Title: Semper ad Meliora
Fandom: Dragon Age: Inquisition
Pairing: Dorian Pavus/Idhren Lavellan, Idhren Lavellan/Tainan Lavellan
Chapter 7 - The People Will Set Ourselves Free</u>
And Shartan looked upon the Prophet Andraste
And said: “The People will set ourselves free.
Your host from the South may march
- Canticle of Shartan 9:27
Free Marches, 9:37 Dragon
Three months Idhren had been on the road, and he was beginning to regret his decision to leave Tevinter. He had known that wandering the countryside in search of wild elves would not be easy, but he had not anticipated exactly how difficult it would be. Despite his lowly birth, Idhren had spent most of his life among Tevinter’s elite. He was not used to sleeping on the ground, or cooking his own food, or walking long distances and carrying everything he owned on his back. Not that Idhren had left Tevinter with much in the way of personal possessions. He had only two sets of clothes, not robes but leather breeches and tunics that were more suitable for travel and did not immediately label him a mage. A week in he had detached the blade from the end of his staff to better use and disguise the thing as a walking stick. It now hung from his belt like some sort of odd dagger and was actually proving itself quite useful as a utility knife.
What concerned Idhren most, however, was not running out of food or coin. What concerned Idhren the most was that he had only packed three months worth of the potion that stopped his body from becoming any more feminine. The potion that he had been downing a swallow of every day for the past eight years. A week ago Idhren began carefully rationing it, taking only half a dose each day to stretch it out as long as possible and hoping that it would be enough. But what would happen when it ran out and the effects wore off?
It was a reality that Idhren had been forced to acknowledge during his packing. He could only carry so much of the stuff before it became a burden. The ingredients were not particularly rare in Tevinter, but he had no idea how easy they would be to obtain in the south. Running out and not being able to mix more was always a possibility. But in reality, with the end looming before him, the anxiety was nearly enough to send him into a panic.
At the moment Idhren was somewhere in the middle of the Free Marches, provided he was reading this map correctly. Having left the main roads under the assumption that elusive Dalish elves wouldn’t be found close to human settlements or major thoroughfares, he had been following rough dirt tracks through the wilderness for days now without actually knowing what to look for. He knew only what he had read about Dalish elves in books written by human scholars and through the rumors and legends whispered among elves in Tevinter. According to his pedigree his grandmother had been Dalish, but Idhren had never had the chance to ask his mother about her. He doubted the validity of anything that made its way into a published book, and he knew how badly rumors and legends could be distorted over time.
Maybe this had been a bad idea from the start. Maybe Dorian had been right.
Idhren couldn’t survive out here on his own forever. In another few months summer would be passed and winter would begin to arrive. Was he far enough south that it would snow? Idhren knew he would not survive the winter alone in the woods. He had to find a clan by then or else return to the city.
Moving into one of these southern cities would be admitting defeat.
And potentially even less safe than he had anticipated when leaving Tevinter, if the rumors he heard on the road were to be believed. Apparently the southern Circles were in rebellion, or about to rebel; the stories were sometimes contradictory. Either way something was happening with the southern Circles and Idhren was certain he did not want to be involved.
The sun was setting on another day of aimless wandering that had brought Idhren no closer to his goal. As the shadows lengthened around him Idhren wrapped his cloak tighter around his shoulders to stave off the evening chill. He needed to find somewhere to shelter for the night, which was easier said than done.
The hollow that Idhren eventually settled himself in well after sundown was not an ideal campsite, but it was not the worst place he had spent the night since this whole thing began.
A haphazard pile of sticks and moss caught fire easily, but without his magic Idhren doubted he would be able to build even the most meager of campfires. And his was certainly meager. With his cloak wrapped tightly around himself Idhren huddled close to the paltry flame for what little warmth it provided. The days had been mild so far, but it was much cooler here at night than in Tevinter.
The forest at night was a frightening place, full of foreign sounds and sights. His first night alone on the road Idhren had been too frightened to sleep, concerned that some animal would come upon him in his sleep. He was less concerned about that now, but the darkness still set him on edge. The sudden snap of a twig mere feet from where he sat nearly had Idhren jumping out of his skin. Instantly one hand moved to his staff as he turned in the direction of the noise. He saw first a pair of eyes, glinting yellow as they reflected the firelight, then the owner of those eyes took a step forward and Idhren could make out the shape of a man. No, an elf. An elf dressed all in leathers, thick hair woven into messy braids and knotted at the back of their head. In one hand they carried an intricately carved longbow, an arrow nocked to the string but pointed at the ground. Most interesting, though, were the markings on the elf’s face. Thick green lines inked across brow and cheeks.
