Chapter 1: A as in Arlessa
Isolde remembers being five years old and sitting on the knees of her père in the front of the fireplace, while he told her they have to leave Orlais and move to Ferelden. She knew nothing about this place, except that it’s a part of the Empire nowadays, but hasn’t always been, and that Fereldans love dogs. Maybe she could have a dog then. That’d be nice. Enzo told her of dogs big enough to ride them. She could call it Éclair and pretend it to be a race horse. All of her friends would be so jealous.
Oh… her friends. She frowned, while thinking pretty hard. When her father noticed, he caressed her cheek and smiled reassuringly. “Is something wrong, ma chérie? Do you not want to go?”
Two questions at once, that’s a bit much. She wasn’t sure where to start, but when she did the words kept coming and before she even knew she was jabbering away. “I don’t know. I thought I did, but I’m not sure anymore. I want to see Ferelden and I want to have a dog. But I don’t want to leave my friends. Can we take Enzo and Florence with us, papa? I think they’d love to see Ferelden as well. And then they can see Éclair and we could all still play together. Maybe after a while they can have one too, and--”
“Wait! Slowly, you are losing me here. Who is Éclair?”
“My dog of course. Silly papa!” She had to laugh because his confused face was really funny.
“Of course. I should have realized.” He laughed and kissed her on the forehead, but he looked uncomfortable and kind of sad now instead of confused and she did not like that. “You can have a dog, chérie, but your friends can’t come with us. They have to stay with their families. You understand that, don’t you? Would you want to leave your family?”
Isolde shook her head so vehemently it caused her blonde tresses to flow around her in the wake of the motion. She loved her family. She loved her père and she loved her mère. She even loved her frère stupide. Except when he called her mean things or pulled on her hair or put her doll somewhere she could not reach it. Or when he wouldn’t let her play with him and his friends. Maybe she did not love him after all.
“Do we have to go? Can’t we just… stay in Orlais and not go to Ferelden?” Isolde quietly asked looking at her own hands and not at her father’s face. Deep down she already knew the answer.
“I’m afraid that’s impossible. The Emperor wants me to be the new Arl of Redcliffe. He would be very disappointed, if I refused. It is a great honor to be given this title.” His voice was strange though while he said that. Did he not want to be an Arl? Isolde couldn’t think of a reason why he would not. Maybe she just imagined it then.
“You would be some kind of lord, right?”
“Yes. And you, you would be a proper young lady. Lady Isolde. That has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? You’ll find new friends in no time at all. And when you are old enough you could marry another Arl’s son. You could be Arlessa one day.”
Isolde giggled because she was only five and never really thought about marriage before. It wasn’t until the next morning, when she talked to her mère about it, that she grew fond of the idea.
Leaving her friends and her home behind still terrified her, but she was also excited to move to Redcliffe, to become a woman and meet the man who would make her his Arlessa.
She never heard the cook talk to the steward about rebellion, hostile banns and assassinations. She never heard the kitchen hand and the stable boy swapping stories about the demise of the previous Arl of Redcliffe at the hand of the Emperor. She never saw the worried glances her parents shared whenever someone brought the topic up either.
Only her brother told her that of the nine Orlesian Arls the Emperor named not a single one hold his title for more than three years. “It is said the third Arl was killed within a fortnight of his arrival at Redcliffe.”
She didn’t believe him. He only meant to scare her obviously. Everything would be alright and she’d marry an Arl one day.
Arlessa. Arlessa Isolde. Yes, she liked the sound of that.
Chapter 2: B as in Bargain
Isolde remembers arriving at Redcliffe after an exhausting journey; a journey that took longer than it should have due to heavy raining and the bad shape some of the streets were in. She was so tired she could barely keep her eyes open. It might have been easier to stay awake, if the weather had been more inviting. She was curious to see what Redcliffe looked like, but the pouring made it impossible to recognize anything outside the coche.
Her père had planned to make a short stop at the village, introduce himself to the people. He refrained from doing so and Isolde wasn’t the only one being glad about that. There was some introducing while standing in the rain at Redcliffe castle however.
