As inns went, The Hermit’s Crossing was remarkably nondescript. The exterior was drab and weathered, the roof bearing numerous patches as evidence of the struggle to combat its dilapidation. The two story building was rectangular and squat, looking smaller than it actually was. A great many of its windows were broken and boarded over and those that did remain intact were filthy enough that at night all you could see through them was the muted glow of lamplight. The door to the front entrance hung crooked and didn’t shut completely and was subsequently subject to causing a racket when the wind blew hard enough. There was no elaborate, whimsical sign advertising that it was an inn. The only label the building bore was “The Hermit’s Crossing” carved in crooked letters into a board nailed above the door.
The interior of the inn was just as unremarkable as the exterior, though in better shape. The main room was large and open with tables strewn haphazardly throughout. The innkeep’s station was in the corner opposite the entrance. To the right of the station was the open doorway that led to the kitchen and next to it, the stairs that lead to the second floor. During the day enough light filtered in throughout the remaining windows to illuminate—somewhat—the room. At night, lanterns hung in every corner and set on every other table granted it a certain kind of ambiance that nothing else could.
Despite how unexceptional The Hermit’s Crossing was, its location ensured a reliable if intermittent stream of business. Situated on the flats on the eastern edge of the Southron Hills, directly west of the remains of the Imperial Highway, it was a convenient place for travelers making their way into the northern reaches of Ferelden to stop and seek comfort for a night or two. A luxury accommodation it was not, but for many people it was still better than a night spent on the hard ground. This was especially true now, in late autumn, with the promise of winter lending a haggard chill to the air.
The sun had long since set this night. Bravis Porral, owner of the inn, was seated at his desk. Business was slower this evening despite the fact that the weather had taken a distinct turn for the worse. A fire blazed in the massive hearth on the north wall, taking the edge off the cold that crept in from the boarded up windows. When not tending the bar or serving food, Bravis preferred to sit and observe those around him. He liked wondering about where his patrons had come from and where they were going. He was not above asking as much either.
Aside from Bravis himself there were currently only four others in the inn, all of them human, all seated in the main room. People tended to travel in pairs or groups these days, a decision that proved more than wise given the instability in the area since the Sundering of the Veil and the ensuing war. After Fen’Harel had destroyed the Veil, after the Fade and all its denizens had bled into the waking world and enveloped it in raw chaos, after the elves had reinstated themselves as a sovereign power by claiming a large part of the Brecilian forest as their own, to say Ferelden was still reeling from the upheaval was an understatement of massive proportions. It hadn’t been unusual to see armed travelers entering the inn before the Sundering; to see anyone unarmed now was a rarity.
Of the four patrons in the inn, three were seated at the same table. Two of them were a married couple and were taking turns speaking in low tones to the third, a dark-haired woman who was leaning over a small book, writing with a deft hand, recording what she was being told. Every so often she would pause in her writing to dip her quill pen into the small ink reservoir situated next to the book. The three of them had been at it for hours, since before the sun had set, and Bravis wondered not for the first time what exactly was being said. He’d tried eavesdropping but their quiet conversation hadn’t carried.
The fourth patron was a large man, both broad and tall. When he’d first come to the inn Bravis had noticed instantly that he was well-equipped for travel throughout Ferelden, wearing heavy plate armor that was obviously well-cared for despite its many dents. He’d also carried a shield and a longsword, both of which he handled with easy familiarity. He’d pegged the man instantly as a mercenary. As to the man’s traveling partner, the woman who even now was scribing whatever it was she was being told, Bravis was less sure as to her occupation. The warrior and his companion had entered alone, well after the married couple. The pairs hadn’t known each other, of that he was certain—he’d watched the dark-haired woman approach the husband and wife and introduce herself. His curiosity had grown as, after a short bit of conversation, the woman had removed the book and her writing implements from the pack she carried and begun to write as the others spoke.
