I. Gem of Fire
You were a bundle of pudgy limbs and pink skin, and a headful of ginger wisps flying around your head. Already demanding attention with a resolute voice.
“Where did you come from?”, I marvelled, touching your tiny pointed ears. “Are you really mine?” Your answer was a blaming gurgle.
“Cullen Stanton Rutherford, you are embarrassing yourself. And me.” Ah, that sharp censure. I smiled wider. The wife took me too seriously, still. Of course you are mine. And you are perfect, Maker help me.
“I couldn’t resist.”, I told Lira. “What should we name her?” A short silence.
“I have a feeling that she will take the world by storm. She is Arlenna. I-Am-Fated.”
My world had lost all anchor. Legs and arms dangled, flopping around carelessly with each lurch, head lolling like a limp sack of sand. A hard edge of metal – a shoulder-guard, I assumed – pressed into the pit of my stomach painfully, the pangs coming in rhythm with the steps. My hair flew in a halo of fox-coloured locks around my upside-down face, obscuring vision as I worked my throat to issue a sound, any sound, a yelp, a scream, whatever. Only none came. I had been muted, not just voice but body and magic too, everything that could have made me resist paralyzed.
Inwardly, I raged. I screamed and flailed and hated with a fury. I was being abducted. Taken. On my goddamn birthday. A strong arm squeezed me to quell those emotions, to make me even more silent, as if that were possible. Bastard! The corridors of my home rushed past, shadowed furniture and dark, framed pictures. All a blur. I prayed, prayed that someone was still awake in the house – there! A flicker of candle-light from the library, the door open, just a tiny crack. I felt my kidnapper stiffen and pick up the pace.
Footsteps thudded across the floor and between the woolliness of my hair and my drooping head, I glimpsed my mother, illuminated by a golden streak. She was in her dressing gown, a book held lazily in her hand. I felt the mad urge to grin. What a sight that must have been! Her daughter slung over the shoulder of a hooded madman, like a life-size puppet. It could have been a scene written in some sensational adventure novel.
“Vhenan, is that y-“, she fell silent for one heartbeat, before shock flooded her face, followed by understanding. And ire. Oh, so much ire. Decades of it. “Cullen! It’s him! He has Arlenna!”
Twelve hours earlier…
“They are delaying it, again!” I knew my voice was just short of a yell when I slammed the brittle parchment down on the desk. A wonder it did not crumble from the force. The Circle of Magi insignia glinted mockingly in the midday sunlight, like some snickering jester’s face. My father flinched, quill tilting but not quite slipping from his hand. He let out a sigh that I knew by heart and lifted his head to gift me with a thorough scowl. It threw me right back into childhood. Despite closing in on fifty-six winters, his sight was still impeccable, tawny eyes as sharp as ever. Sharp and rebuking.
“Arlenna… I wondered what the ruckus outside was about.”, he murmured fatalistically. I slumped into the chair across the desk without ceremony, uncaring that my expensive silk dress wrinkled in the process. My father first surveyed me, then the signed letter I had so recklessly thrust under his nose. Light reflected off the silver strands in his blonde hair, making him look like an aging lion. I smirked secretly, knowing my mother would have much appreciated the comparison. I would have to tell her later.
Right now, the letter was my more immediate concern. And source of my rage. Damn those conservative cods at the Circle. It was the third time they delayed my Harrowing for another year – without so much as a coherent explanation. After due consideration, it is deemed by the First Enchanter that the apprentice should continue training before undergoing this arduous and complex task… A load of horse-rubbish. I was ready. I knew it, they knew it, my family knew it. The latter mostly because they bore the bulk of my frustration after each rejection, for which I should have felt sorry… If I hadn’t been so busy feeling angry instead.
“I am sorry that they rejected you again, Ari.”, my father’s deep voice roused me from stewing. A frown had crept to his noble brow, putting more lines on his face, and I instantly regretted overreacting so childishly. Still, he didn’t seem all that sorry. Not surprising, really. Da had always been the pinnacle of overprotectiveness. If it were his choice, he would have kept me living in an ivory tower for the rest of my life.
