Varen’s journey began at sunrise. The majority of the camp was still asleep in their aravels; the only life that came from in was the snoring of the sleepers and the lanterns on the back doorstep protecting any early risers or those needing to answer nature’s call in the dark. Only the night’s watch were about, leaning on their staves and bows or nearby trees with comfortable ease.
They waved as she passed, acknowledging their First’s presence with the quiet deference that her position demanded.
“Heading out already?” one of them asked, offering her a cup of warm tea to help wake her.
Varen accepted it gratefully. “Mm,” was all she said before she lost herself in her enjoyment of the drink. “You put rose petals in it, Falos,” she observed, smiling over the steam rising out of the cup.
“Always, can’t drink it otherwise. Take it with you, girl,” the old man said, “Not yet winter, but it’s getting awfully chilly.”
“Where is the Keeper sending you,” his partner asked, hoping that this morning Varen would finally have an answer for him.
“East,” Varen replied, savoring another sip of tea.
“That’s it,” she affirmed with a wry grin as she watched Hanan’s expression deflate. He always wanted to know more. Know everything. He was often disappointed, and frequently tormented by those that knew more than he did, until of course his incessant questioning drove them mad. There was a reason that the boy wore Dirthamen’s vallaslin – and the only ones able to withstand him were others like him. Others like Varen.
“Thank you for the tea,” she said, raising her mug in toast to Falos, who raised his in return.
“Walk softly, Varen, may the Dread Wolf never catch your scent!” he cautioned as Varen with staff in one hand and tea in the other set of toward the rising sun.
The truth was, that not even Varen was entirely sure why Deshanna had sent her out that morning. She had her own inklings, naturally, but her Keeper never explicitly stated. It was her way, on occasion, to let her apprentice find her own path. “The best lessons,” Deshanna once said, “were those learned independently.” It was true – and moreover, Deshanna would not always be there to guide her. One day, it would fall to Varen to protect and guide the clan; she had to be able to come to those decisions on her own and feel confidence in them.
It often meant she took long, seemingly pointless walks in one direction or many directions until she finally came to the realization of what important skill or piece of knowledge Deshanna meant for her to have. She walked a lot when she was younger… Varen had been a stubborn and willful student in her youth. There was a small part of her that wondered if Deshanna breathed thanks to the Creators that she had finally mellowed. Probably.
The purpose of this walk had been the source of a growing sense of anxiety for several days. Deshanna had called it “momentous.” Varen didn’t want to admit it, but she knew the truth of that in the depths of her soul. The world was changing, and it could not be said whether it was for the better or the worse. The unknown was terrifying. And there was something great and dark and terrible looming on the horizon, hurtling toward them like a summer gale off the sea.
It was not long at all, just before noon, when Varen saw the first signs of life – life that had no purpose nor belonged to the forest. Whispers echoed through the trees, twisted and drifting in from every direction in that eerie way that frightens children before they learn the ways of the trees. They were almost directly in her path, off the trade roads, which meant this small group of shemlen were not merchants, not farmers or peasantry, and it was doubtful they were templars or soldiers.
As she edged closer, forgoing the bulky staff she carried so that she may sneak in among the bushes, Varen heard rather than saw their clumsy mannerisms. They talked too loud, and yet at the same time were quiet. They were used to the echo of stone, not wood. They were used to being watched – but in a confined space, watching specific corners not an entire circle around them. Anxious and yet their voices held the tremulous joy of children who dared to go where their parents had forbidden them.
When she finally saw these intruders, Varen understood immediately. Six people, of varying age, height and race, and each one robed in the manner of shemlen mages. They were likely no danger to her – or to the clan – but they were still very, very near.
Varen watched, concealed in the shadows as they started a small cook-fire to make their lunch. They talked of Starkhaven, of Kirkwall, of Val Royeax, Rivain and Tevinter. They were headed north, though they had no map, and no real way to navigate. But they were hopeful. They were free. Varen had debated leaving them, but in the end, she had decided to do the exact opposite.