Bravis saw a chance to satisfy his curiosity as the warrior approached his station. The big man had been seated by himself at a corner table, leaning back in his chair, idly puffing a pipe and sipping at his ale. He seemed unperturbed by his companion’s desertion, content enough to sit on his own for a long while. As he drew near Bravis studied him under the guise of being eager to serve. The man had a head of thick dark hair threaded through with grey, worn long to his shoulders, and most of his face was covered by a thick mustache and beard. After he and the woman had paid for a room and two stalls in the stable for their mounts, he’d taken most of their gear upstairs. He’d left his armor there and was clad now in simple roughspun clothing, but Bravis noted he still wore his sword belt.
“Is there anything you’d like?” Bravis asked as the man stopped before his desk.
“Food,” said the man. “And something hot to drink.”
“For both of you …?
The warrior half-turned to glance back at his companion who was still thoroughly engrossed in her work. His sigh, though quiet, was still audible to Bravis. “For both of us,” he said, turning back to face the innkeep.
“We’ve venison stew, potato soup, bread braked fresh today—”
“The stew. And bread. And tea. Don’t care what kind.” From a pouch tied at his belt he withdrew some coins and tossed them down onto the desk. Bravis scooped them up, mentally totaled the amount, and nodded. He rose from his chair, ready to relay the order to the cook. The man held up a hand to stop him.
“Bring it to my table when it’s ready. Don’t disturb her. She’ll eat when she’s ready.”
Bravis didn’t miss the way the warrior’s voice gentled when he spoke of the woman. “Of course, ser,” he said with a smile. He hesitated, his curiosity getting the better of him. “What did you say your name was?”
The warrior and the woman hadn’t in fact revealed their names earlier. The bearded man eyed the innkeep for a long moment. “Rainier,” he finally said.
“And the lady?”
There was another pause. “Boone.”
Rainier and Boone. He didn’t recognize the names, of course, and hadn’t really expected to. Bravis dropped his voice until it was just above a whisper, leaning in closer. “If you don’t mind my asking, how’d the lady lose her arm? Was it the demons or the elves?”
Again the man turned to look at his companion where she sat leaning over her book, using her right hand to write with swift, sure strokes. What remained of her left arm extended only to her elbow, the sleeve of her shirt hemmed to accommodate that fact.
“The Sundering,” the big man replied, and there was an odd lilt to his words. Bravis had heard it before, many times over the past ten years.
“Sorry to hear it,” he said, and there was a genuine note of compassion in his voice. “I’ll get the cook going. Bring it to you when it’s done.”
The warrior nodded his thanks before making his way back to his own table. Bravis watched him go, watched as the woman—Boone—glanced up as he passed. Watched as she smiled a small, soft smile at Rainier, watched as Rainier gave her one in return. Bravis felt a peculiar kind of compassion in observing them. He knew very little about them and even less about where they came from, but it seemed to him that theirs was a story written with no small amount of sorrow. He shook his head before heading for the kitchen, ducking his head inside to relay the warrior’s order to his cook before returning to his desk.
By the time Boone returned to their table her food had already gone cold. It didn’t seem to bother her, though—after stowing her writing tools and the book in her pack, she tucked into her meal as though starving. Which, Thom Rainier mused fondly, she probably was. When she was writing, she tended to lose all track of time. The married couple she’d been speaking to had retired to their room for the night. The main room was empty but for Rainier, Boone, and the innkeep.
As she ate, Rainier couldn’t help but study her. He did it often. He found comfort in the familiar curves and angles of her face. As it had with him, the strain of the past few years had left its trace on her. There were a few more faint lines at the corner of her eyes, a perpetual solemnity in the line of her mouth. And, sometimes, he caught sight of the pall in her dark eyes that hadn’t been there when first he’d met her all those years ago.
He gave her a few minutes before he spoke. “So. What was their tale of woe?”
The look she slanted up at him from beneath her lashes was one of mild reproach. She took her time chewing before she responded. “Not as bad as it could have been. Not as bad as some others. They were farmers, but their bann lost his estate when the Elvhen made the push across the Bannorn. They were caught in the fray. They managed to get away but … the estate was burned to the ground. There was nothing they could salvage.”
“They were lucky,” Rainier said after a moment.
“Yes,” she agreed, leaning back in her chair. She toyed with what was left of her bread with the fingers of her good hand, tearing at it.
