“Uh, Duncan? The city gates are the other way- this is the Alienage.” The not-quite-a-Templar noted uncertainly as they passed under the great arch on the eastern side of Denerim. Not that a handful of elves bothered him, but with the anger of the Reverend Mother after Duncan had enacted the Right of Conscription for his sake still very fresh in his mind, he would much rather leave the city quickly and not come back for a good long while after he had undergone the Wardens’ ‘Joining’, whatever that was. Besides, some kid had already tried to pick his meager pocket in Denerim proper, and elves were notoriously quick to take what few coins you had for themselves.
“Of that I am aware.” The commander of the Gray Wardens replied calmly, not even seeming to notice the squalor all around them. “But I have reason to believe there is another here who would be well-suited to our order.”
The rookie’s eyes traveled briefly over the rickety wooden buildings, absurdly out-of-place nestled in the white-stone city. “Here?” He asked, unable to entirely keep the skepticism from his voice. “So, an elf?” And from this kind of poverty? The Gray Wardens were kind of scraping the barrel when it came to recruits now, weren’t they? Well, surely he himself was proof enough of that. Kind of understandable since the last blight had been so many hundreds of years before, but still…
“Yes, Alistair. I do not know when I will be able to pass by here again. The Darkspawn are being seen in ever-greater numbers in the wilds as of late, and we may soon find ourselves sorely in need of more assistance.” Almost immediately once they stepped through the wooden gates that marked the beginnings of the Alienage proper, the big man paused, looking over his shoulder. “I would like you to stay here while I see if I cannot convince them to join us. It should not take too long. Do not wander about.”
“Stay? Bu-“ The younger had barely had a chance to open his mouth to complain or at least ask why he had to stay behind by the time Duncan had moved on, disappearing around a corner. With a huff, Alistair folded his arms over his chest in a resigned slump. He really was going to get pickpocketed, he grumbled under his breath, or mugged, noting how the few elves passing the gates looked at him. He normally would try not to buy too much into stereotypes, but they certainly weren’t acting very friendly. Even the children he amused himself by watching play in an alleyway went quiet and slipped away once they noticed him.
All of this was very mild of course compared to her. Alistair had begun to zone out, bored from obediently standing in one place as he waited for Duncan’s return, when his eye was drawn by the movement of someone making an almost aggressively direct approach. “You have no business here. Please leave.” Blinking, he looked down to focus on the speaker, whom had stopped some paces away. For all of the authoritative tone employed, it was just an elf maid. A tiny little thing, garbed in a surprisingly clean dress in this seedy neighborhood, undyed but for some green accents; she could almost have been called pretty if it weren’t for the barely restrained glare she was leveling up at him.
Really, he didn’t even want to be here. He had done nothing but wait Duncan to get back and yet he had gotten nothing but stares of varying levels of hostility, and now he had to get lip from this knife-ear who barely came up to his chest? “How do you know if I don’t have any business here? Maybe I’m looking at the real estate for my getaway home. The schools aren’t much, but I’ve heard such lovely things about the community. So neighborly.” He replied sarcastically.
“Not for your kind.” She came back flatly, responding to his jibe but clearly having none of it. “I don’t care what you think you came here for- there’s nothing for you here, so just leave and we can all avoid any further unpleasantness.”
“You know,” Alistair was beginning to get a little annoyed now, wishing that Duncan would hurry up and get back like he said he would. “There was a notable lack of unpleasantness before you showed up. Just leave me to my business, and I’ll leave you to yours.”
“You brought it in with you, stranger.” The elf scoffed angrily of the ‘unpleasantness’. “Coming in to our home without cause and a sword at your side- Did you come looking for a fair fight, or just to kick about a few children to let off steam? I mean, you wouldn’t kick a good hound, but they’re only elves, right?” A disgusted look passed over the delicate features of her face, masked partially by her distinctive tattoos. “Or perhaps you hoped to find a body to warm your bed- willing or no. Cheaper than whores, to just drag off an elf, they say.”
