereldan sleeve. ‘We all have to draw the line somewhere, don’t we?’
Statements like that proved to everyone he was less of his Mother’s son than his Father’s.
How little they knew.
Connor pushed the hair back from Feynriel’s throat a second time. His hands ran down over his shoulders, over his bare arms to his comfortable elbows, the vulnerable flesh where the pulse raced inside, to his bare wrists—then realized his gloves were still on. Feynriel was bare and Connor wasn’t but this was Feynriel’s place, Feynriel’s forest, the campsite just outside Feynriel’s tent.
‘It’s fine,’ Feynriel said, breathless. ‘I’ve always liked leather.’
They kept each other warm inside the tent on the same uncomfortable pallet, still stained with Connor’s blood. They didn’t notice that detail—or chose not to notice it. Feynriel rested over Connor’s lap, his boots off, slick between his legs with some elvhen oil and Connor groaned and whimpered against his throat.
At some point, Feynriel’s hair came out of the braid. There was no stopping it from falling over his neck and shoulders, over his chest, tickling what felt like every inch of Connor’s skin.
Connor’s furs slid sideways between them to tickle Feynriel in return—it was only fair—and in that way they found a measure of balance, though Feynriel had insisted there could be none at all.
His teeth left twin crescents on Connor’s shoulder, muffling little noises there as his hips jerked, as if he didn’t trust his voice to outright words. Connor’s hands smoothed over the tight muscles at his flank, fingers straying to the dip of his lower back; he gripped him there as the rhythm grew more and more unsteady—never under his control, but now so much further from it.
It wasn’t like losing his way in the Fade and it wasn’t what the demons had promised him, either, pleasure unending, nothing to prickle or tease, no ache in his calves where they stretched or throbbing in his shoulder where Feynriel bit him. He wasn’t immune to the darkening sky or the stormcloud of his actions, his choices, even his fears.
The seed had been planted. He could no more dig it up than he could go on pretending it was his head he’d buried in the ground.
Feynriel’s stern hands had unearthed him and now Connor felt as bare as a plant out of dirt, pale white roots wriggling free in the air, searching for something else to cling to.
He’d found that. His arms held Feynriel close as he arched and he came and they breathed—and it was wretched as Ferelden, sweaty as Antiva, wicked as Orlais.
‘Aren’t you glad I didn’t bring my dog?’ Connor said later, just as he was beginning to catch his breath.
Feynriel hit him, a light blow that fell against the taut stretch of skin below his collar bone. There was a bite mark there too—which made it injury on injury.
But he didn’t wrestle free of Connor’s lap or try to roll them over. Connor’s hands trembled for new reasons, ones that had nothing to do with magic and everything to do with a simpler enchantment, Feynriel’s thighs slackening their iron hold on his hips, Feynriel’s weight a heavy comfort in his lap.
He was sturdier than he looked, a real person beneath that elvhen grace and fleeting gaze. Connor trailed his fingers through the ends of his hair, broad palms smoothing the unfreckled length of his back.
‘You’re petting me,’ Feynriel murmured against the crook of his neck.
‘Just trying to find the sweet spots,’ Connor replied. He chafed his bare palms up Feynriel’s back to his shoulder blades, the nape of his neck, the crown of his head, down past the sharp bone of his jaw until his fingers touched the bob and swallow, the shadow in the dip above his chest, the line drawn through muscle down the center. Connor stopped at his navel and grinned, mischievous and relieved and all spent; Feynriel didn’t roll his eyes because he didn’t have to, because the suggestion of the thing was there, the huff of breath swelling his belly first and his lungs second.
‘Well?’ Feynriel asked.
‘Well…’ Connor held him by the sides again. ‘I suppose I’ve learned you don’t have any sweet spots. You’re bitter as elfroot—and twice as good for a man.’
‘Really,’ Feynriel muttered, rolling away at last.
Connor thought he might have seen him smiling—but it might also have been a scowl.
They didn’t sleep together; spending the night was out of the question and besides, Feynriel wasn’t the cuddling sort. Connor knew he’d wind up with an elbow in the gut for his efforts, maybe a knee between his legs or a boot thrown at his head if he dared to snore. He didn’t put it past Feynriel to smother him in his sleep; the only real stumbling block was that he didn’t even seem to own a pillow.
Connor watched him as he dressed. He wanted to follow the path of Feynriel’s twisting fingers, competent and unromantic all the way up the inside of his thigh, as he did the laces on his boots—but Connor looked instead and didn’t touch, and pretended those fingertips were his.
He could still feel skin beneath them, warmer than a cold word, hot as a sigh. He scratched the mussed hair at the back of his head, those bruises and marks he kept, shrugging into his cotton undershirt and his jerkin and his cloak. Feynriel didn’t offer to help with all the buckles the same way Connor didn’t offer to help with the boots.
They could have done it. They didn’t need to—but still, it might have been nice.
After they were all dressed it seemed a poor time to start kissing again. Connor tugged on his gloves and only then did he brush the hair out of Feynriel’s face, leather on skin.
‘I can manage,’ Feynriel said.
‘You only need me for the halla, then?’ Connor asked. When Feynriel looked somewhere else, straight into his shoulder and the red flesh hidden beneath, Connor added, ‘There are some things better done with two, after all.’
‘Just know that I’m not the first fool in my family to take a shem into their tent and leave it at that,’ Feynriel replied, though his voice was not cold, maybe even hotter than a sigh.
At least he drew the flap of the tent open. Connor ducked on his way out, stepping once more into the chilly spring air.
‘I’m the first in my family to do that sort of thing in a tent,’ Connor said. ‘At least…I think I am. If I’m not, I can’t imagine why Mother never spoke of it.’
‘Likely to spare herself the embarrassment of having to explain herself to her son,’ Feynriel said, but his mouth had softened, turned up at the corners once more. He tucked a slim strand of hair behind one ear; Connor’s fingers curled against the palm of his glove the same way they’d curled against the halla’s belly, against the pale plane of Feynriel’s thigh.
It wasn’t magic, but a cousin of that—not denying himself but accepting all parts of that self, the rose’s petals alongside its bramble thorns. One man couldn’t see everything all on his own.
Some things—and Connor had said this himself—were better done with two.
‘You’ll be moving on then, I expect,’ Connor said, lingering in the woods while above the treetops murmured their rustling laughter. A joke he didn’t understand; a joke he had time left to try to figure out.
The trees liked him.
But trees weren’t elves.
‘I expect so.’ Feynriel crossed his arms one over the other but after that he didn’t move. Connor didn’t breathe. ‘In time. Once the halla’s seen to. …And once I’m sure there aren’t any others.’
‘It could take a while,’ Connor said, cold breath leaving his mouth in a gust of cloud-mist. ‘Halla are notoriously stubborn. One could even call them impatient.’
‘Then I suppose I’ll be here for a while, myself,’ Feynriel replied.
He slipped back into his tent before the smile could break over Connor’s face, their timing poor as always—Feynriel too swift and Connor too stuck in the mud to lope after him.
‘You know what they say about springtime,’ Connor murmured to no one but himself.
As he walked back, all the flowers stretched to touch his fingertips. He took off his gloves and looped them into his belt, bare knuckles against the leaves.