"Will you be okay, Ishal?"
"Don't worry, da'len, we will take good care of him."
“Ma serannas, ha'hren.”
The child sends a toothless grin to his father, beaming like the sun dancing through the canopy of their forest. Mythal'enaste but that child is a blessing upon their clan and he could not be more proud of calling himself Ishal's father. Pride giving colour to his cheeks as he shoulders his bow and quiver, Tamlen pretends not to feel the adoring look coming from Shalin.
With a final kiss to Ishal's forehead, he makes room for his partner who hugs the boy close, whispering blessings into his tiny pointed ear.
"You'll come back soon, right, mamae?"
Shalin smiles, her eyes crinkling as she looks lovingly at her son. Her hands come up between them as she signs. 'Of course, love. We'll hunt for a few hours, bring back something delicious for the clan to eat and scare away the shems. You won't even notice we're gone.'
Ishal grins back at her, sending both hers and Tamlen's pulse through the roof. "Can you bring back elfroot? Ha'hren Alifalon promised to teach me how to make healing salves!"
"We'll bring you all the elfroot in the forest, fenor," Tamlen promises, bending forward to brush his nose against Ishal's, sending the child into a fit of giggles.
Shalin rises to her feet, tugging Tamlen until he's standing next to her.
'Alright, we're off. Ishal, be a good boy for ha'hren Adhaleni. We'll be back before sunset.'
The child nods, and his parents take off for the forest with their heart warm and the feeling of belonging curling up in their chest.
They take on the shems with good fun, both knowing they could cut them to pieces on a bad day and this is an exceptionally good one. Tamlen is snarky and charming and as soon as the shems have ran off back to their stinking civilization, Shalin pushes him against a tree and proceeds to kiss the breath out of him.
Tamlen is laughing under her mouth and her hand finds his hair easily, scratching behind his ear in a way that makes his knees go weak. But she's the strong one is their partnership, so she pushes him harder against the tree until he takes the hint and braces himself against the bark before wrapping his sturdy legs around her waist.
"Am I having an effect on you, lath?" Tamlen whispers against her ear, making her shiver from head to toe.
'Oh if we didn't have to hunt...' She trails off, her hands dropping from their signing position to holding on to his broad shoulders, panting against the skin of his throat when he nips at her jawline.
“Ar lath ma, vhenan.” With a quiet laugh, Tamlen kisses her cheek, nose and lips in quick succession, before putting some distance between them.
"Alright, that's enough of that," he giggles. She makes grabby hands at him but he bats them away. "Eshalinjune! That's quite enough!" Shalin rolls her eyes at the use of her full name. Stepping away from her, Tamlen grabs his bow, waiting as she does the same.
'Let's visit the ruins first. We still have a few hours to hunt.'
Tamlen nods, and with a shared look of mirth, they race each other to the ruins.
Shalin wakes up to the sound of Ishal crying. She springs forward, stopped in her track by the weight of her son who was lying on her chest. A shortness of breath she can barely control has her shaking, and she lifts trembling hands between Ishal and herself to sign hesitant words.
'Ishal? Do you know where papae is?' Her question only makes her child cry harder and her blood turns cold, confirming what she already feared. Her memories are crystal clear, tainted with a rush of adrenaline and fear. Oh, how she wishes her mind was blurry, how she wishes she could forget Tamlen's scream as the eluvian dragged him away from her.
Shalin wraps her shaking arms around Ishal's small body, squeezing him against her. She hums against his ginger hair, the quiet noise all she can do to comfort her child while her hands are busy. Rocking back and forth, she closes her eyes and lets the tears fall, the violent sobs finally winning the battle against her weak will.
She hears before seeing someone approaching, and the smell of moss and wood bark tells Shalin who just arrived.
"Oh, da'len." Opening her eyes, Shalin looks up at Ashalle's face. Still holding onto Ishal, she signs one-handed Ashalle's name, who's face is full of sorrow. The elder woman kneels next to the cot trails her hand up and down Shalin's back in a gesture of comfort, before going through her short hair, the ginger strands catching on Ashalle's hand jewellery.
“Come, child. You've been asleep for two days. Everyone wants to speak with you.”
Shalin nods, swallowing back the chocked sob she can feel building in her throat. Unwilling to be parted from her, Ishal holds on to her chest with the strength of the desperate, and Shalin doesn't even try to untangle herself from her son. She isn't willing to be apart from him either.
Outside of the aravel, she's surprised to see Pol and Junar standing guard with a mutinous expression, weapons at the ready. They turn around when she steps outside, and their expression breaks into a smile. Before they can say anything, Fenarel appears from behind the aravel, looking hurried.
“You're awake! You've the gods' own luck, lethallan.” Fenarel gives her a small smile, that she understands for what it is. Grief has already spread through the camp. “Everyone is worried about you. How do you feel?”