“Wh-what?” Flummoxed by the unexpected and vicious accusations the elf spat at him, for a moment Alistair could only shake his head. “What are you even- no!” He may only be familiar with the worst of the stereotypes said of elves, but he would never even have considered… “What do you take me for- coming in to attack children or-“ A grimace flitted across his face, unable to even repeat the last nasty suggestion she had made. “I’m not here for anything like that!” Trying to salvage something of the dignity she was making such an effort to shred, he stood up straighter, squaring his shoulders. “I am of the Gray Wardens, and we would never stoop to such deeds.” Well, he would be soon enough, anyway, and he was hoping the office would cause the aggressive elf to back down.
The maid however, was unfazed and only rolled her eyes. “Oh, a shem not coming in to attack a few innocent children or otherwise pillage those of the Alienage? My my… how elves are moving up in the world.” Her narrowed gaze fell back upon him and she rested a hand on her hip. “Gray Wardens, huh. I’ve heard of your kind. The Gray Wardens were great in the stories. But that was hundreds of years ago, and all they’ve done since is roam about, taking tithes like a gang offering ‘protection’. They did the world a great service once, ridding the world of darkspawn- but you?” She shook her head slowly, not breaking eye contact. “You’ve done nothing. Even less for us. So don’t go looking for any thanks for the deeds of dead men.” The woman’s stance shifted, putting one foot behind the other to put her body perpendicular to his and lowering her center of balance. “Now, I’ll say it again. Leave.”
Though she was being subtle with her movements, he knew enough from his Templar training to recognize that she was readying herself to fight. “They have done and continue to do more than you’ll ever know.” He growled. Annoyed as he was at her comments about the Gray Wardens, Alistair forced himself to hold his hands upwards by his sides, shaking his head at her disbelievingly. “What are you thinking? I’m not going to attack an unarmed woman. Look, I’m not going anywhere- my master told me to wait here.”
“Forgive me for not being swept off my feet by your nobleness.” She replied scathingly, though her gaze finally shifted from him to briefly survey what she could of the Alienage behind her. “Great, you mean there’s another one of you?” She said the next more to herself, but he could still hear her. “So you’re the distraction while the other one does the actual pillaging, huh? Maker take these shemlen…”
He’d barely been keeping his temper as she insulted him and the Gray Wardens as a whole- but he would not hear of anyone speaking ill of Duncan- the man who had risked much to save him from a life in the Chantry. “Look, you! I’ve had about enough of this suspicious, spiteful-“ He couldn’t find the words, he was getting so irritated, and waved a hand at her. “This! Where do you get off attacking someone who hasn’t done anything to you?”
“Now that’s a question I’ve wanted the answer to my whole life.” She spat back, though there was frustration hiding behind the anger and resentment in her words this time. Alistair hadn’t even noticed how his hand had reflexively gone to his sword in his anger, but the elves’ sharp eyes hadn’t missed it. “There it is…” She let out an angry little snort of air, sounding wholly unsurprised. “Come- you don’t want an elf to get away with telling you off, do you?”
There was no question that she was deliberately baiting him… and if he had a choice, he would have left by now. He shouldn’t be doing this. He couldn’t imagine any of his old teachers amongst the Chantry or Duncan approving of getting into a pointless fight in the streets like this- and with a woman, no less. On the other hand, he only had the cheap leather armor and blunted sword of the practice yard, not yet having had the time to procure anything better. If he brandished the sword and made a few slashes, that would probably scare the elf and get her to leave him alone already. It was sounding better and better all the time, loathe as he was to admit it.
“Have it your way, then.” Pulling the dull sword from its sheath and thoughtlessly loosening the straps from the small wooden shield at his back, he continued, “But you will answer this for me, in return.”
“You are more the fool than you look if you think any of this is ‘my way’.” She replied quietly, eyes intent on his every move, then spoke up again. “I owe you no explanations, shemlen- but ask- I may yet answer.”
Even now she continued with the insolence, and Alistair irritably stepped forward to make a halfhearted swing at her, aiming only to hit her lightly with the flat of his blade. “What can you possibly think to gain from this?”
