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The Songstress and The Swordsman

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Songstress and the Swordsman cover art, by Verdigirl

 

Fenris wished he'd never come to the Hanged Man, that night.

He sighed into his cup of vinegar parading around as cheap wine. The Hanged Man was a loud tavern, even here in Varric's quarters. Whining flutes and droning bagpipes were just out of tune enough to set his teeth on edge. He barely paid attention to the conversation around him. The chronic pain that had been his constant companion for twelve, thirteen years was especially unbearable that night; it raged under his skin like a sun, the brands burning until they drove him to distraction. He played poorly because of it; Fenris heaved a sigh. If his friends didn’t stop swindling him out of his weekly food budget with all their cheating, he’d afford little more than bread and water…

A candle burned in his gut from jealousy. His beloved, Marian, was kissing her lover just to spite him, he was convinced of it. Marian's steely blue eye flicked to him whenever the two came up for air, searching for his reaction. Fenris did not deign her with one; Marian knew no bounds in a spat, stooping low just to gain an edge. Her ruthlessness and tenacity were famed throughout the city-state, earning her a fearsome reputation.

Still didn’t make her any less annoying. When she noticed his lack of reaction, she deepened the kiss with a moan.  

Fenris rolled his eyes. “Ugh, get a room,” he muttered. She smirked at his disgust, languidly running her fingers through Anders’s hair as they kissed. The Abomination shot a triumphant glance at Fenris before abandoning the game entirely, devoting himself to Marian. The familiar pang of sorrow tugged in Fenris’s chest; he raised his cards high to ward off the sight. He and Marian may have broken off their relationship three years ago, but feelings still lingered; watching her and the Abomination was tortuous. 

When could he go home without seeming rude? Staying for forty-five minutes was polite enough, wasn't it? Fenris made his goodbyes and slipped out the door.

Hence how he found himself cornered by four slavers on his way home.

Fenris unsheathed his longsword and fell into a defensive stance, back to the whitewashed wall of a storefront. His assailants were heavily armored, wearing the telltale helmets he’d grown to despise over the years—Tevinter slavers. They preyed on the unsuspecting, the invisible: elves, the poor. In Fenris’s case, they were his master’s lackeys, sent to recapture him. He parried a slaver's sword and struck under the man’s arm. Another attacked from above, over his shoulder; Fenris’s blade shuddered under the impact. He dodged another attack and struck under the man’s ribs. The third one fell, and the fourth soon afterwards. Fenris leaned over his blade, catching his breath. The usual ‘post-combat’ pains set in; he prepared himself for a painful walk home when he heard a groan behind him.

“Show yourself,” he cried, whirling on his heel, blade up. He scanned the alleyway, eyes wildly searching for the source of the sound. There wasn’t anyone he could see, but a slaver could easily hide behind a stack of crates... Fenris cautiously made his way further down the alley, gripping the sweat-soaked hilt of his sword.

A dark shape sprawled across the cobblestones. Fenris narrowed his eyes. Was it a sleeping beggar, perhaps? But what beggar could ever sleep through that fight? He tapped with the flat of his blade and jumped back with a gasp. A woman rolled onto her back, unconscious. He leaned in, pushing a dark lock of hair away from her face. She was of slight build, with delicate features not usually found here in the slums of Kirkwall. Her high cheekbones gave her an almost aristocratic air. She certainly wasn’t an elf, with her rounded ears. Her clothes were so unlike what Kirkwallers wore: black leggings and tunic, kohl-rimmed eyes, a myriad of bangles she wore. She almost looked like a fellow countryman, a fellow Tevinter: olive-skinned like him, black-brown hair. A dark puddle seeped across the stones under her head. Whoever this woman was, she was quite beautiful and needed medical attention quickly.

Fenris frowned; all the nearby apothecaries were closed for the night. The only man that could help was—he bundled the girl in his arms and hurried down the alley towards the Hanged Man. He kicked the tavern’s front door open; several patrons ushered him in, clearing a path. The barmaid ran upstairs to Varric’s rooms, no doubt to alert his friends.

“What in the Void happened?” The Abomination met him at the door, demanding answers as the others cleared the stone table. They stretched the girl out for examination.

“Slavers,” Fenris replied, breathing heavily. He fished his pain tinctures out of his belt pouch. “Four against one. Ambush.” He leaned against the wall, catching his breath. “I-I found her in the alley.” He winced, grateful the others were too busy with the girl to ask any more questions; he was too winded for  conversation.