When Isolde had pictured their arrival, it had been nothing like this. No one smiled, everything was dark, there weren’t any children and gouttes de pluie ran down her forehead and into her eyes. The adults exchanged an awful lot of words that easily could have waited until they were inside the castle near a nice, warm fire. Isolde held back a yawn as was expected of her. Even so someone must have noticed because the next moment a woman took her hand and walked her inside. They went past what she assumed to be the main hall, up a staircase and down the couloir. The woman opened a door to a generous bedchamber.
“We prepared this room for you, Lady Isolde. The rest of your belongings will be brought here on the morrow once you’re awake.”
Isolde was too tired to comment the woman’s strange accent. Which might have been a good thing. Even thinking that seemed kind of rude. She fell asleep as soon as the woman left.
The next morning she realized she didn’t mind the accent as long as the person in front of her was able to speak Orlesian at least. The men who brought the trunks with her clothes and toys weren’t. Isolde had no idea what they were talking about and the adolescent girl showing her the way to the dining room knew only a couple of words.
A few years back her brother had had a précepteur who taught him the ugly sounding langue these Fereldans were speaking, but Isolde had been too young to join in their lessons. She asked him to teach her after three days of playing alone, because there weren’t many other children on the castle grounds and even if they didn’t avoid her, their Orlesian was terrible.
“That’s what they want you to think, little sister. They hate us and want us gone. But Ferelden has been occupied by Orlais for over five decades, so naturally they know our language by now. They are just too stubborn to use it.”
“You’re lucky actually. You don’t get to hear all the terrible things they are saying. Remember the red stain on the carpet over in the parlour the one the servants claimed to not know where it came from? I heard some kids talk about it. It’s the blood of the third Arl. You know, the one I told you about?”
She did not deign him an answer and left. She really hated him. Why did he always have to be like this? But what if he had been right – well, not about the blood part – but about the first part? Isolde couldn’t believe she actually thought that about something her frère stupide said, but it made sense. Still, she wanted to learn and if her brother refused to be the one teaching her she would have to find someone else. It took a couple of days, but once she found him she mentally thanked her brother for rejecting her.
“Your Orlesian is quite good.”
The boy – Ian, she reminded herself – looked around to make sure it was him she was talking to. He seemed confused. Maybe he wasn’t sure she meant it as a compliment. “Uhm thanks. I mean, thank you very much, Milady. My father taught me. He is a chevalier.”
She nodded although she already knew that much. Isolde had noticed him, because he was the only other child playing alone all the time. So she’d asked around.
“You’re half Orlesian, but you also grew up here and know the tongue Fereldans use, right? I want to learn it.”
Ian shot her a sceptical glance, careful not to look her directly in the eyes. “Fr-from me, Lady Isolde?”
“In return I’ll play with you.” Inwardly she added ‘and we could be friends.’ She didn’t say it out loud. It wasn’t a bargain, not really, but they were both more comfortable with pretending it to be one. Isolde was quite proud for coming up with the idea. She felt really mature suggesting it.
“Alright.” He smiled and she answered with a smile of her own. “When do we start?”
“Well, I’ve nothing else to do right now. You?”
“Oh okay. No, me neither.”
For the first time she could forget what a disappointment Redcliffe had turned out to be. Ian was nice and endearing and nothing like the other children who still ignored – hated – her. She loved spending time with him. Their friendship lasted over two years, long past the time she needed to learn everything there was to know. Their friendship lasted until the morning he almost hit her with a fireball.
Chapter 3: C as in Chantry
Isolde remembers the first time she prayed, really prayed with all her heart. She’s always been an Andrastian just like her parents and their parents before them. She knew the Chant of Light. She believed in the Maker and his bride. The doubt was new to her and no matter how hard she prayed it did nothing to reaffirm her faith. She crouched before the statue of Andraste, the palms of her hands pressed against one another, quietly pleading for hours, kneeling until she couldn’t feel her legs beneath her anymore. Her eyes were firmly shut, hindering the tears from running down her cheeks.
‘I’m sorry, Milady. I’m so sorry!’
Milady, that’s what he’d called her. Only yesterday he had called her m’amie. The memory made her gulp back a sob. No, she would not. His face the moment he realized what he had done… She would not cry!