Mid swing, he saw her almond eyes narrow, and instead of stepping back from the easily avoidable blow, she stepped closer in. Yet there was no soft thud against her arm or side, but a harsh clang of metal on metal. In both hands she clasped a dagger, holding off his blade with her own as she glared up at him. Where on earth had she pulled that from? “Gain? I seek only to prevent what harm you or any other would inflict. Even in my best case scenario- you would be the one to gain- some respect.” She said harshly, using both arms to thrust his sword away from her and slipping again into her fighting stance, encumbered only slightly by her dress. “But you clearly have no interest in such things, so come, fight me in earnest so that I may be rid of you all the sooner.”
“In what world does picking a fight with a stranger earn you respect?” Alistair asked incredulously. “Even the Gray Wardens try to take their allies willingly rather than by force.” Surprised by her show of strength in pushing his blow away, meager as it was, he paid more attention to the girl’s movements as he made another swing, watching as this time she deftly sidestepped the blow, pushing it past her with her dagger, seeming to scoff at the slow swing.
“Violence responds to violence.” Came the matter of fact reply. It was clear in how she said it that she completely believed it, but perhaps was not thrilled with the truth of it. “You humans only ever come here for violence- whether with your swords or your tongues or your purses.” The elf was fascinating to watch; incredibly economical in her movements and never allowing herself to be distracted from the movements of his sword. “I dare say you would not be so eager to continue if we always responded in kind.”
“So you’re saying that you’re only interested in fighting because I, as a violent human, am obviously only here to hurt you?” Her logic was somewhat baffling, to say the least. “What of diplomacy? Of just… talking? Could you not find your respect in that way? Surely you are only encouraging the hate towards you with this behavior.” Even as he suggested it however, Alistair did not relent in the sweeps or strikes of his sword. Indeed, only increasing in their speed and strength as she demonstrated the ability to react to them, despite all expectations.
She almost laughed, though it was far from a joyous sound. “A human coming to the Alienage to speak with us? To understand the depths of the injustice and prejudice we face every day, with any interest whatsoever in doing anything about it?” Finally taking a turn from her defensive plays, she lunged forward, forcing Alistair back as she barely scored the surface of his cheap leather armor. “This has never happened in my memory, shemlen.”
Though it didn’t seem as if she had tried to injure him in earnest with the swipe, it marked a change in the rhythm of their movements, and the degree to which they were both holding back began to fall away ever more. “Is the injustice and prejudice you face truly so great?” Alistair asked skeptically. “It is commonly said that elves make no real effort to better their lot, keeping to the lowest of the low jobs and never leaving the Alienage. How do you expect anything to change that way?”
The two circling instinctively in the dirt path, she began to move faster, strike harder, clearly in response to his words and forcing him to start taking this fight seriously lest she actually draw blood from him. “You know nothing!” She hissed furiously. “How can you possibly be so blind? We have been kept from any position to own land, and what shemlen will hire an elf for anything more than the barest of coin, knowing that desperation will cause him to take it?” She briefly waved an arm back at the Alienage behind her. “Ask any of those in need here. Hear their stories. The man who is forever lame, because when his legs were crushed between two ships in the service of his contractor, neither the humans he worked with nor for could be bothered to help him. Waste healing, or even a poultice, on an elf? They barely bothered to throw his body in an alley for his sons to find days later. Or how about the woman who was once my neighbor, dragged off by some shemlen guard, who killed herself rather than carry her rapist’s child?”
There was so much hate and anger in her eyes as she kept Alistair on the defensive, and he thought that he was beginning to understand why. “Yet even then, there have been a rare few to make something of the nothing they were given. Buying homes in Denerim proper, meager as they were. These ones whose homes were burned down when they were not yet in them are the lucky ones. So yes, we stay here in our Alienage, where at least we can watch out for each other. And you would deride me for doing whatever I can to prevent our continued persecution here, in the one place we are allowed to consider home?” She scoffed.