The key was snapping a twig. With that, the mages would be aware of her presence before she snuck up on them. They would be ready to strike her, but she would not surprise them and ensure her death. Her ploy worked.
“Who’s there?” the oldest mage snapped, standing up so quickly his salt and pepper hair fluttered as if caught in a strong breeze. The others were also on their feet as well, robes swirling, and fingers flashing with fire, lightening and the raw yellow, green and black tendrils of mana.
“Peace,” Varen asked, stepping out of the shadows with hands raised, open palms, devoid of magic.
A few of their eyes widened in surprise, and terror. All of them looked at her with suspicion.
“What do you want,” the leader asked. None stood down.
“Peace,” Varen repeated with a coy smile. “Nothing less.”
The youngest, of Elvhen blood stepped forward, swallowing his fear. His eyes were strange: hopeful. Varen had often heard that some in the alienages looked to the Dalish to save them. It would not be Varen who stepped forward to do so, though Keeper Istimaethoriel, and other Keepers, hunters and entire clans were friendly to the shems.
“You’re Dalish-” he began.
“Obviously,” Varen interrupted.
The boy frowned back at her, but tried to keep his enthusiasm. The oldest reached for him as he stepped out of the line of mages. The boy’s hand raised, sans magic or trick, and extended toward Varen.
She watched him curiously, but did not take his hand. Instead, hers dropped, and she bowed to him. “You are heading north?”
“How much did you hear?” one of the women asked, stepping forward menacingly. “How long were you there?”
“Long enough. You are loud,” Varen said with a shrug. That seemed to terrify them. “Circle your fire with stones next time – and smother it when you leave, lest you want your fire to follow you north.”
“What do you want?” the eldest asked, banishing the magic he had summoned. A few of the others followed his example.
“I would ask the same of you. This is our forest.”
“Your forest,” the young elf corrected. “Right?”
Varen turned a curious eye toward him. “Mine?”
“You don’t have a bow, or a knife, or a sword,” he pointed out, nodding his head in her direction. “You’re not a hunter, or a scout. And you’re alone,” he explained. “You’re a Keeper.”
Varen couldn’t help but smile. “Clever boy. But I am not a Keeper.”
“Yet,” he said, grinning with cocksure pride.
Varen only grinned back at him. He never got his straight answer – and he didn’t need it. She turned to the eldest and leader.
“Where are you from?”
He swallowed, wondering whether or not to answer. He glanced at the young elf.
“Don’t answer her,” the woman cautioned, eliciting a murmur of assent.
“She’s a mage, Mara,” the boy said. “She’s safe.”
The oldest looked back at Varen, and sucked on his teeth, thoughtfully. Finally, under Varen’s patient gaze he answered, “Ostwick Circle.”
“Where are your Templars?”
“Hopefully lost,” he said. “We led them in circles.”
“And now we’re lost ourselves,” another mage piped up, bouyed by his comrades ease of conversation with the Dalish elf.
“We’re not lost,” the oldest snapped.
“Where are you then?” Varen inquired.
“Near Bastion,” the man replied. “I figure… maybe two days to the north east. We crossed the Minater yesterday.”
“You’re about a fortnight off,” Varen said. “You’re about a day’s walk from Wycome,” Varen said, pointing to the east. “The river you crossed was probably just one of the tributaries.”
A ripple of discontent and terror spread through the group. The templars might be closer than they thought.
“You’ve no map?”
“No,” the oldest mage quietly stated.
“Are you going to Tevinter?” Varen asked, side-eyeing the few elves that were in the group. It might not be the best idea…
“No… we thought, Rivain,” he replied. He gestured to his companions, "Alma, Quintus and Linde are elves. We feared for their safety. Rivain seemed… safer.”
“I know little of Rivain. But you are probably right. Are you familiar with the constellation the Hidden One,” Varen asked, gesturing to the northern sky. “He is seated, with his head obscured by a veil or mist.”
“Yes… but we call her Eluvia,” a shemlen woman stepped forward.
“Eluvia...” Varen murmured softly, thinking. A fitting name for the Hidden One. “Travel by night, follow him. He will take you north, though once you leave this area I cannot say what you will encounter.”
