Stop. You are perfect exactly as you are.
Ariala stares at her reflection in the looking glass. An elaborate crown of branches curls across her forehead and temples. Its mother tree, decorated with leaves and spring blossoms, stretches down her back and across her shoulder blades. It had hurt most when the needle pressed against the bone, but her grandmother had tattooed her with loving care, gently wiping away the blood, whispering you are so brave, my dearest.
She had put a hound in the dip of Ariala’s spine, beside the base of the tree of Mythal. He will watch for the Dread Wolf, little heart, and he will keep you safe.
She bears the Mother’s mark, a pattern unique to Clan Lavellan. And once she is gone, it will be gone, too. Another scrap of tradition—another piece of their culture—lost to the ravenous hunger of time.
A letter rests beside her, folded and re-folded so much the creases have begun to wear at the paper. She has read its contents over and over again, and yet the reality has yet to puncture the numbness that had enveloped her since Solas left her in Crestwood.
You carry Clan Lavellan with you. Be brave, my dearest.
She traces the branches that twine across her temples, and asks the Well if they are truly slave marks. It is a long moment before the Well stirs, its presence an unsettling awareness that tickles the back of her skull, and hisses unworthy. The echoes of its condemnation bring a migraine.
Another hour passes before she sets down her simple little looking glass and looks out the window, where the mountain peaks are outlined in pink predawn light. Another half-hour before her bedroll and bow are packed, a bag of coins is tied to her belt, and her horse is saddled.
“I will return soon,” she tells Dennet. “Please watch over him for me.”
Dennet nods, and she heads to the War Room, where she had instructed her advisors to meet her at dawn, for an emergency meeting. She is the first one there. Cullen and Josephine arrive quickly, worry in their eyes. It is just after dawn, after all, and she has never willingly been up before ninth bell. Leliana comes after them, but there is nothing save quiet acceptance in her expression.
She had been the one to deliver the letter.
“Inquisitor?” Cullen asks. “What is wrong? What happened?”
Ariala hands Josephine the letter, wordless. Josephine gives her a confused glance, then unfolds the note. “Da’len,” she reads, “I know not whether this will reach you. The Duke of Wycome is dead, and the soldiers of Wycome blame us.” A breath escapes her, and she looks up. “Oh, Ari.”
“My clan is dead,” Ariala says, looking down at the War Table. “They cannot pass on to the Beyond until someone is there to bury them, and watch over their graves for a night.” She takes a deep breath and lifts her head, staring at a spot just over Leliana’s shoulder. “I called you here to tell you that I am going to Wycome to give them their proper rites. I will return as soon as I am able. Thank you. Dismissed.”
None of them move. “Inquisitor, I—” Cullen opens his mouth, and then closes it, frowning as though he is unsure of what to say.
“Corypheus could strike at any moment,” Leliana says. “What if he attacks Skyhold while you are away?”
“We destroyed his army in the Arbor Wilds,” Ariala says. “Samson is our prisoner and Calpernia abandoned his cause. We took down Florianne, so he has no way to control Orlais. The Nightmare is locked away in the Fade, and we have closed every rift in Southern Thedas, so his demon army is gone. I have the Well, so he doesn’t have a vessel to channel Mythal’s power. He is beaten, Leliana, and at this point it is only a question of when we choose to end it.”
“But he still has the orb,” Leliana says. “And his dragon. Both of which are dangerous in their own right.”
“Leliana is right,” Cullen says. “It’s too risky. We can’t in good faith let you go to Wycome when Corypheus could—”
“I’m not asking permission, Cullen,” Ariala says, though she feels her heart begin to race. She had not thought they would deny her this. Involuntary tears prick her eyes, and she looks back down at the War Table. Her head throbs, the migraine sending spikes of pain through her right eye. “I am going. Telling you was a pleasantry, nothing more.”
“Don’t be foolish,” Cullen says, brow knitting together. “Inquisitor, we all feel for your loss, but what if you leave and the Venatori capture you? Then all of this will be for nothing! If Corypheus kills you, he could open the Breach again, and then we would have no one—”
The numbness punctures, and suddenly her grief and reigned-in frustration floods through her, a smoldering under her breastbone that leaves agony in its wake. Most of the clan is already dead.
“I have not asked for anything!” she shouts.
She has never—never—raised her voice during her time as Inquisitor. All three of her advisors flinch, but she cannot bring herself to care. “I have not asked for a single fucking thing as Inquisitor. I did everything anyone—you, the Inner Circle, even Mother fucking Giselle—asked me to do, with no complaints! I traveled the world for this Inquisition! And the only thing I want, to bury my family, you deny me.” She’s shaking, tears in her eyes, her delayed reaction finally caught up with her. “Well, fuck that. Fuck that! I’m going and you can’t fucking stop me.”
Leliana stares at her, speechless. Ariala takes a deep breath, digging her nails into her palms. A bad habit, picked up from—she unfurls her fingers, tucking her hands behind her back. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” she says, quieter this time, ignoring the tears on her cheeks. “Goodbye.”
No one moves to stop her, but when her hand rests on the doorknob, Josephine says, “Ari, please don’t go alone. It would give us all some peace of mind if someone was with you.”
Ariala pauses at the door, staring at the wood grains, then shakes her head and leaves the room.
Solas is standing a polite distance from the door, staring far too intently at the tapestry of Andraste on the wall. He carries a stack of parchment in his arms, and he does not react to her presence.
Her chest flares with a sharp, aching pain, because the last time she had seen his face was in Crestwood. She takes a small, steadying breath, but despite how soft it is the sound of it seems to echo in the hall. She turns away and wipes at her cheeks.
Once she’s composed, Ariala stares at him, but his gaze remains steadfast on the tapestry. “How much did you hear?” she asks him. Her tongue is heavy with the words she longs to say—when did you get back? Why did you leave?
But that doesn’t matter. Not anymore.
Solas looks down. “Enough,” he says, very softly. He meets her gaze, and there is nothing in his eyes, except perhaps pity. She wants to claw her throat out, but instead she notes the purple bruises under his eyes. It seems she had not been alone in a sleepless night. “Cullen wished for a report on the state of the Veil in Crestwood. Is he inside?”
“Yes.” She walks past him, steadfastly keeping her eyes forward. She feels his gaze on her until she leaves the hall.
When she returns to the stables, Dennet is brushing her gelding down. “Stay safe, my lady,” Dennet tells her, and she is so grateful for his discretion—he had asked her no questions—she almost breaks down again. She bites her lip and reaches for him, pulling him into a hug.
“Thank you,” she whispers against his shirt. Dennet awkwardly pats her back, and she pulls away, offering a watery smile. “I’ll be back soon.”
She mounts her horse, reaching down to pat his neck. “Let’s go, Syl,” she murmurs, urging him into a trot with a click of her tongue.
They do not get very far.
Leliana is standing in front of the portcullis, arms crossed. Syl whinnies at the sight of her, slowing to a stop at Ariala’s urging. She runs her fingers through his coarse mane and stares at Leliana. “What do you want?”
Leliana uncrosses her arms, revealing a roll of parchment. “This is a list of contacts I drew up for you last night. There is a ship in Jader that will depart in five days, and it will go straight to Wycome. And I have arranged for an arborist to meet an elven client in Wycome in a fortnight’s time. The names and details of these men are on this paper.”
Ariala looks away. “And you want something in return, I suppose.”
“Indeed. One simple request: do not go alone.”
“Who is there to ask?” Ariala asks, uncaring of her biting tone. “Dorian is studying red lyrium with Dagna, Vivienne is managing Skyhold’s dignitaries with Josephine, you and Cullen are needed here. Sera is doing Jenny business, Varric is better off here, Cassandra is with Bull and the Chargers in the Western Approach—”
“Solas has volunteered,” Leliana says, softly, and Ariala goes cold.
“No,” she says, immediately. She presses two fingers to her forehead in an effort to assuage the coming migraine. She had avoided mentioning Cole because Cole’s presence would just be too painful—but even Cole, who can read her thoughts, would be better than Solas.
Leliana nods, and folds the parchment in half, tucking it into her leather glove. She steps aside, allowing Ariala space to ride out of the castle. “Then I bid you a safe journey, Inquisitor. I wish you best of luck finding your way to Wycome.”
She turns, beginning to walk away. Ariala blinks, and twin tears fall onto her leather gloves. She bows her head, pressing her fingertips to her eyes in attempt to stave off more. “Wait,” she calls. Leliana turns back. “Let me talk to him. I’ll—I’ll try to get Dorian instead. Or Cole.”
She nods, and as Ariala dismounts, Leliana takes hold of Syl’s reins. “I will have someone watch your horse here,” she says, tucking the documents in a satchel tied to Syl’s saddle. Ariala nods, then turns and heads for Skyhold.
She finds Solas in his room, packing his bedroll. He is stiff, silent, undoubtedly aware of her presence behind him. “What are you doing, Solas?” she asks, voice hoarser than she’d like.
“I should think it obvious,” he replies.
“No. Why did you offer to come with me to Wycome?” She swallows. This is the longest conversation they’d had since Crestwood and—two weeks later, she’s still raw, still on the verge of tears whenever she thinks of how he had looked at her that night, before he left.
You are perfect exactly as you are.
Had he meant it?
If he had, why did he leave?
“We have closed the rifts in southern Thedas. The Veil remains stable, for now. I have no duties; the rest of the Inner Circle, by contrast, have focused their immediate efforts outside of the Inquisition’s concerns. I was the logical choice.”
She takes a breath. “I don’t want you to come,” she says. Her voice is, remarkably, steady.
His hands still, then ball in the quilt spread over the bed. After a moment, he turns, clasping his hands behind his back in a now-familiar gesture. One he utilizes when he wants to be aloof. “I believed we could both be mature adults about this situation,” he says, and she takes a step back, a stone forming in the pit of her gut. He inclines his head. “If that is not the case, please inform me. Your advisors wish someone to accompany you to Wycome; I am the only one of the Inner Circle who can do so without abandoning preexisting conflicts. What was between us is irrelevant to this mission.”
What was between us.
His first acknowledgment of Crestwood, and it hurts, it hurts. It’s also fucking infuriating. How dare he condescend to her, as if it’s so simple as—as being upset over their breakup.
“You think I don’t want you to come because of Crestwood?” she asks, fisting her hands at her sides.
“What other reason is there?”
“Maybe I don’t want someone who has regularly derided my people attending their funerals,” she retorts, temper rising. “Maybe I want to grieve in private, without any prying eyes watching and silently judging my backward, savage customs.”
She knows what awaits her in Wycome. She knows what her grief will reduce her to. She does not want anyone seeing her like that. Especially not Solas.