Despite her pain and anger however, she must have noticed a hesitancy in her opponent, something that made her try to extend understanding towards him, even as her attacks subtly forced him towards the wooden gates of the Alienage. “Imagine for me, shem, that you have…” The elf’s attention wavered for just a moment as she sought the words to explain, allowing Alistair an opening to attack. Though she parried it, it had them circling again. “-a horrible secret. One that you’ve carried about with you your whole life. A secret that you knew that, were it known, you would immediately be treated almost as if in exile. Reduced to less than a full person, everything people see in you would revolve around this secret.”
That got his attention, and Alistair looked over the elf maid even as they continued their dangerous dance, testing each other’s wit and skill. “I can imagine…” He replied warily, encouraging her with his tone to continue. A secret he couldn’t tell without everything changing for the worse? He didn’t have to imagine- it was an integral part of his life, as little as he wished it. His honesty in replying seemed to trigger a glimmer of... something, in her eyes. Maybe it was just that he actually seemed to be listening to her, responding to what she said rather than just yelling back, but she suddenly seemed less aggressive and her stance less guarded. It felt a bit wrong to strike at such a moment, but it was a part of this ‘game’ they had established, and he was not aiming to seriously hurt her so… he took the opening.
Her movements were almost too fast for him to follow, at least without him expecting it. His sword was caught, not against one length of steel, but between two blades, a dagger suddenly in each of her hands. She didn’t stop there however, but used the momentum of his strike and her daggers to twist and manipulate the sword out of his hand entirely, falling into the dirt some paces away. She... this little elf maid had disarmed him. A fact startling in and of itself without suddenly finding himself weaponless with a clearly dangerous adversary holding one of her daggers entirely too close for comfort. “Now imagine that it’s not a secret.” She said quietly, staring up into his eyes with a piercing gaze. “It’s as clear to everyone as if they had branded it across your face. You will always be this terrible secret first, and a person second, or third- if they even get that far.” She turned her head slightly to one side, making sure he had a good clear look at her long, pointed ears. “This is my ‘secret’. I am an elf. It is a fact of my birth- I did not ask for it. I am not ashamed of it. Yet it is branded into me as a sin, and unless we force change, that is how I will always be treated.”
Having said her piece, the elf withdrew her dagger from the threatening position she had been holding it in and started to step back and away from him. In awe as he was of how she had bested him, even if he hadn’t been fighting in full earnest, Alistair’s pride couldn’t quite let it go at that, and he took the moment of her being distracted with putting her knives away to trip her. Noting not without a little satisfaction how her eyes widened as she began to stumble backwards, the would-be knight finally showed a bit of quick reflexes of his own, his hand darting out to catch her forearm to stop her fall. “Let your guard down.” He noted with an awkward little smile, suddenly realizing that his little act to even the score might not come off as innocently as he had meant it. Thus getting the feeling that she might try to actually stab him if he didn’t let go of her soon, Alistair pulled her back up, and was quick to let loose his hold on her, taking a step back and raising empty hands by his sides. “No harm no foul, right?” He searched her face for any signs for that tightly wound anger or aggression returning, but surprisingly found none, and so added, rather thoughtlessly in more an attempt to fill the silence than anything. “You’re… really good. The Gray Wardens could use someone like you.”
A little huff of air escaped her, almost exasperated, but of all the possible responses she might have had, he was not expecting the little quirk of an eyebrow and the thinness of her lips relaxing into what might actually be a tiny smile. “Oh? You would want an elf amongst your ranks? And a woman, at that?”
He nodded dumbly, only half realizing that he was in no position yet to be extending such an invitation. “The Gray Wardens will accept those of any race or sex, so long as they have the skill. The Gray Warden Garahel, who slew the Archdemon and ended the last blight was an elf.” He remembered, glad that he found the old stories interesting enough to listen to.
That seemed to strike a chord with the elf, and she actually looked somewhat interested. “I… had not heard that part of the story. Pity, there aren’t enough elven heroes-“ She started to say, but suddenly there were cries of ‘leave her alone!’ and ‘take that, shemlen!’ and suddenly a large wash of water drenched the two, and she gasped with the cold of it. Looking up, they found three elf children standing with recently emptied buckets on the scaffolding walkways above. Realizing that they had not hit only their intended target, the two older children began to draw back nervously, while the youngest one merely stared down at them curiously.