“Bit late for a picnic isn’t it?” the elf asked curiously. Idhren could only stare stupidly, mouth hung open and eyes wide. “That’s not a very good campfire,” they commented, gesturing to the flame with the bow. “I doubt it’ll keep any animals at bay.”
Idhren’s mouth opened and closed once ineffectively before he managed to speak, “You’re Dalish,” he blurted out.
The elf arched an eyebrow at him, tightened their grip on the bow. “I am,” they confirmed.
“I’ve been looking for you,” Idhren said eagerly. In his excitement it did not occur to him that he might be in danger, or that admitting this might be a bad idea. “For the Dalish.”
The Dalish elf regarded him suspiciously for a moment, eyes darting to the staff that Idhren was still holding. “Are you another runaway from the Circles?”
“No,” Idhren answered. Not from the southern Circles, at least. He hesitated a moment before adding, “I’m from Tevinter.”
The elf’s eyes went wide in surprise. “A slave?”
“I’m not a slave,” Idhren snapped defensively, although he could see why this elf would think that.
“No,” the elf’s lips quirked up in a small smile, “No, you’re not.” In one smooth motion they pulled the arrow from their bow and stowed it away again in the quiver at their waist. Idhren immediately released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. “Might I share your fire?”
It was probably dangerous to let some stranger share his campsite for the night, but Idhren was growing rather desperate in his search for the Dalish. He wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass him by. “Of course,” he said, taking his hand off his staff.
“Ma serannas,” the elf replied, and came to take a seat across the fire from Idhren. The bow was set at their side, along with a small pack. “This fire will never last the night, you know,” they commented.
Idhren looked down at the fire, and even he recognized that it was a poor attempt. It wasn’t as though he had much experience, however, and everything out here was much harder than it had seemed while reading about it. Despite its weak appearance, however, Idhren knew he could keep the flame going all night. “It’s magic.”
The Dalish elf arched an eyebrow curiously, looking from the fire to Idhren and then back again. “Doesn’t it take energy to sustain something like that? Can you do it while you’re asleep?”
“I don’t have to if I set a ward around it before going to sleep,” Idhren said. This elf didn’t seem to be a mage, however, so it was strange to him that they would know anything of magic, or be interested in it.
The elf hummed thoughtfully and fell silent. Idhren tried his best not to stare, but it was difficult. He had to hold himself back from asking where the rest of this elf’s tribe was and if they might consider taking him in. This was his chance, but he did not want to blow it by seeming too eager. If he could manage to make a good impression on this elf, maybe they would be inclined to lead him to the rest of their group. “I’m Idhren,” he said carefully. “What’s your name?”
The elf’s eyes lifted from the fire and looked at him. “Tainan,” they answered easily.
Tainan. Idhren wondered idly if it meant anything in Elvish. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Idhren replied. “Are you out here alone?”
Tainan nodded, “I’m hunting. The rest of my clan is camped two days’ journey from here,” they explained. “What are you doing out here? You look better suited to city life.”
“I’ve been looking for the Dalish,” Idhren replied vaguely, trying to decide if that had been meant as an insult or not. He had already said that much already. Was Tainan looking for a different answer?
“So you’ve said,” Tainan mused. “Why, though?”
“I… I left Tevinter,” Idhren said, uncertain how much of his story he should give away. “But I’m a mage. I don’t want to be put in one of those Circles. I heard that the Dalish like mages more than the Chantry does.”
“If you mean we don’t lock them in towers or never allow them to have contact with their families then, yes,” Tainan confirmed, “In that sense we do like mages more than the Chantry.” It was a relief for Idhren to know that at least a portion of the rumors had been true. “Are you under the impression that we are some sort of refuge for elven mages? That we’ll take in anyone with pointed ears who stumbles across our camp?”
Idhren frowned. Was this a test? Or was this a roundabout way of saying that Idhren would never be accepted by these wild elves? “No…” he answered slowly. “But I… I had to try. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life being pushed around and belittled by magisters. I’m a great mage, but no one there will ever recognize it.”
“So you’re looking for recognition?” Tainan asked. “Someone to tell you how great you are? Someone to be in awe of your talents?”
“No,” Idhren said, quickly shaking his head. He wanted someone to appreciate his skills, but he did not want anyone to treat him the way magisters demanded to be treated. Most of all, he wanted somewhere that he didn’t have to pretend to be someone he was not. He did not want to pretend to be stupid, or polite, or incompetent. “I just want… Somewhere that I can be myself. Where no one will judge me by the way I look.”
