His eyes narrow at the question, hoping to see the trap that lies behind the innocent lift in Ian’s tone. Whenever he was asked about the elves, disbelief was always quick to follow, and anger soon after. Ian has proven kind thus far, but Solas wonders how far that kindness will stretch. He shifts from one foot to the other, arms falling limply to his side. For a moment he considers masking his true feelings– the camp is quiet this early in the morning, and in the Hinterlands raised voices travel far. Yet he has told so many lies as of late. Too many.
He draws in a breath through his nose, feeling the chill air against the back of his throat. “I thought you would be more interested in sharing your opinions on elven culture.” Beneath an honest observation there is a hint of bitterness, a tone that tells the tale of meetings that had not gone exactly as he had hoped. Solas traces the roots of Mythal’s vallaslin with his eyes, drawing a line from Ian’s bottom lip and up to where tousled ginger hair disguises the branches.
“You are Dalish, are you not?”
It’s hardly the response Ian expects, and his ears lift as he laughs. His chuckling rolls his shoulders, arms braced lightly across his middle so that his fingers might tangle in the loose folds of his cloak. The bitterness in Solas’s statement does not go unnoticed, but his own amusement is gentle and untinted by it.
When he answers, his laughter has quieted, though the lilt of it still catches at his lips and tugs at the end of his words.
“Forgive me,” One hand raises, thumbing idly at the roots that reach across his chin. He never forgets the vallaslin that span his face, not really, but he does forget that not everyone is aware of how tenuous his relationship with his own culture is. He can’t hold Solas’s assumption against him; what other conclusion could he have reached? “I did not mean to lay the question as though it were a trap.”
The faintest hint of a frown cracks Solas’s neutral expression. Whatever response he had imagined in his head falls short of reality. Narrow shoulders shake with laughter, chuckling at a joke he is not privy to.
“I’m glad you are amused,” he says flatly. “Though I fail to see the joke.” Though disarmed by the laughter, he is not yet ready to drop his guard. Laughter is a simple way to dismiss a person, of that he is certain.
More unexpected than the laughter is the sound of an apology, albeit one that rolls with the dying sound of Ian’s chuckle. “Too often I have been invited to share my thoughts by other elves, only to have them dismissed when my knowledge does not align with what they have been told.”
“It’s…not much of a joke, honestly.” Laughing was merely the simplest response, the emotion he preferred. It was easier than bitterness, or loneliness, or shame. He shrugged.·“Your question was fair.”·
“My mother’s clan calls elves like me ‘varelan’.·‘Teolaselan’…’Vasnerelan’.” By the last word, the laughter has faded, and though his voice remains light, tension tightens his smile.·“Here in the south, most of the Dalish simply say·‘flat ear’. To some, there’s little distinction between an elf like me and one who has never lived among the wandering clans. To others…the difference matters very much. It is one thing to be born in ignorance, and quite another to choose it. No, I do not have a place among the Dalish.”
“I…” His words catch in his throat, silenced by the press of his lips. Pointed ears fall back against his head, watching as the laughter in Ian’s smile fades.
One who prefers chains– a dreadfully ironic phrase for a Dalish elf to use. Their faces smeared with the blood of false gods, proudly wearing that which had been used to mark their ancestors as less. Solas notes the language he uses: not his clan, his mother’s, as if it had never been his. “Forgive me,” he sighs. “I should have realised. The Inquisition did not find you among the Dalish, after all.”
Ian shrugs again, looking down as his hands hands fall to tug absently at the cuff of his gloves. He pulls at the leather until it rubs tight against the webbing between his fingers as he clenches and unclenches his fists, testing the fastness before he lets his sleeves fall to meet his knuckles.
“My question caught you off guard.” He says. “And I do wear the vallaslin. A Dalish would know me for what I am, but few others realize before they are told.” He pauses, and his gaze lifts slightly, smile grown weak, though marginally less strained. “If your concern is that your words would be wasted…I can only assure you that I do not ask questions unless I wish to know the answer. There are too many in this world who would see the elves grow silent. I have no desire to be among their number.”
Ian’s confession brings about questions of his own. Clearly he was not exiled, his departure had been a choice. A reluctant one, perhaps, but why? “In the past I sought out Dalish clans in the hopes of sharing what I had learned with them. A naive hope, but at the time it had seemed perfectly feasible. They were not interested in the truth, preferring their stories to Elvhenan as I have come to know it through my research.” They sing songs of a golden city and benevolent gods, refusing to hear the ugly truth.
