The Emerald Graves echoed with melodic birdsong, dappled sunlight filtering down through the trees. In the distance a gentle breeze rustled the leaves.
It reminded Ariane pleasantly of the forests she had grown up in in southern Ferelden, but—richer. The trees were bigger, older, more steeped in history. This was the Dales, her people’s second homeland. It was her first time in the region, but she couldn’t help but feel that she was welcome here.
In the ruined guard post behind her, there was a muted scuffling noise, followed by the thump of someone hitting the ground. A brief pause followed, and then—
“Drat,” said Finn crossly.
Ariane muffled a giggle. “Will this take much longer?” she said.
Her shemlen companion reappeared in the doorway, looking affronted and now sporting a streak of dirt down the front of his robes. “If you’re in such a hurry, you can come look for the marker.”
“I’d love to,” Ariane said. “Just give me a quick lesson on summoning that fancy magic light of yours and we’ll be on our way.”
“Yes, exactly,” Finn said. “Don’t rush me. And you know very well it’s called veilfire.”
Ariane made a vague affirmative noise, biting back a smile, but Finn had already disappeared back into the remains of the building. She could hear the distant sound of his muttering as he went back to searching the walls for the sign that would point them towards their destination.
Ariane returned to her watch, though she didn’t think there was much point: the forest was peaceful, and they had seen no sign of anyone else for several days. But that was her role in this little adventuring party of two: Finn messed around with weird magic and ancient books, and she kept him safe. Together, they did what they couldn’t do alone.
And besides, Ariane liked looking after her wayward scholar.
She had been travelling with Finn Aldebrandt for some six months now. Initially Ariane had just been escorting him back to the Circle tower after they finished helping the Warden-Commander track Morrigan down; that plan had survived all of one night before being discarded entirely in favour of their shared excitement over the idea of rediscovering more ancient elven history. She had been amazed at the depth and breadth of Finn’s knowledge: she had never known how much someone could learn just from reading. Finn was fussy, but he was brilliant, and he had the same burning need to understand the secrets of the past that had always nagged at her.
The scholarly scatter, she had learned, was just part of that. And it had only taken a few weeks for it to somehow come to be desperately endearing. For all of his complaints, Finn had adjusted remarkably well to life on the road.
At first they had decided to go back to Ariane’s clan: she’d had the vague idea that Finn could help them fill in the gaps in their understanding of their history, or decipher the lost passages of the treatise on eluvian they had rescued from Morrigan. But when they had arrived with the book, Finn had been met first with suspicion, then with resentment. While the Keeper had been appropriately thankful to him for his hand in returning a precious artifact of their people, none of the clan had been pleased about Ariane bringing back a shemlen who knew more about ancient elven magic than they did.
In hindsight, she should have expected it. At the time, though, she had been riding high on their success, and Finn’s new knowledge had been too exciting for her to consider how the rest of her clan might react. Travelling with him and Brosca, she had gotten a glimpse of what they could learn by working together. After all, the Circle of Magi had stolen so much from them; wasn’t it right for a Circle mage with a good heart to help them get it back? Like it or not, the history of the Dalish was tangled up with the shemlen, the dwarves, the Chantry, and the Circle. They didn’t walk the world alone, and Ariane was no longer sure they could reclaim their history alone, either.
But the clan didn’t see it that way, and after a mere two weeks they had made it clear that wasn’t going to change. And so she and Finn had had a long conversation about what they wanted to learn, and in the end she had decided to pack up and leave with him. Her Keeper hadn’t exactly approved, but he had been unable to fault her goal of uncovering more of their history. She had left with his blessing—such as it was. She had tried not to think about how unlikely it was that she would ever see her clan again.
And yet, despite everything, she couldn’t quite regret it. Finn was alarmingly good company, especially for a shemlen, and for all that he insisted he didn’t like the outdoors, he had already proven cheerfully willing to wade through hip-deep bracken in pursuit of an interesting carving. As far as Ariane was concerned, he could complain as much as he liked. In the end he knew what was actually worth his fastidiousness.