Tainan stared at him for a moment longer, and then smiled brightly and nodded. “Then, if you like, I can take you back to the clan when I go and introduce you to the Keeper. It’ll be her decision, ultimately, whether you can stay or not, but you seem nice enough.”
The change in this strange elf’s demeanor was so quick and so extreme that Idhren was momentarily confused before he realized what must have been happening. “That was… some sort of test?”
“Sorry,” Tainan shrugged sheepishly. “There are so many stray mages running around these days you can’t be too careful. A lot of the elves running from the shemlen cities - regular people, not just mages – only want to be more powerful than the shemlen who hurt them. That’s not what we’re about.”
Logically, Idhren had to admit that the other elf had a point, so he couldn’t be offended. But he had no desire to be more powerful than Canidius or any other magister. He just wanted to get away from them. “You’ll really take me with you?” he asked. Despite that he had been wandering aimlessly through the wilderness for the past month, this seemed too easy. Actually, after traveling so long it was rather anticlimactic.
“I will,” Tainan confirmed. “I can’t go back until I find some game, though,” they commented. “Can’t go back empty handed.”
“How long will that take?” Idhren asked, trying not to sound too eager.
Tainan shrugged, “Hopefully not long. I set a few snares today, so with luck we will have something in the morning. The game around here is starting to get scarce; the clan will have to move on soon,” they murmured thoughtfully.
“Then I suppose it’s a good thing you found me when you did,” Idhren replied.
Tainan’s face lit up with a bright smile, “I suppose it is.”
Idhren was awoken by a hand roughly shaking his shoulder. For one half-asleep moment Idhren tried to shrug it away and go back to sleep. Then he remembered that he was not back in his room in Vyrantium but lying on the forest floor miles from civilization and woke with a start, eyes flying open. Crouched above him was Tainan, hair a bit messier than the night before but otherwise looking exactly the same. “How long are you going to sleep?” the Dalish elf asked.
“What time is it?” Idhren asked, rubbing at his eyes as he sat up slowly.
“Daytime,” Tainan answered, as though it was obvious.
It wasn’t wrong, though. It was light, and when Idhren looked up he could see the sunrise fading away through the trees. Sunrise. Idhren used to wake up at this hour every day, and yet now he wished he could sleep another few hours. He had let himself grow lazy after leaving the Circle, where there were no longer strict schedules to keep. Not to mention sleeping on the cold, hard ground with only his cloak to protect him from the elements was not terribly restful.
“Come on,” Tainan gave him one last shake before standing and going to collect their pack and bow. “We’re losing daylight already.”
“The sun isn’t even fully up,” Idhren protested even as he sat up and reached for his pack as well. As he did, Idhren noticed that the fire had already been put out and the ashes scattered skillfully until there was hardly any trace of the blaze at all.
“I realize you city folk usually sleep until midday, but out here we’ve got work to do,” Tainan complained good naturedly.
“Nobody sleeps until midday,” Idhren protested weakly. He pulled open his pack and began digging through it for what little remained of his food and potion.
“You looked well on your way,” Tainan replied. “Now what are you doing? Time is wasting.”
“It’s barely dawn,” Idhren disputed. “Let me have something to eat at least.” He finally managed to find the last bottle of potion at the bottom of his bag and pulled it out. Within the bottle the murky liquid was nearly half gone. It would last only a few days more no matter how he rationed it, and that concerned Idhren greatly. There was no time to worry about that now, however. Not while the Dalish elf was impatiently prowling the tree line, bow in hand and fiddling with the feathers on the arrows in a quiver at their waist. Idhren took a quick swallow of the medicine and stuffed the bottle back into his pack.
Suddenly, at the tree line, Tainan tensed like an animal sensing a threat. “Alright, enough dawdling,” they said curtly, “Time to go, city boy.”
Their voice was urgent, their body language tense and frightened. This wasn’t just impatience, something was wrong. Idhren forgot all about breakfast and slung his pack over his shoulder, snatching up his staff as he rose to his feet. “What’s wrong?”
Idhren was answered by the sound of a branch snapping. It drew Tainan’s attention like a startled deer. The hunter whipped around, messy auburn braids flying into their face and then shook aside impatiently. In that moment Idhren became suddenly aware that the ambient sounds of the forest were not the wind rustling in the leaves, but of something moving through the brush in their direction. And Idhren had the distinct impression that if he were not here Tainan would be long gone already.
