Warnings: This chapter will include mental illness, specifically about withdrawal and dementia-like symptoms.
Chapter 1: The Alienage and the Ex-Templar District
"See here, Eve? How you can feel a rounded firmness - no, use the pads of your fingers, not the tips - there, feel it now?"
Eve held her breath against the sweet smell of rot, knowing that if Nessa spotted a shudder that she would get an earful later. Gently, she edged around the work table and obediently used her fingers to locate the lump under the patient's grimy, whiskered jaw. Just to the side of a muscle was a pea-sized spongey node.
The man hissed in pain and jerked away, cupping the side of his face so just the tip of a pointed ear stuck up above his hand. "I'm so sorry," Eve sputtered, hiding her flushing face behind her long black hair and twisting her hands behind her.
"S'alright da'len," the man muttered, trying to smile but grimacing around his swollen jaw instead. "I just need to grit and bear it."
"Hmm, well, gritting will only make the tooth rot feel worse," Nessa mused. She deftly coaxed the man's mouth open and lifted a candle to illuminate the inside of his mouth. "Eve, how can we tell that it's tooth rot and not an ear infection?"
"Umm," Eve said, trying to ignore the sounds of a spirited foot race outside. It sounded like her friends from the thieves' guild were out there racing the all the alienage children. "His tonsils and ear drums aren't swollen or red, no change in his hearing, and no pus found, thank the Maker."
"And what are the cardinal signs of a localized infection, Eve?"
Eve, who was edging to the clinic door, stopped in her tracks. "I can't remember," she muttered to the dirt floor, tamping down on the guilty twinge at the lie. She curled her bare toes, hoping Nessa would just dismiss her in exasperation.
"Tsk. I taught you better than this and Maker knows I've dragged you to see more than enough infections since you showed up at my door," Nessa said imperiously. There was an undercurrent of steel beneath the wry amusement in her crisp tone.
Even surrounded by mismatched furniture and tools cobbled together from odds and ends, Nessa was regal in the daylight streaming in from a nearby window. She sat on her patched clinic stool like a shem noblewoman - no, as if she sat on the Ferelden throne, a sharp light glinting from brown eyes stamped with crow’s feet. The man dutifully held still in her hand as she surveyed her apprentice with an expectant look.
Eve straightened and crossed her arms. "And they have all been disgusting," she declared. A prickle of pride glowed in her chest - her voice hadn't wavered that time.
The man winced and Nessa pursed her lips in a disapproval. "While that was true for some - most - of them, that is not a cardinal sign and your rudeness will cost you latrine duty for the week," Nessa said coolly, boring her eyes into Eve'. "What did I tell you about treating patients, your people , with respect?"
"Oh, it's alright, she's just a child-"
"A child old enough to know better," Nessa said firmly over the man's protests, fixing Eve with a look that made her feel like a flea-infested nug.
"It'd be easier if infections and the pus weren't so gross!" Eve protested, knowing that she should shut her mouth like Nessa was always after her for, but she was right - infections were horrifying, and the smell ... she was just telling the truth.
"Well, don't get any high hopes for the future," Nessa said, "you are the child of an alienage surgeon. Your future won't be full of gold and candy. More of the pus and guts variety, I suspect."
Eve curled her little hands into fists. She was frustrated . She'd just learned that word that week and that was what she was. Frustrated of being cooped up in the same shabby clinic day after day with its never-ending line of sweating, coughing, puking patients that looped around the Vhenadal all the way to the outskirt fence penning the alienage in the city. Frustrated of standing on aching feet, as hour after hour she would hand over a tool Nessa needed to fix the patients or look at a particularly stomach-turning piece of anatomy that Nessa would present for inspection. Frustrated of having to trot at Nessa's heels as they paid house calls to particularly sick elves who would inevitably be stewing in their waste by the time they got there while the other alienage kids ran and played past them, or ran messages for extra coin from the thieves' guild. Not that she was mistreated by Nessa, not like some of the others or those who served in shem houses, but it was hard to live with the formidable woman.