“If you are not Dalish, then where do you consider home?” An Alienage, perhaps, or– he is a mage, but– “You did not join the rebel mages when they evacuated Redcliffe.”
Ian’s response comes slowly, more measured and paced than his usual careful speech. “The Dalish are…proud, and desperate. The world has taken much from them, and it would yet take more. To cling to what remains is natural, even if…mmm.” His teeth catch sharply on the inside of his cheek, and his head shakes slightly.
“I…wandered, for a time. There is an Alienage in Sundarin where I told stories. It was as close to home as I think I can expect, but I doubt I will return.”
“They cling to dreams.” An strange thing for a Dreamer to say, but Solas sees far more than dreams. “Since then I have learned most prefer a pretty lie. The name ‘flat ear’ wounds me no more, they are no more my people than I am theirs.” If only it had not taken firsthand experience to realise that.
His head inclines, eyes trained upon the ground as his words find him. “Then it seems we have something in common. I am too elven for the likes of Sera, but not enough for the Dalish.”
“You’re wrong.” It’s a soft rebuttal, and still spoken to his hands. The worn pads over his fingertips press against his thumbs, running shortly across until they catch in the curve of his palm. It’s not quite a fist, though the pressure of the leather against his knuckles tightens them bloodless, and he repeats the motion several times.
“They are your people. That’s where the Dalish are wrong, too. You, me, Sera. My mother’s clan. I don’t know when…how it was decided that there are qualifications to being an elf. The rest of the world sets enough barriers for us. It is wrong to set them for each other.”
Ian’s words are soft, but not gentle. Firmly spoken into his hands, as if he would prefer to not be heard. Solas’s ears perk with interest. “Am I?” he asks, prodding an explanation from the younger elf.
A breeze blows through camp, and Solas breathes in air that chills his throat, feels the damp dew against the pads of feet, and listens to words murmured against leather gloves. Toes curl in the grass, gripping the earth as if they held it in place. “It was likely decided long ago, by elves far more selfish than you,” he says, voice dropping beneath the wind.
“I do not see myself as having much in common with them.” With anyone, truly, but the knife cuts deeper when he sees the same faces, hidden behind a mask of blood, as he had thousands of years ago. “If it is as you say, if they are my people… it is not like I imagined.”
Then again, nothing is.
Against closed eyelids, dreams and hopes over a decade lost surface to tease his heart. It’s bittersweet, viewed in hindsight. The life he had once fought to return to, and the disappointment of a homecoming that had never come to satisfactory resolution.
“But…thinking only on the things that makes us different leaves me with no people at all. It divides the Dalish from the rest of the elves, and sets me aside from them all, when instead there are many things we share. Far more meaningful are the similarities. The differences are obstacles, but they should not be walls.”
Solas looks past the leafless branches that contour to the curves of his cheeks, as he might have done long ago. Red lashes rest against a freckled cheek, and for a moment Ian looks at peace.
“Perhaps not, but they are walls nevertheless.” His hands move idly, pulling fingers through seemingly empty air. Beneath the pads of his fingers he feels the weight of the Veil, as if he can hold it between them. “Were I a young man I might think it a wall worth tearing down, but I must choose my battles, rather than beat myself bloody against unyielding stone.”
Ian smiles, but there is no joy to be seen. His amusement is overwhelmed by the soft sadness in his tone, and his face lifts only a margin, eyes rising further than his chin to study the elf beside him. His hands fall to his sides, fingers twitching free of the folds of his sleeve to catch at the hems, running in tense agitation along the frayed seams.
“Then you have more in common with the Dalish than perhaps you would like to think.”
He watches him, his face a neutral mask that denies his heart. Irritation sparks within him,and yet Solas cannot bring himself to be angry, not when Ian has done him the service of listening. Still, he cannot ignore the indignant flicker, the reminder that no one– not Ian, not the Inquisitor, not even the Spymaster herself– knows him.
The closest thing he has to a people are beyond his reach. He is alone.
Solas draws in another slow breath, the tremor the sole hint to what brews behind blue eyes. “And less in common with you, it seems.”
The irritation is tangible, though Solas works to conceal it. His breath shakes on his inhale, and Ian thinks he hears the beginnings of anger clipping at the response given. It isn’t unexpected, and it is a far more tame response to dissent than others have offered, but Ian folds in quiet surrender, ducking his head and turning his face.