The older boy picked up the youngest, looking ready to bolt. “Y-you were fighting and…”
The now very wet elf maid nodded with a little sigh, but responded patiently enough. “I appreciate the thought, but you know that you are supposed to go home if you see any humans about. You could get hurt.” The children all nodded at the gentle reprimand, unsure yet if their elder would punish them for disobeying or not. “Now, unless you want me telling your mothers about this little incident…” The two older children winced, already anticipating the switch. “You will meet me tomorrow after your classes so we can work on your aim and hiding.” There was a smirk in her voice, and he just caught her little wink at the children before waving them off. “Shoo, shoo, before I change my mind.” To which the three were quick to obey, looking relieved and somewhat pleased with themselves.
“You’re a terrible influence.” Alistair said, somewhat amused by her kind reaction to the children but also concerned about her encouraging them to assault whatever humans entered the Alienage if things really were as bad as she said.
Looking back up at him, she shrugged, before returning her gaze to the children as they disappeared. “They will be doing such things with or without our permission. Best that we teach them how to do it well, and how to escape safely afterwards.” He was a little amazed how calmly she was speaking to him now, considering how eager she was to chase him off only a few minutes ago. She had apparently come to a decision of sorts about him, and decided that he perhaps was not as much of a threat as humans in the area usually were. She stared off in silent contemplation for a moment and then said, almost to herself, “Fighting darkspawn to protect the realm, huh…? I have… responsibilities here, but maybe I’ll look into your Gray Wardens a bit more.” She said with a little nod.
Looking down at herself however, the elf maid sighed, picking at the drenched fabric where it now clung to her skin. “At least they used clean water… Best change before I catch cold.” Her eyes returned to his for a long, silent moment, and Alistair had the strangest sensation that she was somehow looking into him, divining his thoughts. “…You are a strange human.”
He chuckled at that, running fingers back through his wet hair, a nervous gesture he had picked up long ago. “You would not be the first to say that.”
She nodded, still looking up evenly at him. “But not in a bad way. …I think I have learned something from you.” She sounded almost surprised, though it did not show in her face. Just like that she was apparently done with him, beginning to walk way. She seemed to reconsider though, and turned back to say, “Try not to cause any trouble. As you can see, we have little reason to trust visitors.” She bowed her head. “Fare thee well.” And with that, she turned, walking away and deeper into the Alienage.
He watched after her as she went for as long as he could, still a little in awe of the strange series of events surrounding the elf, and not missing how the wet frock clung to the woman’s curves either. Catching and silently chastening himself for the less than pious thoughts, his Templar training still close to home, he let his mind linger over her words, instead. He thought… he must have learned something from her, too. It was a lot of information to chew over the long march to Ostagar, that was for sure.
Alistair was busy pulling himself back together, cleaning and sheathing his sword, tightening the buckles of his shield and so forth when Duncan finally returned a few minutes later. The Gray Warden looked over his charge with a curious eye, wet and untidy as he was. “Something I should know about?”
The younger chuckled, knocking water out of where it had collected in the folds of his armor, “I think I was just bested by a philosophizing rebel elf.”
“Is that so?” Duncan took the information in stride, sounding almost amused. “That’s too bad, I should have liked to talk to them.”
Glancing around behind the man who would be his mentor, Alistair asked, “So, the one you came for didn’t relish the many perks of becoming a Gray Warden and fighting darkspawn for the rest of their days, huh?”
Waiting a moment for Alistair to rise before beginning to lead them out of the Alienage he answered, “She was not at home, and neither her father nor the Elder were willing to tell me where she might be found.” Duncan shook his head. “The Elder said that he would pass along the offer, but I suspect I will have to give it myself when next I pass through Denerim.”
“She?” Alistair asked as they passed the various criers in the marketplace as they made their way towards the city gates, raising an eyebrow at the older man. “You never said that it was a she.”
“Didn’t I? But that should not surprise you. You know that we will take any into our order. Especially in these uncertain times.”
Alistair nodded, he did know that, but… he glanced back to get a last glimpse of the gate that lead into the Alienage. “I think she got the message.”