He tightened his grip on the staff and hurried to meet Tainan at the edge of the small clearing. The Dalish elf was frozen in place, eyes wide and darting everywhere. Even Idhren was now acutely aware of the sound of something moving toward them through the forest, and just as he reached the hunter’s side there was a shout.
From out of the tree line burst three men, all bearing swords and in full plate armor; armor that bore the insignia of a flaming sword. Idhren had never seen a southern Templar, did not know much about them, but he knew that symbol and what it meant. Templars in the south rounded up mages and kept them in Circles that were more like prisons than schools. That’s what everyone in Tevinter said. Idhren had no intention of being put under lock and key again, not when he had finally broken free.
What idiots they were, though, to run around in metal suits hunting mages. They might as well be walking lightning rods. Idhren took hold of the Fade and pulled, felt the familiar crackling of static at his fingertips. He got off one shot of lightning before his connection to the Fade was severed so abruptly that it made his head spin. He felt nauseous, dizzy, stumbled and fell over backwards, landing hard on his backside. The next thing he was aware of was a Templar bearing down on him, metal clad fingers grasping at the front of his tunic. Idhren reached for the Fade but found nothing within his grasp. The Templar shoved him down to the ground and all of a sudden the only thing Idhren could think of was the last time his magic had been stripped away, the last time he had been held down, hands pulling at his clothes and shoving at his limbs.
He struggled and pushed ineffectively against a man whose armor weighed almost as much as Idhren’s entire person, growing more panicked by the second. His staff lay completely forgotten on the ground beside him.
An arrow appeared as though out of nowhere, lodging in the Templar’s neck just below his jaw and sending a spray of blood onto Idhren. In shock, the Templar raised a hand to his throat, gurgled once in an attempt to speak, and then collapsed limp on top of Idhren. Heart thundering and breathing rapid, Idhren shoved at the body above him, scrambling out from under it and backward. It was a long moment before he could tear his eyes away from the corpse and take in the scene in the rest of the clearing. Of the three Templars that had attacked, all of them now lay dead on the ground. The one spell Idhren had been able to get off had fried the first inside his armor, the second lay on their back with three arrows protruding from their chest, and the final in a growing pool of blood not far from Idhren’s feet. In the middle of it all Tainan stood with an arrow knocked to their bow, shoulders tense and eyes wide as they scanned the area for any further threat. Eventually the hunter relaxed, returned the arrow to its quiver and turned to face Idhren.
“Are you alright?” Tainan asked, voice gentle, approaching Idhren slowly.
“He…” the mage stammered in response, not quite able to put his jumbled, panicked thoughts into words yet, “I can’t…”
Tainan crouched down in front of him, “Have you ever faced a Templar before?” they asked. Idhren shook his head. “They can do that, take away your magic,” Tainan explained. Carefully they took Idhren’s hands in their own and began rubbing the warmth back into them. “It should come back in a little while, as I understand. Are you alright? You’re not hurt?”
Idhren swallowed heavily and shook his head again. Tainan’s hands were warm and comforting around his own, and up close he realized the hunter had the most beautiful blue-green eyes that Idhren had ever seen.
“Good,” Tainan murmured, and stood up. They pulled Idhren to his feet and then released his hands, bending to pick up the mage’s staff off the ground. “We should hurry back to the clan. It’s not safe here anymore.”
Idhren only nodded again mutely and took his staff when Tainan handed it to him. He was still shaken, still felt uncomfortably vulnerable without the use of his magic. He watched as Tainan pulled arrows one by one out of the corpses and stuffed them back into their quiver, then fell into step behind the hunter as they headed into the forest. Idhren was more alert now, more on edge. The slightest noise from within the trees startled him, and he stayed as close to Tainan as he could manage without being too obvious about it. The hunter moved quickly, following paths that Idhren could barely recognize and never once tripping over rocks or roots. Idhren struggled to keep up, but didn’t complain. If there were any more Templars in the area he did not want to meet them, not with his magic trickling back at a snail’s pace. Within an hour he could get static to spark at his fingertips again, but still couldn’t pull enough mana for a proper spell. If they were attacked he would be useless again.
When the sun started to go down Tainan stopped them in a secluded copse of trees beside a small stream. Idhren’s magic had finally returned in full, but he was tired from stumbling through the woods all day, so when Tainan declared the campsite suitable Idhren practically collapsed onto the ground.
“You have your magic back yet?” Tainan asked, unshouldering their pack and letting it drop to the ground.
“Yes,” Idhren answered, nodding and conjuring a small fireball in his palm. It was incredibly comforting to feel the Fade all around him again.
