“Come on, Merrill. Hurry up!” hissed a voice from the shadows of a tree. A hand beckoned to an elf with black hair who had spun around at the sound.
“Renya?” the elf called back softly, her voice strained. She peered into the darkness of the forest. Dawn was only just breaking, and the shadows of the trees were still deep.
“Renya?” Merrill called again, a little louder. “Renya, come back here right now!” she demanded, pointing emphatically toward the ground at her feet. Her ears twitched in the direction of a soft sound behind her, and she spun again, searching the darkness between the trees. Finally, she saw two glints of green blink at her, and she sighed in exasperation.
The glints blinked again. “Alright, fine,” the shadow attached to them huffed. Another elf materialized out of the shadows, pushing her light brown hair out of her face. Her green eyes twinkled mischievously at her friend.
Merrill shook her head at Renya. “How do you do that?” she demanded. “How do you just disappear like that?”
Renya waved her hand dismissively, a smug smile creeping across her features. “I watch Elrerion when he leaves with a hunting party. Much the same way you began learning to wield a staff by watching Marathari,” she finished slyly.
“Renya, don’t you dare say anything about that to anyone!”
Renya smiled and gestured toward the empty forest. “Who would I tell? Now come on, I want to show you something and it’s important!”
But Merrill shook her head. “I was supposed to accompany you for your purifying ritual. Your vallaslin ceremony is in three days!” she said, pointing at her own forehead, her blood tattoo still dark from her ceremony the week before.
“I know,” Renya replied, suddenly solemn. She rubbed her forehead self-consciously. It was odd to think of herself as finally having the tattoos that signified adulthood. Admittedly, she was torn between feeling ready and being terrified that she wasn’t. Sighing, she looked at Merrill seriously. “It’s only a little out of our way,” she said softly. “Please, Merrill?”
Merrill startled at her friend’s sudden change in demeanor. It wasn’t like her to be so serious. Eventually she took a deep steadying breath and nodded. “Alright, lethallan. Where are we going?”
Renya brightened immediately and grabbed Merrill’s hand, pulling her forward a little. “This way!” she said excitedly. Merrill followed playfully.
“Hey, where are we going?” She couldn’t help but smile at her friend’s enthusiasm.
In lieu of a reply, Renya beckoned her friend on before melting into the forest again. This time, Merrill chuckled and followed suit, trailing behind her. The two elves made their way silently through the forest for a while. Merrill tried questioning Renya again, but Renya simply shushed her and led her deeper into the trees.
They continued for the better part of an hour when Renya suddenly turned, her eyes bright. “Are you ready?” Her smile faded. “Only… you can’t tell anyone.”
Merrill’s ears pricked up in interest, and she raised an eyebrow. She indicated the forest around them. “Who would I tell?”
Renya smiled and squeezed her hand briefly before gesturing at her to follow. Merrill studied at her friend closely. The bravado from before was gone; she looked almost apprehensive. Merrill turned her senses toward the forest, trying to discover what was affecting her. Soon, they reached a thick copse of trees with vines and branches tangled together. The two elves stopped and looked at it.
“What now, lethallan?” Merrill asked softly. Her friend’s face was set, resolute. Frowning, she put a hand on Renya’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”
“Yes.” Renya shook her head as if to clear it, and set her jaw before reaching forward and pulling the branches apart. When the branches had been pulled back enough for an elf to fit through, Renya glanced at Merrill and motioned her in. Tentatively, the elf entered, stooping to fit through the small opening. She heard Renya clamber through behind her, then raised her eyes and gasped.
They were in a clearing, the forest floor covered in soft clover and the velvety halla grass the Dalish elves so loved. Merrill walked forward slowly, gaping at the scenery around her. A stream bubbled by, its clear blue water mirroring the sky. The trees that defined the perimeter of the clearing were dense enough to offer protection and shelter to the area, but not dense enough to hide predators. And the sky… the sky opened up above her, and the dark green of the trees seemed to reach up and touch it with their swaying leaves.
Renya was studying Merrill carefully. “Do you like it?” she whispered.
Merrill turned to her friend, eyes wide and smile wider. “Like it? This is… one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen,” she said earnestly. Her smile faded slightly. “But why all the secrecy, lethallan?”
Renya rubbed her forehead again. “I found this place a few weeks ago,” she began stiffly, not looking at Merrill. “I thought…” She sighed and didn’t say anything for a moment. Merrill waited, watching her friend interestedly. After a long silence, Renya looked up and met Merrill’s eyes in an attempt to seem off-handed. “I was just thinking that this place… it’s something that I thought would be nice to…” And just like that, she was losing steam again. “And it would… when the time comes… my bonding ceremony…” she rambled, voice and eyes dropping.
