Crap crap crap, Dalen thinks to herself as she frantically shoves the last piece of food in her mouth. She’d hoped that they wouldn’t notice one measly bread roll missing, but the chef appears to be on one of his smarter days. She slowly chews the pastry as she huddles up in her hidey hole, watching the pale white skirts flutter around the table.
“Maker’s breath, what did she do now?”
That’s Sister Toinette’s voice. Bad news, that. Horrible news.
“She stole from the kitchen again! This is the last drop, I’m telling you. I refuse to work myself to death just so the little rabbit can steal everything the moment I turn my back!”
He sounds furious. He always sounds furious, and she can deal with that, but now that Sister Toinette is involved and clearly out for her hide, it would be best for her to keep away from the Cathedral for a few days. She begins to crawl, listening to the hushed murmurs of the Sisters setting up the table. They’re worried about his temper of course, and one of them leaves to check the courtyard for her.
Dalen stops crawling and quietly plops down onto the ground, pulling her scabbed knees to her chest. Even if she could make her way under the table near the entrance, she’ll be found as soon as she steps outside and get dragged back in. Before she can come up with an alternate plan, however, a fork loudly clashes to the ground right by where she’s crouching.
The woman kneels down to pick up the damned thing, and they make eye contact.
Things are not going great for the little girl. The sister grabs her by the ear and drags her out from under the table, towards the shouting.
“Thief!” accuses Sister Toinette, her pretty face wrinkled as if she just ate something sour. “Have you no shame? Divine Justinia saves you from Maker knows what, we let you stay with us, clothe you, feed you and this is how you thank us! What do you have to say for yourself?!”
Sister Toinette is correct, though not on all accounts. The event she’s describing took place around Belle Marché, where she mistakenly thought she might get away with stealing an apple or two. The farmer gave chase, and unlike other merchants she dealt with in the past, he was actually able to keep up with the little elf – they went all around the market before Dalen decided to lose him by the upper balconies. She attempted to leap up on a low roof, but her bare foot slipped over the iron rails and she plummeted down. There were multiple audible cracks, and the pain was so intense that she passed out almost instantly. If Divine Justinia wasn’t out on an impromptu evening stroll and decided to show mercy on the poor thing, she probably wouldn’t have woken up at all.
That being said, things are far from great. The sisters indeed allow her to sleep in their quarters and give her warm clothes when it’s cold out. But she’s constantly being sent on errands, she rarely gets enough sleep and they give her about one meal a day... that is, if someone remembers. They usually don’t, because she’s a tiny little thing and she’s smart enough to keep her mouth shut, knowing full well that the charity of the sisters extends only as far as the Divine can see. And the Divine is a nice lady, in all fairness to her, but she’s too busy to look beyond the duties that come with a position like that.
“We can’t just let her out back to the streets, can we?” asks the one next to Toinette. “Divine Justinia said...”
“Her Holiness made her wishes clear,” says Sister Toinette, her brows knitting together in pure spite. “But that does not mean that we have to tolerate betrayal. The brat must be taught a lesson. Lavinia, please take her to my quarters.”
The child turns to Lavinia, silently begging with her eyes. Lavinia has been kind to her in the past, even before she was taken in by the Chantry. If anyone can stop what’s about to happen, it’s her.
“Must we do this?” objects Sister Lavinia. “She’s just a child, and I doubt her stomach is big enough to cause an actual problem in the kitchens...”
“I know for a fact that this is not her first transgression.” Sister Toinette crosses her arms and looks down at Dalen again. “Just the other day, I saw you making off with a full tray of food-”
“I was taking that to Sister Claudette!” shouts Dalen, louder than she initially intended – she’s certain that her right ear is twice as long as it was before. It’s not the worst pain she’s had to endure, but it’s enough for that first spark of rebellion.
“You know the first thing I do upon waking up, Sister?” she asks as she shakes herself free from her captor’s grasp. “Empty and wash chamber pots. I make the beds, I sweep the floors, I help carry breakfast food and when I’m done, I spend the rest of my day running around the Cathedral for you. I am grateful, and I know that I need to earn my keep but the last I had was a slice of bread and an apple. That was two days ago. Your last meal was honey roasted vegetables and a bowl of soup that I brought to you after you were done singing the Chant of Light – you know, the part about being charitable towards the less fortunate!”
