The thing Lyssa remembered most vividly about her childhood was the smell of honeycomb cake.
Her mother Darina had always made it on birthdays, a rare and treasured treat, served only in the evenings in the warm candlelight, when darkness smoothed the harsh edges of their tiny home. Then, the rich, sweet smell of honey and cinnamon filled every corner of the small, cramped room, Lyssa shared with her parents and her three brothers, and for one whole night, the warm taste of freshly baked cakes chased away every thought of poverty or hunger. The little house was situated in a side alley of Denerim’s alienage, one of the smaller ones that seemed to cower next to the looming wall separating them from the humans. Life in the city was hard, but her parents tried their best to shield their children from the worst of it. The lack of space never bothered the children who were playing outside most of the time, anyway. And their mother had a skill for making the home warm and special, even though they lived in absolute poverty. Potted plants grew on every window sill and in big pots in front of their house where Darina grew a few vegetables and herbs for cooking and healing, and she always found a colorful ribbon for them to braid in their hair. Their father Gereon sometimes brought a broken toy he’d fished out of the trash at his employer’s which he’d fix up to give to them.
Lyssa was a shy, but cheerful child, eager to learn. From an early age, she helped her mother with her tiny herb garden, joined her in making tinctures and salves and paid close attention when her mother dressed a wound. Darina was no official healer, but she knew her way around a body and injuries well enough to be asked for help by neighbors now and then, helping with childbirth or nursing someone back to health in exchange for a little money or a loaf of bread or whatever the other families could spare. Soon, Lyssa lent her a hand, silent from the background, her bright green eyes wide as she drank in all the knowledge she could gather.
She could still remember the day when it all changed.
It had been spring, shortly after her sixth birthday. Lyssa was playing outside with the twins, building a small town made of rocks and leaves and sticks as a home for the wooden toy pony Father had given her for her birthday. Delon and Lanian had abandoned the towers they wanted to make to chase each other around, screaming and laughing in the first truly warm sunshine that finally had managed to climb the wall. Lyssa was humming to herself as she galloped her pony around the small houses, the sun waking a warm and cozy feeling inside of her.
“Lanian, can I have the stones from your tower?” she called over to her younger brother.
“No! I still need it!” he screamed in protest and ran over to her, his little face full of indignation.
“Oh come on, please?” Lyssa pleaded. “You’re not playing with it anyway! And I need a stable for Pony.”
Lanian pouted, and Delon joined them, his cheeks red from their chase around the alley. “Take mine, Lys,” he said good-naturedly and tugged at his brother’s arm. “Come, Lanian, first one to the venadahl wins!”
Lanian’s eyes brightened. “I’m first!” he called and ran away, Delon following closely on his heels, shrieking, “Wait! That’s unfair!”
Lyssa quickly stretched her hand out towards Delon’s tower before he could get back and change his mind, the warm feeling inside her flaring up without her knowing what it meant. The tower collapsed, and a pebble flew into her hand.
For a second, she didn’t move. Lyssa stared in wonder at the pebble in her palm, then back to the collapsed tower. Tentatively, she put her hand out again and another stone flew into it. A small, delighted smile curved her lips as her curiosity grew. She tried to make another stone fly towards her, tapping again into that warm, beautiful feeling somewhere inside of her. It felt as if a small spark had awakened, dancing inside her and Lyssa laughed as another pebble came… and another. She made them dance, and her eyes shone when they started to float in front of her. The world around her was forgotten as she clapped her hands in delight.
Just when she was about to try and make her whole little town float, a shriek from her mother startled her.
“Lyssa!” Darina called, her voice shrill with shock. Lyssa gave such a start that all the pebbles and stones and wood huts, the whole little town she had built, exploded away from her. She realized her elder brother Tarion was standing not far from her, staring in horror. Then, before she could understand what was happening, her mother scooped her up and raced her inside, not even bothering to dry her daughter’s hot, frightened tears.
Lyssa couldn’t understand her mother’s shock at what had been for her such a beautiful, warm feeling, nor why she wasn’t allowed to go out for the next days. She was afraid that she had done something wrong, that she was punished for scaring Tarion or for destroying the towers the twins had built, but when she tried to apologize, her mother just said she hadn’t done anything wrong. But still, she wasn’t allowed outside, and her questions remained unanswered. Delon and Lanian didn’t understand what was happening, either, and tried to cheer Lyssa up by bringing her random things from outside. It didn’t help much. The heated discussions that followed, the fear in both her parents’ and Tarion’s eyes were a nightmare Lyssa couldn’t comprehend. Then, one evening not long after, her parents sat down with her to explain what was happening while Tarion was outside with the twins.
“We don’t want to scare you, little one,” said her father softly. “But what you did was magic. Do you know what that means?”