Solas is impassive, which only infuriates her more. She shakes her head, unable to stop her sneer. “But, sure. If you want to think it’s because I’m being childish over you leaving, be my guest. Anything that fits your worldview, right?” Solas flinches, but does not look away. She clenches her jaw, swallows again. “If you’re not at the main gate within the hour, I’m leaving without you.”
She turns around. “Inquisitor,” he says, but that is not her name, that is not what he had been calling her for the past six months (vhenan, ma sal’shiral) so she ignores him and walks out, refusing to look back.
When she reaches the main gate again, she checks Syl’s saddle, finding Leliana’s documents where the spymaster had left them. She sighs, pressing her pounding forehead against the leather. Syl turns his head and snuffles at her, and she raises a hand, dragging it down his neck.
She could leave right now. It would surely take Leliana some time to recreate the itinerary, longer for Solas to catch up to her. She knew how to cover her tracks. And if she got away in time, if she managed to get to Wycome alone, she would get to properly grieve her clan. Her family.
And she wouldn’t have to deal with a smug, self-righteous, judgemental, condescending ass—
She squeezes her eyes shut, remembering the weight of his hand in hers as they walked to the grove, and pushes away from Syl with a curse. She shakes her head, ignoring her sudden blurred vision, and mounts her horse. Syl’s ears flick back and he glances to the side, as if he can sense her indecision.
She takes a deep breath, takes his reins in hand. “Inquisitor,” Solas calls, voice faint. She turns her head, sees him standing on the stone platform, his bedroll and pack on his back and his staff in hand. She watches him climb down the staircase and approach her. “Allow me to retrieve my horse from the stables, and then we may depart.”
She nods, wordless, and watches him leave. It is another ten minutes before he returns atop his silver mare, Eirlana. Once he reaches her, she turns Syl and leaves Skyhold, urging him into a canter with a click of her tongue once the portcullis is at their backs.
They do not speak to each other the entire day.
— ✦ —
That evening, when they set up camp for the night, she sits on the rocks and watches the sunset, her legs folded and pulled to her chest and her chin resting on her knees. The sky is streaked a brilliant orange and gold, and the sun is dark enough to look at directly.
She is glad she can still enjoy the small beauties the world offers.
Once the sun is set, but while the sky is still light, she sets about looking for what she needs.
She returns to the campsite with several rocks, four of roughly the same size and one smaller than the rest. Solas sits before the fire, but looks up at her return. He says nothing and watches as she kneels, facing north. Ariala does not look at him as she sets the stones in place, one in each direction, and then the smallest rock—representing herself—in the center. She takes the small knife from her belt and pricks her finger, allowing her blood to stain the center rock.
“Ghilan’nain, Halla-Mother,” she whispers, “I ask that you watch over my journey. Lead my feet to the surest path, and ensure swift travel to my destination.” She closes her eyes, imagining the hills of Wycome, the green grass clashing with the red of her clan’s aravel sails. She thinks of her desperation to get to the campsite, her desire for a quick voyage. She lifts her head, opening her eyes to observe the stars above her.
She takes a stick and siphons some ash from the campfire, waiting several minutes for the ash to cool before she takes a handful. She sprinkles the ash over the center and northern stone, indicating the location she wishes to go. “Guide me as you have guided the People who came before me. Lasa’em dareth shiral.”
In the back of her mind, the Well whispers unworthy.
She waits several moments, focusing her thoughts and energy on where she wants to go, and why. When the ritual ends, she closes her eyes and exhales, then gets up and dusts her hands off, away from the circle of stones. The site will have to remain undisturbed overnight for the luck to settle.
“What was the purpose of that?” Solas asks. When she looks at him, his brow is creased. He does not seem to ask from a point of arrogance, but from confusion, and that is why she answers him.
“It was a prayer to Ghilan’nain. To watch over our journey, to ensure a safe and fast voyage.”
He stares at her—at the vallaslin, twining over her forehead and down her temples—and his mouth twists down. “Do you still believe in your elven gods? Even after all you have seen?”
Ariala sits back on her haunches and stares at the night sky. She thinks of the scraps of knowledge they’d found in the Temple of Mythal. Ghilan’nain created monsters. Andruil went into the Void and emerged a madwoman. Falon’Din destroyed entire cities for their blood.
Mythal was murdered.
“I don’t know, Solas.”
He nods, though he looks troubled, pensive, and after glaring at her vallaslin for a few moments, he averts his gaze to stare into the flames again. A strange anger twists inside her as she watches him. It’s not like her regular anger; this is ugly, dark, utterly unfamiliar. She wants to ask him what troubles him, even though she knows what his answer will be, but she doesn’t trust herself not to start a fight.
She doesn’t trust herself not to be cruel to him.
After several minutes of silence, Solas turns to the pack at his feet. He takes out a leather-bound journal and a stick of charcoal, tightly wrapped in linen. She watches him flip open to a blank page and start sketching.
She remembers browsing through that journal, after Solas had allowed her to look at it.
The sketches had started small. She had looked through them all—drawings of plants, accompanied by careful, neat annotations she did not want to attempt to read—and stumbled upon a drawing of her, bowed over a book. The first book she’d tried to read after she learned the trade alphabet; meant for toddlers, but no less difficult to understand, especially when she wasn’t muttering the words aloud. Her drawing’s hair was swept over one shoulder and she had looked… elegant. Pretty.
Ariala had looked up from her spot on the couch, only to find Solas watching her from the scaffolding, his hands folded in his lap and his leg swinging absently. He met her gaze and a muscle in his jaw had twitched, a tic that only surfaced when he was nervous, so she’d smiled and sat up. “Come here,” she said, setting the journal aside.
When he joined her, she brushed her fingertips under his chin and kissed the hollow of his cheek. He inhaled, a short, sharp breath, and she smiled against his skin. “It’s beautiful,” she told him. “Thank you for showing me this, arasha.”
Arasha. My happiness. A fitting endearment.
She’d pulled away, fingers threading through his, and his gaze shifted from guarded to tender. He’d lifted their joined hands up and pressed a kiss to the back of her hand. “The drawing’s beauty pales to its muse,” he said, and she had laughed sweet talker against his mouth.
But those days are past, now.
She wonders if he’d ripped out that particular page.
Her chest aches at the thought, and she casts her eyes down to the fire once more. “Did you set the wards for the night?” she asks. After Haven, they hadn’t needed a watch with Solas in their party; his wards were strong enough to ensure that, if placed properly, they would have ample time to deal with intruders. As time went on, he had been able to attune the wards to recognize certain people. It was a useful ability.
“I have,” he replies, not looking up from his sketching.
“All right. I’m going to bed, then. Goodnight.”
She gets up and, after checking up on Syl and Eirlana to make sure they will not wander from camp overnight, retires to the tent they share. Her bedroll is as far from his as the tent will allow. She changes into more comfortable attire and lies on her side on the bedroll, facing the tent canvas.
She falls asleep like that, curled up on her side, angled as far away from his bedroll as possible.
She dreams of screams, of fire, of slaughter. The carnage she witnessed on the Dirth is echoed in the knolls of Wycome, but her clan replaces Orlesian civilians. She watches the blaze consume the aravels, watches her family flee in terror.
Her grandmother runs into her arms.
“Ariala,” she gasps, “help us—”
Behind her, a lone figure strides from the flames, untouched. Corypheus sneers at her as he raises a taloned hand, and her grandmother crumbles to dust in her arms.
— ✦ —
She wakes in silence, tears on her cheeks. Her nose is stuffed and her eyes are puffy and sore. Her muscles ache from yesterday’s long ride, but everything feels numb, a heavy emptiness nestled in the very center of her heart.
She forces herself to rise anyway.
The bedroll rustles under her as she moves, and she stiffens, turning her head to glance at Solas over her shoulder. He is flat on his back, hands tucked under his armpits and ankles crossed, sound asleep. She turns away and wipes her tears with the back of her hand, before taking a steadying, quiet breath and going outside.
There is work to do.
Her first task, in the predawn light, is to look for the herbs she needs to avoid seasickness. She had been violently sick on the voyage to Ferelden. The sailors aboard had mocked her for it, and she has no intention of repeating the experience.
She gets lucky; she finds ginger roots in the forest, as well as a peppermint plant and a blackberry bush by a stream. The blackberry bush has been raided by the local wildlife, but what fruits remain are ripe enough. She opens her herb pouch, where a few peppermint leaves and ginger roots already reside, and fill it to the brim with blackberries. The empty whisky tin she’s tied to her belt bounces against her side as she moves.
After that, she checks the traps she’d set out for the night, and is pleased to find two rabbits. The third is empty but triggered and bloodstained, so something must’ve had a late night snack at their expense. She takes the rabbits and ties them to her belt, hoping the meat hadn’t spoiled overnight.
She does not thank Andruil for her catch.
The prayer’s absence sits like a stone between her lungs.
When she returns, the sky is lightening, but the dawn has not yet come, and Solas is still asleep. She starts the fire anew and sits down, facing east. She skins and cleans the rabbits, occasionally reaching into her pouch and sneaking in one or five blackberries, and sets them over the fire to cook. The meat hasn’t spoiled, thankfully.
Ariala watches the sunrise as the meat cooks.
Solas still isn’t up by the time the rabbits are done, so she takes them from the fire and breaks the spit in two, one rabbit on each. She sticks the long end of the spits into the ground, deep enough to stay upright, but not so deep that their breakfast touches the ground.
When she enters the tent, Solas hasn’t moved, but his lips are parted slightly and his breath is soft in sleep. He looks so at peace that she doesn’t want to wake him. But they are on a schedule, so she reluctantly whispers his name. He only sighs in his sleep, so she repeats his name, louder, and though he stirs his eyes do not open.
Honestly, she knows he’s a heavy sleeper, but it’s like he’s doing it on purpose.
“Solas,” she says again, loud and insistent. She touches his shoulder, ready to shake him awake, and he jerks, eyes snapping open. She withdraws her touch and the stiffness in him subsides.
“Inquisitor,” he says, sitting up and rubbing at his eyes. “Is something wrong?”
“No.” She would have found humor in this moment, once, but—not today. She just sits on her haunches and folds her hands in her lap. “Breakfast.”
“Ah.” He looks sheepish. “Thank you for waking me.”
She looks away, getting up and leaving the tent. Her hands are still bloodstained from the skinning, but the blood is dry and the stream is a ten minute walk, and she is too hungry to wash first. The horses are awake and mulling about, tails flicking absently as they graze.
When Solas emerges, he is dressed for the day. He picks up the spit and moves to the opposite side of the fire, and she watches as he avoids her stone circle, swaying around it as easily as he had that fragile sprout on the mountainside, after Haven.
He could have walked through it just as easily.
She swallows hard.
“There’s a village up the road, about ten miles,” she says. “We’ll be able to have a heartier meal there. This is just to tide us over until then. There’s a river that way,” she nods toward the forest, “where we can wash up after this. And then we’ll be on our way toward Jader.”