For as long as I could remember, I’d needed to be cautious, kept safe, never allowed to wander off lest I tripped over some dangerous escapade. My brother, on the other hand… Complete freedom, no restrictions for him, the shameless flirt. He travelled the city at his leisure, while I had to resort to every trick in the book if I wanted to sneak out for an evening. And contrary to him, I had to endure lengthy lectures if I got caught. When I got caught, more like. My parents had an uncanny talent of sensing my little excursions, and one of them would usually wait for me in the parlour by candlelight, a lecture at the ready. For years, their exaggerated shepherding had annoyed me to no end, especially when I’d wanted nothing more than to have an adventure of my own.
Tomorrow, I’d be turning twenty. My life seemed a dull road leading to nowhere in particular. Still, I had lately started wondering if there was more to my family’s obsession with my safety than I saw. It just felt so… I don’t know, off. They never quite appeared satisfied enough when rebuking me for some reckless journey out of bounds, more as if it was just as unpleasant for them as it was for me.
“Da? You know I love you, right?”, I ventured, calling on my father’s attention. Something in my voice must have alarmed him, for a look of trepidation flashed across his features. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. I pressed on. “You wouldn’t be… pulling strings to keep the Circle from issuing my Harrowing, would you?” Da paled, eyes widening.
“Of course I wouldn’t. Maker, have I given you the impression that I might be so overbearing?”, he sounded shocked. I shook my head vigorously, regretting that I even brought the question up. My father would have pulled the sun down from the sky for me, if I’d asked for it. Why did my frustration exile all reason and replace it with doubt instead?
“I’m sorry… I didn’t mean that… It’s just… Why are they stalling? I passed all preliminary tests. I just can’t see any reason for them to delay. I’m ready. I am!” My anger reared up again, unwilling to stay controlled and quiet. Too impulsive, the teachers had chided from day one. You are being too rash, mother reprimanded me when I pulled the reins of her horses impatiently. Patience, they all preached in an unending chorus.
Well, I was fresh out of that. Without noticing it, a small spark of fire had sprung to life in my palm, little flaming tendrils dancing over my skin. It tickled, almost merrily, before it died an instant later. I looked at my empty hand curiously, then met my father’s gaze. He reached smoothly over the wide desk, warm fingers closing around mine. The peculiar sensation of his… magic – I had no better word for it – caught me unaware.
Somewhere in the distant past, he had been a templar, one of the mighty warriors who guarded folk against the dangers of magic. They called upon the real world and made it go solid, abolishing any spell or energy that would be drawn from the Fade. Da had been an expert in that particular skill, so much so that even decades later, templars would seek him out for tutelage. He employed it now, to banish my tiny emotional outbreak, although it felt very carefully tempered. Not shackles to lock me down, but rather a fine thread around my wrist, tugging me to focus. It was a familiar feeling, known countless times over the course of my life. I wondered what would happen if he’d use the full force of his will, and then suddenly hoped never to witness it.
“You are drifting off, little sprite.”, he remarked gently, squeezing my hand. He still called me that, although I had grown taller than my mother years ago. Then he let go and leaned back into his chair, exhaling in a tired sort of way. “Where is your mother?” His gaze swept once around the study, as though he somehow expected her to manifest in answer, which of course she didn’t.
I had always liked Da’s study. The templar sword and shield on the wall behind his desk, the rows and rows of books crammed into towering shelves. Around midday, the sun would hit the high, lead glass windows and throw a vibrant shaft of light right through the middle of the room, across the gigantic oak desk and the thick rugs, the polished wooden floor. As a child, I used to dance in circles through that rainbow, marvelling at the reflections on my skin, imagining I was a magician who could paint her whole little world with her favourite colours… The memory made me smile.
“Out riding, probably. Or with Uncle Varric.” Those were usually good guesses. My uncle – well, he was only an uncle by name, not a real relative – had visited us every Saturday for dinner, as far back as I could remember. He was an old friend of the family and godfather to both me and my brother Cassian. I liked him a great deal, especially his stories about epic adventures with the Champion of Kirkwall, or the times when he’d fought in the Inquisition with my parents. They were almost too fantastic to believe sometimes.
And each year on my birthday, he would give me some hilarious, incredibly witty gift. What might it be this year…? At least once a week, my mother rode the little distance to his estate and spent the whole afternoon playing Wicked Grace. As a little girl, I’d managed to wheedle her into taking me too, every now and then. Da cleared his throat.