They had gone back to Cadash Thaig first, to see if there was any indication of the path Ariane’s ancient ancestors had taken to get there. They hadn’t found much—just a vague description of a route, laid out in abstract terms and described in landmarks that didn’t exist anymore—but it was enough to drive them westward into Orlais. When that trail had petered out, they had gone to Montsimmard, where Finn could make use of his Circle connections—just because he wasn’t going back, he explained, didn’t mean he was an apostate, since he had left on a sanctioned research trip and was maintaining contact with the Chantry. Ariane didn’t care much about the politics, but the library access was incredibly useful.
Finn had looked through a bewildering array of books, leaping from one tome to the next via an arcane cross-referencing process that was utterly lost on her. Then he had talked to some of the mages, referenced a few more books, bribed a templar for a private meeting with the Knight-Commander, and emerged with a list of potentially useful documents to track down and a letter of introduction to a noblewoman in Verchiel who was, as he put it, “a bit of a collector.”
He had also stopped at a shop in town to buy a pot of face paint that, he was earnestly assured, would hide all manner of blemishes that might colour a lady’s face. Considering what they were planning to use it for, Ariane had found that deeply hilarious.
She hadn’t known what to expect until they arrived in Verchiel five days later and Finn had presented their letter to Lady Leonore de Guillory’s butler. It turned out that “a bit of a collector” had been an understatement: the woman had an entire suite of rooms dedicated to rare books and ancient elven documents, all artfully displayed to show off her erudition—though she also openly admitted she couldn’t read any of them. Finn had nodded guilelessly; Ariane had had to bite back a scoff.
Lady de Guillory had been all too happy to give her visiting researcher a tour. Finn played the suitably fawning scholar, and Ariane had trailed after them in the guise of a respectable mage’s bodyguard—as invisible as any other elven servant with her vallaslin hidden under its coat of face paint. As Finn distracted their host with endless questions and commentary on the most showy of her pieces, Ariane had taken advantage of the lowered magical protections to liberate several of the books and documents from Finn’s list—smuggling them out of the estate by dropping them down the front of her armour, which Finn had magically enlarged for exactly that purpose. She had hardly been able to contain her spiteful glee at how easy it had been.
“It’s shameful,” he had said, sniffing, as they made their triumphant escape from the city that evening. “What’s the point of having all those books if you don’t even use them for anything?”
That had been the moment Ariane had realized she was falling in love with him.
Finn had been going through the books in systematic order in the weeks since their successful heist, and seemed to think most of them had promise—but it was the map that had been the greatest of their illicitly gained treasures. It was several centuries old, the product of a shemlen research expedition, and marked from one end of the Dales to the other with the locations of supposed elven ruins. Most of them were deep in the wilds, and had apparently been forgotten by the elves and the shemlen alike.
Ariane and Finn had been working their way south, investigating the most promising among them. So far, they hadn’t found much of interest, or at least hadn’t found much that told them anything new: for, archaeological revelations or no, they both agreed there was plenty of interest in just seeing the ruins themselves. But Ariane had managed to decode the mangled cultural references ascribed to their next destination, and Finn claimed he had a good feeling about this one. And by this point she was inclined to trust his good feelings.
Ariane turned back to the guard post to see Finn emerge once again, with a smug grin on his face and a leaf tangled in his hair.
“About time,” she said mildly.
“Oh, be quiet,” Finn said, extinguishing and stowing his veilfire torch. “We need to go west-southwest,” he said. He turned, squinting at the angle of the sun through the trees, and turned to scan their surroundings. “Which looks like… that way. Shall we?”
Giggling, Ariane reached up to extract the leaf, smoothing Finn’s hair back into place as she did so. “Lead the way, intrepid scholar.”
“What? I—oh,” he said, his eyes focusing on the discarded bit of greenery. He cleared his throat. “Right. This way.”