He nods, studying her with a familiar intensity, so she looks down. When she’s done, she tosses her remains in the fire and stands, disappearing into the tent to change into familiar, simple reinforced leather armor. She slings the bag carrying her unstrung bow across her back, fastening it at an angle, and straps her quiver to her side.
Solas’s pack is sitting on the floor. She hesitates only a moment before she puts her gloves inside. She’ll put them on after they wash.
Solas helps her with breaking down the rest of the camp—taking down the tent and preparing the horses—and then, when they are ready, she takes them all to the stream. The horses drink while they rinse their hands and faces downstream.
She remembers her gloves after they’ve mounted and started their day. “Solas, wait,” she says, urging Syl to slow down and walk alongside Eirlana. Solas goes still when she reaches for him, and she purses her lips, disquieted at the sight. “I put my gloves in your bag.”
“Ah.” He turns, allowing an easier reach, and she reaches in, digging around the potions and blankets.
She can feel the heat of his body—and the tension in his back—through the bag’s fabric. She retrieves the gloves and fastens the bag as quickly as she can.
They do not speak for the first hour of the ride. Solas is the first one to break the silence, which surprises her. He is usually the one content to travel in silence. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees him glance at her. “How many people were in your clan?” he asks.
Were. She ignores the pang deep in her chest at his use of past tense. “Forty-two. Forty-three, including me. We were a large clan. Most clans keep their members around thirty-ish to maintain mobility.”
“Why was yours so large? I imagine it took a toll on resources.”
“Oh, definitely. But Deshanna—my grandmother, the Keeper—she never turned away people who wanted to join us, or people she thought needed us. We had city-elves, mage children the other clans didn’t want, foundlings, a few elves we’d rescued from slavers.” Ariala smiles, and the numbness aches, just a little bit. “She just… loved people.”
“It seems to run in the family,” Solas says, in the same tone he’d used when he called her graceful, all those months ago.
She takes a breath. “I suppose.”
She looks and sees Solas staring at her. “I am sorry I will not have the chance to meet her,” he says, softer. He sounds sincere. She looks away, squeezing her eyes shut against the sudden prick of tears.
“Me too.” She swallows. When the threat of tears has passed, she looks back at Solas and manages a small smile. “Believe it or not, I think she would’ve liked you. She always liked a good storyteller.”
There is a short, thoughtful pause. “Did she raise you?” he asks. “You have spoken little of your parents.”
“My mother died in childbirth,” she says, “delivering a younger brother who apparently lived for a few days. I never knew either of them. My father…” She thinks of a warm smile, of boisterous, deep laughter and big hands showing much smaller ones how to hold a bow. “He died when I was thirteen. My grandmother took me in after that.”
Solas is quiet. “I am sorry.”
She is grateful he does not ask how her father died. That is not a story she wants to tell today.
“Since we’re asking personal questions,” she says, “tell me about your family.”
“My—ah. Yes.” When she looks at him, he looks… lost.
Ariala arches an eyebrow. “You do have a family, right? You didn’t just spring fully formed from the Fade?”
He smiles, but it does not reach his eyes. “No.” He glances down at his horse’s mane. “It is only that I have not thought of them in some time,” he admits. “They have been gone for many years.”
“Oh.” Now she feels like an ass. “You don’t have to talk about them.”
“They were like every other family, in their ways,” he says, his expression soft, lost in thought. It reminds her of better days, spent in a rotunda that smelled of fresh paint and herbs. “My brother and I accused our parents of harboring favorites; we competed to outdo one another. He was known for his cleverness. But he used his intellect to create things, rather than craft elaborate pranks and be a general nuisance like I was. He wanted to better the world.”
A somber look steals over him then, and he shakes his head. “My father was a soldier. A militiaman may be more apt for this world, I suppose. My mother was a healer; he was one of her patients. That was how they met. He courted her after he’d recovered, and eventually they settled down.”
“Sounds like a relatively peaceful life,” she says. “Were they happy?”
“Yes,” he says, quietly. “Very.”
His expression softens, becomes wistful from some unknown thought. A muscle in his cheek twitches and he casts his eyes downward. She watches in silence as the perpetual shadow of his melancholy drapes over him, and the question is at the tip of her tongue.
What made you like this?
She wonders, not for the first time, what caused his smiles to be so rare, and his laughter rarer still. But he has never divulged that information to her, not even at their closest; he would probably withdraw even further into himself if she asked.
Before Crestwood, she would have tried to distract him from whatever weighed upon his mind with a joke. But she cannot do that, not now. Because his amusement would make her think of other jokes, of snorting laughter and exasperated but genuine smiles. Stolen kisses in hidden stairways and fleeting, gentle touches.
That is lost to her, now. Likely forever.
So she holds her tongue and turns away.
— ✦ —
An Inquisition agent meets them outside Jader. He salutes her once they reach him. “G’morning, Your Worship. Sister Nightingale told me to expect you both,” he says, helping her dismount. “I’m to take your horses back to Skyhold. Yarrow will have mounts for you once you land in Wycome.”
Ariala nods. “Yarrow,” she says, committing the name to memory. “And who are you, serah?”
The man smiles. “Tanner, Your Worship. Your mounts will be in good hands with me.”
Ariala smiles back at him. “My thanks, Tanner. Please inform Nightingale that we proceed as planned.”
Tanner salutes once more, and leaves them when their horses are relieved of their packs. Ariala watches him ride away for a little bit, then turns toward Jader’s open gate. There are no archers or guards on the parapets, but as she walks under the portcullis, she feels dozens of eyes on her.
She reflexively checks her hands to ensure her gloves are still on.
“You know the captain of this ship?” Solas asks. Ariala finds the slip of paper, tucked away in her cloak’s inner pocket. She unfolds it and reads it aloud.
“Leliana only identifies the ship. Siren’s Call II. We’ll find the ship in the docks downhill. Apparently it leaves tomorrow.” Ariala sets down the paper. “We made good time.”
“Indeed,” Solas says.
They find their way to the docks well enough; Jader is built on a cliff, and the scent of fish and salt only gets stronger as they go further downhill. Soon the alleys and tenement buildings clear out to open air and large white sails. Seagull cries fill the air, and people bustle through the docks, conducting their daily business. A old woman sells crawfish; a sailor sits on a crate, making knots and smoking a pipe; several men roll barrels up a ship’s gangplank.
Everything smells like fish.
They have to ask three different people before they are directed to the Siren’s Call II It turns out to be a swift Marcher sloop, and a grey-bearded man is speaking to another man dressed in fine clothes. “We’ll be out of here when we’re good and ready!” the greybeard says to him. “Captain says we’re not to leave until our guest arrives.”
“You have already overstayed your visit by three days, and there are other ships waiting to dock—”
“You’ll have to take it up with the captain,” says the man, one of his eyes gleaming in the sun. The clerk must make a face, for the greybeard laughs, an ugly, grating sound. “Yeah, I didn’t think so.”
Ariala approaches him after the clerk has left, face red and eyes stormy. “You know the captain of this ship?” she asks, nodding toward the Siren’s Call II.
“I’m her first mate, sweetheart,” says the greybeard. He leans against a docking post and leers at her unabashedly. He smiles, and one of his teeth is black. She feels Solas stiffen beside her. “We don’t get many of your like in Jader. Maybe I could show you around the city, we can get to know each other. I’ll give you a… personal tour.”
Solas takes a breath.
“I’d like to speak to the captain,” says Ariala, before he can speak. “I believe I’m the guest you mentioned earlier.”
The man’s demeanor changes instantly. He straightens, shock flitting across his face before he takes off his cap and presses it over his heart. “Deepest apologies, Your Worship. We weren’t expecting you ’til tomorrow. Captain’s out on the town. I can take you to her, if you’d like. Name’s Thatcher, ma’am.”
“Yes, please.” Ariala looks at Solas, but he is still staring at Thatcher, eyes narrowed. She nudges him as Thatcher turns away. “Drop it,” she tells him, voice pitched too low for Thatcher to hear. Solas’s expression darkens further, but he nods.
Thatcher takes them to a bar. It’s atypically quiet, occupied only by what is presumably the locale’s typical drunks, and humming with the low drones of conversation. No raucousness like in the Herald’s Rest.
Ariala attributes the quiet to it being late morning.
The captain of the Siren’s Call II is sitting with her back to them in a booth. “Captain,” says Thatcher, “our guest has arrived.”
The woman turns, revealing her face. Black hair is held back by a blue bandana, and hazel eyes glint up at Ariala. She’s beautiful, but Ariala can’t look away from the golden stud in her chin—well, under her lip.
“Lady Inquisitor,” says the captain, “I’m glad to finally meet you. Our little nightingale asked me to stay in Jader and take you to Wycome. I’m Captain Isabela.”
Ariala looks away from the piercing. “You know Leliana?”
Isabela smiles, lifting her glass of ale to her lips. “We got… acquainted in Denerim, during the Blight.” Her tone is heavy with innuendo, but Ariala isn’t eager to find out why. Isabela swallows and sets down the glass. “So. Now that you’re finally here, we can get out of Jader. We haven’t paid the docking fees and they’re eager to get rid of us.”
“When do we leave?”
“Well, we were planning on tomorrow, so the entire crew’s on shore leave.” Isabela grimaces. “Damned if I know where they all are, and I’m not eager to hunt them down. What do you say we head out tomorrow at dawn, sweet thing?”
“Okay,” Ariala replies.
Isabela grins at her. “It’s settled, then.”
Thatcher wrings his hat in his hands. “Really very sorry about earlier, ma’am,” he tells Ariala, ducking his head. She can see his pink scalp underneath his thin, wispy white hair. “Won’t happen again.”
Isabela sighs and leans back in her booth. “Oh. What did you do, Thatcher?” she asks.
“Disrespected and propositioned her,” Solas replies, tone cool. “One would think a captain would have better leash over her sailors. Perhaps ensure they have a basic sense of common decency. Or is that too much to ask of your kind?”
Ariala clenches her jaw.
Thatcher’s eyes flash with anger, but then he looks at Ariala and glances down at his hat. After a moment, he puts his cap back on. “I’ll head back to the ship, captain,” he tells her. Ariala glances at Solas, who watches the sailor go, back straight and expression entirely unrepentant.
When she turns back to Isabela, the captain is staring at Solas, her finger circling the rim of her glass. Ariala can’t tell if she’s irritated or amused. “See you at dawn tomorrow, Inquisitor,” she says, without looking at her. Ariala nods, then grabs Solas’s arm and forcefully escorts him from the tavern.
Once they’re outside, she turns to him. “Really?” she asks, crossing her arms. “Really? Insulting our only way to get to Wycome? They could leave tonight without us because of your recklessness.”
“We would find another ship,” he says. “Hopefully one with a more savory crew.”