“What happens tomorrow?”
His question jerked her attention away from whatever thoughts she’d been lost in. Her gaze found his and he read the answer there before she spoke. “Tomorrow … it’s time I head for home, Thom.”
He nodded slowly. There were words, so many, that he could say and she knew he was considering them. It was part of a delicate argument they’d bandied back and forth for years now. She watched instead as the lines of his face settled into an expression of weary resignation. Picking up his empty bowl and mug, he pushed himself away from the table and stood.
“I’ll be turning in, then,” he said.
“Thom,” she said, softly pleading.
His eyes met hers and he smiled, but it was a sad smile, and it made something within Boone’s chest ache. “I know,” he told her. “I always have. I always will.”
She opened her mouth to say something, but as always when this particular issue arose between them, she could find no words that would mend this wound. “Sleep well,” she finally said.
He nodded again before departing, depositing his burden at the innkeep’s station before heading up the stairs to the second floor. Boone listened to his heavy tread, familiar with the sound. Often it brought her comfort, the sound of his footsteps. Other times, like tonight, it made her ache for myriad reasons, all of them complicated.
The innkeep approached her table to take her empty bowl and uneaten bread. “Will there be anything else, serrah?”
“Thank you, no,” she replied.
“I’ll be locking up soon, then. I’ll leave you your lantern.”
She nodded her understanding, noticing the way his eyes lingered on the empty space where her left arm had once been. “Good night then,” he bid her, and she murmured the same back to him. Cradling her mug of tea in her good hand, she watched as the innkeep moved from table to table, putting out the lanterns. After he’d locked and barred the front door and disappeared through the door in the back she set her mug down and reached for her pack where it rested on the floor. Setting it on the table, she unbuckled the flap and rummaged around within, pulling out the small leather-bound book she’d been writing in earlier. Placing it flat on the table, she thumbed through the pages, eyes skimming over her own thin, slanted script. It was a collection of stories she’d gathered from anyone who’d been willing to share with her. Every entry was another account of how the Sundering had ruined lives, ended lives, tormented lives.
Every entry was another reminder of how she had failed all those years ago.
Rainier and Boone departed early the next morning, before the sun had fully risen. In the semi-dark Rainier led their horses out of the ramshackle stable as Boone waited by the door. It was cold enough that every breath rose as vapor, and Boone pulled her lined cloak tighter around herself.
Rainier had saddled her horse as he usually did. It was something she could manage herself if it came down to it, but she appreciated his gesture nonetheless. He stopped in front of the inn, handing Boone the reins as she approached. Mounting with one arm required she grip both the reins and the pommel of the saddle with one hand before swinging herself up and over. Rainier had also mounted, and with a nod in her direction, urged his gelding into a walk. With a last glance at the inn, Boone nudged her mare after him.
They spent the first part of the morning traveling in silence. This was not unusual; familiar enough they were with each other that they could pass considerable lengths of time in comfortable stillness. The day warmed little with the rising of the sun and Boone, though dressed in layers and wearing her cloak, found herself thinking wistfully of the fireplace back at the inn. Rainier, seasoned adventurer that he was, was little bothered by variations in temperature. He wore his armor and she found the way it rattled softly with every step his horse took rather soothing.
The road they followed was one of the main routes north, running parallel to the edges of the Brecilian Forest some several miles to the east. Eventually it would split into three separate directions: east to Denerim, northeast to Amaranthine, west through the Bannorn. It was familiar country to them both, though since the Sundering and the seizure of the Brecilian Forest by the elves it had undergone a considerable span of upheaval. Things had settled somewhat in the years since the defeat of the False Gods that had been released by the dissolution of the Veil. Travel through Ferelden was no longer assuredly fraught with peril, but venturing out alone for long distances still wasn’t advisable.
Boone and Rainier began to converse as the day approached mid-afternoon. Conversation flowed easily between them, as it always had, and they spoke of fond memories and recent adventures. They studiously avoided discussing certain parts of their shared history and arrangement that suited them both well. They made camp that night not far from the road in a small copse of trees. A fire was necessary given the cold and they supped on bread and cheese they’d purchased from the innkeep. Rainier took the first watch, rousing Boone a few hours before dawn for her shift. The next day broke clear and cold and after a breakfast that mirrored their dinner the night before they were on their way yet again.