“Good, I’ll get some firewood,” Tainan said. “You stay here, I shouldn’t be gone long.” They slipped away into the trees, leaving Idhren alone. The mage pulled his knees up to his chest and kept holding the flame between his hands for the small amount of comfort it offered. He hadn’t been so nervous alone in the woods before, but he hadn’t realized that Templars in the south could do that. It was not an experience he was eager to repeat.
Tainan returned less than an hour later with an armful of sticks and a dead rabbit hanging from their belt. Within minutes there was a fire burning and the meat was cooking slowly above it. Idhren had barely moved. “You still alright over there?” Tainan asked, looking across the fire at him. “You’ve barely said a word all day.”
“Yes,” Idhren replied quietly. The attack had shaken him, not just being stripped of his magic, but the sudden return of memories he had thought dead and buried.
Tainan hummed thoughtfully, “You were pretty good - the little bit of magic you got off before they… You know. Do any fighting back in Tevinter?”
“Not really,” Idhren shrugged. “For the Harrowing you have to fight a demon, otherwise it was just training. I was more interested in theory.”
“Well, that one spell was enough to take down a trained mage hunter,” Tainan said. “I think that’s pretty impressive. I’d like to see what you could do if they hadn’t knocked you out.”
“But they did,” Idhren murmured, “If you hadn’t been there…” He would be dead for certain.
“Good thing I was, then,” Tainan interrupted cheerfully. “And tomorrow we’ll meet up with the rest of the clan, and then we can get the fuck out of here.”
They reached the rest of Tainan’s clan shortly after noon the following day. Idhren was not certain what he had expected a Dalish camp to look like, but he found it to be far more quaint and cheerful than he had expected. The first sight through the trees was the wagons, or rather the sail-like structures atop them - swatches of bright cloth fluttering in the wind. They were greeted outside the camp by two elves who, judging by their hardened leather armor and the swords they carried, were some sort of guard. Each regarded Idhren with mild suspicion, but with a quick word from Tainan they allowed him to pass.
The bulk of the camp was seated within a small vale, sheltered on one side by a steep embankment and bounded on another by a wide stream. People bustled about the camp, all of them elves and all of them with tattoos painted across their faces. As Tainan and Idhren passed through the camp they gathered numerous curious stares, some more blatant than others, and Idhren could already hear the curious whispers in their wake. He stayed close to Tainan and kept his gaze firmly ahead, afraid of getting left behind when he had no idea where the hunter was leading him.
“Keeper,” Tainan called out as they approached a small group of elves gathered near one of the strange ship-like wagons. Every one of them turned to look when Tainan spoke, but it was a woman – perhaps forty, with pale blue tattoos branching across her forehead and cheeks like the limbs of a tree – who stepped forward, dismissing the others with a curt nod and a wave of her hand.
“Tainan,” the woman greeted, “You’ve returned. And with company,” she added, casting a curious gaze at Idhren. Her eyes lingered on the blood on his shirt, then the staff in his hand.
“This is Idhren,” Tainan introduced. “I found him in the woods two days from here.”
“And you thought to bring him here?” the woman asked, frowning.
“Yesterday morning we were attacked by Templars,” Tainan reported. “I didn’t want to leave him.”
“He is a mage. It seems likely the Templars were chasing him; another runaway from the shemlen Circles. If there are more, you may have led them to our doorstep.”
“There were no more,” Tainan argued confidently. “And he says he’s from Tevinter.”
The woman’s eyes turned to him again with a spark of surprise and she swept another, far more scrutinizing, look over his figure. Idhren’s clothes were weather beaten and dirty from weeks on the road, but they had been new when he left. His staff was very well made, if not particularly fancy, bought shortly after he left the Circle. “You’re quite well equipped for a runaway,” the woman told him.
Idhren pursed his lips to keep from snapping at her. He had to make a good impression. “I’m not a slave,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “I’m Liberati. I’ve been free for ten years.”
The woman’s eyebrows rose as she regarded him curiously. Did anyone down south know what it meant to be Liberati? Had they even heard of it before? “A free elf from Tevinter,” she mused thoughtfully. “And why leave now, when there is such chaos here?”
“I hadn’t heard about the trouble with the Circles here before leaving Tevinter,” Idhren said. It was a recent development, as he understood, and news could only travel as fast as the trading caravans. “But even so, I would have left. I’ve spent the past several years apprenticed to a magister who used me as a prop to make himself look better. And because he owned my family there was nothing I could do against him without risking their safety. But they’re… gone now. There was no reason for me to stay.” He tried to be brief. They didn’t need all the gory details. It felt strange to spill his life story to a stranger, but he knew it was necessary for these people to trust him.