Lyssa nodded, her eyes large and full of tears. She had seen the templars take away her neighbor after he had accidentally frozen the fountain in the market just a few months back. He had been eight, and he had looked very small and frightened in the templars’ firm grip as they had taken him away. His parents had become withdrawn and silent ever since. The boy had been their only child.
“Do you want to go to the templars to learn with other mages?” Gereon asked, adding, “It might be fun. You would be in the Circle and I hear they have a lot of books.” Her father stroked her blond hair but his smile was forced. Lyssa stared at her parents. She wanted more of the warm, fiery feeling and the idea of books and learning was tempting, but going away from home was scary. For a moment she thought about it.
“Can’t I go learn during the day and come home afterwards?” she asked, but since she hadn’t seen her neighbor again, she wasn’t surprised at the answer her father gave her.
“No, little one. It’s too far away. The Circle isn’t here in Denerim; it’s a long journey away.”
“But I could come visit, right?” There was a hint of urgency in Lyssa’s voice that made tears well up in her mother’s eyes who quickly wiped them, shaking her head.
“No, they… say it is too dangerous,” she admitted. “You could never come back. But you would get another family.”
Lyssa stared at her with wide eyes. Another family? But who would then come with her mother to take care of the plants and help with the healing? The twins were still too young, and Tarion had just started learning with Father.
“I don’t want another family!” she exclaimed, shaking her head fiercely, and snuggled closer to her father. He closed his arms around her, as she added, “I want to stay here. Can I please stay?” Her voice sounded scared and forlorn.
“Of course, my sweetheart,” her mother said immediately, joining in their embrace. But Lyssa could hear the tears in Darina’s voice.
“We will try to protect you,” her father murmured against her hair, keeping her close. For a long while, they stayed like this, just holding each other. Then, her mother sighed and sat up straight to look Lyssa in the eye. She was very calm and serious as she said, “You can never use your magic outside, all right? Can you promise us that?”
Lyssa nodded, even though she didn’t quite understand what it meant. But she knew that she never wanted to leave here. And so she did what they asked, and kept the little spark inside her hidden, only using it whenever it grew so strong that she felt it would bubble over. A little bit here, a little bit there, never outside, never in view of others. And it worked.
She mostly made the fire, stoking it here and there, trying to dim it until it nearly died just to bring it back to life. There were accidents of course, like the one time where she made the table crack along the middle, breaking straight in half when she got angry, but nothing that they couldn’t handle. The secret of Lyssa’s magic knitted the family even closer together, and even the twins understood how vital it was to never talk about it. Lyssa stayed inside most of the time, watching the people outside from a window. She made a game out of trying to read what they were feeling and thinking beyond whatever they were saying and after a few years, she had learned to read people’s faces like the one book she owned. Lanian and Delon especially often complained about how she always knew when they lied or tried to sneak out. That Lyssa herself was completely unable to hide her own feelings, however, was a constant source of delight for them when they teased her or argued with her.
For several years, everything seemed fine. The curious questions of their neighbors at how much Lyssa now stayed inside died down after a few weeks, and after a while, they started to believe the tales of her being too shy and quickly overwhelmed by too many people. The fact that she had been content by herself even before her magic surfaced helped convince other people, and if anyone was suspicious that it wasn’t entirely true, they didn’t show it. Lyssa still went out to play sometimes or accompanied her mother, but after a while, she got used to being indoors most of the time. She took care of whatever chores had to be done, easing her parents’ workload. She wasn’t lonely - her brothers made sure of that - and her ability to glean scandals and small truths from watching the people around her never ceased to amaze them. Her mother continued her work as a maid during the day and healer by night, making honeycomb cake for birthdays and special occasions while also teaching Lyssa and the twins whatever she could of her art and knowledge. From the baking of the cakes to the setting of bones and caring for the sick, she talked in detail about the things she did when called upon. Whenever she could, Lyssa still joined her mother when she went to aid the sick or injured, but only if she knew the spark within her was small and silent. More often, it was Delon who went with Darina, while Lanian stayed behind with Lyssa and told her about the things he had learned from Elder Valendrian. He shared her enthusiasm for knowledge and delighted in talking about everything he found interesting. Her father taught Tarion all the carpentry he knew, and he proved so apt at the craft that he was soon helping out at the workshop where Gereon was employed. Tarion replaced the desk that Lyssa had cracked and brought her little wooden puzzles he created to occupy her mind. Everything seemed to work out just as they hoped. Lyssa’s tenth, then eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth birthdays came and went without her being discovered as a mage, and they had learned how to live without fear, if not without vigilance.