“Probably for the better… Come, I’d like to show you something.” Intrigued, I followed him through the hallway into the library. Specks of dust floated jauntily between the sunlit shelves, above the wide reading settees.
All woodwork here was mahogany – matching the burgundy drapes, the plush orleisian furnishings. Elegant and cosy, at the same time. I could get lost in heroic tales for hours here. Or spell-books. There were few things I enjoyed more than reading. I loved playing the piano, a great instrument that had hailed from Orleis and had made its way to the Free Marches about a decade ago. But other than that…
Da went to one of the back shelves and pulled a carefully rolled-up scroll from its depths. He broke the seal without much fuss and unrolled it. We sat down on one of the sofas as he placed the faded parchment on my lap. Our family tree. There was my father’s side, going back about ten generations. On the left, Mum’s side, considerably shorter, almost meagre. I didn’t quite understand why he would show me this. I’d seen exactly the same a thousand times. It hung on display in the study. No, wait. Not exactly the same. There, from grandmother Mariel’s name…
“When we accepted the titles of Count and Countess, we were more or less obligated to provide a documentation of origin. I thought they meant it as a bad joke first. Neither of us came from noble heritage. Your mother is Dalish, for Maker’s sake. I doubt any Dalish elf has held a title in… ever. And me… Templar turned general turned nobleman. We were trailblazers.”, Da explained. The slight curve of his lips slackened when he went on, though. “This is the first version of our family tree. I think it is time that you… understand a few things.”
He pointed at the name next to Mariel Lavellan. It read: Marcus Vilerian. They were connected by a dotted line, slashed twice through the middle, from where another line in the same style went down to one Orianna Vilerian. I’d studied genealogy with my tutor. Dotted line, sliced twice… Relations without marriage. Child out of wed-lock. And to her right, Shenlira Rutherford, former Lavellan.
“Mum had a sister? I had an aunt on her side?” I was dumbstruck. My father nodded heavily. He suddenly looked old. Withered.
“Half-sister. It is a part of our past that very few know about. A dark tale that, your mother especially, does not wish to remember.” And then he proceeded to tell me a story I would never have believed if it hadn’t come from my upstanding, down-to-earth father. Grandmother Mariel had in truth been Mar’Alenna, an infamous maleficar whose exploits were marked down in cautionary chapters about blood magic, even fifty years after her active time.
She’d birthed a firstborn daughter by a templar – Marcus Vilerian – in secret and hidden her away after almost being killed by her vengeful lover. The child, Orianna, had grown up to become an exceptionally skilled mage, another maleficar, who made it her life’s quest to take revenge on my mother for a miserable existence in the shadows. After a failed assassination attempt, they tracked her down in Wycome, where the mad woman kidnapped and tortured my father. Both Mar’Alenna and Orianna had died after turning into abominations. Willingly. Mages possessed by demons.
I felt all colour flee from my face as I listened to my father’s detailed account. What a gruesome secret they had kept. Yet… Why was he telling me this now? It wasn’t as if this had anything to do with – Oh but it had. Like a punch to my stomach, I realized –
“The Circle knows.” My voice sounded dead. Toneless. Heat returned to my skin. Heat and anger. “It’s the reason why they delay my Harrowing.”
“Yes.”, Da said regretfully. “We had to inform them about dangerous magic that might run in the family. It would have been irresponsible not to. I am so sorry, Ari… Your mother and I never quite saw eye to eye about this issue. I wanted you to join the Circle, so you’d learn to use magic responsibly, controlled and safe. Your mother, on the other hand, wanted you to learn with the Keeper and her First, of Lavellan. But that would mean to send you far away… It… caused a few sleepless nights.”
I remembered. Faintly. Remembered them arguing, waking up to raised voices when I was little, especially after my abilities started manifesting more openly. But I was too insulted to feel sympathy.
“And you thought you’d tell me this after I had been rejected three times? Three years, father! You should have told me the moment I got the first letter. No, you know what? Even before that, way before! How could you keep this from me?!” My voice gained volume, further and further, the more I understood the hypocrisy of it all.