Heat boiled into her cheeks and she glared as sharply as the costly scalpels Nessa used in her surgeries. Then I wish I'd been left on someone else's doorstep! Eve thought fiercely, wishing she could say it all out loud and hating how calm and expectant Nessa looked, as if she knew and it didn't matter .
A beat of silence stretched, then two. Only the somewhat muffled sounds of a crowded alienage pressed in through the thin walls as Eve glared then dropped her gaze. "Swellingheatrednesspainlimitedmovement," Eve spat out quickly. She sent a small pair of tongs skittering across the table to Nessa then bolted out the door.
Then, because she had what Nessa called ‘an unrepentant need for noseyness’, she hid around the corner. A low whistle drifted through the swinging door. "Thought for sure that she'd do something stupid and curse you til she was blue in the face," the man’s voice said. "What a fiery little troublemaker. And what spooky eyes. Must've rained and stormed the night she was born."
A short sigh followed. "Well, she was left at my door nine years ago, so I couldn't tell you," she heard Nessa say dryly, "but let it never be said that I raised a dumb bunny. Now, close your eyes, open your mouth, lay back and think of Andraste."
Evening settled down into the alienage, the dust quieting as families retreated from the deep blue shadows into the warmth of their shabby but cheerful kitchens. Eve loitered under a ratty awning, tugging the hem of her threadbare shirt higher to cover the colorful bruise she'd earned in her latest roughhousing match from her messenger friends. If only Nessa would let her out more; she'd be able to keep up with them and learn how to do more than just slip out of an attacker's grasp. She could learn to return the blows, learn how to wield a dagger with her eyes closed, slip by Nessa's watchful gaze with the stealth of a black cat. Then maybe she'd be able to join the thieves' guild one day and become one of its infamous Fangs.
She jumped when the door to the clinic opened and shielded her eyes as a bright light pierced the gloom. "Is that my loving and respectful aid?" a familiar voice drawled. "Will the Maker never cease his miracles?"
"I'm sorry," Eve blurted to the dirt without preamble. Even as she’d raced and scuffled with the other alienage kids, she’d felt guilt for leaving Nessa and the patient behind in the clinic. Nessa was the best surgeon of the alienage and deftly cared for patients too complex for apprentices, but what if she needed Eve for something? What if a kid came in with tooth rot and needed Eve’ smaller hands? She hadn’t been able to shake the guilt, even when her friends were teaching her how to dodge a flying kick. "I shouldn't've been rude to the carpenter. I didn't mean to make him feel bad. I know it's worse from a surgeon."
A thoughtful pause. "Why?"
A crimson flush flooding from the collar to the tips of his pointed ears of the bedbound patient flashed through her mind's eye, red in his chagrin and mortification. It'd been the first time Eve had felt such strong waves of nausea and pity at the same time, warring with each other until she could school her face into the semblance of calmness that Nessa wore all the time when she pretended to not notice these things. "Because," she said slowly, looking up, "we're there when people feel their worst. And they need us to help. It'd be worse to ask honestly for help when you feel weaker than nug piss and the surgeon told you to nob off because you stink."
Nessa's dark eyebrows had steadily climbed her forehead, the corners of her lips twitching. "That's- Maker's furry nut- I mean, for Maker's sake, where did you learn-" Nessa heaved in a breath then seemed to count silently to ten like she was after Eve to do. "Next time the guild kids start that talk, I want you to stuff your fingers in your ears or I will clean your mouth out with soap," Nessa threatened firmly.
Eve nodded, biting her lower lip to keep from grinning. She was about to offer to make dinner when Nessa hoisted her traveling satchel higher on her shoulder and instead blurted, "Where are you going?"
"Hmm? You know where I'm going," Nessa said absently, now adjusting her cloak and checking the oil supply in her lamp. "I go there every other week, for Maker's sake."