“And who knows how long that would take,” she snaps. “Each day that passes is another day my family rots. I don’t need you defending me and I don’t need your I’m-better-than-literally-everyone attitude ruining this for me.”
“I have never claimed to be better—”
“Oh, really? We must mark the occasion of you thinking you’re not superior to everyone else,” she snipes at him, anger flaring hot in her belly. “Perhaps we should plant a tree. But no, the fault is mine, for expecting what you could never truly accomplish.”
Her words are a mimicry of his own, so many months ago in Haven. She hasn’t forgotten his disdain of the Dalish. Neither, it seems, has he.
His mouth opens, but he says nothing. Ariala stares at him, waiting, that dark pit of rage inside her thirsting for a provocation, but all he does is watch her, his eyes soft and mournful around the corners. His inaction is infuriating. After several long moments, she exhales harshly, and that knot of rage loosens slightly.
“We have all day,” she says, finally. “Want to explore the city?”
It’s the best peace offering she has. Even if she doesn’t want to extend it.
“Certainly,” Solas says, quietly.
The first thing they find is the walkway at the edge of the city, which gives a beautiful view of the ocean and the cliffs below. The walkway is lined by a low stone wall on the left, and bushes on the right. A few of the bushes are blooming, and sometimes Ariala stops to smell the blossoms. There are children playing on the grass opposite of the bushes, carefully supervised by their parents, many of whom warily watch Ariala and Solas both.
As they walk, they find a little stall operated by a small elven woman. It’s full of little glass whimseys, most of which fit into the palm of her hand. The first thing she sees is a mobile made of sea glass and a piece of glass shaped into a starfish. Several lines of sea glass on twine hang from the points of the starfish. Each unique piece blends together to form a three-tiered splash of color: bright, pale blue at the top, silver in the middle, and white at the bottom. The pieces clink against each other in the breeze.
Ariala watches the pieces sway in the wind. There is something peaceful about the sound the pieces make as they collide, then settle back into place. “It’s beautiful,” she says to the woman, who beams at her. Ariala looks down and touches a small glass seashell. “How do you make these?”
As the woman explains, she spots movement from the corner of her eye. Solas picks up some kind of animal, painted white and small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. His fingers uncurl and she sees a halla, its horns impossibly, beautifully curled. Ariala looks at where he’d picked it up and sees three other halla, all of which have the same body shape but different horn patterns.
Her chest aches. Solas glances at her and, quickly, returns the halla to its place among the glass herd.
The merchant notices her attention and grabs the same one that Solas had taken. “These took me many hours,” she says, with a small smile as she presents it to Ariala. Ariala takes it from her and holds it up, examining the figurine. It has no eyes, no hoof clefts, no other decoration. “I thought the Dalish traders that sometimes stop by would have an interest, but they did not. I can’t imagine why.”
These halla trinkets aren’t practical, Ariala thinks. The place where the horns meet the head is thin, and looks far too breakable. Even if she wrapped the halla figurine in thick wool to protect it, it would likely be destroyed in the voyage to Wycome—or even the return journey to Skyhold.
“It’s beautiful,” Ariala admits, and gives the woman a small, sad smile. “But we’re going to sea tomorrow. I don’t want to break it on our voyage.”
The woman looks disappointed, but she nods and places the halla gingerly among its herd. Ariala sends one last, longing look its way, then thanks the merchant and walks away. After a few moments, she turns and sees Solas talking to the merchant.
She waits until he leaves the merchant and joins her side, then resumes walking. “What was that about?”
Solas clasps his hands behind his back. “I made some inquiries,” he says.
“Oh?” she asks. He only smiles, and they lapse into silence once more.
As the minutes stretch on, her mind wanders. Ariala thinks of the merchant and her bare face, and something dark and ugly settles in her. She clenches her jaw, refusing to say anything. But she cannot stop herself from wondering: does he think that merchant above me, because she is barefaced and I am not?
Would he have left if I’d let him take my vallaslin?
That sudden, unbidden thought makes her recoil. She is not the type to change herself for another’s happiness. Not—not such a vital part of herself, at least. She had been right when she’d told him the vallaslin meant something else to her. Something good. The Dalish had taken something used originally to demean and humiliate their people, and turned it into a mark of pride, of strength.
She does not regret her choice. She only regrets… well.
She regrets what came after.
They explore a little more, finding a beautiful tavern that serves excellent clam chowder. They eat under a shaded terrace behind the building, and Solas admires the fresco that’s painted across the back wall—a view of an endless ocean, and golden skies above it. If Ariala looks at it from the corner of her eye, she can almost believe that the waves are moving.
After lunch, they find an inn close to the docks, one that doesn’t smell too badly of fish. The innkeeper gives them a room with two beds, and they drop off their bedrolls and their weapons to go explore the rest of the city.
Jader’s wealth becomes more apparent as they go further up the hill the city’s built on. The roads become cleaner, and the plain walls start to become decorated, with murals, mosaics and statues tucked away into their own personal niches. The houses become less lopsided and more stately, but they lose their colors, too.
It’s quieter uptown.
The shouts from fishmongers and sailors fade, as does the crash of the waves against the cliffside. The smell of the sea salt is just as strong, though. They find a garden square, complete with a fountain with a griffon centerpiece and stone benches flanked by blooming white rosebushes, and take a minute to catch their breath. When Ariala sits, her arm brushes against a rose. She turns, regarding the bloom.
After a moment’s hesitation, she breaks the stem cleanly. She lifts the rose to her nose, inhaling deeply, and the familiar scent soothes her. When she looks up, Solas is standing an arm’s length away, hands clasped behind his back, studying the city in silence.
“Solas,” she says, and he glances at her. She pats the stone beside her.
When he sits, a third person could fit between them. She thinks of nights in the rotunda, when he would read to her and she would perch her chin on his shoulder, trying to read along and failing miserably. Her brow furrows as she stares at her rose.
None of that matters anymore. He doesn’t care.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” she eventually says. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
“Your criticisms were not without merit,” he says, softly. “And… I hope I have demonstrated that my views have… changed since Haven.”
Ariala looks up, only to see him watching her, eyes soft and somber. She thinks of how he had been unwilling to even discuss the Dalish, so long ago in the Hinterlands, and how that had changed as they spent more time together. Silence had become snide comments, then half-rhetorical questions, then genuine curiosity.
Have I misjudged them? — Solas, you based your perception of hundreds of people based on a single interaction with one clan. Of course you did.
“You have,” she returns, voice equally quiet. She looks up and flashes a brief smile at him. He smiles back, tentatively. She wants to tell him about the perpetual anger that has nestled into the deepest cracks in her broken heart. She wants to ask him how she can recover from the silent, numbing grief that follows her shadow.
She wishes Cole was with her. He would know how to untangle the knot of emotions within her, coiling like poison in her gut. He would know what to say, to make her feel—not better, but perhaps less angry.
Dusk begins to settle over the city, and Ariala watches as lights—lanterns, placed in windowsills—begin to flicker through the streets below. It’s a little beautiful, watching Jader become half-bathed in a golden glow. She tells Solas as much.
“Yes,” he agrees. “Beautiful.”
He says it the same way as he had in Crestwood, hushed and solemn. She glances at him, only to find him staring out at the city. She looks away, chest aching.
“Why did you come with me?” she asks.
“As I told you before, your advisors thought it prudent—”
“It would be nice if you could be honest with me every once in a while,” she says, tone brittle.
His mouth shuts, teeth audibly clicking together. It is a long moment before he answers. “After Wisdom,” he ventures, hesitant, “you told me I did not need to mourn alone. I wished to extend the same offer to you.”
She is silent for a long time.
“Oh,” she says, finally, voice cracking.
“You have made it clear, though, that you do wish to be left alone to grieve when we reach your clan,” Solas says, rushing on, flustered. A muscle in his jaw twinges. “And that is—I will not—you will—”
“Solas,” she says, and he stops talking, the tips of his ears turning pink in the moonlight. “I’d like you at the vigil,” she continues, quietly.
“After we bury them, we watch over their graves for a night, and tell stories about them. Good stories, to remember how well we loved them. I’m no storyteller, not like you, but if you want to listen…”
“Yes,” he says, immediately. “Yes, that would be… yes.”
She laughs, just a huff of breath, and his expression softens when he looks at her. It reminds her of Crestwood—that look he’d had in his eyes, before he pulled away—so she swallows and regards the rose instead.
“We should probably return to the inn,” she says. Out of the corner of her eye, Solas nods, but neither of them move to leave the bench. Ariala lifts her head, watching the lanterns glitter in the cityscape below.
After several moments, she places the rose on top of its bush, then stands up and starts walking.
The innkeeper is reading a book when they return. She looks up at them, then gets to her feet. “Serahs,” she says, with a small, apologetic smile, “I’ve some bad news.”
“What is it?” Ariala asks.
“A family of four came in earlier today, after you’d left. We didn’t have any open rooms with the beds to accommodate them, so I gave them your room.” She sees Ariala’s expression and hurries on. “But—we did have a room available, for couples, and I moved your items to that room at no extra charge for you. And there’s a bath in there already, just let me know if you want some hot water. I hope that’s agreeable for you, serahs?”
Ariala is too tired to say otherwise. “Well, if there’s a bath,” she says, and the innkeeper gives her a relieved smile and hands her a new key.
When they reach their room, there is indeed a bath behind a solid wood divider, and their bedrolls are placed neatly on top of the trunk at the foot of their bed. Solas immediately grabs his bedroll and starts unpacking it. “What are you doing?” she asks.
“I was going to sleep on the floor,” he says. “I assumed such an arrangement would be agreeable to you.”
“What happened to being mature adults?” she snipes. His hands still, and she sighs. “We’ve slept together before, Solas. But if you want to sleep on the floor, be my guest. I don’t care.”
He exhales, softly, and continues unpacking his bedroll. But all he does is grab a fresh pair of clothes and disappear behind the divider. Ariala changes while he bathes and slips under the covers, her back to the divider. She shuts her eyes and tries to fall asleep.
By the time Solas returns, she is already half-asleep. His exhale shakes as he carefully climbs into bed beside her. Ariala doesn’t move as he shifts, getting comfortable, and eventually she falls asleep to the sound of his soft, steady breaths.
— ✦ —
Once they’d heard that Corypheus was using the Emprise du Lion as a base for his red Templars—and that the Templars were using villagers as slaves, then using them for their red lyrium experiments—Ariala had ordered the Emprise liberated at once. They’d assaulted the wintry wasteland with the full might of the Inquisition, but all they’d managed to definitively liberate was Sahrnia.
That failure returns to her as a nightmare.
She dreams of red Templars attacking her camp in the dead of night. They break her bow and slaughter her companions, and take her to Suledin Keep, where Samson is waiting.
“Inquisitor,” he greets, with a grin. “I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you.”