Mid-morning they encountered other travelers, a group of four humans headed north in a large wagon drawn by a team of horses. It was clear they were apprehensive of the two riders but Rainier greeted them warmly, drawing his horse alongside the wagon, and after a few minutes of pleasant conversation the tension eased. They were a family of siblings, all fair-haired and blue-eyed, two brothers and two sisters. Boone listened as they told Rainier of their reason for traveling—their homestead, near the Brecilian Passage, was now a part of the new elven nation of Era’Adahlen.
“Forced off the land that belonged to our father, and his father before him,” said one of the brothers bitterly. His name was Druss, and he sat in the back of the wagon with his two sisters, Lanna and Filde. The wagon was crammed to the point of spilling over with the random, everyday objects people accumulate; this wagon contained their entire life’s belongings.
“On our way to petition King Alistair for support,” said the other brother, Radd, who drove the wagon. “Us and every other bloody family affected by this bullshit. Hopeless, of course—the king’s got too much to deal with. But we need to try.”
One of the sisters had begun to weep softly. The other put an arm around her consolingly, her own eyes wet. Druss picked up where his brother had left off. “The elves—Elvhen, they insist they are now—forced us out with no warning. Armed group just showed up one morning, tell us we’re sitting on land that’s not ours anymore. Gave us three hours to pack up and go.”
Filde, the sister not weeping, spoke. “I asked them, what will you do with the land? And I get told that it’ll be for “their own” now. Born there, raised there, worked the land our whole lives and they take it, just like that, and give it to their own kind.”
Rainier’s expression had become increasingly grim as they told their story. He exchanged glances with Boone from across the wagon. “Didn’t harm you, did they?
“Would have, if we’d put up a fight,” spat Radd. “And Maker, but how I wished I could swing a sword.”
“Then you’d be dead and we’d be short a fool for a brother,” snapped Filde. Lanna began to sob in earnest.
“No, they did us no harm,” Druss said darkly, “Aside from stealing our livelihood right out from under us. Now we’re like all the others, no home, no livestock, no way to live. Refugees.”
“The fucking Veil,” Lanna said, voice wavering, wiping furiously at her wet cheeks with the back of one hand, “The fucking Veil and the fucking Elvhen and that fucking Fen’Harel! I wish the Maker’d smite dead anyone who uses magic!”
Druss reached out to console his sister by tenderly wiping away her tears with his thumb. “At least with the Breach there was the Inquisition. When the Veil came down there was nothing but chaos and then the Evanuris—”
Boone abruptly kicked her horse into a brisk trot and then a canter, guiding her horse around the wagon. The four siblings watched her go before simultaneously turning their heads to Rainier, the questions clear on their faces.
“She went through a lot after … after the Sundering,” Rainier said roughly, his eyes on Boone as she ranged ahead. “Lost her arm.”
“Lost plenty more than that, I’d wager,” Druss said.
“Aye,” the warrior replied in a far quieter voice, “she did.”
They all made camp that night not far from the road, in the middle of what had once been a farmer’s field. Years of skirmishes between Ferelden and the newly created Era’Adahlen had left the adjoining homestead abandoned, the fields untended. What fences remained were broken or missing entirely. The siblings—the Landers, they introduced themselves as—were generous with what food they had, and Boone and Rainier shared freely what supplies they had as well.
With the meal finished and the horses tended to, the six of them gathered around the large fire Rainier had built. Conversation waxed and waned as the evening went on, until finally Boone, who had been mostly silent, made the most of a lull in discussion to ask if the four siblings would mind if she chronicled their story.
“But why?” Lanna’s question was mirrored in the expressions of her sister and brothers.
“Because,” Boone said, “it is important that it’s remembered, what happened to you, what happened to everyone.”
“History rarely records what happens to the regular folk,” Rainier added. “It’s all about the lords and ladies, the generals and the kings. Nobody gives a good goddamn about the others that get shit on.”