“Thank you,” the eldest man said, awed that they would be aided by one of the fabled Dalish savages. Varen turned to leave.
“Wait,” the young elf asked, reaching for her hand, “Thank you.” He pressed a small amulet into her hand, carved with little images of birds and fish. Varen looked at the abalone carving with an expression unreadable to the young man.
Silently, she nodded, and disappeared into the shadows of the forest, leaving the surprised mages alone.
She had not walked twenty minutes before she discovered Keeper Istimaethoriel sitting patiently on a rock, holding her staff against her chest.
Varen stopped in her tracks. “You look like an old woman leaning on her walking stick as if it were her last hope of life.”
“Was that was you wanted of me?”
“Was it, Da’len?” Deshanna shot back with a grin.
Varen sighed. Best not to answer now. Instead, she closed the distance between them and came to sit in the leaf litter at Deshanna’s feet.
“There are more and more mages coming through these areas,” Varen said.
“I heard there was a vote they passed,” Varen said, “declaring themselves free.”
“Blaen, the mage who joined us a fortnight ago, she said the same thing to you?”
“Yes,” Deshanna said, her smile fading into a somber expression. She watched Varen carefully.
“This changes everything,” Varen stated.
“Not yet. There is something bigger on the horizon,” Deshanna replied. “You have heard it, and felt it better than I. You are better at hearing the secrets of the world. You are better at listening to them. What do they tell you?”
Varen was silent. There was something dark in her sleep, endlessly tormenting her. It was not a spirit – she knew the Fade well enough. She knew spirits; she was not afraid of possession, but there were other things pressing on her mind. Desperate to get out.
Change was coming. A great terrible vibration, a rumble like thunder that would not stop. She hadn’t slept well for months. Not three weeks ago, she made sense of it; made sense of herself. Varen could no longer call herself First to the Keeper. This would no longer be her place.
She had yet to confess this Deshanna. She doubted she ever would, or could. Time would tell.
“Go,” Varen simply stated, hoping her answer was vague enough to answer, but not encourage more questioning.
Deshanna nodded. “Go south. There is a conclave to be had soon – in a place called Haven, in the south of Ferelden.”
Varen closed her eyes and sighed.
“I want you to attend. Whatever happens with these mages and the shemlen’s Divine, we have to know. It will impact the entirety of Thedas.”
“I know,” Varen whispered. “Am I to go alone?”
“No; take Nethras and Ralath with you. I have arranged passage for you over the Waking Sea.”
“How?” Varen asked.
Deshanna looked uncomfortable, and only smiled. “I have my connections.”
Varen eyed her Keeper carefully. She did not like how that sounded.”Who?”
“Another clan to west.”
“Da’len-” Deshanna chuckled, trying to brush off the inquisitive nature of her First.
“Keeper,” Varen firmly interrupted.
Deshanna knew that look. Creators, she was as willful now as she was when she was younger. She sighed, and shook her head. “You are the reason I have so many grey hairs, Da’len. Clan Sabrae.”
“They can barely keep their Halla,” Varen blurted. The clan had been without them for years, stuck on Sundermount, pleading for aid while their First had traipsed off to wreak havoc on- Oh no.
“Keeper,” Varen laughed, “You did not.”
“Merrill was a good girl, if a bit off. You met her at the Arlathvhen,” Deshanna replied, “And she was only too happy to help. She arranged for the ship to take you. She said their captain comes highly recommended.”
Varen shook her head. Merrill had been sweet, it was true – still one only heard rumors from Kirkwall and Clan Sabrae anyway. Between that and the Blight Warden, they were practically famous – and still they could hardly be reached. Varen quietly blamed Marethari – she never seemed to be the wisest of Keepers.
“Come,” Deshanna said, raising to her feet, she offered her hand down to her First. “You have much to prepare for.”
Varen took her hand and followed. “Keeper, how did you know those mages were here?”
“I didn’t. I thought you’d end up at Wycome. This is better,” she stated with a chuckle. “Not as far to walk.”