“Bonding?” Merrill asked, frowning in confusion. Then realization hit and she started to laugh. Renya, who had been continuing to mutter an explanation, was startled silent.
“What?” she asked defensively.
“Why, Renya,” Merrill began, grinning. “Who would have thought that you would be such a romantic?”
Renya opened her mouth, wavered, and then closed it again, a blush creeping up her cheeks. “So… you think this is an… acceptable place?” she asked.
Merrill gestured at the nature around them. “Of course. Who wouldn’t love it here?”
“You really think so, lethallan?”
“I do,” Merrill said earnestly. “Whoever you bond yourself to will love it,” she finished carefully, touching Renya’s shoulder lightly. A small smile crept across Renya’s face and Merrill mirrored it.
“…and I won’t tell anyone. Our secret,” Merrill added. Renya’s grin widened in relief.
“Ma serannas, lethallan.”
“…even though I can think of a few elves who would love to know you have a soft side,” she commented with a wink, looking almost sad. Renya slapped her on the arm, mumbling something at her. Merrill barreled on. “Who is the object of your affection, anyway?” Renya smiled awkwardly and looked away.
“No one,” she replied simply, shaking her hair out of her face. She stared pointedly at the babbling stream. “That’s why I wanted to show you. I had to tell someone; I was too excited to keep it to myself.
“It’s Tamlen, isn’t it?”
“It is. You lie.”
“It’s not Tamlen. It’s... no, it’s not Tamlen.”
“Sure, sure,” Merrill said, solemnly nodding her head. Renya rolled her eyes. “Should I tell him?”
That earned her arm another smack. “It’s not Tamlen, but if you want to tell him that, go ahead.”
Renya made a few more careful marks before holding up her piece of vellum triumphantly. “There,” she said to herself, pleased. Merrill looked over at the design and nodded in approval.
“You’ll look wonderful with those markings…” she murmured, thoughtfully rubbing her own fresh vallaslin.
“I hope the hahren approves.” Renya studied the vellum. “I would hate for her to postpone my ceremony again.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Merrill replied. She smiled teasingly. “It seems even the gods themselves fight for your attention.”
Renya chuckled awkwardly. It turned to a groan when she saw a few of the younger elves over by the fire, watching her.
“If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be such a show off.”
“I wasn’t showing off!” Renya said indignantly.
Merrill arched an eyebrow at her. Renya bowed her head.
“I was showing off,” she mumbled.
“Have you finished your design, da’len?” The hahren knocked on the wooden post outside the door of Renya’s aravel, interrupting them.
“Yes, Hahren,” Renya said with a smile, rising to greet the elder. She offered her the drawing nervously. The hahren took it and studied it carefully. Silence hung in the little hut, and Renya tried to calm her nerves. She had spent all night combining the designs of devotion for Dirthamen and Ghilan’nain, and was rather pleased with the result. Dirthamen would cover the upper part of her forehead, reminding her to protect her thoughts and think before she acted, and Ghilan’nain would trace above her eyebrows and down the bridge of her nose, reminding her that leaders point their eyes in the direction they wish to go. It was strange to have two, but the hahren had allowed it.
After what seemed like an eternity, the hahren hummed with satisfaction. “This will do nicely, da’len,” she said, looking up at Renya. Renya smiled and bowed her head, proud that her first act as an adult had pleased the hahren.
“Ma serannas, Hahren.”
The hahren looked at her seriously. “Are you ready, da’len?”
“Yes, Hahren. I am ready,” Renya replied, her heart beating a little harder. This was it. She kept her face carefully neutral. But the hahren smiled.
“Tonight, then, you will complete the vallaslin ceremony.”
The hahren exited the aravel, and Renya turned to Merrill with excitement and apprehension. “Did you hear that?” she whispered. “Tonight!”
The day flew by, to Renya’s surprise. Before she had a chance to realize the sun was setting, Ashalle, her adoptive mother, was walking her to the ceremonial aravel.
“I’m proud of you, da’len,” Ashalle whispered when they had reached the door. She squeezed her daughter’s hand and kissed her forehead, knowing it was the last time she would see it clear of markings. “Until tomorrow, da’len.”
Renya opened her mouth to speak, but no words seemed able to come out. She tried again, taking a breath, but Ashalle shook her head and smiled, kissing her on the forehead again before turning and walking back through the camp.