“But you do,” Filde said, looking back to Boone.
“I do,” Boone said softly. “So does Rainier. So do others, somewhere out there.”
The siblings exchanged glances. It was Druss that nodded his slow approval. “Then you write our story. You write it and you carry it with you. You don’t let it be forgotten.”
“I won’t,” said Boone, retrieving her small leather book and writing tools from her pack. Once she was prepared, she looked up at them all with a nod. “Tell me everything that happened.”
Two more days travel put the small group close to the borders of South Reach. It seemed autumn was making one last struggle against the encroach of winter, and each subsequent day was warmer than the last. The Lander siblings had warmed to Rainier and Boone and it was clear that they felt far safer traveling with the warrior and his companion than they had alone. Boone’s earnest interest in preserving not only their account of what had happened at the hands of the Elvhen, but that of others as well had made a good impression. Despite this, Boone tended to be more of a listener than a speaker, and when she did speak she had little to say. Rainier on the other hand was more than happy to engage in conversation, enjoying the opportunity to speak at length on most any topic.
The ambush, when it happened on the third morning, was both swift and completely unanticipated.
They’d spent the night in the lee of an old stone wall, the remnants of Tevinter ruins that littered Ferelden’s landscape. Boone had taken last watch, sitting cross-legged, leaning back against a large stone that had toppled from the wall centuries before. She was fighting off sleep, lulled by the sound of the light breeze, blinking hard in a bid to keep her eyes open. Balanced on her knees was one of her books which she’d been reading before the weariness set in. Her head dipped and she startled awake, blinking hard. It took her a long moment to realize that there was someone standing just beyond the ring of the dying fire’s light, someone that hadn’t been there a few minutes before.
Scrambling to her feet, she shouted, “Rainier!”
He was standing with his weapon held at the ready a heartbeat later, but it was already too late. Their small campsite was surrounded, more figures shaping themselves out of the dark. She saw instantly that most of them were wielding bows, and as two stepped forward into the fire’s light Boone felt her stomach drop.
“Elves.” Rainier echoed her thoughts, that one word heavy with dismay.
The Lander siblings had been roused by her shout but had reacted more slowly that Rainier. They were all standing, Lanna clinging terrified to Radd, Filde and Druss backed against the wall.
“What do you want?” Boone almost didn’t recognize her own voice, clear and steady as it issued the demand. It reminded her of another time when she’d been another person, comfortable with delivering commands.
“To know why your group is trespassing on Elvhen lands.” The speaker was male, dark-haired, dark-eyed. He hadn’t drawn his weapon, but Boone could see the hilt of a sword visible over his shoulder.
“Elvhen lands?” Rainier’s voice climbed upward in angry disbelief. “We’re miles from the Brecilian. We’re on the bloody fringes of South Reach!”
The elven man ignored Rainier’s statement. “We’ve received reports of Fereldens supplying weapons with the Chasind. We cannot allow that to happen.”
It was common knowledge that by claiming the Brecilian Forest as their own, the elves had antagonized the Chasind that dwelled in the neighboring Korcari Wilds. The Chasind Wilders, a tribe of humans with ancient roots, had responded to the rebirth of the Elvhenan with violence. However, they were outnumbered by a wide margin and lacked any kind of organized military force, lashing out instead as small, independent clans. While Ferelden and Era’Adahlen were currently engaged in an uneasy, tenuous ceasefire, the Chasinds, who didn’t consider themselves Fereldens, were still committed to fighting the trespass on their territory. It made sense that some Fereldens, having suffered through the war that the leader of the elves had brought on by tearing down the Veil, would look for whatever ways they could to circumvent the ceasefire by providing supplies to the Chasind.
“The Chasind are south,” Rainier growled.
“Yes,” the elf said, “and that is the way you came.”
“You cannot possibly—” Boone’s words died immediately as the other elf that had stepped forward, a woman, turned to look at her. She was startlingly familiar — the pale gray eyes, the unremarkable face and the shock of short-cropped blonde hair struck Boone with the powerful notion that this was someone she needed to remember.