They set off through the trees, clambering over roots and around tumbled falls of rock. There was no trail out here. It was rough going at first and neither of them had any breath to spare for chatter, but after ten or fifteen minutes the terrain flattened out and they were able to make their way forward more easily.
Finn had paused to peer at their map, holding it so closely that he was practically going cross-eyed, when Ariane realized the moss on the forest floor followed too regular a pattern to be natural. While he grumbled about the lack of detail in his ancient documents, she nudged up a stone with her boot, turning it over experimentally. It fell flat, exposing a squared-off underside.
“Finn, look,” she said.
He raised his head, his expression immediately clearing. “So the path did survive! Excellent. We’re going the right way.”
They started walking again, picking up their pace as the stones grew increasingly clear under their feet, and before long Ariane began to hear the rushing of water in the distance. At last they crested a rise and a temple complex revealed itself before them. It was spread out along the edge of a deep ravine, carved from the fine white stone the ancient elves had apparently been so fond of. For a long moment, all Ariane could do was stare. It was easily the largest and most magnificent of all the ruins they had found to date.
“Look at the statues,” Finn said. There were dozens, but it was immediately obvious which ones he meant: the main entrance was flanked by two carved halla, nearly as tall as the temple itself. “You were right about that inscrutable caption,” he added. “It must be a temple of Ghilan’nain.”
“Ooh, say that again,” Ariane said. “I love it when you tell me I’m right.”
“Ha, ha,” Finn said, but his tone was fond. “Come on. We have some exploring to do.”
They made their way down the hill, stepping from the afternoon sunlight into the shadow of the temple walls. Maybe Ariane was just imagining it, but it seemed like a hush fell over them as they approached, the whole forest holding its breath in reverence. Up close, the detail on the halla statues was startlingly lifelike and faintly unreal at the same time, and there were countless other animal sculptures resting along the walls or toppled from their plinths nearby. The entranceway arch soared clean and whole over their heads, though most of the roof was gone, and Ariane couldn’t help but spare a wistful thought for how stunning the temple must have been in its time.
“Right,” Finn said, pulling the veilfire torch out of his pack. “Let’s see what we can uncover.”
They had a routine established for the ruins they’d uncovered by now. Finn would make a systematic study of every wall, looking for veilfire inscriptions and significant carvings and prodding at everything with his staff; Ariane would range nearby—not always in view but never so far she couldn’t make it back to him in fifteen seconds if there was an emergency—and look for abandoned artifacts and old elven symbols that Finn might not recognize the significance of. Today, however, she found herself wandering from room to room, letting the weight of history settle comfortably over her. To Finn this was merely an opportunity to learn something new, but to her it was so much more.
Taken on its own, she had to admit the temple wasn’t much to look at. Many of the walls had tumbled down, and most of the roof with it; the floor was overgrown with moss and vines and strewn with the detritus of the forest. But her people had walked here once; this place had been important to them, to their gods. Wandering through a long-abandoned temple in the Emerald Graves, Ariane had never been more acutely conscious of everything they’d lost.
She was standing at what had once been a wide balcony overlooking the ravine when Finn caught up with her, his face overwritten with frustration. “I don’t understand this,” he complained.
His tone jolted Ariane out of her silent contemplation. “What’s the problem?”
“It’s just—the veilfire inscriptions,” he said. “It suggests there’s something important here, but it seems, well… woefully incomplete.” He motioned around the room in what Ariane had come to recognize as a familiar irritable gesture. “The map says this is a major site, and it’s certainly bigger than anything else we’ve seen, but you’d think there would be more than a few prayers and impressions of worship and some statues.”
“Maybe some things have been taken,” Ariane said reasonably.
Finn made a doubtful noise, still staring into the middle of the temple complex as if it had personally offended him. “Maybe, but I don’t think so,” he said. “It looks pretty undisturbed. Even the people who made the map weren’t making an in-depth study. They were just doing a survey and planning to come back later with more funding. But I don’t think they ever actually made it back here.”
“Does it have to be more?” Ariane said. “This place was incredibly important to my ancestors. Even finding it is beyond valuable.”
