It had been a two-and-a-half-day trudge from the horrors of Denerim to the calm of Lothering, and my mind yet flashed and twisted from the staunch smell of Shem blood in my nose, caked into the pores of my trembling hands and matted to the tattered red locks that hung haphazardly before my wide and frightened eyes. All thought of breath had left my tired body, and my knees buckled as I all but crawled to the doors of the large Chantry before me. I was terrified, ashamed—ready for whatever torment Andraste would punish me with. I had lived but ten years in this unforgiving world, and I was not sorrowful of my imminent departure. No elven child—no knife ear would be spared here, of that I was certain, and I resigned to my fate as I felt my tiny body curl against the bloodied grass. I could move no further.
I have no way of knowing how long I lay in that state, wishing for an eternal blackness that never took me—a mercy that I appeared undeserving of. Whether it was hours or a mere matter of moments later, my ears were touched by a sweet voice that filled my shattered mind with images of the Maker. While I was sure I was hallucinating, the sweet Orlesian sound did not leave me, and when next I opened my eyes I was warm. A soft white fabric grazed my dirty skin, and the hands that belonged to it were pale and steady.
I tried to roll onto my side to get a look at my savior, though the sweet sound chastised me, and bid me lay still. I could tell from the fabric that she must be a Chantry Sister, and tears stung my dark green eyes as I fought to find my voice. “You should have let me die, I am tainted by sin. This blood is not my own, and though I inflicted injury on none I do not weep for the bastards who died, and I would gladly watch them slain once more.”
“Watch your mouth, young one.” Was all the voice said, and had I not been so distraught I might have thought it funny. Long I had walked from my alienage in Denerim, running from the only family I had ever known. Shem nobles had raped my cousin, Shianni, and my elder sister had made sure the walls of our home ran crimson in recompense. She was to be hung for her crimes against the Arl, and Shianni told me to run as far from the city as my legs were able to carry me. The Dalish in the Brecilian forest would protect me, she said, keep me out of human Circle Towers should my magic become known. However, I did not know the way, and I was too weak in my young age to make it further than here. I was lucky to have made it to Lothering at all.
“Please do not send me back.” I whispered, reaching for her long sleeve as she tentatively washed the dried blood from my hair and face, allowing me my first glimpse of her delicate face. Her hair was red as mine own, and her blue eyes were both gentle and guarded. She smiled at me.
“Back to where, love? The Alienage, I assume?”
I nodded slowly, swallowing hard as I decided to trust her, against my better judgement. I had yet to meet a Shem I trusted, though she exuded such a pleasantness that I could scarcely help myself. “Yes, Ser. I need to find the Brecilian forest…either that, or a merciful death. I appreciate your kindness, should you decide to grant me either.” I admitted softly. To my shock, she laughed.
“The Brecilian forest? My, you are a long way from your destination. And just who would send their little girl that far alone, hmm?”
“You ask too many questions.” I sighed, a slight frown curling at the corner of the pretty lady’s lips. She looked on me for a long moment, as if deciding what to do with me, before she finally spoke.
“Tell you what. My name is Sister Leliana, I’m a long way from my home as well. I’ve not been in Lothering too long myself, and I know a motherless child when I see one. Why don’t you come home with me, no? I’ll get you cleaned up, and we will see where to go from there.” Her words were sincere, and I could see in her eyes that she lived a lonely, solitary life. This Sister had a past, her compassion for my plight made that clear enough. I chewed my lip for a moment, not in much position to decline her generosity.
“I’m Tora. Aneth ara.”
There was a twinkle in her crystal blue eyes, and she laughed once more. “There, now you’ve remembered your manners. Come, we mustn’t waste time, I do not know what hunts you.” She did not await my response nor my consent, and she scooped me easily into her surprisingly muscular arms.
Sister Leliana lived on the outskirts of the small village, not too far from the Chantry, but far enough to keep away from the other villagers, who were often unkind. Leliana believed she had been chosen by the Maker to help stop the coming blight—it came in a vision, she had said. I believed her, but even fellow sisters in the Chantry thought her to be mad. Perhaps that was why we got along as we did, in the weeks that she kept me as her own. Two outcasts, fending for themselves the best they knew how. I did well not to get attached; the Lay Sister was very good to me, and treated me as her own, but I was not an ignorant child. I knew she planned to abandon Lothering the moment she could get her hands around the Blight. And she did.