“We’re farmers,” Druss was protesting loudly. “And we’re without a farm, because of your people! Took it from us just like that, and all we’ve got left in the world is in this goddamn wagon!”
“Search the wagon,” was the dark-haired elf’s calm reply.
“Keep your fucking hands off our wagon!” Radd had pushed his sister behind him and stepped forward, both fists clenched, voice trembling with rage and indignation. The sound of several bow strings being drawn taut immediately followed his outburst.
“Easy, boy,” Rainier cautioned, eying the elven archers encircling them.
Druss moved forward to place a restraining hand on his brother’s arm. Radd shook him off with a furious snarl, shoving him away. He turned, clearly intending to lunge at the elf that had spoken, but was yanked backward by Rainier’s arm going around his neck.
“You’ll get us all killed!” Rainier wrenched Radd backwards, tightening his hold in order to subdue the boy. It was the sound of his sister’s frightened weeping that finally penetrated his haze of fury, and Radd abruptly sagged in Rainier’s hold.
Three of the elves approached the wagon and begin to rifle through the contents, tossing things over the side without any regard to fragility. The sisters stood huddled together, Druss standing with his arm around them both. They all watched with wide angry and frightened eyes as the elves handled all they had left in the world with casual disregard.
The female elf was still staring at Boone. Boone was staring back, frantically searching her memories for some vivid clue as to why she recognized this woman. She was feeling the encroach of panic, unrelated to the ambush, a shiver of apprehension that she couldn’t explain. The elven woman looked away finally, and moved toward the wall Boone had been leaning against before the ambush. Boone realized what she was doing too late, and as the woman leaned down to retrieve the fallen book Boone lunged forward only to be intercepted by the elf that had spoken. The point of his sword hovered directly beneath her chin.
The elven woman was crouching, flipping through the pages of the book. Recognition struck Boone then, washing over her with tidal force. She knew why the face was so familiar, so distressing. It was the face of a spy, one of his spies, and the last time she’d seen it had been at Halamshiral so many years ago … And now she was reading Boone’s words, words that revealed every innermost thought and feeling Boone had ever had for years—
Boone’s eyes found Rainier’s from across the fire. Still holding onto Radd, he too had realized what was happening and in his expression saw her own worry reflected back at her. She looked back to the dark-haired elf and took several steps back in defeat. He nodded mute approval, slowly lowering his sword.
The only sounds for long minutes after that were that of the elves sorting through the wagon, the weeping of the Lander sisters, and the soft rustle of turning pages. Boone watched as the elven woman slowly read pages that were not meant to be read, a knot of fear and outrage lodged firmly in her throat. When the elves had finally emptied the wagon and gone through everything carried within, they turned to their leader.
“Nothing,” one of them said.
“Check their packs,” he ordered.
They did as commanded, emptying every pack scattered around the campfire and combing through the contents. The elven woman did the same with Boone’s pack. Upon finding two more books and flipping quickly through them, she lifted her eyes to Boone. Her face was expressionless, but her eyes dropped from Boone’s face to what remained of her left arm and back again.
“Still nothing,” reported one of the elves.
“Very well.” The leader beckoned his group to rejoin him. To Rainier he said, “You understand why we must do this?”
“I understand that you’re making yourself feel big by bullying humans and pretending it’s for your cause,” Rainier replied, not even trying to disguise the disgust in his tone.
The elven leader’s smile was chill. “I would guard my tongue more closely, shem, especially this close to our lands.”
“Your lands,” Rainier spat the words out slowly, derisively. He’d released Radd and the boy had quickly raced to where his siblings were huddled.
The elves began to depart, crossing the campsite. The elven woman stood. In her hands she held the book that Boone had dropped earlier, leaving the other two behind. A protest rose in Boone’s throat but she choked it back, unable to give voice to her protest for so many reasons. She watched in mute dismay as the woman circled the fire, book in hand, to rejoin her companions. The elf leader gave the humans all one last dismissive glance before turning and walking away. The woman paused before following, half-turning to look directly at Boone.
“Safe travels, Inquisitor,” she said in a low, clear voice.
And Boone closed her eyes as the secrecy she’d spent ten years fabricating was suddenly torn apart.