“So you thought you would come find the wandering Dalish?” the woman mused, lips quirking in an amused smile. “Did you have a backup plan, in case you didn’t find us?”
“Not really,” Idhren was forced to admit. Find a city to hide in for the winter and then keep looking.
“Well you’re brave, I’ll give you that, though perhaps not so wise. What is your name, again?”
the woman asked.
“Idhren,” he replied.
“I’m Deshanna Istimaethoriel, the Keeper of this clan,” she introduced herself at last. “I admire the courage that brought you here, Idhren, but if you’d hoped to join us I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.”
Idhren felt his heart plummet. He hadn’t expected to be welcomed with open arms, but to be rejected so quickly and decisively was crushing.
“Keeper,” Tainan interrupted before Idhren had a chance to reply, “You need a First.”
“I have a First,” the Keeper argued.
“Elera is fifteen,” Tainan argued back, “If anything were to happen to you she wouldn’t be able to lead the clan.”
“And you think an outsider would be a better choice?” Istimaethoriel challenged.
“He could at least help keep us safe. I’ve seen him use magic,” Tainan said, “He killed a Templar with one spell. He kept a spellfire burning while he slept. He’s good.”
Idhren wasn’t certain what was happening, but it seemed like Tainan was defending him, supporting him in his request to stay. He couldn’t understand why, but Idhren wasn’t about to butt in. He would take all the help he could get in this matter, because if this woman – clearly the leader of this Dalish clan – sent him away he had nowhere else to go and no supplies. He wouldn’t last much longer on his own.
“It’s true these are troubled times, but violence only begets more violence,” Istimaethoriel reasoned, “The last thing we need now is to provoke the humans with displays of dangerous magic.” Her tone was stern, and when she turned to Idhren again her expression matched. “Tell me, Idhren, what skills do you have that would aid us? Are you a proficient healer? What manner of magic do they teach in Tevinter?”
Idhren did not know how to answer. What skills did he have that these people would value? “I… am not skilled at healing,” he admitted. Lying about that might help in the moment, but it could easily backfire on him in the long run. “Tevinter teaches all manner of magic. I primarily studied storm magic and the Veil. And alchemy,” he added almost as an afterthought. “But,” he began again with sudden renewed determination. He wouldn’t give up easily. Idhren knew magic, he was good at magic, there had to be some way he could use that to help the people here. “I’m very good at wards. This campsite isn’t too large, I could have the entire perimeter warded against intruders: spells to deter interest or alert you if something comes too close, or even muffle the sounds of the camp significantly.” It would be difficult, such large scale work, but Idhren was beginning to feel desperate. Pure luck had landed him here. If this clan didn’t take him in he might never find another one.
“That’s an impressive claim,” the Keeper replied thoughtfully. “And could indeed prove useful in certain situations. However, this is only our forward camp. What you see here is less than half our number.”
Surprised, Idhren looked around. Now that he took a good look, however, he noticed that there were no children here, and perhaps only fifty elves moving about among the trees and wagons, most of them bearing weapons of some kind. Some sort of hunting camp, he wondered. Where were the rest of them? Idhren had seen no sign of other elves while following Tainan through the forest.
“Keeper,” Tainan broke in again, “You can’t just send him back out there for the Templars to find again.”
“I can,” the woman said sternly, frowning pointedly at Tainan. Then her face softened, her posture relaxed, “But I won’t.” Idhren released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. “I don’t know if it was luck that led you to us, or if Ghilan’nain guided your steps. The fact is that Tainan is correct. It is not safe for anyone to be wandering the land alone these days, and my current apprentice is still too young to take over my responsibilities should the worst happen. Though you are an outsider, I would rather rest assured in the knowledge that my people will be protected. And I presume, since you have gone to such effort to find us, that you are willing to learn our ways.”
“Yes, of course,” Idhren assured her quickly. It would be vastly different from what he was used to, but he had known that coming in. ‘Live in the forest like a savage’ Dorian had said what felt like ages ago. But Idhren had been through worse, he was sure he could learn.
“Good,” Istimaethoriel replied. “I won’t tolerate anything less. If you cause any trouble among the clan, any infighting, I’ll send you right back to Tevinter.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Idhren nodded, then quickly corrected himself, “Keeper.” Was that the proper term of address? Was that respectful enough? “Sorry. I understand. I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
“Just Keeper is fine,” Istimaethoriel assured him, an amused smile playing on her face. “There is one other thing you must understand if you are to remain with us. A Dalish clan will never have more than two or three mages as a rule: the Keeper,” she gestured to herself, “And their apprentices,” she gestured to Idhren. “My current apprentice is still a child, and that is the reason I am willing to accept you into our midst. Should you stay, you will serve as my First. Clearly you don’t need training to use your magic, but I’ll teach you our history and our culture.”