Eve didn't want to say anything that broke the bridge they'd just repaired, but a cold tendril of fear snaked around her insides. "You shouldn't," Eve said, "not alone. I can go with you-"
"Da'len, you are shaking in your boots - well, if you ever actually wore boots," Nessa said dryly, swinging her lamp to light the cramped alley. "Eat the stew and make sure the fire is put out by the time I am back."
"Nessi, no, I'm fine - I can do it!" Eve insisted, feeling like a baby, using her nickname for Nessa while clutching her fists against her sides and trying to stop the quivering. She knew that she was glistening with sweat in the amber lamplight and didn't care because Nessa could not go alone. "You can't go - not with those, those things . They're crazy!"
Nessa's face vanished in shadow as the lamplight swung in the breeze, obscuring her expression. But her voice sounded thoughtful when she spoke again. " That ," she murmured, "is precisely why I need to go. They may be crazy, but they gave their lives to the Chantry and that blasted dwarf dust they keep begging for. The People are not the only ones who suffer, and we have not forgotten - just as we will not forget others who suffer."
"But, but they're shems," Eve protested, rooting around her frazzled mind for a good enough reason to keep Nessa home and safe, away from the walled-off district full of emaciated wandering humans out of their mind with madness. She sometimes glimpsed their shivering, rail-thin figures hunched beyond the fence separating the grungiest streets of Denerim from the alienage, bloodshot eyes roving; their enraged shrieks and wails for lyrium scared her more than anything. "The Chantry have sisters, don't they? Can't they help? Or pay healers to?"
Tapping came from under Nessa's oiled leather work cloak, a sign of impatience. "You know as well as I that the sisters only know basic remedies," Nessa said tartly, then muttered under her breath, "wouldn't know the difference between an umbilical hernia and a pregnancy without checking the genitals, but I'm not the Revered Mother, thank the Maker." She continued in a somewhat more dignified voice, "And you know as well as I that nothing can be done for lyrium withdrawals, not even with the magic of a healer. And who has the gold to waste for a lost cause? No, better to be eased a little with some headache draughts and focusing solutions than die alone in complete agony."
She wasn't going to stop trying until Nessa stopped using that adult voice and listened to her. "But they don't care about us so why-"
"Who came and put down the abomination in the Banal'ras district last month?" Nessa interrupted.
Eve bit her lip. "Templars," she muttered, hanging her head.
"That's right. We were able to help the injured People thanks to those 'shem' templars whether or not they wanted to kiss every single elf in the alienage. Now, get back inside and not another word out of your smart mouth or I will put you to work with Cyrion."
Help Cyrion fuss over every single human, elf and dwarf that entered his house and listen to him haggle with them over things like 'trade agreements' and 'taxes'? Eve squirmed on the spot, watched Nessa take a few brisk steps down the alley, then ran to catch up before her courage ran out. "I'm coming with you," she declared, hopefully with as much conviction as her hands were shaking, "you can't talk me out of it even if I have to work for Cyrion for days."
"Is that so?" Nessa mused, lamp swinging away to reveal dark glittering eyes and a small furrow between her brows. "Even if the 'crazy' ex-templars start raving?"
"Yes," Eve said stoutly, hiding her hands behind her and summoning every ounce of determination in her nine-year-old body.
She waited on a knife's edge, trembling between wanting to go with Nessa and wanting to run inside the steamy warmth of their home until Nessa finally gave a curt nod. "Get your boots and your bag," she ordered in a tone that brooked no arguments. As Eve scurried inside to obey, she heard Nessa mutter, "and I hope your sticky-fingered friends in the guild teach you how to lie better."
Eve clopped along behind Nessa’s trailing cloak, trying not to trip on the patched leather boots that she was still growing into. The further they walked from their clinic by the vhenadal, the more cramped the dirt roads became with piles of filth and the buildings teetered higher and higher to accommodate the poorest of the alienage. Jagged bricks and hungry eyes gleamed in Nessa’s lamplight as they neared the gap-toothed fence on the outskirts of the alienage. Two tall silhouettes loitered by the posts, their armor glinting in the lamplight set behind them.