Finn sighed. “No, no, you’re right,” he said. “I’m probably expecting too much. But it would have been nice to find something big,” he added plaintively. “There’s still so much to learn.”
“I get it. Trust me,” Ariane said. She patted his arm consolingly. “Let’s look over the inscriptions again. Maybe you missed something.”
As usual, having a plan of action seemed to cheer him immensely, and they went back through the rooms together. There were veilfire inscriptions in almost every one, but Finn remembered where most of them were, which made things faster. Some of them were memories—records of worship and offerings, each one offering a dizzying glimpse at how the temple had looked at its height; others were fragments of prayers, or songs praising Ghilan’nain. Some of them were familiar.
“I learned that as a children’s rhyme,” Ariane said, still staring in shock at the inscription they had just finished deciphering. “It’s just a silly game. A hand-clap song.”
“Really?” Finn said. “Do you still remember how it goes?”
Ariane chewed on her tongue, considering, then whistled a few tentative notes. Under Finn’s torch, the inscription flared with light, and then a chord rang out, some ancient stringed instrument following her melody.
“Whoa,” she said.
“Okay, not what we came here for, but definitely interesting,” Finn said. “We’ll come back to that.”
They moved into one of the rooms near the front entrance. It was small, the centre of the floor occupied by a thick pillar which, from the shape of the rubble strewn across the ground, had once supported a domed ceiling. “There’s one around the other side of that,” Finn said, gesturing at the pillar. “It’s a prayer, I think? Take a look.”
He lifted his torch as they stepped around the room, revealing three short lines of elegant text. “‘Open the way, servant of Ghilan’nain,’” he translated. “I think it’s ‘servant,’ at least. ‘For it is written in your blood that you are’—something. ‘Marked?’ Yes, marked. ‘You are marked for the gods.’”
Ariane frowned. “It doesn’t sound like a prayer,” she said. With a brief thrill of fear, she remembered the spell Finn had had to perform to locate the Lights of Arlathan. “Could it be blood magic?”
“I’m not sure…,” he said. His eyes went distant for a moment, and Ariane thought she could feel the gentle prodding of his magic as he probed at the Veil. “It doesn’t feel like blood magic, but it was a long time ago…”
“‘It is written in your blood,’” Ariane murmured to herself. Not for the first time, she had to fight back a niggling sense of inadequacy at how little she understood of her own history. She didn’t think she’d have been able to figure out the inscription on her own, even without accounting for the veilfire. There were times she could really sympathize with her clan for turning Finn away, regardless of how much he could have helped them.
Still, it wasn’t his fault he’d had opportunities that were denied to her. In fact, from what she understood, the shemlen treated their mages almost as badly as they treated the elves. Finn may have had an education that she could only dream of, but would she have been willing to trade away her freedom to get it? She wasn’t so sure.
But as she scanned the lines of the inscription, forcing her mind to translate its unfamiliar shapes into the sounds she knew, she had another shock of realization: for all his education, his kindness, his sympathy for her history, Finn was still a shemlen, and there were some things he would never fully understand.
“It’s not ‘written in your blood,’” she said. She tapped the second line. “This word—it’s not ‘written in your blood.’ It’s ‘your blood writing.’ Vallaslin. ‘Your vallaslin marks you for the gods.’”
“Ohhh,” Finn said. He leaned forward, squinting at the text. “That makes sense. So it’s, what, an instruction? Use your tattoos to open the way… somehow?”
“I don’t know,” Ariane said. She flattened her hand against the pillar, staring at the text. “Do you think it only works for people with Ghilan’nain’s vallaslin, or could any of us do it?”
A prickling sensation shot across her forehead, and then there was a sharp crack. With the grinding of stone on stone, a section of the floor slid back. The pillar extended deep into the ground below them, and a spiral staircase wrapped around it, descending into the dimness.
“Maker’s mercy!” Finn exclaimed.
“Well, you were hoping for something more interesting,” Ariane said. She unsheathed the swords from her back. “Shall I go first?”