Trust, trust, trust, they had glorified that word and its meaning, while holding such a monumental thing back from me. How was that fair?! It bordered on a lie. I had never seriously fought with my parents before. Not this way. Now they received the payback for those docile years in the past.
It was ugly. I yelled and raved, uncaring that I delivered blow after hurtful blow. Half-way through, my mother returned from wherever she’d been and I lashed out at her even more. She’d always been private, secretive. Certainly it had been her who’d sworn my father to silence about the whole mess. I am not proud of the names I called her. Liar, deceitful, mistrusting even of her own daughter!
The wild accusations I threw out made them wince as though daggers had struck them. I would never be accepted into the Circle with two maleficar in my immediate blood-line. Two abomination incidents. I would never become a real mage, and it was their fault! And the worst of it all, they didn’t even try to defend themselves. Not really. My tantrum went down some bottomless hole of patience, but the offense that bloomed on their faces whipped back at me like barbed wire. Let us explain, Ari – We wanted to protect you – We love you – Until I couldn’t bear to look at them anymore.
I turned and fled. Somewhere, anywhere. Just away from them. They let me. I took to the streets blindly, without direction, just following my feet. But Kirkwall was a city full of people, and they all seemed incredibly curious about the peculiar young elf rushing sightlessly along the cobbled path. Even more so in Hightown, where folk had little else to do but to drink tea and gossip. Solitude. How wonderful it would be sometimes. I darted around a neatly painted corner until the shadows enveloped me. Still the feeling of being watched did not dissipate. One could never truly be alone in a place like this. I leaned against the wall, sliding down.
Shame is an ugly thing. We can seldom experience it without a mistake leading our way. Fervour may put us into an opaque haze, but when it dwindles, shame stands ready. It forces us to look upon every thoughtless action, every impulse we gave in to without consideration. I felt shame seep into me now, as I sat there, arms around my knees and head bowed. I had said terrible things to my parents. Two people who loved me to distraction. Childishly stupid.
Too rash, impatient, impulsive. No point denying the fact that those characterizations of me were completely true. I had known for a long time now that I wasn’t what others deemed… normal. I hadn’t even been normal when I arrived in this world. Elven, born to a human father and an elf mother. It just didn’t happen. An oddity. Such unions exclusively brought forth human children. But here I was. No wild speculation about my origin remained that I hadn’t heard before. The favourite of evil tongues being that I was the product of a sordid affair my mother had with an elf. Fools. Why did I have my father’s eyes, then, geniuses?
Also, take one goddamn look at my parents together. Affairs, as if! They were… Head over heels for each other. Madly. Still. The affection tended to be off-putting, as a daughter. And sometimes, I wondered if I would ever find a person who would love me in such a way. Without reservations, completely, strengths and flaws and all. The bar had been set… high. I let out a heavy breath. Time to return, before someone sent a guard after me.
I stood again, pondering for a moment the unpleasant immediate future, where I would need to apologize for my outburst. Oh joy… I had done wrong. I knew that. Facing the consequences was a part of life… It didn’t mean I looked forward to it. Out on the street, pedestrians walked by, going about their usual business. Except for one figure. Hooded, dressed in inconspicuous linens. He stood on the opposite side, face shrouded in shadows. I had the distinct feeling that he was looking at me. I blinked, uneasiness creeping up on me. Don’t be paranoid, I chided myself. And then some tall nobleman passed by and the stranger was… gone. I wondered if I’d imagined him.
After that, I was more than glad to return to the safety of home. Mum and Da were waiting for me in the hall, and I went through my meek apology more or less graciously. They did not bear grudge. I wondered, not for the first time, how many discordant families there were out in the world, how many stubborn kin held back forgiveness from each other, hurting, resenting. It made me resolve to be more grateful for what I had. My life might not be perfect. And yet, I’d never known misery, violence or poverty. I was loved, cherished, kept safe, like a priceless treasure. Luckier than most. A child of the sun. Why did I never stop longing for more?