“Hello there,” Nessa called in a carefully neutral tone. Eve was suddenly struck with the need to drag Nessa home by the cloak as a distant moan carried through the blackness beyond the light. Was it too late to turn back?
“I am Nessa Surana, and this is my daughter,” Nessa continued, “we are here to help the ex-templars.”
The human closest to them peered down at them from under his helm with eyes rounder than any elf’s. “Help? Riiight… You know that the crazies don’t have anything worth stealing even for you rabbit-ears, eh?” he asked suspiciously. “They’ll have lost it or traded it for dust by now, and they’re howling at the moon tonight. Best to stick to your side of the fence-”
“Trenton, that’s the elf surgeon from two weeks ago.” Another armored human walked up and peered down at them, the lamplight throwing his acne scars in sharp relief. “You here to try and get them to shut up again? We won’t say no to that.”
“They aren’t supposed to,” a new voice interjected from behind Eve. She almost jumped into Nessa as a redheaded elf dressed in battered leathers suddenly stepped out of the shadows with a scowl. “They’re supposed to be home letting the shems take care of themselves.”
“As are you , Shianni,” Nessa said, looking unperturbed. “You’re going to worry Cyrion being out so late and I don’t need him on my doorstep first thing in the morning.”
“And who’s this?” the guard with the scars asked with his hand on his sword hilt.
“No one you need to know, shem,” Shianni sneered with a hand on her hip. At thirteen, she was four years older than Eve and starting to blossom into womanhood. The new swell of her hip emphasized the wickedly curved dagger hanging from her belt. Despite herself, Eve felt a stab of admiration at her courage against the large, towering humans.
“This is my niece,” Nessa said as she swept the youth under an arm. Eve could see Nessa’s fingertips pressing into Shianni’s shoulder tightly. “She is a demure flower who likes to keep her opinions to herself and is always polite to strangers,” Nessa continued, “because otherwise, her aunt will tell the nice guards about that time she ran through the alienage stark naked-”
“I don’t care if you do,” Shianni sputtered, flushing as red as her hair and trying to squirm out of Nessa’s grip. “And anyway, I’m only here because you shouldn’t be out alone and uncle Cyrion agrees with me-”
“Look,” the other guard interrupted, “I don’t care who you lot are or who your aunt or uncle or fourth-removed humpback is. What do you want with the crazies?”
“We want to help heal them,” Eve said when Nessa and Shianni started to argue again.
The two guards instantly took a step back and raised their shields. “What, like magically?” the scarred guard asked.
“No, thank the Maker,” Nessa answered swiftly. “None of us are apostates. We are just surgeons, seeking to help ease the old templars.”
“Well, she’s the surgeon,” Shianni said, pointing at Nessa’s bulging work bag full of draughts and surgical tools, “best one in the alienage and the brat’s her apprentice. I’m their messenger.”
The taller guard glanced at her dagger and the hard look in her eyes. “Messenger. Right. And I’m King Cailan,” he said.
“Just let them through,” the scarred guard said, elbowing his peer. “The Chantry doesn’t look out for them enough after they leave,” he muttered to the elves, “five gold bits and a thank-you doesn’t pay the bills for long or buy enough lyrium for the rest of their blighted lives. It’d be more than what the Chantry does if you could make them feel better with your potions and whatnot.”
The other guard snorted. “Softie.”
“Thank you,” Nessa said gracefully as they passed, leaving the guards to bicker with each other.
Past the fence, the dirt road occasionally winked with shards of broken glass. The muddy puddle Eve stepped in crunched oddly, and she was suddenly grateful to Nessa for insisting on her wearing boots. She didn’t fancy walking around on bleeding feet, forcing glass shards deeper and deeper into her flesh with every step. Then she’d get an infection - probably the nasty kind that turned the skin green, then black and foul until the toes shriveled and fell off… she shuddered and tried to peer beyond the small circle of light the lamp threw off instead.