The agitation at his fingers grows more frantic, stiff and broken in his efforts to be mindful of his motion. His hems are released in favor of his wrists, wringing at the leather until his scars ache. “I’m sorry.”
It is as if his every word chips away at Ian’s calm countenance. Bit-by-bit the illusion fades. He tears his eyes away from Solas, hands tearing at his own gloves, as if nursing some unseen injury. And yet the old elf does not yield to what he feels. The sharp lines of his face do not soften, but neither do they grow hard. His brow lifts, curious about the apology that spills from Ian’s lips.
“Sorry?” he echoes, though it lacks the sentiment. “You spoke with conviction, you said what you meant to say, did you not? We have not known each other long, but you do not strike me as the sort to wound people out of spite. Indeed, you are a healer, your duty is to mend them. Perhaps that is why you believe you should apologise, but there is no need.”
He does not give immediate answer, a second apology caught between his teeth before he can give it voice. His hands continue to worry about his wrists, and when he does speak the words emerge in stumbling stutters, barely audible over the wind that weaves between them.
“It is a p-poor healer who alienates his own p-people. It h-hardly m-matters what I mean to say, when so f-few care to listen.”
“I would argue it matters more.” His voice drops below the wind, his words even when paired with the stutter that edges its ways into Ian’s tone.
“Some will always do everything within their power to ensure their voices are heard. Your words may not reach as many ears, but that does not mean they matter less.” His fingers link together before him, falling into his lap. “But what I think is not important for the moment. What is important… is that you breathe.”
His breath hitches at the reminder, snagging in his throat before he forces a swallow, inhaling again with conscious effort. When had his heart begun to race? The tempo of the his own pulse is far too rapid, thundering in his ears and aching against his ribs.
His ears drop, but another trembling inhale lifts his face ever-so-slightly. Tearing his gaze from his wrists gives him the presence of mind to release them, skin aching beneath the leather. “…you’re right. I’m sorry.”
There it is, that word again– sorry.
But for what? Solas pins the question against the roof his mouth, chin dipping in a quick nod. He pauses to consider his words, what he might say to assuage the distress that had woven its way through Ian’s brow.
He cannot bring himself to apologise for what he said, Ian’s words stung deeper than he cared to admit. It had been foolish to see something of himself in another, a flicker of hope that a thousand years of experience should have quashed immediately.
“Ask me again about the elves. I shall be glad to share with you what I know, now that I realise you will at least grant me the courtesy of listening.”
Ian nods, a jerk of his chin acknowledging the invitation, but it is no longer a question he wishes to ask. Not in this moment, anyway, not with his pulse so loud he will struggle to hear. Anxiety lingers like stubborn fog, and he knows he won’t be able to listen the way Solas expects him to–to ask now would be unkind, and unfair, and he has no desire to make things worse by inviting further irritation. He’s already said too many of the wrong things.
“I will ask again.” He promises, boots catching against crisp grass as he retreats a step. “Tomorrow, perhaps.”
He wants to think of a reason, an excuse. Scout the area, perhaps, as though he does not trust the watch to guard the camp as it falls into dusk, but nothing he can concoct sounds honest, and his ears have fallen as low as they might as he bites back yet another apology. “Right now I….I can’t be still.”
A second step backward carries him far enough to turn, to study the landscape spanning beneath the rise of the hill the Herald has chosen, and winding paths lead down the slope and away into the plains. One more steadying inhale, and he’s lunging forward, four feet carrying him the way two have never managed, and he doesn’t have to think anymore. There is nothing in the world but the air in his lungs, and the earth beneath his feet, and the wind in his fur. Being alone matters much less when he is running.
“Very well,” he mutters. “Tomorrow.”
Ears press against the sides of his heads as his head when he hears the rustle of Ian’s boots against the grass. The corners of his mouth drop, and for an instant the disappointment is palpable. It settles in his gut, curdling like milk. His lips open, but they taste no words. An apology now would be as unhelpful as it is disingenuous, and thus he chooses silence.
Ian draws another step away, turning his back. It frees Solas to do as he wishes, and his arms fold defensively over his chest. Each footfall is a harsh reminder that he has come to expect too much of this world. He looks up (he does not know when he ever looked down) in time to see Ian fall onto all fours, not missing a step as he bounds out into the wilderness.
He prefers the sound of padded paws against the grass, fleeing from the spot where Solas’s feet are planted. It is easier to ignore how his heart sinks at Ian’s retreat. His pain ebbs, and grows dull, just as it has always done. Just as it always will.