It wasn’t exactly the sort of role Idhren had expected to find among these people. He knew very little about the Dalish, but he thought that Istimaethoriel was the leader of this group – this clan – and she was offering to take him on as an apprentice. An heir, maybe? It was a little too familiar for comfort, but Idhren reassured himself with the thought that this was most likely as big a risk for her as it was for him. “I’ll do my best,” Idhren assured, “I promise.”
“I admire your determination,” the Keeper mused. “I imagine it will serve you well. You can live with me for now, until we find a more permanent place for you.”
They really were letting him stay. Perhaps provisionally at first, but Idhren would do his very best to make sure they had no reason to throw him out. “Thank you,” he said earnestly, hopeful that this would be the better life he was longing for. He turned back to Tainan. Without the hunter he never would have made it this far. In fact, those Templars probably would have killed him. “And thank you,” he told them.
Tainan flashed him a grin, “You’re welcome,” they replied. “I guess this means we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other. I look forward to it. Keeper,” with a respectful nod to Istimaethoriel, Tainan turned and left, striding off across the camp.
“Come along,” Istimaethoriel pulled his attention back to her. “Let’s get you cleaned up, then I will introduce you to the rest of the clan.”
Within days of living with Clan Lavellan Idhren drank the last of his medicinal potion. Three weeks after that he woke up with blood between his thighs. Istimaethoriel woke to find him fearfully trying to hide the truth, nearly panicking when he realized that there would be no hiding it from her. After her initial surprise abated, however, Istimaethoriel helped him clean up the mess, held him like a child when he cried.
“I’m not a girl,” Idhren repeated over and over as he sobbed into her shoulder, no longer certain who he was trying to convince.
“No, of course you’re not,” Istimaethoriel stroked his hair and rubbed his back until his tears dried up. “Has this never happened before?” she asked gently.
Idhren shook his head and wiped the tears from his cheeks, “I had… I had a potion,” he said, voice still thick with emotion. “Since I was fifteen. But I ran out.”
“If you know the ingredients then surely we could make more,” the Keeper murmured, “I, or one of the hunters, can teach you where to find herbs.”
“Some don’t grow this far south,” Idhren mumbled dejectedly.
“Then we’ll find others,” Istimaethoriel assured him confidently.
Idhren could only hope that she was right as he crawled back into the pile of blankets and furs that made up his bed, unwilling to face the day. His stomach clenched and his back ached. He was starving but nauseous at the same time. It was miserable. Did women have to deal with this all the time? Or was it worse because he’d been forcibly preventing it for so long?
There was a knock at the door but Idhren ignored it. He curled up tighter on the pile of furs and pulled a blanket up over his head. The knock sounded again after a moment, but again Idhren ignored it. Then he heard someone fiddling with the latch before the door creaked open.
“Are you alive in here?”
That voice was familiar. Idhren didn’t want anyone to see him like this, but he was curious. Cautiously, he lifted the blanket just enough to peek out. Sunlight flooded into the dim aravel through the open door, backlighting the figure crouched there and turning the cascade of hair about their shoulders into a halo of fire. Tainan. “Keeper said you were sick. I came to check on you. And bring you food. Can I come in?”
Idhren hesitated. He felt disgusting. Even though Istimaethoriel had showed him what to do so that the blood wouldn’t leak it was terribly uncomfortable and he imagined sitting up would only make it worse. Besides, he felt like he might throw up any second and the mere thought of eating only made it worse. “I don’t think I can eat anything,” he muttered weakly.
It wasn’t a ‘no’, and it wasn’t enough of a protest to keep Tainan out, apparently. The hunter climbed in through the doorway, carefully balancing a bowl in one hand, and crawled over to Idhren’s side. “Food is important,” they said as they sat down. “Even more important if you’re sick.”
Whatever was in that bowl Idhren could smell it even from where he lay. His stomach grumbled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten a thing that day and it had to be past noon already. Still, he shook his head.
“Come on,” Tainan beseeched gently, as though talking to a stubborn child, “I made it special for you. There aren’t even any bugs in it.”
Idhren grimaced at the memory. That had been an embarrassing shock, being served a meal that included insects only a few days after his joining the clan. For the Dalish it was apparently normal, but Idhren hadn’t been able to bring himself to eat any of it. He wasn’t sure he ever would. “You made it?” Idhren asked, pulling the blanket down a little further so he could look at Tainan properly. “For me?”