Skeletal remains of burnt buildings loomed out of the darkness as they passed, broken walls yawning with shadows. Cloaks and jackets propped up on sticks lined the dirt roads as well, sometimes with feet or a hand poking out from underneath. Eve stifled a yelp when the makeshift tent they were passing emitted a high-pitched scream and immediately glued herself to Nessa’s side.
Shianni scoffed, her hand on her dagger as they passed another tent with a pair of bare feet covered in sores sticking out. “You should tuck tail and run home, bunny,” she said, “don’t know why you’re even here, not being a full surgeon or a healer to help at all…”
“Eve’s been really helpful around the clinic,” Nessa said with a warm hand on Eve’s shoulder, “and she’s mostly been good with her studies. Not so much with infections, however.”
Eve flushed a little even as her eyes jumped from tent to tent. “I wish I could heal magically,” she said, giving voice to a persistent thought she’d been having, “so I can fix everything and people won’t hurt anymore-”
“No,” Nessa interrupted. Eve flinched as her fingers turned into claws on her shoulder. “No, da’len. Be glad that you aren’t mage-touched,” Nessa continued in strained voice, “they can turn into abominations in a moment, then tear apart a building and its people in a blink.”
“I wouldn’t become an abomination if I were a mage,” Eve said indignantly. “Or use blood magic. I know better.”
“Well, thank the Maker that you aren’t touched with magic,” Shianni said, “or you’d be shipped off to a Circle, like Neria. Then you’ll vanish when the templars take you in the night, never to see the alienage again.”
“That’s enough,” Nessa said sharply. “Eve hasn’t shown a single sign of magic and that’s how it’ll stay. How else am I going to retire as an old lady? As if your uncle hasn’t enough grief with his only child gone. And enough talk of blood magic, we’re getting up to the right tent-”
A roar made all three of them jump and the lamp clattered into the mud. Shianni scrambled in front of Nessa and Eve with her rusty dagger thrust out as something erupted from the tent right next to them and roared, “BLOOD MAGIC?”
At first, Eve thought a scarecrow had been possessed and brought to life. What froze the scream in her throat was realizing that the black pits carved into the scarecrow’s haggard face were in fact sunken sockets with only a pinpricks to hint at burning, roving eyes in their depths. Greasy, matted grey locks hung around hollow cheeks and dirty skin hung in wrinkled drapes off the bones. What Eve realized to be a painfully emaciated old human staggered to his feet, waving a roughly sharpened tent pole in Shianni’s snarling face while clutching a fist to his breastbone.
“You looking… sacrifices?” he shouted, waving the stick and they all leapt back another pace. “ABOMINATIONS?”
“Hugh, no!” Nessa shouted, raising a beseeching hand toward him and holding Shianni back with the other. “My name is Nessa, do you remember me? I gave you the headache draught two weeks ago when you were feeling bad.”
Hugh jumped at his name, then swayed on his feet as he peered at them with a bloodshot eye. “Nessa?” he mumbled to himself, his fetid breath and quick, jerky movements making Eve mince a step back. “Feel bad… all th’time. All the time. Not abomination? No… not Nessa. Circle prayers start in an hour. Must ready… things. Headache… yesterday?”
“It was two weeks ago, Hugh,” Nessa said soothingly, trying to shake off Shianni and Eve as they tried to pull her back to the gate. “I brought more for you-”
Shianni and Eve cried out as Hugh suddenly dropped the stick and hauled Nessa to him by the arm. “You have it?” he asked fervently, the tip of an open sore on his nose almost touching hers, “you have the lyrium? I need my next dose, knight-captain, I’m burning on low and I found a little yesterday - day before yesterday? Monday? But it wore off fast and I got a wildfire in my head and I need it -”
“Hugh, listen to me,” Nessa coaxed and Eve could hear a note of desperation in it. Nessa threw a warning look at Shianni and continued softly, “Hugh, my name is Nessa. I’m here to help your headache. It’s in my bag - would you like some?”