It was up to her now, Renya realized. Tamlen had said knocking was the hardest part. Steeling herself, she raised a hand to knock on the post, when –
Renya spun around, eyes wide. “Tamlen! You’re not supposed to be here!” she hissed.
“I know,” he whispered back guiltily. He rubbed his forehead, his brand-new vallaslin dark on his fair skin. “Just… good luck. Not that you’ll need it, you know? But… then we can be hunting apprentices together, right?” He raised his eyebrows.
Renya grinned, felling like herself for the first time in days. “Absolutely, Tamlen. We’ll be the most fearsome hunters this clan has ever seen!”
He smiled and coughed back a laugh. “Good.” With that, he turned and disappeared into the fast-growing shadows. Turning back to the door, Renya knocked smartly on the post without any more hesitation. The door opened, framing the hahren. She was in ceremonial robes.
“Andaran atish’an, da’len,” she said solemnly.
“Andaran atish’an, Hahren,” Renya replied, the smile slipping from her face. The hahren invited her inside with a wave of her hand, indicating a mat placed before a stone altar. Renya took a deep breath to steady herself. After she had knelt and offered a prayer to the creators, the hahren guided her to her feet and helped her to lie on the altar.
“Asan’noa annar, seventeen years, one for each Elvhen tribe of the lost city of Arlathan,” the hahren intoned. “We submit to the creator gods to guide us, that one day we shall find a new halamshiral.” She looked at Renya seriously. “You know you cannot cry out in any way before the ceremony is complete, yes, da’len?”
Renya nodded, her features set in determination.
“Then we shall begin the ceremony of vallaslin.”
“Ma nuvenin, hahren.”
Renya closed her eyes. She heard the soft plink as the jar of blood dye was placed on the stone next to her head. Her ear twitched at the sound, but she gave no other indication of noticing.
The hahren began to chant in Dalish, and Renya briefly thought that she should pay attention, until the chanting stopped and the first cut was made. Tamlen had told her the hardest part was knocking on the door, but he didn’t mention that getting the tattoo was the actual worst part. Renya clenched her jaw and forced herself to breathe. It was no use. Each cut was worse than the last, and the dye burned as it stained her skin. She could feel the mark of Dirthamen being carved into her, and she shut her eyes tighter, focusing on her breathing. After what seemed like an eternity, the pain stopped. Renya sighed in relief and was about to open her eyes when the hahren began chanting again.
Of course, Renya thought in a moment of clarity. Ghilan’nain was next. She hoped no one else would ever have to go through this kind of vallaslin ceremony ever again. Once more, the knife cut into her and the dye burned her, but she managed to stay silent, now biting the inside of her cheek. There was another pause, although this time Renya didn’t even bother to relax. The vallaslin still needed to be applied down the length of her nose.
That, if possible, was worse. Renya was sure she had never felt pain so intense in her life, and feared she would lose consciousness, when suddenly it was over.
“Rise up, Renya Mahariel,” the hahren said in the common tongue.
Renya opened her eyes, feeling one solitary tear trickle down her face. She had done it. She had endured the vallaslin and was now seen as an adult. An adult ready to apprentice and master a skill necessary for the clan’s survival.
“You did well, da’len,” the hahren said fondly.
“Ma serannas, hahren,” Renya replied, unable to conceal her smile.
“And,” the hahren added lightly, her eyes sparkling. “I understand you wish to apprentice as a hunter?”
“I think we can arrange for you and Tamlen to train at the same time. We would not want to separate you two, now would we? The forest would then actually have a chance!”
Renya’s grin widened. “Ma serannas, Hahren. Ma serannas. A thousand times, ma serannas!”
“Go and rest, da’len. Your training begins tomorrow.” She clasped Renya’s hands briefly before the young elf sped out of the aravel. Chuckling, the hahren extinguished the candles and exited the aravel through a different door, back to her lodging.
Renya ran out the door and straight into Tamlen.
“And…?” he said, looking at her vallaslin.
“She said yes! I will be joining you tomorrow! Try not to be too intimidated…”
Tamlen laughed. “No, lethallan. I’ll do my best. Why don’t I help you get a pack ready for tomorrow, and you can explain your vallaslin to me?”
As she walked through the camp, talking animatedly to her best friend, Renya felt the pain in her forehead quickly disappearing. And she was going to be a hunter. With Tamlen, her lethallin. She sighed, smiling. Nothing could be better than this night.