They take her down to the dungeons, where the only light is the glow of the red lyrium, and Fiona is in one of the cells, impaled on a stake of red lyrium. Flecks of it bead the walls, radiating unnatural heat. They don’t tell her when Corypheus is coming, but she can sense his arrival. She can feel the castle shake with the beat of his dragon’s wings.
And then, a rumbling voice above. “Bring me the rattus.”
She wakes up just as a Templar unlocks her cell.
It’s dark, quiet, and her heartbeat rushes in her ears. It takes several moments for her to get her bearings, and remind herself that she is safe.
In reality, Samson hadn’t been at the Keep. In reality, she hadn’t been held captive for more than a few days. In reality, a Templar named Delrin Barris had unlocked her cell and given her a recruit’s bow, and she’d emerged from the dungeons to find the Keep locked in battle, because Cassandra had already organized a counterattack to rescue her.
Cole had been the first to find her.
She’d found Solas, later, and she’d let him hold her until he stopped shaking.
Ariala opens her eyes, only to find that in their sleep they’d both moved. She’s pressed against Solas’s back, nose squashed against his shoulder blade. When she breathes, she smells old cotton and soap. And, worse, her arm is slung over his body, forearm trapped beneath his elbow, and he is sound asleep.
She slowly starts to extract herself, starting with her arm. Her fingertips drag over the fabric of his shirt as she pulls her elbow in, then freezes when Solas stirs. He mumbles something, and as she waits, blood pounding in her ears, he eventually sighs and goes still again.
It takes several minutes for her to successfully separate herself. She gets up, ignoring how the morning chill reminds her of the Emprise, and starts preparing for the day. It’ll be an hour yet before dawn, she figures. Not enough time for a bath, but enough to brew some ginger water for the trip.
Solas finds her thirty minutes before dawn, pouring distilled ginger root into her empty whisky tin. “Ginger?” he asks.
“For seasickness,” she says. “My trip to Ferelden was awful. I don’t want to repeat the experience.”
Once the whisky tin is full, they pack up and head for the docks. Captain Isabela is already on the ship, leaning against the portside, and when she sees them she waves. Ariala smiles back, and once they’d boarded the ship, Isabela sidles up to her. “Feel free to put your things in my cabin, Inquisitor,” she says. “It’s yours for the rest of the voyage.” She eyes Solas and smiles. “You’ll be sleeping below deck, with the rest of the crew. Thatcher’ll be your bunk mate.”
“Thatcher,” Solas repeats, mouth twisting as if he’d swallowed a lemon. Isabela winks at him, then turns to Ariala.
“Come on, sweet thing, I’ll show you where the cabin is. Leliana tells me you’re not much of a sailor, is that right?” She laughs. “Well, we’ve eight days to change that!”
— ✦ —
It’s an eight day voyage to Wycome. Isabela says it’s ten, if there are bad winds or storms.
They, of course, get bad winds and storms.
Ariala drinks all of her ginger water in the first three days. She spends most of the voyage either hunched over the side of the ship, hunched over the chamberpot in the captain’s quarters, or curled up on her bed, trying to sleep off the nausea. She even resorts to eating a small chunk of raw ginger, which burns her mouth and only soothes her stomach for about an hour.
Her dreams are short, feverish things, haunted by monstrosities of red lyrium that hiss unworthy with a thousand thousand ancient voices.
On the eighth day, after she’s vomited up her meagre breakfast because of relentless seasickness, someone knocks on the door. She lifts her head, then immediately looks away when Solas opens the door.
“I brought you tea,” he says, quietly. “For your stomach.”
“Ginger?” she rasps, looking up at him. He nods, then moves forward to sit beside her. He hands her the tin, and she takes a tentative sip, doing her best to ignore how her stomach roils with each gentle rock of the Siren’s Call II.
“Thank you,” she whispers.
“Thatcher gave me the tea,” he says. “He brewed it for you, but wanted me to give it to you.”
Solas half-smiles as he looks at her. “I believe he is frightened of you. He asked me a few days ago if you had truly killed a dragon with your bare hands.”
Ariala smiles and sips her tea. “And I’m sure you told him that I have killed no less than three dragons with my bare hands.”
Solas laughs, and it’s punctuated by that little snort that breaks her heart. “But of course.” After a pause, he muses, “Thatcher has proven himself a better bunkmate than anticipated. He is… an agreeable man, I suppose. Once you look past his flaws.” His mouth twists as he says it.
As if you don’t have flaws, she wants to tell him, but she doesn’t. She takes a sip of her tea instead, watching him. After a moment, she says, “See what happens when you give people a chance? They surprise you.”
Her remark seems to catch him off-guard, because his mouth opens, then shuts, and his brow furrows a little bit. “Yes,” he murmurs. His gaze flicks away. “He taught me a card game called bridge a few days ago. I fear I have not quite mastered it, and the sailors are ribbing me for it.”
Solas’s smile is wider, now. “Over the course of our journey, I have been happily taking their money over games of Wicked Grace. It seems bridge is their way of getting their coin back.”
“Are you playing them tonight?” she asks, taking another sip of her tea. She’s already feeling better.
“There were no plans,” he says, “but plans can change.”
She smiles. “I’d like to watch. Stomach permitting. I can’t believe you’ve had a week to learn a card game and haven’t taken everyone’s money yet.”
“Yet,” he says, and she laughs. He laughs with her, and after a moment she looks down at the tin mug in her hands.
“Thank you for the tea,” she says. “It helped.”
“I am glad,” he says.
He stays with her in the captain’s quarters until dinnertime. They don’t speak, for the most part; what conversations they do have are inane, meaningless, weighed down with what is left unsaid. When dinnertime comes around, Solas helps her stand and then walks with her out onto the deck.
She inhales the salt air and her stomach doesn’t immediately churn, which she takes as an excellent sign. The sailors cheer when she arrives with Solas, and she laughs and sits next to Isabela, who makes sure she gets the softest biscuits and best-looking salted pork. Her presence even has Isabela call for ‘the good stuff,’ which means vintage Tevinter red. Miraculously, Ariala keeps all of it down.
During dinner, Solas says, “Vince, James, would you be interested in a game of bridge tonight?”
“Why, so you can lose more money?” one of them cracks, and the sailors burst into laughter. Isabela glances at Ariala and gives her a sly smile. But Solas is unfazed, a small smile on his face as he neatly cuts his pork. The other sailor leans on the table, waving a cracker in the air. “All right, elf, we’ll take your money if you really want. Who’ll be your partner?”
Solas takes a bite of pork, allows the silence to drag on for a few minutes. “Thatcher.”
Murmurs go through the crew. The sailor’s smile disappears, and he glowers. “That’s cheating.”
“Is it?” Solas asks, mildly. “I am still unaccustomed to the game. Thatcher has proven an able guide, and we have yet to play together as a team. Would you deny me a competent teammate when you are sure to win anyway?”
“Fine,” says the other sailor. She doesn’t know if he’s Vince or James. “Tonight. Don’t be late, Solas.”
The games, Ariala finds, are below deck. She pushes past the hammocks and finds a majority of the crew—the ones who are off-duty, at least—clustered around a variety of surfaces. Isabela is playing Wicked Grace with several other crewmen, using a barrel as a table, but several more sailors are gathered around Solas and Thatcher, who sit across the two sailors from earlier.
Ariala finds a spot close enough where she can watch the game, and Thatcher sees her and immediately hollers for someone to ‘get Her Worship a chair, for Maker’s sake!’ She thanks the man who gets her a chair, as well as Thatcher, who nods and mumbles something all while avoiding her gaze.
She wonders if Solas had really told him that she had killed a dragon with her bare hands, or if he is still thinking about Jader, and that is why he won’t look at her.
The four men agree on a trump card, and the game begins.
Solas and Thatcher win every round.
— ✦ —
When they finally reach Wycome, in the early evening of the eleventh day at sea, an Inquisition scout is waiting for them in the docks. They really do have people all over the world, don’t they?
The scout is a barefaced elf; Ariala can see the slant of her pointed ears underneath her hood. She shifts her weight when she sees Ariala, but her expression does not betray her anxiety. “You shouldn’t be here, Your Worship,” she whispers, once they reach her. “I’ve had to pretend to be human to avoid mobs. They’ve cleared out the entire alienage—”
“Cleared out?” Ariala repeats.
“Killed,” the scout says, voice low. “Inquisition cleaned up the red lyrium in the water, but they blame the elves for the chaos. All of ’em, not just the Dalish. There’ve been lynchings, even of those just passing through.” She eyes the bow at Ariala’s side, wary. “Your weapons won’t help, either, probably.”
Ariala crosses her arms. “I can handle myself.”
The scout ducks her head. “I know you can, Your Worship. Just—be careful, okay?”
“I will. I promise.” She smiles, to reassure the woman. “I’m here to bury my clan. You can take me to their campsite, yes?”
“I—I can, yes, but…” the scout hesitates, mouth pursing. “I don’t think you should, though, Your Worship.” Before Ariala can reply, the scout holds up her hands. “There’s an abomination roaming the camp. Killing anything that moves. It’s why they haven’t burned the bodies yet. They’re waiting until they get some old Templars from Ostwick to help out.”
A moment later, she says, “Your clan—it’s not a pretty sight, m’lady.”
“I figured.” She takes a deep breath. “What’s your name?”
“Myra, Your Worship. But, uh, Nightingale calls me Yarrow.” After a long moment, Myra wrings her hands again, her gaze flickering to the passers-by who have stopped to observe their extended conversation. “I’ll have to find some horses. But—tomorrow, meet me outside the city, and I’ll take you to your clan. I’ve already bought the trees from the arborist, and my partner has them outside the gates. He’ll give us the saplings when we leave for the clan.”
“Thank you, Myra,” says Solas behind her.
She nods. “The Black Duckling is still serving elves, I think,” she says. “Their beds are tick-free and their beef soup is good. Tell them I sent you, they might be more willing to take you in.”
Ariala smiles and thanks her, and Myra disappears into the crowds, blending in seamlessly. Ariala watches her leave, then lifts her hand and pushes back her hood, exposing the points of her ears. It is all of thirty seconds before the humans start to notice—they look at her with surprise, then confusion, then rage. She is undaunted.
Let them see.
Let them know a Dalish elf has come to Wycome.
“Inquisitor,” says Solas, and she makes note of the tension in his back, the way he eyes each and every human that sneers at her.
“I want to see the alienage,” she says. They had died because of her mistake, too, because she believed Leliana’s plan infallible. She owed it to them to see what her pride had wrought.
It takes them two hours to find the alienage. But when they do, it is unmistakable. The gates to the alienage are splintered open and off their hinges, even though the lock is on the human side. The gates had always been for keeping the elves in, not keeping humans out.