The hunter grinned and nodded, holding the bowl out toward Idhren. “Just for you.”
“Why?” Idhren asked.
Tainan’s smile faltered into an expression of confusion. “Because you’re sick,” they answered uncertainly. “And I want you to get better.”
Was it really that simple? It was such a foreign concept to Idhren that anyone would help him for no reason, with no ulterior motives. Just to be nice. “Why is everyone here so nice?”
Now Tainan looked even more confused than before. “You haven’t given us a reason not to be. I think it’s obvious by now you’re not going to sacrifice the whole clan to demons or something.”
“No one’s ever been nice to me unless they got something out of it,” Idhren muttered, mostly to himself.
The confusion on Tainan’s face turned almost instantly to sympathy, which was then quickly replaced by a smile. “Well, I get the pleasure of your company,” they pointed out, “So it’s a little selfish.”
For all that it seemed impossible, Idhren actually believed them. Because what could Tainan possibly gain from being nice to him? Idhren had nothing of value to these people, save his magic. If anything, he was a liability to them; an unknown variable that could just as easily bring their downfall as prove useful. Yet he had been welcomed with mostly open arms. Slowly, Idhren pushed himself up into a sitting position, letting the blanket puddle around his hips. It was more uncomfortable, but Tainan had gone to the trouble for him, the least Idhren could do was try. He held out his hands and accepted the bowl of food. It smelled good, if he ignored the roiling of his stomach, though it didn’t look like much. It appeared to be mostly a variety of stewed vegetables and greens interspersed with chunks of an unidentifiable meat; what Idhren was coming to understand as fairly typical fare.
The meal tasted better than it looked and, shockingly, after a few bites Idhren’s stomach calmed. He no longer felt like he would throw up any minute. Actually, he was ravenous, and downed the rest of the food at a speed that would have scandalized anyone back in Tevinter. When finished, Idhren had to restrain himself from scraping even the dredges out of the bottom of the bowl, pointedly setting it aside.
“Feel better?” Tainan asked, amusement in their voice that set Idhren flushing with embarrassment.
“Yes,” he replied softly. For now, at least. “Thank you.”
“Good, I’m glad,” Tainan smiled and picked up the now empty bowl. “I’ll let you get some more rest, then. And I’ll bring you dinner, too, if you’d like.”
“You will?” Idhren asked.
Tainan nodded, “So long as you don’t mind eating more of this,” they held up the empty bowl to show, “I’m not good at cooking anything except soup and roasted meat.”
Idhren had never had to cook before leaving Tevinter, so all of it was better than he could manage. “I’d like that, thank you,” he said again. All this kindness the people here were showing him, Idhren didn’t know how to react to it.
He especially didn’t know how to react when Tainan beamed in response, as though Idhren had just given them a spectacular gift instead of merely agreeing to eat their cooking again. “Perfect, then I’ll come back later tonight. I won’t bother you until then,” they promised, getting up and heading for the door.
“Wait,” Idhren blurted, stopping the hunter in their tracks. Tainan turned back to him, blue eyes wide and curious. There was one thing he’d wanted to ask since coming to live with this clan, but it felt like too much to ask. “Can I ask you a favor? You don’t have to accept.”
“What is it?” Tainan asked.
“Would you teach me how to fight?” Idhren asked hesitantly. “When… When those Templars came I realized without my magic I’m sort of… useless. I want to be able to defend myself if something like that happens again.”
Tainan thought about it for a moment. “I’m just a hunter, I don’t know if I’m the best choice,” they said. “But I’ll teach you what I can, if you really want me to.”
Now Idhren couldn’t help smiling. He had thought it a long shot, that surely Tainan wouldn’t agree, and he was happy to be proven wrong. The terror and helplessness he had felt when that Templar stripped him of his magic was not a feeling that Idhren wanted to relive. He knew he was small, not strong enough to ever pose much of a threat to a human in full armor, but if he learned how to fight without magic he could at least escape. “Thank you,” he said for a third time that day. “And, please, don’t go easy on me just because I’m short.”
Tainan’s lips quirked up in a smirk and they let out a short, quiet laugh. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” they promised. “We’ll start as soon as you’re feeling up to it.”
Idhren nodded his consent and watched as Tainan clambered out of the aravel once more, shutting the door after themselves. When he was alone Idhren lay down again, finding the most comfortable position he could manage. It seemed he had made a friend already. Perhaps this day wasn’t completely terrible after all.