“You will be a true mage, Ari. The Circle rejects you, and so what? This isn’t thirty years ago, when mages were confined to towers with a hatchet looming above their heads.”, Mum brought me out of my musings. We were sitting at the table after dinner, and she eyed me hopefully. “There are other ways. Keeper Iraya’s offer still stands. Or the Free Academy in Val Royeaux. Of course, we would need to talk about the specifics… Arrange living conditions…” My father frowned at her, but kept his silence.
“What about your old Inquisition friends? You had a whole coterie of amazing mages! It would be incredible to be tutored by one of them. Who was the best?”, I asked her in the wake of a sudden epiphany. Her heart-shaped face, still striking even at her age, went pale as a sheet. Oh-oh. What now? Had I said something wrong? She looked as though I’d just asked her how many children she’d murdered lately. At the other end of the table, Da went rigid in his chair, his features hardening. Something was not right. A lingering moment of silence passed, before my father spoke in a deliberately light voice.
“Actually, that idea is not half-bad. We should write to Dorian. He is retired now, so he is likely bored out of his mind. Isn’t that right, love?” Mum had been staring blankly into space, now she seemed to flinch back into herself. I pushed the last piece of parsley venison around on my plate, intrigued.
“Yes, of course. What a great idea. We shall take up correspondence with Dorian at once. And maybe Vivienne too. She still leads the Val Royeaux Circle. They would both be excellent teachers. Their good word might even change the Circle’s mind. Although Vivienne hasn’t exactly mellowed over the years. What did Varric call her, vhenan?” Just a little too much enthusiasm rang in her tone. I had a distinct suspicion that I was missing some crucial information.
“The Iron Maiden.”, Da answered at once.
The conversation veered to some mildly boring, innocent topics. They talked about this and that in an animated fashion while I listened, not quite interested. My brother Cassian’s latest exploits with some hare-brained noble lady, the expenses for his personal lodgings and how his studies at the university were going. He was five years my elder, a student of law and diplomacy, intending to become ambassador. Also what I would call an eternal bachelor. Charming, devilishly handsome, and he could turn a phrase so well, he might one day talk a tiger out of its stripes. Which made him maddeningly popular with the twittering females of Hightown.
Still, he’d always been a caring brother to me, and whenever I visited him at the fashionable, two-story housing he inhabited, we’d spend an evening out on the town with his exuberant friends. Things always came easily to him, somehow. An ill-natured part of me felt a little jealous of him from time to time. Maybe I should work on that too…
“So, Ari…” Da began, drawing my attention. I realized I had been drifting off again. It happened a lot. My head liked to roam the clouds. “We know your birthday is not until tomorrow. But your mother and I would like to give you your present today.” He pushed a small, nondescript box towards me on the tablecloth. Mum circled the table to stand by his side. They both smiled.
“See it as a promise from us. We will do everything in our power so the past does not hinder you in becoming the best mage that you can be.”, she said. A keen emotion dwelled in her grey eyes. I swallowed.
“You’re not to blame… Either of you. I’m sorry I even – I didn’t mean to. I was angry and frustrated…” Well, so much for being eloquent. I sounded rather childish instead.
“We know. Now go on, open it!”, my father encouraged.
Before I did, I wiped my hands clean surreptitiously on my mauve day dress – earning a scowl from both of them. Typical. As I lifted the lid from the box, I couldn’t suppress a gasp. Inside, on a bed of dark velvet, lay a beautiful necklace. Filigree golden links made up the chain, so thin and delicate that I wondered what kind of craftsman would be able to create such a thing. But the pendant… Oh, the pendant!
A scarlet, teardrop-shaped gem in a pristine gold setting. It glowed from the inside out, a kaleidoscope of colours reflected in its ruby depths. Fractures of light filtered through the stunning stone, danced on the skin of my palm as I picked it up, so carefully. I stared, mesmerized. Rose, blood-red, vermillion. Hues I had no name for. From the corner of my eye, I saw my parents exchange satisfied looks with each other.
“Mum… Da… It’s incredible.” And it truly was.
“It’s a fire gem. They are very rare, each a unique, slightly different shade. A little magic resides inside every one of them. The people of Nevarra believe that fire gems are the shards of a dragon’s heart. Filled with a living fire.” Mum helped me secure the chain around my neck. The fire gem rested against my breastbone, warm to the touch.
“It suits you.”, my father said with a smile. “Happy birthday, Ari.”