Ariala walks through. Half of the buildings are gone, stained foundation stones the only evidence there were ever buildings there at all. More are charred ruins, blackened with soot. There are piles of cold ash, but some bones remain, gleaming in the sun. The air is still, and quiet, and Ariala looks at it all unflinching.
Every building she has seen in Wycome has been made of a rough gray stone. There are no mosaics on the walls, no gardens or fountains, no murals of the sea and no old women selling trinkets. The alienage buildings were made of wood, but under the soot she can make out faded chips of vibrant paint.
She lifts her head, and looks toward the center square. She had been told that all alienages had a tree in the central square, a vhenadahl, but she does not see—
“Oh,” she breathes.
Ariala approaches the stump, which has been cleaved in two, its roots ripped from the soil and left to rot in the sun. She brushes her fingertips against the whorls in the wood, trying to count the rings and failing.
Innocents, killed because she had made the wrong choice.
She had hated Wycome, before, but it had been a weak hatred, faint due to distance and grief. But now it is a visceral thing, a darkly burning fury in the pit of her belly. She pulls away and lifts her left hand, the fingertips of her right hand toying with the edge of her glove. “I should open a rift,” she says, absently, as if discussing the weather. “As big a rift I can manage, and let the demons have their way with this damned city.”
She feels nothing when she says this. She feels no vindication at the thought of demons invading Wycome, no relief in the knowledge that her clan would be avenged. But she does not feel horror, either, when she thinks of demons slaughtering innocent and guilty alike.
She laughs to herself. As if Wycome has innocents within its walls.
Solas sucks in a breath. He looks at her as if he does not recognize her. “You cannot mean that,” he says, sharply.
“And why not?” she asks, lifting her eyes to meet his gaze. “Why not? They deserve far worse.” She gestures to the alienage, and her voice raises, nearly becomes a shout. “Look what they did to our people, Solas!” Her hands shake. “My clan will be worse.”
“So you would wreak havoc on a city full of thousands because of the actions of a few?”
“A few?” she shouts back. “You don’t know how many humans did this! Every one of them could have participated in my family’s murder!”
“Could is the key word there. You are just as ignorant of what truly happened that night as I am. It could have been all of them or it could have been one of them. You would not condemn a city for the actions of one man.” He stares at her, hard, jaw clenching. “That is not you.”
She opens her mouth, but cannot find any words. “I should have left without you in Skyhold,” she finally says, turning on her heel and striding away. “I knew you would do this.”
“Do what?” Solas asks, his own temper rising as he follows her. “Hold you accountable for your words and actions?”
“You killed Wisdom’s murderers!” she retorts.
“That was different—”
She laughs, a bit hysterically. “You’re right!” she says, spinning to face him again. “You’re absolutely right. That was different. Those mages in the Plains—they killed Wisdom by accident. Wycome deliberately chose to march on my family and slaughter them. They chose to kill my family, Solas, because they wanted to, not as a consequence of their own incompetence.” She bares her teeth in a snarl.
His expression closes off, and his gaze turns cold. “If you truly believe a city should be condemned for a few humans’ actions, then you are not the woman I thought you were.”
She swallows, unexpectedly stung by his words, but then that awful fury roars to life and she shakes her head, a barb ready on her tongue. “And what kind of woman did you think I was, Solas? Unique? Wise? Special? A rare and marvellous spirit?” He flinches, but does not reply. She clenches her jaw. “Sorry to disappoint you, then.”
As she turns away, he says, “Ariala.”
It’s the first time he’s said her name in two months.
She stops, then turns back to him. Solas steps toward her. His hand moves, as if he wants to reach for her, but then he fists it and it stays by his side. “You are grieving,” he tells her, and she rolls her eyes, but then he says, “I understand. Harden your heart to a cutting edge, and put that pain to good use. But do not let your grief consume you. Please. I have seen men consumed with vengeance borne of grief before, and I would not have you become like them.”
She almost makes a sharp retort—something like don’t pretend you care —but she is suddenly tired, so tired, and so she doesn’t say anything at all. She turns in silence, gaze lifting to examine the lingering streaks of white in the sky as the sun sets.
By this time tomorrow, she'll have buried her clan, and started the vigil to watch over their bodies as they made their way to the Beyond.
— ✦ —
They find the Black Duckling Inn & Tavern tucked into the heart of a network of alleys. It seems to be a former house; the innkeeper’s desk is in the middle of the entryway, and one staircase is directly behind him. To the left of them is a set of stairs that leads to a lowered area, which seems to be the former parlor and dining rooms combined. The area’s been refashioned into something that more resembles a tavern, with small tables, a smaller bar, and some booths.
Ariala and Solas both keep their hoods up as they make their way to the innkeeper. Solas steps in front of Ariala, as they’d discussed, and Ariala keeps her face down as he converses with the man.
“Aye, we have a room for two,” the innkeeper says. “How many nights are you with us?”
“Just one,” says Solas, smoothly. “Myra recommended this establishment.”
“Ah, Myra sent you?” There’s a trace of nervousness in the innkeeper’s voice. Ariala looks up, only to see a bearded man staring at her from the tavern area. The patron’s eyes widen as he sees her vallaslin, and he leans over to whisper to his companion. Ariala looks down, turning her body away.
In the end, they get a room, and the innkeeper says they’re welcome to the tavern’s fare. He will provide the key when they’re ready to turn in for the night.
They order the beef soup and some bread, and Ariala tries to relax, but she can feel people’s gazes on her. She glances down at her hands, splayed out over the tabletop. “How many are looking?”
“At least three,” Solas says, pretending to admire the faded, patterned wallpaper. “Men. Deep in their cups, judging by appearances.”
She nods, and waits for the beef soup. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees a waitress bring more ale to the three men who have been watching her. If they start a fight, at least, taking care of them would be no problem.
They get their beef soup, which is actually very good, though she’s not certain that the meat chunks floating inside the broth are actually beef. She’s hungry enough that she finishes it in a few minutes, but afterward she hears the scraping of three separate chairs and stills, glancing up at Solas.
He does not look at her, but he is tense, and she can feel the three drunks’ gaze on her. They stop in front of their little corner booth, and the bravest of them actually leans on the table and looks at her. “What’s a Dalish doing in our city?” he sneers. He’s blond, bearded, and his breath stinks of ale. Half of his words are slurred. “Thought we made it clear to you rats you weren’t welcome.”
A stone settles in the pit of her stomach, but she stares resolutely ahead, fingers gripping her spoon. “Please leave,” she says.
He leans closer, so close that she can smell the ale on his breath, and says, “I’ve killed your kind before. Get out of our city or I’ll do the same t’ you.”
Ariala’s grip on the spoon tightens. “You’ve killed Dalish before?”
Solas looks at her, sharp-eyed, clearly not expecting her to speak. Before he can do anything, though, one of the drunk’s friends laughs. “Helped clean up the scum outside the city!” he says, clapping his blond friend on the back.
“The clan?” Ariala asks, and this time she looks at the drunk, who’s straightened up, a self-satisfied smile on his face, like he believes he’s cowed her. She stares at his face and tastes blood in her mouth. The Well is whispering to her, shadowy phrases of Elvhen she cannot understand, but the fury that has made itself a home inside her has begun consuming her unease. “You helped kill Clan Lavellan?”
Under the table, Solas’s toes press deliberately against her shin. It’s a hard pressure, and a clear warning, but not one she’s inclined to follow. She stares at the drunk who’d admitted to killing members of her family and thinks of the knife at her belt.
The idiot’s smile falters, as if he can sense a nearby predator. “They murdered our Duke an’ poisoned our water, figures we return the favor.”
“How many?” she asks.
“How many did you kill?” she repeats, slowly, deliberately, her gaze narrowed.
Solas kicks her under the table. She doesn’t look at him. The blond leans away from her, a bit of nervousness flashing over his expression before he looks back at his yes-men and puffs back up. “Six or seven, by my reckon. And they had their whole clan. You…” he smirks. “You’ll be—”
Ariala stands up. The tavern goes very quiet as she does so, and Solas clears his throat. She faces the drunk directly and grabs a fistful of his shirt. She isn’t strong enough to lift him up, and there’s no nearby surface to slam him against, so she puts on her scariest Inquisitor face.
“If you say one more word,” she tells him, “I will kill you. Do you hear me, shem?”
“Oi!” the innkeeper shouts from the main hallway. “Take it outside!”
One of his friends steps forward and shoves her. Ariala catches herself on the booth, her free hand grabbing the knife at her belt. She ducks a clumsy attempt at a follow-up punch and turns, grabbing the attacker’s wrist and twisting it, pushing it so far up his back she hears a pop as his shoulder dislocates.
The tavern starts to react as the friend wails in pain, and out of the corner of her eye she sees Solas stand. Two different men decide to join the three original idiots. Five of them now.
Outnumbered. But they’re drunk, and she’s the Inquisitor, trained as an assassin by two of the very best in Thedas.
She focuses on the four who didn’t confess to participating in the murder of her clan—within several minutes, all of them are down, some with dislocated limbs and others clutching their groins in agony. She turns to the murderer, who has pressed himself against the wall as if that will make him less visible, staring at his downed friends with wide eyes.
He holds up his hands as she approaches, and Ariala drives her fist into his gut, as hard as she can, gritting her teeth against a scream of rage. He bows over, coughing, and she threads her fingers through his greasy hair, twisting it in her fist. He wails, and she turns to the rest of the patrons. Her hood had been pulled down in the brawl, and her ears and vallaslin are on full display.
She is not cowed. Let them know a Dalish elf has come to Wycome.
“Anyone else?” she asks. The tavern’s patrons stare at her. She glances down at the murderer, who is cowering now, and starts to head for the door, dragging the man behind her. He follows along, whimpering, and disgust coils in her when she smells the acrid scent of urine.
“You’re pathetic,” she tells him, shoving him outside and into the alley. He stumbles to his knees, too inebriated to even walk. Pathetic. She grabs him by the hair again, pulling the knife from her belt.
“You do not deserve a quick death,” she tells him, and the man sobs.
“Inquisitor,” Solas says.
She glances over her shoulder. Solas stands in the doorway of the tavern, silhouetted by the orange light from the inside. She can see several faces—some curious, some horrified, some afraid—watching her in the window.
She turns back to the darkness, presses her knife against the murderer’s throat.
“Ariala, stop,” Solas says. “You are not a murderer.”
“The Venatori I’ve killed beg to differ.” Her hand shakes.
“Ariala, listen to me and look.” Solas takes a breath, and she hears his footsteps as he descends the few stairs separating them. He moves in front of her, ignoring the weeping man kneeling between them. “He is defenseless. You have bested him. This is not a battle, this is you taking out your revenge on a man who does not deserve death for being an idiot.”
“Wisdom’s killers didn’t fight back, either,” she says, her impatience, her fury, rising. “But that didn’t stop you.”