Then, an outbreak of the measles came to the alienage and shortly after the gates were closed, to their own house. At first, it was only tiredness and then a persistent, dry cough her father had, then the twins started complaining about headaches. Then the fever came, and the red spots appeared. Not two weeks later, her father stopped breathing just when he seemed to get better. Lanian died two days after him, just after Lyssa had changed his leg compresses and Delon followed his twin mere hours later. Lyssa was too shocked and exhausted to even cry. Her mother had barely slept while she had tried her best to nurse her loved ones back to health, but as she pulled the blanket above her youngest’s face, something within her seemed to have died as well. But when she looked at Lyssa and Tarion, she seemed to gather her strength. The disease had taken many lives in the alienage, and they were never alone in their grief. Tarion was nearly 16 now and had learned enough to fill his father’s spot at the workshop where he had worked. And so they carried on, slowly learning to live in a home that now seemed too big with their family cut in half.
It was in the spring two years later that they heard the first rumors of a Blight. Within weeks, the rumors grew to facts and one day, guards came and took Tarion and several other able-bodied young men and women from the alienage to fight in the war against the Blight, whether they wanted to or not. But Tarion never even made it to the field, they told Darina not a fortnight later. Some human, they said, had accidentally killed him during training. But from the way the soldier said it, Lyssa doubted it was accidental. With Tarion, another beloved one was gone.
Suddenly, despite the summer, everything was cold.
As the door closed behind the soldier, Lyssa turned towards her mother, her hands pressed against her mouth in an attempt to keep the sobs in. But what she saw in Darina’s face was nothing like the burning grief she felt within herself. Her mother’s face was nearly expressionless, empty. With a half-stumble, she managed to find a chair, then she sank down and just stared at the wall. For the first time in her life, Lyssa saw the fire in the hearth go out as her mother lost herself in her despair. And she continued to stay this way for a whole day, not reacting to anything, just staring, a blank expression on her thin face framed by the dark hair that had started greying when Lyssa’s father and the twins had died. Lyssa tried in vain to console her, to make her talk or at least to listen but when her mother reacted to nothing she said or did, she stopped. Tears burned in her eyes as she stared out the window, watching the guard go to one door after another. He seemed tired, but there was something cold, detached about him as he brought news of another dead elf to their family. Lyssa bit her trembling lip to keep the tears at bay as she idly wondered why he even bothered to do this when the people he talked about so clearly didn’t matter to him. To anyone outside the alienage. The thought woke a wave of old, futile anger and with a defeated look on her face, she turned from the window when he finally turned towards the big gate separating the alienage from the humans. She had seen his relief to be able to leave only too clearly in the sagging of his shoulders, the unclenching of his jaw. All those little signs so few others seemed to see.
When darkness fell, her mother still hadn’t moved a muscle. In a last attempt to get her to react, Lyssa had prepared a little meal with the fresh bread she had been baking before the news had come, and the first vegetables from their little garden. She had even added the last of their sugared strawberries, a treat they had been indulging in after receiving the first letter from Tarion a few days ago. But Darina just stared ahead, her eyes dead and her mouth slack. “Mama,” Lyssa whispered, kneeling in front of her, her hands clasped around her mother’s. “Mama, please. Say something?”
Her words fell onto deaf ears, and after a while, Lyssa gave up, put a shawl around her mother’s shoulders, then went to bed to cry. Sometime in the night, she fell into an uneasy sleep that was touched by nightmares and temptations, the tears only slowly drying on her face. When she woke the next morning just before dawn, her mother was already packing. The food was still untouched on the table, but at least she was moving. Lyssa sat up with a relieved sigh, but when she saw her mother’s face, the worry came back. Darina was pale, with a determined, nearly feverish look in her eyes. There were dark shadows beneath her blue eyes, and her mouth had the angry line she usually only showed when she was furious.
“Mama?” Lyssa asked, her voice still heavy with sleep.
“Lyssa,” her mother whispered. She came to kneel next to Lyssa’s bed, taking her face in both hands. “We’re going to find the Dalish. The humans have taken everything from us. First, they imprison us and wait until the sickness has killed half of us, then they take our children for their war and kill them themselves. I will not wait until the templars take you, too. Come, sweetheart. We will leave as soon as the gate opens at dawn.”
Lyssa blinked as her mind tried to make sense of her mother’s words. The Dalish? But they're a myth! She was still sluggish from the nightmares and grief and all she could think to say was: “But Fian and Soris’ wedding is next week…”
But Darina shook her head, stroking her daughter’s hair. “They will have to do without us. Come.”
Packing took very little time. They took all the food they could carry in their bags, wearing three sets of clothing each. Just before they left, Lyssa grabbed a little sachet from beneath her bed and fastened it to her belt. In it was one of the wooden puzzles Tarion had made her, and the head of the wooden pony which her father had once given her. It had broken the day her magic had surfaced, and all that was left from Delon and Lanian’s tries to fix it by binding the two pieces together with a ribbon that still hung around the jagged neck. Then they left, turning away from their small, colorful home and with it, the grief and heartbreak it had come to signify.