‘Don’t tell anyone? Please! I didn’t mean to do it. I swear. I won’t do it again. I’m sorry!’
She wasn’t hurt, but he’d kept apologizing and starring at her with big, terrified eyes anyway, searching some kind of reassurance she was unable to provide. He had looked utterly lost, an expression probably mirrored on her own face. Isolde had shaken her head helplessly. And then she’d turned and ran.
‘No! Don’t go! I’m sorry. I mean it. Please stay! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’
The mémoire made her flinch. Her eyes were burning, but still she was holding back the tears. At some time she must have clenched her fists, because she could feel her fingernails leaving bloody marks on the inside of her paumes. Scarcely audible a distressed outcry interrupted her prayer. “Why? Why would you say you’re sorry? Ian... I’m the one who ought to be sorry.”
Isolde had told her père, of course she had. It was her duty. She had to. Acting as any faithful Andrastian would have. Ian was a mage, a danger to himself and others. ‘The Chantry teaches us... teaches us... what? No mage can be trusted.’ Fear had stirred inside of her to moment she processed what the fireball flying past her head meant. A lifetime of Chantry teachings and stories about maleficarum and abominations and she had been afraid, afraid to look upon his face one day and have a demon starring back at her.
‘You have done well, ma fille. You did the right thing coming to me. Never let the temptations to hide a mage overcome you. Even if they are friends. Even if they are family. They are mages first and foremost.’
Trying to get a hold of herself again, Isolde shifted on the small prayer bench, took a few deep breaths and started reciting once more. “Blessed are they who stand before the corrupt and the wicked and do not falter.”
They were taking him away at this very moment. Another reasons why she hided herself away. If she told him goodbye, she would break down right then and there in front of everyone. She could barely keep herself up as it was, but he had been her friend long before he was a mage and it hurt to lose him, it hurt to be scared of him, it hurt to know she’d be causing him grief by not seeing him off.
The conversation her parents had had yesterday evening made matters even worse.
‘She could be one, too. Maybe that’s why they were friends all along.’
‘You’re being absurd, bien-aimée. Isolde is not one of those wretched beings.’
‘How can you be so sure? Do you think I’m unaware of the fact that your own sister is a mage and that you send her off to the Circle without a second thought? It’s a far less well-kept secret than you’d like.’
‘I’ll tell you this once only, wife, I don’t have a sister.’
‘Hmph! Deny it, if you want, but I knew your family had mages in almost every generation already well before I married you. I also thought I knew what it meant to possibly give birth to a child with magic. I was wrong. Would you hand over Isolde just as readily as you did your sister?’
‘I. Do. Not. Have. A. Sister.’
Doors had been slammed shut with an ear-shattering bang. Her père hadn’t looked her in the eye since then. Her mère avoided her entirely. And then word had reached her that Ian wanted to see her. That’s when she fled into the small chapel and barred the door with the armchair Sister Therese used to sit in most of the time because of her bad health.
“Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just. Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow. In their blood the Maker’s will is written.”
Isolde knew she should probably pray for Ian to forgive her one day or for him to live happy and content wherever they brought him. Although she really wanted to, she couldn’t bring herself to pray for the boy. She bowed her head in shame until her forehead rested on her folded hands. She couldn’t because there was one thing she wanted... needed to pray for even more.
“Don’t let me be a mage. Please, Maker, don’t let me be one of them.” Her voice was nothing but a tiny whisper. Finally she allowed her tears to fall.
Chapter 4: D as in Dragon
Isolde remembers the eve of the last century. The Blessed Age they called it; an odd name, if you asked her. Isolde didn’t know much about politics but even she could tell the current situation in Ferelden was anything but. Ever since the battle at Gwaren commoners rose up against their supérieurs. There had been messages from almost every Arling and city and all basically said the same: The rebellion was far from being defeated. (And no one had believed the stupid story about the rebel prince being dead anyway - well, Isolde had and her frère had laughed at her because of it – but no one who wasn’t still a child.)
The uproar made no exception for Redcliffe. Only this evening a riot had broken out in front of the taverne and quickly spread all over town. The hooligans banded together and drove the guards back to the castle before they even had the time to realize what was really happening.