“No,” he agrees, “but killing them did not bring my friend back. Neither will this return your family to you.”
“They won’t come back,” she says. “But they’ll have justice.”
“You think this is justice?” Solas asks. “He has had no trial, no chance to defend himself or explain his actions.”
“There is no defense he can give, because his actions are indefensible!” she screams at him.
The silence that follows her words is thunderous. The fury inside her roars, itching for blood, for vengeance, but she does nothing but glare at Solas. He holds her gaze, and she keeps her knife at the murderer’s throat, blood pulsing in her ears. Pointedly, Solas says, “You gave Erimond and Alexius trials of their own. You allowed them a chance to defend themselves, as you have everyone brought before you. Will you not do the same for this man?”
“P-Please,” the murderer says. “Please, I have a daughter. A baby girl. Please don’t kill me.”
Ariala tightens her grip in his hair and wrenches his head back. His eyes gleam with unshed tears in the lamplight, and his whole body shakes with his fear. She meets the murderer’s gaze and feels nothing but contempt. “There were little girls in my clan, too,” she says. “But that didn’t stop you, did it?”
She slits his throat. Solas steps back, avoiding the spray of blood, and she sheathes her knife as the dead man jerks underneath her hand, his life leaving him in gurgling breaths. When his body goes slack, she kicks him away, lets his corpse slump to the side and lay in the street. Solas watches the man, something unreadable in his gaze, and when he looks at her she meets his eyes unflinchingly.
“Did that help?” he asks, tone acerbic. “Do you feel better now?”
“Did burning Wisdom’s killers alive help?” she asks, pointedly, her nose scrunching as she sneers. “At least this man got a quick death. It’s more than he deserved.”
Ariala walks back into the Black Duckling, which greets her with absolute silence. She meets the stares of every patron, gazing at them until they look away. A few of the previously occupied tables are now empty. She goes to their little corner booth, where their weapons and bedrolls sit untouched. She slings her bow bag over her shoulder, positions Solas’s bedroll on her back and her bedroll on her front, and moves to leave the inn.
“You—killed him,” someone says, voice breaking. She looks over her shoulder and sees one of the murderer’s friends, face ashen as he looks at her. She steps forward, and the entire tavern takes a step back.
“I am Ariala of Clan Lavellan,” she tells him. His face pales further. “He participated in the slaughter of my family. Of course I killed him.”
“We’ve called the city watch,” says the innkeeper. “They’ll bring you to justice.”
Ariala turns to him, and he shrinks from her gaze. “They are welcome to try.”
— ✦ —
She wakes in the dead of night, her sharp inhale the only break of the room’s quiet. She sits up, examining the dilapidated room they had found themselves housed in for the night.
After she told him that the city watch had been called, Solas had not wanted to find another inn. “They will be searching every inn in the city. We will be seen, and noticed, no matter how discreet an innkeeper we find.”
“So what do you propose?” she’d shot back. “We sleep in the alienage?”
She was being sarcastic, but he had opened his mouth, then closed it, considering. “Provided we find the right location,” he’d admitted, “that idea may actually have merit.”
And so they’d set wards at the broken gates of the alienage, then more by the vhenadahl stump, and had found this standing building. The floors above remained solid, and Solas’s magelight revealed no rot in the wood. However, the staircase to the second floor was gone—only the top two stairs remained, hanging precariously in the air, while the rest of it lay on the ground, hacked to pieces. The furniture had been in a similar state.
She could only imagine what had happened to the people on the other floors.
“They will see the staircase, and assume we would not be here,” Solas had surmised. “The higher we go, the better our chances of not being discovered, because the less likely they will believe us to be in the building.”
The only challenge, then, would be finding a way up.
Eventually, Ariala had knelt, lacing her fingers together and providing a hold for Solas. When he stepped into her hand, she boosted him as quickly as she could. Solas had managed to grab the floorboards and, with a good use of force magic, pulled himself up. She gave him their weapons and bedrolls, then took his hand when he offered it. With another burst of force magic, he had been able to lift Ariala up and pull her over onto the second floor.
A wall separated the hallway from the tenement itself, but the door had been kicked in, and they’d had to step around it when they walked into the room.
She’d glanced around, heart sinking at the sight of toppled furniture—at the reminder that this had been someone’s home. There’d been a bed, large enough for two, but neither of them were comfortable sleeping in it. So instead, they’d found the darkest corner in the room and laid their bedrolls there. They’d had to brush away small cobwebs, but there were no bones, at least, and though the half-empty dishes and used silverware were haunting, she was able ignore them, if she turned away.
And now, she is awake, in total darkness, staring at the crib neither of them had noticed on their arrival.
Ariala rolls onto her back, grateful that the floorboards do not creak under her weight, and lifts her left hand. In the darkness, she can just make out the glow of the Anchor through her leather glove. It’s unnoticeable in broad daylight, but here, when clouds conceal the moon and Solas’s magelights have been extinguished, it’s impossible to miss.
She looks again at the bed, at the crib, at the dinner abandoned mid-meal on the table. Silence and dusty furniture is all that remains of the family that lived here. “I’m sorry,” she says, whisper-soft. You suffered for my mistake.
She stands up and leaves the tenement, entering the hall. There’s a small window at the end of the corridor, though its panes are clouded and a square of glass has been broken. The white vhenadahl stump glows in the moonlight, but even from here, she can see its roots, withered and browning as rot starts to consume what’s left of the dead tree.
Wycome killed these people because they were born with a pair of pointed ears.
Anger throbs under her breastbone, but it is dull, blunted from overuse in the past three weeks. All it leaves in place is exhaustion. She is tired, so tired, but true sleep has evaded her since she got her grandmother’s letter.
She glances down at her left hand and peels off her glove. The Anchor shines emerald in the night, glinting like metal in the sun when she turns her hand different ways. Though she was not a mage, Solas had taught her to feel for places where the Veil was thin, to better sense where potential rifts could form.
The Veil in the alienage is paper-thin, its presence tingling against her skin. It would be so easy to open a rift in the alienage square, like a knife through water. So easy.
She stands still, waiting, but the dark fury that had been propelling her for most of the journey does not ignite. She thinks of her clan, of the crib, of the fate of the vhenadahl, but only feels—nothing.
“You won’t do it,” a soft voice says behind her, oddly cadenced.
Her shoulders slump, and tears prick the corners of her eyes. “I know,” she whispers back.
Even in this one, simple thing, she fails her people.
“You’re not failing them,” Cole says.
“I feel like I am,” she replies. “If I can’t avenge their deaths, if they can’t have justice—” She stops herself, closing her eyes.
Cole is quiet, but she can feel his gaze on her. “She doesn’t want you like this,” he tells her, and she covers her eyes, fresh tears threatening to fall at the mention of her grandmother. “Harsh, hurting, you’re cruel when you’re angry.” She clenches her jaw and doesn’t reply. Cole steps closer, and she can feel the languid heat of him at her side. “You can hug me, if you like. Varric says it helps.”
Her eyes open. She turns to him, pulling him into an embrace. He is stiff in her arms, unyielding and still.
“Cole, you have to hug me back,” she whispers against his shirt.
“Oh. Okay.” His arms raise, awkwardly draping themselves around her. She laughs despite herself, and it lifts some of the heaviness weighing on her heart. His is a comforting warmth, and she listens to his heartbeat, steady and grounding.
She hadn’t thought he would have a heartbeat.
“That’s the song,” he tells her. “It’s quieter in me.”
“I don’t know what that means,” she replies. Cole starts to fidget, and she pulls away. “Thank you for the hug.”
“It helped,” Cole replies.
“It did,” she agrees. “Why aren’t you at Skyhold, Cole?”
“You needed me more,” he replies. “The barn cat’s had kittens. Soft and scared, seeking mother’s milk. She will let you pet them when you get back.”
Ariala smiles. “I’d like that.”
Cole regards her for several moments, silent for so long she becomes uncomfortable. Ariala turns back to the window, but then Cole says, “He hurts, an old pain from before, when everything sang the same.”
Ariala blinks, looking at Cole over her shoulder. “Who?”
“Solas,” Cole says, simply. His eyes are wide, childlike in their earnestness. “You’re real, and it means everyone could be real. It changes everything, but it can’t. They sleep, masked in a mirror, hiding, hurting, and to wake them—”
“Inquisitor?” Solas calls out, voice a little muffled. She turns and sees him emerge from the open doorway, a magelight hovering over his shoulder. He sees Cole and his expression closes, gaze hardening as he shifts his weight, squaring his shoulders. “Cole, my friend. Welcome.”
A beat of awkward silence follows. Then Cole takes a breath and says, “Stop. You are perfect exactly as you are. But then you turned away. Why?”
Solas stares at her, not Cole. “I had no choice.”
“Of course you had a choice!” she snaps, frustration riling up within her. She closes her mouth on reflex, pressing her fingertips against her mouth. Gods, what terrible timing. She hadn’t been ready to confront Solas in Skyhold, and she certainly isn’t ready now.
“She feels her face, marked, marred without malice.”
“Cole—” she starts. He turns to her.
“You didn’t know!” he replies, agitated. He looks back at Solas. “She thinks it's why you walked away!”
“Cole, I would rather not discuss this right now,” she says, quietly.
That brings him up short. He ducks his head, the brim of his hat covering his face. “I’m sorry.”
“It was my doing, not yours,” Solas tells her. “I made a selfish mistake. The blame is mine and mine alone. Let that be enough.”
Hurt blooms in her chest, so painful she cannot breathe. “You think being with me was a mistake?” she finally manages.
But of course he did—he’d been telling her so all along. We shouldn’t. Not here. I apologize. The kiss was… impulsive, and ill-considered. It would be kinder in the long run.
She’d just ignored his warnings.
Solas does not reply, but his shoulders are stiff, and that is all the answer she needs.
Stupid. She was so stupid.
Ariala looks down, fighting back tears and furious that she still has tears for him. Why did she even bother?
“You really don’t let anyone see under that polite mask you wear, do you?” she asks, sneers, reeling and hurt.
Solas does not look away from her. His reply is quiet and devastating. “You saw more than most.”
It would have hurt less if he’d struck her.
Cole opens his mouth, but she touches his shoulder. She is in no mood to continue this conversation. “It’s all right, Cole,” she lies, giving him a shaky smile that must appear as forced as she knows it is. “We’re all right. Go back to Skyhold. They need you there.”
“But you need me more,” he replies, miserably.
“You cannot heal this, Cole,” Solas says, so gently her heart hurts. “Please. Let it go.”
“We can talk more when I get back to Skyhold,” she tells Cole.
“Promise?” he asks. She remembers how Varric had told him about pinky promises, how sacred they were, and lifts up her hand. They clasp pinkies and she smiles.
She looks back at Solas, who watches her, impassive. When she looks back, Cole is gone. She sighs, then pushes past Solas to get to their bedrolls. She does not say a word as she settles down and lies with her back to him.