She had fostered me a month when the night came. She had gone to the tavern for the night, as she sometimes did, and she had asked one of the friendlier girls that frequented the Chantry to look after me. She had dark hair, and kind eyes. Bethany was an apostate, like me, and I always felt comforted by her presence on nights such as these. She had survived eighteen years a devoted Andrastian without coming into contact with the Templars, and I knew that no harm would come to me while in her care.
“Miss Bethany?” I asked, reaching on my tip toes to put the kettle on. She towered over me, very gently brushing tufts of ginger hair behind my ears as she took the pot from my small hands and sat it neatly on the stove.
“When do you think Sister Leliana will take me to the Dalish? I have to do as Shianni asked; I’m sure Papae will be looking for me.”
Bethany’s brown eyes melted slightly, and her expression told me everything I needed to know. I wasn’t being taken to the Brecilian Forest. She evaded my question, going on about the dangers of the Blight as if I were too stupid to understand risk or death. I was unafraid of this Blight not because I was naive, but I had seen enough horror in the Alienage to sate my curiosity of the world. I did not care for hardship. If the Dalish could protect me from the Shemlen until my father could come get me, that was where I was going to go, no matter any danger. “It is likely to hit Lothering hard, Tora. Leliana would do well to take you with her when she goes.”
“That does not answer my query. She may take me where she like, so long as I make it into the Forest.”
Bethany shook her head, though there was a light smirk twitching at the corner of her lips. “Stubborn one, aren’t you? That forest is not safe. I have family in Kirkwall, you know, in the Free Marches. Surely there is a Dalish clan there, should we have to evacuate, you could just come with us.”
I opened my mouth to retort but shut it again as the door to our home slowly creeped open. I frowned as my eyes fell on my friend, whose beautiful Chantry robes had been exchanged for splintmail armor. I knew well what this meant, and her sheepish smile added insult to injury. When I refused to meet her eyes, Leliana’s soft hands cupped my face and I felt her press a kiss into my hair. “Do not be sad, little one. I told you the Maker had a plan, no? I ran into someone who would very much like to see you.”
See me? I braved a glance at her, confused, and as my eyes fell on the company she’d brought with her, my eyes immediately stung with tears. There was a tall ginger man, standing a bit goofily next to a slender Elven woman with fiery hair and dark eyes. When our eyes met, I ran toward the woman and flung my tiny arms around her waist as best I could.
“Antanasia!” My voice cracked, nuzzling my face into her stomach as she tightened her embrace around me. She smelled like home, and my heart couldn’t help the peels of sobs that seized my lungs. I had thought her dead…I had…I couldn’t contain my joy.
“Sister.” She hummed happily in response, ruffling my curls lovingly as the man at her side rose an incredulous eyebrow.
“Tana, you failed to mention you had a sister. As heartwarming as I’m sure this is, we can’t take a baby to fight a Blight. What are we to do with her?”
“I know that, Alistair. And no matter what Shianni might have said, we cannot take her into the Forest either. I am grateful to you, Leliana, for keeping her safe. I owe you a debt I can never repay. I beg of you, however, one last mercy. Is there anywhere you know of that we can take her? I will not take her back to the Alienage. Father has forbidden it.” Antanasia’s voice was quiet, but urgent, and fear tore through me at her words. I had just reunited with her, I didn’t want her to go.
“Please…” I hated myself for the whimper that caught in my throat, and the one she called Alistair looked as if he pitied me. I hated that all the more.
“Ir abelas, da’len.” She whispered, kissing the side of my tear-streaked face gently as she engaged in a hushed conversation with Leliana. She exchanged a knowing glace with Bethany, who gave a solemn nod as Leliana packed up the rest of her things. She tried to hug me, but I was hurt, and I recoiled just out of her reach. I knew what this meant. I hated Leliana for abandoning me and taking my sister with her. I hated them both. I will never know how she looked upon me, but I could hear sorrow in her voice as she spoke.
“Bethany will take you home to her mother, Leandra. She knows how to protect apostates, Dalish or no she will keep you safe. I am so sorry I could not fulfill my promise.” When I didn’t respond I heard her sigh heavily, and the door creaked open once more. I regretted for years not telling neither her nor my sister that I loved them before they threw themselves to the Blight. But I was a petulant child, and I did not yet know how far my path would take me from them. It would be years before I even saw Ferelden again. In that moment, I hated my country, I hated Denerim, I hated Andraste. As I felt Bethany pull me against her bosom, I bitterly wished the Blight would swallow the entire wretched smear of land they called Lothering. I wanted the Shemlen to suffer. And that is the one thing I will truly regret for the rest of my life…for it came to pass.