They are now staring at her, because they’ve never heard her say this much and this loudly. Dalen knows that the smart thing to do is to keep her mouth shut and endure whatever punishment Sister Toinette deems fit, but at this moment she has no problems burning this particular bridge, as the weather has begun to turn warm and she knows a few places she can spend the night in relative safety. Not to mention the ease of getting food and having to do less work.
Her outburst has gathered the attention of quite a few others, including a person she’s actively tried to avoid for a few days now. She’s heard some of the sisters talk about the red haired woman before; gossiping is no doubt a sin in the eyes of the Maker, but in Val Royeaux, people tend to ignore that particular verse of the Chant.
Sister Toinette sees the woman too, and wastes no time in involving her in the matter. “Sister Leliana!” she calls out, her voice tinted with an appropriate amount of sadness and worry. “Please help us deal with this delinquent. Maker forgive me, I just can’t find it in me to be patient anymore!”
The woman approaches them. She’s wearing the same Chantry robes, but Dalen can tell that she’s not like the others – her facial expression, the way she scouts the room before speaking, even the way she walks is different. Dalen knows how to size up people, as she used to steal quite a bit before getting involved with the Chantry, and what little instinct she has is screaming at her to disengage.
That’s not really an option.
“What’s the matter, Sister Toinette?” she asks, giving the blonde sister a calculated glance.
“The child has stolen from the kitchens yet again.” Sister Toinette is good at playing the victim; her voice trembles, there’s even a tear or two ready to be shed. “Marcel has been working so hard for tonight’s celebrations, and we’ve all helped, except for her! Divine Justinia’s mercy is wasted upon this beast.”
Dalen remains quiet and averts her gaze to the ground. Why fight when the battle is already lost? Despite her venom, Sister Toinette is well liked by all. Clearly there’s no use trying to defend against that.
“Does she steal often?” questions the red headed woman.
“Yes!” exclaims the chef. “All the time!”
“It must be a pretty important matter, then. Allow me to take care of this. You may all resume your duties.”
Dalen cautiously looks up, to see them walking away. Sister Lavinia gives her a sad, pitying look, but walks away just like the others. It was foolish to think she might be of any help; they are all so terrified to stand out that they’d rather shut their eyes.
Sister Leliana watches her for a moment, then asks for her name.
“They call me Dalen.” They mostly called her ‘kid’, but saying that outloud would be ridiculous.
“Da’len?” she repeats, surprised. “Are you Dalish, by any chance?”
“I don’t know. But the man who called me that word was Dalish, I think. He had the tattoos.”
The man had caught her stealing, when she was even younger. And instead of getting mad at her, he’d simply laughed and ruffled her hair. He even gave her a small trinket; a wooden miniature, delicately carved in the shape of a halla, small enough to hide in her fist.
It’s a fond memory, one she often thinks about, because she does not have many of them.
“The Hero of Ferelden was Dalish, you know.” The woman smiles warmly at Dalen. “She told me many tales about her clan.”
She doesn’t want to be rude, but at the same time she has no idea what to say. Obviously everyone has heard about the Grey Warden who sacrificed her life to end the Blight... but Ferelden is far away, which makes it irrelevant as far as Dalen is concerned.
The sister must have noticed her discomfort, because she places a hand on the child’s shoulder to ease her. “I heard what you were saying earlier,” she says. “You’re not in any trouble. I’ll make sure you’re well fed and taken care of - you may even join me at the feast, if you like.”
Dalen is fully prepared to say no, but... when you’re this hungry, it’s very hard to say no.
So, when the sun sets and it’s time for the feast, she sits by the woman who helped The Hero of Ferelden end the Blight. She listens to her wild tales as she fills her stomach with vegetable stew and roasted ham, and is even allowed to take a sip of their wine; just a small taste, nothing more. But it’s hard to ignore the looks the sisters are giving her; Toinette must be angry that she’s seated next to the local hero instead of getting spanked. She doesn’t utter a single word to her, but gives her the nastiest of looks when everyone else is busy ooh-ing and aah-ing over the dessert... and Dalen realizes that perhaps, in the long run, it would be wiser to just stay quiet and accept whatever punishment the woman intended for her. No matter what she does after tonight, she will never be welcome here, not truly.
Later in the night, after the guests clear out and the table is cleared, Dalen sneaks into the room where her cot is and shoves her hand under it to gather her only possession, valuable only to her – the tiny halla. She pauses for a brief moment to watch it glisten under the candle’s flame... then closes her hand around it with determination.
At bedtime, the sisters notice that she’s missing, but they don’t look very far.