She stares at the empty crib until she falls asleep.
She dreams of a suffocating darkness that creeps up her body, whispering words she cannot understand with a thousand hissing voices. She fights back, clawing it away from her nose, from her throat, from her mouth. She only sucks in a mouthful of stale air, like when she had first approached the Well and it had asked her why are you here?
“What are you saying?” she gasps, and the darkness recedes, leaving her gasping on a tiled floor. She does not realize the tiles form a golden-eyed dragon until a thousand voices reply with the power of one, clear and sharp in her ear.
— ✦ —
A shrill noise wakes her. She startles, inhaling sharply when she feels a hand on her arm. “The wards,” Solas whispers in her ear. “The city watch is in the alienage.” The piercing sound continues, unabating, until Solas makes a gesture and the silence consumes them once more. She sits up and moves back, blinking the sleep from her eyes.
It’s almost dawn. Myra will be outside the city soon, waiting for them.
But first—they have to deal with the city watch. She hears the door splinter downstairs, and heavy boots on the floor. “I placed an enchantment over us,” Solas whispers, lips pressed against her ear. She nods, even as she reaches for her bow and arrows. It takes her twenty seconds to string her bow and notch an arrow, even as Solas continues speaking. “They will be disinclined to pay us any great attention, provided we do not move from this spot.”
Ariala lifts her bow and aims for the splintered door.
“They’re not here,” someone says below.
“How do you know?”
“The staircase is gone. They couldn’t have reached the second floor. Too high up for knife-ears.”
They. The watch was looking for Solas, too. She glances at him from the corner of her eye, but all of his attention is on the tenement entrance. He’s tense, shoulders stiff, anticipating an attack. Her arm starts to shake with the strain of keeping the bowstring taut.
“Well, we should just be sure—”
A snort. “If you want to try to get up there, Hoster, be my fuckin’ guest. But we have knife-ears to catch, and I’m not going to waste my time searching abandoned buildings.”
Several moments pass, and then the door shuts, and she hears boots on the streets outside. She exhales, lowering her bow and closing her eyes. After several minutes, she twists and lifts herself a few inches, just enough to see through the window. She watches the city watchmen spread out, all of them going down different streets.
“They’re searching the alienage,” she whispers to Solas. “We’ll have to wait until they leave.”
He nods and tilts his head back, resting it against the wall. Ariala keeps her bow strung, just in case, but she puts it in her lap and allows herself to relax, slumping so that she is below the window, out of sight once more.
“You don’t happen to know your way out of the city from here, do you?” she asks, after several moments of silence. Solas shakes his head, and she sighs. “Damn. Me neither.”
He huffs a laugh. “That may pose a problem.”
She laughs too. “Yeah. A little bit.” Her smile fades as she waits for him to point out the obvious—that the city watch would not be looking for her had she not killed one of her clan’s murderers—but the reprimand never comes.
“We could attempt to leave while they are searching the rest of the alienage,” Solas muses, “but that would require discretion and an extraordinary amount of luck.”
She looks at their gear: two bedrolls, Solas’s bag and staff, her bow and quiver. They’d have to haul ass from the moment they left the building to the instant they reached the gate—not easy with everything they’d been carrying. And they would be out in the open, too. Pre-dawn darkness or not, they’d be easily spotted by sharp eyes.
She runs her hand through her hair and utters a soft curse. “I don’t want to wait ’til nightfall,” she says.
“Myra is waiting for us.”
“That is also true.”
“Can you just—I don’t know. Make us invisible with the Fade?”
Solas looks at her, bemused. “That is not how the Fade works. Or magic, for that matter.” But then his expression goes distant, eyes narrowed like when he is confronting something that puzzles him, working it out until it makes sense. “I suppose … hm.”
“I know a simple charm, one that draws less attention to those under its influence. It is meant for a single person in large crowds, however, and I do not know how much it will work for our situation.”
“It’s the best we’ve got,” Ariala says. “And, you know, if worst comes to worst, you can just create an ice wall and block them. Plus we aren’t wearing plate armor, and they probably aren’t used to chasing people through the streets—”
She’s rambling, trying to convince herself that their flight in broad daylight across an open square might work. She closes her mouth, then opens it again. “But the people will try to stop us, probably, and we could spend hours trying to get out of the city because we don’t know the way out—”
“Right. You’re right. We’ve fought literal armies of undead, we can handle a few angry guys, no problem.”
“I would not classify the entire city watch as ‘a few angry guys’—”
Ariala sucks in a breath and gets to her feet. “Okay, let’s go, let’s do this. We’ve got this. Totally got this. What could go wrong?”
After they get down to the ground floor of the tenement building and Solas casts his charm, they have no other option but to sprint across the square. They don’t even reach halfway before a voice calls out “Oi! The elves!” and an arrow whizzes past her ear. Ariala flinches away instinctively, but Solas grabs her wrist and keeps running.
She feels the familiar wash of his magic fall over her, and the next arrow bounces off his barrier harmlessly.
They reach the gate and Ariala turns, resting her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. A full contingent of the guard—twenty men or so—are sprinting toward them.
“Ice wall?” she asks, and Solas drops his staff, lifting both his hands. After several moments, ice begins to form along the baseline of the alienage gate, creeping up the stone and building up until a thick sheen of blue-green ice covers the alienage gate from floor to portcullis. The cries of the men on the other side are slightly muffled by the ice, but she can make out ‘knife-ears’ and curses and even a I told you so!—followed immediately by a shut up, Hoster.
Solas lowers his hands, breathing hard. “That should delay them for a little while,” he says. Ariala turns and sees a crowd beginning to gather further down the street, drawn by the guards’ shouting.
“We need to go,” she tells him, and they disappear into a side alley before the crowd can reach them. However, it does not take long for the populace to deduce what’s happened, and as they run through side streets and duck through shadowed alleys, a cry begins to go up through the city.
Their luck runs out when they turn into another alley, just off a main street where a fair is taking place, and their route is blocked by a crowd of a dozen or so people. “No further, murderers,” says one man, fire in his eyes.
The air turns strangely thin, like when she’s on Skyhold’s ramparts, and her ears pop at the same moment all of the humans are knocked flat on their backs, collapsing like a house of cards. Solas sways, and instinct has her moving to his side, supporting him as he leans on her, flushed.
“Gods, I love magic,” she says, panting, and his laugh is a faint huff. The next instant his smile is gone, and he takes a deep, steadying breath.
“We should leave at once,” he says. She nods, and they resume their flight, pushing past the people who had been drawn by the shouting. To Wycome’s credit, its citizens are neither slow to react nor idiots; most of them realize that the elves running through the farmer’s market are probably the ones on the run from the watch.
Solas has to raise two more massive ice walls before they can even find a street without angry humans. Ariala supports his weight as he catches his breath, and once he nods to her, she gestures to an inn down the street.
“Go ask the innkeeper for directions out of the city,” she says, unhooking a bag of coins from her belt and tossing it to him. Solas inhales, straightens his back, and Ariala stays in the shadows as he disappears inside.
When he returns, it’s without the money. “We are on the wrong side of the city,” Solas says, unfolding a small piece of paper with a hastily-drawn map. There are streets, labeled in barely-legible handwriting, and an X labeled where you are and an X labeled the exit. The two Xs are on the opposite side of the map.
“Agreed,” says Solas. “We must make haste. I cannot perpetually wall off the city to prevent pursuers.”
“Okay,” Ariala says, starting to follow him as he goes back the way they came. She fixes her hood, then says, “So, uh, you didn’t give the innkeep all of that money, did you?”
Solas is silent.
“I was a bit rushed,” he bites out.
Josephine is going to kill her.
They don’t have any more trouble until they’re a couple of streets away from the gate. As they’re hurrying down an alley, she hears the unmistakable clank of men in full armor marching down the street. She skids to a stop, grabbing Solas and wrenching him back just as two city watchmen pass them.
She thinks they’re safe, until the clanking stops and one of them asks, “What is it?”
“That alley,” the watchman says. “Thought I saw something. Can we go check?”
Shite. Shite shite shite!
“Sure, Hoster,” his companion says. “You were right last time.”
“Well, it’s nice to be appreciated.”
Ariala straightens her hood and pulls Solas back, until her back collides with the cold stone wall. Hands shaking, she lifts her bag strap up and over her head, dropping it and her pack to the ground. Solas does the same, whispering a spell that makes the air shimmer around the items. Though their bodies conceal some of their gear, there’s no telling what they could see.
They won’t have the cover of darkness to help them this time.
Ariala looks at Solas, who is regarding the mouth of the alley with something like blind panic in his eyes, and makes a split second decision. She fists her hands in his tunic and pulls him forward, one hand moving to cup the back of his head as her other positions his hands on her hips.
Solas stiffens, eyes widening, looking for all the world like a cornered animal. “What are you doing?” he hisses, sharp and panicked.
She opens her mouth, eyes falling to his lips, but cannot bring herself to close the distance, even for this scheme. Mistake, a voice whispers in the back of her mind, just a selfish mistake. Something sour curdles within her.
“Just play along,” she replies, and brings Solas’s head down to her throat. The guards stop at the mouth of the alley just as she turns her face away from their direction, takes a breath, and moans.
Her cheeks flush at once, because it’s the loudest, most exaggerated sound she’s ever made in her life. Solas’s hands flex on her hips, fingers spasming, and though he is still rigid against her, he presses closer, so close she can feel his eyelashes flutter on her skin. His heart is beating wildly, and she swallows bile as she lifts a leg and does her best to sling it over his hip.
He does not try to help her at all, and she doesn’t know whether to curse him or thank him.
“Oh,” she gasps, thinking mistake mistake mistake. She drops her hand from cupping the back of his head to drape across his shoulders, fingers fisting in his tunic. “Oh, Maker, yes—”
“Maker’s balls,” says the guardsman, clearly embarrassed. “Just lovers here, Hoster.”
“Damn. Let’s go.”
The very moment their footsteps fade, Solas wrenches away from her, as if he’d been burned. He says nothing as he collects his things, and Ariala does not look at him as she adjusts her cloak and straps her bow bag to her back. “Whoever has been accompanying Hoster on patrols of late,” Solas says, dryly, “we shall have to thank him someday.”
Ariala swallows and says nothing. She had doubted the sincerity of his choice, based on how he looked at her after Crestwood. She had continued to nurture a small flame in her heart, a fragile hope that he would change his mind and come back to her, that they could resume what they’d shared as if they’d never been apart.
She’s never been so wrong. The knowledge is humiliating, and leaves a sour taste in her mouth.
There is a long pause before Solas sighs. “Inquisitor—” he starts.
“We’re not talking about it,” she says. “Let’s go.”
She feels his eyes on her as she walks away, but she refuses to look back.