Her père wrote King Meghren first thing in the morning, requesting his assistance against the mob.
It had been bad. The barracks were burnt down, fires broke out in several other locations and the Chantry caught as well, but the flames were extinguished before any major damage was done. What looked like an accident was soon rumoured to be a case of arson, when the Revered Mother reported theft of four Andrastian figurines, three golden candle stands, various minor things of a certain value and the box containing a month’s worth of collected donations.
‘Blessed indeed!’ was all Isolde could think of standing at the top of the tower and looking down upon the village she grew so fond of in the last three years. She’d sneaked up here after being sent to bed by her père. As if she’d be willing to miss something this exciting, when the rest of her days were spent in endless boredom.
“Did I tell you they are going to call the next one the Age of Dragons?”
Her frère had already been here when she made her way up the stairs. He’d merely raised an eyebrow at her then helped her climb on top of a barrel so that she had a clear view over the battlements.
“Yes, you did. Several times in fact.” She grinned at him.
However it was short-lived once she looked back out into the night. Some of the fires still burnt, lightening up the area around them. It was hard to tell from this distance but there seemed a fight to be going on between the rioters and the few guards that hadn’t made their way to the castle.
“Because dragons devastated the countryside in Orlais and Nevarra both.”
“Yes. You told me that, too.”
The street leading up the hill was blocked now by hastily build barricades to foil any attempt of the Arl’s soldiers to stop the uprising. Isolde couldn’t see the men defending them. They were clever enough to stay away from the light of the torches. She knew they were there, though. Every other minute or so an arrow would come flying seemingly out of nowhere, prompting one of the archers on the castle wall to seek cover before returning the shot.
“The dragon in Orlais did strike not that far from where we lived previously. Burnt an entire village down, three farms and a mill as well. Father took us to that village once. Do you remember? He bought you sugared almonds and scolded me for trying to steal some from you. Said I was too old for sweets.”
“No... I don’t remember. But it does sound like something he’d say.”
“Right? He just doesn’t understand me at all. I’ll never be too old for sweets. Actually, let’s head to the kitchens and look if we... what’s wrong?”
“I don’t think I remember Orlais at all.” The realization hit her harder than it should have. She thought she’d accepted Ferelden as her new home. Maybe that wasn’t the case. Maybe she’d simply forgotten the old one. “What’s wrong with me? How can I not remember?”
“To be fair, you were only five when we left.”
She let out a frustrated huff. He didn’t understand. “I don’t remember the places I used to play in or hid in when I didn’t want to be found. I don’t remember the shortest way down to the market square or the colour of the flowers growing in our garden. I don’t remember what my room looked like. Or my friends. I have to think twice to even come up with their names. I forget words. Like... I had to ask mother what the Orlesian word for sun is like some dim-witted fool.”
Isolde looked him challenging in the eyes, ready for him to laugh at her or accuse her of childishness or even stupidity for forgetting something as mundane as soleil. Instead he put an arm around her and pulled her closer until she had no choice but to lean against his shoulder. “You are too hard on yourself.”
After a few seconds Isolde hesitantly put an arm around him as well and shifted closer. They stayed like this for quite a while. It helped.
“I’d like to see a dragon one day.” She came back to the topic they were on before the conversation went sour.
He clicked his tongue. “You shouldn’t. I hear they quite enjoy carrying off beautiful young virgin girls just like you, never to be seen again.”
“Your mouth is doing crazy talk again. You should check into that.” She rolled her eyes at him and extricated herself out of his embrace. “I’m going to sleep now.”
“Cheeky brat. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Seriously though, scholars think it’s a bad omen all those dragon sightings.” His gaze travelled away from her and towards the burning village. “I kind of see where they are coming from.”
Isolde saw a dragon later that month, a High Dragon no less, coming from the north and heading towards the Frostback Mountains. It might even have been the same one showing itself to the armies at River Dane. No one knew for sure. If it was indeed an omen everybody had a different interpretation. Isolde didn’t bother coming up with one of her own, but she also wasn’t surprised to see another riot breaking out merely a few hours later.