“Ye did well bringing her here,” a voice said next to him. “Ye’re a good man, Fenris.”

He didn’t need to look to know it was Sebastian; Fenris would recognize that rolling accent anywhere. He gave his friend a side glance, “I couldn't leave her to bleed out in the street.”

“Aye, but many would’ve kept walking.” Sebastian crossed his arms across his broad chest, leaning against the wall beside him. “Ye might be a sellsword, but ye’ve got yer honor… unlike our host,” he whispered.

Fenris’s mouth twitched with amusement. Varric was, on paper, an upstanding member of the Dwarven Merchant Guild, but his exact profession escaped definition. Shady businessman, spy, mercenary, part-owner of a Rivaini beet farm: it was no secret Sebastian disliked him.

The Abomination, meanwhile, wiped his hands on his robes and sighed. "She broke her wrist and twisted her ankle," he said, disinfecting the cut on her arm with some whiskey. "And there's a nasty gash on her head. Seems she fell." Fenris wasn’t surprised; if she'd worn those foolhardy heels while running from slavers, no wonder she'd fallen. But what sort of girl would do that?

'A fool,' the voice in his head replied. 'A pretty fool.' Fenris put some distance between him and the table, for the brands' sake. Even if he was a healer, the Abomination's magic and the energy it radiated felt like holding his hand in burning, biting cold fire.

"Varric," Marian called from the corner, "ye need to see this." The girl's lurid pink satchel was tossed to the side, forgotten. "Never in me life have I seen such things." She held a pocketbook, embossed with whiskers and a cat nose, with strange rectangles inside. "What is this? Bone? Horn? Have ye ever seen such a thing?"

Fenris leaned in. The white rectangle bore runes none had ever seen, with a black stripe on the back of it. “Her portrait. I’ve never seen one so small," he observed. Startlingly lifelike, it was; whoever painted it was incredibly skilled.

"What is that?" Varric asked.

The girl stirred on the table. The Abomination pulled his chair closer. "You're awake. Good," he said, "I'm Anders. What's y—" The girl shrieked and rolled off the table.

"You're safe! You're alright," he cried.

She scrambled away on all fours, whimpering from the pain. "Trekné, " she screamed, " Ya eben el sharmouta, trekné. " She shot into the corner, arms wrapped around herself, eyes never off Anders. Fenris knew that look, had seen it many a time in Tevinter. Unbridled terror. The expression a slave had after a beating, before the hopelessness set in.

Anders threw his hands up in exasperation. "Maker's Breath, what are we to do with her? She’s a wild animal."

"Adiuava, " the girl said. Fenris froze. The girl wasn't staring at the Abomination, now; she'd fixed her gaze on her. "Quaeso. "

"What's she saying?" Sebastian asked, jostling his shoulder. "Fenris?"

"She's... asking for help, I think," he replied. Her thick accent obscured her Tevene, if he could even call it that. Was it a dialect, perhaps? Fenris unbuckled his gauntlets and handed them to Sebastian, crossing the room to her.

"You are safe, they are dead," he said in Tevene. Low, in as kind a voice he could muster. "Who are you?" The girl's eyes widened from fear, but she did not bolt.

"I am Rana," she replied. She gripped her arms to stop trembling. Fenris steeled himself from the burn and crouched before her, patting her hand.

"Do not fear them. They’re friends." He used short sentences, to help her understand. "I’m Fenris. Are you a slave?" She gasped.

He reassured her. "No, no: don't be afraid. I was one, too. You’re safe here. Do you have coin? How do you come here?"

Her eyes filled, "I...I do not know. I-I," she pantomimed falling and hitting her head. He stared, stomach clenching. Should he believe her? Her injuries supported her claim, but she could easily lie to gain his trust.  

‘What if Danarius sent her?’ The voice in his head asked. He pushed the thought away. His old master could have sent her; Danarius had been trying to recapture him for the past eight, ten years, with no success. Perhaps this was his latest tactic…

"Well, what did she say?" Varric asked.

The question startled Fenris out of his ruminations. "She must be a runaway," he replied. "No money, doesn't remember how she got here. She'll be captured if we let her go; she's in no condition to keep running."

"So. Who'll take her?" The Abomination asked. "We can't keep her, after that reaction. I highly doubt any of the rest of us can communicate with her, except..."

Fenris’s eyes went wide when they all turned to him. "Well, I don't know what to do with her!"