Hugh swayed and blinked slowly at her as Eve discreetly scrambled to find the right potion in Nessa’s satchel. “Nessa…? Surgeon?”
“That’s right, Hugh,” Nessa said. “I have this headache draught for you. Best to drink it now.”
Hugh stared emptily at her, then relaxed his skeletal hands. He grabbed the bottle Eve offered without really looking at her and swigged down the red concoction as Shianni tugged Nessa back behind her.
“My thanks, Mother Christine,” Hugh said brightly, bouncing on the balls of his bare feet and trying to tuck his stick at his waist like a sword, seemingly unaware that he was wearing nothing but a long, holey tunic. “Best thing for a growing boy like me, need all the food I can get. All this trekking up and down the tower in full armor tires me out like nothing else. Well, maybe not as bad as drill. These mages better appreciate the view, eh?”
“I hope they did, Hugh,” Nessa murmured sadly. “You should get some rest.”
“Not a bad idea, Mother Nessa,” Hugh croaked, turning to peer up the line of makeshift tents. “My room… over here. I’ll see you at morning service. Good night, Mother.”
He bent to wrap a ratty blanket and the lamp threw a ridge of shadows down the knobs of his spine. As Hugh laid down on the dirt and made himself comfortable under the blanket, Shianni and Eve stared at each other, then at Nessa who was rapidly blinking wet eyes.
“We aren’t done yet. Come, he’s usually just along here,” Nessa said briskly, scooping up the lamp and heading past a few more tents towards a burned-down lean-to. Eve lingered, staring at Hugh’s shiny balding pate and at the small glass vial cradled in the hand laying by his whiskered chin before hurrying to catch up to Nessa and Shianni.
Nessa was crouched in the shadow of a crumbling wall with Shianni standing guard at her back. In the corner of the lean-to lay a shriveled husk on its side, even more painfully thin than Hugh. This man - who was probably an ex-templar - had sparse hair, neck and limbs stiffly bent inwards, and if it weren’t for the shallow rise and fall of his ribs Eve would have thought Nessa was paying her respects to a dead man. His crusted eyes didn’t even flutter when Nessa murmured soothingly to him, trying to coax him to swallow the drops of a draught that she’d poured into his mouth.
“Nessa,” Shianni hesitated, for once looking like a young teenager as she watched her aunt work, “I don’t think… will that even help? He looks like he’s going to…”
A muscle jumped in Nessa’s jaw as she abandoned the draught and instead tucked the patched cloak the man was curled under more firmly around him. Eve quietly kneeled beside her and helped. “Yes, he is on his way to the Maker,” Nessa agreed.
“Then why bother?”
“Because no one should die alone like this,” Nessa said. “The Chantry uses up their youth and dedication, then kicks them out when they can’t keep the delirium at bay. You saw Hugh - and you’ll see more, here. They all end up here eventually, without a copper to their name and begging for the demon dust even if it’s what got them to this stage in the first place.”
“Don’t the sisters come here?” Shianni persisted. “They should help-”
“But they don’t,” Nessa said, her voice laced with contempt. She laid a soothing hand on the man’s shriveled fist, the skin covered in old scars. “The withdrawal leeches at their sanity. They forget the most recent events first… how they got here, where they are, where they pawned their sword. Then they forget people - family, if they ever had one. Then their name. Then they forget how to walk, talk… how to eat or drink. Sometimes they remember certain things, but once they forget how to do bodily things… it isn’t long, after that.”
Eve’s eyes burned and she choked down a shuddering breath, patting the man’s cool skin unseeingly. She swiped at her eyes and was surprised to see Nessa watching her, a warm light in her own. “Do you see, da’len?” Nessa asked. “This is… we can’t leave others to a fate like this. Even if they don’t have pointed ears. It’s never a competition to see who has it worse… we must help, if we can.”
Watching the man gasp shallowly through chapped lips, Eve couldn’t help but agree.