'How did I get back, Fenarel? Where is—' she takes a shaky breath. 'Did you recover his body?'
Fenarel looks away, and Shalin can hear the hitch in his breath, the heartbroken taint of his voice. “The shem who brought you here saw no sign of him.”
'What did he say?'
“Not much. He appeared with you slung over his shoulder, told the Keeper he found you in the ruins and not to expect much of your recovery.” This time, Fenarel's smile is genuine. “I'm glad the shem was wrong, lethallan.”
Shalin nods, but her heart isn't in it. All she can think about is Tamlen's face as he touched the mirror, his scream resonating in her ears in an endless loop. She doesn't understand what happened. She isn't sure she wants to understand. Ishal is hiding his face in her neck, not saying a word, not breathing a sound.
“Well alright then,” Fenarel says, avoiding her eyes. “Come with me, the Keeper wants to see you.”
Shalin complies, feeling dead inside. She doesn't know how she's supposed to live, now. How do you deal with life when half of yourself has been ripped out?
The Keeper looks tired, the signs of exhaustion deeply etched into her old face. Shalin knows how she feels. The weariness inside of her is bone-deep. She looks up at the tall, dark-skinned shem, and can't find it in her to react in any way. Ishal takes one look at the warrior and squeals in terror, trying to hide himself further into his mother's arms. Shalin tightens her grip around him, face blank.
“Oh, da'len. I'm so sorry. My only comfort is to see you up again. Allow me to introduce you to Duncan. He's a Grey Warden, and the one who brought you back to us.”
“Greetings, Eshalinjune. It is good to see you better,” he says, bowing his head slightly.
Shalin grits her teeth, the familiar hatred for the shems fuelling her grief and rage. 'My name is Mahariel,' she signs harshly, movements quick and sharp.
“Oh. Of course. I wasn't aware of your particularity.” His voice rises up at the end, inviting a conversation. Shalin snorts, refusing to look at him.
“Duncan has informed me of what he found in the ruins. What you battled against were darkspawns,” the Keeper says softly, like she's softening Shalin for a blow.
And as she listens to Marethari and Duncan tell her that she is Tainted, that Tamlen is truly dead, that this filthy shem wants to take her away, Shalin feels herself fade into the back of her own chest, deep where she won't get out again. Drowned in the voices of a fate she didn't choose, Shalin dies and Mahariel is born.
'I'm not leaving my clan,' she signs to Duncan, and spits at his feet. 'I'd rather die than follow a shem.'
“Which is what will happen if you do not become a Grey Warden, Mahariel,” Duncan says, unbearably calm. She hates him. She looks at him and she burns with a rage that makes her want to tear his throat out and paint her face with his blood. Oh, how lucky he is that she has her most precious treasure in her arms.
'Then so be it.'
Duncan sighs. “I see no other option, then. I invoke the Right of Conscription. By Law, you must come with me.”
Mahariel looks at the Keeper, eyes wild and desperate, but Marethari shakes her head, deeply sorrowful. 'You would take me away against my will?'
“If I must. We need recruits. You're going to die. There is no one better suited than you.”
Mahariel feels all the fight drain out of her. 'Very well. Let me pack our bags and say goodbye. But be warned. I will make this hell for you. I will make you suffer every step of this journey for taking me away from my people. I will wait until you sleep, months from now, once you have placed your trust in me, and I will gut you with a smile on my face.' For the first time since she woke up, Mahariel grins. She can taste the rust between her teeth. 'But alright, Duncan of the Grey Warden. I will pack our bags.'
She turns around without another sign, Ishal giggling inside her ear. Pride swells inside her chest. They have raised him well.
With all her belongings carefully tucked inside a large, leather backpack, Mahariel gathers the carry-cloth they received as a present for Ishal's name day. Everyone in the clan spend a day embroidering it, to form a beautiful piece in the image of a halla. Ishal is used to it now, so he doesn't even have to be asked before climbing onto Mahariel's crossed legs and wrapping his arms around her neck. Then she takes the cloth and wraps it under his bottom, around his thighs and up his back before tying it around her own back and neck.
It's the most efficient way the Dalish have found to carry children when they move the aravels and the camp. The carrier has almost full range of movement and the child doesn't have to walk. For long distances, the carry-cloth is reinforced and becomes a sling, the child carried on the back this time ; it's unquestionably the easiest way to do things. With a last crushed look for the aravel she lived in for the past ten years, ever since her Bonding with Tamlen in the most beautiful ceremony she could have dreamed of, she steps outside.
Duncan and Marethari are waiting just next to the aravel, but they're not who Mahariel looks at as the clean air of the forest embraces her like it always has. The whole clan is here. Every last one member of Clan Sabrae is lined up in front of her aravel, in two opposites lines as if to protect her steps one last time. Mahariel's breath is caught in her throat, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Mahariel?” Duncan's voice breaks the spell, making Mahariel's hair rise on her skin. She bristles, sending him a viciously poisonous look. He startles a bit, his perfect composure broken by the sheer acid of her stare. She feels viscerally proud of herself. “What is the meaning of this?” he asks, and for a moment she doesn't understand what he means. Then he points at Ishal. Oh, how dare he.
'That's right, you haven't been introduced. This is our son, Ishalentarasyl'nin Mahariel. Isn't he the sweetest?' She does her son's sign with intent, slow and purposeful as if she was teaching the tongue of hands to a child.
“He can't come with us.” Duncan's tone is final. Mahariel can hear the shocked noises coming from the dozens of elves around them. It's all she can do not to react as well. What he just said is such a horrifying thing she can barely collect herself. How dare he suggest she leave her child behind? Doesn't he know how precious a child is? Doesn't he realize how rare children are amongst the Dalish? Of course he doesn't, she thinks, venomous. She turns to look at the Keeper, who looks just as shocked as the rest of the clan
'Do you see what kind of person wants to take me away, Keeper?'
“You can't let her go,” Ha'hren Paivel says, raising his voice for the first time in Mahariel's life. “He knows nothing of our ways, he couldn't even protect Tamlen. We lost a valuable hunter and Eshalinjune lost a bonded. He even dares say Ishalentarasyl'nin should leave his mother!”
A murmur of agreement passes through the clan, many heads nodding at what Paivel just said. Duncan looks around, realizing that for all his Grey Warden training, he is severely outnumbered. While he looks away, Mahariel discreetly grabs an arrow from her quiver, balanced on her hip since her back is occupied by her bag.
When Duncan turns back in her direction, the Keeper is already frozen in place. The Warden visibly swallows, his eyes not daring to leave the tip of her arrow, pressed against her jugular.
“What are you doing?”
'I'm giving you a choice, shem. I hear your order desperately needs recruit, yes? How terrible it would be to loose one, no?' Her signs are a bit wonky, because she can only do them one-handed, but she knows the message is getting across.
“You wouldn't. You have a child.”
Mahariel makes a series of breathy sounds, the only thing her throat is capable when she wants to laugh. She isn't the only one. The clan is looking at Duncan with disdain and mockery. The shem truly knows nothing and Sabrae is proud of their member for standing up.
'If I die, Ishal will go back to being raised collectively, like he was before we Joined ourselves to him. But as long as I breathe, Ishal goes where I go. Make your choice.'
She can see that Duncan is confused, but he is in no way deserving of a lesson in Dalish culture, so she isn't about to explain their ways to him. The only thing she cares about is—
“Very well. The child can come.” Mahariel sends him a triumphant look, putting the arrow back into her quiver. “I hope you will not cause more problems.”
Mahariel's grin is feral as she answers. 'You made your choices by taking mine away, shem. Take responsibility for your cruelty.'
Duncan doesn't answer, instead turning away and going to the edge of the camp, obviously waiting for her. Mahariel faces her clan again, the emotion coming back in a rush. She walks in the space they've left for her, stopping by each one to clasp their forearm and brush her forehead against theirs.
When she comes to Fenarel, she kisses his forehead instead, and in returns, the hunter kisses both her closed eyelids gently.
“By Andruil, I bless you, Eshalinjune,” Fenarel whispers, his eyes a promise she holds on to with everything she has. “Dareth shiral.” She nods, her mouth quivering, before moving to face Pol. The boy looks so young, so lost, that she draws him into a hug, careful of Ishal strapped between them.
Pol chokes on a sob, repeating a litany of sorry into her throat. She doesn't know why he's apologizing, and he probably doesn't know either. Strangely, she still appreciates the sentiment.
And finally, she is faced with Ashalle. The elder woman looks the way she's always looked, for as long as Mahariel remembers the clan. Ashalle nursed her, soothed her nightmares, taught her how to blend into the shadows. She taught Mahariel Vir Tanadhal, and spoke to her of the gods so she could choose her vallaslin with honour and confidence. Mahariel might have been raised by the entire clan, like all children are unless they are Joined with parents like Ishal has been with them, but Ashalle is the one she calls in her thoughts—
'Mamae,' Mahariel, Shalin signs, feeling as young as Pol, as young as Ishal.
“Be well, lath. Mythal'enaste.” Ashalle embraces her gently.
Then Mahariel steps back, taking one last look at her entire clan, gathered to see her off. Duncan comes to stand next to her, and as they turn around to leave the forest behind, Clan Sabrae starts singing.
Mahariel wraps her arms around her son as In Uthenera echoes around them, sobbing without shame, and follows Duncan as he takes her away from her home.
hahren na melana sahlin
emma ir abelas
souver'inan isala hamin
vhenan him dor'felas
in uthenera na revas
vir samahl la numin
vir lath sa'vunin