Sebastian wore his most wheedling smile. "But ye did fine, when ye calmed her. Just fine."

"Seb—"

"We dinnae have anyone else, Fen. Just for the night. Ye can do that, aye?" Fenris shot his friend a 'please shut up' glare.

He bit his lip and looked to the girl. What was she? What if Danarius did send her? His brands tingled; his palms itched from anxiousness. They were all staring at him again, this time at his brands flickering in reaction to his nervousness.

Fenris sighed. "Fine. One night. I'll... go tell her." His common sense beat on his skull for his foolishness, but he couldn't renege: Fenris of Kirkwall was a man of his word, after all.

The walk home from the tavern with Sebastian, Marian, and the Abomination was slow. They had fashioned a crutch of sorts for Rana, but her limping slowed their pace considerably. Marian and the Abomination had gone ahead, as they were wont to do, whispering and giggling. It made Fenris's stomach churn with jealousy. Marian waved from her vestibule before locking her door; much to his dismay, part of his courage went with her. Fenris and his new shadow stopped at the Chantry's side door to drop off Sebastian, dreading what inevitably came next.

"First thing tomorrow, after morning prayer, we'll find a place for her. I promise," Sebastian said with a smile. It did little to assuage Fenris's worry.

"M-Mhmm, I'll see you tomorrow," he replied. ‘If she doesn’t drug me and sell me to slavers, first,’ he added silently. He prayed to the Maker that she wasn’t a mage, ready to cast a spell the moment he was alone with her...

 The door shut, and left Fenris alone with the girl. He swallowed hard, gripping the hilt of his sword. "Come, this way," he said. The abandoned mansion Fenris called home was on the end of the row, next to the alley. It hid behind its curtain of ivy, unassuming; the perfect hiding place for a fugitive slave. Rana tried her best to thank him on the way, to remark on his 'good,' as she called it. It didn’t belay the heady mix of dread, attraction, and vigilance he was soaking in.

"You are good. I give you thanks," she said. 

Fenris stole a glance as he fiddled with the finicky lock. "Thank you," he corrected, "'I give you thanks' is 'thank you.'" She cocked her head while she repeated his words for comprehension, moonlight dancing pearlescent on her skin.

"Ah! Thank you," she said, once she understood. He lit the taper he kept by the door and led her to the well, or tried to. She kept stopping and staring at the atrium.

"It's so," she drew her hands apart with a smile. 'Big,' she pantomimed. She'd likely never seen a mansion like this before. 

"Mhmm." It was dilapidated, with missing floor tiles and holes in the cavernous ceiling, but still impressive. He felt slightly embarrassed it was in such disrepair, but, as he reminded himself at the well, the only hammer he knew to wield was a warhammer.

Fenris retrieved the washbasins and a housecoat for Rana to wear; he didn’t trust this girl, couldn’t, no matter how alluring she might look in nothing but his red housecoat. He pushed aside the attraction that visual conjured, scrubbing his teeth with a renewed ferocity as he formulated a plan. Until he knew for certain she wasn’t connected to Danarius in any way, he had to stay alert. She may have been injured and seemingly harmless, but one false move would send him back to Minrathous in chains...

Venhedis, she’d caught him staring. 

He whirled around, wincing as he splashed his face at the basin. He wouldn't get much sleep, even if he wanted to: the brands were still absolute agony from the fight in the alley. Even his sleepshirt bothered him, but he couldn’t let it interfere; maintaining control and not alerting her to his motives were paramount. He shook out his bed roll and laid it out beside his bed, his face intentionally blank. Rana stared at him in disbelief.

"What?" He asked.

"Y-You sleep here?" she asked, clutching the housecoat to her chest. " Yi, you sleep here? "

"To make us safe," he replied, sliding his spare longsword next to his bed roll. "See? Safe." ‘From you and your tricks,’ he added silently.

Whether or not she believed him was yet to be seen, but she didn't run. The Chantry bells rang four times; Fenris heaved a sigh. He waited until she climbed into his bed and blew out the taper, hand creeping to the hilt of his sword in the darkness.

Even if he and the others sent her on her way come the morning, that girl would know where Fenris lived. She could send slavers to capture him, days, months, weeks later—his palms sweated, his stomach churned. What a fool he’d been to let the others convince him into taking this girl in…

Fenris of Kirkwall, formerly of Minrathous, was many things, but he absolutely regretted being a man of his word that